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Posts from the ‘California’ Category

Highway One Diaries: Risk Beyond Borders

Bound_South is about the Americas in their purest form.  We proudly call America, the United States, our home; yet this journey forces us to see the long American road between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego without the tinge of nationalism.  This is especially true as we move to foreign soil and experience new cultures and communities.  There are technicalities such as border crossings and language barriers and entry visas; yet in my mind’s eye I see the Americas and all of its roads and mountains and oceans and people, stripped of political complications.  Give me a long road with empty spaces to fill our vision and kind people to fill our hearts.  That’s it.

Our last glimpse at the US-Mexico Border

These invisible borders have consequences that cannot be ignored.  The American media profiles the drug wars that rage across the US-Mexico borderlands.  We’ve lately received quite a bit of media attention ourselves, culminating in a Los Angeles interview with the Agence France Presse, one of the world’s biggest news wire services along with Reuters and the Associated Press.  Our story was picked up everywhere from Canada and the States to Brazil and Indonesia.

A great deal of the interview was concerned with Latin America and the perceived and real dangers that would greet us there.  This mirrored the questions of countless people we had met since leaving Alaska.  Our willingness to bicycle through Mexico, Central America, and the western countries of South America earns us a reputation for craziness; though riding a bicycle as far as we have is probably enough to earn the badge as well.

Riding through Camp Pendleton in southern California, we came upon a roadside memorial to a cyclist who had been struck and killed.  A jersey, dozens of water bottles, and various cycling objects were affixed to a chain link fence in memory of the tragedy.  I shudder when I think about the thousands of vehicles that have passed by us since we left Alaska.  Any one of them could end our lives with a mistake.  All cyclists are aware of this; you control the risks when you can, but ultimately it is but for the grace of God that we do not go where too many do.  David and I will never forget the most hair-raising part of our riding on this trip; it was on the Alaska Highway in the middle of the Yukon.  An RV rolled by us at 70mph while we hugged the right shoulder.  What terrified us was that the owner had forgotten to retract his step ladder that hung out the right side of his motor home like a crude scythe.

Never before have we seen so many waves, peace signs, and cheers from truck drivers.

Memories like that attune you to the constant risks that face us on the road.  We are not necessarily more endangered in Mexico or safer on a rural Oregon highway.  We don’t leave our brains behind at border crossings.  And we recognize in the pure image of the Americas without borders, there will be danger and beauty and goodness wherever we go.  Riding out of San Diego and into Tijuana, we were on edge because of all we had heard since leaving Alaska.  Yet we found that truckers were more friendly than any we had seen on the trip thus far.  Strangers cheered us from the side of the road.  Roadside litter and a more “interpretive” approach to traffic laws marked a clear departure from the rest of North America; not worse, simply different.  We have begun a long road, bound south through this splendidly different Latin America.

Highway One Diaries: Big Sur, Big Cities

Meteorology was left out of our academic preparations for Bound South, perhaps to our detriment.  Riding our bicycle every day, the weather tends to dictate more about our experience than I care to admit.  It is hard not to smile when the sun is shining and the wind is at your back all day (which we truly experienced for the first time in southern California).  I hate to admit it, but a strong wind and a cold rain can incite frustration, tire the legs, and quickly diminish the dream that underpins every day of Bound South.  It also doesn’t help when you’ve been softened by good fortune and good weather.  I’d like to think that we wake up every day reveling in the landscape outside of our tent’s vestibules, the beautiful roads and people that we experience, and the anticipation of what comes next.  For maybe the first time in the trip, forty miles south of the gilded estates of Pebble Beach, I felt a bit tired and insignificant.

The only significant November storm to hit California swept up north of Santa Cruz and whacked us in Big Sur on the California coast.  If you’ve never seen this part of Highway One, it is spectacular.  Spectacular, with a capital S.  The features that make Highway One so famous in the minds of drivers across the United States – the tight curves of a narrow road, the ribbon of pavement sewn to the seaside cliffs and Pacific inlets – made for an unforgettable ride.

Arriving, wet and cold, outside the too-expensive River Inn Cafe, in Big Sur.

