From Deserts to Mountains, and to the Ocean

The journey never ends, just as it hasn't yet begun.

After over 3,000 miles, 74 days, 7 flat tires, and not even the slightest bodily injury, the traveler was deposited in the Pacific coast metropolis of San Francisco -- also known as the "Old Gold Mountain" in Chinese, on August 21st, 2013.

After a few days of eating and sleeping, looking back on the journey, it almost fells like a different time in life. Let the time travel machine bring the memory back to August 12th, leaving Salt Lake City, heading onto US Route 50, the "Loneliest Highway in America."

Biked the whole day through the suburban sprawl of Salt Lake City, heading into the high deserts of Utah. In the evening, I started to look around for places to stay. Saw the pointy top of a Mormon church, and biked toward that direction. I stopped on the side of the road, looking around to identify the marker of a potentially hospitable household. Through the corner of my eyes, I saw a family eagerly looking through the window. The mom opened the window and asked with excitement, "Where are you going?" I said San Fran. She said, "Oh, my family just came back from biking the Alaskan Highway two days ago!"

It turned out that the mother just took her five children, aged 4 to 16, to bike the 1,400-mile Alaska Highway through the Yukon Territory. They just got back, and am still in the process of re-entering the real world -- cleaning out a dozen pannier bags, deflating the air mattresses, etc. Being so recently off the road, they can very much sympathize with the situation I was in. They let me use the shower, and let me sleep in the Queen-sized guest bed. Joined the family and their friends for dinner, and had great chats about liberal/conservative/libertarian politics, the Mormon faith, and family life. Saw the photos from their courageous bike trip, heard a few close encounters with bears, and traded stories from the bike rides.

The mother told me that at some point during their challenging bike trip, the four-year-old girl commented: "We could have just gone for a picnic."

On August 13th, entered the hot, hot desert, while listening to the last chapters of Moby Dick. The monomaniac drive of Captain Ahab send chills down my spine, despite the hot sun. Don't we all have a white whale lurking inside of us? "Hast thou seen the White Whale," asked Captain Ahab.

After letting the mind wander, and letting the story of Moby Dick sink in for a few hours, I started listening to the Book of Mormon. Somehow, Moby Dick, as a novel, fits right in with the Bible and the Quran.

In the afternoon, entered a small town with only one deli shop that closes at 3pm. I asked a lady at gas station for places to find food. She turned out to be the owner of the deli shop. She went back to reopen the shop, and made me a free sandwich.

I anticipated that I would get to a campsite at the "Little Sahara" park around 6pm. I did get there in time, but there was no campground, nor water. Just sand dunes. Stranded with no water, I had to hitchhike to the next town. It was not easy getting a ride on the "loneliest highway" in the US. One car passing by every five minutes.

An 82-year old man with a pick-up truck picked me up. I asked him if he has been to China. He said his first encounter with Chinese was shooting at each other during the Korean War. Back then, he probably wouldn't have imagined giving a ride to a Chinese student biking across his country, almost sixty years later.

That night, I stayed with another Mormon family. The 20-year-old daughter was just engaged.

Looking at the map, I realized that in the next few days, going across Nevada, there will be stretches of nearly 100 miles with no human or water. Not just no drinking water -- no water at all. I stuffed all the empty space on my bike with water bottles, and could carry up two gallons of water. That would give me a range of 60 to 70 miles in a hot day, still not enough for overnight camping. I also wasn't sure about camping with mountain lions and coyotes in the wild desert with no protection or cell phone signal.

So, with very mixed feelings, for the sake of my life, I decided that I will bike until I am down to the last bottle of water, and then hitchhike to the next town. This feels like cheating, and it is. I told myself that one day I would return with proper preparation, and bike through the desert again, to make up for the lost miles to hitchhiking.

On the 14th, entered into the no-man's land. "Next services 83 miles."

The solitary rides through the pristine deserts are arguably my favorite part of the journey. Biking for an entire day, seeing only twenty cars, with only the cyclical, meditative movements in the body, and the occasional rotation of empty and full water bottles.

The white, dry lake bed from afar, blurred by the hot ground surface, looks like a rolling waves from the ocean.

