California Bike Trip
Story and Photos By Sean Jansen
It had been in the back of my mind for about a year: To tour the entire European coastline by bicycle, while towing a surfboard. I wanted to start in Norway and head south via the coast until I reached the Mediterranean shores of Southern Italy.
I could follow the coast around France, Spain and Portugal, including a ferry ride into the United Kingdom and another into Ireland. I figured it would be the trip of a lifetime; getting in shape, surfing incredible waves, and taking photographs. It was a dream that I had thought about every night before I went to sleep.
However, I had a problem. I had never toured before, nor did I know anything about bicycles or the mechanics of bicycles. The way I saw it, I needed a warm-up trip. A trip I could use to test my knowledge, strength, and passion, to see if I really wanted to pursue the European touring vacation I had been dreaming about.
So it was a month before my third year at HSU. I had returned from a six-month backpacking trip through South America, which I had funded by selling my truck. I was living in my parent’s fifth-wheel R.V. trailer to save money, had no vehicle during that semester of college, and I needed a way to get home. I was looking at flights and thought the prices were outrageous.
Trains and buses were nearly out of the question, for they would take forever and in South America all I took were buses. You end up sitting next to someone for 18 hours that you really don’t want to.
Most of my friends from Southern California weren’t going to take off south in their cars until the middle of summer, so I was clearly running out of options. Until I realized that I had the perfect trip, a trip that would not only train me for my European trip, but one that would open the eyes of others. It would be a new and unique angle that had never been done before in this state: A bicycle touring trip from Eureka to San Clemente, 909 miles on pavement and dirt, all while towing a surfboard.
I got my metaphorical wheels rolling and began going to every single bike shop in Arcata. I picked their brains trying to find out everything I could about bicycle touring, trying to prepare the best I could for another epic trip. I found a shop that helped me with everything and gave me all of the information I needed for a safe, but most importantly comfortable, trip.
With the semester having ended and my 15-year-old bicycle sitting in my trailer fully loaded and ready for a long haul, I watched the Stanley Cup Play-offs and drank a glass of wine. I was in complete terror! I was asking myself, “What am I thinking?” Once I finished the glass of wine, however, I realized it was just the nervous excitement that always goes through me when I’m about to leave for a trip.
So needless to say I killed the bottle of wine, went to bed, and got peddling south the next day. I crashed at a friend’s house in Fortuna that night where I had my last “luxury meal”, which was at a brewery. I then headed the next 100-or-so miles on dirt, where the campgrounds are remote and in the thick of prime ganja growing areas.
I could have stayed on the highway, but I wanted to follow every road possible, pavement or dirt, that was within proximity to the ocean just in case I was able to find a surfable wave.
So along the Lost Coast I went, going up and down seriously difficult roads that ended up being nowhere close to the ocean. Two days later, after nearly running out of water and getting some from some hunters in the area, I made it to Shelter Cove. I went down the long three-mile road to the campground and had a warm meal. While in town I was greeted with migrating Grey Whales breaching not 100 yards from shore.
Waking up that following morning, I realized that same three-mile downhill road to Shelter Cove was also the only way out of town. I had to bike three miles strait uphill to get to the turnoff for the most difficult part of my entire trip, Usal Road.
Just reading about Usal Rd. is scary. It’s only open in the summer, and it was barely open when I got there. I remembered talking to a park ranger before the trip who told me, “You can’t go through there in wintertime. And if you do go through there on your bicycle, I want to know when you go through there and when you get out. If you don’t come out during those times, we can send a search and rescue team for you.” A bit humbling needless to say, but off I went into the Usal where I became incredibly terrified and incredibly lost. I was ignoring all the signs and just going for it.
Throughout the 25 miles that is Usal Rd., I didn’t see remnants of a single human being. The only thing I did see was scat, particularly mountain lion scat. During the three hours of dirt road through the Coastal Ranges, I would hear crackles in the forest next to me while also seeing mountain lion scat. In fact, one was still fresh and steaming on the road! You tell me if you wouldn’t be terrified. After winding down the road and finally arriving at my campground, I couldn’t help but feel relief to see campers and the ocean.
Waking up the following morning, I felt a sense of joy because I knew I only had five more miles of dirt before hitting Highway 1. As the remaining five miles wore down, I began to worry once more. I realized that I was going to be on the side of the highway, a target for any driver to hit me.
But I also knew this was to be the road that would take me home, for my parents lived off of Highway 1 about 800 miles to the south. Getting onto the pavement, I couldn’t help but raise my hands to the sky. I had made it alive through the hardest part of my trip, and now I would be on a road that would ease the pain in my behind.
On the 1, with cars, motorcycles, and motor homes flying past me, I couldn’t help but think about the freedom I had on the dirt roads, riding in the middle of the road without having to worry about cars.
I rode about 40 miles a day and tried to set up camp anywhere in a state park close to the ocean. State parks have a deal that allows touring bicyclists to camp for about $5-10, making it cheap and easy. And with me only doing about 40 miles a day, I could surf in the afternoon or the early morning without being exhausted at the end of the day.
With this concept in mind, I finally made it down the coast to San Francisco. I made it there safely, but it wasn’t without consequence. Along the Sonoma Coast, I got blown off of my bike and into the road. The wind was howling at around 60 knots, and with my trailer it didn’t take much to knock me over. There wasn’t a car coming, but as soon as I picked myself up and moved my bike out of the road a semi-truck came bawling around the corner. Aside from that, and a wild turkey scaring the living crap out of me at five in the morning, I made it to San Francisco uneventfully and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on the 75th anniversary of its construction.
After going down Geary Street and heading south through Pacifica, I hit Half Moon Bay where I had one of the best surfs of the trip. I was finally greeted with an early south swell and no strong north winds, but it was creepy because I was alone in the water and Half Moon Bay is known for shark attacks. I had a fun surf without any damage to my body and continued south to the popular surfing areas of Davenport and Santa Cruz, where I was again greeted with a swell. This time, however, there were good friends and a hot shower, the first of the trip thus far.
I stayed in Santa Cruz for a couple days to recharge all of my things, do some laundry, catch up with some old friends, and surf until the sun went down. I had some really amazing sessions with my friends and I was able to sleep on a sofa, which was like a five-star resort after about two weeks of camping. But the luxury needed to come to an end, and I needed to get my wheels rolling again for what was up ahead.
I always knew Big Sur was gorgeous. I’ve driven it many times, but I always kept driving. I never stopped to take in the details of the place. This time it took me about two days to get out of Big Sur, because I had the hardest time putting my camera away. And because it was probably the hardest part of the trip. Not a lot of flat parts in Big Sur. But it didn’t matter. It was so pretty and the surf was actually super fun, which was like icing on the cake.
South I went into Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. This stretch was not the most difficult but it was definitely the hottest. I had a friend in SLO that let me stay there to take a shower and recharge my things once again, which was quite nice since it took me about a week to get there from Santa Cruz. It was a much needed and well-deserved break, but I was soon heading into Southern California, where I began tasting home. Home where the water is warmer, it’s always sunny, and the surf is cleaner with less wind.
I made it to Santa Barbara, where I actually timed an odd west swell and had some really fun waves on the point breaks in that region. But I only stayed a day, for I had another friend in Ventura who allowed me to stay on his sofa. It was another relaxing and fun retreat from camping. We surfed and skated at midnight, bombing hills and having the time of our lives, slugging beers on the roof and just catching up on times that were lost due to college. It was my much-needed but final stop of ‘friend’s places to crash at’ until I hit my parents’ house about 100 miles to the south.
I continued south to the hell that is Los Angeles. The translation in Spanish is ‘The Angels’, but I don’t understand how with all the asshole drivers that thrive there. Just reaching Malibu, which is on the outskirts of the city, is dangerous enough with all the Ferraris and BMWs flying by at mach speed. But reaching Santa Monica was a nightmare, with traffic galore and no one moving over when they had space. I guess it was my, “welcome to Southern California” greeting.
Once I did get to Santa Monica though, there was an 18-mile boardwalk along the beach which allows cyclists to cruise the strips from Venice Beach to Palos Verdes. It was a safe passage, away from traffic and surrounded by the social life of tourists, locals, and cycling enthusiasts. Unfortunately, there weren’t any campgrounds between there and home, so I was forced into a hotel. I discovered that there were hostels in the area, but only after I had already left.
I woke up the next morning and met up with a friend to shoot some surf photos before continuing south. Next was a ten-mile stretch through the hell that is Long Beach before I reached Seal Beach. Riding through there, I knew I only had one more night of the trip before reaching my hometown of San Clemente. Going through the ghettos of Los Angeles before Seal Beach and the hotel I was to stay at, I couldn’t help but recognize the differences in the state. I started in Humboldt, where the redwood trees meet the sea, and ended in Orange County, a metropolis of Republicans and overpriced coffee shops. Arriving at my hotel in Seal Beach, I sat in my room and stared at the ceiling with a sense of sadness. It’s funny how before the trip started, I was terrified. Now that it was my last evening, I didn’t want it to end.
I didn’t sleep much that evening and woke up early in hopes of beating the Saturday beach traffic. Peddling with a sense of urgency and desire to get home, I raced through to Laguna and Dana Point. On an overlook, I could see my hometown and the San Clemente pier that I surf when I’m home. I couldn’t believe I had done it.
However, I had a little excitement and relief before I made it home. I had considered Usal Rd. to be the scariest part of the trip, but I rescind that comment because the closest I came to dying was in my hometown, a mile from my parent’s house. I could taste home when suddenly a guy in a brand new Mercedes Benz flew by me going at least 10-15 miles-per-hour over the speed limit, and his mirror hit my arm almost throwing me underneath his car. I proceeded to give him the middle finger, and I could see him shaking his head in his mirror like it was my fault. I had to shake it off because I could see my street.
I reached the top of my parents’ street and stopped. Smiling from ear to ear, I began cruising down the street where I was to pull into my parents’ driveway and throw my bike down. I didn’t care anymore, I had made it! I remember laughing and seeing my parents’ neighbor coming over with a cold beer. It was 11:30 in the morning and I didn’t care, I slugged it. I couldn’t believe that I had done it, and couldn’t believe I’d done it without getting injured.
One month and thirteen days, 37 days camped, 29 days surfed, 909 miles and a trip that I would do all over again if I could. All of the people I stayed with and the fellow touring cyclists I met along the way made my trip possible. I couldn’t have done it without them.
The state of California is a great one with a variety of landscapes and culture, with the redwoods to the north and the metropolis of the south. A great trip, a varied trip, and a test trip that I was hoping would prepare me for Europe.
But now that I’ve done California, Europe isn’t even on my mind anymore. The State of California offered me experiences and photos that I didn’t know were possible. After travelling a ton previously and thinking that the states were boring and cultureless, this trip changed my perspective. As a friend of mine said, a world traveler herself, “You made California cool!”
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