Failure is an option — but it’s obviously not Plan A.
There’s no avoiding the brute truth: this, for me, is a ridiculously big bite. I haven’t done anything like it since I paddled a kayak across the Georgia Strait, through the shipping lanes, from Victoria to Vancouver. That was 25 years ago. Another lifetime. I seem to recall it was pretty hard. The details are foggy.
You see, I have a poor imagination for the nitty gritty of what lies ahead — so I say Yes to things without quite grasping what’s going to be involved, even if they’re things I’ve tried before (and been humbled by). All memory of the suffering is gone. This proves helpful in the construction of an interesting life, but it also means I’m out over my skis a fair bit of the time. Like now.
Just south of the border town of Blaine, WA, that old Monty Python sketch came to mind.
By making the goal explicit — reach Seattle by tomorrow morning — I’ve tipped the odds toward the house. It feels like there’s only one way to succeed but oh so many ways to fail: pull a muscle, cheat, crash, get lost, gas out halfway, succumb to saddle sores . (Of course, none of these outcomes would actually constitute “failure.” The dictate is to go “as far as you can.” It’s about the effort, not the outcome. But as soon as I picked a destination, that’s the order that went into the kitchen.)
What if I’m just too old for this? Maybe at my age I should devote Big Days to more physically modest undertakings, like building a ship in a bottle or something.
But no. If my pal Olga Kotelko taught me anything, it’s that age needn’t be a dealbuster in most endeavors. What matters most is simply a mighty will.
It helps that I have the support of my wife, Jen. When I first explained my plan to her — cycle to Seattle in a single day — her face was a mask. Then she rolled her eyes, which I believe is a sign of admiration and respect in some cultures.
“You’d better get insurance up the ying-yang,” she said.
One of the first things you realize about a Big Day when you’re in it is, twenty-four hours is actually a really long time. Long enough that you don’t need to rush. If you’re feeling rushed you’re probably not doing it right. Steadiness wins. “Do not hurry, Do not rest,” said Goethe (who logged a fair number of Big Days of his own, writing erotic poetry or developing his theory of evolution).
I’d wondered about the best ways to keep my energy and spirits up. Music seemed a good bet, but what kind? A super-boppy workout song, like “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals, or uncut soul, like “Blue Moon” sung by Mel Torme? In the end I chose the most soulful music of all: silence.
And bliss this is, poking down the blue highways of Washington State at the speed of thought. Kalle Lasn, the venerable old culture-jammer and my former boss at Adbusters, claims people are bombarded with 30,000 commercial messages a day, on average. But out here? Nada. Maybe an analog Big Day like this is the biggest culture-jamming gesture of all. You’re saying, to all the companies whose very business model is to interrupt you from whatever it is you’re doing so they can make you look at an ad: Piss off. Today, I cannot be distracted. Today the distraction economy has no quarter with me.
I roll through Bellingham in the mid-afternoon, and promptly revise my opinion of Bellingham. It’s not all brake shops and burger joints and the BellisFair mall and whatever else you can see from the I-5 at 70 miles an hour. It’s funky, progressive, salt-breezed, cool. It has a bracing seaside boardwalk and character homes on leafy streets and a fantastic book shop and engaged citizens protesting this or stumping for that. It sells tasty donuts.
This is what you see and hear and smell when you slow down: what’s there, rather than what you imagine is there. There are sneaky lakes along these old roads, and cabins on the lakes, and the occasional rope swing inviting the suspension of all dignity for thirty seconds: check for cars, lose the pants, clear the rocks and splash down: mother of god. Leaping from that cold water, coho-like, and back on the bike before the devil knows you dipped. A stealth mission: Operation Carpe Diem.
Being alone is nice. Being alone with aching knees: not as nice.
It occurs to me that I should probably have trained for this outing. But then, that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of Big Days.
A Big Day is, categorically, just one day — a single 24-hour segment scissored out of your life. Extra hours of training would have eaten into other days. Apart from a one-time powwow with my filmmaker friends Dave Niddrie and Mark Rogers to plan the route, I made sure this Big Day didn’t compromise my normal routine.
And truly, this isn’t an extreme athletic event. I’m really not going very fast. But it is an endurance event. After eight or nine hours the brain starts sending signals to stop because you’re tired – weary tired, not out-of-breath tired. These you have to override. Can it be done by actual, you know, non-athletes?
“Well, you won’t want to cycle again the next day, that’s for sure,” my marathon-running lawyer friend Jessica weighed in two nights ago. “But you can probably grind out a day before your muscles figure out what just hit them and start complaining. You can probably do just about anything for one day.”
As day becomes night, I move into a different headspace.
Night riding is different. A whiff of manure coming off the pastures, the force of the road rising sharply to meet you. It’s a bit spooky bicycling in the dark on a deserted highway. You feel exposed. When you’re driving there’s a buffer between you and the world. Take it away and now you’re nakedly right up against everything that might be out there. Periodically a car ghosts past: Dave’s car, with Mark out the window, filming, and then they are taillights, and then they are gone.
