San Francisco to New York to San Diego
May - July 1990
25 June - Monday - 136.8 miles/3122 total
Grand Canyon Village to Cottonwood
We got up a little
before sunrise, and were on the road just as it was light enough to
see. Grand Canyon Village was at 6850 feet, and our road was
downhill for tens of miles. Exiting the park, the highway passed
through a commercial area catering to tourists -
hotels, restaurants, the airport serving flights over the Canyon - and
then continued down through dry land lightly forested with pine.
In the previous
few days, we had talked about what our route should be. Some time
before, we had decided not to go into Utah at all. But heading
south from the Grand Canyon, there were two alternatives available to
us. We could head directly for Williams, then go westward
toward Needles, on the California border, along the route of the old US
66, riding on interstate for part of the way. Or we could
take the longer and much more scenic route, via Flagstaff and
Alternate 89 through Jerome and Prescott, and then to Parker on the
border. The first route would be flatter, mostly desert, and
probably very fast. The route through Flagstaff and Jerome,
though, some of which I had traveled by car, would be much nicer to
We had heard that Needles was one of the hottest places in
the country, and I was very interested in taking the scenic
route, and just as interested in avoiding riding on interstate
highway. So even though we suspected that we wouldn't find the
longer route any cooler, that's the one we took. It certainly looked more inviting on the map.
I stopped for
breakfast at a motel at the junction of the roads to Williams and
Flagstaff. By then, the countryside was flat, near desert, but
that didn't last very long. Soon the road started to climb into
the San Francisco mountains, but it was a gentle, easy climb. And
the drop into Flagstaff, like the drop down from Grand Canyon Village,
seemed all downhill; I had a hard time believing that Flagstaff was fifty
feet higher in elevation than where we had started that morning.
Flagstaff was a
serious bicycling town, and
there were several bicycle shops. We stopped at Cosmic Bicycles,
where we each bought Cateye halogen headlights, and I bought a kevlar
belted tire to replace the new unbelted front tire I had put on in
By now, I had decided I wanted to end my trip in San Diego, where I had some friends (Chris was still planning on winding up in Los Angeles), so after lunch, I tried a couple of times to call them, but never got hold of them. So we hung around Flagstaff in a grassy park
until four, when we left for Cottonwood.
The route to
Cottonwood along Alternate 89 was beautiful. The
beginning was a climb through the same dry, sparse pine forest we had
been seeing since the Grand Canyon. Once we reached the crest,
the road turned down a wooded, craggy canyon, Oak Creek
Canyon, that made this road one of the most scenic I've ever been
on. By Sedona, it was approaching evening, but the distance we'd
dropped in altitude was obvious in the considerably higher
temperatures. The descent continued, a little less spectacularly,
Cottonwood, and when we got there around 8:30, we learned that the
had reached 110° that day.
We found a Pizza
Hut (the last one of the trip!) on the main road, and after eating,
headed in the dark toward Dead Horse Ranch state park. This took
a while to find; it was down a road that ran through a residential
area, then across a ford. The ford was slippery with
vegetation, not easy to cross in the dark. As usual when
approaching out-of-the-way places in the dark, it felt like we were in
the middle of nowhere, getting more and more lost; but when we got
things started to make some sense. We were on a flat plain next
river we had forded; there were campsites with hookups all around, with
not too many people; and there were showers. It was an
eerie place, in spite of the modern building housing the showers and
toilets. The moon was up, shining on a hot, silent strip of
sandy ground planted with a few strange-looking stubbly
26 June - Tuesday - 117.6 miles/3240 total
Cottonwood to Aguila
Chris was packed and gone by 4:00 AM; the night before I had told him
that this would be a good place for us to go our separate ways, as I didn't want
to leave as early as he did, and I wanted to take it a little easier for the rest of the trip. But
we discussed Aguila as the next likely stopping point, without really agreeing
to meet there.
