Sandpoint, ID to Anacortes, WA – Decompressing at Sea Level

1 Aug
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It’s 2006, I’m 24 years old and nearing the end of a jog beside the arboretum in Seattle. A recent conversation with my father loops through my head, ending with a simple question: “Who do you want to be at 30?” 

Of course, the answer he’s looking for rhymes with “-octor” or “-awyer” but as I pass the newly completed Japanese Gardens and turn up the steep drive to Montlake Hill an image begins forming in my mind. When I peak the hill, lungs and legs burning, it’s clear: I see myself at 30, walking down the street, a self assured adult due to what I have accomplished in my 20s. More importantly, I know what I have to do to become that; I have to accomplish 7 goals. Sadly for my bank account, none rhyme with any profession.   

Leaving Sandpoint, ID on a clear day I’m positive the batshit weather is behind me. Through clear skies and flat ground I enter a Washington state that does not yet resemble home. My home is damp with grey sub-temperate skies feeding greedy green life consuming every surface. The Washington I enter is sandy and hot, sage brush, pines and fir trees struggling in the poverty of the desert. Cows and horses munch on irrigated grasses. Bulbous wrinkled mountains surround me as I pedal beside long wide rivers, knowing that soon I’m back to the ups. The old advice plays again in my head “There’s always another hill, except sometimes that hill is 5 mountain passes.” The climbs are steep, volcanic activity and sub-ocean plates squeezing the earth into 4-5,000 foot climbs. Glaciers carved the peaks around me into sharp angles, the rivers and glacial lakes below an impossible emerald. 4 days of climbs, the final one 80 miles without food leaving me unable to really take it what surrounded me, or the sense of relief as I pedaled down with gravity’s assist that I was nearly finished with this journey. By the end of the 4 days I’m spent. My knees hurt as bad as they did in the Appalachians, I can no longer tell the difference between the chirps and tweets of surrounding birds and my bike’s crank arm, I’m ready to be home.
My strongest memory of Washington is the swath of destruction as I approach Republic, WA, a small town in the middle of the Cascades. A tornado crashed through the town 3 days before I arrived. Hundreds of trees were uprooted or snapped. I pedaled past piles of fresh lumber beside the road, stacked neatly but too numerous yet to clear. Power poles were shattered, laying in pieces, the black lines on top spread on the ground tangled and limp like a corpse’ hair washed up on shore. Through what was left I can see the destructive energy of what passed through, as well as in the faces of the people in town when I asked what happened here. No one was injured, thankfully, but people knew that this is the beginning of something. The grasses here should be brown in the summer, they’re green the last two years. The formerly hot nights dip to near freezing. One thing that will stick with me most from this trip is weather. I notice wind more, when I’m out walking, or on a short bike ride. I feel the sun, focus more on my surroundings, and I see the climate is changing. Kansas is hotter earlier than it’s ever been before, but it’s been hot. The Wildfires in Colorado are worse than they’ve ever been before, but there have been wildfires. There’s never been a tornado in the middle of the Cascades, and I see in people’s faces the concern as they slowly come to realize this is the new normal. 
My final day of biking I see the Washington I know. Overhanging trees, the bark wet with dew and moss covered. Thick morning mists as I pedal by the Skagit river, an easy day of biking that ends with a grin stretching half my face open as the cool wind carries the scent of salt waves lapping against the sand and I step off my pedals onto the beach and dip my rear tire in the Pacific Ocean at an RV park in Anacortes, WA. A retired couple on a short vacation with friends snaps my final picture in the water, then applauds as I roll my bike back onto the grass and I accept some celebratory beers and these are enough celebration. I expected no parades or awards when I finished. What I’ve done others have done better, people I heard about on the trip or I met personally. Couples in graduate school, pedaling home towards careers and the beginnings of a family. Groups who actually set up charities with sponsors before leaving, rather than half-assing it while rushing to finish writing a book then asking for money in emails (SERIOUSLY, THOUGH. IF YOU HAVEN’T DONATED, ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS IS A FANTASTIC ORGANIZATION. EVEN $5-10 CAN DO SO MUCH. PLEASE DONATE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE). I heard of solo bicyclists finishing the trip on a unicycle, a Brit touring the world on a one speed Penny-Farthing, a triathlete who pedaled from NY to SF in 30 days. I meet Australians preparing to return home after years of world travel and Guatemalans midway through a 2 year excursion to Alaska. I’m none of these people and I don’t feel I have to be. I’m finished, with the bike trip, with my 7 goals, with my 20s. I set out to physically challenge myself, to learn more about America, and to grow as a person. I’ve done all that. If a few people remember me as that bald amateur comedian carrying the wooden club on his bike, awesome.        
So now begins the transition to home. Waking up in the same bed in the middle of the night, wonder what happened to my tent. Learning to eat again, rather than feed. Eating a normal breakfast instead of stuffing 2,000 calories into my gut and rushing off. The sore legs from jogging again and the incomplete feeling of bicycling only 40 miles a day rather than 90. After these journeys, the most difficult part is the internal adjustment. I feel different. A new perspective on the world, more confidence in what I’m capable of, a little lighter as the stresses of the trip disappear and the stresses of settled life have yet to come. But I’m returning to where nearly everything is the same which is a relief after 3 months, but still feels uncertain. I’ve changed, will I still belong here? And of course, there is the hanging question that I won’t be able to answer for months: What did this trip really mean? I’ll only figure this out as I tell the stories, as I move forward with my life, as experience is augmented with context.
When I was 24 I set out 7 goals for myself.
1. Write a book
2. Run a Marathon
3. Backpack Across Europe
4. Earn a Black Belt
5. Teach English in S. Korea
6. Shikoku Pilgrimage
7. Bicycle across the US
Along the way an inside joke began to circulate that upon completing the goals, a wizened Japanese man would appear from the forest, hand me a sword and say “You are ready!” and then tell me what to do next, like defending a village from an ogre or something. Last Christmas a girlfriend gave me a sword, and when I stepped off the pedals in the Pacific the Japanese man was no where to be found. Until he shows up with a concrete plan, I’m going to need to best guess my next goals, to look at who I want to be at 40. So far, the list I’ve come up with is modest:
1. Publish a book
2. Triathalon
3. Stand up comedy 1,000 times
4. Ride a horse across the Eurasian Steppe (This one is aspirational, but how awesome would this be?)
Somewhere along the way I’d like to start a family, find a career that I care about, and do all the normal things that people do. There were periods in my 20’s where my goal were set aside, where I considered abandoning them, but I stuck to them because somewhere in my mind, I knew they were important. Now that they are complete, I understand why. There’s a confidence that’s come with them, the knowledge that I can direct myself towards the unknown, with no wizened Japanese man to guide me or tell me I’m prepared, and say “Ready or not, here I come” 
Plus, I got a sword now in case of Ogre-Emergencies
Thanks for reading, everyone. Hope you enjoyed these and I’ll fill you in on the next journey.
Paul Barach

