Biking down the Coast

1800 miles from Vancouver to Tijuana on old vintage road bikes

Like most trips it started as an idea, a hazy dreamy halfwish. I had stumbled across a website about a bicyclist's journey from Vancouver to Alberta and it struck me. I loved roadtrips. I loved my bike. I opened a map of North America and wondered.

2 days later I asked Megan if she wanted to ride to Mexico next summer. She, as she always does, said ok.

And then I kind of forgot about it. But Megan, bless her heart, did not.

Bicycle touring down USA's scenic west coast

We tried training but it really wasn't our jam. We rode 16km out to the university once, and did our first 4 day test trip up the Sunshine Coast and down Vancouver Island, a trip which obliterated us but taught us a lot (specifically that we probably wouldn't make it).

But there was something to it, something that made it feel right. We were able to experience our surroundings slowly, more fully by bicycle — we felt every hill, smelled oceans and fields and forests still miles in the distance, savoured the incremental changes in weather, in climate. We were outside all day every day, exposing ourselves to the brunt of the elements and the rigour of the landscape. We were in tune with our surroundings — if it was rainy we got wet, if it was hot we were hot — and there is something to be said about that.

The thrill of using only your body to travel great distances is supremely satisfying. You feel a sort of glow, a slow-spreading skin-tingling exhilarating inner warmth, the pleasure and power of the possible. It is incredibly life-affirming.

For the first couple hours. And then you feel the pain.

Riding through rhododendron forest in Washington
Exploring San Juan Island in Washington's Puget Sound
Rainy days bicycle touring through Washington

I could barely walk for 2 weeks after our first (only) training trip, and Megan lost all feeling in her feet. Things weren't looking promising. But our departure date came at us like a freight train, and before we knew it it was time to set off. For real and for big. First stop: Vancouver Island to visit my friend Mog and eat her homemade poutine.

And that's the thing we didn't quite realize at the before the trip: we didn't need a whole lot of training (thankfully). We just needed to start slow, to ease into it. To not travel too far right out the gate, to train and learn as we went. To stop for poutine.

The San Juan Islands were perfect for that. They are small. Hilly, sure, but small and quiet and navigable. They helped get us into the swing of things, and with perfect weather, too. If you ever get a chance to bike the San Juans, take it. They are magnificent. Quaint, rural, kind of rustic, picturesque, that specific island charm. Kinda like BC's Gulf Islands but with more American flags and the smell of BBQ everywhere. Sometimes I look back and recall the San Juans as my favourite section of the trip. But there would a lot more favourites to come.

Camping on the San Juan Islands
Crisp summer swims
Took our bicycles on a shortcut through the forest on Whidbey Island
Exploring Washington's old WWII bunkers and military installations
Storm-battered lighthouse on the Washington Coast

We ferried to Anacortes, rode over Deception Pass, down Whidbey, got lost in some dark forest "shortcut" a ranger recommended, explored old WWII underground bunkers, fell in love with Port Townsend, escaped the icy Washington rain with a few bowls of delicious salmon chowder, biked down the Hood Canal, got in an accident, bussed to Olympia for repairs, camped on the side of an 8 lane freeway, got chased by a pack of snarling slobbering man-hungry dogs, squished a million slugs under our tires, ate our weight in dried noodles, rode past an old abandoned nuclear power plant, and basically retraced the route of every Damien Jurado song ever.

It rained a lot in Washington. Literally every day after the San Juans. We were wet and exhausted and starting to feel kind of miserable.

But crossing the Columbia River into Astoria, Oregon, the clouds suddenly cleared and the sun beamed down upon us. We were a little distracted by the terrifying ordeal of biking across the bridge — busy and narrow, the scant shoulder was littered with the carcasses of hundreds of dead seagulls we had to nimbly swerve around, one eye always on traffic — but the sun coming out right as we left Washington felt momentous. It was the end of a chapter, a bright new beginning. We celebrated with maple whiskey smoked salmon and a giant $2 bottle of PBR.

At the Astoria Tower in Oregon
The shipwreck of the Peter Iredale near Astoria Oregon
Beautiful coastline at Ecola State Park in Oregon
Soft sand beaches and windblown grasses on the Oregon Coast
Storms on the Oregon Coast
Coastal textures
Eating pizza on the beach, Cape Kiwanda on Oregon Coast
Megan really liked that house
Biking down the Oregon Coast

The Oregon Coast is crazy beautiful. Like a postcard. I was bowled over by the beauty of Ecola and Cannon Beach; I just stood there, mouth agape and silently mouthing "oh my god, Megan are you looking at this? Oh my god." I'm not exaggerating here. This is not a joke. Eventually Megan had to drag me away. And because I had been transfixed and trembling at the view for so long we had to ride out in the dark. Up a mountain. In the dark.

And deep into the journey and blinded by the headlights of on oncoming car, Megan rode off a bridge.

But don't worry, she was ok. Unless you count her crotch.

Battling winds on the bike trip down the US Coast
Scenes from our bike ride down the Oregon Coast
Into the dwarf pine forest
Battered by weather on our bike trip down the Oregon Coast
Lush coastal colours on the Oregon Coast
Exploring Oregon's sand dunes
Exploring Oregon's sand dunes
Bicycle touring down the Oregon coast
Posing in the strong wind at Pistol River on the Oregon Coast
Looking out over Oregon's stunning and dramatic coastline

Oregon is perfect. It has everything. Well, no warm ocean beaches... but it has everything else.

Pistol River was neat, Cape Foulweather was neat, the sand dunes around Honeyman were neat — it was all very very neat. But my favourite was probably the last leg of Oregon, through the Samuel H Boardman scenic area. It was like they condensed all the splendour and majesty of the entire coastline into three easily-missed pull-outs. It had everything. Everything except warm beaches.

But no worries. We were about to cross the border into California.

Mists and sun rays in the giant redwoods

Making it to California felt like a milestone. California has a very real pull to it, and has figured as a sort of hazy halcyon in the North American consciousness for several hundred years. Its scale, its grandeur, its symbolism, its weather, its possibilities for reinvention, it all lends California an amorphous aura that changes shape to suit each of our utopian yearnings.

Within a few hours of crossing the border we were ascending into the Redwoods like whoa. The Redwoods filled us with awe, and to our exhausted and road-rattled minds seems like a perfect complement to bike touring. Here time was slowed down, questioned, quieted. It felt so serene, so quiet, so eternal. We felt like inconsequential blips. There is comfort in that.

But I also got sick in the Redwoods. I was up all night, fertilizing the trees with explosive vomitting and diarrhea every ten minutes like the clockwork we thought we had eschewed, eventually too exhausted to lift my head from the vomit-laden dirt. We took the next day off to recuperate among the giant trees and swim in a cool clear meandering river. In the end it was kind of perfect, really. The delay made us realize that we wanted more days off. We had originally planned to have a week at the end lazing on some beach somewhere in Mexico but we decided instead to spread that week out over various stops in California. We wanted to spend more time in the places we were perpetually passing through.

Posing beside a redwood giant in California
Exploring the Redwoods
Inside a giant hollow tree
The redwood forests

When it takes you an entire day to bike what would normally take an hour by car you start to find that campgrounds aren't always where you need them. Sometimes you get to camp out in windswept moon-bleached fields or on remote beaches blanketed by fog. Those are the best nights. Those are the nights you're really living.

With such long days you have a lot of time to think about things. Those things are usually tasty treats. But unfortunately even grocery stores are sometimes few and far between. One time we biked for five days without passing a grocery store. This would have been fine had we known and planned for it, but we didn't, so we resorted to eating old soggy noodles from a gas station supplemented with foraged forest greens. It sounds better than it was. Often when we did come across a little store the only food available was canned refried beans, chips, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and salsa. That's how we discovered Cheesy Beans, now a routine camp favourite.

Taking a break on the Mendocino Coast
Fixing flat tires on the dramatic coast of California
Bicycling down the California Coast
Camped out in a field outside of San Francisco
Viewpoints on the California coastline
Fishing in the ocean of Northern California

Northern California is almost indescribably beautiful. The dry golden hills, giant mist-shrouded trees, thundering oceanside cliffs, little ornate Victorian towns, idyllic swimming holes... it is something special.

The ride into San Francisco is especially nice. We camped out in field within earshot of Tomales Bay and the early morning ride through Pt Reyes, Muir Woods, Sausalito, and the Marin Headlands was calm, unrushed but underscored with a very potent excitement of being there. We took a blessed 5 days off in San Francisco. We had managed to wrangle a campsite in the Headlands but were raring and ready for some time in the city so we took an hour and managed to find a hotel in Mission over Independence Day and spent the next few days with our bikes parked just walking around drinking coffee, popping into shops, riding the metro, eating burritos, listening to the POP!POP!POP! of homemade fireworks, and exploring the city.

We also did some bike repairs and sent home our pants and sweaters and most of the tent. We wouldn't be needing those any longer!

Bicycle touring through California
Bakery stops
Flat tire outside of Salinas, California
Camping in Big Sur, California
The old missions of old California

Getting out of SF was a bit of a trial, but once beyond city limits we were travelling down an endless wave of beaches and warm days through Steinbeck country.

