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  • Writer's pictureBenji Pollock

Opportunity from Adversity

I left LA super late. I decided last night to go to a party to say goodbye to some friends, and I ended up staying out later than expected so I woke up later than I wanted. I was also supposed to go shopping with a friend last night but she got stuck in traffic on her way home from work and ran out of time, and then I completely forgot about my errands once plans changed. I spent the morning running around doing errands before hopping on the metro to get away from downtown - there was no way I wanted to ride my bike through downtown LA. I had to transfer 3 Metros to get around the city, and by the time I got to the third Metro it was already rush hour. I couldn’t fit into the bike space, and there were no available seats, so I had to hold onto my bike in front of the entrance while holding onto a pole. I was in everyone’s way. I was so embarrassed and kept apologizing. I fell twice as the train started moving again while trying to clear away from the pole at the entrance to give people room to get in. The second time, some guy freaked out at me, saying “how many fucking times are you gonna do that man?” Negativity breeds negativity, so to change trajectory and share some positivity, I smiled and nicely responded, “I’m sorry sir, I really didn’t mean to do that.” The guy that I had just moved for (the reason I wasn’t holding onto anything and lost balance when the train started moving) said to the guy that freaked out, “come on man, it was clearly an accident.” I thanked him and turned around laughing embarrassedly, and everyone in the area smiled. A Russian lady who had helped me the whole trip on the 3rd Metro - holding the elevator for me, telling me which train to get on, instructing me where to go and where to get off laughed the hardest when I got freaked out at.

When I hopped off the train, I plugged my destination into Google maps and then quickly hit the road. I was planning on bike packing through the mountains all the way to Big Bear Lake - a route I found online. I was in a rush to get to the mountains before dark so that my climb wouldn’t be too sketchy, but I really didn’t think my ride through. I stayed in my street clothes and sandals instead of changing somewhere near the metro, thinking that I’d just change once I got to the forest. I sweat through everything and was uncomfortable and inefficient the whole way up to the foothills. When I got to the trail head, I pulled over to sort some stuff out and change quickly. Then, someone walked by me and, surprised, asked if I was going up the mountain or coming down. I told him up. He responded, “I don’t know if this trail is bikeable… but I don’t bike much so I guess you would probably know better.” He was the one that lived here, and I had never been here before, but I guess with all my gear I looked like I knew what I was doing. I confidently responded “oh yeah! I found this route online and met some people who have done it before.” He said okay and wished me luck as I pulled off to start the trail. The further in I got, the sketchier the trail got. The sun was already setting and I still had about 3000ft of climbing left to get to the campsite I wanted to stay at, and my legs were getting torn apart by the thick brush along the trail, so I decided to make the smart decision to turn around. I figured I’d camp out near the trailhead and then try again in the morning.

On my way down the trail, I looked at my map. “FUCK” I thought. I realized that from the beginning I was using the wrong map. I plugged the Mt. Lowe campground into my Google maps because I already had it open for the Metro instead of putting into my Ride With GPS app, where my bikepacking route was already preloaded. With all the distractions and stresses of the Metro and running late, I didn’t even notice my mistake, and mindlessly followed Google maps into a terrible, terrible trail. I’ve been uneasy trusting the Google maps cycling directions recently, and usually plan the directions on my own, but being in such a rush made me not question the directions. At the bottom of the trail, I met Jonathan. He had a scary German shepherd that tried to attack me every time I looked at him, but when I ignored him he was perfectly calm. Jonathan and I talked for a bit, and when I told him what happened he told me to just camp in the gully by the trail head. ‘It’ll look like someone’s driveway,” he said, “but don’t be nervous, it’s actually National Forest land.” He gave me directions to the trail I needed. When I got there, there were two guys who told me I’d be fine there, but I didn’t like the area and couldn’t find a good spot so I decided to ride to the proper trailhead and try to find somewhere to camp there so that I would be ready to go in the morning.

I had a big, steep climb to do in the dark to get to National Forest and to the trailhead where I was going to start in the morning. I was completely pissed off at myself, but tried to stay positive. I was glad that I made the smart decision to not go further in so that I eventually realized my mistake. Once I accepted the fact that I was going to be a few extra miles and a few thousand feet of climbing behind, I was glad to not be climbing dirt trails in the dark. I pushed my bike around the gate that blocked motor vehicles from the trail I had to climb and then parked it to look for a campground. I couldn’t find anything good, so I came back around the gate after hearing a car pull up. I rode up next to them to ask if they knew of any good place to camp, when Lindsay told me that she and her friends used to hang out on a hill and do LSD in high school, and there was probably somewhere good to camp. She pointed me in the right direction and then we continued talking. They had driven up the hill to hang out, and they were eating dinner in the car. Neither of them were going to finish their sandwiches, so they offered me their leftovers. I told them I would love them if they definitely weren’t going to finish them, and they gave me half a pastrami sandwich and half a turkey sandwich. Now I didn’t have to worry about cooking dinner in the dark (one of my least favorite things about building camp so late).

Sean then told me he used to be a fishing captain, and when I told him one of my goals of the trip was to be able to catch, clean, and cook fresh fish well enough to sustain myself, he gave me his number telling me he’d meet me anywhere there was a good fishing spot along my ride to San Diego and teach me how to fish and clean properly. He had taken a sabbatical from being a fishing captain, and was now a contractor, and Lindsay was in real estate after studying cultural anthropology and ceramics. They gave me book recommendations, we talked about life, living positively and adventurously, doing what we’re passionate about and what feels right, and treating people well. Sean liked that I said “wicked” a lot, and thought it was funny because a friend of his from New Jersey also used to say it all the time. The funny part was that I had picked it up while in California.

After saying goodbye to them, I found a good spot on top of the hill and then brought my bike up to build my tent and get ready for bed. I stargazed and took photos for a while before calling a few people while I had service and then journalling.

I woke up in the morning in my jacket, on top of my phone. When I looked back at my journal entry, I realized I had passed out in the middle of typing.

Once awake, I took my time getting ready. I broke down camp and then headed back towards the trail I had to go up. I leaned my bike up against the gate and ate a bit when another cyclist rode by on a beautiful full suspension bike. I probably should’ve taken that as a hint for what was to come. We talked for a bit, and after telling him about my bike trip he said to me, “I was looking for some inspiration to get up this mountain, but now you are my inspiration.” By saying that, he motivated me.

I started riding, and the first bit was paved but quite steep. My fast mountain bike ride without bags in Santa Monica showed me I was more in shape that I thought, but this ride gave me a bit more humility and made me realize that I wasn’t actually as fit as I thought. The climb destroyed me. Then, the asphalt turned into a lower grade dirt and rock road. The lower grade was nice, but the rocks were hard to manage with my bike setup. I let a bit of air out of my tires for a cushier ride, but without shocks, my body became the shock absorber, and it was incredibly tiring. I finally got to the Mt. Lowe campground that I wanted to camp at last night, happy that I didn’t actually try to do that climb in the dark, and then had lunch. I think that taking the wrong turn happened for a reason, because otherwise I would have been miserably climbing this mountain in the dark, unable to find a good camp spot. After hanging out and stretching for a bit, I continued.

