My bike wobbled. The trail was long, white and 100 degrees. To my right, across that brown sea, was the city that care forgot. I was gone.
It was overdue. I can’t count the number of goodbye parties, cards, and free drinks. First I put off departure for a side-trip to the Caribbean. The trip ended but a Haitian head cold didn’t—in the pressurized cabin of the return flight it erupted into painfully blocked ears, which a doctor assured me were not infected and would clear up. A week later, they were infected.
That was behind me now. My right ear still feels (and hears) like someone shoved in a couple of after-dinner mints, but I had the antibiotics—and delays make me sicker than germs. Sunday, I mounted up.
The wobbling continued.
My machine was top-heavy, piled high with gear tented over a new front trunk. I was proud of that rig, I built it myself, even if it did give the bike the approximate silhouette of a triceratops. Although going in straight lines was a bit tough.
Behemoth that he’s become, the Giant (as I’ve dubbed my ride) is still tougher than I am. I learned to goad him gently down ramps, through intersections, along crowded highways. I noticed the pickup trucks gave me a little more room than they used to. Who wants to hit a bull?
Twenty miles out, the front wheel exploded.
To seek the heroic life is, in many ways, a path of renunciation. Not just of small comforts—it’s giving up things much bigger, much more difficult to surrender. Things like security, familiarity, roots. To adventure is to walk on dangerous soil, it is to fall far from the flower and seek what sustenance you can.
But for me, that renunciation has tension with the other necessity of a heroic life: to connect. It’s important to me not only to find sustenance, but to create it—to participate in a take-and-give wherever I go. A heroic journey requires giving more than you are offered, in whatever form that may be.
I’m not sure what I’ve given New Orleans.
Did I enrich this city, give back to it? All I did was focus on relationships: trying to be good to my friends, even when I had very little; participating and going out, even when I felt very tired; asking bold things and listening to people who hurt.
Those relationships have a certain gravity. It’s hard to leave your pack mates, to leave security, familiarity, roots. But then, this whole city has a reputation for her gravity. “Like a hand pulling you back,” one friend described it, “Even when you’re boarding a plane.”
Our Texan transplant was more direct: “You’re not leaving this city.”
I had fondly imagined my last French Quarter cruise as an early morning jaunt, with that eerie peace the balconies get when there’s no one left to party. Instead it was 3 p.m. (“Late starts are what I do“) and I focused on how to slurp water while breathing so damn hard.
But it did rip me up, when that ferry pulled out. Her engines rumbled low like she was taking us to war. Her prow swung around, and there it was, my last view of Jackson Square and the Cathedral and the steps to the water where we used to talk philosophy.
Then we were across the river, a stretch I’d kayaked months before. I tagged a lamp-post then, and I made a point to tag it now—my way of being sure the whole journey is powered by my own body. I made offerings to my city and went on.
When the wheel exploded I was just starting to feel the heat. My T-shirt had dried out and I was looking for a gas station to soak it. Instead I spent an hour in the heat changing the flat. The whole tube had burst like it was over-pressurized; I looked at the piled-high Giant and tsked.
You could go back to the ferry, I thought.
But I didn’t: I wobbled onward. I found my gas station and pointed my nose toward Houma, Louisiana. I picked up the pace, riding faster in a higher gear, and the heatstroke set in.
I really did feel the invisible hand of New Orleans, yanking me back. It’s not a supernatural force, it’s the sum result of a city where weirdos, artists and the cheerfully poor are welcomed, even honored. You can go your whole life starving for acceptance or you can just go to those rare places where everyone hustles, where past failures are not measured against future potential.
And once you’ve found it, you think you’re leaving?
It was past 5 o’clock when I made the choice. It wasn’t the heatstroke, it was the thought of biking a freeway after dark. I felt defeated but I shook with relief. It felt like salvation.
The hours after that were a haze of biking, vomiting, laying in the grass and stumbling to a gas station. It was too late to catch the last ferry, so I’d struck a new course for an upriver bridge—which I never reached. Eventually, I just got a ride.
The delays become almost comical as they stack up. It would be easy to think I’m prolonging it because I’m deeply in love with Jessica, and I can’t deny that influence. But the reasons I’ve delayed have been mostly practical. Getting on top of work, fixing my broken computer, suffering a (still) infected ear, and now reconfiguring my bike. I find myself still in possession of a steam-powered determination to get back on the road, if only to test whether this journey is still doing its job.
But something has to change.
The thing is, I like biking, but I haven’t enjoyed so many days of my bike trip. (The stops, the people, yes—the long hauls and roadside repairs, often not.) The hook of adventure, for me, is the sense of discovery: finding a quaint downtown or an ancient, lonely tree; meeting new people in cozy, well-loved pubs. I would gladly do this all over the world, but not if it beats me down. And that’s where most people quit.
I can’t fault them. But another solution would be to stop having it beat me down.
After all the doubts, all the questioning, Sunday’s false start was not because I didn’t want to be out on the road, it was because I stacked conditions up to make the road a monster. It should really be more like a cheerful jaunt, so what do I change to create those conditions?
I’m going to start by focusing on early starts (as a strict rule) and short days. Less miles to go, and more time to get there, means a roadside repair doesn’t have to be so onerous. I won’t have to wear myself out. I’m also changing equipment: no more jerry-rigged freight bikes.
As a guideline, I should always find myself cheerful. My cheer is a meter of adventuring talent. If I’m in too much discomfort or strain to smile at strangers, I’ve crippled the adventurer’s most important skill.
…and from now on I’m not saying goodbye.
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