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

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)
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Monday, 22 November 2010

SoCal - So Cool

We've both been a tiny bit conscious, as we've blogged our way through a decent chunk of the Americas this year, that reading our missives our trip may have seemed a bit black or white.  Either we've been enduring abject misery through wind, cold, altitude or lack of decent ice cream; or it's been one long, unremitting whirl of gobsmacking scenery, delectable people, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the world's best ice cream.  To some degree, we have indeed tried to focus on the more 'interesting' bits, so that has probably come through.  Whilst everything we write is absolutely true, we certainly try to make the subject matter worth reading.

In the case of Southern California, however, even if you wanted to you simply couldn't exaggerate its wonders.
From the moment we swept down those 7 miles of descent into Santa Barbara, the hair dryer wind parching us, we were in a film set.  In one of those 1980s television series that you knew couldn't be for real.  And in a place doing a very passable impression of Cycling Paradise.

Take Santa Barbara, for a start.  After Big Sur and then the arid inland wine country we'd rolled through for a couple of days to get there, this was something quite, quite different.  We knew this was the start of a new chapter for us from the moment we hit the T-junction with the oceanfront road running through it.  To our left, a line of mature palm trees curved along the beach as far as the eye could see; ahead of us, an elegant and typically SoCal pier stretched away from us; and to the right, the sun was sinking so that every time we looked over our shoulders as we pedalled South, the oranges, purples and blacks were ever more like some improbable movie set backdrop.  We rolled along that bike path, slaloming between evening runners, roller bladers and push chair pushers thinking all our Christmases had come at once.  Was this how it was going to be for the next few hundred miles?!

And the answer was unequivocally 'yes'.

We spent that night a few miles further on, just outside Carpinteria, in the Sandyland Reef Inn - a gloriously dated but deliciously adequate little motel that we just scraped into as darkness set in.  If there was one cycling challenge in Southern California, it was that once the sun sets, that's it.  Several times, we would stand slack-jawed, admiring yet another sunset ('this must be the best one yet'), only to find that 15 minutes later, someone had turned out the lights.  We were nearer to the tropics, and around those parts the sun doesn't loiter in the hallway.  But that's hardly a complaint.

The next day, we were into the SoCal coast proper.  We realised that we had hit an abnormally hot period of November when we had to seek shade at 9am for our roadside coffee stop.  The lycra clad locals had already finished their morning rides and were hogging the shadier seats.  It was already seriously hot.  The only thing for it was to stick to the coast and keep some kind of breeze blowing at us.

We rejoined Highway 101 and spent much of the morning cruising along the Pacific.  Whether we were on the hard shoulder of the main drag, or on a parallel road or bike track, the surf was breaking a stone's throw to our right, and surfers were catching waves so close to us that we could hear their conversations.  And in amongst it all - suddenly - there was a school of dolphins.

Yup, there they were.  One guy we chatted with, who lived in his RV and had been parked there for a few days, said said it was their morning commute, slinking their way along the coast and weaving through the surfers.  We watched transfixed.  All along that road, it seemed that half of California was padding their way, clad in wetsuits, either to or from the surf.  All through Oxnard and Ventura - places where the roads have names like 'Seahorse Avenue', 'Coral Lane' and 'Surfrider Road' - the locals were wandering along the promenade, or meandering along on bikes fitted with surfboard carriers.  But it would have been oh so churlish to suggest that this might be part of the reason why California's economy is on the rocks.  No, it was just too much fun.

That afternoon, after a picnic lunch on a deserted stretch of sundrenched beach in Port Hueneme, we passed two extremes - first an unashamed display of US firepower just outside Mugu Naval Air Station, a veritable crop of missiles pivoted at rather rude angles; and then, just a few miles down the road at the famous Point Mugu break (we learnt), a similar number of what must have been near professional surfers strutting their stuff magnificently as perfect tubes of water rolled in.  Call us softies, but we kind of preferred the latter.

