Nightmare at Joshua Tree: Where Two Deserts Become One

General Patton is celebrated for bold, successful strategies as a field commander. Some of that must have rubbed off on me camping next to his tanks. Rather than plod west towards Indio on the interstate, I’ll surprise the desert and cut north through Joshua Tree National Park.

Primary motivation is to get off I-10 where I’ve flirted with disaster. Instead I’ll explore a Dr. Seuss landscape of smooth boulders and spindly Joshua trees where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts collide into one inhospitable hellhole with an altitude problem that surpasses 5,000 feet above sea level. My opinion has merit if you remember that I’m pedaling a 45-pound, three-geared Citi Bike.

By any measure, J-Tree is an imposing place. At 1,250 square miles, it’s larger than Rhode Island’s landmass and four times that of New York City — without a single Duane Reade to stock up on overpriced snacks.

Joshua Tree is home to cryptobiotic crusts, hundreds of fault lines, alluvial fans, fierce winds, tarantulas, five-inch scorpions, honeypot ants, kangaroo rats and 25 varieties of snakes — all of which sound terrifying to a city mouse like myself, especially the Desert Night Snake.

 More accurate sign: Entering at Own Risk

More accurate sign: Entering at Own Risk

I enter the park from the south with only seven miles to Cottonwood Campground. Doesn’t sound like a big deal until you consider that it’s all uphill. The road twists and turns, but never once chips in a little relief. Even when I’m sure I cannot possibly go higher, around the bend the incline continues.

Shiny SUVs with California and Nevada plates zoom up and down the two-lane road, which has no shoulder. This is a National Park, not I-10, so I’m hoping drivers will be in a forgiving, eco-friendly mood upon seeing a helpless bicycle inching against gravity.

 Kind people stopped to offer food, like bananas from this New Jersey family

Kind people stopped to offer food, like bananas from this New Jersey family

Two hours later I reach Cottonwood Visitor Center, southern gateway to the park. I purchase a multi-day pass for $10 and get ready to bike the last mile to the campground, which is blessed with potable cold water and flush toilets. Those are five-star amenities around here. This will be the last chance for water until I exit the park in two days.

A silver sedan pulls me over. Out pops my former fraternity brother Chris a.k.a. Hoser. I haven’t seen him or his now wife Jenn in at least 10 years. They met playing beer pong in our dilapidated fraternity basement in New Hampshire and are now living more soberly in San Diego.

Jenn is an eighth year associate at a national law firm. Chris is an English and literature teacher at a private school, quite a turnaround from how I last remember him — incoherently drunk at 4 PM or passed out on the chapter room couch that he’ll repeatedly soil (hence his nickname).

They had planned to camp in the park over Christmas, but with temps in the 20s and winds in the 50s, they retreated to a motel (during this time I was living la vida sola in Bob’s Marriott). They offer me bananas, oranges and leftover shortbread Christmas cookies. Hungry for a little company in the wild, I ask about their two funny-faced Shih Tzus in the front seat, but neither are available to-go.

Amazingly, I’m not the only biker at the campsite. Cynthia, an adventure guide, and Bob, a forest firefighter, live in Alaska and flew with their bikes down to San Diego. Joshua Tree has been a shock to the outdoorsy couple, who probably pal around with moose on reality TV in their spare time.

At Jumbo Rocks, where more than 100 campsites are packed together, they said it was hard to find peace.

“I’ve never shared a wilderness experience with that many people,” Bob says. “In the morning, three women in fuzzy slippers walked through my tent site. I mean, I hadn’t even had coffee and they’re already violating my space… in fuzzy slippers!”

Our bikes draw the attention of Peter, who is cycling alone and came in from the north. He’s an electrician at LAX and rides his bike 16 miles to work to save on gas money. By leaving his equipment truck parked at the airport, he saves $140 a week. The only problem is cabs crashing into him on the departures level.

“The drivers yell at me, ‘What the hell are you doing riding a bike here? This road is for taxi drivers working here!’” to which he shouts back, “I work here, too!” before going inside the terminal to his job site near the ticketing agents.

