Monday 19 September, San Diego
Our final day of the holiday, our flight back to England departs from San Diego at 20.05. Following a bit of tweaking of our packed bike bags, (just to make sure that nothing untoward might happen to them on the plane), we decided to spend most of the day in downtown San Diego, around the old Gas Lamp Quarter.
I wanted to mooch around the shops, (having purchased virtually nothing except food for over three weeks). Mike was keen to visit the retired US Navy aircraft carrier, Midway, which is now a floating museum and moored at a specially built pier on the bSan Diego waterfront. We decided to split up for the morning and then meet up for lunch. Following a nice veggie lunch I persuaded, (a rather reluctant) Mike to take a bus to visit more shops at Fashion Valley, an outdoor mall about half an hour’s bus ride north of San Diego, with the promise that we’d be back at Ann and Brad’s by 4.30.
I had been longing to visit one particular shop when we reached our final destination – Crate & Barrel. It’s a bit like Habitat, (now sadly almost all gone in the UK) – but with a very American feel to it. Think Ralph Lauren meets Oprah and Martha Stewart. Off we went on a bus. It was hot there and going in to the stores was a bit of a relief from the bright sunshine and heat! I only purchased a few things and so we weren’t there long. Apart from Crate & Barrel I gave my custom to one other store – those of you who know me well, will appreciate how restrained of me this is. I went to Old Navy – the low-cost member of the Gap family. Old Navy is only available in the USA. I acquired a lovely set of compression running clothing and what very good value it was too. I have said to Mike that I will give running a go when we get back to the UK and now I have the perfect outfit. Who knows, perhaps we’ll run on the USA west coast next time! We caught the tram (or trolley as they call them here), back from Fashion Valley to downtown – Mike enjoyed this a lot.
After picking up a thank-you bunch of flowers for Ann and one chocolate brownie and Brad (he’s rationing himself), we caught the bus back to their house. Ann and Brad both took us to the airport. This was immensely kind and helpful. Mike and the bagged bikes travelled in Brad’s pickup and me with Ann in her car. After bidding our farewells to Ann and Brad, Mike bid farewell to the bikes until we reached London. Off we went for our final Starbucks’ of the holiday and then found a spot to sit close to a electricity socket, so we could charge our iPhones while catching up with the latest few Archers podcasts. The plane left thirty minutes later than scheduled and as we took off we were able to watch through the window as the lights of San Diego lit the city. A very poignant sight.
San Diego, Sunday 18 September
It’s a beautiful warm and sunny day in San Diego. It seems strange to think that in just over 24 hours we’ll be back in the UK – and in the autumn!
Making the most of the summer sun while we can, we spent the day in Balboa Park, the largest art and culture park in the world. It was created as part of two international exhibitions in 1915-16 and 1935-36. Today it houses gardens, an amazing lath botanical house (to keep it cool – an extraordinary idea for northern Europeans! Balboa Park has 25 museums and galleries, including the San Diego Air and Space Museum, (with the Apollo 9 command [landing] module and moon rocks), and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, (Mike is more than a little excited at the thought of these last two venues!).
Among the buildings in Balboa Park is a collection of cottages known as the ‘Houses of Pacific Relations’. Each cottage attempts to represent the culture, (as decided by each cottages’ society) of a different nation – many of them European – including France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Eire, Scotland and, of course, England.
Each Sunday on a rotating basis, one of the cottage societies puts on a day of celebrations to represent their country. Today was the turn of the Austrian cottage. Austria, (through the interpretation of the USA) includes lots of people wearing national costumes: the men wore woollen knee-length ‘socks’, which had been adapted with a separate section for the calf. I assume this made them a little more comfortable in the sweltering San Diego heat. Food was, of course wurst and apple strudel (not eaten together). Entertainment first consisted of lots of men doing a sort of wood-chopping dance whilst yodelling and slapping their leather leiderhosen-clad buttocks; then a women singing, (if you could call it singing), an Austrian love song; then a couple, (further from Christopher Plumber and Julie Andrews you could not find), re-enacting the scene from the Sound of Music where Captain von Trap dances the ländler with Maria. Mike, who is not very keen on Austria (largely based on its role in both WW1 and WW2), muttered something about how he thought that the people staffing the Polish cottage were beginning to look a little nervous and strode off, (Hitler was Austrian).
We finished out tour of the House of Pacific Relations/Cottages by visiting the England cottage. My oh my, what a vision of England we found! Almost every wall of the cottage was decorated with royal family memorabilia! Flags of Will and Kate adorned the archway, while a spooky doll of Princess Diana (Princess Barbie-Di … Darbie?!), was encased in a glass dome, along with numerous magazines with pictures of Lady Di on the cover arranged around the doll in the dome. The few exhibits that didn’t involve the royal family included a cricket bat, a picture of a pearly king and queen, a picture of a penny-farthing made from a pre-decimal penny and half-penny. There were also, perhaps inevitably, tea and some cucumber sandwiches offer. We suggested that more up-to-date additions to the cottage could include a jar of Marmite! The (fairly young) guy staffing the cottage was married to a British women, which is why he was involved in helping out there. He was quite keen to try and update the exhibit as well, suggesting they should play God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. I think our suggestion of a jar of Marmite is more likely to be approved by the England Cottage Society – but only just, it might still be a bit too modern!
