Day 25: King City, CA to Los Padres National Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 20, 2014

Day 25: King City, CA to Los Padres National Forest

We're up early, before the sun starts to lighten the world, but not early enough to beat the power-walking motorhome dwellers who make circles around the loops of the RV park and speed past with elbows high and one foot always on the ground.

On the road we head south under the thickest cover of clouds we've seen in three weeks. We see dozens of men and women in the fields getting ready to start a long day of picking. The grape harvesting machines have already started, their headlights glowing as they first shake the ripe grapes off the vine and then shoot them up a conveyor belt and over into the trailer of a tractor that follows nearby. Along the way we alternate between dodging a tarantula that crawls near the edge of the shoulder; giving voice to the inner monologue of the cows on the other side of the barbed wire; considering the improbable premise of the 1970s TV show CHiPs; talking about the nuances of the show Cops, which we both watched all the time when we were kids; and coming up with the kind of jokes that would be funny only to a table full of eighty-year-olds. Surrounded by the morning mist we also start our climb into the mountains, where the sea of agriculture recedes, and in its place the landscape becomes drier and yellower, which is how we imagine all of this area would look without the guiding hand of irrigation.

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On the back side of a long climb we speed into a valley, where we startle a white-tailed rabbit who dashes across the road in front of us before disappearing in the brush. I wonder out loud if animals have the same sort of inner monologue that humans do, and if they do, what the rabbir or deer or squirrel equivalent of oh-shit-oh-shit would sound like. As we coast into the valley the fog lifts and the sun shines down on the hills and reflects back in pale shades. It's all unusually untouched; there aren't houses or farms or cattle or ATVs buzzing all around. We imagine that's much how things looked 200 years ago, when the El Camino Real — of which the road we're riding on was a part — was the route that connected the twenty-one missions of what was then the Spanish province of Alta California. Well, except for the live machine gun fire that thumps and pops from the military base that sits beyond the fence line on all sides. That's probably a more recent thing.

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Soon we turn left and cross over an almost dry riverbed on a road named Nacimiento-Fergusson. The first part runs through military land, which brings together an unusual collection of nature and instruments of death. We ride among handsome oak trees whose branches cast shade across the two-lane road. When we crest the top of a hill we look out at broad expanses of grass that look like African savanna and stretch out toward a hard-angled mountain to the north. As we coast along the narrow plain a coyote runs in our same direction for a few moments before falling out of sight within the tall grass. The only unnatural sound out here is the hum of bike tires on pavement, although sprinkled in among all of the beauty are countless signs warning of live fire and unexploded ordnance. And then of course there are all of the halos of some kind of whitish powder that mark the impact points of bombs or missiles or tank blasts, which are themselves surrounded by black char from the fires that follow.

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But for the most part it's wonderful. Almost no cars pass, which leaves us all alone to watch the yellow turn to green in the mountains beyond and then the perfect mixture of blue and white above. It's hot when we ride in the direct sun, but as soon as we tuck into the shade the cool breeze sucks away the heat and sweat and leaves us refreshed. Although it took a circuitous and sometimes frustrating route to reach this point, right now all of the hard work seems worth it. This is a perfect corner of America to experience by bicycle.

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Eventually we cross out of army territory and into the Los Padres National Forest. Almost at once the road narrows to just wider than a lane and we enter a quiet tunnel of trees. The smooth rock of a dry creek bed follows us on the left, while near-vertical cliffs of rock hem us in on the right. Soon we find a campground where we eat lunch, refill our water supply, and rest our legs. The plan upon leaving King City was to make it this far and stop for the day, but we reach it by 1:30 and still feel strong. We're also motivated by the fact that the top of the climb, and a view out to the Pacific Ocean, lies just seven miles away.

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The first four miles pass without trouble, in part because the grade isn't that steep, but also because the beauty keeps our eyes up on the world and off of our bike computers. The leaves of the trees come alive with sound in the breeze that now blows near-cold and never lets us forget that the ocean is close. And there are so many trees, all packed tight among one another, and all of them a deep and healthy green. Even the underbrush is green wherever we look. We've now come far enough west that we're within the path of the rains that crash into the coast from off the Pacific. Best of all, we get to enjoy it unspoiled. There are no barbed wire fences, no farms, no impact craters, no logging, no range cattle, and perhaps one car every twenty minutes. I've traveled a lot of beautiful places by bicycle, but this stretch stands above all but a select few.

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The last four miles of climbing to the top are tough, as we knew they would be. But we've faced tougher, even earlier today, and after more than three weeks on the road we at last have the strength to push on for hours if needed. We face tight, steep, blind turns, and at certain points it seems like the road is about to turn into a helix and fold over on itself. We sweat, we crank, and swear at the flies that buzz our heads and never stop, not even for a moment. At one point we reach a clearing where we look down at the valley out of which we've been climbing and up at a line of mountains that look as if they haven't been traversed at any point in all of human history. Kristen says it feels like we're in another world, and I see nothing in front of me that could refute that idea.

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And then we're there, at the crest of the climb. Down to the left we see clouds stretch without end to the horizon, and we know that below them lies the ocean.

We could fly down that direction and in seven easy miles reach the shore, but that's not the outcome befitting of this day. Instead we turn left, onto a dirt road that runs along the crest line of the mountains. It's our last half-mile push. It is hard and it is tough, but in the end it's worth all of the grinding and cursing and pedal standing. We reach an opening in the trees, then pull our bikes up to another smaller and flatter clearing, and at once we know we've arrived at our new home. Spread out before us we see a fat green finger of mountain that extends down toward the ocean. The land is in the process of being swallowed from the bottom up by a wave of pure white clouds inching their way onshore. Around us we hear nothing but a few bird calls, the buzz of the dozen flies that have followed us like paparazzi all day, the rustling of bushes, and of course the constant and subtle spooling of the wind as it pushes its way through and around the trees. I've stayed at many great campsites over the years, but what I see laid out in front of me looms with more grandeur and spectacle than all the rest. There's no need for debate.

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We arrive early enough to relax and take in all that's around us: the hammering of woodpeckers, the texture that develops in the clouds and then just as quickly disappears, and the ways in which the sunset causes the dirt and the trees and the sky to change color by the moment. It also gives me the time to explain to Kristen what she accomplished today, that she pushed through more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain on a loaded bicycle, just twenty-four days after she started riding one for the first time. It's a remarkable achivement by any measure. I could not be more proud of what she did today, and in all of the days that led us to this point. I tell her as much.

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I don't want the light to fade, because that means today will soon be ending, and I want the wonder and the magic and the joy to stick around. But I also know that 3,000 feet below, underneath all of the clouds and beyond what we can hear from our perch, the ocean waits. It's yet another chapter in this California story and we're excited to find out where it will take us.

Today's ride: 42 miles (68 km)
Total: 1,134 miles (1,825 km)

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