First off, Cynthia was in the shop - again. The mysterious "tink-tink" noise coming from her front end had turned out to be bad bearings in the headset, a small part of the bike between the front fork and the handlebars about the size of my wrist and serving a similar function. It translates movement from my arm, through the handlebars, to Cynthia's front wheel. Just a handful of bearings in a ring, but when they're out, they're out. And a good headset costs about $60, plus labor.
The nice hipster bike shop guys sent me off on a loaner bike until the part comes in, which should be tomorrow. It's a Trek like Cynthia but lacking her ergonomic handlebars, her finely tuned gearing, her seat that has formed to fit my sit bones. Sitting awkwardly upright on it as we ride around Austin, I feel like a homeless person. It's a homeless person bike.
Rotation by rotation, I begin to unravel. It's not just shelling out the cash to make the repair. It's the sense that my baby, my trusty steed, is unwell, and now we are separated. My independence is sharply curbed on this springy bike with its front shocks, which bears Cynthia's brand but is not her, no not at all. For one thing, it has no rack. Without a rack, I can't attach my panniers, my panniers that carry food and a change of clothes. Worse, I can't go fast.
But it was a bike, and I took it when offered. Hannah patiently cruised behind me, sitting back, one finger on her handlebars, as I pedaled laboriously from the bike shop down North Loop, stopping on a whim at a book store that turned out to be a comic book store, which only made us crave a real book store. So we detoured north on Lamar to get to Half Price Books, which is where I am now having my own breakdown. Lacking ball bearings, I find my own reasons.
First I bought a book and came out of the store to find Hannah talking on the phone to Rachael, our farmer friend back in Oregon. They were discussing the best site for our next mail pickup. Thinking of the road ahead while also thinking of home and the goats and the sweet, blessed rain gave rise to a lump in my throat. That lump called in reinforcements and suddenly I felt very, very sorry for myself.
Hannah got off the phone and I imagined for a moment that I could just let it all wash over me and that this really wasn't a big deal. Then I realized I was immobilized behind my sunglasses, standing with my arms crossed in front of the inadequate bike rack, my feet unwilling to move until all my thoughts came tumbling out for the casual bargain-book browsers to hear.
Looking for the source of my immobilization, Hannah peeked under my sunglasses and saw the tears starting to flow. When she asked, I didn't know where to begin. For one, there had been no section dedicated to essay anthologies in the bookstore. Is the art of the essay dead? I have no desire to be in Austin for another day (with the South by Southwest festival happening there are just way too many people to do anything) but we are stuck here until Cynthia is repaired. Also, I haven't received any emails back from the various foodie organizations I'd contacted on the route ahead. Trying to plan opportunities to both learn and teach about local food when you don't know anyone in the community you're going to and you can't even reliably predict when you'll be there (case in point: delays like this one) can be very frustrating. Oh, and I need to update the blog but have no idea how to start explaining Texas: the leasing of land for exotic animal hunts, the "bunker mentality", the almost complete lack of public lands, baby goats, unexpected German settlements with delicious beer, the man who lives in a bee hive, lavender farms and barbeque-obsessed motorcyclists. Somehow it all must fit together but I am missing the blueprints.
At this point, I am gushing enough snot to create a perimeter of slime around myself and my concerned girlfriend. From cycling, I've picked up an unappetizing habit of simply blowing that stuff that comes out of my nose over my shoulder, then wiping my nose with the back of my glove. But it's too hot here for gloves. Damn it, I am hot, and I will cry about that, too. People are politely looking away. I wonder briefly if they think we're homeless. Because they would be right.
Focus, I need to focus. Hannah is attempting to calm me down with great patience, maneuvering to look into my eyes as I try to avoid her gaze, which is full of logic. I am not in the mood for logic. Attempting to include her in my freaking out, I bring up our money problem. We're trying to do all of this on $30 a day. We manage just fine until bike repairs come up. Then we tell ourselves that we'll save money down the road by being more frugal, but we need to make a choice: Keep buying organic and local whenever possible, or give up luxuries like coffee shops, campgrounds, the occasional bottle of wine and meals out?
I think about life without coffee and a hot shower, except when provided for free by a kind host. The thought is bad enough to make me wonder why we are doing all of this.
It's not the first time I've asked myself that Big Question. It's not the cycling part that brings up second thoughts. I love that part. Forget the sore butt, the getting cold and then unbearably hot and riding on bumpy, cracked pavement with cars whizzing by my left elbow - there are enough beautiful, perfect rides to justify all of that. The life of the transient cyclist suits me. I feel better and stronger than I ever have.
No, the Big Question refers to the constant running around to find the one natural foods store in town or the farm that's "just a few miles" down the highway and turns out to be closed for the season anyway. Why have we hung this "Food Cycles" sign over our bicycle tour, instead of just going quietly? I wonder if it's worth making people feel uneasy around us because they're afraid of being frowned at for eating a cookie or throwing away compostable matter. Worse, I'm constantly berating myself for not doing enough - not knowing where the community gardens are in every town, not emailing every school, not going out and foraging for edible cactus just for the great story it would make.
Why are we doing this? More important, what are we accomplishing? What does cooking lentils at our campsite prove, when we could just go out for a hamburger and not have to wash dishes? At this moment, melting into a pool of ennui in front of Half-Price books, I just want something to show for having pedaled halfway across the Belly of America, something more than a very reasonably priced collection of travel articles.
I look into Hannah's soft brown eyes, which are still staring calmly at me, for an answer.
She says something wise and right and beautiful. I tell her to write it down because like a dog with poor short-term memory, I will soon forget and return to a state of frustrated panic.
This is what she wrote:
We are living by example in the most vulnerable state of travel. We are finding sources of local foods. We are talking and listening to - really listening to - farmers. We are doing all of this as well as the normal things we have to do to live, and we are doing it on very little money. If we are doing it, why can't people who live in all of the comforts of home? That's what everyone who meets us has to ask themselves.
A wise, if slightly jaded, Texan told us not too long ago, "You can't drain the swamp if you're up to your ass in alligators." The easiest thing is to fall into this state of "I'm not doing enough" guilt, which quickly dissolves into "Why do anything at all?" The next thing you know, you've bought a gun and are pursuing all the pleasure you can in life before the big alligator dung hits the fan. Hopelessness is our society's biggest addiction and the only thing that can really stop us from thriving on this planet.
I turn to face the Trek-that-is-not-Cynthia with a new sense of freedom. My bicycle does not define who I am. I could take this ugly thing across America and still create tiny ripples that would in their own way change the world. Heck, I could give up the coffee, the occasional cold beer. The important things are the ones we take for granted - our eyes and ears for learning, our voices for speaking. Giving a few packets of seeds to a family of need makes infinitely more difference than buying a local, organic loaf of bread and feeling self-righteous about it. Hunched over the iPad in a coffee shop, I may be learning all about the vendors at the farmers' market in the next town but be missing an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the person at the next table who just so happens to be an anti-pesticide advocate (luckily, I have Hannah to do that).
The next evening, I pick up Cynthia from the hipster bike mechanics. I may or may not have had a cold pint of smoked mesquite porter before arriving at the bike shop (wow - talk about a rich local flavor!) On the way back to the house, I developed a theory: That on a warm evening in spring, by mounting one's bicycle and riding on wide streets with sun peeking out from behind charming suburban homes with charming vegetable gardens in some of the front yards, it is possible to extend the buzz of a single beer indefinitely. Feeling forever warm, slightly fuzzy, especially with the breeze in your hair, happy but not ecstatic, just pleasantly energized, you could ride forever. And maybe I will.