The root system of the fallen tree gives a sense of the size of the redwoods.
#3 CALIFORNIA'S COAST (January-February 2013)

The Redwoods

We'd cycled the length of Oregon 4 times and of California twice, with the exception of the segment of coastal bike route between the Oregon/California border and San Francisco; the word early in our cycling careers was that the log truck drivers in this area were particularly hostile to cyclists. “Sharing the road” was still a hard sell in many places and we had no interest in going where we’d be picking a fight. But having more road presence with our own truck more than a decade later, we headed into the area for a little hiking on this driving trip south.

We felt lucky to have a dry spell in mid-January in which to hike the northern end of the Redwoods National & State Park, both deep in the forest and on a trail 1000’ above the ocean, but we were soon restless to move on and did. Hiking under the heavy tree canopies on gift-like-days of full sun in the winter reminded me of spending the day in the library studying for college exams on a rare, sunny day: I felt cheated. Both then and now I wanted to indulge in the uplifting, expansive feeling of being out in the winter sun and instead I was sequestered away from it. We could put up with the cold, damp air and the squishy mud under our feet but we had no patience for the deep shade on a glorious day so called it "good" after 2 days of hiking in the park.

Hwy 1
Hwy 101 along the Pacific Ocean that follows the coastline in northern California begins veering more consistently inland about 200 miles north of San Francisco and passes the baton to Hwy 1 that follows the coastline to LA. We’d never driven it nor had we ridden its northern segment on our bikes so decided to connect the dots by driving the northern portion of California's Hwy 1 on this trip.

The first 30 miles or so on Hwy 1 felt like an advanced driver’s training course when the old road cleared the coast range to make its way to the sea. “Windy” was an understatement for a roadway that made me feel like I was sighting down the curly edge of a piece of uncooked lasagna. For miles and miles, more time was spent in curves than on straight-aways. Some descending curves were so tight that the brake pedal chattered under my foot, presumably from the truck's stability control system misinterpreting the speed difference between the two rear wheels as loss of control instead of a series of tight turns.

Once we hit the coast, there were longer breaks between the clusters of curves, giving us a little recovery time on the Shoreline Hwy. But narrow, windy, and steep were still the name of the game, with a few notorious curves surely being more than 20% grades. Lucky for us the fresh red grit on much of the route the first day wasn’t for current ice.

The road certainly honed our driving skills and boosted our confidence because in many places our rig was as wide as the lane without a whisker of a shoulder. No wonder this section of the Pacific Coast Bike Route is shunned by many cyclists for being too dangerous--we had our hands full even when we were alone on the road. Patience, courage, and concentration were useful attributes to rally on this road that challenged us every few minutes to also rapidly assess the next pull-off to let faster traffic pass by.

The low bluffs north of Bodega Bay (& San Francisco) are typical of the northern California coast.
Some of the descending slaloms of switch-backs were posted for 10 mph whereas the tight turns on the level stretches were as low as 15 mph. We spent a lot of time driving in the 20-25 mph range and like with cycling in difficult conditions, we mentally rested during the 30-60 seconds of easier going. At one point when I was driving I told Bill “I’ll only look at the road, you only look at the scenery below this cliff because it’s too scary for either of us to do both.” Fortunately, only a small amount of the road was disturbing but much of it required riveted attention that occasionally required breaks in the conversation. The wine tasting rooms along the way looked like a really, really bad idea.

Even on this northern California stretch of road in late January we could see that we were getting far enough south to make a difference. As the conspicuous, giant redwoods yielded to towering eucalyptus trees, blooming flowers began appearing on the roadside. First spotted were a few Indian paintbrush; then pink blooms, perhaps on a tamarisk; and then dots of yellow on low shrubs. Few and infrequent, they nonetheless signaled the payoffs for heading south in the winter.

We had a single ‘stormy day at sea’ on our northern California coast route, the kind of day that draws some people to the Pacific Ocean to watch the waves crashing on the rocks. It’s of course only a thrill to those who are viewing the show by a fireside or have a warm place to retreat to after a foray out in it. Fortunately the foul weather with occasional buffeting winds that shape the trees with ‘wind pruning’ and ‘salt shear’ didn’t spoil our view of the coastline. The low clouds and accumulating fog didn’t shroud the low bluffs but did deter us from venturing out any more than was necessary.

