bike camping as a savage practice

I had always hated travel for travel’s sake, and assumed that people only did it as some kind of status symbol. I never believed anyone when they said they had grown because of it. How pleased I was, when I had a miserable time in Italy. You can run, I thought, but you take yourself with you, and therefore all travel is ultimately self-refuting. And that’s how I expected it to go when I planned to ride my bicycle from San Francisco to Seattle, alone–an unenlightening experience that would be notable only for the intense misery I was about to bring upon myself, and the subsequent bragging rights. I had done a long-distance bike tour all the way across America before, also for the sake of bragging rights, but that one had been with a luggage van and support crew. On the first day of that trip, I had been feeling pretty good about myself, but that only lasted until I passed by an older gentleman with what looked like the entire camping section of REI strapped to his rear rack, who was going to bike camp all the way from Oregon to Maine. I was left with the nagging feeling that I still had something to prove.

So that was my attitude, seven years later, when I packed my panniers and rolled out from San Francisco–lighthearted contempt for the adventure of it all, and a singular bloody-mindedness to prove that I too, could ride a bicycle long distances, without the help of a luggage van. I arrived in Seattle a thousand miles and a month later victorious, but in a much gentler, much more humble frame of mind.

But I’m not going to tell you that I had a life-changing 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.”

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 is “awesome.” A bike camping conversation, regardless of whether it was an overnight trip to Santa Cruz, or a year-long trek from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, is usually good for only two minutes.

At first glance, it’s reasonable that it’s hard to find something to say. Bike camping can be a tedious grind.

Here was my typical day: wake with the sun. Stay huddled in the sleeping bag, until the world warms up enough that it’s safe to emerge, which is usually a couple hours later; eat a dry and demoralizing breakfast of beef jerky wrapped in a crumbly tortilla, washed down with milk powder in water; 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 bad 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. Set up camp, an involved affair that requires fully unpacking both of my rear panniers and single-handedly taking over an entire picnic table. 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. I make this promise to myself to pedal faster tomorrow, even though I’ve spent a lot of the day squeezing my brakes as tightly as possible, because I am so afraid of going downhill too quickly. 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 rising and spouting. I was put into the same sort of meditative mood that I have sometimes felt while watching fire burn. Another day, I saw the signs for an oyster farm, rode over, and ate a delicious raw dozen in the sun, with lemon juice.

One night, camping in Oregon, I met another bike camper who I still think about. His name was Lucas, and he was undocumented. He was a bike mechanic who had dropped out of college, and was making his way from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. He was serenely unconcerned about his finances, even though he had less than eight hundred dollars of cash to his name. He said that so long as he had even twenty dollars left by the time he reached LA, he would be fine. He had friends and a waiter job waiting there. I couldn’t believe him at first. To go on a bike camping trip of over three thousand miles with no health insurance, no money, no documents, to commit to camping the entire way without ever being able to take a break by resting in a motel instead–I could not fathom doing such a thing with so thin a margin of safety. Lucas showed that Maslow was wrong about self-actualization being the top of the pyramid of human needs–because even though he was broke, staring precarity in the face, the urge to leave a town and a life that had no longer come to suit him was undeniable. An inspiration, all the more so because he was no cheap meme on Facebook, but someone willing to pay a high price for his dreams.

But those times were far from the majority. Every moment of serendipitous joy or inspiration I experienced, and there were many, 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 for the first couple weeks I was riding, my sleeping bag was too cold at night. I hadn’t realized that women and men experience temperature differently. A bag that’s comfortable for a man at 40 degrees at night, will only be comfortable for a woman at 50 degrees. I would fall asleep at night, wake up a few hours in, and fall asleep again for a couple hours only after the sun rose. I ended up buying a new one at a sporting goods store, but then it was too hot, and I would sleep on the cold bare ground with the sleeping bag over me, in a desperate attempt to thermoregulate.

And yet, I never doubted that I would rather be riding up 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. When you’re consuming, the architect of the experience is 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.

So 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. As children, we are told to work hard, that the early bird gets the worm. The history books are filled with the names of inventors, and not the names of people who bought their inventions. Even minor acts of production seem morally superior, somehow. It is more admirable to be a talented cook, for instance, than a talented food critic.

