Time Moves Slow: San Francisco to San Diego

While I can’t recall when the seed of this idea was planted, by early spring our plan to escape the reality of 2020 by riding from San Francisco to San Diego was beginning to take root. The year had started upbeat as I’m sure is the case for most people at the beginning of most years, but before long it took a hard turn in the other direction. Starting with a whiplash-inducing breakup that led to moving back to my parents’ house outside of Denver; those events seem small now in the context of everything that followed. As Covid 19 swept the planet and most of humanity began to shelter in place, our collective grief and anxiety began to feel like the status quo. As the days passed at a glacial pace (that was somehow simultaneously lightning fast), the snow in Colorado melted and this idea began to sprout as the earth began to thaw. At the same time, my best friend was dealing with his own lockdown situation down in Baja. Lorenzo had moved down to Ensenada late in 2019 to open a Gelato place (appropriately named “El Gelato”) and was absolutely killing it in the gelato game, helped in no small part to being probably the only gelateria in all of Baja. But when Covid hit, it hit hard and the dusty little town he was calling home completely shut down. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I started receiving regular text messages from him about riding away from all this bullshit.

In late May we both arrived back in San Diego with a couple of suitcases between us and no real plan beyond sharing a friend’s empty studio apartment. Eventually, we found our feet but still couldn’t shake the need to take a break from the day to day, and as Lorenzo would put it “Get the fuck it out of here.” My bike was already good to go and Lorenzo was putting the final touches on his ‘91 Cinelli mountain bike when I started to feel like maybe we should bring someone else into our plan. Enter Derek, our wild card and the guy that would ultimately gain the nickname “the decider,” for his ability to keep us on track when Lorenzo and I would find ourselves in a, “what do you want to do? I don’t know, whatever you want,” stalemate. Derek came by our house one day to say what’s up and kick it when I told him about our plan. His response was the same as most people that heard about our escape, “Damn that’s awesome,” but with the unexpected additional statement, “I really want to do that.” That was it, he was on board. And although Derek owned a POS Trek and had never ridden more than 20 miles in his life, I had a spare touring bike that fit him perfectly and I’d seen the guy surf for eight hours straight which gave me the confidence that he could make it, probably.

Finally, we set a date, the first week of October should have been ideal for weather and traffic, far enough into fall to remove most of the summer tourist traffic and still allow for long days with clear conditions. But then of course, as we drew nearer to our departure date, the entire west became engulfed in flames. From where we sat in San Diego all the way to Washington State, the unprecedented heat and ideal conditions for fire created the worst fire season that anyone has ever seen. With our first stop in Santa Cruz, friends we had planned to see were evacuating and letting me know that we were still welcome to stay with them as long as they still had a home to come back to. Our entire trip was beginning to look like a wash but I maintained hope that everything would be ok, at least as far as the bike tour was concerned.

The days past and as our departure date drew near the reports of hellscapes along the coast began to wane. Despite the terrible damage caused to property and forest everywhere in the state, our green light remained green and on September 30th, with bikes packed we three made our way to the airport and our trip officially began that afternoon at SFO.

For those that haven’t flown somewhere to begin a bike trip, I can’t stress enough how satisfying it is to pick up your (fully intact) bike from baggage claim, assemble it in the airport waiting area and ride away. As the three of us tore into our bike boxes and began assembly, I couldn’t help but notice a masked security guard that kept staring and circling us. Damnit, I thought. Our first obstacle on this tour was going to be arguing with a security guard about the three oversized cardboard boxes we were about to leave behind with no intention whatsoever of finding a dumpster. But to my delight and surprise, he finally approached us to ask where we were going, where we were from, and how long our trip would take. San Diego, riding back home, who knows? Maybe 9 days? As we rode away and received another friendly wave and a reminder to “ride safe” I remembered something from past tours about encounters with people on the road; for the most part, everyone that meets someone with a loaded touring bicycle is excited, cordial, and willing to lend a hand in whatever way they can. To date, I’ve ridden on multi-day and extended trips through Italy, France, California, Colorado, Texas, the North East, and the deep south. No matter where I am this fact of curiosity and support from strangers is ubiquitous and always gives me hope for humanity.

The ride from the airport to our Airbnb in Daly City was a casual 10 miles, the perfect distance to make sure we could get a feel for our loaded bikes as well as riding in a group (did I mention that all three of us had never ridden together?). As we slogged up one steep neighborhood road after the next, we finally arrived at our humble abode, a garage converted to an Airbnb for $150 a night which came complete with our first view of the coast, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the whole of San Francisco. This was going to be an incredible journey, that much was certain.

The next morning the three of us, only slightly hungover, packed for the day’s ride to Santa Cruz. This would be the first real test of our equipment and Derek’s stamina on the bike. 75 miles fully loaded starting with a fast descent into Pacifica and immediately followed by a long slow climb out towards Halfmoon Bay, after that there would be nothing but rolling hills and pumping surf the latter of which would be a constant source of moaning and yipping sounds as Derek and I mindsurfed our way south. It was also in this stretch that we had our first real dose of the damage caused by the fires that had only days before been raging through this area. After riding to the crest of a hill, we rounded corners to find entire swaths of land from hilltop to coastline burned black. Rows upon rows of burnt trees stood in stark contrast beside groves that were spared. Fires seemed to cut a straight line through a section of forest, like a monster that knew exactly where it wanted to go. Our only stop along this stretch was at Gazos Creek Alliance gas station where the owner, a gracious and friendly man from Portugal, told us that almost no one had stopped there in weeks. First, the pandemic put an end to tourist traffic, and then the fires made driving through that area impossible. He also informed us that if we wanted to fill our water bottles the tap water was undrinkable. I went inside his sparsely filled store for a jug of crystal geyser and some pop tarts, both of which the proprietor refused to allow me to pay for, asking only that we be safe on the road. “There’s a lot of crazy people out there,” he told us. Once again I was reminded how many good ones there were too.

Finally arriving in Santa Cruz we made our way to my friend Yvonne’s house who was kind enough to put us up for the night. I had never had the opportunity to visit her at home before so I had no idea what to expect. Tired and spent we ambled our way to what I considered to be the most Santa Cruz living situation I could ever imagine. A two-story apartment building that backed up to a massive greenhouse converted into a ceramics studio and garden (complete with a half-finished treehouse) with about a half dozen artists throwing clay, glazing, and gardening. They were all of them your typical Santa Cruz hippy/artist types who were more than happy to have us in their space and ready with big smiles, open arms, and an assortment of natural “medicines” of the psilocybin and cannabinoid varieties. Our first day on the road could not have had a more picture-perfect ending. Greens were burned, beers were enjoyed, tattoos were tatted and I cooked a spaghetti pomodoro that would make anyone shout “Mamma Mia!” pairing it with a salad fresh from the backyard.

Our night of partying was followed by an expectedly late start south with the intention of making it somewhere near Big Sur. With all the campsites closed I had scoped out a couple of roadside flat-spots on google maps and was keeping my fingers crossed that it would work out. It was around this time that Lorenzo and Derek began referring to me as “The Navigator” and whether that was because I had done this trip once before and that gave them complete confidence in me or they just didn’t care to look at a map I really couldn’t say. Either way, we spent the day rolling through artichokes and sweet-smelling strawberry fields before arriving in Monterey and our eventual vague campsite. A word about riding south through Monterey; you basically have two route options. The quick and dirty way to get through is a straight shot along the highway up and over a punishingly steep grade that will take about 5 miles total from the bay to Carmel. Alternatively, the 17-mile route we chose was a long winding path of impeccable tarmac through the Pebble Beach golf course complete with a picturesque coastline and stately homes that will make you go, “Jesus H Christ how are there this many people with this much friggin money in one place???”

After making our way through the miles of mansions we made a quick stop for cooking supplies before hopping back on route one as the sun began to set in vibrant fuchsia and orange. Big Sur lay 26 miles ahead of us and with darkness quickly gathering I was keen on keeping my eyes peeled for anything that looked like a place to sleep. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) Lorenzo and I shared a joint back at our resupply station (Safeway parking lot) and instead of looking for somewhere to sleep we smashed our pedals and shouted back and forth into the fading light, exclaiming to one another “What a beautiful world!” Finally, when it was too dark to continue we spotted someone with a flashlight standing on what appeared to be a flat spot above an ocean cliff. Pulling over at the trail where this mystery person’s car was parked, a tiny older woman emerged from the vehicle to tell us it was her husband with the flashlight and he was headed down to fish for a couple of hours, “My husband is downstairs fishing, this place is very good for fish.” Fair enough, as long as we could camp at the top of the stairs. After a well-earned dinner and a bottle of pinot grigio, we laid ourselves out on a patch of dirt that was just big enough for three bodies and a small path for the fisherman to get by. The nearly full moon rose over the mountains to our east as the sound of crashing waves lulled us all to sleep.

The next day we were awoken by the same fisherman from the night before, this time accompanied by four others who seemed almost as surprised to be walking through our camp as we were to be woken up by them. Soaked in morning dew, the three of us took turns using my coffee pour-over as we waited for the sun’s rays to dry out our sleeping bags so that we could begin the day’s ride to yet another ambiguous campsite. Riding towards Pfeiffer state park our first big climb of the day held an unfortunate surprise halfway up, the cool ocean air suddenly seemed to evaporate all at once and the temperature rose by at least 10 degrees. It wasn’t until my chest began to feel tight that I realized we were in a cloud of fire smoke. I knew that there were still some fires burning in the area but I had no idea we could find ourselves in a situation that unfortunately so many on the west coast had been experiencing for weeks. Our mouths dried out, our eyes burned and our lungs screamed as we continued upwards seeking the eventual relief that would come on the downhill. When we did finally reach lower elevations I scanned the iconically stacked hills of the Big Sur coastline and could see that there was a distinctive layer of brown atmosphere resting like a layer cake above the light grey marine mist.

It seemed to me that we could expect every big climb that day to hurt a little bit more than it should. However, despite the poor air quality and the unnaturally high temperatures this section of the California coast never disappoints. Every grueling climb was rewarded with winding breakless descents, made all the better knowing we would be leaving the smoke and the heat for cool blasts of ocean air. The miles flew by in a methodical way that looking back now, seemed almost as if in a dream. The entire day was filled with incredible vistas above sheer cliffs until we finally came to a long flat meadow punctuated by two enormous boulders that seemed as if they had been placed there. We tucked ourselves in behind the taller of the two boulders facing the ocean cliffs where the meadow ended and with our backs to the road, now guarded from prying eyes by the boulder. Although a picturesque and beautiful site, I couldn’t help but remark to Derek and Lorenzo that I felt a strange and unsettling feeling about the place. It wasn’t anything I could put into words but something about the energy of that place gave me a feeling of melancholy and mild indigestion. That night we all had nightmarish dreams, my sleeping pad popped and a spider bit me on the face.

There were only a few big climbs left before we would reach Ragged Point leaving the mountains behind and opening up to what I remembered to be 25 miles of rolling coastal riding with (I hoped) a strong tailwind into Cambria. The tailwind I was hoping for arrived just as predicted and we pacelined our way into town and onward to San Luis Obisbo where we treated ourselves to Thai curry and a cheap hotel room at the end of town. After two nights on the ground, my crappy hotel bed felt like a king’s estate room and I crashed hard and didn’t move an inch until morning while my compatriots tossed and turned, keeping each other up all night. The lack of sleep wouldn’t be an issue however as the day ahead consisted of chill rollers to Pismo Beach, Santa Maria, and finally to our next stop at a friend’s farmhouse in Buellton. Cruising into the farm covered in dust we were greeted with beers, farm-fresh veggies, local steaks, and fish caught from neighboring Santa Barbara. The night stretched on into the late hours and we stuffed our faces and eased our soar bodies with a carousel of CBD, local bud, french wine, and mescal; all of which made for a morning hangover that threatened my resolve to continue for the first time on this trip.

The night before we had a long back and forth with our hosts about the best route to make our way into Santa Barbara. We had no interest in riding on the busy 101 so it was looking like our only choice would be the slightly less congested highway 154 over the Santa Ynez mountains. Bound and determined to avoid spending the day in traffic, I made a last-minute executive decision to take Refugio Road out of Solvang. According to Google Maps, it should connect us with Refugio State beach on the other side of the mountains. Admittedly though I had no idea what sort of road it would be. With blind faith in my skills as “navigator,” Derek and Lorenzo agreed and we made our way through an assortment of farms before the pathed road suddenly turned to dirt and began heading skywards without letting up for 7 straight miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Refugio was dusty, hot, unrelenting, and completely devoid of cars. Our hangovers quickly disappeared and we cheered one another as if having just won the Paris Roubaix when we finally reached the top, celebrating with a now 3 hours old sausage and egg McMuffin and a victory spliff. The descent that followed was easily the most intense, fastest, and exhilarating time I have ever had on a bike. Screaming and laughing like maniacs, we wound our way down to the ocean once again and made our way through Santa Barbara. As the sun set over Rincon point, some dark insidious force took hold of Lorenzo and he began to hammer like a man possessed. Derek and I held onto his wheel and I couldn’t help but laugh as this wild animal energy that came from nowhere pulled us through the dark all the way to Ventura. “You’re an absolute animal Lorenzo! Where did all this energy come from?” With a big smile, he replied, “Megan Fox! I started to think of her and I just went crazy!” Thank you, Megan.

At this point, I’m just going to come out and say that for anyone attempting this ride you’re better off ending it in Ventura. The ride through Oxnard is just flat city miles followed by a stress-inducing slog along highway one through Malibu and into LA. While I have had some nice bike rides through Los Angeles, a fully loaded tour is a terrible way to get through the biggest city on the west coast and once you make it through Orange County the good people of the Marine Corp will reward you by refusing entrance to Camp Pendleton, forcing all cyclists to ride for 11 miles on the shoulder of Interstate 5. When we finally reached the familiar roads of San Diego I had mentally given up. I was fully ready to ghost ride my beloved chariot into a bush and sleep under a bridge if it meant the trip would be over. All that being said, there was something wonderful about rolling up to my front door and falling into my bed for the first time in over a week.

As I sit here at my home in San Diego typing my thoughts and feelings, trying to digest everything from our days on the road and from the past year I can’t help but smile to myself at the remarkable journey I had the great privilege to enjoy with two remarkable friends. Despite everything that’s happened in 2020, the relationships we all have to one another and our beautiful, incredible planet can serve as a constant source of inspiration, levity and hope for the future.