Archive | August, 2012

Sandpoint, ID to Anacortes, WA – Decompressing at Sea Level

1 Aug
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It’s 2006, I’m 24 years old and nearing the end of a jog beside the arboretum in Seattle. A recent conversation with my father loops through my head, ending with a simple question: “Who do you want to be at 30?” 

Of course, the answer he’s looking for rhymes with “-octor” or “-awyer” but as I pass the newly completed Japanese Gardens and turn up the steep drive to Montlake Hill an image begins forming in my mind. When I peak the hill, lungs and legs burning, it’s clear: I see myself at 30, walking down the street, a self assured adult due to what I have accomplished in my 20s. More importantly, I know what I have to do to become that; I have to accomplish 7 goals. Sadly for my bank account, none rhyme with any profession.   

Leaving Sandpoint, ID on a clear day I’m positive the batshit weather is behind me. Through clear skies and flat ground I enter a Washington state that does not yet resemble home. My home is damp with grey sub-temperate skies feeding greedy green life consuming every surface. The Washington I enter is sandy and hot, sage brush, pines and fir trees struggling in the poverty of the desert. Cows and horses munch on irrigated grasses. Bulbous wrinkled mountains surround me as I pedal beside long wide rivers, knowing that soon I’m back to the ups. The old advice plays again in my head “There’s always another hill, except sometimes that hill is 5 mountain passes.” The climbs are steep, volcanic activity and sub-ocean plates squeezing the earth into 4-5,000 foot climbs. Glaciers carved the peaks around me into sharp angles, the rivers and glacial lakes below an impossible emerald. 4 days of climbs, the final one 80 miles without food leaving me unable to really take it what surrounded me, or the sense of relief as I pedaled down with gravity’s assist that I was nearly finished with this journey. By the end of the 4 days I’m spent. My knees hurt as bad as they did in the Appalachians, I can no longer tell the difference between the chirps and tweets of surrounding birds and my bike’s crank arm, I’m ready to be home.
My strongest memory of Washington is the swath of destruction as I approach Republic, WA, a small town in the middle of the Cascades. A tornado crashed through the town 3 days before I arrived. Hundreds of trees were uprooted or snapped. I pedaled past piles of fresh lumber beside the road, stacked neatly but too numerous yet to clear. Power poles were shattered, laying in pieces, the black lines on top spread on the ground tangled and limp like a corpse’ hair washed up on shore. Through what was left I can see the destructive energy of what passed through, as well as in the faces of the people in town when I asked what happened here. No one was injured, thankfully, but people knew that this is the beginning of something. The grasses here should be brown in the summer, they’re green the last two years. The formerly hot nights dip to near freezing. One thing that will stick with me most from this trip is weather. I notice wind more, when I’m out walking, or on a short bike ride. I feel the sun, focus more on my surroundings, and I see the climate is changing. Kansas is hotter earlier than it’s ever been before, but it’s been hot. The Wildfires in Colorado are worse than they’ve ever been before, but there have been wildfires. There’s never been a tornado in the middle of the Cascades, and I see in people’s faces the concern as they slowly come to realize this is the new normal. 
My final day of biking I see the Washington I know. Overhanging trees, the bark wet with dew and moss covered. Thick morning mists as I pedal by the Skagit river, an easy day of biking that ends with a grin stretching half my face open as the cool wind carries the scent of salt waves lapping against the sand and I step off my pedals onto the beach and dip my rear tire in the Pacific Ocean at an RV park in Anacortes, WA. A retired couple on a short vacation with friends snaps my final picture in the water, then applauds as I roll my bike back onto the grass and I accept some celebratory beers and these are enough celebration. I expected no parades or awards when I finished. What I’ve done others have done better, people I heard about on the trip or I met personally. Couples in graduate school, pedaling home towards careers and the beginnings of a family. Groups who actually set up charities with sponsors before leaving, rather than half-assing it while rushing to finish writing a book then asking for money in emails (SERIOUSLY, THOUGH. IF YOU HAVEN’T DONATED, ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS IS A FANTASTIC ORGANIZATION. EVEN $5-10 CAN DO SO MUCH. PLEASE DONATE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE). I heard of solo bicyclists finishing the trip on a unicycle, a Brit touring the world on a one speed Penny-Farthing, a triathlete who pedaled from NY to SF in 30 days. I meet Australians preparing to return home after years of world travel and Guatemalans midway through a 2 year excursion to Alaska. I’m none of these people and I don’t feel I have to be. I’m finished, with the bike trip, with my 7 goals, with my 20s. I set out to physically challenge myself, to learn more about America, and to grow as a person. I’ve done all that. If a few people remember me as that bald amateur comedian carrying the wooden club on his bike, awesome.        
So now begins the transition to home. Waking up in the same bed in the middle of the night, wonder what happened to my tent. Learning to eat again, rather than feed. Eating a normal breakfast instead of stuffing 2,000 calories into my gut and rushing off. The sore legs from jogging again and the incomplete feeling of bicycling only 40 miles a day rather than 90. After these journeys, the most difficult part is the internal adjustment. I feel different. A new perspective on the world, more confidence in what I’m capable of, a little lighter as the stresses of the trip disappear and the stresses of settled life have yet to come. But I’m returning to where nearly everything is the same which is a relief after 3 months, but still feels uncertain. I’ve changed, will I still belong here? And of course, there is the hanging question that I won’t be able to answer for months: What did this trip really mean? I’ll only figure this out as I tell the stories, as I move forward with my life, as experience is augmented with context.
When I was 24 I set out 7 goals for myself.
1. Write a book
2. Run a Marathon
3. Backpack Across Europe
4. Earn a Black Belt
5. Teach English in S. Korea
6. Shikoku Pilgrimage
7. Bicycle across the US
Along the way an inside joke began to circulate that upon completing the goals, a wizened Japanese man would appear from the forest, hand me a sword and say “You are ready!” and then tell me what to do next, like defending a village from an ogre or something. Last Christmas a girlfriend gave me a sword, and when I stepped off the pedals in the Pacific the Japanese man was no where to be found. Until he shows up with a concrete plan, I’m going to need to best guess my next goals, to look at who I want to be at 40. So far, the list I’ve come up with is modest:
1. Publish a book
2. Triathalon
3. Stand up comedy 1,000 times
4. Ride a horse across the Eurasian Steppe (This one is aspirational, but how awesome would this be?)
Somewhere along the way I’d like to start a family, find a career that I care about, and do all the normal things that people do. There were periods in my 20’s where my goal were set aside, where I considered abandoning them, but I stuck to them because somewhere in my mind, I knew they were important. Now that they are complete, I understand why. There’s a confidence that’s come with them, the knowledge that I can direct myself towards the unknown, with no wizened Japanese man to guide me or tell me I’m prepared, and say “Ready or not, here I come” 
Plus, I got a sword now in case of Ogre-Emergencies
Thanks for reading, everyone. Hope you enjoyed these and I’ll fill you in on the next journey.
Paul Barach