Friday, December 7, 2007

The Tao of Cycling

This bit of esoteric rambling was inspired by Justin in Buffalo, New York, United States, planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, a fellow seeker, dreamer, a man in love with adventure of the body, mind, and spirit. Ride well, brother!

These are some of my thoughts on the metaphysical aspects of cycling as they pertain to some of the ideas, symbols and metaphors of Taoism and its close relative, Buddhism. I find great pleasure in contemplating how worlds intersect, how we have so much in common even though at first glance all we might see are contrasts. That cycling should lead me to Eastern wisdom isn't so strange. Endless hours in the saddle knock loose all kinds of vagrant ideas, most of which are, thankfully, lost in the crosswinds of the ride. Perhaps you'll wish this line of thinking joined its orphaned siblings on the prairie breezes, so read on at your own risk. While not exhaustive, my informal discussion here might inspire others to look deeper into the implied meaning of what they do. We are, as humans, the symbol makers. Our dreams inspire and enrich our lives, and, as John Muir said, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." In thinking about this singular act of cycling, I find it hooked to much else in the universe, the one place, experience and life.

For me, this silly contraption of tubes and wires serves as more than physical transportation. Two principle schools of Buddhism are Mahayana and Hinayana, translated as "Greater Vehicle" and "Lesser Vehicle" respectively. Hinayana seems to be a term coined by members of the other school to exalt their own position: We are greater; they are lesser. That debate does not concern me. The metaphor of a spiritual practice as a vehicle does. In fact, the word metaphor itself comes from Latin terms that translate roughly as "a carrier of change." The technical explanation of metaphors involves the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" as well: tenor is the subject, vehicle the new image that carries the change of perception. For example: Life is a rat race. Life is the tenor, rat race the vehicle. So all of the terminology is hitched one to the other, all of it tangled up in the ideas of conveying, transporting, accomplishing a purpose, transformation. And the purpose of any meaningful journey is to become other that what we were.

Central to these Eastern schools of thought is the concept of the unity of opposites, the idea that the poles are connected in an intimate, unavoidable, necessary way. Symbolically, this is graphically demonstrated in the Taoist symbol at the top of this post, the Taijitu, or "diagram of the supreme ultimate" wherein the light and dark flow into each other and contained in each is the beginning of what it is to become. This symbol is dynamic, a concept central to the philosophy it signifies. The light moves into the dark as the dark moves into the light. One cannot exist without the other. Indeed, all the universe is an interplay of opposites: light and dark, negative and positive, good and bad, life and death, desire and fulfillment. Each of these concepts is meaningless without its opposite, all expressed in a process, a flow, a wheel of being and non-being.

Here the connection to the act of cycling emerges. The wheel of opposites, the cycle of Samsara (life, death, rebirth) as the Buddha calls it, carries us through many incarnations until we reach Nirvana--if we are doing the work. Nirvana is not a place like Heaven as it might be understood in the Christian sense, no clouds and angels and harps, big white bearded dudes in Lazy-Boys pointing fingers. Nirvana can be achieved here and now. It is a centered place wherein the enlightened one is outside the forces of fear, desire and social pressure. The cycle of Samsara is spinning around the focused, blissful, unmoving being at the center who has found, paradoxically, connection to and separation from the whirling madness around her.

In the notions of movement and stillness, of opposites married we slip into the heart of cycling. To ride a bicycle is to engage in a strange and wonderful dance. We must move but also remain still, and only in finding the proper flow do we make progress. We teeter on a razor's edge between disaster and success (motion), and this point is a blissful stillness that we can master only by shutting off the thinking, conscious mind and attuning ourselves to the wisdom and innate knowledge of the body. This is a rolling meditation. To see a child master a bicycle for the first time is to witness the bliss of being. In the chaos of Samsara, the escape, Nirvana, is found at the center, the still point around which the hurricane of life and death and rebirth rotate, so we need to find the eye of the storm. Fittingly, we can only make progress on a bicycle because we are attached to the hubs at the center of the wheels, the still points. The opposites of movement of the rims and the stillness at the hubs makes the vehicle.

Riding a bicycle, then, becomes not only something fun and practical. The device and the act of riding it are metaphorical for how we should lead our lives. As we balance the bicycle, so too must we find balance in our lives and search out the still places, the eddies outside the turbulence, the Nirvana at the heart of Samsara. As the bicycle is the most efficient mode of transportation ever devised, so too can it lead us to a personal economy of body, mind, and spirit. The spokes of the wheel, the lines of connection to the rim are those lines that link us to the world. Our stillness, our bliss, our sense of fulfillment are built upon these whirling lines. We cannot exist without them. But here is another lesson: If a wheel is quickly spinning, where is the safest place to touch, the spokes and rim, or the axle, the hub?

So the next time you ride your bike, you're not just out for a ride. You're engaging in a spiritual, a metaphysical act. Grin and spin and be one with your Schwinn.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Last Photos

These are not in perfect order, but they depict the mood of my final days. Also, note videos posted a couple of entries down.

Saddleback Butte at sunset:

Sespi River area:

The top of the last climb, the Pacific beyond:

Ojai Valley Bike Path:

The Mojave Desert:

Fittingly, a jerk honked at me as I took this picture:

On the big descent from Pine Mtn. Summit:

Mojave cobbles:

Pine Mt. Summit:

A photo of a big, recent burn:

Looking back towards Mt. Pinos from the big climb above Lockwood Valley:

The road down to the Lockwood Valley from Frazier Park:

Looking down into the Lockwood Valley:

Lockwood Valley Rd. area:

Jodi--who somehow puts up with my fits of madness:

Bar Harbor, Maine, before:

Ventura, California, after:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

End Times

Heavy with water for a dry camp and a fresh load of food and fuel, I grunted up the steep hills and slowly left the noise and aesthetic cacophony of Barstow behind me. Adios burger joints, car dealerships, liquor stores and motels. Until we meet again....

I pushed hard into the sharp afternoon light. The sun was diving into the horizon, and I felt a weakening, light-headed sensation that tells me I'm about to crash. I needed more calories, quickly. I crammed a Clif bar down my gullet and, twenty minutes later, two fists full of peanuts. I stood impatiently by Mojo and chewed quickly, conscious of the waning light. Gotta keep moving... The food did the trick and held off the developing calorie crash. I needed a camp. I wasn't desperate, but I was getting concerned. The developed areas were holding me back. I knew that if I kept pushing, I'd get beyond it and into some open desert, but where?

Finally, the sun almost down, I found a rarely used dirt road that led into a region of low hills freckled with widely spaced, anemic creosote bushes clinging to dusty grey soil. The plants had little green and looked barely alive, which is strange because creosote likes living in the bowels of Hell. I guess, even for Hades, this was a low-rent district. Still, it would do for me. I pushed the bike up into the rounded lumps several hundred yards back from the road--not perfect isolation, especially the occasional train noise, but all I needed. A chilly breeze cut through my camp from the west and too soon I was standing in the dark.

To the uneducated, the desert seems a mostly dead place. They are mistaken. Not as overtly flamboyant in expression, this land hides its life like a sharp poker player, keeping the cards out of sight. Hinting, bluffing, insinuating, the life of the desert is shifted to the dark side, veiled by sand, rock, and night. When darkness falls, the creatures emerge to hunt and forage during a more hospitable time. Unlike humans who so often seemed determined to make the worst of it, the animals here must be smooth operators, opportunists.

As for me, I found a mostly flat patch of dirt and spread out my tarp as a base of operations: Headlamp on, rig chair, set out stove, the familiar actions that I repeated almost every night. I cooked and ate while the stars saturated the heavens such that even the fetid glow of Barstow could not impugn their glory.

As I finished eating, I glanced up and perceived a problem, a puzzle--a gift? Twin stars were set down near the ground. They glowed bright and close-set then dimmed, vanished, reappeared. Eyes. Intelligence. I was being watched. The eyes, like the Cheshire grin, implied the beast. Silently, they winked, shifted, advanced, retreated. I was certainly the object of great interest. At last I could stand it no more and advanced with my light and camera, the eyes now holding me in a steady gaze, unblinking. What was this bold creature? With each step I expected it to vanish, bolt into the night, but the eyes did not flinch. Each of us mesmerized by the other, I slowly moved forward and could see ears sticking up--a rabbit? No, these were triangular, arrow tipped. Then all was clear. It was a sly desert fox come to beguile me. Not Rommel returned to tango with Patton who did maneuvers not far from here, but the small dog-like carnivore. Light gray, a perfect fluffy tail, piercing eyes and curious character, it stayed around for some time, circling my camp, even at one time approaching to within a few feet of me. It placed a tentative paw on my tarp and scampered off into the night. Perhaps some coup counting ritual for foxes?

How long it kept me in sight I cannot say, perhaps the rest of the night. No doubt, it distrusted tall, skinny men with strange bicycles. I was the interloper, after all. The cold night air cut over the ridge behind me. The stars burned and wheeled across the sky. The eyes of the desert studied me from a safe distance as I crawled into my own nylon burrow and waited for the sun.

The next day I camped in Saddleback Butte State Park after almost sixty five miles of effort across open country. I had to contend with some wind, but, thankfully, nothing brutal. I knew a weather system was coming through and my plan was to be resting on the day it did most of its mischief. And so it came to pass. On my rest day, as I was safely tucked in behind a wind shelter, the storm moved through. A rim of clouds in the western sky thickened and congealed, beat the sky black and blue-grey until the San Gabriel Mountains to the south were smothered in a fast moving wall. The winds sharpened, and I was grateful for my banging plywood barrier. Clouds of dust filled the air and deposited a fine grit over everything. Twice that day I was visited by Craig from a nearby town. We talked bikes and life--what else? Another road angel, he even brought me a map to assist my navigation of the wilds of Lancaster. Thank you, Craig!

My ride into Lancaster was more than I could have hoped for--clear, quiet, a pleasant tailwind. I sailed the creosote seas at nearly 20 mph for many miles. All the while, I kept looking over at the Tehachapi Mountains, my home only a long day's ride away. Soon, I thought, soon enough. Lancaster is a typical example of the expanding desert communities all over the West. For all the fretting and hand-wringing about a present housing slump, this placed seemed to be on full bore development. I feared for my sweet Leona Valley and what open space remained. With limited water, how could the development continue? A long stretch of steady riding took me at last to the wind-blown regions to the west. Plains of long dead grasses and low, scruffy vegetation dominate the landscape just beyond the final "Notice of Development" signs. I felt like I just escaped the houses spreading across the land like a hot oil slick.

The clear dome of the sky met the mountains to the south, west and north, no trace of smoke or haze or bad attitudes to obscure the outlines or dull the details of color and form. My home peaks swept up almost 5,000 ft. from the valley floor. The long ridge to my south was not nearly as high, but I would climb over 1,000 ft. even so. Effort, strain, distance--every view worth having extracts its price. I camped in the embracing arms of the San Andreas fault, the tectonic crease whereby California will at last be shed from the mainland, much to the delight of Heartland conservatives. Too bad they'll have to wait many millions of years.

I pushed on the next day through some hills of startling steepness. I was hardened to the mountains at this point, so no hill was too much. As I looked over at my home, I thought I would be more annoyed or conflicted or something about being so close and not simply riding home, but this was a game, and games have rules--in this case to reach the Pacific, to conclude my quest. To go home before achieving that would dilute the experience, corrupt the narrative. Each journey has a natural arc or flow. For my story, a stop-over at home, besides requiring lots of extra miles, would amount to an unacceptable plot malfunction. Home, Jodi, all of that was for the absolute end of the trek. Now, the protagonist had to continue alone, see it through, however it might conclude.

In Frazier Park, I made a brief blog post and looked about for a place to camp. Everywhere I turned, everyone I talked to seemed to shut me down. I was in town early, hardly past lunch. Why stop? The sun was high, the mountains calling. Keep riding and see what the road provides. Climbing still, over 4,000 ft. for the day, I grunted out of town and towards the National Forest. Outside of Lake of the Woods (where's the lake, anyway?), I took the first promising dirt track and galloped Mojo up into the trees--success! My last wild camp would be wild, pines and my tent pitched beside Mojo.

My final camping meal consisted of hot chai and cold sandwiches--canned salmon, avocado, wheat bread, mustard. I needed to eat through the last of my food, so I sat in the dark forest and munched sandwiches. I was out of sight from the road but not the air. A Forest Service helicopter trailing a massive water bucket made some passes, and I instinctively whipped off my bright windbreaker. Gotta keep it stealthy, eh? No rangers came calling, and as the night settled down, the chopper landed for good, the stars graced the heavens. I set up my tent and faced the end of my journey. I was excited, anxious, happy. I lay there and thought about all the miles I'd covered, the days and weeks and months, now, of riding. How could I be so near the end? How could this be? The next day I would stand on a high pass almost a mile in the sky and look down on the sea. Will it be enough when I reach it?

The wind sighed in the tall pines that overhung my camp. An occasional car rumbled by, the drivers oblivious to my presence. But soon, the cars would stop coming and only the stars would keep me company. When I reached the ocean, when at long last and finally I reached the ocean, would it be enough, when I reached the ocean?

Galumphing unto Zion

The mountain wall of the coast range blocked any view to the west, rising as it did in a 1,500 ft. wave. Highway 33 snaked and twisted out of sight, up, always up until it wasn't always up. Then it would be down, always down--a Zen koan road. What had the cyclist in Gorman called it? "A terrible climb"? No, it was a beautiful climb. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I didn't find it that difficult, especially now, after crossing a continent. My second time around, I wasn't worried. A good steady piece of work. Recent burns in the area detracted somewhat from the beauty, but much of the character remained. My end-of-the-tour high would not be dimmed. I geared down and winched my way into the sky.

The first, highest summit marked the penultimate climb. From my previous ride in this country, I knew one significant climb remained. Fittingly, I would not be free until I could see the ocean. Knowing it was there over the next ridge wouldn't do it. From Pine Mtn. Summit, almost a mile up, I flew in grinning joy down into sycamore-lined canyons, through narrows of glowering stone, under rock towers warm in the afternoon sun. My enchanted descent rivaled any on the continent.

Then I stood at the bottom of the last climb. I parked in the shade of a deep road cut and took a break, ate and drank, chewed on my thoughts of the conclusion and drank in my conflicting emotions, the stillness, the perfect autumn sky. The mountain wouldn't climb itself. I couldn't wait forever. This thing had to end. I clipped in and pedaled for the top. This is my last climb, my last mountain pass, the final miles of a dream.

I did not remember every turn, every corner. Was this it? This? This? No. Still more. Good. Don't finish. Never finish. The ride goes on forever. Life is the ride, the ride is life. Then a gap, only blue sky beyond, a break in the ridge, a turn in the road, a staggering drop down and down and down through convolutions of tilted earth and folded canyon out to a blinding mirror laid out between the coast and the Channel Islands...the Pacific Ocean, the far side of the continental plate.

I reined in Mojo at the very edge of the abyss and climbed off. Damn it all to hell, Scotty! That's the Pacific-freakin'-ocean! Land's end! You've done it. You've done it.

I punched the air. I yelled. I cursed and sang and danced a cyclist's happy dance in the dirt at the edge of the world. You've done it. Anyone seeing me from afar would assume mental illness, a schizophrenic plugged into his voices again. And they would be right. I was mad, insane, possessed by voices of delight, relief, joy unbounded, a divine madness I wished on all of humanity. I sat down beside Mojo and ate lunch and gazed out over the other side of my country, a view almost one hundred days from where I'd begun to ride.

Then I let gravity take over, an addiction, a high-grade narcotic, speed and corners, leaning out over the edge, pulling back, leaning out once more, the brakes whirring a song of restraint then letting go. Let it go. Let it go. Everything? All of it. Let it go. The sublime serpent of Highway 33 uncoiled beneath my tires, releasing me from the journey, the quest, the first half of my earthly life. The wind roared in my head and the road took me out into who I was to become. No regrets, no turning back. I rolled and rolled and rolled into the arms of Zion.

I stayed the night in Ojai with a fine host called Val. The last road angel of my epic, he opened his home and gave me refuge. We talked of my trip, his life, Ojai, but I was in a different place, a limbo of spirit, incredulous, stunned. How could this be the end? How could it ever end? Wasn't there another state, another mountain range? What's that next time zone? Keep pushing, keep pushing.

But when I climbed from bed after a fitful night, no struggle remained. I had no need to push. The ocean broke on the sand fifteen miles away--down slope. A quiet bike path separated me from the water, my wife, the life I'd left behind. Jodi was on her way. Django would be there. It was time to finish.

I took the final miles very slowly, hardly pedaling most of the time. I let the chill of the shadows ache in my fingers. I needed to feel everything. Slowly, slowly. The path curved gently between creek and road, trees and ridges that now and then blocked the sun. Cyclists passed me and they had no idea where I had started my ride. I was just another lanky fool on a goofy bike. Perhaps they smiled, but I moved on, propelled by my private knowledge, a secret imperative. Each pedal stroke, every breath, kilometer after kilometer counted down, brought me closer. This was not Zeno's tour. I would reach the end. I rolled as if in a tunnel, a path that cradled me from coast to coast. Images of the start played across my mind. The plane is just coming in from Boston. The clouds roil with my stomach. There is talk of not landing in Bar Harbor at all--but we do. Grey, damp, strange, in my foggy nausea, I stagger from the plane and search for my bags. Somewhere nearby the Atlantic waits for me. Good God, what have I done?! You can't do this, Scotty. But you've got to. You can't start. You can't finish. The serpent tightens around me and squeezes. Then I turned, a palm tree, a highway underpass, a final strip of bike path, then sand, the ocean wind, surfers cutting turns. The Pacific in its salty glory curled and rumbled hardly one hundred yards away.

I called Jodi on the cell phone. She was here! I pedaled the short distance down the beach and found her with Django and the car. Jodi's shock of tight black curls, her slim, muscular body--that was her all right. Django looked up when I rang my bell. His whole body wagged as he ran towards me. His dark fur glowed in the sun. I rubbed him all over with a ferocious joy. And when I stood up and at last held Jodi in my arms, I knew I was home and that my long ride across the country was over. It was indeed enough and more than I could have ever dreamed.