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.