The Vagabound Life

By Lukas Brinkerhoff

Kathleen Berglund on her first bicycle tour heading into Red Cliffs Recreation Area. Photo: Lukas Brinkerhoff.
Kathleen Berglund on her first bicycle tour heading into Red Cliffs Recreation Area. Photo: Lukas Brinkerhoff.

My best friend when I was a kid was Mikey Picklesimer. We called him Pickle. His house was a half block south and then a quarter block east from mine. This meant that I had to cross the street to get there. His house was the first place that I was allowed to ride to that was beyond that all mighty border known as a road. Up until that fateful day so many years ago, all my journeys were restricted to the sidewalk that ran in front of our house. This wasn’t too bad, as there were plenty of kids who lived on my street and with whom I could play, but riding to Pickle’s house was my first foray into using the bicycle as a way to go farther.

Pickle’s house was much like my own. They had a trampoline, a lawn and a mom that made us ants on a log to eat. She would give Pickle’s little brother time frames based on television shows and we spent our afternoons having dirt clod fights with the neighbors. It was the first place I slept without my parents. Of course, his were there, but there is a reason kids want to have sleepovers, freedom. Someone else’s mom is obviously not your own.

It was at Pickle’s house that we used the matches that I stole to almost burn the neighbor’s house down.

Of course, the boundaries of where I could ride my bike weren’t real, they were just lines or landmarks that my mom designated. As I got older, those imaginary lines got bigger and we constantly pushed against their restrictions. For some reason, the boundaries were always roads. We were told to stay within the confines of these barriers built for four-wheeled machines.

My first foray into wilderness was with Pickle. We were 13 and our scout group was working on our backpacking merit badge. We did an overnighter on top of Pine Valley Mountain by going up Mill Canyon. The Wilderness Boundary is designated by a wooden sign that happens to be at the edge of the first creek crossing. I can remember looking at the sign and the imaginary boundary that had been designated by congress and wondering what it meant. I didn’t take a picture. That night was spent sleeping in a small pup tent in the grassy flat after “cooking” and eating our MREs. I remember wondering what it would be like to do a full five days like we had planned for our 50 miler.

Once we left the roads and began walking, we walked past boundaries without knowing what they were or why they were there. Most of them we hardly noticed. The only boundary that seemed to influence our experience was time. The amount of time that our scout leaders could get off work had more to do with how far we could go than any other restriction. How far could we hike in three days? Four? Five? Two weeks?

In Spanish the verb to wonder is Vagar. It is the base for the word vagabundo which means vagabond. In my head and my way of thinking it means “vagabonding.” Yes, I like to vagar or to live the hobo life. My first foray into unplanned, un-time restricted travel was in 2003. I quit both of my jobs, cancelled my semester of school and at the last minute told my parents my plan. For the next six months, I had nothing to do. We went to the beach. We climbed volcanos. I spent days hanging out writing and thinking about life. We even ventured across the border and had a nice week in Argentina.

To get to Mendoza from Santiago, we took an overnight bus trip. The road goes up and over the Andes. There are 20+ S turns on the way up. It’s a slow, long journey. Around midnight, we hit the international border. The border sits at over 10,000 feet. To cross into Argentina, we all had to get off the bus so it could be inspected. This meant that there were 100+ of us standing outside, in the dark. It was cold. The border patrol did their inspection and gave us the go ahead to cross the manmade line that divides the two countries.

The hardest manmade boundaries to cross are the internal ones. The ones that we set for ourselves. How hard can you pedal? How long are you willing to suffer to see what is beyond the next corner or across the next road? Where is that point where your desire to proceed is overcome by the suffering that your body feels? Have you ever found it?

It was over 100 degrees. I couldn’t drink enough water to cool my core. I was so water logged that I couldn’t eat or drink anymore and yet I was starving and the thirstiest I’d ever been. I had tried to find a room to rent in the last small Mexican village I had gone through but was rudely turned away. At this point, I was laying on top of my sleeping pad sweating. I had put my tent up in the only flat, shady place I could find, a giant culvert. The tent was the only protection I had against the clouds of bugs swarming around me. It was so hot I couldn’t sleep so I just laid there in my own sweat.

The next morning I loaded up my gear and continued because there was no other option. I made it to Magdalena del Kino where I was able to find a hotel room to rent. I collapsed onto the bed and immediately fell asleep. I awoke late in the afternoon, took a shower and called my wife. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew it was over. Without warning, my body turned into a heaping blob of sobbing flesh. It was uncontrollable.

The next morning I got on a bus headed to Phoenix.

I type this as my wife packs and unpacks her backpack. We are leaving for Yosemite in a couple of hours. We will be homeless for three weeks crossing the Sierra Nevada in hopes of making it to Mount Whitney via the John Muir Trail. We’ve never gone backpacking this long or this far. My stomach is all a jitter. I’m not sure if I’m excited or nervous, or both. One thing is for sure, we’ll be walking farther then Pickle and I ever rode.

Lukas Brinkerhoff blogs about mountain biking and life at mooseknuckleralliance.org.

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