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How to learn

In this post, I want to explore some answers to the question, “if I want to learn X, how do I do it?” Here are some examples, some specific and some general.

  1. I want to learn how to calculate the derivative of a polynomial function.
  2. I want to learn how to play tennis.
  3. I want to learn physics.
  4. I want to learn to communicate better.
  5. I want to learn to overcome my mental and emotional blocks.

I used to think that the answer was to find a book or lecture notes on X, and read from start to finish, answering the questions or doing the practice along the way. That’s what I did in college courses.

Graduate school taught me that every book you read will lead to five new ones. I went down A LOT of rabbit holes which were irrelevant to my goals, before realizing that I need a system to evaluating which information is useful. Eventually, I realized that I also needed a system to explore new sources of ideas and information. Basically, find good filters who both regularly bring you new ideas and which you trust to bring relevant ideas. Previously, I lived entirely on the “exploit” side of the explore-exploit axis, and I needed to develop my exploration side.

Recent years have taught me that new things are better learned in groups, especially with a mentor present. Generally the best way to learn X topic is not just to lock yourself up and read papers. Having conversations with others about it is crucially important, to get outside perspectives on your ideas, get past internal roadblocks, and learn what comes next. The accountability and emotional validation are not to be disregarded, either. Nowadays I see Zoom meetings, dinner conversations, etc. as just as important to the learning process as my own deep reading/thinking.

Concretely, what systems should I set up for myself to fulfill the above needs? And when is going back to school the best way to do it?

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Let’s start with the simplest, most bite-sized types of learning: I want to learn X technique/concept. Course lecture notes, book chapters, and papers are out there. Depending on how close X is to the forefront of human knowledge, you will do an internet search and come across one of these (plus blog posts, articles, etc). Then it’s a matter of just reading and processing. You might get stuck at some step in the process, so it’s helpful to have experts (or even colleagues) you can ask. Either an online community, or in-person.

An example that recently came up for me: I want to learn about quantum spin liquids. I’ve heard this term many times in my current field, and it seems important but I have no idea what it is. I don’t need to know every esoteric detail, but I want a solid enough understanding of what they are and why they matter, and “solid enough” is subjective and may change over time.

  1. I started with the Wikipedia page to get the definition, and by looking up one or two basic videos. It helps that I have a scattered knowledge of the relevant physics, as well as a solid grounding of more basic physics and all the mathematics I might possibly need. I tried to grok the basic mathematical definition.
  2. Then I start exploring some of the related links to see where the concept sits in the larger network of ideas. I saw that QSL’s are considered a promising approach to topological quantum computing (TQC) and also to high-temperature superconductivity. So I have an idea of the application roadmap. I also started looking up which people/groups are studying QSL’s, and by learning about what else they’re doing I could situate the study of QSL’s among other concepts I might know about. Basically, a better idea of why I should care about QSL’s, and who I should talk to. (Note that I already had an inkling that I should care about QSL’s, or I wouldn’t have even started this process.)
  3. Next, I started reading papers about how QSL’s are studied. Is it experimentally done in a lab? Modeled mathematically? What approaches are missing? Basically, what could I contribute?
  4. At this point, I felt I had enough knowledge. I summarized my findings in a short journal entry for myself. This whole process took a couple of hours. I might note down further concepts to look into in future.
  5. If I want to proceed further, I reach out to one of the people I found in step (2), tell them what I thought, and ask for further guidance. This is the step which, a few years ago, I’d have felt too shy/scared to do. “Will they feel imposed upon? What will they think of me?” No. Just do it. Worst case is that you get no response — in this case, if you poke again after a week, most likely you’ll learn it’s not because they intentionally ignored you, but just because they were busy at the time and missed your email.

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Now let’s take it up a level. “I want to learn X subject.” Here, you don’t know even know the full map of important concepts. Start searching online, and you’ll quickly get overwhelmed by how much there is: every concept links to ten more. You have to pick a neatly-packaged, cohesive “core” set of ideas to learn. This is where a set of course notes, a book, etc comes in handy. It’s a lengthy process, so to sustain your motivation it helps to have a social structure around you. For example, a semester-long course with assignments, a cohort of like-minded people, and experts you can draw on. In a vacuum: again, asking people helps, but you have to hold in your mind the set of important vs unimportant ideas so that you know where to follow up and look.

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Up one more level. “I want to become an expert in physics.” Now it becomes even bigger. You need an advisor checking up on you along the way to help guide your progress.

The structure created by a school or university is twofold. First, it takes the metacognitive load off. When you try to learn something yourself, you’re constantly questioning

  • whether the thing you’re learning right at this moment is useful for your goals. This role is taken care of by the pre-set degree curriculum.
  • whether you’re understanding correctly, and overcoming mental blocks. This feedback is given by grades and the instructors.

Let’s also not forget the emotional support. Having a big body of people around you all in the same situation not only helps you intellectually, but keeps you motivated, which is very important!

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Okay now, how do we create this environment for ourselves in our adult lives, once we’ve left formal schooling? First big learning for me is to realize I have to set aside a big portion of time for metacognition. Mostly it’s deciding what is vs isn’t important to learn. That’s exploring and finding resources to note down in a list, then curating that list, then only deeply consuming a few. And creating my own measure of “progress” to keep motivated. Second big learning for me is how important it is to connect with a community. I think that’s on multiple fronts: (1) get used to drawing upon open online communities like stackexchange, etc with questions, (2) try to find people to join me in that quest, (3) make friends with experts who answer my questions, tell me what new things I should learn (that I wouldn’t have known), and connect me to more experts. If I can connect with a community including mentors, a lot of the metacognitive load is taken off.

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What am I trying to learn right now?

  • At the deepest level, I am trying to find the right (primarily work) pursuits to best fit my values and goals. Becoming an adult meant I realized that nobody outside myself can fully guide me in this regard. But I can draw upon advice from many wise friends who know me well and care about me deeply. I think that’s the best one can do.
  • One level out from that, I’m trying to find projects that at least partially leverage my expertise in math and quantum information science, but are interdisciplinary (thus broadening my knowledge and stoking my curiosity), and have a positive impact to society. I’m intentionally not fully defining the parameters of the third requirement, but two causes that move me are climate change and inequality of access to basic resources (well not the inequality, but the fact that a large people on this earth don’t have clean water, food, physical security, medical attention, access to information, energy, etc).
  • I may get more specific than this on the ideas I’m exploring in subsequent posts…

Self-identity, and education

“The task of teaching a concept like e.g. the decimal place value system can’t be offloaded to a computer. Because the hard part isn’t explaining the concept. It’s helping manage the student’s conceptions of themselves as they repeatedly try and fail to grok the concept. Eventually they learn the concept, but they are also likely to come out with some serious scars on their identity if the ‘people part’ isn’t handled well by the teacher.”

I recently reconnected with my friend Andy, who lived in the same college fraternity house as I did. Unfortunately, we were separated by 3 years, and so we never became as close friends as I now know we could have. He’s thought a lot about education, and in our conversation he said the words above, which I found extremely compelling. I know that good teaching, at any level, requires empathy. And in classes I’ve taught, I’ve tried to prioritize the long-term intellectual impact I can have on my students, years down the road. But I’ve never considered that when I teach a class, I have a hand in shaping the students’ self-identities, i.e. narratives they have about themselves. Only in the past few years have I realized that my own self-identities — which are constructed and are certainly not complete representation of who I am as a person — can have a huge impact on the direction I take my life.

So what identities have shaped my life? Very early, the seeds were planted for me to develop my identity as a “math guy”. What began as an early (age 4) propensity for solving puzzles was then bolstered by a culture which exalts those who are “gifted” in STEM fields. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, “you have a special gift that most people don’t have”. My leanings were reinforced by an evaluative system of learning where you can “win” or “lose”, i.e., get grades. I’m sure a part of my early interest in math, was actually an interest in the approval I received. Later, in my teens, my performance in math competitions qualified me for advanced and exclusive programs, where I found like-minded peers. That sense of belonging and community served as further reinforcement.

And how has that identity shaped my own path? One positive outcome has been intellectual confidence: an internal belief that I am smart enough to learn anything if I put my mind to it. Therefore, every field of study seems open to consideration. (Becoming a distance running in my early 20s has created athletic confidence, i.e. the belief that I can achieve some proficiency at any sport I choose to, because I now think of myself as an “athlete”: an identity I did not inhabit when I was 20. During the second half of my 20s, the main identity I’ve tried to build is as a community-builder, and I’m still working on it.)

I think the main negative outcome of such a strongly-reinforced identity, was that I went through my most opportune school years with blinders on. I never considered a career path that wasn’t centered around math. My eyes weren’t open to opportunities which might better suit my internal values and desires.

The external validation and community I had in my late teens dwindled towards the end of my college years, and I was often miserable and dissatisfied during my grad school years, but my momentum as a “math guy” was too hard to stop. Only when I reached my first postdoc did I fully commit to changing my career path, and it was very hard — mostly because of the internal conflict caused by shedding the “mathematician” identity I’d built over the years. (Similarly, I’ve found that if I want to fully use the “athlete” identity and explore other sports, I need to put intentional effort to shed my “runner” identity, at least temporarily.)

In the long run, I don’t know if the “math guy” identity will be a net positive or a net negative for me. But it certainly had a huge impact on how I spent my 20s. These days, at the age of 30, I am much more exploratory than I was in my early 20s. In high school, I was never interested in history or human culture, but developed a deep curiosity about these subjects in my early 20s, and took time to backpack in other countries (though not nearly as much as I now wish I had). In recent years I’ve been very interested in my own psychology and emotions, which are often viewed as separate from cold, hard, rational math, but which I more and more realize are deeply intertwined with it.

I’ve had several past students who, years later, told me about something I said to them which shaped their interests or conception of themselves. There’s a lot to say here about how my story about relates to education, but maybe I’ll come to that in later writing. What are some identities you formed early in life, which you later recognized and sought to deconstruct?

What’s the purpose of education?

My experiences with math competitions in high school instilled in me a deep passion for education. I wanted to connect with my students, to stimulate their minds, empower them, show them the joy of doing mathematics. Basically, to give them the experience that I had received. However, my two years of teaching as a postdoc at UBC left me disillusioned. Now being two years removed from the academic system, I want to re-examine those experiences.

In my mind, the higher education system serves two very orthogonal purposes:

(1) Open people’s minds to new ideas, inspire curiosity, teach them new skills. Empower them with meta-skills (such as patience and humility).

(2) Evaluate performance, provide certification and degrees. Help students figure out what they’re “good” at, so that they can specialize further, thus separating students. (related question: the culture I was surrounded by encouraged me to specialize. Is there an inherent value to singular, deep pursuit, in that it teaches certain irreplaceable skills? Even if so, we run the danger of becoming too specialized and then being unable to branch out.)

Purpose (1) is what drove my scholastic pursuits through high school, both within the classroom and without. It’s also what I sought when I went to MIT as an undergrad. In my years of teaching, in university classrooms, summer camps, and after-school programs, purpose (1) is what I sought to impart upon my students. It’s what inspired me to pursue teaching.

Purpose (2) is ever-present in our educational systems. It serves as a filtering system, a stamp of approval for those who are “smart” to open up future opportunities. I dislike the fact that my PhD in math from Harvard has a big impact on how people view me. I hate people’s huge emphasis on (2) when they are in awe of my “smartness” (sidenote, I’m only really good at a narrow set of things, and society seems to glorify those). It completely misses the point of why I did it. But I can’t deny that I’ve benefited from this perception.

Perhaps grades are a necessary part of a functioning education system, as it tells students whether they are on a good track towards being prepared for the real world. But in my opinion, the highly evaluative system that exists stifles people’s minds. The very objective, clear right/wrong view of school assignments is no more present than in mathematics education. Which, ironically, isn’t very reflective of how research mathematics is judged. (In that world, it’s important to say something that’s “right” but more important to say something that’s “interesting”, and students are taught to say things that are right, rather than interesting)

The emphasis on evaluation does combat the existential angst and uncertainty students may face, giving them clear direction to their studies by narrowing the options. I can’t count the number of people who have told me, “I liked math, but then I got to college and learned I just wasn’t very good at it, so I went a different way.” But I think this motivation is more fear-driven. Ironically, my experience with math competitions in high school improved dramatically when I focused on the joy of doing mathematics itself, rather than the scores. We can’t separate our performance in the classroom from our emotional state.

