Into the Prairie

We awoke early but had a leisurely morning, ultimately heading out at 9. Still a record by about an hour. Our first road, Minnesota 60 West, was an excellent one – delicious curves, good, smooth pavement, and no traffic. We ate it up, passing through a few small towns of the one-gas-station variety. It took us along the Zumbro River through a series of small hills and bluffs west of the Mississippi for a couple of hours, then the road started to straighten out.

The land began flattening out as well, and the distance we could see in an unobstructed view was increasing. We were coming to the Prairie. I’m not going to rewrite what I have before about it, but suffice it to say I find the prairie a cleansing, energizing place. I personally had never known it begins in Minnesota until riding out this way 6 years before. That time it was late afternoon after a day of hard riding when I started seeing signs telling me I was on the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway” as I was getting towards the western half of Minnesota. Some time after that I saw a sign for the “Sod House” and pulled off to check it out. This time now I did so again, with Päivi this time, a couple of hours earlier in the day.

Here you can actually see and walk around and in a couple of sod houses, built using the same techniques as the pioneers, wood-starved in a vast grassland, used. It’s on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, but they’ve allowed the grass to grow in the area around the sod houses, even going so far as to plant the varieties believed to have held sway when white settlers first arrived around 150 years ago. It’s hard to describe the effect this has, but it’s a completely different thing than visiting an old house in the middle of a city, or looking at furnishings in a museum. All you can hear and feel outside is the prairie wind, and you smell the grass, the flowers, and the farm. You ARE in the prairie of a hundred years ago.

We eventually had to leave here and continue on our way, at least another 10 miles into Lamberton. We decided to stop here since I had good memories of the place, despite it being where my motorcycle had its only breakdown on my previous trip. This time we stayed in a motel, mainly because we’d been two days without showers and you can only get away with much more of that if you’re traveling by yourself. You do get into a certain rhythm though after a while though. Ride motorcycle during day, stopping occasionally at gas stations for snacks and necessities. Get dinner in a town somewhere, then stop at campsite for night, put up the tent, collapse to sleep early. Get up early, have coffee and maybe some oatmeal, and do it all again. Shaving, shampooing, and other such things get forgotten in the simple routines of life on the road.

Anyway, Lamberton is truly an idyllic prairie town. Clean, well-kept streets, quiet with little traffic, and people leave their bikes unchained, leaning up against houses or parked outside the ice cream parlor. You can walk across the entire town, a grid of a few streets in each direction, in about 15 minutes, and when it comes to an end you stare across green fields to the blue horizon. It’s a place that appeals to the simple man in me, although I am sure that if I lived there all of my complications would follow me. As I said before, we make those for ourselves, and the only way to free yourself from them temporarily is to go on the road.

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Päivi adjusting her pack on a roadside stop. Going through this sort of thing last time was why I’d bought hard luggage for my bike. But you can’t get that setup for every motorcycle.

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You know you are getting west when most of the side roads off the highway are dirt roads leading to nowhere.

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Sod house, seen from the outside.

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Sod house, on the inside. Up until a few years ago, you could actually sleep here!

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One of the most beautiful aspects of the prairie are the flowers

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Church in a medium sized town along the way.

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Our motel in Lamberton. A humble place that was clearly having trouble getting sufficient numbers of guests, but it was cared for. And that makes all the difference.

176 miles.

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Across the Mississippi

In the morning the mosquitos were a little bit less bad, but still made their presence felt. I spent some time cleaning my bike anyway, as a lot of the oil from the chain had accumulated on my exhaust and was generating unpleasant burning odors noticeable whenever I stopped. Then we had some coffee, packed up, and headed off.

As I mentioned yesterday, Taliesin, the longtime residence of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was in the area, and we dropped by to see if we could see it. Unfortunately, you could only see it via tour, and the tours that didn’t involve us losing a day were sold out. We would have been curious to see Taliesin, but if we were that much Frank Lloyd Wright fans we would have made reservations in advance – as, apparently, most people did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright trash container.

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Taliesin

Undeterred, we headed on the the so-called “House on the Rock”, which was a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright acid dream. Built by an otherwise undistinguished man known as Alex Jordan during the early and mid 1900s, this place consisted of Japanese gardens surrounding a sprawling residence alternating between winding, cavelike spaces and broad panels of windows looking out on the verdant Wisconsin scenery. A combination of genius and madness if we ever saw one.

