"I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Saturday, February 20
Late afternoon. What a pleasant way to roam. The walled city inside Essaouira is a pedestrian paradise (a people paradise, rather), where one can walk and wander and stop abruptly and turn around and rush across the skinny streets without the threat of death roaring by at every turn.
And because people walk, there are few destinations inside Essaouira. The journey is the destination. Space is well-used, all space, and any place seems as important and as full of life as any other. Everything is connected, and though the medina is nothing but confusing dead-ends and maze-like curving streets meant to baffle invading armies, it makes sense yet. This is a place where one can live.
"Cars function best as exclusionary devices, as mobile private space. Even driven as slowly as possible, they still don't allow for the directness of encounter and fluidity of contact that walking does." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Everything feels to scale. Every street has the Moroccan equivalent of a bodega, often no larger than a carriage, and I feel one could get next to everything they need for life within a five minute's walk of their home. It feels familiarly human, but it's the rare permanent instance of that fleeting, unfamiliar abstraction we all treasure to varying degrees of cognizance: a place made for people.
We know these places, in theory. We love them. The farmers' market. The block party. Pearl Street in Colorado, Church Street in Vermont, even that one block of Pennsylvania Avenue behind the White House. The National Mall, the county fair, a protest march in the main street, an awareness walk down Broadway, a marathon, a paseo. The barricades still raised after the parade. It's perhaps the one saving grace of Europe's tourism industry: the hopelessly charming alstadt, the old town, the public squares of Belgium, of France, the Gothic District of Barcelona with its skinny alleys and hidden basilicas, the enchanting pathways of old Tallinn. It's the street, or simply the occasion, where humans reclaim their right to the center of the walkway, where they climb from the ditches and move about freely in a truly equal public commons.
"Afterwards we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people's comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home." — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
But they don't make it easy to go fast! And so we find these little bastions of humanity charming for a time, or maybe a place to visit, and we abandon the notion that anyone can actually live that way: it's not sustainable. We climb back in our cars and drive home in three-thousand-pound vehicles carrying one or two small people, because that, instead, we deem sustainable.
How nice it would be to wake up, anywhere in America, and step outside onto a quiet street. How nice it would be to grow herbs in the front yard that weren't covered in car exhaust. How nice it would be to walk down Market Street in San Francisco the way it was designed to be traveled: on foot. How nice it would be to honor Pierre L'Enfant's plan for DC: a city not designed for cars, but for promenades, for leisurely strolls to the circus (those things we've reduced to "traffic circles").
Children can play here. I've seen them, just today, playing football in the wider streets, playing tag in the emptier alleys, and I feel happy knowing that not one of them will find their skull crushed under the unforgiving bulk of a road tire by day's end. Just a century ago, a driver who ran over a child in America was often mobbed, often beaten, but always blamed. Why were you driving so recklessly? Now a driver on her cell phone, speeding down the road, runs over a child and says she didn't mean to, and we blame the parents. Why didn't you keep your child out of the street? It's shameful.
Drivers aren't bad people. We're all drivers, to one degree or another. Driving makes sense at times. But car privilege is a sort that creeps up on us, turns us petulant, and the enlightened driver must understand that, particularly in an urban area, the speed limit is, whatever the signs may say, three miles per hour and anything but that driver has the right of way. The driver is a visitor on the road, an inconvenience, and honking because something "is in the way" misses the very point of "the way."
"Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that though everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents ... Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors (home, car, gym, office, shops), disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it." — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
This is the key feature of Essaouira that I treasure: its humanity. Otherwise, it's not terribly exotic, not terribly Moroccan. Turn down a quiet alley and it could certainly be Dubrovnik, Venice, any of the final remnants of truly human civilization the world over. But after a few long weeks on the road, it'll certainly do for a rest.
Later. What a show! I was sitting in a courtyard a little earlier, with some tajines and mint tea, when an old French couple with folk instruments wandered in. They set up in the middle of the courtyard and played some beautiful music for almost an hour, and the small number of patrons at the various cafes watched and tapped along and took photographs and thoroughly enjoyed their contribution to the afternoon.
They took an intermission, then, and the man got out his hat and made the rounds, collecting donations. Suddenly everyone was curiously intent on studying the spices in their plates! A dirham is worth next to nothing, but none of these paying customers had any to spare. It was disgraceful. I felt it necessary to pay the share of the entire stingy lot.
The watering hole, indeed, was dry, but the thankless couple kept at it for another round. But just then, a pack of Moroccan buskers entered! The trio broke every unspoken rule of the busking community, encroaching like this, and the French couple was clearly appalled. They stopped playing, and eyed the three Moroccans curiously ... surely there wasn't enough sustenance in this dry little watering hole for the five of them.
The three approached the two, and the air was thick with suspense (actually, I don't think anyone else was paying attention; but I was enthralled). The French man raised his hands and brought them down on his drum, and I prepared for the cacophony, but no! It was harmony. They worked up a rhythm, these two groups, and an intercultural jam session ensued. It was lovely.
But the drama wasn't over. From the courtyard entrance a blind man staggered in, waving a cane wildly in front of him. He held out his hand for dirham, and now the stingy crowd was triple-taxed, with three distinct groups seeking donations that just weren't to be given. I saw the nostrils of the French man flare.
The jam session ended, and the Moroccans, clearly with no shame, walked about the crowd collecting tips. They couldn't have gotten but five dirhams from the crowd (and I certainly gave them nothing, the crooks), but the true insult came when they pocketed the money, offering none of their share to the French. Almost pocketed it, rather. On the way out, they slipped a dirham into the blind man's hand. He clasped it and smiled.
[Post-script: I feel it necessary to add a very important epilogue to this drama, well after its retelling: the blind man wasn't even blind! I saw him later that night, strolling along with his cane, eyes open and feet steady. What a satisfying final twist on the whole epic.]
Evening. Getting lost in the medina is a lovely way to spend the better part of a day. It takes very little skill to master: you just turn right, enter the first alleyway, and three hours later, you find yourself still coming upon delightful new surprises.
Eventually I found my way out, and even made it over to the beach, where I took a long walk on the shore. A storm rolled in, and I made it back to the hotel just before the skies opened up.
Sunday, February 21
Evening. A morning spent reading, an afternoon spent hopping from one cafe to the next. I stumbled upon what you might call the tourist hive, a large square where most of them were buzzing about, with pizza joints and trick monkeys on chains (deplorable), and buskers singing American folk (though one slipped in a Tracy Chapman track, so I certainly can't be mad at that).
In a later courtyard, I made friends with a stray dog, pet his oily scalp until my hand got slimy, and then read some more. Feeling has returned to the extremities of my right hand, though my left is still numb. This rest feels good for me.
Monday, February 22
Afternoon. Hardly anything to write, which is by no means to say nothing to enjoy. I think I'd like to live in a place with no cars; the pace of it suits me well.
"It may sound ridiculous, but I feel I've been privileged to see man at this best, still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we have exchanged for what it pleases us to call 'progress.' Even a brief glimpse of what we were is valuable to help to understand what we are. Living in the West, it's now impossible for most of us to envisage our own past by a mere exercise of the imagination, so we're rather like adults who have forgotten the childhood that shaped them. And that increases the unnaturalness of our lives. So to realize this past through contact with a people like [these] should help us to cope better with our present, though it also brings the sadness of knowing what we're missing ... Nothing is false there, for humans and animals and earth, intimately interdependent, partake together in the rhythmic cycle of nature. To lose one's petty, sophisticated complexities in that world would be heaven, but impossible, because of the fundamental falsity involved in attempting to abandon our own unhappy heritage. Yet the awareness that one cannot go back is a bitter pill to swallow." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
I think I'm finally over tajines. They're delicious: a filling, healthy, stewed heap of vegetables cooked in a conical ceramic pot and delivered to the mouth in parcels of freshly-baked bread, but I fear I've had more tajines this month than one could stand for a lifetime, and I feel nausea at the thought of another plate. An unsatisfying pizza for now, then.
Tuesday, February 23
Evening. I'd hoped, by the end of my rest in Essaouira, to have learned the ways around this crooked medina like an old local. I have failed miserably at this aim. I feel just as lost as my first day here, or maybe my third at best: there are lovely courtyards I had tea in that I can no longer find, making it to the outermost walls is still a struggle, and every so often I've walked myself into a dead end and must, embarrassingly, turn on my heel and retreat.
But new discoveries still, on this last day. I spent most of it reading on the shore, to the sound of crashing waves and hungry gulls, and now it's night and the city is going to sleep and I'm sad to be gone before it again rises.
Wednesday, February 24
Late evening. Today's been a long one. No shade, few stops, no food, few services. A smooth road, most of the way, but four lanes and fast cars, though fortunately not a terrible number. Flat land, for the most part, and uninspiring scenery through all of it. But 127 kilometers down! Tomorrow, then, will be quick, easy work to Marrakesh.
I imagined I'd rough camp tonight, which ended up being my only choice, with no campgrounds or hotels to speak of, but even rough camping was a struggle in this barren landscape. I'd cycle for miles without passing a tree, a large rock, a ruin, or anything to hide a tent behind, and the flatness would stretch away from the road to the lonely horizon: everything featureless, nowhere a safe, respectable place to set up camp.
It grew dark, and the road narrow, and I'd dropped my rear light somewhere back on the coast. I wanted off the road. So when a bright, towering minaret appeared in the distance amidst a sparkling city, I wasn't fooled: I knew this time that it was no minaret, but the sure sign of yet another Moroccan cement plant.
And so it came full circle. My first night's wild camping spent outside a cement plant, and so my last. This one rested off a busier road, but with a high wall setting it apart. I snuck off the asphalt and onto the dirt and quickly pulled Yoshi behind the wall. It was quieter, calmer, and we walked a ways closer to the plant, but still protected by the privacy of the barricade. Here, next to a bald tree, I pitched camp.
Then: dogs. Always dogs. Every time I try to stealthily rest my head in this country, a dog in the distance goes crazy barking and yipping, and thoroughly endangering my anonymity. There's little you can do, for once the dog knows you're there it just howls, and silence won't make it forget what it knows, what it heard, what it smells.
There were several dogs, all barking, and thankfully they were behind some fence, I gathered, for they didn't charge. By the sound of it they were maybe a hundred meters away, so I did my best to not antagonize them with loud movements and went to work setting up my tent, blowing air into my sleeping pad, unfurling my sleeping bag.
Then: a loud, angry voice blaring over a speaker. The words were Arabic, or maybe garbled French, either way not words I understood. But I longed to, for in my head they were words of warning: We know you're out there. This is private property. Leave at once, or we'll release the dogs.
Or maybe not. I'll never know what the voice was saying. I heard it a few times, always sounding angry, always further riling up the mutts, but nothing has come of it, yet, and it's later now, and mostly quiet, and I suppose I'll try for some sleep and hope I'm left in peace until morning.
Cycled today: 127 kilometers
Thursday, February 25
"At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest. But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty's sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat. — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Late afternoon. Three weeks after cycling out of Marrakesh's open center, I return, and it feels like three months. I'm different, and the city is too, and yet it feels familiar all the same. I've seen so much of Morocco, carried myself over a thousand kilometers of its country on water, salt, and tajine, and now I'm back at the start, my body and Yoshi's both maybe a little worse for wear, and I'm off the saddle and will soon be headed home.
