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Letting Go of External Validation

Can you define the happiest moment of your life?

Up until recently, I thought I could pinpoint it down to an exact point in time.

During my senior year of college, I was convinced that my sole purpose in life was to become a management consultant. I perfected my resume. I talked to all the right people. I read all the right books. I went to all the right networking events.

I was sitting in an art class, just finishing up some drawing in the late evening during the middle of October almost two years ago, and checked my email as I started walking out the door. 

And in my inbox sat an email from McKinsey inviting me to a first round interview. 

I was absolutely ecstatic. 

I started hyperventilating and had to pace back and forth across the hallway in an attempt to burn off the adrenaline that had been so instantaneously flooded into my body.

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You Can’t See Everything

When I first left, I wanted to see everything. I had this idea that I might go to all 48 contiguous states, see all the major sites, eat at all the best ice cream shops, and visit all the best bookstores.

I tried that for a while. I would figure out where I was headed that day, and then make sure to stop at all the places where I thought I had to stop. I checked a lot of things off my list and learned that the things you remember are the times you got lost or break down or get caught in a storm. But I still tried hard to see everything. I went completely out of my way to ride through tiny slivers of Rhode Island and Iowa. I walked the entire Freedom Trail in Boston. I moved quickly through most places, typically staying no more than a day or two, so that I could move on to the next destination and experience the next new place.

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The Hardest Part About Riding a Motorcycle Across America

I have always enjoyed my alone time. As an introvert, social activities drain me of energy, making it easy to justify spending time by myself. I remember having numerous conversations with friends before I left in June about how excited I was to spend days without speaking to anyone else, free from the distractions of other people. That opportunity to be alone in my own thoughts, experiencing new places and reading as much as I wanted was one of the biggest factors that helped me decide to take this adventure. 

And I have greatly enjoyed having that experience. I have gone days without speaking to people, and weeks without seeing a familiar face. I’ve explored who I am and pondered big questions for hours at a time, free from distraction, as I travel from place to place. Being alone benefits you in many ways, and is crucial for understanding yourself.

But I get lonely. Very lonely. 

I thought I had been lonely before, but there is nothing that compares to the loneliness that sets in after ten hours on a motorcycle. And dealing with that loneliness has been the hardest part of this journey.  Continue reading

Slowing Down

For the majority of the later part of July, I traveled back roads. Some dirt, many paved. I made my way across Maine, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, passed Sugarbush and Killington, stayed in Lake George, Burlington, and visited Lake Placid. These roads wind around mountains and lakes, through gullies filled with swamps, past farms and cornfields. They led me to Thousand Islands, where I crossed the border into Canada and was forced to ride down highway 401 which skirts the Northern border of Lake Ontario en route to Toronto.

The transition from country road to interstate is one I’ve made countless times throughout my journey. It triggers a shot of adrenaline, as you quickly shift up into fifth gear, taking the machine to its limits in order to match the speed and power of the trucks and cars zipping by the entry ramp. My motorcycle is really not all that fast. It’s five speeds are realized at only 50 miles per hour, making the transition from 50 to 70 or 80 one that requires serious metal and determination.

Once on the interstate, you settle in at 60 or 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery blow by without much of an opportunity to really see anything. There isn’t typically much to see anyway, apart from concrete embankments and the occasional overhead crossing.

On this particular occasion, merging on to highway 401 headed towards Toronto, I happened to have a strange conscious realization that cars kept passing me. Granted, this happens frequently, but on this rode, in this moment, something seemed different. On this particular stretch of road, I seemed to have a realization that I was simply moving slower than everyone else. Cars blew past me like I wasn’t even moving, each coming up behind me before impatiently exchanging lanes and moving off into the distance.

And in that moment, I realized that I’ve slowed down. Being on the road has forced me to do so, as each occasion where I’ve rushed to be somewhere or meet someone has led to problems.

The motorcycle overheated when I rushed to make it from Tennessee to DC in a day. I got stuck in traffic and was thoroughly soaked when riding as fast as I could to Boston. On the day I was determined to do 400 miles for the first time, I felt a slight resistance as I opened the throttle near mile 350, panicked upon noticing that the rear tire looking harrowingly thin, only to learn that in actuality, my chain needed tightening upon arrival at the shop the next morning. These problems, some bigger than others, but all stress inducing nonetheless, seem to have an uncanny ability to arise in each occasion when I start to rush myself.

