Countless climbs later I reached Kernville, CA. This far north the high passes were still being cleared of trees and snow. I was forced to admit that not only would I miss Yosemite (Tioga Pass still being under enough snow to bury a vehicle), but I would need to immediately reroute as The Trail of 100 Giants wasn’t clear either.
Thus I found myself crossing Walker Pass at 1,600 meters for a 13 km descent into the Owens Valley where I could make my way north again. Flanked by the Sierra Nevada Mountains on one side and the White Mountains on the other. The beauty was indescribable.
"So why do you do it?"
He squinted up at me through his thick glasses. I was a little surprised. After all, it is the only important question in adventure and he'd zeroed in on it almost immediately. Only one other person had asked me this after two months on the road. You see, when on a bicycle you are exposed to strangers every day. It is a rare occasion to stop anywhere and not have a conversation with at least one curious person. These interactions become routine very quickly since everyone asks the same five questions.
Where are you going?
Where did you come from?
How long will it take you?
Where do you sleep?
How do you afford it?
These questions are standard, mundane, and functional. Patrick, however, had driven straight to the heart of the matter though he'd never bicycle toured himself. In fact, he didn't travel at all. He admitted that the only place he ever goes is back to Hong Kong to see his family.
He'd also surprised me with other insights in his thick Mandarin accent. Truths that most only come to realize after thousands of miles in the saddle, if ever.
Looking at the bags on my bicycle I told him I'd sold everything and quit my job. He replied, "You are free. Like bird. You don't try have too much. This is good.". Then, looking at me, "So much pedal. Body must be strong, yes, but mind stronger. Like iron.". He tapped his forefinger to his temple. "So much pedal. All day."
When I told him that one of my favorite parts of touring was meeting new people, he replied "But you always saying goodbye. See, I will be sad tomorrow when you are gone. This is hard. You never see these people again."
Patrick saw the ultimate truth of matters as easily as you and I take breath. He had summed up my hard won observations on materialism, adventure, and community in the space of a conversation.
He told me he'd only ever lived in two places. Hong Kong and this backwater desert town in central California where I met him. He had owned over two million dollars worth of real estate at one point, along with various other ventures over the years, and lost it all each time. "I never learn." he said. Now he lives simply. He owns a small, shabby RV park in a dry and desolate location, living in a single room that is the park office. "I don't get rich doing this, but I have enough.”
More interesting to me was that his days seemed to be characterized by helping everyone around him. He had a steady stream of RV park tenants asking to borrow this or that, showing him pictures of their newest children, seeking advice, and just generally being a community. He charged me $10 for a camping spot and then proceeded to give me at least that much back in the form of laundry detergent, beverages, and a home made dumpling dinner.
What could I tell this man who could see right to the heart of things so easily? Why am I doing this? I'd given it considerable thought over the last 4,000 kilometers of pedaling.
Simply put, I'm looking for home. In both the physical and existential sense. Home as a state of being as much as a place of existence. I also seek to know myself by stripping away all that is extraneous and examining what is left. After many thousands of miles on the road I feel like I'm beginning to find these things... but only their outlines. I have the vague sketch that precedes the real painting and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it looks nothing like what I expected.
This, I think, is the real reason that we do this. To be sure, adventure in it's own right is a glorious thing. New experiences and being outside our comfortable norms invigorates the soul and reminds us what it means to be alive. More than anything though, I think we seek a truer version of ourselves and a fuller understanding of our place in the world.
In some way, I think, we are all simply looking for home.