And the long strange mission to explore the country begins, the travelers braced for wild uncertainty...
Three people, three K2 bicycles, a borrowed Suburban, and a 1990 beige-and-maroon 25-foot Jayco trailer. The characters in the true story of this trip are the three of us: Bill, Sarah and myself (Stephanie), who were all crazy enough to leave our jobs and routines and resign ourselves to spending half a year with each other - and the open world of crazy people we encounter. None of us have known either of the others for long, or spent great lengths of time together. This would be a challenge for any sampling of the population, but it is a good challenge to have. Last spring, after Bill had heart surgery to replace one of his valves with a “porcine” (pig) valve, he felt compelled to embark on the bicycle trip across the country that he had dreamed of for years. When he asked Sarah and I to join him and document a trip across the country through photography and words, we were both glad to leave the Granite State for a while and take time away from the lives we had before. The three of us each had our own reasons, personal and professional, for wanting to embark on this - and so we did.
To leave New Hampshire at the end of December and go to California has been in many ways a joyous thing, to experience the transformation of twenty degrees to sixty in January. This winter, I will mourn my losses: three stories of icy stairs and the familiar spinning tires of the ’93 Taurus, stuck in the driveway. Although I have been checking the California forecast on the weather channel now, my eyes always wander to the upper right corner of the map on whichever motel TV I happen to be watching, because that’s where New England is. I like to see what’s precipitating on my loved ones up there.
Of course, not everyone in the Lower 48 seems to know where New England is, much less give a thought to its weather patterns. On New Year’s Eve, at the Irish bar that Sarah and I found while wandering the unfamiliar streets of San Francisco, we told someone we were from New Hampshire and they asked us if it was up near Alaska.
After a brief stay in San Francisco, Bill’s original plan was to bike out of the city on January first, heading for southern California. Of course what that meant was that some of the worst rain the greater San Francisco area had seen in years chose that very week to unleash itself upon us, which delayed our actual departure by three days. (Of course, Bill did stay true to his promise of biking on the first day of the new year – a ragged man with a cheap blue-and-silver rusted bike and a lack of several front teeth was more than happy to let Bill borrow his bike, ride down the block and be photographed with it for ten bucks.) Eventually, on the fourth day of 2006, somewhere on the southern tip of San Francisco, we were ready to begin our adventure. Soon after the beginning of California’s Route 1, the Pacific Coast highway, Bill hopped on his K2, blue-helmeted, pedaling out of the city and into our journey, our quest, or as I will sometimes enjoy referring to it, the crazy train. Or, perhaps, the parade of insanity. Whichever best fits the day.
On day one of our trip, Bill rode the 28 miles from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, which was a gorgeous, warm-weathered seaside town. Sarah drove the Suburban-trailer combo down the coast highway, and the scenery, the raw beauty of the coastline from the cliffs, is a memory which will stay with me always. This unrestrained Pacific was a sight I had not seen before. Wind from passing cars whipped the trailer from side to side on a two-lane road, bringing us closer to the expanse of ocean. The midday dazzle of January California sun (which rivaled a late spring day in New Hampshire) streamed at us from above and from the right - where there was nothing but aquamarine sky, severe cliffs and the deep green pounding of the whitecapped ocean. The waves that we saw driving down the coastline were bigger than anything I have ever seen in New Hampshire or Maine or Massachusetts – a waiter we talked to told us that there were sometimes “barrels” (the part of the wave the surfer rides in, when the top curves over) that you could fit a semi truck inside. I have a safe, warm feeling being close to the ocean here, as I do at home, and it’s a thrill to have it on our right side, our companion for the next few weeks.
On Bill’s second day of riding, he traveled about 40 miles from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz. Sarah and I drove ahead to try and find us a place to stay in Santa Cruz, but imagine this shocker- there are limited facilities at which you may park if you are driving something large. An example of “large” would be a Suburban with 25 feet of pink-and-blue-interiored trailer shackled slightly unsteadily behind it. To be quite honest, you really can’t park in many places at all – and drive-thru food is not something that can even be considered. As the two of us entered the outskirts of Santa Cruz, we decided to try our luck at a dilapidated motel because it was the first place we saw. We drove into the lot, drove around the back of the motel in an S shape, trailer swinging, saw there was no parking, and then realized that to exit the parking lot we had to drive under an overhang with a cement bar stating LOW CLEARANCE.
This was bad.
There is nothing low clearance-y about the trailer. There is nothing easily maneuverable about a situation involving a Suburban, an enormous trailer, and a miniscule, badly configured cheap motel parking lot. The next hour involved: an abandoned white Buick that was parked in our way, whose owner had mysteriously disappeared days before; a 76-point turn; two ancient, mute Japanese men in suits standing in front of their room staring at us try to execute our escape; and a hysterical, overmedicated sixty-year old female front desk worker wearing a bright pink ensemble who kept screeching at us, terrified that we were going to slam into either the Buick or the pathetic attempt at landscaping on the other side. After a session of Sarah’s head sticking out of the window of the Suburban and me standing behind the trailer and yelling Stop and Back up a little more, Sarah got fired up and began gunning it, back and forth until finally we could get the hell out of there. Perhaps a dry, scrubby shrub or two sacrificed their lives to aid in our departure, but that was the price we were forced to pay. The evening ended with us not finding a place we could fit into in Santa Cruz, picking up Bill and his bike as the sun set wild purple and pink and gold, and driving south to Monterey.
We had a day off in Monterey because Bill got a tick bite on his leg and it became circular, so he went to the hospital in case he’d gotten Lyme disease. Luckily, his official diagnosis was ‘it was just a regular tick bite, but take these antibiotics for a week just in case’ but the day was wasted as far as biking. Later, we were chauffeured by Aged Hippie Cabdriver #1 on our way to the Monterey Bay aquarium. He was amused and interested in Bill’s bike trip and told us that he rode from Boston to Pennsylvania, once upon a time. “I went with my first wife,” he told us, “and the cops pulled us over because they thought we were too young to be married!” I could see the memory riding across his crow’s-feet as he spoke. “We biked, we camped out by the side of the road and made love all night,” he told us. Ah, the sixties.
Monterey is famous for the aquarium and for Cannery Row, a restaurant and shopping area next to the water. It was just a dirt road in the mid-1800s, when Monterey’s fishermen became innovators in fishing and packing sardines. Sardines counted for half the city’s revenue until the mid-1940s, when the abundant sardine population inexplicably disappeared. John Steinbeck is from here, and the street was named Cannery Row in 1958 in honor of his novel by the same name. That’s a bit of California history for you. The aquarium is at the end of Cannery Row, and it was beautiful – they have a million gallon tank in the middle that’s three stories high, one of the world’s largest jellyfish exhibits, and penguins – the Monterey aquarium had taken on fifteen penguins from an aquarium in New Orleans that had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. For dinner we ate at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which was amusing in ways that I appreciated – it is humorous to me that there are entire restaurants devoted to Forrest Gump. “Shrimp is the fruit of the sea…you can barbecue it, boil it, broil it…”
The taxi driver that took us from Bubba Gump back to the unequaled luxury of EconoLodge was a man with a long white beard, John Lennon hippie glasses, and a bright hat shaped like an upside-down funnel saying YELLOW CAB in black letters. He was Aged Hippie Cabdriver #2! His tourist advice to us was that there was a place called Lovers’ Point, which was “three miles thataway” with a gesture of his hand. We explained to the cabbie that none of us had lovers. “But you can find one there!" he excaimed. "Love blossomed for me there, once upon a time,” he said. “I used to smoke dope, you know, and in 1971 I was seventeen. I was walking on the beach alone at night with a joint in my hand, and a young lady was walking along the beach towards me with a joint in her hand, and when we reached each other, I passed her mine, and she passed me hers, and we ended up living together for six months!” Ah, the seventies.
This is bad too:
The next day, Saturday, January 7, was the day that I crashed the trailer. Farewell, trailer, towed away to Salinas, which is where the internetless Motel 6 that I am currently typing at also happens to be. An outline of the drama: it was 11:15 am. Sunny sky. There were four lanes, the traffic flow carrying us in a fluid motion along the curves in the road. There was a slight wiggle in the steering, causing a larger wiggle in the trailer. This resulted in what one may classify as a minor loss of control of the steering wheel, an inexperienced application of pressure to the brakes, and then the sharp turn which left us facing the traffic on the shoulder of the road with the back right window of our car splashed in a million tinted pieces over the ground and the back seat. The trailer, being the regal war hero that it was, tried valiantly to weather its jackknifing crash into the Suburban. Despite its efforts, it suffered some trauma in the right frontal region, with a shattered window as well, and now the door must be bungee-corded shut. The car will be fine after two new tires, a window and a bit of dent removal, the trailer may be traded in for a less-than-25-foot model, and we’re stuck here in Salinas until at least Monday to figure out the details of Bill’s new trailer negotiations.
This is probably something that we all can laugh about more in the future as opposed to the time we spend here as prisoners of this Motel 6.
The three of us have eaten way too many meals at Denny’s together since we’ve been here. The milkshakes are good and the rice pilaf is not. This place has about eight sub-par TV channels, no Internet, and quarter-inch-thick walls that allow me to gain personal information about the fourteen people that are all staying in the room next door to Sarah and I, whereas of course Bill has himself perched over in a nice quiet area of the motel. There is a gated pool in the center of the motel that has a sign cable-tied on it: “WE’RE SOORY THE POOL IS CLOSED FOR WINTER” with a snowman icon.
I think that getting a smaller trailer is the consensus. I did say just yesterday that I would be completely shocked if we got through this trip without crashing the trailer, which is the precise reason why I crashed it today. Nobody was hurt at all, and we didn’t hit anyone else, which are the most important things by far – and even if we are stuck in Salinas, which is no Beverly Hills with its crowded, smoggy one-way streets with stores proclaiming their wares in signs written in Spanish (and yo not always comprendo) - it is nice to be alive to talk about it.
So tonight, as I pick a tiny shard of Suburban from the bottom of my foot, I am happy to be sitting here and that I have known how good life can be – how lucky I am to know both winter in New Hampshire and winter on the coast of California - one cold, white, snowflaked and hot-chocolated; one sixty degrees, surreal, with watercolor sunsets.
To all who made it to the end of this, I promise that subsequent entries will be of a shorter length! Thank you for persevering.