[lang_all]I exaggerate. I’m prone to stretching the truth. I’m liable to bullshit about certain things in order to make them more interesting. If you weren’t there at the time to confirm something, then it’s entirely possible that I’ve just made it up. I’m liable to substitute kilometres with miles in order to make it seem I’ve ridden further, metres with feet in order to make it seem I’ve climbed higher, kilograms with pounds in order to make it seem I’m carrying a heavier load, and Celsius with Fahrenheit in order to make it seem I’ve endured more miserable weather.
In fact, it’s entirely possible I didn’t even do this trip. I may have just stayed at home last year watching re-runs of “the office” and drinking copious amounts of coffee.
My name is Leon, Leon Steber, and I like bike riding but I’d never call myself a cyclist. I’ve never been into types of bikes and components, group rides or racing, and until owning my touring bike, I’d never ridden anything but cheap mountain bikes. My biking experience includes many weekend and afternoon rides after work but I’d never ridden more than 25 miles in a day before. My biking experience also includes two car collisions, the last of which left me with a nasty six-month headache after landing helmet-first on the road. Riding a bicycle across a country had always been on my things-to-do-in-life list, but so was spitting over the edge of the Tower of Pisa, and I’d not been serious about carrying through with either.
All images and text Copyright © 2007 Leon Steber.
For a detailed map:https://www.nofear.it/wp-content/uploads/northamericabike.html
too much stuff … PACKING LIST
BIKE: Trek 520 (2004)
– Jandd front and rear expedition racks (aluminium)
– Shimano pedals with clipless one side (salvaged from my old bike)
– Brooks B17 leather saddle
– Continental Top Touring tyres
– Three waterbottle cages
– Crank Brothers pump
– Aero bars (salvaged from old bike)
– Cateye speedometer (salvaged from old bike)
– Shimano Clipless bike shoes
– Giro helmet (I never go without one now) plus helmet mirror (after too many close shaves with logging trucks in Northern California)
– Bike gloves
– Ground sheet tarpaulin
– Back pack (day use size)
– 12 string acoustic guitar wrapped in garbage bags and covered with a rainproof backpack cover
– Spare tyre wrapped around the guitar (usually carried for at least a month before changing tyres)
HANDLEBAR BAG with map cover: REI
– Lip balm, sunscreen, maps, betadine
– Zipka headlamp
REAR LEFT PANNIER: Arkel GT-54 pannier with waterproof covers
– Adventure Designs 1-man tent (from Oz)
– Waterproof bag: Mountain Designs Travelite 650 Sleeping Bag, Cotton sleeping sheet (both from Oz)
– Teva sandles (from Oz)
– Emergency blanket (from Oz)
– Medical kit (from Oz)
– Small tarpaulin for bike
– Stove fuel
– Candle lamp and candles (from Oz)
REAR RIGHT PANNIER: Arkel GT-54 pannier
– Thermarest full-length sleeping mattress
– Pura water purifier (from Oz)
– Waterproof bag: 2prs bike shorts, 2prs bike shirts, good pants and shirt, tracksuit pants, casual shorts, 2 t-shirts, 3prs Smartwool socks (these are brilliant and don’t stink too bad if not washed for a week), Smartwool jersey, warm jumper, 3prs boxers, thermal undershirt, beanie, wide brim hat
– Assorted cable ties, safety pins, duct tape, clips
– Clothes line
– Tools: 2 spare tubes, Swiss army knife, puncture repair kit, bike multi-tool, tyre levers, kevlar emergency spoke repair kit w/spoke tool, small adjustable wrench, Allan keys
– Passport, travellers cheques, US dollars, ID cards, emergency contact information, telephone contacts and National Parks Annual Pass (thanks Brooke and Stef)
– Goretex waterproof socks and waterproof gloves (both bought in Fairbanks, absolutely hopeless)
– Neoprene booties (many thanks to John in Telkwa, BC)
– Ski face mask (bought in Alaska)
FRONT LEFT PANNIER: Arkel GT-30 pannier with waterproof covers
– MSR 6-Litre heavy duty waterbag and shower attachment
– Knitted wool gloves (old and holey)
– Assorted sized zip-lock bags
– Trangia stove, two pots, wind stopper (present from the folks back in Oz and much appreciated)
– Food: the following was pretty much always there: Bananas, Corn grits, Chili con carne in a tin, Snickers, mixed nuts, 5-min rice, rice cakes, peanut butter, salt/pepper/herbs/sugar, Nutella
– Knife, spoon, cigerette lighter, matches
– Plastic cutting board
FRONT RIGHT PANNIER: Arkel GT-30 pannier
– Rainproof pants
– Rain jacket (cheap and wind proof only, from Oz)
– Waterproof bag: Camera bag with Nikon F70 camera, 10 rolls E100VS slide film, 20mm Nikkor lens, 28-200mm Tamron lens, Sony MZ-NF810 minidisk and stereo microphone, minidisk charger, spare batteries
the madness begins … PREPARATION
I like bike riding but I’d never call myself a cyclist. I’ve never been into types of bikes and components, group rides or racing, and until owning my touring bike, I’d never ridden anything but cheap mountain bikes. My biking experience includes many weekend and afternoon rides after work but I’d never ridden more than 25 miles in a day before. My biking experience also includes two car collisions, the last of which left me with a nasty six-month headache after landing helmet-first on the road. Riding a bicycle across a country had always been on my things-to-do-in-life list, but so was spitting over the edge of the Tower of Pisa, and I’d not been serious about carrying through with either.
Since joining the working life six years ago, I’ve dreamt of nothing but ways of leaving the working life and going on long term holidays. My first attempt was to try and do the typical Aussie thing and live, work, booze up and holiday in London. When my first boss caught wind of my desire to do this, he instead set me up with a six-month stint of work experience in the Philippines. Six months turned into a year, and I felt again the need to travel. I quit my job and headed to India for a few wonderful months of doing my own thing. I was called back to the Philippines but within a year I had started planning the London travels again.
Upon quitting this time my second boss offered me a transfer to San Diego, California. Four months of near perfect weather and plenty of surfing and I was transferred again, this time to the San Francisco Bay Area. Though I was getting the overseas travel I wanted, my dream of a long term holiday was getting further and further away.
Travelling by bicycle surfaced as an idea early in 2003 when a good friend of mine attempted it in China and Mongolia. His enthusiasm for the idea was contagious and it got me considering a similar, but easier trip. I’d been in America for two years but had seen very little of the country. With only two weeks of holidays a year it was hard to. At the end of 2003, tired of long working hours, approaching the end of my twenties and ready for a change of scenery, I decided the bicycle trip was the way to go.
As with all my stupid ideas, I’m more likely to carry through with them if I tell them to people whose opinions I care about. And so it was, with several pints of honey wine to loosen my tongue, I spilled my plans to two very good friends in Oakland, the week before Christmas 2003. Like all the other people I mentioned it to over the Christmas period in Australia, their response was not quite as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. The few people who actually believed I might attempt the trip thought I’d only last a matter of weeks, if not days. It got me wondering whether I was considered “a man of my word” and in a way encouraged me even more to prove to myself that I could do it.
However, by the time I started work again in January I was no closer to having any serious plans of route, destinations or a departure date. And I still didn’t have a bike. One evening in late January after another draining day at work, with still no progress in doing anything towards the trip except dreaming about it, I gave myself the kick in the pants that I needed and made a schedule. It included everything I needed to research, buy and organise for the trip, as well as the time I needed to finish off my work. My comfortable departure date was set for the start of June.
Within two weeks, with plenty of Internet research and only two bikes test ridden, I ordered a Trek 520 touring bicycle from Left Coast Cyclery in Berkeley. I spent more time deliberating over the pannier bags than the bike itself. I had a packing list as long as my arm but only needed to buy a few essential item as I already owned a good set of camping gear. I began training on the unloaded bike and within a few weekends I was extremely proud of completing a 56 mile (90km) ride around the Oakland hills.
The panniers came next, built by Arkel Overdesigns in Canada and guaranteed for life. At first I ordered only the rear panniers to see how much I could fit in them. I did a few small test rides with the panniers loaded with text books. I didn’t order the front panniers until two weeks before I began the trip.
At this point, my whole departure date hinged on whether I would have to go to court in regards to the bicycle accident I’d had 18 months earlier. But all of a sudden my whole schedule was put on fast track when my lovely housemate (and landlord’s daughter) decided we had “personality differences” and wanted me out of the house by the end of April. I spoke to my boss the next day, stressed out and nervous as hell, mainly because I’d never succeeded in resigning yet.
And didn’t succeed this time either. My boss, totally understanding of my dilemma, told me to take as long as I wanted and just return when I was feeling “better”. “Better” because for the last few months, the stresses of work had exacerbated the stomach problems I’d had ever since getting sick in India. I’d been to numerous doctors over four years and had numerous tests done and redone, but no cause was ever found. It was not until a week before my trip that a specialist discovered that I had Coeliac Sprue disease, an intolerance to the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. It was both a relief and a curse. I now knew why I’d felt like crap for years but now could no longer enjoy some of life’s most enjoyable things; pizza, bread, pasta and beer.
A month prior to starting the trip I’d stopped all my training and exercise in an attempt to put a bit of meat on my bones (the lack of meat was a result of the gluten intolerance and malnutrition). I was now unfit and not an ounce fatter. The weekend before my trip I rode to my friends’ place in Sausalito (just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) with an almost fully loaded bike. Not quite fully loaded, as I had no food packed, nor did I have my 12 string guitar which I romantically believed I could not do without for three months (it would not be until the day that I started the trip that I would ride with a fully loaded bike, including the guitar for the first time strapped to my rear rack with its neck sticking between my legs). I absolutely struggled. The ride took me at least three times as long as normal and I was several hours late for the dinner I had been invited to. My friends in Sausalito were the only friends I could find with a set of bathroom scales. I weighed in at a measly 145lbs, the panniers minus food were 60lbs, and my bike with three bottles of water was 40lbs (the night before the trip started, some other friends helped me measure everything on their kitchen scales and we got a total loaded weight of 260lbs, including me). I think I packed too much.
Day 1 (Monday, 17 May 2004): 90 miles, 7:07 hours, Colma SF to Manresa State Beach
For the past week, some good friends have let me stay on their spare couch in Oakland. It’ll probably be the last really comfortable bed I’ll be in for some time. I got up at 3:30am in order to catch the first BART train over to Colma, south of San Francisco. My friends were nice enough to wake up to see me off, as well as to ask when I would be back. It was still pitch dark when I left the Colma station and as I struggled up the first slight hill I asked myself why on earth anyone would choose to do this. It was to be my mantra for the next week.
Got my first rear flat tyre when I got to Santa Cruz, not before being stopped by the Californian highway patrol for riding on the freeway. My fantastic route planning (which basically was to work out where I’d camp the first night and then wing it from then on) meant I had to do a 90 mile day. I was turned away at the first state park because there was no camping allowed and turned away at the second state park because it was camper vans only. I finally struggled into Manresa State Beach where I tried to cook fried rice and fresh vegetables. Learnt that brown rice was a pretty dumb thing to bring on a camping trip, even after having soaked all day in my pannier, it took fifty minutes to cook. It’ll be five-minute instant rice from now on I think. And fresh veggies…well that was the first and last time I’ll be cooking them on this trip.
Day 2: 77.54 miles, 6:17 hours, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
It took me three hours to pack up my tent and cook breakfast this morning. Got another rear flat tyre as I was pulling into a cafe/restaurant place for a second breakfast. My plan was to have a short ride today and camp in Carmel. The AAA map I had (a friend had ordered me about $90 worth of maps through her car insurance membership but I only ended up bringing the California/ Oregon ones) showed a camping symbol beside the town. I stopped at a small hotel to ask of its whereabouts only to discover it was a mistake. After having to ride an extra 26 miles through the Big Sur coastal hills with really strong winds I’ve decided I’ll have my first rest day tomorrow.
Day 3 (Rest Day): 0 miles, 0:00 hours, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Last night I met two guys, Reed from Seattle and Sean from New Jersey who are riding from Tijuana to Vancouver as quickly as they can. They basically have no gear; no tent, no tarp, one didn’t have a sleeping bag, no flashlight and not even a can opener. I thought I’d introduce myself when I saw them trying to break open a can of baked beans in the dark. We hung out for a while and when they discovered I was carrying a guitar Sean put on an impromptu performance of “Wish they all could be Californian girls” while Reed did the harmonies.
I’m ashamed that I didn’t learn any campfire songs before I left on this trip.
Day 4: 77.64 miles, 6:27 hours, San Simeon State Park
The Big Sur hills are killing me. I called a friend today and told him I wasn’t having much fun after spending the day again asking myself why anyone would be so stupid to try doing this. He was good enough to remind me that Barbara Savage had hated riding at the start, and not started to really enjoy herself until two weeks into her trip. I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait that long. (Barbara Savage and her husband sold their house and everything they owned, and took off to ride around the world back in the ‘70s, her book was called “Road to Nowhere”).
Day 5: 99.36 miles, 7:16 hours, Lost Hills KOA (Hwy 46)
Last night, in order to shorten the two-hour packing up time in the morning, I didn’t put up the tent, but instead just wrapped it over my sleeping bag. Within ten minutes of the sun setting I was soaked in moisture. My sleeping bag was soaked by morning.
I turned inland this morning, the plan is to get to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. My granny gears are getting a major workout as I struggle up the rolling yellow hills. When I got to Paso Robles I saw a sign for an Amtrak train station and inquired as to whether I could put my bike on the train and piss off to somewhere else. Unfortunately not.Spoke to my sister’s boyfriend and told him I wasn’t having much fun. He suggested it might take me a month or so to get into it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait that long. After Paso Robles, highway 46 becomes one of the straightest and flattest roads I’ve ridden so far. It’s not very encouraging to be able to see the road twenty miles ahead of you and know that the scenery there is just as boring as the scenery you’re now riding through. I had a slight tailwind and so could easily ride at about 17-20 miles per hour. Every time a truck passed me, which was often, the air draft would drag me along at another 3 or 4mph. Ninety percent of the truck drivers were considerate enough to almost cross over on to the wrong side of the road as they passed me (I only had a narrow shoulder). By the end to the day I was wishing they’d pass closer to me, just for that extra push of wind. Passed the spot where James Dean crashed his car but didn’t know about it until I got to the spot where James Dean last bought gas. They sell all sorts of nuts there now and lay claim to having the largest parking lot in the world. While I was paying for my overpriced mocha flavoured almonds, the owner told me I was crazy for riding along the 46. They call it “Blood Alley” because of the high number of vehicle accidents on it every year.
