Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adventure with the gods:

Towards the end of last February I officially ended winter training with an adventure. In a span of four days I circumnavigated the Olympic Peninsula. Cape Flattery, the northwestern most point of the contiguous United States, was my destination goal. A voice far in the distance beckoned me there for reasons I know not. I had a hunch an answer I've been asking myself for a long time lurked on the sheer cliffs that jutted out over the continual colossal movements of the ocean.

The hustle and bustle of mad city life spent working and training had caught up with me and had left me feeling empty and low. The race season loomed ahead and I knew once it began there would be no opportunity for adventures like this until the next autumn, a far away eight months from now. I had to escape routine and remind myself that life exists outside the narrow-minded focus of my bike racing goals.

For a moment the adventure almost did not happen. I kept on putting it off as life kept chucking me obligations. At the last possible set of days that I could do the trip, I decided it had to happen. The night before leaving, at 9pm I packed my panniers (which consisted of stuffing in a bunch of warm clothes, my tent, and sleeping bag and calling it good) for the trip and slept for a few hours before catching a Ferry at the crack of dawn.

I started the trip exhausted. The quality of training on this adventure was by no means physiologically ideal. Below freezing winter conditions and biking for 8+ hours most days on a fully loaded touring bike was plain stupid. But I was after a sort of training of the soul. 

The next four days would be spent biking hundreds of miles, hitchhiking just like the good old days, drinking enough coffee that would kill a lesser man, stuffing myself with pancakes in rustic dinners, and sleeping in forests where the ancient souls of another world lurked and whispered secrets to our souls. There was no explanation or logic for this adventure besides I desperately needed it to happen.

The Route: 

View Larger Map

Photo's from the road:

All my Northwest Adventures begin with a Ferry ride at Dawn. I always know it is winter time when I am the only human perched on the boat deck as icy winds kiss my face.

What do you do when you take 10minutes to pack for a four-day adventure and thus forget to inflate your tires above 50psi and forget to pack a pump thinking your flat-proof tires are flat-proof and then proceed to get a flat in an area where the word 'bicycle' has not yet entered into common diction?

The answer is easy: Ride the flat a mile back up the road to the Antique shop you saw, charm the old ladies working there, convince the more 'hippy' of the two ladies to give you a ride to Walmart--the only place in a 30mi radius that has any bicycle parts, listen to the cheery old lady tell you lustrous stories of her wild younger years, have her drop you off with a warm farewell, and then tromp through Walmart to fix your flat among the department store bikes as Sunday shoppers stare at your spandex in jealous disbelief

A fine example of a 3,000 calorie breakfast. The first night I slept on an innocuous abandoned logging road after biking 110mi over the course of 10hours. If I recall correctly the workload was a few hundred shy of a 7,000kj day, compliments to the heavy winds and loaded touring bike that subdued my pace to a subtle romp. The pitter of rain comforted me throughout the night. 

The next day I woke up hagard as could be and indulged in the fine breakfast shown above prepared for me at the Lake Quinault Lodge. It took nearly an hour of sitting there staring out into the forest before the gallon of coffee kickstarted my lust for the second day of adventure.

After my lazy morning breakfast excursion at the Lake Quinault Lodge I decided to hitchhike up US-101 to WA-113 N/Burnt Mountain Rd. I knew this stretch of US-101 was boring, and I wanted to savor the beauty of biking on WA-112 along straight of Juan de Fuca and arrive at Cape Flattery as the sun began to set. Hitchhiking would get me back on schedule after the late and relaxing start to my day. 

I put my thumb up for no less than five minutes when an old beat-up pick-up truck with surf-boards strapped on top pulled over to swoop me up. Out hopped a Northwest outdoorsy kid my age named, Cody, who had seen me the night before biking by my lonesome in the pissing rain. He showed me a few of his favorite surfing spots--the picture above is one of them--and then drove out of his way to the WA-113 turn-off. Meeting a character like Cody reminded me how possible it is to live like a gypsy in a land of tall trees and sleepless waves.

Highway 113 graced me with sunshine and terrain that never grew bored of going up and down. The traffic on this road was minimal except for the logging trucks that twice nearly killed me. When there was no roar of diesel engines I was engulfed in the magical sounds of fastidious nature, the monotonous  mechanical whirs and clicks of my bicycle machine, and the eerie sound of my own breathing constantly reminding me I was alive.

