Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Crossing the seam


On the right, Inverness Ridge. On the left, a rare flat section of Highway 1. In the middle, Tomales Bay.

Under the bay? The San Andreas Fault. Sometimes the most important things are hidden.

Highway 1 mostly stays in North America. But in a few places the plate boundary and the coastline mix it up. At the steep rollers near Manchester the road crosses over to the Pacific plate. Same thing at Jenner Slide and the smaller rollers at Bodega Bay. The Pacific and North American plates relentlessly push against each other. Their squabbles are crumpling the earth.

The land deforms in convenient ways too. When the plates pull apart they can leave a shallow linear depression. That might then fill with water. The flat edge might seem like a natural place to build a road.

These few miles of Highway 1 are usually a break from the constant up and down. Easy and relaxing, a place to enjoy the scenery of Point Reyes. Today they are an unwelcome struggle into a cold blustery wind from the south. The fog lifts, revealing a thick layer of grey clouds. Feels like the leading edge of a storm.

Whatever, it's hard work. At 12 mph Point Reyes Station might as well be the moon. Like running underwater. Faster than the movement of the plates, but not much.

It's not just the wind. My body has caught on to  300+ miles in the past 3 days. A good run but now it's over. Drowsy, did not sleep well last night. Already contemplating a nap.

Not much relief in heading inland toward Petaluma. Trees by the road are tossing wildly. It takes the better part of an hour to find shelter, in the forest on Nicasio Hill. At the top, the first blue sky of the day.

Climbing White's Hill a couple of women in racing kit pass. They're a little faster but not a lot. That makes me feel better. I decide to keep them in sight on the hill, that's the game. The road curves at the summit, and I see them crest and go down. Then I do the same. The last hill of the trip.



Stop of the Moment...


Today I'm not a racer or even a randonneur. Just a tourist. No matter how late it is, no matter the consequences, I need a stop in Fairfax. Right at the bottom of the hill a Fat Angel takes me under her wing...

Mike Martin, a barber who seems to know everyone, walks by the bakery. He asks about my trip. Oh, he knows exactly where Trinidad is. Spent a few weeks there after the Vietnam War. Loved Patrick's Point and Agate Beach. Always wanted to travel Highway 1. He looks so clean it makes me want to get home and do laundry.

The air is still chilly but the bakery is a haven of warmth. After a tough morning, a good place to check in with Danny, let him know I'm alive. And evaluate options for getting home. 

This is mile 34. I hear Jim B. in my head saying 'Tomales is way out there'. He would be able to pick the best option.

25 miles from Fairfax to the Golden Gate. Then at least 60 through the city and a slog of suburbs. The detour at Crystal Springs, while the state takes 5 years to build a bridge. The 9-mile wind tunnel on Canada Road. Wind possibly in my face the entire time. Two hours of night riding.

Or, 15 miles to the Sausalito ferry. Ride to the train. Call it a day.

Or, 25 miles over the Golden Gate bridge and through the city to the train.

Well the ferry would just be cheating. 

But the bridge, the bridge is a real challenge. Should not be, but is. Since the accident and many double espressos, bridges have become a serious phobia. A fault existing only in my head, nowhere else. I freak out and literally need the help of friends to get across. Think of a horse that won't go in the horse trailer. Cajoling and walking backwards and wearing a hood. Panicking over a simple thing. 

Maybe I could get myself across the Golden Gate Bridge. Solo.

A science experiment. A showdown with the medical folks who are a little too happy to label me broken. According to me, caffeine is the culprit. I'm absurdly sensitive to it. Took it to function at my job. Sure, lots of coffee happened this week but most of it has burned off.

According to them caffeine is not a real drug, so it must be PTSD. In which case I'm unreliable about pretty much everything, including TBI symptoms. Oh, and take this pill.

Time to get on with it. The weather is a lot better here. The cold headwind, grey clouds, they're gone. It's warming up. The bridge lurks at the boundary of my thoughts the whole way through the Marin bike towns, along the Sausalito bike path. I refuse to give it center stage or get spooked. 

Pause at the Vista Point for a couple of ibuprofen (makes me sleepy, don't know why) and half a sandwich. Tough to panic on a full stomach. Here we go.

This time of day bikes use the east walkway, which helps. It helps to look at Alcatraz, not the open ocean. It helps that the weather is kind, no gale force winds. Pedestrians and other cyclists negotiate for space, slowing everyone down and forcing us to consider each other. I think about the goodness in other human beings. The finite nature of 1.7 miles. The people who traverse this path every day.

Head down and arms shaking at the midpoint, I'm able to stay on the bike and push through. It seems like a long time and then it's over.

Giddy on the other side. I'm right, I am right. It's the caffeine. Not broken. Whole. 

Now, carry me home.

Worked off the pumpkin pie...


356 miles later, the pie (2 slices with whipped cream) is history! The coast route has many pluses but flat it is definitely not.

Today, recovery and then catching up on the stories.

