Taking a Break From Myself
What winds up, must wind down
Eighteen months ago I emerged out of an intensive period at work, slightly broken and tired. I knew I needed to get away. While the echo of work adrenaline still ran through my veins, I had a choice: to take a trip; or to crash.
I kept a map with me at work—a map of the entire west coast of the USA. When things became all consuming and I needed a break, I opened it up.
The optimism of future travel allowed my mind wander, making snippets of plans. I wonder who amongst my friends might be thinking of venturing out. Perhaps our plans could sync? After all, the tension of tandem travel can be as unexpected as it is rewarding.
I traced a route from the California and Oregon border, going almost directly north up over the spine of the lower Cascade mountains, then giving myself the choice of pushing east towards Bend or going west to Eugene.
The Pacific Northwest (PNW) reminds me of a magazine they used to ship in to the Yeronga school library in Brisbane, Australia. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called. I loved that magazine. It was always at least six months out of date, sometimes nine.
Sheltering in the library was welcome lunchtime respite from the sticky, intensely hot summers. Simple fans — let alone air-conditioning — were uncommon in our classrooms back then. The library at least had two small fans and was an unpopular place to spend lunch, so there was almost no competition for a prime position in front of those blessed blades.
The magazines were full of kids spilling into the outdoors, amongst the iconic wilds of the PNW.
It looked temperate, verdant, and fun.
Oregon is riddled with gravel back roads and seldom used logging lanes. It would be an isolated bicycle trip, but one that felt like a grown up kind of adventure from that magazine. Whether it lived up to the nostalgic romance I had held on to since I was eight was to be seen. I knew no-one else would want to come with me, and as it perculated in my head, I realised I really didn’t want anyone else to be there, either.
Some of the most meaningful experiences I have had en-route have occurred while traveling alone. I love bike touring, but for whatever reason, I am always somewhat reticent to go it alone. It’s not safety or lack of direction, nor do I need the mutual encouragement. Over the years, I have realised that I am just worried about getting stuck.
Getting stuck, that is, with myself.
This trip wouldn’t suit everyone. I’d be a long way away from anyone I knew, phone reception would likely be non-existent, and there could be bears, which — as a deadly animal-seasoned Australian — actually terrify me.
I bought bear spray and a satellite communicator. I figured the investment in those would mean I had no choice but stay the course. I read the instructions on the bear spray. The chances of that stuff actually stopping a bear must be fair to extremely slim. The satellite communicator took about a minute to send a short preset text. I wondered how strong reception was from inside a bear.
That’s a joke. I’d be fine. It had an emergency button. Which would be great if you still had fingers to hold it down for 10 seconds.
It’ll be fine. Really.
When I actually do go it alone — and I mean actually get out of the house and get on with it — the experience is vastly more rewarding than traveling with some form of dependancy; be it an itinerary or a fellow traveller. Up until I actually get out, however, I will obsess about the most unlikely outcomes. Committing money by booking some overnight hotel stays instead of camping made it all the more real, and mentally easier. It made it an inevitability.
The nice thing about bike-packing bags is they force you to make hard decisions. You can’t take everything, just the essentials. Being Oregon, I knew that I would experience both rain and cold, possibly at the same time. Even snow. I packed accordingly. I remembered my spork, too. Not camping allowed me to lighten my load a little and use smaller bags. I had an emergency bivvy, warm clothes, a small stove, and cycling gear. It was probably just enough, but always feels like too much.
I reached Klamath Falls in the dark. It has a train station, if you can spare the extended Amtrak travel time from Los Angeles, I find American long distance train travel a treat. The motor inn I had chosen was basic, but spacious. I spread all my gear out and repacked, trying to find an elusive, space saving efficiency.
I slept lightly, waking only to the distant revelry of a couple of V8 engines doing donuts in downtown Klamath.
In the morning, I pedalled north-ish on a mix of heavily trafficked roads to some quiet backroads, and headed up the hill towards Crater Lake. I had originally planned to stay at Crater Lake Lodge as a bit of a treat, but it was booked out. So I had decided to hoof it to Diamond Lake, which was in the right direction, but entirely unknown to me. It was a 100 mile day, 50 of that climbing. I knew I didn’t really have a lot of time to spend lollygagging.
Time and daylight felt like the devil at my back; the weight of my bag-festooned bike gave the devil some presence uphill. I had an agenda to keep, and rising anxiety about making my pre-imagined time for the day.
Crater Lake is spectacular. The azure water and volcanic cliffs are really something to behold. I couldn’t resist doing a little circumnavigation. The reward for a morning of climbing is that the afternoon was mostly downhill or flat. The fatter tires I had chosen were so planted to the tarmac that I flew down the descent like a beast possessed. I felt energetic and refreshed climbing off the bike at Diamond Lake Resort, a place that could easily be mistaken for a set from a Wes Anderson film.
It was empty. Shoulder season. The few staff they had on were kind and accomodating. It was unseasonably warm. I enjoyed a beer outside in a t-shirt, as the last sun rays played over the lake.
The wooden reception hall would creak loudly whenever someone shifted their weight. I had a long conversation with the waiter, who was endlessly curious about an Australian on a bike. A lone paddleboat had broken its mooring and was orbiting way out in the centre. I felt any sense or urgency just slightly begin to ebb away.
Traveling in isolation tears away the everyday routine. It removes me from a pattern of particular conversation, it pulls off the safety blanket of comfortable social interaction. It forces me to engage not just with strangers — but also with myself.
Alone and usually somewhat physically challenged for the first few days, it’s just me and my muted mutterings that fill the silent space around me. It is too quiet, it seems wrong. After those days pass, however, I get more comfortable with the lull in my life; my head grows clear, I feel more comfortable with myself. My defences lower.
Curiously, as this happens, strangers approach me and talk to me more. I am not aware of any physical change, but I know that I become more approachable. I engage others much more freely, too. I am happy to see people, strangers, around.
I slept well, and had one of those enormous American breakfasts with eggs and toast and pancakes and sticky sweet syrup. I was poured and drank so much coffee my head began to throb. The couple on the other table were alternating between heated argument to cheerily asking me where I was going.
Still, I was on the road by 7am, my first day of real gravel. I had a short section of highway to cover until I turned off onto a backroad. This road would mostly would take a car-bound traveler to campgrounds, except these ones I passed had already been closed for the impending winter. I knew my general direction, but the actual path I should take was unclear from my research. Also, there wasn’t a water stop for about 60 miles. That concerned me. This was the first segment where a small leap of faith was required.
The roads narrowed to single lanes, and quickly turned into a spiderweb of gravel logging roads, with numbers for names. Easy to get lost, but it was also gloriously quiet. No hum of the highway, or distant sounds of civilization. Small bridges took me over little streams. Insects buzzed at the clear skies.
I stopped to filter some water and make some coffee. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The work tension and navigation anxiety I had been still carrying just hours before drained into the ground. Any sense of stress was gone. I was free.
This was the change I was craving.
It happens every time. Day three. My riding changes as well. From a must-get-there urgency to a more relaxed mental posture, even though I cumulate the same collection of kilometres as the days before, the physicality of the experience feels less strenuous. A flatted tube, fading light or unexpected hold-up become much less anxiety inducing as the days before.
It is a liberating feeling. My own company isn’t that bad anymore. I stop competing with myself. I stop thinking about work.
I made my way up to Oakridge, one of many mountain bike Meccas in Oregon. The woman at the hotel upgraded me, talked about how much she loves hosting cyclists, but doesn’t cycle herself. She gave me some fresh baked cookies, asked about Australia, and wondered out loud how nice it must be to have universal health care. We talked for a good 15 minutes. As I head to the room, she pulls firewood from her truck. It had a Trump sticker on it. A counterpoint to her enthusiasm for universal health care, for sure. Politics is a complex and sharp reminder—I’m a visitor.
The next day I rode down the Aufderheide Highway. It’s much less a highway and more a famous bike road. While not gravel, like the day before, it was similarly glorious. It weaves through forests and besides streams. Not much traffic, but where there was, they were courteous. The highway ends, of course, in a place called Rainbow.
Rainbow was my bail-out option. If it was raining, I would have taken the mostly downhill direction to Eugene, jumped on a train and headed back south. Unusually, it had been generously warm and sunny. The forecast cold snap was being held at bay. So I decided to head to Bend, over McKenzie Pass.
The fall colors, which I’d only seen patches of on the previous days, were in full force on the road to the pass. The occasional car trundled by on the ascent up. At the top, there is a spiraling lookout, made from the abundant volcanic rock. It is quite cold up there. Other tourists pointed to dark clouds and talked about the weather. Snow was coming. For the first time I threw on a jacket, which was fortunate, because it was still bracingly cold as I careened down the descent.
Pulling into Sisters, I took my time looking for somewhere to eat. I found a small cafe where I could keep an eye on my bike. The town was teaming with retirees in RVs. I ate the best egg sandwich I can remember. A car pulled up in front of my bike, and an older couple stared at me and went inside. A few minutes later, the husband came out. He stared at me again, from a distance. Then he walked up and asked:
Can I lift your bike?
It’s light, even with the bags.
About 13 kilograms, all up. About 26 pounds, I think.
What kind of bags are those…?
He spoke to me for another 20 minutes. How he loved riding a bike, and always wanted to tour, but had never done it. He asked about all my equipment in detail. Where else I had been. What was Australia like?
They were heading to Yellowstone, he said. He hoped their old car made it, but he was going to try and get there in one go. This was their first stop in four hours. We finished talking and he went inside. Minutes later he came back as I was packing up. He wrote down his number and address and invited me to stay at their house in Eureka, if I was riding that way sometime.
I took some backroads again heading into Bend. Easy gravel, quiet tracks. I arrived around 4pm. The light was weakening, but still bravely holding off the clouds. I stopped and turned off my bike computer, my body moved slowly and deliberately, I felt slightly disconnected. It was like I was processing the regretful denouement that comes with the end of a holiday. I could have ridden for days more. I wondered if I should have made a longer course, or spent some days taking side roads. I could have taken more time, I thought.
I had made the conversion from doing work to just doing. Living. I think an abrupt disconnection and immediately ramping down can be as an important skill as being able to ramp up to meet challenges, but sometimes as life swirls around us, it is difficult to remember that. As they say of music or poetry—sometimes it is the silences in-between that are more important than the words or notes that bookend them.
An escape from the everyday, and from myself, is essential I think. It is a disruption to the routine for sure, but unique—it is my own. It doesn’t matter if it is doing this or anything else, all that matters is that it is there. An extended, unguarded moment.
As I headed into the hotel lobby in Bend, the first flakes of snow began to fall. Just a dusting, dissolving as soon as each one hit the tarmac. I realised that this adventure didn’t need to be longer. The travel, the conversations and remaining physically within my means—and finishing ahead of the weather—all neatly packaged the tour up. I had just experienced the perfect trip.
Sometimes, people ask me why I cycle. This is why.