Three-Thousand-Mile Reflections

What used to seem overwhelming, now seems not even a challenge. That's when you know you have grown. At least, now I can proudly say that I know how to use a can-opener, or to cook pasta.

Less than three months ago, I was finding grocery shopping more challenging than speech writing, and was wondering how to navigate my way even to the next town.

The learning and reflections from this 3,000-mile bike journey goes beyond canned tuna and angel-hair pasta. The lessons will continue to sink in and ferment in my heart. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, made by possible by nothing less than all the people whose paths crossed mine. Their curiosity, encouragement, generosity, trust, and good wishes matter more than the prevailing wind. Thank you, comrades.

Here are some fun facts from the trip.

  • Knocked on the doors of over 400 strangers, asking if I could camp in their backyard. On average, one in five says yes. Of those who say yes, over half of them eventually let me sleep inside (on the couch, on the floor, or in the guest bed), and three quarter of them would feed me dinner or breakfast. 
  • Stayed with around 60 different families whom I didn't know, across the country. 
  • Met three men who were walking across the US, and nearly ten people who were biking across the US -- three of them are German university students. 
  • Finished listening to the Bible, the QuranMoby Dick, and the Book of Mormon, on audio book.
  • Did not use pedal clips, cleats, or bike shoes. Just normal sandals on $10 plastic, flat pedals. Worked great!
  • Highest speed: 51 miles per hour, going down the emergency lane of freeway I-80, outside of Salt Lake City.
  • Highest temperature: 117 degree F, in Eastern Colorado.
  • Highest altitude: 11,307 feet, Berthoud Pass, in the Rockies.
  • Largest single-day drop in elevation: 7,000 feet, coming down from the Sierra Nevadas.
  • Crossed the continental divide 3 times.
  • Have been able to find a shower each and every day throughout the trip, one way or another. I have never showered so persistently in my life -- just to prevent any saddle sore. 
  • Had no biking related accident or injury. Worst injury was slipping on stairs in someone's home.
  • I did not lock my bike once during the entire trip. I left the bike in front of supermarkets, stores, museums, and nobody touched it. Would never do this in a city. 
  • Did not use my bear spray, pistol or hand grenade. Just kidding. I didn't bring any of those. A friendly smile was more than sufficient. 

  • Here is the map of the whole trip. Each bubble represent the family I stayed with that night. But more importantly, each bubble represents the kindness people all along the way have shown and shared with me. The people are the absolute highlight of the entire trip.

    View Bridge on Two Wheels in a larger map

    The past two and a half months have been so much fun that I can't wait to do it again. Maybe, the next trip would be to bike across China, to re-familiarize with the homeland.

    Would like to share some lessons learned, and inspiration gained.

    1. Focus on one day at a time.

    Days before the departure, I found the logistics of a long tour daunting. Seeing my anxiety, Earl told me, "Just focus on one day at a time." This is the single best advice I received. Biking for one day is not hard to do, for anyone. When you look at a single day, it almost seems boring and mundane: pack food, wash clothes, grease the bike chain...

    There is a story about meditation. The disciple asked the meditation master how long he has been meditating in his life. The master responded, "Since this morning."

    2. Everyday, move West a little. Never turn back.

    Each small step is insignificant. It becomes meaningful when you add a thousand steps toward one direction. There are times when I don't see the point, or feel quite grumpy. But to achieve any goal, half of the things I need to do might seem petty, grinding, or even irrelevant. That's when I need to have faith. As long as you know that you are on the right direction, it is OK even if you see no light for the time being.

    Without any exaggeration, I promise that any healthy person could bike across the US -- if they want to. "Where there is a will, there is a way."

    3. Listen to others. Also, don't listen to others.

    There is a lot of wisdom in common wisdom. Inquire locally. Pay attention to the mistakes and experiences of the other. That will save a lot of pain. But, if that's the only thing I do, I won't get anywhere, or have any fun.

    4. Spirituality requires discipline.

    "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience." We have a good discipline (driven by hunger) of feeding our human body, but not so rigorous when it comes to feeding the spirit. This journey has taught me the importance and benefit of nourishing the spirit, the soul, not just the body and the intellect.

    Listening to the Bible, the Quran and the Book of Mormon during this trip has helped establish a daily spiritual cleansing and reflection. It brings us back to the fundamental questions of good and evil, of purpose and meaning, of life and death. It nudges us to seek truth. It reminds us what is worth living and working for.

    5. Self-deception

    In the long solitary ride, you are the only audience of yourself. The degree of self-deception in us is more dangerous than any lying to others. The thing is, when we lie to others, we know we are lying. But in the abyss of self-deception, we aren't even aware of the lies we tell.

    More than to anyone else, we put on a good show for ourselves to see, because we are the ones needing the assurance the most. Solitude, nature, and contemplation are great antidote to our incessant orgy of self-deception.

    If we have to adopt an honor code, let us not fool ourselves by promising never to lie to others, but to humbly try to lie less to ourselves.

    6. We don't need that much stuff. Especially when you have to haul all of it yourself.

    At the beginning of the trip, having zero bike touring experience, I over-packed, and drove this cargo train.

    For the next three thousand miles, I kept downsizing. By the time I finally minimized my gears, even four pannier bags seems too much.

    After 1,000 miles, I realized that part of the problem was that I gave myself too much space by having a trailer. We have the tendency of filling up whatever space we have with stuff. So, I traded the trailer for the panniers. That also changed the question I ask myself about packing. Beforehand, I was asking, "Would I need this item?" (The answer is usually yes.) Now, with limited space, I ask, "Can I survive without this item?" (The answer is usually yes, also.)

    Downsizing is a liberating process. You'd be amazed at how little stuff you need to be happy and free. A good reminder to keep in the city.

    7. Have faith in humanity.

    Going across the country, the number of bad people I've encountered is ZERO. Sure, some are less helpful or friendly than others. But I have not met a single person that was malicious or meant harm. Almost always, people would go out of their way to help me, and open up their homes and hearts to the foreign traveler.

    Also, it seems that being religious, or belonging to a particular tradition, is not a prerequisite of human kindness. Generosity and compassion are universal. But I do notice a deep impact of religions on inspiring good in people.

    8. The role of religion.

    One key aspect of this journey, is to experience the religious diversity in this country, and to observe religion's impact on individuals, families, and communities.

    I am amazed at the central role religions play in the United States, especially compared to China. Religions help to build individual characters, family bond, and community unity. Church, prayer, scripture reading are a central part of many people's life. Especially in the rural area, or in smaller towns, the church is the center of community life.

    Many people I've stayed with have explicitly attributed their willingness to host me to their faith.

    "Love ye therefore the strangers, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:19)

    "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels." (Hebrews 13:2)

    And from what I can see, people's life are all the richer and more meaningful because of their faiths.

    Granted that, over the years, as religious institutions decay, "religions" might have created as many problems as it has solved. Superstition, fundamentalism, and crusades have plagued the human history.

    However, in modern societies' attempt to throw away the backward shackles of religious institutions, we might have also done some "collateral damage" to the precious teachings and valuable traditions, refined over thousands of years, and proven effected in inspiring good and preventing evil.

    Can we distill the core teachings of religions, and present them in a non-denominational form? Can we teach the simple, universal values of respect, humility, tolerance, compassion and love in a way that does not offend any existing religion?

    Buddha taught that his teachings are like boats for us to cross the river. The point is to cross the river, not to hang on to the boat. If various religions are different ways to cross the same River of Life, why should we fight over which boat is the right, supreme boat, and sink each other before we even get half way across the river?

    Looking back at China, I see that China is in an period of spiritual vacuum and moral confusion. This state of affairs usually comes with the breaking of the old, and the making of the new. Historically, China is a very spiritual nation, with vibrant religious diversity.

    Confucius said about the spirits, gods, and the unknown, "Respect, but keep a distance." The current official attitude in China toward religions might have inherited Marx's "opium of the masses" tagline. But people would always seek the ultimate peace, once their worldly needs are met.

    I know that my experiences are too shallow, and wisdom too weak to untangle such grand puzzles. So I hope to continue being a humble and curious student of the mystery of life.

    (With this post, I conclude the blogging from the bike journey across the United States. This blog will turn back into a journal of personal observations and reflections, as it used to be, before the bike trip. Thanks to all who have paid kind and curious attention to this corner of the web.)


    Anonymous said...

    Hello Zilong, this is Real. It has been a while.

    It's quite a journey you got there.

    Are you gonna work in the US, in a consulting firm I heard?

    Todd & Kay Sieben said...

    Hi Zilong,
    We have enjoyed reading your reflections about your journey. You have learned so much & gained much wisdom to compliment your amazing intelligence. We hope we will see you again. May the next part of your journey be as rewarding as the last.
    Love & Blessings,
    Todd & Kay Sieben, Geneseo,IL

    Marlon Geller said...

    so glad i found your blog! i am planning a journey west to east and considering the same bike you have. you're a great inspiration!

    how did you get the kickstand on the bike?

    Marlon Geller said...

    one other question i had: did you use a cell phone during your journey? did you just charge it at those friendly people's homes you stayed in?

    Zilong Wang said...

    Hi Marlon, so glad to hear that you are about to embark on a trek!

    I got the kickstand at a regular bike shop - it's a reverse v-shape. Very useful, because for much of the journey, there's not much along the road to lean the bike against when you want to take a break.

    And yes, I carried a smartphone, which doubled as a camera. I charged it every night at the home of the kind hosts :)

    Best wishes to your journeys!

    Marlon Geller said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Marlon Geller said...

    Ah, very cool. I am of course overthinking everything and postponing my departure more and more trying to plan plan plan. I read what you said, to just get on the bike and go! I think it's the best advice and I have done some other adventures in the same way. But i think the west is intimidating to start out from (i'm leaving from southern CA). It seems so desolate, and also very hot. When did you do your bike journey? Summer?

    I'm also so curious what you did in wide open states like Nevada and Utah...were there ever long stretches with no services, no shade, no people for the entire day? Did you just find your own campsites somewhere in the evenings if there were no people/houses around?

    Thanks for chatting with me!

    Marlon Geller said...

    Well, I just read through your entire bike trip blog, so you needn't answer some of those questions. Truly so inspiring. Reading about your trip is what has kept my heart on track to set out on my own adventure. I will let you know if i get a blog up and running. ;)

    Zilong Wang said...

    Hi Marlon, sounds like your heart knows all the answers already, and that the universe has prepared gifts for you only you can receive, as you enter the unknown :) Best wishes, and I look forward to learning about your trek!