The start. Los Angeles to San Onofre state beach (78miles).
My original plan had been to stay at a surfers’ hostel some 7 miles south of Los Angeles airport, directly on the seafront and with immediate access to the beachside cycle path. However, at the last minute I decided to take in a sightseeing tour of LA before setting out on my ride and so I booked 2 nights in a hotel, just one mile from the airport. I won’t bore you with details of my sightseeing tour but leap straight into my ride.
Unfortunately a breakdown in communication upon checking in and checking out at this hotel did not put me in the best frame of mind for the day ahead. The receptionist wanted to play semantics with me after I had asked for the return of my credit card receipt. She insisted they had not swiped my card, and this is where the conversation deteriorated. It transpired that what I called a “swipe” they called an “imprint”. I don’t suppose that jet lag and a sore throat caused by the LA smog helped my mood.
The route on this, the first morning, took me down the US1 and then west to the beach, before heading south on the shared bike / footpath. This path has a speed limit of only 8mph. Even with my fully loaded bike I knew that I would be exceeding that speed limit, as the surface is smooth and flat.
It was on this path that I met the self proclaimed ‘worlds greatest wine-o’. A colourful character named Bobby.
After chatting with him for a few minutes he whispered “Shall I let you into a secret, I’ve been teetotal for 11 years, but please don’t tell anyone!” I gave him a couple of dollars anyway, for sheer entertainment value.
Is it mandatory to ride or surf or jog or power walk or roller blade in Southern California? I only ask because today everyone, of all shapes and sizes and ages appeared to be doing one or other of the above. If this is the lifestyle in SoCal (that’s what the locals call southern California), then I’m moving here! There were plenty of fit, tanned, good-looking people around, but I’m not sure that I would be able to afford to buy a property here as prices for beachside apartments start at about $2m.
The cycle path follows the coastline for about 10 miles to Palo Verdes. After walking my bike up the 100 metre concrete ramp from the beach; (a) because the sign said to and (b) because it was too steep to ride up anyway, I stopped at the top to allow a motorist to park. A jogger, oblivious to my presence and probably lost in the music from his mp3 player, ran into the back of me knocking both my bicycle and me to the ground. He didn’t even stop to apologise.
As I struggled to pick up my bike and re-arrange my luggage I noticed to my horror that the rear derailleur was bent. Unlike a mountain bike where this is attached by a separate hanger, the derailleur on a road bike connects directly to the frame. I gently and gingerly bent it back into place and hoped that my trip would not be over before it had even begun.
Riding on through the rolling hills of Palo Verdes, I stopped to double-check my route. A lady who very kindly confirmed that I was going in the right direction said that I should “Keep straight on until you come to a goofy 5-way”.
Well, I kept straight on and found the junction, but I didn’t see Goofy..or Mickey..or Donald.
Travelling along the industrial Anaheim Street a battered white car suddenly pulled to a halt in front of me. The driver jumped out and frantically gestured for me to stop. I did so, apprehensively wondering why. Had something fallen from my bike? Was I about to be bike-jacked? No. He just wanted to ask me where I had bought my front racks as he was also a long distance cyclist and had not seen any in America. Whew!
Another 10 miles along the route and after half-a-dozen unscheduled stops to re-arrange my luggage (which hadn’t been right since my encounter with the jogger) I found myself in Main Street Cyclery, Seal Beach. Here Joey the mechanic stripped out, cleaned and re-lubricated my bottom bracket, which had become loose on the flight over. He told me that when he was 29 he had set out with some friends to ride across America but had got as far as New Mexico before being struck down with measles and returning home. He hoped to complete the trip one day. Joey is probably in his late thirties now. Don’t lose the dream Joey.
Meeting and chatting with Joey and his boss Dave and playing with Dave’s two white Samoyeds lifted my mood. So feeling happier in myself and also with my bike I set off again through Huntington Beach and Newport Beach where surfer-bike dudes carry their boards on especially constructed racks attached to their cycles. Huntington Beach is where surfing was first introduced to the American mainland and is now known as the surfing capital of the world. Not just because of its history but for the consistent quality of the surf and also because the world surfing championships are held here every summer.
