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A Bike Ride from Sacramento to the Bay – Part 2

**Before you read this**

This is part 2 of a two-part series. The whole thing will make more sense if you read part 1 first. Lucky for you I’ve provided a link – if you’d like to start at the beginning go here.


Day 2 – 85 miles in 11 hours

My first day on the bike had been difficult yet fulfilling. Despite my physical exhaustion I had seen and experienced quite a lot in a  short, 24 hour period. You can just see so much more when traveling 10-15 miles per hour on a bike, as opposed to 65+miles per hour in a car. You hear the sounds of your surroundings as you pass by. You smell the aromas in the air.

I know that day two will bring its own set of challenges, so I tell myself repeatedly that I should sleep in as long as possible and let my body recover. By 7am I’m no longer able to lie still.

I scurry out of my sleeping bag and through the front door of my one-man tent. The world appears so different in the daylight. Rather than being surrounded by shadows and mystery, I can clearly see the thick brushes, the noisy bridge, and the buzzing electrical towers. It’s peaceful. Almost serene.

Breakfast is a couple of hard-boiled eggs, another dry-ass po-boy sandwich from Lucky’s, an apple, a couple handfuls of nuts and chocolate covered espresso beans.

I explore the underside of the bridge. Again, what seemed so ominous the night before is now almost peacefully welcoming. After passing under the bridge I find a large, nature-viewing platform built for visitors to take in the beauty of the surrounding wetlands and their inhabitants. Looking out over the marshes, I’m struck by the calmness of nature.

After exploring for fifteen minutes, and taking in all that I can see, I head back to my tent. It takes me ten minutes to pack up everything and another ten to replace the tube in my bike’s front tire. What would have been a miserable endeavor in the dark last night, is now a simple task.

By 8am I break camp and I’m on my way.


Despite how treacherous the path over the dyke had felt, it was the path that Google recommended. I had worried at the onset of my journey that Google was trying to force me onto the freeway (which it wasn’t), then I had been nervous about Google instructing me to take the 37 (which turned out to be fine.) Now I am left to think, Perhaps Google can be trusted after all.

It’s thought that gives me pause, because the route I’ve chosen this morning is not acceptable to Google. I fidget with my phone for a long while, but Google will not provide a bike route along the course that I want to travel. This should be a strong sign that I am better off looking for another route. But Google is a tool, not the boss. Why am I so determined to take the route, despite Google’s refusal to provide it? Because it will save me 45 miles of fighting uphill and against the wind.

The first three miles are relatively uneventful, but soon enough I arrive at an intersection atop a hill. It’s the point where the 37 meets the 121. Google’s “no-bike” corridor.

I pull off to a side road to ask some of the locals if they think the path is traversable via bike. The first person I encounter does his best to understand what I’m asking, but his English is equal to my Spanish, and we’re left blinking at each other. However, just 100 feet down the road, two men, who speak perfect English, seem optimistic about my ability to cross the no-bike zone.

Before I leave, they ask me where I’m coming from and what I’m up to. I explain what I’m doing on my bike, and they ask with a smile, “Just for the hell of it?” I nod my head affirmatively, and to my surprise they get it. “That’s pretty cool,” they say in unison.

Highway 37’s shoulder provides a wide berth between traffic and my bicycle… for about one mile. Then I hit a bridge over the Petaluma River that seems to be unnamed. The shoulder vanishes and in its place I find a narrow, 18 inch gap between the road and an equally narrow ledge. This gap does not provide enough space for me to ride my bike safely, so I step onto the ledge, while pushing my bike within the gap.

The space is so narrow that I can’t make full strides as I walk. Instead I shuffle my feet carefully forward, all while ascending to the top of the bridge. The aged, cement railing to my right is barely three feet tall, and offers little comfort. By the time I reach the highest point of the bridge, the Petaluma River is about sixty feet below. Morning traffic zooms by only a few feet to my left.

I take the bridge one small shuffle of my feet at a time, until eventually I descend once again onto a large shoulder. But, Google still doesn’t approve of my route selection. There seems to be no side roads to take from my current location to the next city in my itinerary – the sleepy town of Ignacio. Rather, the 37 merges with the 101, which means that my path is no longer a lazy highway, it’s a crowded freeway.

As soon as I arrive at a turnout, I take it and go exploring for my own route. Maybe I can find a small road or trail of which Google is unaware. I follow the road as it curves under the freeway but then it abruptly dead ends in overgrown patch of bushes and dry grass. It’s a strange conclusion to a road. It gives the impression that perhaps decades ago the project lost its funding mid-construction and the workers simply walked away.

I stop to check the map on my phone once again, hoping to see another option. Unfortunately, it appears that the 101 is still the only way to continue. Suddenly, I smell the familiar, rotting stench of death. I look around for where it might be coming from but see nothing. It’s my cue to find a less eerie location to check the map. As I backtrack up the road to where I had been only five minutes previously, I pass a large, multi-legged electrical tower. On the frame of the tower, no more than 20 feet from my position on the bike, are a dozen buzzards. They stare at me with a curious scowl. Their beady, black eyes protruding from their fleshy, red heads. I get the impression that they don’t think I should be there either.

From my location on the dead-end offramp, there are no other paved routes besides the 101. I consider that Ignacio is only a few miles down the freeway, and with no other options, I shrug my shoulder and head for the on-ramp.

Navigating a freeway on-ramp on a bicycle is intimidating, and I would strongly recommend avoiding it at all costs. The shoulder of the 101 provides plenty of space between myself and the vehicles traveling over 70 miles per hour, but I’m sincerely looking forward to making my exit. A car speeds by blaring its horn, the driver probably having a good laugh at how high I jumped off my seat.

I take the first exit I come to and, as though magically teleported to another realm, I’m in the serene, calming atmosphere of tiny Ignacio. I need a minute to rest and charge my phone, so I make my way to a donut shop. I order a black coffee and a maple bar, and I sit at the cast iron table out front.

It’s nice to sit in this calming setting, especially after my adventures on the 37 and the 101. I pull out a notebook and a pen, and jot down some thoughts about the journey thus far. Passing through Davis. The wind sucked. Biking the dyke in the dark. I text my wife and let her know that I’m doing just fine.


From Ignacio I follow a route through neighborhood streets until I connected with CA bike route number 5. This is the trail that will take me the next 30 or so miles North toward San Francisco. It will wind in and out of small towns and up and down big hills until it drops me off at the Golden Gate Bridge.

As well as finding a new trail to follow, it’s readily apparent that I’m no longer in the Central Valley. I can expect to observe no more flat farmland, rather from here on out it will be steep hills and tall trees.

The CA-5 takes me from one city to the next, dropping me off on neighborhood streets before reconnecting with me a few miles later. In one such neighborhood in San Rafael, I find myself climbing an extremely steep hill. The going is slow and requires serious effort. I pant as I turn my wheels and inch up the slope. About 40 feet up the road from where I’m struggling to pedal, I notice a man raking his yard. He pauses from his chores to watch me climb the hill, a pleasant smile on his face.

I find it curious. Does he simply enjoy watching someone struggle at something? Does he think what I’m doing looks absolutely silly?

When I finally reach the man, moments later, he asks me a question that surprises me. “Is he with you?” I’m confused. “Is who with me?” I respond. The man gestures back to the road from where I’d come, and informs me that he had stopped to watch because a young, red fox had been jogging along behind me. The man said that it appeared as if we were together.

I laugh out loud at his explanation. I was completely unaware of the fox’s presence. Now I feel a bit miffed that I didn’t get to see the fox myself, but I’m glad that it had been there either way.

While I do feel a strong spiritual connection with natural, I’ve never been one to believe in mystical ideas such as spirit animals. However, given my experiences with foxes I’m becoming more convinced that the fox must be my spirit guide.

The first time I saw a fox in the wild, I was still a young boy. My family went for a camping trip in California. Walking along a beautiful lake I saw a red fox dash under a giant boulder.  Since then I’ve seen foxes multiple times across the country. Both times I’ve been to Jackson, Wyoming I’ve seen a fox at the base of the Great Tetons. I’ve seen them scampering across the road in Utah near Flaming Gorge Reservoir. I’ve seen them chasing squirrels at the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC. And now coming up a hill on my bike in San Rafael California, a young, red fox tagged along beside me. (Since this experience I’ve also seen a fox while riding home on my bike in Pleasanton, California and while looking for a place to spend the night  in Stinson Beach, California).

I dwell on the idea of spirit animals long enough that I make a good amount of progress without noticing.


For the next few hours the cities blend together. I climb the hills at under five miles per hour, then coast down them at nearly 20. I spend a lot of time observing my surroundings or lost in my thoughts. When I grow bored of thinking, I begin talking to myself out loud. I yell out, “Zee Golden Gate Bridge!” Announcing the next stop in my journey to nobody in particular, as if I’m a German physicist who must shout every sentence.

The trail often enters small towns, but for the most part it continues along preserved natural areas even despite the invasion of urban living. The protected waterways offer greenery and wildlife amid the paved streets and bustling shops. As I enter a large stretch of greenery I pass a comical scene. A man leading a pack of dogs via a tangled mess of leashes verbally accosts a small cadre of women who have stopped to chat on the trail. I hear him complain to the women that they cannot stop to talk on the trail, as it blocks the path for everyone else. Meanwhile, I’m forced to stop my bike and walk it off the path and around the yapping pack of dogs to which the man is clinging.


Soon enough I arrive at the first recognizable landmark from my past experiences in the area. It’s a bus stop for the shuttle to the Muir woods in Sausalito, CA. My mind flashes back to four years earlier when my small family took a day trip to the Muir Woods and then Stinson Beach. Accompanying us was a school friend of mine from India. He looked at us puzzled as we applied sunscreen to our pasty white skin.

“What is this?” he asked, clearly perplexed. I informed him that it was sunscreen, something he had clearly never seen or heard of before. His next question was more comical than the first. “And, what is the purpose of sunscreen?” he asked with no sign of guile. We laughed aloud, as we explained to him the fragility of our pale condition.

I pass quickly through Sausalito and drop into the waterfront area on the south-east side of town, where countless tourists pedal rented bicycles, sip coffee, and snap photos of the San Francisco Bay. This is my first glimpse of the rough waters that connect to the Pacific Ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge. Across the expanse is the inactive prison island of Alcatraz, the beautiful Angel Island, the city of San Francisco, and the massive Bay Bridge, which transects Yerba Buena Island.

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As with all of the small towns, I pass quickly through the downtown area and back into the quiet neighborhoods, with houses hidden among the native oak trees and invasive eucalyptus.

Road construction slows the flow of traffic. A man wearing an orange vest and hardhat, and holding a stop sign eyes me as I struggle to climb the hill. “You need a motor!” he calls out. I nod and offer a courtesy smile, but inside I know the man has it all wrong. A motor would completely defeat the purpose.

Shortly after Sausalito, I gain my first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s massive, steel pillars rise above the choppy currents below and gently touch the low hanging clouds above. Its reddish gold shine catches the sunlight, making it appear as though it is glowing.

Expecting a good amount of security for such an attraction, I’m surprised to find that I can simply ride my bike onto the bridge. No questions asked. It’s an exhilarating feeling to be suspended so high above the water below. Cold, salty winds sweep in from the Pacific Ocean and whip the face of everyone on the walking path. I suddenly feel a chill, as the sweat from my climb is chilled in the openness of the expanse.

I’m in awe. Transfixed. I take my time crossing, swerving in and out of equally hypnotized pedestrians. I want to truly experience this moment.

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Soon enough I near the end of the bridge and turn my attention to the next leg in my journey. Looking from across the bay it appeared that San Francisco will be difficult to navigate, but the trip from the Golden Gate Bridge to the waterfront of San Francisco is surprisingly simple. A paved four-mile route along the water drops me off right at Fisherman’s Wharf.

My first thought is food, but I don’t think of it in terms of simple sustenance – I need calories. I stop at the first restaurant I see that offers clam chowder in a bread bowl, No 9 Fisherman’s Grotto. I’ve been dreaming of this Bay Area delicacy since I first woke in the morning. My mouth waters when I smell the sourdough and rich chowder. I down it quickly, with my second po-boy and an apple.

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The host at the Fisherman’s Grotto had watched me ride up on my bike and offered to let me stash it inside while I ate. After my meal, I mosey into the building to retrieve my bike and decide to take advantage of the time on my feet to use the restroom.

The lock on the door seems to spin without every clicking into place. I try the door and it doesn’t budge, so I sit down and go about my business, trusting that it will hold. No more than 60 seconds later the door suddenly flies open. I’m confronted by what appears to be a middle-aged upper-middle-class woman, with a look of horror on her face. With my pants around my ankles, there is not much I can do but smile.

Needless to say the woman is nowhere to be found when I exit the restroom.

I return to my bike and plan out the next hour or so in my head. This is not my first visit to the Wharf and there are specific spots I want to hit. As a kid, we never had money for the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum or any of the fancy chocolate at the Ghirardelli shop, so, my favorite thing to do when I was near the water was watch the Sea lions. I navigate my bike through the crowds on the west side of Pier 39 and stop behind a mass of onlookers. I smile as the feelings of nostalgia rush over me. Given my journey, both in the past 24 hours and through life, the sight and sound of the sea lions means a lot.

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My reminiscing is short lived however, and I know that I must continue. From the north side of the pier, I have a great view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. I look back at the path behind me, amazed that I ever made it over the hills that stand above Sausalito. The ocean blows it’s cool, salty air into my face. I feel kinship.

I meander farther down the waterfront, along Embarcadero, looking for the ferry station. The route passes fairly quickly on bike, and I find myself at the feet of the AT&T Ballpark. I’ve gone too far. I pivot the bike around and head back towards the ferry station, which I discover is tucked into the pier behind a large warehouse looking building.

It’s a surprisingly quick ride across the Bay. The ferry skims across the water, and I do my best to take in the views from below the Bay Bridge. Soon enough we arrive, and I disembark at Jack London Square in Oakland.


Given the thinness of my road bike tires, I have intentionally avoided dirt paths, and to this point Google has done a good job of keeping me on paved roads. Unfortunately, I find the trail I had intended to ride in Oakland consists of dirt and small stones. I don’t like to deviate from the plan, especially in one of the most dangerous cities in the country, but I make the difficult decision to take another route. For the next 8 miles of my journey I travel directly through the heart of Oakland, where I witness first hand the depths of poverty that people can be forced to endure.

As I pass under Highway 880, I encounter something I’ve never seen before, an elaborate system of human dwellings constructed out of scrap wood, cardboard, and tarps. The shantytown resembles a derelict apartment complex, with varying levels and an assortment of entrances. I assume that those who live here have developed their own social codes and system of rules to ensure survival. At the same time I’m sure those rules are broken and much suffering takes place.

My mind goes back to Stockton, when I was just a boy. But even Stockton looked nice compared to this.

I soon find that aside from dirt paths and anxiety about the state of society, Oakland holds other challenges for me as well. The road I’ve chosen to travel down is experiencing construction, so I’m compelled to bounce back and forth between the road and the sidewalk, always searching for the safest space. Twice while crossing the road I’m forced to swerve back to the sidewalk as a car peels around the corner, unaware or unconcerned with my presence.

I fear that my discomfort of being in the thick of Oakland makes me stand out like a sore thumb.  The last thing I want is for someone to take notice of me. Irrational as it may be, I hope that to everyone else I simply look like a homeless guy on a bike, which is probably not far off.

I do my best to focus on the ground in front of me, whether it be street or sidewalk, but the blaring of police sirens screaming by or the steady beat of rap music reverberating from passing cars interrupts my concentration quite frequently. I’m on edge, constantly dodging something whether it be cars on the road who refuse to give me my space, or people on the sidewalk who don’t appreciate the danger I face if I remain on the road.

The tenseness in my body is reminiscent of my time on the dyke. I feel vulnerable. Both experiences are unnerving in their own ways.

I offer up my gratitude, as soon as I see the signs for Leandro High School. In an instant the landscape changes and I feel much less on edge. The streets are suddenly quiet and clean. An intense series of hills still lies ahead of me, but at least I know I’m out of the woods.


Google tells me that I’m within 15 miles of my destination, but more than at any other time in the past two days, I feel completely drained of energy. I’m aware of the distance I’ve covered, but looking down at my navigation, all I can see is that I still have nearly two hours to go.

The climb begins in Castro Valley and won’t end until I’m coasting down the hills into Pleasanton. For the first time the fatigue feels insurmountable. I begin to think of back up plans. What if I called an Uber? What if I called my wife to come get me? I have a strong sense of the irony of these thoughts, the closer I get to my destination the less I should be thinking of giving up, right?

In a moment my mind quiets and I am able to discern clearly the battle that is taking place. The hills seem to mock my tired legs. The climb is grueling. The pace is demoralizing. But I see that these things are not my enemy. The only opponent I face is myself.

To combat the negative thoughts I begin practicing self-talk. This “talk” soon turns into a lengthy lecture, followed by a repeatable chant. I tell myself over and again,  The hills have no will, they just are. They’re not fighting me, and I’m not fighting them. I’m only fighting myself. And, I can beat my inner self.

This repeatable mantra helps me continue on. My body is fatigued but my mind has the strength to endure. Then, I experience something that has become a repeated pattern – the landscape changes. It always surprises me, but as long as I keep moving, the landscape always changes. I smile at the not-so-subtle nature of the life lesson buried in my experience.

The city gives way to rolling hills of dry grass and oak forests. It feels as though I’ve transitioned back from the Bay Area to the Central Valley. After leaving the city, I travel along Highway 580 towards the Dublin and Pleasanton, but the climb up the hills continues. My legs ache. My hands and wrists have fallen asleep. My mouth is dry. Still I continue moving slowly toward my destination.

I can’t imagine going any farther, but with the help of my mantra I keep my legs moving. The hills have no will, they just are. They’re not fighting me, and I’m not fighting them. I’m only fighting myself. And, I can beat my inner self.

Another Google alert – I’m within 10 miles. The hills never seem to plateau, but without being cognizant of the fact I’m suddenly not required to work as hard. Then I’m moving downhill. I rest my legs and drift. Gravity has always been in control, but now I relinquish my efforts against it.

I’m moving quickly down the hill, probably close to 20 miles per hour, when I pass something that makes me want to stop. I hit the brakes then lay my bike down under a tree. Despite never wanting to backtrack, I trudge up the hill to snap a picture of a sign. It reads, “Welcome to Pleasanton”.

