Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On a dark desert highway...

Total Distance: 6796.2 km

By Yana:

It's been surprisingly long since we last had the opportunity to post a blog entry. Still, we are getting so very close to the end now that we kind of want to post one more before we actually hit that west coast.

Leaving Sally's place in Tucson turned out to be one of those convoluted departures, where all our gear has exploded out of our bags, and it takes hours and hours to repack. It's a crazy phenomenon, really. But finally, we did get going. It was early afternoon by then, but we had a sweet tailwind, and the weather was otherwise glorious, as well.

Conveniently, Sally lives quite close to the spot where we had been picked up the last time, so it was a fairly minor matter to ride back there, and then continue our journey from there. With the wind at our backs, we coasted through Tucson, realising that it really is quite nice for cyclists. Plenty of bikelanes, and they're quite wide to boot! Nice! You can quite comfortably cycle along the main roads there. The town also has a slightly Adelaide-ish feel to it, though Sundance reckons it's more like a scaled-up version of Alice Springs.

Once through Tucson itself, we made our way towards the interstate, as we had established that the I-10 has a cushy frontage road which leads all the way up to Casa Grande. However, when we headed towards the spot where we planned to get onto the road, we found signs telling us the frontage road was closed, due to roadworks. Bother! We resolved the matter reasonably quickly though by asking the advice of a cop who was standing by a pair of crashed cars. The cop was nice enough to take a moment for us, and tell us where the next point of intersection with the interstate was. We headed off, and I briefly noted that one of the two crashed cars had managed to snap off one of its front wheels! Yikes!

It took a little bit of weaving around some slightly hilly bits, but we made it to our intersection. The sun was starting to sink a little bit, and the saguaro-covered hills were bathed in that pretty golden light - at that point, I actually felt like I might be able to warm to those saguaros, after all. At one point, we almost went off in the wrong direction, but Sundance flagged down a young lady in an SUV, and she pointed us in the right direction. Once on that coveted frontage road, we only had maybe another hour of daylight, and discovered that we hadn't come anywhere near as far as we'd thought we had, to boot. Still, we weren't going to let that get us down, as it felt good to just get out of Tucson and be moving again. Just as the sun was setting, we took note of our surroundings, and decided that right by the side of the road would be a fine place to put up the tent, as the strip of land between the interstate and the frontage road had widened into a fully fledged paddock. We got ourselves set up in the fading light, and had a very nice comfortable night indeed, as the temperature remained pleasant and balmy. Amusingly, hearing the coyotes howling in the distance was also somewhat comforting, as we've become so used to it.

The next morning, we got up pretty much as early as we ever do, and got ourselves packed and breakfasted very efficiently. It was a good feeling to be on the road within an hour and fifteen minutes, and we found ourselves with another glorious tailwind, as well! Arizona really was working out very nicely for us. We also found that the scenery on either side was bursting with colourful wildflowers, which gave us that wonderful feeling that spring is on its way. In fact, it was shaping up to be quite a warm day, as well. As we drew level with the little town of Red Rock, we decided to find a petrol station and use the toilet. However, what we found was one of those new developments, which we think of as ghost towns that have not yet been populated. Still, we managed to find the older, inhabited parts of town, and a nice lady talking over the fence with her neighbour let us use her toilet, once she had locked away her overly excitable dog. Once we had used the facilities, we found ourselves presented with bowls of yoghurt and berries, which we gleefully devoured. We ended up sitting at the dining room table with our host, Josefina, and another girl name Christie (Kristy? I didn't establish the spelling), and we spent well over an hour chatting. It was one of those wonderful gregarious moments which this trip is all about.

Before we left, we also got to meet Josefina's son, Clancy, who has spent some time in Wagga Wagga. This kind of tickled us, especially as Clancy had apparently discovered that yep, Wagga is not so different from southern Arizona. We all exchanged contact details, and Josefina stuffed our pockets with toaster pastries, fresh fruit, and a bag of absolutely delicious candied pecans. We said our goodbyes, and headed back onto our frontage road. It really turned out to be a pretty good travelling day all round, as least for the first half of it. We stopped for lunch in Eloy, and then got moving again pretty quickly.

It was just before we reached Casa Grande that disaster struck: Sundance rode over a screw which promptly embedded itself in his rear tyre, and resulted in our first puncture since Fort Davis, Texas. Not even the extra-thick uber tubes could withstand that screw, and it did quite a number on the tube. We found ourselves a nice shady spot to sit, and Sundane set to patching the tube, which had been run right through on one side, and punctured in multiple spots on the other side. I had a reasonably hard job getting the thing out of the actual tyre as well. It was definitely one of those doozies which chew up insane amounts of time.

We headed on into Casa Grande, and during a quick grocery run, discovered that the tube had gone down again. Upon closer investigation, Sundance found that the patch hadn't held, and we ended up going for one of the normal tubes we still had floating around in our packs. By then, the sun had started to set, but we were determined to at least leave Casa Grande. We got pretty close to doing that, as in the end, we found ourselves a turf surf at a house which was pretty much right on the city limits. We got ourselves set up and fed, and ended up doing a bit of socialising with the family. Ken and Katie turned out to be a friendly and helpful pair, and quite adept at keeping their little tribe of kidlets from completely swamping us with attention, which was cute in many ways. We got to top up our water supply, and they ended up slipping us some extra money for the road, which gave us that very humbled feeling which you get from great hospitality. It was also interesting to note that the whole money thing had not happened since Louisiana. Actually, we have decided that Arizona is probably the first place to truly give Kentucky a run for its money in terms of hospitality. In fact, Arizona might well win in those stakes.

We got ourselves going at a reasonable time, despite having spent part of the morning chatting with Ken and Katie. We had a reasonably smooth run into Maricopa, which turned out to be a much larger town than expected. We stopped by a Wal-Mart to make some peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and purchase extravagances like Clif bars and the like. We got going again quite swiftly after that, and also crossed paths with a large ute containing a driver who honked and waved - I'm pretty sure it was Ken, as the baseball cap and goatee looked familiar, but I couldn't be completely certain at so quick a glance.

Once turned out of Maricopa, we found ourselves smacked with a headwind. As it had been a while since we had encountered one of those, it made us a little grumpy, especially as the little road we were on turned out to be a popular route for ridiculously large trucks and semis. At least most of them were polite drivers and gave us a wide berth, though a few of them buzzed by us rather closer than necessary.

Due to the wind, we were definitely not going to make it to Gila Bend that day, we figured. We stopped in the tiny little town of Mobile for lunch, at a Primary School, of all things. When we asked for permission to do so, we generated some interest, and ended up having a bit of a chat with one of the teachers, Kara. It was a nice little lunch break, made all the better by the fact that we were in some nice solid shade and got to fill up our water bottles, as that sun was nothing to be sneezed at. Spring in southern Arizona already has a bit of force to it, I can believe the stories of how stinking hot summer gets there!

After we had ridden on into that stupid wind for another decent stretch, Sundance found himself afflicted with yet another flat tyre - the normal thickness tube we had put in to replace the uber tube had not held up for very long. As Sundance had made a point of cutting up an old normal tube to make a super-patch for the uber tube, we got stuck into putting that one back in. However, when Sundance started to pump up the tube, we discovered that the makeshift super patch wasn't super enough, and had to admit that the tube was unfixable. Frustrating. I got out another spare tube and patched the freshly punctured one, and we took a few moments to wallow in the sheer craptasticness of it all.

We actually ended up getting within eight miles of Gila Bend that night before pulling off and finding a nice sheltered spot between some trees to camp. The railroad was a little bit closer than we would have liked, but that had been the situation for a while, so it didn't really bother us. It was still a balmy, comfortable night, and we shot into Gila Bend relatively promtly the next morning, especially as we had decided to defer breakfast until we were actually there.

Luckily, we found ourselves a shelter to make breakfast under, as there was a bit of a squall of rain in the middle of it, though not enough to be worth worrying about in the long run - it was really just enough rain to make the hot bitumen smell kind of feral. Funnily enough, I had kind of missed that smell. I guess it speaks of hot places.

It took us a bit of time to get out of Gila Bend, partly because the grocery options were rather woeful. We also filled our water to full capacity for the first time, as we were supposedly about to head into the desert, and we were told that the stretch between Gila Bend and Yuma was kind of desolate, with the towns in between being little more than signs with names. Sundance had plotted out an alternate route which would keep us off the interstate the whole way - no mean feat, as this was one of those stretches which was very interstate-oriented.

We got stuck into going along the course Sundance had plotted, once again battling a wind which was against us. A decent distance along our chosen road, we found ourselves at a confusing intersection, and eventually established that the most direct route to where we wanted to go was for a 15km stretch along a reasonably gnarly dirt road. We decided that it was preferable to heading back, and after all, we had done dirt road stretches before. For a while, it was just fine, and even the first puddle was okay to ride through. It was when we hit a big succession of road-spanning puddles that things became problematic. We soon found ourselves having to get off our bikes and drag them through ankle-thick viscous mud. Desert indeed! After the puddly stretch, we had to take some time out to wash shoes, socks, and brake pads, as all sorts of crud had gotten caught in there. A passing driver also told us that the Gila river was currently running, which meant that our chosen route to Yuma was most likely cut off.

We made it to the end of the dirt road, which luckily became much better after the puddly stretch. We ended up deciding to turn towards the interstate, as that was the direction the wind was pushing us into, and we didn't feel like struggling another 15 km into a headwind for the uncertain possibility that we'd be able to cross the dam which was supposedly blocking off our route. We found a house by the interstate, where a friendly Latino fellow let us use his phone and topped up our water. Sundance calle the Highway Patrol to check bikes were allowed on this stretch of the insterstate, and got no useful answer, because the people didn't know themselves. In the end, judging by the fact that the Cycle Arizona map described the riding conditions along the interstate, and also finding a sign asking cyclists to keep to the shoulder, we came to the conclusion that it had to be allowed. As our escapade through the mud had taken up a lot of time, we didn't have much daylight left, so we ended up pushing on in the dark a little bit until we hit Sentinel. There we stopped at some tables outside the local petrol station, made ourselves some dinner, and then found ourselves a camp spot about 1km outside of town, in the so-called desert.

The next morning we packed up and breakfasted, and then headed into Sentinel in hopes of using the toilets as the petrol station. This turned out to be a no-go, as the owner quite rudely advised us that the water wasn't working. Once she was gone, the owner's daughter suggested we just use their own toilet rather than the public one, but we didn't want to get her in trouble, plus we knew there to be a rest stop only two miles further down the interstate. We set off with another one of those wonderful tailwinds, and reached the rest area very quickly. The drinking fountains weren't working, but the toilets certainly were, which was all we really needed. Back on our bikes, we cruised along at an easy 30+ km/h, and very soon came to the town of Dateland, named not for people going on dates there, but for growing dates, much to Sundance's pleasant surprise, as he loves eating dates. We shared an absolutely delicious date shake, and also got a slice of date pecan pie to serve as Sundance's birthday cake, as that was coming up very soon indeed. Sundance had been in a bit of a low mood all morning, despite the headwind, and he took the time to do some handstands, cartwheels, and even a handspring on the grass, which made him feel a bit better. He'd been missing doing gymnastics and is looking forward to getting back to it when we return to Adelaide.

We headed onwards to Mohawk, and headed into a closed rest area, where we sat on the tables and made our lunch. Good thing we hadn't counted on anything being in Mohawk, because there really was nothing to speak of. I'm not even sure I saw a sign, let alone any buildings telling us what spot exactly was supposed to be Mohawk. We made a quick stop in Tacna to refill our water and share some orange ice cream/sorbet stuff, and then headed onwards to Wellton, where we found out that there was a public library, so we stopped for some Wi-Fi access to see if there were any warmshowers hosts in Yuma, as it looked like we'd be able to still make it there that day. We found nothing useful though, and ended up spending quite a bit of time at the library. Still, we managed to make 100km before sunset that day, and ended up finding a turf surf a few km out of Wellton. The people we stayed with, Gary and Nancy, certainly went above and beyond our request for a spot to put up our tent: we found ourselves presented with a plate each of delicious chicken curry, followed by dessert. One more point for Arizona! Gary actually mentioned that he'd seen us in Sentinel that morning, and was impressed at the distane we'd covered. We did cook ourselves a second dinner though, simply because we needed the extra carbohydrate for our crazy energy output. We spent that time chatting with Gary and Nancy, before eventually turning in for the night.

