Archive for June, 2010

Day 63 (5/20): Pyramid Lake

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Ed must be lonely in his middle-of-nowhere bar.  He wakes me up for coffee and we have breakfast together in his kitchen.

Today’s road, highway US-95, intersects the route of our 2007 NYC-SF bike tour. I even turn off onto Highway 50 and cycle a mile toward Carson City and back to relive a part of our 2007 adventure.

I’m in Reno’s and Carson City’s backyard, so the traffic is heavy and the ride nerve wracking.  Especially annoying is the rumble strip that takes up the whole width of the shoulder.  It forces me to ride in the vehicle lane.  Motorists don’t notice the rumble strip and assume that I’m using their lane frivolously — it infuriates them and they drive by dangerously close, at high speed, horns blaring.  Luckily, past Fernley I’ll take the remote desert highway 447 north of the I-80 corridor where I know the traffic is much lighter.  I’ve driven Hwy. 447 six times before for my three times at Burning Man, and I’m looking forward to cycling it.  It’s scenic and empty.

Masha and I meet in Fernley.  She has rented a car and will catch up to me on the way to Pyramid Lake after buying food and water at the local WalMart.

I leave the bustle of Fernley behind and begin my late-afternoon ride on 447.  To my immense surprise several Greyhound buses pass me by the time I get to Pyramid Lake.  Greyhound?! Here in the desert? Away from major roads?!  A local Indian at the gas station in Nixon explains that the company trains its new drivers here on an 8-hour loop on remote desert roads.

Masha overtakes me in her car, I catch up to her in Nixon (she’s napping), and we ride the last four miles to the southernmost tip of Pyramid Lake together.  She’s having fun by trailing me at 15 mph, big smile on her face.

Pyramid Lake is a favorite post-Burn destination of burners looking to cool off and wash off a week’s worth of desert dust.   It is as big as Lake Tahoe, but strangely without a single tree on the surrounding mountains.  It must be a way point for migrating birds, because flocks or geese and ducks land and take off constantly.  A cacophony of bird voices — or symphony, depending on your perspective — fills the air.

Three olive-green military cargo planes appear on a low-altitude trajectory over the lake as if mimicking the birds.  They glide slowly with quiet, confident engine noise like that of a modern air conditioner.  It looks like they’re about to land on the lake, but they disappear over the north shore.  Soon two of them return, one is missing.

It’s a chilly, windy night, but we are toasty in our tent anchored to the car on one side and piles of rocks on the other.

Day 62: Back to Nevada. Wabuska Bar.

Friday, June 25th, 2010

At the northern end of the fertile Mason Valley, by the old Union Pacific rail track, sits the 100-year-old Wabuska Bar.  Inside, the bar’s 82-year-old owner Edmund Muller rests in his wheelchair.  Business is down and I’m Ed’s only customer all night.  We sit with beers in hand; stories and history flow well past the normal closing time.  Ed used to run a water drilling business and drilled all over Nevada.  “Driest state?!  You drill anywhere and there’s water.”  He also tells stories of his army service in Germany after the war, about the Yucca Mountain controversy, Harry Reid, and so many other things.  I’m staying here tonight, camping by the side of the house.  Tomorrow I’ll be carrying Ed’s regards to another Nevada oldtimer, Bruno Selmic, up in Gerlach.

This turned out to be one of the more relaxing days of the trip.

This morning I say goodbye to the Sierras and head again into Nevada.  The next big mountain range will be the Cascades in Oregon.  I’ve been looking forward to Nevada because, among other things, I want more comfortable temperatures.  It was too hot in Death Valley (around sea level), too cold the past couple of days in the Sierras (around 7,500 feet elevation), and should be just right in Nevada (the average elevation in the valleys is 4,000 ft).

Another reason I’m looking forward to Nevada is its prevailing winds.  Back in 2007, on our roller-coaster traverse of the state east to west, Masha and I were constantly pummeled by crosswinds out of the south.  I figured that the narrow valleys must be acting as conduits that channel air masses in a consistent way. This year we’re riding north through here, in part to harness those southern winds.

The remote highway 182 spills out of Bridgport Reservoir and flows down the East Walker River Gorge.  A “No services next 70 miles” sign gives me a start, for I know that Smith is only 40 miles away.  Am I wrong or is the sign wrong?  I am carrying only two liters of water, but that’s not really a problem, since the road follows several rivers. The asphalt is old and beat up; I ride in a state of concentrative meditation for a while as I carefully pick my way through the cracks.  There are no cars, which is a relief after the busy Hwy. 395.

