Hey I made it.

June 1, 2010

So about that incredible cappuccino in Flagstaff. It was even better than the ones in Venice (Italy, that is, and California too for that matter). Which gives me the opportunity to deduce that coffee has become a most reliable litmus test of inherent goodness. All the rest of Arizona had to offer was burnt water, with personality to match.

I didn’t know Flagstaff was so high up, nor did I know there were legitimate mountains in Arizona. You never know what to expect from your geologic preconceptions after passing through places like Mountain View, OK (I looked for a picture and couldn’t find one, but believe me, it’s completely flat. There is an earth pimple that they consider a mountain a few miles away). But there I was, nestled under the watch of Humphrey’s peak, still capped with snow. I need to revisit geography.

The coffee beckoned me to stay the night, mainly so I could wake up and have another cup in the morning. I sent a few messages out on couchsurfing.org and was invited to stay with Marguerite, a biologist and avid rock-climber. She had four other surfers that night. Five total. Sasha, from Russia, Sašo, from Slovenia, and two girls from Sweden or something, it wasn’t really clear, and they didn’t stick around long enough to open up. Sasha and Sašo on the other hand, were happy to talk with anyone. They were both rock climbers and had been drifting around the US finding the best spots along the way. As it turns out, they had left Santa Fe the day before I arrived and had stayed with the same two girls I had stayed with where they were affectionately referred to as “the Slovenians.” There seemed to be a veritable  mythology surrounding these guys, giant wall-climbing Eastern Europeans with good humor. They were pretty epic, I must say. Sasha, or Alex as he also went by, had a better grasp of the English language than all of the native speakers I know. While travelling Europe, I had to change the way that I spoke, cutting out most metaphor and cliché to a simple reduction of pure language. Alex’s language was densely infused with color and expression, while retaining a strong accent. Sašo was a bit more reserved, but his Slovenian size and history in the private security business gave him a still powerful presence. Alex, small, redheaded and incredibly witty was so perfectly balanced with his dark-haired atlas-man counterpart. I wish I would have spent more time with this crew, but I had plans to head out early in the morning.

A morning mocha, vegetarian biscuits & gravy, a carrot-cranberry-pinenut muffin for the road and a wonderful conversation with another couchsurfer, Amber, before I set out. Amber had travelled quite a bit in Mexico and was currently working at a children’s home, and working the graveyard shift. Despite not having slept in quite a while, her travelling spirit came through and we talked about wonderful things around the world and the magic of small cities and of getting “lost” and… things that only certain people really glow about, but when they do it speaks to something deeper inside of us. It really has nothing to do with travelling, either, this feeling, this subject, this unnameable quality of life, and to acknowledge it only to let it go as a mystery casts a halo around the day.

So I decided to skip the Grand Canyon. I was not ready to visually devour “America’s Majesty.”

Essayist Wendell Berry, who I was reading at the time, helped motivate this change of heart.

Right at the heart of American conservation, from the beginning, has been the preservation of spectacular places. The typical American park is in a place that is “breathtakingly” beautiful or wonderful and of little apparent economic value. Mountains, canyons, deserts, spectacular landforms, geysers, waterfalls- these are the stuff of parks. There is, significantly, no prairie national park. Wilderness preserves, as Dave Foreman points out, tend to include much “rock and ice” and little markateable timber. Farmable land, in general, has tempted nobody to make a park. Wes Jackson has commented with some anxiety on the people who charge blindly across Kansas and eastern Colorado, headed for the mountains west of Denver. These are nature lovers and sightseers, but they are utterly oblivious of or bored by the rich natural and human history of the Plains. (Wendell Berry, Conservation is Good Work.)

Also, I thought it might be nice to see it while with someone else, and spend some time hiking around, but we can pretend it was a solely principled decision.

I checked the weather on the way out: three days of strong winds. Luckily for me, I would be going downhill for a while.

It was an easy ride to Kingman where I found some good camping on the west side of town, down old 66 towards Needles. The city itself wasn’t much, all strip malls and traffic and no goodness. The west side was littered with permanently parked RV’s and smelled of death. A little further, and veering away from 40, I found a good no traffic area where I set up camp just in time to see the sun set.

