Even if you just have a few hours free, you can jump on your bike and have an adventure. There's a small residential road that I had never explored, but on the maps it looked like it continued on for a while.
I had a free afternoon with just about three hours until sundown, so I took a bike ride down the mystery road to see where it would go. It turns out this particular section of Olive street intersects with El Camino Real, the Royal Highway of "New Spain."
I ended up in the historical center of San Gabriel. The road went almost in a straight line to one of the early California missions. People from the San Gabriel Mission went on to found the city of Los Angeles, so this bike ride took me to some of the roots of LA's history.
I even got to see one of the first and oldest grape vines in southern California, and later on I tasted some California wine to celebrate.
If your a biking newbie, this just reinforces the point: It doesn't matter how far you want to ride or how much time you have. Just get on your bike and explore. You'll run into something interesting you've never seen before, or discover a new bike route to places you've already been.
I'd love to see a world where things like the current mess in the Gulf of Mexico didn't happen. Where the oceans and mountains and forests and their inhabitants could just coexist with us crazy bike-riding, car-driving apes and all living beings could at least count on breathable air and drinkable water.
I don't ride my bike because I feel this way. I think I feel this way because I ride my bike.
My sweetie and I just spent a few days riding through the mists of the California Coast. Lots of great scenery and wildlife and some wonderful food, hikes, and all the other good things you'd expect on a bike tour.
But we also spent a lot of time picking up trash. There are so many people, it seems, who "enjoy nature" by driving to a beautiful spot, feasting and drinking, and then getting back into their cars to go home. Nothing wrong with the first two, but the last is inexcusable. Especially where there's a trash can just a few yards away.
In the end, Johana and I had to set limits on how much trash we could clean up. We set up a sort of triage, focusing on plastic and other dangerous litter, and leaving the worst messes that were beyond hope.
It seems like the worst perpetrators drink Budweiser Lite.
Maybe if you rode your bike to the party, really earned your way there with sweat and possibly blood, you'd appreciate the remoteness and not always trash the place.
If you've done any bike touring in the last couple of years, you've probably noticed that a lot of the California Hike/Bike campsites have been moved, restricted, or closed.
The two reasons given for this are budget cuts and problems with transients. I won't argue either of these points now, even though I have a lot to say about them.
But there's something wrong with the attitude that many California state parks employees have towards bike tourists. In my travels this week, it seems that every time I pull into a state beach on my bike, the people in the kiosk roll their eyes and act as if I'm a drug-addicted, homeless serial killer. Or at least a nuisance.
This really hurts because I'm a member of the California State Parks Association, I volunteer for eco-restoration projects in the parks, and I'm constantly telling everyone how much fun it is to tour the California coast by bicycle and camp out in the state parks.
Worse still, a lot of the bike tourists I meet are from other countries, and this might be their overriding impression of the United States, and of California in particular. What are we telling them about ourselves?
It used to be fine to arrive at your campsite in the early afternoon and avoid the heavy coastal winds. You could unload your bike, set up your tent, and then hit the beaches, the town, or the hiking trails.
Now most places won't let you set up until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. It's like you can only eat and sleep, but you're not allowed to enjoy the park itself. And that's not all.
When I registered at a certain campground, the ranger took it upon himself to remind me that I can only stay for one night, there's no alcohol allowed, and check-out time is 9 a.m. As I set up my tent he came by to double check that I paid the fee, and reminded me again of all the rules and policies.
As I left Pismo Beach, the woman in the kiosk demanded to see my receipt, asked me the number of the campsite I had stayed in, and wanted the names of the other people who had been there.
This suspicious attitude might be reinforced by the bad behavior of a few bikers, and possibly one or two real problems. But I suspect it's an attitude that people have overall towards bikers.
A lot of people still think that if you choose not to travel by car it means you can't afford to and that this automatically makes you a moocher, or worse.
The truth is, I've spent a lot of time picking up beer cans and other trash left behind by the "normal" people. I've seen car campers exhibit some of the worst behavior you can imagine, while us bikers quietly went about our business.
A few days ago I even watched an angry woman yell at the ranger and demand a refund because it was raining.
I've been having a great time this week, with some amazing experiences. But when I sit down to write, this anti-bike bummer is what comes to the front of my mind. Here are a few things I wish the state parks employees understood about bike travelers:
We're generally quieter, cleaner, and leave our campgrounds in better condition than the typical visitor
We're environmentally aware, and chances are we give a lot of our time and money to the park system, either directly or indirectly
We help the economy by spending our travel budget at local stores, restaurants, bike shops and other businesses
A lot of us are bloggers, reporting our experiences to the world
The first time I tried to bike the entire via Appia, I wanted to be as faithful as humanly possible to the original roadbed, even though local archaeologists and history buffs insisted this could not be done. They were only partly right.
I'm getting ready for a new bike tour next week, roughly following El Cammino Real, the Royal Highway, which is (or was) California's Appian Way. But when I did my research, I learned something interesting that maybe should have been obvious.
There never was a single road.
Max Kurillo and Erline Tuttle wrote a book about this route, the efforts of historians to preserve it, and the bells that mark the way. They also made an important point that El Cammino Real is more of a corridor than an actual road.
There's a general swathe along the California coast where people traveled consistently along footpaths, trails, riverbeds, and (much much later) primitive roads. It changed its course like a river in a broad valley, and one voyager's footprints could easily be overgrown or swept away at high tide. The route was never marked except by the convenience of each individual traveler.
I would add that the most accurate reconstruction we know of today essentially follows the 101 Freeway, and choosing this as your bike route would just give you a miserable bike tour without a chance to experience the real California.
Ditto for via Appia, as I quickly learned. In some places the route is better known (if only because the ancient Romans were more anal than the colonial Spaniards) but it's not always the best way to travel. The key, even thousands of years ago, was to follow the general area.
In Rome, I did as the Romans do. I was true to the Appian Way most of the time, visited all the ancient cities and ruins and Roman temples. But I also detoured when it was a choice between a park and a freeway. I stayed at agriturismi, which are more like the lodging a traveler would have found along the via Appia in ancient Roman times. I talked to people, took hikes, ate at mom-and-pop restaurants and drank with the locals at their favorite bars.
Tracing the Royal Highway next week, I'll stay in the corridor, but I won't worry too much about whether or not I'm bicycling over Portola's footprints. I'll visit the missions, taste a lot of wine, swim and camp at many beaches, talk to farmers and ranchers, and prove that what's just off the 101 is far more interesting than what used to be on it.
My original intent was to tour the missions. But after I started reading a few books about the missions and their history, I saw that there are far more interesting things to see and do on a bike tour. I'm looking forward to this, and I hope I'll have something worthwhile to tell.