Monday, 9 November 2009

The End

I turned back from Mexico 4 days ago and have spent the time considering my next move. It seemed my knees were not getting better in a hurry and it was too expensive and boring to sit around in a hotel waiting to get back to full fitness. I also felt like I'd had enough of cycling by myself. It was only this morning when I finally decided to book a flight home. As soon as the flight was booked I knew I'd done the right thing. I miss everybody back home. I've now been away long enough that I can sit here and dream about home in the same way that a few months ago I would sit at home and dream of being out here.

I felt pretty low after leaving Mexico. It seemed like a big failure. With some perspective and the support of family and friends back home I can now start to look at the wider scale of what I've achieved. I made it from Canada to Mexico using only pedal power, carrying everything I needed (and a bit more) on the bike. I slept almost every night in a tent. When I started the trip I could hardly sleep for fear of bear attack. By the end of the trip I would sleep like a baby, preferring my tent to any other accommodation. I met hundreds of wonderful people, a few of which became great friends. I saw bears, whales, seals, eagles, vultures, hummingbirds, snakes, lizards and far too many raccoons. I was fairly sure when I started that I was about to have the time of my life. To begin with such high expectations and then far exceed them is quite something.

I was a little worried that after this trip I may just return to my normal life dissatisfied, wanting to continue riding forever and exploring new places. What I actually feel now having spent 2 and half months away from my real life is a renewed appreciation and enthusiasm for all the wonderful things that await me back in England.

I should perhaps also mention the importance of this blog. It's not always been easy to find the time to write an account of each day's events but I have tried hard to document every day. When everything was changing all the time and I was experiencing so many new things I would find it hard to remember what had happened the day before. For this reason it was important to me to get it all written down somewhere. To my surprise many people found it interesting to keep up with my adventures and provide messages of support. This was a constant source of motivation for me whenever things became difficult. It was almost like I had an invisible support team just behind me. If you're reading this, thank you.

Here are some statistics about my trip you may find interesting:

Total miles ridden: 2,277
Highest elevation: 2,000 feet
Days when it rained: 3
Nights when it rained: 3
Punctures: 1
Bike problems: broken rear wheel rim
Campgrounds stayed at: 50 (or thereabouts)
Border crossings: 4
Flip-flops lost or broken: 2
Beard growth: 16mm

Friday, 6 November 2009

Mexican Meltdown - Day 65 – 55 miles

My plan was to reach the city of Ensenada 72 miles away so an early start was required. I loaded up my bike with my own bodyweight in water and left my hotel. I was a little nervous on the roads to begin with. The roads around Tecate were full of large potholes and busy at 7.30am. It took me a bit of trial and error to get on the highway to Ensenada. It seems signposts for major highways on Mexican roads are a little sporadic. I was hoping to roll down the the other side of the mountain I'd worked so hard to climb a few days before. It appeared there was more elevation to gain before descending into Baja's wine-making valley. Disappointingly, despite a day's rest my knee felt worse than ever. It's a little scary to be embarking on a 1,000 mile bike journey with a bad knee at the best of times. With Baja's population being almost entirely based in the north and with mostly desert to the south I was going in the wrong direction to be near a hospital. I knew there would be no shoulder to ride on and a lot of trucks but I thought that I was starting on a bit of a quiet backroad. The trucks were big and fast and flew by sometimes with only inches to spare. The road is only big enough for 2 trucks to pass each other in opposite directions. There is no additional space for a bike. Every now and then a truck would pass when a vehicle was passing in the other direction. I was forced to teeter dangerously on the edge of the road. Much of the time the edge of the road drops straight off to a steep slope. If forced off the road onto this slope I would certainly come off the bike.

I can't say I wasn't prepared for any of these things. The guide book I bought in San Diego specifically advises against cycling Baja because of the road conditions. Perhaps foolishly I thought with my London riding experience I was prepared for anything. The thing I was not prepared for were the dogs. Once out of the city I found myself riding through farmland. Every mile or so I would pass a farm. Each of these farms would have at least 1 dog, usually 2 or more. Almost without fail the dogs would be free to roam onto the road. My first encounter was with 2 nasty looking large mongrels. They ran out onto the road barking and chasing me. My limited previous experience with dogs has taught me that they can't be outrun uphill or on the flat. I tried slowing down in the hope they'd lose interest in the chase. As I slowed another dog appeared from a farm on the other side of the road. I thought my number was up. I had 2 dogs in front and one behind. Luckily the third dog started chasing the other dogs and distracted them from chasing me. As I cycled away a truck sped by honking at the dogs. I didn't look back but I guess they had a narrow escape.

I passed a dead kitten at the side of the road. With all the unrestrained pets on the highway I wasn't surprised to see this kind of domestic roadkill.

It was quite foggy and a little chilly at times. Quite a contrast from the last couple of clear hot days I'd experienced in Mexico.

As I continued on I was regularly passed at uncomfortably close distances by vehicles. To give them credit many of the lorry drivers gave me plenty of room but much of the time it simply wasn't possible for them to do so because of the width of the road.

I passed another farm and another hungry dog. I'm not generally afraid of dogs but in a country where rabies is a real problem you can't afford to be complacent. If I was bitten by one of these dogs I would have to flag down a passing vehicle and hope they would take me to a hospital to receive a rabies shot. If this happened I may have to leave my bike and belongings at the side of the road. The dog chased me, barking and jumping at me, only a few inches from my exposed leg. With shoes clipped into the pedals I felt even more vulnerable to any potential lunge from the dog. A truck passed in the other direction scaring the dog away. This was truly horrible. I was so afraid I began to cry.

I started to question my motives for coming to Mexico. Unlike my trip through Canada and the US I had few things I really wanted to see here. I was of course interested in experiencing Mexican culture, riding in the desert and improving my Spanish. Was this worth putting myself in real danger for?

After another couple of miles another pair of dogs came at me, the biggest and most determined so far. One was at my heel and the other in front of me. I was descending a steep hill. It was hard to avoid the dogs whilst trying to keep from swerving dangerously in the road. I got up enough speed to escape the dogs and then pulled off the road onto a sandy lay-by. I could see another even larger black dog wandering about on the side of the road further down the hill. This was too much. I stepped off my bike and sobbed. Had I not been alone this may have been a manageable, even funny situation but as it was I was really afraid. I'd only covered 15 miles. I had another 60 miles of farming country to cover today. At my current rate that would be another 30 dogs pursuing me before the day was out.

Cycling in Mexico from Jon Stanley on Vimeo.

I called my girlfriend. I needed support. I told her I was ready to turn back. It was hard to even think about turning back after all I'd put into the planning of this Mexican part of the trip. I needed to make a decision. I sat on a rock and tried to weigh up the pros and cons. I really couldn't think of many good reasons to continue. Certainly nothing worth risking my safety over. My only reason to continue would be not to appear a coward. Had I been with someone else I'm sure I would have carried on but this wasn't something I could do by myself. Having spent 2 months deliberating over whether Mexico was worth the risk or not I now knew the answer. My main concerns coming into Mexico had been the violent drug-related crime. In the end it was the dogs, traffic and knee pain that turned out to be the more tangible reasons for not continuing further into Mexico. Had I ridden south for another 2 weeks I'm fairly sure the traffic would have improved. I suspect the knee pain would have only worsened. As for the dogs I would have probably armed myself with pepper spray and left a series of blind dogs in my wake. It took me nearly an hour of sobbing on a rock at the side of the road to come to this decision. It was too late to come out of this looking like a tough guy.

I turned my bike around and headed back the way I'd come. I once again ran the gauntlet of dogs, this time ready to kick them in the face if they got too close. I was willing to risk a bite now for a slice of a revenge. At least I was heading in the direction of the hospitals now.

Back in Tecate I remembered I'd withdrawn a ton of Pesos not knowing when the next cashpoint would be. I visited one of the rip-off money changers on the border, not caring that I was getting a terrible exchange rate. I was ready to leave Mexico as soon as possible. At the border I was confused. I could see no exit and there was nobody around to point me in the right direction. I knew I was doing the wrong thing but decided to go for it anyway. There were traffic cones blocking traffic from exiting through the border but on a bike I could avoid the cones. I cycled across the border back into America. I was of course immediately set upon by an armed US border guard. 'What are you doing?', he asked incredulously. 'Am I going the wrong way?', I replied trying to sound as if I'd made an innocent mistake. He told me to go back through the border and pointed at the correct US entry point. I'd illegally entered the US. It was quite exciting. Had I been Mexican I would have most likely been pinned to the floor with a gun held to my head. Apologies to any Mexicans who followed my advice a few days back about Tecate being an easy place to sneak across the border.

I pushed my bike through the pedestrian gate and entered the US border entry office. The border police looked at me with disbelief. What had I done wrong now? I don't think they'd ever seen anybody arrive by bike before. 'Where do you think you're going?', the border guard asked. 'America!', I replied chirpily. He looked me up and down and asked to see my passport. He asked me where I'd been. I explained about my intentions to cycle to the end of the peninsula until the dogs started chasing me. He laughed. He proceeded with a few of the usual tricksy American border questions. Being interviewed by an American border guard is a bit like playing a game of chess with a 10 year old. I passed the test and was allowed back into the States. To their credit the border guards all seemed concerned about my safety and wanted to make sure I knew where I was going. I didn't. I was a man without a plan. As I walked through customs I panicked for a moment when I saw a dog running around. Luckily it was of the cocaine sniffing rather than the rabid Mexican bike chasing variety.

