Wednesday 18th May 2022 I finished my ride across the USA Southern Tier route in San Diego. Now to catch up with the blog for the last week / 10 days.
I believe I was leaving Lorsdsburg NM on Tuesday 10th May when I last blogged, and I headed across more deserts lands to Thatcher NM to a nondescript motel run by a Modhi supporting Indian and a pretty decent Mexican meal for the night of Tuesday 10th May. Wednesday 11th May was not a pleasant day, mostly because of the awful road between Thatcher NM and Globe NM, which was busy with a narrow heavily rutted margin. And some long, long never ending inclines. The route went through an Apache Indian Reservation, and I have to say that the level of unhealthy poverty on display was a new low. Some of the public infrastructure looked as though it had some money thrown at it, but other than that people seemed to live in even more squalid trailer parks than I’ve seen hitherto. There was a Casino, which seems to be a Reservation thing, but whether that income filters down to ordinary folk I doubt looking at the way they lived and presented. It was not a pleasant outlook or journey on that day.
A long ride on Thursday 12 May brought me to the desert urban sprawl of the Phoenix AZ area, and I stayed in my usual Motel 6 somewhere near the campus of the University of Arizona. I have to say that for the most part the areas around Phoenix appeared pleasant, well kept, and well watered, with parks and lawns, even in what would be a desert. The secret is the water that they bring in from far and wide by canals, some of which I followed on bike trails. It must take a huge amount of water to keep this urban sprawl in the desert from drying up and desiccating.
Friday 13th May saw me working my way through the Phoenix urban sprawl out in to rural Arizona, mostly desert with those classic looking tall cacti all over the place. Wickenburg AZ was my destination for that night to a delightful, if expensive, motel which had some old western character to it. Seth, the young guy who booked me in, told me that Wickenburg AZ is famous for being the double lasso capital of the world. Cowboy thing, where you lasso a cow by the neck and by the legs in order to bring it down. Well, I guess out in the deserts of Arizona there isn’t much else to keep oneself occupied.
The weather in the deserts is beginning to get hot. I’m probably at the tail end of the window for cycling through these places by mid May. After that, I think it becomes almost impossible, which is why I have not seen any other cyclists this last week. The run of bikers will start up again in the early autumn when things have cooled down. So, lots of water is required, and I’ve begun to begin my cycling day at very first light, about 5 am, so that I can enjoy the cool mornings and quiet traffic.
Wickenburg AZ to Salome AZ on Saturday 14th May was a shortish day, which was welcome, but necessitated by the distance and logistics of the next few days when I will have some long rides. Much is dictated by how the services are spaced day by day, so some days I have a short ride so that I am able the next day to get to the next available services within the day and don’t find myself stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The Westward Motel in Salome AZ was another quirky, hip, kind of place in the middle of the desert, with lovely cacti gardens and sitting out places. Food was a burger flipped by the side of the road, because there was nothing else. These small towns in the desert do a big trade in ‘snowbirds’, people who come down in huge RVs to spend the winter in the desert sun before heading back north for the summer. I guess they are usually retirees who are able to do this to avoid the harsh northern winters. By this time of year they are heading home north, so the places are a bit depleted and some of the services that cater for them through the winter are beginning to close down. It’s not exactly a class selection of RVs, RV parks or snowbirds in these parts. I think they go to places like the Florida coast.
It was Salome AZ to Palo Verde CA on Sunday 15th May to a campsite which was a launching point for a long day to follow. The campsite had all I needed including a small gas station that sold the basics and provided some stuff or a supper, something for the next morning, and most importantly some beer at the end of a hot, long day. Gas / petrol has consistently been about $4 a US gallon on my trip, but I note in California that it is at least $6 a US gallon, in part because of CA green taxes. Quite a hike from AZ to CA.
Palo Verde CA to Brawley CA on Monday 16th May was a long ride, through some isolated and austere rocky and desert areas, including a journey through an inland sand dune area around Glamis CA. It’s where they make dystopian post apocalyptic films like Mad Max, so I’m told. Also where some Americans get their thrills riding off road sand buggies, and to hell with the environmental damage they are doing to whatever lives and grows out there on the sand dunes of Imperial County. Why these sand dunes are stuck here, I am not sure, but suddenly coming in to Brawley CA I found myself out of the sand dunes and in to the well irrigated and hugely green and agricultural Imperial Valley. Where the water comes from, I am not sure. But, it is a major agricultural area for tens and tens of miles.
