I’ve been “training” for my first camping/touring bicycle adventure. By training I mean, riding whenever possible. Not training in the Rocky Balboa sense. I’m not getting up at dawn, putting on a grey sweatsuit and knocking back a raw egg. I’m not strapping on a heart meter, nor does a personal trainer ride alongside yelling “C’mon Jackson! Ride! Push those pedals DOWN!” Training to me means riding as much as possible, for every trip I take out of the house that doesn’t involve hauling my cajón (which I haven’t figured out a rack system for). Groceries, band practices (I have a case for my snare drum that carries like a backpack), work in North Berkeley, parties, protest marches, and picnics with pals. That turns out to be about 100 miles per week, with normal trips and the occasional longer adventure out of town. My sexy little Mazda Miata sits abandoned in my driveway, in fact, whenever I see a sports car, I kind of scoff in that arrogant way that’s gonna get me knocked out with an iron skillet one day. But hey.
The out-of-town trips presented an interesting training challenge. I threw my party dress and a bottle of home-brewed kombucha in my panniers and rode the 30 to 40 miles in perfect freedom and enthusiastic arrival to my impressed co-celebrants. But how to navigate to a new place on the bicycle? I have only used GPS in Europe, to get from Eastern Germany through Austria to Italy, alone, in a rental car. My travel companion loaned me his GPS unit, and that was why I am not still in the backroads of the Alps, out of gas, but having some hard cheese and Chianti with a nice goat herder.
Here is a sign of my age: Normally, when driving to a new place, I study a map, take some pertinent notes, written nice and big, on scratch paper, and refer to it on the road. Nice and big is key here. I have 20/20 vision in contact lenses. Both eyes. Night vision is great. But my 51-year-old eyes are useless at close range. I have memorized the location of my lover’s parts; I have learned the keypad on my phone by feel, I have my friends read me menus in restaurants. I even own a pair of reading glasses that I haven’t sat on yet. But on the bicycle, how do you navigate complex turn directions to a new place without stopping, getting a pair readers out, fumbling in the backpack or some nerdy carry-all fishing vest for the printed directions or the phone whose battery may be dying or out-of-range? In Copenhagen, for example, getting to a new place on the bicycle, I wrote the directions on a sheet of paper, and cycled to my destination in the wind, with the paper in my mouth, risking the paper either blowing away, or sticking to my lips. What to do, especially when a GPS is useless, such as in a remote place, or on a multiple-day tour, with no chance of recharging a device? Neither do I want to rely on a smartphone, nor give up my love for orienteering by physical map.
On my long adventure from the Dublin-Pleasanton BART station to a house in Livermore, hidden in a subdivision of characterless homes on labyrinthine streets with meaningless names, with no towering mountains to indicate my vector, I got pretty uncomfortable. The route took me along the Arroyo Bike Trail and Arroyo Mojo, which at street crossings, goes under overpasses. Whereas in a vehicle, on streets, there are visible street signs indicating your location–if not your direction. On the arroyo, you dive under streets and resurface. Following water. No street names. I had prepared a print-out of Google turn directions, which listed distances between turns, but without an odometer, that information was meaningless. How do you know what street you are crossing? While I had a Google map queued up on my phone and a pair of earbuds to listen to the digital backseat driver, I have a dwindling (hand-me-down) phone battery and the nervousness to go with it. As I rode the trail, I started to see cones and detour signs, but followed the trail, ducking under fallen trees, until I found out the signs meant the trail had flooded out. That’s right about when it started to sprinkle. So I bit the bullet, put the phone in GPS mode and tapped its battery getting to my party.
“In 600 feet, turn left.” The kind lady in my ear said with a slight English accent. She’d fall silent for a mile. “Are you there?” I’d ask no one in an agitated English accent. Silence. My battery must have died.
“In one mile, turn left onto [mispronounced Spanish Street name].” In effect I missed the bike ride worrying about the navigation. I had little awareness of how awesome this trail is and can’t wait to do it with my brain on the birds and waters. It’s a great trail. Route from Dublin-Pleasanton BART: https://goo.gl/maps/dWfizSzBKjH2
I had a similar ride to Palo Alto for another party, but this time, I used the GPS on purpose, didn’t mess with any other method, and entrusted my navigation to a well-charged cellphone, and only used it when I was surely unfamiliar with the territory. This route is highly recommended. From my house in east Oakland, I drop into the Bay Trail by crossing the Fruitvale Bridge, traverse Alameda and skirt the Shoreline Park on BayFarm Island past a golf course and a super-fund site to the Oakland Intl. Airport, into some wetlands, dodging some ground squirrels you go and go. Nary another person, just birds and grasslands. And low-flying planes. There is the San Leandro Marina, and more trail. Goose, mouse, grassland. For miles. It’s heavenly. Requiring little navigation. There are north and south for choices, and it’s clear which one to choose. Then there is a section where you have to use city streets through Fremont; the GPS is useful to me here. Then onto Fremont Creek. Through Coyote Hills Regional Park, (which is magical by the way, at night with no headlight) and into the bay. A one-mile paved trail juts directly west. There is only the narrow trail, some grasses, your bike, and you. On either side, water. Sometimes you encounter people and you stop and talk about what a strange place it is. After that mile, you head south (your only choice). Now you are on another narrow trail just the width of you and the grasses lining it. You are looking at the Dumbarton Bridge, and laughing because it is so odd. Then across the bridge, a left on University Avenue, and into Palo Alto. Miles of navigation, another labyrinth. Another subdivision.
It took me these few clumsy attempts and late party arrivals to realize I need to design my own orienteering tools suitable to my needs and style. GPS isn’t an option in the countryside, maps are a fun part of the trip. Folding them correctly just as important as reading the altitudes on a good topo map. The romantic color, the light pinks and orange pastel lines. The old-school fonts. GPS robs you of that, and I have never thought it a good idea. It’s pervasive and increasingly, people don’t know where they are.
Adequate points of reference. Like a two-legged stool, what my nearly-failed orienteering efforts lacked was a point of reference, or a third piece of data. A cross-street. A relationship. GPS works in large part because it knows where you are on the map. Without GPS, I would need either a compass OR a yard stick, plus a good map. So I replaced the battery in my ancient CatEye bike computer, found the manual in the archive of 90s bike ephemera online, and learned to mount the receivers to a fork and a spoke, and program it for my bike’s “stride.” This computer gives you the time, overall distance, current speed, and a current trip’s distance. And has two buttons. With this tool, as long as I remembered to reset it at intersections, “take a left in two miles” would have some meaning. Even with no crossroads visible/legible.
The ride I was training for just happened: 20 of us rode 225 miles from Chico to Davis. Great camaraderie, playing music along the way, cooking for each other at the campsites, well-organized, chaotically magical, and bonding. There was a Google map established early on in the planning. In preparing to go, I wanted to divide the map into seven separate maps; one map for each day, scaled to fit an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. My maps would need to be easy to read without glasses. They needed to point out landmarks and features of the road that would help orient me in this new terrain. Granted, I would often find myself with other riders with great small-print vision and their own maps. But how about each knowing the route, regardless? That’s just good hangitude.
To custom-build my daily maps, I started with the main Google route, then created separate routes representing each day of the ride. I then created .gpx files for each daily route — To do this, share the map in Google. You get a link that represents this route. Then, use a service like http://www.gpsvisualizer.com. There, you feed your route link in, and you receive a downloadable file in .gpx. Now comes the fun and bottomless-pit part.
Caltopo is a browser-based, free mapping software that allows you to make beautiful custom maps using different layers, such USGS topo maps and even Google maps. Hikers use it for example to narrow in on the topography of a hike and share with others. I only pecked at the surface of this robust software, but I got just enough depth to create a simple map showing some topography, some cool shading, the route itself, and I added a layer of Google map to give highways and road names for reference. I tried to keep it simple, focusing on the features I’d want to see: Some altitude, the stream crossings — essential for skinny-dips on the hot ride, as well as good landmarks.
How to Do it. In the Caltopo browser, from the top menu, I chose ‘Import > Browse’ and fed in my downloaded .gpx file. This part I love: You can choose to have it bring in the markers from the Google map, or the lines signifying the route. To keep my map tidy, so that I could put in markers at the font size I wanted later, I asked for just “Lines and Polygons.” You can also edit these lines and markers later using Edit tools under the Lines and Polygons section of the browser window. On the right side of the browser window, you pull down a list of Layers to choose from. I love the aesthetics of the USGS 7.5 topo. I added a Google terrain layer, and stopped myself before making a mess. What got me this far was a great short you tube video Tutorial. Go watch that.
Then I bailed out of this wonderful bottomless pit to save time. I took a screenshot of the Caltopo map I had made, encompassing the route and proportional to 8.5 x 11. In Photoshop, I made layers of text pointing out landmarks and making notes, such as “highest point of the trip! GET IT!” and labeled the day. This step was for labels, markers and my own notes, in a font size of my choosing; and you can do this stuff in Caltopo, but I’m more adept at Photoshop. From here I had only to convert the file to a .pdf, send it to my neighborhood print shop and ask for color copies in hi-def. In ink, I added more useful notes, like distances, and the phone number of Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, who kindly sent a box of asparagus and other goodies to meet us en route at Wilbur Hotsprings.
The Quiet Road. How empowering, and cool to look at. I had topo road maps with labels for distances, names of campgrounds, grocery stops and watering holes. No cellphone. No reading glasses. Now if the whole group lost me or if I blew it and sped on ahead, as I am known to stupidly do, I wouldn’t get lost. In fact, the beauty of this whole ride for me was the solitude of the country back roads, combined with the safety of knowing that another pal was only a mile or two in front of or behind me, or more often, splashing around in the creek under the next bridge. Just look for a loaded bike leaning against a guardrail.
Chico to Davis, California. May, 2017.