Central Coast, 5/13–5/16

Or, a series of transitions

Friday

I break at Mission San Miguel, one of the quiet, little ones. There’s a statue of Junipero and a tiled fountain with bees swarming over the lily pads. I walk down an arched breezeway hung with flags—Spanish, Mexican, Californian, American—into a tall, narrow chapel: diorama dimensions. The frescoes are original, the candles electronic. You make a donation and they’ll safely fake-flicker for two hours; I didn’t even know this was a thing. On opposite pages of the prayer request book, an adult has asked to beat addiction and a child for no clas proximo viernes.

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Left: Charms. Right: Chapel.

From a canyon campground later that evening I spend an hour or so mostly pushing my bike to the top of Cerro Alto. Only poison oak prevents me from ditching my wheels in the bushes, and when I finally do putter up to the summit, it looks like this:

But there’s light behind the shroud and it’s close, flashing gold onto the coyote bush through split-second breaks in the shifting fog. It’s only a matter of time.

Saturday

In the parking lot at Montana de Oro I take trail recommendations from two men in ink and Oakleys and camo. The lack of irony in their full sleeves is as refreshing as the warm blue sky over the ocean, the fast, buffed singletrack built to ride. The last time I was this far south, I concluded these were a different sort of people. Three years of Bay Area boom times later, I have an addendum, which is, I think they’re better for it.

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Montana de Oro. Eureka, goddamn.

I arrive in Santa Barbara to visit an old friend. We spent a decade in school together; since then she has acquired a husband, a PhD in economics, a professorship, a cat, a house, and a baby. To meet this last is the purpose of the trip. The newcomer and I engage in long staring contests—her eyes are blue, for now—in which I imagine I am being silently judged. But of course it’s just a reflection: I am judging myself.

These days I think a lot about how to keep my friends as the space between us grows more than geographic. The crux will be to see the difference in our lives as a curiosity and not a rebuke—to convince myself that I am doing things my way rather than slowly or badly or not at all. I suspect that’s the most useful thing to believe whether it’s true or not. But it also might be true. After all, if life’s a linear progression it leads straight to the grave.

Sunday

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Johnson Ranch. Not pictured: the locals.

Some peculiarity of the underlying geology means that the ride from Johnson Ranch to Irish Hills includes a shift from gold-and-oak foothills to rock gardens and chaparral in the space of one switchback. There’s a point in the trail where the views behind and ahead are so completely different that turning from one to the other feels like some kind of prank.

On the ridge, looking down at the suburbs, the howl of the wind catches on the crackle of transmission lines. Together it sounds just like blood through a stethoscope. Not to be creepy, I mean, I’m just saying.

Monday

The brochures at Fort Ord inform visitors that they may encounter “shearing operations.” I’ve been here a few times and never seen any such thing, but today I ride around a corner and there it is! Men in plaid smoking cigarettes wrestle the sheep into a chute; the clippers whine and the animals thrash about. I can’t see what happens next, just a hundred freshly shorn sheep milling and bleating in the meadow on the other side. There’s nothing tidy about it. They look like baby deer covered in buttercream frosting.

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Fort Ord moss-monster.
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San Luis Obispo

CONTENT WARNING: Amorphous, overextended analogy; weekend-warrior worrying; culture wars

All weekend I debated whether I could live here. On the one hand, I’ve been in love with the place since the first time I saw it. It’s a playpen, like a mountain town without winter (which I don’t like anyway). The street signs are in an idiotic font. Downtown, I saw a sauntering policeman pause on the spotless sidewalk to converse with the owner of a toy store, and when asked, “How’s it going?”, he thew his arms out in an expansive gesture of contentment and announced, “I can’t complain!” I mean, Jesus.

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But SLO is, in the end, Southern California—a point I was forced to concede after contesting it all the way down [the] 101. My argument was already straining under the sheer tonnage of eyeliner observed on ponytailed joggers when it collapsed completely in the parking lot of Morro Bay State Park. “Ew,” said a girl displeased with the generous cut of her own tank top, “I look like a hippie.” “That’s ok,” replied her Ken Doll rope-gun as he donned bro-shades and trad rack. “Um,” she countered, “no, it’s not.” And then they set off for the crag in matching Rainbows, leaving me to make fun of this confused bird, instead.

The climbing, too, was sort of absurd. Cabrillo could hardly be more idiot-friendly if the locals installed escalators—which was totally perfect for me because, as I remembered while failing to finish 5.8s on top-rope (…), I am Not A Climber.

  • Rock Land: Kermit Crack (THERE WERE ACTUALLY FROGS IN THIS!), Chimney Crack, Tan Streak, Secret of Foo (not divulged to me, alas)
  • Park Ridge Rock: Tips Ahoy, Red Dawn, Crespi Critter, The Slot
  • El Dorado: Black Gold favorite), Nuggets (haha, nope)

I cannot determine if my horror at the prospect of the sharp end of the rope is innate and irreconcilable or merely a failure of imagination. It exists, I suppose, in the same borderlands as SLO—which itself, before it was either half of California, was Mexico, was Spain, was Chumash in canoes on miles more of that estuary than we see now, singing songs we don’t know and fishing at dawn.

But anyway:

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