Religion, The Great Adventure

Flirting with the Sun

Image by Nebojsa Mladjenovic

“Stay a little.”

“I’m right here,” she says.

“You look like you’re leaving.”

“I will be.”

My legs pump faster. It’s an evening ritual. Our little game. I race to make some still-distant town and she’s ready to slip away under the hill.

“You really should have learned by now.”

“I have, I have.”

“You say that but you do this every night.”

“This time I’ve learned. I’ll get an earlier start tomorrow. I swear.”

She really is waiting: she hangs above the hillsides just as high as forty minutes ago, or was it eight? I never check time on these final jaunts. I set some obscene distance goal and burn my legs into it. Like all men I think I’m special; like any cailín she’s seen my type before.

How many priests thought she’d listen just because they knew the right words?

Minutes pass. I look over, and maybe she’s lower, but she’s still shining golden. I grin and say she’s beautiful. She goes behind a cloud.

At some point the road curves away. “Wait there for me, Aine.”

When I can glance back, she is resting on the edge of her covers; she is wrapped in an autumn sunset veil, and blushing; and my sweet goddess Aine is my final lantern, and my beloved goddess is my final light.

Standard
Bicycling

When You Stay Your Sweat Smells Black

I can feel it. Every surface of my body, every stretch of skin. The sweat of a sick man, and it clings.

Biking 30, 60, 90 miles a day and bathing in lakes—never any smell. My sweat rolled off like salt water, the space under my arms was clean. My laundry sack kept empty day after day.

But here, at this desk, fetid air. Why do my clothes stink? I changed them, I showered. Why can I smell socks when feet are way down there? I feel feverish, but have no cold. No flu. No exotic bug.

My meals are rich and sugared. Coffee in the morning. Beer at night. Then I sit on an office chair and type. Two hours, four hours. Take a break for a walk. Back to the office chair.

When you burn you burn clean. When you smolder there’s smoke up there.

I look at my bike. He’s ready. Let’s go.

Standard
Adventure, Bicycling

Go Slower Son

A week ago I put myself in a race.

I wanted to arrive in Minneapolis in time for a friend’s birthday party. To me, that meant arriving the evening before. I could shower, rest and be ready when the party started.

To do this, I had to bike about 165 miles in two days. 80+ per diem. My previous best was 65 miles in a day and that almost broke me. But I also knew my body was continuously remodeling itself, and after days of rest would be ready for a new record.

The first day went easy enough. A lot of it was on a bike trail. Shade, wind shelter and an absence of traffic. I had a hot meal in Hinckley, MN (an unfriendly place). I stopped earlier than planned because of approaching T-storms. I made my nest in the trees. The storms cradled me.

This left me with about 90 miles to go.

The morning dawned clear of storms but now a swift south wind had sprung up. Every quarter-mile became a championship fight. It was hilly country highways. The next segment of bike trail was a distant promise.

Things hurt.

I had it firmly, solidly in my mind that I would complete the 90 miles today. I would reach my destination, the farm of friends Urban (“Travel is in my blood, so is the water”) and Saumya (“a Hindu lady, deadly and adorned”). I would reach it at all costs.

My jaw became more clenched. My posture, more hunched over my handlebars. I no longer enjoyed my ride. I just knew what I had to do.

Well.

I saw something in my mirror (the Giant has a rear-view) that I hadn’t seen before. Another bike! Coming up behind me.

Here is this older guy, 50s maybe, with bright eyes and a beard that’s more sexy than given-up. (Guys, your beards say more about your emotions than you know.) He’s faster than I am. I move out to to one side to let him pass. He pulls up alongside me.

We talk.

Older Gent is returning from a trip up to Duluth. Sounds like he took several days to go up there and plans at least two to go back. He expects to stop for the night at Forest Lake, MN. That’s a suburb of the Cities and when I reach it I will have at least 20, maybe 25 more miles to go.

He likes my plan to go to Brazil. He doesn’t know about the Prairie Sunrise, a bike trail that goes toward Forest Lake, so I explain where he can get onto it. He says he doesn’t mind the highways though. The traffic is pretty light today.

True.

We run out of pleasantries and he pumps his legs. Away he goes outpacing me. I admire many things about him, but from here, it’s his gear: the bike is insanely expensive, lighter than mine, faster, with real panniers—not home-rigged. I have no envy (I discover this with some surprise), only an appreciation of quality kit.

