Bathroom Camping

The day before Mother’s Day, I went on a bike ride into the hills. This was the first ride I made with a full complement of touring gear since the Pinnacles Monument ride in January. This time, I packed up a lot more stuff, with the intention of making the trip a lot more comfortable and safe.

On the Pinnacles ride, I had to use both my rear panniers for the tent and sleeping bag, and place everything else in the front panniers. That made the front of the bike very heavy and hard to steer. I didn’t want to make that mistake again.

So I removed the tent from its sack and stuffed it into one front pannier, and the sleeping bag got stuffed into the other front pannier, consuming all the luggage space on the front of the bike. One large item remained: the roll-up mattress. I stuffed that into the sack belonging to the tent, and laid it on the rear rack neatly between the two panniers. I anchored it down with a bungie cord, hooked between the rack and the underside of the seat, and the bag of tent poles hung suspended beneath the bungie cord, crosswise against the rear of the rack, on the back of the bike.

The end result was a lot more compact than I expected. The large panniers were still completely free for food, laundry, and gadgets. So, of course, I completely stuffed them.

Things I took along for this trip that I didn’t open: Three bags of fritos, three packages of peanut-butter crackers, four Odwalla bars, a bag of “energy chews”, and a 20-ounce bottle of mint tea. I also packed two t-shirts I never wore, four pairs of underwear and socks I never put on, a backpack I never wore, a heavy repair kit I never opened, and — through a combination of poor planning and dumb luck — I ended up not needing the tent, the poles, or the stakes. (You can probably guess why.)

Before loading everything into the van, I weighed myself, and then weighed myself again holding the bike. From this I learned two things: One, I’ve gained almost ten pounds since my last major ride. Two, I’ll be pushing 77 pounds of equipment around. (That includes the bike!) That’s exactly 2/5ths my body weight. Good thing I have spare calories to burn.

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I took my time preparing, since I had a couple modifications to make to the rack, and some food to cook, and some playlists to load onto the iPhone. I also rode up and down the street with the loaded bike a couple of times, testing the distribution of weight.

By the time I was ready, La was up and about, and it was late afternoon. I whined a bit about the steepness of the hills I would be climbing, and La rolled her eyes and agreed to drop me off partway up the big hill. She’s a really good sport. :)

While driving, we had a lively talk about anthropology, and cultural milestones, and adulthood. The terrain became very scenic. We contemplated stopping for a picnic, but before we could make up our minds I spotted an interesting rock formation and we stopped to investigate.

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Apparently a tiny stream has been washing layers of chalk down the side of this hill for quite a while. Neat stuff, and only a dozen miles from my office. That surprises me.

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La dropped me off about 2/3 of the way up the hill. Before she left she got a few pictures of me test-riding the bike. For the first one, I posed with some Miner’s Lettuce propped on the handlebars. (Miner’s Lettuce is a fragile, primitive-looking plant that grows in these shady forest regions. It’s completely edible, though a bit bland by itself.)

In the second picture, you can see how low the front bags sit compared to the rear bags – it looks ridiculous, and it’s also not very aerodynamic. I may need to purchase a different rack just to cut down on the wind blockage. It would also be nice to have a little platform to stick my camera and snackies on…

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I climbed VERY slowly up the hill for the next three hours. My top speed was probably 2.5mph. I had to take frequent rest stops because the muscles in my lower back were in very poor shape, relative to my January ride. Good grief, what has happened over these last four months? Or was it the height of these handlebars, messing with my posture? I really need to get them cut back down.

Anyway, I inched slowly upward. I tried to call my Mom and wish her a happy day-before-Mother’s-Day, but my phone cut off about five minutes into the conversation, and then lost signal entirely. A fire engine came screaming up the road past me, lights flashing. Just after that I began rounding a curve and noticed a road flare, blazing brightly near the center stripe, making a spot of hot pink in a yellow sunbeam. Slowly I pedaled further around the curve, and saw a man in a leather biker outfit, standing by the guardrail next to his motorbike, waving a handkerchief in the air. The road curved again beyond him. Whatever he was trying to warn people about was around the next curve.

I pedaled doggedly towards the biker. A half-dozen cars passed me before I reached him, all slowed down by the flare and the handkerchief. “What’s happening?” I asked him.

“Accident. Guy laid his bike down on a curve.”

Before we could say any more, a troop of harley riders came farting up the road, and stopped near the man. Three bikes, six riders. They all dismounted and began talking excitedly. The guy who had the accident was a member of their gang.

