Around the bend

Ashley’s retrospective, written before reading David’s.

***

Why?” That was the response I got the first time I told a stranger what we were planning. I was with my mom and stepdad, buying a keychain from a saleswoman in an Eddie Bauer in Knoxville. My mom mentioned that David and I were about to take a long ride, and the lady flashed a skeptical look. She raised an eyebrow at me, clearly wanting more information. I shrugged, casual: it was still too far off, and I wasn’t sure we’d make it anyway, so I just mumbled, Canada to Mexico, like I was saying we were going to ride to the grocery store. “Why?”: her mystification was laced with some disdain. She didn’t see the point.

Her response isn’t unusual: many people think that bike tourists are crazy. On a dreary morning in Westport, David overheard some folks—staring at our parked bikes—saying, genuinely sad for us, “That doesn’t look like fun.” “They’re wrong,” I said, with the beginning of a smile, and all of a sudden I didn’t care about the bone-chilling wetgray start.

The “why” question, after all, is easy to answer. To see if we can. To feel stronger. To travel through a spectacularly beautiful part of the country going 10-12 mph—exactly the right speed at which to pass (for example) among the towering redwoods, which David always likens—rightly—to a cathedral. On a bike, you can smell them, you can hear the rustling, you can live within the mist. You’re deep in the forest long enough to get how differently the light plays on the road here; and when you’re alone on the road, when there is no traffic, it’s hard not to appreciate the justness of Ben Wyatt’s enthusiastic revelation, in the final season of Parks & Rec: “Wait—this is Endor!”

Every blur from a car window is a whole moment in bike-time. On a bike, when you’re riding close to the ocean your lips get a little salty; on a bike, when you’re riding close to the ocean, occasionally you have to spit out a grain of sand. Why ride? For the sensory overload. For the chance to know a place in a way you just can’t at 60 miles an hour.

Why ride? Because our route took us off the major roads at every opportunity, which meant seeing the small towns and the back roads and the residential streets. I didn’t realize, before the tour, just how often we’d be riding through neighborhoods, winding our way through streets named “Maple” and “Elm” and “Main.” I like thinking about how it would feel to live in a place, and on a bike you get much more opportunity to fill out those imaginings. You know how far a spot of farmhouses is from the closest general store; you eat where the locals eat, not at the Starbucks just off the highway.

Why ride? Eight words: cheeseburgers all the time; ice cream for lunch.

Why ride? For the thrill of not knowing the road you’re about to cover. Part of the excitement of every day for me was that I couldn’t visualize what was coming: when I put head to pillow at night, I knew a stretch of ground that had been a blank in my mind 14 hours earlier. And there’s the more immediate rush: coming around a blind corner, you see a wall of asphalt that breaks your heart, or a rolling road that extends into forever, or a perfectly graded declining S-curve that you just know will be a blast. Or you come back in sight of the sweeping Pacific and find that you’re succeeding at not taking that awesome vista for granted.

Or, just around that corner, you find the stray convenience store you knew was around here somewhere, and it’s ice cold Gatorade and fresh water and a little something sweet, all you need to go another 20 or 40 or 60 miles.

7-11 sidewalk snack outside of Santa Barbara.

Every now and then, on the other side of a curve there’s the funniest sign you’ve seen on the trip, the one you wish you’d immortalized in a picture and now can’t remember, or, smack in the middle of nowhere, there’s the Marshall Oyster Bar, and it’s a lively scene, the deck at maximum capacity, everyone with a pint of lager in one hand and a dozen raw before them. (My only regret of the trip: not stopping there.)

Or, maybe, there’s a memorial to a couple of bicyclists who died on this selfsame stretch of road, and that takes your breath away, sobers you and saddens you, and reminds you that any day that ends with you touching head to pillow is a superlatively good day.

Memorial for two bicyclists, who died on this road (near San Onofre) a few years apart. The water bottles are inked with solemn messages; we stopped to pay our respects.

For better or worse, around the bend there’s something you need to see.

Some friends have asked what I think about when I’m riding. A day-ride around Reno, maybe it’s nothing more than the article I’m trying to write or the class I’m prepping or what I need from the grocery store. But this tour was a pilgrimage, the saddle a sacred spot. So here’s what I didn’t think about. Politics. I didn’t think about the national and international crises through which we’re living. That’s poison, and there’s always time to worry about that later in the day. I didn’t think about my job. I most definitely didn’t think about the dean or the provost or student learning outcomes or workday or curriculog. No, I was reflecting on better things. I wish there were a way to talk about it without revealing how cheesy and earnest I am, but facts are facts: riding, I feel grateful. To have a job that provides the time and resources to do this sort of thing. To have legs that work, lungs that work. To have a partner in life who is game for this and for even crazier things—but more on that in a moment. And I think a lot about the fact that I never thought I’d be living the kind of life in which these adventures are possible.

