“Are you broke down,” the driver asked. He wore a blue plaid shirt under a set of red Carhartt suspenders, white hair blended into gray sideburns that faded back to snow white on his chin.
“Oh no, I’m just lubing the chain.” I arched my back into a stretch.
“You must be doing that bike race.”
“Well, I’m not racing, but I am riding the route.”
A woman spoke from the passenger seat of the car. We all talked a bit about the route and the documentary that had a scene filmed at the church we stood outside of.
“Do you two know this road pretty well?”
“Good. I’m trying to avoid the rain and mud and am thinking of following this road to get to Silver City. Is there anything on this road? Any place I’ll be able to stop?”
Without a look to his passenger, the driver said, “Yeah. Mile marker 23.”
Mile marker 23? Now here’s a man that knew how to give directions. I laughed with his specificity. “What’s at mile marker 23?”
With a quick glance at his wife this time, “Well, we are.”
I glanced around for a mile marker. “You mean we’re at 23 right here?”
“No. I mean us,” he said pointing to himself and his wife. “Our home is at mile marker 23. Why don’t you stop by. We’ll feed you and let you used the spare bed, get a good night of sleep. How does that sound?”
Too good to be true. “Well, how far is it from here?”
“I’d say about 25 miles.”
“Well, that sounds wonderful then,” I said, not sure what to make of the situation. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves, but I had accepted an invitation to dinner. Strange? Maybe a little. But I wouldn’t have to stay if I felt at all uncomfortable.
“All right. What would you like for dinner?”
Like? I must have looked ridiculous, slack-jawed and sweat-stained. I was still so surprised at having been invited to dinner that I couldn’t comprehend deciding what dinner would be. “I’m not a picky eater, especially these days.”
“All right. Can we take your bags for you and lighten your load?”
“Oh no, I’ll hold on to those.” I didn’t have any suspicion of foul play. To give up the bags was another step toward an easy ride that I didn’t want to take. An easier route to avoid weather was one thing; pawning my gear off onto somebody else was quite different. “Mile maker 23, right? I think it will be a couple of hours before I get there.”
“We’ll be there. Just ride on in.”
“Ok. I’ll see you soon.”
Mike took the lead again. “So what made you want to do this anyway?”
“Well, I had recently finished school and just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do… I thought it would be a pretty cool item for the life resume, a good challenge. I thought I’d come out here and try to find myself.”
At that last statement, Mike chuckled and said, “Yeah, get that out of your system.”
I thought I saw Maggie turn her head just slightly to Mike and give a look of incredulity at what he had just said. Then again, maybe I was the incredulous one and had just imagined Maggie was on my side.
“Well that’s great, Nathan,” Maggie said, “has it been a good experience so far?”
I thought about it before I answered. “Yeah, it has.”
We talked a few more minutes before I let them go. Decided on my course, I started on the 6 miles of pavement up toward La Manga Pass.
Mike had said, “Get that out of your system.” I couldn’t get that out of my head. I didn’t take offense to what he said. I wasn’t insulted. In a weird way, I was inspired. But why?
Out of my system!
What Mike said had clicked. Being inspired by his statement didn’t seem strange any more, rather it made perfect sense. I had said the trip was, in part, an attempt to “find myself.” Well, where did I go? Did I lose myself? Was my body just mindlessly wandering around without me? No! So what the hell was I looking for!
In my study of philosophy I had read about switching our energy from action to contemplation. This made no sense to me when I read it. Wasn’t that counterproductive? But Plato, he defined contemplation as “knowing and being.” We should switch our energy from “seeking and becoming” to “knowing and being.” Switch your energy from seeking to knowing. What was it I sought?
I had been suffering from the illusion of an internal separateness. I had thought there were two versions of me: the person I was and the person I wanted to be. I was searching for that other person, as if there were a secret that other person had, as if he knew what I wanted and needed, what was best for me, what I should do. What a bunch of bullshit. Mike was right, I needed to get that kind of thinking out of my system.
The following excerpt is from my book The Divide. Read more about the book and see the index of excerpts here.
The wind was ceaseless. It filled the sails of the boat and pushed me further out to sea. It raised bumps on my skin as well, but the sun was bright and the sky clear. I breathed the ocean salt and bid farewell to land as it retreated over the horizon. I turned to face the ocean ahead of me and said goodbye to a love lost. Laurie. We had been in love. She had been a fairy tale.
I met her before I started college and only knew her briefly. We lived far away from each other and fell out of touch. It wasn’t until after my first novel was published that we reconnected. I had been traveling around the country to promote my book when I landed near her home. She came to a book signing. I recognized her instantly, but I didn’t let it show on my face. She walked up to the table and handed me her copy.
I can’t remember what I said, but it made her laugh. Her laugh was the greatest and sounded just how I remembered. She scanned my face for any sign of recognition, but I played it off like she was another person in the crowd. I handed her book back and her face fell.
She was halfway to the door when I called out her name and told her to read the inscription.
