-Dean Haakenson, bebraveboldrobot.com
I am a bicycle commuter. And I'm kind of self-righteous about it. Meaning, when I get my fat ass up in the morning and I know it would be easier and (sometimes) faster for me to hop in my car and drive the 3 miles to work (and even park for free), but instead I get on that bicycle and pedal, I strongly perceive myself as doing the right thing. The best thing for myself and for my community. On top of providing much needed exercise, it increases pedestrian visibility (and interaction) while simultaneously decreasing single passenger vehicle traffic visibility (and noise, pollution, potential fatalities, etc.), related phenomena that I perceive as extremely important to the overall psychological and emotional health of our society, and wish would be given more credence in discussions of policy. More people should be riding bikes to work and other places, and even with their kids, with racks and saddle bags carrying stuff, and it upsets me when this reality doesn't come manifest, like, right now. I'm spitting mad that we have lazily allowed automobile dependence to make us less bikey! But you know what, I KNOW. I know that you live farther away from work than three miles, and I know that you have kids that I don't have and it's annoyingly time consuming and possibly stressful to worry about them on bikes, much less yourself. We've created convenience that we did not anticipate would eventually become the same unhealthy addiction that plagues us. I know. And so, I offer words of encouragement in the form of this rambling proselytization for the church of Bicycle Tourism.
We, three of us, landed in Joshua Tree National Park in the dark (indeed, driving a polluting Honda, but a smaller, newer one), and quickly set to sleep for morning embarkation. Come morn, we strapped bags and tents on top of stuffed and heavy panniers, parked the car for the week, and off we went. I hit a wall after just ten miles. It was apparent that my piddly 6 miles a day in no way prepared me for such a thing as bicycle touring. I am a city cycler and I am out of shape. Pain and numbness came and went in my nether regions and in my hands. (Note: Padding. Need more padding at hand grips and/or gloves for long rides.)
We rode that first day, 65 miles all the way through the main road in the park. Painfully slow uphill climbs (breath, breath, one pedal at a time, keep the rhythm, choo choo; note: get new front gear cassette that has that third "granny" gear) gave way to frighteningly long and steep downhills (muscles tight, brakes constantly engaged; note: wear helmet... who am I kidding, I can't wear a helmet) and slowly, but surely, Joshua Tree made an impression on our senses as we cruised by at 17 miles per hour (35 down the hills!). Joshua Trees, the Mojave Desert's "indicator species", dwindled into the Colorado Desert's warmer, lower elevation and the frosted Cholla and ganglilly attractive Ocotillo as we descended into the valleys at the southern end of the park. I was happy to find that the Cottonwood campground, although filled with the ever-present RVs of America's Adventurous Elderly (AAE), had an unoccupied group site right near the entrance, into which our exhaustion could collapse. Remote and now into nighttime, it was obvious that no group was coming, so we set up camp (and dug into one of several simple, tasty meals I was grateful to my companions for always quickly preparing - dried refried beans, dried hummus, cheese, a stick of salami, nuts, snacks... we did good on the camping food). I indicated that we took the group site on the pay envelope, containing just the normal campsite amount, and slid it into the lockbox. This was the first of many minor transgressions (and accompanying exhaustion-exacerbated paranoia) we undertook in the course of our trip, our fears assuaged by the eventually obvious apathy or nonexistence of hypothetical authority figures. We camped half of our six nights on land in and around those desert cities that was not intended for camping. Although I suppose in the desert, one can meander miles into the nature and find a great spot for a tent and not be bothered, like, ever. The spaces between cacti and plants wide enough for a loaded bike, and the ground hard and flat enough to roll it on. (Note: NEVER forget a patch kit and stick pump.)
Day two put us 50 miles through the manmade freakish Salton Sea (aka Salton Sewer, aka Salton Stink, desert agricultural return watershed hypernutritionalizes algal blooms in that already saline water, killing off the man-stocked masses of fish and even birds, all that detritus settling into the anaerobic bottom water which when surfaces, Pee Yew!) and on the S22 to lovely Borrego Springs (a bumpy road broken over time by heavy vehicles, towing ATVs of all sorts, out to myriad ATV dirt racecourses snaking through the compromised wilderness - recreational Vehicling at its Vroomiest).
All in all, the sort of expansive wild west debauchery that made me reflect: on the one hand, we on our bikes were able to be out on our fun and fulfilling tour purely by the grace of the cement paths put there by the growth of the same human desert occupation and vehicular proliferation soring my senses. Pure hypocrisy for me to curse its existence. But on the other self-aggrandizing hand (shaking itself) we embraced our coolness (the only bicycle tourists we saw the entire time, not to be confused with the slews of colorfully spandexed old men on very expensive and lightweight bikes) and cynically wondered how many hundreds of years (the intellectual revolution hopefully gaining momentum by then), maybe just one or two, until gone will be the endangered Palm Canyon big horned sheep, and the rest of the complex and delicate desert ecosystems in that area, until we're down to that final parasitic human species that will putter around the wasteland in ATVs for a bit before finally retreating to the urban centers where it belongs (and where bioengineers will be working on newer and more drought resistant species, yay!).
We would have conversations whilst riding, the three of us, on lonelier stretches of road when we didn't have to fall into single file formation for cars to pass, or when the wider shoulders allowed. Bike Party! Sometimes, I would turn back to my pedaling, and my instinct would be to increase my pace, and I would slowly pull away, the conversation of my companions fading into what I whimsically regarded as my ongoing, mostly one-sided conversation with the wind. You see, one can only have a conversation with the wind when they get up to the wind's speed. At walking paces, the wind's a stranger, except in those unreliable instances when the wind really wants to be heard and gets loud enough for the slow to listen. In a car, one must contend with the road noise and the engine noise, but the wind, she talks there, sure. But it's really on a bike, at wind speed, when you shove your face at her and she gets to talking, that you really get an earful, filling your mind with white noise and natural nonsense.
It was on that fourth day, wherein we rode a total of 70 miles, out of the ATV theme park and through the desert towns of Coachella Valley, that I really embraced what was happening (aside from RVs taking over the world!). I was feeling stronger from the couple days of exercise; when I started riding, my crotch and hands would numb after several miles, but it would be less severe, and easier to put out of mind. I'm not sure if my muscles were gaining strength and calluses, or if my mind was retraining nerves in anticipation of repetitive painful activity, but the riding was feeling easier. I would notice brief breaks for consuming food and water would replenish waning energy, and I would find moments when I felt like I could pedal forever. I realized there was something of a system to all this work, and so I give you my..
Amateur Bicycle Tourist’s Rules of the Road:
1) KEEP RIDING. IT GETS EASIER. You WILL get to that destination, however far away, even if you have hours left to ride, and it already hurts and you just want to stop and cry and have a beer and a TV show. Even if you have to walk for a couple miles because it hurts that bad, go ahead and walk a bit, and then Keep Riding. In the long term, you keeping riding will just make every single time you get back on a bike more familiar and more fun and less like work. The pain will be lessened the stronger your bicycle muscles get, and that pain and numbness will be less each time and go away more quickly. I noticed I would hit a point each day, after pain had come and settled, and miles had passed, where I would feel like I had hit a stride, and I was letting my mind wander as I just pedaled and took in the views, and I no longer thought about the immediacy of what I was doing, or how many miles were left to our destination. I just existed in a pedaling state, and it was nice. I was free (and what exercise!). I think that might sum up the allure of long bicycle trips and long runs for people in that sort of shape; that moment where you are comfortable and your mind and body feel good, and you're still moving... you're a well-oiled machine in its preferred state.
2) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY AS YOU KEEP RIDING (except for the part that tells you stop because it hurts too much). Be mindful of caloric intake and hydration affecting your energy levels and mood. I know I live most of my life eating more calories than I burn off, not really doing too much continual exercise to warrant the eating, and sometimes I think I eat because it's mealtime or I’m bored and not because my body is sending me signals to intake nutrients. It's amazing how good salt and fat and water taste when your body needs those nutrients to continue working. I remember moments of numbing pain and wanting to quit as I slowly creaked up a hill, and then stopping to eat and drink, and then quickly feeling my body invigorate, energy improved, mood happy and optimistic.
3) DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE CARS, they will probably not hit you. Even the most blurry eyed and moronic driver will notice the bicycle mass on the shoulder, and hold fast to the instinct to drive over as much as possible to avoid hitting it. You can't escape the stress inherent in large vehicles zooming mere feet or inches past your pedaling meditation, any one of which could just graze you and send you toppling, or worse. But you must not freak out. A bicycle tourist will sometimes need to ride amongst town traffic or on skinny two lane roads with too many cars on them. So, just focus and keep your line. Give yourself enough shoulder, but not too much. You'll be fine. I recommend riding with a defensive confidence (which might sometimes feel like angry desperation; go with it).
4) KEEP RIDING. IT GETS EVEN EASIER. The day after arriving back home, I willingly, easily, and with only mild gluteal numbnation, rode the 20 miles from Broderick to Woodland for Yolo County jury duty. In contrast to the touring I had just done, this felt easy and fun, and much less like the work that this same trip would have been in previous times when I was not riding regularly. PS. when riding to Woodland, avoid the Google Maps directed Road 126 to 124 path (part of which, a gravel road), and just stay on the ample-shouldered albeit moderately trafficked main Old River Road. PPS. Sacramento, please do a corporate merger with West Sacramento so that we can inject some reason into the region and I can attend jury duty in the downtown near which I deliberately live.
A further bit of advice would be to upgrade your gear as you learn what you don't like about your current gear. I'll let you figure that out. pack layers, pack light. keep your tires inflated. padded seats are great, but I think it's safe to warn that an unfit tuchus will numb and hurt no matter what seat you're using, until, of course, you keep riding and get that area stronger. and some padded shorts.
We finished off the tour with another 47 miles in two days, 232 total, and then gladly hitched a lift the remaining 20 miles up a hellish hill back to the car. “We have panniers, you can trust us.” And then we were done. Ate fast food on the way home. I’m trying to hold on to the memories of that majestic desert feeling, and those serene pedaling moments in between the workouts. I dreamed of the desert for a couple days after. But all things end, and here I am at home. at the screens. comfortable. and trying not only to keep up the commuting the six miles to work and back, but to also get myself out there on the bike more often, visible, on the shoulder, working those pedals like I don't care how far away my destination. Ride to the grocery store. Ride to the friend’s house. Must plan some more Bicycle Touring. And, maybe you can go do that too, eh? Come on. Ride your bike. Get a Bike. It only gets easier.