Point Reyes National Seashore, California (1 hr drive north of San Francisco)
Getting There Was a Near Thing
To us, Point Reyes was just another green splotch of National Park Service land on our map but this splotch appeared at the right place at the right time. I had been exchanging emails with my nephew in San Francisco hoping to rendezvous for a few hours on the upcoming weekend. It was mid week and we needed both a place to meet and a place for us to tread water for a few days and Point Reyes had the potential to serve both needs.

Treading water however suddenly evaporated as an issue: instead of arriving early at Point Reyes we unexpectedly detoured inland from our rainy coastal RV park to the ER in sunny Santa Rosa for the day and then spent the next morning in the office of an ophthalmologist. That frightening, temporary loss of a small portion of visual field in one eye at breakfast was eventually diagnosed as “Ocular Migraine Equivalent.” I had had a classic migraine without the classic headache and the visual loss of an ocular migraine without the blindness risks associated with it. I felt incredibly fortunate to get what seemed like an obscure, refined diagnosis--something that wouldn’t have happened without Bill pressing for more clarity than the doctor volunteered. With a little luck, this event will be nothing more than an expensive ‘one-off.’ And the whole ER saga couldn’t have come at a better time: during business hours on a week day an hour away from a reasonable-sized ER at a time when we were needing to occupy a few extra days anyway.

The trip to the ER delivered more certainty about what had happened to me than expected and Point Reyes was a winner as well. Point Reyes dished out a bit of history, a bit of geologic interest, one fairly steep hiking trail, curious and pleasing scenery, a quiet RV park adjacent to the protected area, and a good place for our rendezvous.

Master shuckers Thomas & Bill working for their dinner.
At the Seashore
“Sir Francis Drake Blvd” being the name of the main road through the Point Reyes National Seashore immediately immersed us in the area’s history. Drake is credited with being the first European in the region, arriving in 1579. My nephew and his new wife drove us along Sir Francis Drake Blvd to an oyster farm for a bit of shucking, grilling, and picnicking that was fun and entertaining. Lucky for all, there was no need for a trip to the ER because both Thomas and Bill survived their first encounters with the somewhat dangerous shucking maneuver without impaling themselves. A little less of the notorious wind would have made it more festive, but the unique outing together was a treat nonetheless.

The layering of history is quite literal at Point Reyes: a portion of the Sir Francis Drake Blvd lies on top of the San Andreas Fault Zone. The Seashore peninsula itself is riding on the eastern edge of the northwestward bound Pacific Plate resulting in its rock formations having previously been attached to land 310 miles to the south. It wasn’t until the modern theory of plate tectonics was developed that geologists had a good explanation for the total mismatch between the rocks essentially on the 2 different sides of the boulevard: the other side road lies on the southward bound North American plate.

Point Reyes lighthouse midway between the sea level and the top of the headlands cliff.
Towards the northern end of the Seashore peninsula, Sir Francis Drake Blvd veers west away from the Fault Zone and makes a giant U turn to take visitors out to the actual point of Point Reyes. The Point is alternately referred to as “the windiest” and “one of the windiest” places on the US Pacific coastline as well as one of the foggiest. Gusts tipping 50 mph prevented us from walking down the 308 stairs to visit the 1857 lighthouse because the stairs are closed to the public until the winds are consistently under 40 mph. We would have loved the workout on a non-hiking day but knew better than to hop the locked gate (maybe in Italy, but not in the US).

A bit battered by the persistent winds, we however felt very lucky to have 4 fog-free days for our first visit to the area. The fog is the worst in the summer but can happen at any time. Interestingly, the Point Reyes lighthouse was built at about 300’ above sea level, which is about 300’ below the headlands used to access it. The builders knew what they were doing: the fog in this area tends to be worse at the level of the headlands than it is closer to the water.

The banks facing the ocean near the Point Reyes lighthouse were described as “paleo dunes,” which we assumed were similar to the “lithified dunes” we encountered in Snow Canyon, Utah last fall. These paleo dunes are battered by the perpetually fierce coastal winds freeing sand granules from the rock which then blow up the face of the ancient dunes to form “climbing dunes.” We assumed that the ordinary looking sand that the road crew was shoveling off the access road was actually recently freed sand now in ‘climbing dunes’ that made it to the top.

The next day we hiked to the summit of Mt Wittenberg in the park. Much to our surprise, our January visit to Northern California put us in the middle of high season for the local ticks and these parasitic arachnids are known to carry Lyme disease in this area. We felt lucky to pass “tick inspection” that evening and equally lucky to neither see nor feel the effects of the poison oak and stinging nettles that concentrate in the peninsula's valleys. And of course, despite now forever being on ‘snake watch’, we saw none.

Elephant seals lounging on a protected Point Reyes beach.
The scenery in the greater Point Reyes area was quite varied and unexpected. There were miles and miles of soggy, bright green pasture lands speckled with black and white cows whose ancestors had been providing dairy products to San Francisco (by ship) since shortly after the gold rush. The surfaces of some tortured miniature valleys and ridges were a tangle of shrubs and thorny bushes described as ‘chaparral’ and then there were the mixed deciduous and conifer forests of the higher lands seen on our hike. Like in the redwoods, we were grateful for some place to hike but lamented being under the cool, damp, dark canopy of trees when bright sunny days are so precious in January.

San Francisco
I found the drive on Hwy 1 from Point Reyes to San Francisco to be the scariest segment of the entire road. It was narrow with tight, windy curves like ‘up north’ but had the added thrill of frequently being right on the edge of a sheer cliff. Our rig was at least as wide as our lane in many places and when in the passenger seat, we occasionally updated the driver as to how close the rear wheel was to being off the edge of the white line, which was the same as being off of the pavement. The roller coaster ride up and down with continuous serpentine turns demanding speeds of no more than 10 to 15 mph made driving within the city of San Francisco itself feel like a rest.

Our brief experience of San Francisco was largely informed by our 4 night stay on the Point Reyes peninsula. It was at Point Reyes that we learned that it was visited by Sir Francis Drake almost 200 years before San Francisco Bay was identified as one of the world’s greatest natural harbors by any European. It wasn’t until Spanish explorers traveling by land (presumably through that chaparral laced with poison oak and stinging nettles) happened upon it that the bay was revealed by the Europeans. And indeed, it was a variant on the Spanish name attributed to the Point in 1603 that lead to its current name as well.

We thought about the Point Reyes educational pieces regarding the 1906 earthquake when there and later when in San Francisco, information that Bill supplemented with online reading as we drove through the city. San Francisco had only gained importance since the gold rush in 1849 and yet in today’s dollars, the insurance losses alone in San Francisco from the 1906 disaster exceeded those of Hurricane Katrina or the Twin Towers attack. We looked at all of the compact, 2-3 story homes along our intracity route and realized that they had been built since the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires. We wondered which were on ‘made land’ formed by filling swamp with sand before the earthquake or on additional land formed after the quake from the huge amounts of debris.

Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, meandering through Golden Gate Park to find a parking spot for lunch, and contemplating the lingering imprint on the city from the 1906 quake was enough of a tour of the grand city for us. Our brains were wired for being outdoors and being urban tourists wasn’t the least bit compelling. We’d both visited San Francisco several times decades ago and had seen many, many great cities since then so it felt like a “been there, done that” situation. I’m sure there is much that would have dazzled us but we weren’t in the mood.

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse from afar.
Pigeon Point Light House
Whizzing by the Pigeon Point Light House on Hwy 1 that is now a youth hostel brighten our day. It was where we emerged after cycling over the hills from the San Francisco airport and arrived on the Pacific on our very first big bike tour. We remembered the many, many delights and thrills of that first day as well as the agony of dragging into the hostel at sunset in the late 1990's.

That evening the young innkeeper at the lighthouse hostel greeted us warmly and beamed with satisfaction when he gifted us with a time slot for sitting in the private hot tub over looking the sea. Times were booked long in advance but he took “innkeeper’s privilege” of holding back 1 slot each night for those he deemed needy and we qualified. It was a crowning moment for a memorable day, a memorable trip, a trip that cemented our love of cyclotouring back when we rode light weight bikes and carried a mere 10 pounds of luggage on the back rack.

California Dreaming
“We’ve finally arrived in southern California” was Bill’s declaration as we sat on a sea cliff bench a little south of Pigeon Point. We didn’t really know if being south of San Francisco qualified as “southern” or not but it was good enough for us because it was now warm. The temperatures were still in the 50’s but there wasn’t any frost on the beach in the morning and the winds were down enough for us to be comfortable when outdoors. We were still dressing warmly but we could feel the ease return to our bodies that comes with getting out of the damp cold.

