Yesterday marked two weeks on the road already. How? Time keeps playing this same trick on me, passing so subtly I hardly notice it going by. You’d think I’d catch on eventually.
Fifteen days in and here’s my first blog post. I feel like apologizing, but that would be ridiculous. I have been writing, it’s just that my writing gets away from me. I set out to document my experience and take the first tangent that presents itself; before I know what’s happening I’ve half-drafted an essay on the nature and purpose of storytelling, or possible paradigms for the continuation of consciousness after the death of the body. Why? I’m not sure, but it isn’t new. I’ve always been good at starting projects. Finishing? Well...
So I’ve started my biggest project yet. And I’d like to tell you a bit about how it’s going so far.
Day One is Earth Day, April 22nd. It seems like an appropriate day to begin an adventure which is in many ways about seeking to feel at home on our planet. “Happy Earth Day to you,” I sing as I crest the hump of West Seattle, my first big hill. “Happy Earth Day to you!” I catch the Fauntleroy ferry headed to Vashon. “Happy Earth Day, fellow beings…” Second big hill, bigger still. Down the length of that jewel of an island, so close to Seattle and yet so far from its nonsense. “Happy Earth Day”—sing with me here, this is where I always go up for the high harmony—“tooo… Youuuuu!”
I get to Jon’s house in Tacoma around 6. Jon is a devout sunset worshiper, rarely missing a day of church. We get stoned and head beachward, stopping for burgers along the way. I watch as so much greasy paper slides off my tray into the garbage can, and remember with sudden shame that it is still Earth Day. Some way to honor our holy mother.
We make Jon's favorite perch at Titlow park with a few minutes to spare. Out come the instruments: Jon's little guitar and my crappy new mandolin. We pick away at simple tunes. Two young men laugh as they pass, having mistaken our music for phone noises.
I won’t try to describe the light. That would be ridiculous.
The next day we bike around North Tacoma. Jon doesn’t want me to tell you this, but Tacoma is a beautiful town. I’ve been such an elitist snob about Seattle my whole life, shooing off the entire rest of the I-5 corridor with a casual wave of the hand. But Tacoma has much of what I love about Seattle, minus some of what I don’t. It's so nice to see funky old neighborhood pubs and restaurants still thriving; people of countless far-flung ancestries enjoying the park; families outside modest homes, grilling meat, dads holding toddlers up to dunk foam balls through plastic hoops.
I'm happy to be starting off the trip with a good buddy, hanging out in a low-stakes way, playing ping pong and music, cooking and letting our conversation drift cosmic.
The next morning Jon heads off to work and I sit in the little bakery, drink black coffee, and listen to Erin’s radio show, broadcast all the way from Sitka. She dedicates the hour to me and my journey, and plays songs by artists we’ve seen or met through our years together.
As I leave Tacoma via the Narrows Bridge, stopping to watch harbor seals play far below, my heart is full. I feel Erin’s love, the love of my family and friends, my Seattle community who gathered the Friday before my departure to send me off with good music and heartfelt blessings. All these shimmering souls are with me, truly, as I ride.
A good haul up north to Port Orchard, and I find the passenger ferry to Bremerton. The boat pulls in; dozens of military commuters get off; only I get on. We dock in Bremerton and I bike another hour, along a dismal highway past vacant megastores, till I finally reach another quiet country road, turn off onto a dirt lane, and make it to Courter Country Farm in time for dinner.
My first time WWOOFing. Denise and Kevin, married, about fifty, own the place; Denise’s brother Mike lives in a trailer on the property and does the bulk of the labor.
They’re a Navy family. Kevin is retired now but still works in the commissary. His grandfather served in WWII, his father in Vietnam. Mike was in the Navy for seven years and regrets quitting, regrets his engineering degree from ITT Tech and the debt that came with it.
Denise, a hospice nurse, is the one with the vision. Kevin and Mike talk like this:
“She wants us to do the goat pen today.”
“We need to get to those tomatoes.”
“I know, but the goat pen is her priority.”
“OK. What’d she say about the tomatoes?”
“I guess that’s tomorrow.”
“There are a lot of them.”
“Yeah. Last year she sold some of the extras in pots.”
My first full day of farm work starts with non-farm work: I'll be helping Mike with a moving job. An older couple need their stuff taken out of storage and packed up in a U-Haul. They’re headed for Texas. The woman keeps trying to direct the process; her husband keeps telling her to be quiet and let us work. She starts to tell us about her frustrations with her husband; he is well within earshot.
We leave before it gets ugly, and stop at the Silverton Mall on the way back to the farm. An old woman runs from the entrance, crying hysterically. She gets in her car and speeds away. I imagine that she has just received unthinkable news.
I put in a few days’ good work at the farm. I do a shift in the morning, then take the early afternoon to write, unsure if I am making any progress. Then I put in a few more hours' labor before dinner.
They’re all very kind to me, but we have little in common. Which is fine—good even, one point of the trip. But I’m ready for different energy. I decide Saturday morning I’ll take off. I post on Facebook looking for someone to visit, and connect with Mary Ann and Steve, parents of my old frat buddy Jordan. They’re over in Southworth, and say I’m welcome to stay the weekend.
Friday night, my last night at the farm, we have plans to go to the Courters’ favorite brewery in downtown Bremerton. But Denise has to leave unexpectedly: her daughter in Richland has gone into labor. Boys’ night, then. We head to the brewery. An obnoxious drunk man who looks like Bill Maher is hosting a bar game of Family Feud. The teams represent two local pot shops. A baby starts crying and the host tells the baby to “shut the fuck up!” He keeps repeating this. I am at a loss. Kevin and Mike and I try to make conversation. It happens in little bursts that die quickly.
On the way home Mike has to stop at Walmart, and I stay in the car listening to KNKX. A tenor saxophonist pours out a sorrowful ballad. There is something about the way the music combines with the scene: all these people pulling into and out of the Walmart parking lot on a Friday night in Bremerton, people sitting for long minutes in early nineties Civics and Corollas with peeling paint and trash bag windows, the young frowning employee in the orange vest out in the lot to collect the carts… I’m not sure what to make of it all, but I’m moved in some way. I almost cry, but not quite.
It's raining Saturday morning. I pack up and head out, take a hilly route through Illahee, back through Bremerton, back on the foot ferry. I make it to Southworth around 3. Mary Ann and Steve are warm and sweet, instant friends. We head over to Dave and Betsy’s down the road for kebabs. I’m warned about Betsy: she’s edgy, opinionated, sometimes offensive. She claims to be liberal but reads Ann Coulter.
It’s a loose hang. I’m given a glass of wine, which is refilled several times without anyone first asking if I want more. The piano is way out of tune but I play a few numbers and people are pleased. As the empty wine bottles accrue so too do the reminiscences. Their kids all grew up together, and they have lots of stories from thirty years of friendship. I am reminded of similar neighborhood family connections from my own growing up.
We get back to Mary Ann and Steve’s about ten. I’m thinking it’s bedtime, but Steve wants to see my mandolin. He breaks out his guitar and uncorks a fresh bottle of Cabernet. We stay up another few hours trading tunes, picking away and harmonizing.
Steve tells stories between the songs. He bummed around for a good few years as a young man. Worked in a mine once. Lived in a cabin on a tiny island in B.C. with no plumbing, no electricity. Moved to Port Orchard in '84 to join a bluegrass band, which he’s still in. Made a career in construction. Built the house we’re sitting in. I admire him greatly and feel that he models a kind of boyish masculinity that I'd like to nurture within myself.
We laze around on Sunday. Eat a big greasy breakfast, do the New York Times crossword. Then it’s hours of horseshoes in the backyard. Steve has never refused a game, and never lost at home. I've never played, but I finally beat him around six, with three straight ringers.
I find it funny to be a full week in but so close to Seattle that I can see the tops of its towers. I’m in no rush and feel that all is moving along at a nice pace. Still, there is an undeniable southward pull. Near-term, I’m thinking of Olympia, setting up there for a couple weeks to see what it’s like. Farther south, further in time, waits the big magnet California.
I begin a string of stays with hosts I find on a website for bike tourists called Warm Showers, a name I hate saying to people and always feel I must make a joke about. It’s been an invaluable resource, connecting me with folks who not only have homes to share, but also stories from their own impressive touring experiences.
Dave picks me up at Belfair State Park. We ride in his truck up the long steep gravel road to his beautiful old house in the woods. His grandfather purchased the land in the twenties, and his father built the house in the fifties. Now several houses are scattered about the property, occupied by different family members from several generations.
When we arrive, Dave immediately takes me to the computer and starts showing me YouTube videos of his favorite musicians, who happen to be some of my favorites as well. He especially loves Sarah Jarosz, and refers to her simply as Sarah. After about an hour of politely sitting and watching, I finally say, “I think I’ll go shower and get changed out of my bike clothes.”
Happy in my clean underwear, I jam a bit with Dave's brother Jim, who wears a kilt and also loves Sarah's music. Dave's wife Michelle arrives home and starts dinner. Their daughter Lisa and granddaughter Leona show up; more Sarah super-fans. It's a whole multi-generational family fan club. They've all seen her several times in concert. They keep track of her love life. Jim even had her sign his bald head.
As a rule, I am not bringing up politics. I don’t have to: almost everyone I’ve met so far has found some way of telling me they didn’t vote for Trump.
Like in the morning, when Michelle says to me, “people tell me Trump is a Godly man, but nothing he does is consistent with the teachings of the scripture.”
“How any true Christian could defend him is beyond me,” I agree.
“See, some folks have been waiting for a powerful man of great strength to come along. They think he’s been sent by God. But he is a sinful man."
“Yes," I say, "he’s a narcissist, pure and simple."
“When Christ came to Earth, the Israelites didn’t recognize him as the messiah. They thought the messiah would be a wealthy and powerful king, not some humble carpenter,” she says.
I nod. “Thank you again for dinner last night.”
I’m sort of looking forward to when I do stay with some Trump voters. I assume most are unlikely to want to host a stranger on a bicycle, but I’m ready to be proven wrong. Part of the trip is about forgetting myself and meeting people where they are, trying to see them for exactly who they are and not needing them to change. Easy enough to say this, much harder to enact.
I ride another few hours to Harstine Island to stay with Paddy and Vikki, and their two dogs Charley and Sammy. Sammy is deaf and, as I find out rather shockingly during dinner, prone to violent seizures.
Paddy and Vikki are laid back people who put me at ease. I spend hours in the rocking chair on their back deck, looking out over the South Sound. I’ve been spending too much time on my phone, I reflect, and not placing enough priority on simple presence in beautiful places. A bald eagle flies by at eye level. I have all these ambitions that are tied to this journey: to work on writing, to meet and hang out with all kinds of people, to play music whenever possible, to learn to play mandolin, to read lots of books, to acquire new skills in farming and construction… and to post about it all online, like I'm doing here, so my trip can have some significance beyond my own internal world. How do I reconcile these projects with the more essential mission to show up for my life, not to worry so much about accomplishments or how I am perceived, but to simply wake up into the present, to truly appreciate my existence before it ends?
My biggest day of riding yet takes me fifty miles from Harstine through Shelton, along 101, around through downtown Olympia, then east of town and out to the north end of Johnson Point. It’s a trip any self-respecting bird could make in nine miles (and the Millenium Falcon in under twelve parsecs). Around five, I arrive at the beautiful home of Laurie and Burnell, friends of Erin’s dad’s from back in college.
Laurie makes a frittata, and Burnell opens a Willamette Valley pinot noir. I’m always self-consciously worried that I’m imposing, especially when I stay with folks in the middle of the work week. But this worry melts as we enjoy a lovely meal and trade tales of recent travels.
