Leaving MacKerricher State Park in the morning, we bade farewell to our fellow cyclists and prepared for- yet more!- rolling hills as the day’s route promised to tightly cling to the cliffs as it followed the coastline to Manchester State Park for the evening. We decided a slow but steady pace was best as our legs bore the muscle-scars of the previous day’s climbs, and were quickly overtaken by Derek as we headed to the first town of the day, Fort Bragg. Famous for the Skunk Railroad, we couldn’t resist stopping off and letting Theo gawp at the enormous steam engine as it huffed and puffed away just behind the centre of town. Anything with wheels, any machine or means of transport- he loves it!
After pulling ourselves back onto the bikes, I persuaded Matt to venture briefly from the highway to seek out a ‘scenic alternative’ route that would take us to the very edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific at Mendocino Headlands State Park. The moment we turned from the highway, an exhilarating, sharp and icy cold wind swept from the sea and engulfed us with tremendous force, causing the bikes to shake unsteadily and whipping at us relentlessly. But it was beautifully refreshing: suddenly, I felt truly awake, alive. But in a strange way: as though I hadn’t even realized previously that I was asleep, I had been cycling in a daze without knowing it…and suddenly had my eyes opened. It was invigorating and exciting- even if it was near-impossible to cycle. Almost a metaphor in itself: going off the straight and narrow, off the beaten path, is rarely easy: but it is tremendously rewarding and, as far as I can see, never regretted. We could all do with taking the odd risk from time to time. It’s what keeps us alive, rather than simply existing.
We entered Mendocino and simply couldn’t resist stopping once more. This beautiful, quaint seaside town was a delightful combination of classic, pastel-painted Victorian architecture and the ‘New-England’ lifestyle. We settled into a cute coffee shop on the high street and watched the world pass by before us. I absolutely loved this beautifully maintained town- it was so relaxed, and wonderfully laid-out. Ornate, delicate carvings and artwork on the houses; everywhere crisp and clean, gleaming in the sunlight yet somehow managing to maintain a balance with the landscape without appearing too sharply juxtaposed: it seemed to fit in beautifully. If I could choose the town I wanted to live in- this would be it!
The coast, on leaving Mendocino, was absolutely stunning- as Matt aptly put it, it was completely ‘unspoilt’. Mile upon mile of coastal grassland, untainted by concrete barriers or plagued by housing estates, it was a beautiful, vibrant stretch of natural colour: wild flowers ranged from the hottest, deepest reds and oranges to sunshine yellow; striking purples and pinks to soft pastels, all against the range of green grasslands and the turquoise of the sea. It was utterly beautiful, and completely took my breath away. However, the scenery came at a price: the hills began in true earnest, weaving in and out of the cliffs as the highway chose to adapt to the landscape, rather than tearing through it. Shortly after passing through Elk, at around the 30mile mark, we confronted the steepest section on the Pacific Coast: a ridiculously winding stretch with a series of hairpin ‘switchback’ turns and a gradient rumored to be around the 17% mark. We succeeded in staying on our bikes for the first climb; however, as soon as the road turned for the first hairpin turn, I wobbled uneasily, failed to muster the strength needed to keep pushing and just managed to pull my feet out of my cages before toppling over sideways. We were forced to walk the rest of the climb, struggling under the weight of the bikes but grateful for the shortness of the climb. We giggled at the groans of cars as they struggled to pull up even in the lowest gear-no wonder this road isn’t recommended for RVs and trucks!- but at least we knew it wasn’t just us suffering. And, it has to be said… this section was thankfully nowhere near as bad as Kamloops!
We reached the turnoff for Manchester State Beach but decided, in spite of our fantastic night at MacKerricher, that showers were a higher priority after another hot day of climbs (and the cold showers of the previous night!) We opted for the KOA next door and discovered- much to Theo’s delight!!- a few parks (including one with a sand digger, from which it was near-impossible to pull Theo away!) along with a game room, tractor hayrides to the beach, a pool and-yes!- HOT SHOWERS. It’s the simple things that make all the difference when you’re on the bike all day…
The following day turned out to be pretty epic. Another day of glorious sunshine and rolling climbs along the coastline- although as we edged closer and closer to San Francisco, the coastline begun to lose it’s wild, untainted appearance as developments and settlements begun to increase. The rugged surf had many clambering onto the beaches to catch some waves (this was actually the first day I’ve seen anyone manage to surf successfully…!) and traditional, rickety wooden fences begun to appear and push us slightly further back from the cliff edge. We passed numerous ranches and farms, with cows wandering the road and cattlegrids slowing us down along the way. We stopped off at Gualala to restock and bumped into Steven, a fellow cyclist who had been some distance ahead of us but had begun to slow down in order to reach San Fran over the weekend, and he told us he was aiming to head to Woodside Campground- around the 40mile mark- which sounded like the best option for us. It had been a fair few days since our last ‘day off’ and the general tiredness was slowing us down slightly as a result- 40miles is probably the most comfortable daily mileage for us.
We passed through ‘Sea Ranch’- a community of beach houses all designed by the same architect in a variety of sizes, all with the basic ‘box’ style arrangement and built from the same materials to give them a unified feel. They had the general appearance of driftwood- that sunbleached, wave-beaten faded wood that helped them blend into the landscape, and avoid becoming the modernized ‘eyesores’ we’ve come across all-too-often as we’ve cycled through the more ‘upmarket’ areas along the coast. I’ve loved oogling the architecture we’ve come across as we’ve been cycling: it’s so fascinating to see just how imaginative, crazy and ‘out here’ some of these creations are: how elaborate and at times, excessive, how unique, big or at times, tiny and tucked away. Sea Ranch was quiet and slow-paced as we passed: however, we gather that on the weekends (particularly if the weather obliges) there tends to be a mass-migration from the city to this beach getaway. Jealous? Moi?
Around 2.30-3pm, we pulled into Woodside Campground and started to have a look around. We bumped once more into Steven, already set up here for the night, and found the campsite otherwise very quiet and fairly remote- with hot showers, but for a rather shocking $1.50!- and a camp host who tried pushing us into paying out for one of the full size sites (“On account of the little one- you guys need your space- you’ll disturb the other cyclists!”) Regardless of the shortcomings I was more than ready to admit defeat and start winding down for the day…but Matt, his mind focused solely upon our San Francisco goal, had mustered some energy and determination from somewhere and seemed keen to carry on. After stealing the cycle map briefly from Steven and umm-ing and ahh-ing over it for the best part of an hour, he decided we should push on. The hosts warned us there were no campsites for at least another 20miles (we’d already done 40 at this point!) but Matt was convinced the map told him otherwise. Plastering a forced smile on my face, I begrudgingly picked up my bike and followed his lead- back onto the road again.
Ridiculously, in spite of it edging towards evening, it got hotter and hotter. By 5pm, it was hotter than it had been at midday- with the heat causing a dry, heavy air that felt hard to breathe, almost like being in a sauna- and preventing the sweat from evaporating from us, it until it felt almost suffocating. We weaved higher and higher along the coastline, climbing with only the occasional, short downhill for relief. The views were spectacular without a doubt; but the terrain, unforgiving and relentless. We passed by Fort Ross, which bears the legacy of the Russian settlement, and weaved our way rather scarily through some roadworks which saw half of the road literally crumbled and falling down the cliff! The worst part is that the single-lane traffic lights don’t tend to take into account slower cyclists such as ourselves. Opposing traffic had begun to weave along the narrow road before we had quite finished passing through- NOT fun!
Around 6pm, at the top of one of the many cliff climbs, we stopped for our trustworthy emergency energy boost (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches- I am now a convert!) and wondered if we could possibly make it to the end of the day’s prescribed ride. It was still no cooler. We raced through Jenner and passed several beaches and numerous surfers capturing the evening waves, cycled past closed campsites and those that had been privatized into trailer residences, looked longingly at the various inns, B&Bs and beach houses that beckoned along the way- but we kept going.
It was 7pm when we finally rolled into Bodega Dunes State Park and found, in the hiker/biker site, a couple we had first met at Sunset Bay who are also heading to San Fran, along with another young guy who was still contemplating the next stage of his trip. We practically collapsed with relief after such a long day- 71 miles of climbs!- and cheered when we discovered the showers were FREE. We enjoyed some proper food and catching up with the other guys in celebration of our successful long day- and the fact that we were now just a few days from San Francisco!!- before experiencing our first ever night of camping on the sand. A great way to end a very, very long day- and in spite of my aching limbs and exhaustion, it felt a huge achievement to cover so much ground in one day. Best of all, our lil man seemed perfectly content and happy to oblige us- and charmed all our companions on arrival with incessant chatter as he recounted his version of the days events. We’re extremely lucky that he seems to have taken to life on the road like a duck to water and relishes his time in the trailer- admittedly trying to muster the energy to keep up with him once he gets out presents a challenge from time to time, but for those who can’t decide if their children could undertake a journey of this size, I have to argue- most definitely, YES. And not just endure it, but ENJOY it, which is even better!
Tantalizingly close now…
Miles Today: MacKerricher to Manchester KOA: 46
Manchester KOA to Bodega Dunes: 71
Total Miles to Date: 1,677