Copyright ©1988, 1997 Jon Trent Adams
Seven AM, just south of Kingman, Arizona, along the eastern wall of Kingman Canyon: It is a brisk and windy Sunday morning. The diffuse blue brightness of infinite sky and early day arouses me from my sleeping bag in the back of the truck, perched high on a hill, a hundred feet from the eastbound mainline of the Santa Fe Railway. I stir although not particularly enthralled to do so, especially on a cold morning like today. I move slowly and hesitantly. The temperature is not quite 40 degrees; the volcanic ridge above me to the east prevents the early sun from warming me just yet.
The night's sleep was good and nearly uninterrupted, even with the occasional exponential roar of ten to fifteen thousand horsepower leading five thousand tons of freight train up the 1.67 percent grade into Kingman. The first hints of that power would arrive at my ear long before the trains were in sight, perhaps two or three miles down the canyon, round the far walls. When the trains rounded the side of the ridge, about a mile south, the first real evidence precursored by that bodily rumble was presented; then, as the power neared, all the time remaining visible across the gulf of the canyon, the twists and turns of the canyon wall modulated the stacatto reports of the three, four or five units that dragged all that steel and aluminum up from the Colorado River. Finally, the units would slip into a dimple in the wall, then pop out just a thousand feet away. The artificial daylight cast by the headlamps would light up the ridge immediately north of me.
The sound of a straining freight train is really three: there is the persistent throb and whine of Diesels chirping at two thousand RPM, the scream of superchargers ramming all the air they can scavenge down the throats of those Diesels; the roar of exhaust blasting out of the stubby sooted stacks on the roof of each motor. There are other sounds: the muted, precursor sounds of rails squealing and twisting; the multiphasing echoes of the engine music resounding off distant walls and rock faces; the sound of the wind that distorts and twists all these sounds and synthesizes some grand amalgamation, the heartbeat that is the real romance of the railroad.
Although in a gross manner the railroad is a technological animal of the late ninteenth century, it more than any other is the transportation that evokes most awe and interest from me. Fighter jets and other exotic flying machines with their curvatures and power and speed thrill me immensely. But there is something about twenty thousand horses straining, in bright colors, to hoist ten thousand tons of steel and coal up an endless, twisting canyon. I think I know what that feels like: I suppose that I have formed some symbiotic binding with the locomotive. The intoxicating blue thickness of Diesel smoke mixed with the acidic freshness of mesquite after a summer thunderstorm or the smell of scorched brake shoe combined with the icy clarity of pine and fir resins at seven thousand feet on a brilliant, moonlit night - those are the binding molecules of my relationship. It is a terrible mistake to relegate the iron horse to the backwaters of concern; the railroad will someday, perhaps very soon, carry the bulk of the nation's freight when petroleum fuels begin to cost their true value.
The morning air rings with the sounds of late winter in the desert; the glowing, cerulean air is utterly transparent; the insects have taken leave for warmer places; the hardiest of the birds are all that remain. Sounds made by critters a thousand yards away are as if at ten feet, reaching the ear uncolored and free. The canyon walls here are resplendent in warm color; the low rays of the warming, climbing sun accentuate the orange-yellow-sienna-green-purple-red melange of hues in the ancient lava flows. The shadows are sharp and well-defined. The sagebrush, bunch grass and mesquite line the slopes and floor of Holy Moses Wash, a hundred or so feet below in the near distance, which this morning is as nearly always: dry, rock-choked, thistle-strewn and sandy.
I have stationed the truck at the top of a long dirt-surfaced grade; I've been having problems starting the truck, running the battery down, so parking where I can roll-start the truck is a safety, a convenience feature. This, however, forces me to sleep on an incline since the flatter top of the road was too daringly close to the rails; all night long my legs work to keep me from sliding down to the low end of the truckbed.
I arrived here about eight last evening; drove all the way from Los Angeles, with the bike and radios and travelling bags for hiking and biking: the hiking bag contains sleeping bag, extra clothes, food, toilet articles; the biking bag has my helmet, gloves, riding clothes and shoes along with bike repair tools. All designed to be on the road in a hurry. I tried to get across the railroad tracks at the usual spot; a private crossing about a quarter-mile up from the McConnico offramp on Interstate 40.
Someone had run a steel cable across the road on the east side of the crossing to prevent passage. So, I drove south along the frontage road maybe a mile or two. Here I found a wash that the railroad fords with a trestle bridge; I first walked the sandy road under the span to see if I'd sink into the fine stuff. I didn't, and I suspected that neither would the truck, so I climbed back into the cab, gunned the engine and kept a steady speed as I pushed through the sand, under the tracks, and out onto the hardpack of the other side. Following the road illuminated by the headlights, I wound around to the north again, eventually coming to the crossing that the cable barricade had thwarted me from using. From there, I found the trail at the top of which would be my resting spot for the night. I killed the motor, turned off the headlights, pulled on my heavy parka, wool hood and two pair of gloves. I stuffed my railroad scanner and two-way amateur radio into the jacket, shoved an earphone connected to the scanner into my head and took off for an evening stroll.
I meandered along the tracks to the north a few hundred feet; then branching off on a ridgeline that thrusts out and up from the main wall, I followed it to the top of a low hill, where I could look up and down the canyon, with nearly a 360· view. Strolling about in the night with only moonlight to illuminate my way, I carefully avoided cholla and yucca, tried to keep an even footing on the broken, tuffaceous surface, all the time eyeing the horizon for a view. Eventually I moseyed, in a classical Brownian manner, on over to the downbound (westbound) tracks, where once again I found myself at the cabled, private crossing. From here, I ambled along the tracks, sometimes between the rails, sometimes along the shoulder; headed to Needles, listening and feeling for some silent, approaching drag sneaking up from behind.
A train going uphill makes a lot of noise; it throws a lot of waste horsepower into the air and ground, generating the aural and gut sensations that accompany the visual experience. A train going downhill is far more subtle; it creeps in on little cat's feet, albethem hundreds of shiny-treaded, steel feet thirty-six inches in diameter. All that can be heard, especially if there is the slightest upwind or crosswind breeze, is the squeak and cry of the rail with that multi-thousand ton load bearing down on it. At sixty or seventy miles per hour, a downbound train generates most of its noise from pushing aside the interfering air. That sound of the atmosphere being shoved aside by the blunted nose of a Diesel locomotive doesn't propagate overly well in the forward direction, toward the unintended victim.
A freight train racing downhill makes as much noise as a slab of cool grey speckled granite, the size of a house, falling through the night air. A good clue that a locomotive is sneaking up from behind is the shadow that will gradually blossom from one's booted feet as the million-candlepower headlights approach; when the shadow begins to shrink, it's too late. This effect, however, is only visible at night and at best rather unnerving. The most reliable way to stay alive and happy is to keep the ears and eyes open, keep the skin alert. Perhaps even stay off the tracks. That wouldn't be much fun, though. I look over my shoulder a lot.
About a mile down the rails, the nape of my neck senses the glare from the stacked, dual floods of an approaching westbound. Sidling up the low embankment, I wait in the quickening shadows for the blackened metal monolith to sear past, probably near 70 MPH. Four units, the first in the yellow and red war bonnet of the never-to-be Southern Pacific Santa Fe, the other three running the traditional blue and yellow of the Santa Fe. Waddling crazily along behind the motors are thirty-two pigs, with a total of forty trailers. In thirty seconds, there is only the winking red light on the end-of-train box, a gadget replacing the caboose (only functionally; not emotionally) and locked in the knuckle of the final coupler. And the fast fading squeak of the rails as the load rolls and shifts. The near block signal has already changed to red and soon the distant one follows as the lead motor crosses into its territory. Nothing now but the chill breeze from the west, the sound of the occasional heavy truck on the Interstate a half-mile away, the sight of aircraft running lights passing from east to west high in the sky before me.
And on I went. I covered about six or seven miles that night; about eleven I arrived back at the truck, after trudging back up the long grade to my truck. I released the bike from its bonds, lowered it over the side of the truck, reorganized a few things; I spread out my sleeping pad, pulled the sleeping bag from its bag, removed my boots and socks. Placing my water bottle next to me, I opened the bag, climbed in and zipped up. I laid back to wonder about the stars. Worth a lot of wonder, I thought.
So here I am, maybe five miles south of Kingman, on a beautiful desert Sunday morning. I get out of the bag, open it up to the air, spread it across the roof of the cab. I pull out a fresh pair of socks. Soon my feet are warm, clad in clean cotton and boots. I take a walk. The early morning stroll is pleasant; I meet no one and make no friends, no enemies. I am company to a few up- and downbound freights. They either roar or glide past, or both. The sun breaches the wall above me and I warm to the yellow-white light. There are more sounds of winged things, a rustle of brush now and again; stuff's on the move. The day's begun in a big way. It's time for breakfast.
I return to the truck and pack all my worldly possessions away; I secure the bike back in the bed of the truck, leaving it standing up, strapped in with four straps to the corners of the bed, some invisible rider perched in the saddle. Will the truck turn over using the starter motor or will it need the gravity assist that I carefully saved for it the night before? I decide to save the battery and wear down the clutch a little. Setting the key to the on position, I press down the clutch pedal, release the parking brake and roll merrily down the bumpy trail. In thirty feet I pop the engine into motion; the happy Diesel under the hood of my venerable truck clatters and rattles its way back to life, leaving a ghostly trail of blue fog behind. It is reborn. I am happy; yet another reprieve from the reaching claws of the Junk Dealer.
The truck warms up slowly, clammering down the rutted road, winding around the occasional rock or gully, and I find myself at the cabled barrier of the private crossing at the westbound tracks. I get out of the cab and investigate the crossing. In daylight, there seems to be enough room here for a vehicle with little ground clearance (like mine) to get around the post that holds one end of the cable. From there I could get up on the old wooden ties that form the crossing, get over the rails and drop down the other side to the paved road two hundred yards distant. Of course, if the truck slips off the greasy creosoted ties that make up the crossing, my little conveyance might get stuck between the rails, with precious little time to rescue it before a highballing freight would come bansheeing around that intervening ridge a scant thousand yards north. It was a glorious dawn; I will toy with fate. I return to the wheel and pilot my way through the obstacle course, pleased with my cleverness, flushed with enthusiasm, this bright and clear morning.
Bumping and grinding over the final bit of dirt road, I gain purchase on the paved road and turn left, heading up the canyon on the old road to Kingman. Not the oldest road, though. That one lies a five hundred feet across the canyon, dying in the bottom of the wash in a tangle of barbed wire, sand and scrub. I climb up through the ochre- and rust-colored basaltic tablelands and crest out at the south end of the Hualapai Valley.
I stop and eat breakfast. Breakfast when out here in the desert or for that matter just about anywhere when on the road, is a spiritually vital repast, but one I don't partake in with regularity. I eat with gusto at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet AND all-you-can-eat sundae bar, too. Didn't have enough room left after the breakfast to try the sundae bar also. One of these days. But I pig out heartily, eating more than enough bacon and sausage and eggs and french toast and drinking all the orange juice that I can wrap my glass under.
Breakfast is done. I roll out of the restaurant and out of Kingman, driving south along the main drag over the edge of the canyon, dropping down past the train station and the old Beale Hotel (where, I read somewhere, Clark Gable honeymooned with Carole Lombard). Instead of boarding the Interstate, I angle left onto old Highway 66 again and follow that grand old road back down through the canyon, past the upper and lower sewage ponds of Kingman (an irridescent, shimmering green in the early morning light, ripe with the fragrance of human industry), past the road-killed remains of a skunk now being picked apart by a buzzard (the buzzard has the skunk's entrails in his beak as I scoot by, holding my nose), down, down onto the floor of the arroyo. A sleepy, forgotten trailer park of decrepit old rigs (my kind of homes), the people who live in them all lost souls of this mad society, passes me on the left. A freight takes this opportunity to attempt to power ahead of me in its determined descent to Needles. I submit; I'll catch up with it a little later, or perhaps not. Either way, it'll have to slow down through Needles Yard. Certainly it will move slowly as it climbs the twenty miles of grade, out of the Colorado River Valley, up from Needles to Goffs on the California side.
I come to the end of the frontage road; from here I must either go on to Oatman via the old Route 66 or get on the Interstate and follow the railroad down the Sacramento Wash, down through the Sacramento Valley, down two and a half thousand feet and forty miles south and west to the constipated Colorado River. I opt for chasing the train. The scanner squawks now and then; the DS (dispatcher) needs to know the location of this freight or that Amtrak train. I deduce from the multiple conversations that I hear on several frequencies that there is a broken rail somewhere over on the California side. I haven't ever seen a broken rail (I've led a deprived life).
The spot at which the snapped rail is found is almost the same location that the character J. Frank Parnell, deranged nuclear scientist, secret scientific sect member, inventor of the Neutron Bomb (before the lobotomy) and now escapee from Los Alamos, is pulled over by the Highway Patrolman in the beginning scenes of that cult classic, the film "Repo Man". This is a curious coincidence, worth investigation. I make that my next destination.
My little truck putters along I-40, not quite keeping up with the flow of big rigs or crazed Californians rushing from wherever to somewhere else. All seem completely bent upon getting across this desert in the absolute minimum time possible. I look out at the Hualapais to my left; the Buck Mountains are directly south, below the more distant and massive Mohave (spelled with an "H"; I'm still in Arizona) Mountains that form the barrier between me and Lake Havasu. Along the road, to the west, across the Sacramento Wash and the geometrically-fine line of the Santa Fe, is the south end of the Black Mountains. I pass over Happy Jack Wash; dry today, at least on the surface.
One of these days, perhaps this coming summer, I want to go for a little hike out here. I intend to start back up the Sacramento Valley a few miles, probably around the Griffith Road offramp on I40; from there, I'll walk east toward the Hualapais. I think that by the end of the day I can be well up onto the side of the range, camped there by some lonely stock tank (but not too close). The next day I'll complete the ascent into the Mountains of the Pine Tree People, top out somewhere around six or seven thousand feet, then begin the descent into the valley beyond, eventually winding up in the Big Sandy Wash, down by US93 on the east side of the range. I suspect that the sojourn will require three days of determined walking, or four days of more leisurely picking my way through rock gardens, cholla stands, rattlesnake dens.
The Hualapais are a grand range though, and well worth a visit. The peculiar shape of Hualapai Mountain itself at the north end of the sierra is identifiable from quite some distance in this corner of Arizona, spying over the heads of lesser ridges and scarps. Great spirits live up on the high peaks; they reveal themselves only to those who expend their own energy to climb to those heights.
I pass under the bridge for the road to Lake Havasu City. In a short few minutes my clattering truck hops the ruddy Colorado and I re-arrive in my favorite county of San Bernardino. The agricultural station slows me down momentarily; the guy there asks the obligatory questions of where I am bound from. When I tell him Kingman, he nods that knowing nod (wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more) and bids me well. I accelerate out onto the highway again, cover the few miles into Needles without further incident, and stop at the AM-PM MiniMart there to get a Supertanker of Diet Coke. I'm a Caffiend.
I exit the Interstate onto the Searchlight road and continue up Piute Wash, around the west flank of the Dead Mountains (a crisp, succinct, evocative name) into the Piute Valley; I take the old road again, following the tracks rather than continuing on to Searchlight. Soon I see a Santa Fe truck parked along the rails. I grind to a halt on the graveled, sandy shoulder, clip on my scanner and earphone, and drift on over to the scene of all the excitement. The south rail on the south track, the eastbound main, has a clean break about a half-inch wide. The guy out here from the railroad has driven a couple of spikes into the ties at the break, wedging a steel brace in place to hold the rail ends in alignment. Trains are still allowed to pass over the gap, but must do so at only a few miles per hour; once by they receive a highball from the trackman via radio, they ease off the binders and quickly coast back up to their normal downhill speed.
He tells me that this kind of thing happens regularly during the winter, when the temperature differences between night and day are like, say, night and day. The rail expands in the modest heat of the winter sun; after sunset, the temperature drops very quickly, the rail contracts in the cold and sometimes cracks. They will repair the rail properly tomorrow when a crew can be assembled to come out and pull the section of rail and weld in a new length. I watch a train sneak past the broken joint and then say adios.
I crest the summit of the old road at Goffs, then slide down the grade on the west side of Goffs Butte, the northern end of the Piute Range. After underpassing I40, I cut left off the road onto the dirt and find a little hill to park atop (remember the starting problem). I unload the bike, change into my riding habit, stuff water, food, radios and a map into my bike bags and start out south, following the railroad tracks toward Essex. The essence of Essex. A couple of dilapidated houses, a truck trailer, bits and pieces of cars, refrigerators, televisions, washing machines litter the landscape. No people on this cool, sunny afternoon.
My tires skritch in the dirt and gravel as I ride up the "main" street, more like a pathway between someone's farm buildings. The official name of the trail is Sunflower Springs Road; it arrows its way up the bajada forming the vast tilted plane through which the Piute, Little Piute and Old Woman ranges poke up their heads. The sandy trail heads straight up the slope, splitting the difference between the Piutes to the north and the Old Woman Mountains to the south; at the top of the broad saddle, the road drops over the other side and meanders down past Sunflower Springs (hence the name) and joins up with the power line roads trending north-south through the Ward Valley. From here at the railroad crossing, the veritable eastern boundary of the burg of Essex, to the Springs is about fifteen miles. I have never been to the Springs; I don't think that I'll make it there today, either.
It is just past two pm now; the sun will set early today, and I don't believe that there's a moon tonight. My initial plan will be to travel up this road ten miles or so, up past Weaver's Well and Honeymoon Spring, over the summit and down into the Big Wash. Then I'll turn left and follow a little jeep trail along the northwest side of the Little Piute Range, covering about ten miles again, mostly downhill, ending up at the natural gas pipeline road near the upper end of the Ward Valley. From there a road leads northwest up into the Piute Mountains, then drops down and snakes out right where the truck is parked. The total distance for this excursion will be nearly forty miles.
I plow along the road. Literally. The earth here is a composition typical of granitic decomposition: angular, crumbling feldspar gravel, not much quartz, lying under a thin skin of silt. The bicycle tires wallow in this thick gritty dirt; I am sure that if I were to let much of the air out of the tires that I would ride better, not spend so much of my energy pushing sand and gravel aside, all the while ascending this gradual slope. I also find that since this path travels directly up this nearly planar surface, conversely the water that falls very occasionally as rain slides down the surface, not favoring any particular natural channel nearly as much as the road which acts as a unnatural runoff capturing device. The water consolidates and perhaps even cements, in some small way, the very fine, superficial platelets of feldspar, increasing the surface strength and providing me a relatively smooth, easy surface on which to track. Traffic on this trail has broken up most of this pavement; what remains exists mainly in the ditches along the bulldozed birm that shoulders the path. It is on these exceedingly narrow bits of firm hardtop, crumbly like the topping of breakfast crumb cake, that I ply my way.
This fine autumn day is special here in the Mojave; the desert does not evince the change from summer to winter by gross vegetative differences; the air merely grows cooler, certainly bitingly cold at night, and the shadows stretch beyond the next mesquite shrub. The colors warm, almost as if the days were being viewed in eternal early morning or late afternoon sunglow. There are fewer insects, as the cold nights have clued their bioclocks to wait patiently for the spring. It is a grand day to be on this isolated alluvial fan some 200 miles from Los Angeles.
I am now nearly four miles from Essex. The path is uneventful, save the search for firm ground on which to ride; no vehicles have rolled past me in either direction. The horizon beyond, where the Old Womans touch the scattered cumuli, crowds near in this landscape of contorted planes, cones, frustrums, domes and angles. I see a man-made structure just off the right side of the road, ahead and camouflaged in the business of the sagebrush; it is a natural gas pipeline way station. Many of these ducts cross the Mojave, carrying electricity, oil, gas, water, perhaps a myriad of other things of which I have no knowledge. The majority of major desert paths exist to follow these transportation corridors; they are generally well-maintained since it is less expensive for a utility to purchase and support two-wheel drive instead of four-wheel drive vehicles. This particular pipeline may originate at least as far east as New Mexico; I know that it passes through the Kaibab National Forest north of Williams, crosses the Colorado River at Topock (ah, Topock, the tales I could tell...) south of Needles; the compressor plant there pumps the gas up and over the north shoulder of the Chemehuevi Mountains, then across the Ward Valley; the gas flows between the Piute and the Little Piute mountains ahead and then through this way station. From there it makes its way along to its eventual, ignominious fate as kindling for Los Angeles, the great Maw of the West. I do not make it to the way station: instead, I leave Sunflower Springs Road and begin along a less well-graded track that more directly takes me toward the Piutes. This trace is abysmally sandy; I slump into the dust and churn a few miles an hour; the wheels probably rotate five times for every four of real forward movement.
I check my watch: three-thirty. Yucca shadows grope out over the trail in front of me; sunset is little more than an hour away. I see movement several hundred yards to my right. A vehicle is parked there, a full sized pickup truck with a shell, and two men. I am not sure that they have seen me. I intend to keep it that way. I suffer from a particularly nasty bit of ingrained paranoia which I always attribute to growing up in Los Angeles. The countless hours of B-grade science fiction and creepy horror films seen over the years on late night television don't help to assuage my fears either. I suspect the worst: they are two members of a gang of crazed hippie alien murderers, their truck is loaded with the implements of slow and quick death and that they are just finishing with the burial of yet another poor, mutilated victim. By my reckoning, the desert should be teeming with the graves of thousands. And to think that I sleep out here, unprotected, insecure, undefended. So I stay low on the bike, spying toward the right every so often to check on the position of my neighbors. It keeps my mind off the poor condition of the road.
The froggy appendages of the Piutes come closer. There are little coves, grottoes, arroyos to the left; an occasional dusty, untended path leads from this trail toward the hills. I defer and continue along this scuff on the earth's crust, winding very gradually amongst the yucca and toward the Piutes, all the while my momentum carrying me approximately northeast. These hills are intricately detailed, barren of the overgrowth of greenery that hides wetter lands, naked to the inquiring eye. The rock that makes up the Piutes is granitic; the granite has weathered considerably and the jaggedness of the view is the result.
I see a windmill in the distance. My paranoia is burning slowly in the underconscious; I review the map again, note that the windmill appears on the map also, and proceed into the confines of this narrow valley ahead. I keep my eyes open for civilization; aside from junked Studebakers and Fords, a corral (of sorts) with no horses, there is no sign of life. A house comes into eyesight; I see no people about. The road will apparently go though this settlement, splitting the house from corrals to the east. A large sign, in fact several, all specify that this property is not to be trespassed upon: go no further, am-scray uster-bay, et cetera.
My creeping paranoia rushes up to the forefront to see what all the commotion is about. If I were in a motor vehicle, I'd feel a bit more casual about the signs. With the protection of horsepower and sheet metal, I would be more sure of my ability to ward away danger and in any account, to keep the length of altercation time to a bare minimum. Heck, I could even turn around and proceed back from whence I came. But now, faced with the dropping temperature and a low hill to the west that has successfully captured the sun and reminded me that there less than an hour before sunset, I decide to continue along through the enclave. I chicken out. I skirt the fenced perimeter to the west, circling up and along the east flank of that very same low rise that has stolen my sun, and pass to the west of the whole encampment. This way, I reason, I will not only avoid the problems associated with the explanation of trespass to the generally unusual folks who take up residence out here, but I will effect a shortcut by heading directly north instead of following the road northeasterly another mile or so to the eventual turnoff.
As I drop off the northern slope of the hill I see a young man down the wash to my left. He doesn't see me yet. I crouch in the greasewood and watch quietly. He is in the midst of the wash, trudging upstream in the dry sandy bed. He is dragging a cable along behind him. The cable is either quite long and heavy or it is attached to a massive object. He plods along, occasionally looking over his shoulder toward the object that trails him. He moves slowly. As he gets closer, I decide that he is in his late teens, perhaps my height and weight, wearing a dirty ball cap and blackened shirt and jeans. I wonder if he goes to school: if so, where? What kind of life does the remote desert provide for a young man? The nearest town of any sort that might provide a high school must be Needles, and that is perhaps thirty-five miles distant, over two mountain passes and across a broad desert valley. I decide that school is possible; however, what of his social isolation? Perhaps his family is large, so he has siblings with which to interact; maybe there are other kids down in Essex, and he has a horse or motorcycle to travel the moderate distances. He is dragging a large iron horseshoe magnet; he is collecting the magnetite that is part of the desert sand.
Many old timers have always claimed that the presence of magnetite in the sand is a sure indication of the presence of gold, that both the mineral and element are related in this way. One of my geology professors had related both the rumor and the mythology to me; he had performed tests before in this part of the desert and the average quantity of gold in the alluvium wasn't generally more than a few parts per billion, give or take a few parts. Not economically worthwhile, he said. But many folks continue to stand by the claim and keep assayers in business by sending in samples of the dirt. I only hope someday someone will strike it rich and will provide the payoff to the man-centuries of dragging those magnets. He soon tows his attractant to within 30 feet of me and then passes; we both hear a shout from the direction of the house. Another young man, I assume his brother, calls out: perhaps it's supper time, maybe there are chores to do, the hogs need slopping... He rambles more quickly toward the house, and within a few dozen seconds I am free to pursue my unknown path.
I drop down into the wash, keep low and push the bike across the gully. Here there are two washes that converge, and I have just crossed the one that comes into the juncture from a direction just north of east. I swing around a rocky toe at the end of the intervening ridge and find myself looking up from the bottom of a twisting, winding canyon that heads back in the northeast some distance. Almost immediately I am out of sight of the homesteaders in the other draw; I find that the wash bottom here has a fine layer of cemented skin: this allows me to mount my bike and pedal up into the unknown hills afore me. The trail is fantastic in its intricacy; the walls of this narrow arroyo are vertical, some six to ten feet high; beyond these the canyon broadens with a step and then rises to the edges of the ridges around me. There are little dry falls, bowls and ledges down here on the bottom; I catalog this route in my head for a return trip when I have more time, more leisure. I continue to watch my course, try to determine if this canyon will eventually lead me where I need to go. I note saddles on the northern ridgeline, wondering if there is a percentage by going overland, climbing the face of the ridge, to pass over at one of those low points.For now I continue up my little maze path.
I jump up a dry fall or two, avoid the sausages of cholla that keep trying to get underfoot and undertire, duck an occasional overhanging bit of thorny shrubbery; the walls diminish in height and soon I find myself in a bowl, with ridges on all sides, all in shadow. The sun should be setting any minute now; I quickly decide to press to the northwest, across the southerly shoulder of the peak before me, angling up the face as I push west in order to arrive level with the saddle that is just in view around the west side of the peak.
I am no longer on a trail; there may have been goats or sheep around here, perhaps cattle, but there are no real solid, traveled paths here nor have I seen evidence of any for the last half-hour. I am forced to manhandle the bike to avoid the barrel cactus, the everpresent cholla, raspy, bony fingers of ocotillo; I can't afford a flat tire now. The climb up is arduous, backstraining, bikebreaking. I heft the bike over difficult rock gardens, all the time attempting to maintain my bearing on the notch in the hill ahead, feeling moisture bead on my brow, my chest tightening with the effort of breathing, my arms tired from bodily dragging the bike, then pushing. My riding boots are fuzzing over with a fine red fur; the fur is really needle-sharp spines from low-growing cactus along my self-made path. Fortunately, the spines spear the leather outers of the shoe, and none seem to pass through to my foot. Narrowly I avoid dropping the bike into barrels with three-inch long curved razored fish hook spikes covering their rotund bodies like angry nests of bared-claw pumas wild on acid.
I finally stand at the saddle: from here I can see out toward the north, out where beyond an intervening ridge or two or three waits my little truck, warmth and a sanctuary from the encroaching black of moonless night. First, however, I must descend from my position; this requires much the reverse of what I just climbed. More barbs, needles, jagged lava rock and granite outcrop await me as I begin my restrained fall down this north side. I try to make the drop gradual, by swinging along the shoulder of the hill above my right shoulder, also pushing to lose elevation simultaneously.
Maneuvering with the bicycle as I pick my downward path is difficult, the bicycle weighs more than I want to handle and it is a bit of a chore to control on this steep-angled slope. I dare not ride it here for fear of falling down the steep grade in exhaustion, landing not only on sharp outcrops of stone but more pointedly on the cactus itself which surrounds me.
