There’s Something About Starting The Day On A Bike
From Over The Hill And Around The World
There’s something about starting the day on a bike. There’s a feeling of optimism and adventure and the sense that anything’s possible and nothing’s for sure. It’s quiet, and the air is pure like scentless perfume. The dust hasn’t kicked up yet, and it’s so clear that you can see forever. Whizzing past in a car, you get a rough idea of what it’s like, but you’re separated from the world by so many layers that you never get a real feel for the landscape. Cycling lets you tap into the true nature of a place and experience it with your soul. The sun on your face, the beckoning horizon, and the rhythm of your breathing all conspire to fill you with the simple joy of being alive and on the road.
On Cycling Around The World
From How To Ride A Bicycle ‘Round The World
There’s a little known sub culture populated by people who are riding their bicycles ‘round the world. It’s a pretty exclusive club. No one knows for sure how many are in it. There’s no membership roster and meetings are held ad-hoc at the sides of roads in far-flung places like Saigon, Mendoza and Whitefish.
I’ve been fortunate to be present at a few of these meetings. There was the one with Christophe on the rainy Oregon Coast where we discussed the pros and cons of the twenty-six-inch bicycle wheel. Then, I met with Andy, a member whom I ran into on a hilly road in Nepal and was coming from Bangladesh as I was heading to Butwal. Andy and I debated the various techniques for breaking in a Brooks leather saddle. We finally took a vote. It was a tie. And of course there was Francois, with whom I shared warm beers in a sweltering little hut outside Phnom Phen. Francois was just turning 50. He’d been a member of The Club for 19 years. A resolution to order more beers was proposed and passed.
In your own bicycle tour ‘round the world you’ll meet other cyclists who are out for a few days, weeks or months. You’ll know them by their spiffy, well-maintained bikes and neat, spotless gear. They’ll have nice hair and clean clothes. They’ll be friendly and talkative. They’ll offer to share their water and food. They will tell you about their lives. They’ll be doctors and lawyers and such. They will smell nice. They are Good People. They are nothing like the members of the ‘Round-The-World Club.
You rarely meet a ‘round-the-world cyclist going the same direction as you. Without fail, they’ll be heading to the place you just came from. Members of the ‘Round-The-World Club seem to always be going a different direction than just about everyone else. The Club has no official uniform, patch or logo but members are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Their bicycles will be scratched and rusty and ridiculously overloaded with gear hanging willy-nilly off both sides, the front and the rear.
The Member’s hair will be unkempt. Dreadlocks may be present. They will be suntanned or sunburned with chapped lips. Their clothes will be dirty. But mostly you can tell a Round-The-World Club member by the eyes. Of course they’ll be red, swollen and bloodshot from months or years of riding without sunglasses but there’ll be something else there, too, or rather there will be something not there that you see when you look into most people’s eyes these days.
There’s a standard agenda at these random ‘Round-The-World Club meetings and they always start out the same.
“Where are you coming from?”
“What’s the road like?”
“Any good places to camp?”
Once the formalities are taken care of the talk might get more personal. It might get around to what the other member did back in their old life, are they married, do they have kids. But the one question never asked is why. There’s no need. The answer is there in the eyes.
Your ‘Round-The-World Soul
There’s no way to adequately prepare for your ‘round-the-world bicycle tour. There are too many unknowns. Call it fate, luck or randomness but no matter how well you plan, The Universe has a way of stepping in at the oddest times and taking charge. If you’re going to ride a bicycle ‘round the world, this is just something you are going to have to get used to. Having said that, there are some things you can do to sort of nudge your trip in the right direction.
First of all, the world is a really big place. I mean really big. To ride your bicycle ‘round the world, you will have to pedal many miles over many months or even years. The most humiliating thing would be that you’d get a couple of days or weeks into your tour and decide that ‘round-the-world bicycle touring isn’t your thing. Imagine, after hyping your adventure to friends, family and coworkers, slinking back home with your tail between your legs. You’d never live it down! So before you launch off on that circumnavigation, before you mention that you’re even thinking about going ‘round the world, get in some practice tours to make sure it’s something you really want to do.
Start with an overnight trip of no more than 20 or 30 miles. If that doesn’t discourage you do a few more short tours. Then, as you gain confidence and experience, take some longer rides. Over the next couple of months lengthen the durations to a few two- or three-week jaunts. And make sure you schedule some tours in bad weather because believe me, you will run into stretches of rain, wind, and even snow and sleet on your ‘round-the-world tour. I’m not trying to discourage you I just want you to have all the facts.
It’s great if you can talk a friend into joining you on your sea trials. It’s always nice to have someone to talk to and share the joys and hardships of bicycle touring. But chances are that same friend won’t be accompanying you on your ‘round-the-world tour. So do a couple of long solo tours to make sure you enjoy your own company.
As for getting in shape, forget about it. Don’t even bother hitting the gym or working out. In fact, I recommend you do just the opposite. Lie around, overeat and watch a lot of TV, party. Live life like a modern-day Caligula. Don’t worry about being able to handle the physical work of ‘round-the-world bicycle touring. You will have acquired a certain level of fitness from your practice tours and that’s good enough for starters. The greater hardship will be one of the conscience. You’ll have regrets and bouts of hellish introspection or even depression. You’ll pine for the comforts of home and hearth and some night, as you shiver through a thunder and lightning storm in your tent, you’ll finally wonder out loud, What the hell am I doing way out here in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness?
