Desert Mountains

Southern California, San Diego to Havilah

Part 1

by Zeke Gerwein

Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race---H.G. Wells

It took us a week to cross the desert. Things got so bad that we had to drink water---W.C. Fields

We had been riding across the suburbs of San Diego for hours. I had been anticipating this day for over 10 months, but now that I was there, my first six hours in the urban desert of San Diego had not been the adventure I had been looking forward to. First there were four hours of waiting, organizing, sorting and assembling our bikes and panniers. My riding companion, Sam. his bike had taken longer than mine, because, for reasons that would only become partially clear later, he had brought 6 inch wide super-fat bike tires. When we were finally ready to go, we had a less than glorious two hour ride through San Diego’s suburbs. Though he had meant well, Sam’s hour and a half long joke that had no punch line had not really helped. We were at the beginning of what promised to be an excellent trip, what was, according to Adventure Cyclist Magazine, “the most beautiful and most challenging tour in North America”, the Sierra Cascades Tour, a ride which follows the Pacific Crest, and crosses over thirty passes from Mexico to Canada. But so far, it had not grabbed me. 

We had only ridden forty kilometers so far, but they were forty agonizing, slow, and suburban kilometers, kilometers of getting lost on Harbor Boulevard and in National City, and the heat rising off the pavement in Chula Vista, kilometers of the drone of traffic, and nearly identical houses.  It had to end soon! According to the AAA map of the Greater San Diego Area the suburbs had already ended, but in real life they rolled stubbornly on, as Otay Lakes Road continued to grind steadily uphill through a hot Southern Californian afternoon.

Then, finally, we crested a hill at yet another traffic light, and there on the horizon, standing not twenty kilometers away, were mountains. They were huge, towering over the red brick homes of Otay Lakes Village.  Clearly, not far from where we waited for the light to turn green, beyond a sea of red roofs, maybe half a mile downhill, was the desert. The end of the suburbs. We plunged down the hill as soon as the light changed, freewheeling faster and faster, until suddenly, the lush green lawns, 7,000 square foot homes, and gas-guzzling SUVs ended, and as if someone had flipped a switch, we were now riding through the desert proper, sharing a narrow two lane road with cacti and creosote bushes. It was only the two of us now, the two of us, our bicycles, the desert, and, of course, the huge mountains that grew closer with every pedal stroke.

          But the beginning of the Sierra Cascades Ride was not the moment that we flew downhill into the desert, or the moment when our bicycles had been assembled at San Diego International Airport, or the moment when the plane took off from Oakland. The moment that the Sierra Cascades Ride had really begun was four years earlier, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, when I decided to ride my bicycle to Alaska. I didn’t make it to Alaska that afternoon. I made it to El Cerrito before turning around, but everything about that 4 mile ride had been a success.

The weather was great, the traffic free Ohlone Greenway was teeming with ripe blackberries, and dinner was the only reason I had to turn around. To a nine year old who rode his bicycle to school and occasionally back, that trip was an eye-opener that the bicycle could also be ridden for recreation. And, for a young boy who did relatively little exploration outside of his hometown of Berkeley, the bicycle was my vehicle for exploration. Navigating under my own power helped me absorb the geographical idiosyncrasies, and travelling at 10 km/h (at least then) made it much easier to notice things.

That one trip turned into many others. Through a series of day rides from September to May, my Abba (Dad) and I rode northeast for about 350 kilometers to Colfax, where we were halted by the Sierra Nevada. I was ten years old then, and riding a 22 inch wheel used kid’s bicycle, and those gradients were not easy for nine and ten and (for the first three months after my birthday) eleven year old me. Mostly, I would walk up hills. And there are a lot of hills in the Sierra Nevada.

We made a decision to change the route to northwest, up the coast, and in the winter of 2011, we did our first overnight together, 150 kilometers from Santa Rosa to Willits. It was freezing cold, hilly, trafficky in parts, and we were very ill-prepared. I was still riding the used bicycle I had when I rode to El Cerrito for the first time, and both my Abba and I carried our gear in wire baskets. In fact, on the last evening, in the frigid twilight as we walked our bicycles up the shoulder of US 101, we were stopped by the police. Luckily, Abba had no outstanding warrants, so he allowed us to coast down into Willits.

June of 2012 and we were preparing for a four day trip from Willits to Fort Bragg and then north to Arcata. That tour was the real eye-opener for me about cycle touring. Almost everything about it was a success. I had a better bike, a GT Transeo Hybrid, the scenery was spectacular, we rode with panniers (saddlebags that attach to a bicycle rack) instead of wire baskets. Bicycle touring for me was even better than day riding. The flexibility of being able to go where one wanted, the amazing friendliness of locals, and the beauty of California's North Coast had me planning a more ambitious tour for the following summer, a trip up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Seattle. And with the impending threat of global warming, I used that trip to raise money for our local chapter of the Sierra Club. During that trip, somewhere on the Lost Coast, I decided that the next summer I would ride the Sierra Cascades Route. When I returned home in August, however, doubts began to arise. The Adventure Cycling Association had described the Sierra Cascades Route as the, “Hardest tour in the United States.” And I, a 13 year old cycling enthusiast, was going to attempt it? I started emailing people to see if they would be interested. Sam Markewich, the most experienced of my future riding companions, expressed even more doubts.

“Are you planning on starting at the Mexican border and biking through the desert?” he asked me, as we rode through a perfect Bay Area, 56 degree Fahrenheit, morning. When I affirmed, he replied, “You’d better get a sun lamp and do some heat training then. It can get up to 130 degrees at the low areas of the desert, and up to the 90s even in the mountains. And that’s pretty hot.”

          Pretty hot indeed. I had, however, neglected training under a sun lamp. I assumed everything would be fine, until May arrived. That particular May the temperature soared to the high 80s, practically record setting for Berkeley, and the discomfort it caused gave me second thoughts about the desert. Exactly one week before my flight to San Diego, I cycled Mount Diablo. Mount Diablo is the Bay Area’s little island of Nevada. It snows on Diablo in winter. But in summer, and on that particular Sunday, the mercury at the base of the mountain hovered around 102 degrees. I turned back before even cycling a quarter of the way up. To make matters worse, while I sat waiting for a mechanic at Performance Bicycles to box my bike, he asked me where I was planning on riding.

