December 5, 2020 § 2 Comments
The plan was to get cracking early in the morning and make it all the way to Sierra Blanca, a solid 90 miles from our Motel 6. Kristie had arrived that night and brought much-needed moral support, not to mention crucial supplies.
The next morning rolled around but we just rolled over. There were too many other important things that had to be taken care of before I could tackle another day of cold winter riding in West Texas. There are worse things in life than a day spent in a warm hotel when it is cold as fuck outside.
Once you get into Arizona the thorns begin taking a toll on your tube supply, and the thorns in Texas are not only bigger and better but they are much more plentiful. The tires I had mounted in Quincy, California a few thousand miles ago were now so thin that they badly needed replacement. My new tire of choice was the Panaracer Tourguard Plus.
Their salient feature is cheap, with add-ons that include thick and puncture-resistant. Baby Seal at the Dropout Cyclery had found a pair and sent them out with Kristie.
“Let’s go see the city,” I said, after getting the tires mounted. “But first let’s go have some genuine Texas huevos rancheros.”
“How are they different from California huevos rancheros?”
“Have you ever seen a paper airplane?”
“Have you ever seen a jumbo jet airplane?”
“That’s the difference.”
Her skepticism was palpable until the waitress slid a massive plate of huevos rancheros with fresh tortillas under her nose. She took a bite. All of the blood ran into her face. She began to sweat. A giant smile of disbelief crept over her face. “These are fucking unbelievable,” she said.
In a few moments her plate was spotless and she was aggressively licking her fork and spoon. “I guess you liked them,” I said.
In order to compensate for the 4000-kcal breakfast we decided we should take a quick tour of the city. Somehow we wound up on the freeway paralleling the border. You can see how much America fears and hates Mexico when you look at the border wall. It is more vicious and nasty and hostile and hateful than anything the East Germans ever built.
Kristie immediately punctured as we pedaled alongside the semi tractor-trailers who were honking, flipping us off, and otherwise treating us with the respect that bicyclists in Texas are entitled to. “Was there a special reason you went with those Butterpat tires?” I asked.
She wasn’t very happy. “I’m demo- ing them.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, since you have flatted twice in 5 miles and we have 300 miles on the menu over the next couple of days, my calculation is that we will need approximately 120 inner tubes to make the ride. I’m not sure my backpack has space for that many. I have an idea.”
“What if we find a bicycle store and buy some new tires that are actually made for riding on the road?”
“But these are made for riding on the road.”
“I know. Technically, everything is. But there is this funny lettering on the sidewall that says ‘Gravel King’ which makes me think that perhaps they were designed for riding, you know, on gravel.”
“But I already spent over $60 on these things. It’s ridiculous to have to spend more money on more new tires when I already have new tires.”
“That’s okay. I’m independently wealthy and have a vast network of blog subscribers each of whom pays me $2.99 a month. After we get your new tires, new tire levers, new CO2 cartridges, and new tubes, I will only need to get another 300 subscribers to offset the cost.”
“When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad. How many subscribers do you have now?
“Well, you do like challenges.”
We found the bicycle shop after riding a few more miles by which I mean ten. They were very happy to see us because we obviously didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. “So you need tires?”
“Okay. So what did you have in mind?”
“Well her tires aren’t holding up very well on the road so we were hoping to get something that would be more of, you know, a road tire.”
The man looked at the tires. “Well, these are Gravel Kings. That means they are for primarily riding on gravel. Not for riding on the road.”
“I see,” I said, looking like an idiot.
“Yes, a soft tire like this is not suitable for riding somewhere like West Texas where there is a lot of chip and seal road surface and especially where there are so many goatheads. If you ride these tires for very long out here you will get a lot of flats. Do you see where it says ‘Gravel King’? This means they are primarily gravel tires. Are you familiar with gravel riding?”
“I think I know someone who did it one time.”
The man looked at me funny. “Gravel riding is for riding on gravel, it’s not the same as riding on the road. That’s why it says ‘gravel’ on the tire. Perhaps you’d like some road tires?”
On the way back to the hotel we got hungry again so we stopped at a place called Good Coffee. I ordered chicken mole and Kristie ordered what every gringo in every Mexican restaurant orders, chicken enchiladas. Green sauce of course. It was delicious and we ate until we felt really sick.
The weather forecast didn’t look great but since I had spent all of my money on tires there was no chance of holing up for another day at the Motel 6. I picked up some oatmeal at the grocery store and we began packing up for an early departure tomorrow. In earnest.
December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments
85 Miles in 6 1/2 hours. That is as fast as I have ever gone bicycle touring. When you eat a bunch of food, sleep under a roof, and crack your head on the pavement, it makes things go better. That is empirical.
I had a long, fast, freezing downhill for the first 9 miles followed by a bitter, slow, freezing 3-mile climb. Over the climb I dropped down onto ” The Flats” which took me all the way to the Rio Grande. That 15 miles or so to Caballo had a killing crosswind to go with it, free of charge.
