Earlier in 2012 I cycled from Vancouver to San Francisco with my brother Ben, who was a complete newcomer to life on the road. I asked him to share his experience of getting to grips with cycle-touring.
Strangely enough, it was on a night of torrential rain in a northern Oregon forest that I actually started to enjoy travelling by bike.
Tom and I had joined forces with cyclists Nick and Erin after a fortnight of blasting through the forests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Our new team of four pedalled through a cold, unrelenting rainstorm in search of a place to pitch our tents. I was not looking forward to the prospect. I had little experience of camping, living outdoors, and knew nothing of staying warm and dry in such horrible conditions.
The first few weeks had been a steep learning curve for me. It wasn’t the cycling that was the issue. That was easy. The problem was everything else. Tom, a seasoned veteran, had his campcraft down to a fine art. I, on the other hand, could barely put up a tent. It was with copious amounts of moaning that I would set up camp every night. But things were about to change.
Led by a guy in a pickup truck, we found ourselves in a patch of thick forest. Just trees, undergrowth, and – of course – the unrelenting rain. At the time I was complaining loudly at the injustice of the situation. I was cold, my feet were soaked, and I was miserable. We could have stayed an extra night in Astoria, rather than camping in a bloody forest.
We’d laughed at the ridiculousness of leaving the warm, dry coffee shop for certain doom. The staff and patrons had looked at us with a mixture of amusement and despair as we’d wrapped our feet in plastic bags and set off merrily into the downpour. By the time we’d reached the city limits we were utterly soaked.
But within an hour of arriving, we had created an entire civilisation. Nick and Erin, experienced scouts in their younger days, put up two huge tarps between the trees and showed me how to find dry firewood in a soaked forest. And we built a camp and nurtured a blazing fire in the place that we soon nicknamed ‘Drywood Cottage’. We ate like kings, drank home-brewed beer, dried our clothes above the fire, and danced to Jack Johnson.
All my preconceptions had told me that we were in for a horrendous night. They were completely washed away. By the time I went to bed, guided by Tom and the others, I was happy, full of food and beer, dry, warm, and extremely satisfied. Together, we had created a home in the wilderness. I did manage to set the soles of my boots ablaze, but that was a minor hiccup in an otherwise immense evening.
That night helped me appreciate sleeping outdoors, and it was a memory I’d go back to often in the weeks and months that followed. I’d conquered the rain-soaked forest — and I’d actually enjoyed it. Now I’d relish camping, becoming proficient in setting up my tent and carrying out my camp duties efficiently. The complaining ceased. I realised that I had attained the skills to live outdoors in comfort, and now anywhere had the potential to be a camping spot for the night.
By the end of the trip I wanted more. I’d had a wonderful couple of months with Tom, my brother, who I’d never really spent quality time with. He’d taught me the ins and outs of cycle touring – topping up with carbs during the day and protein at night, packing my panniers efficiently, setting up my sleeping gear for maximum warmth, and other fundamentals of living outdoors. And through the kindness of the many strangers we’d met along the way, I’d come to trust human beings all the more – something invaluable for the adventures that would follow.
At the start of June, Tom flew to England. We’d grown a lot closer by that time, with me living in Canada, and Tom having been away for so long, we never saw each other, and thus never had the chance to get to know each other properly. I learned more about my brother on a personal level in those two months than I had in in the previous 26 years.
With Tom gone, I had developed an insatiable lust for adventure. I met up with another Canadian traveller in San Diego and we spontaneously hitchhiked the length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula together. After what I’d learned before, putting my trust in strangers, camping on the beaches and in the desert among the cacti, and accepting offers of hospitality from many of the drivers’ who picked us up was natural and easy. Mexico was purely a fun time. No learning was necessary.
I had been accepted to study for a Master of Journalism degree back home in Vancouver. But I still wasn’t done. I contacted the University of British Columbia and turned down what had been a very sought-after place on the course. Instead I set about continuing my travels. As I write, I’ve just finished hitchhiking across Turkey to the Caucasus, staying with families who I met along the way, and making many new friends.
I now find myself in Yerevan, renting a small apartment with a group of Syrian-Armenians, and soon I will continue my hitchhiking adventure into Iran. I’m waiting for my best friend from my school days, James, to fly in from England. He arrives imminently, having quit his job, packed up his life, and booked a one-way ticket to come travelling with me too.
This will be my opportunity to pass on what I’ve learned about travelling, adventure, and living on the road. At this point, I have no idea where we’ll end up. But that doesn’t matter. Those weeks in the Pacific Northwest opened my eyes. There is no plan, and there doesn’t need to be. It will just be fun.
Thanks bro! You can keep up with Ben’s adventures on his blog benallen.ca. Next stop — Iran. I’m envious.