Biking in the buff, and other stories

Amongst the Coastal Redwoods, California

‘Step outside Sir!’
Light fills my tent, the fabric glows blue, then red and back to blue in what I know must be the lights of a cop car outside.
‘Alright, alright, I’m coming!’ I shout back, and I stir my pan of simmering pasta before stepping outside into the night. My tent is pitched by the side of a parking lot – it’s the consequence of running out of daylight, energy and scruples during yesterday’s hunt for an elusive campground on the Marin headland. Just the other side of the parking lot there’s an escarpment and beyond the venerable Golden Gate bridge reaches across the choppy waters of the San Francisco bay. It’s a crap place to rough camp, way too visible, and I half expected some kind of comeuppance.

‘Show me your hands Sir. HANDS! WHAT ARE YOU HOLDING SIR!’
‘It’s just some dry spaghetti…’
I follow the order

There are two police officers, the twitchy, vociferous one has one quivering hand pinned to his gun belt. The other steps around me and picks up my knife from where it’s sat in a plate of chopped onions. Unconsciously I slide one hand into my pocket.
‘HANDS! HANDS!’ they bark in unison
‘Sorry, sorry’

After collecting some basic details they ask for my passport and I return to my tent to collect it whilst a beady eyed officer follows, watching me intensely, perhaps expecting me to launch into some kind of commando roll, snatch at the packet of dry spaghetti and stab him in the neck with the filaments of pasta. Or perhaps he’s spotted the potentially lethal weapon of my broccoli and assumes I will try to bludgeon him to death with it. It would be a slow demise.

There are a lot of guns in the US and a lot of nutters with the inclination to use them, so I can understand their caution, but when dealing with hapless cycle tourists cooking dinner I’m not convinced there’s need for these theatrics. Besides, I just don’t have the space in my panniers for an AK-47, too bulky. The officers check my passport, let me make my case and quickly calm down. They even give me permission to camp there overnight once I promise to move off in the morning. I had after all chosen a well developed area instead of throwing down my tent down over a meadow of wild orchids and spit roasting a slaughtered elk.

Marin county turned out to be a leafy utopia with streets all named after trees, where rakish middle aged women walked red setters and Afghan hounds and where grand houses lined up after each other, divided by rhododendron. Whilst I perused a menu outside a cafe, trying to decide which sandwich I would choose if I could afford one, which I could not, I definitely could not, a man attired in a waistcoat and sporting a thin goatee offered to buy me breakfast. Afterwards he spent ten minutes calling friends of his further north who could help me out in some fashion or offer me a place to sleep. It’s another charm of the US – more often people don’t wonder how they might be able to help, the approach is more – I’m going to help, and here’s how.

I made tracks north up the edge of California – the sparkling waters of the Pacific reaching out to my left as I freewheeled down to small coves and recruited my friend momentum to attack climbs up and over verdant headlands. June days in California are long and I pedal until they slowly bleed into night. Memorial day weekend arrived and RVs wrestled for space on the winding coastal highway, I among them, trying to hold my own. A campsite marked on my map ended up being a permanent site for these giant RVs without space for the skinflint bikers like me who expect a five dollar fee and a hot shower to sweeten the deal. A man spotted me scoping out the park and waved and shouted in a manner that made me think we were old friends. It turned out Eric just liked to adopt the odd touring biker when he spotted them and I was welcomed into his clique like one of the family. He offered me a spot to camp by his RV, made sure I always had a beer in hand, fed me with the family and that evening his and other families congregated around the fire, the kids played guitar and we toasted marshmallows. My send off was marked by cheers and waves and back pats and high fives and I admit it, I left a touch teary eyed.

Highway One
Towards the northern reaches of the state, California’s Highway One veers inland for a time, bent inwards by steep mountains which effectively wall off an area known as The Lost Coast. Locals told me of a redundant logging road I could use to make it over the forested lumps of land that discourage most into making the effort. The junction was unsigned but I met a jeep pulling out onto the main road.

‘You’re not going that way are ya buddy?’ asked the driver
‘I was planning to’
‘On that?’
‘Um, yes, I guess’
‘Well, good luck to ya!’

