I had an extra six days of holiday between visiting my brother in LA for Christmas and my New Year’s day flight back to the frigid northeast. I had recently become obsessed with bikepacking, so I scrambled to find a cycling adventure of some kind. I did some research and discovered the route between San Francisco and Los Angeles—500 miles of winding roads around breathtaking cliffs and through the beautiful coastline. Unfortunately, the winter brings heavy rains, which recently caused a 40-acre landslide that closed the road in the middle of Big Sur. I had also no prior bikepacking experience nor had I ever ridden more than 70 miles in a day. Overall, the trip seemed questionable. However, I didn’t let the prospect of poor weather, road closures, and lack of experience and training discourage me. I couldn’t imagine when I would have a better opportunity to ride this route in the future, so I took the chance and bought the bus ticket to SF. I was going to ride the Pacific Coast Highway from the Golden Gate Bridge to Hollywood, Ornot.
It was an odd feeling having an extra 40 lbs. of gear on my bike. Climbs were sluggish and down-hills were startling, but smooth, flat sections of tarmac were surreal. The bike just didn’t want to slow down on the flats because of the extra weight, and I found myself cruising at around 25 mph while barely pushing on the pedals. Was I suddenly in the pro peloton? My daydreams were quickly crushed by the following climb. Luckily, the next descent wasn’t too far away. After just a few hours of riding, I began to feel the flow of the Pacific coast; a series of descents, bridge crossings over creek beds, and sharp climbs up to the next crest in the cliffs. The pattern distracted me from my achy legs and broke up the long days in the saddle into manageable chunks. You can find the route on my Strava, Ornot.
If the Pacific Coast was a music festival then Big Sur would be the headliner. I was eager to hit the section of the coast everyone I met praised, so I impatiently rode at full speed through Santa Cruz and Monterey on the way to the coastline. I knew I had arrived when I saw a warning sign that said, “Winding Road: next 74 miles”. The first glimpse of the dramatic cliffs restored my energy and I felt like I had just gotten on the bike. The coastline appeared to be infinite. The exquisite roads moved with the shape of the cliffs, and each bend atop a climb led to a whole new set of hills to admire. In the Northeast, where I grew up, #roadslikethese are rare; I was in paradise. The long, winding descents compelled me to yell as if I was riding a roller coaster. A break in the cliffs after a few tough climbs eventually led me inland to Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park where I was suddenly encapsulated in Redwoods. The sun quickly set in the forest, but after some searching in the dark, I found the Hiker-Biker Campsites, along with new friends.
At Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park I met Isaac. He was on his way to Patagonia... from Boston. The 90 extra pounds of gear on his bike forced him to move at a leisurely pace. I enjoyed his company, so I happily slowed down to ride with him for the day. There was a special beauty in riding slow, taking in the scenery, and stopping wherever and whenever. The change in pace made me realize I had been taking few breaks up until then and was pushing hard mile after mile as if it was a race. I wondered what I had missed. As we grew closer to the closed section of the road, the number of south-bound drivers dwindled. Since the road is regularly congested with RVs and camper vans careening down the coastline, we took advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and happily occupied the entire lane. Sadly, our turn-off point onto the fire road was approaching and the smooth, winding roads were coming to an end. We weren’t sure what to expect during our mountainous detour of the landslide, but one thing was clear: it would be an adventure.
In January of 2017, heavy rains caused a landslide that buried the Pacific Coast Highway in 40 feet of earth at Mud Creek. The road is predicted to be closed until the end of Summer 2018. To many cyclists and 4WD cars, the only detour was along Nacimiento Ferguson Road. The detour is a mostly paved road, but taking it would have meant riding 100 miles away from the coast. I was not interested in missing that much of the coastal scenery. Some quick research revealed that if I went up a 3,000 ft climb over 8 miles of fire road, crossed a 3.5 mile pleasantly bumpy ride along the ridge above the landslide, and hiked the 6 miles down the Salmon Creek Trail, I would successfully bypass the landslide and only miss a few miles of the coastline. Six miles of hiking my bike was a small price to pay to have the Pacific Coast Highway all to myself on the other side… or so I thought. The way up the fire road and across the ridge was tough but manageable. With frequent 20% gradient sections, road bike gearing, and the extra weight of gear, I had to push my bike uphill a lot. I finally reached the Salmon Creek Trail, but I was hours behind schedule and running low on food and water. With about an hour of daylight left, I pushed on dreaming of the incredible roads that laid below.
I was a mile or two into the hike on the Salmon Creek Trail when I reached a portion of the trail where there had been a landslide—the slope leading down to the creek below was strewn with pebbles. My field of vision was the glow of my headlamp, but turning back was not an option. I had to cross somehow. I gently tested my first step and the ground disappeared beneath me. Suddenly, I was on my back with my bike in my right hand, a large rock on my lap, and my left hand desperately grabbing onto a tree above me. My heart was racing but the rest of my body moved in slow-motion. I cautiously inched the large stone off me and pushed it away into the darkness below. Using my bike to stabilize myself, I returned to the security of the maintained trail. Just when I thought I was safe pebbles started falling from above; I had to get out of there. Without thinking, I hopped from boot print to boot print across the landslide. The gravel slope held me upright and I made it across. I yearned to be back on a paved road more than anything. However, I realized getting back to the road wasn’t the safest idea in dark, especially if there were more sketchy bits ahead. I was hungry, dehydrated, and absolutely filthy. After another mile of hiking, I resigned to resting at one of the primitive campgrounds along the trail, boiling some water, and eating my last packet of oatmeal. I was happy to finally be in the comfort of my tent, but I was still 3 miles from the road. That was an adventure for another day; I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
I made it back to the road the following morning and went full speed to the closest restaurant 4 miles away. I ordered pancakes, eggs, potatoes, and coffee that wasn’t instantly made; my meal took up the whole table. Did I mention I had lost my wallet while riding in the mountains? Yeah… I didn’t know it either until I went to pay for my meal. Luckily, I had some emergency cash that was reduced to minimal change thanks to the massive feast. I was defeated, but at least my belly was full. I continued on until I reached a town with a bank. I was able to take out enough money for the rest of the trip using an odd combination of personal information since I had no debit card or ID. Back on the bike, I quickly forgot the exhaustion and frustrations of the previous 24 hours. I usually find my oasis in cycling—I move forward, escape from reality momentarily, and clear my mind. The final third of my trip had broken my spirits, but somehow also lifted them back up and carried me back to Los Angeles in one piece (although my brother said I looked like I was in shambles).
I knew my plan was not ideal even before I started. I could have been fitter; I could’ve had more bikepacking and touring experience, and I could have waited until a better time of the year when torrential rain wasn’t a threat and the road was unobstructed. The ride was a physical challenge and filled with uncertainties. That’s what I loved about it; being completely out of my comfort zone.
If you seek a similar feeling, don’t wait for tomorrow. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions to go on your adventure. More often than not, your experience will be enhanced by its imperfections. With that said, be ready for anything. You might just have to carry 60 pounds of bike across a landslide, Ornot.