The breathtaking cliffs of Big Sur

Day 34, Monterey to Esalen, 45 miles

I’ve ridden this route over seven times before, and reverse from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco at least three more. I still hunger in anticipation for the thrilling stretch from Carmel to San Simeon. I’m up before dawn, packing my gear and rolling down to say a “final” goodbye to Sarah at the Adventure Cycling camp. We are laughing at the serendipity, still, of meeting along this coast, sharing several days riding together.

I head up Veteran’s Drive for the final climb over Monterey Peninsula. I meet three other women cyclists who’ve been riding along since Half Moon Bay. They are debating descending to take the 17 Mile Drive, but I sway them to take the climb and get to the stunning cliffs of Big Sur. “Just over the hill!”

I’m slower on the climb, but once the routes is back on California 1, I descend like a bomb. Save the bumper to bumper traffic clogging the two lane highway. I sneak past car after car, on the edge of the shoulder, then take the clear straightaway at full speed. The road levels out at Carmel, and I duck into the Starbucks to get some coffee, electricity and finish writing. Chats with Jennifer keep my awhile longer, but I’m not worried, today will be a short one, just 26 miles more to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

A couple hours later, climbing through Carmel Heights, passing private mansions behind walls and fences. Lifestyles of the rich and famous. I wonder if Oregon will eventually succumb to the pressures to privatize the coastline. So far, our government has resisted, keeping the Beach Bill in place to ensure public access to all 400 miles of coastline. Matt Love calls it socialism’s crowning achievement in Oregon.

The highway climbs more then levels out to a large coastal plain, headlands in the distance. Surf roils amidst turquoise waters. The brackish scent of kelp and shellfish waft along with strong tail winds. This is a glory ride. I come upon the women cyclists, passing them again, then they leapfrog ahead. Until at last we are crossing Bixby Creek Bridge and climbing Hurricane Ridge. I stop at the viewpoint, exchange blogs and names with Amelia, Paulina and Sarah, Just as I’m mentioning that I know another Sarah, who should ride up but she herself! We talk about the Women on Wheels website, a collection of stories of solo female cyclists. (

We take more pictures, sharing how we are all giddy at the ride. Paulina says her cheeks hurt from smiling too much. Smiling too much. Yes, I understand. The Big Sur ride brings me the same feelings of joy, bordering on the ecstatic. And deeper feelings of awe and wonder. Memories of all the times I’ve ridden here, all the places I’ve been emotionally. What is it about the Big Sur transit? Maybe the raw beauty, endless vistas, the power of the roadway, etched into sheer cliff faces, the naked exposure to the elements, the history in myth and culture of the Beat writers.

Sarah is doing the sweep for the Adventure tour, and now she’s off, so we say a final goodbye, for this trip anyway. I promise to visit in Seattle, and invite her to Oregon. Whenever our paths may cross. She says she’ll see me on the other side, but then qualifies that she doesn’t mean the afterlife. “We’re already in heaven!” I respond. I head off too, ahead of the others, knowing I’m going to bomb down the other side of the ridge, full bore. Sure enough, I top 44 mph, again. Amazing how an ascent of 3/4 of an hour can be given up in ten minutes on the descent. Seems almost like flying.

I fly past Point Sur and along the valley towards Andrew Molera State Park, into the last stretch of redwoods on the California Coast. I stop at the River Inn for an overpriced burrito, and then ride on to Pfeiffer, only to find the park closed, as I had feared. What to do now? Motels and private campgrounds in Big Sur are ridiculously overpriced, so I decide to push on to Esalen and stealth camp along the highway.

I make the big climb past Pfeiffer Big Sur, passing the Big Sur Bakery, up to the second summit of the day, begin the long descent past Nepenthe and the Henry Miller Library. Onward, the cliff ride continues, rolling climbs and descents until at last I reach the straight aways, the series of bridges before Esalen. The sun is setting as I roll into the stealth campsite, one I’d scoped out last year, considering a visit to Esalen when not at a workshop.

I set up the tent as the sun is setting. The sun paints the sky in shades of yellow, golden, orange. I hear the surf crashing below, smell the brack and brine. Sleep comes easily, and tomorrow, Into the Fire once more!

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