There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding the ride from Maupin to Portland. For one, the distance, and a 5am wake-up call to match. Then there was the whole issue of us having to cross the Cascade Mountains, including the mystical Mt. Hood, in a day. Moreover, while it wouldn't be our last mountains ever, it would certainly be figuratively downhill after that day's ride. And, finally, on the other side of those mountains awaited Portland; a real city, which captured our imagination with its promises of real city things: shops, restaurants, bars, people.
There's actually a really relevant idea from the world of videogames that I can use here. I gave up on trying to be conventionally cool a long time ago, so forgive me while I get a little geeky...
While it's not requisite to all videogames, most of my favorites have a "Final Boss", a character the protagonist needs to fight or a challenge the protagonist needs to overcome in order to crest the story arc and complete the game. The final boss is usually presented in one of two ways. In the more traditional way, hype is built around the boss throughout the course of the story; the evil wizard mocks you as he kidnaps the princess, the dastardly King Koopa retreats right before being defeated to fight another day, and so on. In other instances, the final boss is also the final twist; the mysterious "Grand Champion" is in fact your lifelong rival, your best friend betrays you, the villain goes too far and is warped by the same power he tried to master, etc. In either case, a good final boss is supposed to be cathartic; a final showdown to test the player's skill and provide a satisfying end.
This ride was framed as the final boss of our route. Rumor was, even considering how strong we all were, it would still be one of the toughest days of the trip. In particular, Mt. Hood was steeped in hype and mystery, really more of an imposing idea than an actual place. That is until we saw it out in the distance after climbing out of the canyon Maupin was built into. There it stood, towering over the desert like a god, its snow-capped peaks carving the sky, the misty forests of the Cascades at its feet and, somewhere on the other side, Portland and eventually Cannon Beach.
In the shadow of Mt. Hood Jesse, Zach and I did our characteristic geeking-out, most likely as a coping mechanism. We discussed the greatest boss battles of our respective gaming experiences, and watched as the landscape slowly transformed from dry high desert to cool wet Pacific rainforest. On a global scale the change in environment was instantaneous, as if we had biked through some magical portal into another world. And all the time Mt. Hood towered over us.
Before lunch we managed to sneak in a pretty strenuous discussion of metaphysics and the universe and stuff. During lunch all people could really do was look at the mountain and wonder if it would show our modest team of cross-country cyclists mercy. I couldn't really eat much. I didn't want to.
I wanted to bike.
I rolled out of lunch and soon I was right at the foot of it. Then the trees got so tall that they obscured the mountain. I went up some simple uphill. It was the foreplay. Soon enough the mountain would hit me with full force, I told myself.
You can understand my confusion when after only about 5 minutes of this I saw a sign marking the peak elevation for the pass.
As Flava Flav, one of our culture's greatest poets once said, "don't believe the hype".
We snuck around the damn thing! I was coasting downhill through some modest mountain towns before I expected to even be breaking a sweat on my climb! Talk about anticlimactic!
But I suppose there's some satisfaction to be taken in this. Three months ago I would have soiled myself at the sight of a snow-capped mountain surrounded by dark clouds if I were told I had to climb it. That day, not only was I ready for it, but I was legitimately disappointed that it was such an easy ride.
Oh how far I've come. Someday I will return to Portland if only to really acquaint myself with Mt. Hood.
Anyways, I may not have gotten my climb, but everything past Mt. Hood exceeded expectations and rejuvenated my very soul after a week's worth of hard biking through harsh desert. In the sleepy town of Sandy Noah and Emily caught up with me, and Noah told me there was an excellent donut shop in town, and asked if I wanted him to show me where it was. Um, yes. And as for the donuts? Divine. I had some honking-huge chocolate bar donut and an enormous Portland-quality coffee for, like, two bucks. There wasn't even a sales tax. I love this state!
Since Mt. Hood turned out to be a tease I had a tremendous amount of energy pent up. Combine that with the intake of a large coffee after over two weeks without coffee and my brain was moving so fast that it almost lapped itself. I had to move. HAD TO. And I had to see Portland. So I said my goodbyes to the other teammates and went as fast as my feet and physics would allow. I tried to chase Jesse Young, which was definitely a suitable challenge. My lungs weren't thrilled about this, but they're not in charge so whatever.