West Yellowstone, MT to Sandpoint, ID – That “30 Miles to Portland” Feeling and What I Learn Riding in Cars

22 Jul


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Both times I’ve bicycled to Portland, once in 2009 on a whim with a friend and this last May on my training ride to SF, I’ve had the same feeling 30 miles from the goal. By 30 miles to Portland I’m past the challenges of the route, far past the halfway point, but also past the novelty of the surroundings. The two hours of pedaling ahead is less a challenge than something to just endure. 

The “30 miles to Portland” feeling dogs me from the morning I wake shivering in my tent in Yellowstone and set out teeth chattering through the mists, past my last buffalo chasing her calf beside the river, to exit West Yellowstone and enter my 3rd to last state. Montana mostly looks like Colorado and Kansas had a baby and there’s nothing really new to see, so my surroundings become almost invisible as I’m stuck in my own head. The burn out lasts through a disrupted routine.   
I stay two nights in hotels until I can exchange my tent at REI. I had planned to make distance to Missoula and meet my friend Nita who’s got a day off to drive through Glacier, but feeling a little sick from the night in the damp tent, I take it easy on the miles for two days, fall behind schedule, and decide to thumb a ride. 
An SUV pulls over and an intense man, thick with age, gets out and asks where I’m heading. When I tell him Missoula, he reminds me it’s 140 miles away, I nod, then tells me to strap my bike on the roof and lets go. Alex introduces me to his wife Shae, a Creek Indian, and their autistic son Josh, tells me if I hurt either one he’ll murder me, and we head off. Alex’s intensity comes from personality and life experience. He served in the IDF, has “knife wounds from when I ran out of bullets” and his first wife and child were killed in a bombing in Tel Aviv. Currently he’s in the Bitterroot to find a plot of land for his family and teaches sustainable living. He’s recently been on the news for coordinating a massive transport of Hay to Colorado farmers, who’s own crop has burnt up in the heat. He’s kind at heart, accepting no money from me for the ride and making sure I get safely to my destination. He also is a “Republican Constitutionalist” birther who hates Obama for his “lies,” much more than he hates Bush for getting us into wars that have killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of people based on real lies, and continues to confuse socialism with fascism, even after I explain the difference. He insults my intelligence, my democratic beliefs, and jokes about chucking me out of the car even as he drives me to my destination and makes sure I get there safe. We hug it out after I’ve got my bike off the roof, and I think with no sarcasm “Thanks for everything, you dick” A year ago I’d hold these beliefs against him, but after months of meeting kind, thoughtful people who spout Fox news buzzwords every third sentence, I’ve a more balanced view of my Red State brethern. Generally nice people with terrible voting priorities.  
Nita picks me up in Missoula and we drive to Whitefish, catching up on our lives since we met years ago spinning fire at a house party, and then catching up on our pasts as we realize we don’t actually know each other that well. During the long drive up to Whitefish, and the long drive up to Glacier, we tell our stories. Most of hers ending with “And then I knew I had a friend for life” and mine ending with “and then the first sentence of that journal entry reads “Do I ever tell anyone this happened?” We share mistakes, sucesses, and both come away realizing how easy it is to forget how little your past self knew, and how much better a person they made you because of it. 
We’ve decided to hike the Grinell Glacier overlook, 7 miles up. I see the destination as we enter the park, stone plates jutting high out of the crumbling dirt mountain. The final mile takes us through a green praire flecked with yellow petals and steep climbs across red, green, grey, purple and tan confetti of sedentary rock shards where marmots warm themselves on rocks and surer-footed mountain goats graze. Exhausted, I sit at the overlook, the strong wind that carries a river of clouds to break on the stone plates above me blows a fine cool mist from the packed snow below into my face. In the distance a green slope disappears into the valley. Closer to me a sheer rock face looks like a brick sticking out of the frozen ground, surrounded by a deep blue glacier, thinning year by year, the last remnants of a dead Ice Age. A chipmonk nudges my ass to break me from my meditation. A marmot wanders around another couple resting here from the climb. Nita looks at our path back, uneasy at the prospect of the steep terrain on her reparing knee. I turn back to the overlook and keep staring, squeezing the last moments from this as I realize that this is the beginning of the end. When I turn away from here, the journey winds down and the “lasts” begin. The last Tuesday, then the last Wednesday, the last 400 miles, then the last 300. The last 2 states, then the last one, the last mountain, the last town, the last journey of a 20’s now past, then the last look back at an incredible 3 months as I dip my rear wheel in the Pacific. I’ll return home and for the first week people will ask about the journey and I’ll tell them what happened. After 6 months home no one will ask about the journey, when I can tell them what it meant. I visit Glacier again the next day and hang around Whitefish for another two days until my legs get itchy and it’s time to go. 
My final day in Whitefish is wistful but the further West I go, the sadness disappates. Two days ago I’m in Libby, MT when a Windstorm knocks out all the power, ruining my plans to see the Dark Knight Rises. I head to a bar and while on my first beer the power is restored and the movie is a go. As I wait in the ticket line I marvel that yet again, drinking has solved all my problems. Last night my Warm Showers host tells me he works in the local brewery and I get to sample amazing IPAs on their porch. It’s easy to appreciate days like this because I’m now at that “15 miles to Portland” feeling, when I realize that I have to be present in the moments now, because sooner than I realize, this will all be just memories and a sense of accomplishment to begin the next journey with.  

