December 5, 2009

The 400 Mile Thanksgiving Turkey Tour

Last week, Pete and I embarked on a 400(ish) mile, 9 day, bike tour around Southern California starting in San Diego, continuing across the Anza-Borrego Desert, around the Salton Sea, and finally ending at Solana Beach.

Here's a map I made of our tour:

Pretty epic if you ask me - but my pre-requisites for this event were a mere 4-5 months of biking to work a few days a week, and one day long (45ish mile) ride to Oceanside.  When I made a pre-tour trip to REI the cashier asked where I was going, and then if I did any training to prepare...hell no - I have issues just training for a half marathon!  I gave a nervous laugh and left.

Anyway, this trip was a huge accomplishment for me physically and mentally, and an amazing cultural experience.  Enjoy the Thanksgiving/turkey-themed recap!  If this gets too long and boring, I apologize, and feel free to check out the picture version :)

Day 1:  Escaping the Senile Relatives - San Diego to Alpine - 35 miles and 1700' gain
Admit it. Every family has "those relatives" at holiday gatherings that you try to avoid, or at least keep encounters to a minimum in order to save your ears, cheeks, and maybe even nose and lungs if you're lucky.

This day felt like I was trapped in a room with a ton of them - having to stop and talk to each one before I could get the eff out.  Essentially, getting out of San Diego via bike is a huge pain in the butt!  Tons of traffic, a ridiculous amount of stoplights (that were always red, of course), and a few obviously unwanted wrong turns (one that resulted in biking up a super steep hill - gah!)

We finally reached Alpine at about 4:15pm, and I was crabby and already exhausted - morale from that stretch was definitely low - great first day, eh?  Thankfully, we decided to not bike the remaining 5ish miles to the intended campsite and stayed at a motel...which just happened to be neighbors with the Alpine Beer Company (supposedly 4th in the nation) - heck yes!  Rest of the night is history.

Day 2:  Turkey Legs - Alpine to Mt. Laguna - 30 miles and 4500' gain
Uff-dah!  If I were a turkey, you would want to eat me after this stretch of the trip - my leg muscles got all big and beefy (turkey-y?).  It was only 30 miles, but it took pretty much all day because it was all uphill and I was biking slowly...even slower than I RUN at times.  Too bad we didn't come across any turtles...I would've made them feel speedy.  That probably doesn't sound like a lot of mileage/climbing to some people...but my route to work contains one or two short hills - so this stretch was definitely out of my element...not to mention all the stuff I had loaded on my bike.

Despite all the climbing and having to bike on Hwy 8 for a few miles, I was in a much better mood this day - actually had fun!  At one point I was even singing "she'll be comin' round the mountain" to myself and replaced "she'll be driving six white horses" with "she'll be driving a long haul trucker."  Happens.

The sense of accomplishment once we reached the campsite near the summit of Mt. Laguna was fantastic.  I was proud of myself.  And, that would be the most climbing we'd be doing all week.

Pete went for a run around a meadow once we got to the campsite - while I could barely move.  Jerk Show-off.

The meadow had a cool little rock structure - photo-op!

That night it got down to about 20F - I froze to death and Pete had to do all of the cooking since I couldn't feel my fingers...biggest freeze baby from Minnesota ever.

Day 3:  Gravy Train!!!  Mt. Laguna to Lake Henshaw - 35 miles and 3500' descent
After the climb the day before this day was easy, relaxing, and overall fabulous!  Definitely one of my favorite days (riding wise) of the trip.  Shortly after leaving the campsite we finally had some amazing views that made me realize just how much climbing I had actually done (Mt. Laguna summit is at about 6000').

From this point, we were able to see the desert terrain we'd be biking through and even a tiny sliver of the Salton Sea (holy crap we're going to be biking way over there?!)

Almost the entire ride was downhill on fun, curvy roads.  We stopped in Julian - a small, touristy town (historic landmark as it was part of the Gold Rush) and had lunch at RongBranch Cafe, followed by dessert at Mom's - amazing pie (and amazingly long line).

Ended our day in Lake Henshaw at a somewhat run-down RV park/campground.  Lots of barking dogs, old RVs, and interesting people - but the lake was really pretty, they had free hot showers...and they were even biker friendly! :-P

Pete has a personal challenge to run around the lake in an hour.  He made it about half way before getting attacked by worries, he has plans to return soon - just don't tell him it'll be during the rainy season and the lake will be bigger ;-)

Day 4:  Cranberries + Milk - Lake Henshaw to Arroyo-Salado Primitive Campground - 46 miles and 1800' descent
In case you haven't experienced this first hand, cranberries and milk DO NOT go well together: barf-o-rama.  Headwinds and climbing also do not go well together.  About half of this leg of the trip was into the wind, while climbing about 3000' - I summed it up in my journal by bluntly writing "F**K HEADWINDS!"  The ride was difficult for me and pretty miserable in general.  However, Pete did make me smile at least once when I found him sitting on an abandoned chair on the side of the road when I came around a bend.

Our windy ascent ended (finally!) in a really tiny town called Ranchita.  The biggest thing in that town was probably this weird albino Uncle Sam Big Foot?  I guess the real estate person makes them...for whatever reason.  Fun fact: Big Foot has a nice backside - Pete took a picture if you're interested (see picture version link above).

Departing from Big Foot, I noticed my front tire was flat. I freaked out since I'd never had a flat before, proceeded to stop, let out a squeelish "ahh," and tipped over - landing on my knee on the side of the road.  FAIL.  I bet the whole thing looked absolutely ridiculous.  For time sake, I had Pete fix my flat tire while I attended to my bleeding knee...and thankfully this happened less than a mile before the next part of the ride: a 12 mile, 4000' descent in Borrego Springs.

The descent into Borrego Springs was really beautiful - definitely a reward for having to deal with our barftastic combo of wind and climbing!

But while Pete was having a blast flying down the mountain...

...I had my hands clenched to the brakes.  First time riding down something this steep and it took a while (like 11 of the 12 miles) for me to warm up to the "weeee this is fun!" point.

We devoured some food at a local restaurant, and headed into the desert.  Finally some flat roads!  16 miles later we were at our campsite just in time to watch the sunset.  And when you're in the middle of the desert, the stars are absolutely amazing!

Day 5:  The Cornucopia - Arroyo-Salado Campground to Salt Creek Campground - 50 miles and 600' descent
There's not a ton to say about this day as the majority of the ride consisted of biking along a busy highway that paralleled the Salton Sea.  The sight and sound of semis driving by you at 60 mph isn't the most enjoyable.  I also got another flat tire soon after leaving the campsite which put us in a bad mood right off the bat.

For some reason I was surprised at the amount of farming being done on the shores of the Salton Sea.  We biked alongside date palms, orange groves, lemon orchards, vineyards, rows of peppers, lettuce, and what we guessed were onions - quite the selection!  Unfortunately, the little place we were told to go to get a date shake was closed.

The aroma was quite nice when a semi full of red bell peppers spilled a few crates all over the highway and all of the cars kept driving over them.  And on a stretch the next day we got a few free lemons that were spilled on the side of the road.  When life hands you lemons...pick a few up!  Or run over them with your bike like I did, heh - I had to laugh when Pete looked back and asked, "did you just make lemonade?! [uhu] Do it again!"

After passing by a few closed campsites in the Salton Sea Recreational Area, we finally arrived at the Salt Creek campground.  I think this was both of our favorite campsite of the trip - just off the Northeastern shore of the sea, it was really pretty and we were able to hear all of the birds and the sound of the water crashing against the sand and rocks.

Day 6:  The Unidentifiable Hotdish - Salt Creek Campground to Slab City - 25 miles and 100' descent
There's always that one dish somebody brings to Thanksgiving or other gatherings that makes you wonder.  And when you're younger, a good portion of the dishes look this way.  For me, it was always the sweet potatoes.  Orange potatoes?  And, marshmallows?  What the...even though I've come to like sweet potatoes, I still don't find myself eating any of it today.

Slab City reminded me a lot of that unidentifiable hotdish.  It's strange, out-of-the-ordinary, and makes you feel a little uncomfortable...but it definitely has a lot of character.  Once you muster up the courage to dig in, you'll find out you either love it or hate it.  I happened to love it.

I could ramble on about our almost 24-hour experience in "the slabs" but I've found it's hard to relay to someone in a way that paints the full picture.  As our neighbor for the day Patrick (a handsome, 30-some guy from Houston spending the winter there in a tent) put it when we arrived, "it's kind of like landing in Oz, isn't it?  You have to go explore and figure it all out...have fun!"

