I spent the summer working as a bicycle touring guide, and what a ball it was! I got to tour with some very cool people in some very nice places including the California wiine country, Bodega Bay and Oregon's Columbia Gorge.
On my bicycle trip around the world, I pedaled through 19 countries and across three continents, and on each leg of my journey, I discovered something new, valuable and useful about myself. While not every experience was what you might call comfortable or even pleasant, I always came away with a fuller understanding of the world and my place in it.
Check out the six bicycle tours I've described below, choose one you think will do the most to broaden your personal horizons, then, go do it!
Highway 1A, Vietnam
Hue to Dieu Tri Distance: A mostly flat 400 kilometers Best time of year: February-March
You'll pedal through lush jungle, past sun kissed beaches and by an old bullet-scarred French fort atop Hai Van Pass, the highest road in Vietnam. But what you'll remember most about your bike tour down Highway 1A is the traffic. It's not unusual to see a truck passing a bus, passing a car, passing a scooter, passing a bicycle, passing a water buffalo all heading straight for you. But somehow it all works out and after a day or two you won't even notice the barely-controlled mayhem. You'll abandon your Western Angst and sense of right-of-way and, like the locals, learn to enjoy just going with the flow.
The Pacific Coast Highway, California, Oregon And Washington State, USA
Los Angeles to Seattle Distance: A hilly 1500 miles Best time of year: May-September
Few places on Earth can match the sense of serenity you'll experience on a bicycle tour along the western edge of the North American Continent. You'll meander through groves of ancient redwoods, ascend to the lonely crests of awe-inspiring ocean cliffscapes and go days without seeing a town bigger than Mayberry.
And of course, there's nothing like drifting off to sleep beneath the whirl of the Milky Way while camped out at one of the many state and county parks. Do this ride solo in the offseason; before or after summer, to get the full Zen effect of this mystical route.
The Elbe River Bicycle Trail, Germany and Czech Republic
Dessau, Germany to Prague, The Czech Republic Distance: A flat 300 kilometers Best time of year: June-September
A sense of history
Until very recently, this region along the Elbe River was behind the Iron Curtain, and some remnants of Marxist domination still remain. You'll see the occasional abandoned Soviet-era factory and everyone over 30 has a story about life under communism. Looking a bit farther into the past, you'll come across reminders of WW2, like the now-rebuilt cathedral at Dresden, which, along with the rest of the city, was devastated by American and English bombers toward the end of the War.
But it's the grand old cities like Dessau, home of the legendary design school, The Bauhaus, and Prague, where the Grand Hotel Europa still reigns supreme, that will create the most lasting impressions and alter the way you think about history and the arc of time.
The Mehendra Highway, Nepal
Mahendranagar to Butwal Distance: A two thirds flat, one third hilly, 450 kilometers Best time of year: March-May
Grace and dignity
Nepal is one of the poorer countries, and the Terai Region, through which the Mehendra Highway runs, is perhaps the poorest part of this kingdom. Yet, in spite of -- or perhaps because of their poverty -- the locals posses a kind of grace and dignity you sometimes find lacking in wealthier Western cultures.
There are plenty of villages along this generally fine, mostly flat route, which means you'll never want for a place to sleep, even if you can't find a hotel. Just stop and ask a villager, and no doubt these generous folks will offer you a place to lay your head for the night, plus, they'll probably throw in a fine meal to boot. Riding this stretch of the East-West Highway will humble you in ways you can't now imagine. It will make you a better person. Namaste.
San Juan Islands, Washington State, USA
San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw Islands Distance: Varies from 5 to 60 miles Best time of year: May-October
Take it slow
They call it Island Time. It's that relaxed state of mind everyone seems to adopt when they tour these Salish Sea gems. The distances are short; the longest ride is on San Juan Island and that's only 60 miles. But racking up kilometers is not the point. You'll want to slow down and take the time to experience the natural beauty and enjoy the quaint amenities. Because after all, soft pedaling is what a bicycle tour of the 'Juans is all about.
From one-store Shaw Island, to laid-back Doe Bay Resort on Orcas, to rustic Roche Harbor on San Juan, there are so many great reasons to stop and linger that it's hard to hurry here. Gently rolling hills through deep evergreen forests and the ever-present scent of the sea combine to form a calming ambience even the most harried city dweller will find hard to resist. If you're patient enough, you might be rewarded with a glimpse of a solitary eagle or a pod of killer whales. Believe me, these are the experiences that give you a fresh outlook on life.
Lisbon to Porto Distance: 325 kilometers Best time of year: Year 'round
The art of life
Central Portugal is one of the finest, and yet curiously, one of the least recognized bicycle touring regions in the world. From Porto in the north to Lisbon in the south, you'll discover a European way of life forgotten in many of the bigger, more prosperous EU Member countries. Prices for goods and services are much lower than in neighboring regions, the countryside remains rural and bucolic, the food seems exotic, and, unlike in Spain, the trains are bike-friendly for those times when you just don't feel like riding. There's bullfighting -- if you go in for such sport, the Camino Santiago de Compostela and lots of great native wines.
One of the things I liked most about bicycle touring in Portugal was that few people I met outside of the major cities spoke English. The challenge of communicating in an unfamiliar language really got my brain working over time. It re-energized a whole bunch of synaptic networks that had lain dormant since sophomore calculus!
Usually I box my bicycle when I fly but I had it wrapped in heavy plastic, instead, when I flew out of Lisbon. Even though I was assured that it was safe, I held my breath as it came out of the chute at LAX. As it turned out, Blu was just fine and all the parts made the trans-Atlantic crossing.
I've disassembled and re-assembled Blu so many times that it's almost second nature and I had him up and running in less than half an hour. I'd left my panniers at the hostel so I was looking forward to a nice easy 13-mile jaunt on the bike trail back to Santa Monica. But it wasn't long before I ran into trouble.
As I rode west toward the ocean, the back tire went flat. I pulled over and discovered that the steel bead that runs around the edge of the tire had broken and poked a gaping gash in the tube. It was my own stupid fault; the tire I was running was a spare that I had been carrying all through Asia and Europe and had just installed in Lisbon a few days earlier. I had folded it and stashed it in my pannier, which had caused the bead to break and puncture the tube.
I made the repair, but within a few miles, it went flat again. Then, a few miles farther on, I had another flat. The bead was really making minced meat of my tube and I had to repair it several more times before I reached my hostel. Luckily, I had another spare and I replaced the defective tire that evening. I also adjusted my brakes, and gave Blu a good going-over. I didn't want any problems on my 1,600-mile ride up the coast.
The next morning dawned foggy and gray. I loaded up my bike, found a cash machine and got on the bike trail heading north. I'd had a conversation with a fellow biker at the hostel the evening before and he shook his head when I told him my plans. "Man, don't you know you can't ride north up the Pacific Coast Highway? Hell, those hills are tough enough; you're going to be battling the winds, too."
"Indeed," I replied, "I know all about the winds. Word is that they blow out of the north at gale force."
"Well," he said, "I don't know about 'gale force' but it's gonna be really tough. I doubt that you'll make it."
I had read all about the folly of trying to ride the Pacific Coast Highway from south to norht in the book, Bicycling the Pacific Coast, but I had made up my mind. What the hell, I thought, how bad can it be?
I rose early and caught the shuttle to LAX. I took a seat up front and to cut the boredom struck up a converrsation with the driver who told me he'd immagrated from Kolkata, India, the year before. "Really," I said, "I was just there."
"What was your impression?" he asked.
I thought back to the week I'd spent in a decaying hotel in a ravaged Kolkata neighborhood. Images flashed through my mind of crumbling buildings, broken streets, air chokingly filthy, skeleton mothers with skeleton babies living on the streets and begging for scraps. It had been a real eye-opener. "Well," I said, "it was, uh, interesting..."
"It's a hell-hole," the driver said, cutting my bullshit short, "I could not wait to get out." We were on the freeway now, traffic was moving smoothly along the expanse of the four-lane. He indicated the highway with a sweeping gesture, "Look at what you have here in America. Everything is clean and modern. Everyone has enough food to eat. Even the beggars are overweight. Sometimes I think many Americans don't appreciate what you have."
"Right," I said, "we're a spoiled lot with arrogant tendancies. I've noticed that too."
"I hear Americans complain about taxes and government regulations," the driver continued. "It always amazes me, they don't seem to understand that nice roads and clean water cost money. Let them move to India where the taxes are low and environmental regulations are non-existant. Maybe they'd be happy there!"
"Yeah," I said, "it's a regular Neoconservative Utopia."
"Ayn Rand would be right at home," the driver said.