Portland to San Francisco by Bicycle

Mist, Oregon was somewhat of a crossroads. Technically, it was a T-intersection. A tiny little not-filled-in circle on Route 202, with a road shooting off to the right towards Route 30. What’s more, we had a decision to make. Route 202 was calm, pastoral. The occasional barreling lumber truck was infrequent enough to be a novelty. Route 30 we had seen the day before. It was the main road between Portland and the coast, and full of the grit and thunder of heavy truck traffic.

We didn’t want to jog back to Route 30. Problem was, it was still a good sixty miles to the coast and the lady in the RV park had told us that there was no food on Route 202 before Astoria. She did not appear to be crazy, so we rated her advice as reasonably trustworthy. (You always have to vet your raw intelligence a little when you’re in an RV park.)

We had just finished our last Snickers bar.

Let’s look at this thing logically. There are a few towns between here and Astoria: Mist, Birkenfeld, Jewell. They’re all tiny little not-filled-in circles on the map, so Mist should be, what, representative. We’ll ride to Mist, check it out. If there’s a grocery store, or a deli, we’ll stop and eat and continue through our idyll. If not, well, Mist has the last turn-off back to Route 30, where we can feast on a trucker’s paradise of greasy burgers and beef jerky.

I was harboring the hope, as we approached our crossroads, that the RV lady had been crazy. Didn’t she have a crazy glint in her eye? Here it is: Mist, Oregon!

There is an auto body shop, unmanned on a Tuesday afternoon. “Hello? Helloooo?” We borrow a dirty rag to clean and relube our chains.

And, then, in quick succession, a sign that reads “Mist”, the turn-off to Route 30 shooting up a tremendous hill, and second sign, facing the other way, “Mist”. Nothing else. Farmland, lumber trucks.

But—and we don’t appreciate this until our second pass—across the street from the intersection there is a house. And in the front yard of this house are a barking dog, an abandoned box-spring, and two pick-up trucks. And in one of those trucks is a man who has been revving his hopeless engine since the beginning of time. And this man, cigarette in his mouth, surrounded by a thick haze of diesel, shouts back at us over the din of the motor that there is a general store six miles down Route 202, in Birkenfeld.

We lived a two-bowl lifestyle and it was glorious. Tim had a bowl, I had a bowl. We ate our oatmeal out of the bowl, we ate our dinner out of the bowl. We washed out our bowls after we used them and they were always eager to contain our food for the next meal.

When Hazel moved to Manhattan last year I bought her two bowls, and those two bowls fulfilled all of our food containment needs. Cereal, oatmeal, pasta, salad. Let’s be honest: you can eat any meal out of a bowl.

People buy more bowls. For what? Soon you have a ton of bowls, different types of bowls. Plates, even. My parents have a whole stack of plate-like hybrid bowl objects. At times I despair.

* * *

We averaged fifty miles a day, once we got up to pace. Portland to San Francisco was a thousand miles overall. It’s more like six hundred miles as the crow flies, but we had to start by beating a path out to the coast, that was about a hundred miles, and then the coastal roads twist and turn to follow the contour of the shore, Highway 1 especially. And then there are all of the detours, side trips.

Fifty miles a day seemed ambitious enough to us, but a lot of the guys that we met along the way were biking seventy or eighty miles a day or more, often with more gear. We ran across two beefy German guys on Highway 101 in Oregon who had resolved to do the whole coast, Vancouver to Mexico, in two weeks. That’s about a hundred or a hundred and twenty miles a day. And then they were going to turn around and bike back to Yosemite to camp.

These guys were impeccably German. One of them was wearing big shitkicking German boots, without any toeclips or anything, and they had an incredible amount of weight on their bikes, including but not limited to one big stick each, as thick as my forearm, bungeed with their tents and sleeping bags to their back racks as defense against dogs.

“Well, have you seen any dogs so far?”

“Vell, no not really. Vee are sinking about srowing zhe sticks avay.”

“Ja, vee are having a little too much veight I sink.”

They were from L�beck. I held off telling them my most significant memory of L�beck—a poster in the bathroom of an Indian restaurant in L�beck Altstadt that had a baby sitting in a toilet bowl with a hard hat, holding a sign that read, in English, “Men At Work”—for fear that such a description might not make it over the language barrier. I guess I also didn’t bring up how beautiful and realistic I thought all of the Gothic cathedrals looked given that my country had turned them into rubble during the war. I told them I liked the marzipan. I pronounced it as the Germans do and they chuckled.

The Oregon Coast was spectacular. After the hard uphill work of each head we’d be rewarded with panoramic views westward, perched on top of a huge Pacific, shimmering. Below us were gloriously inaccessible beaches.

Beaches are beautiful when they’re empty. Most of the beaches we rode over were desolate, white surf washing over dark sand, full of the solitude I look for in nature. I finally was able to put my finger on the one nagging thing that I’ve always disliked about the beach: the presence of the American family.

Well, not just any family: the mother, fat thighs in an ugly swimsuit with saggy cleavage showing, smoking or reading pulp fiction, tanned to an orange crust. The kid, screaming, flailing—in agony or delight?—with bad hair, the bottom half of his face stained with chocolate ice cream. The father with a pot belly that I don’t want to see, back hair that I don’t want to see, sitting in a lawn chair with a can of light beer in his hand and thinking, “this is life!”

You take away the American family and all that remains on the American beach is surpassing beauty.

The Birkenfeld Country Store was all that we had hoped for. We filled our water bottles, ate lunch, and bought dinner: rice, black beans, tortillas, salsa and a red onion. And it looked like we would have a place to sleep the night: the lady behind the counter told us that there was a campground up past Jewell. Elk something, or something Hill? On the right, the one with the nice waterfall. “Tell you what,” she amended, “stop by the sheriff’s office in Jewell. Jeff should be on duty, he’ll give you better directions.”

All was right with the world as we sat out the hottest hours of the day on a bench in front of the store. I was enjoying a Heath Bar—in brief rebellion against the tyranny of Snickers—as the local loggers, all heavily mustached, ducked into the store with their engines idling. Everyone knew everyone, and they were all brimming with the unstudied comfort that comes from the assurance that this day would be more or less identical to the one before. There was no place I would rather have been at that moment than sitting in front of the Birkenfeld Country Store watching the locals come and go.

* * *

We camped the whole way down, twenty-one nights in all. We never had a problem finding a place to sleep. There is a well-maintained, cheap camping infrastructure for cyclists all along the Pacific Coast: a major reason why we chose to bike it.

Setting up camp was the same routine every night. Register and pay, find a site, put the tent together, shower, cook on the camp stove, eat, wash the dishes, brush my teeth, write in my journal. The evening routine was relaxing and monotonous, and since it took about three hours we tried to get to our site by 7:00.

I was proud of my clothes-frugality: three shirts, two pairs of boxers, two pairs of bike shorts, three pairs of socks, nylon pants and a rain jacket. If I took whatever clothes were dry and not currently on my body I could fill by sleeping bag’s stuff-sack, and this was my pillow every night. By the end of the trip my Thermarest and ad hoc pillow were all the comfort I could ask for.

After three weeks in the saddle I was easy to please. I could sleep anywhere and through any din. Grunge did not bother me. My furnace belly could metabolize any substance: Snickers, pasta, wood chips, anything. Best of all, I found that I had also risen above boredom.

On the road there weren’t too many distractions. Just the pavement, the traffic, Californian flora, and the shimmering Pacific below me. No mass media. When it was time to stir the pasta sauce, I focused on stirring the pasta sauce. When it was time to adjust the limit screws on my front derailleur, I was one with the screwdriver.

The effect of all of this was that by the time I reached San Francisco, I craved no entertainment, which meant that I was never bored. If I had nothing to do—or say I was waiting somewhere for Tim—I could just sit on the curb and whatever happened to be on the other side of the street perfectly filled my attention space. For hours, if necessary.

In San Francisco, in the Lebanese restaurant where we shared our final meal together, Tim confided in me the three lessons that he learned from this trip. One, that Laundromats are an excellent place to make change for a dollar. Two, that if you have to, it is possible to piss just about anywhere, even in a city. Three, that whenever he leaves a restaurant or bar he should think very carefully about how long it will be before he runs across another rest room.

* * *

There is a sort of community on the Pacific Coast Bike Trail, a community moving south at forty to eighty miles a day. You run into the same people again and again. Sometimes the fast bikers take a day off and you catch up to them. Or you take a day off and people catch up to you. Most of the bikers we saw by the time we reached Mendocino we had either seen already or heard stories about.

“Hey, have you guys seen Mark recently? The guy from Iowa?”

“Oh, you mean the guy with the iPod? I heard he biked all the way from Des Moines. Nine weeks on the road.”

“Yeah, that’s the guy. He left his rainfly up in Russian Gulch and we picked it up for him.”

“We haven’t seen him since Cape Lookout. I think he’s ahead of us.”

“Well, if you see him tell him we have his rainfly and we’ll try to catch him in the city if not earlier.”

Our traveling community was populated by every imaginable character, from whatever corner of the globe. There was the old German legend who has been traveling on his bike since the ‘60’s and has never been back to his home country. The Alaskan who picks barrelsful of shrooms in Washington every summer and spends the rest of the year biking up and down the coast selling them. The ruddy Arizonan on a folding bike who had cycled from Bombay to Hampi to Goa selling Korean watches for Indian trinkets and then, in Berlin, Indian trinkets for Deutche Marks.

A diverse bunch; we weren’t bound together but by the strenuousness of our daily physical struggle and by our two natural enemies: the RV and the redneck.

The RV: I have never seen so many in my life. There were legions of them, in the campgrounds, on the road, at the scenic turn-offs, forty-foot RV’s with a twenty-foot SUV in tow, like obese siblings, like a bully and his toady sucking my bike into their slipstream.

The redneck: leaning out of the passenger window of a pick-up truck shouting “faggot” or laying on his horn and veering close enough to my bike to prove his supremacy. This happened about once a day until we got to Mendocino County.

It was tough to avoid radicalization in the ongoing battle between two- and four- wheeled vehicles. Most Americans, even most friends of mine, hold the improvident assumption that automobiles are the only legitimate form of traffic. This means that every time they’re in a car and are inconvenienced by a biker they get self-righteous and angry.

The number of times I’ve been inconvenienced by a car, on the other hand. Even putting aside the pollution, the noise, the despoliation of our public spaces, the foreign policy headache that their oil-lust aggravates, and not mentioning our nation’s embarrassing struggle with obesity and laziness, cars are very dangerous and inconvenient vehicles to everyone else on the road. When I pull out into the middle of the lane on a narrow bridge, it’s because most drivers would be more than happy to squeeze dangerously past me if I let them, and I’m the one who has to do all of the dying if they slip on the wheel.

In my tent at night I had wild visions of an America free of their tyranny. Imprudent, culturally unrealistic dreams of alternative travel. Whatever the case, I hope never to have to own a car myself.

There was one building in Jewell, Oregon and it was the sheriff’s office. A pick-up truck with the largest enclosed bed I’ve ever seen was sitting alongside the police cruisers in the parking lot. Fire danger was high, pointed the fire danger arrow. Sheriff Jeff was inside, chatting with a townie; I waited for a break in the conversation.

“We’re looking for the campground around here?” Jeff’s stare was inscrutable, so I continued, mechanically. “Up past Jewell… Elk something, or something Hill? On the right, the one with the nice waterfall… The lady at the Birkenfeld…”

“Oh, right, but you don’t want to camp there.” Bad news. “Elk Ridge is day-use only.” A thoughtful pause. “You boys should be able to find some even ground down one of the logging roads west of here. You’ll be safe so long as you camp out of sight of the road. The redneck factor is pretty high up here in the hills, is all.”

“We probably wouldn’t be able to find any potable water, though.”

“I don’t suppose so. But there aren’t any bona-fide campgrounds on this road until Astoria, and that’s another thirty-five, forty miles.”

Tim and I, already exhausted after a full day of riding, exchanged a glum look.

“Hell,” the townie chimed in. “I’m headed to Astoria right now. I’m sure I could fit both of your bikes in my truck.”

* * *

The major coastal towns in Oregon and Northern California—Lincoln City, Florence, Coos Bay, Crescent City, and all of the rest—were uniformly depressing: broken-down strip malls full of bait and tackle stores, delis where they smothered on the mayo and the mustard tasted like earwax, KFC’s awash in rolls of wan native adipose. We pedaled hard to escape them.

As we continued south into the wide orbit of the Bay Area we encountered shocking patches of affluent counter-culture liberalism. Arcata was the first bright light in the wilderness, where the townspeople were thin, organic food abounded, and there was not a single chain store. No GAP, Starbucks, anything. It was refreshing but of a piece with the hysterical leftism on the West Coast that I found mildly terrifying. This terror grew as we approached San Francisco.

In Marin County I read a headline in the local newspaper: “18- to 24-Year-Olds Likely to Face Draft in 2005”, and was sent into a five-second tailspin. The adjacent headline afforded some comforting contextualization: “Israel Does Not Intend to Return Palestinian Lands Ever”. Suddenly I felt more optimistic about my prospects of continuing a blithe civilian life right here in the U.S. of A.

Mark from Iowa’s rainfly was bungeed to my back rack and I was pretty sure we weren’t going to catch up to him. He had taken an extra day in Russian Gulch and would be steaming south, probably at a good eighty miles a day. We hadn’t taken a day off since Brookings, Oregon, and were limping into the city on our last legs.

How can a guy bike for nine weeks out of Des Moines and forget his rainfly three days north of his destination? I left my cell phone number at the Russian Gulch registration booth in case he turned around that day to come back for his fly.

Miraculously, he calls the registration booth the next day and gets my number. By the time I get his message he’s already thirty miles ahead of us and trucking. We weren’t going to catch him, but I remember that he was planning to end his trip in San Francisco and to look for a job, so when I arrive in the city I call him back.

He’s in the Richmond, I’m in the Haight. I give him directions to the Panhandle, and we meet on the corner of Fell and Asbury.

“You’re a genuine hero,” he starts.

“I’m just happy to see the reunion. How do you like the city so far?”

“Pretty good, I guess. I think I might stay out here and get a job.” Mark talks very slowly, with extreme relaxation. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll fly back home to get some of my stuff.”

“Well, I hope it works out. Take it easy.”

“Bike safe,” he said.

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