Land of the free?

Those who follow me on Facebook know I spent mid May to early August (86 days) cycling the so-called 'Pacific Coast Bicycle Route' from Vancouver BC to San Diego CA. As expected, I disliked the U.S. quite intensely.

Other contenders for the title of this post were 'Land of the nothing-is-free' and 'No Trespassing/ Welcome Y'All' (see blog image, which for me captures the very confused essence of the U.S. American psyche).

I needed to get from Vancouver to Mexico and - having the privilege of time - decided to cycle it in order to visit Zoe (my ex of 14 years) and her family in San Francisco. In retrospect, if I'd saved all the money I spent on beef jerky (let alone everything else) I could have bought a plane ticket to Mexico with a stop-over in SF.

That's not to say I actually regret cycling it. I mean, I survived, and spent time with wonderful people along the way. But I wouldn't do it again and I cannot recommend it.

Here I reflect on:

  • The dangerously-misnamed 'Pacific Coast Bicycle Route'
  • Free camping in the USA
  • Food and drink
  • West coast cities
  • U.S. Americans as I experienced them

Let's start with some basic stats. From Vancouver to San Diego I pedalled 3,200 km (2,000 miles). I spent 55 days on the bike, 31 days off it.

On the 55 days I cycled, my overall average was 58km/day. Across the seven days I cycled with Anna in NorCal our daily average was much higher: 87km/day.

Notwithstanding the difficulties I'll describe, I mostly free camped: 45 nights of free camping, 5 nights of paid camping, 22 nights in a hostel or Airbnb, and for 14 nights I was generously hosted by friends.

For me it was a journey of three distinct parts, which I'd summarise thus:

  1. Vancouver to Eugene, OR via Seattle and Portland (983km). Road choices/driving mostly fine. Free camping very difficult to find.
  2. Eugene, OR to San Francisco (1102km). Roads/driving LETHAL, free camping slightly easier to find.
  3. San Francisco to San Diego (1129km). Roads/driving unexpectedly less terrifying, free camping considerably easier to find.

The so-called 'Pacific Coast Bicycle Route'

To enjoy this route I think you'd have to really love the USA and be impressed by the idea of cycling its western coastline. It isn't a bicycle route by any stretch of the imagination and I don't impress myself with this kind of thing anyway. The vast majority of it involves riding on the shoulder (where there is one) of very busy highways and freeways that sometimes follow the actual coast and sometimes don't.

My friend Claire met a guy who told her the PCBR is 'the best bike route in the world'. I can only assume he is amongst the two-thirds of U.S. Americans who have never left their country!

The first third of the route was mostly not on highways. In fact it often felt rather remote and I had to take care not to run out of provisions. Of note, my very first day from Lisa's house in Port Coquitlam via White Rock (where see was born) to the border Peace Arch was the only day I got comprehensively soaked, all day. The Puget Sound is pleasant for cycling, but to my mind mostly not breath-taking.

The middle third of the route was by far the most dangerous, which is a pity as the coastal and redwood scenery is truly stunning in this section. The connection between these two things is fairly obvious: everybody wants to rent a house-on-wheels (called a 'RV') and drive it full-pelt up and down these highways (for which there is no alternative bike-able route). Allegedly it's popular with cyclists, but I hardly saw any. My adrenalin level spiked so often throughout this third of the journey I was rarely able to enjoy it. And let's face it, I'm hardly an inexperienced touring cyclist; I live permanently on my bike and have cycled in five continents!

I was SO looking forward to having Anna join me for a week in NorCal and thoroughly enjoyed her company, though I regret that she came a long way to witness me very far from my best.

The final third from San Francisco south was better for several reasons. First, the landslide at Big Sur required a long inland diversion and I also made two other adventurous (because involving steep, unpaved sections) inland diversions inspired by routes in a book given to me in Seattle by Aviva.

Second, in SoCal the coastline is one long beach, much of which has a cycle lane. Many folks ride their bikes to the beach, so people are less likely to drive like they've never seen a cyclist in their life.

Third, following a desperate cry for help in the 'Bicycle Travelling Women' Facebook group and many helpful suggestions, I made a couple of very effective changes. I wore earplugs at all times, which had an immediate impact on my adrenal system. Isn't that fascinating? I also hung an ironic U.S. flag and later a foam 'noodle' off the left hand side of my bike, to encourage drivers to go wider.

Free camping in the USA

What makes my freedom sustainable is free camping. Once I'd learned how to do it and stopped feeling scared, free camping was incredibly easy in Europe. In the USA, especially in WA and OR, it was very difficult indeed. It took me up to two hours each evening to find a place, and I resorted to camping in many spots I'd really rather not have.

Three main factors made free camping difficult:

  • The obsession with private property and the preponderance of fences and scary 'No Trespassing' signs.
  • The commercialisation of 'camping', which mostly involves driving your house-on-wheels to an expensive, leafy parking lot called a 'campground'.
  • Shockingly widespread - and inexcusable - homelessness; in fact, in general the (frequent) sight of person+bike+tent = homeless = go away.

