09.25.11 – Comridery

As the four of us departed from the Elk Prairie campground, we were a bit upset to have seen only signs about elk that didn’t seem to exist. As we descended in the cold morning without physical exertion to warm us from within, my eyes were fixed more on the fields around us than the road in front, hoping to spot the creature for which these prairies were named. A couple miles from the first town, Orick, my scouting paid off. Shouting forward to my companions, I beckoned them to make a sharp right turn onto the quickly approaching side road. There in the field, blending well with the various shades of brown foliage was a herd of elk! Joining several cars who had also been lucky (or cared) enough to stop, we watched the elk from a couple hundred feet away. It’s amazing how little these animals need to actually do to control our attention. Sitting in the field, turning their massive head and antlers once every couple minutes is enough to keep us enthralled. Without the thick fur of the elk, the cold morning and thought of a good breakfast inspired us to continue to Orick’s only diner, Palm Café. Not surprisingly, it had the look and feel of a small town diner with off-white dishes, mugs and silverware I could bend with one hand. It was pleasantly perfect.

After the meal, the four of us decided to go on our own schedules and meet up down the road for lunch. We weren’t sick of each other but I can speak for Stephanie and I when I say we appreciate time alone as much as we do the company of others. Maybe this is an idea I should try to hold onto. The road rolled lazily over small changes in elevation all the way to Eureka. This was our last day by the coast on Highway 101 (we wouldn’t see the ocean again for another two and a half days along Highway 1). Unfortunately, the fog limited the final views of the coastline but I didn’t suspect I was missing much anyway. The miles went by quickly and I waited for Stephanie at the edge of town so we could head to the local bike shop and get acquainted with the town. Asking all of the necessary questions, we located the best brewery, a laundromat and suggestions for secluded camping spots not too far out of town.

The problem with breweries is that you can’t just try one beer. I used the excuse of their Wi-Fi to stay and drink more while using the excuse of drinking more to stay use their Wi-Fi. Listen to your parents, kids, don’t drink and surf. By the time we recognized this vicious cycle, it was obvious we wouldn’t be done with laundry until after dark. As we sat in the laundromat calculating distances to the camping spots, they all seemed a lot further away without daylight; our eyes were drawn to the heavenly lit hotel sign across the street. Between the four of us, we showered and slept in relative luxury for the cheap price of seventeen dollars a pop. With great sleep comes great difficulty waking. A bit reluctantly we hit the road, covered in fog, but looked forward to traveling and camping in the Avenue of the Giants. This famous detour from Highway 101 is touted for its up-close views of massive, I mean giant, Redwoods.

The fog disappeared by the time Stephanie and I reached the entrance to the Avenue. Guy and Bud had already arrived and were relaxing against a tree drinking Coca-Cola and listening to music on Bud’s cell phone. Some trees were dead and hollow while others were solid and towering several hundred feet tall. Hugging one felt like hugging a wall. Very few cars passed us on this road probably because it was a weekday and the only people in the area are traveling on the faster highway. This allowed us to really take in the intensity of this unique forest. Growing up on the east coast, these trees might as well be in fairytale stories. To see that they’re real and in my home country does something interesting – it makes fairytales just a bit more believable.

The Humboldt Redwoods campground had a great hiker/biker area and in total, 11 cyclists camped there that night. Yunn, an older Frenchman who had been keeping pace with us since southern Oregon, was already set up and cooking his meal when we arrived. Around a fire, 6 of us sat and recalled the day over more shared food. Guy and Bud always took time to prepare the most interesting wraps with combinations like peanut butter, tomato, avocado and some sort of cheese. Complete with a folding cutting board and an entire loaf of bread at all times, their meals seemed much healthier than my chili-mac and cheese. Sticking to what I knew, there wasn’t a bean left in my pot when I was done with my staple meal. Again I slept without a tent and though the sky was clear, the stars were blocked this time by the Redwoods around us. A bright moon provided just enough contrast between the sky and the trees to see their tops swaying hundreds of feet in the air.

