The Company We Keep

In my last few posts I have written much about the challenges that bicycle touring presents and the ability to overcome those challenges as a defining element of the sport. For me this is central to why I choose to endure the mountains, the wind, the rain, and the flats (so many flats). These challenges are equaled by triumphs, revelations, and the beauty of the natural world as observed from a bicycle. Whether we overcome those challenges and enjoy the ride or succumb to them and their misery, the difference is in large part based on the company we keep.

To illustrate, one evening I found myself camped out among the tall lodgepole pines of Yellowstone. The hiker/biker camping area was filling up, and there I was positioned between two very different situations. On one end, a nice British couple sat at a picnic table preparing their dinner. We struck up a conversation and I was buoyed by their sense of positivity and excitement for the adventure they had laid out for themselves. Opposite this was a solo rider who arrived late. With no open campsite he trudged further into the woods and began racing the darkness to get set up for the night.

He was obviously frustrated as he fumbled with unpacking his gear and rigging up a camping hammock. Due to proximity we exchanged the usual greetings. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been on the road? Through this I learned the partial reason for his sullen mood. Just a day or so prior a fundamental disagreement between him and his companion had come to a head. He wanted to reach the Oregon coast and continue south along the edge of the pacific. His companion had hoped to cut north and end in Washington at the home of a friend. Their solution was to not-so-amicably part ways in the middle of America. Now alone in Yellowstone, this guy was waffling between sticking it out or calling it quits and heading home to the east coast.

I do not know what his ultimate decision was, he had left before I woke up the next day, but his plight was a fundamental mistake when not only bike touring but doing any sort of traveling. Sure, a lot can change over a few months on the road, but it amazed me that they had not made an agreement on something as basic as their destination prior to embarking on such a massive journey.

In another case, not long after leaving Yellowstone, I encountered a cyclist of a different sort entirely. In this case, our traveler was going solo with a mission to ride through every state in the contiguous US. He did not have much of a plan to accomplish that, but he seemed committed to his goal. He was just getting started on his journey but this wasn’t his first run around the sun. He had done other long-distance touring around the US.

The next day he was off. I kept up with him through his online chronicles of his journey, and for at least a few more months he stayed on course, even making it as far as my home state of Maryland and then further north. But at a certain point, as detailed in his final photo logs from his journey cut short, the solitude got to him. He packed it up and headed back home.

I have never undertaken a long tour alone, but then again I have about one person who I can stand to live with in the conditions presented by bicycle touring. I have long flirted with the idea of setting out on my own, I do believe a solo trip can only be good for the soul, but I struggle without the encouragement of another, even if that encouragement comes in the form of some lighthearted ribbing.

I can think of one instance, and it was about the only one, where things came to a head with my riding partner. Lee and I had ridden all day through clouds of bugs in a part of the country seemingly devoid of trees. This might not have been an issue had we not been relying on hammocks as our primary sleeping arrangement. No trees means no hammocks, and the town we ended up in left us out of luck.

Beyond the town were some small patches of short shrub-like trees that would have done in a pinch, but they were behind a barbed-wire fence and “No Trespassing” sign. I was perhaps a little too cautious in not wanting to go the stealth camping route, but Lee insisted this was the best solution. I would not budge due to my penchant to obey the rules perhaps a bit too closely. Things got heated. At this point we were riding around with no direction, angry, tired, and hungry. We ultimately settled on sleeping on the ground and luckily the disagreement between us blew over.

It is true that bicycle touring can often be a solitary endeavor, even with a companion pedaling by your side. There is a certain zone that one enters as the rhythmic stride of pedaling pulsates in unison with the vibrations of the mind. But the decision to truly ride alone is one that can make or break an experience. On one hand, there is the complete freedom of owing nothing to anyone and the peace of mind that nobody else’s bad vibes can your bring you down. On the other, the right companion can lift you up when you are down, or, at the very least, provide a spare tube when you have blown out your last.

There is no right or wrong answer here, and I have not even touched on the larger groups and whatever dynamics might unfold there. It’s something I can say I would rather not have inside knowledge of. The road is merciless; it can make or break relationships. So if bicycle touring is in some way metaphorical of life’s journey, it only makes sense that we should surround ourselves with the right people to make the most of it.

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5 thoughts on “The Company We Keep”

  1. Thom says:

    Nice post Kevin, and timely to. Being a newbie to the thought of bike touring, my recent purchase or a longtail ebike has the thought of it calling to me. Others worry as I am in my 70’s, but for the time being I am methodically putting together equipment that would compliment my bike and needs should I decide to head out towards the Northwest from NorCal. In the interim I will familiarize myself by taking longer daily rides and working into some weekend ‘over-niter’ trips. Then we’ll just see how the ‘flow goes’ for 2018 when the weather is more enjoyable.

  2. graeme mcculloch says:

    Hi Kevin. Nice article, thanks. I have toured quite a lot and have always chosen to go on my own. As you say being alone has the advantage of not having to check in with anyone else in order to make a decision. I have always kept to the Adventure Cycling routes so have found plenty of company with fellow cyclists and have had the option to socialize or stay by myself. It really is the best of both worlds I have found.
    Happy touring, Graeme

  3. Bill says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Great article! I agree with Graeme — you can often find folks to ride with on the route. I’ve had many pleasant solo trips when I rarely rode alone.

    Meeting people is a big benefit of the hiker-biker campgrounds, something that fellow you met unfortunately did not take advantage of.

    But the other thing to consider is attitude. Yes, plan and prepare, but also keep an open mind about engagement and adjustment. It is about the journey, right?
    Bill Thorness
    Author, Cycling the Pacific Coast

  4. Eric L says:

    Nice article! I also have toured quite a bit on my own-over 20000 miles over a few big trips and lots of smaller ones. What I like most about solo bike touring are the people I meet-both on and off bikes. When I’m on my own, I tend to connect with more people than when I’m riding with a partner. I recently finished a 500 mile solo jaunt on the Great Divide Mtn Bike Route in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Out of the 13 nights I spent out, only 2 did I spend alone. I connected with and overnighted with folks from all over the world-some were on their bicycles, others were not. Solo bike touring is the best way to meet new friends!

  5. Ray Jette says:

    Nice post Kevin, It got me thinking about some of my own energy I have put out there when I have been exhausted and tried to keep up with others. I have been riding bikes my whole life but as a relative new comer to bike packing / long distance touring It can get frustrating keeping up with the more experienced and younger riders day after day. A couple of times I have pushed myself well past what is fun and into the land of delirium, and I can say I was not all that pleasant to be around. I don’t overstate my abilities prior to a ride but I also don’t set limits because I don’t want to make people feel like they will need to lessen their experience. What would you feel is an appropriate way of setting limits on those tough days that I know I’m not doing well and going to bonk?

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