I am suspended 400 ft above the ground, trusting my life to a 6 mm diameter prusik (loop of cord) wrapped around two climbing ropes. Only friction keeps them from sliding down. Everything else within arm's reach is empty air. Those ropes, disappearing above, are my ticket out of here. In my periphery are friends hanging below me, the rock out of reach in front of me, and the edge of the cliff I need to reach above me.

Hauling my weight onto the main ropes, I begin to ascend. The ropes are 200 ft long. Up above, they are tied through an anchoring chain and somewhere near the anchor, both ropes are jammed. My task is to ascend up our lines, figure out why our ropes are stuck and free them or cut them if absolutely necessary. Katie and Deborah are waiting for me at the hanging anchor station where I had begun. Both girls dangle uncomfortably in the sun. Deborah is new to this. She led her first climb today.

Finally reaching the top of the overhang, I push my feet out against the solid rock. Something crumbles away, and I catch a bowling ball sized rock with the tip of my toe, pinning it against the wall. My body swings further away from the wall, and I have to stretch to keep the block from tumbling down on the girls. Keeping pressure on my toe, I grab at the rock with one hand and quickly shove it into a deep horizontal crack. I continue ascending as the Mexican sun slowly sinks below the mountain tops...

It Started with a Little Lie

In March of 2008, I received an iron ring, the emblem of a Canadian engineer, shortly before my graduation from the University of British Columbia. It marked the beginning of a deluge of questions from friends, family, and even total strangers: What are your plans for life? What's next? Do you have a job lined up?

My summer began as a casual lie on a ski lift at Whistler: "I'm planning a bicycle trip." I wasn't, but it made it sound as though I had a plan. Soon it became my standard answer when asked what I would do after graduation. The more that people asked, the more my story grew. I would tour by myself along the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to San Diego, carrying everything with me and camping along the way. Somewhere in May, I realized that I would have to follow through on my words. I didn't have any real plans anyways.

North to go South

Instead of riding down the Pacific coast, I traveled inland and north the first day of June. Having zero experience, I was persuaded that a shorter practice trip would be wise so I headed to Smithers, in northern British Columbia. A friend that I had graduated with was moving back home to Smithers to start a job. I would visit his hometown for a few days and then take the ferry back to Vancouver. I had never traveled the interior of BC, and I didn't check a map until after my plan was cemented. In my head, I had the image that Smithers was near the coast, and getting there wouldn't take long but in reality it would be almost 1200 km from Vancouver to Smithers, and another 350 km to Prince Rupert, the closest coastal town, and a ferry from Prince Rupert to Vancouver didn't even exist. Most of the route was in bear country, and it crossed over the coastal mountains twice. The longest bike ride I had ever done in my life was 50 km. It would be an adventure.
Reality check

  • A Vancouver
  • B Prince George
  • C Smithers
  • D Prince Rupert

Starting on the Wrong Wheel
My first night's destination was the town of Hope, about 150 km east of Vancouver, along the Fraser River. It would be three times further than I had ever bicycled in a single day, but I was supremely confident in my abilities.

The night before leaving, I was helping James and his girlfriend pack up their apartment for their move back home. It was midnight by the time their life was crammed into a truck and we had a last dinner of sushi and beer. I still owed a goodbye to some other friends who were leaving for a trip to Southeast Asia. That goodbye turned into a few more beers, and then unexpectedly some old high school classmates from Ontario (other side of Canada) showed up at the same bar. Another round, some catching up, and it was 2:30 in the morning. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I would regret this. The next morning, I passed my 6:00 wake up by four hours and eventually managed to get on the road around 11:00.

Starting a trip from home is a very strange experience. At first everything is familiar. It's like any other bike ride in town, but almost imperceptibly, your surroundings morph into the unfamiliar. I honestly felt terrified and excited when I realized that I was on my own even though I was surrounded by shopping malls and traffic lights, but I would be leaving it all behind. I could live entirely in the moment and was unburdened by any responsibilities except my mileage for the day.

