February 1, 2019
Back Road Brainstorming
By: Bill Oetinger
This column is about creativity; about the process of creating something new and fresh…something that adds to the sum of our experience and perhaps makes the world a tiny bit different. Before you begin to worry if this is going to be about bikes, let me reassure you that the form of creativity I am considering today has to do with dreaming up bike routes.
The verb “create” means “to bring something into existence.” Its origins are from the Latin “creare” (”to produce”) and from Middle English: “form out of nothing.” The adjective “creative” and the noun “ceativity” both mean “relating to or involving imagination or original ideas.” All of that seems about right for where I’m going with this.
The words are now rather tired old workhorses in our vocabulary. They can apply to anything from a clever ad campaign to an innovative real estate development; from a wily financial ploy to a new offensive formation in football. All those uses are valid and acceptable, although my own take on creativity is that it should have some artistic context.
I like to think I know a little about creativity. I have spent most of a long career toiling away as either an illustrator or a writer. (Not a great or famous artist but competent at my craft.) However, my point today has only a little to do with those areas of allegedly creative or artistic activity. The type of creativity I’m considering now is the laying out of bike routes and in particular the extended, multi-day tour. I’m guessing some of you may say, “What’s so special about laying out a bike ride? I do that every week.” That’s a good question and a valid point of view, as far as it goes. But mostly in this column I’m thinking about tour routes, far from home. Rather than just throwing together a loop along the same old roads in our own backyards—something we do all the time—a multi-day tour in a far off region brings all sorts of more complicated issues into play. And that’s where it blossoms into the realm of creativity.
Mostly I lay out tours for the members of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. Now we have not only the basic bike rides to plan but also the logistics involved in the overnights and the care and feeding of 40-plus people moving through an unknown piece of country. Having planned over 30 such tours, everywhere from Northern Oregon to Northern Italy, from Southern Utah to Southern France, I can tell you they are challenging to pull together. (I’ll set aside for this discussion most of the more tedious aspects of the logistics, except to note that, if the stages are going to work, we need to find viable overnight accommodations between each stage: campgrounds, motels, even a high school football field. Somewhere we can pitch our tents or dive into beds, and where we can either prepare our own dinners or head out on the town, foraging in the local restaurants. Don’t underestimate the importance of good overnights spaced out around a tour route in convenient spots. On a multi-day tour, all the best roads amount to nothing without them.)
I got to thinking about tour planning as a creative, even artistic process recently while laying out a tour in Northern Oregon with the Historic Columbia River Highway as its marquee attraction. I had planned, organized, and staged a similar tour back in 2007. It was an epic adventure but also pretty darn hard: 90 miles a day for seven days, with hills, heat, and headwinds in abundance. A dozen years later and a dozen years older, that much work seems like more than I or most of my friends want to contemplate anymore. But the best parts of the tour, especially the Columbia River section, were so awesome! The idea of reinventing it kept simmering away on some back burner in my bike brain and then, in a flash of inspiration I hadn’t seen coming, it occurred to me out how to shorten and massage the stages to get them down to around 60 miles a day for seven stages.
After that first brain wave, the really creative part kicked in: a few days of fine-tuning the first premise; of drilling down into the little roads and the possible camps and hotels and all the other elements along the way. This is where it really starts to feel like art or creativity as vital and pure as anything a painter or author or composer might tackle. I’m not saying the final tour is on a par with a Pieta or a Starry Night or a Bach concerto, but in the world of tours it will be its own sort of masterpiece…as good as tours get.
Are you familiar with the term flow-state? It’s used to describe a time when, whatever we’re doing, it all comes together in some perfect, in-the-moment synergy; when time seems to slow down and everything becomes effortless and beautiful and dynamic. I like to think it’s what’s going on when Steph Curry all of a sudden starts draining threes as easily as tossing pebbles in a pond. How does he do that? The same flow-state or something like it is at play in most creative efforts: inspiration strikes and the artist revs up into a fever of productivity. The words spill down the page, the paint flies… They forget about lunch, then dinner, then sleep. The moment is too charged with that vital spark to give way for anything as mundane as everyday life. It is the ultimate intoxicant and wickedly addictive.
Once again, not to conflate my own experience with that of a great artist or even with a Curry Flurry, I will still assert that when it comes to poring over maps and puzzling out dinky roads through the woods—considering climbs and descents, paving and scenery, traffic and distances—I too end up in that flow-state where I don’t want to stop…can’t stop, almost…locked in, pumped up, in the zone. It’s just too much fun, and doubly fun because I know that when all the puzzle pieces have been put in place, I’ll have a tour that will be a blast to ride, for me and for anyone else who wants to come along. Some folks might say that’s not really art. I say they haven’t been there to experience the process and they probably have not done the tour that spins out the other end of that frenetic, creative whirlwind.
The “art” of laying out bike routes is not anything that is going to capture the world’s attention. Cycle-touring guide books don’t end up on best-seller lists and millions of newly minted riders don’t clog up the little roads through the back country. It’s our little secret. Few people would ever stop to consider it as any form of art or even as modestly clever creativity. But when it’s done well, it is most certainly a creative event and a lively, magical one at that. I guess my point is this: if you go on a bike tour this year and if, out in the middle of some exotic wonderland, you ask yourself, “How the hell did they find these roads?”…then you might want to tip your hat to someone who had a flash of creativity in the little world of back road brainstorming.
Bill can be reached at email@example.com