Riverside, WY to West Yellowstone, MT – Birthday Beneath the Sea and a Bison Infestation

14 Jul

On July 6th, my birthday, I wake at my campsite in the city park of Lander, WY still buzzing from the day before; a perfect day of biking. My first thought is “Paul, you’re living your dream, biking across the country and midway through the last of the 7 goals you set out for yourself at 24. Way to go” My second thought is “Paul, you’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30 years old. So many of your High School teachers were right”

The morning before I left my Warm Showers hosts dreading the ride ahead, but well rested since the Fourth of July in Rawlins was absent of fireworks, gunshots, BBQs, or sparks of any kind since we’re living in a tinderbox. Over breakfast my hosts prepare me mentally for the day ahead; Heat, Headwinds, and Open Praire. I pass deer munching on grass in the graveyard and my legs slowly loosen up passing beside mountains across the open prairie. I’d been told to expect nothing in between Rawlins and Lander, 130 miles away, but along with heat and wind, my threshold for “nothing” has been warped by Kansas. I descend a steep hill, roll across the flat bottom and keep speeding. Looking down at my odometer I realize that a miracle is happening. For the first time on this trip; tailwind. An early birthday present that propels me across this rippled landscape with the wind in my ears. I’m not fighting the wind with my head down, so I have the time to look around and what I see, the rolling crests of mountains, the curving ridges of land, looks strangely familiar. I’m still trying to place where I’ve seen it when I stop for water at the only bar for miles in Jeffery City, an old Uranium mining town that still has the infrastructure built for prosperity but not the people. I place my order for a bowl of chili, the bartender looks at me for another minute, then says “You want cheese on it?”
He stares for another minute, then heads off to get the chili, which takes ten minutes. I think he’s mentally off, possibly uranium poisoning, but turns out he’s just drunk all the time, which is understandable.
While I’m waiting for him to fill a bowl of chili I go outside and check my mileage. 70 miles in 4 hours. I can make it to Lander easily. 
Looking over Beaver Ridge it hits me, why my surroundings are so familiar. I’ve seen these valleys, the ridges, the irregular mounds of earth with channels in between when I’ve been snorkling and looking at the sandy bottom beneath the waves. From this height I see what I’m biking across, if I increase the scale a thousandfold. I tip my front wheel down and for 20 minutes know that I’m flying across the bottom of the ocean at the bottom of the sky. Everything becomes clear. My place in the world, in time, in geologic history. A blip enjoying a landscape that looks frozen in the scale of lifetimes but dynamic over the eons. I reach the end with my hands shaking and the wind knocked out of me, then fly the rest of the way to Lander past red and white striped mountains. To cap my evening, I get a sundae at a local ice cream shop and watch a father holding his gut in obvious pain, working to finish a ten scoop sundae monstrosity as his children cheer him on. Looking down at him from the wall above are pictures of those brave few, including his wife, who’ve kept the sundae down, victorious in their complimentary ice cream parlor shirts. She also stands there in person, arms folded and bemused at his struggle.  
The next day ends in Dubois and I have a birthday steak and some birthday drinks and the bartender gives me an awesome suggestion for the night’s activities. As I walk out a 55 year old Dutch woman rides up to the restaurant and I decide she’s coming too.
“Hi, guess what we’re doing tonight?”
“Hello?” Marlene replies “What?”
“We’re going to a rodeo, then we’re sleeping in that church over there”
“OK. Can I eat first?” 
So we drop our gear at the church, go back to the restaurant, Marlene buys me more birthday drinks and we learn about each other. Marlene is 55, a PR officer at an engineering firm, taking a sabbatical after the 101 year old Holocaust survivor she looked after finally succumed to Alzheimers. The local rodeo is a fun change of pace; children race their horses around the barrels and rope calves. Adults hold on as the bulls try to throw them off, usually quickly. I drink beers at the concessions, bull riders are amazed I’m bicycling across the country and we tell each other we’d never be crazy enough to do that. 

