THE BLOG

10 Lessons I Learned From Bicycling Across USA

12/23/2013 03:21 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

In summer 2013, after graduating from college, I biked alone from Western Massachusetts to San Francisco. The journey took 74 days, 3,400 miles, and 7 flat tires. I didn't wear bike shoes, never locked my bike once, never spent a dime on lodging, and never encountered a single bad person.

During the day, I biked on small country roads, following the state maps that I bought from gas stations. Having so much "free time" on my hands as I biked 60 to 70 miles a day, I finished listening to the Bible (Old and New Testament), the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and Moby Dick. In the evening, I knocked on the doors of strangers, asking if I could camp in their backyard. Of the 400 or so doors that I knocked on, one in five let me in, and many invited me to stay inside, and fed me meals.

People of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds went out of their way to help this young man from China -- a stranger, a foreigner, and a traveler. This experience has touched me so deeply, and changed my life for better. Here I wish to share some lessons learned from the 3,000 miles of ups and downs.

1. Don't wait to be fully prepared. Real journey is the best preparation.

Life is too short for waiting, and one can never be fully prepared. I could have spent an entire summer training, buying gears, planning route, and still not get on the road. In fact, I had zero experience bike touring. Before the first day of the trip, my longest bike ride was about two hours on a mountain bike. It certainly took a few tough days to figure out the best system, but everything worked out just fine. So, just pack up and go.

2. Focus on one day at a time.

Days before the departure, I found the logistics of a long tour daunting. Seeing my anxiety, a teacher told me, "Just focus on one day at a time." This is the single best advice I received. Biking for one day is not hard to do, for anyone. When you look at a single day, it almost seems boring and mundane: pack food, wash clothes, grease the bike chain...

There is a story about meditation. The disciple asked the meditation master how long he has been meditating in his life. The master responded, "Since this morning."

3. Everyday, move West a little. Never turn back.

Each small step is insignificant -- some days I only biked for 3 hours, or 25 miles. It becomes meaningful when you add a thousand steps toward one direction. Every day, at least a few times, I questioned myself, "Why am I doing this? What was I thinking?" The rain, the wind, the heat, the hills, the trucks... But, I knew that as long as I move West just by a little bit every day, I would see the Pacific Ocean sooner or later.

To achieve any goal, most of the things we need to do might seem petty, grinding, or even irrelevant. That's when we need to have faith. As long as you know that you are on the right direction, it is OK even if you see no light for the time being.

4. Give yourself the right amount of space; ask the right question.

At the beginning of the trip, having zero bike touring experience, I over-packed, and dragged a trailer behind my bike. For the next 3,000 miles, I kept downsizing. By the time I finally minimized my gears, even four pannier bags seems too much.

After about one thousand miles, I realized that part of the problem was that I gave myself too much space by having a trailer. We have the tendency of filling up whatever space we have with stuff. So, I traded the trailer for the panniers. That also changed the question I ask myself about packing. Beforehand, I was asking, "Would I need this item?" (The answer is usually yes.) Now, with limited space, I ask, "Can I survive without this item?" (The answer is usually yes, also.)

Downsizing is a liberating process. You'd be amazed at how little stuff you need to be happy and free.

5. Two truly American phenomenon: lawn mowing and yard sale.

Lawn mowing seems to be the No.1 obsession of American homeowners. I have seen more people mowing their lawn than those who are just simply relaxing on their porch. The homeowners seem to want "nature" to surround their house, but only "nature" in its subdued and commodity form, instead of its natural state. After mowing the lawn, they go back to work to earn money so that they can pay for the lawn mower and weed killers, having no time to enjoy the lawn.

Similarly, I have seen more yard sales than yard BBQs. The yard sales feature all kinds of worldly possession. No doubt that most of those stuff are made in developing countries. So here is the message: yard sale is a sale from the graveyard of labor. Those cheap plastic toys and clothes are not mere objects. They are the fossilized labor and youth of poor, young workers in many less fortunate parts of the world. They contain shattered dreams of under-aged workers in a Chinese factory, devastated families as victims of building collapse in the Bangladesh sweatshop, and irreparable damage to people's health and the environment.

6. Competence takes many forms, and knowledge alone is not enough in life.

Having spent my entire life in schools, and the most recent four years at a liberal arts college, I might have fooled myself into believing that I am a pretty well-rounded person. But this bike journey humbled the book-smart lad, and made me realize that at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you can quote Cicero. I was constantly amazed by the everyday folks' stunning craftsmanship in fixing cars, building houses, earning an honest living, and making a welcoming home. They contribute tangible and real value to society, whereas the high-flying, big-talking, and over-educated ones might sometimes do more harm than good.

That might be why Mao sent the intellectual youths to the countryside to be re-educated.

7. Beyond ideology, there is humanity.

Having spent college years in a progressive, liberal bubble, I was infected with the impression that being liberal is a prerequisite of being nice. In our snobbish and self-righteous prejudice, we had the image of anti-climate-science Republicans, ignorant Christian fundamentalist, homophobic Mormons, NASCAR-obsessed rednecks, gun-loving country folks -- those couldn't possible be nice people!

How wrong I was, and how generous of all those people mentioned above, and many more, to help disarm my ideological biases and intellectual snobbery with their generosity and kindness. I was ashamed of my stereotype against them, and will always remember the open arms and hearts with which all of them received me. Compared to a higher humanity that unites us, ideological differences seem so petty.

Neither is being religious a prerequisite of human kindness. Generosity and compassion are universal. But I do notice a deep impact of religions on inspiring good in people.

8. The role of religion in the U.S., compared to China.

I am amazed at the central role religions play in the United States, especially compared to China. Religions help to build individual characters, family bond, and community unity. Church, prayer, scripture reading are a central part of many people's life. Especially in the rural area, or in smaller towns, the church is the center of community life.

Many people I've stayed with have explicitly attributed their willingness to host me to their faith.

Love ye therefore the strangers, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. (Hebrews 13:2)

And from what I can see, people's life are all the richer and more meaningful because of their faiths.

Granted that, over the years, as religious institutions decay, "religions" might have created as many problems as it has solved. Superstition, fundamentalism, and crusades have plagued the human history.

However, in modern society's attempt to throw away the backward shackles of religious institutions, we might have also done some "collateral damage" to the precious teachings and valuable traditions, refined over thousands of years, and proven effective in inspiring good and preventing evil.

Can we distill the core teachings of religions, and present them in a non-denominational form? Can we teach the simple, universal values of respect, humility, tolerance, compassion and love in a way that does not offend any existing religion?

Buddha taught that his teachings are like boats for us to cross the river. The point is to cross the river, not to hang on to the boat. If various religions are different ways to cross the same River of Life, why should we fight over which boat is the right, supreme boat, and sink each other before we even get halfway across the river?

Looking back at China, I see that China is in an period of spiritual vacuum and moral confusion. This state of affairs usually comes with the breaking of the old, and the making of the new. Historically, China is a very spiritual nation, with vibrant religious diversity.

Confucius said about the spirits, gods, and the unknown, "Respect, but keep a distance." The current official attitude in China toward religions might have inherited Marx's "opium of the masses" tagline. But people would always seek the ultimate peace, once their worldly needs are met.

9. Spirituality requires discipline.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience." We have a good discipline (driven by hunger) of feeding our human body, but not so rigorous when it comes to feeding the spirit. This journey has taught me the importance and benefit of nourishing the spirit, the soul, not just the body and the intellect.

Listening to spiritual canons during this trip has helped establish a daily spiritual cleansing and reflection. It brings us back to the fundamental questions of good and evil, of purpose and meaning, of life and death. It nudges us to seek truth. It reminds us what is worth living and working for.

10. Self-deception

In the long solitary ride, you are the only audience of yourself. The degree of self-deception in us is more dangerous than any lying to others. The thing is, when we lie to others, we know we are lying. But in the abyss of self-deception, we aren't even aware of the lies we tell.

More than to anyone else, we put on a good show for ourselves to see, because we are the ones needing the assurance the most. Solitude, nature, and contemplation are great antidote to our incessant orgy of self-deception.

If we have to adopt an honor code, let us not fool ourselves by promising never to lie to others, but to humbly try to lie less to ourselves.

The above 10 lessons are just some of the learning from the road. They continue to inspire me to step outside of the comfort zone, the bubble, to be open minded, be vulnerable, and be on the road. Hope to see you on the road soon!