Laurie — You are even more beautiful than I remember, which was already more than I thought possible. Please have lunch with me.
That was the beginning of our relationship. We were together for several months, but the distance made it hard. She flew cross-country to visit me for a weekend. She broke it off. She went back east; I went further west and refused to stop at the ocean. The wind carried me away from all of that pain. Or so I thought. What if I hadn’t gone west? What if I had followed Laurie east? What if I had tried to make it work? What was it about tragedy that I found so appealing?
I didn’t get on that sailboat. I didn’t have a relationship with Laurie. I never wrote an inscription in her book.
I never wrote a book.
I never left my bike.
But the wind was ceaseless.
The route transitioned to the highway, which made for an easy climb. The hard surface at a manageable grade had me in good spirits and feeling sorry for the motorcycle owners that passed me, some of them decked out in leather while others pulled trailers. Nine miles of steady pedaling brought me to the Continental Divide. Here, the route followed a dirt road into the mountains. It was not a good road. It was washed out, bumpy, and after a mile of being jarred my legs began to burn. Why was I still climbing if I had already crested the Divide? My question was answered by the road’s first view.
I saw an immensity. Mountains extended past the horizon, each successive ridge achieving a lighter shade of blue until the snow of the furthest peaks couldn’t be distinguished from the distant pale-blue clouds; it was as if the clouds had chosen not to precipitate, but rather just laid themselves directly upon the mountain tops. The pines were a patchwork: green with growth, brown with burning heat, gray with decay, all shades present between the sun and the shade. My road laid at the top of the meadow that extended down slope and fanned out below me. The crisp blades bowed to the wildflower’s blue hue and the patches of dandelions, still yellow in their late bloom. A line of trees wandered through the meadow to mark the path of its stream that was fed by an alpine lake trapped somewhere above me. I couldn’t move. My breathing had stalled until my first, long, deep breath brought the wind and colors and emotions of the mountains into my lungs.
“You’re going to be riding your bike today?” The hotel clerk couldn’t help but ask, her mouth slightly open and head cocked to the side. She was nine minutes late opening the front desk. Maybe she was one of the karaoke singers in the bar last night, the bar directly underneath my room. Lullabies hadn’t yet made a comeback in the karaoke world and I regretted that fact as I laid in bed the night before, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how much I needed to sleep.
The next morning, my bike was packed and propped against the wall next to the hotel door. I had already donned my rain gear, backpack, and helmet. I had paced, back and forth. Outside, the sky was a uniform gray. The pacing had continued while I waited for her to show up, glancing at the clock every few seconds. Nine minutes would normally not be an issue for me. Today was different though.
“That’s the plan. I’m starting early so I can try to outrun the rain this afternoon,” I said.
“This afternoon? I think it’s going to start raining any second. That’s how the clouds looked on my way in,” she said, her head cocking further and further.
“Well, it’s the afternoon rain I’m most worried about.”
“You mean the advisory?”
Yes, the advisory. When you spend a great deal of time outside, you have an inflated interest in the weather. Watching the news the night before, hoping to catch a forecast, I learned that Environment Canada had issued a Heavy Rainfall Advisory to southern Alberta and all of British Columbia for the afternoon of my third day.
“Yes, I mean the advisory,” I said while I signed my name and turned over my room key.
“You plan to ride your bike through that? That’s supposed to be a really big storm. You won’t stop before then?”
“I don’t know. I’m just going to see how things go, but I’d like to get ahead of it. I can’t imagine being caught in it would be very fun.”
“Well, good luck. I hope you make it through ok.”
“Thanks, so do I.”
I wheeled my bike through the door, eyelids heavy and my ears still ringing with Bon Jovi, but I felt both poised and determined. The afternoon was a long way off and I aimed to cover as much ground as I could until the rain started to fall.
“What the hell am I doing?”
My legs burned with a week’s worth of laziness and my lungs with the cold morning air. I sat next to my bike in the shadow of the mountains, gravel digging into my legs. Why had I ever considered this?
“I can still bail Nathan. Megan can’t be that far away yet. You have no idea what you’re doing.”
My first bike tour was off to a great start. Twenty minutes earlier, my friend Megan dropped me off at a trailhead at the south end of Banff, Alberta. I had assembled my bike and packed my gear. We asked two mountain bikers to snap a few photos before I set off. Locals. My gear gave away my intentions and my chest swelled when they said neither of them had attempted the route and only knew one guy that had — he hadn’t been able to finish. Riding high on my bike, my chin to the sky, I set off into the mountains where the sun had just touched their tops. I extended my arm and gave a final wave to Megan and the mountain bikers.
Now, 1.6 miles later, instead of riding my bike, I sat next to it trying to assess the damage. I had come around a blind corner and hit a trench carved into the trail by the rain. The impact, paired with my poor pannier packing skills, caused each of the rear plastic pannier clips to snap. I was 1.6 miles in and not sure I could effectively carry my gear. That’s a problem when you’re riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the longest route in the world, following the Continental Divide through two Canadian provinces and five US states, reaching as far south as the Mexican border.
