― Edward Abbey,
I fell in love with the beauty of the desert a mere seven years ago while conducting breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado River. With so much love already in my heart, I didn't anticipate the immense joy I would feel at seeing the desert all over again... on a bicycle.
Day 1 (October 31): Boulder City, NV to Nipton, CA (58.3 miles)
Cypress delivered us on Silver Line road, just south of Boulder City, Nevada. Zoe and I would take Old U.S. 95 for a few miles before breaking out onto the newer, busier NV-95 heading south toward Searchlight, CA. Gravel trucks rumbled by, kicking up dust (and probably some asbestos) as we affixed our panniers and neon orange flags to K-Rat and Nomad (Nomad was a rental since my trusty old bike, Reno, lacked braze-ons). I felt brief pangs of guilt for stepping away from my thesis for seven whole days, but forced myself to forget about school for now. Besides, life is short and who knew when I would get the chance to do something like this again.
We stumbled along the dimpled old road, finding our balance with 40-pound loads. After a short mile we were met by the 95. Zoe and I had spent the last 3 months planning and anticipating this trip and I couldn't help but picture Maya Rudolph pooping in her wedding dress in the middle of the street saying,
"It's happening... it's happening".
We had a very wide shoulder and the road was now smooth. Cars and trucks gave us a wide berth, and the Winnebagos and Bounders tried their best. The majority of the time we were climbing. We had trained for weeks but still I was unprepared. I wasn't used to carrying all of my food, water, and camping supplies on a bike and my muscles revolted, but I hurt in a good way. I was elated to finally be on the open road.
We made it to Nipton, CA by 6 PM and rested our bikes one against the other on the deck of Nana's Railroad Café. We could see Clark Mountain in the distance, beautifully dappled in the late day sunlight. We promptly stuffed our faces with fat burgers and greasy fries before crawling into our cozy little 2-person tent. I began to drift off to sleep when a train thundered through town, it's iron body whined, the steel wheels squeaking and straining under it's immense weight, shaking the earth - a mere 100 ft from our tent. This would happen a dozen or so more times but I stuffed earplugs into my ears and slept like the dead.
|First snack break on our way to Nipton, CA|
|Coasting into Nipton CA after a long climb|
|Nomad and K-Rat rest against a Joshua Tree|
|Huge burgers at Nana's Railroad Café!|
|The cats guard our bikes while we eat inside|
|Welcome to Nipton, CA|
|Our breakfast buddies|
Day 2 - Nipton, CA to Kelso Depot, CA (43.4 miles)
The next morning Zoe and I cooked oatmeal and made coffee on the porch of the restaurant. The sky was gray, the air cooled by the fall breeze. The owner of the Nipton Trading Post came out to chat, peppering us with questions about our trip. "Be careful out there - watch out for the crazies", he warned before heading back into the store. Honestly, I was a little more concerned about getting hit by a car. But, he was right to warn - we were traveling 290 miles through the Mojave Desert, and like all deserts it tends to attract a colorful crowd. There was a good chance we would meet some strange folks along the way. As David Darlington, author of "Mojave", put it, the desert is indeed "a convenient place for the unwanted."
By the time we broke camp, packed and organized our gear, it was 10:30. A little late but we weren't in a particularly big rush. We took care to apply sunblock on our faces, arms, and legs, then homemade butt-butter on our rears, and put rubber side down. The road out of Nipton was flat and easy but once we turned left onto Morningstar Mine Rd. we started to gain elevation. We would gain 15 miles of it. My legs ached all over again and my tender bottom protested each time I attempted to shift the weight from my legs to my saddle. As we climbed higher and higher into the Mojave Preserve the Joshua trees grew more dense, their trunks thicker, their crowns wider with each pedal.
The morning was a lovely slog, but I hit my low point around 1 PM. When I looked down at my odometer it read 2.7 mph. "I could hike faster than this!" I yelled to Zoe, ahead of me. "I'm the tortoise", I thought, and repeated a personal mantra over and over again as we made our way up one of the steepest grades of the day. I rejoiced when we spied an old wooden corral at the top of the hill, no doubt once belonging to the Oversons, a previously prominent ranching family who controlled a large percentage of the area before it was acquired by the BLM. It was a perfect spot to lunch. We sat in it's shade while we boiled water for our 3-minute ramen, and excavated spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter straight from the jar while we waited for the noodles to soften. The uphill climbs were painful but the juxtaposition of stopping and sitting (and stuffing our faces) was absolute bliss.
After lunch we coasted downhill for 19 glorious miles. We sailed into Kelso Depot around 4:30 with enough time to grab snacks, a Mojave Preserve pin, and a can of Coke form the gift shop before it closed. We spoke with two park rangers and met a spunky lady on our way down to the restroom. She inquired about our ride and joyfully reminisced about her own bicycle trip across the U.S. over ten years ago. While talking with the rangers we inquired about where we might set up our tent. We had read that camping closer than 400 ft from any main road was prohibited. The ranger told us the rule was mostly for car campers and RVs. Because we were on bikes we were allowed to camp close to the road, so long as we were out of sight. Good news - we didn't have to walk our bikes 400 ft through the sand!
We rode a little farther south and spotted a large sand berm that we could easily hide behind. We walked our bikes only 50 ft from the road and made camp just as the sun sank below the Kelso Dunes. I took dinner duty while Zoe set up our tent. Tonight we would be having "Bear Creek's Darn Good Chili". When I planned our bike meals I had targeted dried soups and side dishes that required simply the addition of water. Bear Creek made some pretty awesome meals. I added a few small chunks of pepperoni to complete the dish. We put the small scraps of refuse wood we scavenged along the 50 ft of sand to good use by making a small fire. I sacrificed some precious iPhone battery life and played a little music while we ate. It was a downright fantastic evening beneath the stars.
After dinner we crawled into the tent, recounting the events of the last two days. We could hear a train rumbling in the distance on it's way from Nipton, and we were happy to be a little farther from the tracks tonight.
|The Cima Store (Cima, CA)|
|Unfortunately it's been closed for a few years...|
|Our Kelso Camp on the other side of the berm|
|Zoe and K-Rat pose in the waning light|
|Enjoying some chili by the fire|
Day 3 - Kelso Depot, CA to Amboy, CA (51.1 miles)
Back at the Kelso Depot Visitor's Center we made breakfast on a picnic table and perfected our instant coffee technique just as the sun's rays reached up over the Providence Mountains. We washed off accumulated road grime in the restroom sink and warmed our hands beneath a hand dryer. After breakfast we headed back to camp to break down the tent and load up our bikes.
The morning consisted of 15 miles of uphill climbing - I could sense a trend developing. All the while the Kelso dunes shimmered in the distance. 8.5 miles into the trip, a car slowed and the driver asked us if we needed anything. Zoe tried her luck and asked if they had a bike pump. During all the organizing and packing she had forgotten to fill her tires before we hit the road. Mine could use a top up as well. Not only did they have a bike pump, but several snacks and giant body wipes. Rick and Amanda were on their way to a bike race in Anza Borrego - he was a photographer and film maker, she was the coordinator of Race Across America. We chatted excitedly while they filled our low tires and handed us strupwaffles. As they drove off we beamed at the kindness of strangers.
When we reached the top of the pass that separated the Providence and Granite mountain ranges we were greeted by frigid winds and a grove of giant Joshua trees. We took a break to eat salami and cheese before coasting downhill toward I-40. Strong sidewinds blew us into the road and I might have been terrified had I not been preoccupied instead with feelings of intense regret at having eaten too much salami. It sat like a brick in my stomach and I burped up salty meat for two hours. From here on out I would stick to simple carbs during the day and save my meat sticks for dinner time.
We took our lunch break at the Mojave Preserve sign at the south entrance of the park and basked in the warm sunlight at this lower elevation, watching 18-wheelers as they crawled west and east along the highway in the distance. The rest of the day would be pleasant. Gravity pulled us south toward Amboy via Kelbaker Rd. and we made it to the old town earlier than expected. We decided we would cut out 10 miles from the next day's ride to Twentynine Palms.
There was no potable water in Amboy so we bought sixteen $1 bottles of it. The purple-haired woman working the cash register took pity on us and donated a few extra bottles to our cause. We sipped root beer and orange soda, ate cheesy Pringles (another mistake I would not make again) and watched as tourists from Los Angeles marveled at the gas pumps. "Are these real?" one girl exclaimed, incredulous.
We continued south along Amboy Rd. riding through the salt fields of Bristol Dry Lake and wondered at Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano that last erupted about 10,000 years ago. We made camp in a random wash along the highway, hidden by creosote bushes, the enormous crater still in view. The wind howled across the open landscape like a Banshee so we cooked behind the tent, using it as a wind break. We digested our Knorr thai noodles and tuna and stretched our sore limbs while listenng to the Dirtbag Diaries. Later in the evening we witnessed strange lights hovering over the mountains. We thought they were UFOs then realized they probably originated from Camp Wilson, a military base 25 miles southwest.
I slept fitfully.
|Cooking up some breakfast back in Kelso Depot|
|Instant coffee, perfected|
|Rick and Amanda - the best folks we met on the road|
|Easy riding (sort of) with full tires!|
|It's all downhill from here!|
|Enjoying chips and sodas at Roy's in Amboy, CA|
|The Amboy Crater!|
|Refueling after a 51-mile day|
|Our campsite 10 miles out of Amboy, CA|
|UFO or military flare?|
Day 4 - Amboy Camp to Twentynine Palms, CA (38.9 miles)
Despite tossing and turning all night, we were still up before the sun. The day began like all the the others - with a climb. We climbed nearly 15 miles to the top of the Sheephole Mountain pass but were again rewarded by gravity on the other side. The remaining miles were rough with a narrow shoulder, and full of potholes. South Amboy Road was now my least favorite road in America. The surrounding desert was dotted with jackrabbit homesteads and abandoned jojoba farms. We were surprised by the blistering 95 F heat on the other side of the mountains and finished our 16-dollars worth of water before we made it to our final destination. Our spirits rose as Twentynine Palms came into view, but we made the terrible mistake of taking Adobe Road and had to climb the steepest grade of the trip. Cars and trucks whizzed past us at 60 mph and approached so close they rustled the hair on my arms. When we reached the top of the hill I could barely breathe between sobs of sheer terror and exhaustion.
Twenty minutes later we dragged our tired bodies up the packed dirt driveway of the 29 Palms Inn. A bubbly receptionist named Julia greeted us warmly despite our bedraggled appearances. She was impressed by our cycling adventure and, like the purple-haired cashier in Amboy, took pity on us. In exchange for a review on Trip Advisor, she gave us a generous deal on a 2-bedroom guesthouse with a courtyard in which to hide our bikes. It was a jubilant turn of events.
I can not express the magnitude of joy I felt standing under that stream of warm water, layers of dust and sweat and anxiety dissolving down the drain of the roomy shower inside the cute adobe cottage. After Zoe and I were squeaky clean we scrubbed our stinky bike shorts, jerseys, and crusty socks in the bathroom sink and hung them to dry in the waning light. Our next order of business was food and beer. We wandered over to the 29 Palms Inn Restaurant, located next to a large, heated pool, perched ourselves next to the bar and promptly ordered beers. I gulped my cold, delicious Stone IPA with gusto while carefully examining the menu. It was hard to choose only one dish so Zoe and I decided to share two. We ordered more beers and developed a warm buzz while a pair of fiddlers entertained the patrons that trickled in. It felt weird and lovely to be part of society again after four days mostly alone on the road, our only thoughts consisting of food, water, and getting from point A to point B in one piece.
After gorging on steak salad, pasta and cheesecake, we waddled back to our room and slept soundly in our real beds.
|Old tires make great toilets! (#1 only, obviously...)|
|Nomad and K-Rat resting at the top of the Sheephole Pass|
|A literal desert oasis! The 29 Palms Inn was a fun change of pace|
|190 miles in - Cheers to steak and pasta and cheesecake!|
|Enjoying a hot cup of tea on our porch swing at the 29 Palms Inn|
Day 5 - Twentynine Palms, CA to Cottonwood Springs Campground, Joshua Tree NP (40.3 miles)
We left our adobe guesthouse by 9:30 and rode through the beautiful cholla and ocotillo forests of peaceful Joshua Tree National Park where we chased after tarantulas, examined rocks for petroglyphs, and feared some thirsty bees. We stopped to make lunch in the only shade we could find at 1 PM - a large interpretive sign in a parking lot. I suppose we did look somewhat strange, and maybe even a little pathetic, as we hovered over our small pot of boiling soup in that small rectangle of shade during the hottest part of the day in the middle of the vast Pinto Basin. A handful of tourists stopped to read the information on the sign, startled to see two girls hiding in it's shade. They offered us food and I couldn't help but feel like a desperate little rodent as I took clementine wedges and gummy candies from their hands.
Around 3 PM we rolled into the Cottonwood Springs campground. Being Friday, the last sites were quickly becoming occupied by LA hipsters and miscellaneous weekenders. I threw our panniers on a picnic table of the second to last available site in the entire campground, as Zoe dashed off to pay. Cottonwood Springs was a vibration of excitement, it's inhabitants letting loose now that the work week was over. We were indifferent to the day but the mood was infectious and soon I felt like I too had escaped a long, grueling week. We relaxed, spread over our large concrete picnic table and basked in the sun, attempting to even out our ridiculous bike tans. Cypress arrived around 7 PM with a cooler full of beer. We made gumbo and rice and regaled him with tales from the trip as we savored Left Hand IPAs by the fire.
I slept very well beneath the stars but felt a creeping sadness at the encroaching final day.
|Cholla forests in the Pinto Basin|
|The appearance of ocotillos tells us we're transitioning from the Mojave to the Sonoran Desert|
|We couldn't help but wonder if bees were partial to vehicles...|
Day 6 - Joshua Tree NP to Bombay Beach, CA (50.3 miles)
Today was bittersweet. It was the last day of our trip and my heart simultaneously ached and beamed at the astounding beauty of the desert - the incredible box canyons, brilliant blooming ocotillos, the view of the Salton Sea shimmering in the distance. As we descended toward the sea there was a perceptible shift from the dry heat of the desert to the warm, humid agricultural region surrounding it. Soon we were rolling through the sweetly-scented steam of the citrus groves and date palm plantations. Once on CA 111 we coasted alongside the massive inland sea and felt like we were in a different country. We stopped and lunched beneath an enormous Athel tamarisk before popping into the International Banana Museum for frozen chocolate-dipped bananas.
Sun-soaked and happy, we peddled along the highway, the sea always in view. We made it to Bombay Beach around 4 PM and stepped into the darkness of the Ski Inn tavern, ordered some Balast Point IPAs and clinked our frosty pints to a successful trip. We had made it 287 miles through the Mojave desert. Shortly thereafter Cypress met us and joined in the celebration. We relocated to Glamis Hot Springs, a few miles east where we rewarded ourselves with more burgers, more beer, and hours of soaking in the warm pools.
That evening we camped at Mecca Beach accompanied by a silver moon, slung low over the sea. The following morning we drove back retracing our bicycle route but could not appreciate the land like we could on our bikes. Each time we approached a hill my muscles tensed in anticipation. I can't say I was too bothered to remember that we were now in a vehicle and the uphill climbs were obsolete. In Yucca Valley we stopped at the Frontier Café for breakfast sandwiches and Americanos. In Joshua Tree I bought souvenirs for Zoe and myself to commemorate our trip - two trucker hats with Joshua Tree silhouettes.
We fueled up in Amboy and as I got out of the truck a familiar voice called out - "Hey ladies!" It was Rick! We squealed with joyful surprise, happy that we could introduce Cypress to one of the most memorable folks we met along the way. We snapped a quick photo to commemorate the marvelous coincidence before setting off in opposite directions.
Winding through the Mojave Preserve at dusk was magical but once we hit the I-15 my heart sank. Soon we would be back in the city, back to the daily grind. I didn't want to face it all again. I wasn't ready. We had covered 287 miles, gained 13,000 ft of elevation, and I was just beginning to feel strong. I wanted to stay on the road, on my bike, for a few more months at least. I now had a taste of what life was like on a bicycle and I was hooked. The simplicity of it all. I loved the weird, generous people we met, I loved how delicious tuna could taste after a long day, I loved thinking only about the road ahead, anticipating the small yet enormous pleasure of Sour Patch watermelon candies. Yes, we would do this again and next time we'd go even farther.
|Winding our way through beautiful Box Canyon Rd.|
|Entering the tropical date palm plantations north of the Salton Sea|
|Hugging the unhappy mascot of the "World Famous International Banana Museum"|
|Sooooooo many bananas...|
|Frozen chocolate-dipped bananas!!|
|We learned that corvina are saltwater fish, one of only a handful of species able to tolerate the high salinity of the Salton Sea|
|I think this was my favorite section of our trip...|
|Celebrating with enormous beers|
|Our last campsite...|
|Reunited with Rick|