One Time We Rode From San Fran To LA: Here Is Our Story
Like anything else, this trip started out as a romanticized thought. EJ had planned to go to California to visit his friend Tommy in Los Angeles but also wanted to see the rest of the state. He decided the best way to do this was to take a bus from LA to Palo Alto, and then spend a week riding his bike back to LA. Simple, really!
EJ didn’t want to do this alone, so he presented me with the (romanticized) idea. After some consideration (about 30 seconds), I booked a flight to San Fran and out of San Diego. So there it was — our IDEA of cycling the coast was now a reality. I immediately envisioned endless coastlines, big waves, cold beers, beautiful sunsets, and an easy ride. We discussed side trips to various breweries, cities, and beaches. We envisioned a smooth journey, comfortable camping, and a storybook-like trip. We had always talked about a trip like this — and now we were finally doing it. We fist bumped and clinked our beer bottles together as we bragged and boasted about “crushing” this trip. It was going to be 500 miles of magic.
Except we were wrong as shit.
EJ and I like to cycle, but in no sense of the word are we competitive or experienced. We had never ridden more that 100 miles at one time, and we certainly had not carried any gear with our bikes before. We have always incorporated fitness into our lives and felt we were more than ready for this challenge. However, we had no idea what a “challenge” was until this trip.
EJ and I, along with our bikes, landed in San Francisco in perfect condition. The bikes were in tact and nothing was damaged. We arrived late at EJ’s friend’s house and assembled the bikes within minutes. The racks were secure, the brakes were tight, and spirits were high. We were pumped to get going. I felt proud as a stared at my pink and blue bike, not realizing that it would become a permanent fixture of my hindquarters over the next six days.
The following day we woke up early and loaded up our bikes for the first time. Things were starting to look a little less secure. We each had two panniers attached to our racks, along with a backpack and other gear strapped down to the top. We carried about 50 pounds each. In one of my panniers, I carried a little stove, my sleeping bag, and a small set of pots. In the other, were my clothes and a fucking book (irritation) I carried on the plane. Attached to the rack was my U-Lock, the tent, bike tools, a towel, one spare tire, and a backpack filled with food, sunscreen, and tubes. My bike went from a Budweiser Clydesdale to a loaded workhorse before I even got into the saddle. However spirits were still high. I was still pumped as hell.
After 24 hours of exploring San Francisco, we were finally ready to start our five-day (or so we thought) journey. We woke up at the comfortable time of 8 a.m. and were out the door by 9:30 a.m.. Our starting point was the Golden Gate Bridge. We made it there without a problem, snapped some pics and headed for Route 1!
Route 1 is all we knew. Everyone told us, “Yeah, just follow Route 1 the whole way down to LA.” Going off that supposed “fact”, EJ and I were pretty confident we wouldn’t get lost. It’s one damn highway called “1” the entire way. Again, we were wrong! After leaving the Golden Gate Bridge, we stopped for a quick breakfast at some diner (that didn’t serve bagels, wtf!) near the entrance of Route 1. With full stomachs we were ready to cruise.
Or were we?
We started riding out of San Francisco. The weather was beautiful and spirits were high. There were signs for Route 1 everywhere. We were hoping to get to Santa Cruz by nightfall, which was about 87 miles. As soon as we got to the entrance of Route 1 we encountered a sign: “No Bicycles Allowed.” EJ and I looked at each other, not expecting this issue. We were immediately concerned, but not really frightened. We didn’t let this get us down — yet. We saw what looked like an alternative route and kept going, hoping Route 1 would pop up a few miles down the road.
As we started on this “alternate route”, we were immediately confronted with the biggest hill I have ever encountered. It seemed to be in the right direction so we started going down……. and down……. and down…….. and down. After a while, I thought it was going to end in hell! It wouldn’t stop going down. We eventually got to the bottom and joked about how bad it would be to have to go up that hill. We decided to check our location so Ej gets his phone out, entered the location, and waited for it to load, and I hear. “Oh fuck”! at that same moment I looked straight ahead and noticed an airport! I said “that better not be the fucking San Fran airport”.
