An annual tradition to shake everyone out of their holiday stupors, get them back on their bikes and out in the cold.
The man in the guardhouse grimaces, “You guys are crazy, it's going to be below freezing tonight. What the heck are you doing here?"
“Uhh, camping man. Annual tradition."
“Well, we got 300 campsites and you've got 299 to choose from. The only other guy camping here got so cold last night he had to call his wife and tell her to bring him out some extra firewood."
The man waves us through and I follow Mike's taillights up over the hill.
After changing into our thermals and setting up camp we walk down to the lake. Or rather, walk down to the lake bed. This part of Central California has been hard hit by the last few years of drought and the storms that have buffeted the coast lately have missed this area. Dormant oaks dot the dry grassy hills that surround the dwindling lake waters. Down at the shore the old high water mark looms 75 feet above us, a bone white band that rings the entire lake basin. We stumble around on the rocks and take blurry cell phone photos of the moon rising over the hills. At first it is just a sliver peaking over the shoulder of the hill, but it picks up speed as it ascends and changes from a dusty yellow to a blueish skim-milk in color.
We crack beers and sip whiskey and switch places around the fire. Conversation wanders from the skatepark session that afternoon, to the events of the year, to wives and women and other camping trips. When the firewood runs low and the whiskey takes hold, we forage for wood. An abandoned and rotted railroad tie is found and against our better judgment a piece is tossed on the fire. The campsite is instantly engulfed in a black acrid smoke. We cuss as we pull it from the fire and extinguish it by stomping on it. Jolted back to reality by our poor decision making we decide it's time to retire to our tents. Away from the glow of the coals the guard house worker's words of caution begin to ring true. By California standards, it's pretty damn cold.
Morning light reveals a thick layer of frost on our tents. The first 20 minutes of the day is spent comparing notes on our nights' sleep and taking turns boiling water for batches of coffee. Camp breaks down quickly and we call Brandon Eckles to make a plan for the day, agreeing to meet up in town. A drugstore is the first sign of civilization and we pull in to grab supplies. Cob and Murph wait to watch the bikes while Mike, Anthony and I go inside.
Back in the parking lot an interesting offer has been extended. Based purely on the bikes piled in the back of the truck and the patina of dirt on our clothes a local has invited us out to his rustic ramp ranch in the hills for a session. Between his instant generosity and the understandable ban on photos and social media the next few hours feel like we have traveled back to a time when a BMX was a passport and nobody on the deck of a ramp had their face buried in a phonee.
“Ramps" doesn't accurately describe our benefactor's setup. His entire front yard is a perfectly poured cement park. Ramps and dirt projects litter the property and there is evidence of good times in almost every corner. While our host "only rides a little" he has the best lines of the day on Anthony's borrowed bike including a brief trip upside down on a quarter pipe that surprises us all. The session is punctuated with a hike up to the cement pumptrack that he has perched on a scenic overlook. We thank him heartily and pledge to make a burnt offering of thanks to the road trip gods around the next campfire.
Brandon's front yard trails are the next stop. Everything is bigger, beefier and rerouted since the last time we visited. While it is the dead of winter the trails are almost dry enough to ride and are just too enticing to refuse. Brandon, Cob and I take a few runs as the light fades and appreciate the fact that we are riding trails in late December.
That night we camp near Morro Bay on the coast. The first campground we visit serves as a stark contrast to the vacant desolation of the night before. There is a line of RVs waiting to get in and we are relieved when we are turned away and pleased with the alternative we find a few minutes down the highway. A couple days of riding and a week of holiday eating and drinking has taken the fight out of most of us and we quietly wind down around the fire.
The night is gentler than the previous one and we pack the cars relatively quickly. The momentum has shifted to home but there is still a stop or two to make. Morro Bay has just opened a new bike park with a pumptrack and a couple lines of jumps and we follow each other through, taking advantage of the last trick jump. Everyone is treated to the all too rare sight of Chris aboard his BMX. He may not ride his smallest bike that often but if he has cobwebs to dust off, none of us can tell. After an hour or so of laps we rendezvous at the Taco Temple. Portions are absurd and the thought of riding more recedes like the tide.
The beach beckons, a frisbee is tossed and and rocks are skipped off of incoming waves. We say our goodbyes to Brandon here, promising to come down more and threatening him if he doesn't come up our way more frequently. We point it north and enjoy a scenic climb up and over the hills that separate the coast from Highway 101. Hawks and buzzards circle on the warm valley updrafts. The passengers drift off to sleep. I smile to myself and ease off the gas, taking it easy.