Being car-free, I generally see my parents only once a year, despite them living less than 3 hours away when traveling by said vehicle. Given our remarkably pleasant “Winter” weather here in Southern California, I decided to make the trip up via bicycle. At first I mapped out a 400K route up Hwy 33, but when all my friends started posting about the Rapha Festive 500 challenge (completing 500K between December 23rd and December 31st), I thought, why not take the coastal route up? Being a randonneur, of course there was no question of stopping along the way…
After making a big Christmas dinner for 20, I washed my Yeti Arc-X, put on a new pair of brake pads, charged the batteries for my lights, and got ready to leave the next morning.
L.A. seemed as sleepy as I was with very few stores opened post-holiday. I enjoyed the unusual lack of traffic as I warmed up through the various communities that make up the San Fernando valley.
Following The Old Road up past Magic Mountain I turned sea-wards towards Ventura. The highway through Heritage Valley (Piru, Fillmore, Ventura) was a little rough, but scenic and fast (as long as I stayed off the rumble strip, the slipstream of the myriad semis and RVs helped me along. While there were still many rows of citrus and avacados, I noticed all the bell peppers that flanked the highway on my previous visit had been replaced by sod farms – turning much of the valley into a massive lawn. In Piru I stopped and bought three chocolate milks, dumping two into one of my water bottles – a strategy that worked so well I continued it for the rest of the trip:
Making good time without excessive effort, the weather largely clear and warm, I paused to take in the landmarks (such as the palacial grandeur of the Faulkner House) and even steal an overhanging orange or two along the way. I rode in and out of a light marine layer along the edge of the Pacific as I exchanged greetings with a few beach-combers picking their way along the railroad tracks next to the Emma Wood trail. Between Faria and Carpinteria, crowds of rotund RVers crouched around their hibachis on one side while super-fit surfers stripped off their wet-suits on the other – I raced through as if running a gauntlet of alternate universes. With little fanfare I passed through the nurseries of Summerland and the wildlife preserves of Santa Barbara before stopping once again to refuel and check in with my family. At this point it seemed the only suffering I would have to contend with was mild discomfort at being a touch overdressed for the weather (a balmy 65 degrees). I considered taking a more strenous detour up and over the Los Padres range…but then realized I was less than a third of the way into the ride.
The glare of the setting sun matched the din of freeway noise as I rode out of Goleta along the rollers of the 101. After a sustained climb into a headwind, I reached Solvang (and thanks to a wrong turn, Buellton) by nightfall and paused to fill my bottles once again. A young guy came up to ask me how I liked my SRAM Apex group and to wish me a safe journey, while the cashier (a warm cantankerous lady with a few missing teeth) told me she envied my youth as she used to be as active as I. These small interactions are more worth dwelling on than the few negative one’s – like the unhelpful honks or screams by passing motorists one grows as accustomed to as a duck does water.
As night fell, the temperature began to drop, but I remained cozy in my wool bib knickers and (product placement 😉 long sleeve jersey. I slowed down through Los Alamos, tempted by the aroma of pizza wafting out of a glowing store-front along the main drag (which resembles a Hollywood western set). Nearby you find some good climbs along the pitted tarmac of Drum Canyon or the smoother ascent of Foxen Canyon…but I headed straight for Hwy 135, aware that I was barely halfway to my destination.
Away from the city, the moon loomed overhead like a macabre set piece, the curve of it’s shadow like a malevolent smile. A rocket launch from Vandenberg would have been awe inspiring, but I made due with a couple shooting stars instead. Near Orcutt I got on Hwy 1 – this section is designated a coastal bike route, but the stretch from here to Pismo seemed especially treachorous thanks to the lack of shoulder, and frequent motorists and pot-holes. I hurried on to Guadalupe for another convenience store pit stop, perusing the hand-drawn Spanish flyers advertising rooms for rent or lost and found dogs while a nearby noisy drunken crowd made me happy that I would be well clear of any taverns closing at 2AM.
From Pismo Beach, I missed my turn, and spent half an hour in a mix of back-tracking and illegal freeway riding until I got back on route into San Luis Obispo. Here a car of teenagers followed me around heckling me unintelligably until I rode into some bushes to ditch them and make water. Back on the 101, my cue sheet led me onto some unpaved pitch black forest roads which branched off without any clear signage other than warnings about buried wires. Unsure of myself, I went back to the 101, and began the ascent of the Cuesta grade. As I spun up the hill, I noticed a small headlight on the shoulder not far behind, so I soft-pedaled for a few moments until another cyclist pulled up along side me. Late at night, feeling dispirited and facing a frigid climb (it had dropped into the low 30s now), this hardy commuter appeared like a ghostly apparition at just the right moment…for a second I wondered if I was hallucinating.
“Hey there, where you headed?” I inquired a little too eagerly.
“Well…just going home.”
Turns out this was his daily (or as is often the case, nightly) commute from SLO to Atascadero. We chatted briefly about directions, equipment (lights) and when I mentioned I had started my day about 15 or 16 hours earlier in L.A. he perked up right away and said he was also into long-distance riding. In fact, he had ridden The 508 solo.
“Hey, wait a minute…what’s your name?”
Even in my groggy state, I immediately realized this was Terry Lentz, overall winner of the Furnace Creek 508 race in 2010, when he finished in just over 29 hours while riding a “classic” (i.e. no post-1983 technology) bike no less. Talk about inspiration just when you need it! While 20+ years my senior, I knew I’d have to work to keep up with him once we crested the grade though on the way up he was content to chat amiably about everything from the specifics of the climb (2.3 miles, 6.6% grade) to memories of our departed mutual friend (Jim Swarzman). He bid me farewell as we exited the freeway in Santa Margarita where I found my way to Hwy 58. I paused to put on a jacket and consider one last time just what I was getting myself into, surrounded by nothing but the blanket of darkness pierced by stars and the glowing eyes of raccoons, skunks, possums, and other nocturnal companions.
A Sherriff drove by as I began to climb…the last vehicle to pass me for at least 50 miles.
I had filled one of my bottles with Frappacino, hoping the caffeine would power me through the wee hours in concert with the extended climbs which punctuate the rural roads out here in the boonies. This might have worked better had both of my bottles not frozen solid before I even crested Hwy 229. Here the road was a smooth ribbon of old asphalt, a single lane with no paint or reflectors anywhere to be seen. Civilization fell away and the temperature continued to drop down into the low 20s, then the teens. My machine protested, the cantilevers covered in ice and engaging with a horrible crackling sound, my spokes pinging in distress. The muscles in my eyes began to shiver and cramp strangely as ice seemed to form briefly in my tear ducts and my glasses fogged over. I cursed my cheap work gloves, my lack of liners, my lack of toe covers…could I make it to Shandon or even Creston (whose hidden dwellings make it more of an afterthought on a map than a real village) without frostbite? The visibility got worse and worse and I could only laugh at my predicament while my cadence dropped as my knee began to complain. From the 41 to the 46 it was as if I was in a fugue state, and when signs of life finally appeared once again, they seemed alien and hostile. A barn rose up as impenetrable as a shadow cast by stone ruins…near Cholame, where the long-haul truckers drive all night, the warm body of a freshly killed coyote steamed furiously as it came into view.
I had slowed to a crawl over the long final climbs where Hwy 41 goes in search of Hwy 33 outside of Reef Station, the landscape blank and dead except for bobbing oil derricks, the horizon smeared by the brilliant monotone exuded by various prisons, agricultural warehouses and light industry. The site was bleak but welcoming as it meant the worst of the danger was behind me. I slowly reeled in Avenal where I pulled off among the sprinklers to eat a Cliff bar, though the icy gnarled claws that were once my fingers couldn’t pry open the package. With less than 20 miles to go to Coalinga, I shifted into a higher gear and powered relentlessly along Lost Hills Rd until I crossed into the city limits and on into my parent’s neighborhood, pulling up at their front door around 6:15AM.
So 311 miles, solo, non-stop from the greatest of ease to the most dire of discomfort – nerve damage and saddle sores aside – going out with my parents to the store or for an enormous restaurant meal, I can hear the mixture of embarrassment and pride as they describe my journey to their bewildered acquaintances, and that’s reward enough.
Below are a few more photos from my journey; if you like, you can also peruse a map of my route.