At about mile 30, my ass began to burn. I had decided to embark on this 140-mile ride to El Capitan State Beach in pants instead of cycling shorts in order to save space and hassle. I’d practiced for about a week and things went smoothly, literally.
Now, with my 40-lb. pack bearing down directly on my ass, what started as mild discomfort quickly accelerated into fiery irritation. “Great,” I thought. “Only a hundred miles to go.”
The other grand experiment, that is, whether ’tis nobler to suffer the pangs and arrows of a lumbering donkey pannier-laden bike, or to put the junk on your back and keep the bike as light as possible, was working out beautifully. My left shoulder felt a bit of a tug from the pack, but there was no other discomfort and I was flying.
With the donkey apparatus I’d never averaged more than 10 mph, and at the end of a nine or ten-hour day I had always been destroyed. Today I was clicking along at 15-18 mph and easily surmounting the rollers on PCH; all told it would be over 3,000 feet of climbing. Moreso than the speed, my legs were simply fresh and they never flagged.
I thought about the thousands of miles I’d lugged the donkey-pannier bike up hill and down dale, into headwinds, over dirt roads, down rocky descents, and counting myself awesome to squeeze out 70 miles in ten hours of riding. Of course one day doesn’t a tour make, but for speed, maneuverability, and most importantly exhaustion, the backpack setup was ideal.
Not so much with the incipient fire in the hole. By Ventura I had what a friend used to call “the screaming cat,” and I was desperately casting about for a bike shop, any bike shop, where I could pop in and buy a pair of shorts. So what if I’d just given Baby Seal all forty pairs of my pristine Eliel bibs?
“Are you sure?” he had asked.
“Heck yes. Never using a cycling short again.”
The only bike shop I passed looked promising, but at the last minute I changed my mind. “Heck, I haven’t given this a fair shake. Give it a full day and see what’s up.” So I keep going, cat screaming to a fare-thee-well.
The traffic on PCH leaving Los Angeles was horrendous. We took the full lane and were recipients of at least a hundred angry honks before we cleared all the traffic past Cross Creek. At Trancas we made our first stop, about three hours in, and snacked on nuts and raisins. A curious guy was sitting at the neighboring table.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Wow. Where are you going?”
“El Capitan, north of Santa Barbara.”
“How far is that?”
He looked at us for a minute. “I once rode from Redondo to Malibu, and I thought that was far.”
“It is,” I said.
“That’s what I thought too, until you told me you’re going to El Capitan.”
The route from Ventura to Santa Barbara along the bike path and the 101 was great because you could hear the crashing waves. That’s one of the great things about touring and not drilling it at 30—you can hear the waves. I’ve ridden that stretch a million times and rarely if ever heard the waves. There was some kind of swell, as the surfers were gaggling all along the way; at Ventura County Line there was hardly anyone out and a couple of guys were picking off these clean, long, lovely rights.
In Ventura we were famished and stopped at McDonald’s. There’s something about getting off a bike and walking around with a giant backpack that makes people want to talk to you. Where are you going? What are you doing? And all the etceteras, most of which is their story because everybody has one, that time they rode their bike to that place that was a long way off and it rubbed their ass raw or they had a great time or it rained or they got three flats or they gave up or they were so stoked they rode on to Buenos Aires or none of the above but one time they drove across the country or hitchhiked or rode a motorcycle or took a family trip or got stranded in a snowstorm or met their future wife or got married in Vegas … whatever it is, the bike and pack trigger it.
By the time we got through Santa Barbara and Goleta, and turned off again onto the 101 for the final stretch to the park, we were tired and champing at the bit to get off our bikes. Oddly, my ass had stopped quivering with a searing, stabbing pain with each pedal stroke, and had subsided into a dull, throbbing ache that was wholly endurable.
“How much farther?” Kristie asked.
I couldn’t remember exactly, but I wanted to cheer her up. “I dunno, but there is a horrible fucking hill from the park entrance up to the campsite.”
“That sounds fun,” she said.
We had a huge tailwind and got to the park after about twenty minutes. At the park entrance there was no one at the booth, only a giant sign that said, “Campground Full.”
We looked at each other. “Doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “That’s for car people. Hiker-bikers always have a spot. Let’s go ahead and pay at the kiosk.”
The kiosk had a hand-written sign that said, “Do Not Pay With Kiosk. Camground Full. No Refunds.”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “The hiker-biker sites are always empty. That’s just for car people.”
I paid and got our receipt, and then we started up the hill. “This is gonna hurt,” I promised.
Shockingly … there was hardly anything in the way of a hill. “This is nothing,” she said.
“Yeah,” I answered. That’s when I realized that the last time I’d been there, it was on a loaded donkey after 70 or 80 miles of absolute misery. Today the bike was unladen and I skittered up the hill.
We put up the tarp, pitched the tent, and gazed out over the ocean. The hiker-biker camp area was deserted except for us.
Each wave broke on the shore far down below. We heard them clearly, distinctly, personally, uniquely through the beams, muted by the clouds, of the setting sun.
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