Man who studies clouds gets rained on
Did I mention I'm ready for the desert?
Well, the second leg of my trip down to LA really tested my mettle. Prepare yourself for some bellyaching.
Most of the day actually went fine. The rest of the train ride from Emeryville to Bakersfield turned out to be quite enjoyable: I had brought good food with me, the Wi-Fi was fast enough to get some work done, and the seriously snowy Sierra Nevada off in the distance was a decent substitute for the Pacific coast. The transfer to the bus in Bakersfield was smooth, too — right on time, and a helpful man with a golf cart made the luggage transfer straightforward. There’s no getting around the fact that buses are infinitely less romantic than trains, but the ride was fine, if a little bumpy and traffic-y. The moment I got off at Union Station in LA, though, things took a turn for the worse.
When the driver opened the bus’ luggage compartment, I was dismayed to see that my bike was not as I had left it. In Bakersfield I had nestled the bike amongst my other bags — folded and upright, as designed — and hoped that it would be protected from road bumps. But it appeared that my bike had migrated and reoriented during the trip. It was now on its side, which is not how it was designed to be stored, and it was no longer cushioned by other bags. I knew it had been a bumpy ride, and I couldn’t help but imagine my pricey e-bike bouncing around in the belly of the bus with every pothole, sustaining who-knows-what damage to who-knows-what components.
I inspected the bike, and nothing was obviously broken. But when I took it for a little loop around the parking lot, it became clear that the shifting was funky. The bike would mostly ride normally, but occasionally the chain seemed to skip and it would briefly become easier to pedal, as if I had momentarily changed gears. I guessed that the derailleur had been bent out of alignment. But it still kind of worked, the sun was about to set, and I didn’t feel up to trying to fix it on the spot. Hoping for the best, I decided to just pack everything up on the bike and go for it. I definitely felt a little daunted by the sixteen-mile ride to my friends’ house in Pasadena. The station had completely cleared out by the time I got moving.
And then it started to rain. In theory, I was prepared for this: I was wearing my rain pants and my rain jacket with a roomy hood to fit over my helmet, and I had rain covers on my messenger bag and the top of the pannier that doesn’t close due to the solar panel. But rain gear can only do so much, and the water was coming in around my face, up my sleeves, and through my boots. Soon I was drenched. I’ve been practicing cold-water immersion this winter, and I summoned the mindset I enter just before getting into a frigid lake in New England. During a particularly intense downpour I growled at the sky.
My route took me onto the Arroyo Seco bike path for a bit, which was a relative highlight. The path parallels the Arroyo Seco channel, built to funnel rainwater to the Los Angeles River (fascinating to read about) and then out to the ocean. It was cool to see the engineering at work. The funky shifting persisted, but I still had to marvel at the e-bike’s performance. I had so much stuff loaded on there, and still I was cruising along at 18 mph, pedaling hard but not that hard. Maybe this is obvious, given the conditions, but I had the path to myself.
Then I came to a locked gate blocking the bike path. With my bike fully loaded, it was far too heavy to lift over the gate, and far too wide to fit through the human-sized gap on the side. Google maps’ options for a reroute looked heinous. I had no choice but to unpack everything, maneuver the bike under the gate, and reassemble on the other side. On the other side of the gate awaited an extensive stretch of muddy, flooded path that forced me to walk my bike.
I’ll admit, I almost gave in at this point. My friends would gladly have picked me up in their car. I found myself thinking — for the first time, believe it or not — “Why am I doing this?”
But seriously, why am I doing this trip? There’s a lot to say here — a confluence of factors that blur the distinction between personal and professional. I’ll circle back to the “why” in future posts, but the most important, overarching motivator is definitely climate change. You probably know this, but: To prevent permanent, catastrophic warming of our planet, we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) as soon as possible. But our society is set up to encourage fossil fuel consumption at every turn. Burning some jet fuel on a flight from San Francisco to LA, or burning some gasoline to make the drive — either would have been cheaper, faster, and far more comfortable than the route I took.
And that’s exactly the problem. We need to design a world where, in just about every situation, the easiest and cheapest thing to do doesn’t require burning fossil fuels. Given how things are set up now, I don’t blame anyone for flying or driving. Truly, I don’t. In my dreams, getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles would mean a 2.5 hour trip on an electrified, high-speed rail, with the electricity coming from a grid that is powered overwhelmingly by solar panels and wind turbines. There would be plenty of berths on the train for bikes of all varieties, and I would be in good company biking from downtown LA to Pasadena on protected, well-lit and well-maintained bike paths.
I get a little heartbroken thinking about how far we are from that reality. It’s not that I believe I can just will into existence the carbon-free transportation system of my dreams. But I do believe that bumbling my way through the extremely sub-optimal system we have now — and crucially, writing about it — will motivate me and others to envision and implement better ways of doing things. Plus, I’m a masochist.
In the end, I made it to my friends’ house after about 2 hours in the rain. My spirits held up. The derailleur held up. The e-bike battery held up, barely: over the last mile of the trip I gained 1000 feet of elevation, and I arrived at their doorstep with an estimated range remaining of 1 mile. They welcomed me with a delicious homemade dinner, a fire in the fireplace, and an extremely cute cat. Onward.
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Even your regime of cold-water immersion would be hard pressed to prepare you for two hours of drenched misery... I'm so glad to know you made it, the bike made it, and your friends and cat rolled out such a lovely set of welcoming conditions for you! I loved your title and your larger point: doing this and writing about it may be the best way to raise awareness of how much we need to change our habits. Thank you!
What a story! Ugh! Glad it had a warm dry ending. (And how ironic that you were riding next to arroyo seco in the pouring rain!)