11/25 – 11/29
I didn’t sleep much the night of the twenty fifth. I like to think that it had something to do with Mexico on the horizon, but more likely it was that last glass of whiskey that I had forced down. Still, I made the most of the rare bout of insomnia and imagined sitting on the streets of little colonial plazas, eating tacos, and watching dusty men in cowboy hats leaning against old brick walls, smoking and laughing.
By the time seven o’clock rolled around, I’d been staring at the ceiling for an hour. I was replaying a Califone concert that I had gone to a few years back. I wandered out to the patio and there sat Jim, feeding the koi. He had a 100 mile ride planned for the day with his team. They would do it in less time than it would take us to ride half that distance. One last round of hugs, and we were out.
Tucson has a nice trail system that we probably should have used on our way into the city. On the way out we ride 10 miles of paved bike path and then a mile or two of road before getting on US-10. There is light Sunday traffic. The shoulder is wide and smooth. My hangover is really starting to kick in. My muscles are failing early, my head is pounding, occasionally I get a taste of Jameson that creeps up from my gut, and I am completely dehydrated but unable to drink for fear of vomiting. Alcoholism is thankfully a sport that I concede to being completely outmatched in and hence don’t really bother to get in the game.
We roll into Kartchner Caverns and are promptly reminded that the Arizona State Park Service is infected with deeply rooted paranoia and contempt for cyclists. After several menacing stares and veiled threats from park rangers and campground hosts we decide to ride on and find a nice place 100 yards beyond the park entrance on some National Forest land. The sun sets over the mountains, it gets cold and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. We’re in the tent by six and I am asleep by seven thirty.
The ride into Bisbee is probably beautiful. I don’t remember much of it because Bisbee itself overshadows everything from that day. After thousands of feet of climbing you see a sign that warns of a five percent downhill grade for five miles. Immediately after this, you see that you’re going to go through a tunnel. You’re speed quickly hits thirty five miles an hour. I don’t bother to take my sunglasses off before the tube so I can’t really see. The combination of the wind and the micro rumble strips in the road cause a reverberation in my head that makes it sound as if there is a semi-truck on my tail. I try to look over my shoulder, but I’m going so fast that any large twisting of my body makes the bike unstable. .
We pop back into the light and the cliff sides are covered with little houses rising vertically from the main drag in town below us. It looks as if they’re built on top of one another. We pull in to find a bike shop in hopes that somebody can point us in the direction of a place to camp. “It’s not a normal bike shop, but go see Ken at the Bisbee Bicycle Brothel,” one man tells us.
Ken is a soft spoken, yet talkative man in his 70’s. He is from North Carolina. He wears a hat like a train conductor and has a sort of walrus mustache. He refers to us as “ya’ll” and invites us in to warm up and listen to some bluegrass. He is an encyclopedia of English cycling history.
“Well you must know Beryl Burton,” he says to Soph and gets a blank stare in return. “She set the world record, and I don’t mean the women’s record, but the world record for the twelve hour time trial with 277 miles in 1967. It took two years for a man to break it.”
His “shop” is filled with bikes and frames. Each has a story about who rode it, who built, how he got it, etc. These are special bikes. I didn’t recognize one name that he mentioned other than Lemond, but every one of his bikes seemed to have won a major race. The peculiar thing was that nothing really appeared to be for sale. This is how things are in Bisbee as we would learn though. Stores are just a front for some old hippy to lure you in and inundate you with strange facts about the roots of competitive cycling or perhaps a heated debate on Nietzche or Utilitarianism.
“You can camp behind the store. I’d invite you to my house, but it is several miles up a 20% grade.”
There appears to be a homeless man already taking up residence on a small flat patch of grass. “Well he’s got that ladder laying there, maybe he stays in the channel.” This is a system of drainage canals that are ten feet deep and fifteen feet wide to catch the winter snow melt. Not interested in a potential neighbor whom appeared to be ok with defecating next to his tent, we opt out. Ken introduces us to Gary, who owns the book store across the street. Gary says that we can sleep in his front yard. We work our way further up the main drag and stop for dinner at a little bodega. We get meatloaf and a Greek salad.
“Excuse me, are those your bikes?”
“Well this might be a bit weird, but it feels like the right thing to do. If you’re just traveling through and need a place to stay, I have a guest house not too far from here. You can stay there if you want. It’s going to be in the low twenties tonight.”
