Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Climbing Mountains to Christmas Festivities: Mazatlan to Zacatecas (9th - 25th Dec '10)

Russ, Lorely, Jules and I headed directly east from Mazatlan into the mountains, towards locations with frightening names such as “The Devil's Spine” and mountain passes with intimidating heights such as 2800m. Our research had rewarded us with the not-so satisfying knowledge that we had to do 7000m (in total) of climbing to get from the coast up the Sierra Madre mountains and onto the high plains that span the centre of Mexico. However, the landscape that we travelled through was rewarding, with beautiful mountain views. It was also interesting to watch the landscape change from the humidity and lushness of the lowlands, into a Canadianesque coniferous forest on the mountain slopes and then to fields of golden grasses and scattered trees as we passed over the highest point and cycled through the high mountain meadows.

However, while the landscape was stunning the cycling was pretty tough. It took us five days to get from Mazatlan to Durango and on our second day we cycled only 36kms.. what would normally have taken us less than two hours took us the entire day, cycling in granny gear uphill all day. This wasn't helped by the fact that poor old Julesy got sick and, because we were bush camping (in the not safest of areas), she had to get up in the morning and keep cycling. But she soldiered on like the trooper she is.. unlike myself when I got sick back in Baja and called a sick day and then spent the day sunning myself on the beach!
The tough mountain climbing had drained all our Christmas cheer, and only our bikes were celebrating with their tinsel adornment. However, on the fifth day out from the coast we dropped out of the mountains, into the desert and then arrived in the historic town of Durango. We got ourselves back into the festive mode by wondering the streets checking out the impressive Christmas lights and nativity scenes, enjoying a Christmas concert and hanging out with our warm showers hosts, learning the fine art of the pinata party (sing, smash and grab).
We spent a couple of days being generously entertained by the lovely Frida and Jorge (and the pug Yoda) before we had to jump back on the bikes and head south. From Durango it was a fairly relaxed four day ride to Zacatecas, an old silver mining town built on the slopes of the hills and scattered with beautiful churches and small plazas. We loved poking around the town and sitting on the terrace on the roof of our hostel. In fact we loved it so much the day we had planned to leave we carried all our bikes and bags down the stairs, packed up, rode about 500m to the bakery and then decided to turn around and go back to the hostel and stay a few more days!
Christmas found us still sitting on the roof terrace. Our ranks had swollen, having been joined by two other cyclists, Aaron from Hawaii and Pedro from Madrid. We also had arranged to meet up with Jesse (who we had first met in La Paz) and so we had a great cycling gang to spend Christmas with. We did a massive shop and a huge cook-up for Christmas eve dinner and then spent the evening entertaining ourselves with mulled wine and pinata festivities. Baby Jesus managed to find us Christmas morning (in Mexico Baby Jesus brings the presents rather than Santa Claus) and then we spent the day eating leftovers and rubbing our over-filled stomachs. Just a standard Christmas - good food, too much wine and great friends! Feliz Navidad!!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Desert Days: Southern Baja to the Mexican Mainland (28th Nov - 8th Dec '10)

For our last week on Baja the peninsular treated us to another stretch of long, open road, with a tough climb up over a mountain range and then a few days pedalling across a horizon of desert. I thoroughly enjoyed the simple, quiet camping lifestyle that we had on Baja, where our camp life was dictated by the rise and set of the sun and where it once took us a few days to realise that we had crossed into a new time zone.  Time didn't really matter so much in Baja.
The last week in Baja, from the town of Loreto to the capital of La Paz we were joined on the road by Steve from Alaska, whom Jules and I had first met back in Oregon. We spent a number of nights camped in small towns, ranchos or bush camping in the desert and we enjoyed the evenings watching for shooting stars and entertaining ourselves with word games (it's simple things..).  The desert slowly gave way to a number of small roadside stops and then the outskirts of the city of La Paz.  We cycled through the town and along to the pretty oceanfront road, finding a nice hostel in the centre of town to spend a couple of days wondering the sights. 

In La Paz we had to say goodbye to Aiden and Steve but we gained a new friend, Jesse, who joined us on the cargo boat for our night trip across to the Mexican mainland. We arrived in Mazatlan on the pacific coast and spent a few days hitting the town's crowded streets, finding the quiet back alleys, absorbing the smells and colours of the market and trying the great assortment of street food. Tacos, tortas, burritos, elote (creamy corn kernels), nachos, ice-creams and churros (deep-fried battery, sugary goodness). In both La Paz and Mazatlan the calibre of street food had jumped up a notch and we spent much of our time happily meandering through the streets stuffing ourselves with food.
In between all our eating, Jules and I had to weigh up our options and work out our direction for the next couple of months. For much of our trip we have not had to make decisions regarding our route as there have been few options. This was particularly true for Baja where there was only one road that connected to the south of the peninsula. However, from Mazatlan we had a choice, whether to head south along the coast (our original plan) or inland up into the mountains. Our cycling mates, Russ and Lorely, were heading up to the mountains of Sierra Madre and it looked an interesting, if fairly difficult, route... Well we are always up for a challenge, so we headed away from the sun, ocean and surf and towards the badlands, cold weather, and 3000m of climbing - on the road to Durango..