Peter says you don’t know how filthy airports really are. Not the places the flying public sees, but the back hallways littered with wrappers, screws, and dust bunnies the size of real bunnies. Jet engines suck all that stuff up, he says.  

 Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground

We disperse to set up camp before dark. I’m at a picnic table knifing peanut butter out of the jar into my eager mouth when Peter interrupts with an exciting discovery: leftover firewood. When sleeping outside in December, finding an unexpected source of warmth is like winning Powerball of the desert.

 Dinner in the desert

Dinner in the desert

After the sun goes down, Peter sparks a flame without a match. Team Alaska comes over for more conversation. The fire binds a temporary friendship even as granules of snow pelt our clothing. A desert mouse with elongated tail scurries by Cynthia’s foot hoping to sneak in our warming party. By 7:15 we call it a night. It feels like 11:30.

Icy wind raps against my tent. I wake up with neck pain and frozen toes at five o’clock, thrilled how “late” it is. Only 1.5 more hours of misery until I feel the sun.

Overnight precipitation leaves a dusting of snow and splattering of ice on the tent. I bid Peter good luck on his way south to the Salton Sea. It’s all downhill for him. I’m going north on the most challenging segment of the entire trip: No source of food, water or shelter. No cell service or electricity. No easy way out, only up.

In particular, I dread the elevation gain of 1,700 feet over nine miles from Cholla Cactus Garden to Belle Campground. But first, some relief.

“Yeah man, you won’t need to pedal for a while until here,” Peter says, pointing to Turkey Flats on the map. “It’s pretty flat to Ocotillo Patch, but by Cholla Garden you start climbing and then you’ll give it all back and then some up to Belle.” He’s referring to the dreamy downhill into Turkey Flats at the base of Pinto Mountain.

Out of Cottonwood Campground I start the day climbing, but every curve gets me closer to that big downhill. Thereafter I’ll hit flat washes before an incline the rest of the way to Belle.

When the flats come into view, they’re more arid and vast than I could have imagined. My eyes uneasily scan the horizon for something familiar, but find nothing. No sign of human development in this wilderness other than Pinto Basin Road. I’m overwhelmed by the simplicity and size of the planet we inhabit.

At peak downhill speed, I sense a sedan creeping alongside me. It’s getting too close. What the fu%k is this, I wonder, flashing back to that RV on the interstate. I put on the brakes so it will pass.

The window rolls down and an Asian woman asks, “Do you work for park?”

I’m wearing a green hoodie under a yellow reflective vest, but otherwise look like a hobo on wheels. I’m irate. She interrupted the best part of my descent for the dumbest tourist question ever. Joshua Tree is a big place, but there’s only one main road and this is it. North is still north and south is still south, what else do you need to know, lady?

Another complaint is that I’ve yet to see any telltale Joshua trees for which the park is named, which means I’m not getting my $10’s worth. Instead, I wildly obsess over the teddy bear cholla, an impossibly prickly thing that leaves you writhing in agony if you dare cuddle it.

 Look but don't touch this teddy bear

Look but don't touch this teddy bear

Hoser, ever the idiot, put his palm on one, “just to see,” and had these words of wisdom: “Stay the fu%k away from the cholla!” The name is cute and the cactus looks fuzzy, but I decide to admire it with my eyes.

To pass time, I wink when I see one. Left eye if the cholla is on the left side and right if on the right. Go ahead and see what your mind comes up with when riding a bicycle across a double desert.

I make great time to Turkey Flats, decent time to Ocotillo Patch, but am falling behind by Cholla Cactus Gardens where I stop the winking game because my eyelids are in constant flutter. A car pulls into the lot of the cactus garden. The driver and passenger look at me with mouths wide open.

Reed and Lucy live on the Upper East Side. They cannot believe a Citi Bike is in Joshua Tree, but did read about me in the NY Post. We chat for a bit and Reed promises to buy me beers when I get back to New York. I will remember, Reed!

