Saturday, May 13, 2017

From the Archives - Looking for a Legal Highway


As described here, my wife and I did a 7,500-mile bike tour back in 1994.  This was a totally ad hoc journey:  we had no specific route, and never knew in advance where we’d camp each night.  Back then, we lacked a great many technologies that would have greatly altered our experience:
  • Cell phones
  • GPS
  • Digital cameras
  • The World Wide Web
  • A lightweight laptop with a good battery
  • Widespread Internet connectivity
Even so, I managed to send regular e-mail dispatches to friends and family.  E-mail was new then.  I had a laptop the size of a phone book, which weighed close to ten pounds with its giant power supply.  The battery was good for about an hour.  For connectivity I had a 2400 baud external modem that could be powered by a 9-volt battery, but of course required a phone jack, which was hard to come by at the campgrounds and even the barebones motels we splurged on a few times a month.  Connect speed was about 1/8000th of what most Americans connect at today.

The following dispatch concerns a day when we couldn’t find a legal highway to ride on—the interstate abruptly became illegal, which presented an interesting dilemma:  if we turned around, we’d be backtracking for hours, and would probably have to camp at the site we’d left that morning, and then what would we do the next day?  This was the desert Southwest, which didn’t have a lot of highways to begin with.   Our quest ended up involving pornography, a chemical toilet, death, the Center of the World, and a 6-year-old gunman.  No joke!

Searching for a Legal Highway – March, 1994

Ever since leaving the Pacific Coast Highway, we’ve had difficulty finding legal routes through southeast California and Arizona.  The only route that shows on our map is Interstate 8, which is sometimes legal and sometimes not.  (In general, it becomes illegal if any alternate route is available.)  A day’s ride west of Arizona, a California highway called Old 80 began nicely enough, paralleling I-8 and offering reasonable pavement and little traffic.  Eventually, however, the traffic and road surface alike dwindled to almost nothing.  Huge cracks crisscrossed the road like veins on a bloodshot eyeball; the only vehicle in sight was a military truck that never quite outran us, since the hapless driver was forced to stop regularly to stabilize his load of wooden pallets.  (Where he was taking them, we had no idea.)  We crashed along behind, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, and I winced with every jolt as I thought of my computer in the rear pannier, and its vulnerable hard drive.

After about fifteen miles of this, we decided to take a break and refill our water bottles from the jug I’d been carrying on the back of my bike.  It’s an accordion-style collapsible jug, and fit nicely under the straps that hold the sleeping bag, tent, and ground pad to my rear rack.  I unstrapped it, and then . . . the horror!  It had been leaking all day long, out of invisible holes!  We’d lost a good amount of water, and all over our tent!  My first instinct was to douse the jug with Coleman fuel and torch it.  Once I’d gotten over the shock, of course, I was more reasonable:  I decided to transfer the water to our other jug, then douse the offending jug with Coleman fuel and torch it.  By the time I’d transferred the water, I’d decided instead to return the evil jug to REI and demand a refund.

[It’s hard to see in the above photo, but I’m holding up the defective jug.]

We continued riding:  ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP, ba-DUMP.  The abysmal pavement continued for another twenty or so miles, before the road suddenly ended at a giant sand dune.  Two signs were posted.  One said, “Such and Such Landfill.  No Trespassing.”  The other was some kind of disclaimer about using the sand dunes for recreation at your own risk.  Next to a giant dumpster was a big RV, with an old man sitting out front.  Since we’d just passed by an overpass, we decided that I-8 must be legal east of our spot, since no alternate route was available.  We struggled over the overpass, only to find that all-too-common sign:  “PEDESTRIANS BICYCLES MOTOR-DRIVEN CYCLES PROHIBITED.”

Was this what fate had in store for us?  Trapped, 40 miles into the desert, with little water and no road?  I began devising my plea to the highway patrol officer who would ticket us for riding on an illegal freeway:  “Officer, we had no choice.  With too little water left to turn around and go back, and no alternate roads, taking this highway was a matter of life and death.”  But I anticipated his response:  “Well then, I guess a $250 ticket is a small price to pay, isn’t it?” 

We rode back to the landfill and asked the RV man what to do.  As it turns out, his job was to sit out there under the blazing sun and watch to make sure nobody threw anything flaming into the big dumpster.  He must have been bored out of his mind, notwithstanding the porno mag he had tucked under his arm, because he eagerly gave us instructions.  “Ya see, this used to go through, and you could take another off-ramp to the dunes, but the trouble was, people used to take a shortcut across the interstate, see, and then this one fella, I think it was maybe a year ago now, no—wait a minute—not quite that long ago, anyhow, this fella was crossin’ the highway there with his daughter, and he motioned for her to follow, but she wasn’t watchin’, or payin’ attention, or somethin’, because she just sort of froze, you know, and didn’t get out of the way and some guy in a car ran her right over.  Killed her.  So they closed the exit, and now what you gots to do, see, is go across, and you’ll have maybe half a mile—no, wait, less, I dunno, maybe quarter mile—yeah, quarter mile—of deep sand to go through, you’ll have to walk yer bikes, and then you’ll come to this chemical toilet—”

“A what?” Erin interrupted.

