Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Pioneers and Adventurers

We have had both good maps and bad maps on this trip.

Some have been driving atlases with big scale bare-bones information, some have been topographical plans indicating worrying climbs or thrilling descents and some have been drawn on little scraps of paper by helpful locals and more or less accurate depending on their knowledge.

We spend hours looking at them and trying to work out which route to take calculating how different maps compare. We try to work out distances, where major stops should be, what might be viable in any one day and what we will pass en route that we might want to stop at. It is one of our most basic activities. We look at our route maps every single day.

We have had some hilarious nonsenses. In Bolivia and Peru the maps we used often indicated places that no longer existed (or perhaps never actually existed at all) and utterly failed to mention others that were significantly large and very definitely there. So we have always had to use several maps and supplement them with internet research and local knowledge and a healthy dose of guess work. No one map ever did it all.

Until now that is.

The maps we are using in North America have been a revelation. They are published by the Adventure Cycling Association of America and we have four that detail exactly the route of the Pacific Coast. They are specially designed for touring cyclists. They are waterproof and tearproof, they contain step by step written instructions for the route both northbound and southbound (including the locations of towns, supermarkets, campsites and motels), they have elevation information so you can see just how climby or flat any day will be and they ensure that wherever possible we take the quietest roads available. They are brilliant.  And the best thing about them is that they refer to what we are up to as 'Adventure Cycling'!!

We are Adventurers forsooth. Huzzah!

It added a sense of mystery and excitement to our journey to be thus labelled.

In fact, since we have arrived in North America, more and more people have very charmingly referred to our trip as an 'adventure' and I have to confess to rather liking the term. It makes us sound a bit intrepid and interesting and it rather perfectly sums up the mix of delight and diligence that this trip has turned out to be. It feels a smidgen fraudulent though to apply the term just when the comfort level of our journey has sky rocketed and the privations very definitely decreased.

Despite the much lauded loveliness of biking here though, there was a rather wild and woolly adventure feeling to our coastal route through southern Washington and Oregon. We found this especially when we are directed off the main highways and onto the forested back roads. Things became rural, quiet and remote feeling very very fast.

We often found ourselves cycling along for an hour at a stretch without a single car passing us, or without passing a single home. We cycled up hill and down dale, often with a view of the sea but when sticking to the coast became too tricky in quite lonely feeling forest.

Something that surprised me about the whole area is how that remoteness inspired a real sense of the pioneer, and a sense that it had been a place for adventurers. For a good long time the northern West coast of the North America remained far from the clutches of European conquerers and a place of mystery and challenge for them. The names of the coastal peninsulas are rendolent with hazardous exploration. Sir Francis Drake briefly stopped in Oregon in Whale Bay when looking for a Northwest passage, Captain Cook floated by searching for the same and named Cape Foulweather in Washington en route (doubtless for obvious reasons) and a whole host of other luminaries stuck their heads in, named places but failed to really get a serious foothold for a good long while. The whole area was relatively beyond their grasp and although lots of countries laid claim to it the Native American populations were left relatively unmolested until the nineteenth century.

And then Thomas Jefferson did a deal with Napoleon. In 1803 he bought, on behalf of the people of the United States, the French territories in North America, named Louisiana. It is an extraordinary idea that countries bought and sold bits of this continent, but there you go. Napoleon needed the money and the USA was keen to expand. The wily Frenchman had another plan too. He was struggling to defeat the British fleet at sea and imagined that if France was unable to crush them a newly expanded United States one day might be able to. All heart, old Napoleon.

Anyway, having bought the land Jefferson commissioned a trip across it by land to get the full measure of what he'd bought and to find a land crossing to the Pacific Ocean. He packed off William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to do the honours and they duly set off from St.Louis Missouri to do just that. Poor Lewis and Clark did not have the Adventure Cycling Association maps with them and so had a number of larks and misadventures before finally spilling out onto the Oregon coast a good year after they had left.

Lewis and Clark followed us everywhere in southern Washington and northern Oregon. We biked past places they had camped, places they had walked through, viewpoints they had come to all diligently signed on the Lewis and Clark Trail. There were statues of them, tributes to them and endless little brown and white signs featuring their images. We felt rather in tune with them as we wound through silent empty forested roads and imagined them struggling through dense undergrowth looking for their way.

