11/2/18 – 11/4/18
When we first moved to St. George, somebody took me climbing at a place called Woodbury Crags. You drive on Old Highway 91, which was the original road to Vegas before they blew I-15 through the gorge. You go through a mountainous area known as the Utah Hills and hit this long descent into the desert near the Arizona border. There are some creosote scrubs and Joshua trees scattered in the dust, but for the most part there is nothing. When you top out on the sharp white limestone faces of Woodbury Crags, you overlook the road and this desert. The view could be the cover art for a Rush album. The pavement runs endlessly. More than a thousand feet below you, and 15 miles in front of you, you see this little town called Beaver Dam. “Don’t go to Beaver Dam,” most folks from St. George will tell you. “They sell lottery tickets there and the houses aren’t very nice.”
I had been wanting to ride down that hill since the day I saw it. I never had any interest in riding back up it though and today presented the perfect opportunity to drop down and keep going. It took almost 2 hours to do the first 14 miles or so uphill from St. George. The next 15 were behind us in about 45 minutes.
Beaver Dam didn’t have much to live up to, and didn’t disappoint. Every shop had been cleverly named “The Dam Car Wash” or “The Dam Laundromat.” We stopped at “The Dam Liquor Store” and ate pie and hash browns that Soph had pilfered from the breakfast buffet at Red Mountain. A man came up to give us the usual Q&A session. “You can’t ride to Argentina!!! There’s an ocean.” I was stooped on a low lying rock and he was standing awkwardly close. As I looked up, prepared to give a quick lesson in geography and the marvels of modern transportation technology, I realized that his fly was unzipped and he was wearing American flag boxer briefs.
“Shit,” I said, “I guess we have some route planning to do.”
After Beaver Dam Highway 91 crosses under I-15 and heads for Mesquite, NV. This is a spectacular, albeit short, stretch. It is also a prime example of short sighted planning. The road is built on top of a mud flat that is also a drainage ditch for the mountains all around it. There are deep ravines carved and in some places the road drops 30 feet on each side. At other points you ride through short little canyons with conglomerate mudstone speckled with little pebbles that rise ten to twenty feet on either side of the asphalt. At some point the road will collapse or wash away.
I notice Veronica starting to lag behind and we wait for her.
“I think I have a flat.”
I find a little rock stuck in her tread, pull it out, and hear a pathetic hissing as the rubber deforms between her wheel and the road. While I change her tube, my dad and step mom pull up. They were on their way to Vegas to fly back to Michigan and followed our route in hopes to see us.
“Now you see the dark side of this business,” I joke with the valve cap in my mouth. It’s a fast fix, we chat, hug one last time, and everyone is moving again.
Mesquite is unremarkable other than the fact that the alcohol prices are markedly less in Nevada than in Utah so everyone from St. George goes there to stock up. It is also the closest place to buy recreational Marijuana and to gamble.
“Jews don’t recognize Christmas, Catholics don’t recognize Passover, and Mormons…. well we don’t recognize each other at the casino in Mesquite,” a friend once told me.
Seven miles outside of town we find a short gravel road that is washed out and climbs steeply to a ledge about thirty feet above us. There is a clearing littered with shotgun shells, broken glass, and a dead cow. We find a clean spot a hundred yards up wind and pitch camp. As it got dark we see a massive LED sign in Mesquite that flashed “24 hour slots!!!” We could also see a ball of light reflecting off the clouds several dozen miles to the south, Vegas.
The temps were in the low fifties. It was the first time we slept without the rain fly in close to two or three months. My stomach cramps came back though and I didn’t sleep much as I feared the worst. Around eleven, I was in cold sweats. I took my mind off of them by listening to the coyotes howl in the distance. I was certain that I was going to get up to vomit. After the coyotes silenced, I focused on counting shooting stars. I thought about our bargain bin insurance policy and how seeing a doctor would be a more straight forward decision if I had lost a leg.
I’d counted 17 meteors. At quarter to midnight I heard a cow in the distance. I thought it sounded distressed, but I know nothing of bovine. The wailing gets closer. Around midnight it is walking within thirty feet of our tent. I sit up to look through the screen, but I cannot see it. I can hear its hooves clacking against the packed sand and rock, and it is still screaming. Just that morning we’d been joking with my dad about how more people are killed by cows than sharks. I recall a run in with one earlier in the year while hiking. A mother started charging at me. I threw my arms in the air and screamed “STOP!” It pulled back about ten feet from me.