You might even think about quitting but don’t because one morning soon something really cool will happen. You’ll roll out of camp and feel a sudden urge to kick the pace up a notch or two. You’ll be racing along with the wind at your back and the sun in your face. You’ll find it impossible not to grin and even laugh out loud. You will realize that you’re really doing it. You’re actually riding your bicycle ‘round the world.
From Right Lane Ends
I huddled under the eaves of a McDonalds and waited for the rain to stop, but after ten minutes, it was clear that I was in for my first real Montana Gully Washer. I mounted my bike and rode out onto the road. The rain came down slantwise in torrents so dense that trying to see more than a few dozen yards was an exercise in futility. I had put my rain gear on at the first signs of the storm, but even so, I was quickly soaked to the skin. For a fleeting instant, I considered returning to Don and Sharon’s, after all, it would be a short ride, and I could get started again once the weather cleared. But I was afraid that if I let bad conditions turn me back just once, I might quit entirely. So I steeled myself against the storm and just put my head down instead. I had estimated that it would take me two days to reach the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, but I sure hadn’t planned on the weather being this bad.
I rode along through the maelstrom, getting more miserable with each pedal stroke. Then, I began to notice a pattern to the storm. Rain would come down in heavy sheets for about fifteen minutes, then, it would let up for an equal amount of time. I was passing through a district of strip malls, restaurants and other small businesses, so each time the storm increased in its fury, I’d stop at one of the shops and go in. “Do you mind if I come in out of the rain for a minute?” I asked a lady running a car rental agency.
She gave me one look and broke into a big grin,” You get in here right now,” she said, “sit over here next to the heater while I get you a towel and something hot to drink.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble...”
She interrupted me in midsentence, “Don’t you give me a hard time,” she said with a tone of mock seriousness to her voice, “now sit down, and tell me the reason you’re riding a bicycle in this mess. I’ll bet it’s a real zinger!” This same scenario played out in various forms half a dozen times as I leapfrogged my way from Whitefish all the way to West Glacier at the foot of the Rockies. People went out of their way to make me feel welcome. At one motel where I stopped, the proprietor even offered to let me use the shower!
Usually, the small town of West Glacier is a bustling tourist center, but it was quiet on the cold, rainy day I arrived, with most of the businesses still closed for the winter season. It was late May, and the crowds didn’t start showing up until the weather improved in mid June. There was a small convenience store open, though, and I went in and bought a Coke and a couple of candy bars for the road. From this point on, I’d be climbing for at least a day and a half. I’d be in the wilderness, and the opportunities to stock up on supplies would be rare. From West Glacier, the road wound up through a canyon in a rocky escarpment. It was narrow for a half a mile, and I held my breath as cars whizzed past only inches from my bike. At one hairpin corner, a pair of Porsches ripped past, nose to tail, at what must have been one hundred mile an hour in a race to the intensive care unit.
As I climbed higher and higher into the Rockies, I seemed to be leaving the core of the storm behind, and by late afternoon, I was riding in mostly dry weather. Mike had given me the set of maps we’d been using, and I saw that there was a campground another eight or ten miles ahead at Stanton Creek. I did some quick calculations and figured I could make it there comfortably in an hour or so. I was pretty beat after all the bad weather and hard pedaling, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the campground was closer than I’d thought. It was just a couple of miles up the road. I guess my map-reading skills needed a little work. Though the rain had been holding off for the last few hours, one glance at the western sky told me that would soon change. I walked into the small cafe at the campground and inquired about setting up my tent for the evening. The man who ran the place took one look at me and said, “You came here on a bike?”
“Yup,” I replied, “all the way from Seattle.”
“Well, then, it’s free.” He reached under the counter and handed me a key. “That’s for the shower, you just set up anyplace you want.” I thanked him, and he and his son, who ran the kitchen, and I, sat and chatted while I nursed a beer. Later, in my tent, fresh from a hot shower, I pulled out my iPad and watched a movie that I’d downloaded in Whitefish. Soon, it began to rain, then, the rain turned to snow. Now, the wind began to howl, and my little tent shook and trembled in the blizzard. But I was snug and warm in my sleeping bag, and the movie, in high definition and stereo sound, wasn’t half bad. I had to marvel at the situation. There I was, high in the Rocky Mountains, in the middle of a serious winter storm, being entertained by the latest Hollywood blockbuster. What would those early pioneers who’d braved this same torturous route think if they could see me now?
There was a lull in the storm the next morning, and I broke camp in a mild drizzle. The snow from the night before hadn’t stuck to the ground, but it was cold and gray. That day, I would cross the Rockies, a Rubicon of sorts for me, and the sense of distance between my family and me was increasing with each turn of the wheel. The Continental Divide would represent not only a physical turning point, but a psychological one too; now there’d be the continent’s major mountain range between my home and me. I pedaled out of camp in a dark funk. Could I really do this? I was half-hoping the Rockies would defeat me, at least I could say I tried.
But it was only twenty-seven miles to Marias Pass, which meant if I didn’t dawdle, I’d be able to make it to the first town on the other side, East Glacier, before sunset. I climbed all morning. The weather had caught up to me and a steady, heavy rain fell. The road wound up and up in corkscrew fashion among jagged cliffs past rushing torrents that fell from the dizzying heights above. As I rounded one corner, I spotted a sign that pointed to an even windier road leading off into the deep, dripping forest. ISSAC WALTON INN ONE MILE it proclaimed. I’d been riding for about an hour, and my dark mood had only gotten worse. “What the neck,” I said, “let’s give it a look-see.” I took the turnoff and rode past a few cabins, then, at the last curve, came to a stop and stared in amazement. There, smack in the deepest part of the deepest forest, was what looked like a big hotel. It was a rustic, two and a half-story building with a grand drive leading up to the main portico. There were a few cars in the lot and half a dozen camera-toting tourists were wandering around the manicured grounds. “Well, if this doesn’t beat all...” I muttered.
