Day Sixty-Six

Needles, CA to Ludlow, CA

Day Sixty-Six was spent entirely on old Route 66 through the Mojave Desert. I was really nervous about today's ride. I had committed myself to riding a lot of miles under harsh conditions with virtually no services along the way. It promised to be a very long day.

I woke up at 6:15, not bad considering that I didn't have a wake-up call or an alarm clock. I think in some ways my body was still on Central Time, which meant it was really like 8:15. Anyway, I got dressed and finished packing, then headed across the street to the Chevron station to stock up. The clerk said it was a good thing I didn't come through last week when it was 105 degrees. Today was supposed to be in the mid-80's.  I managed to fit four liters of water and  two 20-ounce Cokes in my panniers plus two 26-ounce water bottles on the bike. I hoped it would be enough.

After a few miles on National Trails Highway, as Route 66 was called most of the way from Needles to Barstow, I had to merge onto Interstate 40. Traffic wasn't too bad, surprisingly.  I started climbing a gentle grade out of the Colorado River valley right away. A mileage sign said " Ludlow 85." If I could stay on I-40, it would cut at least two hours from my day. Alas, after riding for six miles to the exit for US 95, one of those big white " prohibited" signs appeared to boot me off the highway. So much for my short-lived fantasy of a reasonable day. It was the first of many times I would curse CalTrans over the next two weeks (I later learned that around that time part of I-40 between Needles and Ludlow was down to one lane each way due to construction, so maybe it was just as well).

US 95 paralleled the Santa Fe tracks for six miles. At Arrowhead Junction, US 95 headed north toward Las Vegas, crossing the busy railroad tracks at grade. " Never in Texas!" I said. In Texas, there would surely be a huge bridge over a crossing like that. I followed the Santa Fe instead, heading west on Goffs Road. " A hundred miles through the desert with nothing but the Santa Fe for company," I thought, which struck me as something  Tom Waits might write. There were many dips in the road instead of bridges over the washes. I'm sure the " Subject To Flooding" signs were much cheaper than bridges would have been. Considering the climate, flooding probably wasn't a problem more than a few days a year anyway.  There was not even a  hint of moisture in those washes today. It was 14 miles to Goffs from US 95, and it seemed to take forever. The reason was obvious when I arrived in this quiet town and saw a sign showing the elevation to be some 2,000 feet higher than that of Needles. There hadn't been any steep  hills, really, but I had been going gradually uphill almost the whole time. Today's ride was full of such grades. The uphills were long and straight, rising just enough to slow me down. It was frustrating because it always seemed like I should have been going faster than I could. Then when the road angled back down, it wasn't steep enough for coasting.

While researching the desert portion of my trip, specifically Amboy Crater, I came across the following desert safety warning from the Bureau of Land Management:

Drug Labs - Methamphetamine drug lab waste is a growing hazard on the public lands. Please stay clear of anything that looks like a drug lab or any garbage dumped in the desert. If you suspect any type of crime or violation contact the Federal Interagency Communications Center (FICC) at (909) 383-5651 or 911.

This was certainly not an issue when I last crossed the desert eleven years ago. However, in one respect, I think the desert is a good place for a meth lab. Many people make the stuff in their apartments, and when something goes wrong, the whole place burns down. At least in the desert they are less likely to take innocent lives along with their own. I didn't see much  more than discarded pop cans and bottles on my journey, but I didn't venture far from the road.

From Goffs I began a slight downhill all the way to I-40, about ten miles. At the interchange, there was a big gas station. This was a pleasant surprise since I hadn't planned on having anyplace to restock. The clerk asked me where I was going. " The coast," I said. When she asked which one, I said, " Well, I came from the east coast..." She told me I was crazy. I had already finished off a couple liters of water this morning, so I took the opportunity to refill with another gallon. I drank a Powerade and a Coke, too. I was  a bit bloated by the time I left, but I knew that feeling  wouldn't last for long in the heat.

For almost 70 miles, old Route 66 shot off into the desert away from I-40 but never far from the Santa Fe tracks. Goffs Road soon merged into National Trails Highway and angled southwest. I rode through the tiny town of Essex, then past several towns that were even smaller. The wind was unpredictable, as it changed direction  throughout the day. For this leg of the journey, it was a headwind of perhaps 10-15 mph. I thought of my previous longest day from Seminole to Artesia. When someone achieves a record performance, they put an asterisk in the record books if it is wind-aided. Unlike that ride, today's would definitely not be judged as " wind-aided." The scenery changed little, but I was making decent progress. By 1:00 I had gone 60 miles, which would be a full day's ride on other days. Now I had to crank out a second day's worth of miles.

As I headed toward Amboy, the song that naturally came to mind was " Journey To The Center Of The Mind," a classic psychedelic sixties hit by the Amboy Dukes, a band that featured the young Ted Nugent:

Leave your cares behind

Come with us and find

The pleasures of a journey to the center of the mind

Come along if you care

Come along if you dare

Take a ride to the land inside of your mind

Parts of the road had been recently repaved by San Bernardino County (this huge county, roughly 200 miles by  120 miles, encompasses much of the Mojave Desert, even though  the City of San Bernardino is in the county's far southwest corner near Los Angeles). A few spots were freshly blacktopped, fresh enough that my tires picked up some oil. My fenders kept it off the bike, but I started to pick up little stones on my oily tires. I imagined that if this continued I would be riding on rock  tires like the Flintstones. It wore off after a few miles, though. Later, there were many miles of tar & chip all the way to Amboy. The only peril there was loose gravel, and the only time it bothered me was when two cars sped past at a speed far greater than the 35 mph suggested by the signs in the construction zone. As a result, I was pelted with rocks.  Thanks a lot, guys. A long, gentle incline became more steep and I climbed over a low mountain range. At the pass, there were some graffiti-covered  ruins of a former roadside stop. One word caught my attention: " Sinaloa." Sinaloa is a state in Mexico, but it made me think of Bruce Springsteen's " Sinaloa Cowboys," a song about two Mexican brothers who come to America to work in the fields of the San Joachin Valley. They discovered that making methamphetamine was far more lucrative, then one of the brothers blew himself up. That song was from the powerful and depressing The Ghost Of Tom Joad album. The title track had also been going through my head off and on throughout my journey on Route 66, " the Mother Road," as John Steinbeck called it in The Grapes Of Wrath (the novel describes  the Joads' journey from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life during the 1930's). However, I tried not to think of that song for long because it was slow and quiet, not the type of thing to keep  my  legs moving.

On the backside of the range I had a decent downhill, followed by more flat, straight road. I rode through an intersection with a road that connected to Interstate 40 (about 11 miles north), and soon I reached Amboy and the 80-mile mark for the day. When I first planned my trip across the Mojave Desert, I had intended to spend the night at Roy's Motel & Cafe in Amboy. I did not for several reasons. Foremost, when I called to make a reservation I got voice mail, and they never returned my call. I found out later that the phone line had been cut accidentally by construction workers, but at the time I figured it was just typical of the sort of things I had read online about the current owners. They bought the place a few years ago from Buster Burris, who built Roy's back in the 1930's. From many reports, the new owners gave  poor customer service and charged outrageous prices ($1 for a glass of water, according to one).  However, John and Erick told me later that Roy's was a highlight of their trip, so maybe it would have been okay. I could have tried to find someone to check me in, but at that point it didn't matter--I was psyched up to ride to Ludlow.

Just past the town I came to Amboy Crater. Amboy Crater is the cone of an old volcano, and black lava rocks are strewn across the desert around it. I climbed to the top of the cone in 1990, and I would recommend it to anyone passing through. One word of advice--the side facing the road is the hard side to climb. There's an easier path along the side, as I discovered after struggling up the front. Since I had done it before and I didn't have much time to spare, I skipped the crater this time. Apparently it had become quite popular in the intervening years because the BLM put up a sign and an explanatory marker for it several years ago.

There were several towns shown on the map between Amboy and Ludlow, but I knew that none of them really existed they were just names for railroad sidings. They had appropriately desolate names like Klondike and Siberia.  The next real town (i.e., one with buildings and people) was Ludlow, 30 miles away. To make my ride a little more difficult, not far past Amboy Crater the road deteriorated into a rough, broken surface (I imagined that the county would repave this section soon as they had just done east of Amboy). After 85 miles in the saddle, I did not like bouncing over the cracks and bumps one bit. I started going uphill again, a little steeper than most of the hills I'd been over today but not too bad. It wouldn't have bothered me too much at the start of the day. However, that start in Needles already seemed like a long time ago. As far as I could see, the road kept going up forever. Still, I was doing okay until I took a break at the eight-hour mark on my cyclometer. Then I fell apart. My legs were mush. It was another dozen miles to Ludlow, and I couldn't imagine another hour of pedaling. Of course, the worst thing about this was that as my pace dropped, it would take even more than an hour to get there. I tried everything I knew to attempt to get myself out of this funk. I took an electrolyte capsule to replace the sodium and potassium that I had sweated out. I drank some Coke, because often my bad attitude is simply due to low blood sugar. My stomach was uncharacteristically upset by my choice of beverage. I didn't get sick, but I didn't feel good. Still, I struggled up the next few hills, the little victories of cresting the hills crushed each time by the sight of a taller hill ahead. I wasn't as miserable as I had been riding against the wind into Kingman, but I was not enjoying myself.

I looked over at the Santa Fe alongside me. I finally found the spark that would reignite my ambition. " You're a locomotive," I told myself aloud. " You're unstoppable. Your legs are twin diesels..." My legs began pounding the pedals like pistons. Soon I was over the hill, then over the next one. It never ceases to amaze me how much of athletics is mental.

The hills finally ran out, and I saw trucks to the north on I-40. That was good news because it meant I was close to Ludlow, which was located at the junction of  I-40 and the National Trails Highway. Even better, I had a long downhill for the last few miles into town. As I pulled into the Ludlow Motel, I saw a sign directing me across the street to the Chevron station to check in. Apparently like Amboy, this was a small town where several of the roadside businesses were owned by the same entity. I got a much-needed ego boost there. The clerk asked where I rode from today, and when I said, " Needles," his jaw literally dropped. That was just what I needed (compare that with the smart-aleck motel clerk in Artesia on my previous longest day). Then he asked where I was going. When I said, " To the coast," he said, " You've still got about 300 miles to go," as if that was a long way. " Well, I've come from the other coast, so I'm almost there."

It was nice to finally be at a point in my trip where the end was within reach. I thought about how strange it sounded to hear myself tell people back in Georgia that I was riding to the Pacific when I started this trip. Even to me, it didn't quite seem real 2,500 miles ago, and I'm sure at least some of those people thought to themselves, " Yeah, sure he's going to California." Now that I had ridden over the high mountains and through the worst of the desert, I knew I was going to make it.

Outside, a woman was telling her daughter, " Yes, that's a big bike, isn't it?" With the panniers, my bike was quite a horse. " Where did you ride here from?" When I told her Savannah, Georgia, her eyes opened wide. " Today was a rough day," I said. " I rode all the way from Needles." Her jaw dropped. Wow, two jaw-droppers  in one day! She wished me luck, and as I rode toward the motel, I heard her tell her daughter, " Tonight Mommy will show you where he started on a map." I thought it was pretty neat that I had become an educational tool.

When I got to my room, I flopped on the bed and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had just enough time to take a shower and get over to the Ludlow Coffee Shop before it closed. My meal wasn't so great, but at least it didn't make me sick like I expected. It occurred to me that my standards had really dropped on this trip. I skipped dessert at the cafe and decided to walk over to the Dairy Queen on the other side of I-40 instead. Risking life and limb, I walked through the darkness along the shoulder under the freeway bridge as semis streamed past. I was a man on a mission, a mission involving an Oreo Blizzard. Alas, I failed to complete my mission. Although the sign was still lit, the Dairy Queen was closed. Add that to my list of pet peeves: businesses that leave their signs lit after they close.

When I returned to my room, I noticed that I didn't have a remote control for the TV. When I switched it on, I saw why. There were only three channels! As if that wasn't enough to tell me how far " out there" I was, a look at the phone book made it clear--there were only twelve white pages! And that wasn't just for Ludlow--the phone book covered a dozen towns and at least 6,000 square miles of desert.

I was so tired that I didn't even bother unpacking the laptop. This was only the second time on the whole trip that I didn't use the computer--the other was when I rode until 9 PM to Quemado, NM. Besides, I had already written out my directions for tomorrow when I was in Needles. The motel room was nice although there weren't many amenities. The room was clean and the beds were firm. Although $48 for the night was obviously taking some advantage of the remote location (the gas station's prices were also inflated, about 30-40 cents per gallon higher than I saw later in Barstow), the Ludlow Motel was a decent place to stay. A similar place in Barstow or Needles probably would have been $12-15 cheaper.

Totals for the day: 109.52 miles in 9:14:51 for an 11.8 mph average.

Click here to see today's photos.

Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.