Bicycle Touring in the West - Day 8 – Twentynine Palms to Parker
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
~ Stephen King, The Gunslinger
I lay awake and look at the clock beside my bed. 3:59 AM. I’m waiting for the wake-up call.
I’m not sure why I ever do this – ask for a wake-up call or set an alarm. Most of the time, I don’t use an alarm at all, but if I want to make sure I wake before 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, then I’ll use some sort of alarm. But when I do, invariably, I’ll wake a minute or two before the alarm, and wait for it to go off.
I remember the exact day this started for me. I was probably around 11 years old or so, and we were spending a week in a cabin on a lake. I’d forgotten any sort of alarm clock, but wanted more than anything in the world to get up at 5:00 AM to go fishing. My folks let me take the old rowboat out into the cove by myself to fish, and the independence of taking a real boat out onto the water by myself was overwhelming intoxication to an 11-year-old boy who loved to fish.
When we arrived at the cabin and I realized I had no way to wake at 5:00, I decided to go to bed early in the hope that I’d wake early. However, the harder I tried, the less I slept, and I’m sure it was past midnight when my folks finally turned in, the cabin went dark, and I finally found sleep. For those hours I lay awake, all I could think about was wanting to wake at 5:00.
The next thing I knew, I was laying – wide awake – in the dark cabin. I could hear the sounds of the pre-dawn woods around me. I sat up and shone the flashlight on my watch, and lo and behold, it was straight-up 5:00. I quietly gathered my stuff, and made my way through the woods down to the boat as the sky above the trees began to gather a little light. I slipped the boat out onto the glass of the water, and fished for those first few hours of the day. My brother hollered at me from the dock that it was time for breakfast, and creaked the old rowboat into shore.
I was amazed that I had woken at exactly the time I wanted to, but nobody else at the breakfast table seemed very amazed at all. I could be that they thought I was making the whole thing up – who would know, after all, when I had really gotten up? In any event, it was a momentous discovery for me – the fact that I could will myself to wake at an exact time. It wasn’t a one-time event, and to this day, I wake nearly to the minute of when I want to when I fall asleep, though most mornings I’m waking up long before there’s any real “reason” to wake up…
This morning is a little like that morning all those years ago. It’s 5:00 AM again as I roll out of the hotel lobby and down the road toward the vast empty expanse of Mojave Desert that lies east of Twentynine Palms. The sky is just starting to gather light, and there’s no breath of wind. Rather than the soft sound of water against the side of my tiny rowboat as I push it onto the surface of the water, I’m hearing the sweet sewing-machine-like sound of my freshly oiled chain reflected back to me from town as I push my bicycle out onto the surface of a vast desert wilderness.
Once I leave town, the next services are 90 miles to the east – the longest “crossing” I’ve ever made. Throughout the planning for this trip, this has been the day that’s worried me. When I was driving from Colorado out to California, I made this crossing in my rental car just to do a little reconnoitering. I cached a gallon of water under a mesquite bush at about the 75 mile mark of today’s ride, as a little safety precaution.
This crossing brings me a little closer to the edge of mortality than we usually let ourselves get in our safe and coddled culture. If the wind blows the wrong direction, or the heat gets particularly high, I could have a pretty tough day. If both things happened, I could be in some serious trouble – the kind of serious trouble that can be life-threatening.
I don’t want to over-dramatize the risk. I am, after all, on a public highway so that in most cases, if I ended up in serious trouble, there’s at least some chance that I could flag down help. Nonetheless, I’m alone on a bicycle crossing a desert wilderness in the summer. Things can go very badly very quickly.
So, why on earth am I doing this? These next few days really are the “heart of the truth” for me, crossing first this Mojave, then the Sonoran deserts. I think a sane person would be mostly afraid at this point, mostly looking for some way to avoid the danger. I think I’m a (mostly) sane person, yet I’m not feeling fear, and I’m not looking for a way to avoid the risk.
What I’m feeling this morning is overwhelming excitement for the day ahead, and what it holds for me. I’m a little anxious, with great respect for the desert I’m going to cross. I suppose this “respect” could be categorized as a type of fear. More than anything I feel a sense of excitement at spending the day along an edge.
