From Moscow* to Mexico A father and son's 2,000 mile voyage by bicycle from northern Idaho to the Mexican border

Hi. I’m Adam, the gormless-looking 45 year-old Dad. He’s Joe, the handsome 16 year-old son. During July and August 2016 we rode from Moscow (*Idaho, not Russia — we’re intrepid, not daft) to the Mexican border. We did this to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, whose nurses helped to care for my Mum and Joe’s Grandmother in the last few months of her life. And because we reckoned it would be fun.

the subway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport

We started in Moscow because our cousin Joan lives there and because it’s almost on the Lewis and Clark Cycle Trail. The rest of our ride roughly followed the Pacific Coast Trail from west of Portland, Oregon to the Mexican border. The actual route we took is here and the place names highlighted in bold below are where we stayed overnight

Before the ride: testing the wheels with John Larkin, around Moscow, at Sandpoint with cousin Joan, husband Tom and Julian and Karen, a swimmer and bald eagle at Sandpoint, pawn shop in Plummer on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation

I'll admit, I didn’t expect much from Idaho, especially as our flight from Seattle passed over mile upon mile of flat, featureless fields in neighbouring northern Washington. In fact Moscow, a cosmopolitan university town, sits in a fertile agricultural region of distinctive sediment-formed loess hills known as the Palouse. These visually arresting dunes impersonate vast liquid-like waves of land, while the crops grown upon them shimmer in the overcast sun. It was our first taste of the immense variety of unexpected scenery that lay in front of us.

Part of the Palouse, Blaine, ID

As if to stomp on the grave of my Idahoan stereotype, Joan and her husband Tom then took us north to Sandpoint, a skiing and action sports resort town surrounded by the magnificent majestic Selkirk, Cabinet and Bitterroot mountain ranges. We stayed in the Talus Rock Retreat, a swanky B&B overlooking some of that stunning scenery. At dawn, the air hung perfectly still as though each molecule awaited the break of day. In the distance, a train carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands rumbled slowly past. Nearer, a bullfrog struck up its distinctive rotor-like call. This cacophony was completed by a chevron of geese with apparent designs on landing in the small lake in the grounds of the retreat. As though to emphasise my role in preventing such a thing, the geese circled above me twice, honking indignantly before flying away again. Then the sun split the horizon, shedding iridescent reds and yellows and lighting up up the steam from the lake’s surface. It was about this point when I contemplated abandoning the ride altogether and just staying here. Forever.

Not everywhere in northern Idaho was quite so idyllic. On the way back we travelled through the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, one of 326 such nominally sovereign native American territories in the USA. These territories are managed by a native American tribe under the aegis of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, rather than the states, resulting in more permissive regimes in the licensing of tobacco and alcohol sales and the regulation of gambling. Within the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, a large casino provides revenue for local services. This may have staunched some of the decline seen in nearby communities but it certainly didn’t seem to have reversed it.

Dawn at the Talus Rock Retreat, Sandpoint

Part one: towards the beach

11th – 22nd July: Moscow, Idaho – Lincoln City, Oregon, 552 miles

We were being shown such a good time by Joan and Tom that we could have got very used to it all. But after four days it was time to set off.

Training for the ride was not exactly a model of preparation. Neither of us had done the back-to-back rides we had planned, and we’d only done one short ride with the bikes at load. As an experienced cyclist with two tours under my belt, I assumed I’d be alright but that Joe could struggle.

Leaving Moscow

You can probably guess the next bit. Joe shot up the short, steep hills out of Moscow like Lance Armstrong on a particularly potent dose of EPO, while I trailed behind, labouring on a bike weighing 100lbs fully-laden. When I blamed my poor performance on the fact that my bike was half my not-inconsiderable body weight, Joe pointed out that, at 60lbs, his bike also weighed half of him. He has an annoying habit of disarming my excuses with pesky “facts”.

The town of Clarkston awaited us on the first night, approached by a fast descent of the looping, sweeping Old Spiral Highway. Going downhill, on the other hand, was something I had trained for.

Jim Sims, proprietor, Pastime Bar & Grill, Genessee

The twin towns of Lewiston and Clarkston on opposite sides of the Snake River and Washington/Oregon state border

We crossed the Washington state border, arrived in Clarkston and sought to make contact with with someone who had agreed to host us via the Warm Showers website (it’s a site for touring cyclists to find accommodation, not a place to go for specialist pornography). As we waited outside Starbuck’s, a character resembling a cross between Gandalf and Jack Kerouac’s American Hobo took out his mobile phone, called what could only be the local brothel, reserved an appointment with “the redhead” and shuffled off. There are 22 churches in this town of 7,500 people, but the Lord’s work appears far from done.

When we arrived, our host pushed a beer into my hand and left us alone with his 10 year-old daughter, Skye while he went shopping. On one level this appeared shocking: who would entrust their child’s welfare to two perfect strangers? Yet on another it showed an openness and degree of trust that would continue to astound and humble us. Using Warm Showers turned out to be the best decision of this tour.

Our first Warm Showers hosts: Gregory and daughter Skye

We had set a daily target of 50 miles per day with one rest day per week to reach Mexico in time to get our flight home at the end of August. The first day had been short to allow time for teething problems, so we were now keen to get some miles under our belts. I was still struggling to climb, however, and in heat of 90ºF and a puncture we stopped more than once on the 2,000ft climb to the Alpowa summit. Such was our stately progress that we were stopped by Officer Stebbins of the Garfield County Police Department, and who had been tipped off about two cyclists in trouble. We assured him we weren’t, whereupon he proceeded to describe with no little repetition all the difficulties we were likely to encounter and how unlikely it was that we’d get to Mexico in one piece.

As pep talks go it needed work but it had the effect of persuading us to pull up short for the day, opting to camp at a deserted RV park near the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Pomeroy. At least we were able to see up close an authentic and perfectly preserved 100 year-old Flint and Walling star windmill, a familiar part of the skyline of rural America

Two days in, therefore, and we’d managed an unimpressive 75 miles. Worse still, while it felt hot to us, at virtually every stop at least one of the locals informed us it was unseasonably cool. People were unfailingly nice, helpful and intrigued by our journey and we soon learned that we nearly always picked up a nugget of local information during these exchanges. Highway 12 was our route, but when we occasionally ventured from this road we’d come across relics of the past; a disused flour mill here and a slightly sinister burial ground there.

The route was still throwing up decent climbs but by late afternoon we’d knocked off 75 miles and arrived in Walla Walla, famed for the quality of its sweet onions. We stayed with Hank, a semi-retired cyclist, in his spotless condo.

Walla Walla had a fine city centre of sturdy-looking late 19th century brick buildings. Like all self-respecting Europeans, we’d snobbishly scoffed at the eagerness of such places to brand themselves “historic” and it wasn’t until we’d passed through a number of cookie-cutter city centres a few weeks on that we realised this prefix merely denoted something different and slightly older — and why not?

Hat Rock State Park, 50 miles away on the Oregon-side of the formidable Columbia River, was our venue for the following evening and a gradual downhill elevation profile promised a relatively easy day. Strong headwinds had other ideas, however, making the trip across this largely deserted, arid landscape much harder going. The lack of any towns on the route left us gasping for water, but the campsite itself was fully featured.

We’d marvelled at the gargantuan RVs that passed us on the road, often pulling a full-sized truck and resembling more a coach than any motorhome you’d find in the UK. Here we could view these fully specced mobile homes parked up, their sides pulled out like half-mutated Transformer robots, inhabitants watching one of often several wide-screen televisions on board. So self-contained were these vehicles, with sewage, electricity and water hook-ups all standard in US campsites, that the opportunity to meet new people was limited. Unlike back home, there was no middle class tradition of “glamping” and the few people who did opt to stay under canvas seemed to be unhappy extended families. Our neighbours for this evening were headed by a chain-smoking Walder Frey lookalike, whose only other sign of life was to shout at his miniature dog whenever it yapped— which was very often indeed.

However, given our proximity to the magnificent Hat Rock, this seemed like a small price to pay. This rock, and the neighbouring and equally obviously named Boat Rock are exposed remnants of a 12-million-year-old basalt flow and part of the largest such formation in the world.

Hat Rock at dusk

And in the morning, with Boat Rock in the background

The following day was our first rest day. After wasting time at the campsite, we rode a short distance to Hermiston and another Warm Showers host. We spent the evening on the veranda drinking soda and discussing all the dangerous animals and bugs that frequented our route as well as the town’s recent history as home to a chemical weapon disposal facility. Against all the odds, we still managed to sleep well.

One the road to North Roosvelt, Paterson Diner, roadside tribute

We woke early, crossed back into Washington and set off along the banks of the Columbia. The headwinds were fierce and for once it was Joe rather than me suffering. We arrived at our campsite in North Roosvelt to find a native American “pow-wow”, a ceremonial gathering of local tribes, about to begin. We were invited to attend and were formally recognised by an elder of the hosting Yakama tribe, with a small gift of socks for me and gloves for Joe. I made the mistake of complimenting another elder on his costume and was sternly told it was regalia. I was advised not to take any photos by another visitor but when I saw others doing so I got clearance from the MC. Alas, the light had largely gone by this point but we both felt very privileged to have witnessed such an occasion.

