adventure travel

A Day in the Life

Today was always going to be a toughy.  It’s hot here, and today was my second-longest day of the trip so far, at around 90 miles.  Across the desert.  With barely any shade or supply points.  I was a little worried about it, to be honest.

I’m writing about it, which clearly destroys any jeopardy or suspense I may try to inject into this post.  Likewise, the desert, while impressive, is not especially photogenic, except in a few places.

So I have a choice.  A short, to the point, post to reassure those who give a monkey’s that I made it OK.  Or something a little different, trying to give you a flavour of what a long, hot day in the saddle actually looks and feels like.

I’m thinking that the latter potentially garners more hero points, so here we go…

The alarm goes off in the dark.  6am.  Urgh!  I’m dreadful in the morning, or at least until I’ve got some caffeine on board.  But with darkness falling again just after 6pm in this neck of the woods, I need all the daylight today.  Plus, an early kick-off at least means serious miles before it gets too hot.

Check the weather.  93F is forecast (that’s 34C in new money).  In the shade.  The road’s always much hotter, but could be worse.  Sun-hat or helmet?  Stick with the helmet for now, see how it goes.  Check The Beast.  Mechanically fine, a little air needed in the rear tyre, a little of my bizarre (blue coloured, strawberry flavoured) chain lube to keep things smooth.  Water?  Two 1.5 litre bottles in addition to the usual two bike bottles.  That’s 4.5 litres.  Enough?  Not sure.  Think there’s only one chance to buy more en route.  Check my own fluid levels.  Drink two kilos of extra weight.

Ablutions.  No point in washing with a sweaty day ahead, but gain shiny white teeth and fresh breath, and lose a bit of the extra weight I just put on.  ‘Nuff said.

Pack the bike.  Rear panniers, front panniers, bar bag.  Add the tent, and the high-calorie food I bought last night; bread, plastic cheese, cookies and crisps (that’s ‘chips’ for the Americans).  Extra classy and decent calories-per-gram.  Good.  Still need to eat before I head off, though.  And get that caffeine in.  Quick sweep to ensure I’ve not forgotten anything.

Somehow, it’s already seven-fifteen.  No idea how I take so long to get ready, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Quick calories and coffee required to kick things off.  A mile-and-a-half into town to the Golden Arches and a fat boy’s breakfast (well, they’ve got a special on, and two of everything is definitely required).  Pop next door to the gas station.  Bottle of multi-vit-reinforced water to keep hydrated.  Sunscreen application number one (factor 50 – no messing about).  Shades replace specs, crash helmet and gloves on.  I’m ready, finally.

Seven forty-five.  On the road.

Twenty or so uneventful miles across the valley towards the desert.  Then a bonus; one last gas station before the end of civilisation.  A bucket of lemonade from the soda fountain and some chocolate.  More empty calories, which is exactly what I need.

Into the desert.  The road’s pretty easy, but the heat’s building already.  The sunscreen and sweat mixture is picking up dust and diesel from passing trucks.  Lovely.  It’s all getting a bit gritty; standard problem, though.

Just after eleven, I meet a couple on touring bikes coming the other way.  We stop for a chat, cleverly placed just under the brow of a small hill, alarming oncoming truck drivers for a few minutes as we discuss routes, bikes, and all the usual stuff.  They are doing my ride today in reverse, but left long before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat.  I’m duly ashamed of my morning tardiness, and a little worried about having to ride through that heat myself.  No matter, I’m committed now.

The road starts to rise.  It’s not steep, and not especially high, but it rises in waves, due to being built on a dune system.  It’s hard to get a decent climbing rhythm, and the sunscreen-sweat-road muck combo is making a beeline for my eyes as my fluid intake comes straight back out through my skin.  More stops for food, water and eye-sluicing.  Tricky balance; do I want to see clearly, or make sure I’ve got enough to drink?

Around 1pm, I’m hitting the top of the drag.  There’s a building, which is the first shade I’ve seen all day.  It turns out to house a bunch of Border Patrol agents searching for illegal immigrants.  They let me cool off in one of their vehicle-search bays, as long as I stay out of the way.  Shade feels good.  More water.  More sunscreen.  And off again.  Still wondering why they didn’t check the documents of the only obvious foreigner in the area…

Two-thirty.  After another twenty-ish miles of rolling road, sweat and itching road grime, I hit the gentle downhill to Imperial sand dunes.  The couple I met earlier told me there was a shop.  I stop.  Massively overpriced, but really don’t care.  An extra litre of water, a Coke, and an ice cream to drop my core temperature out of the red.  Third application of factor 50.  Half-an-hour cooling off in the shade.  Just enough time for a headwind to spring up to obstruct my last 27 miles.  Grr…  Unpack the Cycling Zen, check the clock (should still be just OK for daylight).  Roll out for the last stretch at three.


