Pavlov’s Bell

Long ago, at the beginning of this journey, I was
able to ding my bicycle bell with wild abandon,
ding, ding, ding, warning any passing stranger of
my approach.  Back then the bell made a
pleasing sound, not the jarring brrrriiiiinnnngg,
brrrrriiiiinnnggg of a child’s bell, but a simple
clear ring with each flick of the thumb.  Often, in
the process of being passed, pedestrians and
the rare cyclist would turn after hearing my polite,
happy ding and smile.  

Foolishly I installed one of these cheery bells on
Amanda’s bicycle as well.  As with anything
remotely juvenile, the bell has brought out in
Amanda the inner eight-year-old lurking just
under the surface.  She has used the accessory
so frequently and persistently that she’s caused
sever and, I fear, irreversible damage to my
psyche.

Amanda pedals about a hundred feet behind me
as we cycle down the road.  I am a bit faster on
the hills and usually wait at the top for her to
catch up.  Often we stand together straddling our
bikes at the crest, gulping down water and
surveying the view from the hill we had just
climbed.  Amanda will often curse the road
engineers in Spanish for not steamrolling the
entire country flat.  But after a brief moment’s
rest she glides forward, lifts her feet off the
pedals and coasts all the way to the bottom with
shouts of “weeeeee”.  

Regardless of the terrain I try to remain within
hailing distance so she can easily raise her
voice and chat as we move along.  Yet she
insists on using the bell to ding whenever she
needs to stop.  But not just any stop.  She rings
the bell continuously at one-second intervals,
ding, ding, ding, ding, until I find at a suitable
spot to pee.  

She’s not picky about the spot I choose, far from
it.  In fact, she’s willing to go just about
anywhere.  The other day when talking about
pee spots with a fellow cyclist (ah, the things we
talk about) she said, “Yeah, well, I just find a
bush, close my eyes and pretend I’m invisible”.  

Now, when I hear the bell I suddenly, with
uncontrollable force, become like Pavlov’s dog.  
That famous Russian psychologist tortured his
canine friends by ringing a bell just before he
gave them food.  Much like the tormented canine
I began to react with automatic response to the
dinging. They salivated all over themselves.  I
have an irrepressible urge to pee.  

With each one-second ding my suffering
increases as I frantically search for a pull-out,
tree-lined driveway, or cluster of shrubs.  Shrubs
are the best.  Unlike trees they are low to the
ground and during summer are generally green
and bushy so the passing drivers cannot see
through them.  The shrubs of Oregon provide
good all around protection and are second only
to those around the Olympic Peninsula in
Washington State.  But Washington is often
muddy.  All in all Oregon has more frequent turn-
outs, wider shoulders, and the best pee spots on
the coast.  

California, on the other hand, is a roadside
peeers nightmare.  The bushes are not very
bushy, the landscape is barren, often devoid of
any suitable coverage, and Highway 1 along the
coast has no shoulder and few turn-outs.  But in
California the roadside peeer has one more
element with which to contend, poison oak.  

Amanda had never heard the little jingle parents
in poison oak country teach their children early in
life, “Leaves of three, let them be.”  One day,
while stopped along Highway 1 in Northern
California Amanda yelled from her hideaway,
“Finally, some good shrubs to use as
camouflage.”  I was too busy taking care of my
own business to notice where she had
disappeared.

Immediately after remounting her bicycle she
said, “I think I was bitten by a spider in those
bushes.”  A red welt began to creep up the back
of her right calf.  She looked at her leg in
confusion.  Then her left leg began to itch and
flame.  She started to freak out,  “Richard,
something’s wrong with my legs?”

I poured a little of our precious water on her
spreading rash but the burning continued to
creep upward.  “What is this?  Rich, what’s
happening to my legs?”

Up crept the red welts and I kept thinking I should
have looked more carefully when choosing the
pee spot.  I watched as it inched up to the level
of her shorts, praying for it to stop there.   

“What is it?” she yelped.  “Why are my legs
burning?”  She became frantic, clawing at her
legs.  

“Ah, well, it, ah could be…” I said as I wiped her
calves with damp toilet paper.

“What….what… what is it?” she demanded.

“It might be poison oak.” I blurted.”

“Poison oak?  Poison oak!  POISON OAK!  Why
would you choose a field of poison oak as our
pee stop?” She yelled.

“I, ah, I was in such a hurry I didn’t notice,” I
stammered.  “But look, I think it stopped
spreading.  It’s only on your legs.” I said, pulling
the band of her shorts from her leg.  

“Only on my legs?  It hasn’t stopped.  My legs
feel like they’re on fire!”  I could see her mind
whizzing, then she hit me with a barrage of
questions, “What’s the poison in poison oak?
Can I cycle with poison oak?  Will I have to go to
the doctor?  Will it do permanent damage?”

Determined to get her back on her bicycle I lied
shamelessly. “Oh, it’s no big deal. It will go away
in a few minutes.” As long as she believed me
she would get back on her bike and start
pedaling.  Sliding her foot into the toe straps she
began to inch forward and said, “Oh, your right.  
It’s feeling better already.”

The current of air somehow soothed the itch and
I tried to keep her in forward motion but the
roadside offered a continuous temptation to
stop.  Wild blackberries, ripe, plump, and sweet,
dangled from their vines out into road and
Amanda stopped every time she saw them.  She
carried a few old quart sized yogurt containers in
her pack for just such an occasion.

Throughout Northern California Highway 1 is
lined with blackberry bushes bursting like prickly
weeds of temptation.  Caltrans fights a constant
war with these thorny vines, sending legions of
soldiers armed with mowers and weed
whackers to cut back the snaring branches that
snag unsuspecting cyclists.  Balanced on the
white line like a tightrope between speeding
cars and these barbed branches, Amanda dings
her bell uncontrollably whenever she spies a
cluster bursting with berries.    

Professional blackberry pickers wear special
thornproof suits, much like the rubber waders of
a fly fisherman, allowing them to move freely
through the bushes.  When she spies a bunch of
plump berries Amanda forgets that her spandex
shorts and cycling top do not provide the same
level of protection.  Tempted by one plump
sweet berry after another she plunges ever
deeper into the brush, numbed by desire to the
scratching at her flesh.  

At the campsite one morning, while devouring a
bowl full of fresh berries for breakfast Amanda
looked at her shredded legs with spider webs of
red scratches and said, “Richard, you’ve got to
stop me before I throw myself into the berry
bushes.  I can only pick from the ones close to
the road.  Really, I mean it.”   

I knew it was useless and said so, “You know
you have no self control.  The moment we see a
berry bush you’re going to dive in no matter what
I say.”

Offended, she got up from the picnic table,
walked to her bicycle and said, “No leaves of
three, so I can pee.” Then she looked me in the
eye while she flicked her thumb on the bell,
“ding, ding, ding” before walking toward the
campsite restroom.

Obediently I followed a few steps behind.
The Bell
Weeeeeeee
Northern California Campsite
Searching for Some Privacy on
Highway 1
Leaves of Three, Let Them Be
Berry Picking
Blackberries
Berry Picking Leg
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