Route 66, a journey meets Route 1.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Incognito on the coast

The main things here are silence and the sea. Both abundant.



Slept until dawn. Walked around a little, taking in the soft blue morning light. Silence, except for the occasional car. Not a single leafblower.

Last night I went out for a sky check. Moon and stars and wispy high clouds. Lit a fire in the wood stove in my cabin. It was all set up, with paper and kindling and logs. Just add match.

These people know what's important; how to build a fire. 

A young woman brings the breakfast tray. I see Tabasco and immediately know everything will be OK. Eggs. Protein to boost the usual carbs. I'll be riding for hours on that.

In these small places you worry a little about getting the day's essentials. Coffee, the right type of food, the right quantity of food, water... In Elk (pop. 208) they provide a good start. Now the only problem is tearing myself away.

Next stop Gualala. Where I happen to know there is a pay phone at the store. That's the one thing lacking in Elk, along with cell reception. Danny must be getting worried, with no check-in last night.

There is a lot of competition for the most beautiful stretch of Highway 1. This part is right up there as I recall, partly because it is so peaceful. The sky clear as a bell, it does not disappoint.

In Manchester the huge rollers bring a wave of negativity. This is the easy direction, too. My first ride here was south to north. These came early in the morning on the Winter Solstice, socked in with fog, the road wet. They make me curse. Legs starting to wear down.

A little too fast devil-may-care traffic between Point Arena and Gualala. Locals must work in the wealthy retiree and tourist towns, live out here. At Surf Market in Gualala a second breakfast is necessary. Greek yogurt, a huge apple fritter, and coffee. I phone a friend, Bill, who might want to join me riding tomorrow. It's noon already, raising concerns about making it to Bodega Bay. Or frankly anywhere with affordable lodging. I forget to call Danny.

Stewart's Point is only 10 miles down the road. My quad muscles are glad we aren't riding the Terrible Two today (though the weather is ideal). That gratitude lasts for the next 15 miles, to Fort Ross, where the TT turns inland back toward Santa Rosa. For the first time I notice the fort is actually on the ocean side of the road, out on a point. It's hidden behind cypress trees.

Since Manchester, for the first time I've also noticed many old cemeteries, facing the ocean. Some markers look like they might be mid-1800's. When the twisty narrow roads leading into the hills brought timber to the sawmills. Now those same roads bring tourists to wineries. It would be great to explore some of those rugged byways on a bike, like Philo-Boonville Road and Mountain View Road. On a fast, goal-oriented tour, it's just not in the cards.

I'm starting to wonder whether this pace makes sense. Spending every daylight hour on the bike, moving forward. With no office or cubicle to hurry back to. Making mental notes to come back and explore.

To get to Bodega Bay, first cross the Russian River. To reach the mouth of the Russian River, first get to the town of Jenner. To get to Jenner, climb the Jenner Slide. It's a big project, one I've been thinking about all day. It's worthy of those last few knobs of apple fritter in my back pocket. Mmmm. Sugary!

Jenner slide, looking backward (north).
As the road tilts upward, a woman at a pullout turns to face me, smiling and clapping as I roll by. It should not matter, her gesture. I'm not climbing the hill for applause. It lifts my spirits anyway, with all the road hazards and drivers to watch out for. Someone is prejudiced in my favor, a solo cycle tourist with saddlebags and lights.

The slide goes on and on but it's easier than feared. Near the top a huge drift of fog is visible over ocean and land to the south. We are above it, but down we go, across the river and over gently rolling terrain to Bodega Bay. Here the coast is truly socked in with fog. My toes are numb.
Jenner slide, looking south toward Point Reyes.

Time for hot chocolate. The only place I know is Diekmann's Bay Store. There's no place to sit, so I bring in my sandwich from Surf Market in Gualala and eat standing up near the register. Get some funny looks...

While munching turkey and provolone on wheat, it's time to think about wrapping things up today. Not going to make it to Olema, or even Point Reyes Station. The 17 miles I did not ride to Point Arena yesterday made that so. But where to land tonight? My sense of distances between towns is sketchy.

I'm torn between riding heroically into the night, lights blazing, and avoiding unnecessary discomfort. Mental and physical fatigue are setting in and I just don't feel like pushing to Point Reyes Station tonight. Being a more name-brand place the rooms are more expensive, too. After all this isn't a brevet...right?

Wednesday there's a storm coming in, according to Danny. So that leaves tomorrow. Tomorrow brings more options, like the ferry from Sausalito or train from San Francisco. Today I'm just going to ride until the computer gets close to 100 miles. That might be Tomales, I doubt further than that. It's tough to give up on Point Reyes Station. But at least I'm in Marin County.


Riding the big hills north of Tomales in thick fog, light fading and rear blinker on, it becomes clear. Stop now, at mile 98. This tiny town, right here. It's just about the mileage. If it needs to mean something more, think about reaching the point where San Andreas Fault three miles to the west is pulling Point Reyes out to sea.