From Caballo I headed south and the sidewind became a huge 20 mile an hour tailwind. Sweet, I thought, I am going to knock out the remaining 50 miles in no time at all. Somehow, a tailwind makes you forget about 30° temperatures.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, probably sometime around Hatch, but the howling tailwind magically became a howling headwind with 36 miles left to pedal. While I was tanking up on ice cream and Gatorade, sitting on the sidewalk in the sunshine, the soda pop delivery man came by and put his dolly in the truck.
Are you cold, he asked.
No, I said. It feels pretty good sitting here in the sunshine. How many miles do you drive in a day?
I have no idea. I work 10 to 12 hours a day.
That must be some good overtime, I said.
He laughed ruefully. We don’t get overtime, we just get a salary.
That’s fucked up, I said. How can they not pay you overtime?
I don’t know, he said. Somehow or other they don’t.
Are you guys union? I ask.
No. The company told us that if we were union and we went on strike the union only pays $100. I couldn’t live on $100.
The company is lying to you. If you had a union you would have an hourly wage and they would have to pay you overtime and you’d make at least double what you’re making right now is my guess.
Yeah, he said. The company she doesn’t like unions. Hey man are you thirsty?
No, I’m okay. I just had this Gatorade.
Maybe so, but you’re gonna be thirsty out here, take a couple of these. He handed me two more.
Hey man, thanks, I said. You don’t have to do that.
No, but I want to. You have a good day and I hope you arrive safely, wherever you’re going.
He drove away and I stowed the two drinks in my backpack. It was a good feeling, having somebody concerned about me, so concerned that they wanted to give me something to drink. It’s nice to give, but you know what? It’s also pretty nice to receive.
After leaving Hatch, I had to really fight the headwind. For the first 20 miles it was okay but then the ice cream and the Gatorade ran out and the remaining 16 miles seemed like they were going to take forever.
This part of New Mexico is stunningly beautiful. The skies are so blue and the terrain is so rugged that is a perfect postcard around every turn. Of course on many of the roads, which are straight for miles and miles and miles, turns don’t come very often. And just when you start to think that it is as mindless and torturous as sitting on a trainer, some extraordinary vista will open up and you will be reminded of the grandeur and beauty that is New Mexico.
With about 16 miles to go the ride became character building. This was a day when much character would be constructed, I told myself. After crossing the Rio Grande again I saw a man walking in the opposite direction. He was miles from anywhere. I turned around and went over to him. His name was Roy.
Where are you going? I asked.
That is a solid 20 miles from here, I said.
Yeah, I know.
Are you trying to hitch a ride?
No, he said. No one will pick up hitchhikers anymore. It’s too dangerous.
The weather doesn’t look good, I said. It’s supposed to drop down into the 20s again tonight and it may rain or snow.
Yeah, I know, he said.
What are you gonna do? I have food. The delivery driver back in Hatch gave me a couple of bottles of Gatorade. Why don’t you take them?
I’ll be okay.
Maybe. But you might not be okay. You might be cold and hungry and wet and thirsty. So why don’t you take the Powerade. Do you have any money?
I gave him $10.
Here, I said. Maybe you can find somebody who will give you a ride in exchange for a few bucks.
Don’t you need it?
No. But you do.
Then, with the diffidence that I have seen in so many people who are clearly in need but who are nonetheless resistant to taking help he said, well you don’t look like you’re doing so great either and I don’t want to take your last $10.
It’s not my last $10, and I may look like shit, but I’m on this bicycle and it will get me to Las Cruces in less than an hour. So please it’s a gift from my friend.
Roy took the money and thanked me with a sincerity that I have seen over and over and over since I started passing on these dollars, a genuine appreciation for something that is worth just a little bit more than a large fancy froufrou drink at Starbucks or a couple gallons of gas.
Those last 16 miles proved exceedingly miserable. I got into town and booked a cheapo room for 56 bucks right next to the freeway. The weather looked terrible and I was freezing by the time I got into my hotel room even with all my clothing, that’s how quickly the temperature drops out here in the desert at 4000 feet.
I wondered about Roy. I’m still wondering about him.
November 11, 2020 § 7 Comments
A friend sent me this amazing aphorism after I told him that my life plan was, over the next five years, to exit the practice of law and become an itinerant bicycle minstrel of medieval Chaucerian poetry who supports himself through blogging.
I don’t think that would make it as a corporate mission statement.
If you think it sounds ridiculous to read, imagine how ridiculous it feels to be the one saying it. And then imagine the chills you get when someone shoots you a quick aphorism from a giant like Bukowski to remind you that the magic is in the crazy, or, put better, in the fear.
I’ve written it elsewhere, but the great criminal defense lawyer Michael TIgar used to say this to his 1L students: “A trial lawyer is a giant mountain of ego teetering, terrified, at the edge of the bottomless chasm of failure.”
I had occasion to talk about this today with Tahverlee Anglen, who does a monthly podcast called “Bike Talk” for Warmshowers.org. The idea of a practicing LA lawyer pulling up stakes to live life on his bike was one that she wanted to find out more about, so I obliged.
In short, a lot of what we do in life is driven by axes of fear. In my own case, one axis was rooted in childhood, another axis was rooted in family problems, and a third was the axis of making it, of being successful, of fitting into the mold of a winner. With some hard reflection it appeared that each axis had led to trouble and hardship, for me and for those around me. Whether it was too much alcohol, a propensity for conflict and dispute, or plain old irascibility, my conclusion was that those fears were the source of my troubles and that they needed to be eliminated.
What I found when I started living life on my bike was something very different from what I had imagined. Instead of being free of fear, I had instead replaced one set of fears for the daily desperations of “Where will I stay? What will I eat? How will I endure the day’s hardship?”
Unlike the socially constructed fears of “Am I making enough money? Am I acceptable to those around me? Is my life a success?”, the daily desperations of food, shelter, and endurance were easy to understand and tackle. And even though each day the same desperations cropped up, I found that I, like all humans, was perfectly evolved to handle those three stresses, so different from the psychosocial pressures of status, job, social media, news media, and of course the car stresses of commuting from place to place in a vast metroplex like Los Angeles.
I also found this: Desperation works.
It makes you think and act in ways you never, ever could from the comfort of your home, your couch, your SUV, your bed. When your back is a few steps from the chasm, you push harder, you struggle more violently, you call on deeper resources than you ever can when the street you live on is named Easy. And for me, having to declare something as absurdist as “Watch me bike and blog and recite poetry all the way to my grave” is about as desperate as it gets.
This is a contrast to a guy I know who is an extraordinary artist. He has all of the magic in his elixir except the desperation. He lives on his parents’ estate overlooking the ocean, he doesn’t have any pressure to do anything at all, let alone paint, and the sum total of his artistic life at age sixty-something is a smattering of mediocrities–this from a person who could by now have created a towering, endlessly erupting volcano of life-and-mind altering art.
The things he could have done if only he’d had to do them.
My hero is Geoffrey Chaucer. In middle age, in the Middle Ages, he woke up with nothing. No job, no home, no family to speak of, and no security. He didn’t even have the possibility of a literary career, because those hadn’t been invented yet, not to mention the little things like literary agents, publishing houses and, oh yeah, the printing press.
From that rubble he wrote something that was known only to a few in his lifetime, but that, within a century or two, earned him the sobriquet “Founder of English Letters.”
My goal is hardly that grandiose. The English Letters have been found. The Great American Novel has been written–everything since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a postscript. But even with goals as modest of mine, there’s solace and inspiration in looking at other people who faced desperation and used it to create things that gave meaning and pleasure to others.
The moral? Don’t think the magic will strike you on the couch.
In a few days I’m undocking and heading east. It’s 2,000 miles to Houston and more of the same back to LA. I got ready to plan out my trip yesterday but after half an hour looking at maps and reading on the Internet I gave up. Who the fuck knows where I’ll be at the end of any given day? Who wants to chart a course with timelines, deadlines, safe houses, refuge, hotel reservations, and the security of THE PLAN?
I’m too desperate for that.
I’ve got a beef with you
October 23, 2020 § 6 Comments
We were really hungry and decided to eat our dinner for lunch. There was still a pound of ground beef from the pack we had bought yesterday, so out came the vegetables, the cheese, the pan, the stove, and the knife. “We can have oatmeal for dinner,” I said.
“I think the beef has gone bad,” Kristie said, sniffing the package.
“That’s impossible. It’s only been sitting out overnight plus a few hours.”
“It’s been warm here and this meat stinks. It’s bad.”
“Let me see it.” I took the package and sniffed. “Smells fine to me.”
“Look at it. It’s all brown. And I can’t believe you can’t smell it. It’s bad.”
I sniffed again. “It’s true my sense of smell is terrible, but I think it’s fine. Nothing that an extra shake of salt and pepper won’t cure. And meat always gets brown when it’s not refrigerated. That doesn’t mean it’s spoiled.”
“That’s exactly what it means. I’m not eating it. That stuff is rancid.”
“Then we’ll cook the veggies separately so you don’t have to eat the beef.”
“If you eat that you are going to get sick. You are going to be throwing up all night and you are going to feel terrible when we ride back tomorrow.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.” We got everything all cooked up. I was really hungry. “Sure you don’t want to try it?”
“I can’t believe you’re eating that. I can smell it from over here. It stinks. It is horrible.”
“If they served me this at a restaurant I’d wolf it down and tip the waiter.”
“If they served me that at a restaurant I’d call the health department.”
I dug in a spoonful and chewed gaily. “This is yummy. You should really try it.” I proffered the spoon.
“Please don’t do that. It’s making me gag.”
I kept eating. She stared at me, her horror increasing with each mouthful. About halfway through the pound of sizzling beef my mouth began to feel funny. “You know,” I said, “my mouth feels funny.”
“Your mouth? What about your fucking stomach? I can’t believe you haven’t vomited.” She had moved about ten yards away, upwind.
