El Paso: Hitch Hiking Through NM; Guadalupe Mtns; Traveling Minstrels

We woke up early the next day. Lately, I’d noticed that our energy and mileage had started waning with the shortened days. We were now in the practice of waking up with the sun, biking with everything we had until 5:00 o’clock then collapsing into thoughtlessness. The clear weather held the promise of a seventy mile day, but as soon as we crossed into New Mexico, a full force wind smashed right into us.

Some tough miles put us in the town of Animas. I stopped once to wait for Jeana, resting on a pile of sunbathed tires that were attached to an iron bar with chains. I couldn’t divine the purpose of such a contraption but they sure made for a cozy napping spot.

While eating an early, discouraged lunch in Animas, we watched an endless caravan of Boarder Patrol cars cruising through the town.

Some of the vehicles were paddy wagons, some towed ATV’s with rifle mounts. We started rethinking our route in terms of safety and practicality. Even if we continued to bike through New Mexico and our luck held out, we wouldn’t stand a chance of camping by the roadside with the boarder monitoring. Hitch hiking seemed like a favorable option.

In addition, we had a deadline to meet. Jeana had gotten in touch with a friend who lived in El Paso, TX, a sister of one of her older neighbors back in New Jersey. She had offered to put us up for a few nights, but prior engagements limited the window of hospitality to that night and the next. We were still 150 miles from El Paso and desperate for a bed.

Weighing these realities, we soon found ourselves on the roadside with our thumbs out. After an hour of no results, Jeana, woman of action, decided to take matters into her own hands. She walked into a roadside tavern and exchanged life stories with some ranchers, who had started their weekend a little early. Before long, she secured us a ride with a rancher who was heading to El Paso that afternoon to see his family.

The guy had a rustic charisma, dirt on his hands and the flavor of horses and livestock in his mouth. Before leaving Animas, we stopped at a gas station to fill up on gas and  “provisions.” Our ride returned to the truck carrying three brown paper bags, each holding a tall boy.

–It’s a long drive, he said.

Making our way down highway 9, we could see into Mexico, a head-high chain-link fence demarcating the boarder.  On the roadside, I saw some more of the tire contraptions. Our driver explained that Border Patrol used the tires to comb the road shoulders in order to detect foot traffic. Every ten minutes or so, a BP vehicle passed us, and each time we saw the approaching white and green our driver let out an oath.

Border Patrol presented a constant annoyance in his life. Since he made the trip from Animas to El Paso frequently, he had been flagged as a suspicious vehicle and could usually expect to be pulled over and questioned at least once a week. Things weren’t always this way, he said. When he was a kid, the town had only two Border Patrol agents who knew the people and area well.

–Now, we got all these young, jack-wagon hotshots. They stay for maybe six months, question everybody in town, then get replaced by some more green BP boys. And they do the same thing all over again. Jack-wagons, all of them.

Even with BP’s heavy presence, our driver said that only about 30% of the people trying to make it across the border were ever caught.

–There’s no way they can ever make a real dent. Just look at how wide this place is!

And it was wide, just one big pan of dirt and sage brush for miles, beautiful in its austerity and also incredibly boring in its immensity.

We made it to El Paso by nightfall and the rancher dropped us off at Jeana’s friend’s place. Over the next two days, we enjoyed the sights and foods of El Paso with Ellen and Robert.

One night, they drove us up to a vantage overlooking all of El Paso and the adjacent Juarez. The lights from the  cities looked like a continuous length of panned gold. Our hosts informed us, though, of the stark differences between the two cities. El Paso is one of the safest cities in America while Juarez is the murder capital of the world. They believed one reason for the disparity was that the cartel higher-ups living in El Paso with their families pay for the city’s protection.

They reminisced about times when they would go back and forth across the border for weekend trips and nights on the town. Though you can still easily walk into Mexico across a bridge over the Rio Grande, it is not a commonly advised thing to do.

We left El Paso, TX heading for New Mexico again. A generous interpretation for our New Mexico reentry would  be that we were feeling guilty about crossing most the state in a car and were compelled to give the “Land of Enchantment” a few honest days on the bike. In reality, though, our path to Abilene, TX, Jeana’s endpoint, lost a few hundred miles if we went back up through NM. We also wanted to see Carlsbad Caverns.

Passing outside the city limits, we biked through a boarder check point. The BP guy had an amused look when we pedaled up to the guard house. He looked at my trailer.

–You hauling any guns, bombs or drugs in there?

–No, sir.

–Carry on.

We ended the day at Coranudas, a fourteen person township. For dinner, we ate at the town’s lone café, which featured a pleasant middle-of-nowhere décor. The café tables, whose legs were fitted with jeans and cowboy boots, had an eerie personification which gave the general impression of eating on the back of very square cowboy. The menus were handwritten on brown paper bags and offered a flavorful medley of beef dishes. We got some great hamburgers, and our cook, also the town mayor, gave us permission to pitch our tent in a vacant field behind the trailer park.

While fixing up our tent, some kids came along pushing a cement wheel with a stick. They swarmed around our bikes asking us questions and wanting to help put up the tent. I have some reservations with kids and large, parentless groups of them, often give me an uneasy, Children-of-the-Corn feeling.  Thankfully, Jeana is a natural and soon had them all busy threading the tent poles through the canvas and hammering the stakes into the ground.

They told us we had missed a great birthday party that afternoon, but invited us to a town pot luck that night. They pointed to where the meeting was going to be held, a collection of run down, scuzzy buildings that looked like they had once acted as the back drop for a Western show shoot out.

–It’s a religious revival! One little girl said.

We thanked them for the invitation but gave our regrets.

Going to sleep that night, we discovered we’d encamped in a goat head minefield. We tossed and turned the whole night on a bed of thorns. In the morning, we both had flat tires to mend.

The morning bike was flat and easy, thirty miles by noon. We kept biking with the Guadeloupe Mtns in front of us and pretty soon were headed up into them on Guadulaope pass, our last pass for the foreseeable future.

