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On the road . October 2008 . United States (California & Nevada)

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Jim's Place, Laguna Beach, sunny Southern California, USA, 05-10-08
Nothing stays the same forever

Ali and I met, just over 14 years ago in Haight and Ashbury and we are just itching to go back to the happening little pub where we first bumped into one another. I was literally in the midst of purchasing my first touring bike: a Kona Hot along with all the touring gear. It was a beautiful machine, but the cost would set me back more than I had expected and obviously cut my European bike tour short of one month. I told the owner of the bike shop I needed to think about it and work out my finances over a beer. Being Australian, he thought it appropriate to direct me to the "Boomerang Bar". And heeding his advice, I stepped into the rather alternative looking drinking den with one truly great jukebox and who should be sitting at the bar, but Aaldrik. We got chatting; he offered to buy me a beer; I refused; but as I had planned to cross into Germany via Elten, a few kilometres down the road from where he lived in Zevenaar, I did ask for his address in The Netherlands.

And so, the story fast forwards something like this: I looked him up; stayed for a few days; he was a real gentleman (no really!); I got hooked on snooker and him too, if I must be truthful; continued on my bike trip; returned to England; found a job; sent him a thank you note with the hint of my new London address; he came to visit Christmas 1994; nine months later he moved in to our tiny Willesden Green abode; and that coming Christmas we were married.

Unfortunately, the milestone event of returning to the place of our first encounter is completely throttled. The Boomerang Bar no longer exists and of all the venues it could have become, it's been transformed into a DJ Lounge Bar called "Milk Bar". Don't mind the name, but it's not really where we would normally choose to hang out today, yesterday or any day for that matter. Although not quite the same, we find an apt substitute pub to celebrate our return to the area down the road. The barman does ask me for my age, which kind of turns back the hands of time a little.

Everything has changed about San Francisco: Haight and Ashbury is not half as groovy although it is still hip, but in more of a yuppy sort of way. All the great bike shops have disappeared; the cable car costs five bucks for a one way trip; the hotel I stayed in 1994 on Market Street no longer exists and the huge shopping mall taking it's place has also engulfed all the curio and army surplus stores that I spent hours fossicking in; they want close to twenty dollars per person for entry into the Frida Kahlo exhibition at SFMOMA; micro breweries with wacky label-art seem to have popped up all over the place; and we are informed by a trusted friend that if we want good service the norm is to tip one dollar per drink. Apart from a wonderfully relaxed evening with Brian, we spend just one night, living it up in the city and for the rest of our time, we hang out in Oakland.

Parts of Oakland have revamped themselves and it's very obvious when you get to these spots. This was one area you didn't want to visit 14 years ago. The rest is still nothing really special and displays of local shenanigans are enough to remind me why I don't like big sprawling metropolises. Berkeley still has the rather trendy student vibe floating around but the ambience has hard-core knobs on it these days. The best supermarket I have ever stepped foot into in the US has to be the Berkeley Bowl Marketplace. The mechanics at The Missing Link Bicycle Co-operative also get the thumbs up from us when they squeeze our bikes in for new bottom brackets the same afternoon we enquire about getting the work done. At the retail shop across the road, I receive a 13 dollar discount on a tyre, just because I said it was a little out of my price range. The staff are down-to-earth, super friendly and the shop even has tools for cyclists to use as well. Would definitely recommend this as the bike store to visit in the area.

To be honest though, the rest of our stay is a bit of a chore. A whole months update in one go which means sifting through thousands of photos, mulling over hundreds of recent conversations, reliving the sweaty and not so sweaty experiences, as well as trying to capture all those laughable moments randomly swimming around in my head. A lot of what had happened has not yet found a place: a perspective, let alone relevance in the soon to be 17,000 word plus September blog. Trouble is, one computer between two can be a little tricky to co-ordinate when you both want to use it. I even take to typing away into the wee hours of the morning. I rise at 11am after 6 hours shut-eye and do a few daily tasks: cooking, shopping, washing etc, before getting back to work again just after dinner. This at least gives us both access to the machine, though my sleeping habits might easily be construed as absolute decadence. Added to Ali pressing me to finish writing, I get the distinct impression we are outstaying our welcome.

It's a hot world; it's a cold world; it's a wild world
Oakland to Las Vegas: 13 cycle days; 2 rest days; 1064 km; 10130m

Oakland to near Tracy (85 km; 341 m)
Tracy to near La Grange (118 km; 303 m)
La Grange to near Briceburg 88 km; 1202 m)
Briceburg to Yosemite 62 km; 948 m)
Yosemite to Porcupine Flat (Yosemite NP) (53 km; 1525 m)
Porcupine Flat (Yosemite NP) to Toulumne Meadows (Yosemite NP) (27 km; 474 m)
Toulumne Meadows (Yosemite NP) to Lee Vining (34 km; 407 m)
Lee Vining to Bishop (108 km; 727 m)
Bishop to Lone Pine (94 km; 231 m)
Lone Pine to Panamint Springs (Death Valley) (84 km; 621 m)
Panamint Springs to Furnace Creek (Death Valley) (91 km; 1148 m)
Furnace Creek to Pahrump (111 km; 1307 m)
Pahrump to Las Vegas (109 km; 896 m)

We don't see much of Molly during our stay; besides working from Monday to Friday, there's a lot of extra curricular activities taking place in her life, including impromptu climbing and surfing trips which keep her fully occupied. There's a quaint little sushi bar up the road that we would have liked to have taken her out to, but the opportunity simply doesn't arise. Even on the morning of our departure, when it is planned to say our final goodbyes, we rise at 7am to an empty apartment and a farewell note in the kitchen.

It's a new day and we are feeling good
Packing up the bikes again after 11 days certainly feels good and it is almost exciting cycling our way to BART for the train trip to Bay Point-Pittsburg. A trip that saves us from navigating our way through the suburban mass of traffic. Out of the station, an African American man in a wheelchair rolls past and asks us where we are headed. We reply with Yosemite National Park. He gives us a big set of happy pearly whites and says: "You know that's the good thing about having legs. You can cycle everywhere." and he wheels himself off grinning. Couldn't have been any better stimulus for a smile back and the motivation to keep those legs pushing round and round.

A surprise bike trail zig zags us through rolling parklands and along canals for at least ten miles before shunting us out into a metropolitan area full of big cars and big houses with big green lawns. This civilised neighbourhood is quickly replaced by long, dry, flat roads running along farmlands of walnut orchards, grain fields and wind farms. It's the vineyards, however, in this baking sun that get me dribbling over thoughts of a cool glass of chablis. As we near Tracy, we guess we are close to our destination. Unfortunately, there are still 22 kms of undulating pedalling through dunes scored with hundreds of off-road tyre tracks in the Uzbekistan-desert like landscape of southern Alameda and San Joaquin counties. A few miles past the well barricaded Dynamite Experiment Test Site we set up our tent on a rock hard gravel pit at Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area (85km; 341m). Showers are rubbish, so thank goodness the staff are friendly and the roar of the dust spewing fun-machines stops at 7pm. The highway traffic doesn't cease though and between Ali's snoring and the vehicle din, I don't get a particularly good nights rest.

