Friday, April 10, 2015

My Australian Girlfriend

 I would like for everyone to meet my beautiful new girlfriend from Australia. Like many in Adelaide, she was born and raised right here in South Australia. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures featuring the two of us together, but we're working on it. I got her about a month ago, and we've been quite happy together ever since. Below you may see the photograph of her...

Isn't she perfect? It's a shame I won't be able to bring her back with me to America in a few months, which is why we find it so important to value our ever-dwindling time together now. I'm not especially disappointed, though, because I have another absolutely amazing one waiting for me at home, longing for the day we can ride together again. Some may think of me as a nefarious man to have multiple of them spread across the globe, but what can I say? I love bicycles, and bicycles love me.

The first day we were together, we went on one of the most sensational rides of my life. I initially set out to visit an abandoned building found while I was lost a few weeks earlier, but realized that I wanted to ride further than that. I use an application called Strava to track where I go as well as my speed, but my cellular died en-route leaving only part of the data recorded. This portion of my journey is included in the map below, with the green point being the start and the checkered point being where my telephone runs out of battery. In reality, I actually went to the very tip of the outer harbor, which is the peninsula in the upper left corner of the map, West of the Barker Inlet. I went past where it says "North Haven" until I couldn't go any further, about 25 kilometers each way.

There wasn't a single aspect about this ride that wasn't interesting. Recall for a moment, your favorite movie, album, book, any piece of art really. Now, can you remember the first time you experienced it? Think of how new it was, how incredible it ended up being. The very essence of what makes favorites our favorites is that they go above and beyond our expectations, they take everything that we already know and redefine it; and that is precisely what this ride was like.

I began cycling through North Adelaide and down Port Road. When I ride, I don't move through the streets so much as the streets move towards me, revealing themselves as if waiting all this time just to do so. I discovered so many derelict buildings that I ran out of time and energy to explore them all. Because of my accent, I engaged in a lengthy conversation with the owner of an American restaurant specializing in hot dogs and wings, and found out that she is the wife of former NBA player Raheim Brown. I saw the ocean at night for the first time; star-studded night sky colliding with pitch black water evokes serene, satisfied existence as easily as dark nothingness and the inevitability of death.

By the end of my ride, I had traveled over 50 kilometers and established myself into countless scenes for which photos could never do any justice. Even though my time spent near the outer harbor was a memory for the ages, it actually wasn't quite the best ride of my life. Back in 2011 I made a snap decision to take a left down a road I had never traveled before. As it turns out, this road opened me up to the world of urban exploration following my discovery of the abandoned United Crushers grain elevator complex in Minneapolis. Since then, I've began to notice that the structures I explore loosely follow a common theme. Many of the places I visit have some sort of fence or exclusionary zone isolating them from active society. However, some of these fences don't exist in the real world. There are often fences in our consciousness inhibiting our whole being from knowing what it really wants. Whether it be physical or figurative, there's always a gap of separation, a gap that needs to be overcome.

Ever since that fateful day, it's been a strong belief of mine that the unknown, previously unexplored areas in life tend to be the most rewarding; that the path to enlightenment cannot be found on the safe side of the fence. Exploration expands not only our awareness of the physical universe, but also the comfortable perspectives with which we regard it. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required. Action without certainty. Movement devoid of over-thinking.

Large cities are so full of life, culture, and raw existence that it is intimidating to attempt to explore beyond its surface. What I mean by that is even though a city is teaming with content, the majority of its visitors subject themselves to roughly the same 20% that every other tourist experiences. I remember being in Chicago and seeing all the usual stuff, but when I think of Chicago, these aren't the places that come to mind. Rather, it's the neighborhoods that were visible only for a fraction of a second as we zipped past on the train. It's the juxtaposition of graffiti to parkland to factories to houses that, even if only seen for a second, exhibit an inside glance into the livelihood of that particular locale. In that same city I recall seeing a neon sign up on what must have been the 20th story of a skyscraper. It was very late at night, and apparently, within that window was a thrift shop confidently open for business. Seeing this shop open and advertising out of a window 200 feet above the ground perfectly expresses the boundless and unpredictable variety of life in the hearts of these massive cities. Wonders like this are what make Chicago interesting, not its bean.