On through Laguna Beach busy with Saturday afternoon traffic to Dana Park and the back roads of San Clemente passing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (S.O.N.G.S) to Bluffs Campground, San Onofre State Park.
S.O.N.G.S provides nearly 20% of the electrical power used by the residents of Southern California but today it was going to be providing the backdrop for my first nights camp. Hopefully I won’t wake up tomorrow fluorescent and ticking!
As I approached the Ranger on duty at the entrance to the state park I slowed, only to be greeted with an “on you go, there is no charge”. Disappointingly I saw a sign behind him which said that the campsite was closed until March. After a brief chat and even some begging, he kindly suggested to me to “haul your bike over the hill and hide away in the trees” informing me that the Park Ranger had just gone through but that he would be back in an hour.
Well, I don’t know if he had ever tried hauling a bike carrying 50lb of equipment over sand dunes, but I can tell you it isn’t easy.
I hid myself away in a small thicket where there wasn’t enough room to erect my tent but where I did find an old wooden bench. I cooked some noodles and soup and slept on the bench wrapped tightly against the cold in my sleeping bag. It was a cloudless night with just the sound of trains going to and from S.O.N.G.S for company.
Uncle Sam’s bathtub. San Onofre state park to Santee (69miles).
The next morning my route out of the state park followed the traffic free Old Pacific Highway to Camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton is the main amphibious training base for US Marines on the west coast of America. En route there is a tunnel which is shared by tanks, other military vehicles and cyclists. Guess who has precedence. Guess again what the road surface was like through the tunnel. There is also a ¾mile section of road which doubles up as an occasional landing strip and is quite probably the widest, smoothest bike path in the world.
Ordinarily I don’t wear a helmet when cycling (except when I am riding off road or racing). Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that you should not wear a helmet. That is my decision and one that I am comfortable with. You have to make your own mind up. However, a condition of entry to Camp Pendleton is that cyclists MUST wear a helmet. Knowing about this in advance meant that fortunately I did have mine with me.
So, after satisfying the guards on the gate as to my identity and intentions, I was allowed to proceed with the proviso that I must be off base by 4pm. Stuart Mesa road which winds its way through the base for about 7 miles gives you the opportunity to see some decommissioned military hardware close up.Having left the military camp and cycled into Oceanside, I met Bart and Walt, two cyclists from San Diego who were out for a Sunday morning ride. Both men have both acted as support crew for the Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM is an ultra marathon bicycle race riding coast to coast across America. Cyclists ride for up to 22 hours a day for eight or nine days to cover the 3000 or so miles, supported by back up vehicles and crew. They are seriously fit cyclists. In fact in 2005, 2006 and 2007 the RAAM actually started here in Oceanside and finished in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The 2007 race was won by Jure Robic a Slovenian cyclist in 8days 19hrs 33mins. A seriously, seriously fit cyclist!
After breakfast it was a pleasant ride through pretty Carlsbad to Leucadia where you can have your pet pampered at “Fur Reel” or if they are too fussy you can always take them to “Grateful Pets”. I got the impression that like their owners, pets are preened and pampered in SoCal. A beauty salon in the town was offering $20 off a Brazilian wax: hhmm, now, I wonder, would that make me ride any faster?
On through Encinitas and Solana Beach, where a large number of those pampered pooches get taken for walkies on their own designated beach.
Riding through Del Mar, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach brought me into San Diego, passing by the Torrey Pines Glider port, which is a small greenery overlooking 300 feet high cliffs from where (presumably insane) people pay good money to throw themselves off strapped to a parachute or glider. No thank you.
San Diego is a huge naval port, which Uncle Sam treats as his own personal bath tub and he keeps it full of his big boys’ toys. It is also where I suffered not one but two punctures, supporting an article that I had recently read in the local paper. The County Grand Jury had declared 1250 of the 2800 miles of county roads in San Diego as being in a “deplorable situation”. The same article went on to say that $13m had been allocated for repairs. This sounds a lot of money but in reality will only actually pay for repairs to about 100 miles of roads. Other ‘interesting’ facts from the article included a comparison of cycling fatalities in California. State-wide between 2003 and 2005 there were on average 110 cycling fatalities. San Diego averaged 3.7 per year during that period. Not too bad considering that for the same period of time there were 39 deaths from drowning, 21 from exposure (it could have been 22 last night!) and 698 cardiovascular related deaths. Maybe this jogging, rollerblading, power walking, surfing and riding lifestyle isn’t all it is cracked up to be then!
I ended the day at Kumayaay Campsite in Mission Trails Regional Park at the end of the first real climb of the trip. A quiet park of rocks and lakes and home to birds, reptiles and other animals. It maybe just 8 miles north east of San Diego, but it is a million miles away from the urban hustle and bustle.
The Park Ranger tonight was Shimana, a Japanese National who had emigrated to America 13 years ago to study at Salem University, Boston and after finishing her studies found herself on the west coast working for the San Diego County.
Dinner was the first of what would turn out to be many, many Mexican meals that I would eat on this trip. In fact I ate more Mexican food during these forthcoming seven weeks than I have in all of the rest of my life. At the Los Michoacanos restaurant I met up with a cyclist called Kyle who on seeing my bike asked the question: “Are you going across?” This was to be the first but certainly not the last time that I would be asked if I was going across country. Excitedly, when I replied in the affirmative, he called over to a woman who was eating at a table outside the restaurant: “Gale, he’s going across”. The three of us then sat together whilst they told me all about their day’s ride. Gale was kind enough to point out where she lived and said that I should call on her if I had any problems.
They were on a road trip heading first to Nevada and then on to Florida where they intended trying out all of the amusement parks. Although I was a little jealous of them because they were doing it the easy way, by car, I was still more than a little excited about my own road trip. When I returned to the campground I found that I had two new neighbours, a pair of African – American ladies who were busy packing unpacking and re-packing their car with everything including the kitchen sink.
Wrecked. Santee to Pine Valley (36miles).
It had been another very cold night and I awoke to find that the condensation from my overnight breathing had frozen to form ice on my tent. My chest was very congested and I was having difficulty in breathing.
I had scheduled today’s route to be 55 miles into Live Oak Springs where I intended camping. However, I had seen photographs of that particular campsite covered in snow in February 2006 and so I had the option of going on another 12 miles to Jacumba where there is a spa motel. As it was to turn out, I never got close to either of them today.
The first 9 miles of the route away from Kumayaay Campsite in Mission Trails Regional Park is easy riding. I stopped for coffee at a gas station in Lakeside, having ridden past a number of breakfast opportunities in Santee. I thought that I would wait until Alpine another 10 miles before eating. That was a mistake. Turning onto Old Highway 80 in Lakeside the road rises and just keeps on going with no respite all the way to Alpine at over 4000’ (the name is a bit of a clue as to the terrain!). I was having difficulty in breathing because of my congestion and crawled up the hill at 5 – 6 mph in my bottom gear.
A member of the original 1926 U.S. Highway family, old Highway 80 was once a transcontinental road that stretched coast to coast from San Diego to Tybee Island in Georgia. It is of historical significance because in addition to containing sections of the first paved road to connect San Diego with all points east it also included the wooden plank road that took motorists over the Algodones sand dunes.
In a couple of days, my route would take me through the Algodones sand dunes near to Glamis; although the plank road no longer exists as it has been replaced with an asphalt and concrete surface.
US 80 remained until 1974 (which is longer than many other California highways) when the final section of the new Interstate 8 was completed.
When I finally arrived in Alpine there was nowhere to get breakfast and I had to make do with snacks from another gas station. As the route unfolded over the days and weeks to come I became to rely quite heavily on gas stations for water and snacks. Okay, so they are slightly more expensive than supermarkets, but I found them to be more readily accessible.
