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Sunday, September 14, 2014

When It's All Said and Done

I am definitely settled now. ...It’s quite disconcerting actually. I have no more foolhardy quests or ambitious endeavors to set upon. I have a job, a place to live, a comfortable mattress on which to sleep, a table at which to sit, everything I need. I feel like much of any materialistic pursuits at this point would be contrived constructs conceived out of a compulsion to attain something rather than the suiting of any real utilitarian purpose. That’s a trap I really don’t want to fall into. But worse is the trap I don’t know how to avoid. Comfort, complacency, routine. Coming out to Seattle, I went on an adventure. I woke some place new each morning, always had a distance to cover, a goal I had to meet if I wanted a home for the night, real, tangible obstacles to overcome daily, a simple sense of purpose. With each day, I was living out a story to be told, having the time of my life. And once I got here, I had to scramble for a place to live, search for a job, make connections, which then gave me a softer sort of adventure to follow on the heels of my larger one, the tying up of the final knots, the writing of an epilogue if you will. ...But now, that’s done. There’s no story here any more, just mundane, just routine, What nobody tells you, is that the hard parts of living aren’t the ones where you’re biking over mountains and through windstorms, it’s when you stop.

Friday, June 27, 2014


1. Everyone who has ever done bike touring will tell you to limit your possessions to an absolute minimum, taking only what you need, getting your weight as low as possible. And for goodness sake you should listen to them. Everything you have is weight and volume that could otherwise be spent on something better or better yet not be there and not be slowing you down. People with support and gear vehicles (SAG) have a so much easier time because they don't have the weight of their own stuff. So, really, think very carefully about what you need and you don't. Ask yourself: do I eat it, drink it, sleep on or in it, maintain my bike with it, or maintain me with it? If not, you don't want it.

2. Thoughts on specific things in regard to weight- Always carry water and convenient food, but remember you only need so much. Know the distance between you and water, refill when you can, and you'll be good without needing some big water container. You probably don't need a bunch of survival gear, of course depending on the where, when, and what of your trip. In rural areas, a heavy bike lock is just the needless weight of mistrust. Your phone can be GPS, camera, books, blogging device, entertainment, and basically all electronic needs in a super lightweight package.

3. In the deliberation between a trailer and panniers, I honestly can't tell you what's better. But I can say both work. Trailers can carry more and the weight isn't on your bike, but they make maneuvering trickier, take up more space on the road (which can really matter on narrow shoulders, especially narrow with rumble strips), and I think make for more work and trouble with stopping and acceleration. If you do use a trailer as I did, solid tires seem the way to go. Worrying about 4 tires is just too many, small tires are a huge pain to get on and off, and solids on the trailer aren't something you feel too much. It just seems the better way to go. I can't weigh in about solids on your bike.

4. Carry your bike over all grass. Never trust it. Thorns will ruin your day, and puncture more effectively than almost anything. Just don't risk getting them.

5. On a related note, forget slime inner tubes. They're just more expense, weight, and mess, and all they seem to do at best is let you know where the leak was.

6. I put on a patch over a puncture that lasted over mountains and for more than 500 miles. It did eventually wear out. But it's just something to keep in mind.

7. Dear lord, if your tire tread is looking worn, replace it immediately. Carrying a spare tire might even be worth it. And of course always have inner tubes, at least two at all times.

8. A hydration pack you can drink from while biking is hugely helpful. I couldn't have imagined the trip without mine. And no matter what judgments you might get (which you really won't), a belt bag or something you can put accessible food in is really good too. You don't want to stop all the time you have to eat and drink. You'll lose precious momentum and rhythm.

9. You will need to eat a lot. You will probably need to eat like some ravenous creature you don't recognize. Food is fuel. Don't ever compromise on getting what you need. And quality matters alongside quantity. A good, healthy breakfast can make all the difference in a day.

10. If you do some planning beforehand, Warmshowers and Couchsurfing can make your life much, much easier having places to stay. Also, people on Warmshowers seem to generally be more understanding and suited to your needs since they're specifically there for cyclists. But that's not to say the people on Couchsurfing aren't equally awesome. They're both great resources to use to keep you from tenting every night.