As a hunter, I’m greatly attracted to edges. An edge is anyplace where a couple different habitats run up against each other. For example, in the woodlands and farmlands of the Midwest, there are many places where a patch of woods will come up to a cultivated field. This is an important edge – the boundary between the safety of the forest and the risk of the open field, (seen from the perspective of a deer for instance.)
Often, when watching elk, I’ve seen them standing just inside a tree-line, watching the open meadow where they want to feed just beyond that spot where the meadow and the timber come together. They’ll gently test the edge of the meadow a few times while watching it carefully. Then, once the lead cow decides it’s safe, they trot out into the meadow, far from the edge of the timber. Now that they’re in the meadow, the edge still represents danger, but the danger would now approach them from the cover of the timber.
Edge is one of those words in the English language that has an interesting juxtapositioning of parallel meanings. On the one hand, an edge is: a rim or a brink, or, a place where something is likely to begin. Parallel to that meaning is another definition: A penetrating and incisive quality, or, the degree of sharpness of an instrument designed to cut. And yet a third meaning: Keenness, as of desire or enjoyment; zest: The brisk walk gave an edge to my appetite.
Life happens on the edges, not in the center. We can’t find the next place on our journey until we discover the edge between the place where we are and the place we need to go. Something ends and something else can begin only along an edge. It’s along these edges where we find and feel the penetrating and incisive qualities that give definition to our life. It’s where our interface with life is sharpened. It’s where we can discover our greatest zest and our most keen desires.
Riding along the highway through Twentynine Palms in the dark, listening to the sweet quiet sound of my bicycle slipping through the pre-dawn hush, I recognize clearly the edge that I’m approaching. My senses are “at their edge”. I feel alive in a way we rarely get to feel alive in our culture today.
“It’s no wonder most religions are born in the desert, because when men lay beneath that boundless night sky and look up at the infinite expanse of creation they have an uncontrollable urge to put something in the way”
~ Terry Pratchett
As I ride east, the sky in front of me is developing a beautiful palette of color as dawn spreads across the sky, adding even more fuel to the edge of wonder and excitement I’m feeling. At about 20 miles out of town, I stop along the side of the road to take in a few calories and some liquid. I spend a little time digging through my pack for the spare camera I bought yesterday, as the Olympus is failing to work again this morning. As I’m getting the spare camera out and repacking, I’m becoming more aware of something around me.
I lean against my bike and let myself soak in this wonderful thing. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been engulfed in such quiet before. I’ve always enjoyed the quiet, but have never really thought about how much background sound there is even when it’s quiet outside. A cricket chirping maybe, some birds singing, a breeze blowing through the leaves in the trees.
I’m discovering a new dimension to the concept of “wilderness” – in particular desert wilderness. While there is a very small wind moving so early in the morning, there’s nothing for the wind to move, so the tiny air movement is silent. I sit like this for 20 or 30 minutes, soaking in the quiet. A couple times, a car or truck drives by, I hear it coming miles away, and hear it for miles as it moves down the highway after it passes. With every 50 or 60 seconds, it puts another mile between itself and me, and drops the sound even further.
Deep silence is something so rare that it’s both conspicuous and remarkable when it confronts you. As I reflect into the depths of the broad silence around me, the desert itself becomes more surreal and more personal at the same time. The quiet is so deep and so broad that it becomes one of the prominent defining dimensions of the world around me. It’s hypnotic and mesmerizing. I know I should get moving down the highway, but the silence holds me for a long time as I wallow in it.
And of course, the reason I should be getting down the highway is that other prominent dimension of the world around me right now – heat. It’s June, it’s the desert, and while it’s barely past sunup, it’s quite hot and becoming more so. Heat could become a mortal enemy to me before the day is done, and I need to move forward across the wilderness. Silence might be only the first of the wonders this wilderness has to show me today.
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
~ Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness)
HIghway 62 headed east out of Twentynine Palms is not a great one. It’s not as bad as some I’ve seen along the trip so far in California, but it has no shoulder to speak of. The pavement is smooth though, and since it’s still early it’s not soft yet. I suspect that riding a bicycle on this highway in the hottest part of the day would be difficult as the asphalt softens in the heat.
The good thing about the road is the lack of traffic. Traffic might be heavier at other times, but early on a weekday it’s extremely light. The vehicles that do pass me are generally courteous and sane, giving me lots of room as they pass. The wind picks up a little as I continue to make my way east, but always remaining at my back. While it’s hot and getting hotter, a quartering tailwind allows me to maintain a strong pace with little effort.
A tailwind is such a glorious thing on a bicycle. I’m maintaining a steady 20 mph, gliding along the highway with my head up and enjoying every morsel of desolation this beautiful wilderness has to offer. At 30 miles or so into the day the highway turns mostly north for a few miles, and I feel the northwest breeze hamper my progress just a bit, reminding me just how lucky I am to have this tailwind for my ride.
Even when I work against the wind for a few miles, I’m impressed by the scenery that unfolds on all sides of me as I make my way through this desolate wilderness. The air is so clear and dry that it’s hard to get any sort of gauge across the vast expanse of emptiness to mountains on all sides. The wind is picking up enough that the ground in the distance is starting to look a bit “fuzzy” as the wind picks up the sand as it scoots across the open space, and this adds yet another dimension to the surreal quality of the landscape.
There’s a spot along this highway that every cyclist should look for a chance to experience. It’s a gentle descent (maybe 1% or 2%) that lasts for 10 miles or so. As I begin the descent I stop once more to enjoy the beauty around me. Laid out in front of me is a view across nearly 15 miles of highway. After 10 or 12 miles, the highway hits a low spot and starts a gentle climb up the other side until it disappears. From where I sit, I can see this picture clearly. I won’t know until I stop at the other side and measure my distance that it’s nearly 15 miles, but I can tell as I lean against my bike and take in drink that it’s many miles.
Climbing back into the saddle, I start the gentle descent. With the tailwind, I could probably rocket along this gentle slope at 35 or 40 miles and hour without a problem. It’s such a joyful glide, though, that I barely pedal at all, hoping the ride will last for as long as possible. I’m sitting up straight out of the saddle, no hands on the handlebars, weaving the bike gently back and forth, left to right, savoring a delicious moment. The ride down lasts 20 or 30 minutes at this gentle pace, and some light singing or humming may be spilling from me…
Reaching the bottom, I’m energized for a strong push up the gentle slope of the other side. It doesn’t take me long to realize that pushing myself might feel good right now, but it’s much wiser to back off and avoid heavy exertion.
After just a couple miles or so, the road reached a junction with Highway 177 coming up from Desert Center to the south. I stop at this junction to eat a granola bar and drink some more. As I relax on the shoulder, it’s clear to me that the traffic is going to pick up considerably along the next section of highway, as quite a few cars join us here from the south.
Several cars pull off where I’m sitting, taking pictures back along the road I just came across. It’s a beautiful site really, and I took many pictures myself. I hear snippets of conversations from the cars as the door opens and somebody stands out of the car for a minute to snap the picture. The conversations seem to always include comments about how hot it is, and hurry up and get back in the car and close the door to keep the heat out, or things of that sort.
Back safely in the glass and steel capsule, these folks don’t have to worry about the heat as they crank their A/C up to high, and turn the radio up to enjoy their favorite music. They escape from that wonderful silence that has been gently massaging my brain for the last few hours. They escape from the deep beauty of the desert wilderness.
They avoid an edge. They might see real life from that edge, but they escape from it back into a capsule made of glass, steel, and plastic. I can only imagine their comments about the crazy guy on a bicycle out here in the middle of nowhere…
It’s only been a week or so since I came across this exact spot in a car. I remember stopping at this exact spot to admire the view. I enjoyed the view for a couple minutes, then climbed back in the car and drove along. Those folks so anxious for the A/C, and so anxious to escape the edge, they aren’t somebody foreign to me. Those folks are me on another day and in another state of mind.
