Ch 3: Coyah to the Pineapple Grove

The morning sun burns a yellow red through the palm trees and the humid air is quickly warming up around me. We patiently pack up camp and walk the bikes back through the dense grass to the paved road. Ethan had told me to make sure my passport was easy to get to, we’d be passing through a checkpoint soon. Sure enough, the roadblock was ahead. The road, normally a wide open affair, was slowed to a stop. The street was busy with this morning’s market, sold through stopped  car windows.

We made our way past line of stopped taxi to the uniformed guards. The big man in charge motioned us over. Où allez-vous? Siguiri. D’où venez vous? Conakry. Taking a look at us and our bicycles. Mais enfin, qu’est-ce que tu fais? Ethan replied, Corps de la Paix. Ahh, Corps de la Paix! Traverser! Insisting that we take a water bag each from one of the waiting children, he waved us through. Bonne chance! 


Our guide, translator, and inspiration; Mamadi Camera aka Ethan

Riding into the nearby town, Ethan pulled the bike off the road beside a lady standing behind a large pot. Eyes from all over town were generally in our direction. A few children stood a safe distance away and gawked. Ethan brought my attention back to the bikes. He was loading up water bags, and I joined in the process, refilling my bottle and rehydrating my empty belly. Securing his load, he passed me a hard boiled egg. Devouring the egg, we returned to the road to continue our morning ride.

As the sun got higher and higher in the sky, we eased our way down the road. Ethan set a steady pace, as we settled into greeting everyone we met. I was glad to have him out front to do the talking, so I could sneak by with a polite, silent wave. As we rode, I got more comfortable with the ride. The other vehicles seems to give us plenty of space, and the road was in pretty good shape. Nonetheless, the sun continued to bake and I started getting warmer and warmer in the noonday sun.


Easy does it.

At the bottom of a large hill I felt exhausted. I really need to take a break, but Ethan is just trucking up the hill. Something from my bag was rubbing against my wheel, so I stopped the bike. Ethan will figure it out. Turning to look at my saddlebag, I noticed that the sandals I had brought along from America were nowhere to be found. I had tucked them under the saddlebags, thinking that the weight would be enough to hold them in place. Feeling the rage build within me, I unleashed a terrific roar, as some passing children stopped to stare at this monstrosity.

Frustrated with the heat, my inability to express my needs to Ethan, and losing the sandals, I stewed in the road. The kids were trying to help me out, but I wanted none of there help or attention. As I continued to curse, Ethan returned to figure out what was wrong. I bitched about my situation, and he suggested that we take a break. Following him up the road again, I was thankful when he pulled over towards a friendly face that was hailing us to join him.


Ethan with a water bag in the shade.

Smoldering in my frustration, I silently joined Ethan and our new friend in the shade. A young Rasta man, who spoke some english, we relaxed while drinking a water bag. After a little while, my anger passed, and I was thankful for the shade and the pleasant company. While Ethan went through his standard ‘who we are’ conversation, I pulled out the dulcimer to share my music. Sitting on the poarch of a hut in rural Guinea, I started playing my songs.

Starting with some background music, I settled into playing. Soon I started singing my songs, and had a wonderful realization. Usually when I sing, I’m concerned with making sure I sing the right words, getting the lyrics right. But here in Africa, I realized how it really doesn’t matter what I sing. Sing with passion, sing with joy, sing with pain, sing to share myself. The words don’t matter, the emotions behind them do.

Completely relaxed, and over my self-centered spell (for now), I realized that the Rasta man had a pair of sandals for sale here on the porch. I looked them over, they looked like they would fit and asked the price. Demill, or 10,000. Pulling out a bill and handing it to him, I had a replacement to my lost pair! The sandal is the standard Guinean shoe, and I had gotten my new set for the equivalent of one US dollar.

After rearranging some things on my bike, we were back on our way after saying our farewells. As we reached the road, our friend called out to us. Turning to look, I had left my dulcimer behind! Turning around, I went back to retrieve it. Meeting our friend, he asked in a quiet voice, ‘Hey man, give me a demill.’ I gratefully pulled out two for him. Thanking him, I returned to the road, as Ethan turned around to give him another demill. Refreshed from our break, we got back to our journey.


Tropical Grassland.

The dense jungle that we had woken up in was rapidly changing to more open grassland. The fires were burning around us in places, thinning the forest even more. We began to climb our first real mountain pass, as I gazed out at the distance palm trees.


We could see much further into the haze.

I’ve never really minded climbing. It takes more effort, but generally you get into a groove. Shift down to a low gear and slowly make you way up the mountain. Eventually you’ll get to the top, then you get a nice easy ride down on the other side. Compared to fighting the wind, climbs are a rewarding challenge. Every once in a while, you look over and get to see an incredible vista, and you really appreciate how far you’ve come.


Sketching the climb later that night.

As we climbed the grade, we passed a single kid walking alongside the road. He was carrying nothing, and clothed in the standard kids outfit, a Barcelona jersey. As we reached the summit of the hill, we stopped underneath a lone shade tree to catch our breath. The kid that we had passed 15 minutes ago arrived a few minutes later. At first he stood carefully away, but soon he crept closer under the shade. Amazed that he had caught up with us so quickly, I passed him a piece of candy, which produced a huge smile. Ethan gave him one of our water bags, as the three of us enjoyed the shade, glad to be out of the afternoon sun. A few minutes later, communicating only through smiles, we loaded back up and said farewell.


Ça va!

We continued our ride through small villages, going up and down hills. After hearing so many greetings over the last day, I was starting to pick it up. ça va? ça va bien! The roadside sights were also becoming more usual. Cars packed with people, inside and on top, seemed like a normal thing. Packs of kids that hollered when we rode through town, were entertaining instead of intimidating. The constant stares were completely understandable, because really Ethan and I are quite the duo of bicycle superheros rolling through your town.


Then we were three.

We stopped in a shady town, and Ethan purchased a loaf of bread, a handful of fresh, small bananas, and some fried dough (the total cost, $1). Munching down the snacks, I was amazed at how far our money went here. I feel wealthy in America, because I can purchase whatever I want at a grocery store, but in Guinea I felt like a real fat cat. Returning to the road, we picked up another cyclist for our adventure. Riding on a worn out single speed, the guy was right on pace with us as we climbed over the hills. Seeing the excitement in his eyes, it was so validating to have a local riding along with us.

We rode into the late afternoon, until deciding to take a break in the shade. We pulled over, and our friend kept on riding. Waving farewell, we were both amazed at the strength and determination of this kid. Taking a break is a choreographed dance of how quickly can you strip off your sweaty clothes, and get horizontal in the shade. Ethan was soon asleep, as I stretched out my tired limbs. Even in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a group of children wandered past, then circled back to observe us from a distance. Running low on water, we needed to get to the next town, so we loaded up again, and returned to the road.

We arrived in town in the evening as folks were returning from work, and soon everyone knew we were there. Feeling quite famous, I smiled at the kids and awkwardly answered questions as Ethan shopped for supplies. Thankful for his return, we packed our water bags, giving a few away to the curious children around us. We then sat in the shade and passed a large bean and hard boiled egg sandwich back and forth between us. After eating, Ethan continued to talk to seemingly everyone in town. His charisma was impressive, taking the time to talk with every interested party. Returning to the bikes, we waved farewell, and left town looking for a place where we could camp for the night.


The fresh pineapples.

Surrounded by fields of pineapples, we pulled over to get a fresh one ourselves from a roadside vendor. Thanking the lady, we were back on the road. Ethan instructed ‘We’ve got to be careful, if the kids see us, they’re surely follow.’ He suddenly whipped the bike down a footpath into some dense vegetation. Following, we made our way away from the road, looking for a discreet place to camp. We came to a large hole dug into the ground, probably 30 feet across, beside a pineapple field. ‘What do you think?’ ‘It’ll do.’ We walked our bikes down into the hole, careful to avoid detection from the last of the nearby field hands.


Camping over there in the brush.

Settling down for the evening, the sun soon set, as we went through our evening routine. Strip off the riding clothes. Wash your face and hands with a little water and a bandana. Spread out the tarps. I carved the pineapple with my spoon, eating large chunks of the delicious fruit. Pile up the food, and start munching through it. Ethan lit a candle, as he started telling me more about his life and experience here. I worked on my sketch for the day, and showed Ethan when I finished. ‘I remember that place.’ Satisfied, we stared up at the sky full of stars framed by the silhouettes of palm trees, as we drifted off to sleep.

coyah to pinapple.PNG




Riding Out of Conakry

Leaving the motel, we were back on the path that we had come in on under the darkness of night. The sun was high in the sky now, brightly illuminating the world around us. Children played in the muddy streets, stopping to stare at the strange creatures rolling by on bicycle. The path was rutted and litter was scattered everywhere. Chickens picked through the litter, dancing forward and backwards, scraping up snacks.

The bike felt strong beneath me. The large tires and big wheels made easy progress across the jagged terrain, and the front suspension took most of the shock out of the bumps. I really like this bike, the next bicycle adventure is finally happening!

Making our way to the paved road, we waited for a break in traffic before pedaling out into the chaos. The street carnival I remembered from the previous night was still around me, but soaking in the midday sun. Cars, motos, and pedestrians flooded through the street, each taking up only as little room as possible. How am I going to survive this, I ponder as I closely follow Ethan down the street. We approach a roundabout, and the chaos of the road is amplified, but luckily our starling appearance appears to be helping. Everyone is still giving us hard looks. I thought I needed to bring high visibility clothes, turns out all I needed was this high visibility skin.

Flowing down the street I settle into constant vigilance. People and vehicles could be approaching from any direction at any time. No signs or traffic lights to try and organize the people, if you’ve got a gap take it, but get through quick before the person behind you shoots through. When the cars slow down due to a truck parked over most of the road, beware of the street-side market that rushes out to try and sell water, oranges, or sugary snacks through the temporarily slowed car windows. Paying absolute attention to navigating, I hardly notice the looks and cat calls from the people watching the street.

As we get further from the city center the street opens up and so do the speeds of the vehicles. Motos rush pass, blowing their horns to warn of the impending pass. Wrong way drivers provide some confusion, should we stay to the right like good bicyclist, or pass on the left? After a few precarious close calls, Ethan decides that the left seems to be the way people are expecting. ‘Just go with the flow man’ he instructs me, as we approach another busy market.


The humid air is filled with exhaust and the sweet smell of burning trash. No environmental regulations here, most of the vehicles trail a cloud of black smoke as they race past. The sun is baking me, my body trying to adjust to the heat after being in icy January Washington, DC only a few days before. Ethan pulls his bike into a gas station lot and sends the attendant a questioning thumbs up to ask if we can chill there. Receiving an okay, we settle onto a bench in the shade to drink down a bag of water. The attendant walks over and Ethan starts to explain who we are. I continue to watch the busy street, and follow along silently, as Ethan makes another fast friend. Soon sweet fresh oranges are being pealed and I’m feeling hydrated again. Ethan and his new friend exchange phone numbers and bracelets before we head back into the mania.


Settling into the ride, I began to notice more detail of the world around me. The tropical environment is filled with tall palm trees and low areas are covered in dense swampy brush. People are everywhere. Children walk and play in groups along the street, and women carry buckets of water on top of their heads. Houses and businesses appear to be one in the same, as every street front has something for sell. The ditch for the road is a 3 foot deep concrete pit that runs along the road. This pit is the community trash can, all sorts of plastics litter the bottom, with occasional livestock picking through for a snack. Wooden boards bridge the gap at irregular intervals, and people dance back and forth across the gap depending on the traffic. Everyone here seems to be playing attention through, quite a different from the car focused streets of the US.


The afternoon sun is still baking, and Ethan pulls into another gas station for a rest. A lady is selling hard boiled eggs, so we sit in the shade and crack them open on the curb. Ethan makes quick friends again, and I give a piece of candy to her curious son. Another lady approaches, and soon we’re enjoying an iced cold ginger drink. It’s been bottled in a reused energy drink bottle. The spicy delicious ground ginger hits the spot as we relax. Ethan introduces me as Samba, my new African name.

We continue to push into the late afternoon, and large mountains soon appear through the haze. Building were replaced by dense trees or open burned areas. Fire is used to keep the jungle back, and the somewhat controlled fires burn all across the country. The road narrows, then we start the climb. The brush beside the road is now poking out into our path, as we try to squeeze down the edge. Horns are constantly blaring at us, some to warn us of a pass, some to tell us to get off the road, some to greet us; altogether I’m overwhelmed.


Pulling over I take a drink of water. I brought water bottle cages for the bikes from America, but I didn’t think to bring a water bottle that would fit it. My Nalgene relieved my thirst and I caught my breath. This is really tough, I think as I climb back on the bike. Ethan is still on his bike, a ways up the road. Looking behind me, a lone moto approaches. Figuring he’ll give a wide pass, I lift myself onto the pedals. Laying on the horn he continues to plummet directly towards me. Trying to steady myself as my bike comes to a halt on the hill, I tumble onto the shoulder, as the moto roars past. Luckily bike polo pays off, and I gracefully land on my feet, my bike crashing to the ground. Hearing the ruckus, Ethan stops and comes back for me.

‘You alright?’, ‘Yeah man, I’m just exhausted’, ‘It’s alright, let’s just walk the bikes for a little while.’ Pushing the bikes up the hill vehicles continued to rush past. Everyone is always trying to go as fast as possible, trying to double pass the lumbering trucks as they creep up the hill. Feeling tired and somewhat resentful, I wonder why people can’t respect my right to the road as a cyclist. Well, perhaps you don’t have that right here, know when to get off the road buddy.

As we’re pushing the bikes, the back tire seems to be getting heavy. ‘Hey man, I’ve got a flat.’ Standing among a roadside trash heap, Ethan looks back down the road to where a guy was collecting firewood. ‘Let’s go back there and work on it.’ I strip my bags off the bike, flip it over and begin my first roadside repair. I carefully remove the wheel, then the tire, and start inspecting the tube. Over inflating the tube is the go-to solution, and soon I find the hole. I dig through my tool kit and pull out the patches. Opening up the rubber cement, I poke a hole through the fresh seal. Nothing happens. I squeeze on the tube of glue, and only smelly air comes out. I had gotten the glue at the Bike Collective from the donation bin, it appeared unopened. It seems that it had dried out years ago. Damn. All the way to Africa only to not be able to patch my tires. This is only day one. How could I be so stupid? Damn.


Explaining my frustration to Ethan, he goes over to his bike and pulls out his much smaller tool kit. ‘I’ve got these patches’, the simpler sticker type. Still frustrated but regaining my cool, I successfully apply the patch and it seems to hold.  Shifting my attention to the tire, I inspect it to find what caused the flat. My fingers discover a sharp piece of thin gauge wire sticking through. I triumphantly show Ethan my prize as put some tape over the damage on the inside of the tire. Reassembling the wheel I realize that everything’s going to be alright, I’ve got Ethan with me!

While I was working on my tire, Ethan decided to scout ahead to see if there was a good spot to camp for the night. Returning he informs me that a trail is just up the road, and it follows along side a creek. Getting the bikes rolling again we make it to the trail head, and start pushing the bikes through the dense grass. I have to stop to catch my breath several times, as I’m fairly physically and emotionally exhausted at this point. A man is walking the other direction down the trail carrying a large load of firewood on his head. He is covered in sweat and making easy progress after a long day of cutting wood by hand. I’m somewhat ashamed of my weak white body, but am too tired to really care. The people here work so much harder than Americans, by a long shot.

Parking the bikes in a little clearing, we start setting up our first campsite under a towering palm tree. Dense brush surrounds us on all sides, and colorful butterfly’s float through the air. Ethan heads to the creek to wash, as I collapse on my tarp to stretch. Ethan is totally savage, walking through the jungle in his loin clothe. I’ve got a lot to learn, I think to myself. As his shifts over to camp mode I head to the creek to rinse off. The western doctors warned me to avoid the water, as it could contain parasites. Coated in a orange crust from the dust forming mud over my sweaty body, I decided to rinse anyway. I splash the cool water over my body and feel dramatically refreshed.

While I was washing, Ethan had prepared camp, and was gathering sticks for a fire. We sat down and started munching down our snacks. The food always tastes best after a long day of riding. As darkness settled, we relax beside the fire talking about the day. Ethan starts to share some of his experiences, grateful to have me there to talk to. I take a few minutes to go and set up my hammock between two small trees. The trees bend over when I lay down leaving me somewhat supported on the ground, but at this point, I’m perfectly satisfied. I collect some more sticks and head back over to the fire.


I open up my sketch book and reflect back on the day. Under the red light of my headlamp, I begin sketching the scene I saw while I was patching my tire. The scene is really a collection of different elements from the afternoons ride. Satisfied, I show my drawing to Ethan. ‘Wow that’s pretty good man.’

First Flat

Feeling the exhaustion, I say goodnight to Ethan and head for my hammock. I guess that’s the best way to get over jet lag, I think to myself as I listen to the sounds of the nighttime jungle. Soon I’m deep asleep under the crisp night sky.

Map Day 1

First Night in Guinea

The airplane was banking as we approach our final descent in Conakry, the capital of the Republic of Guinea. Down below are orange dirt streets, busy clusters of houses, large walled compounds, and dense green tropical trees. Well, these shoes aren’t going to be white soled much longer, I think. As the plane touches down, a round of applause ripples through from grateful passengers. I’m here, I’m in Guinea. I hope I can find Ethan.

Disembarking the plane, I patiently wait through customs. Compared to the folks around me, I’m underdressed. Most folks are in there western best, suit jackets, large watches, and stylish hats. Passing through the customs inspection is quick, scan the fingers, smile for the camera. ‘Hey! You there, come with us.’ The men are dressed in combat fatigues, real paramilitary types. Looking around for Ethan, and not seeing him, I figure I’ve got to follow along. ‘Where’s your bag?’ Finally seeing it we pick it up, then I’m rushed over to security. The army men quickly process my bags through the metal detectors.

‘Come on, hurry up!’ Uncertain, I continue to follow them outside. ‘Give us some money.’ How much? Unsure, I shell out 4 dollars for the first, the second waits for his cut. ‘Here’s a dollar man, it’s all I’ve got.’ Satisfied they head back into the airport. Realizing that I’ve been hustled for my convenience, I nervously shift my bags around and continue my adventure through the airport. The humid tropic air is thick with the smell of exhaust, and the sweet smell of trash fires. Beyond the fence, motorcycles and over packed cars rush by in a continuous stream of chaos.

Finally making it out of the airport terminal, all eyes are on me. Dozens of folks are standing around waiting. Maybe it’s my white skin, or my purple pants, but everyone is giving me a hard look. Scanning the crowd, I see another white dude, dressed in a green tracksuit. Elated, I’ve found Ethan!


Forever Brothers

People approached us from every direction. ‘Do you need a taxi?’, ‘Come with me’, ‘Do you need money exchanged?’, ‘Do you need a taxi?’ After 20+ hours of flying, I was in no mental state to understand the barrage of questions. Ethan wanted to know what my opinion was, should we find a hotel or just ride out of town? ‘Honestly man, my only plans were to find you.’ Walking the bikes away from the hussle at the airport, one of the taxi drivers followed us. ‘I have a car, come with me.’ ‘Ethan, I’m pretty exhausted, I don’t think I can ride right now.’

Taking charge, he decided to head to a room that had been discussed earlier in the day. Our faithful taxi driver was finally rewarded, we loaded up the bikes on the roof, and set off towards the room. The streets were an incredible culture shock. Dozens of people set beside the road selling fruits and drinks. Children were everywhere, staring at us. Cars and motos rushed around us. There were no signs or stop lights, all the traffic mixed radically together, with horns blasting in every direction. Darkness was settling, and the world around me was a carnival of noise, smells, and insane sights.

We stopped the taxi so Ethan could go talk to his acquaintance. Sitting in the taxi, I felt so overwhelmed and unprepared. The insanity of the world around me was almost too much. Taking a breath, I realized everything was going to be alright. Ethan was here to guide me. It seems crazy, but I’m pretty sleep deprived. I’m sure it will settle down.

Ethan returned, and the taxi ride resummed. Turning off the main paved road, we inched slowly down a dirty road between houses. Through the darkness I saw cows walking along the street. The taxi rocked back and forth as our driver negotiated the rough, trash filled street. We soon stopped, and we unloaded the bikes. ‘Whoa, whoa!’ I hadn’t seen the electrical wire suspended a few feet above the car as we were unloading the bike. Feeling so out of place, I waited while Ethan paid the driver, and talked to the host.


My African bike.

He lead us into a large house, to a simple room furnished with just a bed. The room had its own toilet and faucet. After agreeing that the room was alright, and paying the $25 for the night the stress was off. Ethan had brought along a bottle of red wine, so we proceeded to catch up, passing the bottle back and forth. We unpacked all of our gear onto the bed and began the process of repacking for the bikes. I brought a bounty of snacks from America, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, Cliff bars, candy, peanut butter, snacks, snacks, snacks! Ethan dug into the treats, while I sorted through the gear. ‘The less stuff you take the better’ Thinking I was already pretty lean, I went back through my things. We set aside a bag for things we would leave at the Peace Corps headquarters while we rode. Dropping in my books and various American accessories, my gear pile got smaller and smaller.


The gear pile

I had brought along a card game, Monopoly Deal. Essentially it’s like Uno and Monopoly combined, all the properties were on cards, and the goal was to get three complete sets of properties. We played through the game, continuing our conversation and catching up. It was so nice to be back hanging out with Ethan. It had been 15 months since I’d seen him last. He seemed so much more mature, an African version of my brother.

After the game, I realized that I needed to use the bathroom. Looking at the toilet, my American eyes were shocked to see no toilet seat. ‘Yeah they don’t really have toilet seats here, just wipe it down with some TP.’ Confused by the bucket and the faucet, I stumbled my way through cleaning up after myself. Sometimes the water would come out of the faucet, sometimes not. ‘Yeah, the waters not real consistent here.’

Finally our bags were repacked, and we settled down for the night. Ethan lit a mosquito coil, a slow burning incense that keeps the bugs away, as we laid out on the bed. Our room was right next to a bar, and being Friday night, the music was bumping. Putting in my ear plugs, I reflected on how far I’d come that day. I’m here with Ethan. I’m here in Africa!



In the morning.

Waking up before me, Ethan was already on the move when I came to. He had the Peace Corps stache bag loaded up. ‘I’ll be back in an hour or so’. Making the most of the time, I got to work on my bike. I had brought along my tool kit, and quickly adjusted and repaired the bike. The disc brakes were loose, the rack was loose, the rear wheel was untrue, the handlebars were at a weird angle, the derailers were misaligned, and the chain was of course very dry. Satisfied, I loaded up my bags and took some time to write in my journal and meditate.

Soon Ethan returned with a bean sandwich and bags of water (drinking water is in third liter bags). After eating, I switched my focus to his bike. ‘The brakes don’t really work’. I would say so, misaligned and loose, I did my best to straighten them out. The front derailleur cable was completely disconnected, so I reattached that. ‘We need to get going, don’t spend too much time on it.’ ‘Alright man, I got some of it figured out.’ Loading up our gear, and making a final check of the room, we said farewell to our host and set off into the city.

Roadtrip with Ethan

This adventure is from the summer of 2016, when my brother Ethan and I travelled across the United States for the third time. This time we were in a car, a Kia Rondo. Ethan volunteered to help me move out to Oregon, where I started my Ph.D. that September. Ethan had been living in Duluth, Minnesota with his girlfriend Kim, and I had just biked around Lake Superior. After visiting for a few days, I continued my bike ride to Kim’s family farm near Lake Itasca were Ethan and Kim would meet me a few days later.


The headwaters of the Mississippi


After loading up our bellies with plenty of coffee and biscuits, we slowly began to say our farewells. Spending the last few days on the farm was an absolute treat. I ate an excessive amount of food, helped clean the pasture of thistles (using a scythe nonetheless), visited the headwaters of the Mississippi River, played music and explored the many buildings around the farm. Leaving this Minnesota home away from home was tough, but I knew that one day I would return.

The car was loaded down with gear: two bicycles, a guitar, dulcimer, clothes, tool box, and plenty of loose ends. Seeing the nearly unlimited capacity of a car (compared to the bike) I had pilled it full of stuff that I thought I might like to have in Oregon. Ethan was in the driver’s seat as we set off, as I stared out the window at the landscape. A year before, he and I had transversed Minnesota on our bikes, the miles seemed to fly by.

Passing through some of the same small town from our bike journey, the memories came rushing back. Gas stations where we had stopped for water, charming midwestern downtowns, a Goodwill where I found some funny hats. Heading southwest our plan was to make it deep into South Dakota for the first day. As the miles rolled by, I was grateful to be spending time with my brother, for he had spent much of the last year in Minnesota with Kim. On the road again!

Soon the gradual hills of Minnesota flatten to the vast expanse known as the Dakota’s. Roads in this part of the country go one of two ways, either north/south or east/west. We alternated between the two, throughout the afternoon until we reached Pierre, SD the state capital. Interestingly, Pierre is the only state capital without an Interstate (maybe that’s just interesting to me, sorry). Crossing the Missouri River, a gorgeous sunset filled the sky.


We drove on into the night, eventually stopping in Wall, SD, home of the Wall Drug Store. After some debate about where we should park the car for the night, we eventually settled on an access road down by the freeway (somewhere behind the dinosaur in the next picture). Sleeping in the car isn’t my favorite night of sleep, but eventually I got comfortable enough.


The morning sun woke us up, and we journeyed into town to find some breakfast. Stopping briefly at the Wall Drug Store, we loitered then headed to the Badlands National Park. Deciding to purchase the National Parks pass, we were through the gate, and were soon greeted by a large herd of antelope that dominated the road.


Stopping the car, we walked down to the edge of the vast canyons and glazed at the countless ravines that make up the Badlands. The intense erosion creates millions of nooks and crannies, that filled my mind with adventures of long forgotten caves. The western landscapes are so dramatic, with thousands of years of geologic activity exposed to the sky. Returning to the car, we toured around the park in proper tourist fashion.


Stopping at another overlook, I sketched the landscape before me.


We continued our journey through the park, stopping several more times to check out the sites. As the sun climbed, the park filled. Like many national parks, the roads that cut through them are prime tourist destinations. Unfortunately, many folks never even get out of their cars to take in the sights. ‘Just hang the camera out the window to take a picture. We’ve got too much to see to stop here!’ The relentless consumption of these places hurts my soul, as I believe you must be in the place to truly appreciate it. But before I get too bike-self-righteous, we climbed back in our car to continue our checklist of American landmarks.


Continuing west, we eventually reached the busy traffic near Mount Rushmore. Parking away from the paid area, we walked down the road to reach the visitor center. Tour buses full filled the place with tons of tourist, all trying to capture the splendid mountain on their cameras. Walking back to the car, we encountered a pair of goats on the side of the road. Giving them the proper space, we made it back safe. Tired of the tourist day, we headed off again to visit some friends Ethan had made while he was biking through in January.


Ethan had been using Warmshowers during his winter bike travels to not freeze to death. He got snowed in for a few weeks with Jesse, our host for the evening. Settling in for the evening, we kicked back and relaxed. Over the next two days, we would go into Deadwood to visit the casinos, split some wood for one of the neighbors, get paid for splitting the wood with whisky, watch tv, and play with the cats and rabbits that inhabit Jesse’s house. Sleeping in a bed wasn’t bad either.


Like many places on the road, you realize that you have to want to leave because, the folks don’t want you to. Thankful for the hospitality, we loaded up again, and said our farewells as we continued our trip west.

dylan wyoming

A snowball in September

Making our way into Wyoming, we stopped at Devils Tower National Monument. This landmark soars above its flat surroundings and can seen from many miles away. Climbers dotted the various faces as we approached. An ominous storm was brewing as I started a sketch of the monolith. The rain started pelting us, as we returned to the car to continue our journey.

Devils Tower

My sketching juices were flowing, so I captured another scene from this sparse western state. The time seemed to fly by as I was absorbed in landscape, developing my techniques for drawing mountain landscapes. The simple sketches help me to do what photography can’t, capture the vastness of the world around me. Meanwhile Ethan drove on.

Buffalo WY

Continuing west, we made the worst decision of the journey, by not heading south to Thermopolis, home of the largest hot springs in the US. Instead we just continued driving west, cutting through an incredible canyon near the end of the day.


As the evening overtook us, another bright sunset filled the sky. We drove into the night, eventually reaching Cody, Wy, where we parked the car for the night to nap. I was grateful to be roommates with my brother again, though we were now living in a car. Growing up, we shared a room, wore the same kinds of shoes, played the same games, and shared our friends. Through college we drifted apart, but riding across the US brought us back together. It was tough over the last year to have this person, that I’d shared such an incredible experience with, being in a distant state.


Waking up to a cool morning, we set off for Yellowstone. One of the most famous national parks, we were certainly excited to see what it had to offer. The vast landscape continued to impress however, reinforcing my belief that all of nature is full of spectacular beauty if seen in the right light.


Arriving at Yellowstone, we were greeted by a roadside bison. It saddens me to think that these magnificent creatures once roamed the vast west, but are now only found in national parks and on farms.


We stopped and explored the geysers, and Old Faithful erupted right as we arrived. The steam driven pools were a rainbow of colors, from turquoise blues to rusty reds.

ethan geyser

A large crowd of people were gathering around one of the less frequent geysers. We went over to join the crowd, and when it finally blew its cool we were the only people that didn’t flee the raining water. Taking the opportunity for a quick shower, we headed back to the car with huge smiles on our faces.


After cutting the corner of Montana, we were on to Idaho. The spectacular mountains stood above rolling flats, making some of the most picturesque vistas of the journey.

Nowhere ID

One of my favorite sketches

We drove through the day, heading towards Craters of the Moon National Monument. Craters is a huge expanse of volcanic activity, many generations of lava flows, cinder cones, and pumice rock everywhere. Unique types of plants lived in this alien environment. Ethan and I explored the moon for several hours, lost in the incredible landscape. Eventually the sunset in technicolor fashion, and we sat under the fullest sky of stars imaginable. Worried that we couldn’t camp in the park, we headed a little further down the road to sleep for the night.

e craters

Waking the next day we were within striking distance of Oregon. Instead of sticking to the highway, we decided to head north towards Stanley Idaho, one of the coldest places in the continental US. On the map it looks equal distance, but in reality, we climbed over the huge Sawtooth mountain range. Ethan was quite exhausted from the intense driving by the time we reached Boise. We stopped at an all you can eat Chinese place and stuffed our faces.

Returning to the road, we crossed into Oregon. I got behind the wheel for the first time on the journey to give Ethan a break and drove until we reached John Day. We stopped for the evening, amongst those painted hills. Waking we visited the John Day fossil beds visitor center, though it was too early for it to be open. Making the final push we crossed over the Cascades and into the valley. Arriving in Corvallis, we made our way to the Peace House, my new home away from home.


Ethan would return to Minnesota after a couple of days, stopping through Mount Rainier on his way. He and I will be reunited later this week, as I’m travelling to Guinea to visit him in the Peace Corps. I look forward to sharing that next great adventure with you.


Coming Home for Christmas

Riding the train across the United States is an incredible experience. Seeing the vast landscape of America cycle through the many facets of its beauty. Meeting the people who also want to sit back and enjoy travelling. Having the freedom to entertain yourself for several days, away from the internet, social obligations, and the daily routine. Though no experience will quite match transversing the continitent on a bicycle, the train is a world of convenience unmatched by any other way to travel.

My adventure started by loading up my bags and walking to my local Corvallis bus stop. A brief but anxious wait, wondering if I had indeed missed the bus, relieved to climb aboard, I was on my way. A bus transfer took me to Albany, OR where I boarded the Coast Starlight heading south. Settling into my seat, I relaxed, my much anticipated trip home was finally here.

The Starlight weaved its way south through dense Oregon forest, eventually taking us into California. Sleeping through the night, we passed Mount Shasta, one of the most magnificent mountains. This sketch is from a previous northbound trip on the Starlight, where I awoke in the observation car to see a huge volcanic mountain gleaming pink in the early morning light. While other riders hastily tried to capture the glory on camera, I patiently observed and sketched.


Waking up in Sacramento, I deboarded the train to await my next eastbound ride, the California Zephyr. Spending a couple of hours walking around town, enjoying coffee, and playing some train station dulcimer, the time eased by. Waiting can be an agony if you’re unprepared, but to the seasoned traveler, waiting is a time to kick back and watch the world around you move.

Climbing aboard the Zephyr, I met my seatmate Fernando. Making quick friends with stories from my travels, we settled into the journey across the original transcontinental train route. Our first major mountain range was the Sierra Nevadas, a dry and rugged landscape, shown here right after Donner pass. Impressed by my sketches, Fernando suggested that I publish my work. So here you have it folks, the world through my eyes.


Crossing into Nevada the landscape is even drier, with very few trees except for along the river. The rugged hills surrounding Reno were caramelized by the rich orange glow of the sunset. Watching the landscape slowly fade to night, I was grateful to be traveling through this harsh terrain with such luxury, so I could appreciate and attempt to capture the beauty.


Waking up the second time on the train, the world outside was dark and ominous. Thick clouds and fog surrounded us as we worked our way through Utah. Luckily the morning sun soon dissolved the clouds and a new dramatic landscape emerged. Thousands of years of erosion had carved elaborate rock sculptures all around, exposing many layers of sedimentary rock. Satisfied with my sketch, I dug into a book of Rumi’s poems that my train friend Phil had aboard.

You lack a foot to travel?
     Then journey into yourself!
And like a mine of rubies
     receive the sunbeams
Out of yourself, such a journey
     will lead you to your self,
It leads to transformation
     of dust into pure gold!

Helper UT

As the train continued east, similar rock formations got taller and taller, as the rivers had cut deeper through time. Our train was briefly delayed in Green River Utah, due to a medical emergency. A passenger had forgotten his insulin, and was picked up by EMS to receive treatment. Taking the opportunity to study one location, I sketched while my mind wondered what it would be like to live in such a distant place.

Green River UT

Soon enough we were on our way again. The mesas continued to grow, or perhaps, we were just sinking further into the earth as we followed the river. Still amazed by the scenery I sketched another take of this wonderful landscape.


Our train began working its way through several intense canyons in Colorado. The sheer cliff faces soared high above the train as I pondered about those valiant souls that originally built these tracks. Many gave their lives to build the railroad across the continent, especially in these jagged canyons, and I honor their sacrifice.

CO Canyon

Do you see the bald eagle?

As the sun set, I was grateful for another day exploring the west as well as excited about visiting Denver. My roommate from Raleigh, Evan and his fiance Katie, now live in Denver. I spent the next two days catching up, talking non-stop about bicycle infrastructure, and celebrating the joy of Christmas, all while seeing where Evan had grown up. Refreshed and restocked with vegetables, I made my way back to the station to catch the Zephyr.

Sleeping through Nebraska, I woke up to a bright midwestern sun in Iowa. The mountains were long behind us as we crossed field after field. Small farming towns dotted the landscape which was otherwise dominated by vast farms. Although most of the farms are large industrial operations now, I imagined that Little House on the Prairie dream homestead in my next sketch.


Institutionalized to life on the train, the day flew by. Playing some dulcimer in the observation car, I made many new friends, and even had an awesome folk band together for a few songs. Another traveller had a sweet 1940’s guitar, that sounded like a Woody Guthrie recording, that we swapped back and forth leading songs. With smiles throughout the car, I was glad to be able to share my music with those around me.

A brief stop in Chicago afforded me the chance to take a break from the train and eat a deep dish pizza. Stuffed beyond reason, I gave my leftover slices to a man with hunger in his eyes before heading back to the station. My laid back west coast demeanor seemed out of place amongst the busy hustle of downtown Chicago. Watching the streams of people hurrying to catch trains seemed so contrary to those despondent souls waiting for different trains. Time seems so pressing when you don’t have enough of it, and so torturous when you’ve got too much.

Boarding my fourth train, the Capitol Limited, I felt like a real train veteran. Wearing blue slacks and a matching vest, many folks were asking me for directions aboard the train. Perhaps it was the clothes, or perhaps my cheerful smile, nonetheless, I was delighted to help my fellow passengers. The train soon settled into nighttime mode, as we slept our way across Indiana and Ohio.

Waking up for the forth morning on the train, I was excited to tentatively be arriving home that day. The rolling hills of Pennsylvania were around us. The west coast is full of evergreen trees, therefore the winter forest looks much the same as the summer. The east coast is covered in deciduous trees however, and the green brown skeleton trunks of the trees are all that remains during the winter. This is the forest of my childhood, awakening many memories of adventures in the woods as captured in this sketch near Cumberland, West Virginia.


