We resume in the small town of La Honda, California, 50 miles from San Francisco after getting dropped off there around midnight from a Craigslist rideshare.
After a night surrounded by dark, towering Redwoods, I opted for a sandwich from the La Honda general store before embarking for San Francisco. I remember feeling a bit self-conscious, wondering if the locals sipping coffee on its porch saw me emerge from the treeline just down the road. Because this was the Bay area, they had a sandwich with real vegetables on it as an option for me, something typically hard to find in our rural places. After carbing up, I was giddy dashing down the steep hill that connects La Honda to Highway 1, California’s premier coastal road. My mood deflated when I got dropped into a valley at San Gregorio, and immediately had to fight back up. Expectations versus reality are an endless battle.
Though it sure was nice gazing upon that Pacific Ocean again! I didn’t really see any of it in SoCal. I know, I know, I missed out there, but maybe it’s just that the more rugged stretches appeal to me. Anyway, this area along the San Francisco peninsula is particularly beautiful, and the climate a blissful relief from, well, the entire Southern United States. Riding the 1 was something I felt a sense of dread for regarding my safety, but my sojourn up to SF turned out to have ample shoulders and bike paths, with only a couple moments of terror sprinkled in. I navigated through coastal towns like Half Moon Bay, Montara and Pacifica before entering the city’s reaches.
SF’s hills are notorious; even with my thunder thighs, they’re still draining. I remember finding myself perplexed when stripping off my outer layer on a particularly tough climb, complete with a blazing sun above, only to immediately wind up chilled. It was only 60 degrees; that’s my kinda weather for mid July! Actually, the California Current is what’s responsible for keeping the weather stable between 50 & 60 degrees Fahrenheit year long, making every day feel to me like the last day of Summer. I’m pretty on board with that, even if it’s a little bit eerie to have the weather that constant.
I first stayed with Tom Law in SF, a college friend and also my web hosting provider for the past decade through his company, Spexhost. He now works for LinkedIn in Dev Ops, or for lay people, he makes their coders do better & keeps the rogues in line. Well, he was still hours away from getting off work when I got in, so I opted for a little tourism. Where else to go but the Golden Gate Bridge on bicycle? I found out I could ride across it and take a ferry back to the downtown, which sounded like a cyclist traveler’s dream.
Unfortunately, I wound up regretting that choice. The area is gummed up with tourists midday, which triggered bad memories of cycling New York’s Brooklyn Bridge (which any local avoids, it’s a running gag). I didn’t expect so many people would want to walk around on a bridge quite far from the city, especially in America where our tourists aren’t typically known for their fitness. Compounding things are bike rental companies who set this ride up as a specific activity to do for tourists, so I contended with heavy traffic all the way into Sausalito, where the ferry was. I was one of over a hundred bikes on that boat.
In retrospect, rather than being left enraged, I’d like to take this was a mindfulness opportunity that passed me by. It’s a public space, everyone has a right to be there. I found myself especially begrudging this because I had a peaceful, solitary existence bicycling alone all day before the rude awakening of having to share. I also consider myself a special snowflake just because I travel unconventionally. As much as I’d like to think I’m over feeding my ego, I’m really not. It’s a constant battle to stay aware of myself, my place in the world, and what reality really is.
After my ferry landed in the crowded wharf area, I quickly extricated myself to the SF’s enterprise zone and scored a discount bahn mi for dinner. I then rode for Noe Valley, where Tom lives. At first, I had fun fighting my way through the commuter traffic downtown, a solid percentage of which were my fellow bike commuters, who I can’t help but get a little competitive with. The games all ended when I got to his neighborhood. If I thought the bay’s hills were bad before, the ones up to his pad near the valley’s peak were excruciating, with grades of what felt like 20% (Tom would tell me stories later of cars getting stuck on them). I used every last ounce of strength left in my legs to get up them, parked, and then swore off any more cycling during my stay with him. His apartment’s view were pretty amazing, so it was worth the fight. I’d pad around on foot while I was staying there, exploring places like the nearby Mission district.
After Tom left for New York, I made my way to Graham’s on the north side of town. Remember him, the cyclist doing Route 66 I met in Flagstaff? Anyway, he came through for me having a second place to stay in San Fran. I got to meet his folks, who had spent a good amount of time abroad as expats in India and China, and thus had a lot of interesting experiences and culture to share. We did plenty of bike riding ‘round town (I got my ‘wiggle’ down), loitering in the busy and chock-full-of-nuts Dolores Park, and got a hike in at the Tennessee Valley, where I officially touched the Pacific Ocean as an example of the sappy, sentimental stuff travelers love doing. There was a whale carcass rotting nearby, which a sign apologized for.
My stay with Graham culminated watching the World Cup Final between Croatia and France in one of the city parks with about a thousand other fans. Did I mention that game started at 8 AM here? After France won out, I said my farewells to Graham and his mom (who really was the one enthusiastic to see the game), hopped on the BART and made my way to Berkeley to idle for a day before getting an Amtrak to Salt Lake City the next morning.
Within Berkeley, I tried to sort out some same-day couchsurfing, and failed. I idled in coffee shops and rode around the city for a while, not finding it the most cycling friendly. I saw saddening displays of homelessness, with some sprawling encampments. I’m not singling out Berkeley, this is everywhere in America, but especially visible in the west. I planned to camp, but I didn’t want to join them. I pedaled up one last, especially grueling hill into the Tilden Nature Reserve, where I found a nice nook of nature not far from a paved walking path to settle deep in the wilderness. Soon after sundown, my tent would be entirely shrouded in soupy fog, making things slightly creepy.
I spent a while vacillating on whether or not to hit up Reno, Nevada. I didn’t like the idea of skipping any whole states on this trip, but the combination of no available Couchsurfing hosts nor any timely rideshares made me just throw in the towel and go straight for Salt Lake City. However, getting to Salt Lake on Amtrak means a 3:30 AM arrival, which is just brutal and another facet of why distance train travel in this country is awful. A city of over a million people shouldn’t be restricted like that. In the black Utahn morning, I hopped on the far more robust Frontrunner train that handles metro area travel and got up to Ogden before dawn.
What I was up to in Ogden? Well, when Reno wasn’t coming together, I opted to take another jab at WWOOFing. North Ogden had a promising locale, Precious Mud & Pottery, where I would spend a week working with Diana & Edwin. In addition to their namesake craft, they maintain an incredibly productive garden over 1.5 acres on the mountainside. During my time there, I got to eat endless basil, kale, cucumbers, eggs and blackberries. In return, I did plenty of weeding, trimming of vines, experimented with a pesticide of vinegar and soap, and even got to practice throwing pottery on their wheel.
My first day there was a whirlwind. I got into Ogden around 5 AM, sleepless, and decided against stealth camping as first light crept onto the horizon. I opted to just bike up the 10 miles to North Ogden and the farm with the morning light. I was at least rewarded for my suffering with a shining dawn over the Wasatch Front Range. After getting and fixing a flat 5 minutes away from the farm, doing the meet and greet with my hosts in a daze, I promptly fell asleep for the rest of the morning. When I woke up around noon, Diana had a septic tank for me to fill in. Her daughter stopped in and mentioned that Sylvan Esso and Unknown Mortal Orchestra were playing a show that night, bands I quite enjoy. We all wound up going together that evening.
Diana was a really nice host and a fast friend. I got to see a lot of Utah’s splendor on the couple days off we took. I helped her with Salt Lake City’s Farmer’s Market. I got to do the rounds with my camera and see some of the weird stuff like the Mormon Temple. With her, I also got a soak in at Crystal Hot Springs and a ride up to a mountaintop music festival, Blues and Brews. It was at Snowbasin where some 2002 Olympic events were held, a cool thing to lay eyes on. Edwin was more reserved, not venturing out from home much except for the hot springs, but I enjoyed his company immensely.
