I’m following a string of riders through the Nevada desert, dodging cacti – which I keep forgetting cannot be treated with the same complacency as the vegetation back home – and plunging in and out of craters. I have more energy than I had an hour ago because I can see Blue Diamond, the one horse town we pedaled away from this morning. Baked by the 80 degree heat and dizzy from an altitude to which I am not accustomed, I am in love. I want to do this every day; kicking up the dust, surrounded by rock faces, some the colour of dried blood, pummeling the trail on my full suss bike with a group who have smiles much wider than mine. Like Thelma and Louise (I’ve been mindful of my old time heroines for the past 48 hours because the wide open scenery is so evocative of their journey) I just want to ‘keep going’.
When I started mountain biking I had few expectations. I had no idea how much it would cost me and where it would take me. The cost is ferocious and relentless, driven partly by keeping up and partly by things breaking down. And then there are the events and the adventures. I’ve had some fantastic experiences. But no matter how much I paid, I could never have bought the experience I was having at that moment.
‘You should come over.’ Darryl, the whooping, hollering, gay-pirate-costume-wearing cafe owner and coffee snob, just laid it out there. He’d joined our local MTB club the summer before and became a permanent fixture on my boyfriend’s Sunday evening ride. Except when he was in America. We did not take him seriously at first, he hardly knew us (and we had no idea about those pirate outfits). But for Darryl I think the fact that we rode mountain bikes was enough, so he kept on and in time we gratefully accepted. Now, pedaling towards Blue Diamond after a 26 mile ride we were on day 3 of our adventure. Richard and Phil sleeping on air beds on the floor of Darryl and Angela’s motor home, while Dave and I were the guests of David and Gwen in their frighteningly spotless San Dimas home.
Gwen and David had agreed to put up two odd strangers from the UK. The only apparent reason (we briefly entertained the idea that we would be imprisoned and sold into the sex industry) being mountain biking. Since I slung my leg over the saddle of my Gary Fisher and joined my local club the social nature of the sport has not ceased to inspire me. But this was a giant leap of faith on their part and one for which we were supremely grateful. Even now, when I know there is a chance that David and Gwen might read this post, I am at a loss to find the words or a gesture to convey my thankfulness.
Throughout our stay the worry that they might just regret having made the offer never quite left me. When we arrived at gone 22:00 (way past their bedtime, I was to learn) bleary eyed, creased and dehydrated from LAX. When we kept them waiting on the baking asphalt outside the Silverton Casino, Las Vegas, ready to ride the Cowboy Trail (we were only beginning to realise how organised David and Gwen are). When we staggered in late from the Palm Canyon epic stoked and speechless and even later from riding the Santiago Truck Trail and refueling at an outdoor pizzeria while Mark, an LA cop of 27 years, shared his theory on why there never will be world peace*. All the while (save the time spent in Vegas) Gwen and David were trying to maintain their ’rise at 05:00’ routine.
During eight days Darryl was tireless in trying to show us all the riding possible. From the Cottonwood Valley Trail System and the rock scrambling and the cacti wresting of the Cowboy at Vegas, to the merciless desert of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs where the Palm Canyon Trail winds the steep hill sides and valley floors, taking you down back to town; that is if you are strong enough to bear the heat, the three mile uphill slog through the sand wash and the exposure on the narrow hillside paths above Cathedral City. He showed us riding like we had never seen before, in land that stretched away in all directions without human interference, a dusty, alien contrast against bright blue skies and with the crocked crown of the Los Angeles sky line often visible far far away.
On that day riding out of Blue Diamond, climbing up the ‘three mile smile’ (you get the smile when you come down) and over towards Wilson’s Tank we came across wild Mustangs – a mare, her foal and a stallion – pulling at the scrub. ‘I’ve been riding here for 10 years,’ Gwen said after the sighting, as we looked from the tank back towards Vegas, ‘and I’ve never seen them, not until today.’ I thought of how the mare’s ribs moved beneath her dun coloured coat, how she looked worn rather than majestic, how desert life must be hard on the Mustangs. All the same I tried hard to photograph them, comforted in some way by their presence because at the beginning of the trip I had received the sad news that my mum’s own horse had died.
We saw lizards, hawks, parrots and deer but luckily the mountain lion did not show his face. They are a real risk in California. Signs in local wilderness parks warn that sightings should be reported to local law enforcement. At Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, which we hurtled through at sundown, visibility reduced to shades of grey, there is a curfew. If you are there after sundown the rangers will take your bikes. I’m sure there is a good reason for this. During that sketchy descent, taken through clouds of dust flung up from beautifully curved berms, I am not sure if we were more scared of lions or the risk of losing our bikes.
No amount of money could have helped acquire these things. They were given to us by David and Gwen, Darryl and Angela (who looked slightly discomfited at Phil and Richard’s eagerness to return quite so soon), Paul, who drove us to and from Palm Canyon and pulled us through it in temperatures of 90 degrees and all the other riders we were able to spend the week with. Add to that my desire to pedal, which waxed and waned, drawn by tiredness or fear or self doubt or the wonder and the competitive streak that keeps me going. Money could not buy the rubber duck I stuffed into my bag, fallen fruit from the ducky Joshua Tree in the Cottonwoods, or the bullet casings I pocketed at Wilson’s Tank. ‘What is being shot?’ I asked, fingering the solid wall, thinking about the Mustangs. ‘Bottles mainly,’ David and Michael gestured towards the shards of brown and green and clear glass blinking at the sun from amongst the scrub. Money could not buy the intense satisfaction of milkshake chased by a huge icy coke from the Carl’s Jnr fast food joint once we were safely down from Palm Canyon, exhausted and electrified. And it could not buy Darryl’s passion for biking, this place and life – ‘I’ve had two near death experiences and goddamn it, I am glad to be alive!’ – or the delicate beginnings of a relationship with David and Gwen (although we are still managing to wake them from across the Atlantic so who knows how long that will last).
Those eight days in America left a mark in me. That has no price tag.
*And neither has wisdom. In case you were wondering, according to Mark, there will never be world peace for two reasons; one, there are people who do not flush toilets; two, there are people who need to be there – where they cannot be – because they want to be or feel they are entitled to be and to hell with whatever emergency is happening there, they need to be there, right now. This is what 27 years in the LAPD teaches you, I guess.