Archive | June, 2012

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

 

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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

Troutdale, VA to Berea, KY

10 Jun

 

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MILES: 740

6 days ago I’m in a log house built in the 1850s drinking wine and watching hockey with Brian and Rebecca, an awesome couple living in Troutdale, VA. It’s raining so they’ve invited me inside to sleep on their couch. As I run my fingers over the rough splinters and axe marks on the original hand-hewn boards in the wall, they tell me about when a 90 year old woman stopped by one morning with her 70 year old son. She grew up in this house that her father converted from a barn, the baby of 9 children sleeping upstairs, and now asks to explore her childhood home. One of the first things she notices: “Oh, you have toilets now!”

I’ve lucked out finding this house. When I knock on the door, hoping to camp in their yard I hear the Rottweiler barking and see the rifle over the mantle and think “This ain’t good.” When Brian opens the door, wearing flip flops and a Bruins hockey shirt with a friendly “What’s up man?” I think “This is good”

As I leave the next day they tell me I’m heading towards the more economically depressed area of VA and KY, poorer, steeper, meth-ier, and uglier. They are right on all counts.

When I was in Japan there was a problem of “Monotonous Beauty” where my surroundings were so idyllic all the time they became unnoticeable. Eastern Virginia is the same. The first time you see the rolling hills, the green mountains, the pastureland of monochrome cows and prancing horses, the barns old and new you want to stop and paint a picture. After 10 more miles of it all I can think about is “My ass is fucking killing me, is this bike seat made of rebar?”

I get a few breaks from the pasturelands. Long climbs into the forests of Mt. Rogers, of Breaks Interstate park where I reach Kentucky. I stand on overlooks and see “The Grand Canyon of the South” where the New River has carved through sheer sandstone cliffs and deep into the more yielding shale beneath to create a steep valley running through the forested mountains. It’s all I can do not to build my own cabin and live there.

But then there’s Western VA and Eastern KY, which is not beautiful, just monotonous. Green hills and mountains loom across the valley, or in front to remind me of the climbs ahead, which are hard; I breath hard, my legs pump hard, my heart pounds hard. I never think I’m going to quit but it’s never enough to be a rewarding challenge. Countless steep hills drain my legs and yield no views at the top, just a sign announcing a new county. I coast on the descents at 35 mph, insects that would spatter on a windshield bounce off my face with a sharp thwack.

The valleys below are full of trailer homes and poverty. People sit on the porches staring at nothing. Confederate flags flap outside homes, sometimes alongside the “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, which is confusing because one represents freedom and independence, while the other represents enslavement and subjugation. Wide yards contain 7 cars with 9 tires between them. Dogs run barking to the end of their tethers or burst from their yards chasing me. I bark back at them till they stop their pursuit, as even dogs know to avoid the mentally ill.

Clothes and toys fill tables and blankets along the roadside. Either everyone is having a yard sale all the time or homes here are built without closets. I even see a sign advertising a yard sale held inside a general store. Most shops are closed and buildings shuttered in the downtowns. Churches, Pawn Shops, Gun shops, and Cash 4 Gold shops remain open. A grocery store I pass by advertises 3 foods on their billboard “Spam. Parkay. Kraft Cheese.” The same orange and black “For Sale” signs adorn empty trucks, ATVs, and homes along the roadside.

The only bicyclist I’ve met so far is Lucas from Denmark. I could immediately tell he was Danish because of the “sh” he adds to the end of every sentence and his indecisiveness about killing his fratricidal uncle. Otherwise, the roads are empty of bikes, just coal trucks, regular trucks, cars, motorcycles and ATVs, all of whom give me plenty of room as they pass and I wave in thanks.

Yesterday I’d had enough of Eastern KY and my 2nd map, so I decided to bicycle the 123 miles from Hindman to Berea (actually 113, but hooray not-admitting-I-made-a-wrong-turn-for-5-miles). For the last few days I’d been trying to remove myself from the equation here, to tell myself these hills don’t have it in for me personally, but in the end I wanted out and it was worth the exhaustion. I know I’m on the trip of a lifetime, and that I need to appreciate this now because it will be over sooner than I think. However, some days all I take as comfort is the flip side of that mindset: “Well Paul, you won’t be in Eastern Kentucky forever”

Onward from Berea.