Native American pow-wow

The following day was another of strong headwinds and slow progress. We plugged miserably on and were eventually rewarded with a whopping great descent to Biggs Junction, an intersection between Highways 14 and 97 and Interstate 84 where large gas stations and fast food joints clustered to sate the hunger of drivers and the thirst of their vehicles. We met a fellow cycle tourer coming the other way. Dean Dixon was an army veteran turned hobo, who had lost his right arm when wandering drunk into traffic. Nowadays he toured the Pacific Northwest visiting family and doing piece work.

Dean Dixon

Google recommended an absurdly hilly back route, but with the wind still howling toward us, we took the flatter option, 11 miles of which took us onto the interstate. Unlike at home it is legal to ride on some of these arterial roads. That doesn’t make it sensible and as large trucks and larger lorries thundered past us on a wide but debris-strewn hard shoulder, we pedalled furiously to get back to quieter roads. We were out of accommodation options as we arrived in The Dalles, so splashed for a motel, spending the evening in air conditioned luxury tut-tutting at the vacuity of podium speeches at the Republican National Convention on C-SPAN. It’s pretty wild being on the road with us, let me tell you.

Never mind HBO - have you got C-SPAN?

We’d ended up on 330 miles for the first week, more than our target and with the feeling like we were both getting stronger. Fortified by a mighty breakfast we set out along a dedicated bike path through forests and past basalt rock — quite a contrast to the end of the previous day. A short climb through the Alpine-like hairpins of the Rowena Loops was next and for the first time I felt I was in the groove and enjoying my ascending.

For once, we were on a firm deadline as the only way back across the Columbia River (necessary to avoid restricted interstate on the Oregon side) was via a bus over the no-bike-access Hood River Bridge. We arrived in town with only 10 minutes to find the bus stop, but soon found that nobody knew where it was. By the time we had located it we were two minutes late. As we stood forlornly at the bridge’s entrance, Joe wondered out loud whether any of the large trucks rumbling past might stop and give us a lift. At literally that moment, one screeched up and offered to do just that.

Maury and Mike, two wonderful windsurfers who loaded us, our heavy bikes, nine panniers, tent and various other bits on their truck and got us across the Hood River Bridge.
Slightly less usefully, we also met Will Spoonhunter, a local fisherman who tried to sell us a whole salmon and was only dissuaded when we pointed out we didn’t have a fridge on board either of our bikes.
White Salmon, WA

Joe suffered another puncture — his third in less than 400 miles — and we resolved to get a new pair of tyres when we arrived in Portland. For now, however, we had time to take in the fierce majesty of the Columbia River Gorge, formed as this mighty water course cut through the Cascades. In the space of just over a day we’d gone from dusty, open plain through verdant pine and into wide, dramatic canyon.

The mighty Columbia river

A short, steep climb to the town of Carson saw us to our destination for the evening, a luxury log cabin, complete with four poster bed and jacuzzi. Amazingly, this was all free to us through the generosity of Rick and Theresa, proprietors of the peaceful and plush Carson Ridge Luxury Cabins. She is a keen cyclist and makes vacant cabins available for fellow riders. They even bought us dinner.

Rick and Theresa Regnier, owners of the Carson Ridge Luxury Cabins
Life was pretty rough on the road at times, but we battled through

As you might imagine, unfurling ourselves from within this lap of luxury was not easy and we didn’t roll out out town until 11am the next day. We crossed the decidedly mortal-looking Bridge of the Gods (an abject lesson in over-promising and under-delivering if ever there was one) and stopped to buy locally smoked salmon, a recommended delicacy. The riding was nice; still windy, but scenic, canopied and cool.

Horsetail Falls on the Historic Columbia River Highway

We stopped to look at a series of waterfalls and met David from New York, a computer engineer in the midst of a six month cycle tour of America before settling down with his fiancee in Seattle. With his luggage back in Portland, he rode with us up some pleasant, winding climbs and down again in the approach to the city. Without a firm place to stray, we called Amy, a Warm Showers host, on the off-chance and she agreed to put us up for two days. Dedicated cycle paths took us all the way into the heart of Portland and we arrived at Amy’s ready for a day off and a re-supply in the city.

In Portland: our host Amy, opposition to Trump, but no love for Hillary

Now, it’s entirely possible we were looking in the wrong places, but for a city that prides itself on its supposed weirdness, we found Portland surprisingly normal. It had a smattering of tattooed hipsters, but no more than you’d find in any major city (and far fewer than in certain parts of London).

On the buses in Portland

It’s also true that we spent longer than was ideal hunting for the right tyres for Joe’s bike, encountering a local appetite for Bromptons and cargo bikes. And the city as a whole seemed well provisioned for cycle lanes. We also came across those shops selling cannabis, it having been de-criminalised in Oregon as well as Washington state. But other than that…well, it was just another city to us.

So, having rested up for a day we set off again for what we anticipated would be our penultimate day before arriving on the coast. Almost immediately, we ran into trouble with Joe’s front mudguard rubbing on his new, slightly wider tyre. Then, after having inflated mine up with a track pump my back tyre seemed to flat-spot, requiring a replacement, which fortunately was on board.

This should have been a straightforward, easy and even pleasant day, Most of it was spent in Oregon wine country, and the terrain was pretty flat, But, like the day after our last rest day, we were both feeling less than 100% and with the bikes’ problems we again pulled up short of our target destination. We contacted a Warm Showers host in McMinnville who, despite being out, gave us instructions for how to break into her house - which we did, finding a fully open plan living and sleeping space. Our hosts actually came back in in the middle of the night from their concert, but as we got up very early to make up the previous day’s lost miles we never actually met.

t the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, near McMinnville

From McMinnville we were only 60 miles from the coast, which had by now crystallised in our heads as some sort of fabled land of tailwinds, cool sunshine, beaches made of golden sugar and buxom maidens on hand to drop peeled grapes into our mouths. (ok, I just made those last two up). We were eager to reach it, so the pace was fast. We stopped only to experience the famous cinnamon French toast in the Otis Cafe.

Then we camped just outside Lincoln City, rode in to ceremonially dip our wheels in the Pacific, ate fish and chips, drunk beer and went to bed, ready for all the splendour promised by Route 101, el Camino Real: the Royal Road.

550 miles down: by the ocean at Lincoln City, Oregon

Part two: towards the Bay

23rd July – 8th August: Lincoln City, Oregon – Menlo Park, California, 731 miles

We’d been promised tailwinds on the coast since before we started. The official guide said it. The locals said it. Other cyclists said it. Officer Stebbins didn’t say it, but then he said a whole load of stuff that turned out to be crap, so we were happy to ignore him.

Looking back now, the idea that direct headwind when moving west would turn into direct tailwind when moving south makes no sense. But on that first day it seemed that the promise would be honoured in spades. We sped down the route like a pair of track cyclists, pedalling effortlessly and easily maintaining speeds of 20mph+. The road meandered in and away from the coast, but each time we skimmed a beachfront, cove or creek it would prompt an approving exchange of glances, thumbs up and even the odd cooing noise. And, of course, the air was sweet and salty in the way you only get by the sea. This was going to be both easy and beautiful.

We weren’t fully worry-free. Warm Showers had no accommodation for miles and all the motels and B&B neon vacancy signs had the “no” lit up by them. There was a hiker/biker section — a low-cost, no-booking-required area reserved for itinerants like us — in the Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park 75 miles away, but as we’d never used one before we didn’t know if it’d be full. We needn’t have worried. Apart from one hiker and one other biker, we were the only people there. We’d use these sites more and more as the tour went on, although the availability of even basic amenities was a hit-and-miss affair.

The beach at Blowout Creek, Cape Perpetua.

We were now in a part of the Oregon coast known as Cape Perpetua, which I’m pretty sure translates as “land of no mobile signal”. Remarkably, this was the first time we began to experience non-existent coverage, something that emphasised how dependent we were on a variety of apps to sort out food, lodgings and improve navigation over and above the offline and paper maps we had (not to mention my routine ramblings via social media).

The Cape was really special. Its cool, misty, angry coast seemed to drive away the human traffic that we’d been part of in the seaside towns further north. Even the 101 had many fewer cars and RVs on it. The road undulated, swooping in and out of sight of the sea, providing glimpses of delightful craggy inlets before spilling us out onto full-blown vistas. I really didn’t want it to stop.

A black guillemot, Cape Perpetua

We headed out of the Cape, moving into the Oregon Dunes and searching for a campsite for the night. The first place looked like a Mad Max set, complete with dystopian desert-scape, customised dune buggies and flapping flags. We approached the camp hosts’ RV, prompting two Staffordshire bull terriers separated from us only an insect screen to spring into a frenzy of barking and snarling. Between growls, their redneck owners advised us that the winds were too strong for a tent and recommended a place down the road. This turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp disguised as a car park, fifteen minutes’ exposure to which left my head looking like I’d been cast in the next remake of Total Recall. Being intrepid, hardened travellers we did what Bear Grylls would have done in the circumstances: we got a motel room in nearby Coos Bay.

