A Changed Life: Cycling from San Francisco to Seattle
My friend and I set out to ride bicycles from San Francisco to Seattle the summer of 2015. My life was changed. This was a beautifully, torturous trip that stretched nearly 1000 miles over 3 states. Never in my life had I experienced so much pain and joy simultaneously.
This was the second bike tour EJ and I embarked on. (Check this link to learn about our first trip from San Fran to LA, which was filled with ostriches and strangers). We thought we knew exactly what to do. We had certainly learned from the pain and mistakes of the last trip, or so we thought. Our bikes were in good shape, we had the right gear, and our bags were packed strategically. Most importantly, we had purchased our Adventure Cycling Maps. These cycling maps were going to be our key to success. Our biggest mistake the previous year was relying solely on our cell phones and strangers for directions. We were both so excited to have these maps to guide us to glory. We thought for sure we were ready to conquer a trip that doubled the distance and time of our first one.
Everything began well in San Francisco. We were a bit nervous about navigating out of the city because of how lost we became the first year. However, the maps worked well and we made it out of San Francisco without error. We were pumped.
We were mesmerized by the views of northern California as we pedaled up state. The ocean views were stunning, but they did not compare to the wonder of the Redwood trees. The ride was littered with perfect scenery worthy of a feature on the best travel Instagram accounts. The west coast is a miraculous place. Of course the hills and mountains along the coast were steep, but we were smart about pacing ourselves and planning routes. Don’t get me wrong though, there were hills and mountains that caused us to shed tears and whimper like little school boys.
Oh No…Are You Kidding?
Everything was going well for the first few days. The bikes were holding up, we were getting along, and we were making northbound progress. The only thing that could have been improved was our stench. We each had 2 pairs of cycling shorts and 3 shirts. We went 8 days without washing them. That was foul, especially since we were sharing an extremely small tent.
Most importantly, the maps were working perfectly. They kept us on pace and made us aware of all the important rest stops. Each map has about 300-400 miles of route on them. You typically take 4-5 days to complete a map. We had a total of 3 maps for our trip. The beginning of the second map is where it all went wrong.
I was inhaling trail mix and taking in some amazing views on the edge of a cliff when I heard EJ shout, “oohhhhhh SH*T” . I thought I had just heard EJ’s final cry for help as he tumbled down the cliff to his death. I also thought that he may have seen Nessy breach the surface of the Pacific and I missed it. Both of those assumptions were wrong. As our luck would have it, our map blew off the cliff, literally. This wasn’t a little hill that we could walk down. No, this was one of those cliffs you see in the Roadrunner cartoon. I would rather have lost my biking shorts than that map. Panic set in immediately.
EJ and I began to perseverate over the worst possible scenarios: “were going to have to turn around!, the trip is ruined, let’s just go home, we’re just going to be riding in circles”. We thought for sure this would have a devastating impact on the ride. It’s possible to ride through some deserted areas with no cell service on these bike tours, which would have rendered our phones useless. Additionally, there was no where to purchase a new map. We had no idea what to do.
We finally regained some composure and decided that we would continue on Route 1 and begin using our phones for direction. However, as we began riding again, I noticed another biker in the distance. He looked like he knew what he was doing, so I flagged him down. He must have thought there was an emergency the way I was flailing my arms. Sure enough he stopped. To our surprise he had the exact map we had just lost. He allowed us to take pictures of each section with our phones. The situation was immediately corrected and hope was restored.
This was the first major obstacle of the trip. Although the panic was short, this situation reminded us to be ready for anything. We were reminded not to put all of our confidence in a single object. The map we had taken for granted as our most important tool was blown off a cliff in a mere second. We were then left with nothing. Fortunately, we were encouraged to rely on the kindness of others for support. We were also reminded to strap down our maps better.
Hospitality Beyond Anything
After our map floated away like a plastic bag in the wind, it was smooth sailing for a while. We had some pretty cool experiences. There was a day when we were exhausted and had fallen short of our original destination. There was no where to stay other than an RV park that catered to fisherman. We didn’t quite fit the bill to be staying there. However, we had no other options so we rolled in. Within seconds some dude popped out of a decked out RV claiming to be the manager. There was no one else around so we took his word for it.
He was friendly as ever. He saw that we were in pain and clearly not fisherman. He also saw that we were riding bikes and not driving an RV. None the less, he hooked us up with a camping spot for really cheap. He allowed us to sleep on the one patch of grass they had, which was a pool they had recently filled in. We were right on the beach in a beautiful spot. The only downside to this site was that it smelled like fish, everywhere. Maybe that was just EJ.
As we were setting up camp we met a guy who invited us over to his trailer. The invite was accepted immediately. I know that sounds creepy, but he seemed nice and we were desperate for food that wasn’t freeze dried. His wife prepared us food and gave us cold beers. It was amazing. They were excited to hear about our trip and listened attentively as we told them about our ride. In turn, they told us about their adult sons and their retirement plans.They had dreams of traveling the country in their RV. The seemingly creepy invite became another reminder that there are good people who genuinely care about others.
A few nights later we were camping on the ocean after 100 miles of riding. We were exhausted, which must have been quite apparent. Some guy came up to us and offered us a full jug of water so that we didn’t have to go back and forth to the restrooms. He also invited us over to his RV. Like before, we accepted the offer. This guy was camping with his wife and two young kids. They gave us cold beers and let us make s’mores with their children. They were also genuinely interested in our story. What struck me about this family was that they trusted us with their children. Two sweaty men, an RV, and spandex are not typically the recipe for a good time, but this family saw our exhaustion and wanted to know more. Amazing.
There was no reason these families needed to invite us over. In fact, it may have been a risk from their point of view, especially for the family with children. However, without any ulterior motive, they took interest in our story, and generously provided us with their hospitality.
I Will Never See You Guys Again, So I Will Tell You.
A lot comes out when you are on the bikes. You have hours of time to think and talk about life. It’s actually pretty therapeutic. EJ and I have pondered some of life’s deepest questions while on the bicycles.
However, in this particular instance it was not us that did the talking. As we rolled through the Avenue of the Giants an older gentleman began pedaling next to us. I made a comment about his bike and from there the conversation became an opportunity for him to share his life story with two complete strangers. Once he was sure he would never see us again, he began.
This gentleman was probably in his mid to late 60’s. He explained that he was originally from the east coast. He had started a typical career, which I can’t recall at this time. He was not satisfied with this job so he began selling marijuana on the side. He explained that this quickly became his primary source of income. Eventually he dropped the 9-5 to sell marijuana. That still was not enough. He explained that he eventually moved to northern California in the 70’s where he “could grow marijuana all over the woods”. He said “it was insane how much money I was making”. This guy essentially disclosed to us that he was a successful drug dealer. However, he reports that he is now retired and has been living large off of the wealth he has accumulated.
Although I may not agree with the moral choices of this gentleman, I was encouraged about the realness with which he spoke. It was amazing that he would disclose this information to complete strangers. This would never have happened if we weren’t riding bikes. There is something unique and special about connecting with someone on a bicycle ride. This experience re-motivated my eagerness to keep riding. Plus it was another cool story for the books.
Dudes and Dune Bugs
There was one particular evening where we had to stay at a campground in Oregon that catered to dune buggy riders. Apparently that’s a thing. Again, we wanted the cheapest spot possible so we were put in a patch of grass by the entrance of the park. At first glance it was not so bad, but we quickly realized that dune buggies would be flying in and out all night long. It was like sleeping in the back of a drag racer. Additionally, we were directly under the one street lamp at the camp site so our tent was lit up like the sun all night.
Despite the terrible sleeping conditions, we met two other cyclists. They were just like us. Two good buddies in search of an adventure. They explained to us that they had met in college and wanted to have one final experience before entering the real world. Their names were Patrick and Jeremy. This was their first bike tour and they were killing it. They had started in Vancouver and were hoping to make it to San Diego. They were way more hard core than us. They shared stories of sleeping in bushes and drinking beer.
We spent the night giving each other tips on what to do and what to see. We discussed faith, school, and careers. Patrick had packed his DSLR and took a few photos of us. It was refreshing to run into two like minded guys. There was no particular reason we had to interact. In fact, it may have been easier to just ignore each other and rest. However, this was one of those experiences that revitalizes your faith in humanity. We all exchanged emails and social media accounts. It’s cool to check in and see what they are up to on their bikes. Who know’s, maybe our paths will cross again.
Staying with a Complete Stranger
The most insane story we have took place towards the end of our trip. As we crept up the coast of Oregon we encountered fierce winds. The winds were so strong that we had to pedal downhill. It was at this time we realized why everyone goes from north to south. None the less, we had traveled almost 800 miles and were running out of time before our flight. We understood that we would not be able to pedal the whole way to Seattle, but we certainly wanted to see Portland and Seattle before heading back home.
We had eventually decided we would drop our bikes off in Tillamook, Oregon. From there we could catch a cheap shuttle into Portland.There was just one problem. We had nowhere to stay in Portland and we were far too cheap to book a last minute hotel. Our only alternative was to use the Warm Showers app to find some last minute shelter. Warm Showers is a not-for-profit agency that has created an online community for cyclists to offer their homes or yards to other bikers on the go. Initially, I was hesitant because it seemed like the perfect beginning to a horror movie. Despite this, EJ and I decided to go for it.
We sent out a bunch of messages and eventually matched up with a guy named Eli. He lived in downtown Portland and had a spare room we could use. There was certainly a chance that this room was a torture chamber where we would take our final breaths. We were fully aware that we met him on the internet and there was no guarantee he wouldn’t kill us. Anyway, we marched forward with the plan to meet Eli at his home. We didn’t verbalize it, but we were both a little nervous.
We eventually made our way to Eli’s old, victorian home. With all our gear in hand, we took a deep breath, and knocked on the front door. We were pleasantly surprised. The stranger we met online turned out to be an amazing person. He prepared us fresh fruit, provided us a room, and spent time sharing stories with us. He even gave us an extra key and told us some of the good bars to check out. Eli was a breath of fresh air and the perfect ending to a grueling trip. Eli demonstrated genuine trust and compassion for complete strangers. This was amazing. This experience broke down some of my preconceived notions of the dangers in the world. To my surprise we were not killed, but catered to because of the common connection we had in cycling.
These are merely a few of the experiences we had over the 2.5 week trip. We experienced true human compassion from many people. We pedaled almost 1000 miles and now have stories for a life-time. Although there were moments of pure pain, I have never been so thankful for such a revitalizing experience.
God is good. People are good. Ride bikes.