On a road like PCH, you don't get far between stops. We rounded a single headland, just past that hill, and had to stop again. To our right lay a vast expanse of beach, and do our left piled up massive sand dunes, overgrown by whatever sort of craggy vegetation was willing to put up with sand, salt, cold and constant wind.
We were starting to get punchy, so it was time for the obligatory "spacemen lifting off" shot.
L-R: Elizabeth, Jeremy, Wayli, Walter. Don't trust your eyes, folks, Walter is not actually doing "Gangnam Style"
One of the things I love most about the coast around here is the utter vastness of species that somehow manage to eek out survival in this hostile environment. There are all sorts of hardy shrubs here, literally covering the dunes and cliffs in a knee deep carpet of stuff. Grays, greens and browns mix with yellows, pinks, reds and the occasional flash of bright white from the sand beneath. Add in a river flowing out of one of the many, many canyons and you've got a bewildering array of environments, from marine to intertidal to beach to coastal to desert, with temperate forest not far off in the redwoods of Big Sur. But we'll get there soon enough.
For now, here's the beach.
It was a 360 degree barrage of amazing space. I tried to get a panorama, but a wandering tourist walked into my shot and a car shot through. I was about to try another one, but Elizabeth was putting her helmet on and I knew it was time to hustle.
We kept riding, in earnest this time. Pretty soon, the road soared up the cliffs, nothing more than a narrow charcoal ribbon cut out of the constantly eroding hills. We hit construction several times as the road was shored up or cut deeper into the hill, bridges were built and rebuilt, and heavy cement tunnels were built to keep rock slides off the road.
When I was doing my obsessive-compulsive "researching" (reading everything that has "Big Sur" in it) I ran across the Bixby Creek Bridge
, and became infatuated. I like bridges- my last trip was out to find a very specific bridge
- and this time I made sure to infect the others. "Yeah, it's, like, the longest bridge in California! Or at least one of the longest! Or maybe it's the tallest... or the oldest, or something... it's pretty awesome anyhow!" Somehow they fell for it, and we all kept an eye out.
And then we saw it, and it was pretty cool. It had a big curve to it, and nowhere to pull over and look at it but it was neat to ride over this tight little canyon and stare down into the yawning maw of this weird crack in the earth. We stalled a few minutes later for a flagman and more construction, and Wayli and I agreed that this must have been it. Yeah, sure, that was cool.
And three turns later, there was a turn out, and people standing taking pictures of this spectacular, spidery web of concrete and steel over the biggest chasm we encountered all weekend. This was the true Bixby Creek Bridge, and let me tell you, it deserves every accolade it gets. One second I was cruising through tight, snakey turns along the cliff, and the next I was on a long and gentle decent toward this amazing bridge, and then I was on it, an emerald green slash of foliage cutting back into the mountain far below and to the left, and the rumbling Pacific framed between two massive promontories on my right.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what they mean by the freedom of the open road. This perfect moment of accomplishment, of knowing that you personally made it a point to put yourself on this very part of the earth, and at the same moment feeling utterly dwarfed by this huge bridge, which in turn is nothing more than a tenuous thread between to massive headlands, that are mere feet to the mountain on your left. And that's not even starting on the vastness of the Pacific ocean right there in front of you.
The road got windier and more treacherous, with some tight curves and then more construction, and finally a neat cement... thing. It was obviously designed to keep rocks from cluttering up the road (and believe me, that's a necessary thing!), but rather than just slapping in a tunnel, they built a heavy wall to the left and a massive roof above, and textured it all to look like a cave. It wasn't a cave, of course, but it was a nice touch. But wait! You can't hide views like this! So the right side isn't enclosed, but has a series of massive columns, like a Greek temple, with the rolling ocean beyond that.
And then, spent like a tired snake, the road uncoiled and we headed out into the flats and Big Sur.
Right away, we spotted a sign: CAMPGROUND and right beneath it: CAMPING: FULL
I think all of us saw the first sign and veered toward it like moths toward a Coleman lantern, and all of us saw the second sign and got back on the highway without breaking stride. It was a thing of beauty, the whole group really had a feel for it now.
The forest sprang up on both sides, and then the hills rose toward the sky and we were in a narrow river valley along the coast, the sun lost behind the hill and darkness coming on fast in that narrow space. Then another sign: CAMPGROUND and CAMPING: OPEN
Bingo, babycakes! This time it was more of a mad tumble to get off the road and slow down and reorient ourselves from a headlong rush down the highway to riding the brakes down a beastly steep and hacked up road, across a bridge over the river, and into the campground.
