And then there’s California…

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there’s California” – Edward Abbey

Street Life – Mooching around Los Angeles

LA was my office and playground for about a month and ‘work’ was gabbing away about my bike ride, mostly to school kids. I presented at small elementary schools where the pupils mmm’d and ahhhh’d and squirmed at my slides of snakes and spiders, and to an audience of over a thousand high school seniors at a prestigious private school where actor Will Smith sends his kids, who wanted to know whether cycling around the world was a religious experience.

I learnt some things along the way – like never to sign an autograph unless you have 45 minutes to spare because every kid will want one and you will be surrounded by a mob screaming ‘He’s famous! Sign my arm!’. And I have fielded all kinds of questions – the best came after telling a posse of teenagers I have had 210 punctures (lesson: use the more American ‘flats’ in future). One hand shot up and a perplexed youth wanted to know why I had been punched 210 times. I told him that I’m just very annoying.

Pimped up bikers at LA’s Ciclavia Bike Ride
One of my favourite quirks of America is how often strangers come over to make conversation. It’s refreshing and it’s disarming, but being accustomed to miserable England it took some getting used to. If this rare and brazen faux pas occurs in London I assume the person talking at me must be either

a)      Suffering from extreme loneliness
b)      Mentally ill
c)      Extremely drunk
d)      An American on vacation (bless them, they don’t know how to behave in the UK)

My bike is a conversation starter of course – it’s like having a gregarious wingman who’s forever introducing me to new people. And I have started to become Americanized with a z. More than once I have instigated a conversation with a stranger in the street whilst in the depths of my British brain a voice is going ‘My God Man! What are you DOING! Abort, abort, abort.’ And when I speak the American people who grin at my accent are unwittingly responsible for my ever more brutal and comical Lock-Stock style of the British voice. I don’t even hail from London, but I just can’t help it.

The USA is the most patriotic country I have travelled and that I’m ever likely to, though of course not everyone conforms to this stereotype, and less so in California. I know there’s a lot to be proud of, this post is full of American triumphs and delights, but the fact that I don’t see this facet of the national psyche as one of America’s virtues perhaps stems from the fact that I’m British and come from a place with crappy weather, worse food and ugly people. But then this particular brand of self-effacement is in itself something we are proud of, so maybe I’m a patriot too. Examples of America’s self-aggrandising abound – men who announce ‘Welcome to God’s Great Country!’. Bumper stickers that say ‘USA: Back to back World War champions’. The names of local servicemen on roadside flags – these are not men killed in combat, these are serving military personnel, what about the teachers and nurses and policemen serving the American people? Where are their flags? It’s all just a little weird.

Soon after leaving LA I stopped in Ventura and at the home of Cat and Pat Patterson, a couple who contacted me online with the kind offer of a place to crash. Pat had cycled around the world twice, once in the 80’s and again from 2003-2007 with his wife Cat. We drank wine, watched a film of Pat’s ride and talked about some of the pleasures and tests of a life on wheels before a zip around thrift stores so that I could replace the tatty hole-ridden vessels that were once recognizable as shoes.

I’m still revelling in the easiness of biking in the States and maps from the Adventure Cycling Association help, kindly donated to me by Calvin, a generous fella who heard me speak at REI and then gave me a bed for night and bought me dinner. So with cycle touring proving a cinch and a well-honed masochistic instinct still intact, I decided to leave the traditional well-worn Pacific Coastal route of California with it’s RVs, sea breeze, amenities, vegans and smooth tarmac and head instead for the hills.

A road in the sky – Cycling Camino Cielo (Santa Barbara county)

Local knowledge is sacred stuff and KG, a touring biker who came to my talk at a bike coop in Santa Barbara, had it in droves. By sheer coincidence KG’s Dad happened to be my burly companion Kenny who I sailed with from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula a few months before. Seeking an adventure away from Highway One I asked KG for advice and his reply came in Spanish – ‘Camino Cielo’. I liked the sound of it, the translation ‘sky road’ told me much of what I needed to know and KG filled in the details – a steep climb from the coast to 4000 feet where a hushed back country track rides a spine of rock in the Santa Ynez mountains.

