After 9 days on the road it was time to have a full rest day. Although we had had a couple of short days it’s not the same as just staying in the same place – particularly when this was with Julie, a generous and interesting warmshowers host who opened her house up to us as if it was our own. As well as the bliss of having lovely meals cooked for us and a washing machine for clean clothes, it was great to have interesting conversation beyond ‘where are you from’ and ‘where are you going’. It was also good to have time to to sort out niggles with the stove and start to plan the next section.
We had inadvertently arranged our day off on a Monday when all the museums and galleries were closed – but that did mean we really relaxed without trying to cram too much in and in the end stayed most of the day at home.
I had problems with my Wahoo bike computer and David had managed to persuade them to send us a new one, care of a local bike shop that turned out to be only a mile or so away. When we rang in the morning the parcel still had not arrived but the tracking told us it was due to be delivered that day. In the end we decided to go to the bike shop anyway to get some new inner tubes. Luckily the delivery arrived while we were there – in fact 2 parcels as Wahoo had sent us 2 new bike computers! Better than not having one that did not work but we now have the headache of carrying it until they let us know how to return one of them!
David had brought his wig and bands to show the students in San Diego (although he then forgot to take them on the day), so we amused Julie by showing them to her and trying to explain why such fancy dress was required for British justice! Photos were sent to her husband and daughter with great amusement at her new profession.
A good recuperation day and looking forward to the next section of the trip.
The night was fine but we could feel the cold moving in as we walked back from town after a memorable evening. We went to a traditional American/Mexican restaurant. The food was OK – not great – but the beer was excellent.
Sitting next to us was a man and his wife – in their forties – and their teenage daughter (all wearing caps). This was cowboy country and lots of the men were wearing cowboy hats although how much any of them knew one end of a horse from another may well have been open to question. As we chatted to our neighbors (no cowboy hats) it became clear that they were the “real deal” for this part of the world. They were understated, funny and great company. They were here because their son was competing in a cow lassoing competition and had done rather well – how well not specified but “rather well” probably meant spectacularly well. The man was into hot air ballooning and had come to England (Bristol) to discuss design modifications with a UK balloon manufacturer. Who knew that some world’s best hot air balloons are designed in Bristol? But Cameron Balloons is the world’s largest manufacturer of hot air balloons and exports them to Phoenix so our friend can fly them here for tourists and anyone who wants to pay him to go skywards.
They live on a ranch outside Phoenix and have “lots” of horses. He proudly told us that his wife is the horse expert, being passed horses that are found abandoned (often ex-race horses let out into the desert because they cannot be sold and are too costly to feed). She also buys, rears, trains and sells horses. The daughter told us she really loves “barrel racing” – riding a horse around a three barrel set up. Check it out on Youtube videos – it involves amazing horsemanship. All the family go riding off in the desert – not on roads like we do but on horses for days at a time. They spoke of the serenity of the landscape, oneness with nature and the peace of the experience. It was great to meet them – and I suspect they have more connection to this part of the country than lots of others strutting around in cowboy hats.
We thought about their experiences as we ambled back in the cold. The desert can be really cold at night and it was due to fall to near zero overnight, and did not disappoint. There was frost on the grass this morning and the stove decided to break down today of all days – partly I suspect because the cold froze the rubber cups seal. I managed to mend it and we eventually got coffee – but not in our sleeping bags as we hoped.
The first few miles were flat, slightly downhill and fast. We had full cold weather gear on including full gloves and overshoes. Gradually feeling returned to our fingers and toes. After 9 miles we turned off the main highway 60 onto a smaller road going East, and with far less traffic. This was part of the Sonaran desert, and was greener than the deserts in California. It is also the only place we could see Saguaro Cacti – the tall distinctive Cacti with arms going out like a person standing to attention.
We stopped for a brew and some trailmix as the sun gained some strength, and took photos of the stunning surroundings.
Then we pressed on and did a great descent down to the neck of the Pleasant Lake Dam which keeps in the supply water for Phoenix. This is mainly from the Central Arizona Project – or CAP – which is a canal to divert water from the Colorado River to a variety of places, but most notably the 40 sq mile lake held in by the dam we were passing underneath. The CAP is 336 miles long and provides billions of galleons of water to those living in desert areas. It is an amazing feat of engineering (one for Lucy Taylor to better fo course).
After that we pressed along and then went onto quieter roads as we entered suburban towns north of Phoenix. After 40 miles we stopped for something to eat at Peroria. Then it was a final 24 miles to our warmshowers host for the evening. That was mainly along a bike track which followed a series of vast dry river beds across northern Phoenix and then along the canal. When it rains here, the heavens must open because these are vast spaces for water – albeit bone dry at the moment.
Then the route took us along a canal with a series of underpasses as the trail runs under the main roads. These underpasses are home to a thriving community of the homeless. There is room for their tents and belongings and for us to pass by. None were threatening at all to us as passing cyclists – in fact they were all totally polite as we slowed down and inched past their homes. Homelessness is a feature of cities all over the world, and it was on show here.
We finally reached our wonderful Warmshowers host, Julie – tired but refreshed after a lovely hot shower.
Our rather run down motel was great for our purposes. A large room, hot water, and clean. It had seen better days – but then the last 2 years have been disastrous for the tourist economy so no surprise that things have got run down. We met a nice Canadian biker who was down motorbiking round the desert in the the sun to escape minus 20C in Winnipeg. Who could blame him.
Our body clocks have finally adjusted and for the first time we weren’t up with the dawn. The weather has also changed again – cold and windy- so no pressing need to set off early to avoid the heat. So a 9am start felt positively late.
The day was spent going down the middle of a wide valley – straight, straight, straight. We went 40 miles before any significant bend in the road! It was blowy – mostly a side wind but a bit behind so not too bad, but it was jackets and gloves first thing. The desert can be cold – and not just at night!
