Descending down from that first monstrous hill- the one from the top of Daly City, down into Pacifica, CA, if we are being specific- felt like being God. The sun started breaking through the monotonous coastal fog. A few very industrious beams of sunlight chose to bless a park bench at the bottom of the hill, and -just like a moth, without choice- I gravitated to it. I found a bouquet of flowers resting there, ostensibly purchased for someone else, but I knew the Cosmos meant them for me. This was a good omen.
Look- people ride down the Pacific coast. All the time. It’s a done thing. Some ride for charity reasons, some to celebrate milestones, some hoping to find some sort of meaning in their complicated lives. I’m riding to see if I still can.
I’m past 40, blessed with child, and recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes. I’m also an avid bike camper- there’s no vacation like a bike vacation, with a tent, a road, and no real plan.
But I’ve fallen out of what anyone could reasonably call ‘shape’, and watched idly and fearfully by as my body has begun to fall apart, and I’m worried that this phase of my life might be over. But I’m not ready to let it go just yet.
The muse came after reading a young fellow’s blog about a quick trip on Highway 1, basically the bicyclists’ Appalachian Trail. There is no shortage of reading about this sort of thing- googling ‘Bike Highway 1” yields 6.7 million hits, I imagine written by those with copious spare time and miniature fountains of youth gushing from every pore on their perfect skin. Most of these kids don’t have kids , and do have abdominal muscles that can grip tennis balls.
I have an abdomen that could stop a basketball cold. Still, I am bike tourist. I’ve done it for years. I looove getting out on the bike, even if (mostly) I’m not fit enough to do it. I can usually deal, huff and puff up hills, bitch and kvetch, knowing that if I wasn’t quite in proper shape to start the trip, I would be by the end. I’m going to have a hard enough time finding fresh salads with sugar-free dressing along the highway. And yes, I realize that I already sound like the curmudgeonly old-codger archetype, prone to grousing and gross exaggeration. But I’m also going to have to tow along my 350 lb sleep apnea machine.
As it turns out, without mechanical help, I stop breathing about once every 2 minutes when I’m asleep, and- I’m sorry to say- that is not an exaggeration. I need my machine. It’s heavy enough on its own, and I’m going to need to tug along an array of batteries, cords, possibly solar panels, in order to use it in the woods- there are no places to plug your head into the wall when there are no walls. Do I still get to have bike adventures? I’m going find out in the only way I know how.
It will be a slow descent- I’m allowing myself a few practice nights- first a hotel, then a hostel, before I finally try a hammock in the woods (as I have no room to carry a tent). It’s like a ‘touring gear’ article, just specialized for the old and lame.
Day 1: HOTEL: From SF to Half Moon Bay via the Old San Pedro ( Planet of the Apes) Road.
Can you actually make it over the mountain on the Planet of the Apes road on a road bike? When you are middle aged? With your sleep- apnea machine in tow?
Some explanation is needed here.
You see, I found this ‘road’ on a ‘bike-with-gps’ website. Now, being rather old, I’m a bit slow to pick up on this new-fangled gizmo stuff. I do realize that bike computers exist, but I always figured they were for people who simply liked data and spreadsheets outside of work hours, and therefore enjoyed monitoring and graphing their heart rate and elevation. And if you are one of them, more power to you. You are probably healthier than I am. I’m rather afraid to see my heart rate. If my actual heart doesn’t explode as I ride over the next hill, I am content.
But I did find this website, and this kid’s blog about the road, and decided I might be up for the challenge.
The Old San Pablo Road- when it was constructed- was basically Route 1 in California, one of the first attempts to make travel along the coast accessible to cars. It was a huge undertaking and a massive failure. It was dredged in 1909, paved in 1911 and basically left to rot two years later, as it was entirely too dangerous to drive on with with those old whitewall-tired, open air Model T’s. Motoring magazine wrote, in 1913 ““Pedro Mountain Road is in such poor condition that anyone going this way is simply inviting disaster.”
So it was left to moulder. Which is a shame- it must have been quite the engineering feat to sling a thin strip of road around an entire mountain, then give it up in half a decade, but that’s what governments are for, right?
