Cross Country Motorcycle Trip Four! Abandonment to Divine Providence.

On May 12, the Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, Big Red, my 2004 Harley Road King Classic, and I’ll be heading out on another cross country trip. My first primary destination will be Los Angeles where I’ll be attending my daughter’s college graduation. After that, all bets are off.

In my motorcycle novel, Hope Bats Last, the protagonist talks about abandoning himself to fate, to divine providence and seeing where he ends up. So when I leave LA, instead of having a route planned I’m going to try and listen to the signs and portents and discern my direction. Signs might come through a suggestion of a passerby at a convenience store, a dream, a detour, maybe just a feeling that I should take that road. No, not that road, that road.

You can put whatever name you want on where that mysterious guidance comes from. Is it Fate? Destiny? The Universe speaking? Is it the Tao? Wu wei? Is it the Zen Buddhist idea of living in the present? Is it Hegel’s the infinite unfolding of itself? Or is it God (as you may believe)?

The best description I ever heard of this process comes from Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s, an eighteenth century French Jesuit priest and writer, who folks believe wrote the book, Abandonment to Divine Providence.

“In the state of abandonment the only rule is the duty of the present moment. In this the soul is light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, active as a ball in receiving and following all the inspirations of grace. Such souls have no more consistence and rigidity than molten metal. As this takes any form according to the mould into which it is poured, so these souls are pliant and easily receptive of any form that God chooses to give them. In a word, their disposition resembles the atmosphere, which is affected by every breeze; or water, which flows into any shaped vessel exactly filling every crevice. They are before God like a perfectly woven fabric with a clear surface; and neither think, nor seek to know what God will be pleased to trace thereon, because they have confidence in Him, they abandon themselves to Him, and, entirely absorbed by their duty, they think not of themselves, nor of what may be necessary for them, nor of how to obtain it.”

It’s kind of a mixture of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and mystical Christianity, but on a motorcycle.

I’ll keep you posted.

Day 15: Where to Now?

Day 15: Where to Now?

Getting to Alaska was only my first goal of this trip. The next part is to ride down to LA to visit my daughter, son and son-in-law. To achieve that I’ve got to travel roughly 2000 more miles (3200 kms) which will take me another 6-7 days, depending on what happens. And this journey has to be about what happens or it’s no journey at all. Robert Louis Stevenson said: To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. I believe that boy was onto something. Still, I’m not sure about the ‘hopeful’ bit. If it’s hope in the sense that something better is coming then it would mean you’re living for the future. If it’s ‘hopefully’, in that you believe you have to ride in the present, appreciate every moment, trust in your ‘higher power’ (Seriously? Who wants to trust in a lower power?) then I’m with that great creator of Treasure Island. Trusting your higher power, as Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence, is the only way to ride through life. Of course, it does help to have a fistful of American and Canadian Dollars with you too!

So, I’m getting ready to continue this journey with an idea of my destination in mind, but no sure plans as to my route. Just going to try and trust in being guided, someway, somehow. It’s the letting go that’s the challenge.

Omens and Divine Providence: Part Two.