The warning shot was a good call. Most motor vehicles would not have made it. Gradients of 15 and sometimes 20 % turned my quads into fierce enemies of the decision making part of my body that had got them into this mess. Endless climbs precluded descents so steep and uneven that I didn’t dare take them at more than 10 km/hr, and still then with the sneaking suspicion I was heading towards spinal trauma and air evacuation. The logging road saw no other vehicles at all and the windless day was an eerie one – I was hemmed in by a forest of Blair Witch ilk, silent and still and foreboding. There was another reason to be on edge here too. Three weeks before my journey towards the lost coast, 200 miles away inland, a woman and her two children were found dead from gunshot wounds in their home. Shane Miller, the husband, father, ex-convict and prime suspect in the triple homicide, had disappeared. He grew up in these woods and the police had found his car two weeks ago, abandoned just a few miles from me now. He hung with a tough crowd and friends knew him as a survivalist with the skills needed to live rough. Reportedly he had a cache of weapons, money and food buried or hidden in the forest. Townspeople I met later on my route gossipped constantly about him and everyone had a theory – that he’d hiked out, that he was still here living wild, that he’d killed himself. I saw police involved in the manhunt with quad bikes and dogs. Was I was sharing the wilderness with him?

The next day can’t have been very pleasant for a fugitive on the run, or a touring cyclist. The rain was endless and fell in sheets, drenching the forest and me with it. An American might say I was thrown a curve ball. If that’s true the figurative pitcher was a sadist aiming at my nuts. My hands were shrivelled, white and aching with the cold. My feet grew insensate and I began to wonder whether there was a precise definition of trench-foot and how I would know when I had it. The roads continued their undulating torment until tarmac provided a brief respite but once again the road took flight like a bipolar maniac on crystal meth. Soon I realised I wasn’t entirely sure where I was and I waved down a vehicle for assistance, the driver was about as Northern Californian as you can get.

‘Hi, I’m White Star The Pacifist’
voiced the bearded curiosity behind the wheel.
‘Right. Hi White Star. Just need some directions – where does this road go?’
White Star The Pacifist was very helpful in every way except in the art of directing a lost person. He offered insightful and unique quasi-political ramblings. He used words I didn’t understand and some I doubted actually exist except in the bizarre world of white star’s grey matter. He cursed Tony Blair and made me promise that I hadn’t supported the Iraq war. Eventually I gathered from White Star that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, waved him off and then alone, wet, tired, frustrated, and hungry, thought one and only one thing – Shit. And immediately after that, ‘I need a cup of tea’. To that end I descended 400 vertical metres in the wrong direction just to get one, which it occurred to me was a very British thing to do.

I hung out at the store, sheltering under the roof, procrastinating with determination, and daydreaming about a parallel universe once within my grasp. If only I had bought a car instead of a bicycle. If only I had waved goodbye to my mum and turned left, left, left and left and then said ‘you know what, I’ve got a better idea’. I could have been back in a cosy London flat and my life within it. I might even have a girlfriend. My parallel universe comes from a fork in the road which I reached on some forgotten day in early 2007. One road was loaded with predictability, comfort, financial security and convention. The other promised half a decade of banana sandwiches, a forceful dent in my promising medical career and the occasional worry about being mauled to death by a wild animal. But it also came with the allure of adventure and that priceless quantity: uncertainty. The guardian at this fork in my road asked a question I struggled with, the hardest of my life.

‘Will it all be worth it?’ 

The sacrifices I knew, the gains were more mysterious. A deeply rooted gut instinct pushed me in the direction of a yes but in my parallel universe I am not sitting here, shivering, fed up and lonely. In my parallel universe I answered that question with a no. My alternate self in my parallel universe and me, in this one, have journeyed together. There are some things I know for sure about my other self, others I don’t. For example – I don’t know for sure what medical speciality I would be working in. I can’t say what colour or model of hatchback my alternate self would be driving. I have no idea how big my plasma TV would be. But I do know some things – I know that my alternate self never had to pick leaf litter and pine needles out of pasta because he ran out of water and had to cook with muddy rainwater from a puddle, or that when he did so he thought ‘not again’. I can say with near 100% certainty that my alternate self doesn’t regularly take a tentative sniff of his socks, grimaces, and then thinks ‘probably a couple more days left in those’. My alternate self doesn’t I’m sure sneak out of his tent at night wielding a knife because he heard a rustle in the bushes and thinks it may be a recently escaped serial killer. Seriously, that’s how ridiculous my life has become.

But when I imagine my parallel universe and the man that lives there, I wonder when work’s over, and after he has kissed his parallel universe girlfriend goodnight, whether he flicks on the discovery channel on that huge plasma TV and wonders about a parallel universe where an alternate self traversed the Andes and cycled across the Sahara Desert and through Colombian cloud forest. Ingesting occasional foliage and wondering about trench foot is a good trade off for a life time of regret. It’s still raining outside the store, but I’m smiling and thinking that he can keep his plasma TV and loft apartment. I’m happy as I am.

Why do I like these little mini-adventures and the hills – I guess there’s something alluring about this type of challenge because it’s so dependent on one thing and one thing alone – me. Me versus mountain. If I keep going, I will make it. So many challenges in life are dependent upon extraneous and often unpredictable forces. I don’t need people to agree with me, to vote for me, to buy from me, to do anything in order to succeed. There’s something reassuring in the type of simple challenge in which you are the only variable that matters. Cycling the lost coast ended up being as much about discovering the coast itself as it was about discovering myself and how much I can handle.

The Lost Coast of Northern California
I rejoined the highway and each day ended in the retreat of another hiker-biker campsite. One night a guy came up to my tent and asked if I wanted to set up camp with him and his girlfriend making it a cheaper deal for all of us. I got chatting with Adam and Kiley around the fire. They had left their home in Colorado for the promised land of California with little more than a car, some stuff and a dog. They had no work lined up, no friends here, no house yet and no solid plan. They had hope and ambition to fill in the gaps. There was something endearing in their spontaneity, and also in their haplessness. They had been camping out for a week hoping a flat would come up on Craig’s list and were living day to day. They were broke and Adam was clearly the hustler of the pair, offering incessantly to sell me all sort of things I didn’t want or need. I overheard him on the phone to an old friend

‘No way man, this is California. I can’t be like selling meat from the back of my van like I did back home. People want menus and shit.’

They had lost the bulk of their money on their first day in California after Adam left his wallet in a toilet cubicle, most of his ID with it. Whilst relating their story to me by the fire Adam poured gas from a plastic jerrycan onto the flames which travelled up into the container and set it alight. He swung the blazing can around wildly trying to extinguish the flames whilst I shouted for him to throw it away before it exploded. Kiley threw some sand over the container and the flames went out. They both then laughed in a manner that told me they had no idea how close they had just come to weeks of pain and a lifetime of disfigurement. Three minutes later, Adam did it again.

Adam had spent five years in jail after being caught with 45 pounds of weed and 8 pounds of cocaine after he was caught transporting it for his dad. At trial he decided against ratting out his relatives and took the rap. He was 19 years old at the time. He told me he could get work like that again, 40,000 dollars per transport job, but knowing they would throw the book at him next time he hasn’t taken what must at times be a tempting job offer, especially as things are. I felt some sympathy for them, despite their troubles and bad decisions, perhaps because they were so irrepressibly chirpy and optimistic in hard times. I wondered if they would ever make it to where they dreamt they might – the statistics suggest no. The upward mobility in the US that people have historically and rightly been so proud, AKA ‘The American Dream’, has dwindled and comparatively the US is less a land of opportunity than many other developed nations, including most of Europe. If you were born in the seventies in the US and into the lower 5th of the socioeconomic spectrum, your chance of making it into the top two fifths are about 15%, less than other places. For me though, as an outsider, the saddest thing is that people still believe the American dream is a reality mainly I suppose because canny advertisers still promote it and play on the fact that people want to believe it.

There is something impressive though about people’s determination in the US to take responsibility for those around them. I’ve met children selling lemonade on the sidewalk to raise money not for themselves as I would have guessed, but for their school. Signs advertise a project called ‘adopt a highway’ where local groups clean up litter in exchange for their name on a signpost. There are book exchanges in corner shops where donations are given to raise funds for local volunteer fireman.

