FFYeah Bike Touring: Becca’s California Coast Tour
September 1, 2016 | By Formula Femme |
FF rider Becca Book toured the California coast this August, embarking on a five-day trip from San Francisco to Santa Barbara ending at her friend’s wedding. Read more about her travels below!
Solo bike touring as a woman challenges many societal assumptions – when passing you at a rest stop or serving you at a fruit stand, tourists and cashiers often crane their neck to look in front of you, searching for a male companion. The plus side is that afterwards, they usually give you a snack. And thus 45 miles and one jaunt over the Santa Cruz Mountains into my most recent bike tour, I ended up with a handle bar bag stuffed full of strawberries and avocados. I pulled over in Watsonville, CA, a farm town more welcoming to chickens than cyclist as soon as I saw a sign for 6 avocados for $1. I had already passed up a “4 avocados for $1” and a “5 avocados for $1” (you know… California) because I honestly could not remember which pannier I put my pocket knife in, but this one I could not pass up. A young girl, maybe 15, was inside the fruit stand and her mother was taking a break in the sun nearby. I gave them a quarter for the ripest avocado I could dig out of the bin as the mother looked down the road for my caretaker. ‘Are you alone?’ she asked, and then gave some version of the advice ‘watch out for ‘those people’’/ ‘what if something happens?’ which I have become familiar with. The daughter just stared longingly at the world outside her quaint town and said ‘Wow… that’s so cool!!’. When I explained that I was heading out to Monterey that evening, I got a worried stare and a full basket of sweet ripe strawberries.
I followed a series of country highways through an alternating pattern of bright green, fragrant strawberry fields and dusty yellow hills, past marshes and over creeks, straight to a well-deserved plate of fried artichoke hearts. Refueled, I continued on to the internationally beloved Pacific Coast bike route which follows Highway One from Canada to Mexico. I had ridden portions of this route before, but this was my first time following it solo. The frequency of small towns to refuel or, if need be, repair your trusty steed, not to mention the breathtaking scenery, make the California 1 particularly popular. This adds an ever-amusing parade of bike tourists to the route, from seasoned married couples who never forget to pack their folding chairs to ragtag crews of recent college graduates and Australians on gap year who carry nothing besides a can of chili, a flask of whiskey, and possibly a ukulele for a three-month trip. The state of California sponsor $5 per night ‘hike or bike’ campsites to assist in the melding of these seemingly disparate populations (Oregon and Washington sponsor similar programs, too).
My first destination was Monterrey Veterans Memorial Park, a luxurious retreat in the center of the City of Monterey, minutes from the aquarium, the historic wharf, and most importantly a TRADER JOE’S! I spent the rest of the evening cooking gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce on my alcohol stove, aka empty spam can filled with paint thinner, chatting with a young couple, one guy on a beater bike determined to bike north along the One, into a stiff head wind for 18,000 miles of the costal route, and two Flemish girls who had decided to tour California by public transit (‘It’s just not like Europe…’) with frequent interludes from few locals who seemed very permanently encamped at the far end of our site.
After packing up camp, I headed down the mountain upon which Veterans is perched, along a seaside bike path which dipped down to the old wharf before rising up to a bluff overlooking a harbor seal colony which continued down the coast – then realized I was heading the complete wrong direction. So I reversed back past the adorable seals and over the $!#$$%#@ing hill where I had camped, until I rejoined Highway One. Soon enough the local commuter traffic fell away, and I entered the jaw-dropping vistas of Big Sur… where commuter traffic was replaced by rental cars and tourist from points as far-flung as Japan and France. This portion of the coast has a relentless series of hills, but each is crowned with a spectacular view. It was slow going – not because of the hills but because it was so gorgeous I kept stopping to take photos.
Each vista point had a smattering of tourists trying to get a photo where they could crop out all the other tourists, so I figured I would stop and add my camera to the fray. I asked a couple in a minivan if they could take my picture – and then they pointed out that there was a whole pod of humpback whales breaching maybe 100ft off of the coast line.
Not too far down the coast is McWay Falls, which I would wager the majority of readers have received a postcard of at some point. It is distinguishable by its proximity to the ocean and the large line of rental cars parked in front of it. I pulled up to the packed parking lot to confirm with a young French couple that these was indeed the trail to that waterfall from the postcards, but it turns out that they had also just pulled over because they saw the giant line of cars parked on the side of the road. They politely reminded me that I was woman biking alone, and then gave me a bottle of fruit punch, Gatorade, and some chips.
After a full day of climbing I was getting hangry, with no one to take out my feelings on except for passing cars and the the few convince stores in Big Sur that can get away with charging $4 for a popsicle because the area is so remote. I was cursing an SUV for passing me too close when a hand reached out the window with a granola bar. As soon as a realized what was going on, I grabbed the tasty treat a waved to the driver. When I reached the next turn out, the driver was waiting for me, holding an even BIGGER, CHILLED container of orange Gatorade (which happens to be my favorite flavor). It turns out he is a forest ranger as well as a host on W, where he offers his seaside ranger house to touring cyclists. He let me play with his three-month old black Lab puppy as he recommended the best taco joints south of Big Sur. My cycling bonk was successfully broken. That night I spent at Plaskett Creek campground with an older couple who bike from San Francisco to San Diego every summer, and a crew of 20-somethings that had met somewhere in northern California as they headed down the coast.
I woke to a solid layer of fog as well as a brisk 1000ft climb which quickly took me above the marine layer. The road hovered above the fog for only a second before diving back into the clouds, making for an exhilarating start for the day.