The next day I leave by the peppermint taffy cliffs through the mountains until I see the Tetons in the distance and turn toward Jackson Hole, and the home of some family friends where my parents are also waiting to wish me a happy birthday. Some BBQ, some beers, a bed and a shower and it feels almost normal again, like home. A hike up to Jackson peak the next day, looking out over the lumps of mountains on the flat land and the sharp blue granite blocks of the Tetons shoving through the earth, a branch of lightning arcing from the storm to the valley beyond, later a traffic jam of people snapping pictures of a moose and I’m no longer feeling like home, but this will do. 

Wyoming ends with 2 nights in Yellowstone. Whether because of the burn-out that’s been dogging me the last couple days, or maybe my expectations were too high, I couldn’t dig Yellowstone. It’s an endless procession of cars and people, multi-cultural families snapping pictures across an active supervolcano as sulphorous water bubbles from the ground and the winds carry the smells through the park. I saw many amazing things there and don’t regret going. Mammoth Hot Springs lives up to the name, climbing on a calcified mass, stained yellow and red from the minerals seeping out, that towers out of the mountain like a weeping sore. Obsidian cliffs and the black and red glassy stones that tumbled down. Fields of wildflowers, waterfalls, the short green lodgepole pines surrounding the tall bleached spears of their parents, burnt in the fires of ’88. Maybe my expectations of wildlife were too high. In over 100 miles of bicycling I saw one coyote, one badger, one black bear, one grizzly, and a dissapointingly large number of bear shaped rocks. Yellowstone I count 25 cars and 37 people all gathered on a hillside, snapping pictures of the furry ears of a bear visible behind a bush. When I do see bears, they’re doing what they normally do, digging in the ground, or wandering, not doing what I want them to do, like snatching fish from a stream, or fighting former president Teddy Roosevelt. The bison are another matter. I’m lucky enough to see a massive herd grazing on Gibbon Flat. I snap pictures of the largest bull I’ve ever seen until it growls at me and I agree that yes, I am too close to him. After an Italian couple interviews me for their documentary I race to the campsite and in the driveway I stop 10 feet from another bison sitting in the dust. We stare at each other for a few minutes, then he rolls over onto his back and rises concealed in a cloud of dust like a multi-ton furry Ninja. I spend the night sharing a campsite and food with an awesome family and share a laugh with them the next morning as a bison wanders through the campsite, keeping the terrified in their tents.  
My final night in Yellowstone and in Wyoming I’m 10 miles from my campsite when I see to my right in the far distance another lightning storm, the third that day. The storm, however, is a decoy to allow another storm to swoop in right on top of me (Clever Girl). Suddenly I’m racing through driving rain as electric bolts turn the ground below me purple. Normally I love lighting storms, but it’s dark, windy, and there are many cars passing me. After 40 terrifying minutes I make it to the campsite drenched and set up my tent on the soaking ground. Then my tent pole snaps. Enraged, I throw the tent against a tree, then a thought hits me and I start chuckling, and keep laughing as I climb inside shivering, and fall asleep damp in a half-collapsed tent as water seeps through the bottom. As I fall asleep on the damp soil of a buffalo infested super-volcano I’m still laughing at the thought “You’re homeless, jobless, and living in a tent somewhere at 30. Take a moment to appreciate your success”  

Ordway, CO to Riverside, WY – I Finally Forgive Kansas

7 Jul

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The last entry for Kansas took 3 rewrites, and I was still ThisClose to just writing

“Fuck Kansas” *Send

I’m at the Dinosaur Depot Museum in Canon City, Colorado and I’m giddy. Hanging on the wall in front of me is the worlds’ most complete Stegosaurus skeleton. I can see the crack in his tail spike where the bone infection took root, the abscesses in the back plates as it spread, the bend of the legs as it kneeled down to cool it’s feverish body in the mud beside the riverbank. I run my fingers over a preserved imprint of a T-Rex footprint in mud and shiver as I feel the pebbly skin. On the wall above is the boney remains of an ancient fish with the boney remains of it’s last meal inside. Behind me in a glass room volunteers remove the plaster and matrix from dinosaur bones. The original dinosaur skeletons shown in the Smithsonian in the 1920s came from the quarries near Canon City. All this, plus I got to sit on an Apatosaurus femur, which the Smithsonian frowns upon.

