A Little Wisdom from Life on the Road

After almost 2 months on the road  from Vancouver to San Diego and almost 3000km cycled, this is some snippets of wisdom we have learnt on our journey on two wheels.

1. Raccoons are rascals. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I asked the others about what they thought of raccoons, Erin immediately exclaimed, “Rascals!” “Crafty little woodland creatures that victimize human beings…no, no…that exploit the carelessness of human beings,” said Bryan.  “Opportunists,” said Rigel. “They get away with it because they’re nocturnal,” continued Bryan. We have been constantly amazed by the nimbleness and craftiness of these little creatures. As background, we mainly hang our food panniers up in trees to keep our precious food and panniers away from the claws and teeth of animals. However, there are instances when we accidentally leave something in our bags, which are almost always immediately discovered that night.One morning, I woke up in the early dawn at Sea Ranch a few days ride before San Francisco and my under-the-seat bag was on the ground beside my bike. I had accidentally left two energy bars still factory sealed in their metallic wrappers. These little raccoons had peeled the velcro straps to detach the bag from the bike then opened the zippers.  These are zippers that I have trouble undoing but apparently no problems to raccoons. That night, they also opened the clasps to Erin’s bags and rooted around a bit too. It is both convenient and scary that raccoons seem to know how to use zippers and clasps. It’s great that they don’t rip our bags but if zippers and clasps one day, what next? Remote controls? Driving cars? Lighting lighters? Forget Planet of the Apes…could it be Planet of the Raccoons?

It has become a game of trying to outsmart these crafty creatures. Some of the larger state parks provide wooden lockboxes that we put our food into. They may be able to use zippers but I bet they can’t open up a combination lock, especially without the combo! HA! This worked most of the time though once at Van Damme State Park, they were able to reach up under the door and steal Rigel’s bananas.

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2. Panhandlers give the best directions

We had been warned about getting directions from locals. When you approach someone on the street, things always seem to be 3 miles away…. even if you had just gone 3 miles towards your goal when you asked the person. Even with seeming minute details which inspire confidence, such as naming the traffic lights or numbering street blocks, there may still be large gaps in the instructions.One man in Oceanside when we were searching for the city’s best buffet gave us detailed instructions, “Go up on Mission Ave, under the highway then turn on College Ave and you’ll see one traffic light. You go through it because it’s not the one you want. The next one, turn left and BAM! there you are. It’s about 3 miles away”. We travelled up Mission Ave for 3 miles, then 4…. It was probably a total almost 6 miles, a considerable 20km roundtrip out of our way side trip… with substantial hills too! Locals are often really friendly and try to help, even if they’re not completely sure.

  • However, local panhandlers know the best directions. At about 3 miles on Mission Ave, when I felt like we had gone under 3 highways by then, we asked someone at an intersection. Not only did he give us great directions in retrospect which we ignored because it was so different from the set of instructions given to us before, he recommended us taking the highway itself. We took the highway back and it was a much better way.

3. The best food is found in the most unexpected places 

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Bryan and I like our clam chowder and we were lucky to try chowder all along the Pacific coast. We got clam chowder at Illwaco by Long Beach in Washington, had it on Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, California and inn numerous places other places on the coast. The best spot, I still maintain, was the Washington Ferry from Coupeville on Whidbey Island to Port Townsend. It was creamy, thick and delicious. This food review was also probably helped by the cold, drenching ride through a storm to the ferry.

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4. A 2lb Jar of peanut butter lasts four days per couple 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARiding an average of about 45 miles or 70 km a day, we have developed amazing appetites. Bryan and I carry two stainless steel pots – one smaller and another larger. At the beginning of the trip, the four of us used to cook together more using the larger pot. However, by California, our largest pots only fed two people each.Our breakfasts grew from trailmix to bagels with cream cheese, hardboiled eggs and bread thick with peanut butter and bananas. The bread was really just a platform for the thick layer of peanut butter and between the two of us, we could almost go through a 1lb jar of peanut butter in one sitting. Bread was not even always necessary; we dipped apple wedges directly into peanut butter and spread peanut butter thickly on cookies as treats.

