California Love

As expected, my welcome committee was lined up and waiting: The Sierra Nevada Mountains. Smirking and chuckling amongst themselves, these summits knew they would be a formidable final test. My body was begging my mind to wind this journey down, but this range is an unavoidable gateway to the Pacific, and a daunting right of passage before I am officially ‘Golden’.

Nearing the border of California via my cycling route, I was a bit confused as to where my Welcome to California sign was hiding. Turns out it’s the smallest sign ever, with California printed on one side and Nevada on the other. This is my 10th and final state… Yeah, that’s a no-go. So, after rolling my eyes and taking a fairly underwhelming photo, I decided to back track 3 miles to a main road in search of a better sign. Boom, found one!!  Yay. Time to get back on route.

Along Rt. 88 (Carson Pass Hwy) were ‘stations’ that date back to the Pony Express and I made it a point to stop at each. The first stop was Hope Valley Cafe in Markleeville, owned by Leesa, the coolest biker chick ever. We had an awesome two hour talk as I sipped coffee and devoured a delicious breakfast burrito. I got a breakfast sandwich to go and they even stuck a surprise cookie in my take out bag! Leesa runs two successful restaurant locations and our adventurous, free spirits connected quickly. The lust for adventure and sense of wonder can be contagious, and it’s been beautiful discovering others who haven’t let that fade away with childhood.

The climb from the border of California to the appropriately named Tragedy Springs campground was a sinister 5,600 foot gain in elevation. The switchbacks were sharp as scalpels and the shoulder was gone with the headwind. Then, out of nowhere, the Appalachians came knocking, delivering a friendly but fierce reminder that not only is this totally possible, but that climbing to the top is now a permanent part of my DNA.

Carson Pass, you sadistic monster…  Your 3,200 foot incline almost got me. But I KILLED that climb in one shot, never stopping or walking once. The intensity may have very well rivaled the climb out of Hayter’s Gap back in Virginia, which was 1,500 feet in only 3.8 miles. Carson Pass ONLY gets steeper and narrower and more chaotic toward the top. It took everything I had left.

During the last 2 miles, I began searching my head for perspective; surely something in my past could humble this hell. This was a legitimate physical and mental struggle. As I rounded the final curve of my final summit and spotted that elevation sign, nostalgia took the reigns. That was it – I had passed the final test… It was important to take a moment of silence at the top and reflect on my climbs since leaving the Atlantic. A lot happened on those climbs. A LOT. The mountains will humble you without prejudice, only accepting payments in pain and perseverance. Their inclines are riddled with discarded demons, and their declines laced with tears of triumph. They are brutal to the unprepared and rewarding for the determined. Cycling up a mountain is like nothing I’ve ever faced. It’s life-altering and liberating. Death and rebirth.

At the summit, Lynne and Larry came out and greeted me with handshakes and ripe cantelope and asked, “Did you just ride up THAT with all THIS??” I loved it… They work at the Carson Pass Welcome Center and explained that this is a special crossroads, connecting the Western Express cycling route with the Pacific Crest Trail.  We had a great talk before I began barreling down the mountain toward the coast.

The plan was to tackle all remaining climbs of the Sierra Nevadas that day, then end at Tragedy Springs. There was supposed to be a campground, but there was not. It was a trailhead with a couple benches, so I began scouting out a flat spot and was very tired. However, when I returned to my bicycle, I spotted a truck that had followed me back to this isolated area. As they looped to come back, I jumped on my bike and rode into the woods and snuck around back onto the main road, losing them. Might not have been anything, but could’ve been the worst thing. Never feel sorry for playing it safe. I rode a few miles up and camped near the edge of the road, hidden in plain sight.

