I made it all the way to Wisconsin. I made it all the way to Madison. I made it to the finish line, and let me tell you this: It feels good to put my feet on the ground and keep them there.
A bike tour puts you in a strange state of mind. There is no normalcy. There is no permanence. Every day takes you to a new place, with new people, so life gains this strange sense of momentum, like you are truly moving through spacetime in a new kind of way, truly tearing through it, gathering beautiful moments at a pace that seems unreal. It’s hard to keep track of what the hell is happening. This may seem strange, but there were many times where I would have to stop and remind myself, as I pushed my pedals around for the millionth time, just where I was and what I was doing. The rhythm of biking can put you in a dream state, and this was like a sudden wakeup call, memories screaming forward: YOU ARE IN A CORNFIELD. THREE WEEKS AGO YOU WERE ON THE EAST COAST. YOU CAME HERE WITH YOUR OWN TWO FEET.
Those bursts of realization were an instant pick me up. I would smile and shake my head and pedal harder into the wind. But as exhilarating as it all was, I have to say that the unfamiliarity of life in that mode could be exhausting. Sometimes I’d be in my tent alone and the freedom was gone, the blur of the road was gone, the kind strangers and the kind places were gone, and all I had was a phone full of numbers of people I hadn’t seen in weeks, and I’d call them and my eyes would water a little when I heard their voices. So don’t let me ever tell you I didn’t get lonely. I did. Emotions, though, are speedy little things. A day later I’d be laughing wildly with a new best friend, in love with the universe, and loneliness was this little beast I felt I hardly knew.
There are country-hopping nomads who will scoff at the settled. “How can they stay anchored when there’s so much to see?” You know what, I’ve probably said that myself. But it’s funny because I think I can understand both tribes. I love the open road and the mindset travel gives me. I’ve written about it a lot. But ultimately, I find comfort in the life of the homebody, too. I like that now, in Madison, I have my own bed that I can call my own. I have a room that is only mine, and I don’t have to pack it up in the morning. I make friends and the next day, they are still here. I don’t have to say goodbye. Faces and places become familiar, and that feels good.
Luckily, I think I’ve created a compromise. I can travel in bursts and settle in stages. I know it works for me because, after the transition, I feel right away at peace. It only took me one day here in Madison to feel like I’d lived here forever. And, I remember, my very first day on the bike felt like I had hopped back into a body that had always been moving, that had no home and was happy to say so. There is no culture shock, as they say, no adjustment stage, really. I can be in one mode or the other. Flick the switch and I’m in it with pleasure.
So being here in Madison has been a real joy. I ride my bike for an hour or two every night (that switch can be slippery), and I feel so much joy to live in a place with lakes; to live in a place with fireflies; to live in a place with cheap beer and funny language classes. It would have been one thing to have zoomed through here on my bike. I would have written a glowing post and moved on. But what a feeling to say that I LIVE here! There is pride in residence, like it’s some kind of ownership. I like the feeling of taking this foreign place and making it familiar, making it a home. A missing sense of comfort comes rushing back.
I’m living at a co-op called Ambrosia, sharing a mansion with thirty other people. There are communal dinners of falafel and beans. There’s a house piano and a banjo that get played at one another. There are cute girls and nice guys and funny little kids running around, painting each other’s toenails. There’s a hammock on the porch and a deck over the water, and in the evenings bats eat mosquitoes and we fan ourselves in the humid heat.
In the mornings, I go to school. I try to teach my mouth new things. I try to teach it to say “tanyskanyma kuanyshtymyn,” which is a breezy little way to say “nice to meet you.” There are only two other students in my class, which makes for quick learning and easy collegiality. I found a Kazakh-English slang book in the library, and we laugh a lot at its nonsense. “Gotta put on the feedbag,” says one phrase. “Don’t fickle me!”
Already, the trip feels so long-gone that it’s like a life lived by somebody else. I was just looking at all my pictures from the trip, and I smile seeing all the places and faces I really loved so much, but gosh - it feels so far away. It feels so far behind me. But it’s funny to think back to when it was just the opposite, when it was so far ahead that I couldn’t even see it on my mental calendar. It was all just a pie in the sky. Let me take you back.
A year ago, I was living in Kyrgyzstan, and my friend Greg sent me a link. It had a map of the US, and a guy with a travel beard on a saddled-down bike. There was one simple, encouraging sentence that set me off. Six words. “Anyone can ride a bike across.” Greg had written just a line with the link, and it said “We should do this when you get back.” He may not even remember writing that. But right then I took it as my next big dream. I would buy a bike and ride far.
When I did get back, I bought that bike, and I rode from LA to San Francisco and back again. I thought I’d do a cross-country trip this summer, like the bearded guy, and I bought a ticket to New York City. Plans changed. I got into Stanford. Stanford suggested summer school. Stanford offered a scholarship. I took it. So the cross-country trip got turned into a half-country trip, because the school was in Wisconsin. That dream, though? Of the guy with the bike and the bags on the side of the road? I still made that mine. And I’m proud of it.
It’s strange to sit now, with all that dreaming behind me. I took a bold idea and godammit, I did it. Now what?
