I decided to try a play-by-play photo diary post to give a reader a sense of what it’s like to travel by bike. The mundane and the spectacular in visually average pictures to pull back the romantic veil and show the grime and normalcy that vagabonding becomes.
Well, for trying to show the mundane, I sort of failed. My route from Niihama to Onomichi, a leg connecting me from the island Shikoku back to mainland Honshu, was amazing. Bridges connect a string of small islands between the two bigger islands, and it made for great, if at times steep, biking. But then I realized that most days are rather spectacular.
So, here you go. This is something that might happen when you travel by bicycle.
1. WAKE UP (6-8AM)
The alarm goes off as the sun is coming up. You’re probably fairly well rested, since you go to bed around 10 most nights anyway. You don’t want to give away your wild-camping position by reading with a light on, and you’re beat from yesterday’s 55 mile ride. But you’re also probably sore and there’s a chance that it’s real cold outside.
In the heat of mid-summer Texas, wake-up was as early as 4:30AM to beat the heat. In the snow of Korea in December, I gave the sun a little head start on melting the ice.
2. PACK UP (6-7AM)
Creaking awake, rolling up the sleeping bag and pad, changing into gear, packing away books, maps, and any spare niceties, takes about 30 minutes. Tack on time to loosen up and wipe your face, and it’s just under an hour. When you don’t use a tent, as I often ended up abandoning, packing gets even simpler.
3. ENJOY THAT SUNRISE (6:45AM)
I got to see so many beautiful sunrises over the course of my journey. I miss having the energy to wake up so early when I’m back home. That seems a little ironic though, since I have a bed and a pillow and a full shower now. You’d think waking up would be easier.
3. I’M STARVING FEED ME (7:30AM)
In Japan and Korea, breakfast almost always meant finding a Lawson or 7-11, because they have the best best best breakfast food. Onigiri rice balls every day with a perfectly warm Boss coffee in a can. I don’t know why the U.S. doesn’t have hot coffee vending like this, it’s amazing and so delicious.
In Europe breakfast might be fruit or vegetables from a stand by the road, a baguette and cheese, croissant, cappuccino- all depends on when and where you wake up.
4. CONSULT THE MAP (7:30-8AM)
Thanks to maps.me on my tablet, which offers downloadable off-Internet road maps of every country in the world, I rarely found myself really lost. But sometimes, the map revealed a complicated series of turns or an inevitable mountain range, and caused the face in the lower picture.
5. GET STARTED (8-8:30AM)
Sometimes the day starts with a beautiful bit of road, sometimes it throws you right into traffic for your warm-up. Either way, clip in- it’ll be a few hours.
6. MARVEL AT THE SIGHTS.
This is what the ride is all about.
7. LUNCH TIME (ELEVENSIES)
If I didn’t have coffee at breakfast, I usually have one around now. It just puts the extra kick in your muscles. Refill on water, stretch out a little, consult the map again.
Sometimes people want to talk to you because you’re sitting on the curb at a gas station eating nuts and udon and looking unshowered and very American. You may become facebook friends.
Shit. That definitely says no bicycles.
10. PRETEND YOU CAN’T READ THE “NO-BICYCLES” SIGN, GET CAUGHT AT THE LAST MOMENT, GET TURNED TO A DIFFERENT ROAD, DISCOVER HOW AWESOME PEOPLE ARE.
Thanks for the help, friend!
Turns out, this was a much better way. All those overpasses are the gentle climb of a BICYCLE-ONLY road that links all the islands between Shikoku and Honshu. I really lucked out.
12. I’M STARVING FEED ME, PART III.
Deal with what you have in your panniers.
13. START THINKING ABOUT WHERE YOU’RE GOING TO SLEEP.
Around 3PM, you start plotting a few potential city areas you might sleep in. Around 4:30PM, you gauge how much more distance your body can handle. Around 5PM, you settle on your final destination, noting possible campsites between you and it along the way as back-up. By 6PM, you arrive and start scoping out your campsite.
On this day, I was looking toward a campsite on the last little island before crossing back onto Honshu. But the rain was starting to loom overhead…
14. I’M STARVING FEED ME, PART IV.
The day often ends how it starts, with a 7-11. In this case, I found a banana smoothie that made for an alright recovery meal. The rain was starting to come down hard, though, and I was chilled and damp. I asked the convenience store clerk about a nearby campsite in rudimentary Japanese, and it seemed a little farther down the road and possibly no longer open.
15. WHEN THINGS DON’T GO TO PLAN
First, make your plan more open-ended. Then things aren’t trapped by a plan.
Second, equip yourself with a good attitude and some gear. It’s just some rain for a night- you’ll probably be okay.
Third, be open to whatever the universe has in store. Sometimes it gives you a wonderfully scrappy experience. Sometimes it gives you the surprise of a stranger’s generosity.
16. FINDING A PLACE TO SLEEP.
I was finishing up my dinner when the clerk came back outside and ushered me in. Communicating mostly with hand gestures and a few English words, I understood that he had called his wife to ask if they could host me, and that she was on her way to pick me up after she collected their kids from school. I was so surprised that he’d gone out of his way to help and taken this chance on a stranger.
17. WHEN YOU’RE BEING HOSTED
1. Never assume people will give you things, but don’t be surprised that people are amazingly kind and generous. Always be grateful and don’t take advantage of their giving.
2. Try to offer a hosting gift, even if it’s small. Chocolate from the store, a few pieces of fresh fruit. It shows you’re thankful and aware. After a while, you can’t help but try to balance all the good karma somehow.
3. Keep tidy, and graciously accept the kindness. Take the shower, let them put your things in the laundry if they ask to. You’re only a burden if you are an ungrateful guest or a reluctant one. Let yourself be taken care of, and give back in good stories, by playing with their kids, by writing a card to send once you get home.
4. Don’t feel obliged to stay if the situation is not comfortable or safe. You can firmly assert you are going to leave without having to explain yourself. This only happened to me one time in France over dozens of nights on the road.
I was offered the kids’ bunk bed that night, and the kids slept on their parents’ tatami mats. Just. Staggering.
18. Lather rinse repeat. Some nights you camp, some nights you find a host, sometimes you splurge on a cheap hotel room. You do your laundry at the hostel, or at a house, or in a fresh stream. You eat whatever you can find. You curse and swear up mountains and on heavily trafficked roads. You spin hundreds of thousands of cycles. You get souvenirs and take down addresses of the people who befriend you. You learn some of the language and some away full of new recipes, ideas, and friends. The world seems smaller. You find your obsessions, your confidence, your weirdest voices, and your greatest supporters. And you wear out, finish the road, take a break; and months or years later, you write one of these entries. And then you want to do it all over again.