Another milestone: Our last ride in America

Yesterday we cycled into Yuma. It was our last cycling day in the States. Four days earlier we’d left Flagstaff and climbed Mingus Mountain, our longest climb to date: 1,310 m over a distance of 25 km. We were at an elevation of 2300 m. The next day we started our descent out of the mountains and pine forests, first to Yarnell and, most dramatically, the day after to Salome on a steep drop into desert, saguaro cactus country and intense heat . We pushed our start time as early as possible: breakfast at 5:30 and on the road as soon as first light hit. We had 137 km to cover to reach Yuma; by 9 am we were pouring buckets of sweat. The temperature was rising rapidly to the forecasted 41°C.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to the States. When I think back about our five weeks riding up and down the mountainous spine of America I remember my many chance encounters.

In the first couple of weeks in Montana I ran into a diverse group of individuals—united only that each in their way had decided to hit the road for a makeshift life. I thought of them as the “nomadlanders”.

At 55 Natalie, a musician, retired from special ed teaching to follow her musical dreams. They formed a David Bowie cover band in Chicago. I met her at Swan Lake. She and her wife, the drummer, had refitted a 1976 Airstream and took to the road. They gave us an impromptu concert.

I met Kayla at the reception desk on one of our rest days. Pert and lively, she and her husband are living in tents, pursuing their passion for wilderness and hiking. Last year they did it for three months; this year they hope to do it for much longer. They get by finding seasonal work.

Raquel spent 28 years in the military as a logistics officer. She and her daughter live in a camper van with four dogs. They were managing a camp site when I met them. After the season is over, they’ll see where the road takes them.

Mike was different. He’d had it with the States. He was moving to Mexico where his fiancée was waiting for him. He’d driven as far as Quartzsite when his appendix blew up on him. He had a few more days of recovery and then he’d be back on the road.

There were others with deep roots in their community. I went to Miles for a haircut. I asked him how long he’d been plying his trade. He said since he was eight years old. The shop used to be his grandfather’s. The old timers still come round to hang out and connect.

Often the routes we were on were long and lonely. What sustained us was the fascination of the changing landscapes and the natural wonders which have a different resonance when you are up close and personal on a bike. Sights, sounds and smells penetrate you in ways unimaginable in a car.

There is something else. Almost daily we confronted the sublime. There is an immense natural beauty that takes the breath from your lungs and words and thoughts from your mind. One gasps as if newborn for it is as if the world itself is forming before you; a sensation heightened by the physical effort that the body to an exhaustion that taxes hollows you out so that the fulness of wonder enters. And an awed terror. The greatness of what lies before you hurtles you into the unimaginable forces that shaped the world over millions and billions of years. Hallowed names—Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier, Yellowstone, Flaming Gorge, Arches—took shape before our eyes like old-fashioned film in a developing pan.

Our route from Devil’s Canyon, Utah, itself startling with yellowish cliffs crossed with deep red bands, takes us alongside the red sandstone buttes of iconic Monument Valley. Although we know the images so well from the John Ford westerns the reality of the site itself is almost overwhelming. It is over a 100 km into our day by the time we’re at the Valley and the heat weighs heavy on us. When the valley comes into view, 20 km or more in the distance, our pulse quickens and we alternate between a desire to get closer as quickly as possible, as if it would ever be possible, to encapsulate the valley by proximity, and to slow down to allow the infernal beauty of the place to wash over us in a long tidal sweep. There are many cars stopped at the various scenic turnouts. They are reduced to insignificance, everything is thus reduced, by the sheer force of the natural red-stained rock sculptures, art works it seems of an alien and superior race.

A greater wonder was yet to come. Two days later I was slogging my way up to the east rim of the Grand Canyon. At the entrance gate to the park, the young attendant gaped that I should have biked all that way. Then, suddenly, in a parting of bush and trees there it was. My first glimpse. Even that first partial sight was staggering and awesome. The mind cannot easily, if at all, comprehend geological vastness. Blake’s lines could easily have been spoke of this marvel of rock and time: What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry.

We leave early tomorrow for our three-week trek down the Baja California peninsula to Cabo San Lucas. After that we’ll cross to Puerta Vallarta on the mainland and spend almost two months traversing Mexico. Everything will change—language, culture, money, food—except this: a band of us on our bikes pushing our way kilometer after kilometer to new destinations and new wonders.

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