California - Part 2
I left Arcata stocked up with several days’ groceries, ready for the Lost Coast route. I was even planning to take the Usal Road, an unmaintained dirt path that takes you through the rugged and remote King Range before spitting you out on Highway 1, meaning you don’t have to return to busy 101. This option had been suggested by a bike mechanic in Arcata, but even locals in the towns out on the Lost Coast seemed to know almost nothing about the Usal Road, as I would learn.
When I told my host on Thursday night of my plans, he said "well, you’re a glutton for punishment.”
In Ferndale, just before the first big climb, I stopped at The Mind’s Eye Cafe for a cup of coffee and some granola with hemp milk. I was writing a postcard to Erin when another solo bicycle traveler walked in. As is customary, we introduced ourselves and shared the basic facts of our travels. Peter was from Santa Cruz; he’d left a week ago and had just reached his turnaround point. He planned to do the Lost Coast route, loop back to 101, and head home.
When we discovered that we each had an instrument with us, we decided right then to camp together that night so we could jam. I had been secretly hoping to find a riding companion, and couldn’t believe my luck.
Peter got his coffee and joined me at my table. We traded questions. He shared that he was riding to honor the memory of his younger brother Clayton, who had died only five weeks earlier.
“Yeah, it’s pretty fresh.”
In this raw and open place, Peter welcomed me into his travels. We set off toward the ocean, sharing stories as we climbed, discovering much in common.
At the first big viewpoint, we stopped for a snack, and Peter took out his phone to show me a couple videos of Clayton playing and singing his original songs. He was a true talent: his guitar work tastefully supported lyrics that struck an enviable balance of funny and poignant, clever and sad. It was a tender moment, watching these videos together. Tears welled in Peter’s eyes. I, a stranger, wanted to comfort him in some way, but wasn’t sure what was right. Finally, I hoped not tentatively, I placed a hand on his shoulder.
He took me into a hug.
“Thanks for sharing that with me,” I said. “I’m really happy to be riding with you.”
We descended into a valley before climbing once more, up switchbacks at an intense grade. Peter, a much stronger rider, got up ahead and waited at the top. I finally caught up and we flew down a giant hill to the coastline.
We found a spot on the beach, and set up camp. Peter got a driftwood fire going and produced a bottle of whiskey from his pack. We sipped and jammed by the light and warmth of the flames as the foggy night came on.
It’s a delicate thing to join forces with another traveler. You want to be careful not to overextend your time together. When you’re headed the same direction, as we were, there’s no obvious point to split off. Being faster, Peter could’ve sped away any time he wished, of course. But it was clear to both of us that we were really enjoying each other’s company, and it felt only natural, come the morning, to continue.
We passed through Petrolia and Honeydew, tiny towns each boasting one general store as its sole business, yet bustling with travelers from around the world who come to this area looking for under-the-table work on marijuana farms. “Trimmigrants,” we learned they were called. Peter and I were ourselves taken for Trimmigrants, offered work by a burly man in a big pickup. (We declined.)
At a campground in Honeydew we met a big group, mostly young men, who’d been camped out together for a while, finding work here and there but mostly hanging out and waiting. There was Christian from Colombia, traveling California on his bicycle after coming to LA for a reggae festival. There were two Armandos from Mexico. There were three French guys, several French Canadians, a North Carolinian, a Seattleite.
Apparently the locals had had enough of this little congregation: signs announced that the campground would permanently close in a few days. The Trimmigrants were planning a defiant celebration that night. “The Honeydew Festival,” a French Canadian dryly dubbed it.
The Festival turned out to consist mostly of people standing around a fire. A jam session materialized: Christian and one of the Armandos were excellent guitarists. I brought out my mandolin, and we played jazz and salsa tunes for a while before switching to covers of the Chili Peppers, Sublime, and Blink-182. The dry-witted French Canadian prepared his dinner and some psilocybin tea on the grill over the fire.
After a couple hours, Peter and I left the Honeydew Festival to eat our dinner of sausage, onions, mushrooms, and rice, and to discuss our plans for the following day. I’d invited Peter to do the Usal Road with me, but he wasn’t sure his bike was up to the task. Or so he said, but I assumed there was another factor: entering even steeper and more rugged terrain would only magnify the disparity in our strengths as cyclists. I would slow him down significantly, and he was feeling the pull of home.
