A father and son journey through SLO County
By Jim Brady
We climbed a steep cattle road in the afternoon light into the Temblor Range, crossing the San Andreas fault. Not a tree in sight, the dry grasses were brown and brittle. Behind us the view stretched to forever, 100 miles across the plains, over the Caliente and San Raphael Ranges, with smoke plumes rising from the fires along the Los Padres Wilderness. Towards evening, the track we’d followed, hoping to get to the crest, ended abruptly. Cold winds were picking up, so it was time to make camp. Perfect. A view to forever with the winter sun setting quickly and throwing a shadow across the valley.
Our paths as father and son have crossed, merged, overlapped, and diverged through the years. In this current phase of life I am nearing the end of a 45 year journey as educator and outdoor trip leader, and my son Crister is entering a career as a family medicine doctor. Luckily we had some time together in late-December for a bikepacking trip. This time the plan was to stay local, cycling deep into our own backcountry, the Los Padres National Forest.
Plans changed as the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, erupted at the southern edge of the Los Padres, raging along the mountains and into communities. Smoke and ash made breathing tenuous, and any foray into the backcountry out of the question. So we chose to bikepack the Carrizo Plains, the largest single grassland plain in California, approximately 50 miles long and 15 miles across, between the Temblor and Caliente Mountain ranges in southeastern San Luis Obispo County.
A History of Bikepacking
Sometime around 55 years ago my friend and I let air out of our Schwinn Sting Ray bike tires and headed up the trails into the mountains near our home, into the Los Padres. To celebrate our 8th grade graduation we put some stuff in our backpacks and cycled up and over San Marcos Pass, staying in a cabin for a few days along the Santa Ynez River. It felt good to not know what each day’s adventure would be, where we were going or how we would get there.
Then, decades later, I set off on a bike journey homeward from the Central California coast, my first time using a real rack and panniers. We called them bike bags. Cool, but they kept getting caught-up in the spokes and had to be rigged with bungee cords. That two-day one-night 150 mile July ride was memorable. I found what turned out to be the steepest back road I’d ever ridden, taking me up and over the mountains from the coastal fog to blistering summer heat. And in the evening when I finally arrived in camp, I was awakened by a ranger and his blinding flashlight. He said I couldn’t sleep there and made me pack up my gear, load it on the bike, and then escorted me down the road back to the camp entrance, staying with me until I paid the fee and joined other cyclists in the Bike ‘n Hike. Sleep deprived, I woke early and rode the final 70 miles of rolling hills homeward. I was tired and sunburnt, but smiling.
That two-day adventure helped encourage my propensity for wilderness camping, cycling and hiking. Since then I’ve led cycling journeys with students across Australia, New Zealand, England and Ireland, Hawai’i; from Andes to Amazon in Bolivia, and on dozens of local trips in California and the Southwest. Then, twenty years ago, I led the first group of middle school students to bikepack the trails and dirt roads from Canada to Mexico. We’d thought about riding East to West across the US, but were drawn to the path less traveled, the newly mapped Great Divide Route.
On the Road with Crister
Last December, my son Crister and I found a few empty days to explore the Carrizo Plains together. Since sixth grade Crister has bicycled thousands of miles with me. In high school he set out on his own, riding 3,000 dirt miles across Australia and the length of Chile with his surfboard on a trailer. We found over the years that these journeys have enriched our lives immeasurably. Crister drawing from his experiences to expand his views on community and health, and me always striving to provide experiential learning opportunities for my middle school students. Now, our plan for our brief three night trip in the Carrizo Plains was to take the path less traveled and simply enjoy being together under the sun and stars for a few days.
Darkness fell by 5pm on our first evening, but we stayed up and enjoyed the Geminids Meteor Shower arcing across the moonless sky. Awaking on the second morning to a strong dry wind, we seemed to take forever to heat breakfast and pack our gear without the efficiency we both knew can take a few weeks to ease into. It was also December, so we had to pay attention to the weather and warm clothes, but our mountain ridge campsite separated us from the below freezing temperatures in the plains below. Our first challenge was water — it was only our second day and our chosen route had already humbled us. Luckily, a cattle trough just down from our camp did the trick. Loaded to the brim, we descended out of the Caliente Range hitting nearly 40mph before hitting the brakes. We passed the dried white Soda Lake to the North and pedaled southward. Riding side-by-side on the gravel and sand track with not a car in sight I was reminded of thousands of miles along the Great Divide. Crister read my mind and remarked how wonderful it was to be only a few hours from home and yet feeling really “out there.”
Before we knew it, we were at a fork in the road. We could continue southward as planned towards an increasingly smoky horizon, or jump straight across the plains and climb up into the Caliente Mountains. The decision was as clear as the ridgeline to the West, but it meant taking at least a half day off our adventures. No problem. More time to explore sidetrails and take in the beauty of a place we had to ourselves. With our newly relaxed timeline Crister proceeded to get out his camera and ride up and down some ridiculously steep 4×4 tracks -— nearly eating a Carrizo dirt sandwich, but recovering at the last second and pulling alongside me, wide-eyed and grinning. “Whoa, that was awesome! Get any shots?” Nearly a doctor, but always a kid on a bicycle.
Out across sandy tracks and onto a large deep gravel road over the next few hours, our illusion of a more relaxed timeline dissolved as we seemingly inched towards the base of our climb to our ridgeline camp. The winter sun was already beginning to retreat as we started up the climb. Crister rode ahead, waiting for me at each switchback turn. Long, mountainous shadows grew across the valley as the road steepened and eventually abandoned all switchbacks and followed the steep ridge skyward. Now having climbed nearly 4,000 feet, my focus became camp and rest, but Crister mentioned a small trail he had seen just off the road. “Looks like it follows the ridge back to our car. I think we should take it tomorrow.”
That evening we stayed on the ridge with a magnificent view thousands of feet below us and hundreds of miles in all directions. The plume of smoke in the distance somehow made us feel further from home, but the familiarity of our backcountry surroundings and our tired bodies was reassuring. Over dinner we rose to the challenge of remembering each of the 72 campsites from the Great Divide and read excerpts out loud from The Expedition, a book that recounts characters, mishaps and lessons learned from crossing the Australian Outback as part of the world’s first human-powered circumnavigation. Crister strummed his Charango — from his travels in Bolivia and Chile — while we sung old favorites like Rocky Racoon and the self-written We Like Dirt. The night sky gave us another meteor show before I drifted to sleep and Crister poured over his GPS planning our off-the-path route for the next day.
We awoke at dawn to take a route that at first glance on the map had no paths and no obvious trails. We had no idea how long it would take us. Was it rideable? An old trail sign marked the beginning and a barely visible jeep trail turned into animal paths along grassland ridges, through juniper trees, and dry arroyos. It was a route of pure adventure and discovery on our bikes and even as we made miles, we weren’t sure that we would connect with our destination. Smiles and hoots ensued all day as we simply enjoyed each other’s company and the landscape that surrounded us. We were happy when we connected with the road, but both of us could have kept going on the path less traveled for weeks more.
Just like my early bicycle explorations in the mountains on my Schwinn and later with bungee cords to hold my bike bags in place, we finished this one with new ideas for where to explore next. Grateful to have had these days together and time to recount the many adventures we have shared over the years, we can’t wait for our next trip.