Sun in the sky, you know how I feel...
Today, there's not a cloud in the sky, I've got the sun in my eyes and I wouldn't be surprised if it's a very long, flat ride. We have to go back along the same road of golden grass hills before turning off into tomato filled countryside. The roadways, where the lorries have not quite navigated the turn correctly, are also scattered with overripe, sun decaying romas. Massive one storey ranch houses, which must take the live-in maid a whole week to clean, dot the barren view. Highways are not good, but they are fairly quiet for most of the journey. Not quiet enough though, for the golden eagle who had hurt his wing and found plotting a course to the other side of the road extremely stressful.

Heading west on Highway 132, we encounter even more tomatoes as well as clover, corn, grapes, strawberries, peaches and plenty of walnut and almond groves. In addition to the large quantities of tumbleweed that catch my eye, and even though I'm no real expert, I get to thinking that this has gotta be good cattle country round here. Not even ten minutes after the idea popped into my head and I'm trying to cycle holding my breath for fear of sucking in acrid cow dung stench. While farmyard smells are never really pleasant, all creatures make quite intriguing images from the saddle point of view, especially when they always seem to have such an interest in us. And just so you don't think we are raving lunatics, I have read more than enough bike blogs to know that we are not the only cyclists to make strange animal noises while pedalling past them. Today, it appears the cow population of Maze Boulevard is mutually responsive to our Doctor Do Little efforts and as we drift past, they inspect us curiously and follow, what I'm sure they think, are strange motorised versions of themselves.

The first big town we hit is Modesto which promptly joins up with Empire, the travelling has been incredibly fast and furious, so we decide to keep the pedals turning until Waterford. And it is a good thing we stop here, because after this town, there is nothing else in the way of supermarkets until La Grange, which is off our route. We face the first real inclines of the day as well, which means the legs are definitely tired when we get to La Grange OHV Park (118km; 303m). Another one of those sand dune places that boys and some girls like to hoon around on with fast machines.

It is quite a beautiful view over the valley from the campground, but certainly not worth the $14 per night they are asking for camping overnight. There are no shower facilities; no water outlet except one of those irritating push taps that our bottles won't fit under; no blinkin' doors on the toilets, (what were they thinking?); and literally no shade anywhere. Though we have no other option than to camp here, we refuse point blank to pay and according to a local chap, no-one gives a damn about this place anyway. So, the likelihood that a ranger will check up on us is fairly slim. The sunset is a beautiful event to wind down through, our dinner deliciously rejuvenating, but nothing can keep our eyes open, not even the quavering cries of coyotes singing to the moon in the dunes behind us. Ouu, ouuuh, ouuuwoooohh!

Sorry, did you say 'permanent vacation'???
Recently someone implied, in a way that I'm still not sure if jealousy or humour were at play, that our lifestyle is, in relation to their own, quite easy; because as far as they could see, we are on a permanent vacation. This same person also believes that you don't have to be fit to go on a cycle touring trip. I'll agree, you don't have to be fit at the beginning of the tour, but if you end up pushing a fully loaded bike 100 kilometres and 1000 altimetres each day for 70% of the week, then I can assure you, you get in good condition really fast. Of course, you could opt to pack only a small weight on the back and totter around 60 to 70 km on easy roads and when the going gets tough, jump in a taxi or take a train. Alright, then I'll concur, you really don't have to be in tip-top shape.

Unlike the second statement, the first assumption really hits one of instant red zone nerves. Firstly, our routine is just like any occupation, except we are our own bosses. We rise between 6.00 and 6.30am, we cycle all day and we are in bed by 10pm at night. Sometimes this rhythm continues for 2 weeks straight before we have a rest day and then that is most likely filled with maintenance chores, correspondence with family or suppliers and keeping this website up to date.

Everyday, we face challenges that many people would turn away from saying, "Sorry, I'm not paid enough to do that." As I said before, this is like being self employed, however we don't get a cent for anything we do. So I guess, we've got nothing to loose either. Furthermore, at least twice a month we meet with extreme conditions: circumstances that push us to both our physical and mental limits. We see this trip as an investment in our future. Some people put their money away for retirement: a concept I still can't get my head around, due to three out of three investment and pension funds that I used going bankrupt, disappearing from the planet and loosing nearly half of my investments. Besides that, there is no way I could do what we are doing now, if I was gripping to the rim of 60 something.

I guess our hope is that the experiences and knowledge we gain by cycling around the world will inspire people to employ us in some fashion in the future. What form that will take, we have no idea at this stage, but I expect there will be numerous avenues to venture down. We are fully aware that it is our choice to do this, but at the same time, we are taking an admirable risk. A risk that any self employed person has to take in order to succeed. Risks that many people don't need to take in their lifetime. Seeing as our philosophy is about following your dreams, because, you know you really do only live once, the thought of having nothing much more than our experiences at the end of this all is a small price to pay for all the amazing stuff we get to see, do and live through.

Over the next leg of our journey, the idea that what we are doing is so far removed from a permanent vacation, rings loud and hard in my ears. We are about to climb halfway up a mountain, more than 1500 metres over 50 odd kilometres meeting with blizzard conditions; we'll be forced to spend the next couple of nights snowed in at temperatures below -13ºC (9ºF); everything freezes from our shampoo to our sweat laced riding gloves. And to really test the stamina, a few days later we'll be climbing 6% average grades for four hours, but this time while each guzzling 6 litres of water in dry, sweltering 36ºC (97ºF) shade temperatures. We'll both reach our exhaustion points, become concerned for the other and for the better part of 5 days this month, survival mode will kick in. And even though it isn't always a bed of roses at the time, in retrospect we enjoy the confrontations this journey puts before us, but an eternal holiday it definitely is not.

A little bit of everywhere in one day
The sun is out; the moon is out and we have a perfectly empty blue sky before us for the whole day. Sun-gold grassy slopes dotted with herds of jet black steer and the odd water pump windmill make a spectacular contrast against the intense blue backdrop. This view could so easily be set in Australia without even knowing it was an import. The roads undulate more as the day progresses. I feel a hint of Uzbek-desert and the Spanish Sierra Nevada playing a role in what I see from the saddle. After lunching in a playground in Hornitos, we climb up towards Mt Bullion. If all the trees were of the olive variety, then I would swear we were in Greece, but the winding road of total disrepair resembles the path cutting into mountain sides on the way up to Daman in Nepal. All we need now is something akin to the KKH and we will have had it all. Little do we know, that is to come in a few days time.

For now, we have to replace a broken gear cable on my bike before dropping back down to Mariposa. We shop and promptly begin the one hour climb up and over Midpines Summit 905m (2962ft). Then a jubilant drop into the Merced River Canyon brings us close to the BLM Recreation Area near Briceburg (88km; 1202m). The surroundings are beautiful at the McCabe Flat site, 4 kilometres on dirt road from the highway turnoff. We venture no further.

Yodeling icicles in Yosemite
The morning sun puts on a fine display of reflective splendour against the canyon rocks, autumn shrubs and calm river waters. Back on the highway, we follow the riverbed for 25 kilometres. It is basically flat. The climb starts just after the gas station on our left and is pretty steep up until the entrance to Yosemite National Park . We hand over the $20 park fee which is good for 7 days and we get talking to Jenner, who says it's pretty easy going to get to the Valley. That is not quite the case and we know we have about 20 kilometres to do, but the 360m climb, we don't expect. The ride is breath-taking though, with sheer granite cliffs towering way, way above us into the brilliant blue sky and sidling up to lush alpine forests.

We arrive in Yosemite Valley and ring Jeff, who we met in Vantage, Washington. Unfortunately, something has cropped up and we need to find an alternative arrangement for accommodation this evening. At first things seem a little desperate as the whole valley is overrun with tourists and campground 4 is full with signage indicating that the nearest available space is 16 to 24 miles away. There's no way we'll reach that before dark, so Ali goes into the jam packed Visitors Centre and joins the queue, while I sit most despondent and almost on the verge of tears outside. I really hate tourist traps and Yosemite Valley is just another one of those places: an environment is created that forces you to utilise their facilities alone because there are no other options. You generally have to pay big bucks for the so called privilege as well as endure the hoards of people.

On the bright side and although I don't have the privilege of meeting him in person, Gregory behind the counter, is an absolute gem as he arranges for us to stay in North Pines Backpackers Campground-Yosemite Valley (62km; 948m), just down the road and without having to fork out for the $5 per person back-country pass. It is a gorgeous spot with tonnes of available space, which seems a little weird really when everywhere else in the valley is completely booked out, but emphasizes my issues with tourist traps.

The weather forecast is for a 20% chance of snow and admittedly it sure is icy cold in the morning as we take off for Porcupine Flats, but the sun is with us and the skies are pretty well blue all over. We stop at the supermarket for a couple of days supplies. Ali freaks out at the amount I have spent, but I assure him it is only for 3 days and it is a good thing too that I stock up well, because we are going to need it all. The path leading back to the turnoff to Tioga pass is pretty easy, but as soon as we make the right hand turn at 10am, we start climbing and it doesn't really let up for the rest of the journey.

Fourty-five minutes later and we cross Cascade Creek and above us we can see the road etched in the cliff face. It isn't too steep at between 6 and 7%, but the traffic becomes somewhat of a hassle. Yep, you guessed it: no shoulder. All credit due to the drivers out here though, as only two birdbrains in all the vehicles that passed us are in the running for the dim-witted knucklehead of the year award. At 1.30pm, we rather pessimistically leave the picnic table after a carbohydrate filling lunch of bagels and granola bars. Not only is it chilly enough to both be wearing the full compliment of riding gear, but I even have my down gloves on too.

Making matters worse, the clouds are moving in fast. The sun does play peek-a-boo every now and again, to our relief. Then the road levels out a little and we actually settle into thinking that the rest of the 32km (20mi) will be an easy couple of hours ride and hopefully we'll beat the bad weather. A few more kilometres up the road though, it begins to snow, ever so lightly mind you, but there is no doubt about it, it is snow.

Basically from here on in, it gets colder and colder and bleaker and bleaker and approximately three hours of exhausting climbing against a horizontal snow storm later, two very white bikes with two equally white cyclists pass White Wolf. The park's map of Yosemite is totally useless for distances and it's scale is also utterly dubious. Ali very depressingly confesses that we are still at least 10 kilometres from the campground. We push on; we have no choice. The pass has been closed for a while now and unhappy travellers have been turned around. A few make some pretty strange signals to us and a couple of more concerning persons actually stop to tell us that we can't get over the top. We already know. A ranger had passed us earlier to give us the news. That was when the sun was shining and blue skies were still in our midst.

Ed, with his bright yellow kayak also overtook us an hour or so before, with hoots and toots and shouts of approval and now we see him coming back again. He stops and offers to turn around and take us to the campground. A few minutes later, completely to my amazement, seats have been unlatched and bikes and bags are stuffed to the roof of his car; I'm perched on Ali's lap enjoying the warm air blowing in my face from the heater. Ed is a freelance consultant, who due to recent market trends, has a bit of spare time on his hands and there is no need to break the ice, as Ed loves to have a chat. He points out that during the whole discussion on Tibet, we have been climbing the entire time. So much for our estimations of only another 300m to go up. In these conditions, it would have taken us at least another two hours to reach the 2,500m elevation of Porcupine Flat-Yosemite NP (53km; 1525m).

Basic instincts
Both my feet and fingers are aching from cold. I can't tell you how much they hurt, burn, throb, sting. It is -3ºC but quickly descends to -6ºC. I quickly find refuge in the cement toilet block to try and get some circulation happening in my icy digits, so I can rummage properly for firewood. Ali cleans the snow away from the area, where we have decided to pitch the tent. The fire, started with the help of a little petrol, puts a new light on our situation. The hot coffee, chocolate and corn chips also do wonders. Not long after finishing the warming goodies, we are preparing dinner in between fossicking for more firewood at regular intervals. A snow plough passes.

Sleep doesn't come easy tonight. It gets down as low as -13ºC. We toss and turn; wake and doze; but never get warm enough to solidly fall asleep. At sometime in the wee hours, we are both hungry again. It obviously takes a lot of energy to keep the body temperature up. I can't stop my mind from fantasizing about biting into one of those granola bars in the bear-proof food locker, but I simply can't bring myself to undertake crawling out of the sleeping bag. They teasingly remain in my dream state. The alarm goes off at 6.30am, but we don't bother unzipping the frosted tent flap until 7.30am. Ali gets the fire started and I collect water from the stream which we need to treat first. We decide boiling it is our only real option. Everything freezes instantly: bananas are rock hard; I could use the tomatoes as a pretty dangerous weapon; even the cheese has crystallized; detergent, solid; oil, frozen; and Ali has a hard time getting the tent pegs out of the ground.

The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate (Priestley 1733-1804)
A ranger drops in around 9.30am, but is of very little help to us. According to him, we can cross over, but entirely at our own risk. The Tioga Pass is 24km as far as he knows, which is 16km less than the ranger's estimation who spoke to us yesterday. The ranger we meet on the road just outside the campground simply doesn't know how far it is, but informs us the pass is definitely closed, which totally contradicts what we have just heard. It does however confirm the cleaners story, who by the way is a grumpy old sod and doesn't really want to talk to us.

It has been established though, if we can't get through today, we can camp near the Wilderness Centre. But now we have to face the ice: the absolute least of my favourite conditions. Truthfully, I'm dead scared of the stuff and it brings out all sorts of weird behaviours in me. Snow is alright, but ice makes me anxious, especially when we have to climb. Ali assures me we'll take it slow, however, I know full well what his interpretation of slow is. The two consolations are, the sun is shining and we have the whole road to ourselves, so we can dodge most of the slippery patches. I still get off and push on a few occasions. The landscape is astonishingly stunning and almost brings a tear to our eyes: pristine snowfall on mountain peaks; ice capped forests running up to lakeside shores; the high sierra with it's distinct golden grasslands surrounding frosty streams; and white granite cliff faces protruding high above the alpine thicket.

Trembling in Toulumne Meadows
By the time we reach Toulumne Meadows-Yosemite NP (27km; 474m), Ali's gears have totally frozen up. The campground is officially closed, but Lisa at the Wilderness Centre has given us permission to spend the night. And as far as we are concerned, one night is our absolute limit, because tomorrow we'll run out of food. We both can't stop eating so it is a good thing I packed the extra items in the pannier bags. The tent is pitched, while I gather wood for a fire. We make cocoa and discuss our exit plan which come hell or high water, has to be cycling over Tioga Pass. We decide we'll just hang out at the Centre up the road until they let us go. At least it is warm in the office there.

The likelihood of a snow storm happening tonight is pretty slim, so we are hopeful for an early and problem-free crossing, followed by a downhill plunge into Lee Vining, where we desperately need to find an RV park with a hot shower (our first since San Francisco) and laundry facilities. But you can never be too sure: out of the blue at about 7pm, a snow storm blows overhead and gives us a nasty scare, but thank goodness it leaves almost as quickly as it came in. Doesn't stop the temperatures from reaching some nasty sub zero levels during the night. The inside of the tent is entirely covered in ice, and just to give you an indication of how we feel: my down bag is good for -10ºC and I have five layers on top, two on the bottom with two pairs of socks as well as a silk liner around me and still, I'm cold.

When nature calls in the middle of the night, no matter how long you hold on, change your position, cross your legs; no matter how much it urks you to leave the warm snug confines of your sleeping bag; the inevitable is going to happen. You just have to drag your body from the tent to relieve yourself and preventing a far worse accident. Well that is, if you are a girl. I have heard of boys doing it in a Gatorade bottle, but to be honest, I'm pretty pleased that Ali hasn't started up on that habit. He braves the elements just like me.

The fire is blaring by 7.45am. It is a never ending task collecting wood. My feet ache, my fingers throb, my eyes sting from the constant smoke and total lack of good sleep. I can feel the puffy sacks sitting on top of my cheeks but vanity hardly plays a role out here. Besides my face cream is frozen solid, as is my toothbrush and the toothpaste. All that matters at the moment is getting some food into us. We are starving. The rock-solid bananas go directly on the grill to bake, while I boil some water for the last of our couscous. Mixed together with a bit of honey and you've got a pretty delicious warm breakfast cereal. It's followed by toasted frozen bagels with fried frozen mushrooms, tomatoes and melted cheese. A few cups of coffee later and we are set for our journey.

We have 5 cream biscuits, 4 granola bars and a few corn nuts left, which will get us to the pass. Day is clear: surely they have to let us over. When we arrive at the Wilderness Centre however, the pass is still closed. It is a bit of a push to get them to find out if we can at least walk the bikes over; anything but staying here. They ring Caltrans (the Californian Department of Transportation) but there's no answer. Another ranger, Francis, joins us shortly after and says he'll go ahead to check out what the road conditions are like. We start off, because whatever the outcome, at least we'll have the 13 kilometres of climbing over and done with. We can always wait at the top until they open it.

About halfway there, we meet Francis coming back. Apparently, there are a few slippery bits but according to him, it's mostly free of ice on the other side. In reality, the worst patches are before the pass, though we have been told time and time again that the Lee Vining side is where the problem lies. The decision to open the road is out of the parks hands and entirely the decision of Caltrans. So nice that they didn't answer their phone this morning.

Almost at the top and we are stopped by a couple of rangers who we haven't seen before. They give us the third degree:
Where are you guys going?
Over the Tioga Pass
It's closed.
Yes we know, but we've been given permission from a ranger
Which ranger?
The one who just passed you a few minutes ago
Where did you come from?
Toulumne Meadows
But that's closed
Yes we know, but we got permission to camp there
Who gave you permission?
One of the rangers at the Wilderness Centre
What was the rangers name?
Lisa Kahn?

And you know, I'm sure this woman checked everything out. Secretly, I think she wanted to give us a fine, but hey, we had all the right answers.

An experience of a lifetime: not a car on the road
Today's journey toTioga Pass (3031m; 9945ft), is one of the easiest ascents we've done in our whole Yosemite experience. At the top, yet another ranger opens the gate for us. How many rangers does this place actually have? Anyway, we stop to devour the rest of our food and put on several more layers of clothing for the descent into Lee Vining. The sun might be out, but it is freezing. And sure enough dropping the 1000m over a little under 20 kilometres is an icy affair but we are awestruck by the magnificent landscape bearing a strong rugged resemblance to the KKH.

Further to our delight, we can swerve all over the road, take up the wrong lane if we want to, even zig-zag from one side to the other: full freedom to roam; no cars; no sticking precariously to the shoulder. All I can say is it is an exhilarating experience of a lifetime and there are not too many people who can say they have had the winding road clinging to the mountain side all to themselves. In fact I'd lay odds on that no-one has had such a privileged run before. As we jet towards the bottom, the first cars are let through from Lee Vining (34km; 407m).

The former mining camp set on Lake Mono is named after Leroy Vining, a prospector who quite foolishly shot himself and bled to death shortly after founding the town in 1852. Years later, when a post office became essential, its original name "Lakeview" had to be replace due to another town in California already owning the title. Quite uniquely the name "Lee Vining" was chosen. The town survives essentially from tourism which is confined mostly to the summer months. And as we pull in, it is obvious that half the place has shut up shop for the season.

The Mono Market is expensive, but has ample supplies and the $20.16 for the campsite at Mono Vista RV Park a bit on the steep side considering we are not allowed to light a fire. Our showers and laundry add another $3 and $5 respectively to our spenditure, but the facilities are very well kept. A blustery wind blows bitterly cold across the field and we retreat into the laundry for cover for most of the night. We actually spend a very warm evening in the tent even though it hits -5°C overnight. Stupidly, we leave our Sigg bottles filled up, in our racks outside and the next morning we pay the price. Both metal drink containers have burst open. A lesson well learnt.

Never thought I'd be saying this, but: it's "highway heaven"
We stay in the tent until the sun comes out. No point in being miserable over breakfast and besides our little home needs to thaw out a bit. It is a bit of a late start at 10.15am for the 100 or so kilometres taking us over a couple of small summits. The view from the bike seat is nothing short of gob-smacking: mountain ranges fresh with snow; fields of gold; white patchy desert; blackened trees; autumn trees; the greenest of trees; the Sierra Nevada against radiant skies and to top it all off we are on Highway 395. This is highway heaven: the shoulder is a full lane by itself complimented with a massive rundle strip to protect us from the traffic. Perfect tarmac: you can actually ride here without even thinking about the massive lorry flying up from behind. Plenty of time to enjoy the amazing scenery.

We make Deadman's Summit (2451m: 8041ft) by one in the afternoon, drop and then climb up again to Sherman Summit (2134m: 7000ft), though 3km earlier we pass by Tom's Place which is technically higher at 2156m (7072ft). From then on in, it is a 13 kilometre and 894 altimetre free fall into the warmth of the valley below and for the first time in four days, we are shedding layers and not putting them on. The barren scenery is again spectacular and only interrupted with a little green oasis in the form of Bishop (108km; 727m). There isn't a moment of visual boredom on this trip today. Brown Town Campground on the other hand, is nothing special at $20 a night plus shower costs and especially when they send us to the worst site of all there is on offer. There is no-one here, so we just take one more suitable and that has a picnic table to use. It's almost a relief to be able to sit outside again without feeling depressingly cold.

Mountains to the left of me; mountains to the right; here I am right in the middle...
Inyo Mountain Wilderness on my left, the truly impressive Sierra Nevada on my right and here I am flying along the Owens Valley at an average speed of 25km per hour. Flat, tailwind, great viewing either side. Route 395: my favourite stretch of highway in the world apart from the KKH of course.

Independence sounds as good a town as any to stop for lunch. A park, approved by the "hasta la vista" boy of the screen, according to the big plaque bolted to the wall of the community hall, is perfectly situated near a shady river. Roadworks narrow our path to a two-laned affair, but traffic is low and we still have a decent shoulder most of the way. We approach Manzanar around 2pm and decide to pay the exhibition a visit.

Basically, this war relocation centre was used to detain Japanese Americans immediately after the bombs were dropped on Pearl Habour in 1941. It is only one of ten remote sites stationed throughout the USA that detained nearly 120,000 Japanese in total. They took them away from their homes, their schools, their businesses, their friends; gave them just days notice to sell up, before carting them off to a life of imprisonment. All because of fear; a fear that they might in some way threaten the American war movement. The film they show is an excellent overview of the whole affair, but for me the saddest part of the exhibition were the posters of white Americans billboarding their houses and commercial properties with anti-Japanese sentiment: No Japs! and We don't want the Japs back ever! were just a few. Nothing much remains of the Relocation Centre these days except foundations, a few concrete slabs and signposts as guides to let you know what once existed in each spot. It is kind of spooky riding around and passing sites like the post office, the school, housing blocks and the police station.

Lone Pine (94km; 231m) isn't much further down the road and is steeped in as much history as Manzanar, but one of a more jubilant nature. In and around this area, many of the Hollywood Westerns were filmed. Actually, we missed the Lone Pine Film Festival by just one week, but as stated by an old local shuffling her way to the supermarket: "You are lucky you weren't here. The festival was totally rained out and the northerly winds horrific. I felt so sorry for them all."

A rather dotty, but extremely talkative woman at the cash register has problems finishing packing one bag before starting on another and I end up with about ten shopping bags too many. She does direct us to Portagee Joe Campground just a mile out of the town. The place is quite nicely set next to Tuttle Creek and overlooking the majestic Sierra Nevada with the highest point on the contiguous United States: Mount Whitney. It cost's $10 per night with no hook-ups and no other facilities except a vault toilet and a tap. Our only gripe is the stable stench lingering from horses recently tethered at each site.

Only when you reach the top, can you drop
A breeze keeps us cool enough today, even though the sun is with us for whole journey. It is flat until Keller which is 24 kilometres into the day and we leave the the High Sierra behind us and worm our way into the Inyo Mountain Wilderness. It is not only a slow crawl but a decent workout making our way over a pass of 1646m (5400ft), which is not marked on our map and so comes as a complete surprise to us. Still, it is worth every inch as the rolling hills and rocky faced mountains become more and more desert like as the hours tick on. A couple more undulations before we find ourselves plummeting through the awe inspiring scenery leading towards Panamint Valley.

The sheer drop plus the colourful combinations of burgundy sands, black rocks, pinkish red mountains; grey-green shrubs; and blue, blue skies make stunning viewing. On the downhill run, the roadside flora moves from one species to another; we have to swerve a number of desert tarantulas marching across our path; and just as the warm air starts punching us in the face, I break another spoke. Our campsite at Panamint Springs (84km; 621m) costs $15 per night and they actually have showers free of charge, which aesthetically are certainly nothing to get excited about, but as far as a sweaty cyclist being able to indulge herself in a hot shower is concerned, they get a ten out of ten.

Frying in Furnace Creek
We have no illusions about our trip today. We have been staring at the road from our campsite for long enough. It's an early start as we have to traverse a little more than 1000 altimetres. A strong tailwind is blowing as we go through the morning motions, but chooses to stop abruptly as we set wheel to bitumen. We drop a few hundred metres from our campsite on a dead straight road. Eight kilometres pass in 25 minutes and at 8.45am we start to climb. Ali, the numbers and distances man, estimates 2 hours work, so we'll arrive around 11am. I just look rather dauntingly at the road before me and know this hill won't be conquered before lunchtime.

It is one of those cracking rides averaging 6% over 15 kilometres. All you can do is find the right gear; sit back in the saddle; and just push those legs around and around till you get to the top. The day heats up and the sweat dripping off my nose and onto my knees feels a bit like cool rain, but common sense tells me that can't be true in this temperature. Maybe a high pressure rainstorm is about to happen. The fighter jets flying overhead could well be mistaken for thunder, except I am not entirely delirious yet. I really need to stop and go to the toilet but I start admiring the black silhouetted rock shapes against the sky from where the military aircrafts had emerged. My eyes give up on squinting, even with sunglasses on and shift immediately to the dainty plant life around me. I wonder how on earth anything grows out here. I'm mesmerized by the colourful display of tiny flowers. It feels better as I am able to shift down a gear, but my body reminds me once again that I really need to stop for a toilet break. My thoughts linger on the idea of eating something too. There's a slight grumble from my stomach. Yes. it is time to stop. It has been an hour of non-stop uphill pedalling. Now all I have to do is just wait for some shade.

We reach Towne Pass (1513m: 4963ft) just after 12pm and the reward is one of the longest downhill drops we have ever embarked on. Dive bombing the 27 kilometres to sea level we absorb our surroundings: baby blue sky backdropping dusty pink graduations on stone cliffs, dark rock desert floor punctuated with silver-green shrubs. Traffic is light and very enthusiastic to see a couple of cyclists braving the extreme conditions in Death Valley . By the time we reach Stovepipe Wells our 6 litres of water are finished and we fill up from a water fountain at the information centre. The next 38 kilometres are a real chore. Though the road is flat for the best part of the journey, it is hard pushing the wheels around in the heat and besides the sand dunes just outside Stovepipe Wells scenery wise: it is pretty barren and desolate. We trundle passed Devils Cornfield and up the short hill to the turnoff to Scotty's Castle. Here we venture right and force ourselves to do the remainder 17 kilometres into Furnace Creek 91km; 1148m.

Mind the "F"
We end up camping at Sunset Campsite, which is none other than a parking lot for RV's. There is absolutely no shade except outside the designated bays and near the dumpsters. We perch on the end of a clearly marked row, in order to get some relief form the burning rays. There are no shower facilities either, but we are so used to washing in a basin these days, that it isn't a problem. Just so long as they have water suitable for drinking. A couple of rangers chug by in their golf buggy and check whether we have paid the $20 park entrance fee or not. They are not at all worried about us producing a campsite receipt. In fact, one of them seems more concerned about his line marking work than anything else. "Just don't mess up my 'F' please." are his words as they whizz back out of the parking lot.

Death Valley is quite a unique place. Not only have temperatures been recorded as high as 56.7°C (134 °F) in the summer, but it can reach to as low as -9 °C (15°F) in the winter. Furnace Creek is also the lowest census-designated place in the United States, since it has an elevation of 55m (179ft) below sea level. The lowest elevation point in the park and the whole of North America is at Badwater: 86m (282 ft) below sea level. Interestingly enough, the highest point in the 48 continuous states, Mount Whitney, is just 123 km (76 mi) west of the valley.

Three out of four aint bad
It is already warm as we cycle into Zabriskie Point noted for its striking erosional landscape and particularly special at this time in the morning. We have a clear view across the most unusual undulating surface. The rangers told Ali yesterday that we would have a 32km ascent of around 3% (correct) and then a gradual downhill ride into Death Valley Junction (also correct). Before the last kilometres of descent into Pahrump (correct), we will need to traverse 100m (wrong). Turns out to actually be 300m.

The initial 'going up' and getting out of Death Valley gets pretty boring as the scenery becomes less diverse the higher we go. Pedalling the slow 18km descent into DV Junction never appears as if it will end. The road is dead straight, so it looks so deceivingly close. The only thing alive in this town is the Hotel, where they most inconveniently run out of tap water. We have no alternative than to purchase some small 500ml bottles for $1 each. We also sit and cool off with an orange sherbet icecream.