I left about an hour later; the sun wasn't up yet, and I never saw the
campground by daylight. After I left the built-up area
around Cottonwood, the climb up to Jerome started immediately.
Jerome, a turn-of-the-century mining town, was halfway up a
mountain and reached by a series of steep switchbacks. The ride
up was something of a race against the heat of the day, and the town
very noticeably cooler than the valley below had been earlier.
Jerome is full of restored buildings and is a very pretty place, if a
little too self-consciously artsy-craftsy. The
main road is also the only street, but this road winding back and forth
across the face of the mountain gives the town some physical
breadth. I had hoped to find some breakfast there, but it was
much too early, so I got a soda from a machine and kept going up the
steep mountainside. I still had a long way to go to reach the
crest of the
mountain. The road peaked at an elevation of 7000 feet;
the valley below was at 3500 feet. The ride was hot and slow.
The descent was steep and fast, and brought me down into a wide, hot
valley. It was still well before noon, but the heat was
uncomfortable. After a while I found a store where I bought a sandwich
some ice cream. I was in Prescott by 11:00, and spent at least
half an hour looking for a laundromat where I washed everything I
For the next few hours, I lay on the courthouse lawn, once going across
the street to get a hamburger and some ice cream. Prescott
was a small city, and the square that surrounded the courthouse, as
well as the streets that surrounded the square, were fairly busy.
The lawn was a pleasant place to be, and I wasn't the only one taking
advantage of it.
At 4:00 I decided that the worst heat of the day was over, so I pedaled
slowly out of town, uphill into more pine forest. There was one
range to cross through the forest, then down into and across a pleasant
valley, and up again to Yarnell, where I found a good restaurant and had some dinner.
The nine mile descent was spectacular. This was the
Mogollon rim, the border between the elevated plateau of
northeastern Arizona and the desert of the southwest. The view
out over the desert at sunset, as I rode down through giant
switchbacks, was amazing. Eventually the slope petered out and turned into flat plain, and I was in Congress at nightfall.
I had installed my new halogen lamp early that morning; now was my
first opportunity to try it. From Congress to Aguila, the road
was pretty much deserted, as it had been for a while before
Congress. The highway rose through some low mountains, then fell
into a plain
that turned out to be farmland as I approached Aguila. With my
taillight flashing yellow and my headlight throwing a reasonably strong
beam forward, I could see and be seen pretty well. It was obvious
that traffic coming up behind me could see my light from a
distance, even though they couldn't have known immediately what it
meant; trucks and cars slowed down well before they reached me and
pulled out well to the left to pass. And I had reasonably good
vision forward; enough to see the white line I was following, and the
occasional rattlesnake keeping warm on the asphalt. I would
sometimes have to stop to read a
sign, though, yanking the headlamp up to point directly at what I was
It was a little frustrating that I could see lights very far across
the desert at night. Ten miles or more away from an antenna tower I
the blinking red lights; tens of miles from any town, the greenish
yellow street lights were visible strung out in a row along the
highway. The perspective of the lights changed very slowly as I moved
forward, and it just didn't feel like I was making much progress.
So I saw the lights of Aguila from a very long distance
away, and a long time before I got there.
Reaching Aguila around eleven, I found Chris standing outside a
convenience store. He had waited until Aguila to have dinner;
apparently his midday stop was in Yarnell, where I had eaten
dinner. He had spent a few hours in an ice cream shop there.
We found an RV park, where both of us put our sleeping bags on the
ground to try to get some sleep for a few hours. Chris was going
to leave at 2:30 AM and ride through to Parker; I didn't want to get up
27 June - Wednesday - 87.8 miles/3328 total
Aguila to Parker
Chris did leave at 2:30 AM, and that was the last I saw of him
for the trip. I waited until 4:00, and headed out across the flat
desert to Salome, which I reached around 6:30. It was already
hot, and I had not had enough sleep. So I had some breakfast,
then rode back a mile to a motel I had seen, and checked in for the
day. I turning the air conditioner on full blast and went to sleep.
