San Francisco

November 7th, 2011

A cameo guest post from our friend Ed, ringleader of the group of three friends who recently visited us for a week in San Francisco. Thanks for making the trip guys, and an extra huge thanks to Liz for hosting us all. We’ll be talking about it (and recovering from it) for months to come. Here’s Ed’s take on the week…

Nearly 4 months in the land of the free and Sarah’s already calling restrooms restrooms, sidewalks sidewalks and England a small island across the pond. The US of A has clearly not passed her by unnoticed. California though, synonymous with liberty, freedom of speech, liberalism and a love for your fellow man is surely the crown of the US leg. And San Francisco the jewel in that crown. Progressive gay rights, entrepreneurial spirit and medicinal marijuana. What could possibly go wrong?

Where to start? Your protagonists arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday 18th at 2pm after 36 miles of rolling coastal cliffs with empty stomachs, sore legs and a palpable excitement for the warm bed awaiting them. There followed three days of small skirmishes on two wheels about the beautiful city. Several ill chosen turns onto streets that resembled sheer rock faces. Lots more enormous sandwiches. And a whole lot of architectural marvel, cultural delight, social variety and much needed rest. What happened next can only be described as a force of nature. One for which their livers will likely be paying the price long after this particular journey is concluded.

Ed catches up on sleep in baggage reclaim. Sleep was hard to come by on the plane thanks to a noisy group of English children who wouldn’t behave. How selfish.

8pm on Saturday 22nd October enter stage left: myself, Hormone and Swampy. Wasted. Despite, it seems, having been cut off from alcohol on the plane at quite an early stage. For them it was clearly not so much Saturday as 32 hours into Friday night. In a bar within moments of our arrival, and the first round arrived; 5 beers, 6 coffee martinis, 6 cucumber gimlets, 6 unexplained shooters and a vodka tonic. As I write we are 168 hours in and counting, the alcohol is showing little sign of wearing off.

The morning after and the only way to soak up the excess alcohol: 4x4 burgers from In and Out. Totally wrong, but totally right.

The theme of the holiday (eds notes: How many times Ed?! It’s a journey, not a holiday) was immediately apparent. Drinking was the name of the game and nobody was sitting out! Most emotionally scarred may well be Bailey, Liz’s dog, who found himself being used as a mop, hung from the window of a moving car, doused in mosquito repellant and used as a canine wakeup device. After 3 days he was sent to a dog holiday camp for fear of his safety. His presence was sorely missed (if not noticed by many for some days).

Bailey - before the dog holiday camp beckoned

A moment to thank Liz again for her hospitality beyond the call of duty. Housing James and Sarah was wonderful in the extreme, adding three total reprobates to the couch crashing elite was far beyond the call of duty. Any mutual friends reading, apologies if she is less forthcoming in the future!

There were no early starts to be had this week. And no early nights either. But somehow on Sunday we set off for the Napa (eds: actually it was Sonoma – but what’s a hundred miles after a Corona at 9am?) Valley and wine country, more alcohol, just what we needed. We stopped en route to take in the sights at Land’s End, and for me to almost lose Liz’s beloved Bailey off the edge of a cliff.

This is what happens when you give the camera to a random stranger for the group shot. Genius...

A quick rethink on distribution of responsibilities and we were off again, over the Golden Gate Bridge for our best “dog out of a window” impressions. Wineward ho!

In the Napa Valley you can’t see more than about 20 feet without a vineyard finding its way into your field of view, most often occupying all of it. Fantastic. We arrived and set about eating, some things don’t change. Half a cow and a lot of shrimp later we bedded down in what would have been great comfort, were it not for the company. Three days in the beautiful Napa Valley, and what did Hormone appreciate the most? The lock on his door.

Shopping with the kids – Ed took tips from a lady whose 10 year old also trolley surfs

A day of touring the vineyards on bikes. My morning routine of complaining a lot about the prospect of getting up does not make for an early departure, but by lunchtime we were at vineyard one playing cornhole.

Liz was in her element on the cornhole field - avoid playing her for money

The day of cycling was seriously hampered by the density of vineyards. As was our sobriety. But miraculously we almost all avoided falling off. Apart from Hormone.

It's funny how it doesn't take many vineyards or many bottles of wine before the cycling gives way to drinking. This was the last vineyard of the day, and a cracking view for it. It would be embarrassing to admit how far this vineyard was from our point of origin. Let's at least pretend it was measured in miles and leave it at that...

It didn’t take long for the boys to sniff out a brewery, you can take the lout out of London… There we lost Jeet while he caught up with a local motorhead. But we regained Liz, good trade.

Jeet researches the local motor industry

A much needed stop off on the way home put us at Nick’s Cove where we summoned the hunger for a few local oysters. Amazing. Another stop at The Flamingo turned out to be a pretty genuine English pub (eds: actually Ed it was The Pelican – you know, big beak, kind of prehistoric looking).

Sunset at Nick’s Cove

Wednesday was a day in the city, and we foolishly planned for a quiet night so we could head out early on Thursday to go biking in Marin County. James ruled we had time either for bowling or karaoke, but absolutely not both.

So here we are at what must be America's most rubbish bowling alley. Brilliant fun.

James really stamped his authority on the situation and we quickly found ourselves in the Hello Kitty room of a local karaoke bar. It turns out that on top of an evening of drinking, two bottles of vodka between six is the recipe for some very enthusiastic singing.

Be grateful that this blog does not support audio. But Hormone's re-edit of Robbie Williams' "Angels: I'm Loving Butcher Instead" deserves a special commendation. Video available on request.

San Francisco’s roadworks are a death trap. We found ourselves stumbling into this as we strolled quietly home from the karaoke…

Marin County is beautiful this time of year, and perfect for cycling. Sadly we never saw it. We made it as far as Sausalito and the cracking Le Garage bistro.

Thierry our host was a legend and explained the ins and outs of illegal immigration. Now a fully signed up citizen he seems to have few complaints about the lifestyle. Miraculously we made it back alive from Sausalito despite having no lights and black clothing. A well planned trip in every aspect. Quick beers to recover in the bar before we head to the Independent for Soulwax.

The notorious 7th member of the group: James' beard. Getting some tips from a beard mentor at Soulwax.

Soulwax were done and the club shut just after midnight. One of the recurring problems of the holiday has been California’s draconian licensing laws. Fortunately a bar around the corner had the drinks we were looking for. And one random zombie.

Ed, random zombie and Liz

Friday saw me dragged from bed kicking and screaming and dumped in the back of the car for the trip South down Big Sur. A chance for James and Sarah to see what lay ahead. I don’t know what the fuss was about. We covered the 200 miles in no time and soon had our feet up at Cafe Nepenthe enjoying the view.

Lunch at Nepenthe on Big Sur

Halloween in America is a big deal, so on our last night in town we headed out to meet the freaks. Apparently we were the only people in town dressed as anything vaguely related, much to my chagrin, though I wasn’t complaining about the multitude of scantily dressed nurses.

The freaks come out, adding to San Fran's already above average quota.

Your protagonists arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday 18th at 2pm after 36 miles of rolling coastal cliffs with empty stomachs, sore legs and a palpable excitement for the warm bed awaiting them that evening. On reflection, they probably should have just waved and pushed straight on to Santa Cruz…

Ed C

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The spirit of Halloween

November 8th, 2011

As it’s not particularly celebrated in the UK, the affection and enthusiasm for Halloween in the US was a bit of a surprise to us.  It’s taken so seriously (by children and adults alike), meticulously prepared for and really embraced as a significant event in the calendar year.  So with this in mind, we got stuck in, got dressed up and spooked out for this very American of holidays.

Scary monkey man bike painting (hanging in a local, delicious coffee shop)...until you realise he's carrying flowers in his bike basket and then he becomes romantic...a romantic scary monkey man...

 

Beware the hungry cyclists...when it gets really bad they come out to suck your blood! Last night in San Francisco and the Saturday before Halloween made it practically mandatory for us to dress up. Thanks to the boys and Liz for providing us with awesome costumes!

 

Leaving SF the next day we felt it only proper to don the costumes once more to terrify the poor folk of the city...the enormous plastic axe being particularly intimidating.

 

It's tradition for Americans to pick their Halloween pumpkin from an enormous pumpkin patch. We saw these everywhere on the road south throughout October. Soon they'll be replaced by Christmas trees.

 

Even our tent got dressed up for Halloween...a futile attempt to keep aggressive raccoons away.

 

No doubt the drivers on Highway 1 looked twice when they saw us ride by on Halloween...certainly no one stopped to chat to us that day!

