Bicycle Touring in the West
Day 6 – Victorville to Twentynine Palms
“It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.”
~ K.T. Jong
Determined not to be surprised by the earlier sunrise, and highly motivated to log as many miles as possible in the wind-free early morning hours, I’m wheeling my bike out of the motel in Victorville at the earliest hint of light. I make my way east on Bear Valley Road, where traffic is light this time of morning. The shoulder is good in places, less than good in others, and I’m told that during busy times, this road carries very heavy traffic.
Connecting with highway 18 east of town, I follow this road into the little town of Lucerne Valley, where I stop at what will likely be my last available water supply for 50 miles or so. Here, I leave highway 18, and head further east on Old Woman Springs Road. (It’s also called highway 247, but that’s a boring name…)
The traffic on highway 18 is starting to pick up a bit by the time I leave it, and the traffic on Old Woman Springs Road remains very light early on this Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful morning, and while a bit of wind is swirling around, it swirls so that at times it’s in my face, and at times at my back. While there’s no shoulder at all on this road, the lack of traffic makes this a small concern.
If there was any doubt before, there can be no doubt now – I’m in the desert. And I begin to notice something, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I begin to notice less of something. It starts with a curiosity I develop about a chirping I keep hearing on both sides of the road. I wonder what sort of bird might be so abundant out here in the desert, and stop several times to sit still and watch for the bird.
I never see the bird, but start paying closer attention to the sound and where it’s coming from. I realize that if it is a bird, it must be a ground bird, as the sound seems close to the ground. Of course, any vegetation is also close to the ground, so what else could there be here, besides ground birds? Eventually, I come to the conclusion that the sound I’m hearing is the sound of lizards or geckos rather than birds.
These lizards are all over the place. Later in the day when it’s really hot, they’ll stay a bit more holed up, but early in the day when it’s still not too hot, they scurry across the road so fast I can barely see them. But I notice the movement, and I notice the sounds they’re making.
Which brings me to the “noticing something less” statement earlier – less background noise. It’s quiet – really quiet.
I pull over to have a little snack, and become aware of just how quiet it is around me. The wind is puffing around here and there, and I have no doubt that it’s going to grow into a big wind before long, but right now it’s pretty light. However, even this light wind should make some noise, right?
The quiet is mesmerizing. When the wind blows, it’s not the air moving we hear, but the sound of the air moving through things like leaves and trees and grass that we hear. Out here in this desert, there’s just not much in the way of leaves and trees and grass. There’s nothing whatever in the way of leaves and trees and grass in fact. There are Joshua Trees, which are actually a cactus, and there are some other cactusy-looking plants along the sandy floor of the desert, but there’s just not enough volume of “stuff” to blow around in the wind to create the background white noise of the normal outdoors that my experience has taught me to expect.
I find I really like this. It’s a rare sense of focusing quiet. Every few minutes a car or truck passes and disturbs the silence, but I stand here a long time leaning against my bike, and appreciating the quiet. It reminds me of an experience scuba diving once. I was doing a night dive. Moving along the top of a reef, I found a nice sandy area, and settled down to suspend just above the bottom, turning out my light. The darkness enveloped me completely, and the silence and darkness was breathtaking. I lay there for a few minutes, enjoying the exhilaration of this silent primordial darkness, before turning my light back on and moving my way down the reef.
On the reef, both before my little experiment with primordial darkness and after, I saw a couple small sharks out hunting. I’m sure this potential danger added something to the exhilaration of the experience. I was alone in an environment that could rapidly turn mortally hostile, and I temporarily shut down my important sense – my sense of sight. I surrendered to the environment around me, allowing myself to soak inside the vastness.
Here on the bright and flat surface of the desert, I’m remembering and recognizing that feeling. Again I’ve dropped myself into an environment that could get mortally hostile rather rapidly. The quiet around me reminds me of that quiet I felt on the reef all those years ago.
I’m not sure what it is that attracts me to these “moments” out on the edge of comfort. It’s not as though I just find myself here – I went to great lengths to put myself in this situation. The aloneness with the quiet unlocks windows in my heart and soul I think. Taking this path that leads me out along the edge of life lets me feel the edge of something greater than myself, and that must be what pulls me toward these situations. I can’t keep the smile off my face as I bask in the warm, quiet solitude.
