Day 6: Solitude

None
Published 2002-05-04

Oregon Coast Bike Ride, Day 6

May 4, 2002

Sunset Bay State Park to Humbug Mountain State Park
61.95 miles
4:30 saddle time
13.6 mph avg. speed. Weather: Sunny and warm, moderate NW wind.

After 5 days of riding the riding itself is not terribly difficult. Instead I have begun a journey into my own head. 16 hours a day of self-reflection. I learn to savor moments of human interaction, if only because it turns my brain away from the two things that occupy it: my life on this ride, and my life outside this ride.

In Bandon I finally break down and buy a book. I purposely did not bring any reading material with me other than the maps; I wanted to save weight and imagined the ride itself would be sufficiently entertaining. But books -- or for that matter television or the radio, both of which I have also foresworn -- provide a substitute for human contact, which has been lacking.

The trip into the bookstore (in itself a civilized act, somehow outside the world of dust, sweat, steel, and carbohydrates I usually live in) provides grist for conversation: where are the travel books? No, I had no idea Barry Lopez is speaking in Portland next week. Is there a good place to get an omelette?

As a matter of fact, there is a good place to get an omelette. Try that restaurant across the street.

I get an omelette -- a passable omelette, and I consider myself a great relisher of omelettes -- and the teenage waitress flirts and flirts with me. This probably represents the most conversation I have had with a live person in almost a week.

My mind, in solitude, has not turned to solitude itself. In my usual life I find I am not often lonely; I always have myself. But marriage had conditioned me to expect commentary with daily life, especially in a daily life as extraordinary as this. Although I move at the imperial pace of 13.x mph, it seems something is always happening, and I form long commentaries to myself:

Look at at that rabbit,
I never realized there were so many vultures in Oregon,
You see a lot of handmade signs out here,
You can tell there are fewer people this far south,
the landscape feels untamed,
and the drivers are friendlier,
Gold Beach reminds me of Bethel, Alaska.

Bandon represents the point farthest south on the Oregon coast to which I have previously travelled; every mile south is Terra incognita. The sense of isolation grows acute. Geography abets the sensation: towns diminish to great significance, vacation homes vanish, the hills are (to my mind) a perfect mix of great enormous evergreens growing in broad strips, and pasture. The human landscape here is comfortably homey to me. It is more like the long, slow, thinly-peopled Nebraska vistas of my childhood than the touristy West Coast logjam I live in now.

At camp that night I am joined by the only other southbound cyclist moving at my pace, a woman from Seattle named Mary. Her life, like mine, is in transition. She -- like me -- recently lost her job. She’s taking her enforced retirement as seriously as I should. She sold most of her belongings, and the rest are in 5 boxes in storage, and on her bike. Now she”s riding to L.A., ultimately to visit a friend in Joshua Tree. We are both relieved to have someone with whom we can trade related experiences -- flat tires, narrow shoulders, RVs that won’t pass you, pop songs stuck in your head. We talk until after sunset, in the strange cadence of people unused to long conversations.

I remember having a similar feeling when returning from my fieldwork in Alaska, where I had spent 8 weeks with the same 2 people. I went out with my girlfriend and some other friends the night I returned, to a McMenamin’s brewery. I had been in civilization (or at least Eugene’s version of it) for only 12 hours or so, and couldn”t follow all the threads of conversation. Whenever anyone asked me a question or I spoke up, my words emerged uncomfortable and flat.