11. If you are tenting, city parks are great to use wherever they're legal (say in Nebraska). If you have to pay, it's always cheaper to go with the small local places. Screw KOAs.
12. I know some cyclists are big into guerrilla or stealth camping, staying someplace out of sight and mind without explicit legal right to, and it generally sounds like it works okay (except in the South, everyone universally says it can get ugly there), but I think legal, and free, options are usually available and better. Knock on a door and ask to camp in their yard, try out a church, just generally ask around, and someone will probably be happy to help. Permission is a great thing.

13. In any situation, don't be afraid to ask for help. Especially when people see you're bike touring, they are usually more than happy to assist.

14. ...Except on the interstate. If you break down there, expect it to take an hour of flagging for anyone to stop and help. In fact, in general, assume everyone is less good when in a vehicle. That said, interstate isn't such a bad place when you can be on it, because you've usually got a wide shoulder, which matters far more than how stupid fast the traffic is going (if a car hits you at 60 or 75, you're equally dead).

15. A road bike or touring bike is probably the way to go. I used a mountain bike because it's what I'm used to and because you can get a decent mountain bike cheaper than a decent road bike. And it really did come in handy for some stretches of trail. But most the time it will just be slowing you down. Take all the help you can get from good and proper equipment that you can. But also know that you can go over a mountain on a cheap mountain bike hauling a converted baby trailer full of not the lightest gear. You may hate yourself for it, but you can do it.

16. Remember as you climb that mountain, you are accruing potential energy karma. And what goes up must cone down. Eventually you will get to reap that karma, and it will make it all feel worth it.

17. High headwinds are seriously the worst thing you will face. Unlike a mountain, they just take and take and give nothing back. They're maddening and demoralizing. Going west is harder than east in the U.S. because we're in the Westerlies wind belt and so the winds will be against you more than not. If you have 30-40 mph winds on a day, be kind to yourself and plan on going nowhere if you can.

18. Actual, tight fitting breathable bike clothes are totally worth it. I only had one pair and I wished that I could trade my other clothes in for them. I also had four sets of clothes and three would have probably been better.

19. Solar chargeable battery for your smartphone is incredibly useful. Find a way to mount it so it gets sun all day and it will serve you well between outlets. Also public bathroom outlets are your friend. Keep your phone charged at every opportunity and as much as possible.

20. Just remember to have fun. Yes, it will suck at times, there will be boredom and hardship, and you'll probably mess some things up. But you'll learn most by your own personal mistakes and experiences. Roll with it, trust the road to provide, and just keep pedaling through. Something amazing is always just past the scary road, through the rain, or up the mountain. After all, it's the contrast, the punctuation of struggle and reward, that makes it all so worth it. Wonder awaits just around the bend.


Having had some time now to at least start to adjust to life not on the road, it seems a good time to reflect on my vagabonding. I learned and experienced much more than I thought I would, and by the nature of learning, much of it was things I didn't expect (else I would have known it already).
First of all, people are generally good. Really, truly good. I had very little bad experiences with people (that is, who were "people" rather than "drivers", because that human goodness has a strange way of ending at the car door) throughout my whole trip westward. Strangers I knew only through websites let me into their homes and roam freely, complete strangers let me camp in their yard or porch, friends and family donated to my adventure, as did an awesome man I met on the road, people in Nebraska made me breakfast when I camped in city parks just because, a bakery owner here in Washington gave me free food...I could go on forever about the hospitality I've received biking cross country. And this is the experience affirmed by every other bicyclist I've met on the way. Not only are people generally more than happy to help you, as a cross country cyclist they find your story interesting enough that they often act like its a favor to them to provide you assistance. They want to play the heroic role in your story. And of course you couldn't be happier to give it to them.
It's seldom easy, and sometimes it isn't fun, but it's always worth it. I took shelter from hail under a bridge, rained on, covered in mud, sunburned, spent a night in Yellowstone curled in a ball to stay warm, and got a rather sore rear, and I wouldn't take back a moment of it. You simply can't know until you do it what it feels like to bike a mountain range, struggle and strain, fight a wind storm, reach a pass of close to 10,000 feet (9666, I'll never forget), be surrounded by snow in the Summer, and then finally get to spend all that potential energy karma you've accumulated, as you rush down a canyon at crazy speeds, your hands numb on the bars. It's something you've earned, purely yours, simple physics, coming up and then coming down, and it is satisfaction and fulfilment I've never felt before. You earn every mile. You have a machine to make your energy use more efficient, but there's no dead dinosaur fuel involved; it's all you. And that makes bike touring a whole other animal from other forms of travel. The distances are more real, the effort makes the sights more incredible, you are truly exposed to the elements and to actual troubles outside a safe metal box, and people respond to you in a whole other way (usually with a mix of respect and thinking you're crazy). It's like living in another world.
You realize how little you need. Every item you carry is a burden that you are lugging around, and that puts it in a whole other perspective. You need to eat, sleep, hydrate, keep well, stay warm, and maintain your equipment, and everything else is really just excess isn't it? When you can leave them behind for 5 weeks, are you really sure you need those sentimental objects? It's liberating leaving things behind and having all you need in a small space. And while I did miss television and video games and such, I'm truly amazed by how much I really didn't. My phone, in the limited times I was in the position for such, met all my electronic entertainment needs. There's a simple joy to a life governed by food, sleep, and covering the distance to get it. Goodness, showers and beds feel so much better and food tastes so much better, it's like appreciating it for the first time all over again.
Almost anyone can do it. I witnessed firsthand and heard tales of people of all ages, shapes, gender, and background picking up their lives and going bike touring. Generally it's the young and old, the in betweens, those not yet in a career or those already done, but there are certainly exceptions. The barriers holding people back are mostly illusory, artificial, or self-imposed. ...Of course there's nothing wrong with the sensible decision not to get on your bike and go, and there is something to be said for good planning, but there's a lot waiting to happen if you pull the trigger.
And the road does provide. One way or another. Through great people you meet, sights you see, good times, and through hard times and trial, you don't always get what you want, but there does seem a way of you finding what you need.
My next, and likely last for some time, post will be a list of my personal advice for anyone who wants to bike tour (i.e. how not to be as dumb as I was).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

End of the Road

Yesterday was an amazing, eventful end to my long journey. It had everything, some more of that dreaded headwind, threat of rain, gorgeous scenery, rocky roads, mountains, interstate, a wild ride down, an incredible sense of triumph... It was such a great feeling biking into Seattle, and then meeting up with my good friend, Erin, and knowing that I had really made it.

I woke up later than I had planned; it was nearly 7:00. And I then rushed to get ready for my big, final day. Thankfully it had barely sprinkled in the night so there wasn't much cleaning of equipment that needed done before things could be packed. Having gotten spoiled by having hosts so much of the time, it was a little disappointing eating an entirely dry breakfast (the ever constant poptarts, and a mix of cereal, nuts, and gardettos I made). But it was made better knowing I would be eating real food soon.

I set out in good spirits for my final day, as I headed for what is alternatively called the Iron Horse or the John Wayne Trail. ...My mood quickly dropped though as soon as I actually got on said "trail". Just getting on it was enough of an annoyance, as there are large gates over the trail entrances to block off vehicles from getting on...but which also happen to be a real pain to sneak a bike hauling a trailer through. And then all my worries about being on a gravel trail were met and exceeded as it turned out not only to be generally poorly packed, but at some places to be more rock than gravel. And we're talking some big damn dangerous rocks here. As I ventured out on that trail, trailer feeling like it might rattle apart, slowed way down, going away from signal and civilization for a time, I really questioned if I would make it. That's some of the roughest sections of trail I've ever been on. At one point I actually made my way down a steep, rocky incline that I had to carry my bike and hold back my trailer not to come crashing down, just so I could be on a pothole covered gravel car road that ran parallel to the trail for a ways, because that was a huge improvement. And if it weren't tough enough, the trail has long, dark, creepy tunnels illuminated only by the entrances on either side, where you can't see that rocky uncertain ground once you're toward the center. It's a gorgeous trail, it really is, but even on a mountain bike, it's bad going hauling a trailer.

