Bike Issue: Tour de Chance
Local couple recount their monumental trek from Chico to the coast
“We headed out in the strongest wind we’d had so far that year. We needed a clear day, but the weather was ugly.”
So began the bike trip Christina Aranguren and her husband took from Chico to Fort Bragg last May. Christina, a local painter and cycling enthusiast, and Bob, a local sax player, spent five memorable days traversing more than 200 miles of back roads and the 5,682-foot, snow-covered Sugar Springs Summit in the Mendocino National Forest.
The occasion was Aranguren’s upcoming 50th birthday; the trip would be her present to herself. Christina admits it did take a little convincing to get Bob—also an avid cyclist and, like his wife, a longtime Chico Velo member—to agree to the ambitious trek. But, with ample planning—such as a Google search to find out that vegetarian fare in the form of eggplant parmigiana was available in tiny Covelo, at the North Fork Café run by a man named Denny Loppiano (“an Irish guy adopted by Italians; that’s how he learned to cook”)—the two were ready to go.
So, at about 8 a.m. on an unexpectedly wind-ripping Mother’s Day, the Arangurens pulled out of their driveway as planned.
Bob’s bike, fittingly, pulled a BOB trailer loaded with a tent, sleeping bags, food, water, a camp stove, water filter, extra clothes and extra bike parts such as spokes, tubes and derailleurs— 50 pounds in all. Christina’s rack-mounted panniers carried 30 pounds’ worth of necessary gear that didn’t fit into the BOB trailer.
Via West Sacramento Avenue, River Road and Highway 32, the pair rode to Hamilton City, then headed to Orland along Highway 45, Road 24, Road P and Road 200. Their goal for this first day was to reach Buckhorn Campground at Black Butte Lake—slightly less than 40 miles from Chico—which they did about six hours after leaving home.
“The highlight of my day that [first] day,” offered Bob, a disarmingly friendly man in his early 50s, “was rolling into Fairview Elementary [in Orland] and visiting John Seid [his friend and piano player in the Bob Aranguren Trio, who teaches at Fairview]. We were unexpected, and John was playing dodgeball with the kids. They all wanted to hear our story.
“If we’d rolled up in a car, nobody would have talked to us,” continued Bob. “But when you roll up on bikes, everybody wants to know your story.”
The second day, the Arangurens headed west on Newville Road, past Newville Cemetery, “with pioneer graves dating back to the 1860s,” as Christina described it. Near Paskenta, they encountered ranch fences decorated with coyote carcasses “all dressed up, holding signs and cigarettes and wearing Budweiser caps.”
Bob called attention to a photograph from their trip showing a dead coyote strung up on a wire fence, wearing a baseball cap at a jaunty angle, holding a dead rabbit in each hand, and wearing a difficult-to-read sign pinned to its chest.
“It says, ‘I’m baaaaaack!’ ” explained Bob, incredulously.
“Ranchers claim it deters other coyotes from attacking livestock,” Christina offered as reasoning behind the fence adornments.
“When you get over there,” she added, “you realize you’re not in Kansas any more.”
Sixty miles into their adventure, the Arangurens entered Mendocino National Forest. A couple of miles more and they began a six-hour ascent “at a snail’s pace” up Forest Road M4, which turns to dirt at around mile 75, aiming for the summit.
“At one point I wondered if I could walk faster,” said Bob, chuckling but serious.
“I was in first gear for six hours,” added Christina, “but the views from up there…!”
After systematically unhooking and reattaching the BOB trailer in order to first haul it and then his bike over about a dozen trees downed across M4 during the brutal January 2008 storms, an exhausted Bob, and Christina, pitched their tent for the night at the snowline.
Bob remembers thinking, “Wow—now we’re really up here by ourselves. We’re having an adventure,” and wondering, “Where’s my comfort zone?”
Large patches of hard-packed, end-of-season snow forced Bob and Christina to push their bikes for two or three miles that next morning, on their descent to Covelo.
“It was just enough,” Bob said. “Right when [the snow] ended, I went, ‘Whew!’ ”
The descent from nearly 5,700 feet into the valley below, as Bob put it, was “glorious”—even though, Christina advised, “your hands cramp from braking.”
After not seeing a single human being for a day and a half, the Arangurens walked into the little store at Eel River Station and asked, “Do you get any cyclists in here?” They indicated the summit now behind them.
“No, nobody does that,” the store clerk replied.
“Then we told her, ‘We just did,’ ” said Christina. “She looked at us like we were aliens.”
Christina and Bob learned from a plaque posted at Eel River Station that they were largely following the Nome Cult Trail, along which, in 1863, all of the local Konkow Maidu were forcibly marched to Round Valley Reservation in Covelo. Of the 461 Maidu who began the trip, only 277 arrived.
“We’re living now in what was General Bidwell’s cherry orchard,” said Christina, soberly pointing out that her Mansion Park home exists in the area where the Konkow Maidu began their tragic walk.
Christina and Bob fell in love with Covelo. Once again, the locals gathered around them and their bikes to hear and share stories, this time in front of the espresso wagon set up behind Loppiano’s restaurant on the morning of a day destined to reach over 100 degrees.
“You know, I was ready to move there,” said Christina. “Covelo reminded me of that town in Northern Exposure—Cicely, Alaska.”
The third and fourth nights were spent in little roadside motels in Covelo and Laytonville, on Highway 101, after the fatigue of those days. (“When you first start out you have fresh legs,” Christina said, and Bob completed the thought: “When you get to Laytonville, you’re whipped.”)
On day five, the Arangurens popped out onto Coast Highway 1, just north of the tiny creek-side town of Westport, after pedaling through the historic milltown of Branscomb and near the digs of Dr. Dean Edell. They camped just south of Fort Bragg at MacKerricher State Park before heading back to Chico (by the car of some obliging friends they’d enlisted ahead of time).
Would they do it again?
The answer is a resounding “yep.” This spring or early summer, in fact, depending on weather conditions, and they plan to make it an annual event.
Next time, the Arangurens will go twice as far, with two other adventurous couples who will ride their bicycles with them five days to the coast and five days back by a different route.
“I came back high on life,” Christina said. “The physical challenge combined with the sensory overload—around every turn there was something brand new: sights, sounds, people; the scents, the foliage, the air quality. … And, being on the bike with the touring gear provides a huge opportunity to engage with the locals.”
Added Bob, succinctly: “Freedom, simplicity, self-sufficiency, releasing negativity.”
And only one flat tire.