Still, he hadn’t ruled it out, and over dinner we talked about trying to do the whole Usal Road in one big day. The problem was that we really had no idea what we’d be getting ourselves into. Was it ten miles, or fifty? (I had neglected to look this up, and now we were out of cell range.) Were sections blocked by fallen trees or landslides? Had water turned the road into washboard, making for agonizing riding? Could it be even steeper than what we’d been doing, so steep we’d have to push our heavy bikes for long stretches? We were confident we could make it through; we had the right supplies, even if we got stuck out there somehow. What we didn’t know is how long it would take, or whether it would be any fun at all.
Mixed, vague reports from the locals hadn’t helped. Most people seemed to have driven the road only once, often many years before. Our favorite piece of input came from Kurt, a Petrolian, who, when we told him we were considering the Usal Road, said “don’t do that” with a grimly serious face.
“Really? That bad?” I said.
Kurt thought a moment. “No, you know what? You’ll be fine.”
That night in Honeydew, when we went to bed, no decision had been made. Sleep was fitful as, all night long, trucks and golf carts entered and exited the adjacent property through a big iron gate.
In the morning, we still talked as though we might go for our all-in-one-big-day plan, though we were in no rush as we ate our oatmeal and packed up, and it was close to 10 when we finally rode. We kept circling back to how we needed more information.
“We’ll look for a sign,” Peter said.
“You mean, like, a sign from God?” I joked.
As we expected, we immediately started climbing. This third day’s ride was the steepest yet. We would settle into a walking pace to take on a seemingly endless climb, arrive at a false summit, come around a bend for more climbing, more climbing, more climbing. Finally, we’d reach the summit, race down into the next valley, and find ourselves once again craning to looking up at switchbacks.
But it was not draining. It was exhilarating. I felt stronger than ever. There is a real pleasure in settling in for a long climb, finding that rhythmic, meditative zone where you’re just doing what needs to be done, not thinking about getting to the top.
Then, when you do arrive, there’s the sweet sense of accomplishment. If you count me, the bike, and all my gear, it’s about 275 pounds I’m hauling up these mountains. Not bad. When you have a buddy to celebrate with, all the better.
Around noon, we hit the fork in the road where the decision was due: turn right for a gravel climb south through wilderness to the Usal Road, or keep left on a smooth paved descent along private lands east toward 101. Peter had made up his mind, and made his case: “I don’t want to try to influence your decision. But I’m going to 101, and I’m really enjoying hanging with you. I’d love it if you came along and we camped together one more night. Then I’d probably take off early tomorrow morning and do a few big days.”
I’d wondered whether Peter might say something like that, and I’d have to think hard about whether I wanted to stick to my original plan of taking on the Usal Road alone. Faced with the actual decision, it turned out to be an easy one. “Of course I’ll come with you,” I said. “I’m having a great time. Let’s camp one more night, jam some more. What’s the Usal Road, anyway? For all I know, it doesn’t even exist.”
So we took the more inviting left, happy to have made a decision and to still be riding together.
The descent turned out to be brief; soon we were once again in first gear crawling straight up. We stopped for salami sandwiches in the shade. We listened to good country music from Peter’s phone and smoked the second half of that morning’s joint. (When in Rome…)
Near the top of what might have been the day’s biggest climb, two little dogs chased us out of a driveway, followed by an old woman scolding the dogs. We stopped.
“You boys need anything? A snack? Water?”
“Water, sure!” We were running low.
She invited us into her house and told us a good chunk of her life story over the course of the next hour. Her name was Grandma Mugwort. She’d escaped an abusive marriage with her five children and brought them out here to raise them alone. They were practically homesteading; there was nothing but woods when they arrived. Over many years, working as a hotel maid in a small town on 101, she made the property into a home.
Now her children are grown and have moved away. The new grow operation downhill from her place is sucking the aquifer dry and the whole hill is starting to slide. Grandma Mugwort is a poet, and wants to self-publish her poems while she still can—she is in poor health—but she doesn’t type. She asked if either of us was interested in living rent-free in her home and typing up her poems for her. I took her phone number and said I’d ask around.
She gave us water, coffee, and a large bag of homegrown weed. We were making for the door, thanking her profusely, when she said “you’re not going back to 101 are you, the way people drive? I hope you’re taking the Usal Road. It’s much safer!”
What could we do but laugh in disbelief? After a multi-day deliberation, we had finally made up our minds to go one way. Now here was our sign from God, plain as day, telling us to go the other.
Grandma Mugwort even had a map, which she gave us. Apparently there was another fork ahead, and a right turn would take us on pavement all the way to the Usal Road: a better route than we’d known existed. That’s where the map cut off, though, so we still had no idea how long the Usal was.
Back on our bikes, back in climbing mode, we checked in.
“I mean, if Grandma Mugwort says we have to do the Usal Road, then we’d better do it,” Peter said.
Of course I agreed. It was all too perfect. Our experiences from the last two days had already felt like we were living in some wild novel of the sort I’ve always wanted to write. Except, if I wrote the novel, and included a mystical meeting with a hermitic woman named Grandma Mugwort, no doubt the book would be criticized as unrealistic. No one would believe such a ludicrous intervention.
Even better, we finally had cell service, so we stopped, a couple hundred feet apart, to call our sweethearts and tell them they might not hear from us for a couple days.
When Erin picked up, I was ecstatic. “You won’t believe what’s been happening,” I told her. “I can’t tell you the whole story now, but just know I have a good one.”
“Tell me one thing,” she said.
“OK.” I told her about the Trimmigrants, the surreality our jam session around the fire.
“That’s amazing!” Erin knew that this was exactly the kind of thing I’d fantasized might happen during my travels.
An SUV drove by, and I heard “Jonas! Jonas! Jonas!” It was the Trimmigrants!
“That was them!” I told Erin.
Erin herself was about to go on an adventure: she’d been hired for three days as a tender on a sea cucumber fishing boat. We agreed we’d talk when she returned and tell each other all about our wild experiences.
Further energized from this loving conversation, I rejoined Peter, and we pedaled on, riding high.
We got to the true fork: take a right on the Shelter Cove road and eventually hit the Usal, or go straight toward 101. We pulled over for one final conference. Now that we had cell service, we could try to get a better estimate of how long the road really was. I pulled up the route on my phone and showed it to Peter. He zoomed in and out, thinking, frowning at the screen.
It looked pretty long. Thirty or forty miles, he guessed, plus the miles we still had to put in to get to the start.
A woman pulled up in a huge, shiny silver SUV, and rolled down her tinted passenger window. “Are you lost? Do you need anything?”
“No, we’re just trying to decide if we’re really about to take the Usal Road. Do you know anything about it?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty gnarly.”
“Do you think it’s bikeable?”
“Hm. I wouldn’t do it on a road bike. Are those road bikes?”
“Yeah, more or less,” Peter said.
“Mine’s not,” I said.
We chatted a bit longer. The woman was on her way to a friend’s party in Shelter Cove. She appeared to be very wealthy; she made reference to being a marijuana grower. I wondered if she lived in some giant luxurious compound hidden in the woods.
Giving us each intense eye contact, she asked us about our travels, our jobs. We told her we’d only met two days before, which she found inspiring. Twirling a lock of her hair, she said, “well, if you end up in Shelter Cove, maybe I’ll run into you.” She wished us luck and drove off.
“Is it just me,” Peter said, “or was she flirting with us pretty hard?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said.
“But like, not with one of us in particular, but both of us, equally.”
Now it was truly and finally decision-making time. Everything up to this point had been words. Now it was time for action. Each branch of road offered its argument; each beckoned us toward the one and only future.
I could see that Peter was leaning back toward 101.
“Look,” I said. “It’s easy to get sucked up in the whole sign from God thing. But this isn’t a movie. This is real life. Just because someone named Grandma Mugwort says we should do the Usal Road doesn’t mean she’s right. Maybe the real test here is to make a wise decision, to exercise good judgment.”
“And you know what? We could salvage the story line this way: let’s return someday, better-prepared, and do the whole thing together.”
So it was. After all that, we rode to 101.
Descending into Redway to get groceries for dinner, it was hard not to feel that we’d failed in some way, but I knew the feeling was based on faulty premises. I knew that I could choose to disagree with that feeling, and I did.
And how can I regret our choice? That night, riding the Avenue of the Giants at dusk, we slipped off the road onto a trail. We found a little campsite nestled among the roots of godly creatures that, on their sides, wouldn’t fit on a football field. We feasted: steak quesadillas, chips and salsa, refried beans, and a not-half-bad bottle of California chardonnay. We jammed for hours, singing about anything that came to mind.
In the redwoods, dark is darker and quiet is quieter. We settled into a deep, relaxed, peaceful space. It was like coming down, very pleasantly, from a three-day trip.
In the morning, we said goodbye.
“I could say so much, but I think you know already what this has meant to me,” Peter said.
“Yeah man. Me too.”
“I love you, Jonas,” he called as he rode off.
“I love you, Peter!”
And there I was, on my own again. Not seventy miles from Arcata but a world away from where I’d been three days before.
I camped alone that night at a state park with a few other cyclists in the campground. We made friendly conversation, but there was no real spark of connection.
I missed Peter, missed the feeling I’d had riding with him: that just about anything was possible, that what was happening was deeply significant, that I was in a waking dream.
And I wondered: should I have pushed a little harder? When we got to that fork, and I quickly validated Peter’s doubts about the Usal Road, maybe what the situation really called for was an enthusiastic “Hell no! Are you kidding? After all that? Let’s fucking do it!” Had we needlessly cut our time short? What if our adventure could have gotten even more awesome?
What if, what if, what if. Of course there is no score being kept, no right or wrong decision. There is only what is happening, and what happened.
What had happened? Three of the strangest and most beautiful days of my life. A series of experiences I’ll be fondly and disbelievingly revisiting for years to come. A new friendship that has the potential to be lifelong.
Still, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of a loose end.
Then, the next morning, something occurred to me. On that day’s ride, on Highway 1 as it neared the coast, I would pass the southern terminus of the Usal Road. And when I did, what was to stop me from turning right? I wasn’t going to do the whole thing, but I could ride up it a few miles to check it out, to satisfy my curiosity, to salvage a small piece of the adventure we’d declined.
A glance at Google Maps showed a campground five miles up the road at Usal Beach. So that’s where I went.
That little segment of the Usal Road was perhaps the most stunning road I’ve ever been on. And some of the best cycling. Yes, those five miles were as rugged as any I’ve ridden. The terrain was brutally steep, making for slow going on both the ascents and descents. But the road was in good shape. Hard packed dirt almost like cement in places, easily passable.
That afternoon, I was grateful for my own company. I watched the ocean, let the bright sunlight glinting off the water blind me. I played mandolin and spent over an hour drawing in my journal. I breathed deep and easy.
There were a few others scattered around the campground. I met Bobby and Claire and, in the evening, accepted their invitation to hang out by their campfire. I brought a joint rolled from some of Grandma Mugwort’s stuff.
Bobby, an audio engineer, is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He could have us in hysterics practically at will. Claire and I talked about school, work, the coming apocalypse; Bobby would jump in frequently with some hilarious joke he thought of.
It was my first opportunity to tell the story of my three days with Peter on the Lost Coast, a story I would tell many times in the coming days and weeks, I knew.
It felt like real connection. Easy, familiar, open, fun. Nothing on the level of my experience with Peter, but still remarkable. In my experience, these kinds of connections with strangers, shared moments of realness, have been quite infrequent.
In the days that followed, though, there were more such experiences. Even in brief interactions, like with servers and cashiers, I felt a new realness. And I found myself more willing to initiate conversation, more ready to jump in on an impulse.
It seemed that something had shifted in me after my three days with Peter. I was a little less afraid of the world, maybe, and so a little more open to it.
I’m not totally sure, but I think the shift had something to do with the way Peter welcomed me into his grieving. It was a tremendous gift: to be so close to someone experiencing a loss beyond anything I’ve experienced, the sort of loss that terrifies me more than anything—and yet to share such joy and vitality even in that place. Peter showed me that he could handle the deepest pain. I understood that this meant that I could, too.
I do believe that, at times, our experiences were mercifully distracting for Peter, allowing him some reprieve. But the realness of what Peter was going through was with us the whole time. We talked a lot about Clayton; what was beautiful and what was difficult about him; the complex and surprising emotions wrapped up in this loss; the ways some of Peter’s friends didn’t know how to be there for him; the ways Peter found himself trying to numb the pain.
That realness was what made our time together so remarkable. Peter showed me that you can feel all the way and still live all the way. And perhaps we can go further: perhaps you only live all the way when you feel all the way.
I’m humbled by this profound gift, and deeply inspired. I want to open myself to the world and to experience, which unavoidably includes loss and pain, among so much else. I want to feel all the way and live all the way. This is my one weird wild wonderful life, and I intend to show up for it.