Part 1: North into the Jaws of El Nino
I was still cold from the night on the sodden earth and the spitting rain looked like it would wax into torrents. I got off my bicycle.
“Let’s turn back south,” I said. “Hell, let’s just go to Mexico.”
Cortes couldn’t have said it better.
California was supposed to have been the Sunshine State with golden-haired goddesses frolicking on warm, sandy beaches. Carefree and tropical. As usual I hadn’t checked this fallacy at all and my Hollywood image left me out in the cold and wet on this inclement December morning.
The problem was El Nino, or so the owner of the campsite told me. He took my twenty dollars without even looking me in the eye. Not because he was shifty or ashamed to charge so much for his meagre services, it was just that one of his eyes was fixed on the flying TV above the counter, watching the gripping weather situation unfold on a local station, and the other one was missing.
He called his business an RV Park, a good way to dignify little more than cleared scrub, but it made me feel better about wasting such a sum to sleep on a few square feet of Californian desert. The sign out on the highway fooled me and I almost missed the campsite, not realising at this point the extremes to which Americans have gone in bastardising the English language. It wasn’t until the next morning that I plucked up the courage to ask someone (his wife as it turned out) what the R and the V stood for.
I had wanted to sleep on the beach on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway; it looked cleaner and quieter, but my partner had insisted on the RV park. Thankfully I acquiesced and we were saved from El Nino’s first tantrum that winter: a violent storm blew through during the night and in the morning the beach looked waveswept and desolate. We were just cold, wet, and tired.
That was the first night out of L.A., northbound towards San Francisco. We were going to pedal up the Pacific Coast Highway through the glorious Californian countryside, listening to Latino music stations on our headphones and eating tacos and salsa in lay-bys overlooking the sparkling blue ocean.
The one-eyed campsite owner tried to warn us as we wheeled through the gates: El Nino was pushing in an unseasonable front off the Pacific, right into our path. But the sky had cleared and our dreams were still buoyant — north we went.
It was just an hour later, under black clouds, that I mentioned Mexico and around we turned. We had pulled up in one of those anonymous shopping malls with big car-parks and nondescript shops; too many fat people padding in and out of fast-food restaurants. Grey and windy. We tried to eat yesterday’s sandwiches without taking off our gloves.
It wasn’t just the weather. A wave of home-sickness splashed over me: I had just arrived from the third world, where I’d spent many happy years and I was suddenly missing it. I couldn’t get used to all of this order and politeness where every facet of human behaviour is firmly fixed within its system. I wanted to see ramshackle foodstalls where I saw diners and fast-food chains; friendly guesthouses where I saw expensive campsites and impersonal motels; people on the sidewalks instead of driving in cars. I closed my eyes and Mexico called me. Surely they were keeping the sun there that winter.
L.A. was a long way off on a bike, but at least we knew the route. We put everything in plastic bags and pushed off, regretting that we hadn’t brought waterproofs. The pitter-patter drops became a steady downpour, which intensified by the minute. Soon we were fighting through sheets of torrential rain whipping in off the angry ocean. The traffic that had been helping to keep us thoroughly soaked, by splashing up muddy runoff from the road, had gone. It suddenly wasn’t there any more. Just one more vehicle swept by — a white van with a satellite dish on its roof. It pulled up a hundred meters in front and discharged a few bodies tied up in brightly coloured waterproofs, flapping in the wind. One of them had a large object balanced on his shoulder which as I neared metamorphosed into a TV camera — the idiots were filming us! Or were we supposed to be the idiots. By now the wind had blown up to a gale force and was crashing waves over the road. Frigid and exhausted, I was barely making headway through the tempest. We didn’t stop, just pedalled past, the cameraman swivelling to keep us in shot as we did so. This was an excruciating low point in my life. I tried to smile for the camera.
Of course we didn’t make it all the way back to L.A. Hypothermia would have dispatched us to the afterlife and we would never have got to Mexico. America; there’s always a motel when you need one. The day-manager didn’t seem at all concerned that the two people knocking at her Perspex window were about to die of exposure, she was more worried about the sodden banknotes that I had somehow managed to peel from my waterlogged wallet with my frozen fingers.
“Damn right there’s hot water,” she whooped at me, as if I were some kind of farm animal with the intelligence level of an un-incubated chicken’s egg.
She was right. Not only was there an endless supply of hot water, but there were radiators in the room! Are we in California?
I lay in the tub under a gushing shower as the bathroom filled with steam and my mind and body slowly revived themselves. I must have got my forty dollar’s worth in hot water alone. After the soak, however, my faculties were still too depleted to make it across the road for a hamburger. My partner obliged me and after I’d devoured a large fast-food meal I slept for fourteen hours, missing my one and only appearance on American TV.
Part 2: There’s No Way Through
South. We were going south through a cold California in December, heading for Mexico and the sun. It should have been easy: just keep the ocean on the right and pedal hard. But if everything were easy I probably wouldn’t travel.
The first day out of L.A., through the industrial decline of Long Beach, with its endless used-car lots and junk-food outlets, reminded me that I didn’t want to be here. We got as far as Oceanside, and the owner of the motel we decided to stay in put me right back in the third world where I wanted to be: he tried to cheat me. This gentleman was a Gujarati, first generation immigrant from India. The price for a room seemed reasonable but there was nowhere to use our stove too cook up a meal, so we went to check a few other motels nearby. When we came back the price had almost doubled, as it does in Asia — the Gujarati knew that we couldn’t find anything better. When I protested, the laughing Indian showed me the receipts of recent room occupants:
“Look, fifty dollars; they come here to fuck. Just a few hours.”
As I was leaving he capitulated and offered me the original price again. This isn’t supposed to happen in America.
The next day was cold and we were tired, and as we pedalled out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, in rash defiance of our ambition, we decided to cheat and take the bus. In most undeveloped countries this would have been a simple thing to do: wait a few minutes for a bus to pass, hoist the bicycles up onto the roof, among the chickens and goats, and bribe the driver with a little backsheesh. Here, it was even easier: they have a system for it! The bicycle sits on a special rack on the front of the bus, and there is no need to bribe the driver. Even better, we had the special assistance of a bus-company supervisor, who happened to be waiting at the bus stop in her Volvo (probably spying on the drivers).
At San Clemente the bus stopped in front of a McDonald’s and everyone got off — the end of the route. Fortunately the bus that would go down the next stretch of coast was parked up in front of our bus and I smiled at the bicycle rack on its front. The driver came strolling out of the fast-food restaurant, wiping crumbs off his wide face. I motioned to the rack and asked if I should put on my bicycle. This utterly changed the man: he stopped and turned on me like Moses about to issue a new commandment. He raised his arm and in a slow steady voice gave us chapter and verse from the bus-company route regulations:
“Route 32a, San Clemente to Oceanside, through Camp Pendleton, is a non-bicycle bus route; although some of the busses are equipped with cycle racks, they are prohibited from carrying bicycles.”
It seemed pretty final, and I didn’t think he wanted to discuss the problem; a bribe seemed out of the question.
A group of people stood around me waiting to see what would happen; they were mostly passengers from the first bus, some of whom were waiting to board the next one. They all seemed to agree with the driver — this was a rule that could not be broken. I didn’t really care that much, after all, this was supposed to be a cycling trip and I should have been pedalling to Mexico anyway. The sun was still high; I might as well push on.
One of the group mentioned Camp Pendleton again and something about helmets. The others chipped in with half articulated bits of misinformation through which I slowly realised that Camp Pendleton was a military base where they enforced some kind of petty regulation that required all cyclists to wear helmets — and there seemed to be no alternative. There was a highway, but bikes couldn’t go along it and the only available road ran directly through the camp. Somebody suggested that I cycle over to Wall Mart to buy a helmet before I set off. Another suggested that I camp the night here, in San Clemente. Somebody else, who obviously hadn’t been listening, wanted me to fly to Mexico.
Seconds later the bus shook awake and most of my collaborators jumped aboard; the rest of them dispersed into the afternoon and I was left alone again with my partner.
There must be a way around the camp, or a way through without being spotted, another bus, a train perhaps. I didn’t want to waste time and money on a helmet that I would use for just a few hours. It seemed absurd and made me angry; why should I wear a bloody helmet? — I knew I could beat it.
We went into the McDonald’s, not to eat of course, just to confirm some of the information and get a little advice. The first person who returned my smile was an elderly man whom I took for an Asian. He looked neither handsome nor rich but was surrounded by a small group of young and pretty girls, some of whom were employees of the restaurant. I supposed he must be a regular burger-eater and the girls were attracted to his smooth talk and charming manner, but when we attempted a dialogue, I quickly altered this assumption. He was having immense difficulty with English and the way he mangled his ill-chosen words could only have been the result of a deformed palette; I guessed that he fared no better in his native tongue (which I later learned to be Tagalogue: he was a Filipino).
“Pnnddtn?” he said.
“Ahh, yes,” I replied, “Pendleton.”
One of the girls squeezed some ketchup onto a french-fry which she then offered up to his mouth. I wanted to leave, but he continued with more lacerated words, this time with lumps of masticated potato further impeding his articulation. The main gate and guards were about the only things I could deduce. Noticing my incomprehension, he asked one of the girls for a paper napkin and tried to draw a map with a pen. The ballpoint ripped the soft paper and left vague blue lines and meaningless words. I feigned understanding, thanked him profusely for his time, and left (without the napkin).
Outside, with the sun dipping towards the blue sea, we decided to look for the campsite, knowing full well that as soon as the sun falls into the horizon the temperature plummets.
That night certainly was cold. We cooked up a big stew on our stove which we ate with icy beer while looking out at the full silver moon hanging over the inky Pacific. We took a deadly shower from a machine that had to be constantly fed with quarters — the machine was hopelessly inefficient and our supply of quarters was hopelessly meagre. Finally, putting on all the clothes we possessed, we crawled into the tent and tried to sleep. We froze.
We rose at five, before the sun, to give us time to get to the railway station. The night before we had cycled around the town and discovered a commuter train that was supposed to head out of L.A. early in the morning stopping at San Clemente and continuing south. We could put our bikes on the train and ride through the camp to the other side.
It was five forty in the morning, wintry cold, and we were huddled together at the end of a bench on a windy platform trying to keep warm when a teenager, twanging an electric guitar (swung over his shoulder) rolled up to me on his skateboard and asked me if I wanted to jam!
He had obviously seen my guitar strapped to the back of my bike and wanted to get in a bit of practice. I was so shocked I didn’t no what to say. How could he possibly think I’d want to unpack my guitar in the freezing wind and pluck a tune with a complete stranger when my train might arrive at any minute. I waved a gloved hand at him and apologised for being too tired and too cold. My partner asked him if the train is usually on time but he didn’t seem to understand that this was a railway station and just rolled off on his wheels. He kept calling me ‘man’.
Minutes later the train arrived, on time, but it just rattled by and didn’t stop.
On the way out I double checked the timetable and saw the same information that I had seen the night before, and I wondered why they would include the times for trains that didn’t actually stop a this station.
“Hey, man. I don’t think that train ever stops here.” The rolling guitarist called over to us.
There was supposed to be a Greyhound bus coming through later in the morning but nobody knew exactly where it stopped and indeed if it did stop. That idea died quickly.
The polite woman in the tourist information office told us not to worry about the helmet regulation:
“Just wheel through the main gate, get off, and tell the guards that you will walk through the camp. You can get back on your bikes when you’re out of their view.”
I liked the woman for that. Everybody else seemed to have an abhorrence for breaking rules and systems; like Moses from the bus, they offered little but the rules and their blind acceptance. This woman, an employee of the state government no less, was encouraging us to break the law. You would expect her to have been an immigrant from the south, but she wasn’t; she was the whitest Protestant I’ve ever seen. She explained how to find the entrance to the path near a bridge over the PCH. She forgot to tell us that the path was over ten miles long.
Part 3: Under the Law
I had just adjusted my raw buttocks on the saddle when a huge and sinister military police vehicle spotted us. It made a screeching U-turn and then squealed to a stop behind us. Two uniformed MPs jumped out, slamming the doors with a menace. I knew the charge, and I knew that I was guilty. I got off my bike.
We found the entrance with little trouble, but strangely it wasn’t marked in any way, and even stranger, given that we were in America, there was no access for cars. Shortly, we were cycling along a beautiful, quiet path, lined with flowers and overlooking the gleaming ocean. Nobody in sight. I wanted to camp here it was so perfect, but my partner reminded me that we had no food and we might even be on military land. After half an hour or so we sighted the first checkpoint, but decided not to get off our bikes because we probably hadn’t yet entered the base. I’m never sure what makes soldiers behave the way they do — pride, patriotism, money, indoctrination, or just plain stupidity — and here was a perfect example to further mystify me. Alone, miles from the nearest human being, facing no threat or danger whatsoever, this soldier felt it necessary to stand rigidly to attention with his weapon hanging over his shoulder to face two harmless tourists approaching on bicycles. I almost laughed at the absurdity and was waiting for him to shout ‘halt. Who goes there?’ He was a marine.
He relaxed a bit when we showed him we were fellow human beings with no intent to kill him or take over the base.
“Put on your helmets please,” he said after we told him we intended to go through the base. “It’s a regulation; cyclists must wear helmets.” He was almost smiling now, very human.
We reacted as if this were complete news to us, and he repeated:
“You are prohibited from cycling on the base without a helmet. I’m sorry.”
I’m sure he stepped to when I told him we didn’t have helmets, as if to block our path with his body.
“Can’t we just push our bikes through?” I asked.
He frowned; obviously he hadn’t thought of this contingency, and he took a while to answer. I thought he was going to radio his superior for assistance, but he’d probably got into trouble for that before because he suddenly said:
“Eh … ; what do you mean … ? You … want to push all the way through?”
I nodded, to which he stepped aside and waved us through.
We walked for ten or fifteen minutes, around a few bends, and then jumped back on our bikes. The camp seemed deserted; the only sign of life was the occasional hunting bird, that hovered high above the windswept heath. This was a wild and remote place; there was no threat here — I felt safe, but remained keenly aware. After half an hour of slow pedalling I suddenly stiffened my neck and cocked my ears, like a rabbit: Id heard a noise. I quickly signalled to my partner and we jumped off our bikes, almost in comic unison. Fifty meters ahead of us, heralded by a deafening noise, the hedge lining the side of the road abruptly disintegrated and a large camouflaged vehicle, nosed out onto the tarmac, its plangent engine beating out billows of black smoke. In terror, we watched as a platoon of fearful marines scrambled through the hole in pursuit of the green behemoth, brandishing weapons and looking as if they were going off to fight Satan himself. Nobody seemed to notice us, which I thought was strange; they turned left and disappeared up the road in front of us.
The shock of the noisy and sudden appearance of this potential threat left us standing still on the tarmac for a few minutes. Not until we were thoroughly sure that nothing else was going to come charging out of the hedge did we ventured on, still on foot.
Our courage soon returned and we hopped back on our bikes and cycled. We must have been slowly getting closer to the centre of things because our progress was frequently interrupted by the appearances of human life. Everything made us nervous: a jeep passing by, a soldier in the distance, even buildings. We were on and off the bikes like idiots.
We cautiously approached a second checkpoint, on foot, and tried to look submissive when challenged by the guard.
“Where are your helmets?” he snapped, as if I were a subordinate.
I explained that we didn’t have helmets and that we were not actually riding our bicycles. It took him a while to gather the facts, but slowly he seemed to comprehend the situation. Then he asked me if the guard at the first checkpoint had informed me of the camp regulation concerning helmets. ‘Very clearly,’ I told him. He waved us through.
