Going stir crazy between COVID-19 restrictions and having the remnants of 2.3 million acres of California going up in flames sprinkle your car with soot and ashes while smoke adds a diabolical twist to Nat King Cole’s “Lazy Hazy Days of Summer” musical standard?
If you are, it might do you good to make plans for the Great American getaway astride two wheels when we get a break from the current doom and gloom cycle dealt by Mother Nature.
And the best way to see the USA isn’t channeling Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.” It’s under your own power soaking in the beauty and inspiration of varied landscapes while enjoying civilized outposts.
If you don’t know where to begin and you can afford to invest a few bucks that may very well open horizons you never dreamed of, try exploring various bicycle touring packages.
They typically range from two to seven days with all logistics handled by the company including hotels, meals, snacks, and transportation. And, if you opt not to bring your own two wheels, they can supply the bicycle as well.
I’m not going to mislead you. It isn’t inexpensive.
My experience is with Backroads Touring out of Berkeley. The trips seemed to have happened a lifetime ago in the 1980s. Since then people I’ve referred to them and who have embarked on an adventure with them as recently as last year offer high praises for the company.
I took two trips with Backroads — five days in Death Valley and seven days in the Taos-Santa Fe Region of New Mexico.
At the time of my first Backroads trip I’d only been cycling seriously for 13 months with almost all of it on roads in the Southern Sacramento Valley and the Placer County foothills. The $800 cost of the Death Valley trip was a bit stiff for me back in 1986. (A similar trip package today goes for $2,499 to $2,799.) But it was to celebrate being at 190 pounds on my 31st birthday.
To be honest, today I could plan a seven-day trip to Death Valley to either bicycle or hike and spend less than half that amount.
That said I never would have gotten hooked on Death Valley or become so immersed in bicycling that I would end up crossing mountain passes I’d never traveled before — including Tioga Pass on Highway 120 and Sonora Pass several times cycling before I ever rode across them in a car.
Backroads takes care of everything — the itinerary, booking rooms, meals, bicycles (if you don’t have your own), transportation from airports, and even sag service if you decide you want to pick up pedaling a bit early and you haven’t reached the destination for the day.
On that first trip to Death Valley under Backroads’ tutelage I fell madly in love with the place so much I’ve been back 20 times since then.
There were three things that the Backroads trip did for me.
First, it made me realize what I was missing by exploring California cooped up for the most part in a car. The world looks more imposing, more stunning, and more endless moving at 15 mph or so under your own power. It was when I started to take a deep appreciation of California’s incredible smorgasbord of geology as well as wilderness and decided not to squander the opportunity to explore the nature mankind has hemmed into the imaginary box we call the Golden State.
I also became more comfortable around people who were complete strangers. That goes from a PG&E lineman from San Jose I was paired up with as roommates given we were both single to a judge and his wife from Exeter as well as the proverbial lady in red I danced with on the one “formal night” that involved dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn that served as the 1920s winter playground for Hollywood stars and the wealthy.
I credit the judge for getting me addicted to cycling mountains and getting me focused in the right mindset. It was on a day that Backroads had built in “optional routes” you could take that was an add-on to that day’s ride. The option involved pedaling up to Hell’s Gate and then dropping down to the highway to Furnace Creek via the Beatty Cutoff.
I had taken my racing bike on the trip that had bottom gears considerably higher than what was on their bicycles. As I was struggling up toward Hell’s Gate on a steady grade the judge suggested instead of constantly looking up at the long grind ahead, I put my head down and look up periodically to remain on course. It helped me to stop overthinking about how much more I had to climb and got me to stop focusing on how much my lungs and legs were hurting. In retrospect after bicycling in the ensuing years over Tioga Pass several times as part of week-long fully loaded Sierra bicycling trips it is an easy haul up Mud Canyon to Hell’s Gate.
But the real joy came with what followed. After poking around Hell’s Gate for a while and eating some granola bars, the judge suggested I go first down the Beatty Cutoff and pedal for a short time and then just coast.
I did what he said and soon created a wind at my face on what was a day of still air. Perhaps 30 seconds into the downhill I looked over my shoulder and the judge and his wife were nowhere to be found. I then looked down at my cyclometer and nearly did the No. 2 in my cycling shorts. I was going 63 mph. I started feathering the brakes but that did nothing. Soon my heart was pounding three times harder than it was when I thought I was dying climbing up through Mud Canyon.
By the time I came to stop where it flattened out at the junction with Highway 190, I had stopped shaking from being scared stiff. Instead I felt exhilarated.
I’ve approached that speed since then on long sustained downhills a number of times in the ensuing years and even topped it hitting 68 mph coming down the Mt. Rose Highway in Nevada where I passed several cars, but nothing quite replicated that feeling.
The New Mexico trip was more of the same. Incredible scenery, incredible bicycling, incredible snippets of civilization (Taos redefines incredible) and incredible people.
On that trip friends I made included a pair of Boston college graduates who had never been “out west” who kept laughing about what their respective mothers would say if they saw them cycling along the alluvial fans of New Mexico given they had been debutantes complete with the long white gloves.
There was also a board member for Sharper Image I was paired with in hotel rooms. The trip also included the founder of Sharper Image himself — Richard Thalheimer and his wife.
But the one that made the biggest impression on me was a young Illinois lawyer about my age that I bicycled with for three of the days.
She was great to converse with but that isn’t what I’ll remember her for. We were heading up a pass toward Red River on a day with threatening skies that also saw the 80-degree temperature plummet suddenly. It was getting cold and windy. Everyone else in the group opted to wait for the vans to sag them to Red River instead of battling the climb and the elements.
It soon started to thunder. Soon she was counting between the rumblings. I asked her why she was doing that and she said it was to tell how close the lightning strikes were coming adding that when there was a “one second” between booms that she was going to seek cover in a ditch and leave her bicycle as far away as she could.
Given she was from the Midwest where I had driven through lightning storms that made the night sky for brief instances seem brighter than Death Valley at high noon, I was going to heed her advice.
But I never got the chance because seconds later it started snowing like there was no tomorrow even though it was June 1. She was wearing rain gear but I was decked out in summer cycling attire. I took the lead and she tried to follow the trail I was blazing in the fresh snow as I nervously pedaled. Vehicles coming down were sliding all over their lane. At one point snow was piled about three inches high on my handlebar bag affecting my ability to control the bicycle. Without thinking it through, I took one hand to clear the snow off one side of the handle pack and then used to the other hand do so the same on the other side.
Given I was wearing cycling gloves that had my fingers exposed I quickly lost feeling in both hands. Once we crested Red River Pass at 9,860 feet the snow turned into a pounding rain. Some 1,150 feet lower I was a virtual Otter Pop and soaking wet.
The Backroads crew commandeered a hot tub for us at the ski resort they had booked. The Illinois lawyer and I spent close to three hours in the tub repeatedly talking about how crazy we were and yakking about just about anything that came to our minds.
Backroads has a number of California bicycling trips besides Death Valley including in the Napa Valley and the Redwoods. They also offer low key hiking trips in Yosemite as well as other bicycle tours elsewhere in the United States as well as Europe.
Based not just on my ancient experience but others who have joined Backroads trips in the past few years, the crews they hire for the trips are top-notch and friendly.
You can find out more about the offerings of the Berkeley-based Backroads Touring by going to www.backroads.com.