Eleven more miles of undulating riding, some of which was on the I-8 with a shoulder full of gravel, glass and other non-bike friendly debris, brought me to Descanso and the Descanso Junction Restaurant, where I finally stopped for some proper food.Descanso is a Native American word meaning “The place of rest”, which is so very appropriate in my circumstances. I was feeling totally wrecked. In fact I was so tired that I struggled to eat all of my lunch, which was only a tuna sandwich and salad. Afterwards I pushed on for a few more miles arriving at Pine Valley and when I saw the Pine Valley Motel I decided to call it a day.
Later in the evening I wandered into the small town and ordered a pizza at the grocery store, but I found that I was still struggling to eat. So I sat outside the store and entertained myself by watching a Border Patrol Officer curb his car not once, but twice as he attempted to park outside the ice cream parlour opposite. I wonder how he will explain away the damage to his supervisor?
After eating as much as I could, I returned to my motel room and fixed the two punctures that I had sustained in San Diego. It could have been much worse, yesterday, just before I had reached the Torrey Pines Glider Port (and before the first of my two punctures); I had seen a cyclist pushing his bike along the road. I stopped to see if he needed any help, but he showed me his rear tyre which had been shredded by a large piece of metal that he somehow failed to see. I had enough tools and spares to deal with most eventualities, but hadn’t thought to pack any tyre boots. Fortunately he said that he was almost home. If the same were to happen to me I would have to use a toothpaste tube in an emergency.
Even later on in the evening I sent text messages to friends in which I described today as the hardest ride I have ever done. With hindsight that was an exaggeration, but my poor health combined with the terrain certainly did make today a difficult ride.
It was only the end of day three and already I was nearly half a day behind my schedule. At this rate there is no way that I will complete the ride in the time that I had available. Yes, my schedule had been designed with a degree of flexibility, but what was not flexible was my departure day from Miami. I had already pre-booked my flight back to the UK.
Riding below sea level. Pine Valley to Brawley (88miles).
I awoke this morning feeling as congested as I did yesterday. Thinking that perhaps I was carrying too much weight and that this must have contributed to my poor performance yesterday I decided to lighten my load. The cleaner at the motel must have had a surprise when they cleaned my room only to find a jumper, a pair of jeans, belt, wet wipes, bandages, two T shirts, sleeping bag liner and book dumped in the bin. In total about 10lbs of excess luggage that I felt I could do without and which I hoped would make the riding a little easier.
I did have the option of posting the stuff back home to England, but the cost of shipping would probably outweigh the value of the items. Also, the post office did not open until 9am and I wanted to get on the road early to make up some of the time that I had lost yesterday.
The main local news this morning was a report on the fatal shooting of a man in the car park of an Alpine bar last night. The same Alpine where I couldn’t get breakfast yesterday. The second news item was that of an earthquake in Baja California, North West Mexico, near to the border with Southern California. Bloody hell, they were a bit too close for comfort. What’s going on? Was this trip such a good idea after all?
Leaving Pine Valley on Old Highway 80, the road climbs for about a mile. It was cold at the top of the hill so I took out a thin sheet of expanded foam about 18 inches square; the sort that is used to wrap computer components and electrical accessories in. I wear it between my chest and the first layer of clothing to provide a windproof barrier when riding downhill. It is especially important to protect yourself against chills when you have worked up a sweat riding up mountains.
Okay so I had only gone about a mile this morning, but given my poor health. I didn’t want to risk exacerbating it. Other riders use newspaper (I find it can get damp and therefore has a limited number of uses) or bubble wrap (which can be a bit bulky and not easy to fold). The road drops down into the valley toward Buckman Springs where having learned from yesterdays experience, I stopped early for breakfast at La Posta Diner, where you are welcomed with a ‘Howdy’ on the door. A local sheriff joined me for breakfast and ordered steak and eggs. I don’t eat beef anyway, but find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to eat steak for breakfast.