 

Unfortunately campgrounds are so quiet at this time of year, there was no chance for us to trick or treat. We've kept the pumpkins for the time being though - just in case any friendly Americans fancy filling them with leftover sweets from their 'treat' stash...

Sarah

 

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SoCal

November 19th, 2011

Time seems to be playing tricks on us.  In some ways, we feel we’ve been in the US for an age, in others, we feel like the trip has barely started.  However we may feel,  there’s no denying we’re four and a half months into this trip and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border… and our life on two wheels is about to change dramatically.

SoCal (Southern California) has been a dramatic change of pace in itself.  We’re still on bikes and we’re still cycling past beaches but the atmosphere, scenery and pace has shifted.  The areas we’ve cycled through since San Francisco have been more urban and definitely more upscale.  SoCal has stretched our daily budget to its limit; state park campgrounds have doubled in price, coffee and a croissant in Santa Barbara set us back $14 instead of the usual $4 and everyone here drives performance cars – as opposed to the battered pickups we saw throughout Alaska, Washington or Oregon.  We’ve been through La La Land (otherwise known as Los Angeles) and survived, we’ve learned a bit about surfing culture (unfortunately without getting on a board) and we’ve embraced the Californian culture of healthy eating but only when it’s meant ‘superfood’ strawberries on top of chocolate pancakes!

As we’ve approached the border, we’ve taken fewer and fewer pictures mirroring our mood that we’re ready for a change of scene perhaps?  Here’s a selection nevertheless and for those of you shocked at the inclusion of just one food photo this time, never fear, see the separate blog entry dedicated solely to the splendid cinnamon roll….yum!

 

Leaving San Francisco took us straight to the dramatic Big Sur coastline. Having seen it the previous week with the London crew, we knew we were in for a treat. We were delighted when the scenery that inspired the name for our blog delivered again, with jaw dropping cliffs, breath-taking sunshine and thrilling cycling.

 

Heading down Highway 1 towards Cambria, we came across hundreds of elephant seals who use these beaches to moult and mate and snooze. We could have stayed for hours watching their lazy ways…and they dribble in their sleep just like we do!

 

Planning the next leg of the journey into Baja California, Mexico, Skip – one of our wonderfully generous hosts – looks over the maps with James and gives us some invaluable advice. Thanks Skip!

 

Outside of Malibu is motorbike hangout Neptune’s Net. We happened to drop by on a Sunday afternoon, along with all the other ‘bikers’…needless to say we didn’t quite fit in on our bikes but we certainly enjoyed the show…

 

…particularly when some guys started doing tricks outside the front door, right on Highway 1. It was great fun until the local police showed up and everyone scurried home!

 

Local Californian strawberries…healthy, nutritious and absolutely scrumptious when added to pancakes with posh dark chocolate (kindly donated to us by Erin in San Luis Opisbo – thanks Erin!)…a real Sunday morning treat and proof that cooking on a camp stove can be both ambitious and luxurious.

 

When we arrived into the outskirts of LA, James decided he had to fit in and promptly ditched his luggage, lost his shirt and acted like a local while I struggled behind valiantly with all the panniers! ;-)

 

We headed to Venice Beach for the afternoon and between the guys on show at Muscle Beach and the hippies selling their incense sticks and painted skulls, we felt positively normal. Watching these guys get hot-headed in fierce local basketball rivalry was a fun way to pass half an hour.

 

Up to arriving in Santa Monica we were proud to say that we’d either camped or been generously hosted at various places for the whole of our journey – not needing the services of a hotel, motel or hostel. LA changed all that, not a campground or host in sight meant that we had to visit a hostel for the first time…true luxury, our bikes even had their own room.

 

We didn’t linger for long in the LA area and leaving Santa Monica the next day on a very convenient 20 mile bike path made for pleasant riding…even if the planes taking off and landing at LAX seemed remarkably low.

 

The bike path haven didn’t last for long though and we soon found ourselves battling smog, congestion and seriously heavy duty traffic around the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach area. We were dreading this section and it dragged on for more than 20 miles but thankfully all the drivers we got up close and personal with were very courteous.

We were pleased to leave the LA traffic behind and enter Orange County, affectionately known as ‘The OC’, where the sun always shines, the cash always flows and men and their dogs have oceans of time to enjoy volleyball at the beach…

 

Since entering Southern California, it seems every time we come around a corner on the bikes and see a stretch of beach, there’s an inevitably a surfer or two out there trying to catch waves. We learned more about surfing culture and practice from Brian at Huntington Beach when he hosted us – thanks Brian! Neither of us was brave enough to get on a board but they sure do look cool…

 

And so we've made it to San Diego! The length of the US. We’re looking forward to much more beach riding and lots more sunshine…farewell USA and hola Mexico!

Sarah

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Cinnamon Rolls – a tribute

November 19th, 2011

The cinnamon roll: a marvellous combination of heavy dough, lots of sugar, frosting (or icing as us Brits would call it!) and of course, cinnamon.  These delicious, albeit heavy, snacks have fuelled us along the Pacific Coast through the US and we are going to miss them terribly.  We’ve definitely eaten more than our fair share between us and they’ve been the motivation to keep pedalling on many a morning…”there must be a bakery and a cinnamon roll around the next corner…” you’d often hear James say…

Imagine our glee when recently one morning, at Pismo Beach that turned out to be the case, in fact not just any old bakery, but one existing solely to make our favourite treat.  We went in to purchase – it would have been rude not to – and got talking to Joshua behind the counter who was knocking up a fresh batch.  He arrives at the bakery at 3am, spends all morning baking, and understandably, no longer eats cinnamon rolls himself.  Having explained our ride to him, Joshua then proceeded to donate a free pack of four to us to keep us going on our trip…thanks Joshua!  So here’s how a cinnamon roll comes to life…

 

First you roll your dough….all 18lbs of it….

 

…then you add just a thin layer of margarine and a sprinkling of sugar…

 

…and the most important ingredient…lots of cinnamon…

 

Then Joshua’s skill comes into his own….roll it….

 

…squeeze it…and chop it….each of these cinnamon sausages makes about 48 rolls…enough to keep us going for at least a week…

 

Once they come out of the oven, they’re covered generously with frosting (which basically means lots more sugar) and they’re best eaten with a hot cup of coffee…delicious!

 

These guys make the best cinnamon rolls of the trip we’ve tasted so far and they’re well worth a trip to Pismo Beach if you’re ever in the area…hmmm, I wonder if they do overseas mail order?!

 

Sarah

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Big Sur meets Big Sur

November 20th, 2011

 

We rode south out of Carmel with a dark storm gathering over our shoulders and locals’ warnings ringing in our ears. Slowly the road began to rise and then twist, with each switchback lifting us up higher onto exposed coastal bluffs while the waves crashed below.

Despite the impending soaking , I grinned to myself as we panted up a particularly vicious gradient. The first of Big Sur’s enormous bridges appeared over the crest of the hill and the road disappeared high into the distance beyond, an image I had gazed at longingly for years in books and other cyclists’ journals.

Finally, we were riding the Big Sur – a mythical stretch of the Californian coastline which, through two years of planning and saving, seemed to encapsulate everything we wanted from our own adventure. So much so that we decided to name our trip and this blog after it; our very own ‘Big Sur’, or ‘Big Ride South’ .

Sure enough, the rain lashed down an hour later as we put up our tent. We were soaked through, but had made it this far and were still smiling. It felt like our adventure was well and truly underway.

James

Hills and curves

Sunset while cycling Big Sur, California

Sea meets sky

House perched on the cliffs, Big Sur, California

Room with a view

Turquoise sea and sky on Big Sur, California

Turquoise

Camper van on Big Sur, California

Camper

Grasses against blue sky, Big Sur, California

On the bluff

Sunset at Jade Cove, Big Sur

Sunset at Jade Cove

 

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Best of the USA

November 21st, 2011

 

Welcome to the USA – they’ve got a lot of flags, and they love to wave them. How else do you keep 50 states and 312 million people in check?

I have to confess that before this trip, the US had never been top of my bike travel list. In my head, car-choked, strip-mall lined America just wasn’t different or exciting enough to make for the real adventure I craved. Without any language barriers, culture shock or strange food, surely it was just a place where people who want to go on holiday without really leaving home go?

Well I’m glad to say that the last 135 days and 3,500 miles from Anchorage down to San Diego has firmly put me in my place. Yes, there are incredibly fat people, stupidly small dogs, ridiculous drive thrus, mind-numbing strip malls, unjustifiably enormous cars, and a lot of flags. However, the US we have discovered is also full of warm, interesting people, incredible landscapes, vibrant cities and great food.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I ever thought such a vast, varied country could ever confirm to the bland stereotype we see played out through TV, music and film.Of course we’ve only seen a tiny slice of the progressive, liberal, laid-back west coast (just to throw a few generalisations in). Everyone tells us that we would have had a very different experience on the East Coast, or in the deep South, or mid-West. I’m sure that’s true, but it proves the point – it’s the variety that make the US such a fascinating place to travel through.

