Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Saturday 20 November 2010

In a Big Sur state of mind

A lot is written about Big Sur.

An awful lot.

A lot is said about it too.

When people found out that we were cycling down the US west coast almost without exception they asked, "Are you going down Big Sur?" Sometimes this question would be followed by a tale, their eyes would light up, their face would become all aglow and they would tell us about the time they too went down Big Sur. Sometimes they had travelled in an open top car, sometimes they had gone by motorbike, occasionally they had gone by bike. "It's beautiful", "It's awesome", "It's stunning" - that was the sort of thing they said.

Waxing lyrical (or lyrical-ish) about this sparsely populated, slightly undefined mountainous region where the Santa Lucia range bursts straight out of the Pacific was clearly de rigueur. Shortly before actually hitting this mythical and fabled section of the road I decided to look it up in the guidebook. This gave it the grandest write up of all. It described Big Sur as 'a state of mind'.
Holy Cow! A state of mind? Now I was really intrigued. I anticipated epiphanies, nirvanas and visions or becoming so completely at one with nature that I would roll over its peaks and troughs on some kind of blissed out plane.

We were pretty blissed out as the journey began. A night of delicious comfort care of Walt and Lynn Dwelle in their glorious Pebble Beach home, where the banter and welcome had been as glorious as the twinkly blue sea view, had left us very chipper indeed. We weaved our way back to the main road through uber-glam Carmel with its chic shops, sunkissed residents and ridiculously steep hills. We stopped at Safeway and bought supplies, we bumped into some Aussie cyclists and laughed and joked, we lunched barefoot at a soft yellow sand bay and paddled in a sea the magical colour of Sunday paper travel supplement waters and re-mounted our bikes with a warm glow in our hearts.

We were content and in a very relaxed state of mind.

And state of mind on this trip has often proved to be very important. Some days everything seems doable, some days everything seems hard. The same road can be a wonderland or a nightmare depending on how we view it. Just as Phil described in his last blog how the weather and the consequent experience over two days can be as diametrically opposed as it is possible to describe, so can two states of mind and the resulting feeling.

And so it proved as we launched into Big Sur. The full length of the suddenly very cliff hugging Highway 1 through this stretch is a bit over 90 miles. Too much for one day, no obvious half way point. So, after a late start from Pebble Beach we had decided to do a third on the first day and two thirds on the second. That meant that we were extremely calm about only having to journey about 35 miles in total that day. We would make it through the last towns before Big Sur and get through a decent portion of it.  It is always when you are a bit casual about the distance that you get caught out. Shortly after leaving our lunch spot our 'easy' day took a rather different turn.

We were hit by headwind. Stonking relentless headwind that slowed us to a revolting near stop. We were also being pursued by a storm. The sky greyed over, the temperature dropped and so the wind was not only reducing us to a glacial speed it was also chilling us to the bone.

The much touted Big Sur began and we could do very little waxing lyrical. The wind made looking ahead hard because you had to squeeze your eyes to a narrow slit in order to reduce the volume of involuntary crying. The wind made the cliff side drama pretty scary since it made us wobble rather on the hairy precipices. The wind made hanging out and looking at the view impossible since we were so cold.

The other twist in the state of mind state is that when you begin in one frame of mind and then the day doesn't meet your expectations the effect can be to plunge you to the other extreme with real violence.

And so, as the light began to fade and our hands turned to ice we spiralled from super relaxed to super exhausted. We were weary, fed up and hacked off.

To make matters worse, as we struggled into the rambling habitations of the town of Big Sur the first place we tried to stay had been filled with a thirty strong group of blue lycra clad road cyclists who had passed us earlier in the day. Unloaded, on whizzy bikes and catching each others' competitive draft advantage, they had sped in before us and were drinking beer and pointing at us through the windows of their cozy hotel. Grrrrrrr.

We finally made it to a motel. It was over priced but we had ceased to care. We slunk into our room, our egos battered and filled with proper fear that if the weather kept up there was simply no way we would make it through nearly seventy miles the next day, a day filled with some of the biggest climbs of the whole pacific coast.

Our mood was further ruined by some internet investigation later that night. Our Canadian cycling buddies Dee and Garth (they of quite serious road biking pasts) who were a few days ahead of us up the road had posted a blog about the exact route we were taking the following day. They had faced revolting conditions and it had taken them seven hours of continous biking to make the route. They, who usually made infinitely better time than us, had had their slowest journey of the trip. It had rained the whole way and they had struggled to see anything.

Now, this was not good news. If it had taken them seven hours the odds were it was going to take us a LOT longer. It would be one of the longest day distances of the trip for us, there were five big climbs to slow us down, the wind was predicted to be in our faces and there was a serious chance of rain. I calculated that based on the speed we had been doing at the end of the day it was going to take us nine hours on the bikes. That was an hour and a half longer than we had ever done (and believe me anything above about five and half ceases to be particularly funny) and would, with a lunch stop, take up all the available light.

We resigned ourselves to the fact that making it was unlikely. This would mean finding a very rustic campsite somewhere since there really weren't any towns for nearly seventy miles. All, all bad.
So we went to bed in a very unrelaxed state of mind. We decided we would give it our best shot and go as soon as it was light at about 8am. We tried to sleep.

I have found throughout this trip that when the day ahead is going to present a really serious challenge, be it a huge climb, a scary road, a very long distance, I cannot wait to get on with it. It is like the night before an exam. I want the sleeping to be out of the way so that I can start. And so that night I saw 2am, 3am, 4am, 5am, 6am before finally leaping out of the bed, jaw set at 7am raring to get underway.

As soon as we were ready, we launched straight into the first big climb.

One hour and four miles later we were at the top. It wasn't raining and the wind, whilst not in our favour, was only mildly blowing.

We pushed on. And on, and on. In fact we worked very very hard all morning, nailing two more climbs and arriving into the little clifftop town of Lucia for our lunch at just under the halfway point. We had calculated that we needed to be at the end of the serious climbing at the town of Ragged Point by 4pm to be able to do the last eighteen miles to San Simeon with the remaining light of the day.

By lunch the state of mind was starting to turn. It looked very likely that we would manage the distance. It would be a gigantic achievement for us to go so far with so much climbing and the wind unfavourable. We started to feel pretty sunny.

So did Big Sur. The sun was in fact properly shining. If we kept looking South it all looked very pretty and bright. If we looked north we were being dogged by cloud that was advancing towards us. We were staying just ahead of it, biking as fast as we could.

We bumped into the Australian cyclists again. We were pretty cheery, we had even started enjoying the view.

Now we could wax lyrical. The wind was allowing us to see, and today we could see what the fuss was about.

Highway 1 through Big Sur is a magnificent road. Cut ludicrously into the cliffs, it was the result of a New Deal incentive and made largely by convict labour. How they built it is anyone's guess. It is a road that has to be constantly maintained because of rock slips and weather damage. It twists up and down, round and back the cliff edge, often perilously close to healthy drops, sometimes reduced to a thin spine of bridge crossing a deep ravine. It has one lane each way and some corners so hairpinny that cars are reduced to twenty miles an hour. It isn't a road for doing quickly. It is hard to look at the view whilst you are travelling along it, lest you should accidentally end up in the sea.

So, you have to stop to appreciate it or be a passenger in one of the endless open top Mustangs that passed us on that second day. At either end of Big Sur there must be the world's largest Mustang hire shops. We were passed by so many. And the contents were always the same. Two sunglass clad travellers, hair flying in the wind, chins floating up in the air as if their heads were being pulled up by invisible strings controlled from the sky. They were soaking it up.

