I’ve been following the Colorado River south through the western edge of Arizona, pausing in snowbird refuge areas around Lake Havasu and Parker. Finally, I make the leap across the river on a pedestrian bridge next to Interstate 10.
Suddenly I’m in California. Sunny California. Beautiful California. Blythe, California? There are many fun parts of the Golden State. Blythe isn’t one of them. This agricultural city in Riverside County counts about 20,000 residents in a no-man’s land midway between Los Angeles and Phoenix on the I-10.
Fortunately, Blythe does have a Warm Showers host and it’s certainly a unique setup. I’m staying at a bait and tackle shop. I arrive just after dark and the parking lot is full of pickup trucks. Ever have that feeling of showing up at a party and not knowing anyone, including the person who invited you?
“Hey there, we’ve been waiting for you,” welcomes Dedee, the store manager. Her sweet face puts me at ease. She escorts me into the front yard of an adjacent house where a jovial group is gathered around a fire in an oil drum smoker.
My arrival interrupts their conversation. Introductions are made. When I say I’m from New York, I’m asked if biking to there or from there.
“I biked from New York,” I say with lip-smacking satisfaction now that I’m actually in California, albeit just six miles deep.
“Damn, someone get this guy a beer!”
Another man seconds the motion and I’m handed a celebratory can of Coors.
Frank Sinatra sings, Start spreading the news, I am leaving today from the digital jukebox. I guess New Yorkers are a novelty in this part of Cali because people volunteer their memories of the Big Apple, some of which predate the song.
“Oh, honey, it’s been a million years,” a woman tells her husband. “Now, we were last there in ’64 or ’65… when the World’s Fair was there.”
“Sounds like it’s time for a refresher,” I chime. “I’m a licensed tour guide. And I have a travel app all about the city,” I add, handing her a business card. With this ride almost over, I need to start thinking about restarting my revenue stream.
“I just seen it in the movies,” a man says. “And that’s good enough for me,” he laughs.
His wife agrees: “I couldn’t do New York, but I like Seattle. I don’t like LA… LA is expensive. San Francisco. My, San Francisco has gotten very expensive.”
“I like San Diego,” someone else says. “The weather’s perfect but it’s getting too big.”
“San Diego? Too many people, not enough dirt,” concludes Bob, who is content right here in the Colorado Desert. He’s an outdoors type and likes camping.
“I was born and raised in Minnesota and lived most my life in the mountains in Idaho and Montana, so I know cold,” Bob says.
“It will never be as cold as in the desert here. I thought I’d die it was so cold. We had good sleeping bags, but it was freezing. Colder than Colorado, Montana and Idaho.”
I find it hard to believe it gets colder in Southern California than in Idaho, but Bob reiterates that he “knows cold.”
The fire roars. More beer cans crack open.
“We’re in for some severe weather, my friend. Are you geared up?” Bob asks me.
“What kinda weather? I packed for my trip in August,” I laugh and recount not-funny-at-the-time stories from the Arizona highlands when I put socks on my hands as gloves.
“I’m done with that,” I say. “Palm trees all the way to LA, right? I mean, this is SoCal. Isn’t there a law it has to be warm?”
The group is silent. The air is chilly. My California confidence has gone too far.
“You’re in the desert, son,” Bob says sternly. “I seen a lot of other bikers and you’re geared a little different.”
I can’t tell if he’s talking about my clothing, the trailer or the Citi Bike itself, but he’s right on all accounts.
“We have some bad weather coming,” someone says. The group chatters about wind.
Oh no, not wind. I take out my phone. The overnight low is dropping near freezing and strong winds are not far behind. The National Weather Service warning kills my beer buzz:
*AFFECTED AREA… Southeast California and Far Western Arizona… including cities of Yuma, Blythe, Parker and Quartzsite.
*WINDS… North winds 30 to 35 mph with gusts 45 mph.
*IMPACTS… Motorists on east-west oriented roadways such as I-10 will encounter hazardous crosswinds that can make driving difficult. Blowing dust will cause rapid reductions in visibility.
The forecast makes my hands tremble.
“The wind shear here is really something,” Bob says. “Trucks on the interstate carrying mobile homes and, poof, the homes are gone. They can’t even find them. Doesn’t even touch the fence.”
This sounds like Wizard of Oz weather. Riding a bicycle on the interstate through swirling sand next to high profile trucks? I’ll end up flattened like the Wicked Witch of the East.
I might be staying in Blythe longer than expected. Bikers who pass through here camp in the backyard, but because of the weather, Bob offers me his fifth wheel.
“What’s a fifth wheel?” I ask, hoping I’m not getting into some weird couples thing.
Dedee jumps at the news. “Oh, you’re lucky, he doesn’t let just anyone in there. We call it Bob’s Marriott,” she says to a round of laughter.
Can I earn reward points on this stay? I have no idea what’s going on until I follow them around back. Parked alongside an irrigation canal is a camper trailer that gets towed by a pickup truck. Although Bob doesn’t live or work at the tackle shop, he parks his camper here. It hasn’t been used in months or maybe years. He fishes for some wires and plugs them in.
“The heat don’t work, but it’s got electric,” he says. “And no water, but you can shower in the house.”
The inside is bare except for a mattress. I’m not sure who or what last slept in this bed, but I’m grateful to be indoors. My candid thoughts on video are below.
Dedee invites me into the store for my dinner — ham, brussel sprouts, and mac and cheese that her husband made for her. She saved some for me and lets me take whatever chips and drinks I want from the shelves.
On the fridge, a sign for mackerel, anchovies, sardines and squid whets my appetite. Prices are cheap, but I think these are for fish, not humans, although this human is always craving fish. Heck, I’d eat the nightcrawlers just to get to a mouthful of some squid.
Dedee begins cursing at the microwave. None of the number buttons are working. “Ah heck, I just put everything on POPCORN and it turns out well,” she says as we share a laugh. That’s my philosophy, too.
The bait & tackle shop is decorated with kitschy wood carvings with sayings like “Big Mouth in Charge” or “Men are like fish… they always get in trouble when they open their mouth.” The best one is the shop’s own bumper sticker that boasts “Where all the Masterbaiters Come.”
As I’m browsing the merchandise waiting for dinner to warm, another guy comes into the store. I forget his name and he hasn’t said much, but apparently my stories from freezing cold Arizona made an impression. He buys me the shop’s dark green hoodie. With this XXL piece of clothing, I’m welcomed into the fold.
Outside, the fire is dying and people are leaving. I retreat to Bob’s Marriott alone. I will spend the next three nights here, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Through the depressing holiday solitude and high winds, I find comfort in the encouraging words from one of the regulars:
“This is a sanctuary, brother. Lots of good people here. You’re a long way from New York. You’re always welcome out here.”