The next day’s ride was incredible. Well, after an early bashing on terrible pavement that is. Old 66 curved up through a series of small mountains and across Sitgreaves pass, the last hills until California. On the way up I met a man, 70 years old, who was doing a 60-mile bike loop back to his hometown on the other side of the mountains. It was his third attempt. We paced about the same when I started to see what was setting him back. It was an hours worth of tough but rewarding climbing. The area was beautiful, there was no traffic and no wind, and the sun gently warmed my back.

Looking down from the pass was invigorating, I had almost forgotten the joy of bicycle touring as it had become so routine and made tedious by traffic and wind. I remembered quiet rides through South Carolina and Georgia, where there was this feeling of tranquility being surrounded by the simplicity of rural life, less burdened by the threat of modernity.

Then down the mountain, breaking free from the tedium of exertion and control for a while. On the way down I met Laura Levy, who I would see repeatedly that day. She had previously cycled from Seattle to Texas on a recumbent bicycle, and had a wealth of encouraging words for me. And water, she had water. She was driving a pickup with a big camper shell, en route to Needles, at a leisurely pace to teach a class on using GPS technology to mark areas rife with invasive species.

Oatman came up like dirty swindler, dealing cards while you watch the sleight-of-hand. It was a “quaint” mining town a long time ago, now it hosts staged gunfights and a pack of jackasses crapping on the street. For some reason this area attracted Harley-riders. Harleys rumble my guts while I’m riding and make me physically nauseous, and so I’ve developed a sort-of irrational revulsion of them. It was high-noon, the bars were packed, the tchotchkes flying and the cameras whirring. First I looked for a cup of coffee, going to a “saloon” that already had alcohol on its breath and dollar bills lazily stapled all over the walls. Yeah, that sounds cozy. Next stop, the other “saloon” across the street. The menu advertised freedom fries for four dollars, and the rest of the menu equivalent. I decided to brave it and see how much a cup of coffee was. I went to sit down and the owner just stared at me…. and continued to stare at me… so I said “I’ll start with a cup of coffee.”

I found out later that it was a part of this town’s “charm” to be rude. Well, I didn’t know it, and pretty soon I was fed up with the owner and dipped out, no coffee, no water. I stopped for human contact and I get terrible theatrics. Bleh. I rode down to a shop to refill on water, as the next town wasn’t for 25 miles and was refused. That was the first time anyone had refused to let me fill up a water bottle. But I could buy some.

About this time Laura found me, as I was cursing Oatman. She filled my water for me, and I listened to her quiet contentment with observing the absurdity around us. Thanks, Laura.

I was famished, not having eaten since first thing in the morning, but decided to truck it to Needles. 30-odd miles of trucking it and there I was, in the belly of the eternal sun. The Colorado river was a lovely green-blue. The first significant source of water I had seen in quite a while.

I passed through a stop-point, where cars are frisked for fresh produce. They waved me on. I guess that was California’s version of a welcome center.

My friend told me that Needles struck her as a “hard-drug kind of town.” And I thought that it was named for the beautiful pine trees lining the river. In any case, there did seem to be a disproportionate number of sketchy-looking guys in sweatpants per capita than in most other city. Good news for me though, a cheap hotel room. Yay, Needles! It actually turned out to be an alright town, quiet, with a few beautiful spots and somewhat friendly people. I saw Laura again before I headed back to my hotel to finally take a shower.

Needles had an epic sunset.

I woke up ready for 1000 miles. I ended up doing around 105, and through the Mojave at that. I bought some overpriced goods at the only store around that had a “don’t harass the employees over the price sign.” Everything was marked up at least a dollar. “For Gas.” I asked the clerk for directions after letting him siphon out of my bank so I could use his tap and he told me he “didn’t know the area.” Specifically I asked him if this particular road was old 66 and if it were safe. There was a shelf of maps behind him. Mind you this is an area that sees a steady stream of automotive adventurers daily. I find it hard to believe that he had been working here for years and had no knowledge of the roads leading to and from. But he was happy and willing to sell me a marked up map.

Well, the road was right, I’m not a carcass in the desert, nor do I own a map of California. The Mojave was beautiful. A little hot.

I rode and rode and rode through a few ghost towns and towns with a population of four.

I cut down and headed towards Joshua Tree. I passed through an area of salt mines, where the sun reflected off the surface like a frozen lake. There was no one on the road and the solitude was absolutely precious. Moshen Namjoo blessed my ride with his music.