Almost did my first century ride today. I considered riding the extra 0.64 miles just to see my speedo click over but I was too buggered.
Day 6: 65.99 miles, 5:54 hours, Cedar Creek Campground (10mi E of Glennville)
There was barely a tree in sight today. Miles and miles of bare, dry, yellow hills. And warm as well. My $5 REI compass/thermometer that probably has an accuracy of plus or minus 20 degrees, read 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I had to trust my sketchy intuition when I got to a crossroads not shown on my map. I eventually wound up riding into the finish of a women’s three day bicycle race. A guy was kind enough to refill my water bottles as well as giving me a handful of detailed maps. One of the competitors asked me what I was in training for and didn’t seem to understand that I may be doing this just for the pure fun of it (I wish I could find where the fun of it is). Another cyclist I met on the way to Woody gave me much needed route advice on the general hilliness of the roads ahead. I’ve decided to skip the National Parks and just head straight over the Sierras. I got into Glenville at five o’clock, already exhausted, to discover the only camping was ten miles up towards the summit. At my slow 4mph it was going to be dark by the time I got there. Just out of town I passed a lady parked in a van by the side of the road, who exclaimed an “Oh boy” when she saw the load I was carrying. Several minutes later, just after I’d dumped all my excess water in order to lighten my load, she pulled up beside me and offered me a lift. Before I could answer, she had a barrage of questions “Do you have a gun, a knife or any sort of weapon on you?”, “Do you have any drugs?” which she repeated about four times until she was convinced by my answers. I took off all my panniers and shoved them and the bike into the back of her van. Before she started the van she demanded my name and made it clear that she would bust my arse and kick me out of the van if I tried anything shifty. That was followed by several minutes of praying over me and asking me questions about whether I’d ever said thankyou Jesus for coming into my life and so on. Susan was saving me from a two and a half hour arse-busting climb, so I humoured her with her terrible attempts at the Aussie accent and her other ramblings. She was a good sport though and even sent my Mum and Dad a picture that she’d taken of me and my bike. Thankyou Jesus.
Day 7 (Rest day): 0 miles, Cedar Creek Campground (10mi E of Glennville)
A day of doing diddlysquat. It’s a free, empty campground but with no facilities except a drop toilet. I’m ravenously hungry but out of fresh fruit, almost out of water and just rationing my overpriced mocha flavoured almonds. Fell asleep for four hours in the middle of the day, feel like I’m totally out of energy. The overpriced mocha flavoured almonds aren’t helping much. I have had a very painful left knee since day one. I have a very tender saddle sore on my right butt. I’ve had a gash on the first finger of my right hand since day one that keeps opening up each day. I have a popped blister on the middle toe of my left foot. Why am I doing this? I keep seeing a lot of motorbikes passing me and I think I should have done something like that instead of this bicycle riding madness.
Day 8: 3.52 miles, 0:42 hours, Green Horn Summit
It turned out that the summit was only a few miles above the campground. If I’d have known this yesterday I would have ridden into Lake Isabella instead of starving myself on my rest day. When I got to the summit I took a self-congratulatory photo of myself. My first Sierra Nevada summit (Greenhorn Summit, elevation 6102 feet) and I’d barely ridden any of it myself. I was proud regardless. As I was about to head down the long hill into Lake Isabella a lady in a pick-up stopped beside me and exclaimed “You rode up the hill with that?” Straight away I knew she was a Kiwi and I told her I was an Aussie. Turned out Cheree lived in Lake Isabella and she quickly offered me a warm shower and a hot meal. We first collected firewood for her winter stockpile and then she showed me around town. Before getting to her house she warned me that she was looking after an 11 month old German Shepherd whose owners had abandoned it due to its bad behaviour. She gave me instructions on how to behave around the dog; ignoring it, avoiding eye contact and turning my back to it if it tried to jump up. All the while acting calmly as possible. However trying to behave calmly with a dog barking aggressively inches from my exposing tight bike shorts, is a bit nerve racking. I only got bitten a few times. Turns out Cheree is a bit of a genius when it comes to animal training, she even has a chook that she can make poop on command.
Day 9 (Rest Day): 50.19 miles, 3:43 hours, Isabella Lake, Cheree’s house
The weekend before leaving on this trip, my good friends gave me a Mohawk haircut. It was done using a rechargeable moustache trimmer whose life was obviously over. A minute into the haircut and it stopped dead. Even recharging didn’t help much and the haircut was barely finished by the next morning. It doesn’t raise an eyelid in a city like San Francisco, but I never quite felt comfortable riding around central California with a Mohawk. So today I got it cut off. Cheree was telling me about a horse fair in Bishop this weekend and thinks I should go see it. During the day she called the local radio station to see if I could get a lift with anyone but no luck. Tonight she made a sign out of a linoleum flooring sample which she thinks will help me hitch a lift there with no problems. It reads “TIRED AUSSIE NEEDS RIDE”.
Day 10: 55.72 miles, 4:21 hours, Walker Pass (east of Onyx) to Olancha
Cheree drove me to the top of the pass this morning so it was an easy lovely downhill ride to highway 395 that runs along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There are Joshua trees everywhere, I feel like I’m Bono and it’s 1987. The “TIRED AUSSIE …” sign was on the back of my bike in the morning and while I was at a rest stop a family asked me a bunch of questions. The teenage girl walked away shaking her head and muttering “crazy … crazy …”. They offered me a lift even though they were going a short way up the road and had a pick-up full of gear. I wasn’t tired yet so I politely refused their offer. No one else offered me a lift. I was enjoying riding for the first time. No significant hills, an emergency lane the size of a truck to safely ride on, and a warm heat emanating from the desert. Tall snow-capped mountains to the left of me, wide empty desert to my right and nothing but asphalt in front of me for hundreds of miles.
In the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Olancha, I pulled into a trashy-looking trailer park to camp. The place was run by Indians, the old guy who met me couldn’t speak a word of English but he called his son for me. His son had a map of India in his office and it turned out that I’d been to his birth town which was pretty exciting for the both of us. I’d be pretty excited to meet someone who’d been to my home town. When it got dark, I started listening to some tunes on my mini-diskman and stood out under the flashing fluorescent “Welcome” trailer park sign. Big rigs drove past loudly every few minutes and it was still warm. I suddenly realised that I was enjoying myself immensely for the first time, just standing watching trucks going by in the night and listening to music. [/lang_all][lang_all]
Day 11: 76.5 miles, 5:04 hours, Big Pine (Hwy 395)
I’m now officially “into” this biking thing. I don’t even check my miles any more, let alone worry too much where I’m gonna camp for the night. I took down the “TIRED AUSSIE…” sign. There’s no way I’m gonna miss a mile of this. Passed the highest mountain in the contiguous USA today, Mount Whitney. I had a postcard with a picture of it, but I couldn’t find it from the road, there are so many damn mountains. It’s amazing.
Day 12: 28.63 miles, 3:00 hours, French Campground (near Tom’s Place)
Something ate my rice cakes last night as well as a healthy helping of my handlebar tape. Had my first few drops of rain today just after I left the campground. I quickly rode back to a shelter at the campground and waited out the rain, as well as covering up my guitar in a few extra layers of garbage bags.
Got to Bishop for the horse fair finally but the only campground in town is full. I thought I could sweet talk them with my aussie accent, even with the “NO VACANCY” sign clearly on the counter, but no luck. On the other side of town I put up the “TIRED AUSSIE…” sign again, as I was coming to a climb of at least a thousand feet. Moments later, an old white pick-up stopped for me and whisked me to the Sherwin Summit (elevation 7000 feet). My second Sierra summit and the second one that I didn’t have to ride up. Thanks Cheryl and Jim.
Day 13 (Rest day): 7.96 miles, 0:43 hours, French Campground (near Tom’s Place)
When I got to camp yesterday I was befriended by a guy called Cecil, or “Whitey” as his friends call him and his German short-haired pointer, Molly. He’s 79 years old, has had heart attacks, bypasses and now has a pacemaker and still hikes and fishes around here in the hills. He’s been coming up here since he was twenty years old but “they didn’t have the fancy toilets here then”. He asked me if I have had any experience with bears and proceeds to tell me about a neighbouring tenter who had to shoo one away about two years ago. “Ah, but you’re alright up here I think, you’re in the open a bit more. He was in the bush”. Before starting this trip, it wasn’t the riding or the being out in the elements every day that worried me, it was the bears. I come from a country where most snakebites are potentially fatal, where you have to check under the toilet seat for poisonous red-back spiders, where kangaroos can beat the shit out of you and koalas can scratch your face off. But for me, none of this compares to a meeting with a bear. I tell Whitey I hope I never have a “bear experience”.
Day 14: 42.6 miles, 3:34 hours, June Lake (Pine Cliff Resort)
Day 15: 70.58 miles, 5:37 hours, June Lake Loop to Bootleg Camp (south of Walker)
Day 16: 54.37 miles, 4:36 hours, Grover Hot Springs State Park (west of Markleeville)
It was about 5 degrees Celsius when I left camp this morning. My fingers are killing me, I have gashes and splits on the knuckles and ends of several of my fingers. Got to the bottom of Monitor pass and decided I needed a second breakfast before attempting to ride over a 3300 foot hill. Rode into Nevada and grabbed a vegetarian skillet and egg omelette at the Casino just over the border. While riding up to the summit I met several other cyclists all training for the Californian Death Ride in June. The Death Ride is five summits and 120 miles, I’d love to try it one day. Got to soak my tired bones in the hot springs for half an hour, but just couldn’t understand the enjoyment of hot springs on a hot day.
Day 17 (Rest day): 10.78 miles, 0:56 hours, Grover Hot Springs State Park (west of Markleeville)
Day 18: 40.9 miles, 4:06 hours, South Lake Tahoe Campground
Day 19: 26.41 miles, 2:50 hours, Sugar Pine Point State Park
At the hot springs I was lucky to meet Mac and Barbara, a husband and wife from New Zealand who go cycle touring for a few months every year. We rode up to Lake Tahoe together and shared a campsite together at the state park. I get lost just walking around the campgrounds as they are laid out in a very organic way amongst tall pine trees. Eventually getting to the front entrance gate was a reward in itself due to the extremely cute state ranger there.
Day 20 (Rest day): 107.1 miles, 7:47 hours, Sugar Pine Point State Park
My first century ride. At about 10am I left camp loaded with only my camera and food panniers. Rode over Mt Rose summit (elevation 8900 feet), the highest summit in the Sierras and a wonderful downhill into Nevada. Visited Virginia City with its authentic looking old West shops, bars and casinos. On the way back to Tahoe I knew I was out of my league being exhausted after just two summits. Managed to hitch a ride with some Mexicans who offered me refreshments and drove me back into South Lake Tahoe. It was 8:30pm by the time I struggled back into the campground. Tomorrow I’m gonna buy myself a book to read in an effort to stop myself doing these bloody rides on my so-called rest days.
Day 21 (Rest day): 30.72 miles, 2:46 hours, Sugar Pine Point State Park
Day 22 (Rest day): 66.27 miles, 4:51 hours, Tahoe City Campground
Day 23 (Rest day): 0 miles, Tahoe City Campground
Day 24 (Rest day): 0 miles, Tahoe City Campground
Woke up to a world of white outside my tent this morning. It was pretty amazing but bloody cold. The snow fell for about two hours and had disappeared from the ground by early afternoon.
Day 25 (Rest day): 75.59 miles, 5:14 hours, Tahoe City Campground
Day 26: 41.43 miles, 3:04 hours, Donner State Park (Truckee)
Day 27 (Rest day): 71.83 miles, 5:09 hours, Donner State Park (Truckee)
Took a ride down to Jackson Meadows reservoir with my usual half load (I now need to bring the food pannier with me everywhere just to avoid having it chewed to pieces by squirrels). Met some guys from Reno (“…not much worth seeing in Reno…”) who had brought their two sons down for the weekend to get them out of their Mum’s hair. I showed them the cracks on my fingers and knuckles. One guy, who used to work in a wood shop, said he often used to get the same because of the dryness of the air. His solution was to seal them with crazy glue (superglue).
Day 28: 80.52 miles, 6:02 hours, Mineral Bar Campground in Auburn State Park
Day 29: 33.6 miles, 4:36 hours, Ruck-A-Chucky Campground (Auburn State Park)
Auburn is seriously trying its hardest to make me give up. After today Monitor pass feels like an anthill. It took me from 7:30am to 2:30pm to do 23 miles. I was hitting roads that were clearly 4-wheel drive only dirt tracks but shown as paved roads on my fantastic maps. My bike got a beating and I’m surprised I haven’t broken any spokes or split my rims. The bolts on my rear pannier became half unscrewed from all the vibrations. I only came to Auburn to see the highest bridge in California. When locals ask me about my route, I tell them I detoured down to Auburn just to see the bridge. Their eyes light up and without fail they will tell me about the Vinn Diesel movie “XXX” in which he drives a car off the bridge into the deep valley below.
I would have got to the bridge today but my planned campsite was a short way before it. The AAA map made it look like the campground was just off the main road, but it turned out to be at least three miles and over a thousand foot drop along a very unpaved and corrugated dirt road. The poor-excuse-for-a-road meant that my brakes were constantly on and I could only go about 2mph. Attempting to walk with the heavy bike was even more challenging. I got about 2/3 of the way down when a young couple in a pick-up, Michael and Lisa, stopped and offered me a lift. Even sitting in the back of the pick-up was a pain in the arse. I have no idea of how I am going to get out of here.
Day 30 (Rest day): 0 miles, Ruck-A-Chucky Campground (Auburn State Park)
It’s not so bad getting stuck here as it is hands down the nicest camping spot I’ve been at so far. I’m at the middle fork of the American river, there are only six basic campsites and a drop toilet. I’ve managed to arrange a lift out of here with Buffy who is camping in the spot next to me. She introduced herself to me last night. She’s quit her job and decided to wing it for a while out here with her pick-up, black Labrador and tent.
You meet some strange people in these sorts of campsites. Take for instance Vic, the guy camping on the other side of me. He introduced himself to me with the comment “You meet some pretty strange people in these campsites”. He said he had to meet me, he had to meet someone who had somehow managed to minimise his need for things in life so that he could fit it onto a bicycle.
He was living out of the back of his pick-up and had been down here for a few weeks. The 4-wheel drive on his pick-up wasn’t working so he was kind of stuck down here too.
