✨💕I am in Puerto Rico from Feb 20, 2018-Mar 20, 2018 doing a joint impact + adventure project:
1) I am attempting to circumnavigate the island on as much coastline as I can string together by fat bike and packraft, solo and self-supported, in an effort to document the recovery of Puerto Rico six months post Hurricane Maria and raise awareness of the support still needed here.
2) I am spending some time with my friend Nelfer who lives in Isabela helping with the relief efforts he has been spearheading since the Hurricane Maria disaster in August.
🌀 If you feel inspired to support us in helping the people of Puerto Rico via a financial gift, you can donate to my GoFundMe account:
Thank you!! Follow me on Instagram @liz.sampey for frequent updates. ✨💕
My eyes blinked open at 7 am. They felt like lead weights and I felt hungover even though I had only enjoyed a couple of beers. But traveling through time zones hits me hard, and to me it felt like 3 am. After jet lag kept me up way too late enjoying my rainy ukulele session the night before I was determined not to sleep the entire morning away. I pressed snooze once and then hauled myself out of bed and out to my bike.
It took me longer than usual to pack up (for those of you who have ever traveled with me you know I am pretty much the slowest packer on the planet) because of wanting to be a perfectionist in distributing the weight the most efficiently on my bike. This was my first time ever bikepacking alone; usually I have a friend or two to share the group gear with, but this time I would carry it all.
In addition to the normal bikepacking/camping gear I am also carrying a packraft: a Hornet Lite from Kokopelli, designed for short river crossings and greenwater paddling. When I realized I would have to cross rivers to stay as consistently as possible on coastline I sent a mildly frantic email to Kelley asking him if he could rush deliver me a boat two weeks before the trip. I already have the whitewater-designed Nirvana raft that I used for my Alaskan expedition last summer, which was great for... well, whitewater, but it would be overkill for this trip where I am only expecting to do crossings and calm paddling (hopefully, ha). The Hornet Lite is less than five pounds and takes up much less space than the Nirvana with its full spray deck and skirt. With the packraft I am also carrying a four piece paddle, and the inflator bag. No PFD on this trip. I am banking on not needing one as I have taken up every inch of space on my extra small bike frame. If the water looks too rough or difficult to navigate, I will elect to head inland.
Anyways. Because of my excessively tiny bike frame and my lack of partner to share the load with, I was obsessive about my packing style. When I was finally satisfied I set off for Old San Juan. My plan was to paddle across the bay between San Juan and Catano as opposed to riding around the bay through the busy city. However, it has been unseasonably windy in Puerto Rico recently and today was no different. The bay is also the shipping channel that boats much bigger than mine are steaming through multiple times per day. So I was optimistic, but a bit reserved about the crossing. It was over a mile wide and I did not want to get steamrolled by a giant cruise ship or blown out to sea.
Stephen rode out with me to see me off across the bay, and he led me through the city streets on a tour of beautiful Old San Juan. We had lunch at his friend's cafe, Spiga Cafe, which is absolutely delicious for both food and coffee. This is also where I got my first look at the bay. The winds were gusty and there were whitecaps. I could not tell how big the waves were that were breaking on the other side of the bay, as I would be landing near where the bay opened up into ocean. I do not have a PFD. Wanting to avoid a disaster on Day 1, I called off the plan to paddle the bay. Fortunately, unknown to me, there was a ferry that took pedestrians across to Catano and they were willing to take me with my bicycle. It cost me an entire fifty cents for the 8 minute ride. I was slightly disappointed that I wouldn't be paddling the bay but I knew it was a good decision.
On the boat, I met a friendly man named Doel who is a photographer. We chatted through the ferry ride and talked about my mission. He warned me to be careful, that there is still a lot of instability in Puerto Rico since the hurricane. People are used to living pretty comfortably here and now there are many who find themselves without much of anything. Because of this situation people have been thrown into that they are not accustomed to, he says, some people have gone a little crazy. Understandably. I thanked him for his words of caution, and he pointed me in the right direction as we got off the ferry. I pedaled west in the direction of Isabela.
The town I started in after the ferry, Catano, was one of the hardest hit by the hurricane. Many homes were destroyed and it is estimated that 50% of the population of Catano are still homeless. There was a bike path right on the coast, and I jumped onto it. It was quite the sight. Many sections looked like a giant shark had come and taken a bite right out of the path and into the surrounding greenbelt. And this was not the open ocean: this was in the protected territory of the bay. I bumped and wove my way through the debris along the path.
After I had ridden about 12 miles I stopped at a gas station to fill my fuel bottle for my stove. I approached a woman filling her tank, and explained to her in Spanish what I was doing: that I needed only a little fuel for this bottle and could I pay her to put some in there? She agreed, and I filled my little bottle. It cost forty-six cents and she told me not to worry about it and wished me good luck.
The trials begin
It was about that time that I realised I had lost one of my sandals off the back of my bike. Shit. I do not want to have to wear my running shoes the entire time I am here. I had elected last-minute to pedal in flats, not wanting to carry extra pairs of shoes around and wanting the freedom of being able to go running or hiking whenever I want. So I was pedaling in my La Sportiva Bushido mountain running shoes, which actually are great to pedal in as the midsole is quite stiff for mountain running. They have less flex than my hiking shoes so they earned the job. But I was not about to be on a tropical island without my sandals, so back I went. I thought they must not be far away so I just retraced my steps. And rode an entire 6 miles back to nearly where the ferry dropped me off. No sandal. Damn.
I scrolled back through my camera to the photo I had taken of my bike just after I left Doel. I zoomed in. The sandals were both there. Okay, I know they had both made it off the ferry. I slowly rode back along the degraded bike path, sure that it had fallen off there with all the bumps and maneuvers I had to do to avoid falling into the water. No sandal. Ugh, WHY didn't I clip them onto the bike with a carabiner?
As I was about to reach the gas station again, I gave up. I was not going to spend all day looking for this sandal, and I had already ridden 12 extra miles and spent an hour and a half hunting around. I wanted to actually get somewhere today. Just as I turned the corner, I spotted it. Not 100 yards from the gas station -- I had ridden off a curb on my way down, and went up the little ramp on my way back. I missed seeing the damn thing by about five feet.
After the little sandal mishap, I was finally making some time. I hit the beach not long after Catano, just at low tide. I was psyched and rolling quickly along the hardpacked sand. This was the ride I had come here to do! I got to ride on the beach for a couple of hours until it ended abruptly in a bunch of rocks and I had to drag my ridiculous load through tall grasses, vines, palm trees and hurricane debris to reach the road that was only about 50 feet away. Ouch.
Back on the road, it was rush hour and I was still in the outskirts of the city. I chugged along with the drivers and the dump trucks carrying hurricane debris to who knows where. There were power lines down. EVERYWHERE. Broken power lines littered like dead snakes all over the road and the sides of the road. Lots of debris on the shoulders. I would peek over my shoulder to make sure I had a bit of a gap, then sprint into the traffic lane and back again to get around the debris. My fat bike actually made really good time on the pavement, I was traveling consistently at 17-18 miles per hour with my 4" tires inflated to 15 psi. There was a bit of wobble in my front end when I went really fast and moved my bars even a little, which made me a bit nervous, as most of the weight was on the front end of my bike because I have very little tire clearance for my seatpost bag and can't carry much in the rear. But I am used to riding a loaded bike and told myself I could handle it.
At around 4:00 pm I was able to get back onto the beach and off the busy road. My pace slowed from 17 mph to 4 mph. The sand was softer here. But I didn't care, my heart rate and my mental state also slowed considerably being out of traffic which was nice. I started having some trouble with my drivetrain (likely because of the sand) and my derailleur shifted my chain over the top of the cassette into my wheel and lodged itself in the cassette. I stopped abruptly, walked to the drivetrain side of my bike and knelt down to replace my chain and adjust my derailleur.
All of a sudden -- BAM! I got hit backside by a wave that had washed up much farther than any of the other waves had been, soaking me, my bike and all my gear with salty, sandy water. The force was strong enough that it made me stumble forward, and lifted my bike off the ground. As the wave rolled out my bike pulled along with it, and resisting the pull of the sea I dragged my bike around and up the beach. Holy shit, I just got my ass kicked unexpectedly by the ocean and I wasn't even that close to it. I took it as a good reminder to always be mindful of my surroundings and made a mental note to wash my bike and my shoes out with fresh water at the first chance I got.
I continued to ride slowly along the beach, stopping to take photos of the beautiful coastline. It was stunning to watch the sky start to change into evening light. I rode past a place up in the palm trees, just above high tide line, that would have been a killer camp spot. I paused, wondering if I should make camp early. But once I get riding I am pretty driven, and I don't want to stop until I have to. I love riding my bike all day and I was in heaven. It was only 4:30 and I had another two hours to ride before it started to get dark. I consulted my GPS and I could see there was a National Park coming up near a town called Dorado, that spanned a few miles of beach about 12 miles away. I figured that would be a great spot and also leave me some time to grab food and a cold beer from a tienda. And I was feeling psyched, so high from the exhilaration of just riding my bike all damn day in an incredible place. I didn't want to stop. So I continued on.
As I rolled into Dorado, it was starting to get dark quickly and rain clouds were rolling in. I knew what the rain could do here in Puerto Rico from watching the downpour the night before, and I wanted to be in my tent before that hit. Perfect timing, as I rolled down towards the coast and my National Park beaches. Until I hit a fence and had to stop. Really?? I rode up and down the fenceline until I came to a gate. The Park had hours, and it had closed at 6 pm. It was 6:30. Shit.
I looked at my map again. Past the park was a huge golf course and some private beaches that belonged to a Hilton resort. Dorado was not a poor town, that was for sure. I was going to have to ride for quite awhile before I came to any place secluded enough and open for camping. Just at that moment, the skies opened up and the rain unleashed on me, and the daylight disappeared just as quickly. Oops. Now I've done it.
There was nothing to do but to keep riding. I donned my headlamp and considered putting on my raincoat, but the rain was warm as long as I was moving. I hammered back uphill the way I had came and made my way back to the main road. I pushed my fat bike to 20 mph as I wanted to get off that main road as quickly as possible. After coming to the far edge of the town, I saw a gas station and figured that might be my last place to get a beer. I decided I deserved one at that point, so I leaned my bike against the wall and bought a Medalla, Puerto Rico's version of a cheap pilsener -- perfect after a long hot sweaty bike ride. I sat back against the wall next to my bike and enjoyed my beer, the rain still spitting on me as the wind gusted up.
I had to laugh at my predicament. This was not the first time I have been caught out in inclement weather without a camp spot because of my desire to keep pushing forward. This time, I had no one responsible but myself. I had no partner to talk sense into me and convince me to stop early. I also had no one to be angry with me for not stopping when I should have. This was a new feeling. My choices, my responsibility for all decisions both good and bad. No one else's input.
Facing the demons
As I sat and sipped my Medalla and munched on the bread that the nice people at Spiga Cafe had given me for the road, I had a conversation with myself as I reflected on my past adventures and the situation I was now faced with. What are my obvious choices here? I could certainly choose to be pissed at myself for missing the good camp spot two hours earlier and now being caught in what seemed to be an endless downpour with no sign of letting up, in the dark, on a busy road, with nowhere to camp. My mind ran down the list of all the things I could be hard on myself for today: leaving too late in the day. I shouldn't have stayed up so late last night. I shouldn't have stopped for lunch. I should have tied my sandals onto the bike better so I wouldn't have lost so much time looking for one. I should have taken my bike further up the beach to work on so myself and my bike weren't now all full of sand and salt. I should have stopped early. I should have just gotten a hotel. I should have... now what does that mean about me?? Unspeakable things, certainly? (Oh, hey there. My inner critic has decided to make an appearance.)
Flashing back in time a bit... This way of thinking, that I had so consciously and expertly weeded from my psyche over my years of bike racing and honing both my mental and physical performance, had snuck back into my subconscious and planted itself back in my darkest corners in the last few years. It was fed to me by other people, but *I* let it happen so ultimately I am the one responsible. I have kept both romantic and business partners in my life in the past who got great satisfaction out of berating me for what they deem to be my stupidity, my incompetency, my helplessness, my problems, my curiosity that they see as a bother, my optimism that can occasionally get me into trouble.
I had an awful experience on a similar adventure to this with a partner who convinced me that I was useless and stupid and didn't belong in the mountains, and it fucked with my head so much that on another project only months ago all I could hear was this person's voice inside my head every time I did something that could be considered a mistake. Actually any time I did anything, every time I took a step or made a choice or even took a breath this person's voice was inside my head, berating me, until the voice became my own. And let me tell you, when this voice becomes your own and you turn on your own self it can become toxic very quickly and you need to take immediate useful action. (Please, for the benefit of yourself and everyone who comes into contact with you.) This whole episode fucked me up pretty badly and it wasn't until a relatively recent combination of months of therapy and staring into mirrors -- both figuratively and literally -- that I finally started to regain some self-confidence.
