Author’s note: This is a chapter from the new anniversary edition of Falling Uphill. I put a free digital version online for people who bought the previous edition of Falling Uphill. I hope you enjoy the new perspective that time has given me. It goes to show that somethings only make sense in hindsight. Read more about the anniversary edition.
Afterword: What are you doing now?
Links for owners of Falling Uphill
It’s been ten years since I returned to the United States. I’ve stopped counting how many miles I’ve ridden, but I’m close to the equivalent of my fourth lap around the world, though now I never stray far from my garden. For a year, I rode a trail near my childhood home almost every day, which my previous incarnation would have found incredibly boring. However, somehow I learned the skill to discover something new every time, like how the flowers take turns blossoming, like actors curtsying on stage. Spring starts with the yellows of daffodils, followed by the rainbow colors of garden tulips; early summer displays the orange daylily; midsummer brings the purples of coneflowers and ironweed; and the late summer butterfly weed with orange blossoms like fireworks; and so forth, until autumn removes their colorful dresses and winter drops its white blanket like a stage curtain.
Instead of riding through space these days, I feel as if I am riding through time. It is one of many surprising collateral benefits to my trip. Even many years later, it still has a life of its own, creating opportunities and helping me to learn and grow. Recently it gave me the biggest surprise of them all, or what you might call a moment of enlightenment.
Of all the photographs that I made—the Eiffel Tower, Mount Everest, The Grand Canyon, exotic landscapes, tender moments between strangers—and thousands more—my favorite is a picture of school children in the shape of a bicycle. [See above.]I had the help of an elementary school in Wisconsin. It took days to plan and hours to draw the bicycle on the playground in chalk, but I only had minutes to compose the photo before the kids lost patience. I stood on the rooftop of the gym and shouted instructions as they filed in from tallest to smallest. The kindergartners were last to arrive because they have the shortest attention span. “A little more to the left. Move backwards six feet. Hey you! Yeah, you. Stop goofing around and get back in line.”
I teetered on the edge of the roof allowing myself to feel the thrilling fear of falling—I’ve become better at managing my emotions. I no longer obsess with being happy.
Standing three stories above everyone reminded of looking down from a mountain. I’ve stood on the top of a thousand mountains and always loved to look down on the web of roads that crisscrossed the valleys, wondering which was the easiest and which had the most hidden treasures, disappointed I could only travel one road. “What if I could travel them all?” I wondered.
At the beginning of my journey, fatigue and hunger inspired me to search for clues to the next source of food and water. I would trace the rivers undulating through the hills looking for my path forward through the valley; inevitably the roads followed the water. I’d search for intersections as the most likely place for a building with food or lodging. As I grew more skillful the clues began to form patterns. The type of trees would be a predictor of the altitude and weather, and their bent trunks and twisted branches would follow the prevailing winds. The patchwork farmland flowed with the landscape to best harness the sun and water, and the crops indicated the eating habits and customs of the locals. From the center of the farmland, civilization blossomed. It sprang out of the valleys, crept alongside the rivers and up the mountain for a better view.
Once I asked Dennis, “Why are the tops of mountains considered spiritual places everywhere we go?”
He said, “It reminds us of how small we really are.”
A similar pattern was emerging in the schoolyard. It was stunning to see the swarm of students buzz and bumble and slowly coalesce into the shape of a bicycle. From my vantage, I barely recognize any of the kids. Though I had met them all one by one, I realized I didn’t know any of them. And like the roads in a valley, I wished I could get to know every one and discover their secrets.
“Please,” I thought. “Just wait a few more minutes. If you could only see what I can see. This will be incredible.” As the composition neared the balance of perfection and impatience—“One. Two. Three. Smile.”—I snapped some pictures praying they would be properly exposed.
Back on the ground, I was surrounded by excited kids: “Scott, Scott, what were we doing?”
“You don’t know?” I was shocked. “What do you think you were doing?” I asked.
“It looked like a mob to us,” the kids said.
“We just stood on the line, like you asked,” the teachers said.
“It looked like organized chaos,” the principal confirmed, even though she did know what I was trying to achieve.
I couldn’t believe that years later my bike trip would have the power to organize all these people to trust me and unknowingly form, like iron filings to a magnet, the shape of a bicycle.
The children were bumping me, asking questions, shaking my hand, others were laughing, crying, running, shouting. It was a chaotic a mess of human emotions that had somehow added up to a beautiful picture of a bicycle. I also felt bombarded by an array of equally chaotic memories of my trip. Then—Aha!—I had an epiphany. It wasn’t just an intellectual understanding; it was more like a full body impact—this picture was like my life. The children represented all the people I’d met during my travels—my co-adventures through life. They were the men who mugged me, and the woman who nursed me back to health. They were the truck drivers that ran me off the road, and they were the strangers that escorted me to find safety. They were the starved and homeless people, and the families that would invite me into their homes to share a meal. They were all my emotions and experiences, good and bad, painting a wondrous picture.
On the ground, life is a bewildering array of experiences. It all happens so fast it is easy to get lost or lose motivation. But all you need is one emotion—call it hope—to shout down from the rooftop. “Have faith. Your life is amazing. Just wait until you see what we’ve created.” And with that magical emotion, your dream can crystallize into a pattern. But it isn’t just your dream—it is our dream. We are all spokes in each other’s wheels, and there are wheels within wheels, and lives within lives.
I have given many talks to elementary schools. I tell them I rode a bicycle around the world to find the secret of life. And, when I ask them if they know where I found the secret, they often say, “Inside you.” When I asked one boy why he was laughing, he said, “You carried the secret all the way around the world and didn’t even know it.”
They seem so wise compared to me, but that is the benefit of the next generation, they get to ride on the shoulders of those before them. If I have any boon, it is this:
The world is a constantly changing place; therefore, by definition the best adventure is unimaginable and impossible, because it has never been done before, and nobody can give you the perfect answer to your perfect journey. So, if you feel afraid or doubtful, then you know you are on the right track to adventure.
There may be no guarantees except to be surprised, but the good news is: you get to create the adventure you are looking for. You get to create the world you want to live in. And you get to create yourself to be a hero. Therefore, I need not give you advice except: if you have the passion and the courage—you will find the way.
Now you know everything I know—the lessons it took me a lifetime to learn—which means you can do even more amazing things than I ever did. So, if I can ride a bicycle around the world, imagine what you can do.
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