It was scrubby desert with occasional irrigated fields and at one point some fruit trees (unidentified) in blossom).
Mountains either side; sometimes close but sometimes in the distance. With so little change in scenery, the brain had to focus on other things to stop getting numbingly bored. The ticking over of the miles on the bike computers, focussing on a lump in the mountains that got gradually nearer, was reached and eventually passed (but only after about 20 miles), getting in tune with our bodies, the turning of the pedals and just absorbing the experience of cycling through the desert that was so different to cycling in the UK.
About half way we passed through the tiny town of Aguila where we could at least sit down out of the wind at the one cafe over a very indifferent cup of coffee. Then more of the same. Often going imperceptibly upwards at about half a percent gradient – which also plays tricks with the brain – as it looks flat but you are pedalling harder than the brain tells you you should.
Finally we entered some hills, wiggled up a bit on a more proper uphill then had a glorious 8 mile descent down into the town of Wickenberg. This town started in about 1860 and there are some houses around the railway station from that time. They look like a Western Film set. We had followed the railtrack all day but did not see a single moving train. I wonder if it still used? The town is busy in the winter with those escaping the cold of northern states, but has more to it than most of the places we have passed through. It is the “horse lassoing” capital of this area – and there are lots of parade grounds where competitions take place to see who can demonstrate teh best horsemanship (or horsewomanship).
We found an RV park near the centre which actually allowed tent camping – it even had a bit of grass to pitch our tent – and only charged us $10 including hot showers and wifi. Result! It even came with a picnic table to spread ourselves out on. We pitched our tent slightly tucked out of the wind (although can still feel it) and then had lovely hot showers. We are walking distance into the quaint old town and plan to eat out there this evening to gear ourselves up for a longer day into Phoenix tomorrow.
We woke to hear a strong wind whirling around our little cabin – causing instant concern. Then we looked at our phones and realised that – to our total astonishment – the strong Southwesterly wind would favour us. Cyclists know wind is 90% against them so this was a pleasant surprise.
We packed up – a now familiar routine – and were off by about 7.15am. We had now left Pacific Standard Time and entered Mountain Standard Time by crossing the Colorado River into Arizona. But all our terribly clever devices still thought we were in PST! They will correct in coming days (we hope).
The route took us onto the hard shoulder of the motorway, I10, which runs from Los Angeles to Phoenix. So the first part was like cycling on the hard shoulder of the M62 except the trucks here are much bigger and the RVs seem even larger. The problem is that there were no other roads over the pass and so it was the I10 or nothing. Not romantic, idyllic cycling (woosh another truck passes by with its draught pulling us all over the place) but needs must. The desert scenery was spectacular but it was difficult to concentrate on the subtle changes in rock colours when trying to stay as far to the far side of the shoulder as possible (but not falling into the briars waiting to cut legs and arms to pieces. The gradient was slight – another feature of US roads. It was between 0% and 2% for a climb of 1000 feet – so long and a bit tedious.
Finally we topped out and left I10, coming round the corner so see the hugely imposing Dome Rock. Here we saw our first collection of “boondockers”. This was not a word that I knew before today but “RV boondocking” is a “thing” here (with credit to Mayo and Kermode on the definition of a “thing”). It fact, RV boondocking is a major thing and we were entering the capital of RV boondocking. It means camping out in the boondocks with you RV – without power, water or any facilities. Power is provided by solar panels (or gasoline), water is purchased by the multiple galleons and people (usually pensioners) come here for the winter months to escape the snow in more northerly states. Hence those doing the boondocking are called “snowbirds”. A whole industry has grown up to service the needs of the RV boondockers and the major attraction of this area appears sand buggying.
One up from boondocking is to over-winter at an RV park in this part of Arizona. We must have passed 40 parks today – all with their plots laid out carefully. Being March, the parks are beginning to empty as people go home, only to return from about early November.
We even met one English couple from Cornwall who had their own RV here and overwintered in an RV park in order to be able to escape the rain in Cornwall and experience the delights of driving sand buggies around the desert.
It is not something that appeals to us to be honest. The people we met were lovely, relaxed and had made their own choices based on their own circumstances which we don’t know of course. Choosing to sit out the winter in the Arizona desert off-grid in an expensive RV is a mindset that we struggled to understand. However, they probably looked at us and struggled to understand why anyone would want to put themselves through the effort (and pain) of cycling day after day when you can see the same scenery from the comfort of the RV cab. Come to think of it, they have a point.
After the first pass we dropped down to the town of Quartzsite – the centre of boondocking support. It had been suggested to us by the camp host in Ehrenberg that we should check out the breakfasts at the Laundromat. We found a building that had “Laundromat” on the roof and also appeared to have a cafe. It turned out to be the largest laundromat we had ever seen – maybe 40 washing machines or more – and with a cafe attached so customers could have coffee and breakfast whilst the washing was being done. We had omelets which were adequate but did not quite live up to the billing.
The town was fascinating for a series of reasons. First, almost everyone was aged 50 to 80. This town serviced those living in their RVs who were, of course, of a certain age. Secondly, the market had the best spread of fresh fruit and vegetables we had seen since the supermarkets of San Diego. Seniors know what they like – and they like it fresh. Thirdly, there were gemstone shops a plenty. This was a market for rare stones recovered from the desert and the trade was thriving. Maybe that is one of the activities for the boondocking Seniors. Lastly, we were told, 75% of the people would be gone by the end of March and it would be a ghost town until November, just serving the occasional passing motorist off the I10. All gave us pause for thought as we ambled amongst the winter-time residents.
After Quartzsite, we rejoined the I10 and did another flatish climb up to 1400ft, and then flew down the other side until we thankfully left the I10 and joined state road 60. The road carried on descending and we sped along, with wind assistance. After a few miles we reached at town called Brenda, where we stopped for lunch at some picnic tables outside the post office. More RV parks here and temporary residents can sign up for a PO box to get their mail. So we had a series of conversations with people as they came to check for post – mostly friendly but gentle incredulity at cycling here at all, and with some conviction that the roads were too narrow for it to be safe. The roads are really wide by European standards but there is this feeling here that it is not safe (or proper) for bikes and cars to share the same tarmac. We have seen that when we have been unable to ride on the shoulder (because it is either non-existent or so broken up it is unrideable, and someone in a Jeep blasts his (and I suspect it is always a “him”) horn for us to get off his road. 98% of vehicles are great, including virtually all commercial drivers, but there are a few others! We reassured the worried grandmas that the roads were as safe as anywhere and far safer than cycling in London (true but not saying much to be honest).
Having left one female named town, we set out for the final leg to another female named town, Salome. For those who cannot recall their bible stories, Salome danced and persuaded an entranced ruler to reward her with John the Baptist’s head on a plate (duly severed). Not a great role model for decision making by either men or women to be honest but there you go – that is what the town is called – subtitled “the place she danced”!
It was another climb, this time up to 1900ft and we finally made it. An indifferent but friendly motel – only marginally more than an overpriced tent space at an RV park – and Bernie cooked up a lovely supper.
More stunning desert scenery all today but our abiding memories of today are about trying to understand the transient snowbird population that come to this desert wilderness to escape the snow.
Yesterday felt like we fully got back into the swing of our travels. The day was tough but not too hot, too windy, too steep – but it felt very remote and we needed mental and physical endurance. No time to ponder on anything else except the scenery and what we were doing. Then in the evening back into the routine of camping, which often takes us to some of the best places to stay. The banks of the Colorado river gave us a wonderful location and magnificent sunrise and sunset.
In this part of the world darkness comes quickly and early. By 6.30 we were in the pitch blackand the fire David had lit in the fire pit had burned down, so we huddled into our tent. Exhausted, we were asleep by 7.30! This morning we were up at 6 – almost 12 hours after we settled into our sleeping bags!
We were now 6 days in and needed a rest. We therefore got up leisurely,watched a beautiful sunrise, read for a bit over coffee and then slowly packed up. A ‘rest’ meant cycling 23 miles but the Colorado River valley was very flat and we pedalled at a very leisurely pace to Blythe. There we found a bakery and coffee shop, and lingered over caffine and delicious apple pastries.
Our destination was Ehrenburg, another 4 miles and just over the bridge over the Colorado River and into Arizona. Whilst the centre of Blythe was pleasant, it’s eastern outskirts were grim and run down. We have seen lots of closed businesses and derelict buildings on our travels so far. No wonder they want to ‘make America great’ again.
I had envisaged Ehrenburg as a pleasant riverside town, which had a number of campsites marked on our route map. Hmm, I was a bit wrong. The town was really only a pit stop off the Freeway I10 with a number of RV parks along the river. Now an RV park is defintely not a campsite but camping was marked on the map so we duly stopped at the ‘Arizona Oasis’ which boasted beaches on the river front; but no they did not do tent camping. We were somewhat dismissively told that we might find some several miles back the way we had come in a county park. They did have ‘rustic cabins’. The woman looked aghast when we asked if we could see one before we decided ‘Well, people just look it up on the internet’ we were told. Our mobile reception was too poor to look it up and they did not have internet; but after briefly considering whether to scrap our rest day and push on or accept the unseen offer, we decided the swimming pool and the fact that the ‘rustic cabin’ had air conditioning meant the gamble was worth it!
Our cabin was pleasant. True, apart from the air conditioning there was little else in it other than a bed and a little porch. ‘Do you have bedding?’ we were asked. ‘We camp’ we replied. There was a tap outside but it was only a step to the communal facilities. The rest of the RV park was full of concrete and varying sizes of trailers from huge to huge-er. My research on Blythe said the population trippled in the winter months as people from the north came down for the southern sunshine. Most will be in these RV parks.
After a refreshing swim we rested in our cabin during the heat of the afternoon. How could I still be tired after 12 hours in my sleeping bag last night!
David went off to ‘Family Dollar’ to find some groceries. We have noticed that food is expensive here. It’s cheaper to have a fast food burger and fries and to fill up with an enormous fizzy drink than to cook a meal using bought ingredients. No wonder there is an obesity problem that dwarfs that in the UK. Family Dollar is a discount store – the women in the office didn’t quite say ‘where the poor people shop’ but they could have done (or maybe I still resent that they wouldn’t let us look at the cabin before handing over our money!). Anyway it was not as bad as predicted and David got food for supper – but only after coming back to the campsite for cash because his credit card was refused – they refuse all foreign cards he was told. C’est la vie.
We have just spent a glorious hour watching birds on the River Colarado, with the setting sun lighting up the Eastern bank and desert mountains in the distance. The Colarado River marks the boundary between California and Arizona, so we will leave CA tomorrow and venture into AZ. The “campsite” is by the river but it is sort of abandoned, and hence free. The “Rest Rooms” (as they are called here despite the fact that no one goes for a rest there) are closed and there is even a padlock on the external fosset to stop any campers from helping themselves to water. We did not need to be concerned as we still carry our wonderful Platyplus which allows us to filter our own water – so river water in one end and drinking water out the lower end – gravity fed through the filtration system. Worth its weight in gold this evening as the nearest place to buy water is miles away – and it tasted delicious.
So we are all set up for our first night camping. Bernie is cooking supper as I type this – knowing we will not able to post until some point tomorrow as the phone signal here is weak to non-existent.
