Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Philosophy of Adventure

Years ago, when I wrapped up my college days with a degree in philosophy and no firm plans, I was often asked "what do you do with a degree in philosophy?". The words I gave in answer were ones I borrowed from Henry Thoreau:

"There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust."

Like Henry, I was more interested in being a philosophical human rather than a professor of philosophy. Henry's answer was not his words, it was his life. He lived and thought and wrote. I try to do the same. His path settled for a couple of years in a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, while my more restless route involves bicycles.

Bicycles and lots of friends. While the current work load at Bike Works often keeps me spinning wrenches at the shop on Saturdays, I usually spend Sundays and Mondays elsewhere, often awheel. And I'm fortunate to have a couple of pals who've also managed to avoid the too harsh rigors of completely conventional employment, knowing that the best lives are not so tightly packed as to allow no openings for adventure. With broad plans, we hit the road.

Broad planning is one of our key principles. My friend Mark and I have often noted the inverse relationship between information and adventure. You need only a goal to get going and general skills to get back, but too much planning and preparation ensure only that you execute a plan while losing out on adventure. Mark, or more formally, Dr. Mark Vande Kamp, is probably the most generally smart guy I know. I can never remember what his advanced degree is in (statistics maybe?) but his undergrad work was in "General Studies." "General Studies?" I ask, "so you basically majored in nothing?" "Oh no," Mark corrects, "I majored in everything." Riding and chatting with Mark is like hanging out in a really good used bookstore that was just struck by a minor earthquake. The fiction and history and pop culture and science and art and how-to sections all fell into one another and you never know what the next thing is that's going to turn up.

My other pal on this particular adventure is Matt Newlin, Matt describes himself as being independently poor and also has let slip that he spent way too much time studying engineering in his younger days. Somewhere along the line he worked on a contract for something big where he managed to sock away a pile of money. He only talks about the project in the vaguest of terms, so Mark and I have concluded it is either very dull or very dangerous and probably both. When we lob out guesses, "Cruise Missile Guidance", "IRS audit software", "DeathStar", "Area 51", "Google's Search Engine" or "Diebold security system", all we get are enigmatic assurances of "no, that's not it," followed by some annoying detail like "and besides the exhaust port much smaller than a womp rat" or "Area 51 is just a PR cover location anyway." The one thing we do know for certain is that whenever one of us suggests some adventure, Matt is always up for it unless he is off doing something even cooler. "Oh, I'd like to go riding in the Cascades, but I'm kayaking up the inside passage that week" or "That sounds great, but I'm in Moab that weekend" are typical Matt Newlin excuses.

Matt must not have had any sailing trip to Tahiti planned for this past weekend because when Mark suggests a Sunday/Monday trip to Port Townsend and Dungeness Spit, Matt quickly replies that he's in.

Our buddy Jon will not be joining in on this adventure, since he'll be busy with the Port Townsend Film Festival, but his input does shape the precise timing of our trip. The documentary, Long Road North, is showing both on Saturday and Sunday, so we decide to be sure we're up in Port Townsend in time to catch the Sunday September 28th showing.

Packing adventure into a modestly busy life involves some sacrifice and what I routinely sacrifice is sleep. Again Thoreau has wise words, stating that "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep." I haven't used an alarm clock in years, a fact my wife still finds amazing, although she's more amazed at my ability to drop into slumber at will. Alarm clocks, like automobiles, are mechanical devices which bring me no pleasure and thus I do what I can to avoid them in my daily existence.

So I'm awake around 4:00 AM and prime the motor I call myself with a quick breakfast of coffee and steel cut oats. While I'm certainly not a nutritional role model, the steel cut oats are one of those things I eat that gets nods of approval from even most conscientious vegan friends. Unlike mushy, quick cooking rolled oats, steel cut oats have a coarse, nutty texture. They are slow to cook but provide a great long, steady source of energy to keep the pedals turning. Years ago someone taught me the handy trick of cooking the oats in a thermos, a stunt that only requires a bit of forethought the night before breakfast.

Oats and coffee get me out the door and a bit of pedalling propels man and bicycle from Issaquah to Seattle. Matt, Mark and I all meet at the ferry terminal and wait for the first boat of the day to take us over to Bainbridge Island.

"Is that another bike?" Mark queries. I admit that it is, in fact, an older Joe Murray designed Kona Explosif that had been sitting for far too long in the Bike Works warehouse. "I bought it Friday, painted it and built it up yesterday." Mark makes his usual comment about drug addicts running pharmacies and then adds, "you know, you keep building up the same bike." "Variants on a theme," I point out, "some have more gears, some have less. Some have fatter tires, some skinnier." "Those skinny tired bikes don't seem to stick around long," Matt notes. "I guess I'm just not a fast, pavement guy. And besides, our infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate. You know anyone who wants to buy a Fuji?"

The sun is cresting Capitol Hill as the ferry departs Seattle. We chat of tires and tubing, novels and non-fiction, minor details and world events. Mark tells us that in his young daughter's pre-school, "condo" has become a term of personal insult. Apparently there was a disruption to the neighborhood, a family or business that had to move because the facility was being converted to condominiums. The kids picked up on the adults talking about the bad things happening because of the "condos" so they naturally extrapolated, so now a kid who is mean or a bully or just generally nasty is told "gee Bobby, you're such a condo!"

Bainbridge Island connects to the Kitsap Peninsula via the Agate Point bridge and the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas are joined by the floating bridge over the Hood Canal. We roll past golden fields, over water reflecting a sky that is cool and clear and blue. The conifers stay green regardless of rain or sun or snow but today the leafy trees demand to be noticed, their leaves dying in every shade of red, orange and gold. A day such as this invites one to ponder Philip K. Dick's question, "What if our world is their heaven?" If that is so, then we are living the life others pray for and it is good to give thanks.

We roll past places with names like Paradise Bay with views that are familiar to us that others would put on postcards. The land wraps around the water here in hills and coves, creating safe harbors and dangerous channels. For men on bicycles, the hills remind us that sometimes we will only crawl slow as turtles while other times we will swoop like eagles.

We stick mostly to the smaller roads. Matt had made the discovery that Discovery Road is a prettier, if hillier, way into Port Townsend than coming straight in on Hwy 20. Wiser men than us have noted that you don't have adventures by sticking to the main roads and staying at the Holiday Inn. Our planes and automobiles have made it possible for us to go anywhere and see nothing, but our simpler, slower means of conveyance, our feet and our bicycles and wind-powered boats, still connect us to this earth that is not ours to master, but to treasure.

Port Townsend is a place whose past is not quite past, whose present is not quite now and whose residents proudly proclaim that "we're all here because we're not all there." It's a town where hippies have become capitalists to survive, where the guy who fixes your manure spreader has sculptures for sale in SoHo, where the old fort serves as a movie set and where the waitress at the diner may live in a Victorian mansion or a tin shack back in the woods. It's a place that's a little hard to get to, a little hard to explain, damn hard to leave and even harder to live in. If it was closer to Seattle and not protected by twisty roads, long bridges, flakey ferry service and the sulphurous scent of a working paper mill, the town would be overrun with tourists every day instead of just every weekend.

Guys like Matt, Mark and me are, of course, part of that tourist throng, thinking at least on some level, "man, it'd be neat to live here." Right now we are living here, at least for today. We stop at Jon Muellner's place but nobody is around so we roll down the hill. It's a bit after 10:30 AM. My hearty breakfast of oats and coffee was more six hours and sixty miles back and Matt and Mark both agree that trading dollars for calories at the Landfall Cafe sounds like a fine idea.

The Landfall not only has bacon, eggs, hash browns, juice and coffee, we also find a film festival schedule there and verify which local theatre is showing Long Road North. Our minimal planning had concluded a few days ago with my email comment of "maybe we should get tickets in advance" but none of us had actually matched that prudent thought to any kind of action. But how many people in Port Townsend would want to see a movie about a bicycle trip the southern tip of Patagonia to the Arctic Circle? As it turns out, damn near all of them.

Yesterday the movie had been playing in a 500 seat theatre and sold out. Today, the film has "buzz" and is playing at the 300 seat Rose Theatre. We approach the milling throng with a sense of doom and are told that maybe we can buy tickets. We are given yellow vouchers, which let us stand in the long yellow line, next to the long red and blue lines. The blue line is very special, season ticket holders or something. The red line is not quite so special, but they are donors of some kind and more special than us. We yellow people are the huddled masses. We spend our time in the yellow line bonding with our fellow peasants, discussing how we hate the red and blue people, what with all their fancy money and advance planning. It's mostly good natured talk of revolution, but anyone with the ability to count can see that we are doomed.

Except for one thing. One person, really. Tania Lo. When Tania sees Matt and I, she lets out an enthusiastic "Matt, Kent, you made it!", runs up to us and gives us each a big hug. Mark's eyebrows shoot up in his "fascinating" impression of a mid-sixties vintage Leonard Nimoy, while Matt and I explain that the enthusiastic young woman with the huge smile is one of the dynamos behind Momentum - the magazine for self-propelled people. A year or so ago, when Momentum was looking to expand its coverage and distribution into the states, Tania and Mia stopped into the Seattle Bikestation to research our local bike scene. Matt and I are so damn committed to bicycle advocacy that we immediately spent several hours at Asia Ginger over Wild Salmon Bowls with these delightful young women, telling them everything we could think of about cycling in Seattle. Yes, Matt and I are just that dedicated to the cycling cause.

Tania's partner, Gwendall Castellan, is the star, instigator and camera man behind the film we are hoping to see. Tania had been back in BC as part of mission control for the first part of the journey, but traded a desk for a bike in the last year of the project. She explains this as she introduces us to Gwendall and Matt and I in turn introduce Gwendall and Tania to Mark. Needing a short form of introduction for Mark and not wanting to get into the full under-employed generalist story, I say "this is Mark Vande Kamp, he writes for Bicycle Quarterly." "Oh," Tania says, "you must know Jan." Of course, everybody knows Jan.

Tania and Gwendall have to do more meeting and greeting and do star stuff like chat with red and blue line folks. Matt, Mark and I all think, but don't ask, if Tania can some how get us in.

We don't need to ask.

About three minutes before show time, with our doom all but certain, Tania comes running up and whisks us out of the demoralized remnants of the yellow line. "C'mon," she says, "I got you press seats." Sure enough, five seats at the back of the theatre. We don't even have to pay to get in. "Kent's Bike Blog counts as press?" Mark hisses to me as we settle into our seats. "At least as much as Bicycle Quarterly does," I reply. Matt must have gotten in on pure charm alone. I was just glad that I'd followed my usual custom and was packing both a pen and a small notebook.

I only have two problems now: the small problem of taking notes in the dark, and the large problem of what I say to Tania if I don't like the film. The first problem proves to be minor, while the second problem proves to not exist.

The movie is wonderful. It's not just the best bicycling movie I've ever seen, it's one of the best movies I've ever seen. Gwendall hadn't shot a single frame of video prior to starting this project, but it turns out he's a natural. And he doesn't just keep the camera to himself, he has family, friends and the world wrapped up in this project.

Here's how I know the movie is good. Just when I start to think, well the scenery is nice, but I wonder what people he met, the film cuts to a scene about people. When I'm starting to wonder about some logistical thing, the narration comes in explaining the trip logistics. And the over-all arc of the story pulls you along. The movie is most certainly not a look at this tough guy do this tough thing kind of story. It's a look at this amazing world and here's how a nice guy and his pals, including his girlfriend and his family, took a really neat journey.

The trip took 18 months but Gwendall, Tania and co-director Ian Hinkle spent longer than that in post-production making the film. And the result is astounding. The difficulties of the trip definitely show on the screen. At one point Gwendall mentions that the wind and terrain in Patagonia slowed them to 18 kilometers a day. Next to me I hear a small gasp as Mark takes that in. We ride, we know how hellish that must be. And Matt, of course, has been to Patagonia. He knows that Gwendall got it right on the screen.

The screen is filled with ingenuity, tenacity, scenery and humanity. I cannot overstate the loveliness of this film. Love of the journey and the love of the travellers for each other and for the people they meet shows in darn near every frame. It is a story that doesn't make you say "I could never do that" but rather one that makes you see that a world of adventure lies just down the road if you are willing to do the work to roll out the door.

After the movie there is lots of applause and a question and answer session. When asked if they are still a couple, the obvious answer, the one illustrated by the way they hold hands and look at each other, is given by Tania. "Yes, we got married three weeks ago." Tania also gives my favorite answer of the day when asked how she trained for the trip, "I didn't train," she explains, "I just went."

While we'd like to linger, Matt, Mark and I have miles to go before we sleep. We thank Tania and Gwendall profusely not only for their kindness at getting us into the film, but for their kindness in making this movie.

Before we leave town, we stop again at Jon's house. He's back from a bike ride now but we can't pry him loose to join us on our trip out to the Dungeness Spit. He does give us maps of the region where we're headed, probably a handy thing to supplement Mark's general notion of where we're headed. He also tells us we may see weird things out there, recounting a story of how he was once out there walking his dog late at night and heard some screaming, followed by another voice saying "you can do better than that." Following the sounds, Jon comes upon a naked man and his coach doing some sort of primal scream therapy in the woods. At least that's Jon's story. On the ride out of town, we all agree that this is one of those "I have a friend" stories. "So Jon does primal scream therapy in the woods," Mark comments. "Yep," I agree, "that's the way I figure it."

Mark's general notion that Dungeness Spit is only fifteen or so miles from Port Townsend is wildly off, a notion with as little relation to reality as our impression of Jon's primal screaming tendencies. As we roll west, three amigos riding into the setting sun, our sense of urgency grows. I think we've all been somehow thinking of dinner at the campsite around 5:00 PM, but as the long roads fill with long shadows we see that tonight darkness will come before dinner.

My problem is that my new bike isn't quite set up to this deal with this eventuality. I've neglected to set up my usual feed bag full of snacks up front and I've eaten through all the PayDay bars I'd stuffed in my pockets. I have more PayDays buried somewhere in my panniers, but I don't want to slow my companions by stopping to reconfigure my load of snacks. And as the miles roll along, my speed drops.

Matt is smart enough to diagnose the problem and offers me a shot from one of the bottles on his bike. "You won't like it," he cautions. He's wrong about that. It's some brew he concocts in his home lab from some long-chain semi-complex sugar. It's got the texture of honey and it's flavored with vanilla. It's wonderful and brings me back from the dead.

It's just past 7:00 PM when we roll into the Dungeness Recreation Area. There is just enough light to find the hiker/biker camp area. For the past twenty-some miles Mark has had to put up with Matt and I saying things like "15 miles, eh?" or "Forty miles is not fifteen miles" or the classic "are we there yet?"

We're all ravenous at this point and set up camp quickly, by the light of headlamps and flashlights. Matt travels most minimally, living on his special goo and a sandwich while Mark and I chose to fiddle with our various cooking devices. Mark has brought two tiny Pepsi can alcohol stoves, neither of which seem to be working at the moment. After a bit of fiddling, Mark deduces that he'd grabbed the wrong kind of alcohol from home. Fortunately our campsite is rich in the kind of twigs my Kelly Kettle thrives on, so we not only use the kettle to boil water, we use its flame vortex properties to cook Mark's supper as well. Matt is suspiciously skillful at keeping the kettle fueled and going and he let's slip that he owns one of the kettles. "But you never bring it on any of our trips," I say. "Don't need to," he replies, "you always bring yours!"

It's true, I pretty much always bring the kettle and a thermos. My latest cheap, easy and filling meal is a double serving of Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles packed into an old Tang container. For about 1/4th the cost of a "backpacker" meal, I've got something that just takes boiling water and five minutes of sitting while I brew up a thermos worth of instant coffee. I always wind up sharing some coffee with Matt but he also confesses he's got his eye on some portable cappucino machine. We travel light, but we each have little luxuries we bring along. It might be a novel or a notebook or a camera. Or maybe even a very tiny cappucino maker.

After dinner we walk to the beach, listen to the surf and look out at the universe. It still gets dark out here the way it used to in the days before Edison but the sky is filled by the minds of men. Mark remembers more astronomy than I and Matt is suspiciously good at sighting satellites, but the night sky mostly reminds me that when seen from far enough away all our adventures are tiny, whether they span the globe or linger in our back yards. And if we step back far enough, we see we're never any place but home. But even when we think we are not moving, we are turning toward something, writing some story that someone else may want to read. The adventure lies not just in the going with the companions on our journeys but in returning with the tales to tell our friends who didn't roll with us on this particular trip.

We're up early on Monday. Mark cooks breakfast and then we pack up quickly and roll east into another day of autumn splendor. It's almost as if the whole Olympic Peninsula is saying "sorry about that last trip, guys." Mark's underestimation of the distance to Dungeness combined with a 3:00 PM appointment with his daughter back in Seattle means he has to speed off, but Matt and I have less pressing schedules and choose not to resist the lure of the Gardiner espresso stand. Later, on Big Valley Road, I have the traditional flat that must figure into every trip, the random staple on the roadside that reminds me why I travel with tools. I'm back home a bit after 4:00 PM and already planning the next trip. The first thing I do is rig up a feed bag on the front of the bike.

Gwendall spent 18 months on his trip and a longer time editing and producing his movie. Now he and Tania are on another journey, wandering from film-fest to film-fest showing the movie. He tells me to keep an eye on their website and that copies of the DVD will be available by Christmas. I know what I'll be giving some of my friends this year.

