THE COSMIC TALE of the White Dragon Horse neither begins nor really ends when, after arriving in San Francisco at the conclusion of a 3,400-mile bike ride across America that was part bildungsroman, part research project, and part spiritual journey, Zilong Wang parks the bicycle he calls the White Dragon Horse—a Surly Long Haul Trucker—outside a Mexican grocery in the Mission District and goes inside to buy an orange. But this is, perhaps, the pivotal moment of the Cosmic Tale, or at least the most outrageous, so we'll start there.
"It was a warm day," Zilong says, "and an orange seemed like just the thing." It would be only a three-minute errand, so he didn't worry about the White Dragon Horse. He hadn't worried about it in Chicago or Salt Lake City or Omaha or in any of the scores of small towns and farm hamlets where he'd stopped during his cross-country trek, so why fret now? He draped a soft cable lock around a parking meter, went into the store, and bought his orange.
When he came out to the sidewalk, the White Dragon Horse was gone.
At that point, you or I would have barked an expletive. Indeed, Zilong admits that, "My first reaction—I wanted to punch the guy in the face."
Alone and powerless in an unfamiliar city, as he was, we next probably would have made a sputtering call to the police, relying on official, faceless channels to deliver justice. When those channels failed to deliver, we would've turned resigned and ultimately cynical, putting on a fresh layer of anger, mistrust, and fear to shield us—and separate us—from the world.
However, says Ken Rosenthal, founder of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Zilong's alma mater, "Zilong is. . .well, I've never met anyone quite like him."
STRICTLY SPEAKING, the Cosmic Tale of the White Dragon Horse begins without the White Dragon Horse. In the spring of 2005, in Shanghai, a high-school classmate offered for purchase a bicycle that Zilong knew, but didn't want to believe, was stolen. But the bike was such a beauty, a Giant hybrid, sleek and gleaming, unlike the mass-produced clunkers Zilong and most other citizens used to get around the thronged streets of Shanghai.
In the first years of the new century, China was maturing into the economic miracle that had begun in the last years of the old one. Zilong's mother was a physician, a radiologist who mostly stayed home after Zilong, the family's only child, was born in 1991. His father served as a manager of an enterprise that manufactured shipping containers.
"We had a comfortable apartment and I attended some of the best schools in Shanghai," Zilong says. "Education was paramount; everything was based on my getting ahead in life. During vacations we would take road trips around the country, which aroused my appetite for travel."
Zilong's parents sent him off to boarding school at the age of seven, "because they wanted me to learn to be independent and to think for myself," and brought him home at age 13, in order to more closely supervise his adolescence. It was at about this time that the classmate approached Zilong, tempting him with the suspect bicycle.
"The bike had all the signs of being stolen," Zilong says. "It was basically brand-new, and my friend was offering it at a bargain price. But I really wanted that bicycle, so I tried to pretend I didn't know where it came from. I made my friend sign a contract saying it wasn't stolen."
Zilong bought the bicycle. One summer afternoon he rode it to a public swimming pool. He locked the bike in a rack and went for a swim. When he came back out, the bike was gone. "Karma," Zilong says.
TO AVOID THE NOTORIOUS cramming and rote memorization of college-prep studies in China, Zilong's parents encouraged him to go abroad for his senior year of high school. The boy located a foreign-study program in Germany. "Every student in China is crawling over the next one to get to the US," Zilong says. "There isn't much competition for Germany."
Moreover, the teenaged Zilong was already following an alternative, individualistic path. He began each morning by hand-copying a page of a classic Chinese literary or philosophical text (a practice he continues today; when the books are completed he gives them away to friends) and finished each evening by recording his thoughts in a diary. Still, for even the most adventurous, independent-minded kid from Shanghai, spending a year in a small city in eastern Germany was tantamount to a moonwalk.
In Germany, Zilong started the personal blog he still maintains. The earliest entries are in Mandarin, but quickly shift to German. ("Not so hard a language to learn," Zilong insists.) Finished with his year in Europe, Zilong entered Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college that eschews grades in favor of interdisciplinary, experience-based learning. He wanted to study the great books, explore the big ideas, and become a well-rounded individual. On one of his first days on campus he met Earl Alderson, an instructor in the college's outdoor-education program.
"Zilong showed up at the pool to try kayaking," Alderson recalls. "He ended up going on many whitewater, rock-climbing, and backpacking trips with us. At first glance, Zilong may not come across as a physically gifted athlete, but he's open to challenges and approaches them analytically. Rolling a kayak, for instance. Most students get freaked out and freeze up while they're learning, but not Zilong. He was patient and stayed relaxed. I don't think he ever ended up in the water."
Says Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College who also supervised Zilong's senior research project, "Every class he took, Zilong stood out. It might sound hackneyed, but he's one of those rare individuals with an honest, innate, unquenchable hunger to learn."
He used a bike to get around campus, but wasn't a dedicated cyclist. "I never got into cycling for its own sake," Zilong says. "I think the longest ride I ever took in college was around 20 miles." But, as graduation approached in the spring of 2013, Zilong dealt with a quiet but intense sort of intellectual crisis. After years of study, he'd grown obsessed by the scientific method and worldview. He wrote in his blog: It's as if a parasite of rationality has taken over my brain, siphoning off the vital energy and humanity. "I was having trouble sleeping. I needed a break from logic. I needed to explore the spiritual, artistic dimensions. I also needed a physical challenge and release. That's when I hit on the idea of the bike trip."
Not just any trip: Zilong resolved to ride all the way from Amherst to San Francisco, where an internship with an environmental consulting firm would begin in August. Alderson remembers that, "from a cycling perspective, Zilong wasn't near ready. But he was meticulous about his research. He read all he could about bike touring and reached out to people with experience."
Preparing for this journey makes me feel like a homo sapiens again, Zilong wrote in his blog. I need to worry about clean water, proper nutrition, where to sleep, how to stay dry in the rain, etc. How refreshing, how humbling, how necessary!
At some point, he determined that a solitary transcontinental bicycle journey wasn't challenge enough; he decided to shelter with strangers, knocking on doors and pitching his tent in backyards. And he resolved that, on the road, he would listen to recordings of seminal religious and literary texts: the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and, on the recommendation of President Lash, Moby Dick.
Alderson helped Zilong choose his bicycle (which was paid for by an alumni supporter) and assembled it. Graduation day finally arrived. Zilong delivered the student address at commencement, giving a heartfelt, humorous talk that aroused a standing ovation. Then he turned to his journey.
During his final stage of preparation, Zilong moved out of his dorm and pitched a tent in Alderson's backyard. "Three days went by and he was still sleeping in our yard," Alderson says. "I told him, 'Z, you're never going to feel like you're completely ready. Time to get it on, bud. Don't think about riding all the way to California. Just think about each day's distance, the mile you're covering now.'"
An attorney and elder in the Mormon Church who befriended Zilong when he reached Salt Lake City, Gary Anderson, says he can understand the young man's hesitancy. "Zilong wasn't just traveling," Anderson points out. "He was on a mission, or perhaps a pilgrimage."
ON HIS FIRST NIGHT OUT, Zilong wavered on his resolution to seek shelter with strangers, pitching his tent in a vacant Boy Scout camp. He fought off clouds of mosquitoes, and when he turned on a water spigot a flood of ants poured out. "That was the worst night of the entire trip," he says. "I determined that from then on, no matter what, I'd knock on doors."
The second night, after a few refusals, a man let Zilong sleep in his horse barn. "After that it got easier," Zilong says. "Knock on enough doors, meet enough strangers, and you know how people are going to respond. You know the questions they're going to ask. But people are so sincere and curious, you never get tired of answering them."
Chris Henschen lives in Bowling Green, Ohio, and one July evening he looked out his front window just as a violent thunderstorm struck. Through a sheet of blinding rain a spectral figure appeared at the foot of the driveway: Zilong, wobbling to a stop. Henschen offered shelter on his porch, and Zilong ended up staying the night. He asked searching questions about the family's evangelical faith. He explained to Henschen, his wife, and their five children that, even though organized religion was restricted in China, people there hungered for spiritual meaning. The government, he added, permitted only one or two babies per household.
