Santa Maria to Buellton, CA

Now firmly cemented as a regular tradition, we’re doing an overnight bike tour this Thanksgiving weekend. We’re returning to the Central coast of California, looping between Santa Maria and Buellton, passing through Solvang and Lompoc.

We actually attempted this tour last year at Thanksgiving, although that had us starting in Solvang. We spent the day before driving and hanging out in the touristy parts of town. In wee hours, Anne lost her dinner. By morning it was clear she was too sick to proceed. We bailed and drove home, stealing the ice bucket just in case there were more incidents.

This time, I’m happy to report we have had more success. Yesterday, on Thanksgiving, we made the drive down. We had a lovely Thanksgiving lunch at Denny’s on the road, and Thanksgiving dinner at a Jack in the Box. Festive times.

This morning we wanted to get an early start. We estimated the ride at a little under nine hours with lunch and ten hours of daylight. We got as much prep done in the evening, but still needed to do a final pack, get car stuff put away, and of course breakfast. A five o’clock alarm, 6:15 target (dawn), and rolled out at 6:55, 10 minutes after sunrise. Not too bad.

It’s unseasonably warm. It was already 70 by dawn, with a forecasted 81 high. We quickly got sweaty as we made our way south across Santa Maria and Orcutt. Once we crossed 101 it shifted from suburban developments to farms and unimproved land. Much more interesting, and less traffic to share the road with. We had a pair of short climbs with matching descents as rewards.

We got to the big climb of the day on Foxen Canyon Rd. Mostly it was pretty gentle, maybe 2%, but punctuated with more work and some downs. It continued to heat up, without a lot of shade. Ruth changed into cooler clothes. Anne and I just got to sweat. Max seemed a little cooler with shade in his trailer. The road reminded me of Silverado in Napa County. Rolling hills, generally up, with vineyards at the side.

I started to get hungry, which meant we had probably already waited too long for lunch. Max kept asking for the “cookie thing”, a package containing a deconstructed Oreo in the mold of the cheese/stick cracker snacks I remember for my childhood. Anne got them weeks ago, saving them for the trip to generate excitement. We found a shady spot and picnicked at the side of the road.

While we were stopped, a couple of other bikers rode by and offered encouragement. Some bees also found us and were freaking out Ruth and Anne. Max seemed amused by Ruth’s terror. What a good brother.

Then it was time to finish the climb. The bees kept bothering Ruth, but they were just exploring, not hostile. Ruth refused to brush them off, and was quite unhappy. Tonight she told me she was trying to cry them off. It sounded like ordinary crying. Stopping wouldn’t help, so I just kept going and tried feebly to reassure her.

There was a kicker at the top, much steeper for the last 200 feet or so of elevation. At least the hill was kind enough to provide consistent shade. Anne, hot and tired, stopped to walk for a bit. I kept going for a while, but after one too many turns which weren’t the top (and without Anne to help me keep a sustainable pace), I stopped in a turnout to let her (and my breath) catch up.

I secretly wanted to walk a bit, but Anne was ready to mount up. So we rode on and found the top. There was an excellent descent followed by a gentle downslope. We crested a small hill and could suddenly smell burning. In the distance, hazy smoke was clouding the hills. I wasn’t sure if there was a controlled burn or wildfire. The smoke was nowhere near as bad as we had a home a few weeks ago when smoke from the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties set in the Bay Area. There was still light traffic coming from the other direction, so there was nothing to do but keep going. Later, I learned there was a 380 acre brush fire in nearby Vandenberg AFB, but it’s out now. 

We finished the downslope, reaching the next hill. This one was just the steep part. Not too steep in absolute terms, but heat plus out of practice makes things harder. It quickly became clear that we would be going up and over the exposed ridge line. At least we could see how far we were going. Again, Anne stopped to walk, and this time I joined her right away. I let Ruth out to help Mommy (and so I wouldn’t have to pull her up) and we finished the short climb.

More descent took us to the next road. We had to cross busy CA 154 without the benefit of stop sign or light. Anne suggested we wait for an opening and run on foot across, under the theory that we’d accelerate faster than on bike. Soon enough we successfully crossed.

On to Ballard Canyon Road and another short climb. This one was snaky and around a bunch of fancy hill houses. Anne said it reminded her of Happy Valley near Lafayette, one of our nemesis roads. That didn’t bode well. We could see where the road would be, way up after a couple hidden switchbacks.

Anne stopped to walk again. I knew it was a fairly short climb, so pressed on. I lost sight of her as I went around a bend, but by the time I saw her again in my mirror she was back on the saddle. Near the top was a one-way construction section, controlled with stoplights. It was clear when I arrived, but a few cars soon arrived, waiting their turn. Anne got there before I finished, and realized if she stopped there on the climb she’d have a hard time getting started again. So she inched after me. Fortunately the waiting cars didn’t seem too annoyed.

Another down and back up, this time Chalk Hill Road. This was even shorter, but more up-and-down to spread out the pain. The beginning was winding wooded hills, but by the end it was generic subdivision.

We took a brief tour through Solvang’s main strip (crowded, trafficky, and inconsistent shoulder), and made the last few miles into Buellton. We arrived at 5 with about an hour of daylight left.

We’re staying at Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn, advertised from miles away, a nice enough motel. We got pizza for dinner and played pinball while we waited. Then groceries, disappointing the kids with no swimming and bedtime.

We saw a lot of animals today. The standard cows and horses, of course. But also bison in one field and ostraches in a farm between Solvang and Buellton. Plus birds: a hawk flew out of a tree and gave us a nice flyby, and crazy chattering birds hiding in trees elsewhere. But the most exotic was a white owl that was in a tree by the road but decided to flee at our presence. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a wild owl.

Today was hard, both because of the heat and because neither of us grownups are in peak biking shape. But it was successful, and featured some lovely roads and a lot of vineyards. Tomorrow is supposed to be a bit cooler.