Of wind and water and sun and stone

Day 48, San Luis Obispo to Plaskett Creek, 73 miles

A message from Suzanne back home. Read the blog. You are so alive, Ocean.

I want to tell her, I’m getting there, getting there.

My night at the hostel is restless. I’ve hatched a whacky plan for the morning: leave before dawn, call Esalen along the way to schedule a 1am soak, ride some 91 miles to stealth camp there. Nearly a century ride, along one of the most challenging stretches of the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route. I’m truly the ciclista loco. I can barely sleep, so excited to meet this challenge.

My alarm awakens me, but no one else. I ditched the bunk room, sleeping instead in the private room the host gave me to store the bike. 4:45 am. I wait for the second alarm, then heftily dress and pack the bike. Out the door, the chill air shocks me awake. Bicycle computer says 38°F, roads are wet from the nighttime rains. For the first time this tour, I pull on the tights and fish my winter gloves from the bottom of the panniers. 5:20 am I am embarking on an adventure ride like none other.

This morning I’m glad for my 650 lumen headlamp, gives me a view of the highway as good as a car headlight. I’m riding California 1, heading north. The wrong direction by PCH bicyclist standards. NOAA has predicted 25 mph winds from midmorning on, so I’m trying to get a head start on those too. Easy miles towards Morro Bay, the sun rising at my back, the south, as I head the opposite direction. A stop at Albertsons, first coffee break, provisions. I buy enough food for the day and then some. Getting smarter about this desolate coastline, Big Sur.

Back on the road, heading north. I cycle through Harmony, population 18. I bet Alice got a chuckle about this town. Basically consisting a ranch family or two, I imagine. Up the next pass, 9am. Time to call the Esalen Baths line, busy signal, busy, busy, ring. Recorded message: closed for rain on Monday, will open today at 915. I keep calling, redial, busy, redial, busy, ring, same message. I’m riding on now, dozens of redialing, always same message. I guess they aren’t open today either. Rain closing a hotspring. Hard to imagine where I come from. Perhaps the cold rains dilute their fragile springs. Ha. Imagine Breitenbush having this problem. Open year round, that one, through Cascade winters, snow on the ground.

Second coffee break, Cambria. I take the Business 1 loop, a side road leading through a cute downtown I never knew was their. Interesting cafes, pretentious shops, water restrictions preventing the barista from giving me a drink. Gas station down the road has no problem. Cycling north again. Turns out to be fortuitous, Esalen being closed, for my ride has just encountered the winds. Just as NOAA predicted. In my face, over the coastal plains of San Simeon, some twenty miles of this to look forward to. But looking forward I am. I can’t wait to get back to Big Sur.

Elephant seals. I stop at my secret viewpoint, just shy of the official parking lot. Dune sands have covered the barbwire fence, so I step over a few yards, I’m directly above the beach filled with sleepy seals. I bark and hoot, and several seals look up to me, with their huge black eyes and cute dog faces. I’m tempted to join the cuddle party below, though I think better of it not wanting to be crushed by the thousand pound beasts and feeling pulled back to the road. Hours to go, the biggest climbs way ahead. Bye bye beauties, see ya next time!

I pass several touring cyclists, who are heading the right direction, south. I stop and talk with a German couple, yelling across the road. They started in New York, rode across to San Francisco, and now are heading down the coast, through Mexico to South America. What an epic ride! We share about WarmShowers.org, the border crossing, cycling. I’m glad to see other crazies, imagine their journeys. I tell them about the Facebook Bicycle Touring group, that they can find me there. I hope they join up, post their blog.

A few more miles of headwinds, and there she looms, the mountains of Big Sur. I’m reminded of the Cliffs of Insanity in the Princess Bride. Not vertical by any means, these hills inspire an awe nonetheless. And their orientation serves to block the winds for the next few miles anyway. I arrive at Ragged Point, 58 miles, 9 hours since I left the hostel. Just 15 miles to go, but the steepest roads ahead. Although, come to think of it, I’ve been climbing for the 20 miles past Cambria, into the winds. Third coffee break, no coffee this time, just eating my Albertsons lunch, refilling water, enjoying the sun on my back, on my black clad legs. Tights are making this chilly ride tolerable.

I talk to a few tourists, who eye me with bewilderment. No one thinks me crazier than the motorists driving through Big Sur. They know this highway. Or they think they do. But not like me. Not with the degree of intimacy, of immediacy that a peddler can only know. I’m riding, climbing the first of two major hills. One lane construction site, I climb through two changes of the traffic light, cars easing past me slowly through the long narrow passage. Crazy cyclist.

A few more curves to climb, and suddenly the breathtaking views, out over the vast ocean, blue skies, brilliant sunlight low on the horizon. I’m gasping for air to power my legs, to take in this otherworldly place. The highway here is etched into cliff face, a thin like starched into the stone. Flora refreshed form the night rains are giving off intoxicating aromas. Sage, wild dill, juniper, eucalyptus. Deep inhale, ecstasy ensues. Legs are happy, climbing climbing climbing. I crest the first hill, then quickly descend into the pocket of Salmon Creek, immediately beginning the next climb. Up up up, to the sun, to the sky. So quiet now. Silent pedaling save the occasional motorist. Just the sound of winds whistling through my helmet, ocean surf crashing far below.

Descent ends too quickly, I approach the tourist trap of Gorda, glad to ride right through. Not paying your prices today, got my own food. Ha. Sun sinks further, close to the horizon. I’m tired, exhilarated, loopy from endorphins and inspiration. I see the glint of emerald in the cliff face, another jade stone to take home. I left the other one in Tijuana, on the side of Mex 1, thinking it too heavy to haul any longer. I kick at this rock, dislodging an even bigger, even more beautiful stone. Should I take this along, on my last few days riding? I hear Roberta sighing, rolling her eyes. I throw it on the rack, don’t notice the extra weight.

Sun is setting, now the splender of Big Sur is complete. Clliffs turn shades of gold and rust, skies glow orange and purple. Ocean deep turquoise, waves frothing white. I turn my lights on again, to be seen more than to see. But there is hardly any traffic and the road levels out, winds returning in my face. Except for the car that pulls up, driver unrolling his window crazy bicycle man he yells. I give him my thumbs up, yep. He laughs, how far today? I’m exhausted just driving this, I’m from Canada, see the plates. Quebec. Long way from home. Good luck, then he hits the gas, rushes off. I can’t imagine driving that far. I have. It is exhausting. Not a good exhaustion though. One of struggling to stay away, to see what is whizzing past at 60 mph.

Here on my bicycle, I’m traveling at the right pace, seeing every blessed thing, breathing in moment after moment of overwhelming beauty and stark simplicity. Only one thing to focus on, pedal pedal pedal. The mind becomes quiet, distractions drop away. Only breath, muscle, road, hills. And today, I’m relishing my return to Big Sur. A land shaped by the forces of nature. A playground for the naked elements. Of wind and water and sun and stone.

And there it is, destination achieved. Plaskett Creek Campground, nestled in Pacific Valley, on the desolate Big Sur coast. Daylight fading rapidly as I roll in, set up camp by headlamp, meet another cyclist, who rode over 80 miles to arrive here. He talks excitedly, high on his epic ride south from Seaside. I’m listening, sharing, but I want to be alone now, rest and recover. A bit more conversation, then I crawl into my tent, my sleeping bag warm against the chill of nightfall. I’m excited, I can’t wait for tomorrow. And yet I sleep almost the instant I lay my head down.

You are so alive, Ocean.

I’m getting there, getting there.

6 thoughts on “Of wind and water and sun and stone

  1. So enjoying your epic journey—your photos and stories have become one of my almost daily routines. Your joy is contagious! Wishing you continued safe travels.

    1. I’ll be staying in SF this Saturday, catching the Amtrak in Oakland Sunday evening at 9:30pm, maybe we could meet for dinner? I could check my bike in the afternoon with Amtrak, then meet you at Jack London Square?

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