Tag Archives: journey

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

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?”
“Yes”
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?” 
“Yes”
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”