Wednesday, July 04, 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.
Monday, July 02, 2012

So much for the leisure tour

One of my favorite things about bike touring is its ability to bring out my rare superpowers of sleep. You see, I'm a sometimes insomniac who often dreads crawling into bed at night. And when I'm in endurance mode, whether riding or running, I'm often so strung out that I can't coax my body to shut down at all without the help of powerful sleeping aids. But under the influence of more reasonable activity, I can drop away from consciousness for hours, double-digit hours, without even getting up to pee. I love this. Leah was probably less thrilled when she crawled out of the tent at 6:30 a.m. and waited for me, and waited. Finally when I rolled out after eight, I said, "I forgot to ask you to wake me up in the morning. Tomorrow you should throw water on me or something." I'm my own principle of inertia. When I'm moving, I like to stay moving. And when I'm asleep, I like to stay asleep.

I also have eating superpowers, at least when sugar is involved. In endurance racing, eating is such a distasteful chore. Stuffing even simple carbs into a sour stomach is just about the worst self-punishment there is. But bicycle touring revs up my appetite without cranking it into overdrive, and the result is a wide-eyed appreciation of edibles everywhere — especially calorie-dense sweet edibles. Our first stop of the day was Honeydew, just eight relatively flat miles from breakfast. But when I discovered the general store sold homemade baked goods, I immediately had to try ALL OF THE THINGS! Sugar mania led me to buy up as much stuff as I could fit in my frame bag, but restraint kept me to eating only one Honeydew Hummer before we hit the road.

We turned up Wilder Ridge Road and began the long up-and-down grind through the King Range. Leah had issues with her panniers, in that they wouldn't stay hooked to her rack during the jolting descents. She finally found extra straps to tie them down, but the multiple breaks were a good opportunity for me to stuff more sugar into my mouth. Despite the difficulty of our route, I'm pretty sure I still managed to inhale more calories than I burned. Given how I often feel under my usual activity-induced deficits, this was a welcome indulgence. So much sleep! So much food! Oh, and we rode bikes too.

The King Range surrounds the longest stretch of undeveloped coast in California, often referred to as "the Lost Coast." The mountains themselves are mostly conservation area, where Douglas fir and Redwood forests are vibrantly working to fill in the scars left behind by decades of aggressive logging. After a dozen miles, I found it difficult to believe we were still so close to California's coastline. The region feels very wild and remote, even by the standards I came to appreciate in Alaska and Montana.

The King Range Road dealt our first real lesson in humility, when even I — with all of my snow-biking-Tour-Divide-forged expectations of difficulty — had to accept that we were going to work a lot harder and move a lot slower than we expected. The problem wasn't overall climbing, of which there was plenty, or road surface, which was not bad. No, the problem was excessively steep grades, and the fact that mashing a loaded bike up a twenty-percent grade at 2.5 mph is more rapidly exhausting than, well, most anything else I've tried in my repertoire of activities. Coasting down similar grades also doesn't pay real dividends, either, because we had to apply the brakes considerably just to stay in control. At one point during a climb, I watched my GPS speed display drop below two miles per hour. Yes, I was still turning pedals. Later, when my heart rate dipped below 180 and I caught a bit of breath, I said to Leah, "Guess how slow we've been going?"

"I don't even want to know," Leah answered.

We descended a fun and brief section of pavement on Chemise Mountain Road. Then came the Usal Road, adorned with multiple warning signs such as "Closed to Through Traffic," and "Use at Own Risk." Of course, I was still thinking, "Aw, it's just a dirt road. How bad could it be?" Thanks to a lunch break ("We're touring, right? We're allowed to take lunch breaks!"), we didn't reach the Usal Road until after 3 p.m. Leah noticed a mile marker indicating it was 26 miles to the end of the road, where we anticipated stopping for the night. Leah already suspected our pace was not up to snuff and asked how long that might take. "I'll be honest, we're probably averaging about five miles per hour," I said. "We can probably do it before dark, but we can't dawdle."

So much for the leisure tour.

