Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Golden Gate


The day I had been anticipating finally came.  A mere 15 miles on the bike and Justin and I would be in Corte Madera, the town just north of San Francisco where my cousins lived. Another ten miles and we would be crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

It all felt oddly anti-climactic. When I first started my trip I had daydreamed about seeing the look on my cousins’ faces as I rolled up to their house on my fully loaded bike, pulled off my shades and greeted them with a casual glance, as though to say “Yeah, I just biked from my house to yours. No big deal.” I guess I felt I had something to prove. But that feeling, and its accompanying fantasy, had long since disappeared. While never the focus of my trip, my destination seemed to matter less and less the more I rode. By the time I was on the cusp of arriving, it felt like just another day. 

I phoned my cousin David in the morning to let him know that I would be there that afternoon. He informed me that he and his wife Denise would be out until 5pm, killing whatever remained of my ‘impressive arrival’ fantasy. Since nobody was home anyways, I decided to head directly into the city with Justin and take the ferry back to Corte later that evening. I would not, after all, feel that I had truly made it until I crossed the Golden Gate bridge.

There were a lot of twists and turns on the way into the city.  Justin and I were thus forced to stop every 10 minutes to pull out the guidebook and memorize as many lines of directions as we could before forgetting the names of streets, or which way we were supposed to turn.  Normally I would not have minded all of the stopping and starting, but the anticipation of being so close to the finish line made it difficult to go slow.

I made it!
Our first impression of the Bay area was of friendly people, gourmet food and cozy cafes as we passed through the lovely hippie town of Fairfax and the quaint San Anselmo.  Before long we were on the bike path to Sausalito, a trail I would ride many more times on my way in and out of the city from my cousins’ house. We pedaled through the town’s charming main drag, turned the corner and caught our first glimpse of the Golden Gate. It looked far away, but we were there within twenty minutes.

 About a mile from the bridge, we ran into a cyclist Justin had befriended earlier on in Oregon.  He was somewhat of a character, and went on at length about his experiences in the city thus far while I mustered up every ounce of patience I owned to prevent myself from sprinting onwards.  Sensing and sharing my edginess, Justin tried to rap things up with his friend, who thankfully obliged. One final push up a hill and we were in the parking lot looking out over the iconic suspension bridge leading into San Francisco.  

The Presidio
 Despite my feelings of normalcy about the day, this was undoubtedly a milestone. Even the blustering wind and spitting rain could not ruin the moment. I pestered Justin to participate in several photo ops as we rode along the massive red towers with our hair blowing everywhere and the city waiting for us on the other side of the water (in all fairness I did warn him that there would be a photo shoot when we got there…and despite his nonchalance he asked me to send the pictures to him later!)  And then we just rode. I watched the host of cyclists passing us along the bike and pedestrian path, and wondered what it would be like to ride over this bridge every day.  It’s funny how travel can create such special meaning in places. Though perhaps the significance of a regular landmark in one’s life is ultimately deeper.

On the other side of the bridge, our excitement was replaced with confusion as we promptly realized that we had no idea where we were going.  After asking several other equally lost tourists, we followed the bike path leading through the Presidio along the waterfront. Unfortunately, while a celebratory beer was definitely in order, there wasn’t really time. Justin had plans to meet the friend he was staying with for dinner, and I wanted to catch the ferry back to my cousins’ place before it got too late.

The rest of the afternoon was stressful for both of us. Justin’s phone died out of the blue, leaving him communicatively stranded upon arrival in the big city.  The journey back to my cousins seemed simple, but turned out to be anything but. The first challenge was to find the terminal for the Larkspur ferry, which David had told me to take. It seemed obvious enough on google maps, but as I rolled through the swarms of people along the embarcadero, passing pier after pier, I had no idea what boat launched from where. Unfortunately neither did any of the dozen or so people whom I stopped to ask, most of whom had never even heard of Larkspur.

Ferry building
I finally found my departure point at the ferry building and boarded the boat only to have the woman in charge command me to take my bike upstairs – kind of tricky given that I could barely lift it. I tried to explain that I was physically incapable of doing so, and that there was plenty of room for the bike on the main level.  She responded by insisting, via a mixture of gestures and broken English, that I unload the bike completely in order to get it up the stairs, or disembark the vessel. As I stood there at a loss and visibly flustered, a middle-aged man thrust a plastic glass of beer in my hand, instructing me to hold his drink while he lifted my bike up the stairs. Whew! Crisis averted. 

The saga continued on the other side of the bay.  Following the directions I had written down earlier in the day, I got about 50m down the road from the ferry terminal before hitting an eight lane freeway which did not seem very bike friendly. There was a small sidewalk alongside the freeway, but I had no idea how long it was or whether it was heading in the right direction. At a loss once again, I ran into another friendly stranger who was eager to help. We both looked at my directions together, and then he suggested that I call his girlfriend who lived just around the corner, and had an impeccable sense of direction. I figured it would be simpler to simply ring up my cousin, who informed me that I was in fact on the right track, and tried to explain the way to his house. My friend continued along the path with me anyways, and we soon ran into his girlfriend, along with another elderly woman who was walking by. I had flashbacks of getting directions in India, as all three of them huddled together to discuss the best route to take as though pondering an important political problem.
The Castro

Although I was pretty sure of the way by the time I left them, the roads were confusing
and I had to stop once more to make sure I was on the right track. Finally I figured out where I was. As I stopped into the local grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine, I got a call from David, who was certain that I was lost. “Nope I know exactly where I am. Be there in 10 minutes.” I assured him proudly. A few minutes later, I was at the house. Only it wasn’t my cousins’ house anymore. They had moved three years ago, the woman who answered the door told me. I had the wrong address! So much for my smoothe entrance. 

