The Lighthouse Link-Up — Finding My Way Home

Lying in the wet gravel on the side of the road in the pre dawn doesn’t have the same allure to it as if I were two-dozen pitches up a big wall. With my girlfriend’s wet bike helmet butted up against my chin, one arm wrapped around her midsection like an alpine spoon, we shiver in the frigid conditions. The moist, icy air permeates my wool clothing. She turns, her helmeted head grazing against my chin, “We have to go,” she says.

Evie and I are halfway between San Geronimo Valley and Point Reyes in Northern California at 4am and on our way back home because of a dream I had started a year and a half earlier.

Back then I was at the end of another failed relationship. I was pondering the outcome with a dark beer in hand, in a depressed stupor with my head face down on a wooden table at some dopey bar in a less-than ideal town in Colorado at 4:30pm, thinking ‘this is not me.’ ‘I used to climb, write, ride, and travel.’ ‘I used to reside in tents, caves and ditches, often climbing and biking alone throughout many states and national parks.’ Now here I was working for a web firm, trapped in the 7- 4 schedule, surrounded by people I had nothing in common with and watching life go by. I still climbed and biked in the evenings and weekends, often with office-cube mates, but it wasn’t enough. I put the beer down and I decided that I’d finally ride that century. Maybe even, someday, I’d add in climbing 50 boulder problems or roped climbs in that same day.

The goal represented more than just riding or climbing a certain distance. I wanted all these things back — the freedom of the open roads and walls, and working towards something bigger than the security of a steady paycheck. I didn’t like where the redundancy and complacency that cube life was taking me. I didn’t like having a body made stiff by too much time in an office chair, and seeing rolls develop in my mid section. To reach these goals some changes would have to be made.

I began riding more regularly and with more intensity. One course linked two bouldering areas together. It felt natural to clip shoes and a chalk bag to my back and head out for the day, just like I’d done 20 years ago when climbing and riding around Marin County, California.

On some of these new rides, I would ride up in the Rocky Mountains towards Estes Park to about 8,000 feet to a place that was similar to Tuolumne Meadows. The air was crisp, alpine lakes were still and few cars passed by. Tuolumne is where I’d spend summers working and climbing for many years and it felt right to be in a place that felt like home.

Sometimes during these rides I’d pop tires like crazy and snap tire levers, the sharp end of the plastic cutting my hands. Time and again I’d fail to reach the distance but each time I was getting closer.

As the rides continued I improved my gear. I replaced hole-prone racing tires with heavy, durable ones designed for distance. Riding playlists changed from dub reggae to short stories and suggested readings like The Happiness Project. The author had set out on her own quest just like I had.

Each ride I learned something new about myself and about relationships. Each ride through the woods and past lakes became longer and increasingly spiritual.

A few months worth of training later I dropped the desk job. I wanted to travel the world, climb big rocks and write about the experiences. It was time to take my life back from the system that was absorbing it. The new relationship with Evie was steadily progressing, requiring clear communication and a level of honesty I’d never shared with anyone. She’d been pushing me for months to drop the office gig and knew I was miserable there.

She found us a wooden boat on Craig’s List and we ended up a few miles from my hometown in Marin, California. I now worked from home writing and doing other freelance computer work. Now, these rides would take place where I’d first fallen in love with riding and climbing along the Coast of Marin County. I was getting closer to riding 100 miles, and hadn’t forgotten about the 100/50 plan.

One course in California was riding to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Built in 1870 and recognized as the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place in Northern California, the lighthouse juts 10 miles out on the tip of the Point Reyes peninsula. On the map it appeared to be 100 miles round trip from the boat.

Departing at sunset, I headed towards the lighthouse. On the final section towards the objective I passed historic farms with rusty trailers, along pot-holed roads and up an unrelenting climb capped with pocketed sandstone walls with frothing, pounding seas on nearly all sides. I finished the goal as the sun was rising only to discover that the course was five miles shy of 100.

One shorter ride I been frequenting was to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, positioned west of the Golden Gate Bridge and constructed in 1855. The goal now evolved to linking up both lighthouses for a distance far greater than the arbitrary number of 100. I wouldn’t want to go out and climb 50 easy boulder problems in a day, so why would I want to just ride 100 miles; I could do that on a track if that was really the goal.

I decided to link the lighthouses up at night – nine out of 10 times I rode at night anyway — rationalizing there’d be less traffic, less distractions and thus more time with my thoughts. Riding at night along the water was peaceful.

I liked the idea of heading towards the rhythmic light of the lighthouse, which would not be invisible during the day.

I replaced the chain, tightened the derailleur and filled my water bottles with a thick goo electrolyte drink. I packed a main light, a backup light, black wool arm and leg warmers into a hydration pack, and exchanged the worn spandies for a new pair.

