USA Part 1: High on Life in California (San Francisco CA to Benton CA 09/06/17-20/06/17)

You’d have thought that after so long moving between time zones that I’d have got my head around the world’s moving clocks. I got the plane from New Zealand the morning of the 9th, travelled for 24 hours and arrived in America on the morning of the 9th. A lot happened in that ‘non-existent’ day…












When I got off the plane in Sydney for my transfer from New Zealand I checked the UK general election update and saw the shock exit polls’ prediction. While I waited 6 hours for my onward flight I followed the initial results coming in and the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. My flight to San Francisco departed with the Tories on about 250 seats so I spent the next 13 hours up in the sky wondering what on earth would have happened by the time I touched down in the Northern Hemisphere.

As I stood in line for the US immigration I logged onto to the airport WiFi and discovered that Theresa May had gone into coalition with the DUP. Aren’t they the Irish lot? Aren’t they the anti-LGBT rights, anti-abortion, climate change denying creationists? I didn’t have time to check because it was my turn to get my passport stamped.

The immigration officer was unable to get his head around the fact that I was cycling around and asked me a series of moronic questions about what I was up to.

“What were you doing in Iran?”

“I just told you – I’m cycling around the world. I was cycling there.”

“How did you get into the country?”

“I cycled in, obviously!”

He eyed me suspiciously. 

“Do you smoke weed?”

“Erm, I beg your pardon?”

He repeated the question and put two fingers to his mouth. What on earth was he asking me that for? Fortunately I didn’t need to lie when I told him “no”, although I did need to suppress the urge to giggle at the image of me cycling around the world with a joint between my lips.

“Where is your bicycle?”

“In a box on the arrivals’ conveyor belt waiting for me to collect it”

“And you are cycling across the country?” He seemed very unconvinced.


“So what are you going to do with the box?”

“The box? Mate, I’m going to chuck it in the bin outside the airport – it’s a piece of cardboard!”

“What is your job?”

“Well, I don’t have one at the moment. I already told you I’ve been cycling around the world for the last couple of years”.

“So you haven’t worked in two years?”

“I did work for 3 months in Australia, hence why I am carrying Australian dollars too”

“In two years you only worked for 3 months?”


“Are you going to work in America?”

“No! I’m cycling to the east coast!!” Bloody hell, I’ve not even got in the country and already I want to go home.

“How much cash do have on you?”

“None, its on card”

“You have no cash?”

“Why on earth would I have changed my British or Australian currency to US dollars in New Zealand? I’m going to go to the airport ATM to take money out”.

“Where are you staying in San Francisco?”

“At a personal address”

“Your friends?”

“Not exactly… Have you heard of Couchsurfing?”

Things were going badly. The bloke was clearly an idiot and I wasn’t giving him the answers he wanted. He stepped out of his chair and beckoned me off to one side. “Follow me”.

Next thing I know I’m ushered off to a back room where he tells me to wait for further questioning. It was like being in one of those ‘border control’ TV programs, where the nervous immigrants sweat and the drug dealers shift in their seat, uncomfortable with a dozen grams of coke shoved up their arse.

Fortunately the second officer who interviewed me was lovely. Genuinely curious about my trip and interested in where I was heading in the US. He stamped me in with 6 months and at last I was allowed into the country!

The ride up into SF downtown was tough on so little sleep. I’d forgotten that the city is famous for its hills and so I ended up climbing some brutally steep suburban roads. On one particularly nasty hill I crested on a spot that looked out across the town. Wow! I have not been in a mega-city like this for a long time…

San Francisco was undoubtedly pretty but far too busy for me. One side of it is very charming, with pastel coloured houses by beach side settings. On the other hand, there is a very dirty underbelly in plain sight. There was litter everywhere, homeless people camping under the overpasses and nut jobs all over the place. I have never been in a city with so many crazy people loitering around town talking to themselves. There was smashed glass by the pavement from where people had broken into cars and used syringes on the main street. I was ready for some countryside.

Golden Gate Bridge

The rural peace wasn’t easy to find. First I had to cross the urban sprawl across the ‘Bay area’, which began in Oakland. Apparently the town is ‘the third most dangerous city in the US’ but I must have missed the dodgy areas because all I saw was peaceful suburbia on my way up into the hills. All the houses had immaculate lawns and pruned front gardens. You would never see something like that in the UK. Some of the gardens had ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs, or ‘No matter where you’re from we’re glad you’re our neighbour’ but almost all of them had signs saying ‘ALARM PTROCTED! Security provided by xxx’.

