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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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:

In Oregon…

May 25th, 2010

Guys, I’m in Klamath Falls, Oregon, it’s May 25th.  Got a few minutes before the library here closes.  Haven’t had a chance to update the blog but will do so as soon as I get an opportunity (probably on the other side of the Cascades).  Masha is in Reno.  I’ll update the interactive map now — do check it out.

Day 49 (5/6): Tuba City, Navajo Reservation, AZ

May 19th, 2010

The western wind has gained strength through the night and we start our descent to Cameron (30 miles away) in the best riding conditions I’ve ever seen.   Gorgeous views of the Painted Desert and the sheer 1,000-foot cliffs of the Little Colorado Gorge accompany our swift 3,000-foot descent in the amazing tailwind.  I have known it, but Masha learns for the first time today going up a few local hills that a strong tailwind can actually push you uphill.  I break away from Masha on a few especially steep downhill sections and routinely reach speeds above 40 miles/hour, eventually breaking my own speed record of 48.8 mph with a new one:  49.3 mph.

Eventually route AZ-64 reaches Cameron and joins with US-89 going north toward Utah.  We turn north and heaven turns into hell.  The traffic is heavy and  the western wind blows waves of sand across the road.  Big trucks scream past us up and down the narrow highway driving sand up into our faces and into our bikes’ drive trains.  Masha gets off the bike and pushes it along the road.  The going is a tough, scary slog.

Local intel about availability of services ahead suggests that in these conditions we’ll likely get stranded in the middle of nowhere without water or food.  Therefore we change plans and detour to Tuba City, 10 miles out of the way.

Fifty miles to the south and visible for 100 miles in all directions, a giant white plume of smoke is coming off from a wildfire on the San Francisco Peaks and is blowing east along Interstate 40. The plume is three times the size of the Peaks themselves.

Day 48 (5/5): Grand Canyon

May 19th, 2010

Grand Canyon… You’ve all seen it and know that it’s so huge it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it.  Masha and I discuss how astounded Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and his party must have been one sunny September day back in 1540 when they were peacefully hiking in the woods and suddenly the trees parted to reveal the Chasm!

Just inside the Park, a coyote runs across the road and almost gives Masha a heart attack.  That’s my second coyote. I saw another one crossing the road back in New Mexico.

After lunch in Grand Canyon Village and obligatory photos on the Rim, Masha and I cycle the remaining 20 miles along South Rim on Route 64 to Desert View.  Different parts of the Rim differ in elevation by as much as 1,000 feet.  And the vegetation varries accordingly.  A sunny, airy forest of handsome tall pines at the top of the Kaibab Plateau changes to squat, tangled pinyon and junipers down at Desert View.

The views of the Canyon at Desert View are my favorite.  The vistas here are a little less grand than back in G. C. Village, but you can see more:  the Colorado, the Painted Desert, the Little Colorado gorge, and the Echo Cliffs.  In this visual context, you actually get a better appreciation of Grand Canyon’s vastness and grandeur.

Though we only cover 56 miles today and it’s still early when we get to Desert View, we decide to stay here to get a morning view of the Canyon. So we get a spot at the Park Service campground and spend a windy night by a hot, orange juniper campfire on the Rim.

Day 47 (5/4): Valle, AZ

May 17th, 2010

Our original plan was to go west after Flagstaff and Grand Canyon.  However, the current lull in the wind is supposed to be resoundingly broken the day after tomorrow with strong winds out of the west.  So I make a quick change of plans:  instead of riding west through the Hoover Dam, Masha and I will go around Grand Canyon, into southern Utah, and through Zion National Park.  It’s one day longer, but we’ll get some tailwind for a change and Masha will get to see the otherworldly southern Utah.

We unpack Masha’s bike and realize that the idiot at the San Antonio bike shop who packed it took apart all the delicate parts that he should have left untouched (for example, he disconnected all the derailleur and brake cables).  I’ve never cabled and adjusted derailleurs and don’t want to spend hours figuring it out for the first time now, so we take the bike to a local bike shop.  We incur a frustrating delay and Masha incurs a $50 charge for a bunch of work that she never asked for.

Finally we head out.  The road winds up and over a high saddle between the picturesque San Francisco peaks and Mt. Kendrick.  The San Franciscos are three snow capped, perfectly shaped broad pyramids arranged in a triangle.  I deduct (correctly) that the peaks are a volcano.  The mountain forest of tall pines and the intoxicating aroma of evergreens in the air are a drastic change from the past few days of wide-open plains and deserts. 

Masha and I are both eager to have a real camp tonight, with campfire and all.  But as we descend the pine forest gives way to pinyon and juniper groves, followed by a completely treeless plateau, and we realize that we are not having a campfire tonight.  We reach the town of Valle and pitch our tent inside a 30-foot-diameter tipi, one of several for sale at a trading post. (The post is closed for the night, so we invite ourselves into the tipi without asking anyone’s permission.)