I summited the mountain, and realized that I was a mile above sea level. I was having such a hard time on the previous section, getting out of breath way quicker than I expected. I realized that the altitude was affecting me. I didn’t expect to be so heavily affected, but I hadn’t yet been at such a high altitude all trip.

On the route there was a tunnel through the side of the mountain. When I got to it, I noticed there was a big rock fall right in front of the entrance. The trail followed a cliff, so the rocks had fallen from the cliff above to the cliff below, blocking the trail. My only way was over, but it was pretty steep and the other side was a sheer drop off, so I took it really slowly and carefully. After getting through the tunnel, I hopped on an asphalt road for a few miles before turning off at a picnic area for a quick break and to figure out where to go. When I was there, two cars came into the parking lot with camouflage stickers on them. I assumed they were concept cars so I went up to one of the guys and asked “how do I get to drive one of these for a living?” He responded, excitedly and bewildered, “how do I get to do THAT for a living??” We started talking. They were all engineers for Mazda testing a pre-production car, and they all rode bikes. They were really curious about my trip, so we talked for a while. Then a girl named Dawn, on a really nice Specialized road bike pulled up and asked if we knew where to find water. We ended up talking for a bit, and then all said goodbye.

As I was heading to the next trail, one of the engineers said to me, “you know we’re all super jealous of you right?” I laughed and then he said “come here, come here,” motioning towards his car. He opened the door, revealing a really nice carbon road bike in his trunk. I told him if it was a mountain bike I would’ve invited him to join!

I then continued down the trail. It was mostly downhill, and on my way, a car was stopped in the road with three downhill bikes on the roof. I pulled over to talk to them. They worked for the forest service cleaning up trails, and were just cleaning up the trail I was heading to to get to my campsite for the night. We talked about biking for a while, and I told one guy to reach out to me if he had any contacts in San Diego that would like some volunteer help with trail maintenance.

Once I got to my campsite, I set up right next to the rushing creek so I could fall asleep and wake up to the sound of rushing water. I made a big dinner and a cup of tea before going to bed to journal and read.

The day was really difficult, and I didn’t get nearly as far as I wanted to, but I learned a lot. My goal was never to finish this route, but to gain more knowledge, experience, and training before hopping on the Baja Divide. If I don’t finish the route, but have a lot of good takeaways, I’ll be happy enough. I have a few bailing points in case I want to head out of the mountains, so I just need to play it by ear, see how I’m feeling, and see how far I can get. For a while when I was riding so slowly I was upset at the prospect of not finishing the route. But as I got further and further along, I kept on reconsidering my options and changing my expectations. As I changed my expectations, I was no longer disappointed, and started riding faster because I was in a better mood. I was happier being able to enjoyably take the time that I needed, instead of suffering through the distance that I wanted.

Sometimes we set such high expectations for ourselves, without any other options or backup plans. If we accomplish our crazy high expectations, we become proud and happy that we set them so high. But, when our expectations are too high and it doesn’t go our way, we become depressed and disappointed. I always try to push myself and set expectations a bit out of reach. On this trip though, I’ve learned that my mental health comes first. If pushing myself to accomplish that far out goal will bring me lots of happiness or pride, then I will do so. But if the pride and happiness that would come from that accomplishment aren’t worth my health, wellbeing, safety, or time, if I won’t accomplish it, then I am able to change my expectations quickly, and happily accept plan B. I hope everyone can reach this point of presence, acceptance and flexibility in their lives, and I hope that you find an easier way to figure it out than having to cycle over 4000 miles from the Arctic Ocean to the Angeles National Forest by yourself. Unless you want to find it that way. Then I support your decision. Because it’s fun and rewarding as hell. And cycling rocks.

There’s a difference between failure and learning a lesson. I think the only failure in life is not learning from a previous perceived “failure,” where good lessons could have been learned. If a perceived failure slows you down and makes you sad, it will deter your future chances of success, instead of giving you the opportunity to learn and grow. Every failure is an opportunity for growth and change, to see the problem through a different lens, to approach things differently, to do things better and with greater wisdom, until you reach the outcome that works for you and settles you.

When I woke up, I took my time at my beautiful campsite, having a nice breakfast with tea and taking time to get footage of my routine. I had decided that I would leave the mountains earlier than expected. I wanted to ride highway 2 instead, but there were only two places my route intercepted it, and there was a road closure between the two, so I’d have to go all the way to the second, which included climbing up and over snow capped Mount Baldy, which wasn’t super appealing with my timing. I could have done the ride in a few more days than I expected, but I had some friends in Joshua Tree that I wanted to meet, and seeing them was way more important than finishing this ride. So my two options were to exit halfway up the climb to Mount Baldy onto Mount Baldy road, or to exit at the lowest point onto highway 39. I decided I’d take my time enjoying the forest and take the earlier exit route onto highway 39 and back south.

After I left camp, I had about a 15 km climb, all on dirt roads. The terrain was difficult to navigate at times, but the climbs felt easier than yesterday. I think the grades were lower, but the hearty breakfast also probably helped. After deciding to take my time, everything became more enjoyable. I was able to really take in everything around me. The climbing was difficult, but it wasn’t dreaded. No longer did I have to rush each day and push myself to suffering. The rocky road kept me hyper aware of what was in front of me, but the beauty surrounding me distracted my eyes from the road a few too many dangerous times. I took a few breaks to snack and drink water and look around at the beautiful mountains surrounding me. It was overcast and chilly, but I was happy with the cool temperatures during the harsh climbs. Yesterday was way hotter and perfectly sunny and I had a hard time in the heat.

At the end of one climb, I pulled into a clearing and saw 4 people working. James, Joe, John and Duran were subcontracted by Edison to restore the area to its natural and native growth after Edison had cleared the area to put in electrical towers. Joe had explained to me that everything spray painted blue was non-native and was to be removed. He told me he had been working the area for a few years now, and had already seen a significant improvement. He told me all about the animals he sees out here, the hikers he’s met and helped on the PCT, and the work he does. James got excited when he saw my solar panel, telling me that his dad used to sell goal zero gear.