Oregon rolled around. The hills got longer but less steep. I rode past kite surfers on the beach, past dune buggies, past fishermen, through pine forests and everywhere green dominated the vista except to my left where the vast sea was uniformly blue in the mornings, a good sign. When the wind picked up later on in the day the wavetips frothed and the blue expanse became speckled white. My last two days on the coast were savage ones into gale force wind that slowed me to a crawl. I cut inland to Portland – my vision of the city was fashioned almost entirely from the TV show Portlandia – a satire on the odd, hippy-esque and quirky lifestyle of the residents. The show begins…

Remember the 90’s? When people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos. People were singing about saving the planet, forming bands? There’s a place that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there.
Where is it?
Remember when people were content to be unambitious, when people had no occupation whatsoever, when people would hang out with their friends and maybe work a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop?
Yeah, I thought that died out a long time ago
Not in Portland. Portland is a city young people go to retire.

I was determined to get beneath the cliché, and I had the perfect person to help me. Becky was a friend of Nate’s, a cyclist I met in southern California. She was an awesome, generous soul who helped shape my experience of the city, and as a consequence Portland is one of my favourites so far. The city was basking in a warm sunny spell and gearing up for a series of cycling events in a festival called Pedalpalooza, it was the perfect time to be there. I met up with the Garths, a couple from Alabama I met back in Argentina more than a year ago who are still touring around the world and now on the home stretch, and then I spent four days doing all kinds of cool stuff with Becky. I spoke at a bike shop turned bar, I joined Becky and her mates at a banging house party with some quality musicians, I sat on a peer in the Willamette river at 4 am, in the centre of the city, drinking good beer. I wished I had more time.

There is something of the stereotype in Portland of course. People really do keep goats and chickens next to their houses in the city. Everyone is tattooed. People do go to clown school. Perhaps the mayor of the city really does sit on a giant beanbag instead of a chair, but I have no way to verify this. But of course there is a whole lot more to it than that, and as it turned out the best way for me to really get under the skin of Portland was by throwing everything off. Literally.

The World’s Biggest Naked Bike Ride

I have never had much of a hankering to bare all in front of a crowd. Indeed for most people, bar hardcore exhibitionists, that’s not the stuff of dreams, but of nightmares. But since I’m an outsider with no chance of running into anyone I know, the prospect of doing it on a bicycle in Portland is altogether less daunting and actually quite enticing. That is because there is something about Portland’s eccentric and curious reputation that has inspired me to take part. Portland for starters is the most bike mad place in the whole of the US. It consistently tops lists of bike friendly cities, there are 180 miles of bike lanes and it’s the only large city to earn Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists. Cycling is so much more than the mere subculture it might be considered in other cities, cycling dominates every facet of life and even dictates the fashion sense of the hipsters, the hippies and every denomination of bohemian. I don’t know if people here even recognize themselves as ‘cyclists’ because in Portland, that’s just a given.

These days more than fifty cities worldwide hold an annual naked bike ride, Portland though is probably host to the world’s biggest and last year saw at least 5000 naked bodies take to two wheels on mass, a feat that speaks volumes about Portland’s personality. This is the ninth year it’s been running and potentially only one thing could blight the chance of yet another world record – Portland’s sometimes grim weather. Luckily though a warm, dry night is on the cards, and so the whole city seems game to get naked.

The Portland ride has some notable differences to the many of the world’s other naked rides, nuanced perhaps, other than the fact it’s huge. First of all it kicks off after sunset and afterwards melds into a riotous party that stretches into the night. It’s also a ride in which every sort of person seems inspired to take part. It’s a paradox – that those who are most comfortable with their bodies and with showing them off are often the ones who have the less conventionally (and please treat these as huge inverted commas) “attractive” bodies. Older, rounder people prevail in the naturalist community and dominate some other naked rides. In Portland though the naked ride is most popular among the young, the trim and the supple. Or perhaps that’s just what you get with a city full of healthy food and bicycles.

All day, and for a few days prior, Portland has sizzled with anticipation, and on the evening of June 8th bars around the city are choking with those determined to kill last minute nerves the easy way – with booze. Many I speak with have cycled naked through Portland’s streets four or five times, and it reminds me what a major event this is on the Portland calendar.

I’m with Becky, we met three days ago. We’re tipsy and hyped up, like everyone around us. The sun has set half an hour ago leaving the sky a navy blue as we jump onto bikes and head off towards the start line. Almost immediately we become swallowed up in a jumble of riders pedaling towards the river. More and more converge on the melee every minute from side streets and bars, many painted, waving glow sticks, and a few already naked. There are cheers and yells and whistles and it feels like we’re part of something huge and bold and exciting. We hit Hawthorn bridge as a chaotic peloton. Two girls have stopped ahead and are undressing. Glitch-hop belts out from a boom-box on someones trailer, there are more screams. As the riders get denser we get off and walk our bikes into a jostling concrescence of nude bodies, all waiting for the ride to begin. The crowd is so tattooed that blue cheese is a decent simile.

