Saturday, January 24, 2009

Riding Into The Desert Night

I was a little apprehensive about what was planned as a four day and three night quad-riding / camping trip into the desert. While we used to camp a lot when we were canoeing back in New England, I haven't done that for more years than I can recall. And while some people call living in an RV and staying at a campground- camping - it is NOT. In fact I haven't had a sleeping bag or a tent or a camp stove or a nesting camp kitchen set, and all that jazz in a long time as well. But picking up those few items was easy enough at local sporting good stores, so that wasn't the problem. And since we had already been anticipating getting into a bit more of this kind of camping in areas where we might be able to get with the new Quigley Van but not the motor coach, this was as opportune a time as ever to start regathering the gear.

But the "big boy ride" had put me on short notice that inexperience is just that...and small matters like mountain goat trails and paths narrower than the bike and dunes higher and harder to climb than a 5 story building and hills and valleys that didn't look navigable to my eye could, and would, be likely to pop up once again. And there was no idea in anyone's head that it would end in a day, so just grin and bear it. This was an endurance run. This was a camping trip. A real camping trip. So we saddled up and headed out into the desert. Into the day. But also into the night.

Now I suppose I could have either kept or tried to duplicate here what might have been my diary of the trip, but in all honesty there was too much happening every minute of every day to even attempt that then, let alone here. Maybe some night around a campfire ALL the stories can be told hence. But for this post I will just select a few incidents and stories for a more tailored telling.

It was a trip of unimaginable beauty at times. The Arizona skies, especially at sunrise and sunset are magnificent, and there is no better place to see them than in the desert, with the light rising and falling upon and then behind the mountains that define the desert. It was also a test of my ability to run with the pack which met with mixed success. When they ran slowly and I went full out- I kept up. When they ran full out.....well, on more than one occasion I rode up a hill to look for their dust, which I was apparently not close enough to "eat" any more. That is NOT a complaint. And I should state for the record that other than my own personal shortcomings in the driver skill area, I always felt safe out there. I, that is to say me, myself and I, did feel lost at times. But no matter, everyone else knew exactly where I was, whether I did or not. Riding rule of the desert: if lost, stop. Someone will be back for you. I found that to be entirely true and understanding that was a good thing.

The trip was also a litany of personal tests. Was I good enough to get up that hill? If I did, would I ever want to come back down? If I scared the daylights out of myself could I quell the discomfort and hold onto the joy that was also present in the experience? If there was something I didn't have for the trip, could I make do without it, or with something in its place. Could I play the virtual game of desert SURVIVOR without wanting to call off the game and go home?

OK. So what happened out there? We started with a run out to our new starting point by covering ground I was familiar with. That was a good way to start. And in fact we bypassed the "hairy" stuff we had done before so we could get to our launching post and have more of the day left for exploring. It felt like a good beginning to me. And it was. Once we hit new territory the necessary skill level began to climb rapidly by my standards. I should say thirteen of us started out on the trip. The group had varying levels of experience - with my experience dead last. I didn't mind "last" , but I was hoping to avoid that "dead" part. A couple hours in to the ride, the pace was quickening. With riders up front and riders behind, you just "do" what you need to do and there isn't a whole lot of time for lolly gagging and debate. So when we came to a very steep and very narrow two stage climb that led up to a ridge run I gunned it and headed up. But I picked a bad line to the top and rode it off to the left and back down to a lower level that I knew I should not be on- as I had clearly seen the others go up not down. Because a lot of the ride is a follow the leader kind of thing, several riders behind me followed suit. I may have, I say may have, been the first to know it was a screw up but the others corrected course and just zoomed right back up the vertical climb to that summit ridge. Further down did not seem to be much of an option, and, you know, monkey see-monkey do I headed up that stretch of hill as well. But with the others waiting and watching at the top, I made it ALMOST all the way to the top, then started slipping and sliding and ceased making upward progress. They had told me on a climb you DO NOT STOP giving it the gas. Stopping on a steep climb is the worst thing you can do. And though I had no intention of stopping, that was happening anyway and as it did the front tires picked up off the ground and I had this God awful feeling she'd roll. I cut to the left just a tad and gave her some more gas and resumed a little forward progress. By now the two uphill tires came off the ground and I thought sure I was going right back down bike over butt over bike. Now I'm not much of a power sports kinda guy but I've seen them race a few times and if you hold on real tight and throw all your weight to the uphill side, you at least have a chance. So I did that. Hanging closer to the ground than to the bike, and to my amazement and also great relief I climbed the rest of the way up the hill and never did flip that sucker. I freely admit the body lean that saved me and my bike was inspired by a will to survive and an incredible rush of fear and not by even the "remotest" skill of ridership. But it worked, and now I know it does. At the top, "Nice body lean!" "I thought you were a goner" and "Thanks for showing us the bottom of your bike." Nice guys.

Over the remainder of the day, we explored probably half a dozen or more old mines. Some we went in, some we didn't. Because some we could and some we couldn't. Some of us are much more anxious to explore old mines than others. I liked it to a point but not the extreme crawl in on your belly to count the bats type of exploration. For me, the mystery of the mine is who found the vein and how. In my next life, I think I'll be a geologist.

