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Saturday, 2 November 2013

Learning the Ropes the Hard Way

By Pico Triano
Photos: Pico Triano

With the exception of my family's camping breakfasts (fried eggs steeped in Naphtha fumes, swamp water porridge and powdered milk brewed with more swamp water) I loved roughing it with my family growing up. I didn’t think we were doing enough on the roughing it part though. On our many adventures we occasionally met campers who were travelling self-contained by bicycle. Those were the real heroes. I was determined that some day I would follow in their tire tracks.

That some day came the summer after my third year of college. I banked enough hours to take a whole week off work and go on a real tour. I cycled around town a little and called it training. Even did a more intensive workout in the pool during part of my lunch breaks. Besides the fact that I had no experience and didn’t even know anyone who did and had less than adequate equipment, I knew I was ready. Pasadena, California to San Luis Obispo, roughly three easy days riding up the coast, one day’s rest and then three more easy days of riding back. I didn’t have real panniers so I carefully stuffed everything I thought I would need in old gym bags. I even brought some things to fill up my leisure time. I had a baby cooler for the few perishable food items I planned to take. Carefully wrapped half a dozen eggs in an extra T-shirt to cushion any bumps in road. I almost never fall while riding so I wasn’t too concerned about breaking them. I got everything packed the evening before and went to bed early so I could hit the road at sun up.

Wasn’t out of Pasadena before I encountered my first moment of stupidity. On the bright side I wasn’t the idiot. I was creaking down the road with about a hundred pounds of gear with me when some early morning cyclist on a racing bike dressed for the Tour de France complete with the stupid little hat starts drafting me. Then with a sudden burst of speed he triumphantly blew by me. I hope the ego boost lasted him all day. I can’t quite figure out the thrill but I’ve run into cyclists who do this all the time when I’m loaded for touring. In fact he wasn’t even the only one that day.

My objective for the day was a potential campsite just past Ventura and everything was running perfectly until I pulled over at a park with picnic tables to eat breakfast. This was to be an easy preparation meal of raisin bran, milk and some fruit. I was expecting to do about eighty miles that first day and another sixty each of the other two days on the way out so this was the day to save time. I tucked into my cereal and watched my bike fall over. Remember the eggs? None of them survived. I made things worse by deciding to clean the mess up later. Right after the park there was a road that veered off to the right. By riding into the park at one end and leaving on the other end I neatly bypassed the sign directing me to turn right. By the time I figured out I was on the wrong road I was way off course and I didn’t have a clue where I went wrong. I took the next major road west and began looking for a gas station with a map on the wall. I of course was not carrying a map of my own. Didn’t need one. I had had a good look at a map at the college library before leaving. I managed with some difficulty to get back on course and shortly after that the road I was faithfully following ended. Now what? I was baffled. I finally broke down swallowed my male pride and asked for directions. I was directed to take Santa Susanna Pass Road. Wouldn’t you know it that goes over the Santa Susanna Pass. I hadn’t trained for any significant hills. I walked most of the way up, exhausting but a blessed relief for my tender butt. It was sore before noon and wouldn’t get any better. I was shifting my weight from one butt cheek to the other in an effort to survive the rest of the day. It was extremely hot and dry. There was a dead Tarantula on the side of the road at the top of the pass. After the pass things went well all things considered until I got to another fork in the road. I of course took the wrong fork again. Instead of rolling into Ventura, I found myself in Oxnard. I was feeling really stupid until I asked for directions again. I went to a photo booth and asked the guy in there the best road to take to get to Ventura. If some sun burned road weary cyclist on his bike loaded with about a hundred pounds of gear asks you how to get somewhere, what is your best guess as to which mode of transportation he is planning to use? He told me to get on the freeway. I patiently explained that bicycles weren’t allowed on the freeway. Not a word of a lie, he then says, You can’t get there from here. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was stupid but this guy made me look like Einstein. I decided to just follow whatever road was closest to the coast and it worked out for me just fine… this time. I located my proposed campsite a couple miles north of the town and someone had built a gravel road on it in my absence. That didn’t leave many good campsite options. There is a narrow strip of lowland there with the freeway and a train track between the mountains and the pacific. I elected to get away from the road, which was quite busy, carrying my bike and gear over the tracks to a large flat rock, which looked like the most comfortable place I could see in the rapidly dwindling light. No soil to hold my tent pegs, so I just chowed down on what I had and laid out there in the great outdoors in my sleeping bag. Rode a 103 miles to get that far. My first century ride but at the time I didn’t really care.

I didn’t get a very pleasant night sleep. That flat rock was very uncomfortable and if I hadn’t been exhausted I don’t know if I would have slept at all. I did fall asleep though and then the ground started shaking and there was a roaring sound getting closer and closer. I awoke all tensed up ready to fling myself to one side or the other expecting to see the train’s headlamp bearing down on me. That first train scared the living crap out of me. Never camp twenty-five yards from a busy railway line. There were two other trains before morning but the other two only woke me up. Remember my broken eggs? While I was asleep the local ant population discovered them and probably more than a thousand of them drowned in the mess. I discovered that in the morning but couldn’t clean it up completely because the only water I still had with me was for drinking.

In the morning I was just as stiff and sore as when I went to bed. I was in good spirits though after all I had survived my first twenty-four hours and this day was supposed to be shorter. I also was familiar with the road between Ventura and Santa Barbara so at least the first part of the day would present no real problems. My objective for the day was somewhere around Lompoc. I rode painfully along shifting my weight from one butt cheek to the other right from the start of the day. I washed the ants and egg goo away in the Pacific and generally thought I had gotten my act together. I arrived in Santa Barbara without further incident. Then things got interesting again. I had to get from Santa Barbara to the Gaviota Pass. I intended to just follow the coast like I had so successfully done between Oxnard and Ventura. The road I chose wound and wound and wound and never seemed to get where I was going. I eventually got there but the mileage was really beginning to pile up. I was beginning to worry about reaching my weekend objective. I arrived just outside of Lompoc late the evening. I chose a freshly ploughed and harrowed field and slept like a dead man. I clocked another 98 miles and knew that even with a good night rest I didn’t have another one of those left in me. Judging by the maps I had seen I just might have another long day before getting there and getting a whole day of rest.

My third day on the road was tame compared to the first two. I chose one more road that wound around too much but it didn’t hurt me too much. I called the local pastor’s house from the organisation I normally attended for church and asked for directions. His daughter answered and had no idea how to find the place without coming via freeway. I took those directions and got the address hoping that I would be able to ask locals and find it anyway. Struggling along exhausted, I found someone to ask and he told me I was about ten miles past my destination. Fortunately his directions were good and I actually found the place with only about seventy miles on the clock for the day.

Services were going to be held in a small public school and because there was only one house overlooking the schoolyard with the blinds drawn guess where I camped for the night. Thick grassy spot by the swing set was ideal and I slept undisturbed. I actually woke up feeling refreshed and some of the soreness in my legs was subsiding. I went a few blocks down the road to a public park I’d seen on the way the day before to get washed. I knew there was a drinking fountain there and for me that was as good a spot as any to get scrubbed up for church. I stripped down to my college issue gym shorts took my bandanna off my head and used it as a wash cloth. I was close to a road and people started looking at me funny. The reason never occurred to me until later in the school year when I had to run to the store quick while wearing these same white shorts and throwing on a white T-shirt. Ran into Perry one of my basketball team-mates and he said, “John! What are you doing here in your underwear?” He was partly joking but in that moment it all became clear to me. All washed up I shaved with cold water for the first and last time in my life. I was not sure I would stop bleeding before services started. I managed to staunch the flow but I won’t ever do that again. Got to laze around the rest of the morning. Befriended one of the local cats and generally enjoyed the break in riding.

Services turned out to be a whole lot more fun than I had expected. It had not occurred to me that riding that far would give me a kind of celebrity status. I didn’t mind. On the road alone your social life reaches zero. This made up the deficit in a big way. Church folk are usually very generous and helpful. The Daugherty’s who had a son attending the same college I was, were determined to have me over for the night. They apologised over and over for their lack of preparation. Their kids were picking at their vegetarian lasagna while I was just chowing down. Hey, it was better than what they generally fed us at college never mind what I’d been eating for the last three days. The friendship they served was even better.

The next day they really stuffed me full of breakfast before I headed on home. Someone else at services had given me directions past my last winding road. The directions, the experience and one stroke of blind dumb luck made the return trip a while lot shorter. In Gaviota I elected to ride on a road that while it got away from the coast appeared to stay fairly straight. That was a great choice because it went straight through to Santa Barbara without turning at all. I made a mental note of it because when I came that way again I wanted to make sure I would take it again. A year later I was riding through the same stretch and happened across another bicycle tourist like myself. He had a map telling him to take that route. Told me he would have never found it by himself. I told him about this trip and we had a good laugh before he sprinted ahead. He was not travelling self-contained for camping like me. He was carrying basically a water bottle, toolkit and a credit card.

The return trip was really uneventful. I made no wrong turns. Chose campsites well. Ate a little better and didn’t have to push as hard. A week after starting I arrived back on campus in Pasadena a seasoned veteran or at least on a gentler part of the learning curve.

Related Stories and Other Links (photos and titles are clickable links)

Beginning of the the big tour that all my previous riding had been leading up to. It went a great deal smoother than my first run through this area. Not without its moments though.

Not intended to instruct future generations on how to prepare. I learned most of my lessons the hard way and I don't recommend that. This does chronicle the work I put in making myself ready for a really long tour.

Artistic talent can be found in many people. Francine is a stay at home mom who tutored with a professional artist in Quebec when she was younger. She does her best to create time for her painting and drawing. Come have a look at her work.