I took a wrong turn — a relative statement given that what I was following was hardly a navigable road. At the foot of my bike wheel, a spread of white feathers dripping with scarlet blood surrounded a bird carcass, presumably fresh. It appeared to have been shot.
I kept moving without a second thought. Just one more switchback. Grinding up a 20-percent gravel surface on 28-millimeter tires meant for pavement was hardly efficient. Or fun. But, damnit, when had that stopped me before? Private property signs adorned the trees, or what was left of the bare branches anyway. I was riding through a burn area in one of Boulder’s many canyons, a community with an eerie feeling — that Hills Have Eyes feeling.
I gazed to my right, seeing an old, battered Cadillac in my periphery. Memories of the previous summer flooded my brain; it was the summer I’d hopped between Boulder and Northern California. I’d hardly call the marooned Cadillac now at my feet vintage, but you bet the bullet holes and broken glass screamed Bonnie and Clyde. So there I was, on the aptly named Escape Route connecting Sugarloaf and Four Mile Canyon — it’s one of the few spots I’ve found that can burst the Boulder Bubble, and it was there where I dwelled on the (mis)adventures I’ve stumbled upon through movement, through self-inflicted suffering, throughout the great American West.
In March 2017, I’d hit the road for yet another solo trip in an attempt to get closer to that elusive “soul” feeling, and as always, it was catalyzed by my insatiable thirst for movement. I found myself on California’s Golden Coast, a mass of land unlike any other in which I’d lost myself time and time again. There’s something about the towering redwoods, the lush wooded crevices that offer solitude amid insanity. What I went there for is the catharsis I find in riding my bike for so long and so hard that my whole body burns.
In Boulder, movement is, quite frankly, a drug. And I overdosed on it. While I continued to crave the crank-turning catharsis, I reached a point where I had to search for adventure elsewhere; my body simply started saying “no more.” So this new California adventure was also the beginning of trying that ever-so-glamorous van life thing. But I didn’t have a van. I had a Honda Element. Living in the Honda (nicknamed the HOTELement) meant I was going to have a far less romanticized version of “van life,” with far fewer plans for “adventures.”
But what is adventure, really? Is it defined by the things you see and experience outside, or by the things you learn and discover inside yourself, pedaling onward into the unknown?
Mendocino County, roughly five hours north of San Francisco if you opt for the scenic route (which you should), along the Golden Coast, is notorious for its massive marijuana grows, which have historically produced, for one, a transient population looking to hide their illicit activity in thousands upon thousands of acres of lush forest due east of the rugged coastline. And, for two, good weed.
It was early summer, no later than 7 p.m., when I started to pull my Honda out of a dilapidated parking lot overrun by weeds and stray children (or were they cats? I can’t remember). Situated an hour north of Santa Rosa, I was eager to discover the lesser-known hills of Mendocino. With only my single-speed cyclocross bike in tow, as an attempt to rest my tired body, I tried to take advantage of traveling by car to further explore places a bike may not necessarily be advised (as if that had stopped me before…). Along the coast, there’s little to lure a human any further than the safety of the scenic pullouts on Highway One. There are no sea lions, no suspension bridges showcased in HBO series and certainly no tourists snapping photos. But anyway, I’m a Colorado girl. My heart yearns for mountains.
So into the “mountains” of Mendocino County I went. Apparently, the same logic for adventure biking holds for finding a good parking spot for the night: a narrow road? Rad. No evidence of human beings? Even better — I’m an introvert after all. Topping out on a hill with a view overlooking the ocean? I’ll be there.
I spotted a ridge that I decided would be my morning coffee spot. I started up the gravel road, which wound its way into the 23,000-acre Cow Mountain Recreation Area. I decided to keep going past my morning ridge just for kicks. A bit of sunlight still lingered anyway. The gravel road narrowed, and as I got deeper into the mountain, the dim daylight petered to darkness when a steep ravine emerged out of nowhere. Slowing from my speedy 10 miles per hour, I glanced out the window, only to feel a chill run down my spine.
I had company. It wasn’t the imaginary friend that I at times hallucinate after thousands of solo road miles. It was my backseat driver, Intuition, who’d perked up. I’d more or less been ignoring them on this trip — you know how those pesky backseat drivers can be.
But it wasn’t just Intuition who joined the party. It was also the car that had just appeared to my right: grill-first into the ditch, its windows completely blown out, creating a barrier of broken glass. Torn and tattered rags hung from bare tree branches, bullet casings littered the ground. Isn’t this how the perfect horror movie starts? Sounds began to echo down the ravine, toward me. Apparently wild boar roam the Mendocino hills. And, so I’m told, wild boar are bloodthirsty swine with the tenacity of vultures.
Intuition, the passenger I’d suddenly never been so happy to have, steered me straight out of Cow Mountain. I flipped with a kind of fury I can only equate to having just seen a ghost. I drove back to my coveted sunrise-coffee-spot ridge to consider other options that would be less likely to result in a Dateline special. Waiting for one bar to appear on my phone, I inched toward the road I came in on. That lasted about ten seconds.
