Northern California

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge should have been a serious highlight for me. After a couple of weeks in San Francisco it would mark the beginning of the final leg of my trip. Three and a half months to New York; no more flights to take and no more major breaks. Whilst it was undoubtedly cool, and the views were spectacular, it wasn’t the experience I had hoped for. It just didn’t feel right leaving San Francisco. I had begun to settle there and met some amazing people. I could see myself living there. Tearing myself away was very difficult and crossing the bridge was a very clear symbol that this period was over, for the time being at least. The whole day was anti-climactic as I just didn’t really feel like being back on the road. But this is the life I have chosen and there is no way that I’m not making it to New York. It has been a dream and ambition for too long. This was just another barrier to be overcome. 

   Heading out of the city, I followed bike routes north through Sausalito and San Rafael. I had only planned to do 56 km to the Samuel P Taylor State Park as I felt I would inevitably get a slow start. This turned out to be perfectly accurate so despite the short nature of the day, it was early evening before I made the campground. This at least, turned out to be the first of many good state parks with cheap hiker/biker rates. There was an area especially set aside for those arriving under their own power and that night I ended up camping with a few other cyclists, surprisingly all heading north. Most people travel south due to the prevailing winds. Over the next few days I would see a fair amount of Arafat – riding on a Whike (a recumbent tricycle with a sail) – and Annika and Lucy, cycling home to Victoria on Vancouver Island from San Francisco. It was a good evening but despite the company, I couldn’t help feeling a little lonely for the first time in quite a while. I wanted to be back in San Francisco. 

 I made a sluggish start the next day and left after the others. I felt very unmotivated to push hard. Each pedal stroke took me further from where I wanted to be and it would take a long time before I could shake off this feeling. I had initially hoped to make it to Salt Point State Park but a combination of my morning laziness and some very short, steep hills, soon ended this plan. I cycled a few miles with Lucy and Annika before leaving them behind and eventually caught Arafat around lunchtime. I decided to aim for Sonoma Coast State Park. I bid farewell to Arafat and left him behind as well, making it to the park in the early evening. I got set up and went for a walk on the beach in the evening sunshine. Many of the old feelings from Australia had returned. It was a beautiful beach and a stunning setting but I wanted someone to share it with. I returned to my camp and was joined by George, an older cyclist heading south and then east. We chatted a while and eventually the girls rolled in as well. They had had an eventful day; taking the scenic route and being shouted at by old farmers! The following morning, I was underway a bit earlier as I had decided to push out a longer day. I had made the mistake of going too far on the days following a break in New Zealand, but my legs were feeling good so it seemed time to go a bit further. I pushed hard along the coast through a few nice, small towns and stopped for a while to enjoy the free internet at a cafe in Gualala. I eventually rolled into Manchester, having completed 110 km, and headed for the private KOA campground. I had heard the state beach campground was closed and this proved accurate. The KOA however offered sites for bikers for just $10 and had a kitchen, swimming pool and hot tub. It felt like a good deal to me! 

   The longer day had proven to be a bit tougher than expected. My legs were feeling it, and with the experience of New Zealand in mind, I decided to stay a second night. It would do me no harm to make sure I was feeling fresh. There were plenty of days to make up distance and the facilities at the campground for the price were just excellent. I was joined in the evening by all three of my previous companions and we all enjoyed the hot tub and communal fire. I finished the evening chatting to Arafat about some of his other adventures, including being kidnapped in Afghanistan! The following days would settle into a fairly familiar rhythm. The state park campgrounds seemed to be fairly regularly spaced and essentially gave you the option of a steady day or an extremely long ride. I wasn’t yet feeling like pushing very hard; a combination of easing my legs in and not having the desire to kill myself and end up even further from San Francisco. It was a futile attitude really. There was no turning back. But at the time it felt the right thing to do. It was also nice to end up at the same camp as Annika and Lucy each evening. We would ride separately for the day, only meeting up if they or I paused in a town or stopped for a break, but it was great to have consistent company each night. We were also able to split the cost of food for a few days which meant I could eat a lot better than normal and save a little money.

On leaving Manchester, we all headed north and made it to MacKerricher State Park. It was a fairly chilled 80 km day. The girls caught me after I had spent about two hours in the Starbucks in Fort Bragg, a few miles before the campground. I love finding good local coffee shops, and had done so earlier in the day in Mendocino, but the guaranteed, fast wifi at Starbucks is a real bonus at times. We grabbed food for dinner and headed out to MacKerricher for a very damp and misty night of camping. The next day promised to be a tough one, with some real hills to climb. I left Annika and Lucy in Westport and let them know where I was planning to get to. I then set off along the coast, first tackling some short, steep, roads down into and then out of river valleys. Then the first of two proper ascents came along. The first time my climbing had really been tested since New Zealand. It felt great. Of course my legs were screaming, but it was wonderful to be really pushing up through the trees. This was soon followed by a quick descent where I was forced to slam on my brakes and go mental after a truck decided to pull out in front of me. It’s fine though; I’m only a cyclist. I descended very fast, keeping myself right behind them and in their rearview mirror all the way down. I was not impressed. After a few flat kilometres, the biggest climb of the entire stretch to Vancouver kicked up in front of me. The road twisted and turned, levelling out in places, lulling you into a false sense of having reached the top. I ascended through the mist and came out into glorious sunshine and seemingly endless forest. It was just beautiful. My legs were beginning to really feel it when a sign came into view promising 4 miles downhill at 7%. I took off with glee and just let the bike run down the very fast, twisting road. It was heaven. A short distance later I made it to Leggett, bought some provisions and chilled in the sun for a few hours. Eventually the girls joined me and we headed a couple of miles down the road to the Standish Hickey State Park to set up camp for the night. We even had time for a swim in the river. It had been a very good day, leaving the misty coast behind with the promise of the mighty redwood forests to come. But I still felt very torn. I was enjoying being on the road but perhaps some of the shine had worn off. There were great moments, but when I was just pushing out kilometres, my mind would always wander back to San Francisco. 

