San Francisco to New York to San Diego

May - July 1990

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Week 7

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 ride through.

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 Farmington.

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, into Cottonwood, and when we got there around 8:30, we learned that the temperature 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 there, things started to make some sense.  We were on a flat plain next to the 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 trees.

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 was 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; Cottonwood in 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 and 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 had.

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 reading. 

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 could see 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 that early.

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 bare ground.

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.

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 bottles 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, barren 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 the 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
Twenty-nine Palms

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 mountains.

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.

The road 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 expecting.  But 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.