Monthly Archives: September 2009

What a difference a day makes!

GLOBE, Ariz. — Finally, the weather has moderated.
We have been climbing through the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix the past two days. On Tuesday, the toughest part of a 58-mile ride — Gonzales Pass (2,651 feet) — came near the end of the route when the temperature was more than 100 degrees. I was toast when I finished.
So I dreaded Wednesday’s ride, which included a much harder climb over Signal Mountain Pass at 4,829 feet. But the weather gods smiled on us overnight. Clouds had moved in and morning temperatures had dropped into the mid-70s. A few drops of rain fell as we were breaking camp in Superior, Ariz., for the start of a short day — only 26 miles to Globe.

A roadside shrine near Miami, Ariz.

A roadside shrine near Miami, Ariz.

Wednesday’s climb started right out of the campsite, a steady uphill leading to some very steep sections during the first 11 miles of the ride. But a nice westerly wind followed us up the mountain, bending the stalks of sunflowers that lined the road in our direction. What promised to be very difficult turned out to be fairly easy.
The hardest part of the route was navigating through road construction near the summit. The Arizona Department of Transportation was repaving one side of U.S. 60, so only one lane was available for traffic. Workers with stop signs halted traffic in one direction for 15 to 30 minutes at a time to allow traffic from the opposite direction to pass through. Once our eastbound traffic was allowed through, the trick was to stay on or as close to the shoulder as possible as cars, pickups and 18-wheelers whizzed past.
Arizona highway planners seem fond of rumble strips, those rough ribbons of pavement between the highway and the shoulder. They may save lives by alerting motorists that they're veering off the road. But they're a menace to cyclists. It got a bit hairy at times on the steep descent from Signal Mountain Pass, trying to thread a fully loaded touring bicycle along a path about a foot and a half wide to stay between the rumble strips and the outer edge of the shoulder.
But we all made it into camp, which on Wednesday night is the grounds of the Globe Community Center, a shaded swath of grass with the same westerly breeze that pushed us up the mountains.
Please note the photo of the roadside shrine. There’s an interesting tale about that shrine which I hope to tell in a later blog post.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys

An easy exit from the big city

SUPERIOR, Ariz. — I’ve read several online journals by cross-country cyclists who had braved the traffic in Phoenix. So I had some apprenhensions on Tuesday morning as we set out from Tempe, a part of the desert metropolis, at about 7:15, not long before rush hour.
Gonzales PassBut the exit from the big city was surprisingly easy and pleasant.
We had spent two nights at a Motel 6, a short ride from the campus of Arizona State University. The early part of the ride took us down University Drive, past restaurants, coffee shops and students heading to early classes.
The Adventure Cycling Association map then routed us through quiet neighborhoods in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb.
We passed the spring training facility for the Chicago Cubs, a pleasant neighborhood designated as the Evergreen Historic District, an orchard of orange trees that stretched about a mile along Adobe Road, the Dreamland Villa for “senior adult living,” a yard of bluish-green fake grass that looked as out of place as an ill-fitting toupee and several schools, proof that Arizona has a generation of young people and is not just a place for seniors to retire.
The urban sprawl ended after Apache Junction, a little more than 20 miles into the ride. And then the tough part of Tuesday’s route began — a steady uphill slog into a range of mountains crossed at Gonzales Pass, at 2,651 feet.
It wasn’t particularly steep or as high in elevation as passes I’ve ridden through in Colorado. But the temperature again was at about 100 degrees as I was approaching the summit.
A few clouds appeared on Tuesday, the first we’ve seen since San Diego. But they were fragile, wispy things — long, narrow trails of vapor that seemed more for show than any useful purpose, like shade or rain.
Entering SuperiorThe pass took us through the Tonto National Forest, with hundreds of suguaro cacti dotting the sandy slopes. On the western side of the pass was Dromedary Peak and on the eastern side Picketpost Mountain, both stark, arid desert peaks.
We finished the day at an RV park in Superior, a former copper-mining town that has seen better days. I ended up riding just over 58 miles for the day. We’ve now ridden 500 miles since leaving San Diego on Sept. 20. Only about 2,660 to go.