 I camped nestled between a few hills and slept well.

The morning took me almost immediately into the outskirts of 29 palms, a mostly military community near Inland Empire. There were an overwhelming number of “Thai massage” and tattoo parlors. I got honked at and laughed at. Other than that I guess it was an alright town. I went into a Pizza hut to refill on water when I saw a touring-rigged mountain bike outside, boasting stickers from India and elsewhere. Cool! I walked in and immediately spotted the black sheep, sitting to my right with a load of buffet item and a map in front of him.

“Where are you headed?”

“I-a-sarry. No speak-a english.”

I pointed at North Carolina, then California, then outside towards my bike and at my helmet. He perked right up.

“Ah! I start in New-a yahk.”

We smiled at each other and appreciated each other’s presence for a moment. I put my hand on my chest and said “Andrew” and reached my hand out for a handshake. Our hands shook and he said “Ah, Thank You.”

As I was leaving, Thank You caught me outside and took a picture of me and my bike, and I followed suit. It was great to see another rider who wasn’t wearing spandex and who rode with a strong heart and an open mind. You’d have to spending three months riding from NY to LA without speaking the native language, as he was doing. Bless you, Thank You.

I ate a couple of PB&J’s, fixed a flat, and was on it again. I passed through a town called Joshua Tree and was stopped by a hip looking guy with a guitar, who was drunk and looking to get drunker and whom I spent too much time talking to, or rather, being talked to. The back route I was on eventually took me to Highway 10, a freakish interstate, and there was nowhere to go but there. It was incredibly windy and incredibly loud. But at this point I am undeterred, so I went on and on, riding the sun out. A cop stopped me at a gas station, and only had nice things to say, go figure. He told me about opportune places to camp and where to get off the highway. He even ranted a bit about the “impending collapse” of our unsustainable infrastructure. Cops. You never know.

Well as the sun was setting, I was stuck in the city he told me not to stay in. It was obvious why. Gross and full of liquor stores and shifty characters. Then my freewheel started to freeze up, causing my chain to fall off, just as the sun was almost completely set. I desperately tried fo flag someone down who was going inside their house, and they went inside even faster saying “sorry, no,” and I hadn’t even asked anything. Great.

I came to a church where a few people were outside. The weird thing was, they were outside smoking and one had booze on his breath. Well, they invited me in for some potluck leftovers anyways. Dave, the one with booze on his breath almost immediately invited me to stay at his house. Under normal circumstances I would have declined, he kind of freaked me out. He had been going to church for “two weeks” after his 29-year-old girlfriend had left him for some “rap star.” He had been recently addicted to nondescript drugs, but now that he had found his faith again he was alright, and happy to help me. I said alright.

After lingering around the church he took me across the street to his house.

“I’m gonna tell you now, I’m a little impoverished. You’ll see.”

He kept repeating the same story about his girlfriend, and told me a little about his sons. One had recently undergone life-saving surgery, and David felt blessed and I could hear an incredible love in his voice. The other son, whom I met, was a loud-mouthed repo-man. Their mom had left 13 years before and was living as a desperate junkie somewhere.

I found out what he meant by impoverished. The house reeked of cigarettes and stale living, and there was no electricity. He turned on a battery-powered light and showed me around. I told him I would camp in the yard because I like looking up at the stars, which I do, but I really just couldn’t stand decades-old smoke.

“Now I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m going to go get a beer. Do you want anything?”

“No, I’m alright, thanks though.”

David was desperately clawing at life. He didn’t know what to do for himself, so he went out of his way to try to do as much as possible for others. He compassion was genuine, but I could hear a darkness in his voice, something was absolutely swallowing him inside out. He talked to me that night, happy to have someone to listen, and I was happy to be there. The backyard was littered with bottles, cars and car parts. He told me about his honorable discharge, his failed marriage and his love for his girlfriend. He frightened me when he quoted a verse from the Bible about a “woman becomes the man’s property.” His voice was laced with anger, fear, love, desperation, wisdom, and resignation. It was almost unbearable.

I woke up in the morning ready for my final ride to the West Coast. David had just come back from the store with a bottle of OJ for me.  I took down his address and he hugged me, and I could see tears welling in his eyes.

