Words really can’t describe the strange feeling that settled in the morning I crossed into California – there was no big dramatic change, and in fact Mexico seemed to merge into the USA slowly. The big change was how organised the place seemed all of a sudden. I stopped at a currency change place to switch out the last of my pesos and spoke shortly in Spanish with a Mexican girl there about what she thought of the USA, her response was just as short – she wouldn’t reside there in a million years, and in fact commuted to work from over the border in Tijuana.
I set off North with no real agenda, I was hoping to make about 100km to stay with a woman who lived about half way to LA. As I ambled through San Diego I began noticing elaborately costumed super heroes everywhere, and realised afterwards it was Comicon weekend – the whole place was foreign enough without the fantasy mob.
The west coast of the USA is home to a country long bike network spanning from the border with Canada down to Mexico – most cyclists I’ve met along the way took this route coming south, which from all accounts is completely beautiful. I’d already decided long before I would head North to LA to sort out some passport issues, and then I would look for the first opportunity to peel off inland in search of quiet mountains and national parks.
I spent the first night on a couch outside the house of a woman I’d found online, and we went out for dinner and craft beers on a rooftop patio as the sunset. It was immediately clear how different the experience was going to be, for the last month or so on the Baja peninsula my day end ritual was similar, but I’d paid cents for a beer which tasted like water and dirtied my arse on the sand by the pacific as opposed to the clean cut patio I now found myself on. I spoke with my host a little about US politics and how it’s perceived externally, and I got the opinion I might be speaking to my first Trump supporter, though it was never mentioned. Along the way I’d learn that progressive voters here were constantly looking for some indication that you might share their opinion, and that conservative voters (at least the ones I’ve met), were pretty guarded about expressing their allegiances. I laughed as I realised this broadly followed the stereotype about vegans telling you that they’re vegan.
On the way into LA the following day an old bloke on a bike stopped me and we spoke a little bit about where I’d come from before he quickly hopped off the bike and invited me over the road to drink a beer at a corner store. This felt a bit more like the experience I wanted, hoodratting beers on street corners. We were quickly asked to move away and we finished our beers across the road in a children’s park as he told me how he’d originally gotten into cycling to escape from his nagging wife.
I arrived late into Long Beach and rolled up to the house of a friend which I met way back in Chile and was warmly welcomed in to a cushy couch for a few nights while I got my bearings on the US and which way I was going to go. A few nights and many beers later I headed off to Santa Monica to pass a few more nights with a bloke I’d met down in Baja, Steve ended up being one of the most hospitable people I’ve come across, and he spent a few days running me around town organising papers for a passport renewal. When I saw the sprawl of LA from the seat of a car I was incredibly grateful for the hospitality.
When I finally headed off from the city I followed a cycle path more or less along the coast for the next few hundred kilometres, exercising all of my utility at finding places to sleep. On the patio of a cafe one night (at the owners permission), and out the back of a fire house the next. I stopped for a moment to admire all the old weatherboard construction in Santa Barbara and turned inland at San Luis Obispo to head towards the Sierra. I was taken in at the wine country around Paso Robles and spent a day off with new friends, music and red wine out in the vineyards with a couple who had been bike touring for 50 years all around the world, and were now retired and still happily riding most mornings.
As I continued on towards the Sierra Nevada my camping options became limited to the side of highways and rest areas. In Latin America the general sentiment was that I could camp anywhere, and if the cops turned up they were likely to be curious about what I was doing, and perhaps even invite me back to the station to camp there. The USA feels a bit different in this regard, and I think there are even laws against vagrancy and the like – the bulk of the population that I’d seen appeared to be a bit more hesitant/likely to judge and I didn’t particularly want any trouble with the police so I stayed pretty well hidden high up on embankments and close to border fences. I made it to the foothills of the mountains quickly and began the climb up and into Sequoia National Park.
The climb up was entirely paved but was probably the biggest and consistently steep climb I’d had since Ecuador – about 2000m up with an average grade around 10%. On the way up I was overtaken by the day trippers heading up at midday, and then once again I saw the same crowd leaving as I kept spinning at 6pm, about 80% of the way up. The entire car crowd was stopped at a construction zone on the way down and about a dozen cars wound their windows down to whoop and holler and yell words of encouragement. A few lobbed bottles of water my way and somehow I manage a few hundred metres more before I decided it was time to camp. I took a photo of my bike alongside a large sequoia, rapt by the scale of the thing. I dutifully cooked hundred of metres away from my tent and slung my food in a tree while I failed to get any sleep, aware I was in bear country for the first time. Later I’d realise the black bears in the area were more akin to skittish puppies than the enormous fury I thought they were likely to be.
When I finally crawled out of my tent I scurried back onto the roadway, afraid some park rangers would spot me and take the last of my savings off my hands as penalty for camping out in the woods. The remainder of the day I spent riding high on the sierra, and realising how much larger the trees were up high than the photo I’d taken the night before.
The National Park Service is revered in a way I don’t recognise in Australia. There seems to be a split of the population who are a little bitter at the commercial nature of them, but I can’t fault peoples desire to see them – they’re all independently beautiful. The system seems almost curated, and all the bridges and retaining walls lining the climb up are constructed or faced in granite to match the landscape.
As I exited the park I stuffed myself with candy bars, exhausted from the previous days climb, and I looked about the area for a clearing in the national forest to camp. Instead, Mike and Jeannie saw me and offered me a ride out to their house in the woods where I could rest. I probably couldn’t find their place again if I tried, and they had a beautiful self built house in the woods which was completely off grid for power and water. They had a reservoir where they could swim and a studio where they could art, as well as a spare bedroom they gifted me for 2 nights and copious amounts of red wine and salmon over my time there.
After a big downhill I spent the next few days heading towards Yosemite, and knowing I would have to climb and cross the mountains again soon. Yosemite, for the most part, didn’t disappoint. It was busy as all hell which was expected, but I have as much fun people watching as I do by myself amongst it, so the valley was fascinating to me – a healthy mix of ratbag climbers/rv’ing families and pot bellied old dudes wearing harley davidson/north face tshirts. I climbed over Tioga pass over the course of a day and a half, and slept outside the park beside a beautiful lake surrounded by snow capped mountains – there were a few climbers out there fishing who gifted me some beers and other goodies before heading off back into the park themselves. Along the road on the way out of the park I would see vans parked along access points to the rivers and dirtbags washing themselves in the river before sprinting for the park exit at sundown – I felt like I was at home.
The final stretch to the desert highlighted glimpses of what was to come, with the frosty mountains behind me the landscape stuttered itself to red rocks and deserts, occasionally weaving through dried pine forests before dropping down to the border with Nevada and the start of the long and dry haul through to Utah. I stayed with a family near the border for 2 nights and was warned of the slight uranium content of the water supply before heading off for the final 10 miles to the state line.