How Hunter S. Thompson Helped Me Slay The Garmin Gremlins

39.7 KM.

Consider that number again, for just for a moment: 39.7 KM.

Doesn’t look quite right, does it? Not 40.0 KM, or even 38 KM, but 39.7 KM.

It’s that 0.7 KM, isn’t it? Just sort of sitting there, like that sullen, spare sock that appears just after you’ve finished putting away the laundry. The one that you add to the pile of other orphan socks while muttering something to yourself about sock-pixies.

Yep. The awkwardly-numbered Strava ride. About as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.

How is it that the digital rendering of 700 metres on a computer-bike screen can produce such an involuntary mental twitch? Well, because, of course, it’s not the 700 meters that’s the problem. No.

It’s the other 300 meters. That uncollected 300 metres. That unfinished kilometre is a branch in the mental spokes, the nick in the brake-cable of the sub-conscious, the dirt in the dérailleur of the mind. It’s that essential incompleteness; that half-baked, half-arsed, few cans short of a six-pack-ness that just, well, sticks in the throat.

These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as I stood at the entrance to my building, staring down at the Garmin on my handlebars, the numbers staring back at me.

39.7 KM. It seemed to goad me. Taunt me. Tell me that I wasn’t done yet. Let it go, I said to myself. There’s a warm bath and bed in there, just beyond that gate. And whiskey. A glass of whiskey. But, I was just a few last gasps away from a nice, fat, round number, I thought. So, what did I do?

Well. I did what any self-respecting Strava sham would do. I surrendered to my Garmin Gremlins, swung the bike around, pedalled back down the road, did a 360 and arrived back at my gate with a satisfying, full-fat 40.1 KM now beaming back at me from the screen. A feeling of completeness washing over me, I pushed the gate open and walked inside. Damn straight, I said to myself.

But, I suddenly thought, stopping at my door; this minor dilemma that I’d just resolved at the speed of a gear-change; was this part of a larger pattern? Was this an indicator of some hitherto undiagnosed OCD which I had? Or was I just a great big phony? Let’s face it: that 40.1 KM was about as authentic as Donald Trump’s hair.

Was I just that annoying middle-aged Fred, prancing about on-line, fixating on the numbers? Wasn’t I missing the essential point of riding a bike? And maybe I was, I thought. In a rush, it all came back to me; the unpleasant echo of the horse-shit conversation I’d had with myself some months before, a flood of nonsensical babble and vague, scratchy numbers:

‘… Last year, I did 3,000 KM. So this year I should do 4,000 KM. Or should I aim for 5,000 KM? No, wait, what’s a good target? What can I really do in the time that I have to spare? I need to set targets, don’t I? Otherwise, things won’t get done, right? Right?’.

That internal monologue, or a version of it, is one which you are, perhaps, familiar with. We live, it seems, in a time where we are inundated by dictatorial maxims and number-crunching ‘truths’.

You know the kind of thing I mean: The Four Hour this. The Five Hour that. What gets measured gets done. SMART objectives. Failure to plan is planning to fail. Set your intentions for the day. Measure your physical dimensions and track them in a spreadsheet. 10,000 steps a day. Calories in, calories out; garbage in, garbage out. Journal your thoughts and list five things which you are grateful for.  Do it before 9 AM. Make a plan with 7 simple steps towards your personal financial freedom.You have a plan don’t you? Don’t you? 

That isn’t normal, is it? I thought to myself. Cycling 300 metres to get a ’round’ number, so as to look good on Strava to a pack of complete strangers? Is it? Is this really what best serves me? Is this remorseless adherence to a data-driven existence what best equips me to deal with the world?

As I stood there, frozen solid on the spot, I wondered whether the setting of an ever-distant, ever-increasing target might actually be dispiriting; an intangible, unreachable mirage, always disappearing over the horizon like the vanishing arse-cheeks of the last rider in a pack that just dropped you; a never-ending gap you can’t get back across.

And hey, let’s be candid here, I suddenly thought: is the sight of me, standing at the gate to my building in head-to-foot lycra, sweating through my forehead, staring into space, after having just done loops around the street, really a sight which endears me to my neighbours? Don’t I just look like a tech-obsessed prat in tights who should just go home? Is that dog about to pee on my leg?

Ye Gods. What’s a man to do?

Should I throw the Garmin away? Close down the Strava account? Nope. No need for hysterics. I just needed, I thought, to shift my focus a little. As a great man once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Maybe, I thought, maybe I’d become a slave to the Garmin and that I cared more about what it said on the screen, than what I did to put something on the screen.

What if, rather than chasing the target, I chased something else instead? How about I dropped the idea of a target altogether and a fixated on a different metric? How about I focused on the habit that put the numbers on the screen?

The way of life, the habit, that created the numbers.

The answer was some Hunter.

Yes, you read that correctly. That Hunter. The one who had all those habits. Before you get too excited, recall for a moment that even he was once young. And that when he was young he was gloriously, fantastically young and bursting with an infectious optimism. An optimism which sang through the letters he sent to friends:

“To be or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

(Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make — consciously or unconsciously — at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice — however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after “the big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things.

Pause for a moment. That excerpt you’ve just read? Thompson was 21 when he wrote this. But that’s not the kicker. Here’s the kicker:

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living inside that way of life.

Take that in for a second. Swish it around. Savour it.

Beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life.

I don’t want to chase the missing 300 metres any more. I don’t want to chase the feeble Strava stats. I don’t even want to care that there is such a thing as Strava. I want the habit of riding the bike, not the digital abstractions the bike might give me.

So, join me: let the spare socks go. Throw them in the bin and stop hanging on to them. Chase the time on your own, space with your thoughts, with your fears, with your prayers and your rituals, with the dreams you have and with the loved ones that you miss.

Chase not the spare socks of the road. Chase the habit of the bike.

****

Image: The Train to Bristol.  (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.

Words: (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.

Quotes: Extended quotes from Hunter S. Thompson’s letter to Hume Logan, April 1958. Taken from The Proud Highway. Available at all disreputable book stores.

 

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