The Road Stretching Westward

Stretching on the Pacific Coast

A yoga teacher rides the Pacific Coast Highway

by Dan Schwartzman

Arriving in San Luis Obispo after a leisurely 40-mile ride flanked by cow-filled golden pastures and the mighty Pacific, I do what I always do upon entering a new city. I go straight to the Bikram yoga studio.

This distinctive type of hot yoga, the kind that I am certified to teach, is practiced in more than 500 studios in North America, and many are located along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). For the better part of the past two months, I have been riding the cyclist-friendly route and, as I make my way from Vancouver heading south, Bikram studios have served as my homes away from home along the way. Some have provided work. Others offer a warm place to stay or some friendly people to meet. I always find a space to stretch out after a day in the saddle. I take comfort in the familiar series of 26 postures named for its eccentric guru, Bikram Choudhury, who patented the sequence and trained his more than 8,000 certified teachers to use the same language, a script known as the teacher’s dialogue, when leading a class at any of his approved studios, regardless of location.

Before entering Big Sur, I emailed several Bikram yoga studio owners farther down the coast, but I hadn’t heard back from Lori, the owner of the San Luis Obispo studio, so I have no expectations when I roll up 4:20 PM. In fact, I assume that the class probably started at 4:00. (Ordinarily I check class times in advance, but I’ve been traveling without any technology on board for the past month.) I lean my bike outside against the wall, and I’m about to look through the glass window when a woman comes bounding out of the studio.

“Are you biker Dan?”

“Yes,” I say, kind of surprised. “I think so.”

“Welcome!” she says.

The woman is Lori Logan. Ablaze with excitement, she ushers me into her studio. In the place where the teacher’s name is written on the class sign-in sheet for the 4:30 PM class is a hand-drawn sketch of a bicycle. Unknowingly, I have arrived just in time to teach my class.

Lori looks me over for a second. My shaggy hair is poking out of my helmet. My beard is unkempt. There is grease on my leg and a smear of sunscreen across my nose.

“Can you teach?” she says.

I think about this for a moment, not yet registering that my two-month bicycle journey is ending as it  had begun — teaching a yoga class.

“Absolutely,” I say.

I park my bike in the corner of the studio and duck into a storage closet to change out of my bike bibs and into my board shorts. I go upstairs and open the door to the yoga room.

Two Months Earlier

The first thing I feel is the heat. It’s 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity, the precise conditions of a Bikram yoga hot room. It’s 4:15 PM in Vancouver — class time here in Metrotown’s aptly titled “House of Fire.” I step onto a small podium and smile out at the 15 to 20 practitioners who have come to sweat in the sweltering conditions for the next hour and a half. Some are seasoned veterans. Two are first-timers. I give the same instruction to everyone, which I deliver with verbal commands from my post in the front of the room.

“Listen to the words. Move together. Stay strong. Don’t ever give up.”

Two friends from my teacher training a year earlier, Pansy and Gino, have come to attend the class, but I’m focused on the strangers in the room, observing their practices, offering directions when I see an opportunity for improvement. An hour into class during one of the most difficult postures, I look at my friend Gino’s face and marvel at how serene he looks. All around him, students are struggling. Some grunt with exertion. Others sweat silently, moving with determination. I recall how earlier that day while taking the class, I had been practically paralyzed with exhaustion at this same point, too tired to move except to turn my head from one side to the next at the end of each posture.

Later that night, I’m sitting in the lobby of my friend Gino’s apartment building. It’s late and Gino has just returned from teaching two back-to-back classes. I ask Gino how he keeps his cool demeanor when the challenges are so great. I’m asking about the yoga class but also contemplating the hundreds of miles ahead of me on two wheels riding the PCH.

“What does not kill you makes you stronger,” Gino says. “The harder it gets, the more you need to dig down and find the strength you never knew you had. And once you find it, it never leaves you.”

Map of the Pacific Coast RouteThe next morning, I am standing astride my fully loaded Kona touring bike. It’s a perfect morning in one of the bike-friendliest cities on the planet. I’m wearing tighter clothes than most yoga students, and I think to myself about the similarities between yoga and cycling — my two primary endeavors these days. I wheel out of the parking lot, ready for the road. I take a deep breath and press down on the pedal.

Set Your Intention

It’s my aim to ride from Canada to Mexico along the popular PCH, a ride spanning close to 2,000 miles. I am glad to be joined by my cousin Ethan, who has taken a month-long hiatus from work in order to pedal with me to San Francisco. I chose the route for two reasons. First, as a novice distance cyclist and prospective first-time solo rider for the second half of the trip, I want to acclimate to the difficulties of the road from the relative comfort of a well-ridden route. I am not at all mechanically inclined, nor do I have much long-distance experience, having ridden one haphazard tour on an ill-equipped road bike three years earlier. Second, as a Bikram yoga teacher, I know that California has more studios per mile than any other locale in the world. (On the ride, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that British Columbia has more studios per kilometer than maybe even California). I hope to find work along the way, or at least a free place to stay and to practice yoga.

