Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jet-Boating on the Parker Strip

Parker AZ and Earp, CA

Coming into Parker AZ on sunday morning around 7am,  we refilled water and had snacks at a gas station,  and were told we'd have a nicer ride north on the california side of the river - smaller  single lane road, no trucks, 25mph speed limit (hardly observed, however) - so back to california we went, and had a fun halfhour of jockeying for the lead, on winding rolling hills alongside the Colorado river. I spotted something I wanted to inspect on the road, so I told lydia I'd catch up. She stopped at a small gas station and variety store right there, while I collected treasure. There, at "Lizard's on the River", we had the good fortune to meet the proprietor, Ed.  Ed is a multitalented ex-coast-guard man, and quite a gracious host- while we browsed his store, or stood under the 2' diameter air-conditioner vent (which blows cold air so forcefully that my hair was laid flat against my head and vortexes showed in my beard) he called ahead to the campgrounds within 10 miles on the road, to inquire if they had tent sites available. He also pulled out a great map and we discussed the pros and cons of various routes (he approves of our plan to take route 66 from Kingman east towards the grand canyon). Eventually we settled on a campsite in the BLM park adjacent to his store, since it was now over 110 degrees.

This campsite was awesome!   Though the majority of the site was vacant RV parking spaces (ugh)  there was a grove of giant salt-cedar trees next to the water.  The trees leaned in various directions and had huge canopies like willow trees,  hanging down to just above head level.   The sand under them was covered by a thick bed of shed pine needles, and we set up our tent in the shade there. We were the only people there for most of the day.     There was a sand/gravel beach on the Colorado,  and so we lounged in the 80 degree water for a while,  which wasshockingly cold, after 115 degrees in the shade.   I then made a rope swing from one of the trees with the climbing rope I brought,  and rigged a three-point harness (two loops under waist and one loop under shoulders) so one could lean back and be well supported.   It wasn't quite the Hammock Chair from Laura's Uncle's place,  but for a first handmade swing it was pretty awesome.

We floated down the river and played in the water for a while,  and I especially enjoyed the visual richness of closely inspecting the rainbow-colored rocks in the bright sun.  These  have eroded from along the river's course and separated based on size at varying depths.     I wore my white longsleeve dress shirt and wide brimmed hat  in the water to avoid sunburn on my upper body,  and can only imagine how silly I must have looked,  floating in the shallows on my belly,  wearing shirt, hat, and sunglasses,   sifting and fractionating handfuls of colorful gravel close to my face.  At this point,  Ed stopped by,  and invited us to have dinner with him and his wife:  "you had us at food!".       We had a great korean dish,  Bebimbop(?),  with rice and veggies and seasoned beef and eggs,  then joined them for a trip to the nearby resort to hang out in the hot tub and pool for a while.   They put us up in their airconditioned guest room and for the first in two nights, we enjoyed sleeping in less than 100 degree heat.   We were pursuaded to stay an additional day because monday was Ed's day off,  and he offered to take us jet-boating up the river to the dam to preview the next 10 miles of our course.  

Ed's is an interesting story-  he is one of eight children put up for adoption when young,  and they recently were all reunited.   It made the front page of newspapers in california and was on inside edition.    I'm looking forward to learning more of this interesting story.   

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

At the shores of the Colorado River

Gordon and I are on the shores of the Colorado river in Earp, CA. Life is very very good. We are out of the desert and at the water. In fact, we're sitting in the water. We're wearing swimsuits and dress shirts. Gordon looks like Laurence of Arabia - perhpas on a visit to an Oasis - with swim shorts, a dirty white dress shirt, and a jungle hat. We're floating at water's edge, engrossed searching for rocks. It's a rock competition - who can be the first to find one rock of each color. Gordon wants to keep the rocks to later make a miniature rock garden. The perfect type for a traveling cyclist.

I am reminded of Richard Bode's "Beachcombing at Miramar"

I've been walking the sands of Miramar for a full year now, and durin gthat time, I've met many people who say they would like to become a beachcomber like me. They view it as the easiest job in the world. They think all it takes is the proper garb: white canvas pants rolled up the the knees, faded blue denim shirt, and a straw hat to protect the fact from the sun. A few actually go to a fancy store and pay a fancy price for garments they believe will change them into the sort of person they think they would like to be.

I see them strolling the shore for a month, a week, a few days, their heads down, plucking stones and shells from the sand. But in due corse they dissappear, having returned, I suppose, to that other occupation they had been so desperate to leave behind.

They seem not to know, when they wander the edge of the sea, that a beachcomber's life is a demanding one that calls for discipline and zeal. One must venture down to the beach every day without fail and splash ankle deep in the white surf or walk barefoot on the hot sand. But its not the hiking; it's the endless seeing that causes the psychic strain. It's the richness of life in the tidal zone. Someone not used to such abundance can grow weary quickly trying to gather it all in.

This is how Ed finds us when he stops by on his gulf cart. We met Ed a few hours ago at the shop next door, and he was very friendly and helpful in refering us to a campsite next door where we could play in the water and sit in the shade. Two precious things for people just arriving from the desert.

Ed asks if we would like to join him and his wife for dinner at their house next door. He says his wife is korean, so it will be korean food. We say fantastic! - you had us at 'food.' Later at Ed's house, he offers to have us stay for the night in airconditioned comfort. We happily accept and allow Ed and Suzie to also twist our arms into staying an extra day in order to enjoy a boat ride out on the river. Fantastic fun, and great to meet new friends. More to follow later....

Monday, July 19, 2010

Crossing the Mojave at Night

We left Twentynine palms at 8pm heading east into the desert and unknown, accompanied by unrelenting heat: it was over 100 degrees until well past midnight. The promised west wind of 10-20mph never showed.  A slight breeze from the southwest may have occasionally risen above 5mph,  but it was no real help.    Lydia put it well though: "I'd rather it stay still than have to fight a headwind".   Agreed.  We were going to really earn the next 100 miles.  I'd become like a gambler- convinced by early good fortune that subsequent challenges would all go similarly favorably.  I fully expected to be conveyed effortlessly across the Mojave at 30mph like Anzo Borrego Desert.  Instead we earned it between 6 and 14 miles per hour,   for 12 hours, in dead still air,  sleep deprived...  and utterly awed by spectacular settings.

About 30 miles east,  after passing the last of the lingering residences and buildings along the way,   we realized we'd already drank about 4 liters of our 11,  each.   Sure,  temperatures were dropping,  but to be more than 1/3rd done with water,  and only 1/4 of the way done with the ride,  caused us concern.   We considered turning back and refueling.  The ride now became more than the simple, relatively riskless jaunt that most rides are-  we began to feel viscerally the presence of real risk and potential danger.       We also were getting tired-  pulling an allnighter is always hard, nevermind while exerting onesself steadily,  all while in womb-like soporific warmth.  

Around 1:30am we needed a break,  and lay on our backs for a while.  The sky is ridiculously gorgeous out there,   and it was bliss for both eyes and legs to take a break.  The background anxiety of this race against the sun, and the (potentially literal) dead-line of finding shade before an hour or two after sunup,  numbed me somewhat to the beauty surrounding us,  but its hard to ignore the milky way extending fully across what seemed like 179 degrees of sky,  more stars than I'd ever seen before at once,   and about once every 5 to 10 minutes,  shooting stars!   Every constellation was seen on an unfamiliar scintillating background of lesser stars not seen ordinarily because they are too faint to compete with the least wisp of cloud or stray light- both here absent.  We were surrounded by living silence where every insect's noise reaches your ears as if amplified.  Your heartbeat is intrusive,  you want to shout "down in front" or "shhh" or something to it.  It was impossible to not feel some sense of grand awe,  even with all the pressure to finish this ride before sunup. 

 You can see cars coming easily 10 minutes before they pass,   as route 62 is laser-straight for incredibly long distances.  Even when they are over the next hill,  the glow of their headlights over the hill is visible for 5 or 10 minutes before their lights are directly visible.  In one instance, I thought I saw a motorcycle,  and flashed my headlight to ask him to lower his high-beams, and let him know they were blinding me.   But it didn't move, and just got brighter.  And then over the next five minutes,  it gradually turned into a pair of lights,  and after another five minutes,  passed us,  a car, perhaps doing 80mph.       Our eyes were just that sensitized,  and the road that straight,  and the air that clear.

A few experiences stood out.   A pair of bats repeatedly darted into the beams of our headlights,  presumably for the concentration of bugs there,   even though we were riding around 10mph at that point.  Maybe they've learned to hunt near lights,  learning that bugs concentrate near them in general --  whether or not there was any real concentration of bugs in this instance because we were moving quickly?

The bats would do coordinated formation fly-by's passing about a foot from Lydia's face,  and I'd just see a light gray glimpse of their jerky flying style going by in the side-scattered light.   They accompanied us for perhaps 20 minutes,  and it was magical.  I thought of sailor's stories of dolphins jumping in the bow-wave of a ship under sail.

A jackrabbt almost martyred himself under my wheel,  darting across the road.  He probably had a foot or two of clearance at closest approach, but it was startling for both of us I'm sure.
When we stopped the rest stop at 1:30am, worrying about water reserves,  and feeling extremely drowsy,  a utility truck passed us and then put brakes on and backed up.  We'd been amazed that noone else had stopped:  a few times I'd be bent over the bike tending something when a car passed,  and they'd hardly slow down.  Of all the cars that passed us that night,  perhaps a hundred or more,  only two stopped.   In this instance,  the driver asked "Are you guys allright?  Do you need any water?"   and so we met Joe.  Joe is a supervisor of a electric utility crew,  going out to lake havasu city (our destination as well) to repair some downed power lines - they'd been without power for several days,  and his crew was getting a jump on things apparently, driving there at 1am!   He told us to fill up with as much of his cooler of juice,  water, gatorade, and red-bull as we liked,  and with quickly quashed restraint,  we each filled up our tanks with about a gallon and a half of gatorade and water,  and also drank as much as we could there and then.  We took our picture with him,  thanked him from the bottoms of our hearts,  and returned to cycling with a renewed optimism in both human kindness, and the feasibility of our reaching the Colorado river without being seriously dehydrated.

Coming to "Iron Mountain" around 3am,  we saw signs for "Iron Mountain Camp" where GPS showed nothing except a strange line going across the land;  We saw clustered sodium lights in the distance telling of some civilization in the middle of nowhere,  but google maps (I strangely had reception and E internet there) knew nothing of it.   We considered camping there and waiting till the next night,  and eventually did turn down the "pump house road",  but found a sign advertising "authorized personnel only,  no thru road,  check in with guard at gate".  Anticipating several miles before reaching the "gate",  we didn't want to waste the effort, and though we were so tired that the asphalt felt comfortable and inviting,  we rose up and continued biking.   

