Day Seventy-Five

Lost Hills, CA to Atascadero, CA

I left the Days Inn around 7:00. I was anxious to get an early start on SR 46 before traffic picked up. This would be my last long day of riding. Tomorrow would be a short ride to the ocean, then back inland to San Luis Obispo, where I already had a ticket reserved for Amtrak on Wednesday morning.

I didn't enjoy the first part of my day that much, probably because of SR 46's bad reputation as a dangerous highway. There were all sorts of warning signs for mandatory daytime headlights and doubled traffic fines. Just west of Lost Hills was a Chevron oil field with densely placed pumps. They weren't quite packed together like I had read about in the East Texas boom when derricks were practically touching each other, but they were closer than I'd seen anywhere else on my trip. The oil field ended just as suddenly as it began it was only about a mile wide. From there to the mountains, the road was surrounded by orchards, just like elsewhere in the central valley.

I stopped at Blackwells Corner, known as James Dean's last stop. I talked for awhile with the store's owner. He told me about a German couple who were driving a covered wagon across California. They could only do 15 miles a day, which made my trip look speedy. He also talked about how bad some people are with directions and how he always had people come in who missed their turn to go to Sacramento (he was located about 26 miles beyond the missed turn). He said that Internet directions were the worst and described how his son had printed several pages of directions from the Internet to get from Dallas to Las Vegas. He (and I) knew that one only has to take US 287 northwest to Amarillo, then I-40 west to Kingman, then US 93 north to Las Vegas. We couldn't understand  why it would take three pages for directions that could be given in one sentence. When I asked about James Dean, he said that a movement was underway to mark his final route for tourists. Naturally, he supported it and the business it would bring. I was a little uneasy about drawing attention to the cult hero's death, especially on such a dangerous highway. It seemed like an invitation for trouble, perhaps angst-ridden young copy-cats. Dean bought an apple and a Coke at Blackwells Corner on his way west on SR 46. The original building burned down in 1967, but the man pointed out the tree where Dean had parked his Porsche.  Half an hour down the road, Dean was killed in a car crash. We talked for so long that I was starting to wonder how I was going to disengage from this conversation and get back on the road. My way out came in the form of a police officer. He walked in with a homeless man who I had seen walking on the side of the road miles earlier. " Just let him pick out whatever he wants to eat and I'll pay for it," the officer said.

The road west of Blackwells Corner had so many grasshoppers, it was disgusting. There were many freeloaders who hopped onto my " lowrider" front panniers for a ride. This did not make me happy, as I have never liked grasshoppers. I stopped a few times to get them to jump off, but it was no use. A quarter mile down the road there were another dozen on board.

SR 46 went up and down several long, low hills, and I wondered when I was ever going to climb up to Polonio Pass. Shortly after I entered San Luis Obispo County and the road improved to full shoulders, the ascent began. The climb itself was anti-climactic. I needed to use low gears, but it was only for a mile. The downhill was straight and likely to be one of my last on this tour, so I let myself go faster than usual. I topped out at 44 mph, quite a rush. This was the same hill that James Dean had charged down at 85 mph. Soon I reached the SR 41 junction where traffic from Fresno and other points north  merged onto SR 46 toward Paso Robles. At this junction, Dean's Porsche collided with an oncoming Ford that veered across the center line. The site is not commemorated in any way, but I learned later that there is a memorial outside the post office in nearby Cholame. After the intersection, signs again announced that this was an area where daytime headlights were required and traffic fines were doubled. I wondered why they couldn't just widen this roadway since it was so darn dangerous. Posting signs didn't really fix anything, although it did make me feel rather paranoid as a cyclist. A restaurant was the highlight of the tiny town of Cholame (aside from the James Dean memorial that I didn't know about), but I didn't stop.

Near Shandon, I left " blood alley" and followed SR 41 toward Atascadero. Almost all the other traffic continued west on SR 46 toward Paso Robles. Shandon was undergoing a growth spurt with new homes, a long-overdue gas station (there are no services on 46 from Blackwells Corner to Paso Robles, a distance of more than 50 miles) and a shopping center " coming soon" on the east side of town. I passed a sign for Calle Carmelita which made me think of the Warren Zevon song, " Carmelita:"

Carmelita, hold me tighter

I think I'm sinking down

And I'm all strung out on heroin

On the outskirts of town

I was on the outskirts of town, but that was about all I could identify with in that song. Shandon was a quiet town with only a post office and a market. There were a fair number of homes, as well as a nice, shady park. I wondered how the new development would change this place.

