“I can’t have bad dreams when I sleep under the stars.”
Where do I sleep? Well, that just depends on the night.
Imagine ten small tents, another ten people on a large tarp lying under the stars, and twenty-five bikes scattered around, leaning on trees and picnic tables. The two or three tables allotted to this special “hiker/biker” site are inevitably full of food, people, and every kind of stove imaginable, because the first thing a biker does after changing out of his or her spandex is to cook a well earned meal. What makes these sites what they are, though, are the people. Take this scenario for instance. There are five college girls from all over the country who met up to bike together, there are three Canadian guys who just graduated from engineering school, as well as a dad and daughter duo from Quebec. There are a few American college boys who have taken the summer off to bike, a guy with a guitar making his way to San Francisco to play, a fellow from who knows where who doesn’t speak any English, two older homeless guys biking wherever they can find food, and a hiker who just hiked the California Coast Trail.
Every night is different. When you arrive at a site you aren’t sure whether you will have a huge open lawn to yourself because no one else is camping their tonight, or if you will be squished with twenty other people in a small site awkwardly placed out of the way. Since so many people follow a certain book, and do the same mileage everyday, little groups do form which creates your own cycling family. There is nothing better than arriving to a site and seeing the eight other bikers you have known for the past few weeks all setting up their tents. Some nights we would play cards, other nights we would sit around a campfire, and sometimes, after a long day, we would all just go to bed.
These hiker biker sites exist all down the coast, though I didn’t actually find any in Washington. In Oregon the sites are five dollars a person (and include the showers), but if you have a large group (by meeting up with other bikers along the way) it’s even cheaper to just get a normal site and all pitch in a few bucks. In California, however, the sites are seven dollars, and the showers are an extra 1.50 for five minutes (which is why I now only bathe in rivers). These sites are great because they give you an easy and relatively safe place to put your stuff, as well as a bathroom and running water. Most importantly though they give you a chance to meet other tourers like yourself.
Warm Showers is a cyclist specific couchsurfing site that is used by tourers around the world. Once you are on the site, you can see a map showing where fellow cyclists who are willing to host live, and you can read a bit about them. From there you can send them an email telling them a bit about yourself and when and for how long you want to stay, and if they say yes, voila, you have yourself a place to call home for a night or two. It is a great resource, especially in a big city, because besides just providing you a bed or a space on the floor, it also gives you a friend and knowledgable local to help you find your way around. I used this site in San Francisco and had a wonderful few days staying with a gal (and her roommates). She invited me out to her friend’s house (also bikers) for an amazing dinner and evening, which never would have happened had I been staying in a hostel or campsite.
Staying With Strangers
Something I didn’t expect before leaving on this trip was just how nice people would be once my bike was fully loaded and my helmet was clipped. I never imagined that I would spend so many nights with strangers who quickly turned into friends, either in their house or in their yard. When I am done cycling for the day, I head just outside a small town to the surrounding farm lands. Sometimes people would notice me slowly biking by and ask where I was going, and other times I would ask friendly looking folks if they knew a good place to set up my tent for the night. However I met them, I often ended up staying at their place. Staying with different people along the way has been one of the best parts, and one of the things I will remember fondly about this section of the trip.
Free camping, dispersed camping, camping in the bushes… Whatever you want to call it, it is basically anywhere (behind a school, in a field, on the beach) where you set up your tent that is not a designated spot. It can be amazing, beautiful, and surreal, like waking up next to the ocean without a soul in sight, or it can be loud, sneaky, and somewhat desperate, like setting up camp on the side of the highway hidden in the trees. Though I prefer to not use this method of camping too often (unless it’s a beautiful safe spot to camp, then I much prefer it to a campsite), it is a great back-up to become comfortable with, and it has a few pros of its own. Though I love people, once and a while it is nice to camp alone, and this kind of camping guarantees you that. It also can put you in amusing situations, like waking up to a deer right by the door of your tent trying to figure out why there is a big orange thing (my tent) on his land.
What is great about the west coast route is that you have so many options. If you had unlimited funds you could stay in a hotel every night. On the other hand, you could do this trip for free (besides food) if you stealth camped and used resources such as warm showers. I have found that a mix of everything, camping with other bikers, alone on the beach, and with people I meet along the way, is a perfect combination for me.