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  • Tom Blower

The Last Leg - AZ and CA


Firstly, I'm very sorry that it's taken so long for me to upload this last section of the journey. Upon arriving home on Thursday 25th I almost immediately had to start packing in order to be back to university by Sunday, and so it's been a stressful few days in which (I'm very sorry to say) blogging hasn't been my number one priority. However, after a good few hours of typing away in my college room, I am ready to present the final part of the trip.

(I am really sorry that there aren't any pictures at the moment - hopefully if my endeavour to recover the files from my messed up memory cards is successful, I will add them asap...)

Friday 12th September – Chambers AZ to Winslow AZ – 83.18m, av. 17.7, 2233.3 total

Although the sunrise illuminated the bare scrub with a beautiful pink-orange glow, I wanted to make progress to Holbrook, my just-over-halfway point, whilst the wind was still behind me, so with my Buff over my face and my spare socks on my hands, I got my head down and made good time as I shot through Petrified Forest National Park. It did help that a good portion of the distance was downhill, so it wasn’t too long before I pulled into a McDonalds in Holbrook for a hot breakfast. Or perhaps I should say ‘breakfast’: the hash browns were soaked in grease, the ‘egg’ in my McGriddle was essentially a flavoured sponge and everything tasted pretty foul. Disappointed, but glad that the sun was finally beginning to warm things up, I removed my outer layers and headed on toward Winslow. The land became much flatter and much barer – the sparse number of low-level bushes I’d seen west of Holbrook had all but disappeared, and the dusty grass rolled into the horizon, upon which I could see distant, hazy mountains. I stopped briefly at the Jackrabbit Trading Post to get some plectrums (‘Get your picks on Route 66’) and an ice lolly (indulging my inner child). The flat became a gentle but noticeable downhill slope, and I could see Winslow from over 10 miles away. At the edge of town the first thing I came to was quite interesting: a piece of concrete wall and two giant distorted steel girders, with an enormous stars and stripes hanging at half-mast. The wall and girders had been salvaged from the remains of the World Trade Centre, and the flag had been the one flying at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks. It was a strange but nonetheless touching memorial to the victims of 9/11, all the way out here in the midst of such barren land, but to me it was certainly more interesting than the somewhat more famous memorial to a song by The Eagles that I’ve never heard. Ted Pate, my host, had phoned me to say that he wouldn’t be back from Flagstaff until 3:00, so in the meantime I read The Grapes of Wrath in the shade of the local swimming pool, and managed to waste a good deal of time trying to post home my falsa blanket. Eventually the time came for me to cycle over to Ted’s, and on the way I passed a parade of local highschool students preparing for – what Ted later explained to me as – the homecoming football game (which Ted also explained that the Winslow Bulldogs would probably lose). I was greeted by Ted and his wife Patty, and after taking a shower, a quick drink, and an aborted mission to deliver some breeze blocks to the United Methodist Church of which Ted was pastor, something incredible happened. My hosts, discovering that I would be cycling through Flagstaff and Williams, and was not planning on visiting the Grand Canyon, offered to drive me there. Flabbergasted, I accepted, and we set off almost immediately. Although the drive was over two hours, and took me through a large portion of the next day’s ride, it was really interesting to see how the climb out of Winslow to Flagstaff (a climb of over 2,000 feet) affected the landscape, but I will get on to this later. From Flagstaff we drove north around the edge of the San Francisco Mountains, after which the land dropped again, the scenery becoming less piney and more similar to the terrain around Flagstaff. Eventually we reached Grand Canyon National Park, and then it was just a few miles before we ended up in a big ol’ car park surrounded by trees. I was wondering just how far we would have to walk in order to reach the canyon, but I was rather taken aback when, after perhaps a 200-metre walk from the car, we walked through the trees and I saw it. There was no trek, no slow approach. It was just suddenly there. 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a vertical mile deep, it was simply the biggest phenomenon, formation or indeed thing of any sort I have ever seen in my entire life. As Ted – who had travelled in the UK – liked to joke ironically, “It’s no Cheddar Gorge!” Aside from my fear of falling to my death making me incredibly on edge (ho ho!), there was a feeling of something I still haven’t quite found the words to describe: not a spiritual or religious feeling, but something physical, aesthetic, earthly. The vast, clear strata of rock layers, the sky so hazy that you could hardly see the other side clearly, the evening sun casting jagged shadows over the eroded, curving red spires, plateaus and crevasses. One part of it was that of the land saying to me, like it had nowhere else, ‘this is how small you really are’, not in a negative way, but simply in a perspective-setting way. The other part I still can’t explain. Maybe someday, I’ll find the words. But sadly, due to my schedule, we had to be getting back for me to sort out my bike and get some sleep: there was only time for a quick stop at the McDonalds in Flagstaff before heading back along I-40 to Winslow. Upon returning I had a brief moment to meet Barbara, a kindly elderly lady semi-living in the Pates’ house, before I had to insist on getting to bed in order to give me some rest before the following day’s inevitable climb.

Saturday 13th September – Winslow AZ to Bellemont AZ – 68.77m, av. 14.3, 2302.1 total

Despite my best efforts, it was gone 6:00 when I hit the road, but it was still dark and I had plenty of time ahead of me to get to Bellemont, about 10 miles west of Flagstaff. Because I set off really early I passed the turning to Meteor Crater because I didn’t fancy cycling 6 miles out of my way and then have to wait around for the place to open up: besides, I reasoned with myself, I’d already seen a far more impressive hole in the ground the day before. I kept heading west along the interstate, watching for the second time the San Francisco Mountains loom before me (though I had been able to see them from Holbrook, almost 100 miles away). Reaching Twin Arrows, 22 miles from Flagstaff (or ‘Flag’) to the locals, the land suddenly changed: crossing Walnut Creek, the Coconino National Forest suddenly sprung up, not huge but tallish trees which at last gave way to towering pines as I climbed on towards the city. Whilst on entering the forest the view was very interesting, the road itself became hellish: cracked and covered in crap, I was half a mile from Winona when I got my second puncture, and turning my bike I upside down, I had to remove 5 or 6 shards of shredded truck wire from my rear tyre before feeling secure enough to then change the tube. It’s selfish and wasteful to change the tube instead of trying to locate and patch the puncture, but in situ I find myself so desperate to be moving, so aware that I can make it easier for myself, that I really don’t want to spend the extra time sitting in 30-plus heat locating the puncture, putting a patch on, and gingerly inflating the tyre, only for it to deflate a few miles later. Back on the road, I stopped quickly in Winona, where I managed to find some full-finger gloves (only work gloves, but a snap at $1.10), and arrived shortly after in Flagstaff, having paused only to pick the jawbone out of a coyote carcass by the side of the road. Coyote were the only roadkill I’d seen for hundreds of miles, and I found myself wishing I could see a live one. Luckily there were at least three bike shops in Flagstaff, so it wasn’t too hard to replace my lost inner tubes: I also bought a cycling cap – not normally something I’d like, but it had a cool design and was a good memento of Flagstaff. The altitude makes the city good in the winter for snow sports, and with a university there’s a lot for young people to do, even if they’re not willing to indulge in the fantastic natural landscape around them. I stopped at the Galaxy Diner, a classic 50s-style joint, for lunch, where I stuffed myself with a huge shake, burgers and fries (telling myself that I deserved it after such a tiring morning). I regretted eating so much, however, as the climb out of Flagstaff was the steepest of the day, but once over the Arizona Divide (7335ft), it was pretty much all downhill to Bellemont, where I found that the Motel 6 I had been expecting had been taken over by Days Inn, and that in the process, my reservation had been lost. Luckily, I got one of the four spare rooms left, although I did have to sit outside for several hours waiting for the room to be cleaned: I spent the time picking the teeth out of the coyote jaw and cleaning them with the knife I bought in McLean. After checking in and showering, I sat at the window, filling in my logbook and looking out at the small, localised storms rolling across the evening sky.

Sunday 14th September – Bellemont AZ to Seligman AZ – 63.95m, av.17.5, 2366.0 total