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Donde Esta La Fiesta? Central Baja (19th - 27th Nov '10)

A snapshot of our time so far in Mexico: amazing, gracious people, a ragged assortment of dogs, Bimbo Cake, desert birthdays and swimming with phosphorescence.......
The amazing people I could spent hours rambling on about. All the people we have met, passed by, shared campsites with... all our memories are filled with smiling faces. While we can't communicate with ease with everybody the Mexicans are very patient with our faltering attempts to speak Spanish. They still smile and attempt to understand us, even though I get a little stressed when speaking under pressure and have a tendency to blurt out any old thing, such as asking for a room “drunker” (rather than “cheaper”). This tendency can get me into trouble sometimes... the pleasantries that I had been exchanging with the old lady in the laundrette over the folding of clothes (“It's windy isn't it!”, “Oh I like the colour of your t-shirt”) got a little strained when, instead of telling her I would take our friend Lorely's underwear to her, I told her “I touch the underwear of my friend”.
While the people have been wonderful the dogs have been... interesting. We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the dogs of Mexico (and there is a lot of them). We often get chased by them as we ride along on our bikes and they keep us awake at night howling and barking when we are in towns. But we have also made friends with a lot of them, and they love love. Mexican dogs seem not to wag their tail but their whole body.
We had one black dog follow us for about 10 km one day, out of town and into the start of the desert. We kept trying to send her home but she would soon start following us again. Finally Aiden tried to give her some water and sent her back, then rode on as fast as possible to lose her. Luckily this last move was successful for as much as we enjoyed our black shadow we didn't want her following us all the way out into the desert!
Mexico has also been about the food. Fish Tacos and beer with lime and salt (interestingly good) abound. We have also discovered 'bimbo cake', a variety of cheap cakey goodness, including a delicious cinnamon roll type snack. Sometimes these cakes are almost the only food item for sale in the small, remote shops – but you won't see us complaining! Bimbo cake has got us through long stretches of empty desert.

Our cinnamon roll fuelled journey continued from Guerrero Negro, where I last blogged, down the Number 1 Highway (the only highway) through Baja, passing through lots and lots of desert. And then some more. Luckily we were still enjoying the unique cactus and desert landscape, because there wasn't much else to look at. For a few days our flat desert riding was also helped by some great tailwinds so we fairly flew along the highway.

The night before Jules birthday we thought we would be camping in the desert but we reached the town of Vizcaina which, despite not appearing on any or our maps or Aiden's GPS, was actually a town of some size with a lovely campsite in a walled orange grove. We decided to make full use of the town, go out for tacos and beers, and stay up as late as 9pm! Party on.
Jules birthday celebrations continued the next day with the treat of an exciting ride 70 kms through the desert (this was how I tried to sell it to her). Luckily we arrived that night at San Ignacio, an awesome little oasis town with an old mission and a river with water (something we had not seen for a long time!) plus a bar with cold beer. We camped beneath the date palms on the edge of the lake, and watched the sunset over the water. And of course no birthday celebration (or in fact any day in Mexico) is complete without the presence of Bimbo Cake.
With the desert birthday celebrations behind us we reached the coast again, this time on the eastern shores of the Baja peninsular, at the Sea of Cortez where the water is warm and the pace is slow. We slowed down the travels with a rest day in the town of Mulege and then three rest days camped by Coyote Beach. At Coyote Beach the waves lapped metres away from our tent, we swam and we watched dolphins play and the seabirds fish. We had a fire every night on the sand and toasted marshmallows and went night-swimming with the phosphorescence. The night swimming was a trip highlight, making us into giggling kids as we jumped around in the dark waters with the light from the phosphorescence shimmering all around us. Pure cycle touring bliss. A night swim, phosphorescence shining in our hair and then warming ourselves by the fire. Its a good life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bienvenido A Mexico: Northern Baja (7th - 18th Nov '10)

