Looking back


It’s already been two weeks since, having reached the destination of my trip in Portland, I got on the bike and rode back to Boulder. After 1,200 miles in three hot and long days I’m back with Anne and everything that happened the past month has had a chance to settle.

If I had to summarize the trip, I would use words like ‘fantastic’, and ‘very worthwhile’; and that would be the truth. But the trip was a lot much more than that and it would be unfair if I left it at these few words.

It’s very hard to go on a journey unprejudiced. Whether you like it or not, ideas will form in your head about what you will see and find on your way, and although I did my best to suppress these ideas as much as I could, they annoyingly emerged in my head unannounced.
In my mind, I pictured myself trying in vain to fix a flat tire in the middle of the desert. Or I would imagine myself hitch-hiking, trying to get to the nearest motorcycle shop. And once I reached it, I would of course have to wait for a week in a crappy but way too expensive motel full of cockroaches for a new motorcycle part. I pictured myself stranded without gas in some desolate landscape, where I had to defend myself against rattlesnakes and other creeping scum. And in my darkest fantasy I was afraid I would be robbed of the bike and everything else, and end up stranded in a town full of rednecks, without money, phone or means of transportation.

It turned out that these thoughts were mainly fed by fear of the unknown, and it wasn’t, in any way, consistent with the truth. Gas was available almost everywhere, the people were extremely friendly and helpful, and I had no problems at all with the bike.
During the trip slowly but certainly it dawned on me that all problems eventually can be solved. This gave a comforting feeling, a certain calm, and instead of worrying of the things that might go wrong, I was able to enjoy everything around me more.

The idea for this trip originated from a desire to find the history of the hundreds of thousands emigrants that crossed the North American continent in the second half of the nineteenth century. Of course I had some preconceived ideas about this as well. It was obvious to me that I would relive in detail what these people saw and experienced, simply by traveling the same route to the West.
Unfortunately, many of the traces that I hoped to see had vanished in the course of time. The land through which I traveled is a modern land, and though it is proud of its heritage and indeed cherishes it, it’s also constantly developing itself. This has had a big impact on what’s left of the old Oregon Trail; in time trees were planted, prairie was cultivated, roads were constructed, and houses and plants were built.
One of the most typical examples of this ‘degradation’ of the trail was the grave of an emigrant, once situated on the vast and open plain, now in a field stripped bare, with an occasional yukka, unreachable because of the barbed wire fence from some ranch, and overlooking an ultramodern power plant. The land hasn’t stopped developing the past 150 years, something for which it cannot be blamed, but in many ways it didn’t improve how I experienced the history of the very same land.

The landscape may have changed in many ways by human intervention, the climate hasn’t. It can still get really hot in Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and the eastern part of Oregon, and though the roads have improved drastically, it still is very dusty in these parts, the wind still blows as hard as ever, and never will a thunderstorm let itself be chased away by human beings. This definitely gave me a good idea of the conditions the emigrants had to travel in.

Of course the distances in this enormous country haven’t changed either, and so it happened more than once that, while I was riding at a comfortable speed of about 55 miles per hour on some very good asphalt road through the dry land, I realized that the distance I covered in one hour, was a distance the emigrants would need three days to overcome. And after riding a few hours through the summer heat, a cool store next to a gas station where I could buy just about everything I needed that day would await me, a luxury these people never had.

I expected the landscape to be more diverse, more spectacular, maybe. But how did I ever think I was able to ride impressive passes, with some really beautiful winding roads, enough to make any motorcycle rider drool, on a route where always the flattest and most accessible road was chosen? For the emigrants the going was tough enough as it was. These people weren’t interested in some spectacular tourist landscape, all they wanted on a day was to cover enough distance. A miscalculation on my side, which does not alter the fact that I saw some really beautiful things on my route.

Then there was the much feared off-road challenges I expected to face. When I was planning my route on maps and on the internet, it was hard for me to know what awaited me. You can’t see the condition of the road from above, and on a map it is impossible to see how much rain fell the previous days. Sometimes a clear warning about impassable roads was given in one of the guides I read, or they advised people to stay away from a road at a certain time of year. But generally, I was on my own in guessing the conditions of the route. It turned out that most of the gravel roads in the US are very well maintained, some better than others, and with some practice I was able to ride well on all of them. They brought me to some very beautiful places, and I have the best memories of the rugged and empty land I saw here. Only once did I work myself into trouble when a road that looked like a good road on the map, slowly changed into a sandy cow trail.
And then there was the old Barlow Road in Oregon that was in a condition not much better than how the emigrants had left it. This formed one of the more serious challenges for me. The biggest part of the road I rode without much problems, but the last stretch through the woods of Mount Hood, however, got too technical for me, and for safety reasons (alone, nobody around for miles, too heavy motorcycle, too attached to expensive equipment like computer and camera) I decided to skip it. It was a hard decision to make, and it felt a bit like defeat, but it probably was the best thing to do (or so I like to tell myself).

With the people, of whom a land eventually really consists, I had nothing but positive experiences. Numerous persons asked me where I came from, where I was going and showed genuine interest. They were impressed by my intention and my trip. They helped me when I needed something, went through a lot of trouble to give me sound advice, and sincerely wished me well and told me to be careful out there on the road. Nobody who told me I was insane, only people who admitted they didn’t dare to undertake such a trip themselves. Some of them confessed that they had always wanted to go and travel, and I always encouraged them to do so.
I think that in the spirit of the Americans in the West, quite a bit of determination of the emigrants is still left, and not much has changed in that sense for the last 150 years; a lot of people still travel the entire country, searching for a place that’s better, more beautiful or safer, whether it is for work or for pleasure. Of all the people I talked to, only one or two still lived in the town they grew up in, but these really were exceptions. It is in the genes of Americans to travel, and in many ways I think they are still a nomadic people.

All these elements made this trip for what it was: searching for and experiencing history, meeting people, facing challenges and trying to overcome them, and mostly: enjoying the beautiful things you see on the way, whether they are expected or not.

I set myself a challenge, and I succeeded in what I wanted to reach. This gives me a sense of accomplishment, and also some pride. It makes me feel stronger in what I am and more confident in reaching the next goals I set for myself.

Living without luxury or familiar company for a month makes you realize what you have, and that these things are invaluable; friends that support you in what you do, good health, but most important of all: a home to return to.