I parked my bike and went in. The petite, dark-haired and exotic-looking young woman at the desk couldn’t have been friendlier. “My gosh,” she said, “you’re drenched, let me get you something to dry off with.” She disappeared behind a door, then returned, and handed me a big, fluffy hotel towel, which, I used to dry off my hair and face. “Now then, “she said, “how can I help you?”
I could smell the tantalizing aroma of breakfast wafting from somewhere, and I was suddenly ravenous. I looked around the spacious lobby for the source. At one end stood a majestic stone fireplace big enough to burn a small shed in. Arranged around the room were large overstuffed leather couches and chairs. The hardwood floors were covered in places with thick wool rugs in Native American and Western-themed designs. Soft lighting shone a warm glow on the rough-hewn timbered walls, upon which were photos of the hotel in its early days. It was the kind of room that made me want to curl up next to that big fire, read Louis LaMore, and take up smoking a pipe. I turned back to the young woman, “Well, I sure wouldn’t mind some breakfast.”
She smiled, “Just around the corner,” she pointed, “the restaurant is that way, and I think you’ll find it to your liking. The pancakes are particularly good.” I was greeted at the door by a waiter who led me to a booth where I perused the menu and ordered eggs over easy, hash brown potatoes, wheat toast, orange juice, pancakes, tea and a cup of hot chocolate. As I lingered over breakfast, I read a brochure about the hotel and learned that the Isaac Walton Inn was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railroad Conglomerate as a residence for their personnel and as a gateway to Glacier National Park. Though it and never quite achieved the status of the Gateway to Glacier, over the years, it had become a popular tourist destination.
I finished my meal and retired to the lobby where I was able to use the hotel’s WiFi to video chat with my daughters. Talking with my kids and being in such a warm, dry, welcoming environment, even if only for a little while, raised my spirits. I left with a renewed sense of confidence that, yes, I could make it over the Rockies after all. I was amazed at what a smile, a fire, and a tall stack of pancakes had done to improve my outlook.
Back on the road, I continued to climb, and as I gained altitude, the landscape and the weather began to take on a new character. Gone were the deep forests. They were replaced now by sparse evergreens and rolling emerald meadows. The twisty road gave way to great, steep, long straight stretches beside a raging torrent that tumbled along, in a frantic hurry it seemed, to reach the sea. The weather was drier, too, but the wind had picked up, and occasional, biting-cold, cloudbursts fell with gale force. But I had only eleven miles to go, and being well fed and in high spirits at the thought of conquering the great Rocky Mountains, I continued happily on. It wasn’t long before I spotted the Snow Slide Inn. I let out a little whoop of joy, only six miles to go! The proprietor back at Stanton Creek had made me promise to stop there, so I pulled into the small dirt parking lot, went in, and ordered a cup of hot chocolate.
The building was old, low-roofed and thick-walled with deeply inset windows. Inside there was a worn Formica-topped counter from which I could almost reach out and touch the tiny kitchen. Two or three tables took up the rest of the compact space. The whole affair was attended to by a single cook who was also the waiter. While I sat sipping my cocoa, a group of four motorcyclists came in. It wasn’t long before they began asking me about my trip, and we chatted pleasantly about the joys of the open road. “You’ll be passing through Browning, Montana, tomorrow,” one of the riders said, a serious look on his whisked face, “whatever you do, don’t get stuck there at night.”
“Is that right?” I said, “why is that?”
The motorcyclists all traded knowing looks. “Just don’t, that’s all,” another replied, “it’s a bad place.”
“Yeah,” said a woman dressed all in black leathers, “ We don’t even stop for gas, we just wind the throttle back and hope for the best.”
I tried to get more out of the group, but no specifics were forthcoming, they just made me promise to pass through Browning as quickly as I could. I gave them my word, finished my drink and then said my goodbyes. Up the road a couple of steep miles later, I realized that I had left my cycling gloves at the counter when I changed into warmer, wool gloves. I stopped and considered coasting back down the mountain to retrieve them but decided it wasn’t worth the climb back up. I’d just buy a new pair when I got to a bike store. A few miles from the top of the pass, I heard motorcycles approaching from behind, then a beep of a horn and, looking to my left, saw one of the riders I’d met at the Snow Slide slowing down. He reached toward me, something was in his hand; it was my gloves! I grabbed them and shouted, “Thanks.” He waved, and they all raced off toward the summit.
Reaching the Continental Divide, at the top of the Rocky Mountains, was a momentous occasion. I noted the time: 2:12 in the afternoon. On the ride up, the storm that had been hitting me intermittently but now it came on with a vengeance. The wind howled like a banshee and the rain fell in horizontal sheets. I lingered at the summit only long enough to snap a couple of pictures then began the long east side descent. I raced along with a stiff wind at my back. The road was in good shape, the shoulder was wide, the weather was clearing and I let out a war whoop as my speedometer climbed past thirty miles an hour. This is what bike touring is all about, I thought, only a dozen fast miles to East Glacier... It’s almost a shame that it’ll be over so soon... As it turned out, I had no need to lament. Fate had more mischief in store for me.
But I was still feeling on top of the world when I sped into East Glacier. I guess ignorance really is bliss. The sky was brightening, and the wind was at my back. It had picked up such strength, that I had to ride my brakes to keep from traveling backward in time. As I raced along, I kept my eye out for a likely camping spot; someplace off the road with a few trees to block me from view and relatively flat ground. But this Eastern Montana country was much different from the west side of the mountains. It was drier with less vegetation and very few trees. I guess they chop them down because they slow the wind that howls out of the mountains. I spied no likely place; just jackrabbits and sagebrush, so I resigned to pay for a spot in a commercial facility in or near town. But when I got to the heart of the little village, and stopped in at a store to ask about it, the young Native American man at the counter just gave me a look. “Are you out of your mind, man, there’s no campgrounds around here. That goddamn wind will turn a tent inside out.”
I smiled a smug smile. “Thanks,” I said, and thought, okay, it’s on! I’ll wild camp after all. Mine is no average tent; it can stand up to anything nature can throw at it! I cruised out of town, alert for a place that would meet my criteria. But as the miles rolled by, and the country became even sparser, I began to worry. Would I ever find a place to camp? I didn’t want to go much father; my legs were heavy and my arms ached. Soon, to my dismay, I was entering the little town of Browning, and just as I’d been warned, it was a pretty sketchy place; there were a lot of boarded-up buildings, trash blew in the wind, and a pack of wild dogs eyed me with suspicion. I wanted that place far away in my rear view mirror before I set up for the night. It had an evil feel to it. The problem was, I was beat. That reality was made even clearer when, as I was climbing a long hill out of town, my trembling legs almost gave out. I couldn’t make it much farther; I’d have to stop and soon.
I made it a few miles more then spotted a side road that led off into some low hills. It wasn’t much, I wasn’t out of sight of the highway, and I could see a couple of battered houses across the road, which meant they could see me, too. A beat-up Chevy cruised slowly past, its young, male occupants eyed me with what I imagined to be nefarious intent. But I was too tired to go on. I broke out my tent and, wrestling with the wind, set it up on a little knoll. Now the wind was really rocking and rolling.
I crawled inside my tenuous shelter, inflated my sleeping pad and wiggled into my bag for some much-needed rest. But it was not to be. As I was zipping up my bag, a big gust came along and laid my tent flat. I was lying on my back with the wind blown walls and ceiling pressed tightly up against my face and body. Soon, my tent would be destroyed by that terrible wind. I knew I’d made a mistake to try to camp in it. I glanced at my watch; it was 6:30 in the evening, I had a couple of hours of sun left but not nearly enough time to make it to Cut Bank, thirty-one miles farther east. Well, I’ve got to do something, I thought, I can’t stay here! So, with grim determination and much fighting with the wind, I packed up camp, loaded my bicycle, and got back on the road. Then, something just short of miraculous happened. The same wind that had defeated my attempt at camping now pushed me along at speeds in excess of twenty miles per hour! “I just might pull this off,” I said. I’d been talking to myself for the past few hours, not a good sign.
The wind kept up, the road was flat or slightly downhill, and I rolled along at unheard-of speeds. In no time at all I was twenty miles from Cut Bank, then ten miles, then five. Soon, I could see the little town off in the distance. I was going to make it! It was a good thing, too. I had been on the road for more than nineteen hours and I was beyond exhaustion. Even though the wind greatly aided my progress, there was a price to pay. Handling a big heavy bicycle, moving fast in a strong and unpredictable wind, even a favorable wind, takes a lot of work and constant vigilance. One wrong twitch of the handlebars can result in disaster. The physical and mental strain was becoming unbearable. There was a steep hill that led down to the Cut Bank Creek just outside of town, and I was really racing along. When I reached the bridge, I must have been going well over thirty. Suddenly, I hit a big bump and felt that heart-sickening crunch that can only mean a flat tire. I rolled to a stop.
On the other end of the bridge, a hill led up to the town of Cut Bank. It was only five hundred yards long, but in my exhausted state, it looked like Mount Everest. Instead of making a roadside repair in the failing light, I decided to push my bike the final distance. As I struggled up the grade, I could see to the left, a sign announcing the Super 8 Motel, and I set my sights on it. Night had fallen by the time I reached sanctuary and I stumbled in and staggered up to the clerk. “Do you have a room?” I asked meekly.
The clerk looked me up and down. I was sunburned and road bruised. My lips were chapped and my eyes were bloodshot. My hair was a tangled mess and my sweat-soaked clothes were caked with grime. “Man,” he said, “you look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”
Indeed. I had climbed five thousand-foot Marias Pass in a howling storm, ridden eighty-six grueling miles, had a flat tire and still somehow made it to Cut Bank in more or less one piece. And now, all I wanted was a place to lay low and lick my wounds. “You don’t want to know,” I mumbled. “Now what about that room?” I signed in and pushed my bike to my room, undressed, and soaked my battered body in a warm bath, dozed in the tub for an hour, then went to bed and slept the sleep of the pure at heart. It had been quite a day, my longest and most challenging so far.
The next day on the flat Montana highway was a breeze. The predominant winds blow from west to east in this latitude and that’s why most Trans America riders choose to start on the West Coast. I made the most of those fair winds, making good mileage and enjoying the light work. After the tortuous climbing and foul weather west of the Rockies, I was ready for some easy going and fast travel, and I arrived in the small prairie town of Shelby after only five hours. I found the city park and camped at the edge of the lawn next to a field of dry prairie grass. As I sat in my tent, I mused about how the hardest part of the ride across North America was behind me. I reminisced, almost longingly, about the challenges of weather and topography I had overcome. In a way, I’d miss all that drama, what with the rest of the trip being little more than a lark.
I stayed up late going over my maps, coming up with a nice, neat plan. If I made the easy ride of forty-five miles to the town of Chester the next day, it would put me only sixty-three miles out of Havre, a city of about five thousand. With the roads as flat as they were and the wind at my back, I thought, I should have no problem reaching Havre in two days. I might take a rest day there, and who knows, maybe even go to a movie! I slept peacefully, secure in the knowledge that I had things well under control.