At the top, we stopped at the Guadalupe National Park visitor center to fill up our water bottles. We walked past two dirty dudes playing the ukulele and banjo. They were leaning up against bikes which held the tell-tale signs of a tour, filthy panniers packed with lashed sleeping bags and tents.

We listened to them finish up a folksy rendition of “Long Black Veil” then talked about our trips.

Ben and Alex, and one other friend still biking up the other side of the pass, were on a tour from Portland to New Orleans. They had all met at Oberlin College and had been touring as traveling minstrels, playing impromptu gigs in town bars and even cutting a record in a bathroom recording studio. Their third member, Free, arrived presently riding up in a skateboard helmet and sundress. She unpacked her fiddle and the trio played the afternoon away while Jeana and I ate lunch.

Check ’em out:

We camped together in the park that night, fixing up a dinner of rice, corn and beans. To the mix, I added some venison sausage that I’d gotten from an ex-Marine I’d met in the parking lot. The guy had seen my bike and wanted some travel stories. I shared mine and then he started in on some pretty interesting stories of his own. When he was no more than nineteen, he had been a body guard for Nixon’s vice-president, Sperew Agnew. He showed me an autographed picture of the VP that he always traveled with.

After dinner, the band took out their instruments for some post-prandial strumming. They played “Man of Constant Sorrow”, Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and pretty soon a crowd had gathered. Hulla hoops appeared, whiskey materialized and a small campground festival was underway.

The troubadours played until the wee hours of the night, probably no later than 10:00 o’clock then we packed it in.

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Chiricahua Mountains: Contested Lands; Rocky Paths; Good Sunsets

Matt left us in a gravel lot outside of Benson, AZ, 45 miles from Tucson. Excluding the first week of the trip, it was the furthest east I’d traveled in over two months.

On the roadside, we exchanged sad partings. For all of us, Vegas  had been a blessed retreat from our respective responsibilities. With mountains of case law to read, Matt seemed envious of the open road in front of us while we looked ahead to the looming Chiricahua Mountain range and secretly envied his lot.

We watched Matt pull away in the golden Cadillac. The sun was setting, the road uncertain, and Matt was the last person I knew between here and Tennessee.  Jean and I started reassembling our gear, both struggling with a getting-back-on-the-road inertia. After every big city break, and especially following Vegas’ splendor, I felt a heavy exhaustion. Each time I put my feet into the pedals, my legs demanded an answer to ever-pressing question, Do we have to keep doing this?

I looked over in Jeana’s direction and could tell she wrestled with similar reservations. We decided to grit our teeth and keeping going, but not today. We would find a place to camp in Benson, reserve our strength and then make an honest effort of it in the morning. But where to camp?

On cue, a van pulled into the gravel lot. An older woman got out and asked if we needed any help. We said we were fine, but could she suggest a place to pitch a tent for the evening? She didn’t know of any camping grounds but her son, who ran an auto shop in town, had a ranch a few miles up the road.

–He’s got plenty of land. I’m sure he can spare some for a tent.

To me, these good Sanitarian moments, happening at the exact second of need, always seem so unexpected. But to the average passerby, I’m sure two hapless bikers with their life in tow seem a desperate enough cause to prompt kneejerk goodwill. I’d also started to think that the charity we experienced might come from a place of curiosity more than anything. To most people, our method of transportation seemed insane. They wanted to understand the logic of such an undertaking, and once they learn it’s all just for fun, they wanted to be part of the trip and help in whatever way they could. At the time though, we weren’t in a position to ponder too much about the intentions of generosity and simply accepted these offers happily.

At the ranch, we met the son and his family. These kindhearted LDS folk let us camp in a sage brush field behind their house and in the morning cooked us breakfast. The kitchen and living room had an impressive décor of dead animals. On the walls hung havilina boars, mule deer, a bob cat leaping up to catch a pheasant in mid-flight, and the centerpiece of the collection, a giant elk head turning upwards with its mouth frozen in mid-bugle. Jeana and I startled a little bit at this taxidermy zoo, having no idea we had spent the night on the land of such a trained killer.

Over waffles, venison sausage, and fresh eggs from the coop, we talked about our planned route through the Chiricahua Mountains which would get us into New Mexico, avoiding a good portion of the interstate. The rancher cautioned us to take care since we were so close to the boarder. Lots of drugs and illegals about.

–I had to lock up our camper trailer last week, he said. Had a colony of wets in it.

I didn’t know what he meant by “wets” and wondered if it was a kind of fungus.

–No wetbacks. Border crossers.

Having spent a night on this man’s property and now eating his breakfast, Jeana and I were in no position to begin a discussion on immigration, but it was interesting to note how we, complete strangers to the man, could have been treated much differently under other circumstances.

Our hosts’ language might have had a touch of derision, but I could see how one’s view on boarder politics might tend toward the negative when your livelihood could be so directly affected by its downsides. He told us of a few ranchers in the area that had been killed that year. They had gone into their pastures to check on their herds and stumbled upon drug deals.

The morning bike saw us 35 mils on I-10 to Willcox. At a rest area, we read some educational panels on the area that detailed a history of conflict dating back before immigration issues. Apache chiefs, Cochise and Geronimo used to have strongholds in the surrounding hills and would come down to wreak havoc on white settlements and battle with federal troops.

We were biking on contested lands, no doubt, caught even now in the middle of vying interests. Drug cartels canvassing the backroads, coyotes leading groups of immigrants through the mountains, ranchers holding onto their land and us just pedaling through it all, hoping for the best.

After I-10, we had a magnificent bike on 186. Hardly a car on the road; some hills but mostly rewarding slopes. On our way, we passed through the ghost town of Dos Cabezas.

There was a pioneer cemetery, the remains of an old post office. Once a silver and gold mining town with a few hundred people, the area lost its residents when the mines closed and the post office shut its doors in 1960. 

It’s amazing how quickly spaces without people deteriorate. In Omak, I was always surprised how derelict and abandoned the mission school grounds looked. They had been fallow for only half a decade, but looked like they had decayed for 50 years or more. On weekends, I’d wander through the buildings, going through classrooms with lessons still on the board and homework on the desk like it had been left in the middle of a school day. Time had moved in to retire, settling down in a sheet of dust to tilt its head back and rest in another forgotten place.

At the Chiricahua National Park junction, I waited for Jeana. The sun was setting purple over the range, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I had not seen Jeana all afternoon and she wasn’t answering her phone. Wild scenarios of a flat tire and drug runners filled my head. Soon enough though, a little, moving dot materialized on the road and Jeana came pedaling the elephant, uphill, a grinning stoic to the last.  She declared this her favorite day on the bike.

We pedaled in the dark to the Chirichua National park and found a camp site. We made a simple, delicious dinner of bratwursts with grilled onions and avocado. It was good to be back on the road under the stars again. Tomorrow, we would take a trail up through the mountains into New Mexico.

*****

The first day back on the bike after a long break makes you feel like a superhero. Your rested muscles have a deceptive inhuman strength, and hundred mile days for the rest of the trip seem entirely possible. The magic never lasts more than a day, though, and by the next morning the familiar aches and soreness have settled in again. We did seventy miles the day before, but only thirty the next. Our route didn’t do us any favors either.

For twelve miles, we followed a dirt road through the Chiricahua Mountians. The muddy, uneven path had its pretty portions with splayed sunlight coming through the wood canopy in the pattern of leaves. Even still we cursed the entire way up, walking our bikes at times. Jeana said she would buy me lunch in the next town if I promised this was the last big hill we climbed. I could never quite convince Jeana that I hadn’t designed these roads, let alone been on them before, but will do almost anything for a free lunch and said with grave certainty that, yes, this was our last hill.

Going so slowly that the little squirrels crossing our path looked like lightning bolts, it was hard to believe we were actually going anywhere. But the climb followed the way of every other pass or summit we’d done before, agonizing pedal building on a steady stream of curses and blasphemy bringing us right up to the point where we couldn’t take any more. Then the elevation breaks and you can feel a heavy hand lift off your shoulders. This moment always occurs at a generous vista, allowing for cathartic, life-giving release.

At the top of our climb, we looked down on valleys on either side of us, following the dirt road all the way back to where we started that morning. From our vantage, we could see the interstate in the offing and were reminded of why we took this crazy route in the first place. The scenic over the expedient, we always said, and safety third.

The downhill, though gorgeous, was a rocky warzone. The bumps shivered through my bike frame and into my bones making everything numb. When we finally reached the bottom in the town of Portal, we were both at the low end of our biking arch.

The restaurant in Portal we had expected to eat at looked like it had shut its doors in the fifties. We ate pb&j’s on the wooden veranda of an abandoned motel then biked downhill some more till we found another sage brush field to spend the night in.

We pitched our tent fifty yards from the Arizona/New Mexico state line. The sun set at six and we were asleep at the ripe hour of 8:00 pm.

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Las Vegas: Yard Drinks; Lost Fortunes; Hot Dogs

After a few days in Tucson, we all piled into Katie’s car on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas for 11/11/11, a once a century occurrence and also Matt’s birthday.

We had an eight hour drive, mostly boring with just saguaro cactus and mesquite plains to look at. During our time in Zion, I had seen a sign at the north end of the park that read 150 miles to Las Vegas. It had taken Jean and I two weeks of hell to get from Zion to Tucson, now we were retracing our steps north in a single day. Hindsight, being what it is, suggested we could have spent some more time in Zion’s balmy refuge and simply met Matt and Katie in Vegas, but then again logic had nothing to do with our trip.

In fact, logic and reasoning don’t number high in my personal skill set, especially when it comes to numbers, so I was actually very afraid of what might happen in Vegas. Jeana and I, fearing the depletion of our entire treasury in the wonton moment of an all-in poker game, made a pact to remain half-continent on the betting floor.

After a stop at the Hoover Dam, we made it to Vegas by early evening and readied ourselves for the night at our off-the-strip hotel room. Matt’s dad was actually in Vegas that weekend for a conference and had offered to take us all out to dinner at Paris Las Vegas.

On our way to the casino, we made our way down the strip staring with wide eyes at the continuous length of lights and attractions.  Each hotel seemed to pose as its own theme park: a pirate ship façade outside of Treasure Island, a huge, leering jester protruding from Harrah’s, and blooming out from the Paris Las Vegas casino, a replica of the Eifel Tower.

The strip held a fantastic assemblage of the gaudy and jaw-dropping. It was mesmerizing, over-stimulating, repellent, dazzling. I had a sudden urge for VIP lounges and poolside daiquiris. I wanted to jump headlong into the stream of lights and sound, spend lots of money and make best friends with people I would never see again.

We found Matt’s dad in the casino lobby trying his hand at a slot machine. He looks exactly like Matt and, not seeming a day older than thirty, could easily be Matt’s older brother. From our table at the restaurant, we watched the Bellagio water show spewing in synchronized patterns of color. We all ordered steaks.

After dinner, we parted ways with Matt’s dad to wander into the Vegas night. Well-fed and tipsy, we swaggered over to Caesar’s Palace to make our contribution to the local economy. In the marble lobby, we walked past an opulent fountain of Roman nudes, bumping elbows with the soused and giddy throngs on our way to the casino floor.

At a roulette table, we each bought in on a pile of chips and started making timid bets. I had half-expected the place to have beginners’ tables with low stakes and helpful dealers who would teach you how to play, but no one seems too ready to give you a hand in Vegas as much as they are to take the money in yours.

I had no idea how to play the game, if there is any strategy to begin with, so I just placed my chips on random squares like Gee, this is sure fun! This technique amazingly yielded dividends and I soon found my chip pile a little bigger. Caught up in the spirit of winning, Jeana and I started making plans for our earnings. No more camping!  No more instant pasta! Motels and pizza every night! But as the evening continued and our piles dwindled, our plans grew modest. Okay, maybe just pizza once a week… Well, I think we have enough for brand name cereal…Okay, maybe we should just stop playing.

Matt’s birthday luck served him well and he finished the night with heavy pockets. Matt and Katie decided to head back to the hotel while Jeana and I walked around the strip taking in the sights.

