Zen and the Art of Bicycle Touring
This summer I explored Korea’s south coast: 600 kilometers in six nights on the road less traveled, from Wando to Busan. Dusty lanes meandered though ramshackle hamlets where gnarled hands clasped antiquated contraptions and wizened octogenarians lazed in the shade of ancient trees. Buzzing wetlands alternated with vast mudflats home to the throngs of slender-necked birds silhouetted against the distant horizon. Nestled between misty mountains, carpets of glowing green were dappled with brilliant pinks and luminous yellows, like dabs from an impressionist’s paintbrush. Dewy mornings turned to sun-drenched days, and in the early evening a warm light washed over the calm sea, wrapping the myriad offshore islands in a honeyed haze. In the fading twilight the landscape melted to smudged lilac and mauve, then dusky blue, before the amber flickers of far-away fishing boats speckled the darkness like fallen stars from the twinkling skies above.
Why do I wax philosophical about my adventures? Because I travel by bicycle.
Automobiles are sold with hollow promises of the feelings they can inspire, but in reality they’re air-conditioned, soundproofed cocoons designed to cushion, detach and isolate us from our surroundings. They get us to our destinations as quickly as possible, with as little feeling as possible. By contrast, on the bike saddle your every sense is fully immersed in the immediate environment; the intensity of the experience is heightened exponentially. You savor the beauty of fine details and pause to connect, rather than passively gawp as the world slips past your tinted panes in square frames, so much more like TV. On a bike, you’re in the scene — not just watching.
Travel by bicycle and the road comes alive. Along the south coast crickets skipped helter-skelter all around, glossy beetles scampered in my wake, tail tips slithered out of sight and comical crustaceans scuttled for cover, claws held high. As I glided past, pocket-sized birds burst from bushes in unison, flashing bellies of iridescent turquoise. Further afield, their lanky cousins unfolded broad, milky wings like the flowing white hanbok of Joseon scholars, soaring away in majestic curves.
Journeying by bicycle turns the body into an engine. A bicycle traveler doesn’t measure speed, distance, gradient or temperature by dials on a dashboard, but rather on their skin and in their muscles, gut and bones. A direct and intimate connection, physical and emotional, binds the rider to the land they travel. Every bump, crack and dip is transmitted up through the frame and along the spine. Each twist and turn of the road is felt through the handlebars’ movement, from the fingertips up to the neck. The accumulating miles wear on tiring joints, but even with eyes closed, the precise texture and topography of the land can be sensed — from the finest pebbles or blades of grass to the broad contours of a mountain range.
In meditation, conscious breathing techniques are used to anchor oneself in reality, as feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. The rider’s breath is a constant presence; by concentrating on the cadence of inhalation and exhalation, they may come to perceive a reality drenched in rhythm: There’s the heartbeat and the perpetual pulse of pedal over pedal to the metronomic click of the chain; there are the wavelengths of the rolling, winding road and the bending coastline, lapped by the ebb and flow of the sea; and each day there are regular cycles of hunger, alternating periods of grinding exertion and overwhelming pleasure, oscillating illusions of boundless energy and insurmountable fatigue, all played out under the scorching gaze of the sun.
In a world suffused with such sensory stimulation, you can become completely absorbed in a profound appreciation of the moment. And this is the very essence of Zen. The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality, and the shadow stuck to the tires, stretching tall at the end of each day, is a persistent reminder of our presence. A bicycle tourer is acutely aware of the primacy of the present journey over the future destination. In turn, the journey becomes the destination.
Do you want to try? The truth is anyone can do it, but three principles are paramount. First, do it alone. Devoid of distractions, the sense of adventure is heightened and deeper relationships develop both with the journey and with those you’ll meet en route. Secondly, use the little roads. Experience a more authentic character and discover the hidden corners that outsiders rarely see. Along the south coast I rolled through rustic hamlets far from the main highways, isolated between mountains and trapped in a bygone age. A backwoods route also ensures quietude, a closer proximity to nature and shelter from busy traffic. Country lanes and farming tracks are well mapped in Korea, and they’ll often be all yours for hours on end.
But most importantly, make your plans deliberately indefinite — travel, don’t just arrive. Lacking a predetermined route, you’ll remain receptive to the whims of fate, fortune and fancy as you forge your own unique path. There’s a tangible excitement and great freedom in not knowing where you’ll bed down at the end of each day. And given the Korean predilection for camping, there are always ample opportunities to sleep wild under open skies and remain safely undisturbed. Pagodas also conveniently dot the landscape at the most scenic spots: in suburban parks and rural villages; by idyllic beaches and dramatic coastline; on the banks of bending rivers and overlooking swaying rice fields; perched preciously on mountainsides, with magnificent panoramic vistas. Try them all.
As a Zen cyclist, detached from all extraneous concerns, you can be in blissful harmony with the present. You’re at once cruising on autopilot and intensely aware — simultaneously peaceful and euphoric. Most evenings this last summer, as the sinking sun winked from behind a craggy peak, I found myself floating effortlessly through a dream world, possessing everything I needed to ride on endlessly to the edge of the Earth: The mild evening air cooled the sweat on my brow and an endorphin-laced ecstasy bubbled up from deep inside, flowing to every corner of my being in a skin-tingling wave and escaping in a broad smile,stretching wide from cheek to cheek. For such joyous moments, I’ll keep on rolling.