I call the book store and inform Gary of our upgraded accommodations. We chat with the woman, Beth, for a few, finish our dinner, and then wander up the hill to the house. It is a perfect little 900 square foot cottage upgraded with all modern luxuries such as hot water and wifi. We lay around for a few and then wander town.
“My boss is a singer from New Jersey?”
“It’s on that bumper sticker. I don’t get it.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Still not following you.”
“Bruce Motherfucking Springsteen! He’s The Boss.”
I have tried on numerous occasions to explain to Soph the importance of listening to Born To Run cover to cover through headphones in a hammock on a warm night, but the English just won’t ever get certain things. I never bothered to bring up Nebraska.
“Bob Dylan is English you know.”
“Bob Dylan is from Minnesota, the English booed him off stage for playing an electric guitar, and his real name is Robert Zimmerman.”
“Just because he is Jewish doesn’t mean he’s not from England.”
“I can play you some Dylan on my new guitar.”
The night goes like this. We follow the echoing of music to a few bars. We get back to our little place and go to bed. As I try to sleep, I realize that my hangover had covered up the fact that I was coming down with a cold or the flu. I don’t honestly know which because I so rarely get sick. Either way, my joints ached, my body temp soared, and I was shivering. I didn’t sleep much. I felt better in the morning, and we roamed town.
Bisbee is what happens when there is a great need for a town to be built in an extremely steep canyon next to a rich copper mine in a period void of the shackles of modern building codes. Many homes are not serviced by roads. You have to find a place to park and climb 10-100 steps to the front door. Beth’s home had a modest 12 steps. Anything that is not made of brick or stone appears to be made from copper.
Christopher Alexander would call Bisbee a “natural city.” Incrusted by the patina of having been lived in. Something that developed out of the synergistic amblings of locals without the expert guidance of urban planners who, if forced to build in such an inhospitable place, would have cut the mountain tops off to fill the valleys in and laid a grid over the top of everything with a church and a Walmart in the middle. Many of the cars in town have a bumper sticker that reads “Bisbee, like Mayberry on acid.”
The largest annual feat of strength is The Bisbee 1000. It has gone on for nearly 30 years. Participants compete in a four and half mile course that climbs 1034 of the town’s tens of thousands of steps. The record is 27:20.
Soph drank too much coffee late in the day and begins OCD cleaning the cottage while I direct my attention to a nap on the porch. There are some construction workers a few blocks away listening to Tom Petty. Their saws turn on and off every few minutes, but it is distant enough that it makes a pleasant background noise. The vacuum on hardwood floors that vibrate throughout the house was less pleasant.
“Not to be a buzzkill, but I think you might be going overboard.”
“I just feel like we should do something in return for the house.”
“The house is already spotless.”
“Yeah, but it could be even MORE spotless.”
“I’m not sure that we should look at this as a zero sum game.”
We discuss the motives of good people and good deeds.
“I think the repayment to them was knowing that they could help somebody and that we truly appreciated it and that hopefully when we are a bit more grounded, we will do the same for somebody else.”
“And a nice card.”
On the morning of the twenty ninth, we are finally en route to Mexico. Our destination is Cananea. The road continues to drop out of Bisbee, so much that we don’t notice the wind. We will cross in a small town called Naco. We can see a massive steel and barbed wire fence in the distance. This is not the “Beautiful wall” made of marble, granite, and gold that I thought we had been promised. Roads empty except tanks and Border Patrol trucks. Cloudless. Mid-fifties.
Before crossing we ask the US border patrol about an ATM and get a condescending remark about going to Mexico. On the Mexican side, we find out they only take cash. The woman processes our paperwork, hands us our passports, and says there is an ATM a few blocks away. “Please come back and pay,” she says.
Out of Naco, the road flattens and we start to feel the 15mph wind. It is soul destroying. I constantly wonder if I have a flat tire because my bike feels so hard to pedal. About fifteen kilometers ahead I can see a dust storm moving across the desert.
After a few hours of fighting the gale we are battered and stop at the first hotel outside of Cananea. It is in a strange business park with a conference center, an outdoor mall with cobble stone paths and fountains, and a park highlighted with old rusty thirty foot tall gears and other industrial relics. We’re in Mexico, but we’re not yet IN Mexico. There was a Chinese restaurant and a pizza shop nearby. We get Chinese. I vomit a bunch of Spanish at our waitress and she just says “No entiendo.” She doesn’t understand. The fortune cookies were in English.