So I got off the Iron Horse, John Wayne, Dreadful, whatever you want to call it, trail as soon as I could. I had the option to stay on and take the Snoqualmie Tunnel to probably not have to climb up the whole way to the pass, or take a decently steep road (the interstate is closed at that section to bicyclists for construction). I chose the climb. Mountains are at least the devil I know, and by now, I've had to do so very much worse than the rise to Snoqualmie Pass. I then got on the interstate as soon as I could, and stayed on it as long as I could, much of it a fun ride down the slope (spending all my potential energy karma on the way to sea level). Of course, the closer and closer I got to Seattle, the interstate became scarier and scarier to be on. And I was more than ready to get off at Issaquah when the sign said I had to.

At a gas station there I texted Erin and let her know I was going to make it into Seattle in just a couple hours, with less than 20 miles to go. ...It took me longer than I thought it would. Navigation was tricky, stop lights were frequent, hills were surprisingly intense, plenty of delays for that short stretch. I followed best I could (sometimes messing up and losing track of it on side routes) the I-90 bike trail that runs parallel to the interstate. It's a fun ride, though it has some crazy sections (one where you go up a steep slope one way, then back the other direction, and then back again, so you can rise quickly in a short stretch). But before I knew it, there I was crossing onto Mercer Island, then crossing a bridge again, an amazingly long, beautiful one, from Mercer to Seattle. I had made it at last.

And with a short, bit time consuming, ride through a little of the city, I arrived at the planned meeting place of Rizal Park, with perfect timing, just minutes after Erin pulled up. I walked up to her vehicle with a ridiculous grin on my face and triumphantly got to greet a person I know for the first time in over a month. Then after a big hug, with a little fenangling, we got the bike and the trailer into her vehicle, and just like that my bicycle vagabonding was at its end.

But the day's adventure was not yet quite over. I had a side quest that I had for us to complete. The day before, on the shoulder of the interstate between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, I had found a pair of keys that had a name on an equestrian and a YMCA card. Erin did an excellent job tracking her down to Woodenville, a half an hour drive away, and we set off to return them. With a little effort, we found a police officer and dropped them off with him to get to their owner. I regret slightly that I will never know how those keys ended up there on the interstate.

With that little adventure finished, we finally headed to my home for a little while, with a great stop at this part of the world's version of Village Inn for dinner. I had a great shower, a nice beer, good conversation, and then collapsed into bed (at some behest from Erin), way too tired for a real blog post.

I'm still adjusting to the notion that I've got nowhere to bike today, no reason to fear the wind, no need to make compulsive checks of my equipment and that I have everything, or any of that. I find myself alternating from being giddy at the novelness of it, and having brief instants of freaking out, like when I patted my pocket at the store and didn't have my keys...or my helmet, or gloves, or anything else I should always have when going anywhere. I imagine I shall adjust quickly, but it's truly strange at the moment. Bike vagabonding is definitely another way of life.

I will post again, perhaps a couple more times, to state some reflections on my trip and some advice for anyone who wants to go bike vagabonding themselves. After all, all my minimal research I did before I left was done by reading blogs like this one. I might as well contribute back to that cycle in my little way.

And of course, when I decide to do another trip like this one (totally eastward next time), I'm sure I'll pick up this blog all over again. Because as I was told, once you've been a vagabond it's always in you, and you have to do it again.

Finish Line

I made it. Too tired to say more. But the journey is ended. I successfully crossed the finish line into Seattle this afternoon. An actual post about the day's adventure will follow when I'm awake.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Anticipatory Nervousness

Today was a tough day by any account. My host hadn't woken yet by the time I had to leave, so I felt bad having to write a note and take off. Then the nature of the river and the roads meant I had to make a big "U" to go a short distance as the crow flies. Then despite receiving good directions, I missed a turn and went some ways before realizing I had no recourse but to turn around and go back. I got bit by a bug that actually made me bleed. In the afternoon as I was finally getting close and feeling alright, the winds picked up and made the last 20 miles much harder than they had to be. It was also an uphill day, and not to mention an 80 mile one (before my blundered detour). ...Oh yeah, and in the 90 degree heat I had a chocolate bar melt in my jacket pocket (which you may have noticed in pictures I wear like a kilt/belt for extra pocket space, and quick access if it rains), and it made an awful mess. Plus now it's going to rain tonight, on my tent, in my mosquito ridden campground.
...So yeah. Maybe it's a sort of serendipity, a way of assuring me I am indeed ready to be done with the vagabond life. ...Or it could be my punishment for pushing to the end. If I wasn't so close, I probably would have asked for a rest day in my posh accommodations after my 86 mile ride yesterday, before zooming off to more difficulty. But it is what it is. And the end does draw near.
Tomorrow. I can't believe it. I reach Seattle tomorrow (fingers crossed). I'm excited, anticipatory, nervous. It's only been 5 and a half weeks, but I've fully adapted to this way of living. What's it like to not need to gorge constantly to avoid starving? Do normal people not eat pop tarts by tearing the package open with their teeth while biking and cramming both in at once? What's it like sleeping in the same bed night after night? ...What's it like thinking about things other than food and sleep? What's it like going back to sedentary living (...okay, so I actually sit basically all day too, on my bike, but you know what I mean). I think I am definitely in for a culture shock of sorts, that's for sure. This is a way of living all of its own. And with one more hard day, it ends.
...But trying to live in the present, the today. This day hasn't been all bad by any means. I biked through the gorgeous Yakima Canyon. And at the moment I'm indulging in what I feel is a well deserved veggie burger (at a cafe directly across the freeway from Lake Easton State Park...and thus a considerable walk out of the way over a bridge) while I charge my phone. I didn't have any flats, there were no insane drivers, the winds didn't blow all day at least, it could have always been harder. In many ways, it was just another day.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Push

I came 86 miles today from Richland to Bleed (just north of Yakima), and it felt like every bit of that distance. The end is drawing nigh now. And as with every ending, as it gets close, it starts to take up all the focus, making you to think not of the now, but soon to be. I'm trying to enjoy these last days as any other days, but now everything is in context to how close I am to the finish, and I feel a little like I'm racing there, pushing myself to get to the end.
I was fed a nice breakfast this morning, with one of the best omelettes I've ever had, before setting out on my very long day. In terms of miles, though definitely not in climb, this was my longest day left. ...It really is odd thinking that way, about time left on this trip, with a sense of finality, rather than just going through any other day with a seeming unlimited number to follow. It's a mixture of both motivation and distraction. It's important not to be distracted biking on these shoulders in Washington. They're generally well paved, but the amount of broken glass, metal, and boards that litter them is astounding. ...There's also apparently some thorny plants. Somehow, while biking on the highway toward the interstate, first thing this morning, I noticed a thorn in my tire.  I pulled it out, expecting the dreadful sound of rushing air. But somehow, I managed to luck out. As much as I kept expecting my tire to deflate as I biked on, apparently the thorn didn't go quite far enough through the tread to puncture the inner tube. My hats off to my host from Baker City, Will, and the tire he gave me.
I passed through some gorgeous scenery today and had a couple impressive wildlife sightings. My ride took me along the Yakima River, lined by a lush canyon, quiet towns, and endless vineyards. And I was graced by a falcon only ten feet over my head before perching on a nearby fencepost and a heron catching its meal before my eyes in a marsh. I was certainly pleased with my view today. Even if I couldn't afford to stop to take as many pictures as I wanted.
Navigating the freeway here in Washington on bike, with all its various prohibited regions, is a little tricky. I'm fairly sure I crossed over some bridges today that I was not supposed to. Because they had no shoulder, and I was briefly on the interstate itself, racing to get off the bridge and back to safety. It was more than a little distressing. And being on the freeway where it goes through Yakima during 5:00 traffic was almost as unnerving as well, such that I was ultimately begging for my exit to the highway, and then got off the highway onto a side road as soon as I could.
It was a big relief to pull into here, home for the night, at the end of the day. I luckily arrived right as my host pulled in, and right before she left again, to head over to a family party just across the way (her whole family live together in this region, in what they call "the compound"). But she kindly set me up with her friend, another cyclist, to make dinner for me tonight. And when I got out of the shower I was surprised to find her at the kitchen table waiting for me. She took me back to her place and I got to eat a nice spaghetti with her and her freshly graduated (from high school) son.
Odd to think that's the last time a stranger will be making me dinner for awhile (I'm camping, one last time, tomorrow night). ...Perhaps it's odder to think how the idea of strangers cooking me food out of the kindness of their hearts and in exchange for stories of the road has become my notion of normalcy. You adapt to whatever you're doing after awhile. It's only when there's change that anything ever seems strange. But then change is itself the one universal constant. ...So is life always strange, and always normal, all at once?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Five Weeks