Around 4:15am the sky started to brighten in the east,  and by 4:30 we turned off our headlights.   The sun didn't directly appear till 5:30 or so,  but it was an amazing experience to see the dawning light on the mountain ranges bordering this sandy,  sparse,  desert.   I started to worry in earnest:   my best calculations had us getting in at 10am to parker,  and that, only if we didn't get any more tired-  hardly a safe assumption.  I took relief in the thought that I could build a shade structure,  but later that day,  from relative security, I realized that would have been only a poor stopgap,  not a full solution:   the sun heats the ground,  and you feel radiant heat from 120 to 150 degree ground warmth,   whether or not you have direct sun on you.    And if the sun previously hit the spot  on which you erect your shade structure,  the ground will cook you from below:  its necessary to dig away the top, heated layer.   (Incidentally it feels really good, if you've got enough water,  to lay on such heated ground,  since it warms one's legs and back muscles brilliantly,  like a sauna).

At 5:30am we passed a rail-line with 8 or 10 liquified natural gas railroad tank cars (empty weight ~50,000 pounds,  full weight, 97,000 pounds,  the labels said).   But they were too high off the ground to provide much shade, so we pressed on.  A little farther down the line we saw what appeared to be a railroad service station - just a small building,  with a large shade structure tent over top of one or two empty, polished metal,  railroad cars.  AHA! I thought.   As we got closer we saw people, and then as we pulled closer we saw a military troop transport protruding at 30 degrees from a mangled railroad car--  apparently this was a forensic inspection station,  perhaps situated remotely because of some hazardous cargo,   trying to decipher some spectacular collision?  There were too many people though.   Then we saw some little corvette-stingray type cars-  about eight of them,  and some oxyacetylene welding equipment,  and I started thinking "What the heck,  am I hallucinating?".   We pulled up and talked to one guard,  explaining our situation,  but he said they couldn't offer us shade or shelter for the day-  they were making a movie:  "The Fast and the Furious,  Five".   I think someone in a real position of authority might have been more generous,  but we were too tired to pursue it further,  and they reassured us that,  though we were 35 miles from Parker,  there would be a gas station in 17 miles.   On we went.

At 6:30 the bottom fell out of lydia's gas tank,  and she announced she needed to stop and close her eyes for a bit.   No argument was possible,  but I did suggest we backtrack a quarter mile to the railroad bridge over a wash (the tracks were about 6 feet over the wash's bottom)  to get into a little shade-  she'd just lain down on the sunlit side of the highway! She consented,  but was too tired to even move onto the sheet I laid out,   from where she'd stretched.  We slept like the dead from 6:30 till 8,     and in retrospect it was probably wise:  We were riding DUE east into the sun,  which had just cleared the horizon.  We'd have been invisible to drivers in the glare.    That hour and a half of sleep also had an amazing restorative effect.  We were woken up by the warmth, sweating even in the shade,  but with our eyes no longer protesting so much to be open.  As we woke I jogged up to investigate the gurgling noise I heard,  and learned that we were next to a huge roaring aqueduct,  open topped,   and several million gallons of water.  Iron Mountain made sense now, too:  it was a pumphouse to lift the water over the mountain!   I'm not sure if the water is for 29 palms,  or LA,  or all of southern california, or what, but it is a significant tap on the colorado! The aqueduct, interestingly,  ran for maybe quartermile segments open,  then ran underground far enough to permit a 2-lane dirt road,  or a wash,  to run through,  before coming up to another above ground portion.   It was also a guarantee that our route was level and flat,  or the slightest uphill,  that we were running next to the aqueduct (in the upstream direction).

Indeed,  we did make it to the gas station,  at Vidal Junction,  the hometown of Wyatt Earp.    There is nothing there but an abandoned motel (boarded up),  an abandoned restaurant (with a giant rooster on top),   three or five cabins (for the clerk for the gas station and about three other people),   an agriculture inspection station stopping all westbound traffic on 62 (to block aquatic parasites in/on boats coming from lake havasu from making it into california) ,  and an abandoned gas station (not boarded up,  doors unlocked,  but too hot to stay inside of).    We pulled our sheet out and lay in the shade of the abandoned gas stations's roof over the filling area -  several hundred square feet of luxurious shade on hard concrete, which was good because loose sand would not get everywhere.  Stretched out luxuriously there,  Lydia said it best:  "You couldn't buy a bed this comfortable at the Hilton".    We slept in the shade for two hours,  then refueled at the gas station,  which also was a convenience store.   

After making smalltalk with some marines who came from the base near 29 palms to Lake Havasu to boat the whole weekend,   and who were very impressed with our courage and endurance to bike across the country,    we made a lunch on a small picnic bench in the shade.    We didn't have many ingredients,  but we did make a pasta sauce out of fried minced garlic and onion,  olive oil, salt, and pepper.   Lydia pointed out this probably wouldn't help with the offensive odor we'd developed by then,  the last shower being two days before.  But it was Delicious.

At the Vidal Junction gas station,  we met Bonnie, the clerk,  who showed us great kindness in providing icebags, and showing us how to wear them inside the collar of our shirts,  against the backs of our necks.     we also met the amazing Marty Pigue,   a man who for 17 months has patrolled the Mojave Desert for miles in all directions from here by bicycle,  towing a bicycle trailer,  and collecting littered plastic glass and metal bottles,  which he recycles.   Inside the gas station is a picture of him as he took an 8' high mound of trashbags filled with recyclables,  in a trailer behind his mountain bike,   off to the recycling center several miles south of Vidal.       Now he has a four-wheeler,  donated by a local patron,  with a trailer attached to another trailer behind it-  sortof a train.    Marty is quite unique,  wearing only an orange highway safety vest long ago bleached quite pale by the sun,   and he sits there without sleeves in the sun on a 113 degree day in the afternoon sun without much visible discomfort.   We talked with him for a while,  and played with his Coyote  Shepherd Husky mix pup,   and he offered to make us a chicken dinner later from his cabin nearby. 

