by Steven K. Roberts
January 12, 1987
Rolling! Suddenly the deeply familiar texture of life on the road mingles again with the chronic unfamiliarity of daily movement. In the week since leaving Eureka, our range of experiences has been so diverse that only the most abstract of themes could begin to capture the overall flavor. So… rather than maunder on philosophically about lifestyle sampling, constant change, strangeness and all that, I offer a collection of daily snapshots:
Day 1: Ferndale
It was with deep relief that we pedaled away from Eureka, though the sadness of leaving our friends was tangible. Real tears, last-minute gifts, hugs, a cannon salute, and then the familiar streets that suddenly, almost shockingly, became passing scenery. This slow cycle — stopping, meeting, staying, leaving — is the bass note in the music of my journey. I work in tenor, play in alto, pedal in soprano…
The first stop was Ferndale, home of Hobart Brown: metal sculptor, museum curator, kinetic race organizer, local celebrity, ex-Okie (from the town of Hobart, naturally), accidental guru, astrologer, and self-styled “happiest man on earth.” Hobart is an epicenter of successful eccentricity, with legions of groupies, admirers, imitators, and sycophants — as well as a few envious enemies who accuse him of everything from scandalous behavior to devil worship. And his house, well…
Imagine a cavernous Victorian mansion, occupied for 20 years by a man obsessed with playful sculpture. There are secret rooms, trapdoors, tunnels, symbolic towering creations of copper and brass, suspended fanciful flying machines, crazy memorabilia of a fun-filled life, posters on the ceilings, private jokes, Things That Move By Themselves, spooky little dark places, tangled excesses of twisted plumbing, one cat, and an ancient freezer-burnt pork chop nailed to the wall. Through it all moves Hobart, fiftyish, arthritic, soft-spoken and twinkling — always happy, philosophical without being heavy-handed about it, returning every few hours to the welding torch and his latest diorama of castles and magic.
Not a bad place to display the bikes and spend a weekend writing about the future of process control in the chemical industry — and yes, Ferndale has been added to that bulging database of places to which I must someday return.
Day 2: Ferndale to Redcrest
Into the forest — the famed Avenue of the Giants. The theme in this area is the 43,000 acres of redwood groves: tourists flock to see ‘em; astute businessmen, knowing that the naked grandeur of megatrees isn’t enough for gawkers, turn them into Attractions. There’s a redwood you can drive through, one 2,000-year-old monster carved into a 42-ton house, a hollow one known as the chimney tree, yet another dubbed “immortal.” Next to each has sprouted a colony of gift shops and accommodations — you can buy live burls, polished slabs, trinkets, seeds, postcards, clocks, gifts, furniture, sculpture, little placards of folk wisdom, and all the usual touristy junk. Billboards advertise the endless human embellishments to what’s already perfect… but then, that’s the nature of the trade. At least THESE trees are protected from the logging companies, which would happily hack ‘em down in an instant if given the chance.
Nightfall found us in Redcrest — at a motel I shall always remember for its unwatchable television (between the immovable TV set and the immovable bed stands a solid wood post, wide enough to fully block the screen). But the grounds were stalked by peacocks, silky chickens, and guinea hens; when we pedaled off in the morning a neighbor hailed us to see his collection of Japanese Koi — like a marriage of carp and goldfish — in his homemade fountains. Ya just never know.
Day 3: Redcrest to Miranda
But that could hardly have prepared us for Miranda, land of the thousand pizzas. After a short 20-mile ride of continuing redwood drama spiced with conversation on the Garberville repeater, we stopped at the Redwood Palace. Finding places to stay has become strategically critical: the towns are far apart, the days are short, and it’s too cold for camping with our wimpy lightweight sleeping bags. We sat in the parking lot and discussed our few Garberville-area contacts (the closest 10 miles off the highway on a hilly dirt road), when a lady burst grinning from the doorway with a shout and a camera. “I don’t believe it! You’re really here!” Turns out she had spoken with Hobart…
In short order we were installed in the guest house, plied with beer, and presented to all who passed by as the event of the season. The bikes were on display until closing time, and we found ourselves surrounded by the energetic personalities of Harry and Carol (the proprietors) and their countless friends. The local oil baron from the gas station, the science teacher, the traveling sales rep, the high-school kids, the truckers, the marijuana growers, the trickle of off-season tourists… all evening the swirl of south Humboldt life drew us into its voracious vortex, hungry for adventure and entertainment and a teasing hint of that wild wonderful world outside these cold winter redwoods…
Ah yes, the pizzas: as the lucky recipient of their 1,000th pizza, we had dinner on the house (though we did have to go back to the kitchen and make it ourselves). Sometimes treats have nothing to do with our bikes at all…
Day 4: Miranda to Leggett
By now you’re getting the idea that daily movement becomes a blur of changing scenes, highlighted here and there by human delights. This day was one of exhausted pulls up long grades, the blasting passage of trucks and campers, ongoing ham radio chitchat, and the slowly nearing town of Leggett — the place where we would diverge at last from busy Highway 101 to take on the highest hill of the west coast bike route. Softened by the long Eureka layover, the ride was taking its toll; we staggered into Leggett and rented a cabin, cuddled under the covers, nibbled cheese and crackers, and stared at the fuzzy black and white images from the only available TV station… Eureka. Odd effect: news from there had the flavor of news from home. We nudged each other over changes in the transit system, fires — even the tide reports.
Day 5: Leggett to Fort Bragg
Oooh. This was it. We stepped out into a 36-degree morning, fixed my 13th flat tire in 11 thousand-odd miles, and began with a short freezing descent. Frost on the foliage. Violent shivers. The occasional incredulous driver. And a sense that the ocean was yet far, far away.
That notion was quickly reinforced, though not in a painful way. The climb was manageable: 3 mph for a couple of granny-gear hours, sweat-soaked shirts clinging to skin in the brisk morning air, light courteous traffic, puffs of breath hanging still in the mist. As the altimeter slowly climbed, the clouds thinned… and thinned… and then dropped away completely to reveal a blazing vista of sunlit cloud-tops puddled in the folds of low mountains like snow in the frozen tracks of cosmic bulldozers.
We stopped at the summit to take it all in, walking from one side to the other, west to east, east to west, pointing out the sights like a couple of interplanetary explorers perched on the first available promontory of a new world. Success.
And then down, the other reward, the thing that differentiates hills from headwinds. Dozens of switchbacks, tight and smooth, the sensation of skiing tangible in the rhythmic dance of a fast descent. On a recumbent, there’s a feeling of wild openness, the exact opposite of the tuck position of a 10-speed; when the speed climbs, the whole world, not just the road surface, blurs into an impressionistic confusion of streaked light and color. By the time the sparkling surf welcomed us back to the Pacific, the dreaded Leggett Hill had become a sweet memory of concentrated beauty, physical triumph, and pure unalloyed bliss.
A mile or so down the road, I stopped to offer assistance to an old maroon Washington state Eldorado driven by a tubby Shriner and his nervous wife. The right rear wheel was smoking heavily, reeking of charred brake composites. “Want me to call for help?” I asked, gesturing at my boom microphone. The man hesitated; the woman urged him to say yes; the man mushed crackers and washed them down with beer; the woman fretted about these awful steep hills. Finally he decided against calling AAA, tossed the beer can onto one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, and turned to go. “Expecting somebody to pick that up for you?” I asked, but there was no response. He drove away in a stink of automotive overkill. A mile later, I added an entry to my huge file of Things I Should Have Said: “Here. I have room on my bicycle; let me dispose of that properly.”
Now the narrow winding road began taking its toll. Traffic picked up as we wound our way through the steep, abrupt turns, more than once forcing a driveway detour to let a truck pass. Pedaling grimly, we hit the day’s 48-mile mark in the noisy mill town of Fort Bragg. It took but a moment: while I was a mile away seeking a “big gun” ham operator I’d heard about, Maggie fell into conversation with a quiet couple in front of the library… who promptly invited us home for the evening. The connection? Technology, of course: Charles, a cyclist/ham, had spotted the unmistakable 2-meter rig on her bike and hailed her in passing.
Day 6: Fort Bragg to Mendocino
But Mendocino, not Fort Bragg, is the town we’ve been hearing about. A lazy 10-mile ride got us here — to a place that has optimized its tourist-oriented picturesque character without seriously compromising a deep counterculture flavor that continues to attract artists, writers, musicians, and New Age refugees of the City. Street conversation was peppered with references to acupressure, astrology, macrobiotics, energy, brutal exploitation of the coast for corporate gain, and so on; within hours we had a network of local contacts, a three-hour lunch at the Sea Gull with visitors from Napa, and one particularly interesting invitation.
It came from John, owner of the Brewery Gulch Inn — a classically relaxed Bed and Breakfast on two acres south of town.
“I saw you two holding hands on TV a while back,” he told us as the rain began. “Being an incurable romantic, I couldn’t resist — do you need a place to stay?”
Within the hour we were settled: my machine dripping on a sheet under the antique dining room chandelier, Maggie’s outside on a covered porch. We were given the Garden Room — with fireplace, huge windows, and antique furniture — suddenly warm and comfortable in graceful surroundings thanks to one man’s recognition of the strange romance of our life. Those “soft dollars” keep mounting up…
Day 7: To L.A. — and Back
Ah, the unpredictable daily grind of touring. As I sat quietly tapping HP keys on the comfortable bed that night, warmed by a roaring fire and Maggie’s soft presence, there came a knock on the door. Into the room burst exuberance personified: Mendocino Cyclery folks who had finally managed to track us down after a few frenzied hours of trying. Once past the initial greetings and basic tale-swapping, they mentioned that they were leaving the next day for the famed Long Beach bicycle show (otherwise known as the Bicycle Dealer Showcase Expo). We moaned in envy. This is the big time — the COMDEX of the bicycle world. My mind reeled with visions of dazzling new gadgets, potential sponsors, book buyers, old friends, new friends, and a warm southern California weekend…
Why not? We left the next evening, armed with hastily produced book flyers, our bikes locked in the B&B’s garage. We crammed four bodies into a tiny Toyota, motored over to Willits and down 101 to San Francisco, then crossed to I-5 for that endless drive through the central valley… lasting until well after dawn. (Now I remember why I prefer pedaling: it takes a lot longer, but is never as numbing as the sameness of auto travel.)
It was well worth it, though, for the weekend was rich with images, absurdity, and high-tech excitement. We stopped in San Francisco for a triple espresso on Columbus Ave, and watched a guy running furtively through side streets with a parking meter — post and all — tucked under his coat. We raced on foot up the switchbacks of Lombard Street, collapsing at the top to the consternation of passing trolley riders. Chinatown, the stripper district, the Friday night swirl of Big City life… it was all quite dazzling after six weeks in Humboldt and Mendocino counties where the only noises are surf, highway, laughter, and the chill wind in your ears.
But the show! After the sleepless all-night drive in heavy fog we arrived in Long Beach, plunging into an international orgy of the surprisingly diverse bicycle industry. Hydraulic brakes. Clever new recumbents, finally combining quality and affordability. Not just shoes, but shoe systems. Endless sleek variations on the traditional boring diamond-frame bicycle — and still more innovation in its welcome spinoff, the agile mountain bike. Computers, pulse sensors, and graphic-display training cycles that simulate mountains. Automatic transmissions, freewheels, halogen lights, sealed bearings, composite tubing, tools, posters, silicone seat pads, kevlar tires, disappearing locks, streamlined helmets, energy drinks, camping gear… name anything even remotely connected with cycling and it could be found in Long Beach in a dozen hotly competing variations.
For two days I wandered this Mecca, passing out book info, riding demo machines, picking up 8 new equipment sponsors, and seeing even more familiar faces than I do at computer shows. Must be some kinda change of life…
But now we’re back in Mendocino, it’s raining again, and I’m trying to sort out all this new information so we can continue the long-overdue southward trek. Since chapter 18, we’ve made it about halfway to the Bay Area, and our next known stop is… oh, never mind. I should know by now not to make predictions.
I’ll just see you next week from somewhere else. Probably.