I’ll certainly be leaving fired up with ideas for the next trip: the Great Divide mountain bike route, an Alaskan rafting or kayaking trip, climbing in Yosemite, skiing or snowboarding in Colorado, mountain biking in Utah…all journeys and places that people along the way have told us great things about.

Looking back, many of the characteristics which I thought would make the US a dull place to travel have in fact made it the perfect place to start our first long biking adventure. It’s given us the chance to find out what long distance touring (rather than a two week holiday) is all about, and to really test our legs and our kit with plenty of help on hand.

Alaska, with its huge distances, limited supplies and plenty of rain was a challenging place to start, but definitely toughened us up quickly to life on the road. From Oregon south we’ve had it much easier, largely following the well-trodden Pacific Coast Trail. This route is perfectly set up for bike touring with cheap camping, plentiful supplies, and gently rolling roads along beautiful coastlines.

Between pedalling, we’ve also managed to squeeze in two fantastic ‘city breaks’ with family and friends in Seattle and San Francisco, a luxurious Alaskan ‘cruise’ with the best open air cabin you can imagine, plus numerous revitalising overnight stays with new friends thanks to random meetings, and the Warm Showers and Couchsurfing networks.

So the US has been good to us, and it’s been a great start to our adventure. However, we’re both ready to move on, itching for new roads, different cultures and pushing out of our comfort zone – and I have no doubt that Mexico and the rest of Latin America will deliver on all fronts. Having cycled and lived in Central America before, I’m excited to be heading back into more familiar territory, dusting off my rusty Spanish, and exploring new routes.

From San Diego we’ll cross into Mexico, put our heads down, race through Tijuana and onto the 800 mile long Baja California peninsula, where desert, beaches and the best fish tacos in the world await. From the bottom of Baja we’ll take a ferry across onto the Mexican mainland and then probably head for Mexico City, where we’re hoping to catch a flight to Cuba for a month of long-awaited exploring. After that, who knows – one thing we have learned in the last four and a half months is that the best bike trips are those that are least planned…

Here are some of our US highlights:

Stunning landscapes - The US specialises in epic riding vistas that make you stop and go wow, like this one along the Denali Highway in Alaska.

Amazing camping - We’ve camped in some incredible places, from stealth campsites hidden under the Redwoods to prime beachside spots like this one at Refugio State Beach in California. The next morning we watched dolphins swim past while we made our morning coffee…

Cyclist-size portions - Don’t be fooled. Under these two increasingly scrawny cyclists lurk two very obese people who have fully embraced US super-size. Things got messy after this first bite into an epic sandwich from Sebastian’s famous deli in San Simeon, California. Roast beef, avocado, tomatoes, pickle and horseradish mayo in case you’re wondering.

Hospitality - We’ve been genuinely bowled over by the warmth and spontaneity of American hospitality wherever we’ve been. Like Skip and Nancy, who we met as we boarded a ferry in Alaska and within minutes had invited us to stay at their home in Cambria, California. Three months of pedalling later we turned up on their doorstep and spent a fantastic evening with them. A huge thank you to everyone who’s helped us through the US – too many to mention here!

State Parks – The US has an enviable network of State Parks and beaches like this one, preserving beautiful areas of wilderness and offering great facilities and discounted camping for cyclists. Like in the UK, they are an easy target for budget cuts – fingers crossed the politicians see sense and the Parks survive.

Wildlife - We’ve seen some spectacular wildlife throughout the US, ranging from the super–size like grizzly and black bears, moose, whales and sea lions through to the more delicate, like this tree full of migrating Monarch butterflies in California. We should also make a special mention of the less welcome critters - like the raccoons that gnawed through my panniers and stole my last doughnut, or the ravens that overnight created a white splattered masterpiece on our tent that Jackson Pollack would be proud of.

Free coffee refills - Forget the energy bars and protein shakes, our US leg has been fuelled by endless coffee and pastry, like our first ever pumpkin pie from Mission Pie in San Francisco. We’re undoubtedly headed for a huge caffeine and sugar comedown once over the border - until then, we’re making the most of it.

James

 

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