Adam’s head: sirloin steak for American mosquitoes

Not that this was without incident, as the couple in the room adjacent to us engaged in a loud and violent argument, resulting in the cops turning up and tazing the man. If nothing else, it beat the crap out of C-SPAN for entertainment value.

We’d given up on rest days, instead opting for easy days of fewer than the 60–70 miles per day that we’d settled into. Taking advantage of our motel, we therefore left really late, had an early lunch and pootled down the coast to Bandon, where Kenny and Mara, a self-sufficient young couple with their own water supply and outside shower, awaited us. The setting was very scenic but the facilities perhaps a little basic for us cosseted urbanites; when I asked to use the loo I was handed a shovel and directed towards the nearby woods.

Midnight stumblings aside, we were still having a blast. The scenery was consistently awe-inspiring, even if the blue skies took a while to surface. The mists on the coast, particularly in the early part of the day, could be enveloping and certainly shrouded some vistas from us. But this provided a spectacle in itself.

The southern Oregon coast at late morning and by mid afternoon

We washed up in Indian Creek, a small campsite about 40 miles from the state border. It was taco night (2 for $4) at the nearby diner, a place that typified everything that’s gone wrong with America since I used to be a regular visitor about a decade ago. When I asked what beer they had the waitress reeled off a list of recherche IPAs, golden ales and porters from different local microbreweries. The only beer beer they had was Bud bloody Light. It used to be that a place like this, an honest-to-God, all-American, what-can-I-get-you diner, bar or restaurant like this would have Coors, Michelob, Henry’s, Bud, Miller, Keystone, Blue Ribbon – y’know, beer. Now, if it isn’t a 9% amber ale made by four nuns in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and served only in a ivory reliquary nobody wants it. You mark my words, it’s the craft beer fetish, not Donald Trump or Wall Street, that will bring this proud country to its knees.

Tributes to the troops were common. Indeed, the entire 101 through Oregon has been catchily renamed “the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans [sic] Memorial Highway”

The tailwinds of our first day on the coast had not reappeared, but even the sidewinds that had replaced them didn’t inhibit our progress. We soon crossed into California which, remarkably given that we still had over 1100 miles to go, would be the last time we would see a state border.

Joe sporting a lovely pair of pannier earrings for our entry to the Golden State

We actually thought at that point that the climate and coastline would instantly transform from the cool, misty, craggy and undulating into a panorama of wide open golden beaches, peach-coloured palm-draped sunsets and agreeable mediterranean temperatures. At worst we thought it’d be a day or two before these features presented themselves. We’d be waiting a long time.

That evening we stayed in Crescent City, a surprisingly down-at-heel town, the unsettling ambience of which was amplified by a fog horn sounding all night. Our venue was a Episcopal church hall staffed by a crack team of old ladies with a military grade cyclist hosting operation. We were briefed upon arrival before being shown to two comfy looking sofas. Either there or joining us shortly were no fewer than four other parties of tourers, including two groups of French Canadians, a Puerto Rican lawyer and a Korean, the latter of whom was so excited by a cupboard of food left over by previous guests that he proceeded to cook up the entire inventory of disparate ingredients before scooping them frantically all into his mouth. We shared an excellent pasta dish made by Joe with Alejandro (the Puerto Rican) who it turned out we’d passed earlier that day and was heading to the same place as us tomorrow. At Joe’s urging, I went out for ice cream after dark, coming back only after staging my very own re-enactment of the opening sequence of The Equalizer courtesy of a selection of (probably indifferent) locals.

House in Crescent City

After climbing out of Crescent City we descended past perhaps the thickest, deepest mist I’ve ever seen, the ocean below suffocated by its impenetrable blanket.

There's an ocean down there. Somewhere.

At nearby Klamath we stopped at the Trees of Mystery theme park (the mystery being why anyone would pay to go through something similar to the many nearby free public paths through the giant redwoods).

One of those trees you used to see in Ladybird books.

We cycled on, stopping to gawp at our first glimpses at these venerable, towering trees (with Joe less taken by me that we were in the place where the actual speeder bike chase scene in Return of the Jedi was filmed). As we were getting ready to move on, a squeal of tyres and long, angry car horn broke the tranquility. A pearl white Jaguar sports car was stopped dead in the middle of the road, causing the car behind to swerve. Apparently oblivious to this commotion, the owner of the Jag jumped out, looking every bit the Hollywood mogul from central casting. Entranced by the big tree next to us, he asked us to take a picture of him in front of it. We obliged and got talking. When he learned about our journey, he gave us his number and invited us to stay with him when we got to LA.

Redwoods, near Trinidad. These turned out to be the tiddlers

Our host that night was Carole, whose stern countenance on Warm Showers had us nervously checking her many rules and provisos. As it turned out, both she and her three-legged dog were lovely. Joe slept well, but I was disturbed by a plane crashing a few miles away, killing all four on board.

We headed off from Trinidad early into thick sea mist. In Humboldt county, where we were, the largest cash crop is marijuana and its pungent smell was easily detectable from fields dotted along the roadside. With California due to hold a referendum on full legalisation, the entire atmosphere around smoking and consuming cannabis seemed very permissive, and we were told that pot farmers ploughed some of the proceeds of their cultivation into local services, while the authorities looked the other way. Nonetheless, we had been warned not to stray off the beaten track, lest we be mistaken for DEA agents and attacked.

At Eureka, as I photographed a heavily graffitied locomotive we got chatting to John, a very recent very senior ex-executive in the Just Eat website and app and who was now working with a range of Silicon Valley start ups. He was on a short tour and heading in our direction, so we agreed to ride together. With a lot of miles to cover we opted for some of the faster, busier roads, managing an impressive pace.

Locomotive, Eureka

In the early afternoon we entered the Avenue of the Giants, a long road that winds its way past some of the remaining “first growth”, or the very oldest and tallest redwoods. We’d been in and out of redwood groves for a couple of days, but the sweet, moist coolness of the still air within this vast canopy cast out a new and special aura. To be inside this natural refrigerator, your own sweat cooling you, was to see the sun only through luminous fragments scattered everywhere, diffused against massive trunks or foliage, seldom penetrating the deep blackness of the forest floor. It was as though the redwoods themselves had turned away from the sun, huddling defiantly as a rejection of its authority. Our chatter became a reverential murmur, lest our alien noise somehow rouse these silent giants from their long meditations. Even the quiet buzz of our tyres seemed like a sacrilegious intrusion.

The Founder's Tree

Obscenely, the epic 340ft Founder’s Tree where we stopped for a rest served as mere warm up for the 370ft Dyerville Giant, which came down in 1991, lying in massive, uneven cargo container-like chunks on the forest floor. Splinters the size of telegraph poles were peeled back to expose planks big enough to scaffold skyscrapers. The jagged tears in the tree’s body told not of a final graceful succumbing to age and gravity but of an ugly, ignominious take down by a neighbouring giant itself weakened by flooding. The impact, when it came, was so powerful that the shockwave radius measured over 400ft, throwing mud 50ft into the air. This was no longer a giant but, more so even than the living trees, it rendered one’s own existence into lilliputian proportions.

The fallen Dyerville Giant

The coastal redwoods of northern California aren’t the world’s oldest trees, but they are the tallest. From an estimated 2 million hectares, the first growth now takes up just 55,000 hectares and with temperatures rising here as elsewhere, the summer mists that sustain these arboreal monsters is dissipating. Go and see them while you still can.

We made it the nearly 80 miles to the Humboldt Redwoods State Park campsite in early evening to be told that the showers were all out of action. John didn’t have a pitch so we let him share ours, exchanging hot dogs for tomales and huddling around the fire as much to ward off mosquitoes as for warmth. We had the following day earmarked as an easy one but John was on a tighter schedule, pushing off before we rose.

We were now far inland but still under the cooling aegis of the forest. As we emerged, 100° temperatures hit us. I wilted. Joe popped. We stopped by a shaven headed woman standing away from shade and dousing herself in water to ask directions, but got back only crazy eyes and a blast of nonsensical invective. We aimed at Garberville and the first available motel, a scruffy affair where nothing apart from the prices had been updated since the last time a Clinton ran for the White House.

We got out at dawn to in a bid to get back to the coast before the heat took hold. After a long but satisfyingly metronomic climb at Leggett, we greeted the ocean and its mid morning mist like a long lost friend. We’d made sufficient progress to push onto Fort Bragg, some 66 miles down the coast. Our hiker/biker site there was being shared by Leroy, a garrulous hobo from Tennessee and Maggie, his silent, crone-like partner. Among Leroy’s many topics (a recurring favourite of which was his soon-to-be-concluded comparative analysis of criminal justice systems in the 48 contiguous United States) was the urgent need for us to acquire a sidearm for our trip south, especially if we intended to cross the border into Mexico. We had already heard a lot about the alleged dangers of the US’s southern neighbour, and not just from the likes of Leroy. In fact, if there was one thing that appeared to unite all classes in America it was a belief that Mexicans were more-or-less as Donald Trump depicted them.

Mist and fishing at Fort Bragg

The hungry Korean from Crescent City turned up, and as entertaining as this moment of cross-cultural contact was likely to be, we left him and Leroy to get acquainted and rode into town to do laundry and get our tea. Fort Bragg was a pleasant enough town, though the groups of holidaymakers huddling around fire pits on posh beachfront verandas attested to the fact that temperatures were still below what you’d call balmy. An old lady with whom I was chatting at the Laundromat said that the town had only recently become a tourist venue and she couldn’t understand the attraction. Mind you, she also claimed to be descended from English nobility.

Fort Bragg marked a turning point in the psychology of the tour. We had reached 1,000 miles and — debilitating inland head aside — were finding 60–70 mile days entirely sustainable without the need for rest days. It was clear that, unforeseeable misfortune aside, we would have more than enough time to reach the Mexican border and be back in LA for our flight home. Instead therefore of striving to hit a notional daily and weekly mileage target, we began to think of how to slow down, and what we should use the excess time for.

Millennium (nb. we took the photo at 999.9 miles as we feared it would tick over into a really unimpressive “000.0”

As if to emphasise this new lackadaisical approach, we dawdled down the coast to Mendocino, a charming well-to-do old town, taking ages to have coffee/tea and muffins and sit by the cliffs eavesdropping on a small group of respectable middle-aged ladies comparing notes on the joint they were passing around in the same manner as their British peers might sample a WI Victoria sponge. California sometimes seemed a very different place.

Fellow traveller: our Korean friend peeled off for Santa Rosa shortly after Mendocino so we said goodbye

We camped at another hiker/biker spot near Anchor Bay, waking to yet more cloud. If it seemed as though we were getting hung up about the continuing overcast skies, it wasn’t just because we wanted to top up our sunburns. Several successive days under canvass had left us dependent on our solar panel and battery for powering the important things like being able to see what people were having for dinner on Instagram — oh, and that navigation malarkey. Clouds meant little energy, which meant no smartphones, which meant…having to actually talk to each other over lunch.

We had decided to spend a few days in the San Francisco area and had secured our accommodation for the forthcoming weekend. This meant we had to slow down. We took our time getting to our next venue in the Salt Point State Park. Bizarrely, the hiker/biker facilities here didn’t stretch to shower or taps, but did include decent wi-fi. The site itself was pretty, teeming with wildlife and echoing mellifluously to the industry of woodpeckers. Deer emerging through the morning mist completed this arcadian tableau.

The next day was a case study in becoming too laid back. We started with a plan to head inland and hit up a Warm Showers venue, but once on the road we were so taken with the rugged, hilly coast that we decided to stay by it. The area was undoubtedly prettier than the previous couple of days, but it also felt like we were now within the ambit of San Francisco. Expensive, modern grey houses with clean lines and large windows overlooking the sea now peppered the cliffs, possibly weekend retreats for wealthy city dwellers. The small port towns and villages were smarter, with words like “organic” and “locally sourced” becoming ubiquitous in the marketing of cafes and stores. I began to yearn for factory-farmed, pesticide-soaked processed fare flown halfway around the world for my convenience, preferably served in materials that even landfill couldn’t turn to mulch.

The terrain was now decidedly “shark tooth”; no flats, just short, sharp, steep hills and the odd decent slog as we wended around countless coves. Joe had long since worked out that the best way to tackle this type of riding was to ride the hills at a pace that suited him, even if that was faster than sticking with the slower me. He’d therefore vanish up each hill, while physics (and biscuits) dictated that I’d be faster down the other side.

In due course, the route went inland and therefore up the temperature scale, while the undulation intensified. Joe — ever the more far sighted and cautious of the two of us — began to fret about our accommodation, but I was confident we could find a B&B in Point Reyes Station, or failing that get a pitch in the campsite a few miles on.

The Black Tailed Deer (also known as Mule Deer), near Millerton,. The species is native to the area

The day wore on and the pretty little cafe towns wore out. We’d lunched early, passing up other opportunities to stop and so now found ourselves without food or a confirmed venue for the night. And on a vicious 12% hill on the way through the by-then closed up town of Tomales I found myself having my one and only what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-this-for moment. And then we turned into some proper headwinds.

Tomales Bay

By the time we arrived in Point Reyes Station the light was beginning to fade and we wasted what little was left indecisively failing to get either food or a room for the night. By about 8pm we stood shivering outside a supermarket, pathetically eating peanuts and fruitlessly re-trying the numbers of those B&Bs that hadn’t already turned us down. With the campsite probably too far and remote to get to in the dark (and also not answering our calls) we started discussing potential venues for our inaugural wild camp of the tour. Then our guardian angel appeared.

Sondra Springmann and the curious case of the hidden B&B

Sondra Springmann, we soon learned, was a planetary scientist and asteroid radar astronomer. Of rather more immediate relevance, however, was that she was also a good Samaritan. Seeing our plight, she suggested a B&B that didn’t appear anywhere in our Google search and which (almost certainly as a result of that omission) had a vacancy. She then made sure we got the booking and gave us detailed directions. Within half an hour, we were relaxing in a hot tub and looking forward to a night beneath plush sheets. Once again, the kindness of strangers had come to our rescue.

We left late as was our custom when paying and because we had a Warm Shower just 30 miles away in Tiburon, just this side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our host, Kirk, couldn’t have been more accommodating, taking us out for a burrito and giving us a short tour of trendy Sausalito, with tips on how best to get on the bridge. He even put on a British crime drama in the evening to make us feel at home. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that pretty much all the drama we watched at home was US-made.

House boats, Sausalito, with Mount Tamalpais in the background

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge mid-morning the following day. For reasons probably not known even to the Almighty himself, the dedicated bike lane going south is closed in the daytime, obliging us to go down the narrow northbound bike path, which was also shared by the many pedestrians going in both directions (six full sized lanes, meanwhile, were given over to motor vehicles). Suitably irritated by wobbling cycle tourists and absent-minded pedestrians, we were disgorged into the city muttering some very rude words about our fellow road users.

Some more photographs of the most photographed bridge in the world, plus us photographing ourselves standing on the most photographed bridge in the world.

The 40 so or miles to our hosts in Menlo Park, near Palo Alto, were among the least pleasant of this tour. Once out of the downtown area, we crawled through some fairly rough bits of the city and being on a bike suddenly made me feel quite vulnerable. Incidents such as watching a load of cops batter in a door made me feel a bit like one of those non-playing characters in GTA V, whose fate is to be haplessly and incidentally mown down. A detour due to a closed road also gave us a trip on one of those famous hills, with two bouts of 16% gradient to get the thighs burning.

We emerged onto clearer roads around San Bruno with oodles of time to spare. We had arranged to spend three nights with Julian and Karen, two friends of Tom and Karen who we met and Saltpoint and with whom we’d instantly hit it off. They were hiking and weren’t due to arrive home until late so we chose to hole up in a nearby In-N-Out Burger, a sort of Lidl of American fast food joints. As it reached early evening it hit me that we still had 17 miles to go against the fading light. We jumped on the bikes and hot tailed it, but before too long were riding in full darkness. Even with lights this was unsettling, but we did have the advantage of a straightforward route and before too long, with instructions, were able to let ourselves in.

At this point I confess to a moment of unabashed, testosterone-fuelled, materialistic lust. I know that having spent nigh on two months on the road with my eldest son among giant redwoods and ocean vistas, alongside tramps, free spirits and good Samaritans, having experienced the rich tapestry of the human experience and the power and serenity of nature I’m expected to pick a moment such as sharing hot dogs as the sun went down or watching a bird of prey swoop and swirl as my moment of the tour. Please don’t get me wrong — there were plenty of those and they were plenty special. But when Julian said to me the following morning “you can borrow our Tesla” the inner me heard the roar of the crowd, pulled his jumper over his head and skidded on his knees to the corner flag.

Upgrade, bitches!

Actually driving this all-electric ultra car was every bit as thrilling as the anticipation. A massive touchscreen dominates the dashboard, making you feel like you are priming a precision guided missile via an iPad. Once out on the freeway, there is the omnipotence of turning tailgating cars into rear view mirror specks with the tiniest squeeze of the foot. As we cruised around Palo Alto I entertained the fantasy that other drivers would excitedly assume me to be a CEO of a high-tech start up. Then I looked around and realised that they were all driving Teslas, too.

America started to make more sense behind the wheel of a car, as though this was how God intended you to experience it. But we had a full and featured itinerary for San Francisco so we left the supercar behind and in favour of trapsing the streets. But we just weren’t feeling what this fine city had to offer. So we went to the movies instead.

San Francisco street scenes top to bottom: “Culture contains the seed of resistance that blossoms into the flower of liberation” by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele (1994), Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco. The 200Sq ft mural depicts 1908s Central America, Mexican wrestling masks, Mission District, mural, Mission District, “Ross Alley 1989” by Francisco Aquino (2012) Grant Street/Clay Street, Chinatown

The following day, which by coincidence happened to be the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, we took the Tesla around Silicon Valley proper. Despite the rock star status of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and the undoubted status of the area as cradle of the information revolution, there is precious little for tourists to do other than pose in front of corporate logos. So that’s what we did.