They encountered some serious wildlife in that undergrowth. We saw lots of signs for Elk, and we saw skunk and racoons sadly dead by the side of the road and heard the calls of all sorts of preying birds who swooped about us hoping to capitalise on an easy lunch.

And there were bears.

Two hundred years ago, before the ravages of hunters, Grizzly bears could be found near the coast. Now, only the generally herbivorous Black Bear roams these parts. I say 'only' with sincere caution, since I imagined it would still be fairly sobering to be staring one in the face.

It was 'bear warnings' that upped the feeling of adventure in these parts. There were plenty of them. Every State Park we went through contained details of bear activity and what to do and what not to do, and we met people in shops and restaurants who would casually refer to sightings as if they were a rather run of the mill occurance. What really made the whole thing more alarming was that received wisdom of what to do when actually confronted by one varied so wildly. From suggestions that you should definitely NOT run upon seeing one but try to smile pleasantly and back out merrily on your way, to fighting 'by all means possible' should a bear decide to attack, via suggestions that you play dead, let the bear maul you a bit and then bury you before considering attempting to get to a place of greater safety, none of it left us feeling that reassured.

And so we did feel slightly daring and adventurous on the really quiet roads (rich with all the lush smells Phil described in his last blog) when there was a rustling in the bushes and no one to be seen for miles around before we remounted our bikes and pedalled on our carefully mapped out way.

When the roads then opened up again to the coast we were met by wind swept vistas, sheer drops to the sea, the frollicking of whales and sealions and an enormous number of lighthouses. It became apparent as we passed one of these after another that one of the main reasons for the Pacific coast remaining unsullied by European hands for so long was that it is incredibly dangerous to navigate. Wreck after wreck after wreck finally convinced a fledging US Coast Guard that something had to be done to make it all safer and the second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in lighthouses. We visited a few and were struck by what a lonely and isolating existence it must have been for those early lighthouse pioneers living and working there in these relentlessly blasted spots with so few habitations nearby.

We were able to access rather more locations although they were still often rather few and far between. The towns we headed through obviously saw a boom in the late nineteenth century since the architecture of Astoria, Florence, Port Orford et al. was all very Victorian. You only have to look at the dates of the founding of the states of Washington and Oregon (1889 and 1859 respectively) on the back of the state dedicated 25c coins to realise why that was. These were states that were late to the party and flooded with people surging West then. The main streets were lined with oddly named 'Queen Anne' Victorian buildings of both the high flat front sort and the graceful turrets and ornate cornicings variety. We could really see how people had arrived and gone about setting up a town from scratch with all the essentials such as a post office and a general store, and dug in to start a new life in the wild west.

And so as we forged a path through this frontier land moving seemlessly from town to country we were followed and led by two other adventurers. Phil referred to the visit of my parents in his last blog but it was a properly pioneering experience for them and they rose to the challenge amazingly.

They armed themselves with (appropriately) a 'Town and Country' Chevrolet people carrier and they sped about the roads with us dispensing brownies and Pepsi and charging ahead to the towns we thought we get to, to negotiate great deals on motels and organise food for dinner. They met all the demands of that unplanned an enterprise with true adventuring spirit. They cheered us on and made us feel as if we were amazing and they had an extraordinary ability to incentivise us with ice cream just at the moments in the day when we needed it most! One of our favourite moments of their stay was when we spotted them from afar doing star jumps by the side of the road and chanting a cry of 'Hot Tub, Hot Tub', as they celebrated the next location's star attraction. I cannot thank them enough for making our two week trip through the wilds of the western frontier so much fun.

And they had another great skill. They paved the way for us each day. They would come back to find us as lunchtime passed and let us know what we were in for on the road ahead. Sometimes they were able to suggest one route over another or warn us of things in our path. They provided a service that enhanced those Adventure Cycling maps to a truly stella level.

And so we survived the wilder parts of the west with great ease and burst through the border of southern Oregon (past the fruit inspection point!) into Northern California. We were so excited since we felt that we were entering a whole new country not just another state in the same one. I suppose that feeling is fair enough since it is far larger than our own nation and so distinct in character.

And looking at the maps, we could see some some great days ahead.

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