We have all met that person who always knew that she would grow up to be a doctor. Or heard the story about that kid who played ball so hard until one day his major league team retired his number. The concert pianist, the activist, the pastor, or the car mechanic who found it inconceivable–impossible even–to do anything with their lives other than devote it to what they loved most: their professions. These people found meaning in their lives through their work. Lucky are they, those who feel an all consuming, unavoidable, innate, perhaps even divinely inspired urge to devote their lives to one, singular thing that happened to coincide with their vocation.
This is not me. In fact, it is nothing even close to me. I don’t ever recall finding meaning through my work. In fact, before I decided to ride a bicycle from Portland, OR to Cambridge, MA I didn’t know where I found meaning at all. And that had always bothered me. Most of the time I managed this existential itch the same way any sane person who doesn’t want to face his inner demons does: I ignored it. In the process, I amassed an impressive collection of fancy degrees from even fancier universities, traveled the globe to as many countries as I have years on the planet, founded a company, and fell in love twice.
But none of these things made me feel like my life had meaning. Not happiness, but meaning. In the United States, more so than in other places in the world, I think we give undue priority to being “happy”, as though the societal pressure of feeling good all the time is not only sustainable, but realistic. For me, happiness is just a feeling, just as is sleepiness, anger, fear, boredom, pride, or having to pee are: all of them transitory. Meaning, however, can pervade and even transcend these ephemeral sensations. I have come to understand meaning as a feeling that our very limited time here was spent well. That our presence on this very small planet was indeed of value. Prior to my trip, I was not living a meaningful life.
Somewhere I read that Socrates proclaimed about 2500 years ago that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” While I have always agreed, I’ve also known that self-examinations are really, really hard. And since I have never had the fortune of working in a job that brought me meaning, the “how do I find meaning in my life” question has always lurked, uncomfortably, in the sidelines of my life, begging to be answered. And if this question has bothered me, I’d venture to say there are others like me too. Others who have not been able to combine passion with vocation–ordinary guys like me who, through a combination of circumstances and personal choices, find ourselves working in jobs that don’t coincide with who we are . We are not astronauts. We are accountants. Not heads of state, but instead heads of departments. We are bank tellers and bus drivers and line cooks and bar tenders who are get out of bed not because our work brings us meaning, but because we have to pay the rent and make breakfast for the kids.
So, if most of us don’t wake up every morning motivated because our profession brings us meaning, why do we? Why do we get out of bed an average of 27,375 times in the course of a lifetime? Why are we here? In short, how do we find meaning? This is what I wanted to figure out, the very question that I had avoided for so long.
My plan was simple, if not entirely well planned. For several months prior to my cross-country bike ride, I, like many Americans, could not find a job. I had recently moved from Mexico City where, for several years earlier, I was overseeing the Latin American operations of a waste-to-energy company I had helped to found. In January of 2011, I decided to quit my job and move to San Francisco in pursuit of love. A few months later , sadly, I was dumped when the two of us were on vacation in Paris (of all places he could do it, he chose the Eiffel Tower). Jobless, homeless, and hopeless, I fell into a deep depression–the perfect conditions for the “why am I here?” question to rear its ugly head. And this time, it was not going away until it was answered. With lots of free time and a broken heart, I casually started asking friends in San Francisco how they found meaning in their lives. Then I started asking friends of friends. Then strangers. And within a month I had interviewed a few dozen people about how to lead a meaningful life. And then it dawned on me: I should ride a bicycle across the country and interview hundreds of people about the meaning of life so that I could construct a life congruent with my findings.
The problem was twofold: first, I didn’t own a bicycle. And second, I hated riding bikes. Ever since I was a child I have avoided them, which made a cross country trip–on a bicycle–even that much more of a feat. But, I figured if I was going to ask people to be vulnerable, to reveal intimate things about themselves, and to speak to how they found meaning in their lives, then I too should be uncomfortable. So, like many of my decisions in life, I gave enough thought to my plan of riding a bike from from Portland, OR (where the summer weather is cooler) to Cambridge, MA (where 5 years early I had completed my graduate work at Harvard), as to know that it was theoretically possible, but very little to logistics and feasibility. With only three weeks between the time the idea of riding a bike across the country came to me and my planned departure date, I had to get in shape and buy a bicycle. They were a very hurried three weeks, but in a sense, had they not been, I might have had enough time to reconsider my hair brained idea. On August 8th I left Portland Oregon armed with a with a brand new bike (lovingly named Socrates) a deep desire to understand how to living a meaningful life, and a handful of shirts and shorts. And in the course of the 67 days on the road, I found out not only how meaning is created for others, but also for myself.