Yorktown, VA to Lexington, VA – The Trip Begins

4 Jun

 

If possible, Please give to the Seattle Chapter of Engineers without Borders at this website https://www.ewb-usa.org/chapters.php?ID=6
 

And here we go:
Crouching at the Williamsburg train station with my Panniers on a bench and my tools beside me, I had unboxed and reconstructed my bike with no problems until it came time to inflate my tires. In some hijinx fitting of an early Woody Allen movie, I spent 15 minutes furiously pumping away at the handle of my air pump, looking pretty obscene from behind, before giving up with the tire half inflated, the pump obviously broken. Having planned ahead, I took out my portable air compressed pump and inserted the cartridge. As cold CO2 blasted into my face I found that this pump was also broke. I had no back up plan for my back up plan. 

 
A Fire Station nearby has an air compressor I can use. One of the Firemen stands by as the hose quickly plumps my tires, remarking that he carries more in the glove compartment of his truck than I am on my bike. He asks the standard questions I’ve answered countless times already in the 5 days I’ve been on this ride. Where are you from, when did you start, where are you going, and when I tell them Seattle, some variation on “Are you fucking nuts?”
 
It’s reaching mid afternoon as I leave a repair shop. My bike, Wilbur (ne 2012 Novarra Randonee) swallows more of my bank account replacing the rear tire and chain (both worn out from the 1000+ miles I put on it riding to SF), and repairing the shifters and other tweaks bent and dented (from when the TSA inspected it by hitting it with clubs to see if it exploded). It’s 13 miles to Yorktown, where I stroll through the eponomous Revolutionary War battlefield, then take my bike down to the sands. With pirate ships floating behind me, celebrating the rich history of ocean thievery and slaughter occuring just off the coast (apparently one of Black Beard’s favorite targets) I dip my wheels in the Atlantic and begin pedalling home. 
 
The sea level ground slopes gently up 300 feet as I ride over sediment washed down from the Appalacians and silts washing up from the Atlantic. It’s a short, flat ride for my first day, ending in Williamsburg. I pass a Naval dock where they unload all the Nuclear weapons from the subs, creeks cutting through the flat marshlands, and more animals pancaked on the concrete per mile than I’ve ever seen before. The turtles can’t dart out of the way, but I’m surprised at the number of formerly agile squirrels. I’m using a website called “Warm Showers” which is like Craigslist for cyclists to find homes to stay in for the night. Jim is my first Warm Showers contact and I’m his first tenant. After securing my bike in the garage we head to Colonial Williamsburg, where it’s too late for me to talk with someone in period costume about proper tallow molding techniques, but there are many separate ghost tours wandering through the streets. Only the restaurants and taverns remain open. I walk through irregular flashes of fireflies, realizing it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen them, I almost forgot they existed in real life, and not just in namesake on a sadly cancelled Sci Fi series. In the dark I see the former capitol building where Washington and Jefferson met.
 
Day 2 I sit at the Courthouse Grille in Charles City, listening to the servers on their smoke break discuss LeBron James and which High School girls just turned 18. When the Grille finally opens, the Lobster Bisque is worth the wait. It’s flat country, Sycamores, Dogwoods, Oaks, Maples and Pines separating the fields of amber grain and green leafy tobacco plants. I stop at Civil War Battle sites like Malvern Hill, which without the historical plaques looks just like a wheat field. There are many plaques along the road, celebrating everything from famous river crossings and homes to a log cabin where Stonewall Jackson got a drink of water once. Everything is made of red bricks here, and whoever imports/distributes them has to be Scrooge McDuck levels of rich. Even the fucking Arby’s looks like a colonial mansion. I get caught in one rainstorm. A white dog, scared of the thunder, runs from his yard and begins wandering on the wrong side of the highway, nosing at each of the doors of the stopped line of cars to be let in. I drag him from the road to safety, a cop calls the owner’s number and a cute girl takes the dog into her car to bring him home. Both leave me in the rain to drench. In the evening I hear another storm announce itself and ask to stay in a horse barn of a local farm. Samantha, a 21 year old studio arts major, who has been working with horses for 15 years and owns two of the three, invites me inside for a while and mentions that I can also stay in an actual house. This sounds better. 
 
Day 3 the crops remain the same but the hills begin to steepen and multiply as I bicycle from Ashland to Charlottesville. I pass Monroe and Jefferson’s estates, and one more long climb after 93 miles takes me to the home of Rob, a recent graduate from UVA with a BA in Business and Religion, who worked for a year on Andalucian goat farms and found his new calling. 
 
Day 4 I pass by the 250th History of Virginia festival where I hear they’ll be firing a cannon at Noon so I decide to leave late. In one park people in traditional costumes cook apples and onions over a roaring fire, hammer out red hot iron on an anvil, and stand by their Civil War regimental tents. I speak to a man in a general’s uniform about the many swords and guns in his collection displayed on a blanket. I dry fire one, the flint-lock striking the metal with a loud click as I see him wince beneath his beard and find out this isn’t a replica, it’s an antique. I didn’t break or damage it, which is rare for me in situations like this. By noon I’d stood in a replica of Lewis & Clarks boat, listened to Jefferson deliver a sermon, talked powder horns and daily rations with a Revolutionary War soldier, and learned the history and techniques of Cannonry with some British soldiers. I feel the thump in my chest as they fire the cannon and can’t stop giggling. Later that day the arcs and curves of concrete have grown even taller until I’m over 3,000 feet above sea level, staring out from Humpback Rocks on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Shenandoa Valley and the curving spines of the Appalacians. I stealth camp for the night. 
 
Day 5 and I’m in a coffee shop in Lexington. At 8am this morning, still on the parkway I stood at the 20 Minutes Overlook staring out at a forested valley curving between the mountains arching into the horizon. From below the howls of wolves calling to each other reached my ears and I shivered. Day to day here, I have no idea where I’ll end up or even what the next hour holds for me. It’s an exciting ride, and it’s just begun.
 
Cheers,
Paul

Trinidad to San Francisco

1 Jun

 

I’m on my final climb to Salt Point state park on May 18th I’m yelling involuntarily out of exhaustion and frustration. Because I’ve only driven the 101 and the 1, I never realized how many inclines and declines exist along the route because a little more pressure on the gas is all it took to reach that next crest from the trough. Now it’s an ache throughout my legs as I strain on the pedals nearing the end of the day, trees robbing my view of anything but this endless highway. The two words I hate the most on signs are “Curving” and “Narrow” and I’ve seen them both too often this last week of 80+ miles a day. For the last hour I’ve been waiting on my favorite words “Campground 1/4 mile.” The next day is my final 95 mile push to San Francisco but I can’t concieve of going an extra mile more at this point.

I turn in past the entry gate around 8pm. The sign says “Campground Full” but I ignore it, find a place beneath a tree to block some of the wind flowing across this cliff top and begin setting up camp. The site beside the picnic table where I lock my bike is empty, but there are trailers nearby. A late 20’s man with blond hair and a beard approaches. At this point if he tells me to move my plan is to continue setting up my tent and make it clear that I’m going unconscious now. If he wants to move my limp body or wait till morning for me to do it myself, that’s his choice. Instead, he introduces himself as Kyle and invites me to share in the fire with him, his family and friends. I rally my energy to say hello and am immediately offered a beer and a plate of freshly cooked chicken and pasta, then a place is made for me by the fire and the rest of the night is spent hanging out with this group from Sacramento. Kyle and his girlfriend Aubrey, Matty and his girlfriend Marta, the two moms Laurie and Lenee, and the father Dan who spent much of the time in the RV. They’re here to dive for Abalone for the second year in a row and everyone is kind, welcoming me into their group for the night to share in their food and their stories, and asking me to share mine. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to most on this trip is that EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. Unlike my trips to Europe or Asia, I CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING AND TALK TO THEM. This is such an exciting thing for me. When I sit down, I can thank the family for the beer and tell them how good the food is. I can tell them stories and jokes in return, make them laugh, give them something back for all they give me. We can trade Chuck Norris facts, shoot a beebee gun, talk jobs, careers, and comedy. When I was in Japan, I was helpless in the face of charity that people gave me. Here I can thank them, try to give them something back so I feel less guilty about how travelling light means carry little I can give to anyone else.

