Stuck in a rut!
Speeding up the fire making process.
Day 4 highlights! More adventures with washed out bridges, and MUD, MUD, MUD. Finished the day by crossing the Mississippi River. 250 mile day - making awesome time!
Day 3 of riding: DONE. Crossed into Mississippi this morning to find lots of dirt to plow - finally! Tennessee had a little too much pavement for me. The rains and tornados of last night left us with lots of water to cross and one road that was completely flooded out - had to do a short reroute, but not without a flat tire. We were having so much fun that we didn’t stop to eat until 4pm, though. Found a great campsite on a lake to finish the day. Mississippi be good!
Just finished Day 2. The little, bizarrely named Tennessee town of Gruetly-Laager to just across the Tennessee River, about 4 miles from Mississippi. Dirt, rivers, tornado warnings. Full day.
Day 1 on the Trans American Trail. A few highlights here. Finishing day 2 and Tennessee now. Heading into Mississippi tomorrow!
FOUR THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED miles of hill country, flatlands, mountains and deserts to ride across from Tennessee to the Pacific coast of Oregon - all on remote dirt roads. What does it to ride it?
Buy a bike.
My beast of choice is a Kawasaki KLR 650. This is the workhorse for most adventure riders. If you Google KLR, you wont find pictures of them around the city or highways. All of the pictures are of riders in the far corners of the Earth bearing captions like Crossing the Gobi Desert, Dodging landmines in Libya, and Passing through the Atacama on the way to Patagonia. I mean, even Wikipedia celebrates its derring do. Its cheap, sturdy, unadorned and brutally simple. The model has remained nearly unchanged in its fundamentals since it was introduced nearly 25 years ago, so its a bit like the Volkswagen Beetle: anywhere you go, there will be an old one in someone’s shed to scavenge parts from.
I bought a stock 2009 KLR, so there were a few modifications needed to get the bike ready for the road.
Remove Mystery Machine-green stickers off and replace with Trans American Trail stickers
Skid plate to protect the engine from rocks and roots, crash bars for your gas tank in a fall, and bark busters your hands when you nail a tree. These are the things that will protect your bike when it falls off the trail, high in the Rocky Mountains. Its a fairly involved process. The bike must be skinned and skeletonized to install the hardware, but the result looks good.
The gear you will need on the road:
Roll Chart Mount
The maps are an interesting thing. There are nine states that the route explores: Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon. Each of these states comes with a collection of about ten maps that chart the route. In addition to these are what they call roll charts. Roll charts are long strips of paper that have notations and for every single left and right turn of the entire route. These are fed through a roll chart holder mounted your handle bars where you can scroll through them as you ride.
Even more gear:
to hold camping gear and clothes,
Heated vest and grips
There’s more gear to hunt and gather for before everything is ready to go and my May 15 start date in looming ever closer on the calendar, but this is a good start.
Once I had decided to leave the insurance world, I nearly just as quickly decided that I should also go as far as reasonably possible; California, maybe San Francisco, but any blot of ink on the Californian map would pretty much do. The last two years spent in a fluorescent coma had developed a nervous anticipation for whatever that was to follow, like a piano wire pulled tight, waiting for the hammer. So I also decided I should find the most unreasonable way of getting there as a way of letting that energy ring out. Something with outrageous style.
Not too long before, I had heard stories of the Trans American Trail. Supposedly the longest dirt road in America. The designer had hunched over maps for months daisy-chaining together a series of rural dirt, gravel and fire roads into a 4,199 mile anaconda twisting from Tennessee to Oregon. The trail comes with a litany of unforeseen adventures and bumps along the way: river crossings without bridges, high mountain passes, flat tires in remote deserts, snow, bears, rednecks with guns, and all of Utah in general. Wrong turns are the least of worries.
But the ride is fantastic. You experience the range of America’s geography in a visceral way that kicks your gut. The eastern hills of Tennessee, the North Mississippian hill country, the Oklahoma flats, Colorado Mountains, the deserts of Utah and desolation of Nevada, and down through the coniferous forests of Oregon until you dip your wheels in the Pacific Ocean. I have always been attracted by the peculiar romance of pilgrimages; penance through ordeal, satisfaction in the journey, hopefully a small beam of enlightenment in the destination. I suspect the Trail’s architect also had something to shake off.