Eventually, I climb back in the saddle and head down the road. The wind has picked up more as I’ve enjoyed the solitude and quiet – a headwind of course – and I find my speed buffeted down a notch as a result. I’m hopeful that the wind will shift.
By the time the highway turns due south, the south wind has grown significantly, and the traffic is picking up noticeably. The lack of any kind of shoulder makes this increased traffic a concern for me. The further I go south, the heavier the traffic gets, and there’s very little space between me and the cars passing me – I really am putting a huge amount of trust in the good judgement of all these drivers – most of whom don’t seem thrilled that I’m on their highway…
I’m headed up a gentle slope, going pretty slow due to the headwind, when I hear the roar of a car engine ahead of me. I look up as a Mustang pulls out to pass another car – coming my way. An expletive drops out of my mouth, and I make the split-second decision to stay on the road rather than diving with the bike into the rocks on the side of the road. Pulling out right behind him is a pickup truck.
It’s bad enough when cars pass you going the same direction you’re going, without giving you enough room. In this case, both the car and the truck pass within a couple feet of me – it feels like inches – going 70 MPH or so in the opposite direction. I’ve got zero shoulder to retreat into. This will stand for a long time in my mind as one of the scariest few seconds of my life.
I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that driving a car is a privilege. It’s so common for folks to feel like it’s their road, and they’re mad when something on the road is different from the way they want it. A car isn’t going as fast as a driver wants it to go, so he recklessly passes at high speed, endangering my life. I doubt the driver gave it a second thought after it happened.
I reflect often that when we renew our driver’s licenses, we should be required to study material and be tested over the material – material that drives home the great responsibility we have when we get behind the wheel of a vehicle. Anyone who doesn’t get this shouldn’t be granted the privilege of a driver’s license. When we drive, we’re hurtling down the road in a lethal chunk of metal that weights several thousand pounds – that’s worth some significant credentialing. Even better, we should require applicants to ride a bicycle down a road or highway for an hour or two – getting a taste of the great danger cars pose to bicyclists, and how deadly lack of common courtesy can be.
There’s a sign for the town of Landers, which is off to the east. The town looks to be a couple miles away, (I can see it from the road), but I’m not sure if there will be back roads I can take from there to get me down to highway 62. Rather than risk a dead-end detour in this wind, I just stick with the road I’m on, and it continues to get busier and more dangerous as I go.
Eventually I do take a left onto a road headed east, and it does connect with another road headed south, and I do end up at highway 62, avoiding several miles of the narrow and busy 247. A note for other cyclists who might be following this route: Take the left toward Landers, as it turns out there is a road you can take from there south, avoiding a bit more of that nasty stretch of road.
Coming to highway 62, I turn east, and am delighted to feel that the wind has shifted a bit, quartering behind me now. In addition, there’s a gentle elevation drop for these last 15 miles or so. When combined with the quartering tailwind and a great shoulder on the road, it makes for a delightful way to forget the near terror of those final miles on 247.
In the town of Joshua Tree, I notice a long line of motorcycles approaching from behind me as I roll up to the main stoplight in town. I also notice a sign indicating that Joshua Tree National Park can be reached by turning south at the light. I stop at the light, and the leading motorcycles pull up beside me. They’re chatting back and forth, trying to decide if this is where they should turn right to get to the park. They look at me, and I nod, eliciting a, “We turn right here to get to the park, right?”
I nod again, pointing my thumb to the right, and they pass the word back behind them that this is where they turn.
“Hey, thanks man”, a couple of them say, giving me a smile and a wave as they all swarm around the corner and down the road into the park. I feel the deep rumble of their motors as they swarm around and past me, and feel really fortunate that the most noise my cycle makes is a quiet little chain noise now and then when it needs oil…
As I start rolling down the highway again, I’m reminded of the odd camaraderie that I’ve often felt with bikers on the highway. These guys are usually decked out to look as tough as they can, with leather and tattoos and loud bikes, and I’m decked out in spandex and a shiny white bicycle. At least I have a leather saddle…
Occasionally I’ll run across bikers who are clearly scornful of cyclists, especially in cities. Out on the open road, though, it’s far more common to have bikers give me the “biker wave” as they pass headed the other way, and give me plenty of room when they go around me, often giving a little wave as they pass. I often strike up conversations with bikers at diners and gas stations, and there’s nearly always a strong sense that we share some unspoken camaraderie out on the open road.
