Two dudes, two bikes, three countries, six weeks
UMass student Liam O’Connor and his pal Tyrone Newell travel from Vancouver to Tijuana by bike. Spoiler: They survive
October 4, 2017
If traveling by bicycle for weeks at a time seems like a really inefficient way to get around, that’s because it is. You hit twenty miles per hour if you’re lucky. You get all hot and sweaty. There’s no guarantee at the start of a day that you’ll make it to your next bed before sundown. That being said, it’s a ton of fun. It builds character and calves, and the only fuel you need to buy along the way is crunchy peanut butter.
This past summer, my boy Tyrone and I rode our bikes from Vancouver, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico. Throughout the six-week trip, there were ups and downs, cold nights and colder nights, bike paths and state highway shoulders. There were no easy days but at the same time, it was a lot easier than you might think. As long as we woke up at a reasonable hour, kept a decent pace throughout the day and stifled the urge to take naps in supermarket parking lots, we were able to ride cheerfully every day without worrying about missing our flight back home.
The idea for a West Coast trip was born after a successful European bike tour we did the previous summer with a few other guys from our high school. That trip was flatter and a lot more touristy, and it had far more luxurious sleeping accommodations. This summer we wanted to get a little more adventurous.
We knew we wanted the bulk of the expedition to take place on American soil, even though we both fell just short of the legal drinking age for the most of the trip. After perusing miles and miles of Google Maps street views and reading dozens of blogs from cyclist predecessors we found online, we committed to the West Coast. The route is by no means unique; there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people every year who follow the same general route that we did. We added a few twists, however, and probably broke more vagrancy laws than most of them.
Vancouver: a smooth start
We stepped off the plane, unboxed our bikes, set them up at baggage claim and pedaled away to our Airbnb. Our baggage was modest. We each had two waterproof panniers for our back racks— inside contained a couple days worth of clothes, tire repair supplies, phone chargers and other miscellaneous necessities, like duct tape and playing cards. We also carried a two-man tent, a half gallon pot, a folding stove with canned heat for cooking, several bungee cords and two water bottles each.
The first few days went smoothly enough. We crossed the border at Sumas, WA, with zero hassle from border control. We puttered along southward and banged a left onto State Highway 20. That’s where it all went down — and by down, I mean up.
North Cascades, Wash.: Up we go
We embarked the North Cascades route. Skip to 3:25 to get an idea of what we looked like going uphill for the entire morning. That day was unbearably hot and if we failed to make it over the top of the nearly 7,000-foot climb, we would have had to pitch our tent in the snow that had somehow survived until the summer. At one point, we almost ran out of water but some kind strangers near the top gifted us some potato chips and some Pabst Blue Ribbon. That was all we needed to make it to the summit where another kind stranger gave me a sleeping pad. I had no idea how much I needed that sleeping pad. On the long descent from the peak, I took advantage of all that gravity and recorded some video selfies. I also had time to listen to “Biking” by Frank Ocean about five times before I had to pedal again.
Today’s ride was primarily completed at a solid rate of 4-6 mph. We first peaked at 4855 ft (as a tease) and then after a short descent had to climb back up to 5400 ft. The downhill afterwards may have been the highlight of the trip so far, as we felt the temp drop rapidly and hit 35 mph. We then stopped in Mazama to charge phones and buy dinner. After talking to some lovely people (@milesofmethow) we were offered a ride into Winthrop where we are now sitting in front of a large fire at a KOA campground (pricey)! Unfortunately, Liam’s rack broke so we won’t be taking off until late tomorrow as the closest bike store opens at 9am. We will be getting much needed extra rest tonight without fear of being bopped
The next few days presented a variety of trials, including a broken rack and more furiously sunny days. We gave in and took a shuttle bus from Wenatchee, Wash. to Seattle. If we hadn’t done that, we truly may have perished.
Seattle, Wash.: Livin’ the spoiled life
We lived a spoiled life in Seattle for about five days. We ate way too much Jack in the Box, visited a University of Washington fraternity and got scammed out of $50 on the internet trying to buy festival tickets. We ended up getting secondhand wristbands in the parking lot of Sasquatch Music Festival, miraculously hitching a Craigslist ride all the way there and back.
Here are a couple of pictures from our nice long rest in Seattle, including a mystery soda machine, views of skyline ft. our very gracious host @sonocleo, a post-yoga class selfie, and some pics from Sasquatch music fest on Sunday. A great guy also pictured in a car in this series drove us out to the festival where we scored cheap tickets outside the Gorge from Portland people. We’re well rested and rearing to go, and we took off for Portland from Seattle this morning. We’ll be there Wednesday with ease and we’ve agreed that it’s a huge relief to not have to bike up mountains anymore. #FlatForDays #NoFlatsTho #KnockOnWood
Seattle to Portland, Oregon was a quick ride. We only had to tough it out in the two-man tent for two nights before arriving at a friend’s house near Reed College. We stayed in Portland just long enough to consume an entire bucket of VooDoo donuts and apple fritters.
Coastal California: Dumpster divin’
After Portland, we set out for the ocean. The trip down the Oregon coast into California was some of the most beautiful riding I may ever do. We camped out on ocean cliffs and sand dunes, and we watched bald eagles and turkey vultures survey their territory in the enormous trees that lined the coast. It was around this time that we started shopping heavily and almost exclusively at a supermarket called Safeway. Our grocery choices rarely departed from a regular menu of bottom shelf canned food, peanut butter, granola bars, a variety of fruits and donuts. We also indulged in the occasional dumpster haul, the most successful of which yielded several bags of donuts and pretzels.
This series features some ill rocks of all types. The first pic is Ty on a glacial erratic on a farm somewhere southwest of Portland. It’s the only rock of its type outside of Canada, so it’s pretty exciting. The next picture is our campsite from Friday, next to a very public pond where lots of people like to walk their dogs. The following day we snagged corndogs for 99 cents, and eventually pitched our tent on a section of cliff looking out over some volcanic & bubbly lookin rock and our first coastal sunset in Oregon. Ever since then, it’s been smooth sailing down Route 101 every day. We’ve been shooting for about 80 miles each day, which leaves us plenty of time along the way to stop for Dairy Queen, peanut butter & various fruit, and water bottle chugging sessions. We do a lot of sitting outside grocery stores covered in bike grease and complaining about our butts. We recently became members of the Club at Safeway, and our card is saving us buckets of cash on Ritz cracker sandwiches and gourmet camp stove meals. We’re looking forward to our next showers, but in the meantime, we’re just gonna keep riding down the side of the highway and making friends in parking lots with people who don’t mind our grime. Send us memes! Srs
The trash-digging on this trip bears emphasis because after awhile, it became second nature for us to poke around supermarket dumpsters and food court trash cans. It sounds nasty, and we probably crossed a few culinary lines that most people wouldn’t, but it was justified every time we found sealed or lightly used packages of food that we could use for sustenance on the road.
Coastal California was different from what we imagined. There were farmland and forest as far as the eyes could see. For the most populous state in the country, it was surprisingly hard to find civilization some days. The Redwoods were the features of the Golden State that were most consistent with our expectations. The trees were really, really big.
San Francisco, Calif.: The calm before the nightmare
San Francisco was great, but what happened after San Francisco was nightmarish. We couldn’t follow the coast all the way to Los Angeles because of a gnarly landslide that wiped out a substantial portion of the Scenic Highway 1. It was avoidable for cyclists if you were willing to wait until specific times of the day when passersby could carefully trek across the 1 million tons of dirt and rock that covered the road. We opted to take the long way around, but we didn’t realize it would nearly lead us to our demise.
Cut to Tyrone and me, sweating like pigs and dying of thirst, chugging along through what is essentially a desert for what seemed like an eternity. At one point, we ran out of water and our only salvation was an elementary school (closed for the summer) that had kept its outdoor spigot on. Despite signs warning of coliform in the water, we decided to skip the boiling process. I think we both made it out of the trip without contracting serious diseases, but if we caught any life-threatening stomach bugs, it definitely would have been from this contaminated water.
In this series, we leave the city of San Jose and head into the desert. All of yesterday and most of this morning, we went essentially without water through sweltering heat on a road that was terribly under utilized by most of the people of the great state of California. Some highlights included sleeping near a cow pasture (they kept us up, didn’t know cows made all that noise at night), drinking bad bad water from a hose, getting some surprise miniature water bottles from some kind strangers along the way, and seeing a real live wild rattlesnake directly in our path. Throughout the entire ~80 mile stretch in between “services,” we only saw about 10 cars pass by. This morning we got an early start to escape the heat (upwards of 103° in some parts) and we rolled into San Miguel around noon. We immediately copped a rotisserie chicken dinner combo and went to town on it. Now we’re en route to San Luis Obispo where we’ll be sleeping on couches! Indoors! We smell even better than we look
Even so, we hustled out of that barren hell of a detour and made it back to civilization. At this point in the trip, nearing Los Angeles, we had started using a service called Warm Showers. It enabled us to reach out to local cyclists or generally hospitable people and request, as you may have guessed, warm showers and a place to crash for the night. It was free, and we met some of the coolest people on our trip by sleeping on their couches and making messes in their kitchens.
Los Angeles, Calif.: That’s where I want to be
LA was better than we could have imagined. We partied with a big shot documentarian at his house in the Culver City hills, we caught a free Khalid concert on Venice Beach and otherwise biked around the city, poking around in trash cans and thrift stores at every opportunity.
Hey followers, long time no chat throughout the past week we did all kinds of things, none of which included posting media to this account. Here are some prime shots from our travels in between Port Hueneme, LA, and Laguna Beach. You’ll see that the first picture depicts a car full of our bikes and luggage. That’s because we cheated on the way into LA! Why not! After a kind lift from uncle John, we ended up at uncle Chris’s house on a very tall hill overlooking Culver City. In LA we attended the live taping of a Netflix series called Disjointed, which we really did not like. Unfortunately, there were microphones all around us as we sat in the studio for four hours, so we had to laugh at every single joke, even when they performed them four times in a row. If you like Kathy Bates, marijuana, and or bad sitcoms, then you will enjoy this show. If none of those things appeal to you, definitely don’t watch it when it comes out. That being said, if you ever get around to finishing the first season, our snickering can be heard in the background throughout the last episode. Also in Los Angeles, Liam’s bike suffered a casualty in the middle of Hollywood and immediately before pleasant meal at Roscoes. We took it to get fixed up at a shop while we went to the Petersen Automotive Museum. The rest of our time in LA we spent at the beach, eating falafel and musing about the tides. Our next bed after LA was in Laguna Beach, where we stayed in the front yard of Mango the Sailor. Honestly, we could’ve done a better job documenting the past few days in these places. Look out for more pics coming in a second post (two posts in a day, bout to be crazy). Reporting live from a beach in San Diego, Tyrone and Liam
At this point, our bikes were falling apart. A zip tie held my bike rack onto my bike for hundreds of miles, my handlebars were bent and a brutal spill in the middle of L.A. traffic rendered my entire rear shifter out of order. Tyrone’s bike was proudly sporting the dent United Airlines put in his fancy aluminum frame. Our tires were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
Tijuana, Mexico: Three countries in six weeks
The two-day stretch to San Diego was a piece of cake. From a friend of a friend’s house, we biked down to the U.S.-Mexico border and had ourselves a day in Tijuana to make it a tri-country tour. Legal beer and aggressive Cialis advertisements were a refreshing way to round off the trip.
Back home: Time well-spent or time wasted?
By the time we were back at the airport, kicking ourselves for choosing a Spirit Airlines return flight, we had gotten a lot of time to reflect on how much the trip had changed us. I had grown a disgusting mustache, spent more than all of my money and finished a non-required book for the first time in over a year. Tyrone had found a boatload of “satellite spots,” gained weight as part of an upward trend since he abandoned veganism a few years ago and had finally accepted that the Celtics never stood a chance in the NBA playoffs. It was hard to say goodbye to the freewheeling, cheap eating, tent pitching lifestyle we had grown into together. At the same time, we were both just about done sharing a tiny nylon bedroom every night.
It’s impossible to summarize what I gained from this trip, especially because I have no idea whether I will ever be able to do anything like it ever again. But I think that’s exactly where I derived the most value from it. It sucked not earning money for six weeks, and likewise, it sucked watching all my money drain into Safeways and bike repairs. The redeeming quality of a trip like this is that it took a willingness to forego some summer essentials, like weekday jobs and late nights with high school friends, and it’s a willingness that will likely expire within the next few years.
We covered less than 2,000 miles overall, which surprised us. If we rented a car in Seattle and took the gas-powered ride, we would have seen a lot more in a lot less time. I still maintain that we made the right decision, although my moments of skepticism can be accurately summarized in one simple question that Tyrone asked out loud as we set up our tent one night in a field of tall, wet grass — “We have houses. Why the f*** are we doing this?”