When you lie on your back, with your eyes open into the black sky, the stars brighten, shimmer, and then clot the heaven so thickly that they float down upon your consciousness like a blanket. It is impossible to stargaze in this state; our millions of years of evolution take over, we are reminded that day is done, and the light from those countless distant suns slowly and gently presses your lids over your eyes, and then you are asleep.
The last image was the brilliance of some easily recognized constellation, the Big Dipper and Orion, with a smattering of Pleiades on the side.
We people were made to sleep outdoors, and sleep deeply, that is all.
My pavilion at Ocotillo Wells was starry for a while, then overtaken by the brilliant moon and the muppets in the RV across the way, revving their ATV toys as they sprinted to the toilets and back in between alcohols. I was up at six, and by 7:30 had begun the second day of my trek out of the mountains over to Joshua Tree.
A brisk tailwind had combined with the cool weather and the slight downhill to create the bicycling trifecta, and I was at the intersection of CA 86 in no time at all. I emptied two of my large water bottles to save weight, and transitioned from the quiet and pleasant back roads to the miserable racket, road trash, and 18-wheelers plowing along this freeway to Los Angeles.
The tailwind became a sidewind, the downhill became slightly up, and I toiled for an hour and a half to cover about fifteen miles. At Salton City I was rewarded with a Subway and chocolate milk.
Making good time I reached Mecca before one, and was completely wrung out from the heat, the wind, and the traffic. I whipped into a travel stop, deliriously thirsty, and downed a couple of bottles of Gatorade before going into Mecca to find a grocery store.
There was a place in town called Leon’s Meat Market; I was the only white guy there. I had sandwich meat, oranges, milk, and beef jerky on my shopping list for dinner, but only found jerky and oranges as the milk was in one-gallon jugs. I sat out on the pavement cutting up the oranges as a very disturbed, mostly naked man wandered up and began screaming epithets in Spanish.
He didn’t pay any attention to me but continued to scream and curse. As he caught his breath I said, “Hey, man, are you okay? Do you need money?”
His screaming immediately ceased and he became completely normal. “Yeah, man, I’m fucking broke and starving hungry.”
“Here,” I said, and gave him some cash.
He took it. “Shit, thank you. That bitch that just drove off stole my drugs and now I’m off my medication and I have these fucking episodes. I’m so hungry. Thank you, man. What’s your name?”
“I’m Pedro. That’s a bitching bike.”
“Is it carbon?”
“Sweet. I like the way you have it set up.”
We had a completely normal conversation, reminding me that “crazy homeless people” are, you know, people, and they have the same problems as everyone else, and when you address their immediate problems there is often nothing odd or frightening or weird about them at all. I remounted to go look for dinner, which I found at the Dollar General–a half-gallon of milk and a package of sliced turkey. The road was supposed to turn into Box Canyon Rd., where I was planning to camp, but after several miles there were still nothing but orchards, and it was fryingly hot. I was getting desperate because the barren landscape suggested that there wasn’t going to be any shade anywhere, i.e. the next five hours would be spent out in the open sunlight.
I briefly considered sneaking into one of the orchards and holing up beneath the trees but the “No Trespassing” signs everywhere seemed pretty serious.
The road finally turned into Box Canyon after a few hot and slogging and uphill miles, but nary a scrap of shade anywhere. Finally, about a quarter-mile up the road I spied a tree with shade. The white sand was so brilliant that the black spot of shade stood out from a great distance. I eagerly mashed the pedals.
As I got closer, my heart sank. A family had camped out beneath the tree and was picnicking. This is how it is in poor places with poor people. They will recreate on a barren patch of sand under a tree and be happy with it. I sure would have been …
A few hundred yards farther there was another tree, less shaded but with enough to provide cover until the sun went down. I pulled over and set up camp. One thing about bikepacking like this is that you often have several hours at a stretch with nothing to do, so you do what people have done since time immemorial: You sit around and watch. And you know what? When you watch, you see things. Funny, that.
In addition to a hummingbird in my tree, I realized that the “barren” landscape was awash with flowers, tiny but beautiful. And as the sun traced the sky, the colors changed on the rock faces, of the trees, even of the sand. I wandered over to the picnickers to see if they had extra water, as my ride the next day would be the queen stage through Joshua Tree National Park, but they had none to spare and instead offered me the coldest, best Coke I have ever drunk.
I stretched out my tarp, ate three turkey sandwiches, cooked up a cup of coffee, and watched the sun go down. I was covered with gnats, not of the biting variety, but we got along pretty well with me occasionally brushing them away out of principle more than anything else.
I got into my sleeping bag and looked up at the stars before nodding off. There were a few cars on the road until ten o’clock, after which it was a silent as only the desert can be, with a cool breeze blowing across my face the entire night long.
I was apprehensive about the next day’s ride. My friend John, who had offered me a patio to camp on for a couple of days in the town of Joshua Tree, had given me directions from Mecca. Box Canyon Road was a 15-mile gentle climb up to Interstate-10, and from there it was about 30 miles across Joshua Tree National Park to his house on the other side.
Something felt funny, though, and it was my experience riding in the last two days of heat. You go slow in the desert. The wind changes. The topography is never flat. There’s little food and water. It wouldn’t hurt to start early.
So I got up at 4:00 and set off at 5:30 under brilliant moonshine. I made good time, but it was still uphill, about 1,600 feet of climbing to the Interstate. I crossed over and was on the outskirts of the park. The sun was already doing its thing and it was hot. I had doubts about my water supply because I’d gotten a nasty shock: It was almost 50 miles to cross the park. I was thankful I’d started early.
A guy in an RV topped off my water bottles and gave me some great, mostly inaccurate information about what lay ahead. “You’re not riding your bike across the park, are you?”
“Man, I don’t know if I’d advise that. It’s all uphill until the last few miles.”
I always wonder about people who advise me not to ride my bike somewhere. Should I walk? “Well, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Here,” he said, jamming a couple of Clif Bars in my hand. “You’re gonna need it.”
And … he was right.
The first seven miles were into a 20 mph headwind, up a nasty grade that took an hour and a half to get over. Thankfully there was a visitor center atop the climb, so I stopped, got water, and made my newest creation: Oatfee, which is made by dumping instant coffee into your instant oatmeal. I was so hungry it actually tasted great.
Two ladies came up to me. “Excuse me,” said one.
“We saw you toiling up that hill. My god, the wind was incredible. We could feel it pushing against the car. And on a bike? Oh, my god. And I said to Sally, ‘I bet that guy has a story.’ Do you mind me asking your story?”
I smiled and told her a story which was 100% true except for the parts that I made up.
Another guy came up to me to chat. He was from Georgia, traveling with his family. “I’m a cyclist,” he said, “and saw you riding up that hill. That didn’t look fun!”
We got to talking and he, too, wanted to know my story, so I told him one that was mostly true. I’ve changed my story a bit as I have changed, but basically it goes like this. “I’ve decided to spent the rest of my life doing what I love.”
“And what is that?”
“Riding my bike and Chaucer.”
“I think I understand the first part,” he said.
So I launched off into an explanation of my quest to memorize the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and how if he had six or seven hours I could entertain him with the parts I’ve memorized so far. Oddly, he preferred to talk about derailleurs and bikepacking gear, so I obliged. He was no David Treece.
After my oatfee I remounted and was delighted to find that my guide a few miles back was completely wrong, or rather, he was a motorist, which is kind of the same thing. Motorists and motorcyclists don’t understand the words “uphill” and “downhill.” Bicycle riders, of course, do, and it’s simple. If the road is mostly 0-degrees it is “flat.” If it is +degrees, it is “uphill,” and if it is -degrees, it is “downhill.”
From the visitor center it was a screaming, 15-mile descent, and by screaming I mean “screaming silently with happiness because -degrees.” To a motorist it might not have seemed downhill, but when you are spinning the eleven … it’s downhill. I kept overtaking a couple that was stopping at every “Exhibit Ahead” sign, so I finally pulled over and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of them together.
They were delighted and they were French. I snapped a few pictures and told them my story when prompted. They carefully listened. “This is very beautiful,” the man said. I don’t think he was talking about the thick crust of salt covering my face or the third-degree sunburn on my nose.
The next section of the park began, a 12-mile climb. There was no wind but it was a slog and my legs were twisted dead. After a couple of miles I stopped at the ultimate Muppet Farm, a roadside cholla cactus garden. I wheeled in to eat a Clif bar and drink more water.
The muppets were everywhere. One of them saw me and quickly whispered something to his wife like, “Look! Over there! An authentic crazy desert rat!”
“Oh, gosh, Mortimer! Just like in the guidebook! See if you can get his picture.”
So Mortimer from Culver City came over and asked if he could take my picture, with the same deferential tone you’d ask if you were trying to get a photo up close of someone’s face who didn’t have any teeth. “Sure, I said.”
About this time Sylvester from Beverly Hills drove up in his giant Mercedes. He stepped out, properly attired for the outback without seeming to notice that this curated little tourist stop was much more In Front than Outback. He carefully adjusted an expensive porkpie hat over his thinning locks, then drew out an Armani leather shoulder bag/harness, and, clearly having gotten the March catalog for “Rich Schlumps” had simply called in and said, “I want everything that the model is wearing on page 32. Size medium tummy.”
The model had been wearing a $5,000 pair of brushed suede-and-alligator, ankle-high bootlets, which, if you’d been driving by on a Moto Guzzi at 90 might have looked like desert wear, but at anything less than that looked so delicate and expensive that so much as a scuff mark would have reduced any normal person to tears.
Sylvester then stood in the parking lot and carefully rotated 1/4 turns to the audience, soaking up his moment on the tarmac runway surrounded by pricks, cactus and otherwise, knowing that he had killed the In Front. I watched him walk slowly along the pavement, snap a few pictures with his phone, then carefully pick his way back to the chariot. He could now say he had “done” Joshua Tree. I hoped it had been as good for the tree as it had been for him.
Joshua Tree is an interesting park because it is the size of Rhode Island, bigger, actually, and has only a couple of tiny campgrounds which are booked about 12 years in advance. At first it seems like the public isn’t getting the chance to enjoy the park until you realize that the “public” is Mortimer and Sylvester. Muppet enjoyment of nature is five minutes outdoors followed by a 2-hour drive through the park to the alcohols that await in town.
The trails were empty except for a couple of designated trailheads swollen with cars; but the fat and lazy profile of the muppets didn’t fool me at all. You could see clots of people at the trailhead, but gazing down the trails you could see they were as desolate as the rest of the park. Muppets don’t like no desert trek.
After the muppet stop I toiled another ten slow miles to the top of the park, then began an amazing 12-mile descent, maybe more, that ended in a 4 or 5-mile straight-line downhill into the town of 29 Palms. I hit the 7-11, delirious from heat and thirst, drank more Gatorade, and called John to get directions to his desert retreat.
“Just get on the main highway. We’re just 11 miles down the road. It’s not too bad, especially because there’s not much wind.”
Only eleven miles at the end of a brutal, windy, hot day is enough to break anyone, but it was nothing as to what awaited me at the turnoff to John’s place: 1-mile straight up climb in soft sand to his house, which abuts the northern border of the park. I struggled as hard up that last mile as I can remember struggling anywhere, but John met me about halfway and we rode up to the top together.
He fed me water and a giant cheeseburger, which I didn’t taste and simply swallowed. Following that he whipped up chicken and beef tacos for dinner, then showed me out to my chaise-longue on the patio.
It had a soft mattress and ushered in the sweetest sleep I’ve had in memory. I lay there for a few minutes before pulling the blanket of stars over my eyes and drifting off to sleep.
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