My next stop after Utah would be Denver. With TransAm, I’d now been in Colorado twice, but never near its capital. I was aiming to get there swiftly to catch my Appalachian Trail friends, Lucky & Lolli. They’re school teachers with a baby in tow named Everest and this is their second consecutive year of road tripping across the country from their home in Pennsylvania to visit relatives and see our national treasures. Well, they were about to depart for Yellowstone, so I needed to hustle. I wouldn’t have made it if I had to suffer through another Amtrak. Fortunately, my second Craigslist rideshare came through, though it was was a little bit weird.
My guy was driving from Idaho to North Carolina, and agreed to pick me up in the afternoon on his way to pick up some furniture in Salt Lake City. That wasn’t advertised, of course, and I sure came in handy to help. Secondly, he proposed to change routes and get a hotel room on the way since the drive would be going overnight. I energetically, but politely, refused, freaking out internally about possible sexual motives. He agreed to take me to a parking lot 20 miles from Denver on I-70, where I’d bail for the night and stealth camp before riding down in the morning. Our ride through the Rockies would go on uneventfully until about 4 AM before he got me there as promised, but the conversation was interesting.
When not sussing out our significant political differences, a lot of our conversation hinged on the Mormons. He had left the faith, so I was able to get an insider’s take on the religion’s flaws and his personal grievances with them, the escalation of which led to them trying to get his mother to disown him. He was pretty convinced on it being a cult. We were leaving Utah on the eve of Pioneer Day, which celebrates the Mormon arrival in Utah, after they were exiled from Illinois and Missouri. It’s even a state holiday, which makes sense as Mormons have a 62% share of the state’s religious affiliation and 100% of its congressional delegation. If I ever wanted to live life on the edge as an American atheist, it would probably be in Utah.
Back in the Rockies, I woke up after about 2 hours of sleep as the sun was rising and got myself ready for a 2,000 foot drop towards the affluent suburb of Broomfield. My descent wound around the scenic Lookout Mountain, mostly restricted from cars, into Golden. I cackled with glee at all the cyclists churning their way up for their morning exercise while I cruised down on my loaded Surly. I feel more and more like a trucker these days when I ride fully loaded through traffic. Golden has Coors’ headquarters, which happened to be right on my route north; I never saw such a massive brewing complex before. It even had its own rail lines and the smells that assailed my nostrils were strong indeed.
Navigating up to Broomfield involved threading this way and that through a surprisingly dense patchwork of bike trails I’d wind up being VERY busy on pinging back and forth around the metro area. By the end of all my bike riding, I’d feel comfortable endorsing Denver for the best cycling in the country; it’s no surprise to me a lot of professional cyclists choose to live here. I caught up with Lucky & Lolli, traded American Gods to his mom for Brave New World and enjoyed a night of catch up with good friends. In the morning, they were off to the mountains, with parents and niece in tow for a camping demonstration. I wandered back the way I came to Wheat Ridge for a few nights with Ty and his precious cat, Simba.
Ty’s an interesting fellow. A hardcore touring cyclist, he rode Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon the year before I met him on TransAm just hanging out in Missoula. At the end of my trip, I spent a few nights with him in Portland before he moved out here to try a new life; he cited the winters there as too depressing. He also rode Route 66 this year, a little earlier than me, and I consulted with him about possibly riding part of it myself before going my own way from Dallas. Us bike wanderers are always looking out for one another.
I had an exciting plan for the weekend, a few of my bros from back home, CJ & VP, were coming to visit me in Boulder. We split a comparatively posh Airbnb (I didn’t figure they’d be in to stealth camping) and spent a weekend catching up. It’s great seeing friends around the states from my previous travels, and meeting many new ones, but there’s something special about old friends who go out of their way to see you. I put myself in a vacationer’s mindset to coax myself into spending a little more money at fancier restaurants and breweries. Ty joined us for the first night as my escort biking up, which clocked about 30 miles.
Our first two nights we stayed local, enjoying good drinks, eats and stories. The major culinary highlights were dinner at Boulder Tea House, a fine dining spot for tea aficionados hand-built in Tajikistan. An impeccable ambience, eclectic and rare teas, and quality food that channels the vibes of the East are its shining characteristics. A stop at Twisted Pine Brewing involved sipping on the Ghostface Killah, which is brewed with ghost peppers and was the beer with the most sting I’ve ever drank.
On our last day we did a road trip into the mountains. CJ rented a car and we drove a loop, starting at Red Rocks Amphitheater, a natural stone venue with a legacy of hosting summer concerts. Many folks were milling around just like us taking it all in, even though that night’s show wasn’t until the evening. I enjoyed watching the fitness buffs jogging up and down it. I left my phone up top when we were getting ready to leave, so I got to do my own twisted run to retrieve it. Our halfway point would be Hot Sulphur Springs, a place steeped in memory for me as a stop on my TransAm ride last year. We even saw a few saddled cyclists to mark the event.
Our last objective was the Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, and we got our drive in as sunset neared, giving me some good light to work with for photographing the boys. I also had the opportunity to capture one of my best photos of the trip in a herd of elk that stopped traffic at 11,000 ft as the sun sank over the horizon behind them. This trip has been a good teacher that I just have to be out with my camera more often and ready to capture what happens. When I am back in New York, I aim to be doing a lot more spontaneous photography of my city, hoping to capture some of the energy those elk imparted upon me in their passing. I wasn’t active enough last winter and I felt myself withering as a result.
Well, the boys had to get going the next morning back to their respective lives, so my wandering resumed again. I had one last stay in Denver, back in Golden with Zach. I do web development for his backpacking blog, the Trek, which is extremely popular in the hiking community. This was our first time meeting, and I wouldn’t normally crash with someone I work professionally with, but thru-hiking is a special fraternity that has these benefits and I chose to exercise them (Zach hiked as Badger years before me). He was in preparation for an impending ACL surgery and tying up all his loose ends, so we didn’t get time to go on any epic hikes or anything like that, but I did enjoy palling around his home turf, which included visits to his co-working space and coffee shops of choice.
My way east was clouded. Omaha, Nebraska, was my original plan, which followed Amtrak’s Sunset Limited. That’s the same infernal train I took from San Fran. to Utah. After a Craigslist rideshare advertised Kansas City, I was ready to change tack and visit a different heartland metropolis. Unfortunately, that driver postponed the day of departure, and I get really antsy about being ghosted on by these individuals, so I pulled the trigger again on that evening’s Amtrak. This sentenced me to another miserable overnight ride. I distinctly remember the deep feeling of malaise as I watched the Rockies fade behind me in the evening light. At 5 AM, there I was in Omaha, arriving in time to watch the dawn and contemplate existence. I arranged to couchsurf, but spent my first couple hour circling around the downtown waiting for the first coffee shop to open.
I didn’t do much in Omaha but hang out with my superb hosts, Min and Nick. From China and Slovenia respectively, they do a lot of hospitality, mostly through Airbnb, and are building an interesting life together. I spent a long weekend with them helping renovate their home and cooking delicious homemade meals. I made for them my legendary-across-the-land guacamole. Another couchsurfer came through at the same time, Kengo, who opted to prepare a vegetarian sushi dinner on my last night in town, which was just sensory overload. I even got to eat natto, a fermented soybean concoction that is contentious in Japan as a gross-out food. You can bet I was grateful Omaha had a good Asian market.
I only spent 3 nights in Omaha as I was looking forward to seeing an old friend in Minneapolis before he departed for vacation. With no Amtrak north, and the overall unreliability of rideshares, I aimed for a bike ride between the two cities to guarantee I arrived in time. This would be also an opportunity to see Iowa and check that state off the list. So, I gave myself 5 days to ride the 400 mile gap. How’d that turn out? Tune in next time for the story on my tread north.