The Googleplex, Mountain View

We spent our final rest day running chores for our onward journey and with Joe struck down by a tummy bug. In the evening I drove to Twin Peaks, idiotically imagining I’d have this renowned sightseeing spot for San Francisco to more-or-less to myself only to find it crammed full of pot-smoking students. Panic set in when the Tesla refused to unlock and a quick internet search revealed that the key fob could be affected by electromagnetic interference: I don’t think I could have parked it closer to the site’s two massive television transmitting towers if I’d tried.

Part three: towards the border

9th – 24th August, Menlo Park, California – San Ysidro, California, 655 miles

As much as we’d both enjoyed the break, it felt great to be back on the road. We’d both found the days after rest days hard, so having had three days off, we feared the worst. The first section of the ride was a nice, flat run through Silicon Valley and a another round of spot-the-funky-start-up. Gradually, we left the built up area behind and began to climb into the hills that separated Silicon Valley from the coast. Here my post-rest unfitness began to tell.

My Garmin GPS had gone wrong about 400 miles ago. Although it was still logging the miles it was no longer providing navigation. We were therefore reliant on paper maps, but being some way off course (the Pacific Trail route followed the coast) were choose to use Google Maps, which had a nasty habit of choosing unsuitable tracks in favour of perfectly acceptable roads. We therefore found ourselves on 18% dirt tracks away from civilisation. Joe was coping better than me, but we both had to get off and push at one point. As we recovered in the shade of a tree, we met another tourer who since late May had ridden from New Jersey to Santa Barbara via Denver and was en route to Seattle — a total journey of 5,200 miles — in order to raise money for his friend’s cancer medical bills. Suitably sobered by this effort, we pressed on.

Us with Josh Johannessen, riding to pay his friend's cancer bills

The map suggested there was nothing out in the Lexington hills where we were, but at the top of yet another climb we came across a TV van gathering footage for a piece about the sale of Holy City to a pharma billionaire. It turned that a depression-era cult leader founded a settlement out there complete with a zoo and radio station. Unfortunately for two parched and hungry cyclists, only a ghost town now remained so we detoured even further uphill to arguably just as odd a place for lunch. There were people here, but several wore t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be part of the Mountain Militia, complete with the plaintive “don’t tread on me” motto beloved of right wing nutballs throughout the US. We tried hard to wolf down our grub and get the hell out — not easy when the amount of meat in the sandwich required jaw dislocation in order to get one’s gob around it.

We climbed on, assisted by the cooling shade of more redwoods before getting all that altitude back in one long, glorious, holler-inducing 40mph descent into Soquel and our berth for the night. We’d been in touch with Susan, Tom’s mum, since shortly after leaving Idaho and we were both looking forward to meeting her. A terrific home cooked dinner and good conversation awaited courtesy of this former lieutenant of the legendary Cesar Chavez.

Cousin Joan’s husband Tom’s Mom Susan

Our next destination was Monterey. It was a short day along inland roads and past swathes of fruit and vegetable fields teeming with pickers. People often spoke of two Californias; the colder, emptier and (at least so its inhabitants maintained) classier northern California and the warmer, more urban, more brash southern California of popular image. In fact, as Susan pointed out to us, there was at least a third, that of inland California, characterised by labour intensive farming and poverty. We were only a few miles inland but it was easy to see this California. Huge Dole packing and distribution facilities punctured the otherwise unbuilt landscape and gangmaster-style trucks trundled along field perimeters, stopping to collect huge pallets of strawberries or artichokes and distribute water. Even in these overcast conditions the almost exclusively latino workforce laboured away with wide-rimmed hats with neck protectors and long sleeves. On the approaches to Castroville and Moss Landing, fruit stalls advertised 7 mangos or melons for $1.

Fields of fruit pickers near Watsonville

Our stop for the night was the hiker/biker site in the Monterey Veterans Memorial Park. We arrived around 4.30 and faffed around before deciding that there wouldn’t be time tomorrow to see the city’s world renowned aquarium. Dumping all our stuff in the tent, we raced back into the city centre, arriving at the aquarium’s entrance to discover it would cost $98 for both of us to enter – way above our daily budget for all costs. With only 30 minutes to go before its 6pm closing time, the desk staff recommended we come back tomorrow. When we explained the nature of our tour they waved us into a rapidly emptying aquarium for free!

We returned much later to find our campsite full of other tourers, including a Kiwi couple, another New Zealander and two Canadians, all of whom made for a highly sociable evening. There was a long and somewhat tedious discussion about where to shop for the lowest priced lentils and how to make a filling breakfast from bulgar wheat, but that may have been guilt on our part: our meal that evening had consisted of a filthy burger each together with all-you-can-eat fries and two vats of milkshake.

Monterey, or as we dubbed it, Montegrey. See what we did there?

The previous day had been relatively short for good reason. For several days we had been carefully tracking the status of a large forest fire engulfing an area in excess of 69,000 acres — or two-thirds the size of the New Forest — a few miles down the road from where we were now. Caused by a single illegal campfire, it had raged for several weeks and was not expected to be fully extinguished until October. At various points, the CalFire website showed affected area coming very close to Route 1, which was about the only road going south for cyclists. In the last couple of days Route 1 had been partially closed overnight to allow firefighters to do their thing and our concern was that a change in conditions could cause another closure.

All the state parks in the area were closed to accommodate the nearly 5,000 firefighters being deployed to tackle the blaze, and with conditions this changeable our plan was to ride past the affected area in one go. We therefore woke to a strong smell of smoke in Monterey with some uncertainty about where we would end up. There was a fair bit of smoke in places, but the body of the blaze was in forest land on the other side of hills separating us. Nonetheless, the spectacle was something to behold. 23 Federal, State and local agencies were involved in bringing the fire under control and all day we saw rows of bulldozers waiting to go into action, helicopters dumping seawater from on high, tent cities for the firefighters and fire engines racing past us on the highway. While a significant blaze, it was one of only 25 in California alone at this time and, by historical standards, was not considered that large. Perhaps even more remarkable than that was the matter-of fact way the locals approached it.

Smoke from the massive Sobranes fire with a distant helicopter returning to the ocean to collect water The red on the map shows the affected area Our route — Highway 1 — hugged the coast.

The ease of our passage was a huge relief, and not only because the alternatives — either a backtrack and train or a huge detour inland — were unpalatable. Had we skipped this section we would have missed the Big Sur, among the most breathtaking of any section of the tour and rightly famous for its wild and rugged beauty. We had a loose agreement to meet the other cyclists at a hiker/biker site down the road, but pulled in at Limekiln State Park when we saw its situation right on the beach. The deal was sealed when the ranger said the other park had no running water. Almost apologetically, she gave us the pitch nearest the beach, which was exactly where I wanted to be. We cooked pasta, listened to the rhythmic foamy white noise of the waves breaking, and fell to deep, restful sleep.

The beach at Limekiln State Park
The Californian ground squirrel is a common and, for many, unwelcome sight in many of the state’s campsites. Emboldened by years of being indulged by tourists these sassy creatures routinely chew through camping equipment, steal food and beg. This one took nuts straight from my fingers.

We both felt very confident about our riding ability at this stage. The route down the coast was hilly; often we’d climb as many feet in a day as we had in the first five back in Washington and Idaho. The shark tooth up-down-up-down no longer gave us any pause, nor did the bigger, longer climbs we were encountering. Morro Bay was our target tonight and the first Warm Shower in a long time. En Route was the gawdy, glitzy Hearst Castle, a place I’d wanted to visit since doing my undergraduate history dissertation indirectly on its eponymous founder. Sadly at $25 a piece it was too steep.

We pressed on and as the road flattened our pace went up and up. It felt great to push the speed, knowing our limits and feeling confident that we wouldn’t pop or endanger our progress on subsequent days.

Slothful elephant seals near San Simeon

Morro Bay was a charming fishing and tourist town. We decided to grab dinner before going to our host’s place. As we waited for a table in one of the many fish restaurants Joe got chatting to a lovely couple next to us.They were native Angelinos who had moved to Morro Bay to start a business. They gave us some useful tips for getting through Los Angeles — now less than 300 miles away — and we said goodbye as our table was called. When we went to pay, however, we found they’d already picked up the bill! We sought them out, swapped details and warned them that if they came to England and didn’t come and stay with us, we’d get the hump.

Mary and Jim, our hosts, were also extremely hospitable. I’d been busy trying to line up other Warm Showers accommodation in the Santa Maria area and had managed to get a yes from two separate hosts. One offered to do us a traditional Santa Maria barbecue. The other invited us to stay on his boat, moored in San Luis Obispo Bay, about 25 miles south of where we were, and go out for a day’s sailing the following day. Both were extremely attractive, but logistically nightmarish to make happen, especially as the obvious choice — stay on the boat then move south and have the barbeque — wouldn’t work.

We’ll put you down as an undecided, shall we?

After much ado, we managed to sort it so we’d go to Santa Maria, have a barbie, then get up really early, head north to the boat, sail and sleep and then carry on south. Confused? We were, too. We rode to Santa Maria through beautiful wine country that reminded me of Tuscany. The weather was definitely how we’d imagined California to be and when we stopped to look at our map and got chatting to a local dog walker we didn’t want to know how to get somewhere, but whether we were actually in southern Cali now. To our bemusement, he replied that were neither in the north nor the south of the state, but on the central coast.

