I prefer writing in the present tense, here and in fiction, too, and I like reading works with that style. I’ve been inspired by writers who commit to this, there are at least one or two whom I’ve been imitating, been inspired by in in this regard, but I seriously can’t remember which ones, or I’d give them props for their inspiration. (I might even give myself a prop or two for allowing myself to be influenced.) At some point, perhaps I’ll skim my bookshelves to see if that jogs my memory. I can’t claim to be original. And don’t.
This stylistic choice I’ve often made throughout these handlebar confessionals thus far—namely, to be in the present—is certainly not a fresh take on travel writing, right? Or memoir or personal essay or whatever it is we’re doing here. I’m not being hella uniquely crafty in my aim to create a landscape for us to experience the moment, be on the journey together in the here and now, salivating in anticipation at what’s around the bend because we’re trying to evoke a world where this stuff hasn’t happened yet.
Dare I write in the present tense about experiences that I had 4 years ago, or even 1 year ago? The further I get from the actual moment, the more it feels like a stylistic choice and perhaps even less authentic from my perspective as the writer, if that makes sense.
Hmm. Now that I just typed that, I am realizing that’s not true. Duh, no one is ever really writing in the moment as it’s happening. You wouldn’t be experiencing it fully. (…though I guess we’re culturally at a place where we are often documenting our experiences as they occur, à la annoying people who record the band during live shows while watching through their phones…and admittedly on the bike I am—was? No, am!—constantly blathering into the Notes app, because the vista/windspeed/idea I’m seeing/enduring/popping is HBC-worthy and may otherwise be lost.) Keeping it in the present is certainly justifiable in the writing process—stylistically, sure, but also experientially. Some memories are strong as hell. It’s not like it’s always some huge effort to be there, where I was at a particular moment, feel how I felt, see what I saw. That’s of course true, no matter what tense I’m writing in.
As I’m drafting new essays to post/publish/include in the nascent HBC book, I find that I’m being less consistent with tense, challenged by the multiple layers of what can even be construed as present: within a single essay I may be writing about the events of a 2018 riding day, peppered with the perspective of having cycled another whole cross-country journey in 2021, and now slathered over with newer insights as a result of driving the last 700 miles of the 2018 route earlier this month (October 2022) to reacquaint myself with the HBC ’18 Days I haven’t yet written about. Or maybe I’m less committed to in-our-faces fresh-ass page-scrolling present-tense writing. Or maybe my style has organically developed into a (likely ungrammatical but who cares) mashup. Or maybe, like I hinted at above, I have a persistent, self-defeating belief that it’s just too long ago to justify sustaining the literary device of the present tense, even though as I JUST ACKNOWLEDGED in the previous paragraph, it is ALWAYS an authorial choice at our disposal. In any case, I’m making the mental note check tense as I’m typing away.
The above processing is me, essentially, communicating that I believe I should be further along in the process. The curse and consequences of no external deadlines! Or I’m merely coming to terms with where I am with HBC as a project, in the present tense. Like right now where I’m writing from on October 17, 2022 at an artist’s residency at Dorland Mountain Arts in Temecula, California. What a fuckin gift this place is.
I confess I’m at a crossroads with this project, these handlebar confessionals. Timelines. Context. Form. Authenticity. Aargh. And I’m attempting to explain where I am right now. I’ve been silent on this medium and on social media as well for some time. I haven’t posted on Instagram (or Facebook, for that matter, but that doesn’t count anymore, right?) since I dipped Whitey’s wheels in the Atlantic Ocean in St. Augustine, Florida, last November. 2021.
During HBC ’21, I made a choice not to rabidly write while I was riding. On 2018’s ride, I spent what felt like every non-pedaling moment to catch up to myself. Every rest day, even when visiting friends in Missoula, was mostly dedicated to the task. (This was even true for HBC ’09, though the writerly demands were definitely not as anxiety-producing.) I even took extra non-riding days in ’18 to try to catch up (not the case in ’09—how is it that I was so chill about it?). After arriving back in Los Angeles in July 2018, I was committed to cranking the remainder out as quickly as possible. That turned out not to be so quick and several episodes remained uncranked. A year later, summer of 2019, I went to Portland to cat sit and spend time with my people in that city with the goal of finishing 2018’s pieces. That didn’t happen, though I published this one: Days 42-44, Great Falls of CeaseFire! During the next two years, ending when I made the decision to ride for the third time, I wrote three more pieces (Day 45, Day 46 & Day 47, a real doozy—and finally a précis of the remaining 2018 riding days with an announcement of HBC ’21 (please check out We Interrupt This Program (2018) to Bring You Some News (2021)).
In 2021, the pressure was too great for me, to try to stay afloat, to stay as much in the present as possible, more than stylistically. Honestly, I couldn’t hack it. (I will be writing more about my mental state during the trip eventually, don’t you fret!) On my first two “rest” days (Days 8 & 9) in 2021 I got right to the task…writing the inaugural HBC ’21 piece while also recovering from the accident on Day 7. I wrote and published another entry a week later on the next rest day in El Paso. I succeeded in squeezing out one more posting another 10 days hence in Austin (on my birthday, no less). And I did spend part of my next stop—in New Orleans!—in a fancy hotel room writing about Day 5. But NOLA called to me more than my laptop, and I didn’t finish the entry. That’s where writing at length about HBC 2021 ceased. Luckily, long before this, I’d added another chainring to my crankset. I used Instagram to write the max allowable character count (a scant 2,200) to accompany a video for each riding day using the Relive app. It was a decent compromise, a way to keep in touch on the daily (or so—sometimes I was hampered by shitty service and/or Relive or IG being fucking testy!), and take notes for future full-length HBC episodes. Trust and believe, this effort still felt monumental and pressure-cookerized and extremely limiting because of the character count, yet I was successful in keeping it up.
And to be completely honest, I didn’t want to write from the road, as I had during the previous rides. It’s WORK. Another difference in 2021—do we really need more examples? Maybe not, but this one’s a rock-solid rationale—is that the days were shorter and getting shorter at what felt like breakneck speed. I left at the end of September, post autumnal equinox. Darkness came more and more quickly. I lost an hour twice, too, riding west to east! (Would have been thrice but the exact day I crossed into the Eastern time zone was the end of daylight savings, so they canceled each other out.)
I mean who wants to write in the dark, in a smelly motel room in the Florida panhandle after having eaten dinner at a convenience store, with PTSD from being hit by a car and plagued by a constant low-grade panic attack, dying to be done with this fucking ride, with hands that are partially numb and weakened by nerve damage that was happening as I was riding because I was riding? Yeah, that’s an unforeseen twist in the plot for HBC ’21 which will get its own post down the road. [Brief teaser trailer: I rode with numbness and weakness in both hands for, umm, say, about 2,700 miles and ended up getting surgery in January 2022 which kept me off the bike for a while and definitely contributed to my not engendering the passion to write about it.]
It felt like I was taking a huge risk, not writing in-depth reportage from the road, or at least attempting to sustain it throughout. What if my additional notes that didn’t make it into the mini-HBC instapost were insufficient or unintelligible thanks to Siri’s dopey errors and marginal capacity to understand what I’m narrating into Notes? What if I didn’t—or don’t, since we are in the present!—remember well enough? What if I end up not having enough HBC 2021 juice to make it a valuable section of a book about three rides? This journey was the third, the one that absolutely had to happen in order to make this project book-worthy. IT HAD TO BE THREE.
There was also the other issue: Practical? Logistical? Trade-related? I found that I couldn’t submit my essays for contests or for publication because they were already published—self-published here. Many contests and publications are specific about this no-no regarding submission eligibility: if you’ve published this story/essay/poem/whatever on your blog, then it’s not for us. I thought, yikes, am I future-shooting myself in the foot by blithely posting? Am I that much of an amateur? (OTOH I can now say—and I have it on my CV and bio and include it on applications and submissions and stuff—that I’ve published 80+ essays about my bicycle journeys across the US. So not amateur!) This limitation on submitting my work was vexing but also a relief. I felt like I had an even better excuse not to kill myself writing on the road last year. Last year, I thought, let’s just save the rest for the book.
And another at-the-crossroads issue that I don’t know if I should be worried about at this point is: how does self-publishing on one’s blog impact one’s likelihood to publish one’s writing as a book? In writing group last week, Flint’s response was practical: you take down the essays from the blog that are going in the book. …Wait, not all of them are gonna be in the book?! And sure I can always self-publish in book form but with what money? This tome’s gonna have to be slick—photos! maps! screenshots! (which may also count as photos!)
The writing of this has been its own journey and evolution—from keeping a blog in 2009 for my friends and family so they could follow my trip (this was before I really considered myself/ actually became a professional writer—haha, that’s why it was more chill!), to the germ of the idea that hey this is good hey I’m good, to Trip #2 in 2018 when I launched this website and learned about hashtags and attempted to build an audience, to all the business I explained in the previous paragraphs, to Trip #3 which culminated in a post on Instagram and Facebook where I announced that I’m finally going to turn these experiences into a book, to a grinding halt and radio silence…until now, my lambkins. (Yup, still tryna make lambkin happen. I invite you to be on that journey with me, too.)
Needless to say, I didn’t replace my riding in the post-surgery months with writing about riding, or this would be a very different post. My writing job-job is the most busy from January through the spring so…not the ideal time in any circumstances. I just was feeling shitty about it all. I do wonder if I hadn’t had surgery whether I would have gotten right down to the writing of HBC ’21 (after finishing 2018’s of course). I can’t say. I know that I’ve felt a lot of dread about this project over the past year. The enormity of it. The lost time. The fear that I won’t finish it. The even greater fear that I don’t want to. And probably the greatest fear of them all: what if I do finish it and…radio silence.
But wait, isn’t writing supposed to be my great joy and not a burden? Answer: Both, obvi. And of course it’s a particular challenge to sustain a hard-on for a yearslong project with tons of source material, a fat chunk of which is in my head and needs to discharge before it disappears into the ether.
Instead of riding my bike this year or engaging in some other adventure, I decided to take time off to unleash the joy and discharge the burden; its own adventure, for sure. I applied to and was granted a residency at Dorland Mountain Arts where I currently am, loving my solitude and creative space for a little over a month. My plan was initially to focus only on my novel (since I have dedicated nearly all of my creative writing time over the past several years to HBC and was feeling meh about it all anyway) BUT then something kismetty happened. I had already been planning a trip to Missoula, Montana at the end of September to see friends, meet fellow addicts whom I knew from Narcotics Anonymous meetings via zoom but hadn’t met in person, and attend my first NA convention. In discussing the future of HBC during writing group with Flint, I had an idea. Since my last fully-fledged and posted essay about my 2018 trip took place in Missoula, I had effectively “ended” the trip there. The trail had gone cold. So why not let the blood flow back in and drive the remainder of the route, the final 8 riding days to Astoria, Oregon! Jog my memory. See if I’m inspired to pick up the writing where I left off. Have new experiences that then I’d have the challenge and hopefully the joy to incorporate. Embrace the complexity of timeline, form, tense, memory, hindsight, and reawaken my ambition to strive toward closing the book on this aspect of the journey: writing the fuckin book! And/or posting some new entries in the process! I guess the idea worked cuz here we are frothing to fruition.
Many (all?) of the issues I’m bringing up in this post remain unsolved mysteries. Do I post some regular ol’ HBC essays here like in the olden days? Do I continue with 2018 or move on to 2021? Is what I wrote to sum up 2018 good enough for the blog or should I be continuing with Day 49, 50, etc? (I have written those two during the time I’ve been here! Post or save for the book?) Now that I’ve re-experienced some of the 2018 trip, how do I reimagine those riding days for the book, i.e., how much of my 2022 voice should be included? Do I need to move on from what I thought the book would be, which is writing entries for each day (or couple/few days) of the rides, posting here, and then cutting and pasting into a manuscript et voilà? Do all the entries become part of the book or only the best ones? What about ones like this one that aren’t about actually riding the bike? Does typing “book” over and over make it more real? And inescapable? A done deal, a requirement, like in a toothpaste-outta-the-tube way? Like in a my-hands-are-numb-but-I’m-riding-2,700-more-miles-anyway-cuz-I-can’t-help-it sorta way? I said it, so it is written. Does anyone care and does that even matter? Is it amateurish to be so naked about one’s process because it smacks of apology and self-obsessiveness? Nah. I’m a dyed-in-the-merino-wool process queen. I’m not apologizing for that, and I’m not among the first ten thousand writers to write about writing. Nor among the first ten zillion to write about themselves.
In retrospect, out of love, respect and appreciation for my readers, I wish I would have shared my choice in the moment (on the blog) to not continue writing HBC ’21 from the road (and point readers to Instagram) and post-ride—and to share current/future plans for the project in a more timely manner that befits my gratitude to anyone who’s game for taking this whole strange trip with me. But we’re back again, after a dry spell. Oh, dear lambkins, I have a lot to figure out and mountains to climb. Right now, here in the present tense, on Dorland Mountain, the plan is to do it. And I am also currently, demonstrably doing it.