I did no prior research about this trip prior to my arrival in Vancouver just over a month ago. Although it goes directly against the principles of the Information Age, I much prefer letting the process of travel bring some small element of knowledge and understanding to a more or less blank slate, rather than just Googling everything in advance.
But this is America, for gawd’s sake. How could I fail to have a generous handful of precopceptions? I grew up in Britain, a nation that founded the New World and continues to feed on its culture and ideology today.
The funny thing about preconceptions is that they are often not particularly strongly held, so you aren’t even aware that you have them. Then only become visible when you suddenly realise that something has surprised you – something that you did not expect to be a surprise, because you’d just assumed all along that it was self-evident.
Washington State was not a place in which I expected to be able to ride a full day without finding a grocery store.
Neither did I expect to ride for days through near-wilderness in a land almost entirely blanketed in the kind of evergreen forest that I’d expected to halt on the north side of the Canadian border; nor find myself stringing my food bags up trees to avoid bear and raccoon raids at night. In America.
And I’d never imagined that this ride would be so remote and rural! The West might have been won, but it remains a place of small-town life, a rugged fringe of crashing waves and winding roads, settlements grown out of missions still rubbing shoulders with Indian reserves. It’s not quite Mongolia, of course, but it’s a long way from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and a long way from the high-brow politics of the federal government, even though it can always be found sneaking in through the cultural back-door of the ubiquitous television set.
But more than anything else, I hadn’t quite expected springtime in the Pacific North West to be quite so dismally wet. Erin had even elected to bring, instead of regular waterproofs, a kayaking drysuit to keep out the rain! Cold, too; the temperature has hovered around 10 degrees during the days, down to single figures at night.
Riding through prolonged periods of wet weather can easily eat away at riders’ morale. After all, it’s flying water. It could hardly be less tangible. Rain, over hours and days, seeps through all waterproofs, whether top-of-the-range or cheap and crappy like mine. Then you feel it seeping through your baselayers. It patters and pounds on your helmet and frosts your glasses. Your sleeves sag with the extra weight, and your quads, those pumping horizontal platforms that propel you, grow cold and clammy.
Your shoes accumulate road spray quickly and then – with a surprisingly sudden shock of cold – rainwater begins to trickle into the footbeds. Your padded cycling mitts can be wrung out like a dishcloth, the result just as murky. Eventually, when you realise that even the absorbent padding of your lycra shorts is dangling heavy and forlorn between your legs, you are completely saturated. Jumping into a river would make little difference.
You’re still OK, because you’ve been riding. You’ve upped the pace slightly to compensate for your body’s dissipating heat as it’s drawn away from your skin, and you’ve just about reached an equilibrium in which your wet clothes are at a tolerable temperature. But presently you realise that you have to stop. It’s getting dark. You have nowhere to stay. You must camp. It’s at about this point that the inexperieced wet-weather traveller begins to lose it.
You forget that the weather doesn’t care about emotions or discomfort. Self-pity begins to set in, followed immediately by immobility. You, a poor unfortunate cyclist, can’t figure out what you’ve done to deserve this!
Whilst standing about, raging at the unfairness of life, the universe, and everything, that last precious bit of body heat is evaporating. And by the time the you’ve realised that no amount of whingeing or ranting will make the slightest bit of difference, you have begun to shiver. This prompts yet more self-pity, immobility and raging, until eventually all remaining energy has been expended and the raging fizzles out into a quiet sobbing.
Then, under the last dregs of greyish twilight and with the relentless rain still driving into the ground, you reluctantly confront the inevitable. And you stumble over to the bike and drag the tent from its sack, trying in vain to get the bloody thing up before the floor gets soaked, fingers throbbing with cold and teeth chattering feverishly, and eventually you crawl inside, dumping wet clothes in a sorry heap in the awning. With the cooking of dinner an unthinkable torment, you munch on a few peanuts, regret it immediately when the salty nutty remains lodge themselves immovably in the crevices of the back teeth, and finally shiver and sob yourself into a troubled and restless state of sleep.
Every seasoned cycle traveller has been here, and will right now be remembering the moment when, having awoken but still lying inside a warm sleeping bag in the morning, the realisation dawns that you must now leave that cocoon of warmth and comfort and, still cold from sleep, put on those same drenched and frigid clothes that have been lying outside all night, pack everything away and embark – as wet and cold as you’d been the previous night, if not more – into yet another day of rain on this trip that you’d expected to be so much fun, so carefree and easy…
So much for preconceptions. I’d assumed that this would be for the most part a fair-weather ride. Luckily I’ve dealt with a fair bit of bad weather in my time, so a little rain wasn’t going to be an issue. Poor Ben, out on his first cycle tour.
At least he wasn’t alone. Because there’s another way to deal with the rain; one that doesn’t involve hitching to the next hotel. While riding, ignore the rain. It won’t stop, and you’ll still be getting wet, but at least you won’t be thinking about it, so you might not notice so much. And when you stop for the night, accept that the work isn’t over yet. Find a sheltered spot in the woods. String up a tarp or two. Tramp around and collect wood. Vertical moss-covered boughs are likely to be drier. Split the thinner lengths into kindling with a good knife. Use some petrol from your stove to get a blaze going under cover (it’s only cheating if you want it to be). Dry larger logs over the smaller fire as it grows.
It might take a couple of hours, but then you’ll have a rather nice shelter. You’ll have heat. Lots of heat. You’ll be able to take off the wet clothes and, instead of dumping them on the ground, dry them on a makeshift clothesline. Dry clothes!
You’ll be able to sit in comfort, warm and dry, cook a three-course meal, take it easy, and wonder at how a bit of levelheadedness and hard graft can turn a seemingly irretrievable situation into one of the most memorable nights of your life.
My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe..