The dreaded day. Day 4.
This was going to be our most difficult day. There isn’t a whole lot of lodging available in Big Sur, so we just had to keep going until we reached San Simeon. That’s about 65 miles. 65 miles with lots and lots of climbs.
Of course, it was also a ride along the coast of Big Sur, so the scenery should be plenty of motivation.
The coffee shop at Fernwood didn’t open until 8:00, and we didn’t bring the JetBoil, so there would be no coffee for us if we wanted to get on the road at a reasonable time. This distressed Cortney and myself, but Erik promised to bring coffee to us at the top of a hill. There was some Coke for the caffeine-desperate to chase down our light breakfast of trail mix, and then we pedaled off into the mist.
As promised, we started climbing right away. We climbed and we climbed, and then there was more climbing to do. The views at the top were amazing, though, and at this early hour it seemed like we had all of misty Big Sur all to ourselves.
At the top of one of these climbs, there was a beautiful sight. Erik had driven up to meet us with two steaming hot cups of coffee for Cortney and me. Talk about pampering! I wouldn’t have guessed when we started this trip that it would include a gorgeous morning watching the mist burn away from the trees, perched on a cliff high above the ocean, all while sipping fresh hot coffee. I rank that cup of coffee as one of my top five cups of coffee I’ve ever had.
And yes, I have a list of the top five cups of coffee I’ve ever had. In no particular order, they are:
- The one I just told you about.
- The cup I had with my brother Ed in Maui. It’s a famous place for coffee. Of course I don’t remember what the place was called, but it was just a small coffee shop. We came upon it as we were driving around the island in our rented cherry red convertible. You’re not supposed to drive your rental cherry red convertible around the island, we discovered. Because the paved road didn’t actually go all the way around the island. We bounced along on what could barely be called a dirt road and annoyed all the four wheel drive people with our belligerent ignorance. And then we had amazing coffee. I think we also had a salad.
- The first real cup of coffee I had in Paraguay. After three months of training near Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, we Peace Corps volunteers got scattered across the country to see if we could live happily. A few weeks after settling in to my new pueblo, I went to visit one of the two other Peace Corps volunteers who lived close to me (and by that I mean at best an hour long bus ride away). She had already been living there for well over a year, so I saw her as a guru of wisdom. This was proven to me to be true when she started brewing real coffee sent to her in a care package from home. She gave me a cup, and though I was fighting a stomach bug (I did a lot of that in Paraguay), and drinking it made the cramps and nausea worse, the smell alone was worth it. After almost four months of yerba mate and the occasional instant coffee, this was heaven in a cup.
- A glass of Thai iced coffee my sister Cindy, her then-boyfriend/now-husband Eric, and I shared at a Thai restaurant in Riverside. I went to visit Cindy when she was there for grad school. I must have been about 14 or 15 years old, and I don’t know if I’d ever been to a Thai restaurant before. I know I had never had this delightfully sticky and sweet coffee confection before. It was before my friends and I discovered mochas and vanilla caramel frappe whatsits and other coffee-like substitutes for people who don’t actually like coffee but want to pretend that they do, so this was a complete novelty for me. I could only handle small sips of it, constantly looking over my shoulder, thinking that my mom would walk in the room. I had this feeling that she wouldn’t approve.
- Coffee grown, roasted, ground, and brewed by the Karen Hill Tribe in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Maybe it was that first taste of Thai iced coffee that put me on the path that eventually led to me living in Thailand for two years. Part of my job there was to take students to spend a night as house guests with people of the native Karen tribe. We would talk about various environmental and social issues concerning the different Hill Tribes in Thailand. One thing that we focused on was their production of coffee, a fairly new crop introduced to them so that they may have a source of income. We would hike our way through the forest to their village, and then our host would sit us down underneath a large open-air bamboo gazebo-like structure with a palm frond roof and serve us the freshest coffee. To be honest, it wasn’t the best coffee in the world. Sometimes it was perfect, but more often it was burnt. But still, watching ten year old kids take their first sip of coffee in the spirit of cross cultural experiences, and seeing their faces transition from sparkling delight to crumpled frowns of betrayal… how could coffee get any better?
- Bonus cup that I seriously had to debate whether it’s in the top five or not: The never-ending cup that my sister Lori and I tried to drink in the rain. Was that at Disneyland? Cedar Point? Anyway, we were at an amusement park as it started pouring rain. We wanted to have some coffee to warm up. The shop was out of lids, though, so our coffee kept getting more and more dilute.
Anyway, back to the bike ride. As I’ve already stated, the road was long, there were a lot of climbs, but the views made it absolutely delightful. Erik was working remotely the previous couple of days, but he took this day off, so we got to see him a lot. He seemed to be able to read our minds and predict which turnouts we would use for rest stops.
