california

The Road to La-La Land

I didn’t intend to head for Los Angeles when I made my half-baked ‘plans’ for this trip.  I didn’t really intend ever to head for LA.  I’m not a celeb-spotter, a wannabe-actor or a psychotic stalker (as far as I know).  And I’m deeply suspicious of anywhere where you can actually see the air you’re breathing (and you can, believe me).

But then my planning wasn’t especially extensive, and I initially intended to fly to New Zealand from Chile.  There are no direct flights from San Diego, so Los Angeles it had to be.  I had to leave the friendly embrace of ‘America’s finest city’ (the locals’ own description, naturally), and head up the coast.  A gentle 120 miles or so in three days, with only the last thirty-ish miles through the sprawling suburbs of southern LA.

I was familiar with the northern Californian coast from a road trip a few years back.  I really liked the meandering coastal highway, with the redwood trees, cliffs, beaches and sleepy little towns.  Southern California is a bit different.

After a first day cruising gently out of San Diego, through its northern suburbs and the seaside towns up the coast, things got a little more exciting on day two.  You need to cross the giant US military base at Camp Pendleton, which appears to be a little schizophrenic about cycling.  For the northern half of the base area (the second section for me), there’s a nice tarmac cycle track along the coast, merging into a state beach area.  This is genuinely nice.

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Unfortunately, the southern half of the base essentially cuts off every road apart from the Interstate, leading to a hairy 12-or-so miles along the glass-strewn hard shoulder, with the traffic doing a minimum of 70 mph next door.  This is nice only in a particularly sarcastic way.

On the plus side, you get to see the US Marines playing with their toys.  I’m not sure whether innocently taking long-lens pictures of military aircraft doing circuits and bumps on the beach gets foreigners into trouble in these paranoid days.  Especially while standing on US military property.  So I found the picture below, which gives a decent impression of what was going on around me (including the huge sand clouds) as I trundled through the base area.

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Having traversed Pendleton, and cleared the sand from your eyes, lungs and crevices, there are a few more miles of seaside towns full of wealthy and semi-wealthy people before you hit the LA suburbs proper (I reckon LA starts a few miles before Long Beach).  I’ve seen more ‘all-too-well-known Seattle-based coffee shops’ in the last three days than in the whole of the rest of the way across the US.  This, I’m assured, is a sign of wealth.

A few more idyllic miles of beach-side cycle path followed, albeit with the dark smudge of LA’s halo of smog darkening the horizon.  This is the bike path along Huntingdon Beach, which is really very pleasant:

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And then an adrenaline-spiked, two-hour rush through southern LA.  I’m not entirely sure what happens to me when you put me on a bike in traffic, but it must be a relic of commuting in London.  Self-preservation requires hyper-awareness, eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head, and fairly (arguably very) aggressive riding between hundreds and hundreds of traffic lights.  The alternative is getting messily squashed.  It’s actually quite fun, in an extreme sport sort of way.  And it’s an absorbing enough game that you don’t notice how tiring it is.

Anyway, I arrived near LAX airport yesterday afternoon (Wednesday), leaving plenty of time to prep the bike for a long, long flight on Saturday evening.  Needless to say, I found a bike box within an hour or so this morning, so have an extra day to kill tomorrow. Not sure that I can find enough to keep me busy out here near the airport.

So maybe I will, despite my best intentions, end up in the centre of Los Angeles.  How unexpected.

Plan B

Five nights in the San Diego area so far, and one more to come.  I’m hitting the road again tomorrow morning (Monday).  But there’s been a bit of reflection, thinking, reality-checking and re-planning going on.  If you’ve read the ‘About’ page, you know I never made any promises about sticking to the original plan.

There’s also been a bit of ‘rest and relaxation’ at a busy travellers’ hostel, which has led to me needing some rest and relaxation.  It’s hard work keeping up with the youngsters nowadays.  Especially when you discover that you genuinely are older than some of their parents.  Ouch!

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I’ve learned a few things along the way on this trip.  Not entirely surprising, as this is my first long bike ride.  I knew I could manage my target mileage, at least in the short term.  I knew that I’d be happy travelling by myself most of the time.  And I knew that other tourers can complete long-term, intercontinental touring on miniscule budgets.  It only made sense that I could do the same, so I planned accordingly.

But here are a few of the more relevant pieces of knowledge I’ve attained over the last few months:

1.  While I can maintain a 50-mile-a-day average, it’s a little too athletic for my liking (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m a bit lazy).

2.  If I’ve spent a day straining and sweating on a bike, I really need a shower if there’s one available.  And I’m willing to spend money to have one.  I tried the wild camping thing, and after due consideration, have decided that it’s generally best left for dire emergencies, or places where there is nowhere at all to stay (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m getting too old to be filthy for days on end).

3.  If you add together the first two points, you still get a cheap (in terms of daily cost) trip.  But you don’t get one that’s going to cover all six rideable continents and three years.  Or at least, not without a much, much bigger budget.

So… Reality bites.

I really wanted to ride central and south America.  I also really wanted to ride around the world, from London to London.  But it’s very clear that I can’t (realistically) do both in one go.  I’ve had to work out what the priority is, and focus.

Going around the world generally involves moving in one direction.  Going to south America in the way I intended would take around a year, and cost a year’s worth of money.  And it would take me backwards in terms of moving around the world.  Heading directly around the world by heading to New Zealand would take 13 hours, and cost £600.  And it would take me a long way (a very long way) forward in terms of moving around the world.

There’s only one answer here.  South America will have to wait.  I’m flying to Auckland from LA on Saturday evening.  This is a bit gutting.  I was really looking forward to south America, as I’ve never been.  But it’ll probably still be there for a while.

On the other hand, there are some pluses.  I can keep a realistic daily budget for the trip.  I won’t have to live in hedges and eat earth all the way home.  And it’s probably only about 18 months from New Zealand, so people at home can buy me congratulatory pints sooner.  And I will circumnavigate the world on a bike, which is important.

So, it’s hobbits instead of tequila (a choice I never thought I’d have to make).

I tipped my hat to latin America yesterday, with an evening in Tijuana, Mexico.  It was very chilled out, clean and safe feeling despite the dire predictions of various people I’ve spoken to (and chunks of the international media).  And at least I can say that I’ve been to Mexico.  For a couple of hours.

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The frustration of knowing that ‘TJ’ would be as far as I got in latin America was offset a bit by some delicious beer, and a pile of tasty quesadillas with slightly alarming chilli sauce.  I think I could have got used to that sort of diet…

San Diego seems like a really nice town too.  No obvious ‘no-go’ areas, and easy access to the ocean, the mountains, and Mexico.  And some interesting buildings as well.  But I’ve been still and procrastinating for too long.  It’s time to head on.

20141017RTW_9I never intended to go anywhere near LA, but it’s where the flight is.  I’ll be meandering up the southern Californian coast over the next few days, and then repeating the ‘find a box, pack the bike, cross your fingers that the baggage handlers are real human beings’ process that I perfected in Lisbon.  It should be early summer in NZ, and I can take it fairly easy through there before hitting Australia to start the long ride home.

Still sounds like quite a good trip, actually…

 

Erm, What’s that Big Blue Thing?

Turns out it’s the Pacific Ocean.

Three months and two days after leaving London, I seem to have emulated the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and (inexplicably) One Direction, and ‘broken’ the States.  It’s an odd feeling; with the time-warping properties of bicycle travel, it seems like I’ve been in the US for ever and for five minutes at the same time.  And it hasn’t really sunk in yet that I’m apparently capable of riding a bike across a continent.  Odd…

The day before yesterday, I was still in the desert.  Another blistering drag across a sandy and featureless landscape, with just the coastal mountains getting closer on the horizon to reassure me that I was making progress.  Still close to a hundred in the shade, if there had been any shade.  Thankfully, I had the sense to make it a shortish day after the 90-miler previously, so I didn’t have too many hours of the ‘sunscreen in eyes’ thing to put up with.  I’d have struggled to make it any further in any case, as the long desert run had really taken it out of me, and I was feeling fairly rough.

20141014RTW_1By yesterday, I was feeling much better, but those mountains had become a reality.  There are 30-mile rides and there are 30-mile rides.  This one was 30 miles of uphill.  With over 1100 metres, or 3500ft, of vertical gain, it was also (slightly oddly) the biggest single climb of the trip so far, just because it started near sea-level, rather than from much higher up.  It felt like it too, although at least the temperature dropped to comfortable levels with the increasing elevation.  And that scent of pines, which I’d been fantasising about in the desert, was back for real for the last few miles.

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Just before the last major section of climbing, I met Don (“call me Rainbow – everyone else does” – I didn’t even ask…).  He was yet another super-impressive pensioner, who’d just spent five hours thrashing a mountain bike over the same hills I was puffing up.  And who looked as fresh as a daisy.  He was giving out free apples which he’d pinched off someone’s tree further up the hill.  Sixty-four going on fourteen.  It was nice to chat, but I was exhausted in a matter of minutes.

After a rest and junk-fuel lunch at a shop, and recovering slowly from the encounter with Rainbow, I ground on up the hill.  Ten minutes later, I was stopped again, this time after meeting Tim and Laura Moss, a pair of Brits who are on the final leg of their round-the-world ride.  I tried to sound knowledgable and experienced with the cycle touring stuff, but given that they’ve been 14 months on the road, and are just nipping across the US before getting home for Christmas, I didn’t really have much to offer except admiration.

Thankfully, getting to the beautiful little town of Julian at the top of the climb restored my self-worth a wee bit.  I’d nailed the big climb.  My dodgy knee was actually feeling better than it had in the morning, which was good, but peculiar.  And I was only a day away from San Diego.

20141014RTW_12I celebrated (arguably a little prematurely) with a giant spicy burrito.  That’s not some sort of euphemism, by the way.  Just dinner.  I wandered round town for a while, breathing in those pine scents, and marvelling at the change from the arid, super-heated desert just a few miles away.  It’s a completely different world given that it must take less than an hour in a car (even though the roads are small and twisty).  Amazing.

And then today.  Basically just a 60-mile plunge down from the mountains to the sea.  Ignoring a couple of nasty hills which provided a little sting in the tail.  Another completely different climate, with drizzle threatened overnight, and extremely moderate temperatures.  And a couple of entertaining hours on main roads, playing with trucks and buffoons in cars.  I haven’t seen this much traffic since Portugal; such fun!

I was even welcomed into the area by a pair of F15s (I think – they were a little way away), which were circling the big military base at Miramar.  Really nice of them to make the effort to mark my arrival.  Must remember to write them a ‘thank you’ note…

But more important to me than the weather, the military or the traffic was hitting the Pacific at La Jolla Cove at half-past four this afternoon.  I immediately handed my camera to the nearest total stranger to capture the magic moment.  He did OK.  And he gave the camera back.

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And that was it.  Across a continent on a heavy, heavy bicycle.  Job done.

What next?  A rest in San Diego (probably a week or so), and a tedious period of financial calculations to work out quite how badly I’ve obliterated the budget.  Probably some fairly radical surgery to Plan A to compensate.  Certain places may no longer have the future pleasure of a visit from me to look forward to.  If you see what I mean.

But at least I know I can get around the world on a bike now.  Whether I will or not is down to a vast amount of factors, only some of which I can control. I can’t be worrying about stuff all the time.

So, fingers crossed for the next stage; I’ll tell you exactly what that looks like as soon as I know!

A Day in the Life

Today was always going to be a toughy.  It’s hot here, and today was my second-longest day of the trip so far, at around 90 miles.  Across the desert.  With barely any shade or supply points.  I was a little worried about it, to be honest.

I’m writing about it, which clearly destroys any jeopardy or suspense I may try to inject into this post.  Likewise, the desert, while impressive, is not especially photogenic, except in a few places.

So I have a choice.  A short, to the point, post to reassure those who give a monkey’s that I made it OK.  Or something a little different, trying to give you a flavour of what a long, hot day in the saddle actually looks and feels like.

I’m thinking that the latter potentially garners more hero points, so here we go…

The alarm goes off in the dark.  6am.  Urgh!  I’m dreadful in the morning, or at least until I’ve got some caffeine on board.  But with darkness falling again just after 6pm in this neck of the woods, I need all the daylight today.  Plus, an early kick-off at least means serious miles before it gets too hot.

Check the weather.  93F is forecast (that’s 34C in new money).  In the shade.  The road’s always much hotter, but could be worse.  Sun-hat or helmet?  Stick with the helmet for now, see how it goes.  Check The Beast.  Mechanically fine, a little air needed in the rear tyre, a little of my bizarre (blue coloured, strawberry flavoured) chain lube to keep things smooth.  Water?  Two 1.5 litre bottles in addition to the usual two bike bottles.  That’s 4.5 litres.  Enough?  Not sure.  Think there’s only one chance to buy more en route.  Check my own fluid levels.  Drink two kilos of extra weight.

Ablutions.  No point in washing with a sweaty day ahead, but gain shiny white teeth and fresh breath, and lose a bit of the extra weight I just put on.  ‘Nuff said.

Pack the bike.  Rear panniers, front panniers, bar bag.  Add the tent, and the high-calorie food I bought last night; bread, plastic cheese, cookies and crisps (that’s ‘chips’ for the Americans).  Extra classy and decent calories-per-gram.  Good.  Still need to eat before I head off, though.  And get that caffeine in.  Quick sweep to ensure I’ve not forgotten anything.

Somehow, it’s already seven-fifteen.  No idea how I take so long to get ready, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Quick calories and coffee required to kick things off.  A mile-and-a-half into town to the Golden Arches and a fat boy’s breakfast (well, they’ve got a special on, and two of everything is definitely required).  Pop next door to the gas station.  Bottle of multi-vit-reinforced water to keep hydrated.  Sunscreen application number one (factor 50 – no messing about).  Shades replace specs, crash helmet and gloves on.  I’m ready, finally.

Seven forty-five.  On the road.

Twenty or so uneventful miles across the valley towards the desert.  Then a bonus; one last gas station before the end of civilisation.  A bucket of lemonade from the soda fountain and some chocolate.  More empty calories, which is exactly what I need.

Into the desert.  The road’s pretty easy, but the heat’s building already.  The sunscreen and sweat mixture is picking up dust and diesel from passing trucks.  Lovely.  It’s all getting a bit gritty; standard problem, though.

Just after eleven, I meet a couple on touring bikes coming the other way.  We stop for a chat, cleverly placed just under the brow of a small hill, alarming oncoming truck drivers for a few minutes as we discuss routes, bikes, and all the usual stuff.  They are doing my ride today in reverse, but left long before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat.  I’m duly ashamed of my morning tardiness, and a little worried about having to ride through that heat myself.  No matter, I’m committed now.

The road starts to rise.  It’s not steep, and not especially high, but it rises in waves, due to being built on a dune system.  It’s hard to get a decent climbing rhythm, and the sunscreen-sweat-road muck combo is making a beeline for my eyes as my fluid intake comes straight back out through my skin.  More stops for food, water and eye-sluicing.  Tricky balance; do I want to see clearly, or make sure I’ve got enough to drink?

Around 1pm, I’m hitting the top of the drag.  There’s a building, which is the first shade I’ve seen all day.  It turns out to house a bunch of Border Patrol agents searching for illegal immigrants.  They let me cool off in one of their vehicle-search bays, as long as I stay out of the way.  Shade feels good.  More water.  More sunscreen.  And off again.  Still wondering why they didn’t check the documents of the only obvious foreigner in the area…

Two-thirty.  After another twenty-ish miles of rolling road, sweat and itching road grime, I hit the gentle downhill to Imperial sand dunes.  The couple I met earlier told me there was a shop.  I stop.  Massively overpriced, but really don’t care.  An extra litre of water, a Coke, and an ice cream to drop my core temperature out of the red.  Third application of factor 50.  Half-an-hour cooling off in the shade.  Just enough time for a headwind to spring up to obstruct my last 27 miles.  Grr…  Unpack the Cycling Zen, check the clock (should still be just OK for daylight).  Roll out for the last stretch at three.

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The sand dunes are spectacular, which makes the next few miles easier.  Then it’s back to the grind.  Trying to think about other things to deflect negative thoughts about the wind and the nasty sunscreen-dirt muck, which is in both eyes now.  Notice that the desert doesn’t smell of anything other than the occasional road-kill victim.  The warm pine smells of the Rockies were nicer.  I try to pretend I’m still there.  I pass sea level (going down), which ruins the Rockies fantasy.  There isn’t even a sign, which is a bummer.

Fatigue and heat kick in properly for the last ten miles.  And the usual (literal) pain in the backside from a long day’s riding.  Stopping every few minutes for water, and to relieve pressure on delicate areas.  Racing the falling sun towards Brawley.  I’m knackered, but I’m going to make it.  Just.

Roll into town at five-thirty.  Thermometer shows 97F, still, despite the fact the sun’s nearly gone down.  Find place to stay.  Shower immediately (ah, the itchy, sweaty, nasty gunk is gone until tomorrow!).  Food.  More liquid.  Consider a celebratory beer (it is Saturday, after all).  Decide against (on the basis of dehydration risk).  Check wi-fi.  Write some bits and bobs.  Shortly to sleep.

Tomorrow?  Same again, but only about 40 miles; good chance for a lie-in…  Then it’s over the coastal range, and a drop to the Pacific.  And probably back to normal reporting.  This is exhausting just to re-read…

 

Today in numbers:

Distance – 91 miles (145km);

Hours from start to finish – 8hr 45min;

Hours moving – 6hr 55min;

Average Moving Speed – 13 mph (21 kph)

Climbing – 456m (1496ft);

Max Shade Temperature (conservative estimate) – 100F (38C);

Sunscreen Applications – 3;

Approx litres of fluid drunk – 8.5l

Other Cycle Tourers Met – 2

 

California’s East Coast

It’s been a couple of fairly quiet days.  I’ve been within sight of my last US state, California, since the run-in to Lake Havasu City.  But I only crossed the border yesterday.

Here’s a view of California from Arizona, in the slightly bizarre desert drizzle (courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Simon):

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Why so apparently slow?  Well, I’m in the middle of a desert.  For the last couple of days, I’ve followed the Colorado river south, as there are plenty of towns and small resorts where I could get water and supplies.  And there’s a large chunk of barren emptiness between the river and the coastal mountain range before San Diego.  I needed to head south to find a manageable route across (i.e. less than 100 straight miles of nowt).  I don’t really want to get stuck out there.

Following the Colorado river south gave me plenty of time to inspect California’s little-known ‘East Coast’.  The river is quiet (hard to imagine that it’s the same river that cut the Grand Canyon), and is dotted with small RV and trailer resorts, where people go to swim, boat, jet-ski and generally chill out.

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The picture above is pretty typical of the ‘coast’.  The left bank is Arizona.  The right bank is California, complete with small RV resort.  The road is where I should have been riding, apart from a small navigational issue.  Out of shot to the left is the busy highway I ended up on, complete with stacks of diesel-belching trucks.

I finally left Arizona yesterday, south of Parker.  En route to the border, I stopped only when flagged down by a man in a van going the other way, who swerved halfway across the road while waving a tin of spam at me.  I’m still not clear if this is a standard Arizona leaving present.

And somewhere just after that, I hit the 4000-mile mark for the trip.  Another little milestone, and a nice complement to hitting my final state.

About five miles further on, my left knee began to give me grief.  It’s been a little bit dodgy since Kansas (I think as a result of riding on an angle while leaning into cross-winds), but seems to respond well to rest.  Just hope I can limp as far as San Diego to give it a few days off to recover properly.

In any case, (yet) another rest day today so that the knee (and the rest of me) is fresh for the 90-ish mile desert run tomorrow.  It’s amazing to think that it’s only a week or so since I was sleeping in my down jacket at well over 2000m altitude; tomorrow’s run to Brawley will leave me below sea-level, and the daytime temperature is back into the 90s.  And you can tell you’re in California from the sudden appearance of millions of palm trees in every town.

IMG_0331Assuming the desert goes OK, it should only be three or four days from here to the real Californian coast.  I’ve nearly knocked off a crossing of North America on a bike, which is an odd thing to contemplate.  Anyway, a few more days of sore knees, legs and derriere to go before I get there…