World by Bike 10: The Last Leg
At long last the elevation started to drop. After progressively climbing since Oklahoma, and then fluctuating between 4000ft and 8000ft the whole way across New Mexico and Arizona, then roads started to descend west of Williams, AZ. I was also back on Route 66 and the quieter roads off of the I-40 interstate made for some more relaxed riding. My relaxed state was short-lived however when I crossed into the next valley out of Williams and met some brutal crosswinds. The wind was to prove my biggest challenge in the remaining few hundred miles to Los Angeles, but on that day it did slowly transition into a tailwind for the remainder of the ride from Williams to Kingman. It was one of my highest average speeds of the trip so far doing 128miles in less than eight hours. On one of the epic descents through the emptiness of another native reserve, I saw a twenty-something guy labouring back up the climb on a fully laden tourer so I pulled over to ask what he was up to. I hadn't seen many tourers at this time of year - none in fact since the Erie canal trail back in New York, so I was keen to ask about his trip. He was from Japan and had been on the road five months riding down from Alaska already, and was now detouring to the Grand Canyon before continuing south to Ushuaia, Argentina. It was really interesting to see this guy going about his business in the middle of nowhere, by himself. He seemed so isolated, in a way that I hadn't really pictured myself being, but I guess to the outside observer we were the same. I hadn't really spent much time thinking about being lonely, isolated or vulnerable, but seeing this guy made me understand a little more of what a lot of bike touring must seem like to others. My concerns about his wellbeing were quickly replace by feelings of admiration for the guy - long-distance touring is a pretty cool club to be a part of.
Another accommodation-free night in Kingman loomed and as I approached one church for permission to camp I got chatting to an affiliate of the pastor at the Catholic church campus. He informed me that the local police can sometimes be a little pernickety over that sort of thing, and my best bet was to head to another church site where there was a bunch of bushes to camp behind. Covering some of the reflective bits of my bike and tent with leaves just to make sure I wasn't picked up by the headlights of suspecting cops in the night, I had a relatively peaceful night, rising early to make a start on a final detour up to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Despite being a famous town that people want to see, a big attraction to Vegas for me was the fact that I'd found someone on the Warmshowers site who could let me stay, with the potential of washing my bike gear for the first time since Farmington, NM about a week prior. The ride was only supposed to be 100miles via the Hoover Dam and I looked forward to a low altitude cruise through the desert - that wasn't the case. A brutal crossed wind struck going down Coyote Pass out of Kingman, blowing me across the highway shoulder despite leaning over as far as I would dare and actively steering into the wind. I was quickly learning that it wasn't rain or the cold that was dangerous to ride in, it's the winds. The rest of the day was spent at 10mph, despite descending 1500ft, ploughing into a headwind. It was such a demoralising day, particularly as I thought it'd be a quick 100 mile day. Every time I start to think it's going to be easy, the day bites me. The cherry on top of my rough day was missing the exit on the highway to the Hoover Dam, and then realising I'd have to ride back on myself for 40minutes to rectify my error - an hour twenty round trip for the sake of a good photo - not for me.
I followed a great trail into Vegas and the outskirts of the town were much nicer than I thought. With such poverty on the native reserves just a few hundred miles away, and the way that America had turned out generally so far with the rich being alongside the poor, I thought Vegas would be a sprawling dump until you got right into the Vegas strip, but I was pleasantly surprised. The family I was staying with were based in a lovely gated community to which they'd recently moved, and were so keen to share their new house with me. They'd been there around four months, had a new four month old baby and a two year old - I have no idea how they managed all that. Not only did they have work life, two young children, a new house and now me to accommodate, they were also hosting a Swiss-Austrian couple who'd been biking South America to Alaska for two and a half years, as well as storing the bikes of another touring couple who were driving around all the local canyons. They were incredibly generous, providing excellent food, conversation, laundry facilities, my first bed in about a week and they even insisted I use their hot tub! I had a great time chatting to them and getting to know the other tourers staying with them. They even offered to drive me up to Las Vegas Boulevard to see the casinos at night with all the lights - actually, they offered me the keys to the truck but I didn't think driving a truck on the freeway on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car was smart as I hadn't driven in over a year. Vegas was actually really cool, and there is a certain attraction to it. I thought it'd be overly tacky, and quite a depressing place to visit, but I felt it was more like a massively extended Times Square in New York City. I liked it, although I'm sure just below the surface there are some quite sad undercurrents to the place.