That day I pulled over to an old mining road before it got dark. While cooking a dinner of rice, tuna, cheese, and onions, I made a rookie mistake. My small Trangia alcohol stove clearly warns that it produces an invisible flame. It also recommends letting the stove cool before refilling it. Well I looked over and saw that it was empty, so I unscrewed a bottle of methyl alcohol and splashed a good amount of toxic fuel around. Low and behold, my sleeve caught on fire, and the fuel bottle started shooting flames out of the top. In my rush to cap the bottle and extinguish the fire on my shirt, I managed to spread some more liquid fire around my campsite. I was lucky that it was raining lightly, and I did not melt my tent or bags. The fuel bottle got dowsed in a stream, and I stomped out the other fires. The only major loss was the sleeve of my synthetic fleece, and much of the skin on my thumb. I chopped the charred end off my only sweater and stitched part of a sock below the elbow. I put a band aid on my thumb, and tried to go to sleep.

Keith and Laurie

Before I left, James had told me to look up his aunt and uncle, Keith and Laurie in 108 Mile House, halfway to Smithers. He gave me their name and phone number and said they would put me up for a night, but he forgot to mention it to them. When I arrived at the small town of 108 mile house nobody answered the phone at their home. I asked the gas station clerk if she knew where Keith and Laurie lived. She scowled and told me that their town was not so small that I could just ask for anybody by their first name. Five minutes later, while I was parsing through the phone book, she perked up: "Oh there's a Keith and Laurie that live next to my brother." I even got a hand drawn map to their house.

That is how I ended up standing in the driveway when their car pulled up. I must have looked out of place because Keith, who was well over 6 feet, told me it was a good thing that I didn't run when the car showed up. But as soon as I dropped the name of his nephew, I was very warmly welcomed. Though both of them were still mourning the tragic loss of their teenage daughter, they opened up their hearts to me, and I enjoyed a hot shower, and good meal, and a comfortable sleep. It wasn't the last warm welcome I would receive from strangers on the road.

Prince George by Boat

Somewhere short of Quesnel, BC, the thunderstorms that had been stalking me all week finally caught up. I struggled through the doorway of a Tim Horton's looking as though I had just gone for a swim in my clothes. My pitiful state attracted enough sympathy that I was offered a lift by a nice couple from Grand Prarie, Alberta. Grabbing a doughnut and hot chocolate to go and tossed my bike and bags into their pickup which was also towing a 24 foot fishing boat. They were on their way to a fishing trip in Prince Rupert. Mostly they passed the time on the road by rolling joints and smoking them as the rain smacked against the windshield. I dozed a bit, and a few hours later, we were at Prince George, a full day's hard ride on my itinerary. I could have taken their generosity all the way to Smithers, or even to Prince Rupert, but I worried that if I followed that logic, it would make the most sense to have stayed at home and skipped bicycling.

They had left me some joints when I said goodbye in Prince George. Since I didn't smoke, I gave them to a VW-bus driving musician named Eric who lent me the use of a bicycle pump at a rest area off the highway. The compact pump I had carried turned out to be next to useless. I also got some quail eggs and nachos from Eric. I didn't ask where the quail eggs came from, but they were delicious. I had a chance to thank that Grand Prarie couple again when I found them at another Tim Horton's in Prince Rupert about a week later and 700 kilometers down the road.


On my way into Smithers, I met one other cyclist, the only one riding the same direction as me in all of BC. I've forgotten his name already, but he was commuting from work at a mining operation to his motel. He enjoyed the exercise of bicycling, and I was motivated to push harder and keep up with him for the last 20 km of my day. I shared some of his dinner of beer and pizza and moved on to spend the night at the Burns Lake public campground.

The next day, I arrived in Smithers exactly one week after I had left Vancouver, smelling foul and slowly losing air out of a punctured tire. Smithers was great; The people were friendly, and the scenery was beautiful. I stayed there four days and celebrated my 22nd birthday. I was given the impression that locals particularly appreciated the effort I had made in bicycling all the way to get to their town, and it made for good introductions.

The Island

The trip from Smithers to the ocean was uneventful. It rained a lot. I spent most of my riding time looking down at my reflection in the wet tarmac. The few glimpses of the mountains and the Skeena river I managed through curtains of fog and rain were quite spectacular. I saw two other bicycle tourers riding in the other direction and waved to them. I finagled a free pancake and sausage breakfast from a school field trip at a resort in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't cook because my food and stove were knicked by some dirt bikers a few days earlier while I was sleeping near a dirt trail.

In Prince Rupert, I camped in the woods next to the ferry terminal. As I mentioned, there was no ferry straight to Vancouver, the furthest I could sail in one trip was to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The boat ride took all day. It was nice to relax and read a newspaper. Most of the other passengers were German tourists. Many of them traveled in rented RVs, and I would bum food off of them later as we all came down the highway that ran the length of Vancouver Island.

From Port Hardy, it was a few days of riding to Nanaimo, and a three hour ferry ride back to Vancouver. The Northern half of Vancouver island was mostly forest and hills. As I was eating my breakfast in downtown Port Hardy, I read a local newspaper article about increasing the number of police officers in the north island to six. Looking up I saw a table of police officers slurping coffee, and I counted six of them.

Full Circle

On the very last morning of riding, a few hours from Nanaimo, BAM! I got sideswiped by a truck making a blind left turn onto the highway. The guy accelerated straight into me and clipped my back wheel. I went flying down the pavement but was fine except for a torn jacket and a tacoed rear wheel. The panniers protected my bike frame. A lawyer in the other lane stopped and offered to witness the accident. The driver that hit me was apologetic, and loaded my stuff into the back of his beat up F-150. He had to get to work (at a collision repair shop of all places), so I was left with his girlfriend/roommate driving the truck, his work phone number, and a promise to pay for repairs. By 9:30, the first bicycle shop was open, I had my wheel replaced and charged to the drivers credit card to the tune of $300. I felt a little bit bad about the price. The old wheel was much cheaper and these people were not rich; The girl chatted about her ex con boyfriend running away with the kids, and living on the streets of Surrey.

I ended up back on the road by 11:00. I took the ferry from Nanaimo to Horseshoe bay, and was back in Vancouver by sunset. Before going home or having a shower, I went straight to Stepho's on Davie st. and ordered a large souvlaki to go. I nearly killed myself trying to shovel the whole meal into my mouth, and lay comatose on the grass of the park for nearly an hour afterward. It felt good not to be sitting on a bicycle seat for a while.

For Real Now

My "practice trip" totaled 2000 km over 17 days including the stop in Smithers. The real trip, down the Pacific Coast to San Diego was roughly 1900 mi (3000 km). Back at home in Vancouver, I tied off all of my loose ends and prepared to leave for good; furniture was Craigslisted, a few boxes got shipped to my parents, the rest was thrown out, and I had some dental fillings done. My apartment was gutted except for a bicycle and camping gear. On the last day of June, I slept out on the beach; A friend I had been seeing missed her last bus out of town. So at midnight, we hefted the last items to dispose of: a box of amateur paintings, unneeded school notes, and a bit of stove fuel, down to the shoreline and slept beside a fire at Jericho beach. It wasn't a very good sleep, and it meant starting the trip smelling like smoke and with sand in my hair. We ate breakfast at the Naam in Kitsilano, and I took my bicycle south towards Tswassen, to catch another ferry back to The Island.

Dirtbagger Dan

I celebrated Canada day (July 1) in Victoria, the provincial capital. Being frugal, I camped in the city parks the night before and the night after rather than finding a hotel or hostel. Downtown Victoria was probably one of the harder places I tried to camp in, harder than the Arizona desert, harder than the Rockies, harder than the great Kansas nothingness, and much harder than Mexico. The reason is simple: people. When everyone around you is a stranger, and you are carrying all of your worldly possessions with you, it makes sense to try to find someplace isolated to sleep. The backsides of city parks and forests seemed sensible at first, but I quickly learned that the homeless had staked out all of the best locations in Victoria. I camped one night on the side of a bluff at a shoreline park. The next night, I slept in a shadowed area of an overgrown field, hedged by streetlights and drunken partiers walking the road.

The shelter I slept in was the Hennessey Hammock. It has the advantage of a tiny size and weight, and only needs two trees (sometimes not even that, see pictures). The big downside is the cold. The added temperature drop from wind blowing under my butt often made me wish I had a heavier sleeping bag. I carried an air matress, but it would continually leak, leaving me shivering in the middle of the night. The hammock has a bug net on top for mosquitos, and a tarp over that to keep out the rain. The other big downside of this hammock is that in heavy winds, the tarp becomes a sail when you least need one. You climb into the hammock from below through a Velcro seal that makes emerging every morning a lot like opening a cocoon. The whole deal rolls up along the main line into a "snake" that you can coil into the corners of your bags. The "snake skins" slide over everything to keep it compact. This means that you can set up the hammock line while everything is still sealed and then slide the skins off. It's a very useful feature in the rain.

Because I could ignore ground conditions, the hammock made it easy to "stealth camp". This seems to be a bike touring term; It means camping so that nobody sees you. I suppose stealth makes the whole affair daring and dangerous, as though a team of U.S. marshals is searching for your hidden campsite. The reality in most of North America is that nobody will see you regardless because there's nobody out there and nobody cares. On crown land in Canada, Forest Service and BLM land in the United States, it is perfectly legal to camp unless stated otherwise. My usual rule was that anyplace unfenced or unsigned was fair game. Along the Pacific coast, Oregon particularly, the abundance of cheap biker/hiker campgrounds with showers, fire pits, and other cyclists usually trumped free stealth camping.

Making Friends

In Washington, I met the first of many groups of cyclists riding the pacific coast. Kyle and Jeremy were waiting by a bus stop next to a campground store. They had ridden from Victoria and partied hard on Canada Day. Both were teachers from San Diego. They were thirtyish, and had never done any cycling before. They simply picked up a guide book written by their friend when he cycled the Pacific Coast as a teenager and booked their plane tickets. Jeremy claimed to have ridden his bicycle five miles to the grocery store before packing it into a box and shipping it north. They were loaded down heavily with what I would call non essentials: jeans, a full sized can opener, CO2 cartridges and a CO2 inflating system as well as a full size standing pump (they only recently learned how to operate the valves on their tubes), but they had a casual happy-go-lucky attitude about the whole adventure that saw them all the way through. It's always good to remember that touring is about having fun. If your in a hurry, you can drive a car.

I camped on an abandoned stretch of highway and ran into Kyle and Jeremy again the next afternoon. They had jumped ahead of me by bus. We rode together for a while and were overtaken late in the day by a serious group of riders moving fast and loaded light. We all stopped to buy some beers at a camping shop a few miles further and decided to split a campground that evening. The other riders, Anderson, Devin, and Dawn were from Portland Oregon. I joined their trio for the ride to Aberdeen, hometown of Kurt Cobain, the next day.

Portland Detour

I split from Anderson, Devin, and Dawn in Aberdeen, but planned to visit them in Portland for the weekend. They would be driving home from Olympia. It was a 160 mi trip the next day (I switched over to miles in the States). The whole thing took me 12 hours with a few breaks and one flat tire, the longest ride of my life. Outside Portland, I caught a cyclist wearing the same team jersey as my friends. He gave me some directions into the city. Another bystander at a coffee shop gave me further help using his iPhone, and eventually I ended up at Anderson's doorstep. I spent two nights in Portland.

Portland is a very bicycle friendly, and very hip city. They say it's the cycling culture capital of America, and I don't doubt it. I have never seen so many single speed fixed gear bicycles parked outside cafes. Most coffee shops required two or three bicycle racks to hold their customers' vehicles. The library was also very nice. Everyone I talked with had a collection of movies and TV shows on loan from the public library. I'm sure they borrowed books as well. Anderson worked at a bicycle shop, and got my bike tuned up nice. On my way out of town, I took my bicycle on the trolley train to avoid complicated streets.


The Oregon coast was by far the most populated leg of all my riding. It isn't hard to understand why it is so popular; The rocky shoreline is stunning, the camping is cheap and often includes free showers. I would recommend the Oregon coast to anyone who wants to tour. Although I started alone, I only spent two days of the Oregon coast riding solo. I rode with a guy from Seattle going to a music festival, Joseph I think was his name, a father and son team, a couple of travel journalists, two girls from Montana, and a slew of Portlanders. I also crossed a summer camp of twenty or so children riding Seattle to San Francisco. I don't know how they managed to keep up any speed with a group that size, especially considering there were only two adults capping off the front and back of the line.

The travel journalists were an interesting pair: a 40-something guy and a 30-something girl who were commissioned to write about a cycling trip by their local paper. The rolled into the Sunset Bay campground after a grueling 30 mile day and were loaded with two 40s of vodka, one of them mostly empty. After a few more drinks at the campground, things got funny, with the girl taking a hard spill on the pavement and requiring some first aid. She had been walking to the beach. The man professed his love for her, and tried to arrange a trip to Japan. When he was gone, she explained that they were only together so that she could get into the travel writing industry. She had returned from a few weeks in Italy recently and extolled the virtues of the European lifestyle while flourishing Italian phrases with long rolling Rs. I rolled my eyes as she explained that everything is slower, better, more organic, the people friendlier, and the guys always charming in Italy. After reading the book she traded me, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, I saw where she was coming from. I gave her Stephen King's The Dead Zone in return. Her partner talked to me about how we adventurers are a different breed, raised on the stories of Hemingway and Melville, always seeking new experiences. I think that the two of them made a perfect couple, and I don't think I would be cut out to be a travel journalist.

Taking it Slow
I linked up with two Canadian riders, Shannon and Colleen. I could identify them as Canadian on account of their MEC gear. MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) is the best store for all things outdoors. I spent nearly $500 there in preparation for this trip. Shannon and Colleen were the trailing end of a much larger band of cyclists that had amalgamated several different trips heading south. Most of them had started as soloists, a few had joined as a pair. Almost everyone was in the 20-30 age range. On any night there might be nine or ten cyclist camping together in this group. I arrived shortly before San Francisco with Shannon and Colleen.

Even though it was dark as we rolled into camp, there was still time to cook dinner and have a fire. Someone brought out a mandolin. A harmonica turned it into a jam session. There were two cases of Bud on a picnic table. Periodically a count off would begin without warning: "one! two! three! four!" The meaning was implicit; At the last number, someone grabbed that many beers and returned to the fire circle to pass them around. 8:00 mornings turned into 10:30 starts, and on some days, noon was not be unreasonable. My latest start was 2:30 pm after a late night in Eureka.

The Golden Gate bridge was the end point for many in that group. Matt lived in San Francisco, Gavin joined his family for a vacation, another rider embarked on a sailing trip, and Shannon and Colleen flew back to Canada. I had my bicycle stolen, but that's the next story.


I can't say that I enjoyed San Francisco. I'm sure that many others have a different opinion of San Francisco with good cause, but what I experienced was a dirty, uncaring, cold windy city. And the hills are stupidly steep. The first night in town, we all split a 2 bed hotel room. By we, I mean seven of us. The second night, it was changed for a single bed room. It was pretty smelly, but the price split seven ways broke down to something comparable to camping. Three people slept on the bed, three on the floor, one in the closet (we had a laugh at that the next morning).

It was that first day in San Francisco that my bicycle was stolen. I had stupidly locked it up with a cable at the downtown public library. Small friendly towns had made me complacent. Downtown San Francisco is a dirty place, and chock full of of $2000 mountain bikes hauling shopping carts. After 30 minutes using the internet inside the library, I had no more bicycle. My panniers were still with me. They contained everything important. On my bicycle I only had a repair kit, tubes, lights, pump, water bottles, an odometer, and some Clif Bars.

That was Friday. I spent the day filling out a police report and feeling sorry for myself. Saturday I furiously tracked down used bicycles and browsed every bicycle store I could reach by bus. I hauled my panniers with me everywhere, and slept in a city park. Sunday I purchased a $600 Schwinn Le Tour road bike from Performance Bicycle. $600 is on the very low end for a new bicycle. It was approximately my entire living budget for a month. I spent the rest of the day converting it into a touring bicycle with much help from one of the other tourers, Matt. Matt put me up for the night and gave me some old spd pedals and a rack. Monday, I left San Francisco behind for good.

The New Team

From San Francisco south, we rallied the leftovers of our group in Monterey to continue down the coast. I had kept in touch via SMS and met with Lee, Kristen, and Christian (from San Diego, Alabama, and Spain respectively) at a house that Kristen had lucked out on; She had called up her work to say hello, and the person who had replaced her mentioned that he had a house in Monterey and disclosed the location of the spare key. From Monterey, the four of us lollygagged down through the burnt out forest fires of Big Sur and along the California coast. The weather was almost always sunny with a bit of ocean breeze.

South of Morro Bay, we were all split up and had some trouble finding each other. Three of us found each other at a 7-11 in San Luis Obispo. I was banned for life from that particular store for double cupping my Slurpee. There was trouble finding a hostel in SLO, and we were referred to a sort of co-op house for $5 a night where we could camp out front. The only other guest was an aging hippie and her cat with a broken down VW bus out front. The owner of the house gave us two rules: don't waste any water, and don't pee on the grass or garden. Peeing on the driveway was okay though. We each had a 30 second shower, and slept outside next to some marionettes hanging from the trees.

Guy Troubles

The next day we lost Lee. He had been making comments about his saddle being uncomfortable, and I mentioned that numbness in important areas could lead to ED down the road. I think this may have made more of an impact on him that I expected, because his attitude suddenly became much more grim, and he started taking a lot of breaks. After San Luis Obispo, he told us he would take a day off to meet his cousin, and see us all in San Diego.

A good bike fit is an essential part of any bicycle tour. At a moderate pace, chaffing, saddle sores, sore back, sore knees, blisters, numb wrists or numb other stuff will force you to stop before fatigue will. Jamming a narrow triangle of leather under your butt, hunching forward, and spinning your legs in circles for hours every day is sadly an activity that was overlooked in the design of the human body. I realized early in my riding career that padded bicycle shorts are a necessity for any long distance ride. I also came to appreciate having a stiff narrow seat rather than the wide cushy jelly seats I saw on some other bicycles. The hard saddles put all of your weight on the bottom of the sit bones which will toughen up after a week or two. Soft jelly seats spread your weight around so that you are supported on important nerves and arteries running through your groin. That is why some seats even have a hole cut out in the middle of them. frame size, seat height, seat angle, stem length, handlebar height, and crank length are all important things too, but if you need to learn how to properly fit a bicycle, there are a lot of resources out there. Mostly it is boring if you aren't pretty keen on bicycles.

End of an Era

The last few days of the Pacific coast passed through So Cal, a ludicrous land of soft sand, pleasant palms, suntanned surfers, terrible traffic, and continuous cities. Los Angeles was a hellish wasteland for bicycles. I would still be there today if I wasn't able to follow my friends' Adventure Cycling maps to escape. The only reprieve was a jaunt through the desert of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. The downside of that was getting turned away from the base grocery store. Kristen, the only girl of our group, could buy some snacks because she was assumed to be a military wife.

In the suburbs north of San Diego we all had different places to stay. The last weekend that our little group was together, we visited the Del Mar race track. I stayed with my aunt in Escondido and visited Tijuana, Mexico for a day. I pondered whether to fly back to Ontario, or to ride my bicycle there. Of course I eventually decided to ride.


After 2 weeks in San Diego, summer was almost over. I set off through the desert towards Montreal. I was alone for that trip, riding 100 mile days and spending a lot of time thinking. There were some good stories which I hope to elaborate on. From Montreal I continued vagabonding with some friends back down to Mexico to spend two months climbing the limestone cliffs of Potrero Chico. That brings up the the story I started with and intended to end with, really. We all got down from that cliff safely, and I ended up with a puppy. I'll expand more on that adventure soon.