Jump on the surfboard trailer and ride along the American coastline with Tom Wolff. A love letter to travelling on two wheels and the beauty of the bicycle.
Tom Wolff | LENNOX HEAD
‘The bicycle is the single greatest invention in all of human history’ declared Jim proudly. He grinned widely as he handed me over a black long-sleeve shirt with the white SURLY – the well-known touring brand – scribbled across the front. ‘I mean they’ve been around for so long and have hardly changed in all that time.’
I’d come across Jim in the town of Tok, Alaska on the sixth of July last year. ‘460 miles so far’ reads my journal from that day. Having pedalled from Anchorage two weeks earlier I’d slowly zig-zagged my way north-east across Alaska towards the Yukon Territories of northern Canada. It turned out that Jim built mountain bike trails in his home state of Minnesota so he was thrilled to see me cycling through familiar territory. Unfortunately, Jim’s knees had suffered the brunt of too much unstable terrain after years of mountain biking and as a result, he wasn’t able to cycle as much as he used to.
As I pedalled southwards, Jim’s words returned to me on many occasions over the next year. Whenever I look at these photos his words come to my mind. I find it hard to argue; the man makes a good point.
This photo was taken on either the fifth or sixth day of my trip. I was still a few weeks away from meeting Jim in Tok. I’m unsure which day it was because I’d taken my watch off while riding a dirt road called the Denali Highway, north of Anchorage. Daylight hours were close to twenty-four hours and the road had very little traffic, so once I removed the watch I lived in a weird yet wonderful void – like a surreal time warp. The four days riding Denali were some of the most memorable and picturesque days of the journey. In between soaring, snow-capped peaks lay vast rivers of ice. Hills in the foreground were carpeted with Sitka Spruce and occasionally I’d be lucky enough to get a glimpse of a black bear or huge moose. The space in this part of the world was hard for me to grasp. This photo was taken at my lunch-spot along that road (or was it dinner?).
Chuck and Kurt were volunteers at the Green Bike Co-Op in Waldport, Oregon and like most Americans I encountered were extremely friendly and good for a chat. I had a problem. The wheel of the Bob trailer that carried my surfboard had been kicking up mud and a ton of stones into my beloved fibreglass craft. Coasting into the Co-Op on a sunny fall day, I began to ask the pair if there was some chance of building a makeshift mudguard. Before I could finish my sentence, Kurt disappeared into the maze of spare and reusable parts. Chuck laughed cheekily; ‘He’ll find something for sure. He knows his way ’round those spare parts like the back of his hand.’ Sure enough, Kurt returned a few minutes later with screws, an old rubber mudguard and a few tools. As we built a new mudguard together there was opportunity for a yarn about all kinds of stuff. Having spied the whiteboard from the corner of my eye I made sure to steer clear of mentioning Donald Trump.
Unbeknown to me my Canadian friend Rob – who was also touring down the West Coast of the US with her sister Keegan – had emailed me to recommend stopping at this place. They’d passed a few hours with the boys a few days earlier. A few weeks later Kanaan, a friend I’d spent time with Juneau, Alaska, emailed me after looking at some of the photos I’d developed on my website. He’d bike-toured along the same coast many years earlier: ‘dude, that’s sick you went to the Green bike co-op in Waldport. That place is the bomb!’ It then became clear; Green Bike Co-op was an institution for cyclists touring the West Coast.
“Travelling on two wheels, the wisdom of those ancient forests was palpable while the absence of engine noise when bombing giant hills added to the tranquillity of the experience.”
Marge and I met after Sean and I coaxed her off the road with the promise of a beer at a local brewery. I’d seen her ‘Canada–Argentina’ sign on the back of her bike as we drove by and was keen to hear her story. She stayed on Sean’s boat and, after convincing Sean, the three of us rode from Brookings, Oregon to Samoa, California over the course of three days. Cruising through the enormous, ancient coastal redwoods on two wheels is something I will never forget. Travelling on two wheels, the wisdom of those ancient forests was palpable while the absence of engine noise when bombing giant hills added to the tranquillity of the experience.
A few months later Marge and I met up once more in the Southern Californian surf town of Encinitas. We agreed we’d ride the northern section of Baja California together. Among other things, this involved crossing the busiest terrestrial border in the world at the US–Mexico border on the outskirts of Tijuana.
Over the following week, Marge and I found our desert rhythm quickly and a morning ritual of fire making, coffee brewing and watching the dawn sky quickly became a habit. As the sun peeked over the horizon we’d wheel our bikes back towards the road, careful not to puncture our tyres on the millions of cactus spines that lay hidden in the sand. At the culmination of each day, our biggest challenge was finding the perfect stick for roasting tortillas – given the nature of our isolation we barely strayed from beans, tortillas and chilli sauce for our whole trip through to Guerrero Negro. After a full day’s riding that combination felt like a wonderful culinary delight.
Marge recently completed her epic journey at the ‘end of the road’ in Ushuaia, Southern Patagonia. Having cycled only half the journey I will forever be amazed by her feat in pedalling off alone from Canada into the unknown. Not many people can muster the confidence and determination to achieve anything like this. She’s a boss!
When I was travelling on the bike, I spent a lot of time looking around and observing the world around me. It’s really different to anything I’d done before in my life. Your world is altered and you view movement through a special lens. The everyday activity of reading maps became a happy habit and I felt like I’d gained a deeper awareness of place and time and of the land I travelled upon. I saw a lot of road signs and these were two of my favourites.
The first was such a simple stroke of genius. As the West Coast of the United States is quite a popular cycling route, ‘Share the Road’ signs were common. Surprisingly, I didn’t have many bad experiences with traffic. In the few incidents I had, there never seemed to be any intentional malice or aggression on the part of the driver. Next time you’re on the road don’t forget to share the love.
When I returned to Encinitas in Southern California to catch up with some great people and surf just a few more waves I found this amazing street sign combo on the last week of my trip. I first spotted it while riding Matt’s beach cruiser – with surfboard under arm – from Leucadia as I headed to surf at Swami’s. Later the same day I returned with my camera and snapped this shot. It’s gotta be the road sign that best represents my journey.
“The film had inspired both of us – two surfers from vastly different parts of the world – to make almost identical versions of our converted Bob trailers based on the same design from the film.”
It’s hard to get a nice photo of yourself on a trip like this, so lucky for me Kory snapped this one in Northern California. Kory had only just completed his own bike tour of the US West Coast from Washington to Southern California with a surfboard in tow. He was so stoked to see me, he pulled off the side of the road and insisted on taking a photo of me. We’d both seen the same short film by Dan Malloy Slow is Fast, where Malloy and two friends cruise the coast of California and surfed along the way. The film had inspired both of us – two surfers from vastly different parts of the world – to make almost identical versions of our converted Bob trailers based on the same design from the film.
As you can probably see, I had everything I needed. Shelter, food, water, surfboard and – most importantly – plenty of rubber to brave the tepid waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. It was bloody heavy towing all that stuff, but I was never in much of a rush.
For anyone who’s ever thought of travelling on a bike – for 3 days, 3 months or 3 years – all I can say is do it. Try it at the very least. If these words and photos inspired just one person to do a cycle tour I’d be a happy man. It really is a unique way of travel. On the banks of the Talkeetna River in Alaska, on the third day of my fifteen-month long journey, Trevor from Oregon observed,
‘Once you go on a bike tour, you’ll never look at a road the same again for the rest of your life. Every time I get to the top of the hill — even in the car — I feel like I’ve won some little victory’
Tom Wolff is a photographer and writer from Lennox Head on the Northern Rivers NSW, Australia. You can find some more of his words and images here.