After exiting Big Sur, the landscape quickly changes from the misty forests of Northern California to the golden hills of the Central Coast. The road flattens out here, and all the tourists exit somewhere, leaving me to whizz past elephant seals and the collection of zebras at Hearst Castle.
I was enjoying the flat roads and tailwind so much that I almost didn’t notice when I got a flat. This happened, conveniently enough, in the town of Cambria, which is best known for hosting the first 4G network south of the Monterrey area. A little bit of mechanical trouble as well as research into camping options was sufficient to convince me I should take the easier option for the day, a 60-mile route to Morro Bay. There was a winery close to where I stopped to fix my flat, and so I figured why not. The worried bartender quickly realized that I was a woman – ALONE – a problem that is best treated with free wine, and poured me an extra glass. I ended up rolling into Morro Bay State Park just as the sun was setting, and quickly hung up my hammock and passed out.
I had a 100-mile ride ahead of me, so I quickly packed up and rolled into town for hearty diner breakfast. I headed into San Luis Obispo to enjoy all the benefits of city life: a floor pump and a 7-11 selling extra large bags of peanut butter-filled pretzels. I continued down towards Pismo Beach, a self proclaimed ‘Classic California’ town, crowned with a thick layer of ocean fog peaking up from behind the hills, then a row of giant sand dunes in the distance.
I followed the One through a series of quaint beach towns, each filled with a selection of Mexican restaurants and differing mainly in their ratio of RV parks to motels. After about 10 miles, the One turns inland again, into the Central Valley. Large industrial farms suddenly dominate the landscape. Rows of farm workers dotted the fields, each of them quickly picking strawberries or artichokes and then sprinting to the end of the row when their basket was filled, because most workers are paid by the amount of fruit they pick rather than by the hour. The monotony and the frequent rush of trucks zooming by made for a rather depressing ride, but I was keeping a steady 20 mph pace over the flat road.
I eventually reached the town of Guadalupe, and stopped to fill my water bottles up. The only available water was from large tanks that had to be shipped in, located in a busy gas station at the edge of town. The shop was bustling with troupes of workers from the field with empty water coolers, women dragging their children past the candy isle with one arm and holding several gallon canisters with another, and me, with just two half-filled water bottles waiting in the back of the line. I slathered on another layer of 85+ SPF sunscreen, rubbing the road grit even deeper into my skin and then headed down the road. After several more miles of eerily green fields with advertisements for ‘the first high speed Internet in this area’ hung from all the roadside fence posts, I began the climb up past Vadenburg Airforce Base. There was nothing but dry grass and an relentless sun until I reached the top of the climb, where I found more dry glass, sun, and a pleasant breeze.
I quickly descended into the Town of Lompoc, known for the Federal Correctional Institution, The United States Penitentiary, and the Federal Prison Camp. When you hear the term ‘Prison Industrial Complex’, think of this dusty town, inexplicably situated between pastures and aircraft testing fields. Exhausted by the heat (not to mention the 73 miles I had already ridden that day), I scarfed down a particularly enjoyable Super Veggie burrito in under 10 minutes.
Satiated, I continued through some more golden hills dotted with craggy rocks back out into the country. Comfortable in the pastoral setting, I took off my jersey, hoping in vain that I could even out my cyclist tan before the wedding I was heading to. Soon afterwards, I was whizzing past the tail end of Santa Barbara rush hour, a row of sports cars heading out of the city and into the seemingly empty wilderness behind me.
My frustration with my new traveling companions was quickly tempered with the knowledge that this meant I was almost done with my 100 mile day! Just one more 1,000 ft climb between me and my camping hammock. This knowledge gave me my 15th wind, and soon I found myself overlooking the Pacific again from the crest of the hill.
The descent follows the 101, a legitimate freeway complete with rest stops and impatient truckers. The freeway cuts through cliffs such that when you are riding in the shoulder, the rock wall literally leans over you, and shot me down to the beach side campsite at Gaviota State Park where I was staying for the night. Not only did I finish the 100 mile day before sunset, I made it in time to grab beer before the camp store closed! My campmates for the night even had a huge bowl of leftover, made from scratch, spicy rich and delicious coconut curry and quinoa waiting when I rolled in!
After savoring my home-cooked meal, I slung up my hammock and headed down to the beach to watch the last of the sunset with my amazing adopted camp chefs. We got to the water’s edge just as the colors started fading from the sky, and a pod of dolphins sped through the water right in front of our campground.
On my final day of touring, I slept in, not waking up until the sea breeze swayed my hammock ever so slightly. My new camp friends were already packing up, a few of them heading just a few miles to wrap their tour up in Santa Barbara, while one guy hope to make as much ground as possible to get to Mexico and finish his entire tour of the Pacific Coast. I slowly rolled out of bed and went to go ask the park ranger about the hot springs I had heard about. They were just a 6 mile ride away – straight up the hill I had bombed down the previous night. I was able to ditch my panniers and quickly get up to the sulfur-laden little creek.
I soaked for about an hour before rushing down the hill to pick up my panniers and change into my ‘city clothes’ (aka the same dirty bike shorts I’d been wearing all week plus some mascara) and finish up the final 30 miles to my friend’s house in Goleta. After washing all the sweat, grease, and now sulfur off my skin, I can empathetically say that this was a successful, beautiful and generally amazing bike tour, filled with amazing people, incredible scenery, delicious burritos, and concluding with the beautiful marriage of some of my favorite people!