The California I thought I knew – the one with sun and girls and gentle people with flowers in their hair – is actually another thing entirely.
The real California is not a pop song. In fact, it’s on fire at the moment. It also happens to be hot and hilly with enough traffic to unnerve the most hardened cyclist. Sometimes the people I met were friendly, sometimes the people I met were crack heads. Sometimes they even spoke English.
I wasn’t disappointed, at least not exactly. I was mostly just surprised that California felt so much like being trapped in an episode of COPS. That is, of course, except for San Francisco.
I adored San Francisco.
From the moment I left the airport and was whisked across the city by subway, I knew I was in a special place. The vistas, the architecture, the restaurants and people all spoke of a place so bursting with energy and optimism that even the sun had to stop and stare.
With wonderful hosts, I rubbernecked around the city breathing in as much as I could. I walked up and down the rolling streets before eating a burrito the size of my forearm and drinking Belgian beer for a laugh. I went to the day market, the night market, the cinema and the park, but nothing, nothing compared to the Palace of Fine Arts.
I don’t know anything about that place. Until recently, I didn’t even know it existed. All I can say is that I walked around it for an hour with my mouth hanging open.
After three days I left the city buoyed by an enthusiasm to finally get my American journey underway. I wanted nothing of adventure. I wanted to go home, and a quiet and boring ride suited me just fine.
But, it didn’t go that way. The truth is I used up another of my nine lives between the towns of Lincoln and Newcastle.
All day I had been climbing a pitiless hill on a road without shoulders. I pulled into a small lane to guzzle some water and catch my breath. No sooner had I raised my bottle than a car screeched around the next corner and slammed into a power pole. The vehicle slid over an embankment and the pole came down, raining live wires all over the road immediately in front of me.
The next vehicle to the scene slammed on its brakes, only to be rear-ended by the driver behind. That’s when I ran. With screaming tires and smashing steel in my ears, I grabbed my bike and charged up the lane like the devil himself was chasing me.
Later, after the mayhem was sorted and the ambulance had pulled away, there was little at all to say. Everyone had insurance and nobody was seriously injured. None of it even mattered.
That’s the way it has to stay. For a moment I thought about what would have happened if I had not stopped for water. I would have been 20 meters farther up the road. And I would probably be, well, you know.
Thoughts like that can be frightening, and in the end, they accomplish nothing. Nobody wins the coulda-woulda game. So, I finished my water, lifted my bike over the fallen pole and finished the ride to Newcastle.
The rest of California was rather plain by comparison. I cycled through the remarkable peaks and pines of El Dorado National Forest and pushed my wheels over the summit of Carson Pass, which sits at an impressive 2,613 meters.
From there, it was all downhill to Nevada. I arrived in Carson City yesterday, filthy and thirsty but very much at home on my saddle. I am happy and confident, and each day I feel my legs getting stronger.
What’s next? Tomorrow I begin crossing the deserts and salt flats of Nevada, trundling down what is apparently known as, “The Loneliest Road in America.”
I hope it is just that. Empty roads have the biggest skies, and this one points home. That’s right where I need to be.