Jules and I had been a little nervous about heading into Mexico because while we were cycling through the US most of the people we met were incredibly negative and had warned us not to go to there. We had got to the point where we would just lie and say “Mexico? no we're not going there.. that's a crazy place”. Mexico has a very bad reputation and of course there are areas that are dangerous, particularly if you are a member of a rival drug cartel. However, we are pretty cautious and plan on avoiding the bad areas, and so far we have been absolutely astounded by this awesome country. The people are welcoming, friendly and quick to a big smile or laugh (particularly at our terrible attempts at speaking Spanish).
We were shown the generosity of the Mexicans early on, staying in a 'Casa de Ciclesta' (a free house just for bicyclists) and then in the garage of Pedro, who was working in the local park of a small desert town. We had planned on camping in the park and had been sitting around cooking and eating our picnic dinner when Russ started up some mimed conversations with Pedro, who was collecting the money at the public toilets. Russ and Pedro had a singalong on Pedro's guitar and then Pedro asked us back to stay in his garage/shed. He didn't want any money from us, he was just worried we were going to be cold in the park so he invited six random, grotty gringos back to stay with him. Hmm.. are these the Mexicans that everyone warned us about?
We had also been warned about the taffic rin Mexico but the majority of drivers are very considerate and they wait until there is enough space before passing us. The truck drivers have been particularly polite, pulling out and give us lots of room when they pass us, which is more than I can say for many of the drivers of the big RVs who come from north of the border. In fact one tourist RV driver told us he would run us off the road if we were in the way when a truck was coming! Obviously he has not discovered what that second pedal next to the accelerator is for.
Although the roads have been narrow and most have no shoulder we can always hear the trucks and cars coming from a long way off. When necessary, if we are on a blind corner or there is traffic coming the other way, we can pull off to give them room. Every time they pass the truckers give us big grins and waves and everybody yells “hola”.
Even the army convoys that we see on the road have been friendly. Posed with massive machine guns pointing out from the tops of jeeps or armoured cars, the soldiers wave and take photos of us as they pass. At one entrance to a military checkpoint Lorely somehow didn't see a giant orange witches hat in the middle of the road and plowed straight into it. The soldier in the camouflage hut on the side of the road pretty much rolled around on the floor wetting himself in mirth (well, if some gringo on a loaded bike comes riding out of the desert and straight into a traffic cone you would find it pretty funny too!).
We had entered Mexico with our cycling gang (Lorely, Russ, Aiden, Maurice and ourselves) at the much maligned town of Tijuana (tequila, sex or marijuana) but we just cycled around the outskirts of town and headed towards the coast, where we tried to get onto the toll road. Unfortunately bikes aren't allowed on the toll road and the guard at the booth (very goodnaturedly) refused to let us on, so I asked him if we could go down around the back of the toll booth and then push the bikes back up the embankment and back onto the road further along. He said this was ok for us to do, and then gave us directions on how to carry out this illegal activity. Ah I love Mexico.
We actually had to do a number of similar cross- country manoeuvres in the next few days, heading to and from the toll roads -across road embankments, through barbed wire fences, along a stone wall, up little goat trails and through a section of road closed off for roadworks. Poor old Maurice's first introduction to cycle touring was a little out of the ordinary. I had to assure him we didn't usually go cross-country as much as we had done in our first few days in Mexico!
At the beach in Tijuana we started cycling south along the main (pretty much only) highway down to the south of Baja. After a few days inland we reached the beach again, where we had to say goodbye to Maurice who was finishing up his cycle touring taster. The next day we reached the small town of El Rosario, where we had a rest day camped in the backyard of the very helpful Duffy and got our supplies for the desert.
After El Rosario, the road started climbing and the next few days were spent up in the beautiful high desert, riding alongside a variety of cactus scattered across the landscape. At one point the landscape changed to boulders tumbled across the hills with Dr Seuss-type tall cacti reaching to the sun. It was hot during the day, but cold at night in our wild camps under the expanse of stars, with only the sound of the wind and the occasional rocking Mexican circus music from cars out on the highway.
We stumbled back into civilisation at a sizeable town called Guererro Negro. Having only passed through small pueblos or little loncherias (cafes) over the last few days it was nice to have a rest day in a hotel, to shake the sand out of all the body crevices and to wash for the first time in about six days! Back to the desert tomorrow...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SoCal and LA LA Land: Santa Barbara to San Diego (27th Oct - 6th Nov '10)

