Tim Ritter

SF2Bend, Pt 1: California

Tim Ritter
SF2Bend, Pt 1: California

Intro

Here's the overall map. The actual Strava routes of each day are linked below. It took us 19 days and just under 600 miles of actual riding before we crossed the border into Oregon, which happened as we climbed an empty dirt pass through the Siskiyou Mountains (more on that later). We essentially rode inland through Sonoma ranch & wine country and then out to the coast through the Anderson Valley. Then we followed the ever popular Pacific Coast cycling route in reverse, passing a dozen or so southbound cycle tourists everyday. Then we cut inland into Oregon along Hwy 199 and the Smith River, though we managed to avoid being on the highway itself for much of the way. 

In brief, we loved some of it, hated parts of it, almost quit, but then didn't, enjoyed some surprise company, said goodbye to said company, shed a few tears and laughed and smiled. 

Day 1, Home to Samuel Taylor SP

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Part of the fun of starting a bike tour from your own front door is that friends and family get to tag along for a bit. On July 7, after some frantic last minute packing, we set off up Ocean Beach toward the Golden Gate Bridge. It was like any other bike ride, except that we wouldn't be turning around. My parents and our good friend Steven met us in the Presidio to accompany us across the bridge on our first day. 

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After lunch and beers in Sausalito, my parents turned around to brave the Golden Gate Bridge crowds a second time. Steven, however, carried on with us for the day. His plan was to camp with us for the night and then head back home to the city the next day. These plans would soon change though, making for one of my all-time favorite travel memories. 

Camden had just weaned from breastfeeding about a week before we set off, which was great timing. It just meant that we were on the constant prowl for cold milk. It gave us a good excuse to wait out the mid-afternoon sun before making the climb out of Fairfax. We also had to deal with the mess as Cam often drenched his trailer while we rode. Our version of an oil spill was milk seeping through the floor of the Burley. 

One of the absolute best parts of riding and camping around the Bay Area is the abundance of great food and drink and fresh produce. By the time we got up to Mendocino County we'd be missing this something terrible. The Farmstand at Forest Knolls is simply the quintessential spot. It's right on the way to the campground and it's as good of produce as you'll ever find. They even gave us a bag of ice to keep our local bacon cold overnight. We ate really well during our first week or so. 

Samuel Taylor is one of my favorite local campgrounds. For many, it is the last stop off before finishing their southbound ride in San Francisco. For me and other SF locals, it offers a perfect one-night escape option. The hike&bike site ($8/night) sits right atop beautiful Lagunitas Creek in a grove of redwoods. Making the ride even more fun is the sweet little Cross-Marin Trail that parallels the highway through the trees. 

My worst fear regarding the trip was that Monique or Cam would stop having fun and it would feel like I was dragging them along on my selfish little endeavor. (As it turns out, this was never the case!) Monique's worst fear, as a people-pleaser, was that Cam would have trouble adjusting to sleeping in the tent and would wake up everybody in the campground. As I figured it, this was fear was most likely to lead to my own fear. And, as it turns out, our very first night of the trip was a perfect fulfillment of Monique's worst-case scenario.

The hike&bike site was cramped with about ten other cyclists, all within less than fifty feet from us. This was Monique's most nerve-wracking scenario. Then Cam got a mosquito bite on his foot and subsequently couldn't stay asleep until about 4am. Our first night involved many sleepless and anxious hours of trying to soothe him and hush him, until I finally had to move our sleeping bags off into the woods away from everyone else. Eventually we caught a couple hours of sleep. 

Actually, it turned out to be a real blessing that our first night went exactly as feared. In the morning, as we each did our walk of shame back to the group campground to make coffee, we hung our heads and apologized for the noise. "Absolutely no problem," everyone said. "Everyone that has kids knows how it goes." In fact, most of the group was stoked and inspired by our attempt to tour with Cam and his boisterous presence around camp in the morning made everyone's day. Our fears of ruining everyone's days turned out to be part true, but mostly mistaken. Cam brought people, ourselves included, way more joy than irritation. Life is counter-intuitive that way. And by experiencing the worst-case scenario and finding the result to be not anger and death but joy and life, the fear dissipated. For the rest of the trip, we were freed up to care about Cam's sleep for his sake and not out of any neurotic fear of annoying other people. And, it turns out most of the bike folk where ear plugs anyway because they're used to having a loud snorer camped nearby. 

Retrospectively, this was one of the most important nights for us. And it also feels like a kind of symbolic first night representing the nervous experimental nature of the entire trip. Could we do a 1,000-mile bike tour with a toddler or would he stay up and cry all night? Maybe it's yes to both. Maybe things could be as hard and tiring as we were afraid they'd be, and it would still be so good, so worth it. 

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Day 2, Samuel Taylor to Salmon Creek Ranch

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Curiously, our longest stretch without a decent campground was on day 2 in Sonoma County. I found a sweet, albeit expensive, private ranch with a few big group camps in the redwoods near Bodega, CA. It was the perfect spot for some more friends to drive up from the city to meet us for the night. That rendezvous, in turn, incentivized our pal Steven to stay on for another day, planning to hitch a ride home with them the next morning. Hence, our social start continued!

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Enjoying more good, fresh California food!

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We did three short overnight trips in preparation for our adventure, which helped us immensely. Unfortunately, however, these weren't enough to get my body adjusted to fully loaded trailer touring. I'd guess my bike itself weighed around 40-45 pounds, depending on how much water I was carrying, and Cam's trailer was probably around 75-85 pounds depending on food. By the afternoon on day 2, my right knee was entirely overwhelmed. Every pedal stoke made me wince in pain. Off the bike, it was difficult to stand up and to walk. This was big trouble. 

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As we made our way to Salmon Creek, I somberly reflected on whether or not this adventure was actually going to happen. The pain made it difficult to enjoy the riding and the knee was worsening by the mile. That night in camp with dear friends was cheerful and light, though a fog of gloomy concern lingered as it felt like our dream might be falling apart before really getting going.

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Day 3, Salmon Creek to Austin Creek State Recreation Area

When I tried to get up from our tent in the morning, I could barely put any weight on my bad knee. Stumbling, I cursed silently as my bleak pessimism seemed to prove itself. Over coffee, we debated the possible options as a group. We could hitch a ride home that day and call it quits after just two days. We could just keep going and naively hope for the best. But then, half-jokingly at first, an epic plan began to materialize. 

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So Steven is Canadian. He's a Canuck from Saskatchewan. Coincidentally, the start of our trip coincided with a three-week gap between jobs for him. He and his wife made plans to visit family back in Canada during that time. Kate had taken their young son Hudson up a few days early. This gave Steven a few days off and solo which is why he was able to help us kick off our trip to begin with. This was already a delightful surprise. But then, right when things started to turn ugly for me, Steven got an email from his immigration lawyers warning him that flying up to meet his family in Canada would jeopardize his entire green card process. In other words, his wife and son were stuck in Canada and he was stuck here, while unemployed, while I needed some serious help. The universe presented him with a perfect concoction of opportunistic and philanthropic motivations. 

"I could tow Cam for awhile," Steven said across the picnic table. He was smiling. I wasn't sure if he was serious or not. I'm not sure he knew either. 

"Dude." 

I'm not sure how the rest of the dialogue went exactly. But an hour or two later Steven's bailout ride was driving away and we were connecting the Burley to Steven's bike. The logic was simple: If I could get a day or two of more lightweight riding then perhaps my knee could rest and adapt. 

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Not only had Steven only planned for one quick night out, but he isn't even a cyclist! He's a runner who has gone for a few overnighters with us on bikes just because that was the modus operandi of the occasion. He certainly hadn't trained for a heavily laden bike tour. In other words, he's a freakin champ. He's also easygoing, generous, appreciative and optimistic: An ideal touring companion.  

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In addition to passing off the towing duties, we met my folks for lunch in Occidental where I went berserk on the bike and trailer, stripping off everything we could spare. We hadn't overpacked. I still feel that. But we were at the point where it was an easy choice to risk the future of the trip over having to call it quits right now. I ditched the fenders, the trailer handle, the kindle and Cam's already very limited selection of toys. I think I only saved us a couple pounds, but I needed all the relief I could get. 

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So, re-arranged and enlivened with hope, we continued off on our northward journey. Except for a couple tough hills, all was well...

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But the day quickly turned eventful. First, we went through both trailer tire spares within an hour and our dilapidated old patch kit proved useless. Monique and I drank a beer in the shade at Armstrong Redwoods while Steven, our burgeoning hero, rode back to Guerneville to find tubes and glue. 

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Once back on the road though, it wasn't long before our emotionally tumultuous day turned just straight gnarly. Armstrong Redwoods is a great park right off the highway near the Russian River. And it was right along the route. Unfortunately, like most California state parks it is totally packed in the summer time. As expected, it was full. And there was no hike&bike site.I had planned for this and had routed us through the park and up into Austin Creek recreation area to a hillside campground called Bullfrog Pond. Now, I had noted that this would add some significant climbing. The hope was to follow some fire roads off the backside of the mountain the next morning, taking a hopefully scenic shortcut up into wine country.

I didn't look closely enough at a topo map or Strava elevation graph, however. The road up to Bullfrog Pond was, without exaggeration, the steepest sustained road I have ever seen. It was a joke, like something from a cartoon. The speed limit was marked as 5 mph for most of the road, though most cars we saw had a hard time getting up it at all. I just did the math: 1,222ft over 2.6 miles. That is an average grade of 8.9%. There were long sections that easily pushed 15 or 16%, making it damn near impossible to push the trailer up the hill. We spent over three hours walking those 2.6 miles. And it was exposed and hot under the afternoon sun. Steven and I took turns pushing the bike with the trailer. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to keep it from rolling off the hill half of the time. We ran out of water, got another trailer flat (we weren't even moving?!), Steven blistered his feet walking barefoot, and I suffered yet another injury while compensating for my weak knee. WebMD would later help me diagnose it as a micro-tear in my Achilles tendon. It hurt like hell and it left me feeling like my right leg was hanging on by a thread. 

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Over dinner we commiserated together, chugged water, laughed at Steven for secretly packing a cheesecake up the hill, and looked forward to the unknown future moment when we might laugh about my routing blunder. 

Then Steven topped off the day by climbing inside an ancient redwood tree to sleep, because, well, when you've already found yourself towing your friends' kid three days into a bike tour you never planned to be on, then, well, why not?

Day 4, Austin Creek SRA to Healdsburg

As I said, the plan for this crazy little stretch of my homemade route was to go up and over that gnarly hill. This idea was the only thing that kept us trudging up there in the first place. So, when a couple miles into our backroad descent we realized this plan was simply unfeasible, you can imagine the feelings expressed. 

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Rigging Cam and the trailer back to my dirt-savvy Ogre, we began to drop down the first all-purpose road. It was fun and relatively smooth sailing. But the further we got from the campground, the more unkempt we found things. Soon, we found ourselves breaking branches off of fallen trees to clear a path through. Eventually, a series of multiple downed trees presented the the ultimate obstacle.

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There was no choice but to turn around and ride back up to the campground and then, absurdly, to ride all the way back down that crazy steep road toward the river. In terms of mileage, it was only about a ten-mile backtrack. Psychologically, however, it constituted something akin to a mortal route-planning sin. I took us up the worst hill we'd ever been in just to get to a B- campground, injure ourselves in the process, ride in circles in the trees, and then roll back down. Yep. I did. I sure did. Sorry? Sometimes, that's the best you got.

So there we went, back up and then down and onward, sometimes laughing at the "adventure" and other times scowling at the sheer "ridiculousness" of these first few days. Our feelings were muddled, so muddled that even a few quiet hours on the bikes couldn't clarify much. Well, that isn't completely true. We knew one thing: It was high time for a beer (or three) and, if possible, some quality time floating in a pool. And as it turned out, Bear Republic Brewery was just up the road in Healdsburg. We could hear it calling. We pretty much rode straight there. 

I think we figured that the rest of our plans would sort of just magically solidify over an IPA or two. Would we stick with the original plan to ride up the hill to Sonoma Lake or make up something new? What actually manifested itself, however, was not any sort of plan but rather an exhausted laziness. 

"We could just stay here," someone said. And so we did. 

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We found the cheapest motel in town, crammed our bikes inside, and jumped straight in the pool. The rest of the day was a blur involving playing with ice, a shameful McDonald's feast, a visit to the bike shop and grocery store, and some midtown blackberry picking. And then some air-conditioned, mattress-softened sleep. 

Day 5, Lazy wine country birthday to Cloverdale 

The next day was Monique's birthday. I had intentionally planned for a mellow day with wine and a hotel. That was my gift. So after a slow morning at the local coffee shop we began to wind our way up the beautiful Dry Creek Valley. 

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After cheerily imbibing the day away, we eventually rode over the hill to Cloverdale where we once again partook in the comforts of a cheap motel. Pool, ice machine, food. Check. 

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Oh and to give us some alone time, Steven went and camped in the town cemetery. Once again: Bike tour hero. Actually, by this time, we had begun calling him the World's #1 #2 Dad.

He still wasn't sure how long he'd keep riding with us. He had given me some solid rest over the past two days. My knee and achilles were still a mess though. Anytime we checked in about plans, it was simply: "Not sure, we'll see what happens tomorrow." Steven's spontaneous accompaniment was, and continues to be, one of my favorite adventures ever. Rarely in adult life, especially during the early parenting years, do we get to live so freely and in the moment. Rarely do we get to do what John Muir often did in simply setting off from home, and once out, deciding to just keep on going, not knowing when he'd stop or how he'd return. I loved it, both for Steven's sake and for ours. 

Day 6, Cloverdale to Hendy Woods

Already in the mid-nineties, the temperatures in the valley were about to heat up. Cloverdale was supposed to hit 102 in a couple days. It was good timing that we were about to make our way out to the coast. Leaving town, we headed up the lovely and hilly Anderson Valley toward Hendy Woods campground on the Navarro River. 

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Day 7, Hendy Woods to Van Damme SP

Today we would hit the coast. The cool temperatures and beautiful ocean views were refreshing, but I had been dreading the stress of traffic on the narrow PCH. Before we'd pop out to the Pacific though we had some beautiful riding through the valley including a long stretch through the gorgeous Navarro River Redwoods State Park. 

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Van Damme is one of the sweetest parks along the entire route. It's just across from a little beach, tucked in a fern forest. A gorgeous trail follows a lush fern-covered creek up a canyon for a few miles. We were tempted to take a day off just because it's so nice, but settled instead for a lazy afternoon and a late morning start (after I went and explored the trail a bit and Cam chased bunnies). 

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Day 8, Van Damme to MacKerricher SP

Instead of taking a day off at Van Damme, we did a half day up the coast to another beautiful park called MacKerricher. Along the way we stopped at a cafe in Mendocino to take care of some internet chores and then hit another brewery in Fort Bragg for lunch and to stock up for our afternoon off. 

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Day 9, MacKerricher to Standish Hickey (Leggett) 

Part of the incentive for the short day was we knew what lay ahead of us. All of the southbound bike tourers we ran into talked about the "crazy climb to Leggett". It was an infamous stretch of the crowded coastal route. For us, heading north, we would do over 4,000 feet of climbing as the PCH turned inland around the Lost Coast to meet Hwy 101. 

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Amazingly, Steven was still with us. In Mendocino he bought Amtrak tickets to return home on the bus from Leggett. This was our last stretch with him. We needed the help to rise to the challenge. 

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The first half of the day up the coast through Westport was wonderful. It is idyllic coastal riding. Then the road turns inland and the first of the two climbs to Leggett begins. We took a long lunch break on a little creek along the road and stewed over whether to stealth camp there to break up the ride or go for it that afternoon. In the end, we couldn't find a great spot to camp and the wind was at our backs, so we pulled the trigger. 

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Steven towed Cam for the first half of the climbing, until his legs were toast. Then he gave me the inevitable signal that it was time to switch. There was at least 2,000 feet of steep and unrelenting uphill left. This would be the make or break moment. As I re-attached the Burley to my bike, I couldn't help but imagine my achilles snapping as I cranked up the steep climb. I really didn't think I'd be able to do it without my banged up leg really falling apart. 

To my own surprise and great encouragement, my body withstood the grind. After a couple sweaty and grueling hours we reached the top and broke into an impromptu celebration. Victory! Not only had we tackled the infamous climb to Leggett, but the trip was still intact. In fact, with this victory, I felt secure for the first time that we would make it all the way to Bend. Steven had saved the trip. My body had adapted with the rest. We were really doing it. 

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After finishing the ride into the sweet hike&bike site at Standish Hickey, we walked across the highway to The Peg House to celebrate over hot food and cold drinks. Highlights included fresh squeezed lemonade and barbecued oysters. And all the earned, earnest smiles. 

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Our decision to do the whole ride in one day allowed us to take our first day off. It was fun timing as it gave us one last day with Steven, and one last chance for him to surprise us with some exorbitant grocery choices. We napped, went down to the Eel River to fish and swim, showed the bikes some affection, danced to Ella Fitzgerald (mostly Cam) and enjoyed a final celebratory feast which centered on a giant box of frozen fried chicken. 

Day 10, Standish Hickey to Richardson Grove (& Farewell to Steven)

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The next morning we said goodbye to Steve. After ten adventurous days together we had dubbed him The World's #1 #2 Dad, and our very own Samwise Gamgee. His unexpected accompaniment both saved our trip and made the first ten days of it so much more than anticipated. As I put this blog together more than a month later I am still overflowing with appreciation and joy at the surprise of having him tag along. As his Amtrak bus pulled off down the highway back to SF, it felt suddenly quiet and barren. 

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The next stretch of riding, along Highway 101 through Humboldt County, proved as I feared, to be our least favorite of the trip. We barreled off the road into Richardson Grove that afternoon to literally escape from the dangerous traffic. The endless armies of hurried drivers and lack of shoulders to retreat to made biking with a trailer an anxious endeavor. We would hang out and rest a bit more in Richardson Grove and then hit the roads early the next morning. 

Day 11, Richardson Grove to Burlington CG (via Ave of the Giants)

We just had to punch through another hour or two on the main highway and then we could dive off onto the splendid Avenue of the Giants scenic detour. I added a sketchy closed road detour as well to further shrink our highway time. (Worth it.)  The Avenue of the Giants was even more quiet than we had hoped, and parts of it really were spectacular. One downed, hollow tree was big enough that we could bike all the way through it. In the lovely Burlington Campground, we scored a hike&bike site to ourselves and lay on our backs watching the distant tree tops sway wildly over our heads. 

Day 12, Burlington to Ferndale 

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We had originally planned to take the Mattole Road out the long way through the wild Lost Coast rather than follow the highway through the redwoods. The notoriously steep climb at the end had us scared though, so when some locals warned us about the area also  being overrun with sketchy weed growers we decided to re-route. We still wanted to keep our plans to go to Ferndale, though, even though it was a ways off the route. It would take us off the highway for a bit and we were excited to stay on a farm we found through Airbnb. The farm proved to be wonderful. 

Our host Wendy turned out to be a beautifully hospitable and fascinating person. We stayed up late drinking wine and talking about life and family and the pain of hypocrisy in church leadership. It was good for our souls. 

Day 13, Ferndale to Arcata 

From one beautiful farm to another even more beautiful farm, we rode up the coast through Eureka to Arcata. 

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Back at Van Damme, some southbound cyclists had raved about their stop off at Blue Blossom Farms. It sounded worth a visit. It actually proved to be one of the best experiences of surprising hospitality on the whole trip. The owner lets cyclists stay for free on the property in one of the amazing yurts or tents that he built, with open access to the gardens and an amazing outdoor kitchen. 

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Day 14, Arcata to Patrick's Point State Park 

As tempting as it was to stay an extra day on the farm in Arcata, we bought some eggs and veggies for a scramble and slowly got on our way. 

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Patrick's Point is, apparently, the locals' favorite park. I see why. It's a great spot. Fortunately too the ride there included some nice coastal backroads and even a stretch of bike path. 

Day 15, Patrick's Point to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park 

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We hoped to see some of the elk that Prairie Creek is known for, especially as our site was right next to a big meadow. All we found though were bugs and fog and some sweet trails that I'll have to come back to ride another time. It was another great hike&bike site along the coastal route, though. 

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Day 16, Prairie Creek Redwoods to Crescent City

This would be our last day on the coastal route proper. In Crescent City we would rest, re-supply, do some laundry and then begin our inland journey toward the Cascades. 

We used the day to enjoy the same suburban comforts that we usually try to avoid. On a family bike tour though though, stuff like crappy motel beds and over-priced laundromats can be strangely nice. I also needed a good chunk of time to get on the internet and fine tune our upcoming route through southern Oregon. We had acquired some new info since we started, including warnings about trying to ride Hwy 199 and recommendations such as going through the Applegate wine region. I had some homework to do before leaving town and going off the grid for a bit. 