A pretty awesome day’s ride. It emerged that I had all my timepieces set too early, and that I was an hour ahead of Mountain Time. It was nice, therefore, to get an extra hour in bed and begin cycling just before sunrise, instead of riding for over an hour in the dark. Although the day began cold, and the gloves I’d bought in Winona did come in handy, despite the altitude, my skin began to fry as the sun rose, a sensation even more acute when my legs were still as I enjoyed some gentle downhill stretches. Stopping in Williams, I felt as if my rear tyre was deflating, and I stopped to pull a tiny piece of truck wire from the tyre before giving it another pump and continuing on. There was a short climb out of Williams, the land remaining piney and densely-wooded, but about 10 miles from Ash Fork the land suddenly dropped away and the road ran steeply downhill, allowing me to reach a top speed of 46.7 mph: I was pretty sure that if I’d been unladen I might have been able to reach my dream speed of 50. Coming to a stop in Ash Fork, I really felt the sun – although I’d already applied a liberal layer of factor 70, standing still was not the thing to do in such heat: at least riding afforded a varying level of cooling breeze. I was only 25 miles from Seligman, but I would be turning off from the interstate onto the old Route 66, and as I wasn’t sure how friendly the road would be I wanted to give myself some time. The first few miles weren’t too bad, even though they were uphill, but the strain increased as the road steepened as I came to the top of a 5700ft pass. I didn’t mind too much though – with my music on and the weather sunny, my mood was far better than it had been trying to cross the Great Smoky Mountains, and I was able to enjoy being away from the interstate and its noisy, incessant stream of traffic. Over the pass, the land sloped downhill all the way into Seligman, and the landscape returned to one similar to that around Holbrook and Winslow: barer, flatter and more open. Seligman itself lay at the bottom of this sweeping valley, marked from a distance by the presence of carefully-cultivated trees. Arriving in town along the main road, I was struck by how alive this small town seemed. It was, however, not locals that provided the buzz of activity, but hordes of tourists, driven in by the busload to photograph and buy the tacky nick-nacks and crap that most of the establishments along the main street provided. That said, the business owners were all really nice, as I discovered as I ventured into the nearest one to get something to eat, and sat listening to the babble of a coachload of English tourists fussing over the right change or whether this neon pink t-shirt was in their size. I tried to remind myself that I was, in a way, just as culturally distant, just as invasive, and just as ignorant as these people: although my mode of transport differed from these people, I could not pretend that that gave me license to snobbishly judge them as having a somehow less ‘authentic’ experience than myself. After waiting a few hours outside the Catholic church, where I was to meet my contact Mike Gillen, I was lucky enough to meet Father Killian McCaffrey, the priest who had allowed my stay, as he headed in to perform mass at midday, and an hour later, after the service had finished, he drove me to the Stagecoach Motel on the edge of town, where I was treated to lunch with 4 other parishioners; Ransom, Patty, and two others whose names to my shame I cannot remember. It was a great lunch with great food and a really interesting discussion of the upcoming Scottish referendum (being from Dublin, and with a few Scottish friends, Father Killian, an incredibly friendly and talkative guy, was particularly interested in my perspective on the issue). As we got up to leave, Ransom handed me a $100 bill, saying “When I was your age, I did a lot of travelling with not much money. It’s always nice to have a few extra bucks so you can enjoy something you hadn’t planned!” Thanking him, I was driven back to the church by Father McCaffrey, where I was shown the church-owned apartment I would be staying in. Father McCaffrey had to go see some friends in Williams, so after thanking him and bidding him goodbye, and almost immediately locking myself out of the church (fortunately my contact Mike Gillen was on hand to let me back in) I decided to go for a walk around town, and get some souvenirs for my family. Re-entering the crowded, tourist-filled shops, I was forced to confront again my own snobbishness. The only real difference, perhaps, was our chosen mode of transport. Maybe. But I had been staying with real Americans, in their churches and in their homes, getting a glimpse of American life in a way that a tour-guided package holiday just doesn’t allow. But perhaps the real idiocy was this narcissistic, obsessive self-comparison to others. However ‘culturally immersive’ my experience or not, however ‘authentic’ a view of America I’m getting (if that’s even possible), my experiences here have been individual, uniquely experienced from my perspective, all thought-provoking, emotion-stirring, beautiful. Maybe as long as it means something to me that’s all that counts. Falling out of my thoughts, I began to prepare more seriously for the following day – I’d been told that there were no real stops for at least 50 miles before Kingman, and a fair bit of climb, but I knew that the only defence against them was food and sleep, so I ate and turned in early.

