It was time to do a longer solo trip to really work out the kinks of bicycle travel, so I decided to go to Folsom.
Yup, that Folsom.
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since, I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’
On down to San Antone
– Johnny Cash
Why Folsom? Back in my student teaching days, I made a friend in Felton named Molly. She just recently started a teaching job at a continuation school in Rancho Cordova and moved into a house in Folsom. I really wanted to see her classroom and hang out with her a bit and just get to know what her new life is all about. She’s gone through some difficult times, to put it mildly, and I’m just happy that things are going so well for her now.
Fortunately, the Western Express Route, a quicker route across the US than the TransAmerica Route, goes right through Folsom, and I just happen to have those maps! It was too perfect: a fantastic opportunity to explore an Adventure Cycling route, and a route that went along the American River Trail, no less! I love the American River. I used to go whitewater kayaking on the American River quite a lot, so that river is filled with precious memories for me.
This wouldn’t be the most direct route I could take to Folsom, but I figured it would be the most enjoyable. With about 175 miles to travel one way, I knew it would be a big push, but I aimed to get there and back in four days. I would leave on Tuesday morning and be back Friday night. Of course, I had my back up plan of calling my big brother to come save me. If that failed – call Daddy!
I purposefully did not do too much planning, because there will of course be times coming up when I’m on my cross country trip when all my plans will flop. So I wanted to see how I did with figuring stuff out on the road. I wanted things to go wrong so that I could know that I could fix them.
Be careful what you wish for. On Monday evening I was packing up my bike and lubing up the chain when the telltale signs of a migraine popped up. Migraine sufferers know what I’m talking about. I feel lucky that I only get migraines a few times a year. Some people get them much more frequently, and I don’t understand how they can put up with it. Each migraine I get reduces me to a useless nauseous blind blob that can’t tolerate light or noise or other humans. My vision goes first, and that’s when I know that I have to seal myself up in isolation to spare the rest of humankind. I have about half an hour before I will have no control over what I might say or do to any well-intentioned soul just trying to help.
Needless to say I didn’t get any more packing done that night.
Another lucky thing about my migraines is that though they are very intense, they don’t last very long. The next morning I was fine, minus some bad motion headaches, but since I still had to get to the CrossFit gym and pack, I didn’t actually get on the road until close to 1pm.
But, get on the road I did, and I sort of hoped that I could make it to Fairfield, about 95 miles away, to join up with the Western Express Route. I knew it wasn’t likely that I would make it, but it was worth a shot. The fully loaded panniers were heavy, making it really difficult to get my bike moving, but once it was going, I was surprised that it didn’t feel that much different from usual. I was carrying a lot of stuff that I was hoping I would need, but figured I might not – stuff like my sleeping bag, my hammock, and the JetBoil. If possible, I would try to sleep under the stars. But I also didn’t want to get in trouble with any cops. Supposedly it will be easier to stealth camp as I move east across the country, but in the highly populated areas of California, my hopes weren’t very high.
I just tried to enjoy the ride, but with the late start I didn’t want to stop very much to take pictures. Still, what with it being the beginning of spring, the hills were just too green to not photograph.
The ride was really enjoyable, and I was having a blast on the Iron Horse Regional Trail when I joined up with it in Pleasanton. Talk about a great trail. It follows the Southern Pacific Railroad right of way that was abandoned in 1977. I was incredibly impressed with how popular the trail was and how much everyone was looking out for cyclists when the trail had to cross roads. One of the annoying things about traffic lights is that they don’t sense bicycles, so you have to go hit the pedestrian walk signal button if you’re going to get anywhere, and that just isn’t always easy to reach. On this trail, sensors picked up on your bike and warned cars to stop to let you pass. I felt so spoiled.
Well, I didn’t get anywhere close to Fairfield. After about 50 miles I was in San Ramon and started really thinking about where I could spend the night. I kept checking clumps of trees along the trail and could imagine being totally happy setting up my hammock among them, but I also imagined that the police would come along and kick me out. So I caved and stopped at The Habit for a burger and sweet potato fries while I made some phone calls. I forced myself to linger, even buying an ice cream cone to hide behind, so that I could charge my phone a while longer. I can’t wait until my light arrives with the USB port so that I can hook it up to my generator hub. Anyway, I figured I had another 10 to 15 miles in me, so I looked around in Walnut Creek for a cheap place to stay. Luckily, I found Diablo Mountain Inn and pulled into my room around 8:30 pm. I usually have trouble sleeping in a new place, but this night I was out in seconds.
So the next day I had to make up some ground. Because of my late start and only covering 63 miles on Tuesday, I was stuck with 110 miles to do on Wednesday. Well, it could have been shorter, but I really wanted to meet up with the Western Express Route in Fairfield, so I was adding on a little extra mileage. I figured if I started around 6am, I’d be okay. But 7am rolled around and I was still in bed. Then it became really easy to justify that I should stick around for breakfast, which started at 7:30, since I’d only have to stop along the road anyway to find something to eat. Lori called me at 8:15 just as I was finally clicking my helmet on to check to see if I was on the road yet. I got a little frazzled at having to report that I hadn’t actually started yet, but she calmed me down. It’s all about the experience, after all, not the destination.
