On the train the beauty of the setting sun and the rising crescent moon, of the open fields and the pecan groves, of the swampy forests and the rolling hillsides, feels somehow less deserved. The train passes by the world outside the window; the world passes you by as a ballgame passes before the eyes of a spectator, or a spectre, half-seen but never wholly appreciated. The train moves as you sit still. It is harder to feel moved. In order to feel a part of life’s movement, it seems necessary to move oneself. You can pass over a river a thousand times, see it from out the window of your car or train twice each day on your way to and from work. The real work begins when you set your kayak in the water and begin to paddle.
On the bike, you move through the landscape. What you see and pass through does not remain out there; its beauty penetrates deeply. It comes to you and through you unobstructed. Nothing separates you from it. There is no need to interpret it to fit your previous worldview. You are in the landscape, a moving piece among moving pieces, moving towards wholeness amidst what is already whole, and your view of the world stands in front of you, uninfluenced from your past views of it. Yesterday has passed but did not pass you by. All was new then and all is new now.
On the train, you sit amidst the other sitters, onlookers, bypassers. Together you sit and watch the world pass by. People read, eat, drink coffee, chat, find some way to keep busy, keep from being bored. And yet boredom comes anyways, despite or because of our many attempts to avoid it. Boredom comes on the train just as restlessness comes off it, when you hear the train’s whistle, and feel as Steinbeck felt the desire to roam.
This desire to travel is different from the traveling itself. You desire the feeling that thinking of travel gives you; you do not desire the reality. Or, in a deeper place, reality is all you desire, but you cannot access that place in dreams. Only by experiencing what is real can you begin to understand your desire for what is real, and seek reality. So, because you cannot access what you truly desire, you dream. You dream of the feeling of awe that will overtake your soul when the lounge car in the train is empty before dawn and you are up, more awake than you’d dreamed you’d ever be, the train you are on rolling with speed over the Mississippi River, heading west. You dream of the woman who will enter the train just as you get up to leave, how you will remain instead, though you’ve passed what you’d planned to be your final destination, how in her presence you will lose all your fear of people, all your resistance to everything outside the self, how your heart will open up like the sky in the desert on the first monsoon of the season.
Your desire for the road is like an amnesiac, making you forget past experiences you’d labeled as negative, neglect the fact that those very same experiences are sure to return: the cold and lonely November nights, the constant consumption of cheap food that your body finally rejects, the repetitive movements of putting one foot in front of the another, or pushing down on the pedals for one more revolution, how the monotony finally becomes terrible.
Your dream of the road is not the road, for the road is reality and includes what you’d rather reject, and your dream is illusory and occludes all except what you readily accept and rejoice in. The road is about rejoicing in and welcoming what you previously rejected, ignored, and denied. If you denied your frailty and helplessness, be on the road long enough and you will be forced eventually to confront these aspects of yourself. You’ll run out of food miles from any town; you’ll drink some bad water and be sick for a week, unable to keep any food down. You will be helpless to cure yourself, too frail to move and too sick to enjoy your rest. You will need to have the patience to wait, weak and weary, to be healed. If you’ve denied your power and capability, you will have no choice but to remember that you are powerful, capable of biking over one hundred miles in a day with eighty pounds of food, water, clothes, and shelter on the back of your bike, supporting yourself and your journey, carrying everything you need by your own power. If you have denied the support of others, rejected the fact that you are at the mercy of the goodness of other people, you will be at the receiving end of gifts and have to make the choice between open-hearted gratitude or stomach-twisting guilt.
Your dream of yourself is not who you are. Just as the road is no comfortable bed to dream upon until night turns to dawn, the self is no comfortable cocoon that you settle into to dream of who you could be when some rare red dawn magically transforms you into your dreamed-of self. The night cometh without doubt, but now it is day, and there is time to live while there is still light, and to live means to exist outside the cocoon, not to dream of paradise but to live in reality. What is reality?
What is Truth? asked Pontius Pilate, before he washed his hands of the matter and watched Truth be crucified. I sit on this train across Texas and watch the world go by. There is no dirt under my fingernails. I got a hotel room last night in Deming, New Mexico, took a shower this morning. My hands are clean.
I sit on the train and watch the sun go down. Distant shades of fire. I feel like I am, a spectator rather than a participant. Not in the fire. Detached, separate. The window is in the way. But I hear the train horn and feel the tingling run through my body. My restless blood, coming alive. I’m exhausted, strung out from three weeks on the road, in which I’ve biked close to 1,500 miles. Half the length of the country. So why do I still feel as if I do not deserve this beauty, this sky full of fire? As if anyone could earn such a free gift. What is given must simply be received.
I want to look out the window at this sunset and at the same time feel the same fierce burning in my heart. “Look at the sunset,” a woman behind me tells her companion. “Look how pretty it is.” Her companion looks and agrees. We are spectators on the train; we look and agree. The sky is pretty. And then we go right on complaining about how no one understands us, no one listens, no one cares. No one, I trust, cares less than the sun, which shares itself so freely, is as beautiful going down as it is coming up. May my life, the ending of which is so final, so definite, so unalterable, be an altar where I kneel down to the rising sun and offer my daily bread of beginnings.
Begin, begin, begin again. Rise in the morning and ride until I find a purpose to my riding. Aim until then only to enjoy my aimlessness. Let the simplicity of life on the road settle deeply into my unsettled blood. Let what I am become clear, or remain a mystery. Let what is meant to be come to be. May it bring me joy, or may it bring me sorrow. May I feel it, what is and what will come to be, as deeply and completely as possible. May reality itself make me real, myself, the person I am meant to be. I seek an unshakable faith, not in myself but in the ground I walk upon. I seek to walk upon this ground, to stand and to walk, trusting that every fall will be followed by a rise, every barren winter by a remarkable spring.