For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
For the first time on the tour the weather has driven me off the road. I’m hunkered down in Flagstaff waiting for the winds to drop and the temperature to climb away from the single figures Fahrenheit where it is currently languishing. After a couple of weeks real luck with the weather, things have taken a dramatic turn. I’ve climbed up to nearly 7,000 feet and with altitude has come cold, wind and snow. Actually, that’s a lie, it’s a weather system that’s bought the u-turn in the weather, but if I’d stayed one hundred miles west of here I’d still be in the hot desert. The change has been extreme but no surprise as I’ve known about this approaching weather for a little while. I’m just lucky that there are people around who take pity on bearded cyclists.
I touched down in Flagstaff a couple of days ago, riding through lightly falling snow to reach my latest sanctuary. I’m staying with a couple of Environmental activists, Taylor and Tierra in a lovely warm house that comes complete with Blue, the friendliest (and perhaps borderline stupidest) dog I think I’ve ever met, and one rather mashed up thumb. Thankfully it wasn’t me who spent last night in the emergency room after a fight with the wind and a door. But Tierra’s experiences have served to remind me of our own fallibility and how all my tour ambitions could evaporate in an instant. I had contacted Taylor through Warmshowers but in a bizarre twist of fate it turns out we had met each other before… outside the visitor centre in Coldfoot, on the Dalton Highway! At that point I was only days into my trip south and comparatively fresh faced, neither of us could ever have dreamed we’d meet again six months later, but I’m glad we have.
It has only been four and a half days cycling since I left Las Vegas, but although few, they have been interesting, full of movements and contrast. After several days rest in Las Vegas, the multiple climbs that took me there have started paying dividends; I am strong and rejuvenated. The miles have fairly been flowing beneath my wheels, easily covering over 60 miles a day in a race to reach sanctuary before the storm hit.
By the time I’d cycled the 20 miles from Kevin’s house to the eastern Las Vegas city limit, my opinions of the place had changed markedly from those expressed in my last post. An evening trip down to the strip had left me cold and my route north-east out through North Las Vegas revealed a dirtier, darker side to the city. I wanted to see Las Vegas Boulevard in all its nighttime glory and so rode down there in anticipation of being amazed. I was amazed, affected by the pretentious arrogance of the place and my obvious misplacement in it. My evening stroll up and down the strip started well with the genuinely impressive Bellagio fountains, but went downhill from there. I am not impressed by lots of bright and flashing lights for I am not five years old. The capitalistic excesses of the place really hit me. If you’ve got money then there are lots of things you can do to show off… in the case of Las Vegas casinos they have chosen to erect mock Eiffel towers, construct audacious hotels and cover them in lights. These structures seemed to impress me in the daytime but at night, when they are perhaps supposed to be seen, it was as if they were trying just a little too hard. Coupled with roaming groups of half-cut gamblers and security guards who insisted on moving me along, I was left with a cheap and bitter taste. I almost felt betrayed by a city I had stood up for in the face of criticism.
When Lake Mead boulevard took me up and out of the city I was not sad, but still remained impressed by this unnatural pool of excess that has established itself in the most unsustainable of locations. I am sure that Las Vegas will not always be, but despite my eventual misgivings, I am glad that it does.
There was no blend from the urbanity of North Las Vegas to the desert, I climbed a hill and the buildings came to an abrupt end. Suddenly it was over and I was back in the desert. Thus followed a pleasant ride along the shores of Lake Mead under the same blazing sun that had welcomed me into the desert all those miles ago. Just under 50 miles out from Kevin’s house I reached the security check point that welcomed me to Hoover Dam. An obvious security risk, I was ushered towards the search area while cars potentially laden with high-grade explosives were left to freely forge onwards. After a brief questioning including queries such as ‘Where did you leave your car?’, I had the security guys on side and this particular terrorist was free to go without having to empty his bomb pouches.
After locking up Shermy, I climbed the stairs onto the pedestrian walkway of the newly opened (October 2010) Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. An impressive structure that casts an evening shadow over the massive Dam, this bridge is an impressive attraction in itself. With time running away from me I sped down to the crest of the Dam to fill up with water and enjoy numerous chats with Cops, security guards and tourists. After snapping the obligatory photographs the sun was seriously on the wane so I quickly spun my way up the East side of the Dam cutting. Hoping to rejoin Hwy. 93, I was seriously miffed when it transpired that the road was now blocked. No signs nor officials had warned me of this, so I had no alternative but to about turn and freewheel down to the Dam only to climb back up the way I’d come. Laboring my water weighted bike back up the hill and onto Hwy. 93 lost me valuable time, leaving me to cross the new bridge in virtual darkness. And it only got darker, abandoning me to the mercy of the busy four lane traffic, protected only by my luminous vest and bike lights. Thankfully I rode the ordeal out, able to reach the White Rock Canyon trail head I figured could offer me sanctuary for the night.
The Hoover Dam is undoubtedly a poetic piece of engineering, a structure erected with a high level of artistic consideration. It is massive and snuggles flawlessly up against the shrinking might of Lake Mead. Sandwiched between rugged virgin bedrock, the smooth arch-gravity dam slopes invitingly down to the Colorado River. It was a real shame I wasn’t able to spend more time appreciating all the information available on the building and general history of the Dam, but I was able to marvel at the gigantic structure and wonder at the ingenuity of the human race. However, viewed in the context of the surrounding landscape the Dam still only serves to highlight our pathetic strength in the face of nature. Damming the Colorado is impressive, but just look at the mighty valleys that river has forged; we can try to control nature, but it will win out over time.
Now in Arizona and having lost an hour to Mountain Time, another 60 mile day riding a white line of boredom left me just short of Kingman. Hwy 93 was long, straight and offered very little in the way of a shoulder. I was therefore unable to enjoy this gentle climb, instead having to concentrate on staying as close to the edge of the roadway as possible. Such riding tensions up the shoulders and is mentally wearing but was made much easier than it could have been by the courteous driving of the passing traffic. Along the whole length of the road only one obnoxious pick-up driver failed to appreciate my predicament, as everyone else tried to give me a lanes grace as I toiled under the blaring sun.
The next day I was quickly through Kingman and riding the ‘Historic Route 66’ up towards Peach Springs. Accompanied by the long freight trains of the following railway line, I had an enjoyable day in the office, steadily climbing up to a cheeky camp spot at 5,500 feet. The route took me through picturesque canyons where the surrounding mountains have that Grand Canyonesque flat top often associated with Utah. Alternating between winding canyon climbs and long straight slogs over broad plateau like valleys, much of the afternoons riding was in the Hualapai Indian Reservation. This was notable to me only in the ethnicity of the drivers who joined me on the road.
This would be the last of my beautiful desert days of sunshine for when I awoke from my cheeky camp spot behind a large shed at Grand Canyon Caverns, at 5:30 the next morning, there was ice on the tent and my thermometer read -5 degrees Celsius. With the change to Mountain time the sun does not rise until about 7am so I struggled through a cold dark head wind, up hill to a spot where I could make breakfast as the sun introduced itself to another day. In the past few weeks the rising sun has hit me like a steamroller, transforming the frigid morning bite with a sudden bombardment of refreshing warmth. On this day that didn’t happen; I was left to shiver, hunched over my pan of porridge as the radiation was absorbed by some selfish clouds and heavily diluted by the moving air. Things had changed… my weather holiday was over and the storm was on its way.
I pushed on 25 miserable miles down the featureless Aubrey Valley that morning before reaching the comparative salvation of Seligman. There was nothing to shield me from the bracing head-wind and I began some self-loathing, hating myself for letting guilty thoughts of a warm Motel room infiltrate my stubbornness. After lunch I gave myself a thorough talking to, reminding myself of who I was and how Nathan Haley doesn’t wimp out. I ain’t no pussy, and I’m certainly not pathetic enough to let self-pity ruin an afternoons ride towards a sharp winter camp. The little pep talk did the trick, I apologized to Shermy for letting my moral drop and the good times began to roll again. Despite the head-wind I set myself the goal of spinning a 70 miler towards Williams, where I knew there was suitable civilization to stop up should the storm force me off the road.
The clouds were progressively darkening and the temperature dropping, but I was back in the game and pushing hard on the pedals. That was until a couple of miles short of I-40 when something started feeling weird… my back tire had a puncture. That left my plan of reaching Williams dead in the water. Nevermind, I fixed the problem and even had time to add in a bit of hysterical laughter when despite my utmost concentration I managed to put the tire on the wrong way around… I focused so hard on not doing so and even with a 50/50 chance of getting it right, I still failed! This surely wasn’t to be my day. I thought things were going from bad to worse when just as I was about to join the freeway, I-40, I was halted by the whoop whoop of a police siren… shit.