Just west of Shandon, SR 41 headed south. There was a sign warning about the  narrow, curvy road, and no trucks with trailers longer than 30 feet were permitted. Traffic was strongly recommended to take SR 46 instead. I had a feeling this road was going to be a lot of fun.

As I expected, traffic on SR 41 was light. A woman who was lost stopped her car in the middle of the road and asked me how to get to Paso Robles or Highway 101. A few miles down the road, the curves and hills began. SR 41 was a blast to ride, a challenging, twisting road that followed the contours of the land. There were a lot of hills, but they weren't long enough to hurt. This continued for about 20 miles with a few straighter portions thrown in for good measure. SR 41 was the payback for traveling on dangerous SR 46. If I could do it all over again, I would be tempted to take SR 166 instead of SR 46, but then I would miss the pleasure of SR 41.  I felt good and rode strongly, buoyed by the imminence of reaching the coast. In fact, it wasn't until I had ridden more than 60 miles for the day that I began  to tire. The traffic gradually increased as I approached Atascadero.

Suddenly I came to a huge downhill into Atascadero. The descent was only a mile, but it was fast with just a couple of tight curves. I saw a cyclists on his way up the hill, the first of many that I would see riding in the coastal region. When I reached the Atascadero city limits, I was surprised to see that I was still above 800 feet. It seemed to me that with less than 20 miles to the coast, it would all be downhill from there.

Microsoft Streets & Trips led me astray again, plotting the Motel 6 at the wrong intersection. Finding nothing there, I guessed that it was to the north, but I was wrong. I did get to see downtown Atascadero by going that way, for what it was worth. As I neared the edge of town, I decided to turn around and look to the south. At least I had scouted out a few alternatives in case I couldn't find the Motel 6 or it was full. I also noted a few potential spots for dinner. The Motel 6 finally appeared at Santa Rosa Avenue about a mile south of where Streets & Trips had placed it (north of Curbaril Ave.). The clerk and a couple of guests were really interested in my trip and asked all kinds of questions as I checked in.

Although I still had a couple more nights in California, in many ways tonight felt like the last one. Tomorrow I would dip my front wheel in the Pacific Ocean.

Atascadero shared a phonebook with Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. I was amused by the businesses that incorporated San Luis Obispo's initials into their names. SLO Communications sounded like a place to get pigeons to carry messages. SLO Kickboxing could have been the place to learn how to do those final knock-outs like Chuck Norris on Walker Texas Ranger (i.e. in slow motion). Perhaps worst of all was SLO Bail Bonds--I'd rather not spend any extra time in jail!

For dinner, I debated calling for delivery but decided to go out for a walk instead. Nardonne's Pizzeria claimed to be the " Finest Pizza on the Central Coast" in the phonebook, so I gave them a try. Alas, it was another negative California pizza experience. The crust  was thick but not particularly  tasty, and the peculiar sausage, bland and un-Italian in seasoning,  was plopped on the pizza in huge meatball-sized lumps. I managed to eat only a third of it, which wasn't much considering I had gone nearly 80 miles today.

I went to a gas station near the motel to get a Coke and some water. One of the employees was more interested in playing wastebasketball than he was in the customers, and I had to wait for him to shoot before I could get into the refrigerated case. " (Just Like) Starting Over" came on the radio. The woman said she thought it was Paul McCartney, while the guy said it sounded like the Beatles. I had to set them straight, as it was John Lennon, of course. The single was released just weeks before he was shot, and hearing it always makes me sad.

Back in my room, I discovered that my rear tire was flat. I guess I just couldn't get to the coast without one more. At least it happened in my motel room and not on the road. When I went to remove the tire, I was shocked to see how worn it was. For most of the circumference, it was worn through the rubber and into the threads. Hours earlier, I was going 44 mph down a hill on that tire. Yikes! Fortunately, I still had the tire with the hole in the sidewall that I had changed back in Meridian, Mississippi. I kept it just in case I needed one in an emergency, and now it turned out that I would finish my tour on that tire.

Totals for the day: 77.09 miles in 6:05:45 for a 12.6 mph average.

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Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.