World by Bike 9: The Big Push
Gingerly leaving Tucumcari, NM, like Bambi on a bike, the freshly ploughed highway meant all the snow was sitting piled high in the hard shoulder of the freeway where I'd been riding for the previous few days. As the snow covered plains continued to climb up in altitude I could make out proper mountains on the horizon, snow-capped, over 10,000ft high - the southern Rockies and the end of the Great Plains. As the day progressed and temperatures dropped below freezing for another night I was glad I'd stopped in Tucumcari and not been out in the plains during the snow storm.
When Santa Rosa appeared on the horizon as the sun disappeared, I pulled in at a truck stop and got chatting to some guys who had retired a couple of years back, quickly got bored and started a company ferrying pets around the country for people who don't want to fly with them - basically a service for rich people. They were making good cash cruising all over the country. When I met them they were driving a dog back from New York to Phoenix for an NFL player recently cut from the team in NY, who was relocating back home to Phoenix. They were driving his car, taking his dog, and having a fun road trip in the process. They'd recently got back from driving Indianapolis to Houston with seven ducks in the back after an Indiana-based lawyer had decided to move to Hawaii and had been refused permission to bring her ducks, meaning she was forced to sell them to a doctor in Texas. There are so many weird and interesting things in this world. It also makes you think about how many people dream of retirement to finally get there and realise that drinking beer and having no agenda gets boring really fast, and that maybe ferrying pets is preferable.
I ended up that evening crashing the women's ministry evening at the local Catholic church as the two RV parks in town had told me that it was either too cold to camp out or that I should try the state park, 12 miles north. The women were incredibly generous just opening up the door to a bedraggled traveller like me in the middle of the night, let alone bringing me in, providing me with pizza, assisting me on financing a motel for the evening and showing me how to make tasteful and intricate Christmas bows for all the presents I won't be wrapping this year. I had insisted I was happy to camp out behind the church but they were equally insistent that they'd rather get me into a motel. I had a great evening and they were wonderful people, doing great work with their charity group PET who educate women around the world who wouldn't normally have access to such opportunities.
However, despite their generosity, I think the stress of trying to find accommodation twinned with the cold had got to me, and I woke feeling sick again. I tried to make myself sick in an attempt to alleviate symptoms, but to no avail. I tried a little breakfast but couldn't stomach much, making for a nervy day ahead, with 100 miles to cover and a body not particularly content with taking on the necessary fuel to cover the distance. I tried liquid nutrition, drinking coke and fruit juice, and with 20 miles remaining, and turning north towards my stop in Santa Fe, state capital of New Mexico, I was feeling ok. The views were stunning as the sun set over the mountains that now bordered my horizons, but the sub-zero temperatures and the two-layer gloves I was wearing made me hesitant to pull over and check the directions for the final 20 miles of night-riding.
This was an error. I was aware that the people I was due to be staying with were living in a small town, and not Santa Fe itself, so didn't think twice about turning off the main highway and onto a gravel road.
10 miles in, hands numb, and with farmer's dogs' barks gradually getting closer as they tracked the bumps of my laden bike across the uneven surface of the road, I began to grow sceptical. I resorted to singing out some of the songs I'd put on my Spotify playlist to boost my morale and try to block out any of the noises of animals rustling in the darkness that enveloped my narrow head-torch light. I figured I'd rather listen to my own voice instead of constantly freaking myself out hear animals shifting in the bushes. With 2miles to go, my road turned to an even smaller track and this is when I clocked that I may have made an error. Double checking the zip code, I discovered I'd put two numbers the wrong way around into my GPS, meaning that not only did I have another 14miles to cover, but I'd done the last 20miles on the gravel road for no reason as the main highway would have taken me straight to my house. The frustration built at my stupidity as the road surface worsened, with patches of hard snow and ice blending into patches of deep mud, but the surfaces indistinguishable from one another in the dark. After my second tumble in quick succession, I could feel an ache in my collar bone, and decided that pushing on too block-headedly was putting the rest of the trip in jeopardy, with the increased crash-risk building mile by mile as roads worsened and I grew more tired - my fatigue exacerbated by the fact that'd I'd been riding for 8 hours, 100 miles, climbing to 7200ft, and only taking on 1100 calories all day. The ache in my collar bone led me to the decision that it would be safer to see if my hosts were able to pick me up and take me back to theirs - at the rate I was moving I would have been looking at an after-midnight finish, had I finished at all. Mercifully, Ed & Cynthia obliged, informing me on pick up that I had just two miles left before the road was to become tarmac again. I did return in the morning to do the miles I'd missed, riding back on myself for 10miles to the spot where they'd picked me up, prompting Ed to call me an EFM guy, an 'Every Bloody Mile' type of rider. It'd be an unbroken line for near 3000 miles, can you blame me?
