A Fork In The Road – Group Politics In Northern California

I wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject. It seemed a thorny one, fraught with emotion. So I took the only approach I really knew, which was to speak my mind and deal with the consequences later.

Preparing an epic seafood dinner

Nick had told me of the “form, storm, norm, perform” model of group development, which I later looked up for the nerds. Our group had ‘formed’ as circumstance and whim had dictated outside a supermarket in Raymond, Washington. Nick’s riding partner Erin had quickly been sidetracked, leaving Ben, Nick and I to form a new group further down the coast.

Packing

Then the ‘storming’ had begun, as recounted in an earlier post. Nick was experienced in the outdoors and in adversity, and had an established way of going about cycling and campcraft routine and tackling the conditions. Ben by contrast had relatively little to go on and couldn’t often see how to get from cold/wet/miserable to warm/dry/happy. My general indifference had made difficult decisions even more difficult to make. But we’d stuck together, because company was a valuable commodity despite all else.

Morning rest break

Now the weather had ceased to be an issue, so the pleasures of being outdoors were there for the taking. Company should have become a source of joy, and our group should have been well on the way towards ‘norming and performing’. But something was preventing that from happening. Over a noodle dinner amongst the Redwood forests of northern California, the time came to work out why.

First and foremost there was the basic fact that we were all on the road for quite different reasons. And we all knew what these reasons were. Ben and I had always planned to ride the U.S. coast as a pair in order to get to know each other better as adults, something that was long overdue. But travelling as a three was becoming an exercise in group management and left little quality time. And Nick was on the road partly to force himself to be more sociable and outgoing with strangers – something I could closely empathise with – but we were no longer strangers. Put down as cold facts, the group’s existence had become an obstacle to its members’ goals.

Secondly were the subtle personality clashes, which Ben felt Nick hadn’t noticed, but of which I had been becoming more aware since the weather improved and our individual styles of travel had had the chance to show themselves.

Wild camp near Port Orford

There had recently been a clear dry evening during which we’d been looking for a wild-camping spot south of a small coastal town. We’d come across a boarded-up building which had once been a restaurant reminding me instantly of a similar place that Andy and I had slept in by the Sea of Marmara in Turkey four and a half years ago. It was between the road and the beach, and had an enclosed veranda on the beach side which I picked out immediately as a make-do sleeping spot – three sleeping-bagged bodies wouldn’t be found unless someone climbed over the fence with a flashlight, which in my experience would be unlikely.

Sleeping in an abandoned roadside cafe
Sunset over the Marmara Sea

There was more chance of being disturbed here, a few miles from a town and on the roadside in a nice spot, than there would be in the woods a bit further down the road, but I’d weighed up the risk in a split-second, found it satisfactory, and stopped my bike to check it out.

Nick’s reaction: “Sleeping like hobos on the terrace of an abandonded beach bar? The risk will keep me awake. Let’s move on.”

Ben’s reaction: “Sleeping like hobos on the terrace of an abandoned beach bar? That’s just cool. Let’s do it!”

I’d found it difficult to muster any personal preference one way or the other, which made me wonder (again) whether or not I might have spent too long travelling by bike for my own good. Finding myself left to mediate the decision, I’d voted in favour of carrying on, hoping that we’d find a place that would suit all three of us, rather than just two. This got Ben stewing quietly but conspicuously, and got me into trouble for mentioning it.

In fact, my true preference would have been to let Ben experiment with ‘hobo-ing’ in an abandoned building, as he was at an early stage in travel during which experimentation is a critical part of learning and an unquestionable source of simple fun.

But Nick would have had to sacrifice a decent night’s sleep. He had established a way of doing things and a set of attitudes that came from his previous experience in the outdoors, and it enabled him to carry out his trip by his own criteria of success. Neither was any more or less valid or laudable a perspective than the other.

We eventually did find a spot that suited all three of us. It was one of the most memorable wild-camping spots I’ve ever found.

'Neverland'
In the canopy
Wild camping near Crescent City

But the sticking point was that we’d had to pass up spontaneity. Instead, we’d expended lots of time and energy balancing a group that seemed fundamentally out of balance at this level. In such situations it would always be impossible to arrive at the ‘right answer’, due to simple and unavoidable differences of opinion.

Finally, time restrictions were beginning to come into play. We were some way into the second month of a two-month trip. Ben and I had made arrangements to be in Santa Rosa for a small private screening of Janapar, while Nick wanted to spend more time in the company of the stunning Redwoods which grew here in such abundance. So Ben and I had weighed up our options and decided that we’d rather spend as much time tackling the upcoming and infamous Lost Coast as we could afford, and then plough on down California’s Shoreline Highway 1 in time for the screening (and a comfortable bed and shower). This was faster than Nick wanted to go, with a different emphasis, and we’d arrive in the built-up San Francisco Bay Area well before he needed to be there to fulfil his own arrangements.

Over and above all of this, splitting up sooner or later was inevitable, and I wanted to remember the group in a favourable light, because I’d enjoyed it hugely and learnt a great deal from it. If these conflicts were sidestepped rather than acknowledged, resentment and frustration would begin to brew. It was better to have it all out in the open, to keep communication clear and honest and to deal with the situation maturely and with courage.

I apologise if this sounds like tedium and overanalysis. The point I want to get across is how much the complexities of interpersonal relationships can dominate a group experience like this – far more so than the nice scenery and enjoyable pedalling that I have barely mentioned here. Breaking the group up was a consequence of diverging goals and circumstances, and the sooner it was done the better for everyone.

Pre-dawn Mist
Stuffed mussel grill

So I laid my thoughts on the table, Nick and Ben did the same, and in that way the decision was made with remarkable ease – Ben and I would ride as a pair from this point forward, and Nick would stay here to explore the forests. It almost came with a sigh of relief, for now we could enjoy our last evening’s camping and our last breakfast together in the knowledge that the arrangements were now very simple.

It would be another painful parting, as Nick had become a close friend, and we would all leave with many happy memories of our ride. But our continuing journeys would all be improved as a result of going our separate ways.

Parting shot

What experiences of group travel have you had? Share your thoughts in the comments.

My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe. Read more about the gear they’ve supplied.

9 Responses to “A Fork In The Road – Group Politics In Northern California”

  1. Andy Welch

    Cant really say fairer than that. And what could be more important in general for human beings than working out their interpersonal relationships seeing as it is a pretty inevitable fact of life and the alternative is not to communicate, bottle up all the thoughts and then respond in a potentially rash way that doesn’t correspond to reality.

    Reply
  2. Nico

    An honest write up of a very thorny subject. When I told friends and family I was going bike touring, the first, and usually loudly vocalized response was, “What, by yourself?!?!”.

    Having just finished a year of touring, which started on the route that you are currently on, my decision to cycle solo for the majority of the trip was the one that made the trip truly my own. I think cycle tourers tend to be fairly independent types anyway, so the experience I had of cycling in groups for days at a time was one of compromise and social politics. With the exception of a month spent with my sister in Mexico, which like you and your brother was a way to get to know each as adults, I was always happiest when on my own and experiencing the acute level of social exposure that travelling along brings.

    For people who tend towards introversion or shyness, I think travelling by yourself is a truly liberating way of experiencing your surroundings, without having to be the person who your old friends expect you to be.

    Enjoy the rest of the trip, Northern California is beautiful.

    Reply
  3. Liz

    Beautiful photographs

    Reply
  4. Nateon

    Man, I can not begin to tell you how much I hear you on this subject. When I did my bike tour back in 2006, I joined brothers John and Mike Logsdon on their way to Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina, who were dealing with precisely the issue you are describing here.

    We found that adding people to the ride (Our group grew as large as 6 people at one point) generally helped boost morale by adding a new personality to a group that would eventually grow tired of spending 24 hours around each other. As teh miles wore on that feeling would go away, and you would actually need to tackle the issues that were brewing below the surface or, as you said, resentment would grow over silly things.

    In the end it depends on the people and what the group dynamics are. Our group dynamics were good, we were able to work through the issues, so we made it to Tierra del Fuego together and are still friends today.

    Enjoy Santa Rosa! That’s my home town. Be sure to get a bike ride in up in Annadel if you have the time, and check out the East West cafe . . . great eats. Cant wait to see your movie when it comes out!

    Cheers,
    Nateon

    Reply
  5. Sheila Poettgen

    Great post!

    I’ve found that the very act of cycle touring strips everything unessential away. With nothing to distract us , our relationships and interactions with each other and nature become more focused and intense. For better or worse, you can’t hide or get away from relationship dynamics in this situation, and I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing considering many of us could improve upon our communication skills – not to mention learn to be more patient, empathetic, compassionate and expressive.

    After being together for more than a decade, and thinking we knew each other pretty well, Kai & I have been surprised by how long-term cycle touring has challenged us to deal with relationship issues on a higher level than we ever expected. By laying ourselves bare (you see the good, bad and the really ugly out there) and working through it all we have catapulted our relationship to a better place. It hasn’t been easy & had we not been committed partners would likely have gone our separate routes long ago but it’s been so amazingly informative and worthwhile for us to stick it out and work through it.

    That being said, I can see why relationships don’t survive touring. If you don’t want to truly test a relationship, whether it be a friend, partner or family member, DO NOT go cycle touring with them! 😉

    Reply
  6. A Fork In The Road – Into Northern California | U.S. West Coast … | Today Headlines

    […] here to read the rest:  A Fork In The Road – Into Northern California | U.S. West Coast … Share […]

    Reply
  7. Dylan Thomas

    Tom reading that was just like reading my own journal of when I road across Canada and down past where you are now on the West coast. I have been touring for many years and know all to well how I ride no matter the weather also what I can do. So when I was planing the next leg of my trip at the hihostal in Winnipeg (Canada) I was approached by a couple and woman that they had been riding with asking if I would like to ride with them! Given I had been riding on my own for just over Two months I was very tempted.. But when I sat down with them to work out there plans and there riding stiles I found out that just by the way we ride it would not work out and if we had made plans it would of coursed bad feelings just like you have been saying.
    Now people in the City where I live are finding out that I am planing my next trip “To India and Beyond” some of them are asking if they can come with me, which is not a bad thing for all the good reasons but there is the down side that I can tell that some of them I would just end up baby sitting and the overs seem to think that I am there Big brake to the open road!!
    I find that over the 10,000’s of miles I have done I do get lonely on the road but I would prefer that over trying to work out the dynamics of a group to keep every one happy as I maybe would be compromising my own?

    Reply
  8. Gavin

    Hi Tom, My buddy and I met you there at Elk Prairie. Interesting to see such frank disclosure about touring group dynamics. A powerful and uncomfortable thing.

    -Gavin

    Reply

Leave a Reply