The Power of the Natural World

Earlier this week I traveled through Eastern Canada. I spent less than 24 hours in the country, in part due to the mosquito infestation where I camped that caused me to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and put 100 miles between me and that wretched pair of trees before 7 o’clock.

But in that brief time, I witnessed a truly odd natural phenomena.

I rode into Saint John, New Brunswick in order to experience the tide changes in the Bay of Fundy. The bay has the most drastic tide changes in the world, with water levels rising and falling 55 feet between high and low tides. Saint John sits nestled around the mouth of the Saint John River, which flows directly into the Bay of Fundy.

I made my way to that particular spot on the bay because it is home to something called the Reversing Falls. Really the only factor that played into my decision to go here, as opposed to any of the other, more iconic parts of the bay, is the fact that Saint John is on the northern coast and I could avoid making a two day trip riding around to the southern coast.

A bridge spans the two steep cliffs that rise from the banks of the Saint John, atop which sits an observation deck and a gift shop/restaurant combo. Looking up the river, you see a paper mill to the left, lapping up the water for industrial use, and small houses dotted to the right.

The water was flowing calmly from river to bay when I first arrived. Nothing particularly exciting. The guide at the gift shop told me to come back in an hour or two though, because then it would be high tide and I would be able to see the falls.

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Water moves slowly from left to right

Not expecting much, I sat and read for an hour, started to feel restless, and figured I should go see whether or not anything had changed. I was not disappointed.

When I returned, it was now high tide. And during high tide, the bay flows up the river. Since the tide change in the Bay of Fundy is so dramatic, the water level in the bay rises over 12 feet higher than the water level in the river. Consequently, water in the bay moves from high to low, in this case up the river.

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Water moves quickly from right to left

It doesn’t just move though. It flows. Rapidly. So rapidly in fact, that it causes significant whitewater just under the bridge. Large whirlpools form in various spots above this whitewater, a by-product of the tumultuous mixture of river and bay. These whirlpools bubble up intermittently and suck viciously for a second or two before losing steam and dissipating into the chop.

Sitting there, watching the bay overpower the river and reverse its direction entirely, was so overwhelmingly odd that it made me question the entire concept of direction itself. Navigating across the country looking at maps all oriented with North at the top and South at the bottom engrains an obviously false understanding that North is ‘up’ and South is ‘down’. And yet the only reason for that orientation is that we have decided it as such. Nothing but our European cartographic history serves to define the directions we use to explain our world. But sometimes that orientation doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense that a bay should flow up into a river. It doesn’t make sense that water could flow in a direction that only hours before appeared to be ‘up’.

But it does. It happens at the Reversing Falls in New Brunswick, Canada every 12 hours, like clockwork.

Sometimes things happen that don’t make sense. Sure, we can explain scientifically exactly why the Reversing Falls act as they do. The gravitational pull of the moon and sun create tides that move around the world with the rotation of these solar bodies. Those tides cause the water in the bay to rise up higher than the water level in the river, which obviously leads that water to flow from high to low. But standing there, watching it happen, you don’t think about any of that. You can’t rationalize what’s happening. You can only sit in awe as your world seems to be turned completely upside down in a way that makes no sense. Because sometimes, nature will do things that just don’t make sense, no matter how well we can explain them.

Fighting Frustration

Two events have led me to extreme frustration over the past week:

First, en route from Scranton, PA to Boston, MA, I got lost. Not once. Not twice. Six times. A trip that I had pegged at taking about 6 hours ended with me stumbling in to my friends apartment at 9pm – 10 hours after leaving Scranton. It also didn’t stop raining the entire day. My feet looked like prunes from literally sitting in water all day.

Then two days later, as I left Boston and headed towards Maine. I got on a toll road, only to realize that I had absolutely no cash. I had somehow spent all my money the night before. So now I have to mail in a check for $1.25 to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. And of course, I don’t have a checkbook with me.

Needless to say, both of these incidents made me very frustrated. Frustrated with myself for making completely boneheaded decisions. Frustrated that I was wasting time. Frustrated that I didn’t know what I was doing. And these feelings of frustration would just compound, leading me to make other bad decisions and only make things worse.

After not having any money to pay the toll, the frustration was overwhelming. The feelings from days earlier when I kept getting lost all came back and were completely clouding my mind.

So I stopped.

I just stopped. There was a Dunkin Donuts (of course, I’m on the East Coast) across the street. I went in, sat down, and wrote down all the things that were frustrating me. And that led me to realize that none of the things I was frustrated about were really that important and I had no way to change what had happened.

Earlier in the week, I read the book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. Graham’s explanation of why he doesn’t waste time worrying is one of his many nuggets of gold:

Worrying is the one game in which, if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness.

Just like spending time worrying about the outcome of a situation, getting frustrated at things that you have no control over, no ability to change, is equally futile. You can only move forward and learn from your mistakes.

