Sunday, July 01, 2012

Not a bad way to live

I love bicycle touring. But whenever I try to conceptualize what exactly it means to me, words mostly fail. Still, as I sat on the edge of the Mattole River soaking my shin during our first night at camp, an analogy drifted to the surface. Bicycle touring is like taking a hobo bath. You stand at the river's edge, skin caked in a paste of sweat and dust, wavering with uncertainty as the clear, cold water rushes by. With bare feet you wade into the cobbles, wincing at the initial pain of blunt cold and sharp rocks. Knees buckled, goosebumps prickled, you lather yourself in soap while absorbing the simultaneous thrill and discomfort. Your body is laid bare to the world, at the mercy of elements beyond your control. "There are so many more civilized ways to do this," you think. "Easier ways." With that thought, you take a deep breath and plunge into a swirling eddy. Cold shock electrifies every nerve as tiny grains of sand scrape along your skin, whisking away the excess grime. Everything else comes fully alive; you're floating, weightless, and free. For that moment, there's nothing more you need in the world besides a river eddy and a little bit of soap. The transition from civilized member of society to river-bathing hobo is startlingly quick, and yet so natural that you almost regret the need to come up for air. But when you do, you feel refreshed — a new person.

Yeah, bicycle touring is a little like that.

Leah and I planned this last-minute tour of California's Lost Coast and Humboldt State Park — last minute in that we sat down with her friend Dylan to map out a route on Sunday afternoon, and were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on our way north by early Tuesday morning. There wasn't much time to plan or overthink things. We just packed what we had, and realized we didn't need the rest. We set out from Ferndale, California, for a free-wheeling girl's trip that would be "four or five days," "maybe 215 or 250 miles," "about forty percent dirt," and "probably really climby." Dylan pointed out good places to camp at our projected mileages, but none of us took into account the fact that the elevation profile matters so much more than mileage when it comes to pace in this type of touring. Even with the supposed advantage of wheels, you can only cover so many miles when your heart rate is maxed out at walking speeds. No matter. We had our bikes, food, water, and camping gear. Everything we needed in the world.

We parked my car at the Ferndale Police Department under the invitation of the friendly officers of that little Victorian village in the Eel River Valley. We were getting a later start than we hoped, about 2:30 p.m., and were already worried about chasing darkness to the first campground, forty miles down the road. As we described our route to the police officer on duty, he cut us off as soon as he heard how we planned to leave town. "Mattole Road is steep," he said. "And there are logging trucks on the road that drive fast and don't always move over. And it's steep. But if you make it up there, you'll be rewarded."

The Ferndale police officer was not wrong on any account. Right out of the gate, we climbed from sea level to 2,000 feet in less than six miles. And not on a steady grade, either — the narrow road transitioned from fairly flat, rolling traverses to gut-busting, twenty-percent-plus grades, with nothing in between. Leah was riding a small Surly Long Haul Trucker — rigid steel with 26" mountain tires, front panniers, and a rear rack. I had my Moots, titanium soft tail with 29" mountain tires and bike bags. I like to think I balanced out my light mountain bike advantage by carrying the tent and water filter, but Leah's bike was still heavier. Getting those bikes up these hills was a real grunt, with an sustained level of exertion that felt decidedly punishing for a "leisure tour." But we did opt to take the hard way. And the police officer was right — the rewards were great.

For every thousand-foot-plus ridge we crested — and there were several — there was an equally incredible drop into the sea. Hurtling down seemingly vertical pavement at tear-inducing speeds, sparkling waves filled my frame of vision. Just when I was certain I was on the verge of splashdown, the road whipped around a hairpin switchback and flung me back toward the wall of mountains I would have to climb, yet again. It was incredible, punishing, exhilarating riding, that Mattole Road, made even better by the fact that we were pedaling toward bigger, wilder places.

Mattole Road dropped down to the coast for six miles. A stiff tailwind hustled us down the road at an effortless twenty miles per hour while we kicked back to enjoy the only easy miles we'd find for days. Whenever the route eased up enough for chatting, I often told stories from my cross-country bike trip in 2003. Much about our Humboldt tour brought back nostalgia from simpler times. After I mentioned that the trip from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York, took 65 days, Leah asked, "How did you manage that?"

"We were on a tight self-imposed budget, eleven dollars per day (each)," I said. "So whenever we stayed in a hotel, that cut pretty deep into our funds. We took hobo baths. We stealth camped a lot, sometimes hiding in the forest beside a road or sleeping in power-line right-of-ways. We ate a lot of beans, rice, and this terrible stuff called texturized vegetable protein. We mailed ourselves supplies via general delivery, so we also had to choke down pancakes that tasted like taco seasoning after sitting in the same box for six weeks. I think all of that is a whole lot easier when you're younger; I'm not sure I could stomach that kind of lifestyle for very long anymore." I paused and looked out over the waves crashing on the coastal rocks. "Still, it's not a bad way to live." 

We reached the campground with just over an hour to spare before sunset. Our day's tally was 37 miles with 4,200 feet of climbing — an "easy" half day that left us feeling plenty knackered. The A.W. Way County Park was fairly quiet on a weeknight, and offered a scenic perch next to a wide bend in the Mattole River, full of swimming holes. After the Stagecoach 400 left me with several unpleasant infections earlier this spring, I vowed to uphold a much higher standard of hygiene and a slightly better standard of nutrition on the Humboldt tour. We headed over to the river to scrub our chamois and take hobo baths. I soaked my sore shin as my wet skin absorbed the last bit of sunlight on the rocks, then we climbed back up to camp to cook dinner — pasta and tuna. We retreated to my tiny tent — a Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 that I had feared would be too cramped, but turned out to be a nice refuge for pleasantly tired bodies. I fell asleep with my Kindle on my lap, quietly contemplating words by Annie Dillard:

“What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face? Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.” ― An American Childhood