Well, damn. Straddling the “road” and the edge of the ridge, my rear passenger tire exploded. Right off the damn rim. And I, blessed with an irrational case of anxiety, just thought, this is fine…
The sun was gone completely and the hills started to open their eyes. One bar of cell service appeared like a satellite carrying miracles was circling above me. I, of course, used my one lifeline to call my dad, who could essentially do absolutely nothing from 1,200 miles away. All it would achieve, in retrospect, was setting him into sheer panic.
After some “Oh shit” exchanges, I called my insurance and they dispatched a tow-truck driver. Oddly enough, they weren’t able to pinpoint my GPS location beyond a few miles from the closest town. Had they seen where I actually was, there’s no way they would’ve bothered coming to rescue me or my car.
I flipped on the HOTELelement’s string lights and tried to get comfortable, or as comfortable as one can be stranded alone in Charles Manson country. After more than three hours, there was still no hint of a tow-truck. Any faint sound or light in the distance set my heart rate to high speed.
Like the rusty rumbling that was now creeping up the canyon.
“Are you OK?” a voice cut through the darkness.
I popped my head out of the car. It wasn’t the tow-truck, but a burly Manson look-a-like. Where the hell was he headed in his jalopy? There’s not much recreation down there.
“Yep. I’m great.” Right where I need to be. Nothing to see here. This is completely intentional.
“Do you want a beer?”
You have no idea. Do you have any whiskey? “I’m good, but thanks!” Move along, sir. Move along. What was probably an additional seven seconds of lingering, post beer-offer, felt like an eternity. Forget the tire, where’s my truck driver that has presumably gone through a background check?
It was pitch black at this point. I don’t even know why I bothered with a headlamp — there was nothing I cared to see as I’d been in the same spot for three hours. I clutched my knife.
Then another string of rumbles kicked up. Maybe those lights meant it was a tow truck? Or maybe I was just hallucinating? Honestly, I would’ve taken that. Anything would’ve been better than sitting in stark silence, with no evidence of help. Or hope.
The rumbles stopped and a flashlight emerged. My knight in shining armor — who I was certain must be the tow truck driver — came forward, took one quick look at me, at my car, and back at me. He was visibly shaken by the drive, but equally shaken when he saw a small gal flying solo deep in the hills of Cow Mountain.
“You’re not here alone are you?”
Nice to meet you too, sir. “I sure am…”
“You have a gun, right?”
I apprehensively showed off my knife, and mentioned something about pocket mace. Idiot. I literally just outed myself for bringing a knife to a potential gunfight.
But this man’s voice was gentle, only his features were so rugged. Like I got the sense that he’d seen some shit. Little did I know at the time, but he’d spent 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning to his hometown to go to school on the G.I. Bill, and eventually, apparently, on to rescuing girls with poor judgment.
“I was in the Army for 10 years and I wouldn’t be caught dead up here, even in a group.”
I laugh it off. He doesn’t think it’s funny.
We get down to business, putting on the spare tire. Such a menial task I have been waiting three hours to have done, but I explained to him the concern of the cliff, the jacking of the car, the possibility of it falling off…
“Those were your concerns up here? I’d be concerned about a lot more than that.” He told me to follow him down to more solid ground and within barely a minute, he came to a complete stop, motioning for me to get out of the car.
Better grab that knife, you damn fool. This is it. You put on a good show, you innocent tow-truck driver.
“Did you see that?!” His enthusiasm comforted me, especially as I realized he was talking about an owl. My eyes, completely glazed over, searched for bright yellow eyes, for the sake of at least seeing something out here. But there was nothing. I’ll take his word for it. “Can we just get going?” I sheepishly asked. Once we rolled the HOTELement onto the back of the tow truck, I hopped into the front seat next to my knight. Well, this is luxurious.
As we very, very slowly started to head back down the gravel, it seemed far longer and harder to navigate than on the way up. The knight’s name may have escaped me, but I’ll never forget his story.
“I’m from here, you know,” he tells me. “These aren’t friendly hills. Are you familiar with Ted Bundy? Charles Ng? The Golden State Killer? This was their turf. I can’t tell you how many bodies have been dumped out here. And not to mention the wild boar. Those bloodthirsty mothers… Why in the world are you out here?”
I could have told him I was clueless. That I was steered in the wrong direction by both my map and my intuition. That wasn’t the truth, though. I was looking for something that would rattle me even if I didn’t have any foresight at that time. I have been chasing the adrenaline high for so long, from riding bikes and exploring the mountains of Colorado, heading west into California. Feeling out of control, teetering on the brink of the sheer unknown… that’s why I came out to Cow Mountain.
It wasn’t a picturesque moment. It wasn’t really even an adventure, if there was a definition. But it’s those moments, the ones you don’t ask for, or inflict upon yourself, that truly invigorate the spirit to keep on grinding.