After a cold and wet night, we woke to slowly-clearing skies and snow on the higher surrounding ridges. Our route back to pavement in the Carmel Valley was steep and rough, so I had worried about the mud making it mostly unrideable, but the soil was fortunately dry enough not to hamper our progress. Still, the switchback climb up to the ridge required pushing the bike up several steeper pitches. Just past our campground, we stopped to investigate an incongruous patch of grass, and found a corroded tank fed by a gushing spring, allaying our water anxiety for the rest of the cold day. We filled all our bottles and bladders, admiring the stark mix of bare rock, distant snow, and charred death around us, then set off north.
It is hard to say whether the road would have been more or less scenic before the fire. After climbing to a narrow saddle around 2800 feet, it makes a long, gently-rolling traverse across a west-facing hillside to another saddle at 2400 feet. Though it has been closed to public motorists since 1996, most still sees some minimal maintenance by the Forest Service for fire access. However the young and precipitous Santa Lucias are hostile to roads at their best, even more so after a fire, and gravity reclaims unmaintained roads within a burn almost as quickly as chaparral does outside one. A suit by the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and others also found that road maintenance damaged the Arroyo Seco watershed below, ensuring that this road will continue to disintegrate for the foreseeable future.
The spontaneous rockfall we had heard in the night continued, and was slowly reclaiming our road. While it mostly caused only the odd, easily-dodged loose rock on the well-graded roadbed, there were ten or so sections where I was incapable of or reluctant to ride the tandem and we had to push. Only two sections required some disassembly: a large tree that had fallen and partially broken apart, and a larger hillside collapse that had completely covered the road between a mine and a ferny grotto. We navigated the former by pulling the bike and Bob under the trunk separately, the latter by carrying the panniers, then piloting the bike while Leonie wrestled the attached Bob.
As we made our cold and eerie way north, we slowly emerged from the burn. Blasted hillsides gave way to fingers of blackened tree skeletons on the north slopes, which the fires had burned less thoroughly on their descent. After seeing nothing but birds so far, and few enough of them, we startled a pair of deer, who quickly scampered up the dead slope toward safety and away from water and living vegetation. The snow was slowly melting up high, but it remained cold where we were exposed to the wind, and my hands suffered.
From the second saddle, the road drops 1500 feet in about 3.5 miles. After a week of restraining the touring rig, and prior duty on some hilly rides, the misaligned front brake pads were becoming badly worn. That, plus wet ground and cold hands, made the descent, which would have been fairly easy on my normal touring bike, much more engaging. The descent brought us to the Arroyo Seco River, which finally reaches the bedrock of the Santa Lucias, carving a narrow channel connecting swimming holes that would have been tempting in the summer. We met only a solo hiker near one (closed) trailhead, the first person we had seen since the previous afternoon.
Following the cold descent, our legs were stiff and weak on the dirt rollers leading to Arroyo Seco Campground, where we finally rejoined pavement. From there, we descended to Highway G-16 along Piney Creek, then began reclimbing to the divide. Though we had covered few miles, it was getting late, and we were once again entering the land of barbed wire after two days in National Forests. We spotted a couple of National Forest campgrounds on side-roads, but lacked the will for a detour. Thus we found ourselves once again camped at a less-than-ideal spot: fifty yards from the road, near a uselessly muddy stream and a discarded couch, behind an angry and abandoned “private property” sign. At least this time it was flat.