          “Up the crest of the Sierra Cascades from Mexico to Canada,” I replied casually.

          “Were you born and raised at sea level?” he asked, incredulously.

          When I admitted that I had indeed omitted the crucial training step of being born at high elevation, he asked me what I planned to do about the altitude. Altitude! I hadn’t even considered altitude!

          Those thoughts had all weighed heavily on my mind when Sam and I landed in San Diego. But due to the challenge of assembling my bicycle and the hassles of riding through the suburbs, when we descended into the desert I was so ecstatic that these worries were far from the front of my brain. The temperature was around 27 C, and the sheer joy of riding my bicycle through the area I had dreamed about for months was enough to dispel any worry. We cycled through canyons studded with the occasional oak, and passed hillsides that were covered in cracked, golden grass. I happily chattered about the mountains and the trip ahead to Sam, who seemed to take it all in stride.

The ride was still going well by the time we reached the mountains. We had been riding up them for only a little while, but it was quite hot, and I was beginning to feel tired. We were reaching the outskirts of a town, Dulzura, and I was predicting what our elevation would be. I knew that we had to summit a low pass before descending to Barrett Junction at the base of our final hill. Our planned campsite in Potrero was at 2200 feet above sea level, so the summit had to be higher than that. The short ways uphill we had biked felt like it must’ve been most of the way to the pass, and I began thinking of elevations. Three thousand feet sounded too high, two thousand feet too low, but twenty-five hundred feet sounded about right. The wooden sign that greeted us read:

Welcome to Dulzura

Pop. 730

Elevation 1,053

1,053! I assumed that the elevation had not been quoted in meters, and if not, then we were at considerably less than half of my predicted elevation. It was going to be a long ride. Sam, however, seemed unfazed.

“We’re going to be climbing a lot on this ride,” he told me. “You should probably get used to it.”

          Oh well. The ride east of Dulzura was very nice, and in only nine kilometers, we reached the summit, which was a bit lower than I had expected (only 1,500 feet). I was feeling relatively happy. Below us the road snaked its way downward along the mountainside, swiftly shedding the elevation we had gained since leaving the lowlands. It was around 6:00.Potrero is, was at 2,200 feet.

          The evening sunlight filtered through the mountains, illuminating them, and turning their brownish purple sides a bright yellow. We were in a small valley, and in every direction, the glowing mountains loomed. Potrero was somewhere in those mountains, and we were going to bicycle there. It was around dinner time at this point, but stopping for a prolonged break would only cement our chances of not reaching Potrero by dark.

          I was quite tired at this point, and the climb felt like I was dragging an anvil behind my bicycle. Finally, after what seemed like an endless climb, we reached the junction of SR 188. To the south lay the border with Mexico, and the detour we had planned to take to the official start of the Sierra Cascades Route. Right now, however, the prospect of an added 6 kilometers, 3 of them uphill, seemed extremely unattractive, and given that the route would go within 150 yards of the Mexican border later in the day, we decided to continue due east, toward Potrero on the Sierra Cascades Route.

          Let me stop for a second, to give thanks to the Adventure Cycling Association, who created the 5 map sets for the Sierra Cascades Route. The maps are brilliant, each map set comprised of 15 or so map segments, which cover around 50 kilometers. The map segments show turns, towns, and where food, lodging, and camping is available. Through them, we had determined that the campground at Potrero was three kilometers off route  The large Potrero sign that had greeted us had not come soon enough and the prospect of any additional riding, even only three kilometers, was less than attractive. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains, and we hastily set up camp behind an abandoned fire station and ate a cold dinner. I set my watch alarm for 6 am, and, exhausted from the day’s riding, drifted off to sleep.

          I woke up to the tinny call of my watch alarm at exactly six in the morning, and burrowed deeper in my sleeping bag. The morning air was chill, and my legs were still a bit sore from the previous day’s ride, but I finally climbed out of my nylon shelter and walked over to Sam’s tent, which he had said was, ‘the lightest freestanding tent in the world’, to wake him. There was no initial response, but I then heard the sleeping bag rustling and Sam beginning to slowly deflate his camping pad, so I began to take down my own tent and take in our surroundings in the daylight. The fire station we were camped behind was in a small  bowl shaped valley, with rounded sloping mountains on every side and oak trees studded across the field of golden grass, with barbed wire fences extending like the long narrow fingers of some gigantic beast, running endlessly to the horizon.

          I stuffed and crammed my tent, sleeping bag, and pad into my miniscule panniers, wondering how the fuck I had ever fit everything in in the first place, and climbed up to a small bench next to the fire station to eat a cold breakfast of bread, cheese, and dates (I had decided, and then regretted for the rest of the trip, not to pack a stove in order to save weight). Sam had barely emerged from his tent.

          “Sam, are you awake?” I called toward him, impatiently.

          “Just enjoying the morning,” he replied, beginning to take down his nylon castle.

By 7:30 I was finally ready, but Sam was still meticulously applying sunscreen, so I pulled out my Kindle and lay on the bench, reading. At 8:00, I turned off my Kindle, and put on my helmet, thinking Sam would be ready to go very soon.

“Sam, how much longer do you think it’ll take you?” I asked him irritably, riding my bicycle in circles around the gravel parking lot.

“Oh, just a few more minutes.”

At 8:30, we biked down the road for two minutes, stopped at the Potrero Store to use the bathroom, and left Potrero at 9:00. This first morning it had taken him three hours, though later on he was down to two hours to get ready, and when we stayed at motels it was occasionally 1.5. I was usually ready to go in an hour, 45 minutes at a motel. It was one of the few ways in which we were mismatched, and a constant source of friction between us.