So we are feeling pretty pleased with ourselves at the moment, but this was a day of mixed emotions. We left Brawley (a non-pretentious agricultural town which we liked very much, and where everyone drives a vehicle with very big wheels) at about 6.15am. It was just light but was 40 degrees – about 3 degrees C (please check and correct me). Our fingers were cold and the light was straight in our eyes as we pedalled Eastwards. Brawley is irrigated desert – mega arable fields growing a variety of crops. It felt like the breadbasket of Southern California. We started below sea level at -138ft and gradually (i.e. less than 0.5%) climbed out of the valley. The gradient was enough to make the water gush along the irrigation ditches, making googling sounds as it went under bridges to the fields.
We passed the canal and it was like a switch had been flicked – no more irrigation and so total desert with hardly anything growing apart from the odd hardy bush. Then, the dunes started and we saw lots of places to the south of the road for sand buggys which race across the dunes for sport. It looked great fun but that is for another day. To the North was the Algones Dunes Wilderness. No sand buggys here – nothing to interrupt the stunning dune scenery.
We stopped for a drink at Glamis – mainly because it had shade and may have been the last shade for the next 40 miles or so. No one here is shy about flying flags in support of Donald Trump. Precisely how this urban shyster who never seems to venture out into the fresh air unless it is to hit balls on a manicured golf course has become the darling of those who still have an “outback” mentality is a complete mystery. However, he is plainly hitting the right buttons amongst those who spend their time on sand buggys. We also met a couple of really friendly blokes whose T-Shirts adopted the same approach. I merely observe!
By now it was about 9.30am and we had covered about 23 miles. We knew it would get hotter, there were no services on the road for the next 40 miles and there was a big hill to climb. What we did not take into account was that the wind would be against us – so much for doing this route with the prevailing winds. When we did Lands End to John O’Groats in the UK in 1991 we picked a month when the wind reverted from a normal South Westerly to a near constant northerly breeze – so we battled the wind nearly all the way despite following the direction which should be assisted by prevailing winds. This feels a bit of deja vu!
On the plus side, the traffic was light (mainly huge trucks which gave us a wide berth and a friendly tonk of the horn), the slopes were not steep and the top was lower than we expected. The desert scenery was amazing – at one point we watched a desert fox look carefully at us to decide if he was dinner for us, we were dinner for him or whether we could live in mutual harmony. This fox clearly had not had lessons from Putin as the last option prevailed. We also saw a huge rapter, circuling in the thermals but could not identify it, but it looked stunningly beautiful.
We pressed on up againt the wind and eventually got to the lunar landscape at the top – rock outcrops with scattered stunted cacti. We huddled under some vegetation in a dry culvert to get some shade while we ate some sandwiches (regular eating today after yesterday’s lesson). We then passed a trigpoint – but not there to note the height but the fact that this was the route for native Americans to follow in pre-Columbus times to move from one fertile valley to another (The Colorado river valley to the Imperial valley). This is a land with a huge history before any European stepped foot on the continent.
After that the road went up and down a series of “dips” – 50 feet down and up again. These are far more exhausting than a steady climb of course but if that is the geography, that is where the road goes.
Finally we arrived in Palo Verde by the Colorado River, where irrigation started again and the desert blooms. 67 miles was a long day but it was necessary as there was nowhere to stop between here and where we started. The light is just fading now, we have had supper and it will be soon time to turn in for the night to read or play cards.
Another day on the bikes – physical and mental ups and down but series of new experiences.
There are not many days when we only do about 100m climbing over 55 miles but this was one so you can guess the day was flat. We also reached the low point of the trip – literally and not emotionally as we ended the day about 130ft below sea level. Still 55 miles at this stage of the trip was still quite a big deal for us – especially as we did not pace it properly or eat properly. How long have we been doing this? You would think we would know by now, but there is always a day near the beginning when we think we don’t need to eat as much as we do. Our son Anthony, who is a very experienced cyclist, has told us many a time that we should eat hourly. He was able to admonish us gently when we spoke later in the day on Whatsapp (another fantastic invention for travellers). Lesson learnt again!
So the pacing – I think we got a bit over excited being out in the desert and on the flat. We knew it was 30 miles to anywhere so we pushed it on, glorying in the new desert landscape in the early morning light. Mexico was still just a few miles to our right and the border patrol was one of the few vehicles out first thing. I read the novel American Dirt earlier this year (highly recommended) about a woman fleeing Mexico to the US. The section about crossing the border felt very evocative in this landscape.
After about 20 miles we saw some trees – it must mean water. It was as if a switch had been flipped as suddenly there were green irrigated fields and bird song. There was also a massive solar farm spreading mile after mile into the distance. Seems a very sensible way to harness renewable energy but indicates massive investment. We thought we did well at Hitterhill with 30 panels – here there are thousands upon thousands, stretching for at least 10 miles.
We did feel we were fading when we reached Calexico, a border town with a crossing to the much larger city, Mexicali, on the other side of the border. Options were limited and we had to settle on Starbucks, which we try to avoid (compensation – good coffee).
From Calexico we turned north. The route had us on a busy dual carriageway but we realised after a few miles that it allowed us a cross under the freeway (I8 again). After that we turned onto a very quiet parallel road. This area was still irrigated with green fields – although where it wasn’t the sand of the desert was evident. We passed a derelict industrial site – a cattle manure recycling centre. Clearly not enough cattle manure to keep it going.
As we were ‘nearly there’ we didn’t stop for lunch so the last 10 miles ground by slowly. At last we turned left into Brawley and to our motel, where we finally wolfed down a late lunch. Brawley is a desert town ‘home of the cattle cry’ – whatever that is. We didn’t see any cattle or any cowboys. It still had enormously wide roads and any amount of fast food joints but it felt pleasant. Probably not so pleasant in the summer when average temperatures are in excess of 40 degrees C.