"Riding a bike across America is probably the last thing on earth I'd want to do," Henschen says. "But at the same time, I sort of admired Zilong. He was like a guy on a lawnmower. You know when you're mowing your lawn, isolated with your thoughts, you get into that speculative state of mind?"
About a week after leaving Bowling Green, Zilong pedaled into the life of Todd Sieben, a retired corn and soybean farmer and Republican state representative in Geneseo, Illinois. "The night before, Zilong had stayed with my cousin near Chicago," Sieben says. "That morning my cousin called, raving about Zilong, saying we had to put this young man up for the night. I said sure, we have plenty of room." Late in the afternoon, Zilong sent a text message. "He was behind schedule due to strong headwind," Sieben says. "He said he might not make it to us until the next day."
Sieben decided to go out and find the traveler. "I start driving east on Highway 92, and within 30 minutes there he is, this guy on a bike, riding west. I flag him down. We load his bike into the van and then he climbs in." Sieben, who has completed RAGBRAI (the annual mass ride across Iowa) three times, speculates that a more hardcore cyclist might have declined getting a lift. "But Zilong wasn't like that," he says. "He didn't have a rigid idea about what he was doing. If he needed to ride in a van for 20 miles out of 3,000-plus, what was the big deal?"
That night, Sieben and his wife hosted a barbecue at their house. "We were all much older than Zilong, and a lot more conservative," Sieben says. "But, still, none of us who were there that evening will ever forget him. Not that Zilong tried to dominate the conversation. He was as polite and respectful as could be. He had this unique take on America. He was amazed at all the stuff we accumulate. The concept of yard sales just fascinated him. He couldn't believe all the time and energy and resources Americans pour into mowing their lawns. Zilong had us laughing, but he also made us think."
THE FIGURE OF THE LONE existential traveler looms large in the American imagination. The Easy Rider or Man with No Name shows up one day to disrupt routine, challenge assumptions, fight off the rustlers, and charm the farmer's daughter. Zilong combined that role with the one from the 1970s TV show Kung Fu: the wandering Chinese monk whose spirituality stands in appealing contrast to American materialism. He learned that people are sometimes more likely to confess their deepest longings to a stranger passing through than to a life partner or other loved one.
In a blog post dated July 17, 1,500 miles into his journey, Zilong reflects on this phenomenon: So far, people have been most welcoming and generous. Every evening, someone lets me camp in their yard. Over half of the time, they let me sleep inside, often on a comfortable couch or even a bed. About a third of the time, they feed me, and send me on my way with snacks. Always, they most generously share their life stories, dreams, beliefs, and take great interest to hear my story.
With striking perspicacity, Zilong speculates on why he was "uniquely positioned" to receive such hospitality: Just imagine: If I were Black, I would be a good target for some paranoid neighborhood watch. If I were Hispanic, people might wonder if I am in the country legally. If I were Middle Eastern, I might look like a terrorist to some. If I were a white American, I wouldn't be as interesting as someone from China. If I were bigger and more muscular, I would be just a little threatening. If I were not a college graduate, with a job waiting for me, I would be less trustworthy. If I were riding a motorcycle or driving a car across the country, my requests to camp in people's backyard would not be legitimate at all. If I were a girl, I wouldn't feel comfortable staying in a stranger's home.
So, all the stars are aligned: I am a college-educated, employment-worthy, well-spoken, nonthreatening young man from Inner Mongolia, traveling across the US with an American flag on my bike.
One night he stayed with a woman whose husband had recently died suddenly of a heart attack; on another night, with a man who'd made a bad business decision and lost his family fortune. Zilong stayed with small organic farmers, and at large commercial farms that use pesticides.
"Some evenings I had just ridden 70 or 80 miles in 100-degree heat, and all I wanted to do was wash up, put some food in my belly, and lie down," Zilong says. "But then people started telling their stories. That always refreshed me."
