Journal 55 – The end of a journey
Special to the Appeal
Editor’s note: Former Appeal photographer Rick Gunn left the Golden Gate Bridge in July 2005, setting out to ride his bike around the world.
Along the way, the 44-year-old South Lake Tahoe man has seen poverty and wealth. He’s rejoiced in the kindness of strangers and wept at the lingering effect of man’s cruelty to one another.
And he captured it all in photos and stories that have been printed in the Nevada Appeal.
Today, he’s expected to complete that journey where it began. With him will be Appeal reporter Geoff Dornan, who was also with him on the first stages of the trip.
Rick’s journal below records his return to the United States.
“The final way to attain personal freedom is … to take death itself as our teacher. What the angel of death can teach us is how to be truly alive. We can begin each day by saying, I’m awake, I see the sun, I am going to give my gratitude to the sun and everything and everyone, because I am still alive – one more day to be myself. Because this may be the last day that I can tell you how much I love you. It is not important if you love me back. I may die tomorrow, or you may die tomorrow, what makes me happy now, is to let you know how much I love you.”
– Don Miguel Ruiz, from the book, “The Four Agreements”
When my plane finally touched down in North America, the memories came in a flood.
Staring out the window at a wet Vancouver runway, those memories converged into a single thought. That of a conversation. One that had ebbed and flowed within my head since its origin some six years previous.
“I feel unlovable,” I’d recalled telling the woman that sat across from me. “I have trouble in relationships too.”
The woman encouraged me to continue.
“I also have problems setting boundaries,” I added, “problems expressing anger, troubles dealing with setbacks – difficulties saying no.”
I had often shared these things with others, but this woman was different.
She seemed to be listening with the entirety of her being, without expectations, agendas or judgments.
And as she took in my words and validated my perceived wounds, it felt as though I were bathing them within cool clear water.
And so it was that I continued that conversation, meeting with this woman for an hour a week, month after month, year after year, digging deeply into the depths of my own personal history book.
Unflinchingly, I recounted the pinnacles of my joy, the depth of my failures; bravely shining the light upon the most painful internal landscapes; upturning the darkest earth unto light.
Then, one day, I came clean with it.
“Viola,” I said, “I think I’m crazy.”
A smile broadened upon her face, her eyes aglow with warmth and confidence.
“Rick,” she replied, “the ones that are crazy in this world are the ones that insist they’re not.”
Three years passed before the bulk of my fears transformed into an incredible lightness of being. As they did. I utilized the extra energy I’d gained into the actualization of a dream.
My dream to ride a bicycle around the planet.
Three days before I left, I met with Viola one last time.
With tears of love and respect streaming from my eyes, I thanked her from the depths of my heart, then wrapped my arms around her in a heartfelt hug.
“Well,” I said in a quivering voice, “I guess we’ll pick up where we left off when I get back.”
She looked at me for a moment, staring intently with those deep mirrors of insight and wisdom.
“Who knows, Rick,” she smiled, “you may not feel the need.”
“Sir …” a stewardess’ voice interrupted, snapping me from my daydream, “Sir, we’ve arrived in Vancouver. It’s time to disembark.”
I grabbed my carry-on, and filed off the plane.
An hour later, after I’d built my bike from a box among the empty chairs of the arrival terminal, I reluctantly rolled to the mouth of two immense glass doors. Staring out for a moment at the steel gray skies, a shuffle of passengers intermittently ushered in bone-chilling blasts of frigid arctic air.
Then, with only $20 to my name, wearing holy clothes, and a secondhand pair of gloves, I climbed atop my rig and set out one last time.
Merging into traffic with four torn bike bags, two bald tires, and a cracked rear rim, I negotiated my way south of the city’s center.
Then, five miles into the 1,500-mile last leg of the journey, my bike began wobbling treacherously.
Pulling to the curb, I looked down to discover that my third bicycle frame had snapped clean through at the rear triangle.
Stranded amid the whir of Canadian traffic, I gazed at my bike’s gaping wound.
I could have very well cried.
Instead, I let loose with an uncontrollable belly laugh.
How ironic was it that I’d battered this bike more than 15,000 miles, over the most brutal rock-strewn stretches on the planet – across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tibet and Indonesia – only to have it snap on one of the smoothest roads in the Western Hemisphere.
I bent down near the break and leaned in tight.
“You did all right,” I whispered to it like some dying horse.
I pushed for a mile until I came to a muffler shop. Wheeling it through a large roll-up door, I negotiated a price, then watched as a certified exhaust technician welded the repair.
“Do you think it’ll hold for 1,000 miles?” I asked after he returned it to me.
“It either will or it won’t,” he offered apathetically, then turned and walked away.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the muffler man’s words were Zen.
They reminded me of one of the most important lessons I’d learned during my journey.
The lesson of impermanence.
After three years cycling 25,000 miles, through 33 countries, I’d worn out about three bicycle frames, five rear rims, 15 sets of tires, three drive trains, four seats, five pairs of cycling shoes, six pairs of cycling shorts, five iPods, six cyclocomputers, 20 sets of headphones, two laptops, two cameras and five lenses.
I’d stopped counting the flat tires.
But more important than the equipment, it came to me, was the impermanence itself.
It encompassed everyone and everything: the weather, my moods, the people and the landscapes, the moon, the sky, the religions, the politics, the food, the dress – the pleasure and the pain.
If there was one thing I could count on during the course of this journey it was change.
Once I made peace with that, nothing could stop me.
Rolling my reincarnated rig from that muffler shop on the outskirts of Vancouver, I hopped back on it and began charging south, from the dormant patchwork of farmlands in southernmost British Columbia, through the endless stands of pines in Northern Washington State. On little more than peanut butter and jelly, and a budget of $5 a day, I continued pedaling south, through a 300-mile curtain of water along the majestic beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and the rocky coastal capes of the Oregon Coast.
This until I finally crossed the Northern California border.
“I’m home,” I whispered as I entered the church-like silence of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The organic high rise seemed to respond in kind, showering my arrival with gossamer rays of silverish light.
I finished the bulk of my ride down Highway 1, through Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Gualala, and Bodega Bay.
In just a few days’ time, I would complete my journey within the loving arms of friends and family, at my final destination on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
But before I did, I had one last thing to do.
Picking up a parcel my father had sent by mail, I back-tracked to the north, to the tiny hamlet of Jenner.
Turning off where the Russian River met the sea, I pedaled upstream.
Along the way I began picking at the mad blooms of springtime flowers along the road, stuffing them copiously into a plastic bag. I collected wild rose, honeysuckle, iris, moon flowers, mustard flower, wisteria, daffodils, daisies and poppies.
I attached the bag to my bike, then rolled to a small quiet alcove along the river.
Tearing open the package, I came upon its contents: a jar full of dirt. Because I’d never had the chance to scatter my mother’s ashes, I’d requested that my father send me some of the earth over which he’d spread them some 26 years ago.
I sat for some time with that jar and those flowers. Then, slowly, I opened the bag and floated the flowers equally upon the slow-moving waters.
Watching them float in a swirl of color, another flood of memories came to me.
In one of those memories, I envisioned the same river before me: a man and a woman smiling within a kayak, their two children, splashing, squealing jubilantly upon their laps.
It was the last memory I’d had of my family intact.
Then my mind stretched back further. Back to a memory that may well have been my first.
In that memory I was little more than an infant: naked, wriggling in my mother’s arms.
Holding my tiny body ever so cautiously, I recalled how she’d slowly, gently, lovingly, introduced me to the water.
Now that task had come full circle.
Taking one last moment to peer out over those moving waters, I opened the jar.
As tears began to flow, my lips moved in a whisper.
“Well, Mom, I finally did it. I cycled around the world.
“I know your eyes were not able to see that same world, but I hoped to make you proud knowing that my eyes did.
“The truth was that I was a boy when you left, and not quite ready for your departure.
“Now that I am a man, it is time for me to say good-bye.”
With that, I cast the earth from the jar, with a sweeping arch, its powdery remnants drifting toward the sky.
When I was done, I stripped my clothes, then slipped beneath a glimmer of emerald water.
I knew at that moment, that this journey had reached its end.
I had long looked to this moment.
As if all the experiences of my journey would align, and all the answers to my questions would coalesce into some neat order; revealing their deeper meanings.
What came instead was the acceptance of the mystery – how beautifully unexplainable it all was.
This and a deep appreciation for what simply was.
And in that I had seen God.
Not the culturally myopic God of one region, culture, or religion, but the vast god that resides within the vast man. The one that danced between the synapses, illuminating the atomic spaces; the god that sung in the shimmering leaves on the edge of the forest, that spoke unquestionably in the eyes of a young child.
The god whose real name is love.
As I crawled from the water, and stared back over the river, I pondered what the legacy of my life would be.
Soon, in perhaps 50 years or less, the river that was my life also would return to the sea.
I thought of the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his description of how he’d wanted to be remembered after he was gone: “I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity … that I was a drum major for justice … a drum major for peace … a drum major for righteousness. I just want to leave behind a committed life.”
Eclipsed by the magnitude of his vision, I smiled upon the realization that I too would leave behind something permanent, however small in comparison.
Not fame, fortune, glory or accomplishments, just small acts of kindness, and the precious acts of love.
I would like to end this journey by deeply thanking all those who believed in me, those that contributed in one way or another, as well as recognize three of my greatest heroes: My father Richard Gunn, Viola Nungary MFCC, and the late Dr. Leo Buscaglia, tireless proponent of the power of love.