Sunday, January 27, 2008

Packed and Loaded

It starts innocently enough with the junk drawer. One day I open it and realize that someone else, some stranger living in our house, is going to open our junk drawer in search of scotch tape. I shudder at the thought and empty it, sort it, organize it, and rest assured that I now have nothing to hide. It occurs to me that this is not a bad thing – to be compelled to sort the detritus of life every couple of years. I like the tidy feeling, something like getting your teeth cleaned. The junk drawer leads to bookshelf thinning, medicine cabinet purging and ultimately closet cleaning. Where does all this stuff come from!? Closely linked to that thought is, how can I leave all this stuff behind?

Packing for a 3 month bike ride has it’s challenges. We have a running list of camping gear, bike gear, cooking gear, his and hers clothing gear, health and beauty supplies, the catch-all “miscellaneous” and the very short “critical” categories. With all this listing going on, you’d think it would be easy… but creep happens. That extra shirt barely weighs anything… I hear English books are hard to come by… What if I loose the other 3 lip balms? If we hike, we need something more than sandals… While we’re in Bogota, don’t we need a nice outfit? Suddenly it looks like we could use an extra trailer. This is a royal “we” since Willie really could stick to the list, but I can’t. The lack of things bums me out. Mr. Extreme has allowed me to add a line-item to his clothes for a non-cycling t-shirt of my choosing that he will wear when it pleases me to see him in something else. And that takes some of the edge off. Somehow, it all needs to fit.
This checklist is key to getting it all gathered, but it takes a feat of engineering and organization to fit it all in 9 bags attached to 2 bicycles. We no longer leave this feat to the night before. Lessons learned from the all-nighters of old taught Willie and me to pack it up early. The 13-egg omelet at Beth’s All-Night café was fun at 4am once upon a time. I think it would actually still be fun, but not the stress that precedes it trying to get all the loose ends wrapped before that early morning breakfast and flight out of the country. So with our age comes some wisdom and we instituted the tradition of several days before the plane departs, riding to Hale’s pub packed and fully loaded to raise a pint with friends before we go.

The agony of limitations and reality of space meet up somewhere in the middle. Weight, when carrying the equivalent of a house on your bike, is less of a consideration. It seems silly to me to scrimp the ounces on a compact toothbrush while starting a trip pounds over-weight. I’d like another beer please.

But a hard battle won, we do manage to make mole-hills out of mountains and ride into the sunset.

Deeter joins the ride.

With friends Chris and Mark escorting across town, we set off for our well-earned pint. The travel gods smiled and blessed me with a flat before the first uphill. Another reason to take the test ride early and discover the Mr. Toughie’s in the tire are wearing a quick ridge and pinch a flat within a couple of miles. We also find the new handlebar bag is missing part of the connector, the clip on back-light works great, Zeb needs a new bungee, and oh, I forgot to train. Well, that’s what the first couple of weeks are for.

It was a glorious party with so many friends come to raise a glass and wish us well. Many, many friends have seen us off over the years and I’m so thankful for the support. I think we should all get together when we’re not leaving some time

And then there was the ride home. Breathtaking in it’s beauty. Seattle has never looked more pure, crystalline clear and sparkling than in the late evening hours last Wednesday. I pinched myself to see that it was real. We live in a most precious place and are surrounded by love that calls us home.


"I think," said Christopher Robin, "that we ought to eat all our provisions now, so we won't have so much to carry."-A.A. Milne
Tell me: What one possession would you not leave home without?

Monday, January 21, 2008

On Safety

When contemplating to cycle Colombia and Venezuela, my thought first and foremost turned to safety. The most common first question asked by friends when we say we’re going to Colombia is “what about safety?”

What did I know about Colombia? I knew that people – rich people – were kidnapped there. I knew that drugs and drug wars were part of the culture … really the only part of the culture that I could remember reading about in the newspaper. So initially, we settled on Venezuela. It didn’t have quite the same guerilla-brand reputation as Colombia. I knew their government had a bone to pick with my government, but I had already examined that travel fear years ago. I did a little sleuthing on the internet and found a few cyclists’ blogs saying that Colombia suffered needlessly from a bad reputation. They all gave it high marks for being a gorgeous, friendly, little-touristed country caught in a bad marketing campaign. I lobbied Willie to add Colombia to our itinerary in addition to Venezuela and he readily agreed. Should say, slyly agreed. He had already figured it all out but knew that I needed to want to go to Colombia rather than merely agreeing to go to Colombia with him. He knew full-well that if something went wrong – anything went wrong – that it would be his fault. He was so right and he played the game perfectly.

So I research a bit more on the internet – not cycling blogs, but links from travel forums and found stories of ATM withdrawals at gunpoint and worse. Too often, my web searches happen late at night and I stewed in the fear they instilled. After one such fitful nights sleep, I sat comfortably in front of the morning fire sipping coffee and reading the Seattle PI. Flipping through the paper, I come to a story in the Nation/World section. A story that read like a bad traffic accident that you don’t want to see but you can’t resist looking. It’s a story about 3 kids in Detroit who brutally beat, torch, kill and behead a guy for… for what? It was senseless -- a random act of violence of extreme magnitude and it wasn’t front page news. They didn’t just steal some money from this guys ATM account. They didn’t just take his bicycle or passport or camera. They didn’t just strip him of all his belongings. They killed him in a horrible way yet nobody was suggesting that it was too dangerous to go to Detroit.

I know the odds are greater that I will be killed crossing the street in Seattle, or driving a car on I-5, or hit on my bicycle on my way home from the grocery store than the odds that I will be kidnapped or beheaded in some foreign country.

Managing fear for me is about managing perspective. It would be horrible if any of those things happened to us or to anyone. It’s more horrible that crime and lack of safety are the first things people think about when we say we’re going to Colombia. The respect of a whole country is at stake.

Will we be safe? We will take reasonable precaution by talking directly with locals and other travelers who can best tell us places to avoid. We can try and blend in and not flash our expensive gadgets or shiny new clothes.

With a safety reality check now in place, I can go back to fostering my irrational fear of la cucaracha – the oily-backed bugs that click their heels across the cool tile floor. I haven’t yet been able to rationalize away that travel fear.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In the Beginning

Willie started bicycle touring long before email and the internet, before lycra shorts and coolmax t-shirts, before mountain bikes, and long before Kat came into his life. Kat started cycle-touring after meeting Willie when an email in the early days of the world-wide web popped into her mailbox with an old-fashioned phone number for a hostel in Slovenia where he was spending the night. A phone call that night led to an invitation to join his cycling trip through the Balkans. The rest is history.

That first trip together, we spent many nights snuggled in our little yellow tent. It was a small, no frills; basic starter model tent from REI, but it was home. It was our hamster’s nest chuck full of 10 bicycle bags, 2 thermarests and lust for adventure. That tent and all it symbolized grew into the lyrics for our wedding song composed by Willie’s brother, Jeff.

Our little yellow tent in Hungary, 1996

The four-month Balkans trip from Budapest to Athens in 1996 led to Cuba in 1998. After Bush took office in 2001, we decided it was time to learn more about the Deep South of the US and pedaled three months through the region. A three-month trip to Turkey in 2003 coincided with the US troops entering Baghdad, and in 2005/6 we toured Thailand and Laos for nearly four months. All told, together we’ve pedaled lots of miles, and still love to snuggle. Our tent is now gray, and come to think of it, so are we.

Our little gray tent at a fruitstall "campsite" in Laos, 2006

This blog won’t be much about the miles on the bicycle, but about the people and experience along the way. It’s about life on the road, and maybe it won’t be so different than an ordinary life taking place in an extraordinary experience.