I want to live an honest life.

I want to live a life where

I feel safe to be fully myself,

Where I am surrounded by love

In a community that sees

Innate goodness in simple worth,

And how the struggle helps us know

And understand complex comfort,

And not ones born from convenience.

I want to live a life where

I have a partner who grows with love,

Who I can trust as a mother,

Who can trust me as a father,

Who is brave enough to make love

With her eyes wide open as

The summer rain runs down our bodies.

I want to live an honest life

Where I can see my father grow old

And have the courage to step into

His fears, his grief, his shame, and hold him.

I want to live an honest life.

I want to stand upon truth and love.

I want to live an honest life,

One that is steeped in reality,

Built on relationship and plants,

On simple shelter and sunrises,

On exposure and compassion.

I want to live an honest life

Where I believe these words I write.

I love myself.

I approve of myself.

All is well in my world.

*

It was the middle of winter when Tyler and I decided to ride our bikes from my home in Durango, Colorado to San José del Cabo in the middle of summer. We were thawing out in a local bar from a freezing thirty mile loop, each of us gripping a mug of hot water, our porters untouched. Tyler was visiting from Denver, and as feeling returned to our hands and my wind-licked nose prickled with chapped discomfort I bemoaned loudly how much I hated being cold, how much I missed cycle touring with Tyler, and how I was ready to quit my job and go on an adventure before grad school, maybe something like riding my Surly disc trucker, Q*bert, down the Baja Peninsula for a summer destination wedding in which I was the token dirtbag groomsman.

“Think about it Tyler,” I said, snot streaming out of my nose. “We leave at the beginning of June, get to Cabo in mid-July, and BOOM! Wedding time.”

Tyler, my unadulterated, X-rated, differentiated best friend, the man who had biked 12,500 miles with me in the past four years, the freak athlete on a bicycle, the guy who I consider a large and hairy extension of soul, yes, my soul brother from another mother, the one known in certain circles as Twerk Daddy Deming, the consummate enthusiast, was in.

So it was planned. Right there in the bar as our toes painfully regained sensation and our fine motor skills normalized. 2,300 miles from Durango to Cabo, leaving early June, arriving mid July. Our route would take us from Durango into Utah. Then we would drop into Arizona before we were California dreaming, creaming, whatever you want they’ve got it. Last up was Mexico, the Baja, where we’d pedal our final thousand miles on their Highway 1 to San José del Cabo. Think of all the desert beauty – two thousand miles of it. Think of the warm and loving sun – forty days of it. Think of the wedding - we’d be a couple of tan cuties in our bathing suits.

Shit, man. Sitting at that bar, watching a winter storm roll in over the mountains, we thought we had it made. We even came up with a name. Colorabo: the Desert Tour.

*

 Mile 0 of Colorabo, the temperature is low & the stoke is high

Mile 0 of Colorabo, the temperature is low & the stoke is high

 Ladies & gentlemen, Mark.

Ladies & gentlemen, Mark.

We left four months later, just as summer was coming to the Colorado slopes. Tyler and I had picked up a third cyclist for the first ten days, a lanky man named Mark who had ridden cross-country with us three years ago and was now living in Washington DC. Mark is something of an intellectual powerhouse – he works in computer software, is an avid improv artist, and reads the New Yorker with the weekly conviction of a southern snake-sucking bible thumper. His ability to engage in conversation on the bicycle is unparalleled. Mark and I once spent two hours talking about glitches and their various implications in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. We were stoked to have Mark along.

Our tour began six miles off the highway, down a gravel road at a farm where my friends lived. It was a beautiful morning. We woke to a cool dawn wind, watched as the golden rays of sunlight worked their ways down the western slopes of the valley. We ate a simple breakfast, loaded our bikes, said our own unique prayers for the coming experience, and set off. Another bike tour begun.

As we rode away from Durango I let Tyler and Mark talk. Their conversation concerned the hospital system. Mark was curious about medical equipment, and Tyler is a travel nurse. I dropped back, watching them, thinking.  For all of us this tour was a vacation, but for Mark and Tyler specifically Colorabo was an opportunity to explore and experience before returning to their established careers. Mark would ride ten days and then fly back to DC, where both his job and his partner waited for him. Tyler had just finished up a travel assignment in Denver and would be moving on to Seattle, another step in his nursing trajectory. Both of them seemed at ease, grateful for the coming miles on the bike, secure in their paths. Watching them I felt a stab of irritation, and beneath that anxiety, and beneath that sadness. At my own decisions, at the actions which had led me into and out of jobs, into and out of relationships, into another moment where I was changing the direction of my life – I had quit my job, removed myself from a loving community, and after the tour was moving cross country to go back to school.