After that checkpoint, we plunged back into a seeming wilderness where nothing interrupted us. I tried to spy the screeching hawk that hovered in the blue sky above us, but the sun was too bright and I gave up, looking instead at the rabbit bounding across the heath to the right, towards the bluffs of the Pacific.
Out of nowhere a violent roar broke the peace, a grotesque beating that was approaching from behind my left shoulder. I instinctively ducked my head, as if expecting something to fly low over me; and as I jumped to the floor, a huge iron bird loomed up behind me. The helicopter swooped low over us in a terrifying attack before pulling up into the blue sky above the cliffs where it turned ready for another assault. Seconds later the already deafening noise was intensified by a force of armoured personnel carriers that had appeared to our left and were skidding down the heath towards us in a frenzied charge. The road behind us that had seconds before been empty and serene was now full of speeding jeeps carrying officers with berets and gun-toting marines. This was more like Omaha Beach than Southern California and I briefly wondered why they needed such a battalion to apprehend two helmet-regulation violators. But the second swoop of the helicopter released me from panic as it veered south, missing us by fifty meters; it bobbed over a small hillock, and disappeared, quickly followed by the armoured cavalry.
As quickly as the peace had been broken, it returned, filling the desolate space around us — we cycled on.
Gradually we moved into an inhabited area; the occasional brick outpost gave way to modern communications buildings and head-quarters; two-storey dwellings with lawns and civilian cars. This must be base-central, the barracks of the new millennium. We pushed our bikes through this military suburbia. As we passed a shopping mall where overweight housewives were offloading supermarket trolleys into their Hondas and Toyotas I thought that we couldn’t be still on the base, everything was too suburban, too normal. Who would notice two regular cyclists in this typical American neighbourhood? So we hopped back on, certain that no sane person would interfere with the fun of two harmless cyclists simply enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
In fact we were still on the base, and the kind of person who likes to harass innocent tourists on a sunny afternoon is called a military policeman. Anywhere else in America, if not the world, we would have continued unimpeded; but not on Camp Pendleton.
One of the MPs was a woman; she took the offensive, ordering us to dismount — a strange word to use for getting off a bicycle, but I didn’t quibble with her word choice.
“Are we still on the base,” I asked innocently. I went on to explain that we had pushed all the way through the base and had only just this second ‘remounted’ our bikes, thinking that we were already through it.
“You are certainly still on the marine base,” she informed me in monotones.
And without the slightest sign of embarrassment or apology (I personally would have been too ashamed to bother with such a trifle) she proceeded to recite to us complete pages from her Camp Pendleton military-law training manual:
” … under the jurisdiction of military law … regulation 4099B require that … unauthorised … violation,” and other intimidating words.
Meanwhile her partner had been radioing in to HQ the details of this emergency and was now asking to see some identification. National security seemed to be at stake here. As I was retrieving my passport from under my clothing, making sure that he wouldn’t think I had a gun in there, I looked up and saw a huge barrier and gatehouse at the end of the street. I felt like a cold-war spy at the Berlin Wall, apprehended halfway through no-man’s land in full view of the gateway to freedom.
He affirmed that that was indeed the camp’s exit; but would we be allowed to walk through it? Would we ever get to Mexico? He thumbed the pages of our passports and furiously scrawled notes onto his black clipboard. He shouted our names and numbers into his crackling walkie-talkie and discussed the seriousness of the crime with the female MP. We hung our heads low and squinted up at the exit, forlornly waiting for the worst.
The woman marched back to the jeep and when she reappeared after a few minutes she seemed to frown to her partner, beaming him some kind of non-verbal message. He turned on us and said in all seriousness:
“OK, you are free to go.”
I was flooded with a feeling of relief, but the comedy of the situation immediately surfaced in my mind, and as he added, “You must push all the way to the gate,” I wanted to laugh in his face.
I held back for my partner’s sake and we turned towards freedom, thanking the MPs for their leniency and apologising again for committing such a heinous crime. They stood at attention in front of their vehicle watching as we walked the hundred meters to the gate. With each step I got closer to Mexico; and with each step I thanked God that I wasn’t a military policeman.
© Paul. S. Davey, 2002