The Big Sur

Saturday, April 19th

It had rained the night before, leaving unsettled weather ahead of us. The sky, though still the usual California blue, was covered with clouds, as I got my bike together. Panniers, loaded the night before, slipped on the bike easily, and I tried the bike loaded. Now, I've been riding the All-Rounder all year as a commuter bike, and seldom had trouble with it. Yet the bike felt a little wobbly as I stood up on it, and I chalked that up to lack of time spent on a loaded bike. Last year had felt the same way, but I quickly got over the problem.

Scarlet had also packed her bike, and was busy playing with the fit. "For some reason, this bike fit well last year," she said, "but I've been increasingly dissatisfied with the fit." We compared bikes. I lifted hers, and she tried to lift mine. "Ugh. You're carrying way too much!" "I can still lift it!" "It's doesn't matter-you're still carrying too much." "Well, you can carry the tent if you're feeling sorry for me." "Yeah right, Piaw. It'll take a lot for me to feel sorry for you-you'd have to be pregnant."

Radek was uncharacteristically late. He'd made some mention of bringing his trailer, a cast iron frying pan, and a lawn-chair in previous conversations. Carrying space on a long wheel-base short front-wheel recumbent is limited, so I assumed he wasn't joking about the trailer, but a last minute dose of sanity towards the other inventory items was not out of the question.

When he finally showed up, he had indeed left both of the more monstrous items at home. He was probably joking in the first place. A couple of photographs, and off we were. Riding away from my house felt a little strange, but then again, Saratoga seemed like the perfect place to start a trip down the coast. Over the last couple of years, I'd completed various portions of the pacific coast-Washington, parts of British Columbia, Oregon, and the section from Eureka to San Francisco last year, which was my birthday trip. I was actually planning to do Saratoga to Santa Barbara as my birthday trip this year, but last year's trip went so well that it inspired Scarlet to talk me into doing the trip earlier, as her birthday trip instead.

Pre-trip planning was the usual hash. I brought up the idea to Radek, who'd chosen not to come along for my trip last year because of work reasons, and he suggested completing the loop by riding back through the central valley. Scarlet could only take a week off, though, so we planned the second half of the trip without her. A couple of others were supposed to come along, but in the end what with one reason or another, none but the three of us showed up to start this ride. Not that this was much of a surprise for me-I was surprised that I didn't end up doing the whole thing by myself, which was happened last year, as well as 1994.

Highway 9 is a road I've climbed multiple times-back when I had a different job, it was part of a commute route for me. Instead of familiarity breeding contempt, however, each ride up highway 9 has been a continual delight. Smooth climbs going up, and fast descents going down, highway 9 is one of those roads that are just perfect for when you have only an hour to ride.

With loaded touring bikes, the climb took the better part of two hours to climb, but not before a short stop in Saratoga to buy water bottles (Radek forgot his) and fix my fenders and racks happened. I'd inadvertently stripped the threads in one of my rack braze-ons, and this would come back to haunt us later, but for the moment, we were all glad to be off. I headed up 9 at a fair pace in the hope of getting a picture of my companions as they crested the hill, but of course, Radek stuck his tongue out at the camera when I actually photographed him.


The descent down the other side was not nearly as familiar, but I was still threading on known territory. Fast sweeping descents gave way to steeper slopes and switch-backs as I worked my way down towards the coast. After what seemed like a long while, we finally stopped at Boulder Creek to remove the warm gear. The weather had taken become fairly warm, usually a sign of high humidity and possible impending rain. We ate more food and made our way towards downtown Santa Cruz for lunch at the bagel place before heading towards New Brighton State Beach, where we would spend the night.

Two of Radek's friends, Carl and Kim were in town. Both Carl and Kim used to live in Santa Cruz, and were forced to move to San Bernardino for Kim's career (Kim is a ranger in the California state parks), and they missed the Bay Area horribly. "When we first moved down there, every time we visited Santa Cruz, we'd have to go back to this restaurant or that restaurant, because we missed it so much." Ironically, just as they had gotten used to San Bernardino, Kim acquired enough seniority that she could requisition a better location to live in (Wilder Ranch, New Brighton, or any of the local state beaches or parks).

