Living the American Dream – LA to San Francisco
It was with a sense of growing trepidation that I landed at LAX airport. Looking out of the window I could see the heaving sprawl that is LA and had just flown over more people than live in the whole of New Zealand. I didn’t really want to get off the plane to be honest. New Zealand had become so comfortable. America by contrast seemed big, uninviting and just a little scary.
Thankfully, a lot of these feelings were to be swiftly dispelled. I had arranged to stay the night with David and Renee from Warmshowers. They live close to the airport and I really needed a night to get on my feet and get sorted before tackling cycling in LA. David was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and has a great workspace where he makes some stunning art/carpentry creations. It doubles perfectly as a bike workshop and he has every tool you could wish for. We spent a great afternoon working on my bike and I learnt an awful lot. I then spent the evening with both David and Renee, enjoying their company and comparing stories and plans for the future. I decided to take another couple of nights in the city so I booked into a brilliant HI (the US version of YHA) hostel in Santa Monica. The ride there was just great. I headed to the coast, along some huge, typical LA highways, only to hit a series of bike paths right along the beach. I spent the morning cruising along Venice Beach in the sun, shirt off and loving life. America is certainly crazy and very different to New Zealand, but I was already understanding the “oh-so-cool” appeal of Southern California.
I spent two nights in Santa Monica, a gorgeous and fairly affluent suburb of LA, before striking out properly north. I had a relaxed schedule, as I had less than 200 km to cover in four days to make it to Santa Barbara where I would meet Natascha, a friend from university. Natascha now lives in San Francisco and had kindly offered me a place to stay once I was in the city. However, a plan soon developed for her to take some holiday from work and join me for the 600 km into town. For the days until I was due to meet Natascha, David had been in contact with some friends and had sorted two places for me to stay. First up, was Brant in Ventura, about 100 km north of Santa Monica. The road hugged the coastline and passed by some glorious Malibu beach houses! As I sat on Zuma Beach, eating my lunch in the wonderful spring sunshine, I concluded that life could be an awful lot worse. The hospitality offered by Brant and his wife Robyn turned out to be wonderful. They invited some neighbours over and we spent a great evening eating Mexican food, drinking beer and shooting pool. The generosity and friendliness of near strangers, all around the world, continues to astound me.
From Ventura, I headed a short distance up the coast to Summerlands, a lovely community on the coast just south of Santa Barbara. It was a sign of my growing ease with life that I decided to detour inland, making my day harder and longer in the process, because I wanted to enjoy the scenery. It was definitely worth it. Southern California is surprisingly mountainous and truly beautiful, although the parched landscape showed the evidence of the continuing drought affecting the region. In Summerlands, I would be staying with Stewart, Sarah and their two young boys Thorin and Leif (let’s face it, viking names are cool and with the surname Rasmussen it definitely works!). I hope I didn’t get in their way too much and helped out in places, but the selflessness to put me up for two nights when you have two young children was yet again, just astounding. I had a lovely day off, enjoying the sun and hitting the beach with the family.
I then headed to Santa Barbara to meet Natascha, and after a few provision stops it was up into the hills for the hardest day of climbing we would face. We were only heading 40 km up the road to Lake Cachuma State Park, but the hill was long and steep and the weather hot and dry. The difficulty of carrying extra weight initially seemed to affect Natascha but after a couple of short breaks, we both made the top of the climb. For a first day out on tour I was really impressed and certainly needed the stops for water myself, having had a couple too many beers the night before with Stewart. We spent the night camping in the park next to the lake, the first of many stunning spots to sleep. The following day started in relaxed fashion as we passed through the wonderful, Danish-inspired town of Solvang and we even had the chance to sample some wine on our way to Lompoc. A few poor route choices and a slight google maps error suddenly meant we had a much longer day than we had previously anticipated. It was a late finish as we dragged ourselves into the Oceano campground at the Pismo State Beach. We had covered 126 windy kilometres and for a second day on tour it had been a bit of a killer for Natascha (and me). Thankfully, she is a very strong rider and we both battled hard to get through the day.
Heading north we passed through San Luis Obispo as we made for the San Simeon State Park. The sheer number of people in this stretch north of LA was alarming and a real shock to the system. We paused in Morro Bay for lunch and then carried on through quite a hilly section to the delightful town of Cambria. We headed for the supermarket to get some food for the evening and as I hit the very steep slope into the carpark there was a loud crack as my chain snapped. I had been standing on my pedals and immediately hit the deck hard. I would later find out that I had shattered my bottom bracket, adding an extra bit of grinding to the following days. For the time being however, the most pressing matter was repairing my chain. Thankfully I carry the tools to do this and it didn’t take too long before we were underway again. The delay again meant it was approaching nightfall as we hit our camping spot in the park but thanks to the generosity of some fellow campers in giving us a load of firewood we had a nice warm evening by the fire. Our sleep was somewhat disturbed though as I had to get up a couple of times to fight off raccoon attacks on our food supplies. We had then planned a few short days through the stunning Big Sur coastal region. The next morning I would be hugely grateful for this plan as I woke being barely able to bend my knee. It would appear that I had twisted it when falling off my bike and the whole joint had just seized up. It eased as we stopped at the remarkable hilltop site of Hearst Castle, the elaborate home of the former publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. The place is a testament to what having unlimited funds can achieve! it is magnificent though, with art bought in from Europe dating back to the 14th Century, and some stunning architecture.
We only covered about 40 km that day but my knee couldn’t have coped with much more. A tough afternoon cycling into the wind certainly proved challenging. Stopping to watch the gigantic Elephant Seals on the beaches provided some light relief at least. Also, we had booked to stay at an inn that evening, at Ragged Point, and the warm bath and a comfy bed did wonders for my pain. The Big Sur Coastline is justifiably world famous for it’s beauty. There are dramatic, forested hills, descending directly to the crashing Pacific Ocean. Add in the morning mist and glorious sunsets and you have something truly special. We spent two nights camping in the Limekilns State Park, enjoying a day off the bike and relaxing on the beach. It was only 45 km north of Ragged Point but we both needed a break and the road was very steep and challenging in places. The camp was beautiful with trails through the woods yards from the beach. I was even able to sleep just off the beach with no shelter whatsoever under perfect starlit skies. There is nothing better than sleeping completely out in the open, looking up at the cosmos. Fully recharged, we then struck north, heading for the Andrew Molera State Park. A morning of steady climbing was followed by a delicious clifftop lunch and a wonderfully fast descent to the campground. Despite being told the site was full, we managed to talk our way in and found ourselves in a great camp with no parking by the actual pitches. This meant that there was lots of space, it was quiet, and we met some great people that evening. After a walk to the beach, we sat around a campfire toasting marshmallows and sharing stories with new friends. I hope to catch up with some of them again as I head north.
We headed out of the relative “wilderness” of Big Sur, making for Monterey. By coastal California standards we had been remote, but with general stores at least every 30 km it wasn’t exactly the Nullarbor. Big Sur had been wonderful. My one issue, and I fear it is one that will keep cropping up in the USA, was the number of people I had to share it with. I realise this might be selfish but for me, part of the true joy of this trip is finding special spots to share with just a few others. It is strange not only how comfortable I am on my own now, but just how much I actually enjoy it. On our way to Monterey, we took in the spectacular Point Lobos State Park, with glimpses of Sea Lions, Sea Otters and Whales, not to mention stunning scenery. From there, we cycled the exclusive 17 Mile Drive, private road and estate. This high-end residential area boasts great views, beautiful beaches and 6 top class golf courses. Amongst these was the truly world-class Pebble Beach, home of numerous professional events. It looked magnificent. We spent the night at the HI in Monterey and enjoyed a few good beers courtesy of the Cannery Row Brewing Company.
We had just three nights left before San Francisco and the first of these was spent at Sunset State Beach. We arrived into a battering headwind having cycled through the Artichoke Capital of the World and via the charming village of Moss Landing. We weren’t too tired to head for the beach though. It was too cold to sunbathe so we walked for about three miles along this gorgeous stretch of sand, backed by towering dunes and “Grand Designs” style properties. From Sunset Beach, we headed into Santa Cruz and the wonderfully American boardwalk, theme park and pier, complete with hundreds of hilarious Sea Lions. The afternoon was less fun however, as yet another crazy headwind made our lives pretty miserable. The campground that night made up for it, as there was a general store to buy beer, fireplaces with free wood next to the shower blocks and free wifi to connect to the outside world for once. We got up early the next day to avoid the worst of the wind and made it to our overnight spot of Half Moon Bay by lunchtime. We relaxed and enjoyed a pizza and then headed for the State Beach Campground. Disaster; it was closed for repairs. This was rather a nasty shock to the system. Thankfully, just 11 km further north there is a HI housed in the Point Montara Lighthouse buildings. We managed to get booked in and soon discovered it had been a blessing in disguise. The hostel was unbelievable. Great quality as always but with a magical setting and semi-private beach. An unexpected treat for our last night.
We were left with just 30 km to San Francisco. There were some very steep, challenging hills to tackle through Pacifico but soon we hit the city. We paused for some great coffee at a spot called Trouble that I had been recommended to me, before heading for Natascha’s home. It had been a great 10 days of company. At times I had certainly struggled. I have had almost six months to develop and sink into my own routines and habits. I was also very used to just having myself to think about and being able to do whatever the hell I wanted. This caused a few challenges, but overall we had a blast. It was great to share some of what I love doing and probably did me good to break some of my unnecessary quirks. Natascha had proven to be very strong. She certainly was taking things far more in her stride by the end of the trip – I think the very tough first two days were a bit of a shock and she had also just completed a 160 km race before setting off with me so that was fair enough. I slept for my second day on tour! It was great having her along. I hope she feels the same; I really did try my best to be normal!