The trailmix was now for snacking between breakfast and first lunch, first lunch and second lunch, first dinner and second dinner. We have become bottomless pits of food.

5. 7:30pm is past our bedtime
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We wake up with the sunrise, get camp packed up and then ride for most of the day to one of the next campgrounds south. With our headlamps as pretty much our only source of light at night, we have become like canaries and start to feel sleepy as soon as the sun set. After the sun sets, it becomes cold and dark and our sleeping bags seem increasingly inviting. Of course, with the year progressing towards winter, the sun was setting earlier and earlier. We got to a point where one of us would yawn after dinner and say “Ok, I’m off to bed. Good night!” and then we would look at the time and it was 7:30pm.

6. California is aptly named the “Sunshine State”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlong the Northwest Coast in Washington and Oregon, sunshine was a treat interspersed in days of rain. Even when it was not raining, the coast was often mired in a drenching fog which seemed to seep dampness in everything. While we did get some sunshine, we also experienced some spectacular storms including a crazy lightening storm on Whidbey Island that turned the forest on a crackling strobe light and thunder boomed and rumbled seemingly right above us and the powerful remnants of an Asian typhoon that hit us on Humbug Mtn bringing 60mi/hr winds with 90mi/hr gusts and torrential rains.We crossed into California and magically, the rains seem to have stopped. We started to question carrying our two tarps, which had seemed to have the value of gold before. In our whole month in California, we basked in real sunshine instead of the liquid sunshine variety. Our only rain was a few sprinkles in Malibu and LA but other than that, it was amazingly dry

7. Redwoods are cold 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe deep woods are described in fairy tales as shadowed and cold. They are described as haunting places, a sanctuary of peace and quiet but also a place that seems to have a power larger than the individual visitor. When we first went into the old growth redwood groves in Northern California, I felt like I had entered the deep woods of childhood fairy tales. I stood in awe of these ancient giants that rose above me, spearing the sky. The coastal redwoods are the tallest living things on the planet and they are survivors. Many of the trees have black charcoal on their thick bark witnessing forest fires. Others reveal wind damage, flooding and even some have ax marks where people had tried to cut them down.  New trees will grow out of old trees, enveloping the old trunk and roots as their own.These ancient giants survive by raking moisture out of the coastal fog with its needles and sending it down to the lush, green fern carpeted forest floor. Redwood groves, with tall thick forest canopies, are thus almost always shady, cool and with air laden with moisture. It is remarkable to go from the hot, dry grasslands into a redwood grove and feel the immediate change, such as at Big Sur.

The cool, moist, shady quality of redwood also makes for very cold, foggy mornings. Riding out from Elk Prairie, the Avenue of the Giants, Big Sur and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, were always a chilling experience. The tips of our fingers felt like ice as we are riding until we find the warming sunlight.

8. The world is filled with amazing, friendly people

Watching the evening news can make it seem like the world is a scary place. Terrorists and criminals seem to be lurking around every corner and even the internet is full of scams and cyber bullies. You can no longer trust your teachers, politicians or even your next door neighbor.  Travelling by bike down the western coast of the United States, we have been amazed by the wonderful friendliness and hospitality of people we have met. People welcomed us into their home and sharing stories and wisdom over food and drink like we were old friends.

We learned to shuck oysters with Joan and Alex of Hoodsport, drank growlers of beer with GodLee and Buddy on their sailboats in Astoria, discussed new energy saving technologies with Lynn and Bruce in Sea Ranch over dinner, joked about life and travels with Joe in Kentfield, played boardgames with Kiera and Jamie in Santa Cruz, bombed over hills with James and Rachel on their tandem bike in Monterey, dreamed of tango in Bonnie’s house in Oceano, watched football with Ed in LA, and ate an amazing South Indian feast with homemade goatmilk yogurt from the goats outside with Giri, Uma and their two children. All of these people invited us, strangers, into their homes.

