Life throws curveballs. Just when you let your guard down is precisely when you get hit the hardest. That is just what happened to Celine and I today. On a perfect day for riding, on our last leg of our journey together, on an almost entirely downhill route, we somehow made one false step and jeopardized everything we had been working for. Today was a rough day that harmed my confidence in myself.
When Celine joined me exactly four weeks ago, I told her that I had one goal for our time together: for the two of us to safely arrive in Denver. During our ride I kept a singular focus on that goal. I told Celine that all the other stuff we hoped to do; recreation, photography, camping, tourism, making friends; would inevitably happen so long as we stay safe and healthy. We had now arrived at our final day of riding and it appeared that our goal was on the brink of being achieved.
We awoke in the home of our Couch Surfing hostess, Stacey. She got our day off to a great start by preparing us egg and hash brown sandwiches. Looking out the window of her home, my spirits were lifted to see perfectly clear Rocky Mountain skies. This put my mind at ease. Fair weather and a great meal are the ideal start to a day of riding. Given the fact that we only had about 40 miles to ride and that they were mostly downhill, I had great confidence that we had an uneventful, enjoyable day of riding ahead of us.
Celine and I hit the road. Having studied the elevation charts that Google Maps provided us, I knew that the first ten miles of our ride would be uphill. Those ten exhausting miles would be followed up by thirty redemptive, downhill miles that would whisk us into Colorado's metropolis. If it's not clear from my tone, I was so excited to roll into Denver where family and friends awaited me.
The uphill segment was challenging, I think we climbed nearly 2,000 feet over the span of ten miles. But, in all honesty, after scaling Hoosier Pass, Vail Pass (twice) and the sky-scraping Loveland Pass, this hill was pretty manageable. A feeling of elation overtook me when we arrived at the top. This was it! From here on out it would basically be an award tour. We could just coast into Denver where we had people awaiting us.
I paused. My cautious instincts kicked in. "Don't get cocky, Colin," they told me, "you still have over 20 miles of riding before you get to your destination. You haven't achieved your goal yet. Stay focused." I shared these thoughts with Celine. Despite my apparent excitement, I urged us to remain alert. When cycling, particularly on routes with vehicle traffic, you can never let your guard down. After reaffirming my commitment to our safety, Celine and I began our descent into Denver.
This is when things began to get complicated. Based on my talks with Stacey, our local hostess, I knew that route 40 was the safest, most straight-forward route to get us into the city limits. I cross-referenced this knowledge with Google Maps to be 100% sure that route 40 was the absolute best way to go. Despite having planned with a knowledgeable local and viewed the physical maps, I needed confirmation from a machine.
Google Maps suggested that I diverge from route 40 for a brief 4 or 5 miles. I wasn't sure why it made this suggestion, especially because after this little spur we were reunited with route 40. Having ridden nearly 3,000 miles to arrive at this point, and having successfully relied on Google Maps to navigate me through perhaps a quarter of those miles, I was confident that Google Maps would safely get me to where I needed to go. Who knows, perhaps it was even going to take me the scenic route. Oh Google, you're so good to me.
We diverged from route 40 towards Lookout Mountain. Ah, this was going to be great. Google must have really wanted for us to enjoy this last leg of our journey so it was taking us the most picturesque way possible. I was overjoyed riding through this little mountaintop community that Google introduced to us. Peering through the trees I spotted the metropolis shooting out of the plateau. Never before had I seen such an incredible, expansive vista of Denver and Eastern Colorado. My nerves were calm. We were so close.
Google directed me down Lookout Mountain Road, to Grandview, Vista, Main and finally Parkview Ave. Celine, who was also routing via Google Maps, had the exact same directions as me. Inching down Parkview Ave, we couldn't seem to find our next turn onto Slucebox. Our options seemed to be either a private, dead-end road or a cul-de-sac. This didn't make any sense.
