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Sea to Summit: Horse Mountain 

click to enlarge Sal the Bicycle on the summit.

Photo by Hollie Ernest

Sal the Bicycle on the summit.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m., and I questioned again why I torture myself with these brutal awakenings. My sluggish thoughts were grumpily resistant to starting the day until I took my first sip of tea and remembered I'd get to do one of my favorite things: ride my bike. I was ready, in theory, for another Sea-to-Summit challenge, this time meeting the ocean at Mad River Beach, then ascending to Horse Mountain.

I dressed for the foggy, chilly morning that is our mid-August summer and tucked a travel mug of black tea into my water bottle cage. Pedaling in the quiet predawn, I don't think I fully woke up until I got to the beach and the salty wet air forced my eyelids up all the way — more like a gentle nudge than a splash of cold water. I said hi to the waves, got plenty of sand in my shoes, and took in the day's monochromatic gray light — a reassuring prod for the day's mission. No storms brewing, no wind, just dappled ashen sky.

Back through the Mad River Valley on West End Road, I retraced my pedal strokes through Wiyot land. I stopped at my house, conveniently en route, for breakfast. My husband is the better cook in the family and he loaded me up with a breakfast burrito wrapped in foil. I loaded myself up with some of the gallons of blackberries I had picked along the road the day before. I had already ridden 20 miles and was now armed with bacon and summer's natural candy. I was now truly ready.

I rode my touring bike — Sal the Bicycle — knowing I would need the easiest of gears and then some for the steep ascent to come. The sunrise stretched out fully. Pedaling east on State Route 299, up and up I went on my solo mission. I put a headphone in one ear so I could pleasantly zone out to podcasts and music, but still hear traffic. I usually only do this if I am ascending a particularly long hill that begs for a little mental escape or a route that doesn't have much navigating. This road was both and the tunes made the ride feel like a little rolling party of one.

I spun easily enough until Chezem Road, where I got a reprieve from whooshing cars and descended to Redwood Creek. The day warmed up but remained overcast, and there were baby fawns, a huge elk and peacocks. I saw a sign reading, "pet turkeys do not shoot," passed an impressive collection of old cars and car parts, then pedaled back up again to meet the highway. If you haven't cycled Chezem Road, you should — it's a real treat.

I ran into a former co-worker near Lord Ellis Summit, then, as I was leisurely pedaling up to Berry Summit, I saw a white truck with a shirtless dude with a mullet and his dog staring at me. The truck looked cool, like most Toyota Tacomas in Humboldt, and the closer I got, the more familiar the guy looked. It was my friend Joe who used to live in Arcata but has been in the Redding area for a while. Both of us are plant and bike nerds, so we try to meet up when one of us travels through the other's town. We hadn't seen each other in years at this point. We chatted for a while, with plenty to catch up on.

Lost in conversation and good vibes, we forgot we were on the side of a busy road until a caravan of sheriff's cars and SUVs swerved toward the locked gate where we happened to be stopped. They took bolt cutters out of their toolbox and talked on their radios in serious tones. We decided to shuffle along, ending our merry reunion.

Upward I continued, feeling a little lighter after running into Joe. I took a right on Titlow Hill Road and ascended the steep switchbacks, glad for every gear on my trusted steed. Sculpted and gnarled Jeffrey pine, rock outcrops and distant ridges stretched out farther the higher I climbed. Rhododendrons and their fat, faded petals were scattered along the road. The Horse Mountain Botanical Area, very near the summit, is home to serpentine plant communities. Serpentine soil forms from serpentinite or peridotite rocks, which are ultramafic, meaning high in magnesium and iron (the Latin word mafic breaks down to the periodic table's Ma for Magnesium and fic from Fe, Iron). The characteristic red tint in the soil is a byproduct of iron oxidation.

This area is home not only to Jeffrey pines but also western white pine, Incense cedar, Douglas fir, white fir and red fir, as well as important understory plants like California coffee berry, western serviceberry and red huckleberry. Port-Orford cedar is making a comeback on Horse Mountain after efforts to protect it from a root pathogen that is transported in water and mud, Phytophthora lateralis, or Port Orford root rot. It's a botanical wonderland worth the climb to see, especially as spring approaches.

Elated to finally reach the summit, I shared the views with the plants and the cell towers, overjoyed to be alone atop a mountain in this incredible landscape. The stately Trinity Alps stood to the east and the Pacific Ocean swelled to the west. The warm, overcast day never did let the sun through but it might have been for the best to have cool temperatures instead of scorching ones on a ride like this. I took a few photos and descended, retracing my route back home, grinning the whole way.

Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician. She is writing a book about her international bike adventures, gardening and exploring the corners of Northern California. Follow her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.

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