Instead of heading south out of Vancouver, Ethan and I follow the cue sheet from what we would later learn is known simply as “the book.” Bicycling the Pacific Coast by Tom Kirkendall and Vicky Spring serves as a bible to many of the cyclists we meet in the coming weeks. Additionally, we are packing Adventure Cycling’s Pacific Coast Bicycle Route map set, which we would come to rely on later, especially for its suggestions that differ from those of “the book.”

For the first week, it seems like every day comes with a tidy little lesson to be learned from the obstacles we encounter: darkness, rain, hills, ferries, highways, sunshine, and headwinds. After three days, our legs start to strengthen. (My brain takes a lot longer to start to really absorb what’s going on.) The days are long, and our rides average 60 miles. We find hosts almost every night, thanks to the Internet, the Bikram yoga community, and the kindness of strangers. While waiting with the bikes for Ethan to return with groceries in Madeira Park, I’m approached by a transient-looking guy with tar-stained teeth and rough-looking hands. After telling me about seeking work as a welder, and regaling me with an in-depth rendering of his family tree, he gives me some directions out of town and warns me about a bike-unfriendly stretch ahead. The guy is clearly affected by some chemical substance other than nicotine. Still, I smile to myself at the thought that even the chemically challenged in Canada are friendly.

In British Columbia, the daily routes take on a recurring pattern of climbing a crest alongside the ocean before blasting down what we call a “face-melting” hill. We get into a rhythm: the rush in the morning to pack up, moving with clipped, efficient motions; hopping on the bike for the day’s haul; immersing ourselves in the relaxing sensation when everything sloooooooows down; picking up supplies; stopping for a late-afternoon lunch we coin “frontloaders;” and seeking out bakeries and Bikram yoga studios.

With Victoria in sight, I break out my Adventure Cycling map to learn where we could join the PCH, and I learn that, after 10 days, we have yet to even begin!

Coming to America

Ethan and I take the ferry across to Port Angeles, and with our cell phones back in range, technology is once again in the palm of our hands. Our friend Emily is flying to Portland to join us. A few days beforehand we had decided to forego Washington in order to be on time for her arrival. This is a tough decision because Washington — along with Oregon — is the part of the route I am most interested in riding, but the decision turns out to be a lucky one. Instead of heading into a storm on the Olympic Peninsula, we are rewarded with a scenic and dry ride to Port Ludlow, highlighted by a pleasant 20-mile-plus bike path called the Discovery Trail. That night, we arrive after dark but are fortunate to stay in a brand new, million-dollar home, thanks to a connection of Ethan’s (and some rooting around in the azalea bushes to find the keys).

After a short ride to Bainbridge Island, we commence taking public transportation, a definite luxury of the PCH should it be needed, particularly while still in the Pacific Northwest. Amtrak’s Cascades line allows walk-on bicycle service for five dollars, provided a reservation is made (see amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard).

We arrive in Portland and stay with Jesse, Ethan’s brother, who takes us on an insider’s tour of America’s most cycle-friendly city (aside from, by some estimations, Minneapolis). One night, we ride our bikes to a school where thousands of swifts are circling a chimney. This annual phenomenon is well attended and has the feel of a block party, complete with a lemonade and cookie stand. Oddly, this is perhaps the one time I do not indulge in eating a chocolate-chip cookie on the entire trip. Emily arrives, and we show her around town for a day.

Ethan and I have been off the bikes for three days, and we’re eager to get a move on. The next day, we take a bus to Astoria, Oregon, the northernmost part of the state because I felt, since I’d skippeded Washington I would be sure to ride every inch of the Oregon Coast. However, having suffered only one day of sporadic showers in British Columbia, our newly formed alliance of three is not at all prepared for a real storm.

The weather forecast calls for just one more day of rain, but we make our way out to Astoria anyway. As we near our destination, the sky gets grayer and darker and the wind picks up. At last, we are dropped at a bus depot that smells of old urinal cakes. The wind is howling, the sky has opened, and it’s pouring.

I turn to my cousin and think back on Gino’s advice a few weeks earlier.

“You never had anything to begin with,” I say to Ethan, setting out.

Time to Dig Down

Imagine this: It’s 4:00 PM and it has been pouring all day. It’s cold and windy. Your rain gear is not waterproof, your feet are soaked, and your fingers hurt every time you squeeze your brakes. Your glasses are fogged up. Underneath your rain gear, your body is sweating. This creates a hot and cold feeling kind of like the flu. You’re hungry, you have to pee, but you don’t want to stop and get colder and wetter. And it’s getting dark. This is the reality of bike tour ing sometimes.

Ethan and I have been sheltered from the harsh reality of a long ride. But, for Emily’s first day, we are plunged into the worst of what the Oregon Coast can offer a cyclist.

Although Bicycling the Pacific Coast says the day’s ride to Cannon Beach is just 20 miles along the PCH, our Adventure Cycling map suggest an inland ride along the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Route that would add seven miles but shield us from the fierce headwinds along the coast. We make a smart decision that takes us inland along a nearly empty road for the haul to Seaside, a town where we read that the famous explorers had waited out a winter.

When we arrive back at the coast, it’s hard to understand how those explorers had made it if the conditions were as harsh as what we had experienced. From the warmth of a café, I call Sara Lee, our host in Cannon Beach, who has graciously offered to bail us out if the going gets too rough.

10 minutes later, Sara pulls up in a big truck. Our hero has arrived. She hauls our soggy selves back to her house where we construct a clothesline in her basement out of rope. Emily sautés her socks on the wood-burning stove, pretending to be the host of a cooking show.

We learn our lesson the hard way. Rain is doable; a storm is not. In yogic terms, my friend Alex would say, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” To have chosen to ride in a rainstorm instead of eating gelato in Portland for another day certainly seems to be a rookie mistake, or at least a sign of mild derangement.

The next day, of course, it’s brilliantly sunny. We are treated to three more days in kind — as many as anyone could hope for in this traditionally rainy area. Emily stops to pick wild blackberries, which are everywhere. Ethan and I break out the Frisbee and Aerobie at every opportunity, and we enjoy frequent stops along beautiful — and often empty — beaches. An opportunity to stay at a homestead in Yachats and cook fish tacos over an open fire comes our way, and we are glad to indulge. That night is my 30th birthday, and it’s certainly a memorable one. The following day, our hosts, Stephen, an experienced bicycle traveler, and John, a native Alaskan, take me surfing. We traverse a craggy shoreline over barnacle-covered rocks before leaping into the cold water. The ocean is strong. The hole in my wetsuit quickly fills with cold water. Still, I’m happy to feel the Pacific underneath me. And then it begins to rain.

After the surfing session, I gear up in the cold. We check the forecast, and it looks bad. The only way to warm up is to ride. By day’s end, roughly halfway down the Oregon Coast, our team determines that it’s time to reconsider our plans and learn from our earlier experience. In Florence, we decide to make a break for Eugene and wait out the rain. One day of rain turns to a week. Ethan and Emily have to head home and back to work.

I ride solo back to the coast and enjoy a break in the weather. I’m alone, and I think that finally the time for contemplation has finally arrived. I had taken this bike trip to challenge myself physically, mentally, and mechanically. So far, all weather aside, the PCH has literally been full of cookies, cake, and only one flat tire. Well marked at almost every turn, the maps, the book, and an occasional look at Ethan’s GPS have kept us easily on course. But now, without technology or company, I’m hoping to learn something new about myself or about the world around me.

Riding Solo 

My daily rides shorten and begin to average around 50 miles per day. Nights are spent camping in southern Oregon and at California’s well-priced “hiker/biker” campsites (five dollars per night per rider). I’m one month into the tour, and at last everything is in its right place in my panniers. My food and Thermorest pad are in the front left bag and my rain gear is in the front right. The back left pannier has my sleeping bag, and the back right is a mixture of camping supplies and miscellaneous gear (including two types of Frisbees) — a collection we call “the fun bag.” I’m far enough along to know that I have made a bunch of mistakes: shipping stuff home too soon before it gets really cold and leaving food in a pannier so that raccoons chew through my waterproof bag to satiate their apparent ardor for naan bread and hummus. Behind me, I have taken almost every form of transportation: ferries, planes, trains, busses, and trucks. I’ve hitchhiked and walked. The only relative constant has been cycling.

Warrior Three Pose

The easy access to goods, services, and yoga studios that I anticipated from the outset becomes a reality. My conception of the American landscape, one that I’m so used to from the perspective of an automobile, is totally refashioned. I had believed that there were not many places left in this country unspoiled by commerce. I come to realize, however, that quite the opposite is true during an exchange on the phone while navigating out of the Bay Area.

Asking directions to the yoga studio in Daly City, I am told there will be a major intersection with a T.J. Maxx and a Burger King. “You can’t miss it,” I’m told. I’m riding back roads and, of course, do not see these businesses. In fact, I think I have ridden 1,400 miles and have not seen a single Burger King — maybe not even a single fast-food restaurant!