Sometimes, even the grandest spectacles within a city are trumped by their own icon; they are so overly well known that they have unintentionally shifted into the superficial realm of their city. Say for example, you find yourself in Paris. You can't not see the Eiffel Tower, right? Despite the fact that you've probably seen hundreds of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and that you know exactly what it looks like, suddenly it's on the top of your list of things to see. Now does that make any sense? I certainly don't think so. Sure, go see the Eiffel Tower, but keep in mind that it's probably not going to be the most memorable part of your day. The thing about going to the Eiffel tower is, you're not going to meet any locals that know the truly wondrous sights in Paris, which is big chunk of what traveling is all about. Instead you might realize that you're simply standing around taking pictures of the tower (or heaven forbid, a self picture with it in the background) with a bunch of fellow tourists. You might end up with heaps of photos to show your friends, saying "Hey, on Friday we saw the Eiffel Tower!" and yet later that night you'll probably be thinking to yourself in bed not about the Eiffel Tower, but rather about the French people you met in the coffee shop on the way to Eiffel Tower, the ones that told you about that historic neighborhood in that obscure corner of Paris. Essentially, tourists of the world focus far too much on what they think others would want them to see and not enough on what they don't yet know exist.

Now that I've been to a variety of places around the globe, I often hear travelers talk of how they want to go everywhere. But what good is it if you're just checking places off a list and seeing the same sites that anyone performing a quick google search can see? The matter is further complicated given the notion that, for some, it absolutely can be just as satisfying to do exactly that. But these are the same people that make it a point to show everyone they're traveling instead of emphasizing the experience itself. Americans in particular need help with this concept: traveling isn't merely another commodity to "consume", it is a privilege to learn more about the world, its people, history, and slated future than any classroom setting could ever teach. It's an excuse to find a site you can call your own because you're the only one aware of its existence out of everyone you know. It's an opportunity to discover that new favorite piece of art, that new favorite place. It's opening your mind up to alternate viewpoints; letting the world hack your brain, murder your preconceptions, and shuffle everything you already know up to that point only to redefine it.

If you're traveling somewhere to merely check it off a list, I certainly cannot tell you that you're going for the wrong reasons. But what I can tell you, is that you're probably the type of person who has a bucket list. Personally, I hate bucket lists. They're too limited. They entice the list-maker to focus their endeavors entirely on activities and places that are already known. They don't take into account that often the greatest days in life are the ones that, if you could somehow travel back in time and explain to yourself in the morning where that day would take you and what you would end up doing, you wouldn't believe yourself. These are the days that make life worth living. Throughout my adventure to the outer harbor I felt at peace because I knew it would certainly become one of those days.

In Egypt, I have been told there is now a chain-link fence surrounding the great pyramids of Giza, preventing visitors from entering without first paying admission. Over the years, ancient pyramids have attracted visitors from all over the world, despite most of their original artifacts being looted centuries ago. I would love to visit these pyramids, but they are no where near the top of my list - and that's because I deliberately don't have one. As soon as a list is made, as soon as an itinerary becomes finalized, some of the magic of freely exploring is already lost. I never planned on biking to the outer harbor to see everything I did. I didn't expect to run into two wild dingoes during my journey. I didn't leave looking to find a specific location, I simply traveled Northwest and let the location find me.

It is crucial to remember that a fence works both ways. Although the fence encompassing Giza's pyramids may prevent free access, everything it retains on the outside is irrelevant compared to what it retains on the inside. Of course, this fence does exist to prevent trespassers entering from without, yet many overlook a consequent philosophy fenced within. Along with the pyramids themselves, a sort of twisted ideology radiates from inside the fence. This ideology thrives on preventing world travelers from thinking outside the box, from finding their own favorite locations. As magnificent as ancient pyramids may be, not a single commonplace expedition to see them will ever be as profound as genuine discovery.

Unlike admission to the pyramids, discovery cannot be monetized. The people we love most in life don't charge us money to see them, so why should the places we love be any different? In the end, though, my opinion is trivial. Millions of visitors will pay to see the pyramids this year alone. Millions waiting to go through a gate in the fence, standing in a queue, on a path leading in. But the physical walking path leading into the pyramids is not the only path fenced by the complex; this tangible chain-link fence over tangible path is not the one we need to overcome. Rather, it is a psychological fence yearning to be broken down - a roadblock detracting our drive to explore the uncharted corners of the universe. For on the other side of this abstract fence, the Giza seeks to repress a far more critical path: the path followed by the brain in materializing a dream.

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