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As I glide through the city streets, my journey begins to feel far behind me. I’m now receiving navigation instructions much more quickly, as I turn down one road and then another quite rapidly. I find that the city, as its namesake implies, is Pleasant. Before long I arrive at our friend’s neighborhood. Then their street. One last hill to climb, which I do with renewed energy.

Before I realize it, I hear the words I’ve been waiting to hear all day. In my earbuds, Google says to me, “Your destination is on the right.” I take the earbuds from my ears and lay the bike down on the sidewalk. The house is unfamiliar to me, but from the back yard I can hear my son’s voice. I made it.


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A Bike Ride from Sacramento to the Bay – Part 1

Day 1 – 71 miles in 9 hours

Nearly ten hours – that’s how long we’ve been on the road. Our course is a line drive across the burning desert of Northern Nevada, where the scenery hasn’t changed for eight of those hours. From Salt Lake City, Utah to Reno, Nevada, the only variation in the landscape is whether or not there is salt on the ground.

But, we’d arrived at the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, ascended to the state line, and passed into California without incident. Then, a quick descent out of the pine trees brings us into the rolling foothills of Northern California.

There is a sharp contrast between how the eastern and western slopes of the Sierras are formed. The eastern slopes, which seem to begin in Reno, Nevada, get right to the point. They take you directly from the dry, desert floor to the lushness of the evergreens. On the western side of the range, the climb from the valley floor to the mountain peaks is gradual. The dry grasses continue along the ascent, but are joined by massive oak forests, which eventually give way to the pines and firs at higher elevations.

I spent many weekends during my youth camping, hiking, and fishing in the foothills that sit in the early morning shadows of the high Sierras. It’s where I learned how to gig frogs with a spotlight in the middle of the night and how to milk a rattlesnake (both taught by the same adventurous family friend). It’s where I got my first glimpse of wild flocks of turkey and pheasant and the excitement that comes with a sighting. It’s where I learned to recognize the sudden stillness of the forest, when the birds go silent, and the accompanying feeling that something is watching you – maybe just a coyote, but maybe a mountain lion or a bobcat.

By 2:00 pm Pacific time we make it to Sacramento, but we don’t stop until we reach the western edges of the city. Just off the I-80, I pull over at a 7-Eleven and begin dismounting my bike from the rack attached to our trunk. The hot May sun beats down on the blacktop. The plan is simple – my wife will continue in the car to the city of Pleasanton, just over the hills from the East Bay, and I will continue by bike. What will take my wife another two hours, will take me two days.

I position my gear on the back of my bike, using a jimmy-rigged system of bags and bungee cords, all strapped down to a makeshift rack. Ever the one to make do with what I have available, I had opted not to purchase a fancy touring rack or side-saddle. Rather , I repurposed the support arms of a rear child’s seat on the back of my bike, minus the seat.

On the rack I’m carrying a bike pump, two spare tubes, a small socket wrench set, a hiking tent, a sleeping bag, a couple changes of socks, underwear, water, and a small supply of food.

The arms of the child’s seat attach to the bike just under my seat, but they do not connect to each other. So I use  my bike pump as a cross beam on the back of the rack, where it extends above the rear tire. It makes a good brace for the arms, as well as a platform for the rest of my gear. I also have a small cell phone case on the front of the bike that could simultaneously protect my phone from precipitation and give me a view of the Google Maps app.

The route to my destination is simple yet complicated enough that I really will need the GPS guidance. My wife and kids are headed to Pleasanton, which is basically a straight shot down the I-5 and then a bit west from where I am in Sacramento. But, that isn’t the route I have in mind.

One of the objectives of my trip is to cross the Golden Gate Bridge en route to the rendezvous with my family. This means that I will be adding significant distance, complexity, and time to my ride. I need to head west, then south, then back east. I’ll be passing through a number of small towns, climbing several intense hills, and braving roads, where people on bikes don’t really belong.

It’s an odd feeling to see my family driving off without me, in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar journey ahead of me. The expressions of concern and confusion on the kid’s faces gives me pause. Although I’ve already told them that it’s going to be alright, I want to make sure the sentiment sinks in. I can hear my three-year old daughter asking, “You’re just kidding, right?”

“No, sweetie. I’m not kidding. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep, what I’m going to eat, or if I’ll even make it home in two days. But, I really am doing this.”

My wife’s silver sedan turns the corner and heads towards the freeway. I’m alone. My only companion is Google maps, who is now instructing me to merge onto the freeway. I can see the onramp, which is exactly where I’m being told to point my bike, but this can’t be right. Online bike routes can be misleading, even with GPS, but there is no way I’m spending the next two days on the side of the I-80.

I retype my destination into Google Maps, it’s a small campground about 75 miles west of my current location. I chose this particular spot because it is along my route and because it is listed as “free camping” online. But, the course Google gives me still looks like the freeway. I hesitate for a moment, then decide to trust Big Brother. I head down the onramp for the I-80 west bound, and just before I have to fully commit to the Freeway’s shoulder, I see a small opening in the fence. A vertical pole protrudes from the center of the gate to restrict motor vehicles, but my bike fits through nicely.

I find myself on a bike trail that runs alongside a beautiful stretch of water to the north and a chain link fence separating me from the freeway on the south. As I pass by at 18 miles per hour, I look out over the marshy wetlands. Perhaps I can trust Google’s route after all.

The water in the preserve is set back from the road. Between the bike trail and the water’s edge is a field of tall, dry grass. The tips of the grass stocks sag under the weight of their engorged seeds. Then comes a line of reeds that separates the dry ground from the water. It looks like a garrison, intentionally built to keep land lovers out. Elegant, white herons meander through the shallow waters. They raise their long, stick-like legs above the surface, patiently scanning for the perfect spot for their next step, then methodically lower it back into the water.

The trail itself is lined with the dry grass, wild artichoke, oleanders, poppies, and a variety of wild flowers. Occasionally a towering oak tree or eucalyptus rises from the shoulder of the trail. The smells of these California plants elicit strong feelings of nostalgia within me. Though I haven’t experienced them for many years, they are familiar. I grew up just south of Sacramento in the heart of San Joaquin county. Our home was in the center of a wine grape vineyard, which we didn’t own, and a short, mile-long bike ride down the railroad tracks from the Mokelumne river.

To put it simply, we were poor. My father was a self-employed general contractor, my mother a stay-at-home parent. With seven kids to care for and a meager income, my parents were limited when it came to travel and vacations. The cheapest solution was camping. We camped in the Sierra Nevadas and in their foothills; we camped along the windy beaches of the Monterey Bay; and we camped in the Black Rock desert outside of Reno, Nevada.

When we were at home, running around and exploring outside was how my brothers and I had fun. We explored the vineyards and cherry orchards that made up the bulk of our neighborhood. We explored the banks of the Mokelumne river and the shores of Jackson and Camanche Reservoirs. The plants and the animals became familiar to me. They became part of who I was.


Now I’m back, experiencing the environment of my youth for the first time in a long time.

I’m moving along at a solid clip, between 17 to 19 miles per hour. Back home, when I was training in preparation for this touring excursion, I averaged 15 miles per hour. The bump in my speed has me feeling good. The sun is beating down on my left side, but I’m cruising.

For the first few miles I pass nobody on the trail. I’m in the countryside, so my only companions are the creatures sunbathing on the warm, sun-soaked asphalt of the trail. The western fence lizards, which we called blue bellies as a kid, do there push ups as I approach then scurry into the underbrush at the last moment.

Our front yard from the time I was six to nearly twelve, was lined with bushes along the borders of the lawn. Under these bushes we could find countless blue bellies. They were quick, so I had to be quicker to catch them. I would distract a lizard with one hand, then grab it from behind with the other. I remember the feeling of sadness when I would accidentally dismember a tail, despite knowing that it would eventually grow back. The lifeless tail would lie in the dirt, twitching back and forth as if searching for its body.

Along the bike trail, I also encounter ground squirrels enjoying a sauna from the heat of the trail’s asphalt. If our front yard was the place to chase blue bellies, then our backyard was the place to chase ground squirrels. They built an intricate palace of tunnels and mounds right under the giant walnut tree that hung over the yard. Each time I would exit out the backdoor I could hear the shrill alarm cry of the ground squirrel sentry.

One evening Buddy, our German Shepherd-Labrador mix, caught one of the squirrels in the grape vineyard. Fearing his malicious intentions, I rushed to rescue the squirrel from his jaws. The squirrel was pretty shaken up, but still alive and conscious. Rather than let it return to its small community, my brother and I decided that it would be a good idea to keep the squirrel for our own. We put it into a wire rabbit cage and placed it atop the swamp cooler behind our house.

At first our plan was working but after its initial shock had worn off the squirrel went haywire. The shaking and rattling coming from the swamp cooler alerted my dad that something wasn’t right. He went running into the backyard wearing nothing but his underpants, only to discover what his twin sons had done. As could be predicted, we were not allowed to keep our new pet.

About an hour into my ride, I reach the sleepy city of Davis, California. I’ve only experienced Davis as a blur out my car window, so I imagine it as dry and dusty, just like the rest of the Central Valley. But, to my surprise, it’s beautiful. My route takes me directly through town and along a scenic river trail. On my left is a porch attached to a large building. On my right are towering redwoods and a serenely flowing stream. I guess that I’m crossing over the campus of UC Davis, because there are young people in backpacks all around me. The place has an exciting energy.