Carl had been one of Radek's friends since Radek showed up in the US more than 15 years ago. It gave me a chance to confirm that Radek had gotten weirder as the years went by. Carl and Radek entertained us with stories of their college years at UC Santa Cruz, complete with Pakistani roommates and "Marmite" spread on toast. Carl and Radek had done this trip that we were about to do some years back, and Radek could remember one of the windy days: "You were behind me cursing every inch of those 15 miles we rode that day."

Sunday, April 20th

We'd stayed up fairly late the night before, and got up at about 8 in the morning. The thing about the three of us is that I think we reinforced each other's tendencies to putz around all day and not go anywhere. By myself, guilt would probably get me up and about early, and once I'm up, I'd have to run around and get moving to avoid being cold. Sharing a tent with Radek, I had a tendency to wake up, sit up and stare at him and realize that he was asleep, and go right back to sleep since he was asleep. In turn, he would get up, stare at me being asleep, and then go right back to sleep. I'm not sure if Scarlet got up, looked around and realized that both of us weren't getting out of our tents, but she could easily have had the same tendency.

It was probably around 10 before we got out of the camp. It could easily have been 11. The same pattern would engulf us on the whole trip. It was another bright sunny day, and the ride to Monterey was only about 40 miles or so. The ride itself was uneventful, though we had to stop a couple of times to fix fenders. We had bad luck with fenders throughout this trip, with fenders falling off the Scarlet's bike, and those on my bike had caused my mechanical ineptitude to strip the threads off the rack eyelet.

The trip took us past city, alongside a pleasant beach, and then through boring roads that went along farmland. For some reason, every time we ran into a stop light, Radek would sail past it on a green, and just as the rest of us were getting to the light, it would turn red on us. I eventually solved that problem by running a light, but seeing a police car drive the other way right after I had done so made me change my mind about trying to solve that problem. We rode into Moss Landing. Moss Landing was a town whose main feature seemed to be a huge power-plant with lots of smoke stacks. When I was taking sailing lessons, I was taught to navigate the Monterey bay through the use of significant landmarks, and Moss Landing's smoke stacks were one of the most prominent and easy to locate spots. Up close, however, they were ugly and I was glad to put them behind me.

The sky was overcast as we rode into Monterey, but as we winded about city streets towards Vet's Memorial Park, the sun came out again. This was quite obviously because to reach Vet's Memorial required a steep one mile climb. Vet's Memorial State Park is a beautiful park, and that showers were free really made it a big plus in my book. The real deal for me about Monterey, however, was The Fishwife, a seafood restaurant in Pacific Grove. Known throughout Monterey and probably the Bay Area as one of the finest seafood restaurants in the area, I'd gotten the name of the restaurant from a local B&B owner in 1992, and always tried to make it there every time I was in Monterey. From its reputation, you might think that it's an expensive fancy restaurant, but you'd be wrong, since the price was reasonable, and the restaurant perfectly suited for riding to. It simply had really good food.

The ride back was filled with golden sunshine and lovely views of the bay, and without a load, the climb back to Vet's Memorial Park was not steep at all.

Monday, April 21st

The morning started up badly, as I packed everything into my panniers. As I put Totoro back into panniers I had trouble packing him in, and so I said, "Get in there you fat thing!" Scarlet caught that and said, "hey, isn't that an awfully disrespectful thing to say to him?" Apparently, Totoro thought so too, for the sky immediately clouded up, and as we pulled out of the park it started to drizzle. Out came the rain-covers. "OK, OK, I take back everything I said about you, Totoro."

At this point, I have to explain that I bring Totoro on every bike trip I go on because every time I have left him at home, it has rained a lot. I left him behind on my Scotland trip, and it just rained every day. The theory is if you piss off Totoro, he'll make it rain on you every inch of the ride.

I came as no particular surprise, then that as we pulled into Carmel, the sky cleared up and the sun came back. "Wow, the people at Carmel must pay extra for good weather." "Nah.. Must be because I apologized to Totoro." "Maybe they have an army of Totoros at the border keeping away the bad weather." I shuddered to consider what an army of Totoros might do if they really got pissed off.

I'd offered to pay for breakfast, so we found ourselves at the Americana Café, and ate and ate. I ordered two breakfasts because I was so hungry, and the others did not hold back, either. By the time we left the Café, it was noon, and we headed off in search of a grocery store.

A visit to Point Lobos State Preserve. Chris Harrington had told me about the park years ago, back in 1992, and I'd come back here often, taking a period of several years to explore as much of it as I could on foot. I remembered walking some trails along the hillside with my parents, spotting deer from a distance, and a gleaming ocean below… A trip at Whaler's cove with the co-ops, getting to know each other, I jump up along a log and walk along it "Piaw's just like a kid," says Mark… Walking among the rock trails with Christina, "look," she said, pointing at a pair of rocks, "they look like they're kissing…" Game after game of cards in the van because it was raining outside…

And then it was ride onwards down the coast. Expensive houses along beautiful gullies slowly gave way to wide open cliffs and bridges, followed by vistas that simply took your breath away:

A tailwind was blowing, and while I was riding with it with the sun visible, I was comfortably warm, but a ride into the fog or with a side wind and I would suddenly wish I wasn't riding in shorts and a light jersey. Yet another second later I'd be almost too warm.

This is one of my favorite parts of the coast, the other being the gorgeous Mendocino coast. Yet while Mendocino is beautiful because of its intimacy and immediacy, Big Sur is majestic, expansive, and distant. You can approach it, but you could never get close to it or come close to a full understanding of its vastness. I'd driven Big Sur before, but on a bicycle, the vastness takes over, and each time you turn a corner and see how much more distance both in front and behind you it takes up, you really feel like an insignificant piece of the scenery-Big Sur could not care less if you disappeared tomorrow.

After the trip, I would show pictures of the Big Sur area to local folk, and once in awhile, someone would say to me, "Yeah, I know where that is!" It was all I could do to stop myself from saying, "No you don't. You might know where it is located, but the emotional distance will be denied you if you were just driving."

The combination of fog clawing away at the coastal hills and the sheer range of what I was seeing just took it all away for me. I remember cycling mile after mile in joy, exuberance, and then sheer ecstasy, as the hill after Bixby Creek Bridge gave way to a descent with a tailwind with no traffic. I took the primary lane of the road, feet spinning as I heard the hum of my tires on the road. I must have been going thirty, thirty five miles per hour, but could hear no wind rushing past my ears-the tailwind was so strong.

Too quickly, we were at Andrew Molera State Park, the designated stop for the night. The wind would howl all night, disturbing our sleep, and then annoyingly stop just as we were leaving for a ride.

Tuesday, April 22nd

Leaving Andrew Molera State Park, we rode into the vicinity of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The Big Sur region and the accompanying Ventana Wilderness has been the training grounds for my family's camping and backpacking trips; until we had become comfortable with camping and backpacking, we returned to this area year after year to get ourselves used to carrying backpacks, dealing with unknown water supplies, and just getting used to camping. The wilderness itself is not particularly beautiful, and I remember some painful long hikes when we ran out of water before reaching the campsite, an event that caused me to buy a water filter for the next trip.

Riding through the redwoods brought back another rash of memories-in this café, Minh, Jon, my brother, Jason and I spent a morning eating in the warmth, watching the rain outside come in waves... From that parking lot, Kari and I walked in towards the Sykes Hot Springs, him with harmonica in hand, and I prompting him for songs we both knew (someone would flatter us by wondering if someone had brought a radio into the wilderness)… It's funny how places trigger memories, and they all layer on top of one another, and here I am again, adding yet another layer of memories, emotions, and feelings to it-even if I never rode this road again, I'd remember the ride.

A climb up to the top of the hill after Big Sur Station, and then a quick descent. I stopped at the café and tourist trap known as Nepente, intending to step out the balcony to take pictures, and Scarlet followed suit. Unfortunately, Radek didn't see her, and kept going. So once again we were in a position of having to chase. The scenery was really too nice to ride with your head down, however, and soon I was off the bike here and there to take photographs. A moment later, I heard "shit!" from down the road. Scarlet's bike had dropped a fender again.