Then it was on through La Posta Indian Reservation to Live Oak Springs and Jacumba. On leaving Jacumba, I suffered a violent coughing fit and had to stop cycling, only to be sick by the side of the road. I really am not very well!
Later in the morning where Highway 80 joins the I-8, I had the option of a short detour to visit the Desert View Tower and Desert Museum, but the way I was feeling I really couldn’t face the mile long climb.
Lunch was at Ocotillo in the Yuha Desert, after riding the lumpiest, bumpiest road to date (Imperial Highway, County Road S2).
After lunch the road got even worse. The rough, scarred and broken road surface is no doubt the result of numerous heavy trucks travelling to and from the complex of silvery buildings set in the powdery white landscape that make up Plaster City. Plaster City is home to US Gypsum. USG manufactures plaster, plaster board and wallboard for the construction industry and has its own narrow gauge railway that shuttles back and forth between the processing plant here at Plaster City and the gypsum mine at Split Mountain about 25 miles away. In my opinion it is an ugly complex and a scar on the landscape.
The route continues on through Seeley to El Centro, the busiest town since San Diego then on to Imperial and finally to Brawley. This whole area is below sea level and thousands of years ago it was once the bottom of a sea. Brawley itself is some 112 feet below sea level.
I had planned to stay at the Brawley Inn, but when I arrived the only room available was the expensive Presidential Suite. Now this begs the question, who will be the next US President? The US election process had commenced weeks before I left England and I had been following the process with interest (even if not fully understanding the complexities of Primaries, Caucuses, Belt Way Voters, Super Delegates etc. etc.) At this time, it is anybody’s guess who will win. Senator Obama is slightly ahead of Senator Clinton in the poll for the Democratic nomination. Senator McCain is likely to be the Republican nominee. I’m going to continue following this election race with interest because there is bound to be fireworks or scandal at some stage, there always is.
So instead of the Brawley Inn, I made do with the more modest Desert Motel, after first removing the salamander that had sneaked in as I opened the bedroom door! Then it was off to Vons Supermarket to get some cold remedy, food and drink. I was now back on schedule having made up the mileage left over from yesterday, but health-wise I was feeling just as bad.
Hitchcock day. Brawley to Blythe (90miles).
Last night before retiring to bed, I took some rather repulsive looking green liquid decongestant capsules, which I had purchased in Vons. I also smothered my chest in Vicks vapour rub and I felt a little bit better this morning.
The main challenge in today’s ride will be to locate food and water whilst riding along the Ben Hulse Highway through the Algodones sand dunes to Palo Verde. There is a general store in Glamis after about 28 miles but my research shows that it has limited opening hours. So I breakfasted well in Brawley before setting off. The only other possibility for food etc would be Palo Verde which is 41 miles past Glamis.
Once you leave the town of Brawley, the landscape soon changes and the road rises gently through waves of sand dunes heading towards the Chocolate Mountains. The ChocolateMountains are so called because of their colour and are used as a naval & marine bombing range. Apparently, they contain the world’s richest gold rift zone which is estimated by geologists to be worth somewhere between $40 and $100 billion. But as I said, it is a military bombing range so you can’t get near it. There is even a story of campers (lawfully camping nearby) being bombed by “mistake”. You have been warned!
Along the road shortly after leaving Brawley, hundreds of birds were congregating in the trees; I have absolutely no idea why but the noise was phenomenal.
There is a big sign in Glamis announcing itself to be the ‘sand toy capitol of the world’ but in reality Glamis has no permanent structures apart from the Glamis Store. It is nothing more than a semi-permanent tent and RV ‘village’ for off-road thrill seekers who come here to ride their motorbikes, quad bikes and 4x4s through the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.
Today, fortunately for me, the store was open and I managed to get some food and water. That was despite a ‘welcoming’ sign on the door warning that there are ‘No toilets – so don’t ask’.
