Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Epilogue

It's very quiet, very dark.

The tall bank of windows next to the bed betray no light. On the other side are huge silent trees, mostly Douglas Fir. Between them and in the distance the sky usually shows itself in one way or another: a faint spray of stars, some moonlight, the first efforts of dawn. Nothing.

It doesn't get this quiet in Silicon Valley, ever. But there is one sound, very faint, in the background. Rain in the forest. My phone says 4:35. Right on time.

The next time I'm conscious it's nearly 10. The windows show a mass of grey sky and water droplets on the glass. There was a sound, a door closing. Some human made a desperate foray into this space to feed a desperately hungry feline. As a visitor, I disrupt the routine.

It's great to greet my dad in his chair, get a hug, make some coffee. Linger and talk. There's a fire in the wood stove. The light coming in from a couple of skylights is soft. My hair's all over the place, scrunched on one side and wild on the other. I'm wearing the same street clothes as the past 4 days. He doesn't care.

At one point, a heavy downpour begins. It's really loud, punishing the outside of the cabin with pressurized water. I keep a few ground rules for these adventures, boundaries that help in dealing with risks. I will never ride:

  • In an electrical storm (broken on PBP 2011)
  • With ice on the road (broken on Christmas Trip 1997 and 2013, on Sunrise Highway)
  • In a big storm from the Pacific on the North Coast 

There's a pause in the conversation to look up. We built this structure. For a moment, protected by our own efforts, we are capable, successful, resilient. When you evolve with a place and adopt behaviors that allow you to survive there, it becomes your habitat. This is ours. On the other hand, that was 40 years ago...

Then Dad, with impeccable timing, looks at me with a grin and says, "New roof".

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Heading home

When I left Humboldt County, I knew how things would be when I came back. I'd bring a PhD and validation. People would know, I was all right. Plenty of material things, no worry about money. Take that...

Today, I'm talking to the manager of the Scotia Inn about lunch. The restaurant is closed; it has been closed every time I've come through. The market across the street is kinda workable, in a pinch, but not desirable. This nice man points me to a Mexican restaurant, an actual open restaurant, in Rio Dell. Right across the bridge.

Finding the place and eating the very average Mexican food (hey, the Bay Area has ruined me) and thinking, warm good food, gluten free. In the right spot. And I can pay the bill.

On Blue Slide Road, fueled for the journey. So good. The climbs are steep but at least I'm not hungry. That's something. The road is used by locals who don't seem bent on killing me with their cars; there's enough room when they pass.

In the flat roads along the bottoms, the Eel River delta outside of Ferndale, I take a creative turn, a shortcut. The road goes through but the farmer likes to let his cows roam. They're all over the road and more to the point, there's copious amounts of manure and it's been raining. I manage to not think too much about the organic matter all over the bike tires and maybe my clothes and who know what else. I hold my breath until a safe distance has passed.

After the big Loleta rollers, a new road, Tompkins Hill. It's gorgeous.

Get through Eureka without too much cursing, without getting lost. The sky is full of haze now, and the air has a cold bite.

It doesn't get dark until outside Clam Beach. OK, if you're a stickler, the last bit of light disappears on Scenic Drive. After barely a half-mile of 101. The whole afternoon on backroads. Scenic Drive runs along the cliffs above the ocean, and is kinda one lane with the middle section not really paved. I manage to keep the bike out of the deeper potholes.

Murphy's Market in Trinidad is still open. To carry stuff for dinner, I buy one of those reusable shopping bags and give myself permission to go for it. Buy whatever: smoked salmon, hummus, avocado, GF crackers, yogurt, and an apple. I can pay for it. The cashier is super nice - the kind of guy who's probably been there for 25 years, giving people their receipts and joking about it.

The people behind me in line are wide-eyed and hungry, high on meth. He knows it and doesn't treat me or them any different. Business as usual. I may not have a PhD, but I also don't have a meth problem.

Emerald Forest of Trinidad leaves the light on. Now affiliated with Rodeway Inn; this might be trouble. When I ask the person at the desk if I can shower for the day use fee, she says no. A shower is actually $7; the day use fee is $5. A hundred miles in, who cares about 2 dollars?  She hands over a clean towel, plus a bathmat for the floor.

Turns out you need the bathmat - it's impossible to keep the forest floor out of the bathroom. The water is hot, the soap and shampoo transcendent.

Clean and smelling good and almost dry, I ride in street clothes 300 yards to a driveway. Even in the dark it can be identified, the one at the top of the rise with the light-colored utility pole. The gate is not locked.

At the end of the long driveway, another gate. A border collie sounds the alarm. Then she gives two husky barks of welcome. Signaling to my worried dad, open the door. Everyone together, everyone in one piece.

Let the storm come.

Shangri-La

It's shaping up to be a beautiful morning - clear, blue sky, maybe 50 degrees. The final day in these bike clothes. With the relaxed atmosphere of the Benbow Inn, I roll out (naturally) just after the fat hour of 9 am. Struggle up two big hills on either side of Garberville and disappear into the Avenue of the Giants.