I had no map of the US. My detailed map of Mexico was of no use to me now. I decided to head for Joshua Tree National Park which had been my original plan B had I decided no to go to Mexico at all. I put it into my GPS and saw that it was 200 miles away. I followed the route for the next 15 miles but it was a struggle. Both of my knees were hurting and my mental well-being had taken quite a beating. I felt like I'd let myself and everyone who has supported me on this trip down by turning back so early from Mexico.

I decided the best plan of action was to head to a motel and take some time to plan my next move. The route to Joshua Tree was quite remote and probably through the desert. This didn't seem like a good day to get stranded in the desert so I headed back towards San Diego and found a motel on the outskirts of the city.

As I write this I still have no idea what my next move will be. I don't believe I'm in a good enough physical state to embark on any serious cycling right now so I need to consider my options.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

An Englishman in Tecate - Day 64 – Rest Day

I decided to take the day off. I had to sort out my visa and I wasn't really sure where I was headed yet. I visited the tourist office in the centre of Tecate. I had expected the staff there to speak English what with it being tourist information office. The young lady didn't speak English. I am actually quite pleased to find out so far that most people I've come into contact with don't speak English. It forces me to improve my Spanish which is one of my main goals while visiting Mexico. I asked whether I could get my tourist card here. She told me I didn't need one. This is true for most visitors. You can spend a week in the Northwest of Baja without any paperwork at all. I explained I was travelling to the end of the peninsula and would be staying a month. She told me I needed to visit the immigration office at the border.

I walked back to the border where I'd entered Mexico the day before. The immigration office was well hidden, I think perhaps you are supposed to visit the office as you enter the border. To get to the office I had to go around the back of a building and walk down a pathway in the opposite direction to a series of arrows painted on the pavement. I was aware that to a border guard I could appear to be sneaking back into America. I prepared myself to be taken out by a sniper or set upon by a guard dog. None of this happened of course. I got the impression it would actually be quite easy to sneak back into America from here. Nobody was paying me any attention at all. If any Mexicans are reading this and are interested in illegally entering the United States I suggest rather than risking your life digging under the fence or swimming across the ocean, just pay a visit to the Tecate border and casually walk through. I found the office and spoke to a young lady who seemed a little unsure about her work. She asked to see my passport and then spent a long time flicking idly through the pages. She spent the longest time studying the page at the back where I've written details of my next of kin. She asked if I was Canadian. She was holding my clearly labelled British passport in her hand. I filled out a form and handed it back to her. She explained that I needed to visit a bank to pay the fee of about £15 and then return with a receipt.

At the bank the cashier seemed quite excited to meet someone from England. I don't think they get many English people coming through Tecate.

I returned to the immigration office and had my passport stamped. I was allowed to stay for 180 days. I found out today that Baja California is the second longest peninsula in the world but I hope it won't take 6 months to cycle the length of it.

Back at my hotel I took a long nap. I then spent a few hours trying to work out where to cycle to tomorrow. There appears to be a few campsites in the wine-making region I'll ride through on my way to Ensenada, the next city. I may stop at one of these or continue on the 72 miles to Ensenada and get another hotel. I'm still not really sure how much water, food and money I need to carry. I am hoping that 4.5 litres of water will be enough to get me to the next place where I can refill. No doubt everything will become a lot clearer once I actually get going.

Mexico! - Day 63 – 42 miles

I could pretend to be tough and say that I was looking forward to entering Mexico. I wasn't looking forward to it at all, I was dreading it. I'd stayed up late reading every piece of information about cycling in Mexico I could find on the Internet. I couldn't find a single person who'd crossed the border on a bike at Tecate, my chosen border crossing. I can only assume this has something to do with the fact that Tecate sits on top of a 2,000 feet high mountain range. I didn't know what was waiting for me in Mexico. I was scared of the unknown. I had been fed horror stories by so many people throughout this trip about the violence in Mexico. It was hard not to be afraid. I tried to take my advice only from cyclists who have actually ridden Baja. On the whole their experiences seemed to be very positive and trouble free.

I was up early but managed to spend to whole morning getting things ready. Part of my preparation involved the bumification of myself and the bike. Don't try and look up 'bumification' in the dictionary, you won't find it. It's a term I invented meaning to make things look roughed up a bit so as to appear not worth stealing. I was pretty much bumified already. My beard is now fairly wild and capable of storing large pieces of food for extended periods of time. I'm so tanned that I could pass for a slightly odd-looking Mexican. My bike and bags needed a little work though. I set about scratching off some of the decals on the bike frame. I also added a few pieces of gaffer tape to my panniers to make them look like they were falling apart.

It was after 11am by the time I was ready to leave. I said goodbye and thanks to Beth and Brian, my wonderful San Diego hosts. As I cycled through some of the more unpleasant neighbourhoods of San Diego I started to do a little mental arithmetic. It would be dark just before 5pm and I had just over 40 miles to cover. Normally this would be fine but the ride to Tecate was a non-stop climb meaning my average speed would be very low. Rolling into a Mexican border town and looking for a hotel in the dark was just not an option. I had to ride as fast as I could all day with no stops to have any chance of making it.

Once out of the urban sprawl of San Diego everything suddenly turned to desert. Things are artificially green in the city thanks to sprinklers. Out of the sprinkler's reach are miles of barren, rocky, mountainous desert. I'd never seen anything like this before. This is the kind of thing I was hoping to see in Mexico and given that I was now only a few miles from the Mexican border it was really no surprise that everything looked a little bit Mexican.

The climbing began very gently. I spent the next 20 miles gently climbing to nearly 2,000 feet. I was disappointed but unsurprised to find that my right knee was still a little painful. The road felt very remote. I could see for many miles and there was no sign of civilisation anywhere. Just beautiful scorched mountains. I wished I could stop to take a photo at so many points in the ride but I simply couldn't waste a second. It was too dangerous to risk missing the light. I casually began looking for wild camping spots at the side of the road just in case I didn't make it to Mexico in time.

I passed a police checkpoint. They were checking every car heading in the opposite direction, I assume for illegal Mexicans and drugs that had just come across the border.

I had one last 1,000 foot steep climb before reaching the border. The light was fading, I only had another 30 minutes of light remaining and I didn't know how long it would take to get past the border. I entered Tecate, California. This is basically a large car and truck park rather than a proper town. I rolled through looking for the border. I saw a few open gates with Mexico written on top in large letters. Through the gates I could see a busy town. This was it. I didn't know where I was supposed to go and nobody was there to tell me so I followed a car through the 'nothing to declare' gate. The whole time I was waiting for an armed official to stop me and ask to see my passport and check inside my bags. Nobody even looked at me. I just cycled under the Mexico sign and into Tecate, Mexico. I stopped and looked around waiting for someone to shout at me for illegally entering the country without showing my passport. I started to wonder whether this was really Mexico or just another American town before the 'real' border. I continued down the road into the bustling town. This was clearly Mexico. Everything was a bit shabby and all the shops were falling apart a little. It's so strange to be thrust so suddenly from the top of a deserted mountain into the heart of a busy Mexican town. I'd memorised the map of the town to allow me to reach my hotel without having to look at a map. I hate getting a map out in a busy and potentially dangerous place as it makes you a target for any bad people that may be lurking around. I found the hotel El Paraiso without any trouble. Had this windowless building been in England I would have assumed it was abandoned. It was extremely run down and a bit scary looking. I considered for a moment whether I should look for somewhere else. It was late and everything else looked equally run down so I figured this was where I would stay. I wheeled my bike in and got ready to wheel out my rusty Spanish. I said hello to the lady on reception and asked if they had any single rooms available. The words were a little slow to come out and I stumbled a little but she understood me which was a good start. She said there were rooms available and gave me the price in Pesos. I didn't have any Pesos yet and had been advised by some guys in a San Diego bike shop to pay in US dollars where possible. I asked for the price in dollars. It was going well. I understood her and she understood me. I was having a proper conversation in Spanish! It was $19 which seemed pretty cheap to me. She asked if I'd like to take a look at the room. I didn't really, I was pretty much sure it was going to be a flea-pit and that was fine by me as long as it had a shower and a lock on the door. I thought I might as well take a quick look, so followed her up to the room. 'Muy bien!', I declared politely as she showed me a small windowless room that would be considered an embarrassment if it were found in a British prison.

The lady on reception was quite lovely and patient with me when I didn't understand. She even helped me upstairs with my bike bags. Once in the room I took a bit more of a look around. Most importantly it was clean so I was happy. I took a shower. It was cold. I was sort of guessing it might be. I imagine hot showers may be considered an upmarket feature in Mexican hotels. It didn't matter too much, I'd spent the day in a sweltering desert so it was actually quite refreshing. As I neared the end of my shower 5 minutes later the water became hot which was a nice surprise if a little late.

I got dressed in what I thought to be my most Mexican looking outfit and headed into town. I was a little nervous walking around town in the dark. After a few minutes I started to relax a bit. It actually seemed like quite a nice relaxed smallish town. I went looking for the tourist office where I had to get some sort of tourist card validated. Apparently I needed this before heading much further south. The tourist office was closed as I suspected it would be. I would have to try again tomorrow.

