We are back in Canada. Back home. Our epic adventure has come to an end.
However, it is not truly ‘over;’ the memories and experiences we’ve made have become a part of who we are as individuals. They have shaped our character and our view of the world. They have inspired and amazed us. They have restored our faith in humanity (in my case, at least) through the countless displays of selfless, genuine generosity and hospitality we were able to witness. They have taught us lessons we will value for the rest of our lives.
The list goes on; here is not the place for me to try and get a hold of all the deep emotional implications of this trip – likely I will dedicate a future article to it.
Day 44: San Francisco to Half Moon Bay State Beach, 48.5km
We leave the house with Heidi at 8:30am. We ride together into the Golden Gate Park, where she heads into the city via ‘The Wiggle’ – the most popular cycle route to get downtown from the area around the park, as it follows an old stream bed and is therefore relatively flat –, while we follow our noses westward, through greenery, past the Bison Pen and the Dutch Windmill, all the way to Ocean Beach. Once there, we hop onto the Great Highway, Route 35, and make our way out of the city.
Around Pacifica, life seems to have calmed down again, at least traffic-wise. We make it there in a decent time and thus avoid the rather unlikeable combination of hot weather, burning sunshine, and all-too-busy roads. Mind you, it is still hot. However, the breeze from the ocean manages to counter the sun’s effect on the ambient air.
Rockaway Beach bosts the biggest waves we’ve seen this entire trip. An elevated pathway skims the sea, right on top of the rocks, and is subject to massive sprays that almost lick the windows of the buildings closest to shore.
Right past Linda Mar, where we stop to get groceries, we have to climb our most significant hill of the day. Having to bike up narrow highways with no shoulders is old news for us, though, so it’s easily done and over with. The neat section comes on the descent: one of California’s longest tunnels! Somehow, this guy is equipped with a shoulder as wide as the main lane, which makes travelling through it a real treat (it’s also downhill). The views unfolding before us as we emerge back into the light are absolutely fantastic. We are higher above sea level than we thought.
Once we reach the northern tip of the bay, we leave the highway for a much nicer multi-use pathway right on the shore. This trail takes us all the way to the campground at Half Moon Bay State Beach, where we run into Tyler (a fellow Canadian from Edmonton who is travelling all the way to Argentina).
Once our sleeping quarters are set up, we ride into town. It is only 2pm and the City of Half Moon Bay is shorter than a frog’s leap away. We find a nice coffee shop; I use the time and internet for some blogging.
While we are in town, more cyclists arrive at camp. There are three Brits – Robin, Henry and Alice – and some other folk whose names I do not remember. Henry and Alice are travelling with a surfboard they picked up on their way down the coast, which is pretty cool.
Day 45: Half Moon Bay State Beach to New Brighton State Beach, 96km
Our need to make it just past Santa Cruz makes this our last high-mileage day. I push pretty hard from the get-go; I want to cover enough ground (about 40km) before stopping for lunch. The pace I set reminds me of the days back in Oregon when we travelled with Herbie, Laura, Giuliana, and Dave. I really miss those guys!
Luckily, neither elevation profile nor winds have decided to conspire against us and our quest for distance and speed. However, Taylor’s chain gets over-the-top-jammed. But she manages to wiggle it free after a few minutes.
The scenery rolls along in a regular pattern of beaches intersparsed by scruffy bluffs covered in tall, dry grass. We stop at Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Actually the location of a Hostelling International hostel, it is the only lighthouse that is practically along the highway (most other ones we’ve encountered required a detour with quite a bit of elevation change). A bit after that, we arrive at Año Nuevo State Park where we stop for lunch, after a healthy 46km – perfect! Robin, Henry, and Alice are also there.
After our break, I keep pushing, and we get to the edge of Santa Cruz in what feels like to be no time at all (although I do start to feel a bit drained at this point). I have my mind set on checking out the Santa Cruz Bicycles HQ – I just want to look at incredibly beautiful (and incredibly pricey) mountain bikes. I probably drool a little bit. And buy a sweater.
We cross town staying as close to the water as possible. This brings us on the city’s famous beach boardwalk, which is the location of a small amusement park. But, as we get closer to the State Beach, we have to wiggle our way through city traffic in the harsh afternoon sun. I’m exhausted at this point, so I’m not having the best of times.
The campground has really strict rules in regards to the biker site. First off, no hikers are allowed – you must have a proper bicycle. You’re also not allowed to stay two nights in a row. Tents cannot be set up before 4pm, and check-out is at 9am. We guess that’s to make it too inconvenient for local homeless people to stay there. Well, at least we are allowed to use the showers like everyone else. I raid my stash of quarters and take a nice, 8-minute shower. Taylor, on the other hand, only has two of them, so she manages to somehow wash herself and her hair in only 2 minutes. We have a double-potato kind of evening, and I pass out early – I am pooped!
Day 46: New Brighton State Beach to Monterey Veterans Memorial Park, 75km
This is it. This is our last full day of bike-touring. We are still riding tomorrow, but it won’t be too long of a day, nor will we wind down in the evening sitting around a big picnic table next to our tent. Thus, today is the day to take in fully and truly enjoy!
As per campground rules, we are all packed up and ready by 9am. Since we are still in the vicinity of Santa Cruz (which has a considerable population of around 60,000 people), we have to do some more city-road navigating. Luckily, a fellow cyclist named Dave (yep – another one), whom we’ve met several times throughout California, lets me take photos of his Adventure Cycling Association map; we now have the proper tool for following the recommended bike route out of this agglomeration. (The map that I bought all the way back at South Coast Cycles in Bandon, Oregon, stopped in San Francisco.)
The map – or rather, the photos of it – guides us through extensive agricultural land. There are fields upon fields upon fields of strawberries in this area! It turns out that this is where Dole, the world’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables, grows most of its delicious berries. It’s most likely that the American Dole strawberries available in Canadian supermarkets come from these exact fields we cycle between.
We are also awarded a first-hand look into the workings of American agricultural labour. In fact, there are many workers out on the fields, which seem to be exclusively of Mexican or other Latin American origin. It hits me: this is the bottom strata of the US’ labour force – the (probably) illegal immigrants doing the work nobody else will. Their doing something as vital as providing a nation (two, actually, since a lot of Canadian food comes from America) with produce is a symbol of America’s total dependency on this marginalized and abused section of the population. As much blame as they (wrongly) get from all sides, especially from a certain narcissistic sociopath running for President, they are still holding the economy together. Forcely send them away, and the fragile house of cards would collapse.
The political and economical implications put aside, it is the most fragrant ride of the entire trip. As we keep riding through this song come to life (Strawberry Fields Forever, anyone?), the enticing perfume of ripe berries plays with more senses than simply our smell. Like a hypnotist, it entrances us through the complex blend of chemicals met by our olfactory epithelium. However, just like all birds, insects and other animals that have experienced this intense pull toward snatching a fruit or two from these fields, we exercise caution and leave the pesticide-laden bright-red fruit alone, their colour reminiscent of a warning sign to potential consumers.
We end up on a multi-use pathway shortly before entering the town of Marina. The path follows Highway 1 all the way into Monterey. It goes up and down succulent-covered dunes and is a sheer pleasure to ride on.
Once in Monterey’s famous Cannery Row – the waterfront street which used to house many sardine canning factories –, we sit down at a café and get milkshakes which cools us down after this hot and sunny day of riding. For me, this indulging also has sentimental and nostalgic value: years ago, when I came to this area for the first time with my family, we walked this very same street and I distinctively remember getting a milkshake that day.
Unfortunately for our tired cycling legs and now milkshake-digesting bodies, the campground is on top of a hill and the road to it is pretty steep. As I forcefully pedal my way up it, I keep thinking how mean it is to make us end the day like that. But, like any other hill on this adventure, we eventually conquer it. Furthermore, it turns out that this campground has free showers. Score! I thought my luxurious 8 minutes of hot water the day before were my last opportunity to become sort of clean. Taylor and I have our ‘Last Supper’ in good cycle-tourist company. Everything is well.
Day 47: Monterey Veterans Memorial Park to Salinas Amtrak Station, 47km
We’re in no rush today. Our train doesn’t leave until 6:30pm – if it’s on time (which, according to a lot of folk we’ve met, tends not to be the case with Amtrak). We take it slow at the campground and I find myself enjoying every little ‘household chore’ of this tent life that has been my daily reality for so long. After all, this is the last time I’ll be stuffing away my sleeping bag, rolling up my mat, unpegging and stashing away the tent. I might as well enjoy it.
I fire up my Optimus stove once more, its rocket-like sound disturbing the morning stillness for the last time. Taylor and I throw our bike kits on for the last time. We hang our panniers onto our bike racks for the last time. We roll slowly out of a campsite for the last time. This day is of full of finality; as much in opposition to infinity and the openness and uncertainty of passing time as can be.
We choose Point Pinos, Pacific Grove, as our final, ‘official’ turn-around point. At the very edge of Monterey Bay, its location is symbolically strong and rounds up the finality of this day.
We retrace our ‘steps’ and head north on the same recreational trail we used yesterday. Then, we cross the campus of California State University Monterey Bay and head inland to Salinas. Goodbye, Pacific Coast!
Tailwinds and crosswinds accompany us all the way to the Amtrak station, where we have to engage in some intense re-packing of our bags. The train is in fact late (not that we haven’t been warned about this), which is why the lady at the ticket booth suggests we do not check-in any of our bags and take them all on board with us. Since we only have 45min to transition from train to bus in Seattle, she fears that we might not get checked baggage back in time (the process is similar to airplane travel). As for the bikes, we personally bring them to the baggage car and get them handed back to us in the same manner upon arrival.
How many carry-on bags can you bring aboard, you ask? Four. Cue to me making an unimpressed face as I look over to my bike that has – let’s see – six of them. Time to reduce that number by any means possible! After about 20min and using duct-tape to make one bigger bag out of my two front panniers, I’m good to go. Taylor successfully reduce her amount of baggage as well.
Once the train finally arrives (over 40 minutes late), we bring our bikes to the baggage car. Then, we are told that we need to walk all the way to the other end of the train; while it is by no means as ginormous as a cargo train, it’s still pretty long. Our 65 pounds of panniers are super awkward and difficult to carry. As we walk to the end of the Coastal Starlight, I get called out by a conductor. What – the train is leaving in a minute?! We just make it to our car before they close the doors. But man, what a stretch. This was, hands down, the most stressful moment of our trip (which says something considering how many shoulder-less, busy roads we had to travel on). Taylor describes the sprint along the platform as like ‘being in the Cross-Fit Games, without being fit enough for cross-fit.’
Time for a full day of sitting in a relatively confined space.
Day 48: Return Trip on Amtrak’s Coastal Starlight
It’s pretty difficult to sleep in coach seats. The Coastal Starlight’s cars are actually really roomy. Still, I doze on and off until about 1am. I think we have just left Sacramento. The train is now fairly empty, so Taylor claims a pair of seats for herself (we were trying to sleep next to each other before that). By lowering the back rest as much as possible and bringing up the leg rest of two seats, there is just enough relatively flat surface to lay down in foetal position.
Morning eventually comes. It is just before 6am, we are now in Northen California and have left the city of Dunsmuir. I look at a map – we are in the vicinity of Mount Shasta, the second-highest peak in the Cascades. Unfortunately, it is still pitch black out, so I can’t see a thing!
At 6:30am, the dining car finally opens for breakfast and we are among the first ones there – I’ve basically been waiting for this moment the whole night. I settle for an omelette with roasted potatoes and a whole wheat biscuit, plus all the coffee I want. It’s pretty tasty. And, even better, the sky is finally brightening up. Suddenly, the outline of Mount Shasta’s snow-covered faces stand out from the background, like a theater cut-out on the proscenium just after the heavy black curtains are lifted. It stands alone in the middle of seemingly deserted, flat lands, as a beacon of promised adventure for any mountain lover who would find themselves stranded in these parts. I am in awe.
As time goes on, there are more mountains to see. The train crosses over into Oregon on the eastern side of the Cascades Range, stopping in Klamath Falls. Two volunteers from the local museum come on the train and entertain the passengers in the observation car (which is where we spend most of the trip) with interesting facts and trivia about the area as the Starlight slowly works its way up and down Willamette Pass. It is incredibly scenic. Travelling at a whopping 32mph down from the pass, the train navigates two hairpin turns to lose almost 4000ft of elevation.
We also meet Peter on the train! Seriously, how small is the bike-touring world? He stayed with us at St. Paul’s in Crescent City. Oh boy, it feels like this was ages ago. I am really happy to see him. He went down to Santa Barbara and is now taking his sweet time to make it back to the East Coast by train, visiting big cities on the way. Peter, if you read this, I really hope you find your true calling in life! We’re all struggling with the all-too-familiar question of what we want to do with our lives – bike-touring, while not providing a definite answer, at least helps to put things into perspective through the freedom it provides.
After we head to the dining car for lunch, the rest of the trip is a blur – but a really long one. I mostly snooze and read in my assigned seat, not really needing the observation car’s big windows anymore, now that we’ve left the mountains (the Willamette Valley, on the western side of the Cascades, is not too spectacular).
I feel stiff and sore when we finally approach Seattle. Surprisingly, the train has not only caught up with its delay – it is now 45 minutes early! Taylor and I are relieved; we won’t miss the bus whatsoever. I guess that, in the case of Amtrak schedules, everyone is correct and wrong at the same time. It is such a long train ride that delays can easily be caught up on over the trip’s entirety. So, if you are stuck in one of their Superliner coach cars for 24 hours (like Taylor and I), it is both early and late. However, if you only take the train for a short distance while it is still late, you’ll complain about them never being on time. It’s all a matter of perspective. I think I am going to call the Coastal Starlight ‘Schrödinger’s Train.’
Surprisingly, we do not have to take our bikes apart to fit them on the bus that brings us to Vancouver. Our babies get their own luggage berth. No need to take off even a single wheel.
The bus ride takes three hours. Crossing the border is as easy as ever, even if the officer is slightly confused at my possessing a 3-year-long work permit without actually having a real job at the moment. We finally make it to Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station at exactly midnight, where Taylor’s parents are already waiting for us. We hug, load bikes and bags up in the car, and head to their hotel. We get to take a shower, eat snacks, and stretch out in a nice, comfortable, real bed.
Sleep comes easily. This is it. The adventure is done. I wonder if the reality of it and of all our achievements will ever sink in?
It truly did go, boys.