There are some habits that are really hard to break, especially as we age and maybe get a tad set in our ways. Until, that is, something happens, a defining moment or experience that changes the way that we do things forever.
Take books for example. Until my late 30’s I would doggedly read from cover to cover every book that I started, even if I hated it, I felt compelled to finish. And I read a lot of books. The experience that changed that for me was Crime and Punishment.I had been reading my way through ‘the classics’ when I encountered Mr Dostoevsky’s famous tale of guilt and morality. But, try as I might I really really didn’t like it, I was frustrated and bored but I ploughed through that puppy to the end because I had told myself I must. My set of internal rules said I Must. Read. Every. Word.
This time however, when the final page had been turned I asked myself why?
Did I have other books to read? Yes.
Would I ever reclaim those hours of my life spent slogging through the text? No
Did I enjoy it? Emphatic No!
So why on earth didn’t I just stop??
A rare monent of enlightment followed, illuminating the fact that apart from the knowledge that I am a prize idiot, I didn’t need to keep reading.
Since that epiphany I have discontinued many a bad novel, my litmus test being the question. “Would I be sad if someone stole the book right now and I didn’t know how it ended?” If the answer is no, then it gets ditched. It’s liberating. Over the last few years I’ve also travelled along the same ‘Road to Damascus’ in terms of cycle touring too.
Nine years ago, to near on the day, I was following the exact same route I am traveling now, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) down the U.S west coast.
Nine years ago, after travelling from Toronto to Vancouver by bike, lacking any better plan or inspiration, I got on a ferry to Vancouver Island and began cycling South. First to Seattle in Washington and then joining the PCH bike route near Aberdeen, riding down the coast through Oregon and the whole of California to finish in San Diego by the Mexican border.
It’s a much promoted route to and amongst cycle tourists and motorists alike with it’s stunning views of the Pacific coast and beaches as well as winding inland through the towering Redwood forests. It also takes in iconic landmarks such as the Big Sur and Golden Gate Bridge as well as LA, Malibu and Monterey.
My predominant memory however was of what a tough route it was. Physically it’s very demanding as those sea views come with a price, dropping down into and climbing out of hundreds of bays as well as some steep 1000 foot+ climbs (the official height of a mountain). In total, depending on how your ride it, you can expect to cover over 1800 miles and gain 50,000+ feet of elevation.
It’s tough too due to the terrain, yes it’s on tarmac but that can range from dedicated bike paths to car-clogged highways or, worse, small, busy roads with zero shoulder, which wind up the side of cliffs, the only barrier between you and the thundering surf hundreds of feet below being a few blades of grass and the odd yellow traffic sign inviting drivers to ‘Share the road’ with bikes. Not always successful judging by the number of small memorial crosses and bunches of flowers.
Nine years ago I rode the entire route, stubbornly insisting on cycling every foot of the way. Did I enjoy it? In part, but not overwhelmingly. I was exhausted, I was scared, focusing on not being hit by cars meant I couldn’t focus on the views, campgrounds were scare in some areas meaning long days and some cold nights as winter closed in.
Nine years later I’m back again and, when contemplating our route, I seem to have had a ‘Crime and Punishment’ style epiphany. I no longer have to ride it all! Released from this obligation, as we motor away from Bend, we decide to head down towards the Pacific Coast and drive some of the route instead.
First destination is the magnificent Avenue Of the Giants, a 31 mile drive through some of oldest, largest groves of Redwood trees on the continent. A route I had previously cycled.
We stay in several campsites, our tent dwarfed by the cathedral like vaulting of these ancient trees.
I even pose for pictures in the same ‘Drive through’ tree in Myers Flat that I pushed my bike through nearly a decade ago and I look in fear and awe at the narrowness and gradient of the roads I tackled back then. There are still cycle tourists riding through but somehow, being on a bike, you don’t realise how small and vulnerable you look (or are) compared to other road users. I feel a small twinge of regret not to be cycling but it doesn’t linger as the road gets choked by construction works and large trucks.
Because of the narrow nature of the road we decide to hold off on heading for the coast and continue inland instead through miles of vineyards, all pleasingly neat, endless rows of vines, to the pretty town of Santa Rosa. After making sure we the sample the produce from both the wine growers and Russian River Brewery on route we finish our road trip in Oakland, handing back the monster truck of which Mike has become quite fond.
As we unpacked our bikes in the parking lot at Thrifty it was with a smile (from us) and strange looks from the staff as we finally got back on 2 wheels.
The traditional PCH route into San Francisco is via the Golden Gate Bridge, this time though we played it differently opting for an exhilarating ride across the bay by jet-ferry. The boat gave us magical, panoramic views across the bay and 25 hair-blowing minutes later we coasted under the Oakland bridge, right into Fisherman’s Wharf, riding off the jetty into the heart of the city.
I love San Francisco and have visited a number of times, it was still a thrill however to ride a different route right through the centre of town passing, imposing tourist and government buildings, riding alongside tram cars, thorugh quirky colourful wooden houses all decked out for Halloween and finally through Golden Gate Park with its pavement art, public pianos and acres of bike paths.
After leaving the city the route turned along the coast with sweeping ocean views and sweeping dunes of sand, blown across the road and obscuring the shoulder -this was the tense time I remember from before, dodging traffic, glimpsing views.
Over the following days the riding continued in this vein, wonderful bike path interchanging with busy highway or fighting for space on shoulder-less single lane.
There is more bike path than I remember, which may be beacuse it’s been freshly built or may be due to the fact I didn’t have any maps for chunk of the previous trip so tended to follow the highway. It means we see new sights which is a treat but I’m also delighted that some things haven’t changed including my memory of a bakery-cafe in Davenport, the first pit stop after a long stretch of bare coast. Cresting a hill I spot the same cafe I stopped in nearly a decade ago, the owners have changed it seems but the cakes are every bit as good.
The other constant is the wildlife, in abundance. We’ve been treated to a rainbow of different birds, most I can’t begin to name but include gulls herons and Pelicans. Seals and sea lions also bask on rocks whilst tide pools teem with sea life. Campsites too continue to be filled with fauna, deer, squirrels, even wild turkeys whilst the wooden food-storage lockers attract everything from earwigs to skunks to very resourceful racoons.
I am also amazed that the camping price hasn’t changed in 9 years. In most of the state parks (in which we camp) hiker/biker sites are still only $5 for which you get a misty view of the ocean and some of the most striking sunsets.
Reaching one campsite after a long day in the saddle, we were delighted to find 2 other sets of cycle tourists all on their first day of riding.
We swapped the usual notes/information, the others it seemed were on a strict schedule, aiming for 60 mile days. They seemed surprised and somewhat wistful that we’d opted to ride a mere 25 miles the following day, prefering to relax and take in the sights.
Those wistful looks were even more apparant the next morning as we waved off both parties for their long day riding, one woman in particular was looking very unhappy at the prospect, but the group had a plan and were sticking to it.
Tucking into pancakes and coffee, I watched them ride off with the ghost of my previous cycling self sat on my shoulder.
That was me, 9 years ago, riding relentlessly long distances when I didn’t want to, just because I thought I should.
Now, after finally seeing the light (realising I was a twit), I’ve given myself permission to stop, slow down, to take a car or a bus, no longer do I have to ride every inch of the way. New me also has pancakes to finish and a campsite with a sauna waiting for me just 25 miles down the road. New me is pretty pleased about that.
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Thanks on this leg go to people who brightened the way including Carolyn, Tim, Ryder, Keith, John, Susan and Ranger.
Featured image photo dedicated to Andy who loved big air of all kinds.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.