Monday, March 17, 2008

My definition of bicycle touring

Hi. Jill here. I keep that Up in Alaska blog that seems to have gained me a reputation as a crazy snow biker. Fair enough. But here on Veloquent I hope to contribute essays about the love of cycling. I started out in the sport as a tourist, still learning the dynamics of pedaling and shifting even as I dragged 40 pounds of gear and a flat-bar hybrid across the driest, most remote regions of Utah. I wrote a bunch of essays following the trip on a Web site that has long since been sucked into the black hole of cyber space, so I'd like to post a few of them here. The first one was written Sept. 14, 2002: An account of the first day of my first bike trip.

"My definition of bicycle touring"

That annoying little voice inside my head tells me to crank it. My wheels are spinning, barely. Sweat drips through my helmet and streaks of red dust stick to my arms.

You never realize it when you're driving, but the only way out of Moab, Utah is up, a nearly-continuous climb. As Geoff and I lumber up the shoulder of Highway 91, I fix my gaze on distant buildings scattered near towering vermillion cliffs. They take forever to reach me.

Before this trip, it's hard to remember what exactly I thought bike touring was. Lingering views, sprawling vistas, maybe a little work. I sure didn't imagine burnout on the first day. When daylight will allow us to go no further, we pull over and park a mere 50 yards from the road.

And thus ends the first day of my very first bike tour, Moab to Moab via the San Juan mountain range and 600 miles of the most remote highway the lower 48 has to offer. It was supposed to be a simple day ... 30 miles from the Colorado River valley to the base of the La Salle mountains. In front of me now is an expanse of sagebrush-dotted range cut off only by the horizon, deep orange and shimmering in the September sunset.

We kick cowpies from a small clearing and set up our tent just as the landscape descends into shades of purple. As a lay in the spiny grass watching erratic bats chase bugs visible only to them, I regret not getting in shape before the trip. Every muscle, every bone in my body is melting into the warm soil and I doubt my ability to get up, even to go to bed. The camp site, hidden behind a barb wire fence in a cluster of pinion pines, feels stark and uninviting on private property, a grazing range. We should have made it at least 10 miles further tonight, but night snuck up on us. The next 500 miles feel like an eternity away.

Geoff, most likely just as worn out and tired, musters up the energy to lean toward me.

"Isn't it amazing?" he says. "We just biked here."

While working as a journalist during the 2002 Winter Olympics, I only heard mirror responses from everyone I talked to ? "the experience of a lifetime," "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," "a lifetime of experiences in one." The Olympics were a splash of snow in a colorful racing whirl. The world blinked, and they were gone.

Bicycle touring is anything and everything but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is tamarisk dancing incessantly on the layered shores of the San Juan river. It is a flapping tent standing against a lightning storm on the open plateau. It is a tiny roadside grocery store in a town that by car would be nothing more than a blur. It is wildlife in the form of flattened fur on a roadside and literature in the form of faded
billboards. It is slow and lumbering, discarded bolts rusting on the highway. It is adrenaline-inducing at 35 mph and agony-inducing at 5. Itis hills that will stop your heart and views that will stump your soul. It is pinnacles and peaks and houses and streams and desert and forest and road, open road, endless roads, but it is not, I am convinced, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It, simply, is life.

One that I should keep on living.


John said...

I like the new blog. Great writing all round. I do have a thought. Could you all put a "byline" under your titles. I find myself scrolling down to see who is writing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all.


Char said...

Jill, you have succinctly described bicycle touring. I have read your Alaska blog in the past also and glad to see you're contributing on Veloquent as well. :) Sometimes, I am at a loss for words, when trying to describe how neat bicycle touring is to my non-biking friends. They think I'm crazy. They consider bicycling WORK. They don't know what they're missing!

Keep up the good input!


Fonk said...

Great write-up. I've been on a few short bicycle tours with friends, and loved it every time. Of course, we went the slightly weenie route and used hotels instead of camping. This some summer I'm thinking of doing some bicycle camping - that is, riding out into the mountains to my desired camping spot on Friday night or Sat morning, then back sometime on Sunday. The purpose of the trip will be the camping, not the cycling (thus, not a tour), but yet the journey will be half the fun.