This book came into the world much as its author did—unexpectedly but not at all unwanted.
In May 2010, I took my new Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide, black and chrome with orange flames on the fuel tank, over eight thousand miles around the continental United States from and back to the Washington, DC, area to mark the end of three decades of civil– military service inside (and sometimes outside) the US Army as a Civil Affairs officer. On my last day in the military I wanted to be where it all started—at New Mexico Military Institute—closing one chapter in order to open another. This kind of closure is particularly difficult for people in the military: When you live a life of service, you never stop serving. To continue serving my country from inside the Washington Beltway, I felt I had to see the country outside of it but realized I hadn’t seen much of America, having spent twenty of my service years abroad. “I thought I’d take a look around the place,” I began to tell people.
In many ways, it was also an azimuth check—a reference to a starting point, as in land navigation and orienteering—to see where I had come from, what directions I had taken, and where I might be going. It was also a voyage of (re)discovery of the land of my identity. Like many veterans, as Elizabeth Samet explained in No Man’s Land, I took to the road seeking intelligibility that only an adventure like this can enable. “The road has all the answers,” as one rider put it. “The road is a promise fulfilled.” In my own lifetime, I often took roads less traveled— but that, as Robert Frost said, “has made all the difference.”
In a nod to Travels with Charley—John Steinbeck’s account about his own cross-country venture in a pickup camper with his dog—this book is an account of my own multilayered journey. As Steinbeck did when he drove around “a galaxy of states” in search of America at the time of my birth, I likewise learned that you can experience America only on a personal level. “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike,” he wrote. “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” Often, the longest of journeys circles back to the place where it all started, where the traveler discovers something that was there all along but awaited validation by experience. Joseph Campbell, America’s greatest mythologist, called this the “heroic cycle”—a going out, an illumination, and a return with a higher level of understanding about oneself and the world.
Not long after my ride began, serendipity set in—life being, as John Lennon sang, “what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In other words, “no plan survives the first five minutes of contact with the enemy,” as they say in the Army. The first half took me westward along a southern axis—from Virginia, through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and then New Mexico. After I returned to where my career began at New Mexico Military Institute, the trip became more and more ad hoc. Bypassing the Grand Canyon in Arizona and after stopping in Las Vegas, I rolled into Simi Valley, California.
Then came a deviation more apt for my time than Steinbeck’s. At the behest of George Mason University, I flew back to Washington to take a dozen graduate students on a field trip to Liberia. After resuming my ride up the California coast and back into Nevada, my mental as well as physical wanderings spread out in the vast, open spaces of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. Then the circles they opened began to close through Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, and finally West Virginia.
You can read about a country all you want, but until you’ve gone out and seen it, met some of its people, and traveled its roads, you haven’t experienced it. This I knew from traveling abroad first. “Go to foreign countries,” Goethe advised, “and you will get to know the good things one possesses at home.” One thing about most Americans is that they have little to no clue how lucky they are. But that, I also discovered from this trip, is a conclusion each American must come to in his or her own way and time.
America is a rich and rough country. Its breathtaking scenery belies the fierce challenges of an environment that has helped shape a national character forged in struggle. Other than on foot or horseback, you can only get a feel for its elemental freedoms and dangers on a motorcycle. Riding a motorcycle is a more active form of travel than aiming an automobile. “You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming,” explained Robert Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is impossible in a sport-utility vehicle or a pickup truck. They are vestiges of our romanticization of rugged individualism and personal mobility, which is really why they sell more than they should. But you can’t be a rugged individualist in an SUV, a motor home, or even a present-day version of Steinbeck’s “Rocinante.” Most never leave pavement and are as well appointed as luxury sedans.
Besides, the authenticity of any character-defining experience is in its discomforts and dangers. “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is,” said Will Rogers. Adversity, after all, is self-introduction; the adventure you get is not always the one you want but ultimately the one you need. As I was riding along, meditating in motion, I wondered what all the people talking and texting found to be so important as to distract them from the real world they’re oblivious to in the cocoons of their cars, insulated from the nature they pine for but only as voyeurs.
For many, the idea of adventure is now a video game on a smartphone or a TV “reality” series—virtual and vicarious but invalidated and superficial. The gaggle of gadgets to satisfy our shortening attention spans deprives us of environmental association and detaches us further from our surroundings, reinforcing a mind-set of willful ignorance. The world becomes the things we view it through; but it’s not the world itself. Such is also the downside of social media—we are connected to other human beings but, again, vicariously. And in our alienation from the world around us, we become strangers to ourselves. As in Iraq, I never used a GPS on this trip. Instead, I got up in the morning, studied the map, read the road signs and the lay of the land, and stopped and asked real persons for suggestions, if not directions.
Even how we earn our daily bread is now automated and abstracted. Most of us labor in air-conditioned offices and never get dirt on our hands. When I first worked in Washington at the age of twenty, I noticed the contrast between the hands-on blue-collar work I had just done as a teenager—raising a roof, laying out a patio deck, or baling wagonloads of hay—and the white-collar office work of an incoming century in the form of images on screens. Even most of our money has become invisible. In the course of my career, war has also become figurative. We fight wars against tactics like terrorism using drones driven by joysticks and see cyberwarfare as an existential threat. It’s hard to comprehend the value or impact of something you can’t get your hands on, or something that’s communal but not personally felt.
Even old age and death—the greatest of democratizers—remain puritanically secluded in America. The mass exodus away from the land and an agricultural existence and toward a more urban lifestyle means that we’ve antiseptically left death and the natural world behind us. We park our geriatrics in assisted-living centers and bury our dead in well-manicured cemeteries. In contrast, while stationed in Europe I visited Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, where many of the great composers are interred, and saw joggers, skaters and skateboarders, lovers, playing children, and strolling people. For Native Americans, death is an inseparable part of natural life, not an evil to overcome. But their immigrant successors today deny death or even old age, making it hard to embrace the journey of life. (Similarly, singular among peoples are Americans’ convoluted attitudes about sex—in contrast to their acclamation of violence. There are more guns and porn in the United States than most other countries combined.)
