Arizona to California

We knocked on the heavy wooden door of the Red Agave Inn, clutching a couple Wilderness Voyageurs brochures. When we left Marble, Kasia asked us to scout out a new bike tour in Arizona, so we’d been researching cycling routes and B&B’s in Sedona for a week. This one looked really nice online, with a big cozy common room and chic modern-southwestern furniture. 

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A balding, white-haired man in a dress shirt and slacks cracked open the door. Then he stood across the space, blocking the entryway with his body.

“Can I help you?” He asked, looking us up and down.

“Um, hi,” Montana said, introducing himself. “We work for a bicycle tour company, and we’re looking at lodging for a trip in Sedona.” He extended his hand. The guy looked at his hand like it was full of dead fish. Montana let his hand drop. 

I felt ridiculous in my thrift shop jeans and t-shirt. 

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “We don’t take mountain bikers.” 

“Oh,” Montana said. “Well, this is a road bike tour. It’s for adults.” Adults who look just like every other retired citizen in this town.

“No, we don’t do big groups,” he growled. “We only have a few rooms.” 

Actually they had the perfect amount of rooms for a 12-person bike tour, but he wasn’t listening anyway.

“Uh, well thanks anyway.” 

Get the dirty hippies out the door. We don’t like their kind around here. We walked back to the Rabbit fuming. We’d even parked it around the corner from the Inn to increase our credibility. 

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Sedona wasn’t exactly how we’d remembered it. We’d visited once, right after college. Montana had been invited for a mountain bike press camp held at once of the inns close to the Red Agave. He’d spent the week riding awesome desert singletrack around the gorgeous red rocks and eating tacos at good Mexican restaurants. It was a mountain bike paradise. 

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Coming to Sedona on a trip not funded by the bike industry was a little different. The trails are still great, but it turns out the entire town has a no-dirtbag ordinance. If you want to camp in Sedona (and you don’t own a giant fifth-wheel trailer) you have to drive 10 miles out of town. In the winter, all the National Forest campgrounds are closed, so you have to rough it out in the ugly desert far away from the red rocks. In town there are no hostels, cheap hotels, or public showers. And the population’s median age seems to be around 500. People like us were few and far between. We felt pretty out of place.

The Red Agave was it. We’d finished our trip-scouting duties, rode some singletrack far beyond my skill set, and it was time to move on. 

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We wafted to Black Canyon City to camp out at the Black Canyon Trail parking lot.(http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/black-canyon-trail/) The BCT was our first-ever bikepacking ride, back in 2014. I remembered it as a really tough, long, chunky ribbon of trail through the Saguaro desert. Riding up and down those crumbly hills slowed me down to a crawl, and we only covered about 20 miles a day. At the time, it was the hardest trail I’d ever ridden. 

Montana wanted to get a beer at the Javelina Saloon. As we walked in, two crusty barflies swiveled on their stools to stare at us. We sat down, ordered a Coors Light and a water from a barmaid with cigarette breath and leathery Arizona skin. The regulars went back to their frosty glasses and gossiping about their neighbors. 

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We rode a few miles of the Black Canyon Trail. It was still pretty hard. After two days riding the chunky rocks and living in the dusty parking lot, we got tired of the harsh desert. We repositioned our camp chairs into the tiny pool of shade, chasing the coolness around as the sun moved through the sky.

“Let’s go to California!” Montana said. 

“Really?”

“Yeah, let’s go. What else do we have to do right now?” 

California! Land of sun and surf and grass. We were going, in our Rabbit! Finally our cross-country trip would be complete. 

We packed up the Rabbit again and drove into the Arizona sunset. 

Soon after sunset, we pulled into a parking lot near Kingman, Arizona. CLUNK. Oh no. 

The steering felt bad. Montana turned the wheel around nervously. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Oh damn. There was a Volkswagen repair shop in Kingman. Gingerly, and very slowly, we limped our broken Rabbit to the closest garage. 

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For a whole week we stayed in Kingman, waiting on the Rabbit’s next costly repair. Turns out the steering rack broke - probably thanks the week we spent driving back and forth on bouldery roads to our desert campsite in Sedona. 

We camped out at the local KOA, not the cheapest campground in Kingman, but the one with the best showers. Montana worked on his skateboarding, and I jogged back and forth on the Kingman bike path. The local KOA residents were all folks of a certain age, snowbirding to Kingman from Michigan or other parts north. They peeked at us through their camper curtains and made tentative conversation in the KOA laundry room. Not too many people car camping here without a car. 

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One week and a big chunk of money later, our Rabbit was road-worthy again. We drove out of Kingman as fast as our tiny wheels would roll, along Route 66 toward golden California. 

