by Matt Schiff
After a year on the road we predicted our trip might end anticlimactically. We’d roll in on the 101, passing through the towns of Fortuna, Loleta, Eureka, and finally Arcata – all very nice riding, but flat and predictable. It would be just another day so that’s why we chose a back route with 6000 feet of extra climbing and dirt road solitude, punctuated by a final descent down Fickle Hill, a 10 mile long hill leading right into the town of Arcata. Our trip from Scotia to Arcata proved adventurous and strenuous but the reward, I think, was worth it.
It was the evening of June 9th where we really started to chime in about this being our last night of camping, last meal cooked, last time to cook with our beat up pots and pans, and so on. It was also the last night of having to search for a spot to camp and weigh the option of knocking on someone’s door or just going ahead and camping in a field, the benefits of being plainly visible versus those of trying to hide ourselves. Throughout our trip we’ve always done our best to be straight forward with people when there’s no public land so we started by trying to knock on some doors.
We tried knocking on each of three houses near a junction of Showers Pass Road and Kneeland Hill Road, most likely the only few we would find over the course of the next 10 miles. Knocking on a stranger’s door in any part of the country can be unnerving, but this out in the boonies area of Humboldt County is better known for its massive Marijuana grow operations than its Midwestern style hospitality. Texas and the deep south might be the first place you look to find a “redneck” but the lesser known, coast logging redneck, is the second type of person we might come across on this almost vacant stretch of road. The third type of person, and the one we’re hoping for, is the grass fed cattle farmer or small homesteader whom we think might relate to our journey and be willing to offer us a spot of grass.
The first knock, led by Sara, with myself as distant background support, went as poorly as possible. A wiry guy in his mid 30s came out of the house as we opened the fence gate. He had dark clothes, dark hair, and dark circles under his eyes to match. He claimed he had no water he could offer since it was unsafe to drink and certainly didn’t seem sad about the fact. We asked our usual leading question about knowing if there is any place to camp or any people that might let us camp and his reply is one that we quoted for days. “There’s nowhere you can camp on this road. It’s all private property and no one’s going to let you just camp. That’s something you should have thought out and planned before you started this trip.” The other two knocks were fruitless as well, with perhaps fortunately, no one answering the door.
In the next few days as I told this story to some cycling friends I mentioned that we’d knocked on so many doors throughout the country and this was probably the worst response we’d gotten. With so many people nervous to leave their doorstep and scared of the people they might run into, we’d found some of the most shady characters right here on the north coast, barreling past us in their jacked up pickups. It’s sad for an area that also offers so much. My friend Matt laughed and said, “You had to travel all the way around the country to find that out!”
But focusing on the people, and in this case the negativity of the get-off-my-land kind of folks, is not what I wanted to do on the last day. This area, as with many areas of the West, is special to me because of the landforms and scenic beauty. Climbing into the hills during the late afternoon of our last night there was an idyllic scene surrounding me, one that you’d picture existing in Ireland or the Swiss Alps in springtime. There are clusters of weathered looking oaks on some aspects but mostly green grasses blanketing the hills. Lower down there are an equal mix of the two environments with the swaths of prairie looking like clear cuts. In some areas the geology is too unstable to support trees and in others it’s the unfavorable mineral balance in the soil. The sun is shining bright but with it comes a thick, moist breeze, which gives the air mass body and density. These are days you want to be outdoors from sunup to sundown.
After we realized it would be another pirate camping night – no better way to leave this world than the way we were brought into it I think – we quickly find the perfect spot just two miles from the cluster of houses. At first the sign reads Palco lumber company and we’ve got no problem camping there. They’ve helped to clear the west coast of the old growth forests over the past 150 years, the least they can offer is a piece of grass to a few travelers. But just beyond the sign is a Russ Ranch evidence of changing times. The name Russ sounds so familiar I’m sure I can talk my way out of this one if any problems arise. But there is no confrontation. We slip around a fence and set up on a road cut in the side of a hill, conveniently sheltered and secluded.
The fog rolls in and when it reaches as far east as these hills, 2000 feet above sea level, it usually blankets the area quite quickly and thoroughly. We watch the air stream through the trees, roll up the hillside, jump the road cut, and continue on headed skyward. You could wave your arms around and capture some of this stuff. It’s down jacket weather but it’s also June 9th. The two don’t seem to go together. This is also great picture weather and with the same enthusiasm that I went through roll after roll of digital film in the desert and mountains I jumped around looking for the best angles to “capture the moment” from.
Beans and rice had probably been our most common meal of the trip, prepared and dressed so many ways, so it was only fitting to end the trip with more salsa, chips, cheese, refried beans, cilantro, tortillas, fresh onions, and about 10 more ingredients that make the meal more than just beans and rice. After dinner the fog turned to mist and mist to light rain. And since we don’t “party hard” we were scooted into our tents by 9:30.
Not wanting to be complacent, we left the campsite around 8:00, also knowing we had some ground to cover before meeting some people at the top of Fickle Hill. With just a small climb ahead of us, we soon took off on several miles of downhill dirt road descending. The bikes were soon covered in light dust from the dry roads but wet air. Descending on a dirt road with a loaded touring bike is actually pretty stable but if you start to lose control you’ll go down hard like slipping on marbles. That descent left Aaron and Andrew (a friend who joined us for two days) with a pair of flat tires but that was just the beginning of our failing outfit. My bottom bracket had unscrewed itself and the sealed bearings were failing – in layman’s terms, a big screw down near the pedals was falling out – so every mile or so I got off my bike to hand-tighten it. I also was prone to flats with a rear tire that was beginning to shred like those truck blow-offs you see on the side of the road. This spaced us out so while Sara had taken off to get a head start on the hills ahead, she was probably just further distancing herself up the road.
While I’d hoped for sun and a deep blue sky that comes with the clean coastal air, the fog still added a great element to the landscape. Looking forward and backward I could usually see someone from our group of six slowly making their way up a series of snaking switchbacks. I took landscape photos with a hint of a human element to them. As Alyssum and Andrew caught up after fixing some flats, I noticed Alyssum had suffered a slow speed crash, increasing our number of mishaps for the day. I finally got a hold on my mechanical problem, flooding the bearings with oil after the seal had cracked away. That provided a temporary fix to the problem for the rest of the day.
We climbed higher and reentered the clouds turning the paved roads wet. But the pavement was a sign we were closer to Arcata. At a ranch a guy stopped to tell me that their dog had scared Sara so in turn she hit one of the dogs and destroyed some fence. It was all very matter of fact with no emotion on his part. I told him the dog must have bit her and then humorously envisioned Sara pulling out a row of fence posts with brute strength. He told me the Sherriff and the owner went on the down the road to talk with her and that gave me concern as to what happened and what the truth was.
Now I was pedaling through familiar roads, within range of a day ride from Arcata. I reached what I knew as the final paved switch backs and ascended them into the fog and mist once more, seeing Aaron and Tommy and few hundred feet above me.
At the top, we all ran into Sara and had to know what happened! We were relieved to find she was in good spirits and there was no Sherriff’s car or angry ranch owner. The truth was she did get nipped at by one of the sheep herding dogs and with adrenaline surging found a stick in the ditch to scare them off with. Even the owner who drove out to talk with her understood she had a right to be angry and defend herself and happily labeled her as “one tough chick, just like me.”
Given our luck so far we all agreed not to get crazy on the wet downhills. We had just one small downhill and then a climb before getting to the famed Fickle Hill. Fickle Hill was a ride we did after school every Friday, called Fickle Hill Friday – a rather brutal 10 mile climb with several steep sections of 20% grade. Surprisingly, it caught on and with Sara’s determination to lead it and be there every week, there was usually a core crew of 5 or 6 and a number of more people who would join occasionally or just for the week. Uninterested in getting back in racing, Fickle Hill Friday is how I first started riding when I came to Humboldt. The ride varied only in how far we’d go up given the daylight, weather, and goals of the group. The exertion required to get to the top is enough to clear the mind of all the stress and headache school brings, just in time to focus and be hyper-vigilant for the tortuous descent down hill. After memorizing the hill and perfecting the technique of leaning the bike over in the turns, it’s possible to get up to 55mph on a road that resembles a never ending mountain driveway.
Today, with loaded bikes and rainy roads, we weren’t going to approach that level of intensity. We sat around on the top of the hill much like we used to back in the day and brought out all of our food for a smorgasbord lunch. Our friend, Aaron, who also joined us in New Orleans, came slowly up through the fog to join us. We put on our coats, put away anything that might shake loose from our bikes and got ready to descend. There was just 10 miles between us and making the loop complete, making bike49 officially over.
Down at the bottom we regrouped and headed over to the plaza at the center of town. We started whooping and hollering and getting any stranger to join in. If there is ever a time to be completely self centered and cocky, this was it. “Bike49 is back in town… We made it!… We’re back… Hello everyone!” A group of teenage girls joined in when Sara prompted them to scream for us. A couple of street blocks erupted into cheering while closer to downtown we just got confused stares.
At the plaza the greeting party was small, very small. We unexpectedly saw a few friends but mostly talked to reporters and talked among ourselves. It was certainly a day of no regrets that threw twists and turns at us. Now what? Off to Big Pete’s or Live from NY, the two best Pizza places in Arcata. But for the long term, who knows? How do five people assimilate back into more ordinary life after a year on the road?