There was a lot to take in. Steep plumetting cliffs with tiny beaches at the bottom which could only be reached from the sea. Onto these beaches swirly and crashing azure water. In some places the water was shallow enough and so clear that you could see right into the sea and pick out rocks and seaweed on the bottom. Seaweed filled the rocking Pacific here. Long brown shiny tendrils with big knobbles at the end slurped about. The knobbles looked like heads and sometimes you weren't sure if they were seaweed ends or sea otters bobbing about. You could hear if you were still the 'ark, ark, ark' of the colonies of sealions and if the wind blew up past them you could smell them too. On the slow winding ups we had time to take in vibrant bottle brush trees, coastal redwoods, small purple flowers. Big Sur has heavily wooded slopes and sometimes the road plunges you amongst them into shade and cool. It was an assault on the senses.

And at its most spectacular it was all lengthy coastal vista. We reached a high point and could see for miles. Headland after headland jutted out into the sea and the emptiness of the cliffs gave them the wild, pre-time, raw look that has got all the writers so excited. It was properly remote and the slit of road clawing across it looked temporary and vulnerable.

We pushed on along it for the afternoon. One of our favourite sections was the second biggest climb of the day which came just after lunch. It was a fairly gentle gradient, it was splendidly snaking, it was quiet and warm with amazing views and we suddenly realised that we were going to get to our destination.
We loved that afternoon.

We had had such low expectations at the start of the day and now we were being delighted on every front. We sailed through Ragged Point right on time and there we met some brilliant jovial motorcyclists on huge matching Honda Goldwings listening to Puccini, and refuelled with a Pepsi. Then the terrain changed and became undulating and close to the sea. So close at one point that Phil was nearly drenched by a wave that crashed right across the road. Then the sun began to go down with a delicious sunset and as San Simeon got within skipping distance we saw on the beach a brilliant group of elephant seals.
Long nosed and comically floppy with a call that is like a cross between a belch and a groan they were frolicking at large on the shore. Elephant seals have made a resurgence in this part of California, coming to the same beach year in year out to mate. The males fight for females by pushing their necks up against each other in the shallow surf whilst the ladies look disinterestedly on. They were such an unexpected treat and perfect heralds for our triumphant ride.

We pulled into San Simeon in the last of the light. We had been on the bikes for just over seven hours. We had faced down the wind, the hills and kept just ahead of the storm. We had had a wonderful day in Big Sur and finally seen what all the fuss was about with this remote corner of California.

The following day we had another 'relaxed' day although this time our state of mind was completely in tune. In the morning we cycled to Hearst Castle, the ertswhile home of William Randolph Hearst, a fairytale lodging perched high in the hills looking down over a giant sweep of coastline we had already conquered and more that we had still to do.

Visiting the castle was like a sneaky peak into WRH's state of mind. A defiant building project that had stretched the minds and patience of all who were employed to realise his dream, it is a fantasy collection of buildings and objets d'art that was the playground of the great and the good of the early to mid part of the twentieth century, everyone from Churchill to Chaplin. Hearst was a kind of magpie who avidly collected things from places he visited and recreated rooms and styles he loved throughout his home. He had a Gothic dining room, a Renaissance drawing room, a Roman swimming pool and faux Greek temple. He had Spanish style, Italianate style, Eyptian style all with hot and cold running water and hot and cold glamour. He filled the hills around his home with zebra (we saw a herd), Roebuck deer, llamas and housed bears and other beasts in special pens. It was quite a place and we adored our visit completed as it was with an Imax film narrated in portentous tones about the importance of vision and of having dreams.

We positively skipped away, our state of mind all elevated, our hearts bursting with wonder.  It was therefore a swift and delicious coastal journey that took us to our next destination. We went only twenty five miles to stay in another family haunt of Lynn and Walt Dwelle. This time it was a beach house a bit further down the coast at Cayucos.

We walked through the door as the last vestiges of sun lit up the waves crashing straight ahead of us through the picture window. It was yet another heavenly haven. We poured ourselves a glass of wine and sat quietly in wonder until the world went completely dark.

And then we talked about Big Sur.

We talked about it a lot.

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