Sunday, April 14, 2013

To the Lighthouse.... Ride Report on the Point Reyes Lighthouse 102-mile Ride/Epic Adventure


Point Reyes: A Treacherous Obstacle to Mariners [and cyclists]:
"Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent." 

Posted on the Lighthouse grounds and its website.

I'VE GOT TO LEARN TO SEPARATE my idea of what something will be like and the reality of it. Case in point: the ride to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The Diablo Cyclists had this on their schedule two weeks ago when weather reports predicted rain (ironically, rain that never fell) and so the ride was cancelled. I was heartbroken because ever since I joined up with this incredible crew of cyclists, I've really WANTED TO DO THIS RIDE. Obsessively, almost.


I somehow imagined the ride would be Woolfesque: masterful, beautifully crafted and with a unique compression of time. Alas, that was not the case.

For silly reasons, mostly (but I'll begin with the least silly and move, rather quickly, into the ridiculous.) 

  1. I grew up in a desert. Visits to the ocean were a treat and the fact that there had to be people living in outposts who basically-- for a job-- produced light fascinated me as a kid. 
  2. My grandmother's best friend was obsessed with lighthouses (I have no idea why, actually) but perhaps some subliminal thing happened for all those visits I attended when I'd be surrounded my miniature lighthouses. (why not?) 
  3. I lived in the Sierra Nevada for a number of years. Those who manned the now unmanned fire lookouts were also a kind of lighthouse keeper. I learned a particular kinship with them in my early 20s. 
  4. I'm a writer. Metaphorically, one can argue writers are like lighthouse keepers: solitary folk that do thankless work but who can, from time to time (if rarely) illuminate what otherwise cannot be seen. 
  5. I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf's work To the Lighthouse the first year in the MFA program at Saint Mary's College. Her use-- and compression/extension-- of time is unmatched. Can I help it if the craft I aspire to as a writer used a lighthouse (an object that is really only discussed briefly and never fully described) but that nonetheless sticks in my mind?

So, when the DC's asked, do you want to ride To the Lighthouse it was like they were asking me if I wanted live the story written in that work (not really, but OK, maybe a little bit. The odd vicarious creature that I am.)  So when Ward warned of high winds the night before in an email, I didn't reply with reason: Whoa, maybe we should do this another day. Or even ask someone who might know better, Um, what do you think would be wise? I just said: SUPER-DUPER! Yay! and ran out to buy five Clif Bars.

And so began our epic ride.

Cisco Dave (left) taking pictures of us (right) on the first climb of the day by a big rock.
Me at the end of the first climb of the day, excited to see the Lighthouse. Sigh.

IT WAS WINDY WHEN WE STARTED THE RIDE at 9:00 am in San Rafael. Someone-- maybe it was Cisco Dave-- said:  It's going to be windy as f*** today."  A not-so-subtle warning: I nonetheless charged forward, excited to see this lighthouse I'd never seen before... I was riding TO THE LIGHTHOUSE!! Plus, it was so green out-- what I'd call Ireland-green-- and I hadn't seen Marin like that before.

Much of the early ride was unremarkable: the climb up the road with the 23-turns, the descent in which we were passed by a guy in zebra-print lycra (you have to have BALLS to wear that sort of thing in public, even if you're on a bike); the road by the reservoir, the Cheese Factory with the no-swimming sign (AS IF anyone would swim in a pond of muck). At about 30 miles in, we'd ride up Marshall Wall and that was when I began to wonder about this strange optimism of mine that this was a ride I REALLY WANTED TO DO: we were climbing in a head-wind-- the sort that makes you believe you aren't breathing.

Here I am, in a place I have gleaned from emails is called "Hicks Valley." I think this is just past our first stop at the Cheesecake Factory in Nicasio. Aside from the climb to the big rock, we hadn't been hampered too much by the windy conditions. That would, of course, change.

I put my head into the wind and just did my best to keep moving forward. The others were behind me, but I didn't know how far or even if they were coming to help me battle the gusts. This was my own particular battle. So, I closed my eyes and asked the sky-- the Almighty or really, anyone-- for advice. At just that moment, I heard a very clear, very male voice say: RIDE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD. And, I wondered, really, for a moment if God hadn't spoken to me. Right? Morally right? Or literal right? Well, it turned out to be the latter and "God" the Sheriff of Marin County had wanted to get his cruiser around me.

The downhill from Marshall Wall is usually fun and fast. Today it was like the climb: hard and slow. Once in Tomales Bay the crushed shells of oysters on the shoulder were less curious now; I just wanted to get on with the ride. I think the others felt the same way because the next miles to Point Reyes Station were screaming-fast with a tail-wind on our backs. It was a double-edged advantage, however: if you have that kind of natural assistance on the way out, you know that the way back is going to SUCK just as much.

But enter my optimism: the Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station and that best-ever-coffee and muffin made the day look up. It wasn't that windy, right? So, back on the road again: Inverness and then, the climb into the canyon and that would be the last of the mild winds for the day. 

More fun and games before the windiest portion of the ride:  a pile-up of four DC'ers at Toby's playground slide in honor of our absent member, Toby. 

IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN TO THE POINT REYES National Seashore, you really are missing something. It's a beautifully pristine area of rolling hills, rugged coastlines and green grasses peopled only by ranches that were established roughly 1850s-1870s prior to the area's naming as a national nature reserve. But there's also a unique energy about the place, too; a quietness, a lovely solitude and an expanse of ocean as though you're at the edge of the world. 

As I was riding into the considerable gusts, watching birds cease their forward motion but hover in one spot, I wondered what Sir. Francis Drake must have thought in 1579 when he landed here. Did he have any idea of the place-- or premonition of what would become California? Likely not, I know: but how odd it is that a European explorer saw this place so long ago; and that he was not the first person to have stepped across this expansive place, to have felt these sorts of winds. 

The sound the wind made through the power lines which lined the road was really something: eerie and hollow, even. It was almost like a low-pitched wail that kept me company on the way toward the lighthouse.  As you can (hear) the wind didn't decrease; instead, it's still going strong. 67-mph gusts-strong we would later learn when we reached our destination. 

Perhaps the best example of the force of the wind, however, would be Christine's ponytail in the shot below. Always a great meteorological predictor of wind, rain and calm conditions, the ponytail never lies. 

Animation courtesy of Jay of Gruppo Pumpkincycle fame.
It's an understatement to say that the ride would be more difficult than I-- or any of us-- had planned. And the worst was yet to come: the road out to the lighthouse is a two-laned affair and traffic on a Saturday was surprisingly heavy.  I'm not sure about the whale-watching season (rumor has it you can spot whales from the lighthouse when it's not quite so windy or foggy like it usually is) but I guess that's a part of the draw-- the hope to see a whale or a seal or something out there at the end of this windy expanse of land. 

But what made this ride so difficult was not only the wind and not only the traffic, but the condition of the road itself. Potholes and gravel, old cattle guards that looked like they'd eat your tires-- all of this combined made this ride one of the most harrowing I've ever done. Looking back, it's a miracle I didn't pop--or lose-- a tire, get run over or fall of a cliff when the gusts would surge, sending sandblasts into my face. 

Even though there were considerable challenges, you can't argue with the beauty of this ride. I *may* even do this ride again-- even though I seem to bring the wind along with me-- to chance a better day.
Like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the expectation of the lighthouse is the only thing that kept me going. There's a final hill before you get there-- and I was in my easiest gear and barely able to turn my legs over anymore, thinking "I'm not going to make it." Luckily, Cisco Dave was there to give me a kind shove and I did make it. 


THE LIGHTHOUSE WAS NOT WHAT I HAD EXPECTED. I suppose that's almost expected after all we went through to get there. But there wasn't much to see or do on that cold, windy edge of earth. There were tourists milling around everywhere and Dr. Dave and I arrived first. We walked around the rock formation to discover the stairs which lead to the actual lighthouse-- down a cliff-- were closed due to the high wind velocity. 

I could see the lighthouse, down in the distance and the terrible ferocity of waves of the Pacific which crashed around it. In the distance, a large ship's hull crashed into the waves as well. And the wind-- that strong wind-- so cold, cutting through cycling jersey and vest, made me instantly frozen. 

The oddly beautiful rock formation you have to walk around to glimpse the lighthouse.
Our shack: Ward braves the outdoor elements, waiting for the others to arrive while I (barely visible) stay inside to keep warm.

WE HUDDLED IN A SHACK waiting for the others to arrive. When they did, Ward had us pose together for a team shot with the ocean-- and that wind-- at our backs. Usually this a ritual-- the team photo-- something we all look forward to. But today, there was no remaining in that cold spot. We were all ready to go back the way we came before it got worse. 

Because it would. That's the nature of the wind out here. It gets stronger as the day progresses. I stopped by the restrooms before we left the lighthouse... and you know the weather is not the best for riding when you'd rather sit in a public restroom-- the waterless kind-- than be out on your bike.

Yup: it's official. It was windy.

To say it was more difficult on the on the way back would also be putting it mildly. We were all nearly blown off our bikes and even off the road. I felt like my bike was tilted at a constant 65-degrees to the road instead of the usual--and comforting--upright 90. I'm amazed I didn't have to stop; that I didn't crash. I kept talking to myself like a crazy person to keep myself from freaking out or from thinking about the situation too much. I knew that if I made it back to the canyon, the wind would be less fierce and the ride to Inverness-- to Point Reyes Station and San Rafael-- would be cake. 

On the almost-final stretch home.

One more stop at the Bovine Bakery and then the ride home: back by the reservoir, Nicasio, the climb through the trees to the big rock. I tried to keep pace with Cisco Dave but at about mile 90-- a few turns from the top-- I hit my wall and I was, simply, finished. Jay had ridden behind me and shot out in front, ready to race. When I didn't respond he turned and asked if I had anything left. 

I said, "no." 

23-turns down the hill and Cisco Dave was waiting at the bottom. Ready to be done with the ride, I rested low in the drops and started to pedal with what I had left. Cisco Dave said: "Take us home, Rebecca" and that's what I planned to do. After a while, we switched positions, and our speed crept up from 27 mph to 29. The ride back to the car along that final stretch seemed longer than it did in the morning. 


I'VE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY TO SEE MY CAR. My legs, arms, shoulders and back were a mess and I was TIRED... but also pleased. I'd ridden to the lighthouse and looking back on it all, it didn't seem that bad. I guess maybe perspective can crunch time like Virginia Woolf did in her novel. But I'm not sure I'm ready to head out there again until I hear the wind's died down and there will be-- at the very least-- one whale.

Photo credits: Jay of Gruppo Pumpkincycle and Cisco Dave

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