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San Jose to San Isidro
Day 22 was to ride 165.7 kms from San Jose to San Isidro, a long ride under the best of conditions. But as it turned out these were the worst. Many riders chickened out and didn't even try. For some it was too hard, for others it was too dangerous. For you see our ride that day was up, over and down El Cerro de Muerte, the Hill of Death. Even though I set out early, at around 7 am, the traffic in San Jose was heavy, the streets sorely in need of repair, and the DRG mileage was many kilometers off. Getting out of the city though was just the beginning.
I hadn't gone far when it began to rain, so with some reluctance (stopping wastes time) I stopped to put on rain gear, just my jacket and boots, saving the rain pants for heavier rain or if I became cold. Usually while climbing becoming too cold is not a problem even though it is raining and I knew I would need dry clothes for the descent. In reserve in my bike bag were leg and arm warmers, rain pants, fleece pullover, and my 'ears', a fleece headband. As it turned out I was fortunate to be so well prepared.
From the beginning the road was a climb. It was also narrow, rough, and potholed in places. But worse than that was the traffic, heavy traffic with trucks struggling to make the climb and emitting great clouds of black diesel smoke which enveloped me as they passed. As slow as they were, I was slower. I worried about the damaging effects of breathing that exhaust on my health but there was no way to avoid it. At 33.1 km. the DRG said, "Begin 79.9 km climb". Begin climbing! I thought I was climbing! But climb I did for hours and hours, hugging the edge of the road because there was no shoulder, straining to see because it was raining heavily and the fog was dense, and hanging on for dear life when a strong headwind would change to a gusting crosswind making my bike skitter across the wet and oily blacktop.
I had long since removed my sunglasses because they were fogged and reduced visibility to zero but now the pelting rain stung my face and eyes. I could not read the DRG because the plastic holder was fogged and covered with rain nor could I read my odometer for the same reasons. I was disappointed to be riding through what I knew was a beautiful rainforest but unable to see either the forest or the spectacular views for the rain and fog. It seemed my heroic effort was a waste and I continued to cycle just for the sake of getting to the top. At some point I came to a small roadside cafe and stopped for a much needed rest and a glass of hot chocolate to warm me and wash down my lunch of peanut butter, bread, and bananas. Eventually, at 94 km according to the DRG, I reached the CHECKPOINT which unfortunately was nothing but a wide spot in the road and a word of encouragement from the one volunteer whose turn it was to get out of the van in the rain and record my arrival. So I struggled onward to the 100 km point where there was a restaurant. It was filled with wet and shivering cyclists who were taking refuge from the rain. Most were quitting there and would hitch rides to the camp in San Isidro. They were just too cold and tired to struggle on. One male rider who is a bit of a character anyway saw me there and amazed that I had made it so far, treated me to a hot chocolate for in his words, "being such a stud". I took that to be a compliment and enjoyed my hot chocolate along with my lunch of rice, black beans and chicken. Feeling somewhat revived by the food but shivering in my soaked clothes I set out. The DRG said "Enjoy a short and fast descent" but of course when a cyclist is soaked a descent is made almost intolerable by the cold. But I survived and was thankful, believe it or not, to begin climbing again until at 113 km according to the DRG I reached the summit. Happiness is a summit! The summit was at 3491 meters or 11,171 feet above sea level. Since the DRG was not accurate for kms that day and I couldn't read it anyway for the rain and fog, I was glad to see a little marker announcing the summit. I needed to know where it was because I was already cold and wet and I knew I couldn't do the descent without first changing to dry clothes. I stood shivering by the roadside and struggled to put on dry clothes one arm and one leg at a time. When I had my arm warmers on I put on my fleece pullover and then my soaked rain jacket over that. When I had my leg warmers on I pulled on my dry rain pants. Finally I removed my helmet from my soaked head, and put on my "ears" which felt instantly warm and cozy. I fitted a plastic bag into my helmet to protect my soaking wet head from the wind during the descent. I was pleased to see that my rain boots had kept my feet dry.
Dry and toasty warm at last I set forth to do the descent. The DRG read: "CAUTION fast road with plenty of rough surfaces during your 46km descent. Ride well. Odyssey's only views of the Costa Rican Pacific Ocean are from here." Normally I enjoy a descent but not this one. The weather had improved only slightly and the road was rough, very steep, and one switchback after another. Since visibilty was poor, traffic heavy, the road slippery with oil, and the road new to me I decided to take it easy rather than to enjoy a fast thrilling descent. I had to use my brakes constantly, on and off, on and off. My hands began to tire and when I could no longer tolerate the pain I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could but I could not stop. I began to look for a wide spot or a side road and eventually came to a dirt track that looked like I could run off on it without crashing. I knew if it was gravel or sand I could fall but it was perfect. It turned out to be firm dirt and it ran up hill. I safely came to a stop and then burst into tears from the pain and fear.
I told myself that I was silly, after all I was perfectly all right. I just needed to stop more often so that my hands would not become too tired. So I set out again and before long the weather cleared for a bit and I could see down into the valley far below. It was a beautiful view but I was still above the clouds and it was growing dark so I quickly took a picture of the only view I was to have that day, and started down again. I kept feathering the brakes, never letting myself pick up too much speed because of the darkness, rough road and many curves when I met a pickup truck pulling a trailer up the hill. Just before it passed me two wheels suddenly spun high into the air. I watched anxiously to see where they would land. Fortunately only one was coming my way and I was able to avoid it when it bounced onto the road. Rather more than a little shaken I decided another rest was in order but this time it was harder than ever to bring the bike to a stop and there was no side road to be seen. After another bout of hysterical tears I decided I had better stop cycling before El Cerro de Muerte made me a victim. I decided to continue only until I found a safe place to wait for the sag wagon. A couple of curves later I came across 2 other riders also stranded by the darkness. We made our way to a wide spot where 2 men were waiting for help. Of the 5 of us, 2 were suffering from hypothermia. I was the only one actually warm so I took off my fleece pullover and gave it to Priscilla while Neil wrapped himself in my foil emergency blanket. Everyone but me was starving but luckily I had a new package of Fig Newtons which were greatly appreciated. Then we waited. We all had our rear flashers on hoping to be spotted by TK&A and be sagged into camp. But an hour or more passed without help. At some point Priscilla could bear the cold no longer and flagged down a car to get a ride into San Isidro. She planned to get a taxi and come back for the 4 of us and the 5 bikes. But before she could return the sag wagon came by and we all squeezed in with the bicycles jabbing us in the knees and necks. We had waited an hour or so in the darkness and most everyone was cold and hungry and all of us were exhausted by the struggle through the storm up the mountain. I had logged more than ten hours of pedaling time. But instead of taking us the remaining 14 kilometers down the mountain and the 6 kms through the town to the camp, we went back up the mountain. We were to spend the next 3 hours in that van, finally being delivered to camp at 11 pm. Our bikes were in pieces, our luggage was out there somewhere in the darkness, we were very tired, cold, dirty and hungry. After some wait we were served a cold meal. While waiting for that food until nearly midnight, and being filthy dirty, legs black from being splashed by trucks all day, I made up my mind that midnight was just too late to be setting up camp. So 4 of took taxis into the little town to a cheap hotel where we shared 2 rooms. I spent the night with a strange man, not something I would ordinarily do, but I could have cared less. At 5 am we were up again getting ready for the new day's ride. We went back to the camp site by taxi, joined the line for breakfast, and then my bike and I visited the mechanic. I wanted him to put it back together, I was just too tired, and to look at the brakes. He told me the brakes had not worked because the pads were too worn. It wasn't my weak hands after all. No one could have stopped the bike. He fixed the brakes but the delay meant I had a late start on that day's ride to San Vito. I set off in good spirits, relieved to have dependable brakes again. I very nearly went over the handlebars the first time I used them. I have learned the hard way that I need to check the condition of the brakes each day and get the brake mechanism adjusted as the brake pads wear.
Jan. 23, 2000
Yesterday, Day 22, was the Hill of Death experience. Still shaken from that misadventure, on Day 23 the African bees attacked. It was too much!
The weather on Day 22 had been stormy, the hills steep and forever. Only 40 people were able to finish that awful ride. So we were all ready for a bit of sunshine and an easier ride.
My bike was a wreck after El Cerro de Muerte. Like I had been, it was filthy dirty. Both wheels had been removed in order to jam it into the van when I had had to sag the night before, now they were on crooked or perhaps the fenders were bent but the wheels wouldn't even rotate. I did not take time to clean the bike though as Day 23 was to be another long cycling day. I had to stand in the breakfast line and then in the mechanic's line and time was a wasting. We slower riders need to get a head start, not a late start. While I waited my turn I pumped the tires, oiled the chain, filled the water bottles, and attached the bike bags. Finally Dave worked on my bike and I watched and learned a lot about brakes. I should have had them adjusted before the Hill of Death but I hadn't realized that brakes need to be adjusted as the pads wear. He gave them a good work over and adjusted the fenders and at last I set out. It was a gorgeous day and I was happy to be on my bike again.
Everywhere you look in Costa Rica it is beautiful. Soon I saw other riders ahead stopping at the top of a hill and I thought it must be a good photo opportunity. Then they started jumping about and waving their arms. Several of us who had been about to climb the hill stopped to ponder what we were seeing. Then a local car stopped beside us and the people inside warned us not to go up there, that the African bees were swarming. One rider came running down the hill toward us. She was batting frantically at the bees that still swarmed around her. I yelled, "Grab your water bottles. Let's pour water on her!" I dumped my bottle of water on her head and as the bees fled one stung me. Then I snatched a can of insect spray away from another rider and sprayed her. Every bee was gone but she had been bitten many times. Another rider pulled out all the stingers. A car of local people had stopped and I asked them to take her back toward the camp to find the TK&A people. She was shaken and hurting but luckily she doesn't have a bee allergy. She thought she would be fine and she was. As for my one sting, it hurt for an hour or two and made a water drop sized black circle on my face. Eventually that became brown, then disappeared.
So Judy was on her way for help and was going to be okay but what were we going to do about those bees. No one really wanted to ride up there to assess the situation. Then a local man on a bicycle put us all to shame. He rode up there, picked up Judy's bike from the highway where she had left it when she fled and brought it back down the hill to us. Some riders then started up the hill but there was the problem of Judy's bike. I volunteered to stay behind with it until a TK&A sag wagon would come by to take it. Finally one did pass and I gave the distress signal which is a raised fist. They looked at me but kept right on going. That annoyed me. Yesterday on El Cerro de Muerte they had been refusing to help riders unless they were sick or injured. Many had wanted to sag just because they were afraid. That was not allowed. Those who were afraid or too tired or too cold ended up finding their own way off the mountain. Many had piled into local cars, trucks, and taxis.
So, when the sag wagon appeared to ignore my distress signal and kept going I thought they wouldn't help me because I wasn't injured, it was still morning, I should pedal until dark. What to do with Judy's bike I wondered. It wasn't long before a bus heading for San Vito, our destination for that day, stopped beside me on the highway. I knew that 3 of our riders had planned to take that bus to San Vito instead of cycling. I climbed the stairs into the bus and found it so crammed with people that I couldn't see whether my friends were there, so I shouted, "Sandy, are you on this bus?' "Yes", came her reply. I then negotiated with the driver and conductor until they agreed to take Judy's bike. With the bike securely stowed away below I climbed back onto the bus and shouted the bee story to Sandy, explaining that she should be responsible for Judy's bike on reaching San Vito. "Okay", she replied. Later she told me that that may be one of her strangest memories of this trip. She was standing at the back of the bus and had been very startled to hear me shouting her name and all the rest. I am sure there were many Costa Ricans who had to be shaking their heads about those crazy cyclists.
With the bicycle on its way I was free to go so I began climbing the hill. About that time I noticed some of the TK&A personnel walking down the hill. I approached them and asked them why they had driven past, ignoring my plea for help. The explanation was that there was no safe place to stop where I was so they had had to drive until they came to one. But that was up a hill and around a corner and I hadn't realized that they were there. Before this adventure started we had been told by TK&A that that would be the procedure but in all the stress of the recent events I had forgotten it.
We had the sunshine for most of the day with a downpour late in the afternoon. But the ride was hard, many long steep climbs, and it was very hot. Several riders suffered from heat exhaustion. The scenery was beautiful though, green and lush. The heat doesn't bother me as much as some but I did not finish the ride. Maybe I could have with an earlier start but I think not. There were hours of climbing in the lowest gear which means making slow progress. Finally around 4:30 I stopped to rest where another rider was doing the same. We studied the DRG and saw that we still had 30 kms to go, uphill, and we knew we couldn't do it in the daylight we had left so we decided to hitch hike. This was to be my first hitch hiking experience but Warren was an expert. He had confidence that we'd have no trouble at all and he was right. Soon our bikes were in the back of a pickup truck and so was Warren. I was in the front with a lovely Costa Rican couple and enjoyed a chat with them for the hour or so the drive took to camp. He'd gone to the states to buy his truck, apparently that saves money. Before we arrived at camp there was a downpour, Warren was soaked and to our dismay as we found on arrival at camp, so were our bags which had been unloaded earlier and set out in the soccer field where we would be camping for the night. I was pleased that my bags didn't leak much, but others had worse luck. It had rained so hard that some of the men showered under the runoff from the eaves of a building. The TK&A showers weren't set up and ready yet.
The rest of the day was routine. We set up our tents while it was still daylight, walked into the little town of San Vito for dinner at an Italian restaurant, walked back to camp, and waited in line for showers. TK&A had promised hot showers every day. It's been more like 50% of the time but we are so tired and dirty that we appreciate any shower at all. This time the showers weren't hot or even warm because TK&A didn't have an adaptor that would allow them to refill their propane tanks in Costa Rica. There has not been hot water in several of the hotels where we have stayed either. But the weather is mild so the water temperature is tolerable.
That night I had the bad fortune of camping next to someone who coughed all night disturbing my sleep. When she wasn't coughing she was snoring! The night before I had had too little sleep as well so when I awoke on Day 24 I was tired and could tell I was catching a cold and sore throat, not a good thing.
Odyssey Riders and Staff
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