To some extent, America is a known quantity to us Brits.
My sense of the country has long been channelled by films and TV – so, to some degree, I knew what to expect when I arrived in Portland Airport.
From my first step through US Customs (warmly welcomed by a US cop, complete with gun holster and sparkling policeman’s badge) to the sight of the Hollywood letter boards (as I rolled into LA), this whole trip was to be a satisfying tick-box exercise of all that I imagined the US to be. One by one I was seeing the real versions of all those screen-based myths.
My arrival in Oregon kick-started this theory as “Portlandia” (the TV myth) seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the Portland for real (or vice versa). Tattooed hipsters served me coffee, gave me cycling advice and offered vegan, gluten-free alternatives to every dish.
It dawned on me that I could probably have a very happy holiday just chilling out in that one city…. but quitting my ride before I’d even started would have been the betrayal of a steady drumroll that I had been building up for many months.
I had an adventure to get done.
On my first day, wide-eyed and fresh, I was enthused by every passing road sign, shop-front and vehicle: “Highways”; “Diner”; “Waffles”; “Pancakes”; “Gallons”; people carriers; 4×4’s. They were the US that I already knew – it felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend.
Actually my first day was a pretty grim route through Portland’s industrial hinterland – but I was far too excited to care. With a boyish excitement I was served free refills of coffee; paid small sums with big wads of single dollar bills; left tips; passed green and yellow road signs; and turned right (legally!) on red lights. After one, then two, visits it became clear that every diner would remind me of that scene from Pulp Fiction.
What soon became apparent was the extent to which life on the road had been so dramatically up-scaled. Rather than being squeezed onto the side of a UK road, I cycled, in what felt like relative safety, on a hard shoulder the same width as a full lane. Initially, I stuck to the main highways and, although the flow of passing traffic never abated, it passed with a cruising calmness I wasn’t used to – 40-50mph, rather than with a roaring acceleration nearer to 70. The theme of this ‘upscaling’ was everywhere, and remained for my whole trip: from the trees, to the food portions, landscapes and people.
This was a country built upon road transportation. The highways bulldozed straight from A to B, through towns and over rivers – rather than dabbling around them like they do at home. Rather than peering round one turn after another, I got used to re-orientating myself at an intersection to see my route road disappearing off to the horizon – tarmac shimmering with hazy mirages in the sun.
Upscaled too was what I was trying to achieve. My plans demanded ~250km of cycling everyday and, from the very start, I treated these distances with a nervous respect. Rather than racing breathlessly to my rest-stop each night, I cruised, rather more in keeping with the feel of the traffic, and stopped frequently, always aiming to carry more food and water than I could possibly need. I was racing no one, but was there instead to breathe in the sights.
It took me almost most 100 miles of cycling to actually get to the Pacific Coast and then I smelt the sea before I saw it. One more small hill later, and suddenly it was there: The Pacific Ocean – out as far as the eye could see. It would become my orientating compass for the next 10 days; the huge, featureless mass to my right. Throughout my tour, a steady, inland breeze pretty drifted in from its waves.
Each variation of landscape had in common this same sense of overwhelming scale – from the beaches, to the hills, farms, ranches and forests. Even the sky felt bigger as it played out its daily pattern of dawn mists followed by a steady rise in temperature to a deep afternoon blue. I wasn’t used to seeing so much of it at once.
These are the images that I imagined remembering: the photogenic and the ‘grand’. Every morning with my early starts, I enjoyed the pre-dawn air, seeing first the moon and stars and then the sunrise.
However, it’s a paradox of cycling touring that, at the very same time my world was growing, it was also shrinking down to the minutiae. The road surfaces ebbed and flowed and drove my moods: from the sleekest of new tarmacs that I floated over; to cracked and blistered old road coatings that had been scrunched up and wrinkled by the elements. At its worst, every passing metre jarred my bike and rattled its frame.
I wiped tiny grains of sand from my drivetrain each time I passed close to a windswept beach; and I eeked out my small tubes of suncream and saddle-cream so that they would last the trip. It was only on the 10th day that I, at last, could use with abandon what was leftover.
In the early stages of the tour, I began to wonder whether I was destined to be stuck on the larger highways throughout. But those early thoughts soon became distant concerns. The ride took me on a sliding scale of minor roads, down to the far end of the spectrum where the tarmac disappeared and the surface turned , firstly, to gravel, and then to sand.
