Why would anyone go on a 350-mile bike ride through far Northern California and Southern Oregon, suffering through 10 days of oatmeal and sleeping on hard ground every night?

For me, there were two basic reasons: Getting away from the routine of home with its limited and predictable experiences, and traveling into a realm of new experiences, some good, some bad, expected and unexpected. The other reason, paradoxically, is to gain a renewed appreciation for the comforts of home, something that inevitably comes after all those days of oatmeal and sleeping on hard ground.

On this trip, undertaken in early summer, I headed from my home in Dunsmuir up to Yreka, then followed the Klamath River to the coast, hopping over the coastal mountains at Weitchpec, where the Trinity River flows into the Klamath, pedaled northward to Crescent City, veering inland to Grants Pass, and finishing the trip in Ashland, where I luxuriated in a motel room with hot showers, reunited with my wife Sandra, and saw a wonderful play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival about how Shakespeare’s plays were painstakingly put together in the now-classic folio edition.

‘Sweat Aplenty’

Scenes and experiences from the trip are still jumbled together in my mind: Breathtaking views of the deep-cut Klamath River gorge as I cycled on Highway 96, blissfully soaking in that river after a day pedaling in 100-degree heat; the family of four elk hiking on the shoulder of Highway 101; and later that same day, around midnight, throwing my mat and sleeping bag on the ground, bivouacking in a forest, after discovering that a campground was full.

What was the story behind all those white crosses on someone’s lawn along the Klamath highway – someone’s private pet cemetery? And then there was that touch of humor, just down the road, in the sign over someone’s small ranch: “Rancho Costa Sweat Aplenty.”

Some of the more colorful images from the trip were the marvelous bear sculptures, in all sorts of attitudes and postures, adorning the downtown streets of Grants Pass. There’s a kayaker bear, a baker bear, an “artiste” bear painting a portrait of another bear, and, of course, a logger bear.

Homeless on the edge of town

The homeless, the vagabonds, young and old, were a constant presence on this trip, one of them a young man at Aiken Creek campground where I stayed just before climbing over a summit to the coast. He was having unspecified “woman and truck problems.” Temporarily stranded at the campground, he’d had plenty of time to study the movements of the cougar perched on a peak high above the campground as he surveyed the terrain for deer down below.

The transient population seemed pretty well established at Schroeder Park, the campground just outside Grants Pass where I stayed for two nights. They walked, and sometimes bicycled, endlessly back and forth on the narrow gravel road that ran along the campground and down to the nearby Rogue River. When you’re homeless and jobless you have to occupy your time somehow, and a lot of that seems to involve walking and talking and smoking.

I won’t give you all the details here, but I know the life story of one of my Schroeder Park neighbors, a man named Corey, age 39, son of a Utah coal miner, a born-again Christian and proud father of a nine-year-old, board-breaking Karate champ daughter.

Corey came out here recently from a small town in Utah to start a new life. He found a job working at a carwash in Grants Pass. While he tries to find affordable housing in town, he’s paying ten dollars a night to share a camp site with his companion, Dave, age 41, who also works at the carwash.

Corey seemed to have a compelling need to tell me his story, and I think it will stay with me for a long time to come. For one thing, there’s a mystery to it, a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing – how do two apparently hardworking guys end up living in tents in a scruffy campground on the edge of town? We tend to view the homeless through the neat prism of mental, drug and alcohol problems, but that doesn’t work for Corey and Dave. What’s the explanation for their situation?

Firecracker Queens on parade

Onward to Ashland: good food, wine, ice cream, hot showers, a renewed appreciation for all that makes life worth living. Oh, and the Firecracker Queens.

The Firecracker Queens were part of Ashland’s old-fashioned July 4th parade. Ashland's parade harks back to a time when there were more people in parades, more time and energy spent on floats adorned with beauty queens, more marching bands, not endless lines of emergency vehicles tooting their horns.

As you might expect from a place like Ashland, people energy and creativity were hallmarks of its parade, and all of that reached its zenith with the Firecracker Queens, a troupe of about 30 ladies of a certain age who sported garish blue wigs and bright red dresses. All along the parade route they strutted and danced to a Motown-infused soul recording. Seeing a 70-something lady strutting her stuff on a hot July 4th afternoon makes your spirit soar.

Other highlights were a Scottish piper band, live Celtic music from a six-piece string band riding on a float, and members of the local YMCA branch dancing to, you guessed it, “YMCA.”

The day was capped off by a program in the town’s sprawling Lithia Park, at the bandshell, with a performance of patriotic songs by the Ashland City Band, and a thoughtful speech by Ashland Mayor John Stromberg about how democracy works in a small town.

As it turned out, I needed Ashland there at the end of my trip, with its creative energy and optimism, with its Firecracker Queens and its thoughtful, well-spoken mayor, as a counterweight to the haunting image of two working guys living in tents in a barren campground, and that of homeless men and women traipsing endlessly up and down that gravel road.