Thirty-six days, about 1,500 miles, lots of up and down, a bunch of heat, a ration of cold, lots of people, countless cups of instant coffee, zero flats, one achy derailleur, twenty gallons of milk, and a billion or so stars … after all that, a fella needs a rest.
Oh, and death. Yeah, that.
When you keep turning away from the comforts of home, so much so that you begin to see comfort as an enemy, home as “a place to come from or go to, that you pray you’ll never reach,” that’s when you begin sloughing off the skin, layer by layer, and finally get to see what’s underneath. Pretty or not, it’s the real you.
In my case, what was underneath was tired. But along with the unraveling comes something else that Huck Finn knew as well as anyone, the inability to sleep indoors or in a bed. My recovery began at night on a pallet on the porch, staring fitfully at the stars. And of course it reminded me of Woody Guthrie and one of the songs that my dad used to always hum, “Make Me A Pallet Down on Your Floor.”
A couple of days later, Kristie decided that what I really needed was less “laying my head in a bed on her floor” and more “active recovery.”
“Let’s go for a hike,” she said. “I found a perfect campsite for later and want to show it to you!”
I didn’t ask whether it was going to be hard, long, and miserable, because walking with Kristie always is. The only thing I ever ask is that we not climb up and over granite faces, which is what she does when left to her own devices. I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m not going around knocking on the door, either.
It took us two-and-a-half hours to get to the campsite, going up fearsomely steep and sandy trails that, however hard they were to climb, promised to be lots harder going back down. This is one of the beauties of walking: All movement requires that some muscle somewhere contract. Unlike bicycling, where you work might and main to go up with the dessert of the downhill on the other side, walking applies equal misery equally, because walking downhill is every bit as hard as walking up.
“You did good!’ she said, which simply meant “You didn’t complain.”
Typically, she runs these impossible trails; what took me 2.5 hours to ascend she mountain goats up in an hour and a half.
The weather was perfect; cool and clear, and as we sat on the grassy knoll alone, so far from anyone or anything that “people” were simply an ideation, a gentle breeze kicked up. I made camp coffee and she whipped out some bananas and string cheese.
You probably know this about hiking and biking, but I’ll say it anyway. It makes you really hungry and the simplest things taste so good. This makes sense. People evolved eating things that tasted like crap, leaves and roots and bugs, and sour and bitter things with nary a shred of cumin or crushed black pepper to soften the blow to their tongues. Hunger was a way that the organism knew it was time for fuel, and also a mechanism to convince you that crap tasted great.
And what could be crappier than instant coffee and string cheese? Nothing, but it tasted sublime. Sancho Panza, my favorite traveler of all time, said it best: “Hunger is the best sauce.”
After the feast we lay down in the grass and napped in the sunshine until it felt like we should begin walking back down. As we got towards the bottom, Kristie asked, “How do your legs feel?”
“Exhausted. Sore. Tired.”
“Oh, that’s good. It means you’re in shape. If you’re sore the day of, you’ll be fine tomorrow. It’s the delayed soreness that’s the worst and the sign of being out of shape.”
I consoled myself with this professional advice the rest of the day, as my legs hurt like hell. The following day I awoke and could barely walk. “I thought my legs weren’t supposed to hurt?” I said.
“You’re just out of shape. But at least they won’t hurt tomorrow.”
And she was right. The following day they didn’t hurt, they were excruciatingly painful in places that no one ever gets sore: The area above my ankles. I didn’t even know that was a place.
A few days before getting back to Wofford Heights, I’d gotten a message through Warmshowers.org that a couple of Belgians were riding north and coming through town. “Could we camp at your place?” they asked.
“Of course,” I’d replied. Kristie gave them instructions on how to get into the house and when I arrived they were happily camped in the living room. However, there had been a few miscommunications that we had to iron out, which ironing basically involved them moving their shit outside.
They were 26, architects, and about as adventurous as it comes. They got to L.A. with a duffel bag, then started looking for a tandem on Craigslist.
“You’ll never find one,” they were told. “There are no bikes anywhere.”