You would see the next 10 miles of the road, going straight from one edge of the basin to the other side. You would bike on it for an hour, and still feel like you have not moved a bit.

From time to time, an outrageously oversize load would appear out of nowhere, and threaten to push you off the road.

That night, I happen to stay with another Mormon family, and the father happened to be a avid biker himself. Over the past few days, I very much enjoyed the prayers before meals, and the close-knit family atmosphere of the Mormon families. As I continue to listen to the Book of Mormon, I could have deeper discussion with the Mormon families about the doctrines, believes and history of their faith.

On the 15th, a long, solitary day of riding through the desert, following the legendary Pony Express trail.

Climbing over the mountain ranges that separates the basins from one another.

The sky is as blue as ocean, without the slightest trace of cloud.

That night, I arrived in the little town of Eureka, hidden in the middle of nowhere, hours away from any other human establishment. Knocked on a few doors, and a friendly smile led me to the house of a Mormon family, who just moved into the town a day ago.

Elena, the oldest of five, grew up in the LDS church, and have carefully and thoughtfully studied the Scriptures. They prayed before dinner, and Elena led scripture reading at night, before the parents returned home. The youngest daughter, around 5 years old, probably didn't understand everything, but she did remember the scripture was talking about "trees and fruit."

I think it is a blessing for a young person to grow up with a tradition, spiritual or cultural. She/he could challenge, or even rebel against the tradition later on in life, but it is very beneficial to have a platform from which to step off. Especially when the tradition is a true one. The Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and other spiritual classics, are the springs of wisdom, nourishing the souls that seek light.

Listening to the Book of Mormon over the past few days, this Book rings true to me -- true in the sense that it inspires good in people. Now, I have just conveniently substituted the definition of "truth" by the definition of "good." What is "good"? Is it as simple as treating your neighbors like you'd like to be treated yourself?

After the Scripture reading, Elena and I had a two-hour-long conversation, started by her question, "What is Truth?" Elena said, this is the question that Pilate ask Jesus before his Crucifixion. It is also the question that led Joseph Smith, the Prophet, to ask God for wisdom to know truth. It is also the question that has troubled and inspired seekers throughout the centuries.

Elena so positioned the Mormon church: from the Crucifixion of Christ arose Catholicism; from the decay of Catholicism arose the Reformation; from the inadequacies of the Reformation arose the Restoration, by Joseph Smith, which created the Mormon church. Having grown up in the church, Elena questions how much of her faith is just due to her upbringing and social pressure around her. She questions how the church constrain the role of woman. It is very refreshing and inspiring to meet someone seeking truth on her own, instead of choosing the easy path of conformity. Lifelong devotion to reading the Scriptures have brought wisdom beyond the years, not dogmatic repetition.

Throughout this journey, as I listened to the spiritual canons of the Abrahamic traditions, I have three constant questions. How do we know truth? How do we compare my truth to your truth? Can truth and an institution co-exist? We will look at each of these questions.

First, how do we know truth? By what do we judge? Gary, the wise friend I met in Salt Lake, said he seeks truth both intellectually and spiritually, using both mind and heart.

Suppose that intellectual truth means Reason. To satisfy the Reason, we usually require internal logical consistency (not self-contradictory), and empirical explanatory and predictive power (could explain the past and predict the future). However, we know that Reason has its limit, and would collapse under its own weight. Gödel's incompleteness theorems are good examples.

Spiritual truth are even more personal. Descartes wondered out loud, in his Meditations, that what he thought were true might be just deceptions of the evil demons in his head. Historically, great atrocities have been committed by those who know for sure that they possess the truth.

Even if I know truth, can I say that my truth is truer than yours? That is the second questions, on comparing different traditions, and on tolerance. We might all possess kernels of truth. But is one more wholesome than another? Who should be the arbitrator?

Third, even if we know the absolute truth, we usually need an institution to preserve and promote the truth. But then, the institution takes on a life of its own, and morphs from a "means to an end" to "an end" in itself. The paradox of truth and institution drives much of the human history.

Within a religious institution, there are often much mysticism. Is it possible that the religious myths are invented to assist the weak-minded, who could not accept the teachings on face value, but would require the convincing of miracles? They ask for a signs from heaven, or "tempt God." But nobody believes that they are weak-minded.

