From Chester, CA to Red Bluff, CA
I hear Pacman and 3D rustling around next to me in the gray dawn. I’m comfortable and warm on the floor of the dentist’s carport, but today is day zero. I crawl out of my quilt and start packing up. J bought a pair of padded boxers, which he pulls on. Pacman found a pair of padded bike shorts at the thrift store, and 3D was given a pair by Tooth Fairy. “Dang,” I say, putting on my non-padded pants. “I feel left out.”
We’ve all got different setups to jerryrig our backpacks into bikepacks. J wins for the tidiest: he bought two 5gal rubbermaid storage bins and lashed them to his fender rack, with another three gallon bin lashed on top. Looks neat, clean. Driving a wide-load.
Pacman wins for style. He picked up a pair of leather saddlebags at the thrift store. 3D reminds me vaguely of the wicked witch of the west (the Kansas one), with a bucket on one side and an old wicker basket on the other, trash bags with stuff in them lashed on top.
My own bike packing setup has turned out well, I think. I’m pleased. Chuck from Bodfish Bicycles threw in a basket with the purchase of the bicycle, so I didn’t have to rig up panniers. I found some giant ziploc bags at the Dollar General that I’m going to use protect my gear. You can use a vacuum to suck the extra air out of the bags, but I’m guessing I’m not going to use that feature. I ziptied on a little storage container for odds and ends, and a couple bungees over the top secures it all. I found an old fishing pole in the trash, so I ziptied it to my basket and put a handkerchief flag on it for a buggy whip. In sharpie I wrote: TEAM WHISKERS. (Dumpster-diving, a time-honoured family tradition.)
After a stop at the coffee shop there’s no more procrastinating to do, so we get on our bikes and ride out of town. I can’t believe we’re doing this. (Neither can anyone else. Parting words from the old-man cyclist at the coffee shop was basically a scoff.)
Two miles out of town, there’s no shoulder on the road, and I’m getting buzzed by logging trucks. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I focus on the four inches of crumbling pavement to the right of the white line – the bike lane.
We stop at the PCT trailhead. No one has signed the trail register in four days – no one has crossed Hwy 36 and gone on. The trail stops here. We sign back in. This departure feels more official somehow. 3D is already uncomfortable – “do you want these padded shorts?” she offers to me. “I think they’re making things worse.”
“Sure.” I take them from her. Her free shorts also happen to be men’s XL shorts… I pull the spandex shorts straight over my pants. It looks stupid, but way less stupid than you’d think.
There’s no real plan for the day, in terms of mileage, or stops. We’re just biking off into the sunset, see where we end up. None of us know how this is going to go. We have strong legs, but not for biking. None of us have ever sat on a bicycle seat for more than three hours running. I imagine these first days are going to be terrible, sort of like our first days out of Campo. In other words, unbelievable suffering, then it will get better. I know now that I can suffer for a long time, so that’s ok, although I hope the curve for this is a little bit shorter.
The profile on Google maps showed that it was all downhill from Chester to Red Bluff… on closer inspection, it’s all downhill except for the uphill that comes first. A thousand feet of uphill to break us in, or just break us. I’m glad I have 21 gears because I’m in the lowest one. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Hiking half of the PCT taught me that you can go really slow and still get really far, if you only keep going. So I downshift and keep going. Downshift and keep going again. Every pedal a new pedal.
We stop at a pullout to catch our breath, give our backsides a break. “This is not awesome,” Pacman declares, ruefully rubbing his nether regions.
“I don’t think this is ok,” replies 3D. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this with this much… compression.”
“Things aren’t great over here either,” commiserates J.
“Do you want to try switching seats?” 3D asks him. Her seat has too much padding, and it’s squishing her lady bits. J’s seat is too hard, but it’s not as bulky. They swap. Bicycles are cool machines, but after a hundred years, they still haven’t worked the kinks out of the seat. Surely by now they could have come up with something that doesn’t cause infertility?
First you go up, then you go down. We summit at 5750 feet above sea level: Red Bluff is at 350. The grinding uphill (I probably could’ve walked faster) is replaced with exhilarating, terrifying speed. The road widens out a little, so the shoulder is an entire foot, instead of the 4 inches I’ve been trying to balance on, but I ditch that entirely and ride in the middle of the road. A little rock on the shoulder here could seriously mess me up. My mind keeps wandering to scenarios of skidding out and destroying my face on asphalt. “Pay attention Gizmo!” I admonish myself. “Eyes on the road! Mind in the present!” I struggle to stay mindful and present on the trail, but there is no room for that here.
We’d only planned on doing forty miles today, maybe fifty? But the downhill sucks us into complacency. We can go thirty miles an hour! (At least on a 6% downhill grade.)
Down out of the pines now, into oak country, and it’s hot. There’s so much smoke in the air that it’s overcast, which helps, but we’re out of the high country. We stop on the side of the road to rest, and a crazed looking old man with a beer walks out towards us from behind an abandoned building. “Well,” I think. “This is where we get shot.”
“Howdy!” Pacman calls out. The man comes over and chats. Maybe a casualty of heavy drug use in the seventies, but friendly. Turns out he bicycled around the continent with his wife back in the day – 9000 miles. “Twenty-one speed tandem, man. That thing was fast. Forty-five on the downhills. We had our problems, you know man? Tire caught on fire coming down out of Humboldt. But it was good. You’re really free when you’re on a bicycle.” He fills up our water bottles and offers us a place to stay. 3D has visions of a new bicycle seat dancing in her head though, and if it stays downhill we can make it to a bike shop… We continue.
We’re only ten miles away from Red Bluff, but we finished the downhill, and we’re on a long, rolling section of ups and downs. (Nothing clues you into grade better than a bicycle, walking included.) There’s no way we’ll make it to Red Bluff during business hours, so the rest of us would like to stop. 3D hesitates for several minutes at where we’ve stopped, at a trailhead parking area for access to the Sacramento River, but ultimately can’t banish the visions of a hot shower and a bed, and she takes off towards town.
We’re already sprawled out on some desert pavement, rocky but flat, with oak trees rising out of long golden grass like soft, yellow fog. The sky is dim with smoke, the sun orange in the haze, the hillsides disappearing quickly into gray. It’s all very post-apocalyptic. We take off our shirts, lay down, and sweat.
After half an hour 3D texts us that she made it to town. “That was faster than I expected,” says Pacman. “I think I could rally and get there after this break.”
“Me too,” I reply. “I just needed to stop for a minute.” I’m feeling guilty – and I think the others are too – about letting our team splinter so fast. So we get up, put our clothes back on, and go to town.
Crossing the Sacramento River in red bluff.
We get cheap hotel rooms and take blessed, wonderful showers. We did 75 miles. It wasn’t walking, sure, but it was too many. We’re going to be real screwed up tomorrow. I think 3D is done with this. I sort of expected the four of us to split off at some point, but not this soon. I’m feeling down about that, but I think I’m still excited about this. I don’t know that I’ll be able to bicycle tomorrow, but I want to try. J and I are going to ride this out a little further. Pacman might come with us, but he’s going to stick with 3D if she decides to hitch or to bike north from Red Bluff instead of to the coast – make sure she doesn’t get stranded alone, at least.
Things always look better in the morning, see how it is tomorrow.