‘The eye followed them up and up, and farther and farther, with the accumulating emotion of a wild rush on a toboggan…. It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed’. The words of author Stuart Edward White on the view of the Santa Ynez mountains from Santa Barbara. He was right. There’s no way out of Santa Barbara without crossing them – the San Marcos Pass is the shortest route and so was a popular spot for bandits to ambush traveling stagecoaches back in the mid-nineteenth century.

I pedaled up and away from Santa Barbara, from stop signs, traffic lights and convenience stores. Road cyclists breezed past me giving a ‘Wow!’ when they took in all my gear, and then a driver rolled down his window to reveal a wry smile before shouting ‘Damn masochist!’. He was right of course. If I were teleported to sea level every time I reached the high point of a road in the mountains, forgoing the reward of a breezy freewheel down the other side, I would still ride up into them. I enjoy the aftermath of pain, the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the self-doubt and satisfaction they create.

Eventually I arrived at the Painted Caves, 400 year old drawings on rock made with ochre, charcoal and powerdered shells which were created by the Chumash Indians who lived in these hills long before the freakish crowd that makes up modern day California moved in. Visitors had signed the guest book, one entry read ‘We are on a bachelor party! Caves were great! Now we are looking forward to beer and titties!’ the entry ended with a sketch of a woman with enormous breasts which highlighted as well as the Indian cave paintings mankind’s propensity to explain through art. Unnecessarily, perhaps.

I continued climbing. Soon darkness billowed and wafted over the coast like smoke. The plum tinted streaks of cloud were quickly leached of their shine and the stars began to blink and sparkle. I slept rough on an elevated concrete platform, a strange thing – circular, flat, hidden from the road and overlaid with graffiti, and whose function I couldn’t work out. Someone had sprayed ‘locals only’ on the metal stairs leading up onto it and torn cigarettes littered the centre. I guessed that it now served as a weed smoking den for local kids and I was proved right when some ventured up the stairs in the evening. ‘Oh!’ one exclaimed when he spotted my makeshift campsite. ’So I guess we’ll go somewhere else?’,  ‘Umm, Yes please’ and I was alone again as the street lights of distant Santa Barbara flickered to life two thousand feet below.

The next day Camino Cielo turned to dirt and I was left with just the trill of insects and the increasing subdued sounds of gun shots from a local gun club. Nature moved in around me, a green ambush. Hummingbirds jerked and shimmied around the flowering plants which fired up the vista. Crested Caracaras swooped low over the ascending road, one of the most dramatic I have cycled, and the land beside it tumbled on one side into the sheen of Cachuma Lake and the other into remote farmland which flanked the Pacific. In the solace of the wilds I was reminded of the creatures that call it home – Coyote droppings in the dirt, and when I rounded a corner something large and furry ahead sprang up and lumbered away into the bush. The sight of a black bear, just a few miles from people’s homes, reminded me just how alluring and wild much of America’s third largest state actually is.

My plan was to ride through wine country and join the Pacific coast further north but a mistake at a junction took me back to the coast only 15 miles or so from the town I had left two days earlier. But, as with all excursions away from and beyond the well-trodden path, it was worth it.

Biking a legend – Highway One on two wheels

The venerable Highway One is a tourist destination unto itself – it twists around rocky inlets and coves, skims over cliff tops and meanders over headlands whilst the tourists inside gargantuan RVs and riding roaring Harleys take in the ocean view. En route I camped in the cheap and friendly Hiker-Biker camps (which I love more than chocolate) and took (stole) showers from expensive RV parks. Even when my days on Highway One were marred by murk and drizzle, and when the coastline had a menace to it, the Californian golden poppy sparkled, drivers honked their encouragement and finding a cheap place to crash was as easy as sourcing a cheap burrito.

Elephant seals, even without David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones in the background, are impressive beasts, especially when sparring. A beach full of them lies off highway one near Piedras Blancas and I stopped to get some photos of the animals in action:

I usually have a mental list of outlandish adventures I want to accomplish in the next 12 months or so. Cycling Highway One was a long term dream. Another involved a Mexican girl. But in amongst them was the long held desire to sleep in a cave, honestly, it was. So when KG’s email mentioned ‘Pirates Cove’ and a sea cave I decided this would be my chance. I arrived in the pitch black of night determined to shorten that list, and I did it in style – sea view, en suite (err, kind of), open air balcony and minibar (a beer in my pannier). And unlike the penthouse, free.

I closed in on the famous stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. One evening I walked my bicycle off the road up into a grassy space beside an abandoned Ranger’s hut only to find another biker had got there first. Nate had been riding for two years, mainly in the bits of Asia I was most excited about. He grew up in Berkeley and had just a few days left of his epic world tour and I could sense his conflicting emotions – the predictable elation melded with panic. Knowing I will probably suffer the same when I return I advised Nate to pitch his tent in his back yard and slowly reintegrate back into society. The next day we set off together.

The majority of bikers ride south down the Pacific coast, aided by the prevailing trade winds, but Nate and I were exceptions to the rule. Most days on Highway One I would come across these smug south-bounders – ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ their annoying spiel would begin. ‘Oh Yeah, right’ would be my weak and tired reply having heard this twice already that morning. So when Nate and I met swift tail winds and rocketed up the coast of California we made it our business to pull over every south-bound cycle tourer and remind them.
‘Hey man, hows that wind for ya? Must be tough.’
‘It’s gonna be a long day for you guys’.
Two sulked silently, a look of defeat etched on their faces. I think one snarled.

The next day ended with a game of scrabble in a taphouse and a boozy ride in the dark back to camp in amongst the grand coastal redwoods this coastline is so famous for. The next day Nate had a plan, and I was invited.

Big Sur on the hoof – Hiking to Sykes hot springs

Stop in any urban public place in America and look around – you can be sure to see two things. The first is a signpost or seven telling you about all the things there are to be scared about. I call this the ‘Tsunami-Risk Zone Syndrome’ after a spate of signposts near Los Angeles. It could also be termed ‘Beware of Falling Acorns Syndrome’. The second is yet another batch of signposts telling you what you shouldn’t do and what will happen if you do. The consequences are usually enormous fines or some other spine-tingling threat…

‘Do not cross the railroad tracks here, or the US government will eat your grandmother’. 

Or ‘Do not dump litter here. Penalty: Death by steamroller’. 

The word ‘liability’ is used so often I presumed it must be some sort of involuntary vocal tick, but as it turns out people do actually mean what they say. People crave liability as much as the bubonic plague. So when the Park Service at our campground refused to let us stash our stuff there for the two day return hike to some hot springs (‘Liability, Sir’), I was chuffed when a helpful park volunteer offered to let us stash our gear at his campsite which I think shows that as long as everyone is this helpful, Liability Tourette’s doesn’t matter all that much.

We marched off, pack-laden and sweating, up onto the first ridge whilst around us the soundscape was rich with the creaking of redwoods, the knock of woodpeckers and the low gush of the river hidden in the valley depths, only the odd harsh squawk of a Stellar Jay stabbed at the tranquillity. The sinuous trail dipped down to creeks and then climbed to reveal a yawning valley which burrowed through redwood groves out to the invisible ocean somewhere now in our wake. The Sequoias, megalithic and fire-blackened, towered overhead, some trunks had been smashed into hollows by lightning strikes of centuries past, some in this forest were alive at the fall of the Roman Empire. The trail snaked close to the broad, rusty mid-sections offering a pang of vertigo when gazing at either the roots or the upper reaches. Between the trees a tide of resplendent green made of redwood sorrel and poison oak was broken only by the surreal shiny bark of manzanita. On the way I discovered a chest high stick which I used both as a walking aid and as a prop in my intermittent impressions of Gandalf the wizard. On the 12 mile hike to the hot springs we paused every now and then to examine some curiosity of the Californian wilds – yellow bellied newts, some strange striated snake, and then on a mossy log, a slimy yellow Banana Slug.

