Sunday, April 15, 2012

Part two: Hunger Games

There's no obstacle in biking that I fear more than mud. Snow? Fun! Rocks? Challenging. Wind? Meh. Bears? They run away. Massive landslides that take out half the mountainside? I'm sure there's a way we can walk around this. But mud? Mud chokes the drivetrain and cements tires to the frame until the whole bike is seized up, ten pounds heavier, and dangling from your shoulders as you trudge through the sticky mess, at least until it rips your shoes off and you're fully stopped in your mud-caked socks, wondering how much longer this will last. Five miles? Ten? Forty? You never really know. Mud is exactly what I was thinking about as I lay awake in my wet sleeping bag in the morning, waiting for the deluge to shatter the roof of the shower building.

If I had to put a quantity on how much precipitation fell on Arroyo Seco overnight, I would say "more than an inch" — and this is based on years of experience in Southeast Alaska. That's enough moisture to turn any clay-based road into peanut butter for more than a day, whether it keeps raining or not. That knowledge alone would have been enough to turn me around. Still, even though there's plenty of clay throughout central California, I had no knowledge of the specific sediments of the Arroyo Seco trail. Maybe it was sand — which rain can actually improve.

I thought I should at least check it out, although I wasn't terribly excited about setting out for the morning in a downpour just to discover a half mile up the trail that forward progress was impossible. I languished in my sleeping bag until 9 a.m., when the rain began to taper off, and noticed streaks of light through the window that almost looked like sunbeams. I rode all the way out there specifically for this trail, so I had to try. I packed up my gear and ate my last Nature's Bakery Blueberry Fig Bar for breakfast, mostly because it was the most healthy thing I had with me. Another 220 calories gone. Eight hundred remained: One package pretzel M&Ms, one package of Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Combos, and one king-sized Twix Bar.

The Arroyo Seco/Indians trail is a twenty-mile section of old jeep road that is closed to vehicles, and has been for years. As such, parts of it have reverted back to singletrack, and land- and rockslides have added some technical features. I'm not sure how widely used this trail is. It is fairly close to several population centers, but I didn't see a soul out there on this cool and wet Thursday morning. I got the sense of being deep in the backcountry, far displaced from the hum of civilization.

Encountered this bobcat after the gate. He was bolder than most and didn't want to move. I think he even hissed at me.
Beyond the closed gate, I saw a rusted old sign that read "Impassable in wet weather." Never a happy sign. Still, at the entrance, the road was just sandy enough to keep the clay from building up too thickly on the tires. It was soft, though. My tires dug trenches a half-inch to an inch deep, and even full effort on flat sections only netted about five miles per hour. I knew once I started climbing, I'd be pushing.

The clouds began to clear and sun was shining on the road, actual sun. I could tell it would be short-lived, as more dark clouds were already creeping in from the west. But I clung to the hope that the road would dry out a bit. The previous day's 125 miles weighed on my legs as I pedaled against the fierce resistance of the mud. I started walking when even my best effort became inadequate. At this rate, it was going to take me six hours just to cover this twenty-mile section, with only 800 calories and already nearly-depleted glycogen stores as fuel. I had already assessed my bailout options on the other side of the trail — which was more remote than this side. It involved as many as thirty-five miles of pedaling back to the Highway 101 corridor — arguably longer than just continuing on my route through the mountains toward Highway 1. Still, I was committed to seeing the Arroyo Seco trail through, unless of course I encountered real peanut butter mud. There's a lot I'm willing to suffer through during a simple bike tour, but peanut butter mud is not one of them.

Even though the late morning was still cool, about fifty degrees, the bike-push/pedal-mash was hard work, and I started dumping sweat. After three miles I developed a strong craving for salt, so I cracked into my Combos first. I placed a single pretzel in my mouth and sucked on it the way I used to when I was a child, trying to prolong the life of my treat. It dissolved into a trickle of happiness and disappeared down my throat.

And maybe I devoured all the rest of my Combos in the next two miles because, well, I was climbing, and I needed the energy. I could start fasting once I hit the descent.

The coastal mountains of Monterey County are gorgeous — steep, fairly tall (upwards of 4,000 and 5,000 feet) and coated in greenery even on their steepest aspects. They reminded me of the spine of mountains on Oahu Island in Hawaii. I was thrilled to be riding there even if I was a bit low on food. The weather was improving, the day was cool and beautiful, the soft trail was really not all that bad, and I was riding my bicycle in the mountains. Really, what could be better?

The trail climbed to about 3,000 feet to steep cut into the mountainside. It rolled just below the ridge for several miles and the descended into the Indians drainage, where a series of short ascents and descents continued beneath impressive sandstone formations. It was like transitioning from Hawaii to Utah in the space of a few miles. Despite a few short sections of real peanut butter mud, it was a very cool trail. I'm sure it's more popular than the lack of tracks and trail maintenance would indicate — but if not, I wonder why.

Still, it did take me nearly five hours to cover twenty miles, and when I arrived at Santa Lucia Memorial Park, I was still in the heart of the mountains, in the middle of nowhere ... and I was hungry. When I have food, it is easy for me to downplay its importance. Our bodies are so adaptable, and it's biologically possible to operate just fine in a feast-or-famine cycle. We can survive for weeks on just the energy stored in our fat and muscle. Even bonking during a hard effort is manageable; it just involves the unpalatable necessity of slowing down. The psychology of hunger, however, is much more difficult to reconcile. My plan with my limited food was to ration the calories to a hundred per hour, just enough sugar to keep the fat-burning furnace cranking. I figured I'd feel low on energy, but I didn't count on how anxious, paranoid, and despondent I would feel at times throughout the day. Even though rationally I knew my situation was perfectly safe and survivable, hunger induced a kind of involuntary panic in my subconscious.

The trail dumped me out in the Fort Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation, a highly regulated region that all but assured I was going to continue to feel alone on a deserted island. After the previous night's storm, water was running high everywhere, and there were several stream crossings that ran over the road. This creek gushed over a concrete slab, which I deemed rideable before actually stopping to scout the situation. The concrete must be permanently under water, because the slab was covered in a thick film of slime that instantly washed out my tires. I fell over in the knee-deep water, briefly dunking my head and soaking my entire body. Even though I could feel the force of the steam pushing me toward the deeper pour-over, my first thought was, "Save the bike!" Although the stream wasn't deep, it was flowing fast and there was potential for the bike to be forced downstream through a rock garden. I lunged out of the water and grabbed the rear wheel just before the bike washed away. I managed to stand up and hoist the bike on my shoulder, but the slime-slicked bottom made the rest of the crossing extremely tenuous.

I turned to face the wind and pedal toward mountains, trying to savor the last of my Pretzel M&M's that I was eating for "lunch." At one point I was descending at about eighteen miles per hour when I dropped a single M&M on the road by accident. Panic! I actually stopped my bike, turned around, and scanned the road until I found it. This whole process probably took five minutes, and netted me one Pretzel M&M, which are filled with mostly air and have about ten calories each. It was worth it.

Empty gas tank: Never a happy sight. 
As I began another 3,000-foot climb into the mountains, I turned to the Twix Bar. My plan was to eat one half of a bar, about fifty calories, every time the bonky dizziness set in. The problem with this strategy is the dizzy feeling would return again after just another mile, so eventually I had to put a time limit on my half-Twix-bars: One per hour. The road just climbed and climbed. I came to the trail where I planned to turn off the main road and take a shortcut to the Coast Ridge Road. But when I got there, all I could see was a fall-line cut straight up the side of the mountain. It looked vertical from my perspective, and must have gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles. "Well, that's impossible," I thought. Maybe if I was fresh, I could push a bike up that. Maybe. I took out my paper maps, plotted the long way around, and continued spinning through my bonky haze.

I finished the Twix Bar before I arrived at the top of the climb. Maybe if I had more experience with rationing food I would be better at it, but I had officially depleted everything with no knowledge of where I'd be able to get more food. This in itself was a harsh psychological blow. I had already decided I was going to have to cut the Coast Ridge Road out of my route, as I no longer had the energy or desire to push through the bonk anymore. But I still didn't know what Highway 1 would bring. I pulled out my paper maps and saw exactly one name listed between where I was and San Simeon — Plaskett. Whether it was a town or not, I had no idea. I convinced myself it was a town, because if not, that meant there was nothing for more than forty miles from where I stood.

 The dream of Plaskett took hold, and I convinced myself of authentic Mexican Food restaurants, of roadside coffee stands, of spacious gas stations with a wide selection of gummy snacks and Babybel cheese wheels. There was so much happiness in these dreams and I was a fool to indulge in them, but they gave me a burst of energy just the same. I pedaled more forcefully toward a thick bank of fog, and the wonders that surely awaited me on the coast.

The descent was fast and fun, and so cold that I was able to forget about my empty stomach and focus for a while on my numb toes instead. With the exception of neglecting to bring a tent, I actually brought a smart assortment of gear for this trip. I always had dry clothing for camp, and I rarely felt cold or too wet while riding even during the heavier rain and hailstorms. But I fell in the stream while wearing my vapor barrier socks, so my feet were still soaked.

Near Big Sur, Highway 1 cuts into steep cliffs and traverses drainages on elaborate bridges. In other words, there's little actual usable land in the region. After five miles on the highway, I could tell my chances of seeing much in the way of commercial property were slim. The occasional vehicle passed and I thought if I had a pen, I would make a sign that read "Hungry: Will Pay For Food" and stick it on my backpack. But I did not, so I stopped thinking about it.

I approached Plaskett at 6:30 p.m., which was a lot later than I expected to reach that point. Originally my plan had me passing through Plaskett in the early afternoon and pushing all the way to Morro Bay that night. I was still fifty miles short of that target; my day's tally was seventy miles and I already felt thoroughly cooked — probably in my own juices from forcing my body to burn muscle and fat. I passed a campground, which seemed like a good sign, then rounded a tight corner through an outcropping of trees to arrive at ... nothing. Just steep cliffs and a thin ribbon of pavement as far as I could see. Plaskett was a Forest Service campground, and nothing more.

Looking back, this scene is humorous to me; it already makes me laugh. But at the time, it was an all-encompassing moment of hopelessness. I had to take a few deep gulps to quell the panicked sobbing that threatened to erupt from my throat. My maps didn't indicate any other towns until San Simeon, which was still 25 miles away. I had no reason to believe I would see any businesses before that town, and no hope of reaching it before late that night. I could see dark clouds over the ocean, indicating the approach of another big storm, so I knew I would have to push for San Simeon that night just to seek some kind of shelter. But I understood it was going to be a hard ride, probably cold and wet, I was going to feel awful, and didn't even know what I'd find when I got there. I hoped I could make it before I hit a really bad bonk, the kind of "falling asleep on my bike" bonk that I worried might happen. I knew I had no one to blame but myself so I didn't feel anger, just sadness. Surprisingly deep sadness, given that it certainly wasn't the end of the world.

I pedaled back to the campground to collect water for the late-evening push. I watched happy campers barbecuing hamburgers, eating chips, drinking wine, smiling and laughing. I lingered for a few minutes, watching them, wondering if I could collect the wherewithal to sacrifice my dignity and ask one of them to give or sell me some food. But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. Even through my sadness, for whatever reasons, I didn't want to resort to that. I gulped down the bile, accepted my fate, and pedaled toward the sunset.