A bike ride around the world, etc.

4.24.2017


There's a rainbow in the distance. It arcs in an enchanting array of colors across a bright blue sky. Your eyes follow that arc downwards, into the forest, beneath the trees. Its meeting with the horizon is obscured by dense brush, but you know it's somewhere in those woods.

There's rumored to be a treasure at the end of the rainbow. The allure of that treasure pulls you in. You descend your mountain, cross through babbling brooks and lush meadows of wildflower, and plunge into the thick of the vegetation.

It's hot and sticky and dark. You're pressed in between thick trunks that tower over your head. Fist-sized mosquitoes surround you, latch onto you, draw blood from your body, now soaked in sweat. You trudge onwards. The rainbow is somewhere up ahead.

You travel for days through this brush. Without light, you lose track of the sun; without the sun, you lose track of the days. The days become weeks and the weeks become months. Maybe the months become years. Maybe the years become decades.

There's a rainbow in the distance. If only you could reach it. Then you'd have your treasure. Then you'd be happy. You must be close by now, you think.

You encounter a chasm in the earth that's too wide to cross. You turn left and continue walking, searching for a way around it. It's bringing you further from your destination, but it's the only way.

The chasm widens and bends and doubles back on itself. In the dense forest, you lose your bearings. You can no longer see the rainbow. Your resolve weakens. It's probably gone by now, you think. This was a fool's errand, you think.

You try to find your way out of the forest, but you don't even remember whence you came. You stumble over some rocks. Your legs tangle in some vines. Quicksand sucks at your feet, and still the mosquitoes aim to bleed you dry. Tired, weakened, you surrender. You don't bother to get up. You don't bother to swat them away.

Defeated, you let out a wail. You curse the forest. You curse the rainbow. You'd curse the treasure, too, if you still believed it existed. But you don't. You no longer believe it ever was.

Here's the thing, though. That rainbow, it did hide a treasure, just not at its end. The treasure wasn't a pot of gold where sky meets earth. The treasure was the magnificent spectrum in the sky where red meets orange, where yellow meets green, where waves of indigo and violet dance against a pale blue backdrop. The treasure was the mountain. The treasure was that boulder atop the mountain from which you could watch the rainbow shimmer. The treasure was the meadow and the treasure was the brook, the empty spaces and the clean water and the fresh air. 

There is treasure, and there is the treasure map. The rainbow is not a treasure map. To follow a rainbow to its end is to use it as a means to an end. The rainbow is the end.

Where, then, is the treasure map?

***

When I was younger, grown-ups asked us kids what we wanted to be when we became one of them. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be an astronaut because I wanted to see the whole world. I'd seen a photograph once of the view from a spaceship, and there it was: the blue marble, both enormous and absolutely minuscule at the very same time.

I never did become an astronaut. I went to college to learn the Liberal Arts. I went to graduate school to learn more about those Liberal Arts. It wasn't all that liberating, learning about these arts. It came with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. My diploma and my first student loan bill arrived in the mail on the very same day.

To pay that bill and some other new bills, I got a job doing very complicated things in a very complicated organization made up of cubicles and grey suits and forgotten dreams. I worked. I got paid. I worked harder and I got paid more and soon I found myself, for the very first time, with a Disposable Income I knew not what to do with. It felt nice. I spent some of it on furniture, or something, and kept the rest. I watched the numbers on my bank statements grow from double digits to triple digits. I really liked when they reached quadruple digits. I wondered if I could do even better.

I crossed the brook and entered the trees.

***

Somewhere deep in the jungle, there's an old stone pyramid. A tribe of cannibals built it long ago. Those lucky enough to make it here are eager to reach the top. They've been weakened from their journey, and so they crawl slowly. Very slowly. 

It's a tall pyramid. It punctures the clouds and continues on above them, so one can never really see the crux. It can't be much further, though. They climb over each other, these frail bodies, desperate to reach it first.

***

The city is a funny thing. The people who build them funnier still. It's like one of those Rube Goldberg machines, where a series of pulleys and levers and weights and switches play off each other, a series of cause and effect, action causing equal and opposite reaction, where marble engages scale and scale tips into domino and domino starts motor and motor keeps it going, until somewhere down the line, some little cog or something cracks an egg. Every part plays a role, and every part is integral to getting that egg cracked.

Of course, it's not about efficiency. It's about entertainment and ingenuity and play, about making the very uncomplicated complicated. We like watching Rube Goldberg machines do their thing because they're so very silly.

We humans need food and water and not much else. We can grow food in our backyards, as it literally emerges from the ground and falls off trees. We can catch water from the sky, as it literally falls from the heavens on a pretty regular basis.

But these little systems don't use all the pieces. They don't use every human body and they don't use all the bits of coal and oil we've been afforded. They don't fell the trees like dominoes and they don't turn mountains inside out for our amusement. Check this out, we say. Look what we can do.

We gather up all the seeds and we plant them far away from the people. We pull fuel from the ground and we use that fuel to power machines that fly over those seeds and season our fruits and vegetables with substances brewed to kill. We scorch the earth and cut trenches through the forest and the mountains and we pour tar onto the ash, and then we drive that food from ground to warehouse, warehouse to distribution center, distribution center to homes with backyards that grow nothing but grass.

We dump oil and chemicals and plastic and human shit into our rivers. We stop drinking from the rivers. We build thousands of miles of leaden pipes underneath our homes to bring water from afar, and thousands of miles more to pour whatever we don't use into those toxic rivers. We're told that those pipes aren't good for us anymore, and so we stop drinking from the tap, too. We create a new Rube Goldberg machine and marvel at how many pieces we've put to use. It's an impressive one, really. It fills containers of pressed petroleum with eight ounces of water from the springs of a little island called Fiji, and then it packages those containers in big pallets, and then it flies those containers all over the world to temporarily quench the thirst of our people for an hour or two. When those eight ounces are through, we toss those containers into cans. The container sets off a chain reaction in which the can engages truck, the truck engages barge, and the barge carries that little bit of plastic halfway across the world to be dumped on the shores of China. We've made our routine hydration an all-inclusive ordeal.

There are to be no leftover pieces in these machines. All humans must work. All humans must play a role. If there aren't enough roles to be played, we will create more roles. We will bend the machine a little, make it a little sillier, make it do things a little more fanciful, a little more complicated. There's room for everyone.

***

"We were not made in its image
but from the beginning we believed in it
not for the pure appeasement of hunger
but for its availability
it could command our devotion
beyond question and without our consent
and by whatever name we have called it
in its name love has been set aside
unmeasured time has been devoted to it
forests have been erased and rivers poisoned
and truth has been relegated for it
we believe that we have a right to it
even though it belongs to no one
we carry a way back to it everywhere
we are sure that it is saving something
we consider it our personal savior
all we have to pay for it is ourselves."
— "Convenience," WS Merwin

***

I am young and white and American and living awfully close to the world's shining beacon on a hill, or something like that. Life is grand, if grand is to be understood as comfortable. Comfortable on a sluttish, unprecedented level.

I can wake up each morning in a warm bedroom, as people shovel coal into a furnace somewhere far away. I can get dressed in clothes others made for me. If I'm running late to my white-collar job, I can call a driver—without even calling, actually—and be picked up just where and when I want. I can be chauffeured right to work. If I need a little caffeine, I can have someone make me some coffee along the way, and take it to go in a cup made by someone else, with a lid I'm not really going to be using for too long, but that's okay, because someone else will store it for me when I'm done with it, for the next million years or so.

If I'm hungry for lunch, but don't really feel like getting up from my chair, I can push a few buttons and summon someone to bike across town to pick up a meal someone else made, and then deliver that meal to my desk. Meanwhile, I can arrange to have someone clean my house this afternoon, and someone else to pick up my laundry and wash it. I can go online and pick out some groceries and have someone I don't know collect produce and deliver it to my door.

Apportioning food and figuring out what to make for dinner can get tiring, though, especially after my long day here at the computer doing Important Things. No matter. I can have someone do all the hard work for me, sealing up exactly what I need in little baggies, packaging it all in a big cardboard box, and dropping it at my house with specific instructions on what to do with what, or How to Cook Food.

If I don't feel like washing dishes, I can just skip the whole cooking thing and go to a restaurant. There, someone will make sure my glass is always filled, that my plates are cleared once I'm done, and that I'm served with a smile. If I don't receive enough smiles, I shall dock their pay.

All this sitting around and eating isn't good for my physique, of course. So at the end of the day, I can have another driver transport me to the gym, where an instructor can tell me exactly what to do with my body to make it look thinner and burn off those excess calories from the beer I had with dinner. I'll be tired by the end of the hour, so I probably won't walk home. Fortunately, I have a third driver waiting on hand.

It's a good time to have a Disposable Income. It's a buyers' market for servants right now, even if you do have to share them with others.

***

I liked the forest at first. It felt cool in the shade. It felt good to be a little surrounded. It felt safe to not be so in the open like that. I could climb the trees and look down on the world. I knew good things lay ahead.

But I stumbled early. I fell to the ground and watched the vines begin to close around my wrists. I saw bones peeking through the dirt. Others had been here before. This is what became of them. I felt the heat settle in. I saw how the trees became more dense up ahead, how the sunlight barely broke through. I looked back and could still find my way out, if I went right now.

I got up, brushed myself off, and ran.

***

I believe there is a sinister force, often felt but rarely seen. I personify this as a man, a man with yellowed teeth and lips permanently turned downward from a long lifetime of frowning. I imagine him with overgrown fingernails and a shrill voice.

I believe this man will do anything to stay in power, to grow richer. This man has lost battles in the past, but he's nearly won the war. He faced an upset when some of us decided that we couldn't keep putting others of us in chains to make them grow things for our profit. He'd grown too confident, too heavy-handed.

He learned the art of subtlety. He told us we were mistaken. It wasn't about us chaining them for profit. It was that they were actually dangerous—they were criminals. It was for their own good and our own good that they be in chains. It was a matter of public safety. Well, we said, if it's about safety, then okay. Okay. We turned the other way and locked our doors when we heard the rattling chains, the gunshots, the sound of billy clubs beating on human flesh or prison bars. It simply must be done.

There was an other and we were not the other and we felt safe. But we were not safe. The man went further. He took away the land and he called it his. He dragged us from our farms and put us in factories. Our children never learned to feed themselves, and their children didn't know how to do much of anything: build things, fix things, learn things.

Now, none of us are free. He's told us that if we work hard for most of our lives, we can buy our freedom. We can buy our land back from him. Some of us think we can do it, if we just save our money and do as we're told for a very long time. It'll be worth it.

But he doesn't really want us to be free. You can't control the free. And so he throws distractions our way, shiny objects that bring us short-term enjoyment with no long-term gain. Here, take a break from all your hard work. Take a seat. Here, isn't this a nice new sofa? Here, let me put on a movie for you. Take your mind off things. Hey, why not take a weekend away from all that hard work? Sure, that hotel and plane ticket and bar tab will set you back a little, but you've earned it. You work so very hard. Enjoy the rest stops on the way to your destination. You stay as long as you'd like.

This man wants us all to buy things we don't need, to pay for things we can do ourselves, to keep our minds occupied and our lives cluttered. He likes us tethered: to homes, to mortgages, to objects, to markets, to retirement portfolios, to children, to each other. He will go to war to maintain his reign. He will turn friends into enemies and neighbors into rivals. He will hide behind humans, use them as a mask and a shield. He will divide us and, in division, he will conquer us all. He will commoditize our anger, sell our resistance back to us in fashionable form. He will watch people starve and people die with regrets and people put bullets in their heads before he lets people go free. The work, he says, that will set you free.

In the words of Albert Camus, there is only one way to kill this man. The only way to deal with an unfree world. It is to live a life so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

***

Fuck the forest, fuck the pyramid deep within. Fuck that man especially. I don't want his stuff, neither his servants nor his distractions. I want to go back to that boulder on that mountain and watch that rainbow, and I don't particularly care if I'm trespassing on the mountain and I don't care if someone else claims ownership of the rainbow. It's a planet. There are no property rights, just shared delusions.

It took me a few decades to see this man creeping behind the rocks. I wasn't sure he really existed. Leprechauns can be sneaky like that. Once I realized what he'd done, how he'd turn the world to shit, I didn't think there was any escape from it.

But then I built a little house and I got on a little scooter and I rode away from the heaping, pulsing Rube Goldberg machine behind me. I got far enough away for the smog to clear. I camped under the stars. I saw stars I'd never seen before, stars hidden from me by the thick stratosphere of the city and the orange glow of Development and Progress. I wondered what else had been hidden from me.

I raced across the continent finding all sorts of things. I found canyons, and buffalo, and rivers you could still drink from, and people who still drank from them. I found that the sky was still beautiful on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings, and that there was so much going on that I'd been missing while facing a glowing rectangle in the depths of a federal office building.

I came back with plans. I'd never work all year again. I'd stop buying things I didn't need, and I'd travel for three months every year, and I'd abandon this whole perverted notion of a career pointed ever-upward, and I'd live a life that'd look good in my eyes, unconcerned with how it'd look in a job interview.

I thought I'd found freedom. I put solar panels on my house and caught the rain like we used to and I stopped dumping shit in the river and I severed my home from the giant machine of gulf wars and exploding mountains and Saharan droughts and sinking islands that we're told is required to keep our houses homey. I spent months exploring new places in Europe and Asia and Africa, where that man had a little less reach. I saw what the world was like before him. I fancied myself a rebel.

But I still hadn't extricated myself. I still have not. I am still part of this machine we now call Society, and I am still afraid of the repercussions of leaving it. I've seen the way we treat those who call bullshit. How we mock them and ostracize them and snicker at their claims of global conspiracy or whatever. Yeah, right, like we're all going to give up our iPhones and go live in the trees again.

I mean no disrespect to those who are able to find joy and meaning behind their desks and between their commutes home and their commutes back to work. If anything, I envy them. My hope is for each of us to enjoy a life lived on her terms, and if those terms align with reality—and don't leverage the subjugation of others—cherish that good fortune.

But it's not enough for me, at least not yet. Right now, there's something I want to do, and it's the same thing I've wanted to do since I was young: to live the life of an astronaut, to float, quietly, through time and space, to see the whole world and watch it turn, slowly, beneath my feet.

I want to bike around the world.

***

We Americans are told that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. We are raised to Pursue our entire lives, toward a Happiness we may one day reach. This is how we understand the pursuit of happiness to work.

I am not interested in this pot-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow sort of happiness, because I don't believe it to exist. I am interested, instead, in the pursuit of Everyday Happiness. The kind where we embrace Mondays as an amazing fucking day in which the sun is still shining and we are still breathing and the world is still out there to be enjoyed and appreciated and discovered, not as a day we churn through en route to Friday. I have no interest in viewing Wednesdays as "hump days," a mountain of effort to crest before reaching the sea on the other side. To live for Saturdays and Sundays is to live for two-sevenths of one's life, and to begrudge the five-sevenths of life getting in the way. This is not the pursuit of Everyday Happiness.

I'd like to wake up every morning and expect that this day may very well be the best day of my life, and to not be delusional in thinking so. At the very least, I'd like to close the day by having learned something, having been moved, having been happy in the moment. I'd like to die pursuing one of those days, not in a cubicle pursuing the happiness that may or may not rest on the horizon of a retirement I may never reach.

We all find enjoyment in different things. I find enjoyment in the great outdoors, in the warmth of a sleeping bag on cold mornings, in the sounds of an entire ecosystem waking up around me. I find a thrill I can hardly explain in packing up the few things I own and leaving no trace but a slightly trampled patch of grass. I live for moments of rolling down hills with the gentle buzz of a freewheel hub, and the birds, and the wind.

Everyday Happiness, for me, is an endless horizon, a rainbow for a rainbow's sake, a gulp of water after physical exertion. It's in finding food and water and people in simple systems, in gratitude for the simplest of things. It's feeling like I've found the secret to slowing down time, to packing so much life into such a limited number of waking hours. And it's, when lying down my sore and weathered body at the end of the day, expecting the very same tomorrow.

***

So this is the big adventure I've mentioned. This is one person's feeble attempt to live a life so absolutely free that my very existence is an act of rebellion. It's an attempt to carry myself, and a tent and a stove and a few other things, across the world, and to rely on the kindness of others, and to provide kindness to others, along the way. To travel not as a means, but as an end. To test this hypothesis of happiness in simplicity, to tie together everything I've learned within and between each adventure of my scattered, searching little life.

The practicalities are more mundane, sure. There's nothing extraordinary about this adventure. Others have done it before and many will do it after. It's something that will neither save the world nor bring an end to man's ever-oppressed and ever-oppressive nature. It's just the very first time where I feel I'll be doing exactly what I want to do exactly how I want to do it, to live a life unapologetically on my terms.

I think I've found freedom, an escape from enslaving and an escape from being enslaved. An escape from the whole rotten system, articulated in a way much darker than intended, but hey, it's a pretty dark system. I think I've found freedom—for me, for now—and I think it looks like this.

4 comments:

  1. Hi, Jay! Really, really enjoyed this. I particularly liked how you integrated the rainbow story and the image of 'the man' into what can be a dark topic, as you say. I hope you will continue to share your insights, as you can, on the road. I am also on a quest for freedom, my own version...freedom is a loaded term these days. But, mine aligns closely with yours. Life on my own terms, causing minimal damage to ecosystems, simple. I will be ex-federal bureaucracy soon, myself!

    Take care and enjoy!

    Matt
    transitionrewild.blogspot.com

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Matt! I'm glad to hear you have something brewing for you as well. Any reveal on what that'll be just yet?

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    2. There is a possibility that I may apprentice with a master in primitive/wilderness skills, and learn how to live ethically within an ecosystem. If I go that particular route, I may also teach others with him. Otherwise, the details are a bit fuzzy. My goal is to live in such a way that I am contributing to and participating in my ecosystem, rather than only taking from it and dumping waste into it. Preferably, I'd like to live with others who do the same. A work in progress, but opportunities are opening up and things are becoming clearer! My good friend Joseph and I write here: transitionrewild.blogspot.com.

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    3. That sounds lovely. Thanks for the link; I was just looking through it yesterday. Best, best, best of luck on what sounds like a really important journey.

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