Southern California was unusual in that it lived up to its stereotypes and was exactly what I was expecting. We came over the mountains into Santa Barbara and instantly hit warm air, palm trees and a bunch of wacky people wondering around on the boardwalks alongside the beach.
Our first day in what I consider SoCal we met a guy that told me I had the same name as his mother's dead cat.. even spelt the same way (she died back in '08 rest her soul). Then we had a second crazy guy (who was also drunk just to add to the effect) try to rescue us from the first crazy guy and proceed to tell us we were beautiful and had great butts (that's the nice version). Not much later we watched a woman in a blue tracksuit and a purple leopard print cowboy hat taking her cat for a walk in a pram. The cat was perched inside a child's pink pram (stroller), surrounded by mesh and didn't look very happy about its outing.
The next couple of days south of Santa Barbara we rode along the beaches, past a lot of fancy houses and watched the sunset over the ocean from our campsites. Our last day of riding into Los Angeles was very pretty with the road squashed between the mountains and the ocean. It wasn't as populated as I thought it would be and we rode through some scenic state parks until reaching Malibu. However, from then on in it was the LA that I was expecting, lots of freeways and suburbs. We rode into LA along the beach boardwalks, past Venice Beach, rollerbladers and lots of lifesaver towers (just like Baywatch!).
Coming into Los Angeles I realised we had arrived in the land of beautiful people. We were surrounded by people who were fit, tanned, and wearing beautiful clothes. I was fairly fit and also tanned, but only from the thighs down to my ankles. My feet were reflectively white, I had a white sunglass tan line and I was wondering the streets dressed in my daggy old hiking pants with grease on the legs and holes in the butt. Yeah we felt a little out of place. Luckily we could stay with our friend Stacy, who we had met in the Yukon when we needed a ride through a bushfire. It was great to catch up with her and relax in Long Beach, out of the craziness of LA LA Land.
We were quite happy chilling and catching up with Stacey and Maurice but we kind of felt like we had to go and check out the main sights of LA. However, when we did get in we weren't very taken with the city. It was filled with concrete, malls and fast food outlets and it was very difficult to get around in. We tried cycling (terrifying), catching the bus (painstakingly slow) and walking (just stupid). We quickly retreated to the peace of Stacys House, where we could eat, sleep and relax in the hot tub.
It was Halloween while we were in LA so Jules and I went into West Hollywood (the gay neighbourhood) for the massive street party. It was heaps of fun, we were there in the afternoon and early evening when everyone was just coming out (in both senses of the word) so we could sit outside on the street, have a couple of bevies and watch the beautiful men in their amazing outfits (or lack there-of).. Not since we got dragged to a gay club in Vancouver and saw a naked man showering on stage have we seen so much male flesh!
After three days in LA we said goodbye to Stacey and headed south out of the city. The first night we camped out in a hiker-biker site squished behind the toilet block at a beach - the hiker-biker sites have certainly got less salubrious the further south we have gotten!. The next day we made it to just north of San Diego where we turned inland, into the hills, to Maurice's house. The hills area was very pretty but unfortunately we managed to arrive during a heat wave so it was a fairly hot ride uphill to Maurices. The next day we were having a rest day, which was lucky as it hit 40 degrees Celcius. The hottest November day on record! While at Maurices we spent time getting ready for the next part of our adventure: shopping for some necessities and servicing our bikes (well Maurice serviced our bikes, we just hung around to try and learn and pass him tools).Maurice decided that rather than just tinkering with our bikes he would join us to try out cycle touring for a few days so he spent a couple of days making some adjustments to his mountain bike.. and voila a cycle tourist was born.
Jules and I headed out from Maurices and rode through San Diego, a cool city that reminded me heaps of Perth. We hung out with Team Krusti who were finishing up their trip, so we celebrated with beer and pizza. Our last day in the US we stayed in a campground south of San Diego, not far from the borde,r with Irish Aidan and the Poms - Lorely and Russ. Team Krusti also rode to the border with us on the day we left the US so we had a big cycling convoy through the border town, across the border and into Mexico. Adios USA, Hola Mexico!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

California – Always Surprising: San Francisco to Santa Barbara (18th - 27th Oct '10)

