Tall trees and tent invaders: Cycling in Northern California

Usually there’s not much of a change as you cross state lines in the USA, but California felt different. It looked different. The land was brown rather than green. It was dry out here, and hard to believe that just a few days ago we had been pedalling through heavy rain and fog. At least crossing the state lane provided us with plenty of new tunes for the internal radio. Our first night was spent sleeping in a church in Crescent City, and from there the highway turned inland into one of California’s most famous parks – where there would be plenty of trees – the Redwoods.

Redwood trees are tallest trees on earth, and can grow to over 350 feet (over 100m). They can live for over 2000 years. These trees are seriously big – they hurt your neck to look at them while riding. They don’t have low branches, so the trunks seem even taller. The first thing we had to do was ride a big pass, it was hot but the trees provided good shade and kept things cool for us. We met some interesting people that morning. First, at the start of the climb, was a guy who told us with great pride how he had driven all the way from Pennsylvania. Sure, that’s a long way, but when all you have to do is press one pedal at a time (highly unlikely to need a clutch over here) and stay awake, you are not going to impress people who have cycled that far. He also said he loved hugging trees. The second interesting meet was about half way up the climb, we could see a bike ahead with two people stood to the side. When we got closer (slowly, it was steep) we realised it was a tandem, but the two people didn’t look like cyclists. Gradually we could see they had on jeans and backpacks and were smoking. Not your average cycle tourist. They were finding the hill tough. I said “it must be fun downhill though?” to which they replied “I dunno, we haven’t ridden down one yet!” It turned out they had hitched/walked from Missouri (this is a long way, we were impressed this time) and on arrival in Crescent City someone had given them a tandem. So the first thing they had had to do was ride up a huge hill. Bad luck. We said they should probably check the brakes before riding down. They laughed. We repeated this several times, without laughing, and left unsure as whether they knew if the bike even had brakes. Hopefully they survived. On the way down the hill we met a guy riding North (this is very rare) who was carrying everything he owned, including a large knife strapped to his shin. On the the outside of his trousers. Just in case I guess. What was this place?!

It is all about the trees in this part of California. The first place we found to stop for water was a complex with three buildings: Trees of Mystery, Forest Cafe, and Motel Trees. We passed the Immortal Tree (survived lightening, fires, etc), Chimney Tree (hole in the top), Grandfather Tree (old), Big Tree (this made us laugh), two Tree Houses, One Log House… Pretty much anything you could wish for, as long as it was a tree. None of these grabbed our attention until we saw signs for the Tour-Thru Tree. We paid our dollar each to the lady in the booth who told us the road up to the tree was steep and she GUARANTEED we would have to push our bikes the last bit. I heard the word CHALLENGE instead, so of course we rode up. It was steep, but there were no cobbles or gravel – give us a real challenge California. Riding through a tree was fun the first few times, and then it was just as fun watching car drivers try to squeeze their huge vehicles through. We told Ms Cyclist Challenger on the way out that we rode up, did we get a prize etc, and she was very unimpressed. I mean it’s not like we drove there from Pennsylvania.

That night we camped at a state park and were the only people in the hiker/biker site that was miles from anywhere else so quite creepy. We set up camp and watched the Great British Bake Off in the tent (like you do) and then came out to find a raccoon had eaten half of our biscuits and chucked the rest all over the floor. Evil. Why would you waste biscuits like that? This mindless vandalism continued in the night as I was woken up several times by rustling in the tent porch. Each time, I shone the torch on the raccoon which he did not care for in the slightest, staring back at me whilst trying to pull a non-food bag out of the tent. Other times his partner in crime the skunk would wake me. I say me – Debs remained asleep throughout all of this. In the end the only way I could get them to leave the tent was to throw a shoe at them, which worked four times until I ran out of missiles. I was finally getting a bit of decent sleep until it was broken by shouting outside the tent at 6.40am. A college cross country race was passing right by our camp spot and they HAD to set up that early, using very loud voices despite the obvious sign (a tent) that someone was trying to sleep close by.

We only had 25 miles to ride that day but it felt like 100. We were taking up an invitation to stay in Arcata by a family we met in the San Juan Islands. They lived at the top of a huge hill (of course) and on the way up we stopped at a yard sale where some ladies were selling lots of stuff we were not interested in but also had a plate of muffins that we were very interested in. They tried their hardest to offload some books on us and were disappointed to hear that we only wanted muffins, but gave us four anyway as well as a bunch of dried lavender. As we rode off we heard one of them say “look at her leg muscles” and we spent the rest of the ride arguing which one of us they were talking about. Debs has no muscles but was closest to them at the time, so it’s still an unsolved mystery. The 25 miles were completed by early afternoon so we had time for a few hours at the brewery drinking strong local beer in English sized pints.

After a rest day in Arcata it was back into the redwoods for a couple of days. The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic drive through trees so close to the edge of the road that you have to be careful not to ride into them. It really is mesmerising riding through the forest, it makes you feel very small. Not just feel small actually, I enjoyed letting Debs ride ahead of me and see how small she looked when dwarfed by the redwoods. We camped in the state park right among the trees and didn’t see much sunlight for a couple of days. After a particularly brutal pass we suddenly popped out on the coast again, blinded by the sun and instantly amazed by how good the coastal scenery was. So good we had chocolate milk to celebrate.

To rejoin the coast we had left highway 101 behind and forked off onto smaller highway 1. This made a big difference in the amount of traffic squeezing past us as the big trucks stuck to the bigger highway and for the next three days to San Francisco we had the best coastal stretch so far. The road climbs and then drops suddenly to get around a gulch (why not just build a bridge over the gap…. anyway) then climbs again, and repeat. Steep up, steep down. One morning there was a fair amount of fog so we didn’t get any rewarding views for the effort, but on the whole the sun shone and the sea sparkled. We called into Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, where industrial waste was dumped into the sea up until the 1960s. A lot of it was cleaned up but the glass and pottery was left and has been broken down and smoothed by the waves so that now the beach is covered with “glass” pebbles. Pretty cool. As we got closer to San Francisco more and more sports cars passed us and the small towns we passed through became more and more posh. This was the California we were expecting.

Eventually the Golden Gate Bridge emerged on the horizon. The sky was so blue that it seemed to shine against the background. Reaching the iconic bridge felt more momentous than any of the milestones to this point. It has a bike path down the side so for once we didn’t have to fight traffic for space. Unfortunately being a Sunday we had to fight other cyclists instead. These came from two camps – the roadies trying to race across and weave in and out of the slower traffic, and the tourists on rental bikes trying to ride and take selfies at the same time. And then there was us with our wide loads. I’m not sure whether it’s more difficult to dodge truck wing mirrors or selfie sticks – at least wing mirrors follow a predictable pattern of movement. But we made it across safely and into San Francisco.

For two and a half days we left the bikes in the garage and wandered around the Mission neighbourhood where we were staying. It’s a diverse area with Latino bakeries next to posh coffee shops, and alleys full of street art/graffiti (delete as appropriate depending on your perspective. We thought it was cool.)


We sat in Dolores Park, enjoying the view of the city and the people watching. We were close to the Castro neighbourhood, famous for a history of LGBT activism, so joined a walking tour of the area (‘rest day’…).


We had managed to go the whole last five and a half months without going to an American sports fixture so took the opportunity to watch some baseball over in Oakland. It was a Monday night at the end of the season so there was hardly anyone there but it meant we got good cheap tickets. The teams repaid the low crowd with a low score (4-2 loss) and it was difficult to stay awake for the whole match, but we managed. My tv-influenced image of drinking beer and eating pretzels while watching the game was shattered when we saw the prices – $11.50 for a beer (not even an English sized pint), so currently about £9. How do people afford to get drunk there? Despite the low score it was fun to experience a true American Sporting Spectacle.

San Francisco is a cool city, no doubt about it, but walking around you also can’t help but see it’s ugly side – the high level of homelessness. We walked through streets where the sidewalk was lined with tents and people sleeping rough, and along with this comes sanitation issues. Trash/rubbish covered these streets and as you can imagine when people live in tents with no toilet, it didn’t smell great. Homelessness has been very visible as we have ridden down the west coast, more so than any developed country I’ve ever been to, but in San Francisco the gap between the rich and the poor appears to be bigger. Homeless people sit outside expensive whole food shops and cafes, and the tech money pouring into the city is evident in the miles of shiny apartment blocks we rode past on our way out of the city. Our hosts explained that affordable housing is little more than a dream concept and the gentrification of neighbourhoods is driving people out of the city or onto the streets. All of this gave us much food for thought whilst riding out of the city in our own strange situation of self-selected, temporary homelessness.

We had been told many times that the best of the coast was coming up in the next few days, so thought about this instead and hoped for clear skies and a tail wind…

Thanks to Katie; Allison, Ryan and Arwen; the yard sale ladies of Arcata; Judy; Mark; and Ruth and Edward.

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