So, by now you’ve learned how we prepared to cycle the Southern Tier, and have since pulled the pin and had to fly back to Australia. That said, the ten days of cycling we did achieve are still etched in my mind as a thrilling experience. And for us complete novices, in hindsight was pretty kick ass. Below is a Southern Tier recap taken from my daily journal.
From here, I invite you to live vicariously through us for just one more week as we go back to where it all began – San Diego, right after dipping the tyre’s – as we rolled out with weighted bikes for the first time. Or as I liked to say each morning “Blue team, move it out!” in my best Brad Pitt, Oceans 11 impersonation. Just me? Okay then. Moving on…
Day 1. San Diego – The Willows | 70 kms | 720m climb | 6 hrs in the saddle
Wow. We were told the first two days were the hardest, and after the first few hours we were feeling like we’d seriously over estimated our ability. Then came the hill. And it didn’t stop for 25km!!
But before that, we’d faced multiple road detours and enormous puddles, one of which involved me taking a private transfer by a U-Haul. After 20 kms of city sprawl, we made it to the Mission Trails Park, where we took our first break, consisting of nut bars, trail mix and bananas (on ya Larry!). Before long, we were back on the road. This was our first mistake, not taking a proper lunch break. Given we’d left late, we were so preoccupied with getting as far as we could, we just kept going.
And boy was it a mistake! By 4pm we were struggling and ready to stop. Unfortunately the only accomodation was in Alpine, another 10 kms away. And the worst was yet to come, when we found out there was no vacancy at the inn! This began our impossible search for a place to stay. After much procrastination we laboured a final 20 kms to the Viejas Casino at the Willows, where we ended up spending a small fortune on a room, after rolling in at 7:30pm. Honestly, I would have paid double based on how we were feeling.
One sensory feeling I can’t shake is cycling alongside the fresh scent of the Torrey pine. Nothing like it.
Day 2. Pine Valley | 21 kms | 600m climb | 2 hrs in the saddle
We woke up feeling one thing: sore. Somehow it was well past 10am by the time we hit the road (we needed to work on that), and it was straight into climbing. First up was a 14 km stretch of noisy freeway at a 19% gradient. Of course our butts (and the rest of it) were in agony, but we were both feeling extreme pain in our wrists, knees and neck. Everything was burning.
By the time we pulled in for lunch at Majors Dinner for a soup and a bowl of chili, we knew we had to call it a day. We couldn’t bare the thought of another day like yesterday (feeling helpless and pushing harder than we were capable.) Instead we burnt off the cold mountain air with a hot shower and didn’t regret it one bit.
Day 3. Ocotillo | 76 kms | 1,750m descent | 5 hrs in the saddle
What a difference a day makes!! This was the first time we both smiled on the journey. Well rested after yesterday’s short day, we finally felt good on the bikes. We made it to Live Oak Springs (near the Tecate Divide 3,890 ft) for second breakfast. With chattering teeth and freezing cold fingers, we pushed uphill again for one final slog all before our first downhill to Jacumba (Ha-cumba). After three days of hills, we felt like we’d hit the jackpot.
By this point, I almost understand my gears, but at least the breaks are making more sense, making for a smoother downhill. With the sun threatening to shine, and forecasts of snow the next day, we were keen to push on and get out of the mountains. A tail wind boosted our slightly weary legs a few miles uphill, before a stunning 21 km downhill on the Interstate 8, past mountains and boulders. Striking a remarkable resemblance to the Snowy Mountains in Australia.
We dropped approx 2,500 ft in just a few hours and it felt incredible. Along the way, we enjoyed a wide shoulder with unreal views (except for Trump’s wall) until we finally made it to Ocotillo (Ocoti-yo) in the desert.
Day 4. Brawley | 89 kms | 560 descent | 5 hrs in the saddle
I think we’re starting to enjoy this bicycle touring thing! We opted for another early start, and are getting used to oats for breakfast as some quick fuel. Leaving town as the sun was breaking through the clouds gave us some incredible views. The open and sparse plains are flanked by enormous mountains, we especially enjoyed cycling away from the ones we’d passed yesterday.
Along the way, we spotted some people who had attempted to cross the border, handcuffed by border patrol. That was pretty sad and surreal.
After a good few miles of downhill to start, we cruised the relatively flat 50 kms to Calexico (passing the largest span of solar we’ll ever see) for a second breakfast of donuts, coffee and burritos. Man, the donuts are good here.
The afternoon was a further 40 km ride to Brawley, and the knees felt the effects of not taking enough breaks on the morning stint. (It’s a learning curve!) Still, we enjoyed a quietish road in, past hay fields (and bales) and agricultural fields growing carrots and spring onion (I think), the smell was amazing. Here we planned to bunker down for our first rest day, to wait out the forecasted rains.
Day 5. Rest day in Brawley.
Our first rest day. What a treat. Non stop rain is forecast for the day, and tomorrow’s ride is a fairly baren 110km with nowhere to stop in between – plus – camping is expected at the other end. So, we decided we’d prefer to be dry for that. And our knees could do with a little recovery.
In this small town there was really nothing to do except eat, relax and test our camping gear before it’s put to use. By that I mean, take it out of the packaging. We also had plenty of worried messages about COVID-19 and the realities of continuing was proving tricky. It looks like we’ll need to fly home – BUT! – we still have five days ride to the closest airport, and we intended to enjoy them!
Day 6. Palo Verde | 111 kms | 620m climb | 7 hrs in the saddle
Wowsers. That was a long day on the bike! We knew today would be a big one. But neither of us expected to enjoy it as much as we did. It was a day of ever changing scenery, made better with the sun shining the whole way. As we left Brawley, the traffic lights gave way to open fields, cattle ranches and more solar plantations. Breakfast on the road is always my favourite stop, complete with my French press coffee, oats and berries.