In the blink of an eye I was at the church; exhausted, in pain, but also in Portland. The church that hosted us was enormous, with enough room for each of us to not just have space to stretch but absolute privacy if we so desired. And the church-goers themselves were wonderful people. I had a conversation with a guy named Joe, and the best word to describe him is "real". He's a retired cop, and spends a lot of his time these days volunteering with different organizations across the town. Working as a cop has given him a pretty dead-pan sense of humor and authoritative opinion about people and their potential. And he loved us. He loved what we were doing and excitedly determined that everyone should know about Bike & Build and what we did. Before I could even thank him for the compliment he was making calls to news stations. he was just such a sold guy. I wish there was a better way of getting that into words than what I'm coming up with.
On top of that, Noah's folks swung by during dinner with one of the most absurd deserts I've ever seen. Essentially take a scrumptuos bonbon (with orange peel), cut it in half, and blow it up to roughly 100 times the size of an average bonbon. Good god. And on top of the desert it was also great to meet Noah's folks. I don't know most of my friends parents, but it always explains a lot when I get to meet them. They're never quite what I expect, but you can always see that their kids got *something* big from them.
And while those of age went out to bars afterwards I stayed in with the rest of the underagers. We celebrated our youth and naivete by listening to the Avett Brothers and just enjoying being with each other. After all, there wasn't much time left.
The next day we woke up bright and early for our last Build Day, this time with East Portland's Habitat Affiliate. It was actually really cold that morning, which most of us found more exciting than anything else. We worked in a neighborhood comprised mostly of Habitat houses and it was sweet getting to meet the residents and hearing how Habitat had helped them help themselves. I also had the privilege of working alongside a girl named Sarah. She had just turned 16 and, while she'd been involved with Habitat's youth committee at her highschool, this was the first time she was allowed to volunteer at a build site. Her, Jesse Young and I laid dry wall for the trim of a house, and talked about Habitat and awesome things to do in Portland. her snarkiness made the tedious labor go all the faster, and she was a great sport about getting placed on the one job that didn't involve power tools.
Afterwards the Portland Habitat was kind enough to take our team out to the Green Dragon Pub in town for dinner and free drinks, two of my very favorite things. I enjouyed an exquisite (and free!) root beer and shot the breeze and exchanged war stories with the Habitat affiliates. A few more parents came, including Jen's mom (who looks and sounds exactly like a blond Jen! Aw!) and we also met up with some BnB alumni in the area. One couple, whose names are escaping me, actually told us how when they did the CUS route last year they had a day off in Portland. They decided to look at apartments and a month later they moved to the city. That's how much they loved the town, and they were all kinds of excited to share it with us.
At *every* Portlander's recommendation we left dinner to cross town on the bus to check out the Alberta Street Fair which was happening that night. Adventure immediately found us when we stepped on to the bus. The driver let us have a free ride for what we were doing so we could enjoy the city. The front was taken up by a goofy looking guy in a Mickey Mouse ear-hat. He had a balloon cart and was performing magic tricks for passengers. I stood at the edge of our group, digging the scene, when I heard some dude behind me say "Yo! man, those are the strongest calve muscles I've ever seen!". I turned around and he was in fact talking to me. I guess they were flexing while I tried to keep my balance on the bus. I let out a laugh and thanked him, but he wasn't done. he turned to a woman standing next to me and said "Shoot! Ay gurl! Ain't those the most beautiful calves you ever saw?". The woman turned, gave my calves a run down, and said "Actually...wow...yeah...those really are!". I let out a bigger laugh. I turned to a pair of cute hippie girls sitting next to me watching this scene unfold. As the first man walked off the bus I said "This town's making one hell of a first impression". They thanked me and asked me what brought me to the city. I talked about Bike & Build and they talked about what was good in Portland. They were super friendly too.
In fact Portland is the friendliest big city I think I've ever been in. The only people who were ever rude to me were a handful of kids, and I think that's only because they haven't lived long enough to master their manners.