Riding 106 miles, then getting up and doing the same again. Not exactly wandering on vacation. Not really what I had in mind on Friday, leaving work. But looking at the sky overhead, who would guess that way out in the Pacific a deadline is looming... a huge storm due to make landfall Wednesday, 4am. Today's project is reaching Trinidad before it hits.

I should probably be tracking time more closely. Yet for some reason, the opposite thing is happening. Among the big old trees, so graceful, so tall. A feeling of immersion, floating takes over. No tension or traction (and it's not because they've repaved the road). The more I ride, the deeper and more profound it becomes. Flow. Auto-pilot. Whatever the name, it's digging in. I can steer and push the bike, but it feels like I'm permanently rooted here.

Like the trees, just a strip left by the timber companies as a PR gesture, I remind myself. Nonetheless they block out most of the light, and the horizon, the views and sounds. You think, what would be the harm of lingering here? Who would ever want to leave? Maybe the locals, who hit the gas and zoom through, as if urgent business were waiting down the road. I wonder if anyone has just camped out here, spellbound. Keep to this mantra: no stopping, no hike of any length, keep moving.

When the turn comes for Honeydew, a twinge of disappointment. But the decision is easy to keep going straight. Originally I wanted to take another day, a luxury day, maybe climb Panther Gap and head out toward Petrolia. Ride along the Mattole, spend the night out there on the Gorda Plate. There are a few places to stay; there is a store. Even if my legs were willing, Cape Mendocino is no place to be on a bike when a winter storm comes in.

As the morning silently blends into afternoon, it is the stomach that definitively weighs in: time is passing. It asks for a bar. Near the shuttered farm stands in Pepperwood it says one bar is not enough, it needs lunch. Preferably soon. The hunger of touring is kicking in. So there will be no more blissful floating until there's food. I may never feel human again.

It's about 7 miles to Scotia. It feels like a very long way.

Monday, December 22, 2014

At the end of the day

I may not have always known exactly where I was during the past 2 hours, but this particular fact I'm sure of: the concrete bridge under my wheels at the moment is the last thing between me and dinner. After maybe a football field on the highway (w/shoulder), there's an exit, and like that, almost done. No huge hill to climb. No more struggles.

Except this line of orange cones at the right edge of the road. Very annoying! the fourth set of them since Leggett. They're standard issue except for a band of silver reflective tape. So it's a cost-saving measure, a cheaper, faster way to make a fog line than actually running the truck with white paint. A new trick... The cones don't create a shoulder so much as occupy most of that space, sending me too close to the cars for comfort. On the other hand, if I pass too close to a cone and hit one, they're bulky enough to take me down. Don't relax yet.

The bridge and the road curve around gently to the west, like they always have. There's the bend. Nothing is a straight line here, not the river or highway or side roads. So you can't see what's ahead. Where the bridge ends you can look up though, and I do.

Voila, in all its finery, the gingerbread Tudor outline of the Benbow Inn. A glittering spectacle against the dark hills. A most welcome sight!

Ah, the pomp and pageantry, the over-the-top Christmas display. The grandest, most luxurious hotel for hundreds of miles. That's exactly what lots of people like about this place. It's an escape from the dreariness of their lives. Like the Nutcracker ballet, a vision of wealth and comfort and good taste that's a world apart.

Tonight I like the location. Garberville is only 3 miles up the road, but as it happens those miles are one huge hill. Also it will be simpler, eating and sleeping in the same place. When you're exhausted, simple is key.

I remind myself that while it's not the cheapest option around for sleeping or for eating, I am employed. Paychecks are coming in. It's only $35 more than a motel up the hill. It's a splurge but a worthwhile one.

Unlike posh hotels in the big city, they take pride here in being welcoming and professional. The service is part of what you pay for. When I climb the many stairs, open the original door full of glass divided lights, the warm lobby is blazing and full of diners and partygoers. I approach the reception desk and the woman there doesn't even flinch. She doesn't say a word about the reflective vest, the black wool cappie that's staying right where it is, my bleary gaze.

She just takes me in.

Wild things

This morning in Comptche, a fox ran across the road. A red fox! Purposefully, head down, on business. An amazing, perfect thing. Quick but still, I saw its markings. With all this open space, forests and hills and meadows connecting them, what is an animal like that, a wild animal doing in town? Among people and (a few) cars?

As I ponder that for a moment, I catch a view of the old wooden barn in the background, the houses clustered together. Ah. People keep chickens. So the fox is here.

Wild things find their way to where they need to be. Me, all I can do is follow this road with no signage. Into the hills. Climbing, slowly. Somewhere out there, maybe, waits a warm room and bed.

There's very little flat land in enormous, rural Mendocino County. For 101, they carved a roadbed out of the steep hillsides, leaving the rocks above without footing. Hence the narrow alley of 101. The smaller roads do the natural thing, climbing directly into the hills, usually along some natural feature like a creek. They'll climb thousands of feet into the back of beyond before turning to dirt and abandoning their cargo to the bears and mountain lions and paranoid pot growers. All the wild creatures.

I hear running water. It doesn't last long, only a few seconds, which means the creek is running at a right angle to the road, rather than parallel. We're not going straight into the hills.

Then there's rustling in the bushes on my right. A huge ghostly mammal emerges and walks into the road. Maybe 15 feet ahead? The deer pauses and turns and her eyes light up for a second. Not afraid. It's rare that there's someone here to be afraid of; I'm a curiosity. There's another one; they silently move on, out of the headlight beam.

It's when road straightens out a little, starts to head north, when I can actually see the 101 corridor to my left, with its apocalyptic halo of headlights, the nightmare rumbling of tires, that I know I'm on the right track. And it feels good to be among the wild things, in the dark. I can survive here.

Now I can have normal thoughts. Like, what happened to the walnuts? I brought (from work, bad girl) two small sealed packets of walnuts in a pannier. They're great with yogurt for breakfast, extra protein and good fats. Gluten free! But this morning at Orr, the packets were not to be found. Really gone. On bike tours your stuff gets all jumbled up. I looked for them longer than most people would have. I wanted those walnuts!

It would have been really unusual for another human to go pawing through my panniers, looking for food, at night. I like walnuts that much, but I'm weird. My bike was parked outside; critters probably took them. They also appreciate free food. What did they do with the plastic? Did they eat the packets?

The road crosses under the freeway, then turns north again toward Piercy (not a real town). On another dark hill, a small animal hurries across the beam of my light. It pauses and looks for a brief moment, and its retinas flash gold before it disappears into the brush. Another fox, a grey one!

Today, only the second and third fox encounters of my entire life! The critter-human ratio is approaching a healthy level. My heart is singing.

Well, maybe I don't belong in office buildings. Maybe I won't go back...

On the flip side

Behind me, on display is the gladiator alley of 101, sinister and garishly lit, officially known to be hazardous.

Trapped here are the large trailers barely able to articulate around the turns, tourists who thought they were on a highway, impatient locals (occasionally impaired), rock tumbling down the steep hillsides. The occasional cyclist. All players in a theater of combat.

In places there are klieg lights, powered by a generator humming somewhere. For us to see the rocks and maybe avoid them. They do that, but all those photons just amplify the feeling of unreality, as if this were a stage we have all wandered onto. The message: watch out for rocks; all other risks are yours to absorb. The lights, generator, and us gladiators, all non-native species, vulnerable.

This scene is what is takes to get cars and trucks in and out of Humboldt County, in all weather and seasons. It cannot be cheap. And no one wants to be here, exactly. With all that effort and a ton of money, over decades, we created a low-tech, high-maintenance risky conduit for vulnerable beings. It would be safer and more comfortable to walk from Point A to Point B, in the dark.

Fading up the exit ramp, maybe 15 seconds total, the stress chemicals in my brain do an amazing thing. Moments ago screaming wake up, all systems online, DANGER! they take a step down. Some separation, a little private space, a safe buffer, that's all it takes.

With a few more pedal strokes, a little more space, they take another big step down, no action required. The chemicals take their direction from the limbic system, designed to save us but also capable of bullying with fear. Which has been going on for hours today. A fountain of stress.

And I'm barely moving forward, scribbling around and feeling for pavement that goes...somewhere. The Edelux light is great but it turns out you do really need klieg lights to cut through the darkness out here.

I guess left, over the freeway bridge, where there's something glowing, might be a yellow sign. My headlight hits it. "Not a Through Road" it says.

Ah.

Turn around, feeling stupid. What made me think it had to be left? Where ramp meets overpass I just scribble off slowly, into the wide darkness. There does seem to be a way through, maybe a road.

I just follow the pavement. After all, the thing at my back is not so great. And to the left is a dead end. To the right it leads off into the darkness. Away to the east. There are stars overhead, a crescent moon low over the ridge.

The road starts climbing. We might be heading into the hills on some back road, or we might be paralleling the highway. Hope this is right.

Running the gauntlet

I'm writing this after the fact, so the whole world knows I didn't die. Let's get that out of the way and ruin the suspense.

Was it pleasant? No. Was it scary? Yes.

At the base of the descent near Leggett, I roll across the bridge over the Eel River, euphoric. Can't see much but there is only one bridge which means only one thing: made it this far. I'd forgotten the little climb out of the river canyon, but no matter.

My foot goes down in the usual spot, near the intersection with the main street if we can call it that. Within sight of Highway 101. I'm throwing technology at the problem by deploying all gear. The reasoning goes like this: if I'm wearing every piece of night riding equipment on the bike - reflective bands and vest and all my lights, front and rear - and if someone still hits me, I did everything humanly possible to avoid it. No regrets.

The spot is next to a little house. I'm rifling through my seat bag when a guy comes out and a truck door slams. After every truck or van encounter since Fort Bragg  I've had the same involuntary thought: Garberville? Then a cloud of potent smoke hits me. Never mind; a bike on a narrow highway in the dark beats riding in a truck cab for 20 miles with some impaired yahoo. I'll do my own self-destructing, thank you.

