Pinnacles National Monument In Three Days

I inaugurated the new year by doing something that I could never have done one year ago. I got up in the morning at 9:00am, packed a campsite’s worth of gear onto a bike – 75 pounds total – and then rode the bike 83 miles. This, after riding 80 miles over the previous two days!

One year ago I would have said, “83 miles? Ridiculous. Forget it, kid. The people who do that are Olympians. You’d be lucky to get 30 miles a day. Twenty or less if there’s a lot of crap loaded on your bike.”

Feels good to prove myself wrong.

In three days I rode from my house in San Jose to Pinnacles National Monument and back. According to my GPS tracker, I burned close to 10000 calories. And that’s just from the bicycling – so it’s on top of the regular 1700 or so that my body uses just to operate each day.

(The “1” flag you see on the map there is where I stopped for the night at the end of day 1, and where I got french fries on day 3. The “2” is where my GPS ran low on batteries, and I had to stop for a while and connect it to the charging cradle inside my handlebar bag.)

As I type this I’m sitting in the Vegetarian House restaurant, with three main courses in front of me. I’ve already obliterated the “Majestic Mango”, and have the “Ocean Basket” and the “Thai Curry Soup” to go. It’s a good start, since I have six days of calories to make up for…

Now it’s time for some pictures and some lists. Let’s start with a list:

Inane Things That Only Long-Distance Cyclists Care About:

  • “I want to take a detour on highway [blah] but OMG what if the ROAD IS ALL NOBBLY??” ( Different types of pavement have a different rolling resistance. )
  • “Gosh, I hope the next town has a small store with big windows.” ( Otherwise I won’t be able to watch my bike while I’m shopping. )
  • “I hope that fence is strong, because that dog is going to go nuts the second it sees me.” ( Handy tip to potential dog owners: If the breed you’re interested in is too dumb to know the difference between a buffalo and a bicyclist, try a smarter breed, please. )
  • “Hmmm, I want to get a snack but … how do I find the one with THE MOST calories, that weighs the least?” ( Okay, maybe hikers worry about this too. )

Let’s mix thing up a bit. Here’s an audio recording of the side of the road, made between San Jose and Gilroy. That’s me eating a bag of chips in the foreground.

Click to listen!

And now some pictures:

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This is the hotel room I stayed in at the end of the first night. It’s the Gilroy Motel 6, and it cost a damn fortune, but on the upside they had an endless supply of hot water.

You can also see the bike. The two front bags have been removed and dumped out on the bedspread, and the food moved to the fridge. That’s about 20 pounds of the 75 pounds total.

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Here’s a shot of the bike against a tree. I took a break to pee and change into a long-sleeved shirt. Sketchy operations in the suburbs, man. The USB charger device is packed into that bag on the handlebars.

Heading south from Gilroy on day two. The fog makes the road look mysterious.

Heading south from Gilroy on day two. The fog makes the road look mysterious.

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A railroad crossing just a few minutes south.

A sturdy white fence and some colorful trees is a classic photograph setting!

A sturdy white fence and some colorful trees make a classic setting.

In case you’ve never seen these up close, these are what the plastic rows on all the fields look like. The plastic insulates the soil, greatly enhancing the survival rate of the crops on cold nights.

In case you’ve never seen these up close, these are what the plastic rows on all the fields look like. The plastic insulates the soil, greatly enhancing the survival rate of the crops on cold nights.

There’s something about silhouettes in mist that reminds me of the otherworlds described in Lewis Carroll books. This probably dates back to my time playing old 2D Windham Classics games on the Apple II.

There’s something about silhouettes in mist that reminds me of the otherworlds described in Lewis Carroll books. This probably dates back to my time playing old 2D Windham Classics games on the Apple II.

The trees just march off into nothingness. How far would you have to walk before you passed the same suspiciously identical tree?

Same with shots like this one. The trees just march off into nothingness. How far would you have to walk before you passed the same suspiciously identical tree?

Some lovely late-fall colors frozen in time.

