The snow has melted and the sun is shining, but the brilliant blue sky is deceptive. You can’t see the cold. I’m ready to begin the longest uninterrupted stretch of historic Route 66. It’s easy to see why it hasn’t been interrupted — there was never anything here to interrupt. Even the interstate, which replaced 66, bends away in magnetic opposition.
Leaving Seligman, the next 25 miles are flat and barren except for the occasional ranch house in the distance. Snow clumps speckle fields of beige. When a horn blasts, I look around in bewilderment. Nothing is out here. Is the cold playing tricks on me?
An orange and black BNSF freight train emerges, the engine’s low roar fighting against the cold. It strikes me as absurd to have a train parallel my path in the middle of nowhere. I’ve entered a Salvador Dali fantasy where place and space don’t matter. Even the perfect blue sky and white puffy clouds look surreal. Random thoughts swirl around my mind like shapes on a Kandinsky canvas.
I’m not tripping, but the cold is getting to me. It feels like I’m biking in my underwear. I’m facing icy headwinds and wearing lightweight clothing. I never imagined that testicles could turn to ice cubes, but I fear the family jewels are freezing over.
I dismount and stuff cold hands down my pants to feel what’s going on in the neighborhood. I self-medicate with more protection. I rummage through the trailer to pull out mesh shorts and nylon cargo pants. I’ll wear these on top of thin sweatpants and synthetic underwear. Not your ideal winter attire, but I packed in August never thinking I’d get as far as Arizona or December. Four layers around my waist is just good enough.
Now for my fingers, which radiate pin-pricking pain. Bike gloves with exposed fingertips are to blame, so I put two pairs of ankle socks on my hands, which is just enough fabric to prevent frostbite while retaining dexterity to brake.
However, the biggest hurt comes from my smallest appendage: my toes. Biting winds penetrate mesh running shoes and chew through three pairs of cotton socks. My over-layered feet are sweating, and when that hot moisture turns cold I get numb.
I stop the bike and scream. At the invisible wind. At this stupid road to nowhere. At the train that teased me. At the empty miles ahead. At summer’s ephemeral warmth gone cold.
I imagine throwing a vase against a wall at 90 mph. I’m that kind of angry. I’ve reached the boiling point where hell has in fact frozen over. With nothing to smash, I tear at my shoelaces and rip off my sneakers. I peel away three pairs of soggy socks and stand barefoot on pavement. I hop up and down, trying to feel pain.
“WORK, GOD DAMMIT, WORK!”
I scream at my feet to wake up and do their job. Get back to work. Pedal me to someplace warm.
I turn the socks inside out and put them back on my feet, apologizing to myself for acting like an ape. I loosely lace my sneakers to encourage better blood flow, but it’s too late. A few miles later I’m walking up a hill and feel strangely disconnected to the ground. My feet are swollen, numb and getting colder.
On the other side of the hill is the entrance to Grand Canyon Caverns, the largest dry caverns in the United States. Dry and underground sound good right about now. I want in.
The two-lane road widens to a four-lane divided highway, the first in the state of Arizona. Traffic once bottled up in both directions, making it necessary to add turn lanes approaching the entrance. The extra capacity seems laughable to me, the only moving thing in any direction.
I enter a complex with a campground, motel, restaurant and convenience store built above the subterranean caves, accessible on $20 tours. The current proprietors bought the land for $1.5 million, which they made back in a little more than a year. You’d never know the place is profitable just by looking at it.
The motel is deserted. The clerk, who like the train appears out of nowhere, tells me it’s $80 to stay. U.S. dollars? I ask myself. I’d rather risk loss of both feet and pedal 11 more miles to Hualapai Lodge on an Indian reservation in Peach Springs, although it would be even more expensive there.
I weigh my options while defrosting in the Betty Boop breakfast room. My wallet thaws first when the clerk offers $60. I’ll use the savings to take a cavern tour, which I guess is obligatory for anyone unlucky enough to overnight here.
I don’t care so much about geology as I do the temperature. Twenty-one stories underground, the caverns are a constant 60 degrees. That’s 40 degrees warmer than on Earth’s surface right now. Down below, fresh air circulates through fissures that exit at the Grand Canyon, which gives this place its name despite being so far from the actual canyon.
I’ve never been so happy at 60 degrees. My clothes dry out and I’ve regained control of my feet. I’m not afraid of the dark, so could I spend the night down here? Well, in fact, yes I could. The caverns double as the world’s deepest underground hotel room, priced at $800 per night.
The deal-breaker isn’t so much the stratospheric rate as it is the cringe-worthy duvet, which is the same as on my $60 bed. Also, there’s no plumbing down here. The toilet “flushes” only a few times, so Gilbert our tour guide says to make each one count.
Gilbert also explains that after the Cuban Missile Crisis, “John F. K.” ordered the caverns be turned into a bomb shelter. Enough food and water was squirreled away to sustain 2,000 people for two weeks. With Donald Trump set to hold the nuclear football, you’d be wise to reserve your space now in case of fumble.
Don’t expect the Ritz or even Comfort Inn quality, but supplies were recently refreshed. Six rolls of toilet paper and pallets of new bottled water were carried down one box at a time over three weeks of 12-hour days. 1960s-era emergency crackers, carbohydrate supplements and hard lemon candies remain original.
Gilbert moves on to stalactites, but I interrupt him. Did he say six rolls for 2,000 people? Not to worry, Gilbert responds. He thinks those cardboard crackers will plug you up pretty good. Note to self: bring two-ply and own snacks.
In case of thermonuclear war, inadequate toilet paper won’t be your first concern. Getting here will be and I don’t recommend a bicycle.
Back in my cinder block motel room, it’s dreary and cold. The lighting is poor. The only furnishings are mismatched furniture and an ancient TV, although not quite so ancient as the walls of the cave suite (65 million years old). The clerk warned me not to use the wall A/C unit for heat because it just sucks in cold air. The only source of warmth is a bathroom heater, about the size and power of a toaster. I’d be warmer pissing in a pot down in that cave.
I insert my sleeping bag under the covers and dream of gliding into warmer temps tomorrow on a 62-mile descent into Kingman, capital of Mohave County, Arizona.