I’d been thinking about visiting San Diego for some time so a week or so I set out on a short trip to actually do so. San Diego has some of the best weather in the country for active living, cycling, and outdoor activities. Outside of this, I was curious as to how the San Diego music scene currently sits and the overall local scene. Hitch-biking from Denver to San Diego and back in a short mini-adventure, I would find out.
First, I met Gary in an Albertson’s parking lot in Denver and helped him change out the tires on one of his wheels to one with better tread. Gary and I made contact through a Craigslist post– he was heading to the Oakland/ San Francisco area. It sounded close enough to me, so I agreed to ride along, helping with the driving and unloading of the items he was delivering through U-Ship across the country.
Gary drives an old Ford F-250 pickup truck with a homemade trailer on the back. He is shipping some furniture to Salt Lake City, Utah and also a piece of exercise equipment to Oakland, California. On Gary’s dash sits a clutter of items, one including what Gary refers to as a “dash frog.” Gary says that it is important to always keep a dash frog on one’s person during a long journey.
We pass through a part of the desert of Wyoming and it somehow feels like we have been temporarily transported back in time fifteen years. Gas attendants stand around bored and BS-ing, one girl comments something about a Facebook post someone made. Gary and I exchange stories on the road. Some of the best are when Gary met the actual Craig of Craigslist at a wedding reception in San Francisco, and another of a bear that broke into his tent while he was camping in the mountains with friends as a boy.
We crash in Reno, Nevada for the night at one of Gary’s friends house and I roll out my sleeping bag and sleep on the floor. Gary’s friend’s house is filled with interesting art collections, world maps, cats, and a box in the corner that is sealed and reads : DEPARTMENT OF FUCK YOU.
In the morning, we try leaving the small town of Reno, Nevada and as forgotten episodes of Reno 911 play through my mind, we hear an unsettling sound coming from Gary’s trailer and realize that the bearings on the axle have actually broken apart and we won’t be going anywhere till we fix it. So we pull up to an RV business and re-pack new bearings and set the axle back together in a hurricane-like wind that shoots down the mountainside directly at us. An hour or so later and we are back on the road.
We make it to Lake Tahoe and find out that chains are required for the mountain pass. We are now entering the state of California from western Nevada, and we find ourselves regretting not have purchased chains beforehand, because the price isn’t “discounted” when you are forced to buy them at the mountain pass. A worker sets up our chains and we are off, through ice and snow. A Suburban nearly slides off the cliff as we make the summit and descend down the sharp hill. After the mountain pass, the snow disappears and the scenery begins to look more like what I envisioned of California.
We soon enough arrive in Oakland, California and Gary gives me a short tour of his home town and the former steel factories that have been converted to industrial-type art studios. Giant creatures forged and welded from metal stalk the slums of the city, and someone has added “Studios” at the end of “American Steel” to make it “American Steel Studios.” We are distinctly in Oakland, California.
He sets me off at the trolly station and I purchase a ticket to head close to the highway where I plan to hitch hike with my Dahon folding bicycle the next day. I ask one of the local riders for directions, and he asks me if I have a place to stay for the night. I tell him I do not, but I’ll be alright, but he kindly insists that I can stay at his place and crash on the couch if I want. Sure beats sleeping on the streets!, I decide. One night while in San Diego, I decide to sleep in Balboa Park, which is enormous and one of the largest public parks in the United States. I nearly step onto a homeless man who is sleeping near a picnic table. “Sorry! Just looking for a place to crash, didn’t see ya!,” and I laugh to myself and move on.
So I meet Andrew and his friend Silvia, and we end up having a great night going for Mexican food, jamming on guitars, and drinking some whiskey.
The next day, Andrew and Silvia give me a lift to the start of Interstate 5, which goes directly south into Los Angeles and San Diego. I try hitching out of the exit for an hour or so, with no success in my efforts, so I decide to take a moment and hang out with the cowboy playing banjo in front of the gas station in the middle of the desert. “Name’s Red,” he tells me. ” Welcome to the armpit of California.” He tells me his stories about train hopping, his life on the road. ” I’m just trying to get to the coast,” he tells me. “It’ll get better from there.”
For me, it only gets better when I finally decide to take Plan B and cycle out of this hole of a rest area, and I make my way south for about 40 miles along the five until it is fast-approaching dark. The weather in California plays tricks on you in the winter time, since it feels like summer but gets dark early because it’s actually winter. I get a flat tire on the rear of my bike just as night approaches, and I really luck out when one of the Craigslist rideshare calls and says that they are headed southbound for San diego and I can ride with them. I push my bicycle one mile to the exit that they are parked at and we head off.
It turns out that both of the guys riding are college students heading to San Diego to surprise their girlfriends with a visit and flowers, which we stop at a local grocery store to pick up while ” Love Song” by the Cure ironically plays over the speakers. We crack jokes and laugh about the whole thing, and eventually I get dropped off at Lestat’s coffee house in San Diego, a 24-hour coffee shop I had researched prior to arriving. Overall, I have nothing but positive things to say about this coffee shop, first being that it seems to be one of the only 24-hour coffee shops in the city of San Diego. The air is pure, and comfortably warm for the month of January. The weather stays perfect throughout my entire visit.
The next day, I meet Corey and Barbara, my couch surfing hosts for my stay in San Diego. They are a super-friendly couple, Corey being from Australia and Barbara a native to San Diego. They offer me insights to the city that I otherwise would not have discovered, and Barbara’s mom makes a fantastic dinner for us.
I spend a lot of time just cycling around San Diego exploring– it proves to be a great city for that. On one day, I go see the band Pinback perform at the Casbah along with the opening band Deathfix. They were both spectacular live bands.
One day, I decide to go to Tijuana and visit Mexico. Despite the fact that Tijuana is only a long southern trolly ride away from downtown San Diego, once you cross the border, it is very much Mexico and it becomes clear that one is not in Kansas anymore. I walk freely across the border without anybody asking for a passport or any proof of identification. This is a double-standard, and not the same process when one crosses back into the United States, but even so, they only asked for my passport on the way back and it was relatively painless.
A woman apparently on drugs lays on the sidewalk and babbles about “propane” as I walk along the walkway into the border. There seems to be a lot of people traveling from Mexico to work in the United States for the day. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of people bustling about; the smells of garbage, of food, of old rusty shopping carts filled with anything and everything imaginable, with Mexicans running up to expensive-looking cars and rubbing them down for a tip (which seems to make it dirtier than before), of people dressed as clowns in traffic and juggling for tips, of cars honking, of the pace of the morning traffic as the sun slowly rolls over the horizon– most of the shops seem to still be closed for the day. At eleven o’clock, doors seem to open for business and more people bustle about.
I wipe out on my bike as the tire gets caught inside a crack on the decaying sidewalk and just get back up like nothing happened. A local guides me to downtown as a rush around on my bicycle, sometimes dodging traffic and taking the only detours that we possibly can to get off the busy streets. My Spanish is limited, but I do speak enough to understand mostly what people are talking about, and I gather that my “guide” is going for food and has work in about an hour.
I spend the day touring Tijuana and eating as much authentic Mexican food as I possibly can. I count about 30 people that ask me “Cuanto diner la bicicleta?,” (How much did you pay for the bicycle?) which I begin to respond with “No say, es mi coche, gracias.” (I don’t know, it’s my car, thanks.)
Despite it’s rawness, pollution, noise, traffic, and standing out somewhat uncomfortably as the distinctly ONLY gringo walking around Tijuana at this time of day, I do easily fall for the city and it’s mysteries. I stopped at a place called Nikki’s, which is a local establishment that serves food and soda and is a low-key place outside of the red-light district. The owner comes over to chat with me, and I feel comfortable and at home at this place. Highly recommended if you ever make it to Tijuana!
I’ve met so many different people during my travels that I can’t possibly talk about all of them here– but the experiences will surely stand out for the years to come. While talking to a San Diegan at a street corner for five minutes, we are approached by two policemen on foot who question us as to how we know each other, what we are doing, if we are carrying drugs, and seem to stick their nose around, digging for any kind of dirt. There is none, and they go on their way. It’s a bit like looking at a cute cuddly grizzly bear face to face– seems perfectly harmless, but one can sense that the situation could easily change for the worse in the form of intended bribery– a common occurrence in Mexico, unfortunately. All goes well and they walk away and let us be.
I make it back to San Diego and the next day I get a lift from Sreka, a college student in Indiana who is originally from western India; Bombay to be specific. Sreka tells me about a bike ride he did with some friends along the western coast of India and his experience actually falling asleep while riding a bicycle! ” I had about two hours of sleep the night before,” he says. “.. and I guess I just kind of got into the rhythm.”
We pass giant cactus and deserts of Arizona, which all seem a bit like driving on planet Mars to me. How is this area of the country even hospitable for humans?, I find myself asking. We make it to Albuquerque after nightfall.
In Albuquerque, I meet up with my great friend Natalie and have dinner with her family. We also go out to a nice sushi dinner packed with New Mexican green chili. I try hitchhiking out of an Albuquerque truck stop, but have no luck and the attendants end up trying to run me out, although not in an aggressive kind of way. I do end up getting a ride from three people from Amarillo, Texas who left Texas for various x boyfriends and girlfriends and other drama. ” I caught my x in bed with anotha’ man,” one of the girls says. ” So I just up and left.” Leeroy insists on telling me that he knows federal agents who will “take care of any of his problems at the drop of a hat” for some reason. Everyone in the car chain smokes cigarettes as I struggle to keep my nose as close to the open window for precious fresh air. All drama aside, they seem to be good people and I roll with it. I give them gas money, but at every gas station they insist on flying a cardboard sign for money. Surprisingly, this tactic actually works. They are people kind enough to give me a lift, so I roll with whatever comes my way. Leeroy and his new girlfriend argue in the front seats constantly as myself and another girl remain crammed in the back seat. Eventually, we finally make it to Denver, and the trip is over– back to the normal life.
Through this short trip, I’ve met people and characters that I’ll never forget, experiences that will probably always stay at the forefront of my mind. I’ve decided to move to San Diego after seeing nothing but positive things about the local music scene, culture and of course the weather. First, I’ll be traveling to Thailand and Southeast Asia for another epic bicycle trip.
(A fun jam with a Mariachi band in Tijuana, Mexico)