Friday, April 14, 2017

Hot Winds and Cold Nights

Slab City, CA - Albuquerque, NM (miles 7,030-7,900)

A hot wind blasts me from the west. The gust is close to 50 MPH and it pushes me off the shoulder. I'm cycling through a wasteland of California dunes, where the sparse vegetation isn't much higher than a scorpion, and there is nowhere to hide. I stop and hunch over, brace to keep the bike upright. I've got grit in every exposed orifice, am lucky the wind comes from my left. If it was blowing this hard in my face, I wouldn't make 20 miles today.

I roll the bike back to the road and continue my journey to my next star, Portland, Maine, which is too far away to think about. I pedal for ten minutes and the wind blows me off the road again. To the east a buggy roars over a dune, front wheels in the air, lands and roars down into a dip. The driver swivels his head and his lips open in a sand-soaked smile. I smile back. He and I are simpatico, two guys braving the elements to have a little fun.


Maybe he's having fun.

I'm just trying to get through the sandblasting with my skin still attached to my body. The wind blows me off the road again and this time I drink water before pedaling onward. I push the bike back to the hard surface, cycle north and crest a hill, come up on a parked car. A man in a poncho sits on the sand and he doesn't answer my hello. It was a windy hello, probably snatched away not far from my lips, so I raise my voice and try again.

“Heard you the first time,” he says.

“You need help? You broke down?”

A minute passes and no answer. The man faces the broad expanse to the east, as though he's locked into something over the horizon, something strong, and also something I can't see. After awhile, he turns toward me. He's deeply tanned and has a ditch of a wrinkle across his forehead. He's got an honest blue gaze, the kind that settles calmly and steadily on its destination.

“I lost Maggie right here.” He turns back toward the dunes, poncho hood hiding his features. “I think it was here. The dunes, they're always changing. . . . I was driving . . . and well, I lost her right here. . . . I was a drunk when it happened. Everyday. PBR was my beer and I drank it everyday.”

I roll my bike onto the sand, far enough to see his face. His eyes are wet and he blinks at the tears. I look around at the terrain and wonder what caused the accident. He must have hit another car. I shudder at the thought of a head-on collision out here in the middle of nothing, cringe at how long it would take for paramedics to arrive.

“You lost your wife?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Maggie was a Border Collie, smartest dog you'd ever meet. Swear she knew what I was thinking before I did.”

“I'm sorry.” And I truly am. I have felt the heartbreak of this kind of loss.

He stands and leans back against his car, poncho whipping in the wind, tells me he'd stopped to “drain the lizard,” and how Maggie had leaped through the passenger window and run straight east like she was a bullet shot from a gun.

“It was a windy day,” he said, “'bout as bad as this one. When she didn't come back . . . I tried to track her through the dunes. This wind, it erases tracks . . . I waited by my truck—I had a Ford 150 back then—ran out of water and had to leave. But I came back every day for a month . . . lost my job 'cause of missing days. . . made a deal with God to quit the beer if he saw fit to return her to me.”

He tells about going through withdrawal, the shaking and hallucinations, how he thought he saw her a few times, but she never would come to him. “She did it for me, you see. She did it because she knew I'd quit drinking if she ran off. . . . It had to have hurt her as much as it did me. . . . Haven't touched a drop since, some 43 years ago. I come back every year on the day it happened, makes me think about what she did for me.”

He dries his tears with the back of his hand. “No water out there, she wouldn't have lived for more than a few days. She knew . . . she knew if she ran off I'd quit drinking. I was on the verge of death back then. . . . My Maggie sacrificed her life so I could live.”

I don't doubt the backbone of his story. I believe Maggie ran off into the dunes and didn't come back, and I believe her owner has stayed sober out of respect for what he perceives as his dog's sacrifice. I gaze at the slowly shifting sands. Although the landscaping is ever changing, it has an eternal feel, as though change itself is everlasting. I feel the wildness that creeps into my soul whenever I'm a long way from towns and cities, think perhaps Maggie did too. Maybe the connection was so strong she tried to run to it and died from dehydration. Then again, maybe she really did sacrifice herself. I guess what matters is the man leaning against the car is no longer a drunk, and that's good enough for me.

I have one tough bike!
I leave California behind, take Route 66 toward Flagstaff, Arizona. My route climbs in elevation, temps dropping severely at night. Needing a better ground pad, I stop in the small towns and root through thrift stores. My Ridgerest is shot, and I need something more substantial underneath me at night. Google tells me there's an outdoor store in Williams, a town off Interstate 40, and Yelp tells me the store has a horrible reputation. (all 1 star reviews.) I don't care, so long as the store has the pad.

After two days of cycling through the high desert, I park my bike in front of the store and lock it to a post. Williams is a tourist town that
feeds off people who want to experience the old wild west, and the streets are lined with shops selling western gear more than likely made in China. A couple walks up the steps to the store.

“From out of town?” I ask.

They are, and I ask if they researched the store, tell them it has a bad rep on Yelp.

“I wouldn't even go in here if I wasn't desperate for a ground pad,” I say, “but I've been sleeping cold at night and the temps are dropping so low I could freeze to death.”

They thank me for the info about the store and I follow them through the doorway. The store is too small to carry a wide range of gear, but ground pads are essential to a comfortable outdoor experience and I expect to find them on the shelf. I don't see them and glance at the proprietor. He's a tall, thick man, with the kind of wide jaw you expect from a westerner, and I'm not surprised when he remains silent. (Yelp reviews hone in on his apparently unfriendly nature.)

“Any ground pads?” I hope I've overlooked them.

“I'm out.”

Not, “I'm sorry, I'm out.”

Just, “I'm out.”

End of conversation.

I walk out of the store and unlock my bike. Another couple comes up, a young man and young woman, and they both grin at me. 

“We have a ground pad you can have,” the man says.

The woman nods. “We know what it's like to sleep on the cold ground.”

I follow them to their RV. The man opens the door, reaches in and withdraws a Thermarest. He hands it to me and I thank them profusely.

The woman motions toward the man, then at herself. “We just got married. We're on our honeymoon!”

Their eyes sparkle and they clasp hands. I congratulate them, add that they helped me more than they will ever know. We part ways and I'm in awe of the string of coincidences that led to their gift. First, I googled and yelped an outdoor store, then I told another couple about the bad ratings, then a second couple apparently overheard the conversation, then the store was out of pads, then the second couple just happened to have a pad.


I sleep in a ravine that night. It's snowing when I crawl into my sleeping bag and the temps drop so low I wouldn't have slept without the new pad. I wake warm and refreshed, ready to get on with my ride.

Interstate 40 pointed toward Flagstaff


Painted Desert
Feeling good, I cycle through Flagstaff, then Winslow, then into New Mexico. The elevations on the reservations bobble between 6,000 and 7,000 feet, come close to 8,000 when I crest the Continental Divide. Albuquerque is soon in my rearview mirror and at the moment of this writing I'm trying to decide if I want to take a shorter or longer route through eastern New Mexico. I don't want to arrive in the northeast during black fly season, so entering Vermont about the time July hits seems about right. I also don't want to arrive too late, must turn south at Portland and be well on my way along the Atlantic coastline before winter hits.

What to do, what to do. . . .

I'd like to give a shout out to Sammy Grisham, whose GoFundMe donation helped me stay the course. Thanks Sammy!

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