It’s hard not to giggle when a shirtless sunburned man is chugging beer from a lawn-ornament flamingo whose head has been chopped off while his friends call him “dickhead” in support, while overhearing voices from the front of the bus saying the GPS is wrong, we’re lost, and while trying, from behind sunglasses, to pretend to be asleep. But so it was, as two friends and I hitched a ride to Rock Valley, Iowa, the starting line for the week-long bike ride across the state that would begin the next day.
See? Even the angry one thinks it’s funny, one of them said.
I tried not to flinch. The problem was bigger than the uneasy rapport we’d struck with these strangers — the problem was that the leaving wasn’t going according to plan, and if the plan was already fucked, then the rest of the trip surely would be because for a trip to go well, it has to begin well.
A man called Dr. Dan was supposed to pick us up at 10 that morning, outside the local hardware store. We’d load our bikes, head towards Des Moines, and be on our way to the northwest corner of the state, ready to start riding back across after a good night’s sleep. The day before leaving, the two friends and I wondered what kind of bus it would be — one guessed a yellow school bus, another a Greyhound-style coach. Both possibilities were nauseating, the names alone evoking the sticky vinyl funk (yellow) and chemically cleaned bathroom sweetness (Greyhound) that would make reading impossible. The word, for either choice, was lurching.
Then Dr. Dan was supposed to pick us up at noon, then 2, then 4, then finally 7, when he showed up. I’d spent the day eating the snacks I was supposed to be eating on the bus, taking food-induced naps, and waking to an alarm that made me jump awake every time into a bedroom bright with sunlight from the west windows. Outside the hardware store, men tied our bikes to the ceiling of an enclosed trailer, which would be pulled behind the bus, and we drove off into the already-setting sun. Rick, our first backseat companion, introduced himself. I should clarify: These weren’t seats; these were mattresses perched on some sort of ledge that was about a third the width of each mattress, so the front was always folding and pulling the whole thing toward the center of the bus. Rick apologized. But it’s fun back here! he said, and explained that the bus had two kegs and we could pay for cups if we wanted and he’d been drinking since he got on, just west of Chicago, and boy, that bathroom was already a mess. Rick wore a Hawaiian shirt and black wraparound sunglasses, had a handshake that took too long to get rid of, legs shaved according to that odd bike-riding convention. Rick had done this all before, he said. Ask me anything, he said.
At least I’d left my apartment in good condition. I made sure to clean everything before I left, as I always do, and put everything away where it belongs — the plates in their metal cabinets, the clothes in their fiberboard drawers — thereby guaranteeing that there would be something tangible and exactly in order to return to. A bit of continuity, a ritual, a joyful habit.
We picked up a gaggle of bros in a suburb of Des Moines. They came with a 30-rack of Coors Light and the aforementioned flamingo. They were loud and smelly and burped a lot, and I felt as if we were on a reality show, where all bros are the same and where the majority of the action takes place on a bus.
In the cabinets above us we found pillows to jam under the edge of our mattress to keep it from flopping forward and potentially launching us into the men’s laps. During the half hour or hour when we’d effectively convinced our fellow passengers that we were asleep (and one of us actually convinced himself and legitimately was asleep), three of them began making fun of the fourth, who was from Brooklyn and therefore deemed “uptight.” We learned he rode his bike in Prospect Park, worked some sort of tech job, and had Italian parents — a fact that came up after the bros began discussing that perennial white-people favorite: What are you?
No dude, you look like an Arab, like some sort of Iranian or something.
The leaving wasn’t going according to plan, and if the plan was already fucked, then the rest of the trip surely would be because for a trip to go well, it has to begin well.
One of the others chortled; his friend explained: Dude, there’s, like, a legit Iranian sitting right there.
He pointed with his eyes at one of my friends who, indeed, is Iranian.
Like a real Iranian, man. So shut up.
It had gotten cold since the sun went down, but if we closed the bus windows, the diesel fumes that were seemingly piped into the bus stayed trapped. Our busmates were drunk enough to pee with the door open; I was tired enough to fall asleep, briefly. It was so late; we were so late; we were going to get so few hours of sleep — about three at this point, by my estimation — which meant that the first day was already ruined.
I’m told it’s virtuous to be spontaneous, that the characteristic is as much a mark of being a good person as is sending thank-you notes and bringing food to sick or sad friends. I’m still learning how to be flexible. And I don’t think it counts as being flexible when I show up on time even though I know the friend I’m meeting is always 10 minutes late, and when I show up each time and wait on the corner halfway between our houses unsure whether to wait on the sidewalk or the grass, I decide that next time I too will be 10 minutes late but then, when the next time comes around, I chicken out for fear that this will be the one time she’s not late and that I am and fear too that my tardiness will reinforce her habit and I’ll be stuck again, waiting, except for 20 minutes.
This friend tells me I need to plan more spontaneity into my days, her suggestion mirroring the impossible dualism of modern digital-analog life in which unmeasured, unplanned unknowns are fun and also in which we’re constantly given new ways to keep track as we’re rushing through that exciting uncertainty.
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On the bus, I texted friends about the shitshow of travels in order to hear back from them, and when I heard back, I analyzed the inflectionless tone of the replies, watching my departure from a screen remove. I wanted the present to be as controlled and settled as the past yet as open to my participation as the future. I wanted the leaving to end. Or I at least wanted to leave, briefly, as did a friend I studied abroad with in Spain. She once woke up on an airplane surprised to be on an airplane, no idea where she was going. So she asked a flight attendant: Canada. Yet again she’d taken a bunch of Ambien and stayed awake, pacing the Barcelona streets. Then she left. She was ok with it, she said after returning; it was fun.
Watching the dudes spit beer out of the bus window, the spray dotting the glass, the glass dotting the black night, I dreamed of leaving this way — not necessarily in a bizarrely adventurous stage of blackout but leaving just by leaving, without packing lists or waiting, just departure.
The flamingo man was asleep, the driver was falling asleep, and according to my phone, we were still hours away. Outside was dark and quiet except for the coughing engine and intermittent shudder as the driver drifted across shoulder rumble strips, each time correcting direction slowly, almost as if the movement in the opposite direction weren’t a correction at all, just luck.
An interruption to my self-pity spiral: We were slowing down, pulling over, this time on purpose, stopping in the middle of nowhere, midnight, nothing in sight. A Coors Light can rolled past my feet, its Rocky Mountains thermochromatic blue long gone. We were picking up someone called Falcon; he was always like this, they said — they being the voices from the front of the bus, up past the bathroom, past the empty kegs, around a bend (somehow the bus had a bend in it), these supposed voices of reason, supposed only because they were closer to the driver, who, we’d learn later, was a shirtless sweaty guy who couldn’t read a map.
I’m told it’s virtuous to be spontaneous, that the characteristic is as much a mark of being a good person as is sending thank-you notes and bringing food to sick or sad friends.
But, then, with the crinkling flutter of hand-written directions that filled in where dead phones couldn’t, paper seemed to take over the front half of the bus. Some twisted their maps around, putting north on the right. Some left the orientation alone. Each person thrust his or her own sheet of paper over the others, layers flapping like paper airplanes coming to a halt at a wall. I always envied those boys in high school whose backpacks were messes of loose paper. No matter what, they could retrieve the single sheet they were after in one fell swoop of rummaging. Their calculators never had covers, their pens never had caps, but the screens were not scratched, and the ink never leaked. How did they manage such graceful disorganization? When they left their houses in the morning, did they double-check that their homework was part of the mess? I can’t remember if I even did, but how could I not have? Just going to school every morning was a kind of leaving and therefore had to be properly set up by pre-departure ritual.
The rituals vary, but they share a goal: Leave on a good note. For a trip, this starts with the packing list, with its unlabeled categories, items grouped on the page: clothes, cosmetics, fun things, less fun things, work things, last-minute things. Phone, computer, charger, wallet, keys, headphones, other headphones. 2 pants, 3 t-shirts, 2 cardigans, underwear. The list is like stream-of-consciousness diary-keeping in reverse: If measuring the present is a way to control the future, then measuring the future, maybe, is a way to control the present. It’s exactly inexact. But the way it redirects the focus from the trip itself, during which I might undergo change and things at home might undergo change or one or the other or neither, to the packing for the trip, which necessarily happens here, with things I know, in an order I know, with a list in my handwriting and on the same stationery (my dad’s, from work) I’ve used forever.
I must have learned this somewhere.
The last step, always, is throwing away the list. To keep it would be sentimental. But you’d think I’d at least keep a master list — it would be dumb not to. I can’t though, because the master list is not part of the ritual, and if I didn’t have a list to make and then destroy, I’d be stuck with nothing to worry about besides time, and then I’d never leave at all, so bound up in considerations of time and space splitting for the trip and reuniting upon my return that that split would create a gap too great — too uncertain — to let open up in my absence. So I make the list, and on it I also write things to do before leaving: close windows, hide things, make bed, take out trash — implicit in that last item what “trash” includes.
On the bus, I texted friends about the shitshow of travels in order to hear back from them, and when I heard back, I analyzed the inflectionless tone of the replies, watching my departure from a screen remove.
And when I leave, I remember taking those last steps. When it comes to “retrospective assessment,” we remember, and we evaluate; we do neither especially accurately, tending to base assessments on the most intense moment of the experience and the end. In an experiment on pain evaluation, scientists had test subjects put their hands in a vat of super cold water for 60 seconds. Then the subjects put their other hands in a vat of super cold water for 60 seconds, followed by 30 seconds in ever so slightly less cold water. When asked which experience they’d prefer to repeat, most said the second version, because though it lasted longer, and though it too contained 60 seconds of super cold, it ended less unpleasantly. So when I’m leaving and feeling everything going to hell in a disordered handbasket but I have a tidy ending, so tidy that the list that kept it that way has been disposed of, I remember it differently. It becomes, when it’s time to do it again, tolerable.
Falcon wasn’t where he said he’d be, or he was and we weren’t there. We’d find him at a bar after mile marker something, the neon Budweiser sign, pale in the bus’ headlights, marking a strange rural oasis — it was hard to hear over the bros’ whispering, which was really more like talking (their talking more like yelling). I was still calculating in my head how fucked we were in terms of sleep, still thinking that knowing exactly how much sleep I’d lack would somehow make it better, but also knowing, simultaneously, that this trip was off to a bad start, plain and simple. The bus chugged, dripped in between the rumbles of the engine turning over again and again, dripped like Dr. Dan’s back, dripped like the sweat that somehow was still on that warm Coors Light can, like the inside of the flamingo, like the sound of measuring, again and again, how late we were running: 12 hours and counting.
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Rachel Z. Arndt is the author of the essay collection Beyond Measure (Sarabande, 2018). She received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and nonfiction editor of the Iowa Review. She lives in Chicago.
Editor: Sari Botton