Photograph by Jason Baldwin
UNFETTERED YOUTH: While subsisting wholly on found or foraged foods, the author gained eight pounds. Better, in over two months of travel, he spent less than $150, total.
Geography of Abundance
One man’s two-month quest to travel the state of California by bike, eating only what he can find or forage. He learns to really, really love the lowly fig. This is his story.
By Alastair Bland
I tend to value the advice of the elderly. Five years ago on a solo hitchhiking trip in Alaska, I met an old man who commended me for traveling while I was young. “Don’t wait till winter to do what you should have done in summer or fall,” he advised.
I am now 25, and in mid-August of this year, I was aware that another summer of my life was slipping away, and I got the urge to travel. But I was working and enrolled in graduate school for September; this just wasn’t the time for an adventure. Yet time, I reasoned, is priceless, and school can always wait until winter. I promptly quit my job with a temp agency and withdrew from the anthropology program at the University of Anchorage.
My plan was to leave on a 2,000-mile bicycle tour of the state. I’ve read many books about California’s rural farm country. Robert Louis Stevenson, William Saroyan and John Steinbeck have each honored this land in ink, but I figured it was about time that I got out and experienced it for myself, reasoning that the most enjoyable way to do it would be by bicycle.
In California, the nation’s fruit basket, fall’s harvest is when the bulk of the bounty ripens and spills over, much of it wasted. I thought it would be exciting to try to live solely off of found and foraged food during my journey. I would never enter a store if I could help it. I would not trespass or steal. I would only eat that which was available in public places or given to me freely, and I would get to taste all the natural flavors of California.
Of course, I would need some means of making wine. I packed extra socks as filters and a special Nalgene bottle for my winemaking efforts and stocked up on vintner’s yeast at the local brewing supplies shop, thus giving me nature’s miracle of fermentation securely contained in a tidy foil packet.
And so, while the grapes filled out and grew heavy on the vines, I put myself to the task of getting onto the road. I stay reasonably fit through jogging and occasional weekend rides on my bike, so the main preparation involved my equipment. I took my used 21-speed mountain bike to the local shop for a quick brake job. When the man there learned of my plans, he advised me to invest in a brand-new road bike. Mine was in bad shape, he said, and would probably conk out within 300 miles. I told him I would think about it, but I already knew that nothing would suffocate the rustic spirit of this adventure quite like squandering all my savings on a new bicycle. I rode my used one home and rigged it up for travel with three wire baskets.
My gear was spare and simple, and with two bungee cords, I had no trouble getting it all secured to my bike. I packed a sleeping bag, a plastic tarp, some bike tools, my wallet, a book of maps, Thoreau’s Walden and, to keep myself presentable, a razor and toothbrush.
A few days before I left, I contacted the California Fig Growers Association in Fresno. In the past, I had noticed huge fig trees growing along various highways in the Central Valley, and I wanted to know if I could expect to find such trees in other regions as well.
“Figs grow all over the place,” the man on the phone assured. “They get away from the orchards and grow wild along the highways and in fields.” He was amused by my whole idea, and the day before I left, I received a package of a few dried figs for the road and a pair of beige T-shirts reading, “California Figs: The Fitness Fruit.”
Thus equipped, my dad drove me across the bay and to the crest of the Berkeley hills on Monday, Aug. 23. I got out and took the bike from our minivan. I wished he could have joined me—at least for a day—but my dad is a man with a sense of duty sharper than mine; summer after summer slips by and he never stops working to support the family. I often hope he’ll have no regrets when he’s an old man.
We parted after a few photos and a hug, and I rolled off down the east slope, bound for the sweltering Delta country. I was immediately on the lookout for food. I pedaled for 30 miles, riding through the quiet residential neighborhoods as much as possible, before I found my first fig tree in the town of Antioch. It was growing from someone’s front garden and was surrounded by lovely flowers and trimmed shrubs, but the figs were all just splattering on the sidewalk. I filled a plastic bag with them and rode the last 10 miles to Brannan Island State Park.