I put my feet back in the pedals and began inching around the next curve. There, parked almost diagonally astride the road, was the fire engine. Just beyond it was an ambulance, with the doors open. Beyond that, a police car. Grim-faced, I pedaled on. In the gap between the ambulance and the fire engine, I looked across the road and saw a crowd of people in uniform, arrayed around a man and a woman sitting dejectedly on the shoulder. The woman was wearing a freshly-installed neck brace. The man was pressing one hand to his head, and his clothes were disheveled as though he’d just finished tumbling around in an industrial clothes-dryer. They were clearly not having a good day. There was no sign of their motorcycle.

Another of their biker friends was standing further up the road, next to a police officer. He noticed me and said, “Easy does it, eh?”

“Two miles an hour, man, all the way up the hill.”

I kept pedaling until I was around the next corner. There, I stopped at a driveway, and stretched my back on the road for a while, and ate some snacks. For all the times I’ve wished terrible punishment on the harley riders and their 3:00 AM farting machines, farting me awake for no good reason on a work night, seeing it up close, even dealt to them impersonally by the road itself, does not bring me any joy.

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Frustration, mostly. Bikers know the risks they take more than anyone. Yet they still make bonehead decisions, and then the road chews them up for it. I lost count years ago of all the times I’ve seen bikers do stupid things for the sake of a car length in traffic, or ten seconds less commute time on the open road. I get ahead of myself here, but on the way back from Santa Cruz in the van the next day, I was passed by an enormous man on a harley, weaving his way through the middle of two packed lanes, wearing a bright orange shirt that read, “CAN YOU SEE ME NOW ASSHOLE?”

Two seconds thought; just one thought after your first thought of “Ha, that’s my attitude”, to the next thought: “Will these words make me less likely of a target for abuse? Or MORE?” Nope. The second thought either never happens, or is discarded. Perhaps bikers, as a collective, are paying the karmic debt of their worst, when they get mangled by an innocent curve in the road. That would be unfair, but it might explain why the belligerent ones survive more than a few weeks on the open road.

But whatever. If the man in the orange shirt isn’t squished flat by an annoyed trucker, he’ll have a heart attack soon enough, judging by his shape. I don’t have to get involved in any case. Hah.

Where was I… Oh yes. It sucks to see people injured. But we’re all out here because we love the road.

It took another 45 minutes to reach the summit. At the top, I called my Mom again to continue our Mothers’ Day chat. We talked about gardening and movies, and my early life in Scott’s Valley, and the way that raising kids has changed in the culture at large. We reminisced about owning geese, chickens, and ducks. “We had names for all the geese, but the chickens … they just didn’t have enough personality. One chicken seemed like the next. The only one we named was the rooster, Spike. Spike was chicken even for a chicken – whenever anyone entered the corral he would flee to the other end and hide there.”

She also reminded me about how the sandbox I used to play in as a kid eventually got converted into a potato patch. I’d forgotten that. It was nice to have an “a-ha” moment, and see a memory spring into focus: The deep green, angular leaves blooming up out of the wooden enclosure, with a hint of the yellow sand still beneath.

She really made that house into a wonderful place for growing up. It will be hard to follow in her footsteps, though fun trying. Hopefully La and I won’t have to be a two-income family while our children are young, and we can pay proper attention to enjoying their youth. It would be a travesty to have kids only for the sake of putting them in daycare so we can work enough hours to pay for the daycare, and hope that at some future date, we may actually earn the freedom to be with our kids for a span longer than a weekend. That’s some serious Brave New World crap right there, man.

If that is the new American way of life, then the new American way of life is not for me. I will opt out of it. I will have kids when – and if – I am ready to enjoy it. Some people are married to their careers, or their schooling, and see parenthood as a sort of obligation to their future selves. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll be too old.” But people have kids at 19, and at 29, and at 39, and occasionally at 49. The only reason the valid range seems so narrow to Americans is because their families are all ripped apart for the sake of economic mobility and rugged individualism. We pay a dear, dear price for this. Lacking a clan, where young and old alike are always around, we think our clear-cut generations are the norm.

Hrmm, I seem to have stepped on my soapbox again. Stepping down now…

Anyway, Mom and I finished up our chat so I could start zooming down the hill and out of cell range. The rushing wind became cold in the shadow of the trees, so I stopped at an overlook and put my sweater on. I discovered that I was using my brakes a lot less than I expected, even though the bike was much heavier than usual. At the time, my theory was that the low front panniers were creating a whole lot of wind resistance. And, I was sitting higher in the saddle with that handlebar extension. More adjustments to make.

