Highway 1 Into the Wormhole

Published Cycle California, March 2016, Vol. 22 #13

Big Sur, Highway 1 

Biking south from Carmel is bicycling’s version of going through a hundred mile wormhole. It’s one long mysterious trip and, if you’ve never biked the coast before, you’re unsure what you’re going to encounter.

My first time biking down Highway 1 began with a few friends on a Friday in May in which rain had been predicted for over a week. Thursday it showered while the mountains of Los Angeles received snowed overnight, causing the Tour of California’s time trial to relocate. Our Carmel host and leader, Doug, wanted to make sure we did a full hundred miles as part of the Pacific Coast Century (PCC), which were a part of. So we biked out and back Carmel Valley for eight overcast miles, mixing with commuter car traffic before launching south, leaving behind the shopping center world of Starbucks, Safeway, Chevron, B of A and the likes for the great unknown. By the time we got back to Highway 1, the sky was a spectacular blue, cloudless and windless.

The first part of the remaining ninety-two mile journey began with the five of us in a draft line crossing the mundane Carmel River Bridge and then soon over other bridges increasingly more stunning, spanning Granite Canyon, Garrapata Creek, Rocky Creek, and finally the show-stopper, bridging Bixby Creek.

A long descent stretched us into two groups past Point Big Sur, a majestic outcropping above the surf and the herald of legendary Big Sur that lay ahead. Any California baby boomer, such as most of our group including myself, knows the lure of the haven that had enticed a twenty-year span of authors Miller, Kerouac and Brautigan as well as a constant river of ‘60s hippies some fifty years ago (jeez, that long ago?). The road wove amazingly inland, devoid of coastal views as we biked past redwoods, obscure creeks and rustic motels, with the grade rising as wonder gave way to the reality of grinding out a long climb of seven hundred feet in two-and-a-half miles, topping out at a red farmhouse before a welcome descent.

After a shady half-mile downhill, we rejoined at Nepenthe, named for a Greek drug to quiet all pain and bring forgetfulness, such as the recent ascent. After taking a break, we split up once more, enjoying the view south of continuous forested ridges sloping down to the sea, as Amalfi Coast turquoise-colored in the shallows.

Our next stop was Lucia, twenty-one miles away, towards which you sawtooth up and down with heightened anticipation as you approach the fifty-mile mark from the Carmel River. Had it not been for parked cars in front of an innocuous building, I might not have noticed the sign stating Lucia Lodge, where a small restaurant served lunch under umbrellas on a crowded deck. This is it? Rich and Chris took off to tackle Nacimiento Road, a hill-climbing offshoot farther the south. Doug and his son, Eric, stayed for lunch, joined by my wife, Kristen, sagging our gear to San Simeon. I had sat roadside to make sure she didn’t drive past. After two homebaked cookies and a Dr. Pepper, I was more eager to ride than wait out lunch and so left, snaking past tables of PCC riders sitting with whole baskets of uneaten fries on my way out.

A wormhole needs a black hole at its center and Highway 1 has such a feature. Descending alongside a long slide, ahead I spotted what looked like the set of The Guns of Navarrone, without the guns, a cubed mass of stone blocks, darkly shaded on the north face, with a square opening into which the roadway dropped. Plunging into the hole, I sped past five arched openings facing the sea and out the other side back into sunshine, thankfully pretty much in the same place and time within the universe from where I had entered.

I found out later that the edifice is called the Rain Rocks Rock Shed, built to allow the high grey cliff to erode and tumble over the top and into the sea.

I happily passed by the Nacimiento turnoff, pedaling onto Gorda, a metropolis compared to Lucia, with a gas station even plus a general store and lodging, a lovely little outpost. With San Simeon only twenty-six miles away, I asked a fellow PCC bicyclist what was the road south like. He told of an upcoming pair of climbs called the Double Whammy. Forewarned, after climbing seven hundred feet in three miles, I was not fooled by the descent and soon crested another four hundred feet in a mile and a half. Ahead was busy Ragged Point Inn. I pulled up alongside my wife’s car as she had passed me somewhere between whammies. She stayed to provide support if needed for our group as well as share in milkshakes that Doug had touted from the start of our ride. 

The offshore wind was now kicking up pretty fiercely and I put my windbreaker back on, prepared for the blustery cool descent into San Simeon, fifteen miles away. To my surprise, the road still rolled up and down plenty after an initial drop with an uptick, all of which I had to myself excepting a few isolated riders and barely any cars. Even more surprising were three long sandy beaches full, and I mean full, of elephant seals, lying side by side by the hundreds for well over a mile. A lighthouse soon appeared on the right and high up on the left, the asymmetrical towers of Hearst Castle peered over the landscape just before the bypass to quaint San Simeon appeared. I continued straight on to our PCC designated motel amongst others a few miles short of Cambria.

Kristen soon arrived, followed sometime later by our group, no milkshakes found but still ice cream energized. The wind was now hurricane strength but we happily sequestered out of the chilly breezes with a celebratory round of beer. Thank goodness Doug had us get the extra eight miles at the start. Rich added seven miles and three thousand vertical feet’s worth of Nacimiento Road that wound into the chilly fog on top. Losing sight of Rich, the mountaintop above and the ocean below, Chris turned around halfway. Kristen delivered everyone’s packs and we were soon off to dinner with the other PCC finishers, one hundred fifty-four in total.

We had begun in Northern California, and ended in Southern California. If the day is right with sunny skies and no crosswinds, at least not until the last leg, the century ride through the coastal wormhole can be positively interstellar.