Microadventure in Orange County, California

A few months back I read an article about Microadventures, written by inveterate adventurer Alastair Humphries, that inspired me. Being the “time-crunched living in an urban area yet still having a passion for the outdoors” sorta guy that I am, the idea of fitting in a small adventure during the week resonated with me. I’d been thinking about it for a while, so this past Tuesday evening I gave it a go.

During my lunch hour I packed my bike with all the gear required for an overnighter. Actually, I packed a bit more than required as I wanted to carry some extra gear for training purposes. The goal? The summit of Santiago Peak, a ride of about 30 miles one-way (punctuated by 6,000 vertical feet of climbing) from the industrial park where I work. Once I got up to the top I would have a lot of choices on where to ride, but getting to the top of Orange County was the main goal. I wasn’t really sure where I was going to sleep, but hey – it’s supposed to be an “adventure,” right?

Breaking my rusty chain as the sun set, I hit the pavement and ran for the hills.

I’m fortunate to have a dirt road leading up to near the entrance to the Cleveland National Forest that bypasses most of the suburban sprawl. This path snakes through the underbelly of the beast that is masterplanned America, avoiding most of the roads by going under them through tunnels and underpasses. Still, there are a few traffic lights to contend with.

I like the nature of the light in this shot' it reminds me of Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe” – I’m going to call it “Night Bike Lane."

If it had been daylight I could have ridden through Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. But the gates close at dusk, so I was forced to ride roads pretty much all the way to Harding Truck Trail and into the danger zone. This is where the real adventure began … okay, I can’t even type that with a straight face. The sheer amount of warning signs at every trailhead in California astounds me. Yes, EVERYTHING you do in life carries risk, so get over it already. At least this trailhead doesn’t have a sign warning about the risk of being eaten by a mountain lion.

The moon rose and my pedals spun. It had been a while since I’d climbed Harding, so it was a nice change of pace to ride some “new” dirt. The cool chill of night began to settle into the moist, tacky trails as I rode upward. To quote Jack Kerouac, “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great that I thought I was in a dream." Although I think in a dream I’d finish this climb a little quicker – man climbing with a loaded bike sucks.

The world began to recede. No man is an island? I beg to differ. I drifted above the mass of humanity that is Southern California, the entire evening passing beneath my wheels without encountering another soul. Although I did get buzzed by another solitary, nocturnal creature: an owl.

Nearing the turnoff to the Main Divide, I reconsidered the rockfall warning sign I had seen. This one was fresh, and I could still see where it had torn up the soil as it slid a few days earlier.

Around one of the switchbacks near the summit the wind was blowing so hard it damn near knocked me off the bike. I love a good wind gust; it makes you realize just how tenuous your grip on this Earth really is. With only the sound of the wind moaning through the communication towers and hardware on the summit, I posed for a picture. It’s the middle of the night and I’m alone on the top of my tiny little island in the sky: Microadventure found!

Eventually, I found a place to throw my sleeping bag down and shiver for three hours. The alarm went off and I began the descent back into society ... well, into Orange County at least. Pointing my bike toward the nearest bagel shop and a hot cup of coffee, I waited patiently at the same crosswalk as I had the night before. The rhythm of the ride was once again being dictated by suburbia.

After tanking up with a quick breakfast, I finished the ride back to work. I even got into the office early for once. I wish my commute was always this easy.

So, you see, adventure really is a state of mind. We spend so much time as a society insulating ourselves from risk and denying ourselves certain experiences that a simple night like I just described is considered completely out of the ordinary for most people. Too many people have been scared by all of the warning signs at the trailheads. Because of this, we’ve completely lost contact with the natural world and lost sight of our place in the greater systems that surrounds us. My co-workers looked at me like I was describing a mission to an alien landscape when I told them what I'd done.  “Why?” they asked. Well, why the hell not? Have you been blown over by a wind gust recently?

Spend a night on a mountain and you’ll come back with an entirely different view of that seemingly mundane world around you. Although I should warn you, getting through work the next day is going to require an extra cup of coffee or two if you fail to bring a warm sleeping bag with you on your journey. A small price to pay.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: Neither underestimate nor be frightened by all of the warning signs at the trailhead.

Favorite local bike shop: The Path in Tustin, California.

6 responses so far ↓

Brian Sims - Oct 14, 2014 at 7:41 AM

Great write up! I love the Soundgarden reference "Breaking my rusty chain as the sun set" (or was it?). Harding is a nice wee climb. Last time for me was on my road bike with 32 slicks. The segment above Four Corners was a hard up as it was downto keep traction.

Tom - Oct 14, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Thanks! It's great to share a little overnighter inspiration. This ride was during winter so there was a little snow up on Saddleback too, fun little experience

Russell Rice - Oct 17, 2014 at 10:12 PM

I grew up on the Ortega and drove all those trucktrails in my jeep as a kid ('70's.) Now I am in AZ but dream/plan on going home and riding some of those trails from my youth. Just finished a coast to coast tour but Mt. biking is still my favorite. Be very proud that you made it to the top of Saddleback. Thanks for the inspiring writeup.

Tom - Oct 20, 2014 at 11:41 AM

thanks Russell! Yes, all those trails/fire roads are still there and waiting for you :)

Alastair - Oct 23, 2014 at 1:57 AM

Great to read this! Sorry that you were cold!

Tom - Oct 23, 2014 at 8:22 AM

Thank you for the inspiration, Alastair!

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