Imagine that you are wandering around the world doing whatever you want. Imagine that you are in a beautiful foreign country, seeing remarkable sights every day, meeting interesting people. Imagine that every day, you are learning new things about the world around you and that every day, you are discovering new things about yourself.
Maybe you're traveling by bicycle and you are constantly amazed by the sense of intimacy you feel with your surroundings. You can feel the pockets of cold air that fill the little valleys you ride through. You revel in the warmth of the autumn sunshine. The rain sifts through the air and adds a shine to the leaves, adds a dark richness to the wooden fenceposts. Maybe the rain adds a shine and a dark richness to you as well.
Most every morning you get up. You load up. You ride. Senses exposed to the world around you.
The distinct sweet rot of silage drifts across the road from a sheep farm, and while part of you rides onward, part of you is eight years old on a cold morning, helping your grandfather shovel steaming silage to feed the cattle. You're helping, even though you aren't really allowed to get near the silage because you don't have any farm boots. And because if you get any silage on you, Grandma will have your hides, Grandpa says.
But more importantly, you remember just a few years later, riding your first ten-speed bike down that same farm lane, past that silage pit and out onto the highway. You'd brought your bike to Grandma and Grandpa's so you could ride during the few days you would be spending on the farm. And you wanted to ride. HAD to ride. Had to be in shape for the 500 mile bike tour you were taking later that summer. Touring from Wyoming into Utah, and through the Colorado mountains back to Denver and home. Just you and your buddy Mike. Both of you just out of the eighth grade and as confident as boys can be. And for that you had to be in top condition. You rode down the farm lane and onto the highway and off across the river bridge and through the countryside to the little town only five miles away. And then you rode back.
Grandma and Grandpa were irate. That highway is much too dangerous for you to ride on, they said. They had specifically told you to just ride up and down the farm lane (as if that was a bike ride) or at the very most, to ride on the road up to the corner and back where they could still keep an eye on you. They yelled. They shouted. They used aggression and the threat of violence to show how much they cared. But you didn't care. And by the end of the harangue, you may have apologized. But you were never sorry. Never sorry for the feeling of muscle-fired wheels eating up the miles, of the cornfields and cattle breezing past, of the freedom of that road. And the joy that no crushing love could ever match.
And here you are still. Still riding along on a bike. Touring the back roads of New Zealand. The knobby tires of your bike scrabble up the gravel road from green sheep-fields into the dark scent of pines. Pine scent and the sound of tires on gravel overwhelm sight, shutting off the scene around you, switching on a summer scene of degraded granite and Colorado pine trees. Wasn't it the tight twisting singletrack descending from Crosier Mountain when you swept fast into a turn and slipped the front tire out from under you in one moment, and the rest of the bike out from under you the next? You tumbled, didn't you. And slid and stopped, scraped. And there in a heap of unbroken bones and a little blood, didn't the forest echo with your laughter? Maybe because, as usual, you were riding alone, no one knew where you were, and darkness was fast approaching.
You are one damn lucky human being. And you know it. It's hard to keep the grin off your face (Why even try?) as you ride these back roads across one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Perhaps you've been propelled here by all the rides you've ever taken. Perhaps all the strange turns of your life have led you here, where all that you have to do is that which you love the most. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ride your bike. To ride your bike and to expose your senses to the beauty of the planet. To see sky and clouds and mountains and meadows. To feel air and rain and sun. To smell trees and dirt and animals. To hear birds and wind and crickets and people. And to taste. To taste fully of your life on the road. And even occasionally to taste of the mud that has flipped up off your bike tire. (You hope that was mud. Have there been any sheep past here recently?)
Imagine that in lieu of the world on a string, you have your world stuffed into a few bike bags. That all you have moves with you only through the motive of muscle. You have pared your life down to only the simplest of things, only a few precious items to get you where you are going, to keep you strong enough to get there. You look at the loaded bike and are amazed that so little can take you so far. A Spartan existence, surely. Each morning you gather these meager possessions unto you and ride.
