Big Sur Bike Tour – Part I

A solo bike tour is a luxury for me. I’ve done only a few but each one has embossed memories on my psyche deeper than can be imagined. Having just returned from my recent trip, I’m still sorting out the lessons learned from among the details of the week. I hope to be able to wring some of those scattered impressions into a coherent essay or two but until I’ve got that done, I’ve tapped out some memories in a few parts so you could do a little armchair travel with me. I’ll have a post a day until the trip is done. Here’s the first installment:

Big Picture

big sur salinas station

The Salinas Amtrak Station

Route: I traveled from Portland, OR to Salinas, CA on Amtrak. Then, traveled by bike from Salinas to San Luis Obispo where Amtrak returned me to Portland.

Gear: I ride a 29er mountain bike with slick tires and pull a Burley Nomad trailer. I’ve used traditional drop-bar touring bikes with panniers in the past but currently prefer this set-up for its versatility, comfort, and adaptability to road surface and terrain. And, indeed, that MTB configuration did come in handy on a less than bike-friendly bike path my first day out, and on a forest service road later in the trip.

Day One: Misdirected in Headwinds

It all started off beautifully.

After de-boarding the train and getting my bike gear in order, I popped into the first little restaurant I could find in Salinas, California. I’d just spent about 24 hours on the train so I was STARVING and I was preparing to ride about 20 miles to my first campsite, Veteran’s Memorial Park,  in Monterey. I needed fuel and had no patience for cruising the town.

This little cafe would do just fine – on the window it said, “Tamales, Pozole, Menudo”.  Yum! Mexican food; the perfect bike touring fuel! The cafe turned out to be a very authentic Mexican restaurant indeed. I walked in and everyone stared at me. After an awkward silence and lots of staring a gentleman finally asked, “What do you want?” When I said I wanted to eat everyone seemed to relax, at least that’s what I think the smiles meant. I ordered a couple of tacos, and had a simple conversation with the proprietor who said she knew absolutely no English. My Spanish is barely fluent – basically I can order food, and take care of personal matters but that’s about it. But, she complimented my on my Spanish, and seemed really happy that this strange Caucasian cyclist had stopped in. It’s the kind of experience that makes bike touring fun and memorable. I was so happy to have started the trip on such a good note

The day continued well. I left the restaurant and immediately through luck found my way to a bike route that led me to the edge of town and the highway that would take me to the coast and Highway 1. Beautiful! But that’s where things took a turn. OR should I say, that’s where my route turned into the wind; directly into the wind. I’m not talking about a gentle breeze or a lovely little draft, this was full on-in-your-face wind and it turned what should have been an easy ride into a death march.

I played my best cycling mind games and tried to distract myself from the difficulty of making progress and eventually I found myself, after much effort, past the Salinas River and  closing in on the coast. Only a few more miles and I’d be on the bike path that parallels Highway 1 South. BUT, I missed a turn. That wrong move put me onto a busy four-lane road with short sight distance, high-speed traffic, and no shoulder. NO SHOULDER.

I had no business touring on this road so I turned to cut through the first residential street I passed. I wasn’t lost, I knew where I wanted to go, and knew I could cut through this neighborhood and arrive at the bike route. However, some government entity had other ideas. For some reason about a mile into that plan, a very official looking fence blocked the road, the sidewalks and any through-way. I turned around and tried another approach. Same problem.  After a third attempt I asked directions and was pointed to a path that skirted the residential area and took me back to a major intersection that I’d passed earlier. As much as I hated back-tracking, I did it anyway. And hate it I did.

The path turned out to be a disaster. Rare use had rendered it barely passable as sand and plants had resettled it for large stretches. I found myself pushing my bike and trailer through deep sand in some spots. In others I was riding through scrub and getting scratches from the overhanging branches. At one spot, I swear, I heard a rattlesnake and was joyous that I was past it by the time I figured out what it was.

big sur sand beach

A view of the ocean, at last!

Finally, back on course but back into the wind, I carried on. Eventually, I recognized my surroundings and relaxed and connected with the bike route south. Having the wind out of my face for the first time since Salinas was a relief. It was smooth sailing into Monterey from here.  As I finally viewed the ocean as Sand City I smiled inside knowing, yes, this is the rhythm of bike touring: just when you think things are too rough, it gets easy (and sometimes vice-versa).

The day ended on a very up-note. As I headed into Monterey, I decided I wanted to visit the Monterey Aquarium the next day. That would require stashing my gear somewhere so I decided to check out the Monterey Hostel. As I pedaled its way, I met some cycle tourists from Germany  who were in need of directions to the local camp ground. I gave them directions but also told them about the hostel. They arrived there minutes after I did and also stayed an extra day in order to take in the aquarium.  As it turns out, we were to become friends over the next few days.  So, all in all a good day of bike touring as all of the requisite experiences occurred -ups, downs, challenges, smooth sailing, and meeting other cyclists.


2 thoughts on “Big Sur Bike Tour – Part I

  1. Sorry to hear that your cycling trip started in such a disconcerting manner! However, that is the lot of the touring cyclist from time to time. Missing a critical turnoff is so easy to do and can make a trip quite challenging!
    I am pleased things got back on track though and you enjoyed the close of the day’s riding.

    • Oh, those challenges are indeed just a part of bike touring. And I’m a believer that without the cold, one can’t feel warm. In other words while I do highlight the situation a bit here, in reality I do take it in stride and overall it does contribute to the experience. I tour to push myself – usually to open my eyes. Sometimes that means opening my eyes to what I can do. So, usually, in retrospect I find a way to be grateful for those challenges and what they teach me.

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