Shortly after Pearl Harbor, General George S. Patton took charge of a swath of sand that stretched from Palm Springs almost to Phoenix. Centered on the Mojave Desert and encompassing 18,000 square miles, it was here that Patton simulated tank warfare and toughened up recruits for Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion of North Africa.
Eventually one million GIs passed through the Desert Training Center, for a time the world's biggest military facility. In temperatures that reached 100 degrees, soldiers with a rifle and full pack were required to run a mile in under 10 minutes.
Patton's headquarters, Camp Young, has long since been reclaimed by the desert. Today it is the Chiriaco Summit, a pit stop breaking the monotonous drive on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. After filling up motorists can pay $5 and view memorabilia and old tanks at the General Patton Museum. Eastbound travelers are cautioned that this is last gas for 67-miles.
For an eastbound cyclist who had yet to begin the 9-mile, 7 percent climb to the approaches to Chiriaco Summit, the 90 miles of desert separating Indio and Blythe is a formidable challenge. This empty expanse has no place to stay and I am traveling without a tent or sleeping bag. I average 45 miles a day and 90 miles in desert conditions is too much. I can't leap this chasm in a single day and am stymied as what to do.
Until recently there had been one other possibility, but this too has vanished. There was a gas station and restaurant at Desert Center, an oasis 23-miles beyond Chiriaco. Long-distance cyclists used to appeal to their comrades to say hello to Doris, the friendly waitress at the café that boasted it hadn't closed in 60 years. Unable to cover costs, it and everything else at Desert Center closed in July 2012, leaving behind a ghost town, or more accurately a derelict, empty rest stop. The only activity at Desert Center now is the exchanging of east and westbound loads for Fedex and UPS and the occasional driver who pulls off the interstate to sleep.
A solution to my conundrum came in a dream while overnighting with friends in Palm Springs. Could I rent a car and carry my bike to Blythe, leave it, drive back to Palm Springs, and then take a bus back to Blythe? In fact, this is what happened.
Cycling in the Mojave is not for the feint-hearted. And it's not just the heat and boredom. As I pedaled into Palm Springs two days earlier, the challenge was wind and for several hours it was a dangerous menace.
Riding the 43 miles from Beaumont, the wind became so strong that I stopped several times to avoid being blown over. There is a reason hundreds of giant windmills populate the desert floor west of Palm Springs.
Setting out from Blythe on the Colorado River at the California Arizona border I wasn't sure how far I would get. My first target was Quartzsite, a town on Interstate 10, 20 miles past Blythe. Riding along the shoulder of the interstate I took the exit for Quartzsite to get information for what kind of accommodation was available farther on. Stepping into the lobby of a Super 8 motel, I was surprised by this sign taped to the door.
"If you're walking outside the motel be aware that this is the season that snakes wake up and are coming out. If you see one on the motel property, DO NOT BOTHER IT, but report its whereabouts to management."
Riding on, the wind had dissipated and the threat of rain was gone. I continued on the interstate and took the Adventure Cycling Association route that turned off at exit 31. From there it was five miles northeast to Brenda, Ariz. where I spent the night. The day ended with six hours of riding covering 45 miles.
It was a 55-mile ride from Brenda, Ariz. to Aguila, my target for the next day. Stopping for lunch in Hope, I phoned ahead to the only motel in Aguila. To my chagrin the owner reported he had no vacancy, every room was occupied by farm laborers. He suggested that I enquire at the RV village at the edge of town as they might have a camper that could be rented for the night.
As the lonely ride dragged on, I realized my options were limited. There was no way that I wished to continue to Wickenburg, 24 miles past Aguila. Pulling into the lot of the RV village, a loud chorus from grackles in a lone tall tree may have been a warning.
The sign on the office door said "Closed'" and the rotund man who pulled out from the camp in a pickup truck said the owners were away and wouldn't return for several days. The man in the Dodge Ram introduced himself as Willy. He asked what I was going to do and I replied I wasn't sure. Perhaps, I said, the motel would give me a blanket and allow a visitor to stretch out in the office overnight. At that Willy said he would take me to Wickenburg for $100. He agreed to take $20. Minutes later the bike was in the back of Willy's truck and we trundled off to Wickenburg.
Willy is a team roper, a cowboy who competes in a two-man team to determine who is most skilled in roping steers. Wickenburg, he assured me, is a center for the sport and Willy comes down for the season from his home in Elko, Nev. Willy, a Shoshone Indian, is 78 and says he is not the oldest of the several hundred ropers in the region.
Wickenburg is a pleasant town 66 miles northwest of Phoenix. At this point I knew the biggest challenges were behind me. It shouldn't be hard work to reach the Arizona capital and the end point of my journey.
Phoenix exists because of irrigation and air-conditioning. It has grown to be 50 miles wide and cycling paths have been created adjacent to its several canals. It is jarring to have departed the desert sand and arrive in fashionable neighborhoods with watered lawns.
Meeting in Scottsdale, four heavily laden riders going in the opposite direction, I called out, "where are you headed?" The answer came from a petite woman in green, "San Diego," to which I replied, "I've come from L.A." Riding on, I realized that five-second exchange would have meaning only to cyclists crossing a desert for adventure and, dare I say, enjoyment.
My ride ended in the university town of Tempe, close to the Phoenix airport. It had been a satisfying adventure in which I rode 347 miles, including 39 miles the final day. The journey was without incident, not even a flat tire. Physically things were equally good. No aches or infirmities.
However, I know the result would have been different had I continued into the forbidding 90-mile stretch where General Patton's tanks once roared across through the sand 70-years earlier.