From Boulder Beach there is a short but steep climb into Boulder City. Boulder City is unremarkable. As you leave town and get onto US 95 South, you get one of those endless desert views. We roll downhill for 20 miles or so. There is a field of solar panels in the distance, but spatial perceptions get distorted when one’s view is this unobstructed. I expect to be passing it within 20 minutes, but it is more than an hour away. Our goal for the day is a place called Searchlight. We see a cyclist in front of us pulling a trailer. From behind I realize that he is a different breed. The trailer is an overloaded baby carriage with wobbling wheels. It is mostly full of garbage, although he has an entire spare wheel as well.
“Heyo, on your left.”
He shrieks in response. His clothes are tattered, what’s left of his hair is matted in a single dreadlock that resembles a waffle, brown skin from sun and filth, and he smells like urine. “Sorry man, didn’t mean to scare you. You need water or anything?”
“I’m fine,” he wheezes. We decide we’re not in the mood to push for conversation and were happy that our pace seemed to be much faster than his. I had a dark feeling that he would be carried away by the vultures, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Searchlight is a peculiar town in that people choose to live there despite the fact that it has no redeeming qualities. As you approach, there is a sign that pays tribute to veterans of the First World War. Then another for the second. Then veterans of the Korean War. Vietnam. My eyebrow raises a bit toward the one that honors veterans of the Cold War. The last one pays tribute to veterans of The Global War on Terror.
The only place that sells fresh vegetables is connected to a casino where smoking is allowed, so any lettuce you buy will taste like an ash tray. We’re fortunate to find a spot to camp on top of a hill that appears to be part of some unused mining property. It’s just a mile or two outside of town.
The road out is full of construction. The next day we find ourselves weaving from one side to the other trying to keep the cones between us and traffic. Trucks carry boiling tar. The smell makes me nauseous. We get a great stretch of downhill, but the shoulder is covered in shrapnel and we have to weave through it at 25 mph.
Old ladies are working the slot machines in the grocery store in Laughlin. One appears to have arthritis in her hands so badly that she can’t press the buttons. She swings her little tyrannosaurus arms from her elbows and shoulders. Her palms come crashing onto red and blue flashing controls. She screams and spits and has a 64 ounce Styrofoam cup of some mysterious purple drink that she spills between turns. I think about how my generation crawled from the same sludge as her, close my eyes, and consider several possible futures for humanity.
Not far up the road is Big Bend State Recreation Area. It is beautiful and tranquil. I have no idea how it ended up in Nevada. The showers cost twenty five cents.
“It don’t take a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dylan said that.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“BOB DYLAN WROTE IT!”
“SO WE HAVE TO RIDE”
The winds were forecasted to be 40 mph, from the north. It was like sweet redemption for three months of headwinds, all bundled up into one little sunny Nevada Thursday.
“IT SOUNDS DANGEROUS!”
“IT SOUNDS FUN!”
We agreed to ride to Needles. It was only 20 miles or so. We would get a hotel there. Riding with a wind like that at your back is sort of an out of body experience. Like being in the eye of a hurricane or a post-apocalyptic dream sequence. You see the wind. The dust blowing around, tumble weeds, trees bending to the ground, shingles peeling off of houses…… But because you’re moving at the same speed, you feel nothing and you hear nothing. Total silence. The most peaceful moments on a bike that ever were, even though the mouth of hell is swallowing everything around you. It’s a void Euphonic sensation. Every now and then I notice the hum of my tires, but mostly there is nothing.
The road turns east. A crosswind brings consciousness back as it almost knocks me over. A speed limit sign breaks from its post and becomes an impressive threat of decapitation. This forces me to recalculate our chances of survival on this whole thing.
Needles, California. We drove through this town once on our way back from Mexico. At first we considered getting a room to rest, but after laying our eyes on it decided that we could push the rest of the way home. Unfortunately, that was not an option this time.
The town is beyond dead. It exists because there is a road. Closed is not quite the right word for most of the storefronts as the windows have been smashed and the doors kicked in. We get a room at the most respectable place in town after verifying that it was free of bedbugs, get some provisions at the most respectable dollar store we can find, have an atrocious meal, and buy some ice cream. Two things stand out to me. There is an electric car charging station, and the Jack in the Box has a bin for compost. I struggle to place all of this for several days.
We decide to ride along the east edge of Lake Havasu, through Havasu City, rather than through Vidal Junction. A dirt road goes through Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. Somebody tells us that the road dead ends in the middle of it, but the map shows it as complete. We come to several signs which state things like “Authorized vehicles only,” or “Security clearance required.” We debate whether or not a bike is a vehicle and choose not to discuss the more obvious threats. This was one of the best sections of road in a while. Well graded, no cars, lakes and cattails all around. Well worth trespassing.
