Hello to a River

The idea that a river has a character distinct from all other rivers seems impossibly provincial. If someone had said it to me before yesterday, I may well have laughed at the quaint half-truth the way I do when reading Mark Twain. That was before the arms of the Brazos wrapped back around me.

John Graves bid the Brazos farewell in 1960, when he published Goodbye to a River. He wasn’t leaving, but it was. Two dams had already been built; thirteen more were proposed. He started his trip in the very tailwaters that formed my childhood affinity for fishing and thorns and paddled the same waters that I did some forty years later. He knew things were changing around him and took the chance to see them as they once were one more time, with a writer’s eye and a pre-nostalgic heart. We are rarely given the same complicated gift of a pre-planned farewell.

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When I left Texas I was so sure it would be for good, so positive that the metaphysical and physical were correlated that a departure meant more than just a lack of Whataburgers and whitewashed Wranglers. That shortsightedness is quite typical of a teenager, but it’s also quite a strange way to move on. To regard your home with a cold eye and a shuttered heart, thinking that you can escape your personal problems with a change in location is to bid goodbye to nothing. There’s no good in this bye. Good riddance, then.

To be homesick is not simply to wish somebody would do your laundry or make your favorite family recipe. It’s to be removed from the smells of dust and honeysuckle and creosote and the sights of dip can rings and sports team shirts that match your own. It’s a general specific that says no matter how well I master this recipe and how many maids I hire, this is not home. All my revulsions are being replaced by new ones, and I liked the old ones better. John’s were usurped by a time, mine by a place. Would you rather be branded a pussy for not hunting or a provincial proletariat for having faith and saying ya’ll? Have space to shoot cans and catch bass or a new movie theater and fashionable next door neighbors? Much depends on your perspective.

The way most authors do, Mr. Graves offered a profoundly personal, timelessly universal take on the state of affairs in 1960s Texas:

“I would be annoyed if I were any more in tune with modern sensibilities. I was shaped differently. The world in which I grew up was Texan and Southern, and it had many, many failings. I think I’ve gotten rid of most of the bad things in myself from that earlier age, but I don’t adjust to the way things are progressing now.”

This same progressive curmudgeonliness colors many of my favorite works. From Travels with Charley to No Country for Old Men, we see narrators who have a healthy case of Things-Used-to-be-Better Syndrome but know it. We all fear change. We don’t all possess a tortuous self-awareness that accompanies our preference for the known. But we all grow weary when the things we know are replaced by things we don’t. “Things were better then,” we’ll always say. Except for those of us who love new things. The disappointment of watching the new become old is certainly more constant and empty than the wistful twinges of rose-colored hindsight.

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So when I found myself on the Brazos River again, amid my first real spring in four years, I was taken aback by the way it had waited. Though nothing was the same, everything was. The colors, the currents, and the vegetation were all just as I left them. The weather was abysmal by most standards, but the flowers were ecstatic. The latent moisture in the ground and air lent everything a high-contrast look. Greens were greener, plant cells turbid with water. Darks were darker, trunks and soil soaked full of moisture. Only the strongest smells could muscle through the thick, damp air. The cow patties and sagebrush were turned up to eleven, freed from the mingling of weaker scents. When I landed the first largemouth bass of the day, a singular, purposeful joy superseded all of my long overwrought vegetarian conundrums.

When I landed the largest sand bass I’ve ever caught, it dawned on me that these were not the cliché fish that everyone said we should dream of catching. These were my fish, in my backyard. And if nobody ever writes a narrative in which redneck trappings like bass and sunfish are highbrow rewards for heady pursuits, all the better. When Graves floated the Brazos, his keen eye soaked in the hidden beauty nestled up and down the river. Nothing so obvious as a pre-labelled SCENIC OVERLOOK along a road with countless tourist maps and guides would do. If someone tells you something is good, can you ever really decide for yourself?

