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You can take in the details when you’re cycling. Claire O’Loughlin turned her “soft” legs into mean cycling machines as she slowly explored 4,000km of the Pacific Coast Highway.
In early 2016 my partner Marcus and I went to see Sufjan Stevens play in Wellington. Sufjan stood in front of a projection of Big Sur in California, and I thought, “I need to go there”.
A few months later, we stored away our Wellington life, packed our bicycles into bike bags, and flew to Vancouver. Over the next three months we cycled 4,000km, zig-zagging to San Diego on the Pacific Coast Highway.
I had just finished two years of sitting at a desk and not going to the gym I paid $95 a month for. For the first couple of weeks I sat heavy on my bicycle, my soft legs very aware of the weight of four panniers plus camping gear strapped to the back. Marcus, a constantly-fit bicycle fanatic, carried his own stuff as well as our food, cooking equipment, and the tent. In our first campsite on Vancouver Island, I was so tired walking back from the showers that my legs almost gave way. We had cycled about 60km that day. I paused to stretch, and reaching up saw the moon silhouetting the Douglas firs. I realised with joy that, as much as my legs hurt, I was now far away from any desk.
The Pacific Coast Highway is a well-known cycle route. Although you’re on the road with the cars, the State Park “hiker/biker” campsites along the route make it unique – they’re reserved for those who have walked or cycled in. They’re cheap, can’t be booked in advance, and will always squeeze you in. There are always other cyclists in hiker/biker sites – people like us who choose to cycle busy highways all day for fun! We’d meet the same people each evening at the next campsite, until a change of plans or pace separated us.
There was 25-year-old Cameron – a short, wiry stage technician from LA with a Dali moustache, who wore a black lycra Borat cycling onesie and lived on ramen and a huge bag of orange ibuprofen pills. There was Cat Man, living permanently on his bike with his big ginger cat Good Time, working at music festivals and sneaking into campsites without paying.
We cycled through bear country in Washington state, beer and weed country in Oregon, and right-wing country whenever we veered inland into farming territory. The primaries were on, and we passed Trump and Bernie Sanders supporter signs every day. Everyone talked about how Trump would never get in, it would be Hillary Clinton for sure, yet Trump was everywhere. We never saw a single Clinton sign.
There were other signs – miles of farmland lined with barbed wire fences strung every few metres with “private property, keep out” and “trespassers will be shot”. I hated those stretches. I felt if we had to stop for a flat tyre we’d be at risk, even on the public road. Sure enough, the one time we did stop for a break near such a sign, a beaten-up van pulled up slowly beside us and a bearded face looked out the window and said gruffly, “If the farmer sees you loitering, he’s gonna call the cops.” We moved on pretty fast.
In a car the world rushes by, but on a bike its small details are close and intimate – the textures of the road, the quality of the asphalt, the nature alive around us. We saw whales, deer, foxes, and eagles. We were warned about bears and mountain lions but never saw any. Road kill was common, the most intense scene being a dead deer, followed by a dead vulture then a dead fox, each of whom had presumably been feasting on the other before a car, the ultimate predator, came out of nowhere. Not long after that we passed a dildo on theroadside, confirming Oregon as wild in all sorts of ways.
We didn’t pick up that particular piece of road-find, but we gained a reputation amongst the cyclists as roadside scavengers for anything useful – half a dozen knives, a roll of gaffer tape, half-used bottles of sunscreen, a new iPhone (which we managed to return to the owner). We admit we were getting greedy when we both skidded to a halt after passing an iPad and, rushing back for it in glee, flipped it over to find it was actually a silver styrofoam packet half-full of rotting sardines.
We rode through the Redwood State Park and the Avenue of the Giants, where the huge trees make the forest cool, dark, and silent. We rode by an elephant seal colony, stopping to watch them roar and roll around in the sun before clipping back in and cycling on.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on a stormy day, sharing the cycle lane with terrified tourists on rented bikes. In San Francisco we mooched around vintage stores in Haight-Ashbury and encountered Karl, as the San Francisco fog is personified, who didn’t allow our washing to dry (look up @KarltheFog).
After looking forward so much to Big Sur, we couldn’t enjoy it, as by then summer fires were raging only a few miles inland. There was smoke in our mouths when we climbed the hills. The Big Sur State Parks were closed so we charged through, cycling over 120km in a day. But by then, 100km-plus days were easy. At some point my body had turned into a kind of machine. I no longer sat on top my bicycle, it now felt like part of me. I didn’t notice the weight of my panniers and took extra weight off Marcus.
After Big Sur came Malibu, Santa Monica, and hot, dusty LA, where campers with no lawns raked the gravel outside their RVs, and the campsite showers gobbled our quarters but refuse to give even a dribble. Before we knew it, we were riding on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. We took part in a Critical Mass ride, joining thousands of cyclists in riding across (a very small part of) LA at night. It’s impossible to cycle LA in a day, and even more impossible to camp there, so the next day we caught the light rail to get across the city. We were feeling very clever until an unexpected breakdown saw us stranded for 30 minutes in Compton, infamously the most dangerous suburb in California, though that’s up for debate. But it was definitely freaky sharing the platform with shirtless guys with guns stuck casually in the back of their jeans.
The final stretch from LA to San Diego was a blur of vast army bases and 1950s nuclear reactors glistening in the sun. Across three months and 4,000 km, the country transformed from cold pine forest with orca swimming nearby to desert with a Border wall. America is a whole world in itself and cycling down just a sliver of it was an epic, wild ride. Now back in Wellington, my legs are soft and under a desk once more, but we’re dreaming of our next bicycle adventure: following the cherry blossom season through Japan.