Our first day back on the bikes after two weeks off somehow started with a 6am alarm clock without a snooze option. We'd been staying in a flat in Berkeley with Jess (the girlfriend of Jas who we rode part of the Nullarbor with two months earlier) and her flatmates and their two cats and are eternally grateful for such a chilled out place to stay and leave our belongings whilst we were away getting married. Leaving Berkeley was stupidly easy with a bike path north leading most of the day out of the city and towards Richmond.
The day would take us to a warmshowers host in Vacaville but it was a tough reintroduction back into bike touring life with a fair few hills and a bit of a headwind. Still, being back on the bike was a good feeling which I didn't expect two weeks prior. When we had last got off the bikes in San Luis Obispo both of us kept our minds open about not getting back on them again, but no decisions were made until we'd had a break. Faced with the challenges of cycling in Asia and barren Australia, neither of us had given much consideration to riding across America. By the time we were in San Francisco we were already tired and beginning to face up to the reality of having to ride across another continent. Previously we'd had a good idea of the challenges we were to face, or a well laid out route to follow but America gave us almost too many options to know which was going to be best for us. In Berkeley we decided riding east following a route called the 'Western Express' to Pueblo, Colorado was going to be better for time than heading north to Montana. We'd likely face less headwind and hopefully warmer temperatures. We had also taken more days off after the wedding than initially planned which put us up against an even shorter time frame. We had to be out of the country by June 22nd.
The ride to Vallejo from Berkeley was easy and we made excellent time since we'd made the effort to get such an early start. We took a bike path which bordered the I80 through Lynch Canyon just as the day heated up. This bike path was steep and my legs were feeling pathetic after so much time off and too much junk food and alcohol. Near the top of the climb, the bike path opened out to a car park where I was flagged down by a group of people under a gazebo. Mike, as normal, was ahead of me and missed the stop but eventually he realised I wasn't behind him and turned back around and joined us. These lovely people were local geocachers and offered us a tonne of food including protein bars, cookies and water. Those protein bars would last quite far into Nevada and be a stomach and leg saver! We rolled into Vacaville in really good time, thankfully making our deadline set by our warmshowers host, Patrick, to join him and his friends watch a Roller Derby meet. Neither of us had seen roller derby before but I have a number of friends who play in the UK so have always been interested in watching it live. First we went to eat delicious Nigerian food cooked by his co-worker but made it to the venue just in time to catch the beginning of the play off.
The following day took us along some quiet back roads towards Davis - the hub of cycling in central California. Even their town symbol is a penny farthing! We were rolling along the last few miles into the town where we were planning on having lunch when we heard "you're living my dream!" called from behind us. Before leaving Berkeley we'd attached two homemade signs to the back of our bikes in the hope of getting more people to talk to us:
And they were certainly doing their job. We'd had plenty of positive honks, shouts of 'congratulations', thumbs up out of car windows and a plethora of questions about the trip just in the last day and a half. Martin and Eleanor had been out on a Sunday morning ride and were on their way home when they caught up with us. AS we rode through Davis on an impromptu tour they offered us coffee and breakfast at their favourite cafe, which we were very grateful for. Iced coffee and smashed avo on toast was a great recharge before we rode out of the city together to join the i80 bike path once again.
Soon we were riding into California's state capital, Sacramento, following more bike paths along the American River Trail, accompanied by more congratulations, friendly shouts and quick conversations about our adventure. By the river we caught our first sighting of a rattlesnake, which looked terribly annoyed by some other tourists taking its photograph - so we gave him a very wide berth.
My knee became sore again as we arrived in Folsom, once the end of the Pony Express route. At the beginning of every continent it flares up and my kneecap starts to track incorrectly causing a lot of pain, I think it's the result of having too much time off the bike combined with an old injury where I dislocated my whole knee years ago. Just as in China and Australia, we were worried that it might signal the end of the trip especially with the mountains coming up. We hadn't done any serious climbing in a long time - China was the last big test we faced. Now though we knew how to deal with my knee - rest, massage and strapping to alleviate the pressure. Our hosts in Folsom, Cecilia and Tony and their four boys, we very kind to let us stay an extra night to let my leg recover.