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To notice red tail hawks silently presiding over their territory is to truly interact with nature. They’re always there, but only a keen and willing eye will routinely spot their mottled plumage so perfectly matching the branches on which they perch. To realize that Great Blue Herons are as exotic as anything at the zoo is, again, to reject the fairy tale notion of some beauties being better than others. There is nothing pretentious or prescriptive about the beauty of sandy red cliffs and golden ochre cedars reflecting in dark green water. Everything waits patiently for its visitors to understand that, sometimes, beauty educates beholders. This place was not designed by Someone who thought Big Sur was inherently better than Big Bend, so why should we?

Texas is wrought with thorned vegetation. Cacti are the most obvious and easily avoided. It’s the insidious vines that intertwine with the innocuous bushes that’ll get you when you least expect it. The process of avoiding these painful plants is part of the meditative whole that is the pursuit of fish. To access the Brazos River, you must circumnavigate nature’s booby traps. Thorns and holes and slick shores do their darndest to protect the ultimate prize. Perhaps by writing off places that are difficult, we’re missing the point.

The Brazos’ distinct character was most clear to me because it stood in high relief against the other rivers I’d visited the week prior. The Colorado, The Guadelupe, The San Gabriel, The Pedernales. What a difference a few hundred miles make. What’s in a name. These rivers are all so profoundly different I could identify The One out of a lineup.

As I stood in the chilly knee-deep water, focus and reverie duked it out while I stood by gladly. My fishing buddy and I were the only two people on the river that day, because we could see beyond the thorns and the grey skies. In the mist it became clear that this was home.

I should add that only two of those proposed dams were ever built, thanks in large part to the awareness Graves raised with his poetic take on a unique place. And the lakes they built are drying up. My nostalgia is for a time when one could waterski without fear of impalement and lakehouses were actually close to lakes. Before I was away, before the droughts and fires came. That was a better time.

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On Style, Substance, and Selling Out

“hey dude,” the first Facebook message read. “your writing is hysterical. not a fit for what we are looking for,” says the second. “keep being funny!” This is rejection in the 21st Century. From someone who allegedly has a prestigious portfolio and track record. Who definitely has a catawampus profile picture that makes it seem as though his head is peeking at you from the side of the frame. It leers aloofly, unprofessionally, self-unawarely. This is the CEO of a company who still believes that hipness is won by breaking all the rules of social media engagement. By having a profile picture that goes against every rule of Headshots 101. By messaging job candidates via Facebook. That not capitalizing or punctuating is more real and more sincere than ascribing to the oppressively conventional rules of good grammar.

When pressed for what he was looking for, I was given the following answer: “your writing was funny but a bit too fluffy and not enough meat[.]” This is the plight of writers in the Buzzfeed and blog era. Though the prompt was comically brief and implied that it wanted a blog post worth sharing, that wasn’t what it wanted it all. It wanted someone who could tell and not show, who could prove that they’d spent longer than anyone else browsing the company’s website and regurgitating that information. The CEO wanted to be told “Yes, your ideas are all perfect. Let me retype them to show you how much I believe that.” In short, it wanted substance without style. In the case of a generically informational content marketing blog, substance is all-too-easy to come by. Read the company’s website and turn bullet points into two-sentence paragraphs. Insert pop culture jokes and YouTube videos and witty subheads. Repeat. To execute with style that rewards the few people who actually read them (instead of simply sharing on social media because they were paid or strongly encouraged to do so) is rare and cannot be taught or Googled.

Then there is another job that I do have, one whose style guide is wrought with pictures of bourbon bottles and Chuck Norris and a list of quaint, ‘gnarly’ words that we are encouraged to use liberally. The style is prescribed and the bonuses are insultingly arbitrary. Pop culture references are given preference over helpful information, speed is rewarded while careful consideration can only be exercised at your own risk. In short, it rewards style without substance.

One thinks about great works of literature and philosophy, and pieces of great writing that may not carry the same universality as lesser writing with greater ideas. Dostoevsky is imminently more readable than Nietzsche and no less profound; Fitzgerald’s worst is still more lyrical than anyone else’s best. Protagonists and poesy make philosophy bearable. Gatsby is remembered and taught because its style and substance cooperate in timeless alchemical bliss. Kierkegaard was smart, but gosh dang is he droll. Hemingway told his blunt ideas bluntly and his poignantly vulnerable ones similarly. To say “everything is nothing” is unconvincing. To end a riveting love story with “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” is rather more powerful.