I have to hand it to them, they didn't blink an eye when scooter man Walter flipped up his visor and fixed them with bleared and beady eyes to ask for camping for 5 motorcycles. Sure, they said, that was fine.
I rolled up and shouted ASK THEM ABOUT THE BIKES.
Blank stare from Walter.
THE BIKES. SOME PLACES ONLY ALLOW TWO VEHICLES.
He turned to the polite young lady who was by now utterly bewildered by this little ritual and said "we have 5 bikes." She said something I didn't catch, so I did the fiddly I'm-wearing-earplugs-you'll-have-to-speak-up motion near my ear. Blank stare. I knocked my helmet. Nothing. Good grief, I really did need a break! I leaned in and said "Sorry, I'm wearing earplugs. What did you say?"
"SHE SAID $60 FOR ALL THE BIKES!" Walter shouted in my ear.
This took a second to percolate. $12 is amazingly cheap for a private campground in a place like this, but she must have been desperate to make a sale and piped up with offers of flush toilets, free hot showers and coffee or tea in the morning. We'll take it, thanks!
Next came the game of juggling these heavily loaded road bikes through badly maintained campground dirt, but everything handled surprisingly well I thought. We found a place, pulled out, found a better one, moved the bikes and got ourselves situated.
We'd done it. Made it. Big Sur. We were really, finally here. Construction, windy roads, crazy meet-ups, bike issues, rocks, full campground, and here we were, a mismatched, raggedy bunch of randos that had successfully navigated a ourselves to one of the most beautiful places on earth, on two wheels and all at the same time. From here on out, it was all gravy. No matter what came next, success was ours.
The tent was put up (mostly- everyone ran out of interest halfway through, and besides, you can't see the sky with a rain fly, so it was really more of a shelter from non-existent mosquitoes and a place to chuck our stuff), the fire was started, and beer was cracked.
None of us had expected showers, so of course nobody brought a towel. Except for Walter. This man is to be commended, here in public for all to see, for his insane dedication to this trip. He not only baked a friggin' mousse cake, but then had the foresight to wrap it in a wet towel and freeze the whole thing solid so it'd be cold and unspoiled by the time it made it here. AND now he had a towel! It just needed to be dried out. This took most of the night, and the last time I saw the poor towel it was kicked under the picnic table and was still a bit sodden, but still: towel.
Elizabeth, our intrepid ambassador schmoozed with our neighbor who turned out to be a yogi and musician on the run from relationship woes. Neat guy, and happy to share in our fire, wine and sausages, and to repay us the next morning by sharing his breakfast of fruit.
Jeremy, Wayli and I decided the really important things in life came in bottles, and made short work of the beer. As you can see, it was getting chilly- half of us were still in our riding jackets.
And then it got dark and meat happened over the fire.
Quiet hours happened and were enforced by 10, so after that it was half-drunk dirty jokes and muffled chuckling, much to our friendly yogi neighbor's amusement.
I think it was Walter who pointed out how different camping is when you're and adult than when you're a kid. When you're a kid, everything is cold, the food tastes funny, there's dirt in your sleeping bag, and you'd much rather be home but Mom and Dad force you to come out here. But when you're an adult, it's a whole different game! It's cold, but it's YOUR cold, damnit! This ain't no stinking office with A/C and heater, this is real cold! Outside cold! And the food? Damn right it tastes funny! This is nothing you could buy in a restaurant, this is honest-to-god camp food, burnt to whatever flavor you desire over hot-as-hell coals from real hardwood. No gas stove here, no brickets, just wood, burning, and some metal pipes in a grill shape. There may be dirt in your sleeping bag, but there's nowhere in the world you'd rather be, because you CHOSE to be here. You made the choice, and then made it happen. It's a feeling of victory and of accomplishment. For some of us that happens in the Serengeti on a month-long trip. For some, that's a hike in the local park between work and dinner. For us, it was 150 miles from home in Big Sur. Not the Serengeti, but a hell of a lot further than the local park.
Still, no denying that it was cold, and the smoke was turning my eyeballs into kielbasa. I headed to the local "flushies" to refund some of the beer and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I'm not above using decent plumbing when it's available, but that glimpse told of much more than one day on the road. I felt good. Alive. Filthy, cold and full of funny tasting dinner as any bear in the woods. Or sea otter, or condor, or whatever. Sometimes you look in the mirror, and think "That isn't me. Where am I?" For me, that person is in the bathroom mirror of a campground in Big Sur.
It was time to turn in. We'd made our goal and the trip was complete, but the adventure had barely begun. We still had the whole next day and the whole way back, and that, my friends, had not seen a lick of planning. We didn't know how we were going to do that until we got there. Boy howdy, was it worth it!