I struggle on.

My encounter with Older Gent makes me think. He’s in no hurry. He’ll stop where he likes. I suspect that this, more than his light frame, is why he looked so happy pedaling against the wind. For him a hill is scenery. For me it’s a setback in a costly plan.

I decide: I’ll stop when I feel like it. 

There is no true cost to spending another night on the road. I can camp again in the rain. I can take my time and enjoy it. Why keep going if it’s anything less than joy?

With this reduced determination, I end up completing all 90 miles. I arrive an hour after sunset, waving a flashlight in one hand because I’m too lazy to stop and install my real lights. I arrive smiling and singing, soaking from two thunderstorms, and completely spent in every regard—except that somehow, I could keep going.

I did 90 miles that day and I could’ve done 25 more.

Don’t make your dreams into a chore. Never make that awful mistake. You can be your own tyrant, but it costs, but it costs, but it costs.

Standard
Adventure, Bicycling, The Great Adventure

What is a Day on the Road Like for a Bicyclist?

Long-distance biking is thrilling and tough. It’s an experience most people never have. We’ve all done road trips in a car with junk food and loud music. Bike trips are different. Here’s what it’s like.

The things you see in Minnesota.

Evening

Every evening I decide where I’ll sleep. This is the biggest unknown of the whole production. To some, this question mark alone would ruin the lifestyle. For me it’s a comfortable insecurity. (I’m often told I’m crazy, or sometimes that I’m brave. The truth is I built up toward it through years of lesser adventure.)

So where do I go? Most nights I camp out, and not in an official campground. Anywhere there is state land I can likely slink into the trees with no problem. If I need to use private land I don’t trespass, I ask permission. If you ask country people where you can camp out the answer is frequently their yard/empty field/back ten acres of woods.

A good camping site has the following features:

  • Close to the road and easy to wheel my bike over there (no ravine, steep hill, thick brush etc.)
  • It’s hard to see from the road
  • At least four stout trees to hang my hammock from, usually pine (can make do with just two if needed)
  • Not fenced, walled or marked as private property

I never worry about fires or water. I don’t do campfires—too much perceived risk in the absence of an official campsite, and who needs ’em anyway?—and I never need to draw water in the evening or morning. I carry three liters of drinkable water at all times and fill them up at every gas station.

When I find a spot I unpack essentials first: my hammock, blankets, and night time clothes. Mostly I hang the hammock haphazardly. If storms threaten the night I take great care hanging the hammock and its rain fly to shelter me from the wind.

Night clothes involve a warm sweater and long pants, even on hot summer nights. The hammock is breezy. I put my phone, flashlight and pepper spray in the hammock. They rest in little pockets hanging from the roof line, ready to grab.

Then I eat a cold meal of trail mix (if I’m hungry, often not). I drink about a liter of water and brush my teeth. I keep most of my gear stowed on my bike, but if I expect rain I lash my rain jacket over it and park it in the hammock’s lee. I enter my hammock by 10, sometimes read, and fall asleep by 11. This is very early for me.

One of my actual campsites.

Morning

I wake up late. I’ve tried every morning to be up at some early hour: the body rebels. Given what my body is adapting to, I let it have its way. I’m up by 9 or 10.

I feel great every morning. Thanks to the hammock there is no hint of stiffness, no neck or back pain, no “slept on it wrong.” With 6+ hours of daily cardio there’s no such thing as the Mondays. No matter what conditions I face in the day ahead, my body feels ready, thrilled, eager. It is ready to live as it should.

For breakfast I repeat the trail mix meal and drink another liter of water. I pee suspiciously less than 2 liters of water. I watch my pee intently. Your pee is your canary. Dark, amber colored pee (or worse, coffee) is a sign of under-hydration. My pee comes out a clear wheat color.

Departing takes nonsensically long. Two hours. Many days I don’t leave till noon. This time includes 30-40 minutes of yoga and abdominal workout. It also includes the painful process of re-packing everything for a day of travel on the Giant.

Glorious Days

The days soar by. There’s nothing regrettable about a day spent biking. Rain, heat wave: it doesn’t matter. To use all of your muscles and go faster than a horse; that is living.

