If I had to rank today in respect to the rest of the trip. I might go so far as to say this was the worst day yet. The giddy excitement of leaving Yosemite and the beauty of late day coast down from Groveland was replaced with suffocating heat, interminable wind and the most frightening roads and traffic conditions yet experienced. Today was a good example of how numbers can be misleading when characterizing difficulty. When you look at the elevation profile above, you would be correct to assume that we only had one major obstacle and that the total climbing was less than half of each of the previous 5 days. Well, the climbing is only half the story.
We woke early to break camp before the rangers did their rounds. Figuring in after dark, up at dawn and out before they opened and we really hadn't even been there at all. With bathrooms expediting our morning preparations we were packed, on our bikes and moving at 7AM. We pedaled and the rows of orchards yielded to residential areas, sidewalks spotted with palm trees.
Gen had checked the route and determined our 4 mile detour hadn't taken us completely out of the way. We jogged a couple of back roads and rejoined 120 in Escalon. It was an adjustment to be back out on occupied roads in a densely populated area. It is no wonder our first couple weeks had been so slow in terms of progress. Fitness aside, biking through any developed area is certain to be hampered by interruptions. The difference between an open country road and a busy strip can be as much as 7-10mph. Waiting at red lights, avoiding suicidal pedestrians, navigating road-work and trying not to be killed by distracted drivers all work to retard your pace and whittle away your mental stamina. It is not fun riding.
The first 35 miles of the day took us through sprawling urbania and after a brief breakfast stop in Escalon, were largely forgettable. It was a straight shot down 120 until Manteca where the highway swallowed our route and we were forced onto smaller side streets and frontage roads. One of which arbitrarily decided to end with no more warning than a sign indicating we were either out of road or nearing completion of the trip.
Ahead the faint outline of mountains on the horizon indicated our final elevation obstacle. A section I had already spotted on my GPS and when the route was planned through " Altamont Pass ". The heat continued to intensify and as we reached the entrance to the pass I saw something dreadful. Ahead, dozens of turbine silhouettes beset upon the hillside turned ominously. There are few things as visually discouraging as wind farms. Perhaps if you were on the right side of a wind farm it would be a different story, but this is bicycling we're talking about; you're always pointed the wrong way.
Every visible contour in the landscape played host to turbines of various age and condition. The area resembled a sort of wind power museum, each successive generation of technology displayed in a functional exhibit, adjacent to its obsolete or cutting edge siblings. Commissioned in 1981, Altamont is in fact, one of the oldest wind farms in the country. Even more impressive, Altamont has the largest concentration of wind turbines of anywhere in the world, nearly 5,000! Clearly, the engineers who'd envisioned Altamont Pass had done their homework. From the moment we entered the area we were met with an indefatigable gust that seemed indifferent to cardinal direction or the shelter of hillsides. It was certainly a fantastic location for a wind farm. From a biking perspective, it left a lot to be desired. The shrill and persistent whine of rushing air rendered communication from a distance impossible and at points the wind slowed us to a pathetic four miles per hour. Four miles per hour is a disheartening pace while jogging, it is psychologically devastating on a bicycle.
I told Gen to check the wind speeds at Altamont Pass and among the first Google search results was a link called Bird Slaughterhouse . Evidently, the wind farm is responsible for the death of up to 4,000 birds per year, many of which are protected raptor species such as the Golden Eagle. I will admit, the irony of this "clean energy" mercilessly decapitating endangered wildlife caused a small chuckle- not for the suffering of birds mind you, simply our inability to 'do no harm'.
The temperature reached 90 degrees and the wind speed was clocking in at 30mph. It was like Kansas all over again except we were climbing a hill as well. Spray painted arrows and directions indicated that some sort of cycling race had taken place here. All I could think was: Why? Why would anyone choose to race here? I think the answer was probably because it sucks and that makes it attractive to those people whose brains suffer regions have been crosswired with those that register pleasure. That will to do something because it is harder and hurts more to prove you can hack it. We were at 4,000 miles in, I was sufficiently through with proving I could hack it and I was ready not to bike into hot wind anymore.
Through the pass there were no services. The road existed mostly to service the wind farm and the only business we passed, a decaying auto repair shop, looked like something from a Mad Max film. The only advantages to the desolate nature of the terrain was an absence of traffic and thus limitless unimpeded opportunities to pee.
As we exited the pass we were in desperate need of a break, for food and water but more-so just to sit and mentally recuperate. We spotted a 7/11 on the side of the road and eagerly pulled in to the lot. While we sat and munched convenience store muffins and yogurt we were approached by several curious individuals.
Yo, where you comin' from?
Nawwwww, foreal?! You biked all the way from Boston!? BOSTON Boston?