One person we met later suggested that the numerous "hills have eyes" references we were worried by,  before undertaking this trip,  might refer to Marty.   The scary stories cited creepy-seeming people in the desert far from any civilization.   Marty would bicycle long distances into the desert,  and then scour the road for cans and bottles.   I can imagine such a leathery,  strange man freaking out some unfamiliar people, if they were driving in the middle of the Mojave desert and saw this guy just walking around!  But we found Marty to be a sweet and sincere man,  who looked you in the eye and seemed most interested in having a positive impact on the surrounding community,  and earning the respect of the people he meets.  He impressed me. 
In the morning the ride to parker was very smooth,  and beautiful.  On this eastern edge of the Mojave the rock changes to a reddish,  rocky conglomerate very unique in our experience sofar,  and it was neat to see another change of terrain.   We descended into the colorado valley,  crossed into Parker,  arizona,   and then stopped into a "terrible's" gas station to get new sunscreen for me (having now used up a full tube in about 2 weeks) and to get some snacks.  It was about 7:30am on a sunday morning,  and it was quiet and deserted.   It was a delight to be back in civilization again.

Friday, July 16, 2010

In preparation of a Desert Century

Next Gas:  110 miles.   We anticipate we'll see this sign sometime after starting our ride tonight, east from Twentynine Palms where we're waiting out the hottest part of the day in an airconditioned library.   Twentynine palms is an oasis in the mojave desert just north of Joshua Tree national monument.   The oasis has dried up,  perhaps due to increasing demand on the aquifer via drilled wells,  or shifting of the tectonic fault which goes directly under this area,  but the parks service waters the palms still, and so some semblance of a desert oasis remains.   But its not like it used to be.  A hundred twenty years ago,    surface water would pool several feet deep around the palms,  and then run over the surface up to a quarter mile into the desert.

The next town east is Parker Dam,  on the south end of Lake Havasu City,   and there is literally nothing on the map between here and there.    There is also an extreme heat advisory in effect,  with 115 to 118 degree heat expected in the colorado river valley on sunday,  where we're headed.     Thankfully, there's also the colorado river to cool off in, and Lake Havasu city,  which we will take shelter at.   We'll be bringing almost three gallons of water each for this crossing (25 pounds of water!)  as well as a large white sheet and ropes and stakes,   with which I feel confident I can rig a shade structure between the bikes if,  for any reason,  we don't make it all the way across the desert before the sun rises too high.  If the winds are calm or in any way behind us,  we should be able to do this completely before dawn.   If we average 20-30mph,  like we did in anzo borrego,  we may be in Lake Havasu by 2 or 3 am!     I'll be using the spot GPS beacon device,  and if we do need help,  I can summon roadside assistance with it.   

But the stories we hear.  Its a desolate area,  and in two separate accounts,  locals said its like "the hills have eyes",  out there.   Another described it as an area people go to dispose of the errant couch,  or to go shooting.   The parole officer we had lunch next to - an impressive giant of a man,  probably close to 280# - with shaved head and texan moustache/goatee,  and the body armor he wore stuffed with radios and batons and mace and sidearm -  said that there's places they just don't go alone. He said we might see people, but if so, "just keep on riding".   Another local at a poolhall last night said we'd be fine,  "just don't go at night".    Sheesh. 

All anticipation of risks aside,  we will have favorable conditions.  The forecast is for 10-20mph westerly winds (from the west, that is),  and  with those it should be possible for us to average 20 or 30 miles per hour.      120 miles goes fast at that rate!   We were actually disappointed when we finished our Anzo Borrego ride,  and route 79 east ended on highway 86.    We'd have happily steamed along at our superhuman 30mph wind-assisted pace for a hundred miles then,  and now we get our chance.  We're also well fed.  We ate at a diner here,  and decided to really dig in.  I had a full bowl of clam chowder,  an "All American" omelette (with mushrooms, sausage, bacon, ham, peppers, onions,  and three eggs),   some hashbrowns,  a slice of watermelon,  and a short stack of  pancakes and butter.   This is probably the biggest meal yet for this ride: I actually couldn't finish the last third of the omelette.   We'll have digested our meals and be ready and powerful when we start riding around 7 tonight. 

Enough of anticipation however.    Yesterday was awesome!  We saw the 29 palms oasis in a rare moment,  at the end of an interesting day complete with desert monsoon,  and the ink still drying on what will surely be an ensemble of lifelong memories.  We met Tod Gordon the evening before,  a kindergarten teacher and cycling enthusiast...    he toured from canada to mexico by bike about 30 years ago,   and clearly was excited to see us.  He's quite the rock climbing enthusiast too,  and had an entire wall of a large room in his house covered with shelves,  with each available spot fille with rock climbing books.   He also wore an ironman triathlon cap when we met him at the gas station opposite the park entrance,  while refilling our water.   He offered,  and we accepted,  hot showers and shuttle service up the 2000 foot climb to the park lands proper.     We considered declining, but were glad to have a few hours more to sleep that night,  and to do so clean.   The camp site was spectacular: in the shadow of a huge -  several story tall - granite rock cluster,   all edges rounded,  and there was absolutely no light pollution,  once the aerial flares that could be seen on the sky over the marine base to the north burnt out (they were doing night battle simulation excercises, I hear).   I've never seen that many stars so clearly,  and fell asleep on my back on top of a concrete park bench watching them. 

