**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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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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