My determination to free camp led to some memorable experiences.

I was found - in the morning - by a ranger in a state park in WA. She left a ticket on my bike and later came back to (politely) collect the $12 ($12!) camping fee!

Inland, camping on an Oregon riverbank, I was disconcerted by someone snuffling about close by late at night. In the morning I discovered a discarded shovel.

In Florence OR I was found by two cops at 1am, who shone torches in my face and - on deciding I was 'not causing any trouble' - said I could stay til 4am. I stayed til 7.

When found a couple of times by rangers in no-camping state parks in CA they generally just told me, politely, where the nearest campground was.

Having persuaded Anna to give free camping a try in NorCal I found the most perfect spot for seal and whale-watching. In the morning no less than two local residents reported us to a private security firm for 'tenting' and 'public urination'. Two wardens rushed over to move us along but ended up stopping for a long, delightful chat while I packed up my gear. Anna kept the ticket as a souvenir.

[Edit: Some feedback on this post that I received online suggested I should have used WarmShowers (like CouchSurfing, for cyclists), should have paid to camp in the crowded state parks where they typically put 'hiker-bikers' next to the toilets/ chemical toilet dumps etc, etc. Thing is, some people at the more extroverted end of things may enjoy constant, often non-consensual engagement with people as a by-product of bike touring, but others don't and that's OK.]

Food and drink

I live to eat. There is some good food to be had in the U.S., but it's not a place you can eat well on a budget. By way of comparison, a punnet of cherry tomatoes that would cost £1/€1 in the UK, Germany or Spain costs $4-5 in the US. In one organic health food shop (not realising there was a normal shop nearby) I accidentally spent $8 - a third of my guide budget - on three tomatoes.

I maintained my usual touring practice of cooking lentil slop in the evenings and 'eating out' (or buying a picnic) at lunchtime. I found the only lunchtime strategy that enabled me to keep anywhere close to my budget was to eat 'fast food'. Fortunately I do actually quite enjoy that kind of shit food, so I rarely got something I considered inedible. Oh how I missed the ubiquitous Spanish €8 'menu del dia', though.

Of course, there's good, cheaper and more varied food to be had in the cities.

West coast beer is excellent, but incredibly expensive at $4-8 for a large bottle. The wine was mostly beyond my reach.

West coast cities

I expected to find things and people to like in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and I did. I also enjoyed Eugene, Santa Barbara, L.A. and San Diego, which I knew less about.

Best Airbnb host feedback ever? “A couple of guests complained after you had gone about the noise you guys made all hours of the night. Maybe they are jealous, but I thought I tell you for future stays with Airbnb.”

In most of these cities I, or someone else, organised a solo polyamory meet-up to coincide with my arrival. These extended the sense gained in Vancouver of being integral to a growing social movement.

Several new friends hosted me along the way and we shared wonderful conversations.

An entirely unexpected dimension of my journey was three visits from gorgeous and lovely new 'comet' Lisa, including on my birthday.

As I said above, my main reason for cycling through the U.S. was to see Zoe. It was thus a huge delight to catch up with her three times in San Francisco, to see Liz again and to meet little Emilio, who is edible. I especially enjoyed an exhibition of sound installations at SFMOMA, one of which moved me to much-needed tears.

U.S. Americans as I experienced them

So what, overall, did I dislike so very much about the U.S.A? I found both the roads and the dominant culture scary. Food - the main thing I spend money on - was incredibly expensive. Above all, I found the U.S. unutterably DULL: identical grid streets full of identical malls, highways and car parks groaning with ludicrously too-big and too-noisy vehicles, fast food chains, and rules invented to protect property and profit.

I found many men in the U.S. to be so entitled I resorted to writing on my pannier with a Sharpie:

MEN - The fact you can see me doesn't mean I necessarily want to talk to you. Ask first. #consent

Here's the confounding thing: Many individual U.S. Americans deserve their reputation for being gregarious and hugely generous. The dominant culture, as I experienced it, does not reflect this.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the following individuals who hosted or otherwise welcomed me. I hope I haven't missed anyone. In order of appearance: Lisa (BC), the guy in Bellingham REI who sold me Nikwax to rewaterproof my tent thus saving me about $300, Jen, Jason, Aviva, Sabrina, Anders and the rest of the Seattle crew, Aaron, Tate, Rose, Alysse and boys, Anna, Zoe, the merchant sailor who bought me lunch in SF Chinatown, the mechanic at Art's Cyclery in Paso Robles who sorted me out when I had a screw loose and then did emotional labour by letting me talk through my worries about various odd noises, Jo, Beverley, Sophie and Kari-ann and family, Kara, and finally Sandra in Tijuana for welcoming me to a very, very different kind of place.