So what was my experience as a postdoc? I tried to make my teaching all about (1). I tried to get at the heart of calculus REALLY is, why it’s interesting to me. If I had to spend half of the semester to express what a limit is in the mathematical sense, and connect it to my students’ experiences, I would have gladly done that. But the students just filtered all that out, and looked for the fastest route to a good grade. The system we’ve built is focused around (2), and that forced students to care about (2) at the expense of (1).

I’m also guilty of being constrained by the system, too. I was prescribed to teach a very specific course curriculum that was constrained by both its prerequisites and the courses for which it is a prerequisite. Just as the students were going to be evaluated by their grades, I was going to be evaluated by the students’ grades and teaching evaluations. Qualities like caring too much, or trying to open students’ minds with new ideas, would usually mean worse performance on the exams.

It felt that we had very little space within which to focus on (1). My role was more as a grade-assigner than as a teacher. I enjoyed the logistical challenges of trying to reach a large and diverse body of students, and building a class culture that was open, safe, and intellectually stimulating. But on the whole, grades were the number one priority. It felt like I and the students were just cogs in a bit institutional meat-grinder, and that I was failing them. It broke my heart and left me cynical about the educational system.

Now, having been out of the academic system for the longest continuous period of time in my life thus far (2.5 years), I’m stepping back and thinking about what objectives our educational systems should fulfill, and then trying to determine whether they are really fulfilling those. Upon reflection, there is a very important Purpose (3) that was completely absent from my own educational experience:

(3) Real-life pursuits and real-life problems cannot be boiled down to a neatly-packaged problem set; if they can, the main difficulty is in the boiling-down. More important than being able to solve a problem, is to find an answer to the question “what problem do I want to solve?” and this requires an internal examination of one’s own values as well as an ability to navigate the messiness of life.

Purpose (3) is actually the reason I chose to pursue a PhD in mathematics (apart from a healthy dose of (1), of course). I wanted to learn how to explore my own values/tastes and how to relate those to the problems of the world. It kickstarted a process in me that continues to this day, and that I wish had begun long before. I think I could have gone much further along in this journey if there had been a system in place to facilitate the “exploration of one’s values”, which I felt was quite absent in all of the stages of my education (high school, college, grad school, postdoc, and now a company doing R&D). Perhaps Purpose (3) is too difficult to codify in an educational system…

Post-analysis: stats, packing list, lessons learned, and tips

Total distance: ~1400 miles, or ~2250 km.

Total elevation: ~53,800 ft, or ~16,400 m

Total ride time: ~106 hours

I got really fit over the course of this trip. In the first ten days, I averaged 58 miles per day and was well below 2000 feet of elevation per day (with the exception of my Hurricane Ridge climb day, which I did with much less weight on the bike). By the end of the trip, I could routinely handle 60-70 miles of riding with ~2000-3000 feet of elevation, or even significantly over 3000 feet of elevation. By the final week, I could average 5 hours of solid riding on a fully-loaded touring bike.

I was shocked when I stepped on the scale on the morning of September 26 and learned that I had lost 7 pounds (155 down to 148). I never skimped on calories or intentionally let myself get hungry throughout the trip — I ate whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it — and yet I still lost so much weight. I looked great, with clearly defined six-pack abs and veins standing out, but in actuality my body was wrecked. My quads were so sore in the second half of the trip that I could barely walk in the mornings. I’d picked up a pain in my right knee around day 10 that continued to hamper me to the end, and even formed a painful, sore spot on my kneecap. And without coffee, I was sleepy all day.

In the words of Irish marathoner Stephen Scullion, “get fit or get fucked”. I got really, really fit, but I also got a bit fucked. I was pushing my body just a little too hard, too consistently, without enough rest. It was fine for a 25-day trip, but if this ride had been 3 months long, my pace would not have been sustainable. I would have held myself back a bit more, likely by carefully monitoring my ride time per day and week and aiming for 4h30 per day, plus a rest day each week. That feels like a solid effort, but still very sustainable and would leave me feeling fine. I gained valuable information from this trip, of where my capacity lies, and how to pace things out for longer trips.

One week after arriving in the Bay, I took my old road bike out for a longer ride, and it felt like a dream. After riding a fully-loaded touring bike for nearly a month, I was amazed by how light I now felt climbing up hills. It’s almost like walking around with a heavy backpack for a month, and then taking it off. If you’re like me, and have procrastinated on doing trips like this because you’d be forgoing athletic goals: don’t worry about that. You gain serious fitness from bike-touring.

I got very comfortable with my camp routine, setting up and taking apart camp, what food to cook, etc. As well as good food to eat on the road. Rolling right into my next bike touring trip should be much easier. I wonder what trip that will be?

Finally, I’ll include a list of the most important things I carried with me, as advice to anyone looking to do a trip like this:

Bicycle:

  • Bicycle — Surly Long Haul Trucker Deluxe. The LHT is the gold-standard among touring bicycles, and the “deluxe” is due to S&S couplings which allow you to split the frame into two pieces for easy shipping. The LHT has been discontinued, so I’m lucky that Jamie has this setup and let me use it! The drivetrain is a Shimano Sora system (9 or 10 speed on the cassette I believe). The crankset is a triple with rings of size 26-36-48 (or was it 28 at the smallest?) and the cassette has largest gear with 36 teeth. That allows for huge gearing range, which is extremely valuable for touring: uphills become MUCH harder with all the weight you’re carrying, so having low gears like this is very important. Friction shifters seem like the way to go. I used the mountain bike clipless pedals. A wider tire, like 26mm or 28mm, is a good idea (I used 26mm) for a gentler ride.
  • Front rack — Tubus Tara front rack. Sits very low to the ground (great for stability) and very sturdy.
  • Panniers — Ortlieb waterproof panniers x4. Two of them are the Back-Roller Classic, and the other two are an older version of that. I recommend having two large panniers on the rear rack with your camping gear, clothes, tools etc, then lashing your tent over the top of the rack (with a bungee cord). Front panniers are optional, you could alternatively get that extra capacity with small bags like a handlebar bag. But front panniers allows you to distribute the weight so that your bike isn’t totally back-heavy, and it’s also nice to have the extra capacity in case you need it.
  • Tools: The most essential things are a multitool, chain lubricant, and rag, all of which I used every day. Beyond that, I’d recommend having a hand pump, patch kit, tire levers, and spare tube. If you’re going longer, then you might want a spoke key, extra spokes, chain checker, and extra chain links.
  • Two water bottles (which sat on the cages on the bike)
  • Front light and tail light. It probably goes without saying, but don’t cycle after dark. You’re significantly less safe. Still, these lights are good to have in case you get caught out after dark, and even useful while going through fog or tunnels.
  • I had a very small seat bag which held my phone, wallet, multitool, and mask (i.e. items I needed to quickly and easily pull out).

Camping:

  • Tent (ultralight, 2-person). I saw many people doing a 1-person or a bivvy, I think this is personal choice.
  • Sleeping bag (3-season)
  • Sleeping pad (inflatable)
  • Sleeping bag liner (microfiber and washable)
  • Camp pillow (inflatable)
  • Camping pot, stove (very small and lightweight one). I ate food out of the pot, so no bowl needed.
  • Lighter, fuel canister
  • Titanium utensils
  • Headlamp
  • I brought a water filter, but it was probably unnecessary

Clothes:

  • Three pairs of bike shorts. I could really have done with two, but carrying the extra weight was worth not having to do laundry as often. You’re bound to have to wear wet clothes sometimes.
  • Cycling shoes with Shimano cleats (MTB-style)
  • Three jerseys/long sleeve shirts
  • One rain-resistant cycling jacket. You’re bound to face the occasional rain or drizzle, and much more often get cold, wind, or mist.
  • Cycling leg warmers
  • I wear glasses, but if you don’t, shades are necessary for eye protection. And obviously, wear a helmet.
  • Two pairs of gloves
  • Several pairs of socks
  • For camp: tights, pants, t-shirts, a warm jacket, a cap, camp shoes (easily slip on but should be warm enough, sandals wouldn’t cut it)
  • I brought a waterproof rain shell but never used it: if it was well and truly raining, I’d find real shelter and wait it out.

Food:

  • Entirely personal, find your own evening and morning meals which work for you. But I recommend always having some peanut butter, bagels/bread, and bars in your panniers

Other:

  • Bring a few bags (paper, plastic, etc). You’ll probably need them.
  • Obviously phone, wallet, documents, etc.
  • I brought a tablet and bluetooth keyboard, which is nice if you’d like to read on a bigger screen, or write on the trip. I could have foregone this and used a paper journal instead, as I found I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit around and read/write anyways.
  • U-lock. This is heavy, and there were very few situations where I felt I needed to lock the bike. In the vast majority of towns I felt fine leaning my bike against a wall while going into a grocery store, and I only locked my bike at one campsite. So it’s questionable whether the weight was justified. Still, if you leave your bike unlocked while going into a store, and it gets stolen, then you’re totally screwed. So maybe it’s good peace of mind, to know you can step away from your bike in big cities or sketchier areas.

Days 22-25 – Coastline and yellow grass hills (Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties)

In my mind, these final four days of the trip blend together. There weren’t any stunning moments that stick out, but rather a slow shift in the scenery as I passed through Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin counties. I knew I was in the homestretch, and so a portion of my mind was thinking ahead to my arrival in San Francisco. It was close enough that I could estimate my rough arrival time and let my family know. My body must, too, have known that the end of my journey was near, as I was noticeably more tired during my final two days of riding. My legs were heavy and I couldn’t stop yawning. The riding along the coast was up and down with rolling hills, with very few flat and fast sections, which made these final few days long and deceptively tough. A part of me was ready to be finished and take a rest, but I was still trying to be present and enjoy these final days of riding.

Day 22 – Leggett to Mendocino (59 miles, 2986 feet elevation, 4h31 ride time)

Today started with the so-called “Leggett climb”. Roughly 1000 feet of elevation gain took me to a high point of nearly 2000 feet (the highest I reached on this entire trip, save the ride up Hurricane Ridge). As such, it has a serious reputation. Thorness’s book describes the climb as “relentless”. So I’d prepared myself: an easy day yesterday, light panniers (by timing my resupplies, I wasn’t carrying much excess food weight in the way of couscous, tofu, vegetables, oats, bagels, etc), and a big coffee to start the day. Not to mention having cleared the first 1000 feet of elevation yesterday.

The ride started with a couple relatively tame miles on a quiet road through the forest, until the climb began. And it was… pretty easy. A smooth road, with almost no traffic, and relatively consistent 5-6% grade. I cruised through, never touching my lowest gears, and even chatting to the construction worker who was directing traffic at a construction site partway up. When I thought I must have been just halfway through, I crested the top of the hill and was disappointed to see I would be descending soon. This climb actually felt easy compared to the first redwood forest grove out of Crescent City. (Could all the difference have been that pannier weight?)

Perhaps the Leggett climb is symbolic, as here I’d finally put those beloved redwoods behind me, and switch to coastal riding. Well, almost. After more than 10 miles of screaming descent through the forest to Rockport, I tackled one more significant climb before finally breaking through the trees and reaching the coast.

The California coast!

The remainder of the day was rolling hills and highway riding with a view of the coast, just like in Oregon, but with Californian scenery: rolling, dry, yellow-grass hills. I took a lunch stop in quiet little Westport. Having no phone signal (as would be true for the majority of the coming days), I bathed in the sun, and simply admired the ocean as I ate my sandwich.

The next stop of notice was the larger town of Fort Bragg. Here I made a bathroom stop in a park, and then followed a bicycle and pedestrian path along the water. By this point, clouds had rolled in. I continued on to my provisioning stop of Mendocino, a very cute beachside town with an excellent grocery store. I would have stopped here longer to admire the excellent scenic views along the coast, but by now the clouds had turned into full-blown fog. Visibility was already low, and it would only get darker as sunset approached, so I put my hi-vis jacket on and quickly covered the final miles to my campsite at Van Damme State Park.

Incoming fog.

