Thursday, December 17, 2015

Profiles in Third Thirds: Allan

When the last son started college, Allan retired, hopped on a bike, and turned his fantasy into reality. That was 14 months ago. Since then, he’s biked 9,817 miles through the United States and Europe, returning home every three months or so for visits. After the winter, he’ll be back at it (when there’s more light and less cold rain). But for now, he had a chance to reflect on the whole experience, what it’s meant, what it does for him.

Allan’s living the life of a nomad. He bikes 40 miles per day on average and spends 98% of his time alone, carrying 80 pounds of gear (with tools, clothing, extra food). He isn’t a “go where the wind blows” kind of traveler; he does tons of planning. He knows where he’s going to make decisions – to go here or go there – and when he expects to stop each day. He has no particular destinations, looking instead for what he calls the “in between” experiences: going through back alleyways, trying to pick the best strudel each morning in Germany, guessing which sausage will taste best.

Yes, it’s being outdoors. Yes, there’s the realization of how very many nice people there are in the world (a real plus after years in code enforcement). Yes, there are moments of pure exultation, of flowing well with the universe, of immense gratitude for all the people who’ve helped along the way. Allan says sometimes he emerges from dreamland, miles down the road, having been pleasantly “off” somewhere. No, he doesn’t really aim for museums; he suffers “museum fatigue” after having worked at one for many years and secondly, that requires stopping for two days so he can make sure his bike is secure. And yes, he does make wrong turns, ends up in terrible mud, has to push his bike.

After many months doing this, Allan notices how it becomes his life. His life home, in Alaska, becomes “that other life.” His wife and son are keeping the home fires burning, with the oldest son now able to handle home maintenance and enabling Allan’s fantasy to come true. As Allan puts it, he was and remains a dutiful son, a dutiful husband, and a dutiful father. Now he has no responsibilities “up until the next phone call.”

Does anyone want to join him on this adventure? No, Allan said, his wife turned down the invitation and his sons are busy with their lives. Besides, right now, it’s a solo, self-supported trip; his one vote makes all decisions unanimous. If he vetoes one of his decisions, there’s no over-ride. And, Allan says, you’re on your own for so long that the whole experience “induces thoughtfulness.”

I can imagine a Third Third life that’s a break from responsibility, from the expectations of other people, from the likelihood that tomorrow will match today. Most of the Third Thirds I know are extensions of desires – more travels, more volunteering, more creativity – but they remain within the confines of their “regular” life. Allan’s is a fantasy realized. To do it, he had to leave his regular life. He – and his family – had to take a big leap and adapt. I think of my fantasy – a year in London, a year in New York City – and I wonder what (other than money) is stopping me. Did Allan just really, really want his more?

Allan had taken a previous long bike journey when he was younger. Now, he says, he’s not 25. He has “weary leg days” – days off for when he just loses his oomph. He tries not to go past 80% of his personal limit. If he does 100%, the next day he’s only at 60%. Recovery takes longer at age 60. Besides, Allan says, “There is always another day,” he can get there tomorrow, and “being tired all the time isn’t fun.”

He’s a stickler for safety, doesn’t ride in the dark. The first time he had to ride on a divided superhighway was scary, but now he realizes riding on the shoulder with cars 12 feet away from him is actually safer than having them right up next to him on a narrow country road. But what about when things go bad, those days of mud or freezing rain or worse? “You always get through it,” Allan says. “There’s nothing I couldn’t do again.” Allan was a professional firefighter: riding a bike in civilization isn’t the hardest thing he’s had to do in his life. As he puts it, it’s not even wilderness.

So where’s he gone actually? He started in Chicago, reached the Mississippi River and headed south. He crossed along the southern border of the U.S. to California and up to San Francisco. After family visits, he again took off from St. Louis, this time east to the Atlantic Ocean via the Erie Canal Trail and Massachusetts. After a summer bicycling in Alaska, Allan flew to Europe, where he’s bicycled along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, stopping in Serbia for this winter’s return to the U.S. Total miles since retirement: 9,817.
Allan’s story doesn’t just push the Third Third envelope; it bashes the concept of an envelope, period. So now I’m sitting here thinking: What if? How far? How big the dream?

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