And so it was: the great adventure starts with a pie in the face.
The Greyhound dropped me off along the beach in Anacortes this morning. I pulled the bike from the hatch and put it back together. My hands shook with excitement. This pudgy bald guy came up all smiles.
"Nice bike," he said. "Where you heading?"
"Coast of Maine."
"No kidding. Where's your buddies? Which way you going?"
"I'm by myself," I said, pulling the bungey cord over the sleeping bag. "The northern tier, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota. Wisconsin, then I'll ferry across Lake Michigan and cut through Michigan, Canada, into upstate New York and through New England."
He sighed and squatted next to the bike.
"I did this ten years ago," he said. "But we had a whole group, ten, twelve of us. Wound up in D.C. We ate like horses."
He dragged a finger across the chain and looked at the oil trail on his skin. "Best damn thing I ever did." He shook his head and sighed again.
A tour bus parked behind us touched its horn. The guy wiped his finger on the asphalt, stood and held out his hand.
"Don't know if I'd do it alone, though." He pumped my hand for probably ten seconds. After about seven or eight seconds I tried to withdraw my hand. He looked embarrassed then walked to the bus.
By the time I swung my leg over the seat he was on the bus, his face pressed like an anxious ten year old's against the window. I stepped into the pedals and shoved off. I pushed the handlebars left to avoid a parked car, but the bike went straight. I leaned left, right, wobbled, then toppled onto the car, feet still strapped in the toe clips. I was so excited to begin, I'd forgotten to tighten the bolt which secures the handlebars. I lay red-faced against the car. The bars flopped and swung in the sun. The bus drove by, the man's face frozen in laughter.
Bolt tightened, I coasted toward the beach. Tide was out. At a big puddle I got off, set the rear tire into the salty water, and knelt to put my hand in beside it. The sun was strong, and the water like a bath.
Months agowhen all I wanted was out, out of the winter-bound Midwest and the relationships I seem so proficient at screwing upa picture like this formed in my head and some nights I fell asleep staring at it as if it were etched on the bedroom ceiling. The rear tire dipped in the Pacific, the front in the Atlantic. Now I watched my fingers wave up at me from this shining little Pacific pool. We're here. About to begin. Way out, a light west wind spangled the ocean surface into a billion tiny mirrors. As I got back on the bike, with the light and wind pressing me east, I don't know if I've ever felt such happiness.
Over the hill lay stands of lanky Douglas fir and long narrow fields of strawberries and broccoli. My intention was to keep it easy today. Break-in miles. I kept tabs on the right kneeboth of the doctors I consulted said it could go fine, or blow anytimeand decided to stop after thirty miles. I spread my map on a picnic table in a Sedro Wooley park, and was checking it for the nearest place to camp when a guy rode up decked in silver panniers and a halogen lamp. Beautiful blond hair past his shoulders. His socks matched his bags.
"You ridin' the coast?" His voice was deep and smooth.
"To the Atlantic if that's what you mean. You?"
"South. Malibu." He flipped up his mirror shades. "You gonna camp here?"
"I wanted to." I nodded at the No Camping sign.
He craned his neck around. "Wow, guess I missed it."
OKRules of the Road. Now is as good a time as any to lay them down. First, no car rides. Second, no walking hills. Third, no hangers on. That's what bugged me about the guy back at the bus. He wanted something. You could tell. If not to take a little piece from me or this trip, to give it. I don't want either. Malibu here was going to pop the question about riding or camping together any second. This trip is about escaping connections and if you ride with somebody you always wind up splitting everything, food, toilet paper, tent oxygen. Malibu didn't seem like a compromise I wanted to consider. Even on the first day.
"We're in the Skagit River Valley, see here's the river." He spread his map over mine and traced a line of blue with his pinkie. He wore a little gold ring on it. "It's cut a pretty wide hole in these hills. I bet if we tool through town we'll find a flat spot, right down on the river to pitch tents. Might be mosquitoes, but it'd be free." He showed me his teeth. They were perfect.
I've always had trouble believing really good-looking people. They sell stuff. And this guy rode a silver Schwinn Paramount, about $2400-worth of bicycle, with matching panniers, for crying out loud. I looked him up and down again, everything about him so fancy and tight, and then realized: camping with this guy would be more adventure than compromise.
Together we coasted out of the park and pedaled toward the Skagit River. His name is Lars. He is my age, twenty-eight. He dropped out two credits shy of a University of California engineering Ph.D.
"Now, bike touring's my life," he said. "That, and wind surfing. I teach wind surfing in Malibu when I need the money and when I'm not out here. Man, all I need's to feel the wind in my hair." The little breeze puffed his pretty blond mane over his back. The mirror-shades were flipped down.
We stopped at a grocery and he cruised the aisles, shades still down. As we were loading our bikes outside, a rider on an old Schwinn coasted up to us. His whole face was a smile.
"Gentlemen," he said. "Duncan, from Canada. Where you two off to?"
I looked at Lars. Great. We were now "you two."
"We just met," I said, "and he's going south. I'm from Minnesota and I'm heading for the Atlantic. Just started today at the Pacific."
"Well, I'm honored to meet you!" He held out his hand and I shook it. It was wide, strong, sweaty. Lars glanced at his own after he shook hands, wary maybe of a little residue. Duncan was about five-four, and his thighs and arms were heavily muscled. He wore the old style black wool riding shorts and rode a Schwinn Varsity, the tin lunch pail of bicycles.
"You men bedding down here for the night?" His voice had the strain of all-day dirt and wind.
"Lars here has a map that says we might be able to find a spot by the Skagit," I said.
"Join us if you want," Lars added.
We found a campsite near the Skagit outside town. I unrolled my one-man tent and smiled at the Minnesota air trapped in its wrinkles and folds.
Normally I wouldn't write about a bath, but this one will be with me until I die, I imagine. The Skagit is born miles overhead in the Cascades, the confluence of creeks named Thunder, Ruby, Lonetree, and Panther. Melted snow and rainy Pacific winds feed it until it roars off the mountains a frothy, freezing green. I peeled the sweaty cleats from my feet and stepped in. A herd of Holsteins muzzling clover on the other side of the river jerked when I screamed from the cold. Naked in the shallows, I soaped and rinsed, then baby-stepped into its middle, my nuts clinging high to my crotch. I lay back in the freezing water for just a second, and just as I came up the sun edged out from behind a cloud. The Skagit turned into a blinding silver ribbon.
I heard laughter behind me, and quickly ducked back under to hide. A man and boy were canoeing the fast water near shore. The boy was in front, laughing for the speed. I stayed under as long as I could, but within seconds the cold was burning my skin. By the time they pulled even with me, I couldn't take it anymore.
I stood. What the hell. I waved.
The man smiled and lifted his paddle in a little wave back. The boy looked like he'd just seen Saskwatch.
"Yes, I see," the man said reassuringly.
The kid couldn't stop staring. As they floated past he turned in his seat. Another few yards and the canoe slid into a fast riffle, and right then the boy stood for a better view of yours truly. The canoe heaved hard right.
"Sit down," the man barked. His voice echoed, pealing off the cow barn.
The boy plunked onto his seat and the canoe leaned even sharper to the right. The river caught the gunwale and slopped inside. The man countered hard left, nearly pitching his boy overboard. The river caught the other side and poured more water in on them. But they centered finally and began paddling again. They slid into the silver stretch of river.
"Don't freeze 'em off, now," the man called back to me.
They weren't frozen, but they were nearly clinging to my Adam's Apple by the time I stepped onshore. My whole body felt raw. And clean.
I toweled and dressed, watching them float down river into the sunset. I sat on the bank to put my shoes on. The warmth of blood came back into my hands and feet. The peace of this whole scene, the cows, the riverI sat there, one shoe on, and watched the sterling water. A last riff of the boy's laughter came back on the breeze.
I remembered my own father and me in a canoe. I can still feel that shock of cold along my neck. It was just a nearby farm creek, nothing so grand as the Skagit. Most years it slithered unnoticed through northern Illinois and made a quick escape to the west, no wider than a summer leap for a twelve year old, but that spring the rains had thundered down and down like never before. It was Lent and, sealed within the farmhouse, I'd looked out the streaking windows and wondered if God couldn't stop crying for the death of his Son. Maybe He was just pissed off enough to drown us all. The creek caught the downpour and the run-off from forty miles of fields, and on Palm Sunday blew its banks.
Dad's life was quiet and inward: the field work, the Bible and the radio, time spent with my brother and me, all of it fashioned by the clockwork of the growing season. Once or twice a year, though, a need for adventure would put him to something reckless like canoeing a once-harmless creek.
I was in front and we were flying. Newly-downed trees slid underneath us. The canoe bucked through troughs of froth, cold foam spilling in. The sun punched through the clouds for the first time in weeks, its brilliance both hurt and felt good. Once, my voice broke as I called out to Dad in the rear, "Big rock on the right!" A few icy drops immediately hit the back of my neck, then I heard his paddle slam against the canoe's left side. The bow jerked hard and safe to port.
We'd just come racing out of a bend and I saw it first: the barbed-wire fence no more than thirty yards away. Its bottom was underwater but it stretched upright probably five feet and spread across the creek like a dam. In front of it stretched a strand of electric cattle fence that I knew would kill us where we sat.
I whipped around. When he lifted his head he saw the fence, then me, and froze in mid-stroke. "We gotta go back!" he yelled and began to shovel the water backwards. Tendons leapt from the wrinkles of his neck. I tried my best for a few strokes but we might as well have tried to paddle up a waterfall. I yelled back, "It's no good!" I heard him swear for the first time. "Damn!" He stopped and stared ahead, frozen.
I looked at the thin wire ahead, glanced back a last time, then grabbed the gunwale and jumped over.
The water rushed to my shoulders and the freezing cold fastened my hand to the canoe's lip. I didn't take a second to look at him. I could feel his weight, he was still seated. I stumbled toward shore, fingers wrapped hard over the gunwale.
He never even said a simple thank you, and we spoke of it only once years later. I remember there were friends around the dinner table.
He said, "I honestly don't know what would've happened to us if you hadn't jumped out and pulled us to shore." The pride and appreciation on his face that moment has stayed with me my entire life. I've never seen it on him since.
Duncan and Lars were each eating when I got back. We sat around a campfire and swatted mosquitoes. Duncan is headed southwest out of Canada.
"Started up in Saskwatch, near Regina. Been aiming for Seattle. Girlfriend of mine lives there. I'll hole up for a while then head to Vancouver. Another girlfriend up there."
"Why are you doing this on a bike," I asked.
"It's all I can do. Couple years ago cops caught me DWI. Took my license. I needed to get to work, so I started riding a bike. Had a good time on that bike going to work, parties, then more parties." He looked at his lap, shook his head and laughed. "Last summer they got me DWI again."
"On a bike?"
"Yeah. Bastards, eh?" He nodded at his mangled Schwinn. "Now I'm ten-speedin' everywhere. Should of thought of it a long time ago, but ten-speeds wasn't cool then."
Why at that moment, I have no idea, but as if by signal Washington's mosquito population swarmed us. Lars dove to his tent. I swatted myself and stamped around the campsite. But Duncan walked placidly into the pines and returned with dried branches and long wet grasses. He laid the boughs on the fire. Sparks geysered into the blue-black sky and the heat pulled the skin tight across my cheekbones. Next came several handfuls of grass. The heavy white smoke smelled like Christmas and summer at the same time.
"There you bastards" he said, coughing. "That'll keep you down."
I walked into the smoke and watched him layer the fire. His arms looked like cable laid over bone. When we hadn't swatted a mosquito for at least a minute, we both sat back down in the dirt and he knifed open a cantaloupe. "You can come out now," he called to Lars.
Lars appeared wearing this hi-tech sombrero that draped a shimmery mosquito mesh the length of his body. He sat away from the fire at first, and the light caught the mesh so that he looked like he was wrapped in aluminum foil. As the fire died back he huddled closer. He nipped blades of grass and dropped them into the smoke. The closer he moved, the less we could see of his face.
"So, how much does your frame weigh on that thing, Duncan," Lars asked.
Duncan looked at his Schwinn. That poor Varsity. Its top tube and chainstays were dented and nicked, its color was indistinguishable. It looked like he'd found it in a dumpster.
"Hell if I know," he said.
"Brian, you know what yours weighs, don't you?"
"Sorry, I don't. Not exactly. Somewhere around fifteen, sixteen maybe."
"Are you kidding?" he said. "What kind of tube angles you got?"
"Oh, you know, general touring angles. Pretty long. Don't tell me you know your tube angles."
Lars did and was kind enough to fill us in beginning with the seat tube to the down tube. Seventy-three here, seventy-one there. He launched into the components, how much each cost, weighed, blah, blah, woof, woof. I looked at Duncan. He shrugged. This was inevitable. Equipment Wars. My spoke's bigger than your spoke.
The fire was now a bed of coals. Duncan tossed his last two big handfuls of boughs in and they crackled like tiny firecrackers. Lars took off his sombrero. His long blond hair was wet with sweat. "Well, I guess that's about it for me." He walked to his tent and zipped himself in.
Neither of us said anything for several minutes. The silence was pleasant.
