On the morning of Day 5, we woke up in San Simeon thinking about breakfast. Real, hot breakfast, with eggs and toast and hashbrowns and bacon and pancakes. However, there weren’t any great breakfast options in our immediate vicinity, so we did what we always do: we got on our bikes.
About six foggy miles later we were in the cute, sleepy town of Cambria. We wandered down Main Street until we found the local breakfast joint, where we burst in on the quiet scene with our neon windbreakers and sniffly noses to bask in the warmth of steaming mugs of coffee.
Once warmed up and fed, it was a little difficult to get back on the bikes, but we managed. It was a little spooky riding down this stretch of Highway 1. The fog was thick and the road was fairly flat, so there wasn’t much in the way of distractions. You can get a bit lost in your own thoughts, listening to the muffled quiet and watching the swirling of the mist.
I stopped at a beach to watch the pelicans go by in stark formation and ended up talking briefly with a German couple. Like many of the tourists we saw drive by, they had a convertible Mustang, giving away the anticipation they must have had of winding their way along the California coast in brilliant sunshine. “Are you American?” they asked me, hands stuffed deep in their thin jackets. “Yes,” I answered. “Is it always this…” the gentleman removed a hand to gesture at the gloom, searching for the right word. “Don’t worry, the fog will burn off soon!” I smiled at them encouragingly and hoped that I was right. I myself was bravely wearing shorts, so at least I looked like I was practicing what I preached.
It turned out that the fog stuck around for much longer than I expected. We reached Cayucos about an hour and a half later and the fog was still holding strong. Fortunately, there was a candy store where I replenished the cinnamon candy supply. Not only that, but I managed to do so without buying unnecessary licorice, which delighted my travel companions.
Just about everyone who knows me knows that I have an obsession with cinnamon candy. It goes back as far as I can remember. My favorites as a kid were cinnamon bears in my Easter basket. Ever since I have been looking for cinnamon bears that
are as good as the ones that the Easter Bunny brought. Sadly, I find that modern cinnamon bears just aren’t cinnamony. Did they change? Did I change? Hot Tamales and cinnamon Jolly Ranchers and Big Red gum are much more reliable ways of getting that artificial cinnamon fix. But still, they’re not quite right. So when I can, I swing by candy shops that offer a greater selection to see if I can find some real quality cinnamon bears. People often help me out on my quest for cinnamon candy. Being a distinctly American thing, I depended on friends and family to send me cinnamon gum and candy when I lived overseas. My niece and nephews are always keeping an eye out for cinnamon candy for me, and I am deeply touched by their thoughtfulness.
What fewer people know about, though, is my obsession with licorice. Black licorice. Salty licorice. And not because I like it. Oh no. I can’t stand the stuff. But when we were in high school, my Finnish friend Sini invited me to join her and her family during one of their vacations back to Finland, and I was introduced to salty licorice. Sini’s love for licorice is as deep, if not deeper than, my intense love for cinnamon. And this intense love is seen throughout the Finnish population. And apparently beyond! There are many countries that love to indulge themselves in this delightful poison. Let us be clear. We’re not talking the same kind of black licorice that you get in the U.S. This isn’t the occasional black Jelly Belly that you mistakenly eat while snacking on a mixed bag that makes you wonder what tastes like medicine, and then you have to drown the taste out by having more Jelly Bellies. We’re talking thick slabs of licorice, tough like rawhide, that you would expect to be stored in those thick glass jars growing dust on the shelves of an apothecary. Or maybe among Professor Snape’s potions ingredients.
“Yes Dumbledore, I have the herb you seek,” Snape drawled, reaching for the jar on the highest shelf, covered in dust and cobwebs. Something scuttled off into deeper shadows when his long, pale fingers grasped the jar and tore it from the still darkness. “I believe this is it,” and he took a breath and blew on the label. “Ah yes,” he said once the dust cleared away and he could read the spidery writing. “Salmiakki. Harvested from the gnarled roots of ancient licorice plants grown in the volcanic soils of the Astringent Range. Tended by trolls who maintain their quality by immediately weeding out anything sweet that may take root. Watered only by the tears and sweat of the dragon of Ammonium Chloride that flies overhead twice a day.” Snape removed the glass stopper from the jar and selected a leathery piece of the licorice, black as obsidian, twisted like an old grape vine, as desiccated as parchment. The candlelight sparkled off the minuscule crystals dusted on its surface. Each crystal glimmered with a sickly cold light, seeming to pulsate with evil. “Powers include incapacitating the victim for thirty minutes. The only bodily function that remains intact is the production of saliva. All senses are numbed except for a gripping thirst. But it is a thirst unlike any other, one that cannot be quenched.”
Salty licorice is not just salty like delicious sodium chloride potato chips salty. No, it’s ammonium chloride salty, as in what-on-earth-is-this-attacking-my-mouth salty. Yet lots of people on this earth are running around with this stuff in their pockets, and they insist on sharing. And I try it, because they look so happy, and I think to myself that I would also like to be that happy. So I’ve had this stuff a few times, and I can’t help but be fascinated, though it does not make me happy. When I returned to Finland in 2011 for Sini’s wedding, I made an effort to eat as much licorice as I could. I even had the support of my cousin Sabrina and other friends we made while there. We tried licorice vodka and licorice ice cream. But wait, it gets even more interesting. Not only does my friend Sini love this stuff, but she can’t stand cinnamon candy! The way I feel about cinnamon is how she feels about licorice, and the way she feels about cinnamon is the way I feel about licorice.
So I’m thinking that somehow these two flavors are linked. And in order to explore this, I feel like I have to eat more salty licorice. I must understand it. I must watch people eat licorice. I need to assess the reactions of people who are tasting this licorice for the first time. Of course, one does not come across salty licorice very often in this country, so when I do find it, I’m tempted to buy it. And then I have lots of salty licorice that I try to get other people to eat. In the spirit of science, of course. People who know this about me get nervous when they see me go into a candy store.
This particular candy store in Cayucos not only sold salty licorice, but they had multiple kinds, and they were ranked in order of saltiness. I was so tempted to try some of each grade. But I exercised self control and bought only the things that would make me happy. More cinnamon bears and cinnamon Jelly Bellies! In turn, this made all the people around me a bit more happy.
So, restocked on fake cinnamon, we continued our way south. We pedaled our way down to Morro Bay, then Highway 1 turns inland. I got a little excited to bike past Grizzly Youth Academy, a program for at-risk youth held on the National Guard base. I used to drive down here fairly frequently to see a former biology student of mine who had joined their program to earn her missing credits and turn her life around. She spent five months here living the military life style, complete with 5 am wake ups, marching, workouts, and relentless study. She thrived in this environment, and it was an honor to be a small part of her transformation. Currently, she is back at her high school and doing quite well. Anyway, coming down all this way in a car to visit her was already pretty taxing on me. Now I did it on a bike! I wondered what she would have thought if I’d shown up to visit her on my bicycle. Probably disappointed; I wouldn’t have been able to drive her off base for a few hours to indulge in Chinese food and chocolate.
Now in familiar territory for me, I started planning our rest stop in downtown San Luis Obispo. However, the three of us regrouped and realized that we required no such rest stop. I was torn because part of me really wanted to go to a particular bakery called Bello Mundo Cafe. My student had called me once and put in a special request for cupcakes for her friend’s birthday. That would have been so simple, yet such a luxury for the students during their residential phase at the National Guard. I decided to spoil them a little and called this bakery to have cupcakes delivered to Grizzly. I’m not normally one to crow about customer service, but this bakery went above and beyond to make sure these girls got their cupcakes. The girls were thrilled; I even got thank you phone calls and cards in the mail! They swore that they were the best cupcakes they’d ever had. My student and I visited the cafe since then to say thank you in person, and of course I had to try a cupcake, but I felt too guilty about it. I kind of wanted to go back and have a guilt-free cupcake. But we were in the mood to just keep moving, so I passed on the cupcake and happily had another cinnamon bear instead.
So now for quite a while we were away from the coastline. We were in the rolling dry hills of California at the end of summer. It’s beautiful and remote, but you also pay a lot of attention to what’s on the road when you’re traveling on a bike. We would always have to comment on what interesting things we biked past or over. We’re always impressed by how much metal is on the road. Do things just fall off of people’s cars all the time? It seems like there are a lot of nuts and bolts and random lengths of wire to dodge. Sometimes you don’t see it, you just hear it jingle as you ride right over it. Often I think that I must have dropped something. Once I was convinced that my keys must have bounced out of my bag and turned around to look for them. And we were puzzled by the abundance of banana peels. We decided Banana Man must have been about a day or two ahead of us, doing his own bike tour, fueling himself with a banana every hour or so. But of course the most fascinating stuff to look at is the roadkill.
Of course there were the squirrels, skunks, and raccoons, but some of them were more difficult to identify. I think one was a fox. And you have to wonder if the birds were struck by a car or if they just happened to die by the side of the road. I thought that it might be interesting to make a coffee table book just of roadkill. Though I’m pretty sure it’s been done before. Oh, whoops, yup, it has.
We turned back west and made it to Pismo Beach, and we decided it was finally time to touch the ocean!
This was our coastal trip, after all, we had to get in some beach time! So after dinner we scampered over to the beach. Cortney had promised during the heat of the day that she would run into the ocean. At that time, it looked deep blue and calm and delicious. Of course, now it was a different story. It was kind of gray and bossy. We managed getting our feet wet, but mostly we inspected the kelp on the beach to find little critters.
Fascinatingly, the beach was also covered in what appeared to be blue plastic discs with some extra clear plastic attached. They must have been jellies that had sadly been beached, but unlike any jelly I was familiar with.
Later, I would learn from my nephew’s library book on jellies that these are called by-the-wind sailors. The clear part is their sail, which hangs out above the surface of the water. They are completely at the whim of the winds, which makes it very common for them to be stranded on beaches.
We hung out on the beach long enough to be treated to another lovely sunset. Feeling accomplished with our salty, sandy feet, we headed back to the motel for another ridiculously early bedtime.
TL;DR version: We’re now at Pismo Beach! I like cinnamon! Licorice is weird.