Oh, Sonja. You sleek, durable, lighter-than-you-look beauty. My once-brand-new love. Only later did our bond grow sentimental roots. Ours was a love born from function and reliability.
Sonja and I were introduced in the laneway behind a bike shop near the edges of downtown Victoria. The mechanic fitted Sonja’s seat height to my size, and instructed me to bike down the laneway for a brief test ride, to feel if all was right.
As I pedaled Sonja for the first time, I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t fit to be demanding. Sonja was well beyond my budget for a touring bike. But, she was quiet and rolled true. Far superior to the corner-store bicycles I’d ridden in my life’s previous chapters. The clincher was Sonja had disc brakes, which, I was assured, were far more durable than rim brakes. I was planning to stop along my way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Before I left the shop, the mechanic asked if I needed any accessories for my new bike.
Nah, I’m good.
An hour earlier, I’d been ignorant of the fact that bikes could cost more than a few hundred dollars. I’d already handily exceeded my internal budget for buying a bike, and I wasn’t keen to buy anything that wasn’t already on my wishlist.
Are you sure you don’t want fenders on your bike? It rains a lot in BC.
Where are you biking?
Across Canada. To St. John’s, Newfoundland.
It might rain on your trip across the country. You’ll want fenders.
Fenders. An embarrassingly obvious essential for biking the distance between the edges of towns, let alone the coasts of Canada. I could feel my ignorance illuminating the entire store.
I felt adrift. I stood a world away from the well-worn paths of my childhood town. A distant trek from the roads I’d lifelong known. I needed to get over myself; I felt no sense of familiarity in this place. This was not my scene. And, so, I reluctantly embraced a form of disguised control. I clutched my plastic card and surrendered to my guide.
Sir, what else will I need?
Following a humble request for professional direction, forty-five minutes of unforeseen shopping ensued. Sonja was fitted with fenders, front and rear reflectors, two water-bottle holders, and a rack atop the rear wheel. I also bought my first helmet. I was assured one might be helpful on my trip.
Along with a catalogue of things I hadn’t realized I needed, a new bike could be stricken from my wishlist. Slowly cycling from the store, adapting awkwardly to my new helmet, I rode off to strike off the rest.
Within the next twenty hours, I’d purchased everything I thought would be essential for the journey to come. Panniers, tools, bike gloves, water bottles, two pairs of cycling shorts, and other clothes appropriate for biking in all kinds of weather. Even rain.
I bought a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and lantern for camping. Trail mix, energy bars, and an assortment of other snacks for eating. At a thrift store, I proudly snatched up cheap sunglasses, as well as a pair of old smoker’s gloves. The kind that could be transformed from mittens to flipped-back fingerless gloves in less than two seconds. I wasn’t sure exactly why I needed these old, woollen gloves, aside from easy touchscreen access for my fingers in colder weather. The two-dollar price tag served the greatest appeal. Felt like two pairs for the price of one.
With every purchase, I felt more prepared for the adventures ahead. My life had grown from a single backpack to a brand-new touring bike weighed down by two orange panniers on the rear rack, a tent secured in-between by stretch cables, along with a small, blue pouch strapped along the handlebars. I felt astounded by the rate at which I had accumulated this new life of stuff.
Things. Stuff. For every waking breath. The wonderfully limited life of a willful consumer. Familiar and expected, yet, progressive. I want the next one the same as the last one, only better. I’ve followed this path countless times, no doubt.
Every consumer’s sails are drawn to the products they believe will better their world, whatever better means. Better can feel easy, new, empowering, convenient, exhilarating. Better can mean the same. Always fleeting.
My triggers for consumption are rooted the same as any connection. Often, the more I consume, the more likely I’ll feel the need to consume again, and again. Familiarity feeds on familiarity, and the connection remains strong. Every product purchased invites another chemical rush within, ensuring the temptation to submit to my desires for another rush, and maybe soon. I remain vulnerable, for certain. Till my final breath.
Yet, amidst my ventures to buy stuff for my trip, I’d stumbled unknowingly onto another new path. With life now affixed to a bicycle, I’d forced my own hand into a simpler lifestyle. What do I need, really? Suddenly, I felt my connection to the ludicrous thrill of the purchase waning.
Scaling down for the cycling trip refreshed my mind anew. I believed less in the exercise of feigning a sense of purpose upon stuff. Things were no longer mere things. I began to feel a greater connection to every item I bought, as well as the products I didn’t buy. I became that statuesque customer standing for minutes in the aisle, product in hand. I began to search for acceptable reasons until, often, I placed that item back on the shelf. Every potential acquisition carried a greater meaning.
I could always convince myself that I’ll need a better camera, a fancier car, a stronger blender, or a bigger screen. Life may feel more complete with such things. And, man, consumerism can be fun. Meaningful, even.
In the moment, at least.
But, with a single choice, I’d left my previous life behind, along with nearly every thing to which it was attached. Furniture to fill every room, redundant clothes for every season, rows of once-read books, and far too many accumulations collecting dust and stealing space.
In the past, I had mindlessly enclosed myself within the consumer’s dilemma. Without any search for depth, every purchase in the past felt necessary, when nearly every purchase wasn’t needed. In the moment, every purchase seemed right; over time, the feeling depleted. On to the next one, over and over. This proved a comfortable and familiar life, until I chose to turn slightly away, restricting my own bounds to different standards. I’d ventured onto a new path. For the time being. Till the east coast, at least.
Two panniers, a couple of bungee cords, and a handlebar bag had exposed my years-long adheration to things. Until I rested my entire life onto Sonja, the consumerist’s life offered an intoxicating combination of easy, meaningful, and new-yet-all-too-familiar. This frivolous branch of life had become both consciously and non-consciously assumed.
I hadn’t reduced my life to the bare necessities, as my phone, camera, plastic-packed wallet, and rewards points clearly exposed. Sure, I was in the process of discarding significant pieces of my prior life. But, I wasn’t about to reject every innovation and item at my disposal. Instead, I gravitated toward a newly lit spectrum, between the extremes of living with-out and living with-all.
I felt empowered, a sense of inner progress before I’d even ridden a pedal. Reassured. Just Sonja and me, along with about thirty pounds of gear for the weeks to come. Mostly essentials. Only a select few luxuries.
This is happening. This choice – my choice – is happening.
In a burst of symbolic separation from my life’s previous chapters, I buckled my old backpack to a bike rack outside a museum in downtown Victoria. Looking down at my pack lying on the ground, with a sigh, I realized the symbolism made little sense. Too late. I didn’t know what else to do, so I allowed that buckle-sound to trigger the start of this new ride. Click. Better something than nothing.
Now, I’ve all I need.
Another sigh. I took my place on the seat, for the first time with my gear fully in place. With a few unsteady turns on the streets leading out of Victoria, I began to learn how to ride with the additional weight.
I was on my way. I could physically feel direction. Pedaling along an unknown path with unexpected choices awaiting. Off I rode, to another unknown.