If we want people to listen to our ideas, we must show and not tell. And if we want employees to be helpful and honest, we should not ask them insulting Catch-22s like: “Are you going to be equally excited whether you’re writing unattributed banal, programmatic content or creative longform pieces with your name on them?” The upwardly-mobile schmoozers are great liars. The honest folk with artistic integrity get fired. Fun times in Babylon, indeed.

One of the most painful realities for writers in the 21st Century is the conflation of heartwarming or Nihilistically-affirmative stories and ideas with good writing. 20 Things You Have to Do in Your 20s is almost inevitably poorly-written. And yet it will get more shares than the greatest piece of creative writing published this year. East Austin Man Discovers One Weird Trick to Get out of Speeding Tickets—Cops HATE Him! will get more clicks than something titled Pulitzer Prize-Winning Short Fiction: Read it Here for Free. So it goes.

Because I am known, at least in some vague sense, as a writer to those who still know me at all, I’m constantly forwarded things that I am told are great writing that I simply have to read. Sometimes they’re right. More often than not, they’re petty pieces with pretty ideas. Or at least ideas that I can understand why the person who shared them with me enjoyed. Never mind the difference between its and it’s. Damn the subject-verb agreement. Forget meter and rhythm and word paintings that make you want to bust out the pen and do some underlining. We want our untested sensibilities to be reaffirmed, not challenged. If Thought Catalog says we shouldn’t get married until we’re at least thirty and we’re sitting single and twenty six and full of bravado masquerading as cocksureness, their staff writer is the wisest sage of our times. If one of the rare Contrarian Conservative Blogs for Millennials says Being Married to Your Best Friend at Twenty Four is the Epitome of Bliss and we’re sitting next to our boo in a clean, modern home in the safe, bland suburbs, we’ve just discovered our new favorite author. Pandering sells, poetry gets forgotten, and Baz Luhrmann picks up the pieces.

Nota bene: there will always be a place for sentimental poetry sure as there will be a place for poetical self-loathing and unintentionally ironic embroidered pillows.

The ease with which one can cheaply imitate listicles and receive accolades from employers is deeply unsettling, to say the least. So is the revelation that your first employer achieved their professional stature not with preternatural competency but with ravishingly good looks and, by all accounts, even better sex. Your career is built on a foundation of sand. Then again, the pawns of a major tech company’s CEO approved the interview you ghostwrote on his behalf even though you’ve never met him and never will. Is that good writing or a pyramid scheme built on one-night stands? Is there a difference?

It’s easy to reassure ourselves that anyone who contacts you using Facebook Messenger and believes that regurgitated substance trumps rare style is not someone we want to work for. Or that artistic integrity ‘matters’. It’s especially easy to believe while enough of our helter skelter side gigs pay the bills and buy us hours in coffee shops. Surrounded by beautiful people and insulated from our unsympathetic bosses by the internet and thousands of miles, it’s easy to be self-important and defiant about what we will and won’t do. When we have to start drinking our coffee at home and our only human interaction is with cashiers working the graveyard shift at bargain-basement grocers, the notion of selling out loses its dreadfulness.

Post Scriptor: Lest you think me unfairly cynical, compare the sales figures of James Patterson and John Steinbeck.

Bikes, Brian Williams, Being Better

Howdy Friends! In the last couple of weeks I’ve been busy writing for other sites. You can find some of my published works in Conscious Magazine via these links:

How the Power of a Bicycle Gives Mobility and Possibility

What the Brian Williams Controversy Reveals About Us

I love Conscious because they are serious about changing the conversation and helping us share stories that matter. As a writer, I enjoy exercising my obnoxious vocabulary to tell stories and construct sentences that sound pretty. As a person, I want my work to contribute to the world in meaningful ways. This is the closest I’ve come to doing both at the same time, which I’m really stoked about. Please join me in supporting the Conscious mission and feel free to forward me any stories that deserve recognition in a community that lives for good news and great stories.