          Despite our late beginning, we were both in fairly good spirits as we left Potrero. We were cycling gradually uphill, and behind us, the valley of Potrero and the tall brown mountains shone in the morning sunlight. Even though it had taken him three hours to get ready, Sam still came across as extremely experienced. He had not seemed the slightest bit tired or hot the previous day, and gave me extensive tips on how to find a healthy meal at a small town convenience store.

We crested a small summit and looked down on a much more arid landscape. The ever-present oak trees from further west had given way to a sandy and mountainous landscape, with sagebrush and small shrubs climbing up the mountains slopes. Just to the south, within spitting distance (almost) was la frontera con Mexico . It was a long black line, striking out across the mountain slope, the great fence designed to “protect our borders”. Small dirt roads that were doubtless used by the Border Patrol, protected by barbed wire, snaked across the mountain slopes toward the fence. From here, it was a Very Long Way to Abbotsford, British Columbia .

Around 10, we arrived in the small, dusty, frontier town of Campo,  where we stopped for what I had titled Second Breakfast. Second Breakfast would become a recurring theme along the ride (it was inspired by similar terminology used by Matt Biers-Ariel in The Bar-Mitzvah and the Beast, which was no doubt inspired in turn by The Hobbit). First Breakfast generally consisted of a hurried bit of bread, cheese, and maybe a couple dates or pieces of dried mango. Second Breakfast occurred anywhere from 20-40 kilometers from the First Breakfast Spot, and was a sit-down meal, usually at a cafe or diner, but sometimes, as in Campo, at a grocery store, or from food we had in our bags. At Campo’s tiny store, Sam and I scoured the shelves for something remotely healthy. Sam had perfected the technique of finding healthy food at small grocery stores while he had been taking shelter from a storm in Hanksville, Utah, and I was excited to try it. According to Sam, white bread and potatoes were okay, needed to some extent, on bike tours, because the body needs so much glucose. He also told me that small grocery stores will sometimes carry healthy-ish fruit juice, and that vegetables could sometimes be found that were organic and GMO free. We ended up only finding a small bag of Kettle crisps (which only contain four ingredients, and are organic) and some vegetables, and sat down in the sunshine to eat them. As we rode out of town, our route swung north, and we crossed a well-worn footpath, the Pacific Crest Trail. It was strange to think that this same dusty trail would cross my path over twenty times all the way to Rainy Pass in Northern Washington .

We ate lunch and refilled water at another (working) fire station just shy of the Laguna Range. After lunch, time seemed to slow, and the air began to feel as if it was made of molasses. The midday heat was at its strongest, a hot headwind blew at us as we turned west toward the Sunrise Highway, we were on an uphill that was gradual enough to not look significant, but steep enough to tire us out, and our eyelids were drooping in post-lunch lethargy. We were both slightly irritable. At one point, I checked the elevation profile, and realized we still had 2,500 feet to climb before reaching the summit, and told Sam, sounding slightly depressed,

“We still have the equivalent of Mount Tamalpais [a rather tall and difficult to bicycle up mountain north of San Francisco ] to climb.”

“If we still have that much to climb, I’d prefer if you kept that between you and the elevation profile,” Sam snapped.

“Well, if we had left two hours earlier, we would be going downhill now,” I shot back.

Our first (admittedly minor) argument.

We stopped to call my Abba, and he told us that a mutual friend of Sam and mine, Jonnie, had commented on my blog, “Hi Zeke & Sam, Enjoy the heat, the uphills, traffic, narrow shoulders, the headwinds, having to stop and adjust/find things; cracked, burnt, chafed skin; flats, mechanical difficulties, etc. Remember it all tops being back at home wishing you'd gone! Jonnie. That raised our spirits immensely, and we rode onto the Sunrise Highway with new exuberance.

After crossing Interstate 8 and riding up a small hill to the Sunrise Highway, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The air was relatively cool, a slight wind blew at our backs, and the road wound along the rim of a huge canyon. Interstate 8 and the small town of Pine Valley were nestled at the bottom of the canyon, but the Sunrise Highway clung to the mountain side, switchbacking fairly gradually into the Lagunas, towering mountains rising just to the East. It was already 2:00 and we still had 50 kilometers to go, but I figured we would make up the time on the thirty five kilometer descent, so neither of us was worried.

The Sunrise Highway eventually left the canyon’s rim, and meandered uphill through several meadows. I was quite excited when we reached 5,000 feet, because it was the highest I had biked to before, there were several barrels behind us reading MOO, and just up the road was a sign that read, “UNLAWFUL TO THROW SNOWBALLS AT VEHICLES OR OCCUPANTS, Max Penalty: $500 fine AND Six Months Imprisonment.” Both of us were amused by that, especially since it was at least 75 degrees.

As we neared MountLaguna, at the top of the climb, Sam started to feel a bit faint, but it wore off as we started the descent. 35 kilometers of descending, and it was only 3:00!!! And then, the descent would continue into the next day! We would have no trouble reaching Julian by dark. In fact, we could probably continue on, and camp at Aguanga to get a head start on coming days! Or so I thought.

The descent began well. We switch backed down from Mount Laguna onto a long plain, and enjoyed occasional pocket views east, to the canyons and bluffs of the Anza-Borrego Desert. Then, about halfway to Julian, as the road continued downwards along the plain, really rolling with a downhill tendency, the headwinds started. This was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill breeze. This was the Wicked Wind of the North, and it would only rest when it had pushed us past Patagonia . The grass that lined the road bowed flat in the face of the wind obediently, but we pushed and strained to make progress toward Julian. Sam was faster, and I rode alone, Sam visible only as a splotch ahead on the rolling plain. He was, as always, unperturbed by this sudden change in events.

Ten kilometers later, I rolled up to where he was resting at the junction with SR 79. The sun had begun to set, and we decided that it would be difficult navigating out of Julian to an off-route campground, so we decided on a motel. SR 79 was easier. We still had a headwind but it was not as roaring as it was before, and in forty-five minutes, we arrived in Julian, ate dinner at a small pizzeria, and checked into the Julian Lodge.

