Bike Ballad : How It Began, Part One

Ruslan Bardash Photography

Ruslan Bardash Photography

Since we are just starting out with our website and platforms, I thought it would be a good idea to give you readers a bit of history about Bike Ballad and how my love for cycling transformed my life into a whole new adventure.


In November of 2014, I lost my mother to colon cancer. Before she died, her and I made one last trip to Korea for her to see her family there. At that point, she was too weak to walk or eat, but she was able to make peace with everyone and say goodbye. 

She was cremated a few days later, and soon I found myself flying back home to Michigan with her ashes in a box. When I got home, my family picked me up, we had dinner, and the box sat next to me in a chair by the table. No one said anything about it, we just accepted it like a familiar guest and moved on.  

By mid December, we held a memorial service in Kalamazoo where I grew up. I was exhausted both emotionally and physically. I had been drowning myself in late-nights and booze, and I tried desperately not to feel the pain of what was going on around me. Despite how badly I was treating myself, somehow I managed to plan the ceremony with my sisters, write the obituary for the local paper, and deliver a eulogy to honor my mother and her life. When the service was over, I decided to skip Christmas at home and book a ticket back to Los Angeles. My family was sad, but the only thing I could think about was getting away.


The only thing I had waiting for me in LA was my shitty car and run-down apartment. Months before I left for Korea, I had enrolled in a community college to try getting a degree, but I had missed so much class, and I didn't think they would let me finish out the semester. When I got back, the first thing I did was visit my professors and beg for them to let me take my final exams. While I was gone, I did homework every night, kept up with assignments through email, and so I thought I had a good chance of showing up last minute and passing. Sure enough, only one teacher decided to drop me, and the rest gave me passing grades. On top of that, I was having residency issues that affected my tuition prices, and when I went back to the admissions office to explain what had just happened to me, the officer, Sandra, approved my residency without a second thought. I was stunned. I left the office and it was raining outside, and I felt like my mom was giving me a second chance to turn my life around and do something meaningful with it. 

After I left the campus, I got word from my friend Kay that she was driving back up to Redding, CA and needed someone to drive with her to cut down the cost of gas and drive time. Immediately, I thought to myself, "hell, I could do that." I was out of school, I had no plans, no family around, and I thought the trip would be a good way to have a clean slate; to clear my head for a while. I gave Kay a call and agreed to travel with her. While I was on the phone, I noticed my roommate's road bike sitting in the corner of the living room. I had ridden it from time to time to commute to school or exercise, but I had never done any serious trips with it. A year before, I had done a 200 mile trip from Kalamazoo to Chicago that happened on a whim, so I figured I could do a longer trip no problem. Right then, I decided to spend my Christmas break riding from Redding back down to Los Angeles. I had roughly 9 days to do it before needing to be back in the city (I had an old girlfriend coming to visit me at the beginning of January), but I wasn't concerned. I made plans with Kay and started packing my things. 


It was an old 1980's Centurion in cherry red. My Roommate, Conroy, had it sitting behind the house for years rusting away, and one summer, I took it upon myself to clean it up, slap some new tires on it, and take off. It was a great bike, lightweight, and fast. The wheels were aluminum, the pedals were clip-ins, and you could tell that it was made for speed, not really commuting. Regardless, I put a rack on it, bought some waterproof panniers, and borrowed Conroy's subzero sleeping bag. With bungee chords and balance, I filled the bags with two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans, cliff bars, almonds, a portable charger, a selfie stick, socks, and boxers. On top of it, I shoved the sleeping bag into a sack and strapped it down with a water bottle wedged in between. Once everything was in place, I test rode it around the neighborhood and the weight seemed to hold up fine. I waited for Kay to come pick me up, and before I knew it, I was headed for Redding without a care in the world. 


The drive up took around 9 hours. We had got lost somehow traveling up the 101 and had to cut across some random freeways to get back on track. When we finally got to her parents house, Kay and I both were exhausted. We ate some junk food in her kitchen, went upstairs and crashed. 

I had known Kay for a few years. Once upon a time, her and I went out on dates, lived with each other on one occasion, and always had fun together. Prior to the trip, she had come out as a lesbian, and I was happy for her. For us, the pressure of being together was never forced; it always came as a natural understanding and friendship. It was nice to be with someone who expected nothing from you but your presence. I said goodnight to her and fell asleep on the twin bed across the room. 