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We drove on 66 over the mountain outside of Kingman, and down a windy switchback road. Traffic slowed down on the other side. Maybe an accident? We crawled along, then came around a bend to a little town. HISTORIC OATMAN. People in Harley gear and various national park t-shirts ambled across the street. A few scruffy burros walked up to a couple on the sidewalk and nudged their palms for hay cubes.

“STOP!” I yelled. I needed to meet a burro.

After a couple of prospectors struck a $10 million gold find in 1915, Oatman’s population soared to 3500 in one year.  For ten years or so, the gold mines were booming. Till a fire in 1921 destroyed most of the town and the mining company went out of business in 1924. Things in Oatman are looking up now, because so many people are driving and riding Route 66. The biggest attraction seems to be the burros. Almost every store sells “burro feed,” and some of the stores have signs declaring NO BURROS INSIDE.

The burros were everywhere. Fat burros strolling in front of cars. Skinny burros laying on the sidewalks. One burro with “NO PET” painted across his fur. We met a few, and watched a fake historical gunfight.

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Just five hours later we were in Dana Point. California! We set up our tent at a California state park half an hour from the beach. It had grass and trees, families on holiday, and some beautiful double track roads to ride. We laid down in the grass, loving the moisture and the clean sunshine. 

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It was good. We finally made it across the country. 

Rabbiting back to cold

“Are those people living down there?” I asked. 

We were riding a bike path along the North Vegas Wash, a trickle of water running down a concrete channel through Las Vegas’s unglamorous suburb. The Rabbit was in the shop, hopefully for the last time. A big German guy called Mr. Wolf owned the place with his tiny German wife, who looked like she’d be more at home on a Harley than in a Volkswagen. He had a big display case full of toy VW buses, so I figured the Rabbit was in good hands. We decided to ride around while we waited. 

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North Vegas was hot, white and dirty. More so than its neighbor to the south. On the bike path, we passed parks and elementary schools, then Chick-Fil-A’s and truck stops. There weren’t many other people outside, except the bums. In the bottom of the wash, clans of homeless people camped next to the trickle of water. They must’ve climbed the chainlink fence to get in there. They’re washing their clothes and things in there, maybe cooking with the grimy water and hopefully not drinking it. They pushed their shopping carts here and there while garbage wafted around in the wind. We watched some little kids scamper into a tarped-off tunnel.

I’d definitely had enough of Vegas. 

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Finally we rumbled away from Las Vegas in our beige wondercar.

We rolled out toward Colorado to get our vehicle registration sorted out. (Who says you have to live in a state to reside there?) We made our way into sunny, rocky Utah and spent a magical afternoon riding the Gooseberry Mesa trails. 

It was a delightful night of camping with a roaring desert-scrub fire. We’d ride again in the morning. But a cold snap froze everything overnight. Then, as I pulled out the camp stove to make coffee, I realized that the really cheap container of propane I bought didn’t actually contain any fuel. Miraculously, the Rabbit started in the 20 degree weather and we rumbled to the closest breakfast joint in Hurricane - a gas station where I ran my numb fingers under the hot faucet till I had tears in my eyes. 

From Utah, we made it all the way to Fruita on one tank of gas. Super Rabbit! We stopped for a quick ride in Loma and then drove through the night to our bosses’ place in Marble. It got cold fast once the sun went down.

“Can’t we turn the heat on?” I asked Montana.

“No,” he said. “There’s no heat.”

Who knew heat was such an important thing in a car? It was like driving a metal can full of holes in 15 degree weather. When we finally got to Marble, we toasted our digits by the pellet stove, and Kas fixed us a couple drinks so strong we fell right asleep.

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The next few days we spent in registration limbo, driving back and forth to the DMV to try and catch the one sheriff’s deputy in Garfield County who could inspect our car. In the meantime, we did Colorado winter things, like hiking our bikes to the top of a mountain by the light of a full moon and slip-riding down a ski run, which is exactly as terrifying as it sounds. Montana bought a longboard and tried riding it down a mountain pass without much success (in other words, experienced his first high-speed skateboard crash). I did some half-hearted jogging, and we bought warm winter clothes at a thrift store.

Finally the deputy was free to give us a stamp, and we trundled away to warmer climates. 

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Escape from Vegas

Montana nudged me awake, cracking open the plane window. He always wants the window seat to see outside, I always want the aisle seat so I don’t have to climb over people to use the bathroom. It works. Hot white light spilled onto my face, and I squinted out. Down below, big brown mountains jutted up from the desert. Woah. Mountains! A sight for swamp-sore eyes. 