Put your foot down at the Continental Inn, the one and only place to stay. With Pacific Northwest's Best Places and Adventure Cycling stickers on the front door. For a reasonable sum, Penny hands over the key to a stylish, palatial room with king bed. No cell reception or pay phone but satellite TV, check.

Later I'll learn that Danny has been phoning the place in Elk to see whether I made it there, as well as the place I would have stayed in Olema (who have never even heard of me). Slightly embarrassing to consider during this time I was snug as a bug, watching Pride and Prejudice, the one with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Almost forgetting to go to bed...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

To Elk


Only now in Fort Bragg, California at mile 62 and change do I check the time: 2:47 pm. I've been afraid to look.

The winter sun filters through a thin cloud layer and the shadows of the town buildings are downright chilly. I've found Headlands Coffeehouse, the one place serving food in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in winter. That's the good news. Refueling and enjoying the photos of latte art, courtesy of a barista.

The bad news? A sign back there on the road says 45 miles to Point Arena. Point Arena is just not  happening. Not today.

Today is a hybrid day, a quilt of no fewer than 4 different riding experiences.

First, about 20 miles on 101, half of them on dicey two-lane, no shoulder. Share the road. Make it to Leggett in one piece.


Then, 22 miles of the far northern reach of Highway 1, the famous part that goes from 101 to the ocean around the Lost Coast. Survive the climbs (3.5 and 2 miles) and the descent (10 miles, moss on the road). Avoid mechanical issues.

You basically climb and descend a big ridge and then a smaller one. On this stretch when you look around all that's visible is dense vegetation. Many shades of dark green, no views. It's too dark for photographs. And on the downhill, too risky.

My mom took the 1959 Mercury wagon for a spin here, too. She lived to tell about the experience (but didn't repeat it). The curves are legion and steep but as long as I'm paying attention, no problem on a bike.

Moss and rust adorn the few human artifacts out here. Now and then a brave or arrogant soul ventured to build a cluster of summer cabins, on a flat spot. The structures are in varying stages of being devoured by nature.

Around a dark hairpin a bit of bright sun is streaming. Undeniable. A glimpse of the outside world...

Then, voila! The ocean and its sweeping horizon. Everything suddenly bright and wide, as if the world has been cracked open.

I stop for a moment to take in the riches on display. Light, sky, water, rocks. Soft, irregular contours of the high cliffs, dotted with tufts of pampas grass. Unstable ground, the reason the road turns abruptly away from the coast at this point and does not return for a hundred miles.

A message spelled out on the beach in driftwood: What's Up/A Trip North!

The position of the sun. Late. I skedaddle southward with a tailwind, past the mileage sign for Fort Bragg and Point Arena. 20 miles of rolling terrain, with many steep descents and climbs where creeks meet the ocean. Over and over, porpoise-ing the hills with some urgency. To the coffeehouse, where there is cell reception. I'm able to check in with Danny, who is already home.

The goal for this trip is a hundred miles a day, give or take. That's also about what daylight and my current training allow. Mendocino is too close (and too precious) but a little town named Elk sits at about the right spot. I ask Danny to check online and see if a bed and food can be had there tonight. "No Vacancy" signs would be normal after the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Heck, every business in Fort Bragg seems to be shut and Fort Bragg is a big town.

He finds me a cottage at the Griffin House Inn, with a pub restaurant that opens at 5. On my way. With a goal and a full belly it's possible to motor 32 miles in remaining daylight. The terrain is gentle, easier than I remember. Only the Navarro River requires descending down to sea level, then climbing back up to the bluff. Lights on for the last 10 minutes.

The inn and pub are an unbelievable gift, the only services open in Elk tonight.






 Walking into the pub, the owner Carol lifts her head and says "you must be Elaine".

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Heading south


It's always bittersweet to head south. South is the direction of the closest big city, San Francisco. When we were kids it was the most exciting thing, a trip to the city down 101. But not to stay long in the chaos. We didn't belong there. My happiest days were playing on these beaches with a dog, sweaters and jackets mandatory even in summer.

Most of my generation, schoolmates and siblings, migrated to cities on the West Coast like San Francisco or Portland. Once we were teenagers there was very little here for us. We had to leave.

But it does not get easier. Rolling quickly down the long driveway and not looking back, that's the only way.

A stop for provisions at Murphy's Market in Trinidad. They're good people, they can have my city money.

The Murphy family ran the market near our house in Sunny Brae. That was their first store, then they branched out and bought other markets. They bought this one from dad's neighbor, the Hallmarks. You see how things go up here...


An early memory of Trinidad was my mom piloting our 1959 Mercury station wagon on the old highway, now called Scenic Drive. The road was cut out of a cliff and it perpetually slips into the Pacific. From time to time it was closed to traffic but a bike can always get through. The views are spectacular.

The Mercury was not a nimble vehicle. It was as wide as a house with no power steering. The steering wheel was red, like the rest of the interior. We drove it until it gave up the ghost.

This morning the short dirt portion reminds me a little of Route 66. The old unpaved alignment, and the fun someone had while patching the road. Apparently I'm heading in the right direction!

It's 101 for a couple of miles, then off again on Hammond Trail. It dumps out in the Arcata Bottoms, where the happy cows hang out. Some dairies now have the Organic Valley shingle hanging out in front.

I'm quite happy to bypass Arcata; those memories can stay there for now. The Samoa Bridge is a demarcation point, of shedding the past and feeling a bit free. Just then my stomach tells me it could use a little something.

It gets a raspberry muffin in Eureka, at the Vellutini Baking Company. A new place since my last trip.

Humboldt County is starting to embrace the foodie revolution. Local, fresh, organic. Grass-fed. Bakeries on every corner (almost)! I say bring it on, bring on good change. My next stop is Loleta, investigating whether a bakery shown on Google Maps could be in fact, real. All in the name of research.

The place is mobbed. You have to know Loleta...  abandoned in the full sense of the word. The whole town spans a couple of blocks in each direction, scary marginal folks living in old motels-turned-tenements. An unused railroad line running through the middle of town. Vehicles rotting in front yards. For years the Loleta Cheese Factory held down the fort as the one viable business. But you can buy their cheese at the grocery store. No need to visit.

Now around the corner in an old storefront, the Loleta Bakery is serving high-end homemade food like artisan flatbreads, soups, sandwiches, muffins, breads. Sit-down tables with white tablecloths. Why, it's Healdsburg North! The folks inside eye me with disapproval. Scruffy local, they think. I pay for my bran muffin and move along. Mental note: next trip, stop for lunch!

A quest for water takes me to the shop next door. As the owner rings me up he confirms that since the bakery opened 3 years ago, his business has boomed. We both know what it was like here before; Appalachia-style poverty and decay. It takes luck and work and engineering to not get sucked in.  Another reason to leave.

More dairies in the Eel River delta on the way to Blue Slide Road. Blue Slide was a discovery from riding the Tour of the Unknown Coast in 1998. The first truly hilly road of the day, it leads into Rio Dell and across the Eel River to Scotia, toward Avenue of the Giants.

At the information sign a woman walking back to her car asks if I want the tourist pamphlet. No, but we chat a little. She's from Eureka, worked at the university and knows my dad. She introduces me to her husband as "Bob Astrue's daughter", which is comforting and disturbing at the same time.

Her name is Giesele. She and her husband are hikers who have written a book on short hikes among the redwoods. I promise to look for it at REI at home.

Avenue of the Giants is another old alignment of 101. But that's not why people come here. It's a barely-two-lane road surrounded with old growth redwoods. For 32 miles. The forest is so thick it mostly hides the Eel River, which the road follows.

Deciduous trees grow here too and today they're slowly shedding their leaves. Yellow leaves ride gravity down to the road surface with the dark redwoods towering above, dark,  implacable, silent.

I'm grateful to visit here again, a type of gratitude you never have for ordinary, close-by experiences. Grateful to have some place else to go, too. Finally it looks like the weather is going to hold for the trip. And on a bike, the perfect vehicle for noticing things.

The light is ending as I get back on 101 and climb two big hills to Garberville. Pass two other bike tourists, a Japanese couple. Look with longing at the "MO" letters to the left in town, the first two letters of a MOTEL sign. Grateful for my Schmidt hub and Edelux lamp, faithful friends.

On the right, far below the highway snakes the Eel. The waxing gibbous moon is up already, and its faint light in the east combines with the last glow of daylight in the west. Together they illuminate a layer of white mist on the river, masking the water. The mist is like cotton pulled apart in irregular shapes. I've never seen anything like it.

Grateful that Danny, clean clothes, and a warm shower are waiting at the Benbow Inn on the other side of the hill.























Alternates in scenic Humboldt

Hammond Trail, heading toward the Mad River bridge.
The lack of people in Humboldt County makes it a pretty sweet place to ride. Not to mention gorgeous landscapes and foodie places to eat. But there's that issue with remote places: few roads. Everyone asks, do I take 101? Well, sometimes. For the hundred miles between Patrick's Point and Garberville, there are only a few short bits where the highway is a must. Otherwise, bring on the backroads!

Here's what you do. First, plug these endpoints into Google Maps and say you're on a bike. That gives some approximate routing and a good view of the bike routes in Eureka. Here are the mods:

  • Patrick's Point Drive to Trinidad (old 101)
  • Scenic Drive to Westhaven (old 101)
  • Get on 101 at Westhaven Drive, exit at Crannell Road
Head west toward the ocean. Do not, for the love of God, head east to Hammond Truck Road. Bad Google. Bad.
  • Clam Beach Drive or Hammond Trail (new extension) to Central Ave.
  • Get on Hammond Trail, unpaved up the hill turning to pavement
  • After bridge over the Mad River, head south on Mad River Road
  • After the Samoa Bridge, follow R Street across 4th and 5th (101) in Eureka, head south on 6th
  • In Eureka, tack over to F Street and take that all the way past the golf course
  • At Herrick Avenue, get on 101
  • Exit at Tompkins Hill Road
  • West on Hookton Road, south on Eel River Drive to Loleta
  • Eel River Drive to Fernbridge, crossing the Eel River here
  • South on Substation Road, becomes Waddington Road
  • Left on Pleasant Point Road through Eel River delta and dairy farms
  • Left on Grizzly Bluff Road, becomes Blue Slide Road, becomes Bellevue Road in Rio Dell
  • Take main drag through town and keep heading south over the Eel River to Scotia
  • Follow Main Street south to this point, get on 101
  • Exit at Avenue of the Giants (ah, 33 miles of scenic beauty)
This is where I mention the hills. You'll find more hills on this route; bring your legs. The hilly spots are near the golf course in Eureka, Tompkins Hill Road, Eel River Drive, Blue Slide Road, and the first 5 miles of Ave. of the Giants.
Ave of the Giants, looking at the Eel and Dyerville Flat, where the Northcoast Railroad exits the river canyon.
Garberville is a place where you have to be on 101. It's hilly there. But you can take Benbow Drive (old 101) for 3 miles, and Highway 271 (old 101) just south of Richardson's Grove.

Enjoy!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Postcard from Trinidad...


Trinidad, California. Walked on the beach to prepare ourselves for turkey. The bird is secure this year, unlike last year when the cat ate it...

Here is something we will not be eating, not us and not the cat either. Death cap mushrooms growing on my dad's property. Beautiful, huh.


Got here by car, will start riding south in a couple of days.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sucked into the machine

Where are we with Valley Medical?

Here we are:
  • Got 3 referral letters in the mail: speech therapy, rehab medicine, neurosurgery clinic. Was expecting the first one. The other two were mysteries...
  • Friday I called speech therapy 10 minutes before they closed up shop. You guessed it, I was put on hold and left to wither in the phone queue.
  • A certified letter came Saturday. They have been trying to reach me by phone, unsuccessfully, to give X-ray results. I need to go to the neurosurgery clinic. Ah, that explains the referral letter! (does this mean I need surgery on my neck?)
  • The letter also says the results of blood work they asked for are not recorded in their computer system. Right, when an appointment takes 3 hours and you're really really late for a bike ride, standing in line for another hour at the lab is not happening. It's just not. How about I just say the words: I don't have legal or illegal drugs in my system and I don't have Graves' disease. Would that work?
Yesterday I tested my luck by phoning the neurosurgery clinic. Talked to an extremely nice down-to-earth woman. Their first appointment is Jan 31 (!), so I took it. That is two-and-a-half months down the road. If my neck were an Apple product it would be obsolete by then.

She read back to me what's in the medical record. They want to discuss an approach to managing "structural changes" in my spine. OK, I can handle that. My neck isn't broken and there's no scalpel in my immediate future.

The young doctor (we'll call him Dr. T.) did not relay this information to me directly because they seem to have lost my phone number. My guess is, the passive-aggressive desk person deleted it from the system when I refused to give out Danny's birthdate. Mental note to follow up on that. Isn't this fun?

The nice woman also told me that I had a follow-up appointment scheduled for Jan 15. Oh. That explains the second referral letter. Good to know. Everyone else gets to be incompetent and this woman gets to fix their mistakes.

With this run of good luck, I decided to try again for a speech therapy appointment. It's been 3 weeks.

Talked to a woman who demanded my medical record number. Then demanded my name. "Elaine", I said. Knowing full well that the medical record number is a unique alphanumeric ID that acts as a key in the database. "Elaine who", she barked impatiently. "Elaine Astrue, the name associated with that medical record number ", I said. She huffed out the words "Speech therapy is still on hold" and the line went dead. Figuring this was an honest mistake I phoned back. She answered it "What can I DO for you, Elaine", proving she does know how to use Caller ID (and they do in fact have my phone number). I asked exactly what she had meant. What she meant was, they still haven't solved the problem by hiring more speech therapists. And frankly, if they have to work with this person the "why" part is becoming clear.

She asked if I wanted to call back next week. What's this, an IQ test? No, I don't want to waste my entire life calling Valley Medical at regular intervals until they finally get their shit together. Who actually wants that? Is it really appropriate to make someone who needs medical care to beg for it endlessly? This would be that role reversal thing that seems to happen. How about, we screw up on our end and you grovel for attention on your end, forever?  Oh yeah, sounds good to me!

I vented to her supervisor's voicemail. No response yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The everyday machine

As we rode out to Lake Berryessa, Ann asked how I started riding. Everyone has a story.

Ann is a new-ish randonneur whose enthusiasm is inspiring. From the sound of it she's been spending every spare moment on a bike, exploring roads and gaining skills. There's hardly a nook or cranny around here she's not familiar with.

With all day stretching in front of us it was possible to really think about the question.