The next morning, Gary and Nancy spirited us off to one of the restaurants in Wellton, where they treated us to breakfast. Nice of them. Once again, it's a reminder of how many good deeds we have to pay forward when we get home. It was also a nice treat since it was tehnically Sundance's birthday, as by then, the date had at least clocked over to the 22nd in Australia.

It ended up being a slightly slower morning than it had been lately, probably partly because we had the chance to have a shower, and Sundance wanted to just relax and have a calm, happy day. It was pushing noon when we got going, and we said our goodbyes. We ended up going on a bit of a zig zag trail on our way to Yuma, in order to avoid the mountain pass. There were quite a few different fields on either side of us as we rode along, and we could smell all the fresh produce. We stopped for lunch at the intersection of our zig zag road and the road which would actually lead us into Yuma itself. It was getting late into the afternoon as we approached the town, at which point I could hear a curious rhythmic fapping coming from my bike. A moment of inspection revealed that my rear tyre had developed a small bulge in the side, which smacked against the brake pads with each wheel revolution. Not good. Sundance let out a little bit of the tyre pressure and we rode a little further, in hopes of finding a servo where we could look at fixing it. However, the problem got worse quite rapidly, and just before we hit a sports bar on the outskirts of town, the whole arrangement gave a loud pop as the tyre gave out and the tube burst. That's two of the uber tubes down.

Luckily, Sundance managed to get a lift from a nice lady who had just dropped off her husband at the sports bar, and she drove him to Wal-Mart to get a quick fix el cheapo replacement tyre while I removed the old one. I found to my surprise that in this case, the tube looked fixable, so I patched it while I waited. Sundance returned with the new tyre, and we decided to put in the new uber tube we had received from Gary, as a sort of birthday present for Sundance. I twiddled my thumbs for a bit while Sundance fiddled with the new tyre, and we got talking briefly with one of the fellows hanging out at the bar. I eventually went in and asked him for various local advice involving where we'd be able to set up a tent in town, as the tyre incident had completely blown our schedule. The fellow, Bob, ended up offering to put us up for the night and give us a lift in his truck, bikes and all. We accepted, and I packed the gear into the truck while Sundance continued to wrestle the tyre - as we had established before, the narrow rims of my Canadian bike, combined with those Wal-Mart tyres are just horrible when it comes to working the things on and off, and the uber tube was making it all the worse. Poor Sundance ended up getting badly frustrated by the whole thing - the tyre was such a tight fit that he actually snapped two tyre levers! - and we decided that we'd just have to find a bikeshop the following day to take care of the problem.

We dropped off our gear at Bob's place, and Sundance took a bit of time for himself to defuse all that negativity from the tyre wrestling - not a good way to spend part of his birthday. I spent that time socialising with Bob, and when Sundance re-emerged, Bob took us out to dinner, which was really nice of him. We discovered that IHOP is so much more than just a pancake joint, and actually serves quite reasonable quality food. They also let Sundance use their phone, so he could call both his parents and say hi for his birthday. It was a little bit of a process, but we got back eventually, and fell into bed.

The next day, once we had breakfasted and showered, Bob packed us back into his truck and drove us to the local bicycle shop. There I took my rear wheel into the shop, explaining the way the valve stem of the tube wasn't protruding far enough for the pump to grab onto it properly, and the way we now couldn't get the tyre off because it was too tight. One of the bike shop guys got the thing sorted out quickly enough, and pumped it up. We had intended to get a different tyre, as Wal-Mart is really far from ideal, but then, we have less than a week to go before we hit the coast. Bob came in briefly to say his goodbyes, we exchanged contact details, and he headed off. After having a quick chat about it, Sundance and I agreed to stick with the Wal-Mart tyre, and learn a few tricks about getting the stubborn thing off, should there be another puncture. I'm reasonably confident that we are in a better place to handle it now.

