Of Mud and Mountain Lions

By Jane Mountain | December 18, 2012

Bike On Path

In preparation for our big cycling trip next year, we decided we should get out on a few more-or-less fully loaded trips before we go. For our first trip, we planned a gentle 3-day excursion:

Day 1: Poway to San Elijo State Beach (21 miles)
Day 2: San Elijo State Beach to Chula Vista (35.8 miles)
Day 3: Chula Vista to Poway (33.4 miles)

Turns out, what you plan and what you get are not always the same thing.

Day 1: Friday, December 14

After a late start we drive through a perfect sunny morning. It’s after noon before we get to Poway, so we decide to stop for lunch. We are sitting on a patio overlooking the parking lot at zpizza when the sky darkens.

“It’s going to rain,” Stephen says.

“The forecast said sun. It’s not going to rain,” I say doubtfully.

Seconds later it starts. A light grey drizzle at first, and then the skies open up.

The rain lets up a little as we organize our gear and load the panniers onto the bikes. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a “pannier” is a fiddly suitcase that hangs off your bike rack. It appears to be specifically engineered to make Stephen insanely angry. In fact, they frustrate him so much that I may have to do everything pannier-related for the rest of our lives, just to prevent him from blowing a gasket.

Once the pannier-rage subsides and we are all loaded up and ready to go it’s after 1 p.m.

It’s raining again.

In the spirit of not over-planning, I have allowed Google to choose our route and am relying on iPhone for directions.

Our first challenge is to find the bike path. The map won’t load on Stephen’s phone, so we ride around in circles for 10 minutes before spotting a gate leading to a staircase that ends in a bike path.

Already a little miserable from the rain and the useless map, we heave our heavily loaded bikes down the stairs. I’m disappointed to see that what appeared to be a wide paved path on Google satellite view is really just a fine, loose gravel.

Things are not going well so far.

Minutes later, while we’re slowly riding past the backyards of fancy canyon-side houses, we spot a strange-looking creature up ahead.

It’s not a dog or a coyote; it has a distinctly feline air.

As we roll closer, it becomes clear that we’re face to face with a mountain lion! It’s just a cub, probably two or three years old. It looks at us curiously for a second and then turns tail into the bush. We don’t stop to wonder where its mother is.

Suddenly on a nature high, we laugh excitedly, overjoyed to be out in the elements.

Build a Bridge

As we head downhill, the flat gravel path slowly deteriorates into a rocky, bumpy, muddy trail. Our panniers are banging around and our arms and elbows rattle from each impact.

We decide that we are officially on an adventure.

That’s when we pass a jogger coming from the other direction.

“There are a couple of bridges out down there.”

“You mean, bridges out as in, we won’t be able to get across?” I shout as we pass.

“You’ll see in about 100 yards,” he yells as he disappears around the corner.

The first bridge we come to looks like this.

Jane Crossing Bridge

Not out at all. In fact, it’s a pretty solid little bridge. Quite serviceable for our first-ever wilderness river crossing.

And then we came to this.

Stephen Fixing Bridge
Slick with mud, soaked with rain, and not willing to ride back up the rocky, slippery path we’d just come down, we are determined to get across. We have two choices: wade through knee-deep mountain spring water or fix the bridge.

We pull and push and drag the surprisingly heavy construction, expending a lot of energy, but not doing much good. I figure we’ll just mess around for a few minutes and then have to turn around.

Stephen is more determined. He heaves the water-logged wood until it stretches across the river in roughly the right direction. Soon we have the near end up on its mounting, but the far end is still completely submerged.

While I put all my strength into keeping the bridge from sliding downstream, Stephen gingerly creeps across.

Though I had visions of Stephen plunging head-first into the creek, and the misery (for both of us) that such a disaster would entail, no such disaster occurred.

Safely on the other side, it’s only a matter of moments before Stephen hauls the bridge up out of the water.

Stephen Fixes Bridge


Rattled Brains Make Bad Decisions

The “bike” trail steadily disintegrated as we continued downhill. Though we were in the middle of a city, we were also in the wilderness. We could no longer see or hear any traffic and the only buildings were high on the cliffs above us.

We were both thrown off our bikes by particularly muddy patches on more than one occasion, but we managed to bail out of the crashes before they did any serious damage to us or our bikes. The trail was completely submerged every few hundred feet and we tackled each puddle as we came to it, inwardly cursing the dark skies.

We made slow, frustrating progress.

The rough terrain, which previously would have terrified me, soon became my bitch.

After what seemed like hours (because it was hours) we came to a tunnel. Where the trail should have been there was only a small lake. The only way around the lake was on a narrow path of slick, deep mud. Since our shoes were still relatively dry, we decide to find another route.

We followed a side trail which miraculously led out to a nearby road.

Then, for some insane reason I still don’t understand, we crossed the wide, beautifully paved road and got back on the trail.

At the time, I never even considered the options. My only explanation is that the wiring in my brain had been rattled loose from too many rocky bumps. I still don’t know if Stephen was wondering what the hell I was thinking, but if he was, he didn’t say anything.

So back on the trail we went.

Fully Loaded Cyclo-Cross

Soon, despite the mud, rain, and general ache in our bodies, we started noticing that each meadow we came to was prettier than the last. The grasses and trees were vibrant hues of green and sage. The sky was an eye-popping blue-grey. Even the mud looked a particularly fetching shade of rust.

Magic Hour

As any photographer knows, this deepening of hues and intensifying of color tells you that sunset is coming fast. It was about to get dark, and we were still on this damn path.

The possibility that we would have to set up our tent in one of these meadows became more real. With no roads in sight, and no way of knowing what lay ahead, we started to spot hidden places we could camp.

There were plenty, though none of them, rain-soaked as they were, looked all that appealing.

By this time we were hopping on and off of our bikes every few minutes, pushing up hills, braking hard down steep and slippery slopes, or sliding through yet another washed-out section of trail.

Pushing Bike Uphill

If there were such a sport as fully-loaded cyclo-cross, we’d be champs.

Our panniers were dripping from all the puddles we’d ridden through and our tires were carrying around their own thick layers of mud. You’d think we’d just spent the weekend at Glastonbury.

Muddy Tires

Finally we saw it. An official park sign, complete with trail map and “You Are Here” marker. It showed the start of our journey, way off in the distance. It also showed the end of our path.

“Look,” I whispered, pointing to the map. “We made it!”

A few pedal strokes later, we spotted cars zipping along a road in the near distance. Our pace quickened. But The Path wasn’t through with us yet. A creek ran right across our trail, too wide to jump and too deep to ride.

Resigned, we dismounted and dragged our bikes across the icy water. Our feet, which had stayed relatively dry for hours, were now soaked.

Still, wet feet could not dampen the joy we felt at emerging, just before dark, into the comforting arms of the city.

But the long day wasn’t over yet… here’s what happened next.


Got a few more minutes? Read these posts.

[column size=”one-half”]Mistrust All Enterprises That Require New Clothes
How to buy gear with an eye to the environment.[/column]
[column size=”one-half” last=”true”]Perferct First Ride
A mini bike tour along the LA River.[/column]


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  6. Comment by Milena

    Milena December 19, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Amazing Jane! xx

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