Late summer 2010 I rode my Brompton folding bike from Portland to San Francisco, solo, camping. It was a powerful transformative experience, the best two weeks of my life. I used Twitter extensively along the way. This site begins with me taking the tweets starting 23 August, verbatim, as post titles, expanding upon them in an attempt to document my odyssey.
I wrote the following before I left:
Portland to San Francisco by Brompton
14 years ago, I turned 30. I had spent a few sedentary years off the bike mostly, believing that I was too old to undertake the kind of hard riding I had enjoyed in my early 20s. Then I began bike commuting in hilly San Francisco. I remember wobbling up the slightest grades, trachea searing and legs feeling like so much burning rubber. I persisted as much out of thrift as any other reason. Things got slowly easier, until one day just several months after I began, I decided I would ride down the peninsula to Palo Alto, about 45 miles with a fair amount of climbing. I did it, and rode the train back home, mildly astounded at my accomplishment. I was not too old, after all! I smiled uncontrollably for several days in an intense endorphin high afterwards. In some ways, I have never come down.
My passion for longer day rides, and biking in general, grew over the next few years. After a windfall in 1999, I commissioned a superlative custom touring bike, and in 2000, after a few short practice bike camping trips, I rode that bike solo from Portland back home to San Francisco over 13 days. It was the greatest adventure of my life at that point. A highlight was, at the end of a grueling day and feeling that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew, meeting a 92-year old fellow camping on his old Raleigh 3-speed, on a 4-day loop over the mountains. He was a lifer, and I knew then that I would be, too. Those days of solitude, beauty, and single-minded focus on the simplest of goals have helped sustain my happiness for a decade.
I had a trans-America ride in the planning stages when we conceived our son, now 8, and, well, that was that. My whole biking focus shifted away from epic solitary escapes toward the special demands, constraints, and opportunities of raising a child and otherwise keeping house without dependence on motor vehicles. Clever Cycles is partly a result of this shift: all about stout, comfortable bikes for short-hop urban utility instead of weekend or vacation stuff!
I’ve never bike camped more than a single night since, and never alone. But now, a window of opportunity has opened. I will ride again to San Francisco, leaving in a couple days. As soon as I manage to pack, really. Same route, camping, solo, different bike: my trusty Brompton folder!
That’s right, the clown bike, same as I ride most days when the weather’s not bad. There’s one in my front basket in my profile pic. While I admit freely that it’s not the very best tool for this job, I know that it is absolutely good enough! I’m not worried about the bike. It’s not about the bike. I am celebrating my non-belief in the idea that optimum equipment is required, or even most likely to support, the most enjoyable experience.
Sometimes, spite helps. People are doubtful whether this little bike, with its 16″ wheels, really could be suitable for carrying their lunch and a laptop halfway across Portland. How about a full camping kit 880 miles four times over the coast range? In the same wool street clothes I wear every day, and with a brand new “too hard” Brooks saddle? No, not masochism: my mind is free, and yours can be too! Little worthwhile seems probable at first, but if middle age has any perks, it’s in the ability to see past how things seem into the roiling plenum of imagination and will, and to set a course in the light of experience.
I do not train. Most days I ride barely 5 miles. My commute is too short. It may help that I often ride these short distances on really heavy bikes hauling goods and flesh. Only a few days a year do I ride more than 25 miles. I’m going to ride the idea that endurance is more like an education than a cooking fire, almost self-sustaining once built up to a certain level.
I worry about my knees, as I would on any bike. I’ve lowered the gearing and made it a 12-speed, with reach-down shifting between the interleaved high and low 6. Fitted some funky grips to give me more hand positions. Wired my iphone up to the dynamo hub for GPS navigation and to feed my raging internet addiction. Everything fits in the front touring pannier and the same Carradice saddlebag I brought 10 years ago this way. At least I think it will fit. See, I still haven’t packed.
I’ll probably tweet my way down the coast (which will show in my fb status updates), with a richer account coming later. Wish me tailwinds!