In this relentless information age of who can beat whom to get information out that's critical at that moment, and who can influence more people with something they broadcast, post, or tweet, the pace can be unrelenting. Information seems to be colliding and broiling in a contentious sea, battling for supremacy. Instead of talking over each other, what would happen if a simple greeting and introduction was followed by ... silence?
Near the beginning of this trip a very good friend of mine quoted Sean Stephenson, "Communication is merely an exchange of information. Connection is the exchange of our humanity." What if I squelched my desire to do the two-minute drill to get the ride's purpose across? What if I just greeted someone and then listened?
A bicycle can be such an inviting instrument. Put on a couple of large travel bags, add a sleeping bag and a small flag and you now have an attraction, really an oddity. This has helped some interactions develop into good exchanges and eventually into awesome connections and friendships.
Before even getting on the train in Royal Oak, Mi this past November I was approached by a person from Free Bike 4 Kids Detroit who was asking questions about the upcoming ride. He uses bicycles to reach out to underserved kids in Detroit. With similar interests, I'm looking forward to developing that relationship.
The very first ride day, John, a retired cyclist from Santa Monica, was looking to reminisce about his long rides along trails on the Continental Divide. He prefers the roads now and suggested taking a shortcut through a particular canyon. Two days later my reticence was confirmed when he texted, saying that particular road "wasn't very bike friendly now."
Then there was Nacho, the subject in a separate blog in this column.
Nick the cancer patient from Las Vegas stopped me at a gas station on that I15 mountain pass. He was returning home after his Hodkins treatment at UCLA. "You need to get to Vegas to get the casinos to help. They got a lot of money." I passed on that one. What could possibly have gone wrong with a detour to Vegas?
There was Sam from Vermont who was camping in Joshua National Park after his IT training workshop. He strongly suggested supplemental water supply in New Mexico. I should have paid more attention to that issue in the mountains of eastern. That could have been a disaster.
Gabby who moved from Ohio and has worked for the last 8 years at the RZ Mini Mart in Salome AZ, agreed with an Arizona state trooper that it was not a good idea to ride down Salome Rd at dusk. It's windy and hilly. "Drivers like to go kind of fast.
These messages avalanched daily, reminding me constantly that even complete strangers were protecting me, guiding me, and genuinely looking out for my best interests. All I needed to do was quiet myself, turn off the phone, and listen.
It might seem like a cliche, but really, sometimes the best place to meet the best people is a that small-town diner. You know, the one where the staff has seemingly worked together forever. The town is tight enough and the clientele so regular, the staff nearly has the order fully prepped by the time the customer sits at the table. On the outskirts of Lucerne Valley on the northern edge of California's San Bernardino National Forest Stanley and I ate breakfast.
Riding a bicycle cross country was not going to impress Stanley. You see, Stanley's done significantly more travel. A WHOLE lot more travel. Stanley is an acrobat in a traveling circus that is based out of the area. Covid has seriously crushed business. So, Stanley is adjusting, again.
Stanley's been performing for decades since the 1990s in Tanzania. For seven years he performed at various hotels around Mt. Kilimanjaro. At times, the troupe would travel to Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique. "It was great work. Travel. Do my routine in the hotel on the Chinese pole. Leave, and go back to my room." he said.
It wasn't without danger though. Political unrest would frequently result in bloodshed. In April 1994, while he was performing in Rwanda, the aircraft carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. While responsibility for the attack on two Hutu leaders is still inconclusive, the assassination was blamed on Tutsi opponents. With precise organization, militias unleashed a 100-day bloodletting, killing almost 20 percent of the population.
Stanley's company was on the run. "We had to clear the border before it was sealed shut. Once closed, things could get really bad."
Running across borders weren't confined to just Rwanda. Stanley said that his tour stops in Uganda were always delicate. Strife there was ongoing, whether it was with Tanzania, an insurgency group, or a nearly decade-long civil war. Eventually, we learned to just stay away from their borders.
During one of these layovers Stanley caught a break. "There was this guy from an American circus company looking for new acts. He offered me a contract to perform in America. "I did that for almost a year, but fell in love, and got married." Stanley settled down in Pittsburgh, bought a house and worked in a medical center for over a decade.
