Thursday, July 05, 2012

Riding among giants

We knew we could easily wrap up the rest of our route in a day. After all, it was only about 75 miles, practically flat compared to the first 162, and all paved. But the whole reason we came to Humboldt County was to pedal beneath ancient trees, and we weren't about to rush through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. That's it — we're taking back the leisure tour. We devised a plan to return home a day later and ride two half-days to Ferndale, with either hiking or unloaded mountain biking in the state park, depending on where we could find camping. 

We made a not-so-quick resupply stop in Garberville, going all out on the luxury items. Leah purchased little bottles of wine and cherries. I bought a half pound of smoked ahi tuna and a croissant. We still bought instant noodles for dinner because we didn't have that much fuel, but I chose two courses — spicy Japanese noodles for an appetizer followed by an entree of chicken (MSG)-flavored Cup Noodles, which had somehow become my favorite food ever.

As we loaded up our bags, I overhead two cops lecturing a teenager who I assumed had been nabbed for shoplifting. "Consider yourself lucky," the cop said. "Anywhere else you'd be in jail, but this is Humboldt County. You could probably murder someone and only get probation."

"But remember that you can't step foot into Ray's for a year," the other cop said. "You look like a kid that likes to get out, go down to the river. Pretty much all the stores around here are Ray's affiliated, so life's probably going to be harder for you for a while. Don't even think about going inside, either. They have cameras; they'll catch you."

For whatever reason, this lecture struck me as funny. It sounded like two cops who were frustrated with their liberal county's justice system were trying to play up a grocery store ban as some kind of horrible sentence.

From Garberville we connected with the Avenue of the Giants, a truly awe-inspiring route. The highway cuts through the heart of one of the only old-growth Coast Redwood forests left in the state, thanks to a forward-thinking conservation group that bought the land from a logging corporation back in 1917. Humboldt Redwoods remains home to most of the 300-foot trees left in the world, and it's intriguing to glimpse what this region used to look like before settlers arrived (Coast Redwoods once reigned the Pacific Coast from southern Oregon all the way down to Santa Cruz, including the largely deforested Marin Headlands.) There's a timeless silence in those dark groves, a reverence that is difficult to describe.

We made our best effort to be leisurely — long lunch break, stops at nearly every roadside pull-out so we could stand with our heads pressed against the back of our necks, mouths agape at the sheer abundance of biomass. Still, we covered the 35 miles to the visitor's center in what felt like no time. Even Leah was surprised we rode those miles so fast. "It actually feels nice to go a normal speed for once," she said. "I was starting to think it was just us."

"No, it's all about the terrain," I agreed. While we were riding through the park that day, several people stopped to ask how far we'd traveled. Every single one of them looked disappointed when we told them we were riding a loop that started at a town only forty miles away. And they didn't ask us any further questions. That's not surprising, I guess. I think a lot of people tend to focus on speed and distance at the expense of substance. I know I'm guilty of that myself. We're all guilty of looking for the easiest or fastest way between point A and B, or to a goal we want to reach, without considering what exactly we hope to discover along the way. On our Humboldt tour, we had no destination, no plan for a certain number of miles, no speed ambitions. We just rode our bikes. And while I do enjoy the challenge of setting tangible goals, sometimes my most satisfying moments come unexpectedly, while standing in the moist shade of tree that's been alive for 1,000 years, thinking, "I rode my bike here."

We had hoped to camp up on Mattole Road, but it was a Friday night in the height of tourism season, and even the hiker-biker sites throughout the park were filled by mid-afternoon. We snagged a site at the large campground next to the visitor center, wedged between RVs and the main road. It wasn't our first choice by far, and it meant the mountain bike trails were too far away to ride and return before dark. But we were close to a bridge across the Eel River, where we could access River Trail. We debated just laying around in the sun on the shoreline of the river for the rest of the day, but decided to go for an evening hike.

It was a pleasant walk. Ambitiously I wanted to aim for Grasshopper Peak, neglecting to take into account the three miles of River Trail we had to walk to access the five-mile climb to the peak. I'm not sure either of us had a sixteen-mile hike in mind for our leisure day, but I ended up being the one to cut it short 4.5 miles from the bridge. Even after 200 miles of pedaling with no problems, that was all it took to aggravate my shin splints to the point of frustration. Ah, well. I grabbed a walking stick off the ground and hobbled down, then spent a half hour soaking my legs in the river.

On the fifth day we just had to wrap up the loop, finishing up the Avenue of the Giants and wending back toward Ferndale on quiet farm roads. We caught our first rainstorm less than five miles from town, and even without an early start, made it back to the car by noon. Our final stats for the trip:

Miles: 235
Elevation gain: 26,640
Average moving speed: 9.3 mph
Max speed: 39.5 mph

On the drive home, "Yellow Light" by Monsters and Men started playing on the stereo and I gave myself a few quiet moments to feel sad about losing the distinction as the women's record holder in the Tour Divide. Actually, several people have asked me about that, so I thought I might as well address it here. I knew that Eszter wrapped up her ride on Thursday in 19 days and change (Leah looked this up on her phone as we drove. It was our first real connection to the outside world in five days.) Eszter's ride was brilliant and inspiring, but admittedly, the result was both expected and discouraging.

I tried not to put any emotional attachment on "the record." First of all, it was never my goal. I knew it wasn't the best on the course (Trish Stevenson's 2005 ride was the border-to-border record until this year.) I knew that 24 days wasn't even the best I could do. Actually, while I was writing "Be Brave, Be Strong," I mapped out my ideal way to ride the course in 21 days. I was convinced it wouldn't be any more difficult, even with similar set-backs — all it took was less diddling around and a few different decisions about eating and camping. But 19 days? Realistically, probably not. It's a matter of horsepower. My average moving speed during the 2009 event was just a hair over nine miles per hour, if I recall correctly. In order to ride the route in 19 days, one needs to average 144 miles per day, which amounts to 16 hours of moving time at that speed. Which means that sleeping, eating, shopping, repairs, emotional crises, quick breaks, peeing, stumbling, and general diddling around (unavoidable) has to be wedged into the eight remaining hours. All things considered, even with better training and nutrition, I doubt I could bump my actual moving speed up all that much. Realistically, I just don't have the appropriate athleticism. And when I thought about our long day on the Humboldt tour — just under nine hours of moving time — could I really double that, every day, for 19 strung-out days? Most people, even the event's small clan of fans, don't really understand what it really takes to put in that kind of effort on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, for almost no reward. Eszter is incredible. And she's posting a well-written, compelling report on her blog, too.

So I had to let that go. It was harder than I expected it to be, although actually still not that hard. "Yellow Light" wrapped up and I was smiling again, already dreaming about incredible summer adventures still in front of me. (Please heal, shin. I took a bunch of rest days after the tour. I hope that helps.) I did come home and ask Beat if he still likes me even though I'm not the Tour Divide record-holder anymore. (Honestly, I think it was a selling point early in our relationship.) He said yes, and that's what matters to me.

Because the theme of this trip report seems to be the fact I'm reading Annie Dillard books right now, I thought I'd end with a final quote:

"There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning — the heart's slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”