I'm sitting in the sunshine in the Elk Prairie campground in California. I took today off cycling so I could walk through some trails in the Redwood forest where the camp is. The trees are incredible - the old ones being wide as a garage and tall as a cathedral spire. I'm used to old trees being all twisted and gnarled but these grow straight up. I asked my friend John, who I'm making camp with, whether these are some of the best redwoods around. He said he the ones up the road at Fern Canyon are amazing, but that he was on some psychadelic drugs at the time he visited them last, which might have skewed his judgement. The ones I've seen will do. John seems to stick to beer these days, and has promised to pick one up for me later, then I might join him on a ride up to the canyon. I got some good photos on my walk through the trees, but this post will have to be words only unless I can use some phone photos. When I can charge my laptop and reduce the size of the image files from my good camera I'll put some up here.
It's still early in the season so there are hardly any people staying at this campground. Only John and I are in the hiker/biker section, which looks out on to a field where wild elk live, in front of the redwood forest. Critters are common, metal lockers are provided to make sure smaller and larger animals (bears, mountain lions), aren't tempted in. State-run park grounds in Oregon and California mostly have these hiker/biker spots, and they are usually tucked away from the other tent pitches; are well sheltered; have plenty of picnic benches to spread your gear out on; and importantly - they cost 5 or 6 dollars each night compared to $20-$35 for a standard pitch.
I met John as I cycled past him a few days ago, he's a burly bearded Irishman in his 40s based in San Francisco. He's cycling from Portland to San Fran and is covering a similar daily distance to me, so we've made camp together for the past few nights. John is good company, intelligent, generous, wily, with a quick and dry sense of humour. He's a bit of a character- an ex-raver who gets by doing odd jobs, and lives in an old shop with cheap rent. He told me how he ended up living there- it was his friend's place, but said friend got in trouble with law. John had a car and offered to drive this buddy of his to the airport in exchange for the flat, and that was that. The new landlords want to raise the rent but San Francisco's rent control rules are on his side -"I told them that in City Hall, where would a guy like me in his 40s go if they raised the rent? Would they expect me to go out and get a job?!".
John is looking for ways to lighten the load in his panniers, and has decided to lose, among other things, the bb gun and ammo he bought to shoot racoons (untested so far). He cycles in a luminous green Pearl Izumi jacket, expensive threads - but he knows a girl who works for a rich couple and picks up their cast-offs, from which he benefits.
Sticking to the hiker/biker campgrounds has helped me structure the days of cycling so far; the daily mileage is set by calculating the distance between them, and they are nicely spaced out to make this work well, usually landing between 50 and 70 miles from each other. The hiker/biker spots have their downsides though, attracting some of the slightly sketchier characters who are hiking or hitching their way up and down US Pacific Route 101.
A nasty group were camped in the Harris Beach State Campground just North of Crescent City the night before last, they are hiking and hitching their way North. It was party time by their tents, and their drug of choice was probably crystal meth (says John). Their dealer turned up in a truck halfway through the evening. They may have been wasted, but they managed to keep a fire going through the night. Alex, the guy hitching with his girlfriend, was sociable enough, inviting us to joint them for some pot and a pork chop (thanks but no thanks). He came over for a chat, and was inspecting my camping stove. He got his eye right down to the table and was all wrists and elbows, displaying the body language of an old crone. He's a surfer in his late 20s/early 30s, but it looks like he's swapped the beach to get wasted and occasionally beat the puppy which they travel with.
They kept their distance and were no real danger to us or our stuff. I lit a fire on our side of the hiker/biker camp and we kept to ourselves. We had a good fire going, I bought a $5 bundle of dry wood from the camp 'hosts', which John supplemented with a successful round of 'hobo-logging'. This involves cruising the campground on your bike and liberating and half burnt logs from the fire pits of empty sites. He also gave me a beer for his share of the wood I brought, my first of the trip!
As well as the nasties, route 101 offers up some interesting characters such as Super Dave, the cycling hobo who I was lucky enough to camp by in my first hiker/biker site. He's a gentle sort of guy cycling with a trailer and his two dogs ("they're gonna pull me all the way to Seattle!"), and has been cycling the roads for 10 years. He camps in hiker/biker campgrounds or by the side of the road, occasionally spends a night in a Motel 6 (as they let you take dogs in the room), eats macaroni cheese each night and sometimes treats himself to a 10 dollar omelette at a greasy spoon. He limps from a severe car accident and showed me his the scar on his leg where it was smashed up - "that one should have been my end but God had other plans for me".
I've heard a few references to 'tweakers' so far ("lock up your bike at night cos tweakers sometimes drive through and grab anything they can"), they seem to get their name from the ticks and twitches their body displays on their drug of choice. The Harris Beach group probably count as tweakers, which makes them sound a bit like fairytale monsters. John thinks that the sketchy characters stick to route 101, and will thin out once I leave it.
My route followed that highway almost exclusively through Oregon, but now I'm in California it takes more of the back roads, which makes prettier but harder cycling (scenic roads are almost always hillier). The 101 had some great moments in Oregon - when it broke through the pine forests and out on to the Pacific Ocean it was spectacular. The campgrounds, especially along the beaches and sand dunes, where idyllic. But it also rained like anything, which, along with a knee injury I picked up coming out Portland, made for a tough first week. There is also heavy traffic in places, including regular logging trucks overtaking you, which starts to grate on the nerves. The riding itself has been safe enough, with most roads having a shoulder to ride in. The knee pain has been genuinely excruciating in places, but is manageable now as I've changed the way I pedal and have bought a fancy knee strap.
My routine is becoming set now, I get up at 6am just before sunrise, pack up, eat breakfast and aim to leave by half 8. It's cold still at night, it was below freezing last night. The sun is now making a regular appearance each day, the weather is definitely improving as I head South. I cycle all day, try and get in a campground by 6pm, cook dinner at 7pm, shower when it gets dark at 8pm, then in the tent and asleep by 9 or 10pm. Extended cycle touring also becomes one long hunt for the following-food, somewhere to sleep, water, and restrooms/showers. Satisfying these needs, along with planning an itinerary and following a route, doesn't leave many hours left in the day, making days off like these valuable.
My recollections of the flights to Denver and again to Portland have receded into a haze: with the exception of the joyful moment of discovering that Portland airport has a dedicated 'bicyle assembly area', with a workshop stand. This is a very happy moment for a cycle tourist. I stayed in a posh hotel in Portland as I was jetlagged and wanted to get in the first place I found. They let me take my bike up to my room, and I did some maintenance on it there; undoubtedly the most ostentatious space I've used as a workshop.
I put in 70 miles yesterday thanks to the new knee strap which felt great, I realised I've been missing the buzz I get from a full day's cycling. I feel like I've got the strength in my legs to pull all my weight (some 45kg) that distance each day but my knee has been holding me back. Hopefully I'm past that now. The ride yesterday, from 6 miles North of the California border, was immense. The afternoon saw me climbing a ten mile road through a redwood forest, burning downhill at 30-40mph (fast for a fully loaded touring bike!) and out on to the ocean cliffs, then cruising down a old deserted highway through the trees to this campground in the evening. I had to be careful not to crash the bike from gawping at the trees.
So it's been a tough start in some respects, but I'm slowly fitting in to the life of a two-wheeled traveller. I part ways with John tomorrow, but may call on him in San Francisco if he gets there first. I look forward to meeting other cyclists to share tips of the trade and a fire with. So onwards to San Francisco, and warmer climates!