Day 26: Los Padres National Forest to San Simeon State Park - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

September 21, 2014

Day 26: Los Padres National Forest to San Simeon State Park

We wake up to much the same scene as when we went to bed. The ocean remains hidden below the unbroken expanse of clouds, which seem to have frozen in place overnight. But as anxious as we are to finally ride along the Pacific, the morning is so beautiful and still in the forest up at 3,000 feet that we don't pack up and start to make our way down until 10:00. When we do, we head out in rain jackets, because even though it's a sunny, warm, ideal Sunday morning at our campsite we know that the weather's about to change.

Above the clouds.
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The descent is not a free ride. In just over eight miles it drops all the way to sea level, which means it's steep the entire way, with no flat spots to give us even a moment's rest. That leaves us to ride the brakes constantly, while also looking out for stray rocks and gravel and also oncoming cars, because the road is still only a lane and a half wide. With our hands and forearms already sore we ride into the clouds, with the white and tan rock forming a barrier on our right and a steep dropoff we can't really see on our left.

Inside the clouds.
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But within another mile we've dropped below the world of white and all of a sudden everything around us feels very coastal. The greens get darker, the wind turns colder, and our noses fill with the smell of salt water. We stop often to rest our hands and let our rims cool, because if our brakes go away or we lose control on a descent like this it could lead to a lot of possible outcomes and none of them are good.

Below the clouds.
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The farther we go, the more of the coastline opens up in front of us. We can see Highway 1 as it winds near the water's edge in a grayish squiggle, the white wash of the surf as it pounds into the shore, and beyond that the flat blue of the ocean extending into what looks like forever.

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And then we reach the bottom and find ourselves on the Pacific Coast Highway. I've resisted riding the northern and central sections of the California coast on Highway 1 for years, because I've driven almost all of these sections at some point in my life, and every time I've been left with the feeling that they'd be so fraught with danger for bicycle riding that it wouldn't be worth the stress. But I've been assured over and over again that it's really not that bad, that you have a tailwind the entire way, and seriously, how could you not ride there, it's one of the most beautiful places in the world, what's wrong with you?

At least I've relented. We're here.

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And it's a fucking disaster. The cars and trucks and rented RVs are constant, even on a Sunday morning. The shoulders that half a dozen people told me we'd find exist in spots, but they also have the unnerving tendency of vanishing at random, often in the middle of a straight section of road where there's no reason to expect they would. And while it's true that we're riding alongside some of the most impossibly beautiful and lose-your-shit stunning scenery that America and possibly the world has to offer, we only get to see it in two-second flashes between checking the conditions of the road in front of us and using our rear view mirrors to judge the level of distraction held by the drivers approaching from behind.

The view points have their own charm. There we get to watch tourists with both iPads and thousands of dollars works of high-end cameras and lenses take pictures of the chipmunks and seagulls and tiny birds that have become habituated to human contact and now beg for food. When said tourists have captured enough wildlife, we then look at them almost run into each other in their rental cars as they scramble for the turn back on to the highway and lead-foot it on toward their next poop stop.

The little town of Gorda turns out to be one of these poop stops. After refusing to pay eighteen dollars for a sad-looking burrito in the cafe, we sit next to the mini-mart and watch an unending stream of under-amused vacationers and day-tourists alternately eat eighteen-dollar burritos, take pictures of unremarkable potted plants, crash their motorhomes into various curbs and structures at low speeds, and wonder why their day isn't as awesome as they thought it would be when they started down the coast this morning.

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Not every piece of this RV will make it out of the gas station parking lot.
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It's a shame, all of the chaos, because when we pull off the highway and have the chance to sit and look at the character of the coast in detail it's almost beyond description. Because the mountains drop into the water at such a steep angle, other than the road the area is flush with native trees and plants and grasses that have been doing their thing for centuries despite all of the car exhaust and questionable photography. And when the clouds clear and the sun at last reaches the ocean, the surface sparkles like so many diamonds and at certain angles the water reflects a shade that's almost pure turquoise.

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But then a herd of motorcycles eight deep rumbles past, or an SUV passes too close, or a car speeds by with the window down and a disembodied arm hanging out the window, with the hand glued to a mobile phone as it takes a shaky, unfocused, poorly framed snippet of video that not one person will ever watch, not even once. That's when we're reminded what this part of our trip will be like.

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Our mood changes as we head farther south. There isn't any escape from the noise or the impatience or the proximity of the traffic, so we accept our situation and push on, because that's all we can do. The best way to describe what we feel is a kind of detached cynicism, where we try to appreciate the beauty all around us, but more often than not end up laughing at the ridiculousness of the cars, the behavior of the tourists that live inside of them, and the fact that around here a small box of Triscuits costs $6.25 and a pint of beer that can only be described as decent costs eight fucking dollars.

Bargains!
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Not far after Ragged Point a long line of cars at least nine or ten strong that follow a slow-driving rented RV appear behind us. One by one they move to the left and give us a safe amount of room as they pass. Except for the last car, a red Chevy Camaro convertible with the top down, which I watch come closer and closer to us without changing course. It isn't until the very last moment, when he's about three feet from my left-rear pannier, that I see his head jerk up a little and his hands jam the steering wheel to the left, so that he avoids running into one or both of us and can continue on his way to the next bathroom or opportunity to pay ten bucks for a little tub of ice cream.

As his designer sunglasses and stupid haircut fade from view, that's when it comes together. That's when I realize what it takes to ride the part of the California coast that runs from the border with Oregon all the way to where we are now: you have to be willing to put your life in the hands of every driver that passes in your direction. You have to trust they they will pay attention, that they will give you enough room when they pass, and that they won't slam into an oncoming car when they decide that they can't wait two more seconds and then swerve into the other lane in the middle of a blind corner. And you have to go through this life-or-death trust exercise over and over again, all day, every day, and never once have the outcome go against you.

That's a bridge too far for me.

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But we're lucky. Instead of dealing with this kind of riding for two weeks, and either feeling terrified the entire time or simply becoming complacent with the crush of traffic and the constant risk of injury or death, we're out of danger in about twenty miles. That's when the terrain flattens, the shoulder becomes wider and more predictable, and the coast turns from terrifying to just stressful and mildly infuriating. The promised tailwind kicks in strong at the same time, and with the stink of low tide surrounding us, red-headed turkey vultures hanging on the updrafts, and the mountains to our left glowing orange in the setting sun, we crank out miles and at last have the chance to appreciate the world through which we're traveling.

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It's a strange bunch at the campground. There's the two of us and then a thick-bearded homeless man with a tiny tent and almost no other possessions, another rider with minimal gear who from the get-go snores like there's a logging operation taking place in his sleeping bag and never stops, a couple of tents connected to a running generator, and a group of younger women who are the kind of people that when presented with a raging campfire (and if we're being honest, when presented with most situations) decide that taking shots of Johnnie Walker Red is priority one.

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We eat canned garbanzo beans and spinach, drink our overpriced Big Sur convenience store beers, and fall asleep soon after, with the Sunday rush of home-bound traffic still going strong.

Today's ride: 49 miles (79 km)
Total: 1,183 miles (1,904 km)

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