Joshua Tree park is amazing.  We cleared out of the campsite by 7:30am.    We found a turnoff by Cap Rock,  (a several story tall granite obelisk) and were the first people there that day.  The traction on the rocks was so good, and the rocks so large, that it really felt like, if one were more confident and skilled, one could literally run up the rocks, not stopping. Many holds going up the rock that I judged impassable from a static perspective were simplicity embodied with a little headstart: inertia is a valuable climbing tool! I let a strong leg thrust's speed carry me up some spans that my reach alone, if static, couldn't have, but held back the full force of my rekindled childhood love of climbing the monkey bars, aware that though it was favorable conditions and I was feeling strong and competent, the consequences of error could be a dealbreaker for the continuation of the trip. We got to the top of a few of a few boulders maybe 60 feet up, then came down and drank. Lydia, a seasoned climber, was only slightly slowed down by not having other than cycling cleat-shoes and flip-flops; She climbed on the cheese-grater-like granite in bare feet.

We toured the park at a leisurely pace,  and climbed on or around Cap rock and Skull Rock.  Pictures will be downloaded as we get the cable or reader for Lydia's camera;  My camera is dead till I pick up the charger which I left at Mauricio's place,  and which he's mailed to us (and is probly now waiting) at Lake Havasu City Post Office.   As we were on Skull Rock we heard a thunder peal from a different direction - west! - than the storm we'd seen on the horizon,  maybe 50 miles to the east.    Down off the rock we came,   and considered whether to shelter in the valley between rocks,  or descend further.  Lydia was concerned about being on the bikes but I timed the lightning - thunder lag and determined we were still 5 miles from the excitement,  and could warrant further descent.  It was impressive how the storm can form:   the clouds didn't so much roll in from anywhere,  as form directly overhead. 

We were on the downhill out of the park,  and that means about five miles over which 1500 or 2000 feet is shed.  The trouble wasn't so much coming down,  but slowing down!  As we descended several hundred feet below the tall rocks we felt less concerned about lightning,   but wet brakes on such heavy bikes meant we had the stopping distances of 747 jumbo jets.   We did stop,  and several times,  sometimes because we needed to put on warm clothes (I put on a fleece,  and gave lydia my gloves and hat),   and sometimes because the hard rain made it impossible to face forward -  the driving rain felt like as many BB's or nails,   stinging hard with each impact,  nevermind its effect on visibility.    The wind blew rain at 30 degrees from HORIZONTAL,  with each droplet stinging so much that I imagined it must be hail.   Looking down, I saw white stuff on the road,  but it was just a froth washing off the asphalt.  No hail,  just really, really hard rain.    The side of the road turned into a river,  and the desert seemed to exhale a pheromone-like musk.    Lydia asked if I smelled the asphalt and then we both realized this was a much more pervasive odor.   Smoky,  sweet,  earthy,   spicy... words fail me.   A helpful youth at the park office,  when we got down,  said he thought the dominant note of the perfume was creosote bush,   and indeed it did smell similar,  but this was a very complex odor of several hundred different floral and mineral exhalations,  I'm thinking.

Anyway,  they only give you so much time on these computers,  so I've got to sign off for today.   Wish us luck,  don't worry too much,  and check the GPS position updates for our OK messages if you are worrying.  We'll call for help if we need it,  but I think we'll be fine!

Desert Rain Storm

Rain pelts down on my back, arms, face, stomach - stinging fiercely, making the bees that I was worried about earlier appear a joke. I'm still wearing just a sports bra and pants from moments ago when it was 108 degrees and sunny. Now we are back on the bikes, racing to get off the high desert to find refuge at lower elevations that are nestled by the mountains.

This morning, I woke up at our campsite at 4,200 feet in Joshua Tree National Park's section of the Mojave Desert. It's 'monsoon season' here and we're eager to see a storm in the desert. I woke up at 5am just as the first rays of light were peaking out from the mountains across the valley. Instead of my usual roll over to catch some more shut eye, I jumped out of the tent to sit on the rock; eager to absorb as much of this beauty as possible.

Around 8am, Gordon and i were finally packed and off to explore past the campsite. Our first stop was only a few miles down the road at a large granite boulder garden. The granite boulders that were pushed up from the earth's core, have been weathered extensively by wind and water. Some have large cracks running through them, and when I tap on them they emit a startling hollow sound.

We bouldered, basked in the sun, and delighted in the silence. It was so quite that every small sound was audible. Ravens circled above and cawed out their mouthy calls. The wind rustled, approached, swirled around us, and then ducked off further towards the rocks. Dry seed pods still attached to their mother plants crackled about with the wind. Insects buzzed between flowers.

After our break, I returned to my bike to find honey bees coating my water bottles. I had filled the bottles to the brim, and there was still a few drops of water in the bottles' screw tops that was sheltered from evaporation. In such a dry climate, the bees were happy to get at least a little water. I have still never been stung by a bee and so we waited for a while, Gordon moved my bike and stood the water bottle s upright, and then finally after some more exploring, enough bees had left that I braved the task of running the bike and water bottles out of their range.

We continued biking and we stopped for lunch. We listened to frighteningly huge rolls of thunder from a storm cell far in the distance. We discussed how it would be magical to be caught in a thunderstorm in the high desert.

At a stop at skull rock, we left the bikes to scramble up some rocks. This section of road would finally be all downhill - a few thousand feet to the town of 29 Palms. I put on lip flops to walk up to the boulders. I was feeling exhausted. I had stayed up late and woken up early, and was finally feeling the effects of the heat. Nonetheless, I was still eager to explore the rocks.

Up on the rocks, we heard a clap of thunder right above our heads. This was another cell coming at us from the northeast. I hurried us out of the rock maze and back to the bikes.

