Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Loneliness, community, superficial Florida



Sitting in a tent in a dark forest on a cloudy night. It is just past a full moon, but I cannot see it because of the clouds. Light rain pitter-patters on the fly of my tent, and I sit inside, cozy and comfortable, but not content. The dark of winter is putting a damper on the enjoyment that I am able to get from being in nature by myself. I get to where I need to be just before dark, after a full day's ride, and have just enough time to cook dinner, set up my camp, and record the days numbers (mileage, hours, etc.) before the darkness begins to set in. I have been a bit more leisurely during the day with my breaks, taking time to fill my ever-hungry belly, letting my butt get a little more time off of the saddle. Because of this, I have had little time to explore, enjoy or appreciate where I am when I arrive at camp. Darkness sets in, and my body tells me it is time to sleep.

Recently, I have had a great run of social activity on the trip. Pete joined me for a week from Jackson, MS to New Orleans. I spent a full week in New Orleans, staying with 2 friends, and running into 2 more in the city. I then camped a night with one of these friends on the way out of New Orleans, followed by a night couchsurfing with a wonderfully accommodating couple, and then 3 nights with an old friend from my hometown. And now, I have camped alone for just 2 nights, and I feel lonely.

When I began cycling in July, I had just finished a 3 month run of work and play in perhaps the most socially active environment I have ever been in: Naturalists At Large. Spending every day with good friends, working and playing, and then hanging out on the weekends, squeezing in as much adventure as possible between work days. I love that experience, but I also missed time alone to reflect and think. The first couple of months on the bike were exactly what I needed. I was not pushing the kind of mileage that I am now (I'm trying to squeeze in all of Florida in 3 weeks – and its a big state!), and the daylight hours were long. When I arrived at camp I had time to swim, take photos, relax and enjoy the evening before dark set in. My body has now become so programmed to fall asleep after the sunset that I barely stay awake until 7 or 8 o'clock. On the positive side I am getting plenty of sleep and having no trouble waking up early to get on the road.

I was chatting with a friend on the phone last night, and I realized something that had not been so clear to me before. In order to build community, you really have to be in one place. It is much more difficult to establish and maintain substantial relationships from afar. This is obvious to most people who have tried “long distance” relationships with a significant other, but perhaps not so obvious in terms of establishing or maintaining a group of like-minded individuals, working toward the same goals. Of all the wonderful people whom I've met on this trip, I doubt that I will really keep in touch with more than a handful. This is a shame, because I know that if I was living in the same place as these people, I would see them, interact with them, and build better relationships. It is at the same time inspiring and disappointing to know that all of these wonderful people are out there, working toward similar goals, and that I will not get to see most of them nearly as often as I might like. Building community has become an important goal for me. I think this means that eventually, I will have to decide on a single geographical location so that I can start maintaining relationships in the way that they deserve to be maintained.

I said goodbye to the gulf coast today. After several days of biking past white sand beaches, giant resort-hotels, crystal clear-blue waters and bridge after bridge over bays, bayous and streams, I have cut inland to head to Tallahassee. I spent 3 nights in Pensacola at the home of my good friend Christian and his girlfriend, Mikki. Christian and I attended Lewiston Elementary School together, as well as Trinity High, but we were better friends when we were younger. He moved to Pensacola after obtaining his masters degree in Physical Therapy last January, and is working with a famous sports surgeon at a rehabilitation institute, where he is able to work with professional athletes every day. We spent a beautiful afternoon at Pensacola Beach, tossing a frisbee on the white sand, and dipping our toes in cool, blue gulf waters. It was warm and sunny, shirts-off weather in January. Now I know why people live here. They treated me to a genuine southern seafood meal that evening, which was a tasty and filling way to end a short, sweet visit.


My ride between Pensacola and Tallahassee was mostly on bike paths and in bike lanes (thank you Florida!) through some pretty unbelievable neighborhoods. Whole sections of highway have been transformed into resort/vacation villages, with palm-tree lined streets, perfectly manicured lawns and buildings all designed in the same style. Private, gated communities dominated many areas, with houses build right up to the beach. The only other people I saw outside of cars were the landscaping workers, riding on lawnmowers, running weed-eaters and trimming hedges. After leaving the beaches, I rode through pine forests for many miles. Logging trucks hauled skinny trees past me, on their way to some unknown fate. I assume they will be used for paper or some other purpose which doesn't require large diameter trees, as most of these don't exceed 8-10 inches at the base of their trunks.

I arrived in Tallahassee at the home of my friend Amelia and her boyfriend Mike just in time to avoid a huge storm that rolled through here, soaking everything in its path. I was lucky not to have been in a tent last night. Amelia flew in from Europe this morning, after spending a month in Spain and an couple of weeks in Amsterdam. We have been shopping for furniture for Mike & Amelia's apartment at thrift stores around town, and tomorrow, they are throwing a house warming party & sushi dinner. I am enjoying their comfortable company completely.

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