The last time I wrote I was in Blowing Rock, North Carolina getting ready to head back up onto the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. I did so and rode her north for another 50 miles or so until I couldn’t stand it anymore. The poet Keats said that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Keats had never ridden on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After about 200 miles on her she had lost her glow for me. Too many curves, a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour and frankly, you can admire only just so many damn trees. I stopped at an exit, highway 18, where there was a surreal motorcycle campground and country store. I stopped to get a drink and to reconnoiter the place (It had a life sized fake stuffed bear with arrows in its head in a yellow cage out front.) When I pulled over a man told me that the shop was closed and then launched into a discussion on politics. He was a member of the John Birch Society and outlined his views. He said he was voting for Donald Trump. I’m not into political discussions. They polarize people too fast and soon we start reacting to people as if they are some label rather than a person, a human being with dignity. Democrat, Socialist, Republican, Unionist, Nationalist – insert the political view of your choice. Mother Theresa said that if we’re busying judging people we can’t be busy loving them. I don’t do politics. We ended up having a nice friendly conversation about motorcycles.
After consulting my map it appeared to me quite clearly that I was in the middle of nowhere. I double checked with the map system on my phone which informed me that it could suggest no route for me to Fredericksburg, Virginia. Made me think of some dialogue from the movie The Quiet Man. “So it’s Inishfree you’re wanting to get to.” “That’s right.” “Well, I wouldn’t start out from here.”
It’s worrisome when your map system offers you no way out of your location. It’s sort of like a Twilight Zone episode where you drive out of a town only to find that after a few miles you’re reentering the same town. I knew Fredericksburg was east and north so I headed that way. Eventually, I came to Wilkesboro and hopped on 421 to Winston Salem. Then I got on I-40, followed by I-85 and then I-95. By the time I hit Richmond, Virginia it was dusk, the sky a bruised peachy grey. The last 55 miles to Fredericksburg were a lot of fun. It started pouring rain, it was dark, headlights from cars on I-95 south flashed in my eyes. Cars were whipping past me doing about 80 mph on their way to Armageddon. My windshield and my eyeglasses were mottled and smudged with rain drops and I had to lean to the side of my windscreen so I could look around it and spot the tire gators (bits of broken truck tires) and discarded car parts lurking in the shadows of the road. Yeah that was fun. But I finally made it there around 10 pm (I’d left at 11am), 430 miles for the day. Thankfully, my old friend Kevin Grigsby had a cold pilsner waiting for me. Okay, maybe two.

Omens and Divine Providence: A Different Motorcycle GPS

I am writing this in a cafe, down a flower and fern filled alley in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Need to hit the road soon but for now I feel like lingering over coffee, and the overhearing of soft, but succinct, North Carolina accents.The accents always make me think of  “Andy of Mayberry”, and my Aunt Pearl who was from Raleigh.  There’s a horse show in town and so the population is filled with graceful young women wearing riding trousers, with fresh natural complexions and perfect postures. I wander around slightly bent from riding, wearing my bulky riding trousers and my Belfast Northern Ireland Harley Tee shirt. I don’t receive much prolonged eye contact.

I’ve been trying to open myself to omens and Divine Providence on this trip, accepting somehow that things will work out, will happen for a reason. I want to see what it’s like to not have expectations, not get frustrated. Hard to get frustrated when things don’t go your way when you don’t care which way they go. I stop at Hardees in Adairsville and get a breakfast biscuit. They give me the wrong one. I start to take it back then I remember I’m trusting how things go, so I sit back and just enjoy eating it. Back on the bike later and somehow I miss the turnoff to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn around? Nah, I’ll just keep going. I know I’ll cross it again up ahead. Finally, I see another sign and take it and see directions to the Bat Cave. Holy surprise Batman! But I don’t go that way. I head the direction of the parkway. In a short time I’m on the parkway and it’s magnificent. I don’t know if you’ve been on it before but imagine a road that travels along mountain ridges, craggy rock ledges, gaps, valleys, forests and meadows with no traffic lights, gas stations, restaurants, or stop signs for 469 miles, from northern Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. (You can exit the parkway for gas and lodging and something to eat.) It is amazing. And accompanying you are incredible mixes in colors from the Rhododendrons, Black Eyed Susans, Oxeye Daisies, Wild Hydrangea, Queen’s Anne’s Lace (Lowly named Cow Parsely In Ireland!) and other purple and scarlet wild flowers.