Of course it was the San Fran airport, which is in the opposite direction of Route 1. So there we were, about 20 miles in, and lost as hell. We asked the first person how we would get back to route 1. He laughed and pointed straight ahead and told us it was about 18 miles away. He continued… there is one big climb, but it isn’t that bad. If it was anything like that monster we just descended from it was going to be really fucking bad. And it was. It was fucking terrible. Although we were both pissed, we continued on.
Over the next 18 miles of “useless” (just making up for the wrong turn) riding I would experience physical pain that I didn’t know existed. It was 18 miles of mountain climbing. I screamed, winced, and nearly bawled as I struggled up each and every hill. I cursed out the pavement and threatened to do horrible things to every inch of the hills. At one point we stopped to consider whether or not it was worth it to continue breathing. I had to walk my bike, but the hill was so steep I had to drag the bike up the hill. I struggled to walk the bike. It was so pathetic. After 3.5 hours of torture, I saw the pearly gates of Route 1. The sign and the homeless man next to it was the oasis we had been looking for. Not to mention, we got our first view of the endless Pacific Ocean. The bad news — it was 5:30 p.m., we were still 45 miles away, and had no idea where we were going to stay that night.
We cruised as hard as we could considering we just climbed K2. We were also starting to get a bit irritated with one another. As we started down the “real” Route 1, civilization became sparse. We ran into four girls on a hill that were also doing a bike tour, but only about 25 miles (It was pretty pathetic). It was good to see people with their bikes packed and in the same boat as us. They were dressed in tights and capes and explained that they had super powers, one of which was pooping on command. Shortly after that comment, EJ and I said good-bye and continued on our way. We eventually came up to a really nice looking hostel and we figured it would be a good place to ask for directions.
The guy operating the hostel was about 65 years old and had probably been smoking pot for the same amount of time. I am not sure if he had ever taken a breath of oxygen. He was very friendly, though, and explained that the hostel was full. He also insisted that we would make it to Santa Cruz before it got dark (it was 7:45 p.m. and Santa Cruz was 24 miles away). However, he said that there were no campsites at all in Santa Cruz. The closest campsite was four miles down the road. He also suggested we hike our bikes down a hill, through a creek, and spend the night on the beach. We considered that option, but decided we would check the campsite out first.
We got to the campsite within 15 minutes, but they explained that there was no availability. When we argued that we had no choice, the lady was silent for a minute and then explained that she would give us a spot in the general tent site. Really, we don’t give a shit what site it’s in, and is there a fucking VIP section?
But it all worked out. There were showers, clean toilets, and a fireplace. At the end of the first day we were mentally and physical exhausted. We were also 20 miles short of where we had hoped to be.
We got up around 7:30 a.m. to start our second day. A skunk had woken EJ up in the middle of the night. It had unzipped his pannier and took out the trail mix. After discovering this we fired up the stove, made oatmeal and coffee, used the facilities, and loaded up our bikes again. We were pretty excited to get going because we were starting on Route 1. The first view of the day was the Pacific Ocean, which was absolutely incredible. We were also in “the groove” and were focused to make up for some lost time. Our targeted destination was Big Sur (about 86 miles).
We started out well. We made it to Santa Cruz within 3 hours and stopped for lunch at a local bagel shop. The town was really cool. It was your stereotypical surf town filled with stereotypical surfer bros. We had stopped in a bike shop to pump up our tires and made the horrible choice of asking about Big Sur. The workers ensured it was absolutely beautiful, but a really hard ride. They said it in a way that lowered our confidence level. A lot. They also pointed out a section of Route 1 that did not allow bikes and explained how to navigate the detour.
Day 2 was rather uneventful, but it was extremely disappointing. We had hoped to spend the day on the coast, but the detour led us far from the ocean. We spent a significant amount of the day riding through creepy deserted towns. The whole time I felt as if I was in the middle of Texas. It was never ending — and it was boring. We eventually rolled into Monterey, which was really nice. We met a gentleman in line of for the bathroom who told us Big Sur was still 30 miles away and it was a really difficult ride. Again, it was about 6:00 p.m., we were exhausted, and had nowhere to stay. We decided to keep going, but were not sure if we could make it. Within three miles, we hit a massive hill and realized there was no way we were going to make it to Big Sur.
