Monday, May 25, 2009

California Bike Trip, day 1: Los Angeles - Carpinteria

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Friday. I awake in the lounge car, which I discovered to be an underrated place to spend the night during my train rides to and from Houston during this last holiday season. The lounge car features several trios of side-by-side chairs facing out through the windows, and though these chairs serve as instruments of contortion for someone of my height, they are the only place on the train where one may sleep horizontally while avoiding the expense of a bed in a sleeping car. I'll take horizontal-yet-contorted over vertical-yet-stretched-out most nights.

Even better though is horizontal-and-comfortable, which this morning I notice is what another passenger has achieved by taking to the floor and luxuriously lying with straight legs and straight back within the cozy comfort of his sleeping bag cocoon. His brilliant plan has me feeling by comparison (1) stupid because I have camping gear on the train and could have avoided both contortion and chilliness by using my sleeping bag if only I possessed the creativity to have used it on a train and (2) weak for again succumbing to the temptation of furniture.

Soon the sun rises and the lounge car steadily fills with passengers. I sit in a chair and pretend to read my book on philosophy but mostly just look out upon the blur of the moving landscape. It dawns on me that I'm committed to doing this trip. Have I sufficiently worked out all the details? No bother. These things always work out in the end. Or so I tell myself. It's the vague faith possessed by anyone who has yet to mess up.

Rolling through the endless sprawl of Los Angeles takes hours and feels even longer. From within the lounge car I gaze upon the marred landscape, at times trying to imagine the beauty of the land before thirteen million or so people took it over and at other times trying to imagine the daily desperation undoubtedly experienced by the typical commuter on the I-10.

Today the sky is shrouded in a grayness that's caused either by fog or smog -- by which one is unclear. Two fellow passengers near me come to an uncertain agreement that it's fog and not smog. Sucked into the conversation, for train passengers are unfailingly talkative, I am then brought up to speed on all the reasons why and all the ways how the Lakers will make it to the championship series this year.

Eventually we pull in to Union Station, most of us disembark, and promptly I become lost. I am not expecting Union Station to be a real train station with real teeming masses and a baggage claim carousel. But it is. Where's my bike?

After a while, I give in and ask a station employee for directions to where bicycles are to be claimed. I follow his directions and become lost again. I return to the same guy and ask again, and this time he physically leads me to an elevator just around the corner, one that I'm fairly sure wasn't there two minutes ago. The elevator takes me up to a small, secluded hallway containing an opaque, locked door plainly marked "Baggage Department". I ring the doorbell. I wait a minute or two. I ring the bell again. Immediately, the door opens and an employee not so politely instructs me that ringing the bell twice is unnecessary. I politely nod my head as if this will somehow improve the condition that I'll find my bicycle to be in. I'm led through a large, cluttered warehouse-kind-of-room to my bike box, which is right-side up, which means my bike is upside down. There are a few holes punched in the box. He checks my claim ticket, and I anxiously remove my bike and reassemble it and check it out. The brakes require realignment, but otherwise everything looks good. I load my gear on the racks and leave.

I depart the train station around 11:15AM, and before leaving the parking lot I'm already lost in downtown LA. I take no heed of the fact that I've already become lost three times before my trip has even started, and I ask a station security guard for directions to Venice Blvd, my route to the ocean. Then I'm off for real.

I've heard plenty of horror stories about bicycling in Los Angeles, but it turns out they're all true. Getting to the coast is nasty work: impossibly thick midday traffic, potholes, loading vans parked alongside the curb in the bike lanes, traffic lights equipped with sensors to change the lights to red just as any cyclist approaches the intersection. And a slight hint of a westerly wind. Yet I persist and arrive at the Pacific and snap this photo of the bike path on Venice Beach:
I stop to chow down on some trail mix and bagels, and I talk to a woman who is playing with her child in the sand.
Craig: Do you know if this bike path connects with the Hwy 1?

Woman: Yes, it does. Where are you going?

Craig: Oh, just up the coast. [I say this with the smug confidence of someone engaging in a Grand Adventure.]

Woman: Oh, good for you. My husband did that trip not too long ago. [She says this with the smug indifference of someone who knows that biking a portion of the California coast is No Big Deal.] Of course, he biked down the coast, not up it.

Craig: I suppose that makes for a more favorable wind.

Woman: Oh yeah. You'll see all kinds of wind.
This is my first lesson in learning an important thing about Californians: they're liars. I will not be seeing "all kinds of wind". I will be seeing one kind of wind, and it will be a headwind. This woman does not have the second sight nor does she possess a degree in meteorology. If it had been the case that at any time during the next two days I experienced a different kind of wind, I would have felt overjoyed. Tears would have trickled down my face. But in actuality, what will happen is that the tears will blow off right off my face and into my trailing slipstream. But I digress--

Up the coast I go. The bike path connects with the Hwy 1. The Hwy 1 winds endlessly through Malibu. Traffic is heavy. Cars are parked all along the shoulder next to "no parking" signs, and countless times I must merge into speeding traffic to get around the parked obstacles. Eventually I climb a hill, which breaks the tedium and inspires me to snap this photo:
Onward, onward, onward. I pass through Malibu, take another rest, and I bike for a few miles on pavement decorated by signs that are important to ignore, signs that say things like "Freeway -- bicycles prohibited". By rush hour I'm in Oxnard, and this is the low point of the day. Oxnard is not a beautiful city; it's flat and not at all scenic, and traffic is at its worst for the day. I stop at a convenient store for food and water. But I'm in a city with hubbub, not out in the middle of nowhere at a quaint country store, so I lock my bike to only thing serviceable as a bike lock: a trash can.Somehow I find this demeaning in addition to being outright unsanitary. And I'm behind schedule. I stock up on items that rank high on the calorie-per-unit-weight list while simultaneously not appearing on the may-kill-me-or-worst list. I begin a trip-long tradition of buying raw tortillas, to be eaten either plain or smothered in peanut butter. Then I'm off again. I press through Oxnard and then through Ventura, which is Oxnard's much more beautiful twin.

My spirit perks up. For most of the day starting somewhere in Malibu I've been seeing running the opposite direction Ragnar relay racers and their decorated vans and exchange points. Finally I decide to stop and snap a photo of one:
I ride through Ventura and contemplate my options for getting to Santa Barbara. My California state map informs me that the freeway may be the only option. Then I notice that adjacent to the road I'm currently on is an isolated bike path. I try my luck. The path winds away from the road and then continues for several miles along the coast:
Then the path turns inland. It's getting dark, and I know I'm running out of time to find a place to camp for the night. I'm stopped by a woman frantically running from the opposite direction and carrying a bag containing some fruit and asked whether I've seen a man in a such-and-such jacket. He's diabetic and suffering from low blood sugar. I haven't seen him, and I want to help her search because I'm on a bike and thus much faster, but I'm kind of lost myself and trying to finish the day Somewhere Up The Road. I ride off and keep a look out but never see the man. Eventually I myself stop and ask three women walking the opposite direction where the path leads to and whether it will take me to the freeway or some other road that connects to Santa Barbara. They think so but aren't sure. I continue onwards. The path becomes a road that appears to be unused by motor traffic. Then ahead of me I see this:
And to the left, this:
Which way? The 101 definitely takes me where I want to go, but it's a crazy freeway with crazy motorists. I place my faith in the small, green bicycle "bike route" sign and continue forward along the path, which leads to this:
The path leads me out along a back road that runs parallel to the freeway. The sun has already set, and the sky is rapidly darkening. I observe a park near the coast. It has well manicured softball fields, a restroom, and some hiking trails. It also has signs saying that camping is prohibited, but whatever -- I decide this shall be my campsite.

I rest my bike up against a tree within a brushy area next to the softball field and hope that I'm sufficiently unexposed to Trouble. I make my pad in a perfectly little grassy opening nestled between some bushes. I lay down my blanket, on which I place my bivy sack and sleeping bag. I change into my wool shirt and tights and slide into the bag, and I congratulate myself on finding such a fine spot. I'm cozy warm and, why, even the ground slants just perfectly down to my feet ever so slightly. I lie on my back and watch as the stars appear one by one. Camping is not at all hard.

End day 1.

"Get up. Get up."

Continue day 1.

It's a stern voice, and it repeats for what seems to my half-asleep brain like hours its unyielding request to get up. Is it speaking to me? The voice is off a ways; it's coming from the park's parking lot, about 50m away. I'm behind a few bushes, however scraggly, and my gear is all dark colored, so I should be invisible. I lie still and wait. The voice continues commanding. Then:

"Get up. Get up and come out of the tent."

I don't have a tent. Phew, the bad voice isn't directed towards me.

I listen to figure out the situation. Some people, some law-breaking, rules-don't-apply-to-me types, these freeloading, no-good hippies, they've decided to ignore the clearly marked signs and camp overnight in the park, and they've been caught. A policeman is kicking them out. Serves 'em right.

Of course, I'm really scared. A policeman is kicking out some people who parked their car in the parking lot and set up a tent right there. Stupid, sure, but their folly may expose mine. This park isn't very big, and if after kicking out the tent dwellers the policeman then decides to walk the trails for only two minutes then doubtlessly he'll find me. He wouldn't even need a flashlight. I hope and hope that he's a lazy type who patrols only the parking lot and then moves on. It's dark. It's cold. I have nowhere else to go, or, if I do go then I won't be able to see where I'm going and will have a difficult time finding another spot. (This isn't true. I'll discover the next morning that I camped just down the road from a half a dozen motels.)

To the others: please please go away and leave me alone.

To myself: please please don't sneeze and give myself away.

After a time ranging somewhere between one and two eternities, the campers drive off and the cop thereafter follows. I fall back asleep immediately.

End day 1.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

California Bike Trip, day 0: Phoenix - Maricopa

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The trip starts with me arriving home from work a tad early from an otherwise typical Thursday.

A well planned California Bike Trip entails packing and loading everything onto the bike the day before so that the pre-ride preparation involves little more than fueling up and riding off into a figurative sunset. Of course, the sunset is merely figurative and not literal because riding from Phoenix to Maricopa is much safer while there's still light out.

Of the many things that will go wrong over the next few days, the fact that it's Thursday afternoon and I haven't yet packed and loaded has the distinction of being the first. There was a mix-up at the bike shop, and the panniers aren't yet in. Tomorrow afternoon in Carpinteria I'll check my voice mail and learn that my panniers arrived late by one day. I won't be pleased. Very fortunately, Coworker Steve had come through today and lent me his panniers for the trip. They're small and they're not waterproof, but they'll suffice.

So I pack and load most of this junk:
Onto my bike like so:
The printer-paper box is intended only for today. I'm planning on using it to store in one neat place everything I must bring with me onto the train (since I don't have proper luggage). The box idea works out well. Again I am impressed by the practicality of ghetto style.

And I'm off. I ride into an actual, literal sunset, already behind schedule. Actually, it's still somewhat figurative, but that's only because today I ride south and not west.

Another benefit of packing and loading ahead of time, had I done it, is that it allows one to test ride the bike fully loaded. If I had done so then I would have discovered that my handlebars cannot simultaneously fit both the handlebar bag, though it is a small one, and my large, to-see headlight, so I resort to using my small, to-be-seen headlight. Most of the today's route traverses through the ongoing sprawl of Phoenix/Tempe/Chandler, but outside the pale artificial glow of the Valley streets, Hwy. 347 is dark, and the night is moonless. My to-be-seen headlight may be nifty with its simple and lightweight velcro mounting strap and tiny, ingenuous battery charger, but it does little to illuminate the tumbleweed and rocks and assorted junk that are littered about along the shoulder. Fortunately, I can somewhat manage to see where I'm going because the headlights from the endless stream of late-working motoring commuters act as searchlights that zoom ahead to reveal the pavement ahead. I manage to avoid most obstacles.

I arrive at the train station mere minutes before it opens, which is a little after 9:00PM. Here's the picnic area out front:
I discover that waiting outside there for ten minutes or so during late April is much easier than waiting there for three or four hours during late December. Not that I know for sure what's it's like to wait there for three of four hours during late December, but I do know what's it's like to wait at the convenient store down the street for three or four hours during late December. But I digress --

Once inside I pick up my pre-ordered ticket and pay the extra $15 for my bike: $5 for handling and $10 for the box. Then I proceed to put my bike in the box upside down:
Mistake #2.

I wait four hours for the train's arrival. I sit for a while in the lobby chairs. I take to the floor and sleep some. I procrastinate reading my book on philosophy, a trick that I will perfect throughout the trip. I listen to two kids hopped up on sugar play duck, duck, goose -- a game totally unfit for only two players yet able to maintain their amusement for an improbably long time. I give thanks to my earplugs. I ignore the blaring television set in the corner.

The train arrives. This is when I learn that it actually matters to use those bike boxes right-side up.
Conductor: You put it in upside down?

Craig: Yeah, is that a problem?

Conductor: Yes, the cutout handles are on the bottom.

Craig: Okay, I'll just fix that real quick and --

Conductor: -- There's no time! Quick, to the train!
I listen to the clang of seat and stem as we flip the box over, and the two of us carry the box to the loading platform, which is just a concrete sidewalk next to the train track. There we wait for a time that in hindsight I estimate to be ample for re-boxing a bike. But rather than re-boxing my bike, I opt to stand idly and wonder how my bike will fare upside down interstate train travel. This line of wondering is unfounded, though; the conductor suddenly whips into action and not-at-all-figuratively throws the box into the baggage car, where the box heavily lands on its side with a discordant bang and thump. Now I wonder how my bike will fare on-its-side interstate train travel. With that thought I board and am assigned a seat right behind the duck-duck-goose kids, and promptly I decide to sleep in the lounge car for the night.

End day 0.