A Life on the Road – Cyclist
A visceral, intense day of bicycle touring… this was first written on November 29, 1986 as Chapter 14 of my Miles with Maggie series.
by Steven K. Roberts
Do you ever read published tales of long-distance touring and wonder what it really feels like to be out there, exposed to the world, unsure from one day to the next where you’ll sleep, who you’ll meet, what pleasures and pains will strike with the whim of chance? Do you ever try to see past travel rhapsody and bike technology, sensing exhaustion in torpid prose or the giddiness of new discovery in lilting sentences of puns and alliteration?
I’m 11,000 miles into a high-tech adventure of intense visceral sensation, an open-ended journey that began as a flight from suburbia and soon became my full-time lifestyle. It yields memories and stories ranging from the bizarre to the passionate — yet the only way I can share them with you is through the static medium of print (and maybe a stack of photos if I ever camp in your living room and swap tales over pizza).
That’s not enough. Today I wanted to share more: I wanted you to be here.
This wasn’t a normal day, this 18-mile explosion of Northern-California violence and insanity. It was a day of curses lost in the spray of trucks, of stinging eyes and cold sweat. It was a test of hardware, a test of nerves, a challenge to muscle and mind alike. This was one of those days that will live on as a caricature of the entire journey — a day that will instantly spring to mind whenever anyone mentions riding in the rain or redwood trees, or the sheer looniness of challenging truck-infested mountain roads on a bicycle in a heavy storm.
Imagine sweat — lots of sweat — steaming inside layers of hot polypropylene and waterlogged Gore-tex. Its pressure builds, hot and stifling, as you strain into a headwind up a mountain road. You think to disrobe, but icy trickles leaking through zippers and seams warn otherwise — better to be hot and wet than cold and wet. Your shoes begin to squish, and you make a fist every few minutes to squeeze water from expensive “waterproof” cycling gloves.
Soon you accept the discomfort and pay more attention to the other problems: packs soaking through, computers vs. humidity, trucks blasting by in an opaque spray. The latter can be challenging as you waver unsteadily up the grade at three miles per hour, fighting crosswinds in your 17-inch granny gear. Sometimes the monsters catch you broadside in a soaking explosion of white water and roar off into the mist, trailing diesel fumes and the smells of chopped fir, leaving you struggling for control as then a motorhome passes too closely and a tangle of vegetation forces a swerve into traffic. Ah, recreational cycling.
The water is everywhere, inside you and around you. You need to vent the morning’s coffee, swilled so long ago in a fluorescent-lit ’50s cafe, but the grade is too steep for parking. So you press on into the rain, splashing in brown runoff like a spawning Chinook, pedaling numbly and dumbly and trying not to think about the place you could have stayed a few miles back. Giant trees pass slowly, shrouded in mist; the sounds are a muted cacophony of patter and splash, drip and roar, bicycle chain and your own wheezing breath. Higher you go, unthinking, your brain as fogged as the forest around you.
After an hour, the summit — understated, no sign but a warning to trucks, no place to pull off and congratulate yourself. Without fanfare you coast the level part, breathing easy, relaxing slightly — then your speed picks up and the curves fly by and the bumps are terrifying. The brakes are wet and your hands grow numb. Raindrops sting your face and you squint into the gray, peer into the murk, scan the blurred, submerged pavement for signs of potholes, glass, ruts, bumps — Hey! Gimme some space, jerk! — and anything else that could drop you in a blink and spread you like a high-tech road kill across two lanes of uncaring, glorious Redwood Highway.
This is the kind of cycling that makes the first motel look like a sort of paradise. You slap your dripping Visa card on the counter, smile at the manager’s concern, drag your bike inside and spread wet fabrics over desk, chair, and light fixture — steaming up the room while you sprawl across a real bed and marvel at the crazy machine that got you here. And you abruptly realize that “home” is no longer that vaguely remembered suburban apartment; it’s here, all around you, wherever your tires kiss asphalt — wherever you are.
How better to spend a life? Prowling your neighborhood, spreading your wings, growing in ways surprising and unpredictable, irrevocably addicted to the energy of beginnings.
Like this one. I’ll be back from time to time to share snippets of adventure and glimpses of the technological infrastructure that makes this journey possible. Until then, cheers from somewhere — out there.
Steve Roberts, self-styled “high-tech nomad,” travels full time on a 220-pound recumbent bicycle equipped with five computers, solar panels and a handlebar keyboard. Using the GEnie computer network for data communication, he maintains a freelance writing and consulting business while on the road.
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