Riding the Coast

Way back in high school I somehow got the wild idea to ride a bicycle down the entire West Coast, from the Canadian to Mexican borders. Well why not? Summer was coming, I was all of 17 years old, born and raised on the Orange County Coast, with a yearning to see broader vistas.

I had a heavy funky old Schwinn Varsity 10-speed and liked it well enough but it occurred to me I might be able to scam a new one. I vaguely knew the guys at a local bike shop so went in to ask them if they, or maybe a bike company, might “sponsor” me to some extent with at least part of a new bike for the ride, in exchange for some advertising featuring my epic journey. To my surprise they were open to it, and although the details are now fuzzy I wound up with a new Raleigh touring bike, a white-framed beauty with a prized Reynolds 531 steel frame, the good stuff, worth about $250.00 in mid-1970s dollars (at least twice what the Schwinn would cost). Now I was committed. "Don't forget to take some pictures" said my shop pal.

As luck would have it, some friends were heading northward in a new VW camper van. We first hit Yosemite’s wonders, then headed northward, camping along the way. At the Canadian border, out I went. It was drizzly and bleak and home was over 1200 miles south and suddenly I felt like an idiot. But off I went, heading westward around the Olympic Peninsula to the Pacific Coast and southward.

The Washington and Oregon coasts went by quickly - too quickly, as the skies cleared and it was altogether gorgeous, but with a strong tailwind in the afternoons that pushed me along. I’d ride up and down mostly gentle hills, with sweeping vistas of stunning coastal cliffs and waves and green forest, stopping at small town markets to guzzle a quart of milk and keep going. The new hit song “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot was playing from radios all along the way. This was before bike touring became a common thing, and I wore old clothes, a baseball cap, tennis shoes. People were very friendly and curious about how far I'd gone and how far I was going. My legs were deep brown and the lower part of my face was too, where the cap didn't shade me from the sun.

I “camped,” if that’s the right word for tossing down a ratty sleeping bag just off the road someplace with crashing surf below, a few nights along the way, past Crescent City, Arcata and gloomy Eureka and then once into California Highway 101 turned inland a bit and it got hot. Really hot, July hot, not good for riding but I plugged along, through the welcome shade of the Avenue of the Giants, marveling at those trees, jumping in the Eel River for the first of what would be countless times in my life, and riding on. Sweat sometimes poured off my face under my soggy baseball cap, and my ratty shorts were even wetter and funkier.

At Leggett, Highway One coastward began, and so did a harrowing overheated long climb, bedeviled by giant logging trucks. Somewhere near the top the sun set and I pulled my bike off into the trees and flopped down, spent, for a restless sleep. Only a few cars or trucks went by all night. Mosquitoes made a meal of me but thankfully I was so tired I hardly noticed.

Dawn was welcome and I stuffed my bag into its sack, bunjy-corded it onto the rear rack, and headed south. Thankfully it was now downhill all the way to the coast, the temperature never rising far as I rounded the last curve and there was the welcome Pacific, even in morning fog. The winding road down to Fort Bragg was easy. It seemed so bucolic and beautiful; I had no inkling of dark deeds that had transpired along that stretch and passed one canyon where a decade later I would find myself in the midst of some of the most chaotic debauchery I've witnessed. But I made it to Fort Bragg happily and there I got quarts of both orange juice and milk and drank them both down. Heading onward south, again the scenery became wonderful, a dramatic rugged but lush wildness unlike anything I’d grown up with far to the south.

I stopped in Mendocino village, scenic to the point of parody, with hip-looking people hanging around, looking to be in no hurry. I bought some dates and a small bit of bulk peanut butter and went down to some benches I’d seen near the beach cliff for lunch. And then, in no hurry myself, passed out blissfully in the sun, the sound of waves below.

When I awoke it was quite late in the afternoon; I must have been tired. I saddled up and headed down the highway. Before long a thick dark grey fog bank rolled in with the growing wind, and then darkness itself came on, quickly. I'd have to find a spot to sleep before long. Locating suitably comfortable but private sleeping spots became much harder at night.

As I grinded my way up a long incline, a pickup truck flew by me, then its brake lights came on and the driver pulled over a dozen yards ahead. I rolled up cautiously as a man got out and waved me down. "Hey!" he said. "Where are you heading?"

