Thursday, March 7, 2013


Twelve Days Biking and Camping Alone Along the Pacific Coast

A couple years ago, Megan Bernard biked from Eugene, OR, to San Francisco.

Edith Zimmerman: Megan! You biked for 10 days alone on the Pacific Coast. If my life depended on that, I would either die, or at the end of 10 days be walking alongside the bike a mile from where I started. Biking is horrifying madness, I don't know where people like you come from, but I will grudgingly accept that you exist. [Pause for rebuttal.]

Megan Bernard: Ah, here's the thing, though — riding a bike gives you transportation plus immersion into your surroundings plus autonomy. Go where you want to go, when you want to go, stop for coffee without paying for parking, and see everything along the way. Cycling can actually be the experience that car commercials want you to believe you'd have driving a Luxury Automobile.

[Nothing will ever sway me.] How did the trip come about, and what were you doing at the time? / How did you get the time?

At the time I was on a fellowship writing my dissertation. My experience of grad school was good/weird, because I worked a lot but my schedule was flexible. Writing the dissertation made me feel scattered and amateurish pretty regularly, but I had been cycling for years and I feel strong and competent with bikes. I wanted to do something difficult-but-fun for a little while as a change of pace. I had backpacked a fair bit, I had ridden one other big cycling tour (Chicago to Montreal) with a friend, and I have solid repair and mechanical skills. I chose this route because I loved camping along the Oregon coast with my then-boyfriend/now-husband, and I had never gotten to ride in real hills. I started telling people I was going to do it in December, I began planning in earnest in March, and I started the trip at the end of July.

Where did you sleep at night?

I camped, for the most part. The state parks in Oregon and California have "hiker/biker" campsites set aside and those spots (which couldn't be reserved in advance) cost five bucks a night. The sites were all comfortable and well-tended, and I only stopped at campgrounds that had hot showers. I also budgeted for a couple of motel stays, to give myself a respite from sleeping on the ground. In Gualala, CA, I ended up in a honeymoon suite with a bottle of champagne, two robes, and a jacuzzi — that night I got a little drunk while I washed all of my clothes in the tub with the jets turned on high.

Did you see any crazy stars? (In the sky, or, I guess, unexpected celebrities?)

I thought that I would, but I didn't understand what the weather in midsummer on the Pacific coast would be like — I had entertained fantasies of riding around in the sunshine, getting all tan, but I was in head-to-toe wool and had to buy a hat on the second day. It was gray and clammy and cold a lot of the trip and the fog obscured most of the stars.

What's your bike like, and does it have a name?

Oh, my beloved bike. She's a silver Surly Pacer, which is not designed to be a touring bike (i.e., it isn't set up for a rack or fenders), but it's so comfortable I can happily ride all day. I put on a compact double chainring so I'd have a low gear for climbing the hills and rigged up a very sturdy rear rack to hold my panniers, tent, and sleeping bag. Her name is Caroline, after the stalwart and lovely pioneer mother in "Little House on the Prairie." I keep her inside the house so she won't get stolen.

What did you eat? Did you ever eat those crazy gel packs? I'm picturing you like a mix of Dorothy in her bike with a basket, peddling along merrily, and some tournament person with an aerodynamic helmet, leaving a trail of crazy gel packs along the highway.

Ugh, I hate gels, yuck. I peddled along merrily in my helmet and I ate real food. Every morning I made oatmeal with powdered milk, nuts, and dried cherries. Lunch was mostly peanut butter and honey sandwiches, apples, and chocolate, and I cooked couscous and premade Indian meals for most dinners. Hot meals to begin and end every day made me feel more human. I made a point of stopping at any roadside stand I saw for fruit, and I treated myself to a glorious and expensive hunk of Red Hawk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery when I got to Point Reyes. I will never forget that cheese.

Speaking of highways, where did you bike?

My route hugged the coastline most of the way, on US 101 and Highway 1. I started riding in Florence, Oregon, and I ended in San Francisco. This route is a very popular tour, and people can take it all the way from Vancouver to Mexico. It was exhilarating to be so close to the water, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks, but it was also a little bit terrifying sometimes. Most of the time I had some shoulder to ride on, but at certain points the shoulder vanished so I'd be on the white line with a sharp drop-off just to my right. Riding the hills was physically hard on the ascents and and technically hard on the descents. Because I live in Chicago where everything is flat, I had never gone downhill so fast before. Also there were logging trucks and RVs, which are much scarier than buses and cabs.

What did you carry with you?

A tent, a sleeping bag, a little stove with fuel, cookware, bamboo utensil set, my helmet and bike gloves, a U-lock and cable, two pairs of bike shorts and one pair of knickers, two light wool sweaters, two jerseys, a hat, long underwear, a knit skirt, flipflops, three pairs of wool socks, wool arm warmers, a windbreaker, bike shoes, food, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, contact lens solution, a microfiber towel, a minimal bike repair kit, spare tubes, a pump, front and rear lights, a first aid kit, my phone and charger, a journal, two books, two water bottles, my maps, my wallet, emergency cash, a bag of quarters, and my guidebook. I used two rear panniers, a bungee net, and a front handlebar bag. I also have a thing called a Road ID, which is a velcro strap that has a metal plate etched with my personal information (emergency contact info, blood type, organ donor). I wear that on my ankle whenever I ride anywhere.

What did you wear? And how did you do your hair?

I wore a jersey and a sweater and knickers (I know it's a dumb word, but that's what they are — cycling pants that stop just below the knee) every day to ride, and sometimes I needed arm warmers and my windbreaker and hat. At night in the campsite after showering I'd wear my long underwear, skirt, and the next day's jersey and sweater with my flipflops. I keep my hair short, so that was not a thing. (When I got to San Francisco, I spent a bunch of money at the Gap because I didn't have any bras or tshirts or jeans with me for wearing around the city like a normal human being.)

Did you meet anyone particularly wonderful or weird?

There were some delightful people in the campsites! The college-age boys from Minnesota who were so excited to see a thicket of wild blackberries that they didn't notice the poison ivy surrounding the bushes until it was too late, the lovely Irish woman who hadn't ridden a bike since she was twelve but flew to Vancouver, bought one, and started riding south, the guy in his 70s who had ridden the tour southbound and northbound every summer for thirty years, and Eightball and Poppy — an older itinerant dude and his dog who were hitchhiking. We had lunch together and discussed lost loves. Everyone was friendly and interesting and happy to share whatever they had.

Were there campfires?

Nightly. Sometimes I would join the other folks for drinks and snacks, and also for warmth. We'd talk about route options and gear decisions we'd all made, and trade gossip about characters who were also riding. Everybody at every campsite had either met or heard of Seth, the dude who was super into talking about Burning Man.

Did you see exciting animals?

There were many deer and cows along the way, and I saw a herd of elk grazing one morning. My favorite wildlife were the barking sea lions — I heard them more often than I saw them, but I never got over the novelty because they were proof that I was really right next to the ocean, not just Lake Michigan like usual.

Did you fall off your bike?

Nope! I haven't fallen since the first weekend I used clipless pedals, when I bit it on a Critical Mass in 2007 (a giant group ride the last Friday of every month). I had no crashes, no flats, and no mechanical failures on this trip, which was good luck. I did get myself moderately lost a couple of times in towns, and had to ask pedestrians for directions.

Near Bandon, OR — part of an art project called "Washed Ashore."

What was the saddest you felt? Or most frustrated?

The evening of the day that I climbed the hardest hill on my whole route, I got rained on for awhile and when I finally got to the campground at Fort Bragg the rangers informed me that due to a recent storm the camp's water was contaminated and would need to be boiled before cooking or drinking. I was exhausted and cold and lonely, and that news was not welcome because I just wanted the evening to be easy. I got my little tent set up in the rain and tried to remember why, exactly, I had decided to embark on a vacation defined by labor and inconveniences, without the company of anybody I loved. My journal entry from that night has some profanity in it.

The happiest?

No question, one of my two happiest moments were in the redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants. It was cool and silent and green, like an open air cathedral. I couldn't hear anything but the whir of my pedaling and my breath. Those ancient trees quieted all of my petty, anxious, buzzing thoughts; I was comforted by seeing that these enormous, strong beings had endured for so many years and would live long after I was gone.

The other was when I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. I was overcome — it's very beautiful, of course, and I felt so proud of myself. I called my boyfriend and when he answered I started crying and just repeating, "I did it, I did it, I made it." I still grin when I think about it. It was a similar feeling to finishing grad school, in fact.

How much did it all cost, and how long did it take to plan? (Other than an entire life, to make you the kind of crazed person who enjoys bicycling — it's so hard and they go so fast!)

Heh — I promise, it's so easy and they only go as fast as you make them go! They're not like horses or jetpacks. I planned in a serious way for about a month — reviewing route choices, potential campgrounds, and setting mileage goals based on my budget and physical abilities. I planned in a daydreaming way for about eight months.

It cost me about $1500 for the plane tickets, shipping my bike via FedEx (which required me to buy a special cardboard box), and my food, campsite, and three motel rooms. That total doesn't include the cost of much of my camping gear, which I already had, or my bike (~$1800). Total, about $3300ish. It could be done cheaper, for certain.

How did you feel different at the end?

It was just short of 700 miles, and I rode alone virtually the whole time. Those hours on my own made me much stronger, a little taller, and when I came home to Chicago I felt more like myself than I had in years. I felt a little bit more content with myself than I had been when I left.

If your bike could speak, what would it say right now? [Points mic at bicycle]

"Take me out, take me out, take me out, take me out!" She's sick of being stuck indoors.
Previously: Alone on Easter Island

Megan Bernard lives and rides in Chicago with her husband and daughter. She works happily at Roosevelt University, which is conveniently close to the Lakefront Trail.

70 Comments / Post A Comment

Ragged But Right

Oh I love this one! Partly because it reminded me of Cheryl Strayed's WILD which is amazing, and partly because I have always wanted to walk this trail. Barking Sea Lions, man.


<3 <3 <3


My god I love this@j


I know a Seth who won't shut up about Burning Man, but I don't think he's ever traveled the coast. This confirms: more than one Burning Man-obsessed Seth.

Also, this is great. Makes me want to go outside.


@yeah-elle My friends just went for the first time this year and were kind of insufferable for the month after they got back, prompting me to suggest "Couple Who Just Went to Burning Man For the First Time" as a sketch on Portlandia.


Well hello wanderlust, I was wondering where you'd been! Off to quit my job and cancel my Netflix, bye!


guys should I learn how to ride a bike?

also, the redwoods and sequoias are so beautiful, I loved them.


@iceberg Yes. I learned at like, 27 and now I love it.

Ellen O

@iceberg Learn to ride! A lot of cities have clinics for adults, and some just for women. Riding is the best!


@iceberg Oh, yes. YES. Yes.

Hot Doom

@iceberg Nah.


@iceberg yes yes one hundred times yes! you'll be free and get some sick calves and be able to buy fun lights or jerseys or waterbottle cages or gloves or amazing new bikes when you hit new milestones!

...Sorry, I was volunteering at our Bike Swap this weekend and am still running the high of helping ladies get awesome bikes.


Megan, you remain the coolest person.


@RachelMonroe, dude, you make me blush. I miss you- we should rendezvous in TX!


@emeegee ride yer bike on down! xo

Tammy Pajamas

Right there with you on the Red Hawk. Actually, pretty much any of Cowgirl Creamery's cheeses. YUM.

Laughable Walrus

@Tammy Pajamas Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are some of my favorite things in the world!


> Biking is horrifying madness

Testify, Edith. And living in Portland, that's like saying you eat kittens. So tender!

Angry Panda

@noReally Yeah, I signed in to comment to agree with this sentiment. This was also a bone of contention with my ex-boyfriend, since I refused to get on a bike ever and he was really into it and pictured romantic bike rides exploring new cities with his girlfriend.


@Angry Panda Um yeah, see also: Help me my boyfriend bought me a bike for christmas and I am so terrified to ride it. So terrified.


I love the idea of a holiday alone being an activity holiday. Im trying to summon up the stones to plan a solo surfing trip. This post was great. I really liked her answer to how she felt different at the end. And the pictures!

Michelle LeBlanc@twitter

@teaandcakeordeath There was a lady surfer camp at a hotel I stayed at in Costa Rica once, and I kind of wished I was there for that purpose (and did not find surfing a bit terrifying)

(Edited to add: it was this)


@Michelle LeBlanc@twitter
Ooh thanks for the heads up. There seems to be a few around the world. I'm eyeing up Portugal right now. Though Ive always wanted to go to Costa Rica.
Surfing is fun I promise! Travelling alone sounds more terrifying. There should be a pin up at one of these camps!

ETA: I just saw the link - wow! Excuse me for a sec, I need to run off to Costa Rica. Thanks!

Michelle LeBlanc@twitter

@teaandcakeordeath The ocean and beach there was very beautiful and there were many friendly dogs, but Jaco is kind of a weird place. Overall though Costa Rica: highly recommended.

Perhaps I will return someday to do the surf thing, but I'm really pretty bad at balancing just on firm ground.


I like the coast, and I like biking, but I would die, probably. I think I'll just take a drive out to Santa Cruz and walk a few yards.

Ellen O

Megan, you are truly awesome! This captured the allure and the nuts and bolts of being a gal on wheels. It's not as scary as some folks might suppose.
I did a cross-country ride a few years ago with several weeks of being alone, and there are lots of amazing women out there doing this. This one keeps possibly my favorite blog. It's my go-to site for daydreaming from the office.


@Ellen O Ahh, awesome! A cross country ride is on my life goal list. Did you do the northern or southern tier?

Ellen O

@emeegee I went straight through the middle - NC to SF. The Pacific Coast ride you went on has been on my list for a while! This story about your ride stoked the fire!


Man, I need to get over my fear of Chicago & just get a bike. I miss it so much.


@aphrabean There's a bike swap at UIC this Saturday with workshops, bike polo (!!!), and hopefully some good deals if you are serious about starting! I am terrified of biking on the roads but more terrified of paying through the nose to commute, so I'm going to go look for a workhorse bike.


@wallsdonotfall Oh man! Sadly, I have plans Saturday I can't get out of, but dang. . . I will keep my eyes open for similar events. I really, really need to start biking again - I rode my bike exclusively for about 7 years, before moving out here. But the drivers here are INSANE! Ugh! I waver so much! How are you overcoming your fears? Am I being paranoid? (Almost everyone I know who bikes regularly in the city has been hit by a car, is the other thing.)


@aphrabean This was my trip! And the best way to overcome your nerves of riding in Chicago is to work your way through our growing network of protected lanes or on the lakefront trail, and find a pal to ride with on the streets. Check out www.thechainlink.org for inspiration, and to find out about clinics, rides, bike swaps, etc. They've got a good and thorough calendar.


@aphrabean I haven't biked much since moving to the north side, but yeah, I use the lakefront and North Channel trails as much as possible. (Getting to the lakefront from my house is hard, though, and I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes I put my bike on the bus to get there.) Otherwise, I'm trying to ride mostly on smaller neighborhood streets instead of competing with the traffic on major avenues. We can do it!


@aphrabean Honestly, I've found Chicago to be better biking than most of the midsized cities I've ridden in. Because drivers here *expect* there to be bikes a lot more; they kind of know how a bike behaves rather than being surprised all the time. I've been riding here for . . . six years, now, I guess? and have had a handful of collisions with cars and their doors (and once another bike, which was actually one of the worst) but nothing that left me with more than some bruises and scrapes. And that's as someone who rides about 20 miles a day, weather permitting, so statistically you're probably way less at risk. Just, you know, wear a helmet! And take the lane if something weird pops up and you need to; an early mistake I made was hugging the line of parked cars rather than staying a good distance away to be visible to other vehicles and give myself room to maneuver. And Ashland sucks, stay off that. But you will get used to it very, very quickly if you decide to, say, do a short ride every day for a week, I think. And then the city will be yours and you will feel so free.


@aphrabean you should head down to Working Bikes (or West Town if you're more West-ish or Recyclery if you're Northerly), especially because the season's starting a little late this year. There's some really good ones in stock right now (I end up over there a lot) and they're a great co-op with non-asshole attitudes about whatever you want. Get a fun helmet, definitely some lights, and head out to a Critical Lass or Mass or even right now take a couple hours on the LFP-- once May hits, it'll be crazy, which might be more inspiring?


@dee @PennyCentury This is all very inspiring! I'll admit, I've been spoiled by living most of my life in extremely bike-friendly cities, where driving styles are markedly less aggressive than that of Chicago, but this information makes it all much less daunting! Thank you for such excellent, concrete advice - I have this bookmarked so I can come back to it when I'm ready to make the leap, I know where to go. EXCITING!


Oh my God you were on the road with LOGGING TRUCKS on a BIKE oh my God. I can't even handle being near a logging truck in my extremely solid and safe station wagon. THEY ARE TERRIFYING.

(Edit: I feel like I should also say, this sounds like a really awesome trip and is the first one of these that has really made me think, "I wish I were brave enough/could ride a bike competently enough to do that. Maybe there's a scaled-down version I could do." But still! Logging trucks!)


This was great! But... We don't have poison ivy on the west coast.


@Brunhilde Poison oak! OHHH POISON OAK. I have fallen prey to the delicious blackberry bramble before, and I know what poison oak looks like.


@aphrabean Mmm, wild blackberries. They're delicious AND you're doing a public service by eating an invasive species!


@Elsajeni The best way to get the blackberries when I was growing up (Northern California, about 50 miles inland from the Redwood Coast) would be to float down the river on innertubes and pick the giant berries along the shores. Hot sunshine, tasty berries, cold beer, freezing ass river.


This is awesome, as are you, dear Megan.


I LOVED THIS ONE. I'm a city biker who dreams of long cycling trips--this summer I'm going to start working my way up to longer day trips and see how far it takes me!


@thenotestaken I feel the same way! I commute by bike in Toronto, but I really want to try bike-camping/touring/whatever it's called. At the same time, I don't want to invest in all the gear if I'm not certain that it'll be for me. I guess I could rent?


This makes me wish I was a biking kind of person. Sadly, I'm not, but I can dream.


This was so wonderful to read! You go girl. I'm feeling inspired. The coast from Eugene to San Francisco could not be lovelier. And truly, whenever I've traveled alone and especially when I've been outdoors, I feel the same way — 'more myself". Worth every temporary ache and pain.


Ahhh this was great, I AM SO INTO THIS SERIES. I would love to do a trip like this sometime, but mostly this just made me pumped for nicer weather so I can ride my bike everywhere again.


I did this trip while in grad school too! From Vancouver to San Francisco. It was lovely and amazing and the sea lions were totally the best part. You really nailed the feel of it, Megan :)


this is my dream trip! I did a three day trip from Monterey to San Luis Obispo last summer, but it was my honeymoon so we stayed in bed and breakfasts and lounged a lot. Then I moved away and got pregnant. ONE DAY THOUGH!!!

etc etc

Ahhhhhh this is also my dream! In fact, I'm going to copy your trip. How many miles/day did you ride? What do you wish you'd done differently?

I've been thinking about getting a Surly too. I have a road bike, but I want something more suited for touring. If you were to buy a touring bike, would you stick with Surly?

This is so awesome. I want to ride away from my office right this second.


@etc etc Copy it! It was great! I did anywhere from 50ish to 80ish daily, governed by the campsites where I most wanted to sleep. I relied on two main sources of info-- "Bicycling the Pacific Coast" by Vicky Spring and Tom Kirkendall, and maps from the Adventure Cycling Association.

I wish I had packed my hat, so I wouldn't have had to drop a bunch of money on a new one in a fancy/cute shop on the second day. Otherwise I wouldn't change a thing- the mistakes and detours were integral to the experience.

I love my Surly, and recommend the company highly. I've borrowed other people's Long Haul Truckers and considered buying a Crosscheck for awhile, and both of those would be outstanding for tours. Steel frames, well built, well designed- you can't go wrong.


@etc etc Surlys are awesome! I have a crosscheck and it is so fun to ride. I have a big crush on the pacer as well, such a nice design.


The northern California coast is the greatest place, though I'd be terrified to ride a bike along some of the roads. The shoulder is so narrow and the cliffs so steep! But camping on the Avenue of the Giants is heaven, and even though I've been over the Golden Gate hundreds of times I still always get excited.

Margie DeMoss@facebook

This future Mom-in-law was so happy when you reached San Francisco. Anytime we travel 101 south, I think of your trip. We will get to certain sections of the highway and I think "oh my gosh, Megan rode through this crazy, narrow spot".


I did that trip (well, from Oregon to SF) with a friend also in grad school. It was *fabulous*. I still dream about it sometimes. . .


This sounds like such an amazing trip!! I live in Oregon and have traveled the 101 by car but never on bike--I don't know if I'd be as brave! Totally got teary reading about your phone call to your bf/now hubby when you arrived!


I've walked many miles on 101 (near the beginning of your route) and I've always wondered ... how do bikers/long-distance hikers avoid death with the narrow shoulders and the hairpin turns and the log trucks?

Because I want to do this bad.


Florence to Gold Beach is the dream hike.

Angry Panda

I like this series a lot. I travel alone a lot for work but it's not the same, and hope to go off on my own awesome adventure one day. Also loved the bit about feeling more yourself!

Laurie Griffith Bernard@facebook

I'm so proud of you, Megan, my wonderful daughter. This is an amazing description of your trip...although I'm glad I didn't know about logging trucks at the time. I remember you learning to ride your first pink & purple unicorn bike; you had incredible determination even then. I hoped to raise a brave and courageous daughter- you have surpassed my wildest dreams. Love you too much for words. Mom

Nicole Cliffe

Oh, you sound like a pretty great mom!


@Laurie Griffith Bernard@facebook Aww, thanks, Mom!


this is awesome!


@emeegee This looks incredible! I was wondering what sort of physical preparations you did for this ride. I ride about 20 miles a day, and I am in fairly good shape, but it would be great to know if you trained at all before setting out. Thanks for sharing!


Yay! Washed Ashore art project near Bandon! I see that on my way to the store each week!

Pro tip: February is the loveliest month here on the southern Oregon coast. No, really. It's not any colder than summer, honestly, and it's not windy yet. Although it looks pretty lovely out there today, too.


Finally got around to reading this, and combined with the 60 degree weather it really has me itching to get back on a bicycle.

I'm not necessarily much for traveling alone (though it does have some perks) or roughing it, but this sounded great.


Great Post. I have not been visiting the site recently. Took a visit again and there were some great comments on the site. Excellent post. Keep up the good work.


you are awesome. I love this story. I bike the coast too. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out which campgrounds have hike and bike and would like to compile a list of campgrounds with hike and bike. In the last twenty years a lot has changed and some of my old camp spots got rid of bike and hike because people were abusing them. I usually stay in california but now I m venturing more north. I was just wondering if you found that most parks had bike and hike and if you had a route you took and info about where you stayed or could possibly refer me to wherever you got the info, that d be wonderful. In california its hard to find info in one place but I know the coast well so can pretty much get by. It d be great to get some info about the oregon coast. Thank you so much and keep biking

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