One note to start with: All of my discussions on touring are in regards to self-supported touring, where you carry all your things yourself. I’m not against supported touring and hope to do a few supported tours at some point (particularly Cycle Oregon), but self-supported touring is the only kind I’ve done, so it’s all I can talk about. Also, all the touring I’ve done has involved camping or yurts or the occasional hostel, with a tent and pad and sleeping bag, and cooking most of our food outside and all that. If you can afford so-called “credit card” touring where you eat out for every meal and stay in hotels, lucky you!
Touring has, just in the last year and change, become one of my favorite things ever. It’s not often that I start a hobby and realize in a short period of time that it’s something I know I will do for the rest of my life.
I’m trying to think of why I enjoy touring, and it’s actually hard to explain. So I will make a list, in no particular order.
First, there’s the pure pleasure of riding your bicycle. I like biking for transportation as much as the next person, but let’s face it: in town, there’s stoplights, and stop signs, and traffic, and all that. On tour, you’re likely to hit stretches of road where you can just pedal and pedal for miles on end, without interruption, and often with little car traffic. You don’t realize how much more enjoyable that is, until you’ve tried it. It’s like the difference between pacing a noisy crowded room and taking a long walk/hike in a park on a nice day.
Second, there’s what I think of as the smugness factor. The first time I biked to the Columbia River Gorge, I got to Women’s Forum (the top of the hill coming from Portland towards Multnomah Falls), and I was tired and out of breath, and I saw people getting out of their cars to enjoy the view and thought to myself: “Yeah, but I got here on my bicycle. Beat that!” I might be different than most cycle tourists here, I really don’t know, but no matter where I go, there’s always that aspect of being in awe that I got there on my own power, especially the first time I got to the coast, which involves crossing a small mountain range and going at least seventy miles. Cycling to the coast in particular made me feel really good, because until that point I’d been too intimidated to go on trips with friends where they got to the beach in one day. Once I knew I could do that, nothing felt daunting or scary. I could handle it. I knew I could ride anywhere!
Third, traveling by bicycle is one of the best ways to do it. You can truly enjoy the scenery–you’re going fast enough to see lots of it, but you’re going slow enough to really see it, be out in it, in a way people in cars generally can’t. Just writing this section reminds me of stretches of gorgeous riding, along the Clackamas or Yaquina Rivers, or down the Oregon Coast, or to Mt. Hood…You can feel and smell the air and hear the birds. You’re going slow enough that you can stop any time you want–like the time that Shawn and Matt and I stopped to talk to some sheep. Or stopping on the coast repeatedly to look for whales, and seeing at least one every time we stopped. Or stopping at mountain passes to take pictures under the signs. But riding my bicycle through gorgeous scenery is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done, and my favorite part of touring. There’s nothing like it. I can’t even express it in words.
Fourth, even when the weather/cycling conditions are bad, generally you can manage it. I have biked into headwinds bad enough that you had to pedal downhill…in first gear. I have biked in pouring, pouring, non-stop rain. I have biked ten miles on a road I was sharing with cars and RV’s, with foot-high drifts of gravel, when I was already tired and it was getting dark. I have biked in the tiny shoulder of a highway during construction (I-84). And it wasn’t fun, but (usually) it wasn’t as bad as you’d think. There’s a kind of meditative zone you get into, where you’re just pushing the pedals, mindlessly just pushing along. There’s nothing you can do, unless you want to try to hitchhike with your bicycle and bags. You just have to do it. And…it’s really not that bad. I mean, you can complain and moan, but it almost makes it worse. You just surrender to the fact that it sucks and deal with it. It builds character. And then you can brag about it later.
Fifth, you can eat anything you want, pretty much, if you’re doing enough miles a day. Oh god. I have never fantasized about food as much as I did touring. The time Shawn and I biked to Astoria, we were so exhausted when we got into town that I hardly had the energy to eat, and then I woke up at two a.m. and all I could think about was making deep-fried Bisquick pancakes. And then covering them with powdered sugar. You generally want to stop frequently to eat a small amount instead of eating huge meals less often, which means you end up eating almost all day, and almost everything tastes fantastic. When Shawn and I toured the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, almost every afternoon we stopped about 4pm, and had a can or bottle of Coke and some chips. These are things we rarely indulge in at home, but on the road, about three-quarters of the way through the day’s miles, they were the best things ever.
Sixth, it’s cheap. This is, of course, dependent on where you’re staying and how you’re eating. The prices can range from hiker/biker sites in Oregon state campgrounds, which are five dollars a night per person; to the parks owned by Pacific Power (south of Mt. St. Helens) that were over twenty dollars a night per site. Hostels and yurts are usually more, and hotels even more than that. But if you’re willing to camp most nights, and make most of your meals yourself, you can travel very cheaply. Getting to the starting point of tours can add up fast, but Amtrak isn’t too bad, usually allows you to bring your bike for a small fee (and on the Cascades route, you don’t even have to box it up), and is truly an enjoyable way to travel. Getting started on touring can be pricey, but I’ll talk more on how to manage that in the next post.
There’s more, of course: the camaraderie of other cyclists in the hiker/biker areas of campgrounds or on the road, for instance; or how insanely good a shower can really feel, or how delicious beer tastes after a long day, or admiring your fabulous calves, or how easy the hills at home suddenly become when you get home.
In my next post I hope to talk about how to get started on touring. I hope by now that it sounds at least slightly appealing!