That leaves what it is today- a peek into what the apocalypic future might hold for all of us who intend to light out on bicycles when the sh*t hits the wall. It’s been sitting for well over a century in an earthquake prone area. Years from now, when we get into a Mad Max scenario, will you still be able to ride your 26 year old peugot ten-speed to the safety compound in Half Moon bay? I was out to see.
The route starts in Linda Mar, California, not so far from the “Starbowl!” bowling alley, or whatever it’s called. It’s close enough to SF for us aging hipster parents to have visited for a birthday party, mostly because it’s far enough from the city to appear “quaint”.
I would define it as “redneck”, but I get to, as I grew up in Northville, MI ( south of Southfield, west of Westland) and am attuned to these types of places. Fitting, then, that I got the first right of passage on any bike trip over quickly, just down the street from bowling alley.
“You’re in the middle of the road, you IDIOT!” Yelled the guy in the red pick-up.
I thought this was unfair, as I was probably only one-third of the way into the outer lane of a two lane highway, staring at my phone. Maybe halfway, tops.
“Yea?!? And your a dumb bowling redneck with a shitty pick-up truck stuck in Pacifica! At least I can get out of the road!” I failed to yell back. I’m all about passive/aggressive mental commentary.
Instead, I gunned him the bird, as soon as he was around the bend and couldn’t see me do it. Pays to be safe.
The entrance to the Old San Pedro Road was a bit foreboding. It’s a fence, delineating the end of car land, the begining of …well, I wasn’t sure yet. But it boasts a beat up sign, a gate, and an etheral, shaded forest coming in at all sides. the sign reads ” Beware, you could DIE DIE DIE- shit is unsafe here! Cliffs! Death! Pirates!” Or something like that. I couldn’t read the sign that well, and just filled in the subtext with my overactive imagination. Sometimes brains suck.
I won’t lie, I was a bit worried, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I looked at my “ride GPS” map on my phone, and it looked really twisty. That meant hills. That meant steep hills. That meant apocalyptic steep barely functional hills on the edges of cliffs, filled with scree and other geologic obscure terms that could send you careening down a cliff. I was a bit freaked out.
I won’t lie again. Despite my terror, I was kinda hoping to see some evidence of the cars from days of yore- the ones that apparently went over said cliffs- somewhere in the bottoms of the ravines. Frankly, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the rusty hulk of an old Model T, buried three quarters in the dirt with the polished skull of the unfortunate driver gleaming in a rare beam of sunlight, his century-old monocle casting a faint rainbow on his now exposed bones of his upper forearm and digits, with just a little hint of rusted metal from the monocle-chain coloring the topsoil.
So I’ve got good news and bad news. First the bad- yea, no, I wouldn’t have seen that anyway, duh. Too long gone ( although I trust it is still in there somewhere.)
The good news is the reason why. If you are like me, vertigo freaks you out. The Old San Pablo road- which IS riding along a thin strip of non-road ON A CLIFF- it is that it does not at all feel like that.
The reason is this: it has been around for such a long time that the encroaching vegetation (on both sides, but mostly the ‘falling’ side) is so thick that you mostly can’t even see how close you are to immanent death. in fact, I might propose that you are actually physically protected by the vegetation- I ( because, yea, I go there) imagined what would actually happen if I drove my bike directly into said vegetation, trying to kill myself by gravity and elevation. GOOD NEWS. You *probably* would get tangled up in the thick vegetation ( and hurt a little bit) before you fell down the cliff and joined Teddy Roosevelt look-alikes in permanent slumber.
But is it ridable? As far as I could tell, the answer is yes, even for an old codger like me. It’s mostly paved, albeit thinly at points, and the nice thing is that since it was made for clunky old model T’s, the grade isn’t too dear. It’s a steady uphill, for sure, but it was made for vehicles that didn’t have the wherewithall to go up too quick, too steep . That meant that I, with my old legs, could just just plunder on, steady pace, without too much effort. I was totally enamored at this point, kinda loving all the microclimates, sweeping views of the ocean ( whoops, a little too Yelp there) generally all the good stuff. Until I got to the top.
There were other people on the trail. One pair, an old white guy biking behind a young Fiilipino kid doing the running, obviously supporting him in training, was saying things like ” I dunno, I kinda support Trump on his immigration policy- well, I just avoided them. Another guy, a whiz–bang super-fit mountain biker, whizzed past me on the way up. I didn’t see him again until I reached the top. He appeared to *not*be going down the other side, at least not quite yet. I just thought he was just resting, and so carried on, onto what appeared to me to be “down”. But the path seemed to …..go away. I turned right back around and asked super whiz- bang mountain bike guy,
“”Hey- are we at the top?”
“”Oh no”, he said, “ it goes down for a bit, but then it goes up again.And it’s unpaved…ummm….. “, he said, eyeing my road bike quizzically……” It gets steep… i’m not sure….”
I got the message. My bike wasn’t gonna cut it. But I couldn’t go back . I figured I would just plunder on, hoping to make it, somehow.
“Turn left at the fork”, he said.
He was right. The road disappeared rather immediately, and this was no territory for a road bike, let alone a road bike ridden by a faltering old man with a 350 lb sleep apnea machine strapped to his rack. I was seriously worried that I would break the delicate machinery with all the shaking, and even more worried that I would actually get lost trying to get off the mountain.
When I came to the intersection, I just about turned left. Thank God I didn’t. Cheap people who buy GPS apps for their phone, rather than professional bike computers can’t see maps when there is no cell phone service. Thank another God (well, my family is Hindu) there was a hiker.
He looked just like Bill Bryson, or at least as I imagine him to look like, and so I felt safe asking him questions, as I have had many imaginary conversations with all my favourite authors in my mind. He wasn’t as charismatic as I had hoped, but he did give me friendly and practical advice- go down- and I made it back to the real highway, and eventually my hotel.
Tomorrow, Highway 1. For real.
Day 2: Hostels and Canadian magical bicycle mages.
It’s a solid grey morning, the standard fog overhang, and I am milking the expensive hotel for all its worth. I am shoveling down the free breakfast, which, for a “Free Continental Breakfast!’ deal is pretty ok, and even better if you are a diabetic. Sausages! Little cheese omelettes! Protein, not chunky, dense bagels with a side of pancakes and super saturated sugar solution (maple syrup, for those of you that still can.) I am inhaling sausages whole, shoving peanut butter packets, cream cheese containers, and fruit in my pockets ( note: if you grabbing what you can and packing your bags tight, soft fruit like bananas are a terrible idea, particularly if your bags are black and soak up heat, as I learned a few hours later. Suffice to say, I don’t want to talk about it) when I notice the Sign.
It’s sitting on every table and It reads something like ” Please, only take what you will actually consume, in order to environment, blah blah blah.” Now, I am not having a problem consuming things, but I clearly have a plan to pilfer a bunch of food for later. I realize that they have written this into their budget- I might make off with 67 cents worth of produce for a $165 a night room, and that will not break their bank. Still, I gotta find thrills where I can get them, in a very Middle Aged sort of way, and so I surreptitiously slip fruit into my rather telling slim biking shorts, each pocket now screaming either “purloined banana!” Or “purloined Apple, red delicious by the shape of it!” or the obvious joke. I ponder how to slip by the person at the front desk- probably a minimum wage teenager who could give zero fucks about old men stealing apples- because at my age, I need to manufacture intrigue and rebellion. As I do this, I realize I am half listening to the news, which is telling me – surprise!- California is on fire during “California is on Fire” season. I’m not really paying attention, but I do absorb the fact that at least one of them is ” 60% contained” which sounds good, but how are they not just guessing? Still, that comes in handy later.
I light off- at 10:53, 7 minutes shy of my check out time, with my purloined fruit, a few tubes of designer miniature shampoo/conditioner ( ne avec drederique, pour les cheveax) in tow, and hit highway 1, in full.
I was kinda scared of highway 1, to be honest. I’d driven down it a few times, contemplating what it might be like to ride your bike on it from my comfy Toyota with, air conditioning and witty podcast in the background. I thought ” Oh hell no” – the shoulder looked to thin ( or not existent) at points, the hills looked too hilly- basically I pre-freaked out and decided No. Not for me.”
I’m not sure why, now that I am here, next to the ocean. It wasn’t too tough, save a few logging trucks whizzing by. I feel good about this.
I head up one massive, “no shoulder” hill. It is miles long. I’ve got my GPS tracker on this morning, just to test it out and feel self-congratulatory when it confirms with math and expensive phone data that I did what I just did. The hill- it’s hella big, as the California youth say. It is the only passage for huge semi-trucks (lorries, for you Brexits), SUV’s and rent-a-truck recreational vehicles that cater to Europeans who forget which side of the road we drive on. As far as I know, none of these cars are looking out for bicyclists, as I’ve seen none whatsoever so far, and I’m feeling a bit alone on the big highway, with the exception of my trusty Cpap machine.
After a couple of miles up the hill ( ok, 0.7 according to my gps) I get tired, and so I have to take a whiz. I pull over in the “Pull over, you prick, you are driving too slow! ” pullout lane , just to have a rest, a pee, and a look around. From afar, I see another bicyclist, way off in the distance. I sense that there must be some ethical code, a brotherhood of touring bicyclist etiquette that requires me to wait up for him, and so I do.
He turns out to be from Canada, on his way to Arizona, and he looks as if he’s been riding since 1989. Solid. No breaks. He certainly hasn’t had time to drop by the dentist’s office. We chat gear, big ass hills, whatever passes for normal conversation among God’s chosen few bike tourists, and awkwardly bump fists. I return to my bike after he lights off, and fire up my GPS. It has granted me an extra 8 miles in the time it took me to take a whiz. I prefer not to think of this as a flaw of the app. I figure it’s like Dungeons and Dragons- I just gained 8 Experience Miles for fist-bumping a 37th-level Canadian Bicycle Wizard.
I do see him again, some miles down the highway (“I’ll claim on the record that you made it here first” he says). He’s a little worried- he wants to ride through Big Sur tomorrow, and it is on fire, as it is “ California is on Fire” season. I remember what I heard on the TeeVee (the telly, for the Brexits) while I was stealing fruit. It’s odd, this exchange of information- I had a useful tidbit of info, and he wouldn’t have heard it if we hadn’t talked earlier, had some sort of social contact. It almost feels a little bit like normal human communication, as it was conveyed, at least at one point, through flapping lips, and not from a touch-screen connected to the World Wide Web. I’m beginning to remember why I love doing this.
I make it to the hostel. I am a little ambivalent- hostels are for young people, with no kids, still in that very free-fall stage of life, where you are making enough money and have enough spare time to drop whatever you are doing and travel for months on end. I don’t want to compare myself to them, mostly because I don’t want to be jealous of their health, their disposable income, their sexiness and their youth.
There is one couple I see early in the evening that must be my age. They are a fit pair, slim, greying at the temples, meticulously dicing their kale greens and organic elephant garlic. They are poring over every cooking detail, which tells me they don’t have kids, as they haven’t shifted into the manic ‘just put some shit on the table’, and “I don’t care if you don’t like it, it’s bedtime, fine, just have some rice crispies, I’ll finish the rest if you don’t eat it” style of cuisine so popular amongst families. Still, I am heartened by at least someone my own age being here, even if they are clearly much healthier than I am. But shortly thereafter, some more young, healthy internationals come in through the door, with clean teeth and relaxed attitudes. I hide at the beach, as I don’t want to meet them.
Fortunately, my old codger friend, also over 40 and ‘with child’ as they say, is professoring in Santa Cruz that day, just a handful of miles south. He’s got his oldest kid with him, they are on the way back to SF. He drops by, cracks a beer ( only one, which he shares with me- gotta get the kid home safe, after all) and shoots the shit with me on the beach for an hour. I don’t feel so old. Ok, I do, just validated.
I do mention that I am heading up into the mountains, and his usual laid back demeanor darkens.
“You be careful up there. Someone died just this last weekend.”
Some motorcyclist dug too deep into a turn, swiped a tourist, something awful like that. I’m trying to let the ocean fill my ears, as this is exactly what I’m afraid of. Thin roads, with no shoulder. Blind curves. The Unnecessarily Wealthy with Lamborghinis using public highways as private racetracks.
“You know it’s just a bunch of CEOs with Lamborghini’s using highway 84 as their private racetracks, right?” says my buddy, as he comes back into focus.
I sigh. ” Yea. I’ll be careful”
I go to bed early.
I wake up early in the men’s dorm, earlier than everyone else – 6:00 AM, you sonsabitches, I have a kid and therefore a permanent internal alarm clock! I also don’t want to know how young and pretty everyone is.
Surprisingly, when people do start to mill about, they aren’t all that young. There are parents with their adult children, hopping down the coast with bikes in tow, riding them when they can. There is an older nurse, on vacation, grousing about her L5 ( which I know stands for lumbar vertebrae, 5th one down, as I also have an aging spine.) She is chatting up another middle aged woman with her college-aged kid, unfortunately in town because there was a death in the family, now vacationing on the coast, because, hey, when are we all gonna see each other next? There are a few young and pretty European jet-set kids, and more power to them, because really, us old folks bitching about arthritis and when music was last decent might just make up the majority here. I still feel old, and l still feel validated. Maybe I will be OK. Heartened, I pack up all my gear, with great hopes that I might actually make it to the redwoods and sleep through a night with my precious apnea machine.
Before I hit the road, one of the adult children takes note of my bike and my gear. She is clearly a bicyclist herself.
“Hey, is that a Bluetooth speaker? Does it kick?”
I imagine she wants to kick some Beyoncé or whatever the kids are listening to these days, and I’m a little recalcitrant to admit that as a middle aged, semi-white guy liberal, I need my NPR.
” Oh, yeah it …..does the job”
“Wow, cause you are packing really light for a self-sufficient ride!”
She doesn’t even know I’m packing a 350 lb sleep apnea machine! Ok, sure, I’m also packing light cause I did a crappy job of planning this trip, hence no tent and a half baked “hammock” plan and am “self-sufficient” to the tune of stealing toilet paper and continental breakfasts from pricey hotels, but she just made my day.
Day 3: into the woods
The road up into the Santa Cruz mountains is very nice.
The problem is that it it is dangerous.
I didn’t know this immediately, but the signs clued me in. “Beware: Log trucks.” Really? Log trucks? I had seen these trucks- no, experienced these trucks- whizzing down highway 1, a pile of telephone poles stacked in a pyramid threatening to break the slim belt buckle and topple them over my head, braining me like an extra on an Indiana Jones flick set.
That wasn’t the only problem. The other problem were the CEO’s. They are real.
I didn’t encounter them at first. It was an almost storybook ride up to the campground, only 8 easy miles through an idyllic, winding ascent, as the microclimates gently changed from coast to farm to Redwoods. Problem was, they had no food. No problem, it was only 8 miles back to the nearest town, and I could dump all my junk- including my 350 lb apnea machine- at the campsite and roll back down. And back up, no problem, it was pretty right? I survived all the way up without a Log Truck or a CEO, so why worry? I got back down to the General Store no problem, which sold sausages and bags of lettuce ( yay, diabetes!) no problem, and headed back up.
Then they came. It was a problem.
They were like bass-heavy thrumming exact-o-razors on wheels, cars that are measured off the ground in inches, rather than feet, all ready to flick me off the road and turn me into reluctant human compost. They came in sequence- in two sets of three- and they were identical, save the color of the paint. They were also identical in the cockpit- 50+ super-agitated white guys, competing with each other. This is what money does on weekends.
The nice thing is that you could hear them from far away- enough time for me to get off the roadway and let them have their midlife crisis without spoiling mine ( read: kill me) and I appreciated that. The bad part was that it was on me to preserve myself- I don’t think I’d register more than an extra large moth on their windshields, should they have hit me, and I’m quite sure they have the lawyers to smooth that over, should it happen. I think it probably does, once in awhile.
