I wake from a dream.
Groggy passengers are all around me in a dim airline cabin. I must have slept through most of the flight.
The stewardess is saying something about landing procedure. Prepare for landing. Sounds about right to me.
Out the window I see nothing but a thick dark cloud, with a hint of light to it. Must be dawn soon.
I step off the plane and follow the signs for my connecting terminal. I know the airport complex must be huge, but I don’t make an effort wrap my mind around it.
Just follow the signs. Must still be half asleep.
I find myself in an underground walkway, like the size of a tunnel on the interstate. It’s decorated in neon strings of light, forming a web of various bright colors along the walls and ceiling.
Assorted passengers walk among me, dragging wheeled luggage and bags – some use the conveyor belt “people mover” that divides the middle of the tunnel.
“People movers.” Interesting.
Over the speaker system I clearly recognize Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto. Perfect. Maybe I’m still dreaming.
Last night I was in San Francisco, set to leave on an 11pm flight. The first thing I gave up was the bike.
I walked into a bicycle shop, and made a simple ‘box and ship’ transaction. ‘I’ll call you next week with the tracking number,’ the employee said, ‘Here’s my card. My name’s Hussein.’
‘You’re name’s Hussein?’ I replied with a chuckle. Couldn’t help it.
I stepped out the door, onto the sidewalk, and suddenly there I was – a hobo on the streets of San Francisco, with a sack over my shoulder. King Hipster.
Actually it wasn’t quite a sack, but my two rear panniers, stuffed. I rigged my cable combination lock as a shoulder strap, and carried my handlebar bag in hand – all black with reflective strips. Maybe not so hip after all.
From there it was only a brief journey through the web of public transportation to get home. Planes, trains, and automobiles for sure. First I took a bus to the downtown train station – ‘Caltrain.’ The trains took me to San Francisco International, where I stood in line to give up my two panniers.
The line moved at a snail’s pace, and the folks behind me were frustrated and unhappy, because there was only one airline employee working the counter. They gave play by play on the understaffed employees’ movements. ‘Oh here somebody comes… is she signing in to start a shift? Is she? Wait… nope! How about him over there? Sir? We’ve been waiting a long time here…’
Soon their attention turned toward me – I guess my smug indifference to what was clearly a frustrating delay, designed to ruin everybody’s day, made them feel uncomfortable. ‘Who’s this indifferent young man with the big beard and dirty, inexpensive luggage? Why won’t he share in our obvious misery? Better talk to him, make sure he’s not a terrorist.’
I checked my bags, was left with nothing but my handlebar bag, and headed for a maze of roped walkways – like movie theater lines – for security screening. A woman took one look at me, my drivers license, and boarding pass.
Secondary screening. I guess the fact that I was a lone young man – who hadn’t shaved or cut his hair in six months – wasn’t very ‘good.’
She roped me off near a wall, away from the others in line, and I was told to wait for the security personnel. I had brief visions of being hauled off to a secret CIA prison… destined to spend the rest of my days in a bright room… sleep deprived, and forced to listen to Celine Dion sing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ at high volume… over, over, and over for eternity.
A guy that looked kind of like a bald Jerome Bettis came over, and said ‘How’s it goin’ in a Barry White voice. I placed my handlebar bag in a restaurant-type plastic bus tub, along with the contents of my pockets, and took off my shoes.
Then I stepped into this three sided chamber with a red light, and was told to wait for the green light – it would scan my body for explosives. It shot me with a blast of air, and probably zapped my DNA as well. I thought over the past few years about how I’ve hit my wrist, fingertip, and a rib… suspecting maybe small fractures that I never had professionally looked at. Maybe this chamber could check on those for me.
Then I sat in a chair – still shoeless – as another security guy meticulously went through the contents of my carry-on belongings on a table before me. There was another passenger sitting next to me, also going through the screening, clearly angry. Another security guy went through his things.
‘This is f-ing bull-s-t,’ he said, ‘I’ve flown with all those things before,’ as the security guy pulls out a bottle of cologne, hairspray… ‘You know the three ounce limit on liquid…’
What’s with all these angry people? God help ’em if they ever have to face a real dilemma… ‘That’s my industrial strength hair dryer, and I can’t-live-without it! …okay Princess, welcome to Real Life.’
‘You’re good to go,’ I’m told. I put on my shoes.
On board the plane they had technical difficulties with the safety video, so the stewardess had to do a live demonstration – with funny manikin-esque blank stares… like mimes with life preservers. I found this greatly amusing.
The plane slowly crawled around the runway, turned a corner, and all of sudden gained some wicked speed. Takeoff. I looked out the window to see the San Francisco lights circle below, and fade in the distance. I thought it must be cool to be a pilot and see these views every day, speeding all through the world like a jaunt around the block.
It wasn’t as odd as I had imagined – to hurtle through the air now – flying in mere seconds over what took me days and days on my bicycle.
This was my first time on a jet airplane. I was on a small airplane once, but jumped out of it. That was fun.
In Chicago, Tchaikovsky escorts me through the terminal. The airport is a surreal, hazy early morning transitional world. I board the connecting flight to Newark, and am pleased to see that my ticket is for the window seat – three in from the aisle.
The two outer seats are already filled, and the occupants rise to let me in. In the middle is an older gentleman, who strikes me as someone who’s never flown before, or at least not very often. ‘Tell you what, I’ll just slide in,’ he says, in a blatant queue.
‘…Unless you wanted the window seat?’
‘Nah, I’m cool,’ as I slide into the middle. I’m feeling charitable, since I’m young and will mostly likely do some more flying in the future. I think about how I’ll have to gradually change my ways again soon – I’ll need to stand up for myself more often in everyday life. No longer will I be able to always just ‘go with the flow,’ like I have the past six months.
Always going with the flow in real life gets you pushed down. It’s a shame.
I wake from a nap. Out the window I see circles and circles of suburban homes, cul-de-sacs, strip malls, and the like. I can’t make out if it’s Eastern PA, or Jersey. There seems to be an awful lot of trees for it to be Jersey. I’m happy to note that there’s still some lingering fall color, now in early November.
Usually the last week of October is best in Pennsylvania. It’s a clear, blue, beautiful day – Monday – the beginning of a work week. Always funny how peaceful everything looks from thousands of feet above.
In a moment I spot the Manhattan skyline, and the busy urbanization that’s Newark. I remember driving numerous times on the interstate toward NYC, and how the planes descending to the airport always passed low, directly over the highway. It’s cool now to be in one of them.
I remember riding a bus into the city – on the way home from the Appalachian Trail in Vermont – on Monday, September 17, 2001 – when Wall Street and public transportation reopened. The skyline was still smoking on that day, under visible fighter jet patrols.
It’s twelve o’clock noon. The wheels hit the runway with a jolt. I’ve landed.
Now at my old job in my hometown, all the images on this site are like snapshots from a surreal past. This is the part where I’m tempted to list picturesque moments from my trip – with movie-trailer like pacing – in an attempt at some sort of visceral summary.
Let’s stick with applying this thing to movies. Like you go to the theater and see a great film, totally enraptured in the thing. So when the credits roll and you walk back to the car, it’s as though your legs are on autopilot, because it takes a few moments for your mind to become re-acquainted with reality. Take that last entry where I wrote about flying home – that was my walk from the theater to the parking lot – and now it’s surprisingly still daylight out in the real world – and the harsh sun is momentarily shocking.
Maybe you eventually go ahead and buy the film on home video, and of course it seems different – and loses something after repeated viewings.
I call a friend maybe forty-eight hours after returning home:
‘Hey man,’ he says, ‘What are you up to?’
‘I’m at my mom and step dad’s, watching Dancing With The Stars. Help.’
I’ll watch football on Sunday, and there’s a Seattle Seahawks game at the stadium I rode by on my trip. I’m tempted to show my Seattle skyline pictures to anybody who’ll humor me, in which you can clearly make out the field. ‘I rode my bike right between there and the baseball park,’ I’ll tell them.
On Monday night I’m watching football again – at the bar with friends – curling my fingers around a pint of PA Yuengling Lager. Rather than focusing on my surroundings and the game, I look at the car commercials to see if I can recognize any of the shooting locations and landscapes. Suddenly I’m all alone in Wyoming – surrounded by the great wide sky, and miles of empty sagebrush – listening to the wind, steady breathing, and slow creak of the pedals.
‘These HD TV’s in here are sick. They gotta be plasma or something.’
I go out and see my favorite local guitar players, hear them cover Gnarls Barkley ‘Crazy,’ and there I am again, maybe somewhere in Montana this time. Next in their set is Blind Faith – ‘Can’t Find My Way Home.’ Nice.
Someplace I hear the hip-hop song that goes ‘Tryin’ ta catch me ridin’ dirty,’ and I assume that the first friend at hand needs to hear about how in Oregon I picked up a big city radio station for the first time – in lord knows how long – and humorously cranked along to that tune.
That’s the trouble. So many things remind me of this trip, but I can’t be the annoying guy who turns every conversation to ‘When I was in Oregon . When I was in Kansas . When I was in Kentucky…’
Fortunately I have experience with this sort of thing, and know how to handle it. Long distance hikers have even invented a cute little acronym – PTD – Post Trail Depression. It’s what happens when you go away for a long time, have a ridiculously intense, amazing lifetime experience, and go back to find yourself in a place where it seems as though you never left.
I’m fortunately not to be going through any of that negative side, I think. Been there, done that. The only annoying thing is what I described above – biting my tongue and talking about everyday crap – when my head is often in Idaho.
Coming home from the Appalachian Trail was a lot tougher. In fact – that trip was more difficult as a whole. This was just kind of a big fun victory lap around the country – vacation style. There was never especially a day where I woke up and didn’t want to ride my bike, or wanted to call it quits.
Looking back a few years, I remember how I kept my marathon training a secret from my friends, and showed them the finisher’s medal over Thanksgiving when they were home for break. It was like I expected a victory parade or something. They basically just said, ‘That’s cool, good for you,’ and on with the college party anecdotes.
Coming home from the AT in ’01 was the hardest, because I hadn’t completed the hike. It was my first try at a crazy-long-adventure like this, and the nation was a pretty screwed up place to re-immerse myself in after 9/11.
Finishing in ’02 brought a satisfying closure, but with that conclusion came a sort of ‘Great, now what?’ uneasiness. General societal pressures were something to get used to – especially after months of casually sitting around campfires in the happy mountains – and making the mistake of imagining all of life would be like that from then on, like some never ending Cat Stevens or Grateful Dead song.
I lived some of the happiest days with nothing but what I could carry on my back, and came back to a world where people live in million dollar homes, consume consume consume, and end up being generally unhappy anyway.
So for a little while when I was 22 I took things a little far – like buying rice by the ten pound bag – sleeping on a mattress on the floor – because why do I need a bed when this does just fine – not owning any dish soap to wash dishes – because I hiked without dish soap and survived just fine, thanks – drank straight tap water – because why should I waste money on a Brita filter when tap water doesn’t taste so bad, why should I buy nice new clothes when I can spend the money on a fun night out, or concert tickets – stop telling me I need a cell phone – how did people get by before they were invented? etc etc.
Of course this way of life didn’t fly so well with my fellow 22 year-old peers, and I slowly but surely became more civilized. Then after a little while, along came this bike trip.
I started thinking maybe this trip was easier because I knew what I was getting into from the AT – what it would be like, what sort of attitude to keep, etc. There’s also the fact that cycle touring is more enjoyable because civilization (With all its satiation) is most always within reach, and a bike inherently brings greater mobility, and a capacity to see more.
A bike has mechanical issues that you don’t have with backpacking, which can be quite a headache. You’d think fixing a flat tire becomes a routine operation after a while, but as for me – I really despised it. Bicycle touring is overall more enjoyable than backpacking, but the crappy days and rigors of backpacking can also yield greater rewards.
Well, greater personal rewards, I should say. People in my everyday life are more impressed with this trip that the AT, and I’m getting lots of fun attention from it – much more than when I finished my hike. It’s somewhat because of this site, because I documented this trip so much better, but folks who’ve never seen this site are equally curious. It’s kind of ironic because, like I keep repeating, the trail was harder. I guess the distance and whole ‘out west’ destination are more interesting.
Wyoming was my favorite state – high mountain passes, wide open plains, big sky, desert, cliffs, rock formations… there’s a certain other-worldly quality to it that you can’t quite put a finger on. And no people.
Wyoming has the lowest population of any U.S. state. It’s like a great big small town atmosphere – so the few folks that you do meet are great. Then there’s the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone at the end. Oregon is probably the most deserving of favorite state status, since it had the most diverse scenery, great people, and I spent the most time there, but Wyoming really had something more intangible to it.
My favorite stories to recount are the times I stopped and found work – doing dishes in Lander, helping Art move furniture in Idaho, and my stay in Eugene… I guess because it’s out of the ordinary. Also the guys who took me sailing on a mountain lake in Colorado, and the seemingly random hospitality of many folks along the way, all across the country.
There’s the whole reaffirmation of the good in mankind that I found on the AT. Some people are amazed when I say the most negative thing that happened to me was when my camera was stolen off my bike – no Deliverance encounters or anything like that… but go ahead and hide in the suburbs, watch the six o’clock news, and lock your doors. The land is crawling with rapists and serial murderers.
‘So how was your big bike trip?’
I only get a phrase or two to answer this. I stick with something short – ‘Awesome. Oh, it was the best. Excellent.’ Stuff like that.
‘How’s it feel to be home?’
‘Oh come on, stop lying.’
‘No, really. Maybe because I haven’t started back at work yet. Like I haven’t come down yet. Not all the way. Check back on that in a week or so,’ with a wink.
‘Who said you ever have to come down?’