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.


Anonymous said...

I once heard a similar story about a guy who had a similarly cheap rim on his singlespeed. He happened to crack this rim but serendipitously did so within limping distance of a bike shop. Now it was an uncanny, mathematically improbable, piece of good fortune that the shop proprietor had in his wisdom decided to replace the rear wheel of a certain Specialized bike with a custom made Singlepeed wheel which our adventurer bargained for most readilly and now, I believe, checks his rims before each and every ride, maybe!

Kent Peterson said...

BTW, limping distance in this case was 200 miles. And the Specialized single speed is a stock bike.

Unknown said...

Right on fun little story....

Seems I am the dude that always seems to have to right part and or tool on the bike path. Loved your story in dirtrag i'll be getting your book soon.

Anonymous said...

An old cycletouring buddy of mine has in his garage a very large adjustable spanner. It's not the kind of spanner one would normally possess in an ordinary household. The story of how he came by it is remarkable in the same way that the duct tape story is.
Whilst on a long deserted stage of a 3 month tour of New Zealand the headset on Arran's bike was continually working itself loose. It was becoming more and more dangerous and he was getting desperate. They stopped at a pullout on the empty road and struggled once again to tighten the thing with the inadequate tools they had.
The way Arran tells it he was looking at his bike and thinking "What I really need is a spanner" when he looked down beside his bike and saw a crescent wrench half buried in the gravel. "Great!" he thought as he picked it up... but "oh no, it's too small. I need a bigger one" Now this is the spooky bit - he cast anout a bit further and 2 metres away was another crescent wrench only this one was huge! (It weighs 2kgs). It fit perfectly and soon they were on their merry way.
He carried that spanner for the rest of that trip in the bottom of his pannnier. I still pop round to his place every now and then to borrrow it for those tricky jobs.
I have a feeling it's one of those zen things that happen to people in a particular state of mind - and it happens to be the state of mind you get into when you ride a bicycle for months on end.

Still spooks me though :-)

Mimbres Man said...

Have a similar story when bike touring through New Mexico in 1981...When checking my tires in camp in Datil (on hwy 60, just west of the VLA) I noticed I could see cord through the rubber tread on my rear tire. Stupidly, I didn't have a spare with me (I was new to bike touring) and was 80 miles to Socorro where I thought there might be a chance I could get a tire, but 700c tires weren't exactly common back then or available at Western Auto.
As I rode towards Socorro, I'd glance down at my tire and see that white spot of cord getting longer and longer as the miles rolled by. By the time I was about 10 miles out of Socorro, there was no more black tread on the tire, just the cord and now it had worn through the first layers, but I had no choice, I kept riding. Just about then, another cyclist was coming up the hill from Socorro. When this Peugeot riding New Mexico Tech professor was close enough, I asked him if there was a place where I could buy a 700c tire. He said no, but he had a couple of spares at his house and he’d sell me one (he told me he ordered several at a time from Bike Nashbar). I followed him to his home and we got a tire from his shed. I paid him for it ($8.00 I think), mounted the tire and continued on to Albuquerque.

Crazy how the world works!