We decided it would be safer to descend in elevation than to wait out the storm in a rock shelter. Hurriedly, we got back on bike shoes and helmets and began our descent. The rain came, whipped up by forceful gusts of wind. Lightning strikes on the mountains were frequent and flashed bright like a streak of burning magnesium. The road turned into a bit of a river with an inch or two of water. A frothy white slick layered the road where grime was washing off.

At a few points, we had to stop, as the wind was too forceful, and the rain too painful. At one stop, I couldn't even look down to see how Gordon was, as I had to pause for a minute or two to shelter my face from the pelting rain. I put on my florescent bike jacket, and even tie a handkerchief around my neck to get added protection from the rain. I am thankful for the visibility of the florescent yellow jacket as other cars drive by in the rain, giving us plenty of room to continue our bike.

The bike jacket was hardly warm enough in the suddenly freezing wind and rain. Temperature had probably dropped 20 or 30 degrees. I was shivering, but hardly noticed the cold as I delighted in all of the other new sensory experiences.

Sometimes seeing was difficult. For much of the descent, I left on the sunglasses to protect my eyes from the rain, but they too become wet with drops of rain, and add a dark tint to the already dark sky, further inhibiting my vision.

The bike brakes hardly worked. A one point, I needed about 400 feet to come to a full stop. Further down the mountain, as several cars passed, I thought it might be wise to again check my brakes. I pulled back on the brakes as hard as possible, and they did nothing to stop my descent. I was cruising through a few inches of water, downhill, at 22mph. I felt entirely in control of the bike, and the speed seemed very manageable, but I did wonder what I would do if I did need to stop.

But, it was all worth it for so many reasons. Experiencing the power of the storm gave me insight into ancient beliefs and stories about rain and thunder gods. About the awe of experiencing nature's power and feeling small and impressed. I felt very privileged to have this experience.

Above all else, the one thing I will always remember was the smell of the desert during the rain. Once the rain started, I could almost sense the plants opening up all of their pores and roots and sucking up as much water as possible; awakening to the life-giving rain. The rain brought a sweet smell. Imagine the smell if a botanical store occupied an entire park. I breathed deeply through my nose, trying to etch the sweet earthy and plant smell into my memory. Later we learned that most of the aroma comes from the creosote bush.

At the bottom of the mountain, we came out of the rain storm and reached the ranger station at 29 Palms. Our soaking wet clothes quickly became again dry in the returning heat of the desert.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

First desert crossing

We are biking, no, flying, across the Anzo-Borrego desert at 30mph on 100 pound bicycles, and I cannot wipe this smile off my face as I delight in the speed of travel and the many new sensory experiences of the desert. It is now night and the only noticable indication of time is the slow rotation of the big dipper tracing its path around the north star. The air is completely dry and when we do stop periodically, I notice that my voice is raspy. In the 'cool of the night' heat still radiates overbearingly and temperature settles in at 99 degrees. Winds are from the west and push us steadily across the desert.
The Anza-Borrego is located in southern California and is the state's largest park. It is named after Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish name borrego, or bighorn sheep, which still sparsely populate the park.
Since leaving San Diego, we climbed from sea level to over 4,500 feet. During the slow ascent, we were preocupied with this first desert crossing. It was a frequent conversation topic with locals. We often discussed how much water to bring and how to build a shade structure. We agreed to try crossing in the evening; hoping to take advantage of cooler temperatures.
In the morning, we rode north from our campsite in Cuyamaca state park. We lingered around the lake and took an afternoon nap in the shade. Replenished with newfound energy, we biked the last few miles to Julian and indulged in apple pie which is apparently the local specialty.
Gordon's new bicycle chain was causing problems. Worried that a broken chain could leave us stranded in the desert, we wanted to pick up a new one before crossing the Azno Borrego. At the library in Descanso, I had searched for bike shops in Julian. I found one and called, but the bike shop no longer existed. The phone number however still belonged to the former bike shop owner, Rich. He did not have any chains on hand, but recommended that we ask his friend, Dave at the Pie Company in Julian. So now were were off on a wild goose chase for a chain.
After ordering pie at the Pie Company, we found Dave who was slicing pieces of pie to keep up with the out-the-door line of people. Dave did not have an extra chain either, but immediately volunteered to take the chain off his own bike. We were reassured to have a spare chain and filled with gratitude for Dave's generous gesture.
In Julian, we resupplied with snacks, water and juice. We now had about 15 liters of fluid for both of us. Bikes heavily laden with liquid weight, we finally departed Julian as evening set in.
Leaving Julian, we immediately started down Banner Grade road. In about a 1/2 hour we decended 2,500 verticle feet, winding along switchbacks that hugged the southern side of a narrow valley. Half way down, we stopped to cool down the bikes. Constant breaking had heated up the wheel rims. At the roadside, we noticed a piece of what would have been the largest pinecone that I've ever seen.
Racing down slope, wind streaked by us, and I was happy that it was still bright enough to wear my sunglasses to shield the wind from my eyes.
Breaking out into the straight open road, we began to enter the desert. The road changed to a distinctly black, black top. I wondered if daily temperatures over 100 degrees frequently melted the road just slightly, leaving it with a permanent freshly asphalted look.
Just further east, we again started to descend the rest of the way towards sea level. On one straight downhill, Gordon zoomed ahead at what must have been 50 or 60mph. Nervous about the speed and my ability to control the bike with any cross winds, I breaked some and topped out at 40mph.
Descending yet further into the desert, we made our way down a windy section of road that looped between the mountains. The sun was going down and the shadows growing long. The canyon was dimly lit; vermillion dirt and cactus green hills reaching up from the road. In any other such environment, I would expect cool air to greet my descent. Instead, I was surprized to be met by an indistinguishable airid desert heat. Even with the reassurance of 15 liters of water, I found myself thinking about water and and about the desire to drink. Dissapointinly, whenever we did stop for a drink, our waterbottles were heated to a tepid warm, far from refreshing but hugely replenishing and life-giving.
Now out in the open Anzo Barrego, the mountains slipped off behind us into the distance. A steady 20mph tailwind pushed us across the desert. We pedaled in a surreal world of semi-dark. The road illuminated by our headlamps, the stars illuminating dusky grey shadows of cactus and plants. Golden orange of the set sun lingered over the hills behind us in the west.
We had planned to camp for a night in the desert, but with favorable conditions, we biked late until reaching the Salton Sea at the most eastern point of the desert. Several hours passed by seeming only like minutes as we delighted in our 30mph race across the desert. Finally around 10:30pm, we reached the first stop sign of our desert crossing indicating a successful completion and our arrival at route 86; our path north along the western side of the Salton Sea.