Day 23 – Mendocino to Salt Point (68 miles, 3366 feet elevation, 5h21 ride time)

Today’s had no single epic climb, but the total elevation was greater than yesterday’s because nearly the entire ride was rolling up and down. As such, it was a deceptively difficult day of riding.

I was faced with long stretches of open road, with no signal and very few towns. The scenery was repetitive: ocean and bluffs to the right, hills to the left, dry yellow grass and occasional trees around me. I was mostly in my own head today.

My lunch stop was a little settlement at halfway called Manchester, where I found a grocery store to grab some supplies (lunch was bagels, peanut butter, and bananas). There’s not much else to comment on until my evening provisioning stop at Gualala, 20 miles later. I didn’t spend much time there, as I was tired, and time was running on till sunset. So I pushed on to Salt Point state park. The final miles of the ride offered excellent cliff view to the west. The first campsite I went to (where I stopped my watch for the day) actually had no shower, and the ranger told me to go another 3 miles to the next one, so I finally ended my day at just over 70 miles.

Sunset view near Salt Point SP.

Without realizing it, I’d passed into Sonoma county today, which meant new water restriction rules at camp. After having an excellent conversation with one of the car campers (who himself does bike trips in his home in southern California, has even done them with his 10-year old daughter, and has always wanted to ride the Pacific coast), I went for my much needed shower, only to find a sign on the door: “Due to water shortages, showers are open only from 4PM to 7PM”. I looked down at my watch: 7:02PM. Because I stopped to have a nice chat, would I now have to crawl into my sleeping bag filthy tonight?

The ranger happened to be passing by at just that moment, so I asked him if I could pay the $5 for my camping spot tonight (plus $5 more because there had been no park host at last night’s campsite). It seems that with the goodwill bought by that honesty, he was willing to let me take a shower: though perhaps he’d have opened the door for my regardless. Though, as I told him: “If nobody pays for the hiker-biker campsites, the government will stop funding them and they’ll be shut down.” Five dollars is peanuts to pay for that peace of mind.

Day 24 – Salt Point to Lagunitas (67 miles, 3176 feet elevation, 5h42 ride time)

I awoke feeling very tired and sore, and finally rolled out of camp at nearly 10AM. After the first few miles today, I was hit with a steep and rough climb through fog which put me in my absolute lowest gear. I had no views from the top of the climb, but I knew it was on a rocky and exposed stretch of road from the look of the craggy cliffs around. I don’t know if it was truly a tough climb, or it was just exhaustion from the previous day, but my body ached, and my speed was very, very slow. I knew I was in the home stretch: today would be the last big day of riding.

After pushing past the big climb, I stopped in the tiny town of Jenner to have a coffee and a macaroon, while watching birds on the Russian River. I took my time, having a nice chat with a couple from Alaska (they do snow biking in the backcountry!). It was already noon and I still had over 50 miles of riding ahead of me, but I knew I’d put the hardest climb behind me. I’d have to keep moving all day, but I could make it.

Relaxing on the Russian River.
At the coffeeshop (unfortunately got a bit of finger in the photo).

I had cloudy coast views all the way to Bodega Bay, where I only briefly stepped off my bike to take advantage of the cellphone signal and send a few messages. Eventually, the skies cleared up and the sun came out as I cut inland to endless, rolling yellow hills. Here I stopped in the charming little town of Tomales to enjoy an absolutely massive and absolutely delicious (and oily) sandwich.

This sandwich was so good, I scarfed half of it down before thinking to take a photo.

By now, the sun was strong and it was well and truly hot out. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but this place suddenly felt much more Bay Area: the scenery, and the way the restaurants marketed themselves. From here on I was also beginning to meet more cycle-tourists, as I passed into Marin County, my final county before I’d eventually reach San Francisco.

Riding along the water towards Tomales Bay. Strong headwinds (see the water).
View of Tomales Bay after cresting a hill.

After this, it was a push into headwinds until I got out to Tomales Bay, where I rode over lots of rolling hills until finally reaching my provisioning stop of Point Reyes Station, less than 10 miles from camp. I knew this would be my last provisioning stop, and so I chose wisely (but still buying a full 6-pack of bagels, because you can never have too many of those). Suddenly, I had consistent and good-quality cell signal, after days of mostly signal desert. I was almost there.

A couple more miles of riding through the forest took me to my campground near Lagunitas. I was still at the entrance area trying to sort out how to pay for my camping spot when a group of three older men rolled in on their bicycles. A gruff-sounding, but calm and gentle man, named Dick ; an older veteran with a thick German accent, named Gunther ; and I didn’t catch the name of the third. After we’d paid our fees for the evening, we rode the short distance to the campsite together.

Showers were shut off due to water shortages, so while the three others set up their tents, I went down to the nearby creek to wash off. The water certainly wasn’t warm, but after my numerous experiences with glacial lakes in British Columbia, this was balmy by comparison. I scrubbed myself off and enjoyed what would probably be my last “shower” outside of a bathtub for quite some time.

By the time I was cooking dinner, it was almost pitch black, and a few more bikers had arrived at camp. The three men I’d ridden in with invited me over to their table, and after so many nights of cooking and eating dinner completely alone, I enjoyed a simulating conversation at the picnic table. The topics varied, but they mainly stemmed out of asking questions of Gunther, who was in his 70s and had decades of experience with bike-touring.

And he had one amazing story to tell: 5 decades ago, as a 23-year old engineer living in Germany, he got a job assignment in India. So he decided to ride there on a bicycle. It took him 10 months. Of course, doing such a trip with the technology present today (and were it possible to pass through e.g. Afghanistan today) is completely different. One could say that the adventure he experienced is not something one could recreate today. At major cities along the way, he’d to go the post office where letters would be waiting for him, and he would send out letters to inform contacts ahead of time of his predicted timeline for the coming months. I asked about the mechanics of his bicycle and how to find parts or make repairs: all I gathered is that it had only 3 speeds. He of course traveled with an alcohol stove (nowadays a classic party trick to create such a stove from a soda can), which has the advantage that you can make fuel out of the cleaning supplies at any hospital. He told us about friends he made and traveled with, one of whom continued on past India, with the intention to go to Australia. Of course, in an age before cellphones and the internet, how might you ever find such a friend again? One has to ask people, use word of mouth. At some later time after staying in India a while (and perhaps returning to Germany), Gunther continued on to try to find his friend. Apparently that friend had ended up with a job in Australia and was living there. I’m forgetting all the details right now, but his story transported me to this other time, and inspired me.

And it’s so cool that, 50 years later, he’s still on his bicycle, and fondly remembers the adventure of a lifetime. The story got me thinking more about the experiences that bike touring can take me to, and how I’d be remiss to not make it a part of my own life in the future, beyond just this trip. The places I could see, the people I could meet, the stories I could create and cherish.

Day 25 – Lagunitas to San Francisco (28 miles, 1001 feet elevation)

Today, I had a scant 30 miles of riding ahead of me, so I savored the morning and chatted idly at the breakfast table. I’d rationed out my supplies so that I would exactly finish all of my fruit, oatmeal, and peanut butter this morning, complemented by a few of the bagels I bought yesterday. But to my dismay, my bagels had disappeared overnight! After running through all possible causes, I concluded that they must have been sneakily snatched up by raccoons during a brief 20-30 minute window last night when it was already dark, but I still hadn’t put my bags into the food lockers. I might have left camp hungry that morning, but Dick kindly gave me all of his remaining sandwich bread to supplement what I had: we quite literally broke bread together.

Soon after, I pedaled out of camp for the last time, and was on my way to San Francisco. It was a crisp and sunny Saturday morning, and within an hour or two, I’d seen more cyclists than I’d seen on the rest of the trip combined. Marin county was swarming with cyclists, both large groups of roadies and single cyclists. I waved and smiled. One road cyclist even pulled alongside me for a conversation: turns out he was prepping for a crit race tomorrow, so was just riding easy today, and he told me about many bike tours he’s done (he’s done the Pacific coast north-to-south, south-to-north ending in Montana, and also ridden Trans-America, about which he wrote a book called “Bicycling Beyond City Limits”).

Cresting a hill after Corte Madera, with views towards Mill Valley and Manzanita.

The infrastructure was gentle and well-set out, and though there were many twists and turns on the route, there were always signs telling me the right way to go. I had a few gentle climbs along the way, but these were nothing after what I’d tackled before. Passing into Sausalito, I joined up with a group of roadies out for a ride, one of whom remarked, “Are those panniers full of newspaper, just for show?” which gave me a good laugh.

The famous bridge.

Finally, as I climbed the last hill up to the famous Golden Gate bridge, the Marin county sun gave way to the famous San Francisco fog. I took a moment to admire the sight. It felt just like looking at the Lions’ Gate bridge in Vancouver on a cloudy day. I pushed onto the bridge. Halfway, I saw a sign which said, “San Francisco city limits, population 896,XXX” (I forget the exact number). This gave me a good laugh. On this bike trip, I’ve passed through countless towns, and seen countless signs just like this one. Almost every single one had a 3-digit population. Some had 2 digits, and just a few had 4 digits. Astoria and Eureka were the only ones I remember with a 5-digit population. So to see a 6-digit number was a real cognitive dissonance. This city’s population is more than an order of magnitude greater than any place I’ve passed through since leaving Vancouver, and more than two orders of magnitude larger than almost all of them.

I was to meet my mother at Crissy Field for lunch, just a short distance along the water from the bridge. As I rolled down the bridge and along Battery E road, I was a bit shocked by the number of pedestrians. It feels like ages since I’ve ridden on a path with so many pedestrians, away from cars. I rolled onwards, shortly reached the agreed-upon meeting point, and stopped my watch. I had some time before she’d be here, so I put on warm clothes to shield myself against the wind, and lounged around on a grass field.

Looking at my phone, I saw much fanfare and well wishes from friends who have followed my journey on Strava, and celebratory text messages from my girlfriend. Yet in the park around me, it felt just like any day at the park. Nobody gave me a second glance. I guess that relates to why I’ve been so intent to write down as much as I could from this whole journey. An incredible trip like this one could hardly blend together just like any other 25 day period of my life, but by taking the time to commemorate it, relive it, and appreciate it, I’ve turned it into a cherished memory. Maybe the lesson is that I should do this in “ordinary” life — punctuate the time with key events, celebrate life, and record things down — thus making the ordinary, extraordinary.

Victory!

Days 18-21 – Redwood forests (Del Norte and Humboldt counties)

Day 18 – Rest day in Crescent City (0 miles)

On my Day 11 rest day in Astoria, I did errands around the city, and thus biked ~20 miles. But on my Day 18 rest day in Crescent City, I never got on my bike, and only left the house to walk to the edge of Lake Earl (about 300 meters away). Not just because it was raining on and off throughout the day, but also because rest is important. I’m sure there was nothing in Crescent City I’d find more interesting than the redwood forests, so I allowed myself recover and get even more excited than I already was for the days ahead.

So I can tell you exactly what I did on that day. I slept in, had a big breakfast, did laundry, took a walk while chatting on the phone, had lunch, had a video catchup, and had another video chat while making dinner. Interspersed throughout in the gaps, I read (about the days ahead, about the history and geography of this region and the places I’d passed through, and about Crescent City itself), wrote in my journal, and had short conversations with the others in the house.

The person in the house to whom I spoke the most was Robert, an kind older man who seemed at first impression … well, the best way I can say it is that he seemed absent of life. He liked it here because it’s quiet and away from people, and my first impression was that he doesn’t seem to have a desire to work, pursue his own hobbies or goals, or find a larger community to engage with. When I first met him, he meekly said, “don’t mind me, I’m just a nobody,” which I found sad. It’s like he was letting life happen to him, rather than creating it intentionally.

Then, as we talked more, I learned something about his past. He had been displaced from his home in southern Oregon when a wildfire burned the entire house down. Now, he’d fled to this place and was renting a cheap room in this house for 6 months at a time, eating microwave dinners and watching TV. It sounds like his entire community was torn apart. My initial feeling upon learning this was to feel very sad for his misfortune, but as I’ve processed it more, I wonder if that event did something much more insidious: it broke his spirit. I didn’t get to know him well enough to learn more of his past, so I hesitate to read into it too carefully. But it did get me thinking more about the psychological state I might be in if I underwent a traumatic event and lost so much…

Day 19 – Crescent City to Clam Beach (69 miles)

I started the day with a big breakfast and a big coffee. I was well-rested, well-fueled. I’d already packed a good lunch, and my panniers were filled with plenty of snacks. Although the pannier weight might work against me, I was ready for a big day. I wasn’t absorbed in any deep thoughts today. I wanted to ride hard, and keep my senses awake to fully appreciate the redwoods.