Summary – day 23 – Solana Beach to San Diego and into Mexico (Saturday 17 September)
Estimate: 56 miles, actual: 54.17 miles
Avg. speed: 13.3 mph
Final distance: 1,664.44 miles
Our final day’s riding – it began with lots of mixed emotions: we definitely felt a real sense of achievement at having almost completed our journey, but this was rather overwhelmed by a sense of sadness that this particular adventure is almost over.
As we exited the front of our hotel, quite a sight greeted us and immediately lifted our spirits. Dozens of cyclists were out for their Saturday morning rides. There were hardly any people riding alone – lots of twos and threes – and more – and heading in both directions. It was like the San Diego cycling welcoming committee knew we were arriving and had turned out in force to help us celebrate the end of our journey!
We set off towards San Diego and quickly caught up with a group of eight cyclists. They were a section of the San Diego Bicycle Club, out on an introductory ride for new cyclists. Cycling is huge in San Diego apparently and we continued to be quite amazed at how many cyclists were out riding this morning. The group were really lovely, but making fairly slow progress, so We left the San Diego Bicycle Club group behind as we rode uphill and through the Torrey Pines State Park.
At a junction before Rose Canyon, we weren’t sure about which direction to take – ahead on the cycle path alongside the main road, or right on a longer, more picturesque route past the university, through the canyon and down to the bay. While we were stood at the intersection pondering our options, three men in Lycra wheeled up and waited at the lights – so we asked their advice, “Just follow us.” they said. They were friends out for a morning ride through the canyon and they reckoned this was the best way into the city. One was a psychologist, who worked in Solana Beach, another worked in IT and the third was a sales representative for a range of cycling clothing brands – mainly European clothing such as Nalini and Santini. They were all nicely kitted out at any rate. They also kept up quite a fast pace as we were riding. It was exciting to be pedalling hard and fast through wood-lined roads, past University of California San Diego buildings and along cycle-ways back through La Jolla to the sea. After a few miles, our ways parted – they were looping back north and they directed us to continue on south through Mission Bay Park.
There was no let up in the volume of cyclists as we rode around Mission Bay, on yet another nicely-marked route. The park curves around a broad expanse of water. The whole place was very well used – in addition to cyclists, there were in-line roller-skaters, water skiers and people riding on little jetskis. Groups of families and friends were setting up gazebos and readying themselves for picnics, children were running about and playing – it was all rather wondrous.
The route continued towards downtown and past an enormous Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command establishment and the airport. We’d already seen some aeroplanes taking off and coming in to land and Matthew had said: “Just think, we’ll be on one of those planes the day after tomorrow.” I don’t think that was calculated to cheer me up!
The road passed very close to the end of the runway and as we approached, we watched a plane make its descent and land – San Diego airport is notorious for having a short runway and for being so close to built-up parts of the city. Up close it was extraordinary how close to built-up areas and the road the aeroplanes are when they’re coming in. As the road drew closer to the end of the runway a plane passed low right above us on its way in to land. Huge! Loud!! Brilliant!!! I could have stood and watched several more, but watching planes wasn’t the purpose of the day and inexplicably, Matthew fails to be drawn to aeroplanes, (I do think that sometimes he’s not very adept at being a boy). I’ll get my chance to do some plane spotting when we’re at the airport on Monday I suppose.
We stopped at a junction just past the airport and I said “Hi, nice bike!” to a man riding a beautiful white Isaac carbon fibre bicycle (Isaac are based in the Netherlands), it had Campagnolo drivetrains and wheels. It turned out that he was called Isaac, too! He liked the idea that he and his bike shared a name. I liked that too. He’d just been to the gym and was finishing his exercises with a post-gym ride on a loop down towards the Mexican border.
Isaac turned out to be a real star! When we told him about our trip and that we were on our final leg, he very kindly offered to lead us to the border crossing point. He took us through downtown San Diego, via the bicycle lanes and cycle paths through San Diego bay past the Imperial Beach US naval helicopter facility and on to the border.
We chatted all the way and it was wonderful to get to know someone who knew so much about the area. Isaac was a single parent of a nine-year old boy, (Grandma was looking after him today). Isaac works as an ophthalmologist, but he’s hoping to retrain as an advice worker and counsellor. We were cycling past lots of big white salt-extracting ponds when Isaac pointed ahead: “That’s Mexico!”, he shouted. Over a barbed-wire fence we could see a massive Mexican flag on a pole rising high above the buildings, with mountains behind. We were almost there!
As we approached the border, Isaac’s rear wheel developed a slow puncture. His second in the short time we’d known him. He told us that he’d not had any punctured for ages, but now he’d had two in the last 45 minutes. We wondered if perhaps we’d jinxed him and we were a little guilty about leaving him to repair the puncture while we went on to the border crossing point and hopefully into Mexico.
There were hundreds of people milling about at the border crossing. Many of them were carrying big parcels and bags or wheeling cases. It was so exciting. We weren’t certain that we’d quite arrived, then Isaac said: “There is it, right there” and we went along a kind of open air covered corridor and towards a high metal railing with people streaming through wide metal turnstile barriers. We had to walk through the turnstiles and into Mexico by tipping our bicycles up onto their back wheels to manoeuvre them through the gates, but it was easy. And there we were … we were in Mexico. We’d done it … Canada to Mexico by bicycle.
On the other side of the turnstile there was a stone and bronze plaque marking the line of the border. We took some pictures, but we didn’t really have much time to savour our experience or reflect upon what we’d just done. The border crossing into Mexico was teeming with people laden with stuff and our bicycles were causing something of an obstruction so we moved on into Tijuana. We also knew that entering the US from Mexico would be slightly more difficult and time-consuming than entering Mexico from the US. We took some more pictures inside the Mexican border and on spotting what seemed to be the biggest queue in the world, (and being English), thought we’d better join it. No queue to get in to Mexico, but a huge queue to get out and back into the USA!
The border on the Mexican side was frankly unpleasant. Tawdry stalls and unpleasant-smelling food carts. Lots of beggars, (including some children), most with physical impairments. Buskers singing Spanish songs and playing guitars. We spent one hour and ten minutes in the queue. A young man queuing beside us, who said that he lived in Mexico and works in a restaurant by San Diego airport, told us that he crosses the border most days and that today was a fast day!
Once at the head of the queue we were processed pretty quickly – passports scanned and bags passed through an x-ray machine then back in the USA. At passport control, I had hoped to get another stamp in my passport, but I didn’t. I risked asking for one, but I was told they were only given on first entry to the US.
We set a route to Ann and Brad’s on Garmin – just under 14 miles away and set off – heading north for only the second time in our trip, (Vancouver airport to our first Warm Showers host was travelling north). Ann arrived home just as we got there. Brad was away visiting their daughter in San Francisco. We talked and ate dinner then gave our bicycles a quick clean, dismantled them and put them in the bags that were waiting for us in Ann and Brad’s garage. We’ll be exploring San Diego on foot tomorrow, which will seem a little strange, I’m sure.
Summary – day 22 – Seal Beach to Solana Beach (Friday 16 September)
Estimate: 79 miles, actual: 81.19 miles
Avg. speed: 14.00 mph
Cumulative distance: 1,610.27 miles
Our penultimate day’s riding. I feel rather sad, really. It’s seems like such a long time and so many miles ago that we were newly arrived and so excited about exploring Vancouver. At the same time, it feels like the last three weeks have gone by very quickly.
As if reading my mood, our departure from Ayres’ Hotel was rather dull and grey this morning. Matthew wanted a picture of the ’12-lane highway’ that we cycled over last night. While he was taking the picture, I counted the lanes – and actually there were 14 + 2 hard shoulders! That’s the San Diego Freeway for you. Looking at the cars whizzing by on it last night in the dark reminded me of a scene in the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, (directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass). The film is a kind of mesmerising tone poem without any narrative, but full of arresting images of natural landscapes contrasted with cityscapes. I remember seeing it when it was released, I was living in Leeds and becoming more radical by the week at that time I think. Anyway, it’s a wonderful film – highly recommended.
We wound our way back to the coast and passed a huge Boeing space plant – exciting! It seems a little extraordinary to be beside a Boeing factory – I come from Newcastle in north-east England, we’re not supposed to be at the Boeing space plant just south of Los Angeles! On the coast itself, a wide bicycle track took us south, along with dozens of other cyclists – most on Lycra, in groups doing their Friday morning exercises. It always inspires confidence to see lots of other riders out on the road. It obviously makes us all much more visible to motorists, so everyone just feels safer. Two young men rode alongside us for a while and complimented us on our jerseys – they said that we “looked cool” (*glow*), and wanted to know where our cycling kit came from. We told them about Rapha and they seemed quite excited about it all being available in the USA through rapha.cc – I thought that perhaps we should be on commission – or even sponsored, really. Although these two fellows might be a little less enthusiastic when they see how much Rapha gear costs!
The path by the beach was fantastic, it ran parallel with Pacific Coast Highway and went on for miles. In Huntington Beach there were some odd cyclists’ warning signs telling us to limit our cycling speed to 10 mph. First, that’s ridiculously slow and second, how are the vast majority of cyclists without speed gauges ever going to be able to know what speed they’re travelling at? We ignored the speed limit and hoped we would’t be stopped – Garmin was showing that we were averaging over 14 mph … I was a little concerned that he might be taken and used in evidence against us.
On into Newport Beach and Laguna Beach – strange places really; beautifully manicured, (universally by Hispanic labourers by the looks of things), pretty and prosperous town centres, (where almost everyone was white) and every half a mile or so another gated community entrance, some with little sentry boxes guarding the entrances (staffed by you-know-who). It creeped me out a bit and we were glad to get past all that wealthy racist paranoia. Who are the people who live in these of places? What on earth are they afraid of or hiding from? I just don’t get it I’m afraid.
San Clemente seemed a little bit more down to earth and we were planning our lunch stop there as it was at about 40 miles in. Unfortunately, the way-marked, quiet cycling route completely bypassed the town centre where all the shops and cafés were. By the time we’d realised this, we were well through the town to the far side – we didn’t particularly want to double back and so we hoped for another opportunity to stop and refuel later on.
Old Highway 101 still exists in many places along this part of the coast, but almost all of the motorised traffic travels on the San Diego Freeway. This leaves cyclists and pedestrians with a very pleasant route. After a short while we came across another ghost bike (our third on this trip), in memorial to another fallen cyclist. In addition to the white bike, there were some cycling jerseys attached to the fence and scores of cyclists’ bidons (water bottles), suggesting this was a memorial to a racing cyclist. It was sad to see. The bidons hanging around the bike reminded us of the candles that people light in Catholic churches in front of statues of the saints.
Along the road we came to San Onofre State Beach Park, (a national park open to the public at the agreement of the US marines, as it occupies military land). The road followed a long narrow strip between the sea and the freeway. All the way along the park were picnic benches, fire pits, toilets and shower blocks. A lot of people were camped there, it looked like a popular surfers’ destination. The park eventually came to an end and the road stopped but became a paved cycle track where only cyclists could proceed through narrow pinch-points. Our route continued along a fantastic, (if slightly desolate) path that weaved alongside and under the freeway. After a few miles the cycle path ended abruptly … and near to a freeway entrance.
We were bracing ourselves for a hair-raising bit of riding along the freeway, when two local cyclists came past us. They told us that if we had ID with us we could take a safer, more pleasant route to Oceanside through Camp Pendleton, the base of the United States Marine Corps. What’s a (gay) cycling man to do in such circumstance? Ride on the heavily trafficked freeway or avail himself of the opportunity to ride through a marine corp base and gawp at soldiers? We took the very sensible advice of the couple of cyclists of course and headed for the camp … and the marines!
We had to show our passports at the Camp Pendleton guardhouse and the soldier on duty seemed a little hesitant about letting us through … He left us for a few minutes to get some advice, then returned and allowed us to proceed – with warnings about our not being allowed to cycle through the base after sunset. What a cheek! It was 4 o’clock and sundown is at about 7. Anyone would be more than capable of riding the six miles or so through the camp in three hours! Rather than make that point, we were very polite and English, thanked him and set off. That was a rather worrying moment though – the only other road was the Freeway and although it was possible to cycle on it at this point, it looked horrendous and we really didn’t fancy it. I would have liked to have taken some pictures of Camp Pendleton too, but I didn’t want to risk a gaol sentence this far into our journey!
On the other side of Camp Pendleton, we stopped in Oceanside (about 15 miles from Solana beach). We’d missed lunch, so were feeling very hungry by now. We had coffee and some cake (naturally) in a lovely old-fashioned 60s-era diner. Then the final fairly well-populated stretch along the coast, through Carlsbad (home to Legoland California – I wasn’t allowed to go), past lagoons, lovely beaches, people out running, (three men, wearing only short-shorts and running shoes were a highlight in Cardiff by the Sea!), and into Solana Beach and the Courtyard hotel.
The receptionist ‘upgraded’ us to a ‘club’ room, (this is how they deal with the fact that they’ve just given the room you’ve booked to someone else in America – they make a virtue about giving you something better for free, while omitting to mention that they don’t have what you want). Anyway, we’re not complaining – it’s huge – with a massive jacuzzi in the room. We worked out how to fill and turn on the jacuzzi, (more difficult than might be expected), dived in, splashed about, cleaned up and hot-footed it to California Pizza a couple of blocks away for a big feed – we were ravenous by now. We’d not really eaten properly all day because of missing lunch in San Clemente.
Dinner was very good. California Pizza is a bit like Pizza Express – passable food, nice ambience, sweet and helpful staff, (ours was a sweet and beardy-surfer type), pleasant ambiance and not really expensive. So we lingered there for the evening before heading back to the Courtyard for another podcast episode of the Archers.
Summary – day 21 – Los Angeles (Hollywood) to Los Angeles (Seal Beach) Thursday 15 September
Estimate: 33 miles, actual: 39.17 miles
Avg. speed: 13.4 mph
Cumulative distance: 1,529.08 miles
After yesterday’s various arguments, mishaps and other assorted debacles, we decided to take things as easy as we could today. We thought that one way of easing our path south through LA might be to pick up a bicycle map of the city and to speak with people in a local bicycle shop to listen to their advice on where best to ride in LA, and – perhaps more importantly – where to avoid. We looked up the closest bicycle shop to our hotel – it was almost 4 miles away, (this is LA) and we decided to take a bus.
It was warming up as we went to Lion’s Bike Shop on West 29th and South Vermont. When we arrived, we explained what we were doing and asked if they had a bicycle map. They didn’t. The next nearest shop was in Downtown and we were thinking that it would be good to look around there anyway, so we headed off to the town centre.
Downtown LA is just bizarre – glitz and glamour slap bang beside poverty and decay. It’s one of the most unpleasant facets of many US cities. Large numbers of homeless people, poverty and dilapidation is very evident with boarded up shops and people selling off their possessions outside their houses. All this goes on right in front of everyone else. No-one else seems to notice or care much. Especially the better off, who seem to take the view that poverty is somehow inevitable, the fault of the poor and that nothing can (or should) be done. It’s very obvious that many of those living rough have mental illnesses of some kind and doing so little for them strikes me as so particularly cruel in a country that is so rich and that actually is so full of people who are kind and generous. I have to say that LA seems worse than anywhere else that I’ve seen in America in this respect.
In Downtown LA ‘street hosts’ have been employed to assist tourists. They’re a brilliant idea and funded by an additional agreed levy on local business taxes. We asked one of the street hosts, Humberto Terones, for directions to a bike store. When we explained why, would you believe it? He had copies of the LA bicycle route map to give away! So we needn’t have gone all that way to Lion’s Bike Shop after all. Humberto did direct us to a lovely independent bicycle shop just around the corner, though, so we headed over there to talk about the quickest/easiest way to Seal Beach.
After a pause for coffee we went over to The Spoke – a lovely shop, selling bespoke bicycles. The co-owner told us about the new 50-mile LA River cycleway that would take us to Long Beach – and he explained how best to get to it. So, route fixed, we spent the next a couple of hours exploring Downtown LA.
We wandered through the Water Plaza with its extraordinary dancing fountains next to the tall skyscrapers. We passed MOMA and then visited the LA Music Centre, home of the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, the base of the LA Philharmonic. The building is amazing – designed by Frank Gehry and has the same look as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, all swooping and curving walls of shining metal. It’s beautiful. I wish that I could attend a concert there – especially with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm, but the new season hasn’t begun yet.
We needed to get on out way, so we took the metro from the LA civic centre back to our hotel. Before leaving earlier in the day, we’d checked out of our rooms and put out bicycles into a hotel store room. We retrieved our bicycles and cycling gear and went to the men’s ‘restroom’ to change into cycling gear. Mike first, then Matthew. While he was getting changed, Matthew ‘forgot’ to lock the cubicle door, (or so he later claimed). Picture the scene: Matthew, stark naked – apart from one sock – sitting on the toilet pan and putting on the other sock, when a man walks in on him. The man was a little bit surprised. I think that even in California, you could get arrested for hanging around nude in men’s toilets, (a smart US-style lawyer would obviously be able to argue that one sock isn’t nude).
* Matthew here, I most certainly did lock the door, clearly a faulty lock.
We scarpered pretty quickly after that, (both fully clothed). Armed with our cycling maps and a route, we started our journey out of Los Angeles.
As we rode away from the Wilshire Hotel, I noticed that one of the (two) bottle cages on my bicycle had broken and wasn’t holding the bottle firmly. I was a little worried that a water bottle might jump out when I rode over a bump in the road, so alerted Matthew to keep an eye out for a bicycle store where I might be able to buy a replacement bottle cage. We spotted a bike shop on South Hoover Street and we called in. E&R Bike Shop is staffed by a man called Eduardo and his young son, Roberto. They were really impressed when they heard about our trip. Eduardo was curious about how we knew about his bicycle shop and when we told him that we were just passing by on our way from Canada to Mexico, he said that no-one had ever called in before while they were passing by on such a long journey. I picked out a new bottle cage and fitted it on my bike. I gave the old one to Roberto as a memento of our meeting! He has a bit to learn about running a bicycle shop I suspect, as he said that he thought the best way for us to get to Seal Beach was to take the train! He couldn’t quite understand why anyone would want to cycle there! I asked Eduardo how much I owed him for the new bottle cage and he said he was giving to me for free as a souvenir of our visit to his bike shop in Los Angeles. That was so very kind of them, it’s wonderful.
Our journey down Hoover brought us to the the University of Southern California campus. Students in the USA are back at college now, so it felt nice up be on such familiar territory. Lots of cyclists, of course. Just beyond the university campus was a beautiful rose garden, a science centre with aeroplanes attached to the wall, then to Matthew’s delight the stadium from the 1984 Olympics. Matthew has made comments about my boyish fascination with planes and trains. I can report that Matthew has a prodigious knowledge of – bordering on obsession about – past Olympic Games: which city in which year, (including winter), losing bidders, whether they made a profit or not and so on. His joy was unbounded to be at the stadium that made a huge profit after the financial disaster that was the Montreal Olympics in 1976, (the concept of profit or loss was irrelevant in Moscow in 1980 apparently). Pictures taken and we continued on our way.
After the stadium the route quickly moved us into a series of poverty-stricken and run-down neighbourhoods. Dilapidated churches had been set up in abandoned shops almost every few hundred metres. It seemed to me that god wasn’t doing much for the people in these neighbourhoods though, so why people were wasting their time and money on such chicanery is beyond me.*
*Matthew again, clearly people need to have hope in something when life isn’t so great. It wouldn’t be my choice either, but I can understand what motivates people in this direction.
After much longer than I expected, we found the LA River cycle track. It was fantastic: wide, smooth, flat and really well used. We had a lovely ride down to Long Beach, chatting with a few other cyclists as we rode along. In Long Beach we saw the Queen Mary – a beautiful luxury liner from the 1930s and now a floating hotel. Beside the Queen Mary the great domed hangar that housed Spruce Goose – the biggest flying boat ever built. I’d been to see both last time I was on the west coast with Paul in the Mid-80s and even though I knew they were at Long Beach, I didn’t expect to see them on this trip. It took my breath away – a magical sight in the setting sun. The rest of Long Beach was a bit of a post-modern nightmare, bridges that looked like roller coasters, for example. The good news was that there was a fantastic cycle path along the sand, for miles. If we turned around we could still see the ship and a huge bridge behind it. All around us, cyclists and runners. Bliss.
We were only about three miles from Seal Beach when the cycle path on the beach ended. There was a slightly unpleasant ride in the near dark over two busy freeway junctions to get to the Ayres’ Hotel in Seal Beach. But the hotel was such a treat, really spacious and nicely furnished. Mathew went to fetch a pizza and we ended our evening eating while listening to three episodes of the Archers. We know how to live!
Summary – day 20 – Ventura to Los Angeles (Wednesday 14 September)
Estimate: 67 miles, actual: 73.95 miles
Avg. speed: 14.3 mph
Cumulative distance: 1,489.91 miles
Bit dull and grey this morning as we left Ventura. But actually that’s really good cycling weather. There were some routing dilemmas today. Garmin and Google didn’t agree, (as usual) and we suspected that there was a ‘third’ or better way if we just followed the waymarked Pacific Coast Cycle Route. However, sometimes the cycle routes are not that particularly well signed, especially in the towns and cities. We have often arrived at a junction and there’s absolutely no clue about which direction the route takes, but it generally doesn’t matter if we’re following Garmin. Also, on a trip like this we know that if we keep heading more-or-less south, then there’s a good chance that we’ll probably be going in the right direction. Usually we find that we happen upon the Pacific coast bicycle route again.
