Wednesday, July 25, 2018

When Gravity takes Over

Slab City, California to Mt. Shasta, California (14,636 - 15,536 miles)

Too weak to cycle more than forty miles a day, I spend my afternoons resting in whatever shade I find along the highway. I've been hyperventilating at night, when my heartbeat slows as I drift toward sleep, and each morning I wake with an oxygen-deprived headache. This isn't my first rodeo with these symptoms, so I'm familiar with the cure. I need to lose the weight I put on during my winter layover.

I visit Richard and Aleta in LA, stash my gear in the guest apartment, enjoy the gourmet food and camaraderie. Richard takes me to the LA Fitness Club, and I pedal a stationary bike while he works out with weights and a medicine ball. On the other side of the railing, the next floor down, sneakers squeak against the floor. A full-court basketball game is in progress.

Richard Collins
Los Angeles

After the workout, he takes me on a tour of Chinatown. We pass vendors who hawk their wares on the sidewalk, wait for the WALK signs before we cross the intersections. Food and incense smells drift on the air, an exotic blend, and I'm reminded why I like to visit cities. I enjoy the diversity, especially the varied cuisine, love to sample something new. We head to a restaurant and order Philly cheese steak and coffee, eat fries on the side. I smother mine with ketchup and grin at Richard. We met earlier on this trip, in a hostel in Colorado, have been friends ever since. He's been touring longer than I have and rides a Braxton, a gem of a bike. A fifth generation Angelina, he's been retired for years. I don't tell him about my breathing issues, don't want him to worry. I'll be all right in a few weeks.

Leaving Richard and Aleta is always bittersweet, but it's time to go. I'll be back sooner or later, enjoy my friends and their city too much to stay gone forever.

Red Rock State Park

Red Rock State Park


Gusts whip over the desert and plumes drift through the air. Eddies flurry over the road and deposit sand on the shoulder, create drifts that creep onto the asphalt. The wind is upwards of fifty miles-per-hour, and the grit slamming into my skin stings enough to hurt. I squirm into my rain pants, shrug into my Marmot PreCip, tug the hood over my head. Cars roll past, wide-eyed inhabitants gawking at the cyclist in the windstorm, and I grin in return. Might as well let them think I'm nuts.

Riding a ferocious tailwind, I glide along at twenty miles-per-hour with minimal effort. The wind shifts and blows me away from the shoulder and I white-knuckle the handlebars and yank the bike to the right. An RV passes me, driver fighting to keep his rig on the road, and I veer into the desert. I get back on the road and pedal with the wind, glance at my bike computer and note I'm traveling twenty-seven miles-per-hour. The vehicles quit coming—drivers scared of the storm—and it's me and my bike and the wind and the road.

And the sand.

When the blow subsides, I spit sand out of my mouth and wipe the back of my hand across my lips. I've got sand in my ears and nose, grit in my eyes. I stop and take a photo of the Death Valley National Park sign, ride a few more miles to a private campground. I shower and pick a site, leave my tent in its stuff sack. The wind is predicted to pick back up and I do not want to spend the night bracing my poles to keep them from snapping in two. I fashion a windbreak out of a picnic table and a tarp, hunker down for the night. The wind howls and the tarp flaps, and I hear cursing from an adjacent campsite. In the morning, I can't help but notice a flattened tent next to a pickup. Why its occupants didn't use the truck as a windbreak is beyond me.

I cycle to the exit and wait for traffic to clear. To my left, the road meanders toward the nether regions of Death Valley. I check the weather forecast, tuck my phone back in my handlebar bag. High winds are predicted down in the valley and I suspect they might even be worse than what I suffered through yesterday. I've had enough of howling desert sandstorms and turn right, choosing instead to cycle the mountains.

The road climbs for several miles and I cycle until I can't, get off and push. I fall into a routine—cycle and push, cycle and push, cycle and push—eventually just push. At an overlook at the top of a mountain, a woman with a Swedish accent brings me pasta and a coke. I'm so tired I can barely thank her, sag against a rock, close my eyes. My body feels wrung out, empty, nothing inside but a feeble heart and a few oxygen molecules. I recover a little, eat and snap a few photos. Get back on the road and try to cycle out of view of the crowd at the overlook. My breathing turns ragged and I almost pass out, stop and get off my bike. I hang my head and push my Rockhopper down the road, unable to cycle up the gentlest slopes, hit the downhill a couple hours later and coast toward Highway 395.

It's amazing how much brighter the world looks when gravity takes over.


“We've been getting calls about you,” the California State Trooper says. He's got black hair and a pressed uniform, wears a holstered pistol on his right side.

I'm sitting under pines on the side of Interstate 5, north of Redding, and I'm snacking on miniature Snicker Bars. I have no idea why troopers have been getting calls, know for a fact I've followed California law about riding the interstate. (If the state doesn't want cyclists on a section, it posts the info on a sign on the on-ramp. If it's okay to ride the upcoming section, and you come to a section where cycling is prohibited, the state posts a sign telling you to take the off ramp. The states bases when to ride the interstate on frontage roads. If there's a frontage road that runs from one exit to the next, you must take it. If there isn't a frontage road, it's legal to cycle the interstate.)

“Pretty sure I'm legal,” I say. “Don't know why you're getting calls.”

I phrased my words to appear non-confrontational, smile and offer the trooper a candy bar. He smiles in return, waves off the offer.

“I'm guessing the callers don't like cyclists,” he says. “Take the frontage roads whenever you can and you're good to go.”

He drives off and I get back on the road, come to the next exit and take the frontage road.

No problemo.

The road parallels the interstate and ends at the next exit. Google Maps shows a road on the other side of the highway, and I study it trying to decide if it meets the definition of a frontage road. Decide it doesn't because it winds several miles away from the interstate. I take it anyway. The last thing I want is another interaction with the trooper. He might not be as nice the second time around.

The asphalt soon turns to gravel, which gives way to a dirt jeep path. I almost turn around, decide to keep going. The dirt ends, the path narrows, and the rock begins.

I get off and push my bike. It's the end of the day and I'm tired, should have stayed on the interstate instead of taking this route. It isn't even a thru-road, though it looks like one on Google Maps. Four hours after I started the ordeal, I return to the interstate. It's getting dark and I get off the next exit, take a road that peters out in less than a quarter mile. A trail leads into the woods and I consider camping for the night—

A woman screams and I twist in the saddle, drop my hand to my machete. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, she staggers up a dirt road. She's young compared to me, a pretty brown-haired woman, and she cradles a pug in her arms. She cries out again, sobbing her words.

“Please . . . please don't hurt me.”

My heart revs.

Is someone trying to murder her?

She sees me and cries out, tells me to call 911. She glances over her shoulder again, and I pedal away from her as fast as I can. Thinking two things almost simultaneously. One, I'm not calling 911 unless I know why. Two, I want distance between her and I, enough to give me a few seconds to think before she comes up on me. I travel fifty yards and wheel the bike around. She stumbles in a circle, apparently forgetting about me, and I wonder if she's drunk or high on meth.

An old pickup rumbles up behind the woman and my heart goes into overdrive. This is not good. I've got a machete, and the guy driving has control of a multi-ton vehicle. He can run me over and not even slow down. He stops the truck, gets out, grabs a stick from the bed. Stalks toward the woman. She cowers down and I put everything I have into pedaling toward her.

“I called 911,” I say the lie in a loud voice. “Troopers on the way.”

The man—like the woman—is also in jeans and t-shirt, and I put him in his mid-twenties. He lowers the stick, darts back to the truck, climbs behind the wheel. I stop the bike and face him down. This is it. Either he's going to run me over or he isn't. The motor roars and the truck lurches forward, closing the distance so fast I don't have time to dive off the bike. He swerves at the last instance and goes around me, punches the accelerator and the truck roars up the on ramp. I call 911 and motion the woman over as I talk to the operator. The woman tells me the guy in the truck is her boyfriend and he kicked her out while the truck was moving. Literally kicked her out. As in put his foot on her back and shoved her through the open door.

The operator tells us to take precautions and hangs up. A trooper eventually wheels off the interstate and I give him my info, say goodbye to the woman. She throws her arms around my neck and tells me thank you. I wish her well—secretly hope she doesn't go back to the guy—cycle off to look for a campsite.

I roll my bike into the woods and think back on the day's events, prefer not to dwell on what might have happened if I hadn't taken the frontage road that wasn't a frontage road. Without that delay I would have been at least twenty miles up the interstate and the woman would have stumbled up that dirt road with no one to hear her cries. I cook two Ramens to celebrate. I've lost weight, my breathing issues are dissipating, and I rescued someone in need. My life feels darn good at the moment.


Pics of my ride up through California.