The ups, downs, deliriums, and joys of cycling from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.
By Joseph Legotte
I am always a bit concerned at the displays of shock or surprise from my coworkers when I embark on an adventure that is completely unrelated to climbing. Yes, climbing is one of my ultimate passions, one of my favorite activities to share with people, perhaps my favorite topic to write about, and though it serves as my current career, I am so much more than just climbing. I am not the type of person that can be resolutely wrapped up in a single endeavor. I cannot devote my entire existence to a singular idea, and though some people have luckily found that climbing is all they may need in life, I cherish the opportunities to look in other directions every now and then. Though my last three trip reports have all consisted of epic climbing trips taken in Spring or Summer, this one is going to detail my adventures on a bicycle for four days, in search of something antithetical to climbing, though profoundly similar in the conquering of the useless.
The seeds for this bike trip were sown many years ago, while I attended UCSB and was fostering a growing interest in cycling. Bikes are the main transportation on campus, and fresh off my first triathlon, my psych for human-powered transportation was at an all time high. I had done some “bigger” rides for a novice cyclist: one day clocking 75 miles, and another day biking the entire Crater Lake Loop. Though only 33 miles, the elevation gain was pretty killer on that one. The idea of bike touring always interested me, something fanciful and far away however, unachievable as I knew nothing about it, had none of the requisite gear, and was far too afraid to embark on something like that alone. I had some friends who took the train from SB to SLO, and rode the roughly 100 miles down, completing their first century ride as they are called. Though I was busy climbing that weekend I thought it was so rad that I promised myself I would do that someday.
Fast-forward four years later and here I am, back home in San Diego, and slowly using my bike as transportation again when circumstances allow. I found a couple of friends who were equally psyched on riding, and Saturday jaunts up the coast between La Jolla and Encinitas became a lovely way to get the blood flowing, see some beautiful coast, and of course eat some VG doughnuts and drink some spectacular coffee at Iron Smith. It was on one of these weekend rides that I brought up the idea of biking the coast from SLO to SD. My cycling partner, and coincidentally one of my climbing partners, Debs, seemed equally psyched on the idea. Lucky for me she had done a small bike touring trip before, and therefore had a few expectations for what it would take. Ultimately, the idea nested in my head, and was brought up and thrown around here and there, until a week or so before her spring break began, we sort of officially committed. In reality I bought the train tickets the day before we left, and like all good adventures, we threw ourselves out the front door and into the relative unknown, just our bikes and roughly 40 liters of gear, just enough to survive 300-plus miles on the road.
As a preface to our trip, it is important to understand our demeanor and character a bit. We are both driven and determined, and though unprepared for something of this caliber, are extremely capable and confident in spontaneity and ambiguity. Debs is a connoisseur of silliness, sass, and psych, with a penchant for the otherwise unnoticed and unsought beauty of the world. It seems rash to reduce her to a single sentence, but I could not have imagined a better companion for this trip, because ten hours a day on a bike is a lot and faith in your partner’s ability to entertain, laugh, smile, and match your eventual madness, is crucial. Because of this the eight hour train and bus ride up to SLO went by alarmingly fast, and I am sure the entire compartment was sick of our mirth, the outbursts of laughter, and complete shenanigans. We stayed the night in SLO at Debs’ old coworkers place; he was highly amenable and generous to give us shelter on such short notice.
We began our day with some hospitably brewed pour-over coffee, and breakfast at the local diner. This was our big day, the century day, the one we cared most about. To be honest, we weren’t even sure, or at least I wasn’t, that we would make it all the way back down to San Diego in four days. I told myself that we can just focus on each leg as it comes by, and can sort of bail at any point if we need. What we did want was the 100-mile day. We got going around 8:30 am, and the first few miles felt like nothing as we passed through downtown SLO, and started making our way south west to the coast.
I had only my 40-liter backpack, with the tent and my personal effects. Debs had a rack and panniers, with her stuff, and a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. I opted for none of those things in the hope that it would be warm if we did have to camp somewhere. Unfortunately, SLO seems like a pretty cool town, and it was a little sad to have to bike through so quickly without becoming more acquainted. The road led us south toward Pismo Beach, but not before an early detour to Avila Beach, which we of course spontaneously took. I am glad we did because we found ourselves on a beautiful bike path through a forested and scenic community, winding its way past a golf course and across a bridge, past some hills covered in yellow wildflowers, and eventually to a misty, foggy beach. The extra miles were worth it, and we turned back around and made our way back to the path that surged in front of us.