Later that afternoon, as we wheeled merrily along the coast to Malibu before the sun set, we passed the Ventura county line and entered Los Angeles county.  By now we were well into Malibu, a 27 mile coastal strip of beauty and luxury that reaches most of the way to LA itself.  Everything you imagine about Malibu seemed to be true.  Those stilt-propped beach houses that line the pristine stretches of sand are each perfect in their own way, whether weatherboarded and a little tired or designed by the architect of the moment and all plate glass and stainless steel.  One thing they do all have in common, however, is their price bracket, which looks something like an LA telephone number.

It wasn't difficult to imagine Courtney Cox, Johnny Depp or Leo DeCaprio sauntering along those exclusive sands.  And perhaps in those massive pillared schlosses up in the hills to the left, the more grown up of the Hollywood fraternity lording it over the Pacific.  This is their natural habitat.  And if they happen to have $25 million to spend on a house, who can blame them?

We, on the other hand, camped.  But this wasn't any old campsite - Malibu RV Park just may have one of the best views of any campsite around.  The tent area was on a broad ledge right up at the top of the hill.  It was there that we ran into our biking friends Rich, Bruce and Sue who were the only other campers there to share a view that extended over the Pacific from the setting sun on the right all the way to the distant towers of Santa Monica on the left.  It was magnificent.

We had dinner that evening with my old friend Joanne and Liz's old friend Raza, both of whom live in LA and drove out to join us.  We sat in the beach area of nearby Paradise Cove restaurant, the sand between our toes, the banter flowing and facing up to a serving of calamari that you could have hiked across it was so large.  Life seemed really very agreeable.  The night, however, was a rather different matter - having been so smug about camping above the RVers, we realised that the shallow layer of mist that was cooling the immediate coast wasn't going to reach us just a few feet higher up - and we sweltered through a night under canvas that never dropped below the mid 20s celsius.

The next day, however, lack of sleep soon faded as a problem.  We packed up early to try to avoid the worst of the heat, but soon found ourselves in trendy (we learnt) Marmalade Cafe, confronting a pile of breakfast pancakes marginally higher in altitude than our tent had been.  No chance that mist would have reached the top of these babies.  Suitably fuelled, we headed for LA.  The bad news was that it was bin day in Malibu, so we spent a number of miles slaloming between wheelie bins that had taken up temporary residence in our 'bike' lane.

Before we knew it, however, we were led away from the main road into Santa Monica, past the spread of beach volleyball courts and onto the beach path.  Wow.  Wow.  And again I say... you get the idea.  There we were in hot sunshine, pedalling along a perfectly flat and near deserted path that wove its way all the way along equally deserted Santa Monica beach.  It was, as they say, a 'pinch me' moment.  We'd pedalled here from Canada.  And we were rewarded by the fact that it was like that for most of the rest of the day.

By the time we had been under Santa Monica's famous pier, we were ready for refreshments, and we stopped on the Venice Beach promenade for a fresh lemonade and - more importantly, of course - people watching.  We sat there in merciful shade observing everyone from tourists to dreadlocked artists to sweaty weightlifters and sleek rollerbladers.  Oh, and the shouty man who'd clearly had one cup of coffee too many. 

Onwards we went, constantly assailled by friendly fellow cyclists (albeit on Venice Beach mostly out for a couple of miles of preening) wanting to know what on earth we were up to.  We discovered that LA shouldn't have such a bad name as a non-cycling city - we barely rode on a road until well after lunch.  Instead, we followed beautifully marked cycle paths around Marina del Rey, and on along Manhattan Beach.  Under the flightpath of LAX, where two planes tend to take off in parallel, and then the aptly named Hermosa Beach, with its beautiful adjoining beachfront cottages all along the bike path, and trendy restaurants and little shops just a block up the hill.  We went to not-quite-so-trendy Subway for a 'footlong' in their blissful aircon.

It was only after lunch that we felt any pain at all - as temperatures topped 100F (we later learnt - unheard of in early November), we had to break inland at Redondo Beach, and a couple of hours slogging through busy bikelane-free streets was a trial.  The sun was strong enough that your heart sank if a traffic light turned red and you weren't in the shade.  Properly hot.

However, we emerged to follow the dried up concrete canal that goes by the name Los Angeles River along to Long Beach.  Where we ran into the Queen Mary.  There she was in the dock, apparently having been turned into a hotel.  Quite surreal after an already surreal day.  By now, the sun was sinking behind the ubiquitous palm trees and, having negotiated yet another quite delicious bike path along Long Beach, bad light stopped play in Huntingdon Beach.

But our luck didn't leave with the sun.  We pulled up, by complete coincidence, outside Outspoken, a newly established bike shop run by Dominic and Shopcat.  Dominic couldn't have been more welcoming, letting us garage our bikes and kit in his office overnight and thrusting a beer into our hands, all whilst quizzing us about our trip of somewhat longer than most of the beautifully customised beachcruiser bikes in his shop would be used to.  But Shopcat the Kitten was the real star of the Outspoken show - about the size of a loo roll, she had been rescued by a powerless Dominic a fortnight earlier and had taken up very happy residence on his desk.  Priceless.

We spent a lovely evening with my old friend Guille and her husband Jano in their fantastic Mission Viejo home, launching into Jano's outstanding asado and setting the world to rights over flowing Malbec.  But the next day, it was back to business.  Well, kind of.  We actually didn't start from Outspoken until nearly lunchtime, having had a very pleasant morning hanging out in Mission Viejo at the house and catching up with Guille and her brother Frankie, my long lost Buenos Aires flatmate from 1996.  This made for a shortish afternoon on the bikes, but we managed to find time to take advantage of yet more spectacular bike paths through the rest of Huntingdon Beach, and on to deeply civilised Newport Beach, complete with more palm trees, expensive haircuts and open top Mercedes than you can shake a stick at.

On the way, we chatted at length with the very charming and urbane Carl, a Texan by origin, who had recently finished the Pacific Coast in the other direction - 'it was sort of lonely going that way!'  We also cruised along possibly the prettiest part of beach path so far - on the run in to Newport Beach, we rode along a beach front row of the most attractive, colourful little houses, each designed totally differently, but each with lovely balconies and double doors opening straight onto the bike path and the beach just beyond.  As we sat on the little ferry across from Balboa Island to Newport Beach proper, it was hard to argue with all this as a way of life.

Yet another stunning palm-fringed sunset, this time over San Clemente, yet another cheap and cheerful motel room ($50, linguistically-challenged subcontinental manager, aircon, cable telly, two double beds, fridge, microwave, strong shower... who's complaining?), and yet another sultry California night outside.

The next day was extraordinary - we felt like rock stars.  It's dangerous, this could all go to our heads.  Let me explain... Saturday morning in Southern California is evidently cycling time.  The clubs are out in their matching jerseys, individuals are out training, pelotons sweep past, and husband and wife teams are out blowing away those midweek cobwebs.  And in their carbon fibre, lycra clad elegance, they all seemed truly fascinated by what us two cart horses were up to.  We've never felt so indulged!  There must have been at least two dozen separate incidents of cyclists riding up to us asking 'hey, where are you guys heading' or 'where are you coming from' or (geekily) 'nice set up - are those gears Rohloff?' or - in one particularly odd case - 'are you guys German?'

The culmination of this came near Camp Pendleton, where the marines had been out exercising, doing what appeared to be three-legged and egg and spoon races.  Liz found herself sipping alluringly on a cool drink surrounded by more doting fans than at any time since her acting days, each one hanging off her every use of exotic phrases like 'the Andes' and 'Bolivia' and '5000 miles'.  It was as close as I've seen to her treading the boards.

Earlier, on the way to Camp Pendleton's sweeping army exercise fields, we had had a particularly good chat with Carl and Debbie.  They have four daughters aged between 17 and 26, plus a female dog - 'I start apologising before I wake up in the morning', Carl assured me.  They were a fascinating pair, he having helped launch Romania's national baseball team in 1992 with his legendary LA Dodgers pitcher brother-in-law Tom Worrell.  Their eldest daughter works in Cambodia prising young girls out of prostitution.  Carl and Debbie are the kind of people that this trip is all about, I found myself thinking.

By the afternoon, the cyclist feeding frenzy had died down and, as grey clouds started accumulating for the first time since Big Sur, we passed through the seaside towns of Encinitas, Cardiff (where we passed through the 9,000km mark) and Del Mar in quick succession, each with its great expanse of beach and yet more surfers.  La Jolla in the late afternoon was indeed a jewel - refreshing for its wiggling, undulating seafront and stunning houses.  And everybody seemed to be getting married there - we must have passed three separate weddings getting underway on our way through.