Here's a little background info about Leah: She's a cyclocross racer, a fast one. She's good at holding the red line and staying competitive in one of the most painful bicycle racing formats yet devised. She's also an enthusiastic mountain biker. I believe she's dabbled in a few endurance events. I don't think, however, that she's spent that much time truly slogging. Slogging is really my specialty. I try not to drag others into my madness because even though I enjoy it, I wouldn't expect anyone else to feel the same. There's really no reason why riding bikes at five miles per hour on dusty, steep, clay-covered roads should be fun. But Leah had a smile on her face the whole time, even when every tiny break invited a swam of mosquitoes, and even when the sun drifted low on the horizon while we were still miles from camp, and even when the coastal fog moved in and dropped the temperature into the low fifties. I wish I could be like that and be fast when I want to be. Leah is awesome.

The Usal Road largely routed through densely forested hillsides — sun-filtering oak trees at higher elevations, and a Jurassic-Park-like density of redwoods and ferns near sea level. Occasionally we broke out into a brilliant view of the Lost Coast, vibrant and blue on a rare clear day. I loved it. Even at five miles per hour.

We hit Usal Beach five miles earlier than we expected, which was lucky, because given the major climb one mile later, there's no way we would have made it to the end of the road before dark. We wrapped up our day at 53.3 miles and 8,535 feet of climbing, with a solid eight hours of time in the saddle and an average moving speed of 6.7 miles per hour. I think Leah would agree it was a tough day. I later found a detailed description of our basic route whose author also acknowledged the difficulty. "If you are used to 100-mile days on a road tour, expect only 30-mile days on the Lost Coast," he wrote. I concur.

We set up camp in the eerie remnants of a closed state park campground, shut down due to budget cuts in California's parks and recreation department. At least it was quiet, save for the antics of some ATV'ers up the road. Back in Honeydew — that place where I wanted to buy ALL OF THE BROWNIES — I also managed to purchase a container of Cup Noodles and a tin of herring for dinner. As I dug in to the styrofoam container of yellow noodles with chucks of gray fish skin floating on the surface, my eyes widened again. "Wow, Cup Noodles are way better than I remember them being," I said.

"Yay for bike touring," Leah replied.

I concur. 
Sunday, July 01, 2012

Not a bad way to live

I love bicycle touring. But whenever I try to conceptualize what exactly it means to me, words mostly fail. Still, as I sat on the edge of the Mattole River soaking my shin during our first night at camp, an analogy drifted to the surface. Bicycle touring is like taking a hobo bath. You stand at the river's edge, skin caked in a paste of sweat and dust, wavering with uncertainty as the clear, cold water rushes by. With bare feet you wade into the cobbles, wincing at the initial pain of blunt cold and sharp rocks. Knees buckled, goosebumps prickled, you lather yourself in soap while absorbing the simultaneous thrill and discomfort. Your body is laid bare to the world, at the mercy of elements beyond your control. "There are so many more civilized ways to do this," you think. "Easier ways." With that thought, you take a deep breath and plunge into a swirling eddy. Cold shock electrifies every nerve as tiny grains of sand scrape along your skin, whisking away the excess grime. Everything else comes fully alive; you're floating, weightless, and free. For that moment, there's nothing more you need in the world besides a river eddy and a little bit of soap. The transition from civilized member of society to river-bathing hobo is startlingly quick, and yet so natural that you almost regret the need to come up for air. But when you do, you feel refreshed — a new person.

Yeah, bicycle touring is a little like that.

Leah and I planned this last-minute tour of California's Lost Coast and Humboldt State Park — last minute in that we sat down with her friend Dylan to map out a route on Sunday afternoon, and were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on our way north by early Tuesday morning. There wasn't much time to plan or overthink things. We just packed what we had, and realized we didn't need the rest. We set out from Ferndale, California, for a free-wheeling girl's trip that would be "four or five days," "maybe 215 or 250 miles," "about forty percent dirt," and "probably really climby." Dylan pointed out good places to camp at our projected mileages, but none of us took into account the fact that the elevation profile matters so much more than mileage when it comes to pace in this type of touring. Even with the supposed advantage of wheels, you can only cover so many miles when your heart rate is maxed out at walking speeds. No matter. We had our bikes, food, water, and camping gear. Everything we needed in the world.

We parked my car at the Ferndale Police Department under the invitation of the friendly officers of that little Victorian village in the Eel River Valley. We were getting a later start than we hoped, about 2:30 p.m., and were already worried about chasing darkness to the first campground, forty miles down the road. As we described our route to the police officer on duty, he cut us off as soon as he heard how we planned to leave town. "Mattole Road is steep," he said. "And there are logging trucks on the road that drive fast and don't always move over. And it's steep. But if you make it up there, you'll be rewarded."

The Ferndale police officer was not wrong on any account. Right out of the gate, we climbed from sea level to 2,000 feet in less than six miles. And not on a steady grade, either — the narrow road transitioned from fairly flat, rolling traverses to gut-busting, twenty-percent-plus grades, with nothing in between. Leah was riding a small Surly Long Haul Trucker — rigid steel with 26" mountain tires, front panniers, and a rear rack. I had my Moots, titanium soft tail with 29" mountain tires and bike bags. I like to think I balanced out my light mountain bike advantage by carrying the tent and water filter, but Leah's bike was still heavier. Getting those bikes up these hills was a real grunt, with an sustained level of exertion that felt decidedly punishing for a "leisure tour." But we did opt to take the hard way. And the police officer was right — the rewards were great.

For every thousand-foot-plus ridge we crested — and there were several — there was an equally incredible drop into the sea. Hurtling down seemingly vertical pavement at tear-inducing speeds, sparkling waves filled my frame of vision. Just when I was certain I was on the verge of splashdown, the road whipped around a hairpin switchback and flung me back toward the wall of mountains I would have to climb, yet again. It was incredible, punishing, exhilarating riding, that Mattole Road, made even better by the fact that we were pedaling toward bigger, wilder places.

Mattole Road dropped down to the coast for six miles. A stiff tailwind hustled us down the road at an effortless twenty miles per hour while we kicked back to enjoy the only easy miles we'd find for days. Whenever the route eased up enough for chatting, I often told stories from my cross-country bike trip in 2003. Much about our Humboldt tour brought back nostalgia from simpler times. After I mentioned that the trip from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York, took 65 days, Leah asked, "How did you manage that?"

"We were on a tight self-imposed budget, eleven dollars per day (each)," I said. "So whenever we stayed in a hotel, that cut pretty deep into our funds. We took hobo baths. We stealth camped a lot, sometimes hiding in the forest beside a road or sleeping in power-line right-of-ways. We ate a lot of beans, rice, and this terrible stuff called texturized vegetable protein. We mailed ourselves supplies via general delivery, so we also had to choke down pancakes that tasted like taco seasoning after sitting in the same box for six weeks. I think all of that is a whole lot easier when you're younger; I'm not sure I could stomach that kind of lifestyle for very long anymore." I paused and looked out over the waves crashing on the coastal rocks. "Still, it's not a bad way to live." 

We reached the campground with just over an hour to spare before sunset. Our day's tally was 37 miles with 4,200 feet of climbing — an "easy" half day that left us feeling plenty knackered. The A.W. Way County Park was fairly quiet on a weeknight, and offered a scenic perch next to a wide bend in the Mattole River, full of swimming holes. After the Stagecoach 400 left me with several unpleasant infections earlier this spring, I vowed to uphold a much higher standard of hygiene and a slightly better standard of nutrition on the Humboldt tour. We headed over to the river to scrub our chamois and take hobo baths. I soaked my sore shin as my wet skin absorbed the last bit of sunlight on the rocks, then we climbed back up to camp to cook dinner — pasta and tuna. We retreated to my tiny tent — a Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 that I had feared would be too cramped, but turned out to be a nice refuge for pleasantly tired bodies. I fell asleep with my Kindle on my lap, quietly contemplating words by Annie Dillard:

“What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face? Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.” ― An American Childhood