Bicycling Across the West – Day 9 – Parker to Congress in Arizona
“Don’t think about what you’ve left behind” The alchemist said to the boy as they began to ride across the sands of the desert. “If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return.” —
~ Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
Today is another desert crossing, but I’ve got a couple towns along the way to resupply. There’s risk for sure, but I figure it’s less risk than yesterday.
I’m up and out the door at 5:00 AM, but am disappointed to see once again that there’s more light in the sky than I’d hoped. My hope is to get started before first light on these desert crossing days, in order to get as many miles behind me as possible before the heat of the day begins. I’m continually surprised by how much the 100 miles or so between one day and the next changes the sunrise and sunset times.
When planning this trip, I’d always assumed I’d do a good portion of these desert crossings in the dark. I figured I could start about 3:00 AM to avoid heat and wind. I knew the moon would be close to new during these crossings, so I’d get no help there. My solution was more lights. I wear a helmet light combination that has a bright flashing red taillight attached to the back of my helmet, and a headlight on the front of the helmet that can eight be a constant or a flashing light. As bicycle lights go, this front light is OK, but not really a bright headlight that lights the road well. It’s made by Light and Motion, called their Vis 360 model. It’s really meant to make the cyclist highly visible to the motorist.
So I added a light. By current bicycle light standards, what I added was a monster light. Also made by Light and Motion, it’s their Seca 700 model, throwing 700 lumens out on the road in front. This is really plenty of light to navigate down the road in the dark at normal cycling speeds, and it’s quite visible for a long way. I figured I’d be using this light for the first few hours of each of the desert days.
But way back down the road – back in Paso Robles – I “de-cluttered” my cycling life by sending quite a few things back home, reducing the weight of my pack by about half. The single heaviest item that went home was the Seca 700.
If the weather were deadly hot right now, I’d probably still be following that original plan and riding for a couple hours in the dark each morning. I’d do it with the Vis 360 mounted on my helmet, and probably be just fine. Without a doubt, the Seca 700 would have doubled the light in front of me and would have made the ride more safe, but there’s a balance thing that is always being adjusted by practical reality.
Sitting in the comfort of my living room, planning the trip out, it seemed like an easy and obvious choice to bring along the extra (and heavy) light in order to add another level of security to several of my riding days. However, out where the rubber and the road come together, the scales took on a different tilt.
Safety and security are like that, aren’t they? It’s easy to talk about the abstract notion of “security”. We’d all like to feel completely and totally “secure” – to feel that no danger can touch us. From the time we’re infants, we reach for the arms of our mother, where nothing can harm us or scare us.
But we grow up, and we come to face the reality that the world can be a dangerous place. The deeper we bury ourselves under the weight of security, the less real life is available for us to live. I think we’ve learned that lesson as a nation, as every great empire in history has learned it. After 9/11, we stirred ourselves into such a frenzy of fear that we were willing to spend anything on increasing security and reducing risk. I type these words in the shadow of the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and in that decade, we’ve plunged ourselves as a nation into crippling debt with the trillions (with a t) of borrowed dollars we’ve spent on trying to increase our national security.
Are we more secure? I suppose we are. But at what cost? Can we ever pay off the debt that we’ve taken on as a nation to add this security? The debt itself becomes a source of insecurity – how do we reduce that risk? And now we have all this bureaucracy we’ve created to oversee and manage these many layers of new security, and this bureaucracy will only grow over the years, creating even more debt and insecurity.
What’s the risk, and what’s the cost to mitigate it? Those are the questions. Life doesn’t give us the luxury of mitigating every risk, and living in a perfectly secure environment. Life forces us to pay a price for every risk mitigation we buy. We have to be smart enough to mitigate wisely.
I could have continued to haul my heavy Seca 700 down the highway for this entire trip. It would absolutely have reduced risk early in the morning when I like to ride. I made a decision about risk and cost of mitigating that risk, and I’ve never regretted that decision. If I were starting my days at 3:00 AM, I might have a tiny amount of regret, but I’m pretty sure I’d still believe it was the right decision.
The cost of the extra weight is just more than the mitigation is worth. At some point, we have to let go of mom’s arms, and face the risks life has to offer us. That’s the only way to discover real life.
Helen Keller said once that: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a grand adventure or nothing.”
I’ll choose grand adventure every time.
One thing that’s really surprised me on these desert days is how hot it is in the pre-dawn hours. Living in Colorado, a summer morning can easily be 50 degrees, followed by a 100 degree day. I always assumed that this was largely due to the dry air, which doesn’t hold the heat overnight. (Of course, the altitude helps too…) So my assumption was that the desert would be even more extreme in this regard, and that my mornings would be very cool.
This hasn’t happened, and I’m really taken by surprise at how warm the early morning hours are. This morning, I put on my windbreaker to ride because the windbreaker is a high-vis yellow with good reflection on it, but the temperature certainly doesn’t require that extra layer.
I’m riding south and southeast this morning, then start pointing northeast in the afternoon. It’s warming rapidly, but the wind stays down. Traffic is about the same as yesterday afternoon as I ride south on Highway 95, but I lose most of the traffic when I get onto Highway 72 headed east rather than staying on Highway 95 headed south.
There’s a little town of Bouse there along 72, and I stop to fill my water bottles and eat a bit. The few folks I talk to are a good sight short of friendly, though not downright hostile. It could be that folks in the town aren’t used to outsiders or don’t cotton to them, or it could be that they thought I was some sort of crazy man riding a bicycle in the middle of the desert in June. Or it could be that the 3 people I talked to just happened to be in a bad mood that day…
Every year in June, the RAAM (Race Across America) occurs. It’s a totally insane bicycle race from San Diego to Annapolis. Coast to coast, nonstop. Everybody leaves San Diego together, and the first guy to Annapolis wins. These guys are truly off their rocker, riding 20+ hours a day. The winner usually makes it in about 9 days. Really. Look it up. This really happens.
I mention it here because yesterday I connected with the route that the RAAM follows on it’s journey across America. I’m about a week or so in front of those guys, and I’m curious about the impact the race has on these small towns it goes through. I ask the guy at the c-store about the race, and he seems to understand that some big bicycle thing happens, but doesn’t know much about it. This seems crazy to me – it must be the single biggest thing that happens to this tiny little town each year, and this guy is only vaguely aware of it? Surely he can’t be the shop owner who profits from the event…
Continuing my route southeast, I’m enthralled with the new “flavor” the desert has taken on this morning. The further south and east I ride, the more the landscape around me is dotted with Saguaro cactus. A light quartering headwind develops as I ride, but the traffic is fairly light, and the morning is beautiful.
At Highway 60 the map shows a little town of Hope. My “hope” is that there’s a c-store there for me to fill my water bottles, but as I hit the intersection, all I see is what appears to be a big RV dealer. While I suspect I could fill my bottles there in a pinch, I’ve got enough to make it the next 10 miles or so up the road to Salome, where I feel very confident supplies exist.
I’m delighted to see a nice big shoulder on the highway here as I turn left on to 60, though I suspect this means the traffic will be heavy. I realize, as I point my bike northeast, that this is the southernmost point of my journey. It’s also about the halfway point of the trip in terms of miles ridden, at something like 700 so far.
I would expect to feel a bit of the “pointed back toward the barn” syndrome at this point, with an excitement about heading toward home now. While I suppose there’s a bit of that within me, more cogent is my sense of sadness that my trip is already halfway done. My body is beginning to come into a level of fitness that deals well with the long days of riding, I’m feeling pretty strong, and I’m enjoying more and more of the moments I experience.
I’m really feeling good. Happy. Contentment. Aloneness, but not lonely.
“Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
~Paul Johannes Tillich, The Eternal Now
A friend said to me once that I “must be really comfortable in your own skin”. We were discussing the fact that I often enjoyed hunting trips alone, where I’d camp and hunt by myself for several days at a time. He’s a very social person, and said that so much time with nobody else around would drive him crazy.
It’s true I suppose – I am “comfortable in my own skin”. I think a less flattering perspective on this might be that I can be a bit anti-social at times, though I tend to think that’s not really accurate. It’s not that I don’t like people, or being around people, it’s that in addition to enjoying other people, I truly enjoy time I spend on my own. I find that the quality and depth of thought and reflection I can find when I’m by myself just isn’t possible when my energy is focused on interacting with others.
This ability to find comfort in solitude, to discover depth and meaning in quiet, is something I think we need far more of in our culture. There is an elite and wealthy industry that soaks a great deal of our collective resources up by bombarding us with “media”. From 24-hour talking heads that claim to report news, to absurd “reality shows” that have nothing to do with reality, we’ve become addicted to screens mainlining images into our brain.
Finding depth and meaning in life, discovering and embracing spiritual connection, learning to live and love, these are all things that require thought and reflection. They require introspection and inspection, contemplation and speculation. Every moment that we allow “media” to distract us, is another moment we fail to seek. Failing to seek, is it any wonder that so many in our culture feel so distant from any sort of meaningful existence?
