bike camping as a savage practice
I had always hated travel, and assumed that people only did it as some kind of status symbol. How pleased I was when I had a miserable time in Italy. You can run, but you take yourself with you, and therefore all travel is ultimately self-refuting, I said to myself. And that’s how I expected it to go when I planned to ride my bike from San Francisco to Seattle–an unenlightening experience notable only for the intense misery I was about to bring upon myself, and subsequent bragging rights. Mostly, the bragging rights.
And so, with a kind of lighthearted contempt for the adventure of it all, I packed my panniers and rolled out from San Francisco on September 5, 2016.
I’m not going to tell you that I had a lifechanging moment of enlightenment, or even that I changed my mind about travel. I did, however, answer one question to my personal satisfaction–why is every single bike camper so boring when talking about their trip? Every ride journal I’ve seen has been tedious. “68 miles today. 2500 feet of climbing. Good weather.” “72 miles today. Ate bacon for breakfast, yummy. Had a nice descent of about five miles right before camp.” “55 miles today. Fierce headwind. Stopped in town and bought a steak and cooked it on the campfire, yummy. Kinda cold tonight. So glad I packed a down jacket.”
I knew most people weren’t practiced writers, but even that was an insufficient explanation. This extended to in-person conversations too. No matter how enthusiastic you are about bike camping, or how skillfully you pry, the most you can ever get out of anyone who’s ever done this kind of thing is that it was “awesome.” And I didn’t think it was because bike camping is 90% pedaling. *Something* always happens on a long enough trip, and yet, nobody mentioned those stories either.
And now, please allow me to share my bullshit theory why. But first, I have to describe what bike camping is like.
Here’s a typical day: wake with the sun at 7AM or so, stay huddled in the sleeping bag until the world warms up enough that it’s safe to emerge, which is usually 9AM, eat a dry and demoralizing breakfast of beef jerky wrapped in a crumbly tortilla, put on wet clothes that I had hoped would dry on the bushes the night before but didn’t, take two hours to pack because I’m moving slowly because it’s still cold even at 10AM, hit the road finally at noon, pedal slowly for the handful of hours that I am in motion. Get distracted by shitty gas station ice cream, realize that I’ve been riding for only a couple hours and the sun is dropping. Ride into camp in time for the sunset, at 7PM. Set up camp. Promise myself that tomorrow, I’ll wake up earlier, pedal faster and longer, and not race the sun to camp, but instead, arrive at camp a leisurely hour before sunset. Shower, if possible, wash clothes, if possible, find a bush to hang them on. Eat, in the dark, often alone, usually more beef jerky wrapped in tortillas. Go to sleep. This day repeated itself for a month.
Was any of this awesome, or even fun? Sometimes, something objectively awesome would happen. One day, as I was riding by Defoe Bay, I saw a pile of people sitting on a grassy knoll by the sea, and it turned out that they were watching humpback whales. I spent half an hour watching the whales, and I hadn’t even known that whale-watching was something you could do in the Pacific Northwest. Another day, I saw the signs for an oyster farm, rode over, and ate a delicious raw dozen in the sun, with lemon juice, all by myself. But those days were far from the majority. Every moment of serendipitous joy was balanced out by a thousand painful ones. I spent a lot of time quite nauseated, either because I hadn’t slept enough, or because of how hard cardio makes me lightheaded. One fine morning, I moved my head too quickly and I vomited into my mouth.
And yet, I never doubted that I would rather be there on Highway 1, praying that a logging truck wasn’t about to drive me into a ditch, than anywhere else. That’s saying a lot for a nerd like me, who prefers to speak in caveats, exemptions, and qualifiers.
I chewed on this problem a lot, whether or not I was having fun. Consumption of food and entertainment is the usual way people have fun, so was this trip one long act of consumption? I had had to buy a lot of gear before I left, and that seemed like consumption. But I know what true consumption looks like, and consumption this wasn’t. How did I know that? When you’re consuming, the architect of the experience was someone else, not you. (And now you owe them money.) That’s why consumption is a passive activity, even for the most advanced and critically engaged connoisseur. You may consume a gourmet meal, but you were not the chef. You consume a movie, but you weren’t the studio. You wear clothes, but you didn’t stitch them. On the road, nobody else was there but me, deciding when to wake, when to pack up, what to eat, when to stop, when to sleep. I had total control over this experience.
Then if not consumption, was it the opposite: was I producing something? I wanted to believe that I was, because production is held up as a superior activity to consumption. It’s active, not passive. It seems more admirable to cook your own food, direct your own movie, or to make your own clothes, than to merely buy them. It is perhaps considered more morally worthwhile than consumption because of the greater expenditure of energy, and I was expending a great deal of energy every day. I lost four pounds in that month of riding. It seemed plausible to say that I was producing a lot of muscle. But though I desired to feel morally superior to all the couch potatoes, I had to admit that I was not productive, because of the reverse logic. To produce means that you’ve created something that someone not you can now experience. I moved north, and I left no trace–nothing anyone could consume, no book, no poem, no painting, no buildings–nothing except a little bit more carbon dioxide and waste heat.
I was feeling orthogonal to the two halves of capitalism, and not in the usual “Marx was right, eat the rich” kind of way. And here’s why. To be a member of a capitalist civilization is to be forever wrestling with time. You have to save for retirement, you have to schedule going to the gym, the doctor, the grocery store. You arrive at work and leave at the exact same time every day. You are forever marking time, trying to save it, and use it efficiently. To be a solid, middle-class citizen is to treat time as any other monetary asset. It is to give up on improvisation. The more responsible you are, the more you give up on your chances to live fully in the present. To be civilized is to be constantly in your head, outside of time.
Bike camping, on the other hand, is nothing like that. Once I’d picked my points A and B, I did not need to plot out anything in between. I no longer lived by alarm clocks, but by sunrises and sunsets. I did not know where I was going to be sleeping each night. I would look at my paper map every night, and pick out a campsite that lay a respectable number of miles farther north, but often if I was feeling tired that day, I would make camp earlier. And somehow, despite the enormous quantities of time afforded for thinking, riding outdoors day after day was not conducive to introspection. It wasn’t that I had zero thoughts, but I only had them at a pitiful rate, a new one maybe once every three days. Going into my head was useless, even dangerous on roads with high traffic, so I didn’t do it.
I stopped being civilized, and for the first time in my life, I had to admit that Buddhists had a point about identity being some kind of illusion. The best analogue I can think of to the mental state I was in is bilingualism. I can feel that part of my brain shuts down and another part wakes up when I think in Shanghainese, rather than English. Some part of me went to sleep on that trip and did not wake up until I returned to civilization. Living inside of time is the end of self-consciousness, and the elimination of any need for analytical thinking. I felt as though I were in a long meditation that persisted through states both waking and sleeping. I went on a trip into a different state of mind altogether, a trip that was therefore as hard to describe as a dream, and impossible to convey as a story.
I might as well give in to the difficulty of the problem, and stick to saying that bike camping is awesome.