“What the hell am I doing?”
One. That’s all you get. Just one.
The realization was terrifying; but a second look made it liberating.
There’s something unique about riding a bike. Just over a year ago, I began to train for a long distance mountain bike ride. I spent a lot of time on my bike the next few months. Lots of time–enough to think, reflect on my experiences, dwell on life. That’s when it happened. I realized I only had one and that I was already in its midst.
He wrote that there really is no past, that there really is no future.
How do we experience the past? We look to history books, documentaries, movies; stories from our parents, grandparents, and tribal elders; and most importantly, we have memories. Our own memories remain our most potent source of knowledge about the past because they were based on direct experience. But all of these are things we experience in the present. We don’t read or watch movies in the past – we read and watch in the present. We don’t hear stories in the past – they are told to us in the present. And our memories, they fit the bill too – memory recall occurs in the present moment.
What about the future? You might say, “Well I’ve been planning to do this and do that. Those are in the future.” Well, no; they’re not. Those are called plans. Plans are nothing more than intentions, nothing more than a visualized action. Any guesses as to when exactly we formulate those intentions, those visualizations?
It was late May and my trip was just a couple of weeks away. I was out on one of my last major rides before I left and I wanted to see just how far I could go. It had been a hot day and the trail I rode cut through pines before it entered an arid, un-vegetated landscape.
I rode to the far terminus of the trail before I turned around and started back. I was just a few hundred yards from my car, the other terminus, when my odometer passed the 90 mile mark. That was the furthest I had ever ridden in a single day. I was satisfied to say the least, but I was so close to riding my first century.
Gnats danced in the grass where I sat, just out of eyeshot from the parking lot where my car sat. I snacked while considering my options. I was already exhausted and the day was getting late. If I rode to my car and went home, it would have been a successful day. But 100 miles…it was a milestone just 10 more away.
I remembered that this was my only moment. No past, no future, just this present moment, the only moment to define myself. I finished my snack, jumped back on the bike, and rode away from my car. One hour and ten miles later I loaded my bike and crawled into my car, sore, exhausted, but with my first 100+ mile ride under my belt. I looked at myself in the visor mirror. Salt caked my temples and cheeks and dirt was smeared across my forehead where I had wiped away the sweat; in the middle of it all, a wide, satisfied smile.
Do you follow the red line? Do you trace its every angle and hug to each meander? Do you even know which line I’m talking about?
If you’re lost, don’t count yourself alone. I too was ignorant of the red line until recently. To demonstrate, let’s travel through time, back 2 years to when I was a college senior 3 months from graduation. I was passionate about science and would receive a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science. Biology, huh? That should land me a decent paying job right out of college, right?
Frankly, I don’t know. I haven’t even put that degree to use. Two years ago, I began an introspective journey, a very critical evaluation of myself and my values. This culminated in a bike ride along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the longest mountain bike route in the world. Now I spend my days writing, trying to capture that experience and the lessons it taught me.
One lesson I learned: the red line doesn’t own you, so go your own way.
The GDMBR traversed 2700 miles of country roads, forest service roads, single track, and quad track from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. To guide me, I had a set of 7 maps. Each side of each map was bisected by the “red line,” the route, the path that I was supposed to follow if I was going to claim that I had completed the longest mountain bike route in the world. Hell of a resume entry, right? I suppose it was pretty important to stick to that red line then.
This wasn’t the case though. The map makers couldn’t know what I would be experiencing as I rode, what I would value, what I would hope to gain from the route. The further I rode, the less value I assigned to the red line–I didn’t let the red line dominate my life. On the 40th night of my backcountry-bicycle journey, my last night before finishing, this was the advice I passed on to a pair of cyclists that had just begun their own ride along the GDMBR. It seemed natural to me, even obvious: “Don’t let the red line dominate you.”
I still needed to apply this to the big picture of my life though. When I graduated from high school, I had aspirations to be a writer. I threw those under the bus though when I left for college. I enjoyed science and there was a career to be made in such promising fields as chemistry and biology. Better go that direction, right?
Now, almost two years a post-grad, I can tell you that if it were not for some life-shaking events, I would still be on that path–I would still be following the red line, the line drawn by someone else in a way they saw fit. I would probably be in some stuffy lab in a graduate program where thinking is confined to measurable observations, statistics, and line graphs. I would probably be building my credentials in anticipation of arriving at the red line’s next destination.
This isn’t to say that this particular path, this particular set of life choices is wrong. In fact, I hope to return to graduate school, albeit, to study something different from my Ecology/Wildlife education, something I’m more passionate about. But what I am trying to say is, don’t follow any red line, purple line, pink line, green line, black line. Don’t live up to the expectations set for you by someone else. Live up to your own expectations and go where your passions might lead you–leave behind a line that is its very own shade of you.