When arriving in Toronto, this theory of my slowing down was confirmed by the speed at which everything moves. People walk as fast as humanly possible. Busses and taxis rush around town, depositing their passengers with nothing more than a brief wave of the hand. Service at restaurants becomes a game of brevity in words in order to shepherd in the next set of guests. And yet I moved as if in slow motion, always behind everyone, stopping and staring at buildings and shops, taking in sites that everyone around me took for granted.

I used to be exactly like this, if not even more so. I reveled in efficiency, planning my morning down to the minute, using every walking moment as a time to catch up on an audiobook or the latest podcast, rushing from meeting to meeting without so much as 30 seconds between each one. There is great power in efficiency, and I am sure that I will go back to many of these old habits because of the benefits of routine and order. 

And in fact, I must confess that I have rushed myself even after having this realization. Making my way from Erie to Chicago, I rushed to do my first 500 mile day, which led my bike to shutter and the tachometer to shoot to redline just as I entered Chicago, leaving me stranded on the shoulder of an eight lane highway for two hours before the tow truck arrived and only further confirming the importance of slowing down.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve constructed my imagination of time and space with the visualization of large walls, each of which constitutes an Event. The size of the wall depends on the size of the Event, obviously leading some Events to dominate and cloud the visibility of future Events or overshadow more recent Events whose wall can’t compare.

This method is one that worked extremely well in an academic environment. Exams and project deadlines become large walls that demand serious attention to overcome. The end of a term looms in the distance as a constant exciting reminder of the freedom that comes beyond it.

But this method, by its design, creates what I’ve come to call “The In Between Moment.” All the time between Events simply becomes time leading up to that Event. This time is now simply the time in between the things that are important, and I would rush to move through it in order to reach those all important Events. Further, when an Event grows large enough, it overpowers everything and demands constant attention in thought, regardless of whether or not that thought provides any benefit.

The constant attention required by the road while riding a motorcycle has forced me to change the way I perceive these Events. In each of the instances where I’ve been in a hurry, I have used this old model, viewing the destination as an overpowering Event and the ride required to get me there as an In Between Moment. And this leads me to not really enjoy that ride. It becomes a chore, something that must be done in order to get to some greater prize: the destination. And in my hurry to reach that destination, I have faced problems and made mistakes that have made my hurry simply futile. 

So I’ve slowed down. I’m beginning to live in each of these “In Between Moments,” rendering them obsolete by their very definition.  

I still move fast on occasion, but I move fast because I like going fast, not because I’m rushing to get somewhere. I move fast because I love the sound of the wind rushing past my face and the roar of the engine as the world moves all around me. But I take it all in, I try to be in tune with my environment and enjoy the miles. I slow down the way I think and simply live in each of those moments. Not In Between Moments, but Moments of their own.

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.

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.

What does it mean to take an Adventure?

This question first popped into my head about a year ago.

At that time, I was just starting my first job out of college and was enamored with my new, “real” life. But part of me had this lingering thought that I should one day take some grand Adventure. So I wrote down a goal of taking a motorcycle trip around North America, but really didn’t have much of an idea when that would happen.

Fast forward to about a month ago, and I was having a conversation with a mentor of mine about my future and the things that I wanted to accomplish.

I mentioned the motorcycle trip.

He said I should follow my passions and do the things I cared about sooner rather than later.

I thought that seemed sorta crazy.

Two sleepless nights later I had committed myself to the trip.

Since then, I have:

1. Taken a leave of absence from my job

2. Bought a new motorcycle

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3. Killed the battery  on said motorcycle on the first day of owning it

4. Bought a new battery

5. Learned how to install that battery

6. Realized I know absolutely nothing about motorcycle maintenance (who would think reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wouldn’t actually teach you how to maintain a motorcycle?)

7. Started learning how to maintain a motorcycle

8. Ended the lease on my apartment

9. Purchased a ton of gear

And now I’m two weeks away from leaving on a trip of somewhat indeterminate length (probably about 3 months) with the only goal of having an Adventure.

My semi-formed plan is to head East, then North, eventually West, and finally make my way South when it starts to get cold. Otherwise, I’m pretty much just going to wing it.

I’ll be writing about the places I go, the books I read, and the people I meet here on this blog over the next few months.

Have any suggestions about where I should travel?