About a month ago, I quit my job and sold everything I owned so I could spend a year riding a motorcycle and blogging about letting go of this thing we call “the real world”. I guess the best reason I can give is that I got a little too excited about a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a few years back and promised myself that at some point I would ride a motorcycle across the country. The idea snowballed, and now here I am.
My dream was to let go of schedules and destinations to get lost on the back roads of America. I wanted to see what happens when a person lets go of the plan and focuses on the ride. Eventually though, it became apparent that the philosophy of being where you are is really bad when you need to get someplace. That wasn’t a problem for me, but it was a problem for my riding partner, Jared who had a schedule and a list of destinations he wanted to see. As we lost hours twisting in circles and going no place, I could feel his tension building. So after day two we sat down and talked and he let me know he wanted to start making more miles. We agreed that maybe a little highway riding wouldn’t be so bad to try to make up hours, and in the morning we set out and put our wheels on the interstate. I knew in my gut that getting on that long, flat road was a mistake, but we had wasted so much time that I had to entertain the idea that maybe I was judging the highway too harshly.
I learned an important lesson those next two days on the interstate: Just about the most useless thing you can do is to buy a motorcycle and point it in a straight line at 70mph for six or eight hours a day. It would be more entertaining and less of a waste of time to set the thing on fire and roast marshmallows on it.
It was excruciating. I was so bored. All we did was hold the throttle and sit there. All the coffee in the world couldn’t have kept me aware and upbeat. I stared at my odometer. Miles passed so slowly while time raced on. We’d take extended breaks at rest stops and undo all of our progress because we didn’t want to have to get back in the saddle and fight the cold wind for another 100 miles until the next fill up. We were getting nowhere.
I started getting so angry. When I imagined this trip, I would get a tingly feeling of freedom. Yet that highway felt like anything but freedom. It felt like wasting time just to “get somewhere.” As the initial anger subsided, I got to thinking a lot, as I tend to do, and I realized that stupid highway is the exact fucking thing that I’m trying to rebel against with this trip. That highway and all of the bored people in the cars next to me biding their time until their next exit became a metaphor for the sickness I’m trying to find a way to cure in myself, the sickness I’ve aimed my whole career as a mental health counselor at trying to cure in others. And here I was just getting stuck in it all over again in a different way.
We do this in America. We get on our life highway and we’re told we have to hit checkpoints. School, graduation, job, marriage, kids, retirement. There’s some stuff in between, but those are the big ones. The point is that so many of us have gotten into this mindset that we just have to get there. We don’t care how we get there, just as long as we get there as quickly and easily as possible. We get on our own little highway. I talked to one too many college kids who told me they just needed to get to graduation. Once they started working, they would be able to start a life and be happy. I tried and tried to convince them to just enjoy where they were, but it became frustrating trying to do it individually, one person at a time.
The highway has benefits: It is convenient. It gets the job done. But it’s so sad and so miserable. On the highway we count miles and hours, only thinking about where we’d like to end up. It’s been made very flat and very straight for efficient travel so we don’t have to do much other than keep the wheels off the rumble strips. We’re bored so we turn up the radio or bury ourselves in our cellphones. When that doesn’t work, we buy junk food or coffee from the same 10 or so restaurants that we’ve seen over and over at all of the other rest stops. We don’t mind. Those places are comfortable and we know what to expect from them. If we’re really lucky, something awful has happened to someone else: their car has flipped or caught on fire. That’s a thing worth slowing down for. That’s a story to tell. Otherwise, we bide our time and cruise along singing Taylor Swift until it’s all done. We miss the ride. There might as well not be one.
I think you can see where this is going. Too many of us are just tuning out and waiting for the next exit. How many of us watch the clock and wait for the end of the day? How many of us slam coffee and junk food to try to keep ourselves awake or entertained enough to make it through the week? How many of us are constantly waiting for Friday? How much time have you or I spent staring at our stupid cell phones today or this week (trust me, I’m not above or immune to any of this)? How many of us are so bored that we only perk up to be entertained by someone else’s misery not in the form of a car fire but in the form of a tornado catastrophe on the news or gossiping about our friends. How many of us stay tucked into our little comfort zone made up of the 10 or so places we know and don’t make the effort to venture off the beaten path?
We do this. We’re bored. We perpetuate our own boredom by doing the same thing over and over; By setting far-off goals like graduating or getting married and deciding that everything between now and then is an obstacle to be overcome with the minimum effort possible. The boredom sneaks up and it stagnates. It fosters sadness and depression. We don’t change the problem. We call it a chemical imbalance and we medicate it. We throw one more distraction on top of the junk food and the coffee and the clock watching and we never look at what might be causing it.
Jared and I pulled off the highway and I was prepared to give him a piece of my mind about how I’m not going to be a victim of the highway. I recklessly abandoned that highway when I quit my job and sold my stuff. I wanted off, literally and metaphorically.
I had seen a bunch of kids piled into the back of a pickup truck headed down a country road just after we got of the exit, and they looked happy. They looked like they were headed somewhere fantastic and god dammit, I wanted to go there, too. If it meant not going to California, then we weren’t going to California. I wasn’t going to be miserable day in and day out just to get to a place so I could take a picture and say I got there. I didn’t care if the routes weren’t direct. I didn’t care if we didn’t know the area. I didn’t care if it would take extra time to plan. We were going to do something worth doing.
We stopped the bikes and I told him we should get on a backroad because the highway was boring. I was waiting for the protest at which point I was planning to unleash. Jared looked at me and said, “OK. I’m getting kind of bored too. Cali can wait.”
It was just that easy. We both relaxed a little when the decision was made. Somehow that easy highway had managed to make us both really tense and upset — funny how the fast track can do that to a person. We did some new calculations and we set off down that country road where those smiling Indiana kids had gone and even though I didn’t know where it went, I started feeling happy for the first time since we left.