Have you ever heard someone talking to you when no one is around? The mental health folks call this experience an auditory hallucination. If you do it a lot, people start worrying about you. Words like mania or schizophrenia are thrown around. Professional advice is sought, straitjackets purchased. Fortunately, it has only happened to me twice: the first time when I was out backpacking, the second when I was bicycling across the Nevada desert on my 10,000-mile bike trek.
The first occasion I found rather humorous. I was backpacking with my Basset Hound, Socrates. (It should be noted that anyone who backpacks with a Basset Hound is already mildly insane.) Soc was off chasing some imaginary beast in the woods— his deep, hound-bark reverberating through the surrounding mountains. I was meditating using my favorite mantra, ‘goat.’ Don’t ask.
The session was progressing well. I had quieted my ever-noisy mind; colors were taking on intensity, the forest becoming alive, and Soc’s bark sounding like a Beethoven Sonata. That’s when it happened. A clear voice out of nowhere spoke to me.
“Talk to me, damn it!”
Now you can’t make this up. It’s too weird. Apparently, the inner me wanted words to munch on, not silence. It’s used to my constant nattering. So it broke into my conscious mind, took possession of me, and made a demand. I could only laugh. I went back to meditating but it was hopeless. (If you want to hear the rest of my story about backpacking with Socrates, go here. It’s a very 70’s type of tale.)
People who are really serious about hearing voices, however, go off to the desert and hang out for 40 days, or years. Saints and other holy people have been doing this for millennia. Big, booming voices tell them to go off and save the world, or take dictation, or whip themselves. Piddly things like “Talk to me, damn it!” are never heard.
The Nevada desert fully qualifies as a place to get messages. It’s full of vast amounts of nothingness and rattlesnakes and jackrabbits and dust devils and rocks and UFOs and sagebrush and casinos. A common message people receive is, “You’re bank account is empty.” I don’t think that the state has produced any saints. Characters, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen. It’s my kind of place. I’ve crisscrossed it many times.
I entered the state on my bicycle following Idaho/Nevada 93. I knew that I had arrived when I spotted the casinos. (There are very few ways that you can enter the state without finding at least one, and often several.) They were a welcome sight, being the only place I could get a snack and refill my water bottles on my hundred-mile ride from Twin Falls to Wells. I even donated five dollars in quarters to improving Nevada’s economy.
In Wells, I picked up Interstate 80, one of America’s major East-West routes. I had been dreading this part of my journey. For well over 9000 miles I had been travelling on America and Canada’s back roads whenever possible and busier two lane highways when forced to. Now I would be riding on a four-lane freeway packed with a high percentage of the nation’s cross-country 18-wheelers. My only option was to detour to the south and pick up Highway 50, known as America’s “Loneliest Highway” as it crosses Nevada. It sounded great, but I was out of detour time. So I bit the proverbial bullet— and was happily surprised.
The freeway has great shoulders. I could ride along and totally ignore the traffic. In time, the freeway noise even faded away. There was nothing but the desert, distant horizons and me. There weren’t even any cows to talk with, at least not many. I was free to meditate— and hear voices.
When the voice came, it was the booming type, not the silent whisper you hear in the back of your mind on occasion that suggests you really shouldn’t do something you have every intention of doing. It caught me off guard and scared me. I probably should have listened. Maybe I would have learned something, like to go home and build an ark. But I shut it down. I’m not crazy, and I had forgotten to bring my rose-colored glasses. Besides, I had no desire to become the first prophet to arise out of the Nevada desert (a scary thought), or end up in a straitjacket.
A couple of days later I did have a bit of a revelation, though. Maybe it was even related to the booming voice, or not. I’d left Sacramento with a lot of questions that could be traced all the way back to my youth and even DNA. To say I was restless is a massive understatement. While I had worked hard and had my share of success, I considered work an interlude between adventures. And my adventures were as much about running away as they were about my unending desire to explore new areas. My experience with relationships was similar. I’d had several since my divorce in 1976, and they had all been with good women, people who would have made great life-companions. But I had no desire to settle down and get married, much less have a family.
Something clicked in my mind out there in the middle of the Nevada desert, however. Maybe it was the result of sitting on the back of a bicycle by myself for six months. There was a lot of time to think, and a lot of alone time. I had a strong, clear thought that felt right to me. I could wander and explore without ‘running away.’ It was okay to go home and enter a serious relationship. It would be okay to get married again. It would be okay to have a family. I even went as far as thinking about the women I had dated over the past several years. As I said, they were good people, but I doubted that any of them had a sense of humor about my desire to wander. A week, yes, or even a month, but six months or a year? No way. I needed a companion who liked to wander as much as I did.
The rest of my trip across the desert was tame in comparison. I spent a lot of time going up and down. Nevada is basin and range country. I was constantly climbing up ranges and racing into basins. Towns were relatively close together and each one came with a number of casinos featuring inexpensive and plenteous food. My pure life of the open-road quickly deteriorated. I caught a bad casino cold as a result, after not having a touch of anything for six months. Eventually I hit Highway 95, the cutoff to Fallon where I picked up Highway 50 and cycled into Carson City. The Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed before me. The next day I would cross them, and then head home.
NEXT BLOG: I finish my 10,000 mile journey and return home. A surprise is waiting that will change my life.