“Well, he biked here, so we gotta put him somewhere,” the bearded twenty-something state park official clarified from the back of the office. I instantly liked this guy. The female ranger working the ticket window, however, did not impress me much. Especially because she had just laid out to me that she couldn’t give me a campsite. I was standing outside, on the other side of the ticket window of the log cabin-style ranger station, my cycling clothes moist and wet from sweat and the misty air on this Saturday afternoon in early December.
I had decided to take a little and ride my bike to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest state park in California, and spend the night. However, about a minute ago, I had learned that half of the campgrounds were closed and that the remaining campsites were fully booked. It was also 4.30 pm, the sun would set in about 30 minutes, and I had no place to stay.
Issues with the park’s water treatment plant were the culprit for the closure. “All the other campgrounds are full,” the woman park ranger in her fifties, wearing thin-rimmed glasses and sporting a bob cut explained to me. “We are doing a lottery for the remaining spots at 5 pm. Do you care to get put on the list? Or are you prepared to ride back in the dark?”
“No, for Christ’s sake, I am not!” I was about to yell when Mr. Nice Guy from the back got my back, and I was issued a permit for site #71 on Huckleberry Campground. I paid my five bucks, got back on my bike, and made my way to the campground, about a mile into the park.
The state park was about thirty miles away from my apartment, not much if you think about it, with the slight disclaimer that the Santa Cruz Mountains needed to be conquered to get there. Still, about three hours of riding time seemed realistic. I had left my apartment at 12:30 pm that day, far too late for my liking. Only because I made an unreasonable drama out of packing: What to bring? How cold will it be? Is it going to rain? Is this really worth doing? I can just sleep in my comfy bed tonight, no?
Eventually, my sense for getting out there prevailed over my procrastination, and so I made my way south, soon climbing up the Santa Cruz Mountains on Hwy 9. The additional weight in my panniers from carrying a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, and a change of clothes slowed me down significantly. At least that is what I told myself, clearly not attributing the slow going to my lack of fitness.
After sixteen miles and almost two hours of riding, I made it to the junction of Hwy 9 and Skyline Blvd, a popular meetup spot for mountain bikers and motorcyclists alike. No wonder the privately run hot dog stand “Mr. Mustard” gets quite some business up there on sunny weekends. I devoured two kielbasa hotdogs before continuing down Hwy 9 towards Big Basin. About five miles outside the park, I continued straight on what was now Hwy 236. Winding itself through groves of redwood trees and much narrower than Hwy 9, this made for a change in the riding experience. The mist and fog and the shade from the trees contributed to a big drop in temperature. While it was mostly uphill, the chill from the cold sweat on my body and clothes made me rethink my need for adventure a few times. And my sanity, for that matter.
I had to hurry up because I distinctly recalled reading somewhere that the ranger station would close at 4 pm (which turned out to be wrong) in the off-season. And how would I procure a campsite then? I eventually reached the park on time, got support from Mr. Nice Guy ranger, and reached site #71 at the end of the loop at the surprisingly full Huckleberry Campground.
I settled in, unpacked, set up my tent. Luckily it wasn’t raining, just a few drops coming down periodically from the redwoods branches around me. Freeze-dried dinner was prepared quickly and warming me up after the chilly approach.
There wasn’t really anything to worry about regarding essentials. This was a developed campground, after all. I had shelter for the night, brought my food for dinner and breakfast for the next day, I had a stove to heat water, a water tap was just a few dozen feet away, a working bathroom with running water just a little further. Nothing to worry about, right? Except for maybe the wish that the two guys in #70 wouldn’t party too hard. Around 2 am I had to step out of the tent in my PJs, nervously walk over to the group of guys with my headlamp on and ask them to kindly reduce their noise level a bit. Surprisingly it worked, and I got at least a few hours of sleep before I awoke at the crack of dawn.
A packet of oatmeal and some instant coffee, and I had at least enough energy to gather my things, pack them in the panniers and get myself on the road back to Sunnyvale. The climb back out of the slight valley that the state park is in was harder than expected, given the lack of sleep and the fading caffeine boost. Reaching the main junction again, however, meant that it was all downhill from here, and so I coasted back into Silicon Valley and was back at my apartment at 11 am.
Despite the lack of sleep, the slight hunger, dirty clothes, and the wet tent I would all have to clean on Sunday, I felt fresh. The freshness of the mind that for about 24 hours got pushed out of its comfort zone. And it is longing for more.