Thursday, December 17, 2015

The trip of a lifetime does not have to consist of piling a bunch of useless junk into a car and hopping on the interstate. Less really is more.

"Got enough stuff on that thing?"

I looked away from the sandstone cliffs of southern Utah's Zion National Park, glowing orange under the waning sun, and turned to find my view blocked by a black Escalade full of kids and, presumably, their parents. We were parked at a gas station on the edge of the park, and my gaze shifted from the Escalade to my 1999 BMW F650—a motorcycle I purchased with $2,500 I was able to squirrel away between student loan payments. Strapped to the back of the vinyl seat was my internally-framed, 65-liter backpack, worn from years of use and miles of travel into the deepest backcountry and through the streets of Europe's most ancient cities. The thread that I had used to sew on a new buckle was beginning to fray, and my mud-caked hiking boots dangled off of the back of the bike.

The man's original question may have been a rhetorical one, but I responded sincerely.

"So far I've been okay in the month since I left Philly. I only have a few months remaining—I suppose I could have left my tent and sleeping bag behind in order to lighten my load up a bit. Realistically, I guess I don't really need to eat either, so this food is overkill."

"You rode that thing all the way here from Philadelphia?" he asked. "Why the hell would you do that?"

"Because I can," I responded. "I made an opportunity for myself and went for it." In the background, his wife nodded in approval.

Our conversation continued while the man topped off his 26-gallon tank, and we exchanged goodbyes and good lucks. The Escalade disappeared into the distance, leaving dust suspended in the hot, stale air. I needed to find a spot to set up camp for the night.

After a sleepless night in the Zion wilderness, one punctuated by torrential downpours and lightning strikes that seemed right beyond my nylon tent, I performed my daily ritual: organizing my gear, placing the day's essentials at the top of the pack, and everything else (a water purifier, fly fishing gear, winter layers) at the bottom. I used partially torn bungee cords to strap everything to the back of the bike, and embarked on what was to be the longest day yet.

Riding alone for 500 miles through the plains of Nevada, where you can go hours without seeing much more than some sagebrush or the occasional Halliburton truck, allows for a lot of time to think. Regardless of how hard I focused on the burrito that I intended to reward myself with at the end of the day, my mind kept drifting to that Escalade. The day dragged on as the road pushed its way through gentle ascents and descents. I passed through the flatlands, and the distant mountains remained in my rearview, like they were following me. My body registered every degree of temperature change as I rode through different microclimates, from the cool air at the top of each hill to the desert heat at the bottom, waiting to engulf me as I entered.

Shortly after I arrived at Lee Vining—a tourist town that probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for its proximity to the western entrance of Yosemite National Park—I made my way to a café to have a cup of coffee and give my bike a rest. Just across the street was Mono Lake, its shoreline hugged by the peaks of the Eastern Sierras.

I looked down from my patio dining spot toward my bike, a modest two wheels some German engineer strategically placed underneath the small, 650 cubic-centimeter single-cylinder engine. My mind sped back to only a few months earlier, when I was an environmental engineer and struggling with the concept of adventure. Occasionally I would find myself in my car with nothing but a paper atlas and a direction to drive in. I slept in Wal-Mart parking lots and dreamt of a time when my entire life would be one continuous adventure.

I remembered driving three hours south to Washington, D.C., on the very same day that I quit that job, to pick up a corroding motorcycle that would barely start. A few months (and some 30 new parts) later, I said farewell to my family in New Jersey and just left—not knowing where I'd fall asleep each night and not knowing that I'd find myself stranded in the deserts of Utah and washing dishes at a Korean restaurant in Oregon.

I left Lee Vining and rode through Northern California toward Oregon, and watched brown plains slowly turn to green. I cut into Washington before heading back east through Montana and Wyoming.

After two and a half months of sleeping in my tent, I found myself in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Forest: the final stop out west before the long haul back toward the East Coast. I'd never been here before, but the surrounding glacial peaks were familiar, and my tent had become home. I had somehow found friends, too. Nives and Mark had a flatbed trailer setup, and we hiked through the whitebark pines and evergreen firs together.

At night, we feasted on salad and grilled salmon. "A kitchen," Nives told me, "is the one thing I would not give up to live this lifestyle." Behind a folding shelf was a small cabinet concealing a knife, a cutting board, and a counter-top grill. We washed our dishes in rainwater collected alongside the camper.

When it was time for me to leave, I left behind a few belongings that I no longer needed—topographic maps of the areas I had passed through, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

Three weeks later, as the "Welcome to New Hampshire" sign grew larger, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the last three months condensing into a pinpoint where the road met the horizon. When I arrived at my new home, tucked into a pocket of forest along a dirt road in the White Mountains, I unpacked sluggishly, knowing something important had come to an end.

I found my passport in my pack. I opened my computer and bought plane tickets to South America. My backpack, with its new buckle and amateur stitching, was still full.

The trip of a lifetime does not have to consist of piling a bunch of useless junk into a car and hopping on the interstate. Less really is more.

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