But as I left the next day, getting Matty’s email (Shout out to you, Matty. The good Chuck giveth and the good Chuck taketh away) and getting a picture with the family who’d given me my best night here yet, I began to think that maybe my guilt was misplaced. Audrey had asked surprised (when I refused the third granola bar she offered me to take on my trip after she’d already packed me up a lunch for the next day), if everyone I’d met hadn’t been this generous. The answer is no, most people aren’t this giving, but maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. You can’t always depend on the kindness of strangers, but you can depend on many strangers to be kind. Maybe these strangers aren’t looking for reciprocation, they’re not giving to you and waiting for a return. They’re giving because it’s their nature, that they’re just good people. And that’s something else I’ve been learning. Some people just give, with no expectations otherwise. Instead of feeling guilty for not being able to give back, I should appreciate that they exist at all and feel better about humanity. They’re making the world a better place at an instinctual level, and that’s as amazing a sight as any I’ve seen for a pessimist like me.

And that’s been the point of the training ride: To be a microchasm, a synechdoche where I could experience in 900 miles a taste of what quadruple that amount holds in store. To get used to recording my ramblings in a journal again. To re learn to appreciate the scenery: The waves roaring at they attack the rocks with their foaming blue jaws, the bleached white logs like bones the ocean forgot to bury, the flat pasturelands of monochrome cows, sheep, horses, and goats on clifftops that stretch deceptively to the horizon, where I know the earth suddenly drops sharply into the sea. Main streets built on steep hills where I bomb down at 30 mph, the wind yanking at my loose clothing and shoving my bike. And those moments where I’m climbing on the road and look across to a mountain across the valley, a mirror image with the same trees, the same grass, the same animals and I realize that I’m not just riding past scenery, I’m riding on top of it, a piece of this world.

I’ve begun to meet many riders. I spend a day meeting Galen the South African again, hearing a story where a Rhino charged his land rover, putting the horn through the engine block and lifting it off it’s wheels. I meet two brits and a guy from Montana travelling together, on break after graduating University before going back to do their version of teach for America. Along the route I meet many Canadians, some French people who’s bikes were stolen in SF and now ride “Sheety Ones” they bought.

On the day I leave the campsite I realize I have no water left and stop in at a ranch house. A black dog runs up barking and I stop the bike so as not to spook her. She sniffs at my leg, jumps back, then bites me. I yell and kick at her face as she growls then the owner yells “DAISY, GET IN YOUR CAGE!” and the dog runs of, whimpering. He looks at me, a white bandage below his mouth “What do you want?”

“Could I please fill my waterbottle?”

He directs me to the hose faucet and I fill the waterbottle. He takes a look at me and my bike

“You wearing sunblock?”

“Yes”

“Be sure you do. My lower lip’s rotted off from skin cancer”

I thank him for the water and leave, realizing I’d just met my first Stephen King Novel character.

About 90 miles later I arrive in SF and call my karate friends Mike and D to pick me up. I don’t have another 10 miles in me to cross the Golden gate bridge and ride to their house. As I cross the bridge in the car I don’t even miss it. The catharsis of crossing the bridge doesn’t match the catharsis of my legs finally at rest. The next day I walk in costume in the Bay to Breakers event with a friend from Spain I haven’t seen in 8 years, then hang with a comedy friend until dinner with my cousins I haven’t seen in 5 years, and top it off with drinks with my college friend. 3 more days in SF to spend with more friends, and congratulate my sister for passing the Bar Exam, and I’m home for the first of two weddings that will bookend my cross country trip.

The bike ride down to SF has been a success. I learned valuable lessons, saw amazing sights along the coast, met interesting people, and now have a chance to rest and recover in the company of friends and family. I don’t know what I’ll see crossing the country, how similar or different it will be to my coastal route, but I’ll keep you all updated.