Big Sur gave us a perfect lesson that day.  Torrential rains and 30+ mph headwinds hit us along the outer edges of the cliffs of Highway One.  It’d dispiriting to be cold, wet, and unable to roll downhill without serious effort because of the wind.  At the first sight of human civilization after 40k, we ditched into the warm lobby of a restaurant that was far too expensive for us and begged to sit by the fireplace and dry out.  We had been on a high after seeing family in San Francisco, but now in the empty coastline of California we were cold and insignificant in the face of all that was before us.  We had thousands of miles, seven months, dangerous border crossings, mountains, rivers, and seas separating us from the end and our ride home to North Dakota.  We lack running water, multiple items of clothing, the comforts of constant technology and contact, beds, incomes, and a million other contrivances of the modern world.  I thought about what it would be like to leave all of the danger and the uncertainty behind, go work on an oil rig in western North Dakota, pay off my student loans and try to find some more conventional route through the New Year.

Reverent cemetery passing on Veteran's Day near Solvang.

It would be a lie of sorts not to disclose this.  We aren’t stoic or superhuman; every day is a conscious decision to press on.  The road behind us is a sunk cost.  There is of course the pressure of our natural resolve against failure.  Yet daily we pack up our bags and ride into the sun or the storm, every day another affirmation that the road ahead is worth what we’re leaving behind.  That was true in Big Sur that day, it is true here in Mexico, and every day in between.

We flew through the farm fields full of migrant laborers and big cities of southern California.  Haste and a disdain for the stresses of adverse urban miles gave us plenty of motivation.  Beyond, the vast world south of the US-Mexico border called to us.  Rested in San Diego, we packed our bikes like we always did and decided that a carreterra named Uno was worth what we were leaving behind.

Lunchtime with Lee Saville of 350South. He joined us for southern California. We miss his fellowship.

Highway One Diary: Redwood Curtain

Our_days_with_Highway One began at Crescent City, California.  Lying just across the California state border with Oregon, it is a small little town that we skirted in the Jedediah Redwoods State Park before finally setting our wheels on the smooth pavement of Highway One-oh-One.  Within about a mile we shot (or perhaps struggled?) up a 1,500-foot climb on the coastal highway.  Our sweat and toil was rewarded with our first truly spectacular view of the Pacific.  Like all great roads, it would be easy on the eyes and hard on the legs.

Most nights we slept in our tent, as we always do.  Terrible phenomena of cold and frost were finally behind us (or so we thought).  We awakened most mornings to a rancher’s pasture or a closed campground and sat comfortably over our oatmeal in the gathering light.  In the high North Country we usually woke up concerned with survival, de-icing the tent, and counting down the days to a famously warm and sunny California.

Bicycle touring through a region is always a process of mutual transformation.  We leave few physical signs of our passing, but our impressions with local people and the friendships we form have some power to them.  The places we ride through certainly don’t mark us (provided we don’t crash into them) but they linger in our hearts and legs.  A few miles of sunshine and quiet road can reveal entirely new states of mind.   I hate to admit it, but the edge of toughness can be dulled by too much comfort; and Northern California was pretty comfortable.  We saw no rain or adverse weather conditions on some of the most beautiful road in the United States.  We got a little bit soft, acclimated to a new kind of riding.  Even now it is hard to fathom how we rode through the cold rain in the Yukon and British Columbia in nothing but short-sleeve jerseys and spandex.  In some ways I think we were tougher then, simply because we had to be.  I think a lot of life is like that.

All of California was a cultural revelation for us.  I think we first realized how different North Dakota and California are when we saw that we had just missed the Love Goddess Festival of Mendocino County.  North Dakota would never have a “Love Goddess Festival” and if they did it could only be during the month of July when it is warm enough for everyone to feel love again.  Perhaps I should not describe the culture of my home state as monolithic, but in comparison to Northern California I cannot help but do so.  Every few miles had us greeting atypical variants of hippies, blue-collar loggers, farmers, travelers, vagrants, pastors, and more.  North Dakota has its own kind of wonderful diversity but you have to look a bit harder to find it.  Northern California can be weird and wonderful and many other things all at the same time.  Yet the constant of kindness remained; we’ll never forget meeting Janet on the road, a cyclist out for a late afternoon ride.  We fly pretty fast as far as touring cyclists go.  We passed her and managed to have her stumble upon us down the road while we were looking for directions in the soupy fog of Arcata’s coast.  Within minutes she had offered to take us in.  We met her husband Barry who is an avid surfer, and that evening we were sharing touring memories over pizza and beer.   Amidst big landscapes it proves to be the little things that matter.

