Monday, May 04, 2015

260-mile getaway

Despite all of their (understandable) busyness, I finally coaxed Beat and Liehann into a weekend bikepacking trip. My idea was to ride one of the few bike-legal sections through the Santa Lucia Mountains, from the Arroyo Seco Gorge to Cone Peak and back. The route was 60 miles each way through sparsely traveled country, often surrounded by "big W" wilderness, big scenery and tough climbs. I've been to all of these places before, but when I consider all of my favorite aspects of bike touring, I can't think of a better overnight route close to home. There isn't a single compromise mile; it's 100 percent awesome. 

 Since I still have the Tour Divide on my mind, I decided to extend the shakedown trip by leaving home on Friday morning and riding to the trailhead. I packed quite the luxury set-up: Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 tent, brand new Thermarest NeoAir (love), a puffy coat, and a stove. I froze three liters of water to a solid block of ice, and put a large ham sandwich in my backpack "cooler." I was satisfied with my creature comforts until I set out into the muggy morning air with temperatures rising into the 90s, and felt my legs balk on the first tiny bump of a climb up Mount Eden Road. I reminded myself that the transition to touring weight is the hardest part — after just one day of it, I forget what it's like to ride unloaded and stop caring. But those first miles ... ugh. As I crawled up the John Nicolas Trail with a million flies buzzing around my face and drowning in pools of sweat on my skin, I considered turning around and just driving out to Arroyo Seco with Beat and Liehann on Saturday. "You don't need to practice being miserable," I reasoned. (But actually, for best mental fitness, I believe you sometimes do.)

Comfort levels increased substantially as I traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains and dropped toward Monterey Bay. Thick fog engulfed the coast, and a strong west wind aided in my swift transition from sweltering to shivering. It was actually quite cool, but instead of adding layers, I decided to relish in the sensation of "just being cold." Fog reduced visibility to a few hundred meters, and I made another decision to keep my mind in the present and observe everything around me. I pedaled hard against the buffeting wind, feeling warm blood surge beneath cold skin and watching the world go by. Near Sunset Beach I contemplated the ornate adornments on luxury homes and the austerity of Steinbeck-era farmhouses next door. I avoided Highway 1 as much as possible by winding along coastal farm roads, where I watched beach grass, lupine, and stalks of unidentified produce dancing in the wind. Busloads of farm workers were scattered across the fields, huddled in hoodies. I know little about farm work, and I wondered about their lives. Did they feel tired and cold and hungry right now? Where will these buses take them tonight?

 I arrived in the town of Marina in the late afternoon, where I ate half my sandwich and contemplated my next move. I thought rather than travel up the Salinas River Valley, I could cut directly into the mountains via Fort Ord National Monument. It was a strange decision to make, because the west wind was now directly at my back and would have carried me almost effortlessly most of the way to Arroyo Seco. Instead, I turned an about-face at the trailhead and pedaled into the wind toward more distance and a lot more climbing.

 There were already nearly a hundred miles on my trip odometer. "Just going out for an evening ride," I thought as I powered up the first steep climb. Often I have the normal reaction of feeling depleted after a long day in the saddle, but occasionally I'm able to draw stamina from my efforts, and feel more energized as I go. These days are rare, and are almost entirely based on attitude, but the effects are exhilarating. I feel like a perpetual motion machine built to ride bikes, generating energy and observing the world as it goes by.

 Since I didn't know a best route through Fort Ord, I mostly followed Sandy Ridge fire road, which was steep and relentless but promised to lead me to the other side. Even with a hundred miles on my legs, some of the singletrack diversions were too enticing to pass up, and I found myself flowing through the manzanita with no idea where I was going. Steep ascents pulled at my tired legs and sand gobbled momentum, and I was smiling. "Just out for an evening ride."

 I reached a dead end at Laguna Seca, where there was some kind of car race happening on Friday night, and the routes out of the park were closed. A trail runner gave me directions to descend a few miles out of the way. Once I was back on track, I found myself in a renewed battle with my legs, which balked at climbing Laurels Grade Road. In their defense, it was a busy road with rush-hour Friday night traffic, and my attitude was not feeding them the energy they needed. This all turned around again after I escaped the tempting aromas and chairs of restaurants in Carmel Valley, and pedaled into the quiet canyon. A nearly full moon rose into the pink sky, and soon I was riding through spooky oak forests shimmering with silver light. It was a beautiful evening and I was as happy as could be — almost disappointed to finally arrive at my destination with 138 miles and 12,600 feet of climbing behind me. No matter, I still had tomorrow to ride all day, again. Yay for bikepacking!

 Overnight, I awoke in my tent, drenched in sweat, heart racing, in an involuntary panic because I was so desperately thirsty. I've never had a midnight thirst quite like that. It was intense. I drank most of the water in my Camelback, and then I drank all of it, even though it was probably more than a liter and would cause me to get up two more times in the night to pee. Even though I felt great for most of the later miles of my Friday ride, I did not take good care of my body — didn't replenish the salts, and didn't drink nearly enough water (I basically quit after the ice water ran out, and consumed fewer than three liters total.) I'd pay for this on Saturday, waking up with a swollen face and feeling a bit like a desiccated piece of road kill.

Liehann and Beat met me at the campground just after 9 a.m., when I was still trying to choke down a package of instant potatoes and pack up my stuff. We finally hit the trail just before 10 a.m., and it was already a scorcher of a day. Beat would see 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 F) on his thermometer later that afternoon. I felt rough, but I'd done my best to rehydrate and was still filled with enthusiasm. I couldn't wait to see what Beat and Liehann thought of this route.

"Wow, this route pays out right at the beginning," Liehann exclaimed as we pedaled beside the steep drop-offs of Arroyo Seco Gorge.

 "I love the Ventana," I said multiple times as we rounded corners to bigger views. The Ventana Wilderness is a rugged and remote place that is filled with things that scare me — rattlesnakes, poison oak, mountain lions, ticks, stinging nettle, thorny bushes, a million trillion sticker burrs, limited water, loose rocky terrain, and largely unmaintained trails that put you into the thick of all of these things, bushwhacking and scrambling. It's a place where rip-resistant fabrics and sturdy hiking boots are mandatory, in my opinion, and not a great place for delicate trail-runner types who like flow trails and gobbling up miles, and are allergic to all sorts of insects and green things. (I'm describing myself.) For these reasons, I mostly just love the Ventana from afar while scheming about backpacking trips that will be made "someday."

 Still, Indians Road is a great place to explore the periphery of the Ventana. Indians "Road" is former jeep track that was closed several years back, and is now in the process of being swiftly reclaimed by the mountains. This makes for great mountain biking terrain.

 On some maps, Indians Road is still a road. Beat told me that our Subaru's navigation system directed him to take this road (with frequent sections like the rockslide pictured above) into the campground. "Subie gave you some bad information," I said.

 It took some time, but the more food and water I got in my system, the better I felt. That's basically how it works. Fuel in, energy out, with attitude as the catalyst — assuming all of the moving parts are in good functioning order. I know there's more to it than that, but it helps to cling to such simplifications when contemplating something like the Tour Divide.

 The guys work their way around a landslide. This section served to remind me how terrible I still am at carrying my bike, and feel grateful that I'm not headed to South Africa for the Freedom Challenge.

 After Indians Road we made a long, hot, thirsty, hairpin-shaped bend through Fort Hunter-Liggett. From this point (pictured), Cone Peak is less than six miles as the crow flies, and more than fifty miles by road and trail.

 I still maintain that this route is 100 percent awesome, as the paved roads of the military reservation have their charm. There's almost no vehicular traffic, even on a beautiful weekend in May, except for the occasional motorcycle or Humvee. The route rolls through golden hills and the dappled shade of oak forests. And there are interesting sights, such as an urban warfare training area with full-scale model buildings and mangled cars. Dirt routes do criss-cross the military reservation. However, it's not only illegal, but idiotic to venture onto them. I wouldn't want to stumble into a military exercise that results in mangled cars.

 From Nacimiento Fergusson Road, we veered onto the Cone Peak fire road and reached the trailhead about an hour and a half before sunset. The timing was ideal for hiking the remaining 2.25 miles of wilderness trail to the peak beneath a full moon and the best light of the day.

 After spending a scorching day inland, it was nice to return to the coast and cooler evening air. We were too high for the sea breeze, though. Cone Peak rises 5,155 feet above sea level, less than three miles from the ocean. It's one of the steepest grades of ocean to summit in the contiguous United States. Big Sur is directly below, and I wonder whether people driving along Highway 1 ever think about the wild landscape beyond those famous cliffs.

 I enjoy imagining myself as an unstoppable bike machine, but I have to admit, it sure felt good to get out of the saddle and stretch out the legs for a while. My hamstrings felt compressed after so much time on the bike, and my left Achilles and another tissue on top of my left foot where quite sore from what Beat calls "extreme forefoot pedaling" (apparently I pedal the way I run.) I think I developed this style as compensation for knee pain, but I need to adjust my saddle and spend less time pedaling on my toes. Shakeout rides help me learn this stuff.

The view north from Cone Peak. Indians Road is along that ridge to the far right. In fact, I suspect you'd even see the road cut if I had a better zoom lens. Because we're not crows (or sturdy-booted backpackers) we had to ride and walk 60 miles with nearly 11,000 feet of climbing to connect these two points.

On Sunday morning, we reversed our roundabout route, enjoying a long descent into the upper reaches of the coastal fog, and then back into the hot inland valley.

 I still took many more photos. I favor loops but enjoy out-and-backs, too. It pays to see the same route from both directions.

We faced a long, steep climb in the early afternoon. I felt much better Sunday than I did on Saturday. The route was easier in this direction, but I also think I managed my recovery much better on Saturday night than Friday. I have Beat to thank for this, as he shared some of the water he hauled up from the valley to our dry camp at 3,800 feet. (I only had a three-liter capacity, and did have extra in the morning, but I used his water to make hot chocolates and dessert, which he also shared to supplement my 500-calorie Mountain House meal.) The whole self-care dilemma can be a difficult puzzle to solve. Carrying unnecessary weight is not ideal, but at the same time it's probably worse to slowly fall apart from inadequate fueling and recovery. I usually overcompensate, but lately feel like I've come up short in my planning. I could use a refresher before Alaska next year. Tour Divide could be a good teacher in this regard. :)

 We'll see if I continue to dream up justifications for the Tour Divide, or talk myself out of it because I'm a 35-year-old "grownup" who shouldn't aspire to a game where I pretend I'm a perpetual motion machine, quietly observing the world as it goes by. Recently I've read books and essays addressing the notion of finding meaning in "The Age of Productivity," when much of what we call productivity is an illusion. There's a lot I could say that doesn't really belong in a trip report, but as the wonderful Carrot Quinn mused, "What is a life?" I could sit in my apartment and string together words into products that people might give me small amounts of money for, or I could ride my bike and absorb the richness of an experience that requires not much in the way of words or money. What is a life? It will always be a puzzle.

All I know is that riding my bike all day, with the man I love and my friends and by myself, makes me happy. Maybe that's all there is, and maybe that's okay. 


  1. Three liters!!!! I have to say after rescuing four underhydrated people on the pct this April I will never balk too much about carrying water. Yes, it's heavy. I am also trying to balance writing, hiking oh and a full time job. I know which one I would like to ditch but I'm old and without courage.

    1. First day I had plenty of access to water, but chose not to drink because I was working hard and my stomach was a little iffy and it wasn't that hot. It was uncharacteristic as I trend toward water hoarding and mild hyponatremic states. I've been known to stop and filter water from gross mud puddles even when I had some in my pack and was only a few miles from a known water source, "just in case" I broke my ankle before that happened or the water source exploded. Still, I did grossly underestimate my needs for this weekend, as is often the case when I actually do run out of water or don't drink enough. Lessons must frequently be relearned.

  2. Looks like a great weekend trip! I'm reading Carrot Quinn's book and loving it!

  3. You're making hot, dry, inland CA look much better than I remember it.

    Ride the Divide, then sit inside and type a book or articles about it while you're recovering. Problem solved. ;)

  4. I think you'd appreciate a quick overnight bikepack from home to Pacheco Camp. It's deep inside Henry Coe, but with some great shade,picnic tables, and cold, clear water. I walked in there yesterday with friends for a repeat visit. (~8 miles and 1800' vertical from the closest parking at Dowdy Ranch)

  5. I think you're asking some smart questions.
    "What is a life?" The answer of course is, "Yes".

  6. Great trip report and pictures! It is incredible to live in a hugely metropolitan area yet have so much "green" space around where you can feel remote and see so few people. It is different here on the East coast.

  7. Beautiful scenery. Would you mind sharing your route gpx file? I want to put this trip on my list of rides before I die.

  8. I've been asking myself that question a lot lately too. My life is probably the opposite of what traditionally is called productive, but it's rich with experiences, people, and I love it that way.


Feedback is always appreciated!