Our hosts for the night were Jeff and Kimberly, two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We watched football, drunk American beer, sat around the fire pit and had the most amazing tri-tip steak cooked, as promised, the Santa Maria way. I remained concerned about our plan for reversing course, not the least because it required us to be out the door at 6am in order be there in time for what we had since learned wasn’t just a day’s sailing but an actual race in which we would form part of the crew. Then Jeff mentioned he was due to be at the same place the following morning for a sailing lesson and he’d be happy to give us and our bikes a lift. Once more, it felt like we were riding our luck as much as the bikes.

After charming the harbour master, we locked our bikes in the maintenance yard and dumped our bags in his office. On the way out the water taxi driver tried to reassure me by telling me that “we haven’t had a shark sighting for nearly two weeks”. When I asked if these were the sort of sharks that ate people. He said “yes, but to avoid that you only gotta stay on the boat” before jabbing a finger at Joe and adding “or swim faster than him”.

The race was great fun. The boat lifted madly out of the water on one side or the other as we sought the tightest line through the buoys while catching the best wind. Joe took to it instantly, scuttling up and down the deck, unfurling sails, paying out rope and saying nautical stuff. I was usefully engaged as “rail meat”: human ballast to weigh down the side of the hull as the vessel banked. I like to think that because of my expertise at possessing great mass, we managed to place third overall.

Yacht racing was the real winner - but we came third!

Jason, the skipper, didn’t stay on board so once back at its moorings out in San Luis Obispo Bay we had the boat to ourselves for the night. Our next door neighbours, however, were a bunch of sea lions who had illegally boarded the adjacent empty boat. They celebrated this act of piracy by barking at each other for much of the night, falling asleep only to cough and retch as though recovering from a particularly heavy drinking session.

San Luis Obispo Bay from our berth for the night

We were off the boat and down the road nice and early for a fairly uneventful day — or what they would call in a bike race a transition day. Breakfast at the Fat Face cafe (stuffed French toast) was a highlight, as was the sight of very beautiful great blue heron who, despite my best efforts to crash clumsily through the undergrowth and scare it away, stayed nonchalantly in place.

The going was flat, the weather was cool and we made easy progress to Lompoc where sheer laziness made us decide to get a motel instead of camping.

Once again the inland became a chequerboard of huge fruit and vegetable fields, packing plants and impoverished towns to service the workers. The next day we made it back to the coast and cruised along the 101/1 from Gaviota, detouring onto cycle paths around the backs of state beaches when we could. We were now past “the elbow”; the land immediately around Concepcion Point where the coastline become a tiered southerly facing one. This was the point, everyone agreed, where southern California started. Well, that or Santa Barbara. Or perhaps Los Angeles County. Throughout this tour the point at which California became California — y’now, bikini babes on roller skates, surf dudes and cherry popsicles — had been pushed back and back. Up north we’d been told it was after San Francisco. Then it was “after the Big Sur’ then “after Santa Maria” and now “after the elbow”. We began to wonder if we could get all the way to the Mexican border and still not find this elusive California of our movies and TV shows.

We needn’t have worried. Santa Barbara immediately felt like the real deal. This beautiful city, purposely rebuilt nearly a century ago in the style of a old Spanish Mission after a huge earthquake levelled much of the downtown, effortlessly exuded mellow Californian style and ease. Its placid waterfront stretched for miles, allowing for huge rows of beach volleyball courts. Its main street, the first that we’d come across that made us feel like it was a European-style high street, led down to its pier. We stopped to admire the place, but having been unable to find accommodation for the night within the city limits, we were obliged to press onto the nearby Carpinteria State Beach. Missing out on a night in this unpretentious place was one of the very few abiding regrets of the the tour.

Skateboarders off Santa Barbara boardwalk

Carpinteria State Beach, our home for the night, was another campsite situated very close to the beach. In the morning, I cycled around the corner to buy some breakfast while Joe slept on. I returned with two breakfast burritos, made of ham, egg, rice and beans. This was fourth or fifth time we’d attempted Mexican food and, with the exception of my dish in the Mission District of San Francisco, we hadn’t enjoyed any of it. We wondered what we were doing wrong as everyone seemed to rave about it. Joe vowed then and there that this would be his last time with this cuisine. I still wanted to give a proper roadside taqueria a go.

A botta’s pocket gopher, Carpinteria State Beach. I had fun shuffling forward on my front to see how close I could get before scaring this critter off. Every now and again it’d vanish, but then pop back up, intent on using materials from above ground to furnish its little burrow

We were now in the slightly surreal situation of trying and failing to slow down. We kept vowing to have light days, but kept ending up doing 60 miles or more without much effort. We decided we’d cycle a few miles down the road to Ventura and stay there if it was nice. It wasn’t, so we moved on.

Route 101/1 had been busy for a few days, but it was also still wide with a good hard shoulder. You have to be of a certain vintage for the following to make sense, but if this wasn’t the road the 80s Sega arcade classic Out Run was modelled on, I’m a Dutchman.

At Leo Carillio State Park, just outside Malibu, we broke bread with Dave, who claimed he had been attacked by the intelligence services with a tattoo gun because the state wanted him out of the way. The other cyclists around the fire, Erica, an animator for Disney, and Neeti, a teacher, glanced nervously at each other. The silence was broken when Dave declared he would donate his skeleton to a museum upon his death.

Moonshine over Leo Carillio State Beach

We got up the next morning, conscious that we didn’t have any breakfast and too early for the campsite shop. Never mind, we laughed — there’ll be loads of places in Malibu to stop, eh?

Approximately 30 minutes later we stood outside La French Café (or something equally naff) slack-jawed at the $14 the place was asking for a smoothie. Not that business wasn’t brisk. In fact, as we stood there in our two-day old lycra, astride two dusty, filthy overloaded bikes and sized up the other customers we began to feel like a pair of epsilons among the alphas. Every tummy was aerobicised, every buttock toned, every pec sculpted. The women were anatomically perfect, but only in the way Barbie is anatomically perfect. The men sported neon white teeth and jet black hair. The boys and girls (all white of course, the Latino dominance of the scruffier inland towns was no more) had mouse-brown, unkempt hair, golden honeyed skin and blue eyes.

Back out on the highway, the Teslas and Priuses of the San Francisco Bay area have given way to black Porsche convertibles, white Mercedes saloons and the occasional supercar driven as though it would just fall apart if made to go more than 35mph. The bigger roadside houses had security guards posted by the gates, the even bigger ones perched high up the cliffs. Down on the beach beautiful people did amazing acrobatic tricks on surfboards for fun. All the money dripping from the place must have been earned, in many cases hard-earned, but the locals gave few outward signs of expending any energy on other than pleasure.

Malibu Beach

We rode on. The highway was now pretty crowded. By Eastern Malibu cars were routinely parked on the hard shoulder. If we moved out only a little drivers would still attempt to use both lanes to get past us, pushing us towards stationary obstacles. So we moved out further, effectively occupying the slow lane. We had been pretty pleased with American motorists until this point. By and large they were more courteous, cautious and considerate than at home. We’d ridden fast Interstate and winding single-carriageway road (sometimes with nothing to our right but sheer drop) very largely without incident. Now we were beginning to experience some bona fide asshats in the form of impatient, unobservant and unthinking drivers. It didn’t bode well for Los Angeles proper.

Salvation came in the form of a bike path delivering us to our hostel, right by the famous pier in Santa Monica. We would have enjoyed relaxing in it had we not needed to do laundry and had not Joe insisted — despite me suggesting otherwise — that the hostel itself probably had such facilities. and had we not therefore walked two bloody miles across the city to the nearest bloody laundromat only to go back to the bloody hostel and find that it did bloody well have a bloody laundry room. Not that I’m still fuming about it or anything.

Around Santa Monica

From the earliest days of this tour the message from those who we told about our route was that San Francisco was nice but that LA was horrible. We took most of this with a pinch of salt, detecting something akin to the rivalry between smaller, classier/more stuck up Edinburgh and bigger, scummier/more happening Glasgow. Accordingly, from about the central coast onwards, or from when we began to encounter more Angelinos, the narrative began to change to one that was much more positive about the City of Angels and its environs. However, on one thing all were agreed: Los Angeles was a nightmare to drive.

We therefore plotted a path that continued to hug the coast as tightly as possible, taking us first through Venice Beach, with its clusters of trolley-trundling homeless people and tarpaulin tents. I took my camera out to take a picture of some beach volleyball players and a hobo dressed all in black started advancing threateningly toward me, warning me that I wasn’t going to take his radio (an anxiety that seemed easier to understand when we saw the signs warning of a major imminent clean up by the City). We had almost got used by now to to the sight of people experiencing obvious and serious mental ill-health having to fend for themselves on the streets and in this respect LA was no better or worse than any other urban centre we’d visited: it was just much bigger.

Notice of clean-up on Venice Beach

With the number of homeless people on the rise in the UK, we felt in no position to preach, but we also felt that people who were this ill at home would probably be sectioned for their own and for others’ good. Here, for those able to do so, an entire economy appeared to have formed around the retrieval of and redemption of bottles, with hobos scouring bins and dumpsters before stuffing them into vast bin liners. If the test of a good society is how it treats its weakest, America is a failing state.