Heading west at sunset, I left the marina in San Rafael towards Sausalito. I passed the docks where I spent my childhood, where my dad used to run a one-man boat business.

I headed up the coastal hills above Sausalito, past the patches of houses and their giant TV’s flickering blue through half closed shades. Then into a narrow tunnel once used by the military. Cracks in the tunnel dripped moisture and substances resembling tar and sulfur. Next came old military bunkers and buildings leading up to Point Bonita and finally to the iron door leading to the final point which shuts visitors off except during weekends.

Reversing course, I headed back through Sausalito, along a bike path and over to coastal Highway 1, past my first climbing partner’s house. As I was ascending to a ridge, the ocean came into view, while on the other side was the county of my youth. Then came the roaring descent. Carving along the fresh pavement, tightly following the yellow line, I approached the crags at Mickey’s Beach where 20 years ago I did my first lead climbs. I pulled over for a snack of sardines in the climber’s gravel  parking lot – also used by nudies who frequent the beach below the crags — as crashing waves startled me out of my world. Then I dropped down to the town of Stinson Beach and followed the coast up, past Dogtown and up to Olema junction. Pocked mud, like craters on the moon, reflected the light of nearby houses.

Nearing Olema the chill began to bite through my clothes. Pockets of warm air were gone, replaced by steady cool air. It was nearing midnight. Self-doubt began to set in. I wondered if I had enough layers to weather the night and the strength to ride out to the final destination; I had 21 miles to go to the lighthouse, along a barren and lonely road and then 21 miles back again, then another 15 miles back to the dock.

Home was to the right. I turned left, into the low-lying fog with even cooler air, towards the peninsula. A pumpkin moon began to rise over the bay and I pulled over to watch it. A car slowed and the driver asked if I was ok. “Yes, just taking in the moon,” I said. He double-checked. “Yes, I’m fine,” I said to reassure him. Cell reception would soon be gone.

Back on the road a bush loudly shook, startling me. Skunks crossed the road. The yellow eyes of deer reflected my bike light. The fire-orange lights of the City glowed in the distance. Waves crashed into the land below, leaving swirls of white barm.

Before the leaving the boat that day Evie agreed to meet me at Olema junction as I was headed back from the lighthouse. I liked the idea of meeting her out here, and for us to finish the ride together. Her text said she took off from the boat at 1am, thirty miles east of my location while I was still heading west.

Out at the Point Reyes Lighthouse I weaved through the chain link cage that led to the locked gate marking the entrance. The foghorn was deep, booming its signal every 30 seconds. I was overcome with a sense of urgency to leave. While refilling my water reservoir from the fountain my primary light went dead. I put on the backup headlamp and road slowly back, over the cattle guards and the now hard-to-see potholes. Handlebars shook so hard I’d had trouble keeping hold of them.

When reception came back her text came in “I’m headed to the lighthouse!”

At 4 am, cutting her way back and fourth up a hill I found her on her bicycle. We headed back to Olema junction while riding side by side. Once there we

snacked on fish, canned coffee, refilled bottles from the water bladder and got back on the road. Then fatigue set in. My eyes were forcing shut and I opened them while dreamily heading towards a parked road construction vehicle before jerking out of the way at the last minute. Exhaustion forced me to lie on freezing roadside, bivying like I’d done so many times on Yosemite’s big walls.

I imagined that holding her tight would keep us warm enough to wait it out until it got warmer. I thought of Bob Dylan singing, “The darkest hour is right before the dawn.” 15 miles from home and several miles past my goal, I had given up the struggle of forcing my eyes open and had let my guard down. ‘Just for a little bit,’ I thought.

Twenty minutes of deep snoring later Evie shook me awake. I was grouchy and wanted her to stop.  I tried holding her tighter, and threw my free leg over her hip. She continued arguing that it was dangerous to be so cold in the middle of nowhere. All I wanted her to do was let me warm us, fall back asleep and awake once the sun was out. She continued. Reluctantly I arose; heavy eyes were now staying open without strong effort but my arms and legs quivered like a calf taking its first steps. A chill overcame me but it dissipated when we climbed the next hill. I dreaded the chilly descents.

We reached the marina as the sun rose over the Bay. Our wheels rolled over the cricketing planks on the dock as we headed towards our boat. It felt wonderful to ride back with her that night.

Perhaps the 100/50 is a goal that is closer than it appears. Or it’s overly ambitious –guess I’ll find out one-way or the other. I’ll need to keep learning, be open to help, and develop thick calluses.

Chris and Evie, and dog Doodle Biscuit are now back in Golden, CO.

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Chris Van Leuven

Raised sailing and backpacking, Chris began climbing rocks as a teenager. 20 years later, Chris still climbs several days a week. He writes about travel, adventure and climbing. Follow him on Facebook: