Day 22: The Marin Headlands to Hollister, CA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 17, 2014

Day 22: The Marin Headlands to Hollister, CA

All we hear at dawn in the pounding of the surf and the cries of seagulls. There are no airliners, no cargo ships, and no passing cars to spoil the stillness of the morning and the orange glow that backlights a San Francisco that stands silent beyond the red arc of the Golden Gate Bridge to the east.

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Instead of pounding back up and over the hills we traveled to reach the campground yesterday, we see signs calling out a tunnel route back to the bridge and decide to follow them. It's a great choice. The tunnel runs one way for cars, who have to wait at red lights at both ends and then travel through in one big wave. But bikes have dedicated lanes in both directions and don't have to wait for the signals to change, so we head in all alone with lights flashing. After a short uphill we crest the rise and then bomb down at almost thirty miles per hour in the pale glow of the street lights with our voices echoing off the concrete and brick and blacktop that surround us. It's a grand exit from the Marin Headlands, which were nothing but a joy. I imagine most people riding down the coast pass them by because they're anxious to cross the bridge and reach San Francisco, and I get it, but they're all missing out on something wonderful.

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After dodging a horde of French tourists that feel comme çi comme ça about the whole San Francisco vista experience we ride back across the Golden Gate Bridge, only this time it's on the east side, where we look off to our left and see an uninterrupted view of the city and its bridges and the tour boats that cross the bay and leave snaking white lines of wake behind them. The howling traffic noise hangs over everything, but the experience is still spectacular. In general I try to avoid anything that attracts tourists in huge numbers, but the Golden Gate Bridge is so remarkable, and exists at such a breathtaking confluence of land and sea and city, that I'm glad I didn't skip out on the thing. If you ever have the chance to cycle across it, take that chance.

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We spend the rest of the morning working in a coffee shop before we head across town to pick up a new tire at REI. This time the city riding is much more of an adventure. Tour buses as tall as one-story homes pass close, cars pull into and out of parking spots and block our path, and at one point an SUV turns directly in front of me, while I'm in a bike lane, and then a split second later stops in the middle of the lane and cuts me off. I have just enough time to check my mirror, see that no cars are next to me, swerve left and then swerve right, pound my fist on his back window, and then cut back over into the bike lane and continue on. A few moments later, for a reason we can't figure out, a Honda sedan drives for three blocks at eight miles per hour in the bike lane. Road bikes zoom past at twenty from two and a half feet away with no warning. It's low level but constant chaos, traveling through hallways formed by the buildings that tower over both sides of the street, with all of the gaps and spaces made narrower by the panniers that hang off all corners of our bikes.

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When at last we reach the train station I ask Kristen how she's doing. She looks at me, opens her eyes wider, lets out a heavy sigh, and says, "I need a beer."

We also need to escape from suburbia. Back in Davis, even before the insanity of Fairfield and the post-apocalyptic construction scene that followed, we made the decision to skip over the sprawl of Silicon Valley that extends on a long, uninterrupted block to the south of San Francisco. Riding through that area would have meant at least two full days of cycling among broad boulevards, office parks packed with enterprise software companies, Taco Bells and Burger Kings, home improvement stores, auto body repair shops, prep school football fields, at least two international airports, and exactly zero small towns, forests, mountain ranges, wildlife preserves, or cows.

Bike trails would have helped us avoid some of the traffic, but there's nowhere to camp, and I don't think we would have enjoyed the challenge. The Valley is a part of America that doesn't fit with the kind of adventure cycling we love, and beyond it lies farm land and rolling hills and even a national park. Once we knew that CalTrain could drop us off in Gilroy, seventy-seven miles from San Francisco, in only two and a half hours, it didn't take us more than three minutes to make the choice to jump ahead and blow past it all in half of an afternoon. When I ride cross-country I'm very much that pedal-every-mile kind of guy, but there's no grand narrative to riding from Portland to Los Angeles, and I can't think of even one thing I'm sad about passing over.

Packed, stacked, and fleeing.
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We reach Gilroy in the early evening. Only a mile after riding away from the train station we leave the town behind and pedal in the shade of the trees along a gently winding road. The strong smell of harvest-ready garlic fills our noses and we head south with a decent tailwind. We're back to traveling in the country and it makes it seem like all of the stress and aggravation and challenge of city and suburban riding are behind us.

Not quite, it turns out.

Within a mile we cross a highway and turn onto another side road, and then all of a sudden we're bombarded with traffic in both directions and find no shoulder on which to escape. It's confounding because we seem to have come from nowhere, be heading nowhere, and when I look around I don't see homes or businesses or El Pollo Locos but fields of peppers and tomatoes and a bunch of other green things that grow in ordered rows out here.

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After five miles we're able to cut over to Highway 25, which is far busier and noisier but has a shoulder that's wider than a king-sized mattress. As we ride I think about all of the cars and then it hits me: they're commuting home to Hollister. It's a city of about 35,000 people but almost no one works there, because it's a place without much industry beyond agriculture, which could never support that many residents. The reason the drivers of all of these vehicles — and the hundreds more behind them who light up the valley like a string of Christmas lights in the distance — still haven't reached home by 7:30 is that they work hours away. That's where the jobs are. But the jobs don't pay enough to support a mortgage in Palo Alto or San Jose, so families settle far, far away in places like Hollister. And so the men and women get up early, drive forty or fifty miles to work, spend all day pouring their energy into their job, then turn around and grind through the same commute in reverse at night. By the time they zoom past us, a few miles out of town, all they want is to be in their living room, which would explain the tailgating, the aggressive passing, and the cutting off of other drivers whenever two lanes narrow down into one.

Then I think about Hollister in the context of everything else we saw today. I love the energy and culture and excitement of San Francisco. It's a city that's alive by every definition of the term. But rents and home prices are so extremely high that middle class workers like teachers and policemen and electricians who didn't lock in more affordable prices one or two decades ago can't afford to live there, which leads to this bizarre mix of extreme affluence, heavy-handed tourism, and excessive homelessness. The city then bleeds into the unchecked sprawl of Silicon Valley that leaves no flat spot of land undeveloped. But of course it's too expensive for so many people to live there either now, which leads to situations like what we saw on the train ride south.

We watched prep school kids, wearing dress pants and collared shirts and ties, catching the CalTrain in the Valley and then riding it for more than an hour until they reached the far-distant suburb they call home. These kids are fourteen and fifteen years old, and yet they're already commuters. We overhear them talking about stuff like movies and video games, and one young guy tells another that he should check out some game that came out a few weeks ago, but the second guy says that he can't, because he's going to be up until 11:30 tonight working on a research paper. But it's not time for midterms or final exams; school only started a few weeks ago. This is just normal life. Or rather, it's the model for a lifestyle, for a future that's already laid out in front of them. They will go to prep school, where their good grades and extracurricular activities will get them into a highly rated university, after which they will start commuting to work for a reputable company, and will hope to move up into a more prestigious suburb than their parents, or perhaps the city itself.

Of course none of those things are negative on their own. Everyone needs to work, to make money, and to support themselves. What troubles us is that there doesn't seem to be much accounting for art, for sport, for creativity, for free time with no purpose at all, for trying new things and making mistakes and pursuing passions, at least beyond the bounds of what's going to get you ahead in education or business. We see kids that aren't kids, but rather have skipped forward to the state of pre-adult, in lockstep with all of their peers. There's something profoundly sad about that. But within the world that flew by the train windows in front of us earlier today this doesn't seem the least bit strange, which might be worse.

Flat on my back on a firm motel room bed.
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It seems like a strange perversion of the American Dream, and it's all so different from the kind of charming, strange, unpredictable, community-driven small town America I've fallen in love with over the past three years of bicycle touring. I start to wonder if I'm hoping to find something that just doesn't exist in most of this country, and that's rapidly fading away from the places that still hold on to it. I think about those things, over and over and over again, from the squeak and skronk of a vinyl chair that sits in the corner of a too-warm motel room that hasn't been redecorated in any way since early 1981.

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 1,019 miles (1,640 km)

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