The bike journey has not answered any of these questions, but only heightened the awareness of them, and brought more humility.

There is the philosophical interlude of the chronological report.

On August 16th, continued to bike through the gorgeous desert.

Human settlements gradually return to the land.

I followed the Pony Express Trail into Fallon, NV, almost at the edge of the Nevada deserts.

On the road, I saw another biker come from the West, enjoying a strong tail wind. He is a mathematics student from Germany. As he saw the black-red-yellow stripes on my shirt, we started to chat in German, making both feeling a little nostalgic. Later on in a San Francisco bike shop, I met a father and son from Germany, biking in the US, too. I wonder why there are more Germans than any other Europeans biking in the US? Could it be that the rest of the Europeans are back home suffering austerity?

Ever since Denver, the warning of many friends have finally materialized: the West Wind! Almost everyday, I would face strong headwind, sometimes so strong that I don't feel safe biking on the road. Well, it could be worse. At least it's not raining. I did not see a drop of rain from Denver all the way to the Nevada-California border.

That evening, a family let me camp in their beautiful yard, and invited me to join them for dinner. For the first time since Salt Lake, there was no prayer before dinner, and no Scripture reading before bed. It made me suddenly realize how much I miss those prayers, readings, and family oriented activities. It's important to feed the spirit and nourish the family connections. These traditions are by no means Mormon-only or intrinsically religious, but they seems to be ignored in much of the modern societies.

On the 17th, biked along the desert highway into Carson City.

I knocked on a door, and the host Jim asked to see my IDs. After verifying my legitimacy, I was warmly welcomed into their home, and was fed dinner. But Jim also asked to make a copy of my driver's license. This mixture of trust and caution was almost confusing.

Starting from Carson City, I started to exit the mighty deserts of Utah and Nevada. Some might find the desert boring, but I can't see enough of it. Could look at it the whole day long, and still wants more. It puts you in touch with your inner-world.

On the 18th, climbed the last big mountains of this journey: the Sierra Nevada mountains.

On a small, nameless, road, I crossed into California. Having nothing better to celebrate the occasion, I peed at the sign post to mark my entrance.

Rose up to around 8,000 feet elevation, the temperature dropped drastically. At around 6pm, I was cold and hungry, and sees only high, pine trees, and no doors to knock on.

There was a small, primitive campsite next to Caples Lake on top of the mountains. I rolled in, and went up to a camper. In desperation, I asked if I could lay down my sleeping bag next to their camper. Paul and Barbara was very kind. They let me camp next to them, and ask me if I need food. I was down to my last can of chicken. So they let me have their left-over rice, and I warmed it up with the 12 oz of canned chicken. What a warm, tasty meal! Hunger is the best spice.

After I recovered the body heat and blood sugar level, I went to the camp manager to ask if there is any place to shower. They heated up half a gallon of water in a bucket. I went behind a fence and washed off critical areas with that precious bucket of warm water. It felt so good, and helped to keep the record that throughout this entire journey, I've had a shower every night, one way or another.

Went up the granite hill, sat on a big piece of rock to relax and marvel at the beautiful lake.

At many points during the trip, I can't help but ask myself: Why am I doing this? Why make yourself so miserable? But soon enough, I would realize, every time, that I would gladly do it again, or bike for another year, across any part of the world. No regret.

After a good night sleep, the next day, the 19th, recorded the single biggest elevation drop in one day, from around 8,000 feet to less than 1,000 feet.

The KR White Dragon Horse took one last look of the Sierra Nevadas.

He sadly turned his head the other way, reluctant to leave the wilderness, knowing that from here on, it would be a gradual re-entry into Man's territory.

The Horse and I would miss the wilderness every day and night, and hear her constant beckoning. From the Rockies to the Sierra Nevadas, this was my favorite part of the trip. From mountains to deserts, to mountains, along the "Loneliest Highway in America."

Cruising through the pine forest, I dipped my nose and soaked my lungs in the heavenly smell of the trees.

Trees of any respectable size have disappeared from the view ever since the western side of the Rockies. When they re-appeared, they are suddenly so much taller.

Downhill, downhill...

As the elevation dropped, I felt rain for the first time in weeks. It was such a happy occasion that, instead of putting on rain jacket, I stuck out my tongue, to catch the sweet rain drops.

That night, after knocking on a few doors, a generous family took me in, and invited me to the famous burger place for dinner, and had a great chat. Such serendipitous encounters, made possible by kindness and trust, are a blessing for both side.

On the 20th, biked along mostly established bike lane, toward the "bike capital of the world," Davis. The scenery along the way reminded me of the first day of this bike trip -- coming full circle. Like a summer day picnic outing.

With turkeys patrolling the bike lane, make sure no one is speeding.

Finished listening to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, both in its teachings and in the plot and characters, are very similar to the Old Testament. In fact, from listening to these canons one after another, it felt like, to this unsophisticated student of religions, that the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Quran, are essentially the same book, whereas the New Testament takes a quite radical departure from all the other three.

Alexandra welcomed me in Davis under a 2-hour short notice, cooked a healthy stir fry for dinner, and let me stay in the master room, while exiling herself onto the living room couch. Very grateful for her hospitality and sacrifice!

Alexandra also helped to captured this image, before the art work fades away. The skin is a great canvas for the creative sun.

The next day, August 21st, was the last day of the trip. Biking through orchards, vineyard, and fields, into the busier and busier West coast cities. Strong headwind seemed to remind me that the last step is never easy. Just when you think you are almost there...

Along the way, I recalled the journey in my mind, retracing the route, remembering the faces of people, the colors of the mountains, the shapes of the clouds. I can vividly remember the conversations, debates, and internal struggles.

From Vallejo, I took a ferry across the San Francisco Bay. Saw the Golden Gate Bridge, piercing through the fog.

And arrived at the famous port.

Had a big smile on my face as I biked through the busy streets of San Francisco. Smartly dressed young people zipped by me on their colorful bikes. People were hurrying from place to place, and filling the cracks of time with their smartphones. Everyone looked self-assured and preoccupied. I was reminded of Chapter 20 in Lao Zi (or Lao Tzu, or the Dao De Jing.)

The city hums along, and away. There was almost too much stimuli, numbing the senses. The silent deserts of Nevada stimulated me, too, but they heightened my senses, not numbing them. In the city, I felt part of my senses shutting down, and another sets of senses opening up.

When it is so loud and distracting around you, how can you hear the whisper of the spirits, and the voices within?

Of course, the last few feet of the journey would be the steepest of the entire trip. At least 30% grade, if not 45 degree angle.

Arrived at the final destination around 6pm. Hard to believe the trip is over. I was almost ready to sleep one night, and rode back to Massachusetts. Physically, and mentally, I could, and am willing to do this for the next year and beyond. But, the journey also taught me, you don't have to be on a bike to keep riding. Life is a big fun bike ride.

The life of living out of four pannier bags would be put on hold for a few months, at least.

At the door step of the new home, I felt peace. Surprised that I wasn't at all emotional. Just joy, calmness, and peace. I know that I have found something important from within.

The journey never ends, just as it hasn't yet begun.


Anonymous said...

you are awesome!

matt yu said...


Anonymous said...

Congratulations! What an amazing adventure. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed your final post. You are a very thoughtful person. Best of luck to you.

Sharyne said...

You made it, yay! Congratulations, I am so happy and proud of you, Zilong! You must now put your journey and photos in a book! Now you can relax a bit.

eoin said...

Glad you arrived safely, I talked to you on June 13th in upstate NY and followed your blog. A really momentous achievement....continued good luck.


Lisa said...

congrats zilong! best for u from Germany!

karen thompson said...

congratulations, Zilong! What a wonderful diary of your summer trip. I loved all your philosophizing and wish you wonderful months in San Francisco. We are so glad to have been some of the many who hosted you and will never forget your enthusiasm for life - Karen and Bill Thompson, Bowling Green, Ohio

Muki and Jesse said...

Somehow, dear zilong, you have managed to transfer a bit of that desert peace and expansive awareness to me through your words. thank you for that. i really will miss your presence at hampshire when the winds blow me back that way.

Anonymous said...

great trip, you're an excellent writer!

Carl said...

This was a truly inspiring blog to read thru. I am glad to see there are others of my ancestry who have a sense of humor.