Friday, December 30, 2011

The Big Easy


Pete flew home yesterday after a very satisfying 3 days in New Orleans. Both of us fell in love with this town nearly immediately upon our arrival. It has been nothing but good times.

Our ride from Baton Rouge was marked by heavy rain in the morning, followed by a heavy fog during the last several dozen miles. As the Mississippi River Trail approaches New Orleans, it becomes a bike path which sits on top of the levee right next to the river for 20 miles. This path is well paved, with light pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and very gentle slopes. It was a welcome relief after 65 miles of riding through wet air on a nasty highway shoulder, full of rocks and torn up tires and debris. A warm, light breeze came our way, and I stripped down to my t-shirt for the last several miles through town. Highs have been in the upper 60s to low 70s since then.

For several days before we arrived, I had been imagining that the entire city of New Orleans would look like a big haunted house, and I was very pleased to find that it does fit that image quite well. As we rode in through the low, warm fog, industrial towers of concrete and metal rose out of the fog on the river. Willows and Oaks stretched their long, crooked branches out over pathways and streets, filtering light through their leaves onto the horribly ruptured sidewalks. Many of the trees that line the streets here are over 500 years old, and have been designated “historic,” so cannot be removed, even though their roots are ripping up every sidewalk and street. In a city where drinking is also a historic pastime as necessary to participate in as listening to Jazz and eating Cajun food, this makes stumbling home drunk an infinitely more difficult task.

The New Orleans Saints football team are worshiped on a level that rivals any I have seen. As Pete and I rode into town, the Saints/Falcons game was just about to start, and people were out in droves wearing their team colors on every manner of clothing imaginable. I realize now that this rendered an already active, boisterous town a feeling of even more excitement and celebration, and it was an enlivening atmosphere to ride through. We left the bike path on St. Charles street, and happened to have to ride through every famous historic district on our way to my friend Ted's house in the Bywater neighborhood. Giant, old mansions line the sides of St. Charles, with those 500 year old oaks hanging over the streets. A streetcar line running the length of the city also runs down the center of St. Charles, where a nice, green patch of grass struggles to keep its place surrounding the busy tracks. Most of the larger boulevards here have huge, green medians filled with grass and old trees. Even the busy streets are still wide enough for a bicycle to comfortably ride alongside the cars in the lane, even when cars are parked all along the curb. It was a great way to enter a great town. That night Ted, our host, joined Pete and I for a couple of drinks at a bar near his house where people were watching the game. We were inducted into the spirit of New Orleans football pride, and we left at half time to get some sleep after an 88 mile day on the bikes.

Since that day, Pete and I thoroughly toured the French Quarter (established in 1718) on foot, which was conveniently only a 15-20 minute walk from Ted's place. We entered St. Louis Cathedral, Louis Armstrong Park, Jackson square (with a great statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse rearing up), the French Markets and last of all, Bourbon Street. We ate Po' boys, catfish, barbeque, and street burritos, and listened to live brass bands, bluegrass, jazz, funk, reggae, and rap.

One morning, we met up with my friend Quinn, who happened to be taking her holidays in New Orleans with her family from California. We ate the necessary beignets (like small, square donuts smothered in piles of powdered sugar) while chatting at Cafe du Monde. Later that night Pete and I met up with Quinn and her sister Kelly for some good music and dancing. They were great company..
The next night was much more crazy. We had a calm morning of walking through the historic garden district, trying to help an old man who's Prius had somehow become inoperable just at the foot of his driveway (no success), and visiting historic Lafayette cemetery. We then met up with my friend Laura after an incredible Caribbean meal at the Rum House (no drinks for us, just amazing food).

Laura has been in New Orleans for several months now, after starting law school at Tulane University earlier this fall. She has just finished her first semester (rumored to be the most difficult), and was in the mood to show Pete and I a good time on Pete's last night in town. So we hopped on the street car into the French Quarter, and did up Bourbon street proper. Pete was fairly intent on sampling the New Orleans-specific drinks, so we shared some “hand grenades,” “hurricanes,” and a fair bit of good old fashioned beer. Meanwhile, Laura took us on a tour of some of the most famous locations along the strip, such as the 5th oldest bar in America (Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith shop, established 1772) and Pat O'Briens (where the “hurricane” was invented). We spent significant portions of the night in a gay karaoke bar, and then another more mainstream karaoke bar. We sang 4-non blondes What's Up, and then Pete and Laura did a rousing rendition of Lady Gaga's Poker Face. We danced our butts off and had a blast!

After several glasses of water and a good night's sleep, I woke up feeling remarkably well. Pete and I ate a tasty brunch at a hip, modern diner just down the street from Teds, and then we put him on the bus to the airport.

That afternoon, I got on the bike for a quick tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood which was most damaged during hurricane Katrina. On my way there, I crossed a large canal in which the water level was higher than the ground level of the surrounding neighborhoods. Why does this make sense?

The lower ninth ward is still very much in a state of recovery. Lots of homes have boarded up windows, crumbling foundations and roofs, or are simply gutted. Most of the area, however is simply empty. Concrete driveways lead to small piles of rubble, where houses used to be. Grass is happy and healthy, growing over empty lots interspersed with a mix of uber-modern green homes (apparently many of which were built by Brad Pitt & friends) covered in solar panels; new mobile homes on stilts, and old houses which have been or are in the process of being rebuilt. Many of the older brick buildings seem to have suffered the least, but they are few and far between.

I am now staying with my friend Laura in Uptown, and will be hiking today in the Barataria Preserve about 10 miles south of town. I hope to see alligators and other interesting critters!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fall Colors, Winter Weather

More new VIDEOS this week.

12/22/11 Natchez State Park, Mississippi

I am sitting in a cabin beside a lake in the middle of Natchez State Park, Mississippi. Rain is pouring down outside, and showing no signs of letting up. The power was out when I woke up this morning, and has not returned. The forecast for today looked wet starting about a week ago, and all of the meteorologists' predictions came true. I think that Pete and I will make at least a short ride mid-day, but we will be soaked as soon as we leave the shelter of this place. Riding in winter is a different game.
Pete arrived in Jackson around 4 pm two days ago, and we met up that night at his hotel to plan and prepare. After a pleasant plane ride, Pete picked up the used bike that he had purchased from a local shop, and rode to the hotel in the rain. He packed light, and his clothes dried quickly, so his first ride in the rain was not a big deal.
Pete and I played Ultimate Frisbee together in college, and have been adventuring together after college a few other times. He mentioned his interest in joining me for part of the ride while we were both attending my friend Greg's wedding in Minnesota. I am very glad that he made the trip, and it is already being very enjoyable to have a partner on the journey.

Yesterday, we spent nearly the entire day on the Natchez Trace Parkway. This fabulous stretch of road runs from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS for 444 miles of scenic beauty. Impeccably maintained by the National Park Service, the parkway is lined with tall grass and native trees for several hundred yards on either side of the road, providing a continuous habitat for animals, and a continuous beautiful view for cyclists and motorists. There are no stop signs or stop lights along the full length, and roads that cross the parkway are routed underneath or over, depending on the geography of the location. Stops along the way are filled with history from Native American times, through European settlement until the civil war, then the Natchez Trace stopped being used for practical purposes. Now, the speed limit is 50 mph, the traffic is light, the grade is easy, and the pavement is smooth. It was a beautiful, though long ride, here to Natchez State Park. Natchez, MS was apparently home to over half of the millionaires living in the United States before the start of the civil war. Many of the large homes and mansions from those days have been converted into bed & breakfasts, and are preserved for historic and tourist purposes. Pete and I plan to stay in one of these tonight.
Pete rode 99 miles on his first day out, which is no small feat for anyone. We decided to make it a long day due to the predicted poor weather the next day. It was a good choice. Aside from a minor side-track into some nasty mud at the start, we made good time pedaling through the changing leaves, the hanging lichen, and the trees covered in ferns and moss. The temperature was perfect, with intermittent cloud cover, hardly any wind to speak of, and plenty of daylight hours, having made an early start at 7 am from the hotel. Today will be a different experience entirely.

