The only thing bigger than these trees, Henry was sure of it, was the noise emanating from the pack of Germans on bicycles rolling downhill past his own two-wheeled, pedal-powered pile of transportation he was so nearly about to give up on.
A bicycle trip down the West Coast. Sounded like a grand idea from his office in Erie, Pennsylvania last Winter and as Spring came and faded, as the days grew as long as they could and then subsided into shortening again, as September grew nearer and finally the day and nearly the time that his plane ticket had been shouting at him for the past two weeks arrived, how could he have known how utterly unprepared he actually was?
Lack of preparation was never a big ticket item with the small market TV weatherman, though. He’d ended up forecasting squalls and standing in front of giant blue walls from a lack of ever really thinking about what he’d do with his life until it was already happening. But he knew that the lack of hustle and the sheer absence of bustle that his small Great Lakes town had to offer was leeching a little more out of his soul on the hour, every hour.
And so here he was, recently relieved of his job by his own hand, months later than he’d hoped, riding a bicycle along an incredibly more frigid than expected Pacific Coast Highway. He’d arrived in Oregon on October 15th, a small backpack full of supplies and his massive hybrid bicycle broken down and boxed up. A day or two in Portland, then a Bus to Astoria, the most northern tip of the state, and began to assemble the thing.
He’d been riding for years, of course, after all he was an American male, age 37, and therefore at some point had been an American kid, and as the Constitution must surely state, all kids are entitled no less than one bicycle at all times during their childhood.
Either way, the trip had been long–much longer than expected anyway–and arduous and beautiful and lonely and there were plenty of nights spent around yet another fire in a forest only yards away from beach after cliffsided beach and Red Stripes and you wouldn’t believe the amount of Germans. For whatever reason, he rarely ran into any English-speaking fellow bicyclists. The few people he did run into, at street lights in Lincoln City or drive through coffee shacks in Crescent City, were on the long haul from Alaska to Mexico. They were of a different caliber than he, wearing tight, bright clothing with numbers and helmets that were so aerodynamic they must have weighed a fortune.
But he took photographs and he wrote and occasionally texted friends back home who seemed interested but how could you talk about an experience like this with someone who, aside from not having participated in any of it, was over the phone, only half-heartedly joining in the conversation in between doing whatever warm and on a couch somewhere things they were lucky enough to be doing.
The first night Henry made a fire, easily he might have added, beginning with the first bundle of wood he’d purchased from the campground store across the street, one of only two of which he pulled from out of the soon to be locked cage, the store closing even as he paid for his wood and beers. The second bundle followed quickly, as did the last of his six pack, and he retired to his tent.
That night Henry had horrific nightmares, a massive fox, muscular and larger than a wolf, was chasing him through the black background of his mind, suddenly catching him and, with one snapping bite, divided Henry’s face into two. He woke, the pain of having his face bitten off still very real. Squinting, adjusting to the darkness, he felt it. Absolute and sheer freezing temperatures. The wind was carrying itself in off of the Pacific with oceanic ferocity. It was nearly the rainy season in Oregon, and Henry had a 40 degree rated sleeping bag and a hoodie.
He slipped out of his tent, looking to the fire. Smoldering, not close to have given up for the night, but not hot enough to last much longer. Henry considered stealing someone else’s wood, for hours he walked the campground’s trails and into the RV park portion, hoping to find a loose piece of wood or ten. It was everywhere, stacked under blue tarps and leaning against RV porches and strewn around smoking fire rings just wasting it all away. Still, he couldn’t find it in him to cross that unwritten boundary of what is another campers “yard”, particularly when the purpose of the intrusion is to steal their wood.
Henry ended up spending the rest of the night huddled in the campground shower, running the hot water over him for as long as it would last, drying off and enduring the extra cold of putting clothes back on, and then repeating the process.
And so went the nights, though he purchased more blankets, and always more wood. After breaking California, though, the nights warmed, the stars began looking brighter. Then came the Redwoods.
Which is how he came to be finding himself here, at the top of them, bicycle dropped down on the needley sides of the road as he began to wander into, or around them. It was less like a forest, he thought, and more a city of trees. These surely weren’t individuals, but entire buildings with smaller trees all living inside or something, right?
Henry came on this trip because he was aware that nothing burned in him quite as strongly as adventure, that he was wrongly attributed to the life of a television meteorologist, that he should be in a constant state of exploration. He struggled with how difficult pedaling uphill day after day both at first, but then on through the entire trip thus far, was. The cold, the questioning if it’s worth it to take a shortcut which means ditching a few miles of endless gorgeous beach in exchange for being a little closer to his destination. But over the days and now weeks he’d realized that it wasn’t about the idea of feeling bad for it being so hard and you hating that aspect, but of being proud that you were doing it. That whether you popped another tire and without really even knowing how to patch one could move past it and always have that in your life, the experience, the catalyst. He was a protagonist, he played out his story perfectly, and now here he was, the Avenue of the Giants, some thirty miles of downhill through the Redwoods, through the Californian rainforest.
An old yellow Volkswagen Bus whizzed by, driven by a werewolf.
Henry blinked twice but didn’t have to think accordingly, he grabbed his bike and descended into the downhill splendor of his next long, beautiful day sharing the glory of the open road, through one of the most beautiful places in the world, with speeding RVs and daredevil squirrels.
The wind started getting caught up in his hair, the spin in his spokes, and he just forgot for a moment that his flight left from hundreds-of-miles-away San Francisco tomorrow. Where in particular did he need to get back to, anyway? He looked up, bike tearing off into the downhill of the forest, the canopy was so dense he couldn’t see a trace of sky. One could build a treehouse up there, a few layers deep, and who would ever know you were there?
An old yellow Volkswagen Bus is parked alongside the road, it’s perky little wheels half in a ditch and all ready to rest after a long day of air-cooled, salt-watered-down engining. The curtains are only somewhat drawn, but if anyone wanted to look inside, the owners weren’t to be found. The only thing of any real interest which could be seen was a rubber mask of a wolf’s face.
Miles and miles back into the forest, tucked deep into a family of Redwoods, a grove circling their young love, a couple was laying in the forestbed, sharing an Arrogant Bastard and an American Spirit. She was dripping modern hippie, dreadlocks and striped sweaters and all, disdain for doing much more than smoking weed, traveling, and working to pay for the other two. He was the half-naive, half-assed type to find rolling around in a vintage VW and partying in the bellies of redwood trees to be a good time.
They had decided to go on an adventure themselves, though it was not for a desire to escape the corporate life. He had done that years before, living on the road ever since, she was a bartender in a hip little mountain town who would take the off seasons to trim marijuana in California and make a pile of cash while getting to live in the Redwoods.
Unlike Henry, the young couple had a motor pushing them down the highway and their reasons for seeing the world were driven by a desire to be in love and free. Henry was an escape artist, he was lonely and lost in his old life and would rather be en route if it’s all the same anyway. The struggle was the point of it for him. For the hippies, of course, it was the drugs and probably the sex didn’t make things any worse, but for him, it was about overcoming what he’d come so close to becoming, “normal”, “content”.
Henry remembered childhood. A deathly fear, at only 23 years old, that adulthood was simply a series of days spent waking up, going to work, coming home and eating/arguing with your family. It was frightening. He resisted by not going to college, which landed him a position as a janitor, which prompted him to take his mother up on her offer to help him get into college, which–and he’s still not even sure about this part–lead him to a career as a weatherman.
And yet, there he was, zipping away like a third grader riding home and so far away from his teacher on the last day of school. No squirrel, no RV could ruin this. He took his hands off of the handlebars and allowed science to take over. The world blurred out around the corners of his eyes. Green and red and the evening light was dimming, leaving him feeling very much in the woods. This must be what mountain bikers feel, he thought. No sooner did he lean forward than there it was, the yellow VW Bus.
Henry applied the brakes ever so cautiously. He had, after all, seen that it was a creature of the night driving the thing but miles earlier. He peaked in the side window, a stove and sink inside, some beer bottles and a can of Coke tossed into a bag on the floor. Then he laughed, seeing the werewolf mask draped over the steering wheel
“Hey man?” came a voice from the Redwoods.
Henry jumped back a bit, realizing he had been hands on the glass peering into these people’s vehicle.
“Can I help you?” the young hippie and his girlfriend emerged from the trees.
“Oh, sorry. I just saw,” Henry paused to think about whether he should say it or not, “the Wolfman driving this van and I couldn’t help but investigate.”
The kid slipped between Henry and the driver’s side door, unlocking it, climbing inside, and rolling down the window. “Yep, that’s us. Do you…” he tilted his head down, lighting a cigarette, inhaling, before continuing, “…need a ride? It’s getting dark out here.”
Henry’s bike hanging from the back hatch, tied down, the old Volkswagen Bus carried the three of them on down the road.