 Reed later unfollows me on Instagram and I never get that beer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Reed later unfollows me on Instagram and I never get that beer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cholla Gardens to Belle Campground is nine miles, all uphill. Curves wind out of sight. Although I’m going higher, the sun isn’t. The climb is too much even in lowest gear. I end up pushing the bike and taking frequent breaks, especially at informational signage.

A family from New Jersey stops to take pictures with me, but what I really want is to throw the bike on a pickup truck and call it a day. No such bailout happens. Exhaustion melts into desperation as morale slips away. A steady stream of cars heads for the northern exit. I make no effort to cling to the shoulder, which at times narrows into oblivion. Let them go around me. They have a gas pedal.

Almost three hours after meeting Reed and Lucy, I reach Belle Campground beautifully ensconced among giant boulders and Joshua trees whose stunted limbs twist skyward for salvation.

All 18 sites are taken by visitors with vehicles who made better time than my three miles per hour. I don’t have any choice but to crash. With a bicycle and small tent, I can fit anywhere, and the Mojave Desert isn’t lacking room. I strategically select a spot that’s too small for anyone else to park a car and pitch a tent. Boulders on two sides will shelter me from the wind.

Inside the tent, clouds of condensation pour out of my mouth like I’m smoking a pack of cigarettes all at once. My middle toes are already frozen and the sun hasn’t even set.

The night is calm and the stars shine bright free of light pollution. I spot Mercury and the Orion constellation from the tent’s plastic lunette window. I’m not going stargazing outside in this bone-shattering cold. Remember, I packed for this trip in August.

Laughter and the smell of roasted marshmallows waft my way. I’m alone and hungry and have no cell signal to connect with anybody.

The temperature keeps dropping. I’m wearing everything I own, including (clean) underwear on my head. Inside my inadequate sleeping bag, I contort my body as if doing half-conscious yoga.

The warmest position is kneeling with my chest against my thighs and head tucked into my knees. Arms hug my sides and hands clasp the toes, my most vulnerable extremity. This might already have a name, but I’m calling it Desert Survival Pose.

A full moon in the sky awakens me at 2 AM. I’m heartbroken the sun won’t take its place for almost five hours, yet thankful I still have a pulse, just not in my feet.

By eight o’clock it’s finally warm enough to emerge, a solid 15 hours since I crawled into that tent with nothing to do but listen to my teeth chatter and wait for sunrise. My water bottle, which I kept inside next to me, rattles with ice cubes.

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To the Lake

Maybe it’s the double wide streets with no traffic or the cerulean skies against rugged mountains, but Kingman kinda wins me over. I like a frontier feel, and this town’s got just that. The local paper is the Daily Miner. Ranching and mining groomed Kingman to become the seat of Mohave County. Today it’s just two hours by car from the Las Vegas Strip, a two-day bike fantasy detour I did not entertain.

During two rest days, I eat at almost every local spot and twice at Redneck’s BBQ for the Redneck Nachos, made with sliced baked potato in lieu of tortilla chips. Other than that bit of culinary genius, Kingman is notable only in that it’s my last stop on Route 66 until Los Angeles County.

Adieu, double six. I’ve had an topsy-turvy relationship with the Mother Road, which began on a sour note in Joplin, climaxed in Tulsa, crashed twenty miles later in Sapulpa, flatlined across the Texas panhandle, withered in windswept New Mexico, lifted me up in the Arizona highlands and then punished me with near frostbite. What a great time.

I want to scream how much I hate biking Route 66, but in the end it’s hard to hold a grudge against this old pile of pavement. As a parting gesture of respect, I pay a visit to the museum in Kingman where I appreciate the history of the Legendary Road even more.

West of Kingman, Route 66 turns treacherous. Blind curves and deteriorating tarmac to Oatman, known for roaming donkeys that kick cars and tourists. That sounds fun, but crossing into California, Route 66 hits the Mojave Desert where neither shelter nor water are available for more miles than I can bike in a day. To avoid dying of thirst or frost, I must abandon the Mother Road.

 So long, Route 66. Time to forge ahead on Forty.