Morning came quickly. The sun peered through the blinds and I could hear rainfall pelting the windows. I wanted to get a good jump on the trip and slip out early before Kay woke up, and so I quietly folded the blankets, threw on my jeans and sweater, and walked downstairs to the garage to get my bike. I followed the same routine that I set up at home: bungee chords, stuffed panniers, and a sleeping bag piled on top. I filled up the water bottle and wedged it into the creese when Kay came into the garage carrying an old cheerleading windbreaker and a paper bag filled with snacks. She told me that it would be cold outside and that I should take the coat. She also said she stole some snacks from her parents' fridge and that I should pack them. Her eyes were bleary and she looked half-asleep, and I didn't have the heart to refuse the gifts, so I threw the windbreaker on over my sweater, shoved the snacks into the panniers and gave her a hug. She told me to stand in front of my bike so that she could snap a picture of me. We laughed a little and said our goodbyes, and a moment later, I was rolling down the street in the rain on my red bike. Kay waved from the garage until I disappeared around the corner. 


Leaving Redding was like the beginning of a dream. Still, the entire trip seems unreal to me, but Redding was especially strange because of how happy and relieved I was to escape the wounds of my spirit. At first, the trail started with neighborhood streets, stoplights, cars whizzing in every direction. It was wet and dismal with fog unrolling from the nearby hills, and within the first 20 minutes of riding, the rain had started pelting. I was glad that I accepted the windbreaker from Kay. My pants and shoes were drenched instantly, but my upper-half wicked the drops away, and my hat kept my eyes clear from the mist. 

Once I steered off the main roads onto highway 299, I found myself pedaling through a small town called Shasta. It was a prairie village with historic cabins surrounded only by woods. Occasionally, I saw an auto body shop on the corner, but everything was shut down for Christmas break, and I was the only living thing in what felt like a ghost town. The rain made it awfully lonesome, but I liked it. Runoff from the road spun off my wheels and sprayed my shins, I kept my body tucked into the drops and peered out from under my hat. I could only hear my rotations and breaths pulsating with the rain, and the miles dripped off as I arrived at Whiskeytown Lake. 


I'm not one to visit tourist centers, but when I saw the gloom floating over the water, I pulled off into the parking lot without a second thought. Whiskeytown Lake is a part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. It's an area of land between Shasta and Douglas City that's tucked away into the wilderness; nothing but trees, canyons, the lake, and the smell of foliage overgrown by consistent moisture. The visitor center itself was nothing too glorious. A simple building that doubled as a museum to the history of the lake. One person was working the counter inside, but i didn't go in or say hello. Instead, I slipped out my water bottle from the bungee chord and drank half the bottle. Then I filled it up at the fountain and walked back over to the lookout point. A concrete barrier divided the parking lot from the rocky slope, and I stood on the ledge to get a better view of the immensity of the water. I think what drew me in the most was the haze drifting slowly overhead. It was like how clouds slide across the moon in the middle of the night. The air hung around and sat heavy; no wind to push away, and the rain seemed to make it even thicker. I was mesmerized beyond comprehension. Even though I was cold and wet to the bone, it didn't matter anymore. I wanted to be like the clouds; to be resolute, unchanging, and alive. 


It was a grueling first day, but I was determined to ride at least 50 miles before calling it quits. I still wasn't too experienced with longer trips, so I thought a 50 mile goal would be a good way to pace myself within my timeline. For the most part, I was making good progress, but that ended when I reached the outskirts of Douglas City. 

To be honest, I don't remember much about the town itself. I was tired and cold from the morning, and before I got into the city, I was halted by steep hills and turns on the highway. A few times, I tried to sprint on the downhills and coast up the inclines, but they were too steep and too fast, and the extra weight on my bike forced me to step off and walk. Hours went by as I pushed the bike on the shoulder over miles of winding roads. It was nice to give my legs somewhat of a break, but I was losing daylight fast, and was worried about where to set up camp.

