We rode for three hours this morning. I pulled Gizmo up and unsaddled for the midday break well before noon. We spent two hours resting, letting his back cool and letting my feet cool when I pulled off my boots. We hit the trail again for a couple more hours, and we were finished with our twenty-mile day in the early afternoon. We’re camped in the hollow of a small hill, beneath a grove of cottonwoods. There’s a windmill here, but not much else. I doubt anyone is within twenty miles of us. As usual, I have a lot of time on my hands.
Had I been hiking across America, I no doubt would have walked from morning until night, spending the entire day on foot and passing the time by traveling. But it’s different having Gizmo along. We are limited in the number of miles we can ride each day and how many days in a row I will ride him. Idle time is built into the journey.
Having to pass the time wasn’t something I thought much about when I planned this ride. It was merely incidental, a minor diversion from riding and seeing places, meeting people and having adventures—the real stuff I thought the ride would be made of. Turns out that passing time takes up most of it. It’s a lot like the dark matter that makes up our universe. They’re both invisible, and you don’t think about them much, but they end up being pretty important.
The travel itself is its own form of discipline. By now, I have forgotten about reaching our final destination, and the ride is no longer just a mode of transportation. Instead, each day has become our reason for being, a sort of Zen setting that’s self-contained. Within each day, the ultimate goal (the Atlantic Ocean) has been forgotten, and the events and surroundings of the day have grown to be our only purpose. It’s no longer a matter of trying to get through the day; rather, when we awake the next morning, we simply know that we have survived the previous day and the outlook shifts to the new one. It’s seamless, and I don’t give it much thought.
If there are ants nearby, I watch them. I pick out a single ant and follow him, sometimes for an hour or more. I watch as he leaves the anthill and traces his progress until he finishes what he was doing and returns to his home. I often see myself as this ant. He doesn’t worry about his destination nor the time it will take him to get there. He sticks to a route and simply follows it without question. Time is meaningless to him. He goes about his business, day by day, and I try to emulate him as best I can.
Before we started the ride it was easy to predict the sorts of activities I would involve myself in, but I find it’s a lot more difficult to convey the sense of time that passes so slowly, and the ability to stay occupied with one of them for an entire afternoon—or an entire day if we don’t happen to be traveling. I sometimes read an entire book without stopping. It generally takes five or six hours to do this. I have no distractions. There aren’t any other people around. I can’t get up to go to the refrigerator for something to eat, but I can get up and walk around if I want to.
My everyday activities are predictable. Washing clothes, sewing and repairing clothes and equipment, tending to my horse, cooking meals. But the truth is, they don’t take up all that much time. After finishing any chores, I still have hours on my hands each day, and I have learned how to slow myself down, to purposely lengthen the time it takes to finish a task to synchronize my own body clock with that of my environment.
I set short range tasks for myself that help me get through the day. I write a poem every day for a week and then set myself the task of writing five poems in an afternoon. The next day I will set myself to memorizing all of them, and the following day I’ll try to recite them to Gizmo while we’re on the trail.
Sometimes I take my single action Colt pistol apart and put it back together. I clean it thoroughly, but I don’t have the proper gun cleaning supplies. I have to do it while sitting in the dirt, and if I drop a tiny screw, I might spend an hour looking for it. Once the pistol is cleaned and reassembled, I spend an hour or two practicing gun tricks. I twirl it, throw it up over my shoulder, and then catch it while cocking and firing it all at once (it isn’t loaded). I balance it on my hand by the end of the barrel then flip it up and twirl it back into the holster. I do that for two hours, take a break, and then do it all over again. I spend a lot of hours spinning that old Colt, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
I spend hours talking to Gizmo, philosophizing and asking him questions and then answering them. We discuss the books I read, or the wildlife around us, or the grass he eats. I’ve tried to teach him how to cook macaroni with powdered sauce, but he hasn’t been much interested.
I often practice humming a tune while playing the harmonica at the same time. Once I have figured out how to do that, I practice humming a tune while playing a different tune on the harmonica. A variation of this is humming and whistling a tune at the same time, like Jimmie Rodgers. Sometimes I do this for a couple of hours without stopping or until it looks like Gizmo is going to kick me.
This all sounds easy, whiling the time away, and it is—for about a half hour or so. Then it starts to get hard, and the longer I go, the more difficult it becomes. I keep going then ask myself, “Have you passed two hours?” I tell myself to go for six. Go for eight. I don’t have a watch, so I have to estimate by watching the sun or moon. Eventually, I get a sort of second wind, and I fall into the groove of it all. Of course, it has taken weeks—months, even. It doesn’t happen in a day.
Took the day off today. Gizmo needs a breather, and his back could stand a rest. A small bump appeared on his back and I don’t want it to turn into anything serious. So, we just wasted the day. I managed to sew up the straps on my day pack. They were almost ripped out. Put some wheel bearing grease on Gizmo’s feet. It’s dry through here and I don’t want them to crack. Spent the day reading (a bad western called Freewater Range) and doing gun tricks. Watched a pair of redtail hawks for a long time, just circling overhead. One of them finally dived down and caught something…probably a field mouse. Gizmo’s new tooth is growing in and he licks at it all the time. I rub his gums a lot, and he loves that. Who’d have thought a gum massage would feel that good? Lazy day today.
The upshot of it all is this: I do whatever it takes to pass the time. I don’t much care about spending it wisely or constructively, except for getting things done that need doing. I’ve learned how to slow down, to pace myself. I first slowed to a crawl then to a standstill. Ever since my teenage years, when I started hitchhiking and spending hours stuck at lonely crossroads waiting for rides, I have known that it’s a lot harder to slow down than it is to speed up. It’s best not to look ahead to see how much time you must fill. The real trick is simply to live in the moment (I know, a bit cliché, but it’s true nonetheless) and allow yourself to focus on what’s in front of you without worrying about how long it will take to do something or how much time you have before sunset. It’s a lot easier to move from the country to a big city than it is to move from the city to the country, that’s for sure. And Gizmo and I have definitely moved to the country.
Simple things have huge impacts. I can twirl the single action Colt, toss it in the air and catch it after it rolls two and a half times, cock the hammer back as it lands then pull the trigger and fan it with my thumb and middle finger to fire off three quick shots. The ability to carry this off doesn’t mean I’m anyone special. Those who see me do this think I’m clever, but only a few will understand the hours of practice I have invested in learning this stunt. Those select few will know, because they will have put in long hours perfecting something. And they will know that it’s not the trick that’s important, it’s the discipline and the dedication to task. The road is the experience; the destination is only the result of that experience.
It’s the ability to pass time without interruption or diversion that matters. It’s the experience of aloneness. It’s the capacity for spending time, the ability to be alone, the power to be by yourself. You don’t need to pay anyone to show you how to do this. It’s not about fitting this ability into your life. It’s about creating a life that allows nothing else to happen, where focus is important and diversions are eliminated. By now I know I’m allowed to take things as they come. There’s no hurry. Gizmo has taught me that.