Eastbound and Down: 50CC Quest - Day 1
4 March ’22
“Hey Siri, set an alarm for 3:15am.”
“Hey Siri, set an alarm for 3:20am.”
“Hey Siri, set an alarm for 3:25am.”
Since I sleep with ear plugs and an eye mask, I always set three alarms on my watch AND my phone - either device is enough to wake me from even the deepest sleep, and three alarms in short succession is enough to break even the groggiest of snooze delays. On this morning, of course, my weird brain with it’s really strong internal chronometer did it’s job, and I woke up at 3:13am, anticipating the opening chords to my chosen alarm music.
Since I was all packed up the night before, I made a cup of near-coffee (3:1 decaf:regular) and loaded the bike. A light rain had passed through, leaving a chill, damp film of moistness over everything, but the world itself was quiet except for the constant surf. I sipped the weak brew and ate the last of some leftovers, before heading to the beach to collect the traditional sample of west coast beach sand to carry with me on this ride.
Sand acquired, I relocated to the Shell station in Ocean Beach, did a basic T-CLOCS for any last minute issues.. but really I was just putting off the moment when I’d pull that first receipt and start the clock. It wasn’t nerves, so much as a pause to take a breath before committing to the action.
San Diego to Yuma, AZ
Receipt pulled - 03:47am. The wonder-wheel on my BMW has been misbehaving, so I didn’t bother resetting the clock; this would also let me stay on Pacific Time, and reduce the chance of math errors around timing. No traffic, pull out of the lot, and hit shuffle on the Spotify playlist… and hey, good choice, Spotify!
No traffic, but chilly tires and wet pavement and being a little sleepy still, I kept it chill heading east out of San Diego. I was last out here about 5 years ago for some medical stuff, and I kept an eye out for the exit where my surgeon is, but of course I missed it, and the gentle climb through El Cajon and Alpine surprised me. I knew it was going to be a bit chilly crossing over the mountains, but I actually had to stop at a pull out and throw on my heated gear. Good thing, too, as the temp dropped down to around 35F, the road dipping up and down through low-lying clouds and fog banks. Dropping out of the clouds, of course, meant getting hit with strong winds along the twisty section east of Jacumba Hot Springs, a nice little pre-dawn wake-me-up.
It’s a singular experience, playing “is that a horizon I see?” at dawn, as the first glow of the new day begins - astronomical dawn - and in stages you notice the faint traces of a the sky separating from the land, stars winking out, and your world, previously constrained to the pool of LED sunshine splashing out in front of you, expands, a world beginning to exist again, drawn first in pale colors from the weak, scattered light, until at last an angry sliver of the closest star boils up over the horizon, demanding your acknowledgement. Night is over, day has begun, and surely how could this sunshine ever fade and die again?
I stopped at the appropriately named Sunbeam Rest Area to lose the rain gear and grab a quick snack, and to let the sun rise a little more so I wasn’t riding direction into it. El Centro and Date City slid by, and crossing the Algodones Dunes west of Yuma in full daylight now, thinking about all the films that have used them as stand-ins for Arabia, the Sahara, and beyond - they were where for STAR WARS, Lucas filmed the scenes set on Tatooine. An alien environment, the remains of beaches from the periodic lakes formed before we tamed and drained the Colorado River.
I hadn’t been planning on stopping in Yuma, but I was close enough, fuel-wise, for a stop. My bestie from high school was a librarian here for a few years after she graduated from college, and I’d always wanted to visit. I guess stopping at the Love’s #349 will have to do. Sorry, Aurora!
Yuma, AZ to Picacho, AZ
After Yuma, traffic dwindled and fell away to almost nothing; there’s not many towns or agriculture except for Gila Bend, and few eastbound travelers from San Diego left as early as I. Nothing but steady, strong, southerly winds and tumbleweeds, several of which suicided under my wheels.
The strong winds not only had me pitched over this entire segment, but they kicked up dust devils and dust storms, but those I dodged. Honestly, just hours and hours of sand and wind and scrub - boring, boring road.
I-8 passes south of Phoenix, merging into I-10 an hour or so north of Tucson. Between the highway and wind, I wasn’t getting great mileage through this section, and pulled into Picacho, AZ with only ~10 miles of range left, and put 7.7g of 89 in, so it was time to stop.
Having kicked around Arizona a bit with my ex, I knew this exit, and had stopped here 3.5 years ago on my first trip across the southern tier to collect a national parks stamp at the Picacho Peaks State Park.. and I was due for a meal break, regardless, so I crossed the highway. Of course, the young volunteer at the visitors center had no idea where the national stamp was, so I let her stamp the state park stamp in my book, since I’ll be back this way later this year.
As I was leaving, I noticed they had a smashed penny machine… jackpot! 2 quarters later, I had bagged another state for my Pressed Penny Insanity ride. I wolfed down a quick lunch from my stores, ate a banana, drank some electrolytes, and got on my way. This stop was already a lot longer than I had wanted it to be, and I was still at this point worried about timing for the ride. Add in the disappointment at not getting the national parks stamp, which stung a bit more than it should’ve, and I was feeling a bit blue. Only one cure for that.. more riding!
Picacho, AZ to Benson, AZ
Plunging down into Tucson, traffic picked up as the temperature continued to rise. I kept a weather eye on my 6 as I blipped through town, local drivers not being a breed to trust with my safety. Tucson always surprises me with how localized and contained it is; the desert quickly reclaims I-10, and we begin the steady march of crossing long, flat playas, followed by climbs over and through north-south aligned ranges of folded rock. I-10 straightens its aim east, and strong, determined wind began to shove into my day from the south, a steady push against my right side. You compensate by leaning into the wind, letting its pressure hold you in place, but how much do you want to trust an invisible force to be there constantly? The wind is a deceiver, always snatching itself away from you to keep you awake, returning with a slap as you pass a truck or overpass. “Did you miss me?!” it shrieks, pummeling you and the bike briefly, a frightening prospect for novice riders, but for me it feels more like a shoulder tap from an old friend.
I wasn’t getting good mileage, and was feeling ready for a stop, and I always stop at The Thing just outside Benson, AZ, a classic tourist trap/gas station/gift shop. What is The Thing? It can not be explained, only seen!
The wind was furious now, howling enough to make me say “whoa!” as it rocked me while I stood at the gas pump. I happened to pull in facing east, and that’s when I saw the very tippy-top of a dust storm billowing up over the next ridge line, a towering cloud of playa whipped up above the surface of the earth by the hot winds. This next section would be “fun”.
Benson, AZ to Anthony, TX
The wind made me feel a bit wobbly as I left The Thing, but of more concern was the massive dust storm off to the south of the right way. Cresting the small ridge and dropping into the Wilcox Playa, the wall of pale khaki dust stayed put, swirling and bubbling, but other than impressively filling the miles-wide valley, staying away from the road.
For the most part, this would be the pattern for the rest of this leg - crossing a line of hills and dropping onto the next playa, dust storms threatening, dust devils snaking their way towards the highway but faltering, dissolving as they drew close to the paved line shot across the desert, as if some kind of invisible wall was holding them at bay.
The wind and dust calmed down around Deming, and by the time I turned south at Las Cruces the air was mostly still and ceased to taste like grit. I saw I had just enough range to sneak across the border into Texas, unlocking the always fun “ride across a state without stopping” achievement.
Anthony, TX to Balmorhea, TX
In retrospect, hitting El Paso at rush hour (~3:30pm) wasn’t the best plan, but I only had to put a foot down a half dozen times, and lost only about 25 minutes crawling through the long, narrow border city built in a tight corridor along I-10, with no real other options around the mess. Soon enough you pop clear of the other side, the retail on either side of the highway that seemingly sprawls endlessly across the desert suddenly just stopping, replaced with the the empty east Texas desert on my left, the green of fields and irrigation of Mexico and the Rio Grande area on my right.
Just outside Sierra Blanca, I passed through the ICE checkpoint.. pretty much all they seem to do is search busses and arrest famous people for minor drug possession violations. Must be a horrible posting to sign up to serve your country and get stuck hassling folks.. I mean, what human smuggler or undocumented immigrant would risk passing through one of these known checkpoints? Ridiculous.
I’m a middle-aged white lady on a BMW. They wave me straight though.
Sundown came right after passing through Van Horn. I love the little hotel in the middle of town, with the restaurant that serves the chicken fried steak with the jalapeño gravy and asparagus that I always stop for… but I’m not stopping today. No time! I do pull off at the rest area just past town and switch glasses, eating a quick snack, then keep moving, not wanting to waste any remaining daylight.
With darkness settling in, I laughed a bit as I watched myself start to slow down and get sleepy. “Sun’s going down… shhhhh…” My brain is like the Hulk, and I’m turning back into sleepy Bruce Banner… I know from experience I either need a quick 20 min nap to reset my brain OR I need to just slow down to increase my safety margins, and grit through the next 40-45 minutes until my brain wakes back up. I knew I had a gas stop coming up, and figured I’d just take it down a notch and catch a quick nap once there.
I was in this slow brain space approaching the I-10/I-20 junction, when out of nowhere some guy on another 1250GSA zipped past me, windmilling one arm in a “come on, pick it up!” gesture. I didn’t recognize the rider or the bike, but it was covered with stickers from all over the country, a big old Pelican case and aux tank on the back, aux lights blazing I-10 into mid-afternoon ahead of us. “Safety in numbers” I thought, and I followed the rider at a respectful distance.. but he’d slow down, I’d catch up, then he’d creep his speed back up. “Ok, I guess we’re riding together…?”
My TFT screen had flashed the low fuel panel at me, and I wasn’t sure I had enough in the tank to make it to Fort Stockton (the next big town) so I signaled and pulled off in Balmorhea. My mystery companion saw my signal, slowed, and followed me.. and by this point, I pretty much figured out who it was - Ben Ernst!
Ben had been out in this part of Texas harassing a couple other LD riders, Chris Hopper and Ken Andrews, who were attempting 10 back-to-back Bun Burner Golds (1500 miles/24 hours.. for 10 days straight!) He’d seen my live track (via Spotwalla) and timed his own ride home to intercept me! After a long day across the desert, it was an amazingly cool pick-me-up to see a friendly face, and any drip of weariness from a long day fighting winds and dust fell away. We chatted for 2 or 3 minutes, and then mounted back up. Gotta keep the wheels moving!
Balmorhea, TX to Ozona, TX
Not too much to say on this stretch.. Ben and I rode through Fort Stockton, the last big puddle of light, and otherwise not much happened. I did some deliberative practice, as I always do when riding with someone else, matching their speed and style, see how what they do applies to what I do, etc. Other than passing a couple state patrol cars parked in the darkness while asking myself “wait how fast am I going?” the only real excitement came from spotting a small herd of 3-4 deer just standing in the middle of the interstate, staring us down as we sped towards them, not a care in the world… we slowed and slipped around them on the right, and they still didn’t move.
I have almost no respect for deer, clearly.
I didn’t really need to stop, but Ozona was the last major town, and I knew I’d have to stop at least once before getting to my rest stop (and also I needed a quick trip to the bathroom), so I piloted us off and into a gas station. There was a guy on an Africa Twin getting gas, and I chatted with him briefly. Seems he’d been down in Big Bend and broken his left foot, and was painfully working his way back home, cringing with every gear shift. Ouch!
The stop worked out well, as Ben’s route was diverging from I-10 here. We said our goodbyes, and I headed back out onto a suddenly much darker, emptier interstate.
Ozona, TX to Junction, TX
Just a quick 90 miles into Junction, TX where I had a motel reservation. Junction is almost exactly the halfway point of this ride, and is a common stop for riders who aren’t trying to nest a more ambitious ride inside this one. I realized I was on a strong Bun Burner Gold pace (1500mi/24h) and felt good, but “plan the ride, ride the plan” - the plan said to take a break here, now, and I was perfectly on schedule, so why push? Save my energy for a push for tomorrow, so I have the energy if I need it.
The motel was a fun adventure.. the owner’s mom was running the front desk, and couldn’t figure out the computer to bill me. I offered to pay in cash, I offered to leave the cash (or my credit card) with the desk and settle it when I left in a few hours, but she was VERY determined to figure it out. “I’m working here by myself just for this reason, so I can learn this stuff!” she said. I admire that, so it was hard to be too grumpy about it, but precious time I could be using to shower or sleep were ticking away, and while the couch looked inviting, a nap now would ruin any chance I’d have at a more substantial rest, so I puttered around the lobby for 45 minutes while she fussed with the computer, called her daughter to come help, waiting for the daughter to drive over from the other side of town, realize SHE didn’t know how to get the computer to work, then finally someone hit the right combination of keys to magically allow me to get a key (an actual physical key!) and a place to lay my head!
Delay aside, it was a snug little room, clean and fresh, and after a quick shower I hopped into bed at 10:30pm pacific time, 12:30am local, with an alarm set for 4.5 hours… goodnight!