More writing is coming soon. Cheers!

an open letter to Joan Didion

As you may or may not have seen, a group of variously-qualified folks just completed funding for ‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’ (the Joan Didion Documentary) on Kickstarter. If you know me, you know I think she’s pretty much the best thing ever, so I was eager to help preserve her legacy. After some reflection, the ‘reward’ offered for my donation sat rather strangely with me. What follows is the very letter I recently mailed to one of my writing heroes.

Ms. Didion,

The irony of this situation is not lost on me. It’s just the sort of thing that you would like, I imagine. I paid half a month’s rent to fund an already-funded documentary about your life for the privilege to send a two-page letter that will allegedly be read to you by an intermediary. That is, if my letter is not too late for this session at which eighteen such letters are read aloud to you as you wear large sunglasses and aloofly smoke cigarettes. At least, that’s how I imagine it. There is no way for me to know you will ever hear these words, so I spent all of that money to buy belief. Which, we may proffer, is priceless. So perhaps that was a bargain.

When I discovered the Didion Documentary project on Kickstarter it was already well-funded, with such appealing options as “YOUR FAVORITE BOOK BY JOAN. Signed by Joan. Domestic shipping included! Plus, all the digital rewards above,” already sold out. If I wanted to make a meaningful contribution, I’d have to pony up for the option to have my words read aloud to you. I felt heroic, preserving your legacy for my generation, buying the privilege to tell you why this matters to me. It’s hard to imagine how I felt so empowered by my meager writer’s wages whenever I eagerly clicked through the donation and payment pages.

To say that I regret the donation would be going too far. As an artist, it feels good to be a patron of the arts at such a young and irrelevant age. I recognize the value of being told that your work matters to people, which you’ve heard so many times that this will be a shout into a cacophonous void, but perhaps my scrawled signature can provide sincere evidence of a human life improved by yours. I, too, was once a dreamer of that golden dream, a disillusioned ex-Central Time transplant to the unreal sprawl of Los Angeles. I felt validated by Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, with its archetypal street names and delusional protagonists that I knew all too well, for it told me that this was not just a very long nightmare.

I found that elusive thing that great art supposedly has, a reassurance that I was not alone in thinking that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’ve always been reluctant to label myself a writer, because really I’m just a survivor.

I use your work to try to tell my story to those around me, handing out copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem to women I want to love like I used to burn identical CDs and assure two girls at once that Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant was “our song”. I have since traded my bottles of red and my bottles of white for the plain stated truth: “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” A rather romantic sentiment to share with someone you hope likes you back.

I am grateful for your brand of girl power, which taught me about a timeless and tasteful feminism that resonates far more than anything my generational peers can create. I consume your sentences and ideas with an alacrity reserved for almost nothing else. I know I’m not alone in my feelings, because you’ve had them too, because other people have the same ones about you. That’s worth more than the three hundred and fifty dollars and forty seven cents this letter cost me.

More than anything, I found that once the fundraising was over and the donation cleared and I was sent the address to mail this letter, I barely wanted to write it. You put yourself in the ether through your writing, the same way I’ll put this letter in the mail and on the web. I will let people read slivers of my dutifully bared soul and wince when they try to talk to me about it. Vulnerability depends on a certain printed anonymity.

So, with all due respect, I would rather find my own poetically anachronistic billionaires than discuss Howard Hughes’ hairdresser with you. Of course, you would rank somewhere between Jesus and Abraham Lincoln on the list of guests for one of those all-star dinner parties we are always asked about, but they are always hypothetical.

Uniforms

It is difficult to talk about police without talking about politics. After all, they share the same first four letters and a total of five letters in common. And even if you manage to avoid politics, the talk will inevitably be political. And if using five-sixths of police seems somehow incomplete, switch political for polemical and you suddenly have morphed an even one hundred percent of the word into another, more accurate descriptor of the conversation.

