Around the bend

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

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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.

Beach Towns and More Beach Towns

Long Beach. Huntington Beach. Venice Beach. Hermosa Beach. Manhattan Beach. Redondo Beach. Newport Beach. Laguna Beach. Capistrano Beach. Seal Beach.

In Santa Monica we started to notice abandoned electric scooters lying about, discarded, seemingly flung aside at random on sidewalks, in parks, and along the beach. Imagine our surprise when we found that these were “scooter share” devices, that could be rented by the hour or day, and collected by the next user where they were left, or presumably gathered at night by municipal workers, or robots.

They must not be difficult to operate, because all kinds of people were buzzing along the sidewalks and bike paths, describing modest little S-turns which may have been a less-graceful-than-it-looked attempt to keep upright. But this scooter-craze disappeared almost as quickly as it sprung up: after leaving Santa Monica, we’ve seen only one, and that not a rental, since it was painted in day-glo colors and twined with some kind of elaborate floral decoration, like an “art scooter.”

So it goes with the Southern California beach towns. They’re sure not all the same. Some less pretentious, some full of luxury automobiles, some with houses crowded together close to the beach, some surrounded by gated and guarded communities (a few of these exclusive enclaves self-identifying as “colonies”), some lined with rows of parked RVs, some with broad beaches traversed by paved pathways and volleyball nets, a few with piers, several with beach-shack bars and burger joints close at hand, and a few (including the adorable Hermosa Beach) posted “No Smoking.”

We were enjoying our ride south on the bike paths that stayed down flat along the sand, but every so often our route took us up into the towns along Hwy 1 or an arterial paralleling it. It was from those stretches that the true character of the beach town became evident.

We loved Hermosa Beach for its wide sand fronted with homey rentals (we hope, for we wish to return soon for a longer visit). Huntington Beach sported a walkable and interesting Main Street, but is–we were happy to discover–a little tamer and less crowded than Santa Monica.

Huntington Beach Pier

Santa Monica is so urban, so bustling and crowded and almost obnoxiously, desperately hip, that we left it worried about what was to come.

Sixteen miles in on Monday, we rendezvous’d with David’s old radio pal John Apicella in Redondo Beach for lunch. He was kind enough to drive over from NoHo for a long seafood lunch of reminiscing and European travel talk. Redondo Beach was unassuming, a yacht harbor with shops and seafood but hardly overwhelmingly urban. We ate at a joint called (as though named by Ron Swanson) Quality Seafood; outdoor seating, decent squid, paella, poke. (And “no tacos for you!”)

From here John had to rush back to Hollywood for a rehearsal of Tesla: The Musical, opening July 6th at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre

From there it was another 34 miles or so to our stop for Monday night, Huntington Beach. We didn’t know what to expect, but what we found was charming, still lively but without the sidewalk crush we’d found in Santa Monica. Another beach town, this one the home of a major surfing museum. Locals call it “surf city,” and that seems fair. Unlike Santa Monica or preppy Santa Barbara, Huntington Beach feels delightfully casual, blue collar, more comfortable in every way. We walked along the ocean road to the local brewery and felt at ease, despite our scrubby bike-tourist attire.

Huntington Beach by evening.

On Tuesday morning, we got a late start, accidentally sleeping in. Had brunch at Sessions West Coast Deli (no association with the racist dirtbag currently running the department of injustice). A breakfast sandwich and avocado toast–but despite the latter it was not an oppressively hipster joint. Got going around 10:30, bound for Oceanside.

Our route map offered a warning about the Orange County beach towns, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point, to the effect that aggressive drivers had been reported creating risky conditions for bicyclists. Back in Hermosa Beach we’d asked a local biker to whom we’d lent the use of our pump if these warnings were true. Nah, he said. He thought Venice Beach was bad, where he’d been yelled at not just by motorists but by cops as well. We had kept to the beach path through there and hadn’t had a problem.

Newport Beach was surprisingly urban, insofar as it had a towering skyline, a Ferrari dealership, and a lot of sprawl. But the bike lane was generous, drivers were friendly, and we had no trouble.

Laguna Beach–a whole other story. It was prefaced by beautiful rolling hills, the road lined with purple flowering jacaranda trees and blossoming bushes of many kinds, but the town itself proved a nightmare, far more anxiety-inducing than the 16 miles we had ridden inland along busy 4-lane boulevards through the LA industrial centers and downscale commercial districts of Torrance and Carson, which culminated in a lovely Los Angeles River bike path to Long Beach.

The LA River Path to Long Beach and the sea.

No, in supposedly much more upscale and idyllic Laguna Beach, the shoulder was mostly occupied by parked cars, which forces bicyclists into the right lane, and usually locals and tourists alike understand and respond well. Not here, despite the enormous electric sign entering town asking motorists to share the road with bicyclists and give them 3 feet of clearance. We were crowded, brushed into the shoulder, deliberately frightened, yelled at (nothing printable).

Many of the offending vehicles were worth well over $50K. (Why?) Some hills were steep but there was no slowing, definitely no stopping. Our heart rates were up and our tempers flaring for the duration of our stay. Ashley got cut off by a tourist trolley; a little red hatchback with a megaphone on its exhaust startled us both by brushing past very fast and too closely. And when we reached south Laguna, and the parked cars disappeared, the shoulder was occupied by overgrown flowers and bushes.

We passed into rather cute Dana Point, and immediately felt safer. The drivers heeded the ubiquitous roadside signage (same “share the road” sign we’ve seen since Washington). The difference was stark.

Ahhhh, Dana Point!

Ashley feels safe enough to mail some postcards.

From there we took to the hilly residential side streets through San Clemente, Tricky Dick Nixon’s hometown. (We missed his Presidential Library.)

After that, somewhat to our sprawl-addled surprise, the path turned into a remote-feeling scrubby-desert frontage road paralleling I-5, passing SONGS (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) and the strangest state park ever, basically a mile-long rest area parking lot with water, restrooms, paths through the bushes to the beach, and even a few tents pitched on the asphalt. We’d assumed there’d be something for lunch, but somehow our route kept us away from everything commercial, so once again we were rationing our water.

SONGS

Having pre-registered with the USMC online a few days ago, our Nevada driver’s licenses sufficed to pass us through the main gate at Camp Pendleton, which saved us 10 miles or so of shoulder riding on I-5. The base itself is sprawling, like a whole city unto itself with housing developments, a shopping mall, office parks, an elementary school, and installations marked only with incomprehensible acronyms and numbers. Single-file riding was mandated, and no stopping. Passing out of the base we were quickly dropped into Oceanside, and after a few miles along its bustling beach scene we powered up a short but steep hill into town and our boutique hotel, one of the finest on a trip that, sadly, has only two riding days remaining. We had dinner at the Local Tap House (highly recommended) and then a nightcap at the Breakpoint Brewery (definitely not recommended: okay wine but the beer tasted like dishwater). And so to bed, less than 65 miles from the border.

The Fin Boutique Hotel: Recently remodeled, open only a month, and wayyyy nicer than the 1927 building looks from the outside.


Monday stats: 50.2 miles, 696 (!) feet of climbing, 4 hours and two minutes.

Tuesday: 56.7 miles; 2286′; 4:40.

Malibu Wagyu

After yet another minimalist continental breakfast, yet another bowl of Raisin Bran, we left our otherwise comfortable and well-located Santa Barbara hotel around 10. It was a bit of a late start, but with every day we’re a little less quick about hitting the road. Almost immediately we joined a bike path, with the crowded beach, the harbor, and the vast, gray Pacific to our immediate right.

The path was, as usual, often a passage perilous: rough pavement; inattentive dog walkers whose adorable but curious mutts wander, always, into the passing lane; oblivious couples, helmet-less, on wobbly cruiser bikes, occupying every inch of asphalt; and a few crosswalks. Beyond the urban sprawl of Santa Barbara, in the tony suburb of Carpinteria, along a shop-lined strip, a nonagenarian in an expensive hatchback pulled out in front of us without a look, coming alarmingly close to wiping David out. Ashley, naturally and not for the first time this trip, stood in her pedals and sprinted after the car; when the lady stopped ahead, miraculously aware of the red octagon (“stop!”), Ashley knocked on her window, yelling, heart rate up: “you almost killed someone.” The woman seemed surprised, seemingly spooked by the close call. And so we proceeded.

We were on one bike path after another, but in between such paths we enjoyed mostly generous shoulders on side roads, even on Highway 101. 101 was bustling, to say the least, but we were only on it for half a mile, one exit—just long enough to see our first sign for San Diego, 198 miles away. Our route avoids the freeway as much as possible, so it’ll be a little longer than that, but that sign represented for each of us a not-entirely-pleasing affirmation that the end of our long-anticipated tour is coming much closer.

Still, we cheered a little. After all, the worst is behind us. From here, traffic will pick up, maybe, and sprawl will be epidemic, but the climbs have diminished; the fifth and last of our Adventure Cycling maps doesn’t even bother to include an elevation profile. We’ll make it. There have been occasional moments of desperation and doubt over the past month, but we will reach the Mexican border. That this is both a triumphal revelation and a letdown—back to reality!—is perhaps not surprising.

At some point the suburbs thinned out and gave way to long narrow beaches, and with the beaches came a new sight: rows of RVs– one massive recreational camper after another, dozens and dozens, lined up along the coast. Some were modest, but mostly they were towering, with something like porch-covers pulled out to shelter elaborate picnic-setups. And they went on for what seemed like miles, punctuated by lifeguard stands. Sometimes beachgoers’ cars lined the shoulder for long stretches, forcing us out into the traffic lanes and making us thankful for our brilliant taillights and bright attire.

At mile 29, we went off-course, annoying our mostly-faithful Garmin navigational device (whom we’ve named Ethel) as we went in search of the Ventura In-and-Out. (Ashley had looked for this franchise in every town so far, and had finally found one, determined to lunch there whatever aggrieved Ethel thought.)

An hour later we were rolling again, fueled by the animal-style fries and lettuce-wrapped non-greasy burgers. We turned inland, passing through the unfortunately named Oxnard and, spoiled by the unrelenting sprawl of civilization, assumed we could stop any old where for more water. That turned out not to be the case, as we learned when we crossed a naval air station on the other side of Oxnard, and the landscape suddenly turned rural, agricultural, and non-commercial. A kindly local biker saw us pausing to study the map and turned back to offer advice on the options ahead. We decided we could go on, rather than turn back into the wind and sacrifice hard-earned miles for a resupply.

Rationing our water, we rejoined Highway 1 and rode another 20 miles past Point Mugu, past William S. Hart [silent-film cowboy actor] State Beach and Dan Blocker [of Bonanza fame] State Beach, past many more rows of parked cars and RVs, past surfers wriggling into wetsuits and people actually swimming in the sea, first time we’ve seen that on the entire trip. The Pacific must have warmed up, this far south.

The “entering Malibu” sign came surprisingly early, a full 10 miles before the dot indicating it on the map. We stopped briefly to “shake our tail feathers,” as we say, and refill our bottles with the usual half-water half-Gatorade mix at the first opportunity, a Chevron station, just as the traffic and the sprawl began to pick up again. We were obviously not so far from LA. The terrain rolled a little bit, and we climbed some moderate hills, but just as the biggest one loomed ahead, Ethel directed us to an almost invisible side road off Hwy 1 that flattened out along rows of closely packed beach houses, Mercedeses and Lexuses and Porsches and Range Rovers parked in their stubby driveways. We flew another 10 miles from there to the southern edge of Malibu, where our very good friends Eric and Vicky, with their son Arden, had booked a rental right on the water, with an extra room—“should you get there that weekend,” they had said, back in early May. And we did. When we pulled up to this remarkably-situated house, waves breaking under its oceanside deck, they were waving hellos from the driveway.

Beers and wine bottles were opened, showers ran, laundry was started. Eric started to cook, which for him is as natural as breathing: bacon-wrapped lobster appetizers, wagyu rib cover steaks, and butterflied lobster tails: he tucked the claw and knuckle meat into the shells and smothered them with a white wine thermidor sauce. More beers, an excellent rioja, card games — the rest weekend had begun.

Saturday morning started verrrry slowly. After muffins and caffeine, the group ventured to the Getty Villa (Ashley followed behind a bit to finish dealing with laundry).

The museum was built by the eponymous oil baron J. Paul to recreate how an wealthy ancient Roman’s villa might actually have looked and felt.

Getty likes to imagine himself in a toga, strolling the gardens deep in philosophical discussions with Plato and company.

He filled it with the art he collected (“plundered”?) from Italy in the late 1930s when under the fascist Mussolini government anything and everything was for sale (some of the antiquities have since been repatriated).

Some of Getty’s loot (top to bottom): the Lansdowne Hercules (Roman, 125 CE), head of a woman from a funerary monument (Greek, 320 BCE), harp player (Cycladic, 2700 BCE)

Lunch at the ostensibly Mediterranean-style cafe was decidedly underwhelming, but enough to sustain us until a dinner that would prove to be anything but.

We had a couple of hours downtime at the house before dinner, which we spent making plans for the remainder of the trip and hanging damp clothes out on the oceanside balcony to dry. At 4, we left for dinner in the Hollywood Hills. Yamashiro, a classic LA establishment, us perched upon a hill (under and within view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign). The views go on forever, the LA skyline visible on one side and Santa Monica on the other.

The Japanese structure (whose name translates to “mountain palace”) dates back to 1914. Initially a private residence, it served in the twenties as a secret social clubhouse. During WWII it was converted to a military school. Because of the anti-Japanese sentiment in wartime America, the building was vandalized, so during its military school phase it was partially boarded up and painted black–a means of preservation. (A model Japanese village and some of the outdoor ponds were destroyed by those hostile to Japanese culture.) Since 1963, it has operated as a Cal-Asian restaurant (complete with a 600-year old pagoda).

The place is genuinely majestic, and would be a destination-spot even if the dishes were only okay. They were instead spectacular. We started with an appetizer sampler (spring rolls, hummus, etc.), which was fine, and with the unusual and extraordinary melts-in-the-mouth truffle hamachi.

Even Arden, no fan of raw fish, agreed that it was superb. David had blackened cod with wasabi mashed potatoes and mustard greens, but the star of the entrees was the American wagyu Ashley, Eric, and Arden all got. It’s their signature dish, wagyu steak lightly seared, and served with a flaming hot lava rock, on which we could cook our meat just a little more a few pieces at a time, seasoned to our liking (we were given Himalayan sea salt, a fairly subtle mustard, and a creamy garlic sauce from which to choose).

Desserts: a trio of sorbets and fruit; strawberry filled donuts; and a s’mores brownie, complete with a giant, perfectly toasted, creamy-on-the-inside marshmallow.

We feasted in the Japanese garden behind the main dining area, overlooking the koi ponds, and it was pretty much a perfect (albeit hot and sunny) meal.

Sunday, we breakfasted at 8: Eric made wagyu hash, very tasty, and so fueled the two of us pedaled the entire 8 miles to our Santa Monica hotel, right near the pier.

Eric, Vicky, and Arden picked us up at 10, and we drove an hour to Anaheim to see the Angels host the Blue Jays.

They lost, alas, but Ashley was thrilled to see two former Braves playing for the home team (Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons), and to snag an autograph from probably the most decent human being in the MLB, Curtis Granderson, now playing right field for the Blue Jays. We left in the bottom of the seventh, giving up our first-row seats on the first base line (thanks, Eric!) so that the Rasmussen-Hines family could catch their flights out of LAX. We rode with them as far as the rental car return, where we said tearful goodbyes and hailed a Lyft back to Santa Monica.

Back to our neighborhood-for-the-night, we went out on the town. Checked out a bar recommended by our Lyft driver, but it was super-packed with trendamorphic and already intoxicated beautiful young people (Ashley wanted to flee immediately: “it’s like a hundred Abercrombie and Fitch stores threw up on a frat party”–and so we did). Found a quieter, more local taproom and kitchen with excellent IPAs and good food. Started writing this blog. Were buttonholed by O’Dean, who claimed he was the original singer for Motley Crüe and invited us to hear him sing karaoke down the street. We didn’t go.

O’Dean: “You’ll love my f*****g voice!” A quick wiki check revealed that he had once auditioned for the band, that’s all. And he was pretty good at getting his new mark here at the bar to buy him double IPAs.


Day 31 stats: 8.3 miles, 186 feet, in 40 minutes. Rest weekend stats: too many ounces of superlative meat to count.

Today Nothing Happened.

Not much to report, except that we made it 57 miles over the mountain to Santa Barbara, and had a flat, and saw two other pairs of bicycle tourists, and bought a new tube of toothpaste along with the usual six quarts of Gatorade.

It was good riding, except for 22 miles on Highway 101; it was easy, despite the long but well-graded rolling climb that topped out at over 1000 feet. It was sunny, once we left LOM-poke. There was nothing in the way of services for forty miles, nothing but a water fountain at a rest stop. There was no lunch: Five Guys seemed a distant dream, as we satiated our perpetual hunger with protein bars and energy chews and gluten-free bison jerky. We appreciated how lucky we’ve been to have so much civilization, so many options for real food, so many opportunities to refill our bottles.

The view from the rest stop where 1 joins 101, sandstone mountains meet the chalk and shale of the seaside bluffs, and chaparral gives way to coastal eucalyptus trees and ice plants.

The big question today was, are we in Southern California yet? Probably. Palm trees, giant pastel stoneware pots of flowers, Mission architecture, adobe walls festooned with fragrant vines, freeways, convertible sports cars, wet-suited surfers, tourists in aloha shirts, smooth jazz playing in hotel lobbies, bars packed with raucous hipsters, ostentatious fashionistas — and in the bigger picture, towering chaparral-covered mountains looming on one side, a vast and calm Pacific on the other, the horizon dotted with offshore drilling platforms. None of these features cannot be found elsewhere in the state, but their confluence adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

We are asking a timely question. This November, residents of the Golden State will vote on whether to split California into three states:

Billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper got 600,000 signatures to qualify “CAL 3” for the November ballot.

According to this plan, we would still be in “California,” which would roughly be equivalent to Central California, extending from Monterey as far south as to include most of greater Los Angeles. But culturally, geologically, botanically, historically, and most important imaginatively, we believe we have crossed the line into SoCal. And in doing so, we have been riding easterly long enough to actually be slightly east of Reno, Nevada. Fun fact, verifiable on the map above.

Like our first flat (see Day 12 of this blog) the second occurred in a place, if not as sweet as an Oregon Coast hotel room, at least more convenient than it might have been, on the wide paved margin of a US 101 exit ramp along the scenic coastline and next to the track on which travels Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, which passed just as David, clipping in after a short pit stop, noticed his rear tire had deflated (again). It was a rather small piece of glass this time, one of the billions we’ve ridden over since Canada.

Making up for lost time: the quintessential 7-11 snack stop, in Goleta.

Our designated exit from 101 took us on a suburban Santa Barbara arterial for miles, via a nicely paved bike lane that skirted the University of California campus and, as early as 3:30, dropped us down through town to the harborside, where we’d reserved a room in a beautiful but relatively inexpensive motel with pool, a grassy courtyard covered in flowering trees and hedges, and a complimentary wine-and-cheese reception (which we eschewed in favor of the customary brewery tour).

End of today’s trail, a block from our lodgings, just on the left.

Only a few short hours later, Third Window Brewing, our 18th brewery on the tour, and the second place (we’re looking at you, Chico) we’ve enjoyed beet-pickled deviled eggs.

Brewery #19.

#20.

And #21.

Walking back to the room: the original Sambo’s, founded 1957. (It is not a pub. We did not eat here.)


Today by the numbers: 56.8 miles, 2345′, 4:31.