The repeated miles meant a shorter day into Santa Fe, then another shorter up to the town of Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan project during the second world war. The town was just a single shack in 1940, but now the government-owned lab itself employs around 20,000 people according to my sources. The delays in Tucumcari, the navigational issues and the couple of shorter days had allowed me to acclimatise to the altitude a little, but they had put me in a precarious situation with the weather, an ever-narrowing window to loop north up to Monument Valley in Utah and to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Knowing more snow was on the way, I got ready to activate time-trial mode and the same mind-set I'd employed on the record trip last October, just ploughing through miles, and getting from A to B. However, on my way up a mountain pass to Los Alamos at 7500ft above sea level, I noticed my back wheel wobbling slightly, finding to my great displeasure - to put it mildly - that my wheel had cracked in three places where spokes joined the rim. In all my years riding I'd never broken a rear mech, or a wheel rim, and here I was breaking both within two weeks of one another.
Trying to remain calm and not boil over in frustration at the time pressure of a flight out of LA and the approaching snow, I tried to tackle the problem as I had done on all the issues I'd encounter so far, and break it down into manageable steps and a series of next actions. I crawled to my rest stop for the night, set about calling bike stores, took the wheel to the store and implored the store owner to give me a good deal. Although the store owner wasn’t in a position to help with costs, my wonderfully generous hosts Becky and Kent said they could help me out. It was an incredibly touching gesture for a couple already doing so much for me by opening up their home, providing me with laundry facilities and great, hot food. I'm indebted to these two and probably would never have made it up to Utah and the Grand Canyon (spoiler alert - I made it) had it not been for their swift action. Thank you, both.
Bike fixed within 48 hours, I was back on the road, riding across the government lab in Los Alamos, NM - you have to show your passport, it felt super official. The road out of town is through bear and elk country, up over 9000ft and then flying down the valley until the snow-capped peaks disappear and flat-top red-rock appears. I loved that road as it felt like proper mountain riding, something I was concerned I was going to miss riding Route 66 from Chicago. I stayed that night with a friend of Becky and Kent, a keen hunter by the name of John. He was really accommodating, incredibly interested in my trip and keen to make me comfortable despite my encroachment on his evening plans with a lady friend. With the bike was working again and it was now time to activate time-trial mode.
A 6am start and 150mile ride through desert and red-rock, into the Navajo native reserve the next day and across the Continental Divide felt like a big milestone. The divide is the bulge of land that separates all water flowing either west into the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, down the Arizona-Nevada border and out to the Pacific; and the water flowing into the Rio Grande, the Mexican border, the Gulf of Mexico and eventually the Atlantic. I couldn’t dawdle at the landmark though as I wanted to minimise night-riding as laws are slightly less well enforced on the reserve (putting it mildly) and drinking, gambling and subsequent dangerous driving is a big problem, all linked to the fact that half of the Navajo people lived below the poverty line (I believe). It turned out the road I was following was up there as one of the most dangerous roads in the US, and I ended up with 5 hours of night riding to get to the next town. There is literally nowhere else to stop.