It doesn’t take long to pass through the whole of Davis, and I soon find myself in the country again. It’s dry and other than the wind or the occasional sound of  passing vehicles, it’s quiet.

When you’re on a bike, there is only one thing that is more challenging than hills and that is wind. While hills can be trying, the only thing you’re really fighting on a hill is gravity and your own tolerance for pain. But, wind is different. Wind is an enemy. It actively attempts to push you backwards. You can feel it on your face, your chest, and your arms. Wind doesn’t race you. It’s not trying to beat you somewhere. Wind is the kind of competitor who is happy just to see you fail. It doesn’t want you to get where you’re going, no matter where that is.

Outside of Davis, I hit the wind. It slows my pace from a brisk 17 mph to a haltering 10 mph. I try to duck under it, but I can’t avoid it. In my head I calculate the difference in time this is going to cause. I realize that my day is going to be much longer, and much more arduous, than I had expected.

The bright side of slowing down is that it allows me to be more observant of the world around me. Now, I’m right smack in the middle of extensive farmland. All around me are dirt fields and orchards of nut trees – mostly walnuts and almonds.

My mind goes back to visits at my dad’s aunt and uncle’s house. They lived in a walnut orchard in Linden, California. The trees were so tall and thick that the ground around their home was perpetually dark, eliciting the feeling of being in an enchanted forest. I remember watching in wonder as the harvesting tractor would raise its giant claw-like arm, and wrap its steel tentacles around the trunk of a towering walnut tree. It would begin vibrating, and soon we would hear the thuds of walnuts shells crashing into the sides of the rusted, old trailers parked beneath the limbs.

Other than the walnuts, I remember only a few things about Linden. One – my mom taking us to the Linden public pool to cool off during the most unbearable days of the California Summer. And two – barbecues at my aunt and uncle’s house, the smell of cigarette smoke permeating every piece of fabric in their home.

It’s quiet as I pass the farms and orchards outside of Davis. My only companions are the cows fenced into the fields of yellow grass, lazily chewing their cud. I moo at them, and on occasion I get a response. The calves tend to look up with earnest, still curious about the world around them. Their mothers, however, seem to have lost interest in strangers on bikes.

There are also the birds, of which California seems to have no shortage. I pass groups of ravens, crows, and buzzards picking at hidden things in the fields – dead things. I hear the guttural caws of scrub jays, which like to shout out in mid flight as they swoop past. Occasionally I see a mocking bird, yet hear no mocking sounds. There are sparrows, hawks, quail, and doves. All of them going about their business of survival and paying me no mind.

I cross a creek. A mile later I cross it again. There are no signs indicating  its name. That type of information sharing is less important out here, where everyone probably already knows what it’s called.

When I was about six years old and living in Stockton California, a port city in San Joaquin County that is a surprising distance from the coast, my dad took me and my brothers to Bear Creek to catch frogs and crawdads. As a kid the crawdads were terrifying. Their longs bodies were bigger than my small hands, and their claws looked menacing as they reached for my fingers.

My brothers and I put the crawdads in our red Radio Flyer wagon in the garage, with a little bit of water and some mud. It seemed like a good home for them at the time, but in the morning they were all gone. To our dismay, the crawdads were agile climbers and much more mobile than we had expected. I found one crawling slowly behind a pile of boxes along the wall, its body covered in dust.

When I was older, we moved to the house in the vineyard, which was only a few miles away from a very small town named Lockeford. A friend of ours lived in Lockeford, and my twin brother and I would ride bikes down to the creek with him to see what we could find. Using a fishing net attached to a pole, we would scoop buckets of life from the bottom of the creek. Frogs, crawdads, baby catfish, guppies, minnows, tadpoles, and polliwogs.

One day we went down to the creek with a few other young boys, most of them a bit more aggressive than my brother and me. We parked our bikes along the side of the road and squeezed through a barbed wire fence to descend below the bridge that crossed the creek. It was late spring, and the swallows had built nests of mud and saliva that were tucked into the corners where the bridge’s pillars met its bottom side.

Many of the mud nests contained young babies. They stretched their scrawny necks from the narrow openings and begged for food with high pitched shrills. The other boys thought that it would be entertaining to throw rocks at the nests, to break them free from their stranglehold on the cement and watch them crash to the ground. I didn’t feel good about participating, and when I saw the young babies falling into the muddy water below, I began to protest. The sight of the young birds being drowned or falling to their death on the hard soil made me sick to my stomach.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the creek in Lockeford was Bear Creek. The very creek my father had taken us to in Stockton years before.


Still, the creek outside of Davis gives no indication of its name. From the road I see a piece of acreage layed out in typical Californian style. A large farmhouse sits in the middle of the property, surrounded by acres of freshly tilled soil. A wall of eucalyptus trees creates a border between the residential portion of the property and the agricultural portion. A sign by the road reads, “For Sale”.  It also informs passersby that the walnut orchard in the back of the property is included in the deal. I fantasize about what I would do with such a piece of land. The orchards and vineyards I could plant. The garden I could grow. The organic eggs and honey I could raise.

The day dream passes away slowly, and I continue on at a snail’s pace. Given the wind and my current speed, I’m not sure how much longer it will take for me to find food. Cycling, especially against the wind, burns a lot of energy, and I’m worried about maintaining my caloric intake. The last thing I want to do is get behind my hunger.

Not wanting to risk it, I stop under a tree for shade and quickly scarf down two hard boiled eggs. A sign on the property warns that loitering is not permitted – violators will be cited. I check Google Maps on my phone and it informs me that the city of Dixon is nearby. I should be there in under 30 minutes.

Those thirty minutes pass by slowly. The wind continues to blow in my face. What I wouldn’t give to feel the wind as an ally on my backside rather than a force to be reckoned with on my front.

I misread the directions and stop suddenly when the road shifts from asphalt to dirt. This can’t be right. One of my greatest fears is riding too far off the path, then having to backtrack in order to reach my destination. More time. More calories. More energy burned. I’m only off by a quarter mile, so I turn around and head for the intersection where I missed my turn. I cross a pair of railroad tracks and Google centers me back on the path.

Eventually I enter Dixon. The transition from farms to single-family homes is instant. A gated community sits on the edge of town, and I ride directly through it to the nearest shopping mall. The wind also breaks as soon as I cross into town. The tall, brick walls and trees lining the streets cut the wind before it ever reaches me. I’m grateful for this simple relief.

A few miles into town I come across a Burger King. I haven’t eaten at Burger King for nearly a decade, but I’m tired and hungry. I need to consume as many calories as I can and rest my legs for a while. I’ve been biking for five hours, the last three of them against the wind.

With all of my possessions strapped to the back of my bike, I don’t feel comfortable leaving it outside, so I walk towards the door pushing my bike along with me. From a table outside the building an enormous, long-haired German Shepherd lunges at me, its teeth flashing at me as its lips snarl backwards. I jump back, surprised by the sudden demonstration of aggressiveness. The owner of the dog calmly pulls back on its leash. “Sorry,” he says nonchalantly. The dog goes unchastized.

Once inside, my heart begins to slow to a normal pace. I position my bike against a table and approach the counter to order. I ask for a chocolate smoothie, a Whopper, large fries, and a Gatorade.

I recall eating a whopper on the way to a camping trip, my brother’s and I smashed into the back seats of our Chevy Suburban. The bun was too big for me to hold. The sauce dripped out every which way. When I was a kid, we didn’t eat out much, so the Whopper was a real treat. Something to be cherished. Today though, it’s nothing but calories.

In the same parking lot and just to the east of the Burger King is a Lucky’s grocery store. I want to purchase a few supplies before I get back on the road, so I jump on my bike and glide leisurely across the asphalt. There’s a bike rack outside, but again, I don’t want to leave all of my stuff alone outside. Instead I push the bike inside and park it along a wall between a row of quarter machines and the shopping cart return area.

As I dig through my bag in search of my wallet, I hear an infant screaming from the seat of a shopping cart behind me. I turn to see a deflated mother trying her best to console the child, but with no success. There was a time, before I was a parent myself, when I would have judged someone who couldn’t “control” their child in public. Now, going on six years of parenting two children, I simply smile in solidarity. We’ve all been there, I think to myself.

At the Lucky’s I’m looking for food that I can throw in my bag and eat when I’m in my tent for the night. Something that will satisfy my taste buds, yet also satisfy my stomach. I settle on two premade po-boy sandwiches from the deli. They look fresh enough, and they’re cheap. Besides, I’m not sure what else I should buy, and I want to be on my way. I make my purchase, and after a quick visit to the boys room, I’m ready to roll.

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It doesn’t take long for me to reach the final housing tract on the edge of town, then I’m back in the country. The time I spent sitting in the Burger King allowed my body to settle down, to relax, and to realize how tired it already was. I feel like I’m playing a doubleheader in basketball. My body is fatigued, my muscles are like jelly. Then, as soon as I’m no longer protected by the trees, houses, and fences of Dixon the wind finds me, and we begin to battle once again.

There is nothing I can do but put my head down and keep pedaling. Once again the scenery passes slowly. Fields of brown dirt or dry grasses. Cows. Farm houses set back from the road. Scattered eucalyptus trees. Creak beds and bridges. And birds, lots of birds. The sun is moving farther to the west. It no longer beats down on me, but rather calls from a distance, as if it’s letting me know that it will be leaving soon.