Monday 15th September – Seligman AZ to Kingman AZ – 76.59m, av. 17.0, 2442.6 total

Setting off from Seligman just before dawn, I was enjoying the first 30ish miles through some pretty varying countryside, from flat, shallow valleys to wooded hills, which slowly rose into mountains as I headed toward Kingman. However, it was a sad irony that such good scenery couldn’t be complimented by such god road. Between my 32nd and 50th miles, I managed to get 3 punctures, all on my rear wheel. Whilst to a great extend the shoulder was reasonably smooth, it certainly wasn’t always clear of detritus, and one particular 8-mile downhill stretch was absolutely horrendous: desurfaced and covered in gravel, glass, rubber and bits of metal, my hands were shaken to pieces and my bike hardly fared better. By the third puncture I grimly tried to tell myself that I was calm, only to scream “For fuck’s sake!” a few seconds later to no-one in particular. The repetitive stopping in the heat was really getting to me, and with each successive puncture I was becoming more and more paranoid about what I was cycling on, spending more time looking at the road and less at the beautiful landscape around me, whose increasing heat and barrenness reminded me a lot of southern Spain. Pulling into Kingman at last, I found a bike shop and bought some tubes to replace the ones I’d lost – only later did I find out the guy had accidentally sold me the wrong size and I’d spent $22 on tubes that were entirely useless for my bike – before heading into the historic downtown area of Kingman. It was nice to visit another Rt.66-style diner and spend a pleasant few hours reading beneath a tree, but I was becoming increasingly concerned that my intended couchsurfing host for the night was not responding to any of my calls; a mood which was not improved when I found out that, yet again, my back tyre had gone flat. 4 flats in one day. I could hardly believe it, but then again, I had been cycling on the interstate pretty much completely since El Reno. One highlight of the day, however, was being approached by an old guy with a huge white beard, who introduced himself as George, and told me about the times when, as a homeless man, he used to cycle from Texas to Las Vegas. He also asked me if I had any weed, declaring upon my inability to satisfy his request that Kingman was the worst place to buy marijuana. He also blamed Islam for most of what he saw as being wrong with the world, or at least all the “Ay-rabs” (basically non-Christian Abrahamic religions, as far as I could tell). But he was generally a friendly guy, and managed to distract me, if only for a little while, from the day I’d had. After he wandered off, I attempted to call my host again, and even waited outside their house for a few hours, but no reply. Blaming myself for not attempting to contact them a few days in advance, I gave up, and booked into a motel for the night. I’d had a really interesting time in Arizona, but by this point I was really keen to just get out of the state.

Tuesday 16th September – Kingman AZ to Needles CA – 54.50m, av. 15.8, 2497.1 total

A comparatively great day’s ride. Once I crossed the interstate and returned to the old Route 66 toward the Black Mountains, the going wasn’t the smoothest, but hey, bumpy trumps spiky in my book. Though the first 15ish miles were downhill through some quite sandy country, the climb from Ed’s Camp to the top of Sitgreaves Pass was a tough one, but I put my head down and got it all done without having to stop. The view from the top was one well-earned: behind me lay Arizona, and in front Nevada and California stretched away into a blue haze, mountains and desert. It was also nice to meet some Canadian motorcyclists who took my picture just the other side of the pass, and unlike most of the traffic I’d seen, they were actually going my way. The descent down the other side was awesome and, aside from a near-miss encounter with one of the wild burros that roam the hillsides around here, I reached Oatman without incident despite the lack of guardrails and tight, dusty turns. I stopped at the only local restaurant for a half-decent cooked breakfast, but I didn’t want to stick around to watch the rousing of a town which ran almost entirely on tourism (that said, the Goldroad Mine up the hill had seemed pretty busy). Touristy neo-Old-West towns aside, the brutal red landscape became even hotter and drier as I tore downhill, and by the time I reached the junction with highway 95, heading south into Needles, it was swelteringly hot. Pulling into a gas station to grab a cold drink, another customer warned me that it would be 40 degrees, and by the time I hit the road again, it certainly felt like it. In that heat, I was trying to avoid leaving my bike in the sun as much as possible: not only did it heat up all the water in my bottles, but I dreaded to imagine what it was doing to my tyres. Luckily, though, it wasn’t far to my motel, crossing the Colorado River and into my final state. By the time I arrived, the heat was becoming truly oppressive, and I was becoming increasingly nervous about the 25 miles I would have to face on the interstate the next day, but there was nothing really that I could do apart from bed down and get some rest.