All these things, however, aren’t problems to be fixed but processes to be managed. To do that, you need to know who you are and what you’re about—to center yourself around values rooted in reality. That requires a trip more than a tool. Having a sense of personal and communal identity provides a moral compass that helps one face today’s complex and dynamic world, navigate the fog of uncertainty, and weather the storms of change. But that doesn’t come passively by watching a television, computer, or smartphone screen. Nor is it inconsequential.
Technology is liberating in that it helps us gain power over space and time, but at the risk of personal and social alienation. Technology is morally neutral, and it doesn’t give us identity—we find out who we really are in the field of action and in personal interface, not on Facebook or Twitter, which are just bigger nets to cast. Instant communication and information overload flattens our decision cycles, squeezing out time to process things and make up our own minds about what we value. So we either simply react to all the stimuli, like mice in a Skinner box, or allow others to process it for us—then wonder why we can’t make sense of things.
Our consciousness and innate moral compass, however, help us to realize the responsibilities such power necessitates. Without them, technology becomes a monster, supplanting rather than supplementing our humanity. “Conscience is the soul of freedom,” Thomas Merton tells us in No Man Is an Island. “Without conscience, freedom never knows what to do with itself.” This is why rights cannot exist without responsibilities, and why art helps us make sense of things by giving them context. True moderation strikes a synergy between art and science, contemplation and action, feeling and thinking. The founders of the nation called this human faculty to bring these things together and transcend them “reason.”
The yearning for authenticity and a genuine sense of connection with nature and other persons may be why motorcycle sales are rising. More than cars, motorcycles are appropriate metaphors of the elemental American quest for freedom in individual and social mobility. Through their demand for self-discipline, they also allow both the mind and the body to wander and find balance—you have time to do a lot of thinking while riding for hours over long stretches of landscape. As bikers say, “Four wheels move the body, but two wheels move the soul.” As the veterans in Samet’s No Man’s Land did, I returned home from my road adventure feeling that the interactions with those I met along the way, brief and singular as they were, “constituted real and honest connections, animated by generosity, solidarity, and a healthy curiosity.”
There are many reasons to take a journey, but chief among them is to learn. Travel is a form of education and education a form of travel—one is a physical activity leading to contemplative change and the other a mental journey inspiring a new undertaking. A journey, after all, is a movement between states of being, or a transition. “Traveling with patience is allowing time to rule and shape our lives,” Pope Francis told us in His Life in His Own Words. “To travel in patience means accepting that life is a continuous learning experience.” So, as I have done all my life, I set out like Odysseus that spring morning in search of something greater than myself, knowing that to complete Campbell’s heroic cycle, the process of bringing to expression what I gleaned from that experience still lay ahead.
Not long after I published my initial findings for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR), I realized, as my thoughts evolved in the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and other places, that I was tapping into a much larger and more enduring national conversation. Over time, and at the suggestion of many, the call to that phase of the journey became irresistible. I felt obligated to write this book much as artists are artists not because they want to be but because they have to be, or else they will be less than themselves—incomplete until they finish their work. Like for the many whose insights I quote in this book, my own adventure led to discoveries unforeseen by those who went before me. Yet my experience and that which I’ve learned would have been impossible without their findings. Just as Steinbeck’s book inspired me, this “motorcycle diary” is my own contribution to a conversation this country desperately needs to have.
Every one of us, in every generation, must take our own journey to learn what it means to be a member of our community and a citizen not only of our country but of the larger world that technology and trade are hooking us up with, within and beyond the horizons of our lifetime. If we don’t find our own identity, it will be provided for us. “In the animal kingdom, the rule is eat or be eaten,” explained renowned psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. “In the human kingdom, [it is] define or be defined.”
The choices we make along the way of that journey reveal the true nature of our character. “Character,” David Brooks advised us in The Road to Character, “is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry.” By taking that personal journey, we change ourselves and the concentric circles of the communities and countries to which we claim to belong. It is only through service to others and personal engagement within and beyond the known worlds of our communities and our nation that we can gain a true sense of ourselves, refresh our own sense of a connective national identity, transcendent of social divisions, and keep them both balanced and strong.
As I finished this manuscript, that revelation made it evident that there was still a lot of unfinished business. More than one veteran’s story of what he learned about being an American in today’s world, this book has, in turn, become a call to action for those who have lived a life of service to complete their mission by passing the baton of citizenship and leadership. As I explained to the organizers of the annual Rolling Thunder ride, “It’s great we veterans get together every year, three or four hundred thousand of us, in Washington, and remember something larger than ourselves and thank each other for our service. But what happens after we die? What have we done to help the next generation understand about service and sacrifice, which we find second nature, so they can serve their country, even if not in uniform or overseas, to ensure its greatness?”
The book you are about to read is also a platform for a multimedia campaign that includes more cross-country rides as well as discussions in schools, town halls, and other places to facilitate intergenerational, intervocational, and intercommunal dialogue. Among the organizations joining the campaign’s coalition of partners, the Freedoms Foundation—dedicated to helping American youth learn more about citizenship—is partnering with me to help incite this quiet riot. In turn, a portion of what you paid to read these lines is a donation to the Foundation’s great cause, and I encourage you to join or contribute to any member(s) of the coalition or other like groups. You can find out more on associated websites and social media using Travels with Harley, National Service Ride, or my name as keywords.
Thanks for riding with me. And as soldiers say before going into combat: See you on the high ground.