Redwoods ahead!

The first 7 miles of today’s ride were flat, passing through Crescent City. As I rode out of Crescent City and along the coast, I saw the first, and larger, of today’s two big climbs ahead of me. The misty Del Norte Coast redwood forest. And it was a big effort: a steady 6-7% grade taking me up to 1200 feet of elevation meant I was grinding it out for 30 minutes alongside the passing cars. I wondered how much easier it would be if I ditched the jar of peanut butter, loaf of bread, canister of oats, jar of chili sauce, and the fried rice lunch I’d packed. The redwoods were so big that the forest was misty and cool, with no direct sunlight making it through, but I was still soaked with sweat once I reached the top.

Once I reached the high point of the climb, I could stop to admire the forest around me, and get some photos. I was stunned by the size of the trees, the few beams of light which came through, the cool and misty air, the quietness of the place (when no cars were passing). I’d get to experience this more up close in the next few days, which I was excited about.

Road through the Del Norte Coast redwood forest.
Look at the size of that tree!
Foggy and mysterious in here.

Next, I whipped through the woods on the descent down to sea level, and from there it was riding through ordinary forests until taking a very brief stop at False Klamath (identifiable by the large, cartoonish Paul Bunyan statue) to eat a snack and use the bathroom. I assume it’s called that because the actual town of Klamath is a couple miles down the road, but I was fully stocked and so I didn’t make a stop.

Then followed some more miles of highway riding, until I pulled off the highway at 27 miles onto the second big climb of the day, up to the Prairie Creek redwoods. After getting up to 800 feet of elevation, I enjoyed several miles of slight downhill at 1-2%, coasting through groves of absolutely massive redwoods. This forest was incredibly peaceful, the trees majestic. At several points, I stopped at the side of the road, walked in among the redwoods, and simply stood in silence to take it in. Others who had driven to the trails did the same, and we could all appreciate the place together in silence. Maybe I’d worked these redwood forests up in my mind, or maybe it’s the fact that they are so huge and made me feel so small, but I almost could feel the energy of something very powerful around me. I wonder if I could feel the same way about any other part of my trip if I stopped and was very still? I certainly had that sort of feeling at Barview Jetty in Oregon (sunrise on Day 13), and maybe also at Kalaloch on the western Olympic peninsula (Day 7 evening). In any case, it was an incredible and humbling experience.

Prairie Creek redwoods.

I stopped for a lunch break at the Prairie Creek campground, where the forest momentarily opens up to a prairie where elk are said to graze in the morning. I met another cycle-tourist, who was doing a long ride down the coast (Portland to San Diego) and would be camping here tonight. I had considered camping here as well, as then I could take a walk in the redwood forest and also observe the elk. But although I was already feeling the effects of today’s two big efforts, I still wanted to ride more today. I’d get a chance to camp in the redwood forest at Burlington campground, at the end of tomorrow. After enjoying my lunch, refilling water, and bathing in the sun for an hour, I pushed on.

Elk Prairie campground, with the namesake prairie.

Soon beyond that, I crossed over into Humboldt County, and my route hugged the coast, treating me with views onto several lagoons. After following a bumpy side road for several miles, I popped out onto the beach, and restocked in the small town of Trinidad, not far from my campground for the night. It had an excellent, well-stocked store, and in addition to my usual produce and dinner supplies, I got three cookies which looked tasty. Today had been a very big effort, and I could afford to have dessert. (As it would turn out later, one cookie was not enough dessert: I woke up in the middle of the night feeling really hungry, and had a second!)

Humboldt lagoon.

While I was looking through the produce, I heard a voice behind me. “Where are you coming from, and how far are you riding?” I turned and saw a young couple, and we started chatting. They’re from this area, and they’ve seen plenty of bicycle-tourists ride through over the years. It’s the guy’s dream to cycle the Pacific Coast (or at least some part of it), but he’s a bit intimidated and doesn’t know how to get started. Apparently I looked like an expert, and he was curious to learn more. I got very excited, told them this is my first bike-touring trip, how I got started, what I recommend, and all the tips I could give. I said,

  • Get a sturdy and well-fit touring bicycle. I personally like using clipless pedals and cleats, but that’s personal preference.
  • Rack and panniers. Four panniers (front and back) gives you a lot of flexibility so you can pick up food. But you could fit everything you need with two panniers, especially if you do e.g. just the Oregon coast. Just think about taking the gear you’d use for camping.
  • If the whole coast intimidates you, just do the Oregon coast, that’s the most doable with the campgrounds closest together and most consistent.
  • Get the book, “Cycling the Pacific Coast”, skim through it. Put it on your phone or tablet.
  • Go.

I continued on, with my last stretch of riding for the day going along a winding, largely unpaved road offering very scenic views of the coast. Part of me wanted to take photos, but it was nearly sunset, and I was just dead tired and wanted to reach camp, so I pushed on. Finally, I reached the Clam Beach campground, exhausted. Unfortunately, it was extremely minimal: just a few cleared spots by the beach, two pit toilets, and one faucet low to the ground for drinking water. That shower I’d been looking forward to was, unfortunately, absent. Luckily, the camp host was across the road, and he could supply me with a sponge, a bucket, and a bar of soap. So I stood nearly naked out in the wind, scrubbing myself down with a sponge and shivering, while the few other campers stood by encouraging me. It must have been a comical scene. The temperature dropped rapidly as the sun set, and there wasn’t much else to the evening: I set up camp, made dinner, and got to sleep.

Day 20 – Clam Beach to Burlington campground (79 miles)

Most of today’s ride went through open valleys, with the redwoods at only the end of the day. I started off riding along the coast, before getting onto the highway, passing through the town of Arcata, and around Humboldt Bay. I’d heard this region was where most of the illegal marijuana growing occurred (before it was legalized in California in 2016), so wasn’t surprising to see this shop immediately after entering Eureka.

I’ve never seen someone so excited about marijuana.

Eureka had a nice waterfront neighborhood, so I stopped at a shop specializing in bagels to could stock up on various flavors (jalapeno, anyone?). While having brunch there, I had a short conversation with a guy at the next table, a Bay Area cyclist and tech guy who’s passing through this area (not on a bicycle, though), and has considered doing a long cycling trip for a while, but never took the plunge. I guess now that I’ve crossed into California, I should expect almost all of the cyclists I meet from now on to be from the Bay Area, rather than Portland.

Delicious.

The next hour to hour and a half of riding was through open valleys under the sun. I was first on the highway, then on side roads near the highway, and then went over a bridge to the small town of Ferndale which is surrounded by farmland. The route was mostly flat, and I enjoyed the feeling of moving fast over countryside. I stopped just briefly in Ferndale to look around this quaint little town and admire the architecture. This is also the turning point for a detour to the Lost Coast (the route indicated with a hand-drawn sign saying “TO PETROLIA”), an add-on I’d initially considered, but eventually abandoned. Not only is the area remote and the climbs much bigger than anything I’d tackled on this trip (with the exception of Hurricane Ridge), but the grades are steep and the roads are said to be gravelly and potholed. Doing that ride with my current fitness and bike setup would be too much.

Did not expect to see alpacas out here!

After a couple more miles of flat farmland, the roads got bumpy and cracked. I faced a few healthy climbs, which were more challenging than expected with the road conditions. Maybe the hours of sun exposure had contributed to the fatigue, too. Going over the climbs, I started feeling those little aches, pains, and overall tiredness that suggest it’s time to take a good rest stop, and end the day’s riding soon. But I still had 25 miles to go before reaching Burlington campground, and not that many hours of sunlight remaining, so I just pushed onward and looked forward to the end of the day.

I refilled my bottles with ice water at the small town of Rio Dell, and then it was back on the highway for a bit, before the turn off to the famed “Avenue of the Giants” for the last 15 miles of today’s ride. It’s a 30-mile stretch of road going through the Humboldt redwoods. I tried to soak in the surroundings as best as I could, but I was also feeling exhausted, and felt some urgency to reach camp before dark (note that it’s darker in the redwood forest!). I knew I could take a walk among the redwoods in the morning, and also that tomorrow would be shorter ride, so I simply pushed on with little stopping.

Avenue of the Giants.
Bicycle for scale.

I’d planned to provision for the night and for the morning at Redcrest, a rest stop 9 miles from camp, but when I arrived I found the grocery store there was closed for the season. So I had two options: I could end my day at the Burlington campground, but then all I had for food was some bread and peanut butter, and I wouldn’t find anything more until riding out of camp the next morning. Alternatively, I could drop my gear at camp, then go an extra 4 miles to Myers Flat, where they have a small store with basic goods — but I’d have to go quickly before the sun sets and the store closes. I went with the second option: as tired as I was, it was better to be well-fed so I’d have the energy to calmly walk among the redwoods in the morning. When that was done and I was finally back at camp, it was almost completely dark. By the light of my headlamp, I assembled my tent, made a quick dinner, ate, packed my gear away in the food lockers, and went straight to sleep.

Day 21 – Burlington campground to Leggett (45 miles)

I awoke later than usual, getting a little extra sleep. After three weeks of cycle touring, my legs were so stiff in the morning that I’d wobble on my feet walking out of my tent, but it was especially bad this morning, due to having two big days back-to-back. Thankfully, I’d planned a short ride today, and so I could be very leisurely in my morning routine. Chatting with the other bike camper in my site, listening to the sounds of the forest, feeling the cold and crisp morning air, enjoying the taste of my granola (it’s what they had at the store, but it was actually a nice change from oatmeal).

After packing up camp, I took a stroll in the redwood forest, stopping to admire the trees and read the few plaques explaining how the trees handle floods, fires, etc. I knew today would be my last chance on this trip to be among such awe-inspiring redwoods, and so I took it in to the fullest. Photos don’t do it justice, but of course I took some.

The first 15 miles of today’s ride took me through progressively thinner redwood forests, before opening up to dry, exposed highway riding. I stopped in a nice little town called Garberville for groceries, lunch, a cold drink, and a phone conversation before continuing on to more of the same scenery. The second half of today’s ride was net uphill, with some punchy, big climbs and downhills, so I just drank my water and continued through.

Out of the forest and through the hills.
“Grandfather Tree”, an ~1800 year old redwood.

The final miles to the Leggett campsite today took me back into the forests, where the redwoods were smaller and sparser than those further north. I supposed I was passing into a drier part of California. I confirmed this when I reached the campground: while there was running water there, they’d shut off the showers and suggested limiting water use, due to water shortages here. Looking at the map after, I see that I passed from Humboldt county into Mendocino county, so I suppose these campground statutes are set county by county (which also reflects the climactic change). I briefly washed off under a faucet, before relaxing in the campground for the rest of the evening.

Days 15-17: The Southern Oregon Coast

The southern half of the Oregon coast was sparser and drier than the northern half. I got less of the “beach vacation” vibe, and it felt more like I expect northern California will feel. My lips got chapped in the dry air, temperatures varied more, and my panniers got filled with pine needles. This part of the trip had a distinct transition in climate from the past days, and rather than being drawn to specific sights or places to stop, I noticed the landscape evolving around me as I passed through.

It’s only later that I read online about the geography of the Oregon coast, and confirmed that my senses weren’t deceiving me. The Oregon coast is usually regarded as three separate zones: North, Central, and South. The northern part is marked by long stretches of unbroken beaches (think the first day and a half). The central part is has more sea cliffs and terraces, sandstone cliffs, and smaller towns due to the mountains closer to the coast (think the next two days). The southern part has the Dunes and mountainous terrain which means the towns are smaller, and also experiences an ecological shift away from spruce and redcedar, and towards redwoods, Douglas fir, and Port Orford cedars.

Day 15 – Washburne to Sunset Bay (70 miles)

Day 16 – Sunset Bay to Humbug Mountain (58 miles)

Day 17 – Humbug Mountain to Crescent City (74 miles)

On Day 15, I passed through the entirety of the Dunelands, a 47-mile stretch of windswept sand dunes that began roughly 15-20 miles into today’s ride. I noticed sand on the road, and on my panniers and bike chain at the end of the day.

