I woke up early to some bad news. Those winds I was experiencing in Imperial were translating into a massive snowstorm on the peaks of the Laguna Mountains, separating me from San Diego for at least 3 days. I had to make a decision quick.
I mulled it over for a couple hours and decided my new course of action at 6:47 AM. It isn’t easy to come up against a setback so close to the finish, but I had to make a decision about what I was really trying to get out of this trip. I could bear out the storm in Imperial for the next three days, spending extra money and time, or I could try to find a way to get past the mountains so I can continue riding.
At this point in my trip, I knew there wasn’t much else I could get out of spending more time covered in dust in a rural town, I had about 40 of those days behind me already. I started to look for a bus or another train to come to my rescue, but public transport either didn’t exist or didn’t go anywhere I needed to go. With a tinge of regret, I decided to try to find an Uber.
I downloaded the Uber app and started looking for a ride, estimated 40 minute wait. Seemed like a long time, but I’d be able to get an Uber around 8:30 AM and drive the two hours over the mountains, leaving me plenty of time to finish riding to the Pacific before I run out of daylight. I talk to my parents on the phone and they say they’ll help pay for the Uber, I think they probably want me to be done with this trip more than I do.
8:30 AM, no Ubers in the area and now a 60 minute wait. That can’t be right. They must have all sensed how far I wanted to go and stayed away. I held out hope that the one driver that intermittently popped up on the screen would come through and pick me up. I download Lyft and keep that running at the same time.
9:30 AM, I’ve had some breakfast now, but no news on the ride. For a mountain range I hadn’t heard of until two days ago, it had sure put a hitch in my plans. I’ll keep waiting for a rideshare, not many other options.
11 AM, after 3 hours of waiting it’s obvious that this isn’t in the cards for me today. I decide to give up on finding a ride, and instead, bike to the airport close by to try my luck at renting a car. Lord knows I haven’t had any luck with rental cars so far on this trip, so my hopes were not high, but it’s my only other option.
I ride over to the airport and start talking to the woman at the Hertz counter. I give her the usual story about how I’m on a bike trip, and I tell her I need a one-way rental that I can drop off in San Diego. The car also needed to be able to fit a bike. She says the words that have eluded me for so long, “We have one car left for you”. We go over some maps for a while to find a Hertz drop-off spot just far enough from the Pacific coast so that I drop off the car and finish the trip on my bike and tells me the price. I’m hesitant at first, but I talk to my parents, and with an uncharacteristic nonchalance they offer to pay for it. I sign the rental papers and she hands me the keys.
Stepping outside, I’m dumbstruck by how painless the whole process was. After my experience in Houston, I half expected there to be no car actually there in the parking lot. But walking over, I couldn’t contain my joy at seeing an SUV right there, incarnate, waiting for me.
I packed up my bike and tried to remember how to drive. It had been 42 days since I had driven a car and the controls felt foreign to me. I felt vulnerable without my helmet and rearview mirror where it usually was, close to my left eye. I had to stifle the urge to apply chamois cream before sitting in the drivers seat. The 60 mile per hour winds buffeting the car didn’t help to comfort me. I took off out of the parking lot at a blistering 20 miles per hour. In the past 42 days the only vehicle I had been controlling cruised at around 10 miles per hour. I felt like I was in a space shuttle.
Ignoring some strange looks from other drivers as I cruised nervously out of the parking lot, I started to get the hang of driving again. I set a route west and took off down the road, thankfully with the storm brewing on the mountains, the roads were mostly clear. I chewed up the road at a rate I almost forgot was possible. I barely even noticed all of the people passing me at 45 miles an hour.
My whole brain was focused on the shoulder of the road, it’s where I had spent nearly the last two months. As usual, I judged the quality of the shoulder, how much debris there was, how wide it was, and how comfortable it would be to ride. I now had to remember and adhere to completely different rules of the road. In a car you are bound to a sort of momentum, you have to keep up with the flow of traffic. If I wanted to drink water or check my phone I couldn’t just stop the car and take a break. You are forced to maintain a constant inertia that doesn’t apply to you on a bike. On a bike, if you see something interesting you can stop and inspect it, and you get plenty of time to take in all the scenery. In the car, everything was gone as soon as it came.
Still, I had some of that bike spirit left in me. When I came to the top of the mountains I pulled over to look around. The wind was unreal, but the mountains were like nothing I’d ever seen before. I drove through a series of peaks that looked like stacked cairns on a hiking trail. The mountains didn’t look like the glacier-molded peaks of the east coast, it was more like a group of aliens had collected rocks and stacked them up in big piles.
Getting back in the car, I headed down the mountain. I started to see something creep into view. It looked so alien to me I couldn’t figure out what it was. I thought maybe it was some natural geological feature or some kind of rail infrastructure, until I finally realized I was passing the border wall.
Something that I’d heard so much heated argument about was now right in front of me. In all honesty, my first impression was that it looked kind of silly and futile next to all the of the majesties I had seen in the past few months. Maybe it’s the hippy in me but trying to pen in something as dynamic and massive as the land I had just traversed seemed like a fool’s errand. It was not as impressive or significant as I was led to believe, I kept moving.
I passed through Jacumba Hot Springs, maybe I’d get a chance to bathe in the spa another time. Then I saw a sign that said the town of Julian was only 27 miles away. I had the car all day, why not make a detour and check out my namesake.
It was a risky move, the storm started to catch up with me as I headed into Julian, but I made it there in one piece.
Even though it was pretty gloomy, I bought some souvenirs and set a course for San Diego. I had misjudged the timing a little bit, I had to get the car to San Diego by 4pm to drop it off, and I now was just barely going to make it according to the GPS. I gave Hertz a call and they told me to just drop it off in the parking garage, so that cleared up one problem.
I unpacked my bike and dropped off the keys. Back in the saddle. It was raining slightly and the sky was overcast. Just my luck to hit the one stormy day in the city that has the nicest weather on earth year round.
I had planned a zoom call for my friends and family so they could watch as I hit the ocean. I was now about 5 miles out from my landing point, so I let everyone know and started the call. Soon my sister and a few friends joined me as I rode down the bike paths leading towards Dog Beach, my final destination. I noticed my parents were conspicuously absent from the call, which seemed strange because they pushed me to finish the ride today.
I flowed smoothly over the bike paths, it was second nature at this point. I tried to take a beat and appreciate the moment, it’s not every day that you come to the culmination of 42 days of journeying. I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience so I wanted to really take it in. The path followed the canals, I talked to my friends and dodged the people sleeping under the bridges until I finally saw the horizon open up as the beach came into view.
As a rode up the approach to Dog Beach I saw two people huddled in the rain at the end of the bike path. I noticed that they were watching me as I rode up, and as I got closer I could see that they were recording. I figured they lived in the area and knew that westward Southern Tier riders would finish their journey here and were recording it for me, so I threw up a fist and shouted in celebration. But as I started to get closer I couldn’t believe what I saw, it was my parents! Turns out they had been scheming the whole time, when it became apparent I was going to reach San Diego ahead of schedule, they flew out to meet me. No wonder they were happy to pay for my car rental so I would finish today. I had some company to celebrate with as I made the final ride across the beach and into the ocean.
I made it across the country. I was walking on air. It’s tough to describe but in the moment what I was feeling was almost the feeling of “correct”. It wasn’t exactly like I was overflowing with happiness like a little kid at a birthday party. I had only biked a little over 5 leisurely miles that day, so it wasn’t the feeling of completing a race and letting your body loose from exhaustion. It was more like, every day of your life there is a nagging feeling that you need to be more productive, or work out more, or get better at something so that you can achieve more. It’s a natural part of our brain that drives us to improve. What I felt in the moment when I finished my trip was, more than anything, a respite from that. It was the feeling that for today at least, in this moment, you have made the grade; you accomplished something and you have earned a moment of peace, enjoy it.
Before arriving in San Diego I had sent a hotel that was close to Dog Beach to my parents and asked them to try to get a reservation for me. As we were walking away from the beach, my parents informed me that I was not, in fact, staying at this hotel, and they had booked a different hotel for us across town. Surprise, the trip’s not over quite yet. We couldn’t figure out a convenient way to get me and my bike there, so they hopped in an Uber while I took a nostalgic, soaking wet ride across town.
Before leaving, my mom voiced her concern that it might be dangerous to bike through town. I reminded her that I had just finished riding more than 2000 miles across the entire country, but she still didn’t seem comforted. Turns out she may have had a point, within a few minutes, after taking off to cross a street, my back wheel unmounted itself again.
I couldn’t help but laugh, it seemed perfectly appropriate for my bike to start falling apart as its own kind of celebration. I got out my tools and wrenched it back on without a second thought.
Even though it started pouring rain, I took my time getting back. The rain didn’t bother me, I was enjoying the evening. I parked my bike for a bit and took in the ocean and the sky and the city around me. Eventually I’d have to move on from this dreamscape, but for tonight, it was a moment to savor.
In all the commotion, I forgot to track my ride for the first time on this trip. So close! Here are some google maps recreations of my travels that day.
Car ride from Imperial to Julian to San Diego
Bike ride from Hertz drop off location to Dog Beach
Bike ride from Dog Beach to hotel