Fresh out of water for the next day, it was slightly nervewracking that the nearest resource was 15 miles ahead. It was all downhill to Ham’s Station to ingest the most well-earned coffee and breakfast burrito of my life, lol. A large family walked in and I offered to move so they could combine some tables and sit together. They treated me to my meal as a result! Turns out, this family was on their way to transport a loved one’s remains to her final resting place. I hugged every one of them so hard – it blew mind that even in the midst of a solemn and difficult day, they would show such generosity to a complete stranger. We talked for a bit, then took a photo with the staff…

I began flying down the mountain with alarmingly loud and worn out brakes, watching for gravel, potholes, chipmunks, pinecones – the silliest little things could literally ‘end’ you on a descent. The turn I was supposed to take came and went at about 35 mph, ha. Before I knew it, I had gone downhill over 4 miles on the wrong road and the only option was to back track up an 8% grade mountain. Thankfully, I happened upon OK Corral – one of the stations along Rte. 88. I was physically done for the day. I asked to set up my camp in back of their property and they graciously made an exception for me. The owner, Eric, was truly kind and even asked if I needed anything before running to the store.

Toward the end of the night, an intellectual and witty man named Jim approached me and we dove into a deep chat. His enthusiasm for my journey pumped me up big time. He introduced me to his wonderful wife, Gina, and they invited me to stay with them. After explaining I’d already set up my camp out back, they invited me to their home for the following night! A beautiful oasis tucked away in the forests of the Sierra Nevada, complete with hot tub and continued hangouts with this awesome couple? Yes, please! We made plans to meet the next day.

While cycling toward Jim and Gina’s, I ran across Pearl’s Cafe in Pioneer, CA. This power couple grows everything they serve fresh and their culinary creativity results in me salivating simply from typing this. I mean, just look at ‘The Lifesaver’ sandwich!! After discovering that I had cycled here from the east coast, they surprised me with some homemade granola to “fuel me the rest of the way”. Boy, did it… P.S. the pinecones in California are bigger than pineapples.

After leaving Pearl’s Cafe, I cycled into a neighborhood tucked away by nature; unassuming, yet grand. I was nearing Jim and Gina’s home. This will certainly be the rejuvenation I need after sleeping on the ground the past six nights. Jim and Gina are an Italian couple, with deep roots grounded in Sicily. Jim even taught me to make homemade pasta! 😀

We talked and laughed on their patio over a delicious meal of tri-tip steak, delicate pasta, and brussel sprouts. It felt like we had known each other for years – the ongoing warmth on this journey never ceases to amaze me. Inviting a perfect stranger into your home, to me, is a very big deal. To work hard throughout your life and give to others out of what you’ve earned is deeply selfless. And opening up your personal life and privacy to someone new really is a brave and a profound gesture.

After 8 days straight of riding, I decided to take the next day off and we went on a guided tour of Black Chasm Cavern. Black Chasm was likely known about by the local MiWok tribes, though gold miners were the first credited with exploring the cave in 1854. The miners described the cave as having vaulted chambers large enough to contain the largest trees and crystals that stood out from the walls in every conceivable direction, turning and bending into many shapes. These are known as Helictites and are an unusual formation in cave systems throughout the world.

These cave walls had to have come straight off a sci-fi set… Geology has become increasingly fascinating while traveling east to west. It all began back in Virginia during my geological dig for unakite with the Gem Institute. From the mountains, plate tectonics and fault lines, down to the smallest Apache Teardrop of Obsidian. It’s remarkable, our planet. There is even a lake at the bottom of this cave and the acidic water is actually potable. H2OMG.

We then went to Indian Grinding Rock Park in Pine Grove, CA. All of the holes shown in the image below were formed over time by rocks and the vigorous grinding of acorns into flour for a variety of essential uses. The way of life the Native Americans mastered has always fascinated me to the core. Brilliant, inventive, resourceful masters of minimalism. There is so much still to learn from their lifestyle. In fact, there is something to learn from virtually everyone. Start surrounding yourself with people who are different than you, then open your ears. Your mind will follow. It’s pretty cool. We’re actually not all that different.

The next day, we went to an original ‘Gold Town’ called Sutter Creek, CA and enjoyed an olive oil and wine tasting at Bella Grace Winery. The owner, Charlie, was an insightful, informative, and knowledgeable man. He and his wife own the winery, which has been in the family for many generations and was named after each of their Grandparents, Bella and Grace.

That night, I met with Dee – the owner of The Mountain Grill at Mace Meadows. Also a long distance touring cyclist, we had some major stories to swap. We loved reminiscing together through familiar territory, and although our routes varied, the sentiments were synonymous.

Gina posted about A Vicious Cycle on a local online group and invited Veterans in the area to come out and meet me. Veterans from every single war showed up and we dove into each other. Every branch and conflict was represented: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, OIF, OEF. The unspoken Veteran bond transcends generation, war, MOS, and branch. Our hangout very quickly blossomed into a patriotic performance as we all linked arms and broke out into spontaneous song. Not a single dry eye survived in the restaurant, except ours. View Video

We had some unforgettable laughs, conversations, tears, and major mischief. Particularly this decorated WWII Veteran, who was more lively and witty than the restaurant’s total. Even at 93 years old, and after a very unexpected peck on the cheek, the verdict is in: He’s still ‘got it’. Haha. One encounter that will stay with me for life was my heart to heart with RJ “Mighty Mouse”, an OIF / OEF Marine Recon Sniper who is about my age. Our generation of Combat Veteran is a rare breed, and when it comes to certain things, we really are all that we have sometimes. A long, tough talk was followed by one of those notoriously rough military hugs. We’re now family.

On my way to Sacramento, I stopped into the VFW Post 6604 which is located in the Folsom Veteran’s Hall. The Hall was extraordinary inside with a beautiful lineup of branch flags in the back lawn. Julie, the bartender, treated me to a glass of wine and the commeraderie commenced! After goodbye hugs, they gifted me a nice sized flag to attach to my bike.

From Folsom, CA clear past Sacramento, there is an elaborate network of trails and over 35 miles of my route is included! I barely had to touch the road or listen to traffic, and it was nicely paved and well manicured with lush landscaping. I took a little time off route to explore Sacramento.

While on the trails, I met a fellow cyclist named Rob and we partnered up for a bit. He is over 70 years old and cycles around miles nearly every day. It was wonderful learning about the trails and surrounding area from him as we rolled along. We had an unforgettably intense conversation, to include discussions on suicide and friends lost to it… We even passed by a beautiful memorial bench with his friend’s name engraved across the back. It was a delightfully deep ride together. I thoroughly believe adventures like this are best experienced and enjoyed while solo. The availability required for these incredible daily unforeseen interactions just doesn’t happen otherwise. Also, rattlesnake!!

After a while, when people would ask “Where ya headed?”, I would just reply “West”. Next, they would say, “Well how far are ya goin?”, to which I’d reply, “Til I run outta road.” 🙂 Well, guess what? It finally happened… My route includes a ferry ride from Vallejo down to the Port of San Francisco’s Ferry Building via the San Francisco Bay Ferry. Ticket is bought and bike is loaded. One ferry ride and a 5.5 mile bike ride, and I will come face to face with my finish line: The illustrious Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ve been asked countless times, “What about your journey scares you the most?” My hesitant but honest reply has always been, “Finishing.” I have fully embraced this journey and allowed it to help me heal. In spite of my physical limitations, despite negative influences, I actively bent every bar in the prison I had created for myself and even broke a few. This journey was meant to disrupt my darkness and offer me an opportunity to lock myself back into life. And I am TAKING IT. I am no longer afraid of finishing, and the next Chapter has been written. Alongside the completion of my journey, I have been building a program that I have named Waypoint Vets.Waypoint Vets will afford small group nature-based outings and social activities, exclusive to Veterans. After discovering first hand how much healing happens while detaching in nature, I want to facilitate these opportunities for other Vets to experience this together at no cost to them. I am adamant about making a real difference for my fellow Veterans, and I believe those best equipped to help us ARE us. We have an obligation to our Fallen and each other to pull ourselves from the ashes and keep fighting the war inside.

If you would like to contribute to the building and launching of my Veteran Program, Waypoint Vets, please click here.

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //