New states: 2
Countries ridden from end to end: 0.9999999999
I’ve neglected this blog for a while, so I apologise in advance. This is going to be a long’n.
For a while I’d been kind of obsessed with the idea of riding through a desert to chase vague visions of heat, dust and solitude. I pictured myself as Han Solo exploring the emptiness between distant pinpoints of civilisation, with Baxter playing a mixture of the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca (wheezing and grunting in response to my stream-of-conscious rambling).
The view from the cockpit.
I left Tehachapi and turned north, up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada before turning east at the excellently-named Inyokern.
As I set up camp at sunset on the third day out of Tehachapi I spotted a dark-haired woman pushing a laden touring bike up away from Trona. I must’ve scared poor Olga as I bounded out of the bushes at her but she and her partner Pablo, who rode up several minutes later, were amused enough at my enthusiasm to speak their language that we dined and camped together.
Pablo and la Olga.
In the morning we climbed a ridge to find the profoundly empty Panamint Valley. When the only sound you can hear is the ringing in your ears, you start to wonder whether your life is full of a little too much noise.
Above the Panamint Valley.
In these parts you’d spot an approaching car two or three minutes before it actually passed by, and blasting tunes from my rattly speaker seemed inappropriate. The above photo shows our route quite clearly, up the valley before veering off into a canyon somewhere about the centre of the horizon, but it took us the better part of three hours to actually get there. Civilisation clings close to the road in such places, and the only signs of humankind outside the occasional car were fighter jets blasting low overhead, obnoxious engines shattering the silence.
Pablo was struggling a little after two weeks of mountain riding in the Sierra Nevada. Olga and I pulled over several times to wait for him as we climbed the cracked and potholed Wildrose Road, officially closed to traffic since a flood two years ago washed several sections away.
“Is he OK?” I asked as we sat in the shade of a canyon’s walls. Olga smiled.
“Si el lugar es bonito, no sufre mucho,” she replied: “If the surroundings are pretty, he doesn’t suffer much.”
“And for my next trick…”
We slept in a free campground where we huddled with the roadtrippers around the one water tap for miles around. Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek are names that evoke exactly the kind of desolate landscapes I was chasing, but this was an American national park after all. Instead of homesteads, dusty bars and cattle skulls we found souvenir shops, lodges and a golf course. They put a golf course in the country’s driest place, just because.
It doesn’t take long, however, to leave such silliness behind. Once we passed Badwater, the lowest point of elevation in North America, we were very alone.
Pablo (the blue speck) and Olga (the black speck).
I just realised I probably have a few too many photos of Pablo on long stretches of straight road beneath mountains.
Down to Badwater.
This just made me want a swim.
The Spaniards were partial to night riding so we pedalled on in the darkness until hunger forced us to stop. Two years ago they left their home in Logroño and pedalled east, crossing Europe, the Ukraine, the central Asian “-stans”, Mongolia, and parts of China before running out of land on Russia’s Pacific coast. They then flew to Canada, worked for the winter and are now heading for Tierra del Fuego. From there they plan to cross to South Africa and head north, back to Spain. Pablo explained that their kind of lifestyle – for theirs is no holiday – has allowed him to return to childhood.
“I’m basically playing all day,” he said. “My life right now is all exploring. This is how life should be lived.”
I asked about their families and told them about mine. They asked if I talk to the people at home often.
“If you’re talking to your friends and family every few days, you’re not really travelling,” said Pablo. I wasn’t sure what to say about that.
Camping on a salt lake.
They taught me to love canned sardines and the value of tea in the morning and hot chocolate after dinner – even when water is scarce. I learned to cut an almost-empty plastic container in half to scoop out the very last traces of peanut butter (“A little trick from the grandmothers of Spain”) and to rinse out empty jars and dirty dishes with hot water to drink (“Like the Mongols. They don’t waste anything”).
“Tienes hambre?” (“Are you hungry?”) we would ask one another.
“Siempre,” (“Always”) was the standard response.
Olga climbs out of Death Valley.
We left Death Valley and after another morning of climbing, descended into the Amargosa Valley and out of the national park. We were riding three abreast, chatting and enjoying the downhill run when a flash of furry legs brought us skidding to a halt.
“My turn to pick it up!” cried Pablo and scuttled about for a moment, mimicking the spider’s attempts to evade him.
“Yo la cojo!”
“Uff, this is a strong one,” he said as the tarantula waggled it’s legs and gnashed it’s two pairs of fangs so black they seemed to suck in the sunlight. He saw me flinch. “I used to be scared too but Olga taught me how to pick them up.” Olga pointed out the fine hairs shedding into Pablo’s hands, which the spider flicks at enemies to irritate their skin.
A rental van passed us, crouched in the road, before pulling over and reversing to draw alongside. “Are you guys OK?” asked the girl in the passenger’s seat in an Australian accent.
I could only point at Pablo, who thrust the spider at her: “Una tarantula!” he grinned and the girl screamed. The van pulled away.
For “services” read “food and water”.
We found food and water at Shoshone – a real one horse town – and camped by nudist-inhabited Tecopa Hot Springs on the Amargosa Valley floor. “Joder, first time my skin has known water in two weeks,” Olga sighed as she lowered herself into the steaming pool. Elsewhere the travelling cyclist has rivers, lakes and beaches to replace showers. In the desert, weeks worth of sweat, dust, sand, grease and sunscreen simply layer upon one another.
We parted ways outside Tecopa, the Spaniards heading south for Mexico and I east towards the Grand Canyon. There was another 50 lonesome miles and a mountain pass between me and the next services. Not long after cresting the pass and entering Nevada, I spotted something very strange in the fading light:
David the park ranger pulled up in his hatchback and invited me to warm myself by a fire at his station. He was the most dapper ranger I’ve ever met in his designer jeans, black sweater, collared shirt and earrings.
“Did you go to Tecopa Hot Springs?” he asked, and I shuddered slightly at the memory of sagging breasts and drooping bums. “Oh I just love that place. I was there just the other day,” he said.
He explained that the Amargosa Valley – arid, treeless and salty – was forested and fertile around the Amargosa River 10,000 years ago. “Then the climate changed and the river went underground. Now it only emerges at places like the hot springs.”
I asked if 10,000 years wasn’t a very short time for such a change to occur.
“Climate change happens,” he said, “and it can happen very fast.”
It took a whole day just to get from one side of Las Vegas to the other, and after a brief visit to the Hoover Dam I found myself in yet another new state.
Obligatory ride down the Strip.
The Hoover Dam
A day after crossing into Arizona I found Old Route 66, once a vital artery joining Los Angeles to Chicago. In the following weeks I met several old folks who remembered driving the 66 as children. “You’d only drive at night,” said Martin when we shared a campsite on the floor of the Grand Canyon days later, “because it was so hot during the day and there was no such thing as AC.”
Where the 66 hasn’t been overlaid with Interstate, it joins a string of desperate towns full of rusting cars, fading hotels and tourist kitsch.
One afternoon outside Hackberry a car pulled over in front of me and I met Betty and Nadine, charming ladies who just wanted to ask where I was headed and if I needed a hand. They were Native Americans from the Hualapai nation. “When you pass the cemetery at Valentine, you’re entering our ancestral land. So if you could remember to say a little prayer when you go through – or just talk to yourself – and let the spirits know you’ll be passing by. When you get to Nelson, just let them know that you’re leaving.”
I talk to myself and Baxter enough as it is, so I didn’t see any harm in adding some spirits to the conversation. We had a long, friendly chat as I climbed through a canyon towards Peach Springs the next day. However, the spirits did not acknowledge my requests to turn off a vicious headwind.
Northern Arizona gradually slopes upward from its western border along the Colorado River, and a series of low ranges act as steps to the plateau that gets sliced in two by the Grand Canyon. With every climb into successive valleys, the spiny bushes became leafy and then grew to become fully fledged forests.
“Look Baxter,” I chirped as I climbed toward Seligman, “Trees!”
Luckily for Baxter, I occasionally found new people to talk to. One of them was Leo, a fellow cyclist who left his home in Missouri ten years ago and has been riding his way around the United States ever since.
“I hit 50, figured I’d stop working, and thought ‘Now what?'” he said in the kind of southern accent I’ve been dying to hear since I first set foot in this country. “So I decided I’d try to ride for a year” – he never mentioned any destinations, just places he’d ridden through – “and so one time I find myself up in the mountains. And I tell yew hwhat, I thought I was in shape before I left but I wasn’t in no shape at all. I was pushing my bike and walking up them mountains. And then I meet this young feller and he tells me:
‘You put yourself out here, nobody else. You can do this.’
“And that kind of made sense to me, and next thing I’d been riding for a whole year. So then I decided I wanted to see if I could do two years. And so on and so on.” He spat every few sentences and occasionally it would get stuck in his tangled beard.
