(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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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?”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 …
… gave way, in just a few miles, to the heavily fortified Mexican-American border at the ironically misnamed “Friendship Park”:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
- a long, early-evening descent out of the Purisima Hills into the Lompoc Valley (“LOM-poke”) after our first and only 100-mile day:
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:
Entering Huntington Beach
Manhattan Beach, where the volleyball teams were already gathering
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:
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.
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
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”
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:
- this drawing of the Big Sur coast on a dusty truck window in the Ripplewood Resort parking lot:
Or this odd stump at Fort Ross in northern California:
Or this yard sculpture outside Bandon OR:
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 …
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:
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.
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:
But this place, for damn sure:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.