From Bakersfield the route took me through a series of miserable climbs unaffecrionately known as the Vlees Huis, or Butcher House, road race. For ten miles I rode the flat and windless section of Edison Highway out of town before hitting the first ten miles of climbing on the old race course. It remained cool until the last five miles, when suddenly the heat switch flipped on. It got so hot so quickly that the edges of the hills that were still in shade were twenty degrees cooler than the rest of the exposed roadway.
I reached Highway 58, where I had another ten mile climb to Keene, flat out in the middle of the heat and the wind. Tehachapi, and all roads leading to it, are windy af. This grade was gradual but its length meant that with three or four miles to go the 18-wheelers were only going thirty or forty. They crawled by. The shoulder was littered with glass and the usual remnants of truck/car/human traffic. My favorites were the water bottles filled with piss and tossed out the window. Can’t wait for a toilet. Can’t wait for a trash can. America … can’t wait for anything, I just want it NOW.
Early on in the climb I started to bonk and when I pulled off the highway at the Keene exit I sobbed a few tears as the Famous Keene Cafe was closed. But it wasn’t, it was only covidding, and I was the first lunch customer, or the last hobbit second breakfast customer, at 10:30. I ordered a cheeseburger, fries, apple pie with whipping cream, and as much water as they could carry to my table.
While waiting I fell into conversation with a navy vet all decked out in “Freedom Isn’t Free” gimme cap and tee. We talked about the covids and I said that since we weren’t a science-based society we’d screwed the whole thing up and were now global pariahs, barred from every country on earth except Zambia, Ireland, the UK, and Brazil.
Oddly, he agreed. He had gotten his degree in geology then went on to put it to good use as a bus driver for the Santa Barbara transit system. “Couldn’t afford to retire in Santa Barbara so we moved up here.”
“How do you like it?”
He obviously didn’t like it as much as Santa Barbara. “Four seasons, you know.”
“How did you like being a bus driver?”
He brightened. “It was good work. Good pay, good benefits, honest work.”
I thought about those three criteria and wondered why they weren’t global standards. Seems like we’re rich enough and smart enough to make satellites that go into space and deliver porn to every human on earth who wants it. Why can’t we deliver good pay, good benefits, and honest work to every person as well?
I was sufficiently revived by the fat, sugar, and salt to resume the last ten miles of the climb along a picturesque little back road. The scenery quickly collapsed into a puddle of sweat and misery as this climb made the other two look like the warm-ups they were. I saw one other car, a man and his wife taking the bikes out for a drive in the country.
Tehachapi finally arrived and as I dropped down the back side of the hill a crew of postal workers was installing a set of mailboxes. One of the guys looked up incredulously. “You just rode up over that?”
“Every fucking inch,” I shouted back. For some reason that made me so happy, that someone acknowledged the difficulty. In life we all want that, I think, acknowledgement for the hard things we do.
My first stop was the 7-11 for a giant Slurpee, but it was all boarded up, the 7-11 not the Slurpee, so I rode over to the Starbucks for a giant frap. An older lady came up to me. “I like your mask.”
“Ma’am,” I said, “you’re the fourth person in 3,600 miles who has said something nice about this mask.”
“That’s too bad,” she said. “It makes me sick when people act like black people have to fix racism. White people do. We created it, and it’s our job to fix it.”
Then she wanted to know where my helmet was. “It’s in storage back in Pomona,” I said.
“Oh, goodness. My ex-husband was killed by a trash truck while riding his bike. Dragged him along for two blocks, alive, then stopped and backed over him.”
“Yes,” she said. Then she reflected a moment. “But he was wearing a helmet, so I guess it didn’t matter. Be careful out there.”
“I’m not trying to be rude, but that’s not my job. It’s the cars’ job to be careful. They’re the ones texting, drinking, listing to podcasts, not paying attention to the road. I’m the one who has watched every foot of pavement like a hawk for almost forty years. It’s on them. They need to be careful.”
She lauged. “You are so right! It is on us!”
Then we talked about shoes and ships and sealing wax, and whether pigs had wings before sitting down to chat about movies I hadn’t seen and books she hadn’t read. She offered me some food. Her name was Cheryl; she had been a nurse and you could tell that caring for people was first nature for her.
It got time to go. “Where are you staying?” she asked.
“The airport camp.”
“They may be closed. Here’s my number if you get stuck.”
I did indeed get stuck and I called her. “There’s an rv park run by my friend Bobbi out near the other airport.”
“Tehachapi has two airports?”
“Yes, but the other one is only for gliders. Sit tight. I’ll drive over and show you how to get there.”
In a few minutes she arrived, full of information and directions and concern. That’s when I noticed that all of her belongings were stuffed into her car. “Hey,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Me? I’m fine. My trailer got stolen by a guy who was weatherproofing it. I’m just a pair of shoes away from being back on my feet.” She was smiling and so damned kind.
“Hey, I’m really sorry. I don’t have much cash left. This is all I got.” I dug into my Fierce Hazel wallet and gave her my last eleven dollars, which made her recoil.
“Goodness, I don’t want that. I’m just trying to be helpful.”
“So am I.” Reluctantly, she took it.
“What are you going to do for food?” she wanted to know.
“I’ve got plenty.”
“Why don’t you let me run to the supermarket and pick up something for you? You look a little thin.”
I gave her a hug. “I’m fine. And thank you for everything.”
She drove off and I found the park, checked in, and fell into conversation with Hal, an aged German from northern Bavaria who lived in a glider hangar and made things for fun and minimal profit. “Vateffer I like, if I see it, denn I make it. I don’t need much money, but if I like it, denn I make it. Is dat bike composite?”
“I make tings from composite. Dis is made gut. Very gut.”
I told him that my former boss had been from northern Bavaria and that he’d one time given me some wine from Franconia. “Ja, ve don’t send da Frankenwein outside Franken. It grows only one small hillside on da Mainz, but da udder side, it is vinegar. But da gut side, it is da best.” He seemed pleased to have made the acquaintance of someone who knew and who had tasted the wonders of Frankish wine.
I set up camp and began cooking dinner, and up drove Cheryl. She hopped out with a plastic bag. In it were frozen chicken, frozen pork, and frozen bison. “Which of these do you want? You can have them all of course but they might be a little heavy.”
“Darn it, Cheryl, I gave you that money to put gas in your car or something, not buy me food.” The pound of bison alone was $6.
“Oh, no, this if from my friend’s freezer who’s storing my stuff until I get the trailer thing straightened out. Take what you want, please!”
I took the bison meat. We said goodbye again. I had a magnificent dinner as the sun set, the wind whipping across the fields, the moon thrusting up from beneath the covers of a quickly fading day.
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