Thursday, 30 May 2013

Nevada - To and Through Las Vegas

I'm writing this from the poolside of a Motel 6 at the rough end of St George, Utah. I cycled a short day of 40 miles of Interstate 15 to get here and finished early - this morning was hot hilly desert canyons filled with fumes from the fresh tar that teams of road workers were spreading, mixed with exhaust from lines of traffic crawling along next to me. Riding in the rough narrow shoulder of the road, I had some good 6mph uphill races with articulated lorries while dodging rotting car tyres, smashed beer bottles and old screws and nails in the shoulder of the road. Today I woke up in Nevada, crossed into Arizona, then in to Utah, which was fun. Alas - this isn't because I'm some sort of supercyclist, just the way the road lies through the state boundaries.

The I-15 between Mesquite and St George, before hitting the roadworks. The manky asphalt on the right is the bike lane.

Although conditions sound less than ideal for cycling, I was working hard and enjoying myself - probably because I was feeling strong after a good night's sleep. Last night I stayed in a cheap hotel room in the old-fashioned, dark and smoky Virgin River Casino. Hotel registration is in the casino itself, it had a nice feel to it when I arrived, kind of 'bit of innocent fun' casino instead of hardcore gambling, with a jolly one-armed emcee calling out names of guests to go up and claim $500 prizes. It has a sort of old fashioned Butlins or Caravan park lounge/bar feel, with people chuffing on cigarattes while pumping coins into slot machines. I saw a slightly darker side this morning when I returned my room key, old men slumped over the bar at 7am with their heads in their hands.

I didn't do any gambling in Mesquite or in Vegas - getting my bike and gear in and out of Vegas was enough of a gamble itself. Back in Lancaster, California, I'd tried to ride to a bike shop in the morning to get a few things looked at. I got another puncture on the way (2 in 24hrs) which told me the rear tyre needed replacing. I pushed the bike along the road in the morning heat for an hour before getting to the bike shop - and thankfully it was a good one (Block Cycles).

After putting a new fatter (1.75 inch) tyre and 'Desert Thorn Proof' inner tube (filled with sealant) on the back I had a great chat with Rich, the owner. He suggested if I wanted to get to Vegas I'd do well to cycle through Barstow and ride from there. He gave me a great desert dirt road detour out of town down, past the church used in Kill Bill and along some of the old Route 66.

I've ridden a few dirt roads recently, hard but fun. The problem is when the asphalt/sand becomes loose and more than an inch deep - Leaving Lancaster I had to get off and push for quite a bit of it as the ground literally slips around beneath the wheels when riding. Queue some strong cursing and swearing from me, sweating along pushing my 45kg load through sand drifts. I nearly wiped out a few times going downhill, skidding about a metre left then right on one occasion. It's testament to the way the bike handles under weight that I stayed upright - well done Surly! (I built the bike up from their Long Haul Trucker Frame, getting the largest frame that would take 26inch mtb wheels). I camped rough out in the desert that night.

Avenue G heading east out of Lancaster, before hitting the dirt track
Shadow mountain road the morning after leaving Lancaster and camping rough, on the way to Silver Lake/Helendale
Another desert dirt road detour, this one after leaving Las Vegas. The ground here was littered with empty bullet cases. 

After reaching Barstow, I found that I wouldn't be able to ride the Interstate to Vegas as planned. I scouted out the various entrances to the freeway in town, and all of them had 'no bicycle' signs. I was torn between getting the Greyhound (my backup plan) and riding the freeway anyway. I decided on the former as I didn't want to risk finding no shoulder to ride in on the road. The Interstate lanes are surprisingly narrow, just enough room for a lorry, not real room to squeeze a bike in, plus I saw a few highway patrol cars going up and down town.

So I found a Motel 6 in Barstow in order to get the Greyhound bus to Vegas the next day. Greyhound policy requires me breaking down and boxing the bike - queue me cycling around town that evening trying to source a large enough box for the job. I tried a few places and eventually got the Walmart manager to promise to save a box from the coming evening's night shift. But I went back at 7am the next day to find they had nothing for me. I scrounged a couple of large boxes anyway and put something together that I thought would work.

