The 1200-Mile Cycle Tour That Changed My Life

In January of 2019, I began my position with the US Peace Corps as a development partner. For my two-year assignment, I was sent to serve in the Ecuadorian Amazon to lead sustainable development projects in education and tourism.

Due to lack of reliable transportation, I spent a lot of time cycling to different work events and exploring communities and touristic attractions in the Amazon Basin. While cycling in Ecuador I was constantly presented with obstacles such as, but not limited to: getting bitten by street dogs, dodging unpredictable traffic, and fixing broken bicycle parts. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the sport and was able to build camaraderie with my neighbors during group rides around the Amazon.  

This past spring, I was evacuated from Ecuador and furloughed due to COVID19. I had difficulty processing the abrupt evacuation and felt guilty for abandoning people that had grown to be my biggest support system and my best friends. During the time of the evacuation, I was also faced with the untimely deaths of my father and partner. The events of spring 2020 left me with a sense of urgency to accomplish personal goals, as I had seen how easily a life can be overturned or taken by unforeseen events. The anxiety that came from COVID19 and the passing of my loved ones had implored me to do what I had not yet had the courage to: a solo cycle tour.

With a lot of passion (and extraordinarily little experience in cycle touring), I decided to set out on a journey from Seattle to Central California on a bike that I had bought secondhand from Craigslist. I strapped a tent and sleeping bag to my bike’s pannier rack and hoped that two bungee cords were strong enough to hold my belongings together for 1200 miles. I did not know what to expect, nor was I sure if I was prepared. I swallowed my fear and cycled out of bustling Seattle to the quiet islands on its outskirts, passing port towns and tourist destinations until I reached rural western Washington. I had never felt more empowered; everything I needed to survive was on my back and every mile was a huge accomplishment. I was motivated by artifacts that other cyclists had left behind on the trail: written words of encouragement on traffic signs, stickers in roadside bathrooms, and books. 

In southern Washington, I found myself cycling through a wounded forest that had battled years of timber harvesting. I felt tension in depressed logging communities that were fighting against a dying industry and private land acquisitions or “land grabs”. From the perspective of someone who works in timber, environmentalists have tried to undercut the industry by competing for land rights and advocating for policy change. However, it seemed like most of the land was acquiesced by private companies, not environmental agencies, for development.

On First Nations’ reserves, empty forests and dry rivers showcased the negative impacts of poorly regulated commercial logging. The dilapidated buildings and needles discarded on the roadside reflected the lack of opportunity in the area. 

While meandering down the Oregon coast, a couple of locals took me out to breakfast and explained how vacation home development was outpacing the community’s effort to fight against the gentrification that displaced many community members, driving them to move further inland or into destitution.

A homeless woman, with her knives displayed proudly on her belt, rode her bike with me from the border of Oregon to California to make sure I was safe, because “it’s rough out there for us girls”.

 After being trapped in a food desert in rural northern California while sustaining an injury, I experienced how the lack of access to public transportation lends a hand in creating forced communities that are bonded by poverty instead of by common interests.   

In Humboldt County, I became weary of the “missing person” fliers and received many warnings to stop cycling alone. I was made aware of the concept of truck driver trafficking, a practice where individuals are picked up hitchhiking or just kidnapped on the side of the road due to lack of reliable public transportation.

Humboldt County made me realize how interlinked environmental crimes are with human trafficking on marijuana farms. Many come to work on these farms, are forced into labor, and do not return home. According to the fliers that I saw, a lot of the missing are young women who were last seen near farms with little to no environmental or legal regulation.

This cycle tour provided me with the opportunity to develop a more well-rounded perspective of environmental and social risks in rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Even as an environmentalist, I found myself empathizing with loggers and recognizing how diverse social issues in the rural PNW are.

I am now a better environmental ambassador because I am aware of the environmental justice issues that communities in this region face such as: lack of access to public transport, inadequate healthcare, gentrification, food deserts, changing microclimates and their effect on air and water quality, unsafe infrastructure, and vulnerability among the homeless population.

In the PNW, there is a clear relationship between community identity and the forest. Communities that self-identify as “logging towns” take pride in their work to the point where a decline in the timber industry does not only result in a career change, but also a total loss of community identity.

When economic decline occurs faster than a community’s ability to adapt, community members are left in poverty and forced into profitable criminal activities like illegal timber harvesting, wildlife trafficking, human trafficking, and narcotics.

These experiences inspired me to redesign my career path in sustainable development. With a strong interest in the intersection of organized crime and environmental regulation, I hope to focus on environmental policy and environmental and social governance (ESG) risks in supply chain. My career goal is to lead community reinvesting programs to support rural zones in need of economic development and community resilience.

Other than giving me the confidence that I need to move forward in my career, this trip helped me build a deeper connection with our natural world and gave me a more comprehensive understanding of rural community culture in the PNW. 

Day 24: San Francisco/Oakland to Pacifica

I ended up heading south to Pacifica to stay with a friend for a few days. My knee bothered me immensely, so much that I could barely move and went to buy a brace. I learned that the knee injury was probably due to not having low enough gears, like the ones you find on a proper touring bike.

I used these days to reflect on the trip and the kindness of the people that I met. The seasoned cyclists with their touring stories, finding stickers that other cyclists had left places to motivate us, people stopping to congratulate me on my journey, people offering us places to stay or advice, people buying us food, and people offering to help in precarious situations.

I’m so proud of this experience. I’ve traveled the world, lived in the Amazon, and been on trips throughout the USA, but this trip by far takes the cake. I truly cannot wait to continue cycle touring. A few trips on my bucket list are: Lisbon to Istanbul, The Transamerica Trail, and The Great Divide. What a joy it is to live life to its fullest.

Day 23: San Rafael to San Francisco

In the morning, we slept in and made breakfast together. The woman who took us in was a caretaker for an elderly man named Bud, and he told us stories from his younger days all morning. The woman was also extremely generous, having gone from a very successful business life to retiring and caring for Bud and working at a rescue shelter for dogs. She once tried to pilot a program where homeless people could adopt dogs to give them companionship, but unfortunately it didn’t work out and she was stuck with 3 dogs. She loves them though, they are definitely her children.

She took us to a local farmers market and she bought us lassi, a delicious yogurt drink, and pastries. She also bought us picnic fixings and packed our lunch. She was eager to show us around, but you couldn’t see any of the viewpoints because of the smoke. We said goodbye and cycled into San Francisco, where we cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge.

We accidentally ran into Craig and shared lunch with him overlooking the bridge. Then, upon my request, we took the pave bike path through the city to Fisherman’s Wharf so I could see seals up close and personal for the first time.

Ruth and Rob needed to buy a box for their flight to Mexico. They had decided to take a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles because of the fires. From there, they would go to Mexico. We all headed to Oakland on a ferry, had a celebration at Public House Bar, and shared treats and a sketchy hotel together. It was a bittersweet night to part with people I had become so close to.

Day 22: Bodega Dunes State Park to Point Reyes (San Rafael)

Ruth and Rob left me behind for a bit because I was struggling due to knee issues. I spent a lot of the morning crying, and even threw my bike on the ground a few times. I had a total meltdown and was so frustrated with myself. It didn’t help that the only other cars I saw on the road and could ask help from were sports cars going one hundred miles per hour.

Luckily, it was mostly flat until Point Reyes, but I still was in so much pain that it was almost unbearable. When I finally met up with Ruth and Rob at Point Reyes, we discovered that we couldn’t continue our route due to wildfires. This was a bummer, but also a blessing, because we were able to take a bus to San Rafael. This saved my knee and our lungs, and overall was more safe for everybody.

We ended up biking to a lagoon in San Rafael to stealth camp, when this lady approached us and invited us to stay in her house. She admired our adventurous spirit and wanted to help us out. We ate with her, took warm showers, and exchanged stories. The kindness of strangers on the road never ceases to amaze me.

Day 21: Salt Point State Park to Bodega Dunes State Park

We made this a short day because we had been pushing ourselves too hard. My knee started to feel a stabbing pain, so I had to make a ton of stops. The big hills on highway 1 were beautiful, but also horrifying because there wasn’t a guard rail. It was remote and trickled with vacation homes, with painful up and downs.

On one of the painful ups, we cycled through a burn area and could taste the ash in the air, and see it on the ground. At the top of the hill, we met Craig, a cyclist we hadn’t seen yet.

He was cycling from Seattle to San Francisco, but he was taking 3 months to do it. We chatted with him a bit and kept going, with plans to meet up with him later.

When we finally got to Bodega Bay Dunes State Park, the lady working at the visitor center rejected us due to COVID. No hiker/biker spots were allowed to be in use. We could’ve gotten a hotel but Bodega Bay was pretty pricey, so we begged for help at the visitor center. The guy working in the office was actually also a ranger for Bodega Bay Dunes State Park, and he gave us the go ahead to camp there.

We returned to the park, and the person working at the entrance was not very apologetic about turning us away the first time. We awkwardly cycled in, and found that Craig somehow already was there with two other cyclists cycling from Seattle to San Diego.

We ended up all having another “Pacific Coast Party” and we made Spanish Tortillas, cake, pizza and drank wine. It was a night that I’ll never forget.

Day 20: Cleone State Campground to Salt Point State Park

It was a rough day, and we cycled from sunrise to sundown. I had been looking for sea glass the entire trip, and I finally found it at a beach in Fort Bragg! A beach full of sea glass of al different colors. We spent awhile there, and they helped me collect glass. I couldn’t tell if the pain I didn’t feel during the Leggett day finally caught up to me, because today was brutal. My body is so sore.

I was grumpy the entire day, mostly because I didn’t have enough food and there was nowhere to stop and buy anything for most of the day. The scenery changed between coastal and agricultural land, so we had some variety, although the day was cloudy and foggy. I was also freezing and had to apply vaseline to my butt 20 times. I feel like Vaseline saved our lives, I would’ve quit otherwise.

We finally got to Gualala, and spent a long time there at a safeway to warm up and get food. Apparently, we spent too long there and nightfall was upon us. We pushed it, in the dark, without any lights, to Salt Point State Park. It was extremely stressful because although there weren’t many cars, they couldn’t see us. We also had a run in with a skunk. I guess they must not have those in Europe, because Ruth and Rob tried to get close to it and stop and awed.

When we pulled up at the campground, it was super eerie because it was closed due to COVID. Something I haven’t mentioned until this point is how afraid I was of camping alone. I had my own tent and it was nerve wracking, so I also shoved my tent next to Ruth and Rob so they could hear me scream if anything happened.

I didn’t take any pictures, because my phone was dead, and also because we were really pushing it.

Day 19: Benbow SRA to Cleone State Campground

Leggett Day!!! Also known as the day we would have “the worst climb of the trip”. We spent the first part of the morning worrying about how bad the hill would actually be. When we finally got to climbing, it was already midday.

I can confidently say that Leggett was not the worst hill of the trip! It was actually a pretty fun ride. We put in our headphones and focused in on making it to the top. We stopped frequently to take water breaks and to do visualization exercises that helped get us to the top. The hill definitely, 100%, was not nearly close to the worst climb on the trip.

The ride down was indescribable. We zoomed down with no problems, and often went so fast that we had to slow down not to run into cars on the steep curves.

When we passed the dreaded Leggett climb, it was fairly remote. We finally switched over to a newly paved Highway 1, and it was the most breathtaking oceanside view of the trip (pictured below on the far left).

We saw a drastic change in foliage, tried to go wine tasting but were rejected from the tasting room after struggling down a gravel road and nearly puncturing a tire, and ended the day with our favorite beers (Lost Coast).

Day 16: Brookings to Prarie Creek

Today definitely deviated from the norm. On my way to cross into California, I was joined by a homeless woman who lives on her bike. She told me about the dangers of the area, and repeatedly tried to give me one of her knives, which was actually very thoughtful. She also warned me a million times about the dangers of Humbolt County, which I had forgotten about until that moment. We cycled together for awhile until she could go no further, and we parted ways near the Oregon/California Border.

After that experience, seeing how rough Crescent City was, and being told how terrible the traffic was due to construction, I decided to take a small California Transit bus from Crescent City to right before the Redwoods. The bus ride was actually really interesting because I was able to see the neighborhoods that public transit services. Alongside a First Nations reservation, there are a few mobile home parks sprinkled into the remoteness of the Northern Redwoods. The rural poverty and lack of services was shocking to me, especially because I expected more of California.

When I got off at my stop I biked up one big hill and then cruised downhill until I arrived at Prairie Creek Campground. I settled into a $5 hiker/biker spot and finally met up again with Ruth and Rob. I’m not a forest girl, so the energy of the forest really spooked me. I put my tent adjacent to Ruth and Rob’s. It didn’t help that the hiker/biker sites are off a ways from the actual campground. But, all in all, it was gorgeous and I saw many jays, elk, and deer. A lot of people even saw black bears near our hiker/biker site; thank god I didn’t.

Day 18: Eureka to Benbow SRA

Two of us woke up sick in Eureka, so we decided to take the bus for some of the day’s planned route. We started cycling somewhere before Avenue of the Giants, and stopped at every large tree stump or fallen log. My butt hurt terribly, and I kept stopping to rub Vaseline everywhere. We skipped every “drive thru tree” because we thought they were natural structures, but they were not. (This really disappointed Ruth). It was a remote stretch with no grocery stores, and all of the smaller town stores were closed due to COVID. The road didn’t have a shoulder, but there wasn’t any traffic. I would say this stretch is one of the trip’s best, but I feel like I’ve said that 18 times already. The pictures speak for themselves.

Day 17: Prairie Creek to Eureka

I started the day by taking the gravel path from the hiker/biker site to the highway 101. It was really hard on my bike, and I should’ve just taken the 101 from the beginning, but I try to find alternate routes when possible. I made a stop in Orick, a small town, to grab snacks at the only general store that I would pass for awhile. I kept finding used needles everywhere: the bathroom, the parking lot, and the side of the road. I was nervous that I would run over one and it would puncture my tire, or worse, I would step on one. Clearly a lot of these small NorCal towns have big drug use issues.

As I began to cycle out of Orick, I passed over a bridge where I saw police officers doing a search of some kind near what seemed to be an encampment. They didn’t seem to like that I stopped to watch, so I pressed onward and wondered what could’ve happened. It was around this time that I began seeing a ton of missing persons fliers as well. Apparently there are a ton of illegal (and some legal) drug operations in Humbolt County, and many people who go to work up in the mountains to make extra money don’t come back. There are a good amount of kidnappings in this area, probably because of its remoteness. This both fascinate and horrifies me.

Moving forward, the 101 turned into a multiple lane highway. This stretch was terrifying, mostly because of merging vehicles. There was also another interesting twist: I had to dodge traffic and homeless encampments.

During this part of the trip, my mind was preoccupied thinking about the structure of the camps and their governance. I passed a man that had built himself a throne up on a hill that was sectioned off from everyone else. It seemed like every camp I passed had leadership and organization to some capacity.

I passed another cyclist biking, with his surfboard attached, from SoCal to NorCal. I can’t even imagine what that was like. After hours on the 101, I noticed there was a bike path along the coast. The path ended up taking me to Arcata, and I got to see a ton of seals along the way. I met Ruth and Rob at a Safeway there and we headed to a KOA in Eureka that welcomed us with a pool and hot tub!