Vic was a cartoonist and it seemed to give him a large amount of pleasure to show me his caricature of the gun toting female park ranger who collects the camping fees every afternoon. Vic avoids eye contact until he’s finished the punch line of his jokes and then he stares straight into your eyes with an evil-looking distorted excuse-for-a-grin. Buffy thinks he may have ingested a few too many illicit substances in the ’60s and he’s now trying his best to avoid society by haunting campsites for a living. Vic’s eyes glaze over when he tells me how the river slows down time.
Day 31 (Rest day): 0 miles, Ruck-A-Chucky Campground (Auburn State Park)
Yesterday Buffy convinced me to hang around for another day and we took a ride into town to get more groceries. We stopped at the bridge which hangs 740 feet above the valley floor and is a very impressive piece of engineering.
Last night after we got back, Vic wanders over to my tent scratching his head “I assume you’re a vegetarian and you don’t drink….”. I give him the double negative so he offers me a beer. I tell him how I can’t drink beer so he instead asks if I’d like vodka or rum. “Your place or hers?”, he says pointing to Buffy’s campsite before he wanders back to his pickup to grab the gin. Ten minutes later he wanders back with a cold beer for Buffy and himself, and rum in a ketchup squeezey bottle plus a lemonade for me. We drink and talk, Vic is a real character and has had an interesting odd-jobs sort of life. At times Buffy and I worryingly look at each as Vic seems almost ready to cry into his hands while he’s telling what appears to be a funny story. He later wanders back to his pickup after we’ve spent the last hour trying to pick out constellations in a night sky that is unrecognisable for a southern hemispherian like me.
Day 32: 61.57 miles, 6:01 hours, Malakof Diggins State Park
Spotted my first brown bear this afternoon (or it could have been a brown-coloured black bear, I’m confused about the differences). It was slowly rambling across the road about 300 feet ahead of me as I entered the State Park. As soon as it spotted me it bolted into the forest. It’s apparent panic, seemed exactly like the kind of comic reaction I’d expect a person would make when seeing a brown bear for the first time. The campgrounds are completely empty except for a group of kids over the hill in the group campsite making a hell of a racket.
Day 33: 64.36 miles, 6:15 hours, Sardine Lake Campground
Last night it was warm enough to sleep without the fly of my tent. I woke in the night to the sound of a large animal walking past my tent. It disappeared pretty quickly as I fumbled for my flashlight. I fell asleep again but within 15 minutes I was awakened by the group of kids screaming out from over the hill.
Day 34: 33.19 miles, 2:59 hours, Plumas Eureka State Park
Day 35 (Rest day): 0 miles, Plumas Eureka State Park
My campsite neighbour for the past two days is Ted, a forty-something, obviously single white male from Los Angeles. He came over to my tent to introduce himself yesterday and quickly noted that my campsite beside the river was much better than his. He determined which day I was leaving so that he could take over my site. When he spotted my bike he told me all about how he’d stopped riding because he got sick of staring at a road. Ted was now into mountain hiking. As a member of the Sierra club his aim was to climb as many peaks as he could so that he could tick each of them off his Sierra Club summits list.
The campground is so peaceful except for my neighbour Ted. Even when I think I can get some peace while eating a meal he comes over to my table, sticks his foot up onto my bench and proceeds to lay out his hiking maps in front of me. He points out each of the peaks he plans to do in the next week and then asks me what time I was going to be leaving in the morning so that he can bring his tent over. Ted’s conversational skills are limited to only talking about himself.
Day 36: 86.11 miles, 6:15 hours, Stealth Camp (6 miles West of Chester)
My tent site was not even cold this morning before Ted brings his tent over and proceeds to set it up. I’m trying to have one last peaceful breakfast but am failing badly. Before I’ve even taken my food out of the bear-proof food locker, Ted is already putting his stuff in. He has to leave straight away because he’s going on a bird watching tour in the park. He’s already pointed out a bunch of bird noises for me. “Hear that?” he’s asked me repeatedly over the last few days, “that’s a (insert bird name I’ve never heard of here…) !”. He’s finally driven off in his Subaru Outback and I’m finally left to finish off the last of my breakfast in peace. As I’m packing up my food pannier I help myself to a few packets of his dried fruit, nuts and jerky, all from Trader Joes. The only guilt I feel is the guilt of not having taken more. Karma will get me back I’m sure.
Spent the day dodging logging trucks on highway 89 and did my first stealth camping outside of Chester.
Day 37: 27.43 miles, 2:41 hours, Southwest Campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park
My first National Park of the trip and what a great one to start with. While I was hiking to Mill Creek Falls I met a retired couple from Florida. “Lassen is better than Disneyland” they told me, and kindly offered to send a digital photo of me and an email to my family telling them I was fine.
Day 38: 30.67 miles, 2:44 hours, Manzanita Lake Campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Last night a father Ad (born in Holland) and his two shy kids Hannah and Willem invited me over to their campfire for marshmallows. Ad is a cow farmer in a town just past Chico and grows corn and alfalfa. We talked and ate marshmallows until it got too cold to sit out anymore.
Today’s riding goes down in my “Top Ten Bike Rides List”. I got out of the campground (elevation 6700ft) at about 7am and rode up a wonderful cliff-hugging road to the summit at 8512 feet. On the way up, I spotted a squirrel sitting on the side of the road looking as though it too, was admiring the spectacular views. A guy got out of his car ahead of me and took a few photos as I was climbing. He smiled and thanked me as I passed and said he admired me for what I was doing.
Near the top I spoke with Luke, a young park ranger, who recommended Washington’s Olympic National Park to me. He’d done some touring himself, had no girlfriend, house or commitments and lived out of the back of his pickup. Being a park ranger was the perfect life for him.
At the summit there were still banks of snow beside the road that towered over my head. After the summit it was a wonderful downhill (all downhills are wonderful, except the Auburn ones) that left me “Woohoo”ing all the way down.
I believe that regardless of your age, the exhilarating feeling of flying down a hill on a bicycle is the same as it felt when you were 5 years old and on your first bike flying down a hill. I hope when I’m eighty years old I’m still “Woohoo”ing down hills on a bicycle.
Day 39: 59.22 miles, 3:51 hours, McArthur Burney Falls State Park
While I was hanging around outside the campground toilets this morning (ok, I admit I try to stand in the most sociable spot in the campground as people go and take their morning piss) the lady that had been camping next to me with her kids exclaimed surprise at how quick I’d packed up camp. She lived down near Vegas with her Polish husband and after hearing my accent said that she and her husband were ready to move overseas to give her kids some culture. When I told her I’d left my job she gave me a “good for you!” and then we bitched about work and work ethics for a while. She said I was doing what she had always dreamed of doing when she was younger.
A very stoned, feral-looking kid approached me when I rode up to the Burney supermarket. His name was Mark and he’d hitchhiked all the way from Carolina to go to some big national hippie festival in nearby Alturas. He told me about some free hot springs out at Big Bend which I may go check out tomorrow.
Day 40 (Rest day, Friday, 25 June 2004): 72.96 miles, 5:36 hours, McArthur Burney Falls State Park
I thought today would be a nice casual ride out to the hot springs and I was entertaining the thought of checking out the hippies in the woods. The ride along the main road was bearable, but the turn-off to Big Bend began descending very rapidly into a deep valley. I stopped to decide whether to continue or not as I knew it would be a very long climb out if I went all the way. I decide to push on and finally got to town after several miles of “woohoo”ing down beautiful curves through thick forest. I stopped at the only store in town, bought a snickers and used the opportunity to ask the guy behind the counter if there were some free hot springs around.
“Yeah, it’s in the nice white building a block up the street, costs five bucks”
I told him I meant the free hot springs…
He gave a small sigh and hesitated as though he always hated giving away the town’s secret to an out-of-towner;
“Down the road, up the hill for two miles, park on the left and walk down the stream for a mile”.
I thanked him but had already changed my mind about the hot springs when he had mentioned the mile-long walk. I decided to avoid the big climb back and head back to the campgrounds via the shortcut road; a dubious road the park ranger had told me to avoid. Only 24 miles I thought, can’t be too bad. The shortcut road quickly turned from a pleasant paved road into a gravelly, rough, corrugated road and I began making promises to Stef, that I would never take her on another dirt road if she could just survive this one. By the time I got back to my tent I was sore and exhausted and ready for another rest day.
Day 41 (Rest day): 25.69 miles, 1:41 hours, McArthur Burney Falls State Park
Spent the day at the Burney public library. Spent a lot of the time talking to Connie the librarian who had been to Burnie in Tasmania. Connie had actually retired three years ago but kept getting called back for casual and part time work. However today she was getting laid off due to budgetary cuts so her and her workmates invited me to celebrate with a bottle of champagne. “Probably the only time that you’ll get to drink alcohol in a county building”.
“Camping” in America is strange. Often I’m the only tent in a sea of RV, caravans and buses. I’d never heard of taking a TV, a DVD and even a TV satellite dish to a campground until I came here. And padded camping chairs. And even a fabric garage tent for an SUV. Green Astroturf laid out so they don’t bring any dirt into their RVs. Camping stoves with four cook tops. And as I walk past the bathrooms I can hear ladies blow drying their hair. “How about we take the entire contents of our entertainment filled house out into the woods this weekend, honey?”
We wouldn’t want to get bored would we?
Day 42: 57.07 miles, 5:26 hours, Medicine Lake
Today was the first day that I did not pass through a town. Had to climb over 3000 feet up to Medicine Lake. On the way I stopped to have a look-see at some ice caves beside the road. I saw an old looking 4WD-wagon pull up so abandoned my look-see and went back to my bike. The father of the family Paul introduced me to his wife Gail and their two kids. They were from Oregon and were on a month and a half holiday for the school holidays (Gail was a teacher). Paul handed me a lovely peach “Corporate fruit” and generously tried to get me to take some tins of fruit salad they had. Paul could tell a great story, knew a helluva lot of history, and they offered to load my bike onto the car so that they could take me to see some other caves. I told them I’d meet them at Medicine Lake for a swim later and continued riding. Half an hour later on their way back from the caves, they pulled up in front of me.
Paul got out with a rope determined to tie my bike to the roof of their car. I refused and insisted I’d get to the lake soon enough.
When I got to the beautiful lake I headed straight to the beach to find them. We swam a while in the cool water and they invited me to hang out for some lunch that was healthy and gluten-free. Paul told us some great stories of his younger days and his hitchhiking adventures in Mexico. He didn’t quite make it to Guatemala because of an enormous earthquake that killed twenty thousand people. Before we left, Paul ended up giving me a brand new book that he hadn’t even read yet and more fruit. They gave me their address in Oregon and told me to stop by when I got up that way. “We’ve got an old car that Paul’s been working on that you can have if you like”. Wonderful people.
Day 43: 60.76 miles, 4:37 hours, Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument is full of caves. I quickly discovered that spelunking in dark caves alone isn’t much fun. Spent the rest of the day above ground. The view from the campground is amazing. I much prefer desert over forests, I like being able to see horizons in all directions.
Day 44: 79.96 miles, 5:24 hours, Rocky Point (near Klamath Falls), OREGON
The ride out of Lava Beds this morning was wonderful. I rode into Oregon and past Tule Lake; hundreds of beautiful waterbirds but about five miles of riding through millions of tiny insects. As I was approaching Klamath, a young guy on a bicycle, Chris, began to ride with me. Chris was home with his folks for the holidays but was a bassoon player at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. We talked a lot and he ended up taking me all the way into town to the best grocery store. While I was shopping he rushed home and brought back some cycling maps for me and gave me some directions for getting up to Crater Lake.
When I got to Rocky Point I stopped in at a gas station to fill up on water and get directions to the nearest campground. As I was walking out, an old guy buying a carton of beer asked me where I was heading. I told him I was about to camp for the night and he suggested that I could camp in his back yard and he had water available. I hesitantly agreed, but refused his offer of putting my bike on the back of his pickup. I instead asked for directions, thinking that at the worst I could just check out the place from the road and then ride off if it looked bad. A five minute ride later and I was in a wonderful wooded area with beautiful houses. Audie came out to greet me, and introduced me to his wife Helen and their dog Meathead. “I’ll show you where you can camp” he said, as he led me to their 24 foot luxury 5th wheeler!
Audie and Helen let me do a load of washing while outside it rained heavily for several hours. Audie cooked us burgers and a lovely salad, homemade ice-cream for dessert, gave me a tour of his neighbourhood and showed me home videos of the large snowfalls they get during the winter (they have to clear the roof of the house occasionally so that it doesn’t collapse). I felt like instant family, it was wonderful.
Day 45: 84.29 miles, 6:33 hours, Crater Lake National Park (Mazama Campground)
This morning I was woken to a breakfast fit for royalty. Fruit salad with sweet watermelon, then scrambled eggs with bell peppers and biscuits similar to warm scones with homemade pineapple jam, orange juice and of course a lovely, freshly plunged coffee. It was hard to leave.
Struggled up to Crater Lake National Park with a stomach going haywire but it was well worth it. After setting up my tent beside several slabs of melting snow I took my unloaded bike for the ride around the lake. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the USA and once set a record for clarity. The ride around the lake also goes down in my “Top Ten Bike Rides List”. I could only ride three quarters of the way around the lake, the eastern side was still closed due to snow.
Day 46 : 84.27 miles, 5:25 hours, Valley of the Rogue State Park
I can now be fed and packed up in the morning within an hour. The first forty miles of riding today was all downhill through shady tree lined roads, the wind chill was ridiculous. I had to wait fifteen minutes for my camera lens to un-fog.
Day 47 : 87.38 miles, 5:48 hours, Jedadiah Smith State Park, CALIFORNIA
Today is Friday and it’s the Fourth of July weekend. I rode madly all day, thinking that all the campgrounds are going to be full of mad weekend warriors and their noisy kids. I even had the “TIRED AUSSIE…” sign hanging behind my bike, but no luck. As I was taking down the sign a guy walking past me said he was pretty tired as well, “after a night of drinking here and there”.
Had to climb two small summits, the second one culminated in a very long, dark tunnel. Luckily it had a bicycle warning system; a button to start a set of flashing lights at each end of the tunnel, warning drivers that I was somewhere in the tunnel. It was terrifyingly noisy and very nerve racking and I had to stop at the other end and rest my nerves for ten minutes. After that it was another twenty miles of mostly downhill road but very windy and with very little shoulder. Too many close shaves with RVs and logging trucks and fighting a head wind from the coast didn’t make for very nice riding, even though the scenery amongst the redwoods was great.
The state park was full, but luckily it had a $2 hike and bike section, completely empty. The park is set amongst the magnificent redwood trees. I think George Lucas filmed “Return of the Jedi” somewhere near here.
Day 48 (Rest day): 29.95 miles, 2:37 hours, Jedadiah Smith State Park
Tomorrow is the Fourth of July but tonight I decided I’m having a celebration of my own. I bought a whole bunch of food in town, snaggers, potatoes, cheese and Australian Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m considering that this is my 50th riding day celebration, two days early. When I am halfway through the wine I also decide to name this honourable day the “International Day of Leisure”. As well as that, I decide that I’m gonna celebrate this auspicious occasion more often, maybe corresponding it with every future rest day.
Day 49 (Rest day): 29.69 miles, 2:30 hours, Jedadiah Smith State Park
Woke up in the middle of last night and had to make a rush to the nearest toilet, about 300 yards from my tent. I think I may have overdone it; eating four sausages, five potatoes, a slab of cheese and finishing off the bottle of wine in just one meal. Hugged some trees today and felt a bit better.
Day 50 (Rest day): 16.17 miles, 1:22 hours, Jedadiah Smith State Park
Currently reading the brand new, unread book that Paul (day 42) gave me. It’s called “Arabian Sands” and was written by Wilfred Thesiger who spent several years of his young life travelling with Arabs in Saudi Arabia in the 1940s. Very interesting and not the sort of book I would have picked up to read myself. These Arabs could look at the footprints of a camel in the desert sand and tell you whose camel it was, if it was pregnant and how fast it was going. I think the Arabs thought more highly of their camels than their own wives.
Bought a helmet mirror at the local bike shop. It’s ridiculous how close some of the logging trucks will pass by on roads that have plenty of room. I’m gonna use the extra warning that the helmet mirror gives me to stop my bike and get off the road completely. A friend reckons it’s because loggers equate cyclists as being hippies. Hippies of course are bad for the logging business, chaining themselves to trees, etc, so it’s only natural that a logging truck would want to give a cycling, tree-hugging hippie a bit of a scare. I’m considering putting a “HUG A LOGGER” sign on the back of my bike but that would probably start me getting run off the road and abused by left-wing, tree-hugging, liberal hippies in their gas guzzling SUVs.
Day 51 : 66.69 miles, 5:32 hours, Prairie Creek Redwoods (Elk Prairie Campground)
Day 52 : 64.59 miles, 5:21 hours, Harris Beach State Park, OREGON
At the campground last night I met a great Dutch guy, Rodge, who had started in Calgary three weeks ago and was heading south. Makes me feel totally inadequate knowing that I having been riding for seven weeks and still being in California. Totally great enthusiastic guy and I hope to meet up with him again at some stage to ride together. His website: www.Rodgearoundtheworld.com .
Yesterday I had started riding south back towards San Francisco. After meeting Rodge last night, I felt inspired to head north and see more. And so I did.
Just before the Oregon border I met a German cyclist, Dirk. He saved me from being accosted by an aging hippy who had cornered me outside the supermarket.
The hippy was complaining to me because no one had told him how much his balls were going to hurt when he rode all around the States in the ’60s eating mung beans that he’d soak all day in his panniers. Dirk is a German radio DJ from Munich being sponsored by Tatonka to ride around, literally, the States. I was instantly envious of his stylish matching all black pannier bags and clothing. I could not compare, my multicoloured, fading get-up garb and plastic bags full of food dangling from my handlebars were a poor match. But as we were both heading north we decided to ride together a while.
Day 53 : 86.69 miles, 7:58 hours, Bullards Beach State Park
Day 54 : 71.86 miles, 5:50 hours, Honeyman State Park
Day 55 : 62.47 miles, 5:11 hours, Beverly Beach State Park
Dirk has introduced me to the delights of Dairy Queen ice-cream blizzards with crushed up Snickers. I wanted to introduce Dirk to the joy of early morning riding, he wanted to show me the joy of evening riding. We both got our own way and unfortunately ended up riding from early morning to late afternoon.
It’s great to have a riding partner, and as we learned, unusual to meet anyone else riding northwards along the coast.
Didn’t take long to realise why; with fifteen to twenty five mile per hour headwinds that made balancing on the bike a task in itself. At one point it took me three attempts to get back onto the bike. At every tourist info centre we stopped at, we get a very surprised “Oh” when they discover we are riding north. Everyday we would be passed by a dozen or more cyclists heading south. Woosies.
Day 56 : 58.52 miles, 4:47 hours, Cape Lookout State Park
Dirk has been harassed by terrible bike problems, he is up to his 13th broken spoke and has even had his wheel rebuilt. Today he broke his clipless pedal. This morning Dirk reported in to his Munich radio station to do an update of his ride. I got to say a few words to the DJ, which will be on the radio tomorrow. Too bad I don’t know German.
Day 57 : 40.52 miles, 2:58 hours, Nehalam Bay State Park
Riding with Dirk was fun at first, but it’s getting a bit exhausting having someone around all the time and the decision making that goes with it. I can’t remember much about the Oregon beaches and campgrounds we’ve been through; it’s a blur of getting in after dark, trying to organise dinner and laundry and then on the bikes again first thing in the morning. Yesterday we decided to have a barbeque so we brought snaggers and spuds at lunchtime. When we got to the campgrounds, just before dark, Dirk wanted to organise our time and was deciding in just what order we should do it:
“Well we could do the photos now, then we could try and go for a dip in the ocean, then we could watch the sunset, then barbeque and then have showers”.
Dirk had wanted to take a bunch of photos of us on our bikes and of me posing with my “TIRED AUSSIE…” sign so that he could put the photos up on the Tatonka website. After the last hour long “photo session” he had put me through at the Oregon sand dunes I knew it was not just a matter of a couple of snapshots. Dirk also had not yet gone for a swim in the Pacific Ocean, even though it had been a couple of hundred metres to the left of him ever since he left Los Angeles weeks ago. I was already exhausted by this stage and more than a little annoyed at having my time divided into allocated tasks. I just wanted to sit at the table and rest; not go anywhere, not do anything. I just wanted some “me” time. He got the message and decided that the photo taking session could wait;
“We should go down and go for a quick swim now”.
“You go, Dirk, I’m just gonna hang out here a while and chill a bit”.
He got the message and decided the swim could wait;
“We are gonna miss the sunset!”.
“You go, Dirk. You don’t need to have me there to see the sunset”.
He got the message and decided to start the fire for our barbeque. Dirk got out his camera and his four lenses and took a dozen photos of me cooking sausages, me cooking potatoes, me eating sausages, me eating potatoes. Finally I told him that I’d had enough of posing and that he should put the camera away. After dinner, I quickly headed off for a shower before he could organise anything else to do.
Day 58 : 56 miles, 4:12 hours, Fort Stevens State Park
I was up and ready to go at 7:30am and told Dirk I’d meet him at our next planned campground. The last thing he said before I rode off was to set up my tent at the next campground, but “don’t take anything off your bike so we can do those photos”. I got to the campground at lunchtime and spent some time chatting with Skylar and Chad; both seventeen years old and hitchhiking from their home town of Sooke on Vancouver Island to Montreal, via LA and Detroit. I was expecting Dirk to show up at any time but after two hours there was still no sign of him. I was enjoying being on my own again and headed down to the beach for a snooze. On the way back to my tent to continue napping, Dirk spotted me and suggested we go for a quick swim in the ocean and then take some photos. I told him of “my plan” and agreed that we could take the photos later. By the time I’d finished my nap, Dirk was there again wanting to take the photos of us on the bikes. I told him I wasn’t up to taking any photos and just wanted to chill out. Later he asked to talk about our riding plans for tomorrow and I told him I was gonna have a short riding day and stop at the last state park in Oregon.
“Well I guess this is our last night then”, he said.
Yes, and instead of spending time with him I pissed off down the beach again to watch the sunset. Spoke with Skylar and Chad some more and then agreed to look over Dirk’s digital photos with him, as he’d previously organised for us to do…
Nothing was ever spontaneous with Dirk.
Day 59 (Rest day): 35.18 miles, 2:59 hours, Fort Stevens State Park
Got up at about 5am and was ready to ride not long after. A dozy Dirk emerged from his tent and I went over to him and shook his hand. He reminded me that I had agreed last night to take some photos this morning and get a “statement” from me. I knew this could take some time so I told him I’d just email him a whole bunch of my photos when I finished my trip. This seemed to satisfy him but he still wanted a “statement”. He pulled out his microphone and asked me a few questions about the highlights of my trip, and I babbled away. And then that was it. We had a quick hug in which I accidentally hit him on the chin and then I took off.
Had a wonderful short day of riding and had a huge campground almost entirely to myself. I camped under the thick canopy of a tree and despite it raining quite heavily during the night, not a drop hit my tent.
Day 60: 91.2 miles, 6:16 hours, Cape Disappointment State Park, WASHINGTON
Have ridden 3000 miles. I’m sick of corn grits for breakfast. I’m sick of bananas. I’m sick of rice cakes and peanut butter. I’m sick of Snickers. And today, for the first time, I’m bored of riding. Even the prospect of entering a new state, Washington (the Evergreen State) didn’t cheer me up or quell my boredom. The only consolation was finding a jar of Nutella in a small store near the Washington border, my first Nutella since leaving California.
I got a rear tyre puncture today on the way across the bridge into Astoria, the first since day 2. I used the opportunity to hang out in the emergency lane of highway 101 during morning peak hour traffic and change my tyre as well. It’s done 3500 miles and was worn down to the threads.
After setting up camp at the state park, I took a ride along the peninsula but from the road there is barely any sign of the coast unless you do some hiking. I did get to see my first family of racoons slowly crossing the road in front of me, a mother followed closely by her four young cubs, all the time keeping a very close eye on me.
Day 61: 81.67 miles, 5:52 hours, Twin Harbours State Park
Another mediocre day. I’m bored again of riding and bored again of eating the same old gluten free food. I called my boss today to quit my job. It’s been two months since I took leave, so I figured I should give them a month’s notice. I’ve thought seriously about the job situation for the last two weeks. I think my mind was kind of made up when I decided not to ride back to San Francisco. I told my boss where I was and how much I was enjoying myself and then “ah…umm…I think I want to resign”. He declined my resignation. He said take off more time if you need it and just come back when someone calls you. Before he ended the conversation he told me that he wished he was in my shoes. I don’t think he really would have liked to have been in my shoes because my feet have been very sore for the past few days.
Day 62: 66.3 miles, 4:35 hours, Quinault Lake (Gatton Creek Campground)
The last few days have been low points of my trip. I now realise why. I need a bit of a challenge. My plan lately has been to make it to Vancouver and then head across to the east coast of America as fast as I can in order to see the Autumn colours.
Today I had my map of the USA out and for some reason I turned it over to read the travel warnings on the back of the map. And there on the back, hidden away in a corner, was a little map of Alaska (and a little map of Hawaii). I’d forgotten all about Alaska. I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska and see the Northern Lights ever since a friend of mine, Herman, told me his stories of being an ambulance paramedic in Fairbanks. For some reason I’d totally forgot about that dream while thinking of places to visit . I feel challenged!
I got to Quinault lake in the early afternoon after spending the day singing to myself, the only entertainment, albeit quite poor entertainment, on another mediocre riding day. Maybe it is possible to spend too much time with one’s self, like a friend of mine once remarked to me. Quinault Lake is on the edge of the Olympic National Park and the primitive campground I’m in is literally right on the edge of the lake, I only have to walk a few feet from my tent and I’m standing in the clear cold water of the lake. My campground neighbours are a young family from Seattle; Michael (a physician of internal medicine), his wife Rebecca, their three-month old baby and their wonderful golden retriever Bella who keeps coming and sitting on my feet. I was asking them all about Alaska and they mentioned that a ferry runs up there from Seattle but to ride back by bicycle would require going through some pretty isolated stretches of country.
Day 63 (Rest day): 31.75 miles, 2:53 hours, Quinault Lake (Gatton Creek Campground)
Last night I was woken by a raccoon a metre from my tent, for about ten seconds it just stared brazenly into my torchlight, then casually turned and wobbled away.
Had a wonderful rest day; took a leisurely ride around the lake, a quiet dirt road with national forest all around. The whole ride I kept thinking Alaska, Alaska, Alaska and getting more and more excited about the idea. Took a walk through the rainforest, everything is lush and covered in moss and ferns. Michael and Rebecca invited me for a dinner of garden burgers and showed me some of their maps and I realised how bloody far away Alaska really is. Called Herman also and he was very encouraging for me to get to Alaska but to take the ferry there and take the ferry back.
Day 64: 74.56 miles, 5:15 hours, Olympic National Park (Hoh Rain Forest Campground)
My first day in Olympic National Park in the Hoh rain forest section. I hate stating the obvious, but it rained today. I think this must be the first time in my life I’ve consciously decided to go for a bicycle ride when it’s raining (coming from a place that has about 330 days of clear skies every year, it’s not a decision that has to be made too often). And I realised how much fun it is. It was a light, but soaking rain that lasted all day and my rain gear got its first real test. The rain covers for the panniers do a good job except the rear covers don’t drain very well, leaving the bottom of the panniers quite soaked. Luckily I have put anything of importance inside dry bags. My main concern was my acoustic guitar which is sitting on my rear rack. Before starting the trip I used a whole spray can of weatherproofing on the nylon guitar soft-case and now it is wrapped in a 64-day old, very holey garbage bag followed with a rainproof backpack cover which seems to just let the water soak into it. When I set up camp in the only dry spot I could find, under a large-leafed tree, I was too nervous to unpack the guitar to see how it had survived. It was tempting to ride back out of the rain forest to a state park down the road which I knew would have hot showers, but the idea of doing another 31 miles in the rain was enough to put me off. Took a small walk in the afternoon and despite the dullness of the daylight in the rainforest, it is amazingly beautiful and luscious with bright green ferns and mosses everywhere they can grow. Green, green, iridescent green everywhere. The trees seem to sag under the burden of supporting the enormous amount of life in their branches and water seems to drip from everywhere.
Day 65: 46.5 miles, 3:21 hours, Olympic National Park (Mora Campground)
Day 66 (Rest day): 17.01 miles, 1:17 hours, Olympic National Park (Mora Campground)
It was an easy decision to stay a day here, my riding clothes and shoes are still wet and cold from two days ago. I rode out to Rialto beach and took a long walk along the beach. There are a number of very tall, narrow rocky sea stacks standing in the water, usually with a tree or two perched on top of them that’s decided to bravely beat the odds at surviving in such a precarious location. I then headed to the Quileute Indian Reservation and checked out Second Beach, again very beautiful. Spotted three bald eagles circling overhead, easy to spot because of their white head and tail feathers.
Day 67: 112.94 miles, 8:07 hours, Olympic National Park (Ozette Campground)
My longest riding day so far! Got to see Vancouver island from the north coast and also met two Canadian bicyclists, who gave me some ideas of rides on Vancouver island. One of them was small and bearded and reminded me of a hobbit, and it was hard not to smile seeing the guy hop up onto his loaded bicycle and ride off. They were both over fifty, I hope if I reach that age I’ll still be doing things like this.
Got to the most northwestern point of the contiguous United States where I quickly got my photo taken for posterity and headed on. Was going to camp at the Neah Bay Indian Reservation but the campgrounds looked quite shitty so I rode all the way back to Ozette. Put up my tent at a private campground and made good use of the hot shower, which I haven’t seen the likes of since day 61.
The Tour De France is on at the moment and as I’m wearing US Postal Team bike shorts I keep getting people approaching me to give me updates on how Armstrong is going. Some kids at a cafe even called out “Lance!” as I rode past. Lance can lift his bike with his little finger, I have trouble lifting my bike at all.
Day 68: 44.12 miles, 3:15 hours, Bear Creek (2mi E of Sappho)
Walked to Cape Alava this morning along an impressive 3.1 mile elevated wooden boardwalk that ran through forest, swamp and grasslands until it got to the beach. The sun was still low by the time I reached the beach and there were a number of deer feeding nearby who seemed oblivious to my presence. The low tide had pulled back the ocean to reveal a sharp rocky reef covered with a seaweed that crackled and popped as I walked on it. Further out there were a number of larger island rock outcrops covered with trees and vegetation and I must have taken a dozen or more photos of the area. I walked three miles south along the beach to Sand Point and then found another elevated wooden boardwalk that took me the three miles back to the ranger station. I tip my hat to whoever had to build these wooden boardwalk paths; it must have taken eons, but lowering the impact of humans tramping across the landscape was probably well worth it.
I checked in with the park ranger, Hazel about the camping at Sol Duc campgrounds and she was nice enough to ring the ranger at Sol Duc to check. It sounds like the campgrounds are full every night so he was good enough to suggest a stealth camping location along one of the park roads a few miles before the campground.
Day 69: 27.13 miles, 2:17 hours, Olympic National Park (Sol Duc Campground)
Got to Sol Duc by 9am to find that the campground was almost entirely full, with a cue of people in their huge idling SUVs just waiting to pounce on an empty site. I managed to eventually find a walk-in camp spot with a bear box and by lunch time I was snoozing, still exhausted from the long ride two days ago. After a Dove ice-cream to satisfy my out-of-control chocolate addiction I wandered down to the river for a bath in the chilly water. My bathing-in-colder-than-comfortable-water method goes something like this: I stand ankle deep in the water, massaging the soles of my feet on the riverbed stones until I can no longer feel my feet. That’s followed by ducking completely under the water and washing all over, the whole time gasping with the shock of the cold. A great way to wake up but it takes at least thirty minutes of sitting in the sun to warm up again. Like all the other campgrounds I’ve been at I’ve noticed people don’t explore much beyond a five or ten minute walk from their tents or RVs. It’s great, I never have to wander very far before getting some peace and quiet.
Day 70 (Rest day): 0 miles, Olympic National Park (Sol Duc Campground)
Woke up at 4:30am this morning for a hike around the Sol Duc Loop, a 22 mile hike starting from the campground. The campground is at about 1900 feet and the path meanders upwards through moss covered forest, until it thins out to just low ground cover and colourful flowers at about 5200 feet. Got to see my first live marmot. After seeing probably a dozen or more dead marmots stuffed and on display in museums I was starting to wonder whether they really existed or whether it was some museum curators idea of a joke.
I eventually got to Bogachiel peak which has an amazing view of the entire snow-covered Olympic mountain range and several glaciers. The thirsty mosquitoes barely let me have time to take a photograph. The path wandered downwards past some small lakes, one heart-shaped where there were a bunch of warning signs about the aggressive mountain goats in the area. I passed a number of people camping in the area who called me “ambitious” for attempting the loop in one day. I now know why; I barely noticed my surroundings in the last few miles back to camp; I was so tired and numb. I finally got back to my tent eleven hours after leaving.
Day 71: 46.41 miles, 3:06 hours, Olympic National Park (Altaire Campground)
This morning I woke to find a group of deer walking right past my tent. Ran out of food so I rode down to Fairholm where I was hoping to find something for brekkie at a gas station. Had to make do with only a coffee but was treated to the sight of seeing the sun rise over Lake Crescent. The water, the hills and the sky were all various shades of blue and only a bunch of ducks broke the clear reflection of the lake.
Just before the store, on highway 101 that borders the lake, was another very large and prominent bicycle warning sign. I saw the last one when I was heading to the north coast on highway 112. They’re basically big yellow signs with a very descriptive warning of how dangerous the road ahead is for cyclists; narrow, winding, short line-of-sight and no shoulder. When I spotted the first one of these signs a few days ago I almost considered changing my route but after tentatively riding the road I found the warning to be a vast exaggeration. Today’s warning was luckily the same, I found the ride around the lake to be one of the most pleasant rides I could have hoped for. Obviously Washington looks after it’s cyclists?
After I set up camp I hitched a ride up to the hot-springs trail-head with one of the National Park maintenance guys. People in Washington are amazing; even if they have no room in their vehicles, they still stop and apologise that they can’t give you a lift. The hot springs were hot and smelly and afterwards I had to bathe in the cold river to wash all the slime off. I managed to hitch another ride back with three young guys that had just finished an exhausting three day hike. Before long we realised that we’d passed each other while I was doing the Sol Duc loop. Instead of dropping me off at the campground entrance they insisted on driving me all the way to my tent.
Day 72: 50.64 miles, 4:35 hours, Olympic National Park (Heart o’ the Hills Campground)
As I was riding into Port Angeles this morning to stock up on grub a guy stopped beside me in an SUV and let me know that Lance had won the tour de France for the 6th time. At the camp ground I unloaded my bike completely and began the twelve mile ride up to Hurricane Ridge, a ride that Luke, a park ranger back in Lassen National Park more than a month ago, had recommended. The ride down was a lot more fun than the way up. This goes in my “Top Ten Bike Rides List” just for the sheer “woohoo” factor.[/lang_all][lang_all]
Day 73: 39.15 miles, 3:27 hours, Saltspring Island (Ruckle Park Campground), BRITISH COLUMBIA
Was starting to think the Canadians might send me back across the border. I got stopped at immigration in Victoria after the ninety minute ferry ride from Port Angeles. I was sent to a secondary area where I was asked a whole bunch of questions about my travel plans. I tried to keep it fairly honest and admitted I wasn’t really sure where I was heading or when. This led to more questions about how I was supporting myself and a thorough inspection of all the stamps in my passport. Another guy asked me to start listing all the items I was carrying, pannier by pannier and then asked if he could look through my food pannier. They seemed to be satisfied with that, and after 45 minutes, finally let me out into the streets of beautiful Victoria city. A bit of a shock, being the first big city I’ve been in since leaving Oakland. Was a bit apprehensive leaving my bike outside a busy supermarket and when I returned with my shopping an old guy with a bicycle came running over.
“Ah, there he is!”, he cried with excitement, “I want to ask you a few questions!”.
I was immediately on the this-is-a-crazy-man defensive and kept packing my food into my panniers, only giving him the briefest acknowledgements to his babbling. He eagerly told me that he’d seen so many bicycle tourists and had just done some small trips himself but he had never, never seen anyone carrying as much stuff as me. I started talking with him a little and pretty soon I got to like having this funny conversation with this frothing-excitedly-at-the-mouth man whose name turned out to be Ed. Ed and I talked for a half hour until he wished me well on my way, concluding that I was indeed an extraordinary person. This conversation with Ed left me smiling for the rest of the day.
Followed an easy, interesting bike path up to Schwartz to catch a twenty minute ferry over to Saltspring Island. Headed straight to the state-owned campground nestled closely against the east coast of the island from where it was possible to see the large ferries pass by. Just after I finished my dinner of beans and rice the lady camping next door donated their leftover zucchini for my desert and five plums that her grandsons wouldn’t touch.
It’s good to be back in a country with Queen Lizzie gracing the coins.
Day 74: 46.61 miles, 3:59 hours, Zuiderzee Campground (10mi SE of Nanaimo)
These Canadians are a strange mob to work out. I’m sometimes not entirely sure if people are being sarcastic or just plain arseholes. My bike was resting near a telephone booth in town this morning and a guy walks up and bluntly says
“What is this? Your office? I need to make a call”,
with no hint of humour in his voice at all.
I didn’t stay long in town, nor on the island, instead I headed back to Vancouver Island. A few miles from the dock I was heading quickly down a hill when a speeding semi-trailer decided it would pass me. From around the corner at the bottom of the hill, another truck suddenly appeared. The truck overtaking me pulled back sharply towards me and time seemed to slow down as I saw its second trailer get closer and closer. I had no choice but to ride onto the loose dirt shoulder, resulting in me quickly loosing control and landing in the bushes. I was shaking and I thought my heart would burst from beating so fast. I was pissed off as well but consolidated to find that nothing seemed damaged on the bike. My camera was unhurt, even though it had been in the pannier that impacted. I was too scared to check on my guitar. Might have to wash my bike shorts particularly well tonight.
Found a great private campground beside a large lake and had my second shower in twelve nights. My next door neighbours, Rudge and Charlotte have been living here in a caravan for the last six weeks because it reduces their commute to work from forty minutes to fifteen. They invited me to join them for a drink and also dinner.
Day 75 (Rest day): 0 miles, Zuiderzee Campground (10mi SE of Nanaimo)
It’s B.C. day today, a long weekend so the campground is full. Rudge persuaded me to stay another night and so I moved my tent behind their caravan to share their site. Rudge reminds me of a Bryan Brown sort of crook wearing thongs and chain smoking cigarette after cigarette. We went into town in his old red Ford 150 pickup to check out a house he’s thinking of buying, a “do-her-uppa”. We didn’t talk much but Rudge is definitely a “yup” sort of person, keeps his answers short and sweet and ends the majority of his sentences in “ay?”. After looking at the house we stopped at a pub in town for a double shot of gin and tonic. On the way home we stopped at another bar and Rudge got another double shot of gin and tonic. I’m sure if the trip back to the campground had been any longer, we would have stopped several more times for more drinks.
After my dinner of canned beef and instant rice, Rudge and Charlotte invited me over for a second dinner of beef steak, corn-on-the-cob and some more gin and tonics. The more time I spend with Rudge and Charlotte, the more I like them. Their unselfish generosity towards me always seems to be a little out of character with what my first impressions of them had been. I’m learning to ignore my first impressions of people more and more. Usually if a stranger offers me unsolicited help, I’m immediately cautious and suspicious of their intentions. But on this trip I’m learning to let my guard down more and more, and starting to instantly trust strangers rather than immediately distrust them. Maybe it’s something from childhood, how we’re all taught not to take lollies from strangers. I like this new trusting side of me, it’s certainly a lot less stressful.
Day 76: 17.89 miles, 1:26 hours, Vancouver City (Cambie Hostel)
Rudge and Charlotte gave me a lift into Nanaimo this morning and I boarded the ferry to Vancouver. I’m here in Vancouver to meet my friend Herman who is flying in early tomorrow morning. A few weeks ago he offered to come out and ride with me for a while, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since. I negotiated downtown Vancouver and finally found the Cambie hostel, situated above a punk bar with a number of colourful characters inside. I explored the surrounding city for a while and also joined a crowd of thousands down on the foreshore to watch an international fireworks competition.
Day 77 (Rest day): 0 miles, Vancouver City (Cambie Hostel)
Herman showed up at about 6am this morning. We explored the aquarium which was pretty fantastic, beluga whales and a jellyfish exhibit, as well as a bunch of fish from the Amazon that looked as they were straight out of a prehistoric anthropology book.
Day 78: 47.56 miles, 4:00 hours, Squamish (Chief Campground)
We rode up to Squamish and camped in the shadow of the big rock. Spent the afternoon checking out the hot climber girls.
Day 79: 34.33 miles, 3:03 hours, Nanaimo (Westwood Lake Campground)
Day 80 (Wednesday, 4 August 2004): 54.33 miles, 4:13 hours, Port Alberni (Arrowvale Campground)
It rained most of yesterday and most of today. Last night we stayed at a private campground in Nanaimo. We still didn’t have a clue where we were heading but the owner of the campground, a kiwi guy, gave us the good suggestion of heading to the southwest side of Vancouver Island via a little ferry from Port Alberni. The kiwi guy was good enough to buy us some beers. There were a bunch of little shits running around the campground annoying the hell out of us. Especially a little ginger haired kid who even threw a rock at Herman’s bike tyre. Speaking of tyres, Herman has already had three flat tyres as well as busting a tube valve. He’s had more tyre problems in four days than I’ve had in eighty.
We stopped at a very good market in Coombs and had lunch while watching amusing goats eat the grass on top of the roof. The food at the market was amazing. There were herds of tourists there, though it’s unclear whether the tourists were there to see the goats on the roof or there for the good food.
Day 81 (Rest day): 18.04 miles, 1:49 hours, Port Alberni (Arrowvale Campground)
It rained again last night and Herman insisted on using the campground dryer to dry his riding clothes. I normally just put on my damp clothes in the morning and they eventually dry during the day, but it was good having a dry pair to put on. Herman has had to endure much ribbing from me about going soft, he also makes poop stops at the best hotels and restaurants much to my amusement. The man has class. I don’t think either of our digestion systems have been the same since India. Herman actually had to be taken to hospital while in India because of stomach problems. Hasn’t stopped either of us wanting to go back there one day.
We’re having a rest day due to the intermittent ferry service and staying at another private campground a few miles out of town. It’s a lovely place with a brilliant view of the mountains and within spitting distance of the river. As an added bonus, someone has a cocky here that regularly calls out in a very authentic human voice:
“Pepper! Pepper! Come here! hahaha!”
It took us both a while to realise it was just a bird. I can’t imagine how annoying it would be for the dog named Pepper. Stupid name for a dog anyway. We had grilled salmon and chips for lunch and downed a bottle of red wine on the patio of the campground store. They also have freshly ground coffee in the mornings. Damnit, this is the life.