Not just yet, though. I got here around noon after a long, uneventful morning and a long, uneventful slumber before that. I've been reading, and eating, and later I imagine I'll do more of the same. At sometime over the next twenty-four hours, I'll have to tear Yoshi into her little bits and pieces, and pack her away. Pack everything else, too.
Friday, February 26
"Ever bike? Now that's something that makes life worth living!" — Jack London
Final evening. And so, she is packed, and I am packed, and when the sun next rises I shall be watching it from the skinny window of a northbound plane. And so, my cycling adventure through Morocco draws to a close.
It was, as I look back, all I'd hoped it'd be: challenging but rewarding, trying but giving, sometimes relaxing and never dull and always beautiful. I feel I've seen a country as it was meant to be seen, a pace fit for humans. Days of desert, evenings on a remote coast, and always with no more than could be pushed, pulled, hauled, or heaved up and down the mountains.
I'll miss this, the Atlas out my window, the tireless drumbeat percussing from the medina. The wake up and go, get tired and sit, get more tired and sleep tune of these wandering, elongating days. I'll miss the friendly faces wishing me well on the road, miss the long afternoons next to a silver pot of mint tea. I'll miss that motion of the pedals, that work of instant reward, uninterrupted for hours.
But I'll be going home, to a comfortable city of gentle familiarities and some welcome rest, home to friends I miss and a girl I love. Home, to a little house, to a slumbering garden, to a place just yawning with the first hints of spring. Home to a dusty tent caked in Moroccan mud, to a disassembled bicycle begging to be put back together again. Home, for now then, until the next adventure.
Off I go.
"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live." — Mark Twain, "Taming the Bicycle"
"I regard this sort of life, with just my bicycle and me and the sky and the earth, as sheer bliss." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
Thursday, February 18
Morning. It's just me and the dogs here, this early in the day. Mangy pups and feral mothers yip and play in the sand. Further along, a small pack chases itself in circles. The sky is a gentle lavender; the waves are quiet. Yoshi's paint glints in the waking sun.
Later. I've stopped for breakfast in a town at the northern edge of the long beach. With the waves and the shore and the white guys with bleached hair and surfboards, this could be southern California. The Claudes and Claudettes have been replaced by a younger breed, and they speak English, and they order food in English and greet others in English and order hamburgers and, well, I'll grant they're not here for the culture at all, just the good surf.
I do hope this isn't what the rest of the coastline will be like. I was happy down south.
Afternoon. My fears have been alleviated. Not long after breakfast the road thinned and the traffic lightened and now this may just be the loveliest stretch of cycling I've had to date! It's beautiful here, skirting the cliff edges with the ocean way down below, and the dusty Atlas continuing to rise to my north and east. It's some tough climbing, but I care not: I have sun and water and such pretty things to pedal towards.
The visiting drivers are all gone too, I think. It's now just me and the Moroccan motorists, and they're a breed I can live with. They're certainly not good drivers, oh no, they're awful, but they're predictable in their awfulness, so all's well.
They're nonaggressive, by and large. They don't hate you for daring to share the road with them; they're just not very skilled at sharing the road. They seem nervous. For good reason, I'll bet: Morocco ranks sixth in the world in terms of vehicular deaths, and with all these skinny, winding, potholed roads, driving here must be a terror.
That said, it doesn't mean they drive slow. Of course not: it's not in the driver's nature to moderate. The ones passing from behind are well enough, they'll give a little space, and not really brake, and even offer you the pleasantry of a few honks as they approach, as though the sudden deafening roar of machinery breaking through the silence wasn't enough to alert you to the presence of a motorist.
It's the ones coming toward you that are more vexing. Again, Moroccans like to go fast, but aren't good at it. So they whip around corners and don't have the ability to stay in their own lane, and thus have to cut well into your lane to complete the turn without crashing (which, aforementioned, they do plenty) or braking (which, aforementioned, they refuse to do at all). And they see you there, well to the right of your side of the lane, and they seem to suggest, oh, you're not using that, it appears, don't mind if I help yourself to what you're not having.
"Being in traffic is like being in an online chatroom under a pseudonym. Freed from our own identity ... the chatroom becomes a place where the normal constraints of life are left behind. Psychologists have called this the 'online disinhibition effect.' As with being inside the car, we may feel that, cloaked in our electronic anonymity, we can at last be ourselves ... the individual swells with exaggerated self-importance ... This also means, unfortunately, that there is little incentive to engage in normal social pleasantries. And so the language is harsh, rude, and abbreviated." — Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do
It's obnoxious. Not aggressive, not terribly dangerous (though there are times, for pothole or wind, when a sudden jerk to the left is necessary), just annoying. Even without a turn, a Moroccan is prone to ride the middle of the road in anticipation of their next turn. These roads are narrow, so in this fashion two passing motorists would of course need to slow, dip two wheels each into the shoulder, and pass one another safely. But seeing a bicycle, which already occupies so much less space than a car, the oncoming motorist just assumes the entire lane is theirs, and they remain in the center.
Lately, I've taken to the peaceful protest of putting my person on the far left side of my lane when I see this sort of behavior coming my way. In egregious circumstances I may even making a sideways shoving motion with my arm, silently declaring the offender to get back over the line to his own side of the road. There's usually a tacit acknowledgment of the offense, and even often a friendly wave of apology, so I hope this is leaving some small grain of effect on the country's cycle-car relations. Back home, I would not have such luck, for back home you are what you ride, and you're entitled to however much space you can forcibly occupy. This is the American tradition, in more ways than the road.
"People now use less than half their potential forces because 'Progress' has deprived them of the incentive to live fully. All this has been brought to the surface of my mind by the general attitude to my conception of travelling, which I once took for granted as normal behavior but which strikes most people as wild eccentricity, merely because it involves a certain amount of what is now regarded as hardship but was to all our ancestors a feature of every life: using physical energy to get from point A to point B. I don't know what the end result of all this 'progress' will be: something pretty dire, I should think. We remain part of Nature, however startling our scientific advances, and the more successfully we forget or ignore this fact, the less we can be proud of being men." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
Again I digress. A little while ago the road sadly separated from the Atlantic, I won't see the ocean again until the Atlas spits me out on its northern end, just a few kilometers from Essaouira. Here the climbs have really begun. A tea break, for now; I don't know when my next opportunity will come.
Sometime later. I met my first fellow touring cyclist on the actual asphalt today! He was coming south, and I north, so we pulled aside and greeted each other like old friends, because all traveling cyclists are already old friends, and we talked for a bit. He was from Poland, and had been cycling for several months en route to Senegal, through Europe and through Africa with a bulky steel-frame and a half-dozen loaded panniers. He admired Yoshi and my light load, and I admired his long journey, and we swapped reports of the roads whence we came before wishing each other happy cycling and kicking off in our separate directions.
Late evening. Thus, I'd been told there were to be ample ascents and lacking services. This was true. I was, indeed, back in the quiet, pristine Atlas, and could cycle for an hour without seeing much of anything human. Cars were infrequent, mules more common, and the weather sublime.
I'd been warned before departing for Morocco about the kids: that they were a nuisance, that they begged, that they threw rocks at cyclists who wouldn't given them what they wanted. Certainly there's some shred of truth to this, and more so in northern Morocco, but to date, having passed through scores of mountain and desert and coastal towns and cycling by hundreds of young Moroccans, I have found them to be nothing but friendly. Here in the western Atlas, there was perhaps a more mischievous glint in the eyes of the occasional group of roaming kids, and seemingly some jokes told at my expense, maybe, in a tongue I can't understand, but I feel it important to note that no harm, not even an idle, intelligible threat, befell me during my four journeys through the Atlas and Anti-Atlas.
If there were ever a danger (beyond cars, of course), it's dogs. Wild or feral dogs are a cyclist's greatest threat, for they're unpredictable. They hate something about the sound or the look of a bicycle, and many a cyclist have reported being attacked by them in cities, in rural country, on foot, and in the saddle.
I've passed by many dogs, lone or in packs, and always done so on my guard. But this afternoon I met my first true aggressor, a steely grey mutt who darted out of the dirt growling and howling and chased after me nipping into the wind. Fortunately it was a downhill chase, so I got low and pedaled hard and quickly outpaced him and his angry barks.
Between the dogs, ominous clouds collecting overhead, and my general need for a shower, I'd planned on leaving the tent stowed away tonight, and stopping somewhere in the mountains for a bite and a bed. No such luck. The bite I did find, if only an offensively puny plate of Moroccan salad at an offensively high price, but there wasn't a hotel or guesthouse to be found. I rode late, right up until the last light of the sun could be seen, and then dipped into a meadow off the road, dragged Yoshi through the dirt some twenty meters, and set up a hasty camp underneath a tall thorntree.
There's a storm coming.
"In the saddle, abroad on the plains, sleeping in beds bounded only by the horizon ... the nomadic instinct is a human instinct ... and after thirty centuries of steady effort, civilization has not educated it entirely out of us yet. It has a charm which, once tasted, a man will yearn to taste again." — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Cycled today: 101 kilometers
Friday, February 19
Before dawn. Hard to sleep. It's windy, rainy. The tent is wet outside from the showers and inside from my condensation. I read recently that a person exhales a liter of vapor while they sleep. This explains the condensation.
Afternoon. I spent all morning looking for breakfast, but now it's afternoon, so I suppose I'm looking for lunch. It hasn't been the easiest morning, but a restaurant, at last.
I realized with sorrow, upon getting back on the road at dawn, that I'm riding my final kilometers in Morocco. Of course, there's still the two hundred between Essaouira and Marrakesh, but that hardly counts, for it'll be flat and long and busy and I'd just as soon skip it. This: the mountains, the hills, the nomadic wandering and the rough coast somewhere to my west, this is coming to an end today.
At least there's climax, I suppose. It's been the one truly cold ride of my journey. I've been cycling in my coat, and my gloves, even. It was a harrowing, windy, rainy morning, with nowhere to stop and no point in repitching my soggy tent. I climbed most of the morning, right into the foreboding clouds, the sky like a forgotten fireplace: charcoal grey with fading orange embers of a dying sunrise. The rain ran sideways and the wind was positively katabatic, sweeping down the ridges and leaving me teetering here and there. Along the pass, I was blown right over and had to throw my foot out to catch Yoshi and myself, and then could do nothing but remain planted there, in the middle of the road, until the gusts took a reprieve and allowed me a retreat to the shoulder. From there I walked Yoshi for safety's sake, and even that was a struggle. All the while, cold hands, numb hands, ulnar neuropathy spreading to my right fingers from tensing and squeezing the handlebars so tightly.
"After about an hour and a half of this struggle I was at that peculiar stage when one doesn't really believe that one's objective will ever be reached, and when one's only mental awareness concerns the joy (to some incomprehensible, if not downright unnatural) of driving one's body far beyond the limits of its natural endurance." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
Essaouira came, finally. It came in a foggy drizzle, a return to a hazy beach, and a wet ride into the old medina walls, and then it came to rest.