So, the devil weed does not impair people for driving (much). But I really hate the smell. And it's Leggett and wintertime so he's probably been drinking too.

Looking over toward 101, which is noisy with traffic, two big semis steam by right on each other's heels. Well, fuck. Too late now.

Lights blazing, no option but to act like the vehicle that I am and wait for a gap to turn left. To start there is a narrow shoulder, not too bad. It will disappear in places. The plan is to lower my standards for what seems rideable on the right side of the white line, and be scrupulous about that. Slow down if necessary.

When the shoulder disappears, rabbit hard through there. When cars are waiting behind me and headlights are up ahead, if there's no room for passing stop and lean the bike away from the road until everyone is gone. I use this option more than once. There are many vehicles on the road. Really, folks, in the middle of nowhere?

Some people believe cyclists are actually more visible at night, properly equipped, than in daytime. At one point, with a massive a rock wall on my right, I remember running the gauntlet through here on a  hazy summer afternoon. Didn't feel safe then, either. It is possible, maybe even likely, that I'm safer with the headlight that makes drivers flick their high beams. And the NiteRider Solas taillight that's painful to look at. We're not good at assessing risk, not when scared.

After nine miles of this, just past Confusion Hill and the new bridge over the gorge, there is an exit for Highway 271. The old road.

Do I take it? You bet.

Shifting down


Pressing against a headwind, 26 miles in two hours, still I'm happy and grateful for the sun and blue sky over the Pacific. It seems like the right place to put a foot down, where Highway 1 turns inland and begins to climb. Last chance to eat something before the push. This will be the end of the wind.

The bike doesn't make much noise, but stopped it is quieter still, a hushed and spatial quiet. Just a few small birds, softly chuffing somewhere in the vast matrix of the forest, talking to themselves. Perhaps a northern flicker, a winter wren, or chickadee.

In winter the earth breathes slower, taking its time. The trees and grass idle their energy-making machines, conserving fuel, tending their roots. All metabolisms gradually slow. The hawk and bear roam less and sleep more, yielding territory to the gentler birds, rabbits, and deer. 

Tourists also keep to their native habitats. This stretch of road, remote by Bay Area standards, is well-trafficked in summer as a famous segment of Highway 1, the Lost Coast. In winter it carries occasional, cautious locals and a few pilgrims. Like the clean-cut guy from Canada on his way south, topping off his truck outside the tiny store in Westport. He was shaking his head in awe of its rigorous twisting, tacking, sloping, and general unruliness. People like to make it through here from Leggett in their cars, these 22 miles. Tell the story and feel accomplished on the way to easier, more populated places. 

Having less daylight for navigation is all part of the restorative process. Winter is my favorite season. I do not need to be comfortable, or the truth to be obvious. I will suffer and dig.

And yet, a soft animal heart desperately wants to reach Leggett before night falls. It does not want to be alone on a dark, narrow road through the forest, in rugged terrain far from help. It wants to avoid jeopardy of any kind. 

Lingering one moment after the banana disappears will force the obvious. It will get dark out here, and before Leggett. Exactly where that might happen becomes a mental game. An obsession, a math problem. The first climb is shorter than the second, and shorter in this direction compared with the other side. Hills are asymmetrical; the earth is uneven. 

Two miles up, not bad, three miles down, that's 5 miles. What is left? 17 miles. How far to the second summit? Reach in daylight? 

Through Hales Grove, passing the rusty machinery and the dirty white single-wide, my mind runs back and forth like a slide rule, tracking the odometer and calculating how long the second climb, the long one, could possibly be. Subtract from Leggett, on that side it's 4.3 miles to the top. That little run-up beforehand. Afterwards it rolls for ~3 miles. 8 miles that don't need climbing. Good.

It comes down to this: every gentle mile along the creek is one that doesn't need to be climbed. Finally, where the grade ticks up those 9 possible miles have become less than 6. Everything is quantified and known. It is dusk at the bottom where I down-shift, and at the top where it starts to roll, night has fallen on the ridge. 

Descending in the dark. For some reason the thought brings a fresh wave of panic. When I was growing up no one ever did this. Even with strong lights, reflective leg bands, and loads of experience. Somehow my instincts are on fire, as if everything were brand new. I grip the bars and relax my shoulders. Stay methodical and control the bike, track the few cars that need to pass, behave predictably. I need to do these things and do them well. They are incompatible with panic.

Without trying, my thoughts conjure Martin on the roads in Sweden, where it's often dark. He rides for months on end like this. For him and his buddies it is completely normal, the black sky, the absence of sun, deep winter. They ride in the middle of nowhere in the dark all the time!

Just like that, the bubble pops and is gone. The panic, it was a dream. I'm home, in the forests of Northern California. A nighttime brevet with company on the road, it feels like one of those. Not alone. 

Looking up, the sky is heavy with stars. 

One bar in Fort Bragg

How are you feeling? Danny's such a good egg. I wonder how he knew the right question to ask.

