Cycling the Americas IV: Adventures in NoCal
“I’m actually quite excited about this. It’s such an absurd situation. I mean, back in Seattle I own a business. I have employees! Yet here I am about to sleep on the street. It’s like secret millionaire! Ha ha!” cried Miki as he pulled up his hood and drew the cord tight around his face. One of my favourite things about him was his eternal optimism. It’d been a week since I’d met him on the side of the road outside Florence, Oregon, slathering on sunscreen despite overcast skies, and we’d been riding towards San Francisco together since.
However, his sunny disposition wasn’t quite overcoming the sting of rejection mixed with weary resignation at sleeping on cold concrete in the rain.
Earlier that afternoon we’d rolled into Eureka, a pretty northern Californian city of wooden 19th century architecture. It was raining heavily and we’d pulled in to a café to assess our sleeping options. We didn’t want to camp in the rain. Warmshowers and Couchsurfing yielded nothing, and as a last result I asked the waitress, who had just finished her shift, where we should put our tents for the night.
“Oh you don’t want to camp here. There’re meth heads everywhere!” she gushed. “You want to go to Arcata. That’s where I’m from. It’s a nice student town. There’s a big park right in the centre – it’s called Arcata Plaza, and there’s plenty of room for camping. People do it all the time!” She smiled and said she’d be heading back there now. “Would you mind walking me to my car?” she asked. “It’s parked in a bad area and I prefer to walk with someone.”
She was tall, brunette, and wore knee-high boots. She gave me her number and we agreed to see each other again – 7:30 at a pizza place near this Arcata Plaza.
“She was quite flirty with you,” chirped Miki as we pedalled the seven miles back towards Arcata, away from the meth heads. He pushed up his glasses and looked over at me. “I don’t think you’ll be sleeping in a tent tonight.”
“Don’t jinx it!” I yelled.
In hindsight, it should’ve been obvious that Arcata Plaza would not be a camper-friendly park in the centre of town. Instead we found a manicured town square full of homeless people and signs that explicitly said “No camping”. Of course Aysha, the big-boobed waitress, didn’t show up at the pizza place. Now, having found shelter outside a 24-hour health clinic, we were sitting over pizza and beer, preparing ourselves for a night on the streets.
“Now, for my night on the streets,” said Miki and stood stiffly, swaddled as he was in every item of clothing in his panniers. “It’s far too hot in here.”
I sat dejected, staring at my phone waiting for friends back home to WhatsApp me and idly swiping through Arcata’s Tinder offerings.
“How’s the bike ride?” wrote a “Shannon” and I told her about the evening’s bleak prospects.
Shannon, it turned out, was alone at her parents’ place in “the rich part of town”. Her parents were away, and she had a “big house” with a couple of spare beds. She said I looked “pretty innocent” and asked if I was alone, and I described Miki as a picture of chivalry and courteousness, despite his own description of himself as “a troublemaker”. She sent me her address and I stepped into the cold to wake up Miki.
He was sitting up against a wall by his bike, head hanging on his chest. “My legs are numb,” was the first thing he said when I woke him.
Shannon’s parents’ house had a fridge full of food and beer, a pantry full of food and wine, a spare room with two gigantic beds and, to top it all off, a flipping hot tub.
Such is the life of a cycle tourist, careening from rags to absolute riches at the whim of a stranger, with the ever-present-yet-tiny chance you may be walking into a rapist’s dungeon. It was so nice, and Shannon was so gracious a host, we stayed a second night. Now if I could just use Tinder to get sex as well, I’d be set.
I thought entering California was going to mean the end of stars, stripes and camouflaged flannelette small-town America. I thought it was all San Francisco trendy and Santa Monica hipster and Malibu yuppie from there all the way to Mexico. I was so happily wrong.
One morning we broke camp before dawn, unnerved by the “No trespassing” signs posted all over the school whose playground we’d camped in, and pulled in to wait for sunshine at the Fort Dicks Market just north of Crescent City.
The cook who made my breakfast burrito, a heavily tattooed Latina, said “Sorry lover” as she brushed past me on my way out of the bathroom. An older man with few teeth came in to tell everyone he was “braggin’ today”.
“Why’re you braggin’?” asked somebody.
“My grandson ran in 84 yards and scored himself a touchdown, that’s why. The backers came up on him and he got to zigzagin’, and then he went and outrun ‘em all. I never even liked the little shit!” he cried. This same guy is apparently unable to read or write, but made two million dollars by buying and then selling off a garbage disposal company, or so I was told.
In a glass case on top of a fridge sat a large stone, made of foam, that was once a weapon of the Ewoks against Darth Vader’s imperial troops on the moon Endor. Parts of Return of the Jedi were filmed in the redwood forests just up the road, and crew members would regularly come into the Market for meals. When filming finished, they left an Ewok rock behind as souvenir. The elderly couple who owned the market showed off photos of Star Wars fans who’d started turning up in the decades that followed, looking for a glimpse of the rock that had appeared in the movie. One man once sat them down in front of a television and went through the Ewok battle scene frame by frame, pointing out which rock was the one now sitting atop their fridge. The owners showed us photos they’d taken with these guys and, well, they looked exactly like you’d imagine them: gangly limbed, pale skinned, ecstatic nerds.
Everyone was also keen to discuss the local marijuana-growing industry, and apparently the hills are full of weed and gun-toting gangs in those parts. We saw evidence of this in towns like Arcata and Garberville, which appeared overrun with dreadlocked “pickers” sporting enormous hiking bags and tattered Vans. They come from all over North America during picking season, and I spoke to several people who bragged of making tens of thousands of dollars in just a couple of months on the plantations. There’s a handy hint for any nimble-fingered hobos out there.
For those of us who didn’t do a university degree that involved lots of tree counting, it is possible to enter a redwood forest without actually noticing it at first. One day I rode through my one for about half an hour, gleefully wondering what to do with the butter in my food bag, before I spotted Miki up ahead. He looked much tinier than usual, but I could’ve sworn he was only 100 metres away. I pulled over, looked up, and proceeded to swear loudly and repeatedly. Any eloquence deserts me at such moments and to be honest, a heartfelt “Faaaarrrk!” is probably the most fitting response to being surrounded with monstrous trees that can grow up to over 300 metres tall. Everything around them looks tiny. Some of them have been around for over 2000 years. Just think about that for a moment. Fark me.
Miki’s bike fell apart in Gualala so I continued alone towards San Francisco, sensing the yuppiness I so dreaded creeping into towns like Bodega Bay, Point Reyes and Stinson Beach as I rolled south. Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge was a nice moment, but nicer was having an old friend’s couch to crash on in Oakland and a literally infinite number of options for cheap food. I spent ten days in the Bay Area, and it was only in the last couple of days that my body finally started to protest. “Enough!” it seemed to scream. “Seven meals – including four bowls of cereal and three ice-cream sandwiches – is quite enough for one day!”
It was then that I knew it was time to move on.
Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.