Climbs, descent, climbs, descent, and even a mild head wind, then finally, Radek. I was finally in unfamiliar territory, and it started to feel like a tour rather than a ride through a country I knew and loved.

A stop in Lucia, and we had to decide to keep going to San Simeon State Beach or to stay at Kirk Creek campground. San Simeon would take another 40 miles past Kirk Creek, and I was feeling too tired to want to keep riding on, so I asked for a stop at Kirk Creek campground.

Kirk Creek campground is a beautiful campground, with beach views from the campsites, and one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen. It was satisfying to sit there and watch the play between the light, the waves, the rocks, and the water. But then dark clouds rolled in, and I was shivering cold and had to dress up.

It was also at Kirk Creek campground where we met Tony, and Irish schoolteacher who had a policy of taking a year off every four or five years of work to go cycling. Tony had a great sense of humor, as we found out later, and had spent the last 6 months in New Zealand enjoying the country. When asked about that, he'd say that you'd need to spend that much time to see the country, and that the weather was quite unpredictable, much like the British Isles.

It turned out that Kirk Creek Campground was run by a private organization, and pretty soon, the campground host came by to help us register. He chatted with us about Big Sur, how big it was (as many campsites as Yosemite National Park, and packed bumper to bumper during the summer), how from Kirk Creek you couldn't get any radio or TV reception to speak of, and how he didn't think it was going to rain that night.

Wednesday, April 23rd

The day started slowly with a late start and a series of rolling hills past Kirk Creek Campground. Pacific Valley, the town that was supposed to be a few miles past Kirk Creek Campground, was actually a resort that burnt down a year or so ago, and so was empty and desolate. But after the first hill, the wind picked up and blew us right past some construction.

At the top of the hill I felt something wrong, and stopped. Sure enough, given that I had stripped the thread on the dropout, the bolt attaching the rack to the bottom right dropout had worked loose. If not for the fact that I had taped the bolt to the rack, I would have lost the bolt too. Nothing to do now but to thread the bolt through a nut on the other side, changing my seven speed to a six. Radek helped by adjusting the deraileur so it wouldn't shift into the twelve tooth cog and jam between the bolt and the sprocket.

As we made our way down the coast, the wind simply got stronger and stronger. This made the climbs a joy. At one point, Radek and I stopped pedaling, and the wind just accelerated us up the hill. "Wow, this must be what it's like when you're Eric House," I said. The road wasn't entirely straight of course, so this made for some scary moments when negotiating a hairpin, and some painful moments when climbing out of a gully as the road wound around the last remaining hills of Monterey County.

A stop at Ragged Point, where we ate and rested, and then a fast ride down flat roads with the wind pushing us along, and tugging at us whenever we decided to stop.

We passed long beaches where Sea Lions laid on the beach, molting. I considered getting off the bike to take a picture, but every time I slowed down, the wind would blow sand from the beach into my face or legs, and I thought better of it and kept going. Soon enough, we passed San Simeon, where the search for grocery stores proved to us that tourist traps simply do not have stores with a decent selection of pasta, bread, or anything else at a good price. We made do with what we could find, and then made our way to San Simeon State Beach.

San Simeon State Beach was a good place to camp, except for the hiker-biker site. The site had obviously not been mowed this spring, with grass coming all the way up to our knees. Pushing bikes through that was pretty rough, but we were heartened by the presence of other cycle tourists-Tony and Stan, the German cycle tourist. All I remember is that it was his intention to ride to San Diego and then do the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail from South to North, which is not an easy route by any stretch of the imagination.

Sitting in the wind got pretty wearing, though, and Radek, Scarlet and I proceeded to move to a regular campsite behind some bushes, which gave us protection from the wind and set up camp.

It was the first night we had significant condensation inside the tents, and both Radek and I got our sleeping bags slightly wet the next morning.