A long stretch of nothingness follows prior to the 300m of steep grade. From the top however, we can see Pahrump easily, but it is another one of those visual hoaxes. We are at least 10 miles away from the city's centre. It also looks like a huge metropolis from up here, but as we pass one house and a vacant acre block followed by a further home and another massive chunk of open land, I realise that this place is just spread out and not that densely populated at all. And judging by the amount of 'For Sale' signs, it is going to be even less inhabited very soon.

We are exhausted and so looking forward to relaxing over a good cooked meal as we approach an RV Park on the eastern side of town, but apparently we are not allowed to set up a tent on the premises. We try the Best Western motor home park across the road. Same story, though the girl does say she had plenty of rooms available for $179 per night. Mmmm, maybe that is why they are still not taken? We decide, our only option at this stage, is to ride out of town and camp wild on BLM land. First we need water: the carwash requires coins for water; the laundromat doesn't have a single sink, so we decide to head back to the nice lady at the first RV Park and ask if we can fill up our bottles there.

It is actually a blessing in disguise, as word has got out about our plight and a small group has formed near her caravan. One of these car park dwellers, is able to direct us to another RV ground that does have spaces for minority groups like ourselves. Catch is, it is 8 km away and it is now dark. As you can imagine, we are rightly pleased when we arrive safe and sound at 7Palms RV Park Pahrump (111km; 1307m). Larry, the manager is a jolly 'ol chap and welcomes us most enthusiastically. I don't really remember much of what happens next as it is pretty much a whirl of pitching the tent, washing ourselves, cooking dinner, eating, cleaning up and then exiting night skies to the comfortable confines of our tent. Not a word was spoken. We were absolutely broken.

We sleep like babies and even manage to stay inside the tent until 9am. It's a stinker of a day, so Ali sets up office in the coolness of the laundry next to an electrical outlet and where he can still piggy back the wifi connection. I arrange to do a number of those sewing chores to our tent and clothes under the shade of the big pine tree. Pahrump is not a very beautiful township, particularly owing to the large blocks of land with three or four motor homes surrounded by every piece of dumpyard junk you could possibly imagine. Littering seems to be practiced daily along with going to Walmart and seeing how high you can fill your trolley with products that essentially weigh less than the cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping they come in. There are plenty of big cars with big chrome rimmed wheels driven by big blockheads with nothing better to do with their spare time than annoy cyclists riding on roads with no shoulders.

Our campsite abode, however is just fine for another day and everyone seems really friendly here, though I am still bewildered that people drive their car to the dumpster to get rid of rubbish when they are literally no more than 100 metres away from it. Surely, it must take more of an effort to: find the keys, put the rubbish bag in the back tray, open the door, lift the bodyweight into the front seat, start the car, reverse out, drive to the dumpster, flop the body weight out the door, throw the bag in, get the body weight back inside, drive around the one way circuit back to the RV, park the car, turn it off and get the body weight back out once more; than just doing the simple left, right, left, right leg action thing we so anxiously strive to learn as an infant.

Last of the big spenders
The ride to Las Vegas is an easy one and not very eventful apart from fields of Joshua trees coming in and out of view randomly throughout the day. For the rest it is desolate and dry. We drop like lead balloons after the slow climb to Mountain Springs. The road levels out and we trickle along, like the ugly suburban development blocks, towards the most populous city in the state of Nevada.

I had actually expected to see a defined oasis in the middle of the desert, not this sprawling mass. There are some pretty interruptive roadworks going on, so we have to fight for space on the road. Once we get to the airport though, the road widens. Doesn't mean you can stop concentrating: this is Vegas! I was quite excited about riding down the strip, but it actually turned out to be a great disappointment. It could pretty much be described as a big Disney World for persons over 21. Facade after facade of some really cool places in the world, but everything looks so damned fake.

We had organised our first lodging with Warmshowers members, Eric and Cresent back in Pahrump. It is basically an internet organisation with members who give up their spare room or patch of grass for travelling cyclists. Anyway, these guys live close to downtown Fremont, Las Vegas (109km; 896m), which is more of the same sort of ritz, but at least not so bombastic. Doesn't take too much navigation to find our way to their house.

Eric is a keen skateboarder and about to embark on his first cycle tour this coming summer. We have a pretty nice time getting to know him over a beer and pizza at the Chicago Cigar Lounge on the first evening. After two nights with our hosts, we decide to move into Binions, a hotel down the road with enough flashing lights to see India through a years worth of blackouts. Must be one heck of an electrical bill. We booked on line and got this whammo special deal: only $19 per night if you book for 2 nights. And we figure we'll have had a gut full of the place by then and will want to be cycling back out to the countryside. Long live the meadows!

So, Las Vegas, as far as I'm concerned, is not all it is cracked up to be. Well actually, there is plenty of crack around, judging by the amount of staggering done around the lower Fremont area. Every time we walk along Fremont Boulevard, there is a least one person handcuffed and detained by an excessive amount of policemen. A good proportion of the local people look rather sick, but I suppose the pastey white skin and dark eyes come from a city that only comes alive in the evening. It could also have to do with the fact that it doesn't have any fresh fruit or vegetables available for purchase anywhere in the city heart. And I can't begin to tell you how difficult it is to find a decent loaf of bread. I walked for miles and came up with zilch. Out of total desperation, I ended up purchasing a loaf of fluffy stuff with brown colouring from the convenience store: Walgreens.

On the gambling front, we'll probably go down in history as spending the least amount between two in four days. We part with a massive $22. Somehow, I just can't get into sitting behind a machine and endlessly tapping on a button. Seems so mundane and besides after a while, my eyes get sore and my concentration wanes. Nonetheless, we are glad we've seen it and had the Fremont experience and all, but we will not be adding Las Vegas to the list of most prospective places to stay, once we have finished gallivanting round the globe.

Quite a come-down
Boulder Beach to Laguna Beach: 7 cycle days; 1 rest days; 643 km; 4746m

Las Vegas to near Boulder City (54 km; 458 m)
Boulder City to near Searchlight (94 km; 1017 m)
Searchlight to near Amboy ( 141 km; 362 m)
Amboy to 29 Palms (108 km; 882 m)
29 Palms to Banning (101 km; 1061 m)
Banning to Lake Elsinore (74 km; 307 m)
Lake Elsinore to Laguna Beach (71 km; 659 m)

Getting to Lake Mead is a simple affair and we arrive early at Boulder Beach Campground (55km; 458m), which is a pretty neat set up. Ali takes a ride up to Hoover Dam, while I catch up on 1½ hours of beauty sleep. Our original plans to ride to the Grand Canyon have been cancelled, due largely to a lot of the camping facilities in the region being closed for the season and also because it will add another 1120 kilometres to our journey and leave us with very little time in Laguna Beach just south of Los Angeles. We need to cross into Mexico before 24 November.

Jim, the crazy Californian guy with big wild hair and a beard to match, who we met cycling down the Oregon coast, has been camping at Lake Mojave since Thursday. We have decided to drop in on him for a couple of nights. We start early for the trip and the decent climb up to Boulder City. We keep being overtaken by cyclists on some sort of bike run and as each of them passes more and more information is divulged and we discover they are on a 118 mile trip today.

Chris cycles with us for a while as he is so enthusiastic about what we are doing and wants to learn more concerning our trip. He invites us to stop at their Aid Station for some refreshments and energy bars. They have tonnes of goodies on offer but we indulge ourselves in very little, since we have only just finished eating our breakfast. After the exchange of a few stories, we are set to leave. Chris gives us a parting gift of a Polar insulated drink bottle and promises to add us to his prayer list. One very sweet man!

The most boring day of riding ever
Boulder City is the last place with supplies, even though we have a tonne of kilometres still to do. Fully packed, we turn off onto Highway 95. This stretch of road turns out to be my least favourite and most boring ride of all time. I'm sure the dedication signs to US War Veterans at intervals along the route are more of a stimulus for sleepy drivers than allegiance to combat heroes. Personally, I'd be insulted that they should choose such a tedious setting.

After the initial drop, we settle into one long, straight, hot, cycling spell. I wish I could say it was flat as well, but it isn't. An annoyingly incessant 1-2% grade nags us the whole way to Searchlight. Almost from the beginning we can see where we need to go and that's bad news when it is more than 50km away with not a bend in sight. It takes four long hours to complete and by the time we reach the top, I have analysed my hard candy sucking technique to such fine detail, I think I could write a book on it.

With friends again
The 22km plunge to Lake Mojave is a welcome change of pace. Though, we both decide on the way down, that Jim can take us back up this hill in his pick-up, otherwise it'll take us until lunchtime to get to Searchlight. Cottonwood Cove Campground (94km; 1017m) is bare minimum, but having Jim on your site decorates the camping ordeal with plenty of dynamics. Brian has come down too, and it is great to see him again. Jim is ecstatic to see us and bellows: "Man it's good to see you guys. I thought you'd got hooked on gambling and weren't coming!" In fact, the whole evening is full of lots of laughter and excited chatter. We all have a really fun night together and you know what: I think everyone else in the campground knew that as well.

My impression of Lake Mojave is not that high: tonnes of glass all over the shore; blatant dumping of rubbish; and smelly silt near the waters edge that sucks you in up to your knees, if you are not careful. The blue water contrasting white sands and grey-hued ranges does make a good photo though.

I may be a slow cyclist, but I never cycle backwards
Next morning, we pile the bikes and bags in Jim's Toyota pick-up and enjoy the ride to the top of the 22km climb. We say our goodbyes, but only for 5 days. We'll be in Laguna Beach for Halloween. A tailwind throws us along Route 95, but I'm still not fast enough according to Aaldrik. He is at least½km in front, which I don't like at all and which he professes to everyone he never does. When I finally catch up with him I question why he needs to be so far up front:
Why are you going so fast?
Why are you going so slow?
I'm not going slow.
Yes you are.
No, I'm not. I'm travelling between 15 and 18 kms per hour.
Man. it's downhill all the way, you should be going faster.
It isn't down hill all the way, otherwise I would be in harder gear.
Why can't you slow down a bit for me?
Why should I have to. Why do I have to brake all the time?

I take off and Ali sulks behind me keeping his distance. I slow down to let him catch up and suggest we stop for a drink. It's hot and I'm ready for a toilet break and a stretch of the legs. We've been riding for nearly two hours. Ali replies with: "No, I don't feel like it", so I cycle on a bit longer, but the need for a pee is way too great. I stop, but he just continues. He does pause, but well off in the distance and I can't see him from where I am standing. At the historical Route 66 junction, he stops. When I ask him what for, his answer is: "I thought you wanted to stop somewhere".

At first I think stuff it, I'll just go on, but then I change my mind. It is way too hot to waste my energy fighting about something so ludicrous as this. It is probably the sole cause of most of our roadside arguments: me riding too slow according to Aaldrik. Why am I riding slow? heat; slight incline; boring trip; my legs are tired. Heck, I don't know. All I do know is, if I could pedal faster, I would. Firstly, I hate these confrontations with Aaldrik and secondly, it's not the most hospitable countryside I've been in so the sooner I get through it the better.

To be a customer or not to be a customer...
Today, Route 66 or The Mother Road as it is also known, is only a patch on it's former glory in the 50's and 60's. It's end came in 1956 with the signing of the US Interstate Highway Act by Eisenhower. From a cyclists point of view, the ride is about as interesting as my big toe. A complete world of nothing with really poor condition roads as well. The first village we hit is Goffs. I foolishly think there might be a cold drink to be had; a vending machine even? No such luck and I suppose with a population smaller than the amount of trains that whistle through here everyday, there is no need for such luxouries.

We are aiming for Essex today, but we first pass through Fenner. There's a gas station, where Ali enquires about campsites in the area. News is, there are none and Essex is just a ghost town. Fenner is it! Furthermore, this convenience store is the only food stop until Amboy. When a business sells products like a $1.50 can of beer for $5.99; corn chips usually around $2.00 at $5.00; and has a notice out front which reads: We have spent a fortune on this place so don't complain to our staff. You have the choice to be a customer or not, it's time to get out quick. I fill our bottles in the restroom, choose absolutely not to be a customer and we try our luck for Amboy, which is a bit ambicious at 4.00pm with 65 kms to travel, knowing it is dark by seven.

We don't make it, and just 20 odd kilometres before Amboy (141km; 362m), we hit the sand hills in search of a flat bit of ground away from the highway. We find a perfect spot, which a one-eyed desert kit fox also thinks is pretty good resting ground. He's quite inquisitive and hangs around near us all night, though never dares to come too close. Tonight's sky display is magnificent and in total we see 6 shooting stars and in one night, that's a record for both of us.

When the well's dry, we know the worth of water (Benjamin Franklin)
These mind-nummingly straight roads are really beginning to urk me. Amboy with a population of two, irritates me as well. It doesn't have a well, so the water is saline and unpotable. No wonder the joint was up for sale a few years back. The unconfirmed amount Albert Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, paid for the whole town is $425,000. And like everyone else on this historic highway, he pledges devotion to preserving this national treasure to it's earlier glory, according to a local chap in Joshua. That was more than 3 years ago and since then he has employed Larry as the caretaker of Roy's Cafe, introduced Route 66 bottled water and filled the tanks up again to sell gas. So far, I smell only the work of a businessman wanting to make money and not a restoration enthusiast.

Now, I'm all for having to pay a little bit extra for water out here in the desert, but I'm not really into taking out an extra loan to fill up our water bottles for a day's ride. I mean, it is not as if this place is at all remote. Needles is an easy 130km away, so is Barstow and Palm Springs even less, yet Roy's is selling 500ml designer bottles only and for the excitable price of $5 for 6. The minimum amount that we can risk taking with us for the Mojave Desert run is 5 litres: I have a 750 ml bottle almost full, so Ali purchases 9 bottles. Larry, in all his generousity, gives us a 50 cent discount.

Ali comments that it is nice to have mineral water for a change. My only reply to that is: "You bet 'ya it tastes good: it's like liquid gold this stuff!" Still, it is obvious we are going to need every drop of it today as we turnoff onto Amboy Road and right smack bang into the thick of the Mojave Desert. Amboy Crater, a 6,000 year old extinct cinder cone, can be seen for miles. Basically, it is a conical hill of volcanic fragments accumulated around and downwind from a volcanic vent. In 1945, it is rumoured that local kids set fire to a bunch of tyres, wood and other burnable junk to replicate a possible eruption. Railroad and highway traffic was stopped and the LA Times even flew photographers over the crater.

The inclining road, the dryness, the boredom are all killers on this trip. The climb lasts for hours and we are desperately low on water by the time we get to the top. The only salvation in these informidable parts are the trucks: and there are plenty of these, that whizz pass. The breeze they create against your sweat is a second of refrigeration and boy it feels damned good.

It's a wonder it's on the map
The 10 kilometre drop into Wonder Valley is a chance to rest up. Why anyone would want to live here is a complete mystery to me and the tell tale scars of abandoned housing clearly emphasizes that others obviously felt my exact sentiment. There is no water anywhere, only a "Trust Jesus" sign on a ranch gate at the start of the town. I'm afraid there's not much he can do to quench my thirst at this stage and I wonder how Wonder Valley even came to being a settlement. It truly is a wonder!

Amboy Road takes us all the way to Twenty Nine Palms Highway and along another relentlessly boring stretch of road. I find it really difficult to keep my legs pedalling and Ali finds it really difficult to cope with my slower than his cycling speed. He screams at me to "Keep cycling!" on several occasions and either dawdles well behind or punches way ahead of me: whatever position, it rubs salt into my wounds. He waits somewhere in the distance and as I pull up says:
You should listen to me more.
Why, what haven't I listened to this time?
He ignores my question and gestures with a flip of his wrist that I should just cycle.
You are not always right you know.
Yes I am.
No you are not. You don't know everything.
Yes I do.

This, "I am the best" arrogance and that finger flicking motion he has adopted lately really makes me want to ring his neck. I just get on my bike and cycle silently for the rest of the journey into 29 Palms. A green park with life-saving water fountains is our break of silence. We guzzle a couple of litres between the two of us. It doesn't hit the sides. Cool and refreshing: water never tasted so good!

We cycle completely around the town looking for a supermarket and the tourist information centre. After finding the latter, we realise that we have to head back to where we started from to the TwentyNine Palms RV and Golf Resort (108km; 882m). The grand sum of $20.71 gets you a gravel patch with cement pad, free showers, sauna, pool, games room, and the list goes on. We only get as far as using the showers, which are really good after such a hard ride. Ali is being very nice to me this evening.

The interstate experience
Joshua Tree is the first town we hit and we buy some bread and a can each of Arizona Energy Drink. These guys really have their marketing campaign pretty well sewn up with the colourful labelling and Great Buy 99 cent badge on every 24oz can. It's really thirst quenching liquid and cheaper than anything else on the shelves. The Arizona website is a pretty flashy affair as well if you are interested in web visuals.

A couple of local jokers dish out all kinds of warnings about treacherous highway stretches and dastedly drivers between here and our destination of Banning. So far everyone has told us it'll be downhill from here on in. This information is based on the perspective from the comfortable seat of a motorised vehicle, because it goes up all the way to just outside Yucca Valley, where we stop at the Visitors Centre and enquire about travelling on the Interstate.

Ali gets Caltrans on the line and is informed by one of it's authorities that he wouldn't take his motorbike on the Interstate let alone cycle on it. His suggestion of a 33km (20 mi) detour is a typical non-cyclists proposal. We move out of town and make the decision that we'll cycle it no matter what. There is simply no alternative route.

The drop down into Morongo Valley is short but very, very sweet. Another climb taxes the legs before the grand free fall into Palm Springs Valley and one of the biggest wind farms we have ever laid eyes on. These wind turbine generators number more than 4000 here and provide enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley. The largest stands 46m (150ft) tall with blades half the length of a football field. They do however, require average wind speeds of at least 21 km/h (13 mph), which indicates just how the weather conditions are around these parts. Luck is on our side and it pushes us up and onto the Interstate 10.

And it is a good thing that we have a bit of help for our 30km main artery dash because it just goes gradually up and up and up all the way to Banning (101km; 1061m). It is not a pleasant experience; it is so busy, excessively noisy and while the shoulders might be wide, the cover is atrocious as is the amount of debris we have to dodge. It is obvious there isn't much money going into renewing the road system in California. Makes we wonder what Arnie is doing with that 7 billion dollar loan from the government to keep the state going.

We camp at our first KOA campground tonight and it costs a whopping $25 for nothing special at all. I mean it is just a place to pitch a tent and have a shower, that's it. Anyway it was a comfortable nights sleep and we power off, rejuvenated towards Lake Elsinore and just 70 kilometers before Laguna Beach. The trip isn't too drastic and we are setting up camp at 2.20 pm.

Slightly slopen
An initial climb takes us to Beaumont, followed by a rocket launch style plummet through the gap in the mountains and into Jacinto Valley, or Stinking Dairy Cow Valley, as I would prefer to call it. Ali takes advantage of the fact that Highway 79 is in top notch condition and he is in streamline position with his head down and back straight. Trying to break his 78km/hour record (Vancouver Island) will more likely take a steeper gradient than this. I reckon I haven't ventured much over 60 km per hour, partly for safety reasons and partly because these days I tend to break spokes when I go too fast.

And sure enough I hear that unwanted ping halfway down. Ali is a bit further on and I am definitely wondering why he doesn't come over immediately when I shout:
"I broke a spoke".
I start unloading the bags and turn to see his hands raised in the air crying: "What are you doing?"
"Unpacking the bike"
"But Why?"
"Why do you think dummy, I broke a spoke?"
"Ooooh! I thought you said: I'm on a slope."

The repair is quick as it isn't on the cassette side. The journey navigates us through flat-as-a-tack territory, passing through Nuevo and Lakeview: nothing to get excited about and then into Perris: appearing to be a very nice and respectable place until we hit the southern outskirts. Roads are worse than Turkmenistan and the rubbish piled roadsides coming in at second place to India. One more small climb out takes us into Lake Elsinore. A quick shop at Target, where amusingly enough they ask me for ID for purchasing beer and we hit Riverside Drive that leads us to Lake Elsinore Recreation Area (74km 307m). Not a bad spot, except that you can't go anywhere near the lake itself. It costs $20 and firewood is thrown in with it too, not that it's necessary on this warm evening.

Time for some tan maintenance
We have a daunting looking pass to climb today, but in hindsight it is pretty easy getting to the top of the mountain road, first build with slip scrapers, teams of horses wheel barrows and shovels in 1917. Today, the Ortega Highway is still a winding narrow road only fit for two cars passing each other. Fortunately for us, it isn't that busy and on a long stretch of roadwork, we can safely pedal on the lane that is closed. Being a one lane situation, the traffic is perfectly controlled for us as well: coming in sessions well spaced apart.

The condition of the road as we near the coast is deteriorating and the rubbish situation is also a sad sight. It's a long trip through San Juan Capistrano and the avenues of wealthy houses with luscious green lawns and gardens being tended to by Mexicans. To cut a long Pacific Highway story short, after following a bike detour sign, which takes us up a 19% grade at Dana Point, we stick to the Coastal Road all the way to Laguna Beach (71km; 659m). It is Halloween, not that that was overly obvious; Jim's at home to greet us with his big smile and booming voice. "Man you guys got here real fast. You sure know how to cycle"; and there's enough news to keep us all chatting well into the evening.

It has been another really hectic month and this travelogue has taken hours of deliberation just like September's did. It is especially difficult recalling events that took place at the beginning of the month, even with notes. We're going to have to figure out a better rhythm in Mexico, that's for sure, but that is a few weeks away yet. At this point in time, we are going to settle down in Laguna Beach, at Jim's house, on the block of land overlooking Fisherman's Cove, that his great grandma bought for $500 and a diamond ring way back in 1915. It is time to relax in the sun; listen to the surf and smell the salt air. It is also time to finally end the October Story.

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