From a political perspective, this is an interesting time to be riding in America. I’m told by family, and those I occasionally interact with, that America is a country in turmoil. The Occupy movement, which began in New York city by protesting a culture of greed and corruption, has spread throughout the country, causing great consternation. However, disconnected as I am from electronic media and surveying the scene from the ground, I do not share the sentiment. In fact, I talk to many cyclists who have enjoyed the movement — if nothing else than for a free place to camp. In Oregon, I join a “mobile” occupation for a day, taking a car ride to Salem and Corvallis. Along the way, I enjoy occupying a pizza and a beer. In California, I do see some signs of decline, notably that some of the state parks have been shuttered. Additionally, a hot shower at the campsites costs 50 cents, supposedly to encourage water conservation, an idea I can get behind, especially at such a marginal cost.

Traveling alone, I find, is really only an idea. In reality, every day I meet travelers and fellow riders. Even late in the season the PCH is populated — if not popular. The hiker/biker sites have thinned out, and I feel grateful to have chosen to travel in the fall when the number of RVs has subsided.

For two days, I ride with Matt and Siobhan, an Australian couple riding self-contained. They’re hauling surfboards and pushing custom made long-tail bikes. Together we conquer a well-known, steep climb called Leggitt Hill, which turns out to be not too bad — until we walk the next hill with tired legs. I encounter hikers making their way on foot down the Pacific Crest Trail. And, in Mendocino County, I meet Ron, a former Navy Seal diver and ex-marine. He invites me to go abelone diving, an opportunity I embrace. I’m glad to return to the Pacific, this time wearing a full diver’s suit with no holes in it.

Some days are very distinctive. All day, I’m shrouded in shade as I ride along the Avenue of the Giants through California’s redwoods, so I relish the hour around noon when the sun high overhead slices through trees along a thin sliver of concrete. Mossy roads and narrow shoulders in Humboldt County leave little room for error. The Eel River snakes alongside me all day outside of Fortuna. The light shimmers like a chandelier off the water outside of North Bend, Oregon. I ascend the face-melting hills of Otis, Oregon, and Crescent City, California. I relish the descent into Bodega Bay and catch a sunset in MacKericher State Park.

In Big Sur, the days shorten by a full hour and my rides reduce by another 10 miles per day. I think that the body is an incredible thing, restoring and regenerating itself. I think about letting go. Having no attachment to physical objects is freedom, I tell myself.

I smile at the irony of the sentiment. On this tour, I have very little, but I cling to what I have.

The days are noticeably shorter, the sun setting around 5:30 PM, a full two hours earlier than when my journey began. Though I may not want to admit it, I’m feeling tired. Another indicator, perhaps, that my trip is drawing to a close is that for the first time I see a real similarity in how the days unfold. The topography reflects the ups and downs of British Columbia, but my riding style is different now. Feeling experienced, I take the road when I can, and I know when to move over. I descend into an oceanside valley and easily make camp under a bridge. The next morning, I wake to the sound of the ocean.

Epiphany

I’m sitting in on a bench in Monterey, California, overlooking hundreds of sailboats dotting the marina and staring at a seagull that is looking right back at me. The bird has a stupid yet knowing look on its face. Maybe I’m the stupid one, I think to myself. In reality, I’m just grateful that my brain has caught up to my legs.

I’ve been riding for seven weeks in the effort to reach Mexico, a destination point that I chose arbitrarily. I realize that this is my trip and it will end whenever I decide it will. The Mexican border may be the end of Route 1, but the end of the Amtrak Surfliner in San Luis Obispo could serve me just as well.

It’s 4:30 PM on a bright November afternoon in San Luis Obispo. It’s class time and I’m standing on the podium in the hot room. I look around the packed room, smile widely, and start the class.

“Listen to the words. Move together. Stay strong. Don’t ever give up.”

During the class, I share some stories from the road to help connect with this group of 25 to 30 strangers. From Vancouver there is Gino’s advice about digging down to find the strength inside, and Alex’s thoughts on pain versus suffering. 

At the close of class, I leave the students with a parting thought or idea. I tell everyone about the epiphany that I had a few days earlier in Monterey, California.

“I can save myself a lot of suffering by not being so set in my ways — being flexible to change, in general — and to changing my plans, more specifically.”

I end the class as I always do. I simply say, “Nothing without joy,” and then I quietly leave the room.  

Dan Schwartzman is a freelance journalist and Bikram yoga teacher living in San Francisco. After writing for newspapers on both coasts, he founded Café Abroad InPRINT

This story originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Adventure Cycling members receive 9 issues of Adventure Cyclist each year and have full access to digital editions. Join today!