Early in the ride, I also wondered whether the closest I’d come to seeing some American wildlife was an exotic spread of road-kill. I slalomed through squashed raccoons, deer (one enormous one, I assumed to be an elk?), squirrels, possums, chipmunks, snakes and even skunks (which stank as much as I’d read as a boy). I went past what looked to me like large porcupine (do they exist in California?) and an armadillo (again, is that even possible?!). Slowly though, these cadavers made way for more uplifting sights – however, even these were only drip fed through: at first, I heard the raucous bark of some sea-lions; then saw the speckled dots of seals out on a rock (black dots even to my telescopic camera lens).
The sight of whales spurting out their plumes of water ended up being a rather deflating encounter: with the jolly tone of someone that had spent too long in my own company I gate-crashed a guided group of whale watchers. When asked if I knew what I was looking for, I quipped, “Something like a big fish….?!” My humour with met with such deadpan distain that I reversed my bike back out onto the road somewhat crestfallen that I’d lost the ability to communicate with my own species.
By the end of the trip, though, I’d had to cover my face as I rode through a flapping group of vultures picking food at the roadside; stood pin-drop-quiet within touching distance of a group of deer; and even accidently created a road-kill of my own as I rode straight over a sun-basking snake (despite my best efforts to jump it). I’d watched raccoons and chipmunks steal food from a veranda where I sat, as humming birds buzzed around them; and I’d photographed big herds of wild elk (although this did involve pushing aside other tourists to get a line of sight). The scariest wildlife was, perhaps, best left to hints and suggestion: road-signs revealed the presence of bears and coyotes – but the closest I got was hearing the tale that a cyclist had ridden into a bear only 2 weeks earlier and had a broken arm to show for it.
Highway 101 was the main artery of the route and, at times, it was a big, brash speedway – but I was often grateful to it for sucking away some fast miles.
Highway 1 was its little brother. The not so big, not quite so brash, tributary, that often dipped closer to the cliffs and waves, and ducked through smaller towns with less brazenly.
Then there were all those other roads that weren’t deemed deserving of a number. These were nearly always the most scenic, but were also the most haphazard.
Navigation could have been made easy by just staying on the 101 but that would have meant 10 days on a dual carriageway so I took the detours in good humour.
I only got badly lost once – predictably trying to escape the conurbation of San Francisco. I found myself, firstly, trying to climb a single track Mountain Bike circuit (as several riders descended at break-neck speed towards me); then, potentially more seriously, at the entrance to a long road tunnel having just passed a sign stating that “cyclists take alternate route”.
Following a tiny pink line of a cycling GPS computer has its own drawbacks (and bonuses). A couple of times I emerged from the deep cover of “inland” forests to suddenly find myself atop an ocean cliff (on one occasion, I did so at such pace that I almost found myself through the barrier before I could compute my surprise that I’d hit the coast).
On my first day, as if to dispel any danger of overconfidence in my whereabouts in the world, I rode past a concentration of tobacco stores – reminiscent of a tax-dodging border crossing, I mused – before I passed a “Welcome to Oregon” sign. All very well – although I hadn’t realised that I’d ever left that state…..
The towns, like the roads, changed in character the further South I went.
In North Oregon, the flatter coastal plain lent itself to enormously long bridges as the 101 traversed over one river mouth after another.
A couple of these constructions looked like a packet of drinking straws held together with blue-tack – and as though they’d be built by arguing factions, so dramatically their style changed half way across.
The many inlets held towns trying themselves to bridge a gap – between half fishing industry; half tourist-chique. Some cafes were staffed by hipsters straight out of Portland; others, more aligned to the rough and tumble of industrial fishermen.
As the shoreline steepened into more pronounced bays, surfers, and surfing competitions appeared. I sat eating my morning porridge, amongst young athletes squeezed into their own versions of lycra cladding, and reflected on how much cooler surfers were compared to an equivalent set of breakfasting audaxers. The scene reminded me of “Point Break” and, later, I had the smug satisfaction of finding out that the film had indeed been shot there. Descending into such bays, the roads often became awash with sand and I tip-toed on my bike.
It wasn’t until I approached San Francisco that a new type of culture appeared. Roadside diners started to air their menus in Spanish and the oatmeal and omelettes of my early days were replaced by burritos and fajitas. The price of burritos plummeted from a $13 hipster snack to a $5 working lunch – served in a dense wrap the size of my own forearm. Fellow customers ordered in Spanish and smiled politely at our limited exchanges.
I was very consciously focussing my diet on proteins – yoghurts, shakes, bars (and chicken burritos) and as the days went past I grew in confidence that I’d get the mileage done.
Eat right, sleep right.
I was eating over 6,000 calories a day, and making sure that I slept for 8 hours a night.
Perhaps I’d learned these necessities the hard-way on previous tours – but, riding on my own, these were easy rules to follow. I could follow every whim of my appetite and body-clock when and as I wanted. After a few days, I’d built up a fairly dependable daily pattern consisting of a large breakfast, mid-morning coffee, early lunch, a mid afternoon sugar stop, then a large dinner, with further snacks after I’d found a bed for the night. During the course of my tour I actually lost 2.5kg- but overall I feel that this was a healthy weight-loss, rather than a physical deterioration.
Unlike the majority of other cyclo-tourers I met, I was not camping. Instead, I was holing up in the cheapest accommodation I could find each night, usually booked on “AirBnB”. The eclectic range of places I lay my head could be a blog onto itself – during the trip I checked in to a: campsite, mobile home, flat, condo, garage, farmhouse, motel, cottage and RV site. Some came with warm hospitality, others did not, but all I needed was a bed and a shower (although perhaps I’ll give some better reviews than others (!))______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Although the sea was the predominant feature, my route did have its other “chapters”: forests, farmlands and even desert (which I’ll come on to). And unlike the day rides I’m used to doing around Bristol – these were huge tracts of land that I didn’t just shoot past, but I rode through for mile after mile.
The Redwood Pines – and their national park – took me 2 days. Simplistically a day and a half of steady climbing, then one great, rushing descent. Much of this time was spent in the chasm between vast tree trunks (and through the famous ‘drive-through-tree’). The feel of the air was almost magical: windless, still and silent; the smell of the pines; and their dappled light. These trees did indeed feel like giants – “The Avenue of the Giants” an apt name. Here the roads were emptier too – on the morning of the long descent I barely saw another vehicle.
As I passed through the forest on the tarmac, I pondered how magical the woods must have been just 100 metres to either side. I felt dwarfed even on my well trodden road.
For me, these were the highlight of my trip. I was moving from A to B at the pace set by my itinerary – but this was the area that most demanded to be revisited.
Even the intimidating passage of large logging trucks left behind, not the smell of polluting diesel, but the scent of resin and timber – not unlike a 5-star sauna.
Whenever I left the cooling breezes of the coast, the temperatures quickly rose from the comfortable low 20s to above 30. Rather than the ascents being little and often, they became more substantial as I flirted with the mountain ranges parallel to the sea. Nearer to San Francisco, I passed through ranch country and saw groups of actual cowboys, riding actual horses, with actual lassoes. It crossed my mind that they were probably tourists on a ‘cowboy tour’ but I took a photo of the dusty ranchlands in the background, and a huge long chain of single file, brown cattle plodding across dry grasslands.
Only 30 miles inland and the feel of the country was very different.
I was served by a man wearing a T Shirt: “#1 gun safety rule? OWN ONE”; flies attacked me when I stopped, and for the first time I began to run out of water before I reached the next town.
I stayed the night in an “RV Site” on a simple mattress. My host’s vest read “My momma told me I could be whatever I wanted? I chose to be an ASSHOLE.”
I could tick-off a couple of Simpsons characters from my list of must-see America.
Tricky to articulate, but it felt as though the locals were used to tougher times, and had less indulgence for a cyclo-tourist visiting their town just for fun.
Where the inland was flatter, crop farming displaced the cattle. Enormously vast irrigated fields stretched as far as I could see.
Perfectly coiffeured rows of grapes, asparagus, lettuce, artichokes and sod (turf) filled the air with their respective scents. The roads here were incredibly flat, and remarkably straight. But, perhaps surprisingly, my speeds never seemed to rise on these stretches. There was no shelter from the winds and the surfaces were grainy compared to the highways, but in ~2 days of riding I never felt boredom at their repetition. I found myself fascinated at the never-ending rows of geometric precision and the sheer scale of production.
As I type out these experiences, I reflect that these intermittent sights are the punctuation points which gave my trip structure. They are the chapter headers, the paragraph breaks and the full-stops. The binding agent, and the flow of the whole trip, was, of course, the riding of my bike. My itinerary comfortably allowed for detours and photo-opportunities; expresso-stops and shopping trips; but also demanded steady progress. I set my alarm at 5.30am every day and was on the road soon after 6. I typically would start to set up for the night around 12-13 hours later; get a shower; clean my bike; then chill out for barely 15 minutes before sleep.
Over and over again I’d do a mental checklist of body and bike:
Bike…. tyre feeling a tad soft; brakes perhaps slightly misaligned. A gear or two grating; a strange creaking – I think from the seat post? The headset needed retightening; the tri bars had come slightly loose; a bottle-cage was rattling
Body…. my right metatarsal niggled away; my left achilles began to grow sore. My calf muscles took turns in feeling fatigued and needing a stretch; and, by the end of my trip, both my knees were worsening with tendonitis.