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Then after a McDonald’s / internet stop we got down to motorcycling. Along the Wisconsin river and then up the Mississippi to La Crosse, then over to the Minnesota side for further travel up until we reached (another) Highway 60 that would take us west across the state. Here however daylight was starting to fail us, and we stopped and camped in Kruger state recreation area. It was slightly less buggy than the night before.

Another thing we noticed was different was the smell of the night. The aroma of the evening air is surely one of the most distinctive features about a place. In the Finger Lakes where we live it is a kind of blend of woody and flowery scents, almost intoxicating on some summer nights. In northern New England the pines take over, while going west the smell remains woody with increasing hints of grass. Now here in the Minnesota evening it is nearly all grass, and that as much as anything is telling us of what is to come..

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206 miles.

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Beginning the Westward Journey

Note, if you’re starting here, feel free to click on the “Motorcycle Trip” category on the right to read this account in sensible order. And by the way, I’ll be editing these daily entries over time so sometimes it’s worth checking back. In fact, usually I’ll just throw out a short summary of a given day just as a placeholder, then actually write the entry and add the pictures day or two later. Anyway, now back to your regularly scheduled programming..

This morning we enjoyed breakfast and lunch with Rick and Judy, and I picked up my motorcycle from the shop (actually “The Shop”) where I’d had my rear tire changed. I felt like my bike was in good hands, but perhaps could have done with spending a bit less money. At any rate I was now the proud owner of a brand new Michelin Pilot Road 3. For the record the earlier PR2 had put in 7500 miles. Not bad for a rear. The guy who did the repair (or at least talked to me about it) was a character, long-haired with a beard and telling about a coming (shorter) trip out west on his KTM. At least I had some interesting conversation while transferring cash via my nasal cavity.

Back at Rick’s, we bid our farewells, and left around 2:30 to beat rush-hour on the way out of Milwaukee. We headed north to Grafton and then picked up state highway 60 from there. This proved a mistake, since this started out with 40 miles of mostly four-lane, traffic-lighted suburban hell. The least pleasant type of road on a motorcycle. I was finally about to give up in disgust, but I couldn’t find any alternative roads. Fortunately after another mile or so it cleared up, mostly for good. Finally out, but not easily so. I remember it being tough last time as well.

And so then we were finally able to start feeling what I remembered to be true last time as well – that the journey westward really begins here. I’m not sure quite what it is, maybe it’s partly the fact that we’ve just entered central time in Milwaukee, maybe it is an effect of crossing the water, or that this is somehow the first “unfamiliar” place (I’d lived in Michigan once years ago). Maybe it’s that there are no more friends we’ll be stopping in to see until we’ve made it all the way out to Colorado. But somehow that feeling of leaving home behind and venturing into parts unknown starts heading west into the heart of Wisconsin. The actual physical changes won’t start until Minnesota – no prairie here, just the same hills and valleys, trees and grass, farms and towns. But mentally the shift has already occurred.

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We got past the middle of the state and joined up with the Wisconsin river, rolling in to Tower Hill state park as the sun was starting to get low in the sky. Here we were within striking distance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous residence, Taliesin. I’d failed to hit this on my last journey owing to it being late in the day, so this time we’d hit it in the morning and should have no problems.

The campground was idyllic, on a bluff with grassy lawns set amidst groves of trees, with the Wisconsin river winding past below. However, as is often the case in such otherwise peaceful settings, the viciousness of the mosquitos nearly made up for anything else. We kept our motorcycle clothes on and threw on our head nets. We got set up, had dinner in our tent, and collapsed off in fairly short order to sleep.

But before that, as I have sometimes before, I worked at finding ways to outsmart the little bloodsuckers. Maybe if I was still they wouldn’t detect me. Maybe if I stayed low they wouldn’t find me. None of it worked, but it got me to thinking how they must be operating according to SOME simple rules. Insects have nervous systems with just a few thousands of brain cells after all. And by the same token, all of the different types of plants I could see, some clustered near standing water, some in the drier spaces between, some usually found together with others, and so on, clearly THESE were following some kinds of rules as well. This is especially easy to see in dry and desert areas like, for example, the Eastern Sierra, where life is spare and simple, rather than tumbling all over itself in variety as it does in gentler climes.