We rolled into another town called Carmel. It was 26 miles away from our planned destination. EJ and I had no idea what to do. We were both pissed that we were falling so short and had zero clue of where to go to sleep. We stopped at a restaurant to figure out our next steps. We quickly connected with the hostess, who became very involved in our dilemma. She was determined to help us out.
She gave us several options. The first was that we could ride a few miles down the road and sneak onto private property and camp out (land owned by Clint Eastwood). We quickly shot that down. I wasn’t trying to be “gran torinoed” by Mr. Eastwood. She also offered to drive us backwards to Monterey where there was a campsite, but we would have to wait until her shift was over. We decided against that as well because we didn’t want to make her sit with us and all our gear in her Honda Fit. She also explained that she had friends that owned a house down the road from the restaurant. She called them to see if we could pitch our tent in their backyard. Unfortunately, they never answered. Her last option was the one we ended up taking — there was a small campsite about five miles out of the way.
We navigated perfectly to the campsite, but it was on a mountain. We dragged our bikes up to the top and read a sign that said, “Campsite closed, no bikes allowed.” We learned quickly not to take any of those sign at face value. After an examination of the site, we found a manager’s phone number on the window of the office. She charged my debit card $35 and let us stay the night. We succeeded in finding shelter again.
The second night was pretty glum, to say the least. We were both upset that we had fallen significantly short of our goal — again, about 26 miles short (We were about 50 miles behind in total). As we sat there that night, we began to discuss alternative plans. The idea of cutting the trip short and only going to Santa Barbara was a serious consideration. EJ and I agreed that despite how far we got, we were not going to let our struggle to achieve an extremely challenging goal ruin our trip. We were both pissed that we set a goal that was too challenging. We felt defeated — we came out here to crush the coast, and we were failing miserably. And it was only the second night!
But we still left a little glimmer of hope in our discussions. “Let’s just see how far we get tomorrow,” we said.
We changed up our tactics and were on the road by 6:30 a.m. We hit the road with a much more open mind, “just going to see how far we get” by the end of the day. We had two campsites in mind. One was about 60 miles away. The other was about 103. I didn’t say anything to EJ, but I had already accepted the idea that we were only going to make it 60 miles. In addition, we were riding Big Sur, the most challenging part of our trip.
This day does not need a long description, I will let the pictures do most of the speaking. But Big Sur was gorgeous — 70 miles of cliffs, ocean views, and mountains. There were no guardrails, and death was literally three feet to the right. I can’t describe the feeling of being three feet from the very edge of our country. EJ and I were certainly motivated by the sheer beauty of the ride. The only real issue was the temptation to stop for pictures every mile, which we pretty much did.
We made it into Big Sur within about four hours, with plenty of time to spare. We walked around the Red Woods for a bit and met other bikers who were doing the same route we were, but heading north. We exchanged a few stories and pushed forward. We continued to ride through Big Sur at a pretty consistent pace. The hills were absolutely incredible both up and down. There were insane descents, followed by excruciating ascents. We were able to stop for lunch in the middle of a mountain, where we drank a beer and ate a sandwich before continuing . The beauty of the ride fueled every turn of the crank.
Not only was Big Sur our most productive day, but we met some cool people. We met Roddie, a recent retiree from England. He too was going to LA, but he had started in Seattle. He hand-wielded his own bike and had been on the road about 18 days. Although Roddie had just retired, he was fast. He crushed us — and by the end of the day, we had lost him. We also met Stephen Hnilica, who was walking from Tampa, Florida to raise money for Children in India (check him out). He had been on the road for a better half of a year. He seemed somewhat disheveled — but who wouldn’t be? He survived by couch surfing and through food donations from churches and restaurants. He walked about 15 miles per day and pulled this insane contraption made of PVC pipe, a cooler, and a large backpack. His goal was Seattle, Washington. We spoke for a bit and wished him luck. We also met another man on a bike tour. He was on day 19, and had been traveling from Vancouver to Arizona. He too was probably in his late 50s or early 60s.
