Biking the California Coast

San Francisco-to-San Diego biking tour provided hills, thrills and romance (from the Los Angeles Times)

  • A blossoming love affair between a 16-year-old high-school student and a 25-year-old from Wall Street who was on her way to Harvard’s MBA program
  • A toxic spill that closed Highway 101 and left us stranded in Santa Barbara with hundreds of other travelers

Those are among my most vivid memories of the 15-day, 720-mile coastal bike trip, organized by American Youth Hostels, which I made last summer from San Francisco to San Diego.

Let me tell you a secret: It was not that hard, and a lot of other people could make that trip if they only knew.

But at first I wasn’t so sure. On a fog-enshrouded Sunday morning in late July, 12 of us left a converted Army barracks in Marin County and pedaled uphill for an hour in our lowest gears. Sweating at 7 a.m., wondering if I would fall behind, I had to ask myself: Who were these people I was traveling with? Were they all marathoners and super-athletes?

At least this AYH tour was “van-supported.” That meant a van accompanied us on the trip, carrying our luggage and leaving us free to ride unencumbered. The van also came in handy if someone’s bike broke down and transport was needed to a bike shop, or if someone decided not to bike a particular stretch and preferred to ride.

Riding with a fortyish couple from Michigan, I reached the top of the hill in Marin that first morning, then headed out and over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was exhilarating.

Winding our way through the streets of San Francisco, we reached the coast at the Cliff House and descended to the Pacific Ocean. “Keep the ocean on your right,” was the advice we had been given that morning. And so we did, following Highway 1 most of the way.

A few miles farther on, near her apartment at Ocean Beach, my sister was waiting for me — standing beside the road like a spectator who offers cups of water to runners in a road race. Only what she held out was a cup of Colombian espresso. “Good luck!” she yelled after I gulped it down, thanked her and streaked off.

Leaving San Francisco and its suburbs behind, we headed southwest on Highway 1, over the foothills toward the Pacific again. Up the aptly named Devil’s Slide area, then down to the coastal village of Montara and past Half Moon Bay, we cycled along in the afternoon sun until we reached our destination: the Pigeon Point Lighthouse AYH-Hostel, a converted lighthouse.

It should be said right away that an AYH trip is what is called “budget touring.” Forget all those dreamy pictures in catalogs from professional bike touring companies, where middle-aged adults in slacks and Shetland sweaters, wine glasses in hand, lounge after a day’s ride in front of blazing fireplaces at swank country inns.

No, we’re talking plywood bunks here. Rolling out your sleeping bag. Taking turns for a shower. A hostel room with maybe five or so other people, some of whom are sure to snore. And when we weren’t staying in a hostel, we put our tents up in campgrounds.

But the views! You couldn’t match them at even deluxe hotels. Pigeon Point Lighthouse was no exception. In the misty morning, standing in the yard outside the kitchen, one could see spectacular breakers pounding against the rocks, and elephant seals in the background.

By the next day we had divided into riding groups. If we change the names to protect the guilty, they were:

  • The Fortysomethings: myself, Beth and Don (the couple from Michigan; she works in a bank, he’s an undercover FBI agent with three aliases), and Tim, a dentist from Maryland.
  • The Retirees: Dick and Frank, two San Franciscans in their sixties and as opposite as night and day — one an amusing and nonstop talker, the other mild-mannered and soft-spoken.
  • The Teens: Jason and Bob, from Upstate New York; Rick, from Michigan, and Mike, from Florida — all high-school students, great company and strong riders who often reached our destination hours before anyone else because (or so it seemed, anyway) one of them had the foresight to strap a tape recorder to his bike and bring along dozens of cassettes.
  • The Single Women: Laura (the 25-year-old from Wall Street who later got romantically involved with Jason) and Cindy (our tour leader, a 29-year-old from Colorado).

After a sunny day of riding and some sightseeing at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz on day two, my group felt a need to congratulate ourselves. Since AYH prohibits the consumption of alcohol at hostels and tour campgrounds, the adults found an ideal seaside bar in Capitola, a mile or so from our campground. For Beth and Don, the white sand and blue Pacific, the Corona beers with a slice of lime . . . all seemed an exotic California way to finish the afternoon.

The next day we were on our way to Monterey. For the morning, that meant pedaling past field after field of California produce — artichokes, Brussels sprouts and strawberries. By noon, all of the riding groups had assembled in the town of Moss Landing, about 16 miles from Monterey, to have what would become our customary lunch of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Then it was off to Monterey by the early afternoon — shopping at Cannery Row, visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, writing postcards.

During the summer, the Monterey Peninsula AYH-Hostel is a converted high-school gym. And it was full to the rafters that night. Our group slept in sleeping bags on the stage. On the floor, lying cot to cot, were dozens of folks from Europe, Australia and elsewhere — all traveling around the United States and interesting, friendly, and eager to talk about their adventures.

We experienced our own adventure the next morning. Somehow, we had lost Shirley, a likable young New Jersey woman in her twenties, and the van.

We had agreed to meet that morning in a Monterey park to make breakfast. There we were, but where was Shirley? Two hours later, our sheepish and embarrassed driver appeared. She had headed north out of town for some time, until it occurred to her that she was on the “other” coast — the West Coast — and that the ocean should be on her right instead of her left.

Still, that had to be our best day of riding. We were waved through when we came to the toll booth at the 17-Mile Drive. Lunched at Pt. Lobos. Coasted through Carmel.

And all along the way were “photo opportunities” that you just don’t see from a car. Wind-swept trees. Spectacular views of cliffs and shores. Sea mammals in the distance.

After two hefty climbs, it was all downhill to Big Sur. Suddenly confident in our riding skills, my companions and I swooped down grades at speeds we hadn’t traveled since we were kids. Streaking over bridges, spanning gorges and creeks, passing by little-known beaches and coves, then down the gentle slope in the grasslands just north of Big Sur, we finally breezed into the forest canopy, where — lo and behold — we discovered a restaurant quite near our campground, where they served beer outside on wooden decks that overlooked a flowing creek. There a group of us sat in the afternoon sun and toasted 45 miles of spectacular riding.

The next few days were purposely low-mileage so that we could make several 1,000-foot climbs and spend the afternoons beachcombing. Our destination was San Simeon and, when we arrived at the end of a 40-mile day, many left to take the tour of Hearst Castle.

We pedaled the 37 miles into Morro Bay the next day. After arriving, and having decided to seize the moment and travel on my own, I stopped in a restaurant and ordered breakfast: eggs, pancakes, sausages, coffee, milk and orange juice. Surprised by my appetite, the waitress jokingly asked whether I wanted more. I did, and ordered French toast, hash browns, bacon and more coffee. It still amazes me how much I ate on the trip and the fact that, two weeks later, I had lost six pounds.

Our campground that night was Montana del Oro, by reputation the most beautiful campground in California. But enthusiasm over the campground’s beauty dulled significantly after someone looked at the itinerary and calculated that, through a planning oversight, we were scheduled for more than 100 miles the next day.

Taking this all in stride, Cindy sat down and carved the next two days into 75 miles each. Decision made, the storm blew over. Dinner was cooked. The stars came out. A campfire was lit. And in the moonlight, we watched coastal foxes on the hillside.

By the end of the next day, we reached Lompoc. We had spent the day riding past marvelous sand dunes, climbing unpleasant hills and discussing folk remedies for a sore rear end. Veterans claimed that there were two: A&D Diaper Rash Ointment and Maxi-pads.

It was my night — along with my appointed buddy, Dick — to cook.

Dinner always seemed to be variations on either stew or pasta. Lunch most often meant the aforementioned peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Not that I went hungry. The meals were nutritious and there was always more than enough food.

But I have to say that even when Dick and I spent two hours chopping garlic and stir-frying fresh vegetables — impeccably following his wife’s recipe for “Chicken Surprise Gumbo Prix Rumiere du Campground,” which Dick carried in his wallet — the results tasted like pasta. The supermarket cream pies, however, were a hit.

Monday, July 29. Day nine promised to be one more lazy summer day of bike travel. We stopped occasionally and watched dolphins arcing through the waves at Refugio State Beach, just north of Santa Barbara. Then my riding group took its obligatory coffee break and read the newspaper. The headlines were jolting: “Train Wreck. Toxic Spill. Highway 101 Closed Indefinitely.”

A great toxic cloud of spilled hydrazine — a component of rocket fuel — was hovering over Seacliff, a town just south of Santa Barbara. People were being evacuated. Highway 101 was closed. That highway was our corridor between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The implications were staggering.

By late afternoon, we’d all assembled in Carpenteria State Park, where we pitched our tents cheek-to-jowl with the hundreds of others who were likewise stranded just north of the spill. Helicopters buzzed overhead, coming and going to the accident site.

The problems seemed so overwhelming that Cindy was about ready to resign as tour leader. But she took a shower, came back to the group with a smile and, to loud applause, announced that she was breaking into the tour’s budget and taking us all out to dinner at a steak-and-salad restaurant. In an atmosphere of unaccustomed civility, we discussed alternatives among ourselves and with the locals. It seemed that there was a detour.

We started the next morning on what we were told would be a 35-mile detour to skirt the toxic spill, involving a climb up to Ojai and a descent to Ventura. We soon discovered that all the vehicles which normally used Highway 101 — cars, bread trucks, RVs, gasoline tankers, pickups pulling trailers — were now using this detour. And there were no shoulders.

Pumping uphill in our lowest gears, we were forced — in the absence of shoulders — to use the roadway. Single file, of course. But folks began piling up behind us, even though we would stop occasionally to let them by. And they were rude. Already angry about having to take the detour, they honked and yelled at us for impeding them.

Often a vehicle, a huge truck or car, would swing out wide and pass. Then you found yourself pedaling alongside some quickly moving wall of metal, where one false swerve, only a foot to the left. . . .

It was dangerous. When I found myself wondering what the limits were on my life insurance policy, I pulled over to the side and quit. I wasn’t going any farther.

Unbeknownst to me, others in the tour were making the same decision up and down the length of the road. Some hitched their own rides into Ventura. Cindy and Shirley, riding in the van, picked up the remaining cyclists like so many lost sheep.

Once in Ventura, we started riding again.

The next day meant Pt. Mugu, Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum (where cyclists park free), Venice, Marina del Rey and Redondo Beach — much of it on a paved coastal bike path apart from street traffic. It was splendid. And on overcast days such as the one we had, the path is not clogged with pedestrians. It was my most pleasant visit ever to and through L.A.

By the time we reached Huntington Beach the next day, the riding had become much easier, the traffic less hectic. Later, my riding group took a wrong turn and headed to the dead-end terminus of the Balboa Peninsula. It turned out that this great mistake led us to Newport Beach, a great ice cream parlor and the Balboa Island Ferry — by which we rejoined the mainland. Then it was on to an afternoon in Laguna Beach, where the Teens flirted with California girls their ages and where Tim and I asked to be introduced to their mothers.

Since several of us had to leave the tour a day early to meet previous obligations, that night’s stop in San Clemente was to be our last together as a group.

Cindy had arranged a going-away dinner at a restaurant near the beach. Enamored despite their age difference, Jason and Laura were there, arm-in-arm. Cindy laughed about her troubles (ranging from mutinies to toxic spills) and called herself “Leader of the Tour from Hell.” Van-driver Shirley scratched at her ankles and brooded that she had become a banquet for insects. The Teens joked. The Fortysomethings celebrated. And The Retirees looked on, bemused.

This essay originally appeared in the Travel Pages of the Los Angeles Times (May 31, 1992). It recounts my first bike trip down the California Coast in 1991. Since then, I have biked this route (in whole or in parts) perhaps a dozen times.

A note on the photos. No photos exist of this 1991 trip. For the purposes of illustration, I have used photos from a 2015 trip I made down the Coast with a group organized by Adventure Cycling.

Many seem fascinated by the love affair that sprang up between Jason and Laura, the high school student and the stunning 25-year-old. My editor at the L.A. Times pointedly asked, “Did they get it on?” I replied that while I wasn’t positive, one morning the young man seemed unusually chipper, singing loudly in the shower “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Some months later, I ran into the AYH Director who organizes these bike tours. She laughed and reported that — after my essay appeared in the newspaper — enrollments from high-school boys went through the roof.

Finally, you can find my inebriated account of bike touring in Ireland by clicking here.

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