Saturday, April 8, 2017

Built to roam

In favor of friction

In a recent podcast, the lack of friction in our online transactions was cited as a problem. They cited one click purchasing from Amazon. People need a certain level of friction to gain satisfaction. It reminded me of the pre-made cake mix story. The first launch of the product was a powder that had everything, just add water and “ta-dah!” you had a cake. The product flopped. It was only when the designers removed the powdered milk and eggs from the cake mix became a success. People wanted to be able to say they made a cake, which requires more effort than adding water, you know. So, they break a few eggs, add milk—it is just that kind of friction that creates satisfaction in our day-to-day lives.

I could be described as an adrenaline junkie by looking at my past sports life: water skiing, cycling, rock climbing, now I’m back cycling, shaved legs and mountains. When I was a kid, I loved water skiing. Slalom water skiing is terrific fun when the conditions are right. Anyone who has spent time on a boat knows them: the wind is calm, there are no other boats and the still water looks like a solid sheet of glass. Then begins the work of cutting back and forth over the wake, trying to create large rooster tail, difficult but an utter pleasure. Holding on to the rope, you cut out from the wake trying to go fast, yet on the turn you attempt to create slack in the rope and cut hard back towards the middle. At this point your ski generates G-forces—like it was a fighter jet—the pressure generated throws you back towards the wake with so much speed and force the wake becomes a jump. When I think back to when I had the ski under me, the most visceral pleasant feeling wasn’t from the water when it was pure glass, but just those tiny little wind disturbed ripples over flat water. This gave the water life. The little laps of water jumping into the boot of the ski and the subtle vibration of the ski gave the water the pleasant friction I can still feel today.

Tomorrow is the Paris-Roubaix, or Hell of the North as people like to call it. Almost 260km and over 50kms of it cobbles. Any bike race commonly known as Hell of the North, is going to have a certain level of brutality. Of the cobbles, there are sections that are fast and smooth and there are sections that are bone-rattling. Here where I live in Ouro Fino, Minas Gerais (Brazil), I ride cobbles on every ride. Not because I chose the chattering road, but because the center of town, where I live, was built with cobbles. Cobbles and gravel, like lake water, conjure up that pleasant friction at certain moments. Back in 1998, one of my bicycle mentors, Brian Kee, took me on a ride around Athens, Georgia (USA) that involved a few miles of gravel roads. At first I was shocked, but idolizing Brian and wanting to impress him I rode on behind him and tried to find my rhythm. Eventually I found it. The vibrations went from awkward and inhibiting to a satisfying hum under my hands, feet and butt. Hitting pavement after those gravel roads was bliss, but only bliss in contrast. Same but different. Not better versus worse.

Now I find this same bliss on all kinds of roads that surround this tiny town I call home. Sometimes the moving over imperfect dirt roads with my mountain bike. The roads are often hard-packed but a touch lose and somewhat flat and these imperfections push back on my forward momentum providing a small sense of completion. Those feelings compounded with some of the long, dragging and nearly equally-satisfying climbs satiate a deep hunger. Brutally rough dirt roads or sloppy mud fests are much less satisfying, but do provide an important contrast. The desire to roam, to cover ground, to explore, to find treasure satisfies some nomadic craving that I’ve always had.

When I was a kid I loved the time we spent on Trinity Lake in California. This was long before I could water ski. My best buddy Max and I would go off and explore tiny little islands and coves, looking for signs of life. Often we would only come upon a sun-faded empty Budweiser beer can and a few lizards. Regardless of the find, the goal was to scramble over the mud to firm land and to inspect new terrain.

Friction has always been a part of this desire to roam that propels us forward. With no friction, we can’t move forward. Really, try walking on ice. As a rock climber, friction ruled all of those climbing sessions. Boat Rock is a climbing area near Atlanta. Climbers tend not to like it because of the climbing style it requires. Often at Boat Rock you will be wrestling for balance on nearly bald granite boulders with a few sharp crystals to hold onto. Improper foot work means you go home with bloody knees, or worse a bloody face. That was always my greatest worry at Boat Rock, hands slip and face slams the rock. Never happened, us humans are good a protecting our vital organs.

Speaking of vital organs, sex is just another example of that pleasant friction. No need to explain this one here.

In my climbing days, October was known as “Rock-tober” because the fall in temperatures meant our hands were less sweaty. It meant there was enough friction to climb outside on bulbous rocks and make use of those little crevices and features so that we could move over stone, so that we could satiate that need to roam even though we would just come back to the start via rope or walk-off.

Intentional driving has never worked to satisfy my craving to roam, though I know it works for other people.

I am one of those people who picks out and plays music even when I’m just driving for three minutes. But when climbing, cycling or roaming in general, music is not an option. Something deep in me needs that quiet. As it is for most people, my best ideas come when I’m not being bombarded by questions from staff, responding to emails, reviewing accounting reports or struggling to find my spreadsheet mistakes. Most of my working hours are filled with those pressures. So it’s no wonder that cycling 6-10 hours a week is so vital to my mental state, needless to say my body reaps the benefits as well.


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As the pressure of my work load leaves me with the proverbial shaky knees, a desire to roam, to make a pilgrimage, to see the ground pass under me only builds. As a productivity-obsessed American, there is a constant question, “what is the point of roaming?” I don’t know the answer to that, I just know that it satisfies something deep in my soul. To roam is to be human, we were built for it.  

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