Heat generally can’t be noticed. Once underway you have a continuous breeze. Stay hydrated and you’re fine (though be on guard for sunburn.) Rain is surprisingly fun to bike through. Biking in a storm is an exercise in warriorship. The mind must be totally aware of a dozen factors at once, the body poised to respond. Roads are slippery, traffic reckless, lightning still some distance off—how close? Will the wind bring it closer? Like fencing, it hits centers of the brain that most people never use.

Head winds can be hard. They’re the only source of true frustration in this lifestyle. (Which speaks to a failure on my part: why am I pushing on in a day when there are headwinds? Relax for a day and wait until the wind changes!)

People are funny on the Adventure. The biggest question they ask is how I pay for my trip. They ask this with a sneer, awaiting a trust fund story. I tell them I work three days a week everywhere I go and suddenly they are my friend. Oh, okay, he’s alright then—we don’t have to stone this guy. What the fuck? I do understand this grim little corner of human psychology, I just think it’s one of our worst.

I make sure I don’t smell. I’m very sensitive to this, I never want to be offensive to deal with. I’m amazed that my sweat “runs clean” as I like to say. I drench my clothes in sweat all day, then hang them up at night and put them back on in the morning. But somehow they never, ever smell bad (and neither do the pits). Sure I use deodorant, and swim or shower whenever I can. But the idea that my sweat doesn’t reek still feels like magic to me. A little miracle of extended adventure.

I may get rid of my extra undies, if this keeps up.

Do you have questions about life on the Adventure?

Standard
Bicycling, The Great Adventure

Ditch List

The other day I attempted my longest bike ride to date, a 65 mile trip from Grand Rapids to Cloquet (ish) in one day. It destroyed me.

I fought a head wind most of the way. When I finally turned off the busy US Highway 2 I ended up on rough country roads with steep hills for the final 20 miles. I was fried in the sun and my water tasted bad. Muscles gave out.

Me + the Giant after a 65 mile bike ride. Photo by Kira Hagen.

I made it, but that kind of a day requires some thinking about the gear you’re schlepping. (Note: the day after, at my friends’ cabin, I helped them with five hours of culvert digging in direct sun… which felt like a break.) I did some reflecting on the things I’ve ditched since setting out.

The Starting Package

Two days before I left my parents’ house in Wisconsin I thought I had everything ready to go, and planned a relaxing final day there. It wasn’t to be. On a hunch I re-packed everything the day of my departure and began thinning it.

The first things to go were my beloved sandals. They would’ve been so sweet for walking into muddy lakes to bathe, but I can’t justify the extra weight. I still miss them—in theory. I’ve never actually needed them since leaving.

I departed with 44 pounds of gear. That’s a lot, but on a bike I figured it would be no problem.

Heh.

The Ditch List

In the car I chose more things to ditch. In fact, from the beginning of my quest I’ve ditched things almost every day. So here’s a complete Ditch List.

Jujutsu notes. I planned to carry these with me just long enough to finish typing them all up, so my notes on years of practice would be able to travel with me on my laptop. I intended to drop them at my parents’ when passing through Wisconsin. Instead, they are safely stored at a friend’s house as they took up just too much room.

Art supplies. I had it all narrowed down to what fit in one small waterproof jar: a set of oil pastels and some tiny tubes of goauche paint. Still too much stuff. Abandoned them at Beth’s place in Saint Paul.

Pepto. Too easy to find on the road if needed, too bulky to carry with my first aid kit. Gave it away.

Fancy shirt. My packed clothes are mostly T-shirts, underoos and socks. But I included two nicer button down shirts: one that I wore on the ride up and one stowed in my pack. I immediately discarded the one not stowed. The other may follow soon.

Tomahawk. What a great tool. Hand forged, it holds an edge and it’s super light. But light for a hatchet is still a pound or more and it’s bulky. This was the hardest thing to give up, no doubt. Beth fought me on it and tried to convince me to take it anyway. Ben arbitrated and pointed out I have a tiny, shitty saw on my multitool. So no hard need for a hatchet. I sent it back with Beth when she dropped me in Duluth.

Sunglasses. They broke on Day 1 of biking. I don’t miss them. It was annoying to try to secure them and my helmet has a visor. Eff sunglasses. Sunglasses are for chumps and Lady Gaga.

Bug spray. You’d think this would be important but in rural Minnesota you are just, fact, going to be eaten by mosquitoes. Your puny spray means nothing to them. I left it as a present at the semi-abandoned garage near where I camped my first night.

