Highway to Hell: Twentynine Palms Dieway

Since I know you enjoy reading about my hardships (of course you do!), I’ve got one last story to share. After this, sorry, only sunshine and rainbows in Los Angeles County.

First, let’s recap California thus far. Sleeping in an unheated trailer for three nights waiting out vicious winds in the border town of Blythe. Riding Interstate 10 where an RV runs me off the road and I run out of daylight. Camping next to military tanks behind the General Patton Museum. Grueling uphill days and freezing nights in Joshua Tree National Park. Meeting an inhospitable firefighter who directs me to a dumpy motel where I spend New Year’s Eve in bed with a bag of popcorn and red seedless grapes. Jealous yet? It gets worse.

I have higher hopes for the New Year and get an early start on January 1st. After two days of fighting my way uphill through Joshua Tree, I’m ready to reap downhill rewards to Palm Springs where I’ll reintegrate into society by sipping fancy cocktails in hot tubs and whatever else rich people do there.

My route is through the Morongo Valley where, moving at supersonic bike share speed, I’ll lose a dozen shoulder angels like a flock of geese into a jet engine. I crest a final incline and stop for a commanding view of the valley. A segmented ribbon of asphalt resembles a strip of bacon frying between desert mountains. I teeter at the tipping point where the uphill climb ends and a thrilling descent awaits.

Oversized yellow signs shout instructions. Watch your speed. Trucks use low gear. But bicycles? Full power ahead measured in whoooo-hoooos!

I snuggle my feet into the toe guards, rock forward and exhale. Gravity takes over. I’m spinning so fast that I tap the brakes to get more reaction time to avoid potential puncturables. Cars rush by me, but the wide shoulder eases any anxiety. I’m having more fun than they are. I am sure of it; my smile can’t get any wider.

The terrain flattens into an intermission where I resume pedaling. An SUV pulls onto the shoulder in front of me. The two bikes on top reassure me that this will be a friendly encounter and not another fist to the face.

Xander and Jessica hop out. They were headed north to make repairs on their cabin near Joshua Tree, but turned around when they saw the guy on the Citi Bike they had read about. We trade stories about biking and they donate a coconut water and vegan tamales to my cause.

I ask them about the road ahead and they say to prepare for another steep drop. What they don’t mention is that the shoulder, which was wide and smooth, tapers, tilts and fractures into a death spiral.

The gatekeeper to this uncharted level of hell is a nasty bush full of thorns blocking the shoulder. I can get around the bush, but I can’t get off this road. California 62, also known as Twentynine Palms Highway, is the only way through Morongo Valley. This four-lane road is one of California’s most deadly.

Every single fear I’ve had about bad road conditions climaxes at once right here. The shoulder narrows into a rumble strip mined with glass and debris. Thorny goathead plants take root in the cracks. Cars zoom at raceway speeds downhill, which you think would be good for me, but any small mistake magnifies into disastrous proportions.

I need to take a travel lane, but the curves through the canyon restrict visibility for cars whipping through at 65 mph while shaking off New Year’s Eve hangovers. The last thing they expect is a bicycle in the right lane.

From Google Maps. Gives me heartburn just looking at it again.

From Google Maps. Gives me heartburn just looking at it again.

At every turnout I pull over to confirm my existence and let my senses catch up. I try to cast a spell to freeze traffic so I can escape the next three miles. But no. Cars, pickup trucks and RVs continually come at me like marbles down a funnel. Their headlights beam anger at my intrusion.

I have no choice.

Descent continues. A little bridge leads me into Riverside County with a gift of small rocks in the road. I’m moving so fast that hitting a rock or pot hole could be the end. The trailer could rollover and take the bike down with it, laying me out on the pavement. I feel my life insurance premium skyrocketing. Then I remember I don’t have life insurance.

Google Maps

Google Maps

My eyes dart between the road ahead and the traffic behind. In my helmet mirror I watch cars reluctantly signal into the left lane to pass me. The closest call is saved for last. A red pickup truck with some kind of tool shed built into the bed refuses to change course. There is no honking or display of bike rage. The guy just doesn’t move over and neither do I. It happens too fast for me to process that I’m about to die.

“HO-LEEE-SH*T!” I scream as I bounce hard over the rumble strip and skid to a stop in the shoulder, which has magically reappeared just as canyon walls suddenly recede. I need a drink, and something stronger than my usual chocolate milkshake.

I turn off Twentynine Palms Highway onto North Indian Canyon Drive (pictured above), the denouement to pampering in Palm Springs. Hot tubs. Golf. Heat. More golf. That's my perception. Former event planning co-workers drooled every time they spoke of this SoCal Shangri-La. One even married his partner there. I knew so little about it that I thought Palm Springs was in Florida.

An ostentatious playground in the sand isn’t my idea of a good time, but I must admit it sure is pretty here. Even the palm trees look elite — pencil-straight trunks with trimmed tops radiate perfection. Constant laughter resonates from restaurant patios in the manicured commercial center. Bare mountain walls add soaring dimension to this good-time scene.

I'll take another dozen of these, thanks.

I'll take another dozen of these, thanks.

My two days here are disappointing. No hot tubs. No parties. Not enough heat! I ride around town enjoying the palm tree-accented bike lanes and the serenity of mountains rising from the desert. Everyone is doing fancy things and I’m just in observation mode. I don’t really talk to anyone, not even other cyclists who are kitted out on expensive steeds. I didn’t pack any nice clothes to be part of the scene on or off the bike.

My favorite part of Palm Springs is leaving. I weave through residential streets with mid-century modern homes partially hidden behind walls and desert flora. Every cactus needle pokes in the right direction. I’m dressed in rags and they cruise around in riches. Just the hubcaps of these cars eclipse my net worth.

Maybe someday I’ll ride in style, but for now am ready to quit the desert for the citrus-growing city of Redlands. But not so fast. Naturally, there’s a catch. The Palm Springs area is notorious for fierce winds, which traditionally blow from the coast inland.

An army of white wind turbines stands ready to chop me back to Arizona, but today the “devil winds” are blowing in my favor. The Santa Anas propel me west along California 111, which merges into an eight-lane monster, causing a momentary meltdown that I’m back on the interstate with nowhere to hide. I’m able to exit a third of a mile later and take back roads to Redlands. At 50 miles, today is my last long day, and sure enough I run out of daylight.

This must be the way to LA

This must be the way to LA

Dusk falls when I’m on Sand Canyon Drive. A yellow sign announces a 6% downhill grade into Redlands. I whoop in delight. I’m almost to my host. He’s a pastor living on a 10-acre orange grove with a lovely wife, four energetic kids and black dog named Shadow. Dinner is in the works and more oranges than I can imagine are on the trees, ripe for the picking.

Rounding a final curve, lights in the San Bernardino Valley come into view like the end of a Hollywood movie. The California of my dreams twinkles ahead.

Two (2) more posts remaining.

On approach to Redlands, CA

On approach to Redlands, CA