26 July 2019

To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins

I have been anticipating this book release for about ~3 years, basically as soon as I heard it was being written. To know me is to know about my bizarre obsession with Sophia Bush, and this author, Jedidiah Jenkins is a close friend of hers. Through social media I learned Jenkins was writing this book about his bicycle trip from Oregon to Patagonia and I'd built it up so much that even holding it when I got it for Christmas felt surreal to me.

Jenkins is a talented writer and over the years of following him on social media I've really begun to appreciate his work. He does a lot of his writing on Instagram (@JedidiahJenkins) but he's also the Executive Editor for Wilderness Magazine and does a lot of cool interviews there, etc. To Shake the Sleeping Self is his first book, and while I was incredibly impressed with it's content and style, I definitely built the whole thing up to much beforehand. Typical.

What is very cool about this book is that Jenkins is not an adventurer, outdoorsman, hiker, or whoever else you may imagine would take up a bike trip this extensive. He wasn't even a biker. Meghan is big on adventure stories from real outdoorsmen but I tend to steer closer to the average-joe-gets-a-crazy-idea types like Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Robyn Davidson's Tracks. I like the adventurers to become adventurers on the adventure... it makes you feel like it's never too late for you to do something bold like that. Meghan and I still have big dreams of hiking the Camino (but if you've ready our post on our ~48 hours in Fundy National Park, you'll know this is not feasible for us).

Jenkins was working a fairly corporate job and feeling pretty bored of the monotony when he was introduced to someone who had just done a long haul bike trip. The guy told Jenkins that he should try one, and just like that Jenkins was set on doing one. Interestingly enough, Jenkins' parents walked - WALKED - literally across the United States from coast to coast in their early 20's (I think). So while the experience was foreign to him, the idea of doing something as outrageous as this bike trip wasn't. 

I have learned this for certain: if discontent is your disease, travel is medicine. It re-sensitizes. It opens you up to see outside the patterns you follow. Because new places require new learning. It forces your childlike self back into action. When you are a kid, everything is new. You don't know what's under each rock, or up the creek. So you look. You notice because you need to. The world is new. This world is new. This, I believe, is why time moves so slowly as a child- why school days creep by and summer breaks stretch on. Your brain is paying attention to every second. It must as it learns the patterns of living. Every second has value. But as you get older, and the patterns become more obvious, time speeds up. Especially once you find your groove in the working world. The layout of your days becomes predictable, a routine, and once your brain reliably knows what's next, it reclines and closes its eyes. Time pours through your hands like sand."

The trip itself was hands down the highlight of the book. I appreciate it was a cathartic project for Jenkins in terms of religion and self-acceptance as well, but the trip is really what shines for me. Jenkins, as I mentioned, is a talented writer. To read about his journey as he wrote it is almost to be on it as well. He's so vividly descriptive about everything he sees and everyone he meets.

who I assume is Weston (left) and Jenkins (right) in Mexico City

The trip starts in Oregon and spans ~10 000 miles to Patagonia, taking readers through California, Mexico, and South America along the way. But Jenkins isn't even two days into the trip before he begins feeling all the emotions I know I would feel on a trip like this. He's sore. He's tired. He doesn't like being wet when he wakes up. I love the passage below SO much because this is exactly how my brain works and I'm so glad it's not just me:

I had wanted to get fifty miles in the first day, but we managed only twenty-two. Every mile was a calculation. 'Okay, so I made it ten miles in the last hour, so that means if I bike for three more hours that's thirty more miles, and that would be forty miles, which means tomorrow if I go sixty miles then I've gone my first hundred miles, and the whole trip is ten thousand miles, I think, which means I'm one percent done. That's not bad.' I do this with everything. If I'm at a party, and it's getting late, I calculate exactly how many hours I can sleep if I get to bed in fifteen minutes, or in an hour. The calculation makes me feel like I'm in control."

Jenkins takes the trip with a guy he half-knows named Weston, which I felt was odd because what a massive commitment you're making without knowing if you get on well, but I'll write more about that later... Jed and Weston are trying to be frugal throughout the trip, as it spans over a year in time where they're essentially both without incomes. They camp, sleep in hammocks, they use an app called "Warm Showers" to find people who will take in hikers and bikers for the night. These elements of the trip interested me a lot because I wouldn't have the first clue how to navigate these logistics.

