From Ocean Beach to Santa Barbara: 4 Days on a Bike to Heaven

by on April 24, 2017 · 2 comments

in Ocean Beach

Editor’s Note: OBcean Dave Milligan – who’s no spring puppy – took off on his bicycle April 10th and rode all the way from OB to Santa Barbara with his friend John. The amazing journey took them four days, and it’s recounted in detail here in Dave’ daily log. Dave called it “to heaven and back”.

By Dave Milligan

Day One: Sunday morning, wake up my good friend and riding partner, John, at 5:30. The edge of a new day is barely apparent. It’s quiet in Ocean Beach, it will be another half hour until we can see to ride, and another half hour beyond that until Lindberg Field sounds its general area wake-up alarm. A quick protein bar and banana and we are off down the alley and on the streets, a little after 6:00.

Our bikes are quiet, well-tuned, and we slip through the sleepy streets of Ocean Beach, carefully peering around each corner we cross, blowing through stop signs, not wanting to slow our progress north. I am push the steel, horseless-horse that I ride north. This is the start of an adventure that has sat in the back attic of my mind for fifty years. Vacationing as a teenager in Santa Barbara I daydreamed about doing this trip by bicycle; but there were obstacles: Camp Pendleton, what to eat, where to sleep, unfriendly roads, and of course, Mom. I now have a card that gives me entry to the Marines’ camp, another card that buys me all the food and lodging necessary, maps and a phone that can guide me, and, most importantly, the blessing of my wife (AKA: a kitchen pass). This ride is the fulfillment of a boyhood dream, my teenage self is ecstatic.

We make our first stop on the Sunset Cliffs Boulevard Bridge capturing the pre-sunrise on our phones (the irony escapes me, until I write these words). No time for riding the easy Mission Beach boardwalk (why do we still hang on to this term “boardwalk”? It’s concrete, not wooden boards…thank God for that!). We stay on Mission Boulevard, turn left on to La Jolla Boulevard, past Tourmaline, where I have to stop and check the surf. I explain to John, who’s from the Northwest, about surfing and the cool vibe at “Old Man’s”. I am glad the waves are just slop, so I’m not missing a good surf session. On to La Jolla!

We pass La Jolla’s super-car show rooms (John’s impressed), and are met at The Cove by the rich posers setting up for the last day of their “La Jolla Concours d’Elegance”. To me it’s an excuse to park greasy automobiles on the lawn of a city park. (I know, I know: the “beautiful people” are “sharing” their over-priced, mobile carbon monoxide generators with the “little people” It’s the least they can do… the very least.) But we slow down for John to drool over a low-slung go-fast. I don’t get it: What’s the point of a street car that can easily do twice any legal or sane limit?

We coast down to the Shores and then make the only real climb of this whole ride: up the hill on which UCSD rests. Close to the top we stop to admire the view: La Jolla Shores curves south below us, and La Jolla Cove is in the distance: sister jewels.

At the top, along Torrey Pines Road I tell John, “It’s all downhill from here”, and I’m right for another mile or so. But the bike lane is wide and PCH seems friendly. Breakfast is at Swami’s Café in Encinitas. My road breakfast is a boring side of sausage and side of potatoes. John is not used to California café cuisine and orders too much: eggs, strawberry pancakes and bacon. Great food and a good, mellow atmosphere; later he complains about the gut-bomb that comes along for the ride.

For a beautiful Sunday morning on PCH there’s not too many maniacal bike racers; the Tour ‘d France wannabees, mounted on delicate carbon fiber horseless horses, attired in advertising emblazoned spandex, and locked onto their mounts with shoes mar the floor. These gals and guys can blow by me like I was peddling backwards, but this ride is like a craft beer to be savored, not gulped.

The PCH bike lane guides us northward through the small coastal towns, and then evaporates just outside of Oceanside. We notice fellow bikers turning west off PCH, and follow them back onto a bike-laned street, edging the coast. At the harbor the bike lane once again disappears, but we know that our next challenge lies east of I-5. Camp Pendleton has stood like an ogre sentry to some of my teenage dreams: surfing Trestles, or the San Onofre power plant, and of course riding through to Santa Barbara.

I’ve never been past this gate, so the reaction of the Vandergrift Gate guard to my Department of Defense, civilian retiree “CAC” card was an unknown. It turned out to be a perfunctory wave of this digital scanning gun, and I was waved through. Instead I dismounted and asked, “How far is the Las Pulgas gate?” The young private returned a “reservist salute”: shoulder shrugged, head tilted, eye brows raised, and gave me an un-reassuring, “About fifteen miles”.

