Caitlin Dronen: California Tour
Words by Caitlin Dronen, Photography by Cailtin Dronen and Aaron Beasley
When I was a kid I never enjoyed my family camping trips. To my father's irritation I wore platform sandals in protest when we'd go hiking and was always eager for the end of the trip when we'd stay in the lodge with a pool. Strangely, I didn't rediscover the outdoors until I moved to Brooklyn from the Midwest in 2011. I began to spend every day off work cycling, hiking, or camping in the areas surrounding the city. I had camping gear that I had acquired over the years and wanted to combine it with the travel, freedom, and distance accessible by a bicycle.
In the Summer of 2013, after months of second guessing which bicycle I should invest in, I bought a Specialized Tricross Steel Elite knowing I'd ride a long tour with it. I didn’t know where I’d go; I knew I wanted to be warm and near water, and I also knew I didn’t really have the time to get away (living in New York City, time is hard to come by for most). So I rode the Tricross like it was a road bike... a very heavy, 27 pound road bike with a triple crankset. I would just have to push a little harder than others to climb hills on 9W and ride laps in the park. A year and half later, I had ridden some serious mileage. I felt at home on the bike and felt mechanically competent enough to take a solo tour.
Winter was coming and I decided I’d avoid cold on the East Coast and take a route I had heard was cyclist friendly: San Francisco to San Diego via Highway 1. I bought my ticket on January 14th to fly to San Francisco at the beginning of February, giving me only two weeks to make this a reality (and hopefully not a disastrous one). At this same time my friend, Aaron, who also happens to be a bike mechanic, wanted to join. Someone to eat S’mores with and who could true a wheel on the spot? Yes! So then there were two of us.
I should mention that in addition to biking, Aaron surfs. He surfs a lot and got very excited about the possibility of surfing the large waves of California. I had to remind him this was a bike tour, NOT a surfing tour. My reminder did very little. The day he arrived in San Francisco, he sent me a Craigslist link to a B.O.B. trailer in Oakland that he planned to buy and attach a surfboard to. Imagining the hills of the West Coast, I thought he was joking: he was not. My Tricross and his Rosko trailing an Almond surfboard, made us a heavily loaded two, ready to head south. From the beginning I was in awe of riding in California. Geographically, California is the Earth showing off all the different things it could be. We pedaled through desert, farm country, Redwoods, mountains, small towns and big cities with the ocean always to our right. For a majority of the trip, we were fortunate enough to be able to take our time, so we had a mix of long mileage and short mileage days (also known as “surfing days” for Aaron).
Our longest day in the saddle was 70 miles, which would have been fine if we were unloaded and hadn’t decided to combine those miles with a lot of climbing. We woke up underneath the Redwoods in Juliette Pfeiffer State Park and immediately began our morning climbing Big Sur. When we arrived at the Bixby Bridge, I looked at what we were about to climb and told Aaron “This is why people have been calling us crazy.” With bike paths everywhere and bicycle conscious drivers, I hadn’t understood why people had looked at us with wild eyes when we told them about our tour (other than the obvious absurdity of trailing around a surfboard for hundreds of miles). Now I got it. But slowly and steadily we did it, the first climb just shy of 1000 feet.
By midday we were riding above the clouds, and feeling a bit apprehensive that there was another even higher altitude to reach before dark. The last leg of the day was spent in a continuous, dizzying rhythm of ascending and descending, hot and cold, fog and sunshine until we made it to San Simeon with enough daylight left for margaritas and burritos. The Big Sur day was one of the many days on this trip I pushed the boundaries of what I had ever done before. We rode over mountains with bellies filled with nachos. We carried our gear across a waist high river to reach a secluded surf spot. We road with bare feet over dirt paths. We were the only people on Highway 1 at sunrise in Malibu. We pushed to stay with a Saturday morning roadie group ride. I held my breath as we road through car tunnels. This tour is difficult to write about because other than a squirrel eating our freshly ground peanut butter that we splurged on, nothing went wrong.
In total, we spent six weeks in California; and it confirmed that bicycling touring is a necessity in my life. Another cyclist we spent time with on the road with said to me,“Touring is not an activity; it is a lifestyle.” I’m going to continue to spend my spare time waking up with the sun, making camp, and seeing the world mile by mile. I got back to New York City as the sun was melting away the winter and cyclists were coming off their indoor trainers. It feels good to be home and to have my bike with just a saddlebag on it, but I can’t stop looking a maps and planning what’s next.