I’ve been running from these words for months now, and it seems the further we drive the longer they’ll take to find. Because with the more miles we’ve covered this summer, the less I’ve been able to define. Miles, stories, mountain peaks and summer nights are a mash of highs and lows right now that belie both mercy and definition.
So it’s been in the midst of the most asinine political incompetence, a radical cultural shift, and a pandemic sweeping the globe and closing doors that I’ve somehow had the summer of my life? In the small cracks of these great falling pillars I’ve squeaked through not entirely unscathed and found my own labels of personal growth. On this summer road trip of a lifetime, the carelessness of graduating from college has been drowned out by screams and teargas at protests to then be lost in valleys while climbing epic wilderness peaks. On this summer road trip of a lifetime I’ve met men wielding shotguns to protect them from bears and boys brandishing pistols to protect them from each other. But on this summer road trip of a lifetime, we’ve broken down and been offered a dozen hands. We’ve been given food when we had none. We helped fix flat tires on the side of a highway and helped show people the not entirely effortless joy to be found bikepacking. On this summer road trip of a lifetime I’ve seen both extremes of this divided country, and I’m here to reassure you that it is still full of love.
Remember March? When everything kept coming and coming and with every day it was more headlines and more blows. Tom Hanks has it. The NBA is cancelled. Some kids on campus are being tested. Classes are online tomorrow I guess?
I graduated from college that week. March 16th. I was amidst packing for a surf/bikepacking trip in Nicaragua when we pulled the plug. I was sad and read the news. I got even more sad. Woe is me...right?
But if the world can have other plans so will I. I broke down the next week on the side of the I-5 in Camp Pendleton in the rain. It was night and I was driving back alone to LA after buying a pile of garbage from a scammer on Craigslist. I found a 1976 Toyota Chinook camper one night and after a couple beers elected to meet my dad the following day for a test drive. He put a respirator and gloves on the hood of his car for me to put on. We never hugged and we barely spoke to the guy, but as we drove away in the rusted out relics of John Muir’s grandson I finally felt that growingly stagnant flush of adrenaline reigniting something. It had been months since I had made a tragically poor decision, and these are my favorite.
The next morning I woke up to two parking tickets after realizing Albert (the truck) wouldn’t make it any further than a fancy neighborhood in Dana Point overlooking the ocean. I laughed as my whole life continued to fall apart and laughed even more as I moved out of my apartment the next week with Al. After two months of sitting in a garage and swearing over oil leaks and a rattling rear end we had swapped a motor, a transmission, exhaust, suspension and rebuilt the rear diff. I had to sleep in the garage the entire time, but Albert was ready for his road-trip and so was I. Was the world?
Mexico was closed. So was Canada. But there always remains land out here in the US my heart still yearns for. Last summer I would lay in my tent alone and read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at night. Pirsig would speak long and intimately about the open skies and gentle strangers on his journey across the US, and as I recovered from a day of pedaling somewhere alone deep in Karamoja, that land would call to me. One night, setting up camp in an abandoned goat farm in the foothills of Bwindi I sent my grandfather a message from my satellite phone. I was alone in the rain and again deep in the muddy questions of what I was doing alone in Uganda. My headlamp illuminated the small buttons and as I typed I dreamt of fly fishing in glacial melt on a warm summer afternoon. I thought of hamburgers and a malt shop. Small town markets and big, empty National Forest.
“I think next summer we should go to Montana.”
The thought rattled through the turbulence of the 2020 news cycle and when Albert fired up for the first time I knew exactly where we were headed. I drilled two bike racks into the back, taped down a solar panel, added some extra storage and surfboard racks and grabbed the camping gear. I grab Ben on the way and we settle in for the long. We’re headed north, and we’re doing it our way.
This wild summer road trip we hadn’t really planned followed simple goals that served to navigate us up the coast. Swim every day, bikepack every weekend, move north, and stay as far away from society as possible. Vanlife, (or whatever Albert is), lends itself to a simplified escapism. When you’re completely sufficient in your vehicle, and it’s just a quick touch and go with gas stations and grocery stores, these goals would batter us in excitement and drown us in exhaustion. Each week would quickly become the same. Monday we do errands. Work in the morning, then laundry, grocery store, fill up on water, nap on the beach. Find somewhere to camp and then as always, sautee veggies on the cast iron. Tuesday and Wednesday we surf, work, drive north, nap on the beach. Thursday we start looking for a national forest or a route to ride for the weekend. We also work, buy camping food, surf, sautee veggies and nap on the beach. Friday is always work in the morning, ask someone if we can park here for the weekend, load up the bikes, and ride for 5 hours to the first camp spot. Saturday we dance with god and ride until the sun goes down. Sunday it’s the same, but we finish it with a hot meal by the car and a river shower. It’s not a glamorous life this.
These weeks? They’re heaven. Days during this week rattle the timeline because they’re so packed with adrenaline and thinking and new views and short hikes and long ones and being woken up by semis. These weeks feel like a whole year of my life. They’ll last only a month, and when we finally cut east for Montana we looked back at 1,200 miles of chasing life from San Diego to the Canadian border. We found it in small waves in Oregon and big ones in Washington. We found it climbing mountains in Olympic National Park and riding for days around Lake Tahoe. I found it catching fish in 8,000 foot high alpine lakes and we kept thrashing in it by always, always looking around the next corner with a sense of wonder and a camera on my back.
But Montana. The promised land. The place I’ve been dreaming of for over a year and the main reason I bought that aching truck. We cross the border from Idaho and expect to find enlightenment just around the bend.
We descend into town to only find cold bitter air and an approaching rainstorm. For the first time all summer we sit in the truck and watch documentaries and laugh about it. We’ve driven so long, fixed Albert on the side of I-80 and nursed him through cold morning starts and hot mountain climbs to get here, and this is it...back in my apartment except there’s no heater, the couch is tiny, and we’re in an Albertson’s parking lot.
So vanlife is not always glamorous. It’s not always easy and it’s never clean, but what it does do is play to the benefits of the internet. And now, in 2020, with the world collapsing on the other side of that thin fiberglass door the internet makes this all possible. I can work remote in the morning and we can find camp in the afternoon. We can look at incredibly detailed maps on Gaia to plot bikepacking routes and we can look at surfline to find waves anywhere on the coast. The internet is the crutch of this whole thing, if you can manage it. Life has never felt so benevolently 2020.
We’ll wait out that rainstorm and go find our enlightenment eventually in Montana. The first weekend we meet a guy while we’re bikepacking. He’s local and has read about what we’re doing and is curious. He runs with us while we trudge through rooted out single track and make it to camp that evening. We talk into the night and the next weekend we meet him in Butte to get him on a loaded bike for the first time. We ride through a massive granite batholith and into the night and do it again the next day. The weekend objectively goes poorly but Jandi laughs the entire time and we all fall even deeper in love with this dirty, transcendental way of riding and seeing our country. We’ve ran to the mountains and up the coast all summer long, and in leaving society Ben and I were able to find an infinite tap of fun. We stayed safe and alone and listened to the waves crashing some mornings and ran from bears some evenings. This summer we were promised absolutely nothing. But this summer we went out and we found it all.
An old man one morning says it best. We’re just off the Oregon coast and watching the water. I’ve just made my morning coffee and we start talking about his two rides. One, a road bike tandem he and his wife have ridden across the US together twice. The other, a 1980’s Vanagon Westfalia he’s shipped around the world and toured the globe with on a budget. His van has pock marks and stickers I don’t recognize, but as he packs up, he says one final line.
“Keep doing it man. The world will always dish you out an excuse. It’s your duty to live more creatively than it.”