12/23/11 Natchez, MS to New Roads, LA: 90 miles

Another long day. The wind was at our backs and we made the fastest per-hour time of the trip so far (15 mph). Pete is much less sore from the first day's ride than either of us imagined he would be, and we had a good ride in cool weather. Birds, swamps, levees and miles of smooth, empty pavement filled our day. We passed several hydro-electric locks in side channels of the Mississippi, with brown waters swelling up in foamy currents from their down-river ends, and vultures swirling about overhead. We saw large flocks of white Pelicans, several Great Blue Herons and lots of juvenile vultures.
Natchez and New Roads are both old plantation towns, with brick buildings and old houses built with columns and bay windows and colonial architecture. In Natchez, we stayed in one of the old homes which had been immaculately restored by the owner, taking over 25 years starting in 1978 to restore the building to its colonial glory. The owner was amazingly easy to get along with, and his B&B was a delight to stay in. We spent a few hours touring around historical Natchez, had a good southern dinner with catfish and biscuits, and had a good night's sleep.


I attended a catholic mass this morning with Pete, who is catholic and attends church every Sunday. The singer, clearly appointed by the church, was absolutely amazing. Her voice filled the large hall with beautiful, pitch perfect opera, and was quite inspiring.

We are staying on the Louisiana State University campus, which may be the nicest part of Baton Rouge. Last night, we had a long soak in the hot tub outside the University Hotel, which did wonders for our sore legs. Tomorrow, Pete and I will attempt to make the ride to New Orleans, weather permitting. We are looking forward to a few days of fun and relaxation!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A job, a friend & Mississippi sunsets

Several new, short videos this week.

Exiting news! I have obtained employment for the spring season with Mountain Trail Outdoor School in Hendersonville, North Carolina. They initially turned me down for a position when I first applied, but I wrote an email response to the director, asking for feedback on my interview and including a more thorough response to one of her interview questions. She replied a couple of weeks later by offering me a job. I have included here part of my e-mail to her; a passionate explanation of why I do what I do for work, and a pat on the back to all of you other outdoor educators who do the same:

 "Why is outdoor education important?"
I am surprised that after several years in this profession, including many hours of solo reflective time and writing about my thoughts and feelings, I had never been asked this question.  And so, largely for my own peace of mind, here is a more thoroughly thought out and unsurprised response:

Several years ago, someone told me about an old wise man, who said that only two things make people happy.  One is connection with other people, and the other is connection with nature.  Since then, my understanding has become that people ARE nature, or at least an essential part of it, but that many of us have lost that connection and understanding.
     Outdoor and experiential education is important because it re-connects children to the natural world that they are a part of.  In a time when video games, TV and facebook are the icons of kids lives, it becomes increasingly difficult for kids to care about what is going on "away from the power outlets." Not only does being in the outdoors increase their interactions with the real world (water, plants, animals, rocks and sky), but well planned lessons and fun games will increase their understanding of how the natural world works to provide them with what they need to live.  The air they breathe, the water they drink, the materials necessary to construct their homes and schools, and the electricity that comes from the outlets are all taken for granted until these processes are understood.  Ultimately,  if I can help a child to understand how the Earth and the Sun have been working together for billions of years to produce the things necessary for their survival and enjoyment, I feel that I have taken a step toward the even larger goal of encouraging them to be stewards of those resources and processes. 

If I can, in addition to this, make the outdoors an exciting and adventurous place to play and learn, then I will have helped to set them on path of appreciating nature for the rest of their lives.  Books such as "Last child in the woods" make glaringly obvious the social, psychological and physical benefits of such a lifestyle choice early in life.  With a wealth of environments with which to interact, countless questions to be answered, and sensations to stimulate all the senses, the outdoors is a classroom unparalleled by any constructed environment.  For the health of future generations, a true, hands-on understanding of how the world works, and a way to connect to the natural world that they are a part of, I choose to spend my time teaching children outdoors.

12/18/11 Rosedale, MS to Hollandale, MS: 62 miles

The sunsets over the Mississippi River have been fabulous. I have taken pictures each of the last 3 nights. With the short days, I find myself struggling to get to my destinations before dark, but as a result, I pedal into the beautiful sunsets, and arrive at camp with a sense of peace and beauty.

Four types of animals and one plant:

Today, I was bit by a dog. I have been chased by more than a dozen at this point, but none of them seemed very serious or intent on actually hurting me until today. A gang of 5 or 6 ran out between some mobile homes, coming directly at me, and working themselves into a frenzy. None of them was very large, and they didn't seem like the types of dogs that I should be scared of (no pitbulls, german shepards or rotweilers). One of them had white curly hair, like a poodle, and the one that actually jumped up and bit my hand as I slowed down to shoo them away was just a puppy. Generally, my strategy has been either to speed up and outrun the slow dogs, or to stop and be assertive with the ones who get close, but this group wouldn't have it. They barked even more loudly as I slowed and shouted at them in low tones, until I got close enough that they actually started nipping at me. After I got bit, I actually kicked the one that bit me, and then took off pedaling as fast as I could, which only made 2 of the dogs continue to chase me. The dog that bit me, a small, thin, grey one, kept chasing me for nearly half a mile at more than 15 mph. It would actually get ahead of me, then try to turn in front of me, to which I did not flinch, so it got out of the way and then kept running right next to me, barking and growling. When I finally outpaced it, I stopped to look at the damage. Luckily, I was wearing fleece gloves with liners, because the dog managed to draw blood through the gloves, even though it didn't manage to puncture any holes in the glove itself. I sustained only the loss of a couple of 1/8 inch diameter patches of skin.
For the last several days, the main types of roadkill that I've been seeing are possums and armadillos. Armadillo shells make a very satisfying crunch under a bicycle tire. Not so surprisingly, I haven't seen any possums during the day (as they are nocturnal), but I would love to see a living armadillo.

It must be mating season for red-wing blackbirds, because they are gathering in the thousands. They make great, swooping clouds over the roads, changing their direction and swirling about in flocks that remind me of a the spinning double helix that is always shown as “DNA” in graphic form in science books. They land on the tops of empty trees together, filling 6 or 8 trees completely with birds, taking the place of the leaves that have fallen to the ground for the winter. They chatter loudly and cheerfully, and sound healthy and happy.

Yesterday, I started seeing people wandering about in fields underneath giant old trees, picking things up off of the ground. In several places, I would see this, and look at the trees to try and identify what it was they were gathering. Today, I stopped under one of these trees, which seem to be planted in every front yard and every field. Pecans are in season, and everyone is getting their share. At the tree I stopped under, I gathered over a pound of the 1” long nuts in their shells in about 10 minutes. These pecans are much smaller than those I have seen in the grocery stores, but they sure are tasty. Raw pecans are much sweeter and softer than any I have had before. What a delicious, free roadside treat!

After crossing the Mississippi River from Memphis, I spent the night with couchsurfers Melanie, Dave and Suze, all teachers in the Teach For America program in Marianna, Arkansas. As they stated, no one would come to live in that town if it wasn't for the Teach For America program. After being treated to a hot veggie burrito dinner, Melanie, Dave and I went to the local high school basketball game, where the stands were packed with 600 people, and 97% of them were black. I admit, this made me nervous at first, but I calmed down shortly. The games were very lively, and the level of play was quite impressive. I am beginning to realize that it has been a long time since I was anywhere near to being a minority someplace. The world of outdoor education, recreation and employment is still totally filled with white people. In the last job I held in Los Angeles, at Radio Shack, I was the only white male working there (there was one white female) out of about 8 employees, but that was over 6 years ago. While I have never harbored any prejudice, I had kind of convinced myself that I didn't even really notice someone's race or ethnicity anymore, but that is simply not true. It is much more noticeable when I am one white face out of 10 in a crowd of 600 darker faces. It was a good experience.

As I pedal further south, the colors of the leaves are returning. The colors now look very similar to Northern Minnesota in late October, with pinks and yellows dominating a scale from brown to bright red to intense, sunflower gold. I suppose this means that I am biking faster than the seasonal changes move south. I will get to experience autumn for that much longer. After all, winter is still 3 days away!


