Let’s use the simple story of my bike trip to illustrate how guiding principles can direct our actions. A year before I even thought about cycling 3,000 miles I promised my brother to ride in the Courage Classic, a three day fund raising ride through the Rocky Mountains for Children’s Hospital Colorado. I planned to fly to Denverand ride a loaner bike, but winter and spring of 2011 turned into a blur of work demands. I logged hundreds of hours and thousands of frequent flier miles and in order to maintain perspective on my harried work life, an escapist fantasy emerged. What if I extended my cycling trip by riding back to Boston after visiting Denver? My client load was light in August, my boss gave the green light and suddenly I had seven weeks of approved leave, my longest vacation ever. True, I had a mountain of work to do before I left, and no cycling experience beyond commuting around town. But these were mere details compared with the majesty of the idea.
Most endeavors evolve like my bicycle trip, a confluence of forces gather steam until they exert pressure and take their own shape. No sooner did this luxurious amount of time lie before me than the journey took on distinct definition.
I had time constraints. I was leaving Boston on July 19, which gave me a few days to acclimate to Denver’s altitude before the Courage Classic ride on July 23, 24, 25. I had to return to work in Bostono n September 6, the day after Labor Day. If I did not finish the ride before then, I would have to catch a bus home. I told myself there would be no shame in that situation, but I knew that if I were compelled to bus the last leg, however short, it would be, if not a failure, certainly not a success.
I had social objectives. I wanted to visit family and friends in Denver and Oklahoma City whom I had not seen in some time, but I also had the antithetical social objective of spending enforced time alone. I have spent very little time fully alone in my life and wanted to expand my experience with solitude.
I also had what I considered cultural objectives; aspects of America I most wanted to see. Obviously, I wanted to go slow, hence the bicycle. And I wanted the accoutrements of my travel to reflect that leisurely pace. I would not camp, I like creature comforts at night, but I wanted to avoid chain hotels. For that matter, I wanted to avoid chain food as well. Since the journey was more important than any particular destination, I planned my route based on quality of scenery rather than landmarks. Whenever possible I chose bicycle trails over country roads, country roads over state roads, and state highways over US highways. I wanted to avoid Interstates completely.
Before pedaling a single mile, I had developed some basic parameters that felt right about my trip. In the lingo of guiding principles, parameters are the ‘givens’ of a project, and we use them to formulate success targets; measurable objectives that mark progress and success. It was easy to translate the parameters of my cycle trip into success targets.
My first target was to travel 70 miles per day. After subtracting days for family visits and foul weather, I needed to average that distance if I was going to avoid hopping a bus in Upstate New York over Labor Day weekend.
My second target was to never spend more than $100 per night on a motel. This success factor had a cluster of corollary attributes as well. I did not plan to make any reservations in advance, as that would cramp my spontaneity. Vintage roadside motels were preferred over traditional hotels with lobbies, corridors, and elevators. Bathrooms with original pink and green tile got gold stars, as did rooms with actual keys, as opposed to faux credit cards. Bonus points went to any motel with an outdoor chair in front of each room where I could sit in the evening and chat with neighbors if so inclined. I also had a sort of anti-success target with regards to lodging, which was not to stay in any Bed and Breakfasts. I find quilted, patterned fabric suffocating.
My third success target was to always eat at independent restaurants and spend less than $20 per meal. Bicycle touring seemed incompatible with haute cuisine. My eating corollary was to always order the most local thing on the menu, especially if I had never eaten it before.
Numerically, my targets were 70/100/0 – seventy miles per day, less than $100 per night, zero franchise food.
We never know all of a project’s parameters in advance. In my case, the big unknown was the bike. I have a good bike; I use it to commute eight miles to work every day. I could have accessorized it for the adventure. But I knew touring bikes were reported to be firmer, smoother, and more comfortable. It took only one test ride for me to decide to splurge on a new bicycle. After some research I selected a Surly Long Haul Trucker, which I ordered from a shop in Denver to avoid shipping on a plane. I added a pair of the smallest Arkel side carriers, a Brooks leather seat, opted for toe clips over clip-on shoes, and upgraded the tires. I am not a gear freak, so all this outfitting was work for me. In the end I made some good choices and some questionable ones. The Surly was a good call, very sturdy, the Arkel’s were great; plenty of room for my stuff; the leather seat proved iffy, it took way too long to break in because I didn’t treat it with the right oil for a few hundred miles; toe clips proved more comfortable than clip-on shoes, but much less powerful; and the better tires probably helped since I averaged only one flat per thousand miles.
