Untethering the Road Warrior

David Brancaccio takes a break from his ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles as part of the AIDS/LifeCycle event.

Saturday afternoon, I pedaled my way up a last nasty hill and made for the finish line in Los Angeles of this year's AIDS Lifecycle bike ride. Me and 2,200 other cyclists. My final odometer reading was 545.5 miles over hill and over dale from San Francisco. My 10 year-old bicycle held up nicely. My 54 year-old body did okay, other than losing six pounds and gaining a handlebar-inflected blister at the base of each palm.

Why spend more than 42 hours on a bike seat over seven days, beyond the spectacular scenery and extraordinary sense of comradery? For starters, the AIDS ride last year raised more than $10 million dollars for people in the margins struggling with HIV and AIDS, once expenses were subtracted. The year, the ride is on track to raise even more.

I am still processing the many lessons of this pilgrimage -- and, yes, it was a pilgrimage. Here is just one conclusion, since every one of you is reading this using a digital device: The ride was way better because the organizers of the AIDS ride did not go out of their way to enable our digital addictions.  

I found this expressed in different ways. Very sensibly, everyone was banned from using any digital device while actually riding the bike. No video tracking shots destined for Youtube were allowed while blasting down the stunning 7 percent downgrade of the Gaviota Pass. Plus, no still photos while on the bike, no checking texts, no phone calls. If you wanted to check a text, the rule was pull the bike well off the road and hold the thumb of one hand up to indicate to others you were not in any trouble. The thumb thing alone was enough to keep me from wanting to deal with the phone at any place other than a formal rest stop.

There were other ways the ride's organizers seemed to keep a lid on our compulsion to stay connected. The camps could have had wifi set up. They do this at outdoor concert venues, but if you wanted connectivity on the AIDS ride you had to bring your own 3G or LTE.

Lastly -- and this was the biggee -- they didn't make it that easy to recharge devices. There was a recharging tent each evening, but its existence wasn't heavily promoted and only phones, not tablets or laptops, were allowed. Plus, the limited number of outlets always seemed full to capacity. My friend Richard rode fast and hard through a grueling 84 mile day just so he could get to a recharge station for a boost. When he arrived, again the recharging stations were full to capacity.

Let me emphasize that I am describing a feature of the ride, not a bug. Some people got some love from solar chargers, others brought extra batteries, but by and large, folks knew they had to conserve power. That meant there was less social media socializing and more actual socializing among real human beings.  There was less tweeting and more learning -- Like my interaction with an AIDS ride veteran named Michael who broke into tears when he told me about the candlelight vigil on the beach to commemorate people who died from AIDS-related diseases that occurs each year on the sixth night of the ride. And, I am here to tell you after seven days on a bicycle, there was more time for looking, appreciating, and thinking.

After all, what are the features that turn a trip into a pilgrimage? Sociologists and historians say a pilgrimage involves some kind of lengthy, physical undertaking in the service of some kind of higher purpose. Another key feature of a pilgrimage is that pilgrims cut themselves off temporarily from the normal bonds of society and family.

The first few days of the ride, mindful of the limited recharging capacity, I still kept an occasional eye on the news wires, my Facebook feed, and even work email, truth be told.

Then on day four, the fates intervened. I was just cresting a nasty hill within Vandenberg Air Force Base territory when the velcro flap on my backpack flew open, launching my smartphone in a delicate arc through the air like artillery shell gone awry. It shattered on the pavement and was run over by fellow cyclists and became, along with three flat tires, the only equipment failures of the trip. The phone was barely usable: It still connected, but my finger tip ran into slivers of glass when I tried to manipulate the screen.

So for the rest of day four -- and over days five, six, and seven -- I found myself less connected to the digital universe and more connected to the diverse set of folks pedaling around me. I saw the scenery more vividly; I engaged in conversations at camp with greater focus. It was then that I felt that I had both feet and a full brain in the ride and in its purpose. You may not be biking 545 miles this summer, but you may get a chance to get away, to experience something fresh, to consider new ideas. If you are lucky enough to have this kind of opportunity, you might think about whether turning down or turning off the digital while you are away might enhance your experience.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio


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