Wednesday 17th September – Needles CA to Amboy CA – 75.05m, av. 15.7, 2572.2 total

The opening of my entry of my logbook reads “The best day. Just the best day.” The climb out of Needles was pretty tough, and I gave myself a puncture scare when I accidentally cycled over a tangled mass of shredded tyre, but luckily nothing was amiss, and I reached the top of a 2000ft climb shortly after sunrise, drenched in sweat. From the top, looking ahead of me, I could see no signs of human existence apart from the road itself, and I was filled with a sense of exhilaration. A 20-minute downhill section brought me to the bottom of my last big climb, which, buzzing with adrenaline, I finished much faster, reaching the Mountain Spring Summit at just past 8:00, only to find the road barricaded off, with no reason given. Looking past the signs I could see no cause for concern, but as I didn’t know the cause of the closure I decided to head on to the next exit in order to get on to the old Route 66 and leave I-40 behind for good. I rode a long downhill stretch to reach Fenner, where I was surprised to find a gas station where I could replace the already warm water in my bottles with some fresh cold water. Again, at this exit the road was closed, with the warning ‘Flooded’, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the only evidence I’d seen of any flooding was one small puddle by the side of the road, so taking my chances, I pushed my bike around the barricades and got pedalling. There was some evidence of flooding – soft sand and stones had clearly been washed across the road, and in dips there were large patches where the tarmac was almost completely hidden – but there was no surface water, and it was nice to be the only traffic on the road, with the exception of a few highway maintenance vehicles, which seemed to have no qualms about my being on a closed road. It wasn’t too long before I reached the town of Essex, largely abandoned to the weather, but home to JR’s Tires (damn these improper American spellings!), a repair shop run by JR Bentley and his father, 2 of the 8 remaining residents of the settlement. I’d been emailing JR for over a year, so it was nice to finally meet him, chatting to him and his dad whilst sitting in the shade of the repair shop, the occasional train rattling through the town and drowning out any other noise with its blaring horn. We talked about politics, music, the state of California, and why the population of Essex on the welcome sign was listed as 100 (apparently because they simply counted the number of post boxes in the now defunct post office). After filling my water bottles, JR warned me that some of the bridges were out further along the road, but that I could push my bike around the blockages. I set off, my high average speed only hindered by my having to get off and walk around 3 bridges whose supports had been either damaged or washed away completely by flooding. As I descended the land was becoming more barren than I had seen it before, the spaces of sandy, stony ground growing greater between the sparse shrubs; although, with the recent flooding and influx of water, the Mojave Desert was surprisingly more verdant than I’d been expecting to find it. I began to see pale lizards skittering across the road in my wake: a flash of creamy grey and they were gone. Coming over Cadiz Summit and past the remains of some long-abandoned buildings covered in graffiti, the land dropped again, and I found myself flying downhill into the Cadiz valley. Stopping at Chambless, the only settlement between Essex and Amboy, I met the first two non-DOT guys I’d seen in about 40 miles. In fact, they were two English guys from the New Forest, John and Pete, on a geocaching holiday, and they asked if they’d be able to get down the road, and I replied that yes, they probably would in their huge rented 4X4. I managed to catch up with them later at Roy’s in Amboy, after they’d been threatened with an instant $650 fine by an unmarked police car. Heading onward I began to see more and more cars as I finally got back onto road which wasn’t officially closed. One last climb, not too big, but long, and a final downhill blast got me into Amboy, where I was surprised at how busy it was. A Harley group had parked their 12 or so bikes outside the gas station next to the disused Roy’s Motel, where I would be staying for the night, and there were several other cars in the forecourt. I headed into the gas station/shop, where I met my contact, Kevin Hansell, who informed me (much to my delight) that a production crew who’d been making a short film at Roy’s had left two mattresses in one of the rooms, and I could sleep on those. After changing and sitting for a while, chatting with some of the bikers and commiserating the New Foresters on being turned around by the police, Kevin drove me to the out to the observation point 2 miles southwest of town, where I hiked out across the lava field to Amboy Crater, a double cinder cone volcano standing 300ft high, the most visible feature across the bottom of the Cadiz Valley. Standing on the rim of the crater, I could see the town, tiny in the distance, a dot in the huge valley which sprawled, half-green, half-brown, framed by jagged mountains and domed by a brilliantly blue, almost cloudless sky. A couple of small tornadoes, ‘dust devils’, wound their way across the landscape, petered out; the only sound other than the wind was the distant rumble of trains; to the south, the crooked road over Sheephole Pass which I would have to cross the following day. It was almost without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. Even as I headed back over the lava field and along the road back to Amboy, the vastness of it all still struck me as mind-boggling. It was simply too incredible for words. Sitting back in my Spartan room, with its metal desk, its concrete floor and mattresses, I realised that this was one of the few places I’d been where I would want to stay for more than one night. It was a shame that I would be leaving in the morning, but as I settled into sleep I knew that Amboy was a place I would not be forgetting in a hurry.

