I’m beginning to appreciate the merits of carrying a GPS in the vast, parched dry expanse of Arizona. Enticing tracks peel off every direction, but to where we have no clue. What we do know is that we’re headed west, the sun in our eyes…
A giant, jester of a saguaro looks down on us as we delve into the desert once more along Signal Road.
Our plan: to skirt north of Alamo Lake towards Parker, on the Californian border, following desert dirt tracks. To Nancy's iPhone and Googlemaps we add photos taken of a detailed area map, sourced in a friendly ranch.
Here, the landscape feels broader, more open. As ever, there's no shortage of characterful cacti to keep us company, like this cholla, with its prickly, pudgy little fingers.
A taster for what lies ahead: the mystical Joshua Tree. We join the party and camp amongst them.
This swathe of desert is known for the mock airforce dogfights, and the evening air is patterned and streaked with vapour trails. Later, shrouded by the darkness of night, two jets thunder low overhead, hugging the contours of the land.
It's never easy figuring out which route is best to take. We were advised to detour off the wide, bladed dirt road that turns south to Lake Alamo, following instead the easily navigated powerline that runs due west from Baker Well. Our last experience with powerline shortcuts involved improbably steep descents, answered with impossibly steep climbs. Would this be a repeat scenario?
Yep... Though thankfully only a few humpbacks to deal with this time.
Then the track calms down a little, as it guides us through corridors of saguaros.
Around us, the craggy Rawhide and the Buckskin mountains poke up into the hazy sky.
The trail dipped ever upwards and downwards, pin-balling us along a ridge into the open desert.
For the most part, there was little sand to contend with. Only Mojave Wash provided a challenge, culminating in a sandy push onto the otherwordly, Planet Ranch Road.
How many locks does it take to close a gate?
Taking a break amongst the cottonwoods.
Later, the Tout Terrain Mule falls foul of a dastardly goat head spine. Luckily 20in tyres are quick and easy to repair - I should really have filled it with latex sealant like the rest of our tyres.
Finally, desert trails peter out and become a strip of oh-so-smooth pavement once more, for the last few miles into Parker...
...which, at first glance, didn't seem so appealing.
Old dinosaurs line the road in, like this square-jawed Cadillac.
With its strip of big box stores, gas stations, gun shops, desert buggies and goliath RVs, I can't say Parker really won us over...
Nor, being November 25th, were we expecting much in the way of Thanksgiving lunches. But glinting like a culinary jewel amongst the Pizza Huts and McDonalds of its dusty main strip, we chanced upon Cyber d'Lites, purveyors of both tasty cakes and fast wifi - a fine combination indeed. Thanks to the wonders of online banking, Nancy's mum treated us to a slap-up Thankgiving meal, rounded off with a piece of a Pumpkin Pie. Our bellies suitably ballooned, Tracey and Darlene sent us off with enough leftovers for a hearty dinner too, throwing in a giant muffin to tip us over the edge.
But the cyclist's appetite can never truly be quenched... By the next morning, we were ready for more sustenance. The Early Bird Cafe provided the perfect backdrop.
Trinkets cluttered every shelf, and framed posters of Elvis, John Wayne and Betty Boop adorned the walls. 80s hairstyles and waitress banter (What will it be, baby?) provided the final touches.
We go for a classic: pancakes, maple syrup, scrambled eggs, hash brown and crispy bacon... The All American Diner Experience.
Feeling in need of a shower, we bargain ourselves a room in the local Motel 6, a few doors down from Stan, who zips around in his electric wheelchair, trapping us to recount stories of his lap-dancing girlfriend. $40 gets us some classy digs with a view of the Pepsi machine, to the sound of Mexican ballads blasting out from the neighbour's truck.
Then, it's time to hit California! 'London Bridge' takes us over the Colorado River, the border between the two states.
We roll through the blink-and-you-miss-it settlement of Earp, named after Wyatt, the lawman/gunman/gambler famed for his part in the gunfight at the OK Coral. His only local legacy seems to be the talking puppet at the gas station - which, just like the one in 'Big', doesn't even seem to be plugged in. I listen to it try and goad me to 'empty ma pockets' into the slot and be regaled by Wyatt's 'wild west adventures.'
Then it's back out into the scrub, heading towards the aquaduct trail that runs west, parallel to the highway, at the foot of the mountains.
More sentinel powerlines keep us on track.
This being the thanksgiving festivities, it's also a chance to experience some good, wholesome American fun. Like a scene from a Mad Max movie, dune buggies and goggle-clad scrambler riders come screeching out of the hills, offering a cheery wave as they coat us in dust.
Who ever said the desert was flat?
Finally, we emerge at the forlorn Vidal Junction, camping in a scruff of land by the highway. Next stop, Joshua Tree...
That was the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Though hardly tasted my peanut butter & honey on gluten free sliced. Feel like I’ve just been transported to the awesome deserts of Arizona (I’d have been the one dune buggy)
Awakened by the sound of pounding rain and looked up in surprise (it’s raining in the desert?)
Peering through the gloom can dismally make out next door’s net curtains and a rather portly shape in silhouette behind…and needless to say bears no resemblance to the exotically shaped desert plants…
Keep ’em coming xxxx
We’ve just been hanging out in a hot spring…
Did you try the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for AZ? I used that and a compass for navigating back roads on my tour there. The most lost I got was heading north out of Cove heading toward Teec Nos Pos. The only track I found that didn’t peter in the steep east flank of the Carrizo Mountains wandered into New Mexico and I didn’t have that page from the NM Gazetteer…
Those atlases look great – we tried to get one in Parker, but nowhere sold them. Unfortunately, they’re pretty big and heavy. If I was spending longer here, I’d definitely invest in them – they open up so much potential dirt road riding and help give context to it all, which can be tricky on a little iPhone screen.
One question – do they show when dirt roads are private though? Googlemaps sometimes uses routes (when you choose the walking/biking option) that go through private land, or reservation land.
I have used those maps a bit for riding on reservations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many of the roads are indicated, but what’s not indicated is whether you’re actually allowed to ride on those roads. The only difficulty I have ever had was trying to cross the Soboba Reservation from Hemet up to Poppy Flats — near where you were recently. I have learned since that the Sobobas are known for not letting visitors onto their land.
As far as private land, well, routes are often indicated, but whether they are private is not usually discernible from the map. As you know, it can be tricky. There are many times when opening and closing a gate is the way to get on public land. Sometimes signs seem to indicate private land where in fact it’s public. Locked gates are a problem, and the atlases don’t tell you where those will be.
I’ve never tried to use a phone for navigating. I know I like the overview that maps give.
Big and heavy — yes. I have sometimes cut out the pages I need, easier to do on a short tour with a somewhat planned itinerary.
I was just going to recommend Death Valley at this time year:
but I see that you made it to San Diego.