Five days along the Stagecoach 400 route.
I’d been getting a little stir crazy after what’s been a fun summer of mostly sticking close to home. I wanted some new Strange for reasons anyone who rides bikes or functions as a maladjusted human being can understand. The Stagecoach 400 route was calling, in need of some minor GPS rerouting and a general going over. I wanted to unwind a bit and visit a few attractions along the way… and the short days this time of year have a way of putting the brakes on in terms of getting miles. So I targeted a 5 day itinerary and dropped some lines to see who’d bite.
First, Eric Nelson of Wrightwood Cyclery was game. Eric’s an experienced bikepack-racer and a solid dude. His wife, Kelly, just about forced him to go, presumably for his peace of mind. (thanks, Kelly) We knew Eric from way back when, in ’07-’08 when he was the dude working at REI who sold Mary some gear for her Divide run. Then I ran into him on the Arizona Trail in ’10, and more and more since then. He had his own successful run on the Divide in 2010.
Eric arrived packed “heavy” inasmuch as he brought a Therm-a-rest to sleep on rather than the windshield reflector he’s used while racing.
Then Kevin Hinton of Riptide Tattoo in Marina Del Rey entered the picture. I didn’t really know the guy. He was one of those Facebook friends who could’ve been a spambot. Then, in real life, he came out to our San Jacinto Enduro, visited the shop, and we hit it off. He was somebody I could actually get along with, so I invited him to join me for 5 days of bikepacking, ’cause, why not? He had zero bike packing experience, but a can-do attitude, and plenty of tattoos. And in some areas on the route, that could mean the difference between getting an ass-kicking or getting a hot meal, maybe.
Kevin arrived unpacked, and “heavy” as he dragged loaded boxes and bins into our house to sort out what he’d need, and what he didn’t need. Everything from emergency fire tinder to those hand warmers that skiers use while sitting on the chairlift was in there. And hot cocoa.
We sorted through Kevin’s gear the night before and pulled what he needed. Eric sat back and chuckled, a little.
It gets Western.
We departed on Monday after the obligatory pic in front of Hub Cyclery. Brisk weather had me pulling the whiskey flask with Idyllwild just barely out of view. It was 10am and I’m not sure what Kevin made of it, but Eric backed me up. We exited the area via fun single track with nary a psychotic land owner anywhere to be seen cramping our style. The road miles to Thomas mountain ticked away and the short climb up and over to Anza valley had us settling in to pace.
Dropping in to Coyote Canyon, the immensity started to settle in. It’s a huge descent, on a rugged Jeep road, with a long stretch of trail and no-trail between the ends. We talked about the “liberating” feeling one can have while departing on a fully loaded bike, knowing that no matter what happens, your needs will be met with the provisions on the bike.
Then we got to the Middle Willows, a thick green section in the “no trail” part of the canyon.
I explained the proper usage of the word “Western” in mountain bike context. It’s a term coined by Chad Leptich in Julian… things get Western when the trail ends, cross country travel is required, and the likelihood of carrying a bike for long periods of time increases significantly. Admittedly, it’s an acquired taste, but something I’ve come to live for.
The trail got Western for a few miles in the middle. We passed the “First White Baby” (no kidding) monument in the wash, continued on down canyon through the thicket, and ultimately back onto Jeep road.
Then we hit soft sand. And then it got dark on us. About 5 o’clock, maybe, but it felt much later.
We emerged from Coyote Canyon with wet feet, in the dark, with tense-but-friendly questions about the proximity of food and shelter.
We pressed on into town for the most delicious burritos in Borrego Springs, and picked a spot on the map we’d target for camp that night. We had decided from the start to bypass the Fish Creek Wash section of the route for our ride, mostly because of reports of heinous sand we’d been hearing. We departed toward Yaqui Pass to see what might be out there. We found a great LNT sorta spot a ways up off the road, just off a hiking trail. Spirits lifted, and spirits poured. Kevin made us all hot cocoa (with Bushmills) and won his first bike packing merit badge.
The Swiper from Dora visited our campsite several times. Cute little bugger for sure. Fearless and hungry. I woke up in the morning to find one of my riding gloves had been removed from beside my sleeping head and carried some 20 feet away, along with a shredded Snickers wrapper.
We made our way to the Stagecoach RV park, the rather infamous resupply spot of last year’s ride. From our direction, it was just past Shelter Valley’s first Cat House & Gambling Hall. A couple Shelter Valley regulars were getting their morning coffee when we stumbled in. Small talk, Fritos, and candy bars put us in the proper headspace for the looming Oriflamme Canyon. The climb was brutal, as it always is. Rutted, and loose. From the desert floor to the Laguna mountains in two pitches.
Kevin commented on the comparative difficulty between these Western climbs and those of his native LA. A bunch of thousand feet and some time later we were at the top. I was utterly impressed with Kevin’s great attitude. Here’s a guy who’d never so much as pedaled a bike with gear, who didn’t have any sand experience, who was thrown into a tough
day week of riding without much knowledge of what’d be around the corner. He didn’t complain, he didn’t get quiet… he just got into it. He cracked jokes about how many times in one day a guy could have his “ass handed to him,” and pressed on. His sense of humor was infectious.
Time slowed down. Trail brain, as I call it, settled in. Stress melted away.
The Lagunas were quiet. The grasses were brown for the year up top, and there was very little traffic on the Sunrise Highway. We made the route change to switch from Noble Canyon single track to instead ride Indian Creek trail. Noble Canyon will be included in the future cues as an alternate ride. It’s tough to ride with bikepacking gear I suppose, but it’s the stuff of legend.
Once again, the sun set too early. We rode on into the dark on lower Indian Creek and found a stellar campsite in an Oak grove, where we had a merry old time. Terrible, terrible jokes were told, the kind that stay on the trail to protect the innocent.
Time had indeed slowed down on day 2. We felt no immediate sense of schedule, but an appreciation for the here & now.
The day opened to the sound of turkeys. At least a dozen of them, maybe 14 we counted, visited near our campsite.
We made our way into the town of Descanso. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast at Veronica’s Cafe, and met the proprietor. Great food. Great lady.
The Descanso Market was open, next door, where the woman running the store looked at the clock when I asked for Wild Turkey at breakfast time. She maybe didn’t understand this was a resupply for us; not necessarily happy hour.
The ride up and over to Alpine was smooth sailing. I explained the day’s ride would be “trending downhill” in the sense that we were starting at a higher elevation than we’d finish at. After the difficult terrain we rode through the first two days, Kevin didn’t buy into the concept right away.
The descent from Alpine showed the first subtle glimpses of the metropolitan area ahead; some graffiti on the occasional rock, and fences made to keep people out as opposed to keeping livestock in. We routed the GPS track out and around last year’s hike-a-bike. This meant a 6 or 7 mile stretch of pavement before turning into dirt again.
We rode on through the Sweetwater trail system building up momentum on out to the series of bike paths leading to the San Diego Bay. Through the shipyards, past the Navy base, into the heart of downtown San Diego.
This urban stuff is a mind bender. From my days leading 30 day backpacking trips for at-risk youth (Hoods in the Woods as we called it) I came to prepare myself for the tricky feelings & perspective changes that happen when you come from the slow life on the trail to that of dodging cars. Or worse, checking email. I’ve yet to find an easy way to face it, but I’ve come to enjoy the contrast. That contrast is part of the route.
I figured we had two options:
1) press on through the city with virtual horse blinders on to bed down somewhere in the woods again, or 2) embrace the city we’d ridden so far to see, and let the good times roll.
So we went to Little Italy for pizza & beer. The guys at Landini’s Pizzeria took great care of us. They served up great food, made fun of our cycling kits, and we all had a good laugh. On the recommendation of a local friend, we checked into an off-season rate at the Porto Vista Hotel and got a room for the night. While our minds glitched a bit in the city, hot showers were more than welcome.
Slingshot around the Dark Side
Rejuvenated and inspired to get back to dirt, we wrapped around the San Diego Bay and made our way to Sunset Cliffs, Ocean Beach, Dog Beach, and Mission Bay. The UCSD campus was bustling with a high school fair, much to our chagrin. We awkwardly made our way through to the other side of campus with our loaded bikes.
The ride time to Pensaquitos Canyon- our return to dirt- seemed awfully long. The city had put our minds back into a schedule and with it, the sense of disappointment for not sticking to the self-prescribed itinerary. I managed to get us lost- again- in The Tunnels. The Tunnels is one of the most highly trafficked stretches of trail on the entire 400 mile route, but utterly foreign to me.
The weather turned overcast, cold, and damp. Spirits, on a timeline slipping away, damped as well. When we finally got out of the godforsaken tunnels we found some more Wild Turkey.
The riding got much better. Black Mountain, the Santa Fe Valley, and Lake Hodges were all a pleasure to ride. We hit our stride once again.
At the I-15 crossing we loaded heavy on calories for the long push back into the mountains. Eric loaded up on Subway sandwiches and Fritos. Kevin stuffed a number of indiscernible McDonald’s products into a single ziplock bag. I packed a pollo asada burrito away along with various fruit snacks. We rode off into the sunset.
By nightfall we could feel the evaporative cooling effects of irrigated farmland, and smell the pastures. Dark clouds loomed in the sky and the occasional sprinkle dropped. We decided to bed down for the night… under a bridge.
Kevin and I could not sleep well under the bridge. At one point I woke up well before dawn to see he was awake as well. I asked him if he’d want to just get up and start riding… then checked the clock to see it was 2:30 am. Eric was quite at home under the bridge with cars rushing overhead. Go figure.
The last day was one of the best days of riding, despite being very tough.
We started our day climbing, and rode that uphill trend all day. The climb out of Pamo Valley slowed time once again. As we ticked away miles, I became aware that we’d once again slipped into the slow-life of the Trail Brain and realized the irony that it would be our last day. So often in the past, backpacking or bikepacking trips I’ve been on culminate in that “smelling the barn” feeling of anxiousness as the last day closes. For us, we kept pedaling. Harder and harder, but still taking our breaks, getting some photos, and laughing hysterically at Kevin’s wisecracks. I had drink through my nose, even.
The climbs rolled up, and up. One would summit to another base. Climb, climb, and repeat. I imagined what it must be like to live on a ranch, to have loads and loads of apple trees in the yard. My legs felt great, perhaps better than any other day of the ride. Our familiar Thomas Mountain came into view just before the golden hour, what a treat. We discussed the ways we could depart; hugs & high fives? Or something less inspired?
We quieted, just a little, and rode hard toward Anza on the remaining dirt roads.
La Cocina restaurant in Anza would be our stopping point. We enjoyed a beer together and disassembled our rides for the trip home.
Hugs & high fives.