I quickly found myself mixed in with lots of bicycle commuters. The Iron Horse Trail was filled with cyclists going to work. Several of them pulled up alongside me and wanted to chat about my loaded panniers and if I was touring. One guy was able to guess that I was on a training ride for a cross country tour. It didn’t seem weird at the time, but now that I think back on it… how did he know? Puzzling.
At noon I pulled into a Peet’s in Fairfield to wait for a phone call from Nadya, my rep at Be the Match. We chat every Wednesday, and it was a wonderful chance to take a break, get some food, and break up the solitude. I certainly wasn’t minding being alone, but it was nice to hear a friendly voice. When I got back on my bike, though, I started to get very concerned about my time. I’d now used up five hours and had only traveled about 35 miles. This was not going to do at all.
At this point, though, I was very excited that I was on the Western Express Route! I figured out a way to attach my Adventure Cycling map to my handlebars and gave my poor phone a break from all the navigating. Suddenly I was feeling very creeped out – the roads were eerily familiar. There was one bend in the road where I almost fell over because the feeling of recognition was so strong. I realized that I had made it into Vacaville, where I had done a metric century, a charity ride for diabetes research, with Lori, Cortney, Race, Kat, and Hai-Yue back in October. I was riding part of the route that we did!
How fortuitous that this should happen, though, because I never did end up writing about that charity ride before. Now I have a reason to recall it. The ride was great – except for the time when Lori, Kat, and Hai-Yue all missed a turn and Race and I balked at who should chase them down and get them, and the longer we waited the farther away they got, and finally I ended up being the one to sprint after them and it was totally exhausting – and maybe we did a small part to defeat diabetes, but there was one small thing that bothered me a great deal. They had a raffle, as these charity events often do, and one of the prizes was a children’s bike. All decorated up with cute little bubbles painted on it and its name, Soda Pop, plastered on the down tube. At a diabetes ride. Soda Pop. Ugh.
Anyway, back to the more recent ride along the Western Express Route. The route was pretty lonesome with not a whole lot going on except green hills, some cows, some sheep, and lots of turkeys. It was pretty, but the solitude was starting to get to me a little.
I was hoping to see another cyclist to chat with, but there just weren’t any. So I was pretty happy when I got close to Davis and lots more people started showing up. I chatted with one nice lady for a while, then stopped at a Starbucks to refill my water bottles and slam a green tea lemonade, which lasted me two swallows and was about the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. Then I sent Molly a message, because if I was going to see her that night, it seemed like she would have to come pick me up. But in the meantime I still had a few hours of daylight, so I chugged along.
In West Sacramento I was so close to the American River Trail I could almost taste it. Besides coming to see Molly, the main attraction for me was the American River Trail. I so badly wanted to be back at the American River. I didn’t care if it wasn’t the section that I used to paddle, I just love that river so much, and it would just be so meaningful to think that I could ride my bike all the way to the American River. I stopped at a gas station to eat a hot dog and charge my phone – this trip was quickly sweeping away any previous thoughts of stopping at cute little diners and eateries as the reality of 7-11 and gas station stops was setting in – and talked with Molly a bit. It was about 6:00 now, and the very earliest I could imagine being in Folsom was 8:00, probably later because as it got dark I would surely slow down. As much as it broke my heart, in the interest of being a good friend who didn’t want to arrive too late, I agreed that I could save the American River Trail for my return trip. Today, though, I would only ride into downtown Sacramento and get on the light rail to Folsom, where Molly would pick me up.
Well, that was the plan, anyway.
Unfortunately, Molly and I have much to learn about the Sacramento light rail. When I got to a light rail station, I learned that they had already stopped running trains to Folsom. With only 1% of my phone’s battery left, I called Molly to set up a different meeting point. After standing at the station for about a half hour, though, the train I was hoping for didn’t arrive. I thought maybe, since I was so close to the end of the line, I was supposed to get on a train going the wrong way and just stay on it as it turned around. I tried that and found out that’s not how it works. So I called Molly again to tell her that I was going to be really late, and she decided to start driving into Sacramento to meet me halfway. I told her I would get off at the 39th Street Station, and she asked me for the cross street. The map didn’t show a cross street, so I asked people on the train, and everyone tried to patiently explain to me that the station was on 39th Street, that’s why it’s called the 39th Street Station. Right as my phone died, a nice guy finally figured out what I was asking for and told me it was near R street. That information would have been fantastic three seconds earlier.
So I got off the light rail with my new friend, who was also getting off at 39th Street, and I hoped that Molly would figure out how to find me. The last thing I heard her say was something about 48th Street though, so I feared that maybe she was heading there instead. My new friend carried my panniers for me as I pushed my bike along and offered his phone for me to use, but silly me, I didn’t have Molly’s number written down. Lesson learned – keep all phone numbers stored somewhere other than in your phone. Fortunately, some AT&T guys were working on the transformer there, so they were able to plug me into an outlet so I could call Molly. She had managed to find her way to the 48th Street station and refused to move anymore – apparently she’d been through a fiasco of her own. So the AT&T guys gave me directions, and five minutes later I finally found her. She was hanging out with some guy, a medical student, who offered to sit with her until I arrived, which was super nice of him.
In the end, I didn’t actually end up meeting up with Molly until about 9:15 pm. I should have just ridden my bike the rest of the way.
So I was being a terrible friend, arriving that late, and then leaving so early the next day in order to get home by Saturday morning. In the morning Molly’s son, Sammy, melted my heart as he crawled into my lap and wrapped my arms around him like a seat belt, thinking that would keep him from having to go to school. I told Molly I would swing by her school on my way home and waved goodbye as she took off for work. Then I started recalculating.
I didn’t have to make it all the way home. I decided I could spend Thursday in Folsom, then use Friday to ride my way to Pittsburg, where I could get onto BART! Brilliant! It would a hell of a long ride, but that’s what I was trying to accomplish, right? I sent Molly a message to ask if I could spend another day, and she said yes.
So I had Thursday to just relax and enjoy myself. I found a DVD of Planes, which I’d never seen, so I dozed in front of the TV with that on and did my laundry. Then I took off for a very pleasant, leisurely ride on the American River Trail. Finally – I was on the American River Trail. I was ridiculously happy. And without my panniers, I felt so light and free, I was a brand new person.
I was shocked to see the gates! We always talked about the gates on the American River. The flows of the river are controlled, and so that always determined what the rapids would be like. I knew the gates were there, several times we were still on the river when they closed the gates, so if you lollygagged you’d end up without enough water, and it would be a battle to pick up the pace to catch up with the water. But I never saw them. I was stunned at how massive they were. I don’t know why I was stunned, of course they would be. I just never really pictured them before.
I found my way to Molly’s school, and I was very excited to see what a great environment she’s in. She’s been given a ton of outdoor space to use however she wants, so she’s doing one of the things she does best – building a garden! It’s a work in progress, and in the meantime, her service dog Cody enjoys hanging out there with students throwing balls for him.
Molly and I got to spend a nice day together hanging out, then on Friday it was definitely time for me to go. I wasn’t going to stick with the Western Express Route back – I was going for a more direct route to Pittsburg. I still started off with the American River Trail, and I totally enjoyed my time on it again. This time I was able to ride a lot of it with a nice old man who chattered on to me about bicycle touring. I tried to take a picture of the giant bossy strutting turkeys I was seeing all over the place, but didn’t do that well. I quickly lost interest because there were just so many of them, they didn’t seem like anything special anymore.
And even though this ride was longer than the one I did on Wednesday, it was surprisingly easier. There were some strong headwinds, which made it annoying, but it just wasn’t as lonesome as the route up. I was cutting through a whole lot of towns, and I think breaking it up into small sections from town to town just made the whole thing seem to fly by.
The big achievement I had for the day was crossing the Senator Nejedly Bridge, which crosses the San Joaquin River. I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid of bridges, but there is a certain awe I feel when I approach one. This one just seemed to loom up out of the flatness and looked like this skinny little ribbon. From a distance it looks like you’re expected to balance your way across this tiny beam, and with the winds blowing as badly as they were, I thought I would get knocked right off. Of course I knew this was nonsense and that there would be a high wall and a nice wide bike lane, but still, my imagination was running away with me.
This bridge was not easy to cross. Well, it was, but it just kept going, and going, and going. And you know that you have no choice but to just keep going – there’s no turning around or looking back. It’s just a mental thing. I was pretty thrilled to come down the other side and get off, and right as I was exiting the bridge, another cyclist was just starting his climb going the other way. He gave me a very long and heartfelt wave. It was a bonding moment. As soon as I was able, I stopped and tried to get a picture of it. It doesn’t look like much in my photo, but trust me, it was quite exhilarating.
Finally, I made it to Pittsburg, and I hopped onto BART heading for Milllbrae. That ride was annoying, since it’s super crowded with everyone going to the airport and not enough space to stash a bike, except I did get to have a somewhat successful conversation with two guys speaking sign language. I noticed that they were talking with each other about my bike, and when they noticed that I noticed, they asked me lots of questions. Which I’m pretty sure I answered correctly.
In Millbrae I had a long time to wait for the Caltrain and I started to get really really hungry. I called my dad to ask him to pick me up in Sunnyvale and if there was any food at his house. So finally, about an hour later, around 10:00, I was in my parents’ house inhaling lots of food and hot tea. Which, you know, is a great way to end any journey.
Ha – forgot to mention that that turn we missed was about 1 mile into the ride. 🙂 and that I was convinced we were still on route since there were no signs to be seen saying we were not
I agree, all routes should be marked with “you’re not on the route anymore” signs at all stumbling opportunities. Way fewer people would end up lost.