We had started out in Vancouver, Canada. Rough destination Los Angeles. We had taken in some hikes in the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula and hung around in forlorn fishing villages. Between these discoveries, long days on pavement unfolded.
After two weeks, we had enough of it. Enough of inhaling exhaust fumes and putting on reflective vests. Enough of being a footnote in someones rear-view mirror.
We did not want to string experiences together like pearls on a string while spending the remainder of our time staring at each others backs, counting the mile signs.
Because the beauty in traveling by bike is the time in between. The places that fly by just fast enough to stay in memory. The sense of traveling at the uppermost speed necessary for the soul to tag along.
So we changed our route from coast to inland, from street touring to bikepacking. We learned a lot in the ensuing two months of tumbling down the West Coast in unlikely pirouettes. Looking for gravel roads in the interior. Hunting good espresso along the coast. Finding dirt along the small dots and lines on our GPS.
Because bikepacking is exactly that in its essence, looking for detours. Slower, grittier and more intense.
These are some of the very personal lessons we have learned along the way in that huge, diverse and heartwarmingly hospitable country on the other side of the Atlantic.
Count smiles, not miles.We met Doug somewhere in Washington. Almost 60 years old, rocket engineer by trade, dealing in used cars for a living, coincidentally the man in the Bowser suit of the Super Mario movie, great storyteller and slightly obsessive about sleeping outside. He had just crossed the US east to west, with the slimmest bikepacking setup we had ever seen.
He supplied us with our main motto.
Count smiles, not miles.
How many miles have you ridden today? How many more will you ride today? How many miles per hour? These questions have the innate power to lead into the wrong kind of daily grind. We can ride for the sake of traveling, for the joy of riding or just for the pleasure of breathing freely. But to ride for the purpose of moving little numbers on a bike computer loses its lure pretty fast. We did a bit more than 3000 miles in North America. This is just a number, lending itself to nothing more than a bit of illustration.
What matters at the end of the day is laughter, beach side heather, salt and the evening sun. Not miles.
Pack light, go far.
Bring less stuff. This has probably been recommended to travelers for centuries. But many times, people do not follow through with the necessary zeal. We broke our toothbrushes.
Developing lighter packing styles fosters ingenuity. Nevertheless, it can also be a recipe for sleepless nights. The line can get thin between just enough and not enough. In the Oregon Outback, we were supplied with beer and water by friendly bowhunters. We ran out of food on the unexpectedly sweltering North Umpqua trail and navigated the small trail with increasing amounts of pretty feverish steering. We would have loved to have at least a pair of jeans for our visit to the most gourmet vegan restaurant we had ever seen in San Francisco. Thus, we kept on learning.
We named them ortliebers. We only met them on the coastal road, where climbing was moderate and route options were self-explanatory. Carrying the weight equivalent of a dead cow distributed on four to six panniers, they rambled along. Still, most of them looked like they had fun.
Different paths, different goals.
Packing light is a challenge born from luxury. It is a privilege to be able to even think about sizing down. But back home, where materialism reigns supreme and thousands of superfluous objects covet your desire, this self-imposed asceticism helps to keep a level head. There is almost always something somewhere that you do not really need.
Whenever we stumbled upon locals in the middle of nowhere, we encountered a mixture of bewilderment and encouragement. Feelings of bewilderment were fitting to a country where enormous recreational vehicles sometimes pulled cars behind them that would already be considered obscenely big by European standards. It seems reasonable that the thought of laborious and slow riding on small, winding back roads seemed unnecessarily torturous from that perspective. But we also encountered lots of encouragement and enthusiasm along the way. We attributed this to the fact that inside almost every American, remnants of the idolized first settlers lie dormant somewhere, leading to considerable enthusiasm for the vastness of the sparsely populated countryside.
Bewilderment and enthusiasm were both justified. Laborious self-torture was sometimes unavoidable in order to truly experience the vastness of the country. It was worth it.
Avoiding pavement is the best rule of thumb to arrive at routes where miles are longer, more adventurous and intense.
As soon as the quiet humming of pavement is replaced by the crunch of gravel, things tend to slow down. Cars disappear, settlements shrink, landscapes grow bigger.
We swore when wet mud brought us to a standstill. We cursed the nerve-racking corrugations left by off-road vehicles before us. We felt how every bump in the road started leaving its marks on our aching wrists by the end of the day.
But only this brought us to places we will keep in our mind forever. Small restaurants on a windswept plain, where coffee was poured into our cups until we knew everything about the region. A rainy morning after a bivy in the desert, where we got to know the striking beauty this landscape assumes in bad weather. A remote monastery in the middle of a stretch of coast full of cannabis plantations.
… and enjoy big city life
Long days away from the main arteries of travel had another, unexpected advantage. The contrasts between the hinterland and its urban centers became more pronounced. After spending a couple of days in the Oregon Outback, we tumbled like two yetis into the most beautiful café of the small town of Klamath Falls. It took us a little while to get used to the presence of other people. In San Francisco, we drowned in a sea of restaurants and vibrant, multicultural neighborhoods.
The lure of the American west coast lies in its stark contrasts. Backcountry solace and high-tech metropolises, conservative fishermen and libertarian eco-extremists, sizzling Latino neighborhoods and refuge towns for retirees all combine.
Your very own bike in a big and foreign city is the greatest thing on earth.
Because we rode our bikes into most cities, we also saw their suburbs. We entered into the heart of the city through its stomach. Riding a bike made us connect neighborhoods by going through neighborhoods in between. Places which would otherwise only have been spared a quick glance from a bus window turned out to be the exact places that made the city come alive to us.
We discovered block parties in San Francisco, a small vegan café in the middle of liquor stores and Mexican washeries in Los Angeles and… Portland. Portland is its own bike story. We went to cyclocross races, joined bike polo parties and rode through town with a bicycle gang, complete with leather jackets, sidecars and three-meter high tallbikes.
Sleep under the stars
We must have looked like two hyperactive guys trying to knit a pullover in scuba diving suits. I would pay good money for the footage documenting our attempts of setting up our tent in that pitch black night, startled by a very negligible amount of rain.
But exposure to fickle weather is a small price to pay for the beauty of sleeping outside without a tent. In exchange we got to look up to the stars at night until our eyes got tired, letting the music in our headphones fill the firmament. We enjoyed the few constellations we believed we had gotten to know with a sense of pride.Sleeping below nothing but the sky makes us small, exposed and human.
We lay next to our bikes and the small bit of equipment we carried. In a way, we also lay next to our forefathers. For centuries, men have lain beneath that ultimate roof, have hoped for the rain to spare them and let the thought of the companion at their side warm them.
Use the internet wisely
The internet can be both. An annoying distraction as well as a source of profound inspiration. Our lives are ever more penetrated by its blessings and time-stealing tentacles. We were lucky to be able to reflect on this fact throughout our journey.
Warmshowers.org seems to come from a time when the internet was still a nice place. We are (or have become) hosts in Switzerland, but the community is not as well-established over here. This might be rooted in cultural differences. The generous hospitality we have encountered in United States is very open and proactive — if not to say shallow at times. Warmshowers.org thrives on this attitude, a sort of embracing, talkative and curious form of hospitality we started to love. In our little alpine country on the other side of the Atlantic, such hospitality is seldom found. But compared to the United States it seems to take us a little more time to warm up to people but when we do, the connection might run deeper. To say this does not imply any form of judgement. The world is made more interesting by different rules in different places.
Another amazing thing about the internet is the way it opened up paths and routes for us, two guys from the other side of the world with little knowledge of the region. GPS tracks and route descriptions on velodirt.com, bikepacking.net and various bikepacking blogs enabled us to take on routes we would have never dared to otherwise. We are still incredibly thankful for a blog post of some guys’ “Condor Ride” which brought us to one of the most amazing landscapes we had seen throughout our trip, the geological wonderland of the Carrizo Plains National Monument.
The whirlpool of news, emails, Facebook messages, blog updates and other facets of our digital existence can develop a suck that is not be underestimated. The Wifi “Stalldrang” is its consequence. It has dire consequences. Quiet talks in beautiful cafés may be superimposed by digital fantasy worlds. Foreign landscapes may be crossed by jumping from hotspot to hotspot. Many things are lost this way.
But a journey containing long stretches without access to the internet offers the chance to reflect on this. Mindfully, we are perfectly capable of facing up to the hyperactive drumrolls of the digital world.