biking the arizona desert.


update 47: seeking silence and solitude on interstate 10

11 November  2009  

Total distance cycled: 65, 036 kms/ 40,389 miles

[The wilderness] is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,
where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
 American Wilderness Act, 1964

no rest for the  weary
Welcome to Arizona's lovely Interstate 10."You guys are gonna have to take down the tent.  No camping allowed here.  You're gonna have to move out."  
The booming voice of an uninvited visitor shatters our short-lived  peace.  I've just brushed my teeth and am ready to slide into the tent for some well deserved rest.  Day two of enduring the rumble of RVs and the whining of 18-wheelers as we speed down one of the southwest's busiest traffic corridors has left us exhausted and drained of patience.   Interstate 10 is no place for a cyclist.  The 25,000 vehicles that daily ply this ribbon of road through the vast Arizona desert are unwelcome company for two-wheeled tourers.  

Over the years I've come to love desert riding.  My strongest memories of Africa are of the silence and solitude of its great deserts: the Sahara, the Namib, the Nubian.  It was these memories that had led us to the Mojave and Sonora deserts of the Southwest.  But the beauty of the desert, at least flying down Interstate 10, eluded me.  What I discovered was a wasteland.  A vast wasteland of roadside rubbish, run-down truck stops and non-stop noise.  Take your portable exercise bike down to a construction site and park it next to the guy operating the jack hammer and you'll know what it's like to bike on Interstate 10.

But back to my story.  "What do you mean take down the tent?  This is public land.  We always camp at fire stations."
"Ain't no fire station no more.  Belongs to a real estate company.   Same one that operate that there RV Park."
Yes, the RV Park.  The sprawling concrete jungle of motor homes and out-of-place palm trees with a sign at the front office proclaiming in big block capitals:  ABSOLUTELY NO TENT CAMPING.  So you see why our tent is pitched across the street at the fire station.
"You leave.  Now.  Or else I'm callin' the sheriff." Our visitor is almost shouting by now.  He crosses his arms and sneers.
"You do that then," says Eric in defiance as he crawls into the tent leaving me in an awkward silence with the stranger.
He's gone stark raving mad, I conclude, as I zip up our shelter.  

encounter with the sheriff
Eric is oddly serene and begins chattering away about the route ahead.  I'm lost in my worries.  The Sheriff, I'm quite certain, is a donut devouring crony of the visitor.  He'll lock us up for the night on charges of trespassing.  Our bikes and gear will be impounded.  We'll suffer the humiliation of being brought before the judge in shackles and Eric, I'm sure of it, will be deported.  Branded an enemy of the USA.  A known trespasser.  A freak on a bike.

The penetrating lights of the squad car propel me back to reality.  "This is officer Garcia of the Sheriff's department. Are you armed?"
"Why should we be?  We're peaceful cyclists."  
The American in me would have opted for a simple 'no, sir.'   But, over the centuries, the French have developed their own style of communication.
"Step out of the tent please."
We emerge and launch in to our version of the story and I can see this is no small town good 'ole boy, but a reasonable guy who is actually quite impressed with our tour.  "You mean you guys are riding all around the world on bikes?  Wow!"

Officer Garcia inspects our passports (perhaps even more impressed when he checks out all the stamps), does a radio check on our identities and enters into a long conference with the guy from the RV Park.  Finally he ambles back, and I know the news isn't good.

"Sorry, guys, if it was up to me you could camp here.  I don't see the harm in it.  But the watchman says you've gotta go."
We nod in understanding, start stuffing  gear into our sacks and tearing down the tent in record speed.  Minutes later we're out cycling under the stars in Tonopah, Arizona in search of a safer spot to spend the night.

what goes around comes around

Did we deserve this kind of treatment?  Kicked out of a comfortable campsite in the middle of the night like two gate-crashers at a company Christmas party.  Maybe, just maybe, we did deserve this discourteous and disagreeable behavior.  After all, I'd been downright rude the night before.  

The freakish Joshua Tree at sunrise.The sun has just slid below the horizon and the sky is glowing a soft pink.  One by one the stars begin to glitter and then in the distance, a few miles down on the normally quiet road which cuts through Joshua Tree National Park, I spot a semi-truck approaching.  There is such a stillness in the desert that I can hear the grinding of the gears and the rumble of the tires as it lurches forward.  The rackety rig turns off and begins rumbling towards the campground.  It comes closer and closer and then it comes to a halt.  Directly in front of our tent.  Our view of the vast emptiness of the desert is replaced by this metal contraption.  And it's not a semi-truck by the way.  It's a cavernous RV hauling an SUV and it's driven by a hearty Texan in a ten gallon hat.  

"Evenin', folks!" he calls out as his perky wife begins maneuvering him into a parking spot.
"What's this!  You're not stopping here.  I mean, you're destroying our peace and view.  Can't you just go somewhere else with that monstrous thing."  

I know, it's unbelievably rude to speak that way. It's ill-mannered and crass.  This public confession of rudeness  has probably cost me all future offers of hospitality.  Who'd invite that kind of person into their home.

In my defense, we are constantly hunted by half-blind drivers of RVs.  They graze us with their mirrors as they roll by. They cut us off at intersections and cause us to lurch out of their way in fear.  The sheer size of their vehicles creates dangerous back drafts that jerk and jolt us as we ride.  I figure the built-up anger was bound to seep out one day.

To my great surprise, the duo from Texas let out deep belly laughs.  "Guess we aren't wanted here."  And they depart, bequeathing us the empty desert.

finding peace at joshua tree
Taking a break at Joshua Tree.A ride through the other-worldly landscape of Joshua Tree

Of course the wasteland found along Interstate 10 is not representative of all America's deserts.  Where the low Colorado meets the high Mojave desert lies Joshua Tree National Park, beautiful, varied and teeming with life.  And it's quiet.  We spent a day admiring the weird and wacky Joshua trees, cruising past huge piles of boulders and  plodding up the gentle grades of the high-desert hills.  The Joshua Tree acquired its name because Mormon pioneers considered the craggy limbs of this tree-like yucca plant to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.  It's an other-worldly place truly untrammeled by man.

 ouch!  a little accident
Maybe it's time for a break.That's Eric's foot at the right.  Not a pretty sight you say?  A little accident with some scalding water as we were cooking up our daily porridge in the desert.  Now he's got a nasty blister to contend with and possible infection. Perhaps a trip to the doctor is in order.  We've got 1,300 kilometers to the Mexican border and 30 days to get there before his visa runs out.  This is no time for extended periods of recuperation.  And something tells me the US immigration officials won't be nearly as understanding as their Sudanese counterparts when it comes to visa overstays.  He might just end up in an American jail after all.

2010 calendar from world biking
We've put together a calendar for 2010 featuring some of our favorite portraits from our World Biking tour.  It's available for sale via Red Bubble.  Proceeds will help keep us on the road and allow us the occasional trip to the pastry shop as we continue our tour in South America.  Check out the calendar here.

What's the worst ride you've ever endured?  Any horror stories to share?   Ever had any encounters with the law?
Please comment below or send us an e-mail and let us know what's up in your world. 

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