My old and cherished pal from college, Barbie (now going by Barbara, but she’ll always be Barbie to me), didn’t hestitate to come on a bike tour with me even though she had never done it before. That’s Barbie for you. She jumped right in. Here’s her first-time bike tour experience in her words.
The following tale is by Barbara Borst.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Eastern Oregon.” Ellee replied simply.
“Yeah, but where?”
“Middle of nowhere.”
“Okay, awesome. But where?”
After Googling it quickly, I came back with, “Wow. That really is the middle of nowhere.”
“Told you,” Ellee replied, unphased, though she added, “but Baker’s City is actually pretty big.”
And so began the adventure of my very first ever bike tour, guided by my dear friend and bike guru Eleanor Thalheimer.
We rolled into Baker’s City at about midnight on a Wednesday evening, and I chided Ellee for describing it as a “pretty big”. From what I could tell, it was made up of a main street, complete with a picture-perfect Wild West facade, and a couple of little off-shooting side streets. Though not large, it was, in fact, adorable. We pulled into the Bridge Street Inn and collected our room key from the woman at the front desk, who was incredibly friendly, despite having been woken up by a couple of city slickers like ourselves. We paid a whopping $48 for our room with a king bed, which in the morning we discovered had a garden view. Not bad. Not bad at all.
After allowing ourselves to sleep in and eating a hearty breakfast, we started preparing our bikes to head out of town. With my paniers, saddle bag, and handle bar bag now in place, I was finding it difficult to even balance the damn bike while holding it up. Being a pretty laid back and adventurous gal who doesn’t really believe in worrying too much, I hadn’t been really at all intimidated or concerned when I signed on to do a bike tour with Ellee. When I grappled with a fully loaded, ridiculously back heavy bicycle that I could hardly hold up, however, I started to worry that maybe I had underestimated the challenge.
I had the sense that if I didn’t hold the handlebars tightly, the bike would pop a wheely and flip over backwards. What if I couldn’t balance? It seemed like just the slightest wavering of the handlebars while riding might make the whole bike topple over. What if I toppled into a car or in the middle of the road? Right about that moment, I realized that Ellee had (very kindly) loaned me her husband’s clip-in shoes… which I had never tried before. Awesome.
So I was supposed to get onto this awkwardly obese, unbalanced bicycle and then clip myself into it??? I am not a novice cyclist, but I am a novice to cycling with decent gear. Clip-in pedals are something I have always remotely feared (I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have a story of bailing in them, do you?) and had never had the privilege to experience before.
My momentary panic quickly subsided after I took a little test ride with the shoes in the parking lot, without any major problems or bail outs. Clipping in and out was actually kind of fun, and once I was actually on the bike and pedaling, the weight didn’t phase me at all. Sweet. Back to my laid-back self, I patted myself on the back for my impressive bike touring skill (ability to remain upright), and we rolled out of town on Oregon’s Elkhorn Scenic Byway.
Now I didn’t see any Elkhorn (is an Elkhorn a specific type of animal, or are we just talking about an elk’s horn?), but they were telling the truth when they called it a scenic byway. Now what, you might ask, is the difference between a byway and a highway? I was asking myself the same thing, but in this case, I can answer that a byway equals cycling heaven.
Traffic is one of my biggest complaints while biking. No complaints here — we were the traffic. Bliss!
No traffic and (relatively) great pavement for miles and miles and miles. Having lived outside of the country for the better part of the past 5 years and been a bicyclist in many a foreign realm, I admittedly have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to cycling in the States, but Ellee knocked that chip right off my shoulder by introducing me to the beauty of bike touring off the beaten path.
This was Americana at it’s best. Deserted old gold mining towns, dusty saloons, cowboy hats, and back country roads reserved just for us. I was bowled over by everyone’s kindness and openness.
I think maybe we all need to get out of the city sometimes to remember how awesome people are. People are awesome. Americans are awesome. American country-folk are especially awesome. They remind me of our humanity — that it’s okay to make small talk, to smile at, and to trust strangers. It’s okay to believe that people are generally good.
I suppose a couple of girls on bikes don’t look too threatening, but still, we were on the receiving end of more genuine helpfulness, kindness, and chivalry in just three days than I can remember in a lifetime of city living in this country.
Sure, we probably looked ridiculous to most of those around us. Sure, the same trip could have been done in a car. But then we would have lost precious experiences, like men in hunter’s camo face paint slowing their pick-ups next to us, chatting about the day, and aquiescing to our request for face paint, too. Or the park rangers who chased us down the mountain to try to return a bag of “our” dirty laundry (not ours, as it turned out).
In a car we wouldn’t have found it nearly so ‘amusing’ to discover the 17-mile climb to the top of 7, 392 ft Elkhorn Mountain pass was only halfway chip sealed. Behind the wheel, we would have missed the aerobic high of reaching the top as the sun set over the valley, and the holy-sh$t-I-might-die rush of cruising down the 7,000 ft mountain at top speed on a fully loaded bike. It was kinda like going for a killer run to the top of a mountain and then descending on a terrifying roller coaster.
Sign me up for the next tour, I’m hooked!
The three most important bike touring lessons Ellee taught me were: (1) riding side by side is actually illegal in some places, even if there is very little traffic. Whoops. (I obeyed only when there actually was traffic, which was not very often. I never was good with rules.) (2) Don’t push yourself too hard or be in a rush. Enjoy the ride and the scenery. You will get there eventually. (3) Make sure you know how to change a flat tire, or bring along a friend who can do it for you. (Thanks, El! Next time I promise I will change my own tire.)
Bike touring to me is something of a hybrid between a back-country trip and a road trip. You still feel the wind on your face, accumulate grit under your nails, feel the satisfying aches of your muscles at the end of a long day, and that fabulous sense of accomplishment that only self-propelled travel can bring you. However, you get all of this without separating yourself from society and with a bed and shower (and maybe even a beer) every night – not to mention a history lesson and a cross-cultural experience.
In this respect, our tour was kind of like hiking in Switzerland (which I just did), except a lot cheaper and closer to home. You might consider taking “hike across the Alps” off your bucket list and adding “bike tour across Middle-of-Nowhere America.” Trust me, it will save you a bundle and be just as fabulous. Or do both. But don’t miss out on biking touring the Middle of Nowhere.