A lot of fishermen stand frozen waist deep in the water.  The cafe in Bridgeport where I had dinner and breakfast was called “Sportsmen’s”.  At first I sneered inside: these hunters, fishermen, and golfers call themselves sportsmen!  But then I realized my error in translation.  In Russian, “sportsman” and “athlete” are synonyms, but in English they are not.  I’m an athlete.  These guys are sportsmen.

I’m flying along the rushing river.  The last view of the Sierra disappears around a bend and the familiar arid hills of Nevada take over.  Soon the road turns 90 degrees and I climb the gentle-grade hill to Sweetwater Pass.  It’s all downnill from here.  Sweetwater is the last reminder that I’m still in the mountain country.  We’ve climbed at least one major hill each day since Vegas:  Spring Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Panamint Range, Argus Range, Sherwin Pass, Deadman Pass, Conway Pass, and now Sweetwater Pass.

At last the distance controversy is resolved.  I roll into Smith Valley after just 40 miles, not 70 like the sign warned.  My travel stories at lunch at the only store in town impress the folks there and they give me a t-shirt with the store’s name, Buckboard General Store.

A serious-looking mountain range separates Smith Valley from Mason Valley and I reluctantly brace for an uphill, but to my surprise, the Walker has sliced right through the mountain and the road hugs the river and runs straight down to Mason Valley below.  The gorge is narrow, winding, and steep.  The angry river churns class 2-3 whitewater.  I wouldn’t canoe here.

Mason Valley looks nothing like the Nevada I know.  Fed by the Walker and East Walker Rivers, it supports bountiful fields of alfalfa, onions, lettuce, and hay.  Rows of poplars — both narrow ones and wide ones — line irrigation ditches filled to the brink.  The poplars gladden my heart by reminding me of my native Moldova.  I’ve only seen them in two U.S. states, Nevada and California. It’s probably too humid for them back on the East Coast.

It’s night at Wabuska. The wind picks up and changes directions with such surprising frequency that I’m having trouble deciding from which side to anchor my tent.  I scout Ed’s property and find some logs, sawed but not chopped, and use them as heavy anchors.  This solves the engineering challenge.

By the way, I’ve invented a method for determining wind direction more precisely than sticking a wet finger up in the air.  It works like this:  you position yourself so that your back is generally facing the wind.  Then slowly turn until the noise in your ears is maximized.  Stop. You’re facing precisely away from the wind.

Day 61: the 3,699-mile point (NYC-to-SF distance)

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Darn, I wake up with a serious hangover.  I can only hope that the physical exertion and the cool mountain  air will help me get over it quickly.  I order the greasiest breakfast on the menu at the restaurant.  Yesterday’s Mexican boys are already hard at work in the kitchen; they are tough.  Arturo sees me from the kitchen, intercepts my check, and pays for my breakfast, then comes over and warmly wishes me safe journey.

The long-awaited 3,699-mile point is just six miles away.  I stop there to reflect and take a few photos, among them an unknown pretty mountain on the left; Crowley Lake and White Mountains on the right…

Today’s route hovers around 7-8 thousand feet above sea level and the air is cool, even cold, sometimes uncomfortably so, despite the bright sun. The pristine snows of the Sierra shine brightly.  John Muir called Sierra Nevada “the range of light”.  Range of light, indeed!  (even though Muir was referring to the orange granite at sunrise, not the snow).  Anyway, the Sierra continues to impress with great sights as I pass many notable landmarks — Mono Lake and peaks Mammoth, Matterhorn, Kuna, Dana, and Conness — and cross two mountain passes, Deadman (8,047 ft) and Conway (at 8,143 ft, the highest pass on Hwy. 395).

It’s all an easy downhill from Conway Pass to the town of Bridgeport, where I settle in at the Hotel Victorian, which is basically an old, squeaky house with a lot of antique furniture.  The house is both cozy and scary.  Whooooh!

Day 60 (5/17): Tom’s Place, Sierra Nevada

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

We’ve covered 3,653 miles so far on this trip and if all goes well, today I should reach the highly anticipated milestone of 3,699 miles — the length of our 2007 tour from New York to San Francisco.  Curious to see what’s around that milepost.

But, alas, not today.  First, I find good internet at the public library in Bishop and spend half the day blogging.  I continue riding after lunch and quickly bump into the second obstacle.  I had expected the ride along the eastern slope of the Sierras to be all relatively flat, around 4,000 feet elevation.  But all of a sudden Hwy. 395 shoots up onto an unexpected mountain ridge that spurs east from the Sierra, significantly slowing me down.  I reach Sherwin Pass, elevation 6,500 ft, after sunset as the temperature plummets.  Masha says she passed me on the bus as I was standing there trying to quickly put on my warm clothes with my frozen, stiff hands.  It’s amazing that just two days ago we were below sea level in 100-degree desert heat.