*Bike and bike stuff:
front and rear racks
2 rear safety flashers
2 water bottles
2 luggage straps
3 spare tubes
bike tube valve adapter
bicycle multi-tool (hex keys, chain tool, spoke wrench)
general multi-tool (pliers, file, blade)
set of 6 precision screwdrivers (for taking apart digital cameras filled with water)
2 cone wrenches (13/15mm and 17/18mm)
adjustable wrench (which doesn't quite fit the cassette tool)
spare water bottle bolts (which fit lots of stuff on a bike)
spare rack hardware
zip tie (one is enough, I guess)
rag (formerly : boxer briefs)
*Camp and sleeping gear:
sleeping bag and compression stuff sack
cotton sleeping bag liner
fleece sleeping bag liner
one-person tent with stakes and poles (Too small for all the gear and a good night's sleep. And hardly ever used, but
better safe than homeless.)
small pot with lid (too small to cook a full meal in)
stove and fuel canister (these used only once, but better safe than hungry)
water filter (better safe than thirsty)
scout set of knife, fork, spoon (owned and used since about 4th grade)
2 waterproof roll-down rear panniers
2 waterproof front panniers
waterproof roll-top bag for camp and sleeping gear
waterproof duffel bag(--Waterproof gear bags mean thirty percent less plastic grocery bag rustling in crowded hostels when everyone else thinks the crack of dawn is at 10:00)
large day pack
small waterproof roll-top bag (mostly for camera)
zip-off pants/shorts (You CAN own a convertible!)
lycra bike shorts
light baggy bike shorts
heavy baggy bike shorts
light running shorts
long sleeve merino wool jersey with zip front (The best multi-temperature, multi-moisture, multi-weather bike garment ever! Too bad about those allergic skin lesions.)
long sleeve bike jersey
long sleeve surfing shirt (Warm when wet! Not very warm riding in the wind and sweating.)
short sleeve bike jersey (Too damn cold to use.)
long sleeve cotton button-up shirt
nylon wind vest (the best thing ever to keep from freezing on the way down the other side of a hill that caused sweating on the way up)
windproof fleece jacket
waterproof/breathable jacket with hood
clipless bike shoes (nice mesh sides for ventilation that's not needed in the wet and cold)
rubber shoe covers
low hiking boots
12" gum boots
2 pair wool socks
2 pair cotton socks
2 pair mesh bike gloves
windproof fleece gloves
rubber farm gloves
windproof neck gaiter/hat
International Mountain Bike Association ball cap
laptop computer in padded case
laptop AC adapter
camera to computer USB cable
camera battery charger
sunglasses with 5 sets of lenses of various tints (most popular shade: clear)
small leatherback 3-ring binder journal/address book (the one Grandma used in college in the '30s)
3 pen refills
The Count of Monte Cristo
Lonely Planet - New Zealand
Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides
Backpacker Accommodation Guide
spiral bound New Zealand road map (with north straight up on the page)
spiral bound New Zealand road map (with north stupidly NOT straight up on the page, but with city maps)
folded road map of New Zealand (found on the side of the road)
Peddlers Paradise South Island - bike touring guide
Macaddict magazine - May '00 with CD
encyclopedia CD (Know what you're talking about, even as you travel.)
digital camera software CD
2 laptop software CD's
boil and eat pasta meals
carrots (move to New Zealand just for the carrots)
Note: no refrigeration required as fall slips into winter (except, perhaps, for ice cream)
*First Aid Kit:
ancient Chinese blood coagulant powder
toothbrush and cover
runs medicine (never used)
muscle balm (never used)
small checked dish towel (pretend it's a full-sized beach towel)
Swiss army knife with scissors, magnifying glass, tweezers and can opener
emergency space blanket
keys to bike lock and storage unit
watch with alarm
mini flashlight with head strap and red lens option
collapsible water bottle (doubles as hot water bottle)
laundry soap bar
string and wire puzzle
15' of laundry line
bike pants clips
Damn. You look at all this stuff and are amazed that your simple life
requires such a huge and stupid pile of crap. What could you possibly
need all this stuff for? You think back, trying to remember where it all
came from. But you think back too far and remember another life. Was it
you? Did you once live in a house filled with furniture, a washer and
dryer, closets full of clothes, a kitchen full of dishes, shelves full
of books, a workshop full of tools, a full driveway, an impressive stereo,
piles of CDs, LPs, cassettes. A piano, for cripes sake? An actual real-life,
solid steel anvil?
