Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Bicycling. I like it for the movement. I don't know if it's poetry in motion, but it is poetry in me. The crank-set is the engine of my travels and the wheels turn with every stroke of my legs. Each day is an experience of movement like the reels of a movie slowly unwinding into scenes of cities, people, mountains, or clouds gathering in the sky.
I like moving slowly, under my own power, being inside this living motion picture. No cameras are trained on me, no orchestra plays music, yet there are whole symphonies echoing from canyons, mountains and deserts. Birds provide piccolos and flutes. Thunder rocks the heavens with base. The wind is a hundred violins singing in the trees--and lightning is a golden harp strung across the sky.
I ride through the day dazzled by nature's artistry. I move at my own speed, savoring each unfolding vista--a river valley, rocky seashore, or a mountain range bearded with evergreens. Animals, birds and insects add their special design to nature’s tapestry. Sunsets and sunrises roll across the sky like avalanches of fire, taking my breath away and enhancing my spirituality and closeness to the universe. Their beauty gives me much food for thought as I eat my simple meal by a campfire.
And yet, there is another thing that would make this perfection more enjoyable. Man is a social animal, not meant to spend long intervals alone. There is this conflict, this dichotomy between the self that sustains me and the adventure--versus the person who loves home and hearth. But then, there are never easy choices. Yin and Yang govern us at every turn; there is the active wanderer or the passive stay-at-home person, and they wrestle at every turn of the wheels.
Still, I must admit that almost anything is better if it is shared with another person. Were it not true, it is unlikely humanity would exist. Because we are animals born of the wilderness, struggle is our destiny. Whether I grind up a steep mountain with panniers bulging and muscles straining, or coast easily down the other side, it’s constant quest. But doing it alone presents a dilemma. I would rather do this, and all things, with a friend.
Bicycle touring, like going to the movies, is more fun when shared with another person. Who else are you going to nudge when the good guy jumps off a cliff in a harrowing escape from the villains? Who else can you reach over for a handful of popcorn or sip his or her drink? A friend or life-mate.
Friendship. It's more important than panniers. It's more important than what I own or what I carry. Such companionship energizes me. It comes from the natural chemistry of two people who enjoy each others' company. A friend is one who shares your spirit. You can be yourself because he or she makes no judgments upon your behavior, and likes you the way you are--and you like the way he or she is. It's a mutual plateau of peacefulness that enhances the journey with laughter, trust, and affection--and shares its problems and joys.
I've traveled many roads around this planet, many times alone. I would rather have done it with someone, but I must face the fact that most men and women are not suited for being bicycle gypsies--their eyes are on a different prize.
I have witnessed amazing beauty, and incomparable ugliness. I have seen the horror of hundreds of miles of blackened rain forests and sunsets worth a million dollars in gold. If I had that much, I would have given it up to share those experiences with a friend.
How much delight can the armchair traveler or weekend tourist gain from a quick flight over the Grand Canyon, or a two-hour exposure to the Great Wall of China? There is no substitute for time, and that's the one thing a bicycle traveler has. It is why I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I saw the rain forests being destroyed; walked for miles on the Great Wall while listening to the ancient dead who built it--and it is why I will go to my grave a satisfied man, for I will have done what so many people only dream about.
I think that is what drives me on, what causes me to punish my body when I work hard to earn the money for my adventures. It may be why I have never married, preferring to put that off until a time when I feel I've seen as much of this planet as I am destined to see. I'm only going around once and want to see as much as I can. I embrace the labor necessary to make that possible. The planning is hard, the preparation is rigorous, and even the journey is maximum exertion--comparable to the pioneers with their Conestoga wagons crossing the plains. It is—I admit--a mixture of heaven and hell, and while it may be a demon that drives me, it is the angels I see in the clouds above the Andes, and the presence of the Creator, the emerging creative force, everywhere the turning wheels of life take me.
Bicycle traveling as a way of living creates many experiences "normal" people rarely enjoy. It comes from moving out of the realm of routine security, into the unknown world of chance. It is a bit frightening--yet exhilarating--something like leaving home for the first time as a teenager. It takes courage to abandon the nest, to leave town, and break away from safe reference points.