So long, Route 66. Time to forge ahead on Forty.

I’ll drop 60 miles south to Lake Havasu City, a snowbird colony on the shores of a man-made lake. Not exactly my scene, but it’s even warmer than Kingman. When you’re on a bicycle in the middle of December with no winter clothes, a few extra degrees can make a characterless city founded in 1964 seem like El Dorado.

As a bonus, the lake is just a few hundred feet above sea level, meaning it’s downhill from Kingman. My winning plan has one catch: only the interstate can take me there. Of course I’ve biked on the interstate before (in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona), but every time it requires feet of faith and nerves of steel.

Nowhere is the automobile given freer reign. The opposite seems true for bicycles until I see a sign that welcomes me forward: Bicycles Use Shoulder Only. OK, some other idiots have tried this before me. Now it’s my turn. Let’s go.

California-bound traffic races ahead like a raging river. The small boost of confidence disappears as I bike onto the wide bank littered with debris.

I pass a sign noting La-La Land is 303 miles away. Three hundred is almost 200, which is almost 100, which is almost done! I could be in LA for New Year’s Eve going a modest 30 miles per day. This could be over in 10 days. I’m tempted to stay on the interstate and cross into California today, but exit south towards Lake Havasu.

I’m a matter of miles from California, yet won’t feel the satisfaction of my final state for another four days. Then I think, what if a car hits me tomorrow? I’ll never feel victorious like I could now. Instead of seizing the day, I’ll take the safer, more scenic route through Havasu.

I refocus on the present. Wispy clouds dissipate into the blue sky and naked mountains rise along the horizon. Palm trees encircling a truck stop like an oasis remind me that I’m thirsty. I refill my water and strip down to two layers, a pleasant change from 100 miles ago when pedaling in four pairs of pants and three pairs of socks.

Moving on, I battle rough shoulder conditions and tense HEY, WATCH IT! moments of cars giving mere inches of clearance. Then freshly laid asphalt widens the shoulder that becomes smoother than warm butter. Water comes into view. Lake Havasu, I see you.

A dramatic downhill despite opposing wind makes a memorable end to a courageous day. I ease pedaling as the orange sun drops behind the mountains, leaving a glowing trail of red and purple towards my destiny in California.

Lake Havasu! I scream, making my presence known and arrival official. I never had heard of this place until a few days ago, yet here I am wide-eyed and happy. That is the beauty of this ride—making indelible memories across an America I never knew existed. Far removed from my cloistered big city provenance, this vulnerability adds extra meaning to every encounter. Treading on unfamiliar ground, I’m grateful for the most mundane things, such as the charity of a white stripe with ribbon of excess pavement.

Lake Havasu City leads to Parker, which leads to Blythe, my beachhead into California. Although my prize of Los Angeles isn’t far, unforeseen discomfort will outmatch my endurance. The darkest days are still ahead and they begin at Bob's Marriott, which is no hotel at all.

A German, a Barber & a Gun Nut

I roll into Seligman feeling good. I plowed through snowfall in Williams and breezed downhill into another quirky Route 66 town 40 miles closer to the ocean. Something’s different here and I can’t put my finger on it. Then Reinhard tells me that chain motels and restaurants are not welcome here.

Reinhard owns Canyon Lodge where each cinder block room has a theme. I got Elvis. He explains that Seligman is franchise-free thanks to the efforts of an activist who is also the oldest active barber in the country.

Angel Delgadillo is known as the guardian angel of Route 66. He and other business owners banded together after the interstate bypassed Seligman in 1978. Angel led the charge to put this little town back on the tourist map, starting with way-finding signage for what became the road less traveled as soon as the interstate opened.  

“People come from Siberia to Seligman, and when they check in the first thing they ask is, ‘Where is Angel the barber?’” Reinhard says in accented English.

Reinhard is German. He came as a tourist in the 80s and never left. He lived for a few years in the Pacific Northwest with a home on the ocean, but decided it was too rainy and moved to California. On a road trip he stayed at this motel, woke up and saw the place was for sale, and bought it.

“Millions of tourists pass through here every year going to the Grand Canyon and seeing Route 66,” he says. Plus, consider the quality of life. There’s no crime and one German restaurant, he boasts. Seligman is actually named after a fellow German who was a railroad financier.

More recently it was inspiration for the fictitious town Radiator Springs in the animated movie Cars, although other towns along Route 66 also stake claim to fame in the Pixar movie (see: Adrian, Texas).

Vintage vehicles rust outside local businesses. The commercial strip looks like a 1950s time warp without gaudy signs for Motel 6, McDonald’s and Family Dollar hosted into the sky (update: Seligman is getting a Family Dollar… sigh). Home-grown alternatives include the Roadkill Cafe, which would have been my first stop had the stern German not made a stink about how bad it was.

Souvenir shops ply Route 66 merchandise, made in China, of course. The irony is that many Chinese come all the way to this authentic town and buy trinkets mass produced in Guangzhou. Nevertheless, the Rusty Bolt, Route 66 Motoporium, and Historic Seligman Sundries are painted with passion and run by Route 66 die-hards who reminisce about the glory days and dream of a revival.

I’m not in the mood to buy anything. An icy wind tears down the empty street. I feel uneasy, like I shouldn’t be here. The next morning I’m ready to leave… until I open the curtains. Everything is covered in snow, again. It’s not deep, but the landscape is frozen in place. The roads aren’t clear.

I should have come in the summer. It’s common for 30 tour buses a day to stop here so Chinese and European tourists can get their kicks on Route 66.

That’s what Billy tells me. He’s a merchandise salesman who pulls double duty as the cook in the winter.

“I love to mix things up in the kitchen,” he says while taking my lunch order.

I’m stranded for another snow day, but there’s no brewery this time around. The best I can do is hang out at this gift emporium cafe with Billy, a self-described “redneck with a creativity problem.”

A hard worker in all seasons, Billy, for the first time in four years, is getting a vacation next month.

“Going somewhere warm?” I ask. “Mexico’s not far. I could almost bike there, haha.”

“Nah, I’m going home, shuttin the door and sit in my recliner. And if I get bored I’ll go to the shooting range across the street and shoot some stuff up,” he says and then rattles off gun names and part numbers until I can’t take it anymore.

“Dude, I’m from New York City, we don’t have guns. I have NO idea what you’re talking about.”

“Liberal pu**ies,” he laughs and starts yapping about this waterproof rifle he made.

“I also keep a .22 under my pillow and got a .25 automatic stashed in my boot. I’m loaded. I’m ready for the apocalypse,” he proclaims.

Then he bends down to his boot. My eyes widen with fear, ready to get a gun pushed in my face. Instead, he brandishes a switch blade and Leatherman multi-tool with flashlight.

“I’m loaded!” he cries. “If those terrorists come here, I’m shooting back. This ain’t fu**ing France,” he says, referencing the Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris a few weeks prior.

Billy ran away with the circus in 7th grade and stayed for 16 years before falling out in Phoenix. At a keg party he met a fellow motorbiker who persuaded him to be his roommate and ended up “adopting” him. The other man is apparently older because Billy keeps referring to him as “daddy.”

Mutual passion for building motorcycles and shooting guns brought the men together. They looked at a map of Arizona, closed their eyes, and a finger landed on Seligman. I would have tried again, peeking just enough to land on Flagstaff, Phoenix or even Williams.
 
Despite his rants about violence, Billy has kind eyes and a young face that narrows into a long goatee. A ponytail flows from the back of his baseball hat. I’m putting together the pieces of his personal history and filling in gaps with my imagination. I think Billy could be coupled as a gay redneck with gun-toting machismo to overcompensate.

Before curiosity gets the best of me, I shut up and stop asking questions. I’m hoping to eat in peace, but Billy’s got one more thing. He wants to show me rattlesnake eggs.

“You’n ever seen’em?” he asks with a crooked smile.