The ride started with a climb out of Washburne park, along a road overlooking the cliffside. I passed Sea Lions Cave, a tourist attraction (take an elevator down into a cave where sea lions gather). Looking back from the high point of the climb, I had a nice view of Hecata Head lighthouse, which I matched exactly to one of the photos in Bill Thorness’s book. Although I’ve been riding south and into (theoretically) warmer climates, I’ve started my ride each morning wearing leg warmers due to the cold. Perhaps the drier climate is creating bigger temperature swings, or perhaps starting the day with a cliffside or forest to my east means that I don’t get direct sunlight until a bit further into the ride.

View back towards Hecata Head lighthouse (slightly above the center of the frame).

I paused in the town of Florence for a coffee. In normal life, a 16 oz coffee gets me wired up and bouncing off the walls, but by this point in the bike trip, I’m doing a 20 oz coffee with an extra espresso shot every day. Should I cut back? Am I actually pushing my body harder than is sustainable? When I reach San Francisco, will I need to spend days doing nothing but sleeping? And what will the caffeine hangover be like? These questions briefly occurred to me, but were forgotten the moment that delicious, earthy dark roast passed my lips. Ahh, that wonderful feeling… time to crush a couple hours of riding and eat a half-dozen English muffins on the way. Life is good.

Looking ahead towards the Dunelands.

The next 25 miles on the highway to Reedsport went smoothly, including one fairly large climb. As I was riding on the highway and the scenery was homogeneous, my thoughts turned inward. My body felt strong and smooth, like a well-oiled machine. My mind went to the feeling of that perfect long run or track session, where your form clicks together without having to think, and it feels effortless. But, what really makes those runs so enjoyable is the company of good friends, running together in lock-step, having great conversations… Doing this self-supported bike tour represented freedom, time for myself, time to think, but I missed my VFAC friends very dearly and started to think about each of them. And though I’m excited to explore the Bay area on my bicycle, I know I need to find community to run and ride with. Not just for the big weekend adventures and longer trips, but for those runs before or after work. It makes what’s already such a fun experience, so much better. (I also thought: riding my bicycle — to commute, to exercise, to explore — has brought me so much joy. How can I share this with others? Food for thought…)

View inland from the top of the climb.
The Umpqua River, leading to Reedsport.

I stopped over in the town of Reedsport around 1PM. There wasn’t anything distinctive to see here, but I was making great time, so I wasn’t in a big rush to continue. The town’s laundromat was right next to a cheap burrito food truck, and two blocks away from a grocery store. Perfect: I could do all three things together.

To use the washers and dryers in the laundromat, I had to use an “EZ-card”, a card whose balance you can refill at the machine inside. However, I faced a couple hurdles:

  • You can’t pay for an EZ-card with a credit card. You have to use cash.
  • You have to use exact change: the EZ-card dispenser doesn’t give change. All I had was $20 bills.
  • The change machine in the laundromat was out of order.
  • This EZ-card would not serve any purpose in any place outside of Reedsport.

So this EZ-card was not, in fact, “easy” at all. Thankfully, some of the other customers very kindly helped me: two of them could jointly give me change for my $20 bill (in 1’s and 5’s), and another offered me a soap pod. So nice! I sat on a bench outside enjoying a large bean burrito and chatting on the phone with my girlfriend, occasionally interrupted by going to change my laundry or something else. And kicking myself for having shipped my wireless earbuds down to San Francisco…

I got moving around 3PM, and most of the rest of the day was a highway ride to Coos Bay. Shortly out of town, I hit a construction area which delayed me by nearly 30 minutes (they’d let vehicles from one side use the road for a while, then the other side, etc. but the lines of cars were so long that it took nearly 30 minutes to let all the cars go), then had a healthy climb to get past Winchester Bay, and after that it was flat and fast through dry forests the rest of the way. I had a very strong tailwind in this section, and was holding around 18 mph without working too hard. I didn’t fully realize it until crossing the bridge over Coos Bay into North Bend. I’d hoped to pause on the north shore of North Bend along the bay, but the wind was so strong that it was nearly blowing my bike over!

Near-sunset along the road to Charleston.

Coos Bay (the town, not the bay itself) is the birthplace of running legend Steve Prefontaine — that was the main association I had in mind as I passed through this area. I reached North Bend around 5PM, so the traffic was quite heavy. I resupplied at a store in town, and enjoyed the final 8 miles over rolling hills alongside the water, into Charleston, and then over some quiet roads to the campsite of Sunset Bay. Just like last night, I had no cell signal at camp, but this time I skipped the walk to the beach (as I wouldn’t catch sunset before dinner). Instead, I spent my evening writing and chatting with others at the campsite. Two of the other bike campers were a pair of women who live in Portland and were riding the Oregon coast, and I quite liked them (their names were Ellen and Emery, and I’d see them again the next night). I also met the hitchhiker (named Banjo) who I’d met in Lincoln City, and learned that he’s been wandering around the western US for 4-5 months, following good weather.

On Day 16, it was suuuuper cold in the morning. I had to motivate myself to get out of my tent, to take my hands out of my pockets for anything, and to suit up and get riding. I started the day wearing the most I’ve worn on any morning of riding: long sleeve shirt, jacket, thick gloves, shorts, leg warmers. It was surprising, considering that I’m going south and should be getting to warmer climates, but I then realized that I must be passing into a drier climate than before.

Thankfully, the day started with an aggressive, rolling climb up Seven Devils Road, which warmed me up well. There were lots of steep ups and downs, and the road was a bit rough, too. As soon as both I and the sun had gotten high enough that I had full sun exposure, it immediately warmed up and I took some layers off. I was very struck by how Californian this area felt: the road surface and layout, the sparsity of towns and services, the types of trees, the dryness, and the landscape. I was now in southern Oregon, and should expect everything to be more spread out.

Lookout at the top of Seven Devils Road.

I stopped in Bandon around 11AM for a coffee, some bagels with peanut butter, and people-watching. The old town neighborhood is very cute, and looks like something out of a history book. As I stood on the sidewalk sipping my coffee, a man having brunch with his wife struck up conversation with me. He biked most of the coast a few years ago, and we swapped some stories.

I’d originally considered pushing all the way to Brookings today (which would be 110 miles), but after the difficulty of the morning climb, I quickly a-Bandon-ed that plan. My body wasn’t feeling great either. I’d had a dull pain in my right knee ever since leaving Astoria, and it had slowly crept up on me. Today, it hurt whenever I pushed hard on that leg. Perhaps I should be stretching and doing lateral stabilization work to balance things out — it could be an issue with my IT band(on)? I guess when you’re riding almost 5 hours every day, your body just can’t recover fast enough. So I made the call to end my day at Humbug mountain — only 60 miles, which was much easier than I expected, but shouldn’t be underestimated, especially given the rough road conditions.

The scenic route out of Bandon.

Coming out of Bandon, I followed the very scenic cliffside route before continuing into boring highway riding for most of the day. I reached Port Orford in the afternoon, which was quite close to my campground for the evening. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to see in Port Orford, but there was a good food co-op. Good provisioning spots are hard to come by down here, so I re-supplied there (they had bulk fig bars!! I bought 8, but I really should have bought double that.), and made my own lunch on a bench out at the port. I whiled away a couple hours chatting on the phone and admiring the views of the southern Oregon coast.

The road to Humbug Mountain.

After that, it was just 6 miles along the highway to the Humbug mountain campground. We had lots of campers, including my new friends Steve, Gabe, Ellen, and Emery. I took my dinner out to the beach to watch the sunset, where I found Ellen and Emery as well, and we had a long chat about Portland, Vancouver, bikeability, car ownership, and so on. To frame the conversation we had: I want to live in a place where I can live without owning a car and don’t feel it deprives me of doing any of the things I want to do (of course, occasional car-sharing or car rental being expected). And while they own a car, they only rarely use it (one of the main uses being because Emery is a serious climber who climbs in places like Squamish and Yosemite). I could imagine changing the system in a few ways so that people like them would have no need to own a car, but could still do everything they want to do…

Beach sunset.

Day 17 – Humbug Mountain to Crescent City (74 miles). For the entire past week, I’d had my eye on the weather forecast. There was an incoming rainstorm, with the majority of the rain scheduled to fall on Saturday, September 18. Rangers we’d talked to down the coast said that this storm was expected to be “torrential”. It was much needed to bring some moisture into this wildfire-prone area, but we cyclists had been looking at this forecast with some trepidation. I knew it would be wise to avoid camping out for the next two nights, and to take a rest day on Saturday. So I needed to make today’s ride count. The goal for today was to make it to Crescent City, a logical stopping point in the northwest corner of California, and the last town before entering the redwood forests.

A bountiful breakfast!

A small win for the day: I found a blackberry bush next to my campsite! Those berries went into my oatmeal, of course.

The way I saw it, the biggest hurdle today would be the climb to the Cape Sebastian, a 1000-footer just past Gold Beach (which is situated at 20 miles into the ride). Some more rolling climbs awaited further beyond that, in the Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor, but those shouldn’t be a big issue. After that, from Brookings to Crescent City is completely flat and should be easy. Today would be a cruising day fueled by the four B’s: bars, bananas, bagels, and (peanut) butter.

Not something I expected to see at the side of the road.
I’d be pretty angry if someone put a fence around me.

I cruised the morning 20 miles to Gold Beach, only stopping briefly by the road to snap some photos of the Prehistoric Gardens theme park. As usual, I stopped in a coffeeshop in Gold beach for my elixir of life: a 20 oz coffee with an espresso shot. (The barista asked if I wanted TWO shots — did she think I was going into battle?) While there, I recognized three people I’d seen at camp, but hadn’t talked to, so I sat down for a chat. They were three friends who had recently graduated from CU Boulder, were unemployed, and were on a long bike trip with no endpoint in mind. What a way to take a break: good on them. I asked if they were going all the way to Patagonia, and that got them excited.

The Cape Sebastian climb was long, but steady and completely manageable, especially with the coffee in me. I’d looked forward to a stunning view at the top, but sadly the route up to the lookout went up an EXTREMELY steep road (far too steep to ride on my bicycle, even in the lowest gear). I looked around for a path out to the cliff, but couldn’t find one. Oh well: I pushed on.

I had hoped I would be cruising after this, but as soon as I popped out of the trees after descending, I was hit with a blasting headwind that simply didn’t let up. I was shocked to see I was, with some effort, crawling along at 10 mph on the completely flat road over the Pistol River. As I entered the rolling hills in the Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor, I maintained the same speed on the uphills as I did on the flats and almost the same as on the downhills (remember, no headwind going uphill). I chuckled to myself at that. Would it be too much to reach even Crescent City today?

Pistol River. Note the direction of the waves: it was a strong headwind!

At some point in this slog, Steve and Gabe caught up to me. We were all going to Crescent City (the end of their ride), and we agreed it would be best to work together the rest of the way by swapping the lead and breaking the wind. Riding with them not only made this part physically easier, but it was motivating to ride with friends and to focus my attention on them (e.g., I need to keep pushing to break the wind for the guys behind me).

The 12 miles through this scenic corridor offered some great views of cliffs, beaches, and sea stacks. Unfortunately, there weren’t many great spots to stop, and most of my focus was directed towards keeping my wheel on the very narrow shoulder alongside passing cars. I got one photo, at least.

View down to the beach.

We blasted down from the hills, through some fog, and into Brookings. We all decided it would be a good idea to try to book some accommodation in Crescent City ahead of time, rather than showing up and hoping to find something. Unfortunately, I had no cell signal in Brookings (in fact, I’d had none all day). We wandered around town looking for a coffeeshop, a library, anything with wifi… but found nothing open. Eventually, we happened upon a restaurant, and stopped in there for a bowl of soup and a wifi hookup. As soon as I connected in, my phone flooded with messages, which I mostly ignored so that I could quickly book a hostel and download maps for the next part of the ride.

From here it was back on the road, which started residential and eventually thinned out into farmland, which continued on through the border crossing (we got quickly waved through the agricultural inspection), and all the way to Crescent City. In those final 10-15 miles, my back and sit bones were feeling the effects of so many hours of riding, especially the portions on bumpy roads. As Steve said, “My butt is ready to be done with riding today.”.

My accommodation was some ways outside town, on the edge of Lake Earl, so I said my goodbyes to Steve and Gabe, who were pushing on into the city. The booking I had made was for a bed in a “hostel”, but it turns out it’s just half of the living room in a house (with three longer-term tenants staying as well). I was totally confused when I arrived, as it just looked like somebody’s house from the outside. Still, it turned out to be very comfortable, with a warm shower, laundry, full kitchen, and a nice bed.

One last order of business remained before my day was over: a grocery stop. The nearest store was a Wal-mart, a flat 4-mile ride away, but at this point I wanted nothing more than to be off the bike. Actaully, that’s not true: I wanted food more, and I was out of bagels. I filled one pannier all the way to the brim with goodies (perhaps stocked up a bit TOO much), and rode back in the darkness. I’d definitely make good use of that kitchen and my rest day.

Days 11-14 — The northern Oregon coast

Day 11 – Rest day in Astoria (0 miles)

Day 12 – Astoria to Barview Jetty (60 miles)

Day 13 – Barview Jetty to Lincoln City (64 miles)

Day 14 – Lincoln City to Washburne (63 miles)

Remember the punchline from the Snickers commercials? “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Grab a Snickers.” I wasn’t lacking calories on the western half of the Olympic peninsula, but I was stressed as a result of unsafe riding, rough roads (which can be tough on the body), and discomfort of being wet and dirty most of the time. I’m not accustomed to being in this state for a long period of time, and for a while, I wasn’t quite my usual self.

I’ve messaged my family every day to let them know I’m safe, and my girlfriend has followed my journey, suggesting places to visit. But during my last few days on the Olympic Peninsula, I had new and unexpected challenges I had to deal with, as well as accumulated fatigue from the first several days of the trip. Stretched to my limit, I perceived the communications with loved ones as an obligation to deal with, rather than a privilege to enjoy. I said some hurtful things to push my girlfriend away, and I didn’t realize it until I got to Oregon, slept on it, and meditated on the interactions with fresh eyes.

The negative mindset I fell into also prevented me from fully appreciating what could have been one of the coolest segments of my trip. In retrospect, it was a bad idea to lead off this trip with one of the roughest, most remote sections with the most unknowns. While I have the physical fitness to push through, I don’t have bike-touring experience, so didn’t know what to expect. I’d rather have warmed myself into it with an easier portion of the route.

But I can’t blame it on the adverse conditions. I could have kept a more positive attitude, had fewer expectations, and been less rigid. Still, I intended to make a richer experience from the remainder of the trip, so I resolved to:

  • Accept that unexpected hurdles will show up, and roll with it without letting it perturb my inner peace. Maintain a positive mindset, see the good in all situations.
  • Focus on enjoying the experience, instead of sticking to the plan. Keep an eye on my physical and mental stress levels. If I need to cut back or slow down, that’s okay.
  • Be kind to myself and don’t expect or promise more than I can handle. I had expected to write long-form journal entries every night while on this trip, and failing to meet that expectation caused me stress. I’ve completely removed that expectation from myself.

My rest day was spent doing laundry, getting groceries and gear, lounging on the waterfront, and processing what had come over me the previous few days.

Sunset by Fort Stevens.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve set in place a good breakfast and dinner routine.

  • For dinner, I cook garlic, tofu/tempeh, mushrooms, bell pepper, and some green vegetable in a pot with soy sauce and chili sauce. Then I add couscous and put the lid on until it soaks up all the liquid.
  • For breakfast, I’ve been doing quick oats, with peanut butter, nuts, seeds, apple, nectarine, and salt.

Both of these are quick, nutritious, and typically not hard to provision for (although I’d have had to adapt for some part of the OP). Although repetitive, it’s worth it for the saved mental effort at the end of a long day. The other parts of setting up and taking apart camp feel much more routine now. I’m sure these factors combined will make camping a lot easier.

Typical breakfast.
Typical dinner.

Day 12 was the first day of this trip which felt like a vacation; partly because of my newly established self-awareness and positive mood, but also because the Oregon coast is a much cushier ride. I had a hearty breakfast and took a leisurely stroll on the beach before setting off southward, and seeing where the road took me.

Morning on the beach before starting down the coast.

The first part ran alongside the Lewis and Clark River. Quiet, rolling country roads and quiet, rolling countryside which almost looked like it was out of the 1800s. If I stopped, I could hear horses neighing and cows mooing while I picked blackberries. The air was still, the skies clear and sunny, the air crisp.

Picturesque countryside.
Lewis and Clark river.

After about 20 miles, the road curved westward, climbed over a hill and ran alongside the beach through the laid-back town of Seaside. Here, I switched from the fast-paced road over to the pedestrian walkway, where I rolled along slowly and admired views of the capes ahead. A bit more riding along the 101 took me to the next tourist town of Cannon beach, where I got off my bike for a coffee and lunch.

Seaside promenade.
Beach views riding out of Cannon Beach.

As usual, my bicycle attracted some nice conversations, but one that really stuck with me was with a woman who was amazed that I could strap all this gear to my bike and ride 60+ miles a day for weeks, camping along the way. I left town filled with immense gratitude for my fitness and health. To have a resilient body that’s strong enough to carry me through an adventure which others might dream of, and to enjoy it all the way. (On top of gratitude for the friends and family who support me!)

Part of this gratitude comes from an experience I had earlier this year. After a staph infection in my hands in December 2020, I picked up an autoimmune disease called “reactive arthritis” which continued to affect me until June. The symptoms manifested as stiffness, itching, and pain in my fingers (I couldn’t bend my fingers much for a couple of months), coupled with general fatigue and inflammation throughout the rest of my body. Several of my usual hobbies — especially playing piano, and any intense exercise — were out of the question. I didn’t know how long this condition would last, and whether it could be lifelong (I read stories of athletes who developed rheumatoid arthritis around the same age, despite testing negative as I had). For several months, much of my energy was poured into learning about this and related conditions, testing different changes to my diet, lifestyle, trying different treatments. It took several months to find a medication which controls the illness and could get me back to full health, and the drugs I’m now taking will likely continue until 2023. I try not to take this health for granted, and especially remember that some people never get to enjoy it.

But even with no medical ailments, I didn’t have the fitness to fully enjoy adventures like this when I was 20 years old. The main reason I do now, is because I took up running when I was 22 (and later, mixed in other sports) and pursued specific and measureable running goals. To achieve these goals, I cultivated daily and weekly routines, made small incremental improvements over time. It was consistent hard work, but the whole process felt more like a game than like work. Like how the amorphous goal of “learn X topic” can be broken down into specific readings and assignments. Without realizing it, I was following the Four Laws from James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”: (1) make it obvious, (2) make it attractive, (3) make it easy, and (4) make it satisfying. The big goals are intimidating; the small daily tasks can seem arbitrary and meaningless. The key is to break the former down into the latter, while still seeing the clear link between the two. It wasn’t until a few years into my running that I started seeing I’d developed some physical and mental skills that translate over to outdoor adventures.

Top of the climb in Oswald State Park, looking down to the next beach town of Manzanita.

From James Clear’s book: “The greatest threat to success is not failure, but boredom. We get bored with habits because they stop delighting us. The outcome becomes expected. And as our habits become ordinary, we start derailing our progress to seek novelty.” This quote ran through my head as I slowly but steadily worked my way up the hills of Oswald West state park, one pedal stroke at a time. It’s something I had to remind myself of late last year. Sometimes the most difficult part of achieving something great, is the patience to be bored, to lean into it and be content. I’ve often felt insecure about being “boring” when I go through long periods of intense dedication to my craft, whether that’s my work, my running, music, etc. I’ve often thought I’m cursed with a boring personality that easily gets complacent and sticks to habits, but in some ways it is a blessing to be satisfied just grinding things out. I remember back to practicing violin in high school. During my most focused periods, I’d practice for an hour or two every day, and nearly half of that was spent on technique exercises: scales, arpeggios, bow control drills, thirds, etc. They are repetitive and boring, and it’s not even like you can do them and think about something else; the whole point is to stay completely focused, present, and develop an awareness of how minute changes in your muscle movements translates into changes in the sound. It’s countless hours of this sort of practice that allows a professional musician to channel their emotions directly through the instrument into creating colorful music, without having to think about it.

Anyways, many things to be grateful for. I’m grateful to have a mind that enjoys grinding it up the hills, and can find meaning in the boring, repetitive parts of life. I drank in the stunning beach views from atop the park, before blasting down the hill into the next seaside town of Manzanita. I had quite an appetite, so I stopped at the market to pick up fresh fruit (they had so much!) as well as supplies to cook dinner. I then enjoyed some plums, nectarines, and a few sandwiches on the beach. I continued on through some rolling hills, and finally a flat and fast section along Rockaway beach out to Barview Jetty, my campground for the night.

Bounty at the market in Manzanita.
Beachside at Manzanita, enjoying a snack on the bench.
Crossing the bridge over the water in Nehalem.

Interestingly, the Barview Jetty campground was mostly abandoned. I saw only a few passing campers, so I staked out a random sandy spot amidst the trees. Seasonal staff shortages meant that the showers were permanently closed, so I “showered” under a waist-height cold water faucet, which was a fun challenge. The emptiness of the park, contrasted against the howling wind on the nearby beach, gave the whole place an eerie but peaceful feel.

On Day 13, I awoke before sunrise and took a walk along the beach and on the rocks of the jetty. The only sounds were the howling wind and the waves crashing on the rocks; my main company was the seagulls and the small creatures wriggling in the sand. It was quite peaceful and beautiful.

Sunrise walk at the beach at Barview Jetty.
On the actual jetty.

I’d studied the map and elevation profile for today’s ride, and knew to be prepared for two big climbs: the climb to Cape Lookout at roughly 20 miles into today’s ride, and a less-scenic hill climb in the final miles before arriving in Lincoln City. So after my morning camp routine, I got on the road and enjoyed a flat and uneventful 10 miles until making a very brief stop in Tillamook for coffee and wild blackberries. Continuing on toward Netarts, the route started rolling with some medium-sized climbs on a two-lane road. Reactions from the drivers behind me were mixed: of course some honked, but at the other extreme, one patiently waited behind me until the top of a hill, then as he passed me he said, “Good job!”.

The famous Tillamook creamery.
More views in Tillamook.

Once I reached the small bayside town of Netarts, the road became flat and offered a beautiful view of the bay to the right, so I stopped by the bay to eat a snack, use the bathroom, and take in the view. There, I met a through-hiker who had planned to hike the PCT this summer (he’d quit his job, sold his things, and was going to end his trip at his parents’ house), but wildfires and smoke had pushed him out to the coast. So now he was exploring trails in Oregon and trying to find a route along the coast. Talk about adapting and rolling with the punches… to have a huge goal set out for yourself and to have it completely flipped around, yet make the best of the time you’ve set aside. I’m sure he’s not the only one. A funny and sad fact we both agreed on: people think he should be afraid of wild animals when through-hiking, but he’s much, much more likely to be hit by a car driver — especially because much of his route is necessarily along roads.

Netarts Bay.

I pushed on, enjoying the scenic views before the road inevitably sloped upward into the forest. As described in Bill Thorness’s book, “… it’s here that you discover that ‘cape’ is a four-letter word for ‘hill’.”. The grade was steep (6-8%), the surface was cracked and rough, and the road twisted and turned through the forest, so I spent most of the way in my lowest gear. Thankfully I had nearly no traffic to contend with. The climb gained about 750 feet of elevation, but the great lookout spot promised in the name would require a hike along some trails, so I decided to continue on. I blasted down the thrilling descent and through an odd geographical feature: a big desert-like sand flat in the middle of the forest (the so-called “Sandlake”). Perhaps this was foreshadowing the sand dunes to come in later days.

I stopped off at the beachside town of Pacific City for a rest and some lunch (salad: an unconventional choice). I got some more nice bay views between Pacific City and Neskowin, and at one snack stop along the way, I met two bicycle-tourists who are based in the Bay Area: one in Marin county, and one in the East Bay (!!!). They were planning to finish their ride at Crescent City, where they’d left cars for themselves to drive back home. Their names were Chuck and Drew, and I got to know them better when we overlapped at a campsite a few days later. They were very interesting and nice, and Chuck wrote his number down and offered to host me at his house in San Rafael if I needed it! Unfortunately, I lost the slip of paper when I put my pants through a laundry load a few days later (kicking myself for losing that!)…

Pacific City beachside.
Somewhere near Nestucca Bay.

Approaching the final big climb of the day, I had two options:

  • Take the 101. More direct (less distance) and more reliable road quality, but steeper, less scenic, and probably more stressful with traffic.
  • Take the side road (N Slab Creek Road) through the forest. Longer, quieter, more scenic, and likely poorer road quality.

I wanted to get to camp and off the bike, but wasn’t especially pressed for time, so I took the latter. It started as a long but very gentle winding road through the forest, alongside small houses, then gradually got steeper and more cracked. In the last mile of climbing, the road was mostly unmarked on the map and felt like the paved equivalent of a forest service road (well, that’s probably what this road is mostly used for?).

After a somewhat bumpy downhill, I pedaled the final miles into Lincoln City, supplied with groceries at the Safeway (thankful that there was a store so near to camp), and pulled off to the Devil’s Lake campground immediately adjacent to town. By nighttime, we had a full house in the hiker-biker campground, a total of 7 people (6 cyclists and 1 hitchhiker). Most notable were Steve and Gabe, two bikers I’d met in Astoria who I’d see again quite a bit in the coming days (especially the last day of Oregon, where we’d ride together).

Day 14 looked to be fairly easy as it lacked any big climbs, and it was a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to keep my head up and enjoy the sights: lookouts and lighthouses. As our campsite was just next to town, I walked a few minutes over to Dutch Bros to get my morning coffee with breakfast. I’d hoped to ride some with Steve and Gabe, but it turned out Steve had a broken right shifter. This was beyond any of our repair capabilities — a new shifter was needed — so he was trying to find the nearest bike shop. So I pushed on alone.

My first task was to find a UPS shipping point. I had a couple pieces of gear I hadn’t even touched since day 1 of the trip, and wanted to ship these ahead of me to offload some weight from my panniers. For example, my camping bowl was definitely unnecessary since I eat straight out of the pot, rope was unnecessary since I could usually find lockers to store food overnight, etc. Though I hadn’t used my non-cycling rainshell yet (except to cover my bicycle overnight), I figured it was good to hold onto, as the forecast said a big rainstorm would hit the coast in a few days. The first one I stopped at, next to a grocery store 10 miles out of town, was only a pickup point, but I later found one with full services at Beverly beach (20 miles in). Maybe it’s mostly psychological, but I immediately felt like I could ride faster with the same effort.

Lookout point towards Beverly Beach. Enjoyed a few bananas and admired the view.

The ride to Beverly beach took me over the main climb for the day, a gradual and scenic road off the highway with views of Pirate Cove and Cape Foulweather, and then of Otter Rock and Beverly Beach. After the descent, I continued down towards Newport and made a detour to Yaquina Head lighthouse, the first of many lighthouses I’d see in the next day or two. The door into the lighthouse itself was closed, but the lighthouse sits on an exposed outcropping of land which offered wonderful views all around. The shallow water here is interspersed with craggy rock formations, and I admired the tidepools that form as the water flows around these formations. I’d see many more of these tidepools in the coming days, as well.

Craggy formations and tidepools near the Yaquina Head lighthouse.
Yaquina Head lighthouse.
More craggy formations, and flocks of birds.

I took my time continuing on, and had a lunch of noodles and dumplings in Newport which sat heavy in my stomach on the road. It was delicious, but that feeling of heaviness in my stomach is why, from this point on in the trip, I mostly stuck to bagels, fruit, peanut butter, bars, etc while on the road: although it’s boring, it’s lighter and simpler fuel that makes the time on the bike much more enjoyable. It was just simple highway riding here, and I made a brief stop after crossing the bridge into Waldport, then stopped in the small town of Yachats to provision for the night and the morning. By the time I reached Yachats, I already had no cellphone signal, so I assumed I was entering into the Cape Perpetua park, where I’d have a small climb, and then several miles with very scenic views. The riding in the last few miles didn’t disappoint. See the photos below.

Waldport snack stop.
Cape Perpetua: “Devil’s Churn”.
More of Cape Perpetua.
More of Cape Perpetua.

Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park is just along the highway, with the campground inland and the beach trails on the other side. After dropping my gear in the peaceful wooded hiker-biker area and taking a shower, I set up camp and cooked dinner, and saw the usual suspects rolling in: first Chuck and Drew, then Steve and Gabe. We chatted about our days, and then once my dinner was done, I carried it with me out to the beach to enjoy it there while admiring the sunset and searching for signal (in the words of the camp host, “If you go to the beach, you might get one or two bars of signal”). Alas, I found no connectivity, but the sunset was absolutely beautiful.

Peaceful sunset.

Days 6-10 – The western Olympic Peninsula and the southwest Washington coast

Day 6 – Piedmont to Bogachiel State Park (48 miles)

Day 7 – Bogachiel State Park to Kalaloch via Hoh Rainforest (64 miles)

Day 8 – Kalaloch to Lake Quinault (34 miles)

Day 9 – Lake Quinault to Westport (64 miles)

Day 10 – Westport to Astoria (90 miles)

I’m grouping these days together into a single post, firstly to catch up on writing, and secondly because they fall into a similar theme. These days consisted mostly of long and monotonous stretches of rough, bumpy highway riding, shared with fast-moving drivers and often impatient logging trucks. I had no cell signal for large portions of the trip, so my company for most of the day was the sound of close-passing cars. Services were few and minimal, so I’m glad I got bread, peanut butter, jelly, trail mix, and bars before Forks, because that’s most of what I was eating. I didn’t have access to a shower for a few days either, so I got quite dirty and stinky. The whole experience was pretty stressful, and I just wanted to be out of there. So I fast-tracked the rest of Washington to get to Oregon more quickly. I wouldn’t really recommend riding the west side of the Olympic peninsula, but in the theme of what I wrote about Day 5, experiencing those few days has let me appreciate the comfort, beauty, and serenity of the Oregon coast, which came immediately next on the route. I definitely learned something from the experience.

On Day 6, I woke up to a serene and sunny morning at Lake Crescent. After the long and intense ride from yesterday, I took my time eating breakfast, bathing in the sun, and stretching on the grass before starting off down the road.

Lake Crescent in the morning.

The first 15 miles go around Lake Crescent, on a smooth, winding, and shoulderless single-lane road that is excellent riding. Trees cover the lakeshore to your right, occasionally thinning out to give a view of the turquoise-blue lake. However, all I could think about was the line of drivers gathering behind me. I’d pull off to the right at every turnout to let them pass, and just a few minutes after getting back on the road, I’d have more queued up behind me, signaling their presence by honking. One driver even went so far as to roll down his window and yell, “There’s a bike path on the north side of the lake! Use it, that’s why it’s there!” If that’s true, I wish it had shown up either on the map or in my guidebook…

Riding along the south edge of Lake Crescent.

Once past the lake, it was highway riding all the way to Forks, which is the last town on this side of the peninsula for a while. The ride was monotonous, so I amused myself by experimenting with how to best attack uphills (by building momentum on the flat, you get the hill over faster, but take this too far and you burn yourself out before getting over the hill). The relevant variables in this problem (your wattage output and your position/velocity) are related by a differential equation, and the problem becomes a form of optimization on the solution to that differential equation. Thinking about this was a good way to pass the time, but once I was a few miles from Forks, I started thinking about lunch.

This stretch of bike path lasted about 2 miles before I was back on the highway.

A bit later, I had placed an order for spicy Szechuan tofu and was standing on the street corner killing time, when a guy walking by eyed my fully-loaded bicycle with intense curiosity, and started asking me questions about my trip. It seemed he had never considered the possibility of long-distance travel by bicycle, and an entire world was opening before him right there. Those moments when I understand something completely new and world-changing are magical, and it was really cool to see that moment happen for someone else.

After eating lunch in a nearby park, I made a quick grocery trip, and then the last 6 miles to Bogachiel State Park. Bogachiel was a lush rainforest campsite, and my spot was alongside two brothers (Mark and Pete) from Oregon who were very fun to chat with, and who had a lot to say about bicycles.

Bogachiel campground, right in the rainforest.

Day 7 would have been merely a similar 30-mile highway ride to Kalaloch, a beach campground on the west coast, except I tacked on a visit to the Hoh rainforest. To reach the rainforest visitor center involves an 18-mile journey along a hilly, bumpy road which parallels the Hoh river. Along this road, you occasionally get views of the inland mountains, the prize being Mount Olympia. While the Hoh rainforest is said to be a magical place, this diversion was a letdown, especially since I’ve already experienced this sort of ecosystem while exploring old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. The ride in (and out) is long and unpleasant, which doesn’t leave you time to explore deep into the rainforest. Unless you camp there, but that requires bookings and also careful planning (you would have to stock up on supplies well beforehand). The rainforest center can be a starting point to summit Mount Olympia, which seemed intriguing to me, but of course that wasn’t going to happen this time.

On Upper Hoh road, occasionally I’d get views of the mountains to the southeast.
Park entrance.
A bit of walking within Hoh rainforest.

After riding out, it was straight along the highway to the coast. The bumpy and shaky riding is hard on the body, and there’s no really interesting place to stop, rest, grab a bite, etc. It was mostly just a slog, but near the end there was this incredible moment where I turned a corner, felt a cool breeze on my face, and suddenly saw the Pacific coast through the trees. I still had 7 miles to go to reach Kalaloch campground, and I was dead tired, but seeing those beaches seemed like a glimpse of heaven, and spurred me onwards. There’s something about the sand and the winds on the Pacific coast which make me feel at home: maybe a remnant of my childhood growing up on the coast of Southern California.

First views of the Pacific Coast.

Eventually, I pulled into Kalaloch campground. I was extremely dirty, but there was no shower here, so I squatted under a cold-water faucet and scrubbed the dirt off my body with my hands. I hung all of my wet, dirty clothes on a tree to dry. I checked the supply store, and found precisely three non-candy items which were vegan (almonds, dried pineapple, and a small wrap — I bought all three and immediately ate the wrap). So I just cooked whatever random items I had left over in one pot for dinner, and supplemented the calories with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But I was glad to be done with the day. I sat on the beach to watch the sunset, then drifted to sleep.

Sunset at Kalaloch.

As I emerged from my tent on Day 8, I could tell that it had rained overnight. Which meant the clothes I’d hung out to dry were now soaked. I saw that the jersey I’d set out for today’s ride had fresh bird poop on it, which was a nice addition to an already shitty situation. Sometimes, the best way to dry clothes is to wear them and ride.

My jersey got pooped on!
The “Tree of Life” at Kalaloch.

Today’s ride took me into the Quinault reservation, ending at Lake Quinault. Aside from a few shops near the end of the 35-mile ride, and a single gas station near the beginning (the Queets trading post) my main form of company today was logging trucks. The road was so cracked and bumpy that I was struggling to keep my speed above 12 miles per hour — on the downhills. When there was a shoulder, it was littered with debris I’d have to swerve into the road avoid, meaning it was safer to ride in the road outright, even if that meant honking. I saw many dead animals in the road, which reminded me that I could easily end up that way, too. Since I had no cell service, I figured my only option was to tread lightly, and get past here as quickly as possible.

Riding through the Quinault reservation. Sometimes I’d get a clear shoulder like this.

I’d get jolted out of my thoughts whenever a vehicle approached from behind, but when I was able to zone out and think, I thought about the fact that I was passing through a reservation with no cell signal and only one road. But it was hardly untouched by Western society: I saw many clear-cut patches and logging roads by the roadside, and the few gas stations I passed had chips, candy, and soda (sadly, it seems Western junk food permeates everywhere). I wondered how life looked for Quinault communities in this area, and how much it was touched (and harmed) by Western influence, beyond the simple fact that they had been relegated to this land. Sure I was scared and uncomfortable, but I had food, shelter, clothes, and the fact that I could voluntarily ride into and out of here made me quite thankful.

As I approached Lake Quinault, I found a store where I could get some very basic dinner supplies (canned beans, pasta, etc), then headed to the campground to set up. The lake was beautiful and serene, in stark contrast to the morning’s ride. There were no showers, so I opted for the old-school option: a dip in the lake. It was still only afternoon, so I washed my clothes in the water and laid them out on the beach to dry in the sun, then sat down to read for a couple hours, followed by dinner, sunset, and looking at the stars for a while before heading off to sleep.

Lake Quinault was very peaceful.

The next morning (Day 9), my clothes were still wet, so I lashed them all over my panniers to dry in the wind as I rode down the highway. I needed a shower, a good meal, and a night off from the sleeping bag, so I set my sights on the beach town on Westport, where I would find a motel to stay in. On my way out of the campsite, I made a short stopoff to admire the world’s largest Sitka spruce tree a few miles down the road, and then I was off.

World’s largest Sitka spruce. It’s estimated to be 1000 years old. I pondered on all the changes in human history this tree has lived through… and then wondered how much those changes in human history have actually been felt out in this remote place.

Most of today’s ride was highway riding similar to the last few days, but with more wind resistance due to the wet clothes I’d lashed to my panniers. Twenty miles into the ride, I stopped at a gas station for a short snack and bathroom break, and my bicycle sparked a conversation with a local poet and writer of childrens’ stories who happened to be passing by (named Joseph Edward Sykes, if you’re curious to look him up). For the next 20 miles, I detoured onto smaller country roads, which were thankfully quieter, but unfortunately still had logging trucks. The first real town I passed through was Aberdeen (marked in my guidebook as the hometown of Kurt Cobain), but it felt too loud with the sound of highway traffic and too empty of people for me to enjoy exploring around. I sat in a park and had lunch, then continued on. I was thinking about the warm bed at the end of the day, so I just put my head down, rode as safely as possible, and knocked the miles out.

Highway riding with a beach view.
The roadside blackberries continue.

When I reached Westport in the evening, I checked into a motel and took a much-welcome hot shower. After so many days of camping, it felt weird to have my own room and to get clean, hot water so easily. Westport was just a rest stop for me, but it draws visitors from afar for fishing and surfing, as I learned by talking to the other guests in the common room while cooking my dinner. I even met a woman who had come all the way from Vancouver (New Westminster, to be precise)! If I had more daylight, I would have enjoyed a walk on the beach, but it had started raining and I was ready for bed.

On Day 10, the forecast called for clouds and drizzling rain through the day. The main sights in this final portion of Washington state (beaches, lighthouses, and trails) would likely be overshadowed by better versions in Oregon and California. So I decided to save the sightseeing for a sunny day, and today I’d do a long push all the way to Astoria. I was well-stocked from my stop in Westport, and even had leftovers I could have for lunch, so I could keep moving without needing to stop much. The day was repetitive: flat and fast highway riding in stretches of 10-15 miles, stopping for a minute or two to eat a snack, take a bathroom break, or stopping in a park for a quick meal (all coming from what I had in my panniers). The first half of the day hugged the Pacific Coast, so I had cloudy beach views. I saw a handful of other cyclists, which suggested I might be coming back to an area with cycling infrastructure and awareness.

Just as I started to run out of steam (around 70 miles in), I reached the Columbia River and had a glimpse of Astoria on the far shore. I stopped at a rest area before the final push over the bridge. When I came out of the bathroom, an older man with a distinctive French-Canadian accent asked me where I’m from and how far I was going. I was excited to hear that he’d been a road cyclist in his younger days: he and a group of three friends rode from San Francisco to Virginia beach, covering over 100 miles a day and supported by the wife of one of those friends, who drove a van with supplies (I thought, that’s one hell of a supportive wife!). The way he fondly told the story, and recalled the route with such precision (the best part was Utah, he said with certainty) showed it was an important memory to him. It brought forth memories of my past adventures (both with friends and alone), and reminded me that this very trip I’m on will be one of those adventures to be cherished as well — even though there are hard parts and boring parts, it’s all part of the bigger adventure. I can reflect on these parts, learn something, and turn them into wonderful memories, too. Oh, and by the way: he and his wife are both retired and are currently on a multi-year RV adventure which started at their home in Quebec (where their daughters live) and will go to Patagonia. What a way to spend retirement! While we were chatting, the clouds cleared and a rainbow appeared over the river, which enhanced the moment. They were very kind and asked me if I needed anything before I continued on. The whole interaction filled my heart with happiness and inspiration.

The bridge to Astoria, and the promised land of Oregon.

The bridge into Astoria was windy, upill, and single-lane, so I didn’t stop for photos. I stayed as far right as I safely could, and just focused on the road ahead of me to stay in a straight line. People have been shocked when I tell them I rode my bicycle over the bridge, but I felt quite safe. Not one driver honked or came too close. There was something symbolic about crossing over this bridge, putting the stress of the last few days behind me and entering a new state (both of mind and geographical).

Coming down the ramp, I saw a marking on the road which nearly brought a tear to my eye: a bike lane. It was a leisurely and safe ride the final 8 miles through Astoria, Warrenton, and finally to my campsite at Fort Stevens. I was amazed with the facilities: communal hiker-biker area, free hot showers, numerous charging stations and lockers within the site, all for only 8 dollars per night. Everything was going to be okay. I had finally made it. I had reached the promised land of Oregon.

We’ve made it home.
Another view over the last few miles.

Day 5 – Sequim to Piedmont ft Hurricane Ridge climb

Climbing a mountain on a bicycle is pretty boring. It’s a lot of heavy breathing, pushing, sweating, and misery. It’s like riding a bicycle on flat ground, minus the thrill of speed and the cool breeze.

Some people endure it for the thrilling descent. Descending well on a bike is a skill, requiring a good intuition for weight and momentum, aerodynamic positioning, fast reflexes, and trust in your gear. I imagine these are the same people who enjoy the skill of downhill skiing.

Some people endure it for the view from the top. The feeling of standing atop the world, combined with the satisfaction that you had to work for it.

And some people do it for the grind of going uphill. The test of willpower and strength, and the self-knowledge that comes from seeing where your mind goes when you’re pushed to your limit. The confidence that if you can conquer this challenge, it makes everything else a little easier.

I fall into the second and third categories. I’m drawn to challenges that really test me. Running was something I started doing precisely because it was so difficult for me: if I could become a good runner, I’d have proved to myself that I could overcome any challenge. And there’s some weird wiring to my brain that makes it hard to enjoy pleasant experiences to their fullest unless they’re contrasted against something unpleasant. Every time I’ve climbed Cypress mountain in Vancouver, it’s been boring at best, and terrible at worst (I usually go at a near-maximal effort), but eating Oreos at the top is an incredible experience. And I don’t even really like Oreos.

So when I read about Hurricane Ridge, a 17-mile long climb near Port Angeles that gains about a mile of elevation and offers incredible views of the mountains to the south, I knew I would do it. There was no other choice, really.

My day started early. Instead of oatmeal, I made quick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, then packed up camp, loaded the bike, and was out by 8:30, before my neighboring bike-campers came out of their tent.

A portion of the Olympic Discovery Trail going to Port Angeles.

I started my ride along the Olympic Discovery trail, which goes all the way to Port Angeles. I initially enjoyed the quiet ride, but once the trail started meandering and getting rougher, I opted straight for the highway. I had a mission today, and no time to spare. The ride went smoothly, and I got to Port Angeles around 10, where I stopped in at one of the many coffeeshops for some brunch and a very large coffee.

Where should I stash my stuff? I didn’t want to haul all of my camping gear up the mountain, so I went to the ranger station at the base of the mountain and stashed my gear under a log in the forest. I took my two water bottles, phone, wallet, bike lights, plenty of food, and all the warm clothes I had (for the descent). Everything else went into the other panniers and got stashed. The much-lighter bike filled me with confidence, and I took a breath and started climbing.

I think the main reason you can push harder while climbing has to do with stability. The faster you go on a bike, the easier it is to keep your balance. When you’re coasting on flat ground, balance is generally not an issue, but when you’re climbing up a hill, you’re going slower. Moreover, you have gravity working against you (in addition to air and rolling resistance you’d experience on the flats). If you stop pedaling for even a moment, you immediately slow down, and you start to lose your balance and wobble around. So the part of your brain/body that’s responsible for keeping you upright freaks out, and sends signals to your legs to pedal harder. Losing stability and wobbling is even scarier if you’re on a road with cars passing you. You can almost always pull more wattage out of yourself when going up a hill, because the hill keeps you honest.

The road was in surprisingly good condition, at an aggressive but steady grade, with long, straight sight lines. I got into a good rhythm and pushed away. When I felt I needed some water or a bar, I dropped down a gear and took a drink or a bite. I knew my first checkpoint would be the official entrance to the park and the Heart O’ the Hills campground, 5 miles up (which would take the better part of an hour), so I aimed to take a short break and refill water there. At about 4.5 miles, the road flattened out and I rolled up to the back of a long line of cars waiting to enter the park. Bad news: I went from generating a ton of heat with my pedaling to generating almost none, and I got really cold (even after putting a jacket on). So I hurriedly snuck past, cut in front, paid at the booth to enter the park, and after refilling on water and having a banana and some trail mix, I continued climbing.

The middle section of the climb, from about 5 to 10 miles, was much flatter and winding, with some portions going through tunnels. I enjoyed the breeze that comes with faster riding, and made sure to keep my lights flashing while passing through the tunnels. The temperature was perfect: partly cloudy but not raining, and I was comfortable in just a jersey and shorts (also noting that even though I was gaining elevation, the day was warming up, so I experienced a near-constant temperature as I climbed). I also saw many other cyclists descending on their road bikes, and they cheered me on as I continued upward.

Around 10 miles in, the climb got steep again, and it would continue this way all the way to the top. By the time I got to 12 or 13 miles, I was absolutely ready to be done. My toes were numb, my back and hips were sore, yet I still had almost 40 minutes of climbing left. I’ve never done a climb this long before, and there were a lot more cars passing me than on any other climb I’ve done. Near the top, two road cyclists passed me and we exchanged a few words of encouragement.

As I got to the final stretch, the trees opened up to reveal an incredible view of the mountains to the south, but I just didn’t care: I needed to finish this thing. I pedaled away and into the parking lot, and sat down on the sidewalk for a to rest and gather myself. After a few minutes, three things occurred to me: (1) The views up here are incredible, I should explore, (2) I’m hungry, (3) I’m cold. I addressed these in reverse order. After suiting up and having a bite, I considered switching shoes and hiking up one of the small local trails, but decided the views likely weren’t much different than they were from this spot, so I just walked around a bit and savored the view. I saw the two cyclists who passed me on the way up, and asked one of them if he would take my picture. We started chatting, his name is Ricky and he’s an experienced cyclist (road, mountain touring) who lives fairly local. His three friends are visiting, and they all just climbed the mountain together. I met the other three, and we got a full group photo. Super cool people. I was particularly wowed that Olivia (another member of the group) did the entire climb in sandals, and intended to do the descent that way as well (“It’s fine, I do most of everyting in sandals.”). We connected by Strava and email, as they were curious to follow the rest of my trip.

Victory!
Closer views.
More closer views.

I put on all of my warm clothes to prepare for ~45 minutes of cold feet, nervously scanning the road for rocks, and hands tired from pressing the brakes. I’m not a fan of descending, but you have to get down the mountain somehow. At the bottom, I grabbed my stashed gear, took a trip to town to refuel and grab groceries, then continue down the highway to my next campsite.

I had a little over 20 miles to go, and more than 2 hours until sunset, so I figured I was safe — especially since the last couple miles were on a quiet side road. But I was a little anxious, so despite being tired from the climb, I pedaled hard to get there quickly. Unfortunately, ominous clouds were gathering above. First it got misty, and eventually I was riding into headwinds and drizzling rain. I was worried about my visibility to passing cars, so I put all of my lights on and hurried to the town of Joyce where I’d turn onto that side road. The final 4 miles of my ride were uphill on a rough road, in pouring rain, and I finally stumbled into the campgrounds in total darkness. I was totally disoriented and couldn’t find the hiker-biker sites, but some of the RV campers kindly offered to let me camp behind them (one look at me probably told them I needed it). Finally, I could shower, set up camp, make dinner, and get some much-needed sleep.