The weather turns that final corner into winter and the wind blasts in
from the south like Antarctic ice. Snow comes, covering the roads at higher
elevations, bending the leafy boughs of these ever-green trees. What do
you do now, you intrepid adventurer? You with the bike and the pile of
crap stuck to it? Well, you improvise. You adapt. You overcome.
Do you put on every layer of clothing that you have? From polypro to wool
to fleece to rubber; from shoe covers to balaclava to gloves? Do you improvise
a goggle that will never fog up in blasts of rain and the pelting of hail?
Do you invent a strong double-outrigger that will keep the bike upright
in the seventy mile per hour gusts of wind? Is that what you do? Huh?
No. Of course not. Because you are not a glutton for punishment. You are
a glutton for fun. And there are times when punishment just isn't that
fun. And this would be one of those times.
So you load your bike into the back of someone's car and head to Te Anau.
From there you take a bus tour to Milford Sound -- that most famous of
New Zealand's glacial fjords -- where the mountaintops gleam with fresh
snow and waterfalls spill down near-vertical cliffs into the sea. You
take a boat trip across a lake and into caves where glow worms dot the
black-sky ceiling with green constellations. You take the bus to Queenstown
-- the adrenaline adventure capital of New Zealand -- where the most extreme
thing you do is take a bike ride on the road around the lake as evening
falls and the water on the road turns to ice and you manage make it back
to town in the dark, only slipping and crashing on the ice one time.
From Queenstown you ride another bus through the snow-covered mountains
to Wanaka where idle crowds are waiting for the snow to get deeper. For
the lifts to open. For the snowboard season to begin. But you aren't waiting.
You're on yet another bus that speeds you up the famously scenic west
coast of the South Island. You make a quick dash to an icy glacier where
the mountain parrots try to eat the seat off your bike. And then you're
on a train that crosses the towering Southern Alps.
You're traveling so fast now. Cars, buses, trains. Seeing so little. Images
flash past the rain-covered windows of these wheeled boxes. You're snug
inside, safe from the wet and the cold. Safe from the smells and sounds.
Safe from most of the experience of traveling. Maybe you're not even traveling
any more. Maybe you're just on vacation like thousands of other tourists
who travel New Zealand. Mumbling from one designated stop to another.
Taking snapshots instead of photos. Trying to cram in as much as possible
There is a plane ticket with your name on it. A ticket you've purchased
months ago. Somewhere on that ticket, there is a date stamped in indelible
ink. In your passport, there is another date stamped. The date on the
plane ticket and the date in the passport -- coincidence or not -- are
the exact same date. And that date is fast approaching. A jet path before
you. Time running out.
Of course you ask yourself. Is time really running out? Can these simple
details of tickets and visitor permits and such be taken care of? Can
you work things out so that you can stay longer? It's not like you have
to be anywhere, right?
Take a look around at the beautiful foreign country. Imagine the snowy
mountains, the lakes, the dark forests. There are roads leading into the
future of this beautiful foreign country. But can you see that at the
end of that jet path that leads away, there are also roads into the unknown.
That there is summer at the end of that path. That there are more mountains
and trails and trees and as many hopes.
And just what is it you're hoping for?
Take a firm grip on your heart. Hold it to your eye. Look inside. Look
closely. See that which you love, that which you desire. Look closer yet,
and you can see that that which you love and that which you desire are
not stuck to the land of the beautiful foreign country. As much as you
have loved traveling here for these three months, you can see that the
things most important to you are not here. These things will travel with
you wherever you go.
