Riding a bicycle for any distance forces one to stay in the present moment. I have found that despite my best attempts to mentally leave the bicycle while riding, I am constantly pulled back by changes in elevation, potholes, cars, and the weather.
Last weekend I spent nine hours riding one hundred miles with my amazing dad. After seventy-five miles, I was hurting pretty badly (my seat was too low and too far forward)–and I found myself in a strange place: right in the present moment. I am constantly planning, creating to-do lists, and fantasizing about the future. But last Sunday, I didn’t have the energy to think about anything else, I simply found myself exactly where I was, and decided how to continue to move forward. It was at once the most painful and perfect place to land after all of those miles.
And I’ve been thinking about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ever since.
I have always wanted to travel across the country hitchhiking. I love reading all of the great American novels over and over again, the novels about seizing the moment and using your own momentum to travel forward. With authors, adventurers and characters like Sissy Hankshaw (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), Jack Kerouac, and Christopher McCandless, how can you help wanting to pick up and head into the great unknown? There is still a strong American desire to go West, to explore, to challenge nature and ourselves—and I was bit by the traveling bug years ago (thanks to amazing parents who recognize the importance of leaving one’s own backdoor without looking back).
I grew up in a city of constant change where being well-traveled is the norm. Over my lifetime I was given the chance to explore the States, Europe & Eastern Europe, Vietnam, and live in four different cities–and I don’t plan on settling down any time soon. While traveling has been thrilling, it has been in a car, train, or plane, and that is what I want to change, starting with this summer. As Robert M. Pirsig wrote:
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
Cycling is terrifying and exhilarating. Cycling allows a feeling of authenticity and being in the world in a way that I have never experienced while traveling. I am constantly zoning out while driving a car, riding a bus, or flying in an airplane. I lose my senses (touch, smell, taste and hearing) being away from the landscape. But on a bicycle, I am intrinsically connected with the place that I am. Every rise or dip in elevation is felt, and changes in the weather and the road are noted with reverence. It is impossible to disconnect with your scenery when you rely on your own muscles to move forward.
Last night I finished a book called Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It is a true story about a rather broken woman, and complete novice hiker, walking eleven-hundred-miles alone up the difficult Pacific Crest Trail. She was insane, and completely inspirational. What she learned, and what I’ve learned while biking is easily summed up in her words:
The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer- and yet also, like most things, so very simple- was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial… There were only two [options] and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
For cycling, there are only two things I need to do: stay in the moment, and keep moving forward.