Yesterday marked two weeks on the road already, and here's my first blog post. I feel like apologizing, but that would accomplish nothing.
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. As for seeing them through? That's another story.
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 to myself as I ride out of town.
My first big hill is the crest of West Seattle. I sure have a lot of gear loaded onto this bicycle. I haven't weighed it all, afraid that knowing the number would force me to confront that I have way too much stuff with me.
I catch the Fauntleroy ferry headed to Vashon. Starting the trip with a boat ride to an island somehow makes my departure feel more momentous. The weather is auspicious, the Sound and the mountains on brilliant display.
Vashon greets me with the second big climb of the day. This is draining stuff. I know from past tours that my body will quickly adjust to these new demands. This is one of the joys of touring.
I ride the length of the island, and another ferry delivers me back to the mainland.
I get to Jon’s house in Tacoma around 6. We get stoned and go for burgers, Jon's treat. We catch up between bites. In a couple minutes, the food is gone. They have no recycling bins here; 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. I can't help but chastise myself. Some way to honor our holy mother.
Jon is a devout sunset worshiper, and rarely misses a day. We make his 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 as the sky puts on a show.
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 a snob about Seattle, dismissing the 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. That said, this doesn't exactly feel like adventure. When, I wonder, does the real stuff begin?
The next morning, Jon heads off to work. I sit in a 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. It is a powerful gesture, all the more so because this solo adventure has put a large physical distance between us, and its open-ended nature requires tremendous trust and flexibility. Yet here she is giving me her blessing.
As I ride out of Tacoma via the Narrows Bridge, stopping mid-span to watch harbor seals play far below, my heart is full. I feel Erin’s love. I feel the love of my family and friends, my Seattle community who gathered the Friday before my departure to send me off in musical celebration. All these shimmering souls are with me, truly, as I ride.
It's a good haul up north to Port Orchard. There, I find the passenger ferry to Bremerton. The boat pulls in; dozens of military commuters get off, and only I get on.
We dock in Bremerton and I bike another hour, along a dismal highway past vacant megastores, until I finally reach another quiet country road, turn off onto a gravel lane, and make it to Courter Country Farm in time for dinner.
I'm here because Denise reached out to me through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website. I'd signed up thinking it would be a good way to find places to stay during my journey, and to learn a thing or two about organic farming.
Denise, a hospice nurse, and Kevin, a retired Navy man, own the place; Denise’s brother Mike lives in a trailer on the property and does the bulk of the labor. Denise 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.”
"Last year she sold some of the extras in pots.”
"OK, we'll do the goat pen."
I put in a few days’ work at the farm. I do a shift in the morning, take the early afternoon to write, then put in a few more hours' labor before dinner. I like the rhythm of it, and like being very hungry at the end of the day.
Mike and I get to know each other a bit. I can tell he enjoys teaching me various techniques. He ties these practical lessons to larger ones, the wisdom he's earned in his forty-one years. I imagine that I pick up on a deep wish: that he had a son, to whom he could truly impart these teachings.
Mike and Kevin and Denise are all very kind to me, but we find little in common. Which is not a bad thing. In some ways, that's the whole point of the journey. But it takes work to keep up conversation, and I'm feeling lonely. I decide I'm ready for different energy.
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.
A drunk man who looks like Bill Maher is hosting a bar game of Family Feud. The teams represent two local pot shops. I find it all a little obnoxious.
A baby starts crying. The host tells the baby to “shut the fuck up!” He keeps repeating this. I am at a loss. Shouldn't the parents be angry? Shouldn't we all be angry?
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 plays 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.
I post on Facebook looking for someone to visit, and connect with Mary Ann and Steve, parents of my fraternity brother Jordan. They’re over in Southworth, and say I’m welcome to stay the weekend.
It's raining in the morning when I pack up and head out. I want to avoid the ugliness of the ride up, so I take a lush, hilly route through Illahee back to Bremerton. Once more to the foot ferry.
I make it to Southworth around 3. Mary Ann and Steve are warm and sweet, instant friends. Their home is beautiful. I feel myself relax, looking forward to an easy and comfortable weekend.
We head down the road to Dave and Betsy's place for a barbecue. "You can be the night's entertainment," Mary Ann tells me, and laughs.
It’s a loose and lovely 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 increase so too does the reminiscing. Their kids all grew up together, and they have countless of stories from thirty years of friendship. I am reminded of similar neighborhood family connections from my own growing up. I am drunk and happy.
We get back to Mary Ann and Steve’s around ten. I’m thinking it’s bedtime, but Steve wants to see my mandolin. He breaks out his guitar and uncorks a bottle of Cabernet. So 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 or electricity. Moved to Port Orchard in '84 to join a bluegrass band, which still performs. Made a career in construction; built the house we’re sitting in.
I admire him greatly and feel that he models an appealing kind of boyish masculinity. He is goofy but self-assured, irreverent but grateful. Note to self: see if you can learn how to be this way.
We laze around on Sunday. I go with Steve, my new buddy, for a walk with Dave and Betsy. Afterward we eat a big greasy breakfast and do the New York Times crossword. For the whole afternoon we drink beer and play horseshoes in the back yard. We eat dinner together, and then I go for an evening ride.
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 good pace. Still, there is an undeniable southward pull. Near-term, I’m thinking of Olympia, of setting up there for a couple weeks to see what it’s like. Farther south, further in time, waits the big magnet California.
I leave Southworth on Monday morning and begin a string of travel days. I stay 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 to be wearing clean underwear, I return to the living room. Dave has invited his brother Jim to come over, with the idea that Jim and I can jam.
Jim arrives. He is a broad man who wears a kilt. He also loves Sarah's music. He even had her sign his bald head once. Jim takes out his guitar and starts to play and sing. We don't exactly jam, but I do pick along.
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. Wish me luck.
The next day, I ride another few hours to Harstine Island to stay with more Warm Showers hosts: Paddy and Vikki, and their two dogs Charley and Sammy.
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.
Songbirds flit among the trees. 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 much too numerous projects with the more essential mission to slow down and 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?
In the morning, Paddy drives me back to the mainland to give me a head start on my long ride. It's still my biggest day yet: 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. (The Millennium Falcon could do it 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. I lie in the grass in their yard under a giant cedar, and wait for them to get home from work.
For dinner, Laurie makes a frittata. Burnell opens a Willamette Valley pinot noir. We enjoy a lovely meal and trade tales of recent travels.
I laze about on Thursday, working on writing, practicing piano, doing some weeding in the garden. I cook dinner for my hosts: a big veggie curry with fried eggs on top.
I am sensitive to the fact that I'm here during the work week, imposing upon these kind folks' daily routine. They say I can stay longer if I like, but it feels important to me to limit it to two days. I don't want to be a drain on people. Probably, this is overly self-conscious. On the other hand, maybe it's just thoughtful.
So I find more Warm Showers hosts for Friday. Barb and Rick. I arrive for dinner: grilled salmon, roasted vegetables, lots of wine. Once again, my glass keeps magically refilling itself.
I hit it off with Barb. She appreciates that I do the dishes. We talk about family history, travel, and the surprise twists in life's path.
Once again, it is the woman in a couple who takes a sincere interest in me. The men, though generous, tend to want to tell me about themselves.
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.
In the afternoon, 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.
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. She sets up her dulcimer and gives a mesmerizing solo performance.
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.
Indeed. The concert is transporting. I am utterly transfixed for the entire concert. There is such joy and playfulness in their music. They have attained unbelievable skill. I leave feeling truly inspired to continue honing my own musical craft. And all this for fifteen bucks.
That was last night. 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.
Anyway, it's a start.