Day 21: Vallejo, CA to the Marin Headlands - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 16, 2014

Day 21: Vallejo, CA to the Marin Headlands

With the madness of yesterday piled on top of almost two weeks of tough traveling, as soon as I wake up my body and my mind tell me it's time for a break.

We spend the morning riding around downtown Vallejo and nearby Mare Island with Bruce and eat breakfast at a nearby cafe. He tells us how Vallejo is the most diverse city in the United States, ahead of both San Francisco and New York. It's also been through its share of trouble, like in 1996 when the military closed the naval shipyard on Mare Island and within a year unemployment jumped to thirty percent. There was also 2009, when the city became the first in the history of California to go bankrupt, due to salaries and benefits and pensions for the fire and police departments that grew so big they came to swallow up more than half of the entire budget. And just a few weeks ago, an earthquake rumbled up only six miles from the city, knocking down chimneys everywhere and condemning the downtown post office.

Superhost.
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But for all of its hard luck, we come away impressed with Vallejo. It has attractive homes, a lovely waterfront, and as out-of-control rents and house prices push more people out of San Francisco it's only going to become a more popular place to live. Gentrification always finds a way in urban America.

Super happy, unusually clean.
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From Vallejo we catch a ferry that jets across San Pablo Bay and soon lays out in front of us Marin County, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and then at last the waterfront and skyline of San Francisco.

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After walking the bikes off the boat we sit in the grass across from the ferry building and watch the city unfold in front of us. It's a strange blend of tourists with cameras around their necks and shopping bags under their arms, homeless men sleeping beneath trees in parks, locals jogging or walking their dogs, and conference attendees from all over the country who stand around and make awkward conversation in ill-fitting khaki pants with lanyards around their necks. Surrounding them it's the sound of jackhammers pounding, tour bus brakes hissing, and crosswalk indicators beeping. Streetcars ring their bells as they roll past, flags point straight out toward the southeast in the breeze, and the thirty-story buildings behind us cast long shadows and soon block out the sun. It's a dramatic departure from the still mountain lakes and empty forest service roads we've come to know.

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Last night Bruce told us about an area north of the San Francisco called the Marin Headlands, which are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He said it has a few small, primitive campsites that don't cost anything but have to be reserved over the phone before we arrive. Looking out at the bay we decide we'd like to check out the city more before we head south, so we make the Headlands our goal for the day.

To reach them we need to cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and to reach the Golden Gate Bridge we have to travel all the way across the city. We set out along the Embarcadero, where we ride in traffic thick with cars and trucks and pedicabs, wedge in between idling tour buses and honking taxis, and experience a type of cycling so different from anything we've felt on this trip. But San Francisco has great bike routes, we ride a lot on side streets, and the drivers pay attention most of the time, so it turns out to be kind of fun — and so much better than the disaster of riding through the mass of suburbia in and around Fairfield.

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Soon we crank slowly up from the bay, dodging tourists on rented bicycles or looking down at their cameras, with the nearest tower of the bridge glowing red in the gaps between the trees. Then we round a corner, drop under the end of the thing, push up the other side around a 270-degree curve, and we're there, on the bridge deck hundreds of feet above San Francisco Bay. The wind blows so strong it shakes our mirrors, and the traffic is so fast and frequent it shakes the entire bridge, but the scene is all so spectacular we don't really notice. Below us is the greenish water of the Pacific Ocean, the surface broken by a handful of whitecaps. The Marin Headlands loom in the distance all in shades of green and brown and the buildings of San Francisco shine tan and white over our right shoulders. The sea air turns our fingers a little wet and mixes its salt smell with the diesel exhaust fumes of passing buses. Birds hang on the updrafts.

We ride on the west side of the bridge, which is only open for a few hours in the afternoon and evening, and only open to bicycles, not pedestrians. It's an awkward mix of in-shape tourists going too fast; out-of-shape tourists who regret their decision to rent a bike going slow, or walking, or stopped and contemplating the direction of their lives; and road bikers, who all ride at twenty miles per hour as they call out "On your left!", with annoyance dripping off every word and casting a pall over their faces that makes it seem as if today, Tuesday, September 16th, 2014, was the first day that people not wearing brightly colored spandex riding suits have been allowed to dirty the pathways of the Golden Gate Bridge with the presence of their tennis shoes and non-carbon frames, and the roadies are trying to figure out what this means for the direction of their lives and also if there's a piece of gear they can buy that will make all of these other jerks disappear, but only if it weighs less than six ounces.

And then there's us, the only pair of touring bikes to be found, all wide eyes and smiles stretched across our faces, still kind of in disbelief that we rode here from Oregon and now we're looking out and down on the Pacific Ocean. It's one of the best bicycling moments of my life.

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The first part of the climb up into the Headlands is not. It's one of those hills that gets a name like Rat Bastard Piece of Shit, and it seems like the start of what might be an impossible push to the top. But soon enough the grade turns sane, it rewards us with knockout views of the city and the bay and the coast all at once, and before we know it we're shooting down the back side and into a valley where we look up on untouched hills that we imagine have appeared much the same for the last thousand years.

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That brings us to our campsite, at Bicentennial Campground. It sits in a quiet hollow among the trees, the cliffs, and the hills, out of sight from anyone who isn't specifically looking for it. There we rest away the evening, as the wind turns our fingers cold and the ocean air leaves every bag of food and piece of clothing wet to the touch. We can't believe that such a peaceful place exists so close to San Francisco, that it costs nothing to stay here, and that even on a perfect late summer day we have it all to ourselves.

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By the time night falls the wind has gone away, so that all we hear is the ocean crashing into the rocks beyond the tree line, along with the occasional jet airplane so that we never quite lose track of where in the world we are. And as seems to happen by default now, once we make the decision to go to sleep we're lost in an instant.

Today's ride: 22 miles (35 km)
Total: 985 miles (1,585 km)

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