Camp Mirror. This was a cool little mirror that you can hang from a tree or whatever. Great for shaving. But I never want to shave outside (see also: bug spray) and I can put in my contacts with no mirror. It broke from a bumpy bike ride and I discarded it. Kind of sad because it’s been in the family since I was a kid.

Stinky Water Bottle. A Trek water bottle that made everything taste like rubber. Get your rubber out of my mouth, Trek. That is so not consensual. I left it on a picnic table at a gas station. In the morning it was gone.

That’s what I’ve ditched. I know I need to get rid of more. There will be a lot of off-loading in Minneapolis and Wisconsin. I’m even reducing how much water I carry.

Anything you think I absolutely can’t live without?

Standard
The Great Adventure, Travel

1,400 Mile Shoes

My long quest for shoes is finally over. So after all the tests and ideas, what did I go with?

Requirements

I had something very specific in mind. Because of injuries I didn’t want to go with a totally flat thin sole as many runners and hikers now favor. At the same time, my tests allowed me to feel firsthand why a jacked up heel is unnatural and potentially dangerous. I looked for a compromise that leaned toward the minimal sole end of the spectrum—a suggestion my readers came up with very early on in the process. My ideal shoe would have a padded sole with arch support but very little heel support.

Other factors also matter. The shoe needs to hold up to lengthy wear and tear, be suitable for nearly 1,400 miles of biking (the first leg of the trip, through New Orleans, will be on bike) and be relatively lightweight. Low tops preferred, and if possible, it slides on instead of lacing. I figured that last one was pie in the sky though. Ideally, it also looks good.

I looked at five different shoe stores including the shoe department of Gander Mountain (moderately helpful staff) and local outfitters Midwest Mountaineering (the best staff I have ever dealt with). Thanks to the experts at Midwest Mountaineering I found a shoe that matches all of my criterion.

The Patagonia Cardon

Cardon by Patagonia is not a hiking shoe. It was in a separate area at Midwest with the casual shoes. Nonetheless it is built to last. It came up when discussing my needs with the sales person.

The Cardon features a sole with 8 mm of heel padding, enough to do the things a padded heel is supposed to do and yet still so thin it’s officially categorized as a “minimal” sole. It offers arch support as well, and if you remove the insole and look at it you find it’s built just like Superfeet inserts. Unlike the hiking shoes, my salesman suggested I would not need inserts with the Cardon (though I have some anyway, just in case).

Since I’m starting on bike, coolness/breathability and comfort will be important considerations. The Cardon wins in these categories. It’s incredibly comfortable and it’s hard to overheat in them. It loses out compared to good hikers in terms of handling water—the Cardon will take longer to dry out. It also wouldn’t work well for 8 hours of hiking with a heavy pack, and would leave my feet sore. I expect to need to buy new shoes by the time I start doing that.

The Cardon is also incredibly rugged and durable. The seams are double-stitched and everything is well made. They can take years of wear.

One of my favorite things is that they look like classic shoes. Originally soft, suede-like nubuck, I’ve treated them with a wax waterproofing product making them a darker walnut color with a smoother texture. They look professorial and I could wear them to more formal events, a boon since I won’t have room in my gear for dress shoes.

I’ve been wearing them for nearly two weeks now and I love this shoe. It’s an all around winner and does everything I want. You can check out the Cardon here (and like all my recommendations, that’s not an affiliate link).

Runner Up

It’s worth mentioning the other pair of shoes I really like, the Cardon’s biggest contender in my book. These are the Chameleon Stretch by Merrell. Although uglier they offer an amazing sole and construction, and are indeed perfect for lengthy hiking with a heavy pack. They’d handle getting soaked better, too. I’ll likely switch to a pair of these after New Orleans, for hiking and kayaking.

Bargain Option

I spent $140 on my Cardons, made possible by my wonderful donors. The investment was definitely worth it and I feel good about having professional quality shoes to start my Adventure with.  But I should note that Midwest Mountaineering’s discount store, Thrifty Outfitters, also offered some great footwear. For about $40 they had a pair of hikers very similar to the Chameleon Stretch. The sole and heel in those weren’t quite what I wanted, but anyone bootstrapping an expedition should know there are lower-cost options.

Many thanks again to everyone who donated to the Gear Drive. I have virtually everything I know I’ll need… making me wonder what kinds of surprises I’ll run into and how my gear will change with time. Any guesses?

Standard