We have to ride on I-40 for 10-20 miles. The shoulder was full of cracks and heaves and was quite possibly the worst stretch of pavement we’d been on to date. The first thing I noticed when we got off and onto highway 95 was a pair of bikes painted white with some flowers on the ground around them. Ghost bikes.
Havasu City is America’s concentration camp for retired car salesmen and their multi-level marketing wives. It is a throwback to when America was great, a time when the drinking fountains were filled with soda and we had the disposable income to build nonsensical displays of our might. Founded by a chainsaw wielding industrialist and megalomaniac named Robert McCulloch, the town’s main attraction is the London Bridge. The English, not known for their civil engineering prowess, found that the bridge over the River Thames was sinking and needed to be replaced. McCulloch bought it, shipped it to Arizona, and had it rebuilt over a stretch of sand. Realizing that a key component was missing, he then diverted the Colorado River to go beneath it.
At the grocery store, everyone’s cart is full of bottled water, prescription opioids, and white bread.
With no shoulder we are forced into traffic. An RV pulls up to within a few feet of Soph’s rear tire. It revs its engine and inches toward her, lays off a foot or so, then pushes forward again. We hold our ground and shout certain obscenities as it finally passes us on the left. This is standard fare in Havasu. I deliberate keeping a small rock or other projectiles in my front basket should the necessity to break somebody’s windshield as a kindly warning that we will not be mauled without doing several hundred dollars in damage arise.
“Do you know what the Dutch reach is?”
“I just read an article that they are teaching it in England.”
“Wouldn’t that be classified as state sponsored assault?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe the Dutch reach means something different here.”
On the outskirts of town is Cattail Cove, a state park. That this place can be so near to such homogenous decadence is beyond explanation. The road twists down from 95 and straight up to the water with a hundred or so camp sites. The view is hard to explain except that it looks like somebody flooded a valley in the middle of a barren desert mountain range. This is of course exactly what has happened here. The fact that this body of water is completely unnatural and out of place doesn’t dawn on you at first. It is one of man’s more beautiful creations. After mostly wild camping for the last week, the nightly routine of couples helping each other back up an RV, pushing buttons that transform them into small palaces, running generators, and watching movies is a strange party to sit on the sidelines of.
Camped near us are Mike and Sunmi. We have breakfast with them and they help us realize that to not take a rest day here would be ludicrous. As this is taking place there is some confusion over our payment from the previous night and I am forced to use my charm on the park ranger after her and Soph exchanged a few scowls.
“I cannot defend the actions of my wife,” I said, “but you have to admit that I’m not the first person to describe you as abrasive.” She did not take kindly to this, though I caught a smile from her subordinate.
We spent the day with Mike and Sunmi and then had dinner back at their campsite.
Highway 95 continues on as a death trap. Angry drivers and terrible surface. The shoulder is full of debris. This makes things extra dangerous because drivers don’t realize how much more a bit of sand or broken glass impacts us and have a depreciated care for our well-being as they do not see any reason why we should not be riding through the gauntlet. We stop at the Walmart in Parker and I observe a seventy pound woman buying a fifty pound tube of ground beef.
We finally turn onto highway 72 and the drivers become less violent.
“Mexico! Well you just remember that the bandits are more dangerous than the drug dealers.” A man in Bouse tells us. We camp at a little county park but it was so windy that we had to put the tent in a drainage ditch for protection.
The next night in Salome we stay in a similar place. There are some discreetly placed signs warning that the water is undrinkable. An older man traveling by motor cycle stops by our camp. He’d been on the road for two years.
“I’ve been to Mexico. It is mostly trash, but there are a few spots that you can go and there are only Americans and Canadians. Don’t bother with Baja.”
“We love Baja.”
“Jesus God Almighty! Do you know what’s happening there with the caravan and the raping?”
He goes on to tell us about it. At least that is what I assumed. I lost interest and focused on setting the tent up while muttering an occasional “uh huh,” or “mmmmm.” He must have sensed that we were terrorist and rapist sympathizers as he appeared to get quite offended and trudged off.
The Salome highway unexpectedly turned into a picture perfect dirt road encapsulated by saw tooth mountains for 8 miles. We see a car on the side and there are some nude hippies frolicking in the sun. We spend the next couple of days going through Wintersburg, Gila Bend, Ajo, and Why. None of these towns has its own Craigslist page. As a result, there is always a cork board outside a gas station with job postings, mowers for sale, missed connections, and advertisements to trade ten percent of one’s hard earned cash in return for eternal salvation. Old optimists scratch their chins at the prospect guaranteed entry beyond the pearly gates.