Can you see yourself in that beautiful foreign country? Can you see that
there is no reason not to take the jet path laid out before you? That
a path from one beautiful place to another is just another path? Can you
see the falsehood of: "It's not like I have to be anywhere"? Because that's
exactly where you have to be. Anywhere.
I left New Zealand. Id really only seen one corner of the South
Island. But I knew that I could stay forever and never see it all. Knew
that the part of me that was looking for something elusive could keep
looking no matter where I went.
I spent a couple weeks in San Fransisco and Northern California. I looked
among the shit-talking drug dealers and the shouting street people near
Mission Street (the most dangerous place I'd been in all my travels.)
I looked among the amazing quiet of towering redwood trees, where sunlight
sprinkled down through three hundred feet of shade. I looked along the
cold, fog-shrouded coast, the tumbled edge of the continent. I looked
among golden hills, among rows of olive trees, and even in Chico -- Bicycle
City USA. But, alas, I had no bike.
I headed for ground zero. To the land of my first conscious thoughts.
To my ancestral homeland. To the bike I had stored in Boulder, Colorado.
And here, I've been staying with family, catching up with a few friends
(though not all -- yet) and trying to make myself useful. But perhaps
the best thing about being in Colorado (and I'm afraid my family knows
it) has been the chance to get on that bike and rip along the twisting
lines of trails, to coax my wheels up the stair-step rock piles of the
mountain tracks, to ride hard and revel in the beauty of the planet. For
lack of anything else perhaps, I am a guy who rides.
I ride the edge of evening. One eye in the sky. Spinning the cranks and
pushing the speed, banking the turns, leaping lightly off the tops of
bumps. Until a whole part of me loses touch with the ground and flies
along, just below the impossibly pink bellies of clouds. I soar and swoop
and glide in a sky full of color and shape and dimension. I dodge through
rays of the last sunshine of a summer day. Time shifts yellow into orange
into red into magenta into a warm, calm purple, blue. Lost in the rich
colors of the evening sky.
While part of me is flying, another part of me -- a part momentarily forgotten
-- hits a pedal on a rock so hard it twists the bike sideways beneath
me, nearly throwing me off and jarring me back to the trail and the dirt
and the earth. Whee. So I stay on the trail. Ride over the surface of
the earth. Here, under the changing colors of the sky.
I'm not alone on these near-urban trails. I pass runners. I pass other
riders. I grin. I say hello. But their faces are locked. Intent on the
seriousness of their exercise. But for me, this is no exercise. This is
the real thing.
I remember a day -- not long before I tossed away a whole life and headed
for a tropical island -- when I was in the corporate parking lot on a
warm evening in late autumn. The work day was over, and I was standing
and staring up into the resonant blue of the sky at the moon. A co-worker
saw me as she headed for her car. "What?" she said. "Haven't you seen
the moon before?" And I wasn't sure what to say.
Because actually, I had seen the moon before. I'd seen it as a sliver
so thin that it had to cling to the edge of the sunset sky, too shy to
be seen in the dark. I'd seen it dodging clouds on a windy night, spotlighting
dry grass hills that stepped to the horizon. I'd seen it light a meadow
into day without disturbing the darkness of the surrounding forest. I'd
seen it so apparent that the cries of coyotes echoed off it. I'd seen
it masquerading in a costume so large and orange that part of it caught
on the edge of the world as it swept into the ballroom of the sky. I'd
seen the disk of the moon torn away by eclipse, leaving behind a distant
sphere, suspended so close in the dark void of space.
But always. Confused. Not able to understand. Not capable of fully grasping
the beauty. Trying time and time again. Even now. Each time I see the
moon, see the sunset sky, see the surface of the earth glistening with
rain. I do my best to look with awe and wonder. Do my best to never fully
understand. To make sure that I have to keep looking. Keep moving. Toward
these things that I can love and desire. Anywhere.