I got chatting with Dennis a concession stand holder from San Diego who sells funnel cakes and hot dogs in the tented village. He told me that although it was very quiet now 190,000 people were expected to descend on Glamis at the weekend for Presidents’ Day. I tried to establish what to expect from the next part of my journey but it transpired that Dennis had never travelled further than the Glamis store and so he didn’t know what the road to Palo Verde would be like.
Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday in American and is celebrated on the third Monday in February. It was originally named (and officially it still is) Washington’s Birthday, after George Washington the first President of the United States who was born on 22nd February 1732. Then, in 1866 the year after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (born 12th February 1809), formal recognisance of Lincoln’s birthday started taking place.
Although never a federal holiday, it did become a legal holiday in some US states. Eventually, in 1971 in order to simplify matters, legislation was enacted to honour all American Presidents on a single federal holiday. A bit like a Bank Holiday in the UK, Presidents’ Day is becoming more and more commercialised with stores (most notably the motor trade) using it as an opportunity to launch their sales.
After eating my lunch in the shadow of a border patrol station, I cycled on towards Palo Verde. The road between Glamis and Palo Verde is a single carriageway, one lane in each direction with narrow shoulders about 3 feet wide. It is undulating, hilly and because of the lack of vegetation you can see for miles, literally. I was able to get up enough speed going down the hills to freewheel three quarters of the way up the other side, before I needed to pedal.
Traffic was light and as it was coming towards me it would disappear into blind spots in the troughs between hills only to rear appear a few seconds later. It was whilst riding on one particular hilly stretch that I could see a white car in the distance coming towards me overtaking a couple of slower moving recreational vehicles.
So picture the scene, one lane each direction, me on the shoulder, a car on the wrong side of the road coming my way, nowhere for me to go except into the sandy scrubland at the side of the road. I won’t repeat the expletives that I shouted at this inconsiderate and dangerous driver as he passed within a few inches of me!
Arriving in Palo Verde there is a huge contrast in landscape as the desert gives way to verdant green cultivated fields. There are two campsites in town, although neither looked inviting to me. One appeared to be nothing more than a large gravel car park with no facilities; the second was a dodgy looking trailer park. I hope that I haven’t offended anyone with my descriptions; maybe I’m just too fussy. So I decided to ride on to Blythe, another 20 miles.
Because of the inaccessibility of this area, aircraft enforce the speed limit on the roads. This afternoon I was buzzed by two small planes and a short while later two marine jets roared overhead. What, with the birds congregating this morning and being buzzed by planes this afternoon, I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie. I don’t mind Hitchcock, just so long as it’s not that Spielberg film, ‘Duel’ the one in which a motorist is stalked by an anonymous trucker. Thanks for planting that seed in my mind before I left England, Glyn. I really needed that thought in my head as I cycled along lonely desert roads. Not!
Actually, there was another reason why it was sensible for me to reach Blythe tonight. Tomorrow I would be leaving California and entering Arizona. The state border is also where the time zone changes from Pacific Time to Mountain Time. Clocks go forward and I would be losing an hour, so the closer I could get to the state border, the less the impact it would have on my cycling day.
And so for the second consecutive day, as the sun sank lower in the sky towards setting, I was joined by a shadowy cyclist and we rode in silence side by side in perfect harmony to Blythe, arriving shortly before 5pm almost an identical time to my finishing time yesterday. I elected to stay at the Americas Best Value Inn. Next door is Madd Jax a coin operated laundry and so I was able to properly clean all of my clothes. Up to this point I had been resorting to washing my kit in the shower at the motel or campsite. It is very important to keep your clothes clean so as to prevent saddle sores, which could lead to infection.
Dinner was another Mexican meal in a small local restaurant. Here I met up with a man called Archie who was in town supervising the building of a new school. Archie lives in the Yucca Valley, San Bernardino surrounded by ten acres of land. Apparently it is a very quiet location and he gets annoyed if he sees five cars during the weekend. I wonder what he would make of London traffic then!