Watching them ride up ahead, close together and deep in conversation, a thought struck me, one that beat to the rhythm of my pedal strokes in the days and weeks to come. I want to live an honest life.

I didn’t know what this meant.

*

I feel most connected to my body

When I am moving through nature

When I can identify what is real

When I can separate thoughts from experience

 

The feel of sunlight on my skin

The taste of salt in my mouth

The sound of wind in the trees

The smell of wet sage after the storm

The sight of animal tracks in the red dirt

 

This is reality

Not the story I tell when I think of you

Of loss and grief and shame over the woman

Who told me that time and context

Shape relationship, and not the ways

Our souls vibrate when joined in the heart space

*

In the week that followed our first ride out of Durango we experienced the most magnificent wilderness in the least hospitable climate. The beauty of the southern Utah desert is staggering. It’s this savage, alien landscape of warm colors and sharp rocks. To ride through this area is to invite loneliness, for the desert itself is a lonely place when we don’t know where to look, under stones and around the bleached bones of animals long left behind.

Click the photos to read their descriptions

I thought of this first week as an exercise in zen sadomasochism, waking up at five each morning to the pale backlit glow of sunrise behind the eastern slopes, a clenching in the gut as the day approached and a warm wind blew. The rustling, the sudden pssshhh as air escaped our sleeping pads. Then the morning packup, quiet periods of reflection, the taking in of this barren scape – no cars, no buildings, no other campers, just us and the desert, just us and the wide expanse of sloping red lands gouged by deep canyons, just us looking out at the sage bushes and juniper trees dotting the horizon. An appreciation of the beauty before us balanced by the discomforting thoughts about the 80 mile ride to come, where the temperature was expected to top out at 102 degrees and there would be little opportunity for shade.

With first light we’d ride, having eaten cold oatmeal for breakfast. Our goal would be to get in as many morning miles as possible before taking a long siesta for lunch. The mornings were our time for deepest conversation. Reliving our past several months, discussing each other’s careers and relationships as we took over the deserted highways, roads on which we’d see maybe twenty cars all morning. We’d continue towards camp in the late afternoon, praying for a tailwind. When the early evening took the edge off the heat we’d make a simple rice and beans dinner, laugh at the same jokes we’d been telling for three years, and sigh gratefully as the sun dipped behind the western mountains, casting our bodies into the first shadows of the coming night. We’d fall asleep with full dark, our alarms set for five again.

 A typical camp scene - goofy smile from Tyler, Mark cutting up sweet potatoes, and a slowly deflating red couch.

A typical camp scene - goofy smile from Tyler, Mark cutting up sweet potatoes, and a slowly deflating red couch.

There was a humility in this schedule that tugged at my issues around power and control, the blunt fact being that I was powerless to control the day. It was going to be hot, and we had to make decisions around how to protect ourselves. The only power we had was deciding what time to wake up and how much water to carry for the ride, the consensus being to wake up as early as possible and carry as much water as we were able, about forty liters between the three of us. Besides that, we were subject to nature’s will.

I found myself thinking about this a lot that first week, riding alone those hot afternoons, holding water in my mouth to give some semblance of comfort and relief. My needs around power and control, my inability to satisfy these needs on tour, and how these needs have destroyed relationships. I’d spoken frequently with Tyler and Mark about my last relationship, a dramatic and damaging experience which, when it was finally clear that we were trying to save a ship that had already sunk, had propelled my decision to move from North Carolina to Colorado, my theory at the time being that the more distance I put between me and my ex-partner the quicker I would heal. A simple, mathematical, conversely proportional relationship.

The distance helped, but if I’d wanted faster closure I should have just gone on a bike tour. Because as the sun beat down overhead and the world around took on a shimmering glaze I found myself able to channel the experiential discomfort and make parallels between persevering through another day in the desert and working with emotional trauma –  I reflected on relationship one pedal stroke at a time and found that my fullest expressions of honesty comes in times of deepest discomfort. These periods of heat and exhaustion and generalized miserableness create the space necessary for introspection without all the drapery and dressing. In the crucible I see that I’m a man, one who struggles with depression and anxiety. And that is okay. I can work with that, so long as I’m able to be open and vulnerable with myself and thus be willing for openness and vulnerability with others.