Day Three went very, very, well. We rode downhill in the morning with nary a headwind, visited a town that advertised a populatuion of ‘97 pleasant people & 2 or 3 grouches, ate lunch at a small dusty taqueria where the waitress payed for our tacos (!), and were buffeted up a substantial summit by a forty mile per hour tailwind, to Lake Hemet, where we arrived, after a 71 mile day, before dinnertime!! We cycled up to a beautiful campsite under the shade of a pine tree and right at the lake’s edge. To the east, the gargantuan granite peaks of the San Jacintos loomed. After we ate dinner, the sun slipped below the horizon, and the temperature dropped by about 30 degrees Farenheit. We went directly to our tents, and I climbed into my warm sleeping bag.

In the morning, as I forced myself out of my sleeping bag, the sun was glowing just behind the San Jacintos. I woke Sam, and he emerged, looking bleary eyed, to the picnic table, where I had spread out some of our breakfast food. We were planning on stopping in Idyllwild to buy more supplies, and at 8:30 we were on the road.

I was riding significantly ahead of Sam in the morning, which was in it of itself unusual, but when we reached Keen Camp Summit, he was behind even on the downhill. As we rode uphill toward Idylwild, I slowed my pace to ride next to him.

“Are you feeling alright Sam?” I asked him.

“It was really cold last night,” he replied. “I didn’t think it would be this cold, so I didn’t bring nearly enough cold-weather gear. I finally managed to hypnotise myself to go to sleep around 4 am.”

“Hypnotise yourself?”

“Yeah, I learned how to hypnotise myself when I was a senior in high school and studying psychology. I was telling myself, ‘bodily feelings mean nothing, the cold does not exist’, and then my brain kept repeating nonsensical phrases. I remember, right before I finally fell asleep, hearing a voice in my head tell me, ‘Just put a sock in it and spin it all around.’”

I laughed at that, but we were planning on camping at an even higher elevation that night, and so we decided to stop in Idyllwild to get him warm weather gear.

Idylwild’s closeness was conveyed by the large number of cyclists riding carbon fiber road bikes and clad in skin-tight spandex out riding. They were all very friendly and impressed by our ride, and pointed us to a thrift store on the outskirts of town. I waited outside the thrift store, reading Jeremiah Curtin’s The Mongols, and occasionally packing everything back on the bike in impatience, before boredom forced me to take it out again. Sam emerged from the thrift store about half an hour later, and we rode a short distance to Idylwild’s tiny downtown, joking about how we would have Idyldawild in Idylwild. Sam would go grocery shopping and I would watch the bikes.

Idylwild appeared to be a very attractive small town. Despite its size, it seemed very bike-friendly (Sam later reported that there were three bike stores along one short street in the downtown), and was beautiful, each street corner covered with pine trees, and high mountains rising on every side.

Sam finally emerged from the grocery store shouldering a few large bags, which we divided evenly among our panniers, and biked on, to the summit of Banning Pass, where we would begin our descent into the farthest of the LA suburbs.

The beginning of the descent was littered with rolling hills, but later, the real descent began. The road switchbacked steeply down the side of a bare desert mountainside, and we could see across the smog covered suburbs and onto the towering San Bernardino Mountains to the north. Sam was visible below, riding at lightning speed down the switchbacks, before he disappeared under the brownish haze above Banning. I soon broke the smog layer as well, and the view changed from a panorama ahead to huge mountains to one of houses, car dealerships, and gas stations. In just a few minutes, the views vanished, and the road flattened out. Ahead, a large sign read,

Now enTering Banning, CA

This is What HELL IS LIKE

It didn’t actually say that of course, it had some irrelevant information on Banning’s population and elevation, but if it had read ’This is What Hell is Like’ it would have been much more informative. So how can I describe Banning? Imagine the most desolate desert that you can. Now, completely cover the desert’s surface with red-tiled roof stucco houses that look EXACTLY the same. Put in lush green lawns that are always less than two centimeters tall and always green despite being in a desert and a four year drought, take away any culture or character, take away all street signs and bike lanes, put in a freeway, take away the downtown, put in a KOA campground and no less than 5,678 gas stations and rental car agencies, remove any street signs, make every street under constant construction (and don’t even think about installing detour signs), put in a smattering of crime, and you get Banning. Banning is a suburb, the furthest from LA of them all, baking in the desert badland 180 kilometers east of Los Angeles, and is, without a doubt, the worst place I have ever gone, with no offense intended to any Banningese who may be reading this.

Almost immediately after we entered Banning, we were lost. Banning had yet to install street signs, so we rolled right past our turn for Westward Avenue and on to the entrance for Interstate 10 before a kindly delivery man let us use his iPhone to show us our missed turn. But this was only the beginning. Construction at our next turn had blocked traffic, and detour signs were not in style with the Banningese, so we pedaled another mile until Westward Avenue ended, before backtracking almost all the way to the road we had entered Banning on before we found a route under Interstate 10.

From there, things improved, but only marginally. We exited Banning and entered neighboring Beaumont, which is almost as bad. Beaumont was also under constant construction, but there were detour signs there, so all was (relative to Banning) well in the world.

We rode through an endless series of subdivisions into Cherry Valley, and then up a gradual hill. It was late afternoon at that point, and the air was cool and refreshing. The road temporarily left the suburbs and meandered up a grassy hill, with views reaching back towards the area we had just escaped from. We were still about 50 kilometers from our planned campsite, but once we had escaped the suburbs, we would doubtless go faster.

I was, as I had been all day, ahead of Sam, but he was much farther behind than he had been earlier. As we coasted down into Yucaipa , he called out to me,

“I need to stop!”

“Are you alright?” I asked him, knowing his answer would be no.