I chewed some more then put my spoon down. “I think that meat might be bad.”
“Oh fuck, really? Is it really? Who knew? What is wrong with you?”
I drank some coffee and swashed it around to try and kill the taste. “You know what it tastes like?”
“Uh, let me guess! Rotten beef?”
“It tastes all tangy, like when you lick the ends of a battery terminal.”
“Totally normal. That’s what quality ground beef always tastes like. If they served me a battery terminal in a restaurant, I’d wolf it down and tip the waiter.”
“It’s kind of odd that the coffee doesn’t make the taste go away.”
“Seth! It’s rotten fucking beef! You’ve eaten a quarter pounder of spoiled meat! Your taste buds have melted.”
“Maybe the Oreos will help.” I ate a couple of Oreos but they didn’t help. I sniffed my fingers again. “You know, I think you were right. That stuff was spoiled. I’m not going to eat any more of it. I don’t want to get sick.”
For some reason I could now smell it strongly. It didn’t smell very good.
“I’m washing the pan right now,” Kristie said. She grabbed it and went over to the spigot, and began scrubbing vigorously. She finished and came back over to the table. The pan clattered as she dropped it. “I feel sick.”
“Sick? How come?”
“The smell of that rotten meat has nauseated me. I think I’m going to puke.”
“I’m the one that should be puking.”
“Oh, bullshit. You’re the one tipping the fucking waiter.” She walked over to the edge of the campsite and bent over. I heard her gurgle and saw her veggie lunch plop out onto the ground.
“That’s gross,” I said.
“Fuck you,” she said. “I can’t believe you aren’t sick. What is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. But you’re right. That stuff was a tad gamey. I just wish I could get rid of the tangy aftertaste. It would be good in ice cream,” I mused. “But not in a hamburger.”
“I think I’m going to be sick again,” she said.
But she wasn’t.
“I’m glad we ate that now instead of later,” I said.
“We?” She was sitting at the bench looking green. “Why?”
“Think how much more spoiled it would have been for dinner.”
Beast of burden
October 21, 2020 § 15 Comments
Before I go off to Texas and back with my new backpack approach to bike touring, I thought it would be a good idea to do a mini-tour and see if perhaps this wasn’t, you know, a completely insane idea.
So tomorrow I’m heading up to El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara. My biggest concern is whether or not the 40-lb. backpack will make the ride unendurable, or if, as with my shorter jaunts, it really is a superior alternative to the conventional wisdom of putting all your crap on the bike.
My second concern is how well my parts will endure a fully loaded pack for 135 miles in regular pants rather than in padded cycling shorts. A buddy texted me to advise that the backpack approach alone caused him such grief on the way to Santa Barbara once that he pulled over in Carpenteria, bought a rack, and zip tied all his stuff to the rack. Others have questioned the sanity of even considering a long bike ride without bike shorts.
Of course the whole fun of doing new things is finding out for yourself what is conventional because it works and what is conventional simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. And there is the added twist that even when convention is right for 99% of the people out there, it still may not be right for YOU. How are you going to know if you don’t try?
Looks like the weather will be good and the wind won’t kick up until later in the day.
Here’s a photo of all my touring junk for the trip, followed by before-after photos of what happens to you when you start living on your bike.
Testing is training, training is testing
October 15, 2020 § 19 Comments
This was one of Andy Coggan’s favorite lines, and it’s true.
A big part of my preparation for the ride to Texas and back has been testing, both equipment and fitness.
One thing that road racers get right is the importance of weight, or rather, the importance of being as light as reasonably and affordably possible. With a touring setup, whether you have saddlebags or whether you go for the stylish/aero/badass “bikepack” mode, the whole point is to load your crap onto the bike and let it do the carrying.
Over the course of my last tour I concluded that this is really hard. You go slow and your back is unwieldy. On the plus side, pushing a massively heavy bike makes your legs stronger, at least if you are trying to push the pace to where there’s a bit of burn. But on the whole, the best comparison for a touring/bikepack rig is a donkey. Slow and steady. Not always terribly exciting.
This led to the big theoretical divide in bike touring: Panniers or bikepack setup?
I’d read about the advantages of both and had seen numerous setups on my tour. The panniers were convenient and capacious, and their only downside was the fact that I’d put a rack on my ‘cross bike that was unstable, which really ruled out using the bike for any off-road riding except the gentlest. There was a good rack alternative to the one I was using, but before putting it on I decided to get a seatbag and a frame bag, see how much stuff I could cram in, and then evaluate.
It became immediately clear that there was no way the seatbag/frame bag would hold all the crap.
Kristie, who had joined me at various times during my tour and ridden several hundred miles with a 40-lb. backpack and a tiny rack that held almost nothing, suggested I try the backpack route. “The panniers and the bikepack are both inefficient. You should put it on your back.”
“No way,” I said.
“No one does that. Why would I put something hugely heavy on my back when I can put it on my bike?”
“Because you’ll go faster.”
“Yes, you will. The lighter the bike, the faster you go.”
“The backpack will weigh a ton and make me fucking miserable.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Yes, it will.”
“The muscles in your back and abdomen, and to a lesser extent in your shoulders and neck, distribute the weight so that if the backpack is properly adjusted you will not even feel it.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You just don’t understand how muscles work. The most fatigue-resistant muscles in your body are your back and abdomen; they’re responsible for holding up your body at all times. Adding weight to them doesn’t fatigue them except moderately at first. They immediately adapt. That’s how overweight people are able to carry all of the extra tissue. And it’s why fat people are so strong. Their skeletal muscles have to support a ton of weight.”
“I’ve backpacked. Heavy packs are exhausting.”
“That’s because most people wear them wrong. They stack the weight high so that it sits on their shoulders, which are relatively weak and which fatigue rapidly compared to your back and core.”
“Where are you supposed to put a backpack if not on your shoulders?”
“If you look at a wildfire firefighter, people who have to hike 15 or more miles, often in extremely hilly and rugged terrain, just to get to the fire, you’ll see that their 40-50-lb. packs ride very low, with the weight as close to the lower back/buttocks as is comfortable. The weight sits on the lower back and pelvic girdle, the part of your body that is evolved to carry the most weight and to fatigue the least.”
“You really think I should carry most of my stuff on my back?”
“Why not try it?”
I dragged out my Chome messenger bag and strapped on my tent, pad, and sleeping bag to the outside of the pack. Then I filled it with my heaviest items. Its 22-liter capacity meant that in conjunction with using my seatbag and frame bag for clothes and light items, I could carry everything that I’d been carrying with a rack and panniers. The backpack weighed about 32 lbs. I put it on and tottered.
“This is gonna suck.”
We fiddled with the straps until the weight hung as low as possible, and as advertised, with every inch that it got closer to my lower back, the lighter it felt.
I got on my bike, which was now incredibly light compared to before, weighing less than 25 lbs. It jumped forward when I started pedaling, something it never did when weighted with panniers.
“Wow,” I said. “Where are we going?”
“Let’s give the Cove climb and then Ganado a try.”
“Great,” I said. “The steepest and longest hill in PV.”
October 7, 2020 § 3 Comments
A friend was over at my apartment one day about six months ago. By then I’d cleared out all furniture except for a kotatsu and a desk in one of the bedrooms for my desktop. The dressers had been reduced to a series of small cardboard boxes against the wall. I was sleeping on the floor.
Said friend was looking at my kitchen garbage can, a tiny plastic green bucket lined with a plastic bag from the vegetable aisle. I filled it up every four or five days.
“You’re so Greta,” she said.
“So Greta. You’re so Greta.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Don’t you know who Greta is?”
“She’s the little Swedish girl who stood up to world leaders and told them they were bastards for ruining the earth and leaving her generation with nothing.”
“That’s how you live. Like Greta. You don’t have hardly anything and you don’t use hardly anything.”
“I use my bike.”
“Like I said … “
From that day forth “to be Greta” became an adjective. We used it all the time, usually in jest. But on my life through the Pacific Northwest I realized that being Greta is a lot easier when you are on a bicycle, divested of the normal consumption opportunities offered by retail/online outlets, and more importantly, being deprived of having the space at home to store your junk.
It’s what irked me most about the RVs, their un-Greta-ness. Here’s a list of Gretaisms that became part of my life. Hope they stay with me forever.
- Non-Greta: Buy water when you’re out. Greta: Buy one thick, sturdy, 1.5 -liter bottle and reuse it forever. Deja Blue bottles were way better than any of the others.
- Non-Greta: Toss the unused half an onion. Greta: Stick it back in your pack and use it the next day. It will make your stuff smell like onions, and WHO DOESN’T LIKE ONIONS? Cf. Chaucer’s General Prologue, describing the summoner: Wel loved he garleek, onions, and eek leeks. It was good enough for the summoner; it’s fuggin’ good enough for me.
- Non-Greta: Stock up and buy in advance. One friend advised me to keep at least one day’s food on hand at all times, as if I were crossing the Sahara. I followed this bad advice for a couple of weeks before realizing that it meant weight and spoilage, the twin dogs of the bike tourist apocalypse. Greta: Buy when you run out.
- Non-Greta: Carry your conventions with you, for example, “I can’t travel without organic coffee made in a mini-French press,” “I can’t sleep without an inflatable pillow,” “I refuse to drink coffee without fresh milk,” … they are endless and wasteful. Greta: Jettison your necessities and the things that go with them. Instant coffee is fine, and on the days you have to drink it bitter and black, you’ll appreciate the milk and sugar all the more.
- Non-Greta: I have to have a flush toilet. Greta: Piss outdoors, and always opt for the Forest Service stinkhole poop chutes. Pissing outdoors is a huge water saver, and as long as you’re not doing it in your coffee mug it’s generally good for wherever you deposit it, inoffensive, and no one even knows it’s there. Shitting is trickier, but there are Forest Service toilets everywhere, always water-free and usually with gossamer t.p. that is economical and environmentally friendly. If you want to really do it the right way, dig a deep hole, use your hand, and rinse liberally with water. You might want to refrain from eating regularly with that hand, but it’s your call.
- Non-Greta: Don’t get caught with your pants down, i.e. have multiple clothing items for the same thing. Greta: One of everything, never two. Think you can’t live without two pairs of socks or underwear? You’re wrong. I jettisoned my second jersey and second pair of bibs early on. Never missed ’em.
- Non-Greta: Have bike clothes and street clothes. Greta: Use them interchangeably and cut your load by half. Baggy MTB pants work as normal shorts. Commuting long pants like my BetaBrand jeans worked on cold riding days and for being in camp, shopping, etc.
- Non-Greta: Bathe daily. Greta: Don’t bathe often, if ever. You get dirty and a bit smelly. So what? This isn’t a debutante ball, and people didn’t evolve in evening gowns, they evolved with dirt under their broken fingernails. If you gotta bathe, use cold water. It gets you clean enough. And the natural oils in your hair and skin are healthy beyond belief.
- Non-Greta: Lycra, polyester, even cotton. Greta: All wool all the time.
- Non-Greta: Cleaning with soap. Greta: Cleaning with sand. It usually works pretty well, but don’t make the mistake of trying to do it with dirt cuz you only get what’s called “dirty.”
- Non-Greta: Buying purified water. Greta: Boiling river water.
- Non-Greta: Buying all your fruit. Greta: Picking berries when they are in season as a supplement to what you might buy at the store.
- Non-Greta: Deodorant. Greta: Being comfortable with the natural smells and grit and dirt that accumulate from an honest day’s effort and not spending silly amounts of money to strip your skin and your hair of every naturally occurring scent and oil.
- Non-Greta: Makeup, skin scare, daily toiletries. Greta: Being comfortable with a face that looks tired because it has worked or it has been out in the sun, and spending less time and less money on things to cover up the way you really look, which by the way, no one is fooled by anyway. Because you are fucking old and wrinkled and sunburned and you have grandkids you old fuck.
- Non-Greta: Exercising for fitness, “performance,” and appearance. Greta: Replacing fitness, which exists to burn off all the excessive shit that you excessively ate that excessive time at that excessive restaurant for an excessive amount of money, with physical effort that is required to get you from place to place, and to allow you to set up shelter, eat, sleep, and do the same thing the next day.
- Non-Greta: Buying it new. Greta: Picking up shit that other people have thrown away that is perfectly good instead of buying a new one, such as bungee cords which grow on the side of the road by the hundreds. One of my best tools was a perfectly good green bungee cord I found on the side of the road in Washington, and a close second was an old blanket some people had fornicated on and thrown away, which I wasn’t too proud to wash, use, and keep.
- Non-Greta: Having the right tool for every occasion. Greta: Having a few things and using the fuck out of them. Using them hard, but using them carefully so that they last. For example my Fierce Hazel wallet. My Kershaw pocketknife. My SPY sunglasses. My pot and pan. Etc.
- Non-Greta: Haul your shit in a car, pick-them-up-truck, or junk hauler aka RV. Greta: Don’t own what you can’t carry. When you are the one who has to generate the energy, then you become amazingly concerned and efficient about what things you carry because nothing takes more energy than carrying things. I thought about that every time I saw a badass logging truck or a badass truck driver or a badass junk hauler, and reminded myself that all they were doing was being badass with the help of a primeval forest from hundreds of millions of years ago that had compacted into petroleum. On their own they could no more pedal a bicycle loaded with their belongings up a hill than they could shit diamonds.
- Non-Greta: Be fast and wasteful. Greta: Go slow and be efficient. Riding on a bicycle quite obviously slows you down, but the slower you go the more efficient you become. That is the paradox and it runs counter to what we are taught from infancy, i.e. “I want it all and I want it NOW.”
- Non-Greta: See America by car. Greta: Ride yer fuggin’ bike. At $.60 per mile operating cost for the average American’s car, this trip would have cost almost $2,200 in transportation alone. The annual operating cost for my bicycle is about $.07 per mile, or $252 for the entire trip. That is about 1/10 of doing the trip by car, and instead of running on money and making you fat, the bicycle runs on fat and saves you money.
- Non-Greta: Stay in a hotel. Greta: Stay in a tent. The amazing Gretaness of staying in a tent at a campsite instead of in a hotel, one of the most wasteful and environmentally hideous things ever invented, is beyond the power of words to describe. Starlit nights. The sounds of nature. Gurgling brooks. Wind in the boughs.
- Non-Greta: Stay at home. Greta: Bike travel is the best way for avoiding the covids and the antifas, staying healthy and away from crowds of people during a time when the population at large is spending huge amounts of money on mental health care, medication, alcohol, alcohol, and more alcohols. Oh, and self-medicating with food.
You can Greta. You CAN!
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The multiplicity of things
October 5, 2020 § 10 Comments
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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The unexecuted life is not worth examining
August 4, 2020 § 11 Comments
When I was young and enamored of philosophy, I turned over again and again Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living.
I got older and put away childish things such as philosophy, and instead took up adult activities such as bicycles concomitant with the duties of adulthood, by which I simply mean “job.”
Job subsumed everything for over thirty years, even though the type of job itself changed. Job was a giant duty umbrella, a love-blocking parasol of responsibility painted in the dull green of money. Under that umbrella life thrived, things grew, and the troubling musings of philosophy, when they dared pop up, were doused with Round-Up, mercilessly weeded, and tossed out from under the protective shade of money.
Throughout those decades of job I would sometimes find my way back to philosophy, directly or by circuit. One year in Japan, I believe it was 1995, I emailed my old mentor Ed Allaire, philosophy professor nonpareil, and we had a short exchange.
“What is philosophy, though?” I asked him in one of our emails.
“That is a silly question,” he said.
Our exchange died a painless death shortly thereafter, but his few words stayed with me down the years, those just quoted, and these, reflections on the death of his parents: “They have been gone so long that the torments they inflicted only vaguely trouble me now.”
Also in, let’s say 1995, I discovered Chaucer, and then found his words again on or about January 28, 2019, the day, driving to the airport, that I tried to dredge up what bits and pieces of The Miller’s Tale that I had memorized during long and solitary bike rides throughout northern Japan.
Chaucer was a poet, which of all practices Socrates held higher than philosophy because he realized that it came from inspiration. In English, “inspire” of course means “to breathe into.” Into the poet was breathed the word. From where?
Chaucer, as all poets dabbled in philosophy, kind of my perfect mix, the soft porn of intellectual pursuit. A little hard work, lots of gentleness and beauty. And as I’ve ridden my bike up the west coast, reciting for hours on end the few thousand lines of Chaucer committed to memory, I’ve been able to turn them over and examine them in a way that I could never have done cloistered in a library or at home, in a nook with a book.
For example, “Who may ben a fool but if he love?”
Who, indeed? Nor is this insight limited to the 14th Century. Son House, the singer and guitar player of the 1930’s, put it this way: “Love make you do things you don’t wanna do.”
Throughout the cascade of our genome we have been made fools, we have done things we don’t wanna do, and we don’t know why. Put another way, physics doesn’t care about your emotions. You will cast aside everything you have, you will willingly throw away your life, you will plunge into any abyss for love.
The pleas of those you care most for, the reviling of society, the loss of all standing, regard, possessions, health, and outlook for the future will at a moment’s notice find themselves on the chopping block if they stand in the way of love. Why should this be? How can it be?
Well, I’ve heard tell that the unexamined life is not worth living. So let me not throw that away, too.
But the rest of that bit from Chaucer:
“The god of love, a benedicitee
How mighty and how great a lord is he.
Ayenst his might there gayneth none obstacles
He may be cleped a god for his miracles.
“Lo here this Arcite and this Palamon
That quitly weren out of my prison
And might han lived in Thebes roially
And witen I am hir mortal enemy
And that hir deeth lieth in my might also
And yet hath love maugree hire eyen two
Broght hem thider bothe for to dye.
Now is that not an heigh folie?
Who may ben a fool but if he love?”
Love is above all a thing of physics. It obeys the laws of particles and waves, finding resonance and synchronicity in itself, changing, quantum, such that it can either be located or have its velocity measured, but never both. It is the cat in the box, the thing and the un-thing.
And love between two people is never a function of romance or passion, it is the physical operation of subatomic things that cannot be seen but that govern the movement of each other. Trickling up, we see love’s synchronicity as romance, passion, shared interest, a nap together in the sunshine, the union of body and mind, but those things are never unique to love and can be generated, confusingly, in bits and pieces due to infatuation or eroticism or any number of other feelings.
Love is profoundly physical in the sense of physics, but even so it is rare because in life we are so seldom free to seek our companion particle when we are a wave, or to accept our companion wave when we are a particle. The money umbrella shields us from the cold but it also shields us from love; cast away the umbrella and you are still unlikely to find love, but you will certainly freeze to death.
The thing itself is the rarest of rare earth minerals. We look for it most often in the wrong places without even knowing that it is the object of our hunt. Again, Chaucer:
“We seken fast after felicitee
But we goon wrong ful often, trewely.”
The moment at which the thing finds us, however, life never again can be the same. Love changes us forever, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the cat can never be put back in Schrodinger’s box because it was always both the cat and the un-cat. Determining that it is the one immediately and forever extinguishes the other. Seeing love for the first time eliminates forever all life that existed with non-love.
These truths are held to be so self-evident that mightily have poets, artists, musicians, humans of every stripe striven throughout the running hourglass of human existence to point them out. Each age has had to rediscover it, each generation has had to have its “Eureka!” moment, and each person caught in love’s tangle has had to piece together from the fragments of his past life what in the world just happened.
Lovestruck. The thunderbolt of love.
We build shrines to Shakespeare and a hundred others who tried to tell us that love is the great destroyer, the great leveler, hoping perhaps that the greater the shrine the more invincible we would ourselves be from the arrow, or from the operation of quantum physics.
In vain. Those defenses are pierced as easily as the bubble floating out of the end of a child’s soapy toy.
Despite all this, it leads to a place that isn’t any easier than the place it led from. After all this examination, then what? Was Socrates exhorting us to examine and then go back to sleep? Or, as he evinced in his own death, was he insisting that after the examination there must, for the process to be complete, be subsequent action in accord with the outcome of the exam?
Do you have the courage of your conviction?
Thankfully with love no courage is required; it operates on its own.
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No place for old
July 19, 2020 § 22 Comments
I have seen zero old tourists so far. That is zero with an infinity of zeroes to the right of the decimal.
I must have looked bad when I reached the kiosk at Bodega Dunes park because the lady said, “We aren’t accepting bike campers but goodness, I’ll make an exception for you!”
I was grateful beyond any words; set up camp, cooked dinner, and crashed hard.
On its surface touring doesn’t look hard. 50-80 miles a day, not that tough even with sixty pounds of bike. But throw in the daily uncertainty of where to sleep and what to eat, and suddenly 70 miles feels more like a hard hundred. As exhausting as it is, you come to realize that although people desperately seek predictability, we hardwired for uncertainty. In the same way that people can survive on minimal food but acquire “lifestyle diseases” from surfeit, not being sure what’s coming next is what we are uniquely set up to handle.
It may sound like a simple thing; that’s because it is. Nothing is simpler than food and shelter, and nothing more essential. So when those simplicities are thrown into daily question, something very basic kicks in. There is a level of mental acuity that accompanies the uncertainty of where you’ll sleep and what you’ll eat. Whether it’s good or bad I’ll leave you to judge!
Bryan and my friend Vlad Luskin accompanied me from Berkeley; Bryan all the way to Mill Valley. From there I was back on course, and it was kind of cool to be able to cross off Map #2 of the Adventure Cycling Map series, which goes from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.
The ride north of San Francisco is not a good one, or rather it is the moment you realize you’re not riding into any kind of new and beautiful place, but rather you are hop-scotching from one man-beaten area to another, interspersed with tiny jewels of beauty.
In Fairfax I stopped for coffee and groceries. There was a couple all loaded up on a 1-week excursion up the coast. They had planned a longer trip but had to cut it back due to the covids. I was struck again by that thing they had going on, young.
Throughout Marin County I was badassed by all kinds of racy riders. The ones who badassed me the most were those in my age group. One guy rolled up next to me. “How much does that weigh?”
“That’s not all that much,” he said, and badassed away.
The only person who wanted to talk was a guy at the coffee shop, Dennis. He’d toured Guatemala and Central America by bike and had a great broken derailleur cable story.
“Yeah, broke my cable in Belize.”
“Fuck. What’d you do?”
“Stopped into a grocery store and bought some fishing line. It worked like a charm for the rest of the trip!”
Leaving Fairfax the traffic was as dense and angry and Mercedes/Porsche/Audi/Rage Rover as in LA, only with narrow-to-nonexistent shoulders. Money acts the same everywhere, I guess. With about 20 miles to Bodega Bay the wind kicked up and suddenly I had to fight for it. The rollers were continual, some steep and long, all miserable and punctuated with only the briefest downhill relief.
Skeptical that I’d find a campsite I began scouting the roadside. A couple of likely spots were going to be too far to backtrack if I struck out in Bodega Bay. At one point I found a giant tree, pulled over, climbed down a few feet to rest under the boughs and away from the wind. There is something magical about peanut butter in the quietude of an ancient tree.
Two guys rode by, saw my bike, and pulled over. “Where you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Best answer ever!” Then they rode off.
As trite as it sounds, one of the women back at the Big Sur campsite had told me about meeting a surfer in Oregon as they were setting up camp. The guy had walked up to them. “I know where you’re going,” he said.
“You are going on your happy.”
She had said the same thing to me. “You’re going on your happy, I can tell.”
And she was right. This trip began because of my heart, not my head. Inside me, all my life my heart has known the course to chart, the one mapped in pencil and subject to storm winds, shoals, shallows, and horse latitudes, but my head has insisted on traveling by GPS. With each of us, though, there comes a time when the 1s and 0s no longer get you to the right place, if they ever did, and you have to go back to the old ways, when sunrise, sunset, weather, wind, hunger, the imperatives of the flesh and the insistence of the heart are what bring you safely into port.
The last climb until the descent into Bodega Bay was wind and reef indeed, and the safe harbor was a county park marked “camping.”
I tried for a bike campsite, but the kiosk martinet was merciless. “Yeah we have bike spaces but you have to make a reservation.”
“Does anyone ever?”
“That’s because bike tourists usually don’t know where they’re ending each day.”
“Another reason to drive,” he concluded.
The kind lady at the state park kept me out off the roadside for at least one night, but her warmth and mercifulness drove another stave into my slowly withering cynicism, the first casualty of any journey of the heart.
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