From Desert Hot Springs

Today,  Tuesday July 13th,  marks one week on the trail.   Since I've last blogged friday,  a lot has happened!

Friday,  we left the Descanso library late in the day, with the best of intentions of reaching Julian before dusk.    However, as in the best of cases,  we were sidetracked by the discovery of the phenomenal McClintock Saddleworks.   I've never seen a master saddlemaker's workshop,  and this place exuded my kind of guy-appeal.  Saddles,  swatches of leather,  mohair ropes,  wooden tools,  all housed in the basement of a post and beam barn  with exposed timbers,  and things hanging everywhere from the low ceilings:  I was in heaven. The proprietor, Gary McClintock,  and his friend Ron,  engaged us in friendly conversation and the time flew by.    I asked if he knew of the Ashley book of knots,  and both Gary and Ron spoke up instantly saying they were working through it too.   We fell right in together.  Gary was even kind enough to send us off with a nice swatch of leather with a beautiful stamping pattern on it.

Gary told us about a fantastic stream with a waterfall and pond which was just 0.7 mile off the road,  that he'd camped at when he first visited Descanso in 1968.   It sounded perfect, and free,  albeit in a "day use only" area.  This latter issue became a sticking point though as we entered,  and had the luck to run into the park ranger.   Figuring him for no dummy,  we aborted our plan and biked another 10 miles on to Green Valley pay campground.   It was a bit of a change to be in an industrial scale campground -  it felt like a small commune,  and you could hear conversations in any direction,   but they did have showers.    I figure there must have been about 300 people within 100 yards in any direction.   As we unpacked and set up camp,   Lydia discovered one of her packs was glowing from within,  and the errant flashlight I thought I'd lost - the nice LED one I'd splurged on, and been feeling remorseful for losing for several days -    was found.    In general I'm glad she packs things up well... we just need to coordinate better!!  Feeling strangely elated that what was lost was now found,  we fried up onions and green peppers and tomato sauce,   had a nice pasta dinner,  and went to sleep.

By 8:15 we were rolling towards Julian on saturday,  in what would be the most spectacular day of riding yet.     The climbing up to elevation 4800 feet was slow and difficult,  but the scenery was beautiful with lush flowering bushes, meadows,  and a rippling stream (the sweetwater) following much of the way.      Most of the growth is recent-   all the trees larger than a foot in diameter are charred husks.   There was a devastating forest fire here in 2003,  and the hillsides are littered with deadwood.    I wondered if the fire was put out or went out too soon though:   surely letting these tinder trees burn fully would reduce the likelihood of another fire too quickly?   The whole place looks like it'd go up in a towering inferno with the least sideways glance of an ember. There's resinous bushes,  dead and brown grass,  and these highly branching tinderlike trees everywhere,  and its very hot and dry.

We rolled into Cuyamaca Lake,  and had a nice leisurely lunch there of nectarines and fresh figs from the farmer's market in descanso:  decadent!  I changed my front brake pads,  which had picked up some tree sap and chattered unfixably,    then we went to look for a place to swim from.    One ranger on the east end told us that around the west end of the lake we could swim;  the ranger on the west end said we weren't allowed to swim anywhere, since it was a reservoir (yet there are fishing boats and fishermen, not to mention birds and fish doing unspeakable things in the water all day).   We settled on wading in a bit in the middle of the lake,  equidistant from east and west stations.   We found a park bench in the shade of a tree and sprawled on it,  reading a bit of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire,   and testing out a water purification still I made from a found blue salad bowl,  a plastic bag,  a small metal cup,  and two rocks.   I successfully distilled a few tablespoons of water in about two hours:  I think I need to revise my design if its to be of any real use as a source of purified water!!

We agreed it was too hot to ride,  and so decided to wait out the hot hours until about 3pm in the shade of the tree next to the lake.  Riding in hot weather at least gets you into a routine of regular siestas!   I was amazed how rested and fresh I felt after an hour's nap in the shade of the tree.     We got back on the bikes,  and rode on towards Julian at a lively clip,  even overtaking an unladen mountain biker spinning up the road.   Certainly feeling a bit shamed by being overtaken by the bicycle equivalent of earthmovers,  on a hill no less,    he called out that he'd been mountain biking on trails and was just riding home,  and his legs were "grenading".   I pondered the linguistic implications of this verbed noun,  coming to no conclusions,  but imagining that the californian metamorphosis or back-association of the expression "my legs hurt" went something like this:

"my legs really hurt".
(Explosions really hurt?)
"my legs are exploding".
(grenades explode?).
"my legs are grenading."


We reached Julian around 4pm.  We'd called ahead to all bikeshops within 60 miles ahead of us (all 4 or 5 of them) looking for a backup chain in case of further trouble along previous lines.  Though the only bikestore in Julian was out of business, the number still reached the wife of the ex-proprietor at home.  Through her,  then her husband Rich,  we got the name of "Dave" who might be able to help us find a replacement chain,  and could be found working at the Julian Pie Company.  Since no fewer than four people had independently told us we needed to try the apple pie in Julian (it is famous)  we headed to the Julian Pie Company forthwith,  and found a line of ten people out the door on a saturday at 4:00!    Dave was readily located, and he said that while he didn't have a new chain,  he would let us have the chain off of his bike!   Astounding...  an hour later,  he returned from home and handed me a ziploc with an SRAM 9-speed chain in it,  and refused my offers of money.

After refilling with water and visiting some shops along the way,  we began the descent via banner grade.    It is 7 miles of 7-9% grade,  downhill from Julian.     I was terrified the whole way -  all the energy of lowering probably 350 or 400 pounds was being turned to heat in my brakepads and rims,  and I was legitimately afraid of having a thermal failure of my inner tube, tire,  or brakes.    We stopped three times during the descent to let the rims cool.   They'd be too hot to touch again in just a minute or two of descent.    Lydia was giggling with excitement,  and announced she'd never descended that much elevation before.      But it only got better from there.

At the bottom of banner grade begins the Anzo Borrego desert wilderness,  and people warned us it would be 120 degrees there during the day,  easily.   We reached it about 7pm,  and it was about 100,  with a dessicating, parching dryness that I've never experienced before.   We had more than two gallons each,  but we wound up not needing it all:   The west wind smiled on us,  and we had a 20-30 mile per hour tailwind for the next five hours! This,  and shedding the remaining 2000 feet of elevation we still had at the bottom of banner grade,  made for a giddy few hours.      We were cruising at 20mph without pedaling,  and with pedaling would cruise effortlessly at 32mph,  for over an hour.       Though we stopped to drink,  admire the silence,   cackle maniacally about how awesome this was,  and take a few photos,  I think we still averaged over 15mph for over three hours.   I think this was lydia's first experience of such a magic carpet of tailwind and steady downhill grade.  On top of my own exhillaration,  it was a real pleasure to see her light up with the thrill of it all. 

We arrived at the Salton Sea,  the intersection of 79 and 86,  around 10:30,  and just south of us on 86 saw a large lit hangar with some vehicles in it.  We decided to go over and investigate,  and see if there might be a place to refill our water.  It turns out it was a border control inspection station:  every car going north on highway 86 was being stopped and inspected,  some briefly and others more lengthily.      We wheeled over and said hi to the officers,   all dressed in green fatigues and armed,  and one with a belgian malinois.  They chatted us up and asked about the trip and offered us water,  and within 45 minutes we left the station headed north for salton city:     there being no spot to camp anywhere else.    Salton City was 12 miles ahead on a north-northwest heading,  and the tailwinds were now cross- or head-winds.   We slogged through it,  with diminishing reserves of energy,  in the hopes of a camping site or simply some community building to set our tent in front of.  

What desolation!  there's just sand off the highway,  and a barbed wire fence perhaps there to prevent people from off-roading.    We felt like we were in a tunnel,  and our growing fatigue also contributed.   Against the headwinds, we finally made it,  but after three more hours of headwind fighting...   only to discover that despite being a large city on the map,  Salton City is, in fact,  almost a ghost town.     Built in anticipation of the Salton sea becoming the next paradise resort area,  it was laid out in grand style,  but most of the lots are undeveloped,   and there is not a single motel, hotel,  or campground.   the sherriff's office is in a small stripmall with four other businesses and is not manned even on a saturday night at 1am.   We thought we'd ask them if they could recommend a place to stay.  After calling dispatch,  and waiting 15 minutes, we met Officer Lopez,   who graciously agreed to give us and our bikes a lift to Desert Shores,  12 miles further up 86,   where there was a small and seedy "sea and sun motel".    We were the ONLY tenants.  Across the street, inspected later the next day,  were either vacant lots or derelict buildings for sale.    We went on a tour late the next day,  and found that most every access to the water is fenced off,  with no trespassing signs.   We're told that because of rising salinity levels,  due to washing of salt from farmlands surrounding,  and pollution from being fed by the two most polluted rivers in the world,  the Alamo and New river,  flowing from Mexico,      there are hardly any species of fish surviving there.  We saw only a few gulls,  and there was not a single boat on the whole,  many-square-mile sea in the middle of the desert.  I've never seen such desolation. 

It was 106 in the shade and the sun was baking down,  so we tried to stay as long at the motel as possible.  We made bacon and eggs on the camp stove,  which I used to make a primitive but satisfying carbonara sauce. Lydia and I realized after the fact that we did, in fact,  have "green eggs and ham"... these being the fresh eggs, some of which were green,  that we'd picked up in Descanso on friday.    we finally mobilized at 6pm and by 7:30 it was down to 99F.  We fought the headwinds and arrived at Desert Palms (southeast of Palm Springs) around 2am.  

Desert Shores,  Desert Palms,  Desert Hot Springs....  Desert Desert Desert.  Its HOT out here.  We're napping in the middle of the days,  or blogging from libraries where available,  riding in the early morning and late evening.   (We were riding by 5:15 this morning).    We're about to climb the Morongo valley and Yucca Grades up several thousand feet to Joshua tree, which is between the Colorado Deserts and Mojave deserts,      but from Joshua Tree, thankfully,  the next 120 miles or so to Lake Havasu city,  on the colorado river,  will be all riding east,  with the wind,  if we don't detour into the park.   We may detour into the park though to do some bouldering and sight seeing,  so we don't expect to arrive at Lake Havasu City until maybe friday.