Lost In Nisene Marks

This marks the first time I’ve done back-to-back “training day”-style rides, with food, gear, and a destination. I felt surprisingly good afterwards, except for some minor butt soreness and a little tossing and turning overnight. I’m beginning to realize that my stamina is greater than I thought. Perhaps a lot greater, thanks to all my riding this year.

This also marks the first time I have been able to use the battery pack I built, even though I don’t have an enclosure for it. I put the batteries and the regulator board in little plastic bags and then sealed the whole thing in a large bag with a USB extension cable running out. With the whole mess stowed in my luggage, I was able to keep the iPhone charged at 100% full the entire time. (I’ll be crowing about this later on in the story…)

Saturday I did a ride across town to the south end of the valley, then entered the rolling hills around the Lexington Reservoir. Along the way I listened to the full broadcast of the latest “Intelligence Squared” debate, about whether the government should be responsible for universal healthcare. It was an excellent debate, and very relevant, as I considered what kind of situation I would be in if I were hit by a car, or if my knees deteriorated. I spent one of my rest breaks sitting on a stone bench outside of a hardware store, and just as a debater was talking about the crowded conditions in emergency rooms, I saw an ambulance go screaming down the street.

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Night fell fast. I probably spent less than a mile biking in daylight, and had my headlamp on for the rest. That lamp continues to be a brilliant piece of hardware – literally. It lights up my bike and the road around me without being an eyesore to traffic and it stays lit for as long as I need it, no matter how long I ride. I feel very sorry for all the other night cyclists I see out on the roads. I worry for them. Their lamps are either pathetic and impossible to see, or blinding and annoying to drivers. I saw one guy who had what looked like a damned flashbulb screwed onto his handlebars, going FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! every half a second. What numbskull engineer designed that? I can imagine a driver being tempted to run him over just to stop that damned flashing.

There were three “totally worth it” moments for the first ride:

  • Biking up into the private property of a church-funded “retreat” hospital as part of my route, and rounding a corner to discover an illuminated statue of the Virgin Mary embedded halfway up a gigantic hedge, then going a few more feet and being presented with an unexpected panorama of the entire south valley. Surreal.
  • Being stopped by a locked gate and a wire fence, and realizing that I was actually on the wrong side it it, then spotting a twisted hole at the underside of the fence just large enough to slide my bike under, which I did. I turned the iPhone brightness all the way up and shoved it under my chinstrap, then laid flat and inched backwards under the wire on my stomach. I’m all Special Ops and shizzlick.
  • At the south end of the reservoir, after riding up and down a lot of gentle squiggly hills, I stopped in the middle of the road and looked behind me. The black silhouettes of the trees framed a V-shaped wedge of dark blue sky that was glistening with all the millions of stars that I couldn’t see when I was at my house downtown, under the hazy air and streetlamps. It stunned me and I had to stop and just be there for a second, on that dead silent roadway, enjoying that private space. “It’s not really private,” I thought. “People have been driving up and down this road all day.” But then I realized, even if it’s a location that many other people go to, it’s not a time and a way that they do it. Right now, it was mine.

Now that I can keep the iPhone perpetually charged, I don’t have to worry at all about how intensely I use it. I can leave the GPS running and the display on all the time if I feel like it. And for the trip through the woods leading to the reservoir, that’s just what I did.

It was really quite incredible. I’d never been there before, but when I saw the road lose shape and change to dirt, I was not worried at all. I pressed a few buttons and instantly I had a daytime satellite photograph of the entire woods. My route along the road was drawn across it with a purple line, and there at the top was a little dot, showing exactly where I was. As I rode the bike I could glance down at the dot and confirm that, yes, there’s the tree I should be seeing, and there’s the spot where the road bends,… et cetera. All this with one device, and as I was navigating, it was playing music for me too. I even got a few new emails. I was so impressed that I just had to talk about it, so I began calling people up, and chatting as I rode.

One device. Frankly, it’s like having “god mode” for a bicycle. It turns my bike into a mobile command center, almost an extension of my home. DO YOU NOT SEE!!! I cannot EVEN CONVEY how impressed with this technology I am!! It is fucking amazing, people!!! I ARE SERIOUS!!!!

It also makes me overconfident, I think. I have often taken risks with my navigation that could have ended badly. It’s not that I expect the phone to get a signal all the time – I don’t depend on it for that – it’s the feeling you get from using it. With a few bars of signal and a data connection, I am just as connected to the digital world and my social network as I am when sitting at home, vegged out in front of a computer screen. That connectedness inspires a feeling of closeness to home, a false sense that no matter how deep into the woods I push my bike, I am still just a finger-touch away from all the trappings of modernity. On the second day of this weekend I was hit by this cognitive dissonance pretty hard, when I wandered very far into the back woods of the Nisene Marks nature preserve.

I was pushing my bike over a dirt-and-gravel road that looked like it had been literally carved through the woods. The press of branches was so thick that they effectively formed a wall, and I wondered how the animals could possibly thread their way between them. The canopy was closed overhead of course, so I was in total darkness except for my headlamp and phone. And every 30 yards, as the road lurched down the backside of another misshapen hill, the gravel was erased by a shallow creek that seemed to flow right out of the wall of branches on one side, and into the wall on the other side. Here instead of road was a corridor of rocks and pools of water lined with mud. At the first one I tried to ride my way through, lost my balance, and had to dunk my shoe in the water. At the next one I carried my bike across, simultaneously using it as a gigantic flashlight to see the rocks I had to step on.

The road was extremely uneven, so the recent rains had formed innumerable potholes filled with water. Whenever the beam of my bicycle headlamp brushed along one of these, some of the light would be scattered upwards and reflect off the trees in front of me, creating a wavery illusion of movement. The first three or four times it scared the crap out of me. I kept thinking that someone was coming down the road towards me, waving a flashlight. After I figured out what it was, I was impressed by it. It’s just the sort of unexpected material phenomenon that could make people scream, “THE WOODS ARE HAUNTED!! AAIIIIYYEE!!!”

Anyway, I got past this gauntlet, and the road tilted upwards. The phone began displaying ‘NO SIGNAL’, but the GPS still had my location marked on the map, which was already loaded into memory. “I’m still alright,” I said to myself. “I just need to stay on this road and I’ll pass through Nisene Marks without trouble.” (I was babbling to myself out loud in order to make my presence obvious to things like skunks and mountain lions.)

Then the road wandered off the map. It began to squiggle all over the place like a damned spaghetti noodle, and my path (as described by the line on my GPS tracker) did not match the map line at all. Then it got steeper. I had to dismount and push my bike uphill. Out of curiosity I launched the “clinometer” app and calibrated it, and it told me that I was going up a 22-degree slope. (Yes, the iPhone does that too! See? It is “god mode”!!) Since my wheel wasn’t turning as fast as the headlamp wanted, my light became very dim. Then the road forked, and forked again, and again, and again.

Each time I chose the fork that pointed back towards the line described by the map, but each time the road would turn and wander away, keeping me off course. Eventually the phone started showing a few bars of signal again, so I called up La (who was having dinner with Alison at her house in Santa Cruz) and whined to her about how damn steep the hill was… But I couldn’t help thinking in the back of my head about the potential severity of my situation.

Suppose the dynamo in my front wheel failed. I’m not sure how it would, since it’s tough, water-resistant, and relatively simple… But suppose it did. I’d have about five minutes of dim light on my headlamp left, and then I’d be in darkness.

Then I’d have to take the iPhone out of the holster and hold it in front of me, and push the bike with one hand. By itself, in ideal conditions, the iPhone would probably last about four hours this way. But I’ve got my battery pack. But suppose that failed too? Or suppose the backlight in the iPhone just broke all of a sudden?

Then I’d have to take the GPS tracker off my bike, leave my bike on the ground, and go blundering back the way I came in total darkness under the forest canopy, using the mini-map on the GPS to retrace my route along the road. Once I stumbled back out onto pavement I’d have to walk for a good long while until I found a payphone – or perhaps I’d get lucky and flag down a car. This is assuming, of course, that I don’t break my ankle or my neck by tripping over a deadfall back in the woods.

But say the GPS tracker craps out too. Now I’m in total darkness in the middle of the woods, with no shelter, and some meager snacks. I’d have to stay put until daylight and then attempt to backtrack along a road that now looks completely different from how it was in the dark. Maybe I’ll come out in a few hours, maybe it’ll take me all day. Either way I’ll eventually come home to a La who’s been up the entire night worried sick and probably called the police.

This all went tumbling through my head as I pushed my bike up that huge hill. I had not been expecting a road like this. All I remembered of the roads in Nisene Marks was the road leading in, from the front, and that was nice and flat and wide. This road was the opposite. I should have checked the route in satellite view before committing to it. Actually, no, my problem isn’t that. I’ve just been too stubborn again. I saw that sign at the head of this road, where it suddenly stops being pavement and turns into a sheet of gravel. I should have obeyed that sign. Instead, I thought, “Oh boy, another deep woods adventure! Last time this was awesome!” Apparently I’d forgotten that last time I was obviously pushing my luck. Now here I was again, pushing my luck. A couple of mechanical or electronic failures could endanger my life.

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“On the other hand,” I thought, “how is that any different from driving a car?”

I had to ponder that for a while. Eventually I reached the peak of the hill, and the road leveled out and opened up to a clearing. Then I forgot all about the danger I was in, and just stared.

There, before me, was the Monterey Bay, wide and black, swathed in the glowing yellow embers of civilization and the sparkling diamonds of the midnight sky. Transparent ribbons of cloud swept down across the stars and joined with the mantle hanging over the ocean, like fingers of a gigantic white hand. The moon lit the panorama from behind, sketching the jagged tops of the trees that blanketed the valley, all the way down to the fringe of city lights in the distance. As I rolled to the edge of the clearing and dismounted my bike, a soft breeze flowed down from the hilltop behind me, picking up the heat that was still bleeding out of the hills and drawing it across my back like a warm cloak. Right there in front of me was a pair of park benches. So I sat down.

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The urge to sit there for the rest of the night, caressed by this warm breeze, staring up at the stars… Was almost unbearable. This had not been on my to-do list, or even a stop on my route. I drank some water and ate a little bit of chocolate, and thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s midnight on a Sunday and I’m here, all by myself, miles from any paved roads… And somehow I feel as safe as if I was sitting on my couch at home. What a strange feeling.” Then I looked over at the iPhone and noticed it was displaying “3G” and five bars. “Hell yeah. Best invention ever,” I said, and called up La for a while.

I was so impressed with the phone, once again, that I opened up a voice recording application and began to rant out loud about it. “It’s perfect! Perfect for a bike! It’s like the software was chosen specifically to complement riding! Even the size is perfect!” Rant rant, rave rave, et cetera. I felt kind of foolish talking out loud, but I kept doing it since it helped me avoid mountain lions. I’ve only ever seen one up close once (and that was while I was in a car), but the paranoia never fully leaves you…

Anyway, I eventually kept riding. The downhill route out of Nisene Marks and into Aptos, then Santa Cruz, was easy going. I sang They Might Be Giants songs out loud. I went through every single one I knew, and had to switch to Weird Al for a while, before finally being free of the forest and potential lions. Then I found it hard to stop blathering out loud to myself, since I’d been doing it for so long. I felt a little crazy. So I called up La and talked to her, which helped. She eventually met me at the Cabrillo exit, with a change of clothes and some snacks.

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She really is an excellent pit crew. :)

Other highlights of this trip:

  • Setting up a night-time photo and having a 40-minute chat with Mr. Breakpoint about camera technology
  • Lying on my side next to the camera to photograph a long exposure of the house across the valley from me, and attracting the attention of a concerned motorist. The pickup truck stopped, then reversed 50 yards back up the road, then the window rolled down and after a while a woman’s voice asked, “are you okay?” Since I was almost completely blinded by their damned headlights, I waited until I’d gathered up my camera, then I stoop up all at once and waved at them, smiling. The woman apparently had not been expecting that, and she let out a scream that sounded like, “BGAWK!!!!” … and then she (or her friend at the wheel?) drove away. I wonder if my camera looked like a gun or something.

All these pictures give some sense of just how dark and creepy it really was … but they also make me think, “Wow, I definitely want a better camera…”

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