“You know, a toilet, a chemical toilet.”  We’d heard him right.  “You get to that, and well as I said, quarter mile, and anyway, from there there’s this barbed wire fence, see, and you’ll have to get across it somehow, with your bikes, and as I said, a quarter mile, and you’ll see this blacktop, and why that’s a frontage road, you see, take you all the way down to the rest stop, maybe six or seven miles down, and from there, well I’m not sure what to do.  But see, it’ll look like this.”  He dropped to one knee and began tracing a complicated map in the sand.  On his map, I-80 looked like a nest of snakes.  He kept drawing more and more roads, jabbering away all the while, looking like he might lose his balance and flop right over on his map, since he was still keeping his porno mag pinned to his side with his elbow.  By the time he was done, we had no idea which way to go.

Eventually, we did find the chemical toilet, the sand, the barbed wire fence, and even the blacktop road.  The whole afternoon had taken on a surreal, dreamlike aura, and so I was scarcely surprised when, off the side of the road, we came upon the Campground that Wasn’t.  A sign declared, “Welcome to Such and Such Campground,” but there were no facilities whatsoever, just a few outhouses.  No picnic tables, no trees, no water spigots, nothing but RVs and families standing around in the sand. 

We decided to stop and investigate further, and even in my dreamlike state I was shocked to see a man and his son sitting in lawn chairs playing with a large rifle.  The man was teaching his son, who could not possibly have been more than six years old, how to shoot.  (I envisioned the father saying, “Son, how old are you now?  What?  Six years old already?  Six years old and you don’t even know how to shoot a gun yet?  Come on over here son, I’m gonna teach you.  This here’s a 30.06.”)  What their target could have been, I have no idea. 

Other children, also tiny, drove around the dunes on ATVs.  I decided on the spot that if we camped here, we would either be shot, or run over, or both.  After a very brief discussion, Erin and I rode away.  As we did so, we saw an entire family waving.  “Bye bye,” cried the mother.  “Have fun, and take care!”  We waved back, and Erin and I began discussing whether or not I’d misjudged these campers.  They did seem nice enough—but even still, guns and ATVs in the control of small children give us the willies.

Eventually we reached the rest stop that the dirty old man had mentioned, and just before the off ramp we could see, alongside I-8, a sign stating “Bicycles must exit.”  What was this?  How could they tell cyclists to exit when they weren’t legally allowed on the interstate to begin with?  It was like a sign stating, “If you’re driving drunk, pull over and stop.”  The only possible solution was that the highway had become, at some point, legal for bicycles.  Never mind that we hadn’t been given the opportunity to get back on.  We rode to the next on ramp, and I-8 was indeed legal for several miles.

At the next exit, we came upon another “Bicycles must exit” sign, and exited.  At the next on-ramp, another sign said “PEDESTRIANS BICYCLES MOTOR-DRIVEN CYCLES PROHIBITED.”  This time, there was a frontage road, but it was barricaded off.  “ROAD CLOSED,” read the signs.  By this time, the sun was low over the horizon and we weren’t in the mood to find another chemical toilet, another barbed-wire fence, another section of unmarked blacktop.  We took that closed-off road for several miles, until it reached the little town of Felicity.

Felicity is the strangest town I’ve ever seen.  We thought it might have a campground, since the sign for it, over on I-8, seemed to have a picture of a tent.  When we strained our eyes, however, the picture seemed to be of a pyramid.  Our eyes, it turned out, had not deceived us:  in Felicity was a giant pyramid, visible from our frontage road.  Near it was a spiral staircase leading absolutely nowhere, to nothing.  Strange flags, taller than they were wide, dotted the town.  The seven or eight buildings were all a pastel orange color, and an elaborate city limits sign declared Felicity to be “The Center of the World.”  Its only businesses were a restaurant (inside the pyramid, I believe), the Felicity Real Estate Center, the Organizatione de Centrale du Monde, and the Center of the World Headquarters.  In the waning sunlight, the place looked as surreal as a Dahli painting.  I should have taken a picture.

[Of course nowadays we have the Web for this stuff.  Needless to say that’s where I got the photos below.]

That night we stayed at an RV park in Winter Haven, only ten miles west of California’s eastern border.  We’d been worried about being turned away; instead, they had for us a lawn and a picnic table, not to mention a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and laundry facilities.  RV parks are amazingly common in Arizona; the “snowbirds” frequent this place during the winter from as far away as Canada, in order to escape cold weather.  We have found RVers to be totally friendly; the next night, in Wellton, Arizona, we met a pair of permanent RV dwellers, Berkeley grads like us who spotted my Cal jersey and called out to us.  They had us over for breakfast the next morning.  Thanks to them, we remembered to reset our wristwatches to Mountain Standard Time, having completely forgotten as we crossed the border into Arizona.


So what about that lousy defective water jug?  I never did warranty it, but we did manage to find a suitable replacement:  a 10-liter (2.6-gallon) collapsible jug called “RELIANCE” that worked like a champ!  Here it is on the back of my  bike, riding high.  Note also the gallon can of Coleman fuel lashed to my starboard pannier.

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