Day 46 (5/3): I am a champion: 148 miles in one day!

May 17th, 2010

I am a champ!  Rode all the way to Flagstaff in one day — 148 miles — beating my own distance record of 143 miles/day. 

I get up at 4, get out at 5 (it’s still dark), and enjoy a desert sunrise at 5:30.  There’s no wind for the first time in I can’t remember how many days.  I cover 90 miles before lunch and feel really good about the remaining 60, especially since I can see the San Francisco peaks, Flagstaff’s signature backdrop, all day long, from at least a hundred miles away.  As I ride west on I-40 I take photos of the signs announcing the diminishing distance to Flagstaff, with the peaks in the background:  68 miles, 48, 28… (see this photo and the next two).

Interstate 40 is a truck and trailer killer.  Automotive debris covers every inch of the 60-mile stretch between Winslow and Flagstaff.  (Locals tell me that it gets so windy here that this major interstate artery is periodically shut down to traffic, most recently a few days ago when I was stranded in Magdalena due to hurricane-strength wind.)  There’s everything on the shoulder:  mirrors, bumpers, lights, rubber, and yes, license plates.  I find 10-15 plates, but lose interest and stop picking them up after the first five

Except for the gorgeous San Francisco peaks, today’s scenery is unremarkable:  it’s basically an endless red desert in all directions.

I reach Flagstaff after dark, physically exhausted but emotionally satisfied by my new record and happy to see Masha again.  She flew in earlier and got us a room in a cozy downtown youth hostel.  Tomorrow we pick up Masha’s bike from FedEx, put it together, and head out for Grand Canyon.

Day 45 (5/2): Showstopper weather, again!

May 17th, 2010

Out of Springerville the road turns north and I hit the leading edge of a big storm approaching from the west.  The crosswind is blowing so hard that I have to lean 30 degrees into it.  It’s a scary kind of riding, since I risk falling at every lull in the wind.  To motorists I must look wasted as I defy gravity and careen all over the shoulder.  It’s too dangerous, so I retreat a mile or two back to where I saw a rest area with a concrete restroom.  This wind must be a temporary weather disturbance due to storm, though, since the forecast only said “10-15 mph wind”.  Indeed, in a half hour the snow storm passes, the wind weakens significantly, and I go on.

But not for long.  I ride into the dramatic darkness of another storm in about 20 miles, just a few miles short of St. Johns, where I planned to have lunch.  As soon as the first heavy, wet snowflakes fly, I decide to wait this one out in a horse stable on a nearby ranch.  An hour passes but the storm just keeps intensifying.  It’s frustrating to be wasting time again (though I entertain myself by feeding hay to the horses), so I suck it up and head out into the snow.  In just a few miles to St. Johns the whole summer countryside turns into a winter wonderland.  My bike and I are plastered with a thick crust of snow.  My feet and legs are soaking wet, since my shoes and pants are not waterproof.  Ouch!  See this photo and a few ones after it. (I can’t upload photos here now because the library computer I’m using has severe restrictions on file management.)

I have 60 more miles of empty desert until tonight’s goal, Holbrook, which I must reach if I’m to meet Masha in Flagstaff tomorrow night.  My shoes had a couple of hours during lunch to partially dry, but are still pretty wet.  But t’s supposed to drop below freezing tonight, so there’s a possibility of frostbite.  It’s 5 p.m.  Will I manage to cover the 60 miles before the dangerous temperature drop?  Heck, let’s go!  I press the pedal to the metal and quickly reach the top of the large hill five miles out of St. Johns.  And what do I see from the hill?  The black wall of another approaching storm.  I turn around and head for cover.  It’s snowing hard by the time I get back to downtown, so I’m forced to stay here for the night.

My personal one-day distance record is 143 miles (between Leoti, KS and Ordway, CO back on the 2007 tour).  It’s 148 miles to Flagstaff and I really want to be there tomorrow.  So my only option is to try to beat my record!  I lube the chain, pump the tires, pack things up, set the alarm for 4 am and go to bed.  It’ll be a long day tomorrow.  Let’s hope the weather cooperates!

Day 44 (5/1): Springerville, AZ

May 13th, 2010

I’m quickly learning that wind is the single most important factor around these parts this season (people say it’s unseasonably breezy).  I call my sister every night for a weather forecast and no longer ask her about rain, snow, or temperatures — just wind speed and direction.  Today it’s out of the west, as usual, and gradually increasing throughout the day.  By the time I cross into Arizona, pedaling is torture.  Damn headwind!  Every day.  In your face.  Like a curse…  To add insult to injury, Arizona welcomes me with a passing snowstorm, vicious but luckily short.