I haven’t seen the eggs or the parents and would like to keep it that way, I say, but Billy comes over with a small yellow envelope. As I peer inside, the envelope flutters to life. I jump two feet back, propelled by profanity.

I just fell for a 99-cent prank.

Billy howls with delight and runs around the store careening into merchandise, his arms high in the air like scoring the winning goal at the World Cup. Arizona Rednecks 1, Liberal City Suckers 0.

The sun is setting and the store is closing in an hour, maybe sooner because nobody’s here except me and I’m leaving now. The heat’s been shut off and my toes are cold, so I take the rest of the food back to my Elvis motel room. I dial up the thermostat, get under the covers, open my laptop and begin to write about my snow day in Seligman, population 456.

Grand Canyon

Earthy and woodsy, Flagstaff feels like a frontier town engulfed in green from the surrounding national forest. A railroad bisects a compact business district where frequent freight trains frustrate cross-town traffic. The clang-clang-clang of alarm bells and low roar of the locomotive mentally transport me to pioneering days of yore.

In contrast to oversized Albuquerque, small-scale Flagstaff delights me. Restaurants, breweries and bike paths — even mountain bike trails — are close at hand, foot or wheel. Ponderosa pines aromatize the winter air. When it gets dark and cold, a whisky chai warms the heart at the bar inside the haunted Hotel Monte Vista.

 My wonderful hosts + whisky chai

My wonderful hosts + whisky chai

Flag becomes my favorite stop since Tulsa in large part to my wonderful host. Brenna is a talented photographer when not at work as an administrator for the local university. She offers to drive to the Grand Canyon at sunrise to document my story on video. She thinks the backdrop of a natural wonder of the world is better than her living room. I don’t argue.

We awake at 5:30. The woods outside her house are black, cold and quiet. Together we struggle to hoist the bike upright onto the roof rack of her jellybean coupe. The bike almost doubles the height of her car. I’m nervous as hell it’s going to break off, shatter the windshield and send us into a death spiral. Brenna doesn’t share my concern as we speed through the darkness to break dawn at America’s grandest canyon.

During the drive, she opens up to me about divorcing her high school sweetheart.

“He came home one day and said, ‘I don’t want to be married. I don’t want to have a family. I don’t want anyone to care about me.’”

She found comfort on two wheels.

“Biking gave me community. Before I never felt like I was a part of anything. Through cycling I’ve found a female tribe and met amazing women who are strong and powerful and are inspirational about living life.”

Happily, Brenna also found love again. Since my visit she got married to a great guy who was the one who found me on social media. Without him, I wouldn’t be at the Grand Canyon.

First light reveals an overcast sky and nearly empty parking lot. I’m wearing all of my layers and they’re not enough. I can barely contain myself from chattering during our shoot. (Brenna did a great job. Click here or see the video below.)

Brenna drives back to Flagstaff for work and I check into the historic Bright Angel Lodge, built in 1935. Even a no-view cabin is a splurge, but I can’t be camping outside with lightweight gear in this cold. I leave the trailer at the bell desk and go for a spin along the rim. Instinctively, I head west.

It’s my second time here. I first visited with my parents as a kid one summer. I remember hordes of tourists lining up to photograph the sunset. My younger sister got lost in the shuffle and I almost became an only child.

This time, it’s winter and I have the place to myself. The road to Hermits Rest is eight miles and I’m loving every foot.

I feel a raw connection to the road at the edge of the South Rim. Biking is like running on the beach without shoes whereas driving is running on the sand in sneakers. I can pull over, dismount and explore anywhere I want. Cars cannot. Vehicle occupants often settle for a view through the window and shrug off the missed opportunity.

Nature’s brash display of raw power makes my spine tingle, even on a day when clouds mute the canyon’s colors. With only wind to buffer me from the abyss, I reckon with mortality and helplessness of having only a bicycle to cross this continent.

Getting a lift to the Grand Canyon made this memorable detour possible. With Brenna gone, I’ve got to get out of here on my own. Thankfully I’m ready to demo some technology that will give me an edge over nature — or so I believe. With technology, what could go wrong?