While I was taking the bike apart outside the front of the motel room, my neighbour came for a chat. A little old man from San Franciso, he talked incessantly at me but rummaged around his truck and offered me some duct tape when I ran out. He used to be a cyclist before a bad car crash, had been married 3 times, his first wife was Welsh (the first American I've found that's heard of Wales), and he's owned 11 dogs. He said he'd been a cartoonist for Walt Disney and offered to draw me, but unfortunately I was too busy working. I went into his room to get some extra cardboard he'd offered me, and saw the room covered with handpainted signs and small pots of paint, and 2 friends working away on a Betty Boop poster. Fitting all this in to a Motel 6 room is quite a feat. I went into the office for coffee for a break and saw two policemen - a truck had been stolen and lots of other cars broken in to while I slept.


After calling a taxi number for a ride to the station I discovered that there were not taxis in town big enough to fit the box, which was roughly 6ft long. I measured the box by lying down next to it while on the phone to the taxi lady. She was lovely, and actually drove round to see if it would fit. When it didn't, she suggested I call the local UPS and get it shipped down to the station. This was half an hour or so before I wanted to get to get there and sort my ticket out. I called UPS and had the good luck to get Carla on the line, who offered to give me a lift in her own car! She turned up within 30 mins and brought me an extra roll of tape and a pen to mark the box off. After delivering me to the station, she told me to let her know if the Greyhound people wouldn't accept it. Another example of simple practical friendliness which has meant so much to me on this trip. I got the box on the Greyhound, and after various office power failures, ticketing issues, and general confusion all round, we reached Las Vegas.

Vegas! I learnt while staying there that 'Las Vegas' means 'The Meadows' in Spanish, named by settlers who stumbled across a vision of a green oasis in the desert. Before the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead created enough water to found the modern city, the natural springs running under the desert (since dried up) attracted native travellers and then settlers needing rest and water on their way west to California. My sojourn in Vegas was in keeping with this tradition, thanks to a friend of my Sister and her finance's. I spent four nights as a guest of Claudine, Adam and their toddlers Raffy and Leo - the friendliest and most hospitable family you could hope to meet. Adam collected me from the bus station on his way home, gave me a quick tour of the strip, and a beer when we got back to their home. A shower, steak and chips for dinner, a glass of red wine and one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in made me a very happy man indeed.

I don't know how they managed to make me feel so at home while looking after two toddlers at the same time - the hard parts of my trip suddenly didn't seem quite so hard. My first job there was to try and fix my knee which had got infected and swollen from the cuts made by the straps I'd been wearing, making my left leg difficult to flex and walk (and cycle) on. So I spent more time relaxing in the suburbs and nursing my knee than sightseeing, which is exactly what was needed. It was nice to hang out with some fellow Brits too - thinking back, the only other one I've met on the whole trip is a guy who worked at the San Francisco hostel, who hails from Catford, London.

I spent some time putting the bike back together, tinkering with it - and before I left I got a local bike shop to change the chainrings on the front, effectively lowering my range of gears which should help pressure off my knees on the hills. For the geeks - I've gone from 26-36-48 on the front chainrings down to 22-32-44, keeping 11-34 on the back cog (9 speed). One mechanic I spoke to said this wouldn't make much difference but so far is seems to have done. It's only recently that I've realised that I rode some of the hardest and steepest climbs in the Sierras, so running gearing traditionally suited for cross country mountain bikers makes a lot of sense, when pulling the load that I am.

Apart from the bike geekery, I asked Claudine about town museums and she had some great suggestions. Las Vegas, perhaps surprisingly, has a great selection. The Springs Preserve is ace, lots on desert wildlife, the Hoover dam, settlers, railroads, and a room that creates an artificial flash flood around you. The Nevada State musuem has more on flora and fauna, and a section on the evolution of the city as a capital of entertainment, including costumes of famous performers. The Neon Boneyard is a collection of old neon signs from historic Vegas establishments, rescued and stored out in a yard downtown - paradise for the amateur photographer!

