Jon Gold

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February 20, 2018 · 12 minute read

The Mountains

Over the weekend I went to explore new-to-me parts of the Santa Cruz moutains; to get quiet with the trees, and to get loud with my motorcycle.

IMG 20180217 180207 355 We started at Alice’s - my first trip there with the Ducati. It officially feels like I have a motorcycle in California 🤙

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I imagine the artist was trying to fit every single thing I like into one painting

IMG 20180217 180657 814 I rode all day Saturday, through empty twisty redwood-padded mountain roads. As always happens whenever I’m the furthest away from a guitar and a tape recorder, a song popped into my head almost fully formed.

I haven’t yet figured out a good way of carrying my guitar on my motorcycle so I assumed this tune might be lost by the time I got back to San Francisco a few days later. I sang it over and over again in my helmet, making plans to try to cradle it until I checked into my Airbnb and figured out how to transcribe my humming.

Separately, I’ve played music every single day since the beginning of December, and I was secretly mourning a break in such a fine streak. I was desperate to put my hands on a guitar, but coming to terms with not being able to find one until Monday evening.

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I arrived in Felton and had to burn an hour until checking into my room. About done with sitting in a saddle for the day, I went into the first cafe I could find.

There was a sign on the door asking patrons to kindly switch off their devices before entering.

In the back, the kind of squishy seating that hip, modern cafes have done away with. I sunk down with my coffee, and turned my head. To my right, there was a communal guitar.

IMG 20180218 184817 872 Today I left my bike keys at home, and went off in search of some trees to speak to.

John Muir was fond of throwing a loaf of bread and a pound of tea into his knapsack before going to bathe in greenery; my way 2018 version included lemonbread and a bottle of my host’s home brewed Kombucha.

I bundled on the motley hiking outfit I’d managed to squeeze into my luggage and stepped outside. It was colder than I was expecting, but just bearable with the layers I had. It was lightly raining, which caught me by surprise. Of course there is no such thing as ‘bad weather - we choose to project labels onto nature, and all weather can be ‘good’ if we stop grasping for it to change. Trishna / duhkha.

Poetically, I turned a corner and there was a beautiful rainbow arcing over the little town of Felton.

When my rainbow friend received a call from some other vista in search of a little magic, it moved on and the sun pierced through the clouds. The rain isn’t so bad at all, and without it we wouldn’t get rainbows.

IMG 20180218 195348 024 I came to the mountains with no agenda but the intentions that it might be nice to find some trees to sit and meditate next to, and then write songs about them.

I started walking in the vague direction of Santa Cruz, some 10 miles away. I was being called by some vegan cafe I’d heard the name of, and it seemed as good a checkpoint as any.

On this trip I’ve been reading Alan Watts’ excellent Buddhism: the Religion of No Religion. It’s short & sweet, and I’ve had it on my shelf for close to 2 years without picking it up: sometimes I find that the right books have a way of making you wait for the right place.

I’m still floating on my raft, but whenever I get time to be alone with nature I find it hard not to get nudged closer to the opposite shore.

So to, is it easier to sit and focus on the breathe, or to shower under a waterfall of creative energy, when we put down our phones and head for the woods. It never ceases to amaze me that as a society we’ve decided to fence creativity into offices and cities. It’s like building a dam in the desert.

As I walked I thought about finding that middle. Reaching for one side or another will always leave us miserable. Silencing unpleasant emotions in search of the pleasurable leaves us tense and dissatisfied. We always want to be on the right side of the tracks, when we could just walk between them.

I also explored my edges - the places somewhere between comfort zone and safety zone where we grow. Apparently heights (and wooden trestle bridges) are still my edge. Still, I’m grateful that I’m privileged enough to be able to roam just about wherever I want without fearing for my physical safety. I’m much more scared of walking across a bridge than walking down dark rural paths at night, or accidentally walking through homeless encampments in the woods in the day (I found 3 today, away from the touristy redwood trails, and feel awful about invading what little private space some people have in the world).