This would do just fine.
I bought a motorcycle.
I prescribed May 15, 2013 as my departure date and began saving most every penny I made for the trip and whatever adventures it grew to include. The small company I work for has been good to me. They had given me a job when I desperately needed one and had become a bit like family. In turn, I decided to forfeit the usual two weeks notice and give them a two months notice, giving them longer to find a replacement and taking my chances that they would let me stay on another eight weeks. May 3 would be my last working day. Unplanned, but two years to the day that I took the position. I liked the symmetry.
When I had finished typing my two months notice far after work hours, I walked through my office and considered what I was abandoning with surging anxiety in my gut. In the abstract fluorescent shadows of safety lights, the office looks like a cubist exercise in monochromatic color fields at this hour. The paycheck, the corner office, the flexible hours, the 401k. An eternity of these things. A life of Mondays. Four walls and a water cooler.
I came into the office before hours the next morning.
I see. And where will you go?
West. Maybe California.
What will you do?
I don’t know that yet.
This isn’t where you need to be.
Annie Edson Taylor was a widowed school teacher and on her 63rd birthday in 1901 she climbed into a barrel and spiraled over Niagra Falls.
I wonder about how she felt after she told everyone what she intended to do. Surely it was the talk of the small town of Niagara for months beforehand. Her mental heath would have been debated in the sewing clubs, and bets made on her survival, or even going through with the whole damn thing at all, by the men passing through bars on the way home from work. Did she feel progressively caught in her own dare the more she talked? And why the falls? When she walked through town, did their distant, unrelenting white noise gnaw at her? Was their existence the challenge? Was she bored?
I imagine Annie Taylor crawling inside her mattress-padded barrel, all petticoats and dress. She must have looked like shuttlecock, bobbing on the upper Niagara. Did she look up at the sky and momentarily consider reaching up for the barrel’s rim to stop her accomplices from sealing her in?
And what did she think was on the other side of the falls? There is no challenge except that which we construct ourselves. We stand up river, pointing down toward the falls and say, look there is my summons. From here we choose to float or stand and, if we do, what is it we expect will change?
When Annie Taylor emerged from her wooden cocoon and looked back, there were the 167 feet of the great Niagara Falls; unchanged since before she toppled them, indifferent to her passage, and, looking ahead, the river continued to advance just as it had above and before. As it is now, long after her death.
Perhaps we are confused when we find the Book of Life isn’t bound in pages, but rather leaps in one huge, yawning, unbroken scroll. Maybe this infinity is bewildering and beyond our grasp. Maybe we feel the only way we can begin to comprehend it is in pieces and from there we find the need to establish our own chapters: to delineate the before and the after.
I turned in my notice and waded inescapably into the river accelerating toward the edge of the falls.
It was about 9 o’clock when I finally left my office Thursday night, February 3, 2013, two weeks ago. The radioactive glow of the spreadsheets had cauterized my eyes into near blindness and I turned off the workstation where I had just finished composing my two-month’s notice. I stood up and considered the VW Minibus-sized office where I’ve lived, at times nearly like a caveman, for the previous two years. The view is bleak. Wall to wall file cabinets crowding an L desk and a tonal palate that should be named “Ambien” in the color wheels. Its barren of life, even by corporate levels. Not a single family picture, Newton’s Cradle, Chia Pet, slinky, hApPy BiRtHdAy card, stress ball, or Office Space action figure collection. My office does, however - thankfully, blessedly - have a huge bay window, a luxury not lost on me, with a view of the final approach to the local Air Force Base. In the summer, when they’re really moving, the jets ring in syncopation like a telephone, taking off up to one every minute. But the lack of any mental stimulus past my view of the parking lot, and the air traffic beyond, has given me an appreciation of the existence of extremophiles.
When I graduated from the University of Georgia on July 31, 2010, I thought I might go ahead and retire until my thirties. Which is good, in a way, because no one was finding jobs in the summer of 2010 anyway. At least I wasn’t actually expecting to.
Just live off the fat of the land, man.
Hang with the People.
That’s livin’, dude!
I was out of cash by October. I spent the entire month of January, 2011 with less than $10 in my wallet. By this point I had capitulated to the crushing realization that I was going to have to turn to Regular Order and find some way of putting money in my hand.
Get serious, son.
I’d heretofore refused consideration of the option. Part stupidity, part rightful trust in the goodness of life (TGL - form of speech: life truth; Definition: The truth that, so long as no one is dying, everything will be alright in the end, man). We will come back to that last part. I was working sporadic grunt labor jobs for $50 a day: moving boxes of sheet metal, installing cubicles, setting up bridal expos, selling Futons to college kids. In risk management, this work falls under the NOC header - Not Otherwise Classified. What classification would it fall under? Recession victim? Directionless college educated day labor? Irregular Order?
In late January, 2011, I got the call that an insurance company needed boxes moved.
Its just for the day, pays $8 an hour, and wear a collared shirt.
I need money. Yes.
I showed up, filled boxes with the files I was told to, and pushed them around in motion with other workers who were replacing the carpet like a giant, life sized sliding tile puzzle. No matter how banal the work, I do like using my hands. I put my back into it.
Hey, we have more boxes. Can you come back one more day?
I need money. Yes.
Hey, we still have some boxes. One, maybe two more days next week?
I need money. Yes
Hey look, you don’t seem to mind this, would you like to be a file assistant?
I need the cash. Yes.
A week later their Claims Assistant left.
Would you like to be a Claims Assistant?
I dont know what that means.
I answered phones, processed checks, talked down claimants calling about their stubbed toe that was surely going to develop gangrene and fall off if I dont talk to someone right now, filed files, and earned a wage. Regular Order. Three months later, the woman that worked long, silent hours in the back office quit and the president and another boss asked to see me in their office.
You’ll make more money. It comes with an office. Its not rocket science.
But what is it?
Underwriting. Accounting. Its not -
Rocket science, or what qualifies as such for me, is a little less than what it might be for Robert Oppenheimer, and probably everyone thats not me. I took every math class in high school twice. Not for the fun. I did great in college with the benefit of being able to choose the field of my choice. My choice was specifically the one that had the fewest math requirements: History. It still took me three attempts to pass the one required college algebra class. Numbers to me are as unintelligible as tea leaves in a hurricane.
But barely employed, and still broke, and this looks like its it or nothing else. I mean, if I give it honest work, and if I go ahead and decide to put in however many hours it takes to get it right, it can’t go too wrong. Right? Its not actually rocket science. Right?
My first official day was May 3, 2011, and the next year and a half turned into a haze of spreadsheets. I swear I don’t know what the hell happened from May 2011 through January 2013. I spent all the hours it took in the office to make the rocket science work. I made it work. But I also noted how the spreadsheets only got bigger, and my interest only smaller. In fact, my interest level hovered near zero. It was comfortable, though. It came with an office. It (was) wasn’t rocket science.
Then in the summer of last year, one of the sweet ladies in the cubicles that had been working in the insurance industry for nearly two of my lifetimes said she was not feeling well and needed to lay down. By hand the other ladies helped her to the conference room where they thought she would be more comfortable. She laid down on the conference table, closed her eyes, and died.
This was about the time I walked in, having heard the commotion.
911 had already been called, and there was someone on the phone with her husband, and everyone had frightened, quarter-sized eyes. Our nurse was listening for a heartbeat and not finding one. And then, in the moment between the nurse communicating to us in a single, silent glance that she was gone, and the CPR that would have been her next step, the woman on the conference table took a breath.
The paramedics would later tell us that her pacemaker had restarted her heart, like a thumb sized defibrillator. Like a phone that wouldn’t stop ringing until someone picked up.
After the paramedics took her away, we walked like zombies back to our desks. I sat down and didn’t do anything but look at the jets take off outside my window until closing time. You can set your watch on them roaring over, but it still startles and sends you reeling every time. Same way the bell in an old telephone does. I realized that the rule of TGL was no longer in effect. If you will remember, the rule states that: everything will be alright, man, so long as no one is dying. Call it the “mortality moment,” but the day had clearly noted how time’s arrow is fatal and people are dying. Dying right there - in an insurance company that had already absorbed two of my own years like a sponge. Even if its dozens of years off, this was not where I was going down. It was time to get moving on life. Everything was not alright, man.
I’m picking up.