When I was Out There, it seemed to me that time slowed down. Fleeting moments felt like hours that left lasting impressions. However once I came home, time began to slip into the future quicker than it had. Days turned to hours. Weeks slid by. Before I knew it, six months had past. It's been three months since I've written anything and I started this article two weeks ago on my birthday. It feels like I just put it down moments ago.
We've all heard the cliche that time seems to pass more quickly as we age. I think this is only partially true. I feel it's more that we fall into familiar patterns where we encounter the same scenes and ideas day in and day out. Having nothing new to anchor our sense of the passage of time, time begins to slip.
As children, time passed slowly. Each day was filled with new experiences and ideas. There was always something to learn. Moments make an indelible mark that last a lifetime, like the only time I saw a flying squirrel. What we as adults would consider trivial was endlessly fascinating. The sight of our first bird, a bug or creek. It was all new and time past slowly because of it.
But as adults we've largely seen it all. Filed away as something familiar, repeat experiences no longer fail to slow us down and pull us into the moment.
But, travel to new and interesting places seems to. While I was Out There, I saw things I had never seen. Coyote. Buffalo. Bear. Moose. Elk. Carribou. Eagles. Whales. Endless day. Emerald lakes. Incredible people. Views into so many different lives. Every day held something new and time slowed down to the point where in some cases it felt like it stopped completely. How long did I stand there on the edge of the Dalton Highway on the North Slope alone? I remember that moment, standing in the middle of the big nothing as if I had spent days there. It's image is still burned into my brain. I may have stood there for less than 20 minutes.
There's something about having time slow down that makes writing easy. Being here, I've found writing to be vastly more difficult. Even now, as I try to type these words, I struggle in ways I didn't while on the road. The daily stresses and distractions take a toll on my ability to concentrate. The themes and words simply don't flow like I remember. While I was riding, alone in my helmet with only my thoughts to occupy me, exposed to the new, I found it strangely easy. By the time I stopped for the day, I had entire articles written in my head and it was just a matter of typing them in as fast I could.
Here things are different. The voice is fleeting and time passes so quickly it's hard to stop it long enough to craft words. After all the praise I've received for these words, I've felt a strange pressure to hold myself to the standard set by my previous self, a previous self that was in a different place and wrote under much different circumstances. As a result, I haven't written for fear of disappointing. Of course, this is a silly perspective. I have no idea what aspects of this people like or don't. For me it's always seemed that as soon as I have some goal in my mind, for instance I really want you to like what I write, it all falls apart. Instead of letting the story unfold as it will, the way I did while underway, I fixate on this artificial target, please like this, which narrows my field of view, reduces my options and causes me to fail. In motorcycling, target fixation is a classic way to crash. This pattern has shown up in so many aspects of my life. It seems as soon as I try to engineer some particular result or achieve some very specific rigid goal, I have always failed. This has been true as well with business, friendships, women ... I was always taught, and it's often been reinforced, that this is weak and is no way for a man to be. In American thinking, you choose a target and then you narrowly, using sheer force of will and dogged persistence, acquire that target to the exclusion of everything else. If you fail at that acquisition, then you are a failure at some existential level. Fear of that failure paralyzes you. Fear of the judgment that follows prevents you from even trying in the first place.
It's interesting that every time I have succeeded in any business venture it's followed the same pattern as writing. It was never what I thought it was going to be and it was always more about just letting an opportunity develop on it's own terms rather than me forcing it to be something it could not be. Interestingly, if you listen to talks by the top business guys out there, you will inevitably hear the bravado where they with great conviction will attempt to convince you that it was their genius that led to their success. Think Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others. None of these companies knew with any clarity what they were going to become, despite what their founders might like you to believe. While they were in many ways brilliant, and worked very hard along the way, their success was much more related to the fact that they got out of their own way and let the opportunities unfold and define themselves.
This is something I have to remember but it is so easy to forget. Like difficult muddy roads, writing and life is something that, at least for someone like me, cannot be forced. I simply can't engineer my existence. I can't write to produce some effect.
So I will remind myself not to try.
When I started writing this article, it had been exactly a year since I made that fateful decision to go cross country. On that day, I didn't know I would go to DeadHorse. I only knew that I had to get away. I had envisioned a trip like the one I had in 1992. It would be long, grueling and involve a lot of miles. I imagined doing the near 1000 mile days which would, as I used to describe, sandblast the cobwebs out of my mind and leave a calm emptiness in it's place. In a masochistic way, I looked forward to the torture and wondered whether I could actually still do it. I didn't expect any great changes or insights and I certainly didn't believe I could run away from any of my problems. But I did think that maybe I could take a break from them for a little while. Maybe through grueling miles and the emptiness that results from them, I could quietly slip into the future and put some temporal distance between me and my troubles.