We finally dragged ourselves out of our new favourite city and headed south along the coast, passing over the infamous 'Devil's Slide' – a section of road that climbed up over a hill and then along the edge of cliffs that dropped straight into the water. Combine this with lots of traffic and no shoulder, and it made for some less than enjoyable riding. However, once past this area it was fairly pleasant, with lots of coastal views and large numbers of pumpkins scattered around (left-overs from the pumpkin festival I assume). Our first night back on the road we camped with two lovely Canadian girls who we had met back in the Marin Headlands and an American guy who was super-speedy. We also met Myrtle the Turtle; aka Sylvia on her recumbent bike, who we had heard lots about as we so we were happy to finally meet her!
The next few days we passed through a couple of classic Californian towns, Santa Cruz, and Monterey, riding along the coast and watching the sea-otters, dolphins and surfers playing in the water. We made our way into Monterey assisted by Larry, a cyclist out for his daily ride who turned around and accompanied us back to town, giving us the guided tour on the way. We stayed in the local park alongside a bunch of transients, one of who had some serious social interaction issues, a voice like sandpaper and a mouth from the gutter. We met up with Aiden again, an Irish guy we had camped with on a number of occasions and who is two and a half years into his world cycling journey. We also met Lorely and Russel,l two poms (oops.. English people) who are doing the Pan-Am. We spent the next few days camping and laughing with these guys (the fun poms and irish that is, not the crazy hobo).
Out of Carmel we started heading into the Big Sur area, a rocky section of the coast where the road hugs cliffs and offers stunning views across the ocean. Our first day in this area we had a nice ride looking out across the golden paddocks to the ocean and then camping in the redwoods. On our second day in Big Sur it started to rain, so we rode most of the day in the rain, and couldn't see a thing except for the raindrops collecting on our eyelashes. We called it an early day and camped with the rest of the cycling gang. With all 8 of us in the one campsite it was kind of squishy but we rigged up our tarps ( a group Macgyvering effort) and created a little tent city to keep us dry. You suddenly get a lot closer to people when you can hear all their night-time noises through the thin tent walls!
Luckily our last day in the Big Sur area we had great weather, so could distract ourselves from the climbing by looking at the great views. As we came speeding down off Big Sur into the dry ranchland of San Simeon Jules yelled out “zebra on the left”.. Jules is a bit of a shaite stirrer and I seem to spend inordinate amounts of time in my day working out whether what she has told me is likely to be true or not. This was one of those times I instantly ruled as “Jules pulling my leg”. However, I took a quick glance to the left and grazing amongst the herds of fairly normal looking cows were two zebras. A little further down the road we actually saw a whole herd of zebras hanging out on the hillside. One of those moments that you think to yourself “have I spent too long on my bicycle today?”.
We worked out that the zebra might have something to do with the gigantic storybook building high up in the hills to the east. This was the Hearst Castle, built by the newspaper magnate and a study in opulence. We didn't get invited up to the castle unfortunately but poked around the visitor's centre and looked at photographs of the lavish rooms. We spent more time hanging out at a nearby beach checking out the elephant seals with their bulbous faces, who were lounging on the sand, often with a casual flipper up in the air.
After Big Sur we had another day of terrible weather where we spent a good part of the day hanging out in a cafe in Cambria. We finally had to drag ourselves a way... really there are only so many cups of coffee and day-old baked goods you can eat in one morning. We headed out into the pouring rain and, as expected, the day was horrible riding. We could hardly see where we were going, and we didn't get very far, just to Morro Bay around 40kms down the road. Luckily the rain cleared up enough for us to set up our tent, crawl in and then listen to the rain on the tarp for the rest of the night.
In the midst of our rainstorm-glumness in the Cambrian cafe we had searched out a Warm Showers host for the next day, and we were very grateful to be invited to stay by Bill and Kandy in Orcutt. This gave us a great little break from camping and we managed to dry all our wet things. Bill was an awesome cook and sent us off with full stomachs on a fantastic little back route that avoided the main highways. We had an awesome day riding the quiet country roads through the Santa Ynez valley, past vineyards, alongside the arid and colourful mountains and then down to a scenic and quiet campsite on Lake Cachuma.
Bill had warned us that our alternative route involved crossing a mountain pass, so we were fairly prepared for our 4 mile climb the next morning, but we were not prepared for how beautiful it was, which took our minds off the hour of 'granny-gear' pedalling. As we popped out over the mountains we saw the ocean and Santa Barbara at the bottom of a fantastic 6 mile downhill, “our best downhill so far” Jules declared.. and she proceeded to tell me it had all the right combination of elements; road in good condition, a good gradient, not too much traffic, appropriate curvature... etcetc... she has obviously put a lot of thought into the physics of downhills over the last few months.
After freewheeling into Santa Barbara and eating ice-cream on the pier, we rode along the boardwalk lined with palm trees and felt like we had crossed into a different country – this was the Southern California of my imagination. I kept expecting to see David Hasslehoff in those delightful red shorts running along the beach beside me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

With Flowers in My Hair: San Francisco area (11th - 17th Oct '10)