Yesterday was a grueling, 95 mile push through the heartland of Mississippi. Ups and downs along the way included the first actual hills I have encountered, which were very nice to ride due to great views of the surrounding forests. I also ran into a closed road, which detoured me onto a nasty gravel road, which I rode for 7 miles at 8 mph. If ever you need to torture me for some reason, make me ride a 100 lb bike on a deep, chunky gravel road for endless amounts of time in the dusty south through fields of mud and dust. Yuck.
I am now in Madison, Mississippi, at the home of some more couchsurfers, who have been very hospitable. Today, I will meet with my friend Pete, from San Francisco, who is flying into Jackson, MS to ride with me into New Orleans for a little over a week. I will have company on the ride for the first time!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Floods of water and wisdom

First, an article on Iceland, which went bankrupt in 2008 and is now refusing to pay the debt of the bankers that got them into that mess! A true case of governance of, by and for the people:

And, speaking of doing the right, radical thing, consider this: Rewriting the Constitution

Also you can see my latest video of Kentucky flood-waters HERE 

12/13/11 Clinton, KY to Ripley, TN: 72 miles

After further consideration, I believe that the thing Americans are most afraid of is giving up what they have. Security, certainty, routine and knowledge. We, as a society, are afraid of giving up what we have accumulated and accomplished, even in the pursuit of something better. It feels like too much stress and pressure and pain to let go of our current systems of operation. Too much chaos to give up what we have already spent several lifetimes building and coming to understand and working with and finding success within. But when we finally acknowledge that there is something better than what we have now, shouldn't we have the courage to break our current ways of life and embrace the adventure of building a new, healthy society? When we collectively realize that the American way of life is broken, isn't it our duty, as individuals in addition to being parts of the whole, to find ways to fix it and support new ways of life? How can we sit back and ignore the wrongs that our own nation, our own people, our own selves are exporting to the world? The answer lies in facing our fears. The new frontier lies not in discovering new lands or new planets or new species, but in new methods of operating in harmony with the Earth and our fellow humans. Let us acknowledge that the American experiment is in need of drastic revision, and let us have the courage to let go of what is wrong.

Since St. Louis, I have seen at least 10 Red Tail Hawks during the ride. They seem to be scared off of their perches just as I ride by. I often see them in pairs, and several times, I have heard the characteristic screech that immediately adds so much atmosphere to an otherwise hum-drum situation. I feel like they are a good sign.

Yesterday, I had more of an adventure than I planned. Riding through Columbus, Kentucky, I was following the Mississippi River Trail (MRT), a route designated by the states bordering the river which runs alongside the river from beginning to end. When he was president, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the capital of the nation be moved to Columbus in order to be closer to the center of the country. His petition failed by just 1 vote in the Senate. At one point, I passed a rather faded looking sign which read something like “road closed 6 miles ahead due to water in road.” I looked at my GPS, and decided that there were several other ways I could go if I ran into trouble, and it hadn't rained in at least a week, so I thought the water might not be such a big deal, and I rode on.
Through what was probably the most enjoyable stretch of the MRT yet, I slithered through gently sloping valleys lined with fields of green grass and old farmhouses. The sun dropped as I chased the sunset southwest, trying to outrun the early winter night. Finally, I approached a series of signs which read, “Road closed, 1500 ft, 600 ft, ROAD CLOSED (local traffic only). There was no sign of water, and though there was a temporary fence blocking half the road a few hundred yards to the left, the road to the right was open, and according to my GPS, would get me to the town where I was heading on a more direct route.
I pedaled off up the well-packed dirt road to the right, heading slightly uphill. Around a corner about ½ mile along, the road sloped sharply downhill, and became paved once again. “What luck!” I thought, as I followed the road past another sign which read, “water in road.” The next gully after the sign was dry, and I smirked and congratulated myself for making the right decision. And then I came to the water. About 200 yards of what appeared to be a straight, flat section of road had turned into a shallow lake. Murky, brown water surrounded tree trunks and inched up the grassy slope on one side of the road, while the other side was water surrounding tree trunks as far as I could see. I weighed my options. I decided to turn around, pedal back the ½ mile to the intersection with the “road closed” signs, and try the other direction. But before I pedaled off, my sense of adventure kicked in.
I took my front panniers off and placed them on the back of my bike, with the rest of my gear. The rear panniers are waterproof, so I wasn't worried about them getting wet. I then pedaled down the road, straight into the water. I figured it was probably a pretty flat road, judging by the terrain, and thankfully, I was right. I was a bit worried at first that it might get too deep, and seep into the top of my panniers, but it was never more than up to my knee. My bike had no trouble slogging through the opaque brown water. I imagined snakes and alligators and leeches might be lurking in the depths, but I saw nothing move but myself. I had no exposed skin anyway. The reflection on the water was beautiful, full of clouds and trees and sunset. A few times, I ran into what must have been potholes or small piles of gravel, but never toppled over. My biking sandals, wool socks, and the thermal bib tights I was wearing all got soaked up to the knee, but everything else fared just fine through the first crossing. Victorious and elated on the other side, I made a short video, documenting a successful adventure. I got back on the bike and rode for another 300 feet until I came to the next “water in road.” The sunset was beautiful orange now, and reflected brilliantly on a pool of water so large, I could not see where the road came out on the other side. I could not cross.
So back I went, across the first pool of water, freezing my feet in the frigid wetness, thinking of a new plan. I was short on drinking water, 15 miles away from my planned destination, and about to be riding in the dark. I did not think it would be a worth-while effort to test the other “water in road” direction, so instead, I headed back toward Columbus. Not too far down the road, I stopped at a house with a big streetlight on, just before dark, to ask for water. As I approached, I could tell that the house had fallen into disrepair. I knocked and shouted, but no one answered. Mud-wasps had made their nests in the corners of the door frame, and cobwebs were thick. I tested the door, and found it unlocked. I yelled one more time to make sure, and then stepped into the kitchen. A dust-covered kettle sat on the stove, and more cobwebs filled the sink. I tried the faucet, but it made no hint of providing water. A telephone stuck to the wall with its cord wrapped around the outside. I peered into a room which had a mattress on a dirty carpeted floor, but little else. The electricity also didn't work, and the sun had set, so light was not in great supply. I decided to glimpse in the fridge, mostly for entertainment's sake, before I took off. Just a box of baking soda. The freezer, however, contained a half-case of 16 ounce bottled waters. I helped myself to 3, and drank one before departing. I silently thanked whomever had put them there. That night, I camped in a farm field not too far down the road, and it rained on me all night. Then, it rained the whole next morning, until around 2 pm, as I rode on.


Memphis is a city of black and white. Or so I am told. I have not been here long enough to judge for myself whether this is true, but it feels true. My couchsurfing host, Giovanni, told me of the racial inequalities that still exist here, 50 years after the civil rights movement was at its high. Memphis has a higher violent crime rate than any other city in the US, surpassing Detroit just this year in crime and poverty levels. I was warned, literally, not to cross the railroad tracks into the “black” areas of town, where the overwhelming majority of violent crimes takes place. Because the neighborhoods of Memphis are so segregated, the schools, jobs and other societal constructs are as well. I didn't know this still existed in the USA, but as I make my way further south, I suppose I should be prepared for reality.
Today, I spent the afternoon in two museums of tremendous cultural value here in Memphis, the Stax Museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum. Stax is a record label which signed and brought to fame some of the most famous and influential soul artists of all time. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, James Brown and others came through their doors at one point or another. More important than this, however, was that local artists, some of whom literally lived down the street, came in and formed groups that hit the charts in a big way. A great collection on the roots and history of soul music (most commonly described as a blend of blues and gospel) as well as a small mom-and-pop record label that bent the rules and enjoyed wild success. Their success was so great, in fact, that they lost the family feel of their small record label, and fell apart shortly after Martin Luther King was shot here.
The National Civil Rights museum is housed in the defunct Lorraine Motel, where MLK spent his last night alive, and was shot on the balcony. I stood below that balcony (and took a few pictures), and imagined the sense of loss that must have been felt that day when such an amazing leader was taken. The message that carries on from his legacy is that you can kill the dreamer, but you can't kill the dream. The museum cataloged the history of African American struggle since the beginning of slavery in 1619 until present day. I learned more than I ever knew there was to know about the KKK, Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks, the integration of schools, and so much ignorant prejudice I was aghast. I watched old footage of countless white Americans explaining their reasoning for being mad about blacks demanding equal rights, and I cringed. Without a doubt, one of the saddest and most shameful legacies of American culture.
Today, homosexuals are on the front lines of the battle for equal rights, and experiencing the same types of ignorant, hateful discrimination. I took a photo of a map from the mid 19050s which shows which states had racial discrimination built into their laws, and it looks very similar to the maps today of which states discriminate against homosexuals. It wasn't right then, and it isn't right now, and when people look back at America of the early 21st century, they will cringe at our prejudice, not understanding how so many people could be so stubbornly hateful and wrong for such a long time.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fear and cycling in Missouri

12/9/11 St. Louis to Fort Kaskaskia State Park, 73.5 miles

Fear. I believe it is one of the key features of what is keeping humanity from uniting. Not only a fear of certain social systems that talk about “uniting humanity,” but fear of almost everything.