I was about to discover that the gods reserve their foulest punishment for the hubristic. The next morning began benignly enough. The tailwind I’d been enjoying had shifted around and become a slight headwind, but as I rolled out of Shelby, I was unconcerned. It wasn’t until it began to rain, and the easterly winds became a serious hindrance, that I started to suspect my good fortune was about to end. I struggled against the unrelenting wind, buffeted by frequent strong gusts that would nearly blow me off the road. It was painfully slow going, and by the time I’d covered the forty-five miles to Chester, I was a ragged mess. I straggled into town, found the city park, and set up camp in a strong wind. The rain had stopped, though, and the scurrying clouds and patches of blue sky gave me hope that the next day my luck would return. But it was not to be. As I packed up camp the following morning, a cold rain started falling. The wind, predictably, blew modestly out of the east again. But I knew it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Sure, It would be more work than I had anticipated, but as long as it got no worse, I would be okay.
But it did get worse, and soon, riding became pure torture. Bitingly cold, rain-driven and hellish, the wind roared out of the northeast all day long. Head down, I pedaled through the maelstrom until I was too tired to go on. I sought shelter behind some grain towers; the only wind breaks in that eternally flat land. I ate a little food and rested until the devils stopped dancing in my brain. Abandoning all hope of making Havre that day, I barely reached the small dirt-street town of Hingham, just twenty-two miles from my startling point of Chester. I pitched my tent in the city park, made dinner, and fell into a deep sleep. “Surely tomorrow will be better,” I remember mumbling as I drifted off into fitful slumber.
The next morning, the unmistakable howl of a Great Plains windstorm roused me from my sleep. I poked my head out, made a quick evaluation, decided it wasn’t too bad to travel, then made a hurried breakfast and packed up camp. As I started to load my bike, I noticed that I had a flat tire. It was the second one I’d had since Cut Bank. I made the repair and pedaled out onto the highway. A mile or so later, I passed a roadhouse just opening and stopped in to pick up food for the day’s journey. The owner, a hippie-looking fellow a few years younger than me, shook his head. “You might want to go back and sit this one out,” he said, “looks like it’s ‘gonna get ugly.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” I replied, “but Havre’s not far is it? A little over forty miles?”
“About that,” he said, “but it could be a long forty miles.” Looking back now, I should have taken his advice. But the prospect of sitting out a storm of indeterminate duration in my small tent seemed the less desirable option. I thanked the fellow, got on my bike, and headed into the wild.
The wind for the first ten miles wasn’t much worse than the day before, but soon, all that changed. The clouds bunched up and crowded in, the day grew dark as dusk, and off in the distance, I could see the unmistakable haze of approaching rain. In half an hour, the storm was upon me. It hit suddenly and in full force. An icy rain stung my exposed skin and the terrible wind seemed to want to tear the clothes from my body. My bike responded to each powerful gust by swerving uncontrollably toward the ditch or the center of the road; the wind was coming from all directions at once, now. I put my head down and rode through the worsening weather, determined to push on, but I sensed down deep that I was no match for this storm. Now, the tempest reached a new level of ferocity.
A gust hit me with such force that I was lifted out of the saddle and tossed like a rag doll to the ground. I caught myself in time to prevent serious injury, but I banged my knee trying to right the bike, and it throbbed painfully with each beat of my quickening heart. There was no sense in getting back on the bike; the wind was just too strong. With a rising sense of dread, I started pushing my bicycle up the road. I limped along through the deluge, stumbling to a stop and bracing against each freezing onslaught. At one point, a long sustained squall hit with such ferocity, that it took all my strength to keep from being blown away. I stood on the leeward side of my bike and leaned into the gale with everything I had, but it was no use. I stumbled, giving up ground and struggling to keep my footing then, I fell backward and tumbled into a ragged tangle of ditch weed. I lay there for a few minutes regaining my strength. That’s it, I thought, I know when I’m beat. It’s time to give up. That’s when Mike’s words came back to me: “You can’t just give up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, you ‘gotta go someplace to give up!”
He had been right that day outside Rexford, and he was right now, but his wisdom did me little good in that situation. I would have loved to go somewhere — anywhere — to give up but I was stuck; I wasn’t moving much farther on my own. I picked myself up, righted my bike, and put my thumb out, as off in the distance, a lone red pickup approached, slowed, then sped on past, dousing me with a wave of slush. As I watched the truck disappear into the road haze of that stormy Eastern Montana highway, I felt the queasy beginnings of The Fear stirring deep inside. There wasn’t much traffic on the road that morning. The locals knew enough to stay home when the weather got that bad. I tried to see back west through the heavy wind-driven rain, hoping another potential ride would come along, but no, the road was empty.
There are few trees in this part of the American West. Rolling hills and rocky escarpments dominate the landscape. In the absence of natural barriers, the storms come on with a vengeance. And when it gets really ugly, staying out in the weather isn’t an option. Shelter becomes the only hope. And I knew that if I didn’t find some soon, well, I wouldn’t be the first tenderfoot to be gobbled up by this rugged land. Up ahead, I could make out a single line of tall trees and I struggled toward it. The trees had been planted ages ago as a windbreak to shelter a now long-gone home; the only remains of which, was a broken foundation. I thought that if I could huddle among their boughs, I might be able to last out the worst of the gale. It wasn’t much, but staying out in the storm was not an option. My thoughts came slowly and my battered body responded sluggishly. I realized that I was in a bad way. If I can just get to those trees, I thought.
I was having trouble pushing my bike now. My hands had become numb through my heavy wool gloves and my legs felt heavy. I couldn’t feel my feet. It seemed to take an eternity, but eventually, I reached the trees and was rolling my bike over to lean it against one of the trunks when a big black pickup slowed, came to a stop, and the window rolled down. I hadn’t even noticed its approach. I stumbled over and looked in. “You okay or do you need a ride?” the driver said.
I started giggling hysterically, “Oh, man,” I said through chattering teeth, “I n-n-need a r-r-r-ride!”
From Over The Hill And Around The World
No longer a country of bad haircuts and ill-fitting suits, this former satellite of the old Soviet Union looked like one of the nicest and most prosperous parts of the modern unified Germany. This is where the Harz Mountains get serious, and the Germans flock here for their holidays. It’s also where many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are set. Legend has it that witches gather atop the Brocken, the highest mountain in the region, each October 30th for the German version of Halloween.
I rode on narrow cobblestone lanes that meandered past well-tended fields and through deep woods and storybook villages. I found nothing quaint, though, about the tractors with which I was sharing the road. They were big suckers, the size of our diesel trucks, and when I saw one speeding around a blind corner at thirty miles an hour, I got out of the way fast.
It was a slow, easy ride that day. I made only forty kilometers before I stopped at a camping platz in the town of Thale. It was on the grounds of an old monastery with ancient rock-and-brick walls adorned with Christian iconography. I had to wonder what the ghosts of the monks who wander those halls must think of the tourists defiling their sanctified ground.
The town of Thale lies right in the heart of the Harz Mountains. According to the pamphlet the clerk at the front desk gave me, there were lifts farther up the canyon: a gondola and a double chair.
I pitched my tent next to a small stream beneath a big oak tree. Later that afternoon, a gorgeous young woman rode in and set up camp next to me. Her bicycle, panniers, tent, even her cycling clothes were a bright red. We chatted, and I discovered that she had ridden from Sweden and was heading to Venice. She was the first long-distance cycle tourer I’d met in Europe.
The next morning, a hospitable German couple invited me to their trailer for tea. We sat in the sun and talked, and before I knew it, it was almost 9:30. It was a pleasant way to spend the morning, and I was sorry to leave. The weather was cool, and stayed that way all day, which made for good riding. For the first time since I’d been in Germany, I had a tailwind, and I made ninety kilometers almost without trying. I had hoped to reach Dessau that day, but it wasn’t in the cards. I made it to Bernburg and camped along a river with two other long-distance tourers, a man and a woman from Bavaria who had ridden around the world. They were riding Koga Miyata bicycles, which are Dutch-made, and very high-tech and expensive. Alongside them, my battered, vintage Trek 520 looked shabby, but I had no complaints. It had been a good bike.
I studied my maps and saw that I should reach Dessau and the Elbe River the next day. From there, I’d follow the river to Prague. I arose early the next morning with a sense of happy anticipation. All through my career as a graphic designer, I’d heard about and studied the Bauhaus, the design school where the modern design movement began. Originally located in Weimar, it moved to Dessau and then to Berlin, where the Nazis closed it, calling it decadent. After decades of decline under Soviet rule, the Bauhaus has been restored to its original condition, and I couldn’t wait to see it.
The Elbe River
I got up early and made good time, and by 1:00 p.m. I reached Dessau and found my way to the Bauhaus. It was a thrill to see where all the design greats once resided, Gropius, Albers, Bruer . . . the list goes on. The buildings had been designed with right angles in whites and grays, and are modern looking even though they’re almost a hundred years old. It was late afternoon now, and I didn’t have time to spend touring the Bauhaus, so after a quick ride-by, I went looking for a campground. I located the little tent icon on my map, but it gave only the general location. It looked like the camping platz was on the Elbe, so I found a road that ran parallel to the river and followed it back west. The route started out nice enough, with a good paved road, but soon deteriorated into a muddy, rutted track in thick forest.
After a few kilometers of wrestling my bike through that swamp, I turned around. I had learned that getting lost was just part of bicycle touring. I got angry with myself the first twenty or thirty times it happened, but by now I was used to it. After a few more aborted attempts, I wound up in a small village of half-timbered houses and narrow streets. I wandered around for a while and finally stopped to ask a pedestrian, who turned out not to speak English. At first he just shrugged, but after some coaxing, he got the idea and directed me to a turnoff a block away. Sure enough, I saw a road sign with the welcome tent symbol, and I followed the arrows to a lake, upon the shores of which was the camping platz.
People were swimming in the little lake, and I discovered an odd habit the Germans have of changing in and out of their swimming suits in public. One elderly man whipped off his bathing suit right in front of me. Man, what a sight! I was legally blind for fifteen minutes!
I set up my tent with the door facing the water and watched as groups of Germans in long wooden boats raced up and down the lake. My stove had been acting up, and that night I could barely coax enough heat out of it to boil water. I had rebuilt it in Minneapolis, but I guess I’d done something wrong because now it was on the fritz again. I wanted to find a camping store in Dessau the next day; maybe someone there could fix it properly. But the big event would be the Bauhaus.
The sound of rain awoke me at 5:14 a.m. I sat up and peeked outside; it wasn’t that bad. The tent acts like a big drum and magnifies sounds so that even a light drizzle can seem like a downpour. I rolled over and went back to sleep for what seemed hours. When I looked at my watch again, it was nearly 8:00 a.m. It had been raining for three hours. A storm like that is unusual in these parts; usually, it would rain for ten or fifteen minutes and then clear up. But it seemed today was to be different. Oh well, I thought, I’ve ridden in the rain before. By the time I’d packed, the rain had stopped and a nice breeze blew through camp. I loaded my bike and headed for the gate, only to find that it was closed. “What the . . .” I checked my watch; it was 7:45. I’d misread it before and was getting a really early start.
I rode back to the Bauhaus and checked the hours. The doors opened at 9:00 a.m., which gave me time to visit a market and buy fruit and pastries. Later, sitting on a bench in the Bauhaus courtyard as a light rain fell, I ate my breakfast, soaking up the ambience and imagining the great artists and designers who had trod this hallowed ground. After breakfast, I went in and looked around, had a seat in the Marcel Bruer Lounge, and caught up on my e-mail. The Marcel Bruer Lounge is nothing special, except that it’s in the basement of the greatest design school that ever was, and oh yeah, there’s a full bar. I visited the permanent exhibition, wandered around, and poked my nose in here and there, hoping to catch a glimpse of Walter Gropius’s ghost, but he didn’t show. The tea I’d had was going through me, so a trip to the WC was in order. As I stood at the porcelain facility, I thought, Gosh, Joseph Albers might have taken a leak in this very same urinal!
I had originally planned to spend the day at the Bauhaus, but after a few hours I felt I’d seen enough. The manager at the campground had given me directions to a camping store, and after a lot of riding around in circles, I finally found it tucked into a small storefront on a busy street. The proprietor spoke English, but though he was able to sell me gas, he didn’t seem to know much about fixing my stove. I’d have to make do.
Singing With Willy and Michael
I had been following the bike trail south up the Elbe River from Dessau for two days now. It’s a nice paved trail that runs on the west bank, but I got turned around and wound up on the east side. As I stood studying my map, a fellow rode up and asked if I needed directions. His English was good, and soon we were riding along together chatting. “If you want to get a beer,” he said, “follow me.” We turned down a side road and rolled into the courtyard of what looked like a farmhouse.
“This is a bar?” I asked.
Michael smiled, “More like a club.” Soon, we were seated at an outdoor table enjoying a local brew with the proprietor, Willy. The campground where I planned to spend the night was on the other side of the river, a dozen kilometers farther on, and I was anxious to get there and set up camp. I finished my beer and went to the restroom. When I came back, there was a fresh beer at my spot. What the heck, I thought, one more can’t hurt. We sat for a while longer, and then I got ready to leave. “Why don’t you camp here tonight?” Michael said. He and Willy were old pals, and Michael had arranged for to me to set up my tent in the garden.
“Well, sure,” I said, “that’d be great. It started to rain, so we moved indoors. A few beers later, a local couple showed up who had immigrated to the USA in the 60’s but still had roots in Germany. We sat and talked about America, drank another beer, and then Michael, who is a blues musician, took down a guitar from the wall, and he and Willy began to sing. They sang German songs, so I didn’t understand the words, but Michael was such a great guitarist and Willy had such a good voice that it really didn’t matter. It wasn’t long before we all joined in. I hummed the tunes until we began singing American rock ’n’ roll, folk, and Beatles, and then I really got into it. I think I might have even danced.
Willy spoke no English, so Michael interpreted for me. We’d all had quite a few beers by then, and we started telling jokes. I’d tell one, everybody but Willy would laugh, then Michael would tell the joke to Willy in German. After a few more beers, things began to get fuzzy. I told a joke, which Michael then “translated” for Willy, except he forgot to tell it in German and simply repeated what I’d said in English. I didn’t notice the mistake and blurted out, “Hey, I can understand German!”
Willy disappeared into the kitchen for a while, then emerged with a heaping bowl of scrambled eggs. We ate and sang and drank until after midnight. “To heck with camping” Willy said, with Michael interpreting, “I have an apartment you can use tonight.”
Finally the party wound down and Willy showed me to my room. I took a long hot bath and slept in until past 7:00 the next morning.
I left Willy’s shortly after 7:30. Everyone was still asleep, so I left a thank-you note and headed for the trail. It had rained during the night, and the fresh air was invigorating. Since it was only seven kilometers to Riesa, I arrived before the shops opened. Michael had told me the night before that I could poach free WiFi at a certain street corner, so I went there, but all the networks were password-protected. As I stood scratching my head, a young woman approached and asked if I needed help. This had happened to me often, both in the USA and in Europe; I guess I just have that look. She directed me to a T-Mobile store, where I bought an hour of WiFi for five euros. What a bummer! I couldn’t even send e-mails. I’d run into this problem a few times in Europe and could never figure out why. I suppose it had something to do with incompatible technologies.
We’d had a serious conversation at Willy’s the night before about Germany’s checkered history. The residents of the old East Germany held great animosity toward the Russians, but didn’t seem to resent Americans despite the War. The saturation bombing of Dresden during World War II was still a touchy subject, though, and Michael had talked about how the ancient Dresden Frauenkirche, the 18th-century cathedral, had been blown to bits by American and English bombers just a few weeks before Germany’s surrender.
“When you get there,” Michael told me, “notice that most of the stones are light-colored, with just a few dark ones here and there. The building was restored in the 1980’s using as many of the old blocks as possible. Those are the dark ones, blackened by the fires that engulfed the city during the bombing. A few singed stones were all that was left.”
Vietnam’s coast and Highway 1 are a study in contradictions. It’s not uncommon to see a truck passing a bus, passing a car, passing a motor scooter, passing a water buffalo all at the same time and bearing down on oncoming traffic at sixty miles an hour, horn blaring. At the same time, you’re likely to view a quiet pastoral scene, a family at the communal dinner table, or a solitary worker, her white, conical bamboo non la in stark relief against the dark green of a rice paddy.
