The Final Chapter
Having now been home now for a few days, I have begun the lengthy process of mulling over the past seventeen weeks of travel, what I’ve learned, and more specifically, what I wish to write down and share with others. In truth, I could probably write about it indefinitely, though I don’t feel this would be appropriate, worthwhile, or do justice to some really interesting experiences. I remain somewhat overwhelmed with ideas, horribly disorganized, and unable to articulate what I really want to say. Much has happened. I’m also going to try not to write too much and repeat what I wrote some time ago. If you want details about good days, read what has already been written. The same applies for bad days, for there were plenty of those, too. There is no reason to rehash what I have already discussed, though I’m certain there are considerable grounds for improvement in the writing itself.
Nevertheless, a few general remarks are in order. Call them the final chapter, if you will.
In referring back to my initial posts, primarily the first, I see in my own writing a degree of desperation, though noticeably laced with hope. I meant what I wrote, and it’s fairly evident that it was composed in grief, woundedness, and a degree of uncertainty. This has changed. So has the writing. In fact, I have changed, too. I like to think for the better.
So let’s go back to the beginning for just a moment. Until mid-year, I was engaged and well on my way to settling down into married life, a career, and whatever other things follow it – normalcy, children, a regular job, and so forth. Yet dreams and expectations of this were instantaneously snuffed out when the relationship ended. There is no point in rehashing the details of that. A quick referral to that writing will reveal my despair, confusion, and hurt.
As much as I wanted to wallow about in self-pity and languish, dwelling on what once was in shall never more be, I realized that it would accomplish nothing. I had a decidedly bad taste in my mouth about a number of things, including Virginia itself. There were too many awkward questions, too many places I no longer wished to visit, and even people I just didn’t want to see. I needed some time elsewhere. What better way than to embark on something I’ve always wanted to do – a coast-to-coast tour of the United States? But on a motorcycle, an added thrill, challenge, and enormous risk that, thanks be to God, I have survived in one piece.
So at any rate, with modest preparation and a lot of “unplanning,” I set out, hoping to hop from place to place catching up with family and maybe a few friends. Indeed this happened, as did many other things.
Where I went is largely unimportant. WHO I met, however, is infinitely important. I met people. Before this, however, some observations about the places.
I remain amazed with this country. First off, it is vast, diverse, and in many ways a different planet from one local region to the next. High deserts, low deserts, temperate rainforests, more deserts, monolithic peaks and cold, isolated valleys. Almost every place was beautiful in its own right. I took photographs of everything. 9,500 of them, in fact.
Though while in the Grand Canyon I could see for more than 100 miles in one direction, and at least 85 miles in Mesa Verde (CO), visibility was generally limited. If I make the modest estimate that I had visibility for ½ mile to either side of a road, I have seen approximately 13,500 square miles. That is less than 2/5 of one percent of the area of this country. I guess I saw remarkably little. With fifty states in the union, I started from or rode through merely fourteen. That’s a little more than a quarter of them. I may have seen a great deal, but it’s a drop in the bucket in a country as enormous as the United States. But what I saw I mostly liked. It’s a lovely place, and if you don’t like the weather in one area, either wait five minutes, or go somewhere else. Every climate can be found here.
I am amazed with the beauty of the desert, which many find lifeless, oppressively hot, and barren. But I found life there, and beauty. I enjoyed the rolling hills of the Appalachians, too, more “home” than any other place, despite the fact they’re now bare, windy, and getting their first layer of snow for the winter. I found life and beauty on rocky hillsides amid dying grass and endless miles of pasture. But I found people everywhere.
If I ambitiously claim that I have spoken with 1000 people, I have still only conversed with less than 3/100,000 of one percent of the population of this country. While I have no great interest (and certainly no ability) to meet them all, this is still startlingly few. 13,500 miles traveled, and a few nice people met. I will leave it at that. But I enjoyed meeting them all.