Beyond the Imperial Valley CA the desert returns in the form of the Yuha Desert, skirting the border with Mexico. All along the road at about mile intervals there were pennants waving indicated water drops where Good Samaritans had left supplies of water for those people who had made it across the border and were trekking across the desert to wherever. People die regularly in the desert from lack of water during the summer months. Border patrols were in high evidence. I think the Good Samaritans, the Border Patrol and the trekking immigrants all play a cat and mouse game with each other.
And now for some tough riding. An early start on Tuesday 17th May saw me go through a bit more of desert and the Imperial Valley to Ocotillo CA, which is essentially at zero feet in the desert at the foot of a 3,000 ft mountain that I had to haul myself up. The route follows the freeway / motorway I-8 and is a right bugger. Made worse by the Wind Gods not favouring me that day. It was a tough climb, although I was the subject of some kindness by some Border Patrol officers who gave me some very welcome cold water along the way. At over 3,000 ft I came to Boulevard for the night of Tuesday 17th May.
And so to the final day, Wednesday 18th May, which after a couple of smallish climbs though Pine Valley CA and Alpine CA, saw me descending dramatically down to the outer urban sprawl of San Diego CA. Urban cycling is never much fun, too much traffic and too much starting and stopping and having to keep super alert. By 4 o’clock I was near my destination to stay with an old friend from decades, Art, in a lovely neighbourhood of San Diego. No big drama at ending the ride, no dipping my front wheel in the Pacific Ocean (I’ve done that several times before on other rides), just happy to be finished, in one piece, and to enjoy a beer.
Reflections. Before that a couple of reflections. But, let me say, firstly, that I have met some interesting, wonderful and generous people along the way, too many to mention by name. In general, people have been decent and kind, and slightly bemused at why one would cycle all this way when you could drive it or fly it ! I’ve not been too keen on drivers of huge noisy pick ups who drive along with a supersize full fat coke drink in one hand, a double decker burger in the other, and their phone on their lap as they talk or text or watch some video. Neither have I warmed to the motorcyclists who come by on souped up noisy bikes and disturb my peace as I cycle along. I’ve been shouted at, barked at, had a can of coke thrown at me from a passing car, and generally been harassed by drivers who don’t think I should be on the road and think its fun to give me a scare. I suspect most of them probably could do with getting some exercise on a bicycle themselves given their largeness and lardyness. There is look that so many of these pick up truck and motorcycle drivers aspire to, which is large, beefy, hairy, big bellied and generally unkempt. Not a look that I find inspiring or attractive. Does anybody ? My thoughts are more along the lines of ‘go lose some weight, go have a hair cut, go get a wash and then we will talk’. Nonetheless, outside of those groups I have met lots of good people, been on the receiving end of much kindness and goodness every day; but I've also met lots of arses, crassness, and uncouthness every day as well. I suppose that is life.
Poverty. I think I have seen this before and know that the USA is an unequal society in terms of the haves and have nots, but this time I was struck again by how much poverty and deprivation is alive and kicking in the richest country / society in the world. I have pictures in my mind’s memory of passing through hollowed out towns and small communities across various States where the generality of people live in crappy trailers and caravans and dilapidated clapboard houses, who look unhealthy, who have no teeth, who just look feral. Riding along the canals that bring fresh water to the desert urban sprawl of Phoenix, I saw line after line of small tents where the homeless live. Not just a few individuals, but families and communities of the homeless, living out their lives in a small tent with their belongings piled high in a shopping trolley. This is 2022 United States of America.