But of course then you can go on to think about the squirrels and the chipmunks, the rest of the bugs, and the birds and all other of the local life in the same way. Underneath of course you may believe there are atoms and molecules interacting according to THEIR fixed rules, and the animals and so forth are only the results of interactions of large groups of them, but that gets to be too much for our brains, and somehow it makes a difference to imagine things in a limited way such that you could understand them, as with the mosquito or desert plant life. This “mechanistic” universe was the dream of the French philosopher mathematicians like Descartes and Pascal, but happens to be at odds with modern science. (We’ll come back to this.) It also illuminates some aspects of the Buddhist point of view.

While neither a Buddhist nor a Daoist would use the words “mechanism” or “rule”, this is more due to aversity to the simplistic machine-like connotations of these terms (not to mention their recent, Western derivation) than the meanings we talk about here. The Daoist speaks of “flow”, “way”, and “nature of things”, and the Buddhist of “conditioned arising” and “karma”, but they are both seeing orderly processes unfolding according to constant laws. Karma, for example, is the results of one’s own actions ricocheting throughout the world and coming back to affect one later on down the road of time. Clearly for this to make any sense there have to be some regularities in the way things ricochet, otherwise any possible effect would be lost instantly in a sea of chaos.

And yet for these concepts to make any sense at all there must be some notion of something outside the logically proceeding processes and interactions. Otherwise we would be simply helpless ripples in the currents of karma, wouldn’t have any choice whether to act in accordance with the Dao or against it. And in Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions the same issue is wrestled with in the question of free will and the ability to sin. Finally science itself has for now done away with the idea of a universe of pure mechanism in constructing the irreducibly probabilistic quantum theory. In quantum theory it is the probabilities of things happening that change predictably over time according to fixed rules, but the things happenings themselves are fundamentally unpredictable. It is as if the theory tells you that this coin will come up heads 50% of the time if you toss it at time A, but 65% of the time if you toss it at time B, but it won’t tell you whether it will be heads. (Actually it says this about electrons and other particles, not macroscopic objects like coins, but this is the idea.)

And so we see that a number of major traditions within human thought – including both spiritual ones as well as physical science – involve a dualist view of the universe, as arising from the close combination of an aspect that is observable and predictable (mechanistic), with an aspect that is not, but is otherwise left unexplained. We’ll come back to this topic later, but for now if anyone knows anything about a widely followed tradition that does NOT involve this dualism, please let me know in the comments.

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143 miles.

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Across the Water

We got up early, had a leisurely, easy packing (since we were staying in a motel), and rode the couple of miles to the ferry port in Ludington, MI. We took our bikes and ourselves on the SS Badger across Lake Michigan, a fairly smooth four-hour trip.

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Then we grabbed a snack in Manitowoc on the other side, and motored down on I-43 to Grafton where we met my friend Rick. Last time I’d done this I’d refused to take any interstate and rode some small roads through a state park on the way. But eventually I’d gotten fed up by the slow progress and wanting to see Rick eventually, had hopped on the four-laner at some point. The state park had not been as impressive as it looked on the map, and the boat schedule was apparently an hour later than last time to boot, so we decided to skip the preliminaries.

It wasn’t as hot as the last time, but traffic was heavier. Rick led us in through downtown Milwaukee to the south side, and he and Judy welcomed us to their place. Here’s Rick and his son Mike, and Judy and my wife.

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As last time, they made their place an oasis of calm and contentment and left me wanting to move to Milwaukee. After some rest, we put away the motorcycles for a while and headed out to the state fair for some various enjoyments. For those of you familiar with the New York state fair, the Wisconsin one is the same thing, a little smaller and less crazy, and more refined. For example where the New York food and vendor areas are an array of makeshift white banner tents of varying size, in Wisconsin there are many more actual buildings. The corridors are wider and there’s less jostling. There are even (a few) more places to buy good beer. And of course there are the local specialties like cheese curds, baked potatoes, and cream puffs. Animal exhibits seemed about equal, New York losing for its lack of pig races but winning on overall quantity and accessibility. New York does win the wine competition hands down, but Wisconsin did at least put in a showing, which I didn’t realize it could.