Bottle collectors, Venice Beach

We rode on. A cyclist on a lightweight carbon fibre road bike swept past us. This was too much for Joe, already frustrated by my sedate pace. As we entered Playa Del Ray he gave chase and I followed. Our speed went up and up and we circumvented the marina, me having to curtail Joe’s enthusiasm for racing through the pedestrianised areas. Once out I took the front and went past our rival. We upped the pace even further and rode him off our wheel. We sat up, believing him vanquished only to see him go past us again. This time Joe led for Team Higgitt, playing a cannier game of sucking our rival’s wheel. After a few minutes the other guy pulled over, his torso heaving: a satisfying, if slightly pointless, victory was ours

The Strand through Venice Beach

Using the Strand, a 22 mile bike trail that gripped the beachfront, we passed through Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, a trio of quieter, more affluent, less weird communities. Redondo Beach, where we peeled off the coast path, felt it was no longer a place for the newly enriched, though older wealth still abounded. Indeed, you got the feeling that the super-rich of Los Angeles had been chased off the beach areas to the hills high above the city’s north, leaving the merely rich to occupy condos that in a lot of places spilled out directly onto the sand and into the constant gawp of tourists.

After the trendy hostel in Santa Monica we were aiming for a place described as quiet, tranquil and out of the way in the San Pedro district of the city, relatively far out on LA Harbour. When we arrived, however, two giant helicopters sat on the tarmac area of the adjacent Angel’s Gate Park, while medical personnel worked urgently. We later found out that a visitor from Nevada had fallen from nearby cliffs to her death.

A local TV news crew gathers footage of the day’s incident in San Pedro

We were too late to put our names down for dinner for the night, so went out to a proper diner nearby. San Pedro itself, unlike the beach towns we’d passed, felt like a working neighbourhood, no doubt housing many of those employed in the harbour.

Tragedy notwithstanding, the South Bay hostel was peaceful, if a little run down. Next door was the striking Korean Bell of Friendship, apparently one of the largest bells in the world. I went to photograph it early the following morning as was struck by a steady succession of elderly Korean men who came and bowed before it. It’s very easy to feel like an intruder at such times, even if your presence is doing no harm.

The Korean Bell of Friendship

We left San Pedro and headed through the industrial district of Wilmington. Massive oil refineries (the third largest oil field in the US is here) jutted aggressively out of the ground. Huge serpentine railway tracks coiled themselves around storage containers while gigantic pylons marched into distant residential districts. This somehow felt like the engine room of the entire city, as though LA was a cruise liner and this was place below deck.

Wilmington, L

We headed down to the unknown Los Angeles River, past rows of auto body shops and piles of filthy mattresses onto the towpath. In an instant, in the way that only happens in a city where the squalid exists pushed right up against the salubrious, we emerged onto Long Beach.

We wanted to stay in Newport Beach, a place recommended to us by several people. Warm Showers was a complete blank, most likely the consequence of anyone living in this area being bombarded by requests from tourers in on this part of the Pacific Trail. Nor were there any campsites (and, in any case, we had heard horror stories about hobos taking over hiker/biker sites). Motels and B&Bs were prohibitively expensive and even AirBnB was proving tricky. We wandered slowly through Seal Beach, Sunset Beach, Huntingdon Beach, trying to place their houses and condos in a league table of desirable neighbourhoods.

At Newport Beach, we gave up on the idea of being able to stay there, but as if to underline our reluctance, we got lost on Balboa Island just as late afternoon set in and the beaches began to empty of weekend sunbathers. We exited the city as we’d entered it; via a fast, wide, busy road with gated homes and estates lining the coast, the houses a wonderful hotchpotch of Palladian columns, New England timber and glass cubes. Laguna Beach and Dana Point later, we arrived at Doheny Beach. I’d been trying to get a decent picture of the brown Pelican all the way down the coast. These huge birds, as graceful in flight as they were clumsy on foot, always seems to pop up when I couldn’t get to my camera out. Now I’d seen some in the inlet by the beach. I left Joe to put the tent up and by the time I returned — again unsuccessfully — he’d been helped out by a chap from a neighbouring pitch who’d invited us to his cookout. This turned out to be Eric Hernandez, the Vice President of the LA Dodgers.

On Doheny Beach

It was our final full day of riding. We had about 70 miles to go to San Diego and another 20 or so to the border. We passed through the beautiful, clean, quiet communities of Oceanside, Carlsbad and Encintas. These places, 80 or so miles from the centre of Los Angeles, were far out of range for a daily commute. Before that, however, we had to navigate Camp Pendleton, a 300 sq mile US Marine base home to 100,000 military personnel and family. As it was Sunday, we were joined by plenty of other cyclists, all off them on lightweight road bikes. We playfully raced a few and chatted to others. Once out of the base we were back on the old road. Soon we climbed our last major climb to the Torey Pines golf course. Bafflingly, given how many times it had taken us on a manifestly stupid route – including earlier that day – we followed the course recommended by Google Maps, which duly opted for the manifestly stupid route up and down through la Jolla and Mission Valley instead of along the coast.

We arrived at our hostel, in the heart of the downtown Gaslamp district of San Diego, by early evening. The place was full of 20 somethings playing table football, tapping out tweets on their MacBooks and chatting excitedly. Our floor was even hosting an art exhibition, in the middle of which we had to hang up our bikes. Joe had taken an instant dislike to the gap-year hostel dwellers (or “empty vests” as he venomously branded them on account of their chosen attire and dull conversation) since our first encounter in Santa Monica, but this was a new level of identikit blond-dreadlocked, flip-flop wearing, competitive-travelling, retro-loving hellishness. I shuddered to think how he would get on in a university hall of residence.

Mercifully, our private room provided escape. I instantly began our usual procedure of plugging everything in before ruefully realising that it wasn’t necessary. We had less than 20 miles to go. From San Diego we’d go to a Warm Showers venue in LA. Electricity, so often a precious commodity, would be abundant from here on in. We didn’t even have to do any laundry, the other staple chore when somewhere urban.

With the bikes hanging on the wall as though one of the art installations, we explored San Diego on foot. This stylish city struck me as the sort of place everyone wanted Los Angeles to be. It had beaches within easy reach of the whole city, a coherent and identifiable downtown and a mellow Californian feel.

Our plan for the last few days was slightly odd. We had decided to visit Mexico on a day trip via public transport, then come back to San Diego, then cycle to the border and then catch the train up to LA. This conclusion to our voyage felt unsatisfactory on more than one level. In the first instance it would mean we’d be at Mexico before officially getting there. In the second, this convoluted itinerary represented a triumph of self-interested pragmatism over the better angels of our more trusting, liberal natures. We had tried our best to shrug off the lurid tales of Mexican perfidy told to us at every stage of our journey (“they’ll rob you and they’ll sell your son” as one storekeeper told me) and yet…as much as those angels reassured us that Mexicans were no better or worse than anyone else and that thousands of people safely visit Mexico each year, we also didn’t want to be the exception, the ones robbed of our bikes (or more prosaically, just unable to relax and leave them or our other gear unattended). When it wasn’t necessary, when the trip across the border was an bonus adventure and when we had a safe place back in San Diego to leave our gear, why risk it?

So we took the tram to the border and walked over. Often when you pass across a state border the immediate differences are minimal. An empty border post, especially in mainland Europe, can be the only clue. Not here. Here we were instantly assailed by the contrast. Cabbies, their vehicles chaotically parked wherever a spot presented itself in the litter-strewn unmade road outside the border crossing, harangued us to let them give us a lift into Tijuana. A nearby walk-in health clinic had a queue of about 15 people, two of whom were handcuffed together, bleeding and watched over by a bored municipal policeman. We got into a yellow cab (signalling possession of state cab licence) and set off for the smaller beach resort of Rosarito The driver maneuvered his car carelessly over axle threatening potholes and onto a crowded highway, cars zooming in and out of lanes to get ahead. We reached for our seatbelts, but there were none. As we turned down the quieter scenic coastal highway I glanced through the car to the dashboard. We were now doing 95mph and the battery warning indicator was flashing. On the steep hillsides, makeshift buildings tumbled down towards who knew where. I wondered if we a misjudged corner would see us finding out.

Los deportados (“The deportees”) restaurant, Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico

Out on the street, English language liveried pharmacies (“viagra $20”) and dental practices slotted in a alongside shoe and bag shops. A young man with tattoos running up his arms, neck and cheeks approached me with a handful of nuts and bolts and a story of how he needed money to repair his car.

In Rosarito

We’d been in Mexico for no more than three hours but Joe was already keen to head back. Given the largely positive reviews we’d had of Rosarito, I felt we hadn’t seen the best of this place, let alone the real Mexico. And yet, the proximity of this town to its much more prosperous neighbour seemed to drain whatever joy living by a beautiful coast might furnish. Rosarito’s destiny appeared confined to servicing stag parties and health tourists, its ambition stunted by the inevitable urge to peer over the fence at the greener grass of the other California. For all the yankee dollars that flowed into this town, its residents and its infrastructure had not visibly benefited. Even to walk around a border town for half a day was enough to conclusively give the lie to the hypocritically indignant solutions of America’s conservatives, at once reliant on and offended by Mexicans seeking work and a future in the US. The gross disparity of wealth and opportunity makes such movement inevitable. The solution is to reduce those disparities, through trade and exchange, not entrench them through a fortress economy and a fantasy wall.