Another time, in Nicaragua, I got caught in a stampede. My friend Alfredo and I were walking in a drainage ditch at the base of Concepcion Volcano. We could feel the ground start to shake and hear a rumbling. We turned around to see several hundred bulls running. Thirty feet in front of us there was a tree about 2 feet in diameter. We ran to it and stood down wind of the monsters. Some passed within a foot of us. We were left covered in dust and coughing. Alfredo didn’t speak much English and I knew very little Spanish, but I’m pretty sure we said the same thing afterward. I respect cows.
I studied its movements. It seemed to be travelling laterally in relation to our location. Eventually I could tell it was getting further away. I laid back down to focus on the excruciating pain in my gut.
Around 1:30 it was back. I went through the same routine and it was clear this time that it was just passing through. Vomiting seems inevitable, but it never happens.
En route to Lake Mead the next day we have to ride on Interstate 15. The shoulder is wide, there is very little debris, and the wind is at our backs. We chew off a quick 25 miles. Outside a grocery store in Overton we are discussing the fact that it is silly to be carrying a dozen Mexican flags. I wanted to fly them from our bikes as a sign of respect in Mexico, but Amazon only sells them in packs of fifteen. I felt bad just throwing them away.
“Maybe you can give them to the girl scouts over there.”
“I’m not sure that they have the same patriotic spirit as the boy scouts.”
“Hey, we’re even more patriotic, what’s it to you?” Apparently she overheard me.
“Nothing, I just have these Mexican flags. Maybe you want a dozen? You could give them out with your cookies.”
“To show solidarity with our Latin American brothers and sisters traveling on foot from Honduras. We’re flying them from our bikes. This is the migrant caravan to Mexico.”
She paused for a split second.
“Sure, why not.” Problem solved. We discussed our water situation. Our plan was to filter from Roger’s spring, near the lake.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the Girl Scout troop leader jumped in. “It has a parasite.”
“You can die”
We decided we would head for the lake and filter there.
Highway 169 through the Lake Mead recreation area is classic red rock country. There is nothing living and until you reach that giant manmade mud hole there is nothing that can support life as we know it. Purely Martian. The lake itself is remarkable. I’m told that it has receded more than 80 feet from its high point in the 1980’s. Retired boat launches now exist over a mile from where the lake once stretched. For some reason the loss of their primary source of water does not seem to bother the average desert dweller enough to make them reconsider the efficacy of a well saturated lawn.
We approach through a vast flat pebbled parking lot. There is an old cathode ray tube television and some other unremarkable relics of human history. I imagine this place, Stewart’s Point, in peak season. A thousand booze starved Nevadans. Spring break. Soulless self-indulgent beach parties with excessive amounts of country music and Coors Light. Mother Nature bled dry and dying on the ground behind them. Bayonets in the air, ready to dam the next river over.
I wake up at 1:30 with stomach cramps. I walk a half mile in the dark across that empty flats to the outhouse. It is almost impossible to find in the dark. I sit. An ingenious design causes a constant cool brisk wind to whisk below me. I read a bit of Hell’s Angels. It was a strange and tranquil moment. I lost my way in the dark trying to find our tent and decided to lay on the ground and watch the sky. Eventually I got up and found my way. The whole trip lasted close to 90 minutes.
The next day, November 4th, we continue along the lake on Highway 169. Not too far into the day my shifter cable breaks. I repair it with relative expediency and some older guys in Jeeps stop and loan me a cable cutter to clip the end.
The mountains…. an amalgamation of geologic features that I had seen in Utah, but never at this scale. The deep red Navajo sandstone occasionally has a black varnish on it. I’m told that it is from manganese binding to it, but I am not a geologist. I do know that despite being less than a millimeter thick it hardens the stone and this is what I always look for as a climber. In Utah, you get it in small patches. Somewhere near Echo Bay there is a mountain completely covered in it except for one side that has a deep gash several hundred feet wide and a thousand feet tall. The red stone exposed under the black varnish looks like torn flesh.
Pyroclastic droppings on red sand. Mountains of coffee grounds over red velvet. And then you are spit out into Vegas. That big loaf of white bread. We camp at a park called Boulder Beach. I’m beaten by the time we roll in and this confuses me. I inspect my bike and it appears that my brake had been rubbing all day. This is the end of the road for Veronica. Her friend Nate drives out to pick us up and brings us one of those steroid fed lab grown chickens that sits under a heat lamp for 12 hours at the grocery store and some salad.