[postcards] Steinbeck and My Bike Trip Down the Coast of Korea


[postcards] Steinbeck on Polar States, and My Solo Bike Trip Down the Coast of Korea

September 2016

One of my favorite chapters in Travels with Charley, is when Steinbeck is traveling through Maine to see the rolling hills full of potatoes, as well as meet the Canadians that cross the border to harvest them.

The first evening is grey and cold as he passes the night, alone and sad in his camper. Even his dog crawls up far away from him. They both shiver with cold as the rain patters throughout the night.

The next day at a different site, there is a family of Canadians camping nearby. He invites them over and though reserved at first, he describes how the camper slowly fills with a orange glow, a unity, an unbelievable sense of joy that accompanies warm, agreeable company, especially after a long lonely night so fresh in the memory.

I savored these lyrical descriptions of these oh so familiar polar states.

I remember a cold night in Korea last year. It was the month of June and I was on a three day bike trip down the coast of the peninsula. I was several hundred miles away from Seoul along the coast of Sokcho. I had lost my wallet and so I found myself huddled up on the asphalt, underneath a local farmers car. The entire surrounding land was dark and menacing, plots of land unfolding endlessly. I remember closing my eyes, jaw locked painfully in the cold, glancing down at my watch and cursing the slowness of time. Only five minutes had passed and never had I so eagerly wished for dawn. I wanted so badly to slip into the oblivion of sleep, sparing me the slow passage of the eight hours of darkness and shivering that were still left. I ended up jumping up and biking through the night to the next town, bleary eyed but at least warm from the movement.

I finally got to the next city and biked toward the warm fluorescent lights of a gas station. I crept into the rancid bathroom of the gas station and slept on a piece of cardboard on the floor. It smelled and it was dirty, but it was better than the biting gusts of wind outside. The night attendant shouted in alarm when she initially encountered my dark body on the floor at 3am. I told her I had nowhere to sleep and she just shook her head in confusion. She kicked me out but I came back in a few minutes later. A bit later, an ajuhshee almost tore the door down as he knocked viciously on the door. He was drunk and about to piss his pants. I was hoping he would just go away, but he kept knocking so I finally opened the door. He was livid and demanded to know why I was in there for so long. I told him I had nowhere to sleep and he just cursed, more drunk than confused.

The next morning, after borrowing a phone to call my mother, who read off her credit card number to the lady at the bus station ticket counter, I collapsed into my seat for the two hour drive back. I got off at the bus station, transferred to a taxi, and then finally arrived at our apartment tower. 

It was wonderful to see my mother. Her loving concern washed over me and her aura of affection eased my frayed nerves. She firmly announced to me that we would be having a  big lunch at a new spot down the street.

I savored the hot shower. The meal was profound. I had only eaten one apple and two fifty cent cup of noodles over the last thirty something hours.

It is a strange sensation to be reduced to such a primal state in which decent food, shelter, and the company of a friend are deeply calming and all that one needs. In this state, there is no thought towards the future and Becoming, and one is firmly anchored in the present and in Being. The warm bed and the complete meal were so vividly satisfying my first day back from the disaster of a bike trip.

I would never voluntarily lose my wallet again, and spend another long night under a farmers car, cycling on a deserted highway, and crawled up in a smelly gas station.

 But I do recognize that had I not experienced what I did that night, it would have probably just been another normal day. I might have just taken a shower, absent mindedly eaten lunch with my mother, and then at the end of the day fallen asleep on the bed, slightly discontent and looking for something more, oblivious to the miracles I had partaken in that day.

Steinbeck writes about the lows and the highs. He threads these episodes of laughter and sadness together into one long story of a journey across America. And as one reads and traces the various strands of this thread, one cannot help but reminisce on one’s own journey and its many episodes. One’s own life takes on a literary quality. 

Though we might instinctively possess an extreme intolerance for the lows, and a straining, sometimes frantic, ever present desire for the highs- I think Steinbeck is reminding us that polar states are  our inevitable condition, and that this condition is beautiful and happiness is impossible without it. Only in contrast, is there perception.