Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
I once met a man in North Dakota who was pedaling cross-country. He said he had temporarily abandoned a high-school teaching career for a three-month bicycle trip, and to his unending amazement the sabbatical had somehow stretched to a dozen years. He was never in a hurry, he told me, because he’d learned that every place was worth seeing, that focusing on an end-of-day destination only blinded him to an endless loop of potentially memorable surroundings.
This guy seemed to have achieved the sort of road-savvy consciousness that eluded me, as my travels had been nothing but a frenetic rush along interstate highways. So I probed him for answers: how he managed with possessions that only filled a pair of saddlebags. How he fought off boredom and loneliness during treks across the vast, empty Great Plains. And most important, I wanted details about his techniques for achieving such obvious peace of mind. He explained that the answer for him lay in trying to decode seemingly imponderable philosophical riddles, much like the well-known Zen koans. In fact, he said, he had spent the last year or so ruminating on the same conundrum as he crisscrossed two continents on his 18-speed bike.
We were standing at the time at an overlook on the road encircling the southern portion of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, home to bison and bald eagles and the enthralling craggy buttes that make the Badlands famous. I was of course eager for him to share this spiritual puzzle, as the questions that I typically contemplated strayed toward more mundane mattersthings like why otherwise healthy people always cough between movements of a live orchestral performance, or whether people who live alone are supposed to shut the bathroom door when sitting on the toilet. But I thought that asking him to reveal something so sensitive might be an intrusion, so I instead let him ramble, hoping that he would eventually volunteer the information.
An hour later, after describing the transformations he had undergone over the last decade, he again alluded to the brain-teaser he mused on. So I offhandedly asked if he’d let me in on the secret, and he stared at me for what seemed like minutes. “Work this over and over in your mind,” he finally said, his face edging closer to mine: “Does Easy On spray starch go on easier than Easy-Off oven cleaner comes off?”
Somehow, this problem struck me as perhaps being less spiritually significant than the one about the tree falling in the forest and no one being there to hear it. In fact, I felt as if I had been given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask Mickey Mantle about his greatest baseball insight, only to be told that no one should ever have to see Yogi Berra naked.
But maybe this really was the answer. Maybe,
I thought, this was as expedient a route to spiritual awareness as any other. Maybe this has-been social studies teacher with the overworked odometer had stumbled on the modern-day equivalents of Mosaic Law or the Analects of Confucius or the Athanasian Creed.
On the other hand, maybe this guy had been riding around for a dozen years because he couldn’t remember his address.
All I knew was that previous attempts at garnering spiritual enlightenment or fulfillment had been washouts, beginning with my bar mitzvah. For an entire year, I struggled to learn the Torah reading that would presumably help catapult me from adolescence to manhood. Although I could only understand a few words of Hebrew, I assumed that the passages I studied offered key philosophical insights into this critical transformation. But when my tutor finally translated the text, I learned that I had spent months memorizing gruesomely detailed instructions for slaughtering a cow in the kosher tradition. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect that a bunch of learned Old Testament authors would have provided 12-year-old boys insight into pinpointing the G-spot or refitting a Chevy Impala with a 4:11 positraction rear end, but slicing an animal’s neck with a sharp knife and collecting its bloody entrails in a bucket didn’t seem to provide a particularly clear road map to the travails of adulthood. Besides, I wasn’t even allowed to have a dog, so my mother wasn’t about to let me keep a steer tied up in the living room. And killing it in the house would have been so messy that the cleaning lady would have surely demanded time-and-a-half, which in all likelihood would have come out of my allowance. I belted out the words on the appointed Saturday morning, but my four years of religious schooling never did earn me much in the way of higher insights.
Nontraditional paths like yoga and rigidly balanced yin-yang rice diets proved equally ineffective. My search for meaning also took me to the Maharishi, whose practice of Transcendental Meditation seemed like an easy way of achieving bliss. The introductory lectures laid out a logical path to this end: By meditating twice daily, the profound state of relaxation would clear my mind enough to let me ultimately achieve something called Cosmic Consciousness. It was like dyeing a bedsheet, the teacher explained: Keep dipping it and hanging it in the sun to dry, and eventually that white piece of cloth will take on a very rich and deep nonbleedable hue.
So I wrote a check and mailed it to headquarters. I envisioned an initiation ceremony in a temple filled with saffron-robed monks, a cadre of white-haired, giggling holy men like the Maharishi on hand to usher me across some mystical threshold. In lieu of studying how to turn a cow into flank steak, this time I’d be offered the sort of deep cosmological insight that would put me on a bullet train to a higher mental plane. I would become a fully realized individual.
But instead of being sent to a marbled, monk-filled palace, I was told to report to a Howard Johnson’s motor lodge in northern New Jersey. A dozen anxious new recruits sat silently in the motel’s lobby while the desk clerk eyed us suspiciously. Smiling young men in suits and ties appeared from time to time, and one by one the initiates were led away. I was the last to be called; a guy named Joe had me follow him to a first-floor room not far from the pool.
On the bureau was an altar of sorts: Candles and incense burned on a tray, while a wood frame was festooned with strands of beads and a color picture of the Maharishi’s own guru. The prospect of going through with this ceremony made me so anxious that I became dizzy, and the incense made me gag. I considered bolting, but suddenly I was kneeling in front of the makeshift altar with Joe, who launched into some mumbo-jumbo chantsa prelude to the issuance of my mantra.
Finally Joe signaled that the grand moment had arrivedthat he would now pass on to me this ancient secret of the Vedic tradition. I prepared myself for the life-changing experience, and just as Joe started to reveal my personalized polysyllabic aid to spiritual salvation, the door opened and in walked a maid.
The three of us stared at one anotherJoe and I kneeling in an incense cloud and the stunned, non-English-speaking cleaning lady gesturing toward the bathroom with a toilet-bowl brush. I assumed this was not a standard component of Eastern mysticism, but being a novice, I couldn’t be entirely certain. Joe eventually convinced her to take her Ty-D-Bol elsewhere, and then tried valiantly to recapture the mood. But I should have known that the gods had sent me yet another unmistakable signal. I should have risen from the floor, walked from that motel room, and forever forsworn the notion of achieving anything resembling spiritual enlightenment. After all, I couldn’t even figure out whether or not to open my umbrella in a light mist, so how could I ever grapple with the Lotus of the True Law or the theosophy of whirling dervishes?
Instead, I dabbled. I tried Buddhist chants and silent prayer at a Quaker meeting house. I re-examined the precepts of my own religion and pondered the bases of others. I had become intrigued with Native American religion on my cross-country trip, and at first took great solace in an Indian woman’s claims that the deer was my spirit animalan admired symbol of compassion and caring, an effective antidote to the world’s dark powers.
But if Native hunters maintained spiritual bonds with their prey, in my world the deer had been recast as an unwanted, shrub-eating nuisance whose banishment needed to be accomplished by virtually any means. This was my spirit animala white-tailed urban pest as reviled as a shithouse rat.
This was fitting, another installment in a futile quest to achieve any sort of higher consciousness. And now I had stumbled on this bike ridera world-wise traveler who was offering an answer in the form of a preposterous question about the relative ease with which a spray starch and an oven cleaner are applied and removed. I wanted to dismiss him as a crackpot and drive off, but what if he really was on to something? What if I had finally found a back road to enlightenment?
The problem was that I didn’t want to spend a year or two mulling this question, even if it held important answers. The way I figured it, this guy had already done the work and could save me the trouble. After all, why spend your life wondering about the sound of one hand clapping if someone can simply assure you that it’s just like the sound of a dachshund sneezing. This may be the microwave version of nirvana, but as long as it gets you from here to there, that’s fine.
So I looked for an opening to tactfully broach the question. I said I needed to find a tent site, and regrettably had to soon end our conversation. I asked about his itinerary and told him how much I admired his ability to so totally disconnect from the mundane, workaday world. I claimed that I’d spend my days behind mulling over the question he’d posed, but worried that I lacked the discipline to really ponder it faithfully.
Just in case, I asked, what about a hint into what he had learned. He had climbed onto his bike and had one foot resting on a low stone wall. He looked off across the Badlands, then turned to stare at me again. “Keep this to yourself,” he said. “I think it’s a toss-up.” Then he pedaled off in one direction, and I, after briefly ruminating on what I’d learned, drove away in another. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.