Once that was done, we headed back to the sports bar, as that had been the point where we had left off. We then went in search of the nearest decent supermarket, and I did a quick grocery run while Sundance was on bike guard duty. We made ourselves some lunch there, and I had a random encounter with a drink vending machine, where leaning against it and inching down it to sit on the ground resulted in me accidentally pushing a button and getting a free orange-flavoured soda for my efforts. It was an amusing moment of startlement, but still, kind of cool. Hooray for free soft drink, in all its High Fructose Corn Syrupy goodness!

We did have a brief chat with a postal delivery lady who thought our adventure was the coolest thing, and a passer by had also handed Sundance some money, which was another one of those nice things. It makes us feel a little bit like bums when people do that, but it's still appreciated. With lunch done, we headed to the banks of the Colorado River, dangled our feet in so Sundance could feel like his birthday hadn't been entirely swallowed up with the effort to get back on the road, and then checked the Yuma tourist info for California maps. There weren't any complimentary ones, so we shrugged and just headed across the state border, making state border crossings a thing of the past for this trip! California, hooray! We have now also crossed two entire time zones by bicycle.

That being said, California wasn't being so great. The road surfaces we found ourselves on were absolutely terrible, to the point of giving Louisiana a run for its money in that department, and Louisiana is supposed to have the worst roads in the USA! How California, which has a larger economy than most countries, can have such lousy roads is just beyond me. The frontage road along the interstate was just shocking, which we proceeded to rant about with another cyclist we met, Phil, who was coming from the other direction. Phil is heading for Austin, Texas, as it turned out, and he was happy to give us some advice on the roads ahead.

We rode on to the next intersection of note, and found ourselves a nice sheltered desolate spot to put up our tent. We had our dinner and looked up at the darkening sky, and also stuck four burning matches into Sundance's slice of date pecan pie, as the four corners of the square, as this is a square number birthday for Sundance - 36! Sure, it was a tiny little birthday party, but kind of nice in its own right.

The next morning, we decided to opt for the direction which would take us away from the interstate, even though it would be a decent-sized detour. To our chagrin, about 15km along the way, the very slight tailwind we had started out with turned into an absolute demon of a headwind. Lovely. But there was nothing much we could do but push on, as our dwindling water supply was not going to make it an extra day. At least there was a little cut-off road which would shrink our detour somewhat, although our suspicions of it being a dirt road turned out to be extremely well-founded. As we had gone around 35km by then, and it was early afternoon, we stopped under a tree for lunch before tackling that road in ernest. Honestly, it wasn't even a road at all, but a few tyre tracks through a cross-country landscape. Good fun, but also quite tricky and at times frustrating. I'd still say it was worth it though, especially as we encountered a decent-sized tortoise lumbering its way across the road. Nifty! It did retreat into its shell when it noticed us, though it ended up sticking its head and front feet out far enough again for us to get a decent picture.

Back on the bitumen, we found ourselves dealing with all sorts of winds, mostly cross. We rode through the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, noting a bunch of people hooning over the dunes on quad bikes to our left. It was a bit hilly, but still a pretty landscape. Not a huge area, but still worthwhile. We rode on between wheat fields, date and orange orchards, and sheep paddocks before finding a house to ask for a turf surf at, about 15km shy of Brawley. The people in question offered us their caravan to stay in, which certainly goes above and beyond the need for a spot of earth to stick up a tent on. So we spent the night safely tucked away and got to cook dinner on a double-burner gas stove, and have a shower this morning.  Afterwards we headed into the town of Brawley and had a huge Chinese meal for lunch, so big that we couldn't finish it all. And that's saying something! Still, the leftovers will make a good dinner tonight. Then we found a Wi-Fi hotspot at a supermarket to post this blog entry, before hitting the road again. We have another big day ahead of us today, and one more set of mountains to cross before we get to the Pacific!

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