Hallowed Highway One

“Enthusiasm” might be too soft a word to describe our anticipation of the roads ahead of us.  Excitement for the next highway is always distracting.  Just last night we talked about the Carretera Austral in Chile.  Great roads are often proxies for the landscapes that they border.  North of California, the State acquiesced to Nature and placed its roads in the hospitable margins of mountain ranges and river gorges and splintered glacial-volcanic landscapes.  Builders of highways and dirt roads worked in the safety of the low passes and river banks.  Political lines were redrawn, roads rebuilt, and names re-chosen (Mount Hood was Wy’East to the Multnomah long ago) while the ancient features remained as they were.  The roads ringed them and so each new turn bowed to the new landscape that bounded it.

Nathan ponders a camping location in the Redwood Forest.

Highway #1 was always about the ocean.  As we rode out of Oregon it was Highway #1 that distracted our imaginations, bordered as it was by the same ocean that forced us southwards and will one day stop us in Tierra del Fuego.  Since riding through the Redwood Forests of Northern California we have never been more than a day’s ride from the ocean.  Yet while Highway #1 does respect the ocean’s borders out of necessity, it has an independent spirit and longevity that sets it apart from any other road we’ve known since Alaska.

Scene of the crime: countless burritos killed at lunch stop on Hwy 1.

Contrary to popular belief, Highway #1 doesn’t end at Tijuana.  Technically.  Where the United States ends and Mexico begins, so does Mexico’s Highway One.  In Big Sur of California, Highway #1 cuts across the cliffs.  Human engineering defied natural obstacles. It is spectacular to experience it by bicycle, with every sweeping turn made more exciting by the low speed warning signs.    In Southern California we flew through the metropolitan areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and San Diego with our eyes already set on Mexico and La Paz.  Now in Mexico, we have felt like our journey has truly just begun.  The vast majority of our journey takes place in the Spanish-speaking world, after all.

A different kind of American agriculture in the fields near Santa Cruz.

Highway One has a lot of stories to share from the Redwoods to the inhospitable Mexican desert.  In the coming days we’ll be publishing our Highway One Diaries, a short series of posts that will illuminate our ride down this singular ribbon of road.

Citystates of Mind

Communities of the Pacific coast are tied together by the ribbon of road known as US Highway 1.  One grueling day took us across Los Angeles.  We found that many disparate communities were shockingly proximate to one another.  The limitations of bicycle travel did not prevent us from seeing spectacular beaches, hillside estates, beachfront mansions, and urban blight all within a few miles of one another.  Cities have always provoked the human spirit with their visible geographies of inequality; after all, it was the hellish and urban factories of Manchester that inspired Marx and Engels against capitalism.  The landscapes of pastoral agriculture rarely incite our passions in quite the same way.  Cities seem to bring out the worst in humanity and yet somehow provide the structure for all of those terrible little demons to coexist so productively.

Beach murals.

Cities are here to stay.  The world continues to urbanize.  Opportunities and human possibilities abound in cities and usually cannot be found outside of them.  The spectacular and unexpected means of progress within cities is what makes The Economy of Cities one of the most important books to my personal intellectual development.  The city has grit, romance, rubbish, flash, and jazz writ large across its complex landscape.  In this city of Los Angeles and every other great city I know, I am hopelessly intrigued but also troubled.  My roots in rural North Dakota have bred a fierce and rugged individualism rooted in a supportive, tight-knit community.  I’ve been blessed enough to travel to some other corners of the world, with college in a New England town and terms abroad in Peru and the Czech Republic.  I’ve never truly lived in a city but I’ve spent enough time in them.  I know only what I see and I do see a city in my future.  Which city – who knows?  Perhaps any one where I can ride my bicycle to work and to get groceries and to escape. There is something disconcerting about that inevitability, however.  Embedded in the city are decades of infrastructure and regulation and decisions and history upon which the matrix of modern life is negotiated, for better and for worse.  There are car commutes full of angry souls imprisoned in speeding vehicles, ossified social roles and city cultures, zoning codes and permits and endless asphalt and city lights that sparkle to dim the stars.  There is also the critical mass of diverse people and passions, boundless opportunity, and the promise of progress and new ways of doing.