 On leaving Standish Hickey, I followed the freeway to Garberville. There was the occasional good view but it was generally a boring and frustrating stretch. Garberville is a large town but I have to say it was one of my least favourites of the entire trip. Northern California is famed for its relaxed attitude to Marijuana. It is basically legal for recreational use. This in itself causes few problems, but the culture that is associated with it made me feel highly uncomfortable. I have been through some very strange and remote towns, but none made me feel as wary as Garberville. I think the problem is that due to its continued status as an illegal drug, Marijuana brings in a criminal element with other more harmful drugs also being distributed. This, combined with the low social and economic standing of some of these communities, leads to a very strange mixture of substance abuse, homelessness and criminality. If there was ever an argument for legalising Marijuana I think this is probably it. Having spoken to a few people about it, including growers and ex-police officers, the vast majority seem to agree that legalisation and regulation would go a long way to improving some of these communities and freeing up police time to focus on more serious issues.

Thankfully, on leaving Garberville, my day improved greatly. I soon turned off onto the Avenue of the Giants. This is the old highway that parallels the main road, but it is much quieter and far more scenic. It runs through numerous redwood groves. The size of these trees is hardly possible to put into words. They are just immense. Following the twisting road through these woods for most of the rest of the day was a real pleasure and I was in a much better mood by the time I arrived at the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, my destination for the night. It was just beautiful to camp amongst these towering trees, and including Lucy and Annika, there were no fewer than seven other cyclists at the campground. The others were all heading south and we made a great fire and shared stories from the road. Of particular interest was Nick, from Australia. He is currently touring with his wife, but last year he crossed the Nullarbor on his own, just a couple of weeks before me! 

   I left Humboldt Redwoods and enjoyed finishing off the Avenue of the Giants road. I overtook Lucy and Annika and didn’t see them for the rest of the day. I had a pretty miserable time, cycling on the freeway into the wind towards the large urban area of Eureka and Arcata. Eureka, despite the exciting name, is anything but. It was a lot of heavy traffic along an ugly multi-lane highway. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed. I headed through the town to a KOA and stopped here for the night. At least the showers were good and I spent a lot of the evening relaxing in the relatively warm bathrooms using the wifi! As I was locking up my bike however, I noticed a couple of loose spokes. On closer inspection, the spokes weren’t the issue. A piece of my rear hub had cracked off. Thankfully however, Arcata had a good bike shop so the next morning I was away relatively early and took my bike about 10 km up the road into the town. They had a replacement so I spent my day relaxing in several cafes and booked into a hostel for the evening, waiting on the repair. It was very frustrating but it could have been an awful lot worse. Arcata was quite a nice little town but again had a slightly uncomfortable undertone. Lucy and Annika left me behind in Arcata but it seemed likely that I would catch them on the road in the coming days. However, I was settling into my hostel for the evening when in walked two very bedraggled Canadian girls. It turned out that they had made it about 30 km north before a series of punctures persuaded them to give in and head back to town on the bus for a new tyre. And I thought I had got rid of them!

I slept in late the next morning. I eventually headed out of town at about midday but only planned to go about 70 km so wasn’t unduly stressed. The ride was fairly scenic passing some beautiful estuaries and inlets. I finished by turning off the highway and heading down a more remote route to the Elk Prairie Campground. True to its name, I saw plenty of huge Elk all along the road. It was just beautiful.The girls had caught the bus back to the scene of their punctures the night before so comfortably made it to the campground before me. We were all feeling a little tired though so after a short wander round the park it was time for an early night. The following day would be our last full day in California. The road to Crescent City eventually rejoined the highway and so it was a fairly busy ride into California’s northernmost coastal city. I was there just after lunch and settled into Starbucks where I was able to catch up with friends and family. It was late afternoon and the girls had caught up by the time I was ready to leave. We headed out of the town via a grocery store and reached another KOA. It had been touch and go though, as we were chased by a couple of very scary looking dogs, one of which I’m sure was part wolf. It was a pleasant final evening in California and I sat up late in the recreation room there, using the wifi and relaxing on the bean bags. A little bit of comfort and warmth goes a long way! 

   So that was it. California done. The next morning there were just 20 km to the Oregon border. It had been a very interesting stretch. The coast was beautiful, but unfortunately this was often masked by the thick fog. The inland route through the redwoods was a true highlight. These trees are thousands of years old and just so big, and the forests so extensive. It reminds you of the scale and the untamed nature of parts of this country. But undoubtedly, the days after leaving San Francisco had been clouded by my reluctance to be back on the road. Having regular company had been great, but my mind would wander all through the day. And the towns and cities had too often left me feeling cold. The nature was magical, but the towns didn’t share the warmth of character of those further down the coast. I hoped Oregon would provide a little more charm!


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