It’s happened to all of us. They pedal by with their sack lunches and accordion maps and you just have to help them because they look so sad and confused. You know you will have to tell them that they have been biking in the wrong direction for several miles, and you know you will have to witness them experience frustration or even heartbreak, but you walk towards them anyway when they ask, “Do you live around here?” So it goes with lost bike tourists in Mill Valley. Since this is a predicament we all face, here is a guide to help you help them.

Graphic by: Dennis Lubensky
Graphic by: Dennis Lubensky

Most importantly, don’t tease them. I know it is tempting when they ask if they are near Muir Woods when they are actually three blocks away from Horse Hill. Take a breath and remember that they don’t know the geographical layout of Mill Valley the same way that you do and they are doing their best. Furrow your eyebrows and nod sympathetically, as though it is understandable that they made such a mistake. You might even laugh and tell them not to worry, that it happens all the time. This will soften the blow when you reveal they have added seven miles to their trip by biking in the completely wrong direction.

When they try to receive guidance by gesturing to the map that comes on the bike, encourage them to abandon such attempts and, if possible, use a smartphone. The truth of the matter is that the maps provided by the bike rental companies are so horrendously awful you would think whoever drew them up was playing a practical joke on bike tourists. The maps barely outline the area and the scale can be very misguiding. If the tourists you are assisting have smartphones, let them in on a secret: Google Maps. This will provide street names and approximate distances for them.

If they don’t have access to a smartphone, you are left with the difficult task of giving directions to people who have no local context. You cannot use terminology like “MVMS,” “The Depot” or names of restaurants to guide them. In these instances, use street names whenever possible, preferably the limited street names provided on their bike maps. When street names escape you–as so often happens to those who are born and raised in an area because we become accustomed to calling things by made-up names or simply using stores as location markers–then you need to get creative. Use landmarks like Tam’s clock tower or businesses that tourists will recognize, like Whole Foods. Through a mix of this terminology and some street names, hopefully you can successfully lead them to their destination.

You might also find yourself in a situation where they ask you for advice. “Do you think we can make it there and back before the last ferry?” they might ask. Or, “Will that trip be too hard with a seven-year-old?” At this time, resist the urge to scream at them that your only crime was walking home from school and you don’t want to make or break their vacation by deciding if they should abandon their journey. Although everyone knows that those are questions you can’t answer (because the time the trip will take depends on how fast they move and how are you supposed to know what their kid can handle?) it is important that you don’t lead them to believe something that isn’t true. Always answer with “I don’t know,” and then tack on a vague opinion at the end such as, “it’s pretty far,” indicating your doubts or “you do have several hours, so maybe,” indicating your encouragement that they continue. This way you aren’t giving them unrealistic hope, but you aren’t being completely unhelpful either. Also keep in mind that if a family of five with small children is trying to bike to Muir Woods and they end up in Tam Valley, you can always suggest that they adjust their destination to Old Mill Park instead.

The next piece of advice should only be used in case of emergency. The universal laws of karma and human decency state that you should help lost tourists on bikes because one day, if you are lucky, you might travel to somewhere as nice as Mill Valley and then you will want locals to give you directions when you get lost. Somehow in your life, years of being patient with bike tourists who are trying to get to Larkspur, Sausalito or downtown Mill Valley will pay off.

However, once in a blue moon, if you are having a terrible day and you don’t want to deal with it, you can always say that you just moved to the area or else that you live in Los Angeles and you are visiting your cousins for the weekend.


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