The Salted, Green, Grassy Hills: a Bicycle Tour Into the Marin Headlands

Long before July’s sweltering heat, we were enjoying the pleasant month of March. I had been sitting on my porch sipping coffee when my friend Todd texted me, “I’m going to email you about the thing, so look out.” We’ve collaborated on many wild ideas, and Todd’s been a good friend for over a decade. I usually perk up when he reaches out about “things” because he’s a great adventure planner, so I kept a close eye on the inbox.  Lucky for me, it was an email saying that all the plans were coming together for an idea we had been tossing around for quite a while; a multi-day bike camping trip to uncover the inspiration for the Coal x Swift collaboration project with artist and illustrator, Chris McNally in the Marin Headlands of California.

Over the years, Chris and I have found ourselves on several adventures together, sharing saddle time, ideas and catching up on life. Chris is a talented, full-time artist based in San Francisco, who has a way of creating watercolors and drawings that inspire you to get outside and enjoy the little things. In 2017, we rode the Ramble Ride across Northern Colorado from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs. This was the first time I saw him drawing in person. He created sketches along the Ramble route and, on our final day, he turned the drawings into a screen press for a special gift for the riders: commemorative ride bandanas! The following year we rode again with Ramble Ride, this time from Steamboat Springs back to Fort Collins, soaking up all the type 2 fun we could handle. Then last summer, we started kicking around the idea of collaborating on an art and writing project but we didn’t jump on it. Around that same time, Chris was talking to Martina at Swift Industries about a collaborative project but it hadn’t taken shape. But finally last fall, they started the dialogue back and eventually that opportunity grew into a bigger mixing pot when Coal Headwear got on board. In the end, the idea of bringing in brands, bikes, and good friends made the whole plan a home run. The goal was to find a bike route that would serve as the grounding inspiration for Chris’ art and allow him some time to create a few watercolor pieces from it. Then, Coal x Swift would transfer this watercolor art onto the fabric that would be used in both Coal hats and Swift bags.

A few of us tossed ride ideas back and forth… maybe a dead writer’s tour pedaling the iconic pages of Kerouac and Steinbeck or maybe blazing a trail to abandoned mining camps along the Sierra foothills. In the end, it was settled. The salted, green, grassy hills of Marin were calling our names. We would ride a 4-day, 3-night loop from Chris’ studio in the Mission district of San Francisco through the Marin Headlands around to Tiburon and hop over to Angel Island for our final night before getting back to the city.

Our award-winning crew was Martina Brimmer and Jason Goodman, founders of Swift Industries, Todd Gillman and Pius Kazimieraitus from Coal Headwear, Gritchelle Fallesgon and Adam Concannon on camera crew, and to round out the group of 10, we had Covey Potter, Justin Patti, Chris McNally and me.
Hailing from the North, South, and East, our team convened in the Mission to load up our rigs and do the last-minute bike detailing. Chris fine-tuned the route to include all his favorite riding spots, so we were in for a treat for the next few days. Being intimately familiar with the route, Chris was able to start painting and creating the art ahead of time. He passed these ideas to Coal and Swift, so they had some sample hats and bags for us to use for the ride. After packing, strapping, adding one more thing, tightening, then unpacking that thing, and restrapping, cinching, finding what was making that weird noise, we finally were ready. Gritchelle and Adam snapped some shots of us perfectly loaded to document our individual packing efforts. The only time we would feel this organized over the next three days.

Although some bikepackers start at dawn to make the most of the first day, we made a break for it at the casual hour of 11 am and never looked back. Well, that is until we immediately got hungry because we practically left at lunchtime. When in SanFran, you stop for burritos, which makes for good ride fuel. And then we stopped for last minute groceries. Our true departure time was probably 1 pm, but when you’re on vacation, who is checking time?
For day 1, Chris had blended all his favorite urban trails into one long, glorious dirt commute to Golden Gate Park. Gritchelle, fully loaded for the bike trip including all her camera gear, zipped around corners and over hills with a contagious, ear to ear smile. The route took us up Twin Peaks for some nice city views, then down through the Sutro, over to Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. Then up Hawk Hill, and into the Headlands trail system to meander to Pantoll Campground on Mt. Tamalpais. With full burrito bellies and immense smiles, we were finally on our way. For once the Golden Gate Bridge path wasn’t too crowded and we got to cruise it. A few annoyed drivers caught up with us on Hawk Hill and felt the need to make it known we were in the way. But as soon as our tires peeled off the city asphalt and rolled on the moist ground, sinking and bending the tall, vibrant grasses into their muddy fingerprints, we became alive. The Headlands have a way of doing this to you.
Our lazy day luck ran out in the Tennessee Valley and the looming clouds dumped their weather fortune bags upon us. We had little choice but to finish Miwok Trail as quickly as possible but that came at a price. Temps dropped, slosh thickened, brake pads disappeared in the muddy descent grime, and the dependable Marin rain soaked through all the layers. According to the Marin Independent Journal on April 2, this was the second wettest year recorded for Marin. After being turned away from the Pelican Inn because of muddy attire, we snagged HWY 1 and optimistically hugged the white line. Visibility was slim, the fog was hanging low and there wasn’t much room for error. Reality set in that we would not be making it to Pantoll today. The silver lining was that Chris was able to get a call over to Steep Ravine and there was one remaining cabin, which made those pedal strokes a little bit easier. We were dripping, cold, soaked and also felt spoiled to have a cabin. Some of the group decided to tent camp and others used the cabin. If you think about the options, sleeping in a tent at Steep Ravine might be more awesome than a cabin. We settled in for a wood fire, cozy dinner sharing laughs and stories, and enjoyed our good choices that brought us all together in this special place.