It is all arid cattle land. The towns are generally dusty and empty. There are old bridges and dams that have collapsed and been forgotten. Trucks hauling hay seem to be the only vehicles on the road. Smoke clouds in the distance on Goldwater Airforce Base. I wonder what they are and then feel the earth shake as a bomb is dropped for testing. Early evenings filled with coyote cries.
We camp on BLM land outside of Ajo. Twilight and peaceful. We decide to take a day off. Border patrol trucks and four-wheelers drive by constantly as I sit and read. I wonder if they will harass us with our Mexican flags.
“Illegals are missing the trick.”
“They put all this energy into hiding. Seems like if they just rode through the desert on a bike with a Mexican flag, a ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ shirt, and CCR on the radio, nobody would bother them.”
On November 17th, we entered the Tohono O’ Odham reservation. Reservations are strange places in that most people feel they should be avoided. “The Rez,” they call it.
A guy in Boulder City had warned us about the rez. “Yeah I took the wife through the rez 20 years ago. I told her, ‘Yer gonna ride shot gun.’ She didn’t know what that meant until I handed her the gun and told her to shoot any of those redskins that got too close.”
“Sure did,” his wife added with a smile.
Back in Southeast Michigan, the rez is not generally something that is ever discussed. The only person I ever heard bring it up was L. Brooks Patterson. He is a violent drunkard and a fascist. He got hammered and crashed his car during an election cycle and still managed to win without being able to campaign due to the fact that he was confined to a hospital bed. The ever quotable had this today with regards to Detroit and Native Americans:
“I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’”
Highway 86 cuts through the rez for about a hundred miles. The road is quiet. The drivers are accommodating. There are plenty of places to camp. It is hot and there isn’t a cloud in the sky for protection. Soph is visibly tired in the last hour of these days. I on the other had am listening to Queen, White Zombie, and Them crooked vultures. My trail mix is empty, but I have a firm belief that with the right music playing, I can easily muster another 10-20 miles when I need to. I find it shocking that professional sports do not consider this a performance enhancing drug.
We camp behind some bushes, just 30 feet from the road. We might be a bit visible, but at 65 mph, nobody will notice us. We’ve rigged a string across the top of the tent to hang Soph’s laptop so we can watch movies. Every now and then a car shoots by and we can’t hear. I go out into the three quarter moon to get some water. A car is audible in the distance. Everything else silent, I listen for several minutes as it approaches. It takes several minutes for the sound to pass as well. Then back to that silence that I have only known in the desert. The audio void is filled with a strange high pitch ring from within my own skull. I realize that this must always be present, but I only hear it when there is nothing else around. In other places, we think we get silence, but there is almost always the white noise of a freeway in the distance. A windless night in the desert. Enough moon light that you could roam for miles without a torch. The trees standing perfectly still. Not a bug. Not a mouse. Nothing but the grinding of the gears between your ears.
For all of the beauty on 86, there are ominous signs of great peril. The road is littered with little memorials from those that have been in accidents and lost their lives. I see as many as five in a one mile stretch. A little pink church, 2 feet tall, with a clear poly carbonate window on the front and a 22 ounce can of beer surrounded by photos and other trinkets inside, a ring of lava rocks painted white on the ground around it.
Horses graze freely on the side of the road. We stop when we see a coyote and it curiously approaches us before backing off. Birds of prey circle overhead.
In the middle of the res is a small settlement called Sells. We pass through and stock up, then another night in the Desert. Theh next day we decide to push for Tucson. We get up early and are making great time. An old Army vet stops us in Three Points and bends our ears for close to an hour. Shortly after I get an inch and a half drywall screw in my tire. We finally roll into Tucson, to my old friend Jim’s place, around five.
You two are doing great! We met you in Hyder, AK and look at you now!
Thanks Bobbi and David. Refresh my memory, were you the two that gave us a tour of your camper?
Yes, Sophie saw the woodwork and wanted to see it, 43’ Class A. We were very glad to meet you both. You better hang on to her! Hard to find a travel companion with that kind of endurance!
“London Bridge is falling down” is part of a well-known English nursery rhyme. But, in general, there are some fine examples of British engineering. The stone-built London Bridge that preceded the one on show at Lake Havasu lasted 600 years. I challenge you to come up with a single stone-built US bridge that has lasted that long 😉
I was living in London around the time that the news broke that some American was buying the remarkably unremarkable London Bridge. Brits were incredulous until we learned that the purchaser thought he was buying the spectacular and iconic Tower Bridge, the bridge on all the postcards. As far as I know, there has never been a (British) postcard depicting London Bridge. The deal almost fell through when US partners in the venture realised they weren’t getting Tower Bridge. History has since been revised to claim that London Bridge had been the intended purchase all along. Londoners, smugly superior and a little anti-American, were happy to see London Bridge go. If it had been Tower Bridge, there would have been rioting in the streets.