This book is about that awakening. It is about how everyday occurrences became miracles and how the simplest, most common activities turned into profoundly deep and enlightening life lessons. And since my quest was to understand how meaningful lives are created, this book is also about the 6.5 characteristics that I came to learn are essential to living a meaningful life. This book is also about the kindness of strangers and how the minute I committed to being authentic, the Universe provided to me (case in point: during my 67 days on the road, I paid for a hotel 5 times and camped only 4 times. The remaining 58 times, total and complete strangers took me in, fed me, did my laundry, and oftentimes, gave me money. My total expenses averaged only $22 per day). Finally, this book is about you. I was fortunate enough to take a risk on a journey that has changed me forever. But it wouldn’t be right for me to keep what I have learned to myself. In fact, part of leading a meaningful life requires that I share this with others. I have designed this book to be a dialogue, just as I dialogued with nearly 400 people over the course of my trip. Every chapter corresponds to every day I was on the road, and not surprisingly, every lesson I learned. At the end of every chapter, I have left some space on the page for you to dialogue about how what I learned on a bike, you can apply to your own life.
Day 1: On Responsibility
San Francisco, CA to Portland, OR
If any of you have been to Nevada in August, you know it is about the most miserable place on Earth. Triple degree heat coupled with high winds, dust, and 0% humidity are only manageable if your entire body is submerged in a pool at the Bellagio (everything but your lips, of course. Those need to be out of the water to suck on a peach margarita). And since at the time I started my journey I was living in San Francisco, traveling through Nevada was unavoidable…if I started in San Francisco.
If I started in Portland, OR, however, not only would the temperature be at least a good 25 degrees cooler, I would have the good fortune of reconnecting with some great friends who lived there. I would also get to travel through some of the most stunning countryside on the planet, starting with the Colombia Gorge. I would also get to avoid Utah, which like Nevada is not only hot, but is also known for lynching people like me. The decision was obvious, and on August 16th I did as the Village People instructed. Well, almost. I went North instead.
Several weeks earlier I had decided that if I was going to start from Portland, my means of getting there had to be distinct. This trip was about exposing myself, of getting raw and open and vulnerable to the world. And since I’d been on a plane 100s, if not 1000s of times in my life, I had to think of a way that would get me in the thick of it, rattle my cage, and get me out of my comfort zone. I also had to bear in mind the weather. I figured that my bike, lovingly named Socrates, and I could do about 60 miles a day. And given the roughly 3300 miles between Portland and Cambridge, I was going to need at least 55 days, not including rests, to get to the East coast. Just enough time to beat the cold. So, instead of riding my bike from San Francisco to Portland, I did the next best thing. I rode Greyhound.
Greyhound was founded in 1914 in Hibbing, MN by an enterprising Swedish immigrant who, after being laid off, found a way to make a buck by transporting local iron ore miners to the saloons in the nearby town of Alice for 15 cents a ride. Today, the rides aren’t quite as cheap, and instead of going to the local bars, Greyhound now service over 3700 destinations in the US, Canada, and Mexico. The clientele has also changed. No longer blue collar workers, the typical Greyhound riders are ex-cons, pregnant teens, welfare families, prostitutes, and the occasional unsuspecting European traveler, who, like the British couple behind kept saying, “I had no idea it would be this bad.” My mind was made up. If I was going to get to Portland, it was going to be on a Greyhound. No violent sex offender or meth addict could stop me.
Since I had just bought Socrates a few days earlier, we really didn’t have that much time to get to know each other. So when I had to break him apart and shove him in a box underneath the bus at the downtown San Francisco terminal, I felt pretty bad. Socrates isn’t much of a talker, but I sensed he was sad for me too. As it turns out, being crammed in a cardboard box is a hell of a lot more comfortable than what I was about to endure.
At noon, my good friend Patrick, whom I have known ever since moving to San Francisco, said his goodbyes and took his last picture of me, Socrates, and a size16 woman wearing a size 4 thong. Her name was Krystal and she was on her way to “finish some unfinished business” in Eugene, OR. I never learned, or wanted to ask, just what that business was.
Boarded and settled in, I wondered why Greyhound got such a bad rap? There were only 4 of us on the bus, and not including Krystal, it smelled as pleasant as a bus could smell. A bit like Lysol actually. The seats even reclined more than they do on a plane. Totally acceptable for for a 17 hour ride. That is, until we got to Oakland, just 30 minutes into the trip.
Every exaggeration, every tall tale, every horrendous story you have heard about Greyhound is entirely true. And then some. As the bus got fuller and the English language disintegrated, I had the fleeting hope that the seat next to me would remain open. One of the Brits behind me, who had been traveling on Greyhound from New York City, leaned forward and whispered, “if you don’t cover your bum, someones liable to sit on that too.” Within minutes, a man in a fur coat and velvet hat, brandishing all sorts of shiny golden bracelets and watches, sat beside me and asked in a slightly different accent than my English friends if, “ain’t nobody sitting in this seat?” I reluctantly said no and was joined by Leroy, a self-proclaimed “friend to the ladies” who, like Krystal, also had some “unfinished business to do” in Eugene. Maybe they were business partners?
Leroy proved to be a very industrious man, and managed to finish a lot of his pending work on the bus. As I could gather from his text messages which I was reading over his shoulder, there seemed to be a dispute over payment between a “client” and one of his two lady friends, lovingly saved in his phone as “biznacth #1” and “sweet thang.” Before Leroy got off the bus several hours down the road, he fired off one last text message, resolving the previous problems in one fell swoop. “I’ll fix this myself,” it read. Followed by “with a beatin’.”
As Leroy got off, a woman barely 5’4” and every bit of 350 pounds boarded the bus, with several bags of potato chips draped over one arm and two twin 4 year-olds on the other. With her was Tim, a very tall and lankly man with the sunken cheeks that only smoking for 20 years can produce. He was probably 25. When his girlfriend, the woman with the chips and babies, in her not so subtle Southern draw screamed his name, it had at least 7 vowels.
“Tiiiiiiim,” she screeched to him, only 3 feet away. “I need a coke.”
“It’s either cokes or ciggies, I ain’t got money for both,” he replied.
“Then I’ll just drink the baby’s juice. And you can suck on this,” she said as she grabbed her tit, nearly dropping a child in the process. “Now get the fuck off this bus and get me my damn cigarettes.”
I was shocked. The Brits were already asleep, having seen this episode of “Crazy” at least 100 times.
Fortunately, the woman didn’t sit down next to me. Instead, she chose the row directly in front of me. After a 10 minute struggle with bags and overhead compartments, 4 year-olds being 4 year-olds, and at least 15 “mother fuckers” and a dozen “I’m gonna beat yous,” the woman finally wedged herself into her seat tight enough to do what she had been itching to do since she got on the bus: eat her bag of pork rinds.
There isn’t a funnel wide enough that could have gotten those pork rinds into her mouth any faster. An entire bad, jumbo size, gone. In less that 3 minutes. And as she shoveled her face with deep friend pork skins and a bag of Ranch Dorritos for dessert, she also managed to force feed her obese daughter at at least 15 chicken McNuggets.
At about nugget 8 the little girl said, “Mommie, I don’t want anymore.”
“You’ll eat every last one. I ain’t wasting no money on a spoiled girl who won’t eat,” Mom lovingly replied.
At nugget 11, the little girl said, “Mommie, I’m not feeling good.”
To which, “I’m gonna hit you” was responded.
At about nugget 15, the little girl, without saying a word, leaned over and proceeded to vomit all over the aisle way, all over the seat, and all over my feet. Chunky vomit. The kind that looks like you’ve just eaten 15 chicken McNuggets. As the smell of fresh throw up mingled with the bus’ already ripe aroma of methamphetamine and Colt 45, I waited for mom to jump up..well…squeeze herself out of her chair, to start cleaning up the mess.
Nothing. Not a move. Did she not just see her daughter projectile all over the bus? Did the sound of crunching pork product in her mouth muffle the crash of half chewed chicken nuggets splattering on the floor?
Gently, I tapped the woman on the shoulder, politely so to avoid my own beating. “Excuse me. Um, I don’t mean to be rude, but, um, it looks like your daughter, well, um, she just threw up all over me.”
“Yeah! And?” She muttered, wiping remnants of a pig’s hoof off her face.
My politeness waned.
“And I’d like you to clean it up.”
“You think I’m gonna be cleaning that shit up? Ain’t my fault she barfed.” She paused for a moment to catch her breath, only to devour another Pringle.
“Tiiiiiiiiiim,” she yelled, who was smoking a ciggy outside. “You got any tissue?”
“What?” he screamed back.
“You. Got. Any. Tissue?” she yells again.
“He ain’t got no tissues, so I guess I just won’t be cleaning nothing up now. Ain’t my fault anyways. You got a problem with the throw up, you should just go talk to McDonalds. They’re the ones who made them things so nasty anyways that my daughter had to up and puke”.
It was clear to me that this was the not the first time this woman had shunned responsibility in her life. Likely, this was probably just one more in a long line of examples in her life of bad choices and finger pointing. There was nothing I could say that would influence this woman who clearly chose to blame others for her lot in life.
And as I sat there, half covered in vomit with 14 hours left before Portland, I reminded myself that taking responsibility for my life and my choices led me to exactly where I was today, exactly where I wanted to be–about to throw myself into the great unknown to understand the meaning of it all–albeit slightly covered in puke.