Eventually though, his marriage crumbled, and Stanley was back on the road in traveling circuses. This second production company was less glamorous. They required everyone to not only do their acts, but also help with the two-day setup and one-day teardown of the performance tents. These setups were usually in the small-town parking lots or in an open field. He can't remember which town it was but is certain he was in Michigan at one point.
It's been rough lately. Because of covid Stanley is adjusting again. He's taking advantage of yet another break and flying home to Tanzania to visit his two children and extended family for four weeks. He's especially looking forward to this reunion. He says "Even with all the craziness I've had in my life, it's still a very good life. I've always look for the good in people because eventually the good will eventually find me."
.Relying on my own legs to get from A to B gets complicated at times. There are things to see, people to contact, and adjusting ride distances based on road, weather and my own body conditions. It can be a juggling act. So many scenes along the way, like fog drifting over a hilltop or the way wind is moving the tall grass through a field can be so captivating. It gets especially difficult to resist when I know it is nearly impossible to put that scene to a media card. Sometimes though, incoming weather conditions will not just affect the ride, they will command it with undeniable focus. Reach the destination asap!
Such was the case this past Christmas. While I had hoped to visit North America's oldest Catholic church, San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe NM, weather dictated otherwise. The National Weather Service forecasted major wind issues, 30-40 mph winds and 65 mph gusts, for where I was headed on Sunday and Monday. Not good cycling weather, even if it is downwind. So, the route and plans were changed. I was going to beeline it out of the mountains.
On the road at sunrise Christmas Day, the goal, an all-time high, 109 miles to Santa Rosa NM. I'll admit, favorable wind direction played into this calculation. But still, the road is king. It dictates how the day will go.
The first part seemed great. Google maps directed me to a converted Santa Fe railroad line. Crushed stone undulating over rolling hills through dry arroyos. Frequently, fog shrouded the way, making for a cool damp start. Lesson 1: Much better riding on a path in the fog than a road.
What began as an easy warmup ride, gradually became less attractive. The pathway narrowed and degenerated into softer sand. Then slid into a two-track that looked more suitable for a jeep. Eventually, it dropped into a single track that mountain bikes would love. At times, my rear wheel was spinning as I powered up a steep hill. I wondered when this would end. Soon enough, it did; but not to my satisfaction.
Less than 300 ft from a paved Rt 285 that would propel me toward Clines Corner and another interstate highway, my bike inexplicably slowed to a crawl. Quickly, no matter how hard I pedaled on this seemingly flat surface, I ground to a halt. Both tires, mired in mud, were literally locked. No worries. I've seen this before on YouTube. Just use a stick, right, and scrape it out. Wrong.
This clay, resembling something a potter would put on his wheel, had to be surgically removed with a knife. Making sure not to damage either tire, I delicately sliced and peeled this muck for nearly an hour. No problem: I can adjust, right?
Only problem, that degenerating scenic path and clay cleanup was very expensive. It was noon before I was back in the saddle. That 15-mile pathway
and unceremonious finish took five hours. I now had to cover 94 miles in less than hours before dusk. Even without this extra 45 plus lbs of gear, I have never ridden 20mph for 5 hours. I would surely be tested on multiple levels.
The purpose of this ride all along has been to connect with people. At the expense of pounding x number of miles per day in a dash to the finish, there's been a conscientious effort to engage total strangers. What if they're not strangers? What if they're good friends, who in the middle of their holiday celebration decide to include me by calling from Illinois? I dropped the ball, failing miserably.
Instead of stopping and giving them my full attention, I decide to power on. Cycling at 7,000 ft is stressful. But bicycling AND talking on a phone is not reasonable. I can only imagine what it must've been like for them to listen to me wheeze my way through three to four words at a time. Soon enough, we gave up.
Regardless of circumstances, I should have at least respectfully given them my full attention. A Christmas phone call can't be replicated. It's a quickly fleeting, one-time experience. I'm so sorry guys.
By late afternoon, arriving in Clines Corner, NM at 3pm, the real lessons were going to accelerate. Turning east onto Interstate 40, the 20-25 mph wind would now be directly at my back. Praying that it would persist for a couple more daylight hours, I might be able to miraculously crush the next 57 miles before dusk.
Flying along at 24+ mph, and down hills at 35-40 is so exhilarating. Soon, I actually began believing that at this speed I could beat darkness. Interstate riding, once learned, is somewhat tolerable. With its really wide shoulder and rumble strip to alert me of drifting motorists, I can focus on avoiding the omnipresent road debris. Shredded semi tires, broken glass, and the occasional roadkill make for a lot of gradual shifting and drifting in the 11ft wide lane.
Just one problem. As usually the case nearing dusk, the winds began to subside. No longer pushing me over the hills and shoving me to my max gear down the other side, my saving grace was slowly fading. The tall grasses beside the road were starting to stand straighter and straighter. I was in real trouble.
Someone very close recently told me that this ride would be my opportunity to begin a new thought process with God. She said it would offer me the chance to get more personal in my conversations with Him. "What are you speaking to me about? Help me to understand." Maybe that's why I haven't worn headphones to listen to podcasts or music. With proper work on my part, maybe I could establish a more purposeful, conscientious means of actually communicating with Him.
Dusk inevitably darkened. I purposely got to work on prepping for the impending night ride. I've ridden at night before. The reflective vest is already on. Make sure both taillights are still running. Turn on the headlight to see the 15-20 ft in front me. What a minute. Where's the headlight? It must have fallen off while getting off the bike at the last stop. No worries, pull out the headlamp. Small problem, I can locate only two of the necessary three batteries. Oh, this will be special.
Let's just say now I've quickly accelerated from communicating with Him to outright praying. I've got to cover 22 miles. It's challenging to see much past the front wheel and you're looking in the mirror, hoping for more trucks to zip past so you can see what's coming up in the next 200 yards. With approaching bad weather, the next day, I desperately needed a workable solution.
The white line. That's it. You know. The white line that lets you know when you're going to drift out of your lane and hit the rumble strips. I could use that in reverse order. As long as I focused on that line and stayed three to four feet to the right of it, I could avoid the rumble strip and the lane of traffic.
This stripe turned into my guide, my light. If I stayed close to that marker, I would be safe. Drift too far to the right and there's the ditch. Lights, revelations started turning on for me. If I slowed down and just followed this stripe I could make. It might get slow and stressful, but it could be done.
It also didn't mean that there weren't going to be additional issues. I was petrified of what I might bump into in the dark. There had to be road debris. Could this be similar to the work necessary to reinforce one's faith? I had to rely on my faith in the prep work I put into my equipment before the ride. (Tires with Kevlar beads.) It wouldn't be easy, but it could be patiently conquered.
Those last 6 miles seemed to drag forever, but eventually I crested the hill overlooking the lights of Santa Rosa. Those excruciating miles reinforced spiritual guideposts for me. Use my faith as a guide. Place it out front. Be calm. Slow my mind and let my spirit accept what is there in front of me and quietly listen to what pathway He can offer.
Before this adventure, I imagined extended hours on desolate, lonely roads getting bored by wind noise, blasted by blowing sand and frightened by the occasional speeding trucker flying past. It was only natural then, right, to tackle the podcast library on the iPhone by loading up on Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Bari Weiss and some mind candy to help pass those miles.
Once on the road, however, I quickly realized that plugging in was actually tuning out and doing both things quite poorly. In my ears I was just hearing what was being said while sort of paying attention to what was going on around me. More than literally blocking my awareness of surroundings, the audio prevented me from experiencing the passing moments.
This journey is not just the intentional act of running from point A to point B. Rather, it is a process of intentional immersion in each experience to maximize the benefit of those personal interactions. I could not expect myself to just turn on and off. I needed to allow them room to actually feel and dwell on these sights, sounds and smells I run across each day. So, those earbuds have, for the last two weeks gradually sunk to the bottom of the Green Guru pouch; getting ever closer to that inevitable envelope of items returned at the next post office stop.
This mental space is one of the appeals to solo travel. The solitude gives the mind freedom to wander, to just listen. How is my spirit being guided at that moment? How am I being directed to move? Where will I end up next?
After being rescued by Henry in the Arizona desert with some much-needed water my body was a mess. I had to lay off the accelerator and mentally recover. So, that Wednesday, I coasted into Holbrook, AZ, a small town built on the legacy of the old Route 66 and its proximity to Petrified National Forest. On its main drag sit an assortment of cost-conscious chain motels. Mixed in is a collection throw-back motels, more than showing their age from the 1950s and 60s.
For whatever reason, at the time, I was drawn to the well-worn 66 Motel. You might have seen similar places. The oversized satellite dish from the 80s is held vertically in place by large, petrified wood stones. You park your car directly in front of your room and walk no more than ten steps to your door. One old kitchen chair with cracked vinyl seat cushions sits tiredly next to each door. You open that door with an actual key and a tag declaring that room number. Inside, the artwork dangles on old wood paneling. For some reason, at this specific time, this felt right.
Behind the office counter sat an older woman in a hoodie who seems like she'd worked there forever. She appeared to be set in her ways. Ignoring my entry, she was diligently trimming the bottom edges of tattered receipts so they all aligned and will fit in some specific place. It seemed kind of quirky, so I just waited.
Eventually, she looked up from her scissors and paper shreds and asks, what for me is now the regular obvious question, "what are you doing on a bike today?" "I'm Dave, riding cross-country for colon cancer awareness. If my good friend Donna can go through chemo, I can handle this."
To help ease the introduction, on the back of generic business card, she wrote her name and "Sikh Awareness" underneath. "Why do you add Sikh Awareness under your name" I ask. For over the next half hour while checking in other customers, Bhagwant Rangi explained just how much those two words meant to her.
Bhagwant has three children, a son who is a pain doctor in suburban Philadelphia and two daughters who also live out east. As her children were growing up in Phoenix in 2001, 9/11 happened. Four days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered outside his Mesa AZ gas station in the nation's first hate crime post 9/11. Bhagwant went into action.
She helped form Sikh Awareness of Phoenix, an outreach program for high school students. For the next two decades she worked tirelessly to prevent others from defining her faith and fomenting hate.
Four years ago, her son had completed med school and was preparing for his board exams. They discussed how difficult these tests could be. So, she wanted to make sure there was a Plan B. "I told him we needed business options if things didn't go well. Not everyone gets through the rigorous test process."
With that, she and her husband drove all over the west looking for good gas stations to buy. "It's not easy to find profitable ones at a reasonable price. We even tried looking here in Holbrook, but I just didn't like the town," she said.
Back in Phoenix, a Hindu friend explained that a person they both knew had passed away and their spouse needed to sell a business in Holbrook. "My husband and I drove up to this place as they were putting up the For Sale sign out front. Something just attracted me to this place. It's an independent location. I don't pay a large company 40% for advertising and marketing. I like the ability to just turn off the light at night if I'm tired and go to sleep."
So at 79 years old, Bhagwant Rangi and her 83 year old husband now had a business to run, just in case.
Why would someone of Bhagwant's age want to start something she had no prior experience in running? She attributes her drive, values and work ethic to her father, a farmer back home in India. "I was the middle child of seven daughters and eventually one son. This was at a time when every family wanted a boy. When a baby was born, the family would look, and if it was a girl, she was ... (Bhagwant tilts her head quickly to the right.)
My family went through this seven times. "The villagers would ask my dad 'Don't you understand? Why do you keep doing this? My father would proudly state 'Where did you come from? That's right, a woman. The woman is the creator. Shis is the one who generates more life."
Apparently at the same time in India girls were not allowed to attend school. That didn't stop her father who just started a school on his own. "It was in an unfurnished small building with a dirt floor. Father would just bring a rug from the house. We would sit on that and do our lessons in the dirt. Once I was done with my lesson, I would wipe the dirt back over it and the next girl could do hers.
So, what is that Bhagwant has learned from her father and worked so hard to reinforce here in America? "We are all under the Creator who makes this all happen, and we just do parts on earth under that. Look, you are Christian. I'm Sikh. We are all under the same Creator. We are more alike than different."
The Angels Among Us
Henry has been very influential in keeping me safe during this ride. There was a two day stretch that first week when I had to get across the desert from Joshua National Park in CA to Parker AZ. Knowing that services would be extremely rare, I had an extra 3L collapsible bottle to go with my usual 3 bike bottles. Time, distance, and speed calculations are critical, so one spends a lot of brain energy rationing water supply. It's not a problem unless one of those three variables gets miscalculated.
Two-thirds of the way through the day I'm almost done with my 3rd bottle and about to tap into the 3 liter. It's sort of like tapping into the emergency fund when something is broken around the house. You know that's what it's there for, but it's still something you don't want to do.
I turn onto a roadside overlook where several RVs have done the same; fascinated by a developing sandstorm to the west. For some reason, my instinct tells me to just ride up to this mammoth house on wheels, say hi, and see where it goes. It's very rare that a motorist will turn down a request for water in the desert. Sure enough, when he, wearing a cycling t shirt, answers my greeting, I knew I was in. It's amazing how my emotional outlook turned the rest of the day. Since I was so close to my destination, water rationing was really of no concern.
Three days ago I left Phoenix for what I anticipated being the most challenging segment of the ride. Going from 600ft sea level into mountains is not something I'm accustomed to. There's not a lot of mountain training options in SE Michigan. Turns out, it wasn't the climbing that almost did me in. Rather, it was the altitude and dryness of the 70 miles between Phoenix and Payson, AZ.
Two thirds of the way through day 2 and I'm very concerned about my water. This route is on a divided highway with no towns and very few exits. Making matters worse, I know there are several major climbs to over 5000ft coming eventually. Under a worst-case scenario, one always imagines they could succeed. But there's that little voice saying otherwise.
I pitch camp on a small road leading from the highway to a trailhead. I'm close enough to hear the truckers during the night stopping at the pulloff to check their brakes before the long descent.
Next morning, I get up with two totally dry bottles and the last one with a couple of ounces of water left. There's definitely not enough water to burn on a hot breakfast. So, I load up my bike bags and pull out from camp.
Simultaneously, a Walmart truck driver pulls over to the shoulder to check his brakes. I ask him how far to the next option for water. When he tells me 15-18 miles, my heart sank. There is no way I could make that distance safely. At that point I just had to ask "Im Dave, do you have any extra water?" ?"
His reply "I'm Henry, would you like two?"
The best part of these rides is the sensory overload of feeling the wind, especially at your back, the smells of whatever is drifting through, the physical exertion of repetitive motion, and catching unusual sounds you snare while cruising through town. With crashing surf and cool breezes off the water its pretty easy, like yesterday, to enjoy a ride up the Pacific Coastal Highway.
Heading inland today was all city riding with the goal, 60 miles, to reach a county campground. Even without significant climbs I could feel the steady tug of sluggish pedals as I'm "riding myself into shape." We Midwesterners must do this mental juggling act whenever confronted with impending hills greater than a Mack Ave overpass over the auto factory trainyard. Never ending traffic lights and intersections are my destiny until I hit a bike path. It's gonna take some work though getting there before dark, around 5pm.
At this point, even though it's supposed to be the rainy season, it's midafternoon and the 86-degree sun is just smoking the pavement. So, I am not complaining. I'm toolin along, easy clip and all of the sudden this guy in an orange safety vest comes flyin up from behind on an old mountain bike and exclaims "Hi." Who can resist a solid smile with a solid greeting like that? For the next 10+ miles we just pedal and talk. In all honesty, doing more talking than earnest peddling.
We're discussing his enthusiasm for riding and how he wants to do extended rides. With his apples, bananas and other fruit snacks dangling from a plastic bag twisted around his handlebars, he excitedly exclaims why he is so energized and smiling while riding. "It makes me feel so happy inside. I love the outside air; so much better than stuck inside. People who spend a lot of time outside are so happy, giving them energy to live. What are you going to do when you're stuck inside, but be sad? Like I can add anything to this philosophy? Just nod and smile.
He said he worked for decades with LA County as a heavy equipment operator but is now retired. He just likes getting outdoors and meeting others. It's a way to connect and stay healthy.
When discussing family, he said his dad spent time in Muskegon and Lansing. He preferred life in LA. Who could argue with that perspective when comparing December weather? I got a feeling though if he was dropped into SE Michigan today, he'd find something positive to say. "Positive people attract each other, just like positive energy attracts positive energy."
At the point of discussing families, I probably need to be polite and at least introduce myself. I must've had that cock-eyed head tilt when you think you've heard something but are afraid to request a redo on a name. "Nacho, my name's Nacho, like the chip." At this point, I've realized he's probably done these routine countless times at introductions. It's such a gift that Nacho, with such a beautiful soul and positive spirit is doing so much for those around him.
It's rarely the miles ridden or the mountains scaled that are memorable. Rather it's the people you meet along the journey that highlight meaning.