They frighten me, these cars, these log trucks, these roads. But maybe it’s because I’m in a frightened state of mind.
The thing I’m actually frightened of is ridiculous. Being sheared off the road is a much more reasonable fear. I could also choose to be existentially frightened- maybe my apnea machine battery won’t last through the night, maybe I’m too old to be doing this, maybe I’ll have to give this up, this thing I love……but no. That’s not what I’m frightened of.
I’m frightened of raccoons touching my butt.
I shouldn’t be frightened of this. Raccoons have little interest in touching my butt. I also- like anyone else in North America- dealt with raccoons growing up, but hey, they freak me out. There, I said it.
I think I worry because they represent largish mammals, and here, in the mountains, there are other, more dangerous largish mammals. Mountain Lions. Maybe Bears. Anything large enough to wander around my campsite and scrub around in my food, and they WILL- I’ve been camping, I know. In the past, I’ve had the airy few feet between the tent wall and my internal organs to imagine if they took a slash at me, they might just miss and get a handful semi-waterproof nylon in their claws. Now, though, I’m packaged like low- hanging meat-fruit, easy pickings for the more industrious carnivore.
I don’t know why my mind goes to these places. Maybe because I’ve never slept in the woods in just a hammock, maybe because I’m worried that the humming of my apnea machine will attract them, maybe just because if my machine craps out and I don’t get enough sleep, I’ll give myself a heart attack tomorrow trying to ride up and over the rest of the mountains. I’m at the age where I need to worry about that shit. i just wish I wasn’t so good at it.
Night 3: The details
I slept, kinda badly, as I slept next to worry and my apnea machine, which gave out around 3 in the morning. But I did sleep, at points, and I realize- sure it sounds kinda trite- that the act of trying to even do this meant I succeeded. I slept in the damn woods with my damn apnea machine.
After (non) sleeping in the woods- no raccoons touched my butt, after all, I got up ,found that I had no coffee and no food, as I had eaten it all, save leftovers from my bag of salad -diabetes!- so I ate it, and gamely tried to head up to the mountains. I went up four miles, thought “can I do this?” and reconsidered. I had never even driven up this particular road, so I had no idea when I would even find food, let alone being sliced off the roadway by a an overprivileged CEO . I thought about everything waiting for me back at the coast- a warm breakfast, coffee, fog, a now- familiar Highway 1, and said “Fuck it”. After all, I already did what is set out to do- camp with my sleep apnea machine in a hammock in the woods, so “whatevs” as the kids used to “abbrev” in their “txts’ some days not too long ago. I headed back. I could make it back home today if I pushed myself.
I won’t bore you with details.
Ok fine, I will bore you with one: it was 70 miles back up Highway 1, and there was a nasty stretch, around the mountain that I avoided via Old San Pedro road, that sucked. It was a thin road, slung around a mountain, cut into a side of granite, and I walked my damn bike on the white line, feet in the gutter, for a few miles, until I could gravity my way down the rest of the hill.
Despite this being the only way around the mountain, and despite there being signs posted with bicycle icons every 1500 yards saying ” Share the Road!” some fucker in a Prius ( cause liberal Eco-tarians can be the biggest pricks) decides to honk at me as he goes by. And what the hell did you think that would do? Startling me would only lead to me veering one way- into traffic. I don’t have any room. I realize it’s an uncomfortable situation for all of us, bicyclists crammed with cars with no margin for error, but come on.
In other countries, people use their car horns copiously, but more like sonar- here I am, feel my proximity through sound and air. In the States, it pretty much means one thing- you have inconvenienced me somehow, I must show you my anonymous displeasure. Situations like these make me wonder if a little extra weight in my bicycling gear would be worth it, to have a set of half-bricks, ready to hurl through their back windows, with my f**cking initials carved on them, just to make it personal.
All that said, I make it home. Intact. My apnea machine still works, my wife and child still apparently love me, my muscles are tired, but strong, and I sleep well, knowing I can do this again if I need to. And I will.