NORTHBOUND & DOWN – Across the United States with a Brompton
"Why such a long way on a small bike?", a passer-by asked me on the Sidmouth promenade as I prepared myself for the climb out of town.
He listened as I tried to tell him that beautiful things come in small packages but as he began to talk about his BMW GS I realised he was beyond redemption.
What I didn't tell him were my plans to ride the Brompton from San Diego to Vancouver (BC) along the 'Sierra Cascades', the cycle route that shadows the better-known Pacific Crest Trail across the Unites States. To describe the SC in one word, it is mountainous. The route conquers seven ranges, the greatest of which are the Sierra Nevadas in California and the Cascades through Oregon and Washington, for a total ascent of about 150,000' over 2400 miles.
So when the pilot on the flight over announced that we had settled at a cruising altitude of 36,000' I gulped. After touching down I spent a pleasant few days with family in Vista (truthfully 40 miles North of San Diego), camping between their Airstream caravan and red Ford Mustang. I learned how bad I was at surfing, how excellent San Diegan IPAs are, how long a baseball match goes on for and how overwhelming American hospitality is. I was reluctant to leave but come Thursday, 30th June 2016, I set off along sun-baked, palm-lined roads into the unknown. And so my journey begins...
...ignobley. Ten miles in I'm cowering in the shade, panting like a dog and weeping sweat from every pore. Southern California is unsurprisingly hot at this time of year and I’m not very fit. I pull into a deserted boat lake-come-recreation area, soak my shower sponge in the warm water and squeeze it against the top of my skull. I’m feeling morbid. The whole trip seems like a terrible idea but then these sorts of things usually do before they don’t, or so I read. To improve my mood I lie down on a picnic bench and fall asleep for a few hours.
Once the sun begins to relent in the late afternoon I press onwards and upwards, now on dusty back roads through the craggy Californian chaparral. The first descent of my journey has me whooping and hollering and as I dive into the La Jolla Reservation a towering building emerges, standing alone between imposing mountains. What is this monolith doing in the middle of nowhere? I buy lunch from a 7/11 dwarfed at its base and fire up my stove in a shaded seating area outside. The flame roars in a whisper and refried beans begin to bubble and sputter in the pot, trapped heat in the thick stew causing intermittent, alarming eruptions.
I crack open a beer. Rain on the Serengeti! The hiss of escaping gas is music to my ears. When nothing else quite hits the spot you can always find salvation in the amber nectar of the gods, and it’s never quite so sweet as when you are desperately dehydrated.
Three others join me, one of whom arrives with a whole crate, and soon cans are passed around and conversion flows. The prohibition of public drinking in this country adds a certain camaraderie to the act. Regardless, I would discover over the next days that prolonged conversation with strangers is quite normal in this country. It is actively sought out and even enjoyed! People here seem to be filled with positivity, curiosity and openness sorely missing from us Londoners.
It transpires that the building overshadowing us is a casino resort, in which two of my new friends are holidaying.
"Oh really? I've never been to a casino before. They aren't half so large at home."
"You should look inside then. Why don't we all go together? They have a pool!"
And so we do; sneaking past the wristband checkers to the guests-only pool. Pools – plural – with soothing mist spraying from nozzles around the “swim-thru” bar. What about those drought warnings? Hum. I grab a ring and after a few laps around the “lazy river”, drifting on the current as jets and waterfalls pummel my face merrily, I realise that the sun is nearly down and I’d better find somewhere to sleep. After dark I find a reasonably-hidden spot by the side of the road. The probability of rain is nil so I lay out my bag on my Tyvek ground sheet and look up at the stars through a canopy of alien trees.
The sun rises at 5am and I take my cue. The hour is cool, lemon and grapefruit groves by the roadside lend a sense of refreshment and revitalisation as I climb out of the valley. I reach my turnoff for the squiggly road heading up Mt. Palomar and the grade and sun rise together, scheming to crush my heightened spirits. A road biker shoots past like a bullet as I winch my way up in first gear. The creeping sun casts a glow across the sea of clouds resting in the shrinking valleys below. He drifts past me past me going uphill this time, and wordlessly shames me as I push my bike, head bent. Hours pass. I crawl up never ending switch-backs. Flies plague me. He passes a third time – this is getting embarrassing now. I pass a sign; ELEVATION 5000 FT. I weep inwardly. Magnificent views of the landscape below grow yet larger. The road levels out and as I rest in the shade the very same cyclist mounts the crest, turns around and dives back down for the umpteenth time. Good riddance.
On to the summit the road roses again and soon two unaccompanied dogs shimmer into view ahead, one each side of the road and approaching steadily, ready for a fatal pincer manoeuvre. They snuffle me wetly. I move on. The biggest pine cones I have ever seen litter the sides of the road; I pick one up and nearly drop it again – the tips of the seeds are sharp as thumbtacks. Weighing a good pound, I decide it would be wise not to rest beneath those yet to fall. Through the trees a white dome is visible in flashes and I realise that it is the Palomar Observatory that is signposted. Eventually I reach the summit – thirty miles into my trip and I’m already higher then I’ve ever cycled before! Proximity reveals the dome to be both enormous and familiar from photographs. It holds the Hale telescope, once the biggest in the world.
The descent down the other side of the mountain is heavenly. A low, steady grade, and gentle-enough corners spare my brake pads and have me bombing down ten miles in twenty minutes. On the Southern side stands a graveyard of ashen, twisted trunks; the relic of a past forest fire. Smoky The Bear says that the fire risk today is “extreme” and I will pass many fire stations over the following days, each with three fire engines whose polished chrome dazzles in the sun. I descend to the North, however, and a scorched-brown rain shadow unrolls to the dark, distant mountains. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme whistles through my mind. After a break from the worst hours of heat by Lake Henshaw I continue along mercifully flat terrain to the intersection with Highway 79 and, with bated breath, turn left and step over the threshold onto the Sierra Cascades route. It starts on the Mexican border but I have begun a little northward and cut east to reach it. I pause to savour the significance of the moment then continue. The sun droops and a great bank of candyfloss cumulonimbi fit for a Michelangelo are dyed purple-pink. They are storm clouds blown northwards from the Sea of Cortez, I am told, lofted high into the sky by the hot chaparral low-lands like a hot air balloon. I keep an eye out for a place to sleep but all this open, uncultivated land turns out to be frustratingly fenced off with barbed wire and regular “NO TRESPASSING: VIOLATERS WILL BE PROSECUTED” signs drive the home the point that you are definitely not welcome to step off the road.
I eventually find a suitable spot near the village of ‘Summit Pleasant' but after laying out my sleeping bag I see a small burrow that looks exactly like the sort of place unthinkable horrors emerge from on David Attenborough. Ten minutes earlier I spotted a tarantula so this anxiety seems justified. It was smaller than my palm, so small by tarantula standards I admit, but it was fat and hairy and far larger than anything I’d like to wake up and find is sharing my sleeping bag. I solve the problem by stuffing a can of chili down the hole. The mosquitos are few and night sky was brilliant with stars.
In the cool, still air of the early morning I blast along Highway 79. The road is empty. I own the road. I am the Lone Ranger!
A few words on American roads and why I am beginning to love them;
A) Their gradients are shallow. Even up mountains they are rarely over 6% and usually less. None of the soul-crushing 12% ups-and-downs of Dorset, Devon and Dartmoor.
B) Curves are gentle. As I discovered yesterday, this makes long descents great fun. Another reason I am glad to go easy on the brakes is that the small rims of the Brompton become very hot and a tire blowout seems the most likely catastrophic mechanical failure I’ll encounter on this trip. I am not carrying a spare tire and I forgot to bring anything to boot a damaged one with (or indeed learn how to do that).
C) You follow them for dozens of miles and are the only way to get from A to B in the wilderness. Navigating is easy and they carry you across the landscape in a sometimes-meandering but never-disjointed fashion.
D) Highways are not like motorways. Then have two lanes only, modest speed limits and usually a generous shoulder.
E) They have yellow lines in the middle! So much more characterful than white.
The town of Anza swims into view through the heat haze around midday. They are having an early 4th July celebration and a fête is on with music, food and the like. I buy a straw cowboy hat with a chinstrap to stop it blowing off. This will keep the sun off me! Yes, but it also snaps about it the wind and cooks my head like a baked potato wrapped in tin foil. I return it and lay to rest my fantasies of being Clint Eastwood.