Here’s what I mean. Apologies for what might seem a lengthy digression, but it’s the best example I have of where my head went many days.

The first time in my life I set eyes upon the Golden Gate Bridge it was from a distance, on a particularly demoralizing day during a particularly demoralizing moment in my life. I was on the job market, and the job market was essentially non-existent; I was at the Modern Language Association meeting, along with thousands of other desperate seekers-of-employment, many of them vastly smarter than myself and all of them, I’m certain, more skilled at interviewing. All of them chasing what scraps there were. I’d never been to San Francisco before. I’d never been west. I was broke. I was only in the city for two full days, and I used my free time—between the two interviews I had, both of which were enormously uncomfortable and awkward and so obviously unsuccessful there wasn’t even a pro forma you’ll hear from us—to go see this iconic bit of urban America. I had only interview clothes with me, including black boots hardly meant for trekking. I didn’t know how to pack. I didn’t know how to travel. And I didn’t understand urban sprawl. I’d been in London, but only really going back and forth between a cheap B&B and the British Library. I’d never smelled urine in public. I’d never hailed a cab. It never occurred to me to think about what the right shoes were for how big a city this turned out to be. But I soldiered on, walking and walking and walking, up and down and up and up and up the relentlessly steep sidewalks of SF. I got hungry; my feet hurt; it was taking way too long, and I didn’t know how I’d cope with navigating myself back to the hotel—which now seemed several zip codes behind me—especially after dark. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more like a bumpkin than I did during that long walk, and my endeavor turned out to be futile. I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get close enough to feel I’d made it. If I live to be an old woman, I’ll never forget the lamely reassuring pep talk I gave myself: this was Adequate, I told myself. I could sort of see it, in the distance. Sure, I didn’t really know what color it was, and I had no sense of scale. But this Counted. I had seen the bridge. I could check that box. And I almost bought it. But when I starting retracing my steps I felt heavy, and as the bridge receded behind me I knew: I’d failed. I had settled for trying to do one tourist thing and I hadn’t even managed that. I was hungrier than before. My feet hurt more. I wasn’t going to get a job. And I’d probably never be in this place again.

Those darkest most Eeyorish prophecies turned out to be wrong, but I don’t blame myself for the gloom. In many ways I was the same kid I’d always been: shy, spooked, afraid of what was to come. The future was a terrifying blank. By the time I was wandering the streets of SF, about the most I could imagine was a halfway decent job any old where, and I’d have been thrilled to get it. The abortive pilgrimage to the bridge seemed to underscore the fact that I wasn’t the kind of person who should have a bucket list. I didn’t even have a suitcase.

I’m certain that this is why the only time I cried during our tour was pedaling across that bridge. It was cold. Gray. The pedestrian-path was thickly crowded with tourists either oblivious or clumsy or both. The headwind was considerable. The traffic, high-volume and thunderous. These were not ideal riding conditions. And yet: I’m not sure that I’ve ever been more euphoric on a bike. It’s not like I hadn’t seen the bridge again since that wretched MLA meeting. I’d gotten a job in the west. I’d bar-hopped in The City, gone to ball games, enjoyed the kind of food that the girl I was before couldn’t even have imagined. I’d walked on the bridge. I knew what color it was, knew the scale. But this was different. This was on the bucket list I’d finally—presumptuously? defiantly?—created even before my life started taking shape.

For a moment, I imagined that I shared a spot on the time-space continuum with that twenty-something in the wrong boots. I imagined that she was still walking the streets many many blocks away from this later iteration of herself. “Hang in there,” I said aloud, only to myself, still weepy. “It’s going to get better,” I told her.

There was a surprising amount of that on this ride: of conjuring up and conversing with that girl I used to be. I wonder what she’d make of all of it. There was a lot of me thanking her for staying in the game when the going got tough—for staying in the game long enough to get to this remarkable life.

I also think about my ghosts. I think about Stephen, and try to guess what he’d have to say about this or that—about the funny signs and the crazy folks along the way in weird America, or about the fact of this ride, or about the Angels game. I think about Rufus, and how he’d worry, and about how much I miss the very special way in which he worried about me, about all of us. And I think of the people who still populate my life, about those who are struggling, those who are sick and scared or otherwise lost and anxious or lonely. I spent a lot of miles wondering if we’re doing right by them, if I am.

Our friend Doug, just before a stem cell transplant. We visited him in Palo Alto about halfway through the ride. He’s leaving the hospital as I write, continuing to kick cancer’s a**.

I always say that I never feel more alive than when I’m riding. That’s not just the sense of your body working hard for you, not just the thrill of being self-propelled, healthy, if not strong at least strong enough, at least stronger every mile. It’s bigger than that, deeper than that. I feel alive because I’m thinking simultaneously about the long sometimes tumultuous past, about the present—my legs burn now, I want a cookie now, that particular pothole might be a game-changer and not in a good way—and about the future. I make plans. I fantasize about a bike tour through Europe, imagining the different routes and the different bikes and the different bike setups. I think about the details of the upcoming nuptials in Costa Rica, and enjoy being excited about every single part of that. And about the wedding party, a year from now, somewhere local, all of the details up in the air—where and when and with what grub and with what playlist, and so on and so on. I daydream way into the future, think about how nomadic we’ll be when I retire at the first opportunity. I spin fantasies about how it’d be to live a month in the Outback or a semester in New Orleans. I try to decide if I really want to teach abroad for a semester, and yes—sorry Lassen, sorry Patxi—I really do.

But, okay, yeah, it’s not always like that. There’s more going on in my head and it’s way less meaningful. I’m also judging lame personalized license plates (looking at you, “U C ME”; so many reasons, “Y U HATN”). I’m trying to remember all the words to “Hallelujah.” I’m cataloguing interesting roadside detritus, and thinking about my contribution to the daily blog. I’m brainstorming about birthday presents.

I try to figure out what time we’ll get into town and what route to take so that we can visit all three brewpubs and still try what everyone says is the best spot for dinner. I do battle with whatever earworm David has managed to get stuck in my head—which he does, invariably, and now I’ve said the worst that anyone can say about him. Just when I least expect it, when we’re side-by-side for a couple of seconds as a red light turns green, he’ll mutter, “blew out my flip flop,” and, poof, there goes my afternoon, miles and miles covered while I try to evict Jimmy Buffett and his lost shaker of salt from my head.

Some friends have asked what we took with us. Lightweight camping gear: itty-bitty tent, sleeping bags, pads, a stove, itty-bitty chamois towels, matches, itty-bitty bottles of dish and body soap, a lightweight solar lantern, two titanium cups and bowls, two sporks, one fuel canister, two freeze-dried meals just in case, and a bottle opener. A first-aid kit (which we barely touched). My clothes list: two pairs of underwear; two sports bras; two pairs of riding shorts; two riding shirts; a wool racerback tank that I wore under my jersey almost every day and which, wool or no wool, got powerful smelly; a quick-dry t-shirt; a pair of gym shorts; a pair of long, stretchy, gray wool pants for evenings; a long-sleeved wool half-zip which I wore most mornings; two pairs of socks; flip flops; bike shoes; a beanie; a ball cap; a hot-pink riding vest; a rain jacket; rain pants; leg warmers; arm warmers; mittens and toe-socks for camping; and short- and long-fingered bike gloves. In Astoria, freezing, I bought a hoodie. I should’ve taken a lightweight warmer jacket (luckily our friend, Tom, loaned me an old one of his in Santa Cruz, so the last stage was the warmest stage). We also brought an iPad, Ziploc baggies (useful for icing the knees), Phase-10 (our camping card game of choice), a bag of chargers, headlamps, bike tools, some power bars, an itty-bitty pack of detergent for doing laundry in hotel tubs and sinks, a travel clothesline, eco-friendly wet wipes, and a whole lot of sunblock, which David used by the gallon and I applied strategically to my ears and nose.

Photo proof that I don’t use sunblock responsibly.

We each brought a fat Victorian novel, which we mailed home from Astoria because we didn’t have time to read, and then we each bought another one in Arcata which we never touched.

My least favorite parts of the ride. Road so rough and rutted (why, La Jolla? you’re better than that!) that at best you jam your wrists and worry whether your bike will live to fight another day. Road kill: both the smell and the sight, whether it’s a heart-wrenchingly adorable Bambi or a skunk. (Raccoons were the most common. No dogs or cats, which is good, because one is all it would’ve taken for me to be on a flight home.) Camping: the tent was too tiny (it’s so small, Stephen would say, you have to go outside to change your mind), and the super-light pads were too thin.

Beverly Beach: or, as I’ll say for the rest of my life, that one time I camped in Oregon.

Crotch-rockets and their must-be-compensating-for-something riders. The scrambled eggs you get for breakfast in cheap hotels. Crosswind. Construction zones. Bugs. That I didn’t love riding in heavy traffic with vanishingly small shoulders goes without saying.

The good parts are too many to count. My favorite days were the two between Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay, when Highway 1 became—for me—a character in the story. Those S-curves, endlessly interesting, each a little different from the rest—steep and not so steep, varyingly winding.

I think of playing Phase-10 by the fire in Elma, our best camping night, and about Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville, day 2, where we had our first solo dinner of the tour. The food was underwhelming, but it was one of the friendliest, liveliest spots of the whole trip, and we had the whole road ahead.

I think of our one white-tablecloth experience, the place we went reluctantly because it was all there was and because Lyft doesn’t yet operate in Bandon, OR.

Sunset over Bandon.

I absolutely loved the little local non-chain convenience stores and markets—in Langlois (Lang-loy) and in Valley Ford and just before the Leggett climb.

The Langlois general store, which we found just as I was getting hangry.

The Peg House.

The day of the Leggett—Garberville to Fort Bragg—would be my favorite day if it weren’t for the two that followed, and when I’m an old woman I think I’ll remember every detail about it. The richness of the double fudge brownies we downed before starting the ascent, the shady spots where we stopped to have some water along the way, when—as sometimes happened—we had a little shoulder to occupy.

The glorious descent with beautifully, perfectly graded curves built for speed; my bike was never so horizontal to the ground as on that day—well, except for the day I fell plumb over in a couple inches of sand when I wasn’t moving and couldn’t get out of my clip pedals. (That also happened to be–of course–the day I had five very breakable pint glasses in my bag; they survived.)

There are more highlights than I can count or catalogue: every time we picked the right breakfast place; getting to eat Fruit Loops in the morning and ice cream for lunch without feeling guilty about it; the first pint after 70 miles; arrival in LOM-poke after our first touring century; coastal sunsets; salty lips; eating a makeshift lunch on a patch of dirt marking the entrance to a fancy-pants neighborhood on Memorial Day:

Every single summit, even the ittiest-bittiest. Buying a fresh set of clothes in San Diego so we wouldn’t be thrown out of a halfway decent restaurant. The hat store in Santa Barbara. Eating sandwiches in the cold outside a grocery store in Centralia (day 5), feeling pretty miserable—until an older woman, limping slightly, stopped by our bench: “Oh, good for you! I always wanted to do that. Always wanted to….” She trailed off, looked at her bum leg, smiled sadly, and added, “Can’t now. Never did, and can’t now.” I didn’t know what to say, but I knew what to feel: cold, yes; tired, yes; sore, yes; lucky, definitely.

The road trip to Bend, and lunch at the Klamath Basin Brewery, when we were full of excitement and had no idea how anything would go, and the road trip back, stopping at In-n-Out, for the first time not having to keep an eye on our bikes, equal parts satisfied and excited to be Reno-bound and melancholic. Stopping at Walmart in Ridgecrest for cheap CDs to pass the time (Prince was our best choice).

There are others:

After riding along the coast for hundred of miles, I couldn’t resist any longer. I propped my bike up against a tree, took off my shoes, and then…rode all the way to Oceanside with sand in my socks.

Dinner upon arrival in Malibu.

Accidental shot, but see the fog on the starboard side…

Finally getting to the ocean, a week in. Seaside.

The view from Buoy Brewing. We went to 35 breweries on this trip, and this was our favorite.

Swapping stories with fellow tourists. Michael, far left, we met again in San Diego.

Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge.

On the ferry to Coronado, less than 20 miles from the Mexican border. The last day.

The view in the foreground didn’t change.

We managed to ship, carry, or send with friends 30+ pint glasses. Drink local, y’all.

Before this tour, I didn’t fully understand some things about touring life. One is that you get used to peeing anywhere. I’ve imagined myself a lot of places, but not once in all my years have I pictured myself squatting behind a guardrail—think, how-low-can-you-go—on a plenty crowded overpass. Not much more of me could’ve been visible than a few split ends, proof that in an emergency situation you can become a lot more flexible than you think you are. Oh, we looked for a more private place, but between the time my bladder announced that something would have to be done and that guardrail at rush hour, there was nothing but land being actively worked, fruit farmers and men on tractors. Not a port-a-potty to be seen. There were a number of similar roadside experiences, and sometimes there was no guardrail, no tree, no shrubbery; in that case you wait for a break in traffic. After this bike tour, that’s what I’ve got: killer memories; 30 pint glasses; a tan; strong legs; and I could medal in quick-peeing.

The emblems of touring life for me are laundry hanging everywhere and whatever-fuel-you-can-get.

This was an amazing ride, and it wouldn’t have been as much fun—or, in some cases, possible—without friends and family. I can’t tell you how much it means that so many folks were riding along with us; it certainly raised the potential shame factor sufficiently high to keep us pedaling even on those rare moments when we didn’t quite know if we could. We owe enormous thanks to those who helped along the way: Todd and Cindy; Joseph; Travis and Katie and Reina and Zara; Jan; Winona and Sergio; Tom; and Eric and Vicky and Arden.

And my mom was willing to be dragged around to every bike shop in Roanoke in early May, a good sport and eager to do anything to help us make the trip work. Thanks to all the friendly passersby who asked us, when we were stopped along the side of the road refueling or checking the map, if we were okay, and to those who offered directions, or—as with the woman outside Arcata—affirmation that the path ahead was the right one. Thanks to the lovely Oregon couple we met overlooking the sand dunes who took the first picture of the tour that we’re both in. They said they’d pray for us, and, well, who couldn’t use more of that.

Thanks to Elisabeth, not only our cat-sitter but also my friend and manatee (long story). She kept the cats pics coming, inspiring me to pedal on to get home to these guys.

Thanks to the nice folks in Elma who gave us 8 gigantic cookies; there was a little surge of joy every time we remembered, over the next few days, that we still had cookies in our handlebar bags. Thanks to the strangers who stopped us to say that they’d give anything to take our place; especially in the early, leg-sore, butt-sore days, that was an inspiring reminder, just what we needed to keep the right perspective. And a shout-out to all the drivers who were paying just enough attention, who moved over enough, who didn’t honk or yell, who hung back until we’d gone around the blind curve, and who—occasionally—gave us a wave.

The biggest thanks come last: I would never have been able to ride this ride if it weren’t for David, the most up-for-anything and ready-for-anything and capable-of-anything touring companion and life partner a girl could ask for. I’m not always easy: I want a lot out of every day. He tolerates my ridiculous demands for more, and more, and more, my relentless insistence on optimizing every experience, but he’s wise and kind and attentive, and helps me see when I’m pushing too hard. When I say I couldn’t have done it without him, I don’t just mean because he’s the guy who pumps up the tires and lubes the chain, or because he’s my navigator and almost always finds our way. He’s also the one who makes me laugh at myself when I’m a little too uptight, and when in these troubled times what I see is darkness, and that darkness makes it hard to function, he’s the one who shines the light. He keeps me warm. What sunblock I use is because of him. He’s my favorite person, my constant companion, and if I couldn’t toast with him at the end of a 70-miler there would be no point to the ride or the pint.

I’ll hang on to the redwoods and the kiss-your-butt curves of Highway 1 and the crush of the waves, to the oysters in Florence and the saganaki in San Diego, to the view from Yamashiro and the bookstores in Arcata—but none of it means as much or will stay as vivid as the ritual high-five at the end of each day, or the before-bed episode of Friends in every cheap hotel along the way, or the signals we developed to check in with each other while we’re riding (“everything okay,” we ask, with a tap on the top of our helmet). The heartbreaking hills were not mine and his but ours, and so was everything else, and the best answer to the question—why?—is that WE are better and stronger for riding this ride together.

David, squared.

He can ride and play, though probably not at the same time.

Goofing at the cannibalism exhibit, Museum of Man, San Diego.

Big Sur.

And yeah: I’m sad that it’s over. I’m glad to be home, to cuddle my cats and see friends and hang out in a house I love and float the river and have more than two pair of underwear. But when I snapped a picture of our bike-filled rental van, with San Diego in the rearview mirror, I felt the loss.

We planned this for a long time, had our sights on it for more than two years, and now it’s behind us, part of the past, done and not to be redone. But as the days go on, I catch myself living more in the present than in the tour, looking more and more ahead. They say pedaling backwards is hard on the knees—and in any case, there’s always something new around the bend, something up ahead I need to see.

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