The sand dunes are spectacular, which makes the next few miles easier.  Then it’s back to the grind.  Trying to think about other things to deflect negative thoughts about the wind and the nasty sunscreen-dirt muck, which is in both eyes now.  Notice that the desert doesn’t smell of anything other than the occasional road-kill victim.  The warm pine smells of the Rockies were nicer.  I try to pretend I’m still there.  I pass sea level (going down), which ruins the Rockies fantasy.  There isn’t even a sign, which is a bummer.

Fatigue and heat kick in properly for the last ten miles.  And the usual (literal) pain in the backside from a long day’s riding.  Stopping every few minutes for water, and to relieve pressure on delicate areas.  Racing the falling sun towards Brawley.  I’m knackered, but I’m going to make it.  Just.

Roll into town at five-thirty.  Thermometer shows 97F, still, despite the fact the sun’s nearly gone down.  Find place to stay.  Shower immediately (ah, the itchy, sweaty, nasty gunk is gone until tomorrow!).  Food.  More liquid.  Consider a celebratory beer (it is Saturday, after all).  Decide against (on the basis of dehydration risk).  Check wi-fi.  Write some bits and bobs.  Shortly to sleep.

Tomorrow?  Same again, but only about 40 miles; good chance for a lie-in…  Then it’s over the coastal range, and a drop to the Pacific.  And probably back to normal reporting.  This is exhausting just to re-read…


Today in numbers:

Distance – 91 miles (145km);

Hours from start to finish – 8hr 45min;

Hours moving – 6hr 55min;

Average Moving Speed – 13 mph (21 kph)

Climbing – 456m (1496ft);

Max Shade Temperature (conservative estimate) – 100F (38C);

Sunscreen Applications – 3;

Approx litres of fluid drunk – 8.5l

Other Cycle Tourers Met – 2



California’s East Coast

It’s been a couple of fairly quiet days.  I’ve been within sight of my last US state, California, since the run-in to Lake Havasu City.  But I only crossed the border yesterday.

Here’s a view of California from Arizona, in the slightly bizarre desert drizzle (courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Simon):


Why so apparently slow?  Well, I’m in the middle of a desert.  For the last couple of days, I’ve followed the Colorado river south, as there are plenty of towns and small resorts where I could get water and supplies.  And there’s a large chunk of barren emptiness between the river and the coastal mountain range before San Diego.  I needed to head south to find a manageable route across (i.e. less than 100 straight miles of nowt).  I don’t really want to get stuck out there.

Following the Colorado river south gave me plenty of time to inspect California’s little-known ‘East Coast’.  The river is quiet (hard to imagine that it’s the same river that cut the Grand Canyon), and is dotted with small RV and trailer resorts, where people go to swim, boat, jet-ski and generally chill out.


The picture above is pretty typical of the ‘coast’.  The left bank is Arizona.  The right bank is California, complete with small RV resort.  The road is where I should have been riding, apart from a small navigational issue.  Out of shot to the left is the busy highway I ended up on, complete with stacks of diesel-belching trucks.

I finally left Arizona yesterday, south of Parker.  En route to the border, I stopped only when flagged down by a man in a van going the other way, who swerved halfway across the road while waving a tin of spam at me.  I’m still not clear if this is a standard Arizona leaving present.

And somewhere just after that, I hit the 4000-mile mark for the trip.  Another little milestone, and a nice complement to hitting my final state.

About five miles further on, my left knee began to give me grief.  It’s been a little bit dodgy since Kansas (I think as a result of riding on an angle while leaning into cross-winds), but seems to respond well to rest.  Just hope I can limp as far as San Diego to give it a few days off to recover properly.

In any case, (yet) another rest day today so that the knee (and the rest of me) is fresh for the 90-ish mile desert run tomorrow.  It’s amazing to think that it’s only a week or so since I was sleeping in my down jacket at well over 2000m altitude; tomorrow’s run to Brawley will leave me below sea-level, and the daytime temperature is back into the 90s.  And you can tell you’re in California from the sudden appearance of millions of palm trees in every town.

IMG_0331Assuming the desert goes OK, it should only be three or four days from here to the real Californian coast.  I’ve nearly knocked off a crossing of North America on a bike, which is an odd thing to contemplate.  Anyway, a few more days of sore knees, legs and derriere to go before I get there…

Gripes and Moans. Oh, and Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon…

I expected to be without a decent internet connection from time to time on this trip.  Maybe India would be an issue, or Bolivia.  Probably Iran and parts of Africa.

What I didn’t expect was a giant vortex of internet blankness in the USA.

Ever since I left Colorado, and began crossing the Navajo Nation, almost everywhere I’ve stayed has claimed to offer wi-fi.  And yet, in each and every case, the promised connection has proved to be a mirage.  Sometimes so impossibly slow that I could sleep all night and wake up to find that my emails had still not downloaded.  Sometimes hardware so ancient and wheezing that my laptop and phone simply refused to have anything to do with it.  And sometimes a connection which would hold for a matter of seconds before evaporating entirely into the increasingly chilly autumnal wind.  I hope the locals have decent mobile internet coverage, because the rest of the infrastructure seems to be stuck firmly in the dark ages.

Having hit old Route 66 (much of which is now Interstate 40) at Williams, things seem to be on the up.  I even managed to upload a couple of pictures for this post, which is handy, as the last week or so has produced some tolerably decent views.

Dropping out of the Rockies, I had my sights firmly set on the high desert, and the genuinely world-famous sites of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Perversely, given that both can be described as valleys, I had hard climbing days to both locations.  More sweating and sore legs than the big mountains had managed to produce.  And I think you’ll agree that the view from my campsite at Monument Valley was hardly worth the bother:


Still, not to worry.  I met some lovely Californians there, who plied me with a four-egg breakfast(!) and an array of nuclear-powered energy gels and other tasty morsels.  And there was always the Grand Canyon left to redeem things.

I ploughed on determinedly into Arizona, hoping for some decent scenery, and fretting about the comms situation as well as a fairly immense storm that was apparently building from the west.  I distracted myself for half-an-hour by attempting to set up a ‘hero biker’ picture, using a road sign as a tripod.  This was the sixth attempt:


It was pretty barren country, and the exposed landscape, together with large gaps between possible shelter, made it a challenging ride in the sunshine.  It would also be a dreadful place to get stuck in the last monsoon of summer.  I duly got stuck in the last monsoon of summer, about twenty miles short of Tuba City.

I’d already spent two hours cowering in the tiny sheltered doorway of a lonely trading post as the monsoon rain, hail, thunder and lightning let loose all around me.  Then there was a break, and I decided to make a run for the city.  All I needed was a ninety-minute lull in the weather.  Surely that wasn’t too much to ask?

Six miles past the gas station that marked the last shelter before town, and with ten or so miles still to go, the sky ahead turned black.  Literally black, with a few alarming purplish-orange patches.  And lightning ripping right the way across the horizon.  Eek.  I weighed up my options.  Push on toward Tuba City, and accept that I’d get soaked by the quickly-advancing storm front (plus maybe getting struck by lightning)?  Or turn around and run away?

I ran.  In full Bradley Wiggins time-trial mode.  Or maybe more like a middle-aged man lugging heavy bags.  If you’d seen that storm, you’d have done the same.


Back at the gas station, trying to drag my breathing back to normal, I ran into an elderly Navajo gent called “Erm…, Ed”.  Despite the fact that ‘Ed’ was clearly fibbing about his name for some reason, I felt his pick-up truck was a better option for The Beast and I than either sleeping at the gas station or leaving shelter again that night.  ‘Ed’ duly repaid my trust by dropping me safely in the centre of town, our driving speed having been reduced to 15mph in places by the sheer volume of rain.  Thanks, ‘Ed’.

Once the storm cleared, I could press on to the Grand Canyon.  A downhill run to Cameron trading post, before a big climb out of Navajo country and up to the south rim at Desert View.  I rolled into Cameron feeling a little unsettled due to the shock of my second puncture of the trip, due primarily to the Arizona state sport of throwing glass bottles out of cars.  But thanks to the delay caused by fixing the flat, I gained a riding buddy for the Grand Canyon, Colin from New York.

Having someone to talk to up the near-1000m (3000ft-plus) climb up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon made the whole thing a lot easier (as I discovered in France, it makes the time zip past too).  And it was also good to have someone to confirm that the scale of the place is truly impressive (which is really difficult to convey on photos).


We spent two nights at the Canyon, with a nice little 25-mile ride between campsites to soak up the immensity of the place.  The second morning, we woke to a herd of deer walking through the campsite, and then found our path to morning coffee blocked by a couple of completely unbothered elk.  And then a pretty gentle run down to Williams and old Route 66.  I’ll be following the legendary road west from here toward California, while Colin is heading east to rendezvous with a car for a cross-country drive back to NY.

So, back to solo tomorrow (Friday), getting my kicks on Route 66.  Maybe.  In any case, hopefully a shorter gap until the next update…