So they immediately found a racing tandem that fit perfectly, bought some cheap touring wheels and a set of panniers, and off they went. “We wanted to ride to Canada,” they said, “but first we went to San Diego.”
This is the kind of misdirection I love. Heading north? Then for fuxake go south.
Lacking anything besides Google maps, they proceeded to take the worst roads they could find, ending up on the 14 freeway at one point, and for one terrible stretch pedaling endlessly into a desert headwind out of Victorville.
“We were so hot and tired that we threw our bike down against a wall abutting an RV park in the desert,” Martin said. “We hoped we wouldn’t get evicted.”
After a few minutes out came the owner of the park, a drunken Ukrainian. “Are you thirsty?” he asked.
“Yes,” they said.
“Here, my best vodka.”
“We can’t. We’re still riding today.”
“Strong vodka make strong Ukrainian leg. Here, I give you water.” He went into the trailer and came out with two full glasses.
Martin and Mjelma sniffed the water. “It has vodka?”
“Of course it have vodka. But weak with water because not Ukrainian.”
After getting hassled by a pickup while they were on the freeway, they changed routes and ended up taking the Willow Springs-Tehachapi pass up through the wind farms. “We had difficulty,” Martin said with beautiful Belgian understatement, like Eddy saying after winning Paris-Roubaix, “I had difficulty.”
I knew. I had barely made it up that same pass on a bike, much less a 140-pound tandem.
“The next day we had more difficulty. Our base tape on the rim broke and the nipple flatted all our spares. We had just gotten over that big climb.”
He was referring to the 10-mile climb up Bodfish-Caliente Road. “What did you do?”
“We camped next to the road and the next day we got a ride here,” he said.
I asked them if they had any cycling maps, which they didn’t, so I gave them a copy of my Sierras-Cascades route to Canada. They photographed all the maps, ate all of our food, and cheerily set off the next day filled with optimism, confidence, and tummies stuffed with my best eggs and hash browns.
How can you not love two young people on a tandem riding to Canada cluelessly? How can you doubt that all you need in life is desire and will? How can you not smile when you play the tiniest role in some young person’s life memories?
This is the other thing about riding around on your bicycle. It’s a circle of kindness, only sometimes you’re the giver and sometimes you’re the beneficiary.
In my case, the penultimate day of riding deposited me in front of a supermarket in Tehachapi. It was late in the day, I was famished, and had no place to stay the night. There is a park that prohibits camping, so I figured I’d go there after dinner and set up camp when the sun went down.
Dinner in this case was bagels with peanut butter and ham, washed down with ice cream. I sat on a bench and spooned the chocolate concoction into my mouth.
A fellow walked up. “You made it,” he said.
“We saw you back on 90th and Rosamond. How’d you like that wind?”
“I think this would be a good place for a wind farm.” Tehachapi has about 10,000 wind turbines that you ride through as you climb the pass.
He laughed. “We wondered how you were going to get over the pass into that headwind, loaded down and everything.”
“Same way I get over every pass.”
“Keep pedaling. And cursing.”
He laughed again and began asking about my bike. I knew it. Another cyclist. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked.
“I was going to camp illegally but all I need is a tiny space to lay down in. Don’t even need to pitch my tent, it’s not cold at all now. Any chance I could camp in your yard?”
His eyes twinkled and with no hesitation he said, “Absolutely. I live a couple of miles from here. You look pretty safe. Not too many mass murderers eat Ben & Jerry’s.”
Mark texted me directions, I finished dinner, and rode over.
He and his girlfriend Chris welcomed me with a perfect place to lie down, a fire pit, kabobs, and great stories. Mark had been in the navy and was now a science teacher; Chris was a private tutor in Las Vegas who was also working on her search-and-rescue diving certification.
They both ran marathons, and though Mark had almost been killed when clipped by a truck a few years ago, he still rode bikes, though sticking to off-road. The next morning I made breakfast, packed, and made the final leg back to Wofford Heights. The climbs were hard but I had tailwinds the entire day.
Isn’t there some saying somewhere about “May the wind always be at your back”? Well, it was. And it was mighty nice.
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