Now, we faced the Sierra Nevada. At 8,600 feet, Carson pass was one of the highest we would be riding anywhere, and at that height there is about 22% less oxygen to breathe. Our first day of the climb took us to Fiddletown, where we camped in the ground of the local church hall. We had knocked on the door to ask the local pastor, Jim, where we could pitch our tent and his lawn was immediately offered. Over some cold water we had a long talk with Jim about our trip and the reasons behind it. Before he left to look after his wife who was ill that evening, Jim too $60 from his wallet and gave it to us to buy food or a place to stay in the next few days. Awesome kindness from a man who had helped us out so much already.
The climb up Carson pass was breath taking, achingly beautiful at every turn as we rode higher though forests and higher into the snow where ultimately only ancient bristlecone pines could survive among the ice and crumbling granite. During the second day we had arrived at a stage stop and gas station just as it closed but the manager reopened to make us some sandwiches and refill our water bottles. We camped higher that night, near the second gas station, which turned out to be more or less abandoned, though signs posted suggested someone would be renovating and reopening soon. Luckily after some searching through the ramshackle huts that remained Mike was able to find a standpipe that had been left running and we were able to refill out water bottles again. Over the top of the pass we rode down to a resort called Sorensons where we decided to treat ourselves to our 'honeymoon'. We booked ourselves into a cabin and explained to the owner all about our cycling, our wedding and the charity. She got married in Yosemite herself, and upgraded us to a much larger cabin with a log fire and a free bottle of wine as a congratulations on our wedding. Wildlife in the Sierra Nevada abounds, and we were very lucky to see a coyote and a marmot within minutes of each other in the area around the resort, where they also have bears, though thankfully they stayed clear while we were there. The climb over the Sierra Nevada was a total ascent of 3,250m from Rancho Murieta to Sorensons so I'm quite proud of myself doing that on a gammy knee and difficulty at altitude!
We flew down the mountain from Sorensons into Nevada not quite knowing what to expect since we'd changed our plan so recently. The image in our heads of Nevada was one of deserts and gambling which wasn't far wrong, except we'd forgotten about the brothels and the mountains. The brothels weren't a problem, except slightly strange to see advertised, but the mountains would prove to be a huge mental obstacle.
For the first time in an age we had a very strong wind at our backs which pushed us way further than we'd expected to go that day and we ended up camping in a dried up lake turned sand dunes just off the highway. Leaving Carson City that day, we'd officially begun our journey along US50 nicknamed the 'Loneliest Road in America'. This name applies to the 400 mile section in Nevada because of the few services and towns along the way, though compared to the Nullarbor it felt like a fairly busy road. Of course, the advertising campaign for this stretch of highway has now created a misnomer from increased volumes of traffic by tourists.
Day 2 along this road took us through Fallon where we stocked up on food and water for the next couple of days and we ended the day early at Grimes Point petroglyph site. The long drop toilet cubicle was the only shelter from the wind for miles around so we took the opportunity and pitched up for the night. Day 3 took us to Middlegate station where we grabbed a burger and fries for lunch and sheltered from the cold as the temperature had plummeted overnight. We were still fairly high up 1410m so cold weather is to be expected and we were prepared. We went to pay for our lunch but were told that someone had already covered our bill with a 'congratulations'. We never expected this level of kindness to come our of our bike signs, especially when it was done in secret without our ability to say thank you.
My morale was low again. The prospect of long straight roads and strong winds just sent me spiralling so we decided to take the rest of the day off and stay at the motel, especially since temperatures were due to get to minus 1 celsius that night and the road was only going to take us higher and colder. At this point, our cash was down to $29 so we tried to pay on card to keep our cash for smaller things. We handed our card over and got talking to a British couple who walked in for lunch. A few minutes later, the waitress Rose came back with the card which had been declined. Bollocks. We'd already had to ring our bank back in Berkeley when they put a halt on our card because they wanted to check we were travelling (what!?) so we thought something had happened again. Thankfully we had good wifi and Skype credit so Mike got on with trying to get hold of the bank while I contacted home to get the PIN code for Mike's new debit card (remember that time in Bulgaria when we couldn't remember that PIN code, that was a fun day). After a whole afternoon of going back and forth with various people back in the UK, it turned out that our card wouldn't work with card machines which didn't require a PIN code input. This may sound really obvious, but a lot of card machines in the USA still do this and only require a signature. Up until now it had been working and payments authorised, but for some reason the bank finally caught on and stopped authorising non PIN code requests. It's easily fixable - just tell the person to put it through as a debit transaction and it'll ask for a PIN, but in the meantime Rose, who had been serving us, said she'd cover the $16 we were short so we could stay in the cabin. A second occasion of unbelievable generosity which we'll need to pay forward when we get the first opportunity. We spent a cosy afternoon (in between calls to the bank) watching animal programmes on TV and drinking the wine we'd been given at Sorensons. We'd hoped to save it until we had crossed Nevada but that day just felt right to drink it. The next morning we were getting ready to head off and the owner offered to cook us french toast from the left over batter she had, and she'd cover the cost since we had zero cash left. The third occasion of unbelievable generosity! We've a lot of paying forward to do.
Back on the road again we plodded on occasionally stopping to take in the views. At one point of stopping we felt a few flakes of snowfall so pedalled quickly onwards to beat the weather system. We pushed on to reach the first actual town, Austin. At one point in time Austin was a booming mining town but nowadays is home to about 300 people and mainly survives off travellers of US50 coming through and stopping. We had a full rest day during which time we booked our flight back to Europe to give us more of a deadline to reach Canada and therefore some more motivation to push on. We'd also heard from the lady in the gas station that you can find turquoise in the surrounding hills so off we went for an hour in search of some nice stones. We didn't have much luck in finding any gems but we did end up with a fantastic view of the valley we'd crossed the day before. We called friends at home, relaxed with Netflix and generally made good use of a full day off.
Three nights in a bed made us homesick for our tent so we were glad the next day when we had the opportunity to comfortably camp in some of the few trees which dot the highway and see a passing weather system in the mountains ahead. We'd seen that it was due to rain at Eureka, the next town over from Austin, so didn't plan to get the whole way there and were glad to have stopped early.
Two days later we reached Ely, the biggest town along the highway since Carson City and were glad to find a motel with a laundry. Hand washing in sinks only gets you so far! We knew we'd been spending too much money on motels in Nevada but it was the only thing we could do to improve our mental state to keep going. Warmshowers hosts were completely non existent in that section of Nevada and camping locations only felt safe when we could get shelter in the trees. Saying that, we still met a few people who found ways to help out. Firstly, Nick the rafting guy who was travelling home from a trip away in Utah passed us from the opposite direction, turned around and stopped to give us some water, turned around again and carried on home. We were low on water by this point as the weather had turned again and warmed up so we were super grateful. Not much further along the road later that day a red van overtook us extremely well on a downhill and stopped to chat. Turns out Maurice and Nancy wanted to interview us for their bicycle magazine. They were on their own road trip to the east coast and were pretty excited to see two cyclists and we were glad to meet two lots of people that day who didn't say 'you guys are crazy' but say 'that is awesome'.
In the final stretch of Nevada from Ely to the border we stopped in a lay-by to read a sign about the ghost town of Osceola and got chatting to a couple whose car had a blown out tyre after some off-roading. We had a great chat with them about our trip and their holidays around the US and they reminded us about the free campsite at the top of the next pass. We had our end point of the day in sight, except for a 500m climb. The wind was at our backs for some of it and we stomped up the pass, determined to make it to the camp site. We actually made it in really great time and were delighted to find a really well maintained site with covered benches and a purpose built area for setting up tents.
The morning was a super easy descent down to the border with Utah where there was a well positioned roadhouse, the Border Inn, where we spent more time on their wifi to take a look at the route we were to take to Chicago. We were going to leave the Western Express route to Pueblo and head north to Salt Lake City, hoping to speed up our journey to be able to leave the USA before our ESTA time ended. An ESTA gives you 90 days in the States. If we continued to Pueblo we might've had to end up getting a train from Denver to Chicago to leave in time. It was a toss up between cycling the whole way to Canada or riding the full 'Western Express' route. Since this whole experience is about cycling as much of our overall journal as possible, we felt like a change in route was more appropriate and we would come back another time to do an engine powered road trip through the national parks we'd be missing. So our route would now take us up to Salt Lake City and we started to contact some warmshowers hosts along the way. The run in to Delta (the first town since Ely) was a long hot straight road where we had to start rationing our water to one sip a mile. As we were stopped on the side of the road eating a sandwich for lunch, a convertible going in our direction pulled over and asked if we were OK. We were fine but we asked if they had water, which they didn't. Not too long later as we were continuing our push into Delta, they came back towards us from Delta and brought two gallons of cold water, a bag of ice and some food. The generosity continues without limits. The people out here just treat you like family. Later that night we found ourselves in the home of Dick and Becky surrounded by their family of two kids and two grandkids, one dog and one cat and feeling like we'd come home. Meeting good people just brings a warmth into your soul which can't be described and we can't wait to pay all of this generosity forward.