The cycling itself proved harder than he expected. During the first few days, crossing the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, he often had to dismount and push his rig uphill. Zilong kept plugging. He got used to the bike and eventually learned to love the White Dragon Horse. His muscles hardened. If he felt strong, he cranked. If he felt especially sore he would slow down or take a day off. He discovered that the trailer was unnecessary and got rid of it in Chicago. He decided he didn't need to carry a heavy lock, and mailed it back to Alderson in Amherst.
Zilong pushed west, his mind wheeling on three levels. He paid attention to the wind, weather, dip and rise of the road, and passing traffic. But he also reflected on his experiences, and he listened to the words streaming through his earbuds.
The Bible took him through the Eastern states, the Koran through the Midwest, and Moby Dick through the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains, the Book of Mormon through Utah and Nevada. Some passages he followed word for word. For others, the music of the sentences formed a soundtrack. At times he couldn't tell where the book ended and the road began: Listening to the story of the ocean, of whales and whaling, in the midst of huge mountains. . .The fisherman's life stories were projected onto the screen of the Rockies. Sometimes I can even see the backbone of a sperm whale emerging from the landscape of the mountains. I almost confuse where I am on this planet.
On August 21, 2013, after 74 days on the road and 73 nights spent with families and individuals who spontaneously opened their homes to him, Zilong Wang left Davis, California, and rode 65 miles west to the Bay Area city of Vallejo, where he boarded a ferry that delivered him to the terminal at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco.
"I pedaled the final mile up Market Street in wonder and bewilderment, yet calm," Zilong says. "I couldn't believe I had actually ridden all the way across America. Of course I was exhausted, but I never felt more alive."
Had the Cosmic Tale of the White Dragon Horse ended at this point, it would have made an unforgettable, inspirational bedtime fable about openness and curiosity and kindess for Zilong and, perhaps, his many hosts, to someday tell their grandchildren. But less than a week later, the White Dragon Horse disappeared.
OUTSIDE THE BODEGA, a frantic Zilong pulls out his cell phone and reports the crime to the SFPD.
"It just happened!" he tells the police. "You still might be able to catch the guy!"
The voice on the phone tells Zilong to wait where he is, that an officer will be there shortly. Ninety minutes later, Zilong is still waiting. Devastated, he walks home and tells the story to his host family.
The next day, Zilong returns to the scene of the crime. He feels puzzled and troubled. He knows this is one of the busiest blocks in San Francisco, and that, as he says, "Scores of people must have seen my bike get lifted, and apparently no one did anything to stop it." Such callousness and passivity run counter to Zilong's deepest instincts, to the character of his just-completed bicycle trip. He enters the bodega and asks to see the store's surveillance video. He studies the video, and there it is—the guy lifting the lock off the White Dragon Horse, three or four people watching. Zilong thanks the grocer and walks to the BART station at 24th and Mission, a neighborhood nexus for street people.
He approaches a man and says, "Excuse me, sir. I'm in the market for a bicycle. Might you know where I can get a deal?'"
Within two hours he has talked to a dozen sources, and his investigation has taken him two miles north to the Civic Center. He is eventually introduced to a man named Cory, who says he can hook Zilong up with whatever he wants. Zilong describes a touring bike, one much like his, they exchange phone numbers, and Cory tells him to return tomorrow.
Zilong relays the phone number, along with the other intelligence he'd gathered, to the police department, but by the responses and feedback he receives he accepts that there is almost no chance of recovering the White Dragon Horse.
The loss is greater than the bike. If, as he's always believed, the stolen bicycle he'd bought back in Shanghai was taken from him as some sort of cosmic retribution, what does it mean that he's now also lost the White Dragon Horse—the honestly acquired engine of his transformation and his great understanding and appreciation of so much of life, knowledge, and America? Is this really, he thinks, how the Cosmic Tale of the White Dragon Horse was supposed to end? And, if so, what to make of it? What is the lesson?