Of course, we know that the trip turned into something vastly different. I sometimes wonder where I would be today if it hadn't been for the blog. In the beginning, once the idea of going to DeadHorse for No Good Reason At All started forming in my head and I started mentioning this to close friends, most of them mothers. The overwhelming response I received was you're going to die! You have to send me an email or a text message every day so I know you're alright. After it got to be over a dozen, I began to realize there'd be no way I could ever keep up with that many messages.
You should write a blog, Maria, also a mother, said. That way anyone who's interested in your untimely demise can follow you and once the blog updates stop we'll know roughly where you bit it..
That made sense to me so I promised I would and I do try to keep my promises.
As I mentioned early on, a trip from Washington DC to DeadHorse Alaska isn't in and of itself noteworthy. Sure, it's a long way but it's a far stretch from the epic adventure one might think it is. It's done every year by little old ladies in RV's.
I remember thinking early on, if everyone has done a particular trip why bother doing one? It's a commodity trip to an arbitrary destination and there's no point to it.
I've started reading motorcycle magazines again. Last month, Brian Catterson wrote a little editorial in Motorcyclist Magazine called High Adventure where he wrote Please don't call to tell me you're riding around the world ... Hate to say it, but circumnavigating the globe on a GS has become a cliche.
In one way, he's right. If it's been done so often by so many, why do it?
He misses the important point.
We live in a world where most things have been done. With over 6 billion people on the planet it's unlikely that any of us will do much in our lives that truly has not been done before. Add to that the thousands of years of recorded human history and the chances become even less. All the great adventures have been had. The paths have been cut ahead of us. The most we can realistically hope for is to follow in someone elses footsteps to do what has already been done.
And it's completely irrelevant and lessens nothing.
This is because of the nature of stories.
If it weren't for a few serendipitous events, I would never have understood this.
My plan had been to ride the 15,000 miles focused, as I had been in 1992, only on riding miles like so many guys I met out there. On the '92 trip, I didn't meet a single person on my own. I spent all day every day on the bike from dawn till dusk. The country was a blur and the trip was over in a heartbeat my perspective over the handlebars largely unchanged. It is possible to go from one end of this country to the other and experience next to nothing.
I have to thank Maria for suggesting the blog. Without that one off hand comment, I would never have considered doing something like this. I knew I couldn't write. But I figured I would at least give it a try since no one would read it anyway. I figured those interested in my untimely demise might skim over the photos.
I learned to ride 36 years ago. I've been across the country three times and have taken countless lesser couple thousand mile trips. I've done it so often that much of what I do slips by too quickly because it's so familiar.
I figured I shouldn't write a typical road report. None of the people who expressed concern rode. Most had never been on a motorcycle. So these people would not be interested in the typical kinds of things that occupy the minds of motorcyclists. Tire wear. Oil consumption. Gravel. Road conditions. Speed. Miles. Pain. Antics. Monkeybutt. Boring.
Sometimes to get the an answer you have to ask the right question.
I asked myself, as I sat on my motorcycle crossing into Pennsylvania, What is it about this experience of riding a motorcycle cross country that I take completely for granted? What is it that is so routine that I don't even notice it or think to comment about it but that might give someone who has never ridden like this a sense of what the experience is like?
That question at that moment completely changed the nature of my trip. It prompted me to look at what I was doing through what I imagined were the eyes of people who cared about my well being but had no idea what it was like to travel many Miles by Motorcycle. It was not new for me, but it was new for them.
As I rode along on my little commodity trip out to some random point on the globe, I tasked myself to pay attention to those things that I have seen time and time again; that I take completely for granted but that someone who has never ridden across the plain states, or up in the Rocky Mountains or through deep canyons would not know about.
Suddenly time slowed down as if it was my first time. The nature of my trip changed from an external brutal assault of miles into an internal story I wanted to tell myself.
I tried to imagine what questions would others ask and what stories I could tell. Why do I ride? What's different about riding? What happens to someone traveling so far by motorcycle that does not happen to people in cars? Of course, these stories are old hat for anyone who rides. They are normal, even potentially boring because we've been Out There. We know. We've seen it all before.
But that's irrelevant for a story. Stories are not for us. They are for you. For you who have not done, seen, thought, felt, or experienced the things we have. Stories are how we, as human beings, share our experiences with others. It's core to what makes us human.