Filed under Cycling across America, Journeys

Where the trees whistle for the dogs

TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s said here in this metropolis in the desert that Phoenix/Tempe has four seasons: Tolerable, hot, really hot, and ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!
Heat waveJudging from the heat of the past few days, I would say that we’re experiencing the last of those four seasons. But, actually, I’m guessing that we’re in the “hot” season, with “moderate” to come in the winter months.
As I write this on Monday afternoon, the temperature is 100 degrees, with a forecast high of 105. It’s good that we’re not riding today. On Tuesday, when we resume our journey after a day of rest, the high temperature in Superior, Ariz., our intended destination, is forecast to be only 98 degrees. That would be the first day of riding in which the temperature was not more than 100 degrees.
But, as Yogi Berra, said: “It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.”
Phoenix mapI’m a native Illinoisan and a veteran of more than two decades of Texas summers. So I’m acquainted with the stupefying humidity along the Mississippi River and with the blazing heat of a Texas summer. But judging from some jokes — or perhaps statements of fact — about the Phoenix summer culled from the Internet, this desert metropolis might just take heat to a whole new level.
Here are a few:
— You can’t take the dog for a walk because the pavement is too hot for his feet.
— Potatoes cook underground, and all you have to do to have lunch is to pull one out and add butter, salt and pepper.
— Cows give evaporated milk.
— The trees whistle for the dogs.
— You can make instant sun tea.
— The greatest fear of a bicyclist is: “What if I get knocked out and end up lying on the pavement and cook to death?”
Phoenix heatA classic witticism about the climate of Phoenix is attributed to a fellow named Bob Fisher, who preached in the city quite a few years ago, but abandoned the pulpit to practice law.
Asked why he made the career change, Fisher is said to have answered:
“I preached Christianity here to the best of my ability. But Christianity is based upon a system of rewards and punishments. Climate beat me. For eight months of a year the delights of heaven offer no special inducement to Phoenix residents. And for those who live through the other four months, hell has no terrors.”

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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys

A day-to-day chronicle

Tempe on mapTEMPE, Ariz. — For anyone who might be interested, I have a page on this blog that chronicles the day-to-day progress of this bicycle journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla.
We started on Sept. 20 at Ocean Beach in San Diego and are to finish Nov. 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, in St. Augustine. We currently are in Tempe for a rest day on Monday, about 441 miles into a journey of an estimated 3,160 miles.
The page that chronicles the journey is a sub-page of the “Route” page. Each day’s entry consists of the number of days on the road, the date, the locations of the start and end of each day’s ride, the mileage for the day and the cumulative mileage for the trip.
This Monday, our first rest day after eight days of riding, has been devoted to sleeping late, cleaning and lubing the bike, topping up the air in the tires, doing laundry, a bit of reading, checking e-mail and catching up on the blog.


Filed under Blogging on the road, Cycling across America, Journeys

Ignoring a message from God

Edward Abbey“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to esbablish a city where no city should be.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968

TEMPE, Ariz. — I don’t have much experience with deserts, except for the past eight days of riding a fully loaded touring bicycle from San Diego to Phoenix. But I’ve drawn one major conclusion: God must have been trying to send his people a message by making deserts as hot as Hades, as dry as old bones and generally unfit for human habitation.
Riding in the desertEvery day since we left San Diego on Sept. 20 to begin a transcontintenal bicycle trip to Florida, the temperature has been more than 100 degrees. On Sunday, the high in Phoenix/Tempe, where we have a full day of rest on Monday, was 107 degrees.
Sunday’s ride from Wickenburg, Ariz., to Tempe was 77.37 miles, including about eight extra miles as I wandered around several times in Phoenix like a lost pup because of confusing map instructions. Or perhaps my brain was addled by the heat.
As I passed a time and temperature sign at a bank in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise at 9:40 a.m., the temperature already was 100 degrees. Fortunately, the landscape during the early part of the ride had a downward tilt, which then flattened out as we rode through the urban sprawl to Tempe. We passed through tidy suburbs like Surprise, El Mirage, Sun City, Glendale and Peoria.