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These piles of trash I collected are underwhelming comparing to the beaches full of plastic we found in Hawaii, but they’re from a different system. Those: non-recyclable manufacturing and disposable consumerism. These: people deciding that public land is their garbage receptacle.

I forgot to bring trash bags with me, so I carried as much as I could stuff into my pockets. I had to leave the glass, but in future I’ll find ways to safely pick that up too. This was from about 5 miles of hiking, just picking up what I walked past. Not a huge amount, but it was well away from the touristy (read: busy, but easier to groom) trails. I would expect to find zero waste, at all, but here we are.

After finding a trash can for the first pile when I intersected a road, I then stumbled upon the remains of someone’s fun party — empty crates of beer, whippet canisters, cigarette boxes.

Of course “leave no trace” is one of the 15 million things about Burning Man that endears it to me. We leave public land spotless. Contrast that with how people leave most music festivals.

I can’t fathom how you could have mountains like these as your backyard and treat them with such disrespect.

I couldn’t carry the second haul with me, but made an effort to consolidate it as much as possible with the other waste I found at a pull out further down the road. I hope someone similarly-minded drives past it and picks it up, but if not I made a note of where I left it so I can come back to it on my motorcycle with trash bags and bungee cords tomorrow.

Someone has to clean up the planet, it might as well be us and it might as well be now.

IMG 20180218 204130 874 I walked and walked and got lost and sweaty and crusted my fingernails with dirt, just as I prefer. The problem with walking from nowhere into somewhere (rather than from somewhere into nowhere, or ideally from nowhere to nowhere) is that often the reentry into towns and cities is less pleasant. The present is all we have so the here-now-wherever is just fine for me, but I was hoping for a more romantic segue into Santa Cruz than “and then the trail just kind of ended in a Costco parking lot” (it did). And so too less predictably romantic than “and then I fell in love with every single beautiful hippie in Santa Cruz”.

Opposite a church, I walked past Steve - sitting in the mid afternoon sun and picking on a tune. “Whatcha playing?” I called, and was delighted when he held up a portable CD player and a Guns N’ Roses’ disc. “Patience!” he shouted back. Patience is one of my favorite songs of theirs. Always has been. It brings back memories of being 15 and driving around Israel for a month, singing it over and over and over again with new friends in the back of a bus.

Of course I wasn’t about to pass up an offer to sit down and make a new friend and try to remember just what the chords were. So we sat and I finished off the bottle of kombucha from my host that I’d been sipping all day and we sang some Guns N’ Roses together, and I found my guitar for today, and then I kept on down the road.

IMG 20180219 095357 208 In Santa Cruz I did the things that I suppose you do in Santa Cruz if you don’t have time to surf or go to a yoga class: I ate a big bowl of vegan macrobiotic something or other, drank fresh cold-pressed whatever juice, browsed local art and completed road trip missions from friends at home (my fav - always send me on scavenger hunts when I tell you I’m planning a trip!).

On the main drag I met an artist selling his awesome stickers - we chatted about our work, and set intentions to connect and try a collaboration between his illustration and my newish net.psychedelica art style. Maybe I’ll share that, if it feels good. I picked up some stickers, because I always need more Jerry in my life.

My phone was within it’s last few breaths for the day, and I was getting ready to hitchhike back to the middle of the woods. How do you even hitchhike out of a city? It all seems much easier when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

As I was weighing my options, a bus drove past - going to within a mile of where I was going.

IMG 20180219 095836 713 Back in Felton I what I always do when on vacation with myself: bought myself crystals from the nearest mountain woo-woo store, and walked up and down the aisles of the natural food market.

We are each good for the universe, because the totality of the universe depends on us, and we depend on the totality of the universe. Without each one of us (and each decision we make), the whole thing would come crashing down.

I’d been into the grocery the previous night too, buying emergency raw cacao munchies. On both occasions they were playing Fleetwood Mac - presumably a tactic to make people-like-me stay for an extra few minutes and add more weird types of tea to their baskets.