I have gotten rid of a lot of fear in the last few years, most of which I didn't even realize I had. I can't remember the last time I was scared of something physical, unless I was teetering on the edge of a cliff, which is a perfectly rational and useful fear. But I had lots of social fears that I didn't recognize until very recently. I still have quite a few. I fear being ridiculed, made fun of and laughed at for lack of knowledge or lack of skill. I fear that when I share the deepest parts of myself with someone else, they will use the information to hurt me. I fear being turned down by attractive women in whom I am interested in flirting. I fear being rejected for jobs that I apply to, and not knowing the right answers to interview questions. I fear causing others pain or discomfort.

I don't fear blizzards or floods or fires. I don't fear snakes or spiders or bears. Once in a while, I fear my fellow man may cause me harm. I did this yesterday while riding through St. Louis at dusk, and realizing that I was the only white guy on a bike in a very black neighborhood. And then I scolded myself for my own ingrained stereotypes.

But many people have different fears. Terrorism, losing and/or not getting all the money they want and not ever being fulfilled are some of the big ones these days. Fear causes people to isolate themselves, insulating them from certain types of harm. In isolating themselves, they neglect to realize that they are a part of everyone and everything, and fool themselves into thinking that isolation is better, because it is safer. In reality, isolation causes even more mental discomfort and disorder, bringing with it depression, anxiety and deeper fear. We are social creatures. Believing that we are completely separate from everything and everyone else is simply a lie. Living a lie will never bring satisfaction or contentment.


Two days in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Last night, I arrived around 4:45, met awesome people, ate a burrito, went to a Grateful Dead cover band (called “Schwag”) show after a long talk with a guy who owns a local cafe, and went to bed late. Today, I ate at a ridiculously popular BBQ joint called the Pilot House (tasty), hiked on train tracks to an abandoned quarry (beautiful) and saw some Missouri countryside.  More instant friends.  More great places.  How can all this wonderfulness belong to a nation that is so messed up right now?  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Actually on a bike again

I begin this blog with an urgent call to Action! The UN is having climate change talks as we speak, and the USA is poised, once again, to water down any serious progress on a climate treaty. We must rely instead on China, Brazil and the EU to take a stand. Support a strong climate treaty here:

Also, I realize that I have failed to inform readers of one of my favorite organizations of the era, the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG first came to my attention when I was concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen, which I had heard might not be so good for me. EWG has cataloged over 69,000 cosmetics, from lipstick to shampoo to toothpaste, and analyzes the ingredients of each to determine which contain the most harmful and least harmful ingredients. Using their database, you can check out the products you currently use, or find alternatives that are less harmful to you and the environment.

Most recently, I was impressed by EWG's “Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change” which details the carbon footprint of a fairly comprehensive list of edible proteins, both animal and plant.

And finally, I have added a FAQ page to the blog (see above, between the photo thumbnails and the main article), to compliment the "Mission & Goals" as well as the "Route and Itinerary" pages, both of which have gone through minor updates.  Lastly, I will continue to update the trip STATS box (top right of the page, under the photo thumbnails), and my location and photos of the whole trip are still accessible at the top left of the page.

12/7/11, Day 76 (of bike travel since 7/6/11)

Yesterday morning at 12:55 am, I loaded my boxed bike (a monstrous, heavy thing, also filled with 60% of my camping, cooking gear & clothing) onto a Greyhound Express bus in Minneapolis. 8 hours later, I unloaded in Chicago, sat in the bus station there for 2 hours, and then boarded another bus to ride 7 hours to St. Louis. The Greyhound Express is a far cry from the Greyhound buses that I remember traveling on several years ago in California. The last time I took a long distance bus, I specifically remember waiting hours for the bus, which arrived late, had severe mechanical problems which were clearly smellable from the interior, and had trouble squeezing our luggage into small compartments. The seats were cramped, the floor was filthy, and the bus was filled to capacity. Cheap perfume and body odor floated on the air, and the heat was cranked too high. We stopped in what seemed like every city, and it took us twice as long to get to our destination as a car would. I had trouble sleeping because the seats leaned back only an inch or two. The Greyhound Express was almost the opposite experience. Clean, well-maintained buses with new seats and decent leg room. Free wifi and power outlets at every seat. Only 1 or 2 stops in the middle of a 7 or 8 hour drive, making the ride similar in time to taking a car. I slept well. I could smell nothing but myself.
Just before departing from Minneapolis, I spent a few hours with friends, old and new, enjoying a few beers, some music, great company and lots of smiles and laughs. I hugged everyone on my way in and out. I could not properly communicate how excellent they had made my time in Minneapolis.

In St. Louis, I spent over an hour putting my bike back together. I put warm clothes on, and rode out into the dark, cold streets of a new city. I rode east, straight toward the Jefferson Arch that the city is so famous for, then turned south and west toward the home of Stephanie, my couchsurfing host. I arrived at her home 20 minutes later without issue. She welcomed me warmly, set me up in the living room, and gave me a biking map of the city.


My last two days have been spent in the city of St. Louis. My host, Stephanie, provided me with a wonderful itinerary of things to do and see, and I pedaled about 45 miles around the city in the last 2 days. I visited the botanical gardens, the Forest Park, the City Museum (more like a giant playground made from re-used things), a doughnut shop, the Jefferson Memorial (with the giant Arch) and some good restaurants. Along the way I cycled past a park with giant cement turtles, a burning building, the original Budweiser factory and lots and lots of brick houses and giant, old deciduous trees.

I am excited to be heading south! My friend Pete is flying into Jackson, MS on the 20th to join me for the ride into New Orleans. I have set up couch-surfing hosts in Cape Girardeau and Memphis for the ride south. I'm ready to ride!        

Monday, December 5, 2011

Now I'm pissed off, and here's what we can do!

Thought Occupy Wall Street was on its way out?  Not if people hear about this. A MIND-BLOWING article on just how corrupt and criminal the major banks and corporations are: 

Audit of the Federal Reserve Reveals $16 Trillion in Secret Bailouts

A couple of helpful videos to visualize a better America in the face of such slap-in-the-face greed:

This one is about an economy based on PLENITUDE rather than debt.
This one is about the psychology of MATERIALISM.

And if you haven't seen it yet, here is my most highly recommended feature film: The Corporation

Lets make it better starting NOW!

Tomorrow morning, I board a bus to St. Louis.  From there, I will ride south to Jackson, MS where I will meet up with my friend Pete who is flying from San Francisco to join me on his bike for 10+ days.

I have made so many good friends in such a short time here in Minnesota, as well as stoking old friendships.  I will miss the people and the place, but plan on returning late spring to early summer of next year on my way back across.  Thank you Minnesota, and thank you Minnesotans!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Messing about in MN (and a bit in NC)

In this weeks photos, you'll find 3 Gregs, my friend Tom's new baby girl Lily, my new friends Danielle, Anna and Gretchen, as well as a sunlit haircut and a surreal stare in a kitchen in North Carolina.  Also included are the Graffiti graveyard of Duluth, and a frozen river on the Superior Hiking Trail.  And a boot full of beer.

In the next 2 weeks, you will find me in St. Louis, MO, Springfield, MO, Memphis, TN and heading into New Orleans, LA for the new year.


Cold. Living outdoors in the cold is quite a different experience that visiting the cold outdoors from the comfort of a warm home. I experienced cold last year in Berlin, but not like this.

My Minnesotan friends will tell me that I ain't seen nothin' yet, and I'm OK with that. I don't plan on sticking around for long enough to see the true cold set it. The average temperatures in Minneapolis for the month of December are 10 degrees at night and 34 during the day.

I think I experienced one day last week that was close to zero degrees. The previous night was around 10 degrees, which was plenty cold, but the day never warmed up. At around noon, it started snowing tiny, light, popcorn snowflakes as five teenagers, my co-instructor and I summited 1500 ft. Carlton Peak, the highest spot on the Superior Hiking Trail. The snow sputtered on and off, and we were working hard, so my body heat was enough to melt the flakes that landed and sat on my shoulders and hood. There was never a time when we couldn't see our breath. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the temperature dropped. The wet coating on my shoulders and hood turned to ice, and crunched and creaked as we continued on. The moisture from my breath had been condensing on my mustache, and this also turned to ice. A little later, the moisture inside my nostrils also condensed on the hairs there, and again, turned to ice. Spending the night in zero degrees was cold. I woke up several times because I was shivering, and my toes never actually became warm until I started hiking the next day. In the course of just 3 or 4 days, the lakes went from clear, reflective water to ice so thick I could jump on it and not make a crack. The snow that fell stayed exactly where it was for the next 3 days, still powdery and perfect anywhere that animals had not wandered through. Even the trees held the light dusting of snow for over 48 hours, sitting in stillness and frigid, dry air.