I did eventually arrive in Farmington, NM, in -7C weather and some of the coldest hands I've ever ridden with, wearing my hoodie, bike gear, jacket, woolly hat, next buff, and two layers of gloves for the final 10miles descending from 7000ft to 4000ft. The issue is that as the warmer air rises, with each hill I descended I'd hit a cold block of air, chilling me further. Upon my arrival at 2100, my host was wonderfully generous, having gone out of her way on her return commute from the hospital where she works as a senior nurse, just to get me a pizza and pumpkin pie (it was almost thanksgiving) . She was a really interesting character, having done several motorbike tours around the States, and regularly opens her house to bikers, cyclists and AirBnB-ers, meaning that often she sleeps on the sofa rather than her own bed, despite a hectic, tiresome schedule as a nurse - an inspiring if not slightly unusual work ethic.
Soon another day on the Navajo reserve beckoned, with 130 miles into Arizona and the only town for miles, Kayenta. With 20miles to go, and light fading a car pulled over in front over me and the driver asked if I needed help. I said I was fine, unless she lived in the town of Kayenta and knew anywhere I could pitch a tent. She responded that she could go one better and put me up for the night in her trailer in town. Outstanding! Turned out that she only pulled over as she'd seen me twice that day after she'd unexpectedly been called back into the school where she works, otherwise she'd have been back home and never have seen me - a slice of good fortune, for me. She even allowed me to stay an extra night so I could ride the 35miles over the border with Utah the next day and back again, just to see Monument Valley and the famous shot from the Forrest Gump movie. I'm very grateful as it was a gorgeous ride and I even met a proper photographer at the my turn around point in Utah who offered to take photos with his weapon of a telephoto lens, claiming my point-and-shoot camera was pitiful. High production value for the 'Gram, I'll tell you.
The excursion to Utah had chanced things with the weather, and now it was time to dash south. On the 70miles into Tuba City the next day and into a ferocious headwind, I miraculously avoiding all the rain that appeared to be falling just a few miles either side of me. I met a British family on holiday from their new home in Florida in the McDonald’s in town, keen cyclists and triathletes themselves who were interested in my trip. I had a great time chatting to them, but left them to drive on in the car to the Grand Canyon, whilst I meandered around town trying to find anywhere to put up my tent that wasn't charging $20 for the privilege. Just as I was about to camp stealthily behind the open gates of the local Catholic church, I tried one other church phone number for a final time, and to my surprise someone answered - it was 2030 on Thanksgiving, who'd be in a church office? It turned out the pastor at the local First Assembly of God church had just dipped back into the office when I called. He allowed me to put up a tent on the property, but just as I arrived he said that he'd allow me to sleep inside the building, in the warm children's nursery with another friend of the church who was to be sleeping over. I thanked him profusely but he waved it off insisting that we're all part of the Christian family and that I was most welcome. He even had his son bring me leftover Thanksgiving dinner from their place across the street. It was a wonderful gesture. We had an interesting chat hearing about the issues specific to a church on the reserve faces, with the pastor taking three funerals in the last two weeks for males under 30 committing suicide. It's fascinating how quickly people open up to you once you ask them if they'd like prayer for anything. People seem to just immediately share some of their deepest concerns, it's amazing to see and get that connection with people. We connected so well, the pastor, the church friend and I that we all went for breakfast in the morning. I learned that the church friend, who'd I'd shared the nursery with, had been in prison for 14 years after I remarked that he must have been really uncomfortable just sleeping on the hard floor of the church, whilst I had a sleeping mat. He said he was used to it after over a decade behind bars, and then told me about how the church had transformed his life, paying for my breakfast to pay forward some of the grace that he felt God had shown him. I was touched.
Soon followed the Grand Canyon, a must-see in this part of the world, and arriving just after thanksgiving meant that most of the world was there to see it. I started the day climbing up front 4000ft above sea level, all the way over and above 7500ft, battling tough traffic and narrow roads as soon as I entered the Grand Canyon National Park. It's weird, the Grand Canyon. It's in the middle of nowhere, with the surrounding land for hundreds of miles completely empty, but this area is swarming with tourists, flying selfie sticks and tour operators. It was actually quite a shock to the system to be somewhere quite as tourist-heavy for the first time since Chicago really. The views were spectacular, but I left with a similar sense to how I felt when I left New York City for the first time - it's really cool, and the views are great, but I felt I missed something. The canyon is so vast it was hard to grasp and I think without hiking into it, or white-water rafting on the Colorado river through it, I felt like I was observing a grand painting, rather than experiencing immersive nature. It was amazing to see, but I think there's a lot more exploring to be done, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.
The day from there, which had been shaping up beautifully, quickly descended into issues when I couldn't find anywhere to stay or camp that night, and the wind had picked up, and temperatures had dropped. The next town also wasn't for 50miles. Leaving the Canyon National Park, abusing McDonald's free wi-fi as I had no phone service , I tried to find anywhere to stay. One guy got back to me quickly saying he could host me, but that unfortunately he was 70 miles away in Flagstaff, and it was already dark. People had warned me Flagstaff is where I'd definitely hit snow, and it'd be too cold, and too mountainous around the city. However, with no other option, I ploughed into the night, through bear, coyote, elk and mountain lion territory. The remarkably clear night lit up silhouettes of the mountains, and they looked stunning in the moonlight. After 40miles into the dark, my host contacted me suggesting I pull up for the night as it was past 10pm, and the ride was so pretty that'd I'd want to see it in the day. But with it being -5C and not being in the mood to camp out with bears, I asked whether he minded driving out a little way to pick me up. 25 miles out from town his pick-up appeared on the horizon, I got in, and we got chatting. Michael was an interesting dude who's a tour guide himself in the Grand Canyon during the warmer months. He's planning a ride through Central Asia next year, and perhaps we'll cross paths again.
In the morning, and another day without fresh snow, I departed Flagstaff back to the point where Michael had picked me up, then looped back around back to Interstate-40 and Route 66 at Williams, Arizona. From here on out west the altitude dropped and things started to get warmer towards California. I'd made it through the worst of the weather and completed the northern excursion. Time-trial mode was working. To celebrate I tried camping out in what actually became the coldest camping weather yet, down the side of a church building, sealing myself in with wheelie bins to keep out any bold coyotes who thought the smell of my recent Big Mac meal was just too tempting.
Despite the sickness, navigational issues and problems with cracking a wheel rim, these few days blasting across New Mexico, Utah and Arizona felt great, as the bigger miles, with more distinguishable landmarks each day afforded me a greater sense of achievement with each ride. You could clearly see the progress made on the map each day, each ride jumping you forward towards the end goal of LA. The previous few weeks, since leaving Chicago really, had felt very stop-start, and progress felt slow compared to the initial blast across Europe. Although I had wanted to slow down a little, and spend more time in places along the route, without the bigger progress each day the task of riding across the States could become a little more daunting. If you aren't noticeably progressing, or growing in the direction of a goal I think it can become quite tough to stay motivated. These few days of really trying to push on highlighted the importance of knowing where you're going (the goal and the route - check your route!), breaking it down into manageable, measurable chunks, and the importance of doing something on the edge of your comfort zone. I think the easier miles in the previous few weeks hadn't challenged me as much, and therefore each day or each milestone was subconsciously less exciting as it hadn't pushed me as far. Challenging myself with the long distances in rural landscapes and at altitude encouraged me, as each day was another sizeable step in the right direction. Although not all days were 100miles plus, I tried to stay mentally flexible enough to adjust goals if things seemingly out of my control had come up, like cracking the wheel rim. Although I couldn't control the wheel cracking, I could control the wheel of the ship that is my thought pattern and my response to it. Rather than getting frustrated at deviating from the plan, I tried to adjust to what the next milestone was, like finding a bike store, finding a wheel, then taking the bike to the store to get it fitted, for example. I think without these regular milestones, and without each day being a stepping stone to get you measurably closer to the overarching goal, you can struggle. Without regular rewards and positive reinforcement I think you can start to wither quite quickly. This is certainly what I felt when I lost a day repeating miles when I took the wrong road into Santa Fe, and certainly how I felt when I cracked the wheel rim. Adjust the parameters, learn what you can learn, break down the problem into manageable chunks, put one foot in front of the other, and overcome. That's the theory, anyway.