Have the choices you’ve made led you to where you want to be in your life? Are you willing to take responsibility and make the decisions necessary to start living the life you want?
Day 2: On Risk
Socrates, having spent the last 17 hours carefully tucked away in a box, emerged in Portland fully rested and ready to ride. I, on the other hand, arrived in Portland tired, a bit disappointed with humanity, and with a lingering smell of day-old stomach acid. Though I couldn’t have been any worse than the woman with the kids in the row in front of me. After the Greyhound crew came in to clean up the rotten chicken McNuggets, armed with only a handful of paper towels and not an ounce of disinfectant, she decided to take off her shoes to be more comfortable. Throughout the night, she paced up and down the aisle with her two twin boys, trudging through the remaining throw-up, caking it on the soles of her feet. When I finally got to Heath’s house, the friend with whom I would be staying until my official departure the next morning, I stayed in the shower for at least an hour, more than enough time to scrub away any lingering bile for the both of us. As I took some clothes out of the one small pannier that contained all of my clothing for the next 2.5 months, a bag no larger than a paper one from any local market, the enormity of what I was about to do the next day hit me for the first time.
3 weeks prior, I didn’t even own a bicycle, a remnant of a sacred vow I had made to myself some 15 years earlier. As a kid, there were three words, that when spoken together, would make me shudder to my core. Three deplorable words, almost always discharged from my mother’s mouth. Three words that could turn any pleasant day into Dante’s inferno. The worst of all words, the evilest of all phrases:
I hated these words. But not as much as I hated the short-hand version that my mom would utter as she painfully reminded me that if I wanted to go anywhere, I would simply have to…R.Y.B. And for a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, when Mom and Dad weren’t around to drive me where I wanted to go, there was a lot of R.Y.B’ing.
Ever since I can remember, I avoided riding a bike as much as possible. Frankly, I avoided anything that even remotely made me sweat, gasp for air, or raise my heart beat over 90 BMP. I wasn’t a particularly lazy child, just a highly uncoordinated and generally chubby one. I remember once, when I was 8, I asked my mom if I could join the local soccer team. I quit after a while, though, disappointed that every time I finally made it to the soccer ball, it wasn’t there anymore. Later, in high school, I joined the swim team. But because I couldn’t keep up with the fast kids, I spent most of my time swimming in the slow lane with the JV girls.
Such was my youth: uncoordinated and chubby, with a penchant for sedentary activities. And with such a deep dislike of bicycles, it came as no surprise that the minute I turned 16, I traded in my bike for a car. And never used the dreadful words “ride”, “your”, or “bike” in the same sentence ever again.
I kept this promise to myself for 15 years, when, at 31, having avoided a bicycle (and general physical fitness when possible) I found myself recently showered and digging through the saddle bags of the bike I was about to ride. Across the United States. Even as I write this, the notion of someone riding a bicycle some 3300 miles from Portland, OR to Boston, MA with, for all intents and purposes, zero experience and a visceral distaste for bikes seems ludicrous. Yet, I did it. Clearly not because of physical conditioning (remember: uncoordinated and chubby), but because I was driven by a deep desire to live a meaningful life. And up until my journey, I had not been living one.
Socrates looked up at me as if to say, “Really, you’re having doubts now? A day before we are supposed to leave?”
He was right, of course. Had I wanted to back out of this, I shouldn’t have made my adventure so public. Instead, I posted it on Facebook, made a web page, and contacted the alumni associations of every school I have ever attended. I even got a charity to ride for, ChildFund International. There was no backing out now, especially with the notion of understanding meaning on the line.
But why on a bike? The answer is really quite simple: if I was going to talk to complete strangers across the nation, asking them about such reveal such intimate subjects as meaning in their lives, then I too had too had to be vulnerable. It seemed only fair. I could have easily driven across the country, or flown from state to state, but then I wouldn’t have been exposed. On a bike, however, you’re about as exposed as you can be. Not just for the physicality of being open to the world, but because a bike, for this uncoordinated and chubby kid, was so viscerally uncomfortable. And like all things transformative, being uncomfortable is paramount. If I wanted to understand how meaning is created, then I had to make myself vulnerable, raw, and open to the question. And getting uncomfortable–physically and metaphorically–was the only way I could conceive of making this project work. Unfortunately for me, I had to do this project on a bike.
I reached in the bag and pulled out a white shirt, one of 5 that was to last me for the next 67 days. And as I put it on, I smiled at Socrates, knowing that he and I were about to embark on something that would change me forever. Tomorrow, I would risk a lot and set out to conquer the United States on bike. And in the process, come face to face with many of my own fears.
What risks have you taken in life to lead your life authentically?