I am not afraid to tell Americans that they should be ashamed at what I have seen in their country to such an extent and in such numbers - both poor individuals and poor communities. They shrug their shoulders, cluck sympathetically, but I have a sense that in reality many of them console themselves with the belief that this is not their fault or responsibility but is the fault of those people I am talking about - it’s about lack of personal responsibility and personal failure. In other words, they have brought it on themselves. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s about a system, society and culture in which there is little care given, not just to the reality of poverty, but also to its causes. In the land of the free and the brave, in this land of opportunity, people and society tolerate and allow tens of millions of their citizens to slide down to poverty and to stay there with little or no way out or means to climb back up. There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that allows that to happen to tens of millions of its citizens.
Speaking to a Frenchman who was also completing the Southern Tier route that I met on my last day in to San Diego we both agreed that whilst we do have problems in our own countries, and there are people who are poor and people who are on the streets, there is a also a culture of supporting them and helping them to get back up or to stop them hitting rock bottom in the first place. Here in the USA, I sense that once you start that downward slope to the bottom, there is little or anyone to help you avoid it. Except what you can do yourself. The personal responsibility and accountability thinking that is ingrained in to the American psyche and way of thinking means that it’s your fault that this is happening to you. You have done something to make it happen to you. Perhaps it’s because you’ve lost your job, or you have suffered ill health and run out your insurance, or perhaps you weren’t able to get health insurance, or maybe a relationship had failed, or a whole myriad of negative circumstances that impact on peoples’ lives. Whatever, it's your fault, and it's up to you to fix it.
So, there is the description. Whether you agree with it or not. It is what I have seen and what I sense. It is a reality that does not make for a healthy, stable, settled and peaceful society. It will come to bite the USA in the backside if it is allowed to continue and the disparities between communities is allowed to grow. Remember, it was the ‘sans culottes’ who overthrew the powerful in the French Revolution ! And, anyway, besides that it is just an insult, offensive and demeaning to everybody that so many live such kinds of lives. Simple.
So, is there a solution ? It’s probably a solution that is beyond my pay grade, but a good start would be to stop thinking of the poor as deserving to be poor because of their own actions or bad luck, no matter how inconvenient and troublesome they are, and to find a way of thinking about them and their situation as a stain on the conscience of society and the responsibility of us all for allowing this to happen, and an insult to the common good which we should all have an interest in and try to uphold. Then there might be an incentive to do something about it - things like decent health care for all, decent education and access to opportunity for all, decent housing, stable families and nurturing of children. And lots more. However, as it stands, for someone like me coming from where I come from, it is starkly revealing and shocking that so many citizens of this country appear to live in such dire and poor circumstances. It doesn't happen where I come from, thank God. As I say, I think Americans should be ashamed of the situation in which so many of their fellow citizens find themselves. In what they claim to be the richest nation in the world. Well, it might be for a minority, but for a hugely significant number of millions it most certainly is not a land of prosperity.
Police. The USA is a hugely law enforced country. Everywhere I have been, even out in the most isolated places, I’ve noticed police, sheriffs, law enforcement all over the place. Usually in big police vehicles. Often big guys made all the bigger by the clobber they attach to themselves as protective gear. I’ve wondered often how this overweight police officer and all his stuff is supposed to give chase and apprehend anybody, other than in the police car. Or by Tazering someone. Or worse. At crossroads in the most rural places you will see a Sheriff’s car lurking and waiting, ready to pounce on someone for the slightest infringement. It’s definitely about law enforcement rather than policing as a service to a consenting public in a sane and subtle way. It’s overt and heavy handed, and it feels quite oppressive. Another aspect of security / law enforcement / control is to be seen along the border section of the route. Border and Immigration presence is overwhelming. Protecting the border is big business here. The Wall is ever present in the middle distance, snaking its way in an ugly metallic rust brown slash across the desert. It feels threatening and intimidating, which I suppose is its purpose. The border guards, the Wall, the watch towers and the listening posts - these were my constant companions as I cycled my way across vast swathes of the southwestern USA. I recognise there is a problem, but I don’t particularly like the solution.