A further complication today was how to get beyond Oxenard as we moved south around the coast after leaving Ventura. It just wasn’t clear how to navigate our way through a gap between the mountains and the sea, where a number of large military bases were situated. The map showed that the Interstate cut right through, but Garmin made it clear that we couldn’t go along there on bicycles, (and he’s always right about that sort of thing). So, Dilemma of the Day … would there be an alternative route for cycles and should we risk just trying to find it or take stupid Garmin’s advice and go on a 20 mile, hilly detour? We decided that we’d risk it.
We passed the naval base without any difficulty. Then the old town of Oxenard is a really pretty, traditional-looking fishing port. Then came the air base. This was more complicated, there was a road running parallel to the Interstate, but Garmin showed it feeding onto the Interstate itself about 3 miles further on – maybe there’d be a cycle track unknown to Garmin. I was feeling tense about either having to brave the Interstate or turn back. We’d just have to see.
As we rode around the perimeter of the air base, we could see some really big helicopters coming in to land. Then we passed a curious permanent outdoor display of planes and missiles set on posts. We continued on to see what would happen as we approached the turning onto the freeway – the road we were on did lead us on to the Interstate, but there were no signs at the entrance forbidding cyclists, so we decided to risk it. The police might chuck us off – but we only needed to travel for one junction – about a mile or so – and then we knew we’d be on the Pacific Coast Highway, a road that we knew we’d be permitted to ride on. As luck would have it, about half a mile along the road, a notice proclaimed the end of the freeway – we’d done it and were on our way to LA.
Between Point Mugu and Malibu we passed rocky cliffs with incredible folded rock strata and huge rectilinear blocks of stone strewn everywhere. We could could just make out people hiking up in the mountains in the far distance. The road itself ran along the water’s edge and huge blocks of black stone sloped down from the road into the sea to absorb the waves. There were warnings of rock slides every few hundred metres and people were working to try and stabilise the cliffs. The sea was calm, but the waves were breaking against the rocks and throwing spray into the air and onto the road. Inevitably, the road was incredibly deformed and breaking up. There were road works all along this section.
As I looked out to sea, I could see some big birds with long beaks flapping their wings rather languorously and flying only a few metres above the water – Matthew recognised them as pelicans! Superb!
As we approached Malibu, the surf beaches began. For miles there were huge cars and pickup trucks parked in the narrow space between the sand and the road with surf boards propped against them. People, (overwhelmingly young men) were milling about, getting changed in or out of their wetsuits or diligently rubbing their boards with something (wax?). In the sea there were surfers riding the waves and paddling about on the water. It was a real treat to watch – although we were nervous about someone opening a car door just as we cycled past or that someone might pull their vehicles out into the road and into us. Thankfully that didn’t happen – but getting through Malibu was pretty fraught, as there was generally very little space between the parked cars on our right and the moving cars on our left.
There were some fabulous houses on the way into Malibu – big detached affairs, either strung out over the hillside on our left or squeezed into the narrow spaces between the road and the sea on our right. Mostly we only caught glimpses through trees or deduced the splendour beyond the elaborate, chunky (and very secure) gates. Matthew spotted an outdoor hot tub carved into the rocks next to one house. We could see that some houses had complicated stilt-like supports in wood or concrete and that they were cantilevered out over the beach or even over the sea.
Leaving Malibu, we passed a rather poignant September 11 memorial in a big grassy sloping area outside Pepperdine University. A national flag for every victim – all the same dimensions and evenly spaced in rows and columns – it looked very effective as they fluttered in the breeze.
I was hoping that the traffic on the road between Malibu and Santa Monica might reduce somewhat … but of course it didn’t. But as we arrived on the outskirts of Santa Monica – Los Angeles city limits – a cycle path began. It was really good to be off the road again. Suddenly the cycle path veered off the roadside and onto the beach itself. A long, wide flat pathway made from concrete bounded with broad flat areas of sand on both sides – quite a bit of it on the surface, too, sometimes. I’m not normally happy about cycling on sandy surfaces, they can be slippery and sand just wrecks bicycle drivetrains. But it was away from the traffic on the road and actually a lovely experience, with plenty of other cyclists and runners about. Before we arrived in Santa Monica centre, we had to turn off the beach path and head inland towards our hotel for the night: the Wilshire, towards the Downtown end of Wilshire Boulevard. Ten miles along a very heavily trafficked, fast-paced, badly surfaced road with intersections every few hundred metres or so – we were not looking forward to it.
Fortunately, Matthew had picked up a map of Santa Monica at our hotel in Ventura that showed a cycle route running parallel to Wilshire Boulevard, so we proceeded along that. Unfortunately, it stopped at a T-junction after a couple of miles and we had to join Wilshire Boulevard itself. Matthew wanted to try and find another quieter parallel street that we might be able to ride along instead. Garmin didn’t show one and Wilshire doesn’t run in quite a straight line, so there was a danger that any parallel streets would just diverge. I was also a bit sceptical that there would be any particularly quiet streets in West LA at that time of day. We weren’t enjoying cycling in LA so far – and had only just started. We didn’t agree on the best way to get to our hotel and a fairly ‘heated debate’ ensued on the street by the Beverly Hills sign. We rode on not speaking to each other until we arrived at the hotel.
Our room is on the top floor (12), with views to Griffith Park, Observatory and the Hollywood sign. Incredible. We were allowed to take our bicycles in the lift to our rooms, too, which was a bit of a pleasant surprise. I fell asleep almost as soon as we arrived, then went to have a shower.
Matthew was in the lobby downstairs while I cleaned myself up for the evening. Somehow I slipped over on the wet bottom of the bath while I was taking a shower. I tried to grab on to the shower curtain to steady myself, it was wet, so it slid through my hands and I went flying out of the bath and over onto the bathroom floor, banging my hip really badly and cracking my head on the toilet cistern on the way down. I gave myself a real fright. This was not turning into a good day.
I took some pain killers and got dressed.
Happily, things improved. We’ve had some really wonderful surprises on our trip along west coast; but one of the most astonishing happened before we’d even arrived. Our friend Michael had been due to start a new job in America this month. He’ll be working in Maryland on the east cost for the next two years. Michael had decided to spend a bit of time travelling before beginning work. He was travelling to Baltimore the long way round – going first to Turkey, then on to Japan to climb Mount Fuji, and then by complete coincidence was passing through Los Angeles on the same day as us. Extraordinary. We’d arranged to meet at 7.30 at our hotel so we could go eat dinner together.
When Michael arrived we headed up to Hollywood – to the ‘walk of fame’, Chinese and Kodak theatres, (where the Oscar ceremonies take place), then walked over to Sunset Boulevard to a restaurant called California Vegan for a wonderful meal – lots if tofu and soya – delicious and heaven! Such a nice change From the stuff we’ve been eating so far.
After dinner I thought we might take a taxi up to the Griffith Observatory to look down on the lights of the city (a famous inspiration for the underside of the space ship in Close Encounters, I think). This turned into a bit of a disaster, there was an enormous concert emptying out as we went up into the hills to the north of LA and the roads were closed. The traffic was terrible and we were not moving, so we had to abandon our plans and headed back to our hotel. The taxi driver was a nice guy and amazed when we told him about our cycling trip. Michael was falling asleep in the cab by now, and headed back to his hostel. We went off to bed.
So a day of mixed fortunes, really. It was lovely to meet up with Michael again. I expect that I’ll be a bit bruised after my fall tomorrow! But at least it’s only a short ride to the other side if the city to Seal Beach.
Summary – day 19 – Buelton to Ventura (Tuesday 13 September)
Estimate: 65.5 miles, actual: 69.81 miles
Avg. speed: 13.6 mph
Cumulative distance: 1,415.96 miles
Woke up to puncture #10! (Mike, rear – not sure of cause – but a fresh hole in tube, rather than a mis-repair). The tyre had gone down overnight. I generally have a rule with inner tubes: three strikes (patches) and it’s out. So this particular inner tube was jettisoned and replaced with a new one. Then on to a good, hearty breakfast of museli and fruit with Joe. Carol had left earlier to play golf, she’s quite an accomplished player by all accounts – well Joe’s account, actually. It was a shame to miss her this morning though – no picture of her unfortunately or any opportunity to say “thank you” again in person for our lovely dinner last night and for hosting us.
Joe needed to do some errands in Solvang, so after breakfast we rode in together. We passed an ostrich farm, Joe told us that one ostrich egg is equivalent to 18 – 24 chickens’ eggs and they’re available to buy. We weren’t tempted, there’s no room in our panniers!
We mooched around Solvang for a bit and bumped into Joe again! We were looking at the Danish pastries, (of course). Joe recommended that we try aebleskiver, a Danish delicacy available in several of the restaurants. Supposedly invented by some Dane back in history, aebleskiver are like a waffle or a pancake, but formed into a round, about the shape and size of a tennis ball and must be cooked in a special pan with ball-shaped hollows in them. The name rather suggests that they would have apple inside them … but they don’t. They were served with powdered sugar sprinkled over them and topped with raspberry jam. Matthew was offered ice cream with his, which he (too) readily accepted. I asked for a plain one … little knowing that this would mean mine would arrive without any sugar or raspberry jam! So in the picture is my ‘wholesome’ aebleskiver, Joe’s conventional aebleskiver and Matthew’s extravagant aebleskiver. Sums us up, really, I think.
We had a chance to talk some more with Joe while we ate. I mentioned cycling past the Vandenberg air force base yesterday evening and seeing the NASA plaques at the entrance. Joe said that satellite-carrying and other types of rockets were launched about once a month in the middle of the night from there. All the houses around shake and the windows rattle. If they get out of bed to look out of the window, they can see the rocket flame arcing through the sky. This sounds like a rather thrilling thing to watch to me!
Solvang has been a host town in the Tour of California for several years now and there was a really nice cycle-friendly vibe to the place. Lots of posters in the shops and restaurants advertised the Tour of California. Many people were riding around on bicycles and the town has a really good bicycle store, where we bought a spare inner tube. The bicycle shop had window displays with pictures and souvenirs from the Tour de France – excellent stuff. The store owner was away cycling – it’s Solvang’s centenary and he was leading a group anniversary ride from San Francisco back to Solvang.
Solvang reminded me a bit of München or Salzburg, quite a lot of tourists and all somewhat fake and unreal. We picked up some pastries and left Solvang at about noon to head for Santa Barbara before finishing up in Ventura, down the coast.
It was searingly hot as we headed out of town, even the wind was scorching. Joe had warned us that there was a big climb on the way to Santa Barbara. I thought, “Surely not, we’re heading to the coast.” Guess what? He was right (of course) and there was a HUGE UP AND OVER CLIMB to negotiate. It was just past Lake Cachuma in the Santa Ynez Mountains and through the San Marcos Pass on Highway 154. As well as being long, we were sweating buckets, as it was the middle of the day. To make things even worse, there was another super-scary bridge to negotiate. The Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge – a mere 370 m (1,214 ft) long and 128 m (420 ft) from the ground, (it’s a popular suicide spot apparently – 54 and counting and no-one has ever survived). I was not going to take a picture, I refused to look left or right, I just kept my head down and focused on the road in front of my wheel. There’s a picture here if anyone is interested:
Half-way up the climb, puncture # 11 (Matthew, front). To be honest, we were glad of the respite. We couldn’t actually find the hole in the tube, but the tyre was definitely soft – so we put in a new inner tube and continued upwards. Once at the top we were greeted with a sign that read: descent 8 miles at 6%. F***k! (Obviously the bit after the full-stop back there wasn’t actually on the sign, although perhaps it should be). As luck would have it, a sheriff’s patrol car was descending at the same time as we were, so all the other drivers were behaving themselves and not speeding past us around the bends. There were some really incredible views down to the sea with Santa Barbara in the distance, along the coast and around the Los Padres national forest.
We made it to Santa Barbara, which is an exquisite town. Loads of people on bicycles, nice Spanish-colonial style buildings, an attractive pier, a waterfront cycle path, lots of runners, three good looking bicycle shops and some lovely cafés in shady courtyards and squares. We decided to stop for lunch!
Garmin was playing up today, so he only routed us to Santa Barbara, then I turned his routing off because he wanted to send us back into the hills on a 45 mile jaunt to avoid the section of Highway 101 south of Santa Barbara that we can ride along – although Garmin doesn’t seem to know it – because it has a cycle lane running beside it. We followed a well-marked coastal cycle route out of Santa Barbera to Carpenteria and along a beautiful stretch of waterfront to Ventura. There were at least a dozen other cyclists out on our route, on training rides. It’s been amazing to notice how many more people are out riding since we came to the southern part of California. We passed another ‘ghost bike’ though in memory if another fallen comrade.
We arrived in Ventura at about 6.30. The Pierrepoint Inn is 100 years old and in a lovely wooden building with views out to sea, (across the very busy Highway 1/101). The gardens are exquisite and the receptionist told us that the same gardener had worked here for 50 years!
The Pierrepoint Inn is unfortunately let down by its restaurant. We cleaned ourselves up, came down for dinner and saw that there was nothing on the menu for vegetarians. Not a thing! And we’re in California not Texas. We asked if the chef could rustle something up … “I’m afraid not.” Said our waitress. “Sorry, we get this problem a lot.” I replied: “Well there’s a lesson there somewhere for you”.
The waitress suggested that we try a local restaurant in the town for dinner. It was just around the corner and it was called Zack’s. She was sure they would have food that was suitable for vegetarians. So off we went.
As it happened, the suggestion to eat at Zack’s was a really good one. The food was lovely and we had a really nice evening. Shortly after we arrived, we started talking with the couple on the next table. They had overheard us discussing our cycle ride today and they asked us about our journey. They told us that they’d met Mark Beaumont when he was cycling from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Apparently Mark was staying on the same campsite as they were and they shared a beer with him. Good for them for helping out a fellow long-distance cyclist! It turns out that Roy and Lorissa were real genuine and knowledgeable cycling fans – they were at the restaurant to celebrate Roy’s birthday. They’d worked for a mortgage company in the past, (before all the economic mess – but they kind of saw it coming – it seems that lots of people in the banking and finance industries knew about the high levels of unsecured loans and unsustainable debt). They got out of that world and now worked as artists, living about 4 miles from Lake Cachuma, (we’d cycled past it this morning). They always go to watch the Tour of California and they’d even been to Europe just to watch the Giro D’Italia. We spent the evening chatting with them about cycling; in two years they’re planning to go to the Tour de France … maybe we’ll see them there, that’d be wonderful! Matthew said it was as if our cycling friend back in Bristol Andy Herbertson had turned up and was sitting on the next table, which was a nice thought.
After dinner and back to the hotel. We were still a little hungry, so Matthew went to find some chocolate and asked at reception. They didn’t have any, (what’s wrong with this hotel?!). The receptionist, (who I thought had already taken a bit of a fancy to Matthew as he’d knocked $10 off the bill for keeping him waiting for a couple of minutes when we checked in), offered Matthew some doughnuts for free! He’d been given these doughnuts by his ‘friend’ who owns a bakery, but he said that he didn’t really like them and usually gave them away to the old folks. Well, we certainly had no scruples about taking food from the elderly, so we enjoyed them over a cup of tea before taking to bed, happy in the knowledge that Matthew’s status as a fully fledged member of the Symonds’ clan (donut lovers) has been restored in his brother Philip’s opinion.
Next stop, Los Angeles – we’re just a little bit nervous about cycling there … it’s carmageddon!