I’ve been back in Los Angeles for a couple of days. Everything looks the same in a completely different way. I feel like I’ve been loosed on a trajectory and there’s no return.
Before I try to plot out the dots on the arc of gravity’s rainbow, I’m going to try and put down some of the things that struck me most while being out and about. One of those things is things, by which I mean this: In today’s world we have a thing for everything. Whereas the indigenous Australian left and returned on his 2,000-mile walkabout with nothing but a digging stick, the rooted American can’t do anything without the proper tool.
Bikes are so specialized that there is a tool for everything. No kitchen act has ever been consummated for which a gadget hasn’t been invented. And on and on.
But while knocking about on your bike you can’t take very much even if you’re one of those sad souls who actually carries a bottom bracket tool. The most heavily-laden bike tourist is traveling lightly. In my case, I was traveling ultra-lightly, which meant that I had to make do with what was at hand in places where the only thing at hand was a stick or nothing.
Having to have a tool for everything takes away your ability to innovate, and it prevents you from getting started because you do not have the right equipment. It’s the poisonous ending of Baden Powell’s “be prepared” motto. The irony is that oftentimes the things that are nearest at hand are the best and work better than the expensive, REI approved, outdoor item that cost $35. An ounce.
Example? The guy who sent me a photo of Tyvek insulation that he used for outdoor shelter in cold weather.
Here are some things I needed along the way for which I improvised, and the improvisations gave a kind of satisfaction that no purchase ever will, because improv is shorthand for brain work and discovery and self-reliance.
Bark lid: I needed something to cover my pan and usually used the other pan as a lid. But one night I was using both and really needed a lid because I was losing so much heat. Solution? Three strips of wide bark laid over the top.
Pole peg: My tarp poles have screw-in aluminum pegs that slot into the rings at the edges of the tarp. One of them unscrewed along the way and went to the placed called “lost.” I found a little piece of wood exactly the same size and dropped it into the hole, making a perfect little pole peg.
Stick poles: In setting up the tarp it was hard to get the right tension with the straight aluminum poles. Instead, I used a couple of long, bent, skinny boughs. The bent stick tarp poles were so much better than the straight ones due to the way they distribute tension, especially in a high wind. It’s almost as if there is something about an arch that has some useful function. Who knew, besides the architects dating back from antiquity?
Knife hammer: Setting up a tent isn’t really hard, especially since my tent could be set up free-standing, without stakes. But stakes are better when you can use them, the only issue is the ground. Sometimes it was too soft, with several inches of duff that made the stakes useless. Other times it was so hard that it bent my fancy titanium stakes. But most of the time it was not too soft, not too hard, Goldilocks style, and you had to pound the stakes in. No need for a hammer. My Victorinox multi-tool was heavy and thick and was the perfect stake hammer.
Cup garlic masher: Garlic was a key for almost every cooked meal, but garlic is a pain in the ass to peel. Best way to peel it is to smash it, and my steel Yeti coffee cup was the world’s finest garlic masher.
Feet for stomping: You often have to clear out your tent space as it’s overgrown with high grass. In addition to walking, clearing out a tent area was greatly eased by stomping. You can stomp down all kinds of shit with your feet to make a place smooth. Plus, stomping is old-fashioned kid fun.
Stick broom: Clearing a tent space often involved raking up all kinds of rocks, pebbles, sticks, and crap. Take five or six short sticks, bundle them together, and voila, broom-rake.
Stick shovel: Sometimes in order to dig you just need a big stick. A digging stick. Would someone alert the indigenous Australians?
Cutting board substitutes: I met some bike tourists who carried a real live, honest-to-dog cutting board. Man, those are big and heavy, but they save your blade and make short work of chopping. My only consistently hard surface was the underside of my two pans, both of which had ridges and were made of aluminum, so they’d trash the blade the minute you drew it across. Bark, paper towels, plastic, and even thick tree leaves served as a great cutting board that allowed me to prep dinner without dulling my knife.
Bark tabletop: Sitting in the dirt cross-legged probably doesn’t seem like the amazing luxury it was. But it was. And a few slabs of bark make a fine dinner table.
Rocks: Rocks have infinite utility, like sticks, and in my case they were a go-to for securing tent stakes and tarp lines.
Cap drawer: My big orange wool cap served as a great storage bin for socks, gloves, underwear, and other things not needed at the moment.
Stuff sack pillow: Jam it full with gloves, t-shirt, socks, and sundries, and it makes a great pillow.
Wet wipe pot holders: Wet wipes were amazing pot holders and could be reused numerous times. They were also great for cleaning my chain, frame, wheels, and most everything else, body parts included.
Plastic garbage sacks: As a human you generate trash and as a traveler you generate huge amounts of garbage. The dumpsters at the parks and campgrounds were filled with every manner of massive junk: Huge tent boxes, old TV’s, chairs, whatever. As a bike tourist your garbage is mostly food and a little plastic, but it’s still garbage and you still need to put it somewhere. Every trip to the grocery store included vegetables and a couple of those thin little plastic sacks, which later served as trash bags.
Chain lube: Used this for my chain of course, but also on my whetstone to sharpen my knife.
Branch twine: A couple of times I needed to tie the tarp up, not down, and was able to use a branch as twine.
Maybe none of these things are an especial testament to amazing outdoor skills or even particularly clever innovation, but each time I used something for the purpose other than the one it was intended, it added to the fun of the trip and proved that you don’t have to carry the kitchen sink on bike tour in order to wash the dishes.
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