I kept on moving, trying to summit the last climb of the day before a long downhill. The last downhill ended up being right along the side of the mountain, with a far drop off right next to me. The road quality was awful at times, and often super steep and loose, so I kept my hands on my brakes. By the end of the descent, my brakes were wrecked. I tried to fix them but they became super squeaky, and the brake pads needed to be replaced. I adjusted them as best as I could and then got off the mountain and onto the asphalt highway 39. I was running low on water, but luckily found a spout off the side of the road and I filled up my water bladder. I then continued on, passing the Morris Reservoir and San Gabriel dam. The descent was beautiful and before I knew it I had descended right out of the National Forest. “Shit,” I thought to myself. My plan was to pull over while still in the forest to be able to legally wild camp, but I hadn’t seen any pull offs where I could have set up my tent. By the time I had exited the forest, I was too far down the valley to want to turn around and climb again, so I continued closer to Azusa, figuring that I’d find something along the way. I didn’t. Then I ran into a cyclist named Jacinto from Guatemala. He could tell something was up, so he asked if I was okay. I told him I was just looking for a place to camp, so he directed me to a gated community with a park inside to ask them if I could camp there, and then recommended another option just off a cycling path. I couldn’t get into the gated community, so I continued down the path. When I came up to the spot I thought Jacinto was talking about, I started scouting an area in the brush to camp when I saw a few homeless people pushing stolen shopping carts. I turned back around and continued down the trail when I saw a group of four homeless people sitting around a rec area smoking crack pipes. “Fuck it,” I thought, “I’m turning around and going back to the mountains.” As I was riding back, I ran into Jacinto again who noticed I hadn’t gone far enough and offered to ride with me to the place he meant. We talked the whole way about Guatemala and our lives. Together we stopped occasionally to take pictures and then watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen all trip. Then he showed me the park he was talking about and left me.

I thanked him and went in. The first thing I saw was a coyote. I noted their presence because I’d have to take care when cooking later. Jacinto had told me there was a campground, but I couldn’t seem to find anything other than a parking lot and some trails. It was getting dark and I had no other option, so I started scouting the trails. The only spot that seemed viable was narrow, on a slant, and covered in glass. I started getting urgent so I went back to a dirt road to look more, when I found an open area next to a tree. It was way too close to the dirt road for my liking, but I had no other option at this point, so I pulled over, changed and cooked outside in the dark. While I was cooking, about 10 coyotes started howling and barking at each other. There were also signs of mountain lions and rattle snakes out here. Yet I was most nervous and uneasy about the humans. The last thing I did was set up my tent in case someone had come around to patrol the area, making sure to work using as little light as possible. I was able to do almost everything under the light of the moon, not needing to use light that could’ve called attention to myself. I stuffed my bike and all my bags under my tent fly, and then went to bed. I’ll get up before sunrise to pack out and leave in the dark.

I didn’t sleep very well. I was so anxious about my surroundings that every sound pulled me out of my half sleep. I had dreams that coyotes were trying to get into my tent and I couldn’t make any noise to scare them off. I heard a phone ringing. I thought there was someone in the field near me, I then realized that they were just weird announcements from the factory near the park.

I woke up at 5, and was leaving the park by 6. Coyotes were searching for their last meals before reuniting with their friends. Bats were frantically flying back home before the sun came up. Birds were singing their morning melodies, and hares were hopping around together, celebrating surviving another cold, eery, dangerous night in the winter desert.

For the first few miles, I had a wicked headwind. I again passed by all the homeless camps. All of them were still asleep, probably hungover and sleeping off their crack highs. As the sun came up and it got warmer, I got into a groove. I pulled over to take off my jacket and put on sunscreen when I met Don, Dick and Rob, three elderly cyclists out on their morning ride, two of whom had done a cross country tour in their late 60s. They told me about how they met a Dutch guy who cycled around the world and got robbed in Africa, but had hidden cash in his seat tube so he ended up being okay. They rode off, I briefly caught up to them, and then on a climb they pulled away on their super light road bikes.

I went to REI to get new brake pads for my rear brakes, because I had destroyed them in the mountains. The staff members were all incredibly helpful, and one guy, Hugh, ended up being from a town just a 10 minute drive from the town I grew up in. We couldn’t believe how small the world was. I then decided to push for distance. I had gotten on the road by 6:15am, and didn’t want to waste the day. I had opportunities to stay at Warmshowers near Rancho, but decided to push on to camp on the PCT in the San Bernardino National Forest. I stopped to get a bit more food.

I then continued on through a canyon uphill with no good shoulder. The drivers were complete assholes. I finally pulled over to collect myself and have a snack when a guy from the farm I was sitting outside of came to say hi. His name was Jason and he ran an organic farm with his family. They sell both produce and fresh milk on a subscription basis. As he was explaining this, he pointed to the cow and said “that’s my brother-in-law.” I already thought Southeastern California was an interesting place, but this only made it more interesting. He then said “he takes care of her and milks her.” I then understood that he meant “that’s my brother-in-law’s cow,” and not “that cow is my brother-in-law.”

I hopped back on the road and pushed further on, trying to get to the forest so I wouldn’t have to worry about a place to camp. I finished a long climb and pulled over to check my map, understanding that I would be riding in the dark. I have bright lights, so I didn’t worry too much. As I was pulled over, a car pulled up to me. For a second I thought they were pulling up to complain about me being on the road – with the terrible drivers I had been experiencing all day, it wasn’t hard to believe that. A very sweet lady named Kim pulled over to warn me about the roads. She said “I don’t know if you know this, but a man was killed on this road about an hour from this time, so please be careful and get off the road ASAP.” I told her I had no idea because I wasn’t from the area. She responded “well the reason I know is because the man was my mother’s neighbor, and she was very distraught over it, so now whenever I see a cyclist I go warn them.” I thanked her, and we talked a little more. She was a stay at home mom, but used to work internal sales, so she was very well travelled in the area. I asked her for route advice. She then told me that her husband had a big red beard, encouraged me to keep growing mine, and told me she would send me some beard product to use when I get back. She told me about two other parks nearby where I could camp to get out of the dark as soon as possible, but they were almost the same distance from where I wanted to go, so I continued.

As it got dark, I turned on all my lights. Within a few minutes, my front light was dead, so I pulled out my headlight. That ended up dying too, so I used the remaining juice on my battery pack that I had collected from my solar panel today. I’ve been away from electricity for about 6 days now, so my small battery pack and solar panel have fallen behind in their production capabilities, and almost all my stuff is dead. I luckily pulled onto a back road that was quiet, and my rear light was still working. While I was on the back road, a drunk driver swerved around me, just missing me, and then nearly rear ended a parked car. I got scared. I rode very carefully up to a native reservation, where Google maps had told me to go to avoid the interstate. I was hoping to just get around to the other side where there was a casino with a lawn that I knew people had camped in before. When I got to the gated entrance, I told the security guard that I was just trying to get through to get to the other side of the interstate, but he told me he couldn’t allow me in as it was private land. I explained my situation to him, hoping he would be lenient, but he turned me away and gave me directions to get to an interstate byway. I followed his directions exactly, but they ended up bringing me to a dead end. I then tried Google maps again, and it rerouted me to sandy, unlit backroads. I was riding carefully on the washboarded road when I nearly flew over my handlebars. I had hit an intersection with really deep and soft sand, but couldn’t see it coming, so it stopped me abruptly. I got more nervous, as all the land around me was private and fenced off. I turned around and Google rerouted me again, this time bringing me to a gated off area. I finally said fuck it and was fed up, so I rode as far away from the light as possible, found an open field, and hid behind the one bush in the whole field, mostly blocking the view of my tent from the street. I set up, exhausted, as this day was the earliest I had started a ride, and the latest past sunset I had ever finished a ride. I set up under the moonlight to avoid bringing attention to myself with lights (most of my light making devices were already dead anyway). For most people, moonlighting is the work they do after work. For me, moonlighting is literally what I manage to get done only under the light of the moon to avoid getting caught by police. I ate nuts for dinner and went to sleep. I planned on waking up at 4:30am to get the fuck out of there as quickly as possible.

After such a long day, I couldn’t wake up in the morning. I snoozed until about 6am, and then got a text from the friends I was meeting that their plans had changed and they’d be getting into Twentynine Palms past midnight. I wouldn’t have anywhere to go for that long, it would get too cold to stay outside, I didn’t feel like camping for the sixth night in a row, and all my electronics were nearly dead, so I rushed to text a few Warmshowers hosts to see if they were around. David answered within a few minutes, saying I was in luck and he’d be getting back from Colorado tonight. He wasn’t going to be home until about 9pm, but the door to the place was unlocked and I was welcome to go in once I got into town. I had my camp completely broken down by 6:45. As I was packing my bags and getting ready to go, a car pulled in across the street, which I learned was a wastewater management facility. They were probably going in for their 7am work shift, so I ducked behind the bush. They probably saw me, but I was out 5 minutes later so it didn’t even matter. I hopped on the road, and again searched for a few more ways to get around the interstate. At this point, it seemed like I was shit out of luck, so I hopped on the interstate on ramp with the terrifying thought that I’d be merging in with all the crazy traffic. I turned on my rear light. Right before the merge, though, there was a broken down gate to lead to the frontage road I had been trying so hard to find access to. When I turned off, I noticed my rear light had died too. This was an interesting metaphor for life. Sometimes, the given routes are the easiest to listen to, but cause the most obstacles, while the best decisions are made by taking the biggest initial risk.

The frontage road was in terrible condition – covered in glass and massive potholes and gaps that I had to swerve around (if I noticed them early enough). I continued on until it seemed like I had no other option but to ride the interstate for a few miles. I took a few deep breaths, relaxed, and nervously hopped onto the on ramp. Within a mile, a highway patrol officer motioned me over to where he was stopped in his cruiser. “I can’t let you ride your bike on the interstate sir,” he said to me, concerned. “I don’t want to be riding on the interstate either. Do you have any other recommendations?” I asked him. “I’ve been searching for alternate routes to highway 62 but can’t seem to find any.” He told me he couldn’t think of anything else and that highway 62 was close enough to allow me to go, but to be safe and ride as far to the right of the shoulder as possible. It ended up being 4 miles of adrenaline, and 4 miles too many on the interstate. Towards the last mile, I realized that I had a flat, but had no interest in pulling over at the side of I-10. I pushed through to the 62, hopped off and re-pumped up my rear wheel to get to a proper pull over. I then pulled over next to some trees for shade to fix my tire, replace my brake pads, put on sunscreen, and eat.

I continued onto one of the hardest riding sections I’ve done. It was hot as hell (noon in the desert), and there was a steep 6 mile, very windy climb ahead of me. The shoulder was just enough for me to feel safe on, but down the middle were rumble strips. I tried to stay to the right of them, but a few times it got too narrow for me to fit between the rumble strips and the guard rail. I had to choose between slow, painful climbing with poor handling on the rumble strips, or to the left of the rumble strips with barely any clearance from the right lane. I had a few very close calls, was running low on water, tired and scared. I finally finished the climb with one sip of water left, and pulled into a gas station to refill my bottles. I met Rachel, who worked as a cashier at the station but was taking a smoke break. She asked how I was and where I was going, and when I told her I was going up the next, even steeper climb, she warned me that the shoulder is awful, the grade is worse, and many people have died on it before. Between the close calls of the drunk driver, I-10, and the previous windy climb, I figured my luck had run out, and was really anxious about continuing. She recommended I hitch hike, and I happily agreed. She helped me flag someone down, but everyone seemed to be going south (the gas station was on the west side of the street, so it made sense). I decided to move to the Chevron a bit further north on the east side of the road, hoping to have a bit more success there. I saw two trucks in the first few minutes, but both were going south. For the next 20 minutes, all I saw were fully packed sedans. I was growing a bit nervous again. If I didn’t catch a ride in the next 15 minutes, I’d have to push to make it there by bike before dark. If I didn’t make it by dark, my bike would be nearly completely invisible on the road, with only reflective gear to show myself, and no way of illuminating and seeing the road.

Something in me told me to return to the other gas station. “We have great customers,” which Rachel had said to me earlier, kept repeating in my head. It also seemed like more trucks went there. I hung around to ask one more SUV, and when they told me they weren’t going north, I headed back to the other gas station. I went inside, disappointed, to tell Rachel that I hadn’t had any success. She told me that the other lady at the counter was also having some trouble with drivers. Apparently someone was going over 80mph and so the lady at the corner honked and they pulled over into the gas station with her to cuss her out. “He called me everything but a white woman,” she told me. We started talking, and I explained my situation. “Come with me,” the woman told me. “I’ll go back to Yucca.” I assured her that I didn’t want to inconvenience her and that if she was busy I didn’t want her to turn around for me. “Don’t you worry baby,” she assured me. “This is a town of hospitality, we help each other out.” She was about to be my guardian angel.

She was an older woman, with a southern twang that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. She sounded like a smoker, and had her hair mostly dyed red, with her roots left grey. I thanked her, and asked her name. “Malak,” she told me. “It means angel in Arabic.” I told her this moment was meant to be. I came back at the perfect time to meet an angel at the counter who would help me. She only had a sedan, but told me she drove it like a truck, and there was nothing I could damage in it that she hadn’t already damaged. I threw my gear in her trunk and my bike in her back seat. She then turned to me and asked if I was in any rush to get anywhere. I told her that I wanted to get to Yucca with enough time to get to Twenty Nine Palms before dark. “Do you mind if we go 20 minutes out of the way down the road quickly?” I told her not at all. “Great,” she told me. “If you come with me now I’ll take you all the way to Twentynine Palms.” She took me all the way back down the hill I had just climbed to visit Desert Hot Springs. She had to pick up her medical marijuana order from her dispensary, and was excited to introduce me to everyone there.

We talked the whole way there. Malak was born in Atlanta, grew up in Chattanooga, was in the Air Force training soldiers how to use all the weapons on a ship, worked as a nurse practitioner for a while, then went to medical school before having to drop out to help her daughter in Tennessee, and then started having major health issues of her own. Her blood pressure was incredibly high – 252 over 118, and despite being a veteran, no one would help her out. Doctors were cancelling appointments with her due to overbooking, ignoring her signs and symptoms, and being on vacation during critical times where she was unable to receive her test results that were pertinent to Malak’s health. After a while of switching to different VA facilities and doctors, she had a stroke.

She decided she was going to change how she was living. “I’m living another childhood!” She told me ecstatically. “I just had a stroke, now I’m living my bucket list.” She had just purchased a brand new home in Yucca Valley for retirement. It had a huge backyard, a few different rooms to host guests, a pool, and a hot tub. It was originally too expensive for her, but she had fallen in love with it, so she kept an eye on it until it fell into her price range, and she immediately snatched it up. She went whale watching near San Diego. She went on a cruise with some friends. She travelled a bit. Both her mother and grandmother died at 91, and she was 67. I told her she still had a lot of time to finish her bucket list. She agreed, but seemed no less relaxed and in no less of a hurry to get it done.

When we arrived at the dispensary, she excitedly introduced me to her friend behind the desk. We chatted with him for a while before heading back north. On the way back up the hill, Malak was driving the speed limit, yet I was absolutely terrified. I don’t get scared in cars very often, but I thought we would surely flip or crash. The whole car ride up, I wondered how the hell I confidently climbed the whole thing, and was relieved to have the safety of a car driving me into town.

She told me about the class action lawsuit she wanted to go to DC to start about how veterans aren’t getting treated fairly. She told me there were a lot of Mexicans in her town, maybe too many. “I’m not bigoted, I just don’t like when other people come into our country. We’ve already got too many people here. The government can’t even take care of its own veterans. There should be no reason to have a homeless veteran.” She told me the class action lawsuit was for $61 million, and she found reports of an entire abandoned town in Oregon that was being sold for $3.5 million. Her plan was to take the money from the lawsuit, buy the town, and make a place where all veterans could go and live for free if they were struggling financially or were homeless. “Abuse the system, and you’re out. But there will be a system in place to help you,” she told me. If there was anything she wanted me to walk away from this conversation with, it was that “veterans are receiving inadequate medical care” and deserved much better.

She drove me to my host for the night, we talked for a little bit longer, she showed me pictures of her area and places she’s travelled, we exchanged info, and then I went inside. When I got into the house, I paused to ponder the fact that a stranger gave me directions on how to get into his house while he was gone so that I could stay there. I was stuck in place in the front hallway for a minute, shocked by this act of kindness and pure hospitality. Once I got all my stuff inside, I took a long awaited shower, relaxed, and worked.

When David got home, we chatted for a while. He grew up in New York, and then ended up out here with a heavy machinery job at the Marine base. He’s been hosting people through Couchsurfing, Airbnb, Hipcamp, Warmshowers, and Trust Route for over 8 years now. He estimates he’s had between 700 and 800 guests. I’ve gotten used to frequent acts of kindness. I know good exists in this world, and I know people are naturally good, because I experience it each and every day. People are often shocked by the kindness that I experience on the road. Rarely now am I shocked. Always extremely appreciative, but never surprised by the generosity of the human heart and people’s desire to do good for others. But after my day with the highway patrol guy, Malak, and finally David, I was in awe at the potential for kindness and sharing, and shocked at what had been done for me, selflessly and without any questions asked. After David told me a bit about his life, I explained this to him. I told him that I’m usually not taken aback anymore, but his hospitality and desire to help really got me. “Why do you do this?” I asked him. “Why do you just let strangers into your home without you here? Why do you always keep your door unlocked?” He told me that in the end, all someone can take is the stuff in his house, and other than two things, nothing here is really of value to him. “It’s all just stuff. You want it? You need it? Take it. I’ll even help you bring it to your car. Would I prefer you didn’t? Yes. It’s all about being nice, but in the end, I just don’t care.” He told me he’s only ever given one not very positive review of someone, and it wasn’t even very negative. Never has someone taken anything from him. Usually people leave stuff. Then, when the next traveller comes around and needs something, he has a bunch of extra things that he can give away again to someone else in need. If someone left their charger at a previous host and needs one, he’ll give one to the guest, with the hope that the previous host will give it to the next guest in need. “This is the cycle of giving that I like to keep going.” I told him its people like him that make me love traveling and make the world a better place, and thanked him again.

David lives on 5 acres, pretty far from the main road. The roads to get to his house are all deep sand. In the morning, David offered to drive me out of the sandy roads and up a hill on his way to the grocery store, so I took him up on it. We talked a little longer about the road and where to go, and then I left to go meet my friends at their Airbnb on the other side of town.

A few weeks ago, I got a text from my friend Sofia who I hadn’t seen in a while, saying that she was keeping up with my trip and that she’d be climbing in Red Rocks and Joshua Tree the week before Christmas, and wanted to check where I’d be. She knew it was far from the coast, but it was the closest she’d be to me, so she wanted to check. Weirdly enough, I was planning on meeting up with another friend in Joshua Tree on December 15th, and Sofia was getting in on the 16th with her climbing team, a few of whom I was friends with. Timing couldn’t have worked out more perfectly, and I was really happy that she reached out.

It was cloudy and I thought it might rain. I got to the Airbnb, caught up with my friends Sofia, Nicole, and Eric, and met the other people staying at the house – James, Carter, Emma, and Audrey. After hanging around for a bit, we drove into Joshua Tree and climbed for the afternoon. I used to climb all the time, but haven’t in a long time because of my shoulder surgery. It felt good to be back.

When we got back from climbing, we went grocery shopping and then cooked a big feast for dinner. Enjoying good food with good people is one of my favorite things to do, and it doesn’t happen all too often on this trip, so it was a joy to be with them. I stayed over for the night, and in the morning the squad was going back to the park to climb in a different spot. They didn’t have any room in the car for my bike, so I rode in to meet them. The ride was all uphill and into headwinds. I really didn’t care about the riding, as I had already ridden this section, and I wanted to spend more time with my friends. I tried hitchhiking for a bit, but I had no success and started to think that if I continued to be unsuccessful, I would miss them completely, so I hopped back on my bike. I figured I’d just have to be even more appreciative of the time I had left with them. I finally got into the park at around 1pm. They had already set up and climbed a few different routes, so I hung out for a bit, got a climb in, and then cleaned the route. By the time I was climbing, they were ready to go. They had to get to Red Rocks at night, and they wanted to go somewhere better for the sunset. Before leaving, there wasn’t a definite decision made, so I told them my opinion didn’t matter as this wasn’t my trip, but I loved them and wanted to spend as much time with them as possible, so I suggested they stay in the area. They ended up leaving to get on their way sooner and go check out another area in the park before leaving.