It's quarter past one in the afternoon, at the counter of Wiley's Cafe, a regular place that serves breakfast all day long. Food has been ordered. The service is excellent; the waitress keeps filling my coffee cup. Love her.

The data signal may be weak, yeah, but with the proper contortions we can text. The ritual involves going in and out the front door repeatedly, twirling in my chair, tilting the phone this way and that. This no doubt has the locals whispering in their booths. For them Internet connectivity has not obliterated all contenders to become The Main Thing in Life. Not yet.

Late as usual
Low
Wanna rent car
It's cold and foggy and blowing like hell

Given that last factoid, it's actually helpful to be moving around, pitching for signal. With the wool head-to-toe, indoors, drinking hot liquid, even with all that there's a chill. About four miles inland, on Comptche Ukiah Road the grey muck came on and I cursed it. A strong marine layer in winter, a pretty rare thing. Thick, cold, relentless, like Scotland or Ireland or the moors of Jane Eyre. And a stiff headwind for northbound bike tourists on the coast. All 1 of us.

The forecast said high pressure. Well, I was supposed to get here more than an hour ago too. And you know, be long gone by now. So a lot of things have not panned out today.

It's supposed to be nice in Garberville 

Really? Sunny and clear? At the same time Garberville seems very, impossibly far. Fort Bragg is mile 48 - this much effort for 48 miles! Lots of climbing from Orr. Garberville, mile 106. Right now a nap would be welcome. I'll never make it. It'll be midnight. I'll be killed by some drunk driver on the freakin' highway. This will be the last conversation with Danny.

Will be dark by the time I get to Humboldt

if I can just get thru richardson's grove I'll be OK
Have reservation at Benbow Inn
Scared little bit
Don't wanna do in dark

One good thing about texting, you have to be brief. Even when utterly discouraged, hungry, tired, cold, it sounds like a little everyday problem. This is a first, wanting to pack it in right before the remote and beautiful part. And it will be a first, riding those two narrow sections of 101 at night.

If I could figure out a one-way car rental to Eureka... or a truck with a reliable driver happened to be going to Garberville... or the Skunk Train went to Laytonville instead of Willits... OK, I'd have to explain to my dad, how I'd just had enough and went for comfort.

Eggs and potatoes arrive, with other things like ham and bacon and cheese and onions. Hash browns on the side (instead of toast). It's a massive pile of food.

Three hundred miles away, Danny recognizes what's going on. He knows the situation well - how I tend to overshoot and run myself down to zero. The day after the Winter Solstice, a hard century with weight on the bike. He knows food will fix whatever can be fixed. After the last hash brown is gone, I'll head north into the cold hostile wind. And 101 will be waiting there in the dark.

A wing for a heart

No one's in a hurry at Orr Springs. No one.

It's wild and remote. There's hot mineral water and blessed silence. Breathe in and feel the cold air, tonic in the lungs, scrubbed by trees. The water has a slippery feel and unlike the water at Mercey, is good to drink. The guy in the Healdsburg bike shop claimed that drinking it once healed his knee, after a bad fall onto a rock.

Last night, with a lot to take care of, it almost felt like hurrying. Dinner to make, tea to drink, food to label. A quick soak and sauna, both Way Hot. Then a 90-minute massage by Paula, who describes her style as "mostly by feel". It's like she's whispering the  muscles. More heat therapy, then bed.

It's the Winter Solstice. No massage since July. No real yoga for a year. Layers of stress and computer work and stress and cycling. Underneath, the old whiplash injury and cranky QL. Oh, I could feel it last night climbing that hill. The poor body is stiff and sore. It has absorbed everything.

It would like to spend a week here.

In lieu of that, after breakfast I hang around waiting for the sauna to open. The grounds are rustic, as you might expect, yet organized and intentional. I drink some of the water, willing my stomach to right itself.

Outside the main building, a tall wire figure stands with one animal bone lashed to its frame, a dark windowbox for a gut, a wing for a heart. Mind the basics, it says. Keep to essential things. Not every detail qualifies as important; in fact most nouns do not.

Overnight, the sauna has cooled off. Nevertheless, a couple of bonus sessions, leaning against the wood, is what the stubborn kink in my neck has been asking for. After camping out there for the past month, it actually decides to let go.

It's my cue to pack up and hit the road too, after only a few hours here. Big day ahead, can't linger.

On a one-lane, potholed, barely-paved route that takes attention and care to stay upright, it's impossible to go fast. There's not much momentum to lose by pulling off, just for a minute, into Montgomery Woods State Reserve.

I walk along the creek for 10 minutes, gazing at old growth redwoods. The creek is running fast and high, feeding them. Their roots are dug in; they have been in the same place for a long time. Most of what they do to survive - the water intake, their circulation systems, their breathing - is totally silent and mysterious, masked by the soft, matted layers of bark.

Just as it was difficult last night to lie on the massage table for 90 minutes, it's tough now to walk slowly and look up and not make forward progress.

This is important work.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Ukiah

Rabbiting across Highway 101 in Hopland, it looks much the same as 40 years ago. A two-lane north-south thoroughfare, lots of traffic. One basic goal: don't become roadkill.

It's a different story when you tack across the valley. Old River Road runs parallel to the highway, featuring light traffic, excellent pavement and a graceful alignment that feels like a throwback to an earlier era.

As for the river passing through, no one ever mentioned which river it was. Imagine that! We kept to the highway, and you can't see it from there. Even without a sign, I can guess. Over a mile wide, this  valley has to belong to the Russian River, largest in Sonoma County. Its watershed covers hundreds of square miles. In winter it often rages and floods, wreaking havoc downstream. In summer or years of drought, it evaporates to a trace, sometimes to nothing. Essential, temperamental, connecting every place nearby to every other: Guerneville to Healdsburg, to Ukiah. Even Dry Creek runs into it. And, of course, all of yesterday's rain.

A dozen scenic miles north, on the main drag in front of Safeway, there's work to do. Food gathering to be precise. Down goes my foot to look across the street like the guy said. In a strip mall, a Natural Foods Co-op! Aisles of scrumptious-looking things! For decades this was a scruffy, struggling, white bread town. More liquor store than co-op...

Cooked basmati rice, BBQ tofu from the deli, and a perfect tree of broccoli. Dehydrated lentil soup. A chocolate bar with peppermint. Pocket food for tonight and tomorrow.

The guy at the espresso bar fills my bottles, saying there's a "great view" from out there on Orr Springs Road. Yeah, it's a big climb. Even the Internet doesn't know exactly how big. It only tells me to turn left near Mendo Lumber, after the crossing under 101. From the turn, it's 12 miles.

A quiet road, the last turn of the day, flat terrain at dusk. Everything comes together in euphoria- for a couple of minutes. Then it begins, the pushing. For two miles the odometer ticks very slowly, without a break. Is that really my lowest gear? It is. Views, yes, awesome views but not reassuring: massive hills, topped with grey clouds.

After the first section, the road levels off for a couple of minutes. The lungs and lower back are grateful. Another steep section of ~2 miles, similar to the first. With ~15 pounds of stuff, in December, no regrets on the food.

Now it's dark. That animal instinct to find the den and curl up in it is strong in December. First I have to do this. The road rolls up and down, probably on a ridge. Water vapor is all around, and right down on the pavement. The headlight beam is getting swallowed by mist. It's the opposite of a view.

Cars do travel this remote road; to the houses out here, and the hot springs. Even they are moving slowly. A white fog line on the right, until there's not. A faded yellow dash roughly marking the midline, except when it's gone. The surface is worn to extreme, with many patches and bumps, rocks and gravel. I check to make sure the rear blinkie is blinking. Far too late to turn back and the room is paid for, anyway.

The road starts tending down, beginning a descent. Orr Springs lies at the bottom, somewhere, 4 miles away. I want to move the speed at which it is possible to identify and avoid road hazards. That's  approximately zero. On a bumpy hairpin when the white line disappears, I refuse to have thoughts of the cliff that must be just there, outside the beam of light.

It takes so long to get down, I'm convinced it will never end. Therefore, when my eyes pick up a winding pattern of welcoming lights along the river, beckoning here for food and warmth, like the entrance to Middle Earth it seems truly incredible.




Winter light



Looking south on Mountain House, this is the view.

To avoid the 101 corridor (flat and rolling) between Cloverdale and Hopland, you tack west into substantial hills. Tall, anonymous, plentiful.

Neither does Mountain House, picking up at the summit of Highway 128, take the path of least resistance. That would usually follow creeks and lesser terrain. Instead it descends and climbs, cheerfully, repeatedly, avoiding property lines while bisecting lots of minor hills.

On the plus side, the brief descents and slow stints of climbing make for plenty of time to look around. Oak trees, some with their leaves and many without, dark conifer forests in the distance, creeks running noisily through pastures. Rough pavement with few cars and fewer houses.

It's starting to feel more like home.

In San Anselmo, the first night, I woke up three times. Not with nightmares, which have characters and plot. But with a generalized panic about work, sure I'd forgotten something or left an important task undone. I'd be hunted down and publicly shamed before they asked for my badge.

Last night, in the motel in Healdsburg it was stomach trouble. Kind of my fault for not checking every ingredient on the menu, even dessert. Woke up at 3, couldn't get back to sleep. Lay there thinking doomed thoughts until dawn.

When you live with stress, when it's vague and always there, it's hard to imagine life without it. How your body would feel. How your outlook would change. It just seems like a hill in front of you, immutable, a real thing you have to get through because here you are and the road goes like so. Once I get through this bit (you think) there will be some relief.

Except the crazy world back there doesn't work according to the laws of nature. Created by humans for the profit of (some) humans, there's no inherent balance in the system. No equations to satisfy. So you can have that stress and climb through it day after day, never reaching an end. Anyone who acts like it's immutable, a construct of nature, unavoidable, is quietly profiting from your suffering.

I breathe deeply here not only because it's quiet, and stunningly beautiful. Not just because the creeks are running and the air is cool and fresh. Because my effort goes somewhere and is finite, and no one but me can take credit.