Some of the motivation for riding comes from inside. Who you are. I've always felt more at home outdoors than in (except reading books). Independent, sometimes to a fault. Love exploring places, getting to know fellow travellers. Feeling connected.

If my parents had been farmers, a farm would have been a good setting for these problem-solving skills and long attention span. An uncle raised his family on a walnut orchard not far from from Pope Valley. But we lived in the suburbs and these are the wrong traits for life inside the box. Displaced, they had to go somewhere.

Riding longer distances or even commuting regularly becomes a kind of meditation. This is the ultimate goal and my favorite type of experience on a bike. It's hard to draw a clear line between what the rider brings to the experience and the experience itself. By its very nature meditation blurs the line between them. So the question becomes unanswerable, a mystery. Or a different answer every time.

The ability to ride with reasonable safety comes from infrastructure. I started out as a bike commuter. It was not in my nature to drive to and from work on the freeway, trapped in a car. Danny built up a bike out of spare parts, which I began riding to work. 24 flat miles, 3 days a week. It was a small step up to a metric century ride. Then things kind of snowballed. That bike and its feeble headlight and the cotton riding clothes, all are long gone. But the process began with the people who made it possible to commute to work.

Among these people, Ellen Fletcher stands out. Ellen was a local bicycle advocate and lifelong cyclist. Over forty years she worked to improve cycling infrastructure here in Silicon Valley. She was relentless, a formidable long-term thinker. I met her a couple of times; she was not a warm and fuzzy person. But she did not rant either. With the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition she kept the faith and found ways to get things done. Allowing bicycles on Central and Foothill Expressways. Organized bike parking at major events (like Stanford football games). A bicycle boulevard in Palo Alto that was  one of my commute routes.

I joined SVBC in 1996 after finding a flyer draped on my bike. Ellen had left it there. At that time their motto was 'promoting the bicycle as an everyday machine'. For me that has meant more than I could have imagined. Exploring everywhere in California. Riding double centuries and brevets and Paris-Brest-Paris. Healing from a brain injury. Having a quality life.

Ellen died Wednesday after a long battle with lung cancer. Her memorial service is going on right now at the Palo Alto JCC. The invitation said "bike attire encouraged".

I'll honor her later by going for a ride.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A quick and simple project


Bike Exchange workdays are usually every other Saturday. Today is different; because of Thanksgiving they're only one week apart. I'm barely up in time and rush out without the camera. Go back and get it...

The program shares space with a car repair facility, in an industrial area near Costco. That will pay off in a few hours when the Costco pizza shows up! The humble exterior hides a lot of first-rate tools and new parts. The repair stands, allen wrenches, and special tools are the same ones pro cycling teams use to maintain their bikes. It feels like we're able to give the donated bikes a professional makeover.

The program design is brilliant, too. 
  • Donated bikes stay out of landfills. Their value is tax-deductible. 
  • Tools and parts are funded by selling the better bikes. 
  • Volunteers, including groups from local tech companies, provide the labor. Newer volunteers develop repair skills. Mechanics donate their expertise without the need to do every little step. 
  • We all get to meet each other and socialize during the process.
  • People in the community who need bikes for work or play receive a quality used bike. They get to feel independent. And it's greener when trips are made on two wheels instead of four.
In other words, it's a non-profit program that leverages capitalism to achieve environmentally and economically sustainable goals.

This morning it's raining. All the covered spots are taken, so I pair up with Steve. He arrived at the same time as me and is lifting a girl's Schwinn onto a repair stand.

He thinks he won't need help because this one will be 'simple'. The bike is in good shape. But that's always what we say at the beginning.

I start cleaning while he works on the rear brakes. There's too much play; it takes too much squeezing on the brake lever to stop the back wheel.

The cable is short and frayed, so adjustment options are  limited. Steve thinks the cable housing is also an issue, since the curve between the seat tube and brake is too steep for good leverage. That might be root cause. We end up replacing the cable and housing. Steve has done this before; he's obviously a brake whisperer.

After identifying the parts we need and fetching them, I align the pads. They should address the rim at the correct angle, without rubbing against the tire. I also lube the chain.

Turning the crank to distribute lube Steve notices friction at a certain spot. The drivetrain is not supposed to have a friction point! Something in the crank or bottom bracket is causing it. Maybe it just needs grease?


We remove the left crankarm to get at the bottom bracket. To do that the pedal also has to come off, which it does not want to do. I hold the handlebars, Steve sits on the seat and stops the crank with one foot while a third volunteer stands with all his weight on the pedal wrench. Success!

At this point a couple shows up because they want to buy our Schwinn for their granddaughter.

There is a little ring around the bottom bracket and we're not sure if it's regular- or reverse-threaded. I distract the buyers while Steve applies a hammer and screwdriver to loosen it. Regular-threaded.

The guy retired a few years ago and donates his time to a community farm in Sunnyvale. It's really interesting, his process finding that farm and what he likes about it. Before that he worked at a golf course, then a winery.

His wife sees my Route 66 shirt and asks if I actually did that ride. Yes! though it seems like a long time ago it's been only 7 months. In fact under different circumstances I would be starting a 450 mile tour to the north right now. Weather derailed the plan. Showers here mean a deluge of water in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, all day long. Quack!

The bottom bracket was too tight. It gets some grease and an adjustment, then everything goes back on the bike. Steve tunes the rear derailleur so it actually shifts into the lowest gear. I remove the old seat and install a better one after clearing it with the new owners.

Voila! Three-and-a-half hours later the bike is checked by a mechanic and goes off to a new life with a sporty 9-year-old girl.

A fun, productive day with a satisfying ending. Now I know one more volunteer and he's good to work with. Not to mention the practice with brakes and bottom brackets!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Closing the loop


Harbin is one of most idyllic natural places I've ever experienced. Trees and pools and places to sleep, tucked away in a rustic corner of the Mayacamas Mountains. The hot pool and cold plunge reach deep into the muscles in my shoulder and neck. Almost nothing works on them. The hot pool is excruciatingly hot; this has something to do with it.

Unfortunately we humans find ways to spoil natural perfection and this is true of Harbin as well. Let's not even speak of the men in the pools who stare. The staff who should be professionals are members of a church who earn room & board by working here. In other words, volunteers who can't be fired. And despite an early morning start, 100 miles on a bike, a beer and a soak I don't sleep well. It's too warm and the other inhabitants of the women's dorm are not friendly.

Somehow I manage to hand in my bedding and key and make it out of there. Breakfast is down the hill in Middletown this morning. We hit the road around 9. Today will be an easier day - only 60 miles and 2500 feet of climbing (not 7000).

Fall colors greet us on the road to Pope Valley. There are more grapevines than when I first rode a bike here in 1998, but otherwise it's the same. Joe Callizo grew up and spent most of his life here, so he has seen changes.

For a refuge from human nonsense, though, this is the place. Don't really know why it's not all done up in subdivision and corporate winery and spa. Land rights? Lack of water? Only Howell Mountain sits between us and the Napa Valley. Lucky for us, Pope Valley keeps its secrets.

The little market is open, and after 15 minutes Bonnie doesn't want to leave her plastic patio chair. The temperature is just right, the sun warm, the view of the old blacksmith's shop across the street.

Three French oak wine barrels sit in front of the market under a sign that says "Barrels $25". We discuss potential uses, such as planters for the yard. You could cut a barrel in half and get two planters.

On a bike tour, this is a theoretical discussion.

The strong wind from the south is not so theoretical. It signals the storm that's coming in, pushing the wind in our faces and streaming high clouds. Tonight the rain will start. It will mat down the leaves into layers, soak the fields, saturate lichen hanging from the oaks. Its visit will last a whole week, filling up the creekbeds that today are only rocks.

In times of transition, it's helpful to have a reason to move on. Head south on Chiles Pope Valley Road to Highway 128 and past Turtle Rock. Retrace the way we came yesterday.

Our cars and our lives are waiting to be picked up again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lucky and good


We gather at The Valley Cafe in Rockville, Bonnie, Jim, Ann, and me. Never been here before. Along the main drag are signs for US 40, or the Lincoln Highway. Rockville must have been one of the towns connecting the dots. Now it is tiny, off the beaten track of I-80, and still healthy. The cafe opens at 7 (not 6). Bonnie is cracking the whip because it's November and there's no daylight to waste.

Omelet, coffee, ready to ride. Heading out to Lake Berryessa we enjoy Gordon Valley, Wooden Valley, Capell Valley. A morning spent riding some of the most scenic, rural roads in California. Virtually unchanged in my lifetime. Today, 100 miles with only 7 turns. You could print the cue sheet on a business card.

In the first 80 miles only one place has snacks and water, the store at Turtle Rock. They left a homemade pumpkin muffin in the fridge for me. The bar is festooned with dollar bills like that place in Oatman, AZ.
At Turtle Rock, steel and carbon fiber steeds.

Turtle Rock is positioned at the beginning of Knoxville Berryessa Road, stretching for 39 uninterrupted miles to Lower Lake. So far, so good. Really good...

Coming out of a rough stream crossing, the rear tire goes soft. All at once, unmistakeable.

Rural roads use stream crossings to channel the seasonal rains. A low tech alternative to letting the road flood and wash out in that spot, or building an expensive bridge or culvert. A stream crossing is usually just a wide shallow ditch with sketchy pavement. On the bike it's a slight dip and pretty bumpy. Extra attention required.

Now, this.

My first mistake was last night at home, removing that folding tire from the toolkit. Who needs a spare tire on a 2-day trip? But the tire in my hands is soft and smooth like skin, and the rubber has some cuts. It's history. Under the cuts I can see twisted nylon cords.

We are somewhere near the Napa county line. It's not entirely clear where we are.

Turns out it isn't a pinch flat from the stream crossing. It's a puncture from a tiny sharp thorn, the goathead. Well-known among cyclists and a frequent guest star in Arizona on Route 66. Goathead thorns rarely come in sets of one. Ann says "It's a goathead, everyone check your tires".

Time is a concern. All morning Bonnie was saying we should be able to reach Middletown before dark, barring serious mechanical issues. Goatheads could be that issue. They have the potential to ruin every tube we have and strand us out here. No dinner!

It's a miracle, but no one else has a thorn. Furthermore, the air goes into the new tube quickly and painlessly. No problem. Good thing I brought 2 tubes. Next time I'll bring a patch kit too.

I ask Jim to check the air pressure. He grabs the rim and squeezes with his palm, gauging the resistance. My biceps and lower back are tired and I want the tube to have enough air. I want it too badly to be objective. "Pretty good!" he says.

Things do seem to work out for Jim most of the time. He's habitually lucky, as well as good and experienced. Come to think of it, this group has almost 60 years of cycling between us. That's a pretty decent bag of tricks, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Eat something while the problem is getting fixed, ask about root cause, help out in the rough spots, give moral support. Experience can bring a kind of luck. My hands change a flat without thinking.

Being in the right company can be lucky too. With impeccable timing Jim lifts up the loaded bike so I can replace the wheel. Of course there's a little jibe about accepting help too. That joke is literally 10 years old. I'm laughing too hard to do anything.

We climb on against a clear light blue sky. The air is a perfect 70 degrees. No turns and no traffic and even the road is in good shape. It takes all afternoon; that's all right. Not even one stray dog crosses our path.


Not until Big Canyon, that is. Today they're not nasty dogs, just inclined to chase.




My worn tire holds, even over 6 miles of dirt at the end of Big Canyon. In daylight we pull up in front of the brewery in Middletown, for Happy Hour ($3 pints). Pizza tastes like heaven and fuels that last 3 mile climb, in the dark.

To the hot springs for a soak. And then bed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When the going gets tough

Today I went to talk with Dr. H. again. Driven not by choice but by an insurance company that wants to delay, deny, etc. He recommended getting a lawyer. Lawyer, check.

After the appointment I tried a different tack. Another way to deal with rage and humiliation.

I went shopping.

If you know me at all, this doesn't sound right. I hate shopping more than anything. The theory was shopping is so superficial, so unnecessary, so different from what goes on with medical professionals, it could actually be a soothing antidote.

So I went to Albertson's (a horrible supermarket). Rite Aid (an equally horrible drugstore). Marshall's (full of the junk no one bought in department stores). Trader Joe's (sterile food in plastic from somewhere else). The whole time steering my mind away from live wire topics and pretending to be a suburban matron (not Jason Bourne). Four, count 'em, four different strip malls along El Camino Real!

It worked fine. Shopping is like anesthetic for the amygdala.

The fix might be temporary though. So tomorrow I'm off to Harbin Hot Springs in a little corner of Lake County. Have to get up at oh-dark-thirty. My brain is still in some other time zone so it shouldn't be a problem...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Things that don't get lost

For some reason this morning a ride sounds  appealing. It's been a while. I love fall on these roads. Cold clear days can be nice on the coast provided you have wool everything, which I do.

The route is the route to Pescadero. Same roads, different every time. Everything else changes: fitness level, how I'm feeling that day, weather, whatever else is going on. Today the weather is clear and cold and fine; the rest is marginal.


Heading up Old La Honda, 30 seconds later whatever I was thinking about is gone.

The driver of the car in the accident 4 years ago now, walking a dog along the road. The cop car usually hiding right here. Two racer chicks that keep leapfrogging past. The sad, excruciating waltz of negotiations with HR. What the lawyer said. The Twilight Zone of doctor visits. Another insurance denial, forcing a visit to Dr. H. on Tuesday...

Just plain gone. Dreams without any meaning.

It's good to be forced to put your head down and push as hard as possible. The effort catapults you back into the moment. The moment is something I can do.

At the top they've laid chipseal on Skyline and the gravel is loose around the edges.

That's about the last complete thought I remember. Time start to flow, with bumps of stillness now and then.

On Stage in sight of the ocean a hawk circles. Tilting its body and tail this way and that, using the air currents. Gazing downward at the earth as I stand there gazing upward. Lifted again from the hillside toward the sky. Evolved for this.

Next to the road to Neil Young's ranch the utility poles glint in the sunlight. Think about his songs, what the music does and what the words tend to say. Not simple, not trickery either.



The base of West Alpine, next to the creek. Dark, mysterious, ridiculously narrow. Communing with redwoods. Layers and layers of yellow leaves along the quiet water.

Cresting the ridge as the day is ending, the sun still hanging above the ocean at my back. A view of tall forested hills. Down there in the middle of it, it looked totally different to me.

Into the valley, half shrouded in a blue twilight. A thick layer of rose-colored air above that. The tall buildings, serene. The way light separates into all these colors all by itself.

Going down. Into Moody Canyon, accelerating as the light fades everywhere.

The driveway, the very last fringes of dusk.