Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Cyclist caught in the Elements

San Francisco, California to Santa Monica, California (6,262-6,762 miles)

Wind-driven rain peppers my face and I duck my head and try to avoid looking to my right. Not that seeing what's down there will make me any less nervous. I know what's on the other side of the guardrail—a 200 yard drop to the ocean—where waves crash onto a rocky shoreline, and where I will die if the wind pushes me over that metal ribbon.

I'm on Hurricane Point, two and a half days south of San Francisco, and there is nowhere to hide. And I mean nowhere. I'm exposed, pedaling uphill on a road carved into a steep slope, and the gusts keep getting stronger. My fingers tighten in a death grip around the handlebars, and I set my jaw against the gale. I wish I could say I'm filled with bravery, but bravery is a choice—an intentional leap into danger—and I'm simply a cyclist caught in the elements.

In a bad way . . .

a worsening way . . .

in a way that can kill me.

The wind slams me to the right, aiming my front wheel at the guardrail, and I fall . . . catch myself with my leg and somehow keep myself and the bike upright. I straighten and look down, watch a wave break onto the rocks. The wave booms as loud as thunder, exploding into foam that leaps upward against the cliff. I shiver and zip my windbreaker to my throat. I'm soaked through and through, must burn calories to stay warm, will drift into hypothermia if I linger too long.

I get back into the saddle and pedal upward, around an outside bend in the road, into the full fury of the storm. My world goes gray and watery, horizontal rain blasting me, and I peer through slitted eyes. Wind buffets me like laundry on a clothesline, pushes me to the right, then to the left. Left is onto the highway, where the occasional driver "braves" the storm, and I shiver again. If a car hits me . . . if it's just a glancing blow . . . I'm going over that guardrail.

The wind increases . . .

gusts upward of 70 MPH . . .

and I get off my bike.

I push my load to the other side of the road, lean against the hill, catch my breath. Coldness begins a slow creep into my bones, and I set off into the storm on foot. I am now a pedestrian, harder to blow off course than when I was on wheels, and I am no longer fearful of a rocky ocean grave. I am, however, fearful of cars approaching from the other direction, and I keep myself and my bike as close to the roadway edge as I possibly can. Watery wind howls, shrieking and moaning, tearing and snatching as though it wants to rip the land from its roots. The storm is a creature come alive, determined to wreak havoc, and I am helpless in its grasp.

Well . . .

not entirely.

I grit my teeth and push my bike downhill—yes, push my bike downhill—and try to force out a laugh. But there is nothing funny about this storm and the laugh remains buried in my belly. It'll be over soon—I tell myself this again and again—my new mantra.

It will be over soon . . .

over soon . . .

soon . . .

Only it isn't. If anything the wind is picking up, dumping more and more water, firehose bursts that threaten to rip the clothes off my body. I struggle to keep the bike upright, come to a standstill when the gusts are at their worst.

I shout encouragement to myself—wind clawing words from my throat—tell myself I can do this, that I must do this, to keep moving, that one or two things will happen. Either I will walk out of this storm or it will blow itself out. The wind lessens and I smile into the rain. It won't be long and I'll be cycling again, putting distance between myself and this windy-watery-hellhole.


The storm scrapes the smile off my face, and I scream my frustration. Soaked and shivering, raging and screaming, I push my bike down the road. A sheriff drives past in an SUV, slows as though he's going to stop, drives onward. Good. I wouldn't have accepted his help, not now, not since I got mad. I will beat this thing on my own.

A cyclist against the elements . . .

me against the storm . . .

one man—

Okay, if he'd stopped I probably would have jumped in the front seat in two seconds flat. I push onward—down, down, down the hill—and the wind begins to lessen. Which is good. I can see again, and if I can see, maybe I can pedal. I get on the bike and glide to the other side of the road, begin a slow descent. The wind lessens even more, and the rain falls almost straight down.


Well, intermittent sunshine, but sunshine nonetheless.

My life has done a 180, from fighting for survival in a hurricane-strength storm on Hurricane Point to living in the laperluxury. (I think that might be a paraphrase from Flannery O'Connor.)

I cycle in and out of the rain, climbing through Big Sur, glance to my left and see two touring cyclists outside a store. They bend over, examine their gear, do their best to hide their embarrassed faces.

I cross the road, and they have no choice but to acknowledge my existence. Sid's a short guy in his sixties, and Kaden's a taller, much younger man. This is the second time I've seen them—I'd met them while they ate breakfast on a bridge, about an hour before the storm hit—which can only mean one thing.

They got a ride.

Sid talks through chattering teeth; his, hands shake as he holds a sandwich. Kaden wears a wet cotton sweatshirt, and he's every bit as cold as Sid. Neither of them are wearing wind pants. These guys are on their first cycling trip, a jaunt from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and they've been trying to find rain gear in thrift stores along the way.

"We're soaking wet," Kaden says through blue lips.

I am too, but I'm wearing gear that will keep me warm when wet. They aren't. They also caught a ride here, which means they quit burning bike-calories and their internal flames are smoldering instead of blazing. Two strikes against them. No wonder they are freezing.

"You guys need to drink something hot," I say. "And you need to get out of those wet clothes."

They tell me they plan to do just that, and we part ways. I cycle onward, climbing and climbing, pass a gas station that has the highest price in the US—upward of 8 dollars per gallon—crest the climb and roll down the road toward the ocean. I need water and stop at a library, discover it's a Henry Miller museum. The guy working the cash register tells me to go around to the side of the building and use the sink, says there's a stove if I need to cook. I fill up my bottles and cook a double Pork Ramen, sit on a step, watch tourists wander in and out. The tourists take a few pictures of the artwork sprinkled around the grounds, largely ignoring me, and I couldn't be happier. I survived one of the worst hours of my life, plus I'm drying out, hydrated, and full. If they don't want to talk, that's fine with me.

I cycled south, under blue skies and fluffy clouds, alongside an undulating ocean shoreline every bit as beautiful as Oregon's. When I pull over to camp, my daily odometer reads 50.25 miles. I'm exhausted and I pitch under the stars, grin when I think of my friend Richard Collins. I met him earlier on this trip, at a hostel in Guffey, Colorado, and I have a standing invitation to stop at his house in LA. He's a fifth generation Angeleno, and he's going to show me his town. I can hardly wait.

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