A scruffy dog sat atop his assortment of sacks and panniers, eyeing me as she rested her head on her paws.
“That’s Sassy Max. Got her four years ago. Bet you never seen a cycling dog befur, huh?”
Leo and Sassy Max.
He’s riding to raise money for “animal awareness” and you can see his Facebook page here.
Weeks later I saw him again outside the town of Cottonwood, pushing slowly into a stiff headwind, Sassy Max perched behind him in her usual spot.
Camping outside Seligman, Arizona.
Eventually I reached the top of the plateau and turned north, arriving at a campground near the Grand Canyon’s south rim around lunch time. The sky was clear but the air was chilly. The campground was in a nondescript bit of forest. The whole detour – weeks worth of riding – had been leading to this moment of arrival but I just felt lethargic and underwhelmed. I didn’t feel like doing anything, but when all you have is a smelly tent, what can you do?
I went to the supermarket – there is a supermarket at the Grand Canyon because this is America – to buy corn chips, salsa and a couple of beers and went off to see what all the fuss is about.
What all the fuss is about.
You stumble upon the Grand Canyon quite by accident as it’s surrounded by an unremarkable Kaibab forest. It’s indescribably huge. Every pixel in the above photo represents a place that you could spend two days hiking to and a third to sit and enjoy the view. You climb out to the very edge of an impossibly high cliff, and then look around the canyon to realise that the drop beneath you is only the first of several such cliffs stacked on top of one another.
“Hey Janice, check this out. My man knows what it’s all about, he’s down there drinkin’ a beer!”
It took a day to hike to the bottom, where the sunshine actually warms you enough for a dip in the Colorado River, and a second to walk back out again.
On the South Kaibab Trail
Down by the river.
See that narrow black fissure cutting through the canyon’s floor in the bottom-left corner? See how tiny a crack it is?
This is what it looks like inside that crack.
Back in Death Valley Olga had described the frustration she feels whenever she rides up to a beautiful lookout or the top of a mountain pass, only to find it crowded with people stretching and yawning as they climb out of their cars.
“They don’t deserve it,” she said firmly.
I can understand such sentiments but I choose not to buy into it. “Anger leads to hate and hate leads to the Dark Side,” as Yoda said, and the Dark Side has nothing but breathing difficulties and tie fighters that aren’t quite as cool as X-wings.
The Grand Canyon’s south rim would probably make Olga pretty mad, but it’s an great place to watch how different people get themselves in their holiday photos. Latinos are by far the most accomplished in the field, politely asking strangers to take a photo of them and proceeding to pose with confidence. Latina women poke their bums out and give winning smiles while latino men stand facing away from the camera, looking back over their shoulder with a kind of soulful glare. Young, dandied up Middle Eastern men in head tubes, neon runners and down vests spend thirty seconds appreciating the view and ten minutes trying to get the group selfie right while their girlfriends, having themselves snapped a perfect shot on the first take, stand around mocking them. Americans, by contrast, seem somehow ashamed of wanting photos of themselves, but they want them just as bad as anyone else. Their approach is to stand around looking awkward, cameras conspicuous in their hands, until someone else puts them out of their misery and asks if they want a photo of themselves. Americans proceed to act surprised and bashful but they won’t let their saviour go until they have a perfect shot.
I left the Grand Canyon and headed south, over the San Francisco Mountains where I reached what I’m pretty sure is the highest elevation I’ve been to, a little short of 2500 metres up.
It was bloody freezing.
I rested for a couple of days in Flagstaff, and the eating got out of control. In just one day I ate:
– A gargantuan plate of “chilequiles”, a heavenly mix of salsas, meat, cheese, sour cream, rice, tortilla chips, four tortillas, guacamole and beans.
– A couple of pancakes, a pile of butter and half a bottle of syrup.
– The biggest gyro I’ve ever seen.
– A full box of Capn’ Crunch cereal and two litres of milk.
In the afternoon I was watching the rain by the window of a cafe when a group of about twenty young women from the local university ran by, out for a jog. Dark, dormant recesses of my being stirred and I realised that for weeks I’d only been speaking to people at least twice my age.
But winter had truly caught up with me by now and the ice in my water bottles each morning urged me south, down towards sea level, a rendezvous with my good friend Robbie (who will ride with me into Mexico) and sunnier climes.
5000 kilometre cigar and beer in Oak Creek Canyon.
South of Sedona I found probably the steepest climb of the trip so far, up out of Cottonwood and through pretty Jerome.
Red rocks of Sedona at right and the San Francisco Mountains to the left.
