Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not a Disney California adventure

Part One: Cruising

In the realm of outdoor experiences, there is something deeply satisfying about making my own route and then following it. It's as though, by taking an orange felt-tip marker and drawing squiggly lines on photocopied maps, I'm actually outlining these distant mountains, these lonely highways, these rugged trails. My bicycle is a sort of paintbrush, pressed into the blank canvas of the unknown to make these visualizations a reality. There's art in discovery. More than miles, elevation, and other tangible statistics, this creative process leaves me with a sense of accomplishment — even when riddled with mistakes. Actually, it's satisfying because it was riddled with mistakes. I took some chances and colored outside some lines, and the finished product was beautiful.

My ambitious plan: pedal from Los Altos to the start/finish of the Santa Barbara 100 in three days, alone, having no experience with any region south of Los Altos, and with little more to go on than a vague blog post by people I do not know, and the computer-generated recommendations of Google Maps. Bridging several leaps of faith and one terrible weather forecast, I drew out a route of approximately 350 miles with unknown climbing, unknown services, unknown trail conditions, unknown road conditions ... many unknowns. I finished my tour with 280 miles, 24,000 feet of climbing, 27 hours of moving time, a lot of wet gear, really sore quads, and a big smile. As it turned out, Beat's hundred-mile race was cancelled due to hail, rain, and unworkable mud on the course ... all things I encountered during my tour. He picked me up Friday afternoon in San Luis Obispo, about a hundred miles short of my goal. But I couldn't be happier with how it turned out. I was mentally prepared to ride through the night to make it to Santa Barbara before the race finish, but I'm glad I didn't have to.

I set out Wednesday morning in light rain showers and a buzz of excitement. It's been too long since I embarked on a bike tour, with everything I needed (or at least I over-optimistically hoped it was everything I needed) stuffed into a few bike bags and a backpack. I followed the GPS track I created toward Los Gatos and up into the mountains. Google Maps made a few interesting recommendations for skirting around the busy corridor of Highway 17, including muddy singletrack and nonexistent trails around Lexington Reservoir. At one point I was shouldering my bike, clawing through the mud up a nearly vertical slope, and I hadn't even left the Bay Area yet.

I put a lot of faith in Google's software in order to stay off of main roads, and I was sometimes rewarded with a quiet path through the forest. So much green.

The weather on the first day was mostly pleasant — cool with rain showers, and the occasional deluge. I was pedaling along Summit Road when the sky unleashed a shock-and-awe hailstorm. I think I even missed the worst of the storm, but it was frightening nonetheless — complete white-out, couldn't keep my eyes open, had to pull off the road, put my arms over my neck, and hope a car didn't hit me.

 Although exposed to the worst of the weather, the Summit ridge also afforded great views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I couldn't believe I was still less than 25 miles from home. Because I usually either ride west or north of my home on most of my regular bike routes, every part of this tour was new to me, and full of great discoveries.

Highland Road — a ripping descent and not a single car.

 I had been throttling the brake levers when I rounded a tight corner and saw this rock. I found its advice to be sound on both a philosophical and literal level.

I was loving my new bike from the beginning, and the love affair only increased as the miles passed. Highland Road was technically paved, but not the kind of road I would want to rip down on a skinny-tire carbon bike. This is the main advantage of having a go-anywhere bike for touring. The Moots is fully capable as a mountain bike, but an easily overlooked advantage is how comfortable it is over long distances, over any terrain. Speed is such a coveted value in cycling these days that even touring bikes come equipped with 23c tires. But when I'm planning to spend nine or more hours each day on a saddle, for days on end, I think I would choose the comfort and flexibility of the Moots every time. Not only do I have capability to dart off the road onto the nearest piece of muddy singletrack whenever I so desire, I can feel fully comfortable on pavement. I could go on for paragraphs extolling the virtues of using a soft-tail mountain bike for all touring purposes, but I admit it's simply a personal preference. I love ending a long day with little more than tired legs — butt, back and arms felt great. The Moots fits me like a glove.

 After descending Eureka Canyon, I entered the rolling farmland beside Monterey Bay.  Pedaling through the communities of Freedom and Watsonville, I could see the more intriguing side of California farming culture — such as businesses whose signage was only in Spanish, and workers sitting on the side of the road eating their lunch. I also had to contend with a fierce headwind blowing from the south. Grinding away on flat pavement at full throttle, my GPS was only registering speeds of eight or nine miles per hour. At one point I texted Beat to let him know why I wasn't making better progress. I braced for a late night into my planned stopping point for the night, the Arroyo Seco campground.

 Luckily, once I turned inland toward the Salinas River Valley, the powerful wind diminished to a stiff breeze, bringing the temperature down with it. I settled into a meditative rhythm, listening to music and observing the small details of the valley: orange poppies swaying in the breeze, patterns in the cultivated fields, purple light on the eastern hills, a haunted house. A crowded freeway cuts through the valley less than two miles to the east, but I would have never suspected it — quarantined as I was on a quiet farming road on the other side of the river. Rural bliss.

I purposely routed my course around the city of Salinas, and planned to get dinner in a town called East Garrison. When I rolled through and there was nothing there, I simply shrugged it off. "I have enough trail food to get me through mid-day tomorrow," I thought, having not given a whole lot of thought to exactly what food I was carrying with me or where my next food supply was actually going to come from. I thought I was carrying something in the range of 4,000 calories of high-calorie-density (i.e. junk) food. However, this was taking into account three king-size candy bars that I thought were in my pack, but which I actually accidentally left at home. I wouldn't discover this until I actually laid out all my food later that night, only to discover I was many miles from anywhere and 1,500 calories short.

I arrived at the campground just after 9 p.m., with 125 miles for the day. The campground was partially closed and the bathroom building was locked, which was discouraging because I had planned on using it as an emergency shelter option. I made a bad judgement call by setting out on this tour with only a bivy bag for shelter, even given forecasts that all but assured me I didn't stand a chance of dodging wet weather. Still, after the morning rain and hail, the storm cleared up in the afternoon. I could see stars splattered across the entire sky. I laid out my sleeping gear and assessed my dinner options, which is when I discovered the missing candy bars. I counted my calories and realized I only had a little more than 1,200 total — for all of that night, the next morning, and an unknown portion of the next day into a rugged, difficult, and remote section of my route. Panic.

I pulled out my paper maps to assess my bailout options. The closest community was Greenville, twenty miles away. I knew I couldn't manage forty miles of backtracking and still make my schedule by any stretch — it was already too ambitious as it was. If things went well for me the next day, I believed I would reach Highway 1 by mid-day and probably find some source of food along the highway. Using all kinds of creative justifications, I convinced myself 1,200 calories was probably enough. This delusion was harder to manage after I finished my sad dinner of two fig bars (220 calories) and still felt ravenously hungry. And yet, I still held on to this hope that I could make do.

I curled up in my bivy sack just as the wind started to blow with much more intensity. The temperature was probably in the mid-40s, and the windchill was just enough that I could feel a bite through my 40-degree sleeping bag. I snoozed for an hour or two before soft sprinkling woke me up, and managed to doze off for another couple of hours before I woke up to the feeling of cold water dripping through my hat, directly into my ear canal. At this point, rain was coming down hard. I managed to sleep through it long enough that water had soaked through my bivy sack, and also leaked in through the zipper, forming a large puddle around my head. Panic.

I wrestled out of the sleeping bag and dragged the whole damp mess over to the awning of the restroom. I tried all the doors another time and found the shower room was actually wedged open just a bit, and the deadbolt wasn't entirely set. I pulled with desperate force until I yanked the door free, opening the way to warm and dry shelter. Elation!

I rolled my bike inside and rearranged my wet gear on the floor. It was so clammy and cold that I couldn't fall back to sleep after that. I just shivered softly and listened the deluge outside, which occasionally strengthened into what sounded like marble-sized hail pounding the roof with a deafening clatter. I was glad to have shelter; if it hadn't been for a loose deadbolt, I would have had no choice but to escape to Greenville in the middle of the night. Despite my relief, I couldn't help but lay awake, nervously wondering what tomorrow would bring.


  1. I'm so jealous of you, Jill. I'd dig a trip like that but my nethers just can't take that much saddle time. Your iron ass really is your superpower.

    Sorry for eating your Snickers bar. Would you have had it if I hadn't raided your stash all those weeks ago? I feel like you should just store a bunch of those in your bike frame for emergencies.

  2. Great writeup already and so exciting. I can't wait to read the next parts. This blog is awesome!

  3. Nice my. My parents live real close to Big Sur. Might have to bring my bike out next time and ride some of that stuff. Love my Moots too, although it's way different from yours - full-rigid Rigor Mootis singlespeed. More like an X-Wing fighter, whereas yours is the Millenium Falcon. Nice adventure - enjoyed reading it.

  4. Sorry to hear about your nasty weather...had you missed that storm, you would have been treated to a tailwind the entire way! The only time we get winds from the south on the Central Coast are just prior to (and during) the RARE storms. Thunder and lightening are EXTREMELY rare. I've lived in Santa Maria for 10 years now, and only seen that twice (wasn't there for this one, my wife said it was a doozy!)

    Glad to hear how well you've adapted to your new steed...I'm SO jealous. And sorry to hear about Beat's race...what a bummer.

  5. Sounds so great, wish I had been there - envious!

  6. Loved the photos of single track, would have loved to run it:) I am eager to know how the next day turned up - what a night. Thank god for facilities with loose bolts.

  7. Awesome Jill. By the way, there is a new climbing in Glacier book that describes our climb up Mt. Henry as class 4. Brad was amused as he disagrees but I think it qualifies as class 4. We are super badass (you far moreso as is evidenced by this bike trip).

  8. Jill — Usually I have an almost endless supply of Snickers Bars; the shortage was unusual for me. I like the idea of storing some in my bike frame.

    Matt — I saw lightning over the Pacific near Big Sur the following night. Having lived in the Rockies, I didn't think it was all that strange, but everyone around here is still talking about this storm.

    Danni — My understanding of the class ratings is that class three is hands-and-feet scrambling that isn't exposed, class four is hands-and-feet scrambling that is exposed, and class five is technical climbing. I would definitely call that chimney class 4; and I think Brad is a crazy man. And you are super badass. Hope Beat and I can get up to Glacier for some hiking this summer!

  9. You have inspired me to get my winpy butt out today on a ride. I cant read enough of your writing! From tundra to surf what an adventurous lady and inspiration.

  10. Brilliant account, somehow even your miserable night sounds appealing, looking forwards to the next installment!


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