Day 1 came to a successful conclusion and we made camp. Because I had purchased gear and provisions the day before the ride and lashed it all onto the bike as best I could- I knew I pretty much had everything, but had no recollection of where it was tucked. So set up took me a little longer than everyone else. So what else is new? I'm sensing a pattern here! I was fascinated to see that a couple of the guys just rolled out a sleeping bag on the gravel and called it "home." Roy Rogers. Hoss Cartwright. Steve McQueen. John Wayne, step aside, your modern day counterpart Quad-cowboys are snoozing under the same skies where you once chewed a piece of jerky, put your head on your saddle, and sang "nite nite" to the northern star. I didn't look close enough. Maybe they actually did take the seat off the bike for a pillow, as it is easily removable. I don't know whether or not those real men used a pillow at all. Me? I had the stuffable, self inflating red fiber pillow from the sporting good store...and I ain't ashamed to admit it.

Now you know, when cowboys get to telling stories around the campfire over tender viddles and whiskey at night, there can be some mighty tall tales yarned. And this here night was no exception. So as Fireman Ed finished his last bite, he commenced to telling this here whopper of a story. I ain't a gonna say it isn't true. Heck, I just knowed the man a couple days now and he seems like a righteous fellow to me. But my old pal Gary says, If'n it was a fairy tale, it would have to start out "Once upon a time in a land far away." And if it was a really true story told by an Alaskan North Slope Oil guy, it would have to start out "Now this ain't no SH_T." But, this here story started out "When I was kid" so I can't swear it's the truth or it ain't. But this I can tell you and all my PETA readers out there: "Weren't NO Ducks injured in the actual telling of this story":

"When I was a kid....." we knew that ducks loved the taste of raw bacon. But they couldn't digest it properly. Seems it would pass right through those little critters. So we'd go down by the pond, take a rolled up piece of bacon and put it on the end of a string. No hook or nothing, just a string. Then we'd throw that bacon on the ground and the first duck would come running over and gobble it right down. And though he loved the taste, he couldn't digest it, so after only a few minutes, it would pass out the "foul" end of the duck. But as it hadn't been digested at all, it was still pretty much bacon, so another duck would come running over and gobble up the same piece of bacon. Now Fireman Ed had two ducks on a string, and, sure enough, in only a matter of minutes the process repeated itself and out into the bright light of day came our recycled piece of bacon. This went on and on until he got bored with the challenge and had something like 8 or 10 ducks in a row (so to speak) on the string. And when all was said and done, he'd take the bacon from the back of the last duck, pull the string through the dance line, and all the little quackers went on about their business none the less but for minor wear and tear. Or so he says.

Now it seemed a bit far fetched for me, but that's not the point at all. Every time a group of friends gets together like this, someone says something or does something that takes on the honorary roll of theme for the event. And this was no exception. I never heard so many duck stories in my whole life. I laughed until I hurt. And next day when we stopped for lunch at a fuel depot and the other guys went inside, I stayed outside and ate my snack sitting on the bike. When they came out I told them about the birds that had gathered around while I was eating my cheese and hard boiled egg. I said since I didn't have a string, so I took a bungy cord off my pack, put a little cheese and egg on the end and sure enough the first bird swallowed it right down, where upon it shot right out....I didn't have to say another word. We were all laughing again. Later in the day, I hit a bump pretty hard and it gave me quite a jolt. Asked if I was OK, I said sure, but I hit so hard and stopped so quick that the lunch I had a short while back shot right out of my mouth, whereupon a duck flew off the Colorado river, swallowed the lunch,...and we were off and running again.

Speaking of which, one day we rode for miles right along the side of the Colorado River. It was interesting to see that even though the river carries plenty of water through the desert, it doesn't really provide any of that water to the desert. It was equally brown and dry even right to the water's edge. Without man and the use of irrigation, the river does not provide water to the desert. I would have thought otherwise.

Now a word about sleeping in the desert night. Already told you what I had for gear. In addition I had a self inflating air mattress. That provides an inch, more or less, of "comfort and cushion" and also some insulation from ground temps. I expected to be uncomfortable. I wasn't. I expected the sounds of the desert to be perhaps a bit eerie as I am not really familiar with them in any degree. But just the opposite was true. I don't know about you, but I never sleep as soundly camping as I do in my own bed. A portion of the brain stays alert and on guard for the unexpected. An animal. A rainstorm. An intruder. Some jackass (wild donkey that is to say). But the night was dead quiet until the coyotes started calling in the hills. It was not the single howl sound they use on old westerns at all. More like a series of yaps and yips, grunts and yelps with a few cries and screeches thrown in, then punctuated by the classic howling that we all associate with the coyote on the hill silhouetted by the moon and howling for all the world to hear. When those sounds came I thought I traveled back in time. The old west and the Greg of the desert had finally been introduced. It felt very nice. They spoke to us at around eleven. Again at one. And again close to three.I tried to stay awake to listen as long as I could more than I tried to get back to sleep. I left the window flaps on the tent up, hoping I'd catch a glimpse. They were surely there. They told us as much. But I never saw a one.

