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more off-road adventures

I set off from Jedediah Smith and turn not west towards the coast but east to find a gravel road that will take me back to the coast, through the forest, popping out on Highway 101 slightly south of Crescent City.

The road meanders through ancient redwoods and I ride with awe in my heart. The tree trunks rise endlessly, straight up to heaven. It is like being in a cathedral; such a cliché – I’ve read that a hundred times before – but it is true.

Or perhaps not.

Maybe the truth is that a cathedral is a hollow echo of a magnificent forest. I feel like I’ve been told I might feel in a church, if I was religious: I feel a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, a sense of my own insignificance, a sense of infinite connections. The forest is not silent but it is hushed, the noises muted, light filtered, time suspended. Too soon, far too soon, I emerge blinking into the sunlight and time begins again.

I am alway sooooooo happy to get off the highway and this was an instance where the road was perfect for easy riding.

I am always so happy to get off the highway and this is an instance where the alternative road is perfect for easy riding.

These trees leave me speechless.

These trees leave me speechless.

And there was even funghi to keep me happy. A colourful flush of chicken-of-th-woods.

And there is even an edible funghi to keep me happy. A colourful flush of chicken-of-the-woods.

I still have only inadequate maps, the ancient disintegrating map of the entire state of California and a sketchy pictorial map for car tourists. The road I am on crosses Highway 101 and a sign on the other side of the highway seems to indicate the existence of a bike path. While I am still considering this a car that pulls up next to me and I signal to the driver I would like to talk to them. The woman turns out to be a park ranger – off duty, but still in uniform –  and this somehow gives me a confidence in her advice. I ask her if I take the road straight across the highway will it take me through to the 101 further down the coast. She assures me it does.

At a small park overlooking the sea, I stop to eat a snack of dried fruit and nuts with a few crackers. My food pannier is a little sparse. I had intended to stock up in Crescent City but my route through the forest side-stepped the town. A South African couple stop to chat. They offer me a beer which, at midday, I refuse; it would be the end of my day’s ride.

Beyond the park the road is blocked to motor traffic but there is a rough track on the other side of the barriers. I go to investigate an information board: a map shows a six mile section of the coastal trail, a walking track that follows the coast through Washington, Oregon and California. The path is described as strenuous, with numerous switchbacks and severe grades. I contemplate this information. There are a couple of bicycle symbols which I take to mean that the trail is passable by bike. I completely ignore the fact that my bike is weighed down by about 30 kilos of baggage.

I set off and the beginning seems promising – a gravel track with a mild downward gradient. I meet a couple of women, who don’t appear accustomed to strenuous walking, and quiz them for information but discover only that they haven’t gone far. I continue past a steep track on my left which provides access to the beach – I am not far above sea level – and round a bend.

Here, without warning, the track changes totally in character. From a road that would be passable in the average car it suddenly transforms into a narrow, rocky, horrendously steep, metre-wide trail. I can see upwards for maybe a hundred metres. I pause to consider. I don’t like turning back. Tough, but doable, I decide.

I get off and push, resting every 10 metres or so, hanging onto the brakes. My arms start to ache. A hundred metres stretches into a hundred and fifty and then, round the corner, the ascent continues. It would be a challenging walk without a laden bicycle. I can see another 100 metres of rocky path. I keep pushing.

I round another corner and I have an appalling sense of dejavu. The same scene appears in front of me – the path continues to lead upwards, narrow, rocky, steep. The rocks are large enough to seriously impede my progress. At times I think I will need to take the bags off the bike to proceed.

As I rest again, clinging to the brakes, to stop the bike hurtling back downhill, I glance down. The ocean is far below, glittering serenely between the trees, noiseless because it is so distant. I go on – rising higher and higher – the path levels out a little and my hopes leap – but the ascent continues. I am surrounded by trees, totally alone.

Nothing in particular marks the summit but after a time I find myself descending on an equally unforgiving trail. I still can’t really ride the bike but I sit astride it and bump and rattle down the hill until a section where the path, crumbling and eroding, follows the contour of the ridge dropping precipitously down towards the sea. Caution prevails and I get off and push again; unsure if I, or the bike, should take the riskier outer edge of the path.

Finally the path levels out and becomes smooth enough for me to ride, still following the contour of the ridge. The ground is covered by leaf litter and a creeping plant, similar to the garden weed we call oxalis in Australia. Tendrils of other plants – maybe poison ivy, which I know of but do know how to recognise – creep across the path, brushing against my bare legs.

A sudden patch of tarmac and faded white paint unexpectedly reveal this part of the trail to be an old road. It is smooth sailing until I reach a point where a washout has dropped a section of tarmac by several feet and I have to unload all the panniers and carry them and then the bike, one by one, across the obstacle. I reload the bike and continue, coasting along now and therefore, feeling extremely satisfied with my adventure, the long upward struggle forgotten completely.

An unexpected patch of tarmac reveals how a road can disappear almost without a trace.

An unexpected patch of tarmac reveals how a road can disappear almost without a trace.

It reminded me of an 'after-the-big-disaster' movie - Planet of the Apes, or something like it.

It reminds me of a scene from an 'after-the-big-disaster' movie - Planet of the Apes, perhaps, or something like that.

The only people I meet in six miles are a couple of joggers heading in the opposite direction. I emerge suddenly back onto the Highway 101 to a traffic jam caused by road construction. As I rejoin the highway two cyclists with loaded touring bikes sweep down the smooth tarmac surface and come to a halt beside me as we wait for the signal that we can proceed. Their eyes widen at my unexpected appearance out of the forest and I start to excitedly relate my adventures to them.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. cassgilbert | October 28, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    gravel, singletrack and long lost roads. nice (-:

  2. anna | October 28, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    well, it’s not exactly equal to your off-road adventures!

    but i certainly have the most fun when I am off the highway :-)

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