I love how the oaks without their leaves are dark, gothic skeletons. Not picturesque, for tourists. I love how the daylight is precious and in short supply, the clouds have rain in them. Though I'll probably be riding after dark and might get rained on, I love the gentle winter light. Allowing every plant and animal here to rest, take a drink, restore themselves. If I can let go of thoughts and routine, and just harmonize with them, that would be good.

And sleep for real tonight.

Shedding layers

My riding clothes feel good today, which is no small thing. I brought two sets but everything got wet and dirty through a few holes in the panniers. Normally, expecting rain you'd line the pannier with plastic bags, which solves the problem.

This assumes packing before 9am the day you are leaving (from work). It further assumes the National Weather Service employs someone more experienced than an intern to write the forecast.

The stuff from yesterday was amazingly wet and dirty. Disgusting is really the word. You can't keep those clothes on your body. Lacking a laundromat, I hung up everything in the motel room, cranked the heat, and went to dinner. I pretended everyone at Scopa was slightly moist and that was normal. Sometimes it's good to ignore problems. It's good to ignore them when there is no better solution, no matter what you do.

The Waterford is filthy. I cleaned it off a little at the motel, but not too much because they were keeping an eye on me. That lady with the huge spray of dirt up her back. Which the red Italian jacket could neither hide, nor make stylish. The owner gave me a special towel and said keep the bike outside (translation: NOT IN THE ROOM), saying "it's safe here". My ass, it's safe. My $3500 bike is not spending the freaking night outside a motel room. But it did drip for a few hours outside, before I sneaked it in.

That was good thinking, bringing along a bottle of Tri-Flow for the chain. Just in case. I picked the lightest one in our garage; actually, it's empty. A few drops go on the rusty, needy chain. This is a bit of a crisis. Much more serious than damp leg warmers. The chain must be tended. So after the Internet finds breakfast in Healdsburg, I trundle off to the bike shop in town. There is a bike shop! And it is open!

The guy there is quite helpful. He is also curious, with my route questions and my RUSA vest. We chat for a while, and eventually figure out that he knows Donn King. Donn and I were in touch briefly last August, as I stood on a ferry loading dock in Denmark during SBS, taking a photo of his Dutch buddy Hermann.

The guy (Doug Mackenzie) recommends Highway 128 to Mountain House, then Orr Springs Road from Ukiah. It's prettier, he says. It's also shorter. Before committing, he checks my tires to make sure they're wide enough, and my gearing to make sure there's a triple. I lube the chain and set off at the crack of 11.

You might think this has nothing to do with glamour, how could it? But glamour and confidence and well-being does not happen until everything mechanical is running smoothly. Stripey SmartWool arm warmers, green wool jersey, black wool hat. Reflective RUSA vest, blocking the wind. And wool leg warmers, which function well even when not totally dry. Just warm enough.

In yesterday's clothes, it's not entirely clear that I'd be appreciating the views. They are world-class: the Dry Creek Valley in all its winter finery.

West Dry Creek Road, shouldering the wide rows of Zinfandel, worthy of France. Smooth, new pavement. Dry Creek itself, full and muddy. Maybe the Coho salmon will have a chance this year. All yesterday and today, the noise of water in creeks and rivers. That soundtrack has not played for a long time. A drought is eerily quiet.

The smell of rampant fungi along the side of the road. Every so often - unpredictable, unmistakeable. Earthy. Truffle-y.

Dutcher Creek goes easier than on any brevet. Even with saddlebags! Donn and I have climbed it together and a certain memory of his calm demeanor, his patience, comes without effort.

On the other side in Cloverdale, lunch at the tacqueria in the gas station. Randonneur-tested, and a life-saver. In the wee hours when the tacqueria is closed, the mini-mart stays open. You can fuel up for the climb.

Highway 128 is shorter than I recall, to the Mendocino line, only four miles. A scatter of other cyclists are coming down. They're on a day ride, taking advantage of the break in the rain. My heart skips - they are cheering, congratulating me on making it to the top, saying kind things. They see the panniers, which can make the climbs a lot  harder. They're the first and only cyclists I've seen today.

It might be the stress of work, or the holidays, or the lawyer wanting to 'talk about my case', or the hardships of yesterday. Everything is a struggle lately. Everything is a fight. I hadn't realized how good it might feel to be cheered on. Recognized. On a road I've climbed a dozen times. By strangers. They don't know me, where I'm going, or what lies ahead. Which is not minor.


I'll take it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lucky in so many ways

This part of Sonoma County is so beautiful, it makes your heart ache. I think winter is the best time, when the hills are green, the light soft, and the car traffic light.

They label their roads plainly here, with From and To, which is a big help. Freestone-Valley Ford Road, for example. Given recent navigational challenges, this makes me happy.

Not to mention Wild Flour Bakery and the assortment of renegade businesses in Freestone. What are the odds, a temple of wheat with a gluten-free scone! Toasted hazelnuts and cardamon and... other stuff. It's kind of falling apart, but flaky and delicious. There is a technique where you grip a bakery bag in one hand, together with the handlebars, and pluck its contents with the other hand, stuffing your maw, all while starting to climb Bohemian Highway to Occidental.

Sometimes the food stays on your face longer than is strictly polite, but passing motorists do not even notice. You feel like you're getting away with something.

Looking at my sleeve, the light green wool is starting to be marked with speckles. With the scone gone and the bag stashed in a back pocket, both hands on the bars, the rain gathers momentum, steadier and denser by the minute. The pavement is starting to be wet, as the water  can't run off fast enough. On goes the rear blinkie.

This road leads over a hill, through a forest, to Guerneville after all, which its name hides. In a truthful world, this would be Freestone-Occidental-Monte Rio-Guerneville Road. Monte Rio always floods. And Guerneville on the Russian River, is one of the wettest places in Northern California. Before the drought, every winter you could count on TV news reporters coming out here and standing in front of the camera in their parkas, reporting on the river level, with the rain coming down.

So much for high pressure! This promised to be an ideal day to ride through the Russian River Valley, through dormant vineyards and green, rolling hills. Instead, it is a typical day. And a typical winter day looks very much like this:

In the ~20 miles from Guerneville to Healdsburg there is ample time to reflect on good things:

  • Ibex full-length wool leg warmers
  • SmartWool socks (full-strength)
  • my waterproof, windproof red WindTex jacket from Italy, an exorbitant $95 on closeout in ~2004
  • not being at work
  • chicken tortilla soup at the Guerneville Safeway (w/corn tortillas and thickened w/masa)
  • my Solas blinkie
  • brand-new pavement on Westside Road
  • almost no cars
Thus displacing any thoughts I might otherwise be having, about being rained on for four hours, on vacation, without fair warning.

And arriving rodent-wet at the L&M Motel (established 1950) in Healdsburg, for a grim little selfie.



Preparing to launch

The Internet is finding me breakfast in Fairfax.

My empty stomach, facing the prospect of 80+ miles to Healdsburg starting with White's Hill just outside town, is pulling strongly for real food. This is the edge of the Bay Area. From here, the way is hilly.

In the dozens of times I've been here, it's always been a transitory experience, always on a bike. Head down, pushing hard on some brevet out to Point Reyes or Highway 1. The height of my lingering has been coffee and Scone of the Moment at Fat Angel Bakery. Nary a sit-down meal, or a tourist experience. So what does this town offer in the way of breakfast at the start of a ride?

Fire up the smartphone, let it converse with the base station, exchange some bits. All signs point to the Hummingbird Cafe (4.3 stars) on Center Street, parallel to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Cars take Sir Francis Drake, lots of cars, very impatient. Center Street is ten or twenty yards south, within sight of that crowded, unhappy thoroughfare. Center Street is also the bike route, so finding the cafe should be easy.

Google Maps shows where it should be. Even on a familiar street it's tough to match the outline on the phone with messy, spatial reality. After a bit of confusion and pitching back and forth, I figure out Fat Angel is no more, and Hummingbird Cafe lies just a few doors away. They have a counter; so much the better. I'm excited and nervous about the tour, free of work, ready for adventure.

Winter is leisurely, luxurious. The weather report calls for an area of high pressure after the week of rain. The morning is not young but who can feel bad about that? Bike tours do not happen without breakfast; no escape without eggs and potatoes first (or some kind of fuel).

The food comes, a scramble with cheese and bacon and onions and something else. Extra potatoes for the GF customer. All gone in short order. The service is kind and attentive, the coffee strong.

It's time to launch up White's Hill. Even with a light touring load it seems small and short. Not quite what I remember from January brevets. Nicasio is dispatched quickly. Chileno Valley, green and beautiful and quiet. A month of rain has made inroads into the drought hardpack. Wilson Hill requires the little ring, but doesn't hurt like a month ago at Thanksgiving. Something is going right...

I listen for little things on the bike that might be out of whack. Maybe the weight distribution, maybe the front brake... The Waterford is steady, quiet, humming. On downhills it is steady, handling smoothly with the baggage. Everything is OK.

No brevet also means no cue sheet with the next turn. And the Internet is your friend except when it's not; no signal, not even voice, after Chileno Valley, despite busy Tomales-Petaluma Road. This part will have to be by feel.  I remember zig-zagging. The first zig comes right away. After that, zag on Fallon-Two Rock Road and then what's the next zig? Feeling lost and helpless. A Kind bar to top off breakfast, and a spot of 3G signal helps my reasoning. Carmody Road is the mystery turn. 

The high pressure does not hold. By the time breakfast wears off completely, it's grey and cold and blowing in Valley Ford. The market there has nothing GF, nothing! A banana with peanut butter will have to do. I wonder what food challenges lie ahead. The fear of running out of fuel in a remote, small place with only sandwiches or pastries is very real. The sky is grey; a fellow cyclist reports that his group met heavy rain on the coast to the north, and he's glad to be off the bike.

But at least I know how to get to Occidental.