Bike Travels of the Sketchy
Time to go: that vague restless feeling. I don’t have a car or even a driver’s license. I live in a small town that is 3,000 miles away from the small town where I grew up. Most of the people I love the most are far away.
The world keeps getting smaller. I keep scrolling. I complain about social media, I have a typewriter tattooed on my chest but I haven’t owned a typewriter in years. I have a laptop and I stare at it all day. Back when I had a smartphone, I would periodically throw it across the room to break the daze. I have a flip phone now; my laptop is harder to throw. I can’t throw myself across the room. But I can throw myself out of my boring life.
Lightweight food in plastic bags. Potato flakes, dehydrated soup mix. Tortilla chips that are going to get smashed into tiny crumbs during my first hour on the road. Trail mix. I have a few quick-cook Indian dinners in environment-ruining plastic pouches. I wish I could still eat ramen noodles, they’re so lightweight, so full of carbs. But gluten started making my guts clench a few years ago. I blame the way we process wheat and also the years of trauma stored deep within.
Every bus has a bike rack in Northern California. Thank the goddess for tiny favors. Thank Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of the emotionally disturbed. Thank Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Thank the Collective Tarot for their picture of The Fool card, a smiling girl hitchhiking with an enormous backpack, surrounded by blackberry brambles. Thank my student ID, which gets me and my bike to Crescent City for free. I’m going to ride to Oregon from there, just for the hell of it.
The bus to Crescent City is full of people with rough lives. That can be said for much of the public transit in America, but up here, in this rural area, even the most desperate, down-and-out poor people have cars. The bus runs three times per day, Arcata to Smith River, nearly three hours each way. We drive on winding roads, pick people up in what feels like the middle of nowhere. There’s a moment where it sounds like the bus is full of chatter but I realize everyone’s just loudly talking to themselves. The bus driver doles out advice and cigarettes. He knows everyone on the bus, except for me.
When we get to Crescent City, I’m hungry but I don’t want to pay for food. I look at the AAA map I borrowed from my long-suffering boyfriend and find a graveyard. I set up my cat-food-can camping stove on the grave of someone named Charles who died in 1929. I pour the denatured alcohol into the can, light it on fire. I tell Charles if he wants me to leave, he should send out a puff of air and extinguish the flame. He doesn’t and so I make mashed potatoes. I’d like to think he enjoys my company. A few of the other sketchy people hanging out in a graveyard in the afternoon approach me and when I make eye contact they say, “Oh! I thought you were someone else!” They leave me alone and look for whoever the someone else is. I eat my mashed potatoes out of the pot. It’s sunny and I am so grateful to be here.
Crescent City sucks! Everybody knows that. I knew it even back in Pennsylvania, all the long hours spent at the prison book program, mailing so many packages up here. Pelican Bay State Prison. It’s a supermax, it’s one of the worst of the worst. The bike route takes me right by it. Signs warn cars not to pick up hitchhikers. I’m behind a teen boy on a beater mountain bike, breathing in the air and I can’t believe how beautiful the land is, the trees, the ferns bursting out of the ground. The air feels fresher, airier.
When we approach the prison, it’s like a slap in the face, like a turd dropped on a postcard, like an illustration of what’s wrong with the world. The teen boy crosses the street and I think he’s turning, but he keeps going the same direction as me, just wants his body as far from that razor wire as he can get it. I can’t stop looking but I also pedal past it. I get to leave it behind.
The ride is unremarkable. It’s not hard, as far as long-distance bike rides go, but it’s harder than sitting at home. Better, too. I should be at home but I’m not, and this fills me with joy. Bike touring is great because you suffer for a long time and then you get really overjoyed when you come across a picnic table or a water fountain. Therefore, it is better than real life. In real life I get to sleep in a bed and sit in a temperature-controlled house and I just complain ALL the time.
The hiker-biker site in Brookings, Oregon is great. It’s only $8 to stay there for the night if you don’t have a car. There’s a steep walk to a gorgeous beach and I watch the sun set over the Pacific, sitting on a gigantic rock. I wish my long-suffering boyfriend was here, but he hates shit like this. That is, he hates long bike rides and doing inconvenient and painful shit to feel alive; not gorgeous beaches. (He’s a Taurus.)
I boil water on my cat-food-can stove back at the campsite and make tea. I write in my travel journal, which is a tiny notebook from the dollar store with a smiling avocado on it. I leave it on the picnic table when I’m done.
When I crawl out of my sleeping bag to pee at around 11pm, I see the shadows of a middle-aged heterosexual couple having silent doggy-style sex in their tent, illuminated by a flashlight or camping lantern or whatever. I wake up in the morning hearing that same couple saying to each other, mockingly: “Ha! Her little journal got wet!” I realize they are talking about me. The rain is coming down hard. I didn’t check the weather report before leaving because I thought it didn’t rain during the summer in California. Of course, I’m in Oregon now. I make terrible instant coffee and good instant oatmeal sitting in the rain. I put my journal in a plastic bag, as if that will do anything to help.
This was only a one-night trip, I need to go back the way I came. I ride for hours in the pouring rain. The last bus to home leaves Crescent City at 2pm. I’m cold and I can’t really wear my glasses in the rain for too long, because they fog up and I can’t see anything, so I’m hitting potholes and vaguely wondering if I’m gonna pop a tire or die. I pull off to a small park I passed yesterday, make some Indian food from a pouch, sing along with my headphones to Jawbreaker. Suddenly, it seems kind of funny. Here I am. I’m a gal from Long Island, what am I doing on this decrepit beach in California, cold and wet and eating curried chickpeas cooked in a factory far away? Nobody knows where I am, not exactly. I sing, “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone before, or anyone to come. So I said your name, I thought of you alone. I was just the same, twenty blocks away…” I often think of either my current lover or one of my former lovers when I’m feeling this song. I sang this song when I was in love in 2002, 2003, 2009, 2012, all about different people. But now I’m singing it to myself, to the void, to the feeling you get when you do something stupid and it makes you feel alive.
This, of course, was Summer 2019. Now it’s 2020 and we all know how that’s going. I thought I was going to celebrate graduating from grad school by taking my bike up to Vancouver and riding back to Arcata with a group full of well-meaning strangers, a trip of about 800 miles. Instead, everything shut down, I wound up moving to Sacramento and getting a job. I would have left on June 1, taking the Amtrak to Vancouver, my passport tucked in a fanny pack, checking it all the time to make sure I hadn’t dropped it yet. I was a little afraid of how hard it would be. My knees are starting to get bad from 20 years of bicycling and I feared this trip would destroy them. Feared I wouldn’t like the strangers I was traveling, feared I couldn’t make it up the hills on a diet of instant mashed potatoes and trail mix, feared I’d completely run out of money. Now all of those problems seem surmountable. Now I wish I was doing it, so badly.