What Happens When Your Epic Journey Ends, and All That's Changed is the Scenery?
One sweaty summer afternoon in Virginia I pried one of the ends off my clunky ten-speed's handlebars. I was 19 and therefore stuffed into the hollow handlebars a baggie of cheap suburban pot. My hollow head was stuffed with Easy Rider and On the Road and assorted undercooked highway myths. I was about to make my own.
Until that week my cycling career had consisted of lazy, preadolescent treks to buy Nerds at the nearby convenience store. Once I was so into my Nerds I didn't notice a delivery truck backing up towards my parked Schwinn. Bikes actually pop when you drive a truck over them. I mowed more lawns, saved up for a new clunker.
Acquiring a new self is a swampier proposition. But I'd outgrown my teenage skin, and longed vaguely for something unfamiliar and epically non-Virginian to come over me. That's when my friend Erik and I noticed the left side of the U.S. map. Washington, Oregon, California -- they sounded profound if you said them a certain way, and I did. We scraped together some cash, flew across the country and commenced pedaling our cruddy old bikes from Seattle to San Francisco, which might or might not have been somewhere near San Diego.
The West Coast looked like a National Geographic article about the West Coast -- sprawling skies, towering sea stacks, alarmingly vista-like vistas. Erik and I rode 60 miles, then 80, once or twice 100. Sometimes we spent more time just looking. Being flabbergasted by the beauty was its own activity at first. I snapped photos with my mom's old Nikon and awaited metamorphosis.
We smoked little of the handlebar pot. Our interests doglegged toward the domestic. We fiddled with the cheap camping stove in the fields or yards we sneaked into at night. We lived on peanut butter -- cheap, carb-heavy, easily strapped to a bike rack. Someone handed us ten dollars one day, said keep going. We stood in a stream and strange little fish kissed at our legs. One night a Vietnam vet shared a campsite with us. He drank and drank. What was he waving around -- a knife? A gun? People do have guns, so maybe? Unimportant. Pedaling was what mattered. Pedaling was the mechanism that would bring about transmutation.
We were in Oregon when it finally happened. We'd stopped for our millionth take-it-all-in break, high above some heavenly coastline. What happened was that I stood there and absolutely nothing happened. Washing over me was bupkis; the bright enormity of existence revealed none of itself, and so forth.
The edge of the continent. The edge of the continent. I repeated the words to myself, hoping to feel their enormity. Dean Moriarty would've been stunned into reverie, would've spent the next two days simply feeling it all. All I felt was that maybe I could go for a little more peanut butter. I took some photos but it was just a pantomime of moved-ness. All this highway and beauty and pedaling but I was the same cretin I'd known all my life, chewing Nerds in the High's parking lot.
A cloud followed me the rest of our trip, despite fun with Erik and the minor triumphs of exertion. What had the larger point been? We logged our thousandth mile halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge. Civilization and knowability to the left, wild sea and the sublime to the right. Screw all that, I no longer reflected on big things. A couple friends were waiting for us at the end of the bridge. They took to an apartment in the Haight, where someone's brother got us stupendously high. He had just returned from Spain, where he'd found a cat's skull on a dirt road. He'd carried it around in tissue the rest of his trip, and finally managed to bring the delicate thing home intact. I remember envying that afternoon the simple clarity of his mission. Bring the cat skull home.
Erik and I flew back to Virginia a few days later. The summer was winding down. Friends asked about the trip, looked at us admiringly. Well, good. Our calves were football-sized. But secretly I knew I'd achieved only fourth-tier epiphanies: Coffee sure is popular in Washington. Motor homes will swerve circa cocktail hour. You have to double-bungee peanut butter jars to your bike rack or they'll roll down a cliff one sad day.
Seventeen years later I'm a grownup and San Francisco's home. I cross the Golden Gate Bridge routinely -- an unthinking crossing, usually, though I do note the travelers streaming into the city for the first time, huddled expectantly atop their frigid double-decker buses. Is the scenery enough, or do they silently ache for something larger and more...inner? What did they pay for, exactly?
Weirdly, I guess, I work as a travel writer now. The job gives me no wisdom on the subject of humans moving from A to B; travel's harmonic convergences remain as elusive as ever, though I do sort of know how to roll a shirt so it doesn't wrinkle in the suitcase. Still, insofar as adulthood is a series of imaginary lectures to one's moronic younger self, my trips sometimes give occasion to upbraid my inner 19-year-old. For starters, I say, stop looking for epic crud.
Look for cat skulls instead. Maybe under bushes? Travel seems big from the outside -- epiphanies, transformations, the radical pffft of the mind blowing. But up close it's just a bunch of tiny stuff. When's our train again? How come American money isn't this colorful? Huh, the squirrels look weird here. Turns out tiny stuff is what life itself is made of. You ride your bike from Seattle to San Francisco not to get remade, but to see what that hill in Leggett is like, and to get a little freaked out, and to wonder why, and to get big calves for a while. They really were something. I'd almost do it again.
Read the author’s most recent work, the ebook Blindsight, originally published in The Atavist.
This story was published in 7x7's May issue. Click here to subscribe.
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