Keen to get to Los Angeles, I neglected to stay another night with the clan in Vegas, and started off south into the Mojave desert after a late breakfast making for a 11am start. It was bizarre riding through the desert at 20C + when I'd been freezing just a couple of days and two hundred miles earlier, and the elevation had barely changed. Most of the day was on the interstate again, although it wasn't brilliantly clear whether bikes were legal on the I-15. There was one long climb up to 4500ft again and then what should have been a great 17 mile descent into Baker, California but by the time I reached it, darkness had fallen and it was hard to see beyond a few feet so I couldn't let the bike just roll. At one point I almost slammed into a car as someone had abandoned it in the hard shoulder with no warnings or lights. That woke me up again!
Baker, CA is not much of a town really, but I managed to find an RV park to pitch my tent free-of-charge. I slept well and wasn't awoken by every rustle in the bushes, which I took as a sign that I was getting more confident in camping out in non-tent specific environments - campsites I guess. It was back on south through the remainder of the Mojave the next day, and the first three hours flew by at a good pace. Settling myself in for a chilled lunch break and easy three hours to the finish that day I suddenly got hit my a massive headwind. Out of nowhere, without crossing to a new valley or behind a sheltering mountain, a howling wind started as soon as it hit midday. I went from cruising at 15mph to battling to maintain 9mph. It really was a miserable afternoon inching my way across Barstow, then following Route 66 to Victorville on the edge of the desert, but surprisingly, still at 4000ft. A series of contacts from back home had put me in contact with a young guy called Brandon at the High Desert church in Victorville who said he could let me crash on his couch. He was so enthusiastic to share his new apartment and share his story that I had a great evening.
The miserable weather continued the next day with heavy rain and sideways wind slowing me to a crawl. I'd planned a few easier days into Los Angeles, but the terrible weather meant that although shorter, the days were going to be anything but easy. The big stress of the day, besides the wind and rain, was establishing whether I could ride the interstate down from the high desert into the populous valley. After a couple of failed attempts to join the freeway I eventually found myself on the I-15, descending with the heavy traffic. The swirling winds in the mountains at 4500ft were brutal, slowing me to a complete stop on a 6% downgrade. The wind would be pushing me into the barrier at the edge of the road once second before blowing me under a truck the next, all whilst scattering debris and tumbleweed across the shoulder. One large tumbleweed was unavoidable and got jammed in my frame, immobilising me. The thorns got caught on the bike and my inability to pedal meant I had to dismount in the narrow shoulder of the freeway and try to untangle my bike. It was up there with some of the scariest miles I've ever ridden on the bike, totally at the mercy of the wind with nowhere to pull over and get away from the traffic.
The afternoon came with more rain as I entered the valley but a slightly reduced wind, making speeds of 11mph possible. The valley was a complete contrast to the high desert, with endless suburbs and small cities all the way to Los Angeles. The appearance of relative wealth was a stark contrast. I stayed a final night in La Verne, CA with Curtis, a keen rider, before making the final push on to Los Angeles and the finish line of North America at Santa Monica Pier. I had great fun riding on Route 66, then into downtown LA for lunch at the exciting Hyperloop project there with Graham, my sister-in-law's father who works there. It was nice seeing a familiar face for the first time in three months!
I detoured through downtown LA, quickly being confronted with the scale of LA's homelessness problems, before riding up to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard and then on Santa Monica Boulevard (Old Route 66) all the way to the ocean, where I dipped my front wheel in the ocean, officially completing a coast to coast ride across the US. The traffic was heavy and there were stop-lights every three feet, but I loved the ride in. As Santa Monica approached I started to reflect on how vast the US is, how varied, and how much of a miracle it is that the country even works as cohesively as it does. A country with such a recent history, and with each state comprised of such different ethnic and racial groups from different backgrounds, with California speaking a lot of Spanish, and Texas being a Mexican state just 150 years ago, or the mid-western states being bought from the French. I think you start to understand why Americans are so patriotic, because I think without that shared identity and allegiance to the flag things would start to crumble. It’s a really interesting concept, identity and what people can associate with. For example, when people would ask me where I'm riding or what I'm up to, responding with a round-the-world answer would often get a muted response, as it's too big or too unbelievable to comprehend. However, responding by just saying I was riding across the country, across the state, or even just 100 miles to the next town would get a bigger reaction.
I spent a few days relaxing in LA, running up to the Hollywood sign from the Griffith Park Observatory, catching a Lakers game at Staples Center, visiting Hillsong church LA, and visiting Santa Monica, all whilst reflecting on what a vast, varied and awesome country America is. The landscape would change daily from rich city, to vineyards, to farmland, to plains, to mountains, to desert, to canyons to forest, to beaches. I experienced all sorts of weather with 30+ in Chicago, wonderful autumnal colours in New York state, snow in New Mexico and warm December weather in California. Although the weather was varied, and the scenary constantly changing, the people stayed passionate, inquisitive and generous throughout. I've had such a wonderful experience on the near 4000 miles I rode from New York City, but the more I've seen of this country the more I realise there is to see. It's epic, and I'll be back.