Day 17, Crescent City to Jedediah Smith State Park 

We rolled out of town late, which was fine because we had a short ride up the road to Jedediah Smith on the Smith River, which was easily one of the prettiest camping spots along the trip. We went a long way north out of town to avoid the 101, which turned out to be pretty nice. 

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I even got to do a little fishing. However, as most of the coastal rivers up in northern California are really seasonal steelhead and salmon streams without much of a trout population, this was really just warm up for the second half of the trip in Oregon. 

Day 18, Jedediah Smith to Patrick Creek 

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The main route inland across the border is Highway 199, the Redwood Highway. It is a beautiful road that follows the Smith River up into the Siskiyou mountains and then north to Grants Pass. As mentioned though, the road is narrow and "trucky" and we were warned off of it. As is, I already wanted to take as many backroads as possible. And so, rather than heading over the highway into Oregon we would ride just to Patrick Creek (which is a cafe and campground at the confluence of Patrick Creek and the Smith River). From there we would head up on a series of dirt forest roads and make the climb to the Oregon border in traffic-free silence.

As it turns out, most of 199 from Jedediah up through Gasquet to Patrick Creek was actually phenomenal cycling. Except for a couple narrow turns it was wide open, smooth and beautiful. The Patrick Creek campground wasn't great, but it allows us time to swim in the beautiful Smith and grab some beers and internet time across the highway. Monique needed to take care of some business stuff with Kinship and I needed to log on to turn in some assignments for my grad program, so we were happy to find some wifi before going off the grid for a bit. 

The next morning we would begin our dirt adventure up into Oregon. By now, the awesome reality had sunk in: We biked out of our driveway nearly three weeks ago and had ridden all the way to the top of California. Our family bike tour experiment was a success. We were doing it, and we were loving it. Most moments, we were happy and experiencing lots of mental and emotional peace. Cam was just plain stoked, having a blast with all the freedom and curiosity of living outdoors. The major obstacles were overcome, however surprisingly. For the past week, since that make-or-break climb up to Leggett, this was no longer about whether we would make it. During the first ten days I needed all of the grit and determination I could muster. I kind of needed to be a bit obsessed and competitive. But that was done now. The test was passed. Now we were just present to the time, to each other, the experience, the wonderfully human sense of touching each place that comes with riding a bike. The experiment was over. This was now the dream, and we were really living it. 

Don't get me wrong, this was no utopian bike ride. It was spectacularly real and human. We got in fights, got tired and hot and dirty and cranky and said rude things to each other. I spent hours pedaling in silent anger, running through everything I wanted to say to each driver who nearly rubbed us off the road. Cam got cranky and cried and through full body tantrums and woke up in the middle of the night sometimes. But only a few times. Which was awesome. It wasn't a peachy thing to tow a kid on a thousand-mile bike ride.

No, it wasn't peachy, but it was good. It was good and beautiful and healthy and real and significant and rich and wonderful. And for me at least, I had been totally surprised at how little my mind had gotten caught up in all the anger and hurt and disappointment surrounding the chaos with the church. Somehow, we had been able to kind of just ride away from it all in a way that felt not like escapism or distraction but actually like a kind of purposeful re-focus. On tour, it simply mattered more to us how high the next hill was and what we would eat next than who believed what back in SF. The simple concreteness and basic materiality of a task like transporting yourselves from one place (San Francisco) to another place (Bend) just forces you to pay attention to what's right in front of you. This aspect of pilgrimage was a much needed soul-tonic after the traumatic six months prior. It's also a powerful antidote to the kind of limitless and artificial ethos of the San Francisco sub-culture we've been swimming in for six years.

We certainly weren't finding answers to all of life's greatest questions out there, but neither were we trying. I've gone on those trips before, like the summer I tried the PCT and ended up reading the Gospel of Luke on the Deschutes River in Bend. Not this time though. We were turning the volume down on the direct-seeking and answer-finding, wanting rather to relax from months of trying simply to stay sane in the midst of craziness and constantly trying to figure out what's next. For now, what's next, is we're gonna get up each day and ride or bikes through Oregon on the way to see some dear friends. Oh, and fishing, that too! 

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(SF2Bend Part 2: Oregon will be posted shortly!)