On the wall a display shows the geological progression of Colorado. Eons ago the Interior Sea ran down the center of America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with Kansas and Utah as it’s riverbanks. It was here the sand, mud, and shells compressed layer on layer until from beneath the waves the earth birthed mountains and the Rockies gained prominance. I leave Canon City grinning and begin the long 11,500 foot climb up these layers to Hoosier Pass. I’m breathing hard and occasionally gasping, the scenery and the altitude take my breath away.

My first impressions of The Rockies are that they should be called “The Lumpys.” I expected jagged stone peaks slicing into the blue sky everywhere I looked. Instead rounded lumps of earth surrounded me, with farther rounded lumps retreating into a blue haze from the forest fires consuming the state. In between are large swaths of prairie and sagebrush.

This is the majority of the Rockies, but there are also marvels. As I climb the passes, my lungs sipping air when I’m demanding gulps, I realize that along with the highway signs saying “Historical Marker, 1 mile” they should also have highway signs saying “You’re gonna want to stop and stare for a while, 1 mile” The Rockies are filled with views that demand awe. Gargantuan mountains with treelines scoured level by ice, curving bowls of rock sit atop the bald peaks where the glaciers carved their cradles. 4,000 year old Soldier Pines hide amongst the treeline of the Arapahoe, where bright green trees are far outnumbered by the limp, wine-dark corpses of pines that have died of thirst in the unseasonable heat. Jagged towers of red stone stabbing into the sky above the deep blue Colorado River. Canyons where the rivers sawed straight down into the earth, exposing multicolored layers of time. I pause frequently, gaze in amazement, take photos, stare some more, look around and wonder why there isn’t a crowd gathered here staring at this at all times, take one last look and leave. This happens frequently enough in Colorado to remind me of the Avenue of Giants in California, or the 1,000 year old graveyard on Koya Mountain, where I’m so awestruck at all times that it’s a relief to be finally are out of sight and back to regular, status quo gorgeous.

A change happens as I descend the other side of Hoosier Pass. The final climb is 4 miles and 1,000 foot elevation gain, and the entire time I’m huffing hard, as I’ve done since beginning the climb yesterday for another 3,000 feet, and 2,000 more earlier in the day, and really since I began the trip. It’s been slightly overcast since I got into the mountains, cooling me but blocking my views. I reach the peak, snap evidence of me grinning at the highest point on the TransAmerica Trail, then I point my front tire down and gravity and I kiss and make up. Suddenly my odometer’s jumping past 30, the sun is out from the clouds and pedaling is optional. Over the wind in my ears I hear a creek gurgling beside me as I race beside pines and aspens, gargantuan mountains with pink and red bands of color loom above me, growing larger and larger. Suddenly a long-forgotten feeling emerges from behind my grin: Ease. This trip has been incredible, but it’s been difficult. Even on the shortest days, there’s background stress as my body deals with things breaking down; my food, my muscles, my bike. I have to know where my bike is at all times, where I am in relation to home, where I’m shooting for tomorrow, what new location I’m sleeping tonight. I realize the next time I’ll have this feeling is when I step off my pedals with my rear wheel in the Pacific, and that this moment is coming up soon. I’m over halfway done with this trip. It’s this that makes me pause even as I’m racing against sunset to appreciate Dillon Reservoir, watching the full moon hang above the sails floating in the darkening, glassy water, stark white against the crimson rocky peaks. To appreciate spending that night in a house, with my own room, my own bed, my own shower, my own TV. I’ll have this feeling of ease again, but I’ll never have these moments.

It’s this memory of ease that makes me take a half day day to soak in Hot Sulphur Springs, catching up on the 3rd Game of Thrones, and spend 5 minutes staring into the eyes of a dragonfly that’s landed on my book, wiping his eyes with his legs and staring back. It’s what makes me appreciate more the small moments here. The fact that the entire next day I still smell of sulphur, like I’ve just teleported with Nightcrawler. Taking a picture of a Coyote in the Arapaho and having it yawn it’s mouth and leap back and forth on its front legs until I left. That even a County Commissioner campaign poster has a gun shooting the underline for the name. Sharing Whiskey with a Blackwater Employee living in Seattle and heading back to Afghanistan as he tells me of the two times he’s met Ichiro, once when Ichiro was sober and timid, the other drunk at a party and yelling at him in Japanese. Sharing dinner with James, a Math Teacher in Waco  who spent his time in the Navy dropping sonar buoys to track Russian subs, now partially retired and taking half his family to meet the other half in Yellowstone.

After crossing the Wyoming border and asking directions at the home of Roy and Donna I end up in some reverse “If you give a mouse a cookie…” where I’m offered a bottle of water, then a soda, then a banana, then a sandwich, and we chat on the porch about the unseasonable heat, how his farmer friend will need to buy hay for the first time ever after his crop didn’t come up and how low the Platte river is running.  I end up camping in their yard as Roy runs an extension cord from the house to the tent so I can charge my phone. Then the next day, as I coil the cords and replace them near the house, he comes out, wishes me luck, and gives me $10 for breakfast.

Now that I’m in Wyoming, I’m done warning Eastbounders about Kansas. When the cyclists and I swap advice they tell me Wyoming is windy, it’s hot, and it stretches on forever. I nod, and think “You have no idea what hot, windy, and endless is (Also, Wyoming is amazing, but that’s for another entry)” Then it’s my turn. Kansas is over a state away, why make them worry about the distant future? I smile and tell them simply “You’re gonna love Colorado”

Girard, Kansas to Ordway, Colorado – Headwind and the Angry Inches

29 Jun


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And now, Kansas:

Despite all evidence that it remains connected to the contiguous United States, I held the firm belief this past week that Kansas is falling into the sun. 

It’s been a week of exhaustion, frustration, disappointment and sullen acceptance that’s required me to amend my customary advice of “There’s always one more hill” with “and sometimes that hill is an entire state.” To give you a quick news update: this week Kansas had the hottest location in the world. At 115f, it’s hotter than the Sahara Desert, Death Valley, and Molten Lava city (Come see the Lava!). In the rest of Southern Kansas it’s been triple digit temperatures since Sunday with winds gusting constantly from the South or West up to 30 mph, meaning that if I’m really pedaling hard, I can sometimes make 8mph, about half my normal crusing speed for the past month. When I’m 15 miles from my destination, straining against the wind and heat, and know it’s going to be like this for the next two hours, it’s awful. Except it’s more than two hours, because 2 1/2 miles from town, I still need to rest in the shade of a stranger’s yard before the final push. He wanders out for a chore and waves. I raise my hand weakly in reply. No words need exchanging, we both know why I’m there.   

My first few days in Kansas were idyllic. A summer evening swimming in a local public pool, doing flips off the diving board, laughing as I try to remember how many years it’s been. I chat with high schoolers about the bicycle trip and their plans for the future, sports scholarships and military branch fall backs, smiling as I realize that as I near 30 I’ll never again speak with such confidence about my future, knowing how much was in store for me between high school and now. Their teacher supervises the pool and I chat with him about travel and his SE Kansas origins as his children mill about. The next day when a closed highway forces me to detour along an upaved road and my tire blows out an oil well capper drives me back to the highway in his pick up. Asking how he finds the extinct oil wells, he points to a rolled up blueprint on the dashboard. Unrolling it, I’m looking at a map of Fort Scott from the 1888s, copied from a cloth and papyrus original. The days are pleasantly hot and pleasantly flat. In between towns I’m hitting 20 mph speeds regularly and when I enter these small towns they’re straight out of Frank Capra, American Rennaisance architecture, unlike the previous states the homes are still occupied, the businesses not boarded up. With days like these, I expect to fly out of Kansas like Superman. 
Then the winds begin, and the heat. After a hellish day of 9 hours and 110 miles, I change routine and shrink my distances. I rise at 5am, leave at 6, and am finished by noon in whatever town I can escape the 107 degree heat. The temperatures rise quickly with the sun. One day, from the time I left my seat at a diner to when I walked outside to my bike, the bank thermometer has jumped 3 degrees. Worse is the wind. Blowing hot and constant from the side it robs me of momentum, I strain to earn every pedal stroke just to keep going slowly nowhere. The gusts steal the moisture from my mouth and whip it towards Nebraska. I always need more water than I have, no matter how many extra bottles I carry, and my lips chap about an hour in. The days end with me exhausted, muscles drained, voice hoarse and knowing there’s more of this waiting tomorrow, and the day after, and after. 

Kansas becomes a mental game that I sometimes win. When I accept the situation and look past the wind blasting in my ears and pushing me off the shoulder, the passing trucks that yank my bike back and forth in the pressure drop, the sun’s constant stinging rays, I see the piece of America I wanted to experience. The boundless landscape of green, gold, and brown patchwork that dwarfs the gargantuan machinery needed to harvest it. 70 foot grain elevators that stand stark white against the sky, the bright red, blue, and green tractors, backhoes, harvesters that group beside homes or roam the praire in halos of dust. The birdlike irrigation pumps forever pecking at the soil. And once, on one of many necessary breaks, I stand at a wildlife refuge beside the road and stare out into the preserved grasslands, wind making the blades slash at each other, hissing through the expanse. Birds chatter and crickets chirp and for a moment I see how it used to be, imagining some of the 150 million buffalo wandering the plains, the 40 foot long grass huts of the natives, an ecosystem long since plowed and planted over. And above it all, a clear blue domed sky and angry, angry sun.