A strained muscle deep in my right thigh caused the greatest concerns – early in the tour I strapped it once, then twice, and eventually added a third bandage before that pain started to subside around days 4 and 5. My right hip hurt periodically (probably linked) and my lower back during extended periods in an aero position. Shoulders and neck grew stiff and my biceps tired when the road surface was poor. The palms of my hands developed tender blisters and my wrists went numb. Despite slightly obsessive application of suncream, the back of my neck, cheeks and knees all burned in the sun, and the left side of my face and scalp bristled with an MS-tingle that felt like shingles. I got a toothache, and a sore throat. My saddle sores steadily worsened with each passing mile. On one day, I had to pick out a large fly from my right eye and smarted for hours afterwards.
I listened to them all. Adapted where possible. Assessed their messages, and split hairs between complaint and damage.
I don’t like drugs, anti-inflammatories or painkillers, believing that they distort what you hear – but on my final day did I succumbed to the whining from my knees took some ibuprofens.
This wasn’t a race. This was a quest for steady progress – I just had to keep my arms around the various risks at play.
As I planned my route, the one day that stuck out most ominously was just south of San Francisco. Because a landslide that had closed the coastal road, I was forced inland, through the desert from Salinas to Paso Robles. I was nervous about the distance (my longest day); the climbing (biased entirely to the end of the day); and the temperatures (which were likely to be in the mid-30s).
Although that day indeed proved to be the toughest, as so often with cyclo-touring, the greatest challenge was actually an unexpected one – and it brought me as close to quitting as I got.
Advised against the 101 for this stretch, I had picked a route on minor roads, but, although I diligently started very early to try to mitigate the day’s heat, their cracked and ruptured surfaces almost brought me to my knees. It felt as though I was riding over a sea of cobbles that went on and on, mile after mile, as the sun rose ominously in the sky and the temperatures rose. My speed on the flat dropped to 11, 10mph. On occasion I’d hit a stretch of resurfaced road and, with no greater effort, would accelerate up to 18, 19 – before hitting the cracks again and dropping right back down.
I was breaking.
I stopped at a railroad crossing and to my delight ticked off another couple of my must-sees. Firstly, a steel Amtrak passenger train creaked past. Then a the huge long snake of a commercial goods train. It groaned and squealed past for carriage after carriage, perhaps a mile long. My resilience picked up.
Then, after I’d barely seen a car all day, a utility truck drove past – on its flatbed was a pile of inflatable rubber rings and 2 bikini clad women (one wore the stars and stripes – tick). They hollered at me – “Hey baby!!” – before leaving me in their dust (perhaps they were heading to LA as well?) That was enough to bring back the humour to my predicament. I pushed on to Paso Robles and was soon ordering a large iced coffee as I sat by its lush green, irrigated town square.
If San Francisco hung on my experience of riding over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge [anything from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ to Michael Bay’s ‘The Rock’], my arrival in LA was the procession of iconic place names and beaches as I rode into movieland.
The ocean road [fact] felt plucked straight from the opening credits of “Big Little Lies” – and the seafront houses grew in glamour and glitz. I thought of Sharon Stone’s sea-top mansion from Basic Instinct, and I passed through Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice & ‘Muscle’ Beaches, and – yes – I saw the Hollywood letterboards. I can’t even remember which, or how many films, I’ve seen then in before – but the beach towers were quintessentially Baywatch and I took a photo of their wide expanses of sand.
I’d spent so many hours in relative seclusion, meditating and day-dreaming, that the busy LA roads felt pretty foreign and jarring.
For days I’d been able to smooth over all the many mental stresses of my life: I’d rolled them over and over in my mind – like pebbles in the Pacific swash – until their rough edges had smoothed, smoothed, then smoothed away. Some disappeared entirely – but none jarred anymore.
I’d got to a state of inner peace that I’ve rarely known before – left in the isolated bubble of my own devices, my yin and yang were more balanced than ever. Past regrets, future stresses, hopes and fears had all dissipated and I felt a sadness at having to leave this new equilibrium.
But the tour was coming to an end.
Car horns sounded in the LA streets and my reveries were about to be sucked back into the chaos of a shared, real life.
My old friend opened his front door and smiled.
I lent my black bike against the white-washed walls of his garage and took up his offer of a cold can of ginger ale.
This was where the cycling stopped.
The Pacific Coast.