The farmhouses look super-inviting. I think of the ultramarathoner Al Howie when he ran across Canada. At the end of each day he’d pick a door to knock on. “Hi, I’m Al Howie,” he’d say. “I’m running across Canada. Could I please stay here tonight?” (He was rarely turned down. Partly because, hey, it’s Canada, and partly because people respect chutzpah.) I won’t be knocking on any doors. Dave and Mark have a motel room in Arlington, and I plan to crash for a couple of hours on their floor.
But Arlington is still a long way away.
The “terror” part
The jewel of this whole ride was going to be a dedicated bike path called The Centennial Trail — a 30-mile stretch of asphalt winding through the lazy heart of Skagit County. But the map I’m using is fuzzy on the entry point, and I can’t find it in the dark. So I’m forced to do what I really, really didn’t want to do: cycle on Interstate 5.
It’s Saturday night. A surging tide of traffic on the I-5. The shoulder is mostly wide enough that you don’t feel you’re going to be greased any second by a Peterbilt. Until very suddenly it isn’t, and very primally, you do.
The Skagit River Bridge is a long steel through-truss bridge connecting Mount Vernon and Burlington. But to me it will always have a less technical memory-tag: ninety seconds of screaming hell.
It’s illegal to cross this thing on a bicycle, but once you’re on it all other options foreclose. There’s no turning back. You can’t even get off the bike and walk it — there’s no room. Maybe 18 inches between the speeding cars on the left and the dropoff into oblivion on the right. The guardrail is about a foot and a half high. It’s like it’s not there; nothing is there. A hard lean and I’m over the side. And that thought alone is enough to bring on a powerful wave of vertigo. Truckers blast their horns as they pass, and the sound reverberates, amplifies, deafens. And in the slow-rolling purgatorial wobbliness I’m seized with the thought: Holy f*** — I could die. Right now. This could easily be where it ends.
Don’t. Panic. Don’t panic and don’t stop. Keep your legs moving. Keep breathing, the only way out is through, and stop honking at me goddammit! Fifteen more seconds. Ten. A bit of shoulder now, some space that is my space, which must mean I’m over the bridge, on the other side.
Insane. That is as much fear as I’ve felt in ten years. Two years ago a section of this bridge collapsed, sending three people in two cars cars plunging into the river below, right down there. They had a few seconds to launch their screams into the Washington evening, to stitch their story onto these precise co-ordinates forever. Tonight I laid my fear on top of their fear. And then I was done with it.
I roll into Arlington just before midnight. A sign over the pub tantalizingly offers steak dinners. But the barmaid tells me, when I hobble in, tugging at my belt, that the kitchen is closed. Mark and Dave are unpacking their gear in their motel room. I lie down on the carpet. I’m so tired I absently call Mark “Babe.”
Three hours later I’m passing through the deserted hotel lobby about to head out into the rain when I hear a noise around the corner. The night clerk is filling the Cheerios dispenser. He is a nice young guy. He wants to chat. He is, I surmise, radioactively lonely.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks, after I explain what I’m up to, leaving at this peculiar hour. It’s a fair question. I’d better work up a good response.
I have at least three answers — which would you like: Door Number One, Two or Three?
Door Number One: Because my warrior side is underdeveloped, and my househusband side is overdeveloped. I needed a big hard quest to restore balance.
Door Number Two: Because I want to change my perspective on what’s possible to accomplish on a tight deadline. Next time I get stressed thinking, ‘Geez, this big project’s due in a week,’ I’ll think: ‘No problem: I’ve done more in a day.’
Door number Three: I want to model perseverance to my kids.
There are actually a lot more doors than that. In fact, new doors keep opening every mile I roll down this road.
Whether one of those truckers reported a cyclist on the interstate I don’t know, but before long the burp of a state trooper’s siren sends me to the side, and the I-5 chapter of this adventure comes to an end.
The rain eases. Dawn breaks. Bald countryside gives way to Kirkland, then Seattle. My butt’s numb but the tough stuff is done. I have a strong sense that something transcendent lies just around the next bend.
An eager pupil once asked a Zen master the secret of enlightenment. The answer: “Coming home and resting comfortably.”
It was bizarre to see the same scenery flash past from the window of Dave’s Rav 4 as I cadged a ride back to Vancouver. These miles felt unearned. But I gratefully accepted them.
My Big Day wasn’t an unqualified success. I’d hoped to touch the Space Needle within the allotted time but made it only as far as Seattle’s northernmost suburbs. Never did find that vaunted Centennial Trail. Lost my rain pants on the highway somewhere outside Everett.
But does it go into the “win” column? It does. I stayed within the human-power rules. I found out, legitimately, where I end. It was a day unlike any other, and I feel like I can somehow harvest the spirit of it. Maybe that’s the magic of Big Days: they leave traces of themselves over the rest of your life.
All those slumbering midlife emotions, I felt like I’d coaxed every one of them out of its burrow on this trip. But I was wrong. One got missed. It had to wait till I got home, where something was waiting for me on the kitchen table.
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