Most friendships have a time and place that define them. Contexts to give them structure. People tend to compartmentalize their social networks, taking individuals in measured doses. There might be a buddy for beer drinking. A co-worker to gossip with. And a family friend to confide in. Each relationship is unique, a contract between individuals to fill some part of each other’s lives.
Of course, friends enjoyed too long in the wrong context can become distant. Usually, that doesn’t have to happen. Friends can always take a break when nerves start to fray.
The two scrappy young Americans camped on the lawn south of Paris would not be able to have that luxury – a fact they did not fully appreciate. They would be stuck together for two years.
Chris swore under his breath. The problems were already starting. He was fidgeting with a camp stove, and having trouble lighting it.
“Dude. I think we bought the wrong fuel…”
Morgan, who could read French, looked at the label and saw that his partner had purchased rubbing alcohol instead of kerosene. He pointed it out, and breathed in any further comments.
It was their first night of hundreds, and their REI tent marred a landscape that suggested the aristocratic splendors of 18th century Europe—complete with a chateau, lily pad speckled moat, and iron drawbridge. It had been an exhausting first day. They hadn’t cycled nearly as far as they intended, only knocking down 70 kilometers after getting a late start from Paris. It also didn’t help when Morgan got his bike bag strap wound up in his rear wheel axel. Both of them were completely clueless when it came to bicycle touring.
Chris tried the stove again. It refused. He set down the lighter and laughed.
Suddenly, their idea of bicycling 12,000 miles from Paris to Shanghai seemed ridiculously herculean.
As the pair’s hungry eyes drifted towards the uncooked bag of spaghetti, they began to contemplate all the difficulties that lay ahead of them – the unknown cultures, bad weather, broken equipment, buying the wrong fuel…damn. It was overwhelming.
Morgan and Chris had met at the age of 14, during middle school when they ran on the cross country team together. One could say the context of their relationship was adventure. Camping. Backpacking. Rock climbing. Over the years, they became each other’s go-to buddy for short outdoor trips. Even after going off to different colleges, they would link up during breaks in Los Angeles to go trekking in the Sierra Nevadas, or bouldering in Joshua Tree.
Adventure was the connection that made embarking on a two year bicycle journey together appealing. From their time on the trails, each knew the other was crazy enough he just might do it. But they also knew they needed specific things from each other.
For Morgan, Chris was a logical thinker, a brutally hard worker, and a logistics guru. He knew he needed someone who could organize and plan, two things he disliked with passion.
For Chris, Morgan was the smooth talker. He was much better at convincing people of his ideas. This ability was critical if they were ever to raise enough money to set out on the journey to begin with. It was Morgan who convinced the chateau owner to let them camp on his lawn.
Six months had been spent planning and fundraising for the trip with these thoughts, and neither had given much consideration to what spending 24 hours a day together on the road really entailed. To live out the journey, they would need to be so much more than a logistics guru, a smooth talker, or an adventurer. They would need to be confidants, accountants, editors, bike cleaners, cooks, and stove lighters. Their friendship could no longer be compartmentalized. Being together all the time meant getting all the bad with the good – insecurities, imbalances, and faults that didn’t reveal themselves beforehand. In the more difficult and stressful moments, small annoyances would snowball into big problems. The whole affair wasn’t unlike a marriage, though they both refused to approach use of the term.
Like a marriage, it had all sorts of pitfalls they’d never dreamed of.
Chris finally had the camp stove lit. In the glare of the flames, Morgan’s hungry eyes instantly became more cheerful. Spaghetti was back on the menu, and his partner’s annoying mistake had been resolved. This time at least. They joked as they dug into their dinner.
In the months that followed, the newness of the adventure brought them together. Life on the road was exciting and unpredictable. Days were spent waking up in one stranger’s home and cycling to the next’s. They were often wonderful strangers, like a string theorist in Munich and an intrepid reporter in Budapest. Western Europe was a comfortable place where people spoke English, cheese tasted good, and roads had shoulder lanes. Rare was the week when they didn’t make friends.
Friends gave the duo’s trip a sense of spontaneity. It led to a night dumpster diving in Vienna, and a trip to an organic farm in the Austrian foothills. Even an early catastrophe — when Morgan crashed into a dumpster in Switzerland — had an upside. Stuck with a bike bent in two, they made friends with group of Swedish air mechanics who invited them to make a beer run over into Germany for St. Patrick’s day. It was delightfully random.
At that time, the challenges that had worried them the first night at the Chateau were fresh. Together, they learned to control their monstrous bike tourist appetites, and refrain from ordering half the display case at the French boulangeries. They spent two hours fixing Morgan’s first flat tire. They learned that camping in zero degree weather wasn’t worth saving a few extra bucks, and that those uncomfortable bumps underneath the tent were actually frozen cow pies.
They also had things to learn about each other. After five years of living in different corners of the world, Morgan and Chris had a lot of catching up to do. Over warm dinners after warm showers, they ran through the stories that defined their college years. They talked about things they regretted. The time Chris did a keg stand in front of a girl he was trying to impress and was dropped on his head. Or the time Morgan entered a fashion show only to be handed an outfit that was something akin to gold diapers (he dressed it up by adding a bow tie). And they talked about things they were proud of. Chris described the bands he had interviewed at UCLA Radio, and Morgan recounted his work co-founding a non-profit in Chicago’s Southside. Both placed a supreme importance on the notion of progress, and that they should accomplish goals that other people valued.
They extended those goals to their trip, where the more respectable mission of their journey was to become journalists. The pair fundraised for their travels by promising sponsors feature stories about the places they were cycling through. In Bucharest, Romania, they jumped on their first, about the gypies.
On their first day hitting the pavement, Chris and Morgan would show up to NGO and political party offices, open moleskin in hand, and knock on the door to demand interviews. They were green as hell. They wore shorts, sandals, and bike jerseys with water bottle pockets in the back, which was the only clean piece of clothing either had left.
“Hi, we’re journalists that write for, uh, publications, in Los Angeles.” The magic words were the last two. It was better than Open Sesame. It was as if being born in LA meant they would inherit the position of studio executive.
Then these people—social workers and political aids—would actually serve the greenhorns instant coffee and drop what they were doing to talk. Though the meetings were short, they would usually end with an email address, which Morgan dutifully noted in his moleskin—a check off the list. Each check was a victory.
At the hostel that night they spent an hour composing a 4 question email for the PR reps, who would never respond. Then, with checklists complete, they went to wash down the day with a few liters of beer. That was progress! They felt like a team.
In the months that followed, the ecstasy of teamwork they felt in Romania began to disintegrate. By the time they got to India, the two cyclists had memorized each other’s mood cycles. Chris knew at what kilometer Morgan would get antsy for food; Morgan always got hungry first. He knew which gears Morgan preferred to use on moderate hills, and that he should always check the hotel room for chargers and jackets his partner forgot. Morgan knew that he should patient when Chris delayed a full minute answering a question—he was deliberating in his head. He knew that Chris was faster in anything that wasn’t flat, and resented it. They knew the life story of each other’s parents, the defining moments of strife they’d faced in 7th grade, and what kind of food the other’s neighbor served at their Christmas parties. Campsite discussion was down to the bike touring banalities of hunger, kilometers ridden, and rants against the flies that seemed to go up your nose if you stayed still.
It had been 8 months on the road when they arrived in Hinghanghat, a highway-side town in the far East of Maharashtra. The place felt pretty similar to the blue collar haven they’d slept the night before, where the toilet doubled as a mosquito war zone. The novelty of the day to day challenges of the trip had long since disappeared. They were just part of the grind. Both struggled to remember what had ever been interesting about fixing brakes and tuning shifters, or fighting the restaurant owners who ripped them off every second lunch.
It wasn’t that they were any less excited about the journey—India never failed to inspire a sense of adventure. They were just tired and lonely.
It had been more than a month since the pair had spent time in a major city, and longer than that since they had felt the giddiness that comes with a new friendship. It had been weeks of staring each other in the face over silent meals. Their last work of journalism, about a rural cotton farming village, had been finished the week before, and there were no urgent actions to distract them or uncompleted checklists to unite them.
This meant that even the smallest things caused flares of annoyance. The glint of Chris’ seriously white teeth could do it, because Morgan was jealous of them, and because he hated the way Chris smiled when he disagreed with you. The way that Morgan always swerved his bike when he started from an intersection could also set a spark. Why couldn’t that asshole ride straight?
It meant that hormones were out of control. Neither had felt bare flesh for months, and they couldn’t even take care of it themselves because they shared a bed and a room every night. The involuntary abstinence built up a tension so slow they didn’t even notice it until it was near breaking point and on top of them, and it made Morgan want to scream and get those damn dreams out of his head. The only thing that kept the testosterone levels down was the prodigious weight loss that came with bike touring. Both were horrible skinny, and when Chris was on his bike you could see an outline of every vertebrae and rib through his jersey.
It meant that they pair competed at everything. They had undeclared races up hills, compared the number of hits on their respective blog posts, developed subtle strategies for how to set down their gear to claim the best bed without doing so overtly. They had competitions that neither even knew about; insecurities took strange forms. Chris, without realizing it, always tried to eat less than Morgan at meals. Morgan would toy with him for kicks, ordering two pieces of bread and soup. Morgan started nearly scraping the enamel off his teeth every night to make his teeth whiter. For Chris, competition was pathological. For Morgan, it stemmed from a long held belief that he’d always been at the bottom of the varsity team, and he had to be at least as good as Chris, even in the minor races that didn’t seem like they mattered.
The pair started arguments about gun control or the virtues of different gear shifting modes or the name of a town they had passed, for the sake of arguing. There was not much else to say, and it staved off updates on the ever present diahhrea. Once the bowel reports were delivered, and they’d debated what to have for dinner, hours would pass to the symphony of India’s car horns.
The dinner they spent on the second floor restaurant in Hinghanghat was one of those moments of silence, and their thalis were devoured hungrily and quickly. They’d had opportunity to speak. A man from the next table over had come and engaged them, asking questions about where they were from and what they were doing there. Chris had answered the questions frostily and curtly, and Morgan ate in silence. They had answered those questions too many times that day. For all their loneliness, they wanted to be left alone.
On their way out of the restaurant they passed a political rally. The local elections were in a few days. The candidates gave stump speeches from a small stage that blocked the town’s main intersection. Several hundred had gathered around it, and listened curiously but without passion.
“I miss public speaking,” said Morgan. “I think it’s one of my talents. I’ve got some mojo on a stage.” Morgan and Chris had long since stopped caring about modesty when they spoke to each other.
Chris said nothing for a while. This pissed Morgan off. Chris had done all the heavy lifting the past few days of bike touring- navigation and logistics, and had even had to teach Morgan how to readjust a gear setting on his bike. Morgan was feeling useless; he craved an affirmation that he was good at something, even if not directly related to the trip.
Morgan went fishing again. “I don’t know why I’m good at it. I think it’s because I really enjoy the attention, I get high off the crowd.”
Chris smiled at the comment. Morgan took this for condescension.
“You know, I took a public speaking class in college. We had to do a series of twenty minute presentations. The thing that really helped me was watching videos of me speak, and careful planning” Chris said.
“I don’t plan my speeches carefully. I just work on where they are going to end up, and let it flow,” countered Morgan.
“You should watch videos of yourself,” said Chris.
Morgan was silent for the rest of the evening. He fumed until he slept, and replayed videos of himself on a TED stage after the trip, killing it and then emailing the link to Chris. When he woke up, he apologized, and breakfast passed in silence again.
The Bagan Beer Summit
The silences continued in the coming months, over thousands of miles of rutted roads in India and Myanmar, through hundreds of meals. There was not always silence of course. Sometimes there was joy, and with the help of a stranger or a good story, engaged conversation. The silences were not always ill. Often they were comfortable. But a foul muteness always lurked around the corner, ready to appear bursting with tension and unsaid thoughts that were neither fully formed nor well understood by their owners.
The silence that Chris broke in Bagan was 11 months pregnant, heavy with all the months of murky thoughts coming together in a moment of clarity.
“I think Myanmar has been a high point on the trip, but a low point in our relationship,” he sputtered.
Morgan was looking intently down at his beer.
The moment had been catalyzed in a Buddhist temple one hour before. Bagan is a place the world over comes to watch the sunset—a fiery orange ball crashing over the horizon at equatorial speed that, for a few majestic moments, dies a valley of three thousand ancient temples. Both wanted to see it.
Neither did. Morgan took far too long fixing a rack on his bike, and by the time he finished the sun was minutes from the horizon. Chris had waited because leaving to see it on his own would have been a dick move, by unspoken understanding. You didn’t leave your buddy.
They had dashed over to a nearby pagoda, raced past the monks and donation basket without leaving a coin, and found themselves in a courtyard with 20 foot high walls and no way to elevation. In effect, they had completely sheltered themselves from any view whatsoever. For thirty seconds, they watched an orange patch of clouds turn purple through the tree branches.
Chris’ first thought was immediate: it’s his fault. He wanted to shout, and was feeling something nearing hatred. Morgan assumed the indifferent demeanor of someone who has put their foot in it, but doesn’t want to act like he cares. Besides, Chris had been the one who chose the pagoda with 20 foot walls.
They couldn’t have felt any more distant. And just as they were about to berate each other for fucking this one up, it hit them: This is sad. Their friendship was seriously broken.
The moment released, and they faced each other.
“We need a beer,” said Morgan. He looked exhausted.
“Yeah man,” breathed Chris. “We’ve got some real stuff to work out.”
So they found themselves at the only bar they knew had free peanuts, staring at each other after two silent rounds whose dead soldiers built a glass wall between them.
Morgan looked down into his fresh beer and took an extended gulp. This felt something like marriage therapy to him; it was definitely unmacho and required another beer to explore. He also needed more time to contemplate all the response options that were not a list of the times Chris had been an asshole. Morgan settled on pragmatism, always his favorite flavor.
He laid out his practical approach. Get the journalism going again; it had been unfocused. Get the Monday pitch sessions back up to speed; they’d missed a few. Produce more; their Forbes column was lacking. And maybe start a small allowance from their shared bank account so they could have a little spending money to themselves. He hated the fact they couldn’t buy things without the other knowing.
Chris was taken aback. Morgan’s “work more” solution didn’t fit his understanding of the friendship’s problems at all. He thought it cold and calculating and dehumanizing.
“Morgan, I think the issues are far deeper than that. These problems are emotional.”
Chris said they needed to disclose more. They should talk about insecurities as soon as they arose, rather than maintain a competitive front that pretended everything was okay, and that they were handling the stresses of the trip better than their partner. On a difficult journey, with only one person to talk to, they needed to let the other know when they weren’t doing so hot.
Morgan frowned. Chris’ approach sounded awfully Freudian, without measurable action steps.
They pressed each other to elaborate. And as the night wore on to pints number five and six, the conversation revealed a deep schism in how each thought about relationships, and the problems that were forefront on their minds. Each disagreed with some views of the other, but they just listened and said nothing. That night was about talking, expressing, and realizing that both solutions needed to be put into place. The talk was an achievement of disclosure and candidness, and the trip has not been the same since.
Not that the tension has gone away. Six weeks after that conversation, while they write this piece, toxins linger. Arguments spring up out of nowhere, and a dry irritation of the other’s mere presence itches lightly like mosquito bites.
It may be that they are overstepping the bounds of what any two individuals in isolation can bear. They are close enough that their relationship is a risk of individuality: no decision is made alone, no great work is produced under one name, not even ice cream is purchased without the other’s money. The soul will eventually compel them to make some monument to the self. The challenge is to stave off the temptation for another year.
The success—or the failure—of the trip will be found in the disclosure and compromise that two cycling journalists share, and in the giddy sense of forward motion that wets the appetite of their ambitions. The storms yet to come will be weathered because they believe that they are still friends, and because sharing everything they own would make separation a headache. They will be weathered because this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and they have to believe they can make a good team.