I watched carefully as we drove the parts of Hwy 1 that we traveled by bicycle twice in the 1990’s to see if the sight of it made me long to do it again and it did not. Both vivid and vague memories were repeatedly triggered by passing particular points but there was no yearning to do it again. When we rode it the first time I was insatiable: I wanted the road to go on forever and I wanted to be on it. The second time we rode it with a small group to LA, then continued on by ourselves into Mexico, and we had our sights firmly set upon being globetrotting tourists. My appetite for touring was voracious then but clearly it had been satisfied by over 50,000 miles of international touring. I could feel that I was now content to hold out for better if I was going to do a route for the 3rd time.

The overlay of our overseas experience showed every day. There were comments like “Wow, that stretch of road looks like the approach to Antalya, Turkey” or “This area reminds me of those high bluffs in northwestern Spain”. Our reference points had changed since the last time we were on Hwy 1 and so had our needs. Now I was focused on honing the skills used in my new lifestyle, like threading the needle with our big rigs on narrow bridges and fine tuning my use of accelerations and decelerations on poorly banked curves with our top-heavy combo.

Much of our trip south along the Pacific Ocean was a meandering journey at 30 mph. Sometimes the slow speeds were demanded by the steep twisting roads, other times we were from obeying the posted speeds in places like San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and LA. We stayed on the old highway and old seashore roads rather than taking the freeways so we could sightsee like bike tourists. Bill searched for a suitable museum stop in LA but our top pick was closed for renovations. Instead, we settled for sort of a Google streetview experience. Even wrong turns weren’t lamented because of the extra views they afforded (except for that unfortunate hour spent doing huge figure 8’s over and around Long Beach’s harbor area).

Pausing to read a plaque at our Bruce’s Beach picnic stop in the community of Manhattan Beach (in LA) reminded me of plaque-reading in Germany during our first years overseas. Reading the touching tributes to the fallen in German WWI cemeteries had brought tears to our eyes; reading post-WWII plaques on German city buildings disclosing local war atrocities were sobering; and at Bruce’s Beach we were moved by reading about the turn of the 20th century gestures of racial equality that were later retracted and then recently rectified. Interesting tales were told by reading such plaques as at Bruce's Beach and by studying old neighborhoods in California’s big coastal cities--they were different stories than those that would have been revealed at museums but we were satisfied with our experience of the region.

These birds preferred feeding along the moving edge of the water.
The journey south along California’s coast refreshed our memories as to the mounting natural hazards for this and many other coastal areas. From north of San Francisco to south of LA we were stunned by the number of cities and towns that were less than 50’ above sea level. Seeing those elevation numbers on the city limit’s signs over and over again underscored the enormous costs that will be associated with even small rises in the average sea level caused by global warming. In addition, "slide area” signs were numerous, most accompanied by lane closures due to current road construction. One area at the southern end of LA had a sign to the effect of “Frequent land movement” and the water lines were now laid above ground. When cruising the highway paralleling Malibu’s beach we recalled the periodic wildfires in the steep hills that front the sea, wildfires that frequently threaten celebrity mansions and would do so again less than a month after we were there.

The threat of devastation from rising sea levels was similar from north to south but other regional aspects we observed were gradient-like. The sea birds up north were predominantly gulls, then egrets began appearing, and closer to LA we started seeing pelicans over the ocean. Up north, there were the occasional surfer dudes in their wet suits; south of San Francisco we saw our first of several “SUP” or stand up paddle surfing aficionados; and near Malibu it was the dozens of kite boarders adding splashes of color to the sky that captured our attention. And as we headed south, the number of flowering perennials steadily increased. In the more central region around Salinas we were taken aback that not everyone we encountered spoke English, that many of the 30-something Latinos weren’t bilingual, but that was unique to that area.

Driving the coastal road into Santa Barbara in a truck all these years later triggered the same dreamy feelings that swamped us when we rode through the first time on bikes. Something about the warm, balmy air with lush landscaping next to the ocean that is absolutely mesmerizing. We cowboy'ed our bulky rig around the residential streets to find a place to park so we could again eat our lunch and linger in the potent "kick-back" energy. "Ah, is this wonderful or what?" It was a different time, we were different people, but the feelings of tranquility and delight rippling through my body were exactly the same as before--what a sweet thing to reencounter.

Leaving the Coast
Our unplanned trip the length of most of Oregon's and California's coast ended near the Mexican border. We had zero interest in crossing that line this trip given the huge uptick in violence in Mexico and turned east into the desert, still hoping we had time to saunter to Big Bend National Park in Texas before it was either too hot or time to point our noses north again.