‘Go on, lick the slug’ goaded Nate
‘Nate, I’m not going to lick a slug’
‘Come on man, lick it. You have to’
‘I don’t have to’
‘Just a quick lick’
‘Will I get high or something?’ I asked, imagining the hallucinogenic toads of Mexico
‘No, no, no. But you still have to lick it’
‘You’re asking me to lick a bright yellow, slimy thing for no reason at all’
‘Look man, if you don’t feel completely welcome in California yet it’s because you haven’t licked a banana slug’
‘I feel welcome Nate’ 
‘Oh for Christ’s sake’

I licked the slug. Nate licked the slug.

‘Welcome to California! Now lets get going.’

As sunset encroached we waded a river and found a multinational posse of trekkers camped out near the hot springs. After lolling in the steamy waters, perfect relief after the time spent on foot, we cooked around a campfire before collapsing into slumber. I woke to find that my legs, unaccustomed to doing much except move in circles, were no longer as functional as I remembered them. Plus, I was in a world of pain.

A Gopher Snake

Yellow bellied Newt

Bayside antics and Bay to breakers – San Francisco

I had the name ‘Warren’ scribbled onto some paper along with rough directions, my friend Ryan had told me that he would host us in Monterey. When we finally found Warren in the hills above the town, we found a man with stories. 

In the 60’s Warren co-wrote the anthem ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s often sung to the losing opposition at sports events and has been covered a bunch of times). He was a millionaire by age 19 and working for Mercury Records as a sound engineer at a time where that was a rare profession. By the sounds of it he spent the next couple of decades squandering his fortune and having a blast by working closely with rock legends and pioneers including Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Lennon and a whole host of other household names. More recently he bought the State Theatre in Monterey which hosts live music events and he gave us a tour the following day.

San Francisco was a great venue for downtime and I spent it with Fin, Jon and Max – relatives I’d hardly met before. I now realise that my Irish heritage has benefits above and beyond the genetically inherited appreciation of Guinness, namely relatives everywhere. My mum was waiting for me with them, it was great to catch up – I hadn’t seen her for two years. By day we explored San Francisco and Alcatraz. In the evenings I made some sorely needed cash for the months to Alaska with more talks in schools and even people’s homes in which Fin set up a kind of donation jar and everyone generously chipped in. When I wasn’t performing these talks I listened to Fin and my mum and learnt more about my Irish family background and the characters that coloured it.

At the end of my stay came Bay to Breakers – a eccentric and very San Francisco street race followed by the more important street party where elaborate costumes or nudity are de rigueur and alcohol is slugged for hours. I was sitting in Goldengate park, sipping on a beer too, and waiting for Nate to arrive whilst watching some people party on the roof of one of the four story buildings on the edge of the pan-handle. And then something fell, something human-shaped. It seems strange to me now that I assumed it was a mannequin but in amongst the total strangeness of that day I thought it was some bizarre practical joke on the pedestrians below. Those on the sidewalk didn’t react with shock or horror, they just froze. It was only when the crowd on the roof began screaming did I realise I had just seen a body drop fifty feet onto concrete. I leapt up and sprinted across the park to find a young unconscious man on the sidewalk and next to him another doctor and a paramedic. We all chipped in with the resuscitation effort, stabilised his cervical spine, inserted a plastic tube into his mouth to keep his airway patent and put him on oxygen. Help arrived and he was moved onto a spinal board before being taken to the hospital. Sadly he died that night. He was 28 years old.

Mum and the mountains – Exploring Yosemite

It takes a lot to impress me these days. The back country, and all it’s stirring artistry, has been my home for most of the last three and a half years. When sunshine swept through our coach as it exited the tunnel inside Yosemite National Park, one of the three jewels in the crown of the US park system, the view set my mandible into a kind of involuntary and helpless free-fall that only a choice few spectacles have done.

My eyes were drawn first to the left and El Capitan, the hulking granite monolith which shoots up 2500 ft from the valley floor, beloved by technical climbers the world over. On the other side of the valley cascading water glistened in Bridalveil Falls, and between them the distant half dome, once the site of an improbable soft ball game. Climbers sauntered around gazing occasionally up towards their eventual destinations. The U shaped Yosemite valley carved by glaciers is simply a masterpiece, and still a work in progress as the slow sculptors of wind, rain and ice continue to reshape the land.

