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.
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.
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.
California really is a cool place to ride a bike.