In an age when adventuring is largely restricted to where you can get with wheels, and in which seemingly every bit of flashy new outdoor gear is sold out, we thought back to this essay about an innocent adventure with little but the urge to move. Note: Photos are from a disposable camera the author found on the side of the road during his trip.-Ed.
How Kramer and I ended up in Bellingham, Washington, in the first place, that’s a different story. This here, this story is about the great American bike ride, on the great American bike-the $5 Garage Sale Bike.
Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 2007. You’re homeless, jobless, recently graduated from college, and trying to get from point A to point B. You have plenty of time, but little money, ideas but no plans, intuitions, but no concepts.
Given the circumstances, you might consider acquiring a bike at a garage sale, and riding it 80+ miles from Bellingham to Seattle. And if you found yourself so inclined, you might have even had the insight to realize you were on a pure, good, old-fashioned, bona-fide #adventure… back before # was something other than a button on a landline phone.
The story of our trip was Kerouac and hipster in equal parts. Somehow both, somehow neither, stuck in the middle of a Washington pastoral landscape, cows chewing cud, bartenders asleep at the bar, and planes crashing in the suburbs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We acquired the bikes from a juggle farm in Marietta, among the crackhouses and the meth-hovels that dot the outskirts of Bellingham. What exactly a juggle farm is was a question on our minds as well, but the only real answer we ever got was “we grow jugglers here.” Okay then.
The juggle farm must have also grown bikes in various states of disrepair, because they had about a hundred. Kramer picked out a nice chic cruiser with a low crossbar and a basket on the front with handlebar tassels and I snagged a Huffy with fat tires and pedal brakes. The tires held air, the pedals turned the wheels, and that was about all we cared about. Ten dollars later, we were on our way.
It only took about 10 miles to get the first flat. We were on the Chuckanut, just beginning our climb up into Larabee State Park, when Kramer swerved sideways towards a guard rail.
While Kramer hitched back into town, I pondered our situation among blooming trilliums and towering trees. We had a tent but no sleeping bags, a block of sweaty cheese but no water, tires but no patch kit, a direction (south) but no plan, and plenty of freedom but no money. It was perfect, and screwed. And that was good enough.
Eventually, Kramer did return with the tire patched (for free at the local bike co-op), and our journey continued up Larabee State Park’s steep hills and winding ravines. Our passage was shaded by coastal redwoods, massive Douglas firs, and sweet-smelling cedars and incense pines.
You pop out on the southern end of the woods into some Midwest Americana cornfields, or wheat fields, or some such golden flaxen something. At 20 miles in, we were whipped but happy. The long climb and the headlong careening down windy roads without helmets had brought us to the vast flats.
I can’t tell you what happened for a long time, because what happened was nothing. That’s what flat farmlands always feels like to me. Time and space stretched on forever in all directions. Biking through 20 miles of it felt like driving through Kansas. There’s you, your brain, and the wind. We didn’t talk, just rode on.
Eventually though, we cruised up another large rise, rode down hill into a one-street town called Allen, and stopped. It was Kramer’s 21st birthday, and there was a bar. So we went inside.
Inside were a few barstools, some dusty liquor bottles, and the typical memorabilia and fanfare for an American bar from the 1970s or 1980s or who knows when. There was a man sidled up to the bar, a woman passed out facedown on one of the stools, and nobody behind the counter.
Eventually, we asked the man if there was a bartender around somewheres. He gestured to the woman.
“Don’t worry though, fellas, I’ll get your drink.” And he swooped around to the other side and poured a couple glasses of Whatever Lite. To Kramer’s chagrin, he neither asked to see ID, nor for payment. Happy birthday!
Well, we got to talking and the man-let’s call him Dave-took a liking to us, and since we had nowhere to sleep and reminded him of himself at our age, all of a sudden we were loading bikes into the back of his truck and hopping in to who knows where.
He had a curt, gruff way of speaking, his voice raspy, and he kept saying things like “21! That’s a good one! We’ll do you right.”
Eventually we found ourselves stopped beneath a highway overpass. When a baby blue El Camino pulled up opposite us and our guardian angel stepped out for a handshake drug deal, my heart sank. I didn’t really know what being a long-distance bicyclist was all about, but I certainly never expected this.