Something I felt was very cool was that they breaks in different cities to relax, experience the culture, try new drugs, eat new foods, etc. They also both take 'vacations' from their trip (Jed goes home for the holidays and Weston goes to a friend's wedding in Hawaii) or have friends join them on certain legs, for example to hike Machu Pichu, or when Jed's family met them in Ecuador for Easter. Something about this seemed more realistic to me, and made the trip seem less for show and more for themselves. Jed is constantly aware of the pressures of social media and how the times they took breaks or hitchhiked may be considered 'cheating'... but cheating what? It was their trip, they decided what was cheating or not, nobody else. Meghan and I have to remind ourselves that about this blog sometimes (LOL).

'Do you think we'll get the excitement back? For biking?' I said.
'We have to choose it. It's like a marriage. The honeymoon's over, and we can jump ship or we can choose to love the one we've got, and make it fresh. I mean, dude, we have Colombia next!'"

I appreciated Jed's commentary on the people and the environments he was in. Despite biking through South America, they never express fear, and  Jed always describes how willing people were to help them, be it food, beds, showers, directions, etc. He also becomes aware of how people are affecting nature. Witnessing the great butterfly migration in Mexico he learns that every year the number that return decline, something we are doing with our cellphones, climate change, etc. makes it hard for them to understand where they're meant to go. Stuff like this is so incredibly sad for me.

I couldn't give up on my global optimism. I've always believed that the world is far friendlier than it is not, far more loving than hateful. Fear is like a thorn in your foot. It may be proportionally small in relation to the body, but it hurts and demands attention and everything halts until the thorn gets pulled."

I mentioned Jed takes this trip with a guy named Weston. Weston is someone he meets through friends who wants to take the trip and knows a lot about bikes, and the two get on well at first and are incredibly motivating for each other, but eventually it comes to light how incompatible they are as travel companions. It was so strange to me how willing Jed was to accept a companion, much less one he didn't know that well. I won't even go to lunch one on one with someone who I worry I may have nothing to talk about with. I won't spoil the ending but I will say that this relationship dampened the mood for me. While the guys were very connected and had a lot of deep conversations about religion and sexuality, they also fought a lot over dumb things like money and drugs. I'd love to ask Jed if he has any regrets about not doing this trip solo, or about having Weston as a partner for it. I'd love to know that they're still close.

Jenkins and my beloved Sophia when the book came out

Ultimately, while Jenkins spends a lot of the trip in his own head unpacking shit from his adolescence, like what it means to be a man of God and a homosexual, how he balances needing his mother's approval but understanding her religion, these themes weren't the focus of the book. I really thought they would be. It wasn't clear to me if Jenkins found clarity on any of these items, and maybe that's the point, because maybe it wasn't clear to him either. In the end, it seemed like the trip taught him more about living in the present and how to measure your life than it did about himself. I appreciated these lessons more than I would any on religion or sexuality. 

What a burden to put on travel, which in itself is ignorant and indifferent. It becomes so hard to just enjoy the thing as it happens. We make the journey about arrival, not travel. We are so goal focused. We are the dog that won't stop paddling as long as he sees the shore... Of course, goals help us get a lot done. But they often remove our attention from the experience to the achievement. When we arrive at the goal, we think, then we will be happy.  When we finally get there, we can celebrate and have fun. When I get that job, I'll be fulfilled then. When I get married, I will be happy. The Eden we pine for is not under our own feet or bike tires, but over the next mountain."

I enjoyed reading this but certain parts definitely felt long and slow. Part of me enjoyed this because that's how I imagine the trip itself felt, but part of me feels like it could have just been a shorter book. As I mentioned at the start, it was very impressive but I really built it up in my head before reading it. I didn't have the big epiphany I'd thought I would at the end, and I'm not sure Jenkins did either, which was partially his point. I was also super bummed Sophia Bush had no cameo. I know she joined Jenkins at the end but he doesn't mention it.

If you are into these adventure type journey-memoirs (look at me making up genres) then I think you would like this, but it's not your typical alone in the wild scenario. They spend a lot of time in hostels, on couches, etc. I think its an inspiring piece of work for those of us who need a kick in the ass because we're bored with our lives but too lazy to fix it. I'm not saying it needs to be a massive bike trip, but something, anything really. 

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