Tips for a South-to-North Traverse of the West Coast via Bicycle:
(Note: Not a definitive guide. Not particularly informative, either.)
- Buy a bicycle. There are many bicycles out there, designed for all sorts of riders and riding styles. There are also many, many accessories available for said bicycles. For long-distance riding, I recommend a touring bike—one sturdy enough to support weighted panniers on racks, equipped with puncture-resistant tires and a seat you’ll be willing to sit on for hours on end. I ride a Surly Long Haul Trucker (color: Mocha-Chino) and I like it very much. But with whatever bike you choose, make sure it’s fitted to your physical build. You will spend lots of time on this contraption, and you will want it to fit your body well. (Note: If you already own a tour-worthy bicycle, feel free to skip this step.)
- Learn to ride your bicycle. Riding a bike is easy! You just hop on and take off to wherever your heart desires. When people wish to describe a process that’s very instinctual, hard-wired, or not readily forgotten, they say, “It’s like riding a bicycle.” And it’s true: anyone can ride a bike if they want to. You simply tap into that intrinsic “bike-riding manual” we as humans all possess. It’s in our genes.
- Be prepared. Make sure you have everything you’ll need for a 1,400-mile bike tour. Since gear lists are highly subjective and a pain to enumerate, I will assume you know already what to bring. Be prepared.
- Set a starting point and an endpoint. This is easy. If you want to ride along the coast, start somewhere near Highway 1, which more or less hugs the Pacific coastline all the way up to northern California. If you want to stay further inland, start somewhere farther away from the ocean. It doesn’t matter. I flew into LAX and started riding from there up to Seattle, where my family lives. Sometimes it’s nice to make home your final destination.
- Determine your route. Maps are very helpful here. At the start of my trip, lacking any sort of navigational apparatus, I became lost many times, wasting time and energy on fruitless adjuncts that often led me in circles. Once I acquired some maps, however, I became lost less frequently, and was able to plan out my route days in advance. This helped tremendously. Plus, maps are fun to doodle on. You can draw a line through the entire route you plan to take and marvel at the sheer enormity of it all.
- Find a suitable pace. Pace-setting is very important and is closely tied in with the route. How many miles will you travel each day? How many hours each day will you be biking? These are the questions you must wrestle with as you crank up the coast. Whether you put in a hundred miles a day or 35, the result is that you’ve gone farther along the route, seen the sights afforded to you, and that’s a day well spent, I say.
- Learn to avoid the wind. Prevailing winds blow north to south along the coast, which can a major bummer for the northbound bicyclist. Most days, though, the wind doesn’t pick up until around 11 a.m., so if you can get the majority of your riding done before then, you’re saving yourself some hardship. Sometimes I would get up real early—like 3 a.m.—to ride along the highway in peace and quiet (and darkness), the becalmed ocean a fixed feature to my left, the moon casting its silvery glow across the nightscape.
- Feed your body right. When you ride a bike all day, you get hungry. If, like me, you’re poor and therefore ultra-thrifty with food, supermarkets are the way to go to get the most caloric bang for your buck. The trick is to find the cheapest, most calorie-dense food and train yourself to enjoy eating it. I personally preferred cold, canned chili and day-old donuts. But the choices are endless. Also: Do not be averse to handouts. Some supermarkets have free samples, and you should avail yourself heartily of these, no matter what they are.
- Steel yourself to the sight of roadkill. The majority of the wildlife I saw on my trip was dead and flattened on the side of the road. Deer, elk, skunks, squirrels, possums, porcupines, hawks, vultures, weasels, otters, innumerable songbirds and other passerines—every woodland creature you could imagine. And the fact that you’re downwind means you always smell the carcass before you see it. So the faster you inure yourself to these bloated, fetid corpses, each fixed with a toothy rictus, the better. If they’re smiling, it means they died happy, right?
- Have fun. Does this seem self-evident? Well, it should be. If at any point you find that you’re not enjoying yourself, take a break, get off the bike, and eat a donut. It works every time.