Inside the walls, no cars go. Like Dubrovnik in Croatia or Venice in Italy or, to a degree, Nuremberg in Germany, this was the rare walled city that would not and could not change for the blasted automobile, and instead remains a place designed for humans, of human scale: alleys, open streets, hidden passageways, unexpected courtyards. Literally, Essaouira means well-designed place. Funny how that is.
I haven't seen much of it yet. Turning onto the main boulevard, for the briefest of moments it looked like a medieval era. Then things came into focus, printed signs and sneaker stalls and telecom kiosks, but still the place retains that medieval air. It has, indeed, been around for thousand of years, and for thousand of years these same storefronts and edifices have housed Essaouira's residents, many still in the traditional garb, and sold this very produce, and thus not much appears to have changed at all. But I shall explore and report more at length later.
I entered the first hotel I found, down a side alley, and the host was friendly and gave a good price for a little room, and it had hot water and a shower and a place to dry out my sopping tent and sleeping bag and socks and gear, and here I'll rest (after a meal): for today, yes, but for some days more to come, too, I think.
Cycled today: 58 kilometers
Tuesday, February 16
Morning. Change of plans last night. I was holed up in the little campground restaurant for most of the evening, snacking on fries and couscous while my tent flapped about in the wind outside. The owner of the establishment, a friendly man who'd given me a very good price on the spot (just fifteen dirhams with restroom access), came in and out and seemed to grow increasingly concerned about my camping in these conditions. Now, it was cold, and it was surely windy, and I'd been in much worse before, but his lot, these friendly old Claude and Claudettes, were used to a little more comfort in their RVs, and so I suppose he took some pity on me, particularly in contrast to those other patrons (I'll admit, my little one-person tent looked pretty pathetic next to the fiberglass kingdoms on either side).
As it got darker, and colder, he approached me and asked if I wouldn't like a bungalow, for there were a few of them that could be slept in. I told him I was totally fine, but thank you, and he looked at me imploringly, making a generous offer of just one hundred dirhams for the night, which (though just a fair price in areas where more competition is afoot) I knew was a deal well below what he'd typically rent it for.
He was trying to do me a favor, and I appreciated it, and I felt it'd be rude to decline. And also it was so very windy outside, so I agreed. The bungalow wasn't much, with just a thin canvas roof that flapped about all the same. But, especially with the rain that came later, it was a touch more comfortable than a night out in the proper elements may have been.
So now it's morning, and still windy. The winds are still blowing south, so it's a rough headwind, but I'll give it a try and see how I fare. Aglou Plage isn't but a few dozen kilometers, and I have all day to make it there.
Afternoon. It's been another thoroughly unenjoyable day. Bearable, though. Endurable is perhaps the right word. At no point did I smile, at no point did I look at the gorgeous hills to my right and deep blue waters to my left and feel thankful for the scenery; alas, that howling invisible force made it all appear ugly on this return journey. Yoshi was tossed wildly and sand blasted away at my exposed skin and by noon I just refused to continue to suffer the indignity of pedaling downhill. I simply shan't do it, I said to myself. And so when a drop came I stopped pedaling and let gravity and wind currents duke it out, meter my meter. I hovered as though perfecting a track stand, I swayed side to side precariously, and after a long siege I suppose the winds relented enough for me to crawl downhill at the pace of a small child. It took ages, going down those hills, and twice as long to manage the ascents, for a loaded climb up a steep road with thirty-kilometer-per-hour winds at your face might as well be a rockclimb with a bike and all your gear strapped to your sorry back.
But finally, a faint, faded boardwalk in the distance. The bizarre quartet of waterslides from another century rose in greeting, and I raced toward them as quickly as as a snail, and upon proper arrival I hauled Yoshi into the town's only hotel and negotiated a decent price for an unpleasantly odiferous room, but one with walls and a roof! Protection from the winds! It was all I needed, really.
The gusts are howling something fierce outside, but I'll stick with the stale air inside for now.
"We lay on those divans a long time, after supper ... talking about the dreadful ride of the day, and I knew then what I had sometimes known before: that it is worthwhile to get tired out, because one so enjoys resting afterward." — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Evening. I've met most members of the very large, very friendly family that runs this hotel. They're lovely people. They speak a good bit of English, so we've been able to communicate more than most of my hosts. The other guests are English-speaking, too: there's a large crew that came here for windsurfing, and has been shut up all day on account of too much wind, and there's also a fellow American! Her and her husband came here to surf, but apparently there's too much wind for that too.
A quiet afternoon, overall. I stepped outside and allowed myself to get blown down to the boardwalk, where I grabbed some tea and tajines, and then waited for the prevailing winds to change direction before exiting the glass enclosure and getting swept back across Aglou, with the pebbles and the candy wrappers, to the hotel's door.
Cycled today: 44 kilometers
Wednesday, February 17
Late evening. Ah, back to a true cycling adventure. The wind died down this morning, and Yoshi and I left Aglou in the serenity that only comes from knowing that you won't, on a second's notice, be tossed mercilessly across the road by an unseeable, unforgiving force. No, Yoshi's wheels turned commensurate to the pressure I applied on the pedals, and she steered where I turned the bars. North, that is. I'd compared maps with Betsy, the American from yesterday, and hers had a little more detail than mine, so I learned that there was a shorter, pleasanter route up the coast, and I ventured to take that. It wasn't really along the coast, but a few kilometers inland, through a sprawling nature reserve locked between the coastline and the highway.
With a highway so close, most have little reason to take this road, and so I found it quiet and tranquil and modestly beautiful. Rolling hills were all the challenge in store, and mules quickly began to outnumber cars on the byway, and the occasional town passed through was the kind I'd found in the Atlas and Anti-Atlas: small, no tourist infrastructure to speak of, often deserted, a place where salaams once again trumped bonjours for those I happened by.
I pedaled quietly for hours, eventually riding into a second-order town that may have been called Massa, but may not have been, for Arabic lettering was the only sort used here. The streets were all loose rocks, and Yoshi and I struggled our way through them. People stared openly. I got a little lost somewhere in the mix of crumbling buildings and lush green fields, confirming directions with a few locals, and ultimately escaped the-town-maybe-known-as-Massa on its northern edge, shortly thereafter merging onto the highway at the roads' confluence.
Ah, the highway. What had just moments before been quiet, pretty roads of cool, clean air was so suddenly something altogether different, altogether ugly. It was disturbed in that special way only cars can disturb a landscape. What was formerly two narrow lanes of unassuming asphalt now became six wide lanes, plus a concrete median, of littered tar, with big shiny road signs obstructing any remaining semblance of pleasant view. What was formerly calm silence and chirping birds quickly became roaring diesel engines, blaring horns, noisy grinding of thick tire tread against rough, painted road.
Clean air became dirty air, black fumes. The pleasant pace of mules and cycles and people using their own two feet became a Hobbesian jungle where the automobile stood the apex predator, and any in his way the sorry prey.
"This really brings us to the heart of traffic ... We are 'selfish commuters' driving in a noncooperative network. When people drive to work in the morning, they do not pause to consider which route they could take to work, or at which time to take that route, so that their decision would be best for everyone else. They get on the same roads and wish that not so many others had also chosen the same thing. As drivers, we are constantly creating what economists call ... 'uninternalized externatlities.' This means that you are not feeling the pain you are causing others ... We do not pay for the various unsavory emissions our cars create (to take just one case, the unpaid coast of Los Angeles' legendary haze is about 2.3 cents per mile). Nor do we pay for the noise we create, estimated to be between $5 billon and $10 billion per year. How can you estimate the cost of something like noise? Real estate provides a clue. Studies have shown that hose prices decline measurably as traffic rates and speeds increase on the adjoining street, while, on the other hand, when traffic-calming projects are installed on streets, house prices often rise ... Living near a major road also exposes people to more hydrocarbons and particulates of car exhaust, and any number of studies have reported links between proximity to traffic and conditions like asthma and coronary problems." — Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do
We talk of privilege a lot these days: race privilege, sex privilege, and for good, really good, well-deserved reason. But we don't ever mention this privilege, which is arguably (strike that: inarguably) the most destructive privilege on the planet: car privilege. Motor vehicles kill more humans than any other thing on earth: more than guns, more than malaria, more than poor diet, more than smoking. More than many of these things combined. We work ourselves into a frenzy when the rare terrorist strikes, or the lone gunman acts, and these are tragedies for sure, but they are not endemic dangers in the same league as those infernal speed machines. One hundred Americans are killed each and every day by a motor vehicle: four an hour, likely one or two before you're done reading this very entry. Over three thousand non-Americans are killed every day by the same: skulls crushed, lungs punctured, carnage one should never fall victim to on a trip to the grocer or the banker. And yet, we just accept this reality as inescapable, collateral damage of a thing called Progress, as an unending line of poor sacrifices to a merciless, insatiable god called Convenience.
"Commuting is one of the only arenas of life in which we're willing to accept sudden death at the hands of another human being." — Eben Weiss, The Enlightened Cyclist
They're killing us in more than direct ways, and I don't just mean the seven million who will die this year worldwide, indirectly, from their exhaust. They carve caverns through our communities and destroy some altogether: we used to have a Little Italy back in DC, but the corrupt minions of eminent domain came and bulldozed it to make room for the city-to-suburbs I-395, destruction of an actual community to bolster a farce of one miles away. In Los Angeles, in New York City, in cities the world over, cars, and their addictive enchantment of going so very fast, have made us believe that we don't need these tight, close-knit communities anymore, so we raze them and dump stinking tar in their place. Instead, we can have heated seats!
Enough of that, for now. Suffice to say the pretty landscape was made pretty horrendous by the onslaught of fast-moving boxes of steel and synthetic, and I suffered through it for about fifty kilometers to Agadir. Then: more lanes! more cars! more honking and roaring and combusting! It was enough to drive one mad. A filthy highway wrapped back to the coast and offered none of the glory of the quiet country roads further south. Just soot and smog and enough sulphur to coat the lungs of every last man, woman, and child.
I didn't know much about Agadir on arrival, just that it was a place in larger letters on my map and thus of some import, and likely a good place to stop on my northward journey if I needed some rest. But, oh, it was dreadful. There wasn't a shred of charm to be found in that wretched little city: everything felt rushed, everything was loud, and there was nothing Moroccan about it. Not even Moroccans! I learned later that Agadir was sufficiently leveled by an earthquake in the 1970s, and rebuilt as a tourist town later. This explains much.
I was sore, and ready to call it a day, but not here, anywhere but here.
The Atlantic edge of the Atlas range picks up just past Agadir. Continuing north, then, was a struggle, made all the worse by traffic that had lessened but by no means let up. I was relegated to the Boulevard of Broken Glass, the skinny, jagged shoulder overlooking a ditch while Claudes, truckers, and grand taxis raced by without the courtesy of a brake or a meter of side space. On the other side of them, I could make out through their haze, was truly beautiful coastline, a lighter, more illustrious blue than I'd seen further south. The sky and the ocean almost seemed to blend together at the faint horizon, and in the seconds between rattling engines skimming by, you could even say it was enjoyable.
Hills aside, of course. It was an uphill journey a ways out of town, and though the first campground I reached looked more like a cramped trailer park than a quiet place to rest one's head in nature, it's beachside location and promise of no further travel today was enough to seal the deal.
Or not. The receptionist, who eyed Yoshi in disgust as though she were a wart on my face, informed in his snootiest French accent that a tiny parcel of land for the evening would run 150 dirhams, fifteen US dollars! I may have verbally snorted at the insult.
So back on the road we went, another two kilometers. The beach here was wilder, and far less crowded. I threw Yoshi over my shoulder and strapped my panniers across my chest and carried us all twenty meters from the water's edge, to a little pocket of dunes with an open, uninterrupted vista of this Atlantic sunset. Here I shall camp, at the unbeatable price of zero dirhams. Put differently: priceless.
Cycled today: 108 kilometers
"At supper that night, holiday talk held undisputed sway. Mr. Pritchard spoke of 'Scotland," Miss Isaacs clamoured of Betts-y-Coed, Mr. Judson displayed a proprietary interest in the Norfolk Broads. 'I?' said Hoopdriver when the question came to him. 'Why, cycling, of course.' 'You're never going to ride that dreadful machine of yours, day after day?' said Miss Howe of the Costume Department. 'I am,' said Hoopdriver as calmly as possible, pulling at the insufficient moustache. 'I'm going for a Cycling Tour. Along the South Coast.'" — HG Wells, The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll
Sunday, February 14
Morning. I woke to the sound of the Atlantic crashing against the rocks of southern Morocco. More Nutella, more waves spraying salty mist into salty air. A sunrise.
A long climb up from the beach, and another back up to town. The streets were quiet when I passed through not too long ago. Roberto and his neighbors must all still be asleep.
The hills have been a bit steeper than yesterday, but still it's lovely, this ride along the coast.
Mostly it's pristine, but occasionally I've come across sprawling construction projects in their various stages of destruction. Some are nearly built and some are simply flat foundations, but all advertise their renderings and aspirations along the road's edge: resorts, tourist complexes, Spaniards laughing over cocktails at the soon-to-come bar, a French woman in a fluffy white robe and cucumber slices on her eyes at the soon-to-come spa. Apparently a fresh coat of paint for poor Aglou Plage won't do: the soon-to-come tourists of the soon-to-come South Moroccan Coast demand finer luxuries.
I read somewhere that this is the grand Moroccan bet, its great hope for a prosperous future: if you build it, they will come. From here to Essaouira and southward and northward still, the Moroccans have ventured to commercialize the coastline and conjure, from fallow land, a half-dozen "cities of tourism," a place where you can come, meet no Moroccans, journey nowhere Moroccans actually live, and still come to appreciate your time in "Morocco".
Afternoon. Fortunately, for now at least, there's still ample, undisturbed coast to be enjoyed for those of us who can enjoy rock and sand and water without the additional accoutrements of shopping mall and billiards room and infinity pool. Beyond this sad destruction, the ride from Mirleft to Sidi Ifni, where the coastal road more or less ends (veering inward toward the Sahara and later into the typically off-limits and occupied Western Sahara), was as lovely as yesterday's, if not a little more work in the saddle.
About that saddle. Hundreds of kilometers of true touring has convinced me that, well, incidentally I need a new saddle with a proper cut-out, but more importantly that I need a shortened stem, that my reach to the handlebars is a touch too long and this poor fit (not poor enough to be felt at home, alas, but here on the road all too evident) is forcing me to compensate in one of two painful ways:
The first near-term remedy is to drop the saddle and angle it backwards. This shifts my weight far off the handlebars, which is good, but leaves it almost entirely on the saddle, which is not good, for it quickens exhaustion and is generally plain uncomfortable for long riding. It also has the unfortunate consequence of causing that absolute numbness in the groin, mentioned earlier.
The other near-term remedy is precisely the inverse: raise the saddle and tilt it forward, making for a more aggressive and comfortable riding position with less exertion required, but with the not-so-good consequence of throwing a fair bit of weight onto my arms, and more precisely my hands, and more precisely the ulnar nerve of my left (and to a lesser degree, my right) palm.
The ulnar nerve, stretching all the way down the arm and responsible for both sense (of the littlest finger and its closest neighbor) and motion (of all the digits) doesn't deal so well with weight. With excessive force (not just weight, but constant vibration), it can get pinched, and that pinch, though painless, leads to a loss of sensation, numbness, or tingling in the littlest finger, and an arthritis-like inability to control the fingers with the dexterity one ought.
My ulnar nerve is pinched. I've developed what's technically called ulnar neuropathy, but commonly known as handlebar palsy. It's less than desirable.
The trouble is, a pinched nerve can take weeks to fully recover after the fated pinch. Were I to toss Yoshi to the winds today and give up cycling for the next month, I might just then be regaining my finer motor skills. But continuing to cycle, it's hard to say whether I've alleviated the pressure since the symptoms started a week ago, and prevented anything from getting worse, or whether I'm compounding the inflammation of the nerve each and every day.
Such are my woes. Of course, I shan't stop cycling, but I will try to take it light each day, and be careful about the whole business of it.
Anyway, I'm in Sidi Ifni, end of the road, evidently educating myself about ulnar neuropathy. I'm staying in a rather nice hotel at a rather steep twenty-five dirhams per night, staffed by a rather unfriendly receptionist who did not seem to care whether I stayed or went, and maybe even looked upon Yoshi with a touch of contempt. I think I'll explore the town on foot.
Evening. What a strange place! Honestly, this may be the strangest town to which I've ever been (and I say that having been to quite a lot of towns). I just can't make heads or tails of it.
It's the rare Spanish post-colonial in a land of French post-colonials, but the Spanish never really cared much for Morocco, so their contribution to the place is just a small section of the town, already small in itself, an odd collection of a Spanish-looking public square and an administrative building and a hospital and perhaps what used to be a bank. What makes the collection so odd is that it's painted, like so much of the town, in faded blue and white ... everything is blue and white, that particular hue of blue and white so aged by thirty or seventy or one hundred years of sunshine and salty air and neglect. It has the feel of an abandoned amusement park, I think.
The very layout of the town is odd to me, too. There's the Spanish quarter, linked by a thin road east to the rest of the taller buildings (still mostly blue and white), and that part of town wraps south alongside a hill further east, while the Spanish side, by way of the hospital, continues south on a single street right along the beach. But this isn't a boardwalk street: the sand is some two hundred feet below, and it's as though the ocean weren't even there, for nothing up on this street looks upon it or references it or makes a path down toward it at all.
Weirder still, there's this thin western edge and this thin northern edge and this slightly fatter but still pretty thin eastern edge, but then right in the middle of it all, occupying what's surely greater than the acreage of the rest of Sidi Ifni combined, is a massive rocky clearing that my map calls the Sidi Ifni Airport.
Except, I don't actually believe it's an airport. Or at least, I'm doubtful. I'm uncertain whether it's an airport that once was (which must be the case, for why else would the town have been built around it in this way?), or that still is (which seems improbable, as the ground is all dirt and rocks and gravel and there are people walking across it and cars driving through it), or that one day hopes to be (also unlikely, for how could this much room have been made for it, and why here?). Moreover, there's ample land north of Sidi Ifni and ample land south of Sidi Ifni, room for the entire town to glom together on either end, instead of squeezing in around the giant rectangle like an inelegant frame.
So maybe it was an airport, once, but now it's northwestern corner seems to have been commandeered for a souk, but just a tiny bit, just enough to make it dangerous to land a plane there. And there are dozens of openings along the border for those looking to cut from the east side of town to the west side of town to do so without walking around the long perimeter. I partake in this, and it's efficient, and it forces the question of why, exactly, this space is still sitting unused.
A strange layout, a Spanish air, a neglected beach, faded everything, and then general stillness; stillness is the last thing that strikes me. Like Aglou Plage, there are no engines running, at least not in the quarter through which I walk after a stop for lunch (tajines!). A small group of kids play football in the empty street, and a few women walk home from the market, but otherwise the roads are empty of life and the yards and porches empty, too, and I wonder, where are the people?
This was true in the mountains as well, and I can't recall whether I recorded it then. In the Anti-Atlas, I would cycle through entire villages lacking any signs of life. Some, surely, were crumbling and likely deserted, but others appeared well-kept, orderly ... and yet, inexplicably empty. No voices, no open windows, no one tilling any fields I could see, and this, on a Tuesday afternoon or a Thursday morning! I can't really say where the Moroccans have gone, though it's a mystery I hope I'll discover an answer to before my time here is through.
Before the walk, after the walk, like most time spent out of the saddle, I read. I'm averaging perhaps a book per day, a medley of classic authors and cycling adventures and, in a gem like HG Wells's The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (read today) or Mark Twain's "Taming the Bicycle" (in Tafraout), a little of both. Speaking of which, I've another to finish just now before bed.
Cycled today: 32 kilometers
Monday, February 15
Morning. After a few days exploring coves and camping on the beach, Yoshi was a mess. She had salt and sand in her cassette, clogging her rim brakes, and all over stuck to the frame and threatening to tear apart her shiny blue paint. There can be nothing worse for a bicycle's overall well-being than a trip the shore. So earlier I squeezed her into the bathroom, grabbed the showerhead, and tenderly hosed her down, after drying her off and regreasing her drivetrain. She looks shiny and clean, for now.
Afternoon. It was cool outside this morning, so blustery in fact that I took breakfast and tea inside. Afterwards, I hustled across the street to the pharmacy to purchase some more rubbing alcohol for my stove (still no luck with the real stuff), balked at the 150-dirham price for a bottle, bought it anyway, went back to my room, changed my mind, and returned the bottle for my money back. The return north along the coast, which I departed on today, promises occasional stops to eat and sundry stores at which I could pick up nuts, snacks, or more Nutella, so the added weight and cost of alcohol, plus the quinoa and tea leaves I'd lugged over three mountain passes and hardly used, no longer seemed worth it. I left the quinoa and leaves there, too, for whomever could make use of them.
And then I left Sidi Ifni. I reflected on staying another night, but thought instead I might set out for Aglou Plage and try an evening there, so intriguing it was the first time around. This was the point of turn-around, of homeward-bound progress, and from here to Aglou I'd have the rare delight of cycling a familiar road.
Yet there was one thing very, very unfamiliar about it. I'd fail to reckon that this blustery morning in Sidi Ifni would (quite obviously) spell a blustery morning on the bike, and the road this time around wasn't calm and pleasant as it'd been upon my arrival, but roaring with a cruel headwind that aimed to push me back to the town I'd just left.
I thought those winds might die down outside of town, on more level ground, but they did no such thing. If anything they intensified, they kicked up sand and pushed Yoshi to and fro; they nearly threw us into a ditch two or three or ten times and followed with the insult of having me actually need to pedal downhill, and strenuously at that. It was a gravity-defying, biting, unrelenting sort of gust, and it was ruining my lovely cycle back up the coast.
Even off the bike it was terrible. I rode out on a rough, gravel road to the cliff's edge where two enormous stone arches straddled the water. I dismounted and considered hiking down to the shore underneath the arch, but sand was being thrown everywhere and Yoshi was trembling where she lay and I was more likely to be blown clean off the cliff than make it safely down its face.
Knowing there wasn't much for another ten kilometers, I pedaled furiously and stayed wary of drivers who evidently didn't realize how unpredictable a windswept bicycle can be, and two grueling hours after leaving Sidi Ifni, I pulled into a campground I'd passed on the way south. Like the rest, it was a caravan park, this one with an attached restaurant, so I've sought shelter in its sturdy walls, and a little sustenance while at it.
Later. Still windy. There are flagpoles outside and the French, Spanish, Moroccan, and EU flags are all standing tall.
Even later. I suppose I'll be calling it a night here, a pathetic twenty kilometers cycled today at best. There's no use suffering through a windy ride like this.
I've been watching the campers come and go, and I'm struck by the uniformity of the Moroccan tourist in these parts (the first parts, beyond Marrakesh, in which I've really seen them). As much as one can generalize, I generalize liberally here. The visitors to the Moroccan coast are nearly universally French. Overwhelmingly, they are an elderly French couple (I'm the only person in the compound without grey hair), similar in appearance to each other, either both stout or both sinewy, but never mismatched in that way. They are cordial, but not overly friendly. Call them Claude and Claudette: this Claude and his Claudette never travel by car, but only campervan (I'm the only person in the compound without a campervan). The campervan is always white and is always driven by Claude, never Claudette. There are never two Claudes, never two Claudettes, or never a lone Claude or lone Claudette. They are straight, they are cisgendered, and they always have the appearance of being long-married ... no honeymooners here. There's nothing wrong with any of it, of course; it's just odd in its absoluteness, is all. I feel like an oddity here, like a young hooligan up to mischief in a retirement village.
Anyway, I'm with the Claude and Claudettes and I guess I'm staying here for the evening. I set up my tent and weighed it down with cinderblocks (the ground is paved, of course, so no stakes), using a few of the campervans to break the wind. I sure do hope all is calm tomorrow.
Cycled today: 20 kilometers
Thursday, February 11
Morning. Goats in trees! What a thing; I can't believe I forgot to mention it sooner. They're up there like birds, not merely nipping at the lower branches but standing defiantly up on the higher ones, seven or ten meters from the ground, perched and munching on the greenest leaves. You might pass a tree and almost miss them, but if other goats on the ground give it away, and you're careful enough to look, you'll notice a dozen crowding the tree limbs on high.
Such is the beauty of cycling: it's fast enough to keep boredom at bay (and a breeze on your face), but slow and simple enough that it's no object to stop as often and abruptly as you'd like. Here is a mother mutt nursing her puppies, and so I stop for that, and here is a rock of interesting shape, and so I stop for that, and oh, here are goats in trees, so I stop and stare and carry on whenever suits me best.
What's more, the cyclist is everyone's hero. I believe there are several reasons for this. The first is that it's a physical journey in a world quickly growing thin of true physical journeys, and the individual who can cross mountains on a thirty-pound steel sculpture inspires some primitive wonder in those of us trucking along in our three-thousand-pound steel contraptions. I've felt this myself driving through the Shenandoah or scootering over the Rockies: look at that cyclist go; what a lovely way to travel.
For locals, there's an intimate respect for he or she on a bike: this I've heard from others and this I've begun to experience myself. Cycling through lands foreign or domestic is a sign of trust: I feel safe here, and I thank you for safe passage. The cycle tourist makes herself vulnerable to all external threats, and at times must rely on not just the safety but the kindness of strangers, and this sends a very different message to the community than the noisy cars that rattle by, doors locked and windows rolled, leaving nothing but fumes and dust for the people to hold on to.
In the saddle, there's time for a salaam for each and every individual. In the saddle, you move more slowly. You talk more and you learn more and you hear more and, importantly, you spend more: you stop for water and for snacks and for lodging far more often. The state of Oregon, which recently studied its burgeoning economy of cycle tourism, found the cyclist is more likely to support local business (more likely to support business at all, in fact), more likely to stop in small towns, and more likely to stay longer in said town, its county, and the state at large, than the traditional motorist. These are all obvious consequences of slower transit, but consequences welcome by all affected.
"Obviously the primary need was brandy, yet my face was so numb that I couldn't articulate one word. I merely pointed to the relevant bottle, and stood by the stove to thaw out, while a group of card-playing men stared at me with a trace of that hostility shown by all peasants in remote places to unexpected strangers. Then an old man came rushing in to inform the company that I had arrived with a bicycle—and, as soon as I recovered the power of speech, friendly relations were easily established. — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
None of this is to look down upon the old Chevy ripping through the prairie or the big Greyhound doing rounds across the country. Bikepacking, I've learned, is hard work, and surely it's not for everyone. It is, though, a hidden treasure that I'm surprised has evaded me this long, and it should be tried by everyone at least once, if only a jaunt from home to a few towns over.
There's an accomplishment in it, too, and one is likely to earn more high-fives, thumbs-ups, congratulatory honks, and mysterious blessings in a day of biking even the lowliest hill than in a lifetime of driving, flying, or bussing around the globe. In this small, remote town of Tafraout, I'm currently heralded as the lone individual who biked here over the Anti-Atlas, for the hotel owner has already told his friends and fellow merchants to keep an eye out for me, and they do; I meet them and they exclaim "la bicicleta!" while making pedaling motions with their hands and big smiles with their lips. It's a honor I'm sure will be bestowed on another in no more than a few day's time, but still I'm delighted by it nonetheless.
Another advantage of traveling by bicycle, and I promise I'll stop talking about it here, is that the bicycle acts as a veritable shield against touts. I've avoided the more touristy bits of Morocco to date and thus haven't come across many to begin with, but here in Tafraout there are a few, and the mere conveyance that you came by bicycle and are leaving by bicycle makes it clear that no thank you, I will not be carrying a decorative vase or an embroidered rug on my rear rack. You're left in peace, for the tout who tries to tout a cyclist is a tout that won't be in the touting business for very long.
Noon. I spoke to a man yesterday who told me about the difficulty Moroccans face in getting visas to visit Europe ... I don't imagine the French or the Spanish worried much about visas when "visiting" Morocco just a century ago. Shame on both governments.
Yesterday was relaxing and productive all in one. After gathering my notes and reading for a few hours, I went for a walk about the small town. I bought some more bread at the souk, and also found a wall charger to keep my electronic gadgets running. I'd been powering the occasional phone or camera use off an external battery pack until now, and had hoped to generate enough electricity while cycling from a small solar-powered unit on the rear rack, but evidently four days of constant cycling in quasi-direct sunlight hasn't done much in the way of collecting power. As such, it's back to the grid for now. The thirty-dirham charger, of course, never actually got to working, but a small electronics shop hooked me up with a sturdier unit (at twenty dirhams, no less) that seems to be holding out. In either case, running errands in a new place is always a treat, so I topped it off with a leisurely stroll to the ATM and the purchase of a five-liter jug of water that I've promised myself I'll finish before leaving Tafraout.
As for leaving, that of course didn't happen today. Tomorrow, maybe; we shall see. I've nowhere to be in any hurry and this valley is beautiful beyond words.
Early evening. It feels I've been here for weeks, and it's hardly yet forty-eight hours. In a community of this size it's easy to feel at home; with fewer than five thousand people, familiar faces abound, and navigating the town's three main roads and dozen or so sidestreets is no trouble at all.
Physically, I'm recovering well from the ranges. My wrists still click a little more than they should, and pressing my weight off the ground earlier with my left palm sent a tingling electrical surge through my arm, which can't be very good. But otherwise callouses have begun to form on my hands and it's actually comfortable to once more employ my sit bones, and I think I just might have spread just enough lotion onto my face yesterday to keep it all from peeling off. My appearance has certainly changed since last week: I'm thinner and darker, and I believe tourists have begun to mistake me for Moroccan. I've already developed the infamous tanlines of the traveling cyclist, though: clear demarcation at the mid-forearm, a fair change in color from lower thigh to upper thigh, and most obviously a paler line of pigmentation running across my forehead where my helmet sits while riding.
The weather earlier (and still) has been exceptional: a dry breeze, ample shade, and that perfect temperature where jeans and a hoodie feel just right. I wandered to a pretty courtyard restaurant for an avocado salad, mint tea, and cinnamon-sprinkled orange wedges (notably not tajines), realized I'd forgotten my book at the hotel, and instead sat still, in the Moroccan fashion, watching the shadows grow longer on the wall opposite for the better part of two hours.
"The evening passed in the usual way: sitting on the lawn within reach of mobile electric fans, sipping fruit juices and talking. Social life here emphasizes how nearly we Westerners have lost the art of conversation. Instead of switching on the telly or dashing out to a show, how pleasant it is to sit and talk quietly about the books one has read or the people one has met or the places one has seen. And surely the individual exchange of ideas with our fellow men is more worthwhile than mute dependence on what someone else's brain has devised for our entertainment." — Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India With a Bicycle
After a few necessary seat adjustments in the morning (principally a lowering of the seat, which I hope will alleviate the handlebar pain, but will at the very least shift it from my wrists to my knees, which have yet to complain), I think I shall head west by bicycle. It's been a tough decision: desert versus coast, palmy oasis versus palmy beach, Saharan sands versus Atlantic sands, but I'm confident the coastal route will suit me just fine. It'll be a tough climb to Tiznit, I'm sure, and more mountains between there, Sidi Ifni, and Essaouira, but with two full days of rest and relaxation, and more sandy nights and days to come, I think I'll manage.
Cycled today: 0 kilometers!
Friday, February 12
Evening. Little to report today but peaceful, pretty progress. I'll admit I was wary of biking up from the valley floor of Tafraout (my arrival being so memorably steep and lengthy), but the start of the morning primed me well with flat, gentle roads coursing through quiet valley villages. Certainly the tar did curve up in time, and there were all the upward spirals and unending corkscrews one could imagine, but the scenery was astonishing in compensation and my mind was still, and Yoshi and I crawled up along the craggy cliffs without incident for the better part of the day.
"On the long, gentle ascent through the valley, I found a rhythm in the spinning pedals. Rhythm is happiness. A myriad of concerns ... dissipated completely. This is the beauty of cycling—the rhythm puts serious activity in the brain to sleep: it creates a void. Random thoughts enter that void—the chorus from a song, a verse of poetry, a detail in the countryside, a joke, the answer to something that vexed me long ago." — Robert Penn, It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels
Consulting my map, I expected a final set of switchbacks before coming over the pass, and was thus absolutely ecstatic to come to the top of my last set, sucking air through salty lips, to find not that final field of choppy undulations in the distance, but a second valley, definitively distinct from the one whence I'd come, far down below. A restaurant sat perched on a precipice nearby (typically a sure sign of something important, like an uninterrupted view), and I rushed in for a hard-earned meal of salad, bread, and tea. While I devoured the food, I mimed to my host an inquiry of whether there were to be further climbs to Tiznit (an angled hand soaring into the air) or if it were all, by some good fortune, downhill from here (my hand glided down onto the table). The waiter smiled and shook his head affirmatively at the second gesture: Tiznit, and the ocean just a little further, wouldn't be much longer now.