Day 82: 6.54 miles, 0:34 hours, Ucluelet (Surf’s Inn Hostel)
Another rainy day. We boarded the Lady Rose ferry that runs down the river to Ucluelet. It was a lovely trip even though it was cold, raining and all my rain gear was soaked through. Spent almost the entire trip huddled against the ship’s warm exhaust funnel were I could get most of my clothes dry except for my shoes. It also turned out to be a bit of a social spot as people jostled for a warm location against the funnel, all probably a little bit buzzed from the fumes. While I was there I met a lovely lady from south Africa and also an old couple from Mount Barker, not too far from where I live in Western Australia. The old guy looked surprised as hell the whole time to meet a West Aussie all the way over the other side of the world riding a bike around. Turned out he also knew some of my relatives back home.
We got to Ucluelet at lunchtime and found a hostel instead of spending another damp night in the rain. We spent the afternoon downing red wine and visited a bar on an old ship for gin and tonics. Back at the hostel we talked well into the night with a bunch of young holidaying Canadians about the tour de France and mountain climbing. Herman, ever the bullshitter, has adopted my story and tells everyone who asks that we both rode from San Francisco. When one of the Canadians stated that it must be strange for him to have to end such a long holiday and head back to LA in a few days, I had to choke back a laugh as all Herman could produce was a reluctant, but authentic “yeah…”
Day 83: 44.62 miles, 3:49 hours, Tofino
We set out casually towards Tofino, we knew that we probably wouldn’t find a camping spot in Tofino, and would have to turn back. We’d heard it could cost up to $50 bucks for a tent site and that Tofino is Canada’s most expensive place to camp. Bugger that. On our way, I recognised a name from the past, that of a very fancy hotel called the Wickinninish Inn. I’d met a Canadian girl on Phillip Island, near Melbourne several years ago and I remember her telling me about the hotel she had worked at. We walked in to the fancy hotel lobby in our smelly bike clothes and here was Nicki working at the front desk. We both had to look twice at each other before we recognised each other. It was cool, she offered to let us camp at her place in Tofino which we happily accepted. Herman made good use of the fancy dunnies while outside I was asked to move our bikes from the front driveway to a less visible location.
We headed into Tofino for a sushi lunch and one of Nicki’s friends showed us where the house was. We set up our tents on the back lawn, high on a hill overlooking the town, one of the best camping spots I’ve had so far. We later met a roommate Paul who reminded us of Frank Black from the Pixies and who showed us around the amazing house. It reminded us of the type of place a porn star would have in LA, even had a fireplace that literally hung from the ceiling and had 180 degree views of the town and islands.
It was Herman’s last night, so we wandered down into town to find the most happening bar. It was filled with heaps of young locals dancing to Oakland hip hop and we helped ourselves to several rounds of drinks plus the Dizzy Buddha house special. We even survived the flooding of the entire bar which was kind of surreal having already downed quite a few drinks and not exactly knowing what was going on.
Day 84 (Rest day): 11.43 miles, 1:06 hours, Tofino
Herman took off before 7am this morning, I had a great time with him, it was like a holiday in the middle of my trip. A holiday from being alone so much. The weariest thing about this trip is having too many five minute conversations with people.
“Where’re you heading?”,
“Where’re you going?”,
“Had many flats?”,
“You’ve got quite a load there!”,
That’s as deep as it gets. And most people talk at you, rather than talking with you. They’ll ask you one question and then go on about themselves for the next five minutes. So I’m gonna miss Herman.
Met a young German bicycle tourist in town, he only knew a hundred words of English but he had enough words to describe the dangerous road from Ucluelet back to Port Alberni. Boris convinced me to join him on taking a bus out of here in two days rather than risking the narrow, twisting, shoulder-less road that he’d ridden in on.
Day 85 (Rest day): 0 miles, Tofino
Nicki, Ben and I took a water taxi over to Meades Island and we did the steepest uphill hike I think I’ve ever done. The view from the peak was amazing. We half walked, half jogged the path down and I thought at times I’d collapse with my rubber legs almost giving out on me.
Nicki offered me the use of their washer/dryer tonight so I put absolutely everything in, including my bicycle speedometer which I recovered in a panic after five minutes of the wash cycle. It still worked like a charm.
Day 86: 90.99 miles, 5:56 hours, Miracle Beach State Park (15kms N of Courtenay)
Took the bus to Nanaimo and spent the time talking with Boris, well as much talk as we could considering I don’t know any German. Unfortunately the bus only stopped at Nanaimo so I had to re-ride 15 miles of familiar road. Later in the day I accidentally went ten miles down a dead-end dirt road, trying to find the campgrounds. According to my $5 REI compass/thermometer that probably has an accuracy of plus or minus 20 degrees, it was about 35 degrees Celsius today. I ran low on water a few times today, while I was washing my cycling clothes I noticed I had salt marks all over the back of my shirt.
I have French speaking neighbours on both sides of me tonight. Though they’re probably from eastern Canada, I have noticed there seems to be so many more foreign tourists in Canada than the USA. I didn’t meet one foreigner while camping in the States and here I seem to have camping neighbours from other countries several nights a week.
Day 87: 59.79 miles, 4:27 hours, Sayward Junction RV Park
I suffered today. I’m still tired from the hiking in Tofino and it was bloody hot with a headwind for the entire day. Stopped at a great outdoor gear/bike shop in Campbell River where I bought some spare spokes for the first time. The whole process took about half an hour. First they tried to measure the spokes on my bike then they were checking sizes on a computer program they had. I thought a spoke was a spoke, but turns out I have different sized spokes on my rear and front tyres. They’re now proudly attached to my bike frame with electrical tape. I feel more like a serious cyclist now. I should have got spare spokes ages ago, I knew something was missing in my life. My expertise for bicycle repair is limited to fixing a flat tyre. Maybe if I was to do this all again, I’d learn how to completely pull apart my bike and put it back together again before I started the trip. I got a quick “Replacing a Spoke 101” lesson from Dirk in Oregon but I wasn’t really paying attention. Anyway, it’ll never happen.
It was fifty miles between Campbell River and Sayward with nothing in between except waterless and toiletless rest stops. I stopped at one of the rest stops in the afternoon and fell asleep on a bench for forty minutes, I felt so weak and tired. Luckily I didn’t need to ride the extra six miles into Sayward, but instead camped at the highway junction.
In the US I was having corn grits for breakfast, a horrible tasteless gluten free cereal that I’d mix with peanut butter and nutella in order to make it bearable to eat. I haven’t found anything similar in the Canadian supermarkets. I had the inspiring idea today of having baked beans for brekkie. Beans twice a day. What a great idea.
Day 88: 87.51 miles, 6:42 hours, Telegraph Cove RV Park
It took me ages to do the first twenty miles today. I started early at 6:30am (the sun rises at about 5:30am) and rode through miles and miles of commercial timber forest. There can hardly be anything more boring and tedious than riding through commercial forests. My baked beans breakfast didn’t help me much energy-wise, so at Woss I stopped in to get some snacks. They had a little restaurant at the gas station so I decided to try the egg and veggie breakfast and told the lady to skip the toast. She asked me if I was wheat-intolerant and offered me corn tortillas instead – it was great. It seemed to make all the difference, I think it’s the eggs. I met a guy who cleans the rest stop toilets along the highway, turns out he is a commercial diver. He told me about the world class diving in the area and gave me the number of a friend who does dive tours on the weekends. The idea of being in such cold water is putting me off, and I think instead I will just head straight to Prince Rupert.
The turnoff to Telegraph Cove began with a long thirteen percent downhill which I’m going to enjoy struggling up tomorrow morning. The last five kilometres were a horrible corrugated road covered in a fine white powder sand that would fly up and cover me in dust every time a car went past. Telegraph Cove is a tourist trap, but has a nice little village on stilts and is a popular starting point for the $90 Orca watching tours.
Day 89: 56.15 miles, 4:32 hours, Wildwood RV Park (5km from Port Hardy)
An uneventful day, more commercial forests. At one point I had to get driven through a construction area. While I was on the back of the pilot car, the driver called something out. Later he told me he’d seen a bear. Boris, the German from several days ago, told me he’d seen sixteen bears on his road trip so far. I’m still on number one, and that was back in California fifty days ago. Got a flat tyre later in the day; stupid me – I was looking out for bears and hit a big rock on the road. Even damaged my rim a little.
At the campgrounds I met a young German couple, Rolf and his very fine girlfriend, Dorit. They’d started riding from the middle of Canada four months ago but were now returning home to finish their Biology and Psychology studies. From what Rolf told me about the ferry up to Alaska, it sounds stupendous and I’m convinced now to go up as far as Haines.
Day 90: 3.71 miles, 0:19 hours, Prince Rupert
Caught the 7am ferry to Prince Rupert. It was a long time to spend on a boat. Even though it was beautiful, I did start getting sick of just seeing forest, forest, forest. Very beautiful but agonisingly monotonous. They should have a hot tub and a happy hour or something like that on the ferry. Or even better, a happy hour in the hot tub. I spent some of the hours reading my latest book, “The Killing Fields”, which I picked up at an RV park by swapping my old book “Cider House Rules” by John Irving. The most I’ve spent on a book so far is fifty cents. The highlight of the ferry trip was the $22 dinner buffet. I broke my gluten-free diet totally, but at least I broke it in style: four main meal plates of halibut and fresh salads, then three plates of desert. When I saw the profiteroles (cream puffs) I couldn’t resist; eleven of them.[/lang_all][lang_all]
Day 91: 16.83 miles, 1:37 hours, Charlotte City, Queen Charlotte Island
Caught another ferry and arrived on Queen Charlotte Island just before dark. I began riding up to Queen Charlotte city (which is barely the size of a small village) but stopped at “Joy’s campground”; basically some nice lawn at the back of Joy’s house without any facilities. I never got to meet Joy and didn’t have $5 in change, so I left her a note saying I’d return in a few days. It was a beautiful spot, right on the water. I sat on the rocks as the afternoon light slowly dwindled and watched bald eagles clashing mid-air.
Day 92: 29.09 miles, 1:58 hours, Tlell (Misty Meadows Campground, Naikoon Park)
Another boring day of riding through boring monotonous commercial forest. Took the only paved road on the island that runs north-south. I was so bored I stopped at the first campground and called it a day. I was planning on doing a walk along the coast but fell asleep on the bench. Took me three hours to get my act together. The walk went through a few kilometres of forest and then out onto the beach. There was an impressive shipwreck on the beach from the early 1900s, the bow was all that remained.
Swapped books again, there wasn’t a great choice, it was either John Grisham’s “The Client” or a bunch of optimistic romance novels. The campground host, a lady in her 60’s told me that she’d been to Albany (Western Australia) back when it was still a whaling station. She remembers particularly well the blood and the horrendous stench.
Day 93: 54.84 miles, 3:45 hours, Tow Hill (Agate Beach Campground)
It was misty all day with the occasional rain but I enjoyed the riding today. Saw heaps of deer but still no bears. The last fifteen kilometres or so was all dirt but nice as it had views of the ocean. I stopped for a fantastic coffee along the way at a small bakery/cafe/pizza place filled with interesting historical artefacts, animal bones and agate from the nearby beach. The entrance to the cafe was bordered by the rib bones of a whale.
I found a wonderful sheltered campsite at agate beach, spitting distance from the ocean and managed to set up my tent on the wooden boards that were set up at each tent site. It definitely goes down in my list of favourite campsites. The tap water here is a brown-yellow colour but I’m drinking it anyway. Funnily enough, at all the other provincial campsites I’ve been at, there’s always a “Warning: boil water before drinking” sign at the tap. Not here though.
I spotted a guy that I had met on the ferry and he raved about the fishing here, describing all the fish he did and didn’t catch. Later in the afternoon he came back to my campsite with chicken drumsticks and other snacks. Very appreciated.
Day 94: 91.19 miles, 6:23 hours, Sandspit
Began the long ride back to Queen Charlotte City, twice as monotonous as the first time. I pulled into the campground that I’d stayed at the other night to fill up my water bottles. The tap was turned on full bore with water gushing everywhere, I figured some idiot had left it running. I filled up my bottles, turned the tap off and started guzzling the water. Damn, it was like drinking battery acid, and I quickly spat out what was left in my mouth. It was too late, my throat was burning. It felt like my stomach had been scraped empty with a hair brush and within minutes I was burping gas every few seconds. I quickly rode over to another tap inside the campgrounds but as I was filling up, a maintenance guy drove over;
“I wouldn’t drink that if I was you, I’m flushing out the lines with bleach”.
Even a coffee and more food didn’t help, my throat is still burning several hours later.
At Skidegate I caught a ferry across to the south island, and rode into town with Daniel, a mushroom picker from Montreal.
Day 95: 47.83 miles, 4:42 hours, Ferry to Prince Rupert
Day 96 (Rest day): 10.98 miles, 1:11 hours, Prince Rupert
Did the dirt road loop around the south island yesterday and then caught the ferry back to the north island. It started pissing down with rain so I spent the last few hours waiting at the ferry terminal. The ferry back to Prince Rupert left at 10pm. As soon as I hopped on board I claimed my spot at the front of the boat with my mattress. I was asleep before the boat had left the dock and didn’t wake up again until the breakfast call.
I’ve decided to head further north than Haines. My sister who is working offshore in the North Sea, has challenged me; first to the Arctic circle…
My campground neighbours are a young Japanese couple, Jun and Chickadoo. Jun laughed at nearly everything I said. Not just laughed, almost broke into tears. I love Japanese people, they’re hilarious. They’d quit their family business, much to the horror of their families, and decided to do the travelling thing for a year or two. Really cool people.
Day 97 (Rest day): 1.41 miles, 0:13 hours, Ferry to Juneau, ALASKA
Tried to book a ferry all the way to Seward, but found out that it doesn’t leave for a week. So much for my ferry timetable reading skills. Bought a ticket to Juneau instead and went and waited in a car queue to board the boat at 7:30am. Before getting onto the ferry it was necessary to go through US customs and as each car pulled up to the inspections officer he asked them if they had any fruit in the car. When I got to customs, he asked me a few friendly questions about my bike trip and gave me the ok. Being the good boy I am, I asked him if he was gonna ask me about all the fruit I had hanging in plastic bags from my handlebars and guitar.
“Ah, it’s a stupid rule anyway”, he said, and waved me through.