The Big Sur experience was incredible — from the ride to the people we met. Needless to say, we made it 103 miles. This meant we were back on track. At the end of this day EJ and I were exhausted, excited, and confident that we were going to make it to L.A.
We woke up on the fourth day and were exhausted from Big Sur, but our spirits were high. This particular morning was wet and misty. We now knew we could make it to LA, but it would not be easy. We also realized that the views would not be as spectacular for the rest of the trip. We had to rely on each other to keep our pace steady. More importantly, USA Soccer was playing Belgium in the World Cup, and we needed to see it. That meant we had to crush at least 45 miles by 1:00 p.m.
The rain cleared up and the sun came out. That morning we passed through a really cool village. It was like “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” with all the buildings neatly labeled — “General Store”, “Coffee Shop”, “Village Church”, and so on. We stocked up on snacks, took some pics, and started to cruise. This section was particularly flat, which made it easier to keep a steady pace. By 12:30 p.m., we had covered 35 miles. We stopped at a bike shop to ask where we could watch the game and grab a burger. The guy explained that Shell Beach was roughly 10 miles away and had some good eats. It could not have been more perfect.
As EJ and I road towards our lunchtime destination, he caught a flat. Of course, right after we left the bike shop! It was the back tire, so it took both of us to lift the bike with all the gear and make the fix. We knew we were going to cut it close with the soccer game. We replaced the tube and began to cruise. We rolled into Shell Beach and immediately spotted the “Brew House” . We grabbed a seat in the dining room just as the second half started. We couldn’t believe it. Our luck was finally turning. We ordered the fattest burgers and sourest beers we could and….. CRUSHED THEM!
That was one of the best burger experiences I have ever had. The combination of physical exhaustion and bacon made that burger something special. After consuming burgers the size of small children and experiencing the sadness of USA’s loss in overtime, it was time to saddle up again.
We had a decent distance to cover before nightfall, but we weren’t worried about it. We also had no idea where we were going to stay, which had become typical. Despite the burger and beer, we were able to return to a good pace. We made it to Guadalupe within a few hours. This town felt a bit strange. There were tumbleweeds and low riders everywhere. At this point we started to discuss our sleeping arrangements. There were no campsites within 30 miles and it was 5:30 p.m. We were also exhausted. Our plan was to ride as far as possible and then find a clearing in the woods to pitch a tent. We traveled about 15 miles and the exhaustion really started to set in, but we were now only 15 miles away from a campsite in Lompok. We continued on, hoping we would make it.
As we headed in the direction of the campsite, we encountered two gigantic hills. Honestly, straight mountains. We struggled so hard to get up, we were drained. I was whimpering and I could hear EJ behind me saying, “Fuuuuck this.” We were at the end of our rope. At the top of that second hill we both unclipped and threw our bikes to the side. I thought I was going to die and ascend into heaven. EJ lay in the middle of the road and waited for the next car to put him out of his misery. After about five minutes and contemplating the next move, we met our guardian angel.
DAY 4 (CONTINUED)
A car rolled up on the deserted road, pulled over, and put its flashers on. I immediately panicked. My brain quickly recalled all of the murders from the Investigation Discovery channel. But in the car was a young woman — probably in her mid-20s. She stepped out of the car alone, walked up to us, and introduced herself as Adrienne. She immediately offered up her mother’s house for shelter that night. She explained that she had recently biked across the country with her fiancé and was too familiar with that feeling of helpless exhaustion. She was very friendly. She said she could not fit out bikes in her car, but she gave us her address and phone number and told us that if we decided to stay we could text her that we were on our way. After that, she wished us luck and drove away. EJ and I looked at each other in disbelief — this sort of thing does not happen on the East Coast. Of course, I was wary. I couldn’t help but picture her fiancé waiting for us with a 12 gauge, but EJ had already made up our mind. “We are f#$$# going!” he shouted. I complied; we were on our way to Adrienne’s mom’s house.
We called her on our way and she met us out front. It was a small, charming little cottage. There was no crazy fiancé waiting for us — just Adrienne and her mother. She was amazing. She let us do a load of laundry, dry out our camping gear in the garage, and heated up all the leftovers in her fridge. She had quinoa chili, chicken pasta, corn on the cob, and baked potatoes. I ate like she was escorting me to the electric chair. It was amazing, and rather indescribable. After dinner, we chatted for a bit. We learned that Adrienne was a physical therapist who was soon moving to New Mexico with her fiancé, who she was marrying within the next month. She also had an incredible amount of faith in the human race for picking up two random guys off the road to stay in her mother’s home. She was also a Christian. I loved that.
She let us have her room, which was equipped with a private bathroom. After an amazing night of sleep, we woke up to an incredible breakfast spread. Almond butter, banana bread, pancakes, and coffee. Again, it was incredible. I went straight H.A.M. (reference Kanye song) on that meal. After the meal we thanked Adrienne and her mother, took some pictures with them, and went on our way.
EJ and I left Adrienne’s completely revitalized. We had clean clothes, full stomachs, were well rested, and had a new appreciation for the generosity of the human race. EJ and I had a pretty mild day ahead of us. Not many hills — and not too far to go. But we only made it about 10 miles before our biggest mechanical dilemma slapped us both across the face. EJ popped another tube and while we fixed it, we noticed three of his back spokes were broken and his rim was starting to bend under all the weight. The nearest bike shop was 10 miles away and there was no one in sight.
Leave it to our guardian angel, again. Adrienne was just a phone call away and she was off from work. We gave her a ring and kindly requested her assistance. She agreed to pick EJ up and take him to the nearest shop in Solvang, California. I rode my bike due to space limitations. She was truly amazing. She even took us to an ostrich farm before the shop!
The town of Solvang was really nice. It was small and quaint, and it seemed to be a diamond in the rough. We spent about an hour there while EJ’s bike was fixed. After that, we were on our way. I popped two tires about 5 miles past the bike shop, but quickly found out
it was a thorn. We rode smoothly through the rest of that day. We rode through Santa Barbara, which was really nice. It consisted of young college students, beaches, and palm trees. We stopped there for our daily lunch and beer at a place called Dutch Garden’s. It was a replica of the shire and it was amazing. We both ordered schnitzel sandwiches and German beers, an incredible mid-day reward. From lunch we rode into the final campsite of our journey. It was a very strange set up. On one hand it was beautiful, because we were on the water and got to watch the sunset. Also, it was free. However, we were one of three legitimate campers on the grounds, and there were a lot of wanderers coming in from the highway. We stumbled across makeshift shelters in the bushes that were constructed from old and possibly stolen camping equipment.
At this site we met another man who was just starting his own cycling journey. He was traveling from Santa Barbara to Seattle. It was his first time biking any distance and he was less than prepared. He had an old bike, which looked like it hadn’t been tuned since it left the factory. He was also pulling a trailer with all his gear. He might not get through Big Sur alive. He also showed us that his diet consisted purely of packets of powdered potatoes. “What do you guys think of these meals?” he asked. To my knowledge, that is not nutritious enough to sustain a bike trip from Southern California to Seattle. We offered up some of the advice we had gathered over the last five days and wished him luck. We also locked our bikes up really well that night.
TEARS OF JOY (The Final Day)
The final day was shorter than we anticipated. We crushed the ride to LA, aside from getting lost once and stopping for a late lunch. We rode at a decent pace and made it to Santa Monica by 1:30 p.m. The sight of the Santa Monica Pier was something I will never be able to accurately describe. It was a mix of pride, joy, accomplishment, and a bit of sadness. We had never accomplished anything this grueling in our lives, and I was a bit sad that it had come to an end. EJ and I cruised to his friend’s house in L.A., got off our bikes and gave each other a huge hug. Not many words were exchanged except for, “We did it, lips.” Both of us were now bonded by this journey that no one else will ever truly understand.