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

Location: London. Back.

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

Monday 1 November 2010

Southbound to San Francisco

And so, with the majestic Redwoods behind us for now, it was time to branch off back to the coast and make our acquaintance with Highway 1.  At the little town of Leggett, we turned West, and headed for what many cyclists had made sound like something akin to the Andes of California.  We had heard tell of 22% gradients, altitude sickness, hours and hours of relentless climbing.  We were getting Andean deja vu.

Fortunately, with the Andes still sufficiently recent in our memories, it turned out to be a breeze.  A fantastic 3.5 mile ascent through dense pine forests, up sinuous, almost traffic-free roads.  Although the sunny patches were steamy and sweaty, the intoxicating smell of pine and eucalyptus in the cooler shadier parts helped us to the top with little trouble.  We patted ourselves smugly on the back.  We thought the climbing was done for the day...
We descended 2000ft back to sea level through more shadowy forest, complete with backwater farm yards and their rusting old pick ups, all carpeted in rusty redwood leaves.  By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, snaking our way smoothly round each hairpin, the temperature had fallen and the sea mist had rolled in.  This was fortunate, as the next climb, though only half the height, was steeper and meaner.  With lunch still sitting in our bellies, we needed things in our favour!  Another climb, another descent - and seeing the Pacific churning in front of us for the first time in a few days, we knew the hard work was done.

We should have learnt from Peru, really.  Unless you are in Holland, coasts are generally not flat.  My cry of "now let`s push up our average speed for the day" was foolhardy.  What a muppet.  Far from having conquered the day gloriously, we now began a 20 mile slog along relentlessly undulating coves and mini valleys running down to the sea.  It was the Peruvian coastline in miniature.  We would swoop down a valley to the RV park or tiny creek delta at the bottom, before having to spend several times as long slogging back up its mirror image on the other side.  We just never got into a rhythm and our legs burned.  Even Haribo jelly teddies and Pepsi, our newfound late afternoon energy cocktail, couldn't save us properly.  We staggered into Fort Bragg, and our lowest quality motel to date, after dark and with the temperature in single figures.

This continued for much of the coastline down to San Francisco.  Maybe we were tired, maybe it was the lack of rhythm, maybe it was just that the stunning, rocky coastline meant our minds were not properly on the job.  Whatever, it was hard work! 

Alleviating our travails, however (and, let`s face it, we hardly need sympathy pedalling through California!), were the little towns we passed through.  There were tiny places like the joyously named Elk (population 250), with its ancient petrol pumps and one-stop-shop weatherboarded general store; home-from-home Albion; and waterside Marshall, where we picnicked overlooking shimmering Tomales Bay whilst sitting on oyster shell gravel.  And then there was deliciously positioned Mendocino, propped on its perfect promontory and crammed with cute (oh yes, we can outcute the most died-in-the-wool American tourist!) wild West style clapboard houses and bookshops; and Bodega Bay, which still felt and smelt like a 'proper' fishing town.

As we neared San Francisco, Point Reyes typified so many of the charming NorCal towns we'd passed through.  We stopped for a late afternoon cup of coffee and soaked up the atmosphere.  It was imbued with a sense of self-aware, home cooked decency that the outside world may not appreciate alongside the stereotype of the introspective American.  As ever, the first display table you saw in its independent bookstore was overflowing with books on America's political, financial, environmental and dietary howlers, alongside appreciations of trees and nature, organic cookery books and guides on more down-to-earth careers.  Down the street is a huge organic farm shop, selling only local products.  Battered old pickups and shiny SUVs are matched in number by Toyota Priuses.  You won't see a plastic bag for dust.  America may be a crumbling empire, and away from the West coast the reality may not yet have sunk in, but on the West Coast they do seem truly to 'get it'.  And many of the inhabitants are reassuringly keen to adjust their views and ways of life in response.

For generations, there has been external influence on the West coast of course, but one of the most striking examples we saw was the Russian style architecture at Fort Ross.  Why Russian?  Well, if you were a Russian in the 19th century whose furs at home weren't up to scratch, then there was a good chance you would go for a wander to track down some decent ones.  Across the Bering Strait and a few thousand miles down the West coast, in fact.  Amazing.  And they didn't even have bicycles.

All the way down Highway 1 to the Bay Area, the coastal scenery continued to give us one spectacular bay after another.  The volcanic stacks have stayed with us all the way from Oregon, and the Pacific shows no signs of calming down.  Those rollers we first admired in Peru were - unsurprisingly - still crashing in.  But we continue to be hypnotised by them - minty green, aquamarine blue or just stormcloud grey, they somersault opaquely into the shore trailing their broad white manes of spray.  Often we could see them breaking for miles down stretches of the coast as we pedalled.  And by now they were starting to be dotted with black clad surfers.  We were getting closer to surfing's spiritual home of SoCal.

This part of California, though, is perhaps more famous for its dairy herds.  When we diverted inland on the 1, we rolled through expansive and arid cattle pasture lands, dotted with magnificent steaks on legs and idyllic looking old wooden barns.  The agricultural smell of cow dung often added an extra je ne sais quoi to the eucalyptus and sea mist.  We also enjoyed the mixture of trees along the highway - some of the lonelier coastal cedars were blown at comical angles, but when they clubbed together they could form some spectacular tunnel groves which blocked out the sunlight almost entirely.  We have seen Patagonian style lines of poplars, and explosions of colour from other deciduous trees along the way, and are just getting towards Californian fruit tree land.

On our penultimate day before getting to San Francisco, our peloton of two expanded by 50%.  Now, we've biked with plenty of other cyclists on our trip of course, but when one Mr Duncan Williams joined us in the appropriately named Gualala it was the first time in almost 5000 miles that we'd actually organised for anyone to come and play with us.  Not unexpectedly, DW added a certain extra dimension - noisy, energetic and relentlessly ginger - to our riding, and we ended up doing our second longest day of the trip at nearly 70 miles.  But it was great.

The following day, he sadly had to leave early to head in to work (no mean feat at 50 miles).  We were to catch up with him later that evening - this time at our own elegant and well-honed pace!  But before he left a rather dank and dewy campground, whom should we run into but Richard - our fellow Thorn rider whom we'd first met in Vancouver.  In the gloom, Richard greeted Duncan effusively with 'hello, big man, how are you?!', only to be hear the reply, 'I am a big man, but I'm not that big man'.  A great moment.

And so on we went to San Anselmo, 10 miles North of the Golden Gate Bridge and home of the Williams family.  We arrived some time after dark, by which time our legs, bottoms and minds were truly feeling 6 consecutive days on the road.  The idea of being 'at home' with no guy ropes to tighten or motel furniture to rearrange has rarely felt better.

And we suddenly realised that we were less than a month away from leaving the USA and that time was beginning to go into fast forward.

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