This summer, I rode my bicycle from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, U.S. It ended up being 2783.6 miles, 165,700 feet of elevation gain, and it took 36 days 4 hours 51 minutes.
Here’s what I learned (in no particular order)…
Horizons are closer than they appear
I kept making the same mistake over and over again, and that is, underestimating my ability to cover ground on a bicycle. I can recall numerous times when I looked from elevation onto the terrain around me, towards the horizon which my route would take me over, and think to myself that it’ll take me the rest of the day to get there. Many times, an hour or two later, I would be standing at that horizon looking at another one. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but I leave that up to you. What I remember is that horizons are closer than they appear.
Human civilization’s systemic layout
I’m not much of a camper. In fact, I only camped three times on the entire journey. The rest was spent in some sort of lodging accommodations, often accompanied by food resupply. While moving across the country, I kept particular attention to available water sources, since running out of water between water sources is not something I was interested in. I had a nice set of maps to work with throughout the route, so I wasn’t riding blind or anything. Nevertheless, this constant focus on supplies, after a while, gave me a weird sort of intuition about the layout of human civilization around me. I still struggle for words to describe what it feels like. It was a sort of awareness of where I was in the world. I had a constant awareness of, if something goes wrong, what recovery route to take, where is water, where are roads, where is next human settlement. A lot of my trip was going from one human settlement to another. This made me very aware that without those settlements, I wouldn’t last long. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover ground as quickly as I did, repairing my bike when it broke down, or resting when I got tired. This awareness expanded, over time, to the things I encountered. I spent a lot of time riding on logging roads, so my brain learned “that’s where wood comes from.” I spent a lot of time riding through natural gas fields, mines (the ones where people dig into the ground for resources, not the exploding ones), even past a uranium mill. My brain learned “this is where energy comes from”. And always… cows and fields, everywhere. “This is where food comes from.” If you already have this awareness, none of this is illuminating, but, growing up in a city, I had a mental model for all this, but never felt it viscerally in my body. Being immersed in it, for as long as I was, on my tiny human scale, gave me an inner awareness of it all. For instance, I learned what services to expect at a specific settlement size, depending on what type of road it was on. There is definitely some sort of structure to human layout on the Earth. I got a glimpse of it to some extent.
What the fuck do I (and you) know?
Seeing this much of the country and interacting with all sorts of people… well, people that look like me most of the time (>__> )… anyway, regardless… all sorts of people (even within the sample I came across), really put in check my ideas about how things ought to be. That person in Montana, who lives there, hunts stuff, and lives their life thereabouts, seeing a glimpse of how they live their life, gave me a pretty good indicator that I have no clue how they live their life. Vice versa, they have no clue how I live mine here in Austin, TX. This was a humbling reminder. Also… everyone is super nice one-on-one.
Everyone is on their own epic journey
I noticed that everyone wanted to help me and make sure I was OK. Seriously, riding on a bicycle, obviously dressed like a long-distance traveller, really brings out the Samaritan in everyone. Additionally, seeing other travelers on the trail doing the same thing I was doing, going either the same direction or opposite, made me want to help them because it was obvious they were on an epic journey and I wanted them to be OK. At some point, I was able to make a mental leap that everyone of us is on an epic journey, except that we’re dressed normally, and our goals and constraints are much more complicated than riding a bicycle from point A to point B. Experiencing the journey gave me a tool to reach for in order to try to be better about helping other people. I just imagine them on a bicycle, covered in mud, riding somewhere along the route.
Tour Divide is one of the easiest things I’ve done, psychologically
To be clear, I trained for the journey, and I was in pretty good shape when I started training. But, what I’m talking about is the contrast of what my mind goes through when riding the Tour Divide, versus, living in the world. All I had to do was plan the next day, execute the plan (ride), made sure I was hydrated, feed myself, find shelter, and repeat, until done. Most of the time, the sole thought on my mind was “keep pedaling.” Mentally, it is simpler than pretty much any interaction I have now that I’m back in civilization. Navigating complexity of our modern human society is much more difficult and less satisfying. After some discussions about this particular learning, I did stumble upon a model that might possibly explain why this is the case.
Consider Daniel Pink’s “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose” model for intrinsic human motivation along with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model that progresses from most basic human needs to most complex: Physiological, Safety, Social Belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization. When I was riding the bike, the needs I had to maintain were Physiological and Safety, i.e. don’t get hurt, don’t die, make it to next shelter. Achieving Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose is rather straightforward for those needs (given proper preparation and supplies). I was at the height of happiness squatting by a mountain stream, filtering my water, and pumping it into my Camelback. That’s all it took for me to feel “I’m the boss of this! I can survive!”. In the evenings, however, once I found shelter and my Physiological and Safety needs were met, my brain started reaching for Social Belonging. Achieving Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose in Social Belonging is difficult to do by yourself, and so the nights felt lonely in my shelter. Now, that I’m back in civilization, I’m working on Self-Actualization… that is orders of magnitude more difficult than lower sets of needs in the hierarchy. So, less happiness, less often for me.
Average knowledge vs. peak knowledge
Once I got into few days of the ride, I started imagining what would be something “extreme” for a person to do. “What if,” I thought, “I would ride down to New Mexico, and then turn around and ride back to Canada!”. That would be XTREME! Well, that’s because I was unfamiliar with what I was doing, I only had some average knowledge of Tour Divide and its possibilities. Turns out, that when I was riding, there was a person who was doing a double yo-yo. A yo-yo is starting at one end, going to the finish, then turning around and finishing where you started. This person was doing that twice. Another person, in a previous ride, started their ride from Costa Rica, so that by the time they made it to New Mexico, they’d be “in shape” to do well riding the route northbound.
It turns out that the most “extreme” thing I can imagine about something I’m unfamiliar with, is not extreme enough. If I have only average knowledge of something, I can’t imagine the possibilities. I can only imagine an average extreme. People, for whom this is their niche, do much much much more extreme things. They have peak knowledge of their niche, and it turns out that I can’t conceive of what the real peak extreme could be.
Honey Buns turned out to be my main source of calories. They turned out to be the appropriate combination of calorie density per volume, not melting, as well as not requiring any external water to consume. There were days where all I ate was a Honey Bun per hour.
Colorado smells like weed
Yup. Pretty much that’s what I remember about Colorado. The woods smell like weed.