This was my realization from our first six hundred miles through southern Utah, where I was cracked open like an egg, fried upon the asphalt. I work to create power before accepting that my only control is in how I choose to think about the experience.

And there’s an honesty in that.  

*

 Some landscapes deserve a tasteful nude.

Some landscapes deserve a tasteful nude.

We said goodbye to Mark in the Grand Canyon, marking a shift point in Colorabo. We’d made it through the lonesome west and were dropping south, headed towards San Diego. Gone were the isolated campgrounds, no longer could we take our chamois off and walk around nude with impunity. There would be consequences for such behavior.

After spending the night with the hundreds of other campers, waking at dawn to hike the Kaibab with the hundreds of other hikers, and watching the sunset along the south rim with the hundreds of other sunset enthusiasts, I found myself craving the quiet nights without generators, where we had to haul nine gallons of water for forty miles along a gravel road to an isolated pullout, where ice cream availability was a fevered wish and not a four dollar decision. By these cravings I began to ask questions, coming always back to the statement which continued to rattle around in my mind: I want to live an honest life.

So what was honest about the Grand Canyon? It felt like an amusement park. Nature pimped. Whored out for profit and marginalized amusement. Nature isn’t just what we see in the right lighting, behind the lens, what’s posted to Instagram. Nature is the feeling of rubbing our hands in the dirt, of stepping onto stone that’s been holding up the shelf these last five million years.

I vented about this to Tyler, who shrugged.

“It’s the Grand Canyon, man. We’re –”

I snorted and started to say, “Yeah, but –” and Tyler held up a hand.

“No, dude. It’s the Grand Canyon. And we chose to be here. Just like we chose – like a couple of dumbasses, I might add – to bike through the desert in the middle of the summer. Just because thousands of people are here doesn’t mean it’s dishonest. Sure, this isn’t my favorite way to camp,” he said, sweeping his hand around, gesturing to our militia of neighbors. “But for some people this is burly. You and I, we’ve got different perspectives than a lot of folks here. We’re privileged, man.”

And that’s the honest truth. We are privileged. It’s something I think about frequently, the opportunities manifest as an attractive (and, coincidentally, very romantically available) white male with a loving and supporting family. As I took in Tyler’s words something within me caved and I bought an ice cream cone. When the chocolate glaze cracked and melted white dairy sugar fled from its container I considered privilege and honesty and how the choices afforded with privilege can affect the perspective of an honest life. And where was I with all this privilege and desire for living out my truths? Abusing it on a self-gratifying bike tour, or taking advantage of it to better understand myself? I waffled somewhere in the middle, then decided this was all too much to unpack in just one ice cream. I ate the last of the cone, wiped my hands on my dirty shorts, and moved on with my thoughts.

It’s exhausting, trying to live an honest life.

 A (very) rare Grand Canyon photo without hordes of other visitors. This photo taken at sunset on the south rim.

A (very) rare Grand Canyon photo without hordes of other visitors. This photo taken at sunset on the south rim.

*

You and I, we are accelerating now. This is how time works on tour. An odd and appreciable phenomena. The weeks begin to feel like days. Inertia. The accumulation of experience. On tour we spin in a vacuum, the routine just enough to ground the heart before stepping out into the unknown. The magnifying glass is held to the sun and our lives take on the scope and intensity of the beam beneath. And in the heat, as the smoke rises, we look around and think, “Holy shit. That was ten days ago?”

You and I, we are accelerating now. Hold on.

*

Our ride from the Grand Canyon to San Diego took ten days. Time, however, had accelerated. I blinked and we were there. Yet in that time Tyler and I cycled another 650 miles through the desert. We had three friends meet us briefly on the road. We experienced community in Flagstaff, lust in Salome, hell in Palm Desert, and excess in Carlsbad. Every day Tyler and I would laugh until our stomachs hurt. Each night I rubbed butt paste on my saddle sores. I ate, drank, rode, stretched, slept. Life was simple. Life was good.

In the ten days from the Grand Canyon to San Diego I settled into the tour. I found comfort in the discomfort. I found peace, or some portion of it.  And from the space created by this comfort and peace I believed I’d gained a glimpse of a more honest lifestyle: working through the struggle, both physically and emotionally.