I’m happy it’s today, and I continue to revel in the state of mind that’s wrapped itself around me today.
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.
From this point to Vidal Junction (at about the 90-mile point for the day), the ride is a lot less fun. The light tailwind keeps up, but the traffic level has increased significantly. With no shoulder, this just cuts fun out of the ride. On top of that, many of the vehicles are RVs or trucks pulling boats, and as I’m discovering on this trip, these RV drivers are – as a general lot – the most inconsiderate and dangerous drivers on the road. There are certainly exceptions, and I know it’s not fair to generalize like this, but time after time these drivers display their inability to safely maneuver their land yachts safely down the highway or their complete lack of common courtesy and respect for decency and safety of those around them on bicycles, or in many cases probably both.
The greatest percentage of professional drivers – the ones driving big 18-wheelers across the highway – display their professionalism in the courtesy and safety obvious in the way they move down the highway. Of course there are exceptions – generally in the form of local drivers like cattle trucks in the Midwest – but as a group truckers are professionals who respect others on the road and do all they can to avoid creating deadly perils on the highway.
But the RV driver seems to be a different animal. I suspect they require no training, and they seem to have an arrogant attitude that they’re the most important vehicle on the road. Time and again, I’d have a big RV pass me with only a foot or so to spare, when they had the entire road and could easily have moved completely into the other lane. While a professional trucker will adjust his speed slightly to try and pass a cyclist at a time when they can move over further, the RV driver has no such concern for safety, and makes no such allowance. It’s the height of arrogance, a lack of common courtesy, and a lack of common human decency in my opinion.
But that’s just my opinion…
At about 70 miles, I stop and dig up the gallon of water I cached here on my way west to start the trip. While I could most likely have made it to Vidal Junction without this cache, I’m quite happy to be able to drink as much as I want and fill my water bottles. On a day even hotter than today, this water could have been a life-saver. Today it’s a welcome convenience.
It’s close to noon as I top off the water bottles and eat another granola bar. The sun’s intense, and I’d love a few minutes of shade if any were around. I’m wearing white as I make these desert crossings in order to reflect as much of the heat as I can, but notice that where the sun hits my arms and legs, the darker skin is converting quite a bit of that sunlight into heat. I suspect that wearing long sleeves and knickers that were all white would be even smarter when crossing the desert on a bike, but it’s also that much more to carry…
Stepping out from the little c-store at Vidal Junction, I look at the temperature reading on my computer, and it reads 118. The temperature in the shade is surely much less than this, but I don’t happen to be riding in the shade today. In fact, the only shade I can find is at this little store here. Rolling across the black asphalt in the blazing sun, the temperature around me has nothing to do with what the temperature in “the shade” might be. I feel lucky again that it’s not hotter than it is.
I saddle up and head out on the last 20 miles of the day into Parker, AZ. I’m a bit concerned about these last miles, as the traffic is significantly heavier now, and the heat is building rapidly. However, the tailwind continues, and the highway drops in grade even further, ending the day at only about 500’ above sea level. WIth no shoulder and the heavier traffic, I put more energy into the pedals and maintain a strong and steady 25 miles and hour.
It’s something short of 2:00 in the afternoon when I roll into the Best Western in Parker, AZ. There’s a good Mexican place close by for relaxed dinner, then back to the room to relax in the A/C for the rest of the afternoon. Laying in the bed, I close my eyes and think back over the day. While it was hot, it could have been a lot hotter. I had a tailwind all day, riding through some of the most beautiful wilderness I can remember. As I think through it, I realize that this has been one of the most enjoyable days of cycling I’ve had in my life.
It wasn’t just the tailwind and the nice scenery that made it such a special day. It’s the edge that makes it special. It’s a deep understanding within myself that I walked along a somewhat dangerous edge today, with nobody but me to depend on, and came out in good shape. Without a doubt something within me grew as part of the experience – just like something within me is growing every day on this trip – but today was a little extra special. The tailwind was a bonus, and that’s what turned this ride along the edge into what might be the nicest day on a bicycle I’ve ever had in my life.