Some lovely late-fall colors frozen in time.

As the towns get smaller, the periodicals get weirder. I don’t think there has been a single day in the history of The Watchtower where the staff didn’t think they were Living In The Last Days.

As the towns get smaller, the periodicals get weirder. I don’t think there has been a single day in the history of The Watchtower where the staff didn’t think they were Living In The Last Days.

As an aside, I look at a religious magazine like this and all my cynical brain can see is a giant, wriggling tick, sitting there on the countertop. An intellectual parasite. People pick it up and it burrows into them and steals their power, sucking it up for itself, and releases some chemical that makes them feel secure in exchange.

Picture them; the devout, scratching at their ears and eyes because they itch from all the ticks inside. It’s a pretty effective metaphor. Um, anyway, moving on…

The combination restaurant, pool hall, and general store that I stopped in for a bottled Spanish coke. The salt and pepper shakers were made from the same bottles.

The combination restaurant, pool hall, and general store that I stopped in for a bottled Spanish coke. The salt and pepper shakers were made from the same bottles.

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The birds were out to play on the farmland. About this time I began listening to the audiobook of “The Worst Hard Time”, a tale which fit quite nicely with a meditative trip through the country. The book describes the situation of my ancestors only two or three generations ago, surviving the horrendous dust storms of the 1930’s. (For those of you not in the know: Once the farming ecology around Oklahoma and Texas collapsed, the region became a host for dust storms so incredibly enormous that they would roll out all the way across the eastern half of the United States and interfere with ships out in the Atlantic Ocean.)

It occurred to me that despite my valid complaints of not having enough time to do things, I have never had to worry about having the strength left in me to do things. My ancestors had to work so hard their fingers literally bled, in territory so cold it could freeze their eyelids shut at night, sleeping in a dirt house crawling with snakes and spiders, burning cow dung for heat, and they considered that an improvement over the utter destitution and government betrayal that they had left behind in Russia. They sang songs and ate bratwurst and had huge defiant weddings.

Just being out here on a bicycle, in such good health to pedal it, armed with my credit card and guided by my iPhone, is an exercise of immense independence and wealth. It kicks ass. If my ancestors had stayed in Russia, I would probably be the same half-frozen peasant farmer of 100 years ago. I’d just have slightly better glasses and maybe a digital watch, and a lot more dead relatives to mourn.

California’s got this nicely varied middle section, where you can get badlands and vineyards in the same shot.

California’s got this nicely varied middle section, where you can get badlands and vineyards in the same shot.

Classic California. Gorgeous.

This is classic California. Gorgeous.

Wanna buy some land? PRICE REDUCED.

Wanna buy some land? PRICE REDUCED.

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It was getting late, but I still couldn’t help myself with the stopping and the picture taking. Seeing how this shot turned out makes me wish I had a better camera. Of course, a new one would weigh even more than this one — but having a fancy camera to fool around with is so much a part of the adventure, I’d happily accept the extra weight.

Just after this photo I ran into a huge hill, the first really steep one of the trip, and I hadn’t been expecting it. As I pedaled in my lowest gear I passed the time by calling the hill foul names and cursing it under my breath. It was obvious that I wouldn’t make it to Pinnacles before nightfall.

I began to scope out the valleys on either side of the road in case I found a spot suitable for some guerrilla camping. I almost tried it twice, when promising spots presented themselves, but changed my mind at the last minute when I realized I would just spend the entire night worrying with one ear cocked out for murderous wildlife or angry farmhands.

Two or three hours later I finally made it to Pinnacles. This was four hours later than I’d planned. Turns out the final stretch of the route was infested with steep hills – wavy ones all bunched up together that hadn’t shown on the 3D map while I was gauging the distance the previous night. Also, I made a lot more stops than I expected.


