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Posts tagged ‘Reflection’

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.

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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.

Out of Oregon

Thematically, Bound South is an adventure beyond the shadow of a doubt.  If one were to write the book, it would not be a placid Walden on wheels.  A life by bicycle is not one of boundless mental reflection and meditation; it is actually a life missing its comfortable dose of autopilot.  We are overloaded with the sounds and smells of the world and the subtleties of the sympathetic nervous system, listening to the engines of our body and attending constantly to the biology of hunger, thirst, and joy.  There are moments of exhilaration; the car that passes too close, the lost connection of fast wheels in loose dirt, and the magical descents when your disc brakes can run cold in a wheeled emulation of flight.

Red Dirt Descent down Forest Service Development Road 60

Lest I give you the wrong impression, however, this is no thriller novel.  There are some moments of climactic choice; whether to take the ditch at the sound of an oncoming 18-wheeler, to take uncertain forest roads versus sterile and certain highways, and whether to seize the $1.88 tortilla chips in the constant battlefield of the grocery aisle or rather cede victory to the twin nemeses of Hunger and Budget.  Our maxim has become, “When in doubt, choose adventure and choose food.”  There is enough oscillation between meditation, exhilaration, and simple self-preservation to occupy the mind for a lifetime of riding.  If you don’t believe me, just get outside and ride your bike.

Camping at Cultus Lake at high altitude. Too cold to swim.

Leaving Bend was no easy task.  Getting to Crater Lake National Park was at least as difficult.  The most extensive and difficult climbs of our journey made each day a trial of our accumulated strength.  Holding to our word and our maxim, we “chose adventure” through the Deschutes and Umpqua National Forests, eschewing the paved roads off of the Cascade Lakes Highway and instead traversing some of the most impassable and spectacular forest service roads we had ever seen.  The Trolls were made for this, after all.  One only has to climb up to 6,000 ft. Windigo Pass with a heavy bike on sandy single-lane dirt to appreciate what we faced on just one afternoon in central Oregon.

Stopped and stood for a while at the rim of Crater Lake. Also too cold to swim.

What goes up must come down, and we earned every single vertical foot that brought us up to the wonder of the world known as Crater Lake.  Thousands of feet deep, Crater Lake rests as the remnant of a volcanic collapse from an ancient era, ringed by park roads and campsites closed for the proximate winter.  It was absurd to ride our bicycles over nearly 8,000-foot-high Crater Lake in late October, a blessing of a warm sun and clear skies.

Lodgepole pine remnants from the Davis Fire of a decade past.

 

We hope and pray for more pleasant absurdities between here and Argentina, such as the outhouse we used to cook oatmeal in when our campsite froze overnight west of Prospect.  Or the reappearance of my awesome tan lines.

Tan-lines too marvelous for words.

We ride on for California and continue a dogged but sustainable pace, stopping to rest and reflect in equal measure with our adventures and absurdities.  Why we ride will always be the critical thread that moves with us to Argentina and will one day bring us home.

The long road to Crater Lake over old volcanic ash.

Mind, Body, and Machine

Shattered.  Any cyclist could tell you that the adjective isn’t all about glass.  There may be other sports that share cycling’s terminology of physical and mental exhaustion, that understand suffering that would “ennoble the muscles” as Henri Desgrange put it when he founded the Tour de France.   There is something profound about the bicycle: if your running shoes tried to draw as much sheer effort as a bicycle can, you would simply fall over.  Suspended by a bicycle saddle, the immolation of your legs can always be arranged to leave you breathing, moving, yet completely shattered by day’s end.

I was steeped in a culture of road cycling since I started college, cutting my teeth on collegiate racing and the four seasons of Vermont dirt roads and New Hampshire mountains.  Occasional sacrilege had put me on a mountain bike during my years at Dartmouth but my heart was always with road and cyclocross racing bikes.  I was never a phenomenal competitor, mind you.  I rode well and hard and knew The Rules and the art of a group ride. I loved the sport and racing with all my heart despite my lackluster results.

