I enter Cali on a Citi Bike on December 23, 2015, 128 days and 2,741.2 miles biked since my nervous start in Manhattan. The time of crossing is 6:37 PM Pacific Standard Time.
The emotion of biking above the Colorado River and under the California State Line sign cannot be, well, overstated. Minus the traffic rumbling on adjacent Interstate 10, the moment feels cinematic. (Ride along with me in the video below or click here.)
Blue sky is fading into streaks of pastels. My chest tightens in triumph. But before we can roll the credits, I need to make it another 300 miles to the ocean side of the state. The beach, not this dirty bridge, is the finish line.
Getting to this point the past two days was no-nonsense productive. Leaving Lake Havasu, a paved bike trail safely leads me to the outskirts of this sprawling man-made oasis for snowbirds. I’m dumped onto the shoulder of AZ-95 where I must fend for myself. The terrain tilts down, but headwinds make it feel like I am pedaling up. My mood further sinks when I pass a painted white “ghost bike,” a grave symbol marking the death of a bicyclist.
His name was Larry Smith. An active local cyclist and winner of eight state championships, he and his wife Deborah, both in their early 60s, were on an early morning ride before the July sun got too high and mighty. Even when the air temperature is a warm 87 degrees, the asphalt can heat to 143 degrees.
Falling back on that well-worn motorist defense, the 31-year-old driver said she never saw them. Never saw them on a straightaway in the desert. If true, a blogger calculated that she would have been distracted for 40 seconds, including the fatal moment when her sedan swerved right into the cyclists as she reached for a cell phone charger. Deborah died at the scene. Her husband succumbed at a hospital in Las Vegas. Driver was uninjured.
I didn’t know the details then, but doing research in hindsight still makes me tremble.
Ahead, a small bird in my path seems even more vulnerable. He waits and waits, watching me lumber closer like the slowest predator he’s ever seen. Then he darts across the pavement with marvelous little legs spinning at full speed. I forget about the ghost bike and grin like a kid on Sunday morning. The real-life roadrunner is just like the cartoon, minus the taunting meep meep.
I descend deeper into the canyon and glimpses of the opaque turquoise river make my skin tingle. Rocky walls frame elegant palm trees. The exoticism is right out of a Middle Eastern wadi. Then the RV parks come into view.
What better contrast to America’s natural beauty than rows of recreational vehicles with mismatched plastic furniture outside. This land is our land, and to satisfy our motor-dependent lifestyle, we’ve paved everything and made parking lots to fit hundreds of houses on wheels. While scenic, I can’t imagine spending six months parked here. I mean, where is the nearest Chinese takeout?
At a county park in Parker I camp along the river, just a stone’s throw from Californian soil. The nearest watering hole is, appropriately enough, called the Roadrunner, which is a floating dock bar where a few locals are bundled in blankets in front of Miller Lite cans. I chirp how thrilled I am that it’s finally warm enough to sleep outside while they bitch back about the two-week cold spell. I don’t make any friends.
The next morning I embark on a 60-miler to the last and only border that matters: California. It’s my final day going more than 50 miles, which I never thought was even possible on a Citi Bike. I flash back to my first 50-miler, a sweaty September day when I left Pittsburgh for West Virginia. I ran out of water and mistakenly entered a gambling parlor veiled as a cafe before ending the day with a mile climb to a cinder block “manor resort” with no food service. Just thinking about those panhandle hills makes my thighs burn like West Virginia fossil fuels.
I’ve come a long way since then. My 50-mile egress from Arizona is flat. Irrigation canals box in green fields with agriculture. The biggest challenge is in fact boredom. To tick down the miles I try eating one Skittle every mile. I double the reward before giving in to instant gratification and emptying the bag onto my taste buds screaming for more sugar.
The high from crossing into California is purely natural. But soon I’ll learn that biking in the Golden State the emotional highs are high and the biking blues are below sea level. I’ve complained about rough days before, but now nearing the western edge of the continent, I can definitively declare that the next few days are the hardest of the entire trip.
Six more posts until the Grand Finale!