It's overwhelming to try to write about my travels. There is simply too much to say. I want to share my journey, in the hope that it might mean something to others, but when I sit down to write, I get stuck—as the lack of posts on my blog will attest. I trust that, in time, various creative expressions will arise naturally out of this journey. For now, I'd like to share a few observations.
People are the most interesting thing in the world. I have visited spectacular landscapes, seen lots of wildlife, eaten delicious food plucked straight from farm and forest, and had important moments of introspection, but none of it has been as memorable as the humans I've met. Thinking back on the highlights of my trip so far, it's always people that come to mind.
Every single person I've met on my travels but don't mention here feels like a glaring omission. I want to recognize them publicly for their kindness, but I also just want to share how fascinating they are. Any one of them could be the protagonist of a great novel.
Take Rob. Ex-marine, retired cop, Rob now roams the country on his bicycle. He didn't want the burden of a mortgage, so he's been nomadic for seven years. Sometimes he lives and helps out on the organic farm in Ilwaco, Washington, where I met him. We stayed up late and got drunk together. He swelled with pride as he told me about his daughter, a prominent Navajo activist fighting the fracking industry. Sometimes he stays with her and helps her make documentary films. Most of the time, he just rides, chased by a restlessness that never leaves him anywhere very long.
The ancient Greek tradition of xenia is alive in America. I have lost count of the number of people who have taken me in, fed me, and generally welcomed me into their lives, whether for a few hours, a few days, or a week or more. Here's just one example: I stayed with Bill for two days in Ashland. He was in the bicycle business for thirty-five years; when I arrived, he immediately put my bike on the stand. By the time I left, we'd adjusted the steering, the rear derailleur, the brake levers, the handlebars, and the saddle position. We'd replaced the brake shoes, the tires, and a sticky brake cable and its housing. Bill made sure I understood everything we were doing; in most cases, he supervised me as I made the repairs. He drove us all around the valley to different bike shops, all the while regaling me with tales of his adventures.
I could write hundreds of pages about all the generous folks who've helped make my journey possible so far.* They serve as a constant reminder that no one does anything alone—that our strength, our great potential, lies in the connections we make and maintain with other beings.
Unstructured travel is where serendipity thrives. I had hoped this would be the case. Serendipitous experiences have always held a mystical power in my mind; they transcend mere coincidence; they are signs that one is traveling a promising path.
Serendipity has attended my trip since the beginning, but it really picked up when I left Olympia. I rode out in the morning with no plan, just a feeling of being pulled toward the ocean, and a remote route I’d picked out to get there. I missed my turn in the nearly non-existent town of Vesta. If I hadn’t, I wouldn't have met Maryann, who was out for an afternoon bike ride, nor ended up staying with her and her husband Jim. It turns out that, for decades now, they have been going to Cortes Island in British Columbia, the little-known gem my family visited ten summers in a row. We shared Cortes stories around a backyard fire, ate grilled steak, and played Rummikub.
Jim spent his career in the logging industry, which had been his ambition since the second grade. Now retired, he makes industrial art. He gave me a tour of his workshop. “This is my happy place,” he said. I could see why. He had an easy pride about him, a deep satisfaction with what he has built. “You have to follow your dreams,” he said.
The very next day, I met Jo. We'd both followed Google's directions down a logging road in an attempt to cut off a section of 101 near Willapa Bay. I only caught up with Jo because his bike wasn't suited for gravel; he'd gotten four flat tires, and had finally given up and started walking. We camped together, feasted on foraged mushrooms, and talked for hours. We discovered a shared love of Richard Linklater's films, and indeed, our meeting might as well have been one. Jo is also a musician from Seattle, also carrying a secondary instrument (flute in his case, mandolin in mine.) We jammed in an old horse barn as the night's chill came on. In the morning, we rode thirty miles together before parting ways.
Will I see Jo again? I hope so, but I don’t know. Our short time together was profound regardless. I’m just glad to know of one more kindred soul out there, seeking his place in the world like me.
In general, people are ready to engage. Often, all it requires is one person deciding to make that first little outgoing gesture. Just start the conversation: suddenly, it's not a stranger before you, but a fellow being, a friend.
Michael heard me playing mandolin in Lithia Park, so he sat down next to me. We ended up talking for over an hour. When the market crashed in 2008, he lost his home and his business; he had to start over in his mid-fifties. He has struggled since then, but has recently found a spiritual path back to hope. We talked about the ways the world is rapidly changing, and both the challenges and opportunities these changes present. "It's been a long time since I've had a conversation like this," Michael said.
