Reflections on Morocco
Former road racer Evan Christenson reports in from a trip across Morocco on 28mm tires. Read on for his story of learning to slow down and smell the spices while bouncing his way through the Atlas Mountains…
Nine days of perpetual confusion have compounded. Your brain is on fire. Right is left, colors smell like dirt, and flowering incense has charred your battered lungs. The candle is fading. You forgot lights and race the sun. With 110 desert miles baking behind you, this race is no longer a fair fight. The road splits and after a quick glance at Google maps you make a guess. Left.
A kid from suburbia, you’ve never done anything like this. You’ve grown up racing bikes and grew comfortable sitting on the trainer and watching racers slide across the asphalt. But bike racing has become a burden. So you’re here in Morocco, exhausted and alone after a rough fight and messy split from your travel partner. There’s still a brutal pace to keep up with and you’re clinging to the threads of it. The light is fading and grandma will be pissed if she finds out you’ve been riding in the dark.
You’re trudging through gravel again. For the fifth time today the tarmac drops from under you and your 28mm road tires are punishing. Grind the climbs, death grip on the descents. There’s no time for whining. The only bridge is held up by a farmer on his donkey, jitter, wait, eat chocolate, pull out the camera. Race back through the gravel. A hard hour of pushing and swearing. Pedals grow anchors and you bonk hard once you hit the road. Disrupt an entire soccer party and buy a Coke from the bar. Chug it in the road and hide from the man eyeing you in the corner. Pedal another 15 miles of squares and make it to the outskirts of the city just as the sun goes down.
Black plumes line the hillside, boys hang out of busses, women wear burqas, and mopeds jockey you for position in traffic. The call to prayer blasts from passing speakers. Ride until the cars stop and walk through the largest street market you’ve ever seen. Stop and smell the spices – they’re so powerful your eyes water. Race more traffic on the highway. Pull off and have two young boys bring you to your hostel. They bring you to the wrong one and beg for money, and beg for more after you empty your pockets. Wash kit in shower, plug in electronics, reapply CBD oil, walk to another street market, eat two dinners. The young waiter gives you wine in a Coke bottle so you’re incognito. Stumble back to your hostel, haggle local boys over hashish, try to buy your orphan guides dinner, fall asleep with the lights on. Wake up, drink four coffees, take five ibuprofen, figure out a route, more CBD oil, and put the same rotting kit back on. Today you ride another 12 hours.
Faces, language, and cultures are so different here in Morocco. The infrastructure is crumbling, the roads unpredictable, and the markets I counted on are sparse and insufficient. After three days I was struggling to push 80 miles and surviving on coffee and chocolate. All I had to listen to was Mothership and long countryside drags left me totally alone for hours at a time. The beauty I had once romanticized in isolation became terrifying. It was crushing, and the brief conversations I counted on to fulfill my need for companionship became a circus show. Shop owners and kids would sit, stare, and ask questions about who I am and what I’m doing here. I was a freak and completely alone, so I returned to the lone familiarity of the bike and rode for 12 hours a day.
After a long day on highways getting buzzed by trucks and pushed around by more wind I sprinted up to a man on a moped and motor-paced into Beni-Mellal. They have one of the only McDonalds in Morocco and I miss home. I feast in American splendor and stare at the Atlas Mountains in the background. They’re imposing. Despite running low on time, I go to bed dreaming of riding into them the next day.
The defiant remoteness and formidable stature of the Atlas Mountains is entrancing. The ruggedness of the mountains complements the resilience of the people who endure their harsh nature, and together they form a distinct culture separate from the rest of Morocco. The Berber people are hardy and the mountain towns I rode through forced that same hardiness into me. Despite everything that had preceded them on this trip – a break up, cold rain, brutal winds, powerful sun, cultural barriers, and crippling isolation – the Atlas provided exactly what I needed to fall in love with bikepacking. The long climb up in the morning brought me out of an onset rigor mortis through the clouds and into a completely different world. The city at the base become a distant memory and pedal strokes become effortless. Clay huts sit nestled into the mountainside and children play in the road. The beauty here is astounding and it drags me forward. I make dismal progress despite my 7:00 AM flight out of Marrakech in two days that should be holding me accountable at a much quicker pace.
I didn’t come here prepared for gravel. The plan of 140 miles of road riding per day lent itself to light packing and road tires. It worked perfectly for Europe, but Morocco, and especially the Atlas, rebels against all predictability. Roads go from beautiful and smooth to rocky and muddy and back again at odd intervals. I grow comfortable with the switches, but eventually the switching ends and the roads become a steep gravel beatdown. Infrastructure and development are forgotten up here. Morocco’s relatively strong economy for Northern Africa is focused on agriculture and developing tourism in its more lucrative cities. Fes, Casablanca, and Marrakech have glamour and allure. Their history makes them the cash cows the country is aiming to capitalize on. The Atlas region isn’t a priority to King Mohammed VI and this becomes painfully apparent as I bash down gravel roads, teeth gritting and bike clanging.
A German man driving a Sprinter van wakes me from my roadside nap. His wife makes me a Nutella sandwich and we laugh while he uses his toolkit to help me get back on my way. The sun continues to fall and I call for a taxi to take me to the next town. I planned to be dancing with Marrakech tonight but I find myself on a balcony overlooking the Atlas, breathing crisp mountain air and watching local Berber women hang laundry outside. Donkeys walk underneath and kids play along the hillside. It’s all so foreign, but right now it’s emphatically comforting. I feel content for the first time all trip.
In the dining room I share tagine with a French family. We talk late into the night in a small chamber, its dim lights and Moroccan decorations seeping intimacy. It’s the first real conversation I’ve had all trip and I revel in the companionship. I go to bed with a full stomach, a warm heart, and a shifting mentality. Maybe bikepacking can be a beautiful thing.
I scramble to catch a taxi in the morning but get engulfed in conversation over breakfast. A French woman from last night sits across from me. Her name is Janick, she’s middle-aged, and quickly I learn how deep her love for this area goes. The valley we’re in right now has a population of 10,000. Janick begins to describe the locals’ living conditions.
Some don’t have running water, most don’t have power. There is no doctor, and only one nurse. Some go to school, but most don’t. Almost all of these huts house 8-10 people, and many don’t have a legitimate breadwinner. Some people work as shepherds, some do small construction work, but most have no jobs. There is no industry up here. Opportunities are limited. There are no viable markets and Azilal, the nearest city with shops and a hospital, is a two-hour drive away on rocky mountain doubletrack.
Janick leads a charity, Le Groupe des amis du village d’Amezray, dedicated to providing aid to the people of the Atlas. She’s been coming here for 15 years and has made countless trips to deliver clothes, food, diapers, toilet paper, and other necessities. This trip, she says, her car is full of warm clothing. She estimates they’ve brought about 100,000 articles of clothing over the years, and she does it all on her own dime. She pays her way down here, and gives clothing that others have donated.
She seems almost embarrassed admitting all of this, her head ducking as I keep pushing more questions. I’m enthralled – almost envious – of her passion. She talks of the children like they’re from her own blood and loves these mountains like they’re her home. Her compassion is humbling, like everything I’ve experienced in the Atlas.
I barely finished the ride into Marrakech. My knees were swollen and legs were giving out, but after a final 110 miles I got to a bike shop and struggled to box up this crazy experience. Riding into Marrakech was nothing like winning a bike race. Winning races is mostly a binary experience. Hyperfocus breaks across the line and pain turns to elation with a thrown fist. But that slow, gradual roll into Marrakech felt so different to any ride I’d ever done. The lows were canyons compared to mere potholes and I suffered in all new dimensions. I truly believed I wasn’t able to finish and contemplating quitting daily. The suffering was immense, and the highs explosive. The disbelief of how beautiful the roads lacing the Rif and how kind the people along those roads were continued to lift my spirits and build resilience when I thought I had none left. When I was cold and hungry a family brought me in to dry and feed me. When I flatted again outside of Marrakech a man sat in the gutter for an hour patching the tube with me. When I asked him if he wanted money for his time he laughed and asked if we could just be Facebook friends. And when I finally boarded that plane home I cried at the thought of leaving this beautiful country behind.
Morocco showed me life in a distinct way. It beat me with its isolation and insane drivers. But it showed me how to love bikepacking. It brought children to the streets that would yell Hola! Bonjour! and give high fives as I rode past. It brought powerful sunsets, delicious coffee, and hearty tagine. It brought towering mountains and a humbling perspective on privilege. It reminded me how I’m the luckiest kid in the world, and gave me the tools to test it. Bikepacking brought me love and it’s changed my life.