Roads less travelled
"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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.”
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.