Where the next turn leads

Adam Perry

It was a cold spring morning, a Monday, signaling my first week off work (as a veterans-law paralegal in Boulder) in seven months. The previous day I’d completed the eccentric 70-mile Eroica California, with around 6,000 feet of elevation gain meandering Central California wine country on a 12-speed Torelli from the early ’80s. But on this day I had access to a posh Surly Trucker Deluxe. The bike’s granny gear meant virtually any rides — any climbs — were possible, but my buddy and I had booked a spot for two nights at idyllic Kirk Creek campground, just a dozen miles south of Big Sur’s heart, solely because it was available.

We had no idea what rides were near, just that we’d be there for two days and nights of a five-day California bike tour and, well, we’d find somewhere to ride.

Just seconds after our van pulled into the cold, fog-covered campground, I approached the young ranger in charge to ask, “Where’s the cycling around here?” 

She said, “Well, there’s one steep road, but not many people…” 

And I interrupted, giddily, “We came from Colorado, so we like climbing. Where is it?” 

The ranger proceeded to describe a four-and-a-half-mile climb that, she said, included about 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

“It’s really steep,” she said. “Just tons of switchbacks leading up to an intersection with a great view, but it’ll get you above the fog and…” 

Before she had finished, I was already walking away, saying, “Perfect! See you later” on the way to sharing news about the road, called Nacimiento-Fergusson, with my traveling partner.

It was around 11 a.m., and we left our camping gear in the van, got our bikes ready and rushed across heavily trafficked Highway 1 — which, to me, seems nearly suicidal to bike on — to make a left on Nacimiento.

From the moment we turned it was steep and unrelenting, not unlike Flagstaff Road in Boulder. The foggy weather was so dreary we couldn’t see the coast, but we could see the steady series of switchbacks ahead, just not any sign of them ending. After riding around Paso Robles in the Eroica the day before — sometimes struggling to get my unwieldy old Torelli up sandy, rocky ascents — it was wonderfully comfortable not only to be on a touring Surly with mountain-bike gearing but also enjoy the relative lushness of pavement. Even on the Trucker Deluxe, Nacimiento was far from a cinch to grind up, but I fell in love with where the road, and my mind, took me as I climbed into the complete unknown.

When you know all about an exalted ride because of its wide reputation, it’s easy to spend much of the experience feeling proud and hip, looking forward to telling friends that your bucket list just shrunk and even taking photos. But during a route you’re just discovering, when you have neither expectations nor an idea of what’s around the next switchback, it’s hard to feel anything but curiosity, excitement, anxiety and — in the best of situations — wonder.

With no office to get back to and really no destination, climbing Nacimiento-Fergusson Road gave me the feeling of wonder from the start, especially because it was impossible to really see the Pacific coast — where we’d begun — or know where we were going.

Around the four-and-a-half-mile marker we ascended out of the fog and were covered in warm California sun, looking down on a heavenly abyss with, thankfully, close to zero motorists around. The view was otherworldly, dreamlike. Simultaneously, however, we were looking up at more climbing, as the ranger had underestimated the distance, which was actually about seven miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain.

When we reached the intersection, there was a hiking-only trail to the left, a forest descent straight ahead and an unassuming dirt road to the right. Having an entire day to kill, we took the dirt road to find out where it led. Loose rocks made the gentle hills a little annoying, but they eventually led to a screaming, fun-filled descent on pavement and then more dirt roads that led to private land.

We turned around, climbed back to the intersection, and carefully returned to the foggy campground to explore the jagged coast, set up camp for the night and drink beer. After some online research, it turned out we had climbed 4,400 feet in just 13 of our day’s seemingly miniscule 25 miles.

The next morning, with the fog cleared and another night booked at the campground, it seemed we had no choice but to climb Nacimiento again, taking in the exquisite coastal view “for reals” this time and then heading downhill after the intersection at the top.

The only problem was that my riding partner, on a custom-made Soma touring bike, had “cannibalized” his wife’s Trucker Deluxe to fix his front brakes, which were missing parts that’d fallen off, presumably on the bumpy dirt road the day before. I’d have to tackle Nacimiento on my 12-speed Torelli, with no substantially low gears, or spend the day at the campground with my nose in a book.

I sucked it up and did the climb again. Slowly. Sometimes painfully. And had a great time.

The forest descent at the top of Nacimiento is a 21-mile, mostly pieceof-cake plunge to the isolated town of Jolon. The setting for Steinbeck’s 1933 novel, To a God Unknown. Jolon offered us just an army base (Ft. Hunter Liggett), an unforgettable mission built in the 1770s and a convenience store that doubles as a greasy spoon with surprisingly good beer on draft.

Getting back to camp as early evening approached, it also turned out that Nacimiento- Fergusson is, according to BestRides. org, “the best ride in California and Oregon.” I’ve only hiked in Oregon, and only biked select parts of Central and Northern California, so I can’t agree or disagree, but it was certainly an equally challenging and gorgeous ride.

It’s amazing what a cyclist can find when he or she is not looking for anything but where the next turn leads, and amazing what rides you can discover when the only goal is riding, rather than crossing a famous ride off your bucket list.