The best adventures begin with a good sandwich. You pull the bread out of the bag and line it up on the counter. The best sandwich for a good adventure is simple. It won’t wilt in the sun or turn unexpected colors. It will still taste okay after it’s spent the day smashed in the bottom of your pack. A good sandwich has square corners. That way, nothing escapes it.

I put my sandwich in my pack. It goes on top, after the spare tubes and the pump and the chain tool and the 5mm allen wrench and the jacket and the gloves and the gummy bears, because cupcakes aren’t good for adventures, they just get squished, which isn’t that fun, really. Then the sandwich. After the gummy bears, the sandwich. Then it’s time to go.

I follow the road uphill and slither through the gap in the gate that marks its end. A deep rut runs down the middle of the wide trail, the remnant of a long-forgotten winter storm. After more than a year of drought, everything’s dry and the dust puffs up from under my wheels like an anemic dragon. The weather forecasters talk of a heavy rain coming. But for now, the leaves hang brittle on the chaparral, the neck scruff of California’s coastal mountains, and it all feels like tinder ready to flame.

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A narrow trail branches off to the left. I follow it, dodging the poison oak that reaches out to grab at my legs. Poison oak is my nemesis. A phantom itch steals over my body just thinking about it. The rocks poke and jab at my tires and uphill progress is terribly slow. In my mind, I fly up the hills and float over the rocks, but the reality is, it’s all a bit of a slog. I sing to myself, an attempt at distraction. It almost works. The tires thump, the chain bounces, I turn the pedals over, and breathe.

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I drop down into a dry creekbed through a granite rock garden overlaid with tree roots. Soil covered those roots once, but it’s gone now and the granite, deposited in the torrid collision of earth’s plates along the California coast, sits exposed. There’s a trickle of water running over the rocks, a teasing suggestion of a stream. A series of lines marks the rocks where the mineral-rich water once flowed.

Now it’s time to climb. The hardpack soil is scattered with loose rocks brought down from higher elevations by rain and gravity. They send my tires sideways, tossing the bike, a ship in unruly seas. I bend around a steep uphill switchback, shifting my weight from inside to outside. As I climb higher, I ride over bare sandstone, once the floor of an ancient ocean now pushed up to touch the sky. The bike bucks and slides over the rutted rock.

Then I’m at the top, breathless. Dust sticks to my legs, thick like the pancake makeup of an aging movie star. I wring sweat out of my gloves and the dry ground soaks it up greedily. I lay down my bike, flop on a flat rock, and look out over the town. The people going to the bank and the grocery store and the coffee shop and the post office and the car wash and all the places they go every day. The cars flash under the unblinking sun. Ocean and sky blur together, an infinite blue. A warm breeze blows downslope. It ripples the leaves, ruffles my hair, and whispers fire.

I dig my sandwich out of my pack and rip into it joyfully. Sandwiches taste the best outdoors under a boundless sky. This is one of life’s rules.

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Photo by Frank Schulenberg