It’s almost dark by the time I reach Tom’s Place, a typical backcountry waystation like so many we’ve seen throughout the West:  gas, store, restaurant, bar and rooms.  Because it’s dark and unexpectedly cold, and there is nothing around for miles, I will stay here, just six miles short of my 3,699th mile.

There are a few patrons at the bar and I settle in for a beer or two.  This turns into a long night with the friendly Mexican restaurant cooks Arturo, Luciano, and Fernando, and bartender Cookie. I impress the guys with my Spanish and we stay late buying each other rounds.  How many rounds?  Nobody kept count!

But the guys have to get up at 5 tomorrow, so eventually we call it a night.  I put on my down jacket and take a long walk on the empty forest road before turning in at the “dorm” at Tom’s.  The temperature has dropped below freezing.  The night is starry, quiet, very peaceful.

Pretty, snow-capped mountains all day.  Another photoAnother one.

Day 59 (5/16): Owens Valley

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Morning.  We linger again and are about to get out later than planned, but Masha finds the campground owner and he gives her a lift half the way up the mountain.  Though he offers to drive her all the way up, she insists on stopping sooner for fear of sitting alone on the side of the road waiting for me.  Frankly I can’t understand what the big deal is with being alone on the road — there are no maniacs here, just tourists.  Plus she still has the pepper spray I got her for Mexico.  Yet every woman we ask about this agrees with Masha.

We reach the top of the 5,000-foot-tall Argus Range relatively easily (a 3,000-foot elevation gain from Panamint Springs), in part thanks to the intricate switchbacks that make the scenery change all the time.  Yesterday was different:  the road to Towne Pass was almost straight, adding tedious monotony to the physical challenge.  On the other hand, yesterday’s summit was immediately followed by a swift downhill, whereas today’s turns out to be an endless hilly plateau that drives us crazy in anticipation of a downhill.  We pine to see the infinite snow-covered wall of the High Sierra, but it keeps hidden from view.  At last, it appears as the highway begins its long slide to Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt. Whitney.  We’re a little sad to be leaving Death Valley behind.

We pass the famous Owens Lake.  Back in the 1930s it served as a water source for the City of Los Angeles and was eventually drunk dry.  This caused frequent dust storms in Owens Valley.  LA got sued and lost the case.  Now the LA water department is pumping water back into the lake as part of a multi-decade Owens Lake environmental remediation plan.  But the dust still blows across the road and the sandy shoulders look like the Sahara.

The strong tailwind helps us pass the miles. Right before Lone Pine, the highway makes a sweeping left turn and puts us directly into an amazing view of Mt. Whitney, the Sierra, and Alabama Hills in all their glory. Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.  I climbed it with Yura last year before we picked up Masha and went to Death Valley.

By the way, notice that the route of our current bike tour is very curvy and twisty, unlike the 2007 tour’s.  I’ve planned it this way on purpose.  Back in 2007 we didn’t know our strengths yet and so chose the straightest/fastest way across the U.S.  This time, I’ve intentionally selected a route that covers specific points of interest to me.  For example: San Antonio, TX; Petrified Forest; Grand Canyon; Zion; Las Vegas; Death Valley; Mt. Whitney and Hwy. 395 in California; Pyramid Lake and Black Rock Desert in Nevada; Crater Lake National Park; and Highway 101 in Oregon/Washington.  That’s why our route is so winding and long — and very scenic!

Masha decides to stay in Lone Pine and catch up to me in a few days.  But I fly on the wings of the glorious southern tailwind down Hwy. 395 another 40 miles to Big Pine.  Magnificent mountains line both sides of the road.  The white Sierra with a black lining of pine forests — on the left.  The Inyo Mountains, bone-dry and devoid of vegetation — on the right.  The Inyos are in the “rain shadow” of the Sierra:  the Sierra stops all the rain and snow that come from the Pacific, and the Inyos get almost none.

I’ve been craving a shave and eager to cut my nails, so after three nights camping I allow myself to indulge in a motel room.  Masha has settled in a youth hostel on Whitney Portal Road back in Lone Pine.

Day 58: Panamint Range, Death Valley N. P.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

A tough day ahead of us today:  two big ranges to cross between here and Lone Pine 80 miles away.  First, the Panamint Range — a nonstop gain of 5,000 vertical feet over 19 miles to Towne Pass.  The second, Argus Range, is 3,000 feet over 12 miles.

I’m scared of the Panamint Range crossing in this heat.  Though a decent 5% grade, it’s the longest hill I’ve ever ridden.  Last year we drove over the range late at night in the same direction.  I was nodding off on the back seat and the only thing I remember through my slumber is the constant frenzied whine of the engine on the brink of self-destruction.  There’s also an ominous road sign at the start of the hill, “Turn off AC next 20 miles – avoid overheating.”  But I tell Masha nothing of my fears, hoping that we’ll be OK by taking things slow and resting often.

We planned to get up at 6 to beat the heat, but a motel worker making his rounds finds us on the store porch and kicks us out at 5:30.  Annoying, but for the better.  Still, we linger, drinking coffee, buying snacks, and so on, as if subconsciously avoiding the ride.  Eventually it’s 9 am and we can’t procrastinate any longer, so we set out.

We make steady progress, taking a break every 500 meters or so, and come across another scary sign, “Radiator water 1 mile.”  It’s hot.  We stop more and more frequently.  Masha’s strength gives out at 2,000 feet above sea level, and we are forced to stop every 50 meters for rest and drink.  I make her give me all her water and some of her heavier items.  Dangerously little water left; we begin to ration it.

The sun-bleached surface of dry lake Manly is slowly receding into the distance.  At 4,000 feet it’s now I who can’t go anymore, but we push on despite ourselves.  Out of the original 5 liters, we have just 0.5 left.  Luckily, the temperature drop due to elevation outweighs the temperature rise due to the sun’s increasing angle.  Masha is walking her bike now.  A man pulls over to ask a few questions about our ride and gives us another liter of water.

Finally we’re at the top and we can’t believe it.  It took us 5 hours, one for each 1,000 feet of elevation.  Like with alpinism (and so many other things), you take it slow and eventually you get there.    Today’s highway follows the contour of the historic Whitney Toll Road, but deviates from it in a few places near the top, and we see faint traces of the old road. The temperature is a whopping 25° F lower than it’s back at Stovepipe Wells by now.

I’m adding Towne Pass to the top of my list of the hardest bike climbs I’ve done.  The others on the list are:  Markagut Plateau in Utah; the mountain pass between Juan Diaz Covarrubias and Catemaco in Mexico; and the crossing of the Appalachians between Burlington and Mount Storm in West Virginia.

Much sharper grades — 9% — as we begin our descent into Panamint Valley; we drop 3,000 feet in just 7 miles.  It’s a white-knuckle ride; our hands ache from squeezing the brakes hard throughout the whole descent.  When we get down to the valley floor, it’s still three miles to the Panamint Springs way station.  I am completely exhausted, though Masha  surprisingly picks up speed as if on a second wind, and I trail her into the village.  Still, neither of us can help dozing off at the lunch table, despite copious amounts of coffee.

It’s 5:30 p.m. We have to leave ASAP.  But Masha’s sound asleep on a bench in front of the restaurant, not in any shape to attempt the 3,000-foot hill and 50 miles to Lone Pine.  The owner of the campground agrees to give her a ride and drop her off at the top of the mountain.  Masha is afraid to sit alone there waiting for me, so we figure I’ll set out now, and the man with Masha in an hour.  But the guy warns us that even though the other side will be mostly downhill for 38 miles, the winds blowing from Owens Lake are finicky and we may be in for a loooong ride in the night.  Reluctantly, I concede that it’s best that we spend the night here.  We’ve covered only 30 miles today! — one of the shortest days of the trip.  Now we really have to get up early tomorrow — and stick to the schedule — to beat the heat and make up time.

Meanwhile, the restaurant has an amazing beer selection: 200 different microbrews from around California, Oregon, and Washington.  It’s pricey, but hey, we’re on vacation!  No swimming pool, though (we’ve become spoiled); instead we take a walk on the empty desert highway east toward the center of Panamint Valley where we spent a star-filled night with Yura last year.  No luck with the stars tonight.  That other night was much darker and the stars formed a silvery cape that enveloped the whole valley in an even, magical iridescence.

Day 57 (5/14): the first day in Death Valley

Monday, June 21st, 2010

A year ago Masha, our friend Yura, and I toured Death Valley (by car and foot, not bike).  We were enjoying a sunset at Zabriskie Point and decided that we must return one day on bicycles — the perfect blacktop of Highway 190 descending from the Amargosa Range was just too ideal to miss.  Today is that day.