(Side note: I reveal all these details not to drum up pity or to fish for compliments. I reveal these things because chances are, someone reading this will have experienced something similar themselves. I'm here to tell you this shit can happen to anyone -- yes, even strong, confident, skilled, intelligent, and independent people. Mental and emotional manipulation is real, and it takes a lot of self-awareness and reflection and sometimes a hard reality check to realize it is happening to you. And a lot of hard fucking work to turn it all around. Feel free to reach out if you want more insights or tools around this.)
Flash back to the present. Even with those thoughts and experiences well behind me and my confidence restored I had been nervous to take on this current project alone, having been convinced in the past that I needed managing, and right here on day 1 was a perfect opportunity for me to crumble into that self-sabotaging way of hammering myself with all the awful words my former partner taught me to use against myself that I had so easily let myself fall into.
But I didn't. Instead, my brain and I had a rational conversation with ourselves. It asked me: Okay, so here you are, what's the worst that could happen? Well, I could get hit by a car and die. Okay, is this likely? Well, it's possible. But not likely. Why not: I have a bright red flashing tail light on the rear of my bike and a light on the front just for this exact situation. And my headlamp. And I'm smart with riding on the road. This isn't my first rodeo. I'm probably not going to die. I could, but I could also die stepping out onto the street. More realistic worst case scenario: I ride all night long if I can't find a camping spot in the dark and the rain, and take a nap sometime tomorrow. That's not the worst thing in the world. I've ridden through the night before, I'm more than capable. And even though it's pouring it's still plenty warm enough and I've had some delicious bread and some refreshing beer. This whole thing isn't so bad, and sure maybe I could have stopped earlier and produced a more favorable outcome but actually that doesn't say anything about me as a person.
I sit back and take a bite of delicious bread, grateful that I am in Puerto Rico and not Alaska or someplace freezing. I am soaked to the bone, but otherwise warm. People pass by and I smile and greet them as I sip my beer. It's a rough situation but it could be worse. Really, it's not that bad.
The kindness of strangers
A kind looking man approaches me, greets me and asks where I am planning on staying. I told him my situation, and that I was just planning on riding on to the west until I figured out my next move. I told him that I would be okay and I wasn't concerned. He said that he and his wife would love to host me at their house; they lived back in Dorado town and right on the coast, back the way I had came. He said they had no electricity and only a trickle of water, but I could have a bed and a place to get out of the rain. I decided to take Bill up on his offer, and I followed his car on my bike through the driving rain back into town, down to the coast and to his house.
As it turns out, Bill and Luz's house was enormous. It was right on the coast, and before the hurricane they used it as an AirBnB for large groups. It was both their home and their business. Parts of the home were destroyed in the storm and Bill has been working on rebuilding so that they can start up their business again. They also have had no electricity or water in close to 6 months. Bill kept apologizing to me for not having light or water, and I did my best to assure him that I did not care, that I was incredibly grateful for a place to get dry and sleep.
I must admit I was in a bit of disbelief at this situation. This was my first up-close-and-personal experience with what many people of Puerto Rico are still dealing with. Bill and Luz live in a nice town: Dorado is well-off with nice hotels and golf resorts and private beaches. It is relatively close to the city. It is on the coast. Not even remotely in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains. They STILL, nearly six months after Hurricane Maria, do not have electricity or water -- and they are not even close to being the only ones.
Bill and Luz set me up in my own private studio in their huge, beautiful, sadly empty home that was once a thriving business and a peaceful haven for many travelers. They told me I could hang all my sopping wet gear anywhere, offered me their one tiny trickle of water to attempt to clean myself up, and to let them know if there was anything else I needed -- again, apologizing for not having electricity or water for me.
As my eyes closed in the warm and comfortable bed listening as the rain continued to hammer down outside my open window, I was once again filled with the familiar mixture of gratitude and heartbreak for this experience not unlike many I have had before. Gratitude for these people who have next to nothing, in this case due to a natural disaster that they have not received near enough support for, treating me with the utmost kindness, helping me along my way, and offering me every bit of the little they have. And heartbreak in me knowing that whatever I could possibly do to help them could never be enough. Overall, though, my feeling was contentment... in knowing that however fucked up the world might look at times there are good people like Bill and Luz that exist everywhere.