The parameters of what to carry were clear – everything required for safety, as little else as possible. The list included ten state maps, four liters of water, three spare tubes, three energy bars, first aid kit, space tire, and bike repair tools. I wore the same bright yellow cycling outfit every day and rinsed it every night. I brought only one pair of shorts, one pair long pants, one tee shirt and one collared shirt, a poncho, two pairs of nylon underwear, and five pairs of cycling socks (they dry slowly). I added a netbook, camera, cell phone, and two paperbacks, which I left in motels as I finished them and picked up new ones in second hand book shops along the way.
First thing I did upon landing in Denver was to check out my new bicycle and select the accessories; I had to leave it overnight while they installed the goodies. The next day I picked it up and had three days of trial riding; I explored Denver’s extensive bicycle paths while acclimating to the bike and the altitude. Three days later I began the charity ride along with two thousand other cyclists. Two hundred miles over three days that included three mountain passes,Tennessee, Vail and Fremont. A week after arriving, I left the mountains and my family behind. The odometer registered 300 miles; shakedown was over. I rolled southeast out of Denver carrying nothing but my saddlebags, four liters of water and my idiosyncratic success targets.
It was not until riding east on Colorado Route 83 towards Limon, the mountains long behind me, that the realization finally took hold. The nebulous idea that I needed to get away from it all had become a very real, monstrous, journey. I was riding home, thousands of miles away, alone. I reflected on the decisions I made about where to go and when and what to bring, and I realized that each of my parameters and success targets coalesced my yearning for a major change into a relevant set of guiding principles. ‘Be Seen, Be Steady, Be Local’.
Be Seen. When you are smaller than everything around you, there are two choices – escape notice or demand notice. As a cyclist on roads where bicycles are rare, it is important to be seen. Route 83 towards Limon has no shoulder, every vehicle coming up behind either has to see me or it will hit me. My side bags have reflectors, my shirt is bright yellow, I ride just to the left of the side painted line. I raise my left hand fingers towards every opposing driver, and they acknowledge me in return; a typical gesture on lonely western roads, but one that pays dividends, because I know they will signal to anyone coming up behind me that there is yellow jacket ahead who would very much like to avoid their windshield. It is a friendly gesture rooted in enhanced safety.
Be Steady. The Surly was not the fastest bike I test drove, or the lightest, but out on a lone stretch of highway I realized what appealed to me was its sturdiness. I am not inclined towards thrills; touring is about pace and distance, not speed. As I claim my place on the road and need to be seen, it helps that the bike is sturdy. On the long down hills, I can gather 30 or 35 miles per hour. Lighter bikes can hit 50 on the same stretch, but I like that my bike holds so firm. Be steady also means to be patient and persevering. Ten miles an hour is an awfully slow pace when faced with thousands of miles. If I get myself into a rush, I will become frustrated because my speed is limited by my own power. Steadiness is the key to exercising patience.
Be Local. This is my favorite guiding principle. Celebrate every unique aspect of the towns and cities I pass through. On that first night in Limon it meant riding past the Interstate intersection with the usual chains to discover a 1940’s era motel near downtown with a small pool and a cafe across the road that served juicy chicken fried steak. I was the only one in the place without a pickup truck (never mind a car) but the dusty downtown gave me a deeper experience of the High Plains than I could have absorbed on the highway.
It is certainly possible to take a bicycle trip without clarifying the guiding principles, but they added a level of richness to my experience. They provided a framework for my actions and incentivized my purpose. Even if I were famished when I pedaled into a town, I passed by the franchise lunch place in search of something local, and was usually rewarded for my effort. Life takes us where we look, and with guiding principles to direct our vision, we are more inclined to find what we truly want.