Thirty Years Ago – The Adventures of Frank & Stein – Part II
July 21, 2015 § Leave a comment
June 1st 1981 was the set departure date for the journey that would become known as “The Frank and Stein Route”. We had everything we needed, and the time had come to put the plan into action. We weren’t shipping our bikes and gear to San Diego, so we had to get bike boxes from a local shop, and disassemble our machines enough to re-pack them in these boxes. Fortunately there was room in the box to stuff many of the other items we had as well. What didn’t fit in the bike boxes we crammed into two other normal packing boxes, one each, so that we each had one huge bike box and one rather large box to manage at the Airport. We didn’t need suitcases, because we couldn’t carry them back with us, so disposable cardboard was the way to go.
We caught a flight from Newark to Los Angeles, where we retrieved our boxes and took a shuttle to the bus station. There we caught a bus for the short hop down the coast to San Diego where Frank’s sister would meet us and get us to their place. Frank’s sister and brother-in-law had moved out to California quite a few years earlier, and at the time ran their own exotic bird business. Their residence was I believe attached to their business shop, and their residence was also used to create an environment for many of these exotic birds to breed. We are not talking little itty bitty parakeets, but Blue and Gold Macaws, Mexican Red Parrots, African Greys, Cockatoos etc. Of course many of these birds were also pets and to that extent the house was a far cry from quiet until the sun went down. They were very beautiful birds.
So we arrived with a few days to get ourselves adjusted, get our gear unpacked and bicycles re-assembled. We would go shopping and pick up those supplies that we would want to have on hand, and the rest we would buy as needed along the way. We pretty much knew that we would be leaving from Frank’s sister’s place, but we kind of wanted to symbolically start from the Pacific ocean, so we rode our bikes down to Mission Beach and carried our bikes out to the surf and dipped our wheels in the mighty Pacific. That was the beginning. All we had to do now was get back to New Jersey and dip those same wheels in the Atlantic.
We were all set now. Tires carrying the salt residue of the Pacific Waters, bags packed, bikes loaded, all our stuff ready to go we just had one more thing to take care off. Our hosts wanted to send us off with a nice trip down into Baja Mexico for a great dinner at a lovely place they know about in Ensenada. I really had no idea how far that was from San Diego, but we had to leave pretty early to get there because well, it was pretty far :), and there was a difference (hard to believe) in the quality and drivability and width of the roads in Mexico when compared to the highways around and through San Diego. Shocking. So from what we were told our destination had two terrific things: Delicious cheap tasty lobsters, annnnnnnnnd delicious cheap tasty Tequilla. There are only a few things that I remember from that night. I am pretty sure that I did in fact eat Lobster. Maybe two lobsters. But I know that I drank a lot of tequilla. I cannot tell you today that it was 4 shots, or 10, I just know that the next thing I can recall clearly is how much like shit I felt the next morning. Pretty sure Frank felt like shit too. There was not going to be a grand depart on June 1st, no, it was going to have to be June 2nd. I am told that I could barely even audible my citizenship to the US border guards when prompted, that is how shitfaced I was. So, a great start, and perhaps not a great start. On a side note, apparently before I got going with the shots we found that this restaurant sold their own fish jerky and it was very spicy and very tasty fish jerky, and I might have mentioned cheap before as well, so we bought a fair amount of this tasty spicy cheap (and lightweight to boot!) fish jerky for our journey.
So, bikes packed, clothes on, morning of June 2nd, heads cleared, bellies filled with one last meal, fish jerky in possession, tequila abandoned, we set off. We had simple goals for the day. We needed to navigate out of San Diego and get to some secondary roads that would take us North toward San Bernardino, but first we needed to navigate to a place just north of SD where my eldest cousin, Debbie, lived with her (now divorced) husband Donnie. I hadn’t seen my cousin in years, and we were going to stop by her place for lunch before we left the greater SD area and spend our first night out. There is another memory from this trip that I remember very well. This was my first visit to California, and I am not even sure that I had the slightest idea what the hell Guacamole even was. I might have heard of an Avocado, but perhaps not. So pretty much since our first arrival there everyone was always making fresh Guacamole. They would pick the Avocados and Limes from their own trees, and mix up a batch, and serve it with chips. Delicious! I couldn’t eat enough! That is my one real take-away from the visit with my cousin because she made a killer Guac that we devoured so fast she made two more batches.
If you have ever been to San Diego, you will know that it is (or at least it was) a paradise. If you lived within the general city borders, the Ocean maintained a nice moderate dry temperature in 90’s during the day. Maybe even a little cooler. Once you head North, the coast actually heads west, so that it isn’t long before you are no where near the Ocean, and then you are in the desert. I am not even sure I was aware there was a desert outside of San Diego, but I suppose I must have. Out there in June it was 100-110 air temps, and the road surface was hotter than that. Those temperatures combined with the extra weight on the bikes and we had our first flat that first day. Frank flatted, and not only had he flatted, but his relatively new tire looked like doo doo. We had to put a brand new tire on already and we hadn’t even gone 40 miles yet. Tires and flats would play a significant role in our frustrations over the course of the next month.
Skipping ahead to San Bernardino, I don’t want to imply that those two days were dull and boring. We did manage to locate the roads we were looking for, and we managed to head North, and we managed to find some quiet sheltered locations to spend the night. It was way too hot for our sleeping bags, but we got through those first two nights without incident, and we we hadn’t overheated. So we got to San Bern, and this was a good size small city on the Eastern edge of the valley, so we decided to spring for a room to get a comfortable night’s rest because we had our first major obstacle ahead of us: Big Bear Lake after first cresting the mountain pass at 7000 feet. San Bern was perhaps sitting at 2000′ of elevation so we had our first big long climb. We had hit some rolling hills on the road from SD, but nothing compared to wall that stood before us. So we did not eat out, but cooked our own dinner and breakfast, showered and got a clean start the next morning.
In Pennsylvania where I went to school there were mountains around. We sought them out and climbed them a few times. 3 perhaps 4 miles from the bottom to the top. Moderate grades, sometimes steeper. You could always see the top from the bottom and say “I just have to get there” and I am home free. The San Bern Mountains are nothing like that at all. What you see the top of from down below are only the foothills. We had twenty four something miles to go to get to the pass and it was going to take a long time to get there. We were still just getting started on this trip, and we really weren’t in the shape that we should have been, and when your front chain ring is a 32 and your largest rear is a 34, then you have a less than 1-1 ratio, so while it may be easy as hell to turn the crank with that gearing, you did not travel very far, very quickly. Your legs moved very fast, but the bike moved very slowly. Each turn of the crank netted us about 1.4 meters or 4 and half feet. That would be 1150 turns of the crank per mile, or nearly 25000 turns to get up the mountain. We started in the morning, and it was a typical sunny morning, and the only way up (that we knew about) was the 4 lane high that carried a majority of Angelinas up to the cool respite of Big Bear Lake and in the winter the snowy slopes that allow you sun yourself on the beach in the morning and ski in the mountains in the afternoon, or the other way around if that is your pleasure. There isn’t much to say here other than as time passed, the elevation signs came and went. 3000′ and the road seems to go on forever. Cars zipping up and down the road, and we are inching along. 4000′. You may recall the big fires a couple of summers ago in Southern California. True there always seem to be fires in Southern California, but these were huge, and mostly in the mountains that Frank and I were riding into that day. 5000′ and we are above the smog level. Once you are above it, you can see it. When you are in it, it just seems hazy, and the sky seems washed out. Get above it, and the sky is blue, and the Los Angeles valley seems washed out and orange. I was glad to be above that. 6000′ and we finally pulled into Running Springs California where we parked our bikes in front of a bar. It was probably 2pm maybe closer to 3 and we had been climbing those granny gears for 6 hours when a car pulls in off the road and out jumps a gentleman who I cannot remember the slightest detail about, and he started talking. “Well you boys have been at it a long time! Hell I passed you two this morning at the bottom when I was heading to [substitute some California town here] and here you are still going at it! How about if I buy you boys a beer?” I don’t think any of my friends would be surprised at our reaction to the offer and we spent a little bit of time chatting this guy up and talking about our trip. Then we still had another 1000′ to get to the top and then 15 miles still to Big Bear Lake. This wasn’t just any old 15 miles. This was Route 18 “The Rim of the World” road and for eyes that have never registered the scattered photons of big mountain winding roads, it was a fantastic ride. Once we crested 7200′ it was downhill and winding all the way to the lake at about 6000+ feet. It was no longer hot. It was rather cool in fact.
On a side note, I returned to San Bern in the early 90’s with my bike and no gear. I parked in a shopping mall in San Bern, and I started climbing the same road. This time I made it to Running Springs in just about 90 minutes and I had the ride of my life racing back down the road. A wee bit reckless I was. Stupid comes to mind, but lucky too. I passed an 18 wheeler at about 55 mph at one point and raced as hard as I could to stay ahead as long as I could.
Anyway, back to the journey. We are still in our first week, we are making progress; we climbed our first big mountain; we are feeling better every day. We find a camp ground and get ourselves settled in and had a good cool nights rest. From here we would continue on Route 18 out the north end of this high lake valley and then work our way west to pick up Route 395 going north. Looked pretty sparse on the map, and here in Big Bear there was a bike shop so we thought we should stop in and pick up a couple more tires. We hadn’t been on the road long, but we had had a few flats, and the treads on our tires weren’t looking very encouraging. We still had thousands of miles to go, and hadn’t gone 300 and our tires looked like shit. So we opted to stop and get more, and cross our fingers. In the shop the owner chatted us up, asked where we were from etc, and asked our direction. “We’re heading north on 18 and out west to 395 and up the east side of the Sierras.”. “oh yeah? Great route through The Mojave Desert. You’ll love it. Not much out there, but beautiful in its starkness.” “Really? The Mojave Desert?” Hmmmmm. Outside at the bikes I pulled out the map that we had, and one that I had ordered from California DOT the previous summer (This was before google maps. If you wanted maps of a state you had to write them.) and looked closely at our route. Sure enough in a font color that was just a little lighter tan than the already tan color of the rest of the area were the words “The Mojave Desert”. Holy shit I wasn’t expecting that, but that was the way we had to go, and at least we knew it now.
The Mojave Desert is not The Sahara Desert. At least as we were riding through it, it seemed like there was something about every ten miles. In that ten miles we would exhaust each of our 4 water bottles. Each one held a little under a pint, so we drank and sweated out 2 qts of water an hour. Now this may surprise you, but The Mojave Desert isn’t like the size of a NJ county. It isn’t even like driving across the state of NJ. It is more like riding the length of the state and more. Not only that, but this desert was deceptive. I suppose we felt it, but as you head north along 395, you are always subtly gaining elevation. We passed many vehicles that had over-heated in the sun. We just kept going, drinking our water and refilling them every chance we got. There was a certain charm to this desert. It was stark. It extended further than a New Jerseyan expects to be able to see landscapes unless you are on top of a mountain on a clear day. For people that know the beach and looking out at the ocean, the ocean has no mountains and foot hills out there to give depth. In the desert you can see for 20 miles where you are going. You ride for an hour and you still aren’t there.
On our second day in the Mojave we pulled into a town called Red Mountain. It was early afternoon, and there was a fairly significant structure on the west side of the highway that had a huge front veranda and housed a beauty salon. There was a thermometer on the window in the shade, and it read 110 meaning it was probably 120 on the road. We were tired and hot. Someone from the salon came out and said we should rest on the porch until the sun drops a bit and then it would be cooler. I believe those were the last words I heard for about an hour as I passed out and slept on that hard porch for a good bit of time. The salon person came out again, an older man in his early sixties and started to chat us up. He mentioned how much business the auto shop across the road did because of all the cars that start over heating because of the steady climbing, and we were doing pretty well to be going on the bikes. Some cyclists come through but not a lot. After some time he asked if we were planning on moving on or if perhaps we were interested in spending the night. The salon was his business, and the rest of the place was his home that he shared with his partner. I don’t recall either one’s name but he mentioned that they maintain a guest trailer in the back garden, and we would be invited to dinner if we were interested. Hmmmmm this was going to be a tough choice. Get back on the bikes and ride further in the heat and spend the night on the side of the road, or sleep in a bed, have a home cooked meal, and get a shower as well. I think the phrase “We have plenty of beer too” might have been thrown in there as well. So we wheeled our bikes around back and you wouldn’t know what was back there from looking at the front of the place. They had running water back there and a garden to die for. Color was everywhere, and the trailer was in top shape and nicely maintained. The building itself was an old saloon and even had a built in tunnel to the auto garage across the street that was used to hide the Alcohol during Prohibition years. The place was loaded with antiques, and our hosts cooked us up a meal that we could only dream of. We stayed up and chatted long into the night before retiring, and in the morning they cooked us pancakes and eggs, served us fresh squeezed orange juice and we said our goodbyes and headed back out onto the road and continued our adventure northward. We had had some random acts of kindness on the trip already, but nothing like the effort these men made for us. They were fantastic, and we wrote them more than a few postcards of thanks throughout that summer. Turns out, acts of kindness aren’t that foreign, and we were really charged by this encounter and our legs had fresh zeal in them and the bikes moved us further along our dream.
Based on this current birds eye view of the property, clearly, after those two mature gay men moved on, the property has passed into a state of disrepair. Panning the street view provided earlier, the Atlantic Richfield service station no longer services over-heated vehicles Northbound on 395.