The thin, red line

March 14, 2021 § 1 Comment

I have a map. I use it to tour. On that map there is a thin, red line.

The way it works is simple: You follow the line and do what it says. It orders. You obey. There is a carrot at the end.

Of course you have to read the directions; “turn right,” “turn left,” “go straight.” And you have to use your eyeballs to match up the red line with objective reality.

But all in all, what you do is follow the line. The thin, red line. Which is what I did. It got me to Canada and back and even to Houston. The thin, red line works.

I was reading a journal by a guy named Ryan Conaughty. He, too, was following the thin, red line, following it from Yorktown, VA to Astoria, OR. It’s a line that has existed on the bicycling map since 1976. Tens of thousands of bicyclists have followed it.

But one day Ryan got some local intel, kind of like when Dan Melkonian advised me to leave the red line and take the dirt road up and over to reach Trout Lake. Ryan took the local’s advice, as I took Dan’s, which meant Ryan was no longer riding on the thin, red line. And this happened:

It’s strange feeling, diverging from the red line of the map. On one hand, I feel like I’m cheating, almost lying. I feel like I’m breaking a rule and I feel not only bad for it but somewhat scared. I don’t know what road I’m on as we ride ,,, On the other, I feel free. I’m really not following a set destination. I’m just riding my bike, letting the road take me where it may. It’s exciting and invigorating. I don’t have to do what the red line tells me … We’re all on our own red line. And we’re all trying to get off it.

Ryan Conaughty, 2008,

Is there any better representation of life? We are all on a red line and trying to get off of it.

For most people, they will never get off. You see, they save their nickels and promise that when they retire they’ll splurge and buy a […] or take a trip to […] or finally go all in on their TRUE life’s passion, […] It never happens, though, because after a lifetime of calculation and delay, when the big day arrives they are too old, or too weak, or the spark has gone out under decades of soggy dreams. Instead, maybe they simply buy an RV and call it good.

For others, they actually do get off the thin, red line. Usually it involves divorce, getting fired, almost dying, losing everything they thought they had … You don’t get off the line easily or through whimsy. Ever. But most of those people quickly return because they somehow carry all the problems that they had with them to the new destination. The new blue line is refreshing at first but quickly becomes indistinguishable from the old, thin, red one.

A vanishingly small number get off the thin, red line. They really do leave their troubles behind. Better put, they resolve them and learn to travel lightly and freely. Even those people, though, don’t manage to stay off the line for long because they realize that simply being isn’t enough. There’s nothing to occupy their hands, their heads, their hearts. And one thing about the thin, red line that’s guaranteed is that it will keep you busy until death.

What’s left?

I’ve been trying to get off the thin, red line all my life. Just like everyone else. But after I ordered a set of Trans-America cycling maps, I realized that I hadn’t really gotten off of the line, I’d just swapped one red line for another.

The effort, though, is worthwhile. You have to fail repeatedly to succeed. The answers may be easy, but applying them never is. Riding my bike from place to place as I try to hash through my problems and make sense out of nonsense, well, it’s working, because some thin, red lines really are better than others. But when tomorrow rolls around I won’t be following that thin, red line.

I won’t be following any line at all.


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