And I think I've spent more time writing this story than I did riding the couple hundred miles over a couple of days. But no matter how busy it gets at the shop or how much I love it, at least once a day when I'm out on my bike, I see something I didn't notice before or I wonder where that road or trail leads. Adventure is more than planning and going and reporting what we've done. Adventure is what fills the spaces we leave empty on the map. Adventure begins with the words "I wonder" and it really never ends.


Peter Peterson said...

You know, even with all the grief I give you about being an "internet celebrity", sometimes your blog is really strikes the right cord

The frozen boy

Anonymous said...


You've made sitting here grading exams that much more difficult today. Thanks for the excellent story -- now I am off wandering, at least in my mind.


Patrick said...

Another great story, Kent. Thanks for writing. I'm adding to my list of "Things I'd like to do." The good thing is, it seems like your style of adventure doesn't have a very high bar of entry. I read your stuff and think I could do that to. Someday, I hope I will.

Anonymous said...

Great writing Kent. I've been waiting for this trip report since Monday night when Mark how great of a trip it was. Hopefully someday I won't have the M-F job and will be able to join some of these adventures.

For now I'll be watching for the film to come out on DVD.

Anonymous said...

just a Thank You for bringing wonder and beauty into my life.
Gordon in Boise Idaho

Mike said...

Fantastic story, maybe part of the reason for your internet celebrity-hood?

Joe said...

A classic post! Sometimes it's hard to appreciate the riches we have. You've clearly got that down.

nollij said...

Dude, THIS is a shining example of why you're an inter-web celebrity! You've making it OH do hard for me right now... I'm stuck in a wheelchair/kneescooter/crutches for the next 2 months (doc said NO riding a bike: I'm not allowed to weight my left foot at all) so I've been reading bike blogs to occupy my bike mind.. but this, this is exquisite torture. I'll check the movie: sounds like more exquisite torture.

Anonymous said...

Steel cut oats? So now you're discriminating in your choice of oatmeal...that's what I'd refer to as a "hippie elitist". Or perhaps an elitist hippe.

McCain/Palin 08, my friends!

The maverick boy

Hank Greer said...

Stories don't get much better than that. Thank you very much.

Jill Homer said...

Great report, Kent. And great trip!

nollij said...

Kent, I see one of your spawn is determined to tweak his old man. :)

Eric, why you gotta bring politics into a nice cycling story? Maybe it's time for a father/son ride/camping trip...seriously. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a coincidence! I was riding the same route that day -- only in reverse! I was returning to Seattle after a great weekend in Port Townsend.

It's a pitty we didn't see each other on the road.

Boxer Bikes said...

An inspirational blog, Kent.
Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Long Road North is an excellent bicycle adventure film. We were lucky enough to get into the first showing on Saturday AM at the Uptown Theater.
Thanks for the fine blog.
Bob in PT

brad said...

Beautifully written. I do like the idea of recreating the same bike over and over again. Each bears the mark of its impressario but with different ingredients.

The dairy out by the Spit is to die for. I'll lead you there next time.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully evocative and thoughtful post. Thanks...


Anonymous said...

Tremendous writing - thank you for transcribing the tale.

-Big A

Jon Muellner said...

Ah, the perfect adventure [insert primal scream here]...see you next time!

Parka Girl said...

Hi there. I am happy i have come across this blog, because i am a big fan of cycling too. (one of my most inspiring things is this article: I swear I will do it one day too! Anyway, nice post and i hope you are having a great Wednesday! See ya in the blogosphere!

Anonymous said...

Awesome story. I have passed this link to a lot of people.

gingerbetty said...

Thanks Kent for the wonderful post! It touches my heart to read about your spirit of adventure. You're such a beautiful writer.

I am happy to announce that Long Road North will be screening again in Port Townsend at the Rose Theatre on November 1st and 2nd.

Tania Lo
Long Road North

Anonymous said...

Hey Kent,
Lovely post. It doesn't look like you are using any sort of a tent-like structure. Is the red bag just a sleeping bag then?

Kent Peterson said...

The red bag is an REI Minimalist Bivy. It's a weatherproof, bugproof cover that encloses my Montbell down sleeping bag. In heavy rain, I use a small silnylon tarp as a leanto over the bivy.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer on the sleeping bag. I'd love to see how you rig your lean too--I guess we'll just have to wait for pictures from your next adventure. The other question came up when I read about your wonderful anniversary trip. In this set of photos and that one, there is what looks like fire shooting up from the kettle. I'm curious about that.

P.S. I quoted you at the end of my last trip report. The part about adventure filling the blank spaces on a map. Beautiful stuff!