Male College Student Seeking Confidence and Purpose, All Inquiries Welcome
We decided to ride to my house after finals. It was March in Minnesota, but we had more than a measure of faith in the weather. Jonah and I were planning a relatively short ride, 430 miles, from our collegiate home in Northfield, Minnesota to my childhood home in the suburbs of Chicago. Touring was a first for me, though for Jonah it was old hat.
I have occupied the last twelve months of my life consuming all that there is to read about people who live on their bicycles, people who renounced career, a stable life, a home with four permanent walls, and a pension. It had become, in some respects, a weird, unrealistic panacea to everything in my life that worried me. Touring metamorphosed into my escape from real, ‘adult’ life, without my having actually ever done it. I continue to dream about living on my bike, somehow making bike travel my life, but am always more than a little fearful about my ability to implement such a plan and how totally ridiculous it sounds. Answering the question of how to live outside has become in many ways one of the most pressing questions in my life. Without really knowing it, my fantastic escape from reality had assumed a corporeal existence of its own. As my first legitimate tour, this was, therefore, a rather high-stakes trip.
The trip started out well; without much trouble, we pedaled 70 miles in what continually hinted at becoming a headwind along the Mississippi, eventually landing at an RV campsite in Wabasha, though our packing failures quickly became apparent. I had brought no stove for our cooking needs, and, to my nervous mind, the specter of failure loomed ominously over our nascent trip. Obviously our situation was neither dire nor particularly without remedy; we were in a trailer park in the middle of a town. My packing abilities were clearly only surpassed by my gift for making a mountain out of a molehill – though one would be hard-pressed to find anything larger than a hill in Minnesota, regardless of the animal that created it. Embracing this moment of ‘failure’ in some ways saved the entire expedition for me. Dwelling on such a frankly daft misstep could have colored the rest of the experience – a tragic loss. The notion that failure was not something to worry about, which sprouted naturally from this experience, became necessary for what one might term the ‘success’ of the trip. No matter how thoroughly I thought I had prepared for the experience, so much of the actual trip was impossible to control and make easier. Ultimately, the consequences for any failure were nonexistent.
The forecast for the next day was hail and serious headwinds, (a recipe for a terrible day on the bike) and we were on a strict timetable, a mistake I will never make again on a bike tour, so we called in a favor from a friend to drive us the next day’s distance so that we might finish the tour on time without having ‘wimped out’ and ended early. This maneuver, known as a boost, was another moment of strangeness; was it firmly ‘within our rights’ to take the lift and make our venture easier, or was it our duty as outdoorspeople to embrace the challenge and ride the 90 miles necessary to stay on track for the next day, endangering ourselves in the process? I would hope not. Even thinking that such an action was ‘unethical’ in the bicycle touring world is ridiculous. I mean, come on. We’re not alpinists. Steve House isn’t riding with us.
Tourers, it seems, are in some senses interested in the distance they travel, but the essential premise of bicycle touring is that it is not an efficient means of transport. As I’ve often been asked, ‘Why don’t you just fly there? It would be so much faster and you could see so much more of the city! Those country roads must be so boring…’ A question like this misses the purpose of riding a bicycle entirely, for it presupposes a need for efficiency, even in pleasure, that in many ways spoils how we live. Bicycling of any sort exists at the human scale, and allows people to really understand the world around them. Before I ran into cycling, I had no appreciation for hills as physical objects, but cycling opened my eyes to whole new realms of the material world we inhabit. Because that’s what traveling in cars and planes does, it blinds us to the way the world works without it. It divorces us from the physical world, allowing us to forget what it means to climb a hill or summit a mountain. These technological advances allow us to pretend that we are bigger, stronger and faster than we are. Internal combustion erases the effort of the climb.
But even with cycling there is difference. Coming from a bike-racing background, this concept of efficiency was often at the fore of my mind; Racing, and riding fast bikes, is all about getting to a finish line. While there is a certain visceral joy in really flying on a bike, it is really nothing like the joy of touring. In racing, everything is seen through the lens of performance. Every hill, breeze and temperature change is either seen as an aid or hindrance in the quest for speed. Touring, on the other hand, is meditation: an exercise in mindfulness. When touring, the blur of trees as seen when racing becomes more defined, and things that were invisible become visible. The patchwork of tar on the road, the rolling hills in the distance, the picturesque barn on the side of the road all come into sharper focus. That is, among many other reasons, the joy of touring. When riding to ride, the world becomes accessible in ways that it just isn’t when riding for speed, or, God forbid, driving a car.
Naturally, we took the car that day, skipping many of those selfsame hills, whizzing by what was surely a number of truly photogenic B and B’s.
Our final destination on that truncated, wet day was the tiny central Wisconsin hamlet of Norwalk, a place truly sheltered from the ravages of time, though perhaps this protection was not to the town’s benefit. The only bar in town, called ‘the Place’ was built in 1903. It hadn’t been updated since, at the latest, the early 70’s; it was full of men churning through rum and cokes as they denounced their alleged alcoholism and the inherently homosexuality of basketball. The Place crystallized just how different the world can be. We come from Carleton, a place that, despite its rather serious shortcomings and pretensions, is literally light-years more progressive than this bar in Norwalk. It can be easy to imagine that the world follows along with you, slowly following in the wake of what you assume is progress, but that is often so far from the case. We do not live in a homogeneous world, but rather one where what can seem the obvious consensus opinion in one place becomes heresy in another Place.
After a park gazebo kindly shielded us from some rather torrential rain, we awoke early to begin laying the miles down. The day was a long one; we covered almost 90 miles, and, as we rolled into Baraboo, Wisconsin, the afternoon beckoned sweetly, and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds. We had had a very hard time finding campsites because we were traveling so early in the season, so the afternoon’s goal was simply to find a place to sleep for the night. We had been rained on heavily the night before – probably the coldest night I’ve endured camping – so we were rather eager to set up and get warm on what turned out to be a very sunny day. This dearth of adequate places to stay made us all the more surprised when, coming out of Baraboo, a large man in a Toyota FJ stopped us and asked if we were interested in staying at his house for the night. He said he had done cross-country tours before and offered us showers, laundry, warm beds and some pot to ease our aching joints. We, intrigued and more than a little frightened, very cautiously accepted his offer of a place to stay, forming disaster-scenario game plans as we rolled into his driveway.
This man was intimidating to say the least. His sheer bulk astonished me; the man was a barrel mounted on legs and loomed over us as only a man who has trouble touching his elbows together can. His bald head and sunglasses, in addition to his size, gave the impression of military, while his big, boxy truck seemed to make some kind of statement about the sort of man he thought he was, though the pot nudged this image. Was this a bald-headed, former wrestler and current drug dealer? Or perhaps simply a hippie in elaborate disguise? It was only five miles to his house, and along the way, Jonah and I debated the whole way the nature of danger we were in, going to this man’s house and tossing the proverbial potato back and forth as to who this mysterious person was. One theory postulated that this man, who introduced himself as Levi Kaufmann, was a DEA agent looking to entrap two ‘innocent’ cycle tourists by offering them a joint. The other, more obvious possibility was a good degree more threatening; this man could very well drug and have his way with us. While the tone of the trip thus far had been cheery and positive, the possibility that our lives, based on our rather foolhardy decision to sleep in the country at the home of what was clearly a rather eccentric man, could be irrevocably changed loomed over those five miles. This is the kind of story that one can look at in retrospect and point to the moment when everything went south.
We rolled up and walked our bikes through a brightly painted white gate into a rambling compound on a hill, with structures and animals scattered across the incline like children’s toys left out: cement blocks, a barn, and several barking dogs. The house Levi emerged from was large and many-faced, and upon entering it, we were confronted with the innards of what Jonah immediately described as a “hippie castle”. The house was covered in both Hebrew and stained glass. Three huge dogs – boxers, as we were told – greeted us with barks and, eventually, smiles. Their names (Bobo, Flip and Pip) contradicted their fundamental nature as, what Levi called, “trained guard dogs”. He had three boxers, with the strongest and most aggressive possessing a moniker reminiscent of a children’s stuffed animal: Bobo.
We began unpacking, but Levi quickly interrupted us to conclude a more important task: sharing a joint on the porch. The man was clearly an experienced smoker, handling the thing with ease. The smoke seemed to lubricate his vocal chords, as the joint, along with its honorable line of successors, unleashed a six-hour flood of verbosity unequaled since the days of Noah. He mentioned the source of his weed: a compound of Israeli Ex-Special Forces commandos in the wild mountains forests of California. Levi claimed that because of his service in the Israeli army, the soldiers were willing to give him pot by the pound for his personal use. He was able to fly it back, uninspected, on private jets because of his diplomatic connections. Needless to say, Levi stressed that this was some “some really good shit”.
As the afternoon wore on and Levi continued to expound on anything and everything, a reasonable sketch of his lived experience began to emerge. He was raised in Roger’s Park, a neighborhood of Chicago, as an ultra-orthodox Jew at an Orthodox prep school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and graduated at sixteen. He played professional rugby with Rangers in Glasgow for several years and briefly raced as an amateur cyclist before heading to George Washington University in D.C. for an undergraduate degree in Economics and International Relations. This led him into “international big-tent marketing events” and a great deal of travel abroad – he apparently had the stamps of 100 countries in his passport – while recently he had been spending time selling coffee online that he imports from fellow “Hebes” across the world. This was all in tandem with working two to three weeks a month rehabbing his house, which he bought from a heroin dealer. He specializes in Kopi luwak, coffee that has been digested and excreted by goats, though in this case rather than being the traditional Indonesian goats, he owned two good old Midwestern goats, one of whom was named Spanky, which was my childhood nickname.
Levi had presented us with an incredible picture of his life. Real or not, he presented the willing – or unwilling – listener with a compelling story. Levi painted a fascinating picture to me of what it meant to live an alternative lifestyle. He was a living example of the fact that a person could live differently and get away with it, though whether that was as different as he said it was will probably never be known. We live in a world where success is often rigidly defined: a good education, followed by a good job and happy family, ending in peaceful senility at the local country club, but it is often disheartening to be surrounded by so much life careerism. It is important to acknowledge, however, that this life careerism often comes from economic circumstances beyond the control of these achievers. For some, it is no fault of their own that they must win so much that their friends will have to ask them to stop winning, but those who do it simply out of cultural pressure or natural inclination are the ones who really harsh my mellow.
Even if he was stroking his ego with his rather exaggerated stories, Levi was the counterpoint to all of the conformist pressures of my youth. Frankly, I don’t much care if everything that he said was genuine. He actually does sell Sumatran coffee; I looked it up. He has a LinkedIn profile, and, heck, shares some connections with my dad, who’s a real achiever. Beyond that, though, I am not willing to dig. I do not want to be presented with the real and mundane facts of his life. This image that he presented to us, whether it was real or fictitious, allowed me to believe that it is possible to live in Levi’s style. It doesn’t matter if the real Levi Kaufmann exists. The Levi we met, for all his boasting and grandiosity, was enough. He does not have to be everything he said he was. Even if his life was just what we saw: a man living in a fixer-upper in the country, slowly becoming more self-sufficient, that enough would be an inspiration. It is enough to know that a person like him exists in the world.
As I departed the ‘outer space’ weirdness of the Kaufmann compound and returned to the relative normalcy of the suburban and college life, Levi has continued to occupied much of my mental bandwidth. What does crossing paths with him mean in the context of my life? Was this encounter meant to be the kind of experience that would continue to exert a certain influence on me? Somehow it felt significant. It was too weird not to, but what was I supposed to learn from this man? Honestly, I don’t want to have his life, but rather, I think that he wandered into our narrative to teach a more basic lesson. I think that he taught me to have the courage to live with my convictions. Life can seem daunting from the outset, but the presence of someone doing that strange or spectacular something, even if it isn’t the sort of peculiar or extraordinary that I’m interested in, is a simple reminder that the outlandish and remarkable can be done. Taking a chance is unnerving, but seeing someone else who has done something, anything weird, can give you just enough hutzpah to take the jump.
 This connection seems to become more and more ethereal as the currents of time push me ever further away.
 In reference to both my workspace and ‘the box’.
 That is, the right of any self-respecting bicycle-tourist looking to brag about their ‘badass’ adventures later to their friends.
 Says the man who took the boost.
 This is by no means an indictment of the technology that allows us to live the lives we do, but rather a polite request to consider the human relationship with the natural world, stripped of that technology. Good luck getting synthetic chain lube in the 15th century.
 Cyclists will often talk about the tenths of a percent energy savings that they get from some device or carbon fiber component.
 The irony in our plight being that we were literally hundreds of yards from any number of houses that might have provided us with the shelter we desired, but here again we were confronted with the cycle tourist’s bravado, telling us to tough it out so we might tell the stories later on.
 Large enough to smash watermelons between his hands.
 It would be serious misrepresentation to say that we bounded into this opportunity with open arms; we carefully weighed the opportunity versus his creepiness quotient, and we were lucky enough to be right on this occasion.
 Though rather outlandish, in conservative Wisconsin, anything is possible.
 And finger-pointing being my specialty, I had my weapons loaded and ready.
 This was less the sort of palace that a hippie king would hold court in – it was lacking a certain nobility – and more a residence of a compulsive eBay shopper crossed with vacation-home designer. The layout was sprawling and filled with novelty features that only someone looking for a house full of the ‘best of’ architectural features would include: a three-story wrought iron staircase, huge exposed wooden ceiling beams with the moto of Opus Dei written on them and a wood-burning stove next to a hammock in the middle of the living room.
 Even after several hours of post-trip debate and analysis, Jonah and I could only offer the vaguest of notions as to what “international big-tent marketing events” might have been.
 Being Jewish, Jonah and I were Hebes to him as well.
 And junkies looking for a fix would apparently still regularly knock on his door at four A.M., only for Levi, his dogs and his shotgun to make it abundantly clear that, no, the dealer they’re looking for didn’t live there anymore.