Of course at the end of all this, stacked on top of a day of boating and motorcycling, we were pretty tired. We held out for a bit after getting back to Rick’s, discussing things and doing a bit of google earthing of possible routes, but soon P and I succumbed to our slumber needs.

88 miles.

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Coast to Coast

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Today we made our way up into the “thumb” and then crossed over to the mitt itself and through that over to Michigan’s west coast at Ludington. Tomorrow we’ll be taking the ferry over to Sheboygan in Wisconsin, but for now we got a motel on this side. A motel instead of camping mainly because we arrived late, and somewhat wet, and need to leave early. It feels like a crime not to be camped on Lake Michigan amidst the white sand dunes, but we’re still getting the whole morning routine down and would stand a good chance of missing the boat if we tried. These are the only days we’ll be on a schedule for a while, so some sacrifices can be borne.

A sampling of locally-flavored road signs we saw today:

  • To shoot or not to shoot is up to you [sign with different size deer and point amounts]
  • Shrine of the Pines [exit and directions; not sure what to expect here]
  • Bet you can! [ad for a casino]
  • Concealed pistol classes, 1 to 10 people [phone number]

OK, this last deserves comment since it relates back to the “cave man” theme of yesterday. Just as cave men made fires, cave men carried spears. They had to obtain the meat they roasted over the fires somehow. There is all sorts of debate as to what extent early humans were vegetarian or meat eaters, but our digestive tract and teeth classify us squarely as omnivores. Fossil evidence and cave paintings both agree that hunting was done. And although in some species the females are the larger of the sexes, in all primates it is the male. For some reason it always tends to work this way in carnivorous species – the males competing over and protecting their females (most often from each other), and evolving size and strength to suit. And it seems in humans these differences led to the men most often doing the job of hunting.

And again, it’s with us now as an instinct. Whether we hunt today, or simply own and practice using a firearm, we’re carrying the spear that the early cave MAN earned his place by. Of course women share some of these instincts too – there’s only so much information the Y chromosome is able to carry. But just as our campfire impulses build to tremendous accomplishments but can also lead us overboard into polluting, exploiting corporations and nationalistic barriers, our hunting instincts cause problems as well. Concealed pistol courses. No doubt in the name of “self defense”. Yet I strongly suspect the number of lives lost due to concealed pistols vastly outnumbers the number of lives saved.

Ingeniously man has created less dangerous ways to allow our hunting and our male competition instincts to express themselves. Football, rugby, sports of all kinds are the clearest examples. And actually competition in other areas as well is surely fired by these same drives. In my academic days a colleague asked, “What is a PhD thesis? It’s an expression of dominance!” The desire to build a better product, to create a more beautiful work of art, to be known and remembered by more other humans – all of this would seem to be driven by our innate needs to compete and to vanquish. Indeed, it is hard to imagine humans getting very far at all beyond the equivalent of a band of chimps without these cave man impulses to hunt, to compete, and to work together and huddle around fires.

And so we have to wonder, what is this thing we call “intelligence”? Just what is it we seek to find when we search the stars for signs of “intelligent life”? If it were simply the ability to conceive and to think, we have no reason to believe that dolphins and elephants are not our equals. They have bigger brains than us, and they are bigger in precisely the parts that we have learned are responsible for perception and therefore conception. No, there is something essential not in the raw capacity, but in the forces and dynamics at play. Just as natural selection has driven self-replicating molecules and building-block proteins to the inconceivable heights of multicellular life, our primate-derived suite of instincts is creating something even greater with the raw facilities of elaborated perception and action that evolution had brought us to some two million years ago. It remains to be seen where this ultimately leads.

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260 miles.

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Arrived Michigan; City of RVs

We spent the day on the slabs, heading on Canadian “interstates” across the finger of Ontario poking down between New York and Michigan. There aren’t really many alternative roads, the distance is significant, and the country is somehow not that interesting anyway. Unfortunately, interstate is interstate, and aside from kilometer signs and a higher than average number of Tim Horton’s, there was very little to tell us we were in a foreign country. I’m sure it’s a lot more fun when you cross over from France into Italy or Germany.

