Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Roads less travelled

As much as I objected to its shrill chipping, I heeded my 7 a.m. alarm. Apparently eight solid hours of sleep is not enough for me on a bike tour, and I struggled to fight my way out of smothering grogginess. Leah fired up her stove as I took down the tent, then I sat down to my morning brew of three Starbucks Vias. Instant coffee — in the charred titanium of Beat's snow-melting pot with flecks of fish still stuck to the side — never tasted so wonderful. "It's the little things in life," I mumbled. "The little things."

Usal Road saved the best for last. We skirted a rare sandy beach beside the cliffs and renewed the climb into the sky. Zero to 1,200 feet in less than two miles, with lungs burning as though we were climbing into oxygen-starved mountains instead of coastal cliffs. There wasn't enough air left over for talking, but the fog was moving out, the sun was emerging in a brilliant blue sky, and we were both in good moods — loving this ridiculous road and hoping today's adventures would be just as awesome.

We were just beginning to drop into the woods when I heard a loud rustling of brush and the sound of hooves hitting the dirt. I turned my head to see a flash of cinnamon-colored fur and hind feet — broad, dark brown, distinctive pads. Those weren't hooves, they were paws!

"Bear!" I called out as the animal emerged from the forest, briefly glancing in our direction before it turned and galloped down the road away from us. "Oh wow, that's a big black bear. I wouldn't worry about him. He's definitely seen us and he's retreating. That's a relief." I didn't even slow my pedaling pace. Black bear clearly wanted nothing to do with us and I hoped to catch a few more glimpses before he got away.

"That was my first bear sighting," Leah said after the noise subsided. "Wow, it's cool to see such a large animal in its own environment."

"It's amazing, isn't it?" I agreed. I couldn't even tell you how many bears I've spotted at this point in my life, but they take my breath away every time.

Even though this was just a short tour, Leah and I were already settling into our pace and finding a rhythm. Our lives were more basic than black bear's out here. We ate when we were hungry, slept when we were tired, and moved at our own natural pace across the land. Ever since I discovered bicycle travel in 2002, I've often turned to the idea of it as an emotional escape during tough times. I told myself that if everything else went bad in my life, I'd just get on my bicycle, point it in a random direction, and ride. I wouldn't turn back because I wouldn't need to. I'd become a bicycling hobo. Even though I recognize the impracticalities and real hardships of this fantasy, it's given me a lot of comfort over the years. I think I've even taken a few more risks and made a few more leaps of faith thanks to this irrational dream. The draw of the simple life pulls deep enough that I've been able to convince myself I have less to fear. If everything else falls apart, I'll still have my bike.

It took us an hour and twenty-three minutes to pedal the last five and a half miles of the Usal Road. I didn't share this tidbit with Leah, either. We turned onto Highway 1 and began the 2,000-foot climb to the pass. On pavement, with a luxurious eleven miles to the top, it felt like coasting. Our bags were both getting light on food, and we rolled right by the "World Famous Drive-Thru Redwood Tree" as the promise of the Leggett general store propelled us forward. Once inside we went into another frenzy — no longer sugar-based, but obsessed with fresh fruit and protein. This is another nice perk of California — even in the smallest out-of-the-way convenience stores, you can usually find good fruit.

Leggett was decision-making time. There were 21 mostly-downhill miles north on Highway 101 to a place where we thought we would likely camp that night, Benbow Lake. OR ... we could ride south on 101, connect up with a rugged gravel road that would carry us to the top of a high ridge of unknown length and steepness, drop off a steep spine back to the Eel River Valley, and backtrack on 101 until we reached Benbow. How much time would take to go the direct way? Maybe an hour and a half. And how long on the scenic route? Unknown. Seven hours, at most, was our available daylight. It was 2 p.m. Leah and I didn't even debate the options. We just finished our fruit and turned south.

We were able to skirt the freeway for a few miles on a quiet frontage road above a beautiful gorge, but once we were forced onto 101, it quickly became apparent we were both miserable. The shoulder was only a foot or so wide, with trucks and RVs streaming past at 65 miles per hour, and a few scraped the rumble strips seconds before they passed, setting off the panic alarms in my head. We just put our heads down and pedaled, covering four or so miles in short order and breathing a sigh of relief when we saw the sign indicating "Bell Springs Road." Where the road supposedly started, a grassy hillside rose up like a wall. I could see a car rumbling through a cloud of dust at least 300 feet over our heads. How the car got so high so fast was not immediately apparent.

Right at the base of Bell Springs Road, a woman in a small, rusty pick-up stopped and rolled down her window. She was a classic Humboldt County character — yellow lab riding shotgun, ratty blond dreadlocks draped over her shoulders, and a pungent aroma that Leah could detect even over our own smelly cyclist state. I grinned, expecting a friendly hippy greeting, but instead she glowered at us. "You girls gonna try to ride bikes up this road?" she asked.

"Yeah," Leah nodded.

"I don't think you want to do that," she said. "This road is really steep and narrow. People drive fast, too."