When I left, I was uncertain if I would make this trip in full. If the weather would uncooperative, if the motorcycle would break down, if I would go broke, or if I’d lose interest in what I was doing. In fact, all these things happened. But a wise friend pointed out to me that life itself isn’t at all predictable, so why should I expect this undertaking to be so. Just go, he suggested. Just like Abram. God told him to, “Go to the land where I will show you.” The order, “go” far preceded the “were” on his journey. It took Abram years to get there, too, and he made innumerable mistakes along the way. Sounds like a metaphor for life, doesn’t it? I can’t predict the trip; I just need to go. Nor can I predict life, but I still need to live it. Languishing in Virginia was accomplishing nothing.
I will spare you all the drudgery of repeating where I went, since I have already written about it – at length. It’s all there to be read. Not a single post was removed.
I have found that I have a second home in eastern Oklahoma, which was unexpected, fun, and a place to which I fully intend to return shortly. I have family there I had never met, a few others I had not seen in years, and a number of neighbors with whom I had great conversations, breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
The same applies for California (and Utah), where I was quickly adopted by family I had never before seen, and may never see again. Regardless, they fed me, sheltered me, and one surrogate family even gave me a job for a short time. It saved me. I am deeply indebted to them all.
But along the entire trip, I met absolute strangers who were similarly friendly, hospitable and kind, and they provided me with free meals, couches, guest rooms, and most importantly, their friendship. I hope to keep up with a number of them.
One observation about people sticks out prominently, however. It is that they are frequently lonely. For many, if not most of them, life hasn’t worked out as they anticipated it would, relationships have failed, and they themselves may have failed, too. I heard many a sad sigh, hinting that the wounds of the past, the difficulties, financial woes, and even the struggles of the day-to-day make getting up some mornings a monumental struggle. Discontent is common, whether articulated or not. I can relate to a LOT of it.
I observed more drunks than I’ve seen in college, watched dozens bitterly stagger home alone, and even those that don’t are back at the bar the next night looking for somebody else. He, or She, wasn’t what they were looking for. I can relate to this, too.
One woman struggled to her feet, a man she had just met holding her up. She looked at a few of us still sitting at the bar. “We’re going to go now. He’s going to lay on top of me for a little while and then I’ll pass out. It’s better than sleeping alone.” He was good enough. I, too, have made such relational concessions.
I met a number of women who had been left by their husbands, boyfriends and fiancés, and a few men who had endured the same. Some were still married and looking.
I’ve learned that veterans are everywhere, which is pretty neat. Being one myself, they’re easy to strike up a conversation with. We can share memories and frustrations, and reminisce about a time in our lives which invokes the fondest of memories yet frequently aggravates the deepest of wounds. A patriotic nobility standing tall and alone in a field of loss, nightmares, and at times impenetrable grief. They will never be the same for it, and neither shall I. But we will keep flying the flag, salute as we watched it raised, and choke back tears when they play the National Anthem. Many paid dearly for it, and we remember.
I am amazed at who felt comfortable talking to me along this trip. I am astounded at how many friendly people willingly and happily share their fortune and ambitions. Utter strangers with whom I had only marginal commonalities, sometimes as general as we both are adults and have two legs. Yet they were frequently extremely honest, open, and blunt about their lives, their thoughts, and their many disappointments. I was able to share a few of mine, too. Not everybody was unhappy, but almost everybody was looking for something – though they perhaps did not know what. In many ways, so was I.
People are lonely. And in truth, so also am I. I’m not a keen and disconnected observer on the sidelines; I’m in the thick of it. I, too have problems, shortcomings, unmet expectations, and a host of uncertainties.
With embarrassing frequency, my loneliness dictated my actions, speech, and even the direction I went. It was deeply-rooted, at times pervasive, and cunning. I failed to make the best of numerous conversations.
In many ways, it bears every sign of being an addiction. The small moral or character concessions I make for myself and extend to others, the ignoring of the fact that fleeting encounters won’t somehow satisfy some deeper longing, and the unfortunate fact that I’m probably going to try it anyway. And thus, I turn my back on God and relationship for which I truly thirst, and try something, really anything else.
It is an addiction and I am powerless over it, but God is not. And it only bears the image of an addiction when it is pursued in the wrong direction. We were all created for relationship.
To put it bluntly, there is a God-shaped hole in my soul and nobody and no thing can properly fill it save Him. I have picked many poisons. Affluence, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of unfulfilling relationships, and so on. None will satisfy the longing.
But it’s more than a longing. It’s usually a dull ache that at times crescendos into a throbbing pain – I am alone and I’m very aware of it. But this hunger, at least for the moment, has its benefits. I am fasting.
When Christians fast, the idea is that every pang of physical hunger reminds them of just what and who they are truly hungering for. God. The same applies to my hunger for the resolution of my loneliness. Every stab that reminds me that I’m alone is a stab that reorients me to God. Invite HIM to go with me, to adventure with me, to ride with me, and to meet people with me, and the rest, I sincerely believe, will take care of itself in its proper timing. This is relationship that takes all primacy.
Self flagellation accomplishes nothing, since it suggests that I am a hopelessly awful person and can do no good, but that is a lie. God is in me, and He is good. Therefore, I can do good, for I am created on His image and I have invited Him with me. We are all imperfect people pursuing imperfect relationships with other imperfect people. But God pursues every imperfect one of us, and that, too, is good.
Nor does regret accomplish anything, since it suggests I live in shame, and I do not. I have made mistakes, yet so has everybody. God loves me nevertheless, pursues me nevertheless, and thus I live in forgiveness. I understand grace just a little better now, and want to understand it more. I may be just as much a bozo as the next guy, but I have hope, and I also have no fear. There is no fear in perfect love, and I am perfectly loved.
What is perhaps the most profound truth I have learned (at least to me), is that God does not pursue or even honor perfection. Nor are we even being groomed for perfection. The reality is that no such thing exists. He honors pursuit of Him. I am also not a problem to be fixed, but in His eyes a creation to be pursued. There’s great hope in this.
As for what comes next on my rather bizarre life, good question. When I was speaking before a church in Keota, Oklahoma, one man raised his hand. “So do you ever intend to reenter the work force and contribute to society again?” Clearly I do, but not just yet.
Work, I have determined, is essential, but when I have the luxury of being picky, I should take full advantage of it. Since I am not starving, I will not pursue a job in desperation for sustenance. Since I am not penniless, nor will I pursue a job solely for the money. I will get by with my current frugality, wisely save/spend what I have, and work when I feel like it. And while I will not have a regular job for now, I will still help others when they need it. It’s good to work. It makes me more appreciative of what I have.
But perhaps more importantly, a career position right now would effectively eliminate my opportunity for further travel, adventuring, and wayward photography. At the moment, it would be confining – and without cause. If I need to work, I will, but for now I do not need to worry about it. Finding a career and working because it’s “the right thing to do” is faulty. I have no reason to settle down into a career apart from most people thinking that, at 28, I should be. This expectation is more social norm than individually appropriate. When the time is right, I will do it. I am making an effort to excise myself from others’ expectations. They are not my audience. As a wise man once told me, “pay mind to no man.”
Nevertheless, this is not a popular decision. I remember being in Joshua Tree, California and a man asked me, “so, Ben, what do you do?” I told him nothing, which baffled him, and also quickly shortened future conversations. The standard icebreaker did not apply. What? Somebody who doesn’t work? What DOES he do?
It depends on who you ask. One of my sisters called me a professional hobo. Along the way I’ve heard Biker Ben, Night rider, Easy Rider, Rebel, Leather Boy, and Dumbass. I prefer accomplished mooch.
What do I do? I write. And for the moment, travel around to so particularly interesting places and meet some good people. I write – about the people, the places, calamities, and stories I hear. I enjoy the stories the most. What am I doing? What I enjoy, and hopefully honing my skills as a writer. I am following my heart.
Are my eggs all in this one basket? Not really. I’m putting them all in one pocket.
When my travels are solely for my own entertainment, it is definitely time to stop. A lengthy motorcycle trip across the country would have been supremely self-centered were it not for the fact that I wrote about it, in essence to bring others with me. When I cease bringing others, I have crossed the line into wandering. While not all who wander are lost, most are. The point is that I need and want to keep writing. If I should lose interest in it, I need to stop.
I was reading an interview the other day of a small, little known musician struggling to make ends meet. He admitted that he determined long ago that it would be difficult. “I realize that I’ve got to place music just because you love it,” he said. I just have to keep writing, just because I love it.
But not only is this a quest for writing practice, it is simultaneously an endeavor to meet new people, to hear their stories, to genuinely care about them, and ideally give testimony to the hope that is within me. For I, too, am lonely, and I, too, have my share of problems. But I still have hope and excitement for the future, and find enjoyment in the present. If my relationship with God is so important, it will be contagious, and I’ll HAVE to share it with others. Maybe they, too will find joy in being pursued by the sacred romancer – the perfect date.
I think that one of the more beneficial aspects of meeting such a diverse group of people is that no longer do I wish to talk about myself so much, but about the other great people that I met. There were many. Veterans, single mothers, ex-strippers, ex-convicts, traveling wig salesmen, lots of bikers, homeless people, hippies, hitchhikers, famers, migrant workers, refugees, Scientologists, writers, ecologists, Baptists, bartenders and social workers, alcoholics and coke-heads. Save for a near-mugging in a bathroom in Tennessee, I enjoyed them all, and they are all worth knowing. I love this country, and have found it to be full of great people who have graced me with their friendships, candor, and stories. I have been honored to, in some small way, introduce America to Americans. I met people everywhere and was startled to find that truly cared about them. I still pray for many of them, and I believe that others do, too. Perhaps to some now, America isn’t an expansive country full of bustling cities, but a land full of interesting, hopeful, struggling people who we genuinely wish well.
I was once chewed out by a Traumatic Brain Injury center director for riding a motorcycle. Most of the center’s patients are bike accident victims with varying degrees of speech and motor impediment. More than once I was mocked for my chaps, which were described as “ass-less.” Of course they are. If they weren’t, they’d be pants. They looked silly, but they kept me warm. Out of everybody I met, two people asked me for a ride.
In Merced, California, I almost dumped the bike at three miles an hour on loose dirt. A month later I almost did it in soft sand – on the same farm. In Silver City, New Mexico I hit gravel as I braked on a road and came close to losing control. Adrenalin, I’ve found, warms you up pretty quickly. The closest I came to a genuine, deadly wreck, is when I was almost plowed over by a church van that ran a red light. That was just a few days ago in Christiansburg, Virginia. There were close calls, but it has been worth the risk.
I am home now, but not content to dawdle here, because I am also at home all across this country. I can’t decide if this makes me omnihomeless or omniresidential. I will spend a great Christmas with my family, catch up with a few friends, sing with my little sisters in church fairly soon, and be on my way again. God has given me an interest in someone besides myself, that will take me elsewhere, at least for now.
Yet no matter where I wind up landing, wandering or breaking down, there is one truth that I knew all along but only recently began to partially understand. Regardless of its merit to few and its absurdity to most, my life is henceforth dedicated to the avid pursuit of Jesus. I will go, I will invite Him, I will invite others, too, and together we I will cling to the hem of His garment, for there is no other enduring hope.
It’s a beautiful country, really, and difficult to describe briefly. It’s not perfect by any means, but full of beautiful wilderness, bustling cities, and friendly people. It’s not perfect; it’s savory. It is home, and it is good.Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
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