“Got us some goodies!” Dave said, smiling broadly. “Now we’re off to the cabin, go see Big Bear.” Big Bear, we soon found out, was a 5’5″ 300-pound muscle-clad Norwegian with long flowing blond hair halfway down his back. There we were, in a cabin in some obscure corner of the Washington woods, with Dave and Big Bear and some handshake drugs. And our garage sale bikes, and very tired legs.
Things got weird. Details unimportant. But at two in the morning, Kramer and I found ourselves out in the front yard shivering away a few miserable hours. At 4:30, Steve and Big Bear headed off to work and told us to leave. They drew us a road map on the back of a beer box flap and away we all went.
Kramer and I peddled against the cold, knifing our way through darkness and desolation, barely able to keep our eyes open. At some point, as the sun began to rise, we came upon a diner, which, as luck would have it, was open. We fell asleep in our pancakes, were roused by the waitress, paid our bills, and were back on the road.
For what felt like many miles, we forded on through sleepless lethargy. More farm fields passed, and slowly suburbia began to envelop us. We took this as a sign we must be getting closer. We had no maps, or smartphones, of course, so we could have been anywhere.
Soon we were on bustling city streets, and still in major need of a nap. We found, of all places, a kidney transplant center, which had, of all things, a nice grassy lawn, and we passed out right then and there on the lawn.
I don’t know how long we slept, but we woke to the sound of a police siren and a cop car pulling into the parking lot at about 90 miles per hour. He slammed on the brakes, screeched to a halt, stuck his head out the window, and yelled “Did you guys see a plane crash?!”
Kramer and I looked at one another, then back at him. Before we could say “what?” he slammed it into reverse, whipped out onto the main road, and sped off.
Yes, we slept through a plane crashing nearby.
We came around to find out we were in a town called Mount Vernon, some 50 miles from Seattle. There were no more farm fields, no more redwoods. Just sidewalks, busy city streets, and driveway after driveway, intersection after intersection.
We went on that way as long as we could muster, each thinking his own thoughts about cities, and human spaces, and the speculative resale value of our derelict and dilapidated vehicles. Finally, we admitted defeat and boarded a bus. The driver gave us such a hard time about our inability to operate the bikerack that I thought he wouldn’t let us on. But suddenly, there we were, riding four wheels again instead of two.
We disembarked at Shoreline just north of Seattle and fixed to ride the last few miles to an uncle’s house. We made it about halfway there before Kramer’s bike threw the chain. He crashed to the ground and bent the front wheel so far out of true that it was unrideable.
Did we pound the ground with fists and feet and kick the bike and curse the heavens for our misfortune? No, of course not. We had just gotten from Bellingham to Seattle on a $2 bus ticket, $10 worth of bikes, a free patch kit, and a block of cheese. We had seen redwoods, drank birthday beer, met Big Bear, slept through a plane crash, bumped up and down city streets. We were #winning. And we knew it. Our adventure was worth every penny, and so much more.
Looking back, years later, I find it hard to imagine having the same experience again. I have a smartphone now, a cushier bank account, I know how to use instaface and tweetstagram and blog my brains out as well as anyone. I have a $200 Craigslist cruiser with a cushy seat and gears and handbrakes. Kramer runs a small business in Oregon-I don’t know if he owns a bike at all.
And yet, I can’t help but think of how that very experience is what we all yearn for and need today the most. Not an #adventure, just a good old fashioned adventure. It would make a great Instagram gallery, or a fantastic blog post, or a wild Facebook news bite. But that’s precisely because none of those things were present, involved, or even considered at any moment of the trip.
We use social media to share our adventures, but by doing so, we put the adventure backseat to the sharing. Everything is about #authenticity these days, but what could be less authentic? I see people on fancy bikes sometimes, or read about these #bikeadventures in the desert, or see people quoting Yvon Chouinard at just the right moment in just the right way for just the right movie to brand just the right brand. I guess it’s all got a place.
But maybe the best bike you can buy is actually the cheapest. Maybe the $5 road bike is worth more than the $5,000 one. And maybe, just maybe, the only adventure worth having is the one you don’t talk about, at least for another nine years or so.