So now I obviously don’t let myself run out of cash. And I’m taking a bit more time figuring out where I’m headed each morning so I don’t get lost as much. More importantly, I’m not letting the frustration that comes from making stupid decisions build up to the point where I can’t handle it. I’m acknowledging those feelings, letting myself feel them, and then I’m letting them go. Because there is nothing I can do to change the situation. I have no ability to change the past. I only control my present thoughts and actions.

I’ve had plenty of mishaps on this trip. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty more. But these mistakes are part of the journey. They’re probably what I’ll remember most.

But getting frustrated with them isn’t doing me any good. So I’m learning to let that frustration go.

What do you do?

The other night I was out at a bar in Washington, DC. 

I’d had enough drinks to overcome my social ineptitude with woman, that sweet spot after about 4 beers where I forget about my physical insecurities and have enough liquid courage to start a conversation with the cute blonde standing just off from her friends.

A brief smile and introduction lead us to the three question exam that determines your social fate in DC: 1) Where did you go to school? 2) What did you study? 3) What do you do now?

And I fail those three questions by a mile.

I went to Occidental College, a liberal arts school only known in DC because of the recent sexual assault scandal and Barack Obama’s open drug use

I studied Economics and Math. Economics gets me a few points, but the Math thing quickly takes me back down due to it’s nerdy associations and lack of any reference to the words ‘political’ and ‘science.’

I do nothing. I don’t have a job. My current occupation as a ‘motorcycle enthusiast’ is exotic at best and neurotic at worst, neither of which appeal to the girl in her third year as a consultant who has real goals in her life.

So I of course get pawned off onto her male roommate, a guy who is surprisingly taken with my story and listens intently as I regale him of tales from the road.

Being stuck in Washington, DC for the last week since my bike broke down in the middle of Virginia has been a nice reprieve from the shower-less days and bed-less nights that became the norm during my first two weeks on the road. I’ve visited with many friends I hadn’t been with in years, seen the sights, and gotten to meet a few of the locals, including aforementioned girl from the bar. 

Most people find it interesting that I’m on this adventure, but still seem slightly taken aback when I tell them about my lack of ambition, open timeline, and absence of a plan for tomorrow. And I think it’s great.

Because ever since I can remember, I’ve had a definitive answer to the question: What do you do?

Over time my life has changed, but I’ve maintained an answer to the question, whether it be student, athlete, intern, or, most recently, product owner (which was a bit squishy, but using project manager solidified things somewhat). It’s always been something that sounds ‘right.’ But now I have no right answer. 

Do I tell people I’m a writer? Aside from reading and riding my motorcycle, I’ve probably spent more time writing than anything else over the last three weeks. But it sort of feels like the guy  who rides his bike to work and tells people he’s a cyclist. You’re not fooling anyone with those tight shorts. Maybe a little more practice and it becomes admissible, but right now it’s borderline offensive.

Do I tell people I’m an adventurer? I mean sure, I’m on an adventure, but I’ve basically been on highways and stayed in or near civilization, which hardly feels like it qualifies me for that moniker. 

So what do I say? 

I just tell people my story. I keep it brief – I’m on a motorcycle trip, I’ve taken some time off from working to explore America and myself, and I’m writing a bit about it on my blog. I’m doing things I enjoy, like reading, traveling, seeing old friends, and eating good food. I tell them I’m safe, healthy, and happier than I’ve been in a long time.

We define ourselves so frequently by the things we do and have that it’s been completely refreshing to define myself by the things I don’t do and don’t have. 

I don’t have a job. I don’t live anywhere. I don’t have much stuff.

Not having the ‘right’ answer to the question has given me an interesting perspective into the judgments I make so often in my life about those around me. Competition is one of my strengths. I usually can’t help but size other people up when I first meet them. But every time I do that now, I’m on the low side of the scale that adds weight for accomplishments and subtracts for lack of ambition. 

I’ve learned to accept that. I accept that each day when I wake up, the world spins on without caring at all about what I do with my time. 

I spent a lot of time working very hard to give myself something to say when people asked me what I do, but sometimes, it just makes sense to not know what to say.

So for today, I’m pretty happy not having an answer. 

Know Thyself: An Ancient Maxim at Risk

One of the skills you pick up quite quickly riding a motorcycle is how to be alone with your own thoughts. There really isn’t anything else to do. Sure, you can listen to music or an audiobook, but when you’re riding 6 to 10 hours a day, there are going to be some long stretches in there where you’re doing nothing but burning down miles and entertaining yourself with your thoughts and imagination. 

However, I read a recent article that indicated the majority of men actually prefer physical pain over simply sitting and thinking. The sample size was small, but I imagine similar findings would hold as those samples increased given how quickly most of us reach for our phones or other distractions during any moment of silence. I’ve quickly picked this habit back up after spending only three or four days in Washington, DC, and I see it with my friends, peers and nearly everyone on the street.

We do this because the age we live in doesn’t seem to value the once openly professed maxim “know thyself,” perhaps most famously inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the Ancient Greeks.

Sun Tzu describes the importance of knowing thyself in battle:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Peter Drucker explains why knowing thyself is critical in the modern workplace:

[Y]ou’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself—not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.

