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The Set Up

Operating under the somewhat outdated advice of armchair guidance counselors everywhere to “do what you love and the money will follow”, I’ve been trying to turn my love of bikes into various odd jobs for quite awhile now. In addition to a long, illustrious career as a Portland messenger, I’ve been leading seasonal cross-country cycle tours for the last four years through a cycle advocacy nonprofit. NO, the money isn’t quite “following” at the pace I would prefer, but I have no doubt that it’s drafting along somewhere back there, just waiting to overtake me in a sprint.

My newest assignment is a 2-month self-supported tour from San Diego, CA to St. Augustine, FL with a group of 15 characters ranging in age from 22 to 68 (average age is probably around 58). “Self-supported” means that everyone carries their own gear in panniers or trailers–there’s no van following along to lob snack bars at the riders, or to scoop them up if anything should go wrong physically, mechanically, or emotionally. In essence, I’M that van. My job is to make all of the campground arrangements in advance, oversee the cooking rotation, handle the finances, ride at the back of the pack with a heavy tool kit jerry-rigging things, and basically raise a family of 15 traveling, needy cyclists. Kind of like the bike messenger thing, only this time I’m trying to hustle human cargo across the country on a definite slow order. It’s not always easy, but it’s a good job for me–I have a lot of patience, a love of strange characters and stories, and an excellent sense of direction. They don’t call me “Google-maps Giddings” for nothin’. …And if they DON’T call me that yet, well then they’ve never ridden tandem stoker with me in an alleycat.

The route that we’re taking is known as “The Southern Tier”, a name which I inexplicably feel the need to invoke in a proud, old timey circus announcer shout. “Tha Suuuthawnn Teeeeeah!” This compulsion strikes about once daily, and is always met with awkward silence from my patient but mystified group. And so far this looks to be one of my most interesting groups yet. Riders flew to San Diego from all over the US and Canada, with a broad range of backgrounds, political leanings, physical abilities, and bike setups/biking styles. One group member even showed up in flip-flops on a vintage, one-speed cruiser with a coaster brake, hauling one of those pet trailers full of gear. Needless to say, his frame broke in half (seriously!) on the introductory shakedown ride, and he disappeared for a few days before rejoining us with a completely new touring bike. I should have known that that wouldn’t even come close to being the first major crisis of the journey…

Setting out from San Diego, we dipped our rear wheels in the Pacific Ocean at Dog Beach, climbed over the Eastern Peninsular Range, crossed the desolate, windy deserts of Southern California, and are currently cutting a swath across Arizona, laying waste to every Dairy Queen with the misfortune to lay in our path. From here, we’ll continue on through the cactus-lined highways of the Copper State, then firmly tie on turquoise bolo ties for the trek through New Mexico before cranking our way across Texas for three long weeks before we even enter the Southeastern US. It’s slow going, but a fascinating journey, both geographically and politically, through a part of the country that few people get the chance to see. In my ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that our government had started building the wall between Mexico and the US, but I got a chance to see it from about 50 yards away, in all its ridiculousness, hypocrisy, and aesthetic repugnance. It’s easy to feel alienated and hopeless when nothing in our country makes sense… this is definitely a topic I’ll have to come back to in future journal entries.

Today is our first rest day in Tempe– I regret that I haven’t had a chance to blog before now, because by this point there are too many stories to tell and no clear starting point. In some ways I feel like a spandex-clad soldier just coming back from war, too traumatized to put confusing experiences into words. We started the tour with one group member with a lot of personal problems and issues with alcohol, a situation which immediately escalated into a really serious, frightening situation. Maybe I’ll be able to laugh it all off by the time I get back, but I’m just not ready to tell those war stories yet. So now we’re down to 14 riders, all of whom seem to be as crazy as me about exploring the weirdest, most remote places in the US on a 75-pound bike. Thus far, the riders have been a wealth of life stories and advice, most of which can be boiled down to “Carpe Diem”. I love getting the chance to hang out with older folks and gain wisdom from their extensive experiences, warmed by the confirmation that growing older doesn’t mean giving in. Sure, kicking back in a rocking chair with a handful of Werther’s Originals in time for “The Wheel” can be a pretty good Friday night, but there’s nothing like bombing down a mountain pass so fast it feels like your heart might explode, smoking past someone half your age on a smoothly paved uphill, and knowing that all you can do is make the most of what you’ve been given right now. Wish us luck, we’re headed for the Atlantic!