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 The Claudes and Claudettes have been replaced by a younger breed, and they speak English, and they order food in English and greet others in English and order hamburgers and, well, I'll grant they're not here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


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