Knowing yourself and being alone with your thoughts are inextricably linked. Command over your thoughts leads to command over your body. Many of our actions are driven by habits ingrained in our subconscious brain, but learning to control these thoughts requires a deep understanding of yourself, how you operate, and how you think.

If modern society leads us to feel less and less comfortable in our own heads, this has dire consequences for our ability to innovate and solve difficult problems. 

When Albert Einstein first began his work as a physicist, he learned that his preferred method was not at all experimental. He didn’t enjoy academic life, but was drawn to theory and preferred using thought experiments and metaphors to think through difficult problems. 

When he made his first breakthrough and developed the special theory of relativity, and later the general theory of relativity, these conclusions were the culmination of countless hours spent alone at his desk deep in thought. 

Einstein is an extreme example, but his process shows that mastery of any skill or field requires intense concentration. Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat criticized 10,000 hours is the classic benchmark for time required to become an expert, but regardless of validity, focus and attention over significantly long periods of time is necessary for learning. 

In fact, our brains have evolved in such a way that this deep focus and concentration will in fact lead to mastery in any who choose to pursue it. Robert Greene writes in Mastery:

All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to other. Through such intense immersion over many years we come to internalize and gain an intuitive feel with the rational processes, we expand our minds to the outer limits of our potential and are able to see into the secret core of life itself.

If our society does not regain an understanding of the importance of knowing oneself, there will be fewer and fewer people who can truly become masters of their fields. These masters are critical for the progression of human existence, because they push the boundaries of our knowledge past its limits and into the unknown.

So go outside. Take a long walk. Meditate. Spend time alone with your thoughts. We seem to be forgetting that being comfortable in our own heads is critical for human learning and innovation.

Why I Ride

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Hunter S. Thompson

I ride a motorcycle because it makes me happy.

I ride because you and the machine become one. Your feelings become intertwined with the metal; each sound reverberating through your body and each smell filling your head. The relationship is built on trust: you trusting that the machine will not fail and the machine trusting that you will not steer it astray. That trust is tested when you fall or the machine misses a beat, but your faith in one another serves as the backbone of the relationship and leads it to prevail through even the worst of times. And that relationship makes me happy.

I ride because being on the road makes it impossible to hear anything but the wind and the engine. The sounds fill your ears and keep your mind from straying to anything but the pavement off the front tire, the pavement in your mirrors, and the landscape that surrounds you. You achieve a level of tense relaxation. Completely in tune to your surrounding environment, but nothing running through your head. This feeling becomes meditative and keeps at bay the pain your body experiences, which makes me happy.

I ride because it makes me feel so free and alive. Freedom from the world around you, the problems that exist, the things we’re told to do. This freedom feeds into the feeling of true life that pumps through your veins as you barrel along on two wheels, nothing to worry you, but on the edge of death in the very same moment. And being free and alive makes me happy.

Give me a road, two wheels, and the afternoon. That makes me happy. That’s why I ride.

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Checking Off Boxes

This morning, I woke up early to ride the Tail of the Dragon. This road travels US 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina, and consists of 318 curves in only 11 miles.

The Dragon is considered by many motorcycle enthusiasts to be one of the most spectacular rides in the country. I rode early on a Tuesday morning, so there wasn’t much traffic, but during the weekends in the summer the ride becomes crazy busy.

The entire ride is beautiful, with the roads leading up to and leaving from the Tail of the Dragon arguably more scenic than the Dragon itself. You skirt a large river and dam on the way up: IMG_0683

that you then look down on from the top of the ridge:

 

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and ultimately come down to view another lake on the other side of the mountains:

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My anticipation as I left for the ride was unmatched by anything thus far in my trip. I’ve ridden some awesome roads so far, including route 177 through the Flint Hills in Kansas, highway 70N across Tennessee, and highway 441 through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but nothing as iconic as the Tail of the Dragon.

But when I got there, it wasn’t particularly spectacular.

Sure, it’s a fun road. There really are 318 curves, and it feels like you’re riding a roller coaster as the road pitches up and down. The turns come faster and tighter than any other rode I’ve been on, which adds to the thrill. I even bumped my foot on the pavement going around a particularly tight turn, which made my heart pump a bit faster than I’d like to admit.

And then it’s over. And you’re just on another highway, moving through some mountains and plains until you get to another town, with a few gas stations and a Dunkin Donuts. There’s no fanfare or fireworks at the finish line.

I realized as I sat and ate a few donuts that I’ve had more fun over the last week. I’ve ridden through more breathtaking scenery. I’ve had moments that made me feel more alive. But checking off the box of riding the Dragon didn’t really do any of those things for me.

Maybe some day I’ll impress someone at a party by telling them that I’ve ridden the Tail of the Dragon. But life isn’t about checking off boxes. It’s not about doing things to say you did them. It’s more fun to look back at the things that were unexpected, the things that went wrong, the times you laughed or cried or were absolutely awestruck.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time working hard to check off boxes in my life. On this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live a good life, and while I am far from figuring that out, doing things for the sake of having done them doesn’t seem like the answer.