Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

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Four days in the city

 

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In all honesty: Our two weeks in Iceland were incredible– surreally beautiful and absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of trip. But parts of it were pretty rough on Matt and me; namely because everything in the country is outrageously expensive and not at all designed for budget travelers. We spent the whole trip living outside in the cold, wet and very unpredictable weather, eating ramen noodles and slices of plain bread in our leaky little tent. By the time we left, we were dirty, hungry and ready to give ourselves some TLC.

 
Cue Amsterdam. In addition to purchasing the plane tickets that made this whole trip possible, Matt’s mom booked us two nights at a B&B in Amsterdam as a graduation gift. During some of our wetter and colder moments in Iceland, the thought of that B&B waiting for us in a faraway city buoyed our spirits through the never ending rain, fog and instant pasta.

A taxing bout of hitchhiking, a taxi, an early flight and a train ride put us in central Amsterdam right in the middle of the day on July 4th. We dropped our bags in our tropical-themed room at our long-awaited B&B, in a hurry to see the city (But mostly in a hurry to find some food). Our hotel’s host presented us with a map, proclaiming the city “very small” while scribbling and highlighting points of interest. (He highlighted basically the entire map.) He then shooed us out the door, encouraging us to go get drunk and experience Amsterdam and its famous nightlife. I can imagine that he was very disappointed to find that we were home by 8 pm both nights of our stay.

Being the logical people that we are, Matt and I looked carefully at the map he gave us and neatly divided it up into the segments we would see each that afternoon and those we would save for the next day. If you’ve ever tried to navigate Amsterdam, you’re probably laughing right about now. We immediately got lost, ditched our map and decided that aimless wandering was a better approach to exploring the canal-riddled city. The streets are crooked and badly marked, forming a disorienting arc out of the center and that gives each street a curve that is imperceptible to pedestrians but devastating to navigational attempts. So you think you know in which direction you’re walking, and just when you feel you should be reaching your destination, you realize that you’re facing the opposite way because of the subtle curve of the streets and that you actually have no idea where you are at all. We’re pretty sure the whole town would shift each time we entered a building, and we would somehow exit onto a different street in a different part of the city. It felt like the urban equivalent of the moving staircases at Hogwarts; a street leads to a different place each time you walk it and you can never go back the same way you came.

In this perpetually confused way we roamed Amsterdam for two days with no agenda whatsoever and loved every minute of it. We wandered up and down its old narrow streets, lined with buildings that are timelessly beautiful while also looking like they might topple to the ground at any moment. We visited cathedrals, the famous flower market, Rembrandt’s square, saw Madame Toussaude’s, the Hermitage, Magna Plaza, and on and on. We saw the outside of Anne Frank’s house and the hundreds of people waiting to get into it. We followed our noses into bakeries and cheese shops and creperies. On every corner there were “coffee shops” that smell like every bad decision you’ve ever made and don’t actually serve much coffee. On our quest for China Town we accidentally wandered into the Redlight District and were thoroughly disturbed and thankful that it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. Every so often we’d duck into one of the countless tiny pubs for a Heineken and a bout of people watching before continuing on our way. Bicycles far outnumber cars in Amsterdam, and they zoom the crowded streets in speeding clanking hoards so that you can’t even fathom how they manage not to all collide into a rusty tangled heap.

In the evenings we dined shamelessly on fresh baguettes, brie, pastries and wine. (When in Europe, right?) After our 12 days of backpacking with minimal food or other comforts, we really didn’t feel that guilty about it.

We left Amsterdam in the morning and took a train to the Brussels airport for our flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I have to admit I was a little uneasy about traveling through Brussels, though rationally I know that it’s probably a lot safer than dodging bicycles in the streets of Amsterdam. Aside from some military presence in the airport, everything there was business as usual and we got to Zagreb without a hitch.

In Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, we spent another two days exploring the city and staying at a hostel on the outskirts of downtown.