And what a descent it was! Every bit as thrilling and gorgeous and memorable as the ride down the Tizi n'Test or the victorious drop into the Ameln Valley, the eight-kilometer sprint toward Tiznit was brilliant. I rode the hairpin turns with a big, silly smile on my face, doing my best to keep my eyes on the road without yet missing the beauty all around: paragliders floating like birds of prey high above, Berbers sitting sideways on their mules in the gravel shoulder, goats zig-zagging on the well-worn paths throughout.
To Tiznit, then, I carried on, knocking off another dozen kilometers once everything leveled out with ease. Saddle soreness was still plaguing my journey (my only complaint of the day, really), and so I resolved to stop at the first campsite I found, a simple caravan park on the western end of town.
The established campgrounds of Morocco are mostly this, so far as I've seen: not the tent-and hiker variety (certainly not), nor the station-wagon-full-of-kids sort, but dull, paved parking lots fitted for bulky campervans. Fortunately there's some dirt adjacent the lot and the hosts agreed to make room for me, eighteen dirhams for my person and eighteen dirhams for my tent (no charge for Yoshi, thankfully).
I pitched camp, unpacked, and carried out the usual tweaks and tasks Yoshi requires at the end of a hard day: a fresh oiling of the chain, picking the accumulated gunk free from the sprockets with the sharp edge of my knife, endless attempts to get the seat height and angle just right. Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance consumed me; meanwhile, a quarter-kilo of quinoa cooked on my tiny alcohol stove nearby.
I never did find that fuel I was looking for on my first night in Marrakesh. Alcohol of any sort is a rarity in Morocco, even the ethyl kind, and so after an hour of searching I grew desperate: first entering into a perfume shop and imploring the merchant to sell me some raw alcohol, no essential oils added, and after that failed, eventually locating a small bottle of hand sanitizer that was, at least, comprised of ninety-six percent of the denatured alcohol I so needed.
So it's with this hand sanitizer (rubbing alcohol, in effect) that I managed to cook the slightly-watery, overly-salted grains I'm now eating. I've rehydrated a few tablespoons of peanut butter (chocolate-flavored, this time!) for dessert, and around me the sun sets into the desert and the assorted gadgets of various campervans hum and buzz and a flock of gorgeously decorated peacocks flutter up and down the walls of the riad. Beagle-sized rabbits are fed scraps by the other guests, a couple bickers loudly in French not too far away, and from the looks of the map before me, I'll be reaching the Atlantic Ocean in the morning.
Cycled today: 107 kilometers
Saturday, February 13
Late morning. Oh, how glad I am to have ventured west. Here I sit before deep blue waters, reached on my own will and my own accord, and it's a beautiful thing to witness. I'm in the eerie little town of Aglou Plage (if I'm spelling that correctly), a small seaside spot that feels all but forgotten by time. There's an empty boardwalk lined by blue striped columns, but the paint's all faded (everything is faded, really), and there's a thick fog set in that gives it all a mysterious air. It feels not unlike those boardwalk towns of New York or New Jersey during winter: a little deserted, a little sad ... but not boring, certainly not that.
No, I quite like it here. It's still and quiet and I've found a place to order tea, and what luck: they serve tajines as well, though I'll have to wait a few hours until the kitchen opens.
Afternoon. Following a week in the hot, dry, twisting Atlas ranges, snaking south along the Atlantic coast is a treat. There's still a little climbing, to be sure, but such is to be expected for the reward of rocky, rising cliffs overlooking the angry waters below, for occasional descents to empty, isolated beaches of coarse sand.
I've been stopping at the beaches as they come. Here, for a chapter from a book; here, for a drink of water; here, for nothing really, just to look at the waves, to squint and pretend I can see the Americas in the distance. It's tough work pushing Yoshi through the sand, but she looks beautiful sprawled out on the beach, glistening in the sun. Panniers make good pillows, I've improvised, and not too long ago I was enjoying a relaxing lie by the water's edge when a crashing wave reached unexpectedly far, soaked myself and my uncovered belongings, and nearly washed one of those saddlebags out to sea. Drying everything will be a chore for later, and that's not even to mention trying to get the sand out of this and that.
Late evening. The town of Mirleft sticks out on a high circular cliff like a fairytale village, and speeding down the final hill before the slow, slogging climb to those heights, I happened by a fellow cyclist just getting onto the road at the lowest point.
We shouted hello to each other as I sped by, but I had no desire to break and slow my momentum. Instead I rode the speed out, downshifted, and then pedaled lazily up the hill as my new acquaintance stamped his pedals and gained ground behind. I looked back, and he neared, and we exchanged pleasantries as we rode up together at a steady pace. His name was Roberto, from Berlin, and he wasn't so much a traveling cyclist as a stationary cyclist: indeed, he was staying here, in this little town of Mirleft, for a month. I learned as we rode that he'd first stumbled upon Mirleft some five or six years ago when touring Morocco, fell in love with the charm, and this time around decided to spare the wandering about and just settle in here. He rented an apartment for the duration, he bought a bicycle upon arrival, and here he has been for two weeks, getting to know the locals without a lick of French or Arabic, but somehow managing all the same.
He led me on a pedal-powered tour of the town. It took two minutes. There's one pleasant, porticoed street, and another that serves as the main thoroughfare, and of course a few smaller roads to lead the people of Mirleft home to their domiciles, but otherwise there's not much to it. It's simple, and he likes that, and I do too.
Roberto asked if I needed anything from the grocery, but I still had a little quinoa and my powered peanut butter, plus a small jar of Nutella I'd picked up on my way out of Aglou Plage. The sun was close to setting, so he asked me if I was planning to wild camp, to race to Sidi Ifni, or to shack up in Mirleft, and I told him camping on a beach somewhere nearby was probably most what I had in mind. He smiled: he had just the place.
Back down the hill it was. Roberto had just been returning from an afternoon sitting in the sand, and he said I'd find the place quiet and safe, and I have. Beautiful, too. I didn't want to draw attention with a little fire (the whole town seems to be looking down on me from high above), so instead I dined on half that jar of Nutella while watching the waves crash on the rocks. I feel free, and I feel happy, and I feel a deep, gentle peace within.
"There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox living, this ecstasy comes when is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive." — Jack London, Call of the Wild
Cycled today: 42 kilometers
Friday, February 5
Afternoon: I arrived in Marrakesh yesterday after two long days of flying: Washington to Miami to Madrid to Casablanca to Marrakesh, with all the requisite delays and incidents one could expect from a piecemeal international journey. Chiefly, a late Madrid departure guaranteed a missed connection in Casablanca, but fortunately another plane departed just a few hours thereafter and I made it to my hotel, albeit jetlagged and exhausted, no later than midnight.
My bicycle, whom I've named Yoshi (partly a nickname for the kind and dependable Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov, and partly in homage to the green dinosaur who carries Mario through endless adventures), slept in the bulky suitcase next to my bed, all disassembled and packaged up and in an unknown state of well-being. Being loaded on four different planes, she'd been handled a minimum of eight times, and I've heard airlines can sometime be rough with checked luggage. I dreaded opening the box to find a bent fork or busted derailleur or broken spoke, and truthfully I tossed and turned in the night just thinking about it. On a few occasions I had half a mind to get up and have a look, but the room's walls were thin and the hotel full and I didn't imagine the other guests wanted to hear my mechanical clanking about, or possible wails of despair at an unfortunate discovery, around four in the morning.
Of course, it was the very first thing I attended to when I woke. I laid some covering atop the mattress for a work surface, as eight-tenths of the room was covered by bed, and carefully unzipped Yoshi's travel case, removed each of her parts, and inspected them for damage. What luck! Other than a few minor scrapes (and a small hole punched right through the bag), she was looking just fine, and I eagerly began to put her together.
It had been my first time fully disassembling the bicycle, and so this was my first time fully reassembling her. First I joined the two halves of the frame, then the cables, and after the saddle, the wheels, the brakes, and the handlebars; then I realized I had a few wires twisted and had to remove the front wheel, reattach the bars, and only then drop the front wheel back in its place. Lastly came the pedals and the rack, and within an hour or so she was all ready. So what else to do but go for a ride?
My hotel is just a hundred meters from the main square of Marrakesh's medina, and it felt wonderful and freeing and perhaps a little strange to be here, looking down at my own bike, but with such foreign surface underneath it and foreign smells and sights and sounds all around it. I kicked the pedals and did two or three or maybe ten laps around the food stalls and souks and touts and all, and Yoshi felt just about right in her handling. Of course, this is without my panniers; we shall see tomorrow how she does with them on the rack.
Evening. I'm still jetlagged for sure, and didn't have the energy this afternoon to really go out and explore beyond my trial ride. Instead I rested through the afternoon in the room with my National Geographic map spread out wide on the bed, figuring routes and destinations and, most pressingly, what direction to head tomorrow. There's an eastbound road to Essaouira, on the coast, and from there I could follow the coast south to Agadir, but both towns are notoriously touristy, and Essaouira is notoriously windy on top of that. A few days with the Atlantic on my side would be lovely, though.
The other option is to follow a seemingly busy highway down to Taroudant. It's more direct than the coast, and where I want to end up anyway, but it's a highway and not indicated as scenic at any point, and it also appears to cross the edge of the Atlas Mountains, which suggests some climbing.
I think I'll sleep on it. For now, there's a food stall I passed earlier that smelled delicious, and I'd also like to find some denatured alcohol for my stove if I can figure out how to ask for it in French, Arabic, or Berber.
Saturday, February 6
Early morning. I've decided on the third option! Option three, so ludicrous I failed to even think of it yesterday, isn't a wide arc around the mountains or a narrower arc along their edges, but a brazen pass right through them, all the way up to the Tizi n'Test. Frequently cited as Morocco's most difficult, dangerous road, it's a rough climb over the Atlas Mountains to 2,100 meters, followed by a brief but magnificent descent down the other side.
Of course, I intended to pass through the Atlas during my time in Morocco, but I'd imagined that coming at the end, through the Tizi n'Tchika on my return to Marrakesh, when my calves have had time to strengthen and my mind time to acclimate to the struggles of long-distance cycling. As it stands, between a winter largely passed in Namibia and a few weeks of snow and ice and blizzard in DC right before my departure, it's been months since I've even ridden a proper ten kilometers uninterrupted in flat old Washington.
It's not the wisest plan, but the sun is rising and there's light shining through my stained glass window and that means the day outside is waiting. The mountains are calling, and I must go.
Early afternoon. What a morning it has been! Certainly not easy, and not all too scenic to start out with, but just wonderful still. The climb out of Marrakesh was a straight and boring road that just went up, up, up for about twenty kilometers: no bends, no depressions, not a single moment where I could stop pedaling and just coast. The views became much more lovely after hitting Tahanaoute, but at a steep cost. Here the struggle really began, with twisting switchbacks that sent Yoshi all the way to the lowest gear on her admittedly too-compact-for-mountain-touring double chainring. I'm hot and tired and rethinking this choice so early in the trip, but there's sun and there are snowy peaks and I'm here on an otherwise empty restaurant patio (well, just me and a begging cat) with a heaping pile of couscous and tajines in front of me. Things could be worse.
Slightly later afternoon. Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that I thought it would take hours longer to make it this far after lunch, but shortly after getting back in the saddle the climb reversed itself and Yoshi and I hurtled downhill, easily riding along at twenty-five or thirty kilometers per hour, and coasting for the better part of fifteen or twenty or maybe even thirty minutes. The bad news is that this welcome reprieve will clearly have to be made up tomorrow with an even steeper ascent; I imagine my elevation now and the elevation of Marrakesh cannot be all too dissimilar, thus erasing all that hard-earned altitude gained this morning.
Evening. I'm at a bed-and-breakfast in a small town called Ouirgane camped out rather inelegantly on the front lawn, a nice little patch of dirt the owners said would cost but fifty dirhams. It's right across the road from a placid lake, and we're encircled by mountains. I took a nap around three and awoke around four or five: needed rest from the physical exertion or the altitude or the jetlag or all three, I'm sure. Upon waking I did a little work on Yoshi, having noticed in our recent descent that her rear brake was a bit loose. The Berber family who runs the establishment has a pack of adorable young girls, maybe ten and seven and three, and they all stood transfixed as I flipped the bicycle over and operated on the brakes and wheels. I even got a little help from the two youngest, having them squeeze the handbrake as I spun the back rim to make sure it wasn't rubbing against the brakepads once the adjustments were made, which they loved. Later, I cleaned and regreased the chain and sprockets, blew up my sleeping pad, and had more tajines for dinner.
I also met a lovely group of cyclists staying in the rooms: Richard and Lois, from Nottingham, and Dave, also from Nottingham, and Dan and Carol, from Canada and the States respectively. The five, all retired but full of youth nonetheless, were wrapping up a five-week cycle across southern Morocco. There was some overlap with my loosely planned route, so we discussed that, and Dan (who seems to have cycled nearly everywhere on this strange little ball of clay) entertained me with stories of trips past. I felt instant warmth from the group, and for the first time reveled in the natural affinity long-distance cycle tourists have for one another. I bid them all goodnight not too long ago, and now I'm in my tent and it's getting cold up at this elevation, so I think I'll bury myself in my bag and go to sleep.
Cycled today: 66 kilometers
Sunday, February 7
Noon. It's been a marvelous day so far! Wild dogs barked and howled for hours last night, so I passed some time reading before dawn. This consequently left me tired this morning, which meant I slept in past sunrise but had the good fortune to catch the five cyclists awake and breakfasting as I was leaving. If possible, they were even friendlier and more cheerful than the night before, and they all admired and remarked on the lightness of my load, which made me feel terrific because I'd been feeling I packed too much. After another round of generous goodbyes, I pedaled away to the collective bon voyage! of the cycling group, and my Berber hosts, with a warmed heart and an exciting day ahead.
Now it's noon, and that spirit and energy is still with me. Though the climb has been tough, the ascents have been punctuated by shorter drops of pure joy, and for most of the morning I feel I've had the road (and sometimes the whole mountain range, as far as I can see) just to myself. A little earlier I passed an enormous kasbah perched proudly on a cliff, and just now I stopped at the Tin Mal Mosque, an absolutely gorgeous artifact from the 1100s, when these mountains used to be teeming with Berber civilization. The mosque had room for thousands, but after a conquering army infiltrated the mountains and destroyed the homes, farms, and livelihoods of almost every last inhabitant (but not the mosque, of course, for that would be immoral), the house of worship was left to ruin and later opened to passing travelers. Incidentally, I read somewhere that non-Muslims aren't allowed in any of Morocco's operating mosques, so this detour was a unique treat.
The open-air, cedar-raftered stone edifice was exquisite, easily the most magnificent place of worship I've seen since the Jain temple in Ranakpur exactly one year ago. I wandered about for a bit, leaving Yoshi on the ground outside, and now I'm back on the main road through the mountains, leaning against a road sign, with the mosque to my left and the kasbah in front of me and the pass somewhere many, many kilometers behind me, snacking on dehydrated mango slices and teaspoons of rehydrated peanut butter, which I'm spooning from the bottom of a water bottle that I've cleverly cut and crafted into a small bowl. I think this cycling lifestyle agrees with me.
Early afternoon. I don't think this cycling lifestyle agrees with me very much at all. The descents are gone and now it's all uphill, which of course means less to climb in the future, but also less relief in the present, with not a moving moment to relax my calves. My arms are sore and my left calf is particularly tense, and perhaps most distressingly, I discovered a short time ago when I stopped to pee that I have absolutely no feeling of my genitals whatsoever; after hours of pressing hard into the saddle, it's all just entirely numb. Saddle adjustments will need to be made, but I haven't patience to do them now. I just want to get to the top. Surely it can't be much farther.
Mid-afternoon. To alleviate the numbness I'm standing on the pedals whenever I can, and doing my best to remember to sit far back on the seat. Neither helps for very long. In happier news, I passed a busting little town and replenished my water supply. I'm always amazed at how quickly the mind adapts to a different pace of life: this place wasn't more than one street with a handful of small storefronts and a few dozen people out at once, and yet it's the most development in one place I've seen all day. I bid salaam to as many as I could as I pedaled along and, shortly after leaving town, discovered I was being followed by a young boy on his bicycle. He smiled and I smiled and we pedaled along together in silence for a few kilometers, and then, either bored by me or beyond the radius of his spatial curfew, he turned around and went home.
The grueling ascent continues. I was told by a villager at Tin Mal that the pass was only twenty-five kilometers ahead, and so I've been watching the meter markers closely, counting down the revolutions until this misery is over. But the expected marker came and went without the expected Tizi n'Test, and now I'm baffled and disheartened and, most of all, just plain tired.
Late afternoon. I was biking along a while back when I heard a shout from over in the trees: "Hello fellow cyclist!"
There was a British woman about fifty meters away, and she told me her and another cyclist, perhaps her partner, had set up camp, and that I was welcome to join them. How thoughtful! It sounded just lovely, getting off the bike and spending the evening getting to know new friends, and so badly did I want to say yes and haul my bike over to the trees. But it was getting cold, and the nights were still long, and the only thing that had gotten me that far was the promise of a warm bed and a warm meal at the summit. I'll have plenty of wild camping and bland boiled grains to come, I'm sure, and I'll love every minute of it, but not now, not tonight. I shouted over an apology, said I was going to try to make the most of the remaining daylight, and asked if they knew how much longer it was to the pass. "About twenty k's!" came the reply.
My heart sank. Twenty more kilometers!? At the going rate, I'd never make it by dark. But hey, I was certain to make it farther than stopping now ...
So I pedaled on, up not one but two rough sets of switchbacks, and for maybe a dozen kilometers along a ravine, and then the road dropped and Yoshi and I picked up speed, racing around one bend and another, and just on the other side, still in the distance but visible, really visible: something!
It was too far to make out what purpose the building served, but it had a small radio tower and looked higher than anything else in the area and even though it was still another seventy or eighty meters above me, the pain had all washed away and it hardly mattered: I pedaled as hard as I could, laughing and cheering to myself, and ten or fifteen minutes later a road sign announced Tizi n'Test and a smiling man greeted me in front of his hotel and restaurant, and I was so happy I could cry.
I'm still so happy I could cry. Or maybe that's from the pain, I don't know, but after a large meal of bread and salad and (surprise, surprise) vegetable tajines, I'm now buried under a heavy mound of blankets in an old stone room with a propane lamp and a propane heater and the cleanest air one could breath just outside my window. It may have been one of the most grueling, trying days of my life, but I've made it.
Next time, I should probably eat more than a tablespoon of peanut butter and a few mango cheeks before crossing the Atlas. But hey: tomorrow? Nothing but downhill, I'm told.
Cycled today: 72 kilometers
Monday, February 8
Late morning. What a nice rest! I went to sleep early and woke late, and the view from here in proper daylight is simply unreal. In all the struggle of yesterday, I forgot to remark on the pure aesthetic of the Atlas.
Not unlike the Sierra Nevada in its bald, rolling mountaintops and proud pines scattered below, it seems endless and enormous and almost pristine, spare the occasional pastel village hugging the cliff edges or buried low in the valley by the dried remnants of a once mighty river. Like Italy's Cinque Terre without the appalling commercialism, these towns are gorgeous in their posture and mystical in their remoteness. Though they're sure to have changed since the French built the roads through the pass in the 1920s, these small, isolated Berber communities seem among the last remaining survivors against the unrelenting plague of modernity. Here things seem simple, and honest, and quiet.
Quiet: that's the defining word of the Atlas. Beyond the occasional motorist who can be heard kilometers away, these higher reaches of the Atlas are nearly still and I'm brought to realize that this is but one of a few rare instances in which I've been among the mountains as they really are: no vehicles roaring by, no humming engine of my own cooling in the background, no clicking and chattering of nearby tourists. For most of my arduous ascent yesterday, the only sound to be heard was the shrill chirp of the infrequent bird, and the lovely, gentle buzz of my rear hub as it freewheeled now and again.
Having packed up Yoshi and gotten my fair share of views from the tizi, I had the good fortune of running into Paul and Elizabeth (from New Zealand and Ireland, in turn), before breakfast. These were the cyclists who had called from the woods last night, and they had woken early and made it to the pass just a short while ago, where they were stopping for tea before continuing on down. I joined them and the French couple they were seated with in a cushiony common area, and we all shared a pot of oolong, and a little conversation, before the cyclists departed for their bikes and the others left for their van to continue on their respective journeys. Meanwhile, my hosts at the hotel had prepared a beautiful breakfast for me out on the patio. The gorgeous spread on the lone table on the little patio overlooking the descent to the north and the descent to the south was an image fit for a magazine cover, and I'm still seated here now, taking it all in.
Unfortunately, ordering vegan hasn't been as easy as ordering vegetarian, and so my breakfast of bread and olives and honey and jam and argon oil also includes yogurt, cheese, and a hard-boiled egg. Aware that uneaten food may be taken as an insult that the food was no good, I was thankfully able to pass my egg off to Paul before the cyclists departed, and scooped whatever remaining bread and olives I had into a bag to snack on later, leaving the appearance of a tray that had otherwise been appreciatively consumed. And now: the descent awaits.
Mid-afternoon. It's taken but an hour to undo two days worth of climbing, but what a trip down it has been! I can't have given the pedals more than two or three honest turns the whole way down, instead providing my hands a workout at braking every now and again. Though I can certainly imagine what a fright this road must be in a car (with no more than ten feet to accommodate traffic in both directions), Yoshi and I had no trouble rounding the bends and keeping a responsible (yet still thrilling) speed the whole down, stopping every so often to savor the views above and below.
Eventually, the road flattened out and the splendor gave way to a bland horizon of dry sand and stout thorntrees, and I commenced pedaling once again. From here it was a long slog across desert and straight-as-an-arrow highway, and I find myself growing excited by even the simplest curve in the road. To make matters worse, there's a moderate headwind down here, slowing my progress and lengthening the bore of this desolate stretch. At any rate, I still have a great view of the mountains whence I came from my current perch in the shade of a roadside palm, as I chew through pitted olives and wait for the headwind to die down or change directions.