At noon, I walked across the gravel drive to the
motel's restaurant. It was unbelievably hot outside.
According to the television news, in Phoenix, sixty miles away, a new
all-time record of 123° had been set.
At dinner time I went outside again to get something to eat and found that
the temperature had dropped very little. But by sunset, things
had started to cool down. By 8:30, I was on the road.
I could see nearly nothing of the flat miles that followed. It
did get significantly cooler as I rode. At Bouse, I stopped for a
soda from a machine at a deserted filling station, and looking around
in the pitch darkness with my headlamp, I saw only flimsy houses and flat
Approaching Parker, I could see from a very long distance a string of
lights following some river or road for miles, perpendicular
to my route. I thought this might be the Colorado River.
Outside Parker, the air was humid, and I figured
this was moisture from the river, or maybe irrigation near the
river. I could see no farmed land near the road.
I arrived in Parker at half past midnight. The place was
completely dead. I checked out three motels and checked into one that didn't seem too bad. I couldn't escape
being charged for two nights, even though I was staying only twenty
hours. But I needed the sleep and the air conditioning.
28 June - Thursday - 112.2 miles/3440 total
Parker to Twenty-nine Palms CA
When I got up, I learned from the television that it was still 120° in
Phoenix. Walking outdoors in Parker was painful; going four
blocks to find some batteries, then some lunch seemed almost
life-threatening. There was no activity in the streets at all. So far as I could tell, the entire town consisted of
run-down one story structures, and although the district I was in was a
commercial one, I could see no evidence that any commerce was happening. The restaurant I found for dinner was filled with
flies, but it was the best I could find within walking distance.
I knew that the lake nearby was a resort area; there must have been
better places to stay there, but it was too hot to go anywhere now.
The heat trapped me all day in the motel room, watching TV, as there
wasn't anything around in the way of a public building or even a
bookstore. Getting ready to leave, I filled my three water
with ice, then water, and then put two gallons in the water bag.
The sun set at 7:50 and I left immediately afterwards, with a ride of
112 very empty miles across the Mojave desert in front of me. The
temperature was already dropping fast. I pedaled across the
unimposing Colorado river (California at last!), and as night fell,
started on the first eighteen miles to Vidal Junction, over up and down
terrain. Long before I got there, the ice in my water bottles had
melted, and the water was well above body temperature. I think
that the water heating up so fast was not so much the result of
the high air temperature as of the hot air rushing past at my speed
through the air. If I had been standing still, the water would
have stayed cool much longer.
At Vidal Junction, there was a California agricultural inspection
station, through which I was waved without comment, and a gas station
and convenience store, where I stopped for supplies. I bought a
gallon of cold spring water to top up my supplies with, as I had
ninety-three waterless miles ahead of me through the Mojave. The
clerk there had spoken to Chris the night before at about the same
time, and he was expecting me.
As I headed west, I was pretty much by myself; there was almost no
traffic. But around 10:30, there was suddenly a steady stream of
cars, many with boat trailers, heading east. After a while I
figured out that these were lake-goers from Los Angeles, taking Friday
off, who had all left the city at about the same time in the
afternoon. As there was not a reliable shoulder all the time, I
figured I was lucky to be going against all this traffic.
I saw very little evidence of human presence the entire way.
Every once in a while, there was a light way off in the desert. I
passed the access road to the Iron Mountain pumping station on the
Colorado river aqueduct to Los Angeles, but all I saw there, off in the
distance, was a few lights. Nothing was moving; I had no idea if there were people there or not.
The road, CA 62, climbed significantly as it passed Iron Mountain, and
continued to climb, endlessly in that pitch darkness, up to
where CA 177 joined it from the south. Several times, it
seemed, I passed through very spooky looming mountains, their steep,
sides just visible in the faint moonlight. By the side of the
road there was little or no plant life, as there had been in much of
Arizona desert, and the ground was sometimes sand and sometimes gravel.
At the intersection with CA 177, I saw that most of the
eastbound traffic was coming up 177 from the interstate. I
stopped at the intersection to eat a little, mostly a sandwich and some
water, and as I stood there, a couple of cars traveling together, each hauling a boat,
pulled over. After a while, I heard a
voice from one of them ask me if I was alright, and if I needed
anything. I said no, and the cars eventually moved on.
The rest of the ride into Twenty-nine Palms was downhill (steep at
first) or flat - much better. Thirty miles out from the town,
I stopped to refill my bottles from the water bag, and discovered that
the water had gone bad. It must have been mildew, as I
had not rinsed out the bag back in Parker. So although I had
plenty of water, it was hard to drink it.
I had been seeing lights in the valley for several miles as I approached
it; they were good to see after all that emptiness. A lot
of them paralleled the road, and seemed to be on a road a little to the
north. They made the area look a lot more inhabited than it
really was. A little after dawn, I passed the town airport, still
a few miles out, and then eventually found a convenience store on the
outskirts of town where I drank enough orange juice to get rid of most
of the mildew taste in my mouth.
All in all, that ride through the desert, which I had been expecting to
be (by far) the most serious barrier on the entire cross country trip,
was not all that bad. The night was not intensely hot, and was
even cool in a few spots. The worst thing that night
was the solitude.
I was in Twenty-nine Palms by six in the morning, and checked
into a motel full of marines from the nearby base.
29 June - Friday - 0 miles/3440 total
The motel I was in wasn't bad, definitely the best
of the trip. It had a pleasant restaurant, where I had lunch and dinner between naps. I spent a little time by
the pool, and did my last laundry of
the trip in the motel laundromat. But mostly I tried to sleep, and at last I got
hold of my friend in San Diego and told him I'd be rolling in on Sunday,
about three in the afternoon.
30 June - Saturday - 119.5 miles/3560 total
Twenty-nine Palms to Radec
I checked out at 1:00 AM, choosing that time to leave so that I'd
arrive in Palm Springs around dawn. That way I could get some
breakfast before heading up into the mountains from Palm Desert, but
still get out of the desert before it got too hot in the morning.
I was expecting the route to be downhill between Twenty-nine Palms and
Palms Springs, but as it turned out, I had quite a climb through the
dark (but populated) desert up to just before Yucca Valley.
From there, the road descended, almost without break.
My map showed route 62 ending on the interstate, just before Palm
Springs, with no way to escape onto a smaller road. So as the
lights of the valley became visible through the pitch dark, I found a
road eastward off 62, heading toward Desert Hot Springs, and then found
the street that I knew ran southward, through North Palm Springs to
Palm Springs. It was a little lonely, cutting off into the
desert at four in the morning, hoping that the line of streetlights I
was following led me somewhere I wanted to go.
Getting into Palm Springs before dawn, I found the streets empty.
The air was moist, from the sprinklers that were everywhere. And
there were the low, sinuous buildings and the the pastel lighting that I remembered from a previous visit,
several years earlier. Nothing was stirring; I stopped only to
get some money from a cash machine.
Dawn broke as I rode out of Palm Springs down CA 111. The strip
from Palm Springs to Palm Desert was built up commercially, but
in a very zoned, tony kind of way. There were golf courses
everywhere, along with clumps of condominiums. Everything was
sprinklered and the humidity was overbearing.
In Palm Desert, I stopped at a Denny's for some breakfast and then found a Von's,
which opened as I went in at seven. There I bought some food for
lunch and dinner, as I didn't know what I would be able to find in the
The climb up into the Santa Rosa mountains was the toughest of the
trip, and meant a climb from 250 feet above sea level to about 5000
feet over a distance of 24 miles. And it was hot. I didn't
leave Palm Desert early enough to escape the morning heat, and although
things got a little cooler as I climbed the switchbacks, the
day was never a comfortable one. About a third of the way up, I
overtook a pair of cyclists on mountain bikes, who told me that this
was one of the best-known climbs in California.