Although confident I was allowed to ride the freeway I also knew that Highway Patrol have a reputation for being unpredictable. “I think you’re allowed to ride the Freeway” was responded to by “I know I’m allowed to ride the Freeway”. I needn’t have been so defensive as this cop turned out to be a legend. We chatted away for a good while as I got plied with hand warmers, emergency blankets, a Spanish phrase-book and anti-bacterial hand lotion. It must have been a slow day in the high adrenalin life of Arizona Highway Patrol as my Police friend took a real interest in my journey. The conversation ended with Shermy cable-tied into the patrol car boot and me taking my first ride in the back of a Police car. We’d been chatting so long it was starting to get dark so Jason kindly offered to help me out. I was already aware of the uncertainties inherent in riding the freeways at night and still unsure of where I was going to sleep. To top it all off, the cold weather was coming in at an alarming rate. As I enjoyed the hard plastic seats in the back of the cop car I again resigned myself to a night in a Motel.
I was saved about 19 miles and 1,500 feet in the cold dark, by this kind public servant who eventually dropped me about 5 miles short of Williams. I packed Shermy up and rode off into the darkness. The desert was now behind me and I was back into forest, also finding myself above the snow-line… things had changed dramatically. Despite the dark it was becoming clear I may be able to find a camp spot after all, unfortunately however the road was lined with fence, preventing my taking the bike off into the forest. Things were working out and at least now if worst came to worst I could get that motel room in Williams. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary as my second ‘Guardian Angel’ of the day was soon to pull off the Freeway in front of me. Paul and his wife were on their way back to Texas following a bike mechanics course up in Oregon. Tandem tourists themselves, they offered me a ride into Williams and any help I may need. After explaining that I was looking for somewhere free to pitch up, I thanked them profusely for stopping and we both went on our ways.
Turning off the Freeway towards Williams I was now back to being completely resigned to forking out for my first night in a Motel room. That was before I saw Paul waiting for me at the junction. He’d been good enough to make some inquiries and discovered that there was an out of season National Forest camp ground nearby. I unloaded Shermy and he drove us through the lightly falling snow to Cataract Lake where I found a spot amongst the ground snow to pitch up. It was an incredibly friendly gesture of Paul’s to put himself out like he did, one that led to a good night in the tent, relieved at not having to surrender to the expensive comforts of a Motel. A good end to a long eventful day.
Next morning I rose to real cold accompanied by falling snow that was collecting fast on the outside of the tent. After sewing up a pannier problem I packed up and made the short ride into Williams to find somewhere to get breakfast and an internet connection. I knew that conditions were far too cold for me to cycle on and again I was resigned to a night in a Motel. I found the Grand Canyon Coffee & Cafe where I settled in to a few hours of welcome food and coffee, embracing the opportunity to monitor goings on in the final hours of the English Premier League January transfer window. I sat there for hours, watching the snow fall outside and waiting for the moment when I’d have to go out and swallow my pride by booking into a Motel. Thankfully that never happened as I got talking to Jeff and Maria, the owner and waitress of the restaurant. They entertained me and I must have entertained them as I was treated to my food and drink being put on the house, Maria wouldn’t even accept a tip. Those conversations led me to spend the evening up the road at Jeff’s house, drinking his beer and enjoying some more unexpected warmth and hospitality.
After a night camped out on Jeff’s living room floor I packed up and went out into the bracing -8 degrees Celsius cold. Glad of my night in doors I stopped in on Jeff at the Cafe, enjoyed a fantastic breakfast and then braved the freezing temperatures on the 35 mile ride east to Flagstaff. Once safely settled in with Taylor, Tierra and Blue I was free to once again reflect upon my incredible luck over the previous couple of days. Although admittedly the hostile weather played a part in people helping me out, it still mystifies as much as warms me that I should be afforded so much kindness. It is becoming increasingly obvious that my selfish little bike tour is something that others can latch onto and enjoy. Strangers can live vicariously through me, live out their dreams of freedom, thoughts that have been overtaken by responsibility or simply buried beneath more immediate concerns. Whatever the reason why I get so much help and seem to attract kind charity, it still continues to amaze me and has me continually asking myself whether it is just me or if all cycle tourists get the same treatment.
The last two days we’ve had daytime temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius and very hostile winds. Tomorrow things are set to move towards more normal temperatures and I shall finally restart my round trip to the Grand Canyon. I’ve found Flagstaff to be an incredibly homely place and one of the few that I know I’d be happy to settle in. If it weren’t for my tongue in cheek desire to find a Colombian bride I could quite conceivably end the tour right here and set about building a life. But no doubt there will be other Flagstaffs in my future and I have made the commitment to discover them.