California - Part 1
When I got back to my bike on September 18, I didn’t know what to expect. Physically, I was a bit out of shape, but that didn’t worry me. The riding always gets you in shape. It was the mental space I wasn’t sure I was prepared for. It takes a kind of strength to face the unknown; to pack up and move all your shit every day; to be fine being dirty, sore, sweaty, and exhausted; to continually have to tell your story every time you meet someone new; to go for long stretches without seeing anyone who knows you, let alone loves you.
And after a month of living with Erin in a cabin in rainy Sitka, I’d become a soggy homebody. Also, there was some uncertainty regarding my medical situation; my Crohn’s Disease was flaring up, and the next steps weren’t totally clear. “Who knows, maybe I’ll get my bike and just turn around and come back up to Seattle,” I heard myself say a few times in the days before my return to Klamath Falls.
But I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I had paused the trip on the edge of California, and I couldn’t stop now. Since the beginning, California has been my true destination. Washington and Oregon were only a preamble to the endless golden state that has had me in its thrall for as long as I can remember.
So once I learned of a clever route that followed the Klamath River out to the coast, and once I got out of town and into the woods, and came up alongside the river, and felt myself flowing downhill through the mountains to my favorite edge of my favorite continent, I felt at peace. This was where I needed to be.
I spent that first afternoon sitting by the river playing my mandolin, which had, like my bike, been in a garage for two months. It was nice to reconnect with some of my favorite possessions.
I felt truly off the map. Having ridden a while on empty forest roads, I didn’t even know if I was in Oregon or California. Who thinks about this particular part of the country? A chunk of wilderness far from any population density, not much of a destination for backpackers or rafters or fisherpeople—for most people, this area may as well not exist. And yet here I was, and here were otters, deer, ducks, herons, egrets, eagles, trout, trees, grasses, waters, cliffs.
I sat for a long time doing nothing at all, soaking it in. With evening coming on, I caught a trout and ate it with rice and mushrooms.
The Klamath River is long. It would be five hot dry days alone, three of them on Highway 96, before I made the coast. 96 takes its time through spectacular country where the towns are depressed, the local mood sour. I saw signs everywhere promoting a conservative secessionist movement, The State of Jefferson. Not to mention some other, shall we say, interesting ideas.
Over these five days, my initial feeling of peace gave way to loneliness. Oh yeah, this part! It was all coming back now. When you’re all the company you have for days on end, every little interaction is a gift. I found myself hanging outside general stores, hoping someone would come along and ask, “so where are you traveling from?” Mostly, though, locals seemed simply to tolerate my presence. I wondered what they thought of this dirty long-haired stranger passing through in such a peculiar way.
When I did finally make the coast, I was grateful for the company of around fifteen other cyclists at the hike/bike campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. And this was on a Monday night in late September! I’d heard the coast route was popular, but wow.
At the campground, I met Michael, an arborist from Victoria, B.C., and Lennart, a teacher from Germany. The three of us took a morning stroll through the giants.
That afternoon, I rode to Arcata, the first town in California I knew I wanted to hang out in for a while. I’d been hearing folks sing its praises all the way down the coast. A university town with a bustling public square, a big community forest, and a prominent hippie vibe: just my kind of place.
What’s more, a friend from college, Keenan, had offered to connect me with an arts nonprofit in town called The Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is an organization straight out of my dreams: performance space, gathering space, multimedia maker space, living space—it's essentially a Room (well, Rooms) of Requirement for artists and hippies.
I arrived just in time for the weekly Taco Tuesday potluck. The Sanctuary crew makes the tortillas, everyone else brings the fillings. Humans well-distributed in age from about 2 to 82 were gathered, enjoying themselves. After dinner, a charming fellow missing a few teeth started playing guitar and singing old standards. I hopped in on keys. It was all a bit too good to be real.
The Sanctuary folks put me up for a couple weeks, during which time I practiced piano, jammed with new friends, and explored the town. I got to know Keenan much better than I had in college; we rode down to Eureka together one day in dumping rain, talking as we pedaled about climate change and whether or not having children makes any sense. I met Steven, a flirtatious Haitian-American from Florida who works with autistic kids; we went for a walk in the community forest and he asked me how I’d ended up heterosexual. I met Savannah, a videographer, who very affordably helped me make three demo videos of my original songs.
I sought out familiar urban comforts: coffee shops, organic food co-ops, used book stores. On a single “self care Sunday,” I went to a Zen meditation, an ecstatic dance gathering, a Finnish hot tub and sauna place, and a yoga class. See, when you’re traveling, you have to try to participate in the local culture. Northern Californian culture is endlessly complicated, of course (and is in fact many different cultures sharing the same space), but in many of the small towns, especially college towns like Arcata, there is basic operating principle known as “chill.” For an example, see this modern-day petroglyph I spotted along Highway 1:
I was enjoying myself, but starting to feel a bit stagnant. Then, just before the first weekend in October, Savannah invited me to come along with her and a couple friends to San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. When I learned that the festival was free, that my friend and former bandmate Maya was around and could host me, and that the lineup included Chris Thile, I’m With Her, Alison Krauss, Jeff Tweedy, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Emmylou Harris, I said “no thanks.”
Just kidding. OF COURSE I SAID YES! We arrived on Friday afternoon and I split off to wander the festival on my own. I camped out a couple hours early right up front to see my musical hero Chris Thile do a taping of Live From Here. He opened with a mesmerizing solo version of “True Love Waits” by Radiohead.
But the best performance of the weekend, in my opinion, belonged to I’m With Her. If you’re not hip to this band yet, well, you’re welcome. Their version of Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” had me practically sobbing. Here it is from a different performance this year:
It was an emotionally charged weekend in general. This was when that frat bro Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, the latest message from our government to women that they don’t matter. There was a heaviness about, yes, and many artists addressed it explicitly from the stage. But there was also a feeling of fighting back, just by being here, peacefully enjoying great music in a sunny park. You could feel currents of poignancy running through the crowd of five hundred thousand.
My favorite moment was on Saturday night, after the performances finished at 7 pm. Someone had brought a suitcase speaker system and started playing funk music in the main walkway. Within minutes, a crowd of dancing, laughing people had gathered to unselfconsciously shake and shimmy and share in a moment of joyous freedom. Such positivity was especially meaningful in the context of the political moment.
I returned to Arcata energized from this amazing weekend, buoyed by its spontaneity and openness, and knew it was time for me to hit the road again. I was ready for an adventure. I took another day and a half to stock up and pack up, get my bike in good shape, say my goodbyes. I left midday on Wednesday, ready to take on the Lost Coast route, a famously steep and winding detour away from 101. I had no idea what I was in for.