No matter how strong you are, cycling humbles you.  There is always someone faster or a ride that is harder.  I’ve eaten my fair share of humble pie, my last serving being an epic 150 miles through New Hampshire.  Hubris suggested that this Alaska to Argentina thing wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  We’ve got most of the day to go our average 110k, meet new people, take photos, eat 5,000 calories, and set up our tent.  The third day of our journey was a very hard hundred miles in the mountains to Cantwell, AK that we began at noon.  We got it done in a little over ten hours.  Barely.

New life springs from below the burned forest

I knew this journey wasn’t going to be easy.  Deep down, I didn’t think it would be quite this hard.  Pushing heavy bikes through the wind and up hills is an exercise in constant mental toughness.  We are getting stronger every day.  Yesterday we had our first true tailwind of the trip with southwest winds helping us along to Vanderhoof, BC.  It was spectacular.  The three of us flew past farm country and pasturelands at speeds that rivaled a spirited road ride on skinny tires and race bikes.  A humming paceline is music for the soul.  It almost made up for the day before, a grueling ride of 150k to Fraser Lake that proved the inverse rule correct: once you leave the spectacular scenery of the mountains, endless rolling hills and winds conspire against you.  We had done longer and harder days already, but there was something profound about that ride in particular.  I felt beaten, even if I finished the ride like any other.

We love Canadian signs.

The intensity of that feeling subsided once we were taken in by an older couple who stuffed us with spaghetti that night and huckleberry pancakes the next morning.  Yet the feeling of that cruel brush against my limits still lingers and reminds me somewhat of human nature.  We would rather eschew the cold rain, the long climbs, the achy legs, the doubt and the mental stress of life on the road because it brings us uncomfortably close to the limits of our own mortality and nature.  Yet only by facing those austere limits can we appreciate the vast expanses of the little worlds between Alaska and Argentina.  There are corollaries in faith and love and family and life.  If we take the time to listen, there is much to learn on the road south.

Looking down through the Barrage Bridge

A Single Step

We recently met a rather gregarious man in the parking lot of a nondescript gas station just outside Houston, AK.  After warning us of the dangers of grizzly bears and Mexico, he quoted to us that, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  He asked us where that phrase originated; I hazarded a guess of Confucius.  He scoffed at both our educational credentials and our knowledge of history and informed us that it was actually Marco Polo.  Now in Trapper Creek, Google tells me that it was actually Laozi, the mystic philosopher of ancient China.  Wherever you are, gregarious man with the ice cream and the pickup truck, take note.

Last sunset in Anchorage.

This journey of many thousand miles has begun.  We’re on the long road to Argentina and enjoying experiencing all that it offers.  Our loaded bicycles weigh over a hundred pounds and we carry every single gulp of water, repair tool, change of clothing, computer, and piece of food that we need to keep going.  It is a beautiful, harsh, surprising, and challenging life of transience.  We revel in our intimacy with the landscape and the communities we pass through: kind retirees from Texas who share a few camping supplies with us, a man in an RV who stores our bear bags overnight, or another group of continental bicyclists on their way home.  Yet every morning is a leavetaking as we must leave to see a new mountain on the horizon.

The first flat tire of the trip.

We are in Trappers Creek staring ahead at miles of austerity.  Rain is forecast incessantly and temperatures will fall as we cross the most remote terrain between us and Whitehorse.  The anxiety and exhaustion we feel is shot through with boundless hope.  At the beginning and the ending of each day, we have one another and a shared vision and the capability to see it come to fruition.

After a duel of wits, Nathan let me take back a move and his charity cost him victory.

I can’t know what mile 1,000 or 10,000 will be like until I get there.  I do know that day two feels right and that there is no place else I would rather be.  Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, I hope that you feel the same.

Bound North

It’s been years since we first dreamed of this journey.  It has been a matter of days since our bicycles were built at Paramount Sports, our expedition gear was provided by Scheels All Sports, and our lives were fit into five small bags.

The thing you miss the most in leaving is love.  Our family and community has showered us with a powerful kind of love that is hard to leave and impossible to forget.  That is why we’ll come home as soon as our work is done.

We’re on the road to Alaska now.  Forty hours later, we will sell our car and take our Surly Trolls on the road.  Until then, we’re bound north for Anchorage.