Like a lot of itches, I’m not sure how this one started. It may have been the warm winter and desperate snowpack around Bozeman, or maybe restlessness after a long weekend with the flu. I don’t often think about bike tours in the middle of winter. But there I was, longing for a long bike ride.

I had been wanting to find a reason to use Alaska Airlines’ free checked bike policy for credit cardholders, so, using miles, I got a ticket to San Francisco on a Friday night, a return flight from Los Angeles on the next Tuesday afternoon, and pulled my bicycle out of the shed. Nearly 500 miles to cover in less than four full days was ambitious. When I got dropped off at the Bozeman airport, I was comfortably wearing shorts and struggling with the sanity of my decision, though I was pretty sure it would make sense once I started riding.

After a two hour nap to San Francisco, I assembled my bicycle next to the baggage claim conveyor and rode into the damp evening, navigating dark side streets that ran parallel to the heavily trafficked arteries flowing in and out of the terminal.

The first sight of the Pacific Ocean was like meeting a new roommate. I was about to spend a lot of time with this thing, and it had the potential to make life really hard, or really fun. I ended up sleeping on a rocky point south of Half Moon Bay, settling down after midnight. The waves crashed peacefully below, and I could tell we would be getting along alright.

The next day would be the longest of the trip. A section of the highway in Big Sur has been closed since a landslide in 2021, but a bicyclist can respectfully cross through the closure after construction hours, or at least that’s what a few Reddit posts indicated. I wanted to pass through that night, which would mean riding around 160 miles of some of the hilliest terrain on the central coast.

Riding a bike all day can be a bit of a time warp. Highway 1 has mile markers at least every half mile, forcing a constant reckoning of the relatively slow pace of a bicycle. On the other hand, once I set aside big-picture ideas of the task ahead, I was amazed at how much ground I was covering. Before I knew it, I was at a farmer’s market in Santa Cruz, listening to a brass quintet and eating a fresh pear.

After Santa Cruz, the route entered a section of industrial lettuce farms. I wondered if this was where the greens I eat in Bozeman in January come from. In Monterey, I bought two shots of espresso from a hip coffee shop with decorative bicycles hanging on the walls before climbing over to Carmel, where stone houses tempt gravity over cliffs emerging from the ocean.

The sun began to set as I entered the Big Sur area. Going on long bike tours in the winter necessitates some night riding, a part of the experience I relish. I felt a renewed energy in the night as traffic slowed, and temperatures dropped. It helped that the moon was just recently full, and once it rose over the steep hillsides in front of me, it illuminated the empty roads and the ocean below with a bright shade of blue. Passing through the landslide closure was straightforward enough and I camped soon afterwards, dining on a protein bar and Goldfish crackers.

I packed a 55-degree sleeping bag, a light bivy sack, and a leaky sleeping pad to spend the nights in, which proved to be just enough. I had planned daily mileage to allow for healthy amounts of sleep, and woke at 6 a.m. the next morning feeling well rested and optimistic with a good amount of riding behind me.

Breakfast was an order of chilaquiles from a lodge at Ragged Point, the Pacific Ocean framed by a cropped lawn and red aloe flowers. The sun was feeling intense, and I realized I had forgotten sunscreen.

The mountains of the coast break apart from the shore after Ragged Point, making room for large green pastures that end abruptly at the ocean. At a break in this terrain, I watched elephant seals and their pups yap amongst themselves in piles of bodies covering the beach. Every so often a seal would flop down into the water, letting the surf splash over them. Nearly every rock I saw for the next 50 miles appeared at first a seal.

As I inflated my sleeping pad that night in Lompoc, I watched the dark sky turn bright to the west. A SpaceX rocket emerged from the faux sunrise and arced cinematically overhead, dogs barking as if it were a passing mailman. What a strange event to be a part of a community. I loved passing through these places on my bike, neighborhoods with trucks in driveways and trampolines in backyards, familiar scenes placed in a geography so much different from my own. There are people who know only this, and they love it.

The third full day of riding was spent mostly on the generous shoulders of freeways. The towns I had been passing through turned to cities. Occasionally, a dedicated bike path offered a reprieve from the traffic. I bought blueberry pancakes in Goleta and sunscreen in Santa Barbara. I finally jumped into the ocean.

I camped 50 miles from Los Angeles International Airport, confident then that I’d make my flight the next day. Riding with Malibu rush hour traffic into the morning sunrise was the least comfortable I felt the whole trip. I dismounted several times, only continuing when the blur of cars had passed a pinch in the highway. The roads were flat though, and I made it quickly to the Santa Monica bike path.

I bid the ocean adieu after Venice Beach and headed to a U-Haul store in Inglewood, where I had ordered a large TV box before leaving Bozeman. I joked that this trip was all in service of picking up some cardboard box I just happened to own in California, and while this wasn’t true, actually getting the box was nonetheless a moment of distinct conclusion.

Learning to ride a bike through a city with a large box tucked under one arm was simpler than I had imagined, and I stopped only for a conveniently located fish taco truck before arriving at LAX two hours before my plane was set to depart.

I packed my bike in my box in the terminal and sent it off, walking myself off into the metaphorical sunset of a TSA security scanner. The itch had been thoroughly scratched.