Perhaps one reason production is considered more morally worthwhile than consumption is 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 external to yourself that can now be consumed, something tangible that has left the confines of your own imagination, that someone else now can experience. I moved north, and I left no trace–nothing anyone could consume, no book, no poem, no painting, no buildings–nothing except some tortilla wrappers, carefully disposed of in the brown Rubbermaid trashcans every campground seems to have, and the waste products of running my body’s engine–carbon dioxide, sweat, and heat.

I was feeling orthogonal to the two halves of capitalism, and not in my 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 have to plan vacations, periods of scheduled relaxation, months in advance, even when your mind and body are screaming at you that you need to rest now. You are forever marking time, trying to save it, and use it, and therefore your own self, efficiently. And the brittle, exact efficiency demanded by a modern civilization has no patience for the natural fluctuations in energy that flesh is heir to.

To be a solid, middle-class citizen, therefore, is to treat time as any other monetary asset–something quantifiable and predictable. But to budget time is to give up on improvisation. You cannot afford to spend it impulsively. You cannot afford to spend time as things come up. The more responsible you are, the more you must give up on your chances to live fully in the present. You must plan out the proper uses of your time over the course of months, years, and even decades. And thus, to be civilized is to be constantly in your head, outside of time.

The result is that a truly civilized human being can no longer function in the present, because their thoughts are always thoughts of the future and the hypothetical. Civilized people need so much help with returning to the present. They need to learn to practice mindfulness meditation, they need to see therapists, they need calming teas, adult coloring books, and a good bedtime ritual. And hardly any of it seems to work.

Bike camping, on the other hand, is nothing like being civilized. Once I’d picked my geographical beginning and ending, I did not need to plot out anything in between. I no longer lived by alarm clocks, but by sunrises and sunsets. And because my chronology was free, all my other actions were free. I did not know where I was going to be sleeping each night, and that uncertainty never troubled me, because so long as I ended the day even one mile farther north than I had started, I knew I would be content. I would look at my paper map every day, and pick out a campsite, but often if I was feeling tired, I would make camp earlier. On one especially energetic day, I even rode nine steep miles farther than I had originally planned.

And somehow, despite the enormous quantities of time and solitude 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. And it was an unappealing prospect, too, with the sun shining overhead, the cathedral silence of redwood trees on my right, and the cracked mirror of the sea glittering to my left.

For the first time ever, I was living a simple life. I had to live life outside of my head, fully alive and reactive to the challenges around me, and it encouraged a kind of metaphysical nearsightedness that I find myself missing deeply. All my thoughts were of immediate things, and I looked no further than a time horizon of a day or so at most. How was the weather? Was it foggy? How far until the next town with a sporting goods store, so I could buy a new sleeping bag? Should I eat this block of cheddar cheese now, or later?

This was not a happier way of living. It had its problems, and even its life-threatening moments. It was uncomfortable, and racked by inconvenience and discomfort. (That sleeping bag!) That it was exhausting hardly needs saying. I stopped a few nights in Portland and went to see a local band. I was right in the front row, and even though the music was loud enough I could feel the little cells in my inner ear dying, I still fell asleep. But I had peace of mind, because I lived in the present. Whatever problems came up were within my control, and could be resolved quickly, unlike the problems of civilization, where a problem like a bad manager can take months to resolve, and a broken political system can take generations.

I became uncivilized, and for the first time in my life, I had to admit that the Buddhists had a good point about personal identity being a kind of illusion. It reminded me of the experience of being bilingual. I can feel that part of my brain shuts down and another part wakes up when I think in Shanghainese, rather than English, and vice versa. Some part of me went to sleep on that trip and did not wake up until I returned to civilization–the part of myself that needs to be able to plan, that therefore, would ordinarily be a keener observer of the self, the more verbal, analytical, and farsighted part. The part that is outside of time enough to condense a lived experience into abstract words.

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.

And that’s why no bike camper can talk about their trip. Putting the ineffable into words is the business of poetry, not light conversation.

I might as well give in to the difficulty of the problem, and stick to saying that bike camping is awesome.