But usually, I lose. Another cattle semi passes, getting thwapped twice in the face with the scent of cow shit, then the wind is back to howling ceaselessly in my ears. I’m working my ass off, going as slow as the steepest climbs in the Appalacians or the Ozarks, but there’s no peak to reach, no downslope, no coasting, just a thankless, draining slog for hours that used to result in distances. Ahead the concrete is a mirror that occasionally produces cars but rarely towns and surrounding me is a flat empty landscape of few surprises. What is 10 miles behind me will be 10 miles ahead. Pedaling my ass off against an invisible obstacle, so tired it’s hard to keep my head up, and when it drops all I see is how slow I’m going, the 10ths of a mile I’ve gained since I last looked, and I crack. I swear in rage at the wind at the top of my lungs, but the breezes and gusts remain indifferent, as to reach the Wind Spirit Tate I’d need a fire and dance steps I’m unfamiliar with. Except the wind isn’t indifferent, it’s fucking with me. I know it. No matter which direction I turn one day, there’s headwind. Just when I’m in sight of a town, when my legs get that extra burst of energy to the finish line, the oven-hot wind gusts to blow me off the road and I glare daggers at the South, expecting to see cause on the horizon. A jet engine, a Monty Python head holding a giant blowdryer, but nothing new. Just land stretching to Oklahoma, no sign of my invisible tormentor.  
I remind myself constantly that though this experience will remain in memory, the hours spent at it will slip away. Finally I reach Colorado, and am surprised at how quickly the landscape changes from agricultural expanse to Ansel Adams photo. More importantly, the forecast is improving. As I checked the weather for Ordway, CO, my final destination for the night, 103 degrees and winds gusting at 5-10 mph, enough headwind to make it a fight, but not be helpless in it. For the first time in a week my odometer hits 15 mph and I pump my fist and laugh, happy to be free again. Then, of course, with 20 miles to go, a freak storm appears on the horizon and winds howl in my face. I’m back to fighting just for 6mph, and sometimes, just for a forward direction. I flag down a pick up, toss my bike in the back, and ride the rest of the way. There’s always one more hill, but sometimes, fuck wind. 

Chester, IL to Pittsburg, KS – Missouri Doesn’t Want Me to Miss It

21 Jun


I’m in a laundromat in Pittsburg, KS just over the Missouri border washing the salt stain rorshach tests off my shirts. I woke to an intense rainstorm that fish could have travelled through overland. After 4 days in Missouri and 21 days total I’m finally on flat land.

It’s a strange mental space to put myself in. The Ozarks differed little from the Appalacians in the routine; 1-2 steep hills every mile all day, up and down and up.  In Missouri it’s: Climb, Peak, Dive, Creek. In Kentucky it’s: Climb, Peak, Dive, Poverty. To keep my morale up through the hills and the exhaustion I’ve had to put myself into the mental space for the last 3 weeks of “There’s always one more hill.” No matter how many climbs I get through in a day, no matter how hot, there’s always one final climb between me and wherever I’m trying to get to, so never think you’re done. Today I saw Pittsburg’s water tower from two miles away, not one more hill in between. 

“There’s always one more hill” is the advice I give to everyone I meet bicycling because it’s the most useful advice I know. The most useless advice is “Be safe,” which everyone tells me, but no one tells me how. A road worker points to the Semis constantly passing and says “Those’ll run you over” and I reply “Yes, I too understand physics.” My biggest fear on this trip is cars and I worry every day. I know I’ll end this trip in shape, but how do I make sure that shape isn’t a 2 dimensional one? Do I ride closer to the median, to make myself more visible but present more of a target, or closer to the shoulder, less visible but more avoidable? Apparently, closer to the shoulder doesn’t work because 2 days ago an air conditioner repair man blinded by the sun sideswiped me into a ditch with his van’s mirror. 

107 miles in, any fatigue I was feeling is gone as I’m back up in an instant, memorizing the van’s description for the police or to hunt him down myself. The van continues for a moment to a driveway, then turns around and parks across from me. The driver gets out apologizing & dialing 911, keeps apologizing as I decline paramedics, as we call the police for an accident report, as we wait 45 minutes for the police to actually show up. Two members of his family died in car wrecks recently so he feels sick about this. I’m feeling better as we wait. My shoulder is barely bruised and this is one of the nicer drivers I’ve met today. This stretch of Missouri Highway has been a day of too close semis, barking dogs and asshole hillbillies. After the cop leaves I tell the driver he owes me a beer and a ride to my campsite and we’re square. We head to that Midwestern convenience staple, the Kum n Go, and I get my PBRs and a couple Kum n Go lighters as gifts for back home. The clerk looks to be in High School, wearing a button up shirt and a bow tie, remarks “I’ve never tried PBR. Any good?” 
His friend hanging by the counter, equally young, says “Yeah man, it’s way to classy to use for beer pong”

I get to my campsite, shake hands with the driver, who apologizes again, set up my tent and reflect that my “Days Without A Car Accident” board just dropped from 37 to 00. Osha’s gonna have my ass.   

Despite Missouri’s best efforts, I’d come to like it. I really enjoy the 5 foot tall rolls of hay in the fields, watching farmers pick them up with forklifts, moving them ant-like into long rows or scattered across the rolling hills of grassland. The stampede of cows through creeks as they spook when I pass and I race beside them. I visit Alley Springs, an old grist mill. I stand at the sandstone hills above, watching some of the 81 million gallons of aqua blue water pass through the mill’s fall, dark green sea grass waving beneath the current and look back to a time when a blacksmiths, general store, and school house surrounded this shady brook. When farmers brougth their grain to be ground between the stone wheels. Getting the latest word from their neighbors as they waited their turn, stocking up on supplies, shoeing horses or repairing equipment. 