We leave Pahrump and climb through a series of low hills from which, turning around, we see an expansive view of the snow-capped Spring Mountains.  We enter California in the middle of the next valley, Amargosa Desert.  Rocky cliffs with discrete ochre, silver, maroon, black, and umber layers jut up from the valley floor and spout miles-wide alluvial fans of multicolored scree.  The road gently flows down the fan on one side of the valley, crosses the salt flats, and rises up the opposite fan.  The slopes are evenly sprinkled with mustard dusting of tiny flowers of the creosote bush.  Poison secreted by their root systems prevents other plants from growing around them in competition for water; therefore creosote covers the alluvial fans completely but sparsely.  A steady climb over the Funeral Mountains a few miles ahead will take us into Death Valley.  Some names!

The asphalt shimmers, simmers, and sizzles on the horizon as we make our way up. I periodically stop in the shoulder to wait for Masha and observe the people in the passing cars.  Young man at the wheel, girlfriend in the passenger seat, looking at us, jaws dropped.  After all, we’re in a place that kills as soon as you step out of the car.  The bravest couples zoom by in convertibles.

Finally, the Death Valley National Park boundary and the long-awaited 4,000-foot descent on Highway 190 to below the sea level.  The views are breathtaking and it’s hot.  This is the second hottest place on earth.  (The hottest is El Aziziyah, Libya).  The temperature rises by 5° F for every 1,000 feet of elevation loss.  It feels like we’re sliding into a heated oven.

We reach Furnace Creek, population 31, thoroughly ready for rest and food.   It’s the lowest-elevation census designated place (i.e. village) in the U.S., way below the sea level and just a few miles from Badwater Basin, the lowest and hottest place in North America.  Yet, unbelievably, Furnace Creek is a verdant oasis of big palms, green grass, and water — and a busy resort.  We know this place from last year; we make our way straight to the spring-fed swimming pool, tear off our sweaty clothes, and dive into the cool blue water.

Though we would love to prolong this pleasure, we must rush to the next village, Stovepipe Wells, before the convenience store there closes for the night.  We’ve only covered 60 miles today and I want to cross the whole park in two days.  The park is big; part of the Great Basin, it is a characteristic washboard of narrow north-south valleys separated by mountain ranges.  It includes four ranges and four valleys, Death Valley one of them.  The hard part begins tomorrow, so I want to get as close as possible to it today, while the wind is in our back.

We grab a bite from the store and head out into one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen. The setting sun shines through layers of fine clouds over layers of mountains, creating a Raphaelesque landscape of deep atmospheric perspectives.  Stovepipe Wells lies just five feet above sea level; the road curves for 30 miles along alluvial fans just above an ancient dry lake bed.  We cross the sea level marker once again and reach the village shortly after sunset and just before the store closes.  To Masha’s ecstasy we discover that the place has a swimming pool, too, and it doesn’t close until 11 pm.  We drink a few beers, take a refreshing dip, and camp happily under the stars on the side porch of the convenience store.

The weather has been perfect through all of Nevada and now in California…

Day 56: Pahrump, NV

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

I had wondered what it would feel like to ride a bike through a dust devil.  Seen others do it at Burning Man but never tried it myself.  We see lots of dust devils (also known as sun devils) these past two weeks as we cross the arid Southwest.  Usually they traverse the desert silently far away, faint white-tan columns of dust against the darker silhouettes of mountain ranges.  Sometimes one, sometimes several, they have a transient permanence about them:  if you watch one, it stands still; look away for a minute — and it has moved, changed shape, or gone.  Like a cloud.

Today, as we descend into the valley across the Spring Mountains from Vegas and turn north toward Pahrump, I spot a dust devil lurking about the highway directly ahead, spending a minute to the left of the road, a minute to the right…  We are still a couple of miles away, so I don’t pay much attention to it, not expecting it to stay there for long.  Dust devils born on dry lake beds have better, sharper definitions due to the plentiful fine dust on which to feed.  We’re in a valley that has no dry lake — so our devil is almost completely clear, detectable just by the 10-meter-wide swirl of a few tumbleweeds.

The weather is great, and Masha and I ride in high spirits, passing each other now and then, chatting about the views and our plans for tonight.  Suddenly our little twister is upon us (or rather we upon it).  One by one we ride straight through it.  I feel a jolting sideways shove followed by an equally jolting pull, and then all’s back to normal.  The devil’s unexpected strength is unnerving and my next thought is a hope that it does not decide to pursue us.  I turn around and have just enough time to silently wish Masha to hold on tight.

Otherwise, the ride is peaceful and rather uneventful all day long.  Out of Vegas, we pass Red Rocks (a well-known rock climbing destination) and quickly go over the Spring Mountains, today’s sole mountain crossing.  Though people told us that the Springs were a long, severe climb, the mountains turn out to be pretty tame. Two easy hours and one dust devil later we’re in the town of Pahrump, where we’ll stay for the night.  Nevada seems to be giving us a long-deserved weather break.  Fingers crossed.