One thing I did find especially noteworthy was the library.  Cody, a guy we had met at the hostel in San Diego, told us we definitely had to check it out.  He had just spent about 3 weeks in the slabs and apparently thought it was noteworthy as well.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was exactly what I expected.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, of donated books, free to take (and keep), on a bunch of shelves and milk crates, all covered by a few lean-to's.  The fountain in the middle of it all added a nice touch.

Salvation Mountain was also noteworthy.  You may recognize it from the book-turned-movie "Into the Wild."  It was thought up and constructed by a quirky, now almost 80 year old guy name Leonard who has been living just outside of Slab City and working on his mountain and other structures for the past 25ish years.  We had a chance to meet him and go on his "tour" - he's got some serious spunk.

I've left out a lot of details, but Slab City is somewhere you just have to dig into and experience for yourself.  Most of the sights are by no means beautiful or breathtaking, but the culture is somewhat otherworldly and the people are overly generous and real.  I do have to wonder though, what do these people do all day, every day, all winter?

Pete wrote an interesting, more-detailed, recap of our experience in Slab City and his unique thoughts - be sure to check it out here.

Day 7:  The Awkward New Boyfriend/Girlfriend - Slab City to Borrego Springs - 70 miles and 700' gain
Going to your significant others' family gathering for the first time can be somewhat un-enjoyable: you feel out of place, time seems to drag on, and everyone appears to be judging you.  This day brought about a lot of those same feelings.

First of all, with the 50 mile bike ride a few days before being my longest ride to date, I felt a bit intimidated just going into a 70 mile ride.  Was it going to be welcoming and accept me?

The first 25 miles of this stretch was biking through a grid of farmland, literally.  Pete loved this part of the ride for some reason, but I didn't share those feelings.  I thought it was kind of eerie in a way, like I was stuck in the middle of someone's farm in FarmVille or like I was going to get chased on a remote road by some creepy truck like in the movie "Jeepers Creepers."  Not to mention it was just boring - I've seen enough corn in my day.

The majority of the rest of the trip involved biking back through the desert, through some huge off-road vehicle recreational area.  This is where I think we both really started feeling out of place.  There were miles and miles and miles of people riding motocross bikes, 4-wheelers, desert buggies, and whatever else.  People stared at us like we were nuts, people rode on the sandy shoulders creating menacing clouds of dust, people flew by with their huge trucks and trailers...and it never seemed to end!

We decided to stop and get something to eat at what for all we knew was the only place between where we were and Borrego Springs.  This place looked like it had thrown up motocross and I remember Pete saying something like "I have never felt like such a loser."  You'll have that.

We had a couple guys that were really interested in our trip and asked a bunch of questions (I just wanna go eat!) but other than that we just kept to ourselves and ate our food, which was good.

Twenty some more miles till we finally arrived at our motel in Borrego Springs.  Holy cow I was exhausted.  First shower since day 4 - I have never appreciated a shower so much!  More dinner, more drinks, more bed.

Day 8:  "Crap, I ate way too much" - Borrego Springs to Lake Henshaw - 45 miles and 1800' gain
Everyone always eats way too much on Thanksgiving - it's inevitable.  When this happens, you're tired and all you want to do is sleep.  This day, my legs felt like they had pedaled a few too many times.  Pete got the furthest ahead of me he had been all trip (a few miles), and I was on the verge of crying and wanted the day to be over.  I was eating plenty, drinking plenty, and trying to go my same easy pace I had been going all week...but for whatever reason my legs were not having it.  The little climbing we were doing was not much compared to the second day, yet I felt like I was going so slow and was so tired I might start rolling backwards!  I remember tweeting at one point, "Bonkville: population Andrea."

Looking back, the 70 mile ride the day before probably had something to do with it, but I'm going to go ahead and blame the weather.  We had amazing, sunny, warm weather all trip (minus some wind), and then there was this day.

We woke up to a lovely rainbow, and it was drizzling out but nothing crazy.  I knew it was supposed to rain this day...but I wasn't expecting it to be much worse than the drizzle.  After a few miles of climbing, the pretty rainbow disappeared and BAM!  Downpour...and it was freezing rain - holy owe!  I was miserable within minutes: freezing cold, wet, stingingly numb, and not happy.  Pete turned back to ask if I was doing okay and I remember grunting something dramatic like how I was going to die of hypothermia.

Just as I was freaking out thinking we still had like 40 some miles to go, and no sign of the weather clearing up, we came to a campground.  We ended up taking over the handicap bathroom for a good half hour while I warmed up.  Pete made me some hot chocolate, and I put on a billion layers of clothes:  under armor tights and long sleeve shirt, capri tights, bike shorts, long sleeve tech tee, fleece jacket, windbreaker, headband, socks, and gloves - ha!  I was ready to face the weather and we left the bathroom - and then what happens, the sun comes out...and I was WAY too hot - weird, huh?

Alas, I think that 20-30 minutes of being freezing cold and worrying took a lot out of me.  That, and the shoulder-less climb that followed with an obnoxious amount of RVs and trailers with obnoxious honking/taunting occupants...but that's a different rant.

Up until the last 8 miles, we had a dry and somewhat sunny trip - I just felt like crap.  The last 8 miles were downhill so I was feeling much better, but it was yet another downpour.  We buckled down and got back to Lake Henshaw as quick as possible.  Out of luck, they had a no-show and we were able to get the last cabin instead of having to camp outside.  Warmth - yahoo!  The rest of the night was spent eating, drinking beer, and drying our clothes while we sat around the heater on the porch chairs Pete brought inside.  We kept it a white-trash kind of way :-)

Day 9: After Dinner Drinks - Lake Henshaw to Solana Beach - 54 miles and 2600' descent
Last day of the trip - bumtown!  Pete and I have a slight obsession with Stone IPA, so we made sure to fit a visit to their brewery into the itinerary and make for a fun last day.  We ate some breakfast waiting for the residual rain to pass (no way was I biking through that again) and then headed to Escondido.  By the way, Pete loves coffee.

The ride to Escondido was fun, and I was feeling so much better than the day before.  We had a few really fun descents (one in which Pete had a scare because he brakes wore out, yikes) and even got a glimpse of the ocean for the first time in a while.  There was also a bit of climbing...and get this - I thought it was fun!

At the "brewing company" we went on a tour and had a really good meal.  Their facilities were nothing like I was expecting, but really impressive.  I highly recommend their tour - as long as you get our awesome tour guide - he gave us FIVE samples of beer instead of FOUR...angel in a brewery!  Their food was pretty awesome as well, if you're willing to pay a little more than usual.

Quite a few beers later, we headed out.  Guess what I got?!  Another flat tire!  Seriously...I get 3 flat tires and Pete gets none - Spokey needs to shape up!  We only had about 16 miles left to go to the train so we just filled it up a few times and made it.  The ride to the train was kind of sketch - it had gotten dark out and I learned I'm not a fan of biking on busy, unfamiliar roads when it's dark.  Also, you'd think biking to a beach would involve a lot of downhill, right?  Not the case - rolling hills the entire way...but I was badass by this point and Lance'd the crap out of those hills :-)

We made it to Solana Beach with about an hour to spare until train time!  I celebrated by eating some frozen yogurt, and Pete bought some interesting over-sized donut/cinnamon roll thing.

Bought a few beers, boarded the train, and chillaxed till Anaheim from which we'd have a measly 10-15 mile ride back to Huntington Beach.

We did it!!!  And I didn't even cry!

This trip was fan-friggin-tastic and I learned a great deal about myself, Pete, other cultures, biking, and camping.  It went by way too fast and I'm anxiously awaiting the next bike tour...whenever that comes about. I admit I doubted my capabilities numerous times before and during this trip, but I'm proud I was able to turn those doubts into accomplishments (something to remember when I start training for my first marathon - eek!).  Props to Pete for being patient and helping me along the way :-)

And the best part, I get to show-off my amazing tan when I go home for looks like something along these lines (pun intended):

Thanks, Jeff :-)


  1. i've been anxious to hear your take on the tour. i've been wanting to do something like this with smsmh and tc, but i'm always a little leery of how smsmh would react to it.

    what a great experience, though, and you couldn't ask for a better tour guide to introduce you to it. the recap was great and has inspired me to look into different ways to get tc and smsmh to join me on an adventure like this.

    oh, and nice tan lines!

  2. thanks, the tan lines are starting to grow on me :)

    i think it would be a really great experience for the 3 of you to do some sort of biking tour! just going on a 60 some mile weekend trip on a bike trail with my dad when I was about 7 brings back great memories.

    one additional thing - if possible, try to make sure the roads you plan to bike on have some sort of shoulder. aside from the physical challenges, it was extremely draining for me mentally to have to bike on no shoulder with HUGE rvs and trailors trying to pass you, and worrying about Pete ahead of me...noticed a good handful of them would rather run you off the road than move over a couple inches :-/