The first time I found myself 1,000 miles from home, with my life dependent on a simple metal frame, panniers holding all my possessions and two rubber tires, I wept. I am sure much of it was from loneliness, amplified by a 100-mile day. A strange ache throbbed in my mind. All my friends lay behind me, secure in their homes, enjoying dinner and watching a show on television. Here I was on a cold mountaintop, with the wind moaning through my bicycle spokes, unpacking my tent and sleeping bag. There wasn't another soul within a hundred miles. I was alone, a solitary man on a solitary journey. Damn right I missed home! At that moment I would have given all I owned for the sound of a human voice, and the sight, coming through the dusk, of another human being. That's when the tears poured down my cheeks.
With my heart heavy as an anvil, I pulled my food pack out of my panniers, along with my stove, and began cooking dinner. Somehow, the act of working, of taking care of needs, became like a balm soothing my soul. Just then, a silvery moon peeped above the distant mountain, as the sky turned cobalt blue. It was like all the golden chariot wheels of creation paraded across the sky--elevating my mood.
I listened to the song of the escaping steam, to the birds chirping and the whispering wind, and looked up, as the starlight sky became the ceiling of my kitchen. Then I half-shouted, "For God's sake man, get real! This is living life. Accept it and quit feeling sorry for yourself. Enjoy it, damn it!"
I have been lonely since, but never like that--and always, the thrill of being on a bicycle, miles and miles into a strange land, overcame any melancholy moments I had upon remembering friends and home.
It's never been simple, but it does get easier. As a departure date creeps up on me, waves of tension grip my stomach. A strange ache throbs in my mind: Do I really want this? But the greater stimulations of the world touch my soul, and I'm off on another grand exploration. Who knows, they may even last a lifetime.
Once in Australia's Outback to my incredulous disbelief, I met Bob and Sarah Wilson in their late 70's. They too, were bicycling around the world, and I was overwhelmed by their courage--until they laughingly assured me that it was fun, a wondrous adventure they had dreamed of as they raised their children and now, they were free of obligations. "We'll be on tour till we die," vowed Sarah. I believe they will and may good fortune be with them.
In preparing for a journey, my mind changes to a traveling mode. If I'm going alone, it gears up for the loneliness I will experience. But with each adventure into the unknown, I encountered others like myself. They are out there--and it's always a joy to be with them. We meet as equals, no questions asked--so a lot of BS is quickly dispensed with.
Our mutual reference points are places we've been and the places we're headed for--discussions no others can understand unless they have escaped their daily orbits and flung themselves into this supreme adventure. Meeting others of like persuasion is one of the great joys of traveling adventure's highway. I met John Brown, an Aussie on the Princess Highway south of Sydney that way.
"Where you from, mate?" he asked, after we shook hands.
"It's a pretty good ride and really dependable."
"That's good," he said. "This'n's been a bit of a booger, but it's held up pretty well considering I rode across Europe and my country with it."
We've ridden together since and have become close friends.
Traveling through different cultures, I have gained perspective on my own country. One of America's saddest afflictions, as I see it, is the possessions that have made us materially rich, but spiritually poor. Think about it. When have you ever read or heard that wealth made great men, made historical heroes, or created men of courage and vision? My reading in religion, philosophy, and novels by great writers has shown me that it is the pioneering spirit that builds nations, and a lack of it that breaks them down. We see it everywhere in the destruction of our planet and in rampant overpopulation.
Living today is even more frustrating. We own so many possessions, but we can't buy love or friendship, so we starve to death in the lonely vacancies of our hearts.
Yet, we make our choices, and too often they are big cars, status homes, and more excess.
Curiously, our homes are poorly designed energy-wasters. The Indians of the plains had the best home, the tipi, warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Its cone-shaped design remains one of the greatest architectural marvels, considering it came from a "primitive" source.
Those who bicycle tour understand how little is needed for comfort and survival. Once, high in the Andes, I pedaled through a blizzard and was on the verge of freezing to death. It wasn't a fine mansion with a huge fireplace that saved me. It was a simple tent, known since the dawn of time. When mankind first discovered how to take animals and cure their skins, he also discovered what nature had given the beasts of the field, would also keep him warm and dry. It's a simple equation--but it escapes most of us. Tipis were made of buffalo hides. Animal skins made beds. No plastics need apply.
Each of us makes choices in our lives, and I am a prisoner of my wanderlust. I would love to have a sweetheart go with me on every world journey. But I know that is a forlorn hope--so I go myself. Something drives me to see another sunset, or one more mountain range, even if I must see it in solitude. But in the final analysis I long for someone to share the journey--someone to accompany me down the byroads of my soul.
Wendell Berny wrote: "The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous, humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home."
My home is the world. I'd prefer sharing it with someone.