Camp Pendleton is a beautiful, unspoiled and empty land, paved with smooth roads, equipped with uncluttered, wide, bike lanes, and on this Sunday afternoon, few cars. The approved route is through the Vandergrift Boulevard gate with a left turn onto Stuart Mesa Road, no other streets or landmarks are on their web-site sketch. We stopped at a base exchange with an un-signed crossroad to ask for directions; but once again received the reservist salute, “I am sorry sir, I don’t really live here.”

Northward we rode, through the undeveloped, flowering land, verdant hills on either side, the road remained flat and we made good time, until the bike lane once again vanished. At a gas station in what seemed to be the middle of Nowheresville, Camp Pendleton, a woman answered my question: “Oh yes, you’ve gone way beyond Stuart Mesa, it’s wayyyy back there.” I turned the air blue with frustration (profuse apologies unknown), but John calmed me down, “Ahh, these are just bonus miles.” So back down Vandergrift for six more “bonus” miles and turn to the west on Stuart Mesa.

The exit at the Las Pulgas gate was less dramatic, I don’t think the guards even noticed our passing. The route now was on the old PCH, still in Pendleton, but fenced off from the marine’s maneuvering area. It being Sunday, the Marines weren’t maneuvering, at least they weren’t out on military maneuvers. Old PCH is pretty much worn with cracks and weeds, but suitable for biking, except for one half-mile section; and that was curiously repaved, wide, weed free and unmarked. John and I debated the reason as we rode the rather pristine surface, finally we decided it was a secret landing strip for commando planes. Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura, step aside, you got nuttin’ on us.

The next transition was exiting Pendleton all together. Into the state beach park, still on the old PCH, but now maintained as a strange linear camp site. San Onofre State Beach is one long parking lot for beach-car-camping. The camp was barely occupied that afternoon; a mix of seclusion, wind, waves and I-5. We pushed on as the afternoon northwest wind was wearing on our bodies. San Clemente was now just another obstacle. I knew that the bike route through this area was an up and down, and up and down affair.

We crossed I-5, rehydrated at a greasy gas station and took Camino Real through town, downhill to the coast, where the road morphed back into our queen: PCH. It was close to 6:00 PM when we at our Dana Point hotel, and we were close to exhaustion. A Best Western never looked bester. After a quick shower, and quick dinner at the funky barbeque rib joint, coincidentally called “The Rib Joint”, we were, for all intents and purposes, dead to the world. We had, more or less, been in the saddle for twelve hours.

Day Two: We humans have evolved as tribal creatures: religionists, nationalists, localists (can I get an Amen brother and sister surfers?), foodists, and yeah, racists. And so it is that John and I are also from different tribes: I’m a morning person, and he’s from that other tribe: the sleep-inners (horrible people, but a tribe that my wife also belongs to). Getting him up at 7:00 wasn’t easy, “But I’m on vacation! I get to sleep-in!” So after a little tribal word-warfare, “No John, this is an adventure, not a vacation”, we were finally back in the saddle, pumping up the grade to Laguna Beach.

The beauty of the coast glowed in stunning colors: to the west a translucent blue sea washing against dark craggy rocks; and to the east verdant hillsides blanketed in yellow daisies and wild mustard. This is another reason why I like to ride; going at the pace of a bicycle allows you to really soak in this kind of scenery. We stopped to rest more often along this particular piece of coastline.

Laguna Beach is home to several gated communities overlooking the Pacific. As we rode past one of these enclaves I noticed three middle aged men, brown skinned, dark haired, and dressed in a kind of uniform. They were armed with shovels, working the weeds out of a drainage ditch, under the rising sun. I have no idea as to their citizenship status, but I’m willing to bet at least one of these gentlemen was a “bad hombre”, performing a job not many us “Americanos” would be happy doing.

Navigating through the northern part of Laguna Beach and Newport required some bicycle legerdemain, and regretfully I did get involved in a verbal altercation with an impatient motorist, but we survived. In this area PCH does like to play the vanishing bike lane act. Finally at Huntington Beach we found the beach-side bike/walking/roller blading/running path. It wasn’t too crowded, so we could ride at a reasonable speed.

I do adhere to the principal that on these paths that my progress is very secondary to the safety of others, and I am more than willing to brake and stop rather than risk an accident. THAT’S why we of People of the Morning get up and ride in the morning. It’s the People of the Sleep ‘Til Noon that are the walkers. We enjoyed lunch at a surf themed diner in Sunset Beach. If you blind-folded and kidnapped a Mission Beacher, then released that person in Sunset Beach, I don’t think they would notice. I felt at home here too.

