Wednesday, August 25, 2010

From the Archives - Bike Tour Journal


The recent train trip I took with my family couldn’t help but remind me of another grand tour of the U.S., which was a cross-country bicycle tour that my wife Erin and I did in 1994 (getting married in Boulder, Colorado along the way). I carried a laptop computer along with me and, using command-line terminal emulation software, a 2400-baud modem, and CompuServe, e-mailed reports to family and friends as we went. These dispatches were somewhat infrequent because we were camping and had very little access to electricity, much less a phone line. Still, I managed about 38,000 words and have in my archives an account of the trip that is a lot better than nothing.

We didn’t pack light. We figured we’d be out long enough not to want to do without various comforts. Plus, since Erin hadn’t been a bike racer, I needed a certain amount of ballast to make my energy expenditure roughly equal to Erin’s. Here’s a list of what I had on my bike:

Below is my final dispatch from the road. I’ve edited it a bit for length (having become, believe it or not, slightly less verbose in the sixteen years since I wrote this). I’ve sprinkled in a few photos as well.

Bike Tour Final Dispatch - November 11, 1994

Now we’re in CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA. Our bike tour is over! From here, we fly back to San Francisco, find a place to live, and get jobs. Our final tour statistics:

· 7,450 miles

· 24 states covered and one Canadian province

· 203,660 feet of climbing

· 8 months on the road

· $5‑6,000 apiece in expenses

· 3 cracked rims

· pairs of tires each (the last pair, 2-inch-wide Continentals, lasted 6 months!)

· 1 broken rack (in two places—It broke for the last time on the very last day!)

· 5 chains

· 1 chainring (though both drivetrains are wasted now, along with both our headsets)

· 1 exploded bottom bracket

· 2 crashes (both Erin, and both minor)

· 1 broken bike frame

Having completed a journey of such length, of course, I feel I should offer more details, more thematic commentary: something, perhaps, that might synthesize the details into something of meaning, a lesson somewhere. Throughout out tour, I’ve simply taken mental note of a million things I’ve seen, with no effort to organize them. However, an odd thing happened as we travelled through Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: certain truths about travelling in North America assembled themselves more convincingly than they had before.

We hadn’t actually intended to visit Myrtle Beach at all, having heard it was congested and touristy. We considered a roundabout route to Charleston, but decided to take the direct route—U.S. 17—in the interests of having plenty of cushion before our non‑refundable flight, and to arrive here when our friend expected us to. Well, U.S. 17 was a nightmare around North Myrtle Beach, a giant 6‑lane highway with hundreds of buffet restaurants and tourist schlock stores on either side. One had a sign out front that said, “Ray Bans $14” and “Super Clearance Sale” and such things; my Ray Bans broke recently and Erin needs a new bathing suit, and we both needed a break from the hellish traffic, so we stopped in. For sale were 25‑cent sunglasses, beach towels, salt water taffy (never did try this), and just gobs of other stuff, like $2 Myrtle Beach t‑shirts, which say “MB” on them, like the place has become its own brand.

I looked at some Ray Ban Wayfarers like my old ones—marked down 50%, from $104 to $52. Of course, actual suggested retail is only $50, and any army surplus store sells them for $35. I asked about the $14 Ray Bans advertised, and the clerk brought out a different pair. Totally fake. They said Ray Ban on them, but were obviously cheap junk made in China. I told the clerk, “These are fake.” He looked at me as if surprised; then, he looked down at the glasses for a few seconds, looked back up at me with a visage of profound disappointment, and—as if he’d just learned a painful lesson—he said sadly, “Yes. They are.” We left without buying anything.

The Myrtle Beach strip runs for 15‑20 miles, and is comprised of three highways: State 49, which isn’t bad and is the closest to the water; Business 17, which is a hellish phantasmagoria of tourist shops, restaurants, hotels, and motels; and, regular U.S. 17, which is only slightly less built‑up than the Business Loop. Because this is the off‑season, the motels were actually really cheap—$23, a sign advertised. Since the KOA Kampground was $21, and we were stressed out from all the traffic, we decided to see about the motel. Erin talked the proprietor into not charging us extra for a second person. The room was fairly seedy; all the lights were broken except one lamp. The beds were lasagnes of mattress: a broken‑down box spring; a smashed, fruit‑leather middle mattress; a slightly newer but also hammered top mattress. My feet hung over the end, causing the foot of the bed to slope drastically towards the floor, almost like a reverse hammock. Dozens of cockroaches were visible to the trained eye.

Our room had a kitchen, though, which was nice. We had no towels and no toilet paper so Erin went back to the office. When twenty minutes passed and she still hadn’t returned, I knew the newspaper reporter in her had come out. She came back with some amazing facts about Myrtle Beach, which I want to share with you. These are from memory, but I think they’re mostly accurate….

Back in the ‘30s or so, the beach was accessible only by ferry. Then, a railroad bridge was built, and eventually a road. Back then it was nothing, just a small beach that farmers went to occasionally. Then, it became the yearly vacation spot for plantation laborers. These poor souls worked 364 days a year, and as their reward they were taken to the beach once a year. Then, South Carolina decided it wanted to have a public beach, since North Carolina and Florida had beaches, so it was made a public beach. A motel was built. From there, it just somehow became a popular vacation spot, despite having no particularly distinctive merits. Motel after motel went up, and people thronged to the area. It became known as a cheap place for middle class people to vacation, and its reputation somehow spread. (Today, it is still known as a cheap vacation spot; its year‑round residents rank 37th in average income for resort residents.) Enough motels and restaurants had been built by the ‘50s that Myrtle Beach was incorporated as a city. Most of the motels look, judging by their architecture, to have been built in the ‘50s.

Today [i.e., in 1994], Myrtle Beach is the 3rd most popular tourist trap in the nation, with only Disneyland (#1) and Disney World (#2) ranking higher. There are between 15 and 20 miles of motels and hotels, totaling more than 24,000 rooms. During the summer, every single motel is at 100% occupancy, all the time. Our little room goes for $65 during the summer; Erin asked if that was why he could “give it away” during the off season. “Give it away!?” cried the owner. “Hell no, I’m not giving it away—I’m still making money! You know how much I pay for that room? $4.50 a day, including the mortgage, electricity, everything. The maid is another $5 or so. At $20 a room I’m still making good money. At $65 a room I’m making a killing.” Now, he says, Myrtle Beach is supposed to be getting its own major airport, because people travel there from all over the world. This past summer, he said, it was thronged with Germans, because they get a favorable cash exchange rate. Last year, he said, it was full of Japanese because of the strong yen.

We were surprised to see that there were still a fair number of tourists there, even in November. And yet, the beach itself was deserted. The strangest thing about Myrtle Beach is that the beach itself is not all that big. It runs along the ocean for miles and miles, but so do the motels and skyscrapers—and the beach is very shallow, a thin strip of sand compared to the densely packed motels that run row after row inland. From an airplane, Myrtle Beach would look like a giant urban complex, gilded scantily at once edge by a thin fringe of beach. It’s amazing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve marveled at the proportions of natural beauty to garish commercialism. Niagara Falls was 5% breathtaking geographical phenomenon, 95% wax museum, restaurant, souvenir shop, motel, Ripley’s Believe‑It‑or‑Not Museum, etc. But Myrtle Beach isn’t even a one‑of‑a‑kind place—the motel owner assured us it isn’t unique in any way. I myself have seen many beaches, both in California and along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that are just as pretty. Its popularity is the result of some queer kind of social inertia—it developed a critical mass of tourist traffic that afforded more and more motels, restaurants, and souvenir stores, and people come simply because it’s there, because it has buffets, because it has a Ripley’s Believe‑It‑or‑Not, because it has miniature golf, because it caters to tourists.

Perhaps the success of fried foods, cookie-cutter gifts shops, and tourist-targeted paraphernalia is why so many touristy places we’ve been to have seemed alarmingly similar. Why should I get continual déjà‑vu’s of Estes Park when I’m at Niagara Falls? Why should I be reminded of Niagara Falls when I visit that Amish settlement in PA? Why does Gettysburg, one of the oldest cities in the east, remind me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco? It’s as though all these places were designed and built by the same developers, the same commercial geniuses, all selling souvenirs built in the same factory.

Not that there aren’t all kinds of great places to visit that aren’t tourist meccas. The Au Sable Chasm in New York, which (like Niagara Falls) claims to be the first tourist attraction in the U.S., is likely nothing you’ve even heard of. It was a peaceful bike ride getting there—none of the gridlock we encountered in Maine or Niagara Falls. It has enough beauty to be a destination for all kinds of folks, but it’s not heavily promoted. To somebody with an entrepreneurial spirit, it might be thought of as mismanaged—an opportunity that slipped through the cracks.

We’ve seen and appreciated some really fine things on our tour without being saturated in the trappings of the tourism industry. The White Sands National Monument was breathtaking, and is the only place in the world with giant gypsum dunes. We enjoyed, as I have in the past, the odd lunar‑looking landscape and vast panorama of Mount Evans, the highest road in North America. We saw the roots of giant trees hanging above us, suspended in mid‑air: the Loess hills, a strange collection of highly erodible hills that exist only in southern Iowa and China. We can proudly say we’ve walked along the widest main street in America. And we’ve enjoyed the most absolutely breathtaking mountain landscapes we’ve ever seen, in Mora County, New Mexico. Why haven’t these places been exploited?

Well, White Sands is in a missile testing area—development there is impossible. And nobody wants to camp in an undeveloped area like that with no running water or indoor toilets. Mount Evans doesn’t have enough oxygen for comfort, even if you drive up in a car. And, unless you stop to talk to a trucker or farmer you won’t ever learn about the Loess Hills; they’re more of an oddity than anything striking enough to make into a wax statue or souvenir. Our tour was fun because we went to out-of-the-way places and had non-dazzling but pleasant interactions we had with locals all along the route. We’d roll into a place like Waltham, Minnesota, or LaCrosse, Kansas, and the locals would say, “You came all the way across country to come here!? They were flattered, and thus friendly.

Tourist traps defy casual conversations with locals, because to make money requires a high ratio of tourists to locals. Moreover, places like Mora County are resistant to tourism because it threatens the character of the place. Locals will talk to bike tourists because we aren’t threatening; we’re not going to fill their town with tour buses and parking lots.

Travel—especially of the backpacking and bike touring variety—can be exciting, but the flip side of excitement is unpredictability and discomfort. We are aware of travelers who don’t want any surprises. For example, we camped at a KOA in Virginia (having no other options) and to our surprise and delight, it had trees, which most KOAs we encountered did not. Leaves fell on our table, offering us instances of natural randomness in an otherwise perfectly manicured camping environment. Erin mentioned to the cashier how much we liked the trees. The cashier responded, “I had a guy in here the other night who registered, went out to his site, and came back complaining about the trees. He said they weren’t supposed to be there. He said he’d been camping at KOAs across the country and had never seen one with trees. He was really mad, and in fact he left!”

Bike touring isn’t for everyone. Erin and I fought a fair bit during this trip. During a freak spring snow, we suffered freezing cold feet, and had to jump up and down in the road to beat blood back into them. We were feasted on by insects throughout the Midwest. We ate cold meals on a number of occasions when I couldn’t get the camp stove to work. We had our bags burgled several times by raccoons or squirrels. We spent hours each day packing and unpacking our bikes. But every day was an adventure. We don’t have a lot of souvenirs from our trip, but then, how often is a tourist spot an adventure?

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dana albert bike tour blog

1 comment:

  1. Part II of this Bike Tour Journal is here: