Ah... the romance of the open road. Every day is a blank slate full of infinite opportunity, endless excitement and the prospect of an unknown adventure just around corner. While the truth of all of these is omnipresent in a cross-country bike tour, just like at home, life is full of ups and downs and the past week has certainly had its share of both.
After a restful stay with my childhood friend in Eric, my liver needed a break and Jenny and I headed out of the desert sprawl of Vegas on Highway 93 past Hoover Dam and the blue waters of Lake Mead. We high-fived and snapped a photo at the Arizona border and bid farewell to Nevada, finally feeling as if we were making eastern progress after riding over 1700 miles south from Seattle. The wind pushed us south through the Arizona desert and we rolled into Willow Beach and lounged in the sun drinking beers and swimming in the frigid waters of the Colorado. A wonderful couple from Irvine invited us to crash their campsite when they saw us on our bikes and learned that the campground was full. The kindness and generosity of strangers on this trip seems to follow us and I went to bed that night smiling despite the roar of the Karaoke party raging 100 feet from our tent.
Another 5am start promised Jen and I would beat some of the heat of the day and the winds that seem to kick up into full force every afternoon. We climbed 1000 feet back up Highway 93 and turned our noses south just as the sun peaked it's head over the mountains and cast a shadow cyclist companion on the pavement at my side. The wind picked up on our backs as I turned up Bruce in my iPod and laughed to myself as I rolled effortlessly on a perfect 12 foot shoulder of fresh blacktop five miles down the hill. It all came to a screeching halt.
Without warning, the shoulder simply vanished. Not shrunk, but completely disappeared into a mix of sand, gravel, highway detritus and sharp desert flora. The smile on my face and blissful demeanor instantly expired as Jen and I weighed the options.
Continue on the"shoulder" and hope the pavement returned sometime soon in the 50 miles between us and Kingman, AZ, or backtrack the 50 miles to Vegas and find another way. Ever optimistic, we pulled over into the sand and plodded on at 5 mph for the next 2 hours as the sun grew high overhead and the temperatures creeped up into the mid-nineties. It wasn't long before our first, then second, third and fourth flat tires reduced our rolling average to 1-2 mph and the suffer-fest kicked into full throttle. I pulled over to fix my fifth flat of the day and wondered out loud what the fuck we were doing out here. The stream of semi trucks, RV's and weekend Vegas traffic had picked up steadily as the hours passed under the afternoon sun and made riding the pavement on the highway a suicide mission at best. Needless to say, the magic of our bicycle tour was feeling a bit jinxed. Quick mental math on our progress confirmed that Jen and I would likely be spending the night along side this dirty roaring highway and I cursed myself for not doing a little more research before getting committed to our course.
In the lowest moment I have had on this tour, a car pulled over in the dust and out stepped a wonderful young couple from Tuscon returning from a weekend in Utah. Kurt had toured across the country several years ago and clearly recognized the shit sandwich that we were in. He and his wife Koop had passed us, turned around at the first chance they could 10 miles down the road, backtracked another 20 miles all to offer us a ride. The decision to get in the car was an easy one and we tied bikes to the rack, strapped BOB on the roof and stuffed our panniers in the back seat. Hell with being a purist, there is no glory in becoming road kill.
Thirty miles later they dropped us off in Kingman, AZ and Jen and I sat in the shade of of a truck stop overwhelmed by the stench of Popeye's Chicken feeling thoroughly defeated and unmotivated to move. We decided that we shouldn't settle on our next move in our current state and set off down Route 66 to find groceries and a place to crash for the night. In a couple of blocks we stumbled upon Black Bridge Brewery, and nothing nurses a bruised ego like a cold beer. We sat down and chatted up the townies while I did a little interweb research on our next direction. When we went to pay our bill, the bartender informed us that a local man named Joe had picked up our tab. Things were already looking up.
Aftern confirming that Route 66 was a good way to bike from Kingman to Flagstaff, Jen and I settled into the local KOA. One of the biggest blowhards I have ever encountered in my life repeatedly warned me of the dangers of biking into the high desert of Arizona as I tried to relax in the hot tub that night.
That high desert is a tricky som'ofabitch. No humidity! Suck you dry as a bone and you won't even know it.
It appeared the most physically taxing thing Mark had done in the past 25 years was walk to the cabinet to get another glass of scotch so I took his advice with a grain of salt. I tried to explained that we had just biked across Death Valley, but was interrupted.
That is the low desert! I am telling you man that the high desert is way different and a tricky som'ofabitch. You won't even know what hit you until it is too late! People die out there all the time!
He continued to blab in my ear about why we shouldn't ride to Flagstaff, how water lubricated joints (I thought it was synovial fluid, but I digress), what an excellent poker player he was and how the Kingman KOA was the cheapest place in the United States to live. I was rescued when his wife screamed at the top of her lungs from the gate that he needed the get his fat ass back home and help with the dishes. Mark's protruding belly betrayed his exceptional ability to move like a Cheetah when properly motivated; I reconsidered all his wisdom and drank another bottle of water before bed.
In the morning Jen and I climbed east out of Kingman on the longest intact stretch of Historic Route 66 in the United States. Far-reaching stretches of lonesome highway dotted with small outposts, crumbling stucco motels, rusting cars, and old gas stations filled with relics painted a picture of yesteryears when 66 was the main road from Chicago to Los Angeles. The riding was nothing short of stunning as we climbed up through forests of Juniper and expansive views of rolling green hills and sheer steppes characteristic of the high Arizona desert. Spinning slowly out of Hackberry a large flatbed Ford piled high with rafting gear pulled up beside me, the passenger leaned out the window in a haze of skunky smoke, handed me a cold Coors Light, gave me a thumbs up and sped off into the distance. I smiled big and felt like Jen and I were back on track.
Yesterday Jen and I ascended a steady 2000 feet into the Ponderosa forests, over the Arizona Divide and down into Flagstaff. After the steep and frequent climbs of the Sierra I dare say the high passes of Arizona arrive without the struggle that I anticipate. Maybe my ever-atrophying biceps and swelling quadriceps are starting to pay dividends in my cycling. It froze last night in Flagstaff and October snow storms are not an infrequent occurrence at 7000 feet; winter is coming. With this in mind, tomorrow we head south back into the desert and towards the metropolis of Phoenix beyond.
I look back on the week and although I will not be able to say that I rode my bike from one coast of the this country to the other, I wouldn't trade those 30 miles in a car for any of the experiences I have had or the interesting folks we have met along the way. I set out three months ago to experience my country on a bike in the company of the greatest companion a guy could ask for and I am thankful for every minute of the journey thus far.