We rested, did our washing, stocked up on supplies and still being only 25 miles from the border had a good Mexican meal with even better Mexican beer! They eat early in the US – the restaurant closes at 8 (imagine that in Spain) so we were eating our evening meal only a few hours after our lunch!
As we left our room, we bumped into a young German couple who were cycling from Florida to San Diego – so they were slightly more ahead with their trip than us. They have been on the road for 7 months and are heading into Mexico and then to South America. We chatted, had a great deal in common of course and left for our meal thinking we were not the only mad fools on two wheels self-propelling acoss this contient.
Back at the motel we watched the analysis of Biden’s State of the Union address on CNN. We have been impressed with their coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with some powerful reports yesterday. It is always odd when major world events happen while we are away, as often seems to happen. Important to still keep in touch with events, even as we also feel detached from ‘real life’.
My head cold has still not settled so I was asleep at 7pm, and then woke at 3.30am; so the jet lag was not getting any better. But, on the plus side, I managed to get to read for 3 hours and finished the book I foolishly picked up at the airport. That meant that I could leave the book at the motel (along with my shaving cream) and thus reduce the weight I was carrying to a very small degree. I hope the next occupant enjoys the book as much as I did.
We left about 7am and started to climb. Pine Valley was at 3750ft and the first climb topped out at about 4100ft. The morning mist hung in the air as we got higher and it was a lovely morning, but there was also a stiff breeze. It is sometimes hard to work out which way a wind is blowing in the mountains, but it was soon clear that it was fairly strong and almost entirely against us. The next few miles became really tough as we sailed downhill but then had to battle the wind uphill. Climbing an 8% hill with a 25mph wind against us sapped the little energy we had. Eventually we topped out after 16 miles – back at 4100ft – and sailed down to a tiny breakfast stop. Today there was no question of one breakfast between two – we each had eggs, bacon hash browns and toast, with endless coffee to make it all go down well.
Half an hour later we were human again and were back on the bikes. Fuelled by breakfast (or more accurately second breakfast) we made it over the next few hills and dropped down to near Jacuma Springs. Here we encountered a massive structure weaving ominously through the landscape. This was “THE WALL” of Trump fame – although the history of walls goes back much further and Trump was not particularly effective in getting it extended – either in length or height.
The academic consensus based on research is that constructing walls is not an effective way to constrain immigration, but they are popular with some voters. So billions of dollars have been spent building this wall and even more is spent patrolling the wall, and meanwhile those who are determined to come into the USA from Mexico appear to find other ways to enter. The wall seems to me (and I accept my bias) to be an unfortunate symbol of a country’s value. But I can see that the politics are difficult and politics is not always logical or evidence based – as those who know me well can hear me saying.
Jacumba Springs got a great write up a few years ago but the resort is closed and there did not appear to be anything to detain us. Sadly, this town has seen better days.
We crossed the high, dry plane out of the town and got used to the idea of being able to see scrub land for miles in front of us. Then, we began to climb again, reaching the Freeway (I8) at about 4100ft (our third time of climbing up to that level today). Cyclists are normally banned from the hard shoulders of freeways, but they make an exception if there is no other route. This was such an exception and we raced down at about 6% for about 10 miles – passing the 4,000ft, 3,000ft, 2,000ft and finally the 1,000ft signs. It got hotter as we descended and thankfully it was a head wind and not a cross wind.
Finally we left the freeway in the desert at about 400ft! What a descent – 25mph all the way on pristine tarmaced hard shoulder. Only a few trucks blew their horns at us – but I cannot say if they were friendly or irritated that they were sharing the road with such low life as cyclists.
We pulled into Ocotillo – a friendly but run down desert town which had echoes of “Nomandland”, but a nice feel to it. I am now in our motel – cheapest by far to date but perfectly functional. Tomorrow we experience the desert all day but 47miles and another 3,000ft of climbing is plenty for today.
Although yesterday was a shortish day, nearly 900m climbing on the first outing was tough and as a result we were asleep very early. This, combined with David still suffering from a cold he had picked up on the plane (and no it was not Covid) scuppered our recovery from jet lag. So it was another 4am wake up for David and 5am for me. Luckily breakfast was from 6am and we were on the road soon after 7 in crisp morning air just above freezing.
We decided to deviate from American Adventure Cycling route which ran alongside the freeway I8 for a lot of the time. We had a lot of climbing to do and its not pleasant with the roar of the freeway in your ears. Our route was a little longer and had more climbing but that was more than made up for the fact it followed a quiet side road. The first 5 miles in the early morning sun were glorious as we dipped down into the Jopatul valley. The landscape was rocky but still green at this time of year. Then we had to pay for that descent, as the climbing began. It only finished just before we got to our destination. Pretty tough for day 2, especially when we were both not as fit before starting as we would have wanted. But the cycling was fine and soon we were back into the climbing mentality – low gears and plod, plod, plod. There was enough of interest to keep us occupied and we felt pretty good for the first section, passing ranches and small dwellings. It felt a world away from San Diego.
As the road swung north and eventually crossed over I8 we were beginning to tire. At last we reached Descanso and the wonderful Descanso Junction restaurant. We were sorely in need of a break and this more than fit the bill. The ‘saloon’ style restaurant was buzzing with people in for Sunday morning breakfast. Second breakfast is always our favorite meal when we are on the road, but we have learnt about the portion sizes in the US. So we shared a ‘gourmet omelette’ which was more than enough sustenance for 2. We also remembered the great US tradition of perpetually filling your coffee mug and got a good caffeine hit.
