IN SEARCH OF SUNSHINE BY TRAIN
Prosser, Washington, to Portland, Oregon – 250 miles
One accepts getting wet as part of any bicycle adventure. Getting soaked to the bone is another story, however. Unfortunately, in what ended up being the wettest of wet seasons the PNW has ever experienced, Elisabeth and I were soon living that not-so-happy other story. Near Prosser, Washington, approximately 200 miles from Seattle, Elisabeth and I loaded our bicycles in a ten-foot U-Haul van and drove through the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, Oregon, in search of sunny weather. The wind howled and the rain buffeted our small van for most of the winding way to Portland. To be honest, we were glad to be driving and not pedaling into the raging headwind. Several times we looked at one another, remarking that our cycling on a day like this would have been akin to pedaling furiously atop stationary bicycles at our local gym.
We stopped in Hood River, Oregon, for cookies and hot chocolate (sugar usually fixes most dilemmas). I queried the waitress about cyclists in the gorge – and the rain and wind specifically. “Only idiots cycle east to west this time of year because the wind and rain are so ferocious,” she remarked. I could feel Elisabeth’s eyes boring into me as I did my best to hide behind my cup of cocoa. The waitress strolled off, adjusting her semi-beehive hairdo, while Elisabeth gave me the I guess that tiny detail didn’t turn up in your research, did it honey? look. I cringed. My laissez faire attitude, which sometimes leads me to figuring things out on the fly, doesn’t always pan out.
For the remainder of the drive, we were quiet, like two kids who had been placed in time out. (Come to think of it, it was only me who had been banished to my room. Doh!)
Portland, Oregon, to Sacramento, CA – 450 miles – aboard Amtrak
As we drove, we were lost in our own thoughts, where we both watched our Big Bike Tour slip away. You see, it was still raining in Portland, and to find clear weather meant a 450-mile train ride south to find sunshine in Sacramento. “No sense camping in Portland,” I thought. “A nice cozy Airbnb cottage will help lift our spirits while we sightsee, eat well, drink more, and catch an overnight sleeper car to Sacramento.”
Mostly, the plan worked, save many sighs from Elisabeth. The train ride aboard the Coastal Starlight helped smooth over the rough spots, and, as we pedaled out of the Amtrak station in Sacramento, we smiled at one another broadly, feeling renewed – though not actually any leaner, as had been the original hope. It was true it was not the longer journey, the one in which we envisioned ourselves hugging the Washington and Oregon coasts like modern day Lewis and Clarks. We had missed gazing at seals, camping out above the big blue Pacific, and eating Tillamook cheese in Tillamook. But Sacramento to San Diego was still an 800-mile ride – a distance that’s not exactly chump change, especially when we were schlepping eighty pounds of gear up and over every steep highway promontory in our path. So, Elisabeth and I were back on track, pedaling together in the California sunshine, actively earning the miles we travelled and feeling we were one with the earth beneath our wheels.
Sacramento to Dixon (23 miles) to Vacaville (15 miles) to San Francisco (54 miles) – by way of Napa
We stopped for lunch at Taqueria Jalisco in Dixon, California, twenty-three miles from Sacramento. We were on the way to visit Mimi, one of Elisabeth’s sisters (she has four sisters: Coco, Mimi, Kiki, and Cece, and a brother named Le Corbeau, the Crow), in Vacaville, a 40-mile ride from Sacramento. At the taqueria, we dipped fresh corn chips into a mountain of delicious guacamole, poured hot sauce on plump gorditas, drank beer, and tapped our toes in time with the Mariachi music playing in the background. Between scrumptious mouthfuls of Mexican food, we revisited tales of our harrowing adventure over the Cascade Mountains, just ten days prior. Good food in our bellies and sunshine beaming through the windows, we giggled like school kids, when we spoke of riding through the tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass just ten days before, wet and almost frozen in the pitch black, afraid bears lay waiting to eat us.
Then Elisabeth received a text from Mimi, who wanted to let us know we would be dining at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa the following evening – but not before a tasting tour at Caymus Vineyards. Sure enough, just a little over twenty-four hours later, Elisabeth and I sat under the beautiful trellis-covered portico at Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley, I, with a tall, crystal wine glass in my right hand, sniffing and languishing over the ripe and spicy flavors of the best glass of Zinfandel I have ever had the pleasure of drinking.
A few hours later, more pleasure befell us as we ate like kings and drank yet more wine at Bistro Don Giovanni. At one point in the evening, I sat back in my chair, completely satiated, and took inventory of our privileged surroundings. An Alexander Calder painting hung on the wall to my right, flanked by a red-marble-topped bar. Behind that bar, the bartender smiled warmly at his patrons, pouring drinks and laughing at a comment from a beautiful woman. There was a waist-high wall filled with orchids in bloom, and everywhere around us were people engaged in conversation, bedecked in fine clothes, and smiling as if was just another Saturday night. I wanted to join them, to be a part of this place. I considered stopping our bicycle ride then and there to see if I could find a job and settle down in Napa. It wasn’t much of a stretch to dream of living a life like this for, well, all of eternity. “Maybe heaven is like Napa,” I thought, as the waitress delivered my creme brulee.
The next day, Elisabeth and I were back in the saddle, though, experiencing a (brief) reality check, as we pedaled through traffic and sidestepped disaster on the way to the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay at Richmond. There, reality check complete, we spent three days with another of Elisabeth’s sisters, Coco, and her husband Guy, who is a French chef. High on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay and the glittering city beyond, Guy prepared yet more fabulous food for us, and we drank yet more delicious wine. At this point, we joked that we felt we were being fattened for slaughter. It seemed that, as Jamie’s tarot reading had predicted, our bicycle tour had made a decided turn towards delicious hedonism. Still, we had 635 miles of challenging California coastline yet to traverse. Cycling Big Sur alone would be worthy of a merit badge to adhere to our panniers, I thought. With the help of an Indian taxi driver (who had just learned to drive) named Mr. Tanjit (click to read “Mr. Tanjit’s Wild Ride”), we bypassed the city and made our way to the coast.
Halfmoon Bay to the Costanoa Lodge, Pescadero, CA – 30 miles
Our sleeping accommodation on Friday evening was a small tent cabin, which I believe is a Californian’s version of roughing it. “Glamping,” I think it is called, having once read an article in Southern Living magazine about glamorous camping – and we loved it. The tiny structure was one of thirty or so similar cabins located on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the steep hillsides above. The waterproof, fabric-covered structure housed a queen bed outfitted with electric blankets, reading lamps, and electrical outlets. We felt as if we had (happily) fallen into a hedonist’s pit. And then we discovered the lodge’s restaurant, bar, and general store. Damn straight, it was not your usual KOA.
Spying the bar and grill sign as we pedaled to Cabin 15, we immediately ditched our plan to cook dinner on our pocket rocket stoves. A tasty meal of yummy Knorr noodle packs and foil pack salmon was no match for a hotbed of California cuisine and an open bar. (In my experience, there is just something about bike travel that makes you want more whiskey.) We showered at the lodge’s comfort station – a large bath house with separate facilities for men and women. It housed indoor and outdoor showers, toilets – and, oh, yeah, a sauna. In the horseshoe the sides formed, a group of Adirondack chairs were spaced evenly in front of a huge outdoor fireplace.
“Put a fork in me, I’m done,” I remarked giddily to myself as I exited the comfort station, freshly showered, warm, and primed for a Crown Royal at the bar, where, it turned out, Elisabeth and I sat, engaged in an hours-long conversation with a gregarious couple, Gary and Kim, from Livermore, California. It seemed Gary’s job is top secret – something to do with designing test circuits for nuclear warheads – so we didn’t talk work much. Instead, the evening’s chatty mix was founded on the merits of beef bourguignon, brown liquor, and the lure of the southern United States – about which Kim spoke with such a great syrupy Southern accent that I found myself pining for home.
Just like that, our conversation with these pleasant strangers turned to the nature of home and our longing for it – and we soon learned that, in this regard, Gary and Kim had a dynamic that was a mirror image of Elisabeth’s and mine. You see, while I am a Southern boy at heart, Elisabeth has always harbored a longing to return to the West, to New Mexico or somewhere west of the Rockies. And that evening, Kim, after her third bourbon and Coke, started pleading with Gary to get the hell out of California and take her home to North Carolina. She confided in us how hard it had been for her to have left the South after college. Then she met Gary in San Francisco, and they married, had kids, and before she knew it, thirty years had passed.
Hearing Kim’s story, Elisabeth gave me a swift kick under the table, as if to say, Hey, buddy, I hope you are paying attention. I was.
But I was also realizing that, while the Big Bike Trip had transformed itself into a moveable feast, where we pedaled a bit, then arrived at yet another luxurious banquet, beneath the enjoyment, I felt homesick. I had not really recognized my underlying unease, nor the source of it, until hearing Kim talk of the town where she grew up in North Carolina. Her longing pulled at my heart strings, and as we laughed and toasted, enjoying the evening and the company, I could feel I was ready to return home to St. Augustine.
We had not been away for long – several weeks, only. Maybe it was the near miss with Hurricane Matthew, or it may have been the knowledge that my ninety-year-old mother (who lives with us in St. Augustine) has but a short time left on this earth, or that I had unsuspectingly crossed some spiritual boundary line at sixty years of age. Whatever the source of my ache, and I suspect a little bit of all of the above, I had acquired a renewed appreciation for home. But, for that moment, to paraphrase Robert Frost, we still had miles (a couple of hundred of them, plus the 3000 air miles) to go before we slept in our own beds again.
Costanoa Lodge to Santa Cruz – 36 miles
Our Saturday departure from the campground mecca was a bit like tearing flesh. After we packed up, we stopped at the restaurant to bid adieu to this unexpected shrine of roadside hospitality and fill our water bottles. Luckily, the entrance from the lodge was a downhill slide, and we coasted for more than a mile – but then we start climbing. And climbing. And then climbed some more. It turned out to be an uphill-and-downhill kind of Saturday, but despite the long pulls upward, our bodies had become stronger, and I could honestly say at the peak of each of those promontories, “Well, that wasn’t so bad after all.” (Yikes! Who did I think I was I kidding?)
Thirty-some miles later, we rolled into Santa Cruz, home of the bike shop, the bakery, the liquor store, and a funky little campground nestled in someone’s backyard deep within the city limits. The campground was guarded by a fifty-pound turkey named Pete, who apparently has a thing for bicycles – and not a good thing, either. His owner told us that bicycle wheels made Pete crazy, so we stealthily slipped on past the turkey to find our campsite. As it turned out, the half-rundown campground was a hangout for surfers visiting Santa Cruz on the cheap. For thirty dollars, here, you got a tent site, versus the seventy-six bucks you pay at the KOA. For us, though, it was more a matter of distance than dollars. We were at the end of a long ride and were too pooped to head on to KOA, even if it were half the price.
Santa Cruz to Moss Landing – 33 miles
On Sunday morning, we awoke to a beautiful day in sunny California. If heaven is made from a valley of strawberries, then we had been there and back again. Watsonville lies on the Pacific Coast bicycle route, about twenty miles south of Santa Cruz and fifteen miles north of our intended Sunday destination of Moss Landing. As we descended from Watsonville, we rode straight into a cold mist, which covered the land nearest the sea. As we neared Moss Landing, we could barely discern shapes more than a hundred yards in any direction. Water dripped from our jackets and our helmets, and made small rivulets of moisture that escape from everything, especially the trees above. It was as if it were raining but we were the clouds.
There was a moment when we thought we had landed on the surface of the moon: Instead, we had arrived at a miles-long, lonely area of freshly tilled dark earth encased in a gray mist. We were certain we had made a wrong turn. Then, suddenly, two riders, a couple in short sleeve jerseys, apparently immune to the cold, emerged from the mist. They were arguing. If we had not flagged them down, they would have ignored us entirely and pedaled on, disappearing like two ghosts caught in their own struggle. But Elisabeth held out her hand before them, and they stopped to confirm our direction. Then, they were gone again, growling at one another – two cantankerous goats on bikes.
On Monday, we awakened at the Captain’s Inn, overlooking a tidal area that flows into Monterey Bay. Our muscles ached, and we were more tired than we could recall having been on the entire trip, so we stayed one more night. It turned out that the innkeeper, Meldina, was from Napa Valley, but upon hearing we are from St. Augustine, chimed in that she had spent a few years living in Green Cove Springs, Florida, a mere twenty-seven miles from our home! In fact, Meldina was a big fan of my favorite restaurant in Green Cove, Sweet Sensations, and knew all about their great egg salad sandwiches, wonderful soups, and delicious layer cakes and fluffy desserts. I just about fell off my straight-back breakfast chair. It’s a small world, after all.
Moss Landing to Astacadero via U-Haul Van – 161 miles
Unfortunately, I awoke on Tuesday with a world class chest cold or possibly the flu. I felt as if I was sucking air through a straw, and it was clear that I would not be cycling any further, at least for a while. I offered Elisabeth the option to continue biking, while I drove to support her, but pedaling alone is not so fun. Over breakfast, we made the difficult decision to end the bike portion of our journey and head to Elisabeth’s sister Cece’s house in Atascadero. Cece generously offered to come get us, but one-hundred-fifty miles was too much to ask of her, so we weighed our other options. The Amtrak station was a short eleven miles away, in Salinas, so we could have taken the Coastal Starlight on a sort of déjà vu train ride, and maybe have gotten to see our friend Gregory, the car attendant and author, once again. But, instead, we decided on our old friend U-Haul and a ten-foot van.
As we drove along State Route 1 south of Carmel towards Big Sur, our bikes tucked securely in the van behind us, the landscape felt so big I imagined it would crush us if we didn’t keep moving. We grieved that we would not cycle this area, the place that has for so long held our fascination. Again, it was brought home to us that this was not to be the cycling tour of our dreams. Instead, it had become a mix of other things. A wonderful mix, I might add.
At that point, we had pedaled a bit over 400 miles. Not bad for two out-of-shape middle agers, but it was not the ride we planned. I tried to make Elisabeth feel better by telling her it was like we hopped on our bikes in Florida and pedaled to North Carolina. But she would have none of my paltry placating. She reminded me I should never tell an A-type personality they are going to pedal two thousand miles and then only pedal four hundred. I understood my mistake. Next time, I thought, I will low-ball the distance. Way low.
The stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and Cambria is made up of curves and even tighter curves. Top speed in an automobile, even on the semi-straights, is maybe forty mph, so it makes a safe road for cyclists, despite the lack of available shoulder. As we twisted our way to Cece’s, my mind was busy searching for a way to frame our trip that might take the sting out of having to call an end to the pedal portion. It was, after all, my illness that ended our tour, and I felt a huge measure of guilt because of it.
The Sisters Tour. Right, Honey?
At one point, we stopped to take in the enormity of the view before us. From the small parking area that hung on the edge of a cliff, the surf pounded a thousand feet below. We look west, and all we could see was the endless blue of the Pacific and the curve of the earth falling away from the horizon. The earth dropped so precipitously on the outer edges of our periphery, it was like we were peering through a fish-eye lens. A thought occurred as we gazed out at the spectacular sight. I said, “We could name our trip the Sisters Tour?” It was more of a question than a declaration. I was trying it on for size and a wee bit of comic relief. “You know, there was Mimi first in Vacaville, then Coco in San Francisco, and now Cece in Atascadero.”
I couldn’t hear anything but the wind and, amazingly, the far-off sound of the crashing waves below us. It was a longer pause than I hoped for, but then slowly I heard a small chuckle emanate from Elisabeth’s throat. “I guess we could, honey. Definitely. The Sisters Tour.”
It has been seven months since our bicycle journey along the west coast concluded. Summer has set in, here in Florida. It’s evening, and I have stepped out onto the front porch of our Grove Avenue home for a bit of fresh air and an opportunity to take stock of my surroundings. This is something I like to do, especially if I am feeling anxious or have a question tumbling around in my mind. In the South, the front porch holds a special meaning; it seems to anchor a home and provides a wonderful place to sit and think.
As I look up and down the street, I am reminded that when Hurricane Matthew came to town, fish swam in the yard. The tumultuous events of that storm are still felt in just about every neighborhood in town, especially those in close proximity to the water. Travel trailers are parked in driveways and still serve as temporary housing while homes are being rebuilt or repaired. Some houses, what’s left of them anyway, have simply been abandoned. Either the land has been ruled unbuildable or the owners did not have flood insurance and were forced to vacate them. These sad relics, and the experience of that October weekend, remind everyone of nature’s fury and the unpredictability of life along the coast.
Tonight, though, as the cicadas are singing and the magnolia blossoms are blooming, as the humidity descends upon us like a moist cloud, I gaze across the street, I see my neighbor Brett tending to his tomato plants, and Carrie, the woman in the house next to his, reading a book on her front porch. From the looks of things, life has returned to normal on Grove Avenue.
Seven months ago, a few days before Thanksgiving, Elisabeth, her sister CeCe, Cece’s two dogs, Niko and Buddy, and myself, departed Atascadero – our bikes loaded on the back of the car – for La Jolla and my wife’s family home. Not all the Guillemin family made the trip, but most did, including Kiki, Elisabeth’s fourth sister. Le Corbeau, Elisabeth’s brother, flew in from Princeton, New Jersey, and two of his sons, Omar and Sebastien, arrived as well. It was one of those big years when everyone makes an extra effort to attend. You see, Dr. and Mrs. Guillemin, are 94 and 96, respectively. At Thanksgiving dinner, with everyone gathered around the table, glasses raised high, I saw more than a few tears fall as we toasted Dr. and Mrs. Guillemin. It was a tender moment. Everyone at the table realized that this particular version of home might not come around again.
Now, as I sit on the porch watching my neighbors do the small, home-y things neighbors do, I feel thankful that our homes survived the storm. Not completing two thousand miles on our bikes seems a trivial issue now. In fact, Elisabeth often smiles when we talk of our journey last fall. “The Sisters Tour,” she giggles. “What a fabulous time we had.”
Of course, the most important thing is that we made it, in whichever way the universe had planned for us, and in the end, we were able to return to the place we call home. Well, at least, the place I call home.
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