(I wrote this last spring after an especially memorable solo ride in the Mother Lode. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the ride.)
I was five miles into a strenuous three-mile climb and
questions were starting to pop into my head.
The longtime, hardcore, local cyclist I met at the park five miles back
described this as a three-mile climb. He
didn’t seem to be a lunatic, but maybe three miles to a local is actually much
longer to a visitor like me. Then there
was the sun – it was on the wrong side of the road. I should have been going west and it was on
my right (and I’m not in Australia). And
finally, I recognized a carport with three RVs in it. Yesterday, as my wife and I were driving back
to the inn, they appeared on the left.
Now they appeared on the right. There
was only one logical conclusion: I was
going the wrong way.
Cycling in new places always carries a sense of adventure –
that’s one of the main attractions. To
fully enjoy the encounter, however, I maintain one should stay attentive to
gentle nudges in new directions. My wife
and I were taking a few days away and decided to explore California’s Mother
Lode. I brought my bike and planned to
take a couple of rides, as I find nothing helps me experience a place like
cycling it. We had scouted some of these
roads in the car the day before, but I hadn’t settled on a bike route. I wasn’t sure how much energy I might muster
at this altitude on a lazy vacation day and I didn’t know the area, so there
was some uncertainty from the beginning, with which I was at peace.
I am, unlike my park acquaintance, definitely not a longtime, hardcore cyclist. I came to cycling only four years ago, in my
mid-to-late fifties, and still haven’t developed the killer instinct of serious
riders. So when presented with the
lovely Sierra foothills, no matter how scenic or enticing, I hedge my bets and
keep my route options open. I had
plotted out rides, for example, that spanned 45 miles 4,000 feet of climbing,
but more as an academic exercise to be left to the serious student. And even though I had recently stepped up my
training, I was more in the 30 miles and 2,000-foot camp myself. 2,500 feet was my daily personal best and I
didn’t feel compelled to set any new records while on vacation.
With only my first destination fixed, I made the gentle 1100-foot
climb from Sutter Creek, where we were staying, to the tiny town of Volcano,
riding along burbling Sutter Creek.
Mid-week morning traffic was light, the scenery was lovely, and the
pavement ranged from excellent to passable.
As I climbed the last, steeper section into town, I was breathing pretty
hard and thinking I’d just rest a bit at the little park in town and head back
down the same road, meet my wife for lunch, and go back to lazy vacationing. Eleven hundred feet seemed like a creditable
accomplishment while on vacation, and I really didn’t feel like knocking myself
out. So I made a quick loop down Volcano’s
main street (100 yards, it didn’t take long), and started wheeling my bike
toward the park gate for a rest.
“How many miles you got so far today?” I looked around and located the voice coming
from across the street. Another cyclist,
helmet and water at his side, was taking a rest at a picnic table by the post
office. I glanced at my bike
computer. “Twelve and a half,” I called
back, redirecting my bike across the street.
“You?” “Twenty-eight,” he said,
“and it’ll be about 50 by the time I get home.”
I sat down across the table from him, broke out my water bottle, and we
fell into the comfortable conversation that complete strangers can have when
they meet cycling.
My companion, it turned out, was not only a dedicated cyclist
but a local expert, and chatty. He
seemed to know the county from one end to the other, not only the cycling
routes but the inns, restaurants, businesses, and people far and wide. “We have really good wines, not the cabs like
you have in Sonoma, but good chardonnays and zinfandels. And the restaurant at the inn around the
corner is fantastic, it’s run by the same guy who runs Taste in Plymouth,” and so
on. “So,” I said, “what do you do when
you’re not cycling?” My standard
conversation-opener on club rides. “I’m
a garbage man,” he said. “I own the
garbage company in Amador County. We
serve everyone from 100 feet to 8,800 feet in altitude!” “Ah, so that’s how you came to know the
county so well,” I observed. Just then,
a spiffy, new, green garbage truck came around the corner and roared down Main
Street in front of us. He smiled and
pointed at the truck. “I bought that
truck three months ago - $350,000!”
I asked him about various routes back to Sutter Creek. He described four or five different ways to
get there, then drew my attention to Daffodil Hill. He pointed north. “Just go around the corner there and stay on
that road. It’s about three miles, then
you meet Shake Ridge Road, turn left and you’ll go right back into Sutter
Creek. It’s not too bad, about 10-11%
grade at times. My buddies and I race
up that road in the summer.”
I felt refreshed by then and inspired by my garbage-man
acquaintance, so as he put on his helmet and jumped on his posh red-on-red
Specialized, I resolved to take on Daffodil Hill, sight unseen.
It was a climb, alright, but I took it at my own pace and was
feeling okay. The pavement was smooth
and traffic was light. The temperature was
perfect – cool in the shade and warm in the sun. To distract myself from the breathlessness
and burning in my legs, I forced my attention to the scenery around me. It was beautiful. Creeks carved up a landscape of chaparral and
tree-covered slopes. Ranches were
spacious and houses were sparse. The
road flattened out and I noticed a well-kept rustic fence to my right,
separating a lush meadow from the road.
There were a couple dozen picnic tables dotting the meadow, and I wondered
if it was a public park, maybe somewhere to rest and have some water. As I approached the entrance, however, there was
no sign. It seemed to be just someone’s elaborately
furnished back yard. Puzzled by the
incongruity, I looked back over my shoulder to be sure I didn’t miss anything,
and rode on. My odometer said I must be
close to the three-mile mark so I started looking for the left turn at Shake
Around the next bend I saw another long, steep climb. Taking a deep breath, I shifted down and headed
on up. The crest leveled off briefly and
then led into another long climb. I dropped
my head, muttered an oath, and started doubting my acquaintance’s judgment of
distance – that was a long three miles!
At the next crest, there was some blessed level ground, so I shifted up and
tooled along absently as those questions started popping into my head. I glanced at the odometer again – five
miles. Three-mile climb? Why is the sun on my right? Haven’t I seen those RVs before?
I pulled over on the gravel by some mailboxes and opened the
mapping application on my phone. I pushed
“my location” and the glowing dot slid smoothly into the middle of an empty
grid. No data service up here. I inspected the mailboxes closely, hoping a
street name might give me a clue.
Nothing. I considered knocking on
a door, but the gates all had “Posted – No Trespassing” signs on them. This isn’t a holler in West Virginia, but
there was no point getting shot just because I don’t know where I am. A few cars went by, but none stopped at a
I could simply have retraced my steps – I was sure that would
get me back to the inn. But that’s no
fun – I’d already seen those places! I
stood there for a few minutes, looking around and trying to come up with a
plan. Nothing was coming to me. Then I heard a roar in the distance, from the
east, and it was getting louder. Lumbering
over the hill came a huge, spiffy, new, green garbage truck. It was my acquaintance’s employee in his new
truck! It was stopping to empty cans along
the road as it made its way toward me. I
clipped in and sprinted across the street to where the truck was about to
stop. The green monster ground to a halt
and the driver hopped out to queue up the can for the mechanical lifter. I waved and he stopped to look at me. “Hey,” I shouted over the noise, “I’m
lost. What road is this?” “Shake Ridge,” he said. “Where you trying to get to?” I told him and he directed me back the way I
came, with instructions. I considered
mentioning my meeting with his boss, but that would make it complicated, so I just
thanked him, turned around, and started back down the hill.
A few minutes later, I was on the screaming 40-mile-an-hour
descent, giddy with joy as I reaped the fruits of my climbing labor, and I
started wondering how the heck I missed my turn. At the bottom of the hill, I see ahead, clear
as day, the intersection I must have ridden right through. As I approached, the turn to westbound Shake
Ridge Road was on my right. On my left,
wouldn’t you know, was a well-kept rustic fence and beyond it a lush meadow
dotted with a couple dozen picnic tables.
In my noble, and apparently effective, effort to take my mind off my
climbing pains, I had zipped by and completely overlooked the turn home.
An hour later, as I rolled back into Sutter Creek and my data
service returned, I opened my cycling app to look at the route. There was the climb to Volcano, the steep
climb up Daffodil Hill – oddly missing 350 feet of altitude from the record – and
the double-back on Shake Ridge, of course.
But then I noticed the headline: 32
miles and almost 3,500 feet of climbing – a new personal best! And I wasn’t completely exhausted so my wife
and I could still go sightseeing in Jackson that afternoon!
I took off that morning with nothing more in mind than my
first destination and the intent to enjoy a bike ride. I ended up meeting a one garbage man who
pointed the way out, and another garbage man who pointed the way back. I saw some gorgeous country and, owing to the
human brain’s miraculous ability to overlook the obvious, unintentionally set a
new personal best for hill climbing. Mission
accomplished and then some, I would say.
One never knows where the road will lead. Two wheels, an attitude open to serendipity,
and two garbage men can show the way.