Figs are a rich, solid food, and even after a day of exertion, a dinner consisting of nothing else was filling. I’d found some ripe, purple grapes that afternoon in a public park, and before bed I started my first batch of wine. At a picnic table, I smashed the fruit by hand, then poured a quart of juice into my Nalgene bottle. I added a pinch of yeast, and by morning the bottle seemed on the verge of exploding. I gently loosened the cap, and a pressurized burst of aroma, both sour and sweet, hit my nostrils. The grog inside was frothing violently—it had become a living thing—and the sudden vitality was encouraging. This journey was coming to life.
For the next week, I traveled an easy 50 or 60 miles per day, visiting friends in Sacramento and Davis, and then shot west, over the hills and into the Napa valley.
“And the wine is bottled poetry,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote many years ago of this region, when the local winemaking was still being developed. My own soupy wine, though, was more like a child’s chemistry experiment than poetry, and for amusement, I often brought the sticky, pressurized bottle into wineries. I would thump it down on the tasting-room counter and open the cap. I invited the sharply dressed sales folks to sample it, but they never cared to. I was always glad to try their wine, though. It was passable, I suppose, but the prices were outrageous. To charge almost $200 for a single bottle of grog is crazy. I aimed to spend half that on my entire journey.
Fruit abounded in Napa and Sonoma counties. I passed scores of fig trees, and thousands of pounds of fruit lay rotting on the roadsides. I salvaged all that I could. I strung figs out on fishing lines in camp to dry, flavored my wine with them and feasted on them every night.
After a few days in the wine country, I rode back into the Central Valley and north along the Sacramento River. My bike rode smoothly and seemed in good health, despite the dire prediction by the San Francisco mechanic, and I was pleased with its performance. I was pleased with the results of my wine, too, and each day at lunch I sat under a tree and washed down my food with a healthy draught from the bottle.
The bounty of fruit seemed never to end. Several times every day, huge and prolific fig trees appeared in the distance. Some of them clearly hadn’t been trimmed in decades and were the size of barns. It was easy to distinguish their thick, bushy foliage from the surrounding greenery, and I was soon able to identify a large fig tree a thousand feet away. Sometimes, too, their distinct fragrance was strong on the breeze, and I would come to a sudden stop to look around and locate the source of the smell. I felt certain that on this trip, I would never go hungry. I even began putting on the pounds.
As I neared the north end of the Sacramento Valley, Mt. Shasta to the north loomed higher and higher, and mountains funneled in from the east and west and brought me to a halt in Redding. I stayed three days with my grandmother, then returned downstream through California’s greatest watershed.
The mountains lapsed away from me again, leaving me at peace on the broad, fertile flatlands. It was easy traveling in the valley, and to go 40 miles before noon was no great feat. The only hardship was the triple-digit heat. Every day I entered gas stations and fast-food joints or knocked on the doors of private residences to ask for water.
One day in early September, I looked off a bridge into the Feather River and saw hundreds of bright king salmon in the current below. For years I have lived on a mostly vegetarian diet, but with my muscles aching and the fish below me, I was seized by a craving for protein. Fortunately, the almond harvest was on in the local orchards. Shipment trucks were coming and going, and thousands of nuts fallen overboard in transit littered the pavement. I scooped up handfuls, but the thought of salmon continued to haunt me.
As one travels south from Sacramento, the land grows arid. Irrigation canals bring life to the plains, and I saw pomegranate groves, persimmon orchards and commercial kiwi vines. It was strictly against my principles to steal fruit, but I assured myself that I didn’t need to; figs spilled over the fences.
One day, though, I caved to temptation. My heart beating fast, I ducked furtively through a barbed wire fence to snag a ripe persimmon from the ground. It was soft and lovely, but I was immediately overcome with shame. I stood at the roadside and regarded the fruit like it was an apple from the Garden. I was disgusted with myself. I threw the persimmon as far as I could back into the orchard and rode quickly away.
Photograph by Alastair Bland
DELTA DINING : While wine bubbles thickly in recycled bottles, green figs offer cool solace for the evening meal.
Legal places to camp are scarce beyond Fresno. I’d slept two consecutive nights in ditches when, one evening near Porterville, I decided to try seeking lodging at a roadside farm. Skeptics had told me that friendly strangers no longer exist in America, but I had faith in the traditional benevolence of the human heart. At the first door I knocked on I was met with compassion.
“You can sleep out back of the house,” the woman assured me, but her husband added a word of caution regarding their herd of longhorns. “They’re ornery with people they don’t know,” he said, “and they come around at dawn.”
I was thrilled to not be sleeping in another ditch, but I was worried about those longhorns. Sure enough, I awoke to the morning breath of four huge bovines. They were sniffing at me as they encircled me with their horns. I baby-talked in a musical voice to the beasts while I carefully packed away my sleeping bag, and then, before they could say “Moo,” I sneaked right out from under their noses and was closing the gate behind me.
The following day, I continued south, entering a new landscape. The flat land was brown and the air suffocating. Temperatures were near 110 degrees. Food was scarce, and oil is clearly king. Amid the cotton fields and savage little dust devils, oil pumps see-saw for miles to the driving rhythm of our economy. This desolate country was a far and barren cry from the lush valley of the great Sacramento, with its jungles of figs and cottonwoods flanking the river, where the rice paddies and wetlands seemed endless.
I abandoned my plan to visit Bakersfield, and abruptly cut west. Disenchanted with this land of Saroyan, my sights were now set on the distant hills. They were brown and scorched like the valley I was in, but over those peaks I knew there would be streams and vineyards, coastal fog and avocado orchards.
The grass was indeed far greener on the other side, but because of my self-imposed restrictions on trespassing and stealing, the fruit trees were well out of reach. I found a can of tuna and some walnuts, and I arrived in San Luis Obispo at an old friend’s house that evening completely famished. I explained to my host that I was foraging my way across the state, eating food that would otherwise just go to waste.
“I’ve actually gained weight,” I said, patting my belly and flexing my quadriceps. He opened the pantry. “Forage in here,” he said. “We’ve got tons of stuff that we’ll never eat.”
I stepped up to the doorway and was faced with a wall of canned treats. There was coconut milk, pumpkin pie mix and water chestnuts, but like a grizzly bear grown tired of berries, I wanted meat. I saw a big can of salmon and seized it.
I relaxed in a sofa chair that night and dined like an exiled king on tinned salmon and red wine, but the following day was miserable. I left early in the morning, planning on arriving at Isla Vista, 110 miles away and the home of my undergraduate days, that night. For 30 miles, I ate walnuts, quickly devouring my supply.
The green countryside was strangely fruitless. I went up and down huge grades, scanning the trees along the road, but this was unsettled hill country of brown grass and chaparral; fruit trees had never been planted here. I tried eating an acorn, but the tannins puckered up my mouth like a green persimmon. I have never been so hungry.
After 70 miles, I spotted three unopened ketchup packets on the shoulder of the highway. I jumped off the bike and fell upon them. I tore them open and squeezed out every last drop. While the flavor lingered on my tongue I read the ingredients off of the foil packets: high fructose corn syrup, xantham gum, vinegar. The words chimed sweetly in my head, and I experienced a half minute of bliss. But I had burned thousands of calories and needed real food. I got back on the bike. At the Gaviota Coastline, I still had 20 miles to go, and I collapsed in misery in the roadside grass. I was finished. I couldn’t understand it. This was the land of plenty, of fabulous fruits and wine!
Of wine . . . Then I remembered my wine. I had a quart of frothing grape juice in my rear-side basket. I seized the bottle, opened the top and had a long drink of the best wine I have ever tasted. I kept drinking, and in just minutes I had downed nearly all of the thick grog. I was refreshed now, if a little tipsy, and for the home stretch, I rode happily along the freeway. In town, I went up and down the familiar avenues of my past and picked five pounds of beautiful figs before I rolled into my friends’ ground-floor apartment. I immediately collapsed on the couch, finished my wine and ate figs until my stomach was taught.