  • 10. Whew! Time to change shirts.
  • 9. Oh boy a general store! Time to get more SNACKS. (I am pwn3d by snacks.)
  • 8. Ugh, this hill is just too steep for too long. Let’s push and walk for a while.
  • 7. Lousy sunglasses, getting all greased up… Time to wipe them off.
  • 6. Okay, now the signals from my bladder are not so subtle. Time to find a tree.
  • 5. Damn, someone’s calling and I’m wearing gloves. Time to stop, take one off, and press the ‘answer’ button.
  • 4. Ding dingg… Snack time!
  • 3. I feel just a tiiiny bit thirsty. I Can’t Be Having With This. Glug glug glug.
  • 2. Look at all the pretty birdies and flowers! Eeee!
  • 1. Oh how lovely; I simply must photograph that! (Technically a tie with #2.)

A chilly night camping at Pinnacles National Monument, California

This is what my campsite looked like in the morning. I decided to pitch the tent in the middle of the driveway, since it was the flattest part of the site. My original plan was to stay here for two days, but the weather made it unbearable. The sleeping bag I brought was just not warm enough. The mattress I brought was also a bit too small for the sleeping bag.

As I tossed around in it trying to bend myself onto the mattress, I was treated to a chorus of critters yowling in the distance. Here, have a recording!

Click to listen!

When I trekked over to the manager’s office at 9:45am, they’d posted the temperature measurements from the previous night. Turns out it had dropped to six degrees below freezing.

The projections for the next night were even lower. I wasn’t interested in dealing with that for a second night, so I decided to pack everything right back up.

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This tent was a combination Christmas/birthday present from a collection of friends and family members. (A “Vaude Hogan XT”) It kicks ass, and I extend my sincere thanks to all of you!

The whole thing, including poles, weighs less than 7 pounds. It’s roomy enough for two people and has this handy “vestibule” area where you can hide your bike from the weather (or thieves), and you can put it together in only a couple of minutes.

To put it together at night I propped the bicycle against a log a couple yards away and gave the front wheel a long spin, charging up the headlight, which illuminated the spot – but only weakly. I gotta get one of those head-mounted lights that I can plug into my battery pack.

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This is another reason I decided to pack things up. Even at 10:30am, with the sun fully up, my campsite was wedged in the shade of a huge hill. The ground around here was going to get only a little direct sunlight, meaning it would be extra cold at night. Bah.

See all that crud on the picnic table? I brought that here on a bike! Heeheeeeeee!

After packing up I rode down into the preserve to eat lunch and relax. Here I’m eating one of the sandwiches La made for me before she left for Florida, drinking the bottled coke, and wearing my bike helmet to keep my head from frying.

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The sun made me want to lay down and take a nap, but unfortunately, all the ground was either too hard, or too steep. Technically I’d spent ten hours in bed the previous night, but the sleep had not been comfortable. For some reason I’d dreamed about cooking a batch of chocolate covered almonds. I think that’s actually the first time in my life I’ve had a dream about cooking chocolate. Must be the calorie deficit talking.

Anyway, it was quite relaxing, and I wanted to call La and wish her a Happy New Year, but the whole National Monument area is devoid of cell towers.

On the way back out of Pinnacles, I stopped at the manager’s office and bought a huge bag of chips, since I felt hungry for salt. An old fellow saw me on the front steps began asking enthusiastic questions about my journey and my equipment, and I encouraged him to try something similar.

It was one of several conversations with total strangers about my trip. The first happened at the check-in desk of the Motel 6. The next one happened at the In’n’Out Burger where I stopped for french fries (a stocky latino looking dude), and the next was outside a 7-11 where I stopped for a banana (a tough looking black man).

The man looked at the banana, grinned, and opened the conversation with, “I should probably be eating that too, instead of these cinnamon rolls. Where are you biking from? Are you doing a tour?” What astonished me about that conversation was that he used the word “tour”, which is the proper technical term for the biking/camping journey I was on. Up until last summer, I hadn’t even known the term myself.

On the way back I was stopped in my tracks many a time by the sight of the winter sun illuminating the trees. The pictures don’t even begin to do it justice, but it’s fun to try.

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When the sun’s passing down behind the hilltops, the shadows get a bit weird.

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There’s a lot of space here. Funny to imagine that the whole interior of California used to be this open; even San Jose. Well, San Jose was probably wetlands and forest, but, you know what I mean.

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Tree? Or sleeping emu? You Make The Call™

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One of those artsy photos. Expect this to grace the cover of Pointy Fence Enthusiast Monthly, or American Wire Mechanics Feb 2009.

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Glass insulators on a telephone pole. You don’t see those very often around here.

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I’ve seen people throw away a lot of things by the side of the road. Earlier this day I passed three bleached skeletons – either dog or coyote – that had been hurled down the side of a ravine several seasons ago as bodies. Now here’s the remains of someone’s engine block. Eventually I’ll start seeing plundered treasure chests, tarnished oil lamps, and mysterious tomb carvings.

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The trees caught the light beautifully. I had to stop and stare just to take in the colors sometimes.

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The setting sun cast eerie shadows over the valley.

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Many suspicious birds, all in a row, being suspicious.

So there you have it. That ‘Lap 1’ marker is the place where I ate lunch on the last day. From there I rode 83 miles back to San Jose. I was going to stop in Gilroy, but when I got there, I washed my face at the In’n’Out Burger and sat down for a while, and decided that I felt good enough to ride the rest of the way home. Besides, my GPS read 48 miles for the day, and I wanted to finally break the 50 mile mark that had been eluding me all year.

As I pedaled for home I had to stop often just to give my wrists a break. They were hurting pretty badly from the weight of my leaning body, no matter what position I tried on the handlebars. Plus my sweater leaked through the teeth of the neck zipper, sending jets of cold air down my chest. La called me on the phone and she kept me company for almost an hour of my ride, which was very helpful, since it was quite dark beyond the range of my headlight and all I had to look at was an endless reel of curb and the cold pavement. She even told me a bedtime story, and stayed on the phone while she brushed her teeth. (The story was about a fish made of frosting, who lived on a cake, and took a journey to the sea and discovered he was actually a regular fish underneath!)

Every now and then I would concentrate on my legs and try to gauge how well they were doing. Would they wear out before San Jose? Were they getting cold? But they felt fine, and with the blood flowing a circuit between my exposed legs and my insulated torso, they were warm enough. They just kept on turning. I wasn’t even breathing hard. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I felt like I wasn’t breathing any more then I would just sitting in a chair, reading a book.

Just outside of the San Jose city limits I stopped and took one glove off to poke the iPhone, and wiped my chin with my hand. A mass of water spilled off my face. Apparently I’d been riding through the mist long enough for it to collect in my beard like a wet sponge, but it was the same temperature as the air so I never noticed.

Things Mr. Fins Learned On This Ride:

  1. Motels are fricking EXPENSIVE.
  2. This pastime is not as rare as I thought, which is a relief. I passed four or five very friendly bicyclists on my trip, including an old couple riding a geared-up tandem. Hooray for non-car journeys!
  3. When the sun goes down on the road in winter, it gets cold FAST. And it takes time for the land to reheat when the sun comes up again. That leaves about 5 hours of riding time where you might be comfortable without nine jackets and twenty hiking socks on.
  4. Salty snacks and sugar are easy to find on the road, but potassium is difficult. Pretty much your only choice is bananas at a fruit stand.
  5. Going solo is relaxing and liberating, but without a riding partner, many things become difficult or even impossible. Shopping and using an urban public toilet are the worst. It’s ridiculous. This is not a problem for ANY other method of transportation, as far as I know. Except maybe camel.
  6. A bike fully loaded with gear can get VERY heavy. Those little items add up fast. The good news is, with the increased weight, you can remain steady at lower speeds, so you can follow behind pedestrians on the sidewalk and make ’em all nervous.
  7. And despite the extra weight, once you get a loaded bike rolling, it’s not hard to keep rolling. This was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting it to be like those exercise bikes in the gym whose idea of “hill” is a constant knee-aching resistance as if you were stuck eternally in the wrong gear. But the difference was one of inertia, not resistance.

