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Mendocino Coast seen while cycling the Haul Road, north of Fort Bragg

More than forty years ago, I left home, family, and friends in New Jersey and moved to California. In 1973, San Francisco still retained that genuine bohemian feel and was affordable for an aspiring writer. Best of all it was galaxies away from the straight-laced world I’d been bred in. I was able to flourish as a writer.

By the 1980s, the Reagan years ushered in a materialism that still disrupts the harmony of my adopted city. I cling to the few holdouts there. Starting in 1982 I have made regular visits to Fort Bragg where I always find the generous breathing space that is in dwindling supply in San Francisco, and was never there in my native New Jersey.

On a routine visit last year, I was cycling Fort Bragg’s haul road, contemplating the constancy of frothing rollers, breathing the fragrant misty air. The paved, though bumpy, trail is so-called because lumber was once hauled to town on it in Mendocino lumber barons’ heyday. Today only cyclists and pedestrians haul themselves or their dogs.

At the turn-around point, a man in MacKerricher State Park, Duncan, made a friendly overture. Why didn’t I join him and his crew known as S.O.B.s — “Seniors on Bikes,” he quickly explained.

“Sure,” I said, at first demurring as I was not used to this sort of camaraderie in the city where I remain faceless and anonymous. I rolled along the trail with about a half-dozen riders, all exceedingly friendly. The next two days, I joined them again, meeting at 10 a.m. at the Skunk Train Depot, as they have been doing for nearly eight years now.

It was on the third day when I was telling one cyclist, Jim, how I grew up in New Jersey. Another rider asked what town? You wouldn’t have heard of it, I thought, even as I answered, “Rahway.” It’s small, mainly known for its prison (starring in the film, “Scared Straight”) and headquarters for Merck pharmaceuticals.

The woman whom I knew as Valerie responded, “I grew up in Rahway.”

“What’s your last name, Val?”

“Frey.”

“VALERIE FREY?!”

“Yep.”

In our three days of cycling together neither of us had made the connection. When Val took off her helmet and dark shades I saw, indeed, she had changed very little in fifty years (she’s a year younger than me). What are the chances of two who were grammar and high school chums — who had hung out, which was what one did back in Jersey, with a rough crowd — meeting up here?

Val and I instantly began dropping names of the kids in our Rahway crowd. There was a lot of drug and alcohol consumption among the boys back then and I knew many had died young. (Unfortunately they were not scared straight.)But we also reminisced about the youthful sense of belonging to a group, sharing the music and lingo of the times. The constricting Catholic school that pushed us to seek admittance to that cool “in-crowd,” also probably saved Val and me from self-destruction.

Apparently, we both headed west for healthy alternatives. In addition to cycling 26 miles every day, Val works at the library bookstore in Noyo Harbor. She’s lived in Fort Bragg since 1981. So it was about time we crossed paths. Duncan, a retired school teacher, living in Fort Bragg many years, has not yet recovered from the startling serendipity of two Rahway survivors finding each other at the far edge of the continent. He makes us retell our story each time I ride with the S.O.B.s. But I say to him, I suspect there are a number of Garden State refugees seeking the comfort and asylum of beautiful Mendocino County. In some cases, we just pass each other by.

The S.O.B.s welcome riders of any level, slow, medium, or fast. There is always someone your speed to ride with. No reservations needed: Just show up at the Skunk Train Depot any day at 10 a.m. sharp. Ride as much or as little as you like. The S.O.B.s always finish up at Zappa’s cafe on Main Street for java, great baked goods, and chats. You can always stop by there to meet them, even if you haven’t gone the distance. They won’t berate you!

Author(ity) in/on San Francisco. Novel, essay, memoir. Teaches tango. Travel, outdoors, culture. Former editor at VIA Mag.

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