"I busted a guy's jaw when I was locked up," Duncan said. "Judge when he let me free said I'd have to go to AA every week, and that I get into fights for the same reason I drink. Night I left Saskwatch my step-father said 'I hope you find something out there because goddamn you need it.' Suppose they're both right." He leaned back on the heels of his hands and looked up at the stars that were starting to blink on. Then he nodded at Lars' tent. "Wuss over there don't have a clue."
He walked to his bike and rummaged in his bags. He pulled out a small can and a toothbrush. He knelt and I heard a dull crack from the bike as he pulled the chain off the bicycle. He handled it as if it were a snake, swinging it in front of him about waist high.
"Look at that. Stiffer'n a Mountie's dick." I laughed. He unscrewed the can's lid and dribbled liquid onto the chain as if pouring water down the snake's mouth. A sharp gasoline smell wafted to me. "Some of them think they got one this big." Then he coiled the chain on a rock at his feet and dipped a toothbrush into the can.
"You got a dirty chain, you're ridin' uphill all day," he said and ground the bristles into the links. He then held the chain up to the firelight. The scrubbed links shone.
"You brought a toothbrush?"
"I brought a toothbrush," I said.
"I mean a chain toothbrush? You don't have a spare now, do you, handsome."
I shook my head. I thought I'd made a pretty good checklist. He walked to his bags and tossed an extra at me. It looked as if it'd been chewed by a dog.
"That's my morning one, but I don't seem to use it much out here. On the house. Get yourself a little can of gas and clean your chain every three, four days." He sat down at his rock. "Pretty teeth ain't gonna get you nothin' out here. But a clean chain will."
He gave short sharp strokes to each side of the chain, then longer strokes for the belly of the links. He held it up from time to time, grunted, then set it back on the rock. The fire shifted, sparked, dimmed down. He laid more boughs and grass on it. The smoke boiled up straight. The Skagit sounded like distant applause. He flipped the chain end-for-end after he'd gone once down its length. "So, I told you what I'm doing. Washington is a long ways from Minnesota. Pretty boy like you, I bet there's a woman." He looked up with a little smirk. The fire glinted in his eyes.
"Scores of them," I said. He laughed and set the chain down. He layered the last of the pine and grass onto the fire, then resumed cleaning. I watched him for several minutes and almost said, "We were together for ten years if you can believe that," but stopped myself and watched him work up the chain's other side. His gas was running low and he tilted the can to reach it. The toothbrush looked worse every minute. From time to time he wiped the chain with a rag. He looked like a bartender drying glasses. I could've tried to tell him at least some of it. It might've even felt good. But how do you start a story that lasts ten years? We held hands in high school and I can still recall the sensation as if I'd stuck my fingers into a light socket. We were engaged twice and stumbled away from those promises each time. Nearly every spring I wrote her a Dear Jane letter, but I always returned. Ten years of ripping apart and coming back built up a kind of scar tissue between us, stronger than if there'd never been a cut. This year, the day before spring, "no more" fell into Dear Jane. I mailed it and drove dazed around the city. Ten fucking years. Late that evening, I bought these panniers and maps. Just a month later I was at Karen's door, flowers in hand.
"Scores of them," I said again to break the silence.
Duncan finished and held it up for a final inspection. "The trick," he said, "is to have lots of girlfriends. You get yourself one in Regina, you get yourself one in Saskwatch." He held the chain up to his crotch and swung it back and forth. It wagged like a puppy's tail. He had that same face-full of smile as this afternoon when we met. "Keep them all happy. My advice."
He dribbled the last drops of gas into the grass at his feet. He lit a pine twig and ignited the gas. It flared into the thin crescent of a new moon. I always feel hopeful at a new moon. He smiled down at it, then crushed it out. He laid the chain on a rock for drying, pulled a sleeping bag from his panniers and threw it near the campfire.
"No tent?" I asked. "The mosquitoes are going to suck you dry."
"You lay still, they ain't interested. Try it.
I said good night to him and zipped myself into my tent. Quickly, dozens of mosquitoes complained at the screen.
Now I sit cross-legged with this journal and a flashlight between my teeth. I let the first day come back and see shining things: the rim dipped in the Pacific, the silvered Skagit, and Duncan's little moon.
More excerpts from A Crossing:
"Dad got on the shop extension. He said almost nothing, as usual." Read more...
"I shifted out of third gear for the first time in days. What a conceptno headwind." Read more...
"You aren't saved, Brian. God won't allow me to go on getting closer to you if you're not saved." Read more...
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Copyright 1998 Brian Newhouse.