When they left earlier than I expected, I started regretting not trying harder to catch a ride to spend more time with them. However, I wasn’t expecting to be able to spend this extra day with them anyway, and I knew it would’ve sucked just as much to say goodbye to them after 2 hours extra as it would saying goodbye to them after 3 hours extra.

Saying goodbye to people on this trip has never gotten easier. Each time, I get the same emotional response, one that hasn’t occurred to me before this trip. I feel physically sad, but emotionally confused. I’m sad to say goodbye, elated that I got to see them, excited to continue on my journey, thankful for having timing work out so well, and eager to find time to spend in my own head again to process everything.

Every time I think it will get easier. And every time it’s not. The unfortunate thing about this trip is that one of the biggest highlights becomes the biggest challenges. Meeting incredible people, and seeing great friends and family, is such a blessing. Saying goodbye is so hard. But it’s a necessity in order to continue my own journey. I just have to be thankful that they got to play an influential part in this journey, and find presence and peace in my solitude as soon as I leave them.

When I left David’s house, I felt like my stay with him was too short and that we had so much more to talk about. My friends ended up choosing a climbing site right up the street from David’s house, so, seeing as it was meant to be, I called him asking if I could stay with him one more night. He welcomed me back with open arms.

When I got there, I helped him replace his motorcycle windshield, and we talked a lot about traveling, making new connections, and having to say goodbye. I told him that I thought love was all about opportunity and vulnerability, and that when traveling, nearly every interaction is based on opportunity and personal vulnerability, so it is easy to get super close with someone you meet while traveling. He agreed, and told me a story of two cyclists who had fallen in love while staying at his house together, but eventually had to separate because of different visa timing. He said watching them say goodbye was so sad that it was even hard for him.

We then had dinner and talked by the wood stove about giving. I told him that one of the challenges for me on this trip is feeling a lopsided pull on the giving cycle. No matter what I do, I told him, because of my weight, size and money constraints, it’s very hard for me to ever pay back the kindness I have received. I’m naturally a giver, so feeling like I’m at a deficit constantly is completely out of my comfort zone. He told me the story of a girl that once stayed with him and didn’t understand this concept. She would go into Joshua Tree and make friends and they would feed her and host her at their campsites. When David asked if she ever brought anything with her she told him that she offers conversation. “They’re giving you food, and you’re giving back conversation?” David would ask her. “Go to a grocery store, you think that you can keep going in and filling up a cart and going to the checkout line and talking to the cashier in exchange for the groceries?” I told him I felt similarly to her, but then he pointed out that he could tell I was trying to do something. “You did all the dishes! I didn’t even ask you to.” For him, having to ask someone to do some chores is more work for him than just doing them himself, but I took initiative to offer something in exchange.

David told me that in the end, he didn’t do any of this for immediate pay back. The smiles, the letters, the thoughtful messages and gifts he gets is payment enough. But he hopes that by giving to people, even if they take and take and take, once they can afford to, he hopes that they give. He talked about sharing excess. If you have excess, share it. If you only have a little bit of excess, he explained, then you better be cautious with whom you share it and how you share it. But the more excess you have, the more you should be sharing. If you share while you have something, then hopefully someone who receives that help will turn around to share more once they are capable of it again. We then went to soak in the hot tub and watch the stars and talked about religion and our upbringings and travel.

He constantly encouraged me to follow my heart and start writing for money. There seemed to be a bit of animosity or jealousy behind it, but he was somewhat positively critical of my generation just traveling on someone else’s dime before working for themselves and their retirements. I told him, somewhat defensively, that I worked my butt off for the money to go on this trip, and was funding my own way through, but then realized he was truly supportive of the concept. He explained that his generation just worked themselves to death. Work was what you did so that you could have a good retirement and be free once you got older. But then lessons from travel, adventure, and following your heart are learned way later and you aren’t happy with your work for so long. However, travelling when young opens people up early, broadens their horizons and helps people find their passions quicker, which he thought was important. He pushed me to explore writing a book about this journey, encouraging me to find success in it and continue to do what I love to do.

I then went to bed and had to say goodbye because he was leaving before sunrise for work and I knew I wouldn’t be up by then. I woke up with the sun at around 7am, and could already tell it’d be a slow morning, so I told myself I’d be out by 10am. I was planning on riding into the park and trying to bum some room at a campsite from someone (I had a strong feeling the campsite would be full by afternoon). The campsite I was going to stay at was only 25 miles into the park, but all uphill. I knew I didn’t need much time to ride, but would take some extra time resting and exploring different spots within the park.

After finalizing my plans for the park using Google maps and a paper map of the park, I made myself some breakfast. Things just didn’t feel right, and I was slower than expected. It was a beautiful day, but no part of me wanted to leave. But I also wanted to continue on. I was conflicted and lost, without any motivation to do anything. After pep talking myself and forcing myself to pack up, I hit the road. I had to walk my bike through most of the sandy roads. Once I got to the highway, I was already feeling awful. Not sore, not tired, but just had no energy to keep moving. My morale and motivation dropped further and further as I rode toward the park.

My original plan was to camp a night and then cycle south through the entire park, and then head back north to visit my great uncle in Palm Desert. I hadn’t taken a day off in a while, and had ridden a bunch of really hard days back to back, so the prospect of so many miles in so short a time was not exciting to me. Then I remembered reading that there was a new park shuttle that was to make getting around the park a whole lot easier. I thought maybe I’d try to ride as much as I could, figure out the shuttle system, and hop on if I needed. When I got to the visitor center, I asked about the shuttle system and learned that it actually hadn’t started yet. It would start doing regular runs a few times a day on Friday. Today was Wednesday.

There was also an alternate route through a dirt road that would pop me out right in the Coachella Valley, not too far away from Palm Desert. I asked about that, and the ranger told me it was in horrible condition right now because of some weather and highly advised against riding it. At this point, I knew I wasn’t making it through the park safely – I wasn’t going to make it on my expected schedule, I probably wasn’t going to be able to carry enough water to safely and comfortably get me through, and I wasn’t going to be able to stay focused on the road because of my weird mood. The people driving through were on planet tourist – with the incredible scenery, they look everywhere but the road. There was no shoulder, so not staying focused on a road full of unfocused drivers was a recipe for disaster.

I had just spent two days in the park with friends, climbing and exploring in a few different areas. I had already seen a good chunk of the park with them, and while I really wanted to ride the park, I wanted to spend time with my great uncle in Palm Desert more. I decided that I would skip riding through the park altogether, save the money and time, and head southwest towards Palm Desert, a route of only about 45 miles and much less climbing, instead of my route southeast through the park, a route of about 120 miles that had a significant amount more climbing.

Malak had texted me the night before telling me that she was driving out to Lancaster and offered me a ride down the super sketchy highway with no shoulder. “Do you need a lift?” she texted me. “Just let me know before 8:30am tomorrow.” With the expectation of riding the park, I thanked her and told her I would be okay.

Once I got to the visitor center, however, and learned of all my alternative options being nullified, I decided to skip riding through the park. I figured Malak would be in Lancaster for some time, so I texted her asking if she would mind if I camped in her backyard while she was gone. She responded, “Of course! Just rest and I’ll come get you. I’m only 2 1/2 hours away.” I insisted that she not come back just for me, but she told me that she was just there for the day running errands.

I hung out by the visitor center for a bit, eating and talking to people. A guy from New York came to chat with me. He had moved out here for an outdoor education program and was spending a bit of time climbing in J Tree. Then a guy behind me started talking to me. His name was Josh, and we chatted for a while about my trip and about his life. He pulled out a sandwich and offered me half. I told him I was okay. He assured me that he wouldn’t finish it on his own, so I joined him at his table and shared his sandwich with him. He had run his own business for years, and then when it became too taxing for him he took up a sales job, thinking it would be easier. He ended up hating the job, so he quit and found a job as a tour guide with a Hummer tour company. He told me that he had spent his childhood exploring the area, so this was such a fun and enjoyable job. “You either have to find a job you love, or love the job you’re doing. Fortunately, I wasn’t loving the job I was doing so I found a job doing something I loved.” I joked around with him telling him that I had to find a way to monetize cycle touring. He then showed me pictures of his biking group – he rides a 29” BMX bike with a group that does brewery rides through the canyon every Thursday and Sunday. He then pulled up a picture of a quote. “If there was any reason for us to meet today,” he said, “then perhaps it was for you to see this quote.” The quote read “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he encouraged me. “It will keep you young.” He then had to return to his tour group, so we said goodbye.

As I was leaving, I started a conversation with two more guys hanging around the visitor center, Canyon Steve and Mac. Canyon Steve lived in a cave in the area and sold rocks that he found out in the desert. Mac had been imprisoned after too many DUIs, so he was now living back with his mother in town. They told me all about the horrid drivers out here and all their friends that had been killed as pedestrians by cars. They told me about the demographics in town. They explained that there were a bunch of druggies in town. “Three types of them,” Mac explained. There are people who do light drugs that don’t bother anyone, people who do drugs and are better because of it, and people who do drugs and who are a nuisance to everyone as a result. I laughed at their thoughtful compartmentalization.

After chatting with the guys for a bit, I went to do some work at a Starbucks in town where Malak would meet me later. When she picked me up, we went to a Chinese Buffet, and I demolished about 5 plates of food. We then went back to her house. She had a spare bedroom, so I didn’t even need to camp. We watched a movie together, and then I went to bed.

In the morning, I told her I was heading over to Palm Desert to visit my uncle, so I’d leave shortly. She ended up having an event in Palm Desert that evening, so she told me to stick around for the day and she’d drive me down at night. That way, I wouldn’t have to ride the sketchy road. Instead of riding, we went out to breakfast together. She talked about religion for a while, telling me about her time as an ordained minister and as a practicing Muslim. She told me about all the beautiful little intricacies that God has painted into the physical world. She explained all the biblical signs of the apocalypse, and warned me that from her research, the signs were showing up more and more often and that we were close to the end. She told me all about the book she’s trying to write. She had been trying for a while to write about her life, but she was terrified of the emotions that reflecting and thinking back on her life would release for her. “It will be so difficult to get through that,” she said to me, somewhat upset. I suggested that maybe writing about it and feeling that pain again and being able to release it all onto paper and share it with the world would help her get over it. She had clearly experienced so much, and learned from every one of her experiences, so she had so much wisdom to share with others who might be struggling with similar issues.

After breakfast, I helped Malak run her errands and helped her fix some things around her house. We then sat outside by her pool and did some work together and chatted. As we walked outside, she called me son. She was slightly taken aback – she told me she didn’t let many people into her world, but she guessed that I was her new adopted son.

Through conversation, Malak gave me a brief but deep glimpse into her life. Malak had an incredibly tough upbringing. For the sake of her privacy, I won’t share much, but she grew up in the deep south of Georgia in a KKK family. She had seen and experienced some pretty awful things in her early years, and was clearly heavily scarred from it all. She had been let down and taken advantage of by people who were supposed to be close to her and care for her, and who she helped as much as she could. She broke down into tears a few times telling me stories. I listened closely and comforted her when appropriate. After telling me countless stories, she let me know that I was the first one to hear much of what she was saying. She thanked me for listening, and said letting it out with me will help her finally write about it. She told me that she thought there was a reason that God brought me into her life, and this was probably it.

This, I thought, was way more important than seeing a bit more of Joshua Tree, and I was glad that I decided to skip the park and reconnect with Malak.

After hanging by the pool and telling stories, we left for Palm Desert. She dropped me off at the gate of my Uncle Harvey’s community, and gave me a Christmas gift bag of snacks for the road, a Christmas hat, some Christmas themed gloves, a Christmas stocking, and a bike saddle cover. The gift bag was specially picked out for me – featuring a reindeer riding a bike. What a fulfilling and enjoyable experience it was to be with Malak. Despite the pain she’s felt, despite the let downs she’s experienced, despite the friends and family that have taken advantage of her, despite the difficulty she has trusting people, she remains unconditionally giving, loving, and positive.

I was so excited to see Uncle Harvey. We spent some time talking, I showered, and then we went out for Thai food with some of his friends. I had been craving a Thai dish from one of my favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh for a few days, so I jokingly asked how he knew that’s what I wanted for dinner.

The next day, we went shopping together and did some work around the condo. Uncle Harvey had been telling me all about his job as a lawyer. He had a lot of successful criminal defense cases that he told me about. Thinking about all the crime he sees and hears about, I asked, “do you ever question humanity as a result of your job?”

“No,” he responded. “But it makes me more critical of people. But I’ve always been positive. You have to be happy, treat people well, don’t hurt people, and find purpose. Sometimes that’s impossible to do, but you have to make it possible.” My Uncle Harvey has lost a lot of loved ones in his life. He has experienced hardships that I couldn’t even imagine. Yet he remains positive, perky, happy, and youthful. I look up to him greatly for that.

We went out for dinner with some of his friends to an Italian restaurant. I spent the night speaking about cooking and music with the women. Just like last night, one of them talked about setting me up with their granddaughter. I assured them that their granddaughter would definitely not want to date me in my current nomadic stage of life.

One of the lady’s husband’s health had deteriorated significantly in recent years. She told me that he had always been incredibly strong and capable until he was the victim of a surgical mistake. He always worked hard and looked forward to retirement as a time where he could enjoy his freedoms earned, but now he was struggling just to walk. She was encouraging of my trip, despite thinking it was a bit crazy. “This is the time to do it,” she assured me. “Do it while you’re young, and then you can settle down and buy a house. That’s the next step.”

When we got back home, Uncle Harvey read me some of the book that he’s writing. I learned a lot about him and about my family history that I didn’t know before. Uncle Harvey volunteered to defend someone in his first murder case to help out a close friend and mentor of his. As encouragement, my great grandfather told him “don’t look for a reward for a good deed. Life has a way of rewarding good people.” That stuck with me.

The next day, we ran a few more errands, did a bit more work around the house, and then went to his country club. He took me on a tour of the facilities, and proudly introduced me to his friends, explaining my trip with great excitement. The place felt like a fraternity for old men. People had personalized golf carts and personalized lockers and played bridge and golf together daily, enjoying each other’s company and the fruits of their lifetimes of labor (or luck in the stock market). The world of country clubs was one I had never experienced before, and never need to experience again personally, but it was fun to see how everyone passed their time in their older age.

At night, Uncle Harvey had an event to go to, so I made myself steak and potatoes, did some work, and watched some hockey.

I decided that I wanted to spend more time with Uncle Harvey in the morning, so when I got up, I packed my bags while he was asleep and then once he was up we made and ate breakfast together. Saying goodbye was not easy, but I had a mountain to climb and wanted to get to San Diego in 2 days, so I had to get going. I was originally going to go further southeast to explore the Salton sea and a few small desert towns, but something didn’t feel right, and I decided that I needed to get to San Diego to my cousin’s house by Christmas Eve.

I was on the road by 11. I wanted to get on the road earlier so that I could get further and not have to climb at peak heat, but I was glad that I spent extra time with my uncle. The ride was difficult, and all uphill. I had a Christmas hat strapped onto the back of my bike, and a few people rolled down their windows to compliment me on it.

The mountain climb was incredibly, and unexpectedly, difficult. There was no shoulder, and cars weren’t giving me much room. The road was windy, snaking back onto itself over and over, without great visibility around each bend. I was pretty scared. Since my close calls on Highway 62 I’ve had a little less encouragement and motivation to push myself on highways. I’ve played it very careful and cautious, and as a result have had less energy.

While climbing, I started feeling a bounce. When I pulled over, I realized I had another flat in my back tire. I couldn’t find the leak, so I decided to pump it up and keep going, hoping it was a really slow leak. Once I pumped it up to full pressure, I noticed that the flat came from the same gash that I got in Alaska and tried to patch up with duct tape from the inside. I changed the tube, hoping to not get another one before San Diego, because there I would replace my tires and switch to tubeless, making dealing with flats a whole lot easier.

Before my flat, someone on a road bike had passed me. When I got back onto the road, I saw him descending, so I shouted “how was it? Was it good?” He responded, “Ya man!” And then bombed down the mountain screaming “AWOOOOO!” I unfortunately wasn’t having as much fun as I was on my 15th mile of climbing.

When I finally got over the mountain, I rode through a valley. The road went up and down. Climbing is a whole lot easier for me in shorter sections. The long maintained climbs with my weighted bike force me to take breaks every few miles, but when there are shorter climbs followed by downhills, I use the downhills to rest and catch my breath, so I never really have to get off the bike. By the end of today’s climb, I was taking a break every mile or so.

Highway 74 is called Palms to Pines highway, because, well, it climbs out of the palm tree laden Coachella Valley high up into the mountains where pines grow and snow stays. Towards the end of the ride, I had reached a weird middle ecosystem where cacti grew right next to pines.

I decided to pull over at about 4:15pm because I didn’t want to be on the road anywhere near dusk while people were traveling through the mountains right before Christmas. There were beer bottles everywhere, and I didn’t want to chance anything. I found a nice pullout and started riding in when I looked at the ground and saw a buried sign. I cleared off the sand from it and realized it said private property. I was glad I noticed the sign, and kept going.

Then, after riding only 24 miles on the day, I found a great spot right off the road hidden by trees, so I pulled over, hike-a-biked to the best spot, and started setting up my tent when the sunset kicked in. The entire sky lit up on fire, with beautiful colors visible in every direction.

I watched while cooking dinner. I moved my stove over to a rock, and when I was back 30 seconds later, I noticed something had chewed through my tortilla bag. I heard squeaking, and looked around the rocks, where I found mouse poop all over. I was very careful with my food the rest of the night.

While eating, I noticed that east of me the sky still had some red colors in it. I thought it was the remains of the sunset. When I turned back later, the sky was brighter and glowing an even deeper red, so I figured it was the lights from the Coachella valley becoming more visible as darkness set in.

I then cleaned up dinner and looked up again. “Holyyyy shit,” I said out loud. The moon was peeking over the mountains, massive, and blood red. The deepening and brightening color was actually the moon rising. I had just seen one of the most magnificent sunsets and moon rises I had ever seen back to back. “How fortunate I am to be out here,” I thought.

After eating, I hopped in my tent and organized my sleeping arrangements. While lying down journalling, I felt my camping pad slowly losing air. I realized there was a hole somewhere, causing a very slow leak, so I spent ages looking for it so I could fix it. I couldn’t find it. I sat there cracking up, realizing that I would be sleeping directly on the hard ground with no insulation between us for the night. I put my extra clothes under the pad, but unfortunately, all my gear is thin, lightweight, and highly collapsible. It won’t be much help anyway.

I slept better than expected, but was excited to get up and get going. Today would be a 90 mile day, with a lot of climbing. I got on the road early, and was climbing quite comfortably. I eventually had to hop on a busy highway with no shoulder. A few people were upset with me being out there. One truck passed me with inches to spare. I felt the wind from his side mirror pass by my ear. After passing, I saw him laughing with his friend in his rearview mirror, and he turned around to wave at me. I was getting pretty sick of California drivers, who I initially thought would be respectful considering how many cyclists are out here, but had proven to be pretty brutal. After a big climb late in the day, I pulled over in a parking lot for a snack break. I was exhausted, and sat staring off into space. I could tell from my periphery that there was a woman who seemed to be trying to decide whether to come talk to me or not, so I turned around and smiled at her. She came over asking me what I was doing and where I was going. She got a phone call while we were talking. After, she came back to ask me if I wanted a ride into town. Her name was Jeanette, and she had been out here to meet a friend to pick up some food for Christmas eve. She was heading back south in the direction I had to go. Tonight was Christmas Eve, so I decided that meeting someone new and getting to see family sooner would be better than a bunch more climbing alone on busy roads.

I got to my cousin’s house, and was happily greeted at the door by Marni and Jason. I was planning on spending some time off, enjoying the holidays with family and getting myself ready for Central America.

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