It was green trees and sunshine all the way down the coast to L.A. Avocados, fallen over fences onto public land, were easy to find. My rear baskets were full of them when, in Malibu, I encountered a tree of sapotes, or custard apples. True to the name, this fruit tastes just like custard, and I happily dumped avocados at the roadside to make room for them. There could have been no better trade.
After two nights with friends in L.A., I left for Newport Beach. Los Angeles is undeniably huge. For a full 70 miles, I rode south through an urban jungle of traffic, congestion and barbed-wire fences. I saw guavas, bananas and tropical pitaya fruits, but I was in no mood for foraging. I was in the notorious South Central ganglands, and I stopped only for red lights—and once for a cop who flagged me over in Long Beach. He directed me into a vacant lot, asked if I was riding a stolen bike and where I had lived in the past. My clothes were worn, my cargo was dirty bags and bottles, and he clearly thought I was a vagrant. He told me to ride out of town and not come back.
In the squeaky-clean suburbs of Newport Beach, I had my eye out for cops. I was nervous as a rabbit, and only when I got to the door of my friend’s home did I feel safe and secure.
Staying in other people’s homes should have been a treat, but I began to enjoy it less and less. Back in Isla Vista, I stayed with friends for almost an entire week. It was Monday when I arrived, and my hosts wanted me to stay for a party on Friday night. Every day that week, they came and went, answered phone calls and got up early for work, while I, the foraging bicyclist, was always just there—a dirty, transient presence.
I washed dishes and pulled weeds from the garden every day to earn my place on the couch, but I felt distinctly that this was not my proper niche in society. When I left on Saturday morning, a wave of comfort and familiarity washed over me as soon as I resumed my solitary way.
Photograph by Alastair Bland
LONG VALLEY : The author’s bike and gear in Steinbeck country, south of Hollister.
All the figs on earth could not have lured me back onto the scorched flatlands northwest of Bakersfield, but I didn’t want to ride the 101 highway in the Salinas Valley, either. I poured over my map in search of an alternate route and took particular notice of a thin red line that cut away from the highway around Paso Robles. It veered northeast through a low mountain range and would eventually lead me into the Hollister valley. For a hundred miles, though, there appeared to be nothing along this route of human origin but the road itself.
This land, if anywhere there is such a place, was Steinbeck country. I had never given much thought to where exactly his stories took place. I now felt certain, though, that these lonely hills were the land east of Eden, of the red pony and of a god unknown. There was even a “Long Valley” on the map. I pedaled onward through the quiet country with a profound sense of discovery.
I wished this country could have stretched on forever, but two days later I rode north into the bustle of Hollister. There were strip malls, subdivisions and greasy food, but there were also nice prickly pears and figs. I foraged in vacant lots and along the roadside, and when I was ready, I merged onto Highway 152 to tackle the Pacheco Pass. I went up a thousand feet on the shoulder of the freeway, then down the east side. Hundreds of cars screamed by at 80 mph. There were human beings, like me, inside them all, but they seemed of a different world—a world fast, mean and powerful. Many people honked or gave me the finger as they roared past. At the bottom, I turned into the San Luis Reservoir campground, paid my $2 fee and slept there the night.
I had come 1,500 miles by now, and my bike, which should not have made it 300 miles, was still rolling. Other than a few flat tires and an odd clinking noise coming from the back gears, the bicycle gave me no grief.
I was back in the great harvest land, the Central Valley, but harvest was nearly over. It was almost October now, and the valley’s fruit trees were barren. After a month in lush avocado country, it felt like I had come back to a deserted battlefield. The land seemed very quiet. Like casualties of war, there were sad mounds of rotted figs and pears on the ground, and the vineyards were all picked clean. For two days, I lived on feeder corn and walnuts.
Then, between the Delta and Sacramento, the land abruptly changed. Food was in high abundance, and as I rode along the winding levee roads, in the shade of the river trees, I gathered so many edibles that by the time I reached the bustle of Sacramento I was struggling to negotiate corners and stop lights. My front basket was piled high with Zinfandel grapes, my rear right with figs and my rear left with a jar of honey and some sweet corn given to me by a farmer. Like the nervous captain of a bogged-down ship throwing the horses overboard, I had no choice but to start dumping my walnuts.
Back in the wine country, I had come full circle and was just a day’s ride from home. Put off by the thought of ending the trip, I fled northward. I rode 100 miles, past Cloverdale to the redwood country on Highway 128. The grade became painfully steep in places, but I dropped down to my lowest gears and managed to inch my way up to the crest without resting. The following day, I hit the chilly Pacific Coast and turned onto on Highway 1. The Russian River was only 60 miles due south, but on the winding pavement the day became another 100-miler. I ate 50 walnuts and a dozen pears, and 12 hours after starting, I arrived at a private campground in Duncans Mills on Highway 116.
I was exhausted and it was beginning to rain, but the day was behind me. I was giddy with relief as I entered the campground office to pay my dues, but when the girl at the desk discovered that I had no tent, she told me I would have to leave. “Primitive camping isn’t allowed here,” she explained.
There was a line of well-dressed RV campers waiting behind me, and I glanced back at them hopefully, thinking that someone might show some compassion and take me in for the night. I hadn’t shaved or showered in days, though, and faced by this primitive man, the men and women just fidgeted awkwardly.
The desk girl sighed. “Look, if you don’t leave, security will kick you out.”
I could not believe this injustice—a harmless bicyclist was being exiled from a campground on a rainy night! Heartbroken and furious, I spat on the building as I stomped out. I was starving now, but sheer anger fueled me onward. All the way down the road I shouted epithets at the world. Sonoma State Beach was fortunately just three miles down the highway, and for $2 I got a quiet campsite in the trees. I ate fruit, nuts and honey in a light drizzle, then crawled under my picnic table and fell immediately asleep.
FIGS ARE GOOD FOOD : Even after he’d eaten hundreds of them. . . .
Photograph by Alastair Bland
The rain passed, another hot spell descended on the country and my spirits climbed high. I still did not want to end the trip, so I visited an old friend from college in Healdsburg. As soon as I walked in the door he smiled at my shirt. “‘The Fitness Fruit.’ I didn’t know you liked figs.”
“They’re all right,” I answered.
“Figs rock!” he said, somewhat surprisingly. “Hey, I know where there’s a huge fig tree. It’s in the front garden of a winery, and I know the owners. The figs are big as apples, but they just let ’em go to waste.”
We hopped into his car, an old Dodge Charger, and I asked if I could drive it. The engine was sweetly powerful. It backfired like a shotgun when I hit the gas and we roared down the street on our quest for figs. The earth shook, and in the crosswalk ahead, a mother with her two kids scowled at me.
The winery was only a few blocks away. “There it is, in the garden. Pull over,” he ordered, but I’d already seen the tree. It was 30 feet tall, nicely trimmed and surrounded by bougainvillea and blooming flowers. We jumped out with our bags, giddy like little boys going fishing, but as we approached the branches our smiles faded.
“They’re all gone,” my friend observed quietly. On the ground were the remains of the uneaten crop. He was right; they’d been huge figs, but the very last of them were now rotting away and fermenting back into the earth.
Don’t wait till winter to do what you should’ve done in summer or fall,” said an elderly man to an impressionable youth. It was well into October now, but the California summer had not slipped by me. I’d tasted all its sweet flavors—the figs, the wine and the blue skies—but winter was finally scratching at autumn’s door. The days were shorter, the season’s grapes were all in the wine vats by now and my own bottle had run empty for the last time. I knew that if I lingered on too long, just riding in circles, the sweetness of the journey would turn sour.
I wished that I could have gone on forever and that the road had no end, but on Oct. 13, I rolled sadly through the Napa Valley. I went through Marin, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back into foggy San Francisco. I turned up my parents’ street, climbed their front stairs and opened the door to the house I’d grown up in. It was over.
I had been gone almost two months, had traveled 2,500 miles, but as it always is after a long trip, it felt like I’d never even been away.
From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.