“On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
I never really liked that book (probably I didn’t understand it), but at least that quote rang true. As I rolled down Grapevine canyon, California didn’t immediately look that different to Mexico; it’s a gradual process as the details resolve, pop out of the scene and the feeling changes.
In the scrubby weeds at the edge of the road I saw the smashed carcasses of Samsungs and iPhones. Small prescription bottles looking like film canisters lay about, seeds of some pharmacological tree.
At 7/11 I read a home-printed plea for a man struck by a drunk driver but with no insurance to pay his medical bills. “James is a great, hard-working and responsible man” the sign said. I turned around and a Tesla pulled into the parking lot. The gas station charged to put air in your tyres.
We drank 24oz cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a roadside store, were questioned at an internal border patrol checkpoint and cycled passed a Native American Casino. In the outskirts of San Diego, tremendous swathes of lush lawn sprouted from the concrete; lawn crews and sprinklers working hard to maintain grass that has no natural reason to be there.
Our hosts in San Diego took us along to their neighbourhood 4th of July parade; a red, white and blue extravaganza of equal parts wholesome and gaudy. Hands went to hearts as the pledge of allegiance was belted out and the parade made a lap of the block as flags fluttered and neighbours waved.
There is not much good that can be said for the Pacific Coast cycling route in Southern California. The brief moments of quiet coastal riding are lost in the miasma of never ending suburbs, a concrete landscape built for the glorification of cars above all else.
Foreigners are not allowed to cycle through the marine base Camp Pendleton but we pulled up to the checkpoint anyway to see what they would say. A soldier more-robot-than-man took our passports, stopped the lanes of traffic and directed us away from the camp in a crisp set of barks.
There is no other option except to cycle on the shoulder of the 8-lane Interstate 5.
LA was the end of the line for Ben after some twelve thousand kilometres (or more, he didn’t count). In the last couple of months we had cycled less together; in Mexico I had travelled alone in the altiplano and part of Baja while Ben stayed longer in places he liked and caught buses to meet up again.
It was easy to tell myself that he was sick of cycling, but it was harder (and took longer) to admit to myself that he was probably sick of me. Long periods of time in close proximity can grate on anyone, but my stubborn focus on cycling every kilometre and abrasive personality definitely made it worse.
In the end, he gave his bike away for free to someone on the street, gave away or threw out his panniers and was done.
North of LA the concrete slowly starts to recede and faint traces of the natural world return, though you can’t see the ocean for the RVs.
These behemoth mobile homes fill all available space on the coast line, sporting nimble names like Aerolite, Allegro, Stealth or Gazelle; the recreational vehicle equivalent of calling a big man “Tiny”.
I stayed a night at Carpinteria state beach and chatted with a guy who I could not place as either homeless or as a crusty adventurer. He certainly looked homeless, but his gear (and the gear his two dogs carried) looked the same as any hiker on the PCT. What would I have thought if I had seen him when he was camping in the streets on LA a few days earlier, accepting money from strangers?
I lay in my tent thinking about the hideousness of that process of judgment, about the hundreds (thousands?) of homeless people in LA and San Diego that I had subconsciously assessed and written off. My prejudice was doubly awful because my lifestyle for the last twenty months was not so different; a kind of homelessness for the privileged that I had chosen, rather than been forced into.
The countryside opened up into agricultural land and some of my misgivings about Southern California started to slip away. Environment has a tangible effect on mood and those green fields and gold, rolling hills were the precise remedy for an urban malady.
Lunch was tacos at a strip mall in which every shop had only Spanish signage; catering to the farm hands and pickers who are almost exclusively from Mexico and Central America. Later I saw a yard sale being interrupted by a half dozen officers in green bullet-proof jackets with “Sherriff” on the back, storming into the house with guns drawn.
I knocked on a farmhouse door and asked to camp in the orchard. Art thanked me twice for asking permission and I wondered if he had been surprised by campers in the past.
Next day started with a walk around the old Purisima Mission and continued with quiet farm roads that wound through the hills.
At San Luis Obispo I took a left, heading for Cayucos and that famous, foggy and abrupt section of Californian coast; Big Sur. The road meanders westward until Cambria where it runs out of room and hugs the coast for some hundred kilometres to Pfeiffer.
Suddenly there is just ocean, mountains, the wind and the road. I stop to watch the elephant seals battle and bellow, but I cannot hear them over the roaring ocean. The wind is blowing strong and I am smiling like a madman as I press into it; the raw, unchained energy of nature against a man exposed, living and feeling it.
I howl in chorus.
In late May 2017, a huge landslide took out the highway through Big Sur and closed a near 60km section of the highway up to the damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Whether for the natural beauty or the romantic idea concocted in beat novels, Big Sur had been one of my most anticipated sections of the US and I was dreading the thought of having to detour around it.
In one of those strange twists of fate that life sometimes throws your way, I stayed just south of Big Sur with friends I had met in Baja California and one of their fathers turned out to be responsible for clearing the landslide.
I found out that there would be traffic control blocking the road during the day, but come night time, the road would be wide open.
At Ragged Point, the store clerk told me that I could find space to camp further up the road at the Salmon Creek trailhead. If he knew what I was planning to do, he gave nothing away. I pressed on as the day faded, snuck into a horse stable just before the traffic stop and lay down to try and sleep for a few hours.
Cars wound along the coast after dark and I watched as their headlights swung in and out of view on the headlands, getting brighter each turn until they arrived at the blockade, turned around and disappeared back into the inky night.
At 10:30 or 11pm I walked through the road stop and began cycling in near total darkness towards the slide. My little headlamp did little to illuminate the path ahead and the generator hub for my bike light was long since broken by overenthusiastic mechanics in Colombia.
For ten kilometres I rode blind, the sound of waves crashing off to my left, waiting for some sign of the landslide. Finally, heavy machinery and blockades appeared on the road and the pavement gave way to broken earth and a narrow, rocky trail twisting through the slide.
I descended way down until I felt like I would fall into the ocean if I went any further. I could hear the sea much closer now, but in the pitch black, I could see no further than the beam of my headlamp.
Following the trail, I came across dead end after dead end; I had lost the main track and was lost in a maze of construction roads. The grades were so steep that I left my bike and scrambled up trails on foot to see if it led up to the North end of the slide. I was beginning to worry that I would have to turn back in defeat when I finally came across the trail out and heaved the bike up the incline with great thrusts, panting between each effort.
A guardrail appeared and I was back to the paved road.
While crossing the slide, I listened to the scuffling, abrasive sound of small rocks shifting above me and chalked this up to unstable earth and ocean wind. When I continued to hear noises on the hill above me back on stable terrain I proceeded to freak out as I imagined a cougar stalking me from above.
Scanning the sides of the road with the headlamp was nearly useless, but the fact that the beam did not extend more than a few metres didn’t stop me from swivelling my head from side to side like a deranged lighthouse.
Suddenly twin points of light flashed back at me. There was an animal and it was watching me.
I tried to keep its eyes illuminated but soon it was lost into the night and I was riding blind again, knowing that something could see me. My nerves were shot by the time I arrived in Gorda and I sat down in the illuminated car park and tried to calm down.
It was a few more kilometres before I found a dirt side road that I took in search of space to pitch my tent. Only a little way up the climb, my headlamp flashed a new set of eyes.
I paused as we stared at each other, then decided I should keep moving towards it to try and get a better view or intimidate whatever it was. As I drew nearer, it suddenly bolted up the hill and I was close enough that I could make out the faint outline of….. a deer.
Relief. I laughed, found a space for my tent and collapsed into deep sleep sometime after 1am.
The sun was well into the sky by the time I broke camp and wheeled back down to the main road. Here I was at the height of summer, on one of America’s most famous touring roads and not a car to be seen.
I lolled lazily back and forth across both lanes of traffic, enjoying the mix of warm sun and cool sea air on my skin. Whales blasted jets of water high into the air and huge ribbons of kelp bobbed lazily in pristine blue waters.
After Pfeiffer, the traffic returned along with it a strong head wind that knocked me off my bike for the first time in a very long while.
I don’t know why I didn’t stay longer in Big Sur or Monterey; locations special to two authors special to me. I should have gone to Salinas or at least taken a spin through the hills, but I’d been seized by some compulsion to ride; there was some feeling of uneasiness building in me but I could not yet name it.
Anyway, I had been lucky to find an empty and perfect Big Sur and if I’d gone searching for some other idea that I’d read in decades-old books, I could have only been disappointed.
North of San Francisco, the coast was pleasant enough but I didn’t feel any strong affection towards it. After a few days, the highway swung away from the ocean, around King Range Conservation Area and up into the Redwoods.
Cycling the Avenue of the Giants in the warm summer air with golden light falling between the foliage was incredibly serene. The majesty of these trees cannot be conveyed in words or photos; to sit under or place your hand on a living thing more than 100m tall, which has quietly existed for hundreds or even a thousand years is truly humbling.
It is also incredibly depressing to know that 96% of the original old-growth has been logged. These trees have become celebrities because they are survivors, made unique by the swing of an axe and pull of a saw. We have shrunk the wild world down to these managed pockets called National Parks where we can see the Tripadvisor recommended viewpoint, snap a photo and feel like we’ve gotten “back to nature”. It sucks.
By the time the highway returned to the coast at Eureka, I had decided to leave it for good, opting for mountains to the East and the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests.
At Somes Bar, I was reunited with my friend Deja who I met in Patagonia as my trip was in its infancy and hers was approaching its end.
My timing was fortuitous as the local community had gathered for the annual match of watermelon rugby in the river. Music was echoing around the canyon walls as bodies were ceremonially oiled and the watermelon launched into the river.
We chatted with people who had been train hoppers, one fella that had been paid to traverse nearby mountains with mules but was now working on a mushroom farm, some others also on a bike tour.
The fear of the end of my trip had been building within me for some time; I still had no idea what I wanted to do or how I would seek it out. Seeing Deja out there, meeting her community, knowing the amazing work she was doing on the river helped to ease my anxiety about the return to ‘normal’ life after such a long time on a bicycle.
Later on, a rope was lowered from the bridge and a woman performed aerials.
Leaving Somes Bar required passing active fires and the air was heavy with smoke. A helicopter zipped between the river beside me and a fire, scooping up buckets of water to throw at the inferno.
As I sat on the side of the road replacing yet another tyre, a ranger pulled up and told me that just down the road I could find a natural spring with ice cold water running straight out of the mountain. I drank greedily and ate handfuls of blackberries that grew around the spring.
In Northern California and Southern Oregon, mountain rednecks have banded together under the banner of the State of Jefferson. This is a secessionist movement to create a new state mainly based on the claim of under representation, but I think there probably more distasteful reasons that they have enough sense to not voice aloud. California as a whole may be liberal, but these northern counties strongly favoured Trump in the last election.
In addition to Trump/Pence placards and the seal of the State of Jefferson, there were anti-US-Forestry signs, anti-monument/pro-dam signs, Hillary for Prison signs, anti-BLM (Bureau of Land Management or Black Lives Matter?) and even a cheeky anti-abortion sign.
In Ashland, Oregon I spent a night camping among the hippies and homeless at Jackson Wellsprings. I floated lazily in the mineralized water listening to the nude bathers discuss astral projection and their journeys on the spirit plane or a new cathode ray tube that used electricity to clean an aura.
It struck me as strange how people can live so close geographically yet reside in their own echo chambers , totally certain of their own ideas and closed off from those of their neighbours.
A fire was burning on the western flank of Crater Lake but I cycled towards it anyway, sure that fortune would swing my way. The Crater Lake highway passes through beautiful forest and when I arrived at Mazama campground at the foot of the mountain, the ranger informed me that the evacuation notice had just been lifted and the Western Rim Drive would reopen the following day. Lucky me.
The lake is a strange enough sight in of itself, but the added smoke from the wild fires added an extra layer of mystery.
From Crater Lake to Bend and beyond towards Mt Hood, preparations for the solar eclipse began to manifest. The sides of the road were lined with hastily erected fields of tents, shops were selling special viewing glasses emblazoned with the US flag. News outlets were reporting 100,000 people to Madras, one million to Oregon.
That many people, imagined or no, sounded like hell to me and I quickly passed through the Warm Springs Reservation and up Mt Hood.
I swung through Portland to pick up my friend Cannon, who joined me for her first multi-day tour. We aimed towards Mt St Helens and watched the partial eclipse from an irrigation channel.
We explored a lava tunnel with gas lantern, swum under waterfall and in freezing river, but the riding alone was incredibly picturesque. Quiet roads meandering up the sides of heavily forested mountains, topping out with a clear view to the occasional snow-capped peak.
At a summit looking towards to Mt St Helens, we stopped for a snack and enjoyed the warming sun.
A car arrived with a couple in perhaps their late 60s along with their hitchhiking stewards; a young couple and their dog. The young man was called Pan and with his curly red hair, colourful waistcoat and billowing trousers he looked very much like some sort of imp or character from a children’s book.
He and his dog Tinkerbell were train hoppers and he shared some stories about the life and told us about his “smiley”; a bandana with a padlock tied to one end that he said he needed for self-defence (but never aggression). Across his cheeks was tattooed the words “Never land”.
He had shacked up with his girlfriend Jade and they were now ambling along about the USA, no real direction and happy about it. I don’t think I was alone in being disappointed that his girlfriend’s name was not Wendy.
Through the Gifford Pinchot forest, up the Cowlitz River Valley, towards Mt Rainier and then East to Yakima; the forested mountainsides flattened out and golden fields of agricultural land appeared.
Between Yakima and Ellensburg, we took a beautiful B road that winds its way along Yakima Canyon.
The final three days of our mini-adventure were spent on the Iron Horse/John Wayne Pioneer Trail; hundreds of kilometres of old rail line now devoted to cyclists and pedestrians.
We stopped for coffees in Cle Elum and returned to our bikes to find that someone had stuffed a wad of cash into my handlebars. It was a kind gesture and I couldn’t help but think of that long-distance-walker/homeless guy and his dogs that I met a month before in California.
Later on the trail we passed the finish line for an ultra-marathon and watched as exhausted runners stumbled across the line. The volunteers plied us with Gatorade and burgers and the riding on flat trail with full tums was a very enjoyable time.
The trail ends just outside North Bend and we rolled into town to order a slice of cherry pie and a cup of damn fine coffee at the café featured in Twin Peaks.
The road to Seattle looked pretty miserable and Cannon’s bike wasn’t in the best shape, so we caught a local bus the rest of the way. We managed a few kilometres of riding from downtown Seattle to our hosts before her derailleur kamikazed into the spokes and Cannon was on foot for the last kilometre of her trip.
From Seattle I caught a ferry out to Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands before looping back to Bellingham, up to the border and over to Vancouver.
The US had passed by in a confusing blur and it was difficult to untangle what was due to my own headspace and what was real.
All my hosts were lovely people involved in their communities, cycle advocacy or the environment, yet there was this ugly feeling lurking in the background. The Trump signs, the posters in Spanish in Arabic describing how to deal with immigration officers, the booklet titled “relating to Muslims”, the strung out people looking like meth users, the weird comments warning me about Native Americans, the casual discussion of how the US is headed to civil war.
Then there was the mind-boggling number of people living rough on the West Coast. I cycled through skid row in LA and its equivalent in San Francisco, tent cities taking up the sidewalks for whole blocks in each city. Even outside of these concentrated areas, there are still homeless people in almost every part of every city. With something like a quarter of the total homeless population of the US, California is not representative of the whole country, but it is really confronting to see so much poverty in one of the richest places in the world.
I don’t know how much was me and how much was the country itself, but I found the USA to be lacking something that I’d felt in Latin America.