The ride became a little tricky through Seal Beach, but I stopped a fellow “ancient” biker who knew the area and he set us straight, or more accurately: crooked; as the route through the Naples Marina required a few turns to bring us back to the bike path. Even that didn’t last long, as we were soon riding in a section of downtown Long Beach. I hate city biking. I don’t belong there on a bike, and the car jockeys second that opinion. Life only got worse when we crossed the West Anaheim Street Bridge into the heart of darkness: Wilmington, adjacent to the Long Beach Terminal.

The streets are full of debris, with buckles and potholes. Huge container bearing semi tractor-trailers fill the streets of the terminal. I’m sure my intestines must have been empty, because I would have been scared out of their contents peddling next to those monsters. I did make one, almost existential mistake; at a red light John had stopped respectfully behind three lanes of big rigs. The right most lane was a “must turn” lane, and I knew death lay waiting on the right side of the road. We had to ride between the right most semi, and the monster in the center. John looked small and vulnerable stopped behind these guys, I thought that since they were stopped for the light I should ride down the lane marker, between the trucks and wait just a little over the stop line, and sprint at the green light to the far corner.

Halfway down the length of these giants, the right hand monster started to move to make a right hand turn. I didn’t think he would do that. Terror heighten my senses, wheels as tall as I were turning to my right and the wheels to my left were still. I could see myself as a small footnote on a police blotter, “Crazy, old cyclist took an unnecessary risk, not much left but a blood pancake.” I focused on staying straight, the light went green, and I went forward with vigor.

Gradually the mean streets of the terminal turned into the mean streets of a working class neighborhood. The area is called Lomita, and the people who live there are preponderantly of Mexican descent. In a fast food restaurant, where we took air-conditioned refuge, and mango slurpee sustenance, Espanol was the lingua franca. A “bad hombre” made my frozen drink and a “bad mujer” smilingly served it. Our plan had been a circumnavigation of Palos Verdes, with a stop for urination at, or preferably on, the Trump International Golf Course (in consonance with my Scottish heritage). But the sun said “No”; Redondo Beach was too far off. We took the shortcut behind PV, up the grade and down into Redondo Beach.

Once again we were off our saddles near 6:00. After showering off the road grime we explored the Redondo Beach Pier. Curiously it was filled with Korean seafood restaurants. Our dinner was delicious but hot! John had a roe topped sashimi salad, with three types of kimchi (that John allowed me to devour). I wimped out with spicy, unshelled shrimp, cooked with peppers and onions. The unshelled shrimp made my meal very hands-on. Again, I didn’t know the staff’s immigration status, maybe they’re “bad namja” maybe they’re “good namja”, but they’re doing the Lord’s work, nightly at the Redondo Pier.

Day Three: One of the blessings of an arduous ride is you don’t have to worry about sleep, it will enfold you quickly after your head touches the pillow. Early to bed… and get up and dance before the sun! That’s what I say! Our goal for day three was the alluvial farmland of Oxnard/Port Hueneme, easily our longest day. I knew the seventy miles could only be ridden if we started in the pre-dawn emptiness of Los Angeles, but I didn’t have the temerity to tell my riding partner the night before.

It is easier to ask forgiveness, than permission. Secretly, I set the alarm to 5:00 A.M., and when that time came I gave John a short, “Come on, let’s go, this is our longest day.” Groggily he was up, dressed and we were off. Luckily the way north was on another beautiful beachside path: broad, painted with a yellow stripe down the center, and in the early morning, fairly empty. Through another set of beach cities: Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan, El Segundo, under the LAX flight path, with jet bellies screaming low overhead, past Venice Beach, with the street hawkers getting set for the daily tourist trade. We stopped for a cola; by now John had convinced me that “the ride” justified this sugar sin.

The beautiful bike path came to a sad end just north of Santa Monica. Let me say here and now: government truly serves its people when it builds and maintains public facilities like this path, AND that’s why I like taxes! At the northern most restroom on the path we stopped; you don’t actually buy soda, you only rent it… Also stopped at this restroom was a man half our age, adjusting four large paniers hung on both from both sides of his horseless-horse. I asked him, “You going south?” I wanted to know what the conditions ahead might be. “No, I’m going north too,” was his reply. “Cool, we’re going to Santa Barbara, what’s your final destination?” I asked. He said that he’d started at the San Ysidro border, and was bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, a border to border ride. We wished him luck, and he took off up to Malibu.

