Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Part three: Serendipity

Over the next three miles, I worked through my misery to reach a sort of numb acceptance. After my mind was wiped free of angst and cloaked in haze, I saw a crow picking at a bag of Doritos on the side of the road. Animal instinct prompted me to hit the brakes hard to scare the crow away, stop the bike, and reach out to grab the bag of chips. But human consciousness intervened. "Are you really going to eat discarded, rained-on, bird-pecked chips?" I smiled in spite of myself. Is it possible to so quickly fall from grace? The crinkled bag just rustled in the wind, taunting me, until I couldn't bear my own curiosity. I grabbed the bag and looked inside. It was empty, and the question remained unanswered.

I pedaled another half mile around two tight corners when I came to a straightaway, and ahead I could see a building. "Probably just someone's house," I thought. But as I came closer, I could see hints of a neon sign. And were those gas pumps? Those were definitely gas pumps. Oh joy! Oh joy! I started hyperventilating and had to compose myself. "Don't get your hopes up. It's nearly 8 p.m. The place could be closed. Don't get carried away."

The place was the Whale Watchers Cafe, which has a ranking of 1.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.com. Obviously I didn't care if the place had cockroaches or served only haggis, as long as the menu included food, it was the best restaurant ever. I parked my bike and rushed inside. There was only one other party in the dining room that appeared to be leaving. The server, a small Hispanic woman, looked up from behind the counter. "We're just about to close," she informed me. She must have sensed my crestfallen demeanor, and continued, "but would you like to see a menu?"

I nodded vigorously, and grabbed the menu. My vision was blurring and I could barely read it but I managed to pick out chicken fajitas from the swirling overload of options. A plate cost $19.95. Crazy bargain! I pointed to the listing. "I want these," I said. "And a Coke. Do you sell candy bars or anything like that?"

The server indicated there was a small convenience store next door so I rushed over to restock my supplies. The experience was reminiscent of the Tour Divide, where I just wandered around the displays in a shocked daze, grabbing everything that struck my fancy: Two Clif Bars, two Babel cheese wheels, one small package Fig Newtons, one bag of Doritos (ha ha), one king-sized Twix Bar, and two giant vegan cookies. It was way more food than I was going to need until the next day, but I did not care. With Whale Watchers as my witness, I was not going to go hungry again.

Back at the cafe, the server brought me a steaming plate of peppers, onions, chicken, rice, and beans. I stared at it for a few seconds with rapt fascination before animal instinct took over, and then I tore into the pile of vegetables with barely civilized urgency. The warm food settled in my stomach and triggered all kind of intense pleasure sensors: Relief, satisfaction, bliss. My memory understood that this was a rather mediocre plate of $20 fajitas, but my present state made it the most awe-inspiring, gratifying meal I had consumed in a long time. There's that old adage that hunger is the best seasoning, but more than that, there's a deeply satisfying value in experiences like this. I certainly didn't set out to run low on food, or ride my way into a distressing hunger — but because I did, I experienced a rare, truly appreciative enjoyment of food, and an understanding of just how much the simple act of eating means to the experience of being alive. It's the same sensation that compels me to ride long hours or run long distances. By enduring a little bit of pain and suffering, I open myself up to the rapture on the other side.

The server came to clear away my scraped-clean plate. "You're on a bicycle?" she asked. I nodded. "And where are you going to right now?"

"I'm headed toward San Simeon," I said.

The server looked perplexed. "That's very far," she said. "It's too late to go there tonight."

"I have bicycle lights," I said. "And I have a tent (liar). I may just pedal for a while and camp. Anyway, I'll see what's available."

She bussed my table and when she returned with the check, she said, "You know, I have a motor home in my driveway where you could sleep. I live just a half mile up the road, back the way you came. There's no electricity and you would have to come inside the house to use my bathroom. But, you are a girl and you are alone. I think it would be all right for you to sleep in my motor home."

"Really?" I said, taken aback by this unexpected generosity. "If you didn't mind, well, it's supposed to rain tonight. I'd be really grateful. Of course I don't require electricity or water. Just a roof overhead would be so wonderful. Oh, thank you."