For a variety of reasons, we find it difficult to discuss the police. Even harder to relate to them. We assume that their position of power and possession of weapons makes them somehow completely alien, a different species that manages to hold excessive force and a presumed dearth of intelligence and compassion in a rather humanoid shell. How can they look so similar to us but feel so much less and face so much more?

And yet, we refuse to regard firemen or soldiers similarly. Somehow their equally selfless and stoic service of the cowardly masses is easier to reconcile. Perhaps because they don’t hand out speeding tickets.

Of the many things that concern me deeply about my generation, our utter lack of gratitude is near the very top. This extends to everything from not recognizing our fortune for receiving so many things for free—speech, healthcare, lower projected incomes than our forefathers—to the way in which we are capable of taking synecdoches and demonizing the wholes these parts represent with sweeping ruthlessness. We use the freedom of speech to abuse that very freedom as well as the many who protect it.

I cannot begin to claim immunity to blink-reaction rage at some recent news-worthy trials. But this is not about politics. Or polemics.

I can claim that I’m willing to consider realities in light of the sweeping generalizations made by feel-good-angry crowds. We comfort ourselves in all of our unsureities by believing that things are black and white (pun intended(?)) because we have abandoned a longstanding source of understanding. Good and Evil are no longer things we read about in Books but things we decide on a case-by-case basis. Once the frothing masses have reached a flash consensus, it is bigotry to dissent and uncomfortable to consider the facts. Or admit that accidents happen. Because with no sense of Cosmic Organization, accidents are a fearsome topic. If there is no eternal justice, there is no justice, there is no peace. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but we’ve gotten awfully good at building bionic eyes of late. That leads to a certain lackadaisy. And when accidents happen, the survivors must find their own way to make peace with them.

One of our great follies is the presumption that we know anything, or that we can pass judgment from our couches, or anywhere else for that matter. But this has only recent history in common with the police. Let us consider the notion of a uniform.

In peacetime, shooting a man in plainclothes is murder. In wartime, shooting a man in the uniform of the enemy is called heroic. The lack of uniforms is one of the messiest aspects of the endless war in the Middle East.

At a fast food restaurant, uniforms reduce fellow humans to servile automatons, who are forced to respond “good” when we formulaically ask how they are in exchange for their feigned interest in us. They are likely far from “good,” for they are humans at work with limited upward mobility, but to admit as much would be to break the unwritten rules of the uniform. We do not want to be reminded that our servers are capable of being anything other than good.

The Men in Black?

So when we see men in blue (or black, or khaki, or any number of other police uniform colors), we see uniforms. Symbols of frustration at college parking tickets and high school party bustings, of an allegedly rampant assault on our justice and peace. While the severity of punishment for exceeding an arbitrary velocity or swilling Keystone Light and rum-and-Coke at too young an age are indeed up for debate, the fact that we are safe enough to complain about such things is not. And the idea that we are fundamentally at odds with The Police, a conspiratorial entity that has nobody’s best interest in mind is more infuriating than that 76 in a 70 ticket I got in rural Texas a few years ago. To say nothing of the dozens of beers and bottles of wine I had in my trunk during that traffic stop before my twenty first birthday. About which, the Trooper said nothing.

The Police are indeed people like us, who must work to make a living, who have long since conceded that universal truth, but who, unlike most of us, have decided that their job will be a valiant and thankless one. They are intrinsically hated for the acts of distant men in different uniforms from a different time and place. We don’t begrudge Whataburger employees for the acts of a rogue In-N-Out server a decade ago, but we do hold police officers up to this standard. We don’t even engage in faux pleasantries with them as we share a space, as they keep us safe. We giggle and cheer as we anthemically repeat N.W.A.’s seminal hit, Fuck Tha Police under our breath as we drive by them. The distant injustices of a few are worn as badges of honor by the many. I have no business identifying with men who came straight outta Compton to rap superstardom, but I do. Because it has a catchy beat. The sentiment was of a time and place, but we call it universal. Fuck tha police. A vapid incantation of a post-Rodney King, post-Compton generation that holds chips on its shoulder in an accidentally ironic sign of solidarity. Fuck tha police. Why? Motherfuck tha po-lice. It sounds so good when Dre says it.

Most things are of a time and place. Great artists strive to move beyond that barrier, to create The Universal, The Transcendent. Apparently cops can do it by simply responding to the call of duty. Perhaps I am in the wrong profession.

What’s in a uniform?

We use them to identify, to allow ourselves to approach the guy wandering the aisles at Home Depot without trepidation or to know that the men in the red coats are here to prevent us from obtaining Freedom. We use them to recognize teammates. They ensure uniformity in a sea of anonymous conformity. Amid countless, anonymously unique outfits, uniforms stand out. What felt oppressive in grade school is now a subject of much philosophical consideration and reverence.

Shit Triathletes Say

In my most recent triathlon, a half-Ironman in Palm Springs, California, many participants wore uniforms. Some were triathlon clubs, the Bakersfield Tri-Spokes or the Inland Inferno or the UCSB triathlon team (conspicuously, the only college team represented). Others were a bit more tongue-in-cheek, the ubiquitous “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” crew and the guy in the tri onesie with the tuxedo pattern on it. One uniform caught my eye as we weaved our way through the arduous course of out-and-back bike rides and runs. LASD. I knew it was some sort of Department, but neither fire nor police start with S. It wasn’t until I started my run way faster than I should have that I got a close enough look at one of the tan and green tops to decipher the vaguely official acronym. Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. This in the days after protesters were lying prone and prostrate on the 101 Freeway in downtown LA, this just two weeks before two NYPD officers and one Florida cop were assassinated simply for wearing a uniform.

The man I caught up to was a triathlete. He was cruising comfortably, warming up to the 13.1 miles ahead of him. He was a sheriff by profession, but we’re all something by profession. As we neared the first aid station just over a mile into the run, we fell into stride and chatted a bit.

“So all of ya’ll are active duty sheriffs?”

“Yeah, man, there’s four of us out here racing. We have a nice little crew, we train together and race together whenever we get time off work.”

“Wow,” (At this point, one of his fellow LASD Triathlon Team members ran the other direction at an enthusiastic clip. He was a full six miles ahead of us.) “That’s a thankless job ya’ll do. Your buddy is killin’ it! (‘Was that a poor choice in figure of speech?’ I’d later wonder.) Thank you for your service.”

“You serious man? Wow. Thank you. I don’t hear that very often.”

I’d like to blame our pace and my thirst, but I was rendered speechless. I offered him a sweaty pat on the back as we tossed out paper cups of HEED (a supposedly more specialized version of Gatorade) in perfect unison.

“You planning on keeping this pace the whole time?” I asked by way of conversation. The nice thing about hobbies is that you have a lot of unspoken understanding with fellow hobbyists. And plenty of nuanced jargon.

“Yeah, I got injured earlier this year so I’m really just feeling it out, but I’ll definitely speed up in a minute. This is just a fun race for me.”

“Dang man, no need to make me feel bad!” He laughed. “Go for it, brother, I’ll see you at the beer garden.”

In this comfortable BS was a deep understanding. There always is. We both spend way too much of our lives on grueling bike rides, running right after those rides, driving to lap pools to make our strokes more efficient. We both live for achievement that exists independently of everything else. We both make sacrifices to participate in the sport we love. We both love a good feast and a nice beer after putting ourselves through 70.3 miles of voluntary torture. This guy is not a pressed uniform or a holstered pistol or a badge. He’s a fellow triathlete who has a job that’s a hell of a lot more dangerous than mine.

Some uniforms are made for specific tasks. Whether it’s flak jackets or logoed aprons, form follows function as often as the inverse. When a fireman dons his uniform to identify himself as uniquely qualified to run towards dangerous situations, he is augmenting his innate bravery with sixty seven pounds of protective gear. From a five-pound helmet to a twenty-seven pound air tank, all of this protection adds a certain gravity to the situation firemen and women face.

So as much as I revered the wicked-fast men of the LASD Triathlon Team, there was one participant in the HITS Palm Springs triathlon whose uniform stood above all the rest.

After swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56 more, one participant didn’t simply swap his bike cleats for running shoes. He pulled on his bunker pants, laced up his boots, swapped his bike helmet for a much less aero version, and pulled on a thick jacket. It was 85 degrees and sunny by the time he started the run. In addition to his sixty seven pounds of gear, this participant wore a metal plaque in memory of two friends and brothers in firefighting who were killed on the job.

I found myself lamenting my long, thick hair by mile four of the 13.1 mile run, greedily stuffing iced sponges into my millimeters-thin triathlon top and squeezing them out over my head. Somewhere along the way I passed this hero headed the other way and felt my perceived problems begin to shrink. As I went out for lap two, I thought about the sheriff I had spoken to on my first lap. Though he wasn’t racing in his uniform, he almost certainly had lost friends in the line of duty.

Nine miles into the run, as I reached my final turnaround point, I finally caught up to the fireman. He was walking through the aid station chugging water. It was clear that the weight of his uniform and the intense December heat were taking a toll on his body. Even in a sub-six-pound outfit, shoes included, the race was taking a toll on me.

I caught up to him and read the plaque as I walked and double-fisted water and HEED. In a way, I was positioned to sympathize with his current situation. He was six miles behind me, wearing sixty pounds more gear. That alone was hard to fathom. Then I pondered the depth of his motives. I have my own, but in that moment they shrank into the distance.

“Thank you, brother. You’re truly a hero. Thank you.”

“Oh man, thank you,” he offered instantly in return.

I looked up at him for a moment, debating slowing down and walking the rest of the race with him. The weight of everything I had done and everything he was doing suddenly weighed heavily on me. I’d like to blame the unbalanced endorphins pulsing through my body, but my eyes welled up with tears.

“I’m gonna start crying if I stay here with you, man. Stop it!”

“Thank you. Thank you, man, thank you. Run hard, man.”

I had to pull my sweat-stained sunglasses off my face as I took off from that aid station. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. But we also all do the same things. As I jogged down that penultimate straightaway, I couldn’t tell the sweat from the tears. This wasn’t about me. It never was, but in that moment I was able to relate a little more to some of the truest heroes this world has.

There’s a lot in a uniform, but sometimes we have to take them far out of context to recognize exactly what they mean. A soldier’s camouflage is not designed to help them blend in in an airport. Nor is a firefighter’s protective garb designed for arduous endurance sports. Some uniforms aren’t meant to be conspicuous, but they can’t help it. How different the fluorescent reflections and sterile tiles of airports are from the dusty, war-torn deserts they’re built for.

Sleep With One Eye Open

Some more stories from the road.

There is little more unsettling than arriving in a ghost town well after nightfall. After plans to camp on Dauphin Island fell through due to nuclear mosquitos and a lack of public land, I biked across the Dauphin Island Bridge, a three mile span that skims the surface of the ocean before rapidly rising to nearly ninety feet high in its center section to let boats pass. It wasn’t until a few days later that someone asked me if I stopped at Dauphin Island. I said that I did, briefly, and they told me a vague story about a man who drove to the bridge’s peak and hurled four young children to their deaths. I wasn’t sure if I believed them until I Googled a picture of the bridge some months later and the name Lam Luong dominated the search results. This had happened less than four years before my summiting the artificial mountain by bike.

Back on the mainland I had two options. Bike to Bayou La Batre, of Forrest Gump fame, along the route I had planned to follow into Mississippi, or continue north toward Mobile, some fifty miles away. I watched the sun set as I coasted down the slope of the bridge toward the peninsula that reached out to receive me, so even the twenty mile option seemed grim. More than fifty miles into the day and running on greasy pizza from one of two restaurants open on the Island, it was one of those times that I wondered why I had chosen to put myself in this situation. No phone call I could make, even if my phone had battery, would make this any easier.