We are a storytelling species.
In the old days, merely doing a thing was sufficient for a story. There were technical challenges to overcome and the practical aspects of trips or any accomplishment were worthy of the telling. But today, where virtually everything has been done, merely telling the what, as Mr. Catterson implies, no longer cuts it. At the practical level, there are only so many ways to do a trip. So you ride bike around the planet. Maybe you try to distinguish yourself by riding an old bike around the planet. Or maybe you try another practical approach and do it one handed. Etc. etc.
Futile. It's been done.
I just finished watching the Long Way Down (affiliate link) where Ewan McGreggor and Charlie Boorman travel from the Northern Tip of Scotland down to the Southern Tip of Africa by motorcycle. It's a 12 part mini-series and is their second large trip.
The first, which they also turned into a mini-series is called Long Way Round (affiliate link) and documents their trip around the planet. If you ever want to get a visual feel for what it's like to travel the way I have watch either. Long Way Round is the better one, IMHO. The first couple of episodes are trip prep and then it gets really good.
I watched Long Way Round some time ago and last night as I finished watching Long Way Down, I wanted to see more. I found myself hoping that they do another trip and document it. I wanted to hear the story despite having heard and read about similar travels. The parts I found most compelling were not the scenery, the difficults roads, but instead the people they met. The lives they touched and most importantly the internal challenges they faced as they did their 15,000 mile trip. Ewan McGreggor is at times quite philosophical and introspective and is someone, given the chance, I would like to ride with.
Many of the themes and internal changes that I felt on my trip they talk about on theirs. Despite the fact that so many of the themes in their story are familiar to me, I was still captivated by their telling.
There's something significant here.
We seem to have a never ending capacity for listening to stories, especially stories about other people. I spent good money and watched many hours of video about a couple of guys riding motorcycles. In a way, it's absurd. I can go do that anytime. I also know, that even if they were to ride across the US and produce a video of it I would buy it and take the time to watch it. It'd be a good story.
So, on the one hand, while even just watching these guys try to pitch a tent in the cold wind and rain is interesting to me (Are you listening, Ian??) when it comes time to express my own experiences I become self conscious. Clearly, a story of pitching a tent is not worth telling ... but maybe it can be, especially to someone who has never been camping.
And I think there-in lies the difference. We lead finite lives. We believe firmly that our own stories are too boring, too common place to ever be worth telling. Yet somehow we crave the stories of others outside our experience. I've talked to so many people who feel that they have nothing worth telling.
I was recently at a bar talking to a guy who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq who was born in Ireland, lived in France for a while. He had been shot twice and had incredible stories of people and places. I've got no stories, he would tell me. What? Are you kidding??, I replied. Well, I've never ridden a motorcycle cross country, he answered. When he talks, I listen. It's always a good time but I think there's something here. Here's a man who's experienced things that I will hopefully never experience. Yet he doesn't feel that the stories are worth telling.
I think of Phil, the former America's Cup sailor who I stayed with in Boston. He's an incredible story teller. He has a way of taking even disasterous events and making them worth listening to. He's another individual who has experiences and insights I will never have. I benefited greatly from the stories he told me.
And I think that's the key. We all have our stories whether we believe they are worth listening to or not. Most of us, if not all of us, being so intimately familiar with our own stories, lose sight of how others might benefit from them.
We demand of our own stories that feeling we get when we listen to the compelling stories of others. I think the trick is to realize that we never feel that way about our own stories, because they are our stories. We share them not for ourselves but for others.
I recently got a friend request from a guy in Zimbabwe who had happened upon the blog. Zimbabwe?? I found myself wondering what his daily life is like. He could tell a story of getting up in the morning and going to work just describing what he saw, heard and most importantly felt during his day and while he might be bored in the telling of it, I would find it interesting. We live in a ridiculously small world.
How many people are there in the world that would feel the same about the mundane aspects of your own life? Or maybe put another way, what have you done that I never have? Can you remember the very first time you did a thing? Can you remember what drew your attention? Do you remember how you felt?
Stories start there.
I recently met Josh at the International Motorcycle show down in DC. He had mentioned some time before, based on the last article I had written, that he had wanted to tell me something; something that he thought I would benefit from.
We met for lunch before heading into the show and he tells me, "You may have been through hell, but you have great stories and I never get tired of listening to them. I don't have any stories but I hope to make up for lost time." I was floored. Thank you, Josh.
Josh has great stories too. He, like so many of us, just doesn't know it.