I have now been on the road for five weeks. It's hard to believe it's been so long, and so short a time. So much has happened, so many miles have been covered. And I'm almost at the end. There's a little over 200 miles to go. It's been a wild ride. And I keep reminding myself it's not yet over. A lot can happen in 200 miles.
I was fed a nice breakfast of eggs, home picked raspberries, homemade strawberry jam, and peanut butter on toast. ...I realize I mention the food I'm provided ad nauseam here, but one has to understand the significance of that food, that fuel, to the bicycling vagabond. When someone takes the time to make me a nice breakfast to start my day, it means everything. I was even given a cheese and spinach sandwich in a zip lock to take with me for lunch, and told I could drop by any time I was in the area. I love the people I meet on this trip.
I said farewell then to the nice little artsy town of Walla Walla and set forth on highway 12 headed west once again. It wasn't a stunningly eventful day, but it was a gorgeous ride. I saw canyons, a marshy wildlife preserve full of various birds, watched a train run beside the sizeable Wallula Lake, and rode along a really nice bike trail along the Columbia River. I even briefly, coincidentally, entered a bike race, in that their route and mine coincided for a short time. It was a good 60some mile day, easy going, more downhill than not.
One problem with Oregon and Washington opposed to Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota or Idaho, is that the highways are highly trafficked with few out of the way places to pull off out of the way and pee. If anyone had some notion that I've come all these miles without peeing on the side of the road, please allow me to disillusion you now. Of course, in exchange, in Washington and Oregon there's been a greater prevalence of small towns with gas stations to use. I follow a strict rule though, that I have to buy at least some token item at a convenience store if I use their bathroom.
I came into Pasco for just this purpose. I came into a bakery (it was closer than the gas station), asked to use the bathroom before buying, talked a little to the owner on the way, and came back to find cookies sitting on the store counter. The owner said they were mine, and absolutely declined to let me pay, saying I needed the energy being such a crazy bicyclist to go so far on a mountain bike. When I asked if I could buy a drink, he even threw in a free soda too. So, if you're ever in Pasco, give Castilleja Bakery your business, because the owner is a great guy.
After biking my way along the beautiful bike trail along the Columbia, I came to my home for the night. My host showed me around, handed me a beer, and left me to take my shower while he ran to the store. I love the openness and trust most hosts show. They really open up their house to you, mean it when they say to make yourself at home. After getting back, he took me on a short tour of the town. The Federal government did nuclear testing here for the Manhattan Project, bought and built the town as a bedroom community for its workers, built the first plutonium production reactor, and produced the plutonium used for Fatman here. The town seems to bear the history with pride I guess, calling the high school team the Bombers and giving out Fatman styled trophies. Maybe that's necessary to lift up that involvement as not to sink under the weight of it. I don't know.
There's what promises to be some very good vegetarian chilli, cornbread, and homemade wine, as well as some recorded World Cup, awaiting me. So I had best enjoy that, and then prepare for bed. There's a big 80 mile day to Yakima uphill looming tomorrow.