Posted by: nickgerlich | August 28, 2007

Three Hour Cruise

In the summer of 1986, Becky and I were on our honeymoon biking from Los Angeles to Boston. I remember all too well the morning of the fifth day. We had spent the night in the dusty desert town of Baker CA. Baker is known pretty much for its tow truck industry, rescuing broken-down motorists along I-15. Back then, the cost of a tow to Vegas was $300, while a ride back to LA would fetch $600. I made a mental note to never use my air conditioner along this stretch if ever I were to drive it.

Being June, the desert can be rather toasty. In fact, Baker boasts the world’s largest thermometer, a tall digital device that tells all (with some degree of inflation, I’m sure) how hot it is. I’ve seen it display 126 before. At that level, who’s to argue if it’s accurate or not? Hot is hot, even if it’s a dry heat.

Back when we were planning the trip, I naively assumed the desert was flat. I remember on the plane trip out to LA passing over the desert, and seeing mountain ranges. What’s that all about? I had figured we’d be zipping through the desert on table-top-flat land, and we’d be in Arizona in no time.

The first couple of days in the desert taught me otherwise, and when we rolled into Baker on the evening of the fourth day, I spied the long grade to the east leading toward Las Vegas. Known locally as the Baker Grade, this 18-mile climb is deceptive. It has a shallow grade (about 2%), which lulls people into a false sense of security about their vehicle. Desert temperatures being what they are, motorists often ignore the signs and use their air conditioners anyway.

But the steady climbing takes its toll on engine cooling systems, the result being overheating, and sometimes even engine fires. The melted pavement on the shoulder is lasting testimony to these auto fires. This is so common that on a recent ride from Primm NV into California on I-15, I counted on average three “scorched-earth” remains per mile.

With a new respect for desert topography, Becky and I hatched a plan to leave Baker pre-dawn, using our lighting system to carve a path along the edge of the freeway. We began the day with a hearty breakfast at Bun Boy, and then took the on-ramp to I-15 and started climbing.

It was rather fun pedalling in the dark for a while, and brought back glowing memories of the Race Across America footage we had seen on television in the early-1980s. The romance of riding across the country, nonstop day and night, had already snatched our hearts, and we knew that someday this honeymoon-on-wheels would be mere prologue to crazier things yet.

But for the time being, we had to grapple with the fact that our route was slowly and steadily arcing upward. We could feel it in our legs with each stroke of the pedal.

After what seemed an eternity (actually, the sun was just slow to rise over the mountain), I began to wonder when this thing was going to be over. Carrying 40 pounds of gear on a touring bike is a feat in itself. Plodding uphill for hours only adds insult to injury. Maybe that Caribbean cruise we turned down from my parents wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all.

As the mild dawn air quickly returned to its normal torrid level, sweat poured over our faces. It didn’t matter if it was the desert. We were sweating faster than even the desert could evaporate it, and going so slowly that I could read the labels on the beer cans littering the roadway.

So much for making it to Arizona that day. Just getting across this mountain would be an accomplishment. Minutes stretched into hours. And I began tiring of reading about hops and barley.

Until I looked back.

With the bike almost tipping over as I paused to look over my shoulder, I could see the distant specks that were buildings in Baker way behind and below us. The steady line of dots on the ribbon of pavement connecting us to Baker looked like so many ants marching to a picnic.

Back in Baker, our vision was tricked by the telescoping effect so common in desert landscapes. Distances look closer and shorter, when in fact they are far greater on both counts. If you ever go to Death Valley, take a look at the Panamints to the west. They look so close and scalable, when in fact they’re over 25 miles away and over 10,000 feet high in places.

Had I known this, maybe I would have downed a few more pancakes at the Bun Boy. It took three hours to pedal up that mountain, and both of us were completely spent. It was only the fifth day of our honeymoon, and we were whipped with only a little over 200 miles behind us.

I now reflect on that day with mild amusement, for there were two more epic desert climbs a few miles ahead as we made our way to Searchlight NV in 120-degree heat. Who ever said the desert was flat anyway? Never mind that we had an itinerary of sorts to keep. We needed to get to Boston before school started. We consoled ourselves that night at our meager progress, hoping to make up for it somewhere down the road.

The Baker Grade has become for me a metaphor of life. In my forty-something years, there have been lots of Baker Grades: passing my orals, getting married, finishing my dissertation, finding a job, getting tenured, being a Dad. The progress is often slow and highly unmetered, and the path littered with someone else’s beer cans waiting to be read. It’s hard work, sweat stings my eyes, and it sometimes feels like I’m riding on flat tires.

But the funny thing is, I often can’t tell how far I’ve come until I look back to see where I’ve been. As I glance over my shoulder, I see a multitude of tire tracks…some of which lead directly to stated objectives, while others meander off the road, in the ditch, through the cactus and joshua trees, only to reach places I had no idea I was going. I got there bruised and bleeding, but got there nonetheless.

A lot of things make more sense now. I can laugh with Becky about how we always thought we’d end up in Florida, but now we’ve been Texans for 18 years instead. Becky likes to remind me about how I never wanted to be a Daddy, but now we have two beautiful kids. And I can laugh now (finally) about how tough the “Big D” was in grad school.

The journey isn’t over. I’m happy with where I am, yet not totally certain about where I am going. I’d like to say my path is clear and I’ll stay within the lines, but I can’t say for sure. I may wind up going over the guard rail.

But this I know: I can’t help but feel like I’m still trying to leave Baker.

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