I had struggled through the American southwest and come out on the Pacific Ocean. I had worked hard to be vulnerable with Tyler in these times of struggle, and it deepened our connection.

“Tyler, man, I’m feeling lonely today,” would open up the conversation to why I was feeling lonely, and I’d be surprised to hear that Tyler felt lonely too – thinking about his ex, wondering if as deep a connection with another would ever happen. We’d talk about this, share their weight of our hearts, and suddenly the coming miles didn’t seem so long, and the sun didn’t feel as hot.

This style of communication was different than my usual patterns around emotional discomfort, which were to distract through physical exertion – until I am too tired to feel lonely, or anxious, or depressed. Until I can guarantee that I will actually fall asleep and not spend another night gripped by the stories I tell myself in the full dark.

In San Diego I realized that, while living in Durango, I had distracted from my emotions by staying busy. When I wasn’t working I was training, pounding my body on the trails, or socializing, moving from one event to the next. I let creative expression slip. I quit reading. I shied from vulnerable relationship. I was afraid of the pain associated with a honest acceptance of myself and, through my fear, dishonored an opportunity for growth.

So, really, thank fucking christ there’s this magic in cycle touring which forces a raw look in the mirror. We get beaten down by the road and there we are, the purest expressions of ourselves. I know who I am when I tour. There’s not a lot to get in the way. There are too few distractions, too few creature comforts. The needs of the soul can at last be heard. It calls from the deep space between the ribcages.  

I heard my soul for the first time in over a year in San Diego. And, as if bolstered by the comfort of a long lost friend, I felt ready to drop into Mexico.

*

When Tyler and I would discuss the Colorabo route with family, friends, strangers – really anyone willing to listen – I found overwhelmingly that folks were far more concerned about our time in Mexico than us riding through the desert in the summer.

“Oh, God, are you bringing protection?”

“Watch out, those Mexican drivers are crazy.”

“Better keep your belongings close. Don’t camp if you can help it.”

“Don’t get separated. There’s safety in numbers.”

Ironically, the advice-givers who had never been down Baja were the ones gloomiest about the chances of Tyler and I surviving the trip. We heard so much negativity around cycling in Mexico that the morning we crossed the border into Tijuana I’d almost convinced myself that, once I cleared customs and stepped out into the steamy city I’d be robbed, run over, and left as a bloody pile of viscera down some rancid back-alley.

In fact, I was so in my head that first day in Mexico that it took me several occasions of drivers honking and waving as they passed to realize they weren’t upset to have cyclists on their road – they were encouraging us, cheering Tyler and me on.

And so these things go. I confess to a weaponized ignorance, one that forms opinions before I’ve witnessed fact. Perhaps it’s human nature – to choose to believe what we hear before we have the opportunity to see – or maybe it’s just my nature. I take no pride in sharing this part of my inner being, only gratitude for having a flexible set of opinions dependent on not only what I’ve been told, but also what I experience.

Which is why, after cycling a thousand miles down the Baja, I’m happy to share that I’ve never felt more safe cycle touring. This includes time on the road and at camp. Tyler and I received compassion and goodness every day, from camping for free behind tiny restaurants in Baja’s interior to tractor trailers blocking traffic to keep us safe around winding turns.

And with the realization that we were safe, secure, and free to do our tour with the loving support of each town we rode through I felt my heart opening. Every mile that brought us closer to our destination of San José del Cabo brought a lightness of being so real I thought I might float.

Love grows in mysterious ways, self-love most mysterious of all.

And sometimes the feeling is so strong it will wake you up in the early morning, before the rest of the world is moving.

This is what happened to me in Rosarito, a tiny town about halfway down the Baja, where Tyler and I camped behind the community’s lone highway restaurant.

I woke up in the pre-dawn crepuscular hour, breathing shallowly as my eyes adjusted to the pale gloom. That morning I felt overwhelmed with love – for myself, for Tyler, for my bicycle, for my family and friends, for the opportunity to be here, to be almost 2,000 miles into a tour and still feel healthy, to have my body and my brain, to have a heart that can feel so much. To be living an honest life.

There it was again. I want to live an honest life. But now it felt different. Like the texture had changed.

That morning in Rosarito I woke with the understanding that an honest life isn’t one which creates a framework to live out my truths. No, that only addressed the external influencers of happiness – lifestyle, community, creativity. This definition was limiting to my fullest expressions of happiness. I realized that to live an honest life I needed to turn inward.

I realized, in short, that an honest life is one where I believe that I am worthy of self-love. If I can live in the power of self-love, I can make decisions which honor my deepest truths, both internally and externally.

That’s how I wanted to live an honest life – by loving myself.

*

Why is it easier

For you to love me as I am

Than it is

For me to love me as I am

*

I told Tyler about this realization three days later, in Mulegé, a sleepy beach town on the Sea of Cortez. We were sitting in the shade of a restaurant shack, a fan on full blast oscillating between our faces. Two three month old puppies played at our feet, rolling over each other, grunting softly. The aftermath of a violently eaten lunch sat on the table, the gory scene of red sauce all that remained from our chile rellenos.

 We found PUPPIES! A necessary two day stop in Muluge, Baja Sur.

We found PUPPIES! A necessary two day stop in Muluge, Baja Sur.

Tyler and I were finishing up a friend feedback session, which had initiated during a grumpy 100 degree ride back from town. For several days previous there had been a soft undercurrent of tension between us – finally our quirks were annoying the other – but, now, having aired out how we were feeling and why, I felt no more tension. Only gratitude for Tyler.

He was wrapping up what he needed to say to me.

“Reese, man. We’ve spent so much time together these past four years. I really think that you know me better than anyone else, and I bet I know you better than anyone else. That’s what happens when we ride bikes together all the goddamn time. I’ve seen your trajectory over the last four years, the emotional growth that’s happened and continues to happen. I’m proud of you. You’re way more aware of your patterns than when we did Keys to Freeze.”

I laughed, remembering how my anxiety about any long ride day during our tour from Florida to Alaska would result in a near-militaristic approach to the morning, where I’d round up all the members of our tour and bleat times at them until we’d broken down camp and were on the road.

Tyler smiled, and kept speaking. “I know that you’ve been struggling with transitioning out of Durango, but I think you’re making the healthiest decision for yourself. You keep talking about wanting to live an honest life, and you’re doing it! You’re living your truth. Grad school, dude. That’s huge.” I nodded, feeling validated. “And what’s best, man, is that you’re figuring out what it means to be you. I see that, I see you. And I love who you are.”

It took me a moment to speak. I had to clear my throat first. I was worthy of Tyler’s love and friendship, and I was worthy of loving myself.

“Thanks man, I’m trying to love who I am too.”

*

It’s easier for me to love others than it is for me to love myself. I believe that I am not alone in feeling this.

I heard Tyler’s words to me and carried them through to San José del Cabo, where we experienced the culture shock of arriving in a world-famous tourist destination after cycling through the lonely desert for forty days. We rolled up to the wedding with six weeks of stubble on our faces and salt stains resembling a topographical map of Utah on our jerseys.

The tour was over. No longer was it our present, but our past. We had only memories and lessons learned to remember Colorabo by.

So.

This is what I remember, and this is what I learned.

*

For forty days I watched the scars on my hands sink deeper into weathered skin as the miles slipped past. I felt my arms thin and legs grow, my body redistributing its weight. My cheeks hollowed, my eyes assumed a permanent squint in the sunlight. My lips chapped, burnt, peeled. I loved myself. I was living an honest life.

For forty days Tyler watched the sun arc overhead as sweat poured out of his body, soaking his jersey and chamois. He felt his bike shudder down the gravel roads and held on, moving south. His hair bleached and skin freckled in the intensity of the summer sun. His hands blistered, popped, peeled. He loved himself. He was living an honest life.

I want to live an honest life. For forty days I did. From Durango to San José del Cabo, the desert took me in. And now, moving into the next stage of my life, I realize that to live an honest life requires an integration of purpose. It’s a synthesis of deeper meaning and truth. An honest life is, at its core, a belief of self-love and worth.

I believe that I am moving towards an honest life. One mile at a time.

 Arrival in San Jose del Cabo. The end of another tour. 15,000 miles together on the bike and still smiling.

Arrival in San Jose del Cabo. The end of another tour. 15,000 miles together on the bike and still smiling.

*

You cannot hide from the sun here.

The light reaches into all

Of the dark spaces of the soul

To burn hot and bright inner truths

That we ignore while seeking shade.

In the sun I cannot deny

That I am anxious and depressed

And seek the comforts of ease

To distract from the fact that

Honesty comes not from what

You’ve raised to block out the sun,

But by how weathered your skin

Becomes in the building process.

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