Back in 2013, a contact of mine with Blackburn told me about this program they had, a bunch of empowered riders who were taking in some of the iconic touring routes, like riding the Pacific Coast, from Seattle to San Diego. Canada to Mexico. As it happened, one of them was going to be passing through my ‘hood and did I want to meet her? It was an easy yes and resulted in this post. So began my friendship with Jen. Since then, I’ve seen little bits about the turns her life has taken since then and references to her big ride. But I never saw a single piece that talked about the ride itself and what it unleashed. So I asked her to write that for RKP—Padraig.
At work, on tour, Lewis & Clark State Park, Oregon, 2016
In 2013 I was offered a spot on Blackburn’s Ranger roster. All I had to do was bike the Pacific Coast Highway, test some gear and blog about it along the way. No problem, right?
All I had to do was walk away from a safe, really good-paying job at a beloved Seattle institution. Safe except that my boss was making my life a living hell, and when my appendix ruptured after an especially stressful work week, I knew—after years of agonizing over quitting—it was finally time to leave.
All I had to do was something unlike anything I’d ever done. Although I was a diehard bike commuter and world traveler, this was still my first bike tour. Oh, and I wanted my surgeon’s ok following my lateral appendectomy. (I still appreciate his smart-ass response: “Well I don’t know if you can, but yes it is medically safe for you to try.”)
I had just read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, recently cheered on Bruce Weber as he crossed the U.S. at 57 years old, and, well, I had bought “The Book”—Bicycling the Pacific Coast—4 years earlier … because it sounded like a great adventure. And so, I told Blackburn I would do it!
After much hand-wringing, fretting and tears, I set out from the Peace Arch in Blaine, WA on June 15, 2013. The tears continued off and on for a bit after I began pedaling. Could I make it? Would I be safe? Would I figure out how to camp by myself, having never done it alone before? I bet real touring cyclists don’t cry this much.
Selfie at work, on tour, outside Lewis & Clark State Park, Missourri, 2014
And as anyone who’s reasonably capable would expect, I figured it out. All of it—navigating the route, getting used to riding 8 hours a day, finding places to stash my food where the raccoons wouldn’t get it—it all got easier. Eventually I went from being a novice and an outsider to the one giving advice to new cyclists starting out on their own tours. I found my presence on the bike, on the journey. I owned it.
My days focused on a few simple tasks: Eat, check in at home, pack up camp, check route, ride bike, eat, enjoy myself and yes, eat a lot more all along the way. Somewhere near the Oregon-California border, my body awareness surged. I knew exactly what kind of fuel I needed. When I got food poisoning, I immediately knew the deli, that it was not only the sandwich I ate but that it was the cucumber slices that did me in. And I knew a big fat peanut butter brownie would make me feel better the next morning before I tackled the aptly named 7 Devils Road.
The question “Am I getting what I need?” eventually evolved into “Am I getting what I want?”
For someone who debated for years whether to quit a fairly toxic job, this was significant.
Selfie on solo tour in the North Cascades, Washington, 2014
And it was fun. Want to get in that hot tub even though you’re not a hotel guest and are pretty sure you’re not allowed? Just ask—you might be surprised (Santa Cruz). Don’t feel like an hour-long ride after having a few too many drinks in the city—chances are you’ve got a friend to crash with who doesn’t care that you’re old enough to know better (San Francisco). A guy comes up to you on the beach and asks you to snap a photo of his family, you know what, they are probably happy to wait while you finish what you’re doing before you help them. (I just yesterday learned the phrase “disease to please” and this was in Dana Point).
As the miles went by, I knew time on this grand and unique journey was running out—just like every Sunday afternoon there’s that gnawing consciousness that Monday is right around the corner.
Once I made it to San Ysidro, triumphant and a little tipsy from the accomplishment or the celebratory supersize tequila shots or both, I lingered at the border, not wanting to leave. A job hunt was on the horizon—not nearly as sexy as far as adventures go, but that’s what was up next.
Back in San Diego, I rode my bike to a shop for them to pack it up and ship it home. I walked into that shop with all the armor and glory of a touring cyclist. Walking back out, stripped of my bike and panniers, I looked like any other Jane Doe. The stream of everyday pedestrians swallowed me once I exited the shop. On the flight home, I was crowded out of the armrest by a woman in a business suit, her laptop and files pushing the boundaries of seat 21B. Didn’t she know who I was? What I had just done?
End of the line, San Ysidro, California, 2013
But I know what I accomplished. And that has raised the bar significantly.
When I got home, I was as tan as I’d ever been, had a bit of a swagger, and I was strong. Riding a 50 lb. bike 80 miles a day? Heck yeah—and my legs looked great. They felt great. I now craved physical exertion despite chronic muscle pain built up over refusing to rest. (Thank you yoga and massage for saving me from myself.)
Since I needed a new job, and loved bike touring so much, I worked on turning my vacation life into my professional life. I talked with everyone I could about staying in the industry, and networked my way into a job at Bicycle Adventures. I still spend most of my working hours in a cubicle, but those hours are spent talking about, planning for and executing bike tours. I get paid to talk to people about how amazing it is to climb Going to the Sun Road, the awesome descent on the north side of Volcanoes National Park, riding through Elk Prairie State Park completely surrounded by the redwoods that are everywhere the eye can see: front, back, left, right and way, way up. Few would call it a “really” good-paying job—but I also lead tours often enough that I can say I get paid to ride my bike. And I laugh a lot. Loudly. Every day.
It is rare that I get into a car without wishing I were traveling by bike instead. I just did a weeklong road trip with my parents (a different kind of daring adventure thanks to our diametrically opposing political views) and we drove east from Seattle through Yakima down to Bend and the gorgeous Oregon Outback Scenic Byway down to South Lake Tahoe. Pretty much the entire way I kept repeating, “It’s so pretty!” while scanning the shoulder and wondering how traffic is the summer, when I’m now hoping to come back and ride the route.
Triumphant at the Mexico border, Pacific Coast Highway, 2013
And just like my bike tour of that roadtrip route will involve a fraction of the stuff I carried on the car road trip, I suppose I’ve lightened the load in my entire life. Instead of a house in Seattle, I now have a small suburban condo, trading square footage for proximity to Lake Washington. I gave away my piano in the move, and have taken up cello instead.
While I’m increasingly selective with cycling clothing, I still don’t give a rip about bike equipment (one of my all-time favorite compliments was Padraig’s “I’m not sure I’ve met a more capable cyclist less concerned about equipment”). I have three expectations for most things in my life: it needs to work, to fit, and look good too.
I still don’t ride with a bike computer, unless I need to for work. I hate the darn things. Numbers don’t help when I’m hungry, tired, lonely, have no cell service, figure out how much longer I’m going have this headwind. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m tired, I rest. When I’m lonely, I deal (easier said than done). I borrowed a bike computer for a solo trip from Anacortes, Washington, to Whitefish, Montana, purely for navigation purposes. It mostly lived in my pannier. Since it was borrowed, I decided to bring it home instead of flinging it into a lake on the second day.
Riding among the redwoods, Pacific Coast Highway, Elk Prairie State Park, Calif., 2013
Since the trip, I try to settle less. I think I speak up more. Speak out more. Sometimes I claim the damn armrest. Hopefully more often I fight for important things like our civil rights. Sometimes I’m a little obnoxious about it, either because that’s a honestly little bit fun but usually because I can be clumsy with it too.
And holy crap it is hard sometimes. It can be painfully lonely at times. Settling is comfortable and easy. And yeah, sometimes I fall asleep and go with the flow – it’s not nearly as glamorous, but it’s so much easier to be a pedestrian than an adventurer.
Not unrelated, I’ve shed a few significant relationships. In some cases, I’m the one who was shed. Too personal and painful to get into here, but these were big changes.
I wish I could say I’m still very much in touch with what I need, what I want – and can see a clear path to get there. But honestly it’s hard. As I’m reminiscing about bike touring, I see several lessons that can still help me today: I conquered the legendary Leggett Pass on 2 hours’ sleep, amidst a snit with my cycling buddies and while seriously PMS-y – pull that one out when a work project goes sideways. If you see something you want, ask for it – even if you don’t think you’re allowed to have it. Hello hot tub at in Santa Cruz (a little charm and situational awareness goes a long way). And if someone says you can’t do something but you think you can, you’re probably going to win that argument. To the fishermen who said I wouldn’t make the 10 miles and big climbs from Jenner to Bodega Bay before dark – you succeeded in planting a little seed of doubt, but I still made it. Puh-leeze.
That Santa Cruz hot tub, Pacific Coast Highway, California, 2013
As I think about the simplicity of bike touring, I see how elegant problem-solving can be when all you need to do is eat, drink, ride, have fun – and think about how to make that happen again tomorrow.
My life isn’t as easy or as safe as it was before the PCH. But it’s that much closer to what I need, to what I want.
And you know what’s really cool? I get to be part of other people’s adventures. I take them on trips that they brag about on social media. I take photos that end up in their Christmas letters, and they take photos that end up in mine.
As I said before, the bar has been raised because I’ve done the PCH and a few other pannier-laden bike tours. People have told me I’m their hero for making these changes in my life, for doing these bike trips, and for often traveling as a solo woman.
So I try not to settle. I try not to let them down.
I try to be my own hero too.
Jennifer Schofield is a life-long cyclist, if we can just forget about the 10-year gap after getting her driver’s license. To her, a bike represents freedom, once being the gateway to blowing allowance money on stickers and makeup, and now an escape from everything more complicated than just riding a bike. She works for Bicycle Adventures and endeavors to help others achieve their own bicycle adventures – especially if that involves stopping for ice cream and doughnuts along the way.
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