I continue to meet interesting people. A grad student couple from UMASS, the girl who worked at the Baltimore Sun telling me about having to vacate rooms so they could shoot scenes for “The Wire.” The Mayor of Ash Grove, who sits at my table, fills me in on Nathan Boone’s history here and how the Phenix mine provided the marble for an SF Museum in the 20’s, then picks up my tab for lunch. The customers in a convenience store in Houston, MO that look straight out of a David Lynch casting call. 2 Brits, a Web developer and lawyer, who’ve given their notice and biked all through Australia, NZ, Tasmania and America. Chatting with members of the Baltic Cyclist association with Brits, Poles and Lithuanians, going from Beijing to London as we stay in a Farmington bike hostel converted from a jail cell. 

Yesterday evening I’m approaching Golden City. I’ve climbed the last of the Ozark hills and am now in flat, easy pastureland. The muscles built from three weeks of climbs power me along, the wind roaring by my ears. I’ve reached the cool part of the day and I’m flying, ready for sleep and waking to the easy stretches of Kentucky ahead. Then the stench invades my nostrils and for the next 15 minutes I pedal through what smells like a particularly strong fart. Missouri really doesn’t want me to miss it.     


Berea, KY to Chester, IL – the hard parts & the places in between

21 Jun


If you can spare it, please donate to the Seattle Chapter of Engineers without Borders here

Miles: 1,337
I’ve heard the first 100 hours of mediation are the easy part, it’s the next 1000 that becomes hard. After Troutdale, KY the bicycling became hard and remained so. The hills are steep and numerous, but this isn’t the hard part. The days are hot and headwind abounds, but this isn’t the hard part. Overusing a cliched literary devices in emails, but this isn’t the hard part.

The hard part isn’t the first 100 cornfields, it’s the next thousand. They are fucking boring and Ray Liotta hasn’t emerged from one of them. Western KY looks like Eastern VA which looks like all of Idaho. It’s expanses of corn with houses and trees half-floating, submerged in the green waves. It’s rows of soy stretching far enough to have a vanishing point. Grains, grass, pasture, farm machines. Tractors drag balers behind them, rolling the hay into 6 foot wheels and leaving them behind like diesel powered dung beetles. White homes with red tin stars in front like they’ve been deputized. I spook horses, make cows wary, startle deer and enrage dogs. I’ve seen it before, am seeing it again, and will keep seeing it. Wake, Meditate, Stretch, Pedal, Eat, Pedal, Eat, Pedal, Sleep. That’s right Wood-chuck-chuckers…it’s Groudhogs Day!

But it’s not, I keep reminding myself. The majority of the hours in my day and in this trip is pedaling past a rural Hannah-Barbarra background, this is true, however these are the moments I will forget quickest. It’s the small places in between the bordeum that remain with me. Visiting the Barton booze factory (Bourbon Distillery) in Bardstown, KY. Seeing the rough machinery from the 40’s alongside sleeker 1960’s replacements. The 5 story tall still, the warehouse of oak barrels streching far away. Stifling a giggle as our guide tells us to “Sniff the bung hole” as she uncorks a cask. I inhale a sweet, smooth aroma with a hint of pepper and briefly wonder if I can smuggle a cask out under the guise of “a barrel shaped shoulder tumor.” I see the site of Lincoln’s birthplace later that day, see their family bible, speak to a park ranger about his 3 tours of Iraq before he retired. I spend two hours walking through Mammoth cave, through the moist limestone, carved by an underground river millions of years ago, up to the dry sandstone where rocks have fallen from the ceiling in jumbled blocks, and deep into the stalagtites and stalagmites, where the rock seems to have melted like a wax waterfall into the face of Chtulu.

In Sebree I stay in the basement of a baptist church and have dinner with the Pastor and his wife. I see they’re showing the Sarah Palin documentary “Courageous” as a church activity and am given a pamphlet on Jesus to stay there. I swallow my political opinions during dinner, as I can’t really condemn someone who says “Bless your heart” as punctuation and also I have no moral high ground as I’m currently homeless. I chat with Christian Motorcyclists association as I wait for my ferry to cross the Ohio river to Illinois, there as a part of a huge motorcycle convention that has harleys roaring past me daily. I detour to the Garden of the Gods, standing atop the bulbous, twisted, carved sandstone sculptures that are all that remain of an ancient riverbank, leading to an ocean that covered the verdant topography stretching below me 320 years ago. I meet a few people a day, but the conversations are short. A retired Air Force vet in Clay who tells me this shrinking town of trailers and shops once had a pool hall, a theater, and tall buildings when he was growing up. A bartendress in Carbondale who’s looking to move west with her forestry degree. A South Korean, the only other cyclist I’ve met, as we chat in a bike shop before he sleeps in the home of a Korean pastor and I spend my night searching my tent for any more ticks. I see amish girls climb into a car and remain confused. A morning watching deer bounding across the soy fields and a night I set up my tent in the forest and stare out at dusk as the vines wrap around the trunks that stretch into the darkness while fireflies light the night like ashes falling toward the sky.

And through both these memorable moments and the long stretches in between, I’ve pedaled 1,337 miles total, a quarter of the way complete. The Ozarks, the Rockies, The Tetons, Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, Glacier, The Cascades and Home stand ahead of me. I’m ready for more and continue to learn valuable lessons, like gravy isn’t good bicycling fuel, and still learning some, like don’t chug slushies, no matter how hot it gets