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Travelling the World with Hera van Willick: Dripping South

By Hera van Willick

I have to admit that over the last few months ‘crossing the United States‘ started to seem more like a necessity then a pleasure to me. The forecast of traveling through a country where ‘consuming’ seems to be the foundation of the Maslow pyramid didn’t seem very enticing to me. But was that assumption even right?

After all my travels I guess I should know better than to just take an assumption like that for truth. Still it’s inevitable that the image you grow up with to believe nests itself within you. It’s up to me to explore and create my own picture of the true nature of a place. And I love doing that. The United States surprised me, in a positive way.

Ever since I left Portland, two weeks ago, I haven’t been to another city. The west coast mainly exists of villages and State Parks. Now and then the route leads me through a bigger town where the blatant facades and billboards of shops and fastfood chains flank the road.

A few times I crossed through villages that dripped with sadness like melted fake cheese from a BigMac.
‘Sadness‘, that is my subjective assumption of what I see. It makes me sad to see the colorless villages, front yards filled with junk, obese and emaciated people with grey unhealthy looking skin and aimless wandering homeless people.

Frequent streetscape in the city

This is one side of the USA. Part of it to blame to the fact that unhealthy food is more easy accessible and cheaper then healthy food. Healthcare is unaffordable for many people. The infrastructure is designed for cars and physical exercise isn’t part of daily life. Three facts of which the negative results are highly visible in society. On the other hand the Americans form an important factor of the pleasant surprise. I’ve met a lot of people with interest in a healthy lifestyle, good food and sports and an open mind. Where the name ‘Trump’ is a forbidden word in the house or where he is worriedly discussed. People, generous, hospitable and helpful.

Shaun and I left Portland on the ‘MAX’. A tram that saved us a tedious ride out of the busy city. At the final station we got of the tram in a sad suburb where several drug addicted wandering men asked us for money. Despite the grey pimply faces that scare me a little, I was surprised how friendly these men addressed me. A blind-drunk drug addict who vainly tried to hide a bottle of liquor under his jacket told me ‘Ask me a question.’. The first question that popped up in my mind: ‘What is the greatest thing in life?‘. His answer: ‘God’s gift‘.

How I’d love to sit down and really talk with him. But sadly his mind was so fogged by the alcohol that this was the most sensible thing he had to say. All the rest came down to inappropriate jokes and drunken talk. At a grocery store a unhealthy looking man, who despite the cold was wearing just a t-shirt, told us over and over, nearly in tears, how he hoped to be a ‘honorable man’ again sometime. The realization that it is highly unlikely that he’ll ever achieve that goal and leave the downward spiral of the drug abuse (probably ‘crystal meth’) breaks my heart.

Several hours later I cycled through the green. As little live and energy as is left in these roaming men, as much there is in the lush, juicy coastal rainforest. It drips of it, not like the fake McDonalds-cheese but like clear cool springwater. The trees, the ground, the rocks and I are saturated, but the water keeps falling and streaming and finds its way over my waterproofs to the asphalt, into the gutter, down the mountain, into the river onwards to the ocean.

When dusk sets in around 4 p.m. we roll down a dirt road to a closed campground. There is no shelter and the evergreens hardly protect us from the rain. I start tying up my tarp to create some shelter while Shaun takes off to find and split some wood for the fire. Miraculously we managed to get a fire started and we warm up a little. I cook a meal, dry under our tarp, and just as I want to start putting up my tent two bright searchlights appear at the campground entrance. We shut down our headlights and try to screen off the fire with our bodies. But when the searchlights get closer and we hear: ‘This is the sheriff of Washington county‘ we decide to flick our lights back on. The sheriff and his companion near us. The first one with a funny comboylike rain hat and a German accent, the second one, younger, decorated with all that came in his sheriff-package; pistol, cudgel, munition, handcuffs, badges, torch, notebook, walkie talkie etc..

As soon as they realise that we are harmless soaked cyclists, their professional stern attitude alters to interest and understanding. It’s no problem if we want to pitch our tents there for the night! They wish us a good night and a safe trip and then rush back to the warm dry car that they left at the closed gate at the entrance of the campground. The full night and the morning the rain persists till it suddenly stops as the ocean comes in sight for the first time.

The Pacific Ocean. The west coast was recommended to me over and over because of its incredible beauty. I had my doubts; how long can one enjoy a view of a big pool of water after all? Let alone in the rain! I couldn’t have been more wrong. From the first day we arrived at the coast I’m hooked. And overtime the highway 101 deviates from the coast it’s me who grumbles that I’ve seen enough trees by now and that I want the road to hit the coast again.

The coast is different from what comes to my mind when I hear ‘coast’. No stretch of yellow sand and a sharp waterline. Coast here is cliffs with winding roads, beautiful views from high above the water over fierce waves crashing on the rocks, fog or the bright glare of rare rays of sunlight on the water, cliffs covered in dripping ferns, driftwood washed ashore on narrow beaches and sea lions playing in the water or chilling on rocks. After every turns the scenery changes. They were right, all those people who told me: ‘You’re gonna love the coast, it’s gorgeous!’

We get to deviate from the main road at times and follow minor roads, not uncommonly named ‘ocean view drive’. The first few days we race down the coast with the prevailing northern wind in our backs. But after those days a winterstorm sets in, blowing north in full power. I hide from it behinds Shauns broad back and still struggle to keep up, his legs double the size of mine. I try to keep my own pace while at the same time take advantage of his ‘wind shadow’.

After that first night of camping in the rain we decide to change our tactics. To cook dry and pack up camp dry is top priority when camping night after night and so we decide to put ‘finding shelter’ on top of our list. The ‘hiker biker’ campgrounds along the coast are open all year round and usually charge 6 dollars per person. In exchange for that you get a swampy piece of grass and showerless washrooms. While the ‘day-use-area’s’, where you’re not allowed to camp, often have beautiful shelters with dry picknicktables and sometimes even sockets and running water.

I specialize now in scouring Google Maps for these shelters. Camping on ‘forbidden’ places needs some practice. But we live and learn and are starting to get familiar with the rules and schedules of the park rangers and other ‘security guards’. During their check at the end of the afternoon we are innocently cooking our dinner. During the early morning check, as we’ve packed up our tents, we are having breakfast which of course is allowed in a ‘day-use-area’.

I’m in nobody’s way and leave the place at least as clean as I found it. That to me is part of the charm of this ‘ninja-camping‘, that after you leave there is no trace to be found of you having lived, cooked and slept there. To live without leaving a footprint.

We camped under several picknick shelters. One of them having windows and a door that unexpectedly locked automatically from the outside at 7 p.m. In the night a wandering young man visited us there to warm up before he went on his way again. We camped under the shelter at a elementary school (where the janitor found us and gave us her permission to stay for the night) and under the grandstand on the side of a sports field at a high school. Two night we stayed, thanks to friends, in the community building of a church.

Due to this way of camping, not only every day but now also every night is unique. If you’d show me a map of the west coast in ten years from now, I expect I’ll be able to recall every night camping and where and how I spend it.

I enjoy cycling along the Pacific ocean. The rain, wind, steep climbs, chilblains and a pungent pain in my shoulder make it challenging. But on the other hand, the company provides welcome distraction and motivation whenever I lack it.

8 days to go to San Francisco, in which I will cross the Red Woods and spend several days biking along the coast. San Francisco, with it’s 800.000+ inhabitants wasn’t on my wish list to visit, but the opportunity to visit Alcatraz convinced me to plan a detour through this big city.