How I Got Into Touring

This was not my first bike.  I don’t remember anything about my first bike, except that I rode it around the vast weedy parking lot of an abandoned amusement park.  My father would haul us kids out there every now and then to give us riding lessons in a place safe from cars.  He would pull each bike from the back of the truck, hold it steady while one of us clamored aboard, and then give us a gentle push so we could pedal up to balancing speed without falling over.

I don’t remember how many times he did this, but I do remember one of the last times, when I clamored over my bike, put my foot on the pedal, and pressed down.  I thought my Dad had his hands on the back of the bike and was steadying me, but he was actually turned around and hauling out another bike.  He saw me take off and let out a whoop of happy encouragement. “Look at you, you started all by yourself!”  Astonished, I turned my head and smiled, wobbled slightly, and then kept riding.

I don’t remember what happened to that bike but a while later it was replaced with that beast you see above.  A single-speed BMX with kid-friendly upright handlebars.  To brake, you pushed the pedals in reverse.  I was delighted to have my own bike, but what really lit up my eyes was how shiny it was, like a gleaming metal space robot, big enough for me to ride around and pretend I was a rocket.

I remember that it seemed to weigh a ton.  I remember not caring.  I remember crashing it dozens of times, mostly while trying to do jumps.  Plenty of holes in my pants and skinned knees.  I remember riding it up and down the patchy gravel road near my house endlessly, standing up in the pedals to grind slowly up the biggest hill.  It gave me a sense of personal freedom and mobility that encouraged my already developing habit of quiet, semi-random exploration, inside and out.  It was easy to get around on a bike, and easy for me to think about things while riding.

8 years old and ready to roll!

I rode it for years.  I don’t remember what happened to it, but it was probably stolen one day after I rode it to elementary school and didn’t bother to lock it up, one too many times.  After that I got a larger bike with gears and handbrakes, but it was awkward and I didn’t know how to maintain or adjust it properly.  It got covered in rust and it too was eventually stolen.  For a while – years perhaps – I didn’t have a bicycle at all.

Then in my last year of high school, one of my sister’s boyfriends sold me his old bike.  He’d assembled it from mail-order parts, using a Bridgestone mountain bike frame as the foundation.  The components were all excellent, and his price was extremely low.

With that bike, I finally started paying attention to basic maintenance.  I learned how to change a tire, how to adjust brakes, and so on.  I rode it sporadically for about ten years, but for big chunks of time it just sat in the weeds of the back yard, leaning against the side of the house.

Then things got serious.  I began to spend a lot of time working behind a desk, which starved me for exercise, and the thought of sweating on weight machines in a gym felt depressing.  I hauled out the bike and started commuting to work, once or twice a week.  It was ten miles through dense urban sprawl.  I stayed late at work so the return trip could happen at night, when the air didn’t stink so much.

That got me familiar with long rides, in a way I’d never been before.  And then, one day at my workplace, a man walked on stage and unveiled a device that would rearrange the world:  The iPhone.  I got one for free.  In just few months I found a way to attach it to my bike.

Now I had a way to stay connected and socialize, while pedaling far afield.  On the weekends I took trips way up into the San Jose hills, and sometimes over them and down into Santa Cruz.  I stuck bags on the bike to hold sandwiches and extra clothing.  I installed different pedals and gears.  I got a generator so I could go for hours in the dark.  It was exercise and adventure, with music and audiobooks and texting and phone calls.  It was glorious.

Somewhere in there it moved from a hobby to an obsession.  The idea of a multi-day tour, with a tent and sleeping bag, snuck into my mind and began quietly rearranging the furniture.

Just before I was set to embark on my first tour, I got a recumbent.  It was a total impulse buy.  A co-worker was selling his, and gave me a test ride, and in two minutes I was hooked.  It was the bike for me.  In a few weeks of frantic adjustment, the recumbent was kitted out for my first major tour, and off I went, starting at Crater Lake and zig-zagging into the middle of Idaho.

As I write this in 2023, I have ridden that recumbent and its successors at least fifteen thousand miles.

Same coffee shop from two years ago!

An 8-bit touring checklist

Got ambitions to go bicycling all around the world? Got fond memories of playing the Carmen Sandiego games on your old Apple II computer with the fuzzy color monitor? Well I sure do, on both counts!

I put these slide shows together from the original games, just following my sense of nostalgia for an afternoon, and when I was done I realized they could serve as hyper-ambitious checklists for bicycle touring.

“Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego” from 1985:

Currently I can only claim London, New York, and Reykjavik, and I feel pretty accomplished already.

“Where In Europe Is Carmen Sandiego” from 1988:

I built this slide show to run a little slower, so you stand a chance of reading the scattershot descriptions on the right. On this list I can claim Reykjavik (again), Amsterdam, Brussels, and Copenhagen.

Don’t forget to be there

There’s a wilderness of land and people out there. More than anyone could know. And then there’s this other wilderness, almost entirely decoupled from the first one, that exists in people’s heads. It’s made of shorthand summaries and untested assumptions about the first wilderness, and it’s cramped and twisted like a funhouse ride and teeming with deranged fictional characters.

People who have done some traveling across the first wilderness – especially if it’s for fun – just love to creep into conversations and point out features of the second wilderness, all the time believing they are saying something meaningful, accurate, and wise about the first. They sorely want it to be true. Sometimes, sounding knowledgeable in the power play of the conversation at hand is what matters. We all love to play the wise mentor role.

This is how you get twenty-something know-it-alls at parties who say stuff like:

  • “Seattle is just a worse version of San Francisco.”
  • “People from Missouri are bigots.”
  • “New York is gross.”
  • “Everyone in Paris is so rude!”
  • “There’s more to do in Los Angeles than anywhere else.”
  • “All these new people moving to Austin are ruining the place.”
  • “People in Italy really know how to live.”
  • “Watsonville is full of Mexican illegals and if you go there you’ll get stabbed.”

(That last example may seem especially upsetting, but unfortunately, the inner wilderness is a place that can foster opinions that are not just pointless, but vicious as well.)

I know about this because I’ve caught myself doing it a few times. It’s very tempting to point out some very personal, very subjective chunk of my own second wilderness and declare that everyone else will see exactly the same thing if they just go where I did. I keep trying to rein myself in, and talk about statistics instead, or give purely logistical advice.

But, paving the world around us with generalities and wishful thinking is a very human behavior. We do it to stave off madness in the face of an ultimately unknowable universe, because we are all far less capable of dealing with uncertainty than we want to admit. And sometimes our confidence needs the boost we can get by talking out loud, and we say something at a party like, “Oh I would never enjoy living in Canada.” … Conveniently forgetting the fact that 37 million people live there, and if they have a pretty good time of it, we probably could too. It would be no less honest – but far less flattering – to rephrase that confident statement as, “I’m mostly ignorant of how to enjoy life in a place like Canada and I want to remain that way, because I need to narrow down my choices for the sake of sanity.” I mean, let’s admit it: Learning is work, and sometimes we have to prioritize.

I have to be okay with this, and so does everyone else, because we’re all only human. I really only bring it up because sometimes it’s very useful to recognize that we’re wandering around in the second wilderness – in the funhouse of our own assumptions – and if we just wake up a little and look around in more detail, we can find really useful connections, and gain new confidence. Every new place I go I’m astonished at how poorly I actually see things, and how much I lean on previous knowledge and trust that things will be predictable. I have to stop and go back, sometimes more than once, and ask “What did I just see? What did I just ignore?” and most important of all, “What’s being hidden from me because I’m a stranger?”

If you’re traveling, take a page of advice from a slow-ass bicycle tourist, and slow way down for a bit. Ask yourself a couple of those questions and give yourself time to seek an answer. Chances are, it will lead you somewhere way more interesting than the next picturesque monument on the madcap package bus tour you were offered by the tourist bureau. It was hard enough getting to that new place — so don’t forget to be there when you get there.

100 miles

“No man is brave that has never walked 100 miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than a mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”

Patrick Rothfuss

Knowing

You already know
What you need to be doing
And it isn’t this

A haiku about self-care