Our bike trip had taken us to some strange, unexpected places and Vegas not the least among. Because of the auspicious 11/11/11 date, Vegas had seen an influx of marriages that had turned the strip into one big wedding reception. Young woman in white dresses raced up and down the streets, newlyweds clinked champagne bottles on street corners while waiting for the light to change. We passed a sloppy bridal party waltzing ridiculously to the songs of a busking mariachi band. The bride had stolen a band member’s sombrero and she staggered about with the top heavy hat turning her in circles.

We wandered in and out of the hotels, the Bellagio, the Mirage, marveling at the splendor and ornate on display.

The passing crowds held a potpourri of every kind of person imaginable: young service men in uniform, old couples in Hawaiian shirts and sandals, the well-dressed, the unkempt, serious winners, tottering losers- all wearing the same blissed expression, Wow Vegas.

Jeana and I held ourselves a little apart from the masses. Our trip up to this point had been one of pure asceticism, joy taken from hard work and natural beauty, but even we got lost in the glamour of the place. Its audacity and thorough charm could numb the senses of the most austere monk and after weeks in the wilderness, we kind of enjoyed the city’s unabashed appetites. We agreed Vegas is something you have to see, but we could also live without seeing it again.

The next day, the girls went for a hike at Red Rock Canyon, a nearby conservation area, while Matt and I lazed about the hotel room watching TV, waiting for night to come. After we’d seen all we could stand on the Penn State scandal, we ventured out to into the streets to sight see and try a little roulette at the Wynn.

In the light of day, Vegas loses some of its luster. The same crowds are still staggering about with the same intensity and ecstatic mugs, but without the night’s electricity and momentum, their enjoyment seems desperate and half-hearted.

At the Wynn, we posted up at a roulette table beside some hardened gamblers. Their faces looked like the worn velvet on a pool table. A few of them had been gambling since last night. They smoked cigarettes and played silently with a feverish exhaustion. Matt won some more money and declared Vegas the best place on earth; I lost some more money and swore off gambling entirely. It’s amazing how much of your enjoyment of the place hinges on luck.

Young Money

Thankfully, night came soon; the lights went up and Vegas put on its sleek, black dress becoming once again attractive and mesmerizing. We went out that night with clubbing on the mind.

During our day, we had overheard the city was just teeming with celebrities. Matt and I had passed a group of giggling middle-aged woman who were broadcasting to anyone who would listen that they had just ran into William Shatner.

–He’s so nice! You wouldn’t believe how nice he is.

As proof, one woman showed me an autographed fanny pack. Shatner’s signature looked like someone had tried to sign a bar tab with lipstick and gotten the fanny pack instead. I remained skeptical.

We’d also heard Nelly was having a birthday party at a Bellagio club. For some reason, we were determined to have a celebrity encounter with Nelly, or any other once-famous luminary, believing it would elevate our Vegas weekend to the ultimate peak experience.

On our way to the Bellagio that evening, we stopped by a drink stand. The stand sold yard long, plastic tubes filled with every conceivable kind of liquor. The drinks, or “yardies”, were so big they came equipped with a shoulder strap. We’d seen other pedestrians strolling down the street shouldering this ludicrous setup and believed it impossible to present oneself as a respectable person while holding one. Taking even a simple sip required a two-man operation. Will you hold my drink while I drink? We’d heard one passerby say.

Our night was just beginning, so we decided on a God-fearing half-yard of rum and coke.

Outside of the Bellagio, we got entangled with a young club premotor. We said we wanted to see Nelly, and he agreed we should. The club promoter said Nelly was a very nice and generous person- he’d even met the man a few times himself. The promoter offered us free admission to the club because we looked like party people, and our night was set.

The club turned out to be a small nook tucked into a Bellagio hallway. We soon realized we would not be seeing Nelly that night. No matter, we danced anyways and had a grand time. As far as we were concerned, we were the only celebrities in all of Vegas.

The club, per custom, had some raised stages reserved for spirited, female dancers. These kinds of platforms always look such fun and I am constantly forgetting they are for women only. I climbed the stairs to one only to be immediately turned away by a frowning bouncer. Not tonight, I guess.

After soiling our Vegas duds in sweat and club-grime, we walked back to the hotel room, finishing the night off with some hot dogs. Half-way through my second dog, I started jogging back to the street vendor, a little ashamed, but very alive to that irresistible piece of advertising that now seems to serve as local law: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Good, Sir! One more please…

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Tucson: Sandy Leaves the Trip; Friend Matt Picks Us Up; Embarrassing High School Memories

The occasional car ride does wonders for a bike tour. I had started out a purist, adamant about staying on my side of the highway and keeping the bike trip separate from the world of automobiles. I abandoned this foolish principle when I realized the life giving potential of a car.

Matt picked us up on highway 77’s shoulder. The sun was setting on a difficult day of mountain passes and tough decisions. Sandy was not with us. We had parted ways in Globe, AZ when we realized that Matt’s girlfriend’s Cadillac probably couldn’t accommodate all of our stuff. We left Sandy in a scuzzy RV park in an awkward moment of apologies and farewells. It was an anticlimactic end to a great chance partnership, but that’s the road: people get on the bus people get off the bus.

When Matt stepped out of the car to greet us, his wiry, runner’s frame could have had a halo around it. We hugged and commented on the absurdity of the situation. In the past year and a half, I’d seen my old high school chum once and to reunite under these strange circumstances brought more than a few chuckles. Matt is a man who likes his routine and picking up vagabonds on the roadside was a slight deviation that left him shaking his head.

You hope the best for your high school friends, that they make their way in life with success and prospects. I can’t be sure of Matt’s exact thoughts seeing me bearded and disheveled on a roadside, but he seemed relieved that at least my health and sanity were intact. After loading our road-grimed stuff into the luxury car, we went south to Tucson.

Inside the Cadillac’s tan and leathery safety, the miles fell away inside the space of a lazy yawn. All three of us sat up front, Matt at the wheel,  Jeana in the middle and myself riding up the passenger side door. The lineup represented a continuum of friends: Matt, friend from my high school days, and Jeana, friend of this new, spontaneous epoch.