I made it all the way to Wisconsin. I made it to Madison. The adventure and the blog is over. But there is fun on either side of the switch. When I was on the road, I met new people every day and I came to really care for them. I saw new places and I fell in love with my country. Now, I rest my weary legs, but I’m basking in the afterglow. Just because I’ve gotten sedentary doesn’t mean I’ll get serious. I’m still going to talk to strangers and sing at birds and swallow gulps of wind from the seat of my bike. I’m still going to act like a madman, because I’m young and I want to live.
If I believed in miracles, I would submit Tom and Ginger to the Vatican.
It was the final day of my trip and I was biking 90 miles from Milwaukee to Madison, my longest haul yet. One last dash to the finish line, I thought, but what I didn’t really anticipate was the weather. It was ninety degrees out. The air was sticky. There was a bike path, but only half was shaded and the other half felt infernal. I was going to go mad in the heat or collapse just miles from my goal. Things were not looking up.
And then came along these two hilarious cyclists, Californians (the first I’d met in a month!), going the same way and looking for company. Tom was an engineer who worked at Apple. Ginger worked in education. They were childless (scratch that: childfree) and pursuing their travel dreams on a whim. We rode together for hours with such a comfortable rapport, talking about our futures, our philosophies, whatever. We probably did forty or fifty miles together. If I had done that alone, in that heat, I’d have gone stir-crazy. Instead, the temperature barely bothered me.
We split up at Lake Mills (they were geezers, or maybe just sane, so they took my ride and split it into two), but when they got to Madison the next day we went out for dinner. We had fantastic beers and pretzels and cheesy-things galore. Before we ate, we clanked our forks together over the table in victory, like the Three Musketeers. We made a good team.
When your biggest cultural export is Pabst Blue Ribbon, you probably don’t have much to offer. Milwaukee, I’ll admit, smelled like trash when I rode into it, and the skyline was unexpectedly short (can’t they borrow some skyscrapers from Chicago?). So yeah, some parts stunk, but I found little nuggets of wonder: fried cheese curds, delicious beer, artsy kids and ukeleles, a silly soul cover band and a coffee shop run by soldiers. Wasn’t Milwaukee supposed to be more pitiful? Now that I think about it, I should have biked through Gary, Indiana while I had a chance. People poopooed it, but I bet I could have found some fun there, too.
Amanda was delightfully odd. She was an artist, studying at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and she had that theatricality common to so many creative folk, an attitude that life is a performance and you should make it absurd. That jived with me just fine, so we fit together like bacon and eggs. Our afternoon together was mostly spent making funny faces and trying on different accents, for nothing but the giggley amusement of the other.
At a gallery downtown, we furrowed our brows at the latest in Wisconsonian art. There was some kind of tea party performance art going on, with a bunch of adults sitting around a table wearing rainbow colors and silly hats and screaming out madly, in general acting refreshingly unadultlike. There was none of that stodgy seriousness so common to grownups. I can’t stand that shit. Why does growing up squeeze the playfulness out of people?
Back at her CouchSurfing haven, Amanda taught me how to write in Elvish, I taught her naughty words in Russian, and we teased each other mercilessly. From the minute we met there was a mutual feeling of contagious mirth. Why the hell not? I’m happy to be as naive as a newborn if I can smile like one too.
In the small towns that don’t warrant a Wal-Mart, the dollar stores reign supreme.
I don’t know why, but this is just something that stuck out to me. Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, Dollar General - they seem to be the anchors of towns all over the country, soft-spoken centers of commerce in the broken places we’ve forgotten. Could it be that, because of Great Recession frugality, these chains have proliferated? Or have I just been so blinded by affluence that I never noticed them?
A real Wisconsin crest puts the cow above it all.
Now what’s with the pirate ship?
I popped another CouchSurfer’s cherry.
D.J. had advertised his couch back when he lived at UW Parkside, but now he was with his family for the summer. He was excited about having his first Surfer, though, so he asked his mom Barb if I could stay with the family. She was sweet and gave the thumbs up. Hey, I think all parents should let their kids host strangers. It builds character.
D.J. boiled some brats in beer and then grilled them on the cue. His girlfriend Anna was there, chatty and cute, and we talked about accents. She was from Brazil, but after twelve years in Wisconsin her lilt had that near-Canadian quality you get up here. I asked D.J. for some more local language insight, and he said that their “flag” is more of a “fleg,” and that drinking fountains are called “bubblers.” He didn’t quite talk the talk, though. I’ve never exactly understood how dialects skips some.
We went to the movies, and everybody at the theater knew D.J. He’s understated and gentle, a very likeable combo. It helped that he’d worked there before, so he and his brother and I got homemade passes. On each one there was a cartoon face in ink and a single word: Let, These, People, In. It was like going to see a movie at your friend’s house.
The movie started with light left in the sky, but when we came out of our cave it was all dark. That disorientation set in hard. What time is it? Where am I? I’m in Wisconsin? How did I get here? I rode my bicycle here??? Now, come on, you have to be kidding me.
The country’s oldest velodrome is in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A velodrome is a giant bowl you can sprint your bicycle in, like a marble in a roulette wheel. I stood on the hill above it with my 75 pound tank of a bicycle and felt like the fat kid at the prom.