What if we could dissolve the boundaries between the parallel urban universes we encountered by bicycle in Los Angeles?  Can one shrink social distance and eliminate the dehumanizing anonymity of the city?  And can it be done while preserving the urban diversity and freedom that produces ever more spectacular expressions of the human spirit for innovation and prosperity and joy?  These are just a few thoughts that occupied our minds and our conversation as we crossed the great cities of southern California.

Our last campsite before the string of cities.

By The Numbers #2

We’ve now been riding for just under three months and North America has flown by. Within two weeks we will reach the Mexican border that will bring a great deal of change to our journey. Our diets are going to switch from peanut butter and pasta to beans, tortillas, and rice. Our typical lunch breaks will be missed, but we’re excited to move on to the next leg of our trip.  We are riding along some of the most beautiful coastal highways on the Pacific coast.  It has already been a wild ride down Highway 1 and there are many more stories to come.

In our last numbers post we tallied up the first month. In three months we have covered just about all of North America and have a number of things that we are proud and thankful for.  Here’s our accounting from San Francisco:

Total Miles Covered: 4035 mi

Longest day: 109 miles from Mt. Hood to Bend, OR

Longest streak of consecutive riding days: 12 

Laugh attacks while out riding: 3-20

Bleached eyebrows: 2

Rest days, sans rest: Hiking in Jasper, Cyclocross race in Portland, Building with H4H in Bend, and dancing in San Fransisco

Dance Skill Atrophy Index Score: 100%

Days ridden without rain: 27 days

Most consecutive days without a shower: 5

Average cost for each day: $4 per person

Days sick: 0 *knock knock*

Best pen pals: 3rd Graders from rural North Dakota (more on this later!)

Culinary Innovations: Campbell’s Chunky soup with pasta, ricotta cheese and potatoes

Best food splurges: Smoked pork ribs, Jenny’s Burgers, “12 Tacos for $10” deal at Taco Bell

David’s Role: The Sergeant

Isaiah’s Role: The Cheerleader

Nathan’s Role: Professor Pumpkin

Most Epic Campsite:  Treacherous cow pasture on the cliffs over the ocean, with unknown vehicle stalker.

Quickest Campsite Departure: 30 minutes after waking at 5:45AM from the treacherous cow pasture on the cliffs over the ocean

Habitat Donation Total: $4,140

Saddle Up, Cowboy

Inextricability is frequently misunderstood in life.  Contrasted with the wandering of the autonomous, inextricable lives are obviously entangled with notions of purpose, community, and continuity.  Many twenty-somethings fear the specter of commitment, perhaps not out of loathing for these principles but out of fear for frequent separations.  Yet the inextricable life is inevitable.  Life is an election that you cannot stay home from because you vote with your feet.  We carry necessary anchors with us through life and our bodies grow stronger from the movement.

Beautiful Highway 1.

Minimalism is like moving those anchors, not cutting their ropes.  Humanity drops anchor in wealth, homes, cars, relationships, and careers to name a few things.  There is an important dual lesson in all of this: the first is that we have a choice in where we anchor ourselves.  The second is that we have no choice but to choose.  I remember selling my car in Anchorage three months ago before we began riding our bicycles north to Denali.  That sudden liquidation of my trans-continental transportation left me feeling liberated and proud.  Do not underestimate how liberating minimalism can be!  But months later, the personal anchor of my beloved Honda has been wholly transferred onto the rack of my Surly Troll.  I covet and adore it with the same intensity.  Don’t fool yourself by thinking that you can live anchor-free; take it from three guys with nothing but three bags and a bicycle.  We carefully measure the inextricability of our lives by bicycle, always critically self-aware of our perceived necessities – whether they be your only comfy pullover or the heaping bowl of oatmeal we delight in every morning.  Minimalism forces you to confront and better appreciate your anchors of necessity.

Cool California coast.

Time compels us forward and bids us southward, away from these past days with family in the Bay Area.  Our cause calls us to our fundraising and other personal goals for this journey.  Inextricability is a daily rhythm that binds us once more to a road going south from San Francisco.

Reveling in the Redwoods.