Zagreb is another beautiful old city, with thousand year old buildings tucked away in the city’s many nooks and crannies. It’s often perceived as being very Slavic and Russian-feeling, but really Croatia is right next door to Italy and has a much more European/Mediterranean influence. It’s most known for its immaculate western coast, but unfortunately Matt and I won’t get there this time around. Much of Zagreb, we learned, was constructed during the socialist regime, so many of its buildings are drab, peeling, and kind of all-around depressing. We spent our days there very similarly to those in Amsterdam: wandering the streets, admiring old buildings, sampling the food and, our favorite, people watching from local bars and cafes.

Our first WWOOF farm is in the rural northern part of Croatia, so we wanted to soak up as much city life as we could during our four days in Amsterdam and Zagreb. If number of pastries consumed is any measure of that, I think we met our goal.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to Iceland

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On many of the trips that Matt and I have taken together, he’s been mostly in charge of researching and planning, while I more or less pack my bag and hop in the car. While this tends to work well for both of us, it also gives Matt a certain amount of power to omit key details about what we’re doing until it’s too late for me to back out.

For example, last March we went to Cumberland Island for spring break and we decided to kayak to the island instead of taking the ferry with everyone else. Around the time we began unloading our boats, Matt finally mentioned that it would be a 12 mile paddle. By that point, though, it was way too late for me to change my mind and take the ferry.

Similarly, last week when we spent three days hiking the Laugavegur here in Iceland, we were already about 20 miles in when Matt finally let slip that there would be several river crossings involved. Thus, about 12 hours later I found myself wading thigh deep through swift foot-numbing water that had very recently been snow.

So when we began gearing up for the last leg of our hike and Matt casually mentioned that we were taking a mountain pass over part of a glacier, I was surprised at the information– but I also wasn’t surprised at all.

(Full disclosure: I know that Matt doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose, and that he wouldn’t send us out to do something that we weren’t capable of. I also know that in the end I’m always thankful that we did whatever it was, and I’m thankful that Matt gives me the nudge I need sometimes to challenge myself. Anyway.)

This section of our Icelandic backpacking trip, from Thorsmork to Skogar, was around 35 km and topped out at about 1000 meters. The trail wove up into a high lava field from a 2010 eruption that is mostly buried under several feet of snow. We were hiking it backwards from the popular direction, so the first several hours of the hike were an extremely steep and semi-exposed upward hike followed by 15 kilometers of very gradual decline. (This was actually ideal for us because navigating a steep upward scramble with a heavy pack is a heck of a lot easier and less sketchy than doing the same thing downward.)

Things were really great for about the first three hours of the hike. The views of the mountain scenery behind us and the glacier ahead of us were magnificent, the sun was shining in a mostly clear sky and a steady breeze kept us cool. Then, after crossing an extremely flat and unexpected ashy plateau, we began to notice the first tiny ice pellets coming down on us. We were optimistic that this was only from the cloud passing overhead and that it would soon blow over. As we climbed higher, though, things only got worse. By the time we reached the highest point of our hike, it was a full on downpour of rain and sleet, the temperature had dropped below freezing and we had emerged onto the glacier in a thick blanket of fog.

It’s important for me to note here that I borrowed my mom’s old rain jacket for this trip (without permission) because I knew she had gotten a new one– sorry, Mom. It turns out that the joke’s on me, though, because the jacket isn’t remotely waterproof, and so by the time we began our descent every single thing I had on under the rain jacket was completely drenched. (My boots and gloves aren’t waterproof either.) Matt, who was wearing socks on his hands for gloves throughout much of the hike, wasn’t in much better shape in his ultralight hoodless rain jacket.

Our wet descent into Skogar followed alongside a narrow grassy river canyon, which had giant downward steps in it that produced countless waterfalls, some gently cascading and others dramatic hundred foot drops. Had we not been so miserable and cold we might have actually enjoyed it.

I’m sure you can imagine what kind of sight we were by the time we trudged into Skogar to set up camp. We stumbled into the restaurant there for the coffee that we’d both been dreaming about for several days. It just so happened that that there was a soccer match between Iceland and England that evening, and we got to partake in another multi-national viewing party. (Iceland beat England, to the astonishment of many.)

The next day we began hitchhiking east along the Ring Road, and made it all the way to a village called Hofn (pronounced Hep) before turning around to head back toward Reykyavik. In total, we caught 12 rides and traveled around 600 kilometers along the southern coast of the island. We met a lot of interesting people this way, including a Chinese couple living in Canada who drove the tiniest car we’ve ever been in, a vacationing German plumber, an Icelandic girl who has aspirations of being a truck driver, an odd Russian/Asian couple who we think met online and met up in Iceland for their first date, and one woman who we’re pretty sure is our guardian angel.

I’ll explain. After exploring Skaftafell National Park a few days ago, Matt and I caught a ride to the iceberg lagoon (Jokulsarlon). By the time we were ready to leave, it was evening and traffic had slowed considerably. After about an hour and a half of waiting, it was getting very cold and we were growing disheartened. We decided to count 20 more cars before giving up on a ride and setting up camp on the nearby beach. (Please remember that this is a beach in Iceland at a lake full of huge frozen hunks of ice, not a warm breezy Florida beach– so not an ideal camp spot.) The 20th car passed and didn’t stop. Directly behind it, though, was one more car that we decided to wait on, and, miraculously, it pulled in next to us.

The driver turned out to be an American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who had decided to give herself a trip to Iceland for her 30th birthday. After we explained our 20 cars story and how amazing it was that she came along at that exact moment, she explained that before her trip a friend had challenged her to do 10 things she had never done before. See where this is going? Yeah, she had never picked up a hitchhiker before.

Her name was Savannah and it turned out that she was headed exactly where we were trying to go– to the campground in the village Hofn.

Maybe it’ silly, but things like that, like Savannah, make me think that I’m somehow on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I guess you could call it a lot of things– fate, luck, coincidence, whatever. You might just call it statistical inevitability. Call it what you want, but it sure does give me the feeling that I’m doing something right.

Matt and I decided that if we made it all the way to Hofn it would be our turnaround point. We spent a day there and then began our journey westward, giving ourselves several days to get back since hitchhiking isn’t exactly the most reliable method of travel.

We made it back to Reykjavik in two days and are now at an Airbnb near the airport to catch an early flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.
We’ve loved everything about Iceland, from the never ending daylight to the otherworldly combinations of mountains, rivers, volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and hot springs. We’re sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but of course are so excited to start the next leg of our adventure. We’re also very excited to spend a few nights sleeping indoors and to eat any food that isn’t ramen noodles. And so onward we trek!

Update on soccer: Tonight Iceland played France in the quarter-finals (I think) of the Euro. We’ve been told that about 10 percent of the Icelandic population, 30,000 people, traveled to Paris to watch the game. Unfortunately Iceland lost miserably and the Cinderella story has come to an end. Icelanders are rightfully devastated, but everyone we’ve talked to also seems to recognize how incredible it is that their team made it so far, being such a tiny country and having never even been in the tournament before. Afram Island!

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The Laugavegur

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We arrived in Reykjavik on what just so happened to be the day of the biggest soccer game in Icelandic history. We stumbled across a public viewing of the game against Austria and got to spend our first afternoon abroad cheering on an underdog team with a couple thousand very excited Icelanders. It was quite the welcome party.

After that we hopped a bus to Landmannalaugur (which we learned how to pronounce about two days after leaving it) which is the starting point for the Laugavegur, the most popular hiking trail in the country. The bus ride was really an adventure in itself, spanning across most of the country and ending with several miles of windy, narrow dirt roads and lots of cringing on my part as I was sure the 50-passenger vehicle was going to tip over at any moment. Icelandic people seem very confident in the capabilities of their buses.

In all the 55 km trek took us three days to complete (though we still aren’t quite sure if you can call it a day when the sun never actually sets), covering 15-25 km each day. (We are still struggling with kilometer-to-mile conversions.) Along the trail, there are huts that provide indoor accommodations for people who have reserved in advance, and very expensive campsites for those who haven’t. We fell into the latter category, but the presence of bathrooms, picnic tables and clean water each night made us feel like we were living in the lap of luxury all the same.

I think we’re both still a little speechless at how insanely beautiful the landscapes on the trail were. Every few hours it seemed like we were walking into a different place altogether: we started in yellow rolling hills and hot springs that reminded us of Yellowstone, and moved from there into some of the most beautiful jagged mountain scenes imaginable, we camped on the beach of a calm blue lake, then walked into a black desert rimmed with green peaks, we hiked along lush mossy canyon walls jutting up from a narrow but raging river, and finally into a forest populated with small trees and a million wild flowers.

Though it’s still early in the summer (a season which averages in the 50s), we were by no means alone on the Laugavegur. Even now, when many miles of the trail are still under snow, people flock to it by the bus load to experience it’s world renowned awesomeness. We saw and camped with dozens of people from all parts of the world each day, and the campground where we are now is teaming with hikers. (Without moving from where I sit now, I can hear at least five languages being spoken– and we are seriously amazed at how the rest of the world seems to speak perfect English.)

The trail deposited us in Thorsmork, which is basically a campground and a bus stop, and is crowded with people who have either just come off the trail or are about to begin it. (You can tell which is which by how dirty and hungry they are.) Our plan is to continue on the extended section of the trail, another 30 km, which squeezes between two glaciers and heads further south to Skogar. Presently it’s raining incessantly and all of our gear is soaked, so we’re taking a rest day in Thorsmork in the hopes of getting some of our stuff semi-dry before we head on.

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“An adventure is afoot!” -Matt

Today is an airport day. Well, actually, it’s a car-shuttle-airplane-moving walkway-eight hour layover-another airplane day. In the next five months, Matt and I will have about seven more days very similar to this one as we weave our way through Europe using just about every method of transportation imaginable. 

Tomorrow morning we’ll land in Reykjavik, Iceland where we’ll spend about two weeks backpacking and hitchhiking around the small country, which has common words the length of this sentence and a fondness for fermented shark meat. We’re betting we’ll have plenty of time to see all the sights considering that it’s only dark for about three hours each day this time of year. After that, we’ll head over to continental Europe for hiking, WWOOFing and the general sort of bumming around that new college grads are apt to do in faraway places. 

Track us on our Spot page, or keep up with us on Instagram (@madisoneubanks and @jmguenther). 

I should also mention that we’re only taking backpacks. Here’s what’s in mine (which rang in at a surprisingly light 21 pounds, minus a full water bottle and a few other minor things): 3 t-shirts, wool base layer top, tank top, flannel, rain jacket and pants, pack cover, 2 pairs of leggings, a pair of jeans, 3 pairs of shorts, 6 pairs of socks, undies, down jacket, a hat, parts of the tent, spare shoes (hiking boots are on my feet), toiletries, first aid kit, fuel canister, journal, Spot communicator, plug adaptors, sleeping bag and pad, digital camera, camp food, headlamp, and…. I think that’s all. 

Matt has his personal gear and other camp essentials such as: the rest of the tent, camp stove, water purification, cooking pot, and a dram. (His pack weighs 24 pounds minus his camera, water bottle, and the iPad I’m currently writing on.)

We’ll pick up things we need and ditch stuff we don’t as we go. We spent the days leading up to our departure packing and repacking our bags, debating tiny details like whether or not to bring an extra stuff sack or a collapsible water bottle, and frantically searching our pockets every five minutes to make sure our passports hadn’t wandered off. After so much planning, we’re psyched that there’s finally nothing left to do but to hop on a plane and hit the road. 

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.