I have now less than forty-five minutes to the end of civil twilight; the canyon floor below me has a jeep road winding from the headlands to the right, further around my host hill, then following the watercourse toward the northwest, snaking along and vanishing beyond a stubby outcrop of pink orthoclase. I drop to my hands several times to ease myself and my wheeled anchor over ledges, down falls, along tight, fanged slots in the water-eroded granite. I even go before the bike, climbing down in front and then manhandling the bike like a shepherd rescuing a particularly clumsy lamb. Blood trickles from my right calf in several long scratches, each caused by a different crystalline point of rock. Mesquite shrubs tear at my arms; I narrowly avoid falling into an ocotillo, even more narrowly resist the temptation to break my falls by grabbing the spiny branches. My deltoids are afire from the strain of carrying the bike slung over the left shoulder, on my downhill side, where I gain a extra foot of clearance because of the steep slope of this hill.
The slope eases: I reach the flatter part of the grade and within feet I am able to straddle the cycle again and forge my way along the jeep track, down the watercourse as quickly as I can pedal. I fully fly along the sandy, hard-packed bottom staying up on the pedals, weight floating on my strained ankles and wrists, conscious of the fast-fading light, aware of the spectrum change from yellow to orange to red to infrared, cognizant that thirty minutes separates me from virtual darkness, with only a sky full of chilly stars, Betelgeuse, Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, to help steer me. At worst, if I can just make the paved road, I can find my way to the truck with only a few extra miles of travel, staying entirely on the pavement.
The road is fast. I whip down the track, northwestering generally, descending determinedly. The path bends back to the right, the nose of the bike passes clockwise through north, heading toward northeast, the road quits its fall and climbs a gradual curve along the southeast foot of a low rise. I worry that I have far more miles to go than I suspect. If this backtracking continues, I will soon be pointed back toward the hills I am attempting to escape. The road bucks left suddenly and rises up and over the low rise; I am looking at the descending alluvial fan, the northwest shoulder of the Piute Mountains stretching away from me toward the Interstate, my little truck, safety. I pedal hard and keep my speed up.
The floral, early sunset has wilted until all that now remains are a few pink carnations floating high in the western sky. This muted arrangement will fade into the blue velvet of night very soon. It, however, is all the light that I have allotted to me. I see in the faded distance the overpass where the freeway crosses over the railroad tracks; this landmark is no more than a few hundred feet from where I parked the truck. The intervening space is not a smooth, paved two-lane highway but two thousand acres of desert; the map shows a dirt road that is apparently the northward extension of this present path. This inked line on the map, if not illusion, provides the path of least resistance. I close on the main two-lane road that separates from the Interstate at Mountain Springs Road; this is the National Trails Highway, the California version of Route 66.
Turning onto the road and rolling northeast along it a hundred yards or so I arrive at the top end of a dirt path that strikes northwest toward my destination. Is this the path described on the map? At this point I am willing to take the chance; my confidence has returned a bit with my arrival at the pavement and I am ready to dare myself again. The first thousand feet along the dirt trail are reasonably fast, the graveled route continuing arrow-straight toward the less-distant Interstate. Then the road begins to falter. Cobbles and small boulders make up more of the riding surface; the bouncing slows me down to just a few miles per hour, and the effort required to pick my path amongst all the clutter distracts me from the waning light.
Soon the road has faded and I am riding cross-country. Fortunately, the surface is firm and does not yield appreciably to my digging tires. I have also had to jog west from the original trend to more closely approach my truck, rather than continuing on to the Interstate. I arrive upon a great, man-made wash that heads from the east and falls west; this ditch must have been dug by Caltrans to divert flash flood waters rolling out of the Piutes before the roiling water could carve into the highway just north. I have only a few hundred yards to go; likewise, I have only the weakest glow of late sunset remaining. The stars are out in force now, with already more than a clear night in Los Angeles could allow.
I follow along the north embankment of the ditch which will lead to the railroad tracks that cross this zanja with a trestle bridge; my truck is parked less than two hundred feet from that intersection. Minutes and yards pass; as the first hint of the Milky Way begins to exude its scent into the black winter sky, I sense the truck ahead. I have returned to ride yet another day.
Back to Mountain Biking!