A day in the life

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Today we reached the west coast and our 375-mile mark. In the hour that we’ve been here in Lincoln City, we have secured a campsite and erected our teeny tent, giddily scarfed and slurped giant ice cream cones that we’d been promising ourselves all day, and briefly visited the unsurprisingly unpleasant oceanfront.

Our ride today was shorter than usual- 27 miles- but we’ve decided to celebrate our beach arrival by clocking out early to relax and triumph in reaching this unofficial destination. So on this not so typical day of bike tourist-ing, this is to be a narrative of a typical day in the life of a bike tourist, or at least, these particular bike tourists.

Morning: We try to start our days fairly early, to take advantage of the daylight, which here in the Pacific Northwest lasts from 5 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m. The magnitude of this earliness almost directly depends on the legality or sketchiness of our camping situation. For example, if we have paid to pitch our tent at a family-oriented state park and have received a neat little permit to display on our tent proclaiming our permission to be there, we may sleep until eight and piddle around for a while, leaving camp nearing ten o’clock. However, after a night of cowboy camping between a shed and a train track, we will depart very early and with a purposeful haste. (We’ve only had one close call with these “unofficial” campsites involving a disobedient dog and a man who took his “Volunteer” status way too seriously.)

We eat instant oatmeal every single morning, sometimes accompanied by scoops of peanut butter or handfuls of cheerios, but usually just the oatmeal, straight out of the package and halfway cooked. We don’t make coffee, because I would rather drink no coffee than instant coffee, but maybe I’m just a snob about it. Once Matt’s little alcohol stove is cooled enough to pack up, we hit the road.

Mid-day: Biking is probably at its most pleasant during the mid-morning hours. Then, traffic is often slim and the incessant wind hasn’t yet reached its full, infuriating force. The frequency and duration of our breaks of course depend on the terrain and the weather, but we typically take a major rest after our first 20-ish miles– unless we are climbing one of Oregon’s many hills or mountains, which it seems we nearly always are, in which case I stop to drink and pant and cuss approximately every 50 yards, while staring in incredibly fierce envy at the cars that whiz past us as if the road is flat or something. In this style we’ve ridden some of the state’s most beautiful scenic highways and experienced the landscape’s drastic changes through the magnifying glass that is traveling by bicycle. Matt is constantly pointing out trees and birds and vistas while we pedal up, up, up, but I tend to be mostly unable to appreciate these little wonders until the descent.

Anyway, we like to take our big, middle-of-the-day-making-good-progress breaks at, of all places, Safeway grocery stores. They’re everywhere out here, and they have everything we need: cheap cold drinks, air-conditioning, and tables next to outlets– Safeway is a bike tourists’ paradise. So we sit, recharging our phones and our burnt muscles, looking at maps and camping options, until we are mentally and physically boosted enough to get back on our bikes that double as suitcases and back on the highways that will take us onward.

My biggest hope on any given road is simply that it has a nice wide shoulder with little debris. Road shoulders are useful to us in a myriad of ways: they help me to not see my life flash before my eyes every time a truck passes; they help drivers to not yell at us to “Get off the road you hippies,” and therefore help me to not make rude hand gestures; they give me a place to perform my hill-climbing drinking-panting-cussing routine. The only people that road shoulders don’t seem to be useful to are the drivers of logging trucks, who always seem to swerve closer to us in what can only be a conspiracy against cyclists because anyone who rides a bike must be a tree-hugger.

Most of the time, how many miles we bike in a day depends on where we will be able to camp. Usually we are able to hop between national forests and state parks from day to day, but sometimes they are too far apart and we find ourselves stuck in what I think of as no man’s land, but the problem is that it is certainly some man’s land, which is why we can’t camp on it.

Evening: Inevitably, we find somewhere to sleep, questionably permissible or otherwise, and we settle in. In a secure spot we set up the tent; elsewhere, we sleep outside on the ground, ready to ride. While heating water on the trusty stove, we pour over our maps, discussing and re-discussing where we’ve been, where we’re headed, where we’ll be able to camp. These conversations are detail-oriented to the point of obsession, and the conclusion we almost always come to is something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll see what happens. It’ll work out.”

We eat ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes every night, sometimes followed by a course of blackberries that we picked from the side of the road and have carefully kept at least somewhat un-smushed all day. Last night we had road kill pineapple for dessert, by which I mean that we found a perfectly good pineapple on the side of the road and we took it with us and we ate it delightedly.

Our days end with a single beer when we feel like splurging, and me reading from The Last American Man, the story of Eustace Conway, modern-day mountain man, which is probably the most appropriate book anyone could read on a trip like this (except, perhaps, a guidebook or a book of biking tips or some other sensible read). Sometimes we manage to stay awake until night falls, usually we don’t.