"Well, Mexico, actually" I replied, and we both laughed.

"Not tonight you aren't!" he said, and then "Listen, it's gonna be a wet nasty night and I caught a lot of good fish today and live just up the road. If you want you can stay with me and my girlfriend and I'll drop you back off on the highway early in the morning, as I'm going out fishing again."

I checked him out. Seemed nice enough. And he was right that it looked to be a damp one. Plus a hot shower would be really, really nice. "Well, OK, why not?" I said, and lifted my bike into the bed of his pickup. Once in, talk was easy; his name was Ron and he mainly wanted to know what and why the hell I was doing this ride "That's crazy, I love it" he enthused. He was 27, really old, and seemed to have things together, confident and funny and competent, like.

A few miles down we turned up a smaller road and went just a mile or so up into the woods, then onto a gravel driveway up to a fine-looking wooden house. "Listen, my girlfriend's a real bitch, she's got that Indian thing, and our roommate's a weird one too but things will be cool. We can leave all the tackle and our bike in the truck but help with that cooler, it's heavy." I thought, OK, wonder what I've gotten into here, but we oomphed the big cooler up to the house and went right in.

He was right about his girlfriend. She was stunning, looked to be Native American with black eyes and black hair beyond her waist, but took one dark look at me then at Ron, wordlessly, until he said "This is Steve, he's riding his bike all the way from Canada to Mexico, can you dig that?" It seemed she couldn't, as she just walked out of the kitchen. I got the impression I might be just one more straggling stray her man had brought home. Ron shrugged at me and said, quietly, "See what I mean? Doubt she and I will last much longer, but well, you see what I mean, man..." and gave me an evil leer. I wasn't sure I did but didn't say anything as we opened some beers and set to the fish, big ones, and I was glad my dad had taught me all things fishing as I could talk with Ron about where he'd located them, what kind of tackle, bait, boat, etc. and even gut and clean one deftly. I could tell he was impressed. He went out to fire up the coals and while he was gone, the back door opened and another woman came in.

"Oops, uh, hi" she said, slightly startled. "Hi, I'm Steve" I said by way of explanation. "Ron found me riding my bike down the highway and invited me for dinner." She looked me over and smiled, cheerily said "Well, ok then!" and got herself a beer from the fridge. "I'm Amy." Amy was what might be called plain, especially next to Ron's girl, whose name I hadn't even caught in the glare of her looks. But Amy liked to talk and we went out to hang with Ron as he tossed the big fillets on the grill and brushed on homemade sauce from a coffee can. He offered that he regularly caught enough fish to sell to local markets and restaurants and feed his household, with plenty left over. I've got hundreds of pounds frozen here and would make you take some if you weren't on a damn bike," he laughed.

Suffice it to say dinner was superb. Ron's girlfriend came out to sit and eat with us, looking like Rita Coolidge I'd decided, but didn't say much. Ron, Amy and I yacked it up, drinking first beer, then wine, then a bottle of Johnny Walker he produced. Then, sitting on couches, he rolled up some local product and I found myself stuffed, stoned, and sloshed. Ron's girlfriend vanished without a goodnite. Ron went into the kitchen and started to do dishes so, feeling guilty, I jumped up to join him. I wound up drying. "Listen, man, none of my business but beware of Amy," he offered. "She's OK but I wouldn't go there, but well, up to you." Startled, I likely blushed, but just said, "Oh, umm, ok.. thanks."

Ron showed me my room, said a hearty goodnite, said he'd see me about 5:30 in the morning and vanished. I went back into the living room, where Amy still sat quietly, and sat down. We started talking some more. She asked me about the ride, and why I was doing it by myself. "Hmm, because nobody else is crazy enough to do it with me?" I replied. "Well I think it's great, it builds character," she said. I had no idea what that might mean but realized I was really tired and really wanted that shower, so I told her so, and said goodnight.

The hot water felt heavenly. I stood there for quite awhile, just feeling it. Then suddenly the bathroom light went out. I thought Bummer, power failure, but a quiet voice said "Hi again." I stood there frozen in place in the pitch dark as the shower door opened and someone stepped in. I felt a finger pressed to my lips. "Shhhh" she said, and giggled. And then hands gently on my shoulders, and then a kiss, and then a slow slick embrace all over, and then hands wandering around and down, and then a something I had never experienced before. Overwhelming, really. It didn't last long. She couldn't have found it too rewarding, it seemed to me, not that I knew much about what to think at that tender age. I might have semi-shouted at one point, and almost fell down, helpless. Then I was leaning dazed and panting up against the shower wall as the water still came down.

I heard another giggle, then the shower door, then a bit of rustling of a towel, and then she was gone. After a bit I rinsed off the rest of the shampoo and soap and got out, dried off, dressed again, brushed my teeth, and walked out. Nobody was still around and only a dim light was on. I just stood there for a time, then, no other option, went to bed.

Ron knocked on my door before dawn, said only "UP!" and I jumped up, got my shoes on, and headed into the kitchen where the light was. "Hey man, how'd you sleep?" he said, pouring me coffee he'd already made and tossing down a bowl for cereal, all set out too. "Really good!" I said. He looked at me, smiling. "Shower good too?" he said, chewing. "Oh yeah, perfect, it had been too long," I answered. "Right, I bet" he said, then we set to chewing, and I sensed there wasn't much time before we had to hit the road; fish were waiting.

Back down to the highway, the daylight coming on, we rode in silence until hitting the intersection with the highway. He pulled over, saying just "OK!"

I said OK too, got out, pulled my bike and bags over the edge of the pickup bed, and stood there, woozy. He came around and held out his hand, saying "Have a good ride!" I nodded, wanting to ask him something but even then not stupid enough to do so, so I just said thanks for everything, and as he pulled off he winked at me and said "Everything? Don't forget to write!" and roared off northward.

I watched him go, got on my bike, and started riding, slowly. It was chilly but not too bad and I slowly built up some momentum. I went along until I hit the next village, which might have been Elk, and thought it would be nice to get something hot to drink. At a small market there was a deck with an old-timer (I mean, in retrospect, like at least fifty or so) sitting in a rocking chair, like of of some old movie. I went in, got a cup of coffee which I rarely drank yet, filled it with half-and-half, and went back outside. "Nice bike" said the old guy. "Reynolds 531?" I laughed out loud, said yessir, and we were chatting about my ride while sipping our coffee. At one point I asked him about the road ahead, remarking on how winding it had been. "You think that's been something?" he laughed. "You'll find the next part crookeder than a dog's hind leg." I laughed, and then he added "But the most dangerous thing around here? The women!" and he guffawed.

He was right about the road. But I made it over 500 miles south, down through Marin and over that famous bridge and into the fabled city where I wanted to see the fabled Haight Street but it was a derelict, even scary wasteland; then down through Big Sur and the rest of the way to boring old Orange County. I'd been gone about three weeks but it was still summer and a friend there said "Hey, where you been?" "Riding down the coast, all the way from Canada!" I replied. "Bullshit," he said. Whatever. But in some way I felt I wasn't a kid anymore. I wasn't to stay living there much longer, and became a Northern California denizen the rest of my life. 

I did take some photos, but the bike company, or the store, or both, didn't want to use them or my story for their marketing. Maybe I looked a little too ratty and longhaired to be a good clean bike spokesmodel. I kept the bike though, and rode it on the east coast, all over Europe and Great Britain and Ireland and even into Africa, and it sits, beaten and bent but too good to toss out, somewhere in the back of my garage. And I didn't remember to write until now, closing in on half a century later. But some things you just remember.

4 Responses to "Riding the Coast"

  1. Cindy   May 29, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    A great story about a grand adventure!

    Reply
  2. Marc Tenzel   May 30, 2020 at 7:54 am

    Steve give us more.

    Reply
  3. Paul Modic   May 31, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Nice, I love a good travel story and you delivered.
    Hey, you even got the girl!
    I showed another of my stories to a friend once and he said, “No one wants to read about a guy who never gets laid.”
    Damn, dude, great memory! (Like I remember meeting you and your lady in the lobby of the Benbow about 20-30 years ago during Reggae or Summer Arts.)
    As I was typing up my memoirs a few years ago I realized that I would have remembered less than ten% of the details if I hadn’t written it all down at the time.

    Reply
  4. Mardi Wood   July 11, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Great Steve,
    I loved it!
    I miss you…and will miss you with Shuggie…
    Hope tp see you soon!
    Love to you,
    Mardi

    Reply

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