Just outside the small coastal town of Clallum Bay, US-113 stops its northern progression and turns directly west into US-112. The beauties along the Salish Sea calmed my spirit. The road was serpentine in its path. Here beauty floated around me casually without pompousness. With true Northwest charm, the trees and rocks and crisp sea air welcomed me into their well worn home.

This road would lead all the way to Neah Bay, where the ghost of an ancient time still hung thick in the air on the land of the Makah Tribe Reservation. The local fisherman there gave me solemn nods, an appreciation shining in their eyes from a 'tourist' trekking through their land during the harsh winter season. Not even the feral dogs there barked at me. I slipped through the fading dusk and glided by the worn down trailer houses. Wood-smoke drifted up into the sky like fading memories.

The climb up Cape Loop road to Cape Flattery was long and gradual. I found a rhythm to my pedaling and was able to tackle the climb churning my legs while out of the saddle, a technique not easily done on a bike loaded with panniers. With each pedal stroke I entered deeper and deeper into Nature. The trees leaned menacingly over me and cast their shadows over and a continual moisture clung heavily to my skin like an omen.

Here I became nothing and was given a glimpse of what this world once looked like before the glimmer of fire began to burn bright into the consciousness of humanity, a world where life and death and the smell of beautiful decay was without question or reason.

At the end of the road I met an empty parking lot. A trail head told me I would have to hike a mile or so to see the coast. Indecision plagued me. The sun had nearly been swallowed by an ocean I could not hear, blocked by the thick wall of trees that guarded this land like warriors who've tasted the blood of many battles. The thought of trekking along a slippery forest trail tired my exhausted my mind. I stood there for several moments, allowing my endless curiosity to soon sound its horn. I had to see the ends of the earth.

The challenge of hauling my bike down the steep trail soon  became so challenging I stopped every few feet to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Navigating the horrendous roots and rocks with my cycling shoes was such an arduous process I could do nothing but see the beautiful humor. Initially I was going to go barefoot, which would have made the process much easier, but decided the possibility of slicing my foot open (which I have done plenty of times running around mountains barefoot) was not a good idea considering I still had 200+ miles to bike home. 

The further I ventured down the trail, the more I could hear the growl of the ocean beckon me closer. Like a siren calling me to her naked body, the hypnotic cacophony of the waves torturing the tired cliffs captivated my senses and lured me closer and closer through the thick mud. 

The moment when I burst from the trees into the embrace of howling winds my mind fluttered on the brink of invisibility. Sheer awe made me forget my humanity for a fleeting moment. The answer that had beckoned me here, on the edge of loneliness, was simple: I wanted to forget my humanity.

I wanted to forget my life, forget I was a bike racer, forget the madness of the city, forget my relationships, forget the social web of obligations and anxiety our modern age has filled us to the brim with. Here, for those five minutes I clung to the edge of the cliff and peered my head down into the wide open mouth of the ocean I could see that in the end I would soon be swallowed alive like the rest of the world that will eventualy perish into the anonymity of time and space.

 If I moved just one inch closer to the edge of the cliff the balance of my weight would be thrown off and my body would lose it's safe grip and be flung somersaulting into the dark cold waters below. I flattened my body tighter to the edge, the wind battering my clothes and skin, and I closed my eyes and stayed there for as long as I could until I knew the world had to move on for I could never lose my humanity even though I desperately tried. My identify trickled back in as the clouds opened and unleashed gentle drops of mist. Drop by drop I floated back into reality. I was still the same confused soul chasing after dreams and goals, clinging to a belief in ideals and struggle. 

Renewed with a sense of self, with an acceptance of my mission in life, this mission of finding of what my body and soul is capable, I set up my tent on the edge of the cliff. With a fresh set of warm clothes comforting my skin I hung my legs out the tent and ate yogurt and rice and stared into the growing blackness before me.

My mind began to focus on the comforts of time. I worried momentarily. Camping here was blatantly illegal. About five feet from my tent was a huge sign reaffirming this: Camping prohibited by federal law. I looked around me. It was the middle of winter. A storm was rolling steadily in and the winds had begun to shout loudly. I had not seen a soul on the entire bike ride up Cape Loop road. And, tomorrow was a Tuesday, Valentines Day to be exact. I thought of all this and had hunch I would be alone all night with no laws, rules, limitations, or regulations to bother me. 

That night I slept a deep sleep with big dreams animated by the language of the ocean. My mind, unaccustomed to the old languages of the earth, was flung into life and while my body slept profoundly my mind conversed with stories and tales long forgotten on the bottom of the sea. In the middle of the night I awoke, or believed I awoke, and looked out into the sea, and for a short instance, I felt as if I was peering into the lost ages of humanity that are still locked away somewhere inside me, inside the land of dreams.

The next morning I broke down camp. With a quiet mind I knew I must return home. Without fanfare I wished the sea and cliffs and wind farewell and pushed my bike back up the trail. With my mind uncluttered and light the arduous trail last night was easy and without difficulty this morning. It was time to head east. I wanted to make big tracks today, and stopped only briefly at the Makah Tribe graveyard to give my respects to the dead.

I wanted to see how far I could go in one day. The weather was on my side with rainbows and sunburst. A strange obsession to push my body stirred inside me. I set the goal of breaking 7,000kj. I had twelve hours to do it.

Half way through the day I reached Lake Crescent. My body was humming along, though I was falling short of my goal, as daylight was rapidly descending.

I stopped for a short lunch and questioned myself. Was it really worth punishing my body with the racing season so close? My legs were already tired after riding for six hours, and let's not forget the two days prior. Was it really necessary to go on?

I looked at my map and shut off my mind. This was time to observe the reptilian nature of my lungs and legs.  As the day wore on my body began to break as fatigue clamped its jaws. After nine hours my right leg was refusing to work, my back felt twisted, and darkness had fully set in. The stars were out and the batteries on my lights were growing dim as I pedaled furiously along the highway. Cars flew by me, their headlights blinding me, and the sense of my total invisibility to the speeding traffic spilt the rusty taste of danger against my teeth and tongue.

This was dangerous. Stupid. I had been biking for ten hours now. It was pitch black and at any moment I could be killed by some drunk hick drifting into the shoulder. But, there was my goal. I thought of the greats, of the champions of the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta! My silly little adventure paled in comparison to their feats. I was a lonely nobody overshadowed by the insignificance of his own dreams.

I felt desperate, like a madman, pushing onward for no reason other than some insane goal that meant nothing. My right achilles tendon began to seize, a loud reminder of a continual injury I've had. My mind was raving now, telling my body to shut up so I could see through to my goal. At fourteen hours I began to swerve back and forth and I knew that I had failed. I got off my bike barely able to walk. Though there were no crowds, no spectators, anger and embarrassment flooded me as I thought of all the survival stories I've read and heard throughout my life. Today I wanted to swallow just a morsel of what it is to truly run for your life.

After 10pm I collapsed on the side of the road. I knew tonight a cold snap would arrive. Before falling asleep I summoned the energy to properly prepare camp. I put on every article of clothing I brought and then wrapped my sleeping bag into the cocoon of my plastic rain tarp. With my last bit of energy I scooped out hummus with my fingers and polished off the whole container. As my breath froze against the synthetic material of my sleeping bag I fell into a dreamless sleep.

The next day I woke up with the feeling of death, of losing a battle against myself. I stretched my ankles. They wouldn't move. A searing pain pierced my right hamstring. Yesterday I had did everything I was not supposed to do. I had thrown all my training theory out the window. I had cursed recovery, cursed limits, and cursed intelligent training. My vendetta against my own body had me barely conscious. I pulled my rain booties back on my shoes but they snapped in half from being so frozen. My fingers were numb and my head was pounding. There was only one thing that could save me: six shots of espresso.

With so many miles behind me, I only had a short bike ride left to the Bremerton Ferry. I pedaled with my head down, slowly as I could muster my legs. By the time I had reached the ferry the day had turned crimson beautiful with a gallant winter sun. 

When the Ferry cruised into the downtown Seattle terminal I had a feeling overwhelm me as if waking from a dream. Not wanting the adventure to end I decided to run some errands before returning home, after all, it was still early in the afternoon, and I needed to stock up on fruits and vegetables. I biked along the waterfront along the Elliot Bay Trail and squinted my eyes from the sun reflecting off the Puget Sound. I was home and now perhaps more alive.

It was a few days before I could walk normally. All the injuries and aches soon disappeared. For a moment I was truly worried my adventure had been in foolish vain. When the last of my limps faded I realized that the whole reason I drove myself to do this adventure was to convince myself I was ready. Something I already knew and refused to believe until I could feel exactly of what principles my soul's composed. 

 -dan harm

PS. Stay tuned for stories and lessons from the race season soon to be written.