Most of the way up, I looked into a National Forest Service
campground, planted on some very dry, hot terrain in a sparse,
stubbly growth of pines. But the place was completely deserted,
and had no showers. So I went on.
At the top, a little short of Anza, I found a restaurant and lunch
counter where I stopped for lunch. It was a very pleasant
place, and I was glad to be able to avoid eating the sandwich from
Von's that was moldering in my pannier.
The rest of the day was downhill. The town of Anza was holding
some kind of a celebration as I rode through, but I was too interested
in finishing the trip to stop to investigate. Continuing on
downhill, I thought about the possibility of going on that day to San
Diego. It would have meant 200 miles for the day, but someone in
Anza had told me that the route was downhill all the way.
But as I continued down, the heat got worse and worse, and at 1:00, as
I was passing another campground, I decided to stop.
There were no showers here, either, but I filled my water bag with
water and poured it over myself, and felt a lot better. This
place had more campers than the campground I had gone by earlier,
but no cooler. So for the rest of the afternoon and evening, I
lay in a hammock, brushing off insects and listening to the
radio. My last dinner on the road was pasta. There was no reason to set up my tent that night, so I
spread my sleeping bag out on a picnic table and went to sleep.
1 July - Sunday - 92.6 miles/3652 total
Radec to San Diego
My radio alarm
woke me early, after the first normal night's sleep in several days - I'd been riding nights for a while. I was on the
road by 6:00.
continued downhill through the morning coolness to I-15, where I turned
a little back into the hills toward Pala. The descent into Pala
was great - there were times when the air almost seemed too cold, as I coasted down through the masses of green foliage that
lined the road.
From Pala, it
was still downhill or flat most of the way to
Oceanside. The countryside had become heavily agricultural, but
was still very pretty. At Oceanside, I was suddenly in a beach town. It was a little disorienting to go
from desert to mountains to farmland to beach, all so quickly.
The ride from
Oceanside to San Diego along the coast highway was a very nice end to
the trip. The highway was four lane, running though beach
parkland and some very nice beach towns, and had a bicycle lane
most of the way. There were groups of cyclists going each way,
and I was asked several times where I was traveling from.
There was one
last hill, a nearly two mile one at Torrey Pines. From there, I
followed my so-so map into La Jolla, getting a little lost
but always finding my way, and eventually arrived in San Diego.
There I remembered a little of the geography, and got
through the airport area to downtown, where I could now follow the
directions the friend I was staying with had given me to his house.
By 2:00 I was
there, after a ninety-two mile ride that day. I wasn't tired or
sleepy, and I didn't have the feeling of anticlimax I had been
it was a little strange, after having traveled six weeks with just one
other cyclist, to have other people around me now.
How had the trip
changed me? I didn't have any new insights about myself or the world. Physically, I had what for me was a deep
tan, but only on my legs and arms, of course. I had lost a lot of weight. Leaving New York, I was at about 152
pounds; at Tulsa I was down to 140. In San Diego, I weighed
136. Most of my fat was gone; because of the time in the desert some of the weight loss toward the
end was water. My legs were bigger and my torso had shrunk.
I spoke to Chris
not to long after I got in. He had gone directly to Parker from
Aguila, as I had expected, and after spending the day there, traveled
all night through the desert to Yucca Valley. The next night he
left for Los Angeles via Lucerne Valley and Big Bear Lake, getting to
LA in one day. So he had arrived two days before me.
Over the next
few days, I hung out in San Diego, going to the beach and generally relaxing. I thought about bicycling up
the coast to San Francisco (looking back now, I probably should have
done that), but as I had made a hard-to-get train
reservation to Chicago, I left San Diego on the coastal train on July
3, transferring at Los Angeles to the Desert Wind to Chicago.
After a few days there with my sister and her family, I took the Lake
Shore Limited back, finally, to New York.