Tipping. The tipping culture is demeaning both to the waiter/ess and to the customer. It stems from the fact that the boss is simply not paying his staff a living / fair wage and expects that to be made up by the customer. Expected being the operative word. Some serving people I have spoken to tell me that they are paid as little as $3 or $4 an hour, with the rest expected to be recouped through tipping. It might vary from State to State, but the business by and large pays a minimal wage. So, when it comes to the bill, you are presented with pre-set amounts for tipping, beginning at 15% and going as high as 30%. That’s a lot for a tip / gratuity. It means that the serving person is waiting expectantly for the tip amount, and always checks, and the customer is left being nudged / pressured in to tipping the maximum amount on a bill that is pretty inflated anyhow. I do the “minimum’ 15% unless they have really peed me off or the food has been execrable. I guess the thing that annoys me about the tipping culture here is not the staff who sadly have to rely on it because they have no option, and often the very low minimum hourly rate the boss gives them is the only option in town for them, rather it is the fact that the whole business allows the bosses / owners to get away with not fulfilling any sense of employment justice and respect for labour. By the way, I’ve noticed in bicycle shops now that there will be a pot there by the cash register for tips for the staff, also in all sorts of other places.
Food. Generally indifferent, often pretty awful. For the most part, the trip has not been a gastronomic or culinary delight, sustained only by acceptable Mexican food which while it is fine can get a bit monotonous. There is only so much you can do with tortillas, rice and beans. The crawfish were interesting but fiddly. The boudin fine, but you need to like offal. The al dente pasta acceptable, but I’m surprised how often pasta is presented as an overcooked mush. The wine just so very expensive, which leaves the beer which was always very welcome. For most of the journey, especially through rural areas, fruit and salad were difficult to find. Perhaps the odd banana here or there. It is a challenge on trips like this to get enough good stuff to eat which is healthy and nutritious to fuel the pedalling. Filling up on the ubiquitous fast food, often as take away, which is very popular here, makes me think that the art of cooking at home is disappearing in the USA. That kind of fast food stuff isn’t the best diet to fuel the effort that we cross country cyclists undertake. I’m looking forward to getting back to my own kitchen and going out to the supermarket and buying fresh and raw ingredients and cooking a healthy and tasty meal. So, I am not surprised that the generality of Americans are on the large, big and supersized side, given what awful fare they eat in vast quantities. Where the USA leads, we in the UK follow, and we have all the same problems brewing. You know, that Tory Boy MP who talked about teaching people to source food and cook from scratch has a point ! Not that I’d vote for him in a month of Sundays.
Weather. The accepted wisdom is that the Southern Tier should be done from West to East, from Pacific to Atlantic. For all sorts of reasons I started off on the east coast and have been going west. When I would meet other cyclists going in the opposite direction they would suggest that I might find the wind difficult, the thought being the prevailing winds go from west to east for much of the route. In fact, winds are generally north or south, so cross winds, and what I have found is that by and large the wind has only been an occasional problem for me, and that mostly from western Texas on. Before that I enjoyed slight tail winds or some cross winds. I probably had four or five days of headwinds that were problematic, but they did come at some difficult terrain around the Emory Pass and up the grade from Ocotillo to Jacumba. So, my assessment is that it probably doesn't make much difference as to direction of travel, certainly at this time of year. Rain ? Well, I only had one day of rain, but it was warm rain and I just rode on in spite of the apocalyptic forecasts of the weather channels that kept telling people to 'have a plan' for evacuation if necessary ! Weather hyperbole is a feature of US TV channels, but then I guess it keeps people glued and them in the business. Temperatures were generally benign, although beginning to get hot across some of the deserts, and I would not want to be out there in the deserts in a few weeks' time. Trying to manage the sun all day is a challenge, so I kept my arms covered all the time (they have been damaged before by the sun), and would wear a wet terry towel flannel under my helmet to keep me cool and to stop the sun from getting through the helmet ventilation slits and burning my bald head and making me look like skunk. Legs just needed to look after themselves but are very brown from the sock line up to the shorts line on the legs. Chaffing and bottom care - well, all long distance cyclists will know what I am talking about ! But, with careful management and attention to detail, it's manageable. Enough detail, I think !
Thanks for following the blog. I hope you enjoyed it and found it instructive. If not, just press the delete button !
Oh, yes, if you don't agree with / or like my observations / assessment of life here in the USA, particularly the poverty / wealth divide, then we can have a conversation. I'd be very happy to engage. I feel very strongly about these things !