Battleground I-10 & the Taking of Chiriaco Summit

As dawn breaks over Bob’s Marriott, a duck quacks me awake. After two days, the trailer is not shaking anymore. The wind has moved on and I’m ready to take the offensive. I’m at war with this desert and there’s only one path to victory: a four-lane interstate through this inhospitable landscape.

After a late start, I delay further for an early lunch. Rebel BBQ’s smoked brisket sandwich with jalapeño potato salad is the only food I can count on for the rest of the day. It’s some of the best BBQ I’ve had all trip, making the risk of running out of daylight later on worth the indulgence now.

Euphoria at entering California ends at the ghostly Blythe Airport on the western edge of town. Even the windsock is dead. After nine miles on back roads paralleling the interstate, I’m forced onto I-10 for the next 40. No other road endures through the desert at this latitude.

I merge onto the shoulder heading towards LA. So is everyone else. It’s the Sunday after Christmas on Friday. Tens of thousands of vehicles will pass without incident, but all it takes is one to ruin my day — or life. An inattentive woman in a sedan. A driver reaching for a cell phone charger. A meth-addled piece of trailer trash in a pickup truck.

Add to list: asshole RV. You don’t need a special license to be an asshole. You also don’t need a special license to operate one of these Rolling Villas.

I think the best defense for a bicyclist is a helmet mirror. It sure beats looking over my shoulder to see what kind of wheels are bearing down on me. I don’t glance at the mirror all the time, especially not on an interstate where traffic is constant and I’m out of the way on the shoulder.

After a few miles, the nerve-wracking reality of bicycling on the interstate becomes a new normal. I tune out traffic as background noise and focus on the warpath ahead through the desert.

By the time I hear the blump rump blump rump of tires on rumble strips, it’s too late to look into my mirror. The threat isn’t behind me — it’s almost on top of me. An RV is so close that I can touch it. So close that I don’t have time to freak out.

This can’t be an accident. This asshole is trying to run me off the road. Do I hold my ground and get swatted off the shoulder, or do I stop short and become a sitting duck?

I hold my ground and so does the RV. The slang term is “skimming” — driving as close as possible without hitting a bicycle. It’s a fine line between skimming and vehicular manslaughter. The RV rumbles past me on the shoulder and hops back into traffic.

Shock wears off and defensive instincts turn into offensive outrage. I can get mad, but I can’t get even. What am I going to do, speed up and catch the guy? Angry but impotent, I raise my fist and uncork my middle finger.

As it turns out, the RV is not my biggest worry. The shoulder develops mini fault lines, deep horizontal cracks at regular intervals. The resulting gaps bump my rump every 10 feet. Even worse, the lips are jagged and could tear my tires, especially the thinner ones on the wheeled trailer.

As a bonus handicap, sand has leaked out of the desert and spilled into the shoulder, creating wavy dunes. I can’t win.

I’m making poor time and will run out of daylight before Desert Center, which is my goal despite being the center of, well, nothing. There’s no food or lodging, just a golf course and some resort-like housing development. My hope is to charm my way inside a Riverside County fire station on Oasis Road.

I’ve biked in the dark before, but never on an interstate. This could be my worst idea yet. With a narrow band of sunlight on the horizon, I exit I-10 at Corn Springs Road to clear my mind and prepare the bike for nightfall. No physical structure is anywhere in sight, but the Red Cloud Mountains are living up to their name. Maybe I should just wild camp here.

I gobble up the jalapeño potato salad I’ve been saving for dinner and take relief on a thorny bush. It looked thirsty. A white pickup pulls over and a guy gets out and starts flying a drone. I doubt he’s interested in my plight.

I scout Google Maps for alternatives to biking an hour on the interstate in the dark. Something called Gas Line Road parallels I-10 to Desert Center, but dollars to donuts is unpaved. Still, I’d rather bounce along rocks alone at night than be on the interstate with a little tail light strobe. 

On the way to Gas Line Road the pavement ends and I enter an area under the Bureau of Land Management. Signs warn motorists to have plenty of oil and gas to travel on the remote, sandy roads ahead.

Almost certainly Gas Line Road is not paved, but at this point I have nothing to lose just to make sure. I set off on foot rather than drag the bike over the gravel. A cloud of dust with headlights is coming towards me. I run back to the bike. I don’t know what I’m scared of, but it feels like I’m not supposed to be out here.

The pickup truck rolls down the window. I ask the driver about back roads to Desert Center. He confirms my hunch, but is headed west to Orange County and offers me a lift. I share the back seat with his thirteen-year-old son and his son’s friend who look tuckered out after a day of off-roading.

No services are available in Desert Center, so they drop me off at the next exit. Chiriaco Summit is a rest stop with a coffee shop and museum for General George S. Patton on the former site of the Desert Training Center. The first commander of the DTC, Patton liked how this harsh landscape resembled North Africa. More than a million recruits gearing up to fight in World War II trained here.

We drive behind the museum and discover a sandy lot with retired tanks. The kids ooh and aah. This is where I will make camp, right out of a boy scout fantasy. Even dad is excited for me as he helps off-load Countri Bike; these tanks are way more macho than his truck.

With temperatures dropping into the 30s, camping in Patton’s backyard is less thrilling to me. If the kids want to spend the night, I’ll trade them my tent for the back seat to Orange County.

Sunrise after my first night in the desert

Sunrise after my first night in the desert

The upside is that I’m now in excellent position to enter Joshua Tree National Park come morning, and don’t have to ride on the interstates to get there. In fact, I’m done with the interstate forever.

I pick a tank and tent up next to it. Its muzzle points at the coffee shop where I’ll have dinner for three hours until closing to keep warm and recharge my devices. The next two days I’m off the grid. I’m not going to North Africa, but am entering a wilderness four times the size of New York City and with no sources of food, water or electricity.