But the light was going, and alas we couldn't dawdle.  We raced along Marine Promenade, perhaps slightly more quickly than might have been wise given that many pushchairs and couples on their evening 'paseo', and reached the outskirts of San Diego as the light went.  Fortunately, San Diego's twinkling skyline of high rises and the well lit bike path around the harbour was sufficient.  We were guided easily around to the sweet little ferry across the harbour to Coronado Island.

Coronado Island is where Liz's wonderful friend Vanessa lives, and we almost decided to stay permanently ourselves.  And not only because of Vanessa's fantastic welcome (5 Trip Advisor stars at least!) and staggering view of the waterfront from her balcony.  It is a low key haven from the hustle and bustle of San Diego itself, full of wide, palm-lined avenues, elegant homes, and golf courses.  We went out that evening in her trusty but mature set of wheels Princess Hercule (named after its string of European and/or royal former owners) to the Corvette Diner downtown, where we gorged ourselves on diner grub and Oreo flavoured milkshakes big enough to do laps across.  It all felt wonderfully tropical and exotic and happy.

Not least because we knew the next day we were Mexico bound.  After nearly 2000 miles, we set off in bright sunshine with just 20 odd miles between us and the border.  We were making the proverbial break for it.  We were swept along by the wind and no little adrenalyn, around the smooth, lawn-lined streets of Coronado Island, and on down the long Strand breakwater.

And then, after picking our way through a final outskirt of San Diego, we were into more rural scenery.  Suddenly, the roadsides were dominated by equine ranches and half of the almost non-existent traffic consisted of men in big moustaches riding horses.  We rounded a corner in the lane, and came face to face with two mounted border patrol guards, bedecked in fancy dark green uniform and wide-brimmed hats.  'It's easier to get up into the hills on these than in 4x4s', they assured us.  Half a mile on and there were three more of their colleagues.  We looked up into the hills and saw The Fence.  We had reached the Mexico border.

Interestingly, it's not just one fence - there does seem to be one main one, about 5m high and made of a kind of high tensile grill, but looking along it even this one seems rather bitty.  And we counted at least 3 other former fences, none of which looked entirely convincing.  No wonder they need some manpower.  They are there to keep what they assured us is a considerable number of illegal Mexicans from making a run for it, even a good few miles from the hot spots of Texas.

And it is hot, this border.  The only kind of threat we felt was from the 3ft snake that Liz ran over on her bike right there, but the 28,000 deaths in Mexico as part of the war against drugs declared in 2006 had convinced us that even popping across the border to nearby Tijuana would be unwise.  That's a proper warzone, and seemingly nowhere in Mexico is immune these days.  Every Mexican we had met in California (as well as every mother at home!) had warned us against it.  So we didn't go.

But we did ride along the border and - in our curiosity to follow two border patrol guards on bikes across an agricultural area - ended up in discussion with one of their motorised colleagues.  He told us that we were 'in a very dangerous area'.  Before directing us out of what turned out to be no man's land, however, he did tell us proudly about his girlfriend in Blackpool, and Liz ended up suggesting he look up Nick Park's Creature Comforts on Youtube for a proper insight into Blackpool life.  I suggested she must be very special to want to trade Southern California with Blackpool.  We parted on good terms.

And so that was it.  We made it to Mexico.  We stood there for a while watching cars drive through the famous Tijuana crossing point where the overhead gantry simply announces: Mexico.  It was a strange sensation because, for all our quiet excitement and pride about achieving another of our aims on this trip, getting from Canada to the Mexican border, the truth was that neither of us really wanted this part to finish.  We have had to hurry through the last few weeks somewhat and it has been a kaleidoscope of wonderful people, impossibly exotic coastline, and surely some of the best places to bike anywhere.  But what it did mean was that we had a full week to sample the other joys of California without the bikes.

There was only one thing to follow all this.

Disneyland.

2 comments:

  1. On Coronado did you see the Some Like It Hot hotel? Wonderful!
    Well done for 'doing' N America. Take care.
    M
    x

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