update 45: biking the west coast of oregon and california12 October 2009
Total distance cycled: 62,936 kms/ 39,582 miles
– Miriam Beard
coast to coast completed
17 states. 4,657 miles. 59 riding days. From Atlantic to Pacific, we had biked the length of the fourth largest country in the world. A moment to rejoice and reflect as we dipped our wheels into the crashing waves of the Pacific. America, my proud French husband had discovered, was more than just a land of cliches. There is no such thing as a 'typical American.' Encounters with diverse individuals, from New York intellectuals to Kansas wheat framers had shattered that notion.
To reduce the United States to fat people and fast food, Hollywood and highways was to do the country a disservice. Biking across America connected us with individuals as different from each other as the very terrain of the country.
Since touching down at JFK back in June, we've met all sorts of strange, fascinating and downright bizarre individuals. In the deep woods of West Virginia, we camped beside a family of rural Appalachia who--I kid you not--has never left the tiny county where they reside. In the hills of Kentucky we hung out with an aging hippie who's spent his life hopping between corporate America, the military and a new-age commune, growing illicit substances on the side. In Missouri, a middle-aged rancher on a remote piece of land opened up to us about his double life as a ham-radio hacker chatting with Japanese students and bored Brazilian housewives half way around the world. In arid Utah, we spent an evening barbecuing with a soft-spoken man who discovered motorcycle racing in the midst of a mid-life crisis and now devotes his life to competing in a sport where the average competitor is his half his age. In the flat expanse of eastern Colorado, we cycled alongside a pudgy Colombian immigrant riding a trike across the country to teach kids about perseverance and discipline. In the Rockies of Idaho, we encountered a hunting enthusiast who spends weekends tracking bear with his teen-age daughter. Biking a lonely section of the the Columbia gorge, we paused to help a weathered tramp toting nothing but a plastic garbage sack filled with his meager belongings repair a flat on his rusting mountain bike.
Throughout the country, born again Christians and converted Mormons shared their stories of abandoning lives of debauchery to devote themselves to 'serving the Lord.' We enjoyed a hearty meal of baked beans, potato salad and fried chicken with Obama bashing, gun-loving, bible-thumping, mid-western conservatives and dined on Thai curry and organic tofu with well-traveled, Bush hating, bike riding, environmental activists of the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, but biking America is anything but boring.
swept away by a storm
Well almost. The heavens opened just as we hit the Oregon coast. Rain battered us as we climbed and plunged our way along the narrow winding coastal road. RV drivers, indifferent to our plight, drenched us as they labored past and finally a fog so thick it enveloped the route rolled in a forced us to bring the biking to a halt. On the Oregon coast finding a low-cost hiker-biker campsite is as easy as tracking down a Wal-Mart in Kansas. That is no say as ubiquitous as bagel shops in Brooklyn.
The rain had tapered off to a gentle pitter-patter as we pitched the tent, fired up the stove for the evening meal and finally crawled into our sleeping bags. The rhythmic tapping of the rain lulled us to sleep, but by 4 AM, that tapping had morphed into an all out assault. Like novice campers, we'd failed to dig diversion ditches around the tent. The water was rising at an alarming rate and had already swept away my shoes which I had foolishly left in the outer vestibule. I clambered out of the tent in my bare feet and surveyed the situation under the feeble light of my head lamp. We were now camped in what looked to be a swamp. My feet sunk into the soft mud and water was half way to my knees. Miraculously, the tent remained planted in the ground, although it now floated on a four inch cushion of water. It was something like hydro-planing and surely, I reasoned, we'd soon be swept away in a flood. Eric scrambled to pack up our panniers and I bustled around attempting to bail out water from the lake surrounding our campsite. It was a futile task.
When daylight broke, we were soaking wet perched on top of a picnic table surrounded by our belongings. The rain was letting up and we did our best to pack up the tent and break camp. We rode south-- silent, shivering and miserable. The tent was drenched, our clothes were dripping, and even our sleeping bags were suspiciously squishy. I was ready to check into a cheap motel to dry out and warm up. Eric shot we a look of incredulity when I suggested as much. "Nah. We should save our money for checking into a motel when we're really faced with a hard situation." What was he waiting for? A hurricane to strike?
luck, karma or the lord
In the end, as always, things worked out. When we contacted fellow couchsurfer Brian in Bandon to explain that we were behind schedule due to the foul weather and wouldn't make it to his home, he offered to make alternative arrangement for us. That's how we came to stay with his friend Mark in Coos Bay. Now, Mark had just two days earlier moved into a new home. A lovely place with views out over the sea and plush white carpet. To his credit, he didn't gasp at the sight of two mud covered cyclists dripping on his front porch and appeared not to notice the pine needles we were tracking into his pristine lodgings.
Once we were settled in with the tent drying out in the garage and a load of laundry bouncing around in the machine, we gathered around a plate of locally-made chipotle cheese and focaccia, sipping Sonoma Valley wine and chatting. "So, you're friends of Brian. How did you meet him?" asked Mark. Hmn. That was a tricky question. Of course, we'd never met Brian. He was just someone who had agreed to host us when we'd contacted him via the couchsurfing hospitality network. Obviously, Brian hadn't explained the situation. Poor Mark was acting the part of the hospitable host under somewhat false pretenses. Should we just make something up? Tell Mark we'd met Brian vacationing in the Bahamas or cycling in the south of Spain or better yet, perhaps he'd buy the line that we were old friends from college? Finally, we opted for the truth. Mark's reaction was something like, "So you don't even know Brian? He's conned me into letting two complete strangers in to my house? You could be, like, ax murderers or something? Well, that's cool."
Then Mark dug out the guitar and started strumming away. An old Eagles song. All that was missing was the campfire.
racing through the redwoods
Riding through the land of the world's tallest trees, the behemoth Redwoods, humbles, inspires and almost frightens. This part of the California coast is rugged and beautiful and with towering redwoods lining the road, the cycling just doesn't get any better. The climbs can be grueling, but when you're rewarded by spotting giant Roosevelt elk grazing by the roadside, you know the pain is all worthwhile. Not surprisingly this is a popular destination for bikers, particularly in October when there's generally a window of pleasant weather sandwiched between dense summer fogs and the heavy winter rains.
Arriving late one evening in a hiker-biker campsite we found ourselves in the company of 23 fellow cyclists. More cyclists than we met during the entire two years in Africa. Between riders there prevails a deep curiosity and sometimes sense of competition. Where are you coming from? And where are you heading? How many miles have you cycled today? And how many tomorrow? Oh Africa. Really? Which countries? And weren't you ill? What about malaria? Were you robbed? Three years on the road? How can you possibly afford it? The conversation seldom varies and I'm tempted to print out an FAQ flyer and hand it out the next time the interrogation begins.
back to the bike
You might have noticed that we've been doing more resting than riding since we reached Montana in mid-August. 10 days with my sister in Maryland, a month with my parents in Missoula, a week in Portland and now more than another week visiting Eric's childhood friend Marceau in northern California. Getting lazy? A bit. But we like to tell ourselves we're just taking advantage of all the comforts the US has to offer before throwing ourselves back into the chaos of the developing world.
Another storm has pumelled the coast so we're holed up in front of the fireplace in a cozy cottage waiting for the deluge to pass. Watching movies. Enjoying some fine French food (Marceau was a restauranteur in a former life). And hanging out with an old friend. Weather permitting, we'll be on the road again tomorrow. Twisting our way towards what is perhaps America's most beautiful city: San Francisco.
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