I arrived in New York on the hottest week of the hottest year. My third day here was a hellish, sweltering sauna of humidity and high temps. Rolling over in bed is enough activity to baste oneself in thick, sticky stew. Eventually the sweat and the humidity converges into the same juice: a sticky, swampy tug of the tight nooks that unerringly wards off movement. The great outdoors resembles a convection oven, with steamy hot winds rolling over dirty pavement that smells like sewage, burnt to a cast-iron black. For my fourth day, I just decided to stay inside.
The next big adventure is a simple train ride home. The spirit journey is over, and the rest of my time abroad will be concerning an utterly more concrete and practical goal: get me and my stuff home.
The whole process will take seven days. The first three were spent in San Diego, where I stayed with a husband and wife who were friends of a relative. They both had a background in journalism and academia, so I felt right at home. Their house was a corner lot in the midst of a gentrified yuppie neighborhood, next door to a well-stocked grocery store and bike shop, two blocks away from an Internet-equipped coffeehouse and gastropub. Perfect!
Every morning I would head to a neighbor’s house for a shower, then sit around to drink coffee and chit-chat with the family. Every day would be spent taking care of one hour-long odd job (checking baggage, patching tubes, mailing off paperwork,) then I would explore the rest of the day away on bicycle, discovering some of the best Mexican food in the country and checking items off of the world’s shortest to-do list. A vacation at the end of my vacation.
Even when I finally saw the ocean, I still didn’t stop. I had no traction in the sand, so I pulled the bike by its handlebars to a rocky outcropping at the land’s brink. I hoisted the bike up over my shoulder and climbed from rock-to-rock as far as I could go, skirting the edge of that ancient and crashing blue abyss. My human-powered trans-American odyssey was complete. At this beach, where the ground ends, I had no more continent left to travel.
“If it’s not today, it’s tomorrow.”
I kept repeating this phrase to myself to keep me going. It’s all uphill from here– there’s no telling how fast I’ll descend the other side, or how high and how far I’ll finally be done climbing. San Diego sits at the other side of the tail end of the Santa Ana mountains– just 100 miles of mountain lay between me and nirvana.
One-hundred and six degrees, no wind, 13% humidity. It’s so hot. I’ve never experienced such an oppressive, overbearing and heavy heat in my life. It’s humid and dry at the same time, with a sticky layer of sweat and sunblock soup insulating my body temperature ever higher. The sunlight stings on top of my leathery red skin. A reassuring cool breeze that would regularly chime in on other days wasn’t here– today was the transition day between Spring and Summer, the day that marks the beginning of the no-bicycling season. I’m sure to be one of the last Westbound arrivals in San Diego.
I have never sweat so much in my life. I’d look down and see a stream sweat drops fall from my cheek, leaving a trail of my own bodily fluid up these final mountains. Flies and crows crowded around the only source of water in sight: sun-bleached barrels of dirty radiator water meant to cure an overheating car. Bicyclists don’t have such luxury.
The kid’s eyes bulged wide with excitement. It was impossible for him to hide such enthusiasm.
“All the way, huh? How many flats have you had?”
The kid was about nine, the son of the bike shop owner. He watched with fascination as I struggled to squeeze a quick-release lever closed. With my wind-swept mad scientist hair and sand-coated face, I must’ve looked anything but misanthropic to the two bike-savvy kids watching me in the shop.
“Look at those bags, he’s got the tools and everything he needs.”
“If he had machine guns and lasers, he’d be set.” A similarly-aged boy with the kid was less impressed, and a bit more sarcastic.
“Here– let me hold that for you!” said the first kid as I began to put my bags on the bike. He was eager to help in any way possible, and it wasn’t unwelcome. When I kick-stand the bike, it messes up the cable routing. That’s one problem I don’t have to worry about with this little guy buzzing around.
So I just went through one of the longest days ever in one of the hottest deserts ever. The fly is the mosquito of the desert. Back in East Texas, there were clouds of mosquitoes so thick that I couldn’t stop the bike for fear of getting eaten. When the light shined through the trees at the right angle, you’d see ‘em. Clouds of them hovering above the ground like a buzzing, vibrating mist. It’s the same deal here, except the dots are black and the forests are beige. Flies also don’t leave bumps after biting.
The question of the day: what did I do with the day?
Honestly, there are some days out here that defeat the purpose of a bike-touring journal. Days like today, in which no bike touring happens and almost no real events of circumstance happen.
Scratch that. I would actually be touring is something of circumstance hadn’t happened. I woke up around 12:30 a.m. last night vomiting up a little pile of water. Unwelcome but not unexpected after having a monumental vomit 48 hours earlier. I wasn’t too discouraged until my body began shedding fluids out of, well, other orifices.
Diarrhea, vomiting, headache and muscle ache. I could have anything from swine flu to food poisoning. Maybe dehydration or heat prostration? I wouldn’t like to think so, as I have to make a 90-mile jump tomorrow through some of the hottest and lowest desert in America to get to the next pocket of civilization.
The drowzy strikes again. The 85 mile trip into Blythe, California still didn’t feel as energetic or spirited as 80+ days used to. I don’t know if its the heat or if I’m still sick, but there’s no comparison between the lethargic, slow and sleepy feeling I get out here with the just-plain-winded feeling that I’d get after long days elsewhere. It’s an entirely different beast.
Yesterday’s panacea took a toll on my body today, weakening my legs and filling me with drowsiness. There’s something alarmingly lethargic about bicycling through a desert, especially into a headwind in this time of year. The ambient temperature isn’t too hot and the wind chill is just barely 10 degrees lower, blowing at cuddly blanket temperatures.
This blanketing warmth blowing all over your body is terrifyingly soothing– so much so that I was fighting the urge to doze off and daydream even while pedaling. This problem was worse today, and I suspect that the vomiting and lack of food from yesterday is the cause. A random encounter with friendly Lutherans who offered me cold water and macaroni salad improved my spirits though.
I biked clear across the rest of Phoenix today, and all of my route looked like the posh suburbs I had seen outside of town.
Remember that grungy old Soundgarden video from the 90′s with all of the elongated smiling? For more than a few reasons, I was reminded of that video while touring this massive suburban metro. For a city as large as Phoenix (it’s actually the most populous city I’ve biked through so far,) it certainly don’t look like it. The skyscraper part of town covers only a scant few blocks, and the roadside scenery consisted almost entirely of residential zone. But zoom out a bit and look at Phoenix from a distance, and its size becomes apparent. So many of its houses look exactly the same, and they’re all arranged on a grid of streets that stretch tens of miles. When I would pass one block and glance down the adjacent street, all I would see were countless more of these low-rising single-family homes stretching all the way into the horizon.
Phoenix is a bit off-putting. It’s too perfect, white and American to be true. I have a theory: this sterile and artificially domestic limbo is actually a bit insane underneath all of its expensive cars and cheap houses. It’s a vision of the American dream that can be reproduced with factory efficiency, and its not exactly what I would call “wholesome.”
Somewhere between Phoenix and Peroria, a lawn sprinklers was fruitlessly clicking away at a grassless gravel yard. Amidst the 90+ temperatures and drought conditions, I felt something in my stomach turn. I rode past an elementary school, eerily silent and motionless. Not a soul in sight. The loudspeaker was mumbling an announcement, and the only thing I was able to make out was “… and resume your normal schedule… after the Phoenix PD…”
Two white helicopters hovered hundreds of feet above the palm trees and sandy roofs, and I spotted a police car seemingly waiting on me at the next intersection.
“Can I turn right here?” I asked.
“Not now, maybe in 20 minutes or so” was the officer’s reply.
I inched forward enough to look down the street, and saw a huge blockcade of emergency vehicles parked a hundred yards down the street. At least eight cars strong– police vans, fire trucks and ambulances crowded the streets next to this school, sirens blaring.
“Whoa! I’ll, uhh, just go that way now then…” I said as I bicycled in the opposite direction.
Someone had phoned in to the police claiming bloody murder. They now suspect it to be a hoax, but at the time the police rushed to lock down the entire area.
Did I mention that I was sick throughout this whole ordeal? Something caused some extreme nausea and vomiting this morning. About two hours into the ride, I pulled over into a Jack in the Box and gastronomically ejected out all of my morning’s breakfast, plus all the water I had been drinking while riding. Mike would’ve been impressed.
My chest was on fire, it felt like my entire torso would be the next thing to come out. My legs were weak and cycling was slow, and I had a powerful headache as well. An hour later, an unquenchable thirst and hunger overwhelmed me as my now-empty stomach was helplessly grasping for nutrition. However, the slimy warm water in my bottles only made me feel worse. I’ve always been afraid this would happen while on the road. Last time this happened, I had the good fortune of being near a bathroom and bed.
This time, I at least had the good fortune of being across the street from a fast food joint. I was also only a few miles from a cheap motel. I checked myself in for the night after only bicycling 30 miles over the course of seven arduous hours.
After sleeping for nearly 14 hours straight, my heath has seemingly returned. I hope my body isn’t lying to me– with me being so close to my destination, I wouldn’t be able to stand sicking another day out.