The landscape became very urban as we approached Washington DC. Departing the train, I was swept away by the hustle of this train station. Carrying too many bags, and in contrast to the suit and tie atmosphere, I felt more like a housefree person than a routine traveler. It’s incredible the cultural diversity across the US, how our regions define us as people. Finding solitude on the mall, I captured the monumental feel of DC in this sketch.


Heading back to Union Station, I was amazed by the stunning massive architecture. The Christmas spirit was thick in the air, with many travelers heading home for the holidays. Relaxing while I waited for the southbound Crescent to arrive, I sketched the vast station. Looking up, I saw that my train had arrived, and soon I was travelling on the last leg of my train journey. A few short hours to go before seeing my family again.

Union DC

The final train is always the longest. I eagerly awaited being home with access to a refrigerator on my fifth train. The miles crept by as I read the final pages of my book. Finally, Greensboro NC, then onto High Point, and now arriving at Salisbury, North Carolina!

35 sqft


The local wollyworm that I believe is still living around the teepee. Hard to tell these days, as I’ve got some good news for all those people who have ever wondered if I had a roof over my head. I’ve now got a floor under my feet!

Knowing that the rainy season was coming again, I begrudging waited out the final days of summer. Enjoying the dry ground that I had grown accustom to, I didn’t want to build the platform. Mikey from Polo warned me that the rain was coming, and that’d it be much easier to do before everything was wet. I realized if Mikey was concerned, I should be concerned, as he’s generally unencumbered by near term consequences of his actions.


Mikey in Action.

That evening I moved all of my gear out of the teepee, peeling back the blanket floor. Setting everything outside, I knew I had to make the platform happen before the rain. Sometimes it’s nice to give yourself a little motivation. Sleeping in a different spot that allowed me to watch the stars, I realized that I shouldn’t be holding on to summer. Nothing in life has permanence, especially the turning of the seasons.

Waking early I began the construction process. My first move was the hammock stand that I used to sleep last winter. Surely I’ll be at least as well off as I was then. I Adjusted the stand around the poles, then entrenching it to reduce the tripping hazard. Next I brought in some cinderblocks to lay the foundation.


I leveled up the cinderbox by setting my marble on top of them, and watching the way it rolled. I matched the general slope of the yard to encourage water to run off the platform. Looking over my work, I was glad that I was going to work around the flowers that had bloomed while I was away at the Burn. I figure they’ve got as much right to the space as I do. I set a fairly long palate on top of the foundation then went searching around the yard for a floor.


All of my materials were found in stockpiles around the Peace House. Over the years 1,000’s of projects have be started here, but many a time, they don’t get finished. Playing Tetris with the various pieces, I finally found a combination that matched. I supported the cantilevered OSB overlay with some 3/8″ boards to extend the top face of the palate structure. I added another whole sheet of a thin plyboard to smooth out the surface and tie the various boards together.


I decided to clean up the edges with a saw. Testing my weight by jumping up and down on the platform, a smile filled my face. Pops would be proud, here I am building my own home.


Understanding that OSB does a poor job of holding up when its wet, I decided to wrap the platform in some of the leftover teepee tarp. Using a staple gun, I wrapped the tarp underneath the platform and secured it.


Stepping back, I admired my handiwork. 5′ by 7′ seems like a lot of space to sit with. I was happy to still see the smiling faces of the flowers. During my exploration of the yard, I found a large metal & wood frame. Building a brick foundation, I set my new mud room up on the door side. Any proper Oregon home should have a mud room.


Satisfied my with capital works project, I moved my gear back into the shelter and rushed off to a lab meeting that I had mis-remembered the time for. Later when I returned, I spread my blankets and began settling into my new dwelling.



The Longest Miles

The sun continued to climb high into the sky, shortening the small shadows to nothingness, as I rode into Nevada. The green of California agriculture was soon gone, replaced by the dry dusty grey of sand and sagebrush. Passing over the other mountain range that defines the Surprise Valley, the only evidence of mankind was the two lane highway in front of me. No signs, no mail boxes, no buildings, nothing.

The 24th state that I’ve explored by bicycle, and within 5 miles, Nevada quickly reached the top of the hardest States to cycle in. The temperature soared, and a head wind picked up. Looking across the vast expanse I could see the next mountain range. Just 25 straight and flat miles across. I’m never going to make it.

The wind has a special place in my heart as the most painful part of bicycle riding. Working twice as hard, and going half as fast is nice for about twelve seconds. Then the dread sets in. I’m never going to make it. Why did I think it was a good idea to ride across the desert? Oh yeah, Carl said ‘just ride your bike to Burning Man’ with a smile on his face. I’m never going to make it. No shade. Anywhere. I’m never going to make it.


I pull the bike off the road to take a breather. Put on some more sunscreen. Refill your water bottles and reduce that water weight. Meanwhile the sun is baking everything to a crisp. I’m never going to make it.

Realizing that I would in fact never make it if I just stand in the sun and give in to the existential crisis of the moment, I get the bike rolling again. I think about Ethan’s journey into the desert. His stories of being followed by the vultures, and running out of water. Getting to town only to find the spigots dry. And of the kindness of strangers stopping to give him water.

That’s right Dylan, it might be tough right now, but you’ve got a ways to go to get to Ethan’s experience. And besides, look at all these Burner’s blasting through the desert heading to Burning Man. Surely one of them will help if you really need it. Motivated again I continue my battle against the wind, slowly, ever so slowly, creeping across the afternoon desert.

Reflectors on the side of road denote a culvert under the road. I pull the bike over again and investigate. On the north side of the road, a pretty good shadow covers the mouth of the culvert. Grabbing my tarp, water and snacks, I shimmy my way into the three foot culvert. Ah, this is nice, shade at last! Finally relaxing, I open my snack bag and am delighted to find a few gravy biscuit potato chips left! This is a miracle, I am going to make it.

Waking up from a quick nap, my body feels re-energized. My waking disturbs the gathering of flies that have settled upon my salty shirt. This desert isn’t going to cross itself, I realize as I craw from the culvert. Just keep going and look for the next culvert. You’ve got this. Returning to the road, I pass Duck Lake, or what appears to be Duck Lake, as it’s hard to tell if the oasis is real.



Actually, I would find out later that Nevada, like much of the west coast, received an abnormally high amount of rainfall this year. Seeing no reason to spend any more time in the desert than necessary, I continue to battle the wind. The refueled legs are having a much easier time against the wind. After an hour or so, and eight miles later, I decide to seek some other shade. Stopping the bike, I try to set up my tarp under a three foot tall sagebrush. The desert is covered with thorns, and this semi-shade spot was no exception. Realizing this wasn’t going to provide any real comfort I return to the road.

The desert landscape is vast and intimidating. The mountain ranges around the expanse are bare, and a seemingly endless sea of sagebrush covers the dusty ground. The most intimidating part isn’t the expanse however, but the deafening silence of the afternoon heat. Nothing seems alive. Except for the steady blowing wind, the desert landscape patiently waits through the sunshine.

Seeing another culvert, I celebrate my good fortune by parking the bike and repeating my procedure from before. I nap longer this time, realizing that waiting out the sun is the way of life here. Occasionally waking up to the sound of a passing car, the afternoon slips by. Around six, the shadows are beginning to grow again. Refreshed from my second rest, I’m ready to make the final push across the expanse.

Climbing back on the bike, I make good time as the wind is now at my back. Flying down the road, I feel like a new creature, strong and able. A burner passes, and slows. Rolling down the windows, they call out to me, is everything alright? Yes ma’am, I’m doing well. You got everything you need? Yes, I’ve even got plenty of water. Oh, okay, just figured I’d check. Thanks a lot, see you a the Burn.

Finally the road begins to curve through the next mountain pass. I stop again and climb a rock face to look back upon the desert. Look at that mountain across there, I was on the other side this morning. Exhilarated, the bike and I are in perfect harmony climbing the hill. The afternoon sun turns into a orange glowing sunset. As I climb, I look back, seeing another iteration of this sunset at every twist. At the peak, I take a moment to savor the moment as the darkness settles around me.


Equipped with lights, I don’t mind riding at night. Especially out here, as I can see and hear other vehicles coming from miles away. I patiently wait on the shoulder while the occasional car passes, not wanting to risk a surprise bicycle sighting for the motorist. I blast down the grade while the stars systematically appear above me. Soon the sky is so full of pinpoints that it’s more difficult to see the space between the stars than the stars themselves.

My eyes are well adjusted to the dark, and the rugged landscape around me continues to amaze me. The desert comes alive at night, as the crickets begin chirping in the distance. I pass several snakes that have crawled out onto the still warm pavement to prepare for the night’s hunt. Whatever they tell you, the time to cross the desert is in the night, not the afternoon.

The miles roll steadily by as I wonder how far I have left. Eventually I come to a sign, Gerlach 9 miles. Realizing that I don’t have the energy to make it to town, and especially not to the Burn, I decide to pull off the road and find a place to sleep. A gravel road with the next destination 32 miles away seems like a good place to get away from highway.

Luckily the ditch had been scraped recently, so the number of thorns was surprising low. Parking my bike against a sagebrush, I spread out on the ground, making a pallet to sleep on with all my extra clothes. The sounds of coyotes are first intimidating, but soon comforting, as I realize that there is much life in the desert. I stare at the complete glory of the Milky Way, as the horizon is completely free from any artificial light source. The chill of the night air soon settles me into the comfort of my light sleeping bag, as I drift off to sleep.


Waking at times during the night, I watch the stars drift through the sky. Soon the starscape fades as the morning light fills the sky. Repacking my gear, I’m on the road before sunrise. Today I’m going to Burning Man. Soon the sun explodes through the clouds, igniting the morning in a stunning radiance.

The morning miles glide steady by. Yesterday’s struggles seem like a distance memory, as I cruse through the desert landscape. Finally, I pass a mailbox. Signs of civilization! Then there ahead, it’s a town, no doubt that it’s Gerlach. 68 miles after leaving Eagleville I have arrived.

Riding into the busy chaos of the few streets of Gerlach is overwhelming at first. Looking at all the RV’s and loaded down cars, I feel self righteous. Hey Mr. Car driver, do you mind not running me off the road? Where are you racing to? To get in line for gasoline? Making my way off the main street, I seek out a water source. Every spigot in town in padlocked. The town of Gerlach sales water during the Burn, likely 90% of the town’s annual revenue. The water sells don’t start until 9 though, so I give up my search to eat some breakfast.

In the shade of a tree at the local playground, I use the last of my water to prep a quick meal. As I’m enjoying my oatmeal, a neighbor asks if she can join me, offering me some fresh cut melon. Striking up a conversation, I tell her about my journey as she tells me about life in Gerlach. She works at the local school, grades K-12, 27 total students. We talk some about Burning Man, and she offers to let me fill up my water at her house. I even got to use indoor plumbing, and wash my hands and face! Thanking her, I set off again, ready for the final stretch.

Most of the Burning Man traffic comes from the south, from the direction of Reno. Now with the combined traffic streams, dozens of vehicles blow past me every few minutes. Generally a slow moving RV will have eight cars behind it, as it lumbers down the road. Seeing these packs of cars, I pull over and wait for the quiet in between. As I ride the dust begins to build, vehicles heading in the other direction are covered in the white paste of playa.

Somewhat stressed by the heavy traffic levels, especially after the lonesome miles of yesterday, I pace myself during these final miles. Most of the drivers seem aware of my presence and give me a couple of feet to pass. Occasionally, a rental RV appears in my mirror. These for-hire RV’s are the scariest thing on the road. The drivers are obviously unaware of the size of their vehicle, sometimes weaving back and forth across the lane. Realizing my place, I gladly pull aside to let these novice drivers pass.

Eventually I see the road! A simple sign reads ‘event entrance’, as I pull on to the dusty dirt road. Stopping, I put on my respirator, as the cars are churning up a huge cloud of dust. The entrance road is six lanes wide, and I find it much easier to be at the extreme edge where the playa hasn’t been pulverized by the cars. Nonetheless, some drivers decide not to change lanes to pass me, kicking up thick clouds in my face. Patiently riding, I make the long journey down gate road.

Eventually I come to the gates. Dozens of gate trolls are tending the new arrivals. Luckily the event started yesterday, so I don’t experience any waiting. Rolling up to the troll in my lane, I stop. Wow man, did you ride your bike all the way here?!? Yeah man, of course! Damn dude, you are hardcore! Congratulations! You made it!