I try to remind myself that I always have the ability to help create these moments. When I keep to myself, as I often do, waiting for others to initiate conversation, these connections are rare. But when I decide to be the instigator, suddenly they happen all the time. How many people like me are out there hoping for just this sort of meaningful exchange? Quite a few, I think.
The traveler is a collector of stories. There is something powerful about being a stranger who briefly enters another's world. In this simple act of showing up is contained an invitation to openness. Again and again, the people I’ve met have told me deeply personal stories.
Often, it is pain and trauma that they are moved to share. I have heard about loved ones experiencing addiction, mental illness, and incarceration; about losing parents, partners, and friends, to illness, suicide, and accidents; about personal experiences with poverty, homelessness, loneliness, depression, chronic illness, estrangement from family. It is humbling to be trusted with these stories.
I have also witnessed so much joy and hope. I've met people who have cultivated their intuition, trusted their visions, and attained true satisfaction with their lives. I've heard tales of grand adventure. I've seen many examples of loving partnerships that have lasted decades and remain buoyant and strong. I've talked with folks who never lost sight of their core principles, who have lived in dedication to justice, healing, and love.
* * *
There's a stubborn old travel cliché that won't leave me alone. It's been said a million times in as many ways; here's one version from mountaineer Thomas F. Hornbein: "I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find what I really sought was something I had left behind.”
I set out in April to search for something. That much I knew. Three months in, I’ve begun to discern what that something is. I'll frame it as a question: What are the essential elements of a life well lived?
As this question has clarified, so have some preliminary results. I'm afraid they're a bit obvious—I have no illusion that I’m saying anything new here. Still, with this stuff, you probably can’t be reminded too many times. It is all too easy to become distracted by the pursuits of wealth, status, security, and control.
Foremost, of course, is love. Partners, friends, families, communities. Belonging, feeling connected, recognizing one's entanglement with other beings.
After love, I think, comes intention. A sense of having chosen one's path. Building something over time with thought and care. Practice, craft.
Then there is richness and variety in experience. Good stories to tell from travels and adventures. Lessons learned and insights achieved. Healthy challenges met. Moments of awe and inspiration.
Tying all of these together is a vital thread: expression. Sharing one’s being with an audience—and being in the audience for others' sharing. Knowing and being known.
All of which brings me to look at my own life. I have a loving partnership, well into its sixth year and going strong. I have a family who loves and supports me. I have inspiring friends and collaborators. I feel that I am choosing my path, and that it's a good one. My life is rich with beauty and wonder. I have tools with which to express myself, and endless opportunities to do so.
So what’s the deal? If the essential stuff is already in place, why am I still searching? It's a good question for which I have no good answer.
And yet, I sense that my adventure has only begun. That more serendipitous encounters await. That I have so much left to learn. And I know that even or perhaps especially the hard parts of this journey, the moments of loneliness, discouragement, and doubt (of which there have been plenty), play a vital role in this learning.
Thankfully, it's not an all-or-nothing situation. I believe I can strike a balance. In the spirit of this balance, I am glad to be taking some time off the bicycle to tend to my roots in home and community, to spend time with the humans who make my life so rich.
As always, I would love to hear from you. What thoughts or reactions do my words invite? Which of your own stories are you reminded of? What have you learned recently? Please consider me a member of your audience.
*A note about my hosts: The primary way I’ve been meeting them is through a wonderful, if unfortunately named, website: warmshowers.org. Warm Showers is an online community of bicycle touring enthusiasts—travelers and hosts alike—from all over the world. When I set my sights on the next town, I open the Warm Showers app, zoom in on the map, see who is available to host, check out their profiles, and reach out. This is a service of the gift economy; no money changes hands. Warm Showers has been instrumental in making my journey so enjoyable, and keeping it affordable.
Though I’ve only been a guest so far, I look forward to becoming a host in the future. Bike tourists have great stories, and tend to be thoughtful and engaging people (if I may say so...). Many of the folks using Warm Showers in the US are visiting from overseas. If you have a space that would allow you to host bike tourists—even just a yard where they can camp—I encourage you to sign up! You don’t need to be a bike tourist yourself, although signing up could be a good first step into this exhilarating form of travel. You don’t need to cook for your guests, though many people like to. You don’t need to make your phone number or address public; people can message you through the site. You don’t have to host anyone you’re uncertain about; most people’s profiles have reviews from past hosts and guests. You’ve got nothing to lose, and great stories and new friends to gain!