The hippie girls hopped off the bus with us and showed us the way to Alberta Street. And where do I even begin in describing this festival?
I guess I should start with what little I know about it. Apparently Portland has a monthly street festival in the bourgeois part of town every first of the month called, guess what? "First Thursday". In response to this festival, the fine folks of northeast Portland started getting together every *last* Thursday of the month to celebrate, guess what? "Last Thursday".
I'm not saying I wouldn't enjoy First Thursday. When you get down to it I'm a pretty bourgeois dude. I like things like indie rock and yoga and ethnic food and all-hemp, organic vegan sweatshirts and I've dabbled with being a socialist, an anarchist, a hardcore eastern philosopher, and I've settled for the stylings of a clean hippie. I'm in a liberal arts program studying Religion (with a focus in Buddhism) and the Social Sciences for godsake.
But Last Thursday is just so much more...real. So much more. You get the impression that it's just *barely* being held together, like some sort of riot in the street, but instead of guns everybody hands out bundles of lavender flowers. Hot dog vendors, alongside selling their wares, host huge raves, complete with a dj and a dance party that pours out all the way to the other side of the street. People are juggling fire. Some guy passed me on a skateboard with a leash hold is pair of dogs in one hand and a fishing pole with a steak on the end of it in his other hand. Some house on Alberta Street was overwrought with folks. The lighting inside was dim and warm so all you saw were profiles. The music pouring out only steeped the party in further mystery. I bought a sweet new baja sweatshirt to replace the one I left on the plane from Ecuador last year.
There were two big moments for me. The first was this insane band. Easily 15 musicians on as many instruments. Accordions. Mandolins. Xylophones. Trumpets. And the best way of describing their music was Pirate Rock. No, not that stuff the street performers in Disney Land play. This was loud. Raunchy. If it were a car it would be a station wagon packed with as many different people as possible, careening off the road and crashing into a mailbox, with the passengers pouring out, laughing and singing as they walk out into the night. We stayed until the end of their set, dancing in the street. They were called All the Apparatus, and I know this because I immediately bought their cd when they finished playing. I immediately bought it because, of all the songs they could have ended with, they ended with a pure rumpus in which the whole band sang "let's go outside and go ride bikes!!!" as the chorus, over and over. There are some moments in life that go beyond coincidental to become transcendental. This journey has taught me to pay attention to those moments. But more on that later.
The second highlight came early after we started exploring. We passed a man sitting at a colorful-but-simple booth with a sign that said "Free Advice". I couldn't resist, especially considering I sold advice to strangers on the street corner as part of my fundraising for Bike & Build. And the man, Chris, just looked like he knew about life. He had a clean, relaxed look, a friendly smile, and he sat in perfect composure, people watching with that calm smile on his face and his hands clasped eagerly together, ready to pass on his wisdom to others. In the auspicious air of that evening I felt the trip was reaching a climax, and so I was ready to ask him a big question: "How do I get the most out of life?"
Chris said something to this effect: "Think of your life as like a journey; a road which you travel down. You can't turn around. You're always moving forward. There are highs, lows, and you see and experience all kinds of things as life passes by you. The way you get the most out of life is simple: if you see something on the side of the Road that gets you excited, that captures your imagination, that fills you with wonder and hope, you take that turn. You take that turn and you go after it with all you've got."
I honestly can't think of a more fitting final lesson to take away from this trip. It was a truth I was arriving at all Summer long, but I'd never heard it so eloquently phrased and elegantly broken down. And I think Chris is right. I really think it's that simple. We just need to Take That Turn.
Satisfied entirely with life after Last Thursday, we meandered home and I slept like a baby. The next day we peaced out of Portland, but not before we squeezed the last few drops of goodness we could out of it. We biked across downtown, with Noah leading the pack, to Voodoo Donuts, a world-famous donut-house and wedding chapel. I had a bacon-maple bar, which is beautiful in its simplicity: a longjohn with maple icing and a perfectly cooked strips of bacon laid on top. I coupled this with a cup of Pacific-level Joe from Stumptown Coffee, just down the street from there, and after we all got our fix we rolled out of town in the most dramatic of fashions: up Skyline Boulevard and across the remainder of the Cascades. The views were incredible, reminiscent of our days in the Appalachians, but with all of us considerably stronger and wiser. I was appreciating how far I'd come as I worked across by myself when I was totally humbled because life's funny like that. A pack of bikers passed me up a hill going easily 10 miles faster than me. The one in front turned and smiled and told me to enjoy my ride. At lunch I learned he was in fact a participant in RAAM, Race Across America. As the name implies, it is a bike race that crosses the entire American continent. Most complete the ride in nine or ten days. NINE OR TEN! As in roughly seven times as fast a time as we do. I have to say I prefer our pace, but it's a testament to the truth that there's always another challenge. Always.
That day's nerdy on-bike conversation came at lunch when we started talking about everyone's futures, in the format of one of those freeze-frame montages you see at the end of movies like Animal House. It was good times. Emma would return to her home planet. Jesse Young would become a senator. Zach would acquire a Tarantino-style cult following as a film-maker. Andy would turn into a bike. So on and so forth.
That afternoon the ride continued to grow in its splendor and beauty. We rolled up and down mountains and all the while were treated to the very best chalk of the entire trip. The teammates riding in the van stopped every mile or so to write down major memories from the trip. Virginia Beach, the Appalachians, the Dogs of Ohio, the bursted floodgates in Manhattan, and by each one was a marked checkbox. And, of course, right in front of the entrance to our campsite in Vernonia was a giant colorful "CANNON BEACH" with an unmarked box.
Our final night together. Our campsite was small and the RVs emptying their septic tanks made it a little smelly during the afternoon, but it was perfect for us. After tents were set I went out walking and reflected on the trip's end. Where would life go next? How could I top these experiences? How could I best utilize what I've learned? When I got tired of thinking up questions I concluded that the answers would come in time, and I needed to go back to appreciate the company of my team mates.
Derrick introduced another good idea from his own experience with Bike & Build: "Sunshine For A Long Ride". Each rider had a page written up with their name on it and we were all asked to leave a positive message to each other for those "long rides" down the Road. I worked on those, then when I finished I talked about the future with folks. As the sunset the ruckus came out. On our last night together the leaders presented superlatives to the entire team. JB got "Most likely to understand what he's trying to say", Emily got "Most likely to save the world one organic, fair-trade, soy, vegan deodorant stick at a time", I got "Most likely to march to the beat of his own drum and then sing very loudly to that beat", etc. As each person stood to receive their award, we all raised our respective drinks and cheered to each other, our health, our future, and our friendship.
After superlatives, as people proceeded to party, I sat back and soaked in the entire scene; all the personalities, all the memories, all the adventure, all the beauty. I relished the moment until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I slunk back to my tent and slept for the Final Ride. Sleep was dreamless but peaceful.
And, suddenly, it was the final day. We all woke up buzzed and ready to roll. We packed up the tents like seasoned soldiers. We pounded our last cold breakfast and, for once, cherished. Then the final route meeting. We had sixty seconds of silent '80s dancing. We had a reading of a written list of all of the major moments in the trip. We had our very loudest dedication to Paige. And then we went and outside to go ride bikes.
On my last day, just by chance, I got to ride with about half of my best friends on the trip. Zach, Jesse, Kristen, we rode together and enjoyed each others' presence. We knew it was ending soon but none of us allowed ourselves to be sad. It was a beautiful day for a ride. We caught up with Kathryn and rode with her, insisting no one should ride by themselves on the last day. She was a good sport about it because I mean, hey, it's us!
Then lunch. Oregon cherries, gas station burritos and cheap coffee. In the morning chill it was heaven.
Then our Last Climb Ever, with the smell of the sea wisping through the pines.
Then The turn off the highway to Cannon beach and the subsequent cheering.
Then the scenic view with a bronze cannon and our first view of the water. I barely held it together. Barely.
And then, once we all gathered up, it was time to ride.
It's almost impossible to describe the potent cocktail of emotions rushing out of me as we descended into Cannon Beach. The smell of the sea was rich now. We turned a corner and saw a perfectly framed view of haystack rock and the tears started forming. The townspeople cheered for us as we passed by. We felt famous. Rounding another corner I caw my father at the top of the stairs to the beach and crushed him with a hug. At the bottom of the stairs, on the beach, I broke from the pack to slide-tackle my little brother into the sand. The waves were roaring. The sun was perfectly set behind haystack so it seemed to glow with a golden aura, more like a vision from a dream. I was called back to the team, threw off my camelbak, and line up. Sharif paused for a second to savor, then gave us the signal, and we all sprinted for the ocean.
I dived into the water and for two or three seconds savored the silence and the sensation of my body baptized in the waters of the ocean that always felt so far away. Then I rose to the sounds. God the sounds! The sights! over the crashing waves and calls of the seagulls was the deafening roar of an entire team of young adults on the other side of something truly great. The laughter. The yelling. The crying. The hugs and kisses. The tackling. The pure ecstasy.
And in the shadow of Haystack Rock we circled up. We gave one last dedication to Paige, with our bracelets soaked in the waters of the Pacific. Then we back up and, after a second of silence, cranked out a haka that would make the All-Blacks of New Zealand tremble. Even they haven't done what we did.
It was one of the most beautiful moments of my entire life, and the celebration to follow felt like a beautiful dream. Champagne. A full feast. Friends and families from all across the country out to congratulate us. My parents were kind enough to bring supplies for a bonfire and we sang and danced and played on the beach in the night. When it got dark enough they busted out one final surprise: a box of sky lanterns, which are simple paper lanterns which gather hot air and rise like hot air balloons when they are released, to eventually burn away in the upper reaches of the sky. We released them with prayers and wishes, and, when the celebrating was all said and done, we cleared off for sleep, to awake to the next great adventure of Life.
Thus concludes my journey across the America. It was, undoubtedly, the best thing I've done with my life so far, and I'm grateful to have such a detailed account for myself for when I'm a dottering old fool with fading memories.
I think there are only two things left two do. First, I want to extend a formal thanks to everyone. Everyone who read this blog, who supported me over the summer, who sent me words of encouragement, who housed me, believed in me, and made this experience what it was. I could not do this without all the amazing people in my life. Thank you. This achievement is yours to celebrate.
Finally, I will close this blog with a list of the things Bike & Build has taught me, which, spoiler alert, is a lot. This has been the most transformative experience of my young life. These are realizations I've come to have full faith in. These are what make the journey worthwhile.
1) Crossing the country on a bike is admittedly a huge deal. However, It's not the accomplishment that matters. It's what you learn from the accomplishment. That's exactly why I'm writing this stuff down. Anyone can do something like this, but it doesn't matter unless you grow from the challenge.
2) On that note, Always seek out challenges. If your dreams don't scare you, they're too small.
3) As I said before, We must pay attention to the transcendental moments of our lives. I'm becoming more and more convinced that everything happens for a reason. Life pulled me to this trip and the experiences I've had on it have changed me fundamentally and forever. If you're receiving messages from the universe, open your ears and follow through.
4) In memory of Paige, Remember that life is a gift. Show gratitude, and let it be the foundation of your every thought, action, and interaction.
5) The American small town still exists. The American dream still exists. America is still a great country.
6) The world is full of kind, generous, and inspiring people.
7) Always travel, always explore, always be open. Every place and person has a great story behind it, and those experiences make our life and spirit rich.
8) Serve. Any amount of good you do for others is brought back ten-fold upon yourself. It's what gives me a sense of true purpose.
9) Simplicity is freedom. Life on the Road demands a simple lifestyle, and the benefit is absolute liberation and a realization of what really matters in life.
10) Flexibility is essential if you want to live a happy life. It's the key to survival. Humans are, afterall, one of the most adaptable species on the planet. That's not an accident.
11) Perseverance is essential if you want to live a happy life. You can always take another step.
12) Finally, Always Take That Turn. Even when it seems scary. Even when you don't succeed. You'll never regret it.
Here's to the Road.