Microadventuring

Warning: this post has a low joke quotient and a high introspection quotient. If you come here for the jokes, I'll throw you a bone first  sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium BATMAANNN — but that'll mostly be it for today. Sometimes (rarely, thank God) I get in a Serious Mood and want to write Serious Things, and now is such a time. You'll endure it or ignore it as you please. Carry on.

Several weeks ago, my PCT friend Hitch posted this article ("The Virtues of Microadventures," a Q&A with British hunk Alistair Humphreys) to Facebook, and to say it induced a flood of memories and some pointed self-examination would be an understatement. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but if you can't: the premise of Mr. Humphreys' ethos is that you don't have to take much time or go far from home to have an adventure. You can sleep in your backyard or go walk up a nearby hill. It all counts and, if repeated, over time adds up to some experience of otherness, of adventure. Sleeping outdoors has to be part of each one of his "microadventures" but it doesn't even have to be, for you. It really can be as simple as a deliberate walk somewhere new.

Spencer butte above south eugene. a great place for a solitude-free walk or a creepy night's sleep, but it still beats the dull quotidian. Some, like sufjan stevens, even claim to have found themselves on spencer butte.

Spencer butte above south eugene. a great place for a solitude-free walk or a creepy night's sleep, but it still beats the dull quotidian. Some, like sufjan stevens, even claim to have found themselves on spencer butte.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone with a penchant for transcontinental walks, it has not lately been my habit to go on small adventures. It hasn't even been something I've thought to try very often. While I was thru-hiking, I remember talking with people on the trail about my reluctance in the real world to walk short distances for pleasure. I specifically remember Hitch and I discussing how we knew people (her sister, my then-girlfriend) in normal life who were far more inclined then us to take a little stroll in the park or around the neighborhood. At the time I thought that I might be inclined to embrace the constitutional the daily walk as part of routine — and that I already embraced the ultra-long thru-hike, but that I did not care much for the walks of in-between length. It's almost as if the short adventures, compared to the very long ones, failed to reach some minimum standard of fulfillment. I actually did believe that for a time, and now I curse myself for it, because I look back to a time, well before thru-hiking, when my friends and I made what can absolutely be categorized as "microadventures" (even though there was no name or even really self-awareness attached to what we were doing) a deliberate part of life, and it was incredibly fun and fulfilling. That time was my freshman and sophomore year at Carleton College, and the activity of choice was wandering off campus and sleeping out under the stars.

A lot of people use working from 9 to 5 as an obstacle. But instead, look at the opportunity. After 5 p.m., you have 16 hours that are all yours. So you can ride your bike or take the train out of town, sleep outside somewhere and come back to work maybe a bit rumpled but feeling great.
— Alistair Humphreys, from the above NYT article

"A bit rumpled but feeling great." That was me on, I'm guessing, maybe three dozen mornings over my first two years at Carleton. Carleton is in rural Minnesota and has an 880-acre Arboretum, which remains one of my favorite places on the planet if not for its intrinsic value (don't get me wrong, it has plenty), but because of the universally positive associations I have of times spent there. My friends started a "sleepout" email listserv in freshman year and used it to announce various locations in the Arb where they'd be spending the night. Others would join, or not, depending, and sometimes it wasn't just the Arb but someplace illegal (roof of a campus building) or deliberately uncomfortable (canoe anchored in the middle of a lake, or on the frozen lake in the wintertime) or deliberately comfortable (high-jump mat at the track), but the ending was always the same — walking back through campus at 8 or 9 a.m. with my sleeping bag and pad thrown around my shoulders while a few people threw odd glances my way. Change clothes in room, eat breakfast, don't shower, head off to class. I don't recall ever feeling unrested even if it hadn't actually been that many hours of comfortable sleep. I just remember feeling that they were pretty enjoyable nights, whether I was alone or in a group of a dozen, which each happened with about equal frequency. And I remember doing it maybe once a week, especially in the fall and spring (my roommate Blake did it in the Minnesota winter too, but he's a very different person from me). 

The carleton college arboretum, site of many microadventures for the author ca. 2006-8.

The carleton college arboretum, site of many microadventures for the author ca. 2006-8.

If I sound a little rose-tinted and nostalgic here, well, I'm pretty damned nostalgic about it all, even though I'm not that old and it wasn't that long ago. I ceased the microadventuring pretty abruptly after my sophomore year, for who knows how many reasons ... I got a heavier workload and simultaneously got worse at dealing with it, started dating/sharing a room with someone who steadfastly refused to sleep outdoors because it threatened the good night's sleep that she believed essential for her (admittedly outstanding) academic performance, became maybe a bit depressed as a reaction to, or as a cause (who can tell?) of those and a dozen other issues. But for whatever reason, for my junior and senior years I can only remember sleeping outdoors for the sole purpose of sleeping outdoors, not as part of some multi-day trip twice. And then, besides one dedicated camping trip, never again after graduation (June 2010) until starting the AT (April 2011). And never between then and the PCT. And never since. And again, cause and effect are impossible to establish here  I've felt more than a little dulled, wasted, and energy-bereft during that whole time.

My longtime friend and foil Eva, whom I met back as a freshman and who was a part of many sleepouts, including the aforementioned one in the canoe and the one on the art building rooftops, by comparison hasn't lost the spirit of those days quite so easily. She actually tried thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail the same year that I did, 2011, but had to leave after 500 miles with a knee injury. Once that was finally healed two years later, she started taking very deliberate long walks around Manhattan, where she resides. She's described her routes to me and says she's aiming for a 50-mile day this summer. Sometimes she sleeps on the roof of her apartment. I admire that spirit immensely it's straight out of the Humphreys microadventuring handbook  and look forward to getting out and just doing doing doing things like that myself. So far I have only the seeds of ideas (airport in the far north to Spencer Butte in the far south of Eugene? Sleep out in the backyard [or "garden," per the Mr. Humphreys the Brit] nights in a row in the dry summertime? Sleep on top of Spencer Butte before I leave South Eugene?). I don't feel so compelled to tell anyone about them, except maybe to inform someone of my plans as a safety precaution. But I do feel a gnawing necessity to inject small doses of adventure into my life, since I'm undoubtedly in the position now thanks to work, other people, and all that rot  of not being able to go on a long hike for at least another year.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
         the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public
         road.
— Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself (46)"

It was rainin' hard in Eugene, I needed one more fare to make my night ...

A few thoughts on my first two weeks of driving for Uber in Eugene, Oregon. Press play and listen peacefully as you read through the post below:

In December I signed up to drive for Uber. Uber, for the uninitiated, is a "rideshare service" app that provides a framework for other people to pay for a ride in a stranger's car, provided it's new-ish and clean. For the tech-savvy consumer, it's a boon — Uber rides are almost universally more timely, clean, polite and inexpensive than traditional cabs. But many many people don't like Uber. It's a journalistic commonplace now to publish articles wherein traditional cab companies, and the city governments that benefit from the cab racket, bitch about Uber's avoidance of licensing fees. If you want to read Uber drivers themselves bitching about Uber, it's quite easy to do that. If you want to read about the Uber economy and how it maybe foretells certain doom for humanity, that's easy too. But you won't hear it from me right now, though. You'll just hear some stories and ideas from my first two weeks at it, in the special little town of Eugene, Oregon.

Why I do it, briefly: The nature of my current work situation sometimes leaves me with about two or three unstructured hours in the late afternoon. In the past, I would use that time to do what I've always done: sit at home and read, usually alone. Now, I sit in my car, about equidistant from downtown and the University of Oregon, and read, alone ... except usually within 10 minutes my phone will make an ungodly beeping noise and I'll toddle off to pick someone up and drive them somewhere. These people have consented to a cashless transaction that pays me, for now:

($.30/minute + $1.75/mile + $3.00 base) - (.2 x fare) - $1.00 flat fee - gas - wear and tear - tax as an independent contractor + tip that they are discouraged from giving me and I am supposed to refuse (I've been offered just one, and accepted)

I haven't even bothered to calculate all my own mitigating variables but, from reading other drivers who have, I doubt I'm clearing more than $10/hr. I'm not in it solely for the money, though (God help anyone who is), and it's certainly better than nothing. Below is a spreadsheet that a redditor somewhere else in the country made during his first week.

I DID NOT MAKE THIS SPREADSHEET. A redditor named /u/KevinAB93 did for himself. That said, it seems about standard for calculating actual profit from Uber driving.

Anyway, back to the mechanics. As an Uber driver, you're free to be online as often as you like, provided you're in your car and ready to head to your pickup point right away. In theory, you're supposed to turn off the driver ("Partner," in Uber corporate-speak) app if you step into the Circle K for Red Bull or Swisher Sweets or whatever, but no one does. There's someone in Eugene who lives near the airport who quite clearly has the driver app on all day every day as he sits in his house and waits for pings from arriving flyers. In fact, I know his exact address. How? You can use the Uber rider app to see where all the drivers are.

The view from the Uber driver app. Not actually helpful for a driver, since you have no idea where other drivers are.

The view from the Uber driver app. Not actually helpful for a driver, since you have no idea where other drivers are.

The Uber rider app view. I don't plan on asking for a ride, but at least I know where my mortal enemies, the other Uber drivers, are in relation to me (I can see my own car moving on the screen too, with about a 20-second delay).

The Uber rider app view. I don't plan on asking for a ride, but at least I know where my mortal enemies, the other Uber drivers, are in relation to me (I can see my own car moving on the screen too, with about a 20-second delay).

So you play the Uber driver and rider apps off of each other and try to avoid getting boxed in by other drivers, like it's a city-scaled game of Go. If you're boxed in as a driver, you'll never be closest to someone pinging for a ride.

Uh-oh. The other Uber drivers have me boxed in. I'm fucked. The swine have outmaneuvered me. I won't get a rider unless I move or wait for them to get pings first.

Uh-oh. The other Uber drivers have me boxed in. I'm fucked. The swine have outmaneuvered me. I won't get a rider unless I move or wait for them to get pings first.

A beautiful sight. Not a single other Uber driver anywhere in downtown Eugene or near the University (the beige-shaded area on the right). I will usually get a ping within 2 or 3 minutes in this situation.

A beautiful sight. Not a single other Uber driver anywhere in downtown Eugene or near the University (the beige-shaded area on the right). I will usually get a ping within 2 or 3 minutes in this situation.

So someone pings me. I rocket away to pick them up, dropping classic cabbie moves like speeding down side streets, cutting across multiple lanes, liberally using the horn, etc. (After I pick the rider up I'm on better behavior ... I want a five-star driver rating after all). I also take a screenshot of the "waybill" with their full name on it, so that I know who to tell the cops about if they do something heinous to me or my vehicle. If the person is on the UO campus, the data network is so scrambled that their GPS positioning is probably off by some amount, anywhere from 20 yards to several blocks. In that case, I call their number and orchestrate the pickup in conversation. They hop in, I drive them around town or across campus, we chat or maybe not (see below), they get out, they don't tip, I give them a 5-star rider rating, I go back online and maybe recycle to a strategically located parking lot while I wait for the next ping. Easy peasy.

Eugene Uber riders. University of Oregon undergraduates, who comprise about 80% of my ridership, have never been renowned on the whole for their intellectual prowess. While taking two of them to the movie theater to watch Interstellar for the third time, I overheard a sad struggle and ultimate failure to come up with the word "drone" ("it's the ... what do you call the fighter plane, except there's nobody in it? Anyway, they hack that at the beginning."). I don't think these young men suffered from Broca's aphasia, I just don't think they were very smart. As for the women, I've learned more about the lives of Oregon sorority girls than I care to. It's not what you think — no prurient details, no vicious nail-dragging down the backs of their sisters. Just the opposite. I've heard friends talk for a good minute (think how long that is in real time) about how someone had their bangs separated in a dumb-looking way poking out of their beanie yesterday. I've heard two separate sorority-girl pairs talk independently on different days about the same person, "Courtney," who fell at a party recently and now has "bruises, like, all over her body." The word "function" has taken on new significance as an apparent building-block of an entire group of people's lives. "The Theta Chi function on Friday" ... "Ew, no one has functions on Wednesdays" ... etc. It turns out to be the absence of really exciting details, coupled with the incredible ability to fill airspace with the most mundane observations that never stray outside their insubstantial little worlds, that's actually fascinating — if not a little disgusting — to listen to. They're not unlike the more oblivious set of long-distance hikers who get too ensconced in the subculture to be polite or relatable to real-world people.

But that's the bad. More often, there's the good — plenty of fine conversation partners, even among the UO undergrad crowd. Plenty of different languages (from international students), something that you simply do not get the chance to overhear otherwise in Eugene, a.k.a. the Whitest Town on the Planet. Thus far no drunks, no pukers (I don't drive late at night), none of Eugene's innumerable "transient population" (a smartphone and a checking account being necessities as an Uber rider). I did once have three incredibly stoned college guys, getting a 10-block ride to Pegasus Pizza, but that's harmless (and hilarious — String Cheese Incident "put it all out there for MLK's dream" at their show in Eugene on the 19th, apparently). I've given all of my riders five gold stars.

Given how undersocialized most of our worlds are, how all our interaction at the workplace always has to be directed towards some functional end, the chance to talk for 10 minutes or so with several new people a day — should the ride turn towards conversation — is nothing to sneeze at. It's one of my favorite things about hiking too, this chance to make new conversation only for the sake of conversation. You obviously have more time on the trail, to the point where, as I observed back on the PCT, you can feel like you know damn near everything about someone's life after being around them for a day or two. On the Uber rides, it's more like 10 minutes of small talk, and it's often with the same type of person (a wealthier-than-average University of Oregon student), but hey, it's different

I'm quite enjoying it so far, and I plan to continue as long as Uber is legal in Eugene, although its days may be numbered. I haven't encountered any long-lost lovers yet, like Harry up at the top. I also don't get stoned NEARLY as often as him. 

Season's greetings

Hello! In the past few weeks, I migrated everything from my dingy old blog into this sleek new page. This new site:

  • Is better organized
  • Boasts an even higher concentration of dumb jokes and references
  • Has more information on the information pages
  • Does not have as much blogging on the blogging pages ... yet.

Though a major long hike does not appear to be in the offing for me, personally, in 2015, there are other things going on in the world that I might want to write about at some point. Stay tuned for sick burns and hot takes on the Wild movie, the Buddy Backpacker™ freak show, Uber, a winter road trip to a cabin in remote northeastern Minnesota, and more. And if I decide against all better sense, and the wishes of everyone who cares about me, to pull up stakes and hit the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, I will definitely keep a journal here. Pip pip.