The next day started out late, which became a theme as the cooler weather arrived and made it more difficult to get started. More riding through the Avenue meant great pavement and very few cars. Once the Avenue of the Giants ended, it was back to rolling hills, a bit bigger than north of Eureka. I may have said this before but I began to enjoy hills. Oddly enough, I had felt so accomplished when I got to Seattle that I almost viewed traveling the coast as a break from real riding – a victory lap if you will. It was an opportunity to explore something without having to think about directions and resources. South was the way and towns were plenty, albeit small. Riding alone for most of the day, 101 followed the Eel River but it did not follow the typical trend of being flat. This did, however, lend itself to spectacular views of the water below. Typical of riverside roads, 101 followed almost every turn of the river, only crossing it when the river double backed on itself. On a map, the two lines look like paths of two birds having a grand old time. The road played with the river like this all the way to the Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area.

After setting up camp (read: unfolding my ground sheet) I walked down the path to swim in the river. I must say that although the river was barely deep enough to swim, I couldn’t help but be a little nervous. I’ve never felt completely comfortable floating in water where anything could lurk. Trying to break this fear I forced myself to swim to the other side and laughed as I scurried out as if two more seconds would have been the end of me. I was far enough from the road and campground that I really felt alone. Without my bike and gear I had a greater feeling of detachment. I kind of felt like it was just the valley and me. Other than the occasional splash to send curious fish back under rocks, I did my best to listen to the sound of silence. I think I did a pretty good job.

That evening, a bunch of us gathered at the outdoor restaurant across the street. I had a delicious salmon burger, something I had only made in my own kitchen. The place was set up with a stage and screen so the owner set up a movie for us but between the beer and the swimming I was too tired to stick around. Returning to my ground cloth, I began to enjoy another night’s sleep out in the open again. After a couple hours I found myself colder and less comfortable than normal. Awakened by this discomfort, I realized that my sleeping pad had completely deflated! In no mood to fix it at 1am, I figured another full inflation should last me until morning. Even though I intended to find and patch the hole the very next day, I ended up doing this midnight inflation routine pretty much all the way to San Francisco.

It’s a narrow and busy road but Highway 1 was calling every cyclist in the area to keep its shoulders warm. In the morning, the dozen or so of us packed our gear, turned off of Highway 101 for the last time and embarked on a four mile long, one thousand foot climb over the coastal mountain range to again ride along the Pacific shoreline. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast but it must’ve been pure energy because I reached the peak in 35 minutes. After a short rest, I shot down what was easily the greatest descent in the 6,200 miles I travelled. There were no straight sections of road longer than a couple hundred feet. Filled with s-curves and banked hairpins, the turns were gradual enough to fly through but sharp enough to require a bit of braking. Paused at the start of Highway One’s relationship with the shoreline, I looked north to see why it had taken this long for the two to meet. Diving deep into the water was the very mountain I had just passed over. It wasn’t until this very spot that I suppose engineers decided it was safe to build a shoreline road. Even though the mountains backed away enough for a highway and strip of beach to squeeze through, the road wasn’t nearly as flat as the shore. Every couple miles, due to breaks in the mountain range, the road shot inland and down to sea level only to hairpin back out along the side of the next mountain. While cars rarely noticed this nuisance in their driving, it was a rhythm-crusher for those on bikes. While it was extremely annoying at the time, I am truly happy to have had to charge through these intermittent climbs. Looking back, it’s better because of them – not because of the flats.

A bunch of us rendezvoused at the North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg for fuel and beer (or is that food and fuel?). In the last twelve miles to the campground, as the sun dropped and turned orange, fog gathered over the road. If you’ve never seen orange glowing fog, I highly recommend getting out here. Stephanie and I arrived at the hiker/biker campsite and I have to admit it was one of the most beautiful. Sitting at sea-level, the campground was constantly immersed in fog or otherwise damp. This made for the greenest campsite yet with moss even growing on the food cabinets. I badly wanted to sleep without my tent again but the fog and threat of rain dashed any hopes. Joining us at the camp was Yunn the Frenchman, Tomás the German, and Mike from Missoula. Tomás had to be in San Francisco a day before us for reasons I still don’t understand, but the sweat stains on his backpack and jacket illustrated his ability to do the extra miles required each day. Mike, on the other hand, was enjoying a slow long-distance tour on the other end of life as a retiree. Starting in his hometown, he planned to meet his wife in San Francisco. The dinner conversation was pleasant; Mike introduced us to a new cheese; and in the morning we all bid farewell. Though we traveled the same road south, Stephanie and I somehow never crossed paths with them again – but perhaps the path hasn’t yet ended.

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