The Desert Southwest

For two nights before I entered Nevada I stayed in a trailer offered to me by a friendly couple living out in the desert fringes of California. As I said the now familiar farewell and thank-you, they told me that there was trace amounts of Uranium in the water I’d filled my bottles with, there was an awkward back and forth about whether this was a problem, and whether the locals drank it. The answer was yes, and so I did too.

As I crossed into the Nevada I realised I’d left my helmet behind in a shed and determined not to return for it. A moment later my gracious host pulled up alongside me to return it anyway. I rode all day and spun into Tonopah exhausted after 130km in the saddle and as dark set in. I wasted little time and set up camp right on the fringe of town in full view if any was looking – by now I’ve realised that people rarely are. The following morning I stuffed myself in a diner and ate until lunchtime, and as I set to pedal out of town found the towns only brewery so decided to stay instead. After my first beer I got talking to a couple who bought me my second, and as they left me with a $20 to pay for a third, another couple at the bar beat me to it and paid for another. I left the brewery with the contacts for people in Reno Nevada, Oakland California, and Steamboat Springs Colorado.

At half past 3, too many IPA’s deep and wobbly on my feet, I decided I was better off on the bike and rode off into the night on the most eerily straight roads I’ve seen. When the sun set I strapped on my headlamp and made sure to pull off the road when I caught sight of car headlights behind me. The first time I did this I was waiting about 15 minutes for the truck to pass by, and I quickly realised that I could see straight in every direction for about 20km – after this first experiment I resolved to riding on the wrong side of the road instead, rationalising that it would be easier to keep sight of the lights 20km ahead than those 20km over my shoulder. A car that passed me turned around to double back and ask what the hell I was doing riding on a dark and desolate stretch of highway – I confirmed I was fine, and heard him mutter something like, ‘only a foreigner could be so stupid’. I knew what I was doing.

I’d hoped to camp by some hot springs on my map, but when I arrived I found out that the Mormon’s had bought the place out and were now running a cafe on site and had posted no trespassing signs everywhere. At that point I knew very little about the latter day saints and decided that I was probably best not to trespass in Nevada since the few people that live out there do so mainly to get away from people like me, and I had no doubt were a relatively trigger happy bunch.

The next day as I headed into Rachel Nevada, I stopped to take stock of the only store out there, the Little A’le’inn. The diner sits smack in the middle of the Extraterrestrial Highway, a 100 mile stretch through central Nevada famous for star gazing and UFO spotting. The place was as kitsch as they come, and a flying saucer hung from a crane out the front – they let me camp for free and I camped alongside a guy who had a visible semiautomatic pistol strapped to his belt. I drank a few more beers courtesy of a Dutch family RV’ing around the national parks in the area and got up to be told the water from the tap was arsenic heavy this time. Given that I needed about 13L of water to do me through the next stretch, I decided that again I’d risk it and rode off for another mind numbing straight towards the frontier with Utah – Mormon country.

I swept south after crossing the border and alternately found tailwinds and headwinds and no clean drinking water at all. That first night in Utah I got almost no sleep as I realised just how clear the sky was, and counted an unknown number of shooting stars, I learned later that I’d probably caught the backside of the Perseid Meteor Shower. The following day I banked towards St George, where I was taken in for a few nights by a Mormon family, and politely joined them in their evening prayers/readings of the book of Mormon.

I can’t fault the Latter Day Saints, in fact they may be some of the friendliest people I’ve met – but after living with them for a few nights it was absolutely reinforced for me that organised religion is more or less an established and accepted cult. The Mormons are more or less mandated to give a 10% tithing to the Church, making them absolutely come across like a cult. If the goal of life is to be happy, and you realise there’s a hell of a lot of ways to get there, I guess I can’t fault the family I stayed with, who seemed to be absolutely rapt with life, even if they were getting what I consider a narrow view of it.

I left the next day and rode all the way to the gate with Zion National Park for the continuation of the Tour de Parks which manifested itself in California. I camped out by the river in a lush dog park with toilets and places to wash my dishes, and woke early the next morning to ride up and into the canyon. The main road up into the park is actually closed to regular traffic, and everyone is funnelled into the park in buses – bikes are allowed to ride and more or less have run of the place. Being in the canyon is a pretty remarkable experience, but nothing compared to getting up above it to see it from the rim. I left the valley and rode up to leave the park heading east. As I left the park I climbed higher still and found a sneaky back entrance in to the park which placed me high on the East Rim near observation point to camp and watch the stars move across the sky. I got up and left the next morning when I heard the sound of early morning hikers on the trail. I made about 100km that day and camped under an inviting tree by a lake, and woke the next morning at age 30 to a number of family video calls – all from the cold comfort of my sleeping bag.

Later that day the rocks became red once more and I ended up camping in Bryce Canyon National park with a crazy old conspiracy geezer of a cyclist who talked my ear off nonstop about the JFK assassination, and complained to no end about the cost of the food etc in the national park, but then kept going back the park store to buy overpriced pizza and beer. I was pretty happy to leave him behind and I left to continue further to Capitol Reef National Park.

As I passed Boulder the road climbed up near 10,000ft for the first time since California, and just as I crested the pass I speared off into the National Forest down a road which looked like it might drop me into the park by a back road. After a few hours of route finding, a bit more of bushwhacking and some missed turns I ended up on a sandy mess of a road through pristine desert backcountry which lobbed me on an old four by four track into the park. When I finally reached the valley floor I was treated to about 10miles of riding along an old desert wash which eventually took me to the pavement where I found people and cars for the first time of the day. All in all it ended up being my favourite park because it was so easy to find truly remote backcountry by bike – I felt like it was the first park I’d truly been inside of.

I sat outside the visitors centre, realising there wasn’t really anywhere nearby to buy food and that I would be settling on a dry loaf of bread to get me by when a chap came by to ask me the stock questions I get all the time. He weaved me a yarn about hospitality he received on the Pacific Crest Trail 30 years ago with his wife, and told me he’d been looking for a worthy way to pay it forward ever since. He handed me a card with his information and dropped $200 crisp dollars on me before I could object. I realised it was something he needed to do, regardless of whether or not I needed it, and I made sure to pass it on to someone who needed it more than I did a few days later. People are remarkably selfless.

I made short work of the next stretch toward Moab to cross off the last of the mighty 5 parks in Southern Utah, and I camped outside of Arches before pushing my bike up another dry wash and into the main part of the park early in the morning. When I left I headed towards the town and met Terri-Ann, who takes in all itinerant cyclists that pass through.

Terri-Ann, master of the universe, lives in a school bus on a family owned property, and rents out her self built house for income on the side. The place is essentially a psychedelic artwork of colour and the human form everywhere you look. I slept inside for a few days, drank beers with Terri-Ann and researched the next leg of my journey into Canyonlands. When I left to ride into the national park I met a fellow Australian on a bike riding towards the entrance to the park to have a look around, and I convinced him to join me to ride the beautiful and sand 160km loop around the White Rim.


We stealthed it around the loop over two days since we couldn’t get the required camping permits online, and talked our way out of trouble when we were found out by a passing ranger, and generally were left awestruck and speechless by the crazy landscape that isn’t really appreciated from Island in the Sky. When I returned to Moab I gladly agreed to give Terri-Ann a day of my time doing yard work and made a cool $75 to get me through the next 10 days or so. It was a sad farewell again as I realised how much Terri-Ann had done to help me along the way and I pressed on into the La Sal mountains to seek the border with Colorado. As I approached the border (and after only about 5km), I crossed paths with a ragtag bunch of 7 bikepackers who had been riding between the San Juan Huts for the last week, and they readily invited me to take the 8th bunk in their hut that night, about 2 miles back where I’d come from. I gladly accepted and made just about my shortest day of the trip as I backtracked and spent the afternoon with them drinking many beers, sampling choice Colorado goodies and shooting the breeze into the damp night.  When I left the next morning they insisted I load my bags up with the cabins stock of beers, m&m’s and canned goodness to get me through the next 3 or 4 days.

I rolled over the border and realised the mountains would likely be a little more unpredictable, and the idea was altogether exciting.

1 comment

  1. a great reading and just the right amount of information and pace to keep it really interesting and on top of that amazing pictures. Looking forward to many more posts.

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