And into Big Sur! What a rich and storied place. Big Sur is the largest area in the contiguous US without roads or vehicular access, and in that spirit we strapped our hard lumpy panniers to our backs and headed up into the hills, hiking the arid fragrant trail to Syke Hotsprings. We saw lizards and ate marshmallows and slept under the stars beside a clear cool creek. It was idyllic stuff. Even Kerouac would have been proud.

Biking into Big Sur, California
That Big Sur bridge
The dramatic coastline near Big Sur
Rooster viewpoint at Big Sur
Hiking to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur
Camping on the coast of California

Back on the road, we saw signs for Hearst Castle. There was no way we weren't going to check that out. We booked a tour and took it all in, not really embarrassed at all that we probably hadn't showered in a week. On the way out we stopped to see some huge ornery elephant seals lazing like sleek fat kings on the beach. Our next stop was San Luis Obispo to see some more old buildings and eat finger food at the farmer's market. What a beautiful little town. Plus we got to sleep in someone's citrus-scented backyard.

At Hearst Castle
Took a tour of Hearst Castle

It grew hotter and hotter as we continued south, and at the peak of the tortuous heat wave (110°F!) we decided it'd be really smart to get off the coast and find a good swimming lake. Dumb, dumb, dumb — if it's ever hot on the coast, its usually much, much hotter even a few miles inland. It turned out to be an interesting reroute. For one, we recorded our fasted speed of the entire trip (42mph) going down a hill towards the pastry-laden town of Solvang.

But more interesting was that there weren't any campgrounds on our chosen route, so we set up camp in a remote and arid oak preserve where Megan promptly and most obligingly got stung by a scorpion during dinner. I spent the next couple minutes sucking on her leg and spitting into the sand. Then we crawled into our "tent" that was actually just the fly and ground sheet (we had sent the tent home!) and thus so completely open at the bottom that ten hundred thousand scorpions could easily crawl in all at once and oh my god why did we send the tent home.

Luckily it only hurt like all else but wasn't lethal. I probably came closer to dying just from jealousy. Getting stung by a scorpion is so badass!

When we finally made it to our lake we found out it was the drinking reservoir for Santa Barbara and we weren't allowed to swim or even spit in it in anger. It was so hot. So unbearably hot. And then to get back to the coast we had the climb the highest hill of the entire trip, stopping every five minutes to dump water on our heads and resting in every patch of shade we could. At the crest of the hill three of my rear spokes broke so I couldn't even enjoy the descent. We arrived in Santa Barabara late and limping only to discover that there was a French festival going on and they had no room in any of the hotels. We slept in a garbage-filled ravine that night.

And so we entered South California.

Morro Bay, California
Sleeping under orange trees

Much of the classic bike route follows the Camino Real, and we tried seeing as many of the old spanish churches as we could. California has a rich and rewarding history. It also has the cheapest avocados ever! 7 avocados for $1. Dang!

As always, we made many requisite stops for treats — including, most notably, the Swanton Berry Farm where we ate olallieberry pie for the first (and thus far only) time ever in life. We also got strawberry shortcake, some cookies, and a bunch of things dipped in chocolate. We just sat there for hours, making the most of a 10% bicyclist discount.

Biking down California
Taking the scenic route

A day out from LA we were riding through the outskirts of Oxnard in the warm subtropical night, excited and nervous to soon be in the fabled car-centric, star-studded city, whooping and chatting about how life couldn't possibly get any better when Megan suddenly disappeared from beside me. The road's shoulder had abruptly ended and she had fallen into a dark ditch. She lay there for a few minutes not moving, not saying she was hurt or ok or groaning or anything, and I feared she was paralyzed or worse. It was scary.

After a few minutes we pushed on, riding under the dark looming silhouettes of the Santa Monica Mountains, watching phosphorescent waves crashing electric glowing green against the ragged rocky shoreline below us in the night.

Southern California

The rest of the trip flew by way too quickly. We got our swimsuits ripped off by waves in Malibu, tried finding cool neighbourhoods in LA, ate In-N-Out Burger, navigated congested freeways, saw surfers, woke up sticky after a night sleeping on a dog beach south of Huntington, swam a bunch, made it to San Diego just in time for ComicCon, ate carne asada fries, locked our bikes to the Mexican border, got in trouble for locking our bikes to the Mexican border, then walked across into the barren city of Tijuana looking for Horchata and Coca-Cola (aka a Real Good Time).

Sated and triumphant, we took the train back to San Diego, dissassembled our bikes, slept in the airport, and, without pomp or ceremony, caught the cheapest flight home and spent the rest of the summer eating bitter greens from our wild and unwatered garden plot.