Why you should start bicycle touring

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!

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15 Responses to Why you should start bicycle touring

  1. Leonard says:

    Alas, doesn’t anybody besides me read your blog?

    I would like to say something about touring, just add a little tiny bit to your words, but I think I’ll wait until after the next post, as you indicate that you will continue on the subject.

    Then there was the posting about cycling and skirts. Look into the blog out of Boston called Lovely Bicycle. She comments at length on the subject. You might find it interesting.

    In the same posting there were several photos of you in various kinds of skirts and you said that they (or most) were taken during theme rides. That first one, where you are in the white dress with the musical notes on it, pray, tell, what was the theme on that ride? I notice, besides the relatively short but full skirt, the stockings and is that a croquet ball and mallet in your hands? Maybe the theme of the ride was Alice in Wonderland? You make a perfect Alice in that shot.

    • According to the stats that wordpress gives me, lots of people read my blog, an average of about twenty or thirty people a day.

      I do read Lovely Bicycle, as a matter of fact I comment to most of her posts. Also, a lot of the visitors to my blog come from clicking on my name in the comments of her blog! That’s not why I comment so much though, I just generally find her posts thought-provoking.

      The first shot was taken on a ride called the Pretty Dress Ride. It’s once a year in May. This last year the weather was perfect! We played croquet and then took off on our bicycles. We had something like forty or fifty people, and there’s men in dresses too! If you click on the photo you can see lots more. It’s a run ride.

  2. julie says:

    LOVE your blog. and i definitely see why you like touring. but i am still a huge baby!

    • Aw Julie, you’re so sweet!

      The next time a big group goes to Stub Stewart I’ll try and bug you into going, especially if we’re staying in the cabins ’cause then you don’t need to bring a tent or sleeping pad, just the sleeping bag. One of Cycle Wild’s trips in the next couple of months is going to cabins, but I think they’re going to Champoeg, which is 40 miles instead of 22, and not nearly as flat–it’s not horrible, just gentle rolling hills for the most part with some shorter steeper sections.

      Did you ever do camping before? I think that’s part of why bike touring wasn’t a big deal to me, I’d done plenty of car camping before that, and that stint of tree-sitting where I basically lived outside. (Boy, do I wish I had pictures from that time in my life, it’s weird that I don’t when I think about it. Can you picture me in really dirty army-surplus wool clothes [with "Persephone" written on the name strip], and hiking boots, and a camo bandanna, and greasy gross green hair?)

      • julie says:

        I camped up till the age of 10, but it was usually camping with much, much equipment – and in a warmer environment (and usually a tent trailer)!

        Maybe if I find myself with a multi-geared bike someday (likely), I’ll try a small trip. In the summertime ;)

        I love the description of you as a tree-sitter! Pics?

      • I seriously don’t have any pictures of me tree-sitting. I have, somewhere, a few shots of me in the clothes we bought for me to do it, and right after I died my hair green (but I hadn’t washed it yet, and it turned out mossy green instead of turquoise). The fact that I have no pictures of that time really bothers me, and I think it’s part of why I’m so obsessive about photos!

        For some reason I thought your new bike had multiple gears?

  3. Leonard says:

    Been meditating on and digesting your words…

    (And I have a habit of looking under verbal rugs, shifting words, squeezing them, but I am always positive…)

    “The snugness factor”. This word seems to come up a lot and I am very ambiguous about it. I do not sense it as a very positive evaluation. Who would be attracted to somebody and their opinions BECAUSE they are snug? Snugness borders on being prideful and certainly implies self satisfaction.

    That ever-creative-thorn-in everybody’s-side Bike Snob NYC has a whole arsenal of wise cracks about the “snugness” of the Portland bike scene. He bets that you could stop a bike and while waiting for a light to change you could lick a lamp post because they taste like peppermint in Portland.

    Not that bike riders don’t have things to be snug about. Besides your reasons, one could mention that we don’t burn fossil fuels, don’t contribute to global warming, and keep ourselves in good shape so we cut down on costs to health care systems and are able to therefore be productive years longer than car drivers.

    But we’ll never be able to convince somebody of the good of cycling by pointing this bunch of facts out.

    In order that cycling spreads, cyclists, despite the fact that they have a lot to be snug about, should never show it.

    Be happy and show it. That is enough. The things we can be snug about need only be mentioned in a whisper in dark corners, far from within earshot of car people.

    • Ooh, just to let you know, the word is sMug, not sNug.

      I don’t express my smugness to other people on tours, oh no. I might ask them if they like the view. I might ignore them because I’m too busy eating.

      • Leonard says:

        Ah yes : sMugness. A certain low level of dyslexia has been the bane of my life. And now I seem to need new reading glasses. But… if I wrote *snug* seven times, and proof read as usual looking for these dyslexic hiccups, I think this is more what used to (?) be called a “Freudian slip”.

        I have been folowing the US and especially the Portland bike scene for some time with great interest. And I have been talking with Finns here comparing things. I am sort of the interlocutor of Portland here. Some Finns suspect I am making things up and I have to down the hall to the video artist and go online and prove things

        The differnces between here and there are vast. Some of this has been covered elseware, as in the Lovely Bicycle posts entitled “Bicycle=Vacuum cleaner?” or something to that effect. We don’t name bicycles here. There are no hipsters and fashion bikes or anything resembling that. Factories have bicycle parking outside of them with 100′s of bikes parked each working day. I hardly know a young couple who don’t take their child to day care on a bike.

        Symtomatic is that there are a lot of old clunkers on the road. A 30 year old bike is no exception on the street. If it still goes, somebody is probably useing it. The color is irrelevant. And people ride anything that is available. I see athletic young men on big swan frame women’s bikes complete with skirt guards!

        This city is not known for being especially pro-bicycle. Yet we have a dense network of dedicated bike lanes and paths that will take you to anyplace in the greater area to within a couple of 100 yards. 8% of Portland commuters use bikeas, if I am not remembering old figures. This town has 20%. Several Finnish cities are in the top 50 in the world with 25-30%. (Copenhagen: 55%)

        Snugness: It feels like the Portland scene is about a (growing) in group. Portland has a lot of cyclists and bicycle enthusiasts. What Portland needs is many, many more people who simply RIDE BICYCLES, and maybe are closer to the vacuun cleaner way of relating to them. Portland is amazing in N.America, but even there the bicycle has not been really integrated, seen as a normal way of getting around by a majority of the people.

        You there in Portland seem to need these group activities to remind yourselves that you are in the right, that you are the future, that cars will go the way of dinosaurs.

        So keep up the good work!

      • “You there in Portland seem to need these group activities to remind yourselves that you are in the right, that you are the future, that cars will go the way of dinosaurs.”

        That’s a part of it, no denying that.

        I think though, that another large part, is that we’ve found this Super Awesome Thing, and we want everyone to know how Really Awesome this Thing is!! Riding a bicycle for transportation is still so unusual in the USA that we feel like throwing a party for ourselves, I guess. There are a growing number of cyclists in Portland who don’t identify as “cyclists” the way, say, some of my friends do.

        I don’t think that bicycles will ever be like vacuum cleaners, at least not in Portland. Half the city could be on bikes, and people will still be obsessing about their bicycles (partially because there’s just a bigger variety of bikes here than most places that have a large mode share), people will still be Zoobombing, people will still be holding costumed theme rides. I guess we’ll have to wait and find out if I’m right. :^)

  4. Leonard says:

    About why to begin touring, the actual subject of your post….

    I would add one more reason, one that I think underlies the others: Cycling for long distances is a form of meditation. Riding a bicycle is in one way a mindless activity. But “mindless” in the same sense as breathing is. Yes, you do have a degree of control over it, but out on the road it is best to do it with your backbone. This is the basic technique involved in using breathing as a form of meditation: you WILL breath and really don’t have to control it, you just, in an unattached way, watch yourself breathing. Hands off!

    When meditating one does not follow through with random thoughts that arise by themselves. Again, the key concept is “don’t grasp”: let the thought come and go by itself. Just as you watch yourself breathing, you watch yourself thinking. Or cycling…

    Self hypnosis? Very far from that. In a meditative state one is totally aware. If a dangerous or tight situation comes up, you watch yourself as you react correctly and flawlessly, without the slightest panic. One is capable of handling just about any situation. You just have to let yourself do it. No grasping at it, no trying to do it…

    Time means nothing in the meditative state.

    In old Tibet, of over 50-60 years ago, many monks used long distance walking as a meditation. I would refer you to the works of Alexandra David-Neel about the walking monks (if her books are in print any more).

    This state of mind is a model for doing anything. It is the natural “high” state of mind of human-kind. Hitting it, feeling it , and letting it work its way into everything I do is my real reason for long distance cycling.

    • I’ve heard the state of mind you’re talking about, called “the zone.” And it’s true that it happens almost naturally with cycling, especially on tour.

      I have had some moments of total euphoria on tour, though, which isn’t quite the same thing. It’ll just hit me–here I am, in this beautiful place, riding my bicycle. I don’t know what it is about riding my bike through gorgeous places that does it–I’ve been to a few beautiful places, but for some reason it’s not the same as being there on my bicycle.

      For instance, there was this chunk of the Pacific coast route that is a side-route to part of Hwy 101, it’s about ten miles long and goes through a chunk of national forest that (I think?) is used for research. Because the road doesn’t “go” anywhere–it’s just a curvy side-road! through trees!–there’s almost zero cars on it. I think we saw one car.

      The road is curvy and not flat. And it was wonderful. Even better, there was a carved wooden sign with a map on it and a description of the park, that was slightly falling apart. It was covered in graffiti of a sort from cyclists. My favorite was an illustration of a bicycle drawn on the road map that was captioned, “Life is good!” There were names and dates on it, too. But it just so perfectly captured the joy that we all felt riding that road. Shawn and I got passed by a few people, and we passed a few ourselves. Just wonderful.

      • Leonard says:

        Thank you for your reply April!

        I have never heard the term “the zone”. If I had to talk more about this state of mind I would have to use terms relating to Mahayana Buddhist metaphysics. Enlighten me (no pun intended) on this. What is meant by “the zone”. Sounds slightly sinister.

        Also (and please excuse me as I have basically been away from the states since 1972) what, pray tell, is “zoobombing”??? I would not even want to guess what that means.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29

        But a short definition, as quoted from the wikipedia page:

        Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

        So I was using a different terminology, but their terms/definition are closer to what I mean.

      • Reading about the state of “flow” is interesting to me, because I think we’ve all experienced it. But you can’t force it to happen, it just does. Bike touring is one thing that has put me there, but cooking has too, and so has learning to play the folk harp (back when I first started and was taking lessons and could immerse myself in practicing for over an hour), cooking, dancing…

        Oh! I forgot to explain zoobombing. So the zoo is fairly high up, yes? Not up to Council Crest but definitely a higher elevation than downtown. “Bombing” is a term sometimes used to describe going downhill fast–for example: I had all green lights on Burnside the other day, so I just bombed into downtown. (Note: That has not actually happened to me…I’m a Nervous Nelly when it comes to descending and often ride my brakes pretty hard.)

        Every Sunday night, a group of people meet near a pile of mini-bikes in downtown Portland. At nine pm or so, they take some of the mini-bikes (or a regular bike) to the max station and take the max train to the zoo stop. They ride the elevator to the top, hang out at the top of a hill in Washington Park for a bit, and then ride their bikes back into downtown. And by “ride,” I mean “coast downhill, whooping and hollering, often at ridiculous speeds.” There are several routes, some going through the local neighborhoods, one route (the “Hellway”) going down Highway 26–which, surprisingly, is legal. Helps that it has a wide shoulder at that point.

        They’ve been doing it since 2002, and a couple of years ago, the city paid for a permanent structure for them to lock up their mini-bikes, so that their pile of bikes would no longer, from a legal standpoint, be considered littering–it’s now officially art!

        A whole subculture has arisen around Zoobombing, mostly (but not entirely) of youngish “punk” kids. (And I mean punk in a good way: Big on DIY, community, and living cheaply.) They have several yearly events, including Mini-Bike Winter, which is coming up soon!

        I have a lot of friends who are current or former zoobombers, but I haven’t done it yet. I meant to do it last year, it was even a New Year’s resolution, but right around the time I finally got the courage, I had a crash and went back to riding my brakes downhill. *sigh* One of these years, dammit. I don’t care if I’m the last one down, either–I just want to be able to say that I’ve done it. Maybe I’ll make a party out of April’s First Zoobomb, later in the year when the roads are almost guaranteed to be dry.

        More info:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoobomb
        http://zoobomb.net/ <—- has videos, pictures, and a rather lively forum. Also information on Mini-Bike Winter.

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