Monday, November 07, 2005

The Way the World Works (or The Duct Tape Story)

A lot of my riding buddies have already heard this story but I figure I might as well jot it down in the blog. This really happened. It's the story I tell when I'm asked big questions like "what is the meaning of life?" I answer that I don't know what the meaning of life is, but I do know how the world works. And then I tell this story:


Somewhere in Wyoming, 1982.

I'd finished college the week before and having a degree in Philosophy and no real plans, I decided to ride my bicycle from Minnesota to California. Before I left my friend Carl asked where I was heading and I simply replied "West."

"West," Carl sagely noted "is a big place."

On this day West is a very big place. Almost all automobile traffic crossing Wyoming is on the Interstate highways but I am sticking to the smaller roads. I've been keeping track and on this particular day and I've seen more pronghorn antelope than people. Hours pass before I see a car or a pickup truck speed by and I watch each vehicle until it shrinks into the tiny horizon that joins this broad landscape with a wide and infinitely blue sky.

I've been having a series of flat tires this day and the frequency of flats has quickly become a cause for concern. I've used all my spare tubes and am rapidly using up my patches. My map tells me that it is many, many miles to the next town and my only hope of finding a store where I can buy more patches.

I am on an unremarkable section of road when I have my final flat tire. It has to be my final flat, because I am down to my final patch. I pull the bike over, remove the wheel and stare dumbly at the tire. The punctures have been mysterious, with no obvious holes in the the tire or telltale thorns. Looking carefully, I realize that the problem isn't the outside of the tire, it's the rim of the wheel. With the heat and the miles, my cheap rim strips have worked their way into the spoke holes and the sharp edges of the holes are cutting through the tubes. What I need is something to work as a rim strip but I have nothing with me that will do.

I have no good explanation for what happens next. I am miles from the nearest town on a random piece of road with my last tire patch in place on my tube. There was no reason that anyone would have ever stopped on this chunk of road at any time since it's original construction and I would never have stopped here if it wasn't for this flat tire. But as I ponder my predicament I look down at shoulder of the the road and I see a roll of duct tape.

Duct tape.

It is not a full roll but it doesn't need to be. It has no reason to be here but it is here. I pick up the roll.

It is not a full roll but there still is tape on the roll and it's enough tape. I split the tape lengthwise down the center and make two rim strips, one for each wheel. I carefully install my makeshift rim strips in each wheel, replace the tubes and then ride the many miles to the next town where I purchase a new patch kit.

For the rest of this ride and for many rides since, I've tried to understand what happened there on the Wyoming prairie. The logical explanation goes something like this. At some time, someone must have had a breakdown or some other reason for stopping at the spot in the road. After making their repair they forget the roll of duct tape. Sometime later I come along, coincidentally breaking down at the same spot. I find the tape and use it to work myself out of a jam. This scenario makes a kind of sense. It could happen. I lived it, I know it did happen. But I also know a mathematician would assign very slim odds to this very thing happening.

But it happened. My Christian mother would say the Lord works in mysterious ways. The Taoists would say I found the tape because I was on the proper path. And Mick Jagger would say that if you try sometime, you just might find that you get what you need.

I don't know who is right. But I do know that this is how the world works. I have no idea why the world works this way or why it is a bad idea to count on the world working this way. Buy I do know, as certainly as I know anything, that the world works this way.

I plan. I prepare. I travel with tools. But I can not have everything. I can not prepare perfectly. I am never really ready when it is time to go, but I go anyway. I don't know what I'll find on the next road or what will find me. I can live with that uncertainty because I hold this certainty: I'll get what I need.

It will be enough to keep me moving down the road.

But I still travel with tools.

And these days I use Velox rim tape.
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