From Hell’s Gate Campground to Swain’s Flat Outpost
We’re packing up our gear to go when Bob, from campsite across from us, comes over. He’s got a neon yellow shirt draped over his arm, and he holds it out to us. “This is the shirt I was telling you about the other night – do you want it?”
High-vis! “Yeah, thanks!” we chorus together. Pacman takes the shirt and attaches it to the back of his pack, a fluorescent offering to the gods of the road, a high-visibility prayer that we will not get squished. Then, packed, decorated, and watered-up, we hop on our wheels and start the uphill.
We have one last big uphill before the eventual descent to the coast, but I’m not afraid of mountain passes anymore. I just have to keep pushing the pedals, pushing, pushing – and we’re at the top. Bam! High fives and a snack break, then we see the old, familiar sign of the truck on a triangle. It’s been only days since our first, terrifying downhill, but already we’ve learned to trust ourselves, and we whizz down the mountain, leaning deep into the curves. My buggy whip describes arcs across the sky as I bank the hairpins.
Two hours to go up, twenty exhilarating minutes down. Welcome to Mad River, proclaims a sign. Don’t blink you’ll miss us. We roll our bikes off the road and stop at the burger shack that constitutes the entirety of downtown Mad River and place our orders. (Ah, the luxuries of bicycling.) Pacman carefully parks his bike to make sure that his cardboard sign: “Mexico to Canada” is in full-view, and we devour our food.
The sign works like it’s supposed to, and we start telling our story to the incredulous people eating burgers next to us. “Wow,” they say. “Be careful.” “You’re gonna die.” “That’s crazy.” “Road gets worse right around these curves, you know.” (“Do you smoke?” “Sure” “Here you go – good luck” and Pacman walks away with some Humboldt green.)
We leave the national forest area, keep biking through Humboldt county, where the trees roll across the hills, and the smell of weed perfumes everything, and every gate says POSTED NO TRESPASSING. A long, slightly rolling section gets us to the Dinsmore Store, the center of commerce for a 25-mile radius.
We’d heard about the Dinsmore Store, but seeing is believing. It’s like the inside of Mary Poppins’ bag, small on the outside but impossibly full of everything you could ever need on the inside, one room leading to another, to another – food and clothes and piping and fittings and ammo and knives and kombucha. There’s a gas station out front, and the line is all pickup trucks with beds full of gas cans getting filled with diesel. Huge stacks of bags of potting soil and fertilizer and irrigation pipe are stored outside, and an elaborate closed circuit system watches your every move. The most amazing thing about the place, though, is that this is the first piece of civilization we’ve been to where the three of us hairy, disheveled hikers did not stick out at all. All we need is to have some marijuana leaves emblazoned somewhere on our clothing, and we would be indistinguishable from the natives. If anything, we fall on the more kempt side of the spectrum…
After a food resupply I go relieve Pacman from bicycle guard duty, and I inherit his conversational partner, who simply begins his conversation from the beginning, excited for a fresh victim. “Yep, this road is real dangerous,” he croaks to me. “Just about the windiest, most dangerous road in the country. People die all the time on this road, yep.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of narrow -”
“Oh, you haven’t even seen the worst part yet,” he interrupts. “Just up ahead that ol’ middle line disappears. Have to say,” he muses, “if I had to choose between a truck coming towards me and a bicycle next to me, there’d be a bicyclist funeral, yep.”
You know there’s a third option?? I want to yell, but don’t. It’s called YOUR BRAKES. Standard on every vehicle. Try it out sometime. The choice between a two-second delay or gambling with someone’s life seems like it would be pretty straightforward to me… I mean, I guess it is for all these motorists too: a straightforward choice to pass so close to me I can feel the heat from their exhaust pipes scorching my calves. I silently fume over this while the old man reiterates over and over that first, we are gonna die on this road, and second, he’s gonna be the one that sends us to the promised land. Great.
I’m in a sour mood by the time J and Pacman come back, and we slam back our cold sodas and get back on the road. Just as the old man promised, the yellow stripe down the middle of the road abruptly disappears, and the road narrows. I’m momentarily terrified about the constriction and what it means for my safety, but bizarrely, the cars begin to give us some respectful passing distance. Everyone has slowed down, navigating the narrow turns and tight passing quarters with a little more caution. The cars that pass us swerve nearly to the other white line to give us space.
What is it about the yellow line across the road that affects people so? You’d think it was a force field from the way the drivers treated it on the section behind us. It would be a clear section, no one coming, good visibility, but they would drive their cars right up to the yellow line and not one inch further for passing us. Sometimes that gave us a couple feet of clearance, but more often we got buzzed. Take away the yellow line, and all of a sudden we get passing space.
A brief respite from crazy drivers and the yellow line is back. We pull off the side of the road for a break, across the road from a sign that says
GOATS FOR SALE FREE GOATS. “Wanna have a goat roast tonight?” suggests Pacman. “We could strap it on the back of the bike.”
“Sounds like a pain in the neck to me. I’m not really in the mood for butchering a goat tonight.”
“Could be delicious…”
We’re cruising through hills and woods on a rolling section of road when suddenly it appears: the truck on the triangle. 10% grade, it declares, right next to the brake check pull-out area.
10% GRADE??? The steepest we’ve ridden so far is 7% – this is going to be a doozy of a downhill. We check our brakes, then drop down over the hill.
I’d let myself go flying on the other downhills today, but we blast into the descent with our brakes screaming, miles and miles of relentless descent, hairpin turns with 10mph speed limits and steeply banked curves. At every pullout is a truck with smoking brakes, and the persistent marijuana aroma is overpowered by the stench of it. We take the road, not letting cars pass us – for once, we are all going the same speed. It’s a relief when it’s over. Maintaining that sort of attention wears me out, even if I don’t have to pedal. Actually, bicycling all day wears me out too.
Exhausted, we pull into a small general store on the side of the road to get a cold drink. Next thing you know, we are having the same conversation we’ve been having all day. “You’re BICYCLING this road?” “You’re crazy!” “You’re gonna die!” (“You guys smoke?”… Pacman’s pockets bulge with Humboldt green.) This is a friendly crew though, that runs the little store and the giant complex next to it that sells grow supplies, and in no time at all we’re in the back, hanging out with the locals, and setting up our tents for the night in the backyard. I pick blackberries from across the road, the bushes loaded with the most luscious, the biggest, juiciest, dirtiest, dustiest, dieseliest berries ever. I soak and wash them five times before I eat them, the warm, deep blackberry flavor still faintly exuding diesel. We’d meant to get to the redwoods tonight, just two miles down the road, but this will do.