I decided to stick with the plan, to bike to Bayou La Batre in the post-sunset glow that backlit the woods and made the presence of objects visible only by the lack of glow where they stood. Pedaling through the undulating dunes, I thought I saw sailboat masts and shrimping rigs reaching their tired claws up through the thick groves of swamp evergreens. Ghosts of a hurricane or the elusive intent of mankind. Passing cars were frightening based on their intent alone, so desolate were the mysterious surroundings.

There were faint incandescent glows from the forest, bridges over estuaries filled with sullen shrimping boats, and inconsistent safety bumps on the shoulder that threatened to derail me as I wove into them. But none of the spookiness of darkness in the middle of nowhere could match the sixth-sense grabbing, hair-raising eeriness of laying down to sleep outside in a half-empty ghost town. After somehow gaining the blessing of the Harley biker Paul who had authority over the biggest church in Layou LaBatre, I found the two biggest trees in their back lot and fought with the tangled masses of my hammock straps.

I climbed in after having no access to running water or an enclosed bathroom since leaving Dauphin Island. It was dark but far from silent. Sleep seemed distant but desperately needed. Camping is glorious when it’s on your terms, in a national park or a friendly host’s backyard. When you are strung between two trees in a town you haven’t really seen, every crackle or caw activates the adrenal glands and primal instincts. I envied cowboys who could run frayed rope around their campsites to keep rattlers out and huddle together with revolvers in their hands or under their hats. Nothing messeed with them. And there was nobody within a hundred miles of their home on the range, except for the Comanches. When they got you, at least you knew who it was that had your hair in their hand.

Here I had no clue who or what was rustling, be it an alley cat or an axe murderer, and no amount of reasonable thinking could quiet my overactive mind. Even a deranged psychokiller could not exactly predict a lonesome and exhausted cyclist rolling into his town and camping behind a church with a badass patriarch. Still, I didn’t know what color the building fifty feet away from me was, so I couldn’t be sure of much at all.

Dolphins and birds sleep with half their brain at a time so they can remain afloat or alert. It is considered a massive luxury that we place both sides of our brain in sleep mode simultaneously. I have yet to master the hemispheric model of rest that animals enjoy, so that night was a hellish cycle of eye-opening noises and aggressive R.E.M. sleep that my muscles forced on my paranoid brain. If there is an evolutionary advantage to our all-or-nothing sleep pattern, I have yet to hear about it.

Some weeks later I’d recall waking up on the ground in the dewy pre-dawn, my hammock having slowly slid down the tree trunks in the night, and think about those cowboys. If they didn’t get scalped or snakebit, they’d had a successful night. Unless one of them slipped into his boots and a black widow nibbled his toe while he was out riding. It’s the damnedest thing, that for every grim and noisy thing we can conjure in the night, it’s the silent and easily-swattable ones that pose the biggest threat. Even a mosquito that made it into my netting could have left malaria or West Nile and long after it had died somewhere in Bayou LaBatre, I could find my condition worsening in Louisiana or beyond. Neither the mosquito nor the spider benefits from our demise. This perversion of the food chain is largely lost on those who can lock their doors at night.

dauphin island bridge

Clearing the Fog

If you know me or have ever read this blog, you know I have a lot to say about cycling. I find its merits infinite and the poetry of two wheels uniquely liberating and life-affirming. If I didn’t have bills to pay I’d probably do nothing but ride bikes and write love letters to them. Something about the way “riding” and “writing” sound the exact same in a Texas accent confirms my suspicion that they’re inexorably linked.

I’m linking you to a piece written by me, published in a beautiful lifestyle magazine. As is always the case, some of my more obtuse allusions and wordplay got ironed out in the editing process, but I think you’ll appreciate it nonetheless. I’m looking forward to working with Terasu more in the future, and if you like gorgeous photographs and great stories, you’ll enjoy browsing their site as much as I do.

Please click through so I can keep doing things like this and stop writing so much about things that aren’t bikes.

Clearing the Fog

Cheers.

Clearing the Fog