Between a Rock and a Hot Place

Mary 2 pulled together a delicious dinner in our room last night. It’s a good thing the food was great because the tension about what to do next was thick. The fire in coastal Goleta was right on the route I had planned for today. We were literally between a rock and a hot place. Coastal route 101 was closed by fire and fire-fighting activity. The alternate involved crossing over the Santa Ynez Mountain Range through the San Marco Pass. We could go up and over that rock or we could go straight into the fire and hope that firefighters would let us through. The latter idea gave me a knot in my stomach.

So, the pass??? Months ago, I had investigated and decided against the shorter San Marco route. A cyclist from a Santa Barbara cycling club wrote to me, “I do not recommend the route you are showing. It is dangerous. … The route you have planned has no shoulder for a good portion of it and a lot of traffic. It’s also on the wine tour route, so many drivers have been drinking.”

We consulted with the bike mechanic at Dr. J’s Bike Shop in Solvang about San Marco Pass. “Nobody cycles over San Marcos Pass.” When he could see that we were kind of stuck with that, he softened his statement: “Well, some cyclists go over it.” He described a road with no shoulders and a berm that would force us into the traffic. The volume of traffic would be twice as heavy as normal because all the vehicles that would have preferred the closed road would be on this route, too, including heavy trucks. The gal in charge of our hotel had an interesting perspective. She said the amount of traffic would slow drivers down, so it might just be the best possible time for cyclists to ride that road. We chose to listen to her assessment.

In the end, there really was no choice. We could stay in Solvang longer, but we didn’t know which way the fire would go and it might get even more difficult to leave. We bit the bullet and took off, watching the cloud of smoke to our south. 

The first five miles to Rt 154 were four lanes with a bike lane, so they were nice and easy. Then we came to the turn on 154. We buttoned up loose ends, I told the team what to tell my husband just in case, and… we made the turn.

I was surprised to see a shoulder. I thought surely it would end. Drivers were generally considerate. There were some hills, but when we encountered them, there was an entire passing lane plus a foot or two of shoulder. We wondered if the people whose advise we had sought, who so scared us from wanting to do this route, were talking about the same road.

Lynnie was nothing short of a true champion. She can’t use shoes that clip into bike pedals because of a hip replacement that was not done properly. Therefore she doesn’t get the benefit of her complete pedal stroke. Hills are particularly difficult for her. Today’s climb over San Marcos Pass was grueling. Having cycled every single inch of this route as we all have, the San Marcos Pass was not going to stop her.

View from San Marco Pass

Then came The Climb. It maxed out at 9% but it went on for four miles. I though each bend would bring the end, but it kept going, and I kept chugging. Brenda cranked strongly and steadily ahead of me. Finally I felt a slight change in the breeze. Sometimes that means the top is near. What told me for sure I was close to the top was a sign showing a truck on a 45 degree downhill. I looked for a summit sign but there wasn’t one. (Apparently the summit is at 2225 feet.) I felt the difficulty ease up. Brenda turned right. She had spotted Mary 2. I pulled in right after her. Earlier, Brenda and I saw Kurt, who can go forever, pull off at a vista point. There was no way I was going to stop on an uphill. We knew he’d check on his Lynnie. We were pulling for her. She’d done every inch of this route and we didn’t want this challenging pass to be the one to stop her.

While waiting for Lynnie, we had another problem to solve — which way to descend 2000 feet to Santa Barbara. We stopped a local cyclist who gave us some alternatives. One involved another 500 feet of climbing that went by a place called Painted Cave. We just couldn’t face one more foot up, so we ruled that out. He also said, for sure, to take the North San Marco Road. John Flaherty had told me about this, too. We still had to ride two miles of screaming descent on the now fast Rt 154 to get to it. A huge dump truck was barreling down behind me. I saw it coming and the driver actually stayed behind me, but I decided to come to a complete stop, (do I have any brakes left?), and let it pass me. For a bit, Mary 2 followed me and kept me safe. Finally I came to the North San Marco Road, where Kurt, Brenda, and Lynnie were waiting for me. 

It looked innocent enough, at the start, with a quiet and wide plateau. There was another cyclist stopped there, so we asked him if it was safe. He said the speed limit was 5 mph in the hairpins, so yes it was safe. Lynnie and I decided to videotape this adventure. As we prepared, a gal came up the road fast on her bike. I called out, “You are my hero.” She didn’t reply, evidently focused on her effort. Later, we saw her repeating the climb and descending as if her pants, not nearby Goleta, were on fire.

The road was deeply curved with tight heavily banked switchbacks and no guardrails. If our brakes were to fail… When we dared to look, we could see how high we were. We stopped to gather our wits on a turnout. There was the ominous cloud of smoke from the Goleta fire, in view but well behind us. 

We had made the right decision.

Ride statistics

Start: Solvang CA

End: Santa Barbara CA (Mary 2 found Via Maestra 42, a genuine Italian restaurant for dinner, across the street from our hotel. We celebrated our escape from our trap with a bottle of wine recommended by the owner. We got into a conversation with a gal sitting next to us, Ranae. As we were thinking about a dessert, four of them arrived, a gift from Ranae. How sweet, literally!)

Distance: 31.6 miles

Cumulative distance: 1824.8 miles (89% done!)

Elevation gain: 2710 feet

Strava track not available

Relive video

© 2021 Lynnea C Salvo

8 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hot Place

  1. the suspense is killing me. thank god the kindness of strangers is alive and well in california. i hope there are no volcanoes on your route.


  2. Dear Lynn:
    Your daily stories about the cyling trip read like a book filled with thrills, great meals, suspense, danger, enjoyment, bike mechanical problems, photos of the gorgeous geography, meeting people and more. Luv “Lifeislikeabike.. .com.” John


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s