Usually when I ride, I prefer to listen to podcasts or audio books, but not on this trip. I’ve decided to go without the constant sound in my ears. I want to experience every moment of the trip. I want to be aware of what I’m seeing, hearing, and smelling. Often times my mind wanders, but the scenery changes quickly enough that it brings my attention back to my immediate surroundings. It’s a form of meditation. It keeps me grounded in the journey. I’m already grateful that I decided to make the trip.

I don’t know how long it’s been since I left Dixon. It seems as though physical fatigue can sharpen your mind and allow it to sink even deeper into a meditative state. You move without considering the movements. Without realizing it, I’ve kept my legs moving in circles long enough that I arrive at the next town. It’s called Fairfield and right away the map puts me onto a promising looking bike route that runs directly through town. Nice! I think to myself.

But, it’s not so nice. At first the trail looks promising, as it avoids many of the big streets and stop lights, however I soon realize that Fairfield is not the coziest of towns. I pass people on the trail who give me pause. The types of people who yell at themselves in impolite tones. Who are unpredictable at best. The trail winds between neighborhoods, always separated from the homes by tall cinder block walls. During stretches of the trail I see tents set up along these cinder block walls – the homes of the people I’m passing. Whether they are temporary or permanent, I cannot tell.

My mind goes back to the early 90’s. My mom saw a need to ensure that her children understood that quality of life is a sliding scale and, just because we didn’t have as much as some people, we had much more than others. To bring home the point, she drove us through downtown Stockton. Although, it was only forty minutes from our home, the lifestyles of the people living on the street could not have been further from our own. I remember being afraid of the people I saw, but at the same time feeling very sad for them.

Perspective can be powerful. And the perspective of my youthful experience is front and center as I make my way through town.

Just before I come to an intersection, where the bike route meets a cross street, I’m forced off the trail by a police car traveling the opposite direction. I’ve biked on dozens of trails back home, and never encountered a police car on the path. The cops idle slowly down the trail as if they just want everyone to know that they are present. The officer in the passenger’s seat looks me up and down, his face stoic.

Once again, I tell myself to keep my head down and just pedal. The sun is sinking quickly and I want to put distance between myself and Fairfield before night falls. But, half a mile passed the police car something goes wrong. The equipment on the back of my bike has shifted during the trip, and suddenly everything I’ve brought with me is dangling from the side of my bike.

I stop quickly to assess the situation. I look up and down the trail to see whom I might encounter, if I stop to work on my bike. There is a young couple headed my way from the east. They don’t look threatening. But, the middle-aged man with the long beard coming from the west looks a bit menacing.

Before I can reattach my gear, I have to take everything down and begin organizing it again on the back of my bike. I suddenly feel very vulnerable. There is not a lot of real value, other than my phone, wallet, and of course my life. But, I have plenty of things that a desperate, homeless man would consider useful. A tent, a sleeping  bag, food, water, and obviously my bike. I work quickly, to reposition everything how it had been previously, then stretch the bungee cords back into place and secure them to my bike. The whole process takes no more than five minutes then I’m back on my way.

But something terrible has happened. My rear wheel won’t turn. Something is blocking my spokes and I have to jump off the bike again to investigate. It’s the rack I’m using to hold everything on the back of my bike. The rack that was originally designed to hold a child’s seat, not a bunch of touring gear. In an attempt to ensure my equipment wouldn’t fall off the bike again, I had pulled the bungee cords too tight, which squeezed the rack together and placed a bolt right in the path of my rear spokes.

Once again, I’m forced to remove everything and rethink my rig. I reposition the rack and secure my pump at the rear, ensuring not to pull the bungee cords too tightly. I’m more careful about how I position things now. Another five minutes and I’m back on the trail. The sun is nearly out of sight, so I attempt to pick up speed.

Fifteen minutes later I exit the sketchy neighborhood portion of the Fairfield trail and enter the sketchy side of the freeway portion of the trail. A young man on a BMX bikes parks on the pavement and begins whistling. Almost instantaneously, a man appears out of the bushes, and I witness a drug deal.

I keep moving at a steady pace, close to 15 mph. The edge of Fairfield is much nicer than the interior. I pass office complexes with nicely manicured landscaping. Suddenly, I realize that there is one thing I’ve forgot to pack – batteries for my bike’s headlight. I’ll be practically helpless without a headlight, once the darkness becomes too thick.

On the corner of an intersection, I stop for batteries at a gas station convenience store. I’m in and out in less than three minutes. However, a block away from the convenient store, my chain stops turning. I look down to see that my spoke is out of alignment and my tire is jamming against the frame of my bike.

While I packed the tools to ensure I was prepared for this situation, I’m frustrated at the timing. Right there on the sidewalk, I unpack my gear just enough to reach my socket wrench. To save on weight, I’ve brought along just the size sockets that I’ll need for my bike. I realign my spoke using the eyeball test, then push down on the wrench. I re-strap my bags for the third time in less than an hour, and take off once again.


I leave town just as the sun dips out of sight. In the dimming twilight I reach my next serious challenge – elevation. I never ascend more than a few thousands feet above sea level, but climbing hills on a bike can be a real chore. My fatigue is probably the instigator, but these particular hills feel like the hills from Hell. I drop to the lowest gear, put my head down, and turn the pedals.

As I climb, I realize how quickly I not only left the city but entered a no-man’s land. twenty feet to my right a is a noisy freeway. To my left a fenced property that goes on for miles, with the most intense “No Trespassing” signs I’ve ever read. They’re very threatening. I want so badly to stop and sleep under a large oak tree between the barbed wire fence and the frontage road, but I force my mind to ignore my body. Any distance that I fail to achieve today, must be made up tomorrow. I tell myself to keep pushing and I’ll sleep late in the morning.

The great thing about climbing hills, is the ride down the other side. Once I’ve reached the highest point of the range, I glide down side roads in pitch blackness. The only light coming from my fresh, new batteries. The descent is not just fun, it’s ecstasy. It’s adrenaline inducing speed. The wind rushing over my ears is deafening. The distance that took over an hour to climb takes mere minutes to descend.

A short ride through the dark and I enter another city with a name that I remember from my youth – Vallejo. When I had planned my route, Vallejo was the city that had concerned me, due to my perception that the city might be a bit rough. To my surprise and relief, I barely touch the fringes of town. I travel quickly past a stretch of car dealerships and industrial warehouses. Then the route turns down a long, dark alley between a trailer park and the freeway. A ten foot cement wall separates me from the traffic on the freeway. There are no lights in the alley, and again I feel grateful that I purchased the batteries for my headlight.

I follow the route under an overpass and in the darkness Google sends me up a freeway onramp. I realize where I am when I see a sign that reads, “Non-motorized vehicles NOT permitted”. I stop to check the map on my phone. Sure enough, this is the only way to get to where I want to be. I can see that I’m approximately ten miles from my designated campsite, but a stretch of water spans nearly the entire ten miles. It’s the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Reluctantly I comply with Google’s directions and continue onto highway 37.  It may be risky to cross the waterway, but I’m so close to sleep that I can already feel the comfort of my sleeping bag. I check the time. 9:45 pm. I think to myself, I can do ten miles in  under an hour. No doubt. And, I could do another ten miles standing on my head. Again, I put my head down and churn my legs.


Highway 37, also known as Sears Point Road, transcends a narrow dyke above the water. It’s a tight fit. The shoulder is approximately four or five-foot wide. A single lane of traffic is to my left.  To my right is a short wall, approximately three feet high and, on the other side, I can hear small waves splashing against the rocks. I’m no more than eight feet from the water. The only light comes from my headlight and the headlight of cars as they soar past me. I’m worried that a highway patrol officer will pull me over and ticket me, but I also wish they would show up and give me a ride to the end of the dyke.

It’s been nearly eight hours since I began peddling. My legs are like elastic. I force one knee to push down on the pedal and then it snaps back as the other takes a turn. It’s dark. It’s getting cold. My entire body aches. I experience shooting pains through my neck and back . My hands cramp from gripping the handlebars with such tenseness, but my nerves refuse to let them relax. I keep an eye on the time and my distance from camp. Nine miles. Eight miles. Seven miles.

I want so badly for it all to be over. I’m tired beyond exhaustion.  Every inch of my body craves my sleeping bag and I want to stop, but now it’s not a matter of putting miles behind me, there is nowhere to stop. Six miles. Five miles. Four miles.

There are times when I’m riding and become hungry. My mind fixates on the foods that I will eat. I dream of hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream. But tonight, despite my hunger, I only dream of laying down and sleeping.

Then, three miles from camp, my heart sinks.  My front tire is flat. I feel it instantly. The bike wobbles and I realize that I’m riding on the rim. I stop and quickly get off the bike. I don’t have space to safely change it on the shoulder while still on the dyke. There’s nothing I can do but start walking. On the map, I can see that I’m now just under three miles from the campsite, but I can’t accurately determine how much longer I’ll be on the dyke. I comfort myself by thinking that I can easily walk three miles in under an hour. I won’t be in bed as quickly as I would have liked, but walking is not as exhausting as riding.

It’s even more uncomfortable pushing the bike on the side of the road then it had been riding it. Fortunately, it’s only another half a mile to the mainland. As soon as I’m back on solid ground, I began reassessing my need to continue on to the planned campsite. I don’t want to keep walking if I can avoid it. Also, I’d rather not have to change my tire in complete darkness.

Eventually I make it to dry land. At the end of the dyke is a bridge, so I descend the slope next to the bridge and set my bike down behind a tall shrub, pop the headlight off of the bike and use it as a flashlight to go exploring. The sides of the cement bridge are covered in graffiti. There is a small entryway underneath it, but the darkness makes it difficult to see underneath. What could be down there? Or, who? I approach it slowly, then shine my light through the hole. Nothing but dirt and rocks.

Once I’m reassured about the safety of my location, I retrieve my bike and carry it down the short slope next to the bridge. In a small clearing between the shrubs, I pitch my one-man tent and roll out my sleeping pads and sleeping bag inside of it. Overcome with fatigue, I choose not to lock up my bike, but I do tie one of the tent anchors to it, thereby using it as a weight for my tent.

Once inside my sleeping bag, I can feel the exhaustion throughout my body; particularly in my legs, but also in my back, neck, and arms. They ache with tension. Concerned that my mind may be too active to achieve sleep quickly, I pull a book from my bag and begin reading. But, sleep is not a problem. I drift away before I finish a single page.

The sounds of the night keep me from reaching a deep state of sleep.  Large, steel electric towers and their drooping power lines buzz constantly above me; bullfrogs and crickets call out incessantly throughout the night; and cars and trucks rumble past at high speeds on the bridge above me. All I want is sleep, but morning can’t come soon enough.

Continue to Part 2

 


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Why I Started Writing Children’s Books About Nature

Intro to Magpie Children’s Books

Many of you already know that I’ve been working on and recently published my first children’s book.

I’ll introduce the book below, but first let me introduce you to my self-publishing label Magpie Children’s Books.

I created Magpie Children’s books to publish books about nature and our connection with the world around us. My intent is to provide books that both kids and parents will enjoy.

Nature is very important to me. Being in nature helps me feel connected to the world. It helps me feel refreshed and like myself. Spending time outside can help me feel grounded and reminds me what is most important.

This is an experience I want to share with others; especially kids who are growing up in an increasingly noisy and chaotic world.

 

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir

 


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Our First Title (Available Now)

The very first Magpie Children’s Book title is called I Have My Baby, My Baby Has Me.

I Have My Baby, My Baby has Me was written to teach children about the beauty of the world and their connection with nature, as well as the special bond between parents and their children.

Children will love learning about the different types of environments in their world and the connections they can find within them. They will also feel the warmth of their parents’ love each time they read this book.

Parents will also love this book. The poetic rhythm is a joy to read and the artwork is beautiful.

The loving feelings the text invokes will warm the hearts of parents and their children.

Click here to view this title on Amazon and to read the awesome reviews we’ve started receiving.


Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.



Lessons Learned Chasing Goats atop a Mountain

AKA “I Saw My Reflection in the Snow Covered Hills”

The clouds move faster up here. The air is thinner, crisper. A half-hour drive from my home and I arrived in Provo Canyon. Pine trees as green as ever, stand in stark and beautiful contrast to the aspen and scrub oak, whose leaves burn in vivid, rich oranges yellows and reds.

When I left home, I packed my camera into my hiking pack, with the intention of retrieving it once I hit the trail. Not two miles into the canyon, I was parked on the side of the road cursing my shortsightedness and digging into my bag in search of my camera.

Two wild turkeys were pecking at the ground on the shoulder opposite my parked car. They seemed aware of my presence but too intent on their task at hand to really take notice of me. I’ve seen hundreds of wild turkeys in the hills of Utah, sometimes in flocks of 40 birds, but I’m always as excited as a child when I see one. I snapped a few shots and hopped back into my car. The turkeys slowly meandered up the driveway of a million dollar forest estate.

Intentional Living Wild Turkey
Two wild turkeys at Sundance

No more than half a mile down the road, I parked on the shoulder once again. This time it was the mountain itself that had caught my eye. I was staring at the back side of Mt. Timpanogos, an 11,752-ft. peak in the Wasatch Range that looks down over Utah County to the west and the Sundance resort to the east. The limestone rocks towered over the forest below with a dominance that I was intent on capturing, despite knowing that a camera could never do it justice. The snow shimmering near the peak created an even richer contrast with the flaming aspen and the stone cliffs.

Intentional Living Mt. Timpanogos
The back side of Timpanogos. The photo definitely misses the grandeur of it.

I wasn’t the only one unable to resist the photo opp. In the two minutes I was parked on the side of the road, two other drivers stopped and began snapping their own photos of the mountain. I turned in circles taking in the range of colors and textures. The sky was clear and the sun shone down with a soft warmth. The cool air gave me that feeling I have come to crave – that feeling of being in the wilderness.

For $6 I bought a 3-day park pass at the entrance to the Aspen Grove trailhead. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that my expedition would only last for one day. I had packed the bare essentials – food, tent and sleeping gear, and camera equipment. For an overnighter, it felt like a pretty heavy load. One reason for the excessive weight was the extra sleeping pad and small blanket I had packed in hopes of avoiding an uncomfortably cold night. It was early October and there was already snow on the ground. I wanted to be prepared.

As I prepped my gear in the trailhead parking lot, I realized that I was the only one there with an overnight pack. Everyone else must have received the memo that summer was over and although the forecast called for clear skies, the temperature would drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night. I laughed it off and reassured myself that I’d be fine with my double sleeping pads.

Online, the hike up the Aspen Grove trail is described as intense and arduous. Over a distance of roughly 14 miles, you experience an elevation gain of nearly a mile. With a pack that weighed roughly 30 pounds and a serious climb ahead of me, I had two hopes. The first was that I would see a herd of mountain goats on top of the mountain. The second was that I would reach the top of the mountain.


 

In 2015 I started a company with a colleague of mine from my MBA program and a software architect whom we’d recruited to be our technical co-founder. Our spirits were high as we dreamed about the company we would build, the financial success we would have, and the lives all of us would be able to live in thanks to our genius and grit. We met with potential customers to pitch them on our idea, took their feedback, and built a pretty good product. We raised money from investors, filed a patent, signed beta customers, and even converted those beta customers into paid customers. We grew our team, won startup competitions and government grants, and raised even more money.

Everything was going great and the future looked as bright as it could be. There was only one problem – over the last few months I had grown increasingly unhappy. The company was doing fine and still is, but I was exhausted and trying to wear too many hats.

Two months before my hike up Timpanogos, I had a difficult conversation with my management team and we decided that it was time for me to step away from the company I had founded and run for the last three years. It was a very challenging experience for me. I watched the thing I’d built from the ground up handed over to someone else to run. Someone who I had to admit was going to be much better at running the company than I was.

I had serious concerns about what I was going to do for money, as launching a company had not left me in the strongest financial position. I had serious self-doubt about my ability to achieve my goals. And I had to live with the reality that all the things I’d hoped for and worked so hard to obtain were still well outside of my grasp.

Launching a company gave me purpose. Every day felt like a do-or-die situation, so I worked hard to focus on the most important things. I could feel a direct correlation between what I was doing and the potential success of the company. This experience made it difficult to think of looking for a job, as I wasn’t sure I’d find that same sense of fulfillment and purpose working for someone else. So, like someone reeling from a bad break up, I jumped right back into the dating world and decided to launch a new company.

I had known a lot of good things about launching a company, as I had done it once before. I knew the Lean Startup methodology well and went to work validating my ideas. Early signs from potential customers were good, but only a month into the project I began to see some very bad signs. While customers were interested in what I was doing, they weren’t ready to hand over their hard-earned cash in exchange for my services. I wanted so bad to go right back to being my own boss, however, reality began to settle in on me. Life wasn’t going to hand me something unless I took a lot of risk for it, and at this point in my life and career, I was beginning to feel a bit more risk-averse.


 

When I set from the Aspen Grove trailhead I was all alone. Rather than accompanying me, the few people in the parking lot were headed towards the Stewart Falls trail. I didn’t mind the solitude, in fact, I welcomed it. With my backpack situated and my camera strap around my neck, I was filled with anticipation for the adventure that lay ahead of me.

Intentional Living Mt. Timpanogos Hike
Monument at the Aspen Grove trailhead.

Throughout my ascent up the mountain, I encountered only two people. Both of whom were descending. There was a nice lady, perhaps in her early fifties, who used two walking sticks to ensure her balance. She had not summited but was hurrying down the mountain to get to work. The second person I encountered was a man, who also appeared to be in his early fifties. As we passed he noticed my sleeping pads and let out a surprised laugh. “You’re going to sleep up there!” he said in a way that could have been either a question or a statement. I replied that I was and we both went on our ways.

The solitude, rather than making me feel alone, gave me a sense of empowerment. I enjoyed the freedom to stop when I wanted and spend as much time as I liked observing. I snapped pictures of anything I thought looked interesting – views of the landscape, plants, birds, and bugs. The higher I climbed, the grander the landscape became. My line of sight extended farther with each step I took, making the views increasingly awe-inspiring. I tried to make sure I stopped periodically and turned to take it all in.

My pace was my own. There was nobody beckoning me to move faster. There was no rush to reach my final destination.

Aside from some scattered cumulus clouds, the sky was clear. The weather was warmer than I had imagined it would be, and shortly into my hike, I found myself stopping to remove my jacket. A sign warned that there would be little water available after the second set of waterfalls along the trail, so I made a mental note to stop and fill up my water bottles at the second falls.

Water can be extremely heavy – a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. The same trail sign warned that I should drink a gallon of water before reaching the summit. I hated the idea of lugging extra pounds up the mountain, but my short stint in the Boy Scouts had instilled a deep fear of heat stroke in me. I knew I had to do it.

The first waterfall came just as the terrain transitioned into a steeper grade, a much steeper grade. From that point on it felt like I was walking on a stair master, and the only way to get up the mountain was to follow the seemingly endless switchbacks. My goal was not to reach the top as quickly as possible, rather I was hoping to stop frequently and take photos along the way. The periodic photo stops provided me with ample rest time, but the climb was already beginning to feel intense. The trail was seldom visible beyond 30 or 40 feet, and as I looked up the mountain it was difficult to visualize the path I’d be taking.

Sometimes I would try to look up the mountain and guess where the trail would lead. I was hoping for the shortest route, the one that would take me directly to the top. Unfortunately, the trail wasn’t designed with the most direct route in mind. But what I began to realize as I climbed was that it was designed with the easiest route in mind. The frequent switchbacks allowed the trail to be less steep than it otherwise would have been. Had the route been cut into the mountain as a straight line, it would have been impossibly difficult.

Despite my growing understanding of why the trail was carved into the mountain as it was, I couldn’t help but complain to myself each time it turned away from the summit. It often felt as though I was walking east when I needed to be walking west, or that I was turning south when I needed to be turning north. One step back for two steps forward.

 

Intentional Living Timpanogos Hike
The trail up Timpanogos is intense and requires numerous switchbacks.

 

Just over a year and a half into our startup, we faced some serious challenges in reaching our next milestones. The development of our product was moving along and most of our beta customers were still happy with our progress. However, we were low on cash, we didn’t yet have a product that customers were willing to pay for, and we began to feel some misalignments on our team.

Taking on the risks of an early stage startup is an experience you must endure yourself, in order to fully appreciate. Undeniably, there is a level of adrenaline that makes the experience exciting. Each day brings its own feelings of fulfillment because you’re constantly trying to focus on the most important things and working to accomplish them. But there are also serious negative emotions you must battle.

There is no guarantee of success, which means that every day could be one step closer to reaching your life’s dream or one step closer to failure. Adding to your emotional burden is the sacrifices you make from a lifestyle perspective. You spend less time with friends, less time with family, and less time doing things that are fun. Eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, and exercising all become increasingly difficult goals. You also sacrifice from an income perspective.

Granted you are sacrificing current earnings for a much larger financial potential in the future. But again, it’s not guaranteed. Even if it’s calculated, risk is risk, and it can weigh on you. While all of my MBA colleagues were cashing in on signing bonuses to buy new houses and upgrade their cars, I was keeping an eye on my runway to make sure I didn’t get too close to the edge.

There came a point where we had to make really hard decisions from a financial perspective and from a team perspective. Letting members of my team know that their part in our company’s journey was now coming to an end was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. These were my friends. We had worked side by side. We had dreamed together. I had recruited them with visions of what the future could be, and now I was here telling them that they had to go find a different vision.

It didn’t feel good, but it felt right.


 

The face of the mountain, which makes up the first section of the hike, is extremely steep. However, once you’ve ascended this portion of the trail, the land levels off quite a bit and the landscape changes into a small valley. The switchbacks end abruptly. There is still a good amount of walking to be done before the hike is over but for a few miles, your legs don’t work quite as hard. As you transition from one terrain to another, there is a beautiful set of trees, which you must walk between to continue into the valley.

The twin trees stand as sentinels for the next portion of the journey. As I passed between them I felt a shift in my spirits and increased energy in my legs. Now instead of vertical hills of shrub oak and rock slides, I was surrounded by rolling hills of short grass and stone. The trail turned northwest and lead me towards Emerald Lake, a small body of water that sits directly below the summit of Mt. Timpanogos. Emerald lake is fed strictly by melting snow from above and by mid-October was completely frozen.

Intentional Living Twin Trees
Two trees stand as sentinels to the next phase of the journey.

I walked down to the lake to snap some photos and observed the frozen sheets of ice that had cracked along the shore. I gazed up at the massive cliffs that towered 1,300 feet above the small lake. From this vantage point, I could see the metal shed that sits atop the summit of Timpanogos. To reach the shed you must continue for several more miles, up another stretch of very steep terrain. A large saddle to the north of the summit is the exit point from the valley I had entered. For the time being, I was content to enjoy the view from where I stood.

Approximately 1,000 yards from the lake and just over a small hill sits an old, stone shelter. The roof is made of tin, and inside there is a stone fireplace. Wooden benches line the interior walls. The shelter was built in 1959 to accommodate hiking parties, some as large as 1,000 people, that were popular at the time. In an effort to preserve the environment on the mountain, these hiking parties were eventually disallowed.

The stone shelter on Timpanogos is similar to many of the places you encounter when hiking. Almost everyone finds it necessary to tag their name in permanent marker or on the walls or carve it into the wooden benches.

It’s a strange interplay between the natural world that people journey to experience and the man-made word they’ve temporarily escaped. I have similar thoughts when I see litter in the wilderness or pass people on the trail blaring music from their phones. The shelter itself is not beautiful, but maybe it would be more serene if it had fewer signs of human carelessness and less permanent marker smeared across its facade.

Intentional Living Mt. Timpanogos Shelter
Shelter near Emerald Lake.

I had intended from the outset to camp near the shelter, but I wanted to ensure I had some level of privacy (as if there was anybody to hide from). To the north of shelter, just beyond a small rise, I found a comfortable place to pitch my campsite. Visibility was limited from the main trail. I spent some time decompressing inside of my snug hiking tent; eating much-needed food and writing down some thoughts from my experience thus far. Outside, the wind blew with a sense of urgency, but inside my tent, the mood was tranquil and reflective.

Intentional Living View from my tent
View from my tent door.

 

By the time I had reached my campsite and pitched my tent, I had yet to see a mountain goat. Or any animal larger than a chipmunk for that matter. I was eager to get a view of the surrounding area, in hopes that I might spot a herd of goats or some other quadruped.

Directly north of my campsite was a large ridgeline that extended to a point high above me. I was later told that this point was known as Brian’s Head. I decided that the ridgeline would be easy enough to follow and the point would give me a good view of the surrounding area.

The hill was mostly tall grasses but occasionally I encountered pockets of stone, where the hill had experienced a rock slide. When I reached the ridge, I was surprised to find that the opposite side dropped straight down for several hundred feet. The ridge itself was fairly easy to navigate, and I followed it upwards towards the peak.

Mixed into the stone, snow and occasional shrub brush were clear signs that goats had passed through not long before me. Goat prints were scattered throughout the patches of snow and mud, and goat droppings could be found all along the trail. Some of the droppings were obviously old, but some seemed quite fresh.

As I climbed the ridge, I would occasionally stop to catch my breath and gaze out at my surroundings. From my lower vantage point on the ridgeline, it appeared that someone had built a snowman atop of Brian’s Head. When I reached the top, I was surprised to find that it was not a snowman at all, but a small, white statue of Buddha. How long ago had someone placed it there, I could not say, but it was a pleasant surprise.

The views from Brian’s Head were absolutely breathtaking. I could see in every direction for miles. The small valley below the Timpanogos summit wrapped around the point where I stood. I could see the trail I had followed coming from Aspen Grove, and I could also see the alternate trail that began in American Fork Canyon. The east side of Bryan’s Head was a sheer cliff of limestone that dropped for hundreds of feet below me.

The cold wind blew across my face and body, but the thrill of standing above the world warmed my soul. I scanned the landscape for miles around, both with the naked eye and my long-distance camera lens, in hopes that I’d spot a group of mountain goats. In my mind’s eye, I saw their off-white coats standing out against the pale green grass. But there were no goats to be seen.

Intentional Living Views From Brian's HeadIntentional Living Views From Brian's Head 3Intentional Living Views From Brian's Head 2Intentional Living Views From Brian's Head 1

I meandered down the ridge, disappointed that I had not spotted any goats but grateful for the chance to stand atop the hill and take in the world around me.

When you’re all alone on top of a mountain at night, the sounds outside can give you an unnerving feeling. You question whether the noises you hear are just the tarp blowing in the wind, or perhaps they’re coming from something more heinous, like a grizzly bear or a pissed off mountain goat. The only thing between you and sudden death is a thin piece of polyester. It may not be rational, but for a second, your mind can wander.

Back home my wife was praying I made it off the mountain safely, but despite being alone in the woods I never felt any real sense of worry or apprehension. The only time I was even startled was during my hike up the mountain, when I almost stepped on top of a sage grouse. It flew out from under my feet and put the fear of God in me.


 

Amazing things can happen when you force yourself to focus. With the realignment of our team, we were able to extend the runway of our company by two measly months. It did not make me feel better about our decisions, but I hoped that it would give us just enough time to survive. The pressure that came with our finite existence forced us to become very focused. We made an inventory of the things we absolutely had to do, and we prayed earnestly that it would be enough.

