Iceland, by bicycle


Sometimes I feel like writing and sometimes I don't feel like writing. The past few months have been some of the latter times, which isn't to say spring in the Matchbox hasn't been lovely: lots of sun, lots of rain, a thriving garden, a little travel, and plenty of trying out the tiny house's new massive (well, seven-cubic foot) solar-powered chest freezer. Oh, and a new adventure in the works.

After a totally lovely solo cycling trip through Morocco in February—and also a totally lovely month in southern Africa with Lauren (sans bikes) in December and January—Lauren and I are off to Iceland (with bikes!) in just a few weeks for what promises to be a challenging (and really beautiful) bicycle ride around the country.

Somewhere in Iceland; courtesy of the internet.

We'll be gone all July—a little longer than four weeks—and probably end up circumnavigating about 1,000 miles of Iceland. It's likely we'll be sticking mainly to Iceland's lovely Ring Road (with plenty of detours, river crossings, and unforeseen alterations, I'm sure), cutting through the inhospitable interior during our last week back to Reykjavik. There'll be wind and rain and hills and great big mountains, but also fjords and glaciers and volcanoes and black beaches and shy foxes and puffins(!), and enough empty roads, big skies, and long days (like, twenty-one-hours-of-daylight long) to make it a memorable month.

Somewhere in Iceland; courtesy of the internet.

For a change, I probably won't be regularly blogging about this one in excruciating detail—at least not while in Iceland. But photos and feelings and more to come; and if I can manage it, a packlist for what exactly one brings for a month-long cycling tour beyond the wall, for those interested in that sort of thing.


Once upon a time in Europe


Photos from Europe, twenty-one months later—at least as organized and sorted through as they'll ever be.

Barcelona, Spain. [More photos from Spain]

Paris, France. [More photos from France]
Bologna, Italy. [More photos from Italy]
Mostar, Bosnia. [More photos from Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia]
Istanbul, Turkey. [More photos from Turkey]
Bern, Switzerland. [More photos from the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary]
Nuremberg, Germany. [More photos from Germany]
In transit, Romania. [More photos from Romania and Bulgaria]
World Bodypainting Festival, Austria. [More photos from the World Bodypainting Festival]
Southwestern fjords, Norway [More photos of Norway, Sweden, and Estonia]
London, England. [More photos of England]
Doolin, Ireland. [More photos of Scotland and Ireland]

Occupied DC


Washington, DC — March 2016

Photos: Cycling southern Morocco


February 2016

Video: Cycling southern Morocco


February 2016

Oh, and another from last summer's trip west.

KM1074: Final days in Morocco


"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"

KM896: A final ride through the mountains


"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

KM737: Wind, Sand, and Cars

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

KM585: Beach towns of Morocco's southern shore


"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

KM533: A bike ride to the Atlantic


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

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