Twelve Days Biking and Camping Alone Along the Pacific Coast

by The Hairpin

A couple years ago, Megan Bernard biked from Eugene, OR, to San Francisco.

Edith Zimmerman: Megan! You biked for 10 days alone on the Pacific Coast. If my life depended on that, I would either die, or at the end of 10 days be walking alongside the bike a mile from where I started. Biking is horrifying madness, I don’t know where people like you come from, but I will grudgingly accept that you exist. [Pause for rebuttal.]

Megan Bernard: Ah, here’s the thing, though — riding a bike gives you transportation plus immersion into your surroundings plus autonomy. Go where you want to go, when you want to go, stop for coffee without paying for parking, and see everything along the way. Cycling can actually be the experience that car commercials want you to believe you’d have driving a Luxury Automobile.

[Nothing will ever sway me.] How did the trip come about, and what were you doing at the time? / How did you get the time?

At the time I was on a fellowship writing my dissertation. My experience of grad school was good/weird, because I worked a lot but my schedule was flexible. Writing the dissertation made me feel scattered and amateurish pretty regularly, but I had been cycling for years and I feel strong and competent with bikes. I wanted to do something difficult-but-fun for a little while as a change of pace. I had backpacked a fair bit, I had ridden one other big cycling tour (Chicago to Montreal) with a friend, and I have solid repair and mechanical skills. I chose this route because I loved camping along the Oregon coast with my then-boyfriend/now-husband, and I had never gotten to ride in real hills. I started telling people I was going to do it in December, I began planning in earnest in March, and I started the trip at the end of July.

Where did you sleep at night?

I camped, for the most part. The state parks in Oregon and California have “hiker/biker” campsites set aside and those spots (which couldn’t be reserved in advance) cost five bucks a night. The sites were all comfortable and well-tended, and I only stopped at campgrounds that had hot showers. I also budgeted for a couple of motel stays, to give myself a respite from sleeping on the ground. In Gualala, CA, I ended up in a honeymoon suite with a bottle of champagne, two robes, and a jacuzzi — that night I got a little drunk while I washed all of my clothes in the tub with the jets turned on high.

Did you see any crazy stars? (In the sky, or, I guess, unexpected celebrities?)

I thought that I would, but I didn’t understand what the weather in midsummer on the Pacific coast would be like — I had entertained fantasies of riding around in the sunshine, getting all tan, but I was in head-to-toe wool and had to buy a hat on the second day. It was gray and clammy and cold a lot of the trip and the fog obscured most of the stars.

What’s your bike like, and does it have a name?

Oh, my beloved bike. She’s a silver Surly Pacer, which is not designed to be a touring bike (i.e., it isn’t set up for a rack or fenders), but it’s so comfortable I can happily ride all day. I put on a compact double chainring so I’d have a low gear for climbing the hills and rigged up a very sturdy rear rack to hold my panniers, tent, and sleeping bag. Her name is Caroline, after the stalwart and lovely pioneer mother in “Little House on the Prairie.” I keep her inside the house so she won’t get stolen.

What did you eat? Did you ever eat those crazy gel packs? I’m picturing you like a mix of Dorothy in her bike with a basket, peddling along merrily, and some tournament person with an aerodynamic helmet, leaving a trail of crazy gel packs along the highway.

Ugh, I hate gels, yuck. I peddled along merrily in my helmet and I ate real food. Every morning I made oatmeal with powdered milk, nuts, and dried cherries. Lunch was mostly peanut butter and honey sandwiches, apples, and chocolate, and I cooked couscous and premade Indian meals for most dinners. Hot meals to begin and end every day made me feel more human. I made a point of stopping at any roadside stand I saw for fruit, and I treated myself to a glorious and expensive hunk of Red Hawk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery when I got to Point Reyes. I will never forget that cheese.

Speaking of highways, where did you bike?

My route hugged the coastline most of the way, on US 101 and Highway 1. I started riding in Florence, Oregon, and I ended in San Francisco. This route is a very popular tour, and people can take it all the way from Vancouver to Mexico. It was exhilarating to be so close to the water, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks, but it was also a little bit terrifying sometimes. Most of the time I had some shoulder to ride on, but at certain points the shoulder vanished so I’d be on the white line with a sharp drop-off just to my right. Riding the hills was physically hard on the ascents and and technically hard on the descents. Because I live in Chicago where everything is flat, I had never gone downhill so fast before. Also there were logging trucks and RVs, which are much scarier than buses and cabs.

What did you carry with you?

A tent, a sleeping bag, a little stove with fuel, cookware, bamboo utensil set, my helmet and bike gloves, a U-lock and cable, two pairs of bike shorts and one pair of knickers, two light wool sweaters, two jerseys, a hat, long underwear, a knit skirt, flipflops, three pairs of wool socks, wool arm warmers, a windbreaker, bike shoes, food, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, contact lens solution, a microfiber towel, a minimal bike repair kit, spare tubes, a pump, front and rear lights, a first aid kit, my phone and charger, a journal, two books, two water bottles, my maps, my wallet, emergency cash, a bag of quarters, and my guidebook. I used two rear panniers, a bungee net, and a front handlebar bag. I also have a thing called a Road ID, which is a velcro strap that has a metal plate etched with my personal information (emergency contact info, blood type, organ donor). I wear that on my ankle whenever I ride anywhere.

What did you wear? And how did you do your hair?

I wore a jersey and a sweater and knickers (I know it’s a dumb word, but that’s what they are — cycling pants that stop just below the knee) every day to ride, and sometimes I needed arm warmers and my windbreaker and hat. At night in the campsite after showering I’d wear my long underwear, skirt, and the next day’s jersey and sweater with my flipflops. I keep my hair short, so that was not a thing. (When I got to San Francisco, I spent a bunch of money at the Gap because I didn’t have any bras or tshirts or jeans with me for wearing around the city like a normal human being.)

Did you meet anyone particularly wonderful or weird?

There were some delightful people in the campsites! The college-age boys from Minnesota who were so excited to see a thicket of wild blackberries that they didn’t notice the poison ivy surrounding the bushes until it was too late, the lovely Irish woman who hadn’t ridden a bike since she was twelve but flew to Vancouver, bought one, and started riding south, the guy in his 70s who had ridden the tour southbound and northbound every summer for thirty years, and Eightball and Poppy — an older itinerant dude and his dog who were hitchhiking. We had lunch together and discussed lost loves. Everyone was friendly and interesting and happy to share whatever they had.

Were there campfires?

Nightly. Sometimes I would join the other folks for drinks and snacks, and also for warmth. We’d talk about route options and gear decisions we’d all made, and trade gossip about characters who were also riding. Everybody at every campsite had either met or heard of Seth, the dude who was super into talking about Burning Man.

Did you see exciting animals?

There were many deer and cows along the way, and I saw a herd of elk grazing one morning. My favorite wildlife were the barking sea lions — I heard them more often than I saw them, but I never got over the novelty because they were proof that I was really right next to the ocean, not just Lake Michigan like usual.

Did you fall off your bike?

Nope! I haven’t fallen since the first weekend I used clipless pedals, when I bit it on a Critical Mass in 2007 (a giant group ride the last Friday of every month). I had no crashes, no flats, and no mechanical failures on this trip, which was good luck. I did get myself moderately lost a couple of times in towns, and had to ask pedestrians for directions.

Near Bandon, OR — part of an art project called “Washed Ashore.”

What was the saddest you felt? Or most frustrated?

The evening of the day that I climbed the hardest hill on my whole route, I got rained on for awhile and when I finally got to the campground at Fort Bragg the rangers informed me that due to a recent storm the camp’s water was contaminated and would need to be boiled before cooking or drinking. I was exhausted and cold and lonely, and that news was not welcome because I just wanted the evening to be easy. I got my little tent set up in the rain and tried to remember why, exactly, I had decided to embark on a vacation defined by labor and inconveniences, without the company of anybody I loved. My journal entry from that night has some profanity in it.

The happiest?

No question, one of my two happiest moments were in the redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants. It was cool and silent and green, like an open air cathedral. I couldn’t hear anything but the whir of my pedaling and my breath. Those ancient trees quieted all of my petty, anxious, buzzing thoughts; I was comforted by seeing that these enormous, strong beings had endured for so many years and would live long after I was gone.

The other was when I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. I was overcome — it’s very beautiful, of course, and I felt so proud of myself. I called my boyfriend and when he answered I started crying and just repeating, “I did it, I did it, I made it.” I still grin when I think about it. It was a similar feeling to finishing grad school, in fact.

How much did it all cost, and how long did it take to plan? (Other than an entire life, to make you the kind of crazed person who enjoys bicycling — it’s so hard and they go so fast!)

Heh — I promise, it’s so easy and they only go as fast as you make them go! They’re not like horses or jetpacks. I planned in a serious way for about a month — reviewing route choices, potential campgrounds, and setting mileage goals based on my budget and physical abilities. I planned in a daydreaming way for about eight months.

It cost me about $1500 for the plane tickets, shipping my bike via FedEx (which required me to buy a special cardboard box), and my food, campsite, and three motel rooms. That total doesn’t include the cost of much of my camping gear, which I already had, or my bike (~$1800). Total, about $3300ish. It could be done cheaper, for certain.

How did you feel different at the end?

It was just short of 700 miles, and I rode alone virtually the whole time. Those hours on my own made me much stronger, a little taller, and when I came home to Chicago I felt more like myself than I had in years. I felt a little bit more content with myself than I had been when I left.

If your bike could speak, what would it say right now? [Points mic at bicycle]

“Take me out, take me out, take me out, take me out!” She’s sick of being stuck indoors.
Previously: Alone on Easter Island

Megan Bernard lives and rides in Chicago with her husband and daughter. She works happily at Roosevelt University, which is conveniently close to the Lakefront Trail.