——————

The morning was beautiful, and I was soaring and fluctuating between numerous emotional states. I was almost there. It was a tricky ride into Riverside, the road was narrow and cut between steep slopes, and there was almost no shoulder. The land flattened into the city and I could breathe again. Shortly after I had to get off of 60, the traffic became dangerous. I exited, still about 90 miles from LA, and had to make my way through the labyrinths of streets and cities that make up the areas surrounding LA.

I used the sun to head west, having a general idea of the layout of the cities. Mostly, I had to go west, which is only hard to find at noon. I was just jazzed when I rode through a neighborhood in an unfamiliar city to find myself closer and closer to where I needed to be, by only using the “primitive” solar navigation. So jazzed, that when I could have bought a map, I didn’t. It turned out to be an alright decision.

On a side note, this last day really catered to my love of the band the Mountain Goats, who reference so many of the places I rode through in their songs. It made me excited, but no one else cares.

So I rode past Chino, through Claremont and north on Mills Ave. and then west again through Pomona and into Hacienda Heights, where the idea of being an urban cowboy has firmly taken root. The suburban houses have stables, and they ride horses to the supermarket. Postmodernism is gross.

I stopped for a burrito, which turned out to be a lifesaving decision (then again, when is it not.) I sat down and decided to call my Dad’s friend Kelly to see about how far I was from LA. She had a coworker on speakerphone with her to help give me directions.

“Have you ever heard of South-Central LA? or Compton? That’s where you’re headed.”

Oh nuts.

I swallowed my pride and audacity and decided to re-route. They suggested I cut up north a bit, and then head west. I did just that, and miles and miles and miles and many close calls with cars later and I was at the edge of Los Angeles. I made my way to Lincoln park and stopped there, well, because it was pretty and because there was baseball. I watched a group of guys practice while my friend Hannah came to meet me. It was a beautiful moment of weightlessness, a feeling of completion. I had arrived.

We went to Culver City, where she lives, and where I have been holed up for the past few days. We rode to the beach together last Friday, I guess to truly finish or whatever.

—————–

When I looked at the ocean, the immensity of everything I had seen and done crowded in my head and buzzed colorfully around, as if stuck between two oceans in my mind. I could only be silent.

I will be heading up the Pacific Coast Highway very shortly, ready to nurture the big plans I am growing. I’m not sure what will happen in the next few weeks, but I’m sure as hell ready for it.

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8 Responses to “Hey I made it.”

  1. Miss Michigan Misses You said

    Clearly I care.

    Also, I am so, so proud of you.

  2. Jane Mahoney said

    Andrew, hurrah!
    Hope you know that your impact for some along the way of your long route has been as heartfelt for us as you. Your optimism, stamina, and observations on the American condition are fascinating. You are a fine writer. I’ve been inspired (partly by you, partly by doc’s orders) to dig out my bike. Every day for last 8 days, I’ve gone 6-8 miles alongside the solitude of the Rio Grande trail in Albuquerque. Admittedly, I don’t even want to calculate how long it would take me to reach even the Arizona border at that rate, but then again, it doesn’t sound like someplace I’d rush off to visit anyway.
    Be proud of your accomplishment … and I hope you continue your blog as you head up north.
    By the way, there is a wide swath of central Kansas set aside as the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.
    All the best, Jane

  3. Congrats man. Good writing. The moments make it. I’m glad you made it. Maybe I’ll see you in Cali if/when I head back. Take care and good fortune with what’s to come.

  4. Frank Thibeault said

    Hey, just wanted to take a minute to congradulate(sp?) you on makin’ it to the coast-great job. Any time your in Little Rock, give us a call.

  5. Tom said

    Excellent, glad you made it and did not find yourself in south central or a carcass in th desert. Arizona kind of gave me a need a bath feeling the one time I passed through, but Calfornia made up for it. Enjoy the rest of your summer, make it a point to only ride down hill for a bit.
    Congrats,Tom

  6. charles said

    We’re proud of you Andrew.

  7. Celeste (Your Mom's friend) said

    I have so enjoyed your blog Andrew. I am so proud of you and grateful the Lord protected you safely across country. wish I had discovered your coffee house in Raleigh sooner before you left. Cool place. Was bummed that I never made it back with Katie before you took off 😦 Will continue to pray for you! Enjoy your time on the west coast!

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