Cycling Southwesterly

I

The Southwest. When Jeff and I were planning the trip, those two words conjured up images of red rock canyons, barren desert, towering cacti, and the colorful sandstone formations you see on the covers of guidebooks. We had only AAA state maps during the planning process, so we sort of had to squint to see Zion and Bryce National Parks. Also, the distances between populated areas seemed a lot shorter on the map than they turned out to be while riding. But a bicycle journey through America’s southwest promised so much—a desert or two that neither of us had ever seen, scenery beyond words, and of course—like on all bike trips—wonderful people. So practicality be damned (we were seasoned cycletourists, after all), we formed a vague list of destinations that caught our fancy.

Jeff Amaral and I had met two years before, on a chilly, gray rainy day in May of 1997. He and his friend Wyeth were, like I was, riding their bicycles cross-country on the TransAmerica Bike Trail, and our paths crossed in Carbondale, IL after I’d been pedaling for two months. The three of us ate pizza at Quatro’s that night, and the next day we rode together into the most dramatic thunderstorm I had ever seen. Huddled on picnic tables in a pavilion in the Chester city park, lightning slashing and thunder crashing on all sides, I was very glad not to be alone. After that, I felt like I’d known Jeff and Wyeth for years, and we—sometimes accompanied by a Netherlander we met in the Ozarks—rode as the “Turtle Squad” through Missouri, Kansas, and part of Colorado. Often, Jeff and I would ride together up the hills, and he could make me laugh out loud when I was climbing in my lowest gear.

But even when we tearfully parted ways in Pueblo, CO, I didn’t know that a year later Jeff and I would be in love. Or that two years later, we’d be on another bicycle journey, this time sharing a tent and 24-hour companionship on a trip of unplanned mileage and duration.

The tour officially started in August of 1999, when we left jobs and an apartment in Virginia and flew to Oregon. At the end of September we reached my grandmother’s house south of L.A. and had to figure out what to do next. Now began the Southwest part of the trip, the part with no real destination or time limit—the idea that had been the catalyst for the bike tour in the first place. We thought about riding across Death Valley to begin, but we decided against that. "We'll go up north before we go south," we finally decided impulsively, and a week later found us on a bus heading back to Oregon.

“Where you goin’?” people would ask.

“Around the southwest,” one of us would answer.

“The Southwest” became a sort of all-inclusive term for Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, possibly Florida, etc.
So it was that we found ourselves in the Cascades on October 1st, nowhere near a desert and freezing our butts off in deserted campgrounds and city parks. Jeff was a little worried at this—we hadn’t seen any other cyclists, he pointed out. What if it got colder? Maybe coming up north to ride south wasn’t such a good plan after all.

“Don’t worry!” I said blithely. “We’ll make it Down South before it gets too cold, and look at how beautiful it is now!” We were riding up Santiam Pass through a crisply green forest, and it was a still, bright day. “When we pedal faster we’ll warm up,” I assured my doubtful fiancé, “trust me.”

Jeff has only one flaw (well, two actually): he doesn't like to get up early, and he doesn't like the cold. He said that the cold made the mornings worse, but I figured we’d get to somewhere warm like Utah soon enough and he’d stop complaining. (Someday you can ask Jeff about what it’s like to tour with me. He’ll tell you that my flaw—well, two flaws, actually—is that I get up too early and complain bitterly when riding in warm weather that I’m going to die of heat prostration if I turn my cranks one more revolution.)

I loved riding through Oregon, and we had clear weather every day (though Jeff frequently mentioned that it sure was cold). Our routine grew fairly practiced, in the way of bike tours: get up, eat, pedal, talk, eat, pedal, talk, eat, sleep. And though we didn't see many people out and about on the roads, their lack was made up for (in quantity if not quality) by the bovines who grazed by the roadside. The cows seemed to have free access to the road, where they often wandered in a confused search for grass.

One day we watched as cars sped past us toward two cows standing in the road. The animals lazily stared, while the cars’ brakes screeched as they slowed from 55 mph to pass. Once we were close enough, however, we triggered the Cow Predator Response System. The Cow Predator Response System springs into action whenever cows spy a wolf, bear, coyote or bicyclist (but not when they see a massive, speeding motor vehicle). The Response System is very precise:

1.Stare
2.Stare some more.
3.Stop chewing.
4.Look alarmed.
5.Warily back away.
6.Look around for an escape route.
7.Run down the road at full cow speed—approximately 3 mph—while looking worriedly over cow shoulder.
8.Get tired after 30 or 40 feet and stop in the middle of the road.
9.Stare.
10.Resume chewing.

Oregon had more than cows, though: there were mountains. When we’d rolled down the east side of the Cascades and across the John Day River Valley, we started up the Strawberry range and into the high desert. The larches were turning yellow, the forest was thick in the higher elevations, and when we got into the desert the sage rolled on for endless miles. Small towns seemed to crop up out of nowhere, sometimes with a small, unassuming grocery store or café and post office, and then the road passed through and faded back into miles and miles of sage. Riding along, you felt like you were the smallest person in an incredibly large world.

We met another intrepid cycling couple at the top of Ochoco Pass. Tom and Leah were nearing the end of their cross-country journey, and while we chatted about our respective trips, the topic of conversation—as it invariably seems to when touring cyclists meet—turned to bodily functions, such as urinating. Tom was surprisingly confused when it came to the benefits of men's plumbing. “You women have it easy,” he insisted. “All you gotta do is sit and squat!”

“Do you ever hear a man say that?" Leah asked me. "He’s the biggest pee prude I’ve ever met! When we stop, Tom’ll go traipsing into the bushes for miles—"

"I just like to be out of sight," said Tom in an injured tone.
"…and I'll just squat anywhere! If it were me—and I could just stand up and go—I wouldn’t even get off my bike.”

As we talked, Tom finished spreading his peanut butter with a well-worn spoon, and proceeded to wipe it on an even more well-worn sock. "They're the cleanest things I own!" he said brightly.

Ah, the intimacy and connection that we touring cyclists share. It makes you wonder what stands in the way of our interactions at home. Why don’t we cut to the quick every time we meet someone new and discuss pee and poop right away?

Our route began to take shape as we pedaled in a southeasterly direction, and we decided to head toward Tucson, Arizona via Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. We crossed the border into Idaho during harvest time. Huge, growling machines crawled through the fields, harvesting onions, potatoes, and beets. Trucks laden with loose vegetables went barely faster than we did, and the roadsides were littered with potatoes and onionskins. Ironically, when we bought potatoes for our nightly stew, the sign in Albertsons said “Grown in California.”

The days grew shorter as we pedaled through Boise and Twin Falls, and Idaho’s and then Northern Utah’s roads started to stretch on forever. Where were the vistas reminiscent of guidebook covers? Where were the kind, friendly people? Why were we riding, anyway?? We realized we needed to make a list of do’s and don’ts for other unwary cyclists traveling in the area.

Jeff’s and Sara’s hints and tips for bicycling through northern Utah:

Bring extra tires to replace the ones worn by excessively chip-rocked roads. Also remember a patch kit or three because goat-head thorns are plentiful.

Bring along your favorite picture postcards to look at when you get tired of staring at distant mountains, sagebrush, distant mountains, sagebrush, and cows.

Bring along your true love to wave at, so, unlike when you wave to the locals, your greetings will be returned.

However, if your true love is suffering the effects of her monthly visit (which seems to come every two weeks), maintain a safe distance when waving.

If you happen to be suffering the effects of your monthly visit, make sure your patient and loving true love is nearby because few other people will want you around. Try to avoid headwinds, grocery shopping, unfriendly locals, headwinds, chip-rocked roads, distant mountains, endless vistas of sagebrush, cold mornings, significant other’s complaints about said cold mornings, riding your bicycle, and other related activities because all those things can and will cause you to burst into tears.

Be suspicious when motel owners warn of impending snowstorms and say You’re much better off staying indoors tomorrow. The snowstorm may not materialize and said motel owners will be $22 +tax richer.

