Sarah Bellum Cycles from Cali to Oregon Alone (On A Bicycle Decorated with Plastic Bags)
Meet Sarah Bellum, a daily cyclist in Portland, Oregon. Here I interview Sarah about her solo bicycling tour from California to Oregon which she undertook in 2015, and how she overcame fear of all kinds.
OR: What role does your bicycle play in your life today?
Her name is Mary Jane Winds, and she’s my best friend. She’s my main mode of transportation around the city. She’s my broomstick.
OR: Tell me your love story with your bicycle. How did it all start?
SB: I was living in California when my old bike was stolen. Then I found a bike in the backyard of my former partner’s house. She was a beautiful yellow ‘74 Schwinn LeTour. I rode her for a long time, and was saving up money for my first car. Then I had this epiphany at work that I didn’t actually want a car. I wanted to invest in my bicycle.
So in 2014 I quit my job and I was unemployed for seven months. I also took a mechanics class at that time, and got to take her all apart and put her back together. That was really fun. It was at a place called the Slow Bike Kitchen.
And... I crocheted her. And that’s when I feel like I really got to know her. I crocheted all over with plastic bags that I found and cut up. I found them on the street, on the beach, in the dumpster. People collected them for me too. I used 188 plastic bags. It’s a guesstimate, to be honest. I like that number and I think it was about that many... I was unemployed the whole time so I was very focused.
While I was crocheting I was kinda thinking of doing a tour, just from San Luis Obispo to San Franciso. I wanted to promote my art in different ways. I wanted to make a documentary of it. Then I came up to the VBC (Village Building Convergence) in Portland, and realized I was going to move up here. I thought, Maybe I could put my bike on the train? She might get banged up. Should I save up money and buy a car? Then I realized, No I should just ride her up to Oregon.
OR: That was how you ended up bicycle touring on the West Coast?
SB: Yes, It was my first solo tour. I’d gone on a few practice rides with friends before I left, but it was my first long solo tour. I started in San Louis Obispo, California, and then I rode up the coast all the way to Astoria, and then I cut over highway 30 to Portland, Oregon.
I’ve gone on a few longer tours, but I would go with a friend if I go on tour like that again.
OR: Why is that?
SB: I got a bit lonely. I think it’d be really fun to share that experience with somebody. I’m glad that I did it by myself, and had that experience. I feel a lot more confident and empowered to be independent and things like that. I think it’d be a lot of fun to have someone else around.
OR: When did you feel the most lonely?
SB: The most lonely I ever got on my trip was one day I was riding down the road, and it was beautiful and sunny so I stopped to take off my jacket on this bridge. I was bungee-cording my stuff back together when the bungee sprung out of my hands and went over the bridge, down into a ravine. That was the thing holding a lot of my stuff together. I mean, I had twine, so I could have done without it, but I thought, “Oh, I can do that. I’ll just climb down the ravine and get it back.”
It wasn’t hard getting down there, but I didn’t see the poison oak because it was winter, so there weren’t any leaves on it. I got a really bad case of poison oak. I’m really allergic, so I get it everywhere. The worst was on my arms.
A storm was coming, and I was trying to find a place to stay other than camping, especially because I had poison oak. I found this hippie farmhouse-Permaculture kind of a place in Mendocino County. I thought it’d be the perfect place to stop off: it was a relatively cheap, community kind of house, and I thought there would be people there who could help me heal. But I got there and it was so stormy out. Then the guy who checked me in left to go to a hotsprings with his wife, and so I was by myself in this ginormous hippie hostel farmhouse on the beach. I had eaten this yogurt earlier that day, and after I got there I ended up getting food poisoning. So I was puking my guts out, for two days, and I had poison oak, and I was all by myself. I had no internet or cell phone reception, and I was so lonely and so sick. I’d never felt that lonely in my life.
It was interesting because I had it in my head that this hippie place would have people who would help me, but that wasn’t the case because it was winter and stormy. After my two nights were up there, I rode five miles down the road and found this really run down hotel/motel kind of place. I walked in and the people obviously saw my distressed face: they brought me a sandwich and coffee and gave me a night's stay for free. It was awesome.
OR: You needed that.
SB: Totally. And then I was in town and I could get some actual medicine.
OR: So it’d be nice to have someone on tour with you, for moments like that.