Sweaty climbing. “If the surroundings are pretty, he doesn’t suffer much.”
More climbing followed out of Prescott and suddenly, at Yarnell, I reached the edge of the plateau. Highway 89 turned into a racetrack for about ten brief kilometres and then suddenly, I was down in the desert again.
Before long I’d crossed the Colorado River back into California and passed through the vast deserts of the borderlands, punctuated with weird patches of intense agriculture and towns where people simply assumed I spoke Spanish. Border Patrol helicopters thwopped by much more often than you’d think. The road wound through sand dunes and an hour later I was listening to the rat-a-tat of sprinklers in fields of crops. I pumped Action Bronson’s “Easy Rider” on repeat and lost my mind in the guitar solo.
“Ride Baxter into the sunset…”
As I approached the Santa Anna Mountains, the last hills before the coast, a rainstorm swept in and drenched me while a headwind howled. It took the whole morning to get over the first pass and down into Jacumba, cradled in a valley between ranges. The wind was so strong that it would pull me to a stop if I didn’t pedal, even on the downhills.
“You’ve just missed a guy on a big-wheel bike!” cried someone from his car as I struggled down the main street. “He’s probably 15 miles ahead so you’ll catch him.” I’d been hearing about this guy on the penny farthing for days now, and seen him from afar weeks before between Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam (his name’s Joff and his YouTube diaries are fantastic). I replied that I was over it for today and was planning on collapsing into my tent somewhere in the bush outside town. The guy – his name was Walker – told me I could stay at his place instead.
In the evening I joined him and his two daughters for a drive down to San Diego for pizza, ice cream and a drive around the city’s parks. We also hung out on a pedestrian suspension bridge across a canyon hidden in Banker’s Hill. We’d originally gone to take advantage of Krispy Kreme’s once a year buy 12, get 12 free deal but two hours is probably too long to wait for doughnuts.
Walker and is family are going through about as tough a time as a family can have at the moment, and we talked a lot about it and my own family’s similar experiences from a few years back – I won’t go into it here. I asked if he had any life hacks for someone 13 years his junior and two stand out. The first came from his grandfather: “Look after your back, you’ll need it when you’re old.”
For the second he read aloud his favourite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If”.
So in the morning I pushed off, into another headwind and with just two big hills left between me and San Diego. The first, up through Boulevard and Live Oak Springs, was devilishly steep and all the harder for the wind tugging at every loose fold, buckle and strap on Baxter and I. After lunch Old Route 80 snaked north into the mountains and I was forced onto roaring Interstate 8. This hill wasn’t as steep as the first and the wind wasn’t as strong, and as I rounded a bend I saw the cars dipping up ahead and knew the top was close. Air’s La Femme d’Argent was rattling out of my speaker for about the gazillionth time.
Things get a little weird sometimes when I’m climbing like this. Exhaustion evaporates but it’s more like my legs have found perpetual motion rather than a surge of energy. The head feels airy, the legs are light and powerful and I keep whispering a single syllable to myself: “Yeeaaaahh”.
I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable sharing this next bit with you all. For some reason I’d spent much of the day thinking about a kid I’d been friends with ten years ago and who, I’d found out, had recently taken his own life. I thought about Walker and his girls and the way his voice broke in the last line of Kipling’s poem. I thought about my family and Christmas without them. I thought about being lonely and muddled over the previous days and an unacknowledged desperation to collapse at the coast and wait for the arrival of a familiar face.
The road levelled out and suddenly I saw the ocean in the distance, hazy through smog from the city huddled at its edge. I sat up in the saddle, hooting and screaming like a madman. “Fuck yeah,” I hollered and my voice cracked. Then I was crying and sobbing and I didn’t stop for a good while, rolling down off the mountain towards the water.
So here I am in San Diego. It’s raining outside and I’m feeling pretty snug watching it patter away from the lounge room of this house I’m couchsurfing at. The infamous Robbie Black will be rolling into town before the week is out and together we’ll be embarking on the next chapter: Baja California. I can’t bloody wait.
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that from here I’m only a few hours’ ride from the Mexican border at Tijuana. This means I’ve as good as ridden from the top to bottom of an entire country, and not some European micro-nation neither. It’s not the first time it’s been done, nor was I the fastest to do it and no, it wasn’t on a penny farthing. But if I had an office right now I’d take my Journalism degree off the wall, scribble “I rode a bicycle from the top to the bottom of the United States” on the back and hang that up instead.
See you all in Mexico, muchachitos!