Evening. Deciding that the headwinds were not to die down, and if anything were strengthening, I carried on through two exciting little towns along the highway that broke the monotony of the otherwise uneventful afternoon. Ouled Berhil and Ouled Aissa were both pleasant, bustling waysides, filled with locals on dusty single-speed clunkers. Expectedly, Yoshi was admired and complimented by many of them; shiny and chrome and accessorized to the nines, she was a thing of beauty. It was nice to see such a preponderance of bicycles and the respect they were given by those in vehicles, and great to see the diversity of riders too: little boys, and men on their way to work, veiled women, and girls returning home from school. Unlike back in the States, it appeared here (and has throughout Morocco thus far) that bicycles are held as a legitimate form of transportation, equally deserving of the same respect and space as the bulkier, uglier objects that might occupy the road.
And indeed, Yoshi and I covered some truly legitimate distance today. Our plan was to camp in Taroudant, but the town was loud and noisy and a search for camping on the outskirts just led us further and further south, until we were no longer around Taroudant but actively distancing ourselves from it. I thought about turning back, but we still had maybe three hours of daylight and surely something would come along in that time: if not a campsite, then an open stretch of land for wild camping.
Unbelievably, neither presented itself. I stopped at a fuel station with a beautiful garden area and asked if I might camp there, but they said they closed up at night and camping, even behind the station, was out of the question. I stopped at a hotel and a snooty French Moroccan couldn't offer even a small square of dirt for my tent, instead asking an outrageous six hundred dirhams for a single room in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile, the land all around the road was naturally fenced by thorn bushes, and entirely tilled as farmland: off-limits. I turned onto a secondary road heading southwest, and here tall adobe walls protected vast fields of orange groves on both sides. Muscles sore and skin raw, I pressed on, riding into the sun and then the sunset and then just the stars. It grew dark, but the road was virtually empty, and besides Yoshi was outfitted with lights on her front and back. If it wasn't such a long day, it would have been a terrific ride (and still, I'll admit, it was quite nice), but I was eager to find somewhere to rest my head: hotel, campground, empty field, anything.
After hours of this, I spotted a well-lit minaret in the distance. Minarets mean people, and people mean lodging, or even just the friendly offer of lawn space, and I pushed furiously against the pedals to get there. Though I could see it right in front of me, it hardly grew larger as I drew closer, suggesting that it was likely very large (and very far away), and I was buoyed by the thought that a large minaret meant a large group of people: surely somewhere to sleep. Still, all around me was walled off, and the ditches were filled with thorny branches.
Indeed, the structure was large, and it was far away, but as the evening call to prayer sounded behind me and to my sides on those various hills and mounds, I was perplexed at the silence from up ahead. Surely a minaret that large wouldn't go unattended?
No, a minaret would not. When I finally reached the very-large, very-far-away edifice, a sign pointed the way to Ciments du Maroc (or something thereabouts), a metropolis-sized cement factory with a large tower somehow crucial to the process. I was reminded of a very similar night I'd spent scootering through rural Louisiana toward a city of lights that came to be a place called Sulphur, not a city at all but a ghastly, glowing refinery. Both then and now I was left standing before what appeared a dark dystopian world absent of humanity, just clanging machines and groaning instruments howling in the night.
I was through. I was tired of cycling and had little hope of salvation further on ahead, and even though the land behind the concrete plant was likely government property and most definitely covered in fist-sized rocks and the pointy spears of one million thorntree branches, I carefully carried Yoshi (so as not to get a puncture) and my panniers fifty meters into the field, pitched camp, and hoping that no pointy bits would pierce my inflatable sleeping pad, climbed on inside.
The sound of concrete being processed is similar to the sound of people being tortured while a crying cat scrapes her nails on a chalkboard.
Cycled today: 134 kilometers
Tuesday, February 9
Late morning. I left the side of the cement plant at sunrise, hauling Yoshi back to the road and pedaling away with still-sore muscles. The singular reward for 134 kilometers of cycling yesterday was two dehydrated mango slices and three tablespoons of rehydrated peanut butter in the tent last night; with the precariousness of my campsite, I didn't want to draw attention to myself by lighting a cooking fire.
I've been looking for a place to stop to eat, and have found nothing in all these kilometers. Restaurants are promised by road signs but are either shuttered or under construction upon my arrival, and entire towns may not have anywhere to grab a bite, for here people can cook for themselves.
While being off the beaten path costs these conveniences, I've been riding beautiful country roads against a river all morning, after an unexpectedly high climb to Ait-Baha. My next destination, Tafraout, seems to be about ninety kilometers away, so I'll need somewhere to replenish my water supplies along the way, if nothing else.
Afternoon. Fuck. I'd been warned by Moroccans in our passing charades to each other that Tafraout was an uphill journey, and so I was prepared for a climb. I was not prepared for this: the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Looking at my map now, it's painfully obvious that I'm not skipping from town to town as I gain elevation, but passing through yet another mountain range, with all the grandness and scale of the Atlas yet without the proper preparation or, importantly, any respectable summit. Instead, this range is all false summits, long climbs followed by long drops that just become long climbs once more. I'm out of water (drinking over three liters this morning), and ate my last two mango slices earlier, and without water my dehydrated peanut butter and my quinoa won't do much good. The sun is blazing and my face is burnt and my palms look near to forming, well, palm-sized blisters, and I have saddle soreness that makes both stopping and going equally miserable.
I pass through mountain towns that appear entirely deserted, and otherwise there's little sign of life here. The Anti-Atlas, being far less traveled than the High Atlas, never really developed the infrastructure of the latter, and so while the High Atlas was relaxed and quiet, the Anti-Atlas feels lonely and inhospitable.
Early evening. Some good news! Earlier I came upon a single "restaurant" up in the mountains that didn't have much in the way of actual food, but did have bottled drinks and packaged snacks. I purchased a liter of water, a liter of orange soda, and a liter of sparkling apple juice, and figuring that my body needed sugar as much as water, I first chugged the orange soda, which made me feel terrible. I don't feel thirsty and haven't had to pee all day, and I know these are not good signs, but I'm doing my best to force myself to drink the other liquids.
Of the packaged foods, I selected a pair of tiny shelf-stable muffins with a little orange jam in the middle. No comment one way or the other. I asked the shop owner if we were at the top (miming these motions, of course), and he mimed back that there really was no top, that I was indeed in hell and would likely die up here, because this mountain just goes up and down forever and ever and eventually loops back on itself, like that old illusory staircase. Or, at least, that's what I read from his hand motions.
And indeed, it has been nothing but since. The descents are thrilling, but there's so much climbing, and I don't know how much more I can take of it. I can always camp, and I may well have to, but the thought of having to spend another day slogging through these mountains is unbearable.
I shouldn't overlook the beauty of the Anti-Atlas. Even red-faced and red-palmed, the range is every bit as beautiful as its sister, perhaps more so for its tranquility. There's such mystery in these abandoned villages, if they even are abandoned, in their simple construction of rock and plaster and their bright, beautiful metal doors standing out in the glint of setting sunlight.
The setting sun: it isn't far from the mountaintops now. I must be going.
Evening. Two days ago, I would have said passing the Atlas was perhaps the most physically challenging task of my life. And sure, there have been other moments where I've felt spent and hopeless and unable to go on: trekking the summit of Emei Shan, returning from the depths of the Grand Canyon in the sweltering heat, walking from DC to West Virginia in one day, running twenty-five miles barefoot. And sure, maybe it's just the newness and the clarity and the present soreness of my whole being, but at this very moment I feel that today may have been the single most enduring day I've yet managed. Cycling 112 kilometers for ten or eleven hours straight, dropping and rising hundreds and hundreds of meters again and again and again, all on the meager rations of mango slices and two measly muffins with no real hope or end in sight (quite literally): toward the end, I was ready to flag down the next camper van to pass and hitch a ride to Tafraout (which would, of course, have been quite fine).
In fact, when it did eventually come to an end, I was stopped on the road by a camper van steered by three travelers confirming they were on the correct road to Tafraout, which seemed a question with an obvious answer, for in these mountains there was only one road to Tafraout. I told them yes, that I thought it was, that it was maybe another twenty kilometers, and they looked at me and thanked me and waited, and half my mind thought they were waiting for me to ask for a ride, and half my mind jumped at the chance to take that ride, but the other half thought no, just a little longer.
And how glad I am that it did! Resigned to another arduous twenty kilometers, I hardly expected coming through the gorge up ahead to a breathtaking view of the valley down below, a valley with the very road I was on scribbling across it. It was a deep, wide valley, just glorious, and I knew no honest roadworker would build this road all the way to the valley floor unless it was for a good reason: Tafraout.
I clicked my gears up, leaned forward, and flew, and I'll tell you, I've never felt anything quite like it. Amber haze hung in the air and the wind cooled my sun-kissed face, and for kilometers and kilometers I slid down the switchbacks of the mountainside at thirty or forty or fifty kilometers per hour. For fifteen minutes I didn't pedal once, and though my skin was rubbed raw in some places and numb in others, all the suffering of the day just subsided, going so far as to justify itself for this one, singular moment of bliss.
Yoshi purred the whole way down, past boulders, past villages, deep to the floor of the great Ameln Valley. The meter marks flashed by and hardly mattered anymore: we were fifteen and then ten and then five away, and though the last three or four kilometers required a little pedaling, that was done on pure adrenaline alone.
And now we are here, in Tafraout. I've just had a real meal for the first time in two days (would you believe it: tajines!). I have a big, soft bed and a hot shower and have just washed the salt lines from my well-worn shirt. My body has worked hard since leaving Marrakesh, and it has some healing to do. I think I'll rest here for a while.
Cycled today: 112 kilometers
Wednesday, February 10
Afternoon. Yoshi is resting in the courtyard lobby, and it's strange to be away from her, strange to have my panniers mostly unpacked and my belongings so easily accessible without the reaching and the shuffling. I slept late today and am still sore in places. I ate lunch today (couscous for a change!) and it was the first time I've actually been able to fully finish a Moroccan meal, and even went to the souk afterward to pick up some bread to snack on.
I spent the morning reading books and typing up, or otherwise arranging, these very notes, and also studying my map closely. It's impressive to see the distance we've covered in just four days, but distance, of course, is not everything. Having summited two of Africa's greatest passes, and gotten my fair share of mountains and hot desert, I've begun to rethink my direction east, which would bring long, desolate, dry, and likely hot stretches, and eventually another return over the High Atlas from Zagora to Marrakesh. It's an ambitious route, one that would keep me cycling a good stretch each day.
But there's another enviable way back to Marrakesh. West of here lies the Atlantic, and if I can make it back over the Anti-Atlas (by bus or self-supported) to Sidi Ifni, I'll have nothing but beautiful coastline to my left for hundreds of kilometers. I reckon I can find a quiet spot to camp on the beach, maybe pass a few days there, and head north to Agadir and later Essaouira for leisurely rides along what I've heard called "the Big Sur of Morocco." There are bound to be some more tourists, and a bit of wind, and definitely some climbs this way too, but the ocean does seem more pleasant than the desert right now. I'm still recovering, so there's time yet to think this over.
Cycled today: 0 kilometers!