Although only 7 miles to go, most of it was more uphill. The landscape on this side of the mountain was greener with snow lining the side of the road. Yes folks, not a misprint, there were still pockets of snow left from the storm that had passed through Southern California the day before we arrived, bringing very cold weather. We had heard it had been snowing in the mountains and we were now at 3000ft. We were told that a nearby mountain which was 6,00 feet had two feet of snow. It seemed unbelievable that this was the first and probably only snow we would see this year!
At last we topped out at over 4000ft in the one horse town of Guatay before a final swoop down into the much more pleasant little town of Pine Valley. The little petrol station and store were helpful in filling our camping fuel bottle (which takes a quarter of a gallon – impossible at most large petrol stations) and we had a nice chat with the friendly store owner who assured us that we had done the most difficult part of the road from San Diego. It was only midday but we had been plodding up hill most of the time since 7am so we were jolly glad to find the Pine Valley motel, who let us check in 2 hours early.
We could hardly move for a couple of hours but gradually revived enough to take a little stroll round the town and buy some provisions to cook a meal in the evening, now the camping stove was up and running.
Finally, so it seemed, we packed up and started on the road – or more accurately started on the bike path. Still jet lagged, we woke early and did our final packing. It all seemed to fit neatly in full panniers and by 7am we off. First few hundred meters were to the end of the bikepath by the Pacific Ocean. There is no plaque here but this is the official start of the Southern Tier Route.
The first few miles along the San Diego river were both flat and familiar, as we retraced our steps of the last few days but this time we were getting used to riding bikes laden with gear. Being early Saturday morning there were just a few dog walkers, early cyclists and the homeless awaking from their tents or less salubrious berths along the route. Highly visible poverty in an affluent city is something that will stay with us – but those who were visible were almost all men. Women face different challenges but thier poverty is less on show.
Cycling out of a city is never easy but this was as good as it gets. The traffic was light on those parts of the route that went on roads, and high rise buildings gradually gave way to suburban sprawl. At first it was smart homes with tended lawns and new SUVs but, as we left the city, land prices must have fallen and trailers and rickety buildings took their place.
After about 15 miles we were outside the city limits and went through Mission Trails Regional Park. The park rangers kindly explained the park geography and we followed their advice to cycle the Father Junipero Sierra Trail road, cycling slowly and giving way to pedestrians and runners – of which there were many. We rarely need encouragement to cycle slowly.
After the park the route took us to Carleton Oaks, a pleasant but nondescript suburb, where we stopped for coffee and muffins. Then the serious climbing started, as we rose from just above sea level to 1700 feet at the village of Alpine. None of it was too steep but the climbing took it out of us. This was day one and we are not yet as fit as we know we will be later. It felt tough but manageable for a couple of (almost) “seniors” as we now like to think of ourselves. We have not yet found anywhere to get a seniors discount but are on the look out for that!
The landscape is getting mountainous (as you would expect from the name “Alpine”). It is scrubland and feels dry. It was about 85 degrees which we understand as 29C, so warm but not unbearable. Also it is a dry heat and so is easier to deal with than a heat with high humidity.
Despite only covering 35 miles, we were ready to stop for the day and checked into our hotel. camping will come later but we are breaking ourselves in gently.
Jet lag meant 5am awake again- dark and chilly. We arrived in San Diego following a storm and hit unseasonably cold weather; just 3 degrees C at that time of the morning. We weren’t expecting to wear our cold weather mountain clothes in the first few days!
We had a brief scare when David woke with a sore throat. The mind races through why we could justify not doing a covid test – but of course we must be responsible and luckily is lateral flow test was negative.
Although cold, the sun seems to have an exceptional sheen to it here as we pedalled a couple of miles to Mission Bay to join a whale watching tour. I’m always a bit trepidatious getting on a boat as I am prone to sea sickness but the water looked calm. We got a prime position at the prow and the boat chugged out of the harbour past basking sealions on the jetty; a bit like going on a safari and seeing the best wildlife in the car park!
We needn’t have worried about not seeing enough wildlife. We were soon in the midsts of a large pod of dolphins swirling and jumping round the boat and not long after among an even larger pod of even more energetic dolphins displaying their jumping skills with their young close beside. It was an incredibly beautiful site.
However the boat steered a course away from the dolphins as the guides on board had spotted whale spouts in the distance. Soon we could all see them – 3 grey whales. As we got nearer the boat slowed and we could see their massive bodies and occasional tail as they dived under water. Everyone on the boat then seemed to hold their breath waiting to see where they would come up again; 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes later. This is the migration season for grey whales returning from the warm waters around Mexico where they have their young back to their feeding grounds in Alaska. Astonishingly during the whole of the migration down from Alaska to Mexico and back, the whales are unable to feed so they have to live off their huge bulk.
We were on a fairly large tour boat but several small boats soon arrived, which were able to get nearer to the whales. One of the whales got obsessed with a couple of small boats and was rubbing itself along the boats causing them to rock alarmingly. The guide said this was common behaviour when they were in Mexico but unusual to see here.
Although wrapped up as if we were going to the arctic because of the cold, we really enjoyed the 3 hour trip, which flew by. I was thrilled to see whales, which I have never seen before, but the abiding memory will be of the dolphins.
Back on land it was warmer but we were tired when we got back to our motel; a combination of jet lag and 3 hours of fresh air on the boat. We rested up for the afternoon as we had been invited to dinner by some friends of friends that evening.
By late afternoon we were back on our bikes and cycling up (steeply) to Mission Hills, where we met Amy and Mark in their beautiful home, which they so generously invited us to. Hugely charming and hospitable they fed us delicious food and wonderful wine, and thoroughly entertained us. They are avid antique collectors and their home is chock full of the most wonderful things; paintings and collectors items from around the world – including, incredibly, an 18th C painting of Bewdley, which showed our first house there by the bridge over the river, a suit of armour and relics of battles throughout medieval Europe.
A fabulous evening to wrap up our stay in San Diego and set us up for the start of our cycling the following day.
So we have finally arrived in San Diego to begin this trip. I say “finally” because the last few months have been hectic as we moved house for the first time in two decades, sold our house in France, helped my 87 year old Mum move from Worcestershire to Devon and I kept something of a legal practice going around the edges.
So it was with an enormous sense of relief that we pulled out of Thiftwicket Lane on Wednesday morning to start the drive to Heathrow. The amazing Amy Jansen – singer and podcaster extraordinaire – has kindly agreed to house sit whilst we are away, looking after our dog Bella and the cat Simba. She happened to be in London on Wednesday so kindly offered to collect the van from long stay parking in Heathrow later that day, thus savings us going bankrupt by car parking charges for 2 months.
The flight was boring – well all flights are boring. British Airways has clearly had a bad pandemic and, for all the welcome messages as passengers returned, costs were clearly being cut to try to save the business. The result was rubbish films and indifferent food. But we pay them to get us there; not entertain and feed us on the way. The highlight was crossing Montana (the route took us via Greenland) with totally clear skies and views of spectacular mountains. We had recently seen the Jane Campion film, “The Power of the Dog” which is set in that landscape in Victorian times. A stunning film where, as so often with her films, the landscape is one of the central characters in the film. That will be for another trip, preferably in the summer months as they were all covered with snow at this time of year.
Still 11 hours straight in a cramped seat was a challenge. Eventually, at about 4pm local time, we circled around the mountains inland of San Diego and the pilot pulled off that magical trick of descending at just the right angle so that the plane landed in the airport. I know it is technology, pilot training and skill but it still feels like magic as the ground rushes up to meet us at just the right time.
We got a taxi to the hotel with a 67 year old Russian taxidriver, Gasadney, who had been in the USA for 40 years and had an infinite ability to see a glass half empty. He amusingly complained about taxi regulation in San Diego, other drivers and most of all that we had booked a hotel far too close to the airport as that meant it was hardly worth his while taking us on the meter! For us, this was now about 2am and well past our bedtimes so it all sort of washed over us.
We went out for something to eat due to the paucity of the BA fare, but it was difficult find the right place and we ended up having fish and chips at a Germanic themed restaurant. We could only eat half of what we were given so the rest came back to the hotel in a doggy bag.
A short night and we were up at 5am having failed to persuade our body clocks to change time zones any faster. But on the plus side, the bikes were out of their bags and re-built by 7am. We then went out for a glorious ride along the beach and had coffee and a muffin. Welcome to America!
Later that morning we cycled up to San Diego University to meet the hugely nice and even more impressive Mary Jo Wiggins, a law professor at this prestigious school of learning, who had invited me to give a talk about practising law in England to her graduate class. I have no idea what they made of me – but it seemed to go down fine. I tried to explain how there were similarities between the US and UK legal systems but also some considerable differences. Here they seem to be able to justice without wearing wigs on their heads in court – a strange and unusual modern practice that clearly will not stand the test of time but they are sticking to it for the moment. Afterwards we had a delightful lunch with Mary Jo in the faculty restaurant overlooking a vast valley where large (but for us unidentified) birds of prey circled in the the thermals. The university has lovely buildings in a hispanic style and a great feel. It must be a privilege to spend student years here.
We then cycled off into the commercial area to get provisions. In contrast to the university, poverty was openly and firmly on display. The USA is a hugely successful economy with a society that tolerates extremes of wealth in a way that is a challenge to Europeans. We passed rows of parked ancient campervans – no doubt the only home many of their residents have. I was reminded of the film “Nomadland” where the central character rejects the idea that she is homeless, saying that she has a home but does not have a house. Below the camper vans, there were tents where homeless people lived under freeway bridges. It is a feature of this society that I suspect we will get to know well in the next 2 months.
We bought food, found a bicycle shop, remarkably called “Bernie’s Bike Shop”, for a few bits and pieces and bought a US sim card so we could call without incurring roaming charges.
In doing so we found Ocean Beach Village – a freewheeling community next to the ocean with a hip feel. There was no need to smoke marjuana here – you can get high just by walking down the main street and taking in the atmosphere. It was reminiscent of walking back from the tube to our flat in Kennington in the late evening. We later came back for a drink in a Mexican Bar that had symbols of the Day of the Dead – and took us back to our travels in Oaxaca, Mexico in the early 1990s.
Meanwhile in another part of the world a crazed dictator invaded a sovereign neighboring state and the rest of the world wrung their hands and did little. The least said about Ukraine the better but it shows what a fragile world we live in.
So the time has finally come when the next adventure can begin. Covid means that we cannot carry on with our original plan to cycle to Australia as the next countries on our route are not really places to be at the moment. So we have had to change plans and on Wednesday 23 February we leave Ludlow and fly to San Diego; the aim is to cycle across the Southern USA “towards” New Orleans. I say “towards” because at this point I have no idea if we will get all the way there or not. The bikes are being packed, plane tickets are bought and the next two months are marked out of the work diary.
We are planning to roughly follow the Southern Tier Route published by the wonderful American Adventure Cycling Association. This great bunch of folks plot routes across the USA. We have already followed their Sierra Cascades route in 2013 when we worked off paper maps and carried books. Now it is all Apps and Kindles.
I have now added a “subscribe” button so that you can get an email each time we blog. Please subscribe if you want to follow this trip from the comfort of your armchair.
We’ll try to blog along the way – when we have internet access – so you can follow the “haps” and “mishaps” as we amble across the southern USA.
The wind had settled overnight, which meant more midges in the morning (but not as bad as Glentrool which as midge central) so we did not hang about in the campsite but pedalled down to the ruined castle. The small ruins date from the 13th century but there was enough there to get a feel of the place protecting the harbour and the glens behind from marauders.