SB: Yeah, just to be there, to share the experience with you whether it’s the worst or it’s the best. But I did find that because I was alone I had this confidence to go and talk to people, to strangers, and I like that aspect. I think sometimes when you’re with a friend you kinda just stick together. I met so many people on the road, and so many people helped me out in so many different ways.
OR: Was there a time when you experienced fear?
Yes, tons of different times. One in particular comes to mind: I found this place on Warmshowers.org. It was this single man and he had good reviews but it still made me a little nervous. He was in Humboldt County, and that area... Ugh. I feel like when you’re moving on your bike, you’re moving at such a slow pace that you can feel the energy of different places so much more. And that area is creepy. It’s not just hippies growing weed anymore... it’s this weird energy between Humboldt and Mendocino now. So I was traveling through this place and it was so scary feeling, and I was going to this single man who was going to host me in this yurt, about seven miles out of town. I remember the spot where I lost internet reception, and then the spot where I lost phone reception, and I was still going up into the woods. And then his driveway was like a mile-long, super steep dirt road, and I was pushing my bike up it and just bawling. I was like, “Am I that stupid girl who’s going to this guy’s house?” It was just really freaky in that moment.
I got there and he was super nice, and I stayed with him in his yurt. But he said that my feelings about that area were totally valid, and there’s weird people around there.
OR: So... You were afraid and alone and crying on your bicycle and you kept going.
SB: And I kept going! (laughs) I didn’t really have another option!
OR: Is that why you kept going? Because you felt that you didn’t have another option?
SB: Yeah... I don’t even know why I kept going. I think I was scared to turn around. The town was creepy, and I hoped that the guy on Warmshowers would be better.
But, I met this one guy who was traveling by bicycle, and he was creepy. We were going in the same direction, which shouldn’t happen that often because I was going north and most people go south on that road if you’re on a bike. And he was really weird. He did this thing where he took the brakes off his bicycle, so he would only bike uphill and on flat areas, and then walk his bike downhill so I could get away from him pretty easily but he creeped me out a lot and i saw him multiple days.
OR: Sounds like a character from a movie!
SB: I know! My problem is I’m so nice to people when I first meet them, and then I’m like “Oh shit...”
OR: Do you feel like you learned some lessons about that on your trip, about being nice?
Definitely. I had more of a “guard” on towards the end of my trip. I was wearing my reflective vest every day towards the end, and I wasn’t talking to as many people. It was because I was tired, too, but especially after interacting with that one guy I didn’t feel like I needed to talk to everyone anymore. It’s nice to be nice to people, but it was a good lesson that I don’t have to be nice to everyone.
OR: Was there a time when other people expressed fear for you? When they didn’t approve of what you were doing?
SB: All the time. Especially in the beginning, before I even went on my trip. It’s interesting because I feel like when a man leaves for an adventure, the first thing that people say is “Have a great time!” and if a woman goes on an adventure, it’s like “Oh my gosh, be careful.” In the beginning everyone was like, “You’re not gonna do that, you’re crazy!” and then when they realized I was serious about it, they’re like “be careful, be careful.” It was really rare that I got a supportive, excited reaction.
OR: In light of that, how do you respond when you hear a young woman is about to go on her first big adventure?
SB: I get so excited! I try to see how I can help them, or if they need any gear... that totally save me when I was getting started. This woman Brittany App had gone from San Diego to Florida on a bike tour and was a bicycle mechanic... She helped me so much and made me feel really confident. She hadn’t done a solo tour, she’d gone with a friend, but she was so knowledgable and helpful I don’t know what I would’ve done without her! I met her right before I left. That was really cool.
OR: What’s special about solo travel?
SB: It’s so powerful to go on an adventure and really stand in your power as a woman. Society tells us to be scared all the time. It tells us that bad things are going to happen to us. If women were inspired, I think (solo travel) would happen a lot more. More people would be doing it.
Before I went on my solo tour, I was obsessed with female travelers. I watched that Tracks movie about a woman journeying alone through Australia, and another film about a girl who was 14 who sailed around the world by herself. Laura Decker. And I thought, “What?! If she can do it, I can do it.”
OR: Any advice for ladies who want to travel more?
SB: GO FOR IT! Pick a place and go there.
Remember that you’re never alone. Look at the earth around you and all of the trees and other sentient beings. And all of the insects... I noticed so many caterpillars on the road on my bike tour!
We will continue with the Sarah Bellum interview in Part 2!
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