After the tough climbs and remoteness of some stretches of the SC, the third challenge of it lies in the extremes of climate it encompasses. The desert is hot in the Summer (duh) but the mountain passes are so tall that they can be snowed in until late Spring and temperatures drop below freezing at night. Tioga Pass in Yosemite was only cleared in mid-June last year and even here “Icy Roads” signs mock me; I’m still at 4000’. Therefore, most aim to leave as early as possible without being so early they are likely to get stuck waiting for a pass to be cleared. Mid-May is a safe bet. The end of June is therefore poor timing but it was the opportunity I had so here I am. Although the heat is beastly it could actually be worse. The highs are in the low thirties and the air is surprisingly fresh with an occasional cool breeze. It is the sunlight that is incredibly intense, all the more so for being at high altitude. I have learned that my unbuttoned flannel shirt with the collar flipped up is cooler than a sleeveless vest because the breeze gets through but the sun does not. Without my mesh cap I could not cope.
Still, it feels very hot; especially in the mid-afternoon and even more so when climbing. I drank seven or eight litres of water yesterday and peed only once between breaking and making camp. There isn’t much shade and mirages spill over the road ahead of me, reflecting the brilliant blue sky like a mirror but shrinking away as I draw closer. I am nearing the desert now. Cholla cacti stand taller than me, their many fingers reaching skywards; hardy ribbonwood trees look as though they have been torn apart by claws. Manzanita, that curious shrub, crawls along the ground here with twisted branches, in places smooth and red, in others peeling as the plant undergoes the yearly process of shedding its bark to expand like a snake shedding its skin. In others yet it is ashen white where it has been ravaged by fire, the dead and living bark twisted together. There are rattlesnakes here too, though I have not encountered any yet, thankfully. Most remarkable of all, however, are the agaves. Last rainy season they bloomed in unison, with great inflorescences (flower-stems) growing 8’ tall from the small, spiky leaves on the ground and now hanging with peppers. This only occurs once every dozen years or so and leaves the landscape looking like it’s out of a H.G. Wells post-alien invasion.
I stop at a gas (petrol) station for a fix of my new favourite drink – Gatorade. At the fridge I count – I kid you not – seventeen different flavours. Paralyzed by choice? Close your eyes and throw a dart at a Dulux colour palette! Gatorade will probably have you covered. But what’s this? There is a bank of soft drink taps against the wall like you might see in Subway, only longer. Any size cup 85¢. I pull at the largest in the dispenser and gasp as it keep on coming, like a golf umbrella out of Mary Poppins’ handbag. Eventually it pops out and I stare in mixed horror and fascination at what is in my hands. I could wash my socks in this thing; it is more bucket than cup. I fill it half full of ice and then to the brim with Mountain Dew – which I can now say really is fluorescent green. It’s not just the bottle!
The Pines to Palms Highway carries me out of the rain shadow towards Lake Hemet and great ponderosa pines begin to rise around me between horse ranches. The mature ones have an earthy red bark cracked with deep fissures like a cooling flow of lava. The heavy smell of resin fills the air in this heat. Up I go along the lower slopes of San Jacinto Mountain until I reach the town of Idyll-Wild, full of raw timber cottages nested amongst the pines. Outside the market I admire a moped – not the small scooter as we know it but an actual bicycle with a two-stroke motor strapped to it driving a roller on the rear tire. Its owner sidles up in high spirits and engages me in conversation. Before I know it he is talking about the corruption of the system...
“Government’s introducing all these laws we have no say-so for.”
“Is that so?”
“Mmhmm it’s called the congressional vote”
I’m not sure what to say. He pounces on my hesitation and rises in volume.
“So I’m gonna boycott the government!”
“... how will you do that?”, I mistakenly encourage him.
“I’m gonna **** ‘em in the ***! With my pinky finger!”, he gesticulates wildly, “I’ll get me a booger-toe!”. Don’t ask.
A mother pushes her small child away. Eventually I manage to disengage and head to the campground. Any room? I ask. No – they are booked solid for the 4th July weekend. Oh. I’m here on my bicycle, I only need... “Ooh! The magic word!”, the park ranger exclaims. They have a ‘hiker/biker' area reserved for walk-in travellers and it’s only $3 instead of $25! She tells me that a thousand Pacific Crest Trail hikers have been through in the last couple months but I’ll have the area to myself tonight. I’m definitely doing this at the wrong time of year then! I celebrate with a Coors Light and go to bed.