By the first afternoon I was away from the traffic descending over the hills behind Oakland. The weather was perfect and I had the road to myself. I couldn’t help but think California reminded me of Australia. San Francisco had me making comparisons with Sydney and now the tall gum trees drew me back Down Under. I later learnt that the trees were actually imported from Australia, but the smell of eucalyptus and native pine forest was delicous.

Enjoying the sunshine in San Francisco

I soon learnt why the road was so quite. It was closed! I must have missed a sign and suddenly found myself at a road-block. Luckily another cyclist had made the same mistake and helped me hoist my bike over the fence to get into Morago.

The small towns around here were unexciting. All of them had a small shopping complex around a ginormous car park with ‘Taco Bell’s and ‘MacDonald’s. Things got more rural when I reached the Central Valley and followed the delta region east. Farmers were selling fruit by the side of the road and I filled my handlebar bag up with cheap cherries, reminding me of times when I used to gorge on the fruit in Turkey & Armenia.

Descending into Central Valley


Things began to dry up as I reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The hills were covered in golden grain and the temperature soared. Suddenly it was too hot. A heat wave was approaching and 100 degrees (sorry guys, we’re in the imperial world now and that’s 40C) were forecast by the end of the week. It was a good time to be heading towards the mountains.


The only problem was that there was no way over the mountains. In San Francisco I’d been talking to an Italian bloke who warned me that Tioga Pass which crossed over the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite National Park might still be closed. I didn’t believe him. Californian roads being closed due to snow in the middle of June? Yeah right!

Emily under a huge tree

To my suprise, he was right. I zoomed out on the map and found the next nearest pass was also closed. Then I zoomed out even further and discovered that the next nearest pass was closed too! Uh oh, suddenly I was facing a huge detour to reach Nevada.
On one hand I felt very unlucky not to be able to head through Yosemite and across the mountains. Usually the roads are open by now but this year record snowfall has buried the mountain tops. (The locals are very happy about this having had a drought for years). On the other hand, it seemed I might just get lucky. Sonora Pass had been due to open the weekend I arrived in California. A snowstorm had delayed the opening but I crossed my fingers and hoped that any day I’d hear the good news. Just in the nick of time the pass was officially opened – hurray!
Before heading up towards the pass I made a short detour to visit an old friend. I met Emily 5 years ago walking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) and now I could go and pay her a visit in the mountains. She lived with her boyfriend David on his family’s property. They grow grapes, produce wine and host tastings, make pottery and… farm cannabis!
The 16 year old me would have had a stoner boner but it’s a long time since I’ve gone near the ‘whacky baccy’. I hate the stuff. Once in a very blue moon I smoke it just to remind myself what the high is like and every time I regret it. Last time I smoked weed I was so drunk I don’t even remember being passed the joint. Presumably I must have ‘whiteyed’ almost immediately because the next thing I do remember is waking up at the side of the road covered in mosquito bites from head to toe, not entirely sure which country I was in.
I’m getting off topic. This blog is supposed to give the illusion that I’m a cycling culture vulture capable of making profound observations of the world, not of being a lost wreck with the tolerance of a ten year old girl. With that in mind, let’s move swiftly on…
I asked Emily and David about the signs I’d seen in Murphies down the road. Apparently there had been big forest fires around here a couple of years ago and afterwards a lot of the burnt land was bought by pot farmers. Growing cannabis may be legal in California but much of it is sold illegally to the rest of the country and so the farmers are often ‘dodgy types’ that the locals don’t fancy having around. Now the new council leaders have decided to ban the farming of cannabis, meaning that all the time, effort and money David had invested into starting the long-term farm, was all just for one season. The government are waiting until the end of the year before passing the law, so that they can tax the harvests.

A huge person on a huge tree stump. Is everything supersize in America?

Emily took me up the road to see the Big Tree National Park, which is the most appropriately named National Park I’ve ever been to. The giant sequoia trees are some of the biggest in the world, and one of them even used to have a hole cut in it that cars could drive through. I was very disappointed to discover it had recently fallen down…
Unfortunately I wasn’t the only person excited about Sonora Pass finally opening. There was a steady stream of cars to share the road with on the gradual climb but their was worse company than the cars – mosquitoes! That evening was a camping nightmare. As soon as I slipped into the forest a cloud of mozzies formed around me. There were millions of them. I haven’t seen anything like that since I was in Myanmar’s rainy season. I put on trousers and a raincoat but they still managed to bite on any exposed skin. After a dozen bites on my face and hands I accepted defeat and put on gloves and a bug net over my head.

Pine Creek

I would have just cooked dinner in my tent as I used to do in bug-country, but this time I couldn’t as there was another animal causing me more concern than the mosquitoes. Bears. I have never camped anywhere with bears before and I did not like it one bit. A local may laugh at me for being so scared of black bears (they’re not that dangerous, it’s the grizzlies you want to worry about and they don’t live around here) but I was still nervous as hell and I certainly wasn’t going to cook in my tent. I carefully removed every bit of food, cooking utensils and toiletries and tied them up in a tree a hundred metres from my tent. Those were the only tips I remembered from the USDA Forest Service section on camping around bears. Their advice of “if a black bear attacks, it is suggested to fight back using everything in your power” hadn’t exactly reassured me, nor had the videos of black bears shredding cars for a candy wrapper inside.

I figured that those bears would just waking up from a long hibernation and would be absolutely starving. How lucky they would be when a tasty cyclist turns up just after the road opens!

Bring it on bears!

It took me more than two days to reach the summit. Much of it was a boring slog through the forests but the last section was sublime. It was the first time I’ve been above 9,000 feet (I wasn’t joking when I said it was imperial from here on!) since China and as much as my legs protested I was excited about the high elevation. I was probably the first travelling cyclist to get over the pass since it closed last November. 
In places the snow pushed to the side of the road was 10ft high. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Tall white walls lined the tarmac and big rocky cliffs stood out against the white.
I was happeir than I remembered being in a long time. I was high on life once again. Who needs drugs when you have a bicycle and some big mountains? The weather was glorious, the bears hadn’t eaten me and the beautiful picnic spots slowed me down at every turn.
I had reached the 395 and turned south on the main road. The road was scenic but far too busy. Most of the traffic was RVs and motorbikes – two American obsessions, it seems. I saw more motorbike travellers the last few days than in the rest of my trip together. I thought the RVs in New Zealand were obnoxious but here they are something else. They look like buses – some of them are longer than 30ft! Huge portable houses that are often four times the size of the cars pulling them. Honestly. Welcome to super-size America. You couldn’t even get some of them up over the pass. They were bigger than the donga I lived in in Australia!
Of course, there is no right or wrong way to go camping but I’m not a big fan of this US style. Sure, I’d love to pull a cold beer out of a portable fridge but the magic of camping to me is actually being in the nature around me and living a simple life. I was reminded of that that evening as I was treated to the most stunning sunset of this trip. I’d slipped down the side of the road to a hidden outcrop between thunderstorms and pitched my tent by the sage bushes that smelt alive after a soaking. If only I had that cold beer to accompany the view…
In the morning I dropped down to Mono, the second oldest lake in the US. The landscape had changed dramatically. Behind me the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada towered but ahead were bare hillsides with no trees in sight.

The road down to Mono Lake

The white sand of Mono’s shores never seemd to end on the south side and soon I was riding a confusing mixture of pine forest and beach. Trees stood defiant in white sand, looking as out of place as myself.
I used to think California was just vineyards and beaches. Perhaps I was basing the entire state off Parent Trap. Actually it had been an extraordinary place to cycle. It had the beauty of New Zealand but far more variation and much better weather. It had the Australian vastness but without the monotony. In other words, it was cycling heaven. All day long I had a smile from ear to ear and my camera permanently ready for use by my side.

Goodbye mountains!

My last stop in the state was at Ann and Walt’s place in Benton, who kindly hosted me via Warmshowers. I was in desperate need of a wash and a day’s rest before the deserts of Nevada just around the corner. I’ll wrap up this blog with a photo from where I’m sat typing this.
I’m not sure I’ve ever written a post with such a view…

Catch you next time!