With just two months of cash in the bank, we shipped some much-needed product features and began closing paid deals – some of which extended our runway by another two months on their own. The dark clouds that had hung over us began to part. We began to feel the warm rays of the sun once again

There continued to be minor setbacks, as there always will be, but we felt like we could start thinking big picture again. For one thing, we needed to start looking for talented people who could help us keep the momentum rolling. But before we could bring on new people, we needed to relocate to a respectable office space. For the past eight months, we’d been crammed into a 100-square foot box in a dilapidated building.

We had a microwave, mini-fridge, and four bodies shoved into a poorly ventilated space. It was not cozy. The extremely low rent, which the landlord allowed us to pay on a month-to-month basis, was the only things keeping us from leaving.

We did find a new space, and it was a significant upgrade. We also found a smoking hot deal on office furniture through a friend of mine, who ran his own startup. We paid pennies on the dollar for the furniture and filled our entire space. With the additional space and hip, new office vibe we attracted some top engineering talent. We signed a few more customer deals and had strong interest from an industry group to form a partnership.

Given the momentum we were experiencing, it seemed like a good time to approach investors. Raising money always takes longer than you would hope, but we were able to secure investments from some very good people. We had cash in the bank, paying customers, a great team, and a lot of exciting things in the works.

There was only one problem, and it was a big one. I was unhappy.

At some point in their lives, almost everyone has a product or service idea that could eventually become a business. Very few people make the journey from their concept to paying customers, because it is extremely challenging. But getting to paying customers is not even close to the end of the journey. Once your company has paying customers, you move into the scale phase of a business. This is where I began to struggle. We had moved from a chapter in our business where I felt empowered and confident, to a chapter where I began to feel ill-prepared.

From the beginning, I had always said that founding a company was not about my ego and I would do whatever was necessary for the company. Even if that meant stepping aside. It’s just that I didn’t expect it to come so quickly. Fortunately, we did have a great team of people that I fully trusted. They were understanding of my situation and eager to continue in the pursuit of our dreams.

With a heavy heart and worn out leg, I realized that I would not be summiting with the rest of my team.


 

My night was spent eating, writing, reading, and eventually sleeping. The temperatures outside dropped below 10 degrees, but inside I was comfortable and warm. The extra pad and small blanket I had brought to wrap around my sleeping bag had paid off.

In the morning I decided to go looking for goats, rather than trying to summit the peak. I’d experienced the summit before, and while it ached a bit not to attempt it this morning, I was more eager to see a goat. Where to begin looking though, I did not know. The evening before I had been unsuccessful in locating any mountain goats from the top of Brian’s Head, so I was setting off on a blind search.

I decided to start down the trail in the direction I had come the previous day. If I was unsuccessful at finding a goat, at least I wouldn’t need to backtrack to get down the mountain.

Near the twin trees I had passed through on my climb, there is a small pond. It sits south of the trail and is tucked into a joint where the mountain suddenly changes directions from east to north. This small pond, just like its sister Emerald lake, is the result of melted snow from the cliffs above.

Intentional Living Pond
Shot of the pond from atop Brian’s Head.

The area around the pond seemed as good a place as any to go exploring, so I set off to see what I could find. Along the path to the small pond were several patches of trees and shrubs, as well as the same grassy fields that cover the valley. I decided to set my pack down next to one of these patches of trees and make my way over to the water. As I moved towards the water, I felt the undeniable feeling that I was being watched.

I’d experienced this feeling before, when I was a kid, walking alone through the foothills of Northern California. We had camped with a number of other families near a small creek. I was walking down a dirt road to meet up with some others who had gone ahead. Just before our camping trip, I’d seen a TV special on mountain lion attacks. The reporter had pointed out that attacks were increasing in frequency in the very hills in which I found myself alone.

The report also said that mountain lions like to attack from above, but will seldom attack if they lose the element of surprise. My view of the hills along the road was blocked by the large oak trees, and when the birds went quiet, I felt certain that a large cat was stalking me.

To my relief, nothing ever appeared, and I caught up with the others in due time. However, that feeling of being watched had returned to me now on the mountain. My first instinct was to look up, and about 300 yards above me on the west side of Robert’s Head I saw a mountain goat. He dropped his head and watched my every move with his beady, black eyes. I was thrilled that I had finally found a goat. It was alone, but at least it wasn’t a mountain lion.

Intentional Living Mountain Goat Long Distance
First mountain goat sighting of my hike.

Distinguishing the genders in rocky mountain goats can be challenging. Both males and females have small black horns and white beards. They also have thick, white fur that makes it difficult to see gender specific parts. I’m convinced that the goat I encountered was a male for a couple of reasons. First, the size and shape of the goat indicated to me that it was male. Second, it was all alone, which is more typical for a mature male than a female.

The distance between us was enough that even with my long-distance lens I couldn’t get a very good shot with my camera. I wanted to move closer, both to get a better photo but also to see him up-close. One thing seemed certain, if I attempted to go straight up the mountain in the direction of the goat, he would run away from me and I would never be able to keep pace with him.

There seemed to be two possible options for getting a closer look. The first option was to go up the south side of the mountain and try to scramble from one piece of cover to another. My concern was that the goat would spot me as I scrambled in the open. The second option was to go up the north side of the mountain, which seemed to be a more difficult climb but would provide coverage during the entire ascent. The north side of the mountain curved away from the goat and would allow me to stay out of his line of sight until I became even with him.

I opted for the latter route and mentally tracked a course that I thought would be feasible. Between the mountain where the goat stood and the meadow where I stood, was a small gully with a creek running through the middle. As soon as I dropped into the gully, I was out of the goat’s line of site. I began scrambling up the side of the mountain, trying my best to stay on the rock outcroppings. I figured that the rocks would dampen the sound of my feet.

The mountain had a fairly steep grade, and I stopped every 30 feet to catch my breath. After climbing for about fifteen minutes, I guessed that I had climbed to a height even with the goat. He had been grazing near a large patch of scrub oak, and my aim was to climb above the shrub patch without alerting him.

As soon as I began walking through the tall grasses, I couldn’t help but make too much noise. Throughout my scaling of the mountain, I was convinced the goat would spot me and make a run for it before I was able to get a glimpse of him. Now as I approached the shrub oak, small twigs snapped beneath my feet, and the hope of seeing the goat up close faded. I made it to the spot I’d planned and searched for the goat but saw nothing.

Who was I to think I could stalk a goat, who had already seen me and was probably an expert at avoiding people? I wasn’t upset, at least I had given it a try. Before I started up the north side of the mountain, I had told myself that the chance of getting closer would be slim.

With a sense of defeat, I turned to head back from where I’d come. When I pivoted to make my turn a grapefruit-sized rock came loose beneath my foot and I slid to my knees. The rock went rolling into the shrub oak, making a terrible racket as it crashed from branch to branch. It felt like the final insult to my injuries. I couldn’t have snuck up on my car, had I wanted to.

As I stood back up to continue my descent, I heard something running north through the bushes just below me. The goat must have been hiding in the scrub oak, and the falling rock spooked him. I quickly headed north myself and came around the corner of the bushes just before the goat. We were 30 feet apart. I stopped. He stopped. We sized each other up and I sat down to show him I was not there to do him harm.

He seemed to relax immediately. Rather than running away from me, he simply dropped his head and continued grazing. His furry coat was thick and white, and he appeared to be healthy and strong. His shoulders were powerful and gave him a noble and graceful demeanor.

I began snapping photos as quickly as possible, but a voice inside my head told me to put down the camera and enjoy the moment. The goat began walking north, and each step he took provided a stunning new photo opportunity. I fired away with my camera but forced myself to stop periodically to take in the experience.

I probably only spent ten minutes with the goat, and then decided it was best to leave him alone. Before I began my descent, I thanked him for his time and wished him luck for the coming winter. During my climb down, I turned periodically to take more photos. He was stunning and the experience left me with a sense of tranquility. I descended the mountain with energized feet and a lightened heart.


 

Anything worth doing takes a significant amount of hard work and determination. If you really want something you’re going to have to sweat for it. You may even have to shed some tears for it. I was satisfied with the outcome of my hike. I hadn’t summitted the mountain, but I was able to experience the beauty and grandeur of the earth. And I was able to observe a magnificent creature in his natural habitat.

The obvious thing to me was that this was not my last hike. How could it be? There is so much more to experience. So, in a way, I wasn’t satisfied enough by my adventure. Which is pretty much how life goes. Any goal we set for ourselves will necessarily be followed by another goal. Why? Because we need something to drive us. We need something to make life meaningful.

Had I stayed on with the company I founded until it eventually exited, it would have been a great experience. But as soon as it was over, I would be looking for my next adventure. I guess that’s why it’s so important to enjoy the journey. Just as Mt. Timpanogos threw countless switchbacks at me, before I reached my destination, life sends us down twists and turns that we don’t expect.

Sometimes we get frustrated because we feel like we’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes we can’t see where the trail will go, and just have to trust that life will work out how it is supposed to. We seldom realize that switchbacks are what make the climb possible.

I’ll always be climbing. I’ll always be putting one foot in front of the other, on the hunt for my next adventure. And I believe that life will give me my ten minutes with a mountain goat from time to time. Life will give me grand vistas and awe-inspiring limestone cliffs. I’ll embrace those moments. I’ll soak them in. But I’ll know that they aren’t the end. Because, in life, there is no final summit. Life’s just one big trail.

 


Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.

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