Phoenix freeways

Phoenix freeways

The people who live in those suburbs, many with well-watered green lawns and some with trees that would look more at home in the Midwest, obviously didn’t pay attention to God’s message. Like Eve and that damned apple, they had to build “a city where no city should be.”
As I rode the last portion of Sunday’s ride into Tempe, I used a bicycle path along Tempe’s Town Lake, near the main campus of Arizona State University. Along the path were red signs that said: “Please be kind to this habitat. For your safety, stay on the concrete walkways at all times. Do not touch the animals or damage the plants that call this habitat home.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it seemed too little too late. Within a few hundred yards of those signs, one can see traffic whizzing along Loop 202 around this metropolis in the desert. What about all the natural habitat displaced by a human agglomeration of 1.5 million?
Of course, a city of that size needs lots of water and energy to keep lawns and golf courses green and to maintain Arctic-like temperatures inside homes, restaurants and stores. Sunday night, as several of our bike-riding group had dinner in a sports bar called the Hail Mary, we were tempted to hike back to the Motel 6 to get our jackets because of the frigid temperature inside the bar.
Protect this habitatTempe Town Lake itself is an anomaly in the desert. It’s a reservoir that occupies a portion of the often dry riverbed of the Salt River as it passes through Tempe. It features sailing, kayaking, rowing and even a “beach” area. Of course, there’s no shortage of sand in these parts.
The water for Town Lake comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile-long canal that diverts water from the Colorado River into central and southern Arizona. Water started flowing into Tempe Town Lake on June 2, 1999. By July 14, the lake was declared full. On Nov. 7, 1999, Tempe Town Lake was opened to the public.
The Town Lake is a pretty sight, and totally unexpected in such a barren setting.
As I prepared for this journey, I knew that about 1,000 miles in the early stages would be across the desert Southwest: long, lonely miles through towns like Plaster City, Seeley and Glamis in California, Quartzite, Hope and Aguila in Arizona, Buckhorn, Silver City and Hatch in New Mexico and Sierra Blanca, Van Horn and Marathon in West Texas.
A college student friend referred me to a classic book on the desert by Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.
Abbey tells of his time as a National Park Service ranger in the 1960s at Arches National Monument in the canyonlands of southeastern Utah near Moab. He writes beautifully of the desert, calling it “a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea.”
Phoenix vista

Phoenix vista

So in the middle of this vast desert sea, after passing through the Arizona Outback towns of Brenda, Salome, Wenden and Wickenburg, the eastbound transcontinental bicycle traveler comes upon Phoenix, with its urban sprawl of congested roads, freeway interchanges, big-box stores, fast-food franchises, skyscrapers, acres of parking lots and cheaply constructed housing developments.
I wonder if Edward Abbey had Phoenix in mind when he wrote of places and people “irreparably stunned, deadened, numbed by the caterwauling of commerce, the sweaty scramble for profit and domination.”
Is Phoenix, for all its vibrancy and amoeba-like growth, “a city where no city should be?


Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Literary musings

How not to become buzzard food

“See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless winds high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968

WICKENBURG, Ariz. — I think I’m getting the hang of bicycling through the desert — and trying not to become buzzard food.
During the past few days in the torrid deserts of southeastern California and in Arizona, I’ve been wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt, sleeves rolled down and collar turned up, to protect against the blazing sun.
Every few miles, I stop to rest and to pour water over my head, chest, arms and legs. Once the bike gets going again, the resulting breeze quickly evaporates the water on the shirt and serves as primitive air-conditioning.

An irrigation canal in the desert

An irrigation canal in the desert

Of course you have to be sure you have enough water to use it to dampen a garment; the main priority is to get fluids into the body. So I’ve been stopping at every opportunity — convenience store, gas station, etc. — to get water and to gulp down a container or two of Gatorade. Such places are few and far between in the desert, and it’s essential to know where they are before you begin a long ride.
A rider on an organized, self-contained transcontinental bike ride doesn’t really have much opportunity to spend a lot of money. The cost of accommodations — usually campsites and cheap motels — and most of the food is covered by the ride fee. But a big chunk of my personal spending money has been going to buy fluids. A gallon jug of water, for example, costs $4.25 at Glamis, Calif., in the Imperial Dunes. The same gallon jug costs 99 cents at a convenience store along the road to Salome, Ariz.
Sign on the road to Wickenburg

Sign on the road to Wickenburg

Saturday’s ride of 56.09 miles from Salome to Wickenburg took us across a portion of the northern Sonoran Desert along arrow-straight U.S. 60 with some moderate climbing. The temperature for Wickenburg was forecast to be 102 degrees, and there were two places along the way where water could be had: Wenden and Aguila.
I set out at 7:11 a.m. to try to get in a good portion of the ride before the sun became unbearable, tried not to linger too long in the air-conditioning of a convenience store and several times poured water over myself to cool down.
Upon arrival at the campsite in Wickenburg — called the Horspitality RV Resort, I guess because it also stables horses — I pitched my tent, showered and checked e-mail. A woman resident of Salome, who, bless her, happened to come across this blog, sent along some advice on how the locals keep cool. She described exactly what I’ve been doing.
I didn’t try to explore Wickenburg as I rode through because I was focused on getting to the campsite on the eastern end of the town. But it looks like a very pleasant little city whose main attraction is a cowboy heritage and surrounding dude ranches.
Historic WickenburgOne of my favorite writers, Ivan Doig, spent time here as a child when his color-blind, undraftable father worked during World War II in boomtime Phoenix at an Alcoa plant that turned bauxite into aluminum to make bomber skins. (See May 28 blog post, “Dudeland in the Sonoran Desert.”)
Doig recalls on his Web site “our nights in a cabin in the desert outside Wickenburg, Arizona, near a German prisoner-of-war camp, the combination of isolated landscape and the spooky nearness of those prisoners, the heart-racing amplitude of the nightsounds of the desert.”
The author, who revisited Wickenburg in 1991, noted in a memoir Heart Earth: “You didn’t need to be the reincarnation of Marco Polo to recognize that the accommodations along the main street, Wickenburg Way, were there to sieve tourists through, while around the corner along Tegner Street ordinary town life was carried on. Guest ranches were a sideline Wickenburg quickly tumbled to; in a historical blink, Indian territory had given way to Dudeland.”


Filed under Americana, Blogging on the road, Cycling across America, Journeys

The sheriff checks us in

SALOME, Ariz. — On the western approach to Salome along U.S. 60 stands a sign that must have puzzled many a traveler. The sign says: “SALOME Arizona ‘Where she danced.'”
So who was Salome and why did she dance in this Sonoran Desert town in the McMullen Valley between the Harquahala and Harcuvar mountain ranges?
Students of the Bible might recall that Salome was a temptress who performed her dance of the seven veils so seductively for Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee in Palestine, that he offered her whatever she wished. At the suggestion of her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
SalomeTurns out that this town, which prides itself on being “in the heart of the Arizona Outback,” was founded in 1904 by Charles H. Pratt, with the help of Dick Wick Hall and his brother Ernest.
Pratt’s wife was named Grace Salome. According to local lore, she did a dance, too — not a dance of seduction, but one of pain. She had taken off her shoes in the desert and danced to keep the soles of her feet from burning on the hot sand.
Her reward was to have a town named after her.
Hall, a miner, humorist and publisher of the Salome Sun, drew stick figures of Salome’s dance, and, like many a newspaper proprietor boosting his town, hyped it as the place where Salome danced.
Heat is a big part of life in this patch of desert. The temperature was hovering around 105 degrees on Friday afternoon as our caravan of cross-country cyclists rode 58.29 miles from our campsite along the Colorado River just inside California east of Blythe to the higher desert in the Arizona Outback. Our net elevation gain was about 1,500 feet.
It was nearly dark when one group of our riders reached Salome after suffering through the heat of the day.
The motel where we’re spending the night is operated by the wife of the La Paz County sheriff. But she was away when I and a group of riders arrived in mid-afternoon. So we were greeted and checked in by the sheriff, who was wearing his sidearm and badge. I’m assuming that this is the safest motel in town.
ArizonaSaturday’s ride of about 55 miles will take us to Wickenburg, our last overnight stop before reaching Phoenix on Sunday. We’ll have a full day of rest in Phoenix on Monday before continuing our journey on Tuesday. As of Friday, we have ridden more than 300 miles of our coast-to-coast trek of more than 3,000 miles, and we’ve now crossed into our second state.
But a little more on Salome: I had assumed that the name of the town was pronounced like the name of the biblical temptress. But locals pronounce it in two syllables, without sounding out the “e” at the end.
As we’ve ridden through tiny desert towns in California and Arizona, I’ve wondered how they came to exist and why they’re still here. As for Salome, it was once was the main stopping point on the Santa Fe Railroad between Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Hall wrote in his Salome Sun in 1921: “The train stops here twice each day — when it goes from Phoenix and when it comes back from Los Angeles. Some folks have wondered why it comes back from Los Angeles but the engineer’s wife has the asthma and lives in Phoenix — so he comes back. The train stops here because Salome has the only good water for a long ways — and the engine has to have water.”
As for why Salome is still here: I’m not sure.


Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys