Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Day 4: Santa Maria, the Storm, and Amtrak

You may be able to guess where this is going based on the title. I woke up this morning with my lovely auto-fire on, sauntered to the window, and saw rain. Lots of it. Undeterred, I donned a towel and walked onto my hotel balcony. It looked like rain but felt like sprinkles. If it felt like sprinkles, I concluded, it must _be_ sprinkles. As a corollary, it must therefore be bikeable. Operating on this illogic, I pulled on a few layers of spandex, packed up, and checked out.

Right after I checked out, I looked outside and noticed that it was pouring rain. There were no sprinkles here. This was an actual storm. Shit. To prove to myself that this was utterly unbikeable, I walked outside and stood in the deluge for about a minute. I got wet. And cold. I walked back inside, pulled the map out of my pack, and looked for towns that were inland. I figured it might not be raining inland, as yesterday's rain seemed centered around the coast. The concierge called a minivan cab for me. I told the driver to take me to Arroyo Grande, the nearest inland town. She did. It was stormy. I pulled out the map again.

"OK, could you take me to Santa Maria?" It looked further inland, and it seemed to have a Greyhound station just in case.

"Are you sure? It's not the nicest place in the world."


"Yeah, when I was a kid, they told you never to go to Santa Maria unless you wanted meth and brown acid. There were gangs. People would just disappear there."

"Uh...is it still like that?"

"I don't know. I tell my daughter never to go there."

We arrived in Santa Maria. It was raining. Hard. The driver dropped me off at a Denny's, where I slowly drank coffee for three hours in an attempt to wait out the rain. The rain literally did not stop. The old codger sitting in the booth behind me had seen me get out of the cab and asked where I had come from. I told him Shell Beach. He asked me if my daddy owned an oil well, since I was able to afford the $40 cab fare. I thought about this for a moment, then told him I'd stolen the money from the dresser of my 46-year-old CEO sugar daddy. He nodded thoughtfully, said oh I see, good for you, and turned back to his food.

At about 11 am, the rain lightened from sheet mode into a steady drip. I decided it was time to search the town for a bookstore. Shortly after I got back on the bike, Mother Nature flicked the rain setting switch back to Deluge, and I was instantly soaked. I stopped off at the nearest Long's and, figuring it was going to be a long day, bought a puzzle, a copy of Us magazine, and a V.C. Andrews novel. I learned from the sales clerk that there was an Amtrak bus headed for Santa Barbara at 4:50 pm. It stopped in front of the IHOP up the street. I looked outside. This weather was clearly not planning on leaving anytime soon. The Amtrak bus would be my best bet to get out of Santa Maria and into something potentially more bikeable. In fact, upon hearing the forecast for the next few days (rainwindrainwindmorerain), I decided that it might be prudent just to catch a train to San Diego and call trip end. I bought Amtrak tickets and resumed my long wait at IHOP.

It was harder to kill time at IHOP than at Denny's. The wait staff was way more persistent. After about 10 increasingly urgent "would you like anything else, ma'am"s, I ordered a pile of pancakes slathered in strawberries, stuck my fork territorially in the middle, and kept my hand on the fork for 2 hours while reading about the underlying factors behind Britney Spears' post-nuptial weight gain. This strategy seemed to work, though the moment I put the fork down, the waitress materialized and asked me if I wanted anything else. IHOP is really on top of their shite.

At around 2 pm, the rain stopped. It literally stopped. One of the IHOP folks came up to me and said look, here's your chance, the weather cleared for you. I was pessimistic, but I still had almost three hours to kill until the bus came, so a short ride didn't sound too bad. I jumped on the bike and rode into the blissfully rain-free weather. I soon found myself on flat farm roads, surrounded by strawberry and broccoli fields. Still no rain. Hell, maybe I could make it to Solvang today after all. Maybe the storms were done.

As though in reaction to my newfound optimism, the sky opened up and began to spew rain. Fortunately, the rain wasn't cold this time, so I rode through it. It stopped again. A shower. No problem. I kept riding. I found a steep hill named (aptly) Dominion Road. I rode up it. The rain started again. I hid in an oak grove amidst barbed wire and a rusted girl's bike. The rain eased but didn't stop.

Defeated, I descended Dominion. The rain turned to Waterfall setting with some Strong Gusts added in for flavor. This time, it did not let up. I was dripping. My bike was making strange slithering noises from all the water. Traffic, mostly farmworkers in big trucks, suddenly became heavier. I'd had it. I saw a shed on the edge of a field about 1/2 mile away. I sprinted towards it, dismounted, waded through a puddle of miscellaneous brown muck, yanked the door open, and stood in the blissful dryness until the storm passed. It was musty and dry in there, with a packed dirt floor, a water pump, and a full bottle of Downy fabric softener. A great place to hang out and soften your laundry in the rain.

Eventually, the shower passed. I biked back to the nearest Burger King, changed, sipped more coffee, ate a shrimp salad (they give you the meat in a bag labeled Bag of Meat - very spaceage), and waited for the Amtrak bus.

At 4:50, it came. It finally came. It was clean, cushy, warm, and dry, and man was I happy. Coincidentally, I wasn't the only stranded cyclist on the bus: a certain John Anderson had also been blown by the storm in Lompoc and had decided to take this bus to Santa Barbara, his final destination. I was relieved to hear I was not the only wandering soul washed up by the storm. I made a mental note to come back to SLO one of these days and finish the other two legs of my trip.

The next part of my day was unremarkable. I caught the (very delayed) Amtrak train to San Diego. It took 7 hours. Amtrak apparantly malfunctions a lot in the rain. I got to San Diego at 3 am, where my half-conscious friend Arin picked and put me up for the night.


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