Fear and Floating

Reading time when read aloud: 4 1/2 minutes. Backdated four days.

Shit. Time to make camp. I misjudged the fading Fall light, a distant mountain cutting off an extra half hour of visibility. I’m in the middle of a rather urban area nestled in the dusty desert of Southeast California. It’s definitely not an ideal location to camp, but just outside of town there’s a large rock formation where I’m sure I can find a nook to sleep in. Since leaving Seattle my tent poles have snapped and my Thermarest has a leak in it that’s impossible to identify, so by “sleep”, I really mean lay down and gaze up at the stars while waiting for the sun to return.

I lay the yoga mat down near one of the valley walls, unroll the sleeping bag inside of the hammock, using its mesh as a barrier from whatever creepy crawlers may exist in these southeast Californian hills. It’s now fully dark, which in the desert still leaves about 5% light, enough to feel ones way around without using a headlamp. Grabbing two tiny travel-sized plastic bottles of white wine, I hike a short distance up the rocks, careful to avoid the plethora of garbage, broken glass, and twisted metal left by previous nature enthusiasts. Perched upon a boulder, I twist open one of the bottles and lean back, trying to kill some time before “sleep”. It’s barely 7pm.

Roughly an hour after stopping, I see a set of headlights at the entrance of the valley. I watch as they come crawling down the main road a ways before peeling off into the brush on the other side, brights illuminating the hills opposite me. The vehicle is too far for me to hear its engine over the sound of the breeze, but I am bathed in faint light whenever they turn towards my side of the valley. For well over an hour, I watch as they explore the side trails, sweeping the lights in a circle, reversing out of dead ends and moving further down the main road before ducking off again to the side paths.

When traveling cross country alone, sometimes it’s easy to imagine the worst. A truck full of methheads, perhaps? I stumbled upon a suburban parked a mile or two off the trail while I was looking for a place to stealth camp. As a rule of thumb, whenever I come across other humans this far from civilization, I immediately backtrack and put some distance between us. The idea of stealth camping is to use the bikes off-road abilities to find a spot I can be invisible for the night, and a loaded bike like mine on a back trail late at night is a giveaway that I’m looking for a place to camp.

A dirt bike came ripping through the dark valley earlier in the night, quite close to me. Knowing it was only an individual, I was not worried. But now as I watched this SUV shaped vehicle seemingly partoling the valley, I paid close attention to the spikes of energy I was experiencing. I wrapped the bike in a tarp, hiding as much of the reflective tape as I could, and returned to my perch.

When camping alone in undesignated areas, you learn a lot about fear. No one knows where I am. I barely do. The leatherman on my hip is my main form of protection. After an hour of circling the valley, the SUV eventually disappears out of sight, and twenty minutes later I finish my second mini-wine with little more than a distant flicker of headlights. They’re probably not looking for me, but if they find me, they find me. A truckload of addicts looking to rip off a motorcycles,t or a drunk teen rallying through the hills, either way I’d rather not run into them (or them into me).

I lay down on the ground and let the starry sky put my existence into perspective. My first time sleeping outside without a tent. The temperature dropped into the low 40’s and I am in full dress with my armored jacket draped across my chest. I drift off a few times, awoken by massive gusts of wind that threaten to push my bike over on top of me. I intended to get up well before sunrise anyways. Around 3:30am I decide to pack up and spend the rest of the morning writing in a nearby Dennys.

The ride out of the valley is treacherous one, as the wind kicks dust up onto the road. I later learn of the severe wind warning stating 30-50mph winds with isolated gusts up to 70mph. These are forecasted to last until 8:00am, so I stay inside at Dennys for a few hours and wait out the wind. I leave at eight, but I only make it ten or so miles out of town before I have to pull over due to lack of visibility and winds that violently threaten to throw me into oncoming traffic. Deciding to wait it out, I stood on the side of the road with braced legs, holding onto the bike to keep it from being blown over. After a while I remount the bike and ride back to town to hole up in a coffeeshop, where I realize the forecast says the severe wind warning ends at 8:00am tomorrow.

 

Desert Brace

Around 4:00pm I again attempt to escape the valley. Forecasts claim twenty miles south, on the other side of the mountains the wind is manageable. Just as I reach the foothills, massive dark rain clouds crested the peaks, looming down upon me, propelled by powerful wind. It’s borderline winter conditions, snow level only 1000 feet above me. Playing it safe, I turn around and head back to town, pulling over whenever the traffic behind me reaches four or five cars. I regretfully spent the majority of my remaining funds on a motel room, the first since I left Seattle. Not at all what I wanted, but it beat wrecking myself on the side of the road. I now have enough cash left to make it to Tucson, with less than a few dollars to spare.

The next day I learned of a 19 car pileup on I-10 just south of Phoenix. A massive wall of sand blew in, blocking all visibility as semi-trucks smashed cars into unrecognizable heaps. In one direction the freeway is blocked by debris, the other direction closed for emergency vehicles and helicopters. Three people died on site, and the freeway remained closed the entire day. Throughout the extra hours of night-riding backroads around the wreck towards Tucson, simple gratitude muted my complaints of fatigue and cold, and I kept those injured in my prayers.

 

I’m halfway through the tour and terribly behind on updates. I will do my best to catch up as I rest up in Tucson.