I'd like to tell you where all we rode. Fact is, much of it was just exploration. Locate a mine on the GPS and try to find a way to get there. We rode soft sand and gravel washes, bedrock ledges and big boulder fields, Through cactus patches, flatlands, and hills that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Ridge lines and valleys...and everything in between. We crammed a lot into our time in the desert. We had started with thirteen. By our final day, we were down to five. A few scheduled appointments for some, a mechanical problem here and there along the way, or just a need to get something done other than playing in the desert sent some back early. We "called it" a little early as well when one of the final five started to have fuel line problems. All who dropped off along the way did so at appointed designations where that could be facilitated. Translation: we dropped them off at or near civilization so there was no doubt everyone could get home safe and sound. And no one went off alone. I can tell you a little more about the ride. It was over 200 miles long. Even though we all carried spare fuel, we had to make two fuel provisioning stops along the way, in Ehrenberg and Quartzsite. Driving into town on a quad legally and pulling into the truck stop to fuel up is a major hoot!

Coming into Quartzsite, we had been riding the trail hard all day. Part of it was challenging and slow to the point that none of us wanted to have to turn around a go all the way back. But just a few miles outside of Quartzsite, sure enough the road was posted closed and gates and impassible objects had been placed to prohibit entrance and passage. But we were staring at limited options at that point and the signs posted did not carry the legal requirements for closing BLM land. It seemed as though someone had taken it upon themselves to make some private mining claim on public land and illegally closed what is one of the primary riding access points to the city. Whoever put up the signs surely did not know the riding skills of the group on this ride (present company excluded of course- I hope I've made that clear). Without any damage whatsoever to property or boundary we found away around the first gate and started down the road. There was one camper and one tepee set up once we got inside which I don't think anyone was expecting. But once we passed that setup we quickly came to the closing gate on the other side of the property and this time the only way to pass would have been to cut barb wire fence and we were certainly not going to be party to that. We resigned to turn around and retrace our steps and headed back out the way we had come in. About this time, a wild mad man on a Big Red three wheeler came charging at us from the camp site I mentioned. In my rear view mirror I could see rage in his eyes and fire shooting from his nostrils (you do know that's some sort of metaphor, right?) He was not stopping to ask questions. He was a Brave not intent on taking prisoners. "Him looking scalps, kimosabe." I felt like the herd of buffalo trapped in the canyon with the bows and arrows headed my way as he charged at us faster than I knew those things could go! He passed the two bikers behind me, then made the mistake of trying to cut me off on a trail much too narrow for the two of us to be on at the same time. He flipped twice and rolled the bike over, landing a dozen feet or so below me on the rocks - head first- bike upside down on top of him. I thought he might be dead. Or at least have a broken neck. But no. He kicked the bike off and came charging up the hill at us wearing the one sneaker that had not flown off his foot as he was whipped over and over on his way down the hill. His head was a bloody mess and his attitude was pretty messed up as well. Once we got him to a point where he would hear us out, it was a bit late to say, "Oh, Good Morning" but he did anyway. Strange guy! Whether or not all people who have claims would go to this extreme to run off claims jumpers, which we were most assuredly NOT, is now a thought that shall be forever in the back of my head. Come to find out, he had been in town partying until four in the morning and was much more angry about having been disturbed than about anything else. This I can say for sure. He WAS and IS disturbed. I did NOT give him my Gundyville On Wheels card as we drove down into Quartzsite, but I did wave bye bye! And then, once outside the gate, I rode as fast as that little sucker of a bike would carry me- not entirely sure whether or not there was a high powered rifle and scope trained on the back of my helmet which (are you ready for this???) I will be eternally grateful that I did not buy at TARGET!

So I think I'll finish up with just a couple pics- that's about all I took. Hard ridin' is not conducive to photography. Too much dust on the lens and nothing to wipe it clean with because, well, nothing was clean. Desert dust goes where-ever it wants, and that is everywhere. Besides, the new helmet is so snug that if I ever took it off it took me ten minutes to get my glasses back on properly. There are still some bugs in my desert riding academy handbook.

Here's a look at the dunes playground outside of Ehrenberg. Yes, they ARE bigger than they look, and even a good rider can get caught up in the soft sand and be in a bit of a jam.

I thought I'd give you a really short slide show of The Unknown Rider riding down one of the bigger dunes so hopefully you get some sense of scale which is clearly missing in the individual stills:

Slide Show

The view after being "attacked" on our way into Quartzsite. Sky God smile down on Greg and friends.

Each morning I would ask what time I should be ready to head out. Nine? You wish. Eight? Not even. Then when? And the answer was always the same. We leave at "Dark Thirty." Because while sleeping in has it's place in life, it doesn't in the desert. If you miss the morning light, you have missed way too much of a beautiful day!

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