This week’s trip through the AJ archives find us way, way back in 2013, winding through what we can only assume is Marin County, California—West Marin, more specifically, an enchanted land of impossibly green pastures, towering pines, and the rich bounties of Tomales Bay. A cyclist heaven. Not so much this time of year, when it’s so cold, the breath of massive Tule elk steams in the morning sun. But soon. -Ed.

He drew me a map, the paper torn from my notebook. We stood over the hood of his white truck, a diesel converted by hand to run on vegetable oil.

We were stopped by the side of a road running through the cow pastures. The grass gleamed green from the winter’s rains. Only the wind interrupted the silence. The fence lines marched straight until they disappeared over the crest of the hill.

There’s a climb here, he said. Then you descend a short ways and turn left. His pen traced out the switchbacks of the twisting descent and the sharp bend of the turn. In small tidy print, he spelled out the names of the roads. After the schoolhouse, you turn right.

We had driven the length of the bay. The San Andreas fault runs down the middle and pushes it wider all the time. The west side is moving, slowly inexorably, north.

As we drove he pointed out the landmarks. Here was the boatyard owned by his neighbor. Next came the oyster fisherman. There was the farmhouse dating back five generations.

The wind funnels through the narrow bay pushing up whitecaps and propelling kitesurfers. It’s no place for the faint of heart. Sharks breed in the protected water. He told me a story about bumping into a giant white in a very small boat. They only come in one size, the sharks. They’re only ever giant.

When my phone stopped working, it felt perfectly right. I had my precious map, I was off to seek treasure.

I tucked the map in the front of my bibshorts and followed the fence lines to the first winding climb. The pavement felt heavy, but I had a tailwind. When my phone stopped working, it felt perfectly right. I’d reached the end of the grid, a place where the world was as it always was. I had my precious map, I was off to seek treasure.

The terrain rolled and twisted, the product of California’s tumultuous relationship with geology. There were plenty of cows, but not much in the way of people. The cows weren’t much interested in me. And still, the tailwind. Really, all rides should be like this.

He told me there would be a climb and that it would be steep but that the view would be worth it. He was right. It was steep. I crawled along, dreaming of more gears, though really, when it comes down to it, they don’t help all that much. You still have to pedal. You still have to get up.

Riders in Marin County, California. Photo: Lech Naumovich/Unsplash

Then it was over and it was like I could see the whole fucking world from up there. An old wooden gate marked the summit and the valley opened up, an unrolled carpet, far below. There was nobody in sight. The grass whistled in the wind, my phone sat useless and silent in my pocket.

We call it the 80 percent rule, the rule you have in your head when you’re alone off the grid with only a bike for company. You never use more than 80% of your skills. You always hold something in reserve, like the jar of change you keep for a cup of coffee on a rainy day.

The descent was a tricky one with off-camber turns and gravel in the corners. The wind hit me hard from the wrong side. The bike begged to surrender, to wave the white flag to the wind and to gravity.

I crawled down the hill almost as slowly as I’d ridden up it. With only my map for company, the 20 percent rule felt about right.

The sharp left turn arrived just like the map promised. The road wandered past a pond and through a stand of trees. An old farmhouse stood under redwoods. Sheep grazed out front. The air smelled of contentment and sheep shit.

The schoolhouse appeared on the horizon. It was red like a storybook. I sat up and pulled out my map. The wind tugged at it, trying to spirit it away, that one link I had to the world I’d left. The map said to turn right after the schoolhouse, so that is what I did.

A car passed me and it seemed like it had come from another planet. It was the first car I’d seen since the white truck with the vegetable oil-fueled motor, the truck where we’d drawn the map. The road was busier now, but the cars passed slowly as if their destination was not especially urgent. Fences divided the pasturelands one from the other. The cows stared out with nothing much to say.

I descended down the dirt road to the house, the house he built himself from found timbers he milled into flat boards himself. It fits in under the trees like it was meant to be.

The road wound back on itself and I turned into a headwind that cut me off at the knees. I crawled along dreaming of warm food. I’d have sold my bike right then and there for a dollar. The best rides are like that, when you reach the point where you would gladly sell the bike to the next person you see.

A final descent, this one much easier than the last, dropped me into town. My directions weren’t too clear for this part, but I figured it out. Somehow, I can always find my way on the bike. The next day, I’m in the car in the same town at the same crossroads and it takes me several tries to find my way out. The bike always knows the way home.

I rode around the end of the bay and turned back down the other side. It was a headwind home. It felt like a curse. The road to the house is hidden in the trees. You have to know where to look for it.

I made the turn and immediately began climbing. The road hairpins left, and the gradient reaches for the sky. In the shadow of the redwoods, the daylight faded.

I descended down the dirt road to the house, the house he built himself from found timbers he milled into flat boards himself. It fits in under the trees like it was meant to be.

I pulled the map out of my shorts and pressed it into my notebook. Some things are meant to be saved, just as some rides are meant to be remembered.

Photo: Ronan Furuta/Unsplash

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