Riding the C&O Canal Towpath.
The last day. What a thing to write. For around two months riding this bike and carrying this load has defined my existence. I am a cycle tourist. I am riding across the country. Any eyes that have seen me have seen me in this light. Any people I have met I have met in this context. Of course there are other contexts, but being out here day after day silences those. From time to time, other topics have emerged. Washington and history have come up, religion too. But these are always somehow encased in cycling. Sometimes that is because they only can happen during breaks. Other times, because I see them as momentary diversions from the routine—an intellectual break from the internal monkey chatter of my own mind. People ask why am I doing this. I have no good answer for that. Xander had one. He could hand over a card about Dago and that established some sort of context to which non-riders could relate. The cause justifies the effort in people’s eyes, and as a result the effort makes some sense to them. Without a cause, well, the whole thing seems nuts to so many. There is a good reason why the main online information clearing house is called Crazy Guy on a Bike. We are told we are crazy in almost every conversation.
One person somewhere asked me what cause had me out here riding and I answered “Mashiach—the coming of the messiah.” I am not sure why that was my answer although it could have been the music I was listening too. There was one point outside of Larned Kansas where I was inspired by Kobi Oz to throw my arms outward to heaven and yell at the top of my lungs “Ani rotzeh Mashiach!!” (I want the messiah). For Jews, this is a call for an end to human suffering, a unity of all humanity in the same one love, and the realization of the world’s project. It is a call for perfection and resolution—and not in some individuated elsewhere out of sight afterlife that some have access to and others do not, but rather it is a single universal shared real-time real-life real-world experience. When it happens it will be all over Twitter and your Facebook friends will be sharing the news.
Ilex Beller’s “Quand le Messie Viendra” (When the Messiah Will Come).
There is nothing out-of-world or particularly extra human about Mashiach—he is a dude, a living flesh and blood guy who you can fist bump when he reveals himself and sets about fixing the ills of the world. What is more, Mashiach is not something we just throw in there—some idle cosmic thought. Maimonides enjoins us to anticipate the revelation of Mashiach–may he come speedily in our days–at every moment, to live life in the full and confident knowledge of his impending arrival. It is pushed farther. In the old days, the sentiment was that Mashiach would arrive just as things got their worst. This way, each new suffering and persecution was itself a small step towards something better, the ultimate healing that would end all suffering. We have worked that desire into a thousand daily rituals. How we hold a cup on blessing wine or how we tie our little woolen strings are all small ways to bring about Mashiach. Each time we act with kindness, say the correct blessing, or notice and rejoice in the beauty of the earth and one another we push the world a tiny bit closer to Mashiach. And when we fail to act that way, we leave work undone. Shameful. The old idea that when things got bad enough Mashiach would reveal himself sort of died in the ovens, and it is far more common to hear people now say that we ourselves have to bring about Mashiach by making the world ready for him. I like this idea quite a bit. Ghandi said “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” That has been boiled down to a false bumper sticker “be the change” faux-taion, but the message is clear. It also pretty close to what our sages and saints say about Mashiach—we need to be it, we need to make it, we need to take the steps to make Mashiach happen, and in that way, we are all part of Mashiach. So, yeah, I guess in a way Mashiach is a reason for riding, but no more so than anything else.
So the alleged craziness ends today. I stayed last night in the Harpers Ferry Hostel. I have been at the Teahorse in Boliver many times before but somehow always managed to not find the HFH. It was easy to find though and easier to be in. Great people to chat with and a chance to wash the mud from my clothes and not have mosquitoes. In the morning all I faced was an easy 60 miles and I would be at Georgetown and done. Sarah and Rami would meet me there and we would figure out what next then. I know this section of trail very well having done it several times when I was at Mount Vernon and on other tours too. The ride up to HF, a night at the Teahorse, and back in the morning made for a nice pair of back to back century rides and a nice break from research. Sometimes though, knowing a trail can make it dull. Fortunately, this section of the C&O though is by far its loveliest. The navvies worked hard to cut some lovely passes through hard stone and the result for us are some quite haunting sections. My personal favorite (and I am sure I am not alone) is just south of Great Fall where the stones limit tree growth to scrubby pines and as a result it feels almost like a mountainside in Colorado—except of course for the heat and humidity.
I jumped off the C&O at the little boat ramp and got on the paved trail that runs parallel. It is only a few short miles and I am disgorged onto a street under a high overpass and well below Georgetown street level. There are cyclists and cars everywhere and I could not remember how to get up to street level. One guy pointed out the steps at the side and the little rail they have so that you can roll up a bike. The problem for me is that the rail bang against the wall and a bike with panniers is pretty wide. So I had to lean the bike away from the wall and push. One flight. Two flights. Then I was level with the C&O again making me feel pretty foolish for going on the paved trail. Sarah and Rami were making their way over the little bridge over the canal and we all smiled a lot. I had to push the bike up two more sets of stairs and by now it was close to 5 and all of DC was rushing to get home. More pushing and I was at the Ukrainian embassy next to Francis Scott Key Park that I consider the head of the C&O trail. I reached the street pushing and not riding and like that, it was over. I suddenly stopped being a guy who was crossing the country by bike and instead became just a sweaty guy in silly clothing. In a short instant I had lost my identity. My relationship to my bike suddenly changed and tomorrow seemed less distinct.
I had arrived—but unsurprisingly few seemed to care. When Mashiach comes the world will turn. When I arrived, we had to hurry to the car and rush to strip the bike down to fit in the back. The parking spots were transforming into a traffic lane and we needed to move. As we piled panniers into the back and pulled the wheels from the muddy frame a traffic cop came over to remind us of the obvious. “Lady! We are doing it now!” I exclaimed in a way that made Sarah laugh at my obvious New Yorkerness in the use of the word “lady.” Into the traffic, stop lights, challenging left turns, gas stations, the usual. I sat in the back of the car feeling a bit resentful and in denial, wearing souvenir garments and clutching my mud spattered pannier. I am not done–just paused. The clock ran me out and forced me to stop, for now. But time is an illusion and the tour goes on. I will be back on the road–speedily in our days, amen ve’amen!
It has been wonderful reading this blog. thanks for inviting me along on your trip and your ruminations!