I did one day of fairly heavy sightseeing. Claudine drove me out to Red Rock Canyon in Adam's Mustang (with the top down naturally!), which was ace! Then I cycled 40 or so miles between the museums and then straight down the Strip at night. Cycling down the full length of the Strip was unlike anything I'd ridden before, heading south from the Neon Musuem past wedding chapel after wedding chapel and bail bond shop after bail bond shop, until you start hitting the big famous casinos, The Bellagio, Caesar's Palace, The Mirage, the Mandalay Bay. It was Memorial Day weekend when I visited, so the pavements were almost too choked to walk down. One of the strange things about this part of town is that the pavements will actually take you off and lead you straight into a Casino. I walked the bike a bit, then cycled the rest of it. This was a whole lot of fun, ducking and weaving through the traffic like I'm used to doing in London, except there is more lanes to play with, and enormous Disney style hotels towering up on all sides of you, lit up beautifully. The only other cyclists I saw were police cyclists. I pulled in at Caesar's Palace to watch the fountains in the lake dance to Elton John. A strange and amazing place - fountains dancing to Elton John in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Driving out to Red Rock Canyon
Neon Boneyard Museum #1

Neon Boneyard Museum sign #2

Las Vegas traffic

Circus, Circus

Eiffel Tower Restaurant

So I left Las Vegas feeling good and refreshed, thanks to awesome hosts. I got my head down and put in a couple of fast days, one out to the Valley of Fire, where I camped. then on to Mesquite and St George along the Interstate 15. To get to the Valley of Fire, I tried to avoid the freeway and took a nice quiet road, which started out lovely smooth tarmac. It then turned to asphalt, and then dirt. My offline Google map called this SR40, and clearly showed it crossing the freeway at one point, before joining the highway on to the Valley of Fire. It does cross the freeway, in a manner of speaking:

if you can't go over, go under!

I had to unpack the bike and carry everything under the freeway here in several trips here - this was the first two lanes, but there was an island of grass and another two lanes to pass under too. I reassembled everything on the other side and found my dirt track. It was there, but was covered in loose sand and asphalt for the last stretch. Queue me pushing the bike through the loose stuff, queue me sweating and swearing profusely in the afternoon heat. This was before I realised the interstate freeway wasn't the monster I'd been imagining it to be, so I could have ridden that instead. By parts of the dirt road were a lot of fun! 

The Valley of Fire is spectacular, kind of like being plucked off Earth and deposited on Mars. I almost bumped in to a Bighorn sheep while there, which was very cool. All sorts of wildlife were attracted to my pitch after I ran some water from the tap - lizards and birds came over to drink from the splashes, as did bees. I read from a notice in the rest room that these were Africanized honey bees - Killer Bees for short. I was careful not to accidentally squash any or swat them away too vigorously and they were fine. But kill one and all their friends will come and sort you out...

The riding conditions are now dictated by the heat. The sun is hot as soon as it rises, 29 or 30c at 6:30am. Then no clouds in the sky until the temperature reaches 35c between 2 and 4pm. This is OK to cycle in if you aren't climbing, as the wind cools you, but finding shade to stop in is difficult - sheltering in the shadow of road underpasses etc. If you camp at night it's hard to get cool - the winds are too strong to pitch just the inner tent (guy ropes are needed which necessitates the outer tent too). Everything that can melt in your packs does. I bought my usual lump of sharp cheddar on the way out of Vegas and the whole thing had melted in the wrap by the time I opened it (nothing for it but to it the whole lot in one go). I'm now eating jerky, bagels and peanut butter for lunches. The peanut butter melts too, so you can just dip the bagel straight in. I wear my white cotton cycling cap on backwards to protect my neck, with the visor of my helmet covering my face. I soak the cap in water where I can, which keeps my head cool.

There isn't much in the way of campgrounds down here, this should improve from tomorrow as I gain elevation in my approach towards the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I've been riding without a strap on my knee the last couple of days, in order to let the cuts on the back heal to keep infection away. So far no real trouble with it - and I've done some hill work. I'm really hoping the new gearing is doing its job, but the real climbing will start tomorrow, so time will tell.  

Nice and cool after the sun set. Yes - getting tent pegs in that ground was hard work!
The Seven Sisters, Valley of Fire
The Valley of Fire


  1. Another amazing blog, Al, we've been looking forward to the next instalment... so much better than the Archers! This is such an experience, your dirt track stories remind me of several occasions on holiday with your father! Hope your knee is healing properly, keep safe.xxxxx

  2. Wow it's an amaze. Really this also looks great and tremendous scenario. We are missing too and looking for holiday to go there, and want to enjoy that glorious moment.

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