The organizers don’t publicize the route, only the starting point. This year it begins from outside the art museum which has been open to the gathered riders for hours, they have been charging entry but not many paid, the fee is a dollar per item of clothing. There’s a smattering of voyeuristic pedestrians milling through the riders but nobody seems to care. Every so often a howl erupts from the assembly, a call to action, and soon after anyone who needed a little more inspiration to fling off their remaining clothes does just that. That includes me and in a flash of courage, spurred on by goading from Becky, my boxers are off and stashed in a pannier, it will be several hours until I put them back on. Becky though has set out boundaries – underpants are staying on and a blue star of tape covers each nipple. Within five minutes the tape has been peeled off and two minutes later everything else follows.

Technically we are now breaking the law – Portland’s city code reads:

“It is unlawful for any person to expose his or her genitalia while in a public place or place visible from a public place, if the public place is open or available to persons of the opposite sex.”

Thankfully though the police issued a statement in the weeks before the ride asserting that ‘whilst many participants may violate Portland City Code, Police Bureau will be exercising tremendous discretion’. Tremendous discretion is a lovely understatement, I’m surrounded by an estimated 8150 naked or near naked bodies, and the police couldn’t act if they wanted to, and they certainly don’t want to.

Within a minute I feel almost completely at ease with my nakedness, gradually we move forward and then suddenly the bikers thin out as the ones just ahead seize an opportunity to ride. We pedal off through a corridor of gawking spectators – most of them are congruent with our festive mood and offer cheers and high fives which feels like the right way to give up respect to those who have the courage to let it all hang out. Plainly some are there just to leer, a few are recording video on their phones, but again nobody gives them much heed.

Then it’s only naked bodies around me and the all pervasive thump and boom of electronica as the warming effect of adrenaline tempers the chill of the rushing air. Why are we doing this? There are a host of reasons depending upon who you speak with – there are political motivations – a protest on the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels. A way to highlight the vulnerability and rights of cyclists. These are ideas I concur with and an ethos I share, but admittedly not the only reason I’m here. I’m here too for the celebration, for a chance to be part of something daring and extraordinary. It’s the one thing I should do every day that scares me. I suspect that for the others too at least some of their motivation is just as personal.

We’re moving fast and proudly around the city on a proscribed route cordoned off by smiling policemen. Towards the finale of the seven mile route small gatherings of dissidents have ditched their bikes and are raving, still naked, around sound systems. We join them for a minute and then rejoin the riders to the finishing point under the highway where a bigger party is at it’s pumping apex. Soon after joining these revellers I discover it’s not just my feet that are moving erratically to the music, but another beer wipes away any self consciousness and I’m back into the insouciant tumult of ravers and their flapping bits.

Back on our bikes, we head to the official after party on the banks of the Willamette river. I’ve been naked for hours and getting dressed holds no appeal at all now. Eventually the cold bites too much though to avoid the strangely disappointing moment of donning garbs.

The naked ride is not just a day when people disrobe, it’s one that Portland itself does as well. With the stripping, Portland’s buzz and charm are easy to see, mainly through the characters who live here, and if you want to ride a bicycle naked with 10,000 other naked people, and even if you don’t, in fact especially if you don’t, it’s the spirited and creative city of Portland that must be the best place in the world to do so.

And now – I’m having some down-time in Seattle with my cousin Liz and about to head off into Canada. Next post will come out of Prince George in British Columbia. Apologies for one of my longest ever blog posts, but as Mark Twain put it – ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.’

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Comments (7)

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    HELL YEAH!!!!


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    Love this post..I must try the naked ride in Portland!


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    From Portland to Twain to the chirpy exuberance of a country full of gun-toting nuts,

    you've nailed it all.

    As you do.


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    Sam Rendell


    More great reading Steve, best of luck in your continued adventures.

    I can't wait to read about them!


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    Fuck yeh!!!!! Very disappointed about the lack of photos though Fabes.


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    I agree with Jocelyn…….especially the introspection before Portland.


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