Cycling the Americas VI: Into the Desert
I see the flash of furry legs on the bitumen a split second before Pablo cries “Tarantula!” and the three of us skid to a halt, dropping our bikes in the middle of the road.
“My turn to pick it up!”
The bearded Spaniard scuttles about, mimicking the frantic manoeuvres of the spider beneath him. It rears up and waggles it’s forelegs at him menacingly.
“Pin it down,” instructs his partner Olga, a sort of stern smile on her face.
“Ush, this is a strong one,” says Pablo once he’s finally pinned it to the road under his fingers. He lifts it to show two pairs of jet-black fangs that seem to suck in the sunlight.
“Scared?” Pablo grins. I am.
“I used to be, also. But Olga taught me how to pick them up. Carajo, this one sure is a fighter.”
A rental van pulls over as Pablo inspects the pink flesh visible on the spider’s belly. It reverses to draw alongside us.
“Are you guys OK?” asks the girl in the passenger seat in an Australian accent. We are, after all, alone in the middle of Death Valley National Park and a good 50 – 60 kilometres from the nearest food or water.
Pablo thrusts his hand at them. “Ever seen a tarantula!?” he grins and the girl screams. The van tears off towards Shoshone.
I went to Death Valley in search of open spaces and solitude, but it turns out that the desert is full of life. On the first night that I camped with Olga and Pablo (who must’ve been startled when I bounded at them out of the bushes), a small fox stalked our campsite to nibble at a packet of biscuits. As we ate dinner on a dry salt lake two nights later, my head torch lit up at least four or five sets of blinking eyes. It was a pack of coyotes, and we watched each other for several tense minutes before losing interest. A yellow scorpion scuttled from under my tent next morning as I packed it up.
“Don’t worry about that one,” said Olga as we crouched over it. “His sting will be incredibly painful, but that’s all. It’s the ones with a black stripe that will kill you.”
Olga and Pablo left their home in Logroño, Spain two years ago and headed east, pedalling their way through Europe, the Central Asian “-stans”, and China before running out of land north of Vladivostok. They flew to Canada and are now headed for Tierra del Fuego. After that, they’ll ride across Africa, back towards Spain.
“Back home!” I said.
“The road is our home now,” replied Olga. “But yes, we will return to where we started.”
They taught me to make a soup by combining olive oil and the water left over from cooking rice, and to cut plastic jars of peanut butter in half to scoop out the remnants. “A trick from every grandmother in Spain,” said Pablo. On the Mongolian steppes they’d learned to rinse out empty containers and dirty dishes with hot water and then drink it, so as to not waste any precious food.
I bid them goodbye a day after we left Death Valley National Park and crossed the Nevada border alone, catching a glimpse of the Las Vegas skyline as I descended into Red Canyon. I camped in the state park there and in the morning David the park ranger invited me up to his station, which was once a mansion owned by a guy named Howard Hughes. He was an actor, apparently. David was the most dapper park ranger I’d ever met, dressed in a black sweater and stylish jeans, a few rings adorning his left ear and a stylish watch on his wrist.
“Did you come through the Amargosa Valley?” he asked, and I told him about passing through Shoshone and camping by the sulphuric Tecopa Hot Springs on the valley floor. It’d been full of elderly nudists.
“Oh I love that place, I was bathing there just the other day,” said David, and I shuddered a little. “Well, ten thousand years ago there was a river running through that valley and the whole area was lush and forested,” he went on. “Then the weather patterns changed, the river went underground and now it only surfaces at places like those hot springs.”
“Only ten thousand years ago?”
“That’s right. Climate change can happen, and it can happen fast. This is what I keep trying to tell people.”
After five or six days of steady ascent from the Colorado River, watching spiny bushes turning to shrubs and then fully-fledged trees, I reached a campground at the Grand Canyon’s south rim. I’d detoured 2000 kilometres to get there, but it was overcast and cold that afternoon and I felt the same way. With several hours of daylight left and nothing better to do, I bought a couple of beers and headed off to see what all the fuss was about.
Well. It must’ve been quite something to be among the first Native American tribe or European explorers to happen upon the Grand Canyon. If you aren’t watching where you’re going your stroll through a patch of Kaibab forest could end with a spectacular death, falling deep into what is essentially a giant hole in the ground. You climb out to the very edge of a cliff and then look around the canyon to realise that the drop beneath you is only the first of several such cliffs stacked on top of one another. You could hike for weeks and not see it all.
The Colorado River is the culprit for this big gash in the plateau that covers northern Arizona, but from the top it looks like nothing more than a trickle. It took a day to hike down to its bank and a quick dip was enough to show why they don’t let tourists into the water.
From there it was just a matter of going south to escape the winter and west to hit the coast where a friend from back home would be joining me for the ride into Central America. I froze in the San Francisco Mountains, ogled college girls in Flagstaff, rode my 5000th kilometre in Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona and found giant cacti back in the desert once again. After crossing the California border and heading south towards Mexico, where border patrol helicopters regularly buzz overhead and waitresses only speak Spanish, there was just the Santa Ana Mountains left between me and the coast.
Rain and a stiff headwind made it a two-day job, but on the second only two big hills remained between me and San Diego. The first, up through Boulevard and Live Oak Springs, was devilishly steep and all the harder for the wind tugging at every loose fold, buckle and strap. The second wasn’t as steep as the first and the wind wasn’t as strong, and as I rounded a bend I saw the cars dipping up ahead and knew the top was close.
When I’m climbing, things can get a little weird. Exhaustion evaporates but it’s more like my legs have found perpetual motion rather than a surge of energy. The head feels airy, the legs are light and powerful and I keep whispering a single syllable to myself: “Yeeaaaahh”.
Up ahead I saw cars dipping and knew the top was close. I thought about my family and the imminent Christmas without them. I thought about the loneliness of the previous days and waiting in San Diego for the arrival of a familiar face. I thought about collapsing at the coast, regular showers, plentiful food, a real bed and not even looking at a bicycle for days and days.
The road levelled out and suddenly I saw the ocean in the distance, hazy through smog from the city huddled at its edge. I sat up in the saddle and hooted and screamed like a madman. “Fuck yeah,” I hollered and my voice cracked. Then I was sobbing and blubbering like a Biggest Loser weigh-in and I didn’t stop for a good while, rolling down off the mountain towards the water.
Quinten Dol is riding his bicycle from Vancouver, Canada, to Ushuaia, Argentina, to raise money for the Australian Cancer Council’s Research Fund. Like any scummy hobo, he’s scraping a bit off the top to feed himself. Throw him a bone by making a donation here.