Thursday, April 24th

Another slow, lazy day as we turned inland with a gentle tailwind through Cambria. Rolling hills, farmland, and easy riding in general greeted us as we rode through towns with names like Harmony, Cayucos, and Morro Strand along Highway 1. The Highway wasn't very interesting, though the views of some of the lighthouses as well as tall grass near the cliffs by the sea waving in the wind was beautiful. You could never capture that kind of scenery in photographs, however.

My bike's wobble had gotten worse, and I was determined to get it fixed if possible. Radek had suffered a broken axle on one of the wheels on his trailer, and Scarlet wanted to get her sunglasses, which Michael had mailed to San Luis Obispo (via general delivery). We were destined, therefore, to head into the town of San Luis Obispo for the services it could provide.

But first, lunch in Morro Bay, where we had sandwiches or fish and chips while watching Morro Rock through the window of a restaurant. "Strange," said Radek, "it's a lot less romantic now…" "Uh… Look who you're with." "That's right-first time I was here it was with my girlfriend and it was foggy and misty and beautiful. That rock looks less pretty in the bright sunshine." "It's also prettier further away…"

Into Los Osos we went, and onto Los Osos Valley road and then into San Luis Obispo. Temperatures rose as we rode away from the Ocean, and traffic steadily intensified. By the time we got into San Luis Obispo, it felt a little warm, and were quite annoyed by the city traffic. It wasn't bad, though, compared to the Silicon Valley or San Francisco, and it wasn't too hard to find the one bike shop in town as well as the main office.

The shop could not fix my problem (a brinelled headset was the diagnosis), and sold Radek an axle that we would discover to be incompatible with the Burley trailer's rear wheel. We rode on to Pismo Beach and Grover City, where we would stay at the hiker biker site. I found out from another cyclist there that Ian's Bike Shop would probably be willing to fix my problem for me. I got directions into Arroyo Grande, and then rode there as quickly as I could after dumping all my gear at the hiker biker site.

Unfortunately, in all my hurry I dropped my wind-shell, a Pearl Izumi wind-breaker that had been with me for 5 years and was so old that all the logos were rubbed off. When I finally arrived at Ian's Bike Shop, I found myself in a shop packed end to end with bicycles, and a couple of people standing behind the counter. The shop had the smell of an old-fashioned place, and I talked to Ian about my problems. "Well, I don't have time to fix it right now, but if you come by tomorrow at 9, I'll open early for you and we can have you rolling out in half an hour." That was the best deal I'd heard, so I went back to the park to mourn the loss of my jacket.

The sunset, however, was gorgeous:

Walking along the beach with Tony and the Stan, I couldn't help but think how lucky I was.

After a shower, I found that Radek and Scarlet had prepared dinner. Tony and Stan were sharing a stove, since Tony's Coleman had broke. This was a stove meant to burn methyl spirits (marine gas), not white gas, but all Tony had was white gas, and so they proceeded to light the stove with that. "It's going to put on a show," said Tony. We stared on, skeptical. There wasn't a lot of gas involved.

But sure enough, a finger of flame poked through between the lip of the stove and the pot. "Ah…" we said. "Oh no, it's not there yet. It's only playing with us," cried Tony. I munched on my spaghetti. The finger of flame grew broader, shrank back into the stove, and then poked out again. And then shot right up, engulfing the entire pot! Radek stepped up and moved the branches above us out of the line of fire. "My goodness, you're going to burn the campground down!" remarked somebody. Peter quickly capped the stove off after removing the pot, putting the stove out. I guess dinner was ready.

Who says you need TV to be entertained?!

Friday, April 25th

Up at 7am, for the very first time in a while. This was the earliest we'd gotten up for the trip, but I really wanted that wobble out of the bike. Breakfast of granola with Radek. (Tony would say to us, "Forget eating that garbage, eat chocolate for breakfast!") And then a hard ride to Ian's bike shop.

I got there a bit early, and had to wait awhile before Ian showed up. We laid the bike down and stared at the headset. "Hm.. It looks like someone had already done what I wanted to do-see, you've got the bearings in a retainer on the top, and loose bearings at the bottom. And I don't see any sign of brinelling, either." "Hm… That's scary." "Don't worry, we'll get it fixed." He fiddled about with the bearings, and then put a couple more inside and screwed the headset in. "I'm guessing that all the weight pressing down on the headset is causing the bearings to spread out at the bottom, causing the bearings to behave like they were brinelled. Extra bearings should help. Ride it and see."

I rode the bike around the lot, and it did feel a lot better. Not all the wobble was gone, however, and I would only discover after I got back home that it was because the rear wheel's spokes were pulling out of the rim, causing the wheel to be out of round, which caused the front shimmy. I still have a lingering suspicion that the headset is pitted too.

"No way to find out for sure except to ride it!" "Yeah. You should make it back, though, no problem." "What do I do if I find that the problem persists?" "Ride it until you get back, and then replace it with a Chris King or Stronglight."

Radek and Scarlet showed up, and Ian sold him the right axle this time.

With all the fiddling about that we had to do, it was almost eleven before we left Arroyo Grande, and then we made our way along various roads around Nipomo before entering Santa Maria, where we would enter highway 101 and ride along on it until we got to Buelton, where we would get off and head to Solvang, where we would stay for the night.

On paper, it looked like a good route-highway 101 would save us as much as 10 miles of cycling, and highways are mostly flat. Unfortunately, the freeway was also mostly very noisy, and had no shade for all of those 20 miles. Once I got on the freeway, I basically kept pedaling on and on until I got to Los Alamos (the locals joke about how this is where the atom bomb was tested, says Radek, and looking around, one could see how this could be the case), and then it was more monotonous riding till I got to the Buelton exit, where I discovered that I had a flat.

I laid the bike down in the one shady spot I saw, and proceeded to replace the inner tube. Not long after, a jeep came off the freeway and onto the shoulder-a California beach boy looked out at me and said, "you ok, dude? I'm going to Santa Barbara if you need a ride." I must say that in my then current state of mind, the offer was awfully tempting, but I asked how far the others were behind me instead, and he said "10/15 minutes." I told him that I was fine, and thanks for stopping.

I'd just put the wheel back in the bike when the others arrived, and then it was off the freeway and into the welcome shade.

Solvang was a horrid tourist trap, and we ended up staying at a motel along the main stretch. The evening was non-descript, with Radek and I taking Scarlet out to dinner for her birthday, and the three of us doing laundry and all the other stuff the cyclists do when they finally stay in a motel instead of camping.

Can you spot all three bikes in this picture?

Saturday, April 26th

The day started normally, looking for breakfast, coffee (for the others), and then leaving town at 10am. It was already burning hot by the time we got to Lake Cachuma, and the road and unrelenting sun made us all feel like we were roasting slowly in an oven.

A woman a couple of days ago had told us to take the Old Stagecoach road up San Marcos Pass rather than follow along the main highway, but when the time came for us to make the turnoff, we realized that Old Stagecoach road would add a few more hundred feet of climbing to what was already promising to be a very hot climb. If it was shaded, that might not have been too bad, but it wasn't possible to see from where we were whether the side road was shaded.

Things being as they were, Radek decided to take the old road, while Scarlet and I opted for the shorter distance and climb. The climb wasn't as bad as it could have been, all things considered-the temperatures were high, but there wasn't a tailwind that would make the air still around you. I wouldn't have called the climb pleasant, but it wasn't as bad as I expected.

However, by the time I'd gotten to the top of San Marcos pass, I had had enough. Riding back in the central valley wouldn't be any different from the last two days riding in the Santa Ynez valley, and the addition of a head wind would simply rub salt into the wound. Taking a flight back from Santa Barbara seemed more and more like the thing to do.

The descent was fast, rocky, rough and furious, but no less warm than the climb, and by the time we reached bottom I had made up my mind. So I took my leave of Radek, and rode down to the airport with Scarlet where I booked a plane ticket for the next day.

The rest of the trip was routine.


The total repair bills came out to be more than five hundred dollars. I'm still not convinced that the bike works well as a touring bike, however, since I still occasionally feel the shimmy when I have a rear end load. There's no easy to way to tell without putting a load on the bike and going touring, but I'm always going to be suspicious of this bike from now on.