Later on I realized, it may have been that the extra weight of my bike was helping to keep me glued to the road more strongly, making my inertia feel less dangerous.

I cruised down Highway 9 with ease, enjoying the respite from pedaling, until it connected with Highway 236. I was expecting 236 to continue down the hill, but after about 100 yards it leveled off and then began to tilt slowly upwards. After a while it got just as steep as the hill I’d been climbing all afternoon. I hadn’t been expecting this, and as the gloomy dusk gave way to darkness, I realized that I would be arriving far too late at the Big Basin preserve to register for a campsite.

Well, perhaps I could sneak into one? I was too far down this hill to turn back, so I continued along 236, as it tilted up, and up some more. Very occasionally a car would rumble past me. Usually I just pedaled along into the white halo of my headlight, listening to my ambient music, and hearing the occasional animal noise from the woods.

After a while I stopped and checked my iPhone map. The GPS put me about halfway along 236, between the junction with 9 and the intersection with China Grade Road. Out of curiosity I explored the map around China Grade, in case it offered a better route than my current one, but it squiggled way up north towards Portola State Park and then disappeared. No help there. I looked around me and realized that I could see stark shadows, and turned around in my seat to see a huge orange moon glaring at my back from between the trees, like Sauron’s eye.

I felt a bit spooked, but decided that it was best to soldier on. With my bike in the lowest possible gear, my progress was painfully slow, and I began to regret packing so much luggage. But what could I have left out? As I spun the pedals I went over my packing list in my head, and realized that the only thing I considered “extra” was the food. The gear I was pedaling with was the exact set of gear I would be using on my extended trip in July. It was also the equivalent of what I took with me to Pinnacles at the beginning of the year. Why did it feel so much heavier now?

I stopped, and considered my surroundings. “Well, one thing’s for sure, there won’t be any damn hills like this on the route I’ve chosen,” I said out loud to myself. That’s one of the things you start doing, on midnight bike trips in the woods: You start thinking out loud. It helps to scare away the mountain lions, right?

“And there was one big hill on the way to Pinnacles that was almost the equivalent of this, and it slowed me way the hell down just like this hill does. And back then I didn’t even have this ultra-low gear. Also, this hill is twice as long. Perhaps all this weight will be okay when I get to flatter land.”

It was an encouraging thought, but it wouldn’t help me now. I was looking at several miles of steep hills in any direction. I considered just pulling out into the woods and trying to set the tent up in a clearing, but my chances of finding a clearing were low.

Frustrated, I pedaled onward. Just my luck that I would live in a region where the only accessible forests, the only fresh land for an enjoyable ride, would be laid across punishingly steep hills.

A car blazed past me, on its way down. From the driver’s side window, I heard a man’s voice yell something that sounded like, “harfhl hrraarff hlarrrfh!” Whatever, dude. Just after that, the hill finally leveled out, dropped a bit, and then went on a long level course as it snaked across the hill. I got up to a good 17 miles per hour, then hit an incline just long enough to stall me out at the top and force me to gear way down again. I paused there, to drink a bit of water and munch some chocolate, and in the distance I heard a young woman’s voice laughing and shouting. Campers in the park? Was I that close to the park already?

I checked the map: No, I still had several miles left. Perhaps it was just a house nearby. I shrugged and pedaled down the crest of the hill, then began coasting. After a few minutes of rushing air, I passed by a rocky outcrop and the forest opened, allowing the moonlight to illuminate the road. There, up ahead, was a large sign announcing the entrance to Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Just beyond that, China Grade Road came swooping down from the north and cut a sloping intersection into 236. It seemed to mark a change in the roadway: Past China Grade, highway 236 began to twist and curve downward with more intensity. I pedaled through the intersection and onward, hoping that the uphill section of my tour was finally finished.

I got up to about 20 miles per hour and then the road made a series of stair-steps, dropping and then leveling out repeatedly. The trees had become irregular, and I could see bush-covered hillside above and below me. The air became much colder, and started to bite, and I regretted not packing my sweatpants. But then an interesting thing happened. I began to pass clumps of trees on my left, and every time I did so, I would hit a wall of air, luxuriously warm and humid. It was as though the trees were buffering the air from earlier in the day, which had accumulated as the sunlight cooked the road. I began to anticipate these columns of air, and breathe deeply as I passed into each one. Aaaaah.

Eventually I plunged down a final stair-step and entered the forest again. This time it was even darker than before. The moon couldn’t penetrate the canopy of the tall redwoods in the park. I continued in rushing silence, taking note of the signs announcing the approach of the Visitor’s Center. I saw a few lit campgrounds in the distance off to my left, but found no driveways leading to them. They must have been on some other road.

At long last I rolled up to the big wooden lodge of the Visitor’s Center. No one was on duty. Behind the clerk’s window I saw a hand-lettered sign, propped on a chair, declaring that three of the five campgrounds were booked, and could not accept walk-ins. “Alright, well that leaves two campsites, maybe I’ll get lucky after all,” I thought, and pedaled on.

No. I rode past the three sites that were full, and then encountered a large, permanent-looking sign at the fourth: “Under construction. Closed for the season.” The sign was mounted on a barred gate, sealed with a padlock. The padlock hadn’t been disturbed for some time.

“Faaan-tastic,” I muttered to myself, followed by a dozen or so expletives. I pedaled forward for a minute and found a second padlocked gate, with a second sign just like the other one. The last campground, also closed for the season. No sites available. Next time, make a reservation, ya dummy.

I stopped by the gate and propped the bike on its kickstand, and dismounted to stretch my back. Eventually I leaned on one of the gateposts at the edge of my headlight beam, and considered my options. Should I keep riding and try to get to Santa Cruz, and check into a motel? Should I attempt to stealth-camp out in the woods after all? Should I go back to one of the campsites and ask any campers who were still awake if I could share their spot?

I thought about calling someone on the phone for advice, and walked over to the bike to check my phone’s signal strength. Zero, as I expected. There never seems to be any coverage in National Parks, … perhaps by design? Is there some legal problem putting cell towers in here? Perhaps an environmental one, with laying the cables…

I looked up towards the gate that I’d been leaning against, and noticed a building beyond it, dimly visible from my bike. I unsnapped my phone from its mount, cranked the brightness way up, and held it out as a flashlight as I walked over to inspect the structure. It had four doors, two of which were unlocked. A large bathroom and a set of showers. The power was off, so the motion-activated lights didn’t engage. The bathroom had a suspiciously clean smell, as though it hadn’t been used for many months. I flushed the toilet out of curiosity. It was in working order.

I turned around and tried the lock-button on the door. It engaged with no trouble and immobilized the outside handle.

“Well whaddaya know. It’s like my own little personal motel room.”

The bathroom was large. I went out to the road and fetched my bike, and wheeled it into the room, and locked the door. I set my iPhone on the washbasin for some light, and started some piano music playing out the tiny speaker while I set up my bed.

The mattress and the sleeping bag were both quite comfortable. I laid out some fresh laundry, drank some water, stuffed my sweater into the pillow-sack of the sleeping bag, and set an alarm for 6:00am. I would get less than six hours of sleep, but I was OK with that. I was feeling paranoid about being discovered by rangers or construction crew and having to explain myself.

Yep: I slept in a bathroom. High adventure this isn’t, folks.

I kept the water nearby, since I was used to sleeping in the San Jose air and waking up parched. But when I woke up at 5:30am, I wasn’t thirsty, thanks to the humid coastal air. It was the first time I’d experienced that in at least a year. I’d been missing it.

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I packed my things back onto the bike, washed my face (cold water, yuck) and used the toilet. It was right there, so … why not. Outside, the forest was just starting to brighten into dawn. I took some time to eat breakfast and mosey around the campground that had been closed for “construction”. No sign of any construction, or any construction workers, or any rangers. I could have probably set up in one of these camp sites just fine. Oh well.

I hauled out my iPod and began playing a spooky collection of soundtrack music by James Newton Howard, and started pedaling up through the lush forest towards the south entrance of the park. The steeply angled morning light made the trees glow fantastically, and I wished, not for the first time, that I could just spend all week riding through woods like these, perhaps stopping at bed-and-breakfast cabins so I didn’t have to haul so much gear… Well, some time in the future, perhaps. When I have more money.

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33 years old, camping overnight in Big Basin Redwoods, California.

Between the bathrooms and the park entrance I passed by one other person: A tall, scruffy man walking down the road with a huge backpack, carrying a long curved pole wrapped in insulation and tape. He didn’t nod hello as I passed him by. What was he carrying? It was far too long to be a rifle, and if it was a longbow it was un-strung, which would be useless. If it was a fishing rod I don’t know why he would wrap it – perhaps to conceal it from rangers? But where would he fish, around here? The fishing here is extremely poor.

Oh well, it would have to remain a mystery. I left him behind and pedaled out of the park.

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A while after that I stopped for a drink and discovered that I was standing about six feet away from a young deer, quietly munching greens by the roadside. I had to make noises at her to get her attention long enough for a face-to-face picture. She seemed quite calm. You can see a bonus banana slug in the first picture.

A while after that I noticed that my phone was getting signal bars, so I stopped and took off my sweater, ate some chocolate, and called La on the phone to tell her where I was. She’d been napping, but she was glad to hear from me. We chatted for a while, then I continued my slow slog up the hill, and eventually the road leveled off just in time for me to see a sign for “Little Basin Road: Rough Road: No Outlet” on my right.

I stopped and checked my map. Yes, Little Basin was the road I was supposed to be taking in order to get to Bonnie Doon, but if this sign was to be believed, the road would be impassable. Well never mind that then. I’ll just stay on this road, and ride to Santa Cruz via Felton. I browsed my map a bit more, until I realized I was hearing a strange noise: A bird call, repeating, going “aww-WAAH, aww-WAAAAAH”, quite loudly.

I turned to my left and saw a house surrounded by a series of wire fences and squares of grass. That explains it. Someone’s running a peacock farm here. I scanned the grass and saw a couple of the birds, long and low to the ground, dark tails folded up and dragging behind them. They sure are noisy in the morning. Maybe it’s feeding time.

A couple of cheerful cyclists passed me, going towards Big Basin. “Mornin’,” they called out, and raised a hand. We’re all glad to be out here, and we’re pretty smug about it sometimes. Heh heh.

The road turned downhill from that point on, and became steep enough that I had to apply my brakes on the curves. I stopped at the top of a particularly scary one and got out my camera, and stuck it on the handlebars in movie mode, so I could make a film clip of my descent. The camera only takes movies in 60-second bursts, though, and after the minute expired I had to come to a complete stop to put the camera back in my luggage.

After my second attempt at a movie, I was packing the camera back into my rear pannier, and I looked up and saw a large hand-painted sign announcing the presence of a Buddhist Retreat. Beyond the sign, up the hillside a ways, I saw the turret of a bizarre structure. I wheeled my bike up the hill and took out my camera for a photo.

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While I was standing there, a woman came walking out of the house nearby and said hello. She was years older than I, but very pretty, with simple clothing, short grey hair, and a kind face. I struck up a conversation with her about the Temple, and she told me about the founder – a wealthy professor from San Francisco, I think – and the monks they had transported from Nepal to act as cultural emissaries and lead meditations. I told her I was very glad to see such a place, because I found the strong Christian presence to be … tiresome. She seemed encouraged by this and invited me to attend an open-house that they would be having in July – the 14th, I think. There would be music, free food, and tours. I made a mental note to tell La and Kashy about it. Then I politely said goodbye and walked my bike respectfully off the property … since I was obviously trespassing, after all.

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The road squiggled quickly down towards Boulder Creek. I passed a golf course, with a bunch of people zipping around in little motorized carts. A few of them waved at me. I took out my camera for a photo of some trees and noticed that the card was full, so I stopped at the side of the road to import the photos into the laptop and clear up some space.

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Then it was more downhill, through a stunning avalanche of green, plants and bushes and trees, seething at the edges of the road, eating up the rough, earthy hillside, sparkling with water and pillars of light. I’d forgotten how lush and alive this place was.

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I would have to get on a plane and fly a thousand miles in any direction to find something more lush as this, possibly on an island out in the Gulf of Mexico, or up along the misty coastline of Washington. And that would be without the redwoods, of course. There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world. It sucks to live just beyond reach of all this, down in central San Jose. It sucks worse than living entirely apart from it, I think.

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Eventually I reached Felton, and stopped in a park near the middle of town, to arrange my gear and eat more snacks. I called The La and asked if she would mind picking me up here. She said yes, so I walked around the park and bided my time.

I did some people-watching, and inspected a covered bridge. I passed by a young woman in goth dress reading a book beneath a tree, and did a double-take. She was the spitting image of Carolyn, but I knew it couldn’t actually be her, unless she had managed to age about a year backwards in the intervening seven years since I last saw her. I stopped under another tree a respectable distance away and listened to a podcast, and noticed a creepy-looking guy carrying a plastic sack and wearing leather work-gloves. He was walking around the park, on the cement pathway, in a figure-8, over and over. I watched him curiously until my vision was interrupted by a jaunty black labrador, sopping wet, who ran over to a bush near the park entrance, sniffed it, and peed on it voluminously. There seemed to be no end to his pee; I suspect he just about killed the bush outright.

The traffic turned out to be horrendous. Among other things, La passed by a car that was ON FIRE as she threaded through the beach traffic over highway 17. She is a brave soul. Eventually she rolled into the lot near the park, and my second overnight “camping” adventure of the year came to an end.

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