Wherever the camping was, it wasn’t here. Rob had confirmed that none of the campsites between here and Alaska were open due to the unholy liaison between the covids and the antifas, so I was on my own.
We had left Nipomo at 6:00 pointy-sharp in matching Molteni woolies, matching South Bay socks, and most amazingly, matching handlebars, saddles, and taillights. Later on it turned out that we were even scariery matchy-matchy: He’d started UT Austin in the fall of ’82, as had I.
There was no wind as Rob took me through rolling and beautiful back roads that looked for all the world like the Texas hill country, minus the 102-degree heat and the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes. For some reason my legs didn’t want to pedal but eventually we got to somewhere. Rob had never ridden so slowly for so far.
I stopped and ate a few dried apricots. Suddenly my legs turned on, which was excellent because we’d passed through SLO and Rob was ready to get revenge on me for beating me at Rosena Ranch back in 2016. I grabbed onto his wheel and he brought it up to puke-thirty then held it until I quit before Cayuco.
We’d done 47 miles, the morning was still, young, it was cool, the headwinds were still in bed, and Rob flipped it to ride home. This part of the ride had been so peaceful and beautiful. The ocean would appear on my left then vanish again, gulls cutting the morning sky and gaily sashaying RVs with bikes nailed to the back passing me with three or four whole inches to spare.
I got into a Chaucer rhythm and cruised on through Cambria. Rob had identified a creekbed there with some trails that might be a good campsite but it was still early, the wind was still in bed, and I wanted to clock as many riding hours as I could since the following day I’d have to make the hilly, windy, and bitter run from Ragged Point to Big Sur. After a while I began to get concerned about a campsite because each prospective pull-out was labeled with “NO CAMPING ON PAIN OF DEATH” and such things.
At one of these pullouts I saw a guy on a bike staring at the sea. I u-turned and rode into the lot. His face was weather-beaten, so brown it was almost black. Deep creases lined every inch of his face. His bike was as worn as he was; saddlebags that were full of what I presumed were only the barest of necessities, i.e. weed, and a few hawk feathers strapped to the pack. He was wearing a blue Patagonia jacket that looked like it had made the travel indeed from Patagonia, on its elbows.
But the fashion item he was wearing that no one in LA ever wears was a deep and abiding smile, pouring out from within and animating his eyes like thing that was wild and free. “Hey, man,” I said.
“Hey yourself,” he answered.
“Is there any camping in between here and Ragged Point?”
He laughed, the kind of deep laugh that you have to throw your head back in order to get all the air in and back out. “Nothing, my friend. Everything’s shut down.”
“Nothing?” My heart sank from my soles into the gravel.
“There’s never nothing, always something, just depends on how hard you’re willing to work for it.”
“Very,” I said, hoping this wasn’t a lead-in to an illegal sex act.
“Got a joint?”
“That’s okay. I find lots of weed along the highway.”
“So about campsites?”
“Oh sure. You have to wait til a creekbed crosses the road, then climb down and follow it until you find something. So much amazing stuff out here.” He looked at my bike. “That’s gonna be heavy to drag down some of those banks.”
“Yeah,” I said, sympathizing with me.
“You can camp in all the no camping sites long as you don’t mind the cops or rangers rousting you out around two.”
“Well, it’s a beautiful day anyway.”
“How long you been riding?”
“Five years now.”
“Yep. Daughter graduated from college, third divorce and I said fuck it, I’m not starting all over again. I am finished. I got on my bike with a backpack and a couple of sandwiches and never lived under a roof again.”
“Where’s your tent?”
“I don’t have one.”
“What happens when it rains?”
“I get wet.”
“There’s all kinds of things you can do. Climb under culverts. Or most of the time I’m up in the woods anyway, and there’s always a cypress or something I can hunker down under til the rain stops.”
“What do you do for money?”
“EBT. Costs me $197 a month to live, man. Wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars.”
“Well, money is just something invented by a sick man.”
A man in a beat-up pickup had been listening to us. He had a long white beard and a cigarette. “That’s the goddamn truth,” he said.
“Ain’t it?” said Happy Dave.
“What’s your story?” I asked him.
“I lived in a car-house for thirty years,” he said. “Then I got my claim settled with the VA and bought an abandoned barn about thirty miles from here. Parked my car in the barn so the car’s my bedroom and the barn’s my living room, so to speak.”
“What do you do for money?” I asked him.
“Social Security. And fishin.” He had a giant hand trawling screen.
“You catch fish with that?” asked Happy Dave. “I thought maybe you was beachcombing for gold jewelry.”
The old man snorted. “Gold? Listen here, sonny. You go looking for gold you are a damned fool. All gold is fool’s gold. You want gold? Go look for fish, or for a hot cup of coffee, or for somebody who’ll hug you when you’re lonely. Then you’ll find all the gold that God ever meant for a man to have.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Dave,” he said. “Just like him.”
“You guys have it figured out.”
Happy Dave smiled another grin that went from the back of his head all the way around again. “Not figured out. But I know not to look for roses in a bucket of tar.”
“I’d settle for a campsite,” I said.
“Listen,” he said. “You seem like a nice fellow. You don’t mind a bit of walking, right?”
“Leg it about seven miles up the road. You’ll come to a creekbed. It’s wider than the others. Midway up the hill from the creek on your left you’ll see a dirt trail. Take that trail through a gate and it will take you out onto the beach. Follow the beach to a big rock point. Round the point is a stone cove with a tree and stone circle. Best damn camping on this coastline. There’s a fresh spring runs into the ocean, you can drink straight from it. Shit down by the water and use the ocean to clean your ass. You might not ever leave.”
“Dang,” I said. “I’m in. Seven miles you said?”
“Thereabouts. You can’t miss it.”
I started off, carefully watching each creekbed, but none were accessible and there was no dirt path. After an hour I began having doubts. Maybe I was like a Coronado looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola and the Indians saying “Oh yeah, up the road man away from here, just a few more miles.”
Before long it was one o’clock. I’ve learned to ride by time not distance. Leave early AF and quit by one, two at the latest. That gives you time to eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, and get up the next day. I had given up on the Seven Cities of Creekbed and was determined to stop the next place I could. Problem was, there was nothing but barbed wire and those pesky “PAIN OF DEATH” signs.
I’d almost reach Ragged Point, which is the entry to hell, when I crossed a big creekbed. A few yards past the bridge there was a dirt trail. I hopped off my bike and rode-carried it to the sand, then pushed it for a quarter mile to the beach. The sand was so thick that I could only push it twenty or thirty yards at a time. I got to the beach, wasted. I looked to the left. The rock point was exactly where he said it would be. Around the turn was the cove with the tree and stones.
I collapsed on the cool sand, soaking up some of the happiness that Dave had left for me there.