Kilometres: circa. 3500
Average meals per day: 6-ish
Likelihood of having diabetes: high
Pretty proud of that title. Just look at the alliteration!
Last I wrote I’d just arrived in:
In San Francisco, I ate. I arrived at Christian’s place in Emeryville, on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay and wedged between lefty-trendy Berkeley and working class Oakland. He took me out for dinner (cheers Christian!) and I ate. In the morning I ate four bowls of cereal. Then I went to the supermarket to buy more cereal. The new box was gone before sundown.
Like splitting the atom, having a cycle tourist’s appetite is both exhilarating and alarming. You’re simply never full and merrily munch away on whatever comes to hand for all your waking hours, yet at the back of your mind a small voice is shrieking “Something’s not right here!”
I ignored the voice.
In between meals I did manage to do a little sightseeing, mostly as I made my way from Mexican restaurant to Chinese hole-in-the-wall to sandwich joint to creole kitchen.
One of several Chinatowns
The guy on the left in the above photo is Miki, with whom I rode from Florence, Oregon to Gualala, California before his wheel fell apart. Our mammoth trek in search of $1 noodles and porridge (in another Chinatown) gave us a little showcase of the city’s diversity. We started downtown, climbed to the Chinatown you see above, ambled through an upper class neighbourhood and down through what was basically an open drugs market (“Methadone! Xanax! Chiva!”) to a much more wholesome farmer’s market in front of the Civic Center, then out towards a second Chinatown.
The Civic Center
On the menus it calls itself the DNA Cafe.
Near the Civic Center.
San Francisco is famous for being hilly, which is a pretty lame thing to be famous for, really.
Baxter and I got about halfway up this one before I hopped off to walk.
…but this one is kind of cool.
It’s an image the whole world has seen, but I was mesmerised by the Golden Gate Bridge. I could look at it all day. It is possible, however, that I was waiting for something like this to happen:
The Palace of Fine Arts, a leftover from an early 20th century world’s fair. Looks like they stole it from the Romans.
Looking across the bay from Berkeley marina.
San Francisco and the Bay Area is a gargantuan metropolis that reflects the diversity of the U.S. as a whole, from Oakland’s ghettos to Castro’s gay district to Berkeley’s aging hippy scene to Chinatown, back out to the dockyards at Alameda and everywhere in between. It’s incredible. You could spend years exploring the city.
And for the most part, I ate.
As my time on Christian’s couch drew to a close I decided I would cut straight inland for Yosemite National Park, instead of heading further down Highway 1 on the Californian coast. After almost a thousand kilometres of coastal riding in Oregon and northern California, I was ready for a change of scenery. I also suspected the increasingly yuppie vibe I’d sensed in small towns as I neared San Francisco would not go away as I headed south towards Los Angeles. So late in the afternoon Baxter and I took the subway to Fremont, from where we would take a train and skip the vast wastelands of highways and suburbia that surrounds the Bay Area. Late subway trains and a flat tyre slowed me up considerably, so it was dark by the time I boarded the last train out of town.
I got off in the city of Tracy which, to put it diplomatically, is an utter shit hole. I headed for the outskirts in the dark, passing endless gated suburbs full of identikit houses, industrial estates and Serengeti-sized car parks punctuated by Taco Bells, Target, Walmart, Arby’s, Wendy’s and others from the seemingly endless list of soulless American chains. I found a single sign of life at the El Centenario Sports Bar, which was basically someone’s garage filled with pool tables and a duke box playing a mix of Mexican ranchera music and hip hop. I slicked back my hair, cranked up my accent, left a generous tip for my beer and asked the bartender if I might be able to camp round the back for the night.
“No, there’s no camping here. Sorry!” she chirped and skipped off. What a waste of two dollars. I slept in a dry creek bed by the highway, listening to trucks drone by.
Tracy, as it turns out, is an exemplary central Californian city. Modesto, Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield all turned out to be equally vast, soulless and mutually indistinguishable.
I did find some good people though. As I left Modesto the next day and rode through the gritty industrial town of Empire a sign caught my eye: “Lunchtime special: All you can eat pizza”.
Over mountains of pepperoni pizza, veggies from the salad bar and a veritable bucket of Dr. Pepper the owner, Neil, told me how he got into the pizza business.
“My first passion was always music, but around thirty years ago one of my wife’s kidneys failed. She was on dialysis and for that we were paying thousands of dollars per month, just to keep her alive. So I had to do something, and that something turned out to be pizza. In the end her brother donated one of his kidneys. He’s no longer alive, but she is. After that my three kids were all going to college and I promised them I would pay for their education. My youngest, he’s a doctor now and he decided to be one when he was young, so he could help his mum.”
“So when we get together my kids – they’ve all got kids of their own now – sit around talking smart-people talk and they kind of ignore me, the old man in the corner. So I tell them ‘You know, I’ve got a PHD too’.
“And they say ‘Dad, you only did your bachelor’s. What are you talking about?’
“And I say ‘No, I have a PHD: a Pizza Home Delivery.'”
He was the picture of a proud parent and grandparent, a man who’d spent thirty years elbows deep in dough and sauce to buy his kids their university education.
“It goes in cycles,” he said. “The first generation – my generation – works hard so that their children can get an education. The second generation has grown up watching their parents working hard in these kinds of jobs, so they go and get themselves educated and make a lot of money so their kids don’t grow up poor like they did. And their kids – the third generation – well they just end up wanting everything handed to them.”
I replied that I’m definitely from that third generation. He laughed.
“I would’ve liked to do some travelling when I was younger,” he said. “But I fell in love. What can you do?”
I told him about the joyless time I’d had since leaving the Bay Area and the tiny voice, alone among the cacophony in my head, that was telling me to go back to a girl I’d left in Berkeley. He smiled. “I know that feeling.”
Neil shows off his huge 26-inch pizza boxes. Anyone passing through Empire, California would do extremely well to pay him a visit at Rico’s Pizza.
He retires soon and says when he does, he’s going to pursue that passion for music he’s harboured all these years. “Nothing special, just enroll at a community college here, take some singing lessons and maybe learn an instrument to go with it.”
He probably doesn’t know it, but I left Empire with my spirits considerably lifted. And it wasn’t only because my belly bulged with pepperoni and cheese.
Yosemite doesn’t rhyme with Vegemite.
My original plan had been to ride straight up and over the Sierra Nevada, taking the Tioga Pass Road that topped out at some 3000 metres, or (much more impressive-sounding) over 9000 feet.
This plan hit a snag when a ranger at the park’s entrance told me they were expecting a huge dump of snow that evening, which would close the pass road.
“You biked all the way here from B.C.?” she gaped when she asked where I’d started. “No wonder you’re so in shape!”
She directed me to a nearby campground, and as I rolled away I wondered wildly if I should have tried to seduce her and secure a roof over my head for the snow storm. I sniffed myself and cast my eyes over my grimy clothes. I’d definitely be sleeping in the snow.
The storm closed all the roads, marooning me for a day at Hodgdon Meadows, but when the sun reappeared on the third day I struck out early. At a fork in the road I headed east, heading for Tioga Pass with a cry of “You only live once!” despite the ranger’s assertion that the road was indeed closed to everyone. I pumped techno from my speaker and psyched myself into a frenzy. I was ready for the mountain.
A single kilometre up the road, a cop pulled over beside me.
“Where’re you going?”
“The road’s closed, I’m afraid,” he said with a smile. “Do you have an alternative route?”
“What is up there that will physically stop me from going over the pass?”
“Well, two things: The snow is one – there’s a foot or two of it on the road up there. And secondly, well, the law.”
It’s here that I realised this trip may have changed me a little. Here was a man telling me I wasn’t allowed to spend a day climbing to an altitude where I would struggle to breathe and my fingers and toes would freeze, and I was angry at him. The alternative was a 13 kilometre descent to the Yosemite Valley, and I was reluctant to take it. I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with me.
The thing is, as far as compromises are concerned, the Yosemite Valley is akin to being offered a stay in the Taj Mahal because your five-star hotel is overbooked.
Mascots Piglet and Dougal taking in the view from Glacier Point at dusk.
Climbing to Glacier Point.
Self portrait on the valley floor.
From above, sitting on the edge of the cliffs, the Yosemite Valley looks like an immense half pipe, all smooth granite plunging towards earth at impossible angles. From the valley floor it feels like being in a gargantuan stadium. As I rode Baxter from campground to supermarket to trail head and back, I imagined myself in some kind of Hunger Games scenario, with bloodthirsty fans stacked on the cliffs above baying for gore. I spent three days hiking by day and sitting about fires with rock climbers and road trippers by night at Camp 4, a tent city of hikers, climbers and the occasional cyclist.
Sunset at Camp 4
After climbing a ramp of sorts between two immense granite walls (it felt like I was storming a castle gate), I sat for a long time atop Yosemite Point with my legs dangling above hundreds of metres of empty space. It looked like this:
Confronted by all this, I started thinking about how every single piece of matter, every atom that surrounds and indeed constitutes me has been swirling about for an unfathomable amount of time. Everything around me was once swirling in space and probably will again, eventually. The majesty before me has been formed (and continues to form) by slow, powerful forces well beyond my scope of comprehension – the shuddering and grinding of tectonic plates, the slow displacement of erosion. Indeed, every single experience that every single human being has ever had – with the exception of astronauts, I suppose – has taken place upon great islands of rock floating and bumping upon an unseen ocean of molten lava.