Over the next couple of hours, the rains had stopped, and my clothes eventually dried out. I was scaling a massive stretch of road at a brutal pace when a white Ford truck came roaring by and pulled off on the shoulder in front of me. It honked its horn a couple of times, and I approached the driver's side window a little skittish. Driving the truck was a young man around my age and sitting next to him was his wife. I introduced myself and laughed a bit about my situation. The two seemed harmless, and awfully kind, and the man offered to give me a lift to Weaverville where they lived. He told me that the next 20 miles were all hills and valleys, and that my walk would be more or less the same. His words put me in a dilemma. The whole point of my trip was to honor the challenge on my own. I didn't want to take shortcuts or cut corners, but their offer was generous to say the least. The man encouraged me to rest and enjoy the sights, and his wife gave a friendly smile to bolster his words. I shook my head yes and smiled back. He stepped out of the truck, helped me load my bike into the bed, and then we all took off around the bend up ahead. He was right. The stretch would have taken me a day to walk, and although I was getting a 20 mile jump on the trip, the excitement didn't fade. 

Sadly, I don't remember the names of the two who picked me up. I wanna say their names were wholesome and American, like Steve and Lisa, but I can't be certain. What I do know is that they were happy and in love. They had just gotten married and were settling into their new home. Steve had taken a job at a small factory nearby, and Lisa was a schoolteacher. You could tell that they were content because they always smiled; it was a permanent feature they both held, and it rubbed off on me. They dropped me off at a small dinner called the Golden Nugget, and I asked them if I could take a photo with them. Without hesitation they agreed, and then we said our goodbyes. 


Weaverville had that old, western charm that any gold rush territory would have in the late 1800's. Cabins were shiplapped with worn wood, a single road stretched through town riddled with general stores, gas stations, antique shops, and diners. I rode my bike up and down a few times to absorb the history, and when I got hungry, I went back to the Golden Nugget to refuel. 

It was a plain diner with bland fluorescent lighting. The menu had about 10 options for dinner service: Cheeseburger, plain burger, grilled cheese, chicken tenders, chicken pot pie, prime rib, lasagna, chili bowl, beef tacos, and a chili dog. The very best of American cuisine and northern California flair. I ordered a cheeseburger and a root beer and watched others pass by in the window. Everyone seemed generally friendly, but reserved. They could tell that I was an outsider, and they welcomed me, but it also felt like they didn't mind either way. Oddly enough, it felt good to be void. In LA, everyone is trying to impress people they hate for the most part, and here, it didn't matter who you were. I imagine they would treat everyone the same; movie star or vagabond, you order your food, they give it to you, you pay, and it all starts over again. 

When my food arrived, I scarfed it down in minutes. Meanwhile, I charged my phone and backup battery from an outlet underneath my booth. The management didn't seem to mind, and after the meal, I hung around ordering more french fries and slices of pumpkin pie until the night took over. It was about 9pm and pitch black outside. Snow had started to fall and I was a bit worried about where I was gonna sleep and keep warm. I gathered my things and went back to the bike. I had the thought to ride around town a bit more and look for a motel, but my funds were a bit low. There was a bench outside the diner, so I threw on another sweater from my bag and posted up with a book of poems.

I must have fallen asleep on the bench because I snapped awake and had snow dusted over my hat and legs. The book was flopped open on the ground, and the diner lights were all turned off. I looked at my phone and it was almost midnight. Christmas Eve, and there I was sleeping on a park bench in the middle of nowhere. I had a few missed messages from family members wishing me a happy trip and a good night, but I didn't respond. Down the road, there were lights on at a bar, and Christmas music was playing, but I didn't want to move. I only wanted to sleep and let the holidays pass by. I stood up and shook myself off, put my things away on the bike, and walked it over to the awning at the side of the diner. A wooden porch was built around the building, so I went back as far as I could before I was stopped by a railing at the back entrance. The porch overlooked a small trailer park tucked into a perimeter of pine trees, and a faint street lamp glowed in the corner of the driveway leading into it. Snow was still falling, and I watched flakes hover across the glare. I pulled out my sleeping bag, laid it down on the porch, and tucked myself into the opening with my clothes on. I even left my shoes on to stay warm. The top of the sleeping bag had a small hoodie that I pulled overhead and tightened down. It didn't take long for me to fall asleep. Occasionally, I woke up from a noise or thought of someone coming to attack me, but it was only my imagination. 

When morning came, my body was warm, but my face was frozen stiff. My cheeks felt raw and numb, and a light film of frost had glazed over me like icing on a cake. Once I wiggled around, the frost broke and dusted away, but the last thing I wanted to do was leave the sleeping bag. I laid there for a while dozing in half sleep until the sun peeked out below the awning. After I got adjusted to the cold, I sat up and shook myself loose from my cocoon. Everything around me was silent. I didn't hear anyone rummaging through the snow or a car driving by. It was only me and the morning air commiserating together on Christmas morning. In a way, it was the best gift I could have gotten; to clear my head and quiet myself without a distraction to keep me from feeling. My hands started to burn from the windchill, so I emerged all the way out, jumped up and down a few times, and clapped them together to keep them alive. My mouth felt dried out, so I reached into the saddle bag on the bike and pulled out my toothbrush, my water bottle, and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste that I had to dig out from the bottom.

My whole body was chattering, and for some reason I started to laugh. It was the thought of how simple my reality was in that moment that made me burst at the seems. Here I was, waking up behind the Golden Nugget in the middle of winter and brushing my teeth with frozen water. I rattled and chuckled while applying the toothpaste, and suddenly, the phone rang; I answered it while brushing my molars.

It was my aunt making sure that I was okay. She was sad that I didn't stay home for Christmas, but she understood how I needed time for myself. She greeted me with a big Merry Christmas, and I could hear the rest of my family in the background sending their joy through the phone. I imagined them all sitting around the tree at her house, opening gifts and drinking coffee in their pajamas. It was tough being away from them, but I knew they were happy and safe, and that made me feel better about being gone. During the phone call, I tried not to make things seem as rough as they were for her sake. She doesn't like hearing that I'm sleeping outside or living off of granola and beef jerky. So I told her that I had eaten a warm meal the night before, that I've been wearing my helmet the whole time (which I wasn't), and I found a safe spot to sleep. She then asked me exactly where I slept, and without thinking, I told her I was at the Golden Nugget. She laughed and asked me if that was some dingy motel in the middle of nowhere, and I corrected her by saying that it was a hole-in-the-wall diner on the strip of Weaverville. The words spilled out of my mouth and she started to fire back with worry and excitement all at once. I spit the toothpaste from my mouth and tried to console her, but I couldn't stop laughing at how fired up she got. In the background, I could hear my uncle and dad laughing too, telling her to calm down and let me have the adventure. My dad chimed into the phone loud and clear and asked me how the food was. Everyone rolled at the question and my gut started wrenching from the laughs. I told her that everything was fine and that I was in good spirits. I then gave her the address and told her to search for it so she could see exactly where I was. My phone started to beep and a notification popped up that it was going to die. I broke through the conversation on the other end and told everyone that I had to get going. I wished them all a merry Christmas and sent them my love. Everyone in the background sent their wishes back, but my aunt spoke clear into the phone and quieted her voice to a serious tone. She told me that nothing in the world was more important than her love for me, and she said that she was thinking about me everyday. Then she said that my mother is always with me, and that she hoped the trip would bring me closer to her.

I fell silent for a moment after she finished, and I stared at the blue plastic toothbrush in my palm. A couple seconds went by before I responded, and I told her that I would call her as soon as I could. I told her that I loved her and my family more than anything, and that I would be home again soon. Just as the last word left my mouth, the phone died, and the world got quiet again. I took my water bottle and poured a bit over the bristles on the toothbrush to clean them off. The water was like daggers piercing my fingers as it ran over them, but I wicked them off and rubbed them against my jeans to warm them back up. I took the toothbrush and wrapped it into a t-shirt before stuffing it back into the bag. My body had finally adjusted to the cold, so I figured there was no point in changing my clothes. The time was 7:30am, and I had a long day of riding ahead of me, so I rolled up the sleeping bag, strapped everything back down and lead my bike out of the walkway onto the main drag. The smell of pine trees and fresh snow filled my lungs as I swung my leg over the frame and settled down onto the saddle. I put my right foot onto the peddle and took one last look at the Golden Nugget before riding off. It's funny, even to this day, two things come to mind when Christmas rolls around: snowfall gliding over street lamps and brushing my teeth. 


Thank you all for reading and joining me on my trip thus far. Over the next couple weeks, I'll be releasing other parts of the story so that you can get a sense of everything that happened along the way. More importantly, you can better understand why cycling is so important to me and why I think it matters to the world. I would love to read your comments or thoughts too about your own journeys or adventures! Feel free to post a comment below or send us an email. Thank you again for reading, and stay tuned. 

Chase MaserComment