Two Paths Diverged, I Took the Untravelled

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I pushed the shifter once more, hoping that suddenly another, lower gear would magically appear on my cassette. The pedals suddenly became lighter, and my feet pushed the cranks another half turn with ease. I wondered if my silent, sweaty prayers to the climbing gods had been answered. Had the EPO finally kicked in? Had the earth’s axis shifted? Then I quickly realized that my attempted downshift with no more gears to shift had pushed my weight a tad forward, and coupled with the 18% grade, and sandy, loose, dry dirt covering this “road” that I had once again just spun my rear tire.  As soon as I escaped the death grip of my pedals, and set my feet on the rutted fire road, I rested my arms on my bike, and took out my phone which had my route loaded onto it. I was only a third of the way up Plaskett Ridge Road, the 3.5 mile forest road which starts at the Pacific Ocean, in the heart of Big Sur, and makes it’s way up to 2,500 feet, to the center of the Santa Lucia mountains.  The average grade of just under 14% is enough to scare any cyclist, but the views promised after such an ascent in the middle of  this picturesque coastline was enough to attract me. Little did I know that this dirt road would be considered the easy part of my ride.The forthcoming adventure promised to make me rethink ever attempting the route again.

The ride started at the Eastern gateway to the Big Sur area, on Nacimiento Fergusson road. The night before, I navigated to Big Sur through the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia mountains, and the largest Army Reserve base in the country, my headlights revealing much wildlife including deer, raccoons, and a baby coyote.  I slept at the top of this iconic road, which descends from 3,000 feet to Route 1, and the Pacific, in short, steep, switchbacking order. As I drank a beer, and ate my burrito, I gazed up over the dark ocean, and watched a few meteors light the sky.  This area, protected from the light pollution of the surrounding cities by the tall mountains, may be the best place to watch the night sky in the region. Even with a bright, near full moon, I could see the Milky Way better than I ever had before.

route 1

I rose early the next morning, consumed a balanced breakfast of Instant oats, pop-tarts, and coffee, and looked over my planned route. I would fly down Nacimiento Ferguson’s winding descent, enjoy 5 flat miles South on the Pacific Coast Highway, head up the steep Plaskett Ridge Road, and then venture north on a 10 mile traverse along the Coast Ridge Trail which follows the ridge of the Santa Lucia Range, surrounded by views of the Pacific Coast and the green, untamed slopes of the Ventana Wilderness. It would be a challenging, but straightforward route, or so I thought.

The pavement down Nacimiento  was smooth, the turns sharp, and the views around every corner seemed only to be eclipsed by the views at the next switchback. Carving the turns, I was greeted by many rising campers who spent the night on the numerous pullouts along the roadside. I was tempted to stop and beg for some of the delicious smelling bacon that one group was cooking.

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I reached the bottom of the descent, out of breath, and amazed by the incredible nature of what I had just ridden. I turned left onto the iconic Route 1, and traveled south along one of the most recognizable roads in the country. At times, this route is filled with RV’s and tourists, and would not be a very safe place to cycle, but at 7:00 AM on a Sunday, the only vehicles on the road were motorcycles. Perfection.

bike on route 1

After sucking in the majestic scene of the deep blue ocean, rocky cliffs, and green hills of Route 1, I arrived at Plaskett Ridge, turning left, and immediately having to shift my bike into the easiest gear.  The road was a seldom travelled dirt track, hardly wide enough for the 4×4 vehicles that are the normal mode of transportation up the rocky climb. I labored up the climb, rarely able to sit on the saddle, the severity of the climb requiring every last bit of torque that I could wring out of my legs, which were already tired from long rides the days before. After an hour of repeated spinouts, false starts, and carving a serpentinus route up this grueling incline, I reached a spot which flattened out a bit- say to an easy 5% grade. There were two mountain bikers taking a selfie here, and they asked if I was planning on heading to the ridge road. I replied yes, and they informed me that might not be a passable route.

I pressed the other riders to explain why this mapped road would not be passable, and they told me they had attempted to do the same, when a crazy old lady started screaming at them. The road, while mostly situated on public land, actually bisected a small tract of private land, which this women had carved a homestead on. The cyclists said she was out on her porch, which overlooked the road(her driveway), screaming and hollering, threatening to get her gun, and to release her barking guard dogs if they travelled any further. We could actually still hear the guard dogs barking from a mile down the road.

I asked them what they were going to do, and they said they would ride down the same road that we had all struggled up, and admit defeat. That was probably the smarter option. They took a final selfie, released their brakes, and presumably had a blast down the steep road. I took out my map, and thought over my options:

  1. Turn around, descend the road I had just painstakingly climbed, and climb back up Nacimiento, or craft another ride.
  2. Sneakily ride as close as I could to the crazy lady, and then attempt to speed by, pretending not to notice her, or the possible German Shepherds, bullets, and expletives chasing behind me.
  3. Traverse the mountain under and around her property, and meet up with the trail once it became public again.

I obviously decided against the first option, because that would mean skipping out on the whole purpose of the ride, to hit the Coast Ridge Trail, and would also mean admitting defeat. I opted against the second option because getting shot, or bitten by dogs would be bad. So that left the third option, traverse the face of the mountain underneath the madwoman’s property. It seemed straightforward enough, and there was a game trail that looked like it led in the correct direction. So I jumped off my bike, and started picking my way across the steep mountain, keeping my brand new bike on the uphill side, so as to not allow it to tumble if I were to slip-I know my priorities.  At first the ground was loose, rocky, and covered in high grass. Not ideal conditions for walking in spandex, and brand new road cycling shoes, but doable.  I was on the lookout for rattlesnakes and beehives, of which I think I saw both. It wasn’t fast moving by any means, but at least I was progressing. I thought I’d be done in no time.  Then I came around a ridge, and was greeted by thick woods. Where the mountain shaded sections of itself, and the rainwater presumably drained, the dry hillside was transformed into dense thickets. Fallen trees, thick brush, spider webs, and flying insects greeted me, and made my progress extremely slow. But at least I could see what seemed like the edge of the forested section, and there wasn’t any Poison Oak. I eventually passed through the thicket, very happy to see more of the open grassland that I had started the traverse with. But just around the bend, there was another thicket. Looking back, this would have been the perfect time to turn around, and ride home. I was still close enough to the trail, and had plenty of daylight left for a different ride. But instead, I pushed aside the first branch, and began the death march.

Diverge on edge
This was the last photo I took for a while, but it sure was pretty!

After passing through this thicket, there was no turning back. Over an hour had progressed by this point, and I was most certainly over halfway there, or so I thought.  I wandered my way up and down the slope, wheeling my sad steed along, trying to find the best route through the next ravine and overgrown area.  I could hear the dogs barking at the crazy lady’s house, but by this point I wished that I had just gone with option #2 and taken my chances.  The third thicket was basically a Poison Oak forest.  There were some other trees and shrubs to halt my progress, but everywhere I turned there was another poisonous plant, ready to redden my tan lined legs. At first I was very cautious, noticing each and every plant, and playing twister around them, like a bank robber dancing around lasers. But there’s only so long one can handle this, and eventually, I brushed a bit of the plant.  (Quick note: I am very allergic to Poison Oak. If I look at it the wrong way, my skin will break out into millions of pus-filled pimples). I was a bit worried, but I knew that I had a value-sized bottle of Tecnu in the car, so If I could get out soon then I might escape unharmed. I continued my snail’s pace through the dense woods, putting more and more scratches into my brand new carbon road bike, slapping away the biting flies that seemed to really enjoy my left arm and shoulder.

I began to wonder how long it would take the authorities to find my body, if I were to tumble for a bit after one of the many times I had lost traction in my carbon soled stiff-slippers.  Would the crazy lady’s dogs consume whatever was left of my Poison Oak covered body?  I was alone, 2,500 feet above flat ground, and running low on food and water. Nobody knew I was out here, and I hadn’t had a single bar of cell coverage the whole time.

At the next thicket, I became careless. Or rather, after 2 hours on the side of this mountain, I was quickly losing faith in my ability to navigate out of the woods, and find the trial, if the trail even existed past the woman’s house. I still attempted to stay away from the Poison Oak plants, but they were so numerous and dense, that to fully steer clear, my detour would have kept me out past dark.

By the time I got through the last thicket, over 3 and a half hours had passed, I had ruined my new cycling shoes, scratched the hell out of my bike, and rubbed more Poison Oak over my body than I had previously known existed in all of California.

When I finally  regained the trail, after carefully checking for crazies, dogs, and drones, I let out the loudest, most cannibalistic, raw noise I had ever produced.  I had overcome what seemed like an imminent  death, and my bike was still in a rideable condition. I mounted my plastic horse, and pedaled off on the rolling fire roads, somehow feeling higher than the 3,000 feet of elevation that had almost killed me.

If only for a bit, I had gained a new appreciation of life, and especially for riding a bike on a solid trail.  I absolutely crushed that last 10 miles of the fire road, drifting sandy turns, hammering the hills, and floating over the rocky descents. I was riding a wave of pent up adrenaline, dopamine, and sheer stoke, and it was bliss.

dirty divergeI made my way back to the truck, quickly de-robed, and slathered my scratched and sun-baked skin with the slimy white nectar that is Tecnu. The cool liquid felt good on the scratches, but didn’t spare me completely. As I write this, I have a dozen large, and growing patches of the Poison Oak rash, and a precautionary Prednisone prescription. While I might not take the same route next time, I think the rash is worth it.

Dana is a bike nerd through and through, but also loves to tinker, make, and photograph. You can find him hiking, skiing, or mountain biking most weekends. Check out his personal site for cool data visualizations!