To Sagres for a Sagres (or two)

Last night we walked the surprisingly windy and cold old-town pedestrian streets of Lagos, stopping at what felt like a very local wine bar before settling on Casa do Prego for dinner, a delightfully crowded little tapas joint. Dessert — a lime-mint cheesecake mousse in a jar — was so good we ordered another. And then they brought us the usual Portuguese treat, a free after-dinner shot of something in this case a fine tawny port. Rather than do the usual bar-hopping for our traditional nightcaps we stopped in a small shop for a bottle of characteristically inexpensive (six euros) tinto from the Douro region up north, which we took to the room and drained in short order while watching the first of three made-for-TV adaptations of Michael Dibdin’s excellent Aurelio Zen police procedurals, set in Rome, a city we hope to know better in coming years. (If you’re a fan of Man in a High Castle you’ll enjoy Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Zen, a far more appealing role than his Obergrüppenfuhrer Smith.)

Today’s ride from Lagos to Sagres was a short day but a beautiful one, made even more so by avoiding N125 for about half the 20+ miles, riding a quieter route closer to the sea. An occasional tailwind didn’t hurt, either.

The legendary beaches of Lagos

In the morning, before checking out of the Marina Rio hotel in Lagos, we took a cab ride to Ponta da Piedade, one of the Algarve’s scenic highlights. We walked down the hundred + stairs to water’s edge, more or less, to catch the towering golden-yellow rock formations, and the shimmering more green-than-blue water, from the right perspective. Looking down at kayakers and paddle boarders among the cliffs and grottos, we felt envious, but not for long.

Soon we were in the saddle and sailing along quiet tertiary roads to the nearly imperceptible towns of Luz and Bergau, little once-traditional villages overshadowed by luxury gated developments, golf courses and tennis clubs. Along the way, as always in Portugal, we were fascinated by the ubiquitous roadside art.

Even on these narrower, more rural roads, drivers seem not only conscious of cyclists but almost unfailingly respectful, and we rolled along happily, glad to be away from the heavy highway traffic. Mostly rolling hills before and after we joined N125 — a quieter stretch of that major artery than we’ve experienced east of here–and what climbing we had to do was very gentle.

We arrived in Sagres, hot, hungry and thirsty, around 1:30. The hotel is right on the spit overlooking the ocean, and, luckily for us, attached to a pleasant and well-rated Italian cafe. We ordered two bottles of Sagres–perhaps better known to the world than the town that must be its namesake–to quench our thirst, and two pizzas that turned out to be larger than expected (though we ate all but scraps).

The pies fueled us on a short ride, 8-miles round trip, to the southernmost corner of Europe, the lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente. 250-foot high wave-pounded cliffs, their tops covered with flowering ice plants, 500-year-old fortresses with gun ports and three-foot-thick walls, and in the distance, all around us, the meeting of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

“So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.” (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)

Back to the hotel, we locked up the bikes in yet another basement storage room, showered & changed, washed some increasingly smelly riding clothes in the tub and hung them on our sunny balcony to dry, & went out on the town.

Two-thousand-year-old Sagres, once the haunt of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, today feels sleepy, its almost uniformly whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs clustered around a modest and, for a Saturday late afternoon in later spring, unbelievably quiet downtown. “Downtown” here consists of alternating surf shops and tiny cafes. Today’s the first day in Portugal where it feels hot enough for ice cream; all we could find were chocolate/vanilla popsicles, not inspiring but certainly refreshing. Ashley made friends with a few stray cats as we walked the residential streets in search of a cervejaria which turned out to be closed, as in permanently shuttered. Back to town through the winding lanes of homes and gardens, to a passable sports bar for a couple of cold Imperial pints of Sagres.

Ashley’s view every day includes this bracelet, which bears a favorite quote from her cousin, Greg Bowyer: “People climb Everest.” Greg passed away unexpectedly in December, and his wife (Dawn) and sons (Todd and Luke) have shared this quote widely in order to carry on one of his many positive missions: to inspire those around him to do the things that scare them, to try what seems hard, to live fearlessly and fully. Greg rides along with Ashley now, and so with both of us, and we’ve resolved to keep adventuring, even more fearlessly and fully, and that every adventure will be part of Greg’s legacy.

Today, our adventuring carried us roughly 25 miles (plus another 8 to the lighthouse and back), with about 1500′ of climbing all told, and into yet another place we never dreamed we’d be.

Autoestrada para o céu

Our evening in Faro began, as we had hoped, with the cataplana, in this case Cataplana à Algarvia, a hot mess of clams, shrimp of various sizes, bacon, pork, onions, tomatoes, and garlic, cooked and served in a stainless steel clamshell like a deep-dish sloppy paella, minus the rice.

We got so tight with our waiter at tiny À Do Pinto that he came to the table at the end of our meal with a bottle of brandy and poured us two snifters on the house, plus a shot glass for himself and one for the chef, a middle-aged woman in a hair net who came out to join us, with smiles and cross-cultural congratulations all around.

Exhilarated by this, we sat in our hotel’s rooftop bar for a couple more copos, watching the lights and the action along the waterfront below. Despite last night’s revelry, we were up at 7:30 this morning, raring to begin our second riding day. There was the inevitable tending to work email over another elaborate hotel breakfast spread, after which we felt well fueled for a longer head-windy day to the beach town of Lagos.

One thing we’ve noticed this trip is that the Portuguese really don’t want to speak Spanish. French, sure, English, all right, German, definitely, Italian, quite so. But nothing is translated into Spanish. There’s no love lost between these two countries, shared border or no, and no wonder: Spain has a long history of not doing right by Portugal, including unleashing the inquisition upon its much smaller western neighbor. Small wonder menus and road signs conspicuously eschew Español….

The traffic on this regional arterial, the free alternative to a parallel toll road, was heavy most of the day, and the shoulder, such as it was, came and went without warning. Leaving Faro, things were particularly dicey, shades of Laguna Beach on the Pacific Coast tour: minimal shoulders, where there were any, and those crowded by vegetation sprawl, and giant trucks blowing by a bit too close for comfort. Most drivers, as usual, were respectful, and unlike in the states few felt compelled to attempt a daring pass on too narrow a way or around a blind corner. The gregarious cab driver who took us to the train in Lisbon must be right: the Portuguese are more patient than most.

We navigated roundabout after roundabout, always signaling our intentions and proceeding with caution punctuated by daring go-for-its when the wall of traffic occasionally subsided for a few seconds. Sometimes, unexpectedly, there would be a stretch of road so quiet that we could hear the hum of our tires. It didn’t last long.

We rode along sprays of roadside flowers and blossoming trees and bushes, many of which would be annuals, at best, in our high dry desert home, but here in the Algarve’s Mediterranean climate they bloom perennially. And the shoulders are besmirched by relatively little litter, at least compared to the roads along the US Pacific coast.

The other roadside attractions fell into a pattern: orange stands were ubiquitous (though per sack prices varied considerably), as were gas stations and car dealers (diesel! automatic!).

The graffiti we’ve come to associate with Portugal is a constant presence, pieces decorating the most random buildings: uninhabited falling-downs artfully painted, pool-cover shops and bus stop shelters transformed into works of public art. We keep seeing the tags “WASP” and “KAMS”; no one seems to know whether these are signatures or messages (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant?).

Although riding well inland, thanks to our inability to efficiently navigate the rat’s nest of discontinuous tertiary roads closer to the coast, we had occasional glimpses of the sea to the south, looking across miles of housing developments and apartment blocks catering to vacationing or expatriated Europeans taking refuge from far colder, wetter climates.

We took lunch in downtown Lagoa, a few dozen yards from the main road, sitting at the shady cafeteria Alma Doce, enjoying pork cutlets (costelledas de cebolada) and bacalhau alma doce (deep-fried cod) with French fries, washed down with many big bottles of ice-cold fizzy water and accompanied by melancholic squeezebox played fitfully by man at folding table selling tattered old paperbacks.

Another 17 or so miles to Lagos, more and more into the 10-15 mph wind, on road much the same as it had been all day. More orange stands, more cars, more petrol stations, more graffiti, more inviting roadside cafes/snack bars/pastelarias that look, each and every one, like the kind of place that creates and holds together a small community. Every now and then another reminder of where we are.

A few miles before we rolled into Lagos the road turned south, the headwind became a blessed tailwind, and this time (“Regardez!”), these sweaty foreigners found their riverside hotel with no difficulty. Showers, clean clothes, and down to the old town to celebrate.

Today was 51.45 miles, with 2103’ of elevation gained. We can feel it.

Primeiro Dia do Nosso Passeio de Bicicleta

Day One: Tavira to Faro, 22 miles

We’d arrived in Lisbon mid-morning after a series of nail-biting connections and in a few hours of walking reacquainted ourselves with a city we’d first visited, on a quest to find Henry Fielding’s gravesite, four and a half years ago. Dinner at Chapitó a Mesa, in the Alfama district, our table overlooking the whitewashed red-tile-roofed colorfully-muraled buildings terraced down to the River Tagus.

We hadn’t recalled the name when we’re made the reservation but we instantly recognized the wonderful eccentricity and killer views: this was the place we’d memorably eaten on the last night of our first visit. (We even bought another pair of earrings in the little gift shop, as we did back then.)

Early to bed, thanks to jet lag, and up fresh as two daisies—almost—in time for our morning train. We left our suitcases with the front desk of the lovely behotel Lisboa, and caught a cab to the Oriente train station with only our four panniers in hand. A quick shot of caffeine and a pastry, and then on the 8:23am bound for Faro.

Estação Oriente, designed by Santiago Calatrava

The landscape between Lisbon and Faro was undramatic but quietly beautiful, rolling green hills topped with olive trees, fig trees, orange trees, and vineyards, a potent reminder of some of the savory delights this country has to offer. The connection in Faro was very tight, but luckily we were only a platform away from the Tavira train, an altogether clankier, louder, hotter carriage. We arrived in Tavira at lunchtime, and carted our panniers to a riverside tapas place called Mar a Montes. Big blessed (light) local beers, tuna steak, and codfish while we watched people walking by and the ferry from the barrier island come and go.

Our hotel was a short walk from there. The Hotel Vila Galé, “galé” meaning “galleon,” its logo a single-masted sailing ship, and we can think of no more suitable symbol for the maiden voyage of what will be the first of many, many European bike tours. Deep in the hotel’s basement parking garage sat our two boxed rental bikes, which we (read: David) wasted no time unpacking and setting up. They are a couple of aluminum-frame Fujis, the drive train somewhat inferior to what we’ve gotten used to…. We love our touring bikes back home, the Treks we rode last summer down the Pacific coast, and feel vaguely unfaithful to them when we mount these new and unfamiliar steeds. We’ve come to appreciate, already on this trip, how our bikes—carefully chosen, handlebars and saddle adjusted just so—feel like extensions of ourselves. These bikes are nothing like that, but we will get to know them as one gets to know passersby in a life. As an ice-breaker, we took these loaner steeds around Tavira, an eight-mile loop to get to know them and to get to know the town. Warm and thirsty, we stopped near the hotel for riverside white port-and-tonics.

White port and tonic, even better (and stronger) than they pour it in Porto

After a swim in the hotel pool we walked to dinner at Come na Gaveta, a sidewalk bistro with the usual fresh and simply prepared seafood, plus “octopus bombs,” octopus tempura … well, you get the idea: when in doubt, order the polvo (octopus).

Starting out with a plate of local cheeses and preserved pork products
Octopus bombs on the left, cuttlefish on the right

And when in doubt, go to a hotel bar called the Alibaba, have a couple (“dohsh,” the locals would say) copos de vinho, and listen to the one-man band belting out altogether too melancholic tunes for a lively Wednesday in the Algarve.

Thursday, May 23. First riding day, a short day, so we were in no hurry to get going, which was good as we had to sleep in a little on our last jet-lagged morning, solve a few mechanical issues, and do justice to the massive hotel breakfast (real bacon, an almighty spread of fresh fruit and delectable soft cheeses, tomatoes au gratin, and every kind of egg imaginable).

In short order we pedaled several dozen yards from the hotel entrance to the local service station, where two old-school paper road maps were going to have to take over from Ethel, our Garmin navigation device, who threw up her digital hands: she couldn’t help us in Portugal.

After a mile and half of tentative guesses and wrong turns, we finally found the main road, N125, which would take us out of town and all the way, one roundabout after another, to Faro. A fair amount of traffic, but our first impressions of Algarve drivers is that they’re surprisingly aware and respectful of bicyclists. We’ve seen a dozen or so Lycra dudes, serious cyclists who seem rashly to trust their impossibly skinny tires on the rough cobblestone ubiquitous in the “old towns” of Europe, and even fewer casual cyclists; we did meet, briefly, a duo of female German bike tourists making their way from Lisbon, into Spain, and back to Tavira. Despite the relative paucity of two-wheeled traffic, the drivers give us lots of room. Only one has honked so far, that after steering his or her red bug of a car halfway into “our” shoulder.

Buying inner tubes in Livramento. If there were bike shops in the Middle Ages, they would have looked like this one.

The best part of day one was not the mostly patient drivers or the well-maintained roads (they aren’t, but we’ve ridden much worse): it’s the big personalities of even the most nondescript small towns in Portugal, a colorful country whose natives like their street art. There are fewer of what those who know call “pieces”—short for masterpieces—here than in the big cities, but even the little roads have a rich graphic life, with cartoons and tags scrawled artfully on roadside walls, bridges, and buildings.

This building bore the name “Far West Style.”

Even once-sacred buildings seem not beyond the artists’ pale, including this (presumably deconsecrated) church in Olhao.

We arrived in Faro around 1:15, but an erratic and untrustworthy Google maps blue dot led us hither and thither, at length, in search of our hotel. We finally sighed a deep sigh and asked two friendly policemen to point us toward the Hotel Faro. The more helpful one, mistaking us for French as so many do, said with a tolerant smile and a flick of his wrist: “Regardez! Regardez!” Look, look, you sweaty foreigners: the hotel is right behind you. We checked in but couldn’t get into the room yet, so found a welcoming little café around the corner — the Café Aliança, third oldest in Portugal — where we had two large Sagres (the local light beer, pronounced Saa-grsh) and one pica-pau, a Portuguese favorite of tender, flavored beef, pickled cauliflower and carrots, pickles, olives and—thanks to an amicable host who had taken a shine to us—a little creamy beer sauce on top.

Bikes locked in yet another hotel basement, us showered and dressed for warm weather, we strolled the sunny cobblestone pedestrian streets of Faro, through narrow lanes lined with shops and cafes, overlooked by wrought-iron balconies, everything slightly dilapidated but still elegant and cheerful, open for business, ready to take on the summer hordes of tourists which we shall just miss. We wandered into the old walled town with its aristocratic palaces repurposed into civic offices and museums, and coming back out to the harborside, settled into a sidewalk table where local craft beer Algarve Rock was on offer.

And so to dinner, after a slight 22 flat miles (734 feet gained), thinking maybe tonight is the night for one of the Algarve’s famous cataplana dishes, some kind of meat-and-seafood mixture (usually featuring clams or cuttlefish) named for the clam-shaped cooking pot in which the food is prepared.

Around the bend

Ashley’s retrospective, written before reading David’s.

***

Why?” That was the response I got the first time I told a stranger what we were planning. I was with my mom and stepdad, buying a keychain from a saleswoman in an Eddie Bauer in Knoxville. My mom mentioned that David and I were about to take a long ride, and the lady flashed a skeptical look. She raised an eyebrow at me, clearly wanting more information. I shrugged, casual: it was still too far off, and I wasn’t sure we’d make it anyway, so I just mumbled, Canada to Mexico, like I was saying we were going to ride to the grocery store. “Why?”: her mystification was laced with some disdain. She didn’t see the point.

Her response isn’t unusual: many people think that bike tourists are crazy. On a dreary morning in Westport, David overheard some folks—staring at our parked bikes—saying, genuinely sad for us, “That doesn’t look like fun.” “They’re wrong,” I said, with the beginning of a smile, and all of a sudden I didn’t care about the bone-chilling wetgray start.

The “why” question, after all, is easy to answer. To see if we can. To feel stronger. To travel through a spectacularly beautiful part of the country going 10-12 mph—exactly the right speed at which to pass (for example) among the towering redwoods, which David always likens—rightly—to a cathedral. On a bike, you can smell them, you can hear the rustling, you can live within the mist. You’re deep in the forest long enough to get how differently the light plays on the road here; and when you’re alone on the road, when there is no traffic, it’s hard not to appreciate the justness of Ben Wyatt’s enthusiastic revelation, in the final season of Parks & Rec: “Wait—this is Endor!”

Every blur from a car window is a whole moment in bike-time. On a bike, when you’re riding close to the ocean your lips get a little salty; on a bike, when you’re riding close to the ocean, occasionally you have to spit out a grain of sand. Why ride? For the sensory overload. For the chance to know a place in a way you just can’t at 60 miles an hour.

Why ride? Because our route took us off the major roads at every opportunity, which meant seeing the small towns and the back roads and the residential streets. I didn’t realize, before the tour, just how often we’d be riding through neighborhoods, winding our way through streets named “Maple” and “Elm” and “Main.” I like thinking about how it would feel to live in a place, and on a bike you get much more opportunity to fill out those imaginings. You know how far a spot of farmhouses is from the closest general store; you eat where the locals eat, not at the Starbucks just off the highway.

Why ride? Eight words: cheeseburgers all the time; ice cream for lunch.

Why ride? For the thrill of not knowing the road you’re about to cover. Part of the excitement of every day for me was that I couldn’t visualize what was coming: when I put head to pillow at night, I knew a stretch of ground that had been a blank in my mind 14 hours earlier. And there’s the more immediate rush: coming around a blind corner, you see a wall of asphalt that breaks your heart, or a rolling road that extends into forever, or a perfectly graded declining S-curve that you just know will be a blast. Or you come back in sight of the sweeping Pacific and find that you’re succeeding at not taking that awesome vista for granted.

Or, just around that corner, you find the stray convenience store you knew was around here somewhere, and it’s ice cold Gatorade and fresh water and a little something sweet, all you need to go another 20 or 40 or 60 miles.

7-11 sidewalk snack outside of Santa Barbara.

Every now and then, on the other side of a curve there’s the funniest sign you’ve seen on the trip, the one you wish you’d immortalized in a picture and now can’t remember, or, smack in the middle of nowhere, there’s the Marshall Oyster Bar, and it’s a lively scene, the deck at maximum capacity, everyone with a pint of lager in one hand and a dozen raw before them. (My only regret of the trip: not stopping there.)

Or, maybe, there’s a memorial to a couple of bicyclists who died on this selfsame stretch of road, and that takes your breath away, sobers you and saddens you, and reminds you that any day that ends with you touching head to pillow is a superlatively good day.

Memorial for two bicyclists, who died on this road (near San Onofre) a few years apart. The water bottles are inked with solemn messages; we stopped to pay our respects.

For better or worse, around the bend there’s something you need to see.

Some friends have asked what I think about when I’m riding. A day-ride around Reno, maybe it’s nothing more than the article I’m trying to write or the class I’m prepping or what I need from the grocery store. But this tour was a pilgrimage, the saddle a sacred spot. So here’s what I didn’t think about. Politics. I didn’t think about the national and international crises through which we’re living. That’s poison, and there’s always time to worry about that later in the day. I didn’t think about my job. I most definitely didn’t think about the dean or the provost or student learning outcomes or workday or curriculog. No, I was reflecting on better things. I wish there were a way to talk about it without revealing how cheesy and earnest I am, but facts are facts: riding, I feel grateful. To have a job that provides the time and resources to do this sort of thing. To have legs that work, lungs that work. To have a partner in life who is game for this and for even crazier things—but more on that in a moment. And I think a lot about the fact that I never thought I’d be living the kind of life in which these adventures are possible.

Here’s what I mean. Apologies for what might seem a lengthy digression, but it’s the best example I have of where my head went many days.

The first time in my life I set eyes upon the Golden Gate Bridge it was from a distance, on a particularly demoralizing day during a particularly demoralizing moment in my life. I was on the job market, and the job market was essentially non-existent; I was at the Modern Language Association meeting, along with thousands of other desperate seekers-of-employment, many of them vastly smarter than myself and all of them, I’m certain, more skilled at interviewing. All of them chasing what scraps there were. I’d never been to San Francisco before. I’d never been west. I was broke. I was only in the city for two full days, and I used my free time—between the two interviews I had, both of which were enormously uncomfortable and awkward and so obviously unsuccessful there wasn’t even a pro forma you’ll hear from us—to go see this iconic bit of urban America. I had only interview clothes with me, including black boots hardly meant for trekking. I didn’t know how to pack. I didn’t know how to travel. And I didn’t understand urban sprawl. I’d been in London, but only really going back and forth between a cheap B&B and the British Library. I’d never smelled urine in public. I’d never hailed a cab. It never occurred to me to think about what the right shoes were for how big a city this turned out to be. But I soldiered on, walking and walking and walking, up and down and up and up and up the relentlessly steep sidewalks of SF. I got hungry; my feet hurt; it was taking way too long, and I didn’t know how I’d cope with navigating myself back to the hotel—which now seemed several zip codes behind me—especially after dark. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt more like a bumpkin than I did during that long walk, and my endeavor turned out to be futile. I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get close enough to feel I’d made it. If I live to be an old woman, I’ll never forget the lamely reassuring pep talk I gave myself: this was Adequate, I told myself. I could sort of see it, in the distance. Sure, I didn’t really know what color it was, and I had no sense of scale. But this Counted. I had seen the bridge. I could check that box. And I almost bought it. But when I starting retracing my steps I felt heavy, and as the bridge receded behind me I knew: I’d failed. I had settled for trying to do one tourist thing and I hadn’t even managed that. I was hungrier than before. My feet hurt more. I wasn’t going to get a job. And I’d probably never be in this place again.

Those darkest most Eeyorish prophecies turned out to be wrong, but I don’t blame myself for the gloom. In many ways I was the same kid I’d always been: shy, spooked, afraid of what was to come. The future was a terrifying blank. By the time I was wandering the streets of SF, about the most I could imagine was a halfway decent job any old where, and I’d have been thrilled to get it. The abortive pilgrimage to the bridge seemed to underscore the fact that I wasn’t the kind of person who should have a bucket list. I didn’t even have a suitcase.

I’m certain that this is why the only time I cried during our tour was pedaling across that bridge. It was cold. Gray. The pedestrian-path was thickly crowded with tourists either oblivious or clumsy or both. The headwind was considerable. The traffic, high-volume and thunderous. These were not ideal riding conditions. And yet: I’m not sure that I’ve ever been more euphoric on a bike. It’s not like I hadn’t seen the bridge again since that wretched MLA meeting. I’d gotten a job in the west. I’d bar-hopped in The City, gone to ball games, enjoyed the kind of food that the girl I was before couldn’t even have imagined. I’d walked on the bridge. I knew what color it was, knew the scale. But this was different. This was on the bucket list I’d finally—presumptuously? defiantly?—created even before my life started taking shape.

For a moment, I imagined that I shared a spot on the time-space continuum with that twenty-something in the wrong boots. I imagined that she was still walking the streets many many blocks away from this later iteration of herself. “Hang in there,” I said aloud, only to myself, still weepy. “It’s going to get better,” I told her.

There was a surprising amount of that on this ride: of conjuring up and conversing with that girl I used to be. I wonder what she’d make of all of it. There was a lot of me thanking her for staying in the game when the going got tough—for staying in the game long enough to get to this remarkable life.

I also think about my ghosts. I think about Stephen, and try to guess what he’d have to say about this or that—about the funny signs and the crazy folks along the way in weird America, or about the fact of this ride, or about the Angels game. I think about Rufus, and how he’d worry, and about how much I miss the very special way in which he worried about me, about all of us. And I think of the people who still populate my life, about those who are struggling, those who are sick and scared or otherwise lost and anxious or lonely. I spent a lot of miles wondering if we’re doing right by them, if I am.

Our friend Doug, just before a stem cell transplant. We visited him in Palo Alto about halfway through the ride. He’s leaving the hospital as I write, continuing to kick cancer’s a**.

I always say that I never feel more alive than when I’m riding. That’s not just the sense of your body working hard for you, not just the thrill of being self-propelled, healthy, if not strong at least strong enough, at least stronger every mile. It’s bigger than that, deeper than that. I feel alive because I’m thinking simultaneously about the long sometimes tumultuous past, about the present—my legs burn now, I want a cookie now, that particular pothole might be a game-changer and not in a good way—and about the future. I make plans. I fantasize about a bike tour through Europe, imagining the different routes and the different bikes and the different bike setups. I think about the details of the upcoming nuptials in Costa Rica, and enjoy being excited about every single part of that. And about the wedding party, a year from now, somewhere local, all of the details up in the air—where and when and with what grub and with what playlist, and so on and so on. I daydream way into the future, think about how nomadic we’ll be when I retire at the first opportunity. I spin fantasies about how it’d be to live a month in the Outback or a semester in New Orleans. I try to decide if I really want to teach abroad for a semester, and yes—sorry Lassen, sorry Patxi—I really do.

But, okay, yeah, it’s not always like that. There’s more going on in my head and it’s way less meaningful. I’m also judging lame personalized license plates (looking at you, “U C ME”; so many reasons, “Y U HATN”). I’m trying to remember all the words to “Hallelujah.” I’m cataloguing interesting roadside detritus, and thinking about my contribution to the daily blog. I’m brainstorming about birthday presents.

I try to figure out what time we’ll get into town and what route to take so that we can visit all three brewpubs and still try what everyone says is the best spot for dinner. I do battle with whatever earworm David has managed to get stuck in my head—which he does, invariably, and now I’ve said the worst that anyone can say about him. Just when I least expect it, when we’re side-by-side for a couple of seconds as a red light turns green, he’ll mutter, “blew out my flip flop,” and, poof, there goes my afternoon, miles and miles covered while I try to evict Jimmy Buffett and his lost shaker of salt from my head.

Some friends have asked what we took with us. Lightweight camping gear: itty-bitty tent, sleeping bags, pads, a stove, itty-bitty chamois towels, matches, itty-bitty bottles of dish and body soap, a lightweight solar lantern, two titanium cups and bowls, two sporks, one fuel canister, two freeze-dried meals just in case, and a bottle opener. A first-aid kit (which we barely touched). My clothes list: two pairs of underwear; two sports bras; two pairs of riding shorts; two riding shirts; a wool racerback tank that I wore under my jersey almost every day and which, wool or no wool, got powerful smelly; a quick-dry t-shirt; a pair of gym shorts; a pair of long, stretchy, gray wool pants for evenings; a long-sleeved wool half-zip which I wore most mornings; two pairs of socks; flip flops; bike shoes; a beanie; a ball cap; a hot-pink riding vest; a rain jacket; rain pants; leg warmers; arm warmers; mittens and toe-socks for camping; and short- and long-fingered bike gloves. In Astoria, freezing, I bought a hoodie. I should’ve taken a lightweight warmer jacket (luckily our friend, Tom, loaned me an old one of his in Santa Cruz, so the last stage was the warmest stage). We also brought an iPad, Ziploc baggies (useful for icing the knees), Phase-10 (our camping card game of choice), a bag of chargers, headlamps, bike tools, some power bars, an itty-bitty pack of detergent for doing laundry in hotel tubs and sinks, a travel clothesline, eco-friendly wet wipes, and a whole lot of sunblock, which David used by the gallon and I applied strategically to my ears and nose.

Photo proof that I don’t use sunblock responsibly.

We each brought a fat Victorian novel, which we mailed home from Astoria because we didn’t have time to read, and then we each bought another one in Arcata which we never touched.

My least favorite parts of the ride. Road so rough and rutted (why, La Jolla? you’re better than that!) that at best you jam your wrists and worry whether your bike will live to fight another day. Road kill: both the smell and the sight, whether it’s a heart-wrenchingly adorable Bambi or a skunk. (Raccoons were the most common. No dogs or cats, which is good, because one is all it would’ve taken for me to be on a flight home.) Camping: the tent was too tiny (it’s so small, Stephen would say, you have to go outside to change your mind), and the super-light pads were too thin.

Beverly Beach: or, as I’ll say for the rest of my life, that one time I camped in Oregon.

Crotch-rockets and their must-be-compensating-for-something riders. The scrambled eggs you get for breakfast in cheap hotels. Crosswind. Construction zones. Bugs. That I didn’t love riding in heavy traffic with vanishingly small shoulders goes without saying.

The good parts are too many to count. My favorite days were the two between Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay, when Highway 1 became—for me—a character in the story. Those S-curves, endlessly interesting, each a little different from the rest—steep and not so steep, varyingly winding.

I think of playing Phase-10 by the fire in Elma, our best camping night, and about Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville, day 2, where we had our first solo dinner of the tour. The food was underwhelming, but it was one of the friendliest, liveliest spots of the whole trip, and we had the whole road ahead.

I think of our one white-tablecloth experience, the place we went reluctantly because it was all there was and because Lyft doesn’t yet operate in Bandon, OR.

Sunset over Bandon.

I absolutely loved the little local non-chain convenience stores and markets—in Langlois (Lang-loy) and in Valley Ford and just before the Leggett climb.

The Langlois general store, which we found just as I was getting hangry.

The Peg House.

The day of the Leggett—Garberville to Fort Bragg—would be my favorite day if it weren’t for the two that followed, and when I’m an old woman I think I’ll remember every detail about it. The richness of the double fudge brownies we downed before starting the ascent, the shady spots where we stopped to have some water along the way, when—as sometimes happened—we had a little shoulder to occupy.

The glorious descent with beautifully, perfectly graded curves built for speed; my bike was never so horizontal to the ground as on that day—well, except for the day I fell plumb over in a couple inches of sand when I wasn’t moving and couldn’t get out of my clip pedals. (That also happened to be–of course–the day I had five very breakable pint glasses in my bag; they survived.)

There are more highlights than I can count or catalogue: every time we picked the right breakfast place; getting to eat Fruit Loops in the morning and ice cream for lunch without feeling guilty about it; the first pint after 70 miles; arrival in LOM-poke after our first touring century; coastal sunsets; salty lips; eating a makeshift lunch on a patch of dirt marking the entrance to a fancy-pants neighborhood on Memorial Day:

Every single summit, even the ittiest-bittiest. Buying a fresh set of clothes in San Diego so we wouldn’t be thrown out of a halfway decent restaurant. The hat store in Santa Barbara. Eating sandwiches in the cold outside a grocery store in Centralia (day 5), feeling pretty miserable—until an older woman, limping slightly, stopped by our bench: “Oh, good for you! I always wanted to do that. Always wanted to….” She trailed off, looked at her bum leg, smiled sadly, and added, “Can’t now. Never did, and can’t now.” I didn’t know what to say, but I knew what to feel: cold, yes; tired, yes; sore, yes; lucky, definitely.

The road trip to Bend, and lunch at the Klamath Basin Brewery, when we were full of excitement and had no idea how anything would go, and the road trip back, stopping at In-n-Out, for the first time not having to keep an eye on our bikes, equal parts satisfied and excited to be Reno-bound and melancholic. Stopping at Walmart in Ridgecrest for cheap CDs to pass the time (Prince was our best choice).

There are others:

After riding along the coast for hundred of miles, I couldn’t resist any longer. I propped my bike up against a tree, took off my shoes, and then…rode all the way to Oceanside with sand in my socks.

Dinner upon arrival in Malibu.

Accidental shot, but see the fog on the starboard side…

Finally getting to the ocean, a week in. Seaside.

The view from Buoy Brewing. We went to 35 breweries on this trip, and this was our favorite.

Swapping stories with fellow tourists. Michael, far left, we met again in San Diego.

Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge.

On the ferry to Coronado, less than 20 miles from the Mexican border. The last day.

The view in the foreground didn’t change.

We managed to ship, carry, or send with friends 30+ pint glasses. Drink local, y’all.

Before this tour, I didn’t fully understand some things about touring life. One is that you get used to peeing anywhere. I’ve imagined myself a lot of places, but not once in all my years have I pictured myself squatting behind a guardrail—think, how-low-can-you-go—on a plenty crowded overpass. Not much more of me could’ve been visible than a few split ends, proof that in an emergency situation you can become a lot more flexible than you think you are. Oh, we looked for a more private place, but between the time my bladder announced that something would have to be done and that guardrail at rush hour, there was nothing but land being actively worked, fruit farmers and men on tractors. Not a port-a-potty to be seen. There were a number of similar roadside experiences, and sometimes there was no guardrail, no tree, no shrubbery; in that case you wait for a break in traffic. After this bike tour, that’s what I’ve got: killer memories; 30 pint glasses; a tan; strong legs; and I could medal in quick-peeing.

The emblems of touring life for me are laundry hanging everywhere and whatever-fuel-you-can-get.

This was an amazing ride, and it wouldn’t have been as much fun—or, in some cases, possible—without friends and family. I can’t tell you how much it means that so many folks were riding along with us; it certainly raised the potential shame factor sufficiently high to keep us pedaling even on those rare moments when we didn’t quite know if we could. We owe enormous thanks to those who helped along the way: Todd and Cindy; Joseph; Travis and Katie and Reina and Zara; Jan; Winona and Sergio; Tom; and Eric and Vicky and Arden.

And my mom was willing to be dragged around to every bike shop in Roanoke in early May, a good sport and eager to do anything to help us make the trip work. Thanks to all the friendly passersby who asked us, when we were stopped along the side of the road refueling or checking the map, if we were okay, and to those who offered directions, or—as with the woman outside Arcata—affirmation that the path ahead was the right one. Thanks to the lovely Oregon couple we met overlooking the sand dunes who took the first picture of the tour that we’re both in. They said they’d pray for us, and, well, who couldn’t use more of that.

Thanks to Elisabeth, not only our cat-sitter but also my friend and manatee (long story). She kept the cats pics coming, inspiring me to pedal on to get home to these guys.

Thanks to the nice folks in Elma who gave us 8 gigantic cookies; there was a little surge of joy every time we remembered, over the next few days, that we still had cookies in our handlebar bags. Thanks to the strangers who stopped us to say that they’d give anything to take our place; especially in the early, leg-sore, butt-sore days, that was an inspiring reminder, just what we needed to keep the right perspective. And a shout-out to all the drivers who were paying just enough attention, who moved over enough, who didn’t honk or yell, who hung back until we’d gone around the blind curve, and who—occasionally—gave us a wave.

The biggest thanks come last: I would never have been able to ride this ride if it weren’t for David, the most up-for-anything and ready-for-anything and capable-of-anything touring companion and life partner a girl could ask for. I’m not always easy: I want a lot out of every day. He tolerates my ridiculous demands for more, and more, and more, my relentless insistence on optimizing every experience, but he’s wise and kind and attentive, and helps me see when I’m pushing too hard. When I say I couldn’t have done it without him, I don’t just mean because he’s the guy who pumps up the tires and lubes the chain, or because he’s my navigator and almost always finds our way. He’s also the one who makes me laugh at myself when I’m a little too uptight, and when in these troubled times what I see is darkness, and that darkness makes it hard to function, he’s the one who shines the light. He keeps me warm. What sunblock I use is because of him. He’s my favorite person, my constant companion, and if I couldn’t toast with him at the end of a 70-miler there would be no point to the ride or the pint.

I’ll hang on to the redwoods and the kiss-your-butt curves of Highway 1 and the crush of the waves, to the oysters in Florence and the saganaki in San Diego, to the view from Yamashiro and the bookstores in Arcata—but none of it means as much or will stay as vivid as the ritual high-five at the end of each day, or the before-bed episode of Friends in every cheap hotel along the way, or the signals we developed to check in with each other while we’re riding (“everything okay,” we ask, with a tap on the top of our helmet). The heartbreaking hills were not mine and his but ours, and so was everything else, and the best answer to the question—why?—is that WE are better and stronger for riding this ride together.

David, squared.

He can ride and play, though probably not at the same time.

Goofing at the cannibalism exhibit, Museum of Man, San Diego.

Big Sur.

And yeah: I’m sad that it’s over. I’m glad to be home, to cuddle my cats and see friends and hang out in a house I love and float the river and have more than two pair of underwear. But when I snapped a picture of our bike-filled rental van, with San Diego in the rearview mirror, I felt the loss.

We planned this for a long time, had our sights on it for more than two years, and now it’s behind us, part of the past, done and not to be redone. But as the days go on, I catch myself living more in the present than in the tour, looking more and more ahead. They say pedaling backwards is hard on the knees—and in any case, there’s always something new around the bend, something up ahead I need to see.

David’s PacCoast Bike Tour Retrospective

(Note: Stay tuned for Ashley’s own retrospective, coming soon!)


It’s been a week since Ashley & I returned from our Pacific Coast bicycle tour, which ended at the Mexican border on June 28th. img_1108

The beginning, on May 25th at the Peace Park on the US-Canadian border

Since then, we’ve done a few rides around Reno, and have already come to appreciate beyond words our newer, lighter road bikes, which leap forward with each pedal stroke rather than slowly lumber into motion like our heavily loaded touring bikes.

IMG_0712.jpgThis beast, a Trek 520, weighed in at about 75 pounds loaded, bike and water bottles included. Note the fog, politely keeping its distance offshore.

We did notice our lungs burning with the altitude, nearly a mile above where we’ve been riding at oxygen-rich sea level. But our legs feel strong, able to surmount formerly challenging hills with relative ease thanks to cranking those heavy bikes up and down coastal grades for 35 days. Total elevation gained on the trip = 87,553 feet. That amounts to over 16.5 miles, or an average of 2918 feet of climbing every one of 30 riding days. Biggest climbing day was #18, 5972 feet from Garberville to Fort Bragg CA on a 69-mile day. Weeniest was Day 31, Malibu to Santa Monica, a whopping 186 feet in 8.3 miles, which barely counts as an actual riding day.

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The last big climb of the tour: the Purisima Hills between Guadalupe and LOM-poke CA, a 1000-footer that came near the end of a 100-mile day.

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Red-blooded Ashley takes a stand in rural western Washington.

I am still nostalgic for the open road, but glad, excited even, to be home. There is particular comfort in one’s daily routines when they’ve been disrupted for five weeks. There’s something reassuring about one’s own soap, shower, bedding, kitchen, desk. I love my reading chair, the spot on the carpet where I stretch every morning and listen to NPR, and the Adirondack chair on the front porch where I drink my coffee and spy on the neighborhood. It’s overwhelmingly wonderful to be able to choose from more than two shirts or three pairs of socks. And, of course, there’s the pitter-patter of little paws. Mark Twain said it best: “‘A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”

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Ashley & Lassen get reacquainted.

Our sense of place is reinforced by the cats, and the neighbors, and the Truckee River, and visits with family and friends. Our yard is exploding with flowers (even if the lawn got a little dry, and the roses are mostly faded, and we missed the cherries from our trees).

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We didn’t miss them on the Oregon coast, though.

We live in a beautiful place, in a quiet, well-tended neighborhood on the western edge of the Great Basin, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, and sometimes it takes an extended absence to really appreciate our good fortune.

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Day #7 of being home: Sergio, Winona & Ashley floating the Truckee from our backyard to downtown.

As T.S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

While a traveler by plane, train, or automobile might remember every day in detail of a one- or two-week journey, all 36 days of our tour are difficult for me to recall one-by-one in order without some effort, precisely because, traveling at an average speed of 10 miles per hour, there were so many more details. Maybe the days also blur together a little bit because a good part of each one was routine: eat a big and usually motel-grade breakfast, choose which shirt and shorts and socks were dry from rinsing out the night before or at least less smelly, repack the panniers, fill the water bottles with a 50%-water-50% Gatorade blend, check the brakes and perhaps top off the tires, don gloves, helmet, and glasses, review the route, groan a little bit for effect, flex one’s knees, roll the bikes through the door, check out of the room, and only then start off down the road, remembering maybe a hundred yards later to turn on our taillights.

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A mid-morning checkout from the Coast Inn at Point Arena. Taillights not yet on.

However, in addition to these routines, every day offered new roads, sights, smells, and logistical challenges. When I look back in my mind’s eye along our route, I find I can now conjure up a much more accurate and detailed mental map of the West Coast. As if from some low-flying supersonic reconnaissance aircraft, I can visualize the scenery, in geographical order from the Canadian border along Puget Sound, and the Oregon and California coasts, through metro areas and farming districts, past resorts and state parks galore, all the way to San Diego Bay – from fir and spruce forests beneath snowcapped volcanoes, along rivers and tidal mudflats, through redwoods and oak-dotted golden-grassy hills, up and down the capes and promontories of windswept Highways 101 and 1, to dry desert mountains, palm trees, and endless surfing beaches.

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Near Elk CA

Most of these transitions were gradual, and looking back it’s hard to pinpoint any sudden or dramatic changes other than at the very end, when affluent and cosmopolitan San Diego …

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… gave way, in just a few miles, to the heavily fortified Mexican-American border at the ironically misnamed “Friendship Park”:

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I got yelled at by the Border Patrol for stepping too close to the wall.

Also, thanks to riding so many hours with only my own mind for company — except the occasional hand signal exchanged with Ashley (slap top of helmet = “you all right?” or wave hand downward like flag = “I’m going to stop here!”) and also excepting the rare opportunities to pedal and converse side-by-side — I’m more familiar with my inner landscape. For example, I have somehow developed a built-in, shockproof, high-fidelity iTunes app that plays in my mind’s ear every rhythmic, harmonic, and lyrical nuance of thousands of jazz, folk, and rock tunes. Sometimes this app will play a song I have not heard or thought about in decades. Sometimes – well, often – it will hang on a particularly obnoxious earworm, which I won’t give examples of here because, well, that’s how they reproduce. Other times, though, my “I-pod” would sample a particular bar or bars of music and, like a minimalist composer, repeat and elaborate it like a slowly evolving mantra, propelling me up the hill or into a headwind with its insistent energy, or else slowly driving me (temporarily) bonkers.

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The musical mural outside Travis’s bagel shop in Arcata CA.

I would sometimes try to mute this app and think of other stuff: work, course syllabi, plans and projects for the summer and beyond, the national news, my checkered past. But I’m a compulsive note taker, and it was too frustrating to come up with an idea or insight and not be able to stop right then and jot it down. Plenty of time for more structured thinking later, I told myself. I came to appreciate, in the same way a traditional pilgrimage can free one from the limitations and obsessions of daily life, that riding 5-7 hours a day, dealing with discomforts and embracing simplicity, allowed me to empty my mind and let it wander. I’d focus on my breathing, slowing down and getting the panting under control, trying to cleanse the lungs with each exhalation, and find that the music had stopped, the obsessive thoughts had drifted away, and I was — at least for the time being — blissfully aware of my surroundings.

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When I skim my visual memory of the more than 1830.7 miles we traveled, plenty of vivid snapshots pop up. To pick a few at random, in absolutely no geographical order:

  • the sudden and impossibly steep hill out of Hood Canal right after breakfast in Belfair WA that, for the first of several times during the tour, forced me to shamefully dismount:

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Ashley at the Hood Canal bridge, Nordland WA. It was that pissant little ridge over there, further south, that the next morning presented us with a post-breakfast 12% grade (at least).

  • the rolling ride along the broad and majestic Columbia River to our first day off where it meets the sea in Astoria OR:

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The mighty Columbia conveniently rolls right by the Buoy Beer Company

  • the silent, shady, and towering Humboldt County redwood groves, like riding through a Gothic cathedral:

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Along the Avenue of the Giants, an uncrowded and peaceful alternative to Highway 101. Ashley is following two other tourists we had met earlier that day, Mike and his daughter Christina. We heard later that they’d reached San Diego, but we didn’t run into them there.

  • coming in sight of the craggy northern California coast after the much-dreaded but do-able Leggett Hill (which is actually two hills) and then flying with a tailwind along Highway 1 into Fort Bragg

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Ashley shares the tailwind towards Fort Bragg with Kristof, a German tourist we’d met the day before. He was riding from Seattle to San Francisco in athletic shorts and tennis shoes. “I am killed,” he said after the Leggett hill.

  • riding through the brilliant Big Sur morning fog, seeing blue sky above and hearing seals barking and surf breaking far below:

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  • a long, early-evening descent out of the Purisima Hills into the Lompoc Valley (“LOM-poke”) after our first and only 100-mile day:

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Summit fever! The LOM-poke Valley below, with Pacific coastal fog beyond.

  • the paved trails wandering past volleyball nets and lifeguard stands through the many southern California beach towns:

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Entering Huntington Beach

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Manhattan Beach, where the volleyball teams were already gathering

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The somewhat more congested Mission Beach bike path

  • a sudden and surprise ascent from the traffic-choked boulevards of greater LA to a wide-open bike path along the Los Angeles River:

 

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From the busy industrial and shopping districts of Carson and Torrance to an almost empty bike path, all the way to Long Beach

 

Because of the slower pace, closer proximity to the road and intensified attention to one’s surroundings, a bicyclist travels through a much more granular landscape than a motorist, and seemingly minor details gain greater significance.

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You probably notice more from a Model A at 35 mph than you do from behind the tinted windows of a modern sedan doing 65. Ashley’s had her double-chocolate espresso brownie and is ready to race this guy up the Leggett hill.

I tried to scribble the best of these into my notebook, but most went unrecorded and have already been forgotten. What I remember:

  • attaining the summit of some nasty little rural hill to see a street sign reading “Random Place”
  • noticing a camouflaged fawn bounding along the other side of the guardrail as if racing me
  • among a growing catalogue of roadside litter, riding past what appeared to be a samurai sword, scabbard and all, lost or discarded on the highway shoulder
  • a roadside shop in Toledo WA advertising “Insurance, Taxes, Espresso”
  • the northbound bicyclist wearing a fedora and carrying what appeared to be a pile of luggage on his rear rack

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Michael, from Singapore, was also riding from Canada to Mexico. He ran into us at breakfast in Valley Ford CA, and two weeks later, as we were sightseeing on the day after we returned from the Mexican border, Ashley recognized his unmistakeable plaid bike jersey riding along the San Diego harbor, headed south to finish his trip.

  • the shaved-head Central California guy in a battered Ford pickup, passing rather closely and rudely, with a window sticker “No Lives Matter”
  • the dually pickup roaring past, license plate “BIGBTM”
  • looking up to notice the juxtaposition of two signs along the Columbia River, one on an elementary school – “LEARNING, GROWING” – and just beyond it, on a recreational weed dispensary,  “CANNABIS”

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More dispensaries in Oregon that you can count, in towns of every size; this one beckons from a few yards north of the California border

  • Along Tomales Bay, the Marshall Store, one of many shacks offering oysters & beer:

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  • this drawing of the Big Sur coast on a dusty truck window in the Ripplewood Resort parking lot:

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Or this odd stump at Fort Ross in northern California:

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Or this yard sculpture outside Bandon OR:

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And does a rider ever smell the smells! Honeysuckle, jasmine, BBQ, woodsmoke, sea breeze, seaweed, truck exhaust, dead mammals, live cows, horses, portapotties, sewer plants, fried food, strawberries, wild fennel, sun-dried grasses, cigar smoke from passing cars, sesame and peanut oils from Chinese restaurants, French fries from fast food franchises, mud flats, fermenting pasturage, fresh-baked sea salt caramel cookies …

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Snagged by the smell of Cayucos CA

Mostly I think about how amazingly lucky we were. We had the time, and the health, to do this ride. We were able to buy good equipment. Aside from a few scattered drops in Florence OR and a nighttime shower in Arcata CA, it never rained or snowed or sleeted on us. It never felt too hot or too cold, except maybe briefly. The coastal fog cooperatively kept offshore, or burned off early in the day. It was so unaccountably clear in the Pacific Northwest that for three straight days we saw Mt. Rainier’s glacier dome, usually wreathed in clouds, on the distant horizon:

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We experienced no accidents, bad falls, major breakages or mechanical (or emotional) breakdowns. At times we took a wrong turn or paused in uncertainty, but we never got lost, thanks to our maps and our devices (shout-outs to Ethel, and Adventure Cycling) and one bearded old man north of Langlois, Oregon who stepped out of the woods like an Old Testament prophet to point the way.

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What I saw when I looked down: Ethel (a Garmin 1030, named after the Parks and Recreation character Ethel Beavers) and one of the Adventure Cycling Pacific Coast route maps

We spent no unplanned nights out, never went without a meal, were never short of water (though we did worry a couple of times). We always found well-reviewed and well-priced lodgings close to our route, thanks to hotels.com, and though several came up short in one department or another, they were all at least acceptable. Well, maybe not this place:

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But this place, for damn sure:

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The beautiful (and reasonably priced) Bodega Bay Inn

We never met a genuinely nasty person, and although very rarely a vehicle might have come uncomfortably close, once or twice perhaps by design, we never felt threatened. And we were cursed with only two flat tires – and each of those in convenient locations. It’s what we call “our bubble.”

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Flat tire #1 of 2, northern Oregon coast

Bubble or not, we couldn’t have done it without the folks who showed up to help us along the way: our dear friends Todd & Cindy, Joseph, Katie & Travis, Jan, Tom, Eric & Vicky & Arden, and John; and our family, Winona & Sergio.

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Sergio & Winona, who resupplied us in Santa Cruz; and Tom, who shuttled us around the Big Sur road closure.

Also our family & friends who followed our progress via this blog and sent us their kind comments and encouragement; and by the anonymous passers-by, motorists, motel clerks, servers, pubtenders, Lyft drivers and others who gave us a smile and sometimes offered advice and assistance should we have needed it. Thanks to that cop in Rio Dell who assured us we’d have no problem with the Leggett climb, advising us to pre-load with a chocolate brownie from the Peg House, and thanks to the woman motorist just north of Arcata who shamed us — in a nice way —  into taking the bike path even though part of it — a steep part, as it turned out — was said to be steep & unpaved. And it was … but we did it.

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Thanks to all the motels and hotels who let us keep our bikes in the room – we swear we never left a grease spot or cleaned our chains with your washcloths. And to the many, many cars and trucks who hung back behind us on blind curves or narrow roadways until the coast was clear.

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And I’m saving the biggest and most heartfelt thanks for my riding partner, my life partner, my fiancée, my constant companion  — Ashley. Her passion for exploration, her energy, her sense of humor, and her amazing ability to crank a loaded musk ox of a touring bike up a steep grade with only two chainrings, along with her generosity, patience, and enthusiasm for new experiences have reaffirmed my admiration and deepened my already considerable love for this remarkable woman. Besides, on two occasions she stood in her pedals to chase a car that brushed too closely to me, once getting alongside and remonstratively rapping on its side window.

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Ashley reaps the rewards of a tour well done at the Pacific Beach Fish Shop.

As for the end of the day, Clifin Francis, a math teacher from Kerala, India, sums it up in a few well-chosen words. Francis, who at about the same time that we were touring the Pacific Coast rode a $700 bike he bought in Dubai 2600 miles from Iran to Moscow to see his hero Lionel Messi play in the World Cup, wrote that “cycling takes you back to the primitive necessities of life. What you need at the end of the day is a shower, nice place to pitch your tent and good food and you are happy.” For us, a shower for sure, in a clean & preferably cheap motel, and a brewpub. That’s what made us happy. And we were happy, one way or the other, at the end of each and every day. As long as there was beer. And there always was.

 

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The Pier Chowder House & Tap Room, Point Arena CA.

As someone once said, when you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing. Our Pacific Coast tour has ended, but we will ride on, always seeking new journeys and destinations, while never losing sight of home sweet home.


 

The Finish Line

Day 35, the last day of our Pacific Coast bicycle tour, was different from most for more reasons than just its finality. Instead of a skanky no-tell motel, we stayed in a big-city downtown hotel (where we’ll also R&R for the next three nights); instead of riding point-to-point we rode an out-and-back route (19.2 miles to the border, and weirdly 18.9 back the exact same route, the difference due to Einsteinian relativity, perhaps); and in just a few of those miles we were catapulted from affluent and preppy San Diego to the barren and heavily fortified Mexican-American border.

After being stuck on the third floor of a Best Western Plus for a few minutes due to a broken elevator, our last riding day started with a 15-minute trip to Coronado Island on the San Diego harbor ferry.

Once on the island, we caught a bike path that took us past downtown shops, yacht basins and golf courses, past the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, and then southward out along a narrow spit that stretches between ocean and bay for miles through dunes and marshy grasslands, past hotels, gated enclaves, and ecological reserves and wildlife viewing areas on the bay side, and fenced-off US Navy property on the other. There were quite a few fellow cyclists, mostly Lycra-clad and riding hard; none of them were going where we were going. The day was mostly sunny with a light northwest wind.

Once we turned off the bike path in Imperial Beach, it was a whole different scene. The homes and businesses were humbler, the streets still wide but badly in need of repair, and within a few miles we had left the service-station fast-food suburbs and were riding through rural scrubland, the vast but dry Tijuana River estuary, with a long steep deserty ridge in front of us that we soon realized, as the rough road made a sharp right turn to the west, was Mexico. Almost in a instant, it felt like, we were a hundred miles and maybe as many years from sprawling, touristy, glittering hi-tech California.

A few more miles and the road turned to sandy gravel– we’d reached the end of the line, the so-called “Mexican-American Friendship Park,” which didn’t feel very friendly at all.

There was a small picnic area, and relatively well-maintained bathrooms, but it was anything but park-like. Soon we realized that it felt–and apparently functions–more as a prison visitation site. Just beyond the “park” there was a lane of pavement which was–several sternly-worded signs told us–off limits. No one allowed on the pavement except for border patrolmen. David tried to step closer for a look and a blank-faced BP agent in mirror shades stuck his head out of the official vehicle that had been idling near us: “you’re not supposed to be there.”

On the other side of the forbidden road was the “wall,” a high barrier of graphite-colored metal staves conforming to the slope of the ground and extending some distance into the ocean. Beyond that, a small DMZ between this barrier and another just like it twenty yards farther south. Signs warned of rattlesnakes, and bad water.

The space between the two barriers is called, again euphemistically, the Friendship Circle and Bi-National Garden. It was neither friendly nor a garden (and also not circular, actually). That space, heavily secured, is apparently open for four hours on Saturday and Sunday, during which periods family members separated by the border can visit under what is no doubt strict and ominous supervision. While we were there, a passenger van pulled up and disgorged an armed female BP agent and a group of Americans, on some kind of tour organized by the BP’s public information office. Before he was shooed away, David heard the agent reciting statistics of attempted crossings, apprehensions, other incidents. The tourists peered through the southern barrier the ways visitors at a zoo peer into cages.

On the other side of the walls, sliced and diced by the spaces between the fence posts, can be seen the stream of everyday life: cars and buses and walkers and joggers, homes and apartment buildings, a big outdoor amphitheater, a lighthouse, and a busy highway heading east. It might as well have been in another dimension. Over all loomed a tall tower festooned with lights and cameras. Just a few dozen yards down the embankment, the Pacific waves crashed into the end of the fence that extended 50 yards or so into the surf.

We had expected … what? Champagne and high-fives? A welcoming committee? Surfers? A brewpub? There had been something festive about the Canadian border 35 days ago: green grass, roving groups of tourists, a towering monument, cafés and gift shops, a distinct absence of fences, razor wire, and other obvious enforcement. Here, we suddenly felt like we’d ridden onto the set of a spaghetti western. Except that in this moment the sinister mood at the southern border is all too accurate an indication of a painful reality. Rarely have we felt so uncomfortable and vaguely threatened as Americans on American soil–or, indeed, as Americans almost anywhere in the world.

35 days ago at the northern border.

Now, almost as a second thought, we took a few selfies, acknowledged that we had reached our goal, hugged each other, looked around one more time at the eerie, otherworldly, depressing scene, and walked our bikes along the sandy road back to the pavement for one last ride, a steady 19 miles into the wind, back to San Diego.

Day 35: 38.1 miles (inexplicably), and 487 feet in 3:11.


Still to come: a few retrospective posts, lists, and final thoughts.


The Penultimate Pedal

Day 34, second-to-last (according to plan): Yet another lightly overcast coastal morning, quickly turning to full Southern California sunshine. We walked a few blocks from our hotel for breakfast at an 80s-themed diner, BC-DC (Breakfast Club Diner California) with pictures on the menu of various hair bands, of “the miracle on ice” pulled off by the 1980 US men’s hockey team, and of Michael Jackson, and really good, fluffy blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

Soon we were a-rollin’ south again, through coastal communities like Carlsbad and Encinitas (the latter especially re-visitable), up and down little hills, over causeways, past harbors and surfing beaches, mostly on wide shoulders and the occasional stretch of bike path. Packs of recreational riders swarmed past us, and posted bike route signs proliferated. It was warm, maybe one of the warmest days of the whole tour, but whenever our generally south-by-southeast heading veered one way or the other, we welcomed the steady cool Pacific breeze.

In Encinitas we paused at a bluff-top picnic table to snack and slather on more sunscreen (it’s David who slathers, Ashley content with a few strategic dabs). Down below, as we’ve seen almost continuously for days, frolicked packs of surfers in wetsuits, their vans and RVs parked along the highway, lines of them coming and going along the beach paths.

“If everybody had an ocean

Across the USA

Then everybody’d be surfin’

Like Cali-for-nye-a”

Also in Encinitas we passed the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, founded by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, the Bengali guru who relocated to Southern California in the 1930s. Fun facts: Mark Twain’s daughter Clara was one of his disciples, and it was here that he wrote Autobiography of a Yogi (1946).

Climbing into Torrey Pines Preserve was the first and only time the shoulder was divided into two bike lanes, the polar opposite of Laguna Beach. It was also the only significant climb today, a few hundred feet. Far cry from the thousand-foot climbs of yore!

Atop the hill sits the UCSD main campus, and a long descent brought us into La Jolla with its elegantly landscaped homes, upscale shops, and, weirdly, some badly cracked and rutted pavement.

Here we paused for a quick lunch at a corner bistro — well, David’s chicken tortilla soup and croissant were instantaneously served, but Ashley had to wait 30 minutes for a milkshake (“the ice cream is hard, they’re working on it”). (That’s right, a milkshake for lunch. Ah, touring life!)

We followed a winding harbor road among lines of cars going 5mph, serenaded by barking seals, and the traffic steadily picked up as we got closer and closer to San Diego.

In Mission Beach we turned onto a crowded pedestrian/bike/skateboard/rollerblade oceanside path that had us half-riding, half-walking our bikes past shops, bars, dudes drinking beer on the verandas of rental apartments, and wetsuited surfers vaulting the low sea wall with their boards pivoting unpredictably. It could have been tedious, but the sheer human interest kept us fascinated.

The scene was wild, hugely entertaining even when one is in the middle of passing it by. We’d love to sit for a while and watch: the bearded hippies on old-school skates, gray-haired women learning to ride scooters, the kids hopping the dividing wall between their rentals and the beach, the women on cruisers wearing backpacks full of dog…. we want to come back and spend a few days living on this chaotic spit of oceanfront. But there’s a dark side to this kind of scene: it’s frequented by mid-life-crisis-aged men with too much gel in their thinning hair, driving Chevy convertibles with license plates that read, “SLICK EH.” The question is perhaps rhetorical; the answer is undeniably no.

Some busy but well-shouldered urban riding brought us to San Diego harbor, past the airport and along a park-like shoreline to downtown, past the HMS Surprise, a precise replica of an 18th-century 24-gun British warship used to film Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander, and a few short blocks up to our hotel.

Although we still have 20 more miles to the Mexican border, we decided on a premature celebration, what we decided to call a “blur” of breweries. San Diego is lousy with breweries, not only the titans like Ballast Point, Stone, and Coronado, but more small and new ones than we can count. Ballast Point is a favorite, the mango even keel (David) and all varieties of sculpin (Ashley), so we started there, with a 20-mile Lyft ride with Josh, a Fort Worth emigrant who was probably the flat-out craziest rideshare driver we’ve ever experienced. He was going through some kind of personal crisis, and was too inarticulate to explain it very well.

So I was smoking weed with some people I met at Walmart, and it was, like, the universe, man. It sucks, man. I have this calling, you know, but all my life I’ve been lost. Good and evil, man. I have all these thoughts, and, like, I need a tape recorder so I don’t keep forgetting them.

Josh kept talking as we got out of his car at Ballast Point, even as we thanked him and walked away, happy to have survived what we thought at times was a potentially scary situation.

At Ballast Point we had dinner, a little early but we’d had no real lunch, so: calamari, fish tacos, and a lamb burger. All excellent, and we admired the rows upon rows of house brew but sampled only two. From there, a half-mile walk to two smaller spots, side by side: Pure Project (tiny, trendy, packed, with a first-rate saison and a proclivity for triple IPAs, which we always skip); and Amplified, decent but not spectacular, with less range and way fewer patrons. At this point we were shadowing the San Diego beer tour bus, which charges a piratical $75 a pop for a measly three brewhouses. Lyft was cheaper.

The fourth stop, also within walking distance, was the charming Duck Foot.

The best we sampled here (and it was only tasters at each spot) was the coconut IPA, summery and nearly perfect, if less complex than the offerings at either Ballast Point or Pure Project. Duck Foot was having its trivia night, and the emcee was a little grating, so we moved on. Decided to try Saint Archer, a brewery big enough to distribute to Reno.

The Saint Archer tasting room.

It was a longer walk, but it helped work off the lamb burger. Another warehouse-style space, another trivia night, but good IPAs and a comfortable atmosphere. Any other night we would have lingered, but we greedily wanted to collect one or two more, and since we were limiting ourselves to tastes at each one, that seemed doable. We Lyfted the mile or so to Rough Draft: the writing-teachers in us were taken with the name, but it was a depressing spot and we didn’t linger. Unexceptional in every way. Another short Lyft ride brought us to 32 North, a vast industrial space which was by 9 pm basically empty: us, a distracted barkeep, and one other quiet dude. Another good saison, less memorable than that at Pure Project. With a group, on a bustling weekend, this would be a destination; tonight it felt sleepy, like us.

And so to bed, confident that we’d made all the right decisions.


Today’s ride: 43 miles, 1616 feet, 3:45.