After yet another phone call to David, I managed to find the right place, which was thankfully just around the corner from where I was. David and Denise gave me a warm welcome, treating me to a delicious Japanese dinner and lending me clothes while I threw all of mine in the wash. A hot shower and soft bed never felt so good.

Kiwi pears!
 Throughout my trip, everybody told me that I would love San Francisco. They were right. I tend to find large urban areas stressful, but there was something about the rows of pastel-coloured houses, hilltop vistas and palm-tree lined waterfront that made this city feel lighter, as though it had room to breathe.  This was complimented by a truly impressive array of fresh, light and flavourful food. Take it from a girl who knows – in addition to sampling just about every type of Asian cuisine à table, I happily grazed my way through farmer’s markets and grocery delis, delighting my senses with to-die for dips and previously unheard of fruit hybrids such as the kiwi-pear.  There was nothing less than delicious to be found. If you want to eat local and eat well, this is the place to be.

Corona Heights
Given all this feel-good food, I suppose it comes as no surprise that the people of San Francisco were just a wee bit friendlier than the folk one meets on the streets of  Vancouver, Toronto or New York.  Amazingly, the kindness that had been extended to me on that first day of navigating through the city carried on throughout my entire stay.    

Initially I had planned to spend a few of my remaining trip days biking just a little further south to visit some of the wonderful seaside towns I had heard about, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the beautiful Big Sur.  I soon realized, however, that ten days was precious little time even just to explore the city. So I decided to stay put, telling myself that I would simply have to come back for the rest.

Best yoga tree ever!
The time passed in a blur. During the day, I explored and visited friends (Justin, Rose and Veronika’s daughter Barbara were all there). Rose took me to Corona Heights, a short (and steep!) walk from the Castro with a beautiful view over the whole city.  We found the perfect yoga tree on the way up (lots of sturdy branches) and spent a good hour hanging and stretching in it before making our way to the top. Justin and I drank together – first tea in Chinatown, then beer in North Beach. Barbara invited me to stay with her for the weekend. In addition to her partner and daughter, I also met her Friday night drinking crew, including the BEST sushi chef with the HIGHEST alcohol tolerance of all time. Guess that’s how I ended up in a karaoke bar in Japantown at 2am…We sat out on the roof of Barbara’s building the following morning (well, afternoon actually) drinking mimosas and watching the U.S. Blue Angels loop impressively overhead as part of the city’s fleet week festivities.

 With the exception of my weekend with Barbara, nights brought me back to the peaceful family life in Corte Madera, where I was grateful for the chance to get to know my cousins beyond the backdrop of a family wedding or funeral.  I also took a few days off from the city to bike around the gorgeous Marin headlands, and get some quality play time in with David and Denise’s adorable little ones, Hannah and Jay. 
 
Much as I was enjoying my city adventures, I must admit that all of the texting and commuting began to get the better of me. It all fell apart two days before the end of my tirp. First, I decided it would be a good idea to bike across the city from the ferry building to Golden Gate park, in the rain. I was able to avoid all the steep hills by following a bike route called “the wiggle,” but did not quite manage to ride between the raindrops, which were quickly increasing in force and number.  Now soaking wet, I met Justin and proceeded to get drunk. Granted I only had two beers, but I am a lightweight, and the Korean tofu soup I had for dinner was not pulling its weight in the alcohol absorption department.


Then I left my bike on a city bus. If any of you have ever done this - and it is easy to do - you know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that something is missing. Something important. Oh shit. It only took me five minutes to apprehend this, at which point I turned in my tracks. The first instinct when you forget something is to go back for it. Sound logic, but not really applicable in this case, I soon realized. 

Drool
There was really nothing to do but continue on my way. I was headed to Oakland to stay with Rose at her place for the night. We were planning to spend the next day exploring her new neighborhood by bike…oops. As soon as I got to Rose’s place we called the city transit centre to report the loss. Before long I got a call saying they had found my bike (yay!) and advising me to come pick it up bright and early at the depot the following morning before it got moved to lost and found (not so yay).  This was going to be a bit of a pain, but at least in the end there would be no harm done, I told myself. It was at this point that I noticed my camera was missing.

Now, I understand that people have their reasons for stealing fancy electronics, but in my opinion it is just plain mean to steal a person’s camera. The gadget is obviously replaceable, but the memories frozen in time aren’t :( Luckily I had most of my pictures from California saved on my cousins’ computer. And, although the Washington and Oregon pictures were gone, I had at least posted some of the best ones on my blog already. In the end I told myself that it was a lesson in letting go. My trip was amazing and the memories were with me – the images of it were just a shiny surface that didn’t ultimately matter.

the beats used to hang out at this bookstore in
North Beach!

The next morning I headed back into the city to reclaim my vehicle. Upon arrival in the office, I was greeted by two very friendly women, who chatted with me for awhile about my trip. When I explained the events of the previous evening, one of them sagely advised me that I probably had too much on my mind. Ain’t that the truth. Of course, in true Dana fashion I couldn’t just take my bike back and leave, once and for all. I had to forget something else while I was there.  Sitting at the bagel shop down the street, I soon discovered that my city map was missing. I considered doing without but I really did need it to find my way around, and compared to spending another $8 to buy a new map, the shame of returning to the depot seemed like the better bargain.  The women were expecting me. I shrugged and laughed. “Girl, it’s time to go home.” Amen to that. 

Chinatown
 Rose ended up having family business to attend to, so I had the day free in the city. After hunting for my camera to no avail, I decided to take advantage of the sunshine to finally see some of Golden Gate park. As I wandered through the fantastic conservatory of flowers, I kept wanting to pull out my camera for a picture. At the same time, I began to realize that it was nice to have an excuse not to do that – to fully immerse myself in my surroundings and enjoy, without the underlying voice nagging me to document. Sometimes you just have to break off.


Justin met me in the park that afternoon. We spent the rest of the day together, and then I said goodbye to him and the city, heading back to Corte Madera for my final day before flying home. 

It all happened so quickly. I know I have come a long, long way, and yet that seed I planted before ever setting wheels on the road grew so very gradually as to be almost imperceptible, sort of like a long mountain climb, if you will permit me to shamelessly mix metaphors. And now, suddenly, I find myself sitting in Southern Ontario under the shade of this beautiful autumnal tree, feeling like a completely different person than I was two months ago. A more confident, patient and joyful person, full of excitement for the future.

That future, of course, is filled with more biking adventures, the most immediate of which is coming up in less than two weeks! As some of you already know, I will be heading to Thailand on November 11 to meet up with my good friend Rachelle for a bike tour around Southeast Asia.  Originally we had planned to backpack, but I am a cycling addict now, and Rachelle is a good sport! 

Some of you have asked if I will continue to blog on this tour. While I really do enjoy sharing my adventures with you via the written word, and I appreciate all the support you have given me in this endeavour, I’d like to take the opportunity on this trip to break off for a little while.  I have a feeling some of the cultures we will encounter have their own sense of time, not to mention that Rachelle and I will likely be too busy eating and beaching to do much writing home. You’ll just have to hear about it from me live, when you come visit me next year on Vancouver Island :)

Thank you so much for journeying along with me.

Gratefully,

Dana

P.S. Stay tuned for a few more pictures that I seemed to have left behind on my cousins' computer!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Rainy Day Mushrooms

Everything I read about the weather on the West coast prior to my trip led me to believe that, whatever happened along the way, one thing was for sure: I was going to get wet.  Visions of rain and fog clouded my sun-loving head as I attempted to prepare for the worst. The weather forecasts along my route stayed true to expectations, calling for rain on several occasions.  But, miraculously, the rain never came.  

Whether due to the season or sheer luck I do not know, but I somehow managed to bicycle through Washington, down the entire Oregon Coast, and along the Northern Coast of California, with no more than half a day’s drizzle to complain of. It was not until the day before I arrived in San Francisco that the showers came.
yoga in the rain

After all the mayhem of race day, the ride to Samuel P. Taylor State Park - our final stop before the big city - was relatively calm.  Justin and I stopped in Point Reyes Station to grab a sandwich, running into our friends Jesse and Liz at the local coffee shop.  We met them again in Olema, the final town before the park. The ride was short and we arrived in town early, leaving me plenty of time to blog while Justin grabbed groceries and patiently twiddled his thumbs. By the time I finished it was nearing 5pm, so we decided to try our luck at the slightly closer private K.O.A. campground. (Hot tubbing may have been part of my motive, I confess. It’s amazing how quickly one gets used to luxury.)

the inside of this redwood made for a great shelter!
Unfortunately, in true California style, there was not a ranger or camp host in site, nor any indication of a hiker biker camping area. Not wanting to risk having to pay a whopping $42 for a regular campsite (a little steep for a patch of dirt if you ask me), we rolled on to the state park just a few more miles down the road, arriving at the same time as the weather. 

 Jesse and Liz had beaten us there. It being the last night of their trip, their mission for the evening was to get rid of all of their extra food. Justin and I, ever the self-sacrificing types, were happy to help, spoiling our dinner as we noshed away with the girls. In the course of the evening we found out that Jesse was also in the legal biz (apparently a popular profession among cycle tourists); she had recently completed her articling and was about to start a job in social justice law. This being a very small field in which I happen to be interested, I took the opportunity to network a little. Who says bicycle trips can't be good for your career?

The drizzle of the evening had become a full out shower by the time we woke up the following morning. Not eager to ride in the rain, and needing more time to sort out our city plans, Justin and I decided to take a final decompression day before entering the urban jungle.  The rain did not let up all day, dashing our hopes of exploring the surrounding park trails, but we did manage to get out for a short mushroom hunt. This was a passion of Justin’s, and it was fun to listen to him explain all the features of the various mushrooms we spotted along our walk.




The rest of the afternoon was mostly spent under shelter. As evening rolled around, however, our bellies got the best of us, drawing us out into the rain to make dinner. We made a delicious vegetable stir-fry with tofu and peanut sauce, savouring every bite as the rain dripped down our waterproof jackets – definitely one of the best meals of my trip. 

Although we felt a little mucky by the end of the day, I really enjoyed the calm and quiet time in the park.  And, eager as I was to get to the Bay area, I was also happy to put off the end of my cycling trip just a little bit longer.  I guess the rain ain’t so bad after all.

Damply Yours,

Dana  


Monday, 24 October 2011

Race Day


Sometimes when you are traveling, you get a funny feeling that something is not quite right. This is what happened to Justin and I the day after our stay at Stillwater Cove.

Breakfast of champtions: pb and j oatmeal

Skies of grey loomed above as we set out from the campground for our day’s ride. The route began over a series of steep, isolated cliffs overlooking the ocean.  Highway 1 was winding and narrow, with more cattle guards than cars on the road. As we sketched our way along the stark landscape, a police motorcycle zoomed by us at top speed. Not long afterwards, we spotted a helicopter hovering around the coves below.  The sky darkened eerily over the cliffs. Something was definitely up.

 The answer was obvious: the hunt was on for the Fort Bragg murderer.  Our suspicions were confirmed when we got to the top of a big hill only to find several police cars and ambulances parked together, with accompanying officers surveying the area. “Anything we should know about?” Justin asked. “No, just don’t get run over,” the officer responded. So whatever was going on was a secret. Very suspicious indeed.


The descent which followed took us through a series of sharp switchbacks. Standing at the top, we observed the ant-sized cars following the curve of the road through dusty headlands, feeling as though we had accidentally landed in some sort of bicycle Western.  We watched three racing bikes that had just passed us zip down the hill at a terrifying pace, before taking the plunge ourselves.

A few miles on, another group of racing bikes passed us – remarkable, as they had been few and far between on the trip up till this point. Perhaps this signified that we were close enough to the big city for roadies to be coming out on day rides, I ventured. My theory was abruptly disproved a few miles down the road in the town of Jenner, where we encountered our friends Donnie and Sarah once again, along with a handful of other cycle tourists. They were standing along the side of the road, cheering on the participants in the cycling race.

“Race? There’s a race?”  (I blame my slowness on repetitive road vibration syndrome). “Ahh……”  Suddenly it all made sense. 

Our friends filled us in on the details. For one thing, despite our growing certainty that the helicopter, ambulances, police cars and officers were all part of a man hunt to chase down and capture the Fort Bragg murderer, we learned that all of this was in fact related to the major cycling event unfolding before our very eyes. The other crucial piece of information: McDreamy of Grey’s Anatomy was in the race (I myself have never seen the show, but some of the ladies were pretty excited).

We dawdled in town a little while, cheering the racers on with our mightiest hoots and hollers, before setting back out on the road to be cheered on ourselves. Crowds waving signs and applauding the competitors did not falter when we came along, shouting “yay touring!” as we passed with half the speed and a tenth of the glory.  Although a little hectic, it was fun to be caught in the midst of the action (and to get some words of encouragement!)…at least until the motorcycles came along.      

Whether Hell’s Angels or family reunion I’m not sure, but a fourth lane of traffic soon formed on the road. Cars passed motorcycles, motorcycles passed racers and racers passed us, while throngs of people waved, cheered and ate hot dogs on the side of the road. Needless to say, the novelty of finding ourselves in the middle of a cycling race soon wore off, as the moral support we were receiving was outstripped by the stress of the traffic.  Not even a steady stream of McDreamys (which they may as well have been for all I could tell) could have kept me on that race route a meter longer than necessary. 

Unfortunately, even after escaping the actual route, the crowds and traffic around Bodega Bay remained. The afternoon was quickly advancing, we had errands to run, and the chaotic masses were making me grumpy.  After stopping for an overpriced lunch, we made our way to the only coffee shop in town known to offer wifi. With San Francisco only a few days away, we needed to get in touch with family and friends to make plans for our stay in the city.  The wifi was not working (why does this always happen to me?)  but the shop had a friendly owner, who chatted with us and offered us leftover baked goods while we waited for the connection to come back.

The day was getting on, and we still had 40 miles to go until the next state park, a distance we needed to make if we wanted to catch the free bluegrass festival happening in San Francisco that weekend. Between the crazy traffic and making plans for the city, stress was mounting, and Justin and I took a moment to think. Tempting though the festival was, we decided to take some of the pressure off by making camp at a site just a few miles down the road, along a sandy spit (unfortunately there were no options in between 5 miles and 40!).

Although beachside, the site was hardly relaxing. For one thing, there was the ongoing foghorn. Justin, who grew up on an island, did not even tune into this familiar sound until I mentioned it.  I, on the other hand, could not, for the life of me, tune it out. We were also somewhat lacking in privacy. Just when we thought we had finally escaped motorcycle madness, the leather crew turned out to be our camp neighbours!  On the other side was a family of five, who invited us over for s’mores before we had even started to cook dinner. While Justin chatted up Dad, I attempted to follow the dizzying pace of conversation with Mom and the three girls.  Mom tried to ask me questions about my trip but was repeatedly interrupted by her incredibly loquacious middle child who talked in a continuous flow, barely stopping for air and only occasionally yielding to her younger sister, while the eldest daughter sat listening calmly and quietly. After being repeatedly admonished by Mom, the chatty one complained in a precious burst of frustration that if she didn’t interrupt people there was no place for her to come in! This family was full of life, and it was interesting to see the different personalities and interests of the girls come through. 

Finally we got a chance to eat and relax.  The day had been hectic, but with the city a mere 65 miles away, we knew it was only the beginning.  

Madly, 

Dana

Friday, 21 October 2011

Cyclists of La Mancha

Before I offered to sew Justin’s flag for him, he was planning to use a bag full of zip ties and an ad hoc hole punch to get the job done.  He did not want me to go to any trouble, but I insisted: “It’ll only take five minutes! No problem.”  Okay, so the sewing skills I had acquired back in grade nine home economics were a little rusty.  Five minutes somehow became half an hour and one ugly looking, albeit functional, flag. 

On the plus side, this gave Justin and I the chance to chat a little bit, and discover more things that we had in common.  We had already commiserated over our frustration with law school at dinner. The topic of what I was doing in life before cycle touring had somehow come up, much to the misfortune of my dining companions. Though I tried to keep it brief in order not to spoil the happy mood, a bit of a rant was inevitable.  As my friends nodded politely, Justin mentioned that he had also become fed up with his legal education, having finally had the courage to drop out near the end of his final year.

During the flag sewing process, we learned that we also shared an interest in reading, and began to discuss the books we were currently carrying with us.  I had chosen a light and poppy Douglas Coupland novel for easy reading, the only kind I knew I would have the energy to do on a trip like this. Justin, in response, whipped out the 17th century Spanish literary masterpiece, Don Quixote. Well then.

Truth be told, Justin had just picked up the book, and he was a little bit concerned that he had jumped in over his head.  I could understand his worry; 800 pages of 400-year-old literature including 10 pages worth of unpronounceable Spanish names was definitely not my idea of a good post-cycling wind down. Nevertheless, I was excited about this particular classic. For one thing, it was one of my favourite works of literature, though I had only read excerpts of it. It is long, true, but written in a style that is highly entertaining and far more accessible than other similarly renowned works. For another, Don Quixote is the perfect story to read on a bike tour.  Justin and I agreed - the similarities are uncanny.

For those of you unfamiliar with the tale, it goes something like this. The protagonist, Don Quixote, goes insane from reading too many books (ahem…cases) about knights having adventures and being heroes. He becomes delusional (check) and decides that he is going to live out these stories by becoming a knight himself, and going on an adventure (same idea, check). Having no idea how to actually go about this (that’s right), he gathers some pathetic semblance of gear (check), finds a guy crazy enough to go with him (does my imaginary friend count?), and sets out to face a world of imagined perils (check). Finding none, he fabricates them, and then goes on at great length about his heroic deeds (as we speak, check).  He also puts himself through a great deal of pain and suffering for no good reason (check!). Everybody thinks he’s nuts, but he doesn’t notice or care (check and check).

Needless to say, this was a book we could relate to. Given the astounding appropriateness of the text and our mutual enjoyment of the written word, Justin and I decided to dive into this massive tome together by reading aloud to each other. Hurray for story time! 

the offending burrito

The reading began after Justin and I spent a day off together in Fort Bragg, near MacKerricher state park. We rode into town with Katie and Brent, who visited the bike shop while we got our laundry started at a nearby laundromat. After meeting up for a delectable mexican comida, we parted ways with Brent and Katie, heading for the library to do our internet duties. Unfortunately the internet stopped working at the library as soon as we arrived. To make matters worse, the librarian did not take kindly to my suggestion that she may need to reset the modem, though I think she was mainly concerned with the leftovers that I was carrying in a styrofoam container.
the sampler at North Coast Brewpub


Summoning my courage to face this surly adversary, I asked if I could try my luck again with a new password.  She refused, noting that I had already used up my one free pass for the day (despite not ever having reached a homepage) and proposing that I come back later after finishing my burrito. I went to the table where Justin was sitting to tell him what happened, but before we had a chance to leave, the librarian kicked us out, scowling at the remains of my lunch as she ushered us out the door.

Having failed at our library quest and feeling downtrodden, we decided to try the bar. We had heard, after all, that there was a pretty decent brewpub in town. Thankfully, the North Coast Brewery cut us a break.  In exchange for using their wifi, we got drunk, starting with a sampler of every beer they brewed and then moving on to full glasses of our favourites. As we sipped the various ales, pilsners, lagers, IPAs, porters and stouts, we took turns using Justin's netbook (if one of my blog posts seems a little off, now you know why).  To top off this day of deliciousness we stopped at the ice cream shop on the way out of town.  Having fulfilled our internet mission and supported the local economy, we were heroes once more. Hurrah!

Despite feeling a little bloated, Justin and I mustered up the energy to toss a frisbee when we got back to camp. Afterwards we met Jesse and Liz, two new cyclists who had arrived at the campsite that day.  They encouraged us to check out the pier, which boasted tidepools and excellent views of the area. As we walked over to it, I told Justin about the tradition of road disc amongst my friends in Campbell River, and promptly proceeded to throw his frisbee into the swamp. Another smoothe move by yours truly.  Luckily, Justin carefully selected a stick with which to fish out the frisbee, in yet another act of bravery. Story time ensued, the first of what was to become a nightly tradition throughout our travels together.   

Justin and I set out together the following morning, stopping about 12 miles down the road in the quaint town of Mendocino for some coffee and wifi time. There we ran into our friend Ty, beaming and full of stories to tell as usual.  An hour of grocery shopping, bathroom trips and bike chat later, we finally got back on the road.

Although generally easy riding in comparison to our recent Leggett Hill adventure, the day’s route had a few of its own challenges in store.  Now that we had completed the highest peak, it was time to face the steepest. The tight switchbacks took the form of a giant three-armed monster who could only be slayed by vigorous pedaling. For the first time on my trip, I saw what all those bike geeks meant when they said that the front of a heavily back-loaded bike might actually lift off the road on a big enough uphill.  Holy crap. Of course, in true hero style, we conquered the beast.  It was tough, but it felt amazing. No amount of flat riding can compare to the booming, artery-clearing, cardio pulsation of pushing up a serious grade. 

Since that evening’s suggested state park was closed, our only viable option was the private K.O.A. campground nearby.  Much as we pined for the familiarity of coin-operated showers, we had no choice but to pamper ourselves with a pool, hot tub and outdoor kitchen for one night L  As a bicycle adventurer, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. 

As we went into the store to pay for our luxury camping experience, we finally encountered the legendary Donnie and Sarah.  Sometimes on the road, you get to know other bicycle heroes through the stories of others, before actually meeting them. Such was the case with this remarkable couple.

Donnie and Sarah
Donnie and Sarah had been riding their bicycles for four months. They had started in Alaska, and were headed all the way down the west coast of the Americas to Argentina. Alaska to Argentina - It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  They apparently thought so; neither of them had so much as cycle commuted to work before this trip. Quixotic, indeed. 
abalone shells



After many nights of stealth camping on the side of the road, Sarah was eager for social interaction. We chatted the night away, cooking and hot tubbing together. The next night, we ended up camping together again at a slightly less lavish state park.  In the process of scoping out the hiker biker campsite, we met an eccentric Californian couple who were leaving their campsite a night early and offered to let us use it.  We hung out with them while they packed up, and they showed us an impressive collection of abalone shells that they had collected at a nearby beach.  They scribbled out their address on a piece of wood, just in case we needed help down the road, before driving off.  Once again along our adventure, the kindness of strangers prevailed.  

Your most honourable bicycle hero,

Dana

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Dear readers, I have left you too long! The truth is that, while my blog is still back in pot county California, my bicycle adventures have been over for a little while now. Back home with family in London, Ontario, I have been too busy sleeping in a soft bed, taking hot baths and poring over my wardrobe options (quite a thrill after wearing the same t-shirt for a month straight) to write much. Luckily, the usual two days of post-homecoming familial bliss have passed, ushering me quickly into the phase of familial madness and making a couple of hours of alone time at the computer seem far more appealing (Just kidding Mom. We're still on for scrabble later, right?) Besides, fun as it may be, I would never leave you in Humboldt county. Friends don't let friends become gun-toting potheads.

Let's pick up where we left off, the morning after potluck and flag-making adventures at Richardson Grove state park.  Having stopped early the previous day (recall that I erroneously believed our initial park destination of Standish Hickey to be closed), we had 15 miles of uphill riding just to get to the base of the infamous Leggett Hill, the highest peak of the trip at over 2000 feet. The climb marked the beginning of our transition from faithful 101 to the windy and shoulderless 1, California's scenic, albeit sketchy, coastal highway.  It loomed large in our dreams, bolstered by rumours and guidebook warnings.

Leggett Hill proved the other half of my theory. While an unexpected mountain is undoubtedly more difficult to climb, an overly anticipated one is surprisingly easy.  In the case of Leggett, it helped that we conquered over half of the total elevation before even arriving at the base of the hill.  I was also feeling exceptionally strong that morning, up early and pumped to tackle the challenge of the day. The miles leading up to the hill flew by, and before long I found myself at a convenience store across from the apparently open Standish Hickey, chatting with two cyclists who had stayed there the previous night and were getting a late start to the day. They were still sucking on their morning cigarettes as I zoomed away, eager to get going again after downing an energy bar. 

The hill began right after I turned onto highway 1, winding up a quiet, narrow and shoulderless road. I settled into granny gear and breathed steadily as my newly acquired thighs of steel pushed me upwards. I felt invincible; it was still early, the sun was shining and the hardest hill of my journey would soon be behind me. My enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when the two smokers passed me about a third of the way up. Once again, life is not fair.


Although the climb was long, it felt easy. I stopped at the top to have lunch and take the feeling in. About ten minutes later, Justin rolled up, soon followed by Brent and Katie. We flew downhill together full of joy, Brent flapping his arms in the air as I grabbed my camera to take video footage at 30 miles an hour. 

As soon as we made it back to sea level, we saw the next incline before us, a second 600 foot summit that we had brushed off as an afterthought with Leggett on our minds. This proved the first half of my theory  again.  The hill that had seemed inconsequential in the shadow of the giant was actually...a...(pant)..little..(pant pant)..steep. We struggled to the top like earthquake victims hit by an aftershock just when it seemed like the shaking was finally over. Another quick downhill and we found ourselves facing the breathtaking ocean, framed by tall pink grasses blowing in the breeze. Brent passed out for a moment on the road while Justin got a headstart on the next leg.  I took pictures and felt grateful that the hard part was finally over - or so I thought.

Another 10 miles down the road and we were in the town of Westport, where we stopped at the outrageously overpriced general store to buy dinner supplies. The woman behind the counter informed us that a murderer from the nearby town of Fort Bragg was on the loose, but we were more concerned with the price of beer. We were also able to finally settle a dispute over the pronunciation of MacKerricher state park, where we were headed for the evening (I said "mack-er-racker" to the great amusement of all. It turned out to be "mack-err-rich-er," but my version stuck) We lingered on the patio, hot and exhausted, telling ourselves that we were just about there with only 12 flat miles to go until camp.



They looked flat on the map, at least. True, these rolling ups and downs were nothing compared to what we had just done, but our exhaustion more than made up for it.  Wanting it to be over already, I pushed out ahead in a sustained sprint, only to bonk two miles down the road. I pulled over to eat some trail mix while my friends caught up and the road laughed at me (great, now I was hallucinating too). After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at the campground. In a flurry of elated high fives we decided to pitch in for firewood; after 60 of the hilliest miles on the coast, a little celebration was in order. 
















At the campsite we ran into our old friend Wayne. The five of us loaded up with beer, chips and salsa, and went down to the beach to watch the sunset.  By the time we had eaten and started a fire, we were all exhausted. It doesn't take much to kill a cycle tourist party.  But the day had been so much fun that it hardly mattered - definitely the most challenging and the most rewarding ride of my trip.

In Ecstatic Exhaustion,  

Dana





Monday, 10 October 2011

Would You Like Weed With That?

I live on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a locale renowned for the cultivation of a certain recreational herb of which I have been known to partake on occasion. And, while I knew there were a lot of hippies in California, I never imagined there was a place that topped B.C. in terms of marijuana abundance and acceptability until I rode my bicycle through Humboldt County.

Willie
My first hint of the industry driving the area came to light in the tiny town of Orick, just a few miles south of Elk Prairie. I had spent the previous night hanging at the campground with Willie, another solo cycle tourist from Kansas who I had already run into in Oregon.  In the morning, we began talking about possible camping options for the night.  Willie mentioned he had a friend we might be able to crash with in Arcata, about 40 miles down the road. Since I was already ready to go, we decided to meet up in Orick and cycle together from there. As I sat outside the grocery store waiting to flag Willie down, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was helping some teenagers run a bake sale.

I soon found out that this woman and her partner had made the colossal move from the glitzy metropolis of Los Angeles to the nothing town of Orick only a few years back.  Now, I understand the desire to get out life in the fast lane as much as anyone, but Orick hardly embodies the peace and beauty of the countryside - its more like a dying mill town off the highway.

"Do you have family here? Come out for a job?"  I ventured.

"Nope, just wanted to get away from it all, and bought the house on a whim."

Being my curious self, I inquired as to what people in the area do for a living. My friend replied without hesitation that the county was primarily driven by the marijuana industry.  She explained that this occupation was viewed as entirely socially acceptable, since the money it generated funded essential services such as schools. I dared not question my friend's level of personal involvement in this prosperous economy, but if she wasn't in the weed business, I don't know what she was doing out there.

Willie's friends' backyard
The ubiquitousness of the good green was confirmed in Arcata, a town characterized by a bizarre culture of paranoid pot farmers - hippie rednecks as some of Willie's friends like to put it. As Willie and I approached the town on backcountry roads and bike paths (a nice break from the highway), we encountered a boisterous group of local cyclists, who gave us the lowdown on the town.

"It's a little confusing. You see, Arcata was designed by stoners..." the spiel began. Oh boy.

Willie's friend turned out to be a weed trimmer, a common and lucrative job in Arcata. The house she lived in with a revolving line up of five other friends was scattered with the haphazard artifacts of transitive 20-somethings - a comforting throwback to my undergraduate days. I happily set up my tent in their backyard, amidst the ducks, garden, other camping guests and Junkyard Dog, the house rooster.   It felt so good to be welcomed into a house teeming with music, books and good smells that I was tempted to abandon all my goals for the afternoon and just hang out (the stoner mentality was apparently already infiltrating, despite my not having smoked a puff).

But the planning part of my brain prevailed.  For one thing, my pedal had been making a mystery noise all day, and I wanted to take the opportunity to look into it while staying in town.  Laundry was also definitely in order.  I lured myself away from the many jarred varieties of ganja on offer (like water from the faucet, one of the roommates assured me) and headed into town to take care of business.

After passing multiple head shops, I arrived at the recommended bike shop and explained the trouble I was having. I was promptly informed that it would cost almost as much money, and take more time, to service my pedal than to simply buy new ones.  Given this situation, I decided to splurge on a set of multi-purpose pedals, with one flat side and one clipless side.  This was an option I had wanted for a while anyways; wearing bike cleats to go clubbing in Portland was kind of a drag.

Since I was on a spending roll, I proceeded to take myself out for sushi - a special treat after weeks of rice and beans. To polish dinner  off, I hit up the frozen yogurt bar across the street, piling more candy and fruit into my bowl than yogurt to get the most bang for my buck. Satiated, I picked up my laundry from the laundromat and phoned Willie's friend Mulligan (poor girl- her parents did not know about the golf thing when they named her) to get directions to the Redwood Curtain Brewing Company where the roommies were all hanging out.

I listened with uncertainty as Mulligan attempted to describe a beige and brown complex tucked away on the side of a windy road.  It turns out Arcata has a lot of big warehouse-like spaces - surprise, surprise.  Eventually I saw a row of what looked like military barracks, and pulled up to what I was sure was some sort of garage...until I saw the bar, and giant vats of beer.  Between the atmosphere, tasty in-house brews, and unlimited free goldfish crackers, this pub was a winner.

The next morning I was once again affected by the pot smoke in the air. After saying my goodbyes to Willie and his friends, I made my way down the hill upon which they lived towards town.  As I reached the bottom, I thought it might be wise to do a mental double-check that I had everything (why I don't think of this before I leave houses and bike down hills I really don't know).

In my non-cycling life this is a perpetual problem - so much so that I've built losing things into my budget. My record has improved significantly on this trip, since I don't have very many things with me, and the things I have I do have I use on a daily basis. It's also pretty easy to check a patch of grass to make sure you didn't leave anything. But as my mother will tell you, given the opportunity to spread my things out, I will. As such, the shared hippie house in Arcata completely screwed me up, or at least that's my excuse. Needless to say, as I stood at the bottom of the hill I soon realized I had indeed forgotten something - my awesome all-purpose sandals. Back up the hill I went. "Just kidding!" I yelled as I re-entered the house.  There is nothing more awkward than unexpectedly meeting again right after saying a drawn out goodbye.

Back down the hill I went, but this time I was slightly smarter; I stopped earlier before realizing I had also forgotten my water bottles. Smoothe, Dana, smoothe. I may have been able to pass off my first reappearance as cute, but the second time around was just painful.  At least I was getting a good warm up.

Once I finally managed to leave town, I got in the zone fast, riding down the highway on a wide flat shoulder. After passing through Eureka, I decided to take a break from the highway by following one of the alternative routes suggested in the guidebook. This brought me to the town of Loleta, best known for dairy farming, as I gathered from the smell in the air and the poop in my cleats. Crap, I should have known that wasn't mud.

I dared not venture off the beaten path again after the manure incident. Luckily, the suggested bike route was about to exit highway 101 for the avenue of the giants, a stunning two-lane corridor through the redwoods, similar to the descent into Elk Prairie. Tiny towns revolving entirely around tree tourism lined the road. Attractions included a cable car ride around the forest, a living tree house, a tree cathedral (trees enclosed in a semi-circle), at least two "big trees" (giants among the giants), an "immortal tree" that had survived axe, fire and flood, and a drive-through tree. Walking through the aisles of a gift shop in a town of 200, I shyly inquired whether there might be a library or internet cafe somewhere along this road.  "Ha," the man at the counter chuckled, "you're in the redwoods. You'd be lucky to find a computer."

In the middle of this quiet beauty lay my campsite, one of my favourites of the trip.  In addition to the wonder of the redwoods, I met some cool people that night, including Ty, a very fit older asian man with a young soul, and Justin, a future cycling companion.

Although California state parks match Oregon in natural beauty, they lose big in the information and services department. Due to a series of recent budget cuts, many of the parks are being cut back or closed early (hence my Crescent City experience).  I could have dealt with the lack of soap in the bathroom and exorbitant amount of quarters needed to take a shower, if only there was some sure way to find out what parks were actually closed.  Unfortunately, park rangers were generally unsure of anything beyond the park they were working at, and when I called california state parks, the unclear wording of the website was simply recited to me over the phone. Other cyclists had conflicting information, depending on the source they had consulted.

As a result of this confusion, I came to believe that Standish Hickey, the next state park on the route, was likely closed (turns out that while most of the park was closed, the hiker biker site was still open).  With this in mind,  I decided to aim for Richardson Grove State Park (under 40 miles away), make it a short cycling day, and use the extra time to catch up on my blog. I got an early start the next morning and hoofed it 30 miles to the town of Garberville, where I spent a whopping $28 to use the internet for a couple of hours. Before leaving town I stopped in at the visitors' centre to ask if I could use their bathroom, as the one at the cafe was out of order. They informed me that there were no public washrooms, but that if I patronized a local business, I could use theirs.  What a joke. I rode back out onto the highway and peed in the bushes.

Garberville had all of the essential
services. 
Just as I was nearing the park I planned to stay at for the evening, I ran into Katie and Brent, on their way to Standish Hickey. I gave them the information I had and they decided to follow me to Richardson Grove, hoping to be able to ask about Standish Hickey when we got there. Of course, when we arrived, there was nobody there to ask.  Not cool, California, not cool. In the end we all decided to stay put.

At the hiker biker site, we ran into Justin, whom I introduced to Katie and Brent. After setting up our tents, we caught up on everything that had happened to us since our last meeting. Katie and Brent easily won the contest with their tale of cycling the Lost Coast, the most undeveloped stretch of coastline in California. According to Katie, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. This, however, could not compensate for the insanity of the terrain - a series of steep mountains that made mount constitution look like a lunch break.  No wonder this road was not recommended for cycling (never mind cycling with fully loaded bikes).

Justin with his homemade flag


Our friends' willingness to subject their thighs to torture, however, paid off in some unforgettable adventures. I thought I had seen something of the Humboldt County culture in Arcata, but the lost coast was a level beyond. They had their own currency! Before long Katie and Brent hooked up with a friendly dahlia farmer who took them to a local food festival, showered them with dubies, and somewhat sketchily drove them out of the wild mountains and back to civilization.  I have to admit I was a little jealous.

For dinner, the four of us decided to go potluck. This would allow us to have several vegetables in a single meal! It got a little squirrely when Justin dropped the tortellini in the dirt, but he managed to salvage it with some fastidious rinsing. We even found a plastic bottle of jaggermeister in the food cache. Score.

Katie and Brent tucked in early, while I helped Justin to sew a flag for his trailer out of stick and a fluorescent piece of tarp he had found on the road.  It wasn't pretty but it did the trick. At a certain point you stop caring how you look as long as people can see you (hence the dorky orange safety vest I began to don around week three).  We did not stay up late; the dreaded Leggett hill, highest peak on the entire coastal route, was coming up the following day, and everyone was eager to rest up.  It was time to put away the bong and get serious.

Up in Smoke,

Dana

P.S. Just kidding about the bong. Who would carry that on a bike trip?