We next found ourselves on the streets of Pismo Beach, the central California coast stretching out in front of us and at our backs. We stopped for some snacks and water with a nice view overlooking a park which overlooked the ocean. It was here we put in our estimations as to our arrival time. I guessed 6:55pm, and Debs guessed 10:00pm. I guess you can say one of us was pretty confident in our abilities (or perhaps had too little foresight as to what biking over 100 miles was like). For some reason I assumed Pismo was much closer to our objective than I realized, but in reality we were still 85 miles away. The roads led us slightly inland from here, and the gorgeous rolling hills that define the central coast became more prominent and verdant. Our first true hill, though short, kicked our butts a bit, but got me psyched to do some more climbing. We passed through small towns and soon agricultural areas north of Santa Maria. A few hours had passed at this point, and some semblance of fatigue was starting to press on me at least. I have a tendency to charge full steam ahead, regardless of what I am doing, and lucky for me, Debs managed to keep us at an honest and affordable pace. We found ourselves soon surrounded by rows of vegetables, cauliflower and kale, strawberries and lettuces, and unbelievably straight roads cutting through that only farmers and day laborers would ever likely use. The flatness and openness was a relief, and we rode upright and carefree, without worry of traffic and honking cars. The miles passed by and eventually took us into Santa Maria; Debs kicked up a pace close to 20 mph towards the end, which must mean lunch was on the mind.
Santa Maria was an interesting town, and we had an unlikely lunch of candy, tacos, and some trail mix while we lounged on the grass outside of a scrappy strip mall. Santa Maria was only a third of the way there, though somehow seeped into my consciousness as a halfway point. Indeed, after our near 45-minute lunch break we pressed on toward Lompoc—our first real climbing in front of us. The road leading out of Santa Maria was gorgeous, and we were smiling and laughing, without care to uphill or down, our psych peaking in the beauty of the day and vitality in our exertion. We arrived at the base of the Harris Grade Road a tad apprehensive, for in the words of Debs’, “It has ‘grade’ in the name, so you know it’s steep.”
The climb was surprisingly easy for gaining almost 1,000 feet over three miles. We powered through it, sunburnt and sweaty, with a fast and curvy descent to enjoy afterwards.
We cruised down into Lompoc and stopped for another break, this time grabbing a shake and some onion rings, and stretching out in the grass again. It was becoming quickly apparent that I sorely underestimated our arrival time, but I looked past that and just forward to the next climb. This climb took more out of us then anticipated. Again, the views were incredible, the hills stretching carelessly in the distance, as the sun sunk lower towards a hazy, golden hour. It was worth each stop to take a look around, and revel in the remarkable world around us, not a care in the world, pain and aches from legs and shoulders melting away momentarily.
The 1,000-plus feet of climbing took place over 15 miles this time, and our slow pedal strokes drove us slowly forward, creeping up the lowland hill passes back on the PCH. When I saw the top it was a relief because I knew the last of the demanding climbing was over. I got to kick into some steep downhill, and push close to 50 mph for a few minutes as the miles breezed by quickly into Las Cruces, and then southwards back to the eventual reunion with the coast.
As we made the southwards turn toward Gaviota State Beach, we saw it, a massive wall of fog, the coast obscured, and the sunlight slowly fading as we descended into the frigid abyss. We coasted all the way into what I hoped was our last little break before UCSB to put on some jackets and turn on our lights; the last 20 miles was on the shoulder of the 101, semis blowing past at 70 mph, and now in the fog to boot.
It was in the darkness that delirium began to creep in. We had already pushed through 95 miles, and all we could think about was food and laying down. I went so crazy at one point that in my indignation with all the road work signage forcing us off the shoulder into the actual lane, I started kicking over every cone I saw as I passed by. I needed something, anything, to assuage the pain and weariness in my body and mind.
Debs was almost equally as crazed at points, at least enough to put up with my shenanigans, screaming and protesting at the brutal night.
But wait, we did it, I looked down at my bike computer and saw the 166 kilometer reading. We just hit our century. I stopped, dismounted, and hugged Debs on the shoulder of the highway. We completed our only real objective of the trip, and that moment meant so much to me. The next 14 miles were just a bonus, though riddled with agony at points, and once we exited the highway onto the all-too familiar Storke Road, I knew I was home. We started making familiar turns, and then it was done. We were dismounting in front of my friend Dana’s apartment, with pizza and beer graciously awaiting our fatigued arrival.
After a night of peaceful and deep slumber, I woke up to the cacophonous crashes and beeps of dump trucks outside in the parking lot. My body felt shockingly good, and though my legs had a heaviness to them, I was ready for the miles ahead.
A slow start to the morning and some breakfast after a failed excursion for doughnuts at a place that happened to be closed for Spring Break, gave way to a 10am start. I rode Debs around campus, playing tour guide and reminiscing about my brief sojourn there years ago. We breathed the fresh sea air and pointed our tires East toward Downtown Santa Barbara, staying largely on a gorgeous dedicated bike path through wetlands and lush spring groves of local plants and flowers.
The day felt natural, organic, casual, free of agenda in a way, with plenty of stops planned for food. Downtown Santa Barbara hosts a nice Public Market, and we stopped for some cappuccino to kickstart our lackadaisical morning. The world again proved how small it is as a gentleman approached us inside the market and asked where we were going, seeing our bikes loaded up. He is a representative for a website that provides bike maps for central California, which happened to be the exact website we were currently using. He gave us a business card and wished us luck on our ride.
More coffee followed–espresso this time–but with a big ol’ scoop of McConnell’s Sweet Cream Ice Cream plopped in the middle. Oh, and four scoops of some of the best ice cream in the country in a homemade waffle cone. I could wax poetically about the sensational qualities of their Eureka Lemon and Marionberry Ice Cream, but that name should be enough to whet your appetite. An 11 am breakfast wouldn’t be complete without ice cream, and McConnells is a requisite stop when I roll through Santa Barbara.
We put Santa Barbara at our backs, and pedaled through the affluent communities of Montecito and Summerland, taking it easy towards Carpinteria. We stopped for lunch there, at a sit-down Mexican place that took far too long to get a burrito.
We laughed and joked at a table outside until it was time to mount our steel steeds again. The stretch from Carpinteria to Ventura was gorgeous in a different way, easy and flat on the 1, riding on an isolated bike lane squeezed between coast and highway, passing by campgrounds full of RV’s and spring break parties. Psych was high, and I sang Hamilton while Debs behind me was infatuated by all the different RV names, speaking each one aloud with mounting incredulity.
The aroma of bbq’s and sounds of baseball games on radios drifted in and out of my consciousness and I felt myself lost in thought and pure happiness. Over the course of hundreds of miles, a lot of conversation happens, and it is hard to recount all of it, but I especially remember these miles, when leisure, freedom and silliness took center stage.
Ventura came upon us quickly, and the most memorable thing I can recall is biking past this person, all in white flowing clothing, marshmallow bizarreness.
Oxnard was unremarkable and impressionless, and next thing we knew it was dark, and we spontaneously stopped for pho in Port Hueneme (which I still cannot properly pronounce). There was something strange and marvelous about our impromptu dinner. We looked very out of place, mostly because of me in my tight, padded bike shorts and cycling jersey, purple socks roughly shoved in my sandals.
We laughed and giggled and snorted unabashedly, tapping into another side of the delerium we had experienced the night before. We awkwardly and amusingly shared a bowl of pho, yes, just a single bowl between the two of us–ludicrous, I know–and ordered some fried rice to go. We played with the tendon and tripe, proclaiming miracles for our aching joints, as though eating the connective tissue of other animals would help, and Debs made me laugh so hard at one point that I had to run to the bathroom to save myself from otherwise complete disaster. We had second dinner in a doggy bag, lit ourselves up, and headed southwards towards less lights and yet another reunion with the Pacific.
What followed was a lovely nighttime ride, and the best way I can describe it is through a short poem I wrote following the occasion:
A full moon rises in a foggy night,
as though some barista god pours frothed
milk into the stygian recesses of the
mountains sleepily stumbling into the ice black
ocean. Earthen fingers claw, trying without
success to know the texture of the sea,
fluid and formless. Your singular red light
blinks faintly in the distance. We have
rode into an ancient cinematic masterpiece,
slow and silent, punctuated with bursts of engines,
reefer aromas waltzing into the fog, soft and erudite
owl hoots harmonizing with crashing waves.
Up and down the coastline rolling rocks in the
gentle crest of fallen waves speak in a
universal rain stick.
I did not know it then
but how serendipitous it was to be on bikes,
our eyes and ears cuddled by each sensation
our voices clamoring in ecstasy at this divine
lascivious dance on the PCH.
We fell asleep that night, tent pitched on the sand, the sound of waves crashing at our feet and the rocks rolling to and fro in the changing tide, a truly amorous dance of sound cradling our travel worn bodies to sleep.
Day 3: Point Mugu State Beach to Huntington Beach – 94 miles
We woke up like we fell asleep, to the gentle sound of crashing waves and a fog riddled coast. It was early–just after 6am–and the pale morning light filtered through the grayness. We were roughly 180 miles in at this point and my body was sure feeling it. We had enough ibuprofen to support a small army, and 1000 mg later we shook the sand and dew off our bikes and saddled up.
I especially love riding in the early morning, and honestly after a few miles the knees felt alright (oh right, the ibuprofen). The Malibu coastline is gorgeous, and we rollicked up and down for a couple hours until stopping for breakfast at the most ridiculous place you could imagine, The Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. A rip-off if there ever was one, for the disenchanted and insensible Malibu tourist, borne of all the insipid and deceptive L.A. cultural phenomenons. Suffice to say we laughed a bit more, scoffed at the haughty, entitled clientele, and drank butt loads of coffee. It may have only been 10 am, but we had another 70 miles in front of us, much of that through the otherwise despised Los Angeles County.
The rest of Malibu breezed by, and despite the temptation to roll down the unnaturally green hills in front of Pepperdine, we made decent time into Santa Monica. We stopped there for a swing, and it was nice to float, momentarily weightless here then there, for at least a bit. A mile down the boardwalk was Venice, and we walked the bikes to take a look around at the Saturday crowds. Venice is still a unique place for all the touristy crap, and a few blocks inland is Abbot Kinney Blvd., a hub of food and kitchy LA at its finest.
We stuffed our faces with pizza, then grabbed a doughnut from Portland transplant Blue Star to share from Blue Star. Let me rephrase that, the best doughnut in the world, from Blue Star (I won’t mention which one so you’ll just have to try them all).
The next hour consisted of trying to find a coffee shop to charge our phones, and rest a bit before going to Huntington. One dumb LA coffee shop, one crazy Ralphs bathroom encounter, and two Starbucks later, we found our resting spot. A quick Starbucks nap, some teeth brushing, another 1,000 mg of ibuprofen, and four shots of espresso translated into enough energy to push us through to dinner.
We fought through the most disgusting parts of Long Beach and South LA after passing through the more pleasant beach communities of Manhattan and Redondo. Miles of shipping containers, refineries pumping out pollutants, and streets lined with horrifying strip malls incentivized quick pedaling. Fortunately, Debs mentioned Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles at some point that day, and my heart was immediately set. Nothing could deter me from the sweet and sensual combination of perfectly fried chicken and luscious waffle, lathered in syrup. And yes, we dined like bike touring royalty amidst the pink hue of that spellbinding establishment.
Jazzed with the spirit of good comfort food we were ready for the seemingly inconsequential 14 miles to Huntington Beach. That was nothing compared to the previous 250. It would take us barely more than an hour and we laughed and looked at houses in the nice part of Long Beach, winding our way towards the PCH again. It was here that I made the mistake of the trip. I became careless with directions, and got excited seeing the big PCH intersection, and just rode on taking a left turn towards the In n’ Out I had remembered seeing on the map. About a half hour later, we still have not hit the coast, or Seal Beach, and I felt something was wrong but we just kept charging. That is until one of Debs’ panniers fell off her rack in the road, and we were forced, fatefully, to stop.
I took advantage of that to check directions, and noticed that we had turned the wrong direction on PCH, and were headed back into the really bad part of Long Beach. So add an extra 10 miles to an already 80 mile day, and suddenly I am a bit pissed at myself. Thankfully, Debs was chill and easy going about it, and we just turned around and backtracked, fighting towards a comfy guest bedroom in Huntington.
I remember little about that final stretch, mostly just wanting to be done for the day because both my knees were starting to scream in agony. We did make it, an hour later than expected or necessary, but we made it, pedaling late through the night again.
Day 4: Huntington Beach to SD (Oceanside) – 62 miles
We took our most leisurely morning on Day 4. We planned to wake up around 8, and get the gears moving then, but cut to 10am and we are awake but still unable to extricate ourselves from the comfy guest bed, and onto the legs that we now despise and curse. Our courteous and loving host, Paula, brought us some coffee and that helped us start moving around. We were able to move at least down to the kitchen, until leisure won the morning again. We made more coffee and lounged on the beautiful front porch, the nouveau-victorian home at our back, rose bushes framed by a white picket fence, and a brisk, sunny SoCal Easter morning looming in the sky. The morning of course would not be complete without some laughter, some shenanigans, and some procrastination. A little vodka somehow made it into my coffee, and before I knew it the 70ish miles in front of us that day seemed insignificant. We reluctantly around 11 made our way back inside, to suit up and place our sore asses on the saddle again, saying goodbye to what could have been an endless, comfortable morning in the embrace of repose and tranquillity.
The ride started gentle that morning, along the flat boardwalks through Huntington, and eventually down into Newport. We cut through some gorgeous neighborhoods, judging the variety of multimillion dollar estates so perfectly coiffed in every direction. We were yelled out by a group of teenage gals in a car in Downtown Laguna, something I assumed my creepy mustache would prevent the whole ride, and soon found ourselves in Dana Point. We crept along the coast, and cruised into San Clemente around 3 or so in the afternoon, our planned stop for lunch. I was dearly hoping for Pizza Port, but Jesus had unfortunately closed the establishment, which only meant finding something unexpected. We ate burgers and fish and chips, and shared a jalapeno mule on the patio of a pretty nice restaurant, not worried at the barely 20 miles left in front of us. Debs pet a dog, something she had obviously greatly missed for the four days we had been gone, and we took our time eating and reminiscing about how far we had come.
The last 20 miles went by with ease. We rode by San Onofre, the Dolly Parton’s somewhat a significant gateway to our homeland. The 5 blazed by on our left, and the closer to San Diego we rode, the sunnier it seemed to become strangely, on an otherwise foggy and overcast trip. We were almost denied entry at Camp Pendleton, due to the recent loss of my wallet and driver’s license, but my passport was eventually enough to get us through and on base. We gingerly rode in single file, per strict instructions and many signs, and worked our way through the military base. The sun was falling ever lower, as we meandered our way through. We saw a big bird of prey pick off a rabbit or something at one point, and that was pretty wild. Otherwise, it was an uneventful last few miles. We were spit out eventually onto civilian land, and our final destination was only a few miles away.
The last mile to the Oceanside pier was oddly anticlimactic. The final bit of sunlight was leaving the world for the day, and a deep, Van Gogh-like blueness was settling over the ocean. We coasted to a stop right at the pier, dodging dozens of people out for the evening. We took some victory photos, something Debs had in mind earlier that day. And just like that it was over; 338 miles, four days, over a third of the distance of California, tens of thousands of calories burned, hours spent laughing, innumerable sights seen, inconvenient pain suffered, and unthinkable beauty found. Though I was ecstatic not to put my butt on a bike for at least a few days, a small part of me wished we were waking up the next day with more road in front of us. I found something inexplicably novel on this adventure, something quite as captivating as an amazing climbing trip though different, refreshing, exhilarating. It took me out of my routine of climbing 5 to 7 days a week, and revitalized my spirit coming back. I loved it so much I am already looking into what it would take to do the entire West Coast! I want to leave with one last thank you to Debs, who displayed boundless vitality, humor, resolve and morale, I truly couldn’t have asked for a better partner on this phenomenal journey.