Roy's Motel and Cafe, Amboy - photo courtesy of John and Pete

Thursday 18th September – Amboy CA to Twentynine Palms CA – 51.35m, av. 12.8, 2623.5 total

A really tough day. After a night in which I was awakened several times by the heat and several times more by the train horns which cut the silence of the night like a blunt knife, I dragged myself to the toilets before gulping down a sugar-laden breakfast and getting on the road, looking back sadly as Amboy and Route 66 disappeared into the distance. The first few miles across the very bottom of the desert and past the salt evaporation pans weren’t too bad, but the climb over Sheephole Pass was hellish: it wasn’t the elevation that was the problem, but the length of the climb, combined with the burning heat of the rising sun. After two hours of desperately slow, uphill struggle, I made it to the top. Whilst my last glimpse over the Cadiz Valley was a longing one, the 7% downhill grade felt like an apt reward for such an arduous climb. The first ‘settlement’ of any kind that I reached coming into the Morongo Basin was Wonder Valley, a largely ramshackle collection of buildings spread across the desert, only some of which looked inhabited. As the road turned due west, a 20-mile stretch of road – varying in quality – yawned before me. Though the descent into the valley had been quick, my low speed was not helped by a diminishing water supply and achingly low energy levels, and although I managed to find a church with two old ladies willing to fill my bottles from a water cooler (the groundwater here is saturated with salt, as this area was once ocean floor), a couple of miles later I felt myself crashing. The next building I came across was luckily a fire station with some trees and a bench, so I sat in the shade, recuperating as I wolfed down Skittles and Rowntrees. Back on the road, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the cracked and bumpy road (incidentally the part of Route 66 I’d cycled in the desert had been some of the best road I’d experienced in California), and the turning to the Twentynine Palms Highway couldn’t come soon enough. Fed up of the crappy surface, it was nice to turn on to some fresh tarmac, and the last few miles downhill had me laughing with joy as I pulled into town. Twentynine Palms was the largest town I’d seen in over 120 miles, and it was fantastic to pull into an air-conditioned Circle K and chug down several Nesqiks. In retrospect I suppose it’s sad that I would come to relish such indulgences so much, but my dusty, sun-cracked body cherished those things which ordinarily I and millions of Westerners like myself take for granted: to experience the challenge of what nature throws at you helps you appreciate the luxury in which you live, and I would truly encourage everyone to experience such a challenge. Heading on to my motel for the night, I met a German-born American called Marc, a local on a bike, who warned me about the police (corrupt), meth (everywhere around here, apparently), and goathead thorns (with which I experienced no problems whatsoever). Though the majority of our conversation consisted of him complaining about America (he really wanted to move back to Germany), it was nice to get to talk to him, although like the ladies at the church his estimation of distances was utterly messed up: the “two or three miles at least” he guessed turned out to be one mile, and in no time at all I was showering off two days’ worth of desert dust and dirt and sand in my cooled motel room. It was interesting: in Amboy simply being in the shade was enough to stay cool, whereas in Twentynine Palms, with an increasingly westerly wind, stepping outside felt like walking into a furnace. The loneliness of the desert had been awesome, but I was four days from the sea, and food, television and sleep were all I wanted.

Friday 19th September – Twentynine Palms CA to Desert Hot Springs CA – 43.57m, av. 16.1, 2667.1 total

The day passed quickly, as I didn’t have a great deal of distance or climb to cover. Heading west along the Twentynine Palms Highway, the only stop of any importance I made was at Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree. Set back from the main road by a few hundred metres, this house-cum-recording studio has been a creative base for so many amazing artists (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Eagles of Death Metal, The Desert Sessions, Mark Lanegan, Dave Grohl and Fu Manchu to name just a few). Walking up the dirt track driveway, it was easy to see how the desert could be such an inspirational musical place to write and record: looking across the Morongo Basin at Mount Shasta, the house was surrounded by joshua trees, and despite being within sight of the road, was really quiet. A huge American muscle car sat on outside the porch, and the veranda itself was populated by a vintage-looking synth, skateboards, guitars, and lots of Mexican artwork. It was really, really, really cool. Being someone’s actual house (Dave Catching of EoDM), I didn’t want to stick around and trespass for too long, so I headed back down the driveway, taking a last look before hitting the highway again. Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley passed almost in a blur, but the slight downhill slopes were nothing compared to that of the Morongo Canyon, turning south into the Coachella Valley. It was a shame that I hadn’t been looking at my speedometer, as it was only the speed wobbles I was getting on my rear wheel which made me apply the brakes, and it wasn’t until I reached the edge of Desert Hot Springs that I checked and saw that I had just reached the fastest speed I’ve ever gone on a bike: 49.1 mph. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t quite reached 50, but then again, I have plenty of time to try that yet. My host, Kay Griese, was at work when I arrived at her house, but I was let in by her neighbour Marie, and I showered, changed, and chowed down on some of the amazing food Kay had left for me in the fridge: with salmon, potato salad and fresh-cut vegetables, it had been a while since I had eaten so well. Kay arrived just after 6:00, and I spent the evening chatting to her about her previous couchsurfing hosting experiences, and my journey so far. Kay was incredibly friendly and generous, and although I’d really enjoyed spending a few nights alone in the desert, it was great to re-immerse myself into society with such an interesting and kind person. Bed eventually called, however – what Kay called the hiker’s/biker’s midnight – and so, well-fed on a teriyaki chicken stir-fry that Kay had cooked, I fell into a deep and uninterrupted sleep.

Saturday 20th September – Desert Hot Springs CA to Beaumont CA – 59.66m, av. 12.4, 2726.8 total

I’d planned to stop in Palm Springs, but my prospective couchsurfing host hadn’t replied to any of my messages, so I decided to push on into the edge of the LA sprawl, taking a detour to see the ‘Welcome to Sky Valley’ sign, for me a final memento of the awesome music that’s come from this area in the last 20 years. Mount San Jacinto loomed over the city of Palm Springs, and as I began to head west out of the Coachella Valley, it was evident why there were so many wind turbines in the area. For the next 40 miles, all uphill, I was blasted with 20mph winds which slowed down and, whilst cooling me physically, made my blood boil in frustration: to be so close to the end, and yet to feel as if I was getting nowhere… At least I was making progress, I reassured myself, and making the next day’s ride a lot easier. After a hairy mile and a half of riding on the interstate (there was no other way to get from the frontage road into Banning), I pulled into the edge of what would be almost uninterrupted city for the rest of my trip. In Banning, I had to take a detour: the road had been blocked off, and pulling up to the front of a line of cars I saw police and paramedics crouching over the slumped figure of a pedestrian, face-down on the tarmac, a shoe lying pathetically some yards off, a young woman clutching at her hair before torturing herself again by looking back. I learned later that the guy had been doing landscaping work along the shoulder when a car veered off the road and hit him. He died at the scene. Such a consideration put what I complained of as the trials of the afternoon – fixing my bike, having to wait for hours before being let in to my motel room – in perspective, and reminded me that my finishing the trip safely was not a guarantee. I spent the evening reading with my feet in the motel pool, before turning in early.

Sunday 21st September – Beaumont CA to Riverside CA – 37.18m, av. 16.1, 2764.0 total

A smoggy, low cloud hung in the sky long after the sun was supposed to come up, and it didn’t help my mood as I descended into a suburban hell: care homes, gated communities and outlet malls all jostling to grab my attention and my wallet, with incongruous palm trees and lawns that felt more like astroturf than grass. After waiting for another few hours to be let into the motel room – the routine of getting up at 5:00 was beginning to have adverse effects – I got some provisions from a Target around the corner, and decided to treat myself to some spray cheese. Perhaps ‘submit’ is a better word than ‘treat’: once having chosen ‘Cheddar ‘n Bacon’ from ‘Cheddar’, ‘Sharp Cheddar’ and ‘American’, I tilted my head back and filled my mouth. What I was expecting to be light, foamy and pretty tasteless was thick, salty, and rather disgusting. But hey, it was an experience I don’t regret: to me, spray cheese somehow seemed like a pinnacle of an element of American culture I don’t exactly respect. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of episodes of South Park, and it was all I could do to try and get to bed as early as possible. My goal awaited me.

Monday 22nd September – Riverside CA to Long Beach CA – 48.50m, av. 15.7, 2812.5 total

Getting up before the sun made racing through the streets of Beaumont and Corona quite enjoyable – cars getting really close as they passed reminded me of cycling in London, which I take as the toughest traffic I’ve cycled. As the sun rose, I dropped off of the road onto the Santa Ana River Trail, powering through the next 20 miles with ease: whilst the traffic was initially fun, in the long run it’s incredibly with the stop-start-stop-start of seemingly innumerable 4-way intersections. Which was exactly what I had to face as I turned due west onto Westminster Boulevard, and was forced to confront 10 straight miles of despised traffic measures of which I remember very little, save that the city of Westminster sported a prominent Vietnamese community, which rather surprised me. The exit for Seal Beach couldn’t come soon enough, and after a quick stop to replenish my energy with peach gummy rings (by now a staple), I headed seaward. Turning on to Main Street, I was surprised at how cosy it seemed – unlike the rest of the city I’d been cycling through, and indeed unlike most of the settlements in the southwest I’d passed, Seal Beach felt like a very community-oriented place, and a really nice location to end my journey. Perhaps it was the fact that the streets weren’t as wide as elsewhere, or that there were lots of two-storey buildings, but there was something about it which reminded me of home. Main Street headed straight to the beach, rising slightly before meeting the sand. As I reached the top of the rise, the Pacific Ocean lay before me, looking the same as I’d seen it or any other ocean before, yet meaning a lot more this time. All I had to do to get to it was lug my bike down two flights of stairs and across 200 metres of sand. At 9:01, I dipped my front tyre into the Pacific Ocean, with 2809.6 miles on the clock. It felt good to submerge myself in the cold, salty water, thrown about by the waves on the edge of the shore, before sitting drying in the sun on the edge of a lifeguard’s platform, contemplating my journey. Almost 20 months of imagination, organisation, aggravation and perspiration had gone into this ride through eight states, across not only a country but a continent, and it had all come down to this. Or had it? Reaching Seal Beach, the goal, was part of the experience, and though it was good to be done, it was the places I’d been through and the people I’d met which were more important. On the other hand, it was a good excuse to celebrate, so I went back on to Main Street for a seafood lunch: scallops, mussels, oysters, sashimi, crab, shrimp, and lobster tail all served up one big platter, which I demolished in a matter of minutes; quite possibly the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Culinary celebrations over, I cycled a couple of miles into Long Beach for to my ‘hotel’ – a glorified motel asking $150 for a deposit on a room – and spent the rest of the evening trying to get rid of as much excess weight as I could from my luggage, and waiting for the day to end. By this point, I had completed my objective, and was just waiting to be back in Britain: I felt stuck in a sprawling city in which I had no interest or desire to be in. The last entry in my logbook for that day reads: “Just found the spork I thought I’d lost on my very first night, nestled under a tarp at the very bottom of my left pannier. Bloody hell. Bloody, bloody, bloody hell.”

Tuesday 23rd September – Long Beach CA to Torrance CA – 20.19m, av. 15.4, 2832.7 total

A simple but taxing day: a short ride up the coast to Torrance (interestingly through another city of Wilmington), where at Performance Bicycle I was given a box and plenty of packaging to help me wrap my bike up safely. From there, a short taxi ride with my large cardboard box to my hostel on West Century Boulevard, technically on the very limit of the city of Los Angeles: I’d never reached the city before and I hated it already. The hostel was nice enough, and it seemed reasonable that the true price of a $10 bed in LA was having to share a bedroom with 21 other people. I had a bite to eat and a game of pool with a deaf guy called Mario (I got utterly trounced), and enough time to check my micro SD cards and discover that they might have been damaged. But I was so tired I just wanted to be in bed, and within 24 hours I was flying out of LAX, homeward bound.

- - -

Even now, my memory cards are at a computer shop, where the owner has told me that even if some of my files can be recovered, they may well be corrupted, the images distorted or black and the videos messed up. I’m annoyed, but even if that’s the case, I’ll still have my scars and my memories, lines drawn upon my body and my mind, a picture that I hope will say: “I am here. I refuse to let my bodily limitations destroy my ambition. I will strive, with every fibre of my being, to reach for my goals despite what others tell me, despite the obstacles in my path, despite a world which might stand against me. I will do this to confirm that I am the primary agent for change in my own life, to demonstrate to others that willpower is an incredible force, and to allow me, if only for a little while, to hate myself just a little bit less.”

#thoughts #route #arizona #california

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