Aliens, Canyons, and Campmates. Sept 29 – Oct 4, 2014.
In just a few short weeks of San Jose, I was already restless for the open road. Being semi-settled allowed me some mental space to process memories of the beautiful land and amazing, kind people I’ve met on this trip to so far (truly mind blowing), but was also sanitized just enough that I forgot the kind of misadventures one can get into when scooter-camping across the country. This particular loop has been a doozy – personal to share, and lots of photos.
By now, loading up the scoot and pointing it for the unknown came easily, as comfortable as slipping on a worn leather glove. I’ve come a long way from the morning I left Providence, so it seems unfair that I still don’t sleep well the night before launch. The packing and takeoff sequence is so intuitive I could do it in my sleep. Maybe next time I’ll leave it for the morning, hit the sack, and wake up to a magically loaded scoot. Yep.
Today though, I picked the squiggliest line on the map, headed east.
As I approached Yosemite National Park, I noticed signs for a place called Chinese Camp. Curious and needing to pee anyway, I pulled over at this establishment. The owner here is actually from Australia, hence the flag. He once owned a Kawasaki like my old one, though that’s his buddy’s Honda parked out front. Apparently Chinese Camp was a California gold rush town, and got its name because Chinese laborers were driven there from the neighboring town. Actually, I didn’t learn that until later, because I was just chatting routes and scenery and how he came to own this shop.
I retraced the drive Tim and I made in the van, and it felt all new. Perhaps the beauty of Yosemite never ages. However, time was indeed passing. I needed to choose a campground, preferably one at a lower-to-middling elevation so I wouldn’t freeze too much after sun down.
Heavy rain the previous night made the three mile dirt path to camp bonus-level treacherous. As I grimly poked around this puddle by foot, a car pulled in behind me. She was also hoping to make camp at Tamarack, and offered to go through first so I could see how deep it was. It turned out solid the whole way, and my leg shield handled everything else. I thanked her for the help, and eventually caught up with her at the campground. She introduced herself as Bex, and her little dog, Petey. I welled up my courage and asked if she would like to share a campsite. She said yes, and actually, “I was going to ask you the same thing, but didn’t want to sound creepy.”
Clearly, I’m past the point of coming off creepy.
We ended up chatting into the night, sharing some drinks and roasting hot dogs by the fire (which I started, for once!). I held Petey for a while, all bundled up in blankets, and wondered if I should look into a furry travel companion of my own. When the flames got too low to keep us warm, all the foodstuffs went to the bear-proof cabinet. I said goodbye early – when camping I tend to wake with the sun, already anxious to ride – and we retired to our respective tents. I gratefully slithered down into my nice, warm, soft sleeping bag.
Some time in the pitch black night, I heard it, no, felt it growl. Was it a bear? No, it was coming from inside my tent. It was my stomach. Having traveled through Asia then struggled with lactose intolerance since college, the way my stomach churned was instantly and horrifyingly familiar. I needed to get to the bathroom, NOW.
Of course, the sleeping bag zipper got stuck, the tent zipper got stuck, and I couldn’t pull my boots on fast enough. At least I was in such a clammy sweat, I didn’t notice the freezing temperatures. Finally outside my tent, the darkness swallowed the unsteady beam of my flashlight and I lost my bearings. Where is that damned pot toilet? It’s uphill, I know it’s uphill. I ran, dizzy with nausea, upwards until the beam caught the pale grey corner of the concrete slab the bathroom stall sat on. Bursting through the door, I reached out to the grab rail to steady myself, Why is the light so dim… Consciousness slipped, my hand sailed past the rail, and my knees buckled beneath me.
The next thing I knew, I was on all fours, in the dark bathroom, my face hurt, and I was pretty sure…yep, there was poop in my pants.
This campground was primitive, meaning no electricity, no running water. Not even cell phone service, though that wasn’t what was on my mind. I rallied, and got myself on the pot. I took off my soiled clothing. I could feel something like gravel on my teeth, but I didn’t have time for that.
When everything was expelled from my writhing insides, I scurried back to my scooter, butt-naked from waist down. It was freezing now that I wasn’t so sick I could feel it, but it was dark. No one but the bears would see, and how much did I care anymore? My scooter had a squirt bottle of water I keep for things like washing my hands, dishes, or the bugs off my visor. I thanked Amerivespa for the promotional freebie bottle, cleaned up as best I could, and in the sad beam of my dinky flashlight you could see steam rise from where the water met my skin. No one but the bears, and the internet now.
Shivering in my tent, I put on clean bottoms and pulled the drawstring of my sleeping bag as tight as I could around my face. Hopefully I didn’t track any shit inside, it seemed to be all I could smell. My phone revealed it to be 3am. I’d had enough for one night, I would wait till morning to see the state of my teeth.
When I started the scoot in the early morning sunlight, the temperature gauge read 2 C, just above freezing. Brr. I pieced together that I had fainted, possibly related to running uphill at 6,000 feet above sea level, and my teeth hit the metal hand rail. A few small white chips that could be nothing other than tooth were still stuck to my lips.
Sorry to spoil the story early, but I did get the chip filled in once back in San Jose. Upon hearing the news of my sad state, my mom offered to cover the dental (thanks, mom). There doesn’t appear to be nerve damage, hooray for my big ol’ buck teeth. The things you lose to the road. This is just further proof that for all the ‘out there’ things I may do, stupid shit will get me in the end. At least I managed to keep it out of the tent.
I’d picked the Little A’Le’Inn for distance, and because they allowed free tent camping on their property. Capitalizing on their proximity to Area 51, they had kitschy things like an alien-themed gift store, and alien-themed decorations…but only bar facilities for tenters. I begged the manager for use of a shower, any shower, “I wouldn’t unless it was an emergency!” He made my day when he handed me the key to an empty trailer. I washed for extra long, at least twice. I can’t say thank you enough, kind people of Rachel, NV!
Later at the bar, I did eventually share my tooth chipping story, hence my desperation for a shower. The company that night included a hay rep, and an uncle and nephew duo who owned the land next door. Behind my laptop I caught up with blog work, and overheard snippets of conversation on such topics as tractors and balers. With the laptop put away and my stout nearly finished, they asked my story.
“Damn! Do you have room on the scooter for him?” He indicated his nephew, who looked about my age.
“Haha, maybe. But he’d have to hold the cooler.”
“I can hold a cooler!” He had a long, sun-reddened face, tucked into an impressive puff of curly hair the color of straw.
As we bantered, whiskey appeared in front me and the other guests courtesy of the house, and a couple others came and went. At closing time, I sat on the porch with the pair, uncle and nephew, we’ll call them Ronnie and Mark. A bright floodlight washed out the sky, which was unfortunate. I imagined this would be a great place to see the stars. I mentioned this to my fellow night owls (not actually that late, closing time was 10pm), and an idea crossed my mind. I welled up my courage again, and asked, “Are you safe to drive?”
“So, you want to see the stars?” Mark grinned quite boyishly, he had picked up my line of thought.
And like that, the three of us were barreling towards his family’s alfalfa fields in his pickup truck.
We did see stars, peeking out behind the shadowy shapes of scattered clouds. I climbed on one of those big water sprinklers, and might have been the tallest thing for a few miles. I breathed the smell of the alfalfa, hay in the making. We talked about the possibility of life on other planets, and Mark’s life here in Rachel. We were bumping along the dirt paths, on our way to drop his uncle off at home, when Mark paused in conversation.
“You… have no idea where you are right now, do you?”
The floor of my stomach dropped out. In the middle of a field, at most a few miles away from my scooter, the thin lights on the horizon could be no other town than Rachel. I could find north with stars, but that’s the extent of my navigational ability. I squinted, but it was too dark to make out the subtleties of his expression.
He continued, “In a car with two men you just met.” Ronnie, in the cab, had mentioned wanting to shoot guns into the sky. Could there be firearms in the car?
“You guys are alright though,” I put bravado into it, but I couldn’t really think of anything else to say. At the bar I had listened to them chatting amongst themselves, gauged their responses, and my intuition was that they were kind. I let down my guard. Had I misjudged? To travel is to trust and be vulnerable, but had I finally trusted too much? My hand was ready to reach for the door lever, I can tuck and roll just fine and had my leathers on…no, better to get him out of the car. Ronnie was bigger but drunk. Mark was tall, probably strong from field work, and most of all – in spite of whatever remaining alcohol swam through his system – he was alert. My remaining buzz was killed.
Mark made a “Heh,” kind of sound, softly. There would be no kicking out of cars.
After dropping Ronnie at home, the clouds cleared and a dazzling spectrum of glittering pinpricks revealed themselves. I had gazed at stars in Montana but only from the forest, they were hemmed in by dark trees. Here, the sky touched the horizon, huge and engulfing, at once distant and immediate. I could stare out to infinity and wonder if it stared back.
Mark pulled the truck up to my tent. We’d only just met, but I suppose the road amplifies certain human frequencies. He could make wisecracks and exchange banter, but just behind his words there was something palpable, a vulnerability that hummed in tune with mine. In that moment on the truck it was how I knew he wasn’t out to harm me. Maybe we weren’t so different. Two humans, looking for a juncture in life, a little lost and lonely while passing through a speck of a town. He’s just been here longer.
I had one last small well of courage that night.
“Would you…like to spend the night with me? Not sex, just sleeping,” I hurriedly added. “And um. I’m sorry the mat is only big enough for one. It’s okay if you don’t want to, you have a real bed.”
“I’ve slept in fields, in the open.” He actually smiled, and said yes, he was sure.
Aside from myself and the owner of this borrowed tent, Mark is the only other person who has been invited inside. We made an awkward pair, fully dressed, him quite tall, nestled in the space my gear usually takes. I unzipped my mummy-style sleeping bag and pulled it over our tangled arms as much as possible. Cold winds grabbed at the corners of the tent through the night, but we held each other to stay warm. I pressed my face into his neck and felt his heart rate slow. Just two tiny pinpricks of existence, orbiting each other for one night before being flung back into space.
Did I mention it was windy? I couldn’t stake the tent down in the gravel. After a bleary-eyed farewell hug, I went inside for coffee and came back to find my tent blowing away. Even with my gear inside – it just rolled around.
Further ahead, the road shone silver in the morning sun. I was about to find out why: construction. They had just oiled the road, and it was positively glowing and pointed straight into the mountains. It was eery, waiting for the pilot car.
I’d actually booked two nights in Springdale, which is a first. At the check-in, I came outside to find two riders on TW200s, Rob and Kath, investigating my Vespa. They’re on a year long worldwide trip, and also on ADV! We made plans to hike to Angel’s Landing the next day.
I don’t carry cooking supplies on my scoot, so when Kath and Rob offered to share a camp-cooked meal I was more than happy to oblige! Kath found a pasta with motorcycles in it; this is one of the most awesome things to happen to pasta, besides being able to share it with two awesome small displacement moto world travelers. Gotta catch up with their adventures at nongsride.com!
Every day on the road, there are a number of breaks taken. It’s just part of the rhythm of the miles, a necessary banality, a regular break to stretch, pee, or eat. By the very nature of travel, sometimes you find yourself at a gas station by a strip mall. And yet other times, you land in one of the most beautiful lunch spots you’ve ever been privileged enough to witness, just because you were hungry enough to stop. Le Fevre Overlook in the Kaibab National Forest, perhaps like much of my life, felt like a serene accident.
While we’re on the topic of the humdrum, for those curious as to what I eat on the road (besides yogurt): Today is fancy because I have a leftover peewee avocado from California, which I mashed into a tortilla (packs flat), and topped with deli turkey (grocery) and a single serving packet of salsa (gas station).
The leaves were just beginning to change in the Kaibab National Forest. I didn’t even know there was a forest in what seemed to be the middle of the desert (it’s because it’s on a plateau). Yet here, riding towards the North Rim, the yellow Aspens leaves were caught in the setting sunlight and thrown ablaze against a backdrop of deep evergreens. Just as you’re getting used to tree life instead of endless sagebrush, the view opens up and the ground drops away to… The Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is simply too big to take in. Everything looks miniature near it, attempts at photography fall flat. I took refuge in the high ceiling, dark wood, and leather couches of the Grand Canon Lodge. This was an environment that normally would be right up my alley, but I felt lost among the tourists. For once, I elected to find a quiet seat outside…what’s happening to me?
Kath and Rob decided to head to the Grand Canyon as well, but I arrived early and staked out a camp spot to share. In the evening, I searched the nearby lodge and campground, but didn’t manage to catch up with them. Feeling a bit lost, I was lured in by the warm fire of neighboring campers and an offer of a pan to heat my dinner. The two hunters, O’Neill and Steven, even invited me to breakfast with them in the morning.
Even though I somehow missed them at the lodge, it was fantastic sharing camp with Kath and Rob. What an incredibly fortunate happenstance, that each of us may move at only slightly different paces, but we still crossed paths for just a bit. It was a bit hard to say goodbye, but I had a place to be that night.
The last time I rode through three states in a day, it was probably in the northeast. From Arizona, I backtracked up into Utah, past the bizarre red-baked town of St George, and into Nevada again.
As I approached Las Vegas, I fought the urge to constantly stop to take photos. Nothing could have prepared me for these jagged desert landscapes. I chased the setting sun through Moapa Valley, Valley of Fire State Park, and the Lake Mead National Recreational Area. All were forbiddingly rocky, like the surface of alien planets, until the road finally dropped me in a truly otherworldly expanse of lights and plastic.
I was finally here. Las Vegas, the city of sin.
It was the last night for the Las Vegas Bike Fest, which is what brought my friends, Sash and Steve to town.
Wow. That's some compelling storytelling and great pics. Thanks for sharing this!
Adventurer is adventurous! I love reading your stories.
Love your blog! What a great adventure! I have rode through many of the states you are going through. You have a great gift in writing and telling a story.
When you make it to Houston, Give me a shout, I make sure you a place to stay. (My daughter works at Marriott)
Stay safe and look forward to more of your blog!
Love the tooth, hate the process it took. "Mark", from Rachel, will never be the same alfalfa cutter again. He will be grinning at Vespas the rest of his life. And he should.
I found walking up to & down from Angels Landing a bit scary but then I have not ridden across America on a scooter either.
Mary & I are still following your adventure. We would be honored by another visit.