A storm was overhead when I walked in, but passed when I left.

IMG 20180219 172315 851 It’s impossible to write about motorcycles without falling into cliché. Whatever. Every single time I’ve put a leg over one over the past few years, I’m reminded of the same glaringly obvious universal truth that you realize the first time you open up a throttle.

Motorcycles are dangerous. There’s a higher than average chance that a motorcycle ride will end in death than, say, watching Netflix in your underpants. But the truth is that we are each guaranteed to die, but it’s as-yet undecided whether any of us will live.

There’s a new app that seemingly all of my friends have installed. WeCroak. Several times a day it sends you a notification saying “Don’t forget, you’re going to die”. That’s all it does. Either a depressing, morbid commentary on living our lives through our screens, or an invigorating reminder of the wonder of being alive right here & now.

The past doesn’t exist, and I’m repeatedly reminded that any imagined futures we have for ourselves are far from guaranteed. Each second as it happens is the only thing that matters. Cherish each second you spend with your friends and loved ones, because that’s all you have. Each time I visit a treasured vista in California I remind myself that it might be the last time I get to see it — a depressingly high number of West Coast landmarks I hold dear have been devastated by climate change in the past year alone.

To quote Dan Harris, “these are the good old days”.

The machine and I rode back to San Francisco today, via the windy redwood mountain roads. We visited Big Basin, which I’ve never been to before. My tendency when adventuring in California is always to head north towards Russian River and Mendocino, or east towards the Sierras, or further south to Big Sur. I have no idea how I’ve overlooked Big Basin - right here in the Santa Cruz mountains. I hope to be able to return with my tent sometime.

IMG 20180219 221337 034 IMG 20180219 221337 036 After Big Basin, the machine and I kept on down the windy mountain roads. The Ducati is a spectacular piece of engineering - small enough to be maneuverable in the city, but excels in the countryside. I’m so in love with it in a way I wasn’t prepared for.

It was cold today, and by the time we were back to Skyline I could barely feel my fingers. At the last minute before leaving I picked up some glove liners. I wasn’t going to bring them but figured it wouldn’t hurt to have them. I also put some latex gloves in my tool roll, because my hands have been covered in oil pretty much every day for the past few weeks.

As it happened, my hands were frozen but I remembered that I had those gloves with me and slipped them underneath the other two pairs of gloves I was wearing, as a windbreaker.

I don’t know how I would have made it back without them. I stopped to put them on at an amazing vista point I had noted on the way out, which has one of the best views of the Bay Area I can think of. You can see from the Marin Headlands all the way down to San Jose; it’s quite amazing.

At one end of the turnout, someone was playing drums. Quite a view.

When I say each thing in the universe depends on everything else, let’s walk through some things: my glove liners came from a backpacking trip I went on spontaneously last year. The latex gloves were a last minute addition. Without either I would have had a very miserable trip back, but with without needing an extra stop I would have raced back to the city without taking in this awesome view. Everything is inextricably linked.

Two of my favorite quotes on this from someone-who-isn’t-Alan-Watts:

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” — John Muir

And so we find that everything has to happen, otherwise nothing can happen.

IMG 20180220 075352 702 Back in San Francisco (where red lights mean “go”, cars don’t have indicators, and I’m counting the seconds until Ubers are driven by algorithms). The freeway was SO windy — I’m kind of amazed I didn’t get blown off of a bridge. Maybe boo needs a windshield, or maybe that wouldn’t have helped.

I feel aware that my commentary today is less rich than yesterday — I wrote the last few entries from the city. Everything is noisy and busy and there are a million distractions. This place used to feel like a village compared to London and New York, but now it feels like it could have 100 million people in it.

We talk about trips being ‘life-changing’, but really every moment is life-changing — our sense of self is an illusion, and we just have a stream of moments. And so we’re constantly being reborn.


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Jon Gold

Jon Gold is a technologist, musician, and attention activist researching the long-term future of computation at Airbnb, focusing on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence & the creative process. Contact