On Thursday I take it easy. I write, play piano, read, do some weeding in the garden, recharge. I am calmed by the presence of several giant evergreens around the property. Laurie and Burnell get home and I make us dinner: a big vegetable curry with fried eggs on top.
It's Friday, and I am expected for dinner with new hosts, closer to downtown: Barb and Rick. I ask Laurie if she knows them. Small world: one day last year, Laurie came around a bend in South Bay Road and saw a cyclist bleeding on the pavement. The injured rider was Barb. Laurie sat with her as they waited for the paramedics, and friended her on Facebook later that day. They’ve been meaning to get together ever since, but haven't yet.
Dinner is grilled salmon, roasted vegetables, lots of wine. Yet again my glass keeps magically refilling itself. One after another, my hosts have been feeding me delicious meals that comply with my restrictive diet. They've been putting me up in cozy bedrooms and telling me to help myself to what's in the fridge. They've asked me thoughtful questions and shared their own great stories. They have welcomed me for a day or two into their lives with such grace.
On Saturday I head to Evergreen State College for pickup ultimate Frisbee. It's nice to connect with young people. I mean no offense to all the beautiful folks in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, whom I’ve been hanging out with all trip long. It’s just that variety is important.
We play three games to five points with teams of five, no subs. I'm struggling for breath after the first couple points, but do eventually find a rhythm, and end up doing pretty well for being out of practice and in the wrong kind of shape.
I stay afterward and chat with a couple people. I meet Corey, who doesn’t own a phone, and offers me a place to stay. I meet Ben, who’s in the army, and who talks about drinking alcohol and little else. Ben meets up with me later on at the farmer’s market and we walk around for a while, but there’s not much of a connection, and we soon part ways.
In the evening I go back and get my stuff at Barb and Rick’s, pack up, and ride up the road to Alan and Kasia’s place. More Warm Showers hosts. We eat chicken and roasted vegetables and rush off to Olympia High School to see Legally Blonde the musical. Alan’s son Lewis is in the pit orchestra. It’s an impressive production, though of course not without the hilarious hiccups that make high school musicals great.
On Sunday, Alan and Kasia and I eat breakfast together and walk down the block to the secret rhododendron garden. Conversation happens fitfully. I reflect that, for some reason, I always feel that I must fill the silences. Why?
At 2:30 I ride into town for the jazz jam at Traditions Fair Trade and Cafe. I walk in and am delighted to see my friend Marina Albero! What a treat to run into such an extraordinary artist. She is returning from a hammered dulcimer workshop in Portland, and has hers with her. She brings it out and gives a mesmerizing solo performance.
The other highlight of the session for me is getting to play bass while Marina plays piano, backing up vocalist and host Susan Tuzzolino on “Yesterdays.” We go into a Cuban groove at the end and I remember to play on the and of two and on four, in the tumbao style, which I learned about from Marina when I took a piano lesson from her once.
Marina tells me I must return to Traditions this evening to see Trio Brasileiro, grammy-nominated choro artists who have collaborated with Anat Cohen. Very well then. I like to think I know good advice when I hear it.
I won’t try to describe the music. I’ll just say that I was transfixed the entire time.
And now it’s Monday, and I’m writing up this post, and leaving out thousands of details that are pleading with me to be written about. I could write forty pages about each day, but I’d never get anywhere if I did. A good chance to practice concision, then.
So I’ve begun. And so far, the trip is going really well. It’s been consistent with my visions, working like I hoped it all would, while still managing to surprise me every day. I am thrilled and terrified to wonder what lies ahead.
I am feeling the need to write, to practice music—to grow as an artist so I can share my experiences with whomever in the world wants to know about them. But these pursuits require patience. They demand careful attention, which is hard to come by on a wild adventure that looks different every day.
So I’m running into paradoxes, as usual. So I’m being reintroduced for the million-and-first time to old tendencies, familiar limitations. So I’m a dreamer, continually smacking into the brick wall of reality. But hey, I’m out here doing it, aren’t I?