FAM…bam!

Finished first FAM. WOWZA my brain hurts from all the laser focusing on the road while simultaneously reading the route directions and trying to piece together all the different trips’ and their different components. Backroads truly just throws you into things, trusting that you are capable and a quick learner. Before my FAM began I was a bit overwhelmed with how to go about FAMing and then once I was out there, frustrated when I would get lost or not know what to do. However, over the course of the first day, I quickly grew to really appreciate the fact that I was on my own, because it forced me to really learn the routes and go with my instinct. Plus (and possibly the biggest perk), I didn’t have to be embarrassed in front of someone when I took a wrong turn 5 times in a row. Haha!

The bike routes generally are composed of small roads through towns and the countryside (hence where we get the name Backroads), so it’s not like I’m going down a well-marked highway. Plus, since all the names are in Catalan, they aren’t as easy for me to remember like they would be if they were in Spanish.

It so happened that a real group of guests were on one of the trips that I was FAMing, so I was actually able to witness a real trip in action at a couple points on several different days, witnessing how leaders interacted with guests and different important scenarios. For example, I saw how the leaders staged the bikes in the morning in the hotel garden. Staging bikes = putting the bikes out every morning, grouping the bikes so that couples/families are together, along with a snack table.

This group was a unique group because there were only 6 guests and it was a “singles and solos” trip, meaning that the trip is intended for solo travelers rather than couples, families, and other groups. I even had breakfast with the guests on my final day (their 5th day of a 6 day trip) and they were curious to learn more about what I was doing. Super small world—one of the ladies went to Newport Harbor 30 years ago!

Many of my co-trainees had GRAFs instead of FAMs which are basically group FAMs. BTW, Backroads LOVES acronyms, yet another reason I think I love this job! At first I was a bit sad that I wouldn’t be going with a group, but I ended up being grateful that I was first scheduled for a FAM. I look forward to doing a GRAF in the future, but I think the FAM was a really valuable lesson for me and forced me to become confident driving and in myself. Some of the situations I had to maneuver were CRAZY…literally 2 inch clearance on either side of the van (I’m not exaggerating). My thighs were literally shaking I was so nervous, but I took my time, and I did it. I will also get better at not finding myself in those situations—looking ahead before automatically going so that I don’t take any necessary risks.

One surprise that I’ve discovered slowly is how much I’ll be driving in this job, something I hadn’t anticipated during the application process. At the very most, I would bike 3 days with guests, but for the first 3 trips that I’ll be supporting, I won’t be biking at all with guests since I’ll just be supporting guests with the van by offering snack/refuel stations and boosts to the top of hills or back to the hotel.

During the FAM I crossed over the Pyrenees and to the coast. Along the way, I drove a 60km stretch that really reminded me of the drive to Bear Flats….except that it was about 15 times longer and the canyon itself was WAY bigger. It also reminded me of some the nature scenes in the Hunger Games (sorry, Mandy, I doubt you’ll get that reference!) I even crossed over a bridge like the ones that flood if the creek is too high in Bear Flats.

Probably the biggest gain during FAMing was feeling way more comfortable with driving and with the van. I needed those solid 1,000km of driving! On the long 3 & 1/2 hour stretch home I stopped at a roadside gas station (there hadn’t been anything else for miles) to use the bathroom. I ended up eating a late lunch there and was blown away with the randomness of this restaurant and how good it was, not to mention the epic mountain and valley green views. I ate  botifarra (a locally well-known sausage) which was served with fries, mushrooms, artichokes and bread, all for 7 euros. The restaurant also seemed to be packed, but not with truckers or people on the road like I, but seemingly people from nearby coming to eat at a truck stop.

Not your typical lunch at a truck stop. Delicious local sausage (butifarra), sauteed mushrooms, artichokes, and fries for €7! The best part? The amazing scenery: overlooking a gorgeous green valley.

Not your typical lunch at a truck stop. Delicious local sausage (butifarra), sauteed mushrooms, artichokes, and fries for €7! The best part? The amazing scenery: overlooking a gorgeous green valley.

Highlights from Route
Llivia: This city is only 5km from where I live in Puigcerdà and is literally an island of Spain surrounded by France.

Llívia is the green island in France.

Llívia is the green island in France.

Dali: I stopped at two Dali related places, the Theater Museum in Figueres and the castle he built for his wife, Gala, in Pubol. This guy was weird. Seriously the weirder, the better.

Changing scenery: This region is really unique because in the course of a week-long trip the scenery changes drastically. You go from Switzerland-like mountain scenes to Mediterranean coast. I was actually able to sit on the beach for an hour which was really nice!

Ancient tiny towns: Almost every day the route goes through towns built almost 1,000 years ago. These towns are still inhabited today, with modern life fitting into the old architecture.

Overall during the FAM, I realized that waking up to go to work means driving around like a scavenger hunt. I feel like a professional scavenger hunter!

Backroads Systems
Apart from the leader houses that I talked about last week, Backroads has SOO many fascinating systems….Inventory systems to check each van and trailer that it has the correct items, money allowance systems to regulate spending while on trip or FAM, writing out the biking directions, etc.

There have been many new people that have passed through the leader house. These include several Spanish guys who will be staying most of the season and an Italian girl who delivered a van. I spent the evening with her chatting, eating, and hanging. Her mom is from Uruguay and her dad is from Malaysia. The two of them met taking Italian lessons in Rome and they never left. It’s incredible how the house dynamics are constantly changing, but it still feels like home! Being a Backroads leader means oftentimes living out of a suitcase and constantly changing beds: the definition of home is quite unique.

Spanish/Catalonian Culture
While out and about FAMing and tripping around Catalonia, I’ve noticed lots of special needs groups out on field trips. The first time I happened to see a group, I didn’t even really note it, but as it’s now happened several times in quite off the beaten path places it’s definitely stuck out now as particular. This must mean Catalonia (or Spain more generally) emphasizes supporting Special Needs communities. In China I always thought it was strange how I never saw special needs people.

One observation that I’ve made about Europeans while driving is that they must be aware at all times of who might be coming ahead or behind since many of the roads are to small for two to be across. This awareness most likely transfers off of the road, as Europeans tend to be very socially aware and considerate of those around them.  

I’m amazed how many “driving school” cars I see on a regular basis, beginning during my time in France. The roads are full of them and you see lots of shops/advertisements for driving schools.

Some other photos from FAM:

There’s been more and more parallels made with my trip running, guiding, and supporting Simon. Not only am I driving a ton, but problem solving countless scenarios, being a cheerlader, and, making sure guests are happy and they know the plan (+ the plan Bs and Cs).

Preview: I’ve actually just finished my first real trip today as a “Support Leader”, but will write more about it later when I have some time. Was very confirming that Backroads is a happy fit :)

Sending love from Puigcerdà,

Ali

3 Comments

  • Cam says:

    Great write up Al! Enjoyed getting a glimpse on the road.

    • Cam says:

      Question: How much recreation or downtime do you get to explore and enjoy? Also, how many days a month are you back at the leader house in puigcerda? I’m so jealous of the parada de camiones food!

      • Profile photo of Alley Cat Alley Cat says:

        Good question, Cam! During a FAM it depends how much downtime you have…for my first FAM, I had the evenings to explore and enjoy, even fitting in some beach time. FAMs generally can be a lot of fun, as you’re experiencing your trips/routes on your own (or with co-leaders) rather than hosting guests.

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