39.12 Miles; 5,480 Feet of Gain; Tecate, US/MX Border to Mt. Laguna, CA
The four of us slept hard given the recent end of the school year. We woke up early and got going in the car by 5 am. Matt and Colleen were driving our vehicle since we had the bike rack on the back with all of our gear. We skirted the streets of El Cajon out towards the rural countryside and into the rocky interior of the Cleveland National Forest. Ranchlands and farms dotted mountainsides amid the chapparal and shrouded mist of marine layer permeating the inland.
I stared out the windows as early dawn crept color into the landscape. The rocks and shrouded misty peaks thrilled me that soon I'd be riding and traversing this terrain. Matt and Colleen on the other hand kept musing what it would be like to do what we were doing; but rather than envy, I caught glimpses of disbelief. We turned down a side-road and arrived at the border town of Tecate, Mexico. The prevalent fog made the temperatures unexpectedly cool for this desertscape in early June. I was prepared for stifling foresummer heat; I was pleased by the marine layer coating the atmosphere to a ripe chill requiring a wind jacket. We pulled the car up to just before the International Border port/fence and pulled into a side parking lot and strip mall. A number of borderland businesses had popped up offering insurance, food, and currency exchange. Even a small public school district was adjacent to the border fence.
Janna and I jumped out of the vehicle and immediately got to work packing the bikes. We had a big day of climbing ahead of us, and we wanted to gain elevation up Mt. Laguna before Sun burned away mist and subsequently baked the land. A line of cars lined up expectedly at the border gates, waiting for the international crossing to open for the day. After about 40 minutes, we were loaded and ready to ride. Matt and Colleen took a photo of us before they got back in the car and started driving away, looking back and wondering how we were going to bike what we planned to bike before us.
The two of us rode down to the Border Fence, as close to the port as possible where a handful of cars rolled down windows and asked us which way we intended to ride. Some shouts of encouragement were thrown at us as we took more photos in front of a stack of rocks with a plaque marking the location as an International Trading Community. And just like that, we turned our bike noses north and pedaled away from Tecate and into the beginning of the Sierra Cascades.
We started pedaling slowly to avoid injury and not overwork ourselves. I kept stopping my bike to take tones of photos of the lolling mists rolling over the jumbled rocks of the land. High-desert grasslands peppered with yucca punctuated the stonescape as rurality rose up from urbanity. Janna and I turned onto the main highway tracing an east-west bisect of the mountains as shoulder drifted away to very little. Little did we know that is lack of shoulder and persistent riding of heavy-use highways would come to be the stressful norm along the Sierra Cascades route. The road ahead twisted and turned through the mountains, ever taking us up. By mid-morning, we arrived in the small town of Potrero, CA. We stopped to eat snacks outside a post office under a tree. The blue sky was started to emerge from the marine layer and the promise of hot temperatures could be felt. As we were eating, an unstable and aggressive man emerged from the shadows of the building. I said "Good Morning!" to which he walked up to me and began cursing. That encounter encouraged us to get going pronto.
All morning we rode west-to-east only a hundred feet or so away from the border wall. The climbs continued up and down the chapparal-coated hills as mist slowly faded into full sunlight. We stopped several times to take pictures of flowers growing copiously in the early summer along the road. We passed several ranches and Border Patrol spots. Janna biked out ahead of me while I slowed back. My knee had been bothering me in the few weeks up to the trip; that, plus my recent bone contusions in my other leg meant I needed to go slow and steady to nurse my performance over the course of the trip. The border wall rose next to me on an adjoining hill when suddenly a gray SUV came roaring downhill along a dirt road perpendicular to the highway. It joined the highway right behind me, hit the pavement away from the border wall, and immediately gunned it so fast that it buzzed me at what had to been nearly 100 mph. I screamed and pulled my bike over to the dirt side of the highway. The SUV swerved across both lanes of highway, passed me, and continued at the same illegal pace up the road. Knowing Janna was ahead, I pedaled hard to catch up and check on her safety.
Not four minutes later, an unmarked white SUV came flying down the road behind me. It passed me, threw on the brakes with a loud roaring screech. Then, the car quickly backed up to where I was riding. I stopped, wary of what encounter would happen. It turned out to be an unmarked Border Patrol agent vehicle. The offer rolled down the window and quickly asked me if I had just seen a vehicle come off the hill next to the wall. I affirmed seeing an SUV and said it was flying. She quickly asked for the appearance of the vehicle and the direction it went. The conversation was over in 30 seconds and the Border Patrol agent went flying off in the same direction to chase down the car. I was a bit stunned and caught up to Janna shortly thereafter to relay the series of events.
The Sierra Cascades carried us through groves of Live Oaks and Cottonwood lining a wash before we arrived in Campo, CA. A Circle K gas station sat in the heart of the rural community. We parked our bikes in its shade and went in to grab a ton of water. Usually, we get easy permission to fill our bottles/bladders from sinks or the tap. However, with this being only one year into COVID, we turned away and told to buy bottled. We bought a couple of gallons while masked, filled up our bottles, ate some snacks, and pushed off for a long ride along a country highway that passed by rural home while distant rock-peaks punched into the air. The historic Route 80 was relatively quiet and passed us along dried-grass fields in the floodplains of dry desert washes while interspersed Live Oaks provided intermittent shade. We rode our bikes through a Border Patrol checkpoint and started up a steep climb into more mountains. As elevation increased, the shoulder width decreased, but the views were amazing. A shaded wildland fire station came up on our rights. We turned our bikes into the parking lot and took a long break in the shade of its trees as mid-day heat really got going.
Watered and cooled, we got back on the bikes, crossed the interstate on a bridge, and started climbing up the side of Mount Laguna in earnest. The sweat just poured off me on the steep climb. It reminded me of ascending Mt. Lemmon down in Tucson for the relentless uphill coupled with sweeping views of chapparal valleys into the distance. We used a couple of pull offs to let traffic pass on the non-shouldered highway. These provided additional opportunities to observe the wildflowers and take in more viewpoints. Eventually, yucca and grass gave way to montane pine and conifer along with sprawling meadows. We entered the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area in the Cleveland National Forest and stopped to read several information signs and plaques along pull off boardwalks.
We pulled into the Burnt Rancheria Campground in mid-afternoon, found a suitable spot, and setup our shelter. The campground was relatively empty as reservations were required and most sites were closed due to COVID precautions. We walked the perimeter of the campground as it was only 4 pm. Large Jeffrey Pines were studded with thousands of holes filled with acorns. The prevalent oak were producing seed that Acorn Woodpeckers were drilling into any space they could find. It was super cool. As evening came around, Janna and I returned to our tent site, ate dinner, and finally felt the cool of the mountain elevation lower temps for a good night's sleep.