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At any rate, we made it across all right and headed up to Lakeport State Park as on my previous trip. Somehow it’s more of a city of RVs than I remember from last time. I really don’t understand why these campgrounds are so dominated by RVs. Are all the tents just going elsewhere to places we don’t know about, or are we really such a tiny minority? And of course every space has a fire ring, and they are all being used. Odor of smoke mingled with lighter fluid. If ever one has had a doubt that we are descended from cave men, let it be extinguished now. The impulse to burn wood and huddle around it will not be denied.

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The amazing thing really is how much we accomplish despite being so recently removed from these roots. Take our motorcycles for instance. They are things of metal containing fire harnessed not for heat but for motion. Have you ever seen metal in the ground? No, I don’t mean rusty nails. It must have been an impressive process of discovery when colored rock/sand was somehow and for some reason melted for the first time to result in something shiny and hard. Countless lives spent after that finding and digging different types of ore, experimenting with melting and combining them in different ways. A thousand or more years from these first fumblings to bronze, a thousand more to iron and steel. And the motorcycle is a veritable work of art – aluminums, steels, exotic alloys; and let’s not even mention the rubber handlegrips and tires (a hundred years’ drama of European discovery and colonial exploitation of rubber trees, of Charles Goodyear’s patient experimentation with heating, and ultimately learning even to do without the trees).

And where does the fire come from? The Chinese found, by accident we must suppose, “rocks that burn” long ago. And then maybe tar pits or natural gas fissures, leading us to look in the ground for fuels that burn cleaner and more reliably than wood. A slow start rapidly speeding up in the 19th and 20th centuries, oil barons, giant companies we all say we hate but cannot and will not live without. Refining processes and distribution networks.

And beyond all that the ideas, the thought and design that make the engine go, the containment by metal honed by manufacturing processes developed over more years, the use of another force, electricity, to start the fire, the principles of timing, feedback, and automatic adjustment. All won at cost of great mental efforts by hundreds, thousands of people, working together, building on one another’s efforts. People who in their off hours go out to the woods and light fires to huddle around: cave men.

And let’s think about that for a second — a fire needs wood to be gathered, and flint or a rod and mortar to light. Or embers from a previous fire carefully maintained. And in the end a fire that is cooperatively enjoyed for having been cooperatively made. Do we see anything different in farming? Or in that process we spoke of of finding ore, smelting, and smithing it? Or in working together in an oil company to make money by digging the earth? The fire from burning the oil is not the true fire here; it is the fount of money created by selling it that is huddled around. In every commercial enterprise we can see the old instincts in play. And maintaining those embers — accumulating bits of knowledge in science and engineering, that allow us to take a shortcut by using earlier mens’ work, again it is the cave man we can see.

So, suppose we want to create an intelligent, Thinking Man, a Cultural Man. It seems we could get less far and do much worse than to create a Cave Man.

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230 miles.

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Away

The longest journey begins with a single … blah blah blah. Today we headed out, and that was enough of an accomplishment. We did not make any great distance, just a short hop along the 20 to Buffalo, but we finally managed to get on the road and separate ourselves from our stuff. Our home had been separated from already, and we spent the last night at our neighbors’ house up the hill. We’d lugged a number of bags and boxes up there as well – the suitcases and contents we planned to take to Europe once we got back, along with a depressing amount of other stuff. Some of it consisted of foodstuffs and other items we were giving to our neighbors, but a lot was just other stuff that, for whatever reason, we weren’t able to let go of just yet. Some of that was destined for the motorcyles, and thankfully we were able to get this onto our bikes with less trouble than I’d expected.

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The ride was fairly uneventful. There was more traffic and more suburban development than I remembered along this stretch of the road, but the weather was a perfect mix of blue sky, puffy clouds, and cool air and the trip was fine. Seneca Falls and Waterloo are both nice classic upstate New York towns along the way, and the rest was farm fields, rolling hills, and unfortunately some of this suburban development as I mentioned.

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At the end we met our friend John in Buffalo and went out for a beer and some dinner. Here’s a shot of what might be the last IPA I encounter for a while -

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140 miles.

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Departure: Imminent

(Note: Please click “Motorcycle Trip” under Categories at right to read in chronological order.)

Leaving in two days. It’s been a heck of a journey just getting here. In the last two weeks we’ve quit our jobs, sold our house, sold our furniture, gotten rid of a lot of our belongings and packed our remaining ones into ship-to-Europe boxes, store-in-NY boxes, or stuck them in the take-on-trip room or the take-on-plane room. The Europe and New York boxes are both too numerous, the take-on-trip room is impossibly full, and the take-on-plane room is strangely empty.

Stressful, yes. Agonizing over what to do with what, sometimes arguing over it (some things are easier done alone), realizing the ridiculousness of how much stuff we actually have (can you say “pack rat”, anyone?), knowing that among our peers we are actually rather lightly burdened (can you say “race of pack rats”?), and still failing to bring ourselves to throw, give, or sell away more than a fraction of it. Understanding that despite our good intentions, we’re just bringing more of the same with us on our motorcycle trip. Giving thanks that despite this constraints of space will force things to be at least somewhat reasonable.

Do we really need that French press accessory for our camp stove? Sealed coffee container to go with it? What about that water filter we’ll probably use only once? The pocket hammock? Ha!

It’s like the journey of ultralight hiking. You realize the weight of your rucksack is breaking your back and taking all the joy out of hiking. First you try cutting out a few luxuries. Then you spend a bunch of money reducing the weight of the items you continue to carry. Lightweight sleeping bags, tents, pots and pans – it’s all out there for the right price. Your bank account is hurting but you tell yourself it’s money well spent — happy experiences in the heart of nature await. Finally, excited and ready to skip down the trail in unburdened lightness of being, you set out on your first trip with all your new kit – and still find yourself busting your balls.

You may give up or tell yourself to be satisfied there. But you can also start to dig deeper and come to understand that the only way to go further is not to work on your pack, but on your mind. You need to change your conceptions not just of what you want, but of what you need. Partly it’s a matter of new skills — how to pick your campsites, what types of food calories to bring, how to layer your clothes, etc.. Partly it’s ingenuity, refusing to carry any item that doesn’t serve at least two purposes, making less do more. Eat out of your pots, sit and sleep on your pack’s back pads, pitch your tent with trekking poles, stuff like that. But mostly it’s attitude. Do you really need a tent to live outdoors, or can you get by with a tarp? Is a sleeping bag really the most efficient approach, or can clothes and a quilt do the same? And why are you carrying that book along?

In the end, you’ll find something interesting has happened. While you were concentrating on reducing your pack weight so you could enjoy nature, you’ve actually been brought closer to nature itself. By learning to work with it rather than against it, and carrying fewer distractions, you have a purer experience in the outdoors, more in tune with the surroundings.

Long motorcycle trips (including this one) should be done the same way. But it’s hard to hone the technique when you only do one every few years, and spend the rest of the time surrounded by the comforts and gadgets of modern life. We’ll see where we end up.

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The Trip

OK, after that rather vague introduction to things, what is this site actually about? Six years ago this summer I climbed onto a thirty-year-old Japanese motorcycle and rode it from upstate New York out to Colorado and back. That was a heck of an experience, and I planned to follow it up with more of the same in the next year or two. But, life being what it is, I haven’t managed it – until now. Some people can find the time to do trips like that every year. Others will never do even one. I’m somewhere in between. But the stars have lined up in 2013 and soon it’ll be time to go.

This time I’ll be going with my wife, where I was a bachelor before, and I’ll be on a two-year-old bike (and hers not much older), a far cry from my steed the last time. We’ll actually have cellular phones, we’ll have GPS, and I’ll have this slick iPad to write my accounts on rather than a circa-2003 netbook. Will any of this make a difference? Aside from the companionship of my loving wife, I hope not, though I suppose I could stand a little less time on the side of the road figuring out what’s wrong with my machine. (No, it wasn’t that bad…)

Sometimes we get into the trap of thinking technology makes our lives easier, when in fact our lives are just our lives, and our difficulties we make for ourselves due to our nature, not that of the physical objects surrounding us. The point of a motorcycle trip is to breathe in the air of life, to feel its breezes blowing across your face, to taste hints of freedom. It is to be minimalist and unencumbered – subjectively measured and experienced though those things are. If we’re fiddling with a smartphone or some other piece of technology rather than looking out at the world around us, the game has already been lost.

Anyway, here’s a map of our planned route:

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On the way out to Colorado this roughly follows the path I took two years ago, which was so good I’d like to do it again. Then we’ve got to get up to Spokane to visit a friend, and since we’re already fairly north there it seems reasonable to try a Canadian route back – especially since we could get a taste of the Canadian Rockies right off the bat.

The whole thing is approximate, in fact doubly so. First we’ll pick the actual roads each day, depending on what looks good and what we feel like. Second we might make major changes (go through North Dakota instead of South Dakota, or detour to Utah), or even chop pieces out entirely if it seems like we won’t make it in the time we have. But that’s the way the best motorcycle trips are done. You’ve got to have the outlines of an overall plan to help you through the low days, not to mention getting you out there in the first place. And you need to freedom to follow the winds of fancy once you’re OUT there.

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Of Motorcycle Trips, Experience, and Airports

This is going to be a blog about a motorcycle trip, but of course it’s going to try to be more than that. Or maybe not. It’s going to be about Buddhism too, but one of the truths of Buddhism is that after you’ve reached the supreme ultimate, when you’ve finally penetrated the veil of surface experience to sense the underlying matrix of interacting pure forces that make up existence itself, you nevertheless end up back where you started – in the flow of “ordinary” life. I’ve done a motorcycle trip before, and written about it. Now in this account I want to do something a little different – to go into philosophy, into science, into psychology. Yes, it can be hard to do that in a blog without being boring, which I don’t want to be. Robert Pirsig, that eminent midwestern sage, used the device of switching back and forth between the secular and the abstract in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but it only worked to an extent – the long philosophical sections still drag – and he is a far more skilled and intelligent writer than I’ll ever be.

So this account is going to be about experience. Not just experience though, although that will be an important part, but experience itself. Five different people can go on a motorcycle trip for six weeks across the U.S. and have five different experiences. One might come back and write a book, one will have the experience of a lifetime and come back to inspire all his friends, and three will make some memories but return more or less untransformed from before. We want to understand the difference between these, and, ultimately, to become more likely ourselves to have the first (or the second) kind of experience. I’ll try to avoid the explicit philosophizing like I said, but this is what we’ll be aiming for. Relax, though! Pirsig didn’t go on his trip with just the idea to have some experiences and write a journal about them. He had a whole plan, a huge agenda and outline of what he wanted to convey. I have no such plan and am just going to write a journal.

So anyway, airports. Maybe you’ve been in one and had that wonderful, “floating” experience one can have there, where you just sit back and watch the people and the goings on, perfectly satisfied for yourself. Your bags are packed, your arrangements made, and all you have to do is wait for your plane. It’s going to take you someplace new and far away, and you’re excited about that. But it’s a kind of tranquil excitement, because it’s still somehow separated from you. And yet you’ve already left home – that’s all behind now, all the cares, all the responsibilities. Your work is left to run by itself for a while. Thus between, you relax, maybe sip a beer or a coffee, and look out at the humming activity. Things are happening here. Planes are coming in, planes are heading out, vehicles and men zip efficiently about serving them. Families meet and say goodbye, strangers encounter one another on adjacent seats, maybe you catch the eye of a cute girl (or guy) across the way. Meanwhile the sun slowly sets, casting deepening red rays through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Maybe you have to be alone to have this experience to its fullest, but you can still experience it with companions. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about at all though, Yoshinori Sunahara expressed it in another way in his album Pan Am – The Sound of ’70s.

But there’s another kind of experiential mode you can be in in an airport – the one characterized by aggravation, boredom, discomfort. The food sucks, the chairs are uncomfortable, you’re tired, there’s an annoying woman blabbing her whole life story into her cell phone, this kid keeps running back and forth where you’re trying to stretch your legs, and there’re no pretty women anywhere to be seen. In fact everyone is just ugly, ugly, ugly. You’re worried about some loose ends you left hanging at work, and when you get where you’re going to visit your family you’re going to have to deal with a whole other set of issues.

You get the idea. Same airport, same person, different attitude. And if you talk to the person who’s had both experiences five years later I can tell you which one he’s going to remember. It’s tempting to say it’s not about the circumstances, but where the mind is. But it isn’t that simple. Actually we might want to look at it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But this post is getting too long and philosophical. We’ll come back to that another time.

Posted in Colorado+ 2013, Motorcycle Trip, Philosophy | 1 Comment