She didn’t call us crazy!

I could barely remember another time in the US when, having seen our bikes or telling people what we’re doing (which is riding bikes…just quite a long way), the response hasn’t been ‘Are you crazy?!’

In the small grocery store, hidden among the gated apartment blocks of Primm, away from the casinos, hotels and gas stations, the petite lady at the counter simply said, “That’s great. You’ve got to take these opportunities when you can because you never know what’s in store tomorrow.”

If it wasn’t for her distant smile I might have thought she was referring to the fact that we were rapidly emptying her store of goods. Already there was an empty shelf where the bread and chocolate had been. The introspective look suggested a missed opportunity. I can’t imagine many people’s dreams are to work in a grocery store on the edge of the Nevada-California state border. But I’ll never know because I nodded agreement with an introspective smile which suggested I know how lucky I am, took the change and walked out the door, leaving the lady staring into the distance… or was it to theĀ  confectionery isle? Maybe she was referring to her store afterall.

Still the traffic roared down the interstate. Non-stop all Thanksgiving weekend. Thousands of people in their cars jamming up the highway. Everyone else seemed to be jamming up the drive-thru McDonalds, which was a shame because we wanted cheap coffee. The fast-food joint was filled with Mexican families. I suspect the American ones were in Starbucks…

A short slog along the interstate hard shoulder before we could take to the quieter back roads through the Mohave Desert National Preserve.

Much quieter than the interstate, but nowhere near the silence of Utah’s Crystal Peak road. The sea of Joshua trees spanning the green valley made up for the occasional car. The frequent procession of 4×4’s filled with quad bikes and cool boxes that prevented me from taking my preferred line straight down the middle of the road.

Lars is convinced that i’ll be hit by a truck one of these days. I don’t know though. If I can safely negotiate Nigeria’s manic highways in this fashion, there must be some sense in it. Far more likely i’ll get hit crossing a road back home. Looking right the left then right again and not the other way, because I’ve forgotten that in Britain we drive on the left side of the road. Or more likely, i’ll forget to look at all…

But back to the Joshua trees. So many of them. More than in the Joshua Tree National Park. Indeed Cima (where we were cycling through) has the highest concentration of Joshua trees. Anywhere. Cima is also a ghost town. Well, that’s what a closed down grocery store with boarded up windows surrounded by rusting farm machinery is called in California. In Idaho is called the recession and in Utah it’s called ‘out-of-tourist-season’ or just ‘Sunday’.

Cima Ghost Town
Cima Ghost Town

Kelso was another ghost town. Deserted except for the thriving visitor centre (yes, it was actually open, the cafe too) at the old depot manned by a ranger-lady with a manic grin who was determined to take our photo.

Whoever calls these places ghost towns should try visiting one of the deserted towns in the western Sahara, then they’d know the meaning.

One sunset we pulled off the road and camped beside the rail line. The desert is a mystical place where time and distance warp. What appears near is far and small sounds are amplified, especially at night. Even a small insect sound can be mistaken for a larger threat. So just imagine the racket of a Union Pacific cargo train rattling past within feet of your tentĀ  almost hourly and the constant buzz from the electricity wires. It was not a peaceful night!

Railway sunset
Railway sunset

It was all uphill for a long time. Slow and boring. But as has to happen if you just keep pedalling and slowly gnawing away at the miles, you eventually reach the top. And then it’s downhill… but not for quite so long. Ethereal hills rose from the hazy valley floor. Golden brown and yellow sands. The Mohave wasn’t always desert landscape of creosote bush scrub though. Water once flowed and wildlife thrived. Now only the toughest survive. Coyote and fox, snakes, hare and tortoise. We didn’t even see these. Just a kestrel and the ever-present raven.

Desert Life
Desert Life

In the valley floor we took a right turn. Onto the classic highway, Route 66. That I wasn’t expecting. Nor Roy’s cafe at the gas station in Amboy. From the outside, this place has definitely seen better days. It too would probably be called a ghost town, except for someone’s concerted effort to immortalise the place.

Route 66 and Me
Route 66 and Me

Inside the cafe it’s all red and white chequered table cloths, swivel chairs lining the counter, popcorn boxes and coca-cola bottles with the walls plastered with newspaper clippings from livelier days. A museum. Neither dead nor alive. The ‘no kitchen’ sign behind the antique cash register confirming it.

Roy's Cafe on Route 66
Roy's Cafe on Route 66

Across the desert some more. With not much but the wind, which was more than enough. Along through Wonder Valley. Although the only thing to wonder about is why people would choose to live there. There’s a military base nearby, which I can understand for the isolation. And that explains the sizeable town of 29 Palms. Although I counted more 29 palm trees. But why, tell me, would you live in a small fenced-on plot on a barren tract of land, where water does not flow and the wind howls. Come to think of it. I didn’t see a human soul around any of these single storey homes. Just dogs barking and American flags fluttering.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park was good to ride through. Not so many Joshua trees in the south-eastern part we visited. Not enough specimens to find one that looks remotely like the prophet Joshua with outstretched palms. It was the Mormons who named the tree such. But the desert can do strange things. What looks like am oasis may be a mirage. And what looks like a tree may be a saviour. Lars thought the ocotillo plant looked like Einstein heads with crazy hair. Cycling in the desert can do strange things…

Ocotilla plant or Einstein head?
Ocotilla plant or Einstein head?

‘What?’ I had been meandering through an overgrown garden of cholla cacti and discovering that the spiky balls scattered on the floor actually have tiny barbs on their ends that attach to shoes, socks and skin. After a painful extraction process, I return to the marked path and ask Lars what the leaflet says. ‘Jumping teddy bears!’ Ignoring this random exclamation as a, ‘go get your own leaflet’, I disappear again into this dangerous overgrowth with my camera.

Jumping Teddy Bear Cholla Cacti
Jumping Teddy Bear Cholla Cacti

Turns out the leaflet really did say ‘jumping teddy bears’. That’s what these cacti are called. Whoever came up with this name was suffering the same dillusions as those Mormons. I can testify, there is nothing cuddly about these plants. I can however believe the jumping part… I was particularly cautious on my second wander, but despite considerable care, I was once again treated to nature’s acupuncture. I swear they jumped onto me. Attracted to my sweaty legs. More moisture than these cacti had felt since the last desert rain. Whenever that may have been.

Joshua Tree and Lars (Not a prophet and his follower!)
Joshua Tree and Lars (Not a prophet and his follower!)

From Joshua Tree NP to Mecca. Not the Mecca that every good Muslim faces towards 5 times a day. Another Mecca, in California. I think it’s mostly Mexicans who make the journey here though. For seasonal employment fruit picking. Mecca was grapefruit and lemons, peppers and vines. Tacos for breakfast and a dust-filled air brought by the Santa Ana winds.

River bed camping before the Santa Ana winds started up
River bed camping before the Santa Ana winds started up

I became well-acquainted by this seasonal wind that blasts down from the mountains and tears across southern California. As Pasadena was ripped apart, I lay cocooned and sweating in my sleeping bag. Sand blew under the flapping tent outer, continued unabated through the mesh inner and deposited itself on everything inside. It wasn’t until we had cycled along Salton Sea and I could shower in El Centro that I finally rid my earfuls of sand.

From here it was in to Mexico. But that’s in the next update. As always, Lars is more up to date with his blog…