And we humans scratch out our lives upon this surface of one planet among uncountable others, somehow convinced that each and every one of us is so important. We love those close to us because evolution has trained it into us as a way of collective survival. In the great scheme of things, our very lives are trivialities within an exponentially expanding number of trivialities. The great, beautiful valley before me was not created by the hand of a deity or spirit who held us at the centre of its plan, but by eons of infinite systems and forces that have somehow made their way into existence, themselves the result of eons of infinite systems and forces – and so on and so on. To the universe, my life will come and go like a single grain of sand in a sand counter the size of, well, the universe.
I really don’t know what to do with this information, but I feel like our societies may be slightly more sane places if everyone would just stop taking themselves so seriously.
I suppose I was vaguely aware of this sort of thing before, but looking upon something like the Yosemite Valley brings it into terrifyingly sharp focus.
Between the coast and the mountains, California is one big, flat farm. Country roads crisscross the countryside like a lattice and all I saw for days and days were orchards, vineyards, dairy farms, chicken farms and countless other varieties of agriculture.
This Jay Varney came off less as a bad arse crime fighter and more as a bit of a twat with campaign signs like these.
At a petrol station I met Laura, a lycra-clad mother and nurse out for her morning ride. “Want to see a fish hatchery?” she asked suddenly as we rode towards Fresno.
Three types of trout and one species of salmon are hatched here, and long tanks house 2.5 million fish. Dams like that of the San Joaquin River (I’d camped the previous night by Lake Millerton, which had formed behind it) stopped the migration of species like the salmon upriver, and fish populations had collapsed. As a result, California’s Department of Fish and Game is now hatching the fish en masse, then loading them into trucks and releasing them in river systems all throughout the Sierra Nevada. Which means this isn’t a fish farm that feeds people, but provides sport for the legions of fishermen and fisherwomen who flock to the mountains to sink a line. The whole complex takes taxpayers’ money and pays employees just so people can keep fishing as if agricultural demand isn’t draining and diverting the fish’s natural habitat. I’m not completely sure why, but I found the whole thing a bit disturbing.
I rolled late into the little town of Orange Cove and thought I’d somehow ended up in Mexico. Signs advertised carnicerias, heladerias and taquerias, and there was very little English about. Outside Los Amigos Market I asked a balding, moustachioed man if he knew of any campgrounds in the area and when he replied that he didn’t speak English, I tried again in Spanish.
“You mean like a house?” he replied.
“Sure, if the owners are OK, I could camp in their yard?”
The guy (his name was Fernando) pulled out his phone, dialed a number and asked someone if an Australian cyclist could camp in their backyard. He offered the phone and a voice gave me directions to a house.
Stella met me out the front of her home and introduced me to her extensive family, completely nonplussed by a grimy stranger showing up at her doorstep. She fed me beef and string beans and kept a steady supply of hot tortillas on my plate, and when I ventured outside the men of the family – sons Ray and Carlos and nephew Eric – offered beer and a swig or two from a bottle of brandy. Eric thrashed out heavy metal tunes on an electric guitar while Ray noodled out pretty licks on his acoustic. He’s played in many different bands and has toured around the United States. I showered and Ray offered me his bed – he’s got a bad knee and prefers the couch.
In the morning I emerged from a bedroom I’d shared with an unseen snorer to find that Ray, nieces Becca and Britney and several children had all slept in the living room. There was a lot of people living in that house. I went with Ray to drop Eric’s daughter Brianna at school and afterwards he bought me my first ever torta from the Pollo Coritado market. A torta is basically a hollowed-out bread loaf filled with meat or chili, vegetables, cheese and guacamole. I’m not sure I’ll ever eat another burrito. When NASA sent the Voyager spacecraft out into the cosmos with information about earth and the human race for any extraterrestrial beings it might encounter, they really should have included a torta or two as a gesture of goodwill.
“What’s your cause for doing this ride?” asked Ray back in the kitchen, and I explained how my family lost Uncle Kev to pancreatic cancer and my fundraising mission.
“That’s pretty weird because, well, I’m in remission,” he replied. He’s recovering from colon cancer and putting on weight, which the doctors tell him is a good sign.
“Maybe that’s why you’re here,” he said with a smile.
Even on a trip like this one, kindness like theirs is rare.
Sunday breakfast in a fruit packing shed.
There’ve been lots of other strange little experiences along the way – camping behind an elementary school and tagging along to their Friday movie night, accepting directions and grapes from Central American workers in a vineyard (“Here, you’ll need a second bag. For balance, yes?”) and overhearing a pair of bums in Bakersfield discussing whether they should try to steal my bike, for example – but I’ll spare you the details. My fingers are tired.
So now I’m in Tehachapi, in the mountains above Bakersfield, with the Dol family’s American contingent. I’m eating myself stupid once again and preparing myself for a desert expedition before turning south and heading for Tijuana. Come Christmas (or navidad), so I’m told, a certain Robert Black will be joining me for at least the Mexican leg and possibly more. Details on that exciting development later.