And then we do it again.

Oregon Aint Flat

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Almost one week of being bike tourists and we are already getting accustomed (or in Matt’s case, re-accustomed) to living the dirtbag lifestyle. We made the 2,500-mile drive from Tennessee in a day and a half, thanks to Matt’s marathon driving skills. In Bend, Oregon, we got lucky with a free parking spot for the month and struck out with a few sets of clothes, a tent and sleeping bags, a stove and no experience. Riding away from the car and knowing that the next time I see it I’ll have pedaled myself several hundred miles all over Oregon was probably one of the strangest feelings I’ve had.

We were not cyclists before this trip. At home we rarely ride more than ten commuter miles a day, we don’t wear much spandex, most of our gear for this trip is borrowed and we bought our bikes on Craigslist. We had certainly never ridden with weight on our bikes before, and I’ve been pedaling in Chacos. On our first day of this tour we biked 35 miles, my longest ride ever up until that point. Ill-prepared? You could say that.

From Bend, we headed north for the Columbia River that marks the southern border of Washington, passing along the way a few tiny towns and never-ending fields of wheat, which according to a nice farmer’s wife is producing a skimpy harvest this year. We spent two days riding through a roller coaster of rolling hills, which can be very disheartening because the joy of topping one hill is immediately erased by the sight of the next one, and the next one, and repeat this cycle for 50 miles. We stayed one night in a town called Moro, the biggest town we’d seen in days with a population of 300. Moro is the kind of place where the local convenience store sells goods that were purchased from a real grocery store in another town miles away, but we thoroughly enjoyed this little taste of civilization before we headed back into the hills.

Now, we’ve just surpassed 200 miles, and have spent the past couple of days biking the beautiful but ferociously windy Columbia River Gorge. This is not the kind of wind that will ruffle your hair and cool you off on a hot day. This is the kind of wind that will blow you and your bike off the road, or bring you to a dead stop when you would otherwise be coasting at 20 mph down a hill, or keep you up all night because the sound of your flapping tent can be equated to a train passing overhead. It makes for an exceedingly difficult ride, even on the rare flat stretches.

Already we have met several interesting people who are curious or excited or confused about what we’re doing. People love to give us advice about routes to take or sights to see along the way. They want to scribble in little directions on our maps and tell us about their own outdoor endeavors and ask us a million questions about our plans (and are usually shocked at our general lack of plans, so they offer us even more advice). Yesterday a couple gave us their phone number so that we can send them pictures from the country’s second tallest waterfall when we reach it.

We’ve already received a fair share of what wanderers call Trail Magic. Trail Magic is little miracles for dirtbags, when things work out all too perfectly given the circumstances, such as finding an awesome campsite just as it’s getting dark or being given a free cup of coffee, for example. (Yes, those really are the kinds of things dirtbags hope for.) Two days ago, after a hellish 55-mile day involving 30 mile an hour winds and a very steep and unpleasant gravel road, we limped into a town called The Dalles and treated ourselves to some Mexican food. At the restaurant we asked around about free campsites nearby, about which the waiters were clueless. As we were about to try our luck sleeping at a city park, a very nice young lesbian couple in the booth behind us offered to throw our bikes in their truck and drive us 12 miles back the way we had come to a free campground on the river, and to then pick us up the next morning and drop us back in town. We couldn’t have asked for anything better, because we got to meet some cool local people and because on a trip like this there is nothing quite as comforting as camping in a place where you’re actually allowed to be. (I have to say, though, that it was pretty depressing to drive in ten minutes what it took us most of the day to bike).

Today we will continue along the river on the Washington side and cross back into Oregon at Bridge of the Gods. Soon we will turn south and head for the coast, entering gladly into a more populated and less windy part of the state. We have very little to depend on except willpower and our own bodies (and maybe a little Trail Magic here and there), and this creates an odd sort of freedom that can only come from having no stuff, no money and nowhere to be (except, of course, back in time for fall classes). Luckily we both love ramen noodles.

Orevwa Ayiti

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Home again.

Our trip home from Haiti was almost as exciting as actually being there. We had an evening flight out of Port-au-Prince, which on a good day is about a two-hour drive from Petite Riviere on a road that is partially paved, though often only gravel or dirt. There are no traffic laws in the country, so motor vehicle experiences quickly and often turn into near death experiences. The driver assigned to take us to the airport arrived to pick us up only 45 minutes late, so we were off to a timely start. On our way, we stopped in a city called Miragoane to say a quick hello to Father Granjean, a Monsignor who has been with the American Haitian Foundation since its beginning nearly 20 years ago. When we arrived at his home he was still conducting mass at the cathedral across the street, and we waited on his porch for an hour until the service ended. Still, a very timely morning. What we thought would be a brief greeting turned into an enormous breakfast with Father Granjean, the church’s bishop, and several other priests coming from church in their suits and collars– and then there was Matt and me, in our shorts and t-shirts and baseball caps which we shed out of courtesy to reveal our dirty and disheveled hair. We ate Sunday Soup. After we dined, we were promptly sent on our merry way to continue our journey into the capital city.

Two planes, a night sleeping in the airport, one shuttle bus and a car ride later, we found ourselves back in Tennessee, a little tired and hungry but overall no worse for wear than before our month in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I was given all sorts of advice before we flew south in June: Only drink bottled water. Don’t eat any freshly prepared foods. Don’t go anywhere alone. Avoid rivers. Wear lots of bug spray. Don’t eat the barbecue. In general, watch out, it’s a very dangerous place.

Well, I drank and bathed in the rainwater we pulled from the well. We ate freshly caught fish, or beef, goat or chicken, or whatever else was served to us because Haitian food is delicious, and because it’s okay that the woman who cooked it probably didn’t wash her hands first. After the first few days, Matt and I were allowed to travel about the town unchaperoned, out to eat or for a drink or to the market. River crossings are unavoidable. Bug spray is necessary, but, let’s be honest, easy to forget. And the barbecue is fantastic.

We didn’t catch malaria or cholera or any other illnesses, we didn’t have any dangerous encounters or guns pointed at us, no one cursed us or threatened us or threw rocks at us, we didn’t fall off a mountainside, very few people begged or demanded money, we didn’t starve, we weren’t flung from a motorcycle, we didn’t get heat stroke, no one tried to steal from us, and the food didn’t make us sick. We didn’t even get sunburned. Maybe it is a dangerous place, but maybe dangerous is often confused with unfamiliar, or different. In four weeks I was never scared, I never feared for our lives or our health, I never thought that I was in any more danger than I would be in the US.

Many of these good fortunes are thanks to our friends, Gouel and Wilkens, Michena and Jimmy, Fernandez and Carmello, Tamara and Dady and Odeil and Tony, and the list goes on. We were welcomed and looked out for by so very many people, most of all by Gouel. There’s a saying that every Haitian has a White Man. Maybe some would consider us Gouel’s white man, adhering to the stereotype that says he used us for money or resources and we used him to make us feel better about our luxurious American lives. Many would say we were a lot of our Haitian friends’ white man (or future white man, since we currently have no money or resources but have the potential to).

But we didn’t send money donations or unwanted clothes and goods, and we didn’t spend a week on a mission trip in a controlled environment. We lived with all of these people for a month. We ate a meal with them every day, we slept in hammocks next to them, we panted and sweated walking high into the mountains together, we played competitive games of soccer on the beach, we passed around cokes and beers and plates of food, we sat at crooked tables playing games with bottle tops, we watched movies in French with English subtitles and in English with French subtitles, we all complained about the heat, we made fresh fruit juices, we discussed history and religion and marriage and culture, we taught each other languages, we met a million family members who offered us whatever they happened to have to eat that day, we talked about why America is rich and Haiti is poor, we took turns playing Temple Run on cell phones, we danced Kompa and the cha cha and everything in between, we picked on whoever fell asleep first and pulled each other out of oncoming traffic and cooked spaghetti hotdog and did laundry together (helping someone wash their dirty underwear spells friendship to me). Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t feel like anyone’s white man.

While we did get a deeper look into Haiti than most of the country’s visitors do, it was still only a glimpse. I saw and came to understand lots of things about the history and culture, but it all still comes down to the fact that I am an outsider, a visitor who went home to hot showers and air conditioning and Wal-Marts. I went to Haiti with my eyes, ears and mind wide open and learned many, many things, but how much could I truly learn while knowing that my stay there was so very temporary? That’s a question I can’t answer. I have lots of questions about Haiti that I can’t answer, and part of me feels as confused as I did when I first arrived in Petite Riviere. Maybe some things will come to light when there is time and distance between Haiti and me; maybe it will all become as clear as the creeks I was warned away from. But if I learned anything about Haiti, it’s that it is a country of subtle nuances and blatant ironies, of freed emotions and limited opportunities, of complex history and uncertain future. As long as Haiti is Haiti, there will be confusion and unanswered questions, but there will also be generosity, vibrancy, endurance and an authentic love simply for the gift of being alive.

In the morning Matt and I will begin our drive to Bend, Oregon. There we will park the car and begin a very different kind of adventure on our bicycles. We plan to ride as far north as we can in the first two weeks, and then head back south along the coast. Neither of us has been on a ride of this magnitude before, so there are sure to be some mishaps and misadventures along the way, but we are so excited to embark on this new journey in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.