Yosemite was made all the more satisfying after our mission to get there. Car packed, mum schooled in American road rules, campsite booked, we set off towards the park. Our Dodge was borrowed from people we had never had the chance to meet. Thirty miles before Yosemite, on the start of a climb, there was a beeping sound and the light ‘check gauges’ flashed. We pulled up in 50 meters and steam billowed from the engine – envisioning a raging inferno we carted everything out of the car and flagged down the next vehicle which by some bizarre coincidence was a tow truck. The mechanics gathered around and quickly concluded the motor was finished and not worth replacing, our borrowed car was heading to the scrap yard.

The campsite down the road outside a motel was run by a woman with learning disabilities and a drunk guy who lived in the only trailer and who played rock music at full volume for most of the night. Hesitantly we decided to stash our stuff with them and took to buses to get to the park where my mum, who hadn’t been camping in forty years, slept fitfully in a valley renowned for the 400 black bears that reside here and that often stray into campgrounds in search of food.

We started with Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the lower 48 states and allegedly the 5th highest in the world, which was funny because I had visited the fifth highest in Peru, 150 metres higher than Yosemite (Yosemite is actually 20th) but natural wonders always get a little embellished by their tour guides. The next day was a tour to Glacier Point and Jack our guide told the legend of Bridalveil falls – looking into the falling water for thirty seconds would mean you will be married in six months. My mum, anxious for a daughter in law and grandchildren one day, nudged me and grinned. Our bus continued past Ponderosa pine trees, the bark coloured a lustrous green by staghorn lichen, which eventually gave way to ghost forests where the larvae of tip moths had laid waste to the life and greenery. As we descended the larger leaved black oak, maple and incense cedar crept back into view. El Capitan was visible again too and Jack told of an 81 year old climber who scaled the granite monster a few years before. It was my turn to do the nudging, my mum considers herself a spritely 62 year old.

Phew! A mammoth blog post and I didn’t even get to mention Alcatraz, Ciclavia or a ton of other crazy stuff I’ve done. Massive thank yous to my hosts and general good people this month – Alan and Eno, Fin, Jon and Max, Calvin, Alynka, Kent, Pat and Cat Patterson, Brian, Janna, Laura and family, Warren, Angelika and family, Bicycle Ambulance for a free bike service, KG, and of course my mum. And I know I’m forgetting several people. You know who you are. I blame it on drink.

Next up – I’m off today, north through the Marijuana plantations of Northern California, into Oregon and Washington. I have less than a month to get to Vancouver from where my next post will come from. For anyone interested I’m speaking in Oregon at Velocult on the 6th of June.

Finally  – a plea for help: I have an unexplained website script problem on I designed the site with a friend before I left with the intention of doing very little with it once on the road. I’ve barely touched the site recently and it’s been so long since I used Joomla that I’ve forgotten how to! If anyone has any experience with Joomla / website design and might know how to help and has the time then please get in touch and I’ll explain my issue – Cheers!

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Comments (8)

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    You miserable so and so England is the best place on earth to live! So glad you enjoyed the time with your fantastic mum. She is incredible and it sounds like she has passed on the genes. Take care


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    Your relation about the Americans is so funny;) hehehe Big thx! Greetings from Ireland. Ps. I'm off to UEA and Australia next week. It's a pity you won't be somewhere around



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    Dustin Moorman


    Steve, Glad to hear you're enjoying America! We certainly enjoy having you here. California's just about as eccentric as it gets – in other words, the perfect place for you to visit. 🙂 You should do another tour in 10 years to tackle the rest of the USA!


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    Justice Assessor


    Awesome that you made it to Bay to Breakers, heard they cracked down on the kegs being pushed in floats during the race but sure it is still a good time. Sucks that you saw somebody fall to his death though

    Great you made it to Yosemite too!

    I fly over those mountains near Santa Barbara all the time. My first ever solo cross country flight was to Santa Ynez. I follow the coast up past Santa Barbara then cross over the mountain. On the way back I take off and climb over Lake Cachuma. It's a beautiful view


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    Paul Smith


    Actually your creative writing skills has inspired me to start my personal BlogEngine weblog now.


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