I headed to the supermarket to pick up some food for dinner. On entering the supermarket a lady holding a clipboard said something to me in Spanish I didn't understand. I said, 'No gracias.'. I'm pretty sure this was the right answer. I've never met anybody with a clipboard I wanted to speak to. The supermarket was exactly like those I'd seen in the US. Most of the products were pretty much the same. There were certainly a far greater selection of chillies and tortilla chips than I've seen before but other than that it was a very familiar experience. The cashier spoke very quickly so I didn't understand her. After a bit of back and forth in Spanish she explained in perfect English that she was asking if I had a loyalty card. She didn't accept credit cards so told me I'd need to go to a different checkout. This was good because it meant at the next checkout I was prepared for the loyalty card question. The new cashier asked what I assumed was, 'Do you have a Tesco Clubcard?'. I quickly replied smugly in Spanish that I didn't have one, nor did I want one.

Back at the hotel I made some burritos and ate some tortilla chips. Tecate is famous for its eponymously named beer which I could smell being brewed a few blocks away. I treated myself to a can of Tecate and began to consider my next move. I looked at my map and tried to work out where I should stay next. Today is the first day of my entire trip that has not been planned with the assistance of a guidebook called Bicycling the Pacific Coast. I'm on my own now. All I have is my map and a book I bought about driving down Baja.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

End of Part Two - Day 59 – 50 miles

We started the day with an excellent cooked breakfast made by Olivia. Before leaving I fixed my punctured rear tyre. We said our goodbyes to Jenna and thanked Olivia and her housemates for putting us up for the night.

It was Halloween so Chris, Brooke and I stopped off at a thrift store (a sort of giant charity shop) to try and find some costumes to ride in. Sadly all the costumes had been taken already. We tried on a few ridiculous items of clothing before getting back on the road without costumes.

A few miles later we were passed by a gang of bikers wearing some really excellent costumes. It was a hot day so I was impressed to see some of them riding at speed with large wigs and heavy suits. Later on we saw them stopped at the side of the road so pulled over to get our pictures taken with them. They were a lovely bunch of guys and it was fun chatting with them for a few minutes.

It was Saturday and there were lots of bikers out, they were all really friendly and supportive. It was Chris and Brooke's last day and they received lots of congratulations from the bikers we chatted to. Just before entering San Diego we climbed a big hill. As all the unladen racing bikers passed us they cheered us on.

On the other side of the hill we entered the city of San Diego and navigation started to get tricky again. Chris and Brooke were getting picked up by their uncle on the outskirts of San Diego so we said our goodbyes. We were all staying in San Diego for a while so made plans to meet up in a few days time.

I was on my own for the first time in about a week. It felt strange and took me a while to get the hang of navigating by myself again. Beth and Brian who I'd ridden with as part of my first gang before San Francisco had kindly invited me to stay with them at their new apartment in San Diego. It took me 2 hours to navigate the 10 miles of complex city bike paths before nearing their house. Leading up to their neighbourhood was the steepest hill I'd encountered since San Francisco. On the approach it looked near-vertical. It was only just possible to climb the hill on my heavily loaded bike.

It was a big relief to finally make it Beth and Brian's place. I was so pleased to see them both again. When I'd said goodbye to them back in San Francisco I wasn't sure whether I'd ever see them again. They made me feel very welcome and said I could stay until I was ready to head into Mexico.

In the evening we headed out into their neighbourhood to have a look at the craziness of an American Halloween. Amongst the Michael Jacksons, drag queens and Roman centurions I was amused to see a few people dressed as cyclists.

It was time for a rest. My knee was not in great shape and my bum could use a few days off the saddle. I also had a ton of preparation to do before entering Mexico. I was now only 15 miles from the border. I'd almost made it across the entire length of the United States of America. This was certainly something to pleased about. Setting out on this journey I expected the highlights to be the mountains, forests and scenery. These have all exceeded my expectations. What has surprised me most in becoming the highlight of my trip are the wonderful friends I've made along the way. I'd never expected to meet people who I would ride, camp and eat with every day. These people have made me laugh, taught me a great deal and looked after me when I was in trouble. Friendships are compressed on a trip like this. You can go from meeting someone to feeling like you have known them all your life in a matter of days.

As I prepare for Mexico I'm excited and frightened by the unknown that awaits me down there. I'm expecting a huge culture shock, far fewer cyclists and some concerns for my safety. I know that great things await me as I attempt to reach the bottom of the 1,000 mile long Baja Peninsula. I also know that huge challenges are down there too. I'll need to carry lots of heavy water, find safe places to sleep and learn a language I can hardly speak.

The Long Drag - Day 58 – 88 miles

Today Jenna needed to get to her friends house in Oceanside. This was at least 85 miles south. Myself, Chris and Brooke all thought this was too far for us to ride so we planned to find a camping spot at a more manageable 60 miles. Jenna was unconcerned by the long ride. She is a machine and can ride faster and further than almost anyone I know.

It was a fun ride. Everybody was in good spirits having spent a night in the comfortable motel beds. We were also glad to have passed the miserable riding of LA.

We started to experience love again from other cyclists. Chris got talking to an older guy who was an experienced tourer. He recommended a place further south that made great pizza and sold a wide selection of great micro-brewery beers. We all set our sights on visiting this place later for dinner.

By the time we reached our proposed campground I was tired and experiencing pretty constant knee pain. I was ready to stop. Jenna was keen for us all to stick together and stay the night at her friends place. She suggested we stop for lunch and then make the decision whether or not to carry on. We ate PBJs by the beach and discussed whether we should carry on or stay put for the night. In the end we all decided to stay together and aim for Jenna's friend's place. I was happy with the decision, it would be great to keep the gang together for another night.

The next part of the ride took us off the road and onto a disused runway. We had great fun racing each other along the wide deserted stretch of tarmac. The route was then supposed to take us through Camp Pendleton, a military base. I was a little nervous as we approached the gun-wielding soldiers guarding the entrance to the base. I wondered whether they wouldn't let British citizens through or perhaps my beard would give them the wrong idea. As we reached the soldiers they told us the road was closed to bikes because of construction work. Our alternative route was to take the extremely busy interstate freeway I-5. The soldier didn't seem at all bothered that he was sending us out onto the dangerous freeway.

All 4 of us entered the freeway and rode along the shoulder. I couldn't keep up with the pack and soon lost the others. I passed an exit to a rest stop. I didn't realise at the time that cyclists were required by law to take this exit, ride through the rest stop and then rejoin the freeway. I continued along the shoulder of the freeway. The others had all taken the exit and were waiting for me. They apparently watched with concern as I missed the exit. I passed a sign informing me that bicycles were not allowed on this part of the freeway. I expected to be pulled over by the highway patrol at any moment. Before long the others caught up with me and asked me what the hell I was doing staying on the freeway. I felt myself getting slower and slower. I asked Brooke how my rear tyre was looking. She confirmed that I had a puncture. This was my first puncture since starting the journey more than 2,000 miles ago. I was 50 miles short of making across the entire US without a single puncture. This was really a terrible place to get a puncture. The freeway had 4 lanes of traffic moving at greater than 70MPH. It was not the kind of place you want to have to stop for any length of time. I hopped off the bike to inspect the tyre. Luckily it wasn't completely flat, it had a little air still remaining in the tube so I decided to try and pump it up and hope I would make it to the freeway exit. I pumped up the tyre as quickly as I could. Chris and Brooke kindly stayed with my the whole time. It's amazing to think that these guys who I'd only known for a week would put themselves in danger to make sure I got out of this situation safely.

I rode on with my slightly flat tyre. I tried to keep a good pace as I wanted to get off the freeway as quickly as possible without having to stop again. I could feel the tyre slowly deflating as each mile passed. It was such a relief when we finally made it to the off ramp without having to stop again. We only had 30 minutes before dark so for the rest of the journey I stopped every now and then to top up the air in the tyre rather than take the time to fix the puncture.

By the time we reached Jenna's friend's house it was dark. I was really pleased with myself for having made it 88 miles. We met Jenna's friend Olivia and her housemates. The house was a beautiful old farmhouse and everybody was really welcoming.

After showering and changing into our normal clothes Olivia drove us in her truck to Pizza Port, the place recommended to us earlier. It was a fun place with some great pizza and beer. We were having a great time and getting a little merry. It was the day before Halloween so many of the people in the restaurant were in fancy dress. There were men dressed as women and most amusingly of all there was an old woman sitting on her own at the bar reading a book dressed as a cat. It was all this dressing up that led me to make a rather embarrassing gaff. We were all sat at our table chatting when I noticed a rather lavishly dressed and heavily made-up blonde woman walking through the restaurant. I asked the group, 'Is that a dude or a girl?'. I then watched this very same blonde woman walk up to our table, sit down and introduce herself to us all. As I shook her hand I realised this was a friend of our kind host Olivia. I felt terrible and cringed for next 30 minutes. Olivia's friend was in fact a very attractive woman but having seen quite a few lavishly dressed, heavily made-up men in drag throughout the night I'd just gotten myself a little confused.

Back at the house we had another beer but were all very tired after our long ride so it wasn't long before we headed to bed.

The Motel California - Day 57 – 68 miles

Today was the day everybody cycling this route dreads. The journey through the sprawling, mess of a city they call Los Angeles.

The ride began along the busy ocean-side highway through Malibu. Just about everybody living in Malibu has a house and car that are far bigger than necessary. It was a horrible experience dodging the endless parked SUVs that took up the shoulder.

The next section of the ride was along cycle paths running alongside or actually on the beach. This would be a pleasant experience if you were cruising a couple of miles along the beach with no real place to go. We had a place to be and that place was far away. Just about every freak in LA was out in force getting in our way. A woman skated by on roller-blades pushing a children's pushchair with a couple of Chihuahuas in it.

We stopped off at Santa Monica pier where Luke was picked up by his friend. This was the end of his trip. We all congratulated him and took pictures. He seemed very excited to have finished. As we ate lunch on the edge of the cycle path we were joined by 3 other tourers. Scott from Florida who I'd met a couple of days before, an English guy who I took an immediate disliking to and very tanned Luxembourger. They were all headed to the southern tip of Argentina.

The gang continued south, now a with 1 less member. We still had a long way to go before getting out of LA. Los Angeles is a truly horrible place. I've visited 3 times and never found a shred of goodness in the entire place. Everywhere we've been other cyclists wave and encourage us. Not in LA though. There was no camaraderie between cyclists, there was no love in the place at all.

As we cycled along the beach we stopped for a toilet break. Next to the toilet was a workout area. I thought incorrectly at the time that this was the famous Muscle Beach. We watched a muscular, shirtless man swing across a series of metal rings hanging from long chains. It looked difficult. The others encouraged me to have a go. I could barely reach the first ring as it was quite high. I couldn't get swinging on it to reach the next ring as I was just too short. Jenna offered to give me a push. This did the trick and I managed to grab a hold of the next ring. Before I knew it I was making a swing for the third. I never thought I'd get this far. I noticed a small crowd of people gathering to watch. At the time I imagined they were so impressed by my show of strength that they had to stop and admire. It later became clear that they were laughing at my skinny frame and flailing legs. Contrary to the predictions of everyone watching I made it to last of the 6 or 7 rings.

After hours of complicated and slow going through the urban sprawl we made it to the more sedate peninsula of Palos Verdes. We took a tip from a local cyclist and found a longer but quieter route.

We were running out time. Daylight was fading and we didn't yet have a place to stay. Due to the lack of camping in the city we'd planned to split a cheap motel room. I managed to find one with my GPS and we bombed it through the hilly town of San Pedro. The motel was perfect. Cheap with 3 large beds. We treated ourselves to dinner out at a nearby diner. I ate enough food for 2 people and topped it off with a milkshake.

A Quick Detour to Patagonia - Day 56 – 55 miles

We all woke early, a little bleary-eyed from the cocktails the night before. We packed away our tents, restoring Doug and Marian's immaculate lawn to its former glory. Marian very kindly made us a wonderful breakfast of porridge, bacon and hash browns. Having our breakfast cooked for us meant we were ready to be on the road an hour earlier than normal. We said our thanks and goodbyes to Doug and Marian and headed out.

Before long Luke got a puncture. We all stopped to lend our moral support while he patched his tube. The ride continued through some fairly complicated city riding. Jenna and Brooke had taken on the job of navigation so us boys just had to follow their lead without worrying about looking at maps.

I was riding much better today. My right knee was still a little uncomfortable but the hot tub and great food at Doug and Marian's had worked wonders on my physical and mental state.

Marian had previously worked for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. Last night she had suggested we drop in at her old workplace for lunch and a tour. We found Patagonia headquarters in Ventura and the 5 of us were met by Marian's friend Terri. After some introductions we were shown around the different parts of the company. We were led into a room filled with sewing machines and fabric where the team who put together prototypes of the new clothing work. The next part was my favourite. We talked to the guy who tests all the different products for water-resistance, breathability and just about anything else you could think of. He showed us all the different machines he uses for his tests. There was a sort of giant hoover that sucks air through fabric to test for wind-resistance. My favourite machine was the zip tester. It was a large machine with 4 pistons and a number of springs. Its sole purpose was to zip and unzip different zips. The machine would pull the zip up and down thousands of times to test for durability. I was amazed that anybody would make such a machine. Later we talked to one of the guys who work on environmental projects Patagonia is involved with. 1% of the company's profits are used to benefit environmental causes. I was interested to hear about the work they were doing to help animals follow their natural migration routes by creating safe pathways over and under roads and removing obstacles like barbed wire. As a migrating cyclist I could empathise with this cause. After the tour we ate lunch with Terri in the Patagonia cafe. She had done a very similar bike tour to the one we were doing back in 1981. It was interesting to hear about her experiences back then. We had a great time meeting all the guys at Patagonia and learning how the products we wear our designed and tested. Everybody who works there is passionate about outdoor activities so I think they were all pretty excited to hear about our trip.

The ride continued through city streets and bike paths alongside freeways. It was great that we were all riding together as it's so much safer and more fun for this kind of riding.

10 miles down the road we stopped for a toilet break at the side of the road. Everybody else apart from me (including the girls) was happy to go at the side of the road. I prefer more privacy so I rode my bike a way up a dirt road and found a private spot between a couple of Eucalyptus trees. Before I could get going I noticed a truck speeding towards me in the distance. I jumped back on the bike and sped back down the dirt track to the road and the laughter of my bike gang. I then spent an uncomfortable 30 minutes or so looking for another suitable spot to pee. One of the problems I have with the wide open spaces of Southern California is that I like to find a nice spot amongst some trees. The worry as I carefully tread into these more overgrown areas is that I will be bitten by a Rattlesnake.

Just before Leo Carrillo campground we stopped off at a grocery store for some beers. The campground was almost empty which was nice. Recently we have been avoiding the hiker/biker areas of the campgrounds and using the regular larger campsites. This is due to California's large population of bums and hobos that tend to frequent the hiker/biker areas at state parks.

We made dinner and had a campfire. It was Luke's last night before his trip ends tomorrow in LA. We will miss him of course, he's a really charming, fun guy. It is however only a couple of days before the gang will split up entirely in San Diego. This last section of the US since San Francisco has flown by. I still find it hard to believe that I am close to having cycled down the entire length of the country.

Too Good to be True - Day 55 – 65 miles

I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of my bike being moved. As I unzipped my tent to take a look I thought I heard foot steps. Was somebody trying to steal my bike? In a panic I leapt half way out of my tent still in my sleeping bag. In a combat situation with a thief being stuck inside a mummy sleeping bag can be a serious disadvantage. I realised the disturbance had been a strong gust of wind so got up to further secure my bike and went back to bed.

Before leaving in the morning I cleaned my chain and dérailleur with the WD40 and a sock given to me by Crazy Joe Galloway a few days earlier. Everybody thought it was hilarious to see me using a 'bum's sock' to clean my drive-train.

The ride began with a 13 mile climb. My knee was still playing up so I was kind of limping, using my other leg to do most of the work. At the top everybody was waiting me and cheering me to the top.

The descent was steep and fast and a gust of wind nearly blew me off my bike.

The next section of the ride was a long stretch of windy freeway. It was exhausting, particularly with my knee problem. I ended up a long way behind everybody else but they thoughtfully waited for me and cheered me up when I finally met them. They could see I was having a tough day and it was great that they were all looking out for me.

We stopped for lunch at a supermarket. I had PBJ burritos in preparation for Mexico.

The five of us stuck together through the challenging city riding leading up to Santa Barbara. Just as we were leaving the city a guy in a BMW pulled up alongside me. He asked if we needed a place to stay for the night. I wasn't sure what to say. I didn't really have a chance to decide if this guy was crazy or not so I thanked him and said we had a place to camp tonight. He sped off. Over the next hill I saw everybody talking to the guy in the BMW who had now pulled over onto the side of the road. He said he'd love to have us over for dinner and we could camp in his garden. We looked at each other and laughed. This was too good an offer to pass up as he seemed like a good guy. He gave us directions to his house and we followed his car as he stopped at every corner and waited. Along the way we discussed what kind of house we thought he'd have. We were not disappointed. It was a beautiful large house, complete with swimming pool and hot tub. Doug and his wife Marian made us feel instantly at home and gave us free run of the house. We were allowed to use their shower which was clean and didn't require the insertion of quarter dollar coins every 2 minutes. As we pitched our tents in the garden Doug came out with a tray of Margaritas. This was not something that normally happened to us. We sat down for an amazing dinner with Doug, Marian, their 15 year old son Ian and other guests, Kim and Brian. I ate and drank better than I had done for months.

After dinner we headed outside for a dip in the pool. It was now quite cold outside and the pool wasn't heated. We all dived in and screamed with the cold. Luckily we were able to jump out of the pool and straight into the warmth of the hot tub. Doug bought out a jug of Mai-Tais for us to drink in the hot tub. It was Brooke's birthday. I don't think she could have hoped for a better way to spend her birthday on this trip. Ian came out and demonstrated some of his impressive surfing skills in the pool before joining us in the hot tub. Luke picked oranges from the tree in the neighbouring garden for us to eat. They were so juicy and fresh, quite unlike the oranges you find in Tesco's back home.

As we went to bed I thanked Doug for his wonderful hospitality. He said he'd had fun and he knew cyclists tended to be good people so he liked to help them out.

This was such an incredible end to a pretty horrible day's riding. I hoped the warm water would have soothed my dodgy knee.

Some Things go Missing - Day 54 – 44 miles

At around 5am I was woken by a creature sniffing the tent right in front of my face. It sounded big but I was pleased not to feel scared. Since my bear sightings a few weeks back in Yosemite I was no longer afraid. Had something like this happened 6 weeks ago I would have soiled my tent. Later on when I got up I came to the more likely conclusion that it been a deer rather than a bear. During breakfast I left my 2 bananas on the picnic table. When I came to pack up the bananas were no longer there. I accused everybody of stealing them. Everybody turned out their bags and pleaded innocence but I still threw wild accusations at them all.

We set off together. The landscape was amazing. I love getting away from the coast to get a look at some new scenery. We were riding through a large flat prairie, walled-in by mountains in every direction. It was hot, nearly 30 degrees. This was great training for Mexico. We stopped for a snack. I found my bananas and apologised to everyone. I felt bad but it is easier to accuse everybody else of stealing and have them turn out their bags than have to turn out your own.

My knees were hurting a little from the past 2 days of pushing myself too hard. Luke reminded me to switch to a lower gear and keep my legs spinning faster rather than pushing harder.

A new cyclist approached from behind. It was a guy from Florida called Scott. I really enjoyed talking to Scott as we climbed a pretty challenging hill. This was his first tour. Back in February he'd sold all his possessions and set off from Florida. His destination was Argentina but rather than take the easy route he'd chosen to ride via Alaska. He was on his way to Baja, Mexico too so I tried to get as much useful information from him as I could. His plan was to cross the border in the smaller city of Tecate rather than the bigger and more dangerous Tijuana. I'd considered this myself a while back and after discussing it with him I think this is what I'll do too.

At the top of the hill everybody was waiting and they cheered Scott and I to the summit. The view from the top was magnificent, taking in the city of Lompoc below and a panoramic view of all the mountains surrounding it. We flew down the hill and all stopped at Subway. All of us wolfed down our foot-long sandwiches and drunk litres of sugary soft drinks. Jenna decided to keep her sandwich for later as she wasn't hungry.

Everybody wanted to check their emails so we all headed to the library. Whilst in the library somebody stole Jenna's sandwich which she had tied on to the back of her bike. Chris told her he'd seen me take it. This was no doubt direct retaliation for the earlier banana incident.

Everybody left the library to go to the grocery store and set up camp. I stayed a little longer. When I finally left the library it was nearly dark. I'm surprised each day by how early it gets dark. It was only just after 6pm. When I started the trip less than 2 months ago I had around 4 more hours of daylight each day. I sped through town realising that I didn't really know where the campsite was. I raced through the streets. I didn't want to be stranded in the dark. I eventually found the campsite about 3 miles away to my great relief.

I set up my tent in the dark and had PBJs with banana for dinner.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Into Southern California - Day 53 – 55 miles

All 6 of us rolled out of the campground together and rode into the nearby town of Cambria. We found a bike shop for Chris' broken wheel but it was closed on Sundays. We would need to travel a further 40 miles to San Luis Obispo to find another bike shop. It's not pleasant having to take on a long ride with a wheel that could give way at any point.

I rode with Chris and Brooke, using my GPS to guide us to the bike shop. We all rode as fast as we could. The shop closed early on a Sunday so we had to get there as soon as possible to make sure the mechanic would have enough time to take care of the wheel. The scenery was fantastic: jagged, treeless mountains common to this part of California, scattered with the odd large rock formation. Vultures, eagles and Peregrine Falcons were as common a sight as pigeons back in London.

We made it to the bike shop 90 minutes before closing time. It was a massive shop and they set to work immediately on Chris' wheel. While the mechanic worked I took the opportunity to pick up a few spares in preparation for Mexico. To my surprise Luke and Jenna walked in and joined us. There were 3 bike shops in the town so it was lucky they managed to pick the right one. We spent an hour messing about in the bike shop, it was like a day out at Disneyland for us. The bike shop staff were really only familiar with cycle racing rather than touring so were curious and knew little of what's involved on a tour. One of the staff asked Brooke what we used for fuel on the road. After some confusion it became clear he was not talking about our camp stoves but the food that we eat. He thought we must have had bags full of power bars, electrolytic gels and protein drinks. We explained that we just eat food, albeit lots of it.

We rode in a gang to a camping shop and then onto an enormous supermarket. The aisles were so big that forklift trucks were driven down them, piling multipacks of food up to the high ceiling. I bought far too much stuff and could hardly fit it all on my bike. I returned to the group who were waiting with the bikes. A local cyclist had offered us a place to stay for the night which seemed very kind. Riding in a large group through a town was fun. The locals stared or waved as we passed. Jenna had a charming habit of saying hello to almost every person we passed. On the way to the campground we passed a man riding his bike in the opposite direction with a large blue parrot perched on his handlebars.

With Chris' wheel fixed we entered the beach town of Pismo which marked the start of Southern California. Upon entering Oceano Campground we looked for Dave but couldn't find him. The sun was nearly setting so we threw up the tents and bombed down to the beach on our naked bikes. As the sun ducked under the horizon, providing a most incredible sunset we all ran into the water. This was my first swim in the Pacific in nearly 2 months of cycling alongside it. Despite what everybody had told me about the currents flowing down from Alaska, it wasn't too cold. Having grown up swimming on English beaches I suspect I'm a little more used to cold water than the average Californian.

We all cooked feasts tonight. I made tortilla chilli wraps. Chris and Brook made kebabs on the open fire. Luke made a sort of desert bread on a stick called Bannock. The recipe had been taught to him by some Canadian girls he'd met further north. It tasted really good, a bit like blueberry muffin.

After dinner we discussed the end of our trips. The Mexican border was now only 6 days away at the rate we were travelling.

The Big Ride and the Fries Denied - Day 52 – 71 miles

My alarm woke me at 6.40am. It was still dark. I forced myself to get up. I knew I had to be on the road in good time if I was to make the big ride today. I managed to get on road just before 9am. It's difficult to make a quick getaway when you have to make breakfast, take down a tent and pack everything onto the bike. As I rode out of the campground I passed a man in a kilt playing the bagpipes. I wasn't really sure why he was there.

The ride began immediately with a big climb. I stopped half way and joined Dave for a coffee outside a store. It wasn't really the right thing to do given that I'd woken up especially early with the intention of getting a head start. I guess I was missing the second breakfasts I used to have with my previous gang.

I made it to the top of the hill and was rewarded with a great view of the miles of coastline further south. The ocean was completely blanketed in a beautiful white fog, lending the whole scene a sort of heavenly appearance.

The ride was incredibly inspiring. I always ride better when surrounded by interesting scenery. A boring ride leaves one to think purely about the mechanics of turning the pedals, distractions are essential to a good ride. I was riding really well, powering up the numerous hills like a machine.

Throughout the ride I regularly met up with Dave, Chris and Brooke. Stopping off for a a snack and a chat here and there. I rode with Dave for a bit and picked his brain a little more about what to expect in Mexico.

Later on Dave was a little ahead of me and I watched him pull off the road into a gravel lay-by. As I neared him I saw that he was taking a pee without even dismounting from his bike. Still in his saddle, turned a little to the right he was urinating freely without a care in the world. I'd never seen anything like this. Here was a man who had become very comfortable on his bike since starting out in Alaska all those months ago. I felt honoured to be witnessing such a scene. I was clearly watching a master of his craft at work.

Around lunchtime I passed a store, the only one in 40 miles. There were lots of bikers gathered outside, this place really had a monopoly on snacks and drinks. I stopped off to chat with Dave and was approached by another biker who asked me how I was doing. I didn't recognise him at first but then realised it was Matt, the biker with the skateboard who I'd shared a few beers with in an RV back in Washington. I didn't think I'd ever see him again so it was great to catch up. He'd been having a great time visiting all the skate-parks on the west coast. He said he almost didn't recognise me due to the length of my beard. I was quietly pleased to hear this.

The ride was hilly all day but the next section was exceptionally challenging. A set of 2 hills one after the other, both of nearly a thousand feet. As I neared the summit of the first I felt a little shaky so stopped for some food. It was well past lunch time, very hot and I hadn't had enough to eat. I rested for a bit and then tackled the second hill. It was even steeper than the first and I had to stand up and use my body weight to move the weighty bike to the top. The entire time I was fantasising about what food I would eat at the town I knew was waiting for me on the other side of the hill.

I descended into the town of Ragged Point. There was a fast food stand surrounded by a swarm of bikers and Harley Davidson riders. I was delighted to see a veggie burger on the menu. I ordered one and some large fries. Dave, Chris and Brooke arrived and joined me for some food. After a few minutes my burger arrived and the cook told me my fries would follow shortly. I wolfed down the burger and waited patiently for the fries. I noticed other people were receiving portions of fries so I went up to ask about the delay. The cook had disappeared, I managed to find the cashier and he found my fries. The cook had forgotten to give them to me. They were cold so he offered to get me some fresh ones. I returned to my seat and waited for another 10 minutes. The others suggested I should go up and check on them again as fries shouldn't take that long to cook. I spoke to the cashier again who after checking told me the cook had forgotten to make them. He shouted at the cook and gave me my money back, promising I'd still get my fries. Another 10 minutes passed. Everybody at my table thought the whole fiasco was hilarious. I was starving and starting to get a little frustrated by the level of incompetence demonstrated by the cook at this fast food stand. Egged on by my companions I got up to complain. The cook had once again gone AWOL so I spoke to the cashier. He quickly ran out the back and returned with my with my fries. They'd obviously forgotten about me again but at least I was now in possession of the long-awaited fries. A little later on the cashier came over to apologise and offered me a refill of my drink. I declined and he said I could 'hit him up' for a free drink later. I never did 'hit him up' but added this to my list of must-use American phrases.

A little annoyed about the delay caused by the whole fries debacle I hit the road again in a hurry. I still had another 20 miles to cover and time was running out before it would be dark. Luckily the last section of the ride was very flat and I was blessed with an incredible tailwind. At times I was cruising at up to 30 miles per hour on the flat. At this speed I would have stood a good chance of outrunning a bear. I couldn't resist stopping briefly to take a look at a beach littered with a colony of Elephant Seals. The males were fighting each other and gently growling. I much preferred their quiet battles to the incessant honking of the sea-lions.

I was the last of my group to arrive at Washburn Campground. As I entered I stopped to read a sign warning of the presence of Rattlesnakes. It's fun to have something else to worry about when camping. I split the cost of a campsite with Luke, Jenna, Chris, Brooke and Dave. Chris had broken a spoke on his back wheel. This was a reasonably serious problem that needed to be fixed without delay. I tried to help him remove the cassette from his back wheel using a special tool I bought for exactly this problem. Unfortunately it didn't work. Chris managed to bend a spare spoke of the wrong size and get his wheel into a rideable state. He would need to get the wheel fixed properly at a bike shop the next day.

We all ate dinner together and chatted until late. All the American's quizzed Dave and I about various differences between our cultures. They seemed puzzled by our use of both imperial and metric measurements amongst many other things.

I went to bed content having completed a very challenging ride without too much difficulty. I was even more pleased to have met up with another group of excellent people to ride and camp with on this second leg of the trip.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Day 51 – 47 miles

I woke from a terrible night's sleep. This was the noisiest campground I'd ever stayed at. I had been kept awake by kids playing drinking games until late. Then there were the sea-lions. It is my belief that sea-lions operate a shift system to ensure they maintain a constant irritating barking sound that can be heard from more than a mile away. Half the colony sleep whilst the other half honk incessantly. When the honkers grow tired they wake the sleepers and swap places. To make things worse a hobo had arrived late and set up his tent next to mine. He had a queen size air bed with a battery-powered pump. The pump made a noise like a tractor straining to pull a trailer up a steep hill. At around 5am he turned on the pump again, I guess to top up the mattress. What annoyed me more than the noise itself was the sonic reminder that this homeless guy was sleeping in greater comfort than me.

There were a number of shabby tents in the hiker/biker area belonging to homeless people. As I was packing my tent away I was surprised to see a man emerge from one of these tents dressed smartly for work. He headed into Monterey. Presumably this was his daily commute to the office.

I cycled back down the hill and through Monterey following a cycle path along the coast. I noticed an informative sign about Harbour Seals in the area. I noticed directly in front of the sign a Harbour Seal was sitting on a rock. I wondered for a moment if the Monterey Tourist Board had glued the poor seal to the rock.

The next section of the ride was on a private road called 17 Mile Drive. This road is so scenic its owners charge motorists $9 to drive its length. Luckily they let cyclists ride it for free. The road winds along the coast passing impressive rock formations and huge crashing waves. I saw plenty of cyclists along the route including the supported tandem tourers I spoke to a few days back and also Chris and Brooke.

The ride ended with the lead up to Big Sur. This beautiful area is where high coastal mountains meet miles of stunning coastline. It was a hot day, the first in quite some time. I was starting to feel the benefits of moving south. As I descended into the town of Big Sur I was passed by the team of tandem riders. One of them shouted, 'We're staying at the Big Sur Inn.', gesturing that I should join them. I'd already made plans to meet my new gang at Pfeffer State Park campground but I loved this kind of camaraderie so common between bikers out here.

I arrived at the campground. Dave, Chris, Brooke, Luke and Jenna had already setup camp. There was a shortage of picnic tables and Chris and Brooke generously offered to share theirs with me. As I set up my tent the others suggested we all take a swim in the river. It was a hot day but I suspected the water would be very cold so I wasn't too sure it sounded like a good idea. However, I had been carrying a pair of swimming shorts with me since Canada without ever using them. In this world where every gram of luggage has to be carefully accounted for I decided I should break out the shorts. I joined the others at the river. It was shallow, clear and fast flowing. Luke was first to take the plunge. I paddled in and before long my feet felt numb with the coldness. It felt to me like the river was fed by melt-water from a nearby glacier. Against my better judgement I plunged my entire body backwards into the water. The only way to deal with water this cold is to go for complete and immediate submersion. Every muscle in my body compelled me to jump back out of the water and scream like a girl. For about 2 seconds I imagine those watching mistook me for a tough guy. As I sprung from the water yelping the illusion was quickly shattered. I was wet now so figured I should get back into the water. I led back and let the water carry me downstream for a moment. It was invigorating and painful all at the same time.

Next to the river Luke pointed out some Poison Oak. I'd never seen this before. He explained that it's extremely dangerous and if touched can make the skin blister badly. I love discovering new dangerous things in the woods.

My new gang of bikers gathered to discuss where we should camp the next day. It seemed our best option was over 70 miles away. Big Sur is a very mountainous area so not only was I looking at a very long ride but it was also filled with challenging terrain. I wasn't sure I was up to the ride but was keen to stay with my new gang as we were having so much fun together already.

For dinner I joined Chris and Brooke at our picnic table. We'd all bought beer at the local shop which was a great treat at the end of the day. I really enjoyed getting to know Chris and Brooke better. They were both really generous and funny people.

As I returned from the bathroom just before going to bed a voice spoke to me from somewhere within the darkness of the forested campground. I said hello and then realised who it was. The annoying alcoholic from the camp site the previous night had managed to cycle here to Big Sur. He'd arrived several hours after dark and was drunk. He proudly showed me a pair of deer antlers. I asked where he'd found them. 'Roadkill!', he proclaimed proudly. I instinctively backed off a little. I was imagining this horrible drunk man on his hands and knees at the side of the road sawing off the antlers from a deer's corpse. He told me that he intended to attach them to the handlebars of his bike. I quickly made my escape and went to bed. I was glad we would be riding such a long way tomorrow. There was no way this guy would catch us 70 miles south.

I knew I had to get up early if I had a hope of completing the ride the next day so I set my alarm for 6.40am.

The New Gang - Day 50 – 44 miles

I awoke to a thick wet fog and was amazed to see a guy sleeping without a tent. He was lying asleep in his sleeping bag on his thin inflatable mattress. It was pretty cold but when I asked him about it he'd had a good night's sleep and was perfectly happy with his minimal camping setup.

I spoke with an English guy who had been camped next to me. He was the first English person I'd met so far. It was good to experience dry cynicism again. His name was Dave and he was riding from Alaska to Argentina.

My hand was still swollen and painful but I was pleased to find it didn't hurt too much once on the bike. I altered my hand position to minimise further problems.

The ride started well, taking deserted, poorly maintained back-roads through farmland. Farming happens on a different scale in California to the way in which we do things back in England. It was interesting to see the endless fields of Brussel sprouts and artichoke extending to the horizon. Huge teams of Mexican farm workers tended the fields.

Later on I met with Dave again. We biked together and talked about Mexico. Dave had previously ridden through Africa so had a great deal of experience of riding through poorer countries with few amenities. I asked about how much water I should carry and various other concerns I had about biking through the desert.

My camera had been broken for a couple of days. It hasn't been quite right since I took it on the log flume at Thorpe Park just before my trip began. One of things I've really enjoyed on this trip is photographing some of the amazing things I see everyday. I noticed a Walmart near the bike path we were riding on so stopped by to look for a camera. I found a decent camera, it was a fair bit cheaper than I'd be able to get it for in England so I didn't feel too bad about having to spend all that money.

I entered Monterey and began a very steep climb to Vets Memorial State Park where I would be staying the night. Dave had already set up camp and so had the couple I'd met a couple of nights before at Half Moon Bay. A dirty, drunk old man walked into camp noisily talking at anybody who would listen. Dave bore the brunt of his monologue about the cyclists he'd met. He talked about the many nationalities of bikers and wide selection of bikes he'd come across. It was as if he thought his experience was unique. We have all of course met many different bikers throughout the course of our journey but he had no interest in anybody else's views or experiences. Obnoxious alcoholics like this can really ruin the usually friendly and safe feeling experienced in hiker/biker campgrounds. My tolerance for California's many outspoken transients was beginning to wear thin.

The best thing about my home for tonight was a long picnic table at the centre of the campground. This provided a good social place to gather for dinner. I started to get to know the couple I'd spoken to briefly a couple of days before. Their names were Chris and Brooke. They were on their honeymoon just like Beth and Brian. Also at the table were Luke and Jenna. I'd seen these 2 a few weeks back in Oregon but had never really spoken with them before. Everybody was in good spirits and we all had plenty of shared experiences to laugh about. We started to jokingly discuss forming a biker gang and agreed to meet up at a campground the next night.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Fat of the Hand - Day 49 – 62 miles

I was woken at around 7am by Joe. His hollering at Bru seemed far less endearing early in the morning. Over breakfast Joe played me a few more Fairport Convention songs in his inimitable style that I find it hard to believe makes him any money on the streets.

As I was making breakfast I ran out of gas for the first time. It's not that easy to find the white gas that I use in my stove so I got some tips from Joe on where I could likely find some. I can of course burn unleaded petrol if I need to but the additives clog up the stove so I prefer not to. I headed into town and managed to find an enormous 5 litre can. I decanted it into smaller bottles but had to throw most of it away as I couldn't carry such a large amount of gas on my bike.

Once on the road I was passed by 6 guys on 3 tandems. They were doing a tour but they had a support van to carry all their equipment. They were a little embarrassed to explain this to me after looking at all the gear I have to carry.

Later on a Dutch man rode alongside me. He was riding a triathlon bike that probably weighed as much as one of my water bottles and cost as much as a decent car. He asked if I had any sun lotion as he was getting burned. I pulled over and gladly gave him some. In return he gave me a pack of hydrating jelly shots. I'm not convinced they did anything other than taste delicious. I downed the whole pack of 6.

Near the end of the ride I reached Santa Cruz. It seemed like a really fun town where everybody was either surfing or riding a bike.

I arrived at New Brighton State Beach, a nice hobo-free spot next to the beach. For dinner I ate macaroni cheese out of a packet. I had to add plenty of soya bacon bits and chilli flakes. There is a direct relation between the quality of the meal I prepare and the amount of overpowering spice I have to add.

I noticed my right hand had swollen up and was quite painful to use. I wasn't exactly sure why but I suspect it was to do with the way I was positioning my hands and changing gears whilst riding. It was painful enough to make me think I may not be able to ride the next day. I was unable to type my blog and it was too painful to hold my book so I had to lie down and listen to my iPod until I fell asleep.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Back in the Saddle - Day 48 – 36 miles

You might think after 8 glorious days off the bike I might have been raring to get back on the road. I can't lie, I was not ready to ride again. I'd spent an amazing week with my girlfriend in hotels and heated woodland cabins. Having lost a fair bit of weight on the first leg of the trip I'd managed to pile it back on thanks to 3 days of all-you-can-eat buffets in Yosemite National Park. I'd slept in beds as big as some people's flats, a far cry from my little tent. I should have set off yesterday but decided to spend an extra day in San Francisco. It turned out to be an excellent decision to delay. An unexpected storm flooded the entire Bay area. Some places in San Francisco were several feet under water.

Today the weather was good and so was the forecast for the foreseeable future. I stayed at the hotel until check-out time and grudgingly hit the road. I'd been really happy with the way the concierge at the hotel had looked after my bike so I tipped him. Tipping a concierge isn't something I'd done before. As I casually slipped him $5 I felt like Richard Gere in Indecent Proposal.

For the first few minutes the bike felt a little alien to me but before long I was riding well. As I tackled a few of San Francisco's famous hills I was happy to notice that I hadn't lost too much fitness during my time off. I left the city via the Golden Gate Park, an impressively large city park with some really beautiful wooded areas. As I exited the park I was once again riding alongside the Pacific. The coastal road I'd planned to take had a large barrier blocking it with yellow tape bearing the warning, 'Police line do not cross'. I considered my options for a moment then decided I could get my bike under the barrier so it was worth a go. Once past the barrier I hopped on the bike and pedalled down the wide, empty road. A deafening siren bellowed out behind me. I thought the cops were on my tail. My heart skipped a beat. I was only a couple of miles from Alcatraz. A pretty boy like me wouldn't last a day in jail. I turned around expecting to see a couple of squad cars on my tail. There was nobody there. The siren stopped and a loud voice boomed, 'This is a test. This is test of the outdoor warning system. This is only a test.' I figured this must be some kind of tsunami warning system. I was in the clear. I relaxed and continued down this abandoned highway running alongside the beach. This was pretty good, I was starting to get back into the swing of things.

As I continued along the coast I got my first taste of the thick sea fog that is so common in this area. It moved across the road like thick smoke.

I stopped off at a supermarket near Daly City. As I locked up my bike I was reminded of the mock-celebrity that a heavily loaded bicycle brings during any stop-off. I noticed everybody in the car park staring at me with fascination. I was approached by a young man. 'You look like someone who appreciates art and literature.' He was holding some small books. 'I do but I don't like to carry extra things.', I replied. He told me that he was selling children's books for adults. I did not envy this man. I cannot imagine it's too easy to shift something like that in a Safeway car park.

As I walked into the shop a man said he liked my shirt, the second person to do so today. I was wearing my new cycling jersey I'd bought a few days previously in San Francisco. The shirt has the California State flag on it which features a Grizzly Bear. It is an awesome shirt, I was pleased to see the public were receiving it well.

After buying some groceries I sat outside and ate PBJs. I missed Kate, Beth and Brian. Our car park picnics were always fun. Sitting there on my own was simply not the same.

A few miles down the road I began a climb up Devil's Slide. At the top of the hill the sea fog was thick and the visibility was down to only a few metres. The road had no shoulder and it was a pretty scary ride. To my right I knew the cliff edge dropped away into the ocean but all I could see was a wall of grey fog.

As the road descended back below the fog I saw my first pumpkin farms. I found it almost comical to see these fields filled with giant orange pumpkins.

As I arrived at Half Moon State Beach I was unsure what to expect. Having rested for 10 days and it now being late in the season I didn't know if I would find other cyclists. I was happy to meet a friendly couple who'd coincidently spent the last 10 days resting in San Francisco. The campground was quite good. The hiker/biker section was infested with rabbits but pleasingly right next to the beach and showers.

I set up my tent. I felt clumsy compared with how well-practised I'd become before taking a break. I sat down to read my book. I was happy to be camping again. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed what I had come to recognise as the signature of a crazy state park homeless guy. Despite there being loads of free space in the campground he decided to set up camp right next to me. This could really ruin my evening. He came over and introduced himself and shook my hand. His name was Joe Galloway. Certain names lend themselves easily to the addition of a Crazy prefix. Crazy Joe Galloway rolls so easily off the tongue. I looked at Joe's bike. He had mounted a laundry basket on the handlebars. It was filled with used cans and bottles.

My preconceptions about Joe were gradually swept away as we got talking. Joe was not crazy. He was a smart guy. Intentionally homeless rather than unfortunate in some way. He busked and made jewellery to avoid 'working for the man'. He introduced his dog to me as Bru, apparently named after the last high king of Ireland. Bru sat on the table in front of me and attempted to lick my face at every opportunity. Bru had little understanding of the human concept of personal space.

Joe got a camp fire going and said he hoped I didn't get homesick as he was about to play some English folk songs. He was a pretty good guitarist but a fairly weak singer. This meant his interpretations of Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd songs were sometimes a little hard to recognise but quite creatively presented. I enjoyed listening to him play but not as much as Bru who fidgeted around the table and barked excitedly during some of the bits he liked best.

Joe cooked a lamb curry for himself and Bru. I wasn't sure whether dogs should eat curry or not but Bru looked in excellent shape so I guess his diet of human food wasn't doing him any harm. Joe offered me some of the curry. Had I not been vegetarian I'm still not too sure I would have wanted to eat the same meal as a dog.

It was a pretty good first day back. I needed a good day to ease me back in to the outdoor life. I think I'll sleep well tonight. Things could be a lot worse. I could be sharing a tent with a curry-eating dog.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The End of Part One - Day 38 – 35 Miles

I was raring to go today. I'd been looking forward to today for a long time. My ride today would take me across the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco. I would then take a break for around 10 days and see my girlfriend. This stop would mark the end of the first half of my trip and give a much needed rest after the last couple of weeks of non-stop, hard riding. Sadly it would also see the breakup of the group of wonderful people I've been riding with for the last few weeks. Kate would be finishing her journey in San Francisco and flying home to Australia. Beth and Brian were to continue on to San Diego to set up home there after their recent marriage.

It was a short ride today and I'd ridden in the San Francisco area before so I was expecting an easy day.

All 4 of us rode together today, stopping after 10 miles in the large town of Fairfax for second breakfast. Leaving the town we missed our turn off and nearly ended up on the freeway. There were hundreds of cyclists around today on training runs out of San Francisco. Many offered directions and got us on the right path. We followed a complicated series of directions, following mainly a good network of cycle paths into San Francisco.

As we rode through Sausalito, a pretty town just outside of San Francisco I barely recognised the place. I'd ridden here back in January when it had looked like a sleepy little place. Today it was packed with tourists and countless clueless people on hire bikes from the city. It's a shock to be riding in such busy places when you've spent the last 6 weeks riding through 1 horse towns and remote countryside.

Things got a little stressful on the confusing approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. The road was busy and extremely steep. We eventually found the bridge approach thanks to a local guy who mimed instructions to me from the other side of the road. All of us had been excited about this moment so we took a deep breath and began riding along the bridge's dedicated cycle path. I'd ridden this way back in January and had the bike path pretty much to myself. Today it was filled with a million meandering fools who thought nothing of stopping without warning in the worst possible place to take a photo. Add to this a very strong, cold wind doing it's best to blow us into the water and you end up with 4 disappointed riders entering San Francisco. It wasn't the momentous entrance we'd all hoped for but we stopped for a photo opportunity and considered our next move.

We'd ended up entering the city on the worst possible day. There was a navy air-show in town. The roads were gridlocked and every cycle path was full of gawping plane fans doing their best to get themselves run over by 4 heavily-loaded bicycles.

We were to stay in an apartment belonging to a friend of Brian's who was out of town for the night. We ditched the cycle path and took our chances on the heavily-congested roads. I had my GPS so led the pack through town. In the last thousand or so miles we'd all encountered some pretty beastly hills but none as steep as those in San Francisco. At one point we had to admit defeat and push our heavy bikes up the near-vertical street.

It was a huge relief to arrive safely at the apartment and relax for a bit. It was our last night together so we went out for a meal. We ate enormous burgers and drunk Fat Tire, a beer from our fallen comrade Elon's home town.

Back in the small apartment we all crammed in to sleep inside for the first time in a couple of weeks. We all slept terribly. Having been conditioned to the silence of night time in the woods, central San Francisco at night was an unpleasant contrast.

The next morning we headed out for our last 2 breakfasts together. The first was at a small coffee stand operating out of a garage in an alleyway. It was 8am on a Sunday but the place had a huge queue. This place was obviously a well-known secret. Next we headed to an indoor cafe where I ate porridge cooked indoors for a change. None of us were cycling today but we were still eating as if we were.

We returned to the apartment and packed up our bikes. Kate and I said an unwilling goodbye to Beth and Brian before heading across town to a hostel where we would be staying the night. It was such a shame to leave Beth and Brian but hopefully I will see them again when I pass through San Diego.

So this is it for a while. A break from the bike and a chance to spend some time with my girlfriend who I haven't seen in 6 weeks. I certainly need the break. My body and mind need to rest and I need to build up a thirst for riding every day again. I also need to work out a plan for the next leg of my trip. I'm still not sure whether to go into Mexico or make an alternate route following all the advice I've had about the safety of riding down there. It will be strange starting up again having become used to riding with the pack everyday. I'm sure I'll meet others further south but I expect that the further south I go, the fewer riders I'll see. It seems hard to imagine I would ever meet such a great, like-minded bunch of people as Kate, Brian and Beth but I set out on this trip happy and alone so I'm sure I can continue that way.

Day 37 – 42 miles

Having gone to bed late following the day to end all days yesterday I was in no hurry to get out of the tent. Beth was hyping everybody up by telling us we only had 40 miles to ride today. I had my doubts I'd even be able to stand but on testing my legs I found everything still seemed to work.

Over breakfast we got chatting to our neighbour, a old retired guy who now spent all his time touring on his bike. It's nice to think this is something you can do pretty much until the day you die if you so desire.

Once on the road it was just a mile before we reached Bodega Bay. I was quite excited to see this little town as it was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. I was slightly disappointed not to recognise it at all despite having seen the film about 10 times. Perhaps they filmed it somewhere else, perhaps it's changed a lot in the last 50 years, I'm not sure. I was distracted from my disappointment for a while as I saw a vulture tucking into a skunk on the side of the road. It's good to see some predatory bird activity still going on in Bodega Bay. This was fun to watch for a while and it made me feel a little better about some of the things I've been eating in the evenings.

Kate and I pedalled on for another few miles before joining Beth and Brian for an amazing second breakfast. It was at a small cafe run by a Mexican couple. I'd never had Mexican food for breakfast so was keen to try. I had hash browns, eggs, tacos and salsa. It was delicious and made me excited again about going to Mexico.

The ride today was fantastic, a great contrast to yesterday's lengthy slog. The sky was blue, the roads were quiet and scenery spectacular and quite different. We'd travelled inland and were moving through wonderful rolling hills made up of dry, dusty farmland with ramshackle barns dotted about the place.

Later the ride returned to the water and we moved alongside Tomales Bay, a large inlet of water separated from the ocean by the San Andreas Fault. Large eagles and vultures soared above and in a few places large cacti grew at the side of the road. It's great to see these clear signs that I'm moving south.

It's worth returning to the subject of roadkill briefly. As I've moved south the roadkill has become bigger, more common and often quite grizzly. Every few miles I become aware of a strong smell of decomposing flesh, this is usually followed by a sighting of a large mangled mammal of some kind. On the occasions when I don't notice the carcass, I can usually rely on Kate to point at something at the side of the road. This forces me to look at something that will cause me to gag and Kate to laugh at me.

After what seemed like a very short ride of 40 miles we set up camp in a circle of redwoods in Samual P. Taylor State Park. Tonight would be Kate's last night camping before she reaches her final destination of San Francisco tomorrow. We were all looking forward to riding over the Golden Gate Bridge into the city.

As we made dinner we began the now nightly ritual of fighting off the raccoons. The further south I go, the more cheeky, greedy and fat they become.

The Dangers of the Dilly Dally - Day 36 – 70 miles

For a change I awoke to fog rather than a blue sky. This made it slightly warmer than it had been over the last week. It was still cold but not necessary to dance while making breakfast to keep warm as has become my custom.

We travelled 10 miles and ate second breakfast in a cafe. I had an amazing muffin, banana bread and 2 coffees. We were aware of our slight foolishness in wasting time in a cafe given the 55 further miles we had yet to do.

There was a headwind making cycling hard work for the next 15 miles. It was around 1.30pm when we stopped for lunch at a supermarket. We ate with some of the noisy Americans that we've been camping with for the past few days. I haven't taken to these guys particularly. They're pleasant enough but I'm a little tired of talking about cycling all the time.

Another ill-advised leisurely stop passed and we were on the road again. Nobody was enjoying the ride today. The weather was grey and dreary, the headwind tiring and the psychological barrier of a 65 mile day hangs heavy. The riding was very hilly throughout the day. A seemingly infinite number of drops to sea level followed instantly by a climb to the top of a steep headland takes a physical and mental toll on any rider.

At around the 45 mile marker Kate and I stopped for a snack. I could see Kate's spirits were low so I tried to motivate her by reminding her the next hill would be her last big challenge before her final destination of San Francisco. It was true but I don't think either of us were really helped by my motivational speech. The next stretch of road began with a gate that is shut sometimes as the road frequently slips into the ocean. Unfortunately the gate was open today so we had no excuse. A long climb began. We passed cows which were allowed to wander freely over the road. Once at the top the road snaked along the edge of the cliff, mostly without barriers on the edge. The traffic was pretty constant things more stressful. I was not enjoying the ride much, Kate was really not enjoying it.

A man passed us in a truck and yelled, 'You better find a bush to hide in.' It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about but we came to the conclusion that he was advising us to set up camp before it got dark. It was nearly 6pm. It would be too dark to ride this section in an hour. Neither of us had working lights and the fog was setting in a little. The ups and downs were frequent and there was no sign of civilisation in sight. We didn't know it yet but the guidebook we'd been following was wrong. The ride was longer than we thought. We still had another 20 miles to go to reach the campground.

An incredible descent began. The road was steep and full of tight switchbacks. Without the traffic and fading light it would have been spectacular. Yet another climb began and at the top, backlit like angels by a small break in the clouds were Beth and Brian. They had been waiting for us for a while to suggest stopping at a nearer campsite, shortening the ride by 10 miles. Kate and I were of course happy to agree to this plan.

The 4 of us rode in the twilight to the supposed location of the nearer campsite. The campsite didn't exist. This wasn't good. It was nearly dark and we were left with no choice but to ride another 10 miles to our original destination. Kate donned her head-torch and took the lead. Brian had a rear light so rode at the back. Beth and I were sandwiched in the middle hoping our florescent jackets would protect us. It was now pitch dark. There were no street lights and it was quite foggy. To make things more dangerous we were riding along the edge of a cliff with no barrier to prevent us plunging hundreds of feet into the freezing black water below. We stopped for a bit and I took the lead after fetching my head-torch from my bag. It was the brightest out of everybody's but still only showed up the white lines marking the edge of the road. I made sure to keep the white line to my right hoping we wouldn't come across a hole in this landslip prone road. Frequently cars coming the other way with their fog lights on would blind us all, temporarily making even the white line at the edge of the road invisible. I would turn around occasionally to check the others were still behind. My head-torch showed only their reflective strips making them look like skeletons running towards me. Every time a car would come up behind one of us would shout, alerting everyone to its imminent passing. It was great to have everyone working as a team, looking out for each other, I was very glad not to be facing this ride alone.

After 10 miles of extremely tense riding we saw a sign up ahead. It was Bodega Dunes State Park. We'd made it. It was such a relief. It was difficult to find a decent campsite in the blackness. We had to pitch our tents on sand which made things even more difficult.

We prepared dinner and I noticed a raccoon staking us out from the bush behind. I tried to frighten it off. Each time I pretended to charge, the raccoon barely flinched. It actually came a little closer, it wasn't at all afraid. In the end Brian ran at it, pretending to be a Cougar. It worked, the raccoon didn't dare show it's beady little eyes again.

This was the longest, hardest ride of my life. I believe I said the same of a ride a few days ago. Just 2 more days riding until I reach San Francisco and rest up with my girlfriend for a while. I cannot wait.