It is 383 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, six hours by car if you take the most direct route. The trip is 450 miles if you take the slower, but immeasurably more beautiful Pacific Coast Highway. If you want a truly unforgettable California experience, however, grab your bike and join 2200 other riders for a 7-day, 550-mile journey that winds back and forth across the coastal mountains from San Francisco to LA, complete with pop-up disco stages in the middle of nowhere, 4:30am wake-up calls, fabulous costumes, and hundreds of hugs.
I’d been watching my cousin Jonathan participate in the AIDS LifeCycle Ride for seven years and each year, I sent him a donation, saying, “I should totally do the ride with you next year.” This year, I called him up in early January and announced, “For real! I actually am going to do the ride with you!”
During the next six months, I fundraised, fretted about how to get my bike to California and back, and rode the rolling roads of Washington County to get ready for the event. By the time Jonathan picked me up from the airport in San Francisco, I was bursting with nervous energy. Would I be able to re-assemble my bike by myself? Did I pack too many things? Would I careen off the edge of a mountain road into the Pacific Ocean?
It was amazing how my attitude changed over the course of the week. On the first day, I was constantly irritated by slower riders and long stops at the rest areas. “Did you fill your bottle and grab a snack?” I would ask my teammates, wondering why they were still lounging on boulders. By the next day, I began to realize that the ALC Ride was more of a rolling party than a sporting event. I learned to stop whenever I saw a big groups of bikes pulled over off the road. It usually meant there was something delicious to eat (fried artichokes or cinnamon buns maybe) or a stream in a valley for swimming. I took more time at the rest stops, danced when the music played, and laughed with the new friends I made along the way.
While we got plenty of ocean vistas throughout the week, we also toured inland roads less traveled. One day we biked 109 miles down tattered farm roads through strawberry fields and vineyards, under a baking sun. Along the way, we passed hundreds of people working in the fields. They smiled and waved as we rode by. Industrial irrigation systems snaked back and forth across the fields, coaxing verdant life out of an otherwise brown landscape.
Another day, we passed through Camp Roberts, a California National Guard Post. We stopped to say hello to the soldiers and climbed up on the tanks for photos. In the tiny town of Bradley, the school held a barbeque for us riders, selling postcards and buttons as mementos.
Eventually, the final day arrived and we rolled slowly into West Hollywood amidst traffic, noise, and the big city buzz. The moment was both thrilling and a little bit sad. I was astounded by the amount of money raised – more than $15 million to fight HIV and AIDS. My aching legs and bruised bottom were ready to say goodbye to my bicycle forever. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that the party was finally over.
Though the journey from Los Angeles to Minneapolis is nearly 2000 miles, it’s a quick 4-hour flight if you travel by airplane. Back home, the grass is green, the air is cool, and there’s a lake on every corner. From the water’s edge, you can hear the loons calling, and no one’s wearing strange costumes. Then again, there are strawberries on the table, fresh from California and if you listen closely, the faintest sound of Beach Boys music floating on the air.