She gave me directions to her home, in a cluster of small houses behind a fire station that I had failed to notice in my excitement of seeing gas pumps. The small motor home was as much of an oasis as the cafe had been, and I was filled with gratitude for this kind server whose name I forgot to ask. Shortly after I laid out my sleeping bag on the upper bunk and ate a vegan cookie for desert (yup, still hungry), a streak of lightning shimmered through the plexiglass window and thunder shook the whole vehicle. The sky opened up and it rained and rained, not more than a half hour after I serendipitously found my way to shelter. It continued raining most of the rest of the night, and thunder woke me up at least a half dozen times. I didn't sleep well, but I'm not sure I could have been any happier.

I set my alarm for early the next morning because I knew no matter what, I was in for a long day. Everything was quiet in the server's house and I didn't want to wake her up, but I couldn't even find a pen to leave her a thank-you note. It was still raining and the temperature felt cold, probably in the low forties at sea level. This made me wonder if it was possibly snowing at the higher elevations where I had ridden the day before. Probably not, but I wonder. As it turned out, this was a major low pressure system that continued to wreak havoc during its sweep east across the United States.

I was almost unworkably groggy. I never sleep well in the midst of hard efforts, unless I drug myself the way I did in the Tour Divide. I was now working on three nights of minimal sleep, two hard days of biking, one on minimal nutrition, and it was before 8 a.m. (This is early for me. Don't judge me.) I could barely keep my eyes open on the bike, and yet I was so enamored with the ride. Highway 1 continued to wend along the steep coastal cliffs. Because of the rain and early hour, the pavement was entirely empty of traffic. I listened to the patter of rain, screams of sea birds, and gushing waterfalls around every corner. The air smelled of fresh greenery and salt, like a tasty salad, and every tight turn held the most breathtaking views of the ocean. The road climbed to 800 feet elevation and rolled high above the gray water before screaming back to near sea level, then climbing steeply again. "If I rode this last night, I would have been so grumpy," I thought with a grin. But this morning, I loved every climb and water-blasted descent. This morning ride on Highway 1 was another gift that server gave to me by letting me stay in her motor home. I wish I knew her name.

Besides feeling groggy that morning, I also continued to feel hungry. I couldn't shovel in food fast enough. This was more annoying than a pleasure, because it's difficult to eat while riding a bike, especially when it's raining. At one point I decided that if I was willing to eat bird-pecked Doritos, I could definitely eat soggy Doritos, and placed the open bag in my gas tank so I could munch as I pedaled. After a couple of hours, the rain began to dissipate and blue sky emerged once again. It was a beautiful day on the coast.

By the time I approached the town of Cayucos, I was fighting a raging headache. At first I wondered if something was off with my hydration or electrolytes. Then I remembered — except for that one Coke, I haven't had any caffeine in two days. Usually I consume a lot more than that. I decided to stop at a small coffee shop and order a huge mocha, which is the perfect recovery drink (chocolate milk with a kick.) Since it was already noon I decided to get a sandwich, too. Wow, a second meal in three days. This really was becoming a decadent bicycle tour.

After about seventy miles of happy Highway 1 riding, I crossed into Montana de Oro State Park, where I was hoping to ride some dirt again. I checked out a few singletrack trails and continued toward the route I'd laid out in Google Maps, based on recommendations the software made in its "bike" setting.

Until, that is, I came to this. A dead end. My paper maps didn't indicate that any of the bike-legal trails went through, and apparently bikes were not allowed on the only through-route around the park. Frustrated, I sat down at a picnic table to assess my options. My entire route was based on getting around this peninsula; I planned to stick close to the coast and not actually head inland until farther south. If I headed inland north of the park, like I was going to have to, I would have to ride through the busy Highway 101 corridor and all of its traffic, with only my paper maps to use for direction. I didn't expect Google Maps to be infallible but this was discouraging. I already thought I was looking at a 170-mile day to reach the Santa Barbara 100 start/finish, and this was definitely going to push me beyond that distance.

I was sitting at that picnic table, stewing over my options, when my cell phone rang. It was Beat, who told me that his race had been cancelled. Hail, rain, and higher-elevation snow of epic proportions fell on the course, causing widespread mud and flooding. Rangers were closing roads left and right, volunteers couldn't reach aid station spots, and also couldn't put up course markings. They started the race anyway despite the lack of markings. Beat and his friend Steve were running at the front with two other runners. Without any way to know whether they were on the right course, the group of four continued up a muddy trail for twelve miles until they were nearly out of food and water, with no aid stations or race markings in sight, and decided for safety reasons to turn around. As it turned out they did run for 25 miles off course, and by the time they returned, the race was cancelled and the organizer and most of the runners had left. It sounded like a real mess, but Beat was in good spirits and happy for the chance to run a scenic if muddy and cold 30 miles in the mountains. Now, he said, he was coming to pick me up.

"Perfect timing," I replied.

I backtracked out of the state park and rode a tailwind into San Luis Obispo to meet Beat at Highway 101. It was a lot of fun to mash the big gear at 25 miles per hour while dark storm clouds chased me in from the coast. I was finally recovering from the previous day's energy deficit, and feeling great. I ended with 85 miles for the day and 280 total for the trip, and 24,000 feet total climbing. All-in-all it was a fantastic, dynamic ride, and a great shakedown for the Stagecoach 400 (except, of course, for the complete lack of heat training.)

California really is a cool place to ride a bike.


  1. Wow, loved every minute of your ride story Jill, have only been following your blog for a little while but it's very inspirational.

    Riding bikes on trips like these, dealing with the thoughts in your head and just getting on with it is great isn't it!

  2. I love a good ending. Hopefully you gave the server a good tip :-) Ha!

    Seriously, you will have an opportunity to pay it forward, as the saying goes -- just keep your eyes open for the possibility.

    Thanks for sharing these adventures with us.

  3. I read all the time, but rarely comment - your experience is so outside my own daily life-with-two-preschoolers. (That's why I come here! Love the vicarious adventure!) However, in reading your description of eating the crappy $20 plate of fajitas, you did say something familiar. I had my two kids without interventions/drugs, and a lot of people wonder why anyone would do such a thing. There were lots of reasons, but the feelings you describe are one of them. Euphoria after a trial - bumping the beauty of birth up into the stratosphere by preceding it with bodily struggle. Anyway, I'm not in a phase of life where I could take a multi-day bicycle ride (though that day will come again!), and I just love reading about your adventures. Thank you for sharing. From one Jill to another . . .

  4. What an awesome adventure. I love the way you tell a story allowing us a glimpse of whats going on inside your head as well as on the road and trail....

  5. Always love the serendipity...Too bad for Beat, what race was it?

  6. Olga, it was the Santa Barbara endurance race. This just isn't a good time for central california - combination of potential bad weather and roads that quickly deteriorate ... similar to C2M. They're thinking about holding the race in the summer instead. The area is very beautiful though!

    It was ok, too - had some hipflexor issues (probably a little bit of bursitis or so, nothing worrisome but best let to be healed ... I had the entry from last year). I got tons of more plans this year :)

  7. Great story, Jill! I have to take your word on the bad weather though as that didn't come through in the pics! Great fortune to find that cafe when you did and perfect shakedown for the Moots and race to come.

  8. Jill, thanks for sharing your adventure. I grew up in Carmel Valley, so know the area Arroyo Seco, Indians, FHL well. So fun to live vicariously through your trip.


  9. What an adventure! I've never hiked or ridden it, but I believe where the trail ended for you is where it heads around the Nuclear power plant (south of Montana de Oro). There IS a road/trail, but it's normally off limits and can only be used with permission...(I believe this is how it works..I have a friend who's been on it last year, will have to ask).

    That's the problem making a route strategy w/ google maps (or any maps for that matter)..shows you what's there, but not what you can actually do. But as you know, it also makes for good adventure throwing an element of unknown into the mix.

  10. Three great posts and great narrative. I felt like I was reading your Divide book again.

  11. Great ride, Jill. I think you don't enjoy a ride unless it has some adversity. You got your share on this one.

  12. Jill
    Wonder about the trip. You want to go and experience the wild but expect to hit a resupply point ? You want to do the distance but dont know if access is allowed hemmmm. The common thing in your adventures is you always run low on supplies. Worry about you trashing your body so much to low energy levels on such a regular basis.

  13. On this trip, I didn't set out to experience the "wild," I set out to experience a slice of California. On day one, I based my dinner plans on arriving in East Garrison sometime in the evening, and it looked like a big enough town on the map to at least have a service station. It was a gated community. It's true more research would have told me this, but I didn't even have time to research every nook and cranny of this trip. I knew I wouldn't see any more services for a hundred miles after that. I also thought I had a cushion of trail calories if East Garrison didn't pan out, but then I accidentally left some at home. I made the choice to continue on beyond the Arroyo Seco campground, knowing I might experience what I did. Running out of food isn't fun but it's far from dangerous in the short-term. I think this is a valuable thing to learn. The sports nutrition industry pushes the things we need for performance, but simple survival riding doesn't require the same constant influx of calories, and it doesn't "trash the body."

    I'm not sure what you're basing the assumption that I always run low on supplies on, either. I can think of a few instances where I've blogged about running out of water. I get sensitive endurance stomach and there's more cases where I won't eat, even when I have access to food, but I've never actually run out before during a long ride. More often than not I'm extremely over-prepared for every contingency. I tend to be honest about the mistakes I make, and as such am often accused of recklessness or creating adversity on purpose. So be it. I choose to embark on my explorations in "exploration" mode, meaning I don't know what's around every corner. Because of this, I'm going to get caught out occasionally, but I prefer that to a life without any surprises.

  14. Beat, I was thinking about last year's C2M. I am sure you have loads of plans! So does Jill:)

  15. As for the weather, I was really lucky. It was a thunderstorm system where precipitation would dump for several hours and then clear out completely, and I just happened to hit the worst sections of it overnight. Beat thought I was getting dumped on for most of the trip because it was pouring where he was, but actually most of my daytime hours were under blue or at the worst overcast skies.

  16. A wonderful set of write-ups, thanks for posting them. Good luck with the Stagecoach 400!

  17. Why not look the cafe up and send a thank you postcard? Finding an address shouldn't be hard.

    Saying thank you, even if it takes effort is important.

  18. Jill,

    Great read. Sometimes I worry you're eating up content for your next book with these stories, but it's awesome you take the time to do them, free of cost, for us. It seems to me your writing has improved since the last book, in large part because you've added humor to your repertoire of writing skills. The description of the diner was classic. Great adventure, seems like you've found your mojo.

    You and Beat should bike across Mongolia or something and write it up. Or hell, ride around the world.

    Cheers - Dan

  19. Hi Jill
    Thanks for, once again, demonstrating the possible--in life and word.
    I received signed copies of your books as a present. Just finished Be Brave, Be Strong, and thought I'd check out the blog after a long hiatus (on my part). What a treat. Thanks again,

  20. Jill,

    Your writing is really shining in this last trio of posts - much better than what is often published in magazines. You connect with us readers by focusing more on whats going on in your mind that what is going by on the bike.

    Your tales of hunger in this tour reminded me of the Saturday rides I did in high school. Leaving from near where you live, over to the coast, and back, all on a banana and $1. That was 30 years ago and I've since learned not to bonk. Mostly. But every once in a while things don't go as planned and I find myself paying the penalty...

    Bonk on the bike, but please don't bonk on the blogs as they're great!

  21. New follower here! Love your blog and your photos are breathtaking. Nice to meet you!

  22. I think we need to back up a bit here. There's nothing wrong with haggis! http://www.helium.com/items/967261-what-is-haggis

  23. That was a fantastic write up.
    I've been following your blog for awhile now; you're my first female hero :0)
    When's the next book due?
    Have you a gear list to share?


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