We touched down, grabbed bikes from baggage claim and wandered blearily to the airport shuttle. I’d booked the cheapest room I could find in Vegas, a place where MTV filmed a season of the Real World. The shuttle driver grudgingly let us load bikes in the back of the empty bus. An older couple in furs and a lady with long red fingernails were waiting inside. We drove down the strip. Immediately gridlocked in traffic.

As we inched along, I got excited. The Bellagio! And Circus Circus, where Hunter S. Thompson destroyed a room in Fear and Loathing. And the little Eiffel Tower! Vegas was exciting. 

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I checked my phone for the fiftieth time. I was feverishly texting a guy from Craigslist who was selling a nifty Volkswagen Rabbit truck. Don’t sell it, I prayed. Don’t sell it. We need it! 

The driver dropped us off at the very end of the Strip. We dragged our bikes into the lobby of the Gold Spike. The place looked like a kinda-dirty Target ad, but I wasn’t complaining about a room in downtown Vegas for $40 a night. A girl with a laptop checked us in. We dropped our bikes in the musty room, cranked up the AC and hailed an Uber to take us to the Volkswagen. 

“Man, I gotta move,” our driver Dan told us. “I’m sick of this place. These brown mountains, no trees. Every summer the news channel does that thing where they crack an egg on the pavement and fry it. I’m moving to Montana.” I looked at the craggy tan mountains looming over the desert city, bathed in pink sunset light. There are worse places you could be. 

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A day later, we went to the bank. I called our bank at home to tell them we were about to withdraw a whole bunch of cash in Las Vegas. 

“Oh, Vegas!” The guy on the line crowed. “I love it there! I go every year. Wow, good luck.” We weren’t gambling on the slots, though. Just on a car. 

We rode our bikes to the Rabbit, and Montana crawled around under the car for a little while. I made small talk with Jose, who was selling it. He needed the money to go to school. We needed the car to escape from the city and start over on our trip. Win-win. Montana put the key in the ignition and the Rabbit belched black diesel smoke. It ran for a while, clattering away, then cleared out. We gave our new best buddy the money, signed the title, loaded bikes in the back and drove away into the bright-hot Vegas sun. 

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That night we celebrated by walking the city. We went downtown to the dingy-hip art district, walked around the Pawn Stars shop, then took a bus into the strip. We strolled through almost all of the casinos, got cigarette smoke in our hair and gaped at the gondoliers in the Venetian. Montana played a dollar in the slots. We didn’t win. 

I was a little sad that we were already married, so eloping in a tiny wedding chapel wasn’t an option. As we waited for the double-decker party bus back to our hotel, I watched the fountains of the Bellagio blast water back and forth to Celine Dion. Montana flipped through a stack of hookers’ business cards he’d collected through the night. The tiny Eiffel Tower loomed over us, glowing bright. A short Mexican woman tapped Montana on the shoulder and slipped him the business card of a pretty lady named Candice. 

Man, Vegas was weird. I kinda liked it. 

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The next day we went to the DMV and made an appointment with the closest Volkswagen shop. The Rabbit needed some work if it was going to make it back to Pennsylvania.

We left our hotel and drove to a Wal-Mart south of the city. For $200, we got everything we needed for our car-camping expedition. Propane stove, cutting board, plastic bins to keep all the stuff in the truck bed, cast-iron pan, a cheap Coleman cooler, and food in normal quantities! It’s amazing how much you can carry when you’re not carrying it.

We drove out of Vegas to Boulder City, supposedly some kind of desert mountain biking mecca. It was late as we pulled into the Bootleg Canyon parking lot. (Winter-late, which means it was only 6:30 and it had already been dark for almost two hours.) A few small campfires burned next to some Sprinter vans and trucks with big-travel bikes leaning alongside.

Montana had read about this place on the Mountain Bike Project app. I guess lots of other people did too. According to the description, this place had a bathroom and a cold shower (but who needs hot water in the desert?). It was only a half-mile from town. We could stay here for a few days and wait for our appointment at the Volkswagen doctor.

We parked up the upper parking lot and started cooking dinner. With the light of my headlamp, I ripped open a pack of sausages and sat down on my tiny child-sized camp chair. Almost giddy with the delight of cooking on a full-sized pan. Another headlamp came bobbing over in the dark. 

“Are you all here for the race?” The guy asked. Oh. We didn’t know about a race. 

“You can camp here, but I’ll need all this space for my vendors tomorrow morning around six.” Ah. Turns out the Nevada state downhill championships were at Bootleg Canyon that weekend. Now all the campers made sense. We finished our sausages and moved the Rabbit to the lower parking lot. 

We blew up our mattresses and set them in the truck bed. The campground was quiet, and the air was still warm from the sunny day. Down below, the lights of Boulder City twinkled. The jagged edges of the mountains were just visible in the half-moon. I was glad to be out of the city.

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