My Time in the Wilderness

I’m back on my bike and two days’ ride from Denver, starting out this morning in Pueblo heading straight into the Rockies. I decided, after all, to attempt to finish exactly what I started—a straight shot to SF—rather than to, say, take a detour north to see the eclipse. This post is about what I’ve been up to in the last couple of weeks, which, though not generally on a bike, is still a significant part of my journey. Last I wrote, I was freshly dealing with my decision to skip Kansas. It was obviously unsafe to continue in that heat through the open, sparcely populated plains. But knowing I should do something and accepting it are two different things.

I ended my continuous streak in Emporia, KS, which is just large enough to have a couple of rental car places but not so large that they open on the weekends, and, I found out, sometimes they duck out early on a Friday afternoon. Since I got to Emporia on my precariously de-thorned tires at 4:30 on a Friday, my only option was to take a bus to Wichita the next day to get a rental car from Kansas’s largest airport. (The kind woman at the Dollar Rental desk gave me a free upgrade to a larger car so I wouldn’t have trouble fitting my bike!) One-way to Denver International ten days later.

Why ten days to Denver? I had plane tickets from Denver to Cleveland, with the intention that I would leave my bike in Denver, fly home to get clothes, my computer, and my passport then drive to a conference in Toronto where I had long planned to co-teach a lab class with my friend Daniel Hurtubise. Then I would retrace my steps and restart in Denver a few days later. There are no intermediate destinations to return a car (or to take a bus, train, plane, or anything else) between Emporia and Denver. I also couldn’t just go slowly or wait out the hot weather because I’d miss my flight. It was all or nothing.

All this meant that meant the point-of-no-return for my change of plans was nearly immediate: the very minute I boarded that bus to Wichita without my bike. It was the hardest bus ride ever. I was crushed, but there’s only so much I can control. I knew I’d have to “make Plan B better than Plan A,” much like the original motivator of my entire ride. I think I came close.

I found myself in the unlikely and enviable position of having a week with a rental car and a totally free and completely un-thought-about schedule. Why not knock out a couple of states on my list of those yet unvisited: Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Oklahoma

I bought shorts and a t-shirt so I’d have something to wear that wasn’t spandex. I bought a cheap backpack, a hat, and some swim trunks just in case, and I went south to Oklahoma.

I tried to have fun in Oklahoma, I swear! It’s just hard. The state tourism website made a big deal about an annual Encampment with Native American dancing for a Tribe near Tulsa, but that ended up looking more like a family reunion that would be awkward to crash. On my way out of Oklahoma, I stopped at one of those over-the-top Route 66 roadside attractions, Pops Arcadia, which sells dozens of flavors of… pop (a.k.a. “soda”).

West Texas

Next up Lubbock, Texas. Mostly it was just in the right direction on the way to New Mexico. But its roadside attraction ended up being super cool. The American Wind Power Center and Museum, or basically A LOT of wind mills. It seemed to make me feel better about my adversarial relationship with the wind. It’s fascinating how early settlers harnessed wind to pump water and grind grain. Steam locomotives could never have crossed the plains without all the water stops powered by wind.

Only once I was there did it strike me that I knew someone in town. Jim Williamson, my first professor in architecture school, is now dean of the College of Architecture at Texas Tech. Jim was also the head of the admissions committee at Cornell that decided to take a chance on a physics and French major with a portfolio that I would have been embarrassed about had I known better. I looked him up, and he quite graciously rearranged his schedule the next day to take me out for lunch. The last time I saw Jim was before my career in design technology had progressed beyond working part time in Don Greenberg’s lab at Cornell, and I’ve been so many wonderful places since. We talked about how to teach evolving technology in school, germane to us both, but where I was in a position to share my insights this time too. In the context of my journey between coasts and between jobs, it was an awesome surprise to meet one of the people who long ago helped me get here.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, I started in Roswell, where the museum for the alleged conspiracy and cover-up of the 1948 alien spacecraft crash quite satisfyingly looks like a crazy person’s scrap book. If you’re having trouble believing, perhaps the life-size diarama with rotating heads will help!

At Carlsbad Caverns, I watched many thousands of bats fly out of the mouth of the cave at sunset before spending a few hours the next morning wandering around the gothic depths myself. (In the image below, notice the maintenance worker for a sense of scale.)

I hiked for miles up and down the dunes at White Sands, the world’s largest gypsum dunes, which, yes, are just as white as dry wall. The sunset there is epic.

Just north of El Pason TX, I had a great time catching up with my high school friend Jen Lucero, who has been following my trip on Instagram. I tried to visit the Spaceport America Visitor Center in Truth or Consequences, NM, to find only a rack of post cards and a woman who admitted that she first thought they were building it to help UFOs land (that’s silly—obviously they already land at White Sands). After seeing a road sign “60 miles to…” I took a long detour to se the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Astronomy Observatory, of X-Files and Contact fame, but in all seriousness, an awesome scientific instrument in a stunning setting.

I rode on a cable car tram to the top of the Sandia Peak above Albequerque, a ride which holds the world record for the longest unsupported length between towers.

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I ate at The Range Cafe, which is a local favorite and part-owned by my good friend Alexandra Bergin’s parents. She has a lot of stories from her childhood there, and it was very cool to visit. So good! Get anything with green chilli.

At Alex’s suggestion (she and Michael basically put a couple of days of my itinerary together for me!), I hiked through Tent Rocks, which sounded weird to me too until I saw it and realized weird is an understatement.

Then finally a quick visit to Santa Fe and a hike in the canyon of the Rio Grande near Taos, with a terminus at natural hot spring next to the river.

In case it weren’t obvious, I really got into the spirit of wandering around and indulging nearly every sight-seeing whim. I had my head entirely ripped out of the bike ride, my career, and everything else. It was awesome.

But somewhere toward the end of the week, I stared thinking: what if I didn’t go to this conference after all? What if I went back to Kansas?! I could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and the weather there was safely back in the 90’s. The math was tight, but Kansas to San Francisco was at least conceivable in the time I had left. It would require skipping Denver entirely too, but I had already sacrificed so much, so why not more?

I decided to do it. I called my friend and co-presenter Daniel Hurtubise to tell him I couldn’t make it, and though he understood as much as anyone who isn’t literally on a cross-country ride could, I couldn’t escape the thought of letting him and others down, especially so late, just days beforehand. After a day more of thought, my go-back-to-Kansas plan started sounding increasingly selfish, and maybe a little unnecessary. I changed my plans again to go to the conference in Toronto, and so I continued on to Denver, where I would meet my flight a few days later.

Maybe you can see what I’m getting at. There was a grieving process for me because I feel like I failed myself by skipping Kansas, fair or not. It took days for me to work through, and maybe I’m not totally over it. It’s hard to describe, but I have long known that you can’t do something as big as what I’m attempting unless you really want it. I do, and that makes it hard to accept anything less. But I certainly don’t regret my week off, my time in the wilderness. In all the nearly three months since I was last fully employed, outside of that one week, I was never not working hard: consulting, traveling to weddings, moving, finding a new job, and of course biking. New Mexico for me was a time that was fully free of stress, and I’ll tell ya, that works wonders for the soul.

In other news, I discovered that now I’m totally ruined: touring by car isn’t nearly as satisfying as the full-contact-sport kind of touring you get with a bike.

Colorado

In a few days in Colorado, I re-found family and caught up with old friends. My grandmother’s twin Ellen and her family moved out to Denver in the 70’s, long before it was “cool.” I knew it had been a while, but when I showed up on the doorstep of my mom’s first cousins Sharon and Vern Carpenter, we realized that we hadn’t seen each other since I was five. It turned into a very late night of laughing and drinking together with my Great Aunt Ellen, a nonagenarian who can apparently stay up later than I can. I also met my second cousin Collin (he’s older, so my parents stole the name) for only the third time; we were teenagers the last time, and he’s still a really cool dude with a very fun wife, Suttida, and new baby, Adelyn. We all had a great night drinking too, sans baby, who got carded. So cool to re-find family (left image).

I also got to stay with, and ride to Red Rocks Amphitheater with, my high school friend Ian MacKenzie. Ian decided he needed an adventure, and he moved west, found a better job, got married, and had a baby in just two years. Damn, son. Ian and his also-adventurous wife Kate were great hosts, even storing my bike for me for a week while I went to Canada and picking me up from the airport. Their daughter Aili is adorable. I gave her a stuffed alien from Roswell, and reports so far are that she likes it!

Oh! And I have to mention that I finally got to visit Four Noses Brewery in Broomfield, CO, which is co-owned by a grad school friend of mine David Bibliowicz and the three other noses in his family. Great beer and a beautiful space. David’s brother Tommy runs the place, and he gave me a tour. Tommy also once rode his bike across the U.S. with a group when he was in high school. He also volunteered that they skipped a couple hundred miles once too,… because it was too hot!

Toronto

So to that conference. You know what? It was an honor to be there. Daniel publicly gave me crap for canceling and un-canceling, but in the process we got a great substitute-for-me-turned-third-partner John Pierson. This was also a great way for me to step back into the working world, albeit briefly. The result is that I’m looking forward to the end of my journey all the more, because I’ll get to work on really cool stuff with a lot of the people there. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for me to attend as an unemployed cyclist, especially Daniel and Chairman Wesley Benn. And thank you to my friend Tobias who let me use his computer for a day in Boulder so I could get ready for the lab.

On the last day, I played hookie and went kayaking with my grad school friend Ben, which was also awesome.

And that’s when I made it all public…

The News!

In September, I will return to Autodesk, to the Generative Design product team in the architecture/engineering/construction division. I’ll be a product manager for Project Quantum, which is a data-centric cloud platform that in all probability resembles the future of professional architecture software tools. Basically, architectural design requires an insane amount of information of all different types, with different authors, consumers, and legal requirements, which needs to remain useful over sometimes long timescales. Today’s software tools are mostly spot-fixes, which together reflect that general disorganization. The idea with Quantum is that project information should live in a central, shared infrastructure that is acted upon by software services as needed (optimize X, simulate Y, check zoning requirements for Z, etc.). Dynamo is a piece of this, but the whole project is a lot more ambitious. Among my responsibilities, I will help make Quantum useful for architecture workflows that I will also help to identify and describe.

I’m also happy to share that I will co-teach a new required course this fall at California College of the Arts with the general theme of digital workflows in architectural practice: building information modeling (BIM), parametrics, digital fabrication, and visualization. The first two in the list are my specialties, including a great deal of overlap with my day job. My partner in crime Clayton Muhleman will bring it home with the cool stuff: digi-fab and VR.

There’s plenty waiting for me on the other end of all this in California, and I can’t wait. But I don’t want to rush this. But I have to keep peddling. I’m not leaving Boston anymore, I’m going to San Francisco.

As for that whole skipping Kansas thing, well, now I’ll have a ready-made, meaningful way to spend a week clearing my head if I ever need it in the next few years. Not in July.

One thought on “My Time in the Wilderness

  1. Haha, I got to: “…It would require skipping Denver entirely too, but I had already sacrificed so much, so why not more?
    I decided to do it. I called my friend and co-presenter…”
    and thought “no…no, Colin, don’t do it, no…ARGH. COLIN!” But then finished the paragraph and…well, that certainly could have gone worse. 🙂 For some, it would take more gumption, grit, and balls (or ovaries, depending on your gender) to stick it out. For you, my friend, the opposite is true: sacrificing much/all in the name of success is FAR easier and more “natural” to you than owning defeat, and confronting the reality that perhaps your personal worth is not found in your success.
    Buddy, I am very proud that you made this choice, wrestled with that choice, and ultimately held yourself to that choice. It may be “easier” physically and chronologically, but it is far harder on your self identity. You’ve said your project goal was to have a “challenging and hopefully inspiring” journey. I would offer a third target: growing. Because five years from now, looking back, between:
    1)Having gone back and finished Kansas at great cost
    2)Having “failed” and changed your plan for that piece of the journey
    which do you think will change and grow your heart, your mind for the better? Help you better see were your self worth is found? Which will bear fruit and experience that will help you navigate the really hard heart and identity times you will face (as almost all do)?
    For the man you are to be, I am 100% confident you made the right call. 🙂
    Bring it, Colorado!

    Like

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