Smithology: You are never missing anything

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Smithology_Trip_Planning_Lede
Sam Smith

I am planning a trip. The sort that consumes much distance for little reason.

You know what it is like, this planning. Waypoints are pondered: burgs, landmarks, even general regions, anywhere you might pause to briefly front-porch your surroundings and watch the world chew on itself. You may not do all of this stuff; you’ll probably do some of it. The imagining is much of the point.

No revelation there, right? Anticipation is half the joy of firing the human body at anything new: How frabjous it will be, free of the drudge of daily life! Will it be good? How could it not? The places we’ll go! The stuff we will do! How often we will stop by the side of the road and bask in the unending majesty of horizon! How often we will sit there and find ourselves wondering what, at that exact moment, is happening on the internet!

Oh, right. That.

Dear lord, goes the limbic system, aflutter at the literal and figurative room to breathe, What if I am missing something?

Nobody actually wants to trade vacation for screen time.

It’s just that so much stuff seems to happen on those things.

Witness, as Monty Python said, the violence in the system: The long tail of building a society where everyone knows that attention and time are the only truly valuable commodities, but we are encouraged to essentially give those intangibles away, to the Zuckerbergs and the Jony Ives of the world and maybe also to the occasional TikTok. And we do give them away, because dopamine exists. Selling attention to the lowest bidder feels good, at least in the moment.

If I have learned one thing in the long climb to middle age, it is that your body lies to you constantly.

And: You are never missing anything.

open road
Oregon in a Subaru BRZ test car, aimlessly. Sam Smith

Digression! I once saw a lightly amusing TikTok where a pet rabbit chased a small dog in circles around a suburban back yard. When I showed this video to my five-year-old daughter, she pronounced it amazing, zero irony. When you are five, much of life is amazing in the Webster’s definition, literally prompting amazement; after just five revolutions around the sun, the sight of a rabbit chasing a dog and not the other way around can send your brain into a sort of awestruck vapor lock, because existence is still largely unveiling itself, like a carpet unrolling at your feet. The world has not yet conned you into believing that you understand it. Contrast this with what portable screens and the internet can prompt biologically, which is best described as the obliteration of attention span and the installation of deep unrest whenever the mind takes a moment to chill the hell out.

What I would give to be back in that first place, mentally—the childhood place—without having to work at it.

Absent that gift, you learn to stack the deck.

An old friend called a few weeks ago. My pal Michael Chaffee grew up in the Midwest but lives in San Francisco, where he works from home and has no dependents save a small fleet of used motorcycles. There’s a Honda Hurricane, a pair of Honda Groms*, a couple of older BMWs.

Fun guy, Michael.

 

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*ILLUSTRATIVE BACKGROUND NOTE: Why two Groms? A few years ago, after a particularly potent bucket of Sunday-morning cocktails, Michael found himself calling his nearest Honda dealer and reserving a new Grom on a whim. Partly due to the fact that the Grom is an excellent little motorcycle, but also because, well, bucket of cocktails and man possessing disposable income but no children, and who doesn’t love an affordable, 125-cc motorbike with only 9 hp and a footprint like a fat chihuahua?

Michael is not an impulsive man, but this is exactly the sort of thing he tends to do.

I was living in Seattle at the time, so I jokingly suggested he hump the Grom north and say hi. In what later seemed like a moment of nearly infinite wisdom, Michael responded by shipping his new Honda to my house and then buying a second used Grom nearby. After that, we rode the two bikes down the coast to San Francisco, in a drafting and/or knee-out train inches apart, wearing nerdy-looking Aerostich Roadcrafters and looking like a pair of matching-idiot circus monkeys gone full Joey Dunlop. A generous person might label the whole outing a protest against modern excess, or perhaps an exercise in unrestrained restraint, but really, it was just an excuse to travel flat-out with an average cruise speed of 38 mph and more manic laughter than a dental suite with a nitrous leak.

Pointless trip. Made sense at the time, though.

 

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Back to the story: After two decades in California, Michael recently decided to pursue a simpler and more cost-effective life. For a number of reasons, this involved packing up and moving to Brooklyn, which should tell you something about the current condition of the Golden State. Given that New York City is a ferociously difficult place in which to own a motorcycle, he decided to sell most of his bikes, keeping only the BMWs.

The German machines will soon take up residence at my shop, in the mountains of East Tennessee.

This plan makes a certain kind of sense. Michael travels a lot for work and sees Tennessee often. The back roads here are mostly fun schizo pavement spaz. The only question was how to get the bikes in from the west coast.

Michael allowed as how it might be half logical to ship them on a truck.

I replied with some sort of half-hearted grumbling noise.

“Hmm,” he said, a moment later. “We should instead ride them east in a long and not entirely un-meandering trip for no reason.”

“Twist my arm?” I answered.

snowy road trees
The Pacific Northwest in winter, under giant firs and sans map. Sam Smith

Enter the planning. A caveat: In my house, no trip design survives contact with reality. The plan process is really just daydreaming with Google Maps for a few evenings, staring out the window in foggy daydream while pondering the spiderweb of possibility and imagining ways in which any one piece of the whole business could go deliciously off the rails and sink or save the whole thing. Then—and this is the key—I do exactly zilch about any of those ponderables and proceed to embark upon said travel almost entirely in the thrall of whimsical and aimless decision solidified at the last responsible moment.

My wife grew up in a house where vacations were planned out months in advance. She finds my process suspicious but rarely goes so far as to audibly label the whole practice ridiculous.

Which it can often appear and may very well be.

That’s the thing, though, right? Much of the civilized world spends an absurd amount of time attempting to be productive and sensible. As counterpoint, I offer a time-honored old saw, namely that the best parts of existence are aimless. On top of that, the rest of my life—two kids, a marriage, a job, a vehicle fleet, an old house with needs—lives or dies on a right and rigid schedule, and believe you me, that is more than enough right and rigid scheduling for a person who generally abhors a right and rigid schedule.

open dirt road
Unpaved Alaska by Jeep. Sam Smith

Put another way, there is nothing either good or bad, as an Englishman once told us, but thinking makes it so. Years ago, I would obsess over maps and specifics. The first time I traveled on whim and dice roll, I fully expected that gamble to blow up in my face. Being a generally thickheaded person, I even planned for that contingency, carrying on my phone a small list of back-up routes and activities along the way, in case winging it didn’t take.

Naturally, that journey went off without a hitch, and with many unpredictable little detours not lacking in surprise or joy, and precisely nothing went wrong.

Lessons are rarely so vibrant. And so the daydreams continue.

(Naturally also, during all this dreaming, a small train of thought inevitably chugs along quietly in your narrator’s mental backstage, wondering if I will remember to do enough pre-trip prep at my day job—upon a screen, naturally—so that, upon my return, I do not have a paralyzing excess of work piled up on said screens. We live in strange and circular times.)

(Also also: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be writerboys. We all lightly neurotic and broke in the head.)

motorcycle cow
On a KTM, meeting with a cow on a wander in Washington State nowhere. Sam Smith

Two-wheel travel is much like old-car travel. Your face meets wind and weather; physical exhaustion is not uncommon; interstates are anathema. My particular version of bike distance tends to involve nerdy old machines and nerdy old Aerostiches on winding roads with some silly speed average over long days. You stop to eat a bit, you follow a general compass heading, you improvise heading as the song of the universe dictates.

Motorcycle magazines call this “sport touring.” Instagram influencers call it #¡¡¡ADVENTURING!!! and make a big deal out of scenic-vista selfies and product placement. Normal people who lack pretense know it simply as, “the Internet has grown tiresome and the wheeled machine needs rock chips,” and that’s it, you’re out the door, the road unrolls ahead.

Existence, unveiling itself.

side view mirror
In the desert, once, with an Acura Integra Type R. Sam Smith

We are taking the dry route, through the Southwest. One week this summer. That’s all I know. Most of the real thinking will happen on the road, as it always does.

If you can’t tell, I recommend this sort of thing.

You could call it amazing, if you wanted. And maybe it will be.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: I’m not going to sit up worrying about it.

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