Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Study: San Francisco to Los Angeles

I planned this trip as a last minute alternative to an end of summer boundary waters excursion that fell through, leaving me with a week off needing filled. The itinerary was to fly into SF and hang with a friend there for the weekend. I would then zip down the coast over the next few days to meet my friend Jay who works at Topanga Creek Bikes and dig the riding around LA for the weekend before returning home. I managed to find some cheap airfare, bought a map, boxed up my bike and was pretty much ready to roll.

I flew in to San Francisco and met my pal who lives in Oakland. We hung out for a few days, eating pizza and going for a ride out in Shell Ridge and the Mt. Diablo area, fulfilling dreams planted in my head from hours spent ogling shots from the folks at Rivendell Bicycles. On the day I was to start heading down the coast I ran into another tourist named Stephen from Tucson, AZ. He had been on the road for two months at this point, on an odyssey that started in Tuscon and took him north through desolate territory through Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, the Rockies and high desert, across Oregon to Portland, and now back down the Pacific coast on his way home. It was a chance encounter that ended up being fortunate, as we would share the road for the rest of my trip. He was in total touring mode, caring little about anything except calories and a place to sleep. I think he was glad to meet me as well, because he said he hadn't ridden with another cyclist for more than a day during his entire trip. I could definitely sense the loneliness in the places he'd been and miles he'd spent by himself in his eagerness to ride with me. I let him know if he wanted to keep up with me he needed to be ready for long days. I had a schedule to keep and I needed to make it to LA in four or five days which meant averaging around 100 miles a day. On that first day I made it to a campground at New Brighton beach near Santa Cruz. I lost Stephen on the road earlier as I was pushing the pace, determined to make camp before sunset, and let him know where he could find me. Sure enough, in the middle of the night at the campsite he rolled up and let me know he'd be ready to ride the next day. I was surprised but happy to still have a companion. It obviously meant a lot to him to finally be traveling with another human.

The next day we took off into the dream scape of Big Sur. These were the best miles of the trip. As anyone who has been there would know, words do little to describe the beauty of this stretch of coastline. Forested mountains plunge into the sea hundreds of feet below the cliffs, where whales breach in the water and waterfalls splash onto the beaches. We camped at Kirk Creek that night, sharing a site with a hippie girl from Santa Cruz who was there reading messages from crystals under the full moon or something... In the morning we took off to enjoy the final section through Big Sur. Before leaving the campground a Mexican family stopped us and invited us to eat breakfast with them. They served us hot oatmeal with cocoa and almonds and filled our water bottles. We talked about bikes, cracked jokes, and they took a picture of us with their family before we thanked them for their kindness and set out. On the road that day we met a group of charity riders headed to LA as well. They were doing a fully supported style ride, all on fancy road bikes with no loads. They started to get a little irked as one by one, Stephen and I would pull up and draft them, then pass them and head off into the distance. I was coming off a year of disciplined training for a long distance cycling event, and Stephen had two months of fully loaded riding in his legs so it wasn't a surprise to us, but it must have looked weird to those roadies to see two dirty freaks on heavy steel bikes blowing past them, laughing all the way. In San Luis Obispo I started to get more of a sense of being in southern California. We were approached by two tweakers on beater bikes who invited us to their campsite outside of town... "Hey, you guys homeless? We’ve got snakes, TVs, and beer! You guys should come hang out!" Their offer sounded pretty good, but I was on a tight schedule. We stopped for food at a grocery store and I watched Stephen eat an entire package of precooked bratwurst cold and top it off with a tub of rice pudding. I was in awe. That night I think we camped at Oceano. The campground was full, so we waited until dark and just pulled our bikes into the eucalyptus trees near the beach and rolled out our bags for the night.

Day four was to be my last day of riding. We got going and started the day passing through the farmland around Orcutt and Lompoc. Ran into a desert rat on a beater bike with no racks, but carrying a military style backpack that must have weighed 60 or 70 pounds. He hung out with us at a gas station while we had coffee and donuts, telling us about how he was a veteran down on his luck and having a hard time getting any sort of benefits. He had been on the road a long time by the looks of it, and was headed to Arizona to work with his brother. I have no idea how he managed to ride so far carrying a pack that heavy, but it was all he had and he was getting it done. I gave him a portion the remaining food I had left as he only had a jar of peanut butter and some bread. This guy was in need of a little charity and seemed to genuinely appreciate the gesture. Stephen and I pressed on into the blisteringly hot Santa Ynez valley, getting off the coast for a detour through Solvang and over the San Marcos pass to descend into Santa Barbara. As we were riding south on 246, we came across an accident resulting from a head on collision on the two lane highway. Traffic was closed off both ways on the road and helicopters were air lifting the victims of the crash off to hospitals. The emergency crew wouldn't let us pass even on the side of the road, so we had to do some trespassing through tangled brush and dusty farm fields to avoid a long back track. Fancy pastries and beer in Solvang at mid-day was a good rest stop. We started the climb up San Marcos pass at about mile 80. I was completely cooked by the time we reached the top, but the effortless seven miles back down to the coast and Santa Barbara made it well worth the work. We rode on to Carpenteria that night, finishing with something like 110 miles for the day. 

That morning I bid Stephen farewell as I boarded the Amtrak in Carpenteria to bypass the next leg of the trip into LA. I could have ridden, but I had more plans remaining than time, so I figured I’d make the most of my trip by skipping a less than enjoyable day of riding down the urban southern California coast. I got off in Van Nuys and met my girlfriend who had flown in a few days earlier and had been bumming around Topanga and the Santa Monica’s on a borrowed mountain bike since. We rode dirt roads to Topanga State Park and dropped in to the canyon to visit Topanga Creek Bikes and Jay. Jay is a friend from Illinois who recently moved to the area to work at the shop. They have an awesome set up there and were very gracious to us, letting us hang out for a couple days, go on their Saturday morning group ride and letting me use their tools to take apart my bike for shipping back home. We camped at the state park, had a real fancy meal at the crazy boutique bike gourmet establishment Pedalers Fork, and spent a shitty night in LAX before hopping on a plane back to Illinois to conclude the trip.

Photo: Sean Talkington

This short tour of the California coast was a great time and I’m grateful that I got to pack so much riding and relaxation time with friends into one trip. The southern portion of the route was not as scenic as the northern part but it was still fun and might be just what some people are looking for. With the majority of rides at home taking place on the empty gravel roads of the Midwest, the amount of people and car traffic in southern California was a bit off-putting in my search for bucolic bicycle touring bliss. As always, bikes prove their value as the best way to take in any area of the world by allowing you to see what you want to see at your own pace, fully appreciate the nature of the world’s dynamic landscapes, and by stimulating awesome interactions with strangers you'd miss out on otherwise.

As for Stephen, he went on to LA but ended up catching a train back to Tucson. The prospect of the lonely and utterly grueling ride across the desert was too much, but with 3,000 some miles under his belt on the trip already, I don't think anyone could fault him. We keep in touch on Facebook these days. He always seems to be planning more lonely trips through weird areas of America and this winter he rode from Tucson across Texas to Lake Charles, Louisiana. During his trip, I’d receive intermittent communications from him about encounters with Mexican transvestites and Border Patrol officers, frigid night time temperatures and whole days spent on the road without seeing a single town. It takes a certain type to get out there and do rides like that alone. I hope I get to join Stephen on another ride someday.