After cutting our previous day short after a suffocating climb in the raging heat, we had extra ground to cover if we were to reach MacKerricher State Park in Cleone, outside of Fort Bragg. We raced to get ready early in the morning in the hopes that we could escape the worst of the heat, especially as we were due to climb Leggett Hill- the highest point on the Pacific Coast Bike Route, and dreaded by touring cyclists up and down the route. I wasn’t comforted to find the opening paragraph of our guide stating that: “Contrary to popular rumor, abandoned touring bags do not line the road, nor are there graves of cyclists who did not make it (!!!!)” What is they say- many a true word spoke in jest?!- this image had me simultaneously laughing and groaning to myself in anticipation/trepidation.
Even our early start didn’t protect us against the raging heat: by 10am, we were positively roasting. We managed the 6 rolling miles that were to bring us to Leggett, and were relieved that in spite of the climb ahead of us, we could avoid yesterday’s exhaustion as the hill was largely in shade, offering at least some protection from the heat. The climb was steep and relentless; worse still, winding and narrow, with no shoulder to speak of. Thankfully traffic was moderate and we could stop frequently to catch our breath and gulp down some water before begrudgingly edging on, although the lack of protection between the road and the sheer drop down either side was a tad nerve-racking when cars decided to pull past rather close. And just to help that little bit more, my lovely morbid fiancé remarked: “I wonder how many cyclists have actually fallen down there? And died? Maybe there are bones of cyclists lying down there…” The climb was around 3miles; it felt like 10. We were going sooooo slooooow… painstakingly so… unable to see an end, sweat pouring off us, not even a breeze to take away any of the heat. 2000ft of cycling torture.
The summit passed us by without celebration or even particular recognition; one minute, we were climbing, the next, the strain lessoned and we realized the road had evened off to a steady flat for a short period, before we begun the blissful descent. We positively raced down that hill in triumph- being forced, however, to brake sharply as we turned the tight corners, but nonetheless gathering significant momentum and- at last!- moving fast enough to feel the benefit of a breeze. I started (!) to cool down.
Alas, little time for celebration- no sooner had the descent ended, we were faced with killer hill no.2- Rockport Hill, just 690ft this time, but once again windy, narrow and relentless. This was very much one of those ‘grin-and-bear-it’ moments of the trip: heads down, teeth gritted, legs moving mechanically in a world of their own. Surprisingly enough, the thing that gave me the most comfort at this point was recalling the Coquihalla. ‘If I could do that, I can DEFINITELY do this’ I just keep telling myself over and over, ‘I’ve been through worse, this is nothing by comparison, Nothing.’ But nonetheless, this steep hill had me wishing myself a million miles away- and wondering, not for the first time, why exactly I’m doing this- for pleasure, no less!
Once the descent started I felt a weigh lift- and was absolutely exhilarated to feel the icy cold breeze greeting us on the other side, with that fresh, salty smell that told me the sea was close. We turned one last corner and suddenly- there it was. The Pacific. It’s only been what, 3 days? Since we turned inland to do the Avenue of the Giants, and yet I’ve craved that sight and smell of the sea. The weather was perfect and the ocean looked glorious. Such a welcoming sight after such a climb- with the sea stacks standing defensively against the waves, and the birds circling above us. Bliss to be back.
The rest of the day’s ride was steeply rolling: hill after hill, some short, some long and lingering, all with much-appreciated descents. Definitely not a route for the faint-hearted; but beautiful nonetheless. We stopped off at Westport to re-fuel ourselves and came across two fellow cyclists, also heading south- but with just one teeny tiny pannier on the back of each bike and a pair of flip-flops strapped on top, clearly not heavy camping tourers. We asked after their destination and were told they were heading to San Fran also- “We plan to get there tomorrow,” one of the guys said, “we’ve gotta be back in the office Monday morning!” I stared at them dumbstruck in a mixture of awe, astonishment and envy. San Fran is still over 200miles away- and we’re anticipating it taking us another 4-5days. It was midday at this point; these guys were planning on doing that distance in a day and a half. Jealous? Moi?
Our destination for the night was MacKerricher Beach State Park, and on arrival we were directed to the hiker/biker site and found 2 tents already up. Two more were to join us to create a true little cycling community in the park- as we set up and ate dinner, I gazed with envy and a tad of regret at the group of fellow cyclists who had assembled on the other picnic table, laughing and chatting together while Matt and I tried to distract Theo. It seemed having a toddler had isolated us from the rest- childish as it sounds, I felt ‘left out’ and wished I could join them. After making myself a brew and eyeing them repeatedly, I gave myself a shake. This was ridiculous. I’m an adult!! And this is not the time for shyness or awkwardness. I’m not really good at approaching people- but hey, practice makes perfect and here was the best opportunity to start trying. I took a deep breath, walked right on over and asked if I could join them.
What followed was possibly the best evening we’ve had at a campsite since we started on tour. It was amazing to chat with this group of fellow cyclists- and incredible just how much mileage for conversation we can muster out of the single topic of cycling!! We compared our mutual experiences of the route thus far; two young guys, one heading north, one south to San Fran, and a couple also heading to San Fran, formed our group for the evening. We compared horror stories of bike ‘incidents’ since being on tour (I think Gregory’s experience of being knocked off his bike after being backed into by some old guy probably wins that one!) and mutually vented the pain of Leggitt Hill (I remain gobsmacked that one of the guys is attempting this route with just 5 gears. FIVE. He climbed Leggitt Hill… with FIVE gears. Unbelievable. No wonder he was in serious pain…) Best of all though, everyone had me in stitches as we compared what psychological ‘tricks’ we use to get us up those hills- Amy confessed repeatedly singing ‘this little light of mine’ had become an infuriating habit while climbing, Derek would try to zone out to music- or do the climbs while still half asleep in the early morning, so he wasn’t even aware he was doing them until half way up- but best of all, Tim tried naming all the prime numbers up to 51 (before realizing that 51 wasn’t actually a prime number…) and then learnt to sing the alphabet backwards. Classic. Absolutely brilliant.
Me, well… I wish I could say something that academic. Sometimes, I dream up blog posts, or I may recall tougher challenges I’ve conquered (like the Coquihalla, above, or perhaps the Liverpool Half Marathon, or even having Theo!!…) but more often than not, I revert into the most childish form of distraction possible, and wonder what I would do if I were to win the lottery. I imagine building my dream house, the places I’d travel to, the people and organizations I’d help, the causes I’d support. If the hill is particularly brutal, I go one step further and imagine what I would do if I were suddenly to develop magical powers- and the ability to do ANYTHING. That daydream can keep me occupied for hours. Fantastic thing, the mind- and for anyone who’s wondering, yes, it works. Every time.
We were laughing and chatting away when a couple of guys approached from the adjoining campsite and asked after our stories. They were from the church group who had accumulated around a campfire alongside us- the children from which Theo was already happily running around with!- and then asked if maybe we’d like some of their leftover food, as they had tons and it would go to waste otherwise?
Ever asked a touring cyclist if they want food? Well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it?
We all clambered up simultaneously and wandered over to a delicious spread of jacket potatoes and chilli, salad and cheese and sour cream alongside, topped by cookies, brownies and carrot cake. As we stood there eating (bear in mind- we had all individually already eaten not more than an hour before, and yet somehow, still had room for another full meal!!) the group of campers stopped their singing and buzzed around us, asking about our trips, our equipment, our route- marveling at the distances we were all covering and the time we were spending, comparing their experiences and offering us insights and advise on the route and cities we would be encountering. I literally talked for hours and hours that night, recounting our story over and over, and listening in wonder to the stories of others.
I felt like I learnt more in that one night about cycle touring than perhaps I have these past 6 weeks put together. It’s amazingly reassuring to realize you’re not the only one with weird and wonderful quirks to help overcome hurdles (!), the only one struggling or the only one who has a passionate love-hate relationship with the bike. We all admitted there were, in truth, completely crap times- days when you literally find yourself asking, why on earth am I doing this?! or want to throw down the bike and hitchhike the rest of the way. And yet as soon as the thought arises, a downhill stretch causes it to evaporate, an incredible view distracts you from it, or a good nights sleep makes it obsolete and you’re springing back onto the bike with vigor once more the next morning, congratulating yourself on overcoming those hurdles, celebrating your achievements and wanting to push yourself again. It’s a totally, totally bizarre relationship to have- but I’m guessing that’s the nature of pretty much any sport. Nothing is ever perfect, there are always, always bad days. And yet something in you just… falls in love with it, somehow. And you keep going back for more.
I went to sleep that night feeling completely content and exhilarated by our evening. Sure, the campsite left a lot to be desired. The showers were cold, the bins overflowing, the toilets had no toilet-paper and there were no facilities for Theo to speak of- bar, perhaps, the whale skeleton at the entrance that he enjoyed climbing on!- but in spite of all that, it was the best evening we could have asked for. We’ve been paying that little bit more to stay in private campsites along the route and now realize we’re missing out a lot in doing so- hiker/biker sites really are the best way to connect with like-minded people along the route, and I hope in the days we have left that we’ll get to enjoy more evenings like that. Just fab.
Miles Today: 48.5
Total miles to date: 1,560