"We've been riding a lot of the back roads around here," I chimed in. "Wilder Ridge, King Peak, Usal Road. Is it steeper than Usal Road?"

"Steeper than Usal Road? Yeah, it's pretty much steeper than anything around here."

"Well, we're going to give it a try," Leah said.

"Yeah," I agreed. "It beats riding on 101."

"Well, good luck," the woman said, and with that rolled up her window and turned onto the highway.

We gained 2,000 feet in the first three miles, and then struggled along steep rollers to a high line at 4,000 feet altitude. The afternoon sky was blazing blue and the air was hot; our skin was coated in sweat and dust carried by a warm breeze. We had already chatted about the possibility of retreat if this road looked too ridiculous, and this road did seem ridiculous. Even after we gained the ridge, we had no idea how steep and long the continuous climbs and descents would be. We couldn't camp up here even if we wanted to, because the area was entirely private property, and in Humboldt County there are enough, um ... independent farmers ... that you don't want to mess around with trespassing. Plus, we were now on the dry side of the coastal range and there was clearly no water up here. But none of these struck us as reasons to retreat. We had returned to our happy place.

Wow, Bell Springs Road. The thin ribbon of gravel often contoured the exact high line of the ridge, a rolling traverse with sweeping views of the King Range and fog-shrouded Pacific Ocean to the west, and the rockier, higher peaks of the Mendocino wilderness to the east. The whole road was nothing but views, on all sides. After the warnings of the woman in the truck, I expected unfriendliness from the likely reclusive locals who lived along this road. But instead, the few vehicles that passed often stopped completely, or at least slowed to avoid kicking up dust. As we mashed pedals up dusty climbs, several even rolled down their windows and cheered.

"You're doing great!" one guy called out.

"Awesome!" shouted another.

"I don't think they're used to seeing too many cyclists up here," Leah said.

I nodded in agreement. "But it's strange if that's true. This is such a cool place, maybe my favorite road yet."


We dropped off the main ridge and ascended toward another, all the while gazing across the region we had traveled, then turning our heads to view the exponentially larger region we had yet to explore. We talked about coming back and riding logging roads and trails in Mendocino. We talked about ways we could prolong our current trip. We climbed until my head pounded with hot blood, and then plummeted until tears streamed along my temples. After a while, we didn't talk much. There just didn't seem to be much to say anymore. Our thoughts were simple here, overshadowed by the absolutes of forward motion and endless space.

The day's effort was, again, stretching beyond leisure mode. Soon I began to feel that oh-so-familiar fatigue, that sensation I both crave and dread, the feeling of being both strung-out and blissfully content. Sometimes it seems that the more physically stressed I am, the more peace I feel. I think that instead of competitive ambition or emotional intensity, it's peace that drives me to experience the world in a physical way. I have a habit of self-examination, and I often wonder if my love of the physical is my own way of coping with the existential. The world is too big to comprehend. Yet the desire to understand gnaws at me, spinning, until I feel bewildered, even fearful, of everything. Maybe I am happiest when I step out of my own head. Maybe I am happiest when I let my body take over. Maybe I am happiest when I'm not asking myself "Where is the world?" but instead, "Where are my candy orange slices?"

I ate some candy orange slices as we took a brief, mostly quiet break at yet another stunning overlook. The simple sugars slid down my throat and trickled into my bloodstream, dulling the more stressful edge of my fatigue and amplifying my contentment. Candy orange slices are magical like that. And somewhere in the background of my simple thoughts, I remembered another Annie Dillard passage that I love, and it made me smile:

“The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness. The mind's sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious mind will hush if you give it an egg.” 

We hit a long descent and thought we were home-free, but Bell Springs Road was not done with us yet. I announced that, based on my GPS map, we had about two miles left to the junction, and then the road shot toward the sky. We were down at 2,000 feet and would have to climb back to 3,200 before all was said and done. I think Leah did not have candy orange slices, and she admitted she was feeling bonky. Her backpack was pressing painfully into her back, and a cold wind was starting to whisk along the ridge. Another thousand-foot climb in two miles was not on our list of favorite things ever.

Still, when we finally reached Alderpoint Road and began descending back to the Eel River Valley, I had this odd desire to prolong the struggle. We passed the intersection of the Dyreville Loop Road, another ridge-top dirt route that we had considered when planning the trip. I pointed it out to Leah, wondering what she'd say. There would be nowhere to camp up there — stealth camping on private property was still out of the question — and it would likely be three to five more hours of hard pedaling before we descended into Humboldt State Park. The sun was definitively setting over the western horizon. The evening wind was cold and we had only crappy headlamps for lights. We were hungry, cracked, and more than ready for Cup Noodles and sleep. It would be madness to continue on the high ridge with nothing to look forward to but more painful climbs and views shrouded by darkness, and yet there was part of me that wondered ... just wondered.

Of course I was relieved when Leah said nothing and we continued coasting the steep descent to Garberville. We ended our day with 71.1 miles and 9,576 feet of climbing, nearly 11 hours on the go with 8:45 in the saddle.