The Joys of Bike Touring from Vancouver to Mexico
Featured Writer: Patrick Byrne
2 – Patrick’s flat tire count
23 – Total flat tires suffered by group
1 – trip to the emergency room
15- nights spent at strangers’ homes
Gifts from strangers on the street:
3 tire tubes
1 bike maintenance book
And thus began nearly every early conversation I had with coworkers and friends about my “plan” to bicycle down the West Coast in September of 2010. As of August 1, I had no bike, no route, and no gear. But exactly one month later I found myself rolling my precariously laden bike (total weight of bike + gear = 81 lbs) down the residential streets of the Point Grey neighbourhood in Vancouver, unsure, for the first of many times during the trip, where I would sleep that night. Starting off with 2 friends and 1 relative stranger that day in September, I had no idea that by the middle of December I would find myself with beefy thighs and a mean shorts tan, posing for pictures with my father at the Mexican border having traversed over 3200 km, more than 1000 km further than the original itinerary.
What happened along the winding roads, smooth bike lanes, glass-strewn freeways, and rocky dirt paths of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, you ask? The answer, like so many of my responses to people I met along the way, is simple: adventure. So pack your panniers, shimmy into your padded bike shorts, don your helmet, and let me tell you a few tales from along the way.
As we left Lauren’s apartment that first day of September, after a hectic week of arranging to have our ‘real’ lives put on hold for four months, 3 trips to Mountain Equipment Co-Op for gear, some frantic bike assembly and maintenance, and a variety of last minute panic inducing occurrences (losing a contact lens, getting health insurance), we truly set out into the unknown. While we had with us a guidebook and a wealth of equipment, we lacked, among other things, the following: a) basic bike maintenance knowledge b) anything other than rudimentary biking experience c) fitness. The premise was that we would just have to see how far we could bike each day, and go from there.
We rolled (teetered) out onto the street, many hours later than planned, riding our weighted down bikes for the first time, trying to get used to clip in pedals and spandex shorts, questionably functional brakes and painful seats. After a few wrong turns (“We’re already getting lost and we haven’t left Vancouver yet!”), some surprisingly strenuous sections of coastal road after Stanley Park, and a joyful reunion with Miranda who somehow managed to lose the group for upwards of half an hour, we were ready to board the ferry and make the crossing to the small town of Gibsons. Exhausted after our frantic first ride, we lay strewn about the surprisingly plush seats of the ferry, eating tuna directly out of cans and warding off disgusted looks from well-dressed commuters with our impish grins and personal justifications that if you are carrying everything you own on your bike, you can get away with most things, a feeling that would certainly fuel many escapades later on in the trip.
That night, riding off of the ferry into very unfamiliar territory, we began to feel the first hints of fear that our general unpreparedness was catching up to us. It was pitch dark, we only had 2 functioning lights between the four of us, and we were miles from the nearest campground. We decided to take a sideroad that we hoped would have access to some open but secluded space where we could pitch our tent for the night, but all we found were walls of thick bushes and steep driveways lining the road that hugged the edge of the coast. Eventually, Lauren and Emma decided that we needed to take a more direct approach and simply ask someone if we could sleep on their lawn. They did just that and within minutes they triumphantly returned, showing us our very own piece of land on George and Jennifer’s front lawn upon which we could pitch our tent for the night. I was sceptical that someone would be so kind to four grubby-looking, sweaty bikers and in the back of my mind expected some sort of horror story ending in axe murder about to befall our humble bike team. But we were exhausted and quickly fell asleep after what would turn out to be one of our shortest biking days on the trip.
We awoke that morning to the shifting and crashing of the ocean lapping at the beach, and George, our septuagenarian host, rousing us from slumber with the alluring announcement in his thick Scottish accent, that breakfast was ready and that we had better get up. “The word of the day is marmalade!” he proclaimed. A good sign if ever there was one. As we ate a full breakfast of scones, ham, English muffins, fruit and yogurt, tea and coffee, and yes, lots of marmalade, we enjoyed not only a spectacular view of the ocean from the sitting room, but also hilarious stories about George and Jennifer’s richly-lived lives. I quickly realized that my fear had been obviously ridiculous. In fact, perhaps this sense of unfounded defensiveness, especially around strangers, was completely irrational. Through their unconditionally trusting kindness, George and Jennifer not only gave us a place to sleep, and food to eat, but also the confidence to trust in others, accept help, and to be generous in our own small ways. George’s parting words to us rang true as an oft-repeated motto for our trip (more often than not to justify impressive chocolate binges): “If you’re not good to yourself, then who the hell will be!”
The days rolled on and we found ourselves meeting other touring cyclists, fielding queries from interested locals, and attending to Miranda’s many flat tires. We settled into a rhythm: wake up with the sun, ride the curve of the coast, and tumble into our tent for 10 hours of sleep so we could do it all over again the next day. As our tans deepened, our quads rippled, and our butts ached, we inched our way through Washington, about 80 km a day. We felt strong, adventurous and unstoppable. And then it started to rain. And rain. And rain some more. After a damp day of thick, wet fog that settled on the road, making the surface slick and the visibility poor, we were eager to stop for the night in the town of Westport. Throughout our time in Washington, we had been particularly struck by how, um, rural, the state was. It might have been that most ‘downtowns’ we cycled through were populated primarily with buffalo jerky and fireworks vendors, or that 80% of vehicles that passed us were trucks with mangy, barking dogs in the back, but Washington was beginning to lodge certain stereotypes into our minds. I was particularly concerned with the large hand-drawn poster outside of a store proclaiming: “We love God, the Consitution [sic], and the Tea Party.” But as we pulled into Westport, things were looking good. Spotting a library as we rode through town was the first good sign, it had been way too long since we had seen evidence of literacy. We pulled off the road and alighted upon the “Totem RV and Trailer Park” where we paid $20 and were shown to our campsite, a barren patch of gravel in the corner of what appeared to be a parking lot. We set up our tent close to the chain link fence, having been warned by the owner that he could not be held responsible if an RV ran us over in the middle of the night, unaccustomed as the trailer park was to people in tents, not to mention people in tents who had no car with which to set up as a buffer between their tents and certain death. After struggling to get our tent pegs into the hard ground, we stepped back and surveyed the scene.
Through the thick fog (and the impressive stench of fresh fish) we could see in front of our tent a row of squalid-looking trailers, complete with stacked tires, overgrown grass climbing up the sides of the dilapidated mobile homes and hemmed in on the left side by the smouldering remains of a stripped-bare RV, the remnants of which were clearly being used by our fellow RV park neighbours to fuel an impressive bonfire.
My defences were up, I was clearly out of my comfort zone and once again felt the forbidding doom of impending axe (or maybe shotgun) murder. But this time, I was slightly more emboldened and decided to go talk with the people sitting around the fire, if for no other reason than to get a working description of my soon to be killers. But the people I had stereotyped so brutally refused to play along with my assumptions. We had a pleasant chat about life in the trailer park , how it was cheaper than renting in the town and that you couldn’t be closer to the docks where a few of the men had jobs. If you could put up with the hot water being turned off at 9pm, and the less-than-scenic view in exchange for being able to live with your family, close to your work, then what was the big complaint? My new friends clinked their beers, joked about our tiny tent, and turned back to their roaring fire. Turns out happiness can thrive where I would least suspect.
The rain continued unabated as we continued south towards Oregon. We once again found ourselves soaked to the skin with no plan for the night as we rolled into Raymond, Washington. Through some stroke of luck, Emma had written down the numbers of some CouchSurfing hosts the last time we had Internet access and one of them was located just outside of Raymond. We made the call and were soon on our way to Chandra’s house. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed into our new digs by Chandra and her 15 year old son, Elijah, and promptly given warm bowls of soup, the use of their washer and dryer, and glorious, hot showers. Chandra, we learned, was a bit of an outsider in Raymond. Her meditation and yoga courses were slow to receive positive attention as her neighbours were rather traditional Christians with a disdain for anything ‘alternative.’ Chandra, her husband and Elijah had also just returned from a 7 month journey around the world. The adventurous upbringing shined through in Elijah, one of the most confident and kind teenagers I’ve ever met. After an evening of travel stories, a movie, and guitars, we tucked into bed; our spirits once again overflowing with trust in strangers.
We finished off our time in Washington with more rain, a coincidental meeting with a man walking to Mexico who happened to be best buddies with a professor of ours, and a life-endangering bridge crossing into Oregon. But the border didn’t stop the rain and we decided to once again call upon trusty internet strangers to provide lodging for the night. Neil, a semi-retired track coach and guidance counsellor from Seaside, OR, was our host. With a ruddy face, a tireless smile, and a knowing wink, Neil let us into his home, immediately offering us full use of anything, “I’m barely home, so use my kitchen, garage, laundry, whatever you need, it’s just sitting there otherwise!” he said. After a quick chat about his own travels, Neil was out the door again, turning to say “Oh and if you leave, don’t worry about locking the door, 99% of people are good, and the others, well you can’t do anything about it anyway so you might as well trust people and be happy.” A wink, a smile, and he was gone. After five minutes with him, we already knew that Neil was something special.
After a brief respite from the rain at Neil’s, we found ourselves mentally and physically recharged. We were still fighting a chilly wind and began noticing a subtle change in the colour of the leaves. The seasons were changing and with nothing more than a sweater and a rain jacket each, we knew it was time to pick up the pace and keep moving south.
Wet days dribbled into sunny weeks as each turn of the wheels propelled us further south and we soon found ourselves posing in front of the California welcome sign. The moment was complete when a man in a beat up truck saw us awkwardly trying to take self-photos and did a U-turn on the highway so that he could take a picture of us all together underneath the sign.
One of the great joys of bicycle touring was how each day turned into a massive game of leapfrog. In the morning, we would pass another group of cyclists (most often retired couples), stop and chat with them a bit before heading on again, possibly see them again at lunch, and then have what would amount to a joyous reunion at night when we both turned up to the same campsite. The reunions were even sweeter when it had been days or weeks since you had last seen one another. In this age of instant communication, it was particularly amazing to me how information would travel up and down the coast simply through people talking to one another. When we came upon another group of cyclists, the traditional greetings were exchanged and we entered into a seemingly scripted dialogue: “Where are you guys from? Where are you going? Do you know ___ and ___? Cool! How are they doing? Where are you staying tonight? Know anything about the weather? How busy is that road coming up?” All the essential information was passed easily through the shared bond of being a hobo on a bike. One time in particular, I found myself receiving a hand written note that had been passed on twice already with exact directions for a particularly tricky detour around a section of road under construction.
We entered the majestic Redwood forests of Northern California and spent gruelling mornings climbing 3000 foot hills, and glorious afternoons coasting down along the beautifully paved Avenue of the Giants, winding our way through the thousand year old trees, never needing to pedal.
As we neared San Francisco, I began to have doubts about the second portion of the trip. Originally, after we biked to SF, the plan was to ship our bicycles home and continue to travel through Central America by bus, plane and foot. But my appetite for cycling had only just been whetted and I found myself realizing that what I really wanted to do was just keep bicycling. I loved the feeling of having a massive, seemingly limitless expanse ahead of me which I could explore by my very own power; in short, the initial pain had transformed into a desire, in fact a need, for movement, for rhythm, for uninterrupted journeying. In nearly two months of cycling I had become comfortable with the vulnerability and uncertainty inherent in never knowing exactly where you will sleep, eat, or even where you will find yourself the next day. I had started to learn the most important lesson of the journey; that people could be trusted. With this new confidence in myself and the world, I made the Mexican border my new destination and informed my trusty travel companions of the change in plans. Striking out on my own was something beyond consideration when I first started the journey, and now it was quickly becoming a reality. I celebrated my decision by purchasing my very own lightweight tent and shipping home 9 pounds of unnecessary gear. I was now self-sufficient from an equipment point of view, but fear of loneliness lingered in the back of my mind. The big change was coming fast and I resolved to continue the solo journey with the same spirit of openness, vulnerability, and generosity that had made the first part of the trip so life-changing.
Part two of Patrick’s story can be found at http://www.bucketlistpublications.com/2012/02/22/reaffirming-my-faith-in-humanity-one-pedal-at-a-time-part-two-san-francisco-to-mexico/