Bring more to read than borrowed “Good Housekeeping” magazines and Quaker Oats packages, unless you need volumes of information about celebrity waistlines, beanie babies, the McCaughy septuplets, and How To Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease by eating soluble fiber.

To see gorgeous scenery, meet wonderful people, and have a whole lot of fun, skip northern Utah and head straight to Zion National Park.

II

Zion National Park. When we arrived, we remembered why we ride our bicycles.

The first person we met in Zion was a man who came over to our campsite to ask if we were German. He looked a little disappointed when we told him we weren't. "I guess now I owe someone a million dollars!" he said. "I bet my wife you'd never be American, riding where there's hills and all..."
Eric and his wife Lorette camped next to us for several days, and during that time the Canadian couple showered us with kindness. Their campfires kept us warm, they made us French fries in their deep fryer, served us vegetarian chop suey for dinner, gave us herbs from their garden, and before they left they gave us an entire bag of groceries. Lorette waved off our protestations over the latter and said, "It's all stuff we can spare and people used to do things for me when I was young. Now take it!"

No sooner had Lorette and Eric left for parts south, than a man from across the way invited us to his and his wife's campfire. That night, Jeff and I decided that when we're in our seventies we want to be like Dick and Laura Honrath. The couple was nearing the end of their yearly one-month stay in Zion when we met them, but before they left they inspired us completely with their kindness, conversation, and adventurous spirits. Among their gifts to us were more evening campfires, a grocery shopping trip in their van so we could stay longer in the park, and stories of their fascinating lives. But most of all, we loved the hikes they took us on in the east part of the park. The colorful sandstone slickrock stretches for miles there, and without trails you feel like you're alone on Mars.
Really, you're not on Mars, just on a part of Earth that is surreal and impossible to describe. Imagine, as far as you can see, wavy ridges of mountains, gentle curves where the sandstone layers are eroded, small and large mounds of rock, lizard footprints in the sand, smokestack-shaped "hoo-doos" rising abruptly out of the ground, and desert vegetation--pines, mosses, lichens, and shrubs--hanging on for dear life. We discovered "Jeffrey Pines", stunted trees with peeling bark that smells sweet like vanilla. My favorite plant was a certain moss that opens its tiny green leaves if you put a drop of water on it. On the second hike we saw a whip snake, a small, tongue-flicking reptile with white lines down the side.

On November 7th we planned a hike with Julie and Bryan, two cyclists who had arrived the day before. (“See??” we kept reassuring each other that night, “we’re not the only crazies out in November!”) We looked forward to trading tales of our travels with people who understood. Jeff and I were also starting to feel pretty smug about the 2,500+ miles that had added up on our cycle-computers.

Then Julie and Bryan informed us lightly that they were on the 15th month of a bike trip that had taken them through Turkey, the Middle East, and South Africa. Their faces were tanned and their bikes had been through the wringer and they were still smiling and pedaling. Suddenly our trip seemed like slightly smaller potatoes than it had before.

And if we were feeling like our accomplishments were humble in the shadow of Julie and Bryan’s, imagine how we felt when we met the Japanese couple who rode in the next day. Akira had been riding for four out of the past five years, he told us, and he’d met Mitsue in Tierra Del Fuego almost three years before. From what we gathered, they’d been riding ever since and weren’t planning on stopping any time soon. I stood at least a head taller than Akira, but his legs resembled small tree trunks.

One night, the six of us had a 4-hour dinner party cooked with the combined forces of 3 Whisperlite stoves. The evening culminated in huddling around a smoking campfire, baking potatoes in the coals, and talking about cycling. It was rather humorous to note that the two people in a neighboring campsite were standing around 4-foot flames while the six of us crouched over our 6-inch flicker (wood was running low)—but, we decided, we were having more fun.

We stayed in Zion for eleven days before heading west toward Vegas. But for the next week, we had company. Julie and Bryan taught us things about cycle touring that we never knew, including how to free-camp off dirt roads and how to make popcorn on a camp stove. It was pomegranate season when we rode into Nevada, and together the four of us formulated the recipe for the now-patent-pending pomegranate peanut-butter pita.
On my twentieth birthday, we headed out of the urban sprawl of St. George with extra water, climbed a steep pass through red-rock sandstone, and began looking for a place to camp in the middle of a Joshua Tree forest. Around sunset we pulled off onto a tiny dirt road, rode back over several washes, and found the perfect site. Unbeknownst to me, Julie had carried a bottle of sparkling cider in her already-loaded-down panniers all day. And as the sun sank down, Jeff and Bryan and Julie sang happy birthday and we stood on our Utah ridgetop and could see through the Joshua trees into Arizona and Nevada. It was a perfect birthday.

Then we were in Las Vegas, where we set to work trying to see as much of it as we could because we knew we were never coming back on purpose. The city was an amazing contrast to our simple life on the road.

One night we took a bus that deposited us on The Strip, the heart of the ostentatious, extravagant, glitzy, garish, extraordinary gambling capitol of the world. Neon, flashing, strobe--hundreds upon millions of lights flared like miniature suns, casting a strange glow over the city. Every casino tried to be bigger, more special, more over-the-top than the last.

In the end, we decided as we rode thankfully out of urban sprawl, it all seemed hollow--the promise of riches, the "marble" columns at the Bellagio, the smiles on the faces of the half-naked women who advertise "full-service" escort services. The casinos would fall apart quickly if they weren't maintained--the extravagant architecture made out of plaster and cardboard wouldn't last long without frequent paint jobs. And the money that underlies everything has been taken from adults like candy from a baby.

The ride from Las Vegas was like the rest of our trip in many ways: some good days, some bad days, some great days. Places we thought would be beautiful weren't, and we ended up riding into beautiful places when we least expected it. We pedaled on lightly-traveled roads that led down to the Colorado River, depressingly controlled by dams practically every five miles. But when we crossed over the River into Arizona, we entered the Sonoran Desert. Cacti were in abundance, and as we rode, we marveled at the lush fauna by the side of the road. It wasn't New England--if you want grass in Arizona, you have to water it--but the Sonoran desert was not what we'd imagined a desert to be. Shrubs and trees and plants of every description grew everywhere, and by the time we got to Phoenix, Saguaros ruled the landscape.

Riding my bicycle past a several-ton cactus is not something I do every day, and when the scattered saguaros became a veritable forest, we started to feel like it was a different planet. The cacti were stark silhouettes against a blue, blue sky, a perfect example of life thriving in wholly unfriendly conditions. No less fascinating were the cholla and prickly pear and barrel cacti, which we examined as closely as possible without getting poked.

"Just don't kill us!" said Lupe Bustamante as she loaded our bikes into her pickup truck. The sun was setting over Queens Creek, Arizona, and we had pulled into the Qwik Mart ten minutes before with dwindling hope of finding a campsite for the night. Then Lupe drove up, and even though she obviously had mixed feelings about letting total strangers camp in her yard for the night, she took us home with her. "...I guess I should be more open to people," Lupe said anxiously, as soon as we arrived. "But it's hard sometimes...to trust, you know?" By the end of the evening we were chatting away around the Christmas tree, and Lupe refused to let us go out to our tent before lending us a huge comforter and pillows for the night. How did we get so lucky? Jeff and I wondered before falling asleep.

A week later we camped for the last night of the trip. We were in the shadow of the Santa Maria Mountains just outside of Tucson, and our water bottles were frozen when we woke up the next morning. The days were shorter and the nights colder than ever, and it was time to go home. Originally we had thought about spending the winter in Tucson and continuing to ride in the spring, but for all the perks of cycle-touring, I was ready to just be somewhere for awhile. Maybe somewhere with a real bed, and doors I didn’t need to unzip to open.

We stayed at my cousin's house in Tucson for two weeks before flying home, and on December 19th we somberly watched our last Arizona sunset blast the sky with color. Even without great maps, even with cold mornings, it had been a good ride, and we knew we wouldn't be off our saddles for long.

Soon we'll mount our bikes again, maybe on another trip of unknown mileage and duration (though with better maps this time), and the road will rise to meet us in the unique way that it does when you travel by bicycle.