ON THE EVENING a thief lifted the soft-cable lock off the White Dragon Horse, Vanessa Christie was finishing up a day at the office about a mile away. Christie, 31, works as a marketing manager for Timbuk2, the bike-messenger-bag maker, at the company's headquarters in San Francisco's Mission District. She climbed aboard her commuting bike and rode off to meet some friends for a drink. She noticed a man riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, moving against traffic.
"Something looked wrong about the picture," she says. "Everything looked wrong about it."
The man was dressed raggedly, not like a touring cyclist the bike was obviously suited for, and the frame was much too big for him. In fact, he was sitting on the tube instead of the saddle. "It was a full-on touring bike with big-ass racks and a soft lock chain wrapped around it," Christie says. "But if I hadn't known bikes, I probably wouldn't have noticed."
Fortunately, Christie did know bikes—she commutes, tours, races cyclocross, and helps manage a website connecting bike travelers with places to stay in the Bay Area—and since moving to San Francisco two of her own bicycles had been stolen. "I realized that right about now, and somewhere pretty close, the bike's rightful owner would be panicking."
She decided to trail the man at a distance for a block or two. Soon, he pulled into an alcove of an apartment building. Surprising herself, Christie confronted him.
"My heart was booming," she says. "I had no proof that the bike was stolen. I couldn't flat-out accuse the guy. But I could make him think."
Excuse me, sir. That's a very cool bike. Where did you get it?
"To be honest, if he'd been bigger, I would have played it differently," Christie says. "But if it came down to it, I thought I could hold my own against him."
She took out her cell phone and told the man she was going to call the police. He made a move to bolt, but Christie jammed the front wheel of her bike against the doorway. "Dude—that's not your bike!"
They briefly locked eyes. Out of nowhere, a name came to Christie's mind, and she said, That's Paul's bike!
"Who was Paul?" Christie asks, laughing. "I have no idea. But somehow, that broke the spell."
He let go of the bike and vanished into the street. "It took me a minute to calm down," Christie says. "My heart was rocketing. I can't tell you how out of character that whole episode was for me. I'm not an especially brave person. Also, I'm not into moonbeam stuff, but that whole time, I felt like something outside of me was in control."
She rolled the stolen bike back to her office, locked it inside, then rode on to meet her friends.
The next morning, Christie's boss at Timbuk2 posted a photo of the White Dragon Horse, along with a summary of how it landed at his office, on the company's Facebook page. The posting was tweeted and retweeted among the San Francisco bicycling community, eventually reaching the screen of Officer Matt Friedman, who'd established an anti-bike-theft website and Twitter account for the SFPD. Friedman matched the photo with the detailed crime report Zilong had filed the day before. That afternoon, Friedman e-mailed a link to the Facebook posting to Zilong.
Less than 48 hours after the White Dragon Horse had been stolen, Zilong arrived at the police station to retrieve it. He told Christie, "You've restored my faith in humanity."
IN THE ANNALS of long bicycle treks, by any objective measure, Zilong Wang's journey would fall pretty far down the list. He didn't set a speed record, didn't blaze a new trail, and didn't meet his own true love; Zilong didn't even decide to write a screenplay or a book proposal about his adventures. That's probably for the best. For all the magic of his crossing, for all the cosmic connections that were forged, there was little conventional drama—no fights, no violence, no steamy love scenes. Just a young man pedaling a bicycle all day and talking quietly to people in the evening. The single act of heroism occurred offstage, after the main action, performed by a supporting character. And yet, because of his modesty, not in spite of it, Zilong Wang's journey seems more fable than narrative. With little previous experience on a bike, he pedaled into cycling's heart. Raised on no religion, he somehow found America's soul.
One day in the midst of his journey, as he crossed the high tableland of eastern Colorado, the White Dragon Horse lifted abruptly off the asphalt. A moment later, Zilong came to consciousness, lying in a roadside ditch. Had he been hit by a rogue gust of wind, by Queequeg's harpoon, or by the hand of Yahweh? Would he ever find the answer to these questions?
Zilong rose, righted his bicycle, and continued pedaling west.
De BICYCLING, 28/10/2015