Friday, 8 October 2010

From the Redwoods to San Fran

After a night in a Super8 motel in Crescent City, just over the border into California, my batteries felt recharged and ready to go.

I hadn’t studied my maps the night before, but on returning my key to reception the lady on the desk asked which way I was heading, “South” I answered, she grimaced slightly and warned me of some “mighty big hills”, just as you leave the city.

Great I thought and to add to that it was a classic fog bound Pacific Coast morning, so I donned my hi viz gear and got all my blinkies flashing in order not to become road kill courtesy of the hi speed logging trucks.

I soon started to see why the receptionist had grimaced, the hill from Crescent City was a long fog bound climb and only nearing the top did I emerge into the sun and blue sky before plunging back down the other side into the cold pea soup again.

Eventually I got onto the Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway, a nice respite from Highway 101 and my first proper encounter with the mighty Redwood trees. These colossal trees border the road like columns of some vast arboreal temple and I cycled gazing up in awe at this ancient forest.

It’s hard to try and capture the size of these ancient trees, but a burnt out stump and an obliging tourist got me the photo that at least gave some idea of scale. I was to find out over the next few days that there were even bigger Redwoods along the route.

The Parkway also gave me the chance to see some wildlife as I cycled along, including two herds of wild Elk and some entertaining Jays with a taste for muesli bars!

The days cycle finished just north of Eureka at a KOA camp site, notoriously expensive this KOA had seen the light and provided Biker\Hiker pitches at a reasonable price, including access to the internet and a hot tub! The site was also home to a new breed of cyclist that were starting to appear on the west coast, but hadn't been prevalent on the Trans Am route.

The Hobo Cyclist, a genre possible unique to the West coast of California, distinguishable by their totally unsuitable bicycle, clothing more akin to hiking, a penchant for fat self rolled cigarettes, made of the local intoxicating cash crop and possibly selling things or busking on route!

The two at the KOA slightly unnerved me with their over enthusiastic greeting and insistence that I join them round the fire to listen to some songs from their badly tuned mandolin. It didn't take long before I made my excuses and headed back to my pitch where fortunately a seemingly sane cyclist had turned up.

Apart from raccoons rifling through the bins I slept well and the next morning headed into the historic town of Eureka. The city, a major player in the historic west coast lumber trade, is the site of hundreds of significant Victorian homes, including the Carson Mansion, situated at the head of its Old Town Historic District. (more info)

It was here I found a great breakfast stop with the usual requirements, WiFi, good coffee, bagels and muffins. Whilst eating breakfast I got into numerous conversations with local cyclists popping in for take out coffees, one simply offered his hand and said "your English", I looked at him rather bemused and somewhat impressed with his psychic skills, "I spotted your Thorn bike", he said. He turned out to be the manager of Eureka's biggest bike shop and had seen numerous Thorns come in for servicing over the years and the majority being ridden by touring Brits.

Leaving Eureka I headed off the 101 onto more rural roads running through areas of large dairy farms reminding me somewhat of home. I think it was the aroma in the air! Following the Eel river I slowly climbed up into the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and entered the Avenue of the Giants.

The highway is renowned for its Coast Redwoods that overshadow the road and surround the area. It is from these towering trees that the Avenue of the Giants takes its name. The narrow road connects several small towns such as Phillipsville, Miranda, Myers Flat, Burlington and Weott. The Avenue was reasonable devoid of traffic and this made for enjoyable cycling, with the sunlight struggling to break through the canopy high above dappling the road with beams of light.

The camp site that night was situated right on the Avenue of the Giants under the Redwoods, the tent pitches laid out between the huge stumps of the old trees mixed with the newer woodland. It seemed I was the only cyclist on the site, but it wasn't long before a Cycle Hobo pulled in on his trusty 1970s Peugeot racer. I had seen the guy earlier in the day riding past me in the opposite direction; it turned out his name was John and he explained he had passed me on a hunt to buy some dinner.

He lent his bike against a Redwood, took off his rucksack and preceded to start eating his food, happier to sit on the dirt than on the picnic table where I was sat. Whilst I prepared my supper on my gas stove, he ate his cold chilli from a tin, taking alternate mouthfuls of donut to go with it. The combination left me somewhat queasy!

The only item he wore that had any semblance to cycling paraphernalia were his SPD shoes, I wondered how the beneficial speed gain from being cleated to your pedals was negated by the woolly jumper, dirty jeans and large rucksack he was wearing! Nonetheless he was a nice guy and eager to hear about other countries, having never left the States he wanted to come up with a plan to travel the world on the cheap.

He eventually rolled his sleeping bag out beside a Redwood stump and climbed in, he didn't even have the luxury of a bed roll and a tent. When I awoke at 6.30 he had gone, he never really said where he was heading, just another cycling hobo riding out the global recession !

I had no hint that today was going to bring with it the most nasty, aggressive, encounter with an American on the trip so far.

Cycling into Myers Flat, a one street town on the Avenue of the Giants, I spotted a coffee shop and went in for some breakfast. Apart from another cyclist no one else was in the shop, Bob Marley was booming from the stereo and eventually a slightly dishevelled short arse of a man came in through the front door wearing a mucky apron . I smiled and requested "A coffee and a bagel with peanut butter, please", the man shook his head in disgust and glared at me "what type of bagel" he growled, "Plains fine" I replied, unsure as to what I had done to annoy him so much .

He shoved my luke warm coffee and bagel across the counter and walked back outside, I sat down and started talking to the American cyclist and we were quickly sharing route notes and places to stay as we were heading in opposite directions. The next second the door flew open and Mr Grumpy reappeared and cranked Bob Marley up to full volume, he paced up and down a few times and then exploded into a diatribe extolling his hatred of cyclists and how we rule the road etc etc, also something about "I trained for the Olympics!!", I didn't quite get that bit!

Now I'm a passive sort of guy, but sometimes you have to react! I walked over to the stereo and put an end to Bob and then invaded the coffee shop owners personal space, giving him a face to face opinion of what a foul little sh*t he was and how I was going to rip him a new A hole!! Now it's at moments like these when you have to remember there is one key difference between the US and the UK.... Guns!

The other cyclist was giving me verbal support, but the coffee shop owner was threatening to call the Police and with a fear of deportation or being shot I decided that a quick exit was the safe and wise option. Throwing my coffee over the floor in a pitiful act of defiance I pedalled out of town quickly, shaking with anger.

Luckily just up the road in Miranda a pretty girl in the coffee shop said that she got regular trade from people who have walked out of Myers Flat coffee shop and that the guy was a nutter! So if your passing by Myers Flat, drop in for a coffee, order 20 lattes, wait for him to make them and then remind the owner that you just remembered that he hates cyclists and walk out without paying!

Ironically I had been talking to the other cyclist about how the people of the USA had been amazing; he was very apologetic on behalf of his country and said he would be calling 911 to report the guy for violent behaviour!

Things just seemed to get even weirder from there on in!

I was still in Redwood country on my last day following the Avenue of the Giants, with the Eel rivers dried up bed creating small lakes in the valley below it was another spectacular days ride. I pedalled into Garberville at lunch time, one of the bigger towns I had seen for a while and cycled around to get a feel for the place and to find somewhere for lunch. It seemed a busy and bustling town but I felt slight trepidation, there seemed to be a high hobo \ weirdo count along with various hippy buses and assorted dubious dreadlocked characters.

After lunch I headed out of town with no real desire to hang about and once out on the open road had the first of two police cars slow right down and give me the once over, with a "Your not from around these parts" sort of stare!

My weird encounters were ratified later that day when I turned up at Standish Hickey camp site and met John, a clean cut, middle aged, former disposer of military hardware for the US navy, pedalling north to Washington State to stay with his sister. He advised me to stay on the road, due to the area being a big marijuana growing region; not one to stray into the woods, his advice would definitely be heeded

He had been stopped by the Feds (FBI) that day and had his ID checked, they told him there was some full moon festival about to take place and some big drug deals were going down. This was confirmed by a loan female Canadian cyclist the following day who had witnessed two black SUV’s go down a track to a trailer home and an armed uniformed team get out.

I was to met many more interesting cycling hobo folk as I headed south, including the strange macramé man and Mike who looked like a retired heavy weight wrestler.

To get back out onto the coast I had to tackle the notorious hill from Leggett, a beast of a double climb rewarded with great downhills, sea views and a noticeable drop in the number of weirdos! I was now on the Shoreline Highway, part of highway 1, enjoying more fine coastal scenery but staying alert for mad drivers and sections with no shoulder. The route took me on through Fort Bragg and the lovely town of Mendocino.

I spent a night at the Manchester Beach KOA, another KOA that has woken up and provided hiker biker spaces, a pleasant surprise from the showerless state park I was going to stay at.

It wasn't long after setting up camp that a young American couple, staying in one of the camp sites log cabins, wandered over to me and asked if I'd like to join them for a BBQ. A gratefully accepted as the couple seemed really nice and it looked like it would be a step up from boil in the bag rice, which I decided to have for a starter anyway!

Their menu consisted of diy tin foil parcels with beef, pork, potato, onion etc. These were placed on the embers in the fire pit whilst we sat drinking beers and chatting. 45 minutes later they were hooked out and tested, the verdict was that they were a bit underdone. We were already a few beers in and when they suggested I try some local red wine whilst the meat cooked I couldn't refuse, a bottle of tasty "7 Deadly Zins" was uncorked and poured into 3 plastic tumblers.

Whilst consuming this the food was tested again, still not done! More beer came out and the evening slowly degenerated into drunken stupidity, topped off with the lady demonstrating how to warm red wine by clasping the bottle down her buxom cleavage. (don't try this at home!). Eventually the meal was cooked and I enjoyed my parcel of yummy food, unfortunately the hosts decided they were too worse for wear and headed into their cabin, I stumbled back to my tent and quickly fell to sleep.

The next day I headed out of the camp site feeling rather jaded and proceeded to avoid crazy pick up trucks, enjoy great views and look at Russian architecture! There was also a long section of switch backs traversing the cliff with steep drops to the sea, that reminded me of the film The Italian Job.

I arrived at Bodega dunes camp site and was immediately approached by an old couple just across the track from me who had a small RV . "We've got hot dogs, potato chips and soda" announced John, offering his hand by way of a greeting, "My wife Margaret says you look like you've cycled a long way and that we should offer you some supper". So for the second night running I had a meal given to me by complete strangers. I sat chatting with John and Margaret who spend every year at the same camp site in their old RV. Margaret looked like an ill lady and they didn't seem to move far from their pitch, content with watching the comings and goings of the people around them.

I quickly pitched my tent and showered as It was getting dark, but it wasn't long before I had company in the form of a tiny black feral kitten who insisted I feed him. Bread was the only option, but the starving little chap tucked in.

Trying to keep a modicum of personal hygiene whilst on the road is occasionally a challenge, but feeling in need of a manicure I perched on my air bed and in the light of my head torch, in my tiny tent proceeded to cut my nails. All went well until I put my hand down to shuffle along my air bed forgetting I still had my nail scissors in my hand! There was a rush of air and my air bed rapidly deflated and my arse ended up on the floor! It was one of those scenarios whereby there is nothing you can do but laugh.

I fixed the bed with a puncture patch, pumped it up and eventually got to sleep, only to be woken at 4am by the kitten wanting more food! It was one of those nights, needless to say the next day I was a bit jaded.

After leaving Bodega Bay in the pouring rain and feeling like I was the only cyclist on the road, something miraculous occurred as I rode into the small town of Tomales that Sunday morning. The clouds started to clear and the sunshine bought with it cyclists not just one or two but well over a hundred on big $$ racing bikes, small groups, big groups, individuals, this was a cycling Mecca.

Someone explained that now I was in Marin County, the home of mountain biking, cycling was the number one hobby and this was a favourite cycling area, even the cars were courteous!

When I arrived in Point Reyes Station there where even more bikes, but it was my loaded tourer that was getting the attention and I soon had a crowd to entertain with tales from the road!

I was closing in fast on San Francisco and a rondevu with a couple who had read my blog and invited me to stay.

We had arranged to meet at Samuel P Taylor State Park, my last camp site before San Fran. I arrived quite early in the day and set up camp in a circle of Redwood trees, later my lovely hosts, Jon (a Trans Am veteran) and his wife Mary Carol turned up on their cool Bike Friday tandem. It was great to meet them at long last and with the hiker biker site to ourselves we settled in to a nice evening of wine, food and chatter around the fire pit.

It wasn't long after dark when the local raccoons paid us a visit, their eyes shining in the undergrowth from the beam of my head torch. Whilst a few acted as decoys, one managed to unzip my tent, get in and rifle through my handlebar bag, I watched him make a run for it as I returned to my tent!

The next morning I was to find I had had another night time wildlife encounter, nesting birds high up in the Redwoods had used the area as their loo and my tent was now covered in guano!

I was really looking forward to the days ride, Jon and Mary Carol were to lead me part of the way in to San Fran on their tandem and then Jon was to stay with me for the final leg riding his racing bike. Jon's knowledge of San Fran's cycle paths meant a safe, scenic ride and a guided tour, I couldn't have asked for a better way to arrive in my biggest city of the trip.

We stopped for lunch under the Golden Gate Bridge, a finger of fog making all bar the tops of the city skyline and the near end of the bridge invisible.  Once up on the bridge the skies cleared and we peddled along in glorious sunshine, stopping to take in the stunning view. Jon's route took us along the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and round to the ferry building in order to get a fast ferry back over to his home in San Rafael. The views from the deck of the ferry were magnificent, the various huge bridges crossing the bay, Alcatraz Island and San Quentin and a panorama of the cities sky line.

Seeing this amazing city laid out in front of me and crossing such a wonderful landmark as the Golden Gate Bridge justified a decision I had fort with over the last few weeks of the trip. San Francisco was going to be the end of my American tour. With 6000 miles on the clock and a feeling of utter contentment with what I had achieved, I new in my heart it was time to go home and Jon and Mary Carol had offered me a place to stay and assistance with the logistics to make that happen.

With three days before my flight I had plenty of time to pack the bike, explore San Rafael and indulge in an amazing massage from Mary Carol who runs her own massage therapy business. My hosts epitomized what I had found right across the USA, the generosity of the people shone through

Although I had only been gone for 5 months, the experiences and adventures I had and the people I met, made it seem like I'd been away for years. As I stared down from the window of the 747 with the sun setting on the vast landscape below me, I couldn't comprehend how anyone could ride a bicycle over such a distance, but I had!

In some ways the cold reality of job hunting and a British winter seemed more daunting than simply turning my bike round and pedalling back across the USA again. But sat here at home in Devon, with my cat on my lap, finishing this Blog, it actually feels nice to be back. I'm sure the novelty will wear off and new adventures will tempt me, but for now I think I can justify resting on my laurels for a little while and hold my head up high and be proud of what I've achieved.

Thanks to all those that have ridden with me, sponsored me, supported me, contacted me, fed me and helped me in any way on my journey, you know who you are!

For now, this is the Midlifecyclist (aka Stuart Woolger) signing off, but keep following the Blog, as there will be more to come.

For those I may have inspired to get on their bikes! Some final thoughts....
"He who will not risk pushing beyond his self imposed limitations, should not complain about the mediocrity of his existence"
"Most people tip-toe through life hoping they make it safely to death."
"Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do.So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Mark Twain
Thanks to the following inspirational people \ authors:
Mark Beaumont
Alastair Humphreys
Peter Gostelow
Rob Lilwall
Christopher J. A. Smith
Fred & Barb Seymour

Thanks also to the following site for endless inspirational cycling journals.