For some reason, this reminded me of Halloween night. I arrived in Chicago at 2 am via a craigslist ride from Sal, the Indian dental assistant. He dropped me off on a corner in Chinatown, a few blocks from a red-line station so that I could catch the el-train to my friend Cody's place. It was cold out, and the streetlights cast shadows on the dark sidewalk.

Waiting for me on that corner, a young latino guy with big, dark, glassy eyes and a thin, pale face asked me for some money to get home. He looked cold too, and the scent of booze was on his breath. He was wearing jeans and a worn-out black hoody. He was skinny and frail-looking. I guessed that he was around 19 years old. Instead of giving him money, I asked him where he was going and I offered him an apple. He refused the apple, and pointed in a direction, toward the train station. We were going the same way, so we walked together for a while, and he told me about his predicament. His brother had recently been in some kind of accident, and had died. He was very sad about this, so he drank so much that he ended up in the hospital. The hospital had kicked him out on the street at 2 am, or so he claimed, and he showed me his wristband with his name on it. It was not an unbelievable story.

When we arrived at the train station, he told me that he could get us tickets. I stood back and watched as he told his story to the attendant on duty, showed her his wristband, and then pulled out a cell phone lacking a battery, to show that he had no way of contacting anyone. She bought his story, or at least took pity on him, and let us both through the gates. I felt guilty about not paying the $2.25 fare which I certainly had in my pocket, but I also understood that for my new friend, this was a victory. He had exercised a skill, had achieved something for the both of us that night, and he was feeling a little better about himself because of it. I complimented him on his salesman skills. He got on the next train heading south without a goodbye, and I waited for the train heading north.

On the train, my attention was drawn by two very tall black women, one dressed as Bat-woman (with a large Batman symbol on her chest), and one dressed as a police officer. They both had fishnet stockings, short skirts and high heels on. My first thought is that they might be prostitutes, out at 2 am in fishnets and revealing outfits, but then I remembered that it was Halloween only 2 hours earlier. They were engaged in sporadic, slurred conversation with two young, well groomed black men on the other side of the aisle. I sat facing the four of them from about 12 feet away, a doorway between us. My eyelids were heavy, and I let them drop several times over the course of the ½ hour ride north through Chicago's downtown. At one point, I looked up and noticed the two young black men kissing each other. It made more sense now. I looked back at the two very tall black women with strong jaws, wearing wigs. One of them had the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow. I drifted off again with a smile, recognizing my own stereotypes and enjoying the fact that I was in a major metropolitan area, where these things happen with more regularity than in rural Minnesota. A few stops later, the four of them all departed the train together, smiling and laughing and stumbling and cuddling. Sometimes I forget the marvelous diversity that is to be found in the city. I wasn't cold anymore.

Another 3 weeks in the woods with troubled teens. A beautiful trip through untouched forests, across ice-encrusted rivers and over mini-mountains. Lake superior loomed in the distance, a vast magnet of deep, blue, beautiful reflections. That lake is what parched, on-the-verge-of-death desert crawlers dream of, even if they don't know it exists. Hiking for 8 days and seeing just ¼ of one of its shores is a magnificent way to get a sense of its glory.

As we wandered down the banks of the Poplar river, the snow that had fallen on its solid ice surface had somehow formed itself into little white spike-balls of snow crystals, each an inch in diameter, perfectly formed, glimmering in the sunlight like clusters of miniature white daggers alongside 10,000 others just like it. I failed to bring my camera on this trip. But I think sometimes the images in my mind are worth more than what I can capture with a digital sensor. We passed through some of the same camps that I had been to on the previous trek. 6 weeks later, it was a completely different season, and a completely different experience. I wish I could come back to every beautiful place at the height of each season, and experience them all in their seasonal glory.

Meanwhile, grumpy teens huffed and puffed their way up and down the trails in front of or behind me, groaning with each new hill, as I secretly said “yes!” to myself inside, relishing the chance to breath hard and feel my body work. We had a fire every night. I love a good campfire. It calms the nerves and soothes the soul, while warming the body and the stirring the coals that dwell within. We shared stories and gave advice and told jokes and ate dinner and embraced the night together around a fire.


There is something not entirely satisfying about writing for an audience. For years, I kept a “diary” on my computer, in which I said exactly as I had felt and done, regardless of how lewd, sexual or private those topics might be. I discussed my mistakes and regrets, what I was ashamed of and proud of. I had no problems expressing my disgust or contempt for certain people or events taking place on this planet. I have very little contempt for any person now, but still find myself moved to anger over certain acts of what appear to be wickedness toward people, animals or the earth at large.

Before I left on this bike trip, my previous computer was stolen. With it, my diary, which I had written in an average of once a month from age 16 up until I started writing in my blog regularly at age 28, has ceased to exist. 12 years of contemplation, reflection, journaling of activities and emotions. A good 75%+ of what I wrote about was love, or the complications thereof. I re-read the first 5-10 pages probably ten times over the years. Each time, it was fascinating to realize how my thought processes had grown and matured, but how my concerns remained very similar. Does she like me? Do I like her? Where is all of this going? When will we see each other next? Though I wrote plenty about my travels and jobs and school and friends in other platforms, my diary was reserved almost exclusively to my pursuit of love and lust. Most of the 200+ pages that were written have never been read, even by me. I wonder what I said?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wall Street, Halloween & The Tractors of Destiny


We start this entry with a list of links:

This first link is for ANYONE with an account at BANK OF AMERICA, CITIBANK, CHASE or WELLS FARGO. These are the biggest banks in America, the most irresponsible, the ones investing your dollars in things you don't believe in and have no control over. Move your money to a small, local bank if you can, or at least out of these 4 corrupt giants.

Secondly, a basic explanation of what Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is about:
Third, a succinct viewpoint on OWS from a pro-capitalism journalist:

Fourth, an informative word-vomit on an issue a little further into the future (2012):

I feel as though the tractors of my destiny are finally starting to clear a path through the wilderness of options that I have had to contend with in this life. Some of the “why?” questions that have been floating around in my head for a long time have now found comfortable, feel-good answers, and have nested down in the trees of my brain-forest. I have found a motivation that I lacked for many years. I have started to eliminate some possible paths from my future, making the options which are left seem much closer and more attainable. I have begun to know my truth.  And this is the thing that I have been searching for.  A friend wrote me an e-mail recently, and included this quote:

"What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. ... I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing."
Søren Kierkegaard, Letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund dated August 31, 1835

As I wrote in a previous blog, my mission is now to improve the well-being of all humans into the future. “Oh, is that all?” a friend asked sarcastically. “Don't you think that's what everyone is trying to do?” And the truthful answer is no, I don't. I think most people are trying to improve their own lives, and the lives of those close to them, without hurting anyone else along the way. And some are trying to improve their lives and lives of those closest to them at any cost, regardless of the harm to others. And some are not really trying to do anything but make it from day-to-day without dieing of starvation, going crazy or getting behind on their rent. Most of us don't operate on an “everything is connected, all the time” wavelength, which, in combination with the mindful mission of creating a better existence for future humans, is the mindset change that I hope to spread.
     The other reason that my friend was sarcastic about my stated mission is that she thought it was a little broad in scope. But the deeper I dig into the problems that I want to help fix, the more I realize that the scope has to be huge, because the problems are all inter-connected, just like everything else. Focusing solely on one aspect of what is wrong necessarily means ignoring what it is connected to. Focusing on the symptoms of a sick society will help heal some problems, but will not prevent the society from continued illness. I want to focus on prevention. If you step back far enough, the haze of complex problematic interactions blurs together. What really needs to happen is a great wind to come and blow all the haze away, so that we can start with a fresh, new, sunny day.

Yesterday, for Halloween, I started driving my rental car from Greensboro, NC at 10 am and turned it in at Dayton, OH at 5:45 pm, where I had rented it 3 days earlier. I then boarded a city bus, which took me close to I-70, where I would wait to get picked up by Sal, whom I had met 4 days earlier in Chicago through Craigslist, and who was giving me a ride back to Chicago, where I am now.
     During the hour-long wait for Sal, I took advantage of an offer from Chipotle (a growing burrito chain, which claims to be making strong efforts to serve naturally raised foods), which said that anyone dressed like something from a family farm gets a burrito for $2. So I stopped into the Walmart in the same shopping center as a Chipotle close to I-70, bought a pitchfork and a straw hat, put on my plaid shirt, and crossed the parking lot to Chipotle. There I joined a line which included 2 cows, a pig, a cowgirl and what looked to me like a panda, but she claimed she was a dog. The manager at Chipotle was thrilled to give $2 burritos to anyone in costume.
     After obtaining my burrito, I crossed the parking lot back to Walmart and returned the pitch fork and hat I had bought 20 minutes earlier. Sal showed up shortly, and we made the 5 hour drive back to Chicago. I arrived at my friend Cody's apartment around 2 am. I was glad I got to dress up for Halloween. Haven't missed one yet! 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

3 weeks in the woods

I have spent the last 3 weeks working for a Wilderness Therapy Program in Northern Minnesota.  Because I am not allowed to take identifiable pictures of the students, my photos have  been carefully selected and filtered.  I took over 300 photos during the 3 weeks, but am only sharing 50.  The only faces you will see are mine and those of my co-instructors, Frank and Danyelle.


I am back in it. The bicycle trip now feels like it is what I am supposed to be doing with my life, and this other stuff, this “work” stuff, is just a distraction. When every day is a discovery, a new horizon, a thousand unknown possibilities and unseen images from a world never before experienced, how do you leave that behind? How do you go back to what you were doing before? In my case, I had a good job with great people in interesting places, which would sound good to most people, I realize. But this journey is changing me. I no longer want a good job in an interesting place. I want the world to be different. I want everyone to enjoy what they are doing and where they are. I want to learn more and do more and see more and experience it all first-hand. In order to truly make my life as good as I know it can be, I need to help everyone else have a good life too. How can I be happy when others are suffering, starving, oppressed, living in fear and devastating poverty? How can I sit back and enjoy my cozy little lifestyle when I know that I have the capability to do so much more?
     There is very little from a sedentary lifestyle that I find myself in desire of. I miss my family. I miss many of my friends and co-workers, but also know that many of them are not tied to any one place, and certainly not all to the places that I've been calling “home” over the last several years. My community is the world.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been in the woods with 2 co-instructors and a group of 8 teenage boys in the Minnesota Corrections system. 5 of the  boys were locked up for drug and alcohol related offenses, and 3 for other criminal acts. They come from various cities and counties of Minnesota, and share a few things in common. Most of them have had poor guidance, lack of guidance, or simply horrible guidance from their parents as to how to go about living in this world. Stories of physical and sexual abuse, drug use and law-breaking practices from a young age seem commonplace for these kids. A few of them simply don't know any other way to operate. One struggled particularly hard on an assignment to write about a positive role model that they knew personally, because he couldn't think of one. I felt needed by these kids. They have a hard time trusting anyone, but when I was speaking from the heart, they listened and thanked me for it. Most of them wear a shell of anger and defensiveness that goes up quickly at the first sign of disrespect. But at some point, all of them shared openly and honestly about their lives, their desires for the future, their knowledge of the need to change and find something better. I did my best to be a good listener and offer compassionate advice.
It seems strange to me to find myself in a place of work again after not working for a full 2.5 months. My bike trip was certainly not like any vacation that I've had before. It was plain hard work at times, but always with the most satisfying reward at the end of the day: a feeling of accomplishment. I have been thinking a lot lately about money, my relationship to it, and its effects on the world. Most of the time, I don't give it much thought at all, because I live a very inexpensive lifestyle, don't invest much, and have a chunk of cash sitting in an account that I've never let get too low. My only fixed expenses for the last several months have been a cell phone bill and my personal health insurance, both of which charge to my credit card automatically. When I'm working, I don't pay for food or lodging, and while on the bike, I paid only for food.
     I know that part of the money that I have sitting in a bank account is being used as leverage for loans to individuals and companies over which I have no control, and I'm not sure that's OK with me. My checking account earns 0.5% interest, which is much slower than the rate of inflation, so the buying power of the money that sits there actually shrinks with each passing day. The overwhelming flood of news stories about corruption in big banks makes me want to put my money somewhere else entirely.
     I have been thinking about trying to live without money for a year. Removing myself from a system of debt, labor and inequality which I would like to stop supporting. Is anyone interested in making a documentary about a guy trying to live a year in the USA without money? Instead, I would simply trade my labor and/or knowledge and skills directly for the resources that I need to survive. Or I would broker deals between people, work for one who then provided a service or good to another on my behalf. I think this would start people thinking about whether or not money actually does them any good. With the current state of the economy, money seems to be just as much of a headache as it is a convenience. If we had a form of currency which was not tied to a banking system of loans, debt and profits, but was purely a means of exchanging goods and services, things would be very different.
     I think that after this bike trip, I will finally be able to travel internationally on my own and be truly successful socially. I can no longer let fear isolate me from the conversations that I want to have, the people I want to hear, the knowledge that I want to obtain from someone, somewhere. I want to be more a part of the places that I go. Couchsurfing helps with this in a big way. I really enjoy meeting open-minded people who value the stories and opinions of others.


Yesterday, I got on the internet for the first time in over 2 weeks. Through a phone call from a friend, I learned that Steve Jobs died, and that a huge, worldwide protest had started over the lack of action taken against the irresponsible banks which are largely responsible for the current economic recession. We had an economic stimulus package of $700 billion given out mostly to large banks and corporations, and what are the results of this? Why should these irresponsible and corrupt banks be saved, only to turn around and continue giving huge bonuses to their top executives, while the rest of the country suffers? Finally, I see some frustration from other people. My own rants at corporate greed and collusion with politicians seemed so lonely and off in outer space until I learned that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are feeling the same way, and now doing something about it.
     My immediate response to the “Occupy Wall Street” news was excitement, affirmation and curiosity. Who are the people who are protesting? How much conviction to they have to make real change? America has not seen any real, large scale protests for some time, but our situation is such that many people now have nothing to lose. Young people in college are going deep into debt to pay for their schooling, and unable to get jobs upon graduation. Unemployment remains in the double digits, with no signs of improvement. The volatile stock market, which is really only a useful tool to those to dedicate all of their time and energy to its mysterious workings, is still unpredictable at best, and unreliable for most.
     The America that I've grown up in expected me to go to college, get a job, invest my money into stable, continuously growing retirement accounts, get married, buy a house and a car, raise a family and 45 years later, retire a wealthy man. With my safely managed nest egg, I would take vacations at golf resorts with day spas, tropical island resorts, and deserts irrigated with water from far away places. The American Dream of the present, as pushed by corporate advertising, is one of materialism and disconnection. What used to be a land of opportunity, founded by great adventurers and pioneers (who undoubtedly displaced and massacred the millions of natives already living here, but I'm trying to be romantic right now) has turned into a land of corruption, confusion and escapism. What group of people in America is now truly happy and healthy? Are the “1%” who are now being picked on without hesitation, really living a healthy, satisfying life? Or are they too busy making sure that no one is stealing, shifting, downgrading, laundering or losing their money? Where is the happy middle-ground?
     The teenagers I am working with now are generally obsessed with material goods. Upon meeting them for the first time, I was in charge of helping them inventory their clothing and personal belongings that would be placed in storage for the duration of their wilderness experience. All of them not only knew, but were proud of the brands and labels of their clothing, taking special care to make sure that I noted which brands they were wearing before shoving these items into a suitcase or a garbage bag, and putting them in a basement for safekeeping. Many of them are here at least partially because of robbery charges. As one kid put it, “I'm not addicted to stealing, I'm addicted to the money that I get from stealing.” They have been convinced, so early in life, that the stuff they buy, that they desire for one reason or another, is important enough to break the law. In the wilderness, they are issued the same clothing as everyone else, which serves a functional purpose, rather than aesthetic. I am wearing largely the same clothing they are, which is all issued by the state of Minnesota, in drab and earthy colors. I feel that this has an immediate, positive impact on helping the students relate to their own identity regardless of their clothing, and instead based upon their personalities, actions and behaviors. It is disappointing to realize that many of them will be caught back up in the desire to purchase particular items simply because they feel these items add value to their image amongst their peers. This phenomenon is a product which is at least partially blamable on advertising, and an issue that I remember as a kid causing serious distress when one kid was deemed not to be wearing the socially appropriate brand or style of clothing. It was a serious emotional trauma to be made fun of for what you were wearing.
I have a good friend who is a clothing designer, and struggles with her role in the fashion industry. Like me, she sees clothing design as an art form, a method of individual expression, which in modern times, in metropolitan areas especially, can be seen on every street corner. Unique expression of identity, feelings and desire, worn on the outside, for others to be inspired. Unfortunately, the corporate agenda has turned the fashion industry into just that, an industry. Fashion is something marketed by skinny models on runways and in TV commercials, touted as being the desirable physical forms, and therefore, if you wear the same clothing, you will be more desirable. Because people have found a way to make lots of money from the fashion industry, it is now very difficult to be in the art of fashion without being swept away by the industry. My friend is disappointed that many of the job opportunities available to her involve much less creative freedom than she would like, and much more pleasing a corporate boss in order to make money. Sadly, I think many forms of art and design have headed in the same direction. It is very difficult for an individual artist to compete in a market so saturated with hyper-marketed products that have corporate advertising dollars behind them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

King of the World

A stunningly beautiful stretch of road, genuine interactions with real people, major revelations and clarity beyond words summarize the last few days of my journey.  It has been wonderful.

Day 71: 9/24/11 Hermantown to Hibbing, MN: 66 miles
I recently commented to someone that I thought I would make a good king of the world. They looked at me and asked something like, “what would you change first?” I was totally stumped. It made me instantly realize that I'm only scratching the surface of so many problems that I care deeply about and feel like I can be a part of solving. Without a plan, big problems aren't even going to begin to change.
As an alternate train of thought, I try as often as possible to keep the “big picture” in sight, rather than focusing on the details of any problem in particular. So much of what I see as “wrong” with the world today stems from the same core set of misunderstandings, misguided priorities and plain ignorance of what is actually going on in the world. I would like to begin my plan with preventative medicine for humanity's woes, rather than treating the symptoms.

When it comes to treating symptoms, there are so many people doing so many good things on a small scale, and I applaud them. Part of my theory about how to fix the world is that every cause needs a champion. A person who is passionate and dedicated to that particular issue, and goes all-out to make the change that needs to happen from the ground up. If every person could find an issue to champion in order to improve life in the future, a hell of a lot of good would get done. And there are already tons of champions out there giving it their all. I recently read about a non-profit in New England called Project Laundry List, who's main goal is to get people to line-dry their clothes rather than using their dryer all the time. Without a doubt, this is a positive cause, in need of a champion (they were looking for a new executive director), but it is such a drop in the bucket of the mindset change that would result in everyone drying their clothes on a line. Because when you realize that everything is connected and you affect the entire planet negatively every time you run your dryer, then of course, why wouldn't you line dry?
And there I go, already getting caught up in the details. Some issues are so shockingly appalling that they are hard to ignore. Some will make a much larger difference than others, but I'm searching for the ultimate. I fear that most people are caught up in the details of their day-to-day lives to such an extent that they regularly loose sight of the big picture. It is true that several thousand years ago, after humans had already been evolving for 100,000+ years, that we had a very marginal, perhaps nearly undetectable effect on the other humans and life on earth. We are not evolved to think for the world. We are evolved to think for ourselves, our families, our survival and reproduction and the well-being of our communities and those closest to us. But this is no longer a world where competition for food determines who will survive. It is now a world where understanding our total influence as a species will be the most important step in creating a future in which we can thrive. We must expand our notion of taking care of our community to include the entire world. What makes this so easily approachable is that through education and understanding, we learn that what is best for ourselves and our families and what is best for the world are the same things.
This brings me to my tag-line for becoming king of the world. I was thinking to myself, “If I truly want to be a leader of some kind of large-scale change, then I had better work on my message.” A good leader is not usually the one with the strongest opinions or the most charm or the fastest wit. A good leader is someone who can be humble, honest, genuine and competent. A person of integrity, ingenuity, courage and wisdom who listens to the voices of his/her followers, and helps to decide what is best for all of them based upon their input. A person who is has the strength to choose what is right over what is easy. While I would love to receive more input (What changes do you want to see in this world?), I again fear getting caught up in the details. I think one of the reasons that real change is so mired in the bureaucratics of today's politics is that everyone has forgotten to look past the details and deal with the larger issues at hand. We're stuck arguing about gay marriage and border control when climate change threatens the entire planet.

At present, the issues that concern me most boil down to this: the well-being of the human species into the future. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the current and future humans on planet earth. While I could expand this to include a concern for the well-being of all living things on earth, that would not sound as important to a large group of people. And, once again, if we truly do what is best for the human species, then we will also be doing what is best for the rest of the living things on the planet, who are woven into the fabric of our existence in such intricate and integral ways that we do not yet recognize the value of most things as they pertain to our own well-being.

While I would like to convince myself that I view all living things as equally important as humans in general, and myself in particular, I must admit that this is not so. There was a time when I was convinced that the world should just be rid of humans, because we're just trashing the place for everything else, but that was short lived. I have come to know that I value my own existence, as well as that of my fellow humans, especially my close friends and family, above most other things. While I do feel that this is only partly my choice (and partly how I am evolved to operate), I believe strongly that it is easy to expand the notion of oneself to include things that are not obviously, directly a physical part of me. The rice that I am eating is about to become part of me, and soon portions of it will depart from me to become part of the earth. In a similar manner, the water I drink and the air that I breath are extensions of my physical being, and they circulate throughout the world on a daily basis, entering and leaving countless other humans and living things. Thinking in this way, I find it much easier to care about everything, because it becomes much more obvious that everything is part of everything else. We are one. And I've gone off on a tangent that describes exactly what is important to communicate to everyone so that we'll all be on the same page about saving everything, thereby saving ourselves.

Some other, less selfish reasons that I can come up with for wanting the human species to do well in the future include the idea that humans are the only things we know of that can appreciate and reflect upon the beauty and wonder of the universe. Someone told me once, “we are the universe's way of reflecting upon itself.” We create beautiful works of art, magnificent buildings and bridges, and so much love. The wedding that I attended recently was a wonderful reminder of the power, beauty and all-engulfing fire that love is. I think its OK to think of ourselves as special, because we don't have anything similar to compare ourselves to. As long as we realize that being special doesn't mean we get to destroy, dominate, marginalize or bully anyone or anything else. We are special, and we are part of everything, so everything is special.

Back to politics: What ever happened to a government of, by and for the people? Who I see in elected office are the wealthy, corporate-backed moderates. I am none of these things. Are these my people in office? And when was the last time you felt like you had any true input on how things run in Washington D.C.? I'm going to write a letter to the president, and include some of my concerns. I will probably be written off as an idealistic wacko, with no clue as to how things actually get done in D.C., but it seems to me that currently, almost nothing gets done anyhow, so what have I got to lose? As for being “for” the people, I feel like that part was forgotten long ago. Now, the ears and the pockets of politicians are filled by corporate lobbyists, and I have no delusions that this is the reason that tax laws and regulations of all kinds are in their favor. I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “I'll start treating corporations like people when one of them is executed in Texas.” Its time we realized our mistake in creating institutions which are required by law to prioritize profits above all else. My first official action as king of the world would be to reject corporate person-hood, and require that they place the well-being of current and future humans as their top priority. Perhaps then we'd see some real change. Maybe profits can come second.

Today was the first day the sun came out since Minneapolis, 4 days ago. I rode in shorts and a t-shirt for a few hours, and captured some great photos of red leaves in bright sun. Last night, I spent the night with the parents of the bride from the wedding I just attended. Dennis and Debbie Lofald are Minnesota born and raised. They live on a big piece of land next door to several members of Dennis' family. We went to their favorite pizza place, where they treated me to an excellent pizza and some delicious root beer on tap, which came in a big, frosty stein. Dennis told me all about his work for a company which collects blood plasma to manufacture products for all kinds of medical treatments. I also learned quite a bit of local and family history. In the morning, Debbie sent me off with 3 sandwiches, a small representation of the unending hospitality they showed me during my stay. Their youngest daughter recently moved out of their house, and it is just the two of them in their home for the first time in 27 years. I don't think they minded my company one bit.
Day 72: 9/25/11: Hibbing to Togo, MN: 49 miles
I awoke in a thick fog. The field that I slept in last night was full of soft grass and slugs. This morning, as I pedaled off, a slug fell off of my helmet, dropping in front of my face and surprising me. There was frost on my tent for the first time, but I was not cold. As the day grew longer, the sun came out, and by late afternoon, I was in shorts. I stopped at Side Lake for lunch, took my shoes off and enjoyed the sunshine on my bare feet. The lake was surrounded by houses tucked into a thick forest of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. A few boats enjoyed the last days of the season. I very much enjoyed the rays of sun filtering through the multicolored trees as I pedaled the last few miles into Thistledew Camp, where I will work in the wilderness for the next 3 weeks. I feel ready.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Colors of Autumn and a Wedding

I am using a new camera which was purchased so that I can keep recording the beautiful world around me when I go into the backcountry without having to worry about the weight and break-ability of my current camera.  My new camera is a shock-proof, waterproof, freeze-proof compact camera.  It is very convenient, but has had trouble reproducing genuine colors, which is frustrating with all of the brilliant shades of autumn about.  Also, none of the video that I took this week is retrievable in its current format.  I'm working on it.

The latest pictures were taken earlier today in Duluth, MN.  It is in industrial city, having mostly to do with its being the furthest inland port in the US.  I crossed over the the St. Lawrence River to visit Superior, WI, so that I could pedal over the bridge, get some pictures and get another state under the belt.

Day 69: Pine City to Moose Lake, MN: 50 miles

The seasons are changing. This was difficult to notice for the first couple of months of this trip, due to the fact that I started off in a very wet, cool Oregon in the middle of summer. Rain has found me in nearly every state, and Minnesota is no exception. Today was the coldest riding day I've had, and yesterday threw both wind and water at me. Two days before I arrived in Minneapolis, it was 90 degrees, and I couldn't drink enough water to stay hydrated. This morning when I left, it was 45 degrees, I barely drank 3 quarts all day, and had to stop every hour to pee.

Fall colors abound on the endless bike paths of Minnesota. I spent most of the last two days isolated from highway and city by a line of trees of varying width, all of which are beginning their preparations for the winter. I cannot remember the last time I saw so many shades of pink and orange. It has been a long time since I've been anywhere but California for an autumn, and mostly in deserts or on seashores for the last several years. I feel as though the change in the seasons is somehow coinciding with the change in pace of my trip, as I get ready to settle in one place for a while. The world is telling me that great things await in the north.

I spent exactly one week off the bike. During that time, I prepared for, helped with, and attended the wedding of my great friend Greg Krajacic as one of 6 groomsmen. Greg and I were roommates in college for 2 years, and became constant revered companions. We also played Ultimate frisbee on the same team, and 8 of our teammates (not including Greg and I) also attended the wedding. This made for a posse of awesome dudes with whom to pre-party as well as celebrate with during the event. We all had a great time together playing soccer, poker, quarters, wrestling and dancing our butts off at the wedding. As is to be expected with such a group of dynamic, motivated, intelligent and energetic guys, I enjoyed their company thoroughly.

As I grow older, I begin noticing different things about such gatherings as weddings. It has been longer than I can remember since I attended a traditional wedding without a partner, and even then, the last wedding I attended was over 3 years ago. At Greg's wedding, I noticed that there were nearly zero single, unattached women close to my age. I think part of this could be due to the fact that it took place in the mid-west, but age must also be a factor. About half of my frisbee teammates are now married, with several others engaged or about to be. All of the bridesmaids were either married, engaged or in a committed relationship. For the second time in my adult life, I have not been in a committed relationship for about 6 months. I must admit that this is certainly intentional to some degree (how could I have a girlfriend somewhere and ride my bike around the nation?), but it is also a unique circumstance for me. In a few months I will turn 30, and though I don't feel that this will limit anything I'm trying to do, it is making me aware of how I'm using my time, and who I'm spending it with.

Due to the fact that Greg and I have the same first name, we generally go by our frisbee nicknames when we spend time together, so I'm “Ace” and he's “Krackerjack”. Everyone in Greg's family knows me as Ace, and to simplify things, this is how I was introduced to a number of people at the wedding. Greg and I got to spend an hour or so just the two of us as we drove to the airport to pick up his brother, Chris. We chatted about life, and it was nice to notice that we are able to maintain the high level of understanding that we always had when conversing in college. There aren't too many people who I can have that kind of candid, connected conversation with, and it dawned on me how much I appreciate Greg's friendship for just that reason. As he is taking steps to move on to the next phase of his life having married, bought a house, and planning children not too far down the line, it is comforting to me to see how our friendship will evolve and grow and remain intact. Connecting with friends whom I haven't seen in a long time was one of the primary reasons I undertook this trip, and I'm so glad I did.

Another friend who I was able to spend a few hours with was Jenna. Jenna and I went on a bicycle tour through Southeast Asia two years ago, and had an amazing adventure. It was that trip, with Jenna's help, that showed me what an amazing way to travel cycling can be. Upon my return from Asia, I was immediately motivated to begin planning my next bicycle tour, this time in my own country.

Jenna is in graduate school and the University of Minnesota for Occupational Therapy. She has found a great apartment in a very culturally diverse neighborhood in the heart of Minneapolis. We had dinner together at a Somali restaurant after walking through a Somali market. Inside the market, I felt immediately transported back to the markets of Costa Rica or Cambodia. Narrow isles lined with dimly lit stalls displaying all manner of watches, clothing, trinkets and tons of absolutely gorgeous cloth. The religion of most Somali immigrants in Minneapolis is Islam, and it occurred to me that many of the women must make their own clothing, which involves much more material than the clothing of most non-islamic women. Jenna and I still get along perfectly well, and it was very comforting to see her thriving and enjoying her new environment.

Many sayings, phrases and bits of advice have stuck with me from a young age. One that always seemed to make sense was, “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” I suppose this is referring to the fact that as we become more educated and knowledgeable as people, we begin to understand that there is SO much more knowledge and information in the world than we could possibly expect to learn in a lifetime. There are definitely times in my life when I lost sight of this concept.

I remember being 17, a junior in high school, and having the parents of a friend or two ask me what I was going to do with my life. I was very confident that I was going to be an actor and that I had the world figured out. I had trouble understanding why so many people struggled at making sense of life, when I, at 17, had everything figured out. Entering college and having my brain filled with mounds of information that I never knew existed was a lengthly process, but it certainly humbled me in terms of making me realize the quantity of knowledge that I would never be able to obtain. That process probably helped me to build more character than many other things I've done in my life.

I had a similar experience in 2006 when, in combination with getting a job where I was backpacking and camping all the time, a loved and respected colleague from college began a bicycle tour from Los Angeles to the tip of Argentina. Both of these expansions of what is possible in life filled my head with even further possibilities, greater achievements, vaster realms of knowledge on physical, spiritual and emotional levels, rather than purely intellectual knowledge, which is what I had primarily focused on previously.

At this point, I feel like I'm in the midst of having another “aha” moment, where some previously overlooked realm of possibility reveals itself to me. College was one of those “moments,”, but I don't think this one will take quite as long. My recent trips to Berlin and Australia, falling in love with an artist and experiencing the world through her eyes, have played an important role in helping me step out of the box of creative understanding that I now know I was previously in. The bicycle trip is helping me to drop my very strong, thoroughly implanted preconceived notions of the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors of people all across America. My new job, which will send me back into the wilderness, where my current lifestyle was born, waits for me only a few days away. I am excited and open and ready.

Last night, I had a tremendous couch-surfing experience once again. I stayed in Pine City with Val and his pitbull mutt, Angel, a total sweetheart of an animal. Val and I operate on the same wavelength. The man is doing all he can to improve the world around him, while enriching his own life in the process. We chatted about martial arts (he teaches), economics (he has a degree, but hasn't used it), animal rescue and corporate irresponsibility. He used to race bicycles until he got into a bad crash, and now he just restores classics once in a while. We both snowboard. If it's yellow, we let it mellow. We got along great right from the start, as he gave me the tour of his cozy home, decorated with furniture from garage sales which he has fixed up and made worthy of collectors.

For dinner, we ended up at Froggy's pub for burgers. I ordered the ½ pound Froggy special, with everything on it (onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles, 3 kinds of cheese, mushrooms, jalapenos, bacon), and finished it while Val still had 1/3 left of his slightly smaller burger. It sure hit the spot. While we waited for our food, ate it, and for quite a while afterward, Val and I were entertained by Frank J Cummings, a retired police officer from Missouri. Frank was about drunk and half when we came in, and continued ordering himself pitchers of beer the whole time we were there. At 58 years of age, he looked 70 (the age he told us at first), and reminded us constantly that he was “one mean son of a !#@%$” He immediately told Val and I that we looked like the Beegees, and then insisted that we were federal agents. Frank was loud and smart-mouthed and full of wise-cracks, but never quite hit the point of mean-spirited. He did impressions of several famous people, sang a line from a song every now and then, and tried to impress every women who'd look at him. Anytime anyone asked him a question, his reply was, “none of your business!” Since Val and I were sitting right next to him at the bar, we were the “watch this” guys of choice, and I think we satisfied his need for attention. He insisted that I looked like Kid Rock (blech!), and ended up giving me his address in Missouri, so that I can come visit when I go through. I think I just might.