San Francisco treated us to some pretty stunning weather on our arrival. We rode over the Golden Gate Bridge into the city on a beautiful sunny day, we could see the full stretch of the city and the bay area. We had organised to stay with a Warm Showers host in San Fran so that we could have a few days rest from the bikes and time to check the place out. Heidi and Martin were a wonderful couple, living in a great area and we felt very lucky to be able to stay with them while we did the touristy city things.
In the few days that we were there Jules and I fell in love with San Fran. There was so much to see and do.. we explored the funky old neighbourhoods, found the American version of the kebab (the burrito), discovered exactly how many hills San Fran has, Jules got read poetry to at the local lesbian bar (I meanwhile found a hidden talent for pool and swept the table, right up until the time that Jules poetry reading ended and she came to watch me, whereby I found I could not hit any of the balls), we ate donuts and sat on the beach in sun, watched the beautiful men and their beautiful fluffy dogs (with matching jackets), we wondered Haight-Ashbury, and the Castro, and Mission, picnicked on dim sum in Golden Gate Park, discovered the “San Fran shot” - a herbal shot of alcohol that tasted like it should be sold in a health food shop, browsed the wicked Green Apple bookshop (from which Jules had to forcibly remove me), ate a lot of great and cheap food and drank lots of awesome coffee. We also managed to catch up with some fellow cyclists who we had met further up north, and who made it to the city around the same time as us.
On our first night in San Fran we made dinner for Heidi and Martin, though I am not sure if this was the best idea as I am clearly out of practice with cooking in a nice kitchen with a full range of tools. The last few months I have had to get used to cooking with two small saucepans and with a limited range of food products. Recently I have gotten very experimental in my cooking as I have worked through most of my tried and tested recipes at least once. One of my most questionable of meals I made a few days before San Fran. I had bought a gigantic bunch of fresh organic basil so I decided to make pesto. In lieu of a blender, Parmesan and pine-nuts I simply smushed up a whole lot of basil, added sunflower seeds, cream cheese, some oil and some seasoning... and Voila – a green and white paste not dissimilar to that weird herbal toothpaste that mum used to make me use as a child.
Anyway, back to cooking in San Fran – while dinner was not my best effort I decided to try again another night and make some desert. However, this was not helped by the fact that we shopped for most of the ingredients at the market in Chinatown (Chinatown is the best place to shop in San Fran!), which meant that my berry and apple pecan crumble could either be accompanied by yam, red bean or (my personal favourite) 'corn and cheese' ice-cream. Luckily hidden behind the assortment of root vegetable sorbets I found some coconut ice-cream, which actually went quite well and the desert was saved!
Coincidentally, Heidi and Martin were also hosting another two cyclists, a Spanish couple, Javier and Sylvia, who we had cycled with further up the coast, and who were also cycling the Alaska to South America route. While in San Fran, we had a great time sharing stories and plans with them, and attempting to practice our very dodgy Spanish. A couple of the nights that we were there we had dinner with the four of us cyclists, Heidi, Martin, plus Martin's amazingly sprightly 92 year old mother, Alice. A fun, if eclectic, family dinner. We enjoyed Heidi's awesome culinary skills ,the great conversations, stories of San Fran's history and explanations of the complicated nature of American politics. Jules was also very happy to have a rest from my “experimental dinners”!
In San Fran we had to buy new tyres for the ladies (Norma's tyres were held together only with a few bits of thread and Betty was getting heaps of flats). We felt bad for leaving poor Norma and Betty suffering with second-rate tyres so we forked out for the Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tyres but had to get them ordered in. As we had to wait for a couple of days we decided to go camping in the Marin Headlands in the national park on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The sunshine disappeared the day we headed out to the headlands and our trip took place through the fiercesome San Fran fog, with the chorus of fog-horns to accompany our progress.
The Marin Headlands were beautiful, reminding me of the coastal scrub-heath back home. We spent a couple of days there and hiked out over the ridgelines, giving us great views of the valley (and the fog). We also did a short walk out to the lighthouse at the entrance to the San Fran bay. We wanted to stay at the headlands for a few days but could not get another reservation in the campsites (which are free by the way and our site had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city behind!) so luckily Heidi and Martin took us back in for another couple of nights so that we could pick up our new tyres and so we could avoid leaving town on the weekend and running into a “pumpkin festival” further down the coast (I was a little nervous about what a festival of pumpkins and the 300,000 people that were supposed to be there would involve!).
The first few days in San Fran we had had such a good time, and I had decided I wanted to live there. This was until the beautiful sunny, barmy days ended and the cold and rain moved in.. ahh this is the San Fran that I was expecting! The cold weather made it easier to leave, although we were both still a little sad to say goodbye to the city's vibrancy... back to camp life and meals of questionable taste!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

California Here We Come: Northern California (29th Sept - 10th Oct '10)

Our first night in California we stayed in a gloomy county park in the forest, which had a weird vibe, not helped by the fact that the only other campers wandered around with their hoods pulled up over their faces and that we could hear a “ghost radio” playing while we were in the toilet. After nightfall a police car came through the park and stopped to ask us if we had seen a “fugitive” he was chasing . Great. A little while later he came back out of the trees waving his giant torch around. “Oh dear, couldn't find them” he said and left us there. Needless to say we did not sleep well that night.
It was not the best welcome to California.... and our first creepy impression was reinforced by a couple of strange things we saw along the road, including a statue of a giant man and his giant blue ox, and some life-size statues of dinosaurs leering out of the forest at us.
However, our impression of California greatly improved when we hit our first breathtaking redwood forest. We climbed a couple of large hills that took us up among the towering trees . We then had about 5 miles of gentle downhill where we could glide through the awesome redwoods, the tallest trees in the world. We camped in Elk Prairie and the next morning we took Norma and Betty on a bit of a mountain bike outing. It was very pretty through the giant trees but hard to appreciate as we bounced our way over loose rocks, tree roots, sticks, and one log we had to lift the girls over (oh the injustice I could hear them crying). After 20 bone-shaking kilometres we got back to camp where we had to pry our hands off the handlebars in order to pack everything up and jump back on the bikes for our days ride! Hmm.. the girls are great but they are not built for mountain biking.
The second major section of redwoods that we passed through was the Avenue of the Giants, about 135 km south of Elk Prairie, a beautiful 50 km stretch of quiet road snaking through the trees. The campground in this section, Burlington campground, was just gorgeous so we decided to have a rest day here to walk in the trees and make ourselves dizzy by staring up at their canopies high above us.
Jules and I timed our run into the town of Arcata with the rematch of the AFL grand final. We had contacted Janet and Barry from Warm Showers, and were welcomed very warmly into their house. Janet made us a delicious dinner and we shared wine and stories. They had managed to get the footy final streaming on the internet and they both sat up watching it with us. We tried to explain the game as we went along, but in general we just drank beers with them and yelled at the screen. It was such a nice night and I can't believe Janet and Barry's welcoming natures, not just to feeding and housing scruffy cyclists but to sit through a whole game of men in small shorts running around, seemingly at random, and jumping on top of one other.
Ever since Oregon there have been a number of other cyclists on the road, and we all end up staying in the hiker-biker sites together. Usually you stay each night with the same people but then if you take a rest day, or someone else is cycling at a different pace you get to meet new friends, and hear new stories. We had lost the fun group that we rode through Oregon with, as we had had a couple of rest days, but a few days into California we met the lovely Carrie and Casey from the east coast of the US and Ryan the firie from Canada. We also managed to meet up with Team Krusti once more.
Team Krusti's route down the coast was determined by where the breweries are and one afternoon we got into camp early enough and went to join them at the North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg (about 5 kms from our camp). We had a lovely arvo/evening of beer tasting and then an exciting ride home along a rough bike track, in the dark. We had almost made it back to camp when I head a commotion and realised that Jules had fallen off her bike. Luckily it was dark enough so that only Kristin witnessed it, and that Jules had had enough beer that she just rolled on the gravel and didn't sustain any injuries. Our first serious stack of the trip, and we can blame beer.
One of my favourite sections of our entire trip was the coastal area along the Number 1 Highway north of San Fran, our last five days before the city. We came out of the forest, over Legget Hill, the biggest hill on this part of our trip, and back to the ocean on a day when the sun was shining and the sea was sparkling. This section of the highway was quiet and we passed through little towns and lovely farmland, accompanied by spectacular ocean views. It definitely felt like we were in California, with cute little cafes (featuring 'wheatgerm muffins'), surfing beaches and friendly, relaxed folk. The vistas were of brown rolling hills with golden grasses, groves of trees and brilliantly coloured water. Even the sea was more brightly coloured here than anywhere else. There were a lot of hills along this part of highway as the road follows the cliffs and then drops down to cross creeks and rivers, but luckily we were so distracted with the stunning views that the hills didn't bother us too much.
I was feeling a little disconcerted along this stretch because there are so many Eucalypts that the smell was in the air, and that, combined with the golden grasses and the gorgeous ocean made me feel like I was home in Oz.
We knew we were approaching San Fran, but we were still deep in farmland even a day before the city. We only got the feel of approaching a city in about the last 20 kms or so when we started coming into some outlier towns, then hit lots more traffic, and finally we had our first view of the city across the bay as we rode through the cute little town of Sausilito.....then onto the Golden Gate Bridge...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In a State of Contentment: Oregon (17th - 28 th Sept '10)

In Washington we had had 5 days of continual rain, and I mean a never-ending curtain of water... that kept us awake in our tent at night, that we sloshed through to pack up in the morning, that we struggled to cycle through every day and that eventually forced us into cooking our dinner huddled under a bus-shelter. We finally decided that we'd had enough and hit up the Warm Showers website to find someone who would feel sorry for us, take us in and dry us in soft fluffy towels. And we succeeded! Neil from Seaside was kind enough to let us stay, even though he wasn't at home our first night there! Instead we were greeted by the four Seattle cyclists that we had run into up in Washington. The second night two other cyclists from Portland turned up so there were 8 of us crashed in with Neil. The third night Joe (who we had also camped with one wet night in Washington) and two Canadian cyclists, Patrick and Emma, came to stay and they introduced us to cheap American wine and packet-brownies. We had only meant to stay one night but we were enjoying the company of the fun and irrepressible Neil – a young soul who is one of the most generous people I have met, and one of the most inspiring, really knowing how to life live! It also continued to rain so we were quite happy being dry in the house, reading books and welcoming in the other cyclists who came through.
We finally dragged ourselves away from Seaside when we started to see some easing of the grey clouds. Our first night out we camped in Nehalem where we discovered the joy of Oregon state parks, $5 per person for cyclists and free hot showers. Ah Oregon is cyclist heaven. We also discovered the cycling community. This was the first time our campsite had been filled with other cyclists. Here we met Team Krusti (Kristin and Rusty), who had also come down from Alaska and who we have been lucky enough to spend lots of time with as we travelled down the coast. We knew we were going to get along well with them when on one of our first mornings together we spent about three hours sitting drinking coffee in a cafe and eating massive bags of day-old donuts. We also met Michael from Portland and Ned and Charlotte from England who are heading the same direction as us (towards the sunshine and as far as possible).
Oregon was fantastic to cycle through, an awesome mix of rugged capes and cliffs, sea-stacks dotting the coast, huge expanses of squeaky white sand beaches and lush dense forests. We saw a bunch of lighthouses, though Jules enthusiasm for checking these out waned after the first one. We had a few climbs over some large capes, but we were always rewarded with great views, and awesome downhill runs! Dotted along the Oregon coast were little towns spaced at a reasonable cycling distance apart, filled with coffee shops and purveyors of fine cinnamon buns. Oregon is also home to the Tillamook Cheese Factory – a giant factory filled with cheese!! What more could you possibly want. Mmm cheese. Free tastings too.. AND they had cinnamon bun flavoured ice-cream! We considered not doing the rest of the trip and just camping in the Tilamook Cheese Factory carpark and eating cheese and cinnamon bun flavoured ice-cream until we ran out of money.
At the Tillamook Factory we were lining up for ice-cream (did I mention it was cinnamon bun flavoured!?) and I turned around to see Jules with a really weird look on her face. She'd been talking to an older American guy who was holidaying with his wife and elderly parents. She was looking so shocked I headed over to find out what was going on.. the guy repeated what he had just said to Jules “ Careful the ice-cream goes straight to your fanny”... I had to explain to Jules that in the US 'fanny' means something different to what we know it as at home. No wonder she was looking so weird, poor old Jules was having some very interesting mental images before I explained that he meant we were going to put weight on our butts (which is actually insulting enough all ready).
Partway down the Oregon coast we found ourselves in a bit of a dilemma. The Aussie Rules Grand Final was on and of course we had to see it. We had planned to be in Portland to be able to watch it (and catch up with a friend) but circumstance (well mainly the weather) conspired against us and we found ourselves in the humming little town of Newport, where the information centre guy had never even heard of the game let alone knew any pub who would be showing it (us: “no, not soccer, Australian Rules. No not rugby. Aussie Rules. No not like American Football. A lot like AFL.... ahh never mind”) We also couldn't camp anywhere here because the nearest campground was a few miles out of town and required us crossing a very long bridge, which we would have had to be doing at 1am after the game finished... and I'm very glad we didn't seeing as Jules, completely sober, managed to crash her bike into the bridge railing the next morning. So we had to blow the budget and get a motel. Not a very salubrious place mind you, its name kind of gave it away “Cheap Dump Motel” (or maybe “Money Savers Motel” but the first was how I always remember it) but it had cable and that's all we needed. We went to the supermarket and bought all the junk food we could (microwaveable pizza hmmmm). I talked Jules down from buying two 6-packs (she promised me she would drink at least 8 beers but she only managed to finish off 3 before craving a cuppa.. cycling has turning her into a nanna!). We were all set for the game, and it was an exciting game... which then ended in a draw. For some reason in AFL this does not mean extra time but instead means that the entire game is replayed next week.. noooo......
In the south of Oregon there are some massive sand-dunes. The first lot we came upon unprepared. We had climbed a forested cape and were zooming downhill, through the trees, when we suddenly came out into an open area with sand dunes stretched in all directions. Within the dunes there were clumps of bright green where patches of trees remained and surrounding the dunes was the lush forest. It was quite surreal and Jules and I were stunned to a halt. Further down the coast the dunes became a common sight, we even climbed some and ran down them.. and then realised that it was actually a lot less effort just to look at them.
We did a little detour one day out to a pretty campsite at Cape Blanco, which jutted out into the Pacific Ocean. As we were riding out to the camp an ethereal, wispy whiteness started enveloping us. We tried to work out what it was, and after ruling out a few potentials, like smoke, wayward clouds or ghosts, we realised it was fog. Having lived our whole life in arid Western Australia we were not used to fog and found it very eery . After this first lot of fog we hit quite a bit as we headed down the coast, but we never really got used to it. Everytime it rolled in we would find ourselves whispering, glancing furtively around and would hear spooky music playing inside our heads.
We took our time moseying down the Oregon coast, it was so beautiful and there was so much stunning coastal scenery to stop and check out. We also discovered that Oregon is harbouring an over-proportional number of nice people. It didn't matter where we were, sitting for coffee, camping at the hiker-biker sites, or doing our laundry we would end up nattering away for hours. It felt like we spent far more time gossiping than cycling in Oregon, but we must have done some riding as eventually we reached our last campsite in the state, the pretty Harris Beach.