Preface: Five years ago, in a final Tour Divide run-down, myself and three others embarked on a 3 day bikepacking trip from Carmel By The Sea to Ft. Hunter Liggett and beyond. Our best laid plans went awry and we ended up exhausted, without any real food or plans and relying on the kindness of strangers while camped out at the Mission San Antonio de Padua. One of the original Spanish Missions, it was established in 1745. To me it became a special place that would forever symbolize the history of the region, the rugged beauty of California’s central valley, and the generosity of strangers. Ever since then I’ve wanted to go back there. For years now it’s been on the back of my mind, and I’ve told countless people about the Mission San Antonio de Padua. As my riding has become less and less about the cycling and more and more about the photography, the Mission came to the forefront of my thoughts. When the crew at Huckleberry Bikes and I started throwing around ideas for a bikepacking trip it was a golden opportunity to finally get back there. One of my top priorities, however, was avoiding the “We’re out of food and there is nowhere to get a damn thing” experience the gang and I had back in 2011. In that vein, Zack Stender agreed to come in a support vehicle to bring along food supplies, while Johnny Galvan and I rode to the Mission and back.
Day 1 – Carmel By The Sea to Ft. Hunter Liggett
On Friday morning, after the usual frantic last minute packing, I was finally ready to go. Zack and Johnny picked me up, a bit late (they were doing their own last minute packing), and we headed down to Carmel By The Sea. Everything was the same as it was in the wayback machine of 2011. Same music store, same Subway, same pizza joint, same grocery store across the street. I half expected Errin to drive up with his big ‘ol pickup and start unloading his Salsa Fargo. Alas, this time he wasn’t coming along. After inhaling a breakfast sandwich, some coffee, OJ and taking the obligatory “it started out so clean!” bike photos we rolled out at 10:30am.
The next 40 miles proved more difficult than I’d remembered. In retrospect it made sense. Back in 2011 I was in Tour Divide shape riding a singlespeed Salsa Fargo and we’d ridden the trip in the spring. Now, in 2016, I was FAR removed from my Tour Divide fitness, 15lbs heavier, riding a fully built with gears Salsa Marrakesh (which is also, honestly, probably 10lbs heavier than my SS Fargo) and the summer heat was working us over. By the time we’d gotten to the Arroyo Seco campground at 2:30pm I was feeling it. To make matters worse I’d grabbed some water from a hose and not taken the time to flush it out for a few minutes first. As a result whatever was residing in said water had hit my gut like a small bomb. I wasn’t taking in solid food very well at all. It was a rookie mistake, dumb, and I was paying the price.
After some discussion, Johnny and I decided that we’d take pavement to Ft. Hunter Liggett instead of the abandoned Indians Road through the Ventana Wilderness. The paved route had been our original route back. Now, come Sunday, when we came back we’d take Indians Road instead in the morning while we were still fresh. This proved to be a really solid decision. The ride to King City was generally pleasant and Jolon Road towards Ft. Hunter Liggett was easy enough. Until Johnny turned to me and said, “You know there’s still one big climb coming up, right? I rode this on last year’s AIDS Life Cycle. It’s pretty hard,” he wasn’t wrong. The final climb was a right bastard. To add insult to injury, Sulphur Springs Road on the other side was closed for Army night live fire training. Instead of a quick 6 mile direct ride to the Mission, we now had a 15 mile trip around the base.
After 94 miles, we reached the Mission and Zack. It was a blessedly quick drive to the Ponderosa Campground. We were really beat but also really happy. It’d been a long, damn good day in the saddle. I vaguely remember some sausages, maybe half a beer and a sip of whisky before passing out in my sleeping bag under the stars but not much else.
Day 2 – Ponderosa Campground to Mission San Antonio de Padua and other random points
Saturday morning Zack and I slept in until a bit after sunrise, and Johnny slept in well after that. We sipped coffee, ate eggs and pancakes, talked and generally lazed around the campsite. My legs weren’t nearly as bad off as I was expecting them to be. My stomach, on the other hand, was still feeling the effects of the bad water from day 1. My body was demanding food. My gut was giving me mixed messages, “Yes. Oh, wait, no. OK, hold on, maybe, but be ready to make a run for that pit toilet over yonder. Just sayin’!”
We finally rolled at a leisurely pace towards the Mission itself. On the way we stopped to check out a tiny fake village, made of adobe covered shipping containers and junked cars, that the Army uses for training. Slightly wary of rattlesnakes we walked into the “buildings”, found loads of spent blank shells from M16’s and other bullets. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of setups like that in Ft. Hunter Liggett lands. Some were small and others much larger complete with surrounding walls and over a dozen “buildings” inside. We saw multiple mini convoys of trucks with fully laden troops inside, heading to and from training exercises, over the course of of the day.
The Mission itself is just one of those places you have to visit to appreciate. It isn’t flashy. The courtyard garden is simple, with roses and a few small statues. The church itself is even more simple. The current chapel is the 3rd to be built, and went up in 1810. The walls are plain. If you’re looking for Romanesque frescoes, this isn’t the church. The Mission San Antonio de Padua instead has, for me, a timeless sort of honesty about it. People have been coming to this place, living here, working here, worshipping here, dying here, since 1741 before the colonists declared independence from England. I’m not a religious person, but I love the history of the Mission as well as it’s straightforward adherence to its founder’s beliefs and mission. There is no pretense at the Mission San Antonia de Padua, no gilt nor gold. Just you and, if it that’s what you seek, God. No more. No less.
We ended the day watching Zack fly fish in a big pond where the bald eagles hang out while the sun set, and then ate carne asada tacos at camp. It was a perfectly quiet ending to a perfectly quiet day.