As we chatted with them other onlookers intrigued by eavesdropping collected and listened to the various questions and answers. The social barriers that prevent spontaneous approach seem to dissolve once other strangers initiate the interaction. After a brief gas station Q&A we were ready to get back on the road and we thanked our new friends for their enthusiasm and encouragement.
I've written previously on the topic of route planning and the divergence from the predetermined Adventure Cycling Association routes. One of the downsides to blazing your own trail is road conditions. While the ACA routes might not accommodate personal trip goals, they were developed through community consensus, scenic value and hazard consideration. The last item posed a fundamental flaw in our independent and improvisational routes. On more than one occasion, our Google Maps plotted routes had presented serious safety concerns and logistical problems. This is largely in part, thanks to the non-human element of their ' Bikes' route determination. I don't pretend to know the inner machinations of their suitability algorithm, but my best guess is that it pools data from several sources:
Crowdsourced bike GPS data (riders that have GPS navigation enabled)
Crowdsourced car GPS data (to avoid roads that are more heavily congested)
Impartial road suitability ratings (Bikes are restricted from certain roads like an interstate)
Prioritization of bike paths and primitive roads (tied to item 2, where can riders be unencumbered by traffic hazards)
When meshed, these items provide a 'computer-generated best guess' of what route most suits a cyclist. The problems start occurring when data gets thin. I have used Google Maps Bike Routes for urban biking in the past and I have to say it is phenomenal. The sheer volume of accessible data in these areas provides Google with a much more comprehensive portrait. In San Francisco the bike routes through the city are even optimized to avoid unnecessary climbs up steep hills, following city marked routes such as "The Wiggle" which jogs right then left then right then left.
All well and good in the cities and more developed areas but we know from our Kentucky steel mill trespassing escapades, that it's not a perfect system. Today was an unpleasant reminder of Google Maps pitfalls.
At the outset of our trip we had agreed on a rule: We bike the whole thing; no forward progress by means other than biking.
Or shortened to Jonathan's vernacular: EFI (Every F***'ing Inch)
The ACA route for the most part avoids any artificial means of progress but there was an exception at the end of the Western Express. They take a ferry across the San Francisco Bay to reach the peninsula. This was a problem. We were not about to bike the whole way across the country with a stupid mantra that we would break the second to last day. The only rides we had taken on the trip were to get groceries or to avoid the storm in Nevada and had netted us no new mileage. Surrender wasn't an option and Gen had seen to it that we would make it over the San Francisco Bay on two wheels, rather than taking the circuitous route south through San Jose.
There are 4 bridges that connect the peninsula to mainland:
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Oakland Bay Bridge (Interstate 80)
The San Mateo Hayward Bridge (State Route 92)
The Dumbarton Bridge (State Route 84)
Of those 4, only 2* permit cyclists and pedestrians to cross, the Golden Gate and the Dumbarton ( * The Bay Bridge allows travel on its eastern span but not western ). We had wanted to cross the Golden Gate bridge to finish our ride and so traveling so far north to come south across the Golden Gate was out of the question. Gen's cousin in Palo Alto had offered us a place to stay so it only made sense to shoot for the Dumbarton Bridge.
The peninsula is characterized by mountainous terrain and the area immediately preceding it on mainland is no exception. Unfortunately, there are few roads that connect through this region and two of them are bike prohibited highways. This left us on State Route 84 through the Niles Canyon, a narrow canyon road serving commuters that weren't on the 680 or 580. Had we been more familiar with the area we probably would have opted to go through San Jose. One cyclist we encountered shortly after the Canyon recounted the single time they had pedaled down it during rush-hour characterizing it as suicidal and vowing never to take the road again. Subsequent google searching of the road confirmed there was unanimous scorn and fear for the harrowing 4 mile section of shoulder-less congestion.
The roads immediately preceding Niles Canyon were no treat and more than once we had angry honks with one car even going so far as to shout out the window "JACKASS!" while speeding past dangerously close. I immediately responded with "WHY?! Why am I a jackass?" holding my hand up in a questioning gesture. This was met with a middle finger thrust out of the window. It had been a long day and my typical stalwart patience was nowhere to be found. I stopped my bike and picked up a roadside rock that fit comfortably in my hand, ready for any additional confrontations or a repeat encounter with the offending vehicle. Gen wisely told me that it was poor judgment to wield a rock and that it would only cause more trouble than it was worth. She was of course right and I knew it, a couple blocks up I tossed the stone into the bushes where it belonged.
After navigating several difficult and busy intersections we reached the entrance to Niles Canyon. Another comment I will make towards the logistical considerations of bicycle touring is time of day. It can completely transform the experience you have on a given road. On this trip, we have biked highly trafficked state highways and metropolitan areas, in states of near desolation owing to the hour. Typically, roads are pretty empty in the middle of the day and the middle of the night. Strategizing bike times becomes progressively more imperative the closer you get to major cities. However, it is not always easy to plan exactly when you will reach a destination when you are going 100 miles on a bike in a given day. Individual delays and obstacles can stack up against you leaving your best laid plans in the dirt, or commuter traffic.
So at right around 5pm and peak traffic we made our way onto the Niles Canyon stretch of CA-84. Immediately, we recognized the problematic nature of our decision. The canyon stretches approximately 8 miles and is a narrow two-lane road with no shoulders and no exits. Once you start you have little option other than to finish. Initially, a large shoulder affords safe biking but before you know it the road narrows and enters an elevated section supported by pylons . Backing out would require crossing two lanes of heavy commuter traffic including trucks. With loaded touring bikes it simply wouldn't be an option to retreat. Of course this is the kind of realization you have when it is too late. As soon as it started we shouted to each other how bad the ride would suck and just tried to keep inside the 6 inch shoulder while blocking out thoughts of being grated like parmesan cheese along the guardrail. If you can imagine this stretch of road packed with cars and trucks traveling 45 mph in each direction, you have a good idea of what it looked like.
We learned early on the trip that prudent route evaluation at times proved invaluable. The judgment call of personal comfort and safety for a given road is not a google maps specialty. I will admit that towards the end of the trip we have become more lackadaisical. Roads we would have deemed unnavigable at the outset of the trip have become blasé. Like any sport that involves an element of risk, your frequent exposure to it effects a reappraisal and sliding perception of the relative level. After you bike on an interstate in Missouri, the two-lane State Highways seem more reasonable. After you bike over mountain passes in twilight, in daylight they feel infantile. I am sure we started to develop a certain level of mental armor for riding alongside cars throughout the course of the trip. You really can't help it and if you don't it becomes nearly impossible to make appreciable progress at an acceptable rate. So you put on your side-view mirror, you grin and bear it. The problem is, sometimes you need that little voice in your head that says "No way Jose".
If we had looked at the streetview of this section before the start of the day I am not sure we wouldn't have rerouted. At the very least we would have agreed that the road necessitated an approach outside of peak travel times.
As a general tip for individuals considering their own long-distance cycling trip. If you ever see a sign that looks like this:
Be on guard or consider an alternate route. In my limited experience, these signs are largely ignored by motorists and I suspect their sole purpose is to covertly indicate places where cyclists have been turned into road-pizza. Anywhere they can be spotted, your safety is likely compromised; as a county commission decided it was cheaper to put up a sign than it was to pave a shoulder. I will stay out of the debate as to whether or not they actually help cyclists. In my humble opinion, their most useful function is serving as a giant red-flag to be on high alert.
Cars honked and passed with miserable proximity to our bikes nearly glancing us at times with their side-view mirrors. We shouted back and forth to each other airing our frustrations: "THIS SUUUUUUCKS!" "FUUUUU** THIS!" as much for solidarity as to vent the growing misery. Around halfway through, their was a break in the guardrail and a shallow dirt shoulder where we stopped to collect ourselves and curse our stupidity in timing the ride.
After the 4 minute break, we rode the last couple miles of Niles Canyon, eager to finish what was rapidly becoming the least pleasant day of the trip so far. With every car that passed we sucked in air and clenched our jaws tensing our bodies involuntarily for the possible impact. Finally the road returned to level earth and the shoulder reemerged. To say we were relieved would be an understatement. I am sure that this section of writing comes off as somewhat sensationalist and overwrought but I can honestly say this was the most nerve-racking section of the trip so far for me and I suspect Gen would agree. No doubt there are tough badass individuals out there who will claim we are a couple of sissies and that this road is child's play. What I can tell you, is that we saw no other cyclists or pedestrians on this road for the duration of our time on it, take from that what you will. I know that my personal litmus for objective safety is whether I would recommend a loved one to do something with clear conscience. This was not one of those roads and I am grateful neither of us were hurt as a result.
Outside of the Niles Canyon we exited onto the Alameda Creek canal path. The brush choked aqueduct typified the ongoing drought conditions we had witnessed since reaching the west coast and small mildewing pools of dark green were all that remained at the bottom of the canals. The canal however excelled at a secondary function operating as a path of least resistance, wind tunnel for the coastal breeze. Approaching 90 miles, the day had dragged and Gen was certain she had developed a saddle-sore.
It feels like a giant pimple right on the crease of my butt where my seat makes contact.
Yup, that sounds just like what I have in a couple different places on each buttcheek!
How do you ride like this!?"
She shouted through the wind. I told her you get used to it after 70 days which apparently did little to comfort. The traffic had been frightening but now it felt like we were actively being fought to reach our destination. Traveling northwest pointed directly into the wind our bikes slowed to that unbearable sub-10mph crawl. This is a speed where on flat terrain your spirit starts to erode and you shout into the void. With each successive gust, "Aughghhhhh!" - I ineffectually yelled to match the intensity. We were so close to finishing the day and yet, it felt like we weren't even moving.
On a number of occasions I have written about the different facets of fatigue. The impact of psychological fatigue cannot be understated. It is the difference between a 100 mile day feeling like a 20 mile day and the contrary. Today just so happened to be a nearly hundred mile day anyway, it felt downright interminable. Another bit of wisdom I learned was to never count out unexpected difficulty. While it seemed stupid at the time, there was a benefit to our 2,000 more feet, mantra in Utah. When you never permit yourself to think you are out of the woods, you won't get trapped in a position of crushing emotional defeat. We had cheated ourselves, by considering Altamont Pass the final hardship of the day and now were paying for it. You need to keep those mental stamina reserves for the unanticipated, or you will find yourself spiraling emotionally when your caught off-guard.
Tall iron fences separated the canal from the abutting properties and heavy gates with padlocks denied entry or exit. The gated communities had clearly decided at some point that they were as disinterested in walking the length of the canal as they were in having canal-walkers visiting their homes. Intermittently, a lone jogger or father and child would speed past us in the opposite direction, aided, rather than inhibited by the relentless wind. You get into a pattern of cursing strangers, when difficulty feels so woefully imbalanced.
The canal path finally broke and left us at a crossroads. In one direction it continued straight down an unpaved dirt path. Gen was unenthused by the prospect of going even slower and I biked down to take a look while she pulled out her phone. Thinking I could see a path, I told her it might be our best bet. Thankfully, I was wrong and she had us course corrected in no time and we were finally biking with the wind rather than against it.
My parents had texted several times throughout the day to determine our whereabouts and potential ETA. They were flying in from New York and wanted to try and meet us at the end of the day. I shot a quick text off to them as we cruised two comparatively easy miles with the assistance of the wind. As we neared the entrance to the Dumbarton, we biked through the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the country. The marsh and tidelands were accompanied by an overwhelming olfactory offense, a stench and taste that would most closely resemble used baby diapers permeated the air. The smell was so bad that as I described the various analogous odors, Gen started to gag.
We reached the visitor's center before the start of the bridge where a cyclist was attempting to repair a flat. He hadn't brought tire levers and we offered him a set and a patch-kit and continued to the bridge. The tidelands trail devolved into an unused frontage road adjacent to the highway separated only by a decaying wood thatched chainlink fence. The crushing wind returned and we stayed as close to the fence as possible hoping it would afford some aerodynamic advantage. As we crossed the Dumbarton we shouted in triumph, we were less than a half-day's ride from finishing our trip and less than 10 miles from Gen's cousin John. We can always do those last 10 miles. At the end of the bridge a short woman stood with her hand shading her eyes looking in our direction. She appeared to be cheering and it was Gen who realized first that it was my mother.
She gave us each giant bearhugs and expressed her disbelief that we were at the San Francisco Bay 7o days since she had last seen us. My dad arrived shortly after, having dropped my mom off so that she would catch us in time. The crazy traffic for us had been just as nightmarish for them and they had fought to meet us as we came across the bridge. Thanks to weather their original flight had been canceled and they had taken separate flights with connections in order to make it in time. We had our hugs and chit chat and expressed interest in finishing the ride so that we could change out of our disgusting bike attire. They agreed to meet us for dinner and we rode to John and Mia's in Palo Alto.
Clocking in at 96 miles I joked to Gen that we could just do a few laps around the block and knock out one more century for the trip. She told me I was more than welcome to chase numbers while she showered and relaxed and I recognized the meaninglessness of pursuing abstraction. John and Mia were tremendous hosts and we met my parents for dinner at one of John's favorite restaurants. The place specialized in pastrami and had a tremendous assortment of sandwiches based around the tasty cured meat. After a delicious and filling Reuben I waved goodbye to my parents and John took us for dessert at a made-to-0rder ice cream sandwich bar.
We got back and made sure to snap a photo with John and Mia because we wouldn't be seeing them in the morning. After discussing sleeping arrangements and the available couches, John told us that we could be assured there were no bugs in Palo Alto. We agreed to have a final night's sleep under the stars and inflated the queen-sized air mattress in the backyard. We're one day away from being done and I am too exhausted to be restless. It is surreal to think in less than 24 hours we will be finished with the trip and done biking. There is a slight disappointment that the journey should have to end but I can say unequivocally that I am elated to give my butt a break, before it permanently turns into hamburger meat.