Pahrump gives us a sour feeling.  People are not friendly.  We ask about a place to camp and everyone keeps sending us to the outskirts of town “where the squatters camp”, like a pair of bums.  The town has several campgrounds, but none wants us; they cater to RVs only.  We spend two futile hours on the simple task of finding a tent spot — in the middle of a desert!  Eventually a gas station lets us camp behind their store.  We also find a great place to eat — Saddle West casino, akin to Virgin River back in Mesquite — cheap and delicious.  Things finally look up, as they should!

Days 54 & 55: Mesquite and Las Vegas

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

The first order of business after an excellent cheap breakfast at the casino is to get a map of Nevada.  Seems simple, but ends up eating up 2 hours!  Maps are not created equal.  My favorite publisher is Rand McNally:  they show distances, scenic routes, town populations, parks, and basic physical features.  But in Mesquite no gas station carries them; all they carry is Universal and some other crap.  Eventually someone points me to the Nevada visitor center and I pick up an official state map.  Good.  These maps are always free and typically high-quality.

Today’s route is very simple:  straight-arrow I-15 all the way to Vegas (90 miles).  And the weather seems to be cooperating for the first time in many days, i.e. there is no headwind!  The crosswind out of the north-west has a tiny in-the-back component — perhaps 5 degrees — but surprisingly that’s enough to make it feel like you’re flying.

I mentioned that bikes are allowed on this stretch of I-15.  That’s because it’s desolate desert and there are no other routes!   A reasonable, fair policy.  Interstates typically have heavy truck traffic, but also very wide shoulders that let you pretty much forget about the traffic.  It’s like having your own lane.  After the emotional and physical intensity of the past several days, today’s ride is serene.  I bike all day through a typical Nevada landscape of wide-open valleys and distant ranges.  A quick  sprinkle freshens things up in late afternoon.

Though I reach Vegas pretty late, I drag Masha out to the Strip to show her some of my favorite obnoxious, over-the-top spots, like New York, New York.  It’s Masha’s first time; I’ve been to Vegas twice before, once with mom, once with b-school.  Fun to be her all-knowing guide.  Still, I’m surprised how overpriced everything is, especially after the underpriced casino in Mesquite.  $8 for a beer is much, but we really enjoy openly walking in the streets with a glass of beer in hand.  Glass glass, not plastic.

I have planned to stay an extra day in Vegas to catch up on blogging and upload the New Mexico-Arizona-Utah photos.  Luckily our motel has a computer in the lobby, so I spend all of the next day online.  Masha sleeps, swims, and generally relaxes.  We’ve exhausted the city’s novelty on our first night, so we buy some beer and enjoy an evening of TV and bike tube patching in our room.  Tomorrow we head out toward Death Valley.

Day 53 (5/10): Mesquite, Nevada.

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Las Vegas is two days away.  Masha is concerned that she’ll slow us down, so she wants to ride part way by bike and the rest by bus.  We ride the ten miles to  St. George and stop at a gas station to study the maps and ask about buses.  It seems that there are no buses from Mesquite, the sole town between here and Vegas, so Masha will take the bus from here.

Well-wishing fear mongering is rampant.  We’ve seen this throughout our bike tours and today we get the best example yet.  As we ask the store cashier about buses, the conversation eventually gets to the subject of our tour.  She asks how I plan to get past the gorge.

“What gorge?” I ask.

“Oh my god!  Please tell me you’re not biking through the Gorge!  You’ll probably get run over; you’ll definitely get arrested!”

Apparently, between St. George and Mesquite Interstate 15 goes through the Virgin River Gorge.  The river has cut the deep, winding gorge through a north-south mountain range that spans the Utah-Arizona state line and separates the higher-elevation Colorado Plateau from the lower-elevation deserts of Nevada.  Masha and I know for sure that I-15 between St. George and Vegas is open to cyclists — I actually emailed the Nevada Dept. of Transportation and got a confirmation.  Yet, the cashier insists that the gorge is extremely dangerous and bicycles are prohibited.  Oh, yeah, the woman who gave Masha the ride to Kanab also mentioned that she gets nervous every time she drives down the “big hill” on I-15 outside St. George.  That gets me concerned and I ask more people in the store about the gorge.  Everyone agrees that cycling there is a very bad idea.  I know that when it comes to cycling most people are clueless, yet everyone is so on the same page about the gorge that I reluctantly decide to seek an alternate route.  Still, I ask Masha to check the gorge out when she rides the bus through it and report her findings to me tonight.

The only way to bypass the gorge is Old Hwy. 91.  It’s an unattractive alternative.  Whereas I-15 is a straight shot to Mesquite, all downhill directly through the mountain range, Old 91 is 15 miles longer and goes over the mountains, a 2,500-foot elevation gain.

The detour will later prove to have been unnecessary.  Meanwhile, Masha and I part ways and I set out for Mesquite.  I reach the foothills of the mountains and the desolate road begins to twist and turn as it climbs relentlessly for the next 15 miles.  The ride is tiring, but at least there are no cars.  I pick out a tree in the distance and tell myself that I’ll take a break when I reach it.  However, when I get there, I’m suddenly curious what’s around the next turn and decide to take a break there instead.  Such postponement of the break repeats itself again, and then again, probably 20 times until — lo and behold! — I’m at the top!  And I haven’t taken a single breather.  It’s a great feeling and I stop for a well deserved snack break.

The long downhill on the other side brings little joy.  The ride is slow and wobbly because of the gusty western wind (the mountain no longer shields me from it).  Soon I begin to discern the little white dots of the big trucks on I-15 far on the left.  I strain to see into the mouth of the Gorge, but at such distance it’s impossible to see any details.

Datura plants line the desert road.  Wide, deep-green leaves and big white flowers seem out of place in this arid landscape.  I’ve never seen datura in the wild, but I’ve read Castaneda (and other authors who wrote about this) and know that if you chew any part of the plant, you’re in for one heck of an evil trip.

Exhausted, I reach the Nevada state line — and Pacific time zone — after sunset.  The bright lights of the gambling border town, Mesquite, flicker a mile away.  I find a room for just $25 at Virgin River casino/hotel — the gambling urges of Utah and Arizona gamblers subsidize my room, as well as my underpriced meals at the restaurant here.  Love it!

Masha calls from Vegas and tells me that the Gorge seemed perfectly bicycleable:  though winding, the highway had a decent 5-6% grade (we’ve cycled 14% with no problems) and the shoulder was the Interstate-standard 10 feet wide.  What’s more, she met a guy on the bus who said that the gorge was one of his favorite places to bicycle, precisely because of its scenic twists and the sustained downhill.  And I wasted such an opportunity thanks to clueless fear mongers!

Day 52 (5/9): Zion National Park

Monday, June 7th, 2010

In cafes, at gas stations — everywhere we stop — we hear the locals complain to each other about the strong winds we’ve been having.  They talk about it so bitterly, and get so much sympathy in return, that it makes me laugh.  It’s like complaining about a scratch in front of someone whose leg was just blown off.

Though today’s ride is mostly windless, the western wind begins to blow hard in the afternoon.  We barely manage to keep moving forward; gusts stop us in our tracks.  Despite our efforts we fall short of the day’s planned destination, St. George, and stop for the night in the fittingly named town of Hurricane.  It’s Masha’s first time cycling in strong headwind and she’s impressed with what it can do to your ride.

But it’s also one of the most scenic days.  The route change that we made in Flagstaff — which introduced the weird kink in our path — takes us through Zion National Park.  As Hwy. 9 makes its way from the upper reaches of the park through a long tunnel and intricate switchbacks to the lower part, the character of the massive rock formations changes from peaceful, rounded, light-colored, pine-covered cliffs to dramatic vertical, blood-brown walls that dwarf everything around with their immensity.  I haven’t been to the bottom of Grand Canyon, but I imagine that this is the type of views one gets down there.

Even yesterday, coming down from Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, we were treated from a distance to a grand preview of southern Utah’s crazy geology.  The multicolored turrets, walls, cliffs, spires, and mesas had piled up on top of each other over millennia in intricate patterns that are the trademark of the Colorado Plateau.   Surprisingly, the origins of all this multishaped diversity can be summed up by just three basic processes:  sedimentation, uplifting, and erosion.

One more word about headwind.  Besides slowing down our ride, it has another unpleasant effect:  you can’t hear the cars approaching from behind until the very last moment.  At this moment the noise comes on so suddenly and violently that it jolts you almost to the point of falling off the bike.

But when the wind is not very strong, you can use this sound effect for determining wind direction:  you’ve got tailwind if the sound of a car behind you lingers longer than when it is in front — and vice versa.  It’s like using the stench of dead animals to determine wind direction when traveling back East (where there is more road kill).

Days 50 & 51: Northern Arizona

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Masha will hitch a ride to Flagstaff where she’ll rent a car and join me in a day or two up north.  I’m continuing north on US-89.  The 89 will soon split into two scenic roads, one going through Page, across the Colorado at Glen Canyon Dam, and through southern Utah.  The other swings south by Vermilion Cliffs and through Kaibab Plateau.  They join up again in Kanab, Utah.  I vacillate between Vermilion Cliffs and the dam, but am leaning toward the former.  Things get clear when I reach the split-off point: the northern route shoots up to the top of the dominating, 500-meter-tall Echo Cliffs, an impossible-looking uphill, and I take the southern route.

But when I reach Vermilion Cliffs — I ride alongside them for 25 miles  today and tomorrow — I am already somewhat desensitized to the scene by a full day in the shadow of the Echos, even though the Vermilions are pretty darn impressive.  A sheer 500-meter rock face from Mars.  A mix of red, tan, and pink sedimentary layers.  Geologically, they are the second step of the Grand Staircase.

Anyway, I finaly reach the Colorado.  It’s a happy, long-awaited sight and a significant milestone for me and anyone doing a traverse of the West.  This mighty creator of the canyon country is surprisingly small and well hidden.  I strain my eyes for miles to spot the river — because I know it is here — yet it still takes me completely by surprise.  The valley floor drops off below my wheels and I end up on a bridge; I look down, and there is the Colorado, tucked away cozily in the 200-meter-deep, vertical-walled Marble Canyon.  Another big surprise is that the river is green (not red) and clear (not muddy).  I’m told the former is due to algae and the latter due to the effects of Glen Canyon Dam a few miles upstream.

Two almost identical bridges — the Navajo bridges, old and new — span Marble Canyon here and apparently have had incredible historical significance on the development of the region.

The Colorado has cut its canyon through the middle of a wide red plain surrounded by the cliffs on three sides, and the highway here follows the contour of the cliffs.  They are so high you can’t see what’s on the top, but I know that tall pine forests cover the plateaus.  This is pretty common around here.  I get to witness this again tomorrow when I climb to the top of the Kaibab.  It’s the plateau that the Colorado over the past six million years has split in two by creating Grand Canyon.  Two days ago Masha and I spent a day on the South Rim; now I’ve come around to the north side.

The vegetation of this arid region is closely tied to elevation.  There’s nothing but shrubs at lower elevations.  As you go higher, junipers and pinyon pine take over.  Still higher, tall ponderosa pines whisper and wave their soft paws in a friendly salute to tired travelers.  This increase in vigor with elevation runs counter to my mountaineering experience at first, but then I realize that it’s in fact consistent with it.  After all, I’m used to temperate climates; this is desert.  If the ground went higher here, I’d see the expected decrease in vegetation toward alpine meadows, tundra, and alpine desert.

Masha catches up with me in an unexpected manner at the end of the second day.  As I finally crest the strenuous Kaibab and begin to enjoy the unbelievable views of south Utah’s plateaus on the other side, an SUV pulls up and Masha shouts out to me from the passenger seat.  Turns out, she found a ride to Kanab through Craig List’s ride sharing section.  The woman who gave her the ride is a very colorful character:  a gun-toting former wrestling champion turned owner of a gopher extermination business.  Masha confides later that a full car of shovels and spine-snapping gopher snares gave her serious creeps for the first two hours of the ride, followed by even greater creeps from the gun and wrestling news.  Masha is such a wuss when it comes to strangers!

It’s late afternoon on my second day in the northernmost sliver of Arizona.  Kaibab Plateau is behind.  I’m crossing the last several miles of the big east-west valley that separates Arizona from Utah.  Masha has gone ahead to Kanab despite her fear of the kind woman murdering and burying her in the middle of the desert.  Against the rays of the late-afternoon sun the magnificent wavy bastions of Utah’s Uinkaret Plateau wash over the valley like the surf breaks of a biblical ocean.

I stop to get a drink at a gas station in Fredonia, a village two miles south of the Utah state line.  It’s a normal gas station, but they also sell guns.  My favorite part, though, is that some handguns are pink — for women!

Last night I camped by the side of the motel in the “town” of Cliff Dwellers, AZ.  It’s a place very typical of this region.  Many more of them in Nevada and remote eastern California.  It’s not really a town; more like a glorified gas station.  It’s a place, often under the same owner/manager, that consists of a gas station, convenience store, motel, restaurant, and the trailers out back where seasonal workers live.   Old Middlegate Station on Hwy. 50 in Nevada, where Masha and I had such a memorable night back in August of 2007, is another example of such a remote “town” or “station”.  Tonight Masha and I camp for free at a campground in the center of Kanab.  We’re finally in Utah…

California/Nevada photo album uploaded

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Check out the latest photo album from the trip:  “Part 5: Nevada & California”.  Make sure to read the descriptive captions.  Here’s the link: