Cycle Across America — Part 93

Excerpts from the journal of my 1996 solo cycle across the US. Read the entire story from the introduction in Boston or see links to all segments of the trip.

Out loud I screamed at myself — “Look ! Look ! Look!”. I was trying to tell myself to look at that blueness cradled between 2 mountains as I was descending from Santa Ysabel. Going 30 mph the view only lasted a minute and then no more as I was left to wonder if I’d seen the coast which was 40 miles away.

What would it look like? The image I’d pictured in my mind so often. What shade of blue, green or turquoise might it be? Could it be grey or brown (the Liffey influence)? A sandy beach or rocks? Scenic or unremarkable? Residential or recreational? Would the waves be breaking? What shade of blue would it be like?

I had long expected the possibility, indeed likelihood, of an anti-climax among all the endings of the trip — but I hadn’t envisaged what actually happened. That blueness I’d seen cradled between mountains was not the ocean — it was clouds I later descended into.

First thing in the morning I went up camp to the family lodge where there was a phone. To ring Ireland there was just 1 minute left on the prepaid card but to ring the UK there was 2 minutes. I had to go through a receptionist and lose several seconds. So we had about 100 seconds which didn’t really allow for a conversation of substance but we both got to hear each other’s voices so it served its purpose.

Laughing I went down to the store where the RV park owner was outside. Thanked him and gave him the key. He asked for a postcard from Ireland and wished me luck saying he meant that “my friend”. From San Diego, he warned me to be careful as “the drivers in California are all very dangerous although none of them are native Californians”. He was a good driver, he said, because he’d got his licence in Britain where he studied for a couple of years in the early ’70s.

Every road in Shelter Valley was a trail of some description, or acknowledged as an Indian Trail. Before I reached State Highway 78 I passed a road called “Saddle Sore Road”. It was worth a photo for what was my last day but I had only 2 shots left in the camera and didn’t want to risk having none should I succeed and make it to the coast.

Scissors Crossing is not quite a cross-roads hence its name. It’s flat and there’s water nearby so it’s been populated for a long time. The Cigarette Hills was a straight and surprisingly steep climb up and then down again. Granite Mountain dominated all views of the morning. It’s 5′633 feet high.

Heading down towards Banner was heading into a green wall of mountains. I could see no way through at all and was getting more and more apprehensive about the climb up. At least there was very little traffic. The RV park owner went past, beeped and waved, on his way to San Diego. They have a house on the front at Pacific Beach.

Everything had turned green and luscious as I left the desert behind me. The Banner Grade is the twisting road up to Julian from Banner that follows the Banner Canyon. In Banner itself there was very little there — just the usual store, gas station and a few houses — all tucked away in the trees.

I enjoyed the climb. It wasn’t really steep and I just accepted it would take a long time so rather than fight my way up it I used my bottom chain-wheel for one of the very few times in the trip and slowly went up at 5mph.

The trees were mixed, coniferous and mostly deciduous, and it was clear I had missed the Fall. These trees had long since changed colour and I was very grateful for what few leaves did fall down and smack me on the face.

Ahead of me I could never see more than the next bend or up across a gap to several bends ahead. Often I had a gap through which I could look back down on hills I was now higher than — one of which had a large “B” for Banner on it.

Exotic birds continually swung across the road in front of me in large gentle arcs with just a single flap for lift off. Most of them were a brilliant blue but some were black and white with a red head and other various shades of grey and brown. All seemed like jays or mini-magpies so perhaps they were in the crow family. With the sunlight trying to peep through any hole in the trees it reminded me so much of the walk around Victoria’s Peak in Hong Kong.

From Whispering Pines on it evens out a bit and you realise you’re at the top of a mountain. All the trees are now evergreen.

Stocked up on stamps as I reached Julian and then cycled up and down its main and only street. A pretty mountain town, most buildings were wooden and painted. Many had historical markers saying an Italian immigrant had founded a store there 80 years ago or something else I really didn’t find all that interesting.

A 12-inch sub would be my last meal on the road and I listened to a radio station from San Diego as I looked out down upon the street and the few tourists who paused there. The town had a lot of places offering Bed and Breakfast so I would’ve enjoyed it I’m sure if I’d made it as intended when I gave up in the desert but it would’ve been much more expensive and I would’ve missed the thrill of the coyotes.

A building which housed a bicycle store offered lodging. I would talk to the people there and see if it really was too intimidating to carry on through Ramona. It was closed. Oh how bad could it be? Even if it’s difficult it is the last climb. Just do it. This was not going to be a leisurely finish to the trip if I managed it at all.

Again I found myself doing mathematics constantly to see if I would beat the sunset. Most other days I had the option of stopping short of my intended destination but I was not going to be too keen on stopping 10 or even 20 miles away from the coast. I’m not sure why — it would’ve made life so much easier but I wanted a fitting finish to the trip and not a token roll to the coast.

Well worth a photograph, with no place around to purchase a new APS film, I had to ignore Julian and keep those 2 photos for the hopeful Pacific Beach finish. Although pleasantly warm in the sunshine, once I started moving with any speed I needed my jacket to break the cool wind.

Unlike the climb up to Julian the immediate descent had a shoulder. Twisting down roads that carried much more traffic than before, I was very grateful for my 2-foot of shoulder as I hurtled down at 30 mph. In the first mile or two I dropped over 1,000 feet.

I became concerned that if I completed the drop to sea-level a considerable distance from the coast then I was in danger of allowing myself room to climb up another mountain, and I particularly remembered the RV park owner’s warning of the grade up after Ramona. Then I remembered everything else he said and I carried on confidently.

Twice after Julian the road briefly entered the Cleveland National Forest. As with so many parks here it is split and there is another section, a smaller one, to the north of Highway 78.

After Santa Ysabel (which gives its name to an Indian reservation a few miles to the north) and on to Ramona, the land was relatively flat although you know it’s high and surrounded by peaks e.g. Witch Creek Mountain 3′279, Whale Mountain, Corral Mountain, Mount Gower, Spangler Peak, Mount Stephen 3′487.

Fields of green grass gave way to pine trees nearer the peaks. Lots of horses and some sheep. I had to accept my time in the desert had finished earlier at Scissors Crossing. That greatly reduced my chances of photographing a tarantula close up, as I had told my Philadelphia host I would do on the phone the night before.

Houses, farms, ranches, were all very pretty as was the surrounding landscape but I was still holding on to those last 2 frames on the film. In fact I was missing out on so many photographs I resolved to stop briefly in Ramona and find a film.

Ramona has a fine Main Street, kept alive I suspect by the fact that the main highway goes straight through. I get the feeling that when highways bypass downtowns, rather than giving them room to breathe they suffocate from lack of traffic as businesses leave the downtown and follow the highway out to a brand new strip which is perfectly designed for cars.

In the first shop I had to explain what an APS film was and was told they had nothing that advanced. K-Mart. They had one but I had to wait behind old ladies fishing through minute coupons and small change. I now had a film okay but had used up so much time I’d no time to use it.

The road was now a 4-lane highway and had a healthy shoulder. The traffic was that heavy I needed it and was concerned it might stop. If it did then this road was far too dangerous. I don’t know where all those drivers in California were from but I did know they were driving frighteningly fast.

Some miles up the road I could see two steep peaks. One the smaller and nearer Dos Picos, the other the more intimidating Woodson Mountain. The road went completely around the first and then slightly up for two miles as it passed Woodson. I was right to not listen to the RV park owner.

At this point I entered the clouds so the road was dangerously hazy. Woodson itself reminded me of Howth although it’s much steeper and rockier. There seemed to be so much going on I wasn’t thinking of the end of the trip but instead just the end of the day.

Everything seemed to be on course. If the roads I’d chosen were safe then Pacific Beach should not be a problem before sunset although it would be dusk as I made my way from there to a motel. Or maybe my contact would come all the way down from Oceanside. The motel was the preferred option as I was thinking I wanted to keep this night to myself.

At the Vallecitos Valley I turned off the big road and took Poway Road which is County Road S-4. As I feared, I lost the shoulder. There was a steep descent with a nice drop down onto a lot of rocks. This was not a road for diving off the bike from.

At a more dangerous stretch a shoulder did materialise and then for some reason concrete separators walled it off. This road without shoulder was simply too dangerous. It’s the way they were driving. Very fast, very close to one another and swinging in and out. With some effort I lifted the bike and all its bags over this temporary concrete barrier and cycled safely over some debris for a few hundred metres until the separators disappeared again.

Poway was clean and had motels so the option was still there to play it safe, stop now and have a short 20 miles to the coast the next day. But now as the traffic got even heavier there was an obvious network of bicycle lanes. This was good. If it kept up it would see me safely to the finish.

Community Road, Metate Lane, Pomerado Road, the roads I had memorised as part of my route. Although mostly downhill it wasn’t all so. There were some steep climbs in this very hilly residential area that presented me with no difficulties solely because each time I persuaded my legs that it was the last one.

The sky was now completely clouded over and very very grey. I hadn’t seen this since my last day in Texas. For the first time since the first few weeks of the trip I was absolutely ringing wet with sweat. In Poway stopped at lights I had taken off my jacket but now I had to put it back on again as it was so cold.

After the expensive housing of Scripps Ranch I reached I-15 and went under it onto the Miramar Road. This is where things started to go wrong.

I had plenty of time to cover the mileage before sunset but the sun seemed to have gone down unofficially one and a half hours early. Even on a bike lane it was dangerous. 2 feet of your own classified space is not much protection on a 6-lane full highway at dusk. At times there was no shoulder and I used the footpath.

Trying to cross roads safely was problematic and time consuming. I tried to tell myself I shouldn’t be thinking of the end of the overall trip. This was just another day with its own issues which required addressing. Safety first, lodging second, and that ocean last.

Dark and dangerous I didn’t want to be here. I was fretting with the fear. Five miles from the coast — was it ridiculous to stop so near? Or even more ridiculous and pathetic to get killed so close to the end? Pacific Beach was out. The ending there I’d visualised was a sunny one anyway. Stayed on the bike paths to the University — UCSD — and from there I should be able to safely make it to the coast in the Torrey Pines State Park right beside it.

Roads ran out in the middle of the campus. With little traffic and lots of students on bikes I felt safe but what to do? Almost dark I chose a road, Gilman Drive. I noticed there were no more bikes in the cycle lane after a mile and then I saw the road dead-end on I-5. I had gone south. East was preferable, north or south-east would have been fine but here I was stuck.

I crossed the road to ask a jogger directions but couldn’t catch her as it involved going against the traffic. I lifted the bike off the bike lane and thought for a minute or two. It was over. It was now pitch dark and to try and reach the ocean I still hadn’t seen was just too dangerous. Back to the University and ring my contact.

At this entrance there’s an Information Booth. Sitting down examining my map a man put his head out the window and asked was I lost. Now knowing where I was, I replied:

-Not exactly.

I knew where I was and there was somebody in Oceanside who might be able to come and get me. I didn’t believe that. Camp Pendleton was 30 miles away and I didn’t want to drag my contact this far. Anyway tomorrow I’d have to come back to pick up the line. He explained he was asking me because they get all sorts there. Only recently two Canadians who had been cycling for 7 weeks ended up lost at this point. So then I confessed.

-Well I’m Irish and I’ve been cycling for the last 3 and a half months, so I’m kinda lost too because I didn’t want to be here.

It was 5 o’clock and I stayed with him until 7.30pm intermittently ringing my contact as I said I would on this Tuesday but getting no answer (luckily for if he had an answering machine it would’ve swallowed 60 cents every time). The man gave me a banana and 4 bagels. He asked me where I go after this on my travels.

-Nowhere, I said. This is it. Boston to San Diego. It’s over. It was meant to be at the ocean and being stuck here a mile away from it, still not having seen it, was funny.

I laughed a lot and told him I was taking it very well. He cycled himself and understood me not wanting to put my lights on and cycle in the dark. With the drivers in this town he didn’t do it either.

The nearest motel was a Super-8 two miles away. In between all his visitors buying parking permits etc. we talked the whole time. I was on a high. I apologised but said that New Mexico was my favourite state. He didn’t mind — he was from there.

This kept happening to me. When I first met my Fairfield, Connecticut hosts when they picked me up in the car I said how much I was looking forward to Oklahoma. not knowing she was from Oklahoma. In Arkansas when I told the young couple, who took me to the casino, how much I’d liked Alabama — more instantly than any other state — she told me she was from Alabama. In Tempe, Arizona I spoke of how much I had loved Nebraska and the corn and the feel of Omaha not knowing the woman hosting me was from there.

I spoke of my excitement still present from my experiences in the Anza-Borrego desert, and he told me his wife and he go to a lovely spot in there called Agua Caliente Springs. She had an accident some years back and the waters there do her good.

I know it, I told him. Only the day before did I drink a cup of tea there looking down on the airstrip and watching a Kangaroo Rat in the bottom of an Agave plant. Shaking my hand, well squeezing it to be honest, he told me his name would be one I would never forget, of all the people I met on my travels. I was thinking I’d never forget his handshake if he didn’t let go soon.

-Try me, I said.

Darwin then told me of a motel in La Jolla. It’s where they send anybody who comes looking for a motel from out of state but it’s considerably dearer than the 40 dollars I suggested I was looking for. I kept looking at the map. It was on the coast. If I went there I had truly finished and would get to see the ocean.

-Oh what the hell, I said, it’s my last night — I can treat myself and cycle up to Oceanside in the morning.

It was located at a cove I’d been looking at for a few days now on the map. About 5 miles north of Pacific Beach so I could even go there in the morning if I wanted to. The problem was getting to the motel. It was 5 miles away and I was scared of the dark. Not since the hit & run had I cycled in dark (not counting the few little short dashes for evening meals without all the bags).

Darwin told me the number 34 bus goes there and I could stick my bike on the rack at the front. $1.50. I used an excuse about the bike with the bags being heavy to lift and unsafe then but in truth I really wanted to cycle. To finish the trip at night-time had never occurred to me but there it was, a chance to end it now and not tomorrow in some cock-eyed ceremony.

I looked at the detailed maps he gave me and grilled him on every road. After half an hour I decided I could do it. Through the University, on a bike lane on a quiet road, through some residential side roads, on a busy road with a bike lane for 300 metres and then the quiet coast boulevard to the motel. That’s the plan.

With traffic long gone I said good-bye and thanks to Darwin and wondered if I ever would forget his name. He said La Jolla was a lovely area, a favourite of his with lots of restaurants. He was white and his wife Mexican. He told me of his favourite Mexican Restaurant there but there was also Indian, Chinese and everything else there. As I set off I was really looking forward to it.

Up a slope through the University and then downhill as I crossed North Torrey Pines Road. La Jolla Shores Drive. Leave the road and into the houses. Wow! These were obviously very expensive, even in the dark. I read that property prices here range from 225,000 dollars to 14 million.

And there it was. None of the colours I had ever envisaged it would be, but there it was. The ocean.

This lump of blackness reflecting lights from above the cove.

Freewheeling down I had goose pimples all over. That’s it I told myself. That is the Pacific Ocean. Even if a car hits me now I’ve still made it. Look, there it is. I got giddy.

Back on the busy road I carefully watched my mirror and the approaching lights but really just prayed I couldn’t get knocked down a second time. Prospect, and then my turn onto the coast. The waves were crashing off the rocks on one side of the road and I was looking for my motel on the other. I walked in talking, not shy about the previous three and a half months and they gave me discount after discount.

The suite was huge. In summer this suite is $165 dollars and others are $200. But now off season and for lots of reasons including the “coast-to-coast discount”, they gave it to me for $41.

I danced in the room. I went down my hall into my bedroom. My suite was so big I never went into it again. In the main quarters there were full length mirrors all over the place. I smiled and waved and laughed at myself a lot. Dumped my reflective vest and jacket in one of the huge closets. Then I re-arranged the furniture to facilitate a self-timer of me and Long Grass out on the balcony.

Self-timer on the motel balcony at La Jolla, California, the night I reached the West Coast

I stayed on the balcony for a while and I continued to jump around the room stopping only to laugh at myself in the mirror. Finally very late I showered. So late — it was after 11 — had I really danced around laughing for 3 hours? I didn’t have time for a much needed shave if I was going to eat. Was about to take my postcards to the pub/restaurant with me when I decided no, this night is for me alone. No postcards — they’ll keep.

“The Spot” is a supposed Chicago Tavern and serves food until 1.00 a.m. I’m not sure why I chose Guinness over an American beer but I did it very quick. On my own in the booth I raised my pint and nodded and said “Cheers” out loud to an imaginary person opposite me in the booth. Then I laughed.

To have my appetite back was great. I devoured 8 potato skins with my hands before showing Americans how to eat a barbecued chicken whilst holding the knife and fork correctly. Then I went American and ordered a pint of Sierra Nevada and pulled on the plastic see-thru gloves to finish that chicken. Dublin to California. Europe to America. Did I cycle all the way? No, I skipped the water bit.

At 1.30am in the morning I stood across the road from the motel and just watched the black ocean change into a lighter shade of grey as the waves hit the rocks as I inhaled the ocean air.

I woke up on whatever chair I had been trying out when I fell asleep. Drunk on two pints of beer, the beauty of arguably one of the most scenic days (though this was not a time for arguments, even with myself), and on the ocean air— I slept very easily and had no reason to get up early. But awake at 7am I rang home to an engaged tone so rang my friend at work in Moscow instead.

We talked for 20 minutes and as happy as I was I was unprepared for the congratulations. All I had done was have a very successful holiday — why congratulate me on having a great time?

And so for the last time I put on my cycling clothes. Yellow socks now with holes — I have 3 pairs. A t-shirt in need of a wash with the power to return it to its original white. The shorts with the rip in the left cheek from the hit & run, the seam around the chamois half undone on the outside, and both cheeks of the chamois on the inside seriously worn and ripped away. The shoes with no bottom grip any longer and only on their 2nd pair of laces ever, having started this trip with the laces that finished the European trip in Istanbul 4 years earlier. The gloves which are the 3rd pair on this trip and responsible for the tanned circle off-centre on the back of my hands and the tanned ends of fingers. The helmet chosen red instead of white or blue for visibility, that replaced the broken helmet from the hit & run and has not left my head since, whenever I cycled, being therefore responsible for the white un-tanned strap marks down both cheeks and around my neck.

And of course the Dublin jersey — worn every single day on the bike, washed a lot but some sweat stains will never come out. The jersey I had long imagined might provoke a stranger on a desert road to roar out a passing car window “Up the Dubs” (it never happened). I felt good every morning I pulled that jersey on. I was after all simply a Dub on me holidays, cycling from A to B. It just so happens those two letters of the alphabet are over 5,000 miles apart.

Self-timer on motel balcony at La Jolla, California with the Pacific Ocean in the background

Now in the morning the ocean from my room is blue. So blue. With Country Music Television on the box I went back on the balcony with the bike for a daylight reprise of the night’s self-timer. And then it was time to leave. For the last time to roll Long Grass out of a motel room. As I picked up the remote to turn the TV off Garth Brooks was singing “a dream is like a river”.

-And how are you this morning sir? asked a receptionist not from the night before.
-I’m absolutely fantastic, thank you.
-Very good sir.

Across the road at 11 in the morning — I had dawdled deliberately all morning since the call to Moscow, watching the ocean , sketching palm trees, and listening to CMT from my balcony — the coast walk was full of visitors. I drank in the ocean telling myself over and over again that it was a different ocean to the one up by Boston. There was a grin that wouldn’t come off my face and I didn’t really want it to but I felt sure people were looking at me funny.

The rest is like a post-script.

On the same bike and wearing the same clothes I did another 30 miles but it was unlike all the other days — even the short ones. I think perhaps because there was no risk.

I had rang my contact and I could pretty much stop anywhere if need be and he’d come and get me in his pick-up. But more than that it was over and I knew it. All the way up I had the ocean on my left hand side to remind me of that. And yet it was good to cycle again. It gave me a chance to take in the ocean properly and not leave it reduced to a single point on a map. What would I have thought of the desert, the plains, the swamps, the mountains, the forests, the cities, if I had cycled up to their edge and then no more?

And San Diegans are friendly. They spoke to me at traffic lights, at restaurants, wherever I was stopped, and indeed when I was moving — from their bicycles. This was the day I saw hundreds and hundreds of cyclists — students, tourists, people who race out training, and lots and lots of people just out keeping fit I think. Of course I never answered their questions. How could I with that grin on my face? No, instead I always said,

-Well actually yesterday I completed a coast to coast cycle from Boston so today I’m just out for a little amble.

From Oceanside pier I rang home in Ireland with the sounds of the ocean in the background. As my contact arrived to pick me up the sun was setting making silhouettes of the pier and the palm trees. The phone did not cut me off after 7 minutes as it promised to, so I had to reluctantly say good-bye and hang up. I knew that in hanging up the phone I was hanging up the trip, for the next action was to lift the bicycle from where it stood into the back of my contact’s vehicle and no more would it be cycled.

The odometer from Boston to Oceanside would stand at 5,375 miles (8,650 km)

I was pleased I had stopped on the way up the coast. Another ceremony. More symbolism. Alone on a beach at Oceanside in the cool late afternoon I removed my socks and shoes. Then I slowly walked into the cold Pacific Ocean and let the waves wash over my legs. The whole time I was thinking of when I stood in the same shirt and shorts in the warm Atlantic Ocean straight after being released from the hospital after being knocked down. At that moment the end of the trip was tangible. I really had done it.

Self-timer standing in the Pacific Ocean at Oceanside, California on Nov 20, 1996

This is the last post from my journal of the 1996 coast-to-coast solo cycle across America. See the index with links to all parts to easily read anywhere of the 24 States I cycled through. Or just start from the beginning of the trip in Boston.




Artist from Ireland. Paints pictures. FB: LiamDalyArt. Cycles long distances; has a beard, an XtraCycle, a Brompton. A Dub. Drinks tea. Loved a dog.

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Eolaí the Artist

Eolaí the Artist

Artist from Ireland. Paints pictures. FB: LiamDalyArt. Cycles long distances; has a beard, an XtraCycle, a Brompton. A Dub. Drinks tea. Loved a dog.

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