I was looking at my old mountain bike and thinking about what a friend had said:
"Take what you think you'll need, strap it to the bike and start going... then just deal with things as they come up." That bit of advice turned out to be pretty much all I needed to know about bike touring. The guy who gave it to me is long dead now, so I'll dedicate this diary to him: Donald Graham. Beyond just bike touring, it's pretty solid advice: "Take what you think you'll need and start going. Then just deal with things as they come up."
Don was the quiet one of our college clique, and the first to go insane. He was on his own in LA in a crosswalk and when the light started blinking "Don't Walk" he froze right there in the middle of the street. I've either forgotten or never knew precisely what happened after that, but it ended up with him in a psychiatric ward telling anyone who'd listen that he was Jesus Christ. Time and medication brought him back, but not far enough to just go back to what he'd been doing.
Bicycles are amazing. Especially these days, where even the cheapest road or mountain bike will take you well over ten thousand miles if you're willing to go that far. After he was released Don stayed with his parents for a bit, then fixed up an old road bike and took off: from San Francisco down to LA, then across to the Grand Canyon, then up to Denver, Montana and Idaho, west to Portland and back down the coast to San Francisco. It took him about three months and when he came back he was a damn sight healthier and my new personal hero. I begged him to take me biking and we rode from Santa Cruz down through the Salinas Valley to Morro Bay and up through Big Sur. One night while we were camped out I asked him what it was like to be Jesus - if he felt some sort of cosmic empathy or understanding for humanity. He said yeah, there was some of that... but mostly it was the bleeding and suffering part that he remembered.
The closest I ever felt to being Jesus was in Malaysia after being awake for some 36 hours traveling. I was looking out over a crowded marketplace in Kuala Lumpur with at least a thousand people in my direct line of sight and for a split second I was able to understand that each and every one of them had lives and thoughts and memories, lovers, families, ambitions and dreams that were just as complicated, beautiful, confusing and fragile as my own. It was an understanding I was able to maintain for about three-quarters of a second before it passed: any longer than that would've driven me insane.
Here's what you need to travel long distances by bicycle: a decent bike with a rack, basic tool kit with a chain tool, some extra spokes, spare tire, tube, pump and a patch kit. The other necessities are a sleeping bag, tent and pad, down jacket, helmet, gloves, rain poncho and whatever clothes you've got that are light, easily compacted and quick to dry. A lot of laundry ends up getting done in streams and drinking fountains. While bike luggage can be expensive, you can get perfectly good Schwinn saddlebags for twenty-five bucks at Target, and you can build an excellent front rack for about six bucks using hose clamps, duct tape and shelf brackets:
Don lasted another ten years or so before sliding back into madness. The second time around he ate every medication he could get his hands on, overdosed and died. At the funeral it was extremely important not to call his death a suicide, at least not near his mother. She was extremely religious and afraid that suicide meant her son was burning in hell. Don had never been religious, at least not outwardly, and I'd thought his turning into Jesus was just a standard for schizophrenics. At his parents house after the funeral I immediately understood: the place was filled with pictures of Him on The Cross, bleeding and suffering.
That was all a long time ago. In the years since I've ridden from Seattle to Salt Lake City, Portland to San Diego, LA to Albuquerque twice and once across country. My most remarkable trip was across the midwest on a recumbent with homemade sails:
Anyway, I'm in my garage, looking at my old bike and thinking for the hundredth time how I should give it to Goodwill or something when I get an idea. Then I called up the local homeless shelter and ran it by the director: she said it was perfect.
So, here's what you should do with your old bike:
Fix it up and get it running, and then put together everything you think you'd need to survive: tent, mattress pad, sleeping bag, first aid kit, tools... everything you can think of. Buy some saddlebags at Target, strap it all to the bike with bungee cords and go for a ride. If you think you could make it, at least for awhile, with what you've got, then ride it down to your local homeless shelter and donate it as a survival kit for someone who's just lost everything.
Or just keep riding and deal with things as they come up.