KM533: A bike ride to the Atlantic

2.10.2016

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.

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"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

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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.

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"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

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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.

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"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

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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.

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"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

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Cycled today: 42 kilometers

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