Tandem, An American Love Story

Chapter 13

Adventures in La La Land, Santa Elena and The Fence

Claire was awakened, by the wind, or cars splashing rain in the street — and a strange feeling. She looked at the motel room door. It was open several inches.

She woke me and we discovered our blue fanny pack, with $35, credit cards, drivers licenses, National Park pass, and our bike computer was gone. I pulled back the curtains and found the window wide open with no screen. It wasn’t open when we went to sleep.

Nothing else was touched. The laptop computer was on the bedstead beside my head. The thief probably didn’t know what it was, or was afraid to wake me.

We traveled to the Los Angeles area to visit Claire’s grandmother, who is in the hospital in nearby Arcadia. We drove a rental car and stayed in a chain motel. And we got robbed. Many have thought traveling on a bicycle and sleeping in a tent was dangerous. They prefer the safety of a car and motel room. Well, so much for perceived safety.

No one is safe in La La Land. No wonder so many from the area are moving to Washington and Montana. Maybe we should have ridden Zippy and stayed in a tent.

We reported the Visa card immediately, and soon thereafter there was a failed attempt to use it. A temporary is due here tomorrow. Hopefully the cash card and drivers licenses will be as easy to replace.

Martha Flores, Monrovia Community Service Officer #2, came to take our report and offered to type letters of proof-of-loss should we need them. She delivered them back to us within a couple of hours. Monrovia tries to make up for it’s thieves.

I expected that we would be more afraid than we have been, considering; a stranger, thief, probably a drug addict was in our room with us while we slept. After so many months on the road, vulnerable to huge trucks, drunk drivers, thunderstorms and such, it just wasn’t as frightening as expected. At first I was angry that someone could selfishly cause us so much trouble. Soon I came to the same conclusion I reach when drivers make overt trouble for us; I feel sorry for them; anyone who’s life has sunk so low must be living an awful existence. It’s best to forgive, let them pass on into their own personal hell, and move on.

However it is probably a good thing for all concerned that I did not wake up while he was there. A few years ago I had a coke-head in Portland try to roll me, and physically threatened me. I was so surprised and angry at being taken advantage of that I was prepared to kill him (I had a Bowie knife in the car) before he backed off. For one awful moment I knew I could do that to preserve my own life. I felt an anger that was so overwhelming that I am still not sure I could have controlled it. I am not an angry person.

The memory of that anger scares me. Civilization is a thin veneer we all wear; the will to live, the anger of personal injustice can shatter it, far more easily than we might care to admit. I know there is nothing I would not do to protect Claire.

Fortunately this thief was a chicken-thief.

Rain tonight in La La Land. A cold rain. Feels like the Northwest in April. How could we manage to be here on one of the five days it rains each year? As long as it rains we can breathe the air though.

We’ve already been subverted by the lifestyle. Tonight we drove about a mile to get across the divided street in front of our motel, to a MacDonald’s drive-through where we got two Big Mac-and-fries specials. And we sat in line (everything is lines) idling and adding to the air pollution soup. Hot damn! Committing environmental sin is a hit.

The real crazy thing about us here, is that we think at all about what the car we’re driving is doing. In most of the country, cars have become extensions of the physical bodies of us all. They are like 3,000 pound, fossil fuel burning, prosthetic devices, extensions of our being that we believe have become our God given right. (I’m not being sarcastic). The way we feel about and use our cars shows a love far greater than for any other machine ever created. It is probably not a joke when a man says he loves his pickup more than his wife.

These machines are truly us, and we would be helpless, weak and flaccid things, without them. It is a harbinger of a day when our brains will float in a nutrient and oxygen-rich solution, while controlling various machines to bring us a third-hand experience of life. I’m glad I’ll be long gone.

I need to lighten up! Who cares if global-warming drowns and cooks us all. It’s nothing compared to the freedom of the Great American Freeway. I might ruin my lungs, but what the hell, I’ve got the wind in my hair, 200 horses at my command and almost the whole of California paved for my playground. Yahoo!

I gotta get outta this place.

The next day, after another visit to assure ourselves Claire’s grandmother was coming along well, we escaped California. It rained four inches in Monrovia and the freeways everywhere were crazy. People don’t even let hard rain slow them; it was bumper to bumper at 80 mph almost to Palm Springs. On the radio the traffic people were talking about “occurrences per hour”, a polite name for wrecks, and around mid morning they were up to more than 20 an hour. I could feel all the wired commuters calculating their chances, then increasing pressure on the accelerator pedal; damn the occurrences per hour!

During the three days we were in La La Land, I saw just how desperate overpopulation can make people. I came to understand why they sometimes stop in the middle of the freeway and wail away with fists, even guns, at a world gone crazy. These people put themselves under such stress, in the course of daily life that it is no wonder our health care system is suffering, and families are disintegrating in unprecedented numbers. We as a society seem hell-bent on death by self imposed stress. The bad part is so many feel such stress is part of life, normal.

Stress can be good, exciting, motivating, when used to better one’s life. The angry, fearful stress of trying to control 3,000 pounds of steel hurtling through space in close proximity to similar machines, controlled by strangers, is not a good kind of stress. It is the kind of stress that brings with it high blood-pressure, heart-attacks, social disruption and mental illness.

During one of our philosophical/political discussions, Bob Zimmerer asked me what I thought the country would be like in 50 years. I told him I believed people would be dropping out of the mainstream as fast as they can, or they will be dropping like flies from the unbearable stress of maintaining a material lifestyle. The bubble is about to burst, or more likely: “How does the world end, how does the world end. Not with a bang, but a whimper.” We stopped in Sun City Phoenix to visit the Zimmerers. We stayed with them on the eastbound leg in Longmont, Colorado, and promised to visit them in Arizona where they winter. Claire went with Edna while she gave a quilting demonstration, and Bob and I stayed home, watched backyard wildlife and solved the world’s problems. The next day we went to the Nature Conservancy Hassayampa River Preserve to bird watch.

Tandem, An American Love Story

Chapter 14, On The Road Again

Burro Man, Desert Dancer and a stove named Jesus

In the two and one-half months we spent in Tucson, it began to feel like home. We made friends, got back on a schedule of sorts, even accumulated a cooking pot and some flatware from the thrift store, even a library card. We went to regular meetings of the bicycle club and began to get familiar with certain restaurants, bike shops and grocery stores.

As early as mid January, we began doing internet research into weather conditions at Grand Canyon, south rim, one of our must see destinations. We quickly learned that we were not going to be able to ride there until much later in the year, possibly as late as April. So, we gave ourselves over to Tucson and the southern Arizona desert. We stayed just long enough to fall in puppy love, not long enough to feel rooted and tied down. We had a quick fling with Tucson. We began to wander how a longer relationship would feel… But, the siren call of the road was stronger, new places, new people called.

March 9th, we rolled out of Tucson with Tom and Pat and Frank Weldon, another Tucson friend. They plan to ride with us to Quartzite, where we will turn north to Nevada and Death Valley.

The first day, we rode a flat 55 miles to Picacho Peak State Park, an easy distance for our first day back on the road. Beautiful park in the beautiful desert we’ve come to love. Fabulous sunset and sunrise. I slept very well and enjoyed the stars and warmth.

The second day was 90 miles, one of our longest days on the trip. It wasn’t really that difficult. Claire has a raw bum and I haven’t gotten the knack of digesting while pedaling yet. These things will pass. Our legs seem strong. We also passed 10,000 miles since we left home last May. We toasted the event by spraying each other with our water bottles at 20 mph. Whoopee. Champaign was not readily available, thank goodness.

Tom and Pat regularly do 80 to 100 mile days. But, they don’t go in as much for stopping and sitting in the desert, or talking to the locals as we do. Our days are more like 60 or 70 miles. They are bike touring and we seem to be doing something else. After all these months I don’t have a name for it yet. Frank is 68 and stronger than most cyclists half his age. He has the legs of a 40 year old and the heart of a 10 year old, under a gray head and a ruddy wrinkled face seldom without a smile. He is competitive; he wants to be with whoever is up the hill first, if it isn’t him; he’s hard as nails and never complains and he never gives up. If Frank fell off his bike, dead of a massive heart attack, he would die a happy man. Beautiful man. Knows how to live.

Today the dirtiest man I have ever seen was walking our direction on the opposite side of the road. We were 10 miles into the desert and the next town was 30 miles beyond. He carried no water or food that I could see. He had matted hair and beard, black greasy clothes with this arms hidden inside his jacket despite the warm day.

He was quite stooped, but appeared to be no more than 45. He looked at the road about three feet ahead and talked to himself. Without looking at us, he said loudly as we passed, “Shut up, shit on a bike. Shut up, shit on a bike. Pass me by. Pass me by.” I would love to know what life did to that man. Perhaps it’s just a chemical imbalance. Though he did not threaten us, it was a disturbing experience. I wondered if he was in Vietnam, like so many of the unstable homeless.

Fourth day out of Tucson in Quartzite, and we’re back in the groove of touring again. Seventy-nine miles today and we felt strong finishing in a wicked headwind. Sunny still, and pleasantly hot.

That wind I mentioned was so hard that it blew Tom right off the highway and over an eight foot embankment. He came up skinned and bruised a bit, and his bike had a broken mirror. We were ahead of Tom and took a wicked hit from a side wind. As soon as we recovered, we looked back and saw Pat and Frank dropping their bikes and running over the embankment. We went back and found Tom sitting dazed, but already smiling at his misadventure. Tough guy.

We are leaving behind the Sonoran desert. Going to miss it. We still see the odd saguaro, patch of cholla or ocotillo. Gone are the agave and barrel and rainbow cactus… Just outside of Quartzite I stopped to photograph some ocotillo; fresh intensely green leaves against gray thorns, 12 feet tall spreading bunches of thorny sticks, all topped with flaming flowers. Such a beautiful plant. They are beautiful even when they are dead looking winter things.

Tomorrow we turn north and our friends continue west for a few days before returning to Tucson. We will miss them, but are excited to be back on the road again alone together. That’s how we do it best.

Lake Havasu City, Arizona on the banks of the lower Colorado is the same age as Claire, no doubt brought into existence by yet another dam and yet another artificial lake conceived by our busy little beaver friends at the Corps of Engineers. The town is new looking and very clean, and completely designed for the smooth flow of automobile traffic, i.e. pedestrians need not bother attempting to get around, even from one block to the next.

One thing they did do right was to hold some of the best lakeside property for a park. We are within a couple of miles of the middle of town and smelling creosote bush and Colorado river water, not exhaust. The city sounds are muted so we can listen to mourning doves say goodnight.

The road from Quartzite was a flood of RV’s and commercial traffic traveling well over the speed limit and, as usual, not a cop in sight. Claire got so mad at the RV’s that she made me stop so she could pick up a long pointed stick. At first she just waved the stick around to warn the drivers. When that didn’t work well enough for her, she smacked one big old RV hard on the side with her stick. Thwack! Crazy woman! And oh so much fun.

We got wet a couple of times. Getting wet in the desert is almost worth it because of the wonderful smells the rain releases from the bushes and earth. In the Northwest we are so inundated with delicious scents daily that we soon forget them. In the desert the smells are muted until rain comes and then we really appreciate them.

The next day we rode north to Bullhead City and crossed over to Laughlin, Nevada. We stayed at the unlikely (for us) Ramada Express Casino. We stopped for the $15 motel room and 99 cent margaritas.

As we sipped our margaritas, we noticed that the woman sitting beside us was playing four-of-a-kind poker with a machine.

She was smoking and Claire noticed that the smoke was somehow relaxing to her, and that the woman’s hands looked like her own mother’s. The memory of her mother’s hands was strong for me also. Claire’s mother DeLee died in our home. Lung cancer from 40 years of smoking. DeLee loved to play solitaire. We wondered if she would have liked casinos.

After a 70 mile headwind day, we got into the hotel and went to the casino to people-watch. Brightly colored flashing lights, sounds of music mixed with coins and buzzing coming from the machines, people talking some, but mostly sitting silently before the machines feeding them silver. Clank clank, buzz buzz, hummmmmm.

It was a little like coming upon a strange planet where the inhabitants look like me, but have unusual behaviors. Everything they do involves the exchange of coins or play with coins and colorful round plastic things. These games and exchanges take place in colorfully lighted and animated spaces apparently designed to increase the desire for the games. The creatures sit at machines and feed them coins and seldom converse. The activity looks to me like work. But, if one of the creatures perseveres, the machine may reward him or her with more coins. Then he/she will then dutifully feed the machine again.

Soon a young female of the species, dressed in unusual short dresses and wearing great quantities of face make-up, will arrive with unusually colored iced drinks. The drinks make the people’s eyes droop and they put more coins in the machines. Many of them put fire to small paper sticks that contain some sort of vegetable matter that seems to make the creatures remember to light one of the sticks often.

The coin-game playing, colored drink consuming and the vegetable-matter-stick smoking all three seem to have a common element. They appear to be highly addictive for the creatures.

One of the (three) lounges had a group playing. They were half Oriental and half Chicano and played everything from 40’s big band to late rock and roll, and they did fun imitations of popular singers. Imagine an Oriental Willie Nelson. Only in America.

Baker, California. Three days of headwinds and crosswinds and long climbs brought us to this most remote part of California. This is huge country. We can see our whole day’s ride by looking both ways from a mountain pass at mid-day. The road looks almost flat in every direction, but is amazingly steep for 10 or 15 miles to the rare curve.

The first day out of Laughlin, we ran out of water after an unexpectedly high and long pass with hard headwinds that really took it out of us. We stopped at the first sign of life, an incongruous upscale subdivision in the middle of a seemingly infinite expanse of creosote bush.

We found a man working in his garage and asked for water. He did not seem pleased to interrupt his Saturday puttering to help two obviously stupid people riding a bicycle in the desert.

His wife came timidly to the door, half hiding behind it, to assuage her curiosity. She asked us some of the usual questions, but seemed nervous, glancing furtively in the direction of her husband, who had gone back to important things. I suspect he is one of those males who knows exactly how God intends the world to work, and how good people are supposed to behave in it. We, not fitting that behavior pattern, were not suitable social contact for his wife. She might get the erroneous idea it is acceptable for a woman to share adventures with her husband. God forbid.

The next seven miles were downhill, but into a headwind so strong that it took us an hour to reach Cal Nev Ari, Nevada. Our average speed for the day was under seven mph, a record slow day for the trip.

The next day was another long one into the wind and much more climbing than we anticipated. However, we passed through a forest of Joshua trees that made the climbing worthwhile.

We got into Nipton, California by mid-afternoon and spent time writing, talking to people about our trip, and staring out over the unspeakable expanses of the newly designated Mojave National Preserve. Huge and beautiful.

We met two couples, out for weekend drives. One couple was from Los Angeles. She works for the international division of a clothing company, and is very French. He is director of a substance abuse program. When she heard what we are doing, she was ready to drop her very successful career and leave tomorrow.

He rolled his eyes. “What about the jobs and the house and the kid?”


I wonder what the rest of their conversation was like that day, and if someday they will do something crazy too. Hope so.

Another couple arrived on a Gold Wing motorcycle. Both work in Las Vegas and escape to the desert on weekends. He was an Irish immigrant and she a local girl. Both seemed intelligent and were good company. They would consider our trip someday, but on the motorcycle, not a bicycle.

An interesting thing about these couples. They carry handguns when traveling this part of the country. I’m beginning to wonder if we’re the only people on the road unarmed.

Later we loaded up on water and food and cycled seven more miles into the desert and found the perfect spot to dry camp, out of sight of the road in an abandoned excavation. The night was clear and cool, with only the sky-lights from Stateline, Nevada invading the north sky. I saw several shooting stars before we fell asleep. We slept for 10 hours.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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