Unlike in the cities, out in the “bush” bicycles seem to be one of the main modes of transportation, especially with the young. We often found ourselves among groups of school children dressed in their smart, crisp uniforms, riding two and three to a bike. They would see us and smile, shout out greetings, and wave happily. Many times I feared for the children’s lives as huge trucks and busses sped past on the highway mere inches from where they rode.
Camping was not an option along Highway 1; there were just too many people and very few unoccupied spaces where we could set up a tent. That meant we had to stay in hotels, which were clean, safe and cheap; we rarely spent more than eight dollars U.S. per night. We usually had breakfast at the hotel, but lunch was a variable option. Often, it consisted of whatever we could find at one of the ubiquitous food stalls or truck plazas, where I once had a garlic-flavored ice cream cone and some kind of ginger-tasting peanut brittle stuck to a disc of hard rice bread.
But neither of us was prepared for the withering heat and energy-draining humidity of coastal Vietnam. We would make good time in the early mornings, but by 2:00 in the afternoon, the wind had usually picked up, the heat set in, and we slowed our pace and stopped often for shade and water. The last ten or twelve miles were taken at a leisurely pace, and we would start looking for a hotel by midafternoon. We’d check in to our hotel and then seek out a place to eat. Dinner would be a rice or noodle-and-broth dish with bread and a Tiger beer. Back in my room, I’d grab a quick shower, watch Vietnamese TV, and then, by 8:00 p.m., be in bed, and asleep by 9:00. For breakfast, we’d have fried eggs, sliced cucumbers, rice and tea, all for about twenty-five cents U.S.
We never knew what strange sight would greet us around the next corner. It was not uncommon to see scooters zipping by loaded down with all kinds of merchandise. I saw scooters hauling TV’s, small refrigerators, once even three full-grown hogs. I’d thought I’d seen everything until I saw two fellows speed past on a scooter with a six-foot canoe. No, really, an aluminum canoe. They were wearing it like a hat!
Every conceivable form of commerce takes place along Highway 1. Rows upon rows of narrow, tin-roofed, concrete stalls about the size of small one-car garages line every village street. None are more than ten feet wide, and all are open to the road. Usually, the whole family works there and lives above in a small loft. We saw farmers pedaling the morning’s produce and fishermen selling their catch. Machinists and metal smiths were banging and grinding and cutting and welding, sometimes producing goods, sometimes disassembling them and turning them into something else.
Once we came upon a stalled semi truck half-blocking the southbound lane. As we pulled alongside, we were amazed to see the driver lying beneath the engine making a repair with an arc welder. Sparks flew everywhere, and we feared that the fuel that had spilled on the road would catch ablaze at any moment. As we passed by stalls, we could see motorbikes and bicycles being repaired, and fans, refrigerators, wire fencing, sheet metal, shovels, scythes and myriad other gizmos, whatchamacallits and thingamajigs hanging from the bamboo rafters of the shanties. One whole block of stalls sold nothing but caged birds.
We could sometimes find an English speaker, but most people in the bush spoke only Vietnamese, or maybe French. Usually, I could make myself understood, but things took a strange twist one day. We had stopped at one of the little food shacks you see everywhere along Highway 1. There were a few tables and a counter where elderly Vietnamese women were grouped. I’d had a big breakfast a few hours before, and now I desperately needed to use the restroom, but I couldn’t make the ladies understand. It seemed that no amount of phrase-book pleading could communicate my urgent need to the wise-looking old woman who was running the place. I had tried everything short of mime.
Finally, her frustration clearly matching my own, she handed me a piece of chalk and pointed to the cement floor, nodding and poking her finger emphatically at the ground. The other women smiled and nodded and pointed, too. Whatever it was she wanted me to do, the rest of the women were in enthusiastic agreement. I was confused; was she instructing me to draw a target on the concrete and grab a squat right there in front of everyone? I’d never been to Vietnam, maybe that’s just how they did things here. I looked at Mike, who had interpreted the exchange the same way I had, and we both burst out laughing. It took us a few moments to realize that she wanted me to write my request. With great relief, I scrawled “WC” on the cement, and the old woman smiled and directed me to the water closet around back.
Night Train to Saigon
We continued down the Vietnam coast at a leisurely pace, covering sixty to eighty kilometers a day. It soon became clear that we wouldn’t make it to Saigon in time for Mike to catch his plane back to Seattle, so we decided to take the train from Dieu Tri. When we got to the station, we discovered that there were no sleeper cars available, so we bought tickets on the night train in what was called First Class. Boarding the train late that afternoon, we found our seats in a broken-down car that looked a hundred years old: It was dirty and crowded, and our seats had worn springs and sagging backs.
Boxes, cages of animals and bundles of produce were stacked in the aisles. The cabin lights, the ones that worked, at least, flickered and buzzed, and that, along with the crowded and generally down-at-the-heels ambience of the place, made it impossible to sleep. The train stopped often, and it would take the old engine half an hour to get back up to twenty miles per hour. Then it would be time to stop at the next village, and the whole process would be repeated. The trip took forever.
We arrived at Saigon in the early morning hours well before sunrise. There was no announcement, the train just stopped and people began exiting. We got off and walked a few tens of yards along the tracks until we reached the front of the train and the Saigon station. We had reserved rooms at the hotel where we’d stayed the first few nights, and we walked the three or four blocks and checked in. I took a nap, and around 10:00 a.m. went downstairs to help Mike disassemble and box his bike for the flight home.