Bicycling days slideshow

Bonus post – a slideshow from the bicycle days.

 

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Day 103: the coast

Day 103
Miles: 27*
From Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park to the ocean

Mr. Snore-man in the site next to us is still at it in the morning – except he’s also managed to somehow collapse his tent on himself in the middle of the night. Loud, rasping snores emanate from a big, yellow puddle of silnylon. The rest of his family sleeps in the camper. I indulge myself with some feelings of camper-superiority, but otherwise am not too excited about the morning. Gray mornings are good for sleeping. I get up and battle with resident campground Stellar Jays instead.

We have no clear destination today, and we’re not sure where we want to stay. J’s parents are coming out to meet us in a week in Crescent City, which is only 120 miles away. That would be six hard days of hiking, but on bicycle? We’ve got some time to kill. Anyhow, Pacman needs to hit a grocery store, but otherwise, there’s no hurry. I feel like I’m in a holding pattern, circling, circling. (My life-purpose crisis is doing the same, but above me, like a vulture, waiting for the right time…)

“Do you guys want to stop by the Cheatham Grove on our way out?” suggests J. “It’s the redwood grove where they filmed the star wars scooter battle with the storm troopers and the ewoks.” Are you kidding? Of course!

The grove is still dim with the low clouds that move in from the ocean every night, and in the cool, damp gray the redwoods rise. It takes a minute to really appreciate their immensity. I have to touch their splintery bark, look slowly from the roots to the crown, walk their circumference. I imagine all the settlement of the West: LA, Seattle, Phoenix, San Francisco… vague dreams of an unscarred earth – of an unbroken coast of giants –
“It’s so damn peaceful here!” exclaims Pacman. “Can you imagine when the entire forest was like this?”
“We’re pretty good at screwing things up,” replies J.

There are so few of the old trees left. We walk the entire grove in minutes, never out of earshot of the highway. Pacman finds a giant blunt just lying on the ground. Humboldt county, man.

We ride the rest of the way to Fortuna, through classic picturebook countryside. Old farmhouses, apple trees, horses, blackberry bushes, garish pink lilies. We come up on a rise before town, and I swear I can see the ocean.

Fortuna sucks us into the town vortex: hours at the library, the grocery store, time on the phone trying to re-route food packages we sent to trail towns in Oregon that we won’t be getting to. It’s six o’clock and we’re still here, with no plans for the night and no place to stay. Can’t just throw our tents on the nearest flat spot out here… All google can come up with is the Ferndale county fairgrounds, ten miles down the road and past the end of highway 36. We pedal on the 101 for the first time, then take the 211 over the Eel River and a narrow bridge.

The signs on the bridge tell cyclists to take the lane while crossing, which means we hold up a whole bunch of evening traffic despite our panicked pedaling. “Please don’t kill me, please don’t hate me, please don’t kill me,” I pant desperately to myself. Off the bridge, we pull over to let the long line of traffic pass. One of the trucks behind us zips forward then pulls off the road as well, just in front of us. The guy in the truck gets out to confront us. Oh no.

A small, compact man with a ponytail and dusty chacos hops out and comes up to Pacman (I’ve dropped about twenty feet to the back, ready to pedal for my life.) Are we looking for work?

Work? He’s a local organic farmer, he explains, looking for some people to hoe his beet fields for a day or two. “I’m pretty hard up for help,” he explains, “and for some reason you seemed like you might be hard workers? You might be interested?”

No kidding, he’s hard up for work. He’s pulling over bicyclists on the side of the road! (To be fair, our bicycle setups do sort of communicate a lack of cash… we have not been confused with vacationing bicycle tourers yet…) Well, as it turns out, it’s his lucky day. Pacman has been searching for work for the entire last week. He’s in the condition known as straight-up-outta-cash. J and I are fine on funds, but not in any rush – no reason to split up Team Whiskers yet. I’ve never hoed beets before – might be fun?

Blake, our new employer, meets up down the road at his beet fields and shows us around. We ask if we might be able to camp for the night on the field, but Blake’s partner is feeling a bit paranoid after a recent robbery, and requests we stay elsewhere. (Shoot. We still have no place to stay. I miss the PCT.) Blake feels terrible about this, so he gives us the keys to his old truck so we can drive ourselves to the beach. “Camping isn’t actually allowed,” he explains, “but no one will bother you there, just go around the corner a bit.”

So that’s how, one week after hitting the halfway point on the Pacific Crest Trail, we find ourselves in front of the vast sweep of the Pacific Ocean.

We made it.

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Pacman, riding through the redwoods.

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(“I’m only going to jump once, so don’t screw it up.”)

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In the Cheatham Grove

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Tree-hugger for a day.

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The Pacific

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Day 101: a humboldt county kind of day

Day 101
Miles: 43*
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…”
“Could be…”

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.

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Day 99: back in the saddle

Day 99
Miles: 35*
From Beegum Creek to Hell’s Gate

Waking up is crawling out of a deep black hole. “Where am I?” I think groggily. “Oh yeah. Sleeping in my underwear under a bridge.” Where else would I be?

Team Whiskers is well rested and ready to ride today. We’re at the part of highway 36 I’ve been worried about: the passes. Walking passes is hard enough – I’m worried it’s going to be twenty miles of walk-a-bike when I can’t pedal myself uphill.

Downshift, downshift, downshift, go. When it’s low as it goes, put your head down and pedal. Team Whiskers slowly goes up the mountain. As long as you keep going, you will eventually get there.

We make it to Platina and buy breakfast burritos, surprisingly delicious. We pump every customer in there for information on the road coming up. The white-haired woman behind the counter, when asked about herself, refers obliquely to the time she left get husband, hitchhiked across the country with another man, only to get left herself in Iowa. She leaves us hanging there, to wonder about the rest.

We siesta in Wildwood, next to the foundation of the store, burnt down two years ago now, then water up at an RV park. It’s not 100 degrees up here, but it’s still pretty warm.

We ride out late afternoon, and crest the passes. The road here has no shoulder, no guard-rail, and a sheer dropoff. I blast a downhill riding in the middle of the road, but right down the razor edge of excitement and fear.

The fading light convinces us to try and get off the road. We spot a group of cars on a side road and pull off, thinking it’s the campground. The group of tweaked-out backwoods rednecks, after telling us to watch out for cartels, and to stay out of the marijuana grows, gives us directions to a campsite in a couple miles. Righty-O.

Another beautiful, heart-racing downhill. I’m getting more comfortable letting the bike rip down 7% downhills. Hell’s Gate awaits us, turning out to be a lovely campground on the South Fork of the Trinity River. The river is full of crawdads, and Pacman fills up our three-liter pot with the teeny river lobsters. I catch only five because I’m afraid of those terrifying half-inch pincers.

Our campground neighbors are two retired guys on their yearly camping trip here, and they make room at their picnic table for some hiker trash. (In return, we make some room in their cooler…) We have a crawdad boil and cook dinner and laugh at how crazy this is, that we’re here, that we made it through the central valley, that we made it up the passes, that we made it down the passes too, that the PCT can be this too…

We fall asleep under the stars, straining our eyes for a glimpse of the Perseids meteor shower, but see only the full moon instead.

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Day 98: boot and rally, round two

Day 98
Miles: 11*
From the shoe tree to Beegum Creek

The night turned into a surprising and blessed cool one, and at the cusp of dawn, breeze across my face, it is perfect. Perfect for sleeping. Man, I do not want to get up. We need to get started soon though, because we need to get Pacman someplace he can recover.

He still feels terrible, weak. We ride two miles, then we have to stop. One mile, stop. Pacman has a flat. He lays on the ground, trying not to vomit, and J and I change it for him. Two miles, and there’s a tiny general store! Water! Shade!

The guy running the store wants nothing to do with three sweaty, homeless looking bicyclists. It doesn’t take a professional to know we’re not the real deal – no lycra clad road warriors here. Pacman warms him up for us somehow – he could butter up a nun if he wanted – and we sit on the porch and drink water. The thermometer rises from 79, to 80, to 89…

The guy tells us the river is dry, but there’s a spring fed creek before then. It’s at the bottom of the big climb up the mountain passes, and there’s a way to scramble down. No one will bother us there, he says. There will be a place to stash our bikes.

It’s not a hundred degrees yet. To Beegum Creek!

It’s just as promised, a cool, running creek underneath a bridge. We hide our bikes in the driveway down to the property next to the creek (right next to the keep out sign) and scramble down to the water. It’s beautiful. There’s a small sandy beach in the shade, and we lay in the creek till we’re cool, then lay down in the beach to nap, where we all sleep for hours.

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Nothing to do but relax, swim, read. We’re not going anywhere till Pacman feels better. This might be the first time this entire trip where I’ve felt completely relaxed, with no pressure to stop dilly dallying, to get back on the trail, to keep going, to go, to go, to go.

After Pacman wakes up from his nap, in the golden afternoon, he announces he’s going to build a dam and improve the swimming hole. “Ah,” I think. “We’re out of the woods. We’ll ride tomorrow.”

We swim, relax, and read till dark. The moon is nearly full, brilliant. I take off my clothes and slip into the water and float for a held-breath, hovering between black water and moonlit sky.

Tomorrow we ride.

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Day 96: a sore backside

Day 96
Miles: 75*
*bicycle miles
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.)

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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.

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Uphill, man

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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