Back at the hostel in San Diego I chatted to a pair of cousins from Florida, one of whom was weighing a move here. When I asked her if she’d made a decision she had her epiphany then and there: she’d decided to move. It seemed to me a sound resolution; San Diego was a city where it was easy to imagine living and being happy

Well, our new hostel did promise "excellent access to the airport"

We decided to move to a hostel nearer the beaches in Point Loma and spend most of the next day on the popular Ocean Beach. Remarkably, this was the first time and last time either of would swim in the Pacific.

Ocean Beach, San Diego
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, San Diego where, finally, I got a shot of the graceful brown pelican

Then it was time to complete our voyage. We retraced our steps through the city and out through the port area. We passed the huge naval base and the ancillary factories that surrounded it. At Imperial Beach, just five miles from the coast we stopped for a drink. A local walked out of the gas station. “Where you guys headed?” he said. “To the Mexican border” I replied “but we started in northern Idaho”. “Whoa! No way! On your bikes the whole way? How long that take ya?” “About six weeks” I said “It’s been great. Everyone’s been really friendly and the scenery’s been amazing”. “That’s terrific” he said “this your son?” “Yeah. He’s only 16, never ridden long distance before but now he’s wuppin’ me” I replied. “Great to be young idn’t it? He replied. “Well, you guys ride safe”.

It was a conversation we’d must have had eighty times already. It normally followed this pattern, but it never got boring. I don’t know if it was the sight of two people with luggage-laden bikes or the slightly bedraggled union flag tied to the back of my steed. I don’t know if we looked particularly approachable, or whether Americans in this part of the world were just more friendly, but everywhere we went, if we stopped for more than about 5 minutes we’d fall into conversation with someone. And it absolutely made the tour, turning it from a trial of comfort and endurance with a nice backdrop into a bona fide adventure. It made me realise that, despite so much evidence to contrary, people are basically decent. It reminded me that if you extend the hand of friendship, most people will grasp it. And I knew then and there how much I was going to miss it.

We approached San Ysidro, the border town, picking up and following the huge fence along its course to the crossing point. Outlet shops advertised brand name clothes for people popping across from Mexico. A giant McDonald’s on one side of the road and a spacious Starbuck’s on the other welcomed new arrivals. This places were available on the other side, but it seemed like an apt gateway into America proper. We dismounted to wheel our bikes the last few yards, talking to Mexicans heading home, their experience of this place a part of their regular commute. At the actual crossing, we stopped and hugged. I told Joe how glad I was we’d done this together.

After the ride

We had tickets for the Pacific Surfliner departing from the beautiful Santa Fe Depot in San Diego. A long queue to board had formed, but I learned that cyclists were invited to go first. We were shooed onto the train, then called back amid accusations of cutting the line — as vile a traducement for any Briton as can surely be imagined. Amtrak staff could clearly teach our ticket inspectors a thing or two about how to be charmless, but we were off soon enough.

The stunning Santa Fe Depot in San Diego, built in 1915 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and a vivid reminder that the great rail termini are the cathedrals of the industrial age

Our destination in LA was a Warm Shower venue in West Hollywood, 11 miles from Union Station. I had not considered when I’d booked the tickets that we’d be arriving as the sun was setting, meaning a ride through the dark to our destination.

Although we’d skirted the city on our way to the border, this was the first time we’d ridden in central LA and, by dusk, it was an arresting experience. Along one street a line of tents were being erected, complete with the detritus of their itinerant inhabitants. We pedalled fast across neighbourhoods with run down shop fronts and emptying sidewalks. As the last light definitively faded we passed into a well-to-do neighbourhood, finally emerging onto the busy Sunset Boulevard. Our host, Barry, was a Brit who had lived in LA for 40 years. He welcomed us with a proper cup of tea.

We were sufficiently warned that the Hollywood Walk of Fame was tacky. What we had not properly anticipated was how poorly executed the tackiness was. There were landmarks such as El Capitan and the Egyptian theatres, but for the main the experience was a mêleé of low-grade hawkers, buskers and tour guides. Hollywood — America’s greatest and most influential cultural projection — is commemorated by an experience some way below a trip to Sports Direct.

On Hollywood Boulevard

But if Hollywood Boulevard was tacky, North Rodeo Drive, the most famous retail strip of Beverly Hills, was just flat out ugly. Here, silver fronted windowless clothes shops fought gold edged fashion outlets to grab the visitor’s attention as the most tasteless display of extreme wealth. One shop, themed in canary yellow, parked its own matchingly vulgar Rolls Royce outside. But don’t expect to just wander in; shopping is strictly by appointment, darling.

Not that there were many actual shoppers. Indeed, all the foot traffic seemed to be other tourists there to gawp. In nearly 30 minutes — about as much as either of us could endure of such squalid ostentation — we didn’t see a single bag or box-carrying customer.

Loadsamoney: House of Bijan scooped our award as the nastiest sight in America

Our evening with the Hernandez family at Doheny State Beach had yielded one more adventure: complimentary tickets behind Home Plate to see the LA Dodgers take on their great rival, the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers had already tied up the series in the first two games, but nobody was treating this as a dead rubber. Sadly, only the Giants brought their A game, seeing off the home side 4–0. Humiliation was only avoided when shortstop Corey Seager scored a Hit in the bottom of the 9th.

We cycled the city the following day, first visiting Little Tokyo and then taking another trip to Venice Beach (pictured). I was struck by how LA felt simultaneously strange and familiar. It occurred to me this city must be the most filmed location on Earth, so its signature features — tall, skinny palm trees, wide, congested freeways, Aviator bespectacled LAPD officers — seemed not just instantly familiar but clichéd. For all that, however, we were strangers here.

When we first arrived this sprawling megalopolis seemed hostile, dirty and unrewarding. Yet even after a couple of days it was possible to understand how this great city continues to be such a magnet for people everywhere. It’s a diverse city, more so than London, despite what Sadiq Khan may say. Angelinos possess a straight-talking manner that’s easy to mistake for rudeness and easier to warm to once you’ve worked out the difference. And its very size and layout, so often seen as a downside, can also be a strength: there’s an LA for everyone.

But for us, that was our American odyssey. And what a journey it had been. 2,005 miles. 88,000 vertical feet. 156 hours in the saddle. 938,000 turns of the pedal. 41 different beds for the night. God knows how many hamburgers consumed.

Along the way we attended a native American pow wow, crewed a yacht race, got woken up by a plane crash, drove a supercar, snuck past a huge forest fire, were kept awake by sea lions, helped out a new tech big cheese, got rescued by a planetary scientist, experienced huckleberries, marvelled at 300ft trees, got ravaged by mosquitoes, watched superhumans surf the tube and saw a drunkard get tasered. We pedaled through a megalopolis, across deserted plains and over the world's most famous bridge. We went up mountainous climbs, into fierce headwinds and along golden beaches. We were chased by dogs and shouted at by a meth head. We saw impoverished fruit pickers and Silicon Valley millionaires. We shivered in the morning mists and wilted in the inland heat.

We slept on a boat, on the beach, in a church, on the floor, in the woods, in a luxury cabin, in strangers’ homes, among a bunch of hipsters and a bunch of hobos. We were taken out to dinner and told to dig our own toilet. We had the world’s best French toast and the world’s worst Mexican food. We remained baffled by America’s road intersections but found its Brexit-like lunge into Trumpism depressingly familiar. Best of all, we broke bread with some brilliant people, from foreign tourers and domestic campers to good samaritans, philanthropists, businessmen, public servants. We mixed with like-minded folk and wonderful weirdos, with the down-and-out and the up-and-coming. And throughout, we were constantly astonished and humbled by the willingness of perfect strangers to assist us for no reward.

I felt proud and blessed to have done this ride with Joe. Proud, because despite never ridden more than 50 miles in one go he was powering up hills on a bike that weighed half his weight from day one. He smoked me on those climbs straight away, but by the end was holding off sinewy lycra louts on 15lb super machines. I thought I’d have to pep him up, but it turned out he was the one with the better stamina and appetite for doing what we set out to do.

And I felt blessed because I couldn’t think of something better to do with seven weeks of my life than go on such an amazing adventure with one of my kids. And despite living in each other’s pocket for nearly two months, we never even fell out. I planned this trip as a solo adventure but the decision to bring Joe along elevated it from mid-life crisis escapism into an experience not to be surpassed.

As our Georgian Uber driver took us to the airport, complaining about the traffic (“even on a Saturday…where do all these people need to be?”) we tried to count the things we’d wanted to do and had missed out on.

It wasn’t a long list.


We did this to raise money for a great cause. Macmillan cancer support does incredible work for people with cancer. Their nurses helped care for my Mum and Joe’s grandmother in the last months of her life. To date, we have raised over £5,000— another reason for us to feel humbled by the generosity of others. But if you haven’t done so, you you can still donate HERE

Created By
Adam Higgitt


Adam Higgitt 2016

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