For the last 8 miles or so I kept staring at the little blue dot on the iPhone map and yelling, “Move, damn you! MOVE!!” I was cold and tired and there was nothing to look at, and I just wanted to be off the bike. Two miles out, I began singing They Might Be Giants lyrics out loud, since the streets were deserted and I was getting a bit delirious.

But I made it. That was my first “official” touring adventure, and my first day over 50 miles. And my first day of 2009!

Pondering A Coast-To-Coast Ride

So after tinkering and going on small rides for all of last year, and obsessing about equipment and reading trip journals and carefully testing my endurance, I’ve decided it’s time to start getting serious about my dream of a cross-country bicycle trip.

I’ve found that a good way to assess my situation is to have a Q&A session with myself, so that’s what I’m doing here.

1. Why the hell are you doing this?

Because I want to get outside and see the country, on a tactile level, and breathe the air. Because my job keeps me cooped up inside, and even though I love my job and would not trade it for any other, I need to do something to counteract the feeling of frittering my life away in a cave. Because I like being on my bike. It is a fantastic way to travel. I also like camping, I like futzing with my camera, I like audiobooks, I like snacks. It’s everything I like.

2. Great, but, no, seriously – across the whole damn United States? That’s insane.

It’s been done tens of thousands of times by people with similar experience levels. There are yearly events, even races, with dozens of riders. There are well-considered routes to choose from. As you investigate it, it seems more possible, not less.

I’ve already had many day-long trips and back-to-back trips… But I know I’m definitely going to have to keep training. At this point, though, I’m convinced that I have the fitness level to do it. I just need to refine my equipment to the point where it’s as comfortable to use as possible.

3. Fine, fine. You think you can do it. But still, that’s a very long distance. How about riding to Los Angeles instead? How about a trip to Oregon? Or Yosemite and back?

I may eventually decide that a shorter trip is all I have time for. It depends on how much time away from work I can wrangle. I would actually be keen on an arrangement where I do programming work from a laptop for three or four hours a day. Got to do something when the sun goes down, after all.

But I do get the point. If the idea is to work up to a trip like this slowly, there’s still an awful lot of slope left between my current track record and the three-month excursion that a cross-country trip will be. At any point in this preparation, I may decide, “I just don’t feel comfortable enough yet,” and switch down to something shorter. …Because though I have learned an awful lot about keeping myself safe on a long ride, I still have a huge amount to learn.

4. Well now you’re talking a little more sensibly. What more do you need to learn?

I need to refine my bicycle to the point where I can ride it comfortably for many consecutive days. Right now that means getting a better rear rack, raising the handlebars, and possibly finding a better seat. I’ll also need to keep iterating on my equipment: Better luggage bags, a better battery system and software, better clothing, a more complete repair kit, et cetera.

Also, there are dozens of little disasters that can happen on a long-distance trip that haven’t happened to me yet. I need to learn how to deal with all of these if I’m going to enjoy my ride. I need to learn how to deal with the following things when I’m out in the middle of nowhere:

  • A punctured tube
  • A ripped up tire
  • Broken chain links
  • A damaged rack
  • Sudden rain
  • A poor campsite
  • Loose dogs
  • Various medical ailments

There are other worse things that can happen – a stolen bike, a broken limb – but those things are what I would consider trip enders. At that point it’s time to flag down a car, find a payphone, and call for rescue.

5. Wouldn’t a lot of this risk be mitigated if you had trip companions?

There is a group of three that is going on a cross-country trip starting on the 19th of May. The route they are planning to follow is almost exactly the route I would choose, though their pace is a little quicker than I would consider ideal. They are also much more experienced than I am with long-distance trips.

The range of time they’ve chosen has the most favorable weather, but it may be too early in the year for me to get adequate time away from work. They’re also all retirees, and I don’t know how they would feel about having a young rookie tag along. I get the impression I’ll want to go slower and take in the sights longer than they will.

That group aside, I know of no one with the same plans. None of my friends seem interested in a trip this ambitious, or if they are interested, they don’t have the time. Have I missed anyone?

6. What about that trip to Nepal you’ve been talking about? Isn’t that in May?

Yes. If that comes together, I’ll probably do that instead of this trip. I don’t have enough time to do both this year. But all the same, I am going to prepare as though the ride is happening.

7. Do you have a preparation itinerary?

It’s slowly congealing. The biggest thing is, I need to attempt more multi-day trips, so I can get used to camping. These will happen over the weekends, and probably consist of me starting my ride at various points around the Bay Area, biking for a while, and then setting up camp for the night unassisted. Then the next day I’d pack up the campsite and ride some more, until I reach a pickup point. Possibilities include (in order of difficulty):

  • Bike to work, bike home, and camp in the back yard. Then get up, shower, and bike to work again.
  • Starting from work, bike home, then camp in the back yard. Get up, shower, and bike to the Tech Shop in Menlo Park. Then bike home again.
  • Starting in San Francisco, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, camp, then bike back across the bridge.
  • Starting in Carmel, bike south on Highway 1 to the Andrew Molera State Park, camp, then ride back to Carmel.
  • Starting from work on a weekend morning, bike to Sam McDonald County Park via Alpine Road (over the mountains), camp, then bike to the coast along Pescadero Creek Rd and turn south for as long as I can.
  • Starting at the top of Highway 9 at Skyline Blvd, head along the crest of the mountains until Skyline turns into Summit Road, then Highland Way. Enter Nisene Marks from the back entrance and stealth-camp at the trailside. Get up at dawn, pack things up, and ride down out of Nisene Marks to Santa Cruz.

8. How are you going to finance this?

It’s really not that expensive. Campsites with showers, supplemented with the occasional motel stay, are a cheap way to spend the night. And of course I spend nothing on gas. It’s all about the food.

9. Speaking of food, how are you going to remain vegan on a cross-country ride?

I honestly don’t know. In all seriousness I may have to go non-vegan not because of any current health considerations but because it’s what the territory demands. I’ve become very used to having fresh fruits and vegetables of great variety, and high-quality oils, and all kinds of vegan possibilities for big chunks of protein and fat. Variety is the keystone of being a healthy vegan. Out there in the world – I’m looking at you, Kansas – there probably isn’t enough variety for me to thrive.

Yes, I find that quite sad. This is the breadbasket of the world, not Alaska. There is absolutely no good reason for the landscape to not be brimming with variety. Instead, the middle states grow endless fields of government-backed wheat, soybeans, and corn, dusted by Monsanto and shoveled into cattle troughs, or made into 100 variations of the same loaf of white bread. It’s an unnecessary plant monoculture. If I’m going to go riding through it, I may end up eating it, and its dairy-based offerings. It has been so many years now that the thought really disturbs me.

If you can’t understand my feeling, imagine this scenario: You’re visiting a foreign country. You shake hands with the hotel concierge and when you open your mouth to say hello, he spits into it. He then stands there, slack-jawed, waiting for you to spit back into his. After a few stunned moments, he closes his mouth, clearly insulted by your lack of etiquette. This same absurd ritual happens with everyone you meet. You keep your mouth tightly closed, … and they just spit on your face instead. You end up insulting everyone, and feeling nauseous all day. The furious bellhop mangles your luggage. The waiters bring your food cold. Taxi drivers call you a boor and charge you double. You realize you can either join the crowd, or remain miserable.

10. Thanks, I needed that image. Thlbtlbthlpt. So how are you gonna deal with it?

Like I said, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll compromise and allow eggs from unknown sources? Or the occasional cheese sandwich? I guess I need to do more research.

11. Can you really do this?

Yes, it is well within my grasp. I just need to make sure I can do it with enough speed so that my employer will allow it. I could easily extend a journey like this into an entire year, by hiking and camping and zig-zagging over the land to catch every bizarre midwestern monument on the map. But at that point I would be unemployed, probably with no chance of getting my old job back. A terrible idea. No, when it comes down to it, my job is more important than this trip.