Some were more planned through couchsurfing but others we met as if by fate. For example, we met Joan and Alex when we were eating lunch in Hoodsport out on the patio of a restaurant watching for Rigel and Erin. We started talking to Joan and Alex and then asked them where would be the best place to get smoked salmon was, since Hoodsport is known for its smoked salmon and oysters. They said that they live right across the street and why don’t we come over after lunch and they’ll give us some. It turned out they also lived on an oyster farm so Alex took us out to gather oysters and then showed us how to shuck them too. Then, they asked us if we wanted to do laundry, then if we just wanted to camp in their yard and we could all have a delicious salmon BBQ for dinner.

In Gualala, we had just finished shopping at the supermarket and was packing up our stuff into our panniers. A lady came up to us and said, “Oh where are you guys going?” “We’re from Vancouver and heading to South America,” we replied. “Wow! Do you know where you’re staying tonight?” Lynn asked. “Not really yet,” we replied. “Well, do you want to come to my house?” Lynn asked. We looked at each other and said in unison, “Yes!”. Lynn and Bruce, who together have a successful consulting company helping buildings become more energy efficient, had a beautiful home and we all made dinner together and laughed over wine that night.

When we were approaching San Francisco, we came across a problem. The closest campground, Marin Headlands, were closed because of national park closures and couchsurfers were already overwhelmed with requests. We had a large urban area before us that was filled with homes but none for us. We moped around the REI in Corte Madera for a few hours, asking the knowledgeable staff for camping options in the area. “There was a campsite nearby on Mount Tamalpais,” one staff found, “It’s the birthplace of mountain biking!” Thinking of our heavily loaded bikes, we continued our search. Finally, looking sad and probably more than just a little desperate weighing in the option of stealth camping at Marin anyways and the probability of dodging rangers, one of the staff named Joe invited us back to his house.

These are just some of the stories. I will never forget the weekend spent around Jenn, Ashley and Shawna’s campfire in Big Sur or sharing tales of travel and food with Vestal, Kathy, Bob and Wanda around their campfire on a windy night in Westport. Looking back, it was amazing some of the landscapes we went through and some of the wonderful sights we have been able to see but it is truly the people that are memorable. The people we have met have opened up a world of trust and friendship that sometimes we forget about  in our busy lives or disbelieve that it continues to exist in our dog-eat-dog world today.

9. Being inspired 

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Everyday, I was continually inspired by both the landscapes around me and the people we met. The tall redwood trees are a testament of time and the long migration of fragile monarch butterflies is awe-inspiring. The gnarled cypress trees that cling to the rocky headlands of Point Lobos basically growing right out of the rock with little soil embody life clinging to the edge and the strength of survival. Their old twisted branches, weathered by age and storms, redefine beauty for me.

The people we have met are also amazingly inspiring. They have imagined a better world and they are actively living their lives to make that world more of a reality. “Happiness is a frame of mind” Godiva, our lovely host in Astoria, loved to say. God and her partner in crime, Buddy, live on one sailboat and have another as a guest sailboat for couchsurfers passing through. They both have an amazing view on life — don’t take it too seriously and have fun. Ed from LA is a firefighter and white-water rafting guide in his spare time, Bonnie from Oceano is passionate about tango and teaches it from her home over laughter and a glass of wine, Kiera from Soquel penpals around the world, and James from Pacific Grove dreams of environmental and social development programs in rural China. He lived in China while teaching English and dreams of returning with his Ph.D program in international development. Giri and Uma in San Diego have the most amazing story. Giri came from a small village in southern India and now lives in San Diego in a beautiful home designing multi-million dollar super computers working from home when he is not travelling meeting clients and partners. At his home, he remains remarkably grounded, keeping goats, chickens and fruit trees and loving his two children. I saw a quote at the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) commercial campground in Manchester, California, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the people who take your breath away.”

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