We pushed on with a few short breaks until Glamis for an 11am lunch stop. Most famous for the sand dunes, it was all you could see for miles and miles. And then. It was over. We were back amongst the mountains for an afternoon of dips.
I would bomb down the hills as fast as I could just to make peddling less of an effort on the other side. With less of a shoulder on the roads, it made for a lot of concentration. By 4:30pm we arrived at the trailer park in ‘town’ (which consisted of one gas station) and set up the tent, for the first time!
Our campsite host Cathy, was a legend and offered to cook us a pork chop for dinner whilst we pitched the tent. We could not have been more grateful.
Day 7. Quartzsite | 70 kms | 350m climb | 5 hrs in the saddle
Somehow, despite getting up at 6am it was almost 8.30am before we left, which included a long chat with Cathy.
Question to long distance cyclists: How can the seemingly shorter days feel harder than the longer days?
By mid-morning, after long stretches of bumpy roads with no shoulder, I discover some issues with my bike. The brake pad is off center and is scraping against the wheel. A short stint with the tools didn’t prove to help and so, we just screwed it off and I cycled for the rest of the morning with one brake pad at the back.
We passed agricultural fields in the morning, alongside rows and rows of potatoes, garlic, spring onion and broccoli! Brunch in Blythe was a win as we stumbled upon Rebel BBQ, where a much needed Reuben sandwich was inhaled, before rolling out the final kilometers in the state of California. By 1:30pm, we crossed the Colorado River and officially entered Arizona. The afternoon brought along more uphill (the only tailwind came from RVs and truckers along the I-10 Highway) before cruising into town.
We opted for a cheap motel (it’s actually pretty luxe), cycled to the laundromat to wash (all of) our clothes whilst sipping on beer and munching on potato chips.
Day 8. Salome | 66 kms | 530m climb | 4.5 hrs in the saddle
Leaving Quartzsite well rested (how good’s a bed?!) our pack up process is finally getting quicker. Before we knew it we were climbing up the freeway in the bright sunshine, and not even the traffic noise could dampen our spirits. Not even the butterflies that continue to fly into my face at warp speed.
Breakfast was oats on the side of the freeway, and we were both amazed at how good we were feeling. Before we knew it we’d knocked off about 35 kms and rolled into Brenda for lunch (second breakfast really). Where a light snack turned into a full breakfast burrito with a side of fries.
Moo got chatting to two local mechanics (Ed and Lyle) who kindly offered to look at my broken brake. After an hour of trying, Lyle successfully helped amend Moo’s repair work (further damage), but we couldn’t stop the brake from rubbing the wheel. We removed the pad again and got on our way. I let a ladybug hitch a ride with me for ten minutes.
Another cruisey 30 kms saw us pitch our tent at an RV park in Salome and enjoyed a beer, a dehydrated chilli meal, chocolate cake from Pat (the friendly park manager) and Mezcal to finish!
Day 9. Wickenburg | 86 kms | 520m climb | 6 hrs in the saddle
Yikes. That was a really tough day.
After another fairly abject sleep in the tent, we spent our entire day riding uphill. It was an endless straight road and we were constantly climbing, which meant the pedals were always turning. We’d set off at 7am and our first stop for breakfast 10 kms down the road was in Wenden. Nothing was open so we perched on the side of the road and watched the sporadic car pass.
The first 45 kms of the ride felt tough but OK, we used a stock pile of podcasts to keep us going all morning. Thankfully we found an open cafe for lunch in Aguila (COVID-19 is starting to take its toll on venues) and devoured a Mexican feast. I scoffed my torta in seconds and slurped on some weak drip coffee (hence why I brought my own French press.)
Back on the road, the next 40 kms was a little tortuous on a full stomach, with an endless slight ascent. Even the scenery of beautiful mountains and surprisingly green shrubbery struggled to bring a smile. Fortunately the last 14 kms downhill did, and so, exhausted, we pulled into the Log Wagon Inn and enjoyed a beer and some downtime to recover for our last day on the bikes tomorrow.
Day 10. Phoenix | 114 kms | 630m climb | 6.5 hrs in the saddle
With a long day ahead, we were up and on the bikes by 6.45am and feeling great (notice the vastly improved packing up speed?). We rolled out of Wickenburg and I’m immediately sad thinking that we’ve only just entered the ‘real America’. Where cowboys are in front of you in queues and billboards say things like howdy partner! The maps promised a morning of descent, and the first 18km did not disappoint. We zoomed downhill before a breakfast stop on the side of the road. Here, we met our first other bicycle tourist – Bordan from California – an avid cyclist who had crossed the country many times before. We so enjoyed a good chat with him, despite being (extremely) envious knowing today was our last.
We continued our great speed all the way to lunch, and the scenery had been spectacular. A backdrop of mountains and a bright blue sky with cactus at every glance, we chewed it all up with ease. Oh how we’ll miss it all!!
After a quick lunch in Peoria, we still had 40 kms to knock off. Whilst it was mostly flat, the last hour into town started to hurt! At least we were on a cycle path by the canal, a haven after days alongside the highway. After checking into our hotel, we sadly dropped the bikes off for boxing up.
The only way to make ourselves feel better was an epic burger and pale ale at Wilderness Brewing Co. Bittersweet feelings as the journey has come abruptly to an end.
Below is a picture from our flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. We were chuffed to have missed cycling through the snowy mountains!
All I can say is. It was an incredible adventure. We had a spectacular eleven months away and seriously great ten days on the bikes. Despite what our backsides were telling us.
Time to go home. Bring on the future. Let’s see what comes.
I’ll post my cycling packing list this week (for both my own record and your amusement), so stay tuned for that!
Until then xo