After about five miles, John convinced me that another cola was in order (we need more sugar!), and we stopped at a hamburger-stand. There, eating breakfast was our brother of the road. We lingered over our sodas, exchanged nods, and he took off once again.

The road through Malibu has a bike lane, sometimes wide enough for a bike race peloton, and sometimes only capable of single file, Indian-style riding. The cars race through this section of PCH, relieved of the downtown LA congestion. Tension riding next to this fast moving traffic removes some of the riding pleasure. We were passing by some of the most famous surfing spots in the world. The swell was well formed, fun-sized, long rights: where is my board when I need it? At the Topanga Canyon intersection we passed a heart wrenching car crash in the south-bound lanes. Two accordion pleated cars attested to a great deal of personal tragedy, and I contemplated that as we rode further north. The attendant traffic jam carried north for several miles.

Somewhere past Point Dume we found a lunch spot, coincidentally we also found our fully burdened road brother. Over lunch we got to know each other, and we agreed to ride together, drafting style: single file, close together, fighting the raising afternoon northwest wind. The coast curves west and then northwest, and although the road was fairly flat, the stiff thermal breeze made riding on a flat road more like going uphill. At Point Mugu, the three of us stopped to admire the scenery: Rocky Point Mugu is rudely chopped from the Santa Monica Mountains, to allow PCH through. The sea was wind-blown, choppy and majestic. I called a good friend who lives in the area. He encouraged us with the thought that the wind might be less of a factor once we rounded the point. I made plans for dinner with him, as he is a friend from Silver Gate Elementary, and is the guy I learned to surf with fifty years ago.

Past Mugu we entered the flat farmland of Oxnard, where PCH finally betrayed us! In the middle of farmland, with no buildings in sight, the State of California had decided that it was time for us bicyclers to leave. In affect the sign said: “Omni, Domini, presto-change-o: PCH is now a freeway; cars can go 60, and bikers, you’re on your own.” After a little reconnoitering we found the alternate route, complete with a bike lane, and for a while, just parallel to Queen PCH.

Our bike laned road did bring us closer to the rich farmland: fragrant strawberries, salad plants of unknown types, and most strangely, acres of lawn (“turf” I suppose). In the state that just suffered (and maybe still is enduring) a drought; that we have a demand for, and farmers have a supply of, thick, thirsty, deep-green grass is obscene. While we may not have a better alternative to the capitalism that encourages this economic behavior; I am sure that growing acres of grass on rich farmland, watering, and chemically weeding it, is not in our society’s best interest; no matter who’s rich enough to pay for it.

We passed green fields worked by brown-skinned people, bent to their task: harvesting our nation’s dinner. Are these more “bad hombres” that the Orange Menace In Chief wants to get rid of? Our pace-line of three continued into the late afternoon headwinds. All we really wanted now was a hotel, any place with air conditioning, showers, and a bed would do fine. The farmland of Oxnard just wouldn’t comply. The later it got, the stronger the wind blew, and the longer the road into the City of Oxnard seemed.

Our new found biking partner had come equipped for this occasion. He had a solar panel charger on the top of his rear pannier bags, and could listen to Google Bike directions as he rode. At every intersection he now gave us directions and distance to a hotel. Another Best Western sat right next to Queen PCH (which had now been demoted back to a highway). We had ridden the right angle roads through Oxnard, and PCH was the hypotenuse shortcut. Many thanks Caltrans: that which didn’t kill us, made us stronger. Our new found riding partner had other plans for down the road, and we bid him a farewell.

Day Four: This morning I let my friend lie in (a truce in our tribal warfare). After I’d made enough “unintentional” noise John finally woke. Breakfast was at a café more familiar with Español then Ingles. Our final destination was only 40 miles north, and mostly on a separate bike path, a low stress ride. We found it in northwest Ventura, where both the path and the scenery were stupendous. Truly another gift from a government that does care for its people. Blue, shimmering Pacific; dark gray oil platforms on the horizon; small peaky beach-break; all of this made for Type 1 fun. (Type 1: the fun that you know you are having, while you are having it. Type 2 fun, like yesterday, the fun you’ve realize that you had, after you are done. Type 3 fun, the kind of fun you have, when you have to call emergency personnel.)

We rode past breaks that I’ve always dreamed of surfing, but have only roared by at 60 miles an hour. This time I got to stop and scope these spots: Emma Woods, Muscle Shoals, and the legendary Rincon. From our bike path vantage point at Muscle Shoals we were treated to the sight of a small pod of dolphins having (I assume) second breakfast.

Just before Carpentaria, the dream died: our path ended. We cycled onto the freeway, 101, but just for about a quarter of a mile. Up the next exit ramp and back onto a bike-laned road, we rode into Carpentaria for lunch. As we mounted our horseless-horses after lunch John announced he needed an ice cream. I told him, “We’ll have ice cream in the paradise of Santa Barbara.” On we rode, that is until we got “lost”. I knew there was a section north of Summerland that had a very steep hill, both up and down, and wanted to find a way around it. On the side of the road, at a bus stop, we broke out the maps and were studying them in the harsh sunlight, when an angel appeared.

This angel was embodied in the person of a cyclist: older, taller, and more robust than I. He asked, “Where do you want to go?” We explained how we wanted to avoid the Summerland hill, and that we also wanted to find the coastal bike path into Santa Barbara. He immediately spewed forth detailed guidance for our journey, then zipped off on the wings of his iron (maybe carbon fiber) horse (I guess in this case it was Pegasus).

Following our angel’s advice on we found the bike path that detours around the Summerland hill, and then re-crossed 101 to coastal bike path. The coastal path through Montecito is short, but magnificent. It runs past mansions perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, then down through a manicured slough, and finally, and beautifully, into Heaven on Earth: Santa Barbara. (Am I over selling this place?)

Santa Barbara sits on a ledge between the mountains and the sea. The coast curves to face south, and is sheltered by the Channel Islands. The ocean here has an almost bay-like calmness, and I think that somehow transfers to the calmness of inhabitants (that, and the fact that many of them are stinking rich). Every Sunday along the beachfront park is a juried art show. In early August the city throws a celebration of their origins: Old Spanish Days Fiesta. I have a romantic, teenaged, soft spot for this city, which I refer to as Heaven-On-Earth. John never did get his ice cream, he settled for a cola, and I for a beer on Stern’s Warf in the afternoon sun.

The night before my loving wife had reserved us a room with the mandatory two queen-sized beds at the Eagle Inn. This hotel drips with Santa Barbarianism: It ain’t cheap; it’s small and understated; a modest sized tile marquee announces its presence; the door into our room was carved, thick, solid wood, and wooden French doors opened onto a two chair and table balcony. This is definitely a future romantic get-away spot for my wife and me.

Day Five: Our ride was virtually over. Breakfast first! This was included in the steep price of our room, but it was perfect: not too much, not too little, and even their automatic coffee machine produced a satisfying drink. Eagle Inn, I shall return!

We caught Amtrak’s southbound 9:27 Surfliner, retracing yesterday’s ride down the coast until Ventura. The train turns southeast at Oxnard to run up the Simi Valley, through LA, and then back to the coast at Dana Point. Even though we had to change trains, due to maintenance, we arrived at our stop: Old Town, within minutes of the schedule. We rolled the bikes off the train, and went north on Pacific Highway (maybe not exactly PCH, but close enough for me). Just under and past the roaring I-5/I-8 interchange we turned onto the San Diego River Channel path, west, peddling into the afternoon breeze, back to where happiness is in your reach, when you return to Ocean Beach. Now I don’t care for the term “bucket list”, but in riding the last bit of this adventure, up my alley, and through my gate I felt a sense of fulfillment. I prefer “daydream made real”.

Epilogue: For those interested in doing a similar ride my “lessons learned” for the next time I do this adventure:

1. Go with the flow, ride north to south (I obstinately rode against the wind (south to north) to fulfill my dream).

2. Take five, maybe six days: fifty miles, or less, a day gives you way more time to enjoy the coast and the way-stops.

3. Do not ride through Long Beach, Wilmington and the Long Beach terminal. Throw your bike on a city bus in Redondo Beach and ride it to Seal Beach; avoid that dangerous area.

4. Go in late spring or early fall, and avoid Spring Break.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

keith April 25, 2017 at 5:13 am

Great adventure, thanks for sharing. I lived in Santa Barbara for a number of years & pedaled around town to get around town, just easier than driving, except when I lived in the foothills. I’ve often thought about taking Amtrak from LA to SB to stay a couple of days. Would be a fun adventure.


Anthony April 28, 2017 at 8:34 am

What a wonderful story…love, love, loved it!
Thanks for sharing. Now I have another goal in life I have to get in shape for!


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