But wait! I thought that I had solved the mystery. There was a single track dirt path between the cul-de-sac and private road, corresponding exactly with the path that appeared on my screen. I pointed the narrow dirt trail out to Celine. Proud of myself for having figured it out, I blindly conformed to Google's directions. In my mind I could justify riding down this single track path. Shoot, before leaving on this adventure my friend Michelle took me single-track riding at a State Park in Maryland. My bike could handle the terrain...I could do this! Somehow I ignored the inescapable reality that I presently had 50 pounds of stuff tethered to my bike. I also convinced myself that the single tracking would be brief and that its sole purpose was to reunite us with a perfectly paved bicycle path. I was seriously kidding myself.
A string of "rationalizations" coaxed me into a false sense of security. Underlying all of these thoughts was an absolute faith in Google.
So we charged down the narrow, rocky dirty path, with 45 pounds of gear supported by 35 mm tires. Thank goodness my partner had the sagacity to walk her bike. I was way too confident in my ability to ride this rugged path. After perhaps a quarter of a mile, I too was walking my bike. Wow. Even just guiding my bike down this path was difficult. My wrists strained to constantly engage my brakes, otherwise my bike would have tumbled down the steep switchbacks. I fought to maintain control of my rig. At times sharp stones jutted out of the dirt path, completely destabilizing me. My body grew terribly exhausted as I inched down this hill.
The relative silence of our descent was broken by some sort of an animal call, followed by the rapid brushing of bushes. I had a slight panic. Just an hour before I had read a sign describing the death of a local cyclist at the hands of a mountain lion. Physical discomfort combined with a growing sense of fear compelled me to retrieve my straight-blade from my pannier. Feelings of insecurity were seeping in.
We continued on. After pushing our bikes about a third of a mile downhill, it was safe to say that we had passed the point of no return. If it was this hard just to get our bikes down here, there was no way in hell we were going to get them back up. Again, another nonsensical rationalization told me that the "Apex Trail", our next direction on Google Maps, which was only a few hundred feet away, was going to be a bike-friendly path that would relieve us of this peril. False hopes fueled the grueling descent.
We finally arrived at the bottom. What the hell was going on? This Apex Trail was horrible! As a matter of fact, it was nearly as bad the Slucebox trail! It was flatter, thank goodness, but it went on for nearly two miles. How could this happen to us? I TRUSTED GOOGLE!
At this point my ego cracked. I became completely disillusioned. We literally had one option: to push our bikes nearly two miles across this shaky mountain-bike path. Thank God that Celine found light in our blunder, because it was tearing me apart. I felt like a total idiot. I couldn't believe that my belief in Google's algorithms had caused me to abandon my common sense.
My mind wandered to the Milgram experiment. In these psychological experiments conducted by Yale researchers, subjects essentially conformed to the orders of their leader even when it conflicted with the consciousness. In the experiment, unknowing subjects were instructed to deliver electric shocks to actors that were hired by the researchers. With each shock administered, the actors would cry out in pain, causing the subject to become aware that they were harming another human being. Despite their moral objections to what they were doing, most of the subjects continued to administer the shocks solely because they were instructed to. Instructions from some authority figure caused them to abandon their best judgment.
I became disgusted with myself. I was as much of a sheep as the subjects of that research study. And to make things worse, the authority figure that I blindly conformed to wasn't even a human, it was a machine.
I boiled in my frustration while pushing my bike along this terrible path. Jolly hikers would pass every now and then, always asking, "How's it going?" I didn't even want to respond to these questions. I mean, HOW THE FUCK DID IT LOOK LIKE I WAS DOING? My mind was in a bad place. It was in such a bad place that I said "fuck you" to a rabbit that crossed my path...A bunny rabbit. That was not cool. I was frustrated, upset and, perhaps worst of all, I was losing confidence in myself.
The negative thoughts ate away at me. The regret was insurmountable. Instead of a pleasant four miles cruise downhill, I was breaking my back carrying this rig through the wilderness. As my ankles wobbled on slippery rock, pangs of anxiety crossed my mind. Ugly thoughts shot through my head. You're not going to get to Denver safely. You're going to hurt yourself. Just an hour ago I felt so close to my goal, now it felt so distant. And to make all these matters worse, I felt personally responsible for putting Celine in this situation. I was disgusted with myself.
Two fit young men approached us. They seemed puzzled and concerned that we were pushing our bikes up this path. They asked how I was doing, so I gave a totally honest answer, "Pretty bad." We chatted for a few minutes. These guys were really compassionate, you could tell they wanted to help. One of the fellows asked, "Can we help you carry some stuff." I paused. The old Colin would have declined the offer, but the new Colin knew better. My mind went immediately to the fellow in Newton, Kansas who offered to bail me out of the impending thunderstorm. I did the smartest thing that I had done all day. I accepted these guys' offer.
It turned out that the two guys, Nick and Patrick, were brothers. It also turned out that they were former military, having spent time in the Air Force. These two saved the day. In all honesty I don't think I would have been able to safely get myself out of that situation without them. They accompanied us, carrying much of our gear over a mile to the end of the damned Apex Trail. I found something ironic, or almost foreshadowing, about the fact that U.S. military personnel saved Celine and I from our mini-battle with technology.
So here's where I get all science-fictioney. People seem to think that there is going to be some sort of The Matrix-esque showdown between mankind and machines. After this horrible experience, I don't think that the big 'man versus computer' catastrophe will be an explicit showdown. No. I think it will be much more subtle. I think computers will just quietly lull us into a false sense of security. We will develop such trust in tech company's algorithms that we will defer our decision making abilities to them. Having forwent our ability to make decisions, we will unknowingly have become subordinate to computers. They will become the new proprietors of our agency. I don't know, but to me that sounds really scary.
It actually reminds me of this sort of ongoing thesis that my buddy Dave (from Chicago) has discussed with me. I believe the crux of his thesis is that by deferring to decision-makers, whether they be elected representatives, financiers, etc, we unknowingly take on huge amounts of risk that ultimately manifest themselves in some sort of crash. I am really beginning to buy his thesis, but would suggest one addition to it. Nowadays people don't just entrust decision-making abilities to sentient human beings, they entrust the power to machines. This creates quite a conundrum of accountability, but I guess that's a separate issue.
Anyways, the moral of this story is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, not just of government and more traditional decision-makers, but of information technology. I don't mean to outright reject it, because that would be silly. I just mean that people should continue to trust in the primacy of the human mind, their mind, over the ever-changing vehicles of technology.
After nearly being defeated by Google Maps, we cautiously rode 10 miles to Sam's place in Denver. Sam is the son of the family I stayed with in Mundelein and may as well be my brother. We've just known each other forever. I was in a horrible mood as I arrived in his neighborhood, SoBo. Celine and I took a seat on a bench in Sam's neighborhood to await his phone call. We looked homeless, covered in filth from head to toe, stuffing our faces on a bench in this trendy neighborhood. It was only then, once I was seated on a bench with Celine on Sam's block, that I was able to let out a sigh of relief. We had safely made it to Denver. Mission accomplished.
Seeing Sam life my spirits, which were desperately in need of a lift. He gave us the "Tour de Sam," showed us around his neighborhood and introducing us to all the characters. There was Dougherty's bar, where Sam shook hands with everyone as if he was the Mayor, there was the Korean liquor store, where the owner proudly displayed Sam's holiday cards by the register, and there was Illegal Pete's, where pretentious hipsters made you burritos with attitude. Ahhhhh, I was finally in Denver.
That night I released my lingering tension by performing Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" at a nearby karaoke bar. Sam followed by performing Clarence Carter's timeless classic, "Strokin." After our award-winning performances, Celine commented that it was obvious from our demeanor that Sam and I were friends. I was pleased to hear that. I guess it meant that we hadn't lost our screwy suburban swagger just yet.
Adversity builds character. It's also the only way some people learn. By dealing with today's adversity I learned to never abandon my common sense and maintain a healthy level of skepticism of information technology. In the end, I think I came out of that damned nature trail more able to handle life's curveballs.