As the sun climbed higher and it got warmer and less misty, more and more cars found their way on the road. We talked to a good many travelers, and they all seemed to think that we were a bit nuts for biking this route. As Sue said, when she’s driven Highway 1 in the past and seen cyclists on it, she had always thought to herself that they were crazy motherfuckers. She turned to me at one point and said, “It turns out that now we’re those crazy motherfuckers.”
Of course, it was inevitable that eventually the distance and time would add up and make some of us crabby. Or at least make Sue crabby. To our delight, though, Cortney and I find Crabby Sue a hoot to be around. Some great things come out of her mouth, such as when we stopped to watch some dolphins. We looked down the cliff and the water was clear enough that we could see the shapes of several dolphins swimming in the shallows. We see dolphins a lot, but usually only their dorsal fins as they come up to breathe. This time we got to see them chase around, probably in pursuit of fish. As Sue put it, “I see you, you stupid water mammals!” She also had a few choice words for the ocean.
There were high winds, of course, and my bike got knocked over at one point. It didn’t seem like a problem until I started riding and realized that my front brake lever was knocked out of place. I pulled it back into position and everything seemed fine, just a little less solid than I would have liked. However, about an hour later my
front brake suddenly locked up. It couldn’t have happened in a better spot though! As I started fussing with it, Erik was just in time to pull up. Besides, it was lunch time, and we were at the perfect spot to eat, with picnic tables and bathrooms. So Cortney, Sue, and I enjoyed leftover pizza from last night’s dinner while Erik magically fixed my brake. Yet another reason why Erik wins at support car driving.
I have to say it again, I love traveling by bicycle because you get to pick your pace. I’ve always loved driving Highway 1, but I don’t think I could be satisfied with that now. I felt so sorry for all the people zipping past all this beauty in their cars. It’s so easy on a bike to hop off whenever you want in whatever little turnout.
As we sat and looked out at the view, we’d often see a car go past with someone leaning out the window trying to snap a picture. Or maybe they’d have a GoPro attached to their car. How sad, I thought, to drive through this gorgeous place at a reckless speed, relying on your ability to recreate it on a screen. Sure, the cars often stop when they can, but it’s enough of a hassle that most cars don’t do that very often. Not us. We took all the opportunities to stop that we could. One of my favorite pictures of the trip is this one of Cortney:
And it’s not just because I’m the finest photographer since Ansel Adams. It’s because she’s relaxed, maybe even slightly weary. She’s probably adjusting her playlist. The main difference between her and the people who jump out of their cars to snap pictures is that she has time. She’s not worried about soaking it all in right now because she’s been doing this all day and will continue to do it all day.
(I’ll be really sad if Cortney comments on this and says that actually this is a photo of her reading her email and she’s in a panic because work is blowing up and her boss is yelling at her for not being there.)
All too soon, the road got pretty flat, and we were coming out of Big Sur. The road also deteriorated in quality quite a bit. It was a rattling ride that kind of shook your insides about. Sue had enough of that. She said she could have done another ten miles of climbs, but not this. She put in a call for Erik to pick her up by the elephant seals.
So we got to hang out with the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery for a while. They spend most of their time out at sea, and while they’re at the rookery, they’re fasting. Which means that they don’t move much at all to conserve energy. Watching elephant seals is kind of like watching giant slugs, except usually giant slugs move.
For some contrast, we were also forced to hang out with some ground squirrels, which looked like they had long been preparing for a lengthy fast that never started, but they
were worried that it still just might. They reminded me of those people who constantly proclaim the end of the world is coming, despite the evidence that all previous claims had been false. These chubby squirrels came at us in a frenzied waddle, demanding entry into our saddle bags, where I’m sure they knew there were bags of trail mix and cinnamon bears. We scolded them away, but not before snapping a couple pictures.
So Cortney and I bid farewell to Sue as she climbed into the car with Erik, her trusty steed strapped onto the back. There were only seven miles to go, but we couldn’t coax her to stick it out. Maybe she’d come back and do it in the morning, she said, but for now she was done with this rattly road.
One of the delights of being on Highway 1 at this point is getting to see Hearst Castle zebras! They were pretty close to the road and I stopped to pull out my camera, but before I could get a good picture, they’d wandered off. Lousy stripey stuck-ups.
Finally, Cortney and I pulled up to our motel, where Sue was already showered and looking cozy. We headed out for dinner and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. Shortly afterwards we were all zonked out.
TL;DR version: The coast of Big Sur is absolutely beautiful and should be traveled by bicycle.