I survived bike camping. I even survived it gracefully. A little dirty, a little sweaty, a little cold, but survival was never in question. Except when the raccoons came.
I admit that I was worried – more than a little – that I would have a hard time with the extra weight on my bike. I did a few test runs with Polly, taking her down to the water and back, once I had the rack switched from my normal commuter bike. I was not impressed. The slight rattle, the extra weight that made everything feel so thrown off, the fact that I kept blowing out my rear tube – all of it made me extremely anxious about taking her up a giant hill and then back down again. I was both right and wrong to be so concerned. I admit that despite my impressions, it was very tempting to leave that rack on my bike – I could commute on it all the time. Polly is a SPECIALIZED Dolce – which though an entry level road bike, is also good for touring. I have an issue with trust, and I did not yet know Polly in this capacity, so it was like getting to know her all over again.
The night before the trip, I road in Bike Party with Polly – and got a flat on the way home. I took her in to the shop where I bought her, and had some adjustments done, the tire changed, picked up some new tubes in anticipation of more blowouts, and set off with sleeping bag and pad, and loaded pannier, to meet the group of ladies I would later be riding with.
The ride to our campsite was amazing, and much easier than I had imagined. In all, there were about 20 of us, riding at all different paces, climbing these huge hills, with all of our camping gear and food. One of my favorite things about bikes is their beautiful ease in self-sufficiency. This is my gateway drug, and I have already started toying with touring bikes as my next bike purchase. I cannot get enough of how freeing this ride was, how good it was to ride with these excellent women, in beautiful places, to work hard enough to earn the stillness and calm (and banana boats! which you should try if you haven’t). More than once I heard women on the ride say they had never ridden in these places before, or ridden over this sort of terrain before. Part of me pined for that experience of being somewhere completely new and feeling this accomplishment for the first time. But another part of me was happy to greet these hills as old friends, ridden in a new group of people, still being unfamiliar enough not to know where I was in the grand, geographic scheme of things, but knowing I had been here before, and would be again.
But as I calmly fell into this reverie, after sharing peanut butter and almonds on a rest stop, I was abruptly reawakened to the occasional reality that is mechanical issue. As we started a decent, which luckily had not begun too dramatically, I had a blow out. I didn’t fall, but it scared the shit out of myself and other people around me. Pulling over, we found a pebble in my rear tire, changed the tube, put the wheel back in the dropouts, spun it to be sure all was well, and blew the tube out again. and again. and again. It was not until a few rounds of this that we realized that one of the brake pads had been badly set, and had been rubbing the sidewall of my tire the entire ride. Now that we were descending, the brake was pressing on exposed tube where the tire had been worn away. One patch kit and a dollar bill later, the pad got reset and we were on our way, with extreme caution on my part. It was an anxious ride for the remainder of the time, but I was not interested in going back early. I came here to camp, goddamnit.
Once we got into camp (way later than we meant to, because of the tire debacle) we unpacked food and started making it, made a fire (after much back and forth about how to get the wood bundles, which eventually involved sweet talking people from another campsite to drive us to the ranger station and back) and ate together as a group. The night was understated – not magical and effecting like you would think. as we stood around the fire, sharing stories and flasks for booze, we noticed a rustling, and all turned to watch in horror/amusement as a 15 raccoon stampede came tromping through our campground. Most of us had come without tents, including myself, to sleep under the stars on a mild night. So the presence of animals larger than house cats with unknown intentions, was mildly terrifying. I am not a camper, you see. I like toilets with flushing ability, soap, showers, beds, pillows, and being warm. I rarely sleep well, even when devious little bandits with opposable thumbs are lurking around my unprotected sleeping area.
In the morning we lit the fire again, to dry damp socks and cold gloves, before flagging down some mountain bikers to take a group photo. I got a ream of stickers with cat butts on them. Over all, a very exciting time. We were ready for showers, and our beds, but we were all sad to see the time come to an end. For many of us, including myself, this was the last time we could say it was our first time bike camping, Everyone left asking the same question: ‘so, are you ladies free next weekend?’.
On our ride, was a seven year old girl. She handled 20 miles of hilly terrain beautifully. In fact, she was in better shape than most of us when we arrived in camp – running around while the rest of us quietly took a sip off our flasks to steady ourselves for the dinner preparation. But looking around as I sat on a picnic table stretching my legs, it was a truly beautiful sight to see bikes leaning on trees and tables, panniers open as the food pile got bigger and bigger, tents being set up on the far end of the space. When we took off the following day (involving a lovely hike through the narrow Lake Chabot trails that required us to half carry our bikes over longer distances than we would have liked), it was to a BART station. As we rolled back into civilization, coming down off the hills, I was in the back of the line with our organizer, who had a wireless speaker playing smooth soul music for cruising. We looked ahead of us, sharing with simple delight, our joy at seeing a line of women on bikes, camping gear in tow, being led by a seven year old, in a mohawk zebra striped helmet. Few things could be better, and few things still are.