Back at the hostel, I give up on meeting anyone and head down to bed. I poke my head past a curtain between rows of empty beds, and I am surprised to see a guy rummaging through a bag on a mattress in the corner.
His name is Pascal. He’s from Belgium; he just graduated from school in business management. He worked with a marketing firm for a little while and found the experience somewhat unfulfilling, so he decided he needed to get out and seek raw, unfiltered experience. He is bicycling from Vancouver to San Diego.
I start grilling him with questions, and he smiles good naturedly as he answers me. “What made you decide to take this trip?” “Well, I wanted to meet as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time,” he says. His goal was to find others who are doing something meaningful with their lives and to see what lessons he might learn from those people. “Wow. Have you found any answers? What have been your major revelations?” He laughs. “It’s impossible. I can’t figure out the meaning of life in a three month cycling trip.”
He asks about my travels; I explain that I’m coming down from the mountains and that I’m heading south too. “Well, do you want to go to Big Sur tomorrow?” He asks. I laugh. “Yeah, of course.” We’ll leave in the morning.
“Are you sure you’re ok with not biking these miles?” I ask as we load his bike into my car the next morning. “If you wanted, I would just drive behind you as a support car or something, or we could meet up there….” “Nah, this is perfect. I used to be more of a purist when I started this trip,” he explains. But he tells me that he’s met so many people who are so focused on the cycling that they don’t give themselves a chance to enjoy those serendipitous travel experiences along the way. “So it doesn’t matter if I cycle or if we drive,” he says. “It’s all part of the journey.”
Back inside the hostel, packing; we decide to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium before we leave. I’m planning to head to a café to write a quick blog before the aquarium opens, and he’ll wander and meet me in an hour. I find the initial trust we immediately have for one another to be pretty remarkable—his bike is locked in my car, and he’s completely comfortable splitting up and meeting in an hour. I am about to head upstairs to check out. “Oh, before you go, can I throw these bags in your car?” He calls. I just toss him the keys.
A couple hours of kelp forests and leopard sharks, egg yolk jellies and sea dragons, and we’re ready to hit the road. As we drive through Monterey searching for Highway 1, we talk about travel philosophies, languages, interacting with people, what other countries we’ve visited. He brings up Chris McCandless, and after we talk about Into the Wild I remember I have the book in my backpack and we soar down the beautiful insane twisting cliffs of Highway 1 with the book on the dashboard and Eddie Vedder pulsing through the speakers. The ragged coastline of California transcends wonder and we lose ourselves out the windows for a while.
Eventually the land between the highway and the sea flattens into pastures, and a massive rocky lighthouse-capped hill looms. A dirt road winds away from the highway towards the peak, and I pull over, but a sign on the closed gate warns against trespassing. Disappointed, we pull back onto the freeway. “Man,” he says. “That’s too bad. That looked amazing.” “Do you wanna check it out?” “Yeah, I kinda do.” I hit the brakes, U-turn on the empty highway, and pull over onto the shoulder. We climb out and trot over to the gate. “It looks pretty close, but how far away do you think that actually is?” “One way to find out.” We hop the gate and start walking along the dirt road through this pasture that’s overrun by cows, all of whom are staring directly at us. This is not my first experience invading bovine territory, yet I am still unnerved by the unwavering stares. Pascal stays relaxed as cows whine and bolt away from us, though his tranquility does little to placate my nerves. “What do we do if one charges?” I ask. He shrugs. “What do we do if we see a bull?” I ask. We keep walking, and the cows continue to glare. “What do we do if the cops come?” I’m not usually the worrier, but I feel these questions are worth considering. He shrugs again. “I’d just say to them, ‘have you seen this lighthouse?!’ And they’ll understand how beautiful this is.” “Ah. You haven’t had much experience with American police, have you?”
We keep walking, and I swear the cows are getting more and more agitated. “Dude.” I freeze in my tracks. “Look. It’s a fucking bull.” He stops. “Where?” I point. “Right over there. The one with the fucking horns.” A hundred feet away, there stands a massive bull, casually trotting towards us. Pascal freezes. “Ok, maybe we should turn back.” We make the fastest 180 I’ve ever pulled and we beeline it for the fence. But it’s a good half mile away, and this bull could probably cover the ground between us in seconds. The bull shakes his horns and proceeds to mount one of the cows, and we use this copulatory diversion to make our getaway, wondering what the headlines would look like. “Belgian’s Cycling Trip Comes to Abrupt and Tragic End, but He Was Asking for it.”
We pass into Big Sur as the sunlight starts to bloom. The highway weaves along a cliff a hundred feet above the sea, and we pull off into one of the turnouts. I work my way down a few feet and stand in a steep thicket of sagebrush, silent cliffside ocean crashing coastline tattered sunset falling.
The sun is gone and we’re miles from anywhere, so we begin to search for a place to sleep. “Do you play any guitar?” I ask him at one point. He shrugs. “Yeah. Who doesn’t?” We decide to head back towards the Big Sur campsites; we’ll find someone with a fire and just walk up with two guitars and food. But we discover this serendipitous moment is not to be: there are no flames to be seen. We retrace our route to the cliffs and bed down overlooking the huge sea. We sit on the lip of the cliff and play guitar in the dark, accompanied by the waters below. After several pathetic failed attempts to build a fire with the hollow grasses growing in the cliff dust, we eventually sit in the car eating a five course meal of kiwis, oranges, bananas, Snickers, and the like and looking up at the huge black star-strewn sky through the windshield.
We rearrange our bags so that I can sleep in the backseat/trunk as I have been, and he leans back in the passenger seat. The almost-full moon rises, torn by the black jagged mountain skyline. “I can’t wait to see what that fire attempt looks like in the light tomorrow morning,” he says.