May 9th – May 12th
I left Portland on the morning of May 9th, the dry bags draped over Old Blue’s wheels heavy with gear. I knew from experience that I wouldn’t need many of the items I had in my bags, but I was going to be on the road for a year and was having a hard time letting go of some of my comforts of home. I also had no clue what the weather in the Rockies would be like toward the end of May, and at the last minute I added extra layers of polar fleece and flannel to already bulging bags.
I drifted through the neighborhoods in Portland like an old Cadillac, the weight of my bags wide and unwieldy, taking my time, not because of my lack of strength (which was noticeable), but because I felt untethered. I had no home to call my own except four panniers draped over the wheels, one large dry-bag sticking out halfway off the back rack, and a handlebar bag that flopped sideways with every slight turn, dragging my handlebars and my steering with it.
I stretched my mind out onto the unfamiliar roads, trying to set my feelers, my sense of normal, my roots, but like a fern drifting down flooded spring creeks in the mountains I could not ground myself. Instead, I let myself float and refused to think where I might wash up.
I wasn’t using any maps for this section of road. My guide would be the Columbia River, so I traveled North towards where it divided Washington State from Oregon, and the bridge that carried thousands of vehicles every day between the two. I wondered if the crossing would be easy or hard. Bridges are not known for having room for cyclists, and this bridge was a major highway too.
But not knowing what lay ahead was also part of this journey. A leap of faith on flat ground is hardly a leap at all. But a leap off a cliff…
I was worried. Worried that after all the build up for this tour, human kindness would not actually find me. After all these years of finding trust and kindness everywhere, I still doubt that it will help me exist in this world.
My first contact with kindness was an older man with cyclists legs who cycled up beside me and guided me through the maze of trails and side streets until I was safely on the pathway heading over the Columbia River. My second lesson was that night, after struggling to convince nearly 100 pounds of bicycle and gear to hop over steep country roads. It came from a couple I had never met who offered their guest room and dinner, and sent me on my way the next morning filled with a fresh fruit smoothie. I had heard that long-distance bicycle culture was supportive and welcoming but I had not really expected to be invited into some strangers home as if I were a long lost friend.
After that first day I began to believe that the road over the next year would provide guidance and places to rest after a long hard day. No matter where I went my pit crew would guide me, and although I had the capability to care for my own needs, the world of human kindness desired to send me on my way well fed and warm.
The second day, cycling east up the Columbia Gorge, kindness surprised me once again. As I crossed the Bridge of the Gods towards the toll booth on the Oregon side, an RV passed me. I waited my turn to pay, but the woman in the booth motioned me on telling me that the folks in the RV had paid my fair.
Guidance, food, lodging, and the road free and clear and inviting. I was not only on an adventure, but those who also traveled this road welcomed me.
After so many years learning to distrust my world, I was once again feeling the connectedness and trust I had learned from my first tour in 2009; the tour I took so soon after my son Vasu died.
On the third day, kindness gave me something I did not know I desired until it was offered to me.
I cycled a long day that day, over an incredibly beautiful historic highway that had been turned into a bike path, and I was exhausted by the end. The hike and bike sites at camp were not well marked and I didn’t have the energy yet to toodle around looking for them. So I rested Old Blue against a picnic table and draped my body over the bench trying to recurve my bicycler’s back. A woman from the site next door stepped out of her trailer, saw me, and wandered over to chat. By the end of the conversation I had been invited to camp on the grass of their site and join her and her family for dinner. I not only had company for the evening, but I also had an offer to stay at their house once I reached Walla Walla Washington up the road.
On this long road of mine, I was not going to be alone.
Over the six years after Vasu’s death, faith in humanity had slowly leaked out of my life. I had been surrounded by people who could see all the faults we humans live with. I am not very good at keeping that kind of insidious negativity out of my head. It was not enough for me to just not want the thoughts, I actually have to experience the positive in order to maintain my hope and trust. It’s one of the reasons why I chose to circumnavigate the USA on my bicycle. I learned back in 2009 that when I tour, the best of humanity finds me. And the outer- connectedness that happens between me and the people I meet wipes clean the fear and leaves me with strength, courage, and hope.
And after only a few days on the road, I was feeling all three as if they had never been gone.