2004 Bike Trip: Back in San Francisco

Leif Johnson — 30 Jul 2004, 22:07

i'm convinced that the san francisco bay area is one of the prettiest places to approach in an airplane. you pass over the shimmery bay dotted with sailboats and go by the golden gate bridge, the sun descending yet again over the ocean to the west while the skylines of berkeley, san francisco, and oakland line the waters of the bay. mount tam and mount diablo stand watch over it all, sitting in their dry, mediterranean landscapes in the distance. then as you wander out of the terminal and leave the airport amid the throngs of travelers, that lovely, temperate weather is there to greet you as you head to the bart or whatever you've got going. it's a nice way to mark a transition between things.

so yesterday evening i stood in the cloud of cigarette smoke outside the oakland airport (remember, no smoking indoors in california) as brynn pulled up, ready to take me back to this pleasant city of san francisco, where i'm now dreading the jobby-job hunting process and glancing furtively about for the quickest way out of more responsibility.

it is finally done

yes, that's right : on tuesday, 27 july 2004, i rode into neah bay, washington, utterly exhausted both mentally and physically from the ride. i camped for the final night at hobuck beach, lulled by the crashing waves of the pacific ocean as i ate my two boxes of macaroni and cheese (yum, 2000 calories !) and retired before the sun set in a foggy coastline blur. in the morning i rode the final wee bit out to the cape flattery trail, which leads through a really beautiful forest over a 3/4 mile hike out to the northwest tip of the united states.

cape hatteras, where i started this ride, is basically a lucky strip of sand, floating barely above sea level some fifty miles off the coast of north carolina. cape flattery, on the other hand, is a series of rocky crags at the northwest tip of the olympic peninsula in washington, pounded by the surf and held together by a patch of spectactularly large old-growth firs, cedars, and pines. (the rest of the area around neah bay—and the entire north coast of the olympic peninsula, really—is heavily logged and really looks sad, in contrast.)

i stood for a little while amid the spray and breeze while a couple of whales swam by the cape, not 100 feet from the observation platform. (a helpful sign notes that the platform will likely fall into the ocean in the next 20 years from the action of the waves, and that if you pay attention you can feel the ground rumble from the water pounding through the caves below your feet.) the entire scene was even more surreal because of the fog that enveloped the horizons ; only the cape itself, it seemed, existed at the time, floating in a space separate from all others.

the numbers

even after a billion or trillion people asked if i was having fun on the trip, i still find it difficult to answer. it's not really what i would call fun, honestly, to hop on a bike seat day after day and churn those pedals for hours through heat, rain, and annoyed motorists. but somehow i didn't quit the trip, so something must have been there. the problem is i just don't know what it is ...

instead of simply being fun or boring, a journey like this is like anything else, really : you have your good days and your bad days, the effortless ones and the difficult. you have those days where you make it out of camp by 8 in the morning, crank out 100 km by noon, and roll into your next town in time for another lovely dinner of lentils and rice ... and then you have those terrible days where you can't convince yourself to sit down on that seat another minute, where camp just doesn't seem to break itself down til 2 in the afternoon, and where the heat and sun just beat down on you all day as the mile markers mock you at your snail's pace. some days you call in sick, and others you're the leader of the pack. all of it just blends together into a big blur of highway and experience.

so, here at the end of the voyage, i'll present a series of numbers that somehow represent the trip in an abstract way ; perhaps a bit like modern art, they could represent many things, so i leave it to you to find meaning in them.

distance and time

the ride from cape hatteras to cape flattery took me 76 days (1824 hours) and covered 6639 km. 18 of the 76 days (432 hours) were full rest days, when i didn't even get on my bike at all ; the remainder of the time, 58 days, was divided into 310 hours and 13 minutes spent on the saddle, and 1081 hours and 47 minutes spent resting or otherwise not pedaling. (all this as measured by my bicycle odometer.)

so on an average riding day i spent 5 hours and 21 minutes exercising, during which time i covered an average of 114.5 km (about 70 miles). my slowest day was at 15.3 km/h, on day number 10, when i climbed from the valley floor up to blowing rock, north carolina ; the fastest day was number 67 at 26.6 km/h, when i left whitefish and caught a blazing tailwind through the valleys that ended up pushing me 175 km that day.

for that matter, on six separate days (numbers 35, 48, 58, 67, 68, and 74) i rode a century (100 miles, or 160.1 km) or more ; more often i made it about 120 km for the day (around 80 miles), so that became my nonchalant response to, “how far you make it in a day on that thing ?” got some pretty funny looks from that response.

height and weight

the highest altitude i attained on the trip was logan pass, in glacier national park, at 2029 meters above sea level ; the lowest was sea level, which i left near washington, nc and rejoined near coupeville, wa. my weight at the start of the trip was somewhere around 70 kg, and my weight at the end of the ride is still somewhere around 70 kg. all those noodles and peanut butter for nothing.

my bike fluctuated between about 80 pounds at the beginning of the trip and perhaps 50 by the end, when i had shed most of my unnecessaries and eaten all my food. the bike itself weighs about 25 pounds, so the rest was my gear and panniers.

the future

i have to admit that it's really nice to be done with the ride, at least for now. i'm really pleased that i rode my bicycle from one end of the continent to the other, and that i was lucky enough to have a wonderful trip between those two extremes. (while attempting to play doubles disc golf one day at the new course in whitefish, my partner—who travels nationwide to play in tournaments, he's that good—observed after another beautiful drive : “lucky ... and the more you practice the luckier you get.") the trip taught me a lot about perserverance and people, among countless other things that i haven't realized yet, and i'm glad i have it to rely on for those tough times in the future.

but for now i'm pretty excited to be here among endless tasty chinese restaurants, the masses of tourists and kids trying to make things work, and whoever else ends up in this particular part of the concrete jungle. i'm looking forward to building a fixed gear bike soon for those commutes, and to riding a lot in the area as time permits. and the next adventure, whatever it may be, awaits !