Our drive was all downhill to Tucson. We had spent that entire biking day climbing and had been wondering where the hell Arizona kept all its downhills and warm weather.

Matt is also a man who likes his safety and he shook his head some more when we told him about our trials and tribulations through Arizona, sleeping in the middle of the Navajo Rez, battling snow and rain.  He seemed a little shocked at how different our lives looked.

Before coming to pick us up, Matt was in the library reading case law, hard at work in the throes of 2L. His matriculation into the higher halls of learning was an achievement that I had played a small role in.  During the final semester of our senior year, Matt had visited me at school for a springtide bacchanalia that takes place at my college. On the first night, we lost Matt and I wished him well not expecting to see him again. The next morning he rushed into my room at an ungodly hour.

–Richard, he said, I need a check for three-hundred dollars. He was very serious.

Even if I’d had three-hundred dollars, which I didn’t, I couldn’t afford to dole it out wily nilly. I demanded to at least know what he had gotten himself into before I started writing away my life’s savings. Well, law school, it turns out, and he needed to send a three-hundred dollar deposit postmarked by today. So I gave him a meaningless check and we sent it off to the University of Arizona to secure his spot.

When we’d exhausted conversation after an hour or so, Matt put on music. Our friendship had its first bonds over music in a freshman world history class, where our teacher would often play educational movies like Conan the Barbarian and Starship Troopers, giving us free time to talk about music with the kind of intensity and adoration permitted only in teenagers.

Matt and I had even done a little collaboration in high school for a coffee house show at our sister school. For weeks, we had talked about our set list before finally whittling our song choice down to Radiohead’s “Karma Police” with Matt on guitar and vocals and me on keyboard. The afternoon before the coffee house, we decided it might be a good idea to actually practice. After hours of rehearsal, we had the song down, and loaded our equipment into Matt’s car to drive to Georgetown for the first gig in a surely long and fruitful musical partnership.

Our performance would have been great if artistic differences hadn’t reared their ugly head and destroyed the band in its inception. The trouble was this: Matt’s a talented musician with years of practice stored in his fingertips; I had taken a few piano lessons and once learned how to play “Hot Crossed Buns.” The ensuing embarrassment still burns bright in our memories, and whenever we get together we mention the debacle at least once, reliving the shame in every detail as a kind of penance.

“Karma Police” rehearsal:

We walked into the coffee house on that fateful night carrying a Casio keyboard, two guitars and an amp. Heads turned in wonder at these surely amazing musicians and the dazzling show they could only have in store. After watching a few of the opening acts, sensitive shoegazer guys strumming acoustic Dave Matthews’ songs and passionate young women reading confessional poetry, we realized a little late in the day that we may have slightly misjudged our audience. But we couldn’t turn back now, not after that grand entrance, and soon it was our turn to play.

While setting up our gear, we made a last minute set change. Matt thought it might be a sound strategic move to play “Dust in the Wind” as an opener. Old School had just come out and we thought our rendition would comically call to mind an elegiac and off-key Will Ferrell singing at Old Blue’s funeral, lightening the mood and immediately endearing us to our audience.

The decision was a disastrous one. Our preceding act had just finished a gut wrenching cycle of eating disorder poems, and our “Dust in the Wind” sendup came off as callous and irreverent, met with completely blank stares.

Matt played it off as best he could.

–Okay, guys, well that was just a little joke, but now for the real stuff.

Matt strummed the opening chords of “Karma Police” and I started in on the piano intro. Things went smoothly right up until the first verse when I suddenly forgot everything. The embarrassment of our first act fumble and the heated stares melted away my hours of practice and I could not recall a single note. We stopped, apologized, started again, stalled again, started again; I missed some more notes and continued to stagger through the song. Eventually, I just stopped playing and then Matt pulled the plug halfway through.

–Okay, guys, thanks a lot. We’re Matt and Richard and that was “Karma Police.”

We dissembled our set as fast as we could then retreated to a dark corner trying to chuckle away our very public failure. Oh well, we knew no one here and would never see them again. Wrong. As if I hadn’t proven my musical ineptitude enough, I did the spring musical that year. The entire cast had been present at the coffee house and I was reminded of the catastrophe daily. Karma, a real bitch.

That night, we ate dinner at Matt’s girlfriend’s place. Katie, an archeology grad student, had made some great lasagna and in a further gesture of hospitality offered to put Jeana and I up on her couches, so we wouldn’t have to spend the week on Matt’s dorm floor.

Jeana and I spent the week exploring Tucson while Matt and Katie went to class. In the mornings, we went on runs around the University palm tree grounds or up to A mountain, a promontory emblazoned with a huge red, white and blue A that overlooked the entire city.

We spent our afternoons getting presentable for Vegas, shopping for suitable clothes and trimming hair. In a vintage shop in the trendy 4th avenue district, I bought a powder blue jacket and a multicolored shirt for the occasion. I looked the height of go-go fashion with the spirit of the seventies burning alive in my red beard.

The beard even got a trim for the trip. My barber had a certificate at her stall that said she had done 10,000 haircuts, but even with 10,000 cuts under her belt, old rusty taught her a thing or two. Every few inches, her razor snagged on a beard tuft, stalling like a clogged lawn mower. It was a painful experience, but I emerged a new man. With the trip growth stripped away, I was glad to see the old self still there.

One day, on a recommendation from my aunt, Jeana and I took in a movie, The Way by Emelio Estevez, starring Martin Sheen. The movie chronicled a father’s trip to France to retrieve his son’s body who had died while hiking the Camino de Santiago, St. James’ pilgrim road. (Jeana had done a hundred or so miles on the Way during college.) Martin Sheen decides to continue his son’s journey and walk the Way from the Pyrenees to Northern Spain. His walk becomes a way of reconciling with his estranged son and grieving his death.

It was a good movie to see at the midpoint of a journey. I had been on the bike trip for over two months and had not made much progress east to my beginning goal, home. With winter coming on, I had started doubting the possibilities of making it all the way home on a bike. Sheen’s transformation on the Way though, reinforced that the outset reasons for a trip change along its route and eventually the trip makes its own meaning. The journey trumps the destination, and a mile, in any direction, is worth the taking.

Jeana and I had a good stretch of land between us and our respective end points, but we could worry about that when we got back on the bikes. For now, we had Vegas, and we were firmly determined to enjoy ourselves.

Buen Camino!

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Road to Tucson: Snow; Saguaro Cactus; A Town Called Punkin

Over the next few days, we headed due south to Tucson. I had a friend there at the University law school who was going to put us up for a few days and then take us on a road trip to Las Vegas. I kept my sights on these promising horizons while making it out of Flagstaff, trying to ignore the biting cold and snow covered roads, but lost all perspective when my back tire went flat.

After changing it and hating life less, we biked downhill through the Coconino National Forest, changing elevation and seasons. Instead of winter, it felt like a genuine fall day. A damp, overcast sky darkened the turning leaves, giving them prominent, embossed colors.

By noon, we had reached Sedona, a tourist town favored by new agers for the supposed energy vortexes in the area. We had heard the vortexes gave visitors a renewed spirit and an uplift in cosmic temperaments. We failed to experience any of these benefits. Even if we did receive some sublime energy, it was immediately expended on hills and frequent cursing.  Despite difficulties, the landscape had a dazzling topography of spires, table rocks and colored stone. We soon left these wonders for a twenty mile jaunt down the interstate, ending our day outside of Camp Verde.

The town’s place name did not lend itself to the ample camping we had hoped for, but we did manage to find a secluded dell by a creek to spend the night. We ate an instant pasta dinner on the arched trunk of an overturned cottonwood, happy to have returned to nature after a few days in the big city. Throughout the night, a beaver tail regularly slapped the water like a metronome.

Waking from a beaver slap around 4:00 am, I noticed it had started raining. In a few hours, we woke up in a puddle. We dressed ourselves in rain gear, steeling ourselves for a day of drenched misery. Jeana and I followed Sandy’s lead wrapping our feet and hands in plastic bags to shield our extremities from the rain, thinning the already threadbare line between bike tourist and hobo.

A few miles up the road, we were stopped by someone with the Department of Transportation. He said the road ahead was covered in snow and advised us against going any further. We had two choices: bike twenty miles back to the interstate or hitchhike past the snow.

Of course we hitchhiked and though we hadn’t seen one car going our direction all day, we were picked up inside of ten minutes. I couldn’t help but think that my two companions were entirely to thank. If I had been alone, soaked and shivering, I would have only looked destitute and hopeless, not much to be done for that poor sod. But Sandy and Jeana managed to reshape drivers’ perspectives, making our rescue seem a noble cause for the highway knight errantry.

A gallant old trucker picked us up and drove us all the way to Payson. We wouldn’t have fared too well on the hilly, slippery roads, but the trucker navigated them with calm ease.  With snow covering all the shrubby hills, the scenery became mounds of white, indistinct shapes.

We wasted a good portion of the afternoon at the Payson McDonalds, where I shamed myself by eating three hamburgers. Before the Dollar Menu destroyed us, we decided to grit our teeth and get back on the bikes.

Sandy got an immediate flat, but after that we put some good miles in to the town of Punkin Center, really just a bar surrounded by a collection of trailers. Just outside the town, we went past a field of saguaro cactus, the iconic, hundred-year old plants of Western movies that only grow in this portion of southern Arizona. With their long branch arms, the cacti take on human shapes, tall desert men dotting the landscape.  It was really bizarre seeing a cactus in the foreground and then looking up to find snow covered mountains.

In Punkin, we walked into the town’s one bar to fill up our water bottles. We had planned on spending the night on the roadside, but thankfully our low state inspired some more charity and the bartender offered us a room at the adjoining motel for a discount.

After showering and covering every inch of the room with our soaked possessions, we ate dinner at the bar. I didn’t hesitate in ordering my fourth hamburger of the day. The place had a record player and a well-stocked collection of classics. Since we were the only people at the bar, the cook gave us full DJ privileges.

In Omak, Jeana and I had cultivated a love of vinyl after discovering a record player in one of the abandoned school buildings. One Saturday, I took a Jim Croce record that I’d bought in town into the building to see if the record player still worked. I plugged the player into a socket and placed the record on the table watching it spin like magic. The opening piano chords of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” burst into the dusty room like croaked words from a dry mouth, filling the forgotten classroom once again with life and sound. I brought the record player back to the trailer and throughout the year we amassed a modest but quality record collection. For our evening entertainment, we’d put on Let It Be, The Guess Who’s Greatest Hits,  or, our house favorite, Rumors.

That night we played The Last Waltz, Born in the USA, Pearl and a few other choice LP’s into the wee hours of the early evening before retiring at the outrageous hour of 10 o’clock.

I called my friend Matt, letting him know we were two days from Tucson. He sensed our desperation and offered to pick us up the next day somewhere outside of Globe, AZ.

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Flagstaff: A Mighty Wind; Guy Biking through 48 States; Percussion Band-Dancing

Coming into a city on a bike is always a white-knuckled experience. With traffic, a new street system to decipher, and no place to camp under the stars, I always feel like a country cousin, coming down from the hills. Our entry into Flagstaff had its perils as well, though mostly from Mother Nature.

The day started out pleasant enough, clear and sunny. Before long though, the sky turned a sick green and the wind started swirling. Fifty mile per hour gusts tossed us about and we struggled to stay on the shoulder. Angry winds raked the roadside underbrush turning loose a plague of tumbleweeds. In the hundreds, they paraded down the highway crashing into our bikes and shattering in plumes of twig and dust.

The wind yelled into our ears and dust mites jumped up at our eyes; I couldn’t help but feel we were under attack. I kept my head lowered during the ordeal, mulishly pedaling, just focusing on the ground in front of me. This worked, though very slowly, for a little while.

At one point, an especially mean-spirited gust took hold of me and threw me right into the middle of the highway. My ungainly trailer went off balance and keeled over like a dying horse. In my struggle to right everything, I saw out of my periphery a big, black rig towing a flatbed trailer bearing down on me like an angel of death. As a firstborn son, I was especially sensitive to the symbolism of the situation, but the truck passed me over. It narrowly avoided my bike then pulled onto the roadside. In the trailer where Jeana and Sandy’s bikes. Salvation!

Our Good Samaritan was an Indian cattle herder. He drove us all the way to “Flag”, as the locals call it, dropping us off at a Safeway. Walking into the store, we saw a touring bike with trailer attached. Sandy recognized the setup as Loren’s, a guy she met online and had been touring with before she split off to go to Zion.

We found Loren seated at a deli table, searching the internet for couch surfing spots in Flagstaff. He wore a ragged black shirt and camouflage dungarees, and on his head, a tight fitting cycling hat with the lid turned up. He got up to greet us, clacking the floor with clip-in bicycle shoes.

Sandy had described Loren at length giving us a full catalogue of his idiosyncrasies. Here was a man on a two year bike trip through all the lower forty-eight states, who, incidentally, really didn’t like bike touring all that much. He had undertaken his trip with a sense of grim duty, he explained. From his research, very few people had done all of the lower forty-eight on a continuous, unaided tour, and for some reason, he wanted to join the pantheon. He lived on six dollars a day and refused to camp in places where his bike might get muddy, rarely setting up his tent for the same reason.

Though Sandy had given Jeana and I a good picture of Loren, nothing could have prepared us for the barrage of personality he unloaded on us. From the moment we met him, he talked nonstop. Some people have the gift of the gab; others just have the curse of talking. Loren kept a grueling conversational pace, giving us a thorough account of his trip’s smallest details. We struggled to keep up and were pretty soon exhausted.

When we couldn’t take much more, Jeana and I excused ourselves from the table to do some shopping. I got a call from the Grand Canyon ranger who had my camelback and camera. He had come through big time and was going to meet me at the Safeway to deliver my effects. In the parking lot, I thanked him heartily, exchanging my stuff for a tall, imported beer. Sometimes, the road gives back.

After a while, we left Loren, seeking shelter at Brian’s conservation corps housing. The winds still roared and the sky looked heavy with snow. Brian was out of town for the weekend on a road trip to Los Angeles, the kid likes to travel, but had given us the garage code if we needed a place to crash.

Things didn’t really work out at the conservation corps housing. We sort of waltzed up to the compound, opening the garage door like we owned the place and just plopped down on a dirty couch. I was busy hanging up some socks to air when a few corps supervisors walked down with a look like who the hell are you?

–Oh, don’t worry I’m Brian’s cousin.

Who is Brian?

We had to move on.

With the threat of snow a degree drop away, we finally found lodging at the Grand Canyon hostel. With friendly staff and homey décor, the place provided a bed and breakfast experience for cheap. A mixed bag of wandering young people walked the halls. Loren met up with us and took a room with me.

–I don’t sleep much, but don’t let that bother you.

That night, we all went out to eat gourmet burgers at Diablo’s then drank at Mia’s lounge across from the hostel.

The lounge was a trendy, skinny jeans, tight flannel kind of place. A jazz band played the music of Charles Mingus. The music reminded me of our table conversation. At times, it was just one guy blowing a tired, flat note that not even he seemed to care about, but then someone would hit on an engaging riff and everybody would join in adding their part to make the talk rich and thick.

During an intermission, a percussion group ambushed the bar. They numbered 20, all holding every conceivable drum, cowbell, whistle, and noisemaker. While shuffling from side to side, they hammered out a hypnotic raucous and the bar began to sway in their seats with automatic rhythm.

Before long, the whole bar turned into a sweaty, tribal gala with everyone stomping their feet to the jumpy beat. At one point, a salacious, hipped woman from the percussion group threw down her tambourine to enter the fray and show us how it was really done.

We woke up the next morning a little slower than usual. There was snow on the ground and I felt very far from home. In the hostel kitchen, I looked at a wall sized map of America and decided it was too big a country for its own good. And Texas just seemed obnoxiously oversized. We deiced to stay at the hostel for another night. Sandy and Loren went grocery shopping while Jeana and I spent the day wandering around Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is a cool place. It has all the hallmarks of a western city: quirky, curio shops, outdoor stores, brewpubs, a small, historic well-aged downtown district. We both liked it and agreed it seemed like a good place to live.

Jeana and I decided we had spent far too much money that weekend, so we limited ourselves to window shopping. Since Salt Lake, we had been looking for a tape player to strap to my trailer and listen to music while riding. At every thrift store we passed on the trip, we had been accumulating tapes for this purpose, the Big Chill Soundtrack, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, but had yet to find a tape player. Flagstaff’s thrift stores didn’t change the situation.

At a mini-mart, we splurged on a root beer, the high-end glass bottled kind, and sat outside at a table sipping and people watching. Like all moments not consumed with biking or eating, our conversation turned to the familiar, long-term predicaments, like what should we do with our lives. These conversations usually read like lines from a John Hughes script, all grasping, big picture kind of things with never any mention of the details, like maybe getting jobs or paying for health insurance. They were not terribly productive planning sessions either, considering the hard left turn Jean and I had taken from the college-to-job trajectory, spending our post college years volunteering and now as bicycle bums.

But for the time being, we were having a lot of fun living a little differently. The trouble with that, living differently, or blessing, we found is that once you do and you meet other people doing the same, your idea of “Real Life” changes and makes going back to the way you were living difficult.

For instance, I’d always expected people who didn’t live in a city lay awake at night hatching plans to sell the farm and strike out to the closest metropolis. But I’d discovered in Omak and elsewhere that rural Americans love their space and small-towns. I might have romanticized their lives a tad much, but their overall lifestyle offered an appealing alternative to the traffic and workaday routine of a city.

So now, Jeana and I found ourselves in Flagstaff, AZ miles from home stalled in that strange but perfect space where “Real Life”, the life you thought you wanted, has ended and the life you now want is waiting to take shape. We decided it was all just something you’ve got to work through and biking seemed as good a way as any.

That night, we heated up pizza in the hostel and ate with a Belgiun couple who were on a rock climbing road trip. Later, Jeana planned her tour exit, buying a plane ticket for November 17th from Abilene, TX to her home in New Jersey. Sandy decided to keep biking with us through AZ while Loren took a detour to Colorado to check the state off before the snow really started falling. The next day we made plans to head south through Sedona, dropping elevation into warmer climes, and then on to Tucson.

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Road to Flagstaff: Vermilion Cliffs, Freezing Downhills, Navajo Rez

During my trip, I lost many items. The first week I lost a cell phone, and every week after it seemed some small trinket went missing never to reappear. To slow the hemorrhaging, I became meticulous in my packing and kept a mental inventory of every item I owned. Even still, my possessions kept dwindling as if the road were taxing me. Waking up at the closed campground in Jacob’s Lake, I came to with a terrible realization. In the hurried fray of getting a ride the day previous from the Grand Canyon, I had left my camelback on the roadside with my camera stored in its pouch.

I called the backcountry office and got in touch with the helpful ranger who we’d met a few days before. He had good news: the camelback had been found and he could meet me in Flagstaff over the weekend to return it.

It seemed like a long shot, but was as promising an outcome as I could hope for. I dearly wanted to recover my camera, but if not, that was the road. When you’re traveling, the road owns everything; you’re just borrowing from it. At any time, it can take it all back.

The morning cold did not invite an early start, so we walked over to the lodge for some breakfast. When I asked our waitress from some ketchup to go with my eggs, she gave me a look like she had never heard of such a thing.

–Without the judgment please, I said.

Ketchup with eggs freaks some people out, but to me, it’s a right and natural marriage. I’d always wondered why some people find it so strange and had been toying with the idea that it was a regional taste. To test my theory, I asked her where she was from.

She was a student at BYU-Idaho working here on her fall break, but actually hailed from my hometown and had gone to a high school close to my house. After we fruitlessly name dropped for a few minutes, she told us about a coworker who had broken her arm yesterday hiking the canyon trail. The girl’s bone had broken through the skin, and she had to be helicoptered out.

Jeana rationalized the situation, always looking for an optimistic angle.

–We’ll she could have broken a leg… Or died.

After breakfast, we got back on the bikes to renew the occupation. We dropped 3,000 ft. finally making it off the interminable Kaibob Plateau. The downhill would have been a blessing if not for the cold. I used to relish my downhills, a nice chance to rest and take in the scenery, but with the seasons changing, they’d become a brutal enemy. All the way down, the wind cut through my jacket and burned my face, freezing my knuckles to the handle bars.

The views redeemed the pain, though. To our left, we had the Vermilion Cliffs, a long ruddy ridgeline that looked like it’d been colored by a child’s hand with jagged lines of earth red and rusted orange. To our right ran the Colorado River and the opening depths of the Grand Canyon.

We went over the Navajo Bridge, crossing into the Navajo Indian Reservation with the start of the Grand Canyon just below us. Throughout the day, wind was our constant companion, and my gears kept slipping at critical, uphill moments as if my bike had decided I needed to work a little harder.

We made it to the 89 road junction that would see us 110 miles into Flagstaff. The thought of spending the night by a busy junction didn’t warm our hearts, but we found a lowered area on the roadside that would work for a campsite. Our food supplies had run low and we were reduced to two cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli. Before eating, Jeana apologized to her Sicilian grandmother.

Sandy nibbled on a bagel and smoked a cigarette. I found myself laughing at her. Her whole image was a comical contradiction. Despite her Spartan diet and hearty nature, she biked in a well-coordinated outfit, a white windbreaker over a pink fleece that matched perfectly with her white helmet and pink visor. If it weren’t for Sandy’s cigarettes and sailor’s language, I would think I was on a road trip with bike touring Barbie.

The next day, we had to get to Cameron, AZ. Aside from a few scrapes of peanut butter left for our lunch, we were completely out of food. Cousin Brian had been through this area on his way down to Flagstaff and had given us some valuable reconnaissance. There was an outpost store in Cameron, but not much until then.

The morning was not kind to bikers. A heavy wind whipped us around, and it was plenty cold. Other than a thin rumble strip, we had almost no shoulder to ride on and every inch of it was a minefield of glass shards and goathead thorns.

My trailer tire got a flat a few miles down the road and everyone stopped for a break while I fixed it. We were each having a personal crisis of faith and wanted badly to be somewhere warm surrounded by lots of free food.

We stopped for lunch at a site called Gap and ate the last of our food under the covered awning of a senior center. A pack of half-awake rez dogs circled the parking lot eying our food meekly. The area reminded me of some the Colville Reservation’s far flung areas, a collection of trailer homes, tiny trading posts with shopworn goods, rez dogs asleep on store fronts. At least the Colville Reservation, where I’d spent the last year, had forests and lakes. This country seemed so desolate, just a barren vastness for miles. It looked like one big construction site, a topography of gravel pits and unfinished earth.

I made it to Cameron before the girls and did some much needed grocery shopping. I had planned on purchasing just the essentials, peanut butter and add-water pasta , but decided our day warranted something warm and special like mom would make.

Jeana called to say that Sandy had gotten a flat and they wouldn’t be in Cameron for another hour. I biked a few miles out of Cameron, following a dirt road that led to a remote rock field safely removed from the highway. The spot seemed like the perfect refuge, and I set up camp next to a shelter of piled stones.

By the time the girls arrived, a dinner of grill cheese and tomato soup awaited. Moods lifted instantly, and we sat on a little rock shelf, eating and chatting, till dark. We were in the middle of nowhere with the sounds of coyotes howls not too far off, but for whatever reason, I felt absolute comfort and safety.

Tomorrow, we would make it to Flagstaff. The road was uphill and the forecast rain, but once we’d reached Flagstaff, Arizona’s highest city, we could rest for a day then start dropping elevation into warmer climes.

I had a friend in Tucson, AZ and for his birthday, we had a planned trip to Vegas. Good things in store

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