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Sierra magazine
Road Alone

When your camper has a kickstand, sheer bliss comes with near-miss

By Lynn Rapoport

The RV was too close. I could tell by the toasty diesel exhalations cooking my airspace and the faint jack that comes with getting sucked forward by the draft of a large, fast-moving vehicle. But I didn't realize how intimately we'd been sharing the road until I watched it overtake my companion. Pedaling her loaded-up bike a few lengths ahead, she went rigid as the space between her and the metal behemoth narrowed to about a foot.

I wished some deft photographer-hitchhiker had been loitering roadside to memorialize the moment. Not to get the license plate number but rather to capture the odd coupling of these two self-sustaining highway ramblers--one a stately mobile mansion equipped, presumably, with quilted beds, a flat-screen TV, and a microwave oven; the other more of a randonneuring lean-to, a lovingly home-built Frankenbike with a 1970s Nishiki frame weighted down by the basics of bike camping: sleeping bag, stove, tent, toiletries, and clothing, most of it neatly packed into the kitty-litter and laundry-detergent buckets that my friend had converted into panniers.

The RV passed. The moment passed. I watched another cluster of cars take a 180 curve as if on a NASCAR oval rather than a narrow byway through heart-stopping coastal scenery. And I thought, once again, about the unholy mix of glory and terror that can accompany a weekend of long-distance bike riding.

We'd spent the previous evening camped on a goat farm a few miles inland, in wary proximity to an amorous population of what our hosts had referred to as "musky man-goats." We'd eaten blackberry pie made with fruit foraged from fence-line brambles and sipped whiskey on the porch, gawking at the visitations of fog and fading sunlight on the hillside across the valley, while our friends set up for an outdoor screening of Hitchcock's The Birds (filmed nearby). And this morning we'd biked to the coast, rolling past the fog banks and fish shacks and taffy shops of Bodega Bay, to wander among scrub and sprawling, empty dunes. By the time we set off for home, we were psychically fortified for another scenic, if white-knuckled, stint of riding.

Perhaps one oughtn't complain. After all, no one had forced us to don these stylish spandex-and-polyester ensembles, attach luggage to our spindly two-wheelers, and venture out armorless onto thoroughfares pointedly designed for the convenience of motorists. But there we were, and often are, on spring, summer, and autumn weekends, on one road or another, with the express permission of the transportation authorities--per California Vehicle Code 21202(a)(3). And as the asphalt-hours roll by, it's only natural to contemplate the whiplashing polarities that go with the territory.

You pass your day in the company of objects hurtling forward at three or four or five times your speed. There are people inside whom you might get along with. But they must be approached with the caution one adopts near powerful and unpredictable forces, like the ocean or grizzly bears. They edge shoulderward when traffic backs up. They accelerate as they pass, possibly with the idea of abbreviating the unpleasantness. They honk. (In solidarity? In frustration? To say "Howdy, neighbor"? It's an enigma.)

And then finally you find your payoff in a calm stretch, a sparsely trafficked few miles, an afternoon on a forsaken backroad, one of William Least Heat-Moon's blue highways, a series of rolling hills perfectly spaced for momentum and, occasionally, the grin-installing surge of carlike speeds. And there it is: the valley farmland spreading outward in a green and gold dream; the creek winding down to a bird-thronged estuary; the rocky headlands of an unruly, dazzling coastline. There's also the satisfaction of getting somewhere else, somewhere you maybe used to drive to, via muscle and bicycle.

Sometimes songs like evil birds roost in your brain over miles of flat, silent road. Sometimes evil birds fly overhead--or at least they seemed malevolent after a night spent watching gulls peck at children and Tippi Hedren. And sometimes circuitous disquisitions take up residence: on the state of your finances, your romantic entanglements, the cruelty of false summits and human nature generally--particularly that of drivers who behave as if the road belongs only to them.

But to forgo narrow-eyed judgment and other unattractive moral stances is to take the higher road. And on that bright autumn afternoon, as yet another SUV failed to veer away from our wee, gravelly shoulder, that is what we did.

There was a solitary-looking side road up ahead, leading eastward into the hills, and we moved (lawfully) into the lane to make the left-hand turn, provoking a final mysterious horn toot. The triple arrows on our Sonoma County bike map indicated a quad-busting ascent ahead, and the bike map is not prone to exaggeration. We climbed from sea level to 964 feet in 1.5 miles, panting and yelling and pausing once (at a false summit) to gulp water and oxygen and stare at the shimmering bay far below. The single car that had followed us up here had long since reached the ridge and vanished, and we took a last look seaward before following it toward a glorious triple-arrow descent, happy to at last be alone on the road.

Lynn Rapoport lives and bikes in San Francisco.

Photo: Harry Kikstra/ExposedPlanet

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