During the night, the clouds packed their bags and vacated. The golden morning light became dancing, rippling patterns through the light, breezy, coastal grass. Martina had hauled a load of tamales from the Mission which simplified the breakfast routine and left more time to snag the morning sun to dry our things and look for newts basking their soft bodies in the increasing warmth. While the coffee and tamale umami settled in our bellies, I pulled the lone book off the shelf in the cabin. It turned out to be ‘To a Cabin’ by Dorothea Lange, her personal ode to cabin life in the late ’50s and early ’60s at Steep Ravine. Dorothea was one of the most influential photographers of the 1930s, taking the widely known photo of ‘Migrant Mother during the 1930’s depression and using her talent to educate for social justice and rural funding. She was the first wife of Maynard Dixon, one of my favorite artists. A hardback book of her glossy photos sits on my bookshelf. The sun was filling the morning sky as I flipped through her book. Before we escaped fully into Day 2, I read these words, “…And then we found that another element was creeping into it which we caught in the children—that is, they thought of it as a place where they were free. Then I began to wonder what it was that made us all feel, the minute we went over the brow of that hill, a certain sense of—not peace particularly or enjoyment – but freedom.” I grabbed my journal and pen and jotted that down.

Riding, for me, isn’t always about finding peace or enjoyment. Sometimes it’s painful, demotivating. I have scars to prove it. I’ve been dropped on group rides more times than I can count. I have vomited, heaved, and been so dehydrated I’ve lost my senses, babbled nonsense and collapsed. I’ve been lost, scared, and spent nights in the wilderness shivering in fear. But I’m here typing this which means I’ve come out the other side. What is to be gained from pushing forward during those times is a sense of personal empowerment and freedom. That’s what riding is to me. I don’t have to be trapped by those fears any longer because I know I can get through it. Freedom is found by feeling at home in one’s own skin and having the ability to make your own choices to get you in and around life. Looking back on Dorothea’s quote, I think peace and enjoyment are a product of freedom but not always a guarantee. I felt a special connection to her in that moment that I carried with me for our ride.

The Day 2 route was a short climb to Pantoll Campground in Mt. Tamalpais, regroup and roll the Bolinas Ridge Trail to Samuel P. Taylor State Park. There is nothing more gratifying than weaving your way through the Bolinas ridge looking down at the Pacific white caps, then dipping into a redwood forest and being filled with the earthy aromas of pine and dirt. We stopped for lunch, photos, tire flats, and some afternoon painting sessions. Martina and Chris knocked out some impressive watercolors during lunch nap time and I felt inspired to grab some paints and doodle. I want to make time for drawing and painting in my day to day but I lack the motivation and instead fill my time with other things. There is much delight in building a bikepacking route that leaves time for the little things instead of crushing miles and epic climbs. By making frequent stops for snacks and keeping the miles low, my mood and load can stay light. I was also trying out a half frame bag for the first time and it felt so nice not to overpack. I will often carry 10 things I never use, so a half frame bag keeps me in line for short weekend trips. When we arrived at Samuel P. Taylor it was mostly empty, so we had room to spread out in the old-growth Redwoods, some of us setting up camp in hollowed out tree stumps. Samuel Taylor was the first landowner of the area, buying it to build a paper mill to service a growing population in San Francisco. His father owned a mill on the East Coast, so he had the experience to make it happen. The trees and waterways in addition to its adjacency to SF made the area a perfect choice for Taylor. Because of his land purchase, the hills of Marin which had not been developed prior were opened to their first roads and people began settling and establishing the nearby towns. It always amazes me how some people can see a beautiful stretch of land and only see a way to make money from it while others can see a natural beauty and want to preserve it just the way it is. My bivy was cozied up inside an old giant redwood stump and the ride had left me feeling the right balance of content and tired. Martina, Jason, and Chris outdid themselves preparing a taco surprise dinner and we feasted, toasted and fell asleep as happy hobbits.

Morning on Day 3 didn’t come so easy because temps dropped below freezing. Limbs were moving slowly and so were we with an early morning flat fresh out of the gates. Our direction was Tiburon Ferry to Angel Island by way of old school Fairfax MTB trails and we were a little pressed on time. The Angel Island ferry schedule meant we needed to buckle down and implement some sort of structure to our well-accustomed, free-wheeling lifestyle. We had every intention of making that ferry but first needed to cruise San Geronimo fire road and Tamarancho. And we also made time to ride some of the original OG Fairfax MTB trails. My recommendation is to ride them without a loaded camping bike. We took a little too much time playing around, taking photos, which meant we had to hustle through San Rafael to Tiburon. We barely make the ferry queue for the final leg of our journey but there we were on a boat waving goodbye to the mainland.

Every place and every moment was so magical it was hard to soak it all in despite wanting to take this trip slow. It felt like a water hose to the face making up for all the winter days spent indoors and working. Twenty miles to the South of us, crosswalk buttons are pushed as frequently as car horns. Heavy trucks are roaring through narrow streets. Kids are walking to school. A man digs through the trash looking for breakfast. Others are headed this way to the gym, that way for a beer and across town for a tinder date. On most days, we are one of those people too. But for three short days, we were explorers. We traded our computers for handlebars. We got to be free spirits living the good life wearing salty skin, working on our tan lines and laugh lines.
Angel Island is the second-largest natural island in the SF Bay and it’s now managed by California State Parks. The island has played a significant role in history housing military artilleries as far back as the Civil War, being a quarantine station for the Bubonic plague, and an immigration station at the turn of the century. But before the Spanish arrived on the Northern California coast in the 1800s, it was a hunting and gathering place for the Miwok tribe. Today, it’s protected land with scattered campgrounds, historical tours, and the best 360 views of the Bay area I’ve seen.

We had just enough time after settling into camp to hike to Mt. Livermore, the island’s summit, and catch the sunset. We grabbed paints and brushes so we could capture the moment, each in our own way. There was just enough whiskey left for us each to have a few pulls to commemorate the amazing day we had experienced was. I wanted to freeze this moment forever; that feeling of freedom and enjoyment that Dorothea had written about was front of mind.

We all woke a little quiet on Day 4. The last day of the trip is always a somber day because you know that everything is going to come to an end and there is nothing you can do about it. Time has its way of writing the script. To make things worse/better, we see the whiskey still has some swigs so we force down a morning sip so we dispose of the bottle at the camp recycling can. Thanks, Covey. Angel Island is a beautiful piece of land that everyone should see if they can. Twisting manzanitas and towering old-growth oaks shade the spring wildflowers and provide shelter to a large population of sea birds. Just a short hike from camp are some of the Immigration buildings which are now a historical California landmark and I could have spent hours poking around there. But it was time to catch the ferry and head back to where it all began.

I had ridden around SF and Marin several times before, but this trip was nothing like what I had experienced before. It’s good to let repeat rides to familiar areas be their own different experience. Like a game of chess, one move can completely change the game. I really appreciated this group was into a slow, relaxing pedal; stopping to draw and read mid-day. We had time to share stories and really kick back with one another. I saw Chris painting something every day which served as inspiration for me to just pull out watercolors and paper and try. I know without a doubt, we all found a sense of freedom during the weekend.

We loaded onto the ferry headed for Pier 41 which is a great viewpoint for the Pier 39 seals. We weren’t ready to say goodbye, so we found a great lunch spot and shared one last meal and cheers. For Martina, this had been a bit of a nostalgia ride. She was raised in SF and had grown up on these streets and playing in these hills. We took the long way back to Chris’s studio to pass by her childhood neighborhood and home. As much as we wanted to keep the adventure going, we had to close the chapter. With all the hugs and high fives, I left San Francisco feeling a calmness that I hadn’t carried with me when leaving the city before.


Chris’ was able to create many new works from our adventure to the Marin Headlands and I am so excited and proud of what he created with the help of Swift Industries and Coal Headwear. If you haven’t seen the Headlands collections, visit Coal Headwear and Swift Industries. Gritchelle Fallesgon and Adam Concannon captured our adventure better than these words can, so please check out their work @gritchelle and @adamjcon. Adam’s footage has become a fun short film called ‘Drawn Away.’

“You know there are moments such as these when time stands still.” – Dorothea Lange

Day 1: SF Mission to Steep Ravine: 33 miles, 4329 ft.
Day 2: Steep Ravine to Samuel P. Taylor via Bolinas Ridge: 22 miles, 3255 ft.
Day 3: Samuel P. Taylor to Tiburon: 32 miles, 3133 ft
Day 4: Pier 41 to SF Mission: 8 miles, 250 ft.