I think we all feel a sense of division between the enclosed vehicles that represent the safe and status quo in the world, and the “frontiersman” who ride the road out in the open on two wheels. We feel more akin to the horseman who’s part of the world he rides through, rather than a spectator who’s experience of the world is filtered by the steel and glass that enclose them. On two wheels, we feel the heat of the sun on our backs,and sense the nuances of the scent around us. We’re experiencing the world of the road, not watching it from an air-conditioned rolling theatre. We feel the wind blowing in our face as we ride.
Reminding me that I like it more when the wind blows in my face less…
Approaching Twentynine Palms, I notice a funky looking little used book store on the side of the road, and pull in. I spend 30 minutes or so browsing through the jammed isles, until finally settling on a little book by an author I’ve never heard of, but the story looks interesting. Mostly I leave because I suspect I’m a bit smelly at this point in the day, and the air is pretty still and close in the bookstore. I’m bettin’ the owners and patrons are looking forward to me making a selection and vamoosing up the road.
Something about used book stores fascinates me. I’ve always got this notion in the back of my head that I’ll find some treasure there. I rarely find a treasure, but I also rarely walk away empty handed…
I arrive in Twentynine Palms, and stop at an interesting little place on the west side of town called the Carousel Cafe. It’s a decent little hamburger joint, and the waitresses seem to know most of the folks in the place. This is exactly the kind of place I love to eat – a local diner where I’m the only stranger who’s walked through the door all day.
My waitress is a gal who gives me every impression of having once been a quite attractive woman, but those days are in her past. She’s flirty and saucy, but I’m a bit too worn-out too return her flirtations. I have no doubt that when she was younger, guys would fall all over themselves to get her attention, but today, all I really care about is the chili dog and hamburger I’ve ordered, and I kind of wish she’d leave me alone…
If she keeps a journal, I suspect she may have written about the middle-aged cyclist who came in and ate a late lunch. It probably went something like this:
Middle-aged guy riding a bicycle came in and ate today. I suspect he may have once been a pretty fit and strong guy, but those days are clearly in his past. Ate food like he was still a teenage boy though, so focused on his food that he ignored me whenever I stopped by to see if he needed anything. Doesn’t this guy have any common sense? What on earth is he doing riding across the desert in the summer at his age? Heck, at ANY age that’s a stupid thing to do. He’ll probably be road-kill up the road in a day or two. What is it with older guys these days, always out to prove something, acting 20 years younger than they really are? He tipped well though…
In Twentynine Palms, I’m using Marriott points again to stay at a Fairfield Inn. I wheel my bike into the lobby, check in, and go up to the room to settle in for a nice rest day. After showering, I change in to me extra set of riding kit, (all-whites that I haven’t worn yet), and take everything else down to the laundry room to do laundry. I then head to the lobby to relax and read.
There’s a wedding party staying at the hotel, and getting on the elevator with me are a couple gals who are dressed to the nines – clearly part of this wedding group. I compliment them on how good they look, and quickly realize my mistake.
These gals have been drinking – quite a bit from appearances – and have apparently been cooped up in an estrogen-saturated room all afternoon with a bunch of other women getting dolled up for the wedding. They’ve escaped the estrogen room, and are ready to party – loudly. I might be a bald, middle-aged guy in white spandex, but I’m what they’ve caught in this elevator with them, so we laugh and party all the way to the lobby – a very long and almost frightening 30 seconds or so…
I get off the elevator and walk with them to the lobby, where they go outside to smoke, and I discreetly make my way into a cool corner with a big chair. If the rest of the party has had as much to drink at these gals, and the wedding hasn’t even started, then this is gonna be some kinda shindig!