My average daily mileage is 63.4 miles (if I include the 4 days off in the denominator) — slightly below the 65 miles/day target.

But I begin the day in good spirits.  The scenery is pleasant as I make a wide circle around the Gallo mountains.  A black mantle of juniper and pine covers Mt. Alegres and Mt. Escondido from head to toe.  (Escondido is a misnomer, since you can see the peak from miles in any direction.)  The range looks almost identical to the Adirondacks in upstate New York as viewed from I-87.  Must be a good place for hard multiday non-technical traverses.  But the difference is in the overall elevation:  the plain is at 7,000 ft and the peaks are over 10,000 ft tall.  As a result, no deciduous trees here, just evergreens and high-plain shrubs.

I get a room in a cheap motel in Springerville, AZ and spend two frustrating hours cycling around all gas stations in town in search of an Arizona road map — nobody has one!  So I end up tearing a coarse map out of a free real estate publication and hope I can get a real map in the next town tomorrow.

Masha is arriving in Flagstaff, about 190 miles away, the day after tomorrow.  Things better go smoothly the next two days if I am to get there on time.

Day 43 (4/30): Magdalena to Pie Town (NM)

May 12th, 2010

Funny how one gets used to anything (especially by comparison)!  The headwind has subsided in strength, but is still pretty strong compared to normal conditions.  Still, I am glad to get on the road and struggle ahead.  I clear the last foothills of the Magdalenas and enter the vast, breezy Plains of San Augustin.  In the middle of this mountain-ringed bowl sits a three-pronged array of 27 gleaming white dish antennas.  It’s the VLA, the world’s most powerful telescope.

The distances here are very deceiving:  the Datil mountains on the other side of the valley seem to be about 5-10 miles away, but they are actually 30 miles from here!  The distance drags for hours in the unfavorable wind, but eventually I make it to the Datil trading post.  To my pleasant surprise the road continues through a deep gorge and by evening I reach the Continental Divide without having to ride up any major uphills.  All rivers from this point on flow down to the the Pacific.  East of the Divide they flowed to the Atlantic through the Gulf of Mexico.  The Datil Mountains are different in character from the Magdalenas.  Though not as tall, they are jagged and evil-looking in the sunset.  Some of the walls have a negative angle and seem to be falling over themselves.

Though I was hoping to go further tonight, I decide to stop in Pie Town, for it’s getting dark and really cold.  I cycle around a little looking for a place to camp and notice an RV park.  The owners are not there (though there are a few guest RVs), so I tentatively pitch my tent right on the porch of the owners’ house and go exploring.  The place has hot showers and a fire ring, plus some fire wood — what else does one need!  I get out my food and whiskey and make a big fire.  When I break smaller branches, they shatter with the sound of a gunshot, pieces flying all over the place.  The juniper smoke produces a very special aroma that evokes a dimly candlelit Russian church.  What a wonderful, clear, starry night!  Too bad there’s nobody there to share the moment with me.

When I return to the porch to go to sleep, a big black dog and a cat are sleeping on a mat huddled together for warmth.  They wake up.  The cat meows me into letting it into the tent and spends the night purring next to me in the warmth of my sleeping bag.  I would have let the dog in as well, but wasn’t sure it wasn’t a mean one.  The temperatures dropped below 20 F that night.  I guess the owners didn’t realize that when they left the house and kept their cat and dog outside.

Days 41 & 42 (4/28-29): Socorro & Magdalena (New Mexico)

May 12th, 2010

Socorro sits in the Rio Grande Valley, so just as yesterday the road brought me down, today it takes for the mountains on the other side.  It zigzags through the foothills of the Magdalena Mountains, then does a sweeping turn through the vast, flat bench — the Magdalena Fault — and goes up to the village of Magdalena in a saddle next to the 10,800-foot South Baldy peak.

What’s worse than riding against a screaming 50-mph headwind?  Riding against it uphill!  Though Magdalena is only 30 miles from Socorro, luckily I must stop here for the night.  I had Masha FedEx me a package of warm clothes to Socorro, but FedEx screwed things up and I had to get them to forward it to a lodge in Magdalena, but the box won’t arrive until tomorrow.

I find a spot for my tent behind the forest ranger station, protected from the wind on two sides by the station’s walls.  The wind is really picking up.  I walk into a bar to inquire about a place to buy groceries for the night and meet a woman named Jen.  After a one-minute conversation she invites me to spend the night with her family instead of freezing in the tent.  So begin two days in the warmth of these simple and generous people, Jen, her husband Patrick, and their kids and friends.  The house is full of people and I immediately end up with a forty of Bud in my hand.  They also tell me their three-minute rule:  after you’re in the house over three minutes, there’s the bathroom, there’s the kitchen, there’s the fridge…

By nightfall the western wind is gusting to hurricane strength, 75 miles per hour and the temperature plunges to 25 F. I hope that the wind will subside by morning, but the forecast is not reassuring.