“I’m really sorry, Zeke, but I don’t think I can go any further today. I only got about two hours of sleep last night, and we have a climb ahead of us when we leave town. On the past climb, I was really overtired, and kept repeating to myself, ‘I can keep climbing forever.’ And I really think I could keep climbing, at least until we camp. But tomorrow, if we do that, I don’t think I would be able to go on, especially if it’s really cold. Why don’t we find a motel in Yucaipa today, so I can get a good night’s sleep. That way, we can get up early tomorrow and make up the lost distance.”

 

 

I hesitated, but only briefly. On the one hand, we would have to make up 36 kilometers, and 4,000 feet of elevation gain. But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to ruin my ride, or Sam. We had a rest day coming up on Saturday and if worst came to worst we could ride then.

And so, aided by our ever helpful Adventure Cycling Association Map, we set about finding a motel in Yucaipa, which is no small task. There were two motels in town, the Sunset Motel and the Yucaipa Valley Inn, and they were both on Yucaipa ’s main strip, Yucaipa Boulevard. We passed the Sunset Motel first, but it looked pretty dilapidated, and so we rode past. However, the Yucaipa Valley Inn seemed to be located on the exact opposite side of town, so eventually, after riding over 5 km west on Yucaipa Boulevard, we turned around to check into the Sunset Motel.

The Sunset Motel was a very small building, two stories, and concave, built around a parking lot that took up at least half of its entire area. In the small corner nestled next to the sidewalk, was the GLASS WINDOW. Do not even think of attempting to check into the Sunset Motel without visiting the GLASS WINDOW. There is another office window next to the GLASS WINDOW.  I made the mistake of approaching that other office window and I hesitantly said,

“Is anybody there?”

The owner of the motel rapped angrily on the edge of the GLASS WINDOW. I walked over to it and repeated my query. The owner surfaced again and pressed a button from the inside to enable his voice to come across to us. He was a small man, this much was evident even while he was sitting down, and his features were etched into a deep frown as soon as he took one look at our grimy faces and bicycles. His suit, which had previously been completely smooth, seemed to wrinkle instantaneously.

“Would it be possible to get a room with two beds on the first floor please?” I asked him.

He spoke with an accent, replying, in an exasperated tone, “We have no room with two beds on the first floor.”

I could set up my sleeping pad on the floor then. “Do you have a room with one bed and room for our bikes on the first floor?” I inquired.

His already frowning features became exceptionally distraught. “Your bicycles must stay out here!! They dirty the room! They dirty it!”

I sighed. I was pretty tired, and I couldn’t begin to fathom what Sam must’ve been going through. “ If we leave our bicycles outside, somebody will steal them. Please. We’ve biked here from San Diego , through the mountains. We won’t be here long, we’ll be gone by 7:30 tomorrow at the latest.”

Suddenly, the owner’s deep frown turned completely around, and he beamed at us.

“You have ridden here from San Diego on bicycles?”

“Yes, I’m raising money for the Sierra Club and…”

“You are going…”

Canada .”

“On bicycles? And you want to stay at my hotel? Of course your bicycles can go in the room with you!”

Very gratefully, we wheeled our bicycles into the room with us, ate a quick dinner, and fell asleep at 7:45.

The next morning, after checking out, we set out at 7:30 am, and the owner, watering the hotel’s small raised bed garden next to the parking lot, gave us a big smile as we rolled past. Yucaipa ended somewhat abruptly, and then we were cycling next to Mill Creek, on our way from 2,800 feet in Yucaipa to 8,400 feet at Onyx Summit, the planned high point. We were hoping to get to Crestline that day so that we could make up our lost kilometers, but with the San Bernardino Mountains in the way, I doubted whether we would actually make it the 130 km that day.

SR 38 was quite scenic, weaving along the Mill Creek Canyon, between two huge mountains, but it was plagued by an excessive amount of traffic, a lot of it construction, and the highway stunk of fresh tar. Before Angelus Oaks, I managed to receive the first flat tire of the trip, and could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong, thereby managing another flat right after changing the inner tube, until I realized that the rim tape had completely snapped. I replaced the tube, patched the rim with duct tape and hoped for the best.

Past the construction site near Angelus Oaks, the traffic thinned out, and we climbed gradually through a pine forest. We had just passed Barton Flats Campground, which had been our planned stop the previous night, and the thought of making it another 100 kilometers to Crestline seemed impossible. We planned to spend the night at Big Bear Lake, and relaxed as we climbed the final kilometers to Onyx Summit. We could hear the constant hum of insects in the trees, and I counted off the elevation signs excitedly, as I pedaled higher than I had ever been on a bicycle before, 7,000 feet, 8,000 feet, and finally the crest of Onyx Summit, the highest pass in Southern California, before the superlative descent to Big Bear City .

Big Bear Lake is a tranquil, azure, body of the water, the kind of place that makes you want to quit your job, float across to a rocky island in the middle, build a monastery out of fallen pine trees, and become a Buddhist monk. Big Bear City, on the other hand, is the combination between a resort town and utter chaos. No bike lanes graced the streets and highways of Big Bear City, only a sea of traffic lights, resort hotels, boat rentals, car rentals, gas stations, fast food joints, and two bike shops. At the open one, we bought two rolls of rim tape, and then retreated to the solitude of a campground set in a pine forest less than a quarter mile away, which is probably some sort of philosophical metaphor I have yet to grasp.  

The next morning, we packed up our stuff, left the serenity of our campsite, and hightailed  it out of Big Bear City. West of the city limits, the lakeside returned to tranquility. We passed a view of a little rocky island covered in pine trees, but we were already behind schedule, and therefore had no time to use our panniers as floaties and build a Buddhist  monastery.

West of the lake, the Rim of the World Highway winds its way along the ridgeline, with views out to 10,000 foot peaks. We rode past these views, and quaint little towns sporting 7,000 square foot vacation homes, and onto another view. This was a view south, and it was amazing. We could see all the way back to Banning and San Bernadino, and even Los Angeles, more than 200 kilometers away. The thing is that we couldn’t actually see them, you can just see to directly above them, because there’s a brownish hazy layer of smog floating above the LA metropolitan area.

          On the Adventure Cycling map, the Rim of the World Highway looked like one big descent, so we thought  it would be easy and by the late morning we would already be in Canada. In real life, the Rim of the World Highway’s descents were actually peppered with short but steep uphills, ruining the downhill flow. The Rim of the World highway was also peppered with things like rusty nails, that drivers like to throw onto the shoulder for the amusement of watching a poor unassuming cyclist have to stop for ½ an hour and patch his tire. Yup. That’s what happened to me.

          As we neared the end of the Rim of the World Highway, lush greenery, looking quite out of place in the allegedly desert mountains, lined the road, and we began a swift descent, with the road switchbacking along the mountainside, and plunging down, down, down to San Bernadino below. But wait! San Bernardino is not along the route to Crestline!! No, to reach Crestline, an insanely steep road rose up from the descending Rim of the World Highway, and ascended to the Crest. Which is where Crestline was, funnily enough. We didn’t stop long at Crestline, and instead plunged down another descent, only to continue ascending a steeper one. The mercury was hovering just below 90 degrees, and I could feel my heart pounding away in my chest as we pedaled up the hills.  

          Several kilometers of steep gradients later, we shot down out of the pine forest and into the baking scorched, parched, burning, flaming, charred, not to mention hot, badland known as the Mojave Desert . We passed by Silverwood Lake, where we were supposed to have left from that morning. It looked very inviting, a splash of blue in the otherwise brown landscape, but we both knew that if we stopped there we wouldn’t continue on, so we rolled on through the Mojave.

                   Somewhere in the Nothing of the desert, I felt a queasy nauseous sensation from cycling in the heat, and we stopped under the non-existent shade of a sagebrush. Sam taught me some tricks for cooling down, pouring water on your thighs, or your neck, or back. Eventually, I was able to go on, but I remember clearly the feeling of sitting there, in the middle of the desert with absolutely nothing around for kilometers. Two hundred yards later, we came to a Japanese restaurant, parked in the middle of Nowhere. We drank as much tepid bathwater from our bottles as we could, leaving more space to fill them with heavenly ice from the restaurant.

          Onward! I felt quite slow as we slogged across the desert, over each small rise, and we elected to stay at the Western Express motel, right next to Cajon Junction. The air conditioning, terrible for the environment, hit us like a polar blast as we walked into the motel. It is terrible for the environment, and if the motel had cooled itself to 73 instead of 61, they could’ve built and powered a massive jump house in their courtyard and still come out ahead. But right then, the air conditioning felt wonderful. Inside the hotel lobby, we chatted with a PCT hiker, who was quite pleased when he discovered that we were taking virtually the same route.

          “How long have you been on the road?” he asked me.

          “Since last Sunday,” I told him. “And you?”

          “Since mid May,” he replied, with a grin on his face.

          That was amazing. We had just biked, in less than a week, what it had taken him to walk in over a month!! And he was not even a quarter of the way to Canada !

          PCT hikers have my utmost admiration. While we considered a day without services to be “scary” a PCT hiker would think, “only a day without services?” PCT hikers often hike for five months, hiking 19 miles a day on foot, and crossing glaciers and deserts. To call the Sierra Cascades Route the “Pacific Crest Trail for Bikes” is quite the overstatement.

          The next morning, which we had planned as a rest day but we would have to ride on anyway (we were considerably behind schedule), we sat in the lobby of the hotel eating the complimentary breakfast, while the weather channel blared on a TV nearby.

          “We’re going to see a record setting heat wave coming to Southern California starting Monday,” the weatherman said, sounding very pleased. “Elevations below 600 meters (2000 feet) could see the mercury rising above 110 degrees F. The heat wave will be focused around the Northwestern Mojave Desert and the Southern San Joaquin Valley.”

          In other words, just where Sam and I would be biking. “And what’s more, in the San Gabriels [the mountain range we were going to cycle that day], the smog will be dangerous to sensitive groups.” The weatherman sported an enormous grin.

          Sam and I had a conversation about whether or not to ride across the Mojave, or to ride to Burbank, Palmdale, or Victorville (to rent a car). I argued that if it was dangerously hot, we could always coast into the Antelope Valley to rent a car, or hop on a bus to Kings Canyon. Sam agreed, and we cycled out of Cajon Junction up a winding and narrow mountain road into the San Gabriels. It was quite warm, but the scenery of the road made up for it, the sparse and treeless mountains, behind us the granite peaks of the San Bernadinos, and ahead of us, the looming crest of the San Gabriel.

          It took us a couple hours for us to reach the charming town of Wrightwood , with a very well-stocked supermarket that took us almost an hour to peruse.  We loaded our bikes up with enough food for the No Service Stretch coming up. We had a great lunch at the Cinnamon Bakery and Sandwich Shoppe, and were ready to ride out. Unfortunately, Sam’s gargantuan tyres were flat, and tires that large required an hour to patch. It was 1 pm when we finally left Wrightwood, rolling over the high summits of the Angeles Crest Highway, 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) above the sea, with 3,000 meter peak looming on either side, and pocket views out to the Mojave Desert .

          The day was very scenic, but our long breaks and the constant hills made for relatively low mileage, yet by the time dusk fell and we cycled into one of the many campgrounds lining the highway, we were ten kilometers ahead of schedule.

          The next morning, I woke Sam at six as usual, and while we sat around the picnic table plotting the distance we had come after exactly one week on the road with my big California map, Sam blurted out, “I cannot do this.”

          He had been very tired at the end of the last day, and our next scheduled rest day wasn’t for another week.

          “This is the hardest tour I have ever done in my life,” Sam went on.“Yesterday we cycled fifty miles, with eight thousand feet of total elevation gain. When we looked at the maps, they were each divided into panels, and I thought we would be riding each of those panels a day [40-50 kilometers]. I brought my fat tires because I thought we would arrive at a campground at one, and I would spend the afternoon doing some off-road riding. I don’t want to strand you here, so maybe we can get to the Antelope Valley and I’ll rent a car, and check in with you every hour or something.”

          This would definitely be something I had never done before. And there was still the issue of the impending heat wave. But I had worked hard to make this ride happen, and my grandfather would be joining me in Kings Canyon, where Sam could go home, so we would be doing this for less than a week.

          “OK,” I said. “Let’s go.”

          We cycled over the last steep hills of the Angeles Crest Highway, Sam lagging behind, very tired, and descended the north side of the San Gabriels.

          Into the Mojave and the rain shadow. What little water makes its way to the Cadillac desert of Los Angeles is pushed upward by the San Gabriels and San Bernadino Mountains, and there is no water left for the sides to the north and east, thus creating the Mojave Desert. There is barely enough water for Los Angeles and aqueducts thousands of kilometers long cris cross California, pulling water from the snowpack of the Sierra. But the snowpack of the Sierra is projected to be only 10% of normal in coming years with global warming, and many other cities rely on it. Will these sprawling cities dry up for lack of water?

          This section of the Mojave was the arid foothills, and the mountains were devoid of any kind of vegetation. We climbed the last mountain before the Antelope Valley,  Mill Creek Summit. I cycled ahead of Sam, and as I stopped for him to catch up, I watched as he crawled up the switchbacks, a lone figure in a desolate landscape. He was really tired, but I was glad that he had ridden with me for a week, and wished he could’ve ridden for longer.

          In a matter of minutes, we had reached the Antelope Valley, and it was an assault on our senses. Huge freeways towered over palatial houses, and four lane roads teeming with traffic spelled danger to the cyclists. As we rode down onto the residential roads, our bicycles were buffeted by the unpredictable wind of the Mojave, sometimes blowing in our faces, and sometimes whooshing us along across the land.

          We crossed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the many that flow south from the Sierra and uphill toward money over the San Gabriels to California ’s largest city, and entered the largest town in the Antelope Valley, Palmdale. It was already early afternoon, and we had ridden about 80 kilometers, so we stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. The ice cold horchata tasted amazing, and the fish tacos were divine. Afterwards, we decided to call my Imma (Mom) back in Berkeley and see if there was a rental car agency around. According to Imma, there were five within two blocks, but the closest one open on Sundays was in Lancaster, 20 kilometers off route, and it closed in two hours. But why did we want to know anyway? Sam explained to her our plan.

          From Palmdale, the Adventure Cycling Route heads northwest to ride along the western edge of the Antelope Valley , but Lancaster lay northeast of Palmdale, so we cycled off route, blown by a huge tailwind at a speed of no less than 80 kilometers an hour, which enabled us to reach the rental car place in only twenty minutes. Normally I am a fan of tailwinds, but when you know that you’ll be cycling right into them very, very, soon, one normally does not build a special place in one’s heart for them. The rental car place had a car for Sam, and while he sorted out the paperwork, I cycled west. I was not cycling directly into the wind, but close enough that I gnashed my teeth and cursed Aeolus, the wind god, under my breath. This did not seem to endear me to Aeolus who retaliated with fury.

          The land west of Lancaster seemed like an unfinished housing project, each square inch of land was occupied by a sign saying, ‘this land to become such-and-such a property, or so-and-so’s subdivisions.’ Sam whizzed past me in his new bright red rental car, and reluctantly agreed to carry most of my stuff to the spot of ground on the map where I wanted to camp.

          When I finally rejoined the ACA route, I enjoyed shelter from the winds on my new northerly route. Huge bluffs raised themselves from the earth randomly across the desert, and in the distance, wind turbines. At least these winds were being put to good use.

          “How do you like that, Aeolus?” I crowed, raising my middle finger to the slow, variable wind. “Scared of me already aren’t you?” My sanity, at this point, had become quite worried that after only an hour and a half of solo riding I had already started talking to the wind. It was concerned about what would happen by the time I reached Kings Canyon.

          Aeolus had also been concerned of the hubris from this loathsome human, and headwinds came back with fury. Lowering my head and promising never to curse Aeolus again, I ground the pedals and repeated, checking off the distance markers, “10 more kilometers, 9 more kilometers, 8 more kilometers…”

          At 8:00, I reached the end of the wind farm and found Sam’s car there. Dusk had already fallen, and the sun was only a golden glow behind the Liebre Mountains in the west, but the wind was stronger than ever.

          Have you ever tried to set up a non-freestanding tent in a 90 km/h wind? It is very difficult, especially since despite the rumors of deserts being sandy, the Mojave ground was not susceptible to tent stakes. My tent billowed like a balloon, but, with Sam’s help, I managed to set it down. I had cycled 150 kilometers (90 miles) that day, and I was extremely exhausted. I skipped dinner, lay down on my sleeping bag, and listened to the roar of the wind, billowing the corners of my tent, louder than a car alarm with a cymbal accompaniment. I finally fell asleep sometime before midnight.

          When I woke up at 5:45, it was completely still. Not a sign of my endless tormentor Aeolus. I pulled on my clothes, half expecting to see another tent out there in the desert, to wake Sam, but there was no one. I was alone, at the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert , the nearest town twenty miles away over a mountain range. The sheer vastness of the desert shocked me. I was a small, insignificant cyclist on a vast landscape. I pulled out my notepad, and wrote, to capture the moment:

I am alone in the desert. I write these words on a little notepad, sitting crosslegged in the dust of the Mojave Desert at 5:57 in the morning, surrounded by Joshua trees, cacti, wind turbines, and rimmed by mountains. The Tehachapis are not far in the north, the San Gabriels lie 30 miles south. The sun is just starting to appear out of the Mojave Desert . The desert is big, huge, 25,000 square miles, covering the whole southeastern quarter of California . Here I sit, tiny, unnoticed by the life of the desert, a single figure sitting on the edge of a giant.

I ate breakfast and savored the morning, the solitude, and the unique desert plants. A Joshua tree stood next to my tent, its leaves spiky, its arms twisted around, shaken and stunted by the harsh land. After packing my tent and climbing on my bike, the desert air was still windless. I smiled, ready for a fast, fairly easy ride over Oak Creek Pass, glad that I was leaving at 6:45 am.

          The road started out flat across the desert, but the minute it began to slant upwards into the Tehachapis, Aeolus started blowing. Hard. The wind turbines that had previously stood still, began whirring as if it was their only chance to grab at the renewable energy. I was riding for the Sierra Club, so I tried to be glad for the wind, but I couldn’t help but think that if it had been a tailwind it would be doing the same thing. In addition, though I definitely support renewable energy, if United Statesians switch their average cars’ mileage (22mpg) to British average mileage (38 mpg) we would save more energy in a year than the entire wind industry does in a decade.

I decided that instead of antagonizing Aeolus, I could try to butter him up.

Me: O Great Aeolus, whose very breath streaks fear into the heart of the lowly cyclist…

Aeolus: Strikes fear.

Me: That’s what I said.

Aeolus: You said streaks fear.

Me: I’m positive I said strikes fear.

Aeolus: I’m a god. Therefore, I am right.

Me: Fu** you.

Aeolus resumed blowing in earnest. I took a short break, watching as the wind pushed the heads of the grasses flat against the Earth. I pulled out my camera and filmed the wind, sounding on the camera as if it were tearing a giant piece of paper.

          “It is so windy!” I yelled at the camera. “It’s coming straight at me!”

This film, unfortunately, was not nominated for first prize in the Berkeley Film festival.

Eventually, I crossed Oak Creek Pass and arrived in the city of Tehachapi, parked my bike, and waited for Sam to arrive. He finally, did, half an hour after our pre arranged time (because of construction). My impatience evaporated when I saw he was holding a large bag of pastries. This would be better than the bread and cheese I had had for breakfast.

          Sam grinned when he saw my expression. “I figured you’d be hungry and tired after crossing the Tehachapis in that wind,” he said. “The hotel’s barometer said it was 60 km/h! Where do you want to meet for lunch?”

          Studying the map, we decided on a small dot called Keene , and I cycled off.

          Despite a headwind and my getting lost once, I enjoyed the ride to Keene immensely. I was riding mostly downhill, past golden grasses, and the temperature was 70 degrees. The people I met were very friendly. I stopped to ask if I could refill my water bottles at a construction site. One of the workers asked where I was going, and then said,

          “Sure, of course you can have some water. I always let PCT hikers have water, so why not cyclists on the same route?”

          I thanked him profusely, and he said, “No need to thank me, but I have received some very nice postcards from PCT hikers I helped. One person even called me a Trail Angle!”

          “Do you mean Trail Angel?”

          “Yeah, that.”

I rode swiftly down a series of switchbacks into Keen, and the temperature rose by about eighteen degrees. As we ate lunch, I studied the map. The route dipped down into the southern San Joaquin Valley before climbing back into the Sierra Nevada, and got well below 600 meters. I remembered the weatherman’s warning, but decided it would be fine. The Mojave Desert hadn’t been too hot, and I had conquered Southern California (almost). I had crossed the arid deserts of the south! The rest of the ride would be clear sailing surely, all the way to Canada !!

          I flew downhill on SR 58, sailing down, down, down. The temperature rose quickly, and by the time I reached the aptly named town of Caliente, the temperature had risen by twenty seven degrees. It felt like riding into an oven set on ‘Convection Bake.’  The Caliente Creek Valley was sweltering, one hundred and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, a number that gives nothing of the feeling of the extreme, oppressive heat. I poured water on myself at the base of the climb, and arranged with Sam to meet him five miles up to check in.
          Caliente-Bodfish Road climbs from the San Joaquin Valley up into the Southern end of the Sierra Nevada, rising from 700 feet to 4,000 feet, then descending to 2,000 feet, climbing to 4,000 again, then descending to 1,000. The first six kilometers of the climb were through a shaded river valley, but I still barely maintained a sluggish pace of eight kilometers per hour.

          Then, as if by magic, the shaded river valley ended, the road swung up a mountainside so steeply, that a goat would need ropes to scale it, and the ambient temperature was at least 115 F. My pace dropped from eight kilometers an hour to three, and I was very swiftly overheating. Finally, I saw a familiar red rental car rounding a bend. It was Sam! He had gotten worried that it had taken me so long, so had driven back to look for me.

          “You look like you have heat stroke,” he told me. “Can you cycle up a bit further to that turnout?”

          I could. I sat under the shade of an oak tree feeling terrible while Sam disassembled my bicycle in about two minutes, threw it in his car, and I climbed in. The red car tore around the tight corners of the one lane road, Sam swerving madly past huge drops. Finally, the car crested the final summit, and plummeted to Lake Isabella. I was feeling better in the air conditioning, though still not one hundred percent. Mostly it felt weird to be in a car, moving very, very, fast, miles falling away as if by magic. The ‘every inch of the way’ dream had been tarnished. I argued with Sam over whether I could keep riding to Kings Canyon. If not, I would have skipped 97 as-the-crow-flies miles.

          “No,” he argued. “It’ll be too hot, the heat wave is supposed to last through the next few days. And I can’t reassemble your bicycle without the proper tools. I’ll drive you back to the Bay Area.”

          We flew along the one lane road, swerving around curves as we climbed the hills I was supposed to be cycling. It is always strange to enter a car after more than a week of cycle touring, and this was no exception. I was annoyed at myself for my joy at this ease, kilometers flying by with no effort what so every, air conditioning blasting away the remnants of 115 F hell. We drove to a motel in Kernville, and the next day, the car careened over the mountain roads before entering the San Joaquin Valley. We zoomed northwest, flying up SR 99. Abruptly, the interstate fell away, the car raced around street corners and came to a stop in the Rockridge District of Oakland, about 5 miles from my house.

          We stopped at Dullard’s Bike Shop, where they began to assemble my bike. They needed to install an extra ball bearing, which they did, and I biked home. The temperature was about seventy degrees, and I marveled at how nice it was. Pre-bike trip, I would’ve considered 70 F unbearably hot, but now, it was pleasantly cool.

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