To find, we need to seek. To seek, we need to shut off the damn TV.
I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.
If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.
Highway 60 is, indeed, busier than Highway 72 was. It’s not as busy as I first feared when I saw such a nice shoulder, and the shoulder makes it much safer. Riding on this nice smooth pavement, with a well-maintained shoulder, I realize how accustomed I’ve become to really lousy roads over the last week of riding. Through California, probably 80% to 90% of the miles I rode were on roads the were miserably maintained and had little or no shoulder. Since crossing into Arizona yesterday, the road conditions have improved.
Should I really be surprised by this? California was on the bleeding edge of the “reduce taxes” movement in recent decades. I’ve seen evidence of a bloated bureaucracy in California still, yet their infrastructure seems to have crumbled around their bloated bureaucracy. I think that’s been the case all around us in our nation, as we’ve experimented with the idea of “starving” government of tax revenue to try and fix bureaucratic waste. To the best of my vision, this experiment in starvation has been a miserable failure. In fact, it seems to have brought our country right up to the brink of bankruptcy.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to see less waste as much as the next guy. But what we’ve been doing has not only failed to fix the problem, but has made it worse by creating a massive debt that we’ll need to figure out a way to pay off for generations to come. While the debt has grown, we still haven’t solved the problem. Waste and corruption have only grown worse, while our roads and bridges are collapsing. We’ve stolen our retirement savings from ourselves by looting the Social Security trust fund year after year to finance the tax cuts we give ourselves, while the vast majority of the benefit of those cuts goes to the already uber-wealthy among us.
The wealthier have gotten massively wealthier, wages for real working Americans have plummeted, roads, bridges, and schools are collapsing, and the government bails out the banks when they get themselves into trouble. All financed on the backs of future generations… There has to be a better way.
I drain the last of my water several miles short of Salome, and roll into town with dry water bottles and plenty thirsty. I stop at a c-store, and enjoy the company of an obviously tight-knit family that runs the store. The A/C feels good inside, as the heat is building outside. It’s small-town America, as everybody who walks in the front door knows everybody else, and the gossip flows freely and abundantly.
The gal who runs this c-store is very aware of the upcoming RAAM riders. In fact, she says folks called ahead to validate the hours she’d be open during those days when the riders would be rolling through. Here, I get the reaction I would expect regarding the race. She loves it, and does all she can to cater to the event, the participants, and the support crews. This is the biggest thing that happens to her store each year, and she looks forward to it.
Leaving Salome, it’s about 30 miles of the next water at Aguila. The road is straight, flat, and hot. It stretches out in front of me so perfectly straight as to seem surreal. Cars emerge miles in front of me from within a shimmering cloud that hangs endlessly above the pavement. Saguaro cactus stand sentry throughout the sparse vegetation on both sides of the road.
Far off in the vast desolation to my left, I see sand and dust formed by the wind into a swirling dance across the desert. It’s a quite beautiful site actually, and I stop several times to watch. I’m reminded of the deadly sandstorms that can develop out here in the desert in the summer, and am hoping that this isn’t the beginning of one of these storms. These storms are called Haboobs, which is an Arabic word, as the storms are much more common in Arabic countries. However, in recent years, they’ve become more common in this part of the desert as the climate has changed.
The heat is really starting to drain me of energy. I’ve struggled all day to try and stay hydrated, and it’s clearly a losing battle. You just can’t keep enough water going in to the system to replace what’s evaporating off the skin. I’d really like to find a place to relax and get out of the heat, but there just aren’t many options. I finally find a dry wash where a Mesquite tree is hanging over the shoulder a bit, and crawl under the thorny branches. While it’s a bit cooler, it’s pretty darned uncomfortable sitting on the asphalt, and I have no desire to get back off the asphalt and end up with sand in my britches. So I enjoy a bit of water and a few minutes of uncomfortable shade before climbing back onto the saddle and peddling on down the road.
In Aguila, I stop at Coyote Flats restaurant. There’s a nice awning, and the cool of the shade welcomes me. Inside is even cooler, and I have a couple pitchers of water along with my burger. It’s well after noon, and the temperature is well above 100. I comment on the heat to the waitress, who scowls and says, “It’s the desert in June – what do you expect?”
Right. Check please.
The final 25 miles of the day follows Highway 71 up to Congress. While most of the day to this point has presented either a headwind or a crosswind, I finally get to enjoy a tailwind for this final section. However, I gain about 1000 feet over this stretch, the asphalt is hot, and I’m suffering a bit from the heat. It’s a beautiful ride, but I don’t enjoy it as much as I should.
Heat on asphalt is an interesting thing for the cyclist. When the temperature gets over 100, the black asphalt absorbs enough heat that it softens up a bit. It’s not something you notice in a car, as the weight of the car is spread out on a good amount of rubber. However, if you look at the highway, you’ll see evidence of it in the truck ruts left on asphalt where it gets hot. The truck tires are carrying a lot more weight per square inch of rubber on the ground, so they “sink in” more noticeably.
On a bicycle with narrow little tires, you really notice it. Peddling gets just a little harder, like you’re always going up a little grade. It’s late enough on a hot day that the asphalt has softened up a bit, so I can add that to the slight uphill grade and the fact that the heat has taken quite a bit out of me. Even with all this, the tailwind helps me as I find ways to enjoy the beauty around me.
Traffic is very light on this highway, and with only 5 or 10 miles to go in the day I cross under Highway 93. At the intersection are the ruins of an old gas station, obviously abandoned for many decades. I pull in and enjoy a little shade for a few minutes, and drink the last of my water. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through 2 water bottles in 20 miles of riding, but have gone through it happily in these last 20 miles.
It strikes me again as a wonder just how much water my body is using here in this climate. Of course I expected to use more water, but it truly does seem that I can’t possibly pour enough water down my throat to replenish what my body is losing in the dry heat. I’m sure if I were resting in the shade the whole time it would be much less, but I’m not…
As I enjoy the respite of the shade under the awning, I think about the books and films that depict folks crossing deserts. It’s clear that few of the authors of those stories have actually spent time doing these sorts of crossings, as it’s common for them to describe water consumption in terms they’re accustomed to. How many times have I enjoyed a story of someone down to their last canteen or quart of water, and they make this pitance last for a couple days as they walk across the desert.
Clearly, with a couple days of desert crossing ahead of you and only a quart of water to drink, things wouldn’t turn out the way they do in the stories…
Arriving in the town of Congress, it feels like an oasis to me. I’m sure in different circumstances, it might feel different, but right now I am delighted beyond words to be done for the day. The Sierra Vista Motel is run by a gal named Cindy who once lived in Colorado herself, is about my age, and might have been a bit of a hippie in olden days. We have a great conversation, then I head off and enjoy a cool shower. I should mention that Google doesn’t even show this motel when you search, but it’s a fine little place – clean and well-run.
After my shower I head off in search of food, and, bonus of bonuses, 200 yards from the Sierra Vista Motel is the best meal I’ll have on the entire trip. There’s a little place called Nichols West, run by a fella named Simon. Seems that he and his wife had a restaurant in New York, and decided to lease the New York property out and move themselves to Arizona. By any standards anywhere on earth, this place is outstanding. If I lived in Phoenix, I’d drive to Congress just to eat at this place.
Now, I’d have felt great with the nice Sierra Vista Motel and the bonus of a world-class meal at Nichols West. But to top it off, there’s a local guy sitting at the bar in Nichols West, and he and Simon are talking politics. I join in the conversation, and have a truly wonderful back and forth with the guy about the state of the nation and the world. We don’t solve any problems, but I’m truly grateful to have someone to talk politics with. Okay, maybe most folks would call it “argue politics”, but I think we both had a good time, and we both learned a little something from the other guy. We buy each other a beer, and shake hands out by his truck as we part and go our separate ways.
Walking back to my room, I lament that we seem to have become a nation of cowards and idiots. Nobody invests the time and energy in truly understanding the issues that face us. Too many of us take the lazy route, and just swallow the swill that one party of the other feeds to us. Understanding requires an investment of time and energy, it requires caring enough to understand. More and more, Americans would rather have their opinions formed for them by someone else, and mainlined to them through the talking idiots on the television set or the radical radio station. Of course, since so few truly understand any of the real issues, most of us are too cowardly to sit with a stranger or a friend and have a real conversation about these issues.
Maybe we’re afraid we might learn something that might shake that opinion the TV talking idiots have built into our heads. Maybe we’re afraid of looking dumb. Or maybe we’re just afraid the world might be a different place than we’ve convinced ourselves it is.
Whatever the reason, I’m sad I can find so few who are willing to have real conversations. Here in little Congress, AZ, I’ve found two new friends more than willing to mix it up a bit – Cindy at the Sierra VIsta and my new best friend at the bar. What was his name again?…
When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.