The ferry ride was similar to the BC ferry ride, mostly through beautiful but monotonous hills filled with trees. Did spot two humpback whale tails this morning but haven’t looked out that much. I’ve been getting absorbed in my two new books, Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike” and “Doctor Zhivago”. I claimed a spot in the lounge, grabbed a coffee and started reading. A really cute, blue-eyed, brunette sat down in the seat in front of me, with what I assumed were her parents. As the dad went past he asked me about the coffee in a familiar accent so I used the opportunity to ask him where he was from. He was an old farmer from Wagga in New South Wales, and was with his wife Barb and daughter, the cute one, Meg. Meg was taking time off from her cruise ship job to show Barb and Peter around Canada and the Alaskan Inside Passage. Peter and I got talking about farming and retired farmers and the subject came upon his health and he told me how he has Celiac disease, the intolerance to gluten, as well. So this got us really talking about our experiences and so there was plenty to talk about between farming and having the shits to fill in several hours. When we stopped at Ketchikan, Megan invited me along for a tour of downtown. The ship only stops at the port for thirty minutes, but Meg, who had been here many times before on the cruise ship, knew exactly where to go and what to see. It was hilariously funny because we were literally running between sights and every time we passed a nice shop, Barb would give a tortured sigh. Thirty minutes was not enough time for shopping. Meg’s mum was a little hard of hearing so the tortured sighs were always quite loud, and she was often the loudest person in the ship’s lounge. Meg confided that when they were kids, Barb, even with her “bad hearing” could hear Meg or her twin brother mutter a “fuck” quietly under their breaths from over fifty yards away.
Day 98 (Rest day): 42.74 miles, 3:42 hours, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
It’s a bit hard to sleep in a stuffy ship’s lounge after spending the last three months living in a tent. Last night after dark, I grabbed my sleeping bag and mattress and made good use of the reclining chairs in the open air solarium at the back of the boat. I had a wonderful sleep and when I woke up with the sun, I spotted a few humpback whales and icebergs. We got into Juneau at lunchtime and I rode up to the campground that is literally on the opposite of a lake from an amazing glacier. Just being within sight of the glacier is like being in a bloody refrigerator, it’s so chilly even though the sun is out in force. It’s a very fancy campground, flash toilets and showers and very private camping sites all very spread out. I found the backpacker sites and tried to squeeze my food into the small bear-proof food locker that’s meant to be shared between six sites. It’s almost a mile from my campsite to the entrance of the campgrounds and there’s virtually no one else here. Rode the fourteen miles into town and for the second time on this trip, I got pulled over by a cop for riding on the freeway.
Day 99 (Rest day): 0 miles, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
Meg gave me the idea of doing a boat tour today so I booked hoping it would also be a chance to see them (her) again. They were the last ones to show up and immediately got into an argument with the owner about prices, as they’d been given an old brochure with a cheaper price. From then on we referred to the captain as “the Arsehole”. It was really great to hang out with Meg again and I got to like her more and more.
It was cold as buggery being around all these glaciers even though it was a very sunny day. Someone told me that Juneau averages thirty-three sunny days per year, so far we’ve been lucky to get two of them. The boat took us up a fjord and pretty soon we were seeing icebergs larger than houses that had broken off the glacier further upstream. The boat parked itself about a half mile from the glacier and we were treated to a magnificent display of ice carving.
With a huge cracking noise, enormous shards would fall off the face of the glacier and into the water, making an enormous splash and sending a large swell in our direction. This went on for about ten minutes and pretty soon the water surrounding the boat was covered in pieces of ice. The colour of the glacier ice and icebergs is an amazing vibrant blue, there’s some sort of physics to explain it, but buggered if I could repeat it here.
On the way back we stopped to let off a boyfriend and girlfriend who were doing some kayaking for three days. As they were lowered into the water everyone on the boat started singing “row, row, row your boat” much to the displeasure of the Arsehole. He was trying to get the kayakers’ attention to tell them to be at the same place in three days for pickup and to be careful of the tides and bears. The Arsehole did redeem himself somewhat when the glacier tour turned into a fantastic whale watching tour and thus saved us all from spending another hundred bucks.
I parted ways with Meg and her Mum and Dad and instantly felt the pangs of loneliness after having spent the last few days with them. She was a very cool girl, and a lovely family.
Day 100 (Rest day): 23.86 miles, 1:45 hours, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
I got up early this morning and took a walk up the western side of the Mendenhall glacier. I was only expecting a few hours round trip but the amazing views made me want to just keep going up and up. The trail eventually passed the tree-line, through fields of snow and stopped at the top of Mount McGuinnis (4228 feet). The peak was just a grassy mound so it provided an amazing 360 degree view of mountains (all snow-capped except the one I was on, the closest of which was the rocky crag of Mount Stroller White, elevation 5150 feet), the islands of the Inside Passage, part of the town (Mendenhall Valley), the glacier (several miles across, and from my height it was barely possible to spot the helicopters landing on the glacier for ice trekking tours), everything! It really felt like I was on top of the world and I get a small inkling of what mountain climbers must feel when they reach a peak.
I got very lost on the way down, the path was marked by small orange ribbons tied to bushes and trees and I eventually found myself crawling through very thick undergrowth getting quite paranoid about bears. I eventually managed to climb to the top of a large rock and spent ten minutes trying to spot the nearest orange ribbon using my camera zoom lens. I was exhausted by the time I got down to my tent, eight and a half hours after I’d started and with only two Snickers bars for lunch.
To celebrate my 100th day, I sadly went to McDonalds for dinner and had super-size fries and a super-size chocolate thickshake. And after I left, I decided that I never, ever needed to go to McDonalds again.
Day 101 (Rest day): 41.18 miles, 2:52 hours, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
So I had McDonalds again for lunch. Tried to book a ferry to Haines or Skagway but found out that the ferry at the end of the month to Seward doesn’t stop at either of these places. So thanks to my ferry timetable skills I’m stuck in Juneau for another five days. But definitely not a bad place to get stuck.
Day 102 (Rest day): 0 miles, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
Day 103 (Rest day): 0 miles, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
It looks like I was lucky to have those three days of sunshine when I first got here. It’s been nothing but drizzle and more drizzle since. I’ve been spending my days in the State Library, insulated from nature by glass, the sounds of birds and the wind muted by brick, I’m out of the weather and into comfortable climate controlled air-conditioning. And I’m enjoying every moment of it. In over three months of being outside for nearly twenty four hours a day, as much as I love the outdoors, it’s good to suddenly be out of it.
Day 104 (Rest day): 0 miles, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
When I stole Ted’s jerky and dried fruits almost seventy days ago, I knew Karma would catch up with me. When I got back to the campgrounds last night I found that someone had nicked my half bottle of Aussie wine and a can of beans from the bear-proof food locker. Yet there was no one else camped within a stones throw from me. So Karma has finally paid me back, hopefully everything is in balance now and no more will go wrong.
Day 105 (Rest day): 57.79 miles, 3:42 hours, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
Day 106 (Rest day): 0 miles, Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier Campground)
Day 107: 19.19 miles, 1:28 hours, Ferry to Seward
On the ferry again. The ship doesn’t have a very good lounge section so I immediately set myself up on the open air solarium where I’ve been ever since. It’s a bit chilly though, but there’s a bunch of other thick-skinned (or thick-headed) people up here braving the elements also. Got talking to Dan, a forty-two year old artist who told me he’d seen the Northern Lights last night. We spotted some humpback whales breaching which was pretty cool. Dan was telling me that they’re not too sure why whales breach, but one possible explanation was to aid digestion. Dan told me that his brother works up in Alaska on the US missile defence system, but their family never knows quite where he is or what exactly it is that he does.
Day 108 (Rest day): 0 miles, Ferry to Seward
Kept waking up last night to see if there was any aurora action happening, but nothing. Someone mentioned that it’s a long weekend this Monday, which apparently marks the end of summer. I’m starting to get a bit worried about this attempt at getting to the Arctic Circle, there’s no way I’m gonna ride there so I’m hoping to hitchhike, but not sure what my chances are.
Met a guy, Lejon, who’s planning on finding work on a fishing boat up in Seward. Lejon and I ended up talking most of the evening about everything from Tsunamis and other natural disasters, to cult suicides, and climbing mountains and giving up smoking and grog. Also met another Aussie guy, David from Brisbane, who is here with his wife and eventually going to head down to South America. It’s great to be able to have these longer-than-five-minute conversations with people and to not talk about anything to do with bicycles.
Day 109: 5.08 miles, 0:24 hours, Anchorage
It started raining last night and a very cold cross breeze was blowing through my part of the solarium. There were two other people sleeping in my area, one in a tent and another with a sleeping bag on a reclining chair like me. Everyone else in the solarium is in the more sheltered areas, but I found it far too stuffy there. So I contested with the biting winds and still I refrained from putting on my beanie or zipping up the bottom of my sleeping bag. I learned many months ago that leaving my feet sticking out the end of the sleeping bag was the only way I could regulate my body heat and not wake up soaked in sweat. I woke up several times in the night but no aurora because of the rain. When we arrived in Valdez at 3am the ship’s female pursuer seemed to take great pleasure in making as many loudspeaker announcements as possible. Then security personnel started waking each of us up to see who we were. By this time I was alone in my solarium, the smarter pair had withdrawn to warmer and dryer locations.
In the morning I found out from Lejon why there had been so much commotion in Valdez.
Apparently when Lejon had first got on the boat he’d been accosted, like many other people by a guy called Paul. Paul, who everyone had nicknamed Jesus, spent his day talking to most people about faith and God. Jesus had a ticket to Valdez. But when the ship arrived in Valdez, Jesus was nowhere to be seen. They knew he was stowing away because Jesus had a Jeep Cherokee in the hull. So all the announcements at 3am in the morning had been to try and find Jesus. Then security went to every single person to check whether they were Jesus or knew Jesus. Eventually the Valdez police were called in and they found Jesus in one of the private rooms that he had managed to sneak into. Jesus refused to put his pants on and so Jesus got carted off the boat in his underpants.
Spent quite a bit of time today copying down parts of the “Milepost”. The “Milepost” gives a mile by mile description of all the highways in the Alaska/Yukon area. There’s not that many highways up here, literally just a handful, so it can afford to go into quite a lot of detail. I’ve copied down every campground, water stop and grocery store between the Arctic Circle and Edmonton, a total of 2024 miles. I must be bloody mad.
We got into Seward at 3:30pm, and I hopped on the train heading to Anchorage an hour later. For 109 days I’ve been able to stop anywhere I like and take photos. Now I’m on a train and all of a sudden it feels like life is moving too fast and I’m not in control anymore.
Day 110: 2.1 miles, 0:15 hours, Train to Denali National Park (Reiley Campground)
Last night we arrived in Anchorage after 10pm and I had no idea where I was going to stay. While slowly assembling my bike outside the station I started talking to the security guard and he eventually got around to asking where I was staying. After my vague reply he pointed me towards an RV park just a half mile down the road. As I crept in under the stealth of darkness, a kiwi voice shouted out “Another touring cyclist!”. It was Heidi, and her partner Nigel who had just finished a ten month trip from Argentina to Anchorage on a tandem bicycle. This morning I crept out of the RV park before light and without paying. There’s another bit of bad Karma that will come back and bite me in the arse one day.
David, Sophie and I had dinner at my campsite and finished off a bottle a wine I’d been carrying since Juneau. They are a wonderful couple, and when not braving the elements in Denali, live and work in London. They eloped about six months ago to avoid the lavish wedding that both pairs of their parents want. They still haven’t let their parents know yet. After dinner they made hot chocolate with a generous splashing of traveller’s rum (plastic bottle) and we got to see the first flakes of snowfall. They invited me to join them to camp inside the park tomorrow night, but unfortunately I don’t have anywhere to stash my gear in the meantime (the lockers at the visitor centre were not designed to house an acoustic 12-string guitar).
Day 111 (Rest day): 0 miles, Denali National Park (Reiley Campground)
An amazing day. The Autumn colours are out in full and it snowed last night so everything looks bloody splendid. And so said the tour bus driver Peter who gave a wonderful commentary along the entire trip into the park. We saw moose early in the morning. Peter spotted a bear and after waiting patiently while it hid out of sight for several minutes, we were rewarded with it wandering down the slope in front of us and then walking a few feet from my window.
It wandered under some trees, bumping snow off the branches and looked like a sugar-frosted bear. It then stood up and gave itself a back rub against a small tree that shuddered under the bear’s weight. We spotted a small herd of caribou, quite some distance away, but close enough to see the male’s bloodied antlers from where all the velvet had fallen off. When we got to the East Fork River bed Peter spotted a wolf, then another, and another. Peter, who’s been driving here for ten years was really surprised to see one, let alone three. When we got to the bridge, we discovered why.
A caribou had been freshly killed, about thirty metres from us and the wolves were taking it in turn to rip it to shreds. When we returned in the afternoon, it was a field day for photographers who were standing at the edge of the river with ten thousand dollar telephoto lenses. Apparently not long after we left, a bear and its two cubs wanted a share of the action. We were pretty lucky. Peter offered a prize to anyone who could spot the next bear and I managed to win that one.
We didn’t go all the way into the park, but instead stopped at a visitor centre overlooking the highest mountain in the USA; Mount Denali (McKinley) standing at 20,320 feet. Like most days though, we weren’t overlooking the mountain, but looking at a large cloud covering the mountain. Lastly, we spotted some Dall sheep high overhead on a rocky cliff.
After getting back from the bus trip I headed over to see National Park dog sled team. I miss dogs. A lot of the huskies have eerie clear blue eyes, it’s almost unsettling.[/lang_all][lang_all]
Day 112 (Rest day): 0 miles, Fairbanks (Hostel)
Woke up quite a few times during the night, feeling totally refreshed and ready to get up. I could hear it raining on my tent so I ended up turning off my 2am aurora alarm clock. Woke up cold and for the first time on this trip, zipped up the bottom of my sleeping bag. When I did finally get out of bed, my $5 REI compass/thermometer that probably has an accuracy of plus or minus 20 degrees, read slightly above freezing. Catching the 3pm train to Fairbanks, and as per usual, I have no idea where I’m gonna sleep.
When I got to Fairbanks, I found some hostel pamphlets and rode out to the first place that took my fancy. It’s actually just some old guy’s house with some rooms in the basement. When I first got there and knocked on the door I got no answer. So I opened the front door to find an old lady with a goatee in a wheelchair. Turned out that she can’t hear a thing so she called her husband. An old hunched-over man came out from somewhere, took his hat off and went about getting my name, etc. Then he grabbed the hat, and seriously asked me if it was mine. No, it’s yours, I said, kind of embarrassed. He took me out the back of his house and showed me where I could camp, a tiny spot in between the patio and the garden shed. The garden shed actually turned out to be another room with a bed in it.
There was only one other person there, a serious Japanese guy, Tadashi, who was on his mountain bike and had more gear than me. He’d done East Africa (Egypt down to South Africa), spent a year riding around South America and now up to here. Then two other Japanese, that I’d met on the train, Mariko and Seiji showed up. None had fantastic English and I know about two words of Japanese but we still managed to have some great, often funny conversations.
At 11pm, Boyle, the old man, came down and told us the Northern Lights were out. We rushed out and could make out a greenish cloud fading and moving in the sky. It disappeared but we waited and eventually it came back, filling most of the sky, rapidly moving, hovering, twisting and fading in and out of intensity. It finally started twisting together like wool being spun and turned an intense white, purple and red. It was fantastic. I kept laughing so much. I was so intensely happy and so was Seiji, who was also seeing it for the first time. We put our arms around each other and laughed drunkenly with happiness. I couldn’t stop laughing. Who needs TV when you have this sort of thing?
Mariko is not so impressed. She works up at Yellowknife where Japanese tourists take weekend trips all the way from Japan just to see the Northern Lights. Mariko and several other young guides, have to stand outside in the sub-freezing temperatures, waiting for the aurora, while the paying tourists drink and eat inside the warm lodge. When they give the signal, all the tourists come rushing out and Mariko and company have to rush around taking photos for everyone. It’s all over in about ten minutes, then the tourists head back to the warm lodge and Mariko and company are left to defrost their fingers and toes until another night.
Day 113 (Rest day): 18.57 miles, 1:39 hours, Fairbanks (Boyle’s Hostel)
This morning I discovered with horror that the clip on one of my rear panniers has snapped. It may have happened while it was on the train. Made a panicked call to Arkel in Quebec but unfortunately they were already closed. I sent an email and just hope they can recommend a place I can get some spares.
I’m planning to leave for the Arctic Circle tomorrow morning, but will leave the broken pannier, my guitar and other non-necessary items here at the Boyles.
Day 114 (Tuesday, 7 September 2004): 42.59 miles, 3:38 hours, Arctic Circle, (Dawson Highway)
When I got up this morning I checked the thermometer hanging on the Boyles back porch. It read 22 degrees Fahrenheit at 7am. I called Arkel, and the lady who answered told me that she had four spare clips packaged up and ready to be sent express post (it arrived the next day while I was away). I then spoke to Kevin, one of the designers who wanted to give me a prize for being the first to break one of the clips. He was real cool, and asked me all about my trip and hoped that the broken clip hadn’t ruined any plans. What plans? I’m even more impressed with Arkel after this experience.
I set off towards the Arctic Circle with two mismatched panniers, eight litres of water and two days worth of food. I was either being really optimistic or really foolish, probably a bit of both, and hoped to be able to hitch a ride all the way there and all the way back to be in Fairbanks again tomorrow night. It was so goddamn cold. The hair below my bottom lip kept frosting up from my breath and I had to be careful not to spill water on my goatee, as that kept icing up too. I quickly lost feeling in my toes, and my fingers, only covered with old, holey Thinsulate gloves, hurt like hell. My cheeks, nose and ears stung like crazy. I figured it was better that my extremities hurt like hell rather than not being able to feel them at all, but before long, I couldn’t feel them at all. My water bottles kept icing up and whenever I was thirsty, I had to stop and smash the ice at the top of the bottles. I stuck out my frozen hitchhiking thumb at every passing pick-up, but it was not until I was 35 miles out of Fairbanks that I got lucky. The bike went on top of two big eskies (ice coolers) on the back, one full of beer. It was two First Nations people, who took much humour in calling me a dumb Aussie for being out here on a bike. They took me all the way to the banks of the mighty Yukon River, where they had a cabin and were going to spend the winter (and they were calling me crazy?).
It was still another sixty miles to the Circle and unpaved road all the way. After about five miles, I pulled into the Hot Spot cafe and got a chocolate thick-shake while the owner (apparently an ex-stripper, she sells “Hot Spot” t-shirts featuring the silhouette of a well endowed women reclining in a seductive manner) told me all about a crazy Italian girl who had passed through a few days before on a bicycle while it was snowing and insisted on making it to Prudhoe Bay. I’m getting the impression that the locals, who anyone else would consider crazy for living up here, consider anyone else who travels up here, crazy.
Two guys working for the oil pipeline company showed up and joined in on the jokes about crazy cyclists. I tried to argue and convince them of my sanity, hence the hitchhiking up here instead of cycling all the way, but they weren’t convinced. I didn’t even really convince myself.
I left, but about ten minutes down the road, the two guys stopped for my outstretched thumb and gave me a lift. My bike once again, perched precariously on the back of the pick-up against a cable roll (Oh why, oh why do I never get picked up by people with empty pick-ups?). The scenery towards the Arctic Circle was nothing like I imagined, no polar bears and no floating slabs of ice, just a lot of tundra, a lot of smoke (Alaska had something like six million acres of land go up in smoke this year), and a lot of drunken trees skewed every which way, which they told me was due to global warming and the rising of the permafrost. Now there’s a strange concept for someone from a warm country – a permanent layer of frost, sometimes several feet below the soil’s surface. The sun also doesn’t get very high, it always feels like early morning or late evening.
The guys dropped me off at the Arctic Circle sign, after we had accidentally driven five miles past it (we’d been busy looking at the drunken trees and smoke). Talk about feeling isolated, I felt like I was the only living being for miles. I took the obligatory photo shots at the Arctic Circle sign and happily considered myself the winner of the “Steber Family Race to the Arctic Circle”. Seeing as I was pretty alone out here, I decided I would do the permanently-sealed-victory sort of nudie shot to clinch the deal. Just as I was busting out of my bicycle shorts, in drives a car with a girl from Colorado:
“Ah, I see you’re well prepared!”,
she said as I quickly chucked my shirt back on in embarrassment. It turned out she was referring to my camera tripod which was all set up for the nudie shot. As she drove off, a procession of other people started showing up, so there was no chance of completing the nudie shot. A small minivan drove in with half a dozen people, including Andrew, a travel guide from Melbourne that I had met on the train to Denali. He was with a group that had flown to Prudhoe Bay and then driven back. They even had a piece of carpet with a painted dotted line on it, which they rolled out for photographs. So much for feeling alone out here.
I set up my tent at the empty, undeveloped camping sites about a quarter mile from the Arctic Circle sign. Now I felt really alone and also a little paranoid about bears. So I cooked my dinner back at the sign and then put my food pannier in the drop toilet outhouse back at the campground. The sound here carries remarkably well, another guy showed up at the campgrounds, and though he is over 100 metres away, I can clearly hear him as if he was right outside my tent. Richard came over and introduced himself and offered me a glass of wine. I’d been sitting outside of my tent and because I’d packed so lightly and had no entertainment, I was literally doing nothing but looking at the magnificent Autumn colours and waiting for the sun to go down. Richard is a taxi driver from Las Vegas and comes up to Alaska every year for a holiday. He was kind enough to offer me a lift all the way back to Fairbanks tomorrow, very cool.
After Richard headed back to his tent I checked my $5 REI compass/thermometer that probably has an accuracy of plus or minus 20 degrees and it was at freezing point. It was 9:30pm by the time the sun set and by this time I had every piece of clothing I could find on, and even with two pairs of wool socks my feet were stinging from the cold. I crawled into my sleeping bag with everything on, and it was not until 2am that the full feeling in my toes came back. Every hour I woke up with my alarm to check if the aurora had come out. At 11:30pm, I peaked outside my tent to find a thin white cloud streaked all the way from the north horizon to the south horizon. It was possible to mistake it for a jet’s exhaust stream but it illuminated the ground with the same intensity as a full moon. Slowly it started shimmering vertically like a wind-blown plastic phosphorous-coated shower curtain, tinged with purple and red. And then it would change into cloud shapes that moved and stretched across the entire sky in a matter of moments. It’s something I’d been wanting to see for many years now and it was so much better than I expected and really indescribable. It was lovely. I had planned to get up and take a bunch of long exposure photographs, but when it’s below freezing outside it’s very easy to justify that a photograph would not do the Northern Lights justice.
Day 115: 8.15 miles, 0:46 hours, Fairbanks (Hostel)
I lashed my bicycle to the top of Richard’s dirt-covered Subaru Outback rental and we headed off at about 10 or 11am. It’s hard to know what time exactly, because the entire day feels like mid-morning, with the sun just floating above the horizon. I enjoyed the ride back to Fairbanks; Richard was a very knowledgeable bloke and I learnt a lot of things about Alaska during the five hour trip. In some parts the smoke from the bushfires was particularly bad with fire right up to the edges of the road.
Day 116: 10.99 miles, 1:00 hours, Fairbanks (Hostel)
It’s been twenty-one days since my last “serious” loaded touring and I’m nervous as hell about starting again tomorrow. I bought a $50 pair of Gore-Tex windproof/rainproof socks that are slightly too small, but I’m desperate. I also bought a $40 pair of windproof/rainproof gloves and a $20 face mask. I’m now prepared to laugh in the face of any weather that Alaska and Canada throw my way.
Day 117: 99.78 miles, 7:13 hours, Delta Junction
Today was the worst. My face, hands and feet stung with cold until about 2pm. I guess the fact that they sting is actually better than not being able to feel them at all. All my drinking water froze up very early on, even though I’d filled it with tepid water from the hostel. My new so-called “windproof” Gore-Tex socks were useless at keeping my feet warm. And the gloves are useless as well. I eventually put my old holey woollen gloves under my new so-called “windproof” gloves and then put my padded cycling gloves over that. So here I am wearing three pairs of gloves; kinda restricts me from picking my nose properly. I’ll know never again to buy Alaskan winter gear from a salesgirl that spends every winter down in Southern California.
I stopped at the town of North Pole and posted a bunch of postcards at Santa’s house. The rest of the day was not quite as exciting. Long, straight, flat road, pretty golden trees but pretty boring and miserably cold. I was following the list that I’d copied from the “Milepost” but so far, every water stop, grocery store and campground that I had marked down has been shut. Shut since summer ended which was the other weekend. No one told me this would happen. I had too much time to think today and I spent the time deciding I would give up riding and start hitchhiking south if I run out of water or food.
While I was fixing a flat tyre I was a bit heavy handed and I snapped the valve stem. I’ve got no more spare tubes so if I lose another one I’m screwed. Anyway, it mightn’t be such a bad thing to run out of spares. It gives me another valid reason to abandon this madness.
It was a hundred miles from Fairbanks to the first place to camp at Delta Junction. The Australian-born lady at the RV park let me camp for free. It’s bloody cold.
Day 118: 109.18 miles, 7:50 hours, Tok
Today was the worst. Colder than buggery again. All my water this morning was frozen solid, even the bottles I’d kept in the tent. At one point when I’d stopped to eat, I was checking my spokes and discovered that one rear spoke was extremely loose. I tightened it and made sure the wheel was true again. Ten minutes later I stopped to check it, only to find it had loosened again. I retightened it, and this time, wrapped some electrical tape around the nipple, hoping it would maybe hold it a little. I don’t know, I didn’t have any other ideas. I rode for another ten minutes and checked the spoke again. It was still tight, but to my surprise another spoke had significantly loosened. I tightened it, added the electrical tape again and set off. Ten minutes later, both of the spokes with electrical tape were fine, but to my horror, yet another spoke had come really loose. I kept going like this until nearly every spoke nipple on the rear wheel had black electrical tape on it.
I decided to stop checking, ignorance is bliss, right? I tried humming loudly as I rode so I couldn’t hear the rim rubbing on the brake pads. I had too much time to think again today and I spent the time deciding I would give up riding and start hitchhiking south if my back wheel falls apart.
It was another day of long, straight, flat roads, pretty golden trees and miserable cold. Later in the afternoon I got to see some mountains off in the distance, which I think are from the Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. I almost ran out of water because my planned water stop at Dot Lake, mile 60, was no longer in business. Did I mention it’s bloody cold?
Day 119: 112.09 miles, 8:23 hours, Beaver Creek, YUKON
Today was the worst. Colder than buggery again. I broke my first spoke today but luckily not on the drive side. After replacing it, I found that I didn’t really need to tighten any more spokes for the rest of the day. Some more hills today, but nothing so bad, at least I could warm up on the uphills. Whizzing down a hill is no longer a joyful experience, it just means more of the stinging cold.
Late in the afternoon I bought a Gatorade on the Alaskan side of the Canadian border. It gave me such a head-spin that I thought I would pass out at one point. At immigration I got questioned for about ten minutes. They were concerned that the bank statement I showed them for proof of funds was from June. I tried to explain that I was sleeping in a tent every night, eating tinned beans and instant rice, I don’t spend that much money.
Didn’t get a very good impression of Canadians after the rudeness of several staff members at the hotel I was camping outside of. Someone once told me that border towns all over the world, doesn’t matter where you are, are always full of nasty, miserable people. Maybe they were right.
When I had my tent set up, Mike, a retired guy from Detroit came over to talk. He was heading up to Anchorage with his wife who was giving a lecture there. Real nice bloke and he was a bit worried about how cold it was going to be during the night. Moments later he came back with two of their heaviest blankets and insisted I use them for the night. What a champ. It’s gonna be lovely not waking up cold.
Day 120 (Monday, 13 September 2004): 107.05 miles, 7:41 hours, Burwash Landing
Today was the worst. Colder than buggery again. I broke another spoke. Like yesterday, I broke the spoke as I was riding past a crash barrier at the side of a road curve. I didn’t realise this until later. Whenever I stop to eat, there’s never, never a place to lean my bike. But if I need to repair a broken spoke? There’ll be a crash barrier right there. And there’s barely any of these crash barriers out here, they’re about as common as an open food store, of which I saw none today. Hopefully I don’t see any more crash barriers in the next few days as I don’t have any more spokes, except an emergency Kevlar spoke I had the foresight of buying. I had too much time to think today and I spent the time deciding I would give up riding and start hitchhiking south if I break another spoke.
Though it’s cold, and the sun isn’t out much, I’m still getting quite sunburnt on the only exposed part of my body, my face. It almost rained on me, just sprinkled a little but there were a lot of threatening clouds out which contrasted with the beautiful golden Autumn colours.
I’m exhausting myself. I’m sore. I’m sick of peanut butter, I’m sick of Snickers and chocolate. I haven’t had fresh fruit since Fairbanks and I’m missing it badly. I found a free camping spot at the back of the Burwash Landing restaurant where there’s a tour group of Germans also camped. I indulged in the $4 shower, the only pleasure I’ve had in the last few days and spoiled myself with a huge steak dinner.
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All images and text Copyright © 2007 Leon Steber.