The highest point we rode through was the Richland Balsam Overlook, weighing in at a mere 6,047 feet! Can you just imagine the views from there of the rolling mountains with clouds drifting through them? Or can you remember a time when you were surrounded by the alluring scent of fir, spruce and pine? Well, that was me. Thankful and grateful, even when the rain came a calling. The only drawback to the parkway is that the speed limit is only 45 mph, which on some of the curvy stretches was just fine. Around 5 pm (I had started at 7:45 am) I was tired and needed a place to hunker down and walk around some. I took the next exit which turned out to be Blowing Rock. It’s a beautiful place with a great old country town main street full of shops, restaurants, pubs and a park. I stopped and walked around. I could smell the incredible scent of someone making candy. I could hear the clanging of horseshoes in the park and saw folks sitting on benches eating ice cream. This felt like the right place to stop. Now, where to stay? I walked around some more, glanced down a side road and saw a place called the Hemlock Motel. Hemlock, of course, is what my hero Socrates drank for his punishment for being found guilty of corrupting the youth, encouraging them to think for themselves. Hemlock is also one of my favorite literary poisons! Literary, not literally! They had a room at a fair price, so Big Red and I set up camp there for the night. Great place. Later, I went for a walk around the town and found the Six Pence Pub, coincidentally a sister pub to the one I used to frequent in Savannah, Georgia. A cold pint of Harp beer did the trick rightly. Then I walked back to the Hemlock Motel, making absolutely sure I corrupted no youth on the way home!

Trusting Your Journey: Part One; Why do Bad Things Happen to Good Motorcyclists? Abandonment to Divine Providence? Why Are You Reading This Now? Caution: This blog entry contains spiritual questions. Enter at your own risk.

What does it mean to “Trust Your Journey”? I’m not sure I really know. Every time I try to describe it I get muddled down in motorcycle metaphysics. It starts as a nice ride down a well maintained street then after a while I hit potholes and gravel. To fellow Christians, Trusting Your Journey might mean: Trust in God. Muslims certainly preach it. And so does Judaism. If you are a Taoist it means trusting the flow of the Tao. Buddhism believes in living in the here and now. I’m sure most religions believe in the idea. But what does it really mean? Trust your journey and good things will happen to you? Nah, we know better. I bought a friend a beer the other day and told her she could buy me one someday when I’m destitute. She said: God won’t let you get that way if you trust Him. My response was: Why not? Maybe that’s what God has in mind for me. I asked her: Yeah, well how come bad things happen to good motorcyclists? –A question that every motorcyclist asks at some point or another in their riding career.
There have been a number of books out on the subject of why bad things happen to good people.
Two spiritual classics that have influenced me over the years are called: The Cloud of Unknowing and Abandonment to Divine Providence. Essentially the first one says, and here’s a quote from Wikipedia, “The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.” The second one, this time from Amazon, says God is to be found in the simplest of our daily activities and especially through total surrender to whatever is His will for each of us. That is the message of this 18th-century inspirational classic by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Its encouragement to “live in the present moment,” accepting everyday obstacles with faith, humility and love…”
A more modern version can be seen in the words of the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor:
“There is a sense in which if I will trust that what comes to me is for me (now that’s the hugest faith statement I can make to you), if I will trust that what comes to me in my life is for me and not against me… what I find is that it breaks my idols, that it breaks my isolation, that it challenges my sense of independence, it does all kinds of things for me that I would not willingly do, that are for me, that are for my health.”
So essentially, let me see if I have this right- I have to believe that the bad things that happen to me are really, essentially good for me? Yeah, right. Tell that to Job from the Hebrew Bible. God totally wrecked his motorcycle journey. And this motorcycle problem I’m having now? How is it good for me? Well, it did throw off my schedule yesterday and caused me to be places where I probably wasn’t going to be. I met some interesting folks last night that I probably wouldn’t have met. It caused me to stay an extra night in Destin.

I do try to abandon myself to divine providence when I ride. My destinations are never absolutely fixed. The only GPS I use is a spiritual one. And most of the time I’m not sure I’m picking up the signal. I get lost a lot. If I like the look of a road or the direction it’s heading I’ll take it. Which explains to some degree why I ended up crossing the Mississippi River 5 times last year when 1 would have done rightly. And why it took me 18 days last summer to make it from Georgia to California by way of Sturgis, South Dakota. I was trusting the journey, trusting Divine Providence, trusting what happened to me. It can feel downright spooky to let go of so much.
And it can be mind boggling. For instance, what set of weird circumstances brought you here right now to read this blog? Or me to write it? Heck I was getting ready to walk down to the Hog Breath’s Saloon when something told me to stop and write this now. I would really rather being having a beer right now, thank you very much.
Okay. I need to write more about this but first I’m going to go get that beer. What are you going to do?

Concluding Thoughts About My Journey

Reflections on My Journey
I spent 24 days on the road, covered over 6700 miles and crossed 18 states. A personal accomplishment for me but many people have ridden much longer and farther than I have. The record apparently goes to Emilio Scotto from Argentina. He holds the Guinness record for the world’s longest motorcycle ride: 10 years, 279 countries and a total distance of 457,000 miles (735,000 km).

So what did I learn?
I don’t know about you but I can easily get lost in ruminations about the past or worries about the future. I have some great memories and some tragic ones. But these worries and memories often rob me of enjoying the present moment. What has helped me over the years has been to try and develop “mindfulness” which is a practice anyone can do. It’s not owned by any particular religion and is no more ‘new age’ than sliced bread. My sister uses it with a cancer group that she runs. It helps the patients let go of their worries and embrace the holiness of their remaining moments.
I have tried to practice the concept of mindfulness when I ride.

Mindfulness – The Chinese character 念 is composed of two parts, the top 今 meaning “now; this” and the bottom 心 signifying “heart; mind”. Beautiful! I’ve included a good quote about mindfulness, and how to practice it, at the bottom of this entry.

So here are some things I discovered, or rediscovered.
1. That silence can be holy and healing. It’s strange to call it silence when you’re riding a 1400 cc bike with a thunderous V twin engine and you can hear its constant staccato hum. But after a while the hum sounds more like a hymn, your holy hymn and you settle into it. There’s a sense of peacefulness and patience. You’re riding through different states but mainly traveling in the state of gratitude.

2. That you have to trust the journey. Whether you believe in God, Mohammed, Taoism or whatever, most of us have a belief that there is some meaning in our lives, that things happen, good and bad, for a reason, which we may never understand. We’re on a journey and our lives have some purpose. But we also have to let go of the illusion that we have power and control over the most important things. It was hard to resist the temptation of planning how many miles I would do each day, where I would stay, what roads I would take. Hard not to use the GPS. As much as I could I tried to “abandon myself to Divine providence” (Similar to that recommended in the book by the great Christian mystic Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence). Of course this resulted in me getting lost a lot, like crossing the Mississippi five times when one would have been sufficient! But If I hadn’t gotten lost then I wouldn’t have taken the ferry ride across the river with the kind and generous, young river boat captain (who gave me half a tank of gas as I was about to run out) who told me about his life. Which leads me to the next realization.

3. Getting lost is good for you. I love what Barbara Brown Taylor says: “If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life’s big winds knocks you clean off your course? I am not speaking literally here, although literal lostness is a good place to begin since the skills are the same: managing your panic, marshaling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you.” Lost is the new found.

4. Riding solo was not as bad as I had imagined. I’ll confess to some fear before I left thinking about heading out on my own. What if the bike broke down in the middle of nowhere? I am almost completely incompetent when it comes to doing any mechanical repairs. If it involves anything more than spit, juicy fruit, and the Lord’s Prayer then I am out of luck. What if I had an accident? What if I got lonely? I certainly missed my riding buddy Jeff, and phoned him a few times, but being on my own was actually exhilarating. I could chat as long as I wanted with folks. No destination, no hurry. And I managed to survive without any major mishaps. The trip built up my confidence and sense of self-reliance. Still, in the back of my mind I knew that if I broke down some kind-hearted soul would stop to help me.

5. The people you meet. I went through some amazing landscapes, crossing the Mississippi, the Continental Divide, visiting the Devil’s Tower, slaloming along river hugging roads in South Dakota and Colorado, the seemingly endless holy, sacred deserts of Arizona and Texas; it was all incredible. I thought a lot about God, faith, my mortality and the capriciousness of nature. But the profoundest impact on me came from the people I met and the stories they shared. I’ve recounted most of these in the blog. It is amazing what people will share with strangers, the winsome stories of their hopes, heartaches and struggles; and the strange coincidences that have occurred in their lives, as have in ours, which brought us all to where we are now. (And, of course, as someone said, coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous.) But to hear new stories we have to take the risk of treading down new paths.

6. The thoughts you have. The trip provided me with a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. Through deep breathing, especially after I almost hit the buck, (“Breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile”) I was able to stay calm and not overreact to events or bothersome thoughts. I was able to practice letting go of the past and worries about the future and to concentrate on the present. I don’t have this problem conquered yet, but I know what to do about it. God, the universe, can only reach us in the present.

7. Lean into the curves that life throws at you. Don’t overreact, or over control, run away from or pull back from them. You have to go through them, experience them, understand their message to you as best you can and trust that you will make it safely through them. And you will.

8. Try out new roads. We need to experiment with new roads, new paths that take us out of our comfort zone. There’s an old saying that some people prefer the security of misery to the misery of insecurity. We need to abandon the old roads and paths that aren’t working for us and have the courage, and trust, to blaze new ones. Sure, we’ll be insecure for a while but new destinations and treasures are just up the road. Relax and enjoy the ride.

9. Look where you want to go. Some of the best motorcycle advice I ever read is encapsulated in these words. Don’t focus so much on the problem at hand, focus on the solution. If you keep staring at a ditch you’re heading towards you’re likely end up in it. Instead, look where you want to go. Bikers are advised to look at where they want the bike to go, the clear, safe space up ahead, and the bike will go there. It has always worked for me, when I remember it. Have a vision of where you want to go, instead of dwelling on all the obstacles.

10. Don’t forget to gas up. Just because you’re on a journey doesn’t mean you stop thinking and planning. Rest stops on the highway and in life can be few and far between, with the amenities being abundant or sparse. And there are a lot of deserts out there. A whole lot of deserts. Trust your journey but make sure to take care of yourself and your ride.

11. Gratitude on your journey is your best companion. Within a few moments after heading off on any ride I begin to become overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude: To be alive, to have the friends and family that I do, to be on this incredible motorcycle, to feel the wind in my face, the smells, the sounds. I’m not special or unique. All of us have a tremendous amount to be grateful for. I’ve heard it said that at every moment we have everything we need to be happy. It’s our illusions that tell us that we can only be happy when we have ”this” happen, whatever “this” is –money, new job, new town, new relationship. Mindfulness and gratitude help bring us into an appreciation of the sacred moments our journey is taking us through.

What are you grateful for in your life?

Thanks for riding along. Hope you enjoyed it.

“Mindfulness is the quality and power of mind that is aware of what’s happening — without judgment and without interference. It is like a mirror that simply reflects whatever comes before it. It serves us in the humblest ways, keeping us connected to brushing our teeth or having a cup of tea. It keeps us connected to the people around us, so that we’re not simply rushing by them in the busyness of our lives.
We can start the practice of mindfulness meditation with the simple observation and feeling of each breath. Breathing in, we know we’re breathing in; breathing out, we know we’re breathing out. It’s very simple, although not easy. After just a few breaths, we hop on trains of association, getting lost in plans, memories, judgments and fantasies.
This habit of wandering mind is very strong, even though our reveries are often not pleasant and sometimes not even true. As Mark Twain so aptly put it, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” So we need to train our minds, coming back again and again to the breath, simply beginning again.
Slowly, though, our minds steady and we begin to experience some space of inner calm and peace. This environment of inner stillness makes possible a deeper investigation of our thoughts and emotions. What is a thought— that strange, ephemeral phenomenon that can so dominate our lives? When we look directly at a thought, we see that it is little more than nothing. Yet when it is unnoticed, it wields tremendous power.
Notice the difference between being lost in a thought and being mindful that we’re thinking. Becoming aware of the thought is like waking up from a dream or coming out of a movie theater after being absorbed in the story. Through mindfulness, we gradually awaken from the movies of our minds.”
~ Joseph Goldstein ~