Then on to the short ferry ride over to Claonaig on the Mull of Kintyre. We met a group of cyclists doing the ‘5 ferries’ route from Ardrossen, Arran, Islay, Jura, Bute and back to Ardrossan. One to do another time when we are not loaded wih paniers. They told us that, on a good weather weekend in the summer, there can be up to 150 cyclists on the ferries and that bikes out-number cars on the ferries. That is a sign of how cycling has taken off as a passion for men and women here – something that was a marginal activity a decade ago. We also saw far more touring cyclists weighed down by kit – again showing the growth of this activity in this part of Scotland. The economic impact that so many cyclists have on the local economy must be significant, and it partly goes to explain why buying a new bike is so difficult at the moment.
Cloanaig is in the middle of nowhere so once the cyclists and handful of cars had disappeared, we pretty much had the road to ourselves as we climbed away from the sea. The occasional cars we did meet were all very tolerant, pulling into the passing places to allow us to pass rather than the other way round.
Once we were over the hill and heading towards Tarbert the road was busier but soon we were having delicious coffee and second breakfast overlooking the pretty harbour at Tarbert. We were now on the route that we did in Scotland in 2017 and think we were in the same cafe! We discovered that we were not too complimentary about Tarbet then, but we were wrong.
One more headland to cross coming out of Tarbert then the road hugged the shores of Loch Fyne. Flat and with a tail wind, we motored along to Lochgilpead at the end of the loch.
We had our picnic lunch by the Crinan canal, then ambled along the tow path all the way to Crinan – stretching out and enjoying the last section of this adventure.
At Crinan we reached our resting place with our good friends Richard and Sally on their amazing island in Crinan harbour. Loading all our bikes and kit into their little boat was fun!
As always their welcome was warm and generous, the setting spectacular, a fitting end to this journey. We had been here in 2017 when they first moved; but the house has been transformed into a fanastic open space since then, overcoming all the challenges of building on an island.
We both agreed this trip had exceeded all our expectations. We had discovered and rediscovered so many parts of our own country, had met up with many family and friends after the long drought of the pandemic. We also discovered that we still loved this form of travel, could still manage it (with perhaps some slight modifications to recognise our advancing age) and, perhaps most surprising of all, still enjoyed the rough and tumble of camping. There were experiences that we would not have got without camping, including seeing the unbelievable beauty of the sun falling into the sea north of St Davids and early mornings that were so peaceful that we wanted to bottle the atmosphere and re-experience it at a later date. So that’s the end of this blog but we are already planning our next trip…….watch this space.
Thanks for being with us for the last month, and for all your ‘likes’ and thought provoking comments. They are mostly from people we know and they mean a lot to us. Having family and friends ‘virtually’ with us as we tackle yet another 10km of climbing and knowing that they will share the view from the top by a photo somehow keeps us closer to you all.
Today was a gentle exploration of Arran. We started with the ferry from Ardrossan which we had taken 5 years before to Campbeltown, but this time we went for the shorter crossing to Brodrick on the Isle of Arran. It took 40 minutes and cost £8.40 for us to cross – with the bikes being free. The wonders of subsididsed transport services.
Brodrick, where we wheeled our bikes off, is a lovely village with a timeless feeling. The accent here is softer than on the mainland and the impression is that life runs at a slightly slower pace here.
We had the choice of 70km or 20km in getting to our campsite on the north west of the island – so opted for the 20km option. Before cycling we explored Brodick Castle and gardens. This was a hunting lodge until the middle of the C19th when a pushy German princess who married into the family that owned the place insisted on expanding it to a large house. Shen then lived there for 50 years, long after her husband died
and (according to legend) entertaining celebreties of the time (who wanted to do things unseen well away from London and largely having a continuing affair with her gardener. Her husband had died falling down stairs drunk in Paris after an argument about gambling debts – all a very strange world.
The house was solid Victorian but otherwise uremarkable. The gardens were lovely, a mixture of local plants and imported species from all over the world. We ambled for a pleasant hour and then found our bikes – chained up outside the Arran Brewery (how appropriate). There was lots of information on the family and the use of the house, but none on the fact that they made their money from the highland clearances, including evicting settlers from Arran who had been there for generations. So a slightly one-sided view of history.
The road from Brodrick north hugged the coast and was mainly flat through a series of villages, none of which showed the demons of modern development. Planning on Arran must be tighty controlled – preserving the existing feel of the place. Then we started the climb of the day across to Lochcranza.
It was written up as a devil of a climb but, after Devon and Wales, seemed not too bad. The hills were barren and beautiful and the road snaked up to a pass. Unfortunately our timing was crap as we ere cycling inot a strong wind and hit a rainstorm near the top, and came down in driving hail. We were cold and wet by the time we reached the Lochranza distillery and shop, so ambled around for 10 minutes in the warm to dry out.
Then to the campsite – free of midges at that point as the wind kept them at bay. We set up our tent and then went for a 3 hour walk along the coast. There was an important geological feature – Hutton’s unconformity – which showed that the rocks were many thousands of years old and had been formed by seizmic movements. That theory – later proved to be correct – showed the earth could not be 6000 years old as per the bible. It is hard to understand how contraversial this was at the time but it left Mr Hutton in very bad odour with the clerics. He was not the first scientist or rationalist to challenge religious orthodoxy, and will not be the last.
We walked back to the campsite along the bluff, enjoying the early evening views across the sound to the Mull of Kintyre, where we go tomorrow. Our plans to explore the whiskies of Arran were stymied by the Hotel being closed (not open until 1 July) so we were in bed by 8pm and read for hours as it hardly goes dark at all here at this time of year.