The next day I’m stranded in Magdalena because the violent winds continue, so I head for the library to catch up on my blogging.  The library is empty and the ten computers are all free.  But the old lady librarian turns out to be a stickler for the letter of the law.  She kicks me off after one hour.  To all my protestations she just stubbornly repeats, “The limit is one hour per person per day!”  I hate such formalists/fundamentalists.

We party with the kids at the house until we realize it’s 4 a.m.

Trip map updated. Photo album #4 uploaded.

May 12th, 2010

A new photo album uploaded:  Part 4 – New Mexico, Arizona, Utah.

AND check out our fully updated interactive trip map.

I’ll try to post more daily blog entries today.

Day 40 (4/27): Capitan to Socorro (New Mexico)

May 7th, 2010

I’m writing this entry on 5/7 out of Tuba City in Arizona’s Painted Desert.  Masha is with me. Internet access is sporadic, so please pardon the blogging delay.


Right out of Capitan, scenic mountain country. I quickly reach the Indian Divide pass and the road gently deposits me into a long stretch of range & valley topography not unlike that going across Nevada.  Then I plunge into the moonscape of a 30-mile-wide plain surrounded by buttes, mesas, and mountain ranges. Above it towers a huge western sky. The postcard road shoots toward the horizon.

It’s here that in 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated (at the Trinity site).

They say you can’t enter same river twice, but figuratively speaking, today I do:  I cross the Rio Grande again. Thoughts of taking a swim disappear as soon as I get on the bridge and actually see the river. It’s swollen and dangerous. The muddy waters rush and swirl around the bridge piles at 3 meters per second and would simply wash me away.

I reach the 2,500-mile point of the trip just before Socorro.  During the 2007 NY-SF tour, this mile mark occurred in Blanding, Utah.

Day 39 (4/26): through Roswell, NM to Capitan, NM

May 2nd, 2010

Last night I found a dry mud flat in the grassland and pitched my tent on it.  I liked its flatness and openness (e.g. easier to see any unwanted critters). But this morning I feel like a fool: a thin layer of fine red dust is on everything in my tent. The wind had picked up during the night, created a small dust storm in my camp, and even tore one of the tent stakes out of the ground.

I jump up, pack my stuff, and am on the way in record time. Twenty torturous miles in gusty winds separate me from breakfast in Roswell, but the remaining 70 to Capitan are not as bad.  It’s bare rolling grassland with a constant view of the Capitan and Sierra Blanca mountains.

I’ve been wondering why I still haven’t found any license plates. My normal rate is one plate per 1,000 miles, and it’s been almost 2,500 on this trip with no booty. I focus my brain waves on the road, commanding it to produce a plate ASAP. And it complies! In 10 miles I pick up a Texas plate. Tomorrow I’ll find another one.

Unexpectedly the road plunges into a deep gorge. It’s the Rio Hondo canyon. Very scenic. The fertile 300-meter-wide valley winds for 30 miles between two walls of steep rocky hills. Cacti and desert shrubs cover the walls; in stark contrast, big lush poplars and cottonwoods line the valley floor. I can’t see the river, but when the road veers over a bridge to the other side of the canyon, the Hondo is just a narrow gurgly brook. It’s impressive how it can create and sustain such a substantial oasis.

In addition to the usual cattle, horses, and circling buzzards, I now see a lot of elk and some hare. The hare are well camouflaged but their movements give them away.  The elk come out to graze at dusk.  They calmly watch me stop and take photos of them.

I enter the charmingly restored (or preserved) historic town of Old Lincoln.  It looks like equal parts frontier town, Indian village, and Mexican pueblo.  Squat, painted adobe houses share the street with elegant dark-wood wild-West storefronts and a tiny white Iglesia de San Juan Bautista.

The sky ahead has noticeably dimmed.  Venus has appeared.  Behind me the moon has changed from white to gold. Historic markers are next to every building (some talk about Billy the Kid), but I can’t stop to read them — have to rush to cover the remaining 11 miles to Capitan.  I don’t want to tempt the pumas.

The valley widens and the road starts rising again.  Tomorrow I climb to Indian Divide, the pass that separates the snow-clad Sierra Blanca from the black Capitan.  A tiny ember of campfire flickers on the mountainside. The air is crisp and without smoke.  I turn my head side to side and my headlamp picks out pairs of eyes.  The elk.  The moonlight shines eerily like the headlights of a car approaching from behind.  But I look back and there’s nothing.