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When the third RV runs me off the road into the sandy shoulder, I know I won’t make it through the canyon alive. I lean my bike against the embankment and squint. The road curves to the left. The cliff shoots skyward to the right. The shoulder disappears.

Bicycle death trap
I’m pedaling through Anza-Borrego State Park and I have just descended Yaqui Pass. Highway 78 east is the only way I can get to Scissors Crossing, which will lead to S2. If I can make it to S2, I will get to enjoy 30 miles of downgrade with a tailwind. I want to make it through this canyon.

Words & images: Heidi Swift

Instead, I’m stuck sitting in the desert sand watching monster trucks roar by. They’re pulling trailers full of dirt bikes and four-wheelers and everyone is doing at least 80 miles per hour. Every once in a while one of them honks. It’s not the friendly kind of honk that indicates a greeting; it’s a honk that announces supremacy and domination. Fuck you, cyclist!

I am still standing on the shoulder considering thumbing a ride through the canyon when a large truck-trailer combo appears. The passenger in the front seat puts his head out and screams, “CRAZY!!” Then he throws a beer can. When his mouth opens, I can see that his teeth are yellow. The driver honks as they speed away, as if to get his two cents in.

I pull the Styrofoam takeout container from under the bungee cord on my rack and sit down in the dirt to eat leftover chilaquiles. I’m not hungry, but fried tortillas can make just about any situation better.

Technically, this road shouldn’t be so busy, but two days ago a storm blew down from the north and wrapped the entire region in cold. The snow line dropped to just over 1,000 feet and all of the passes heading out of the park were closed after lumbering motor homes full of clueless tourists started sliding across the road. They came to rest in ditches or lodged against the mountain walls. What a mess.

Now it’s Sunday afternoon and they’re all scrambling to get back to jobs they hate. Highway 78 is the only eastern route available, so here we are together: one lonely cyclist sitting in the dirt eating leftovers and a caravan of mega-vehicles clogging the only connecting route to tailwind nirvana.

I came to the desert for peace and got a traffic jam. I came for silence and got a chorus of horns. I came for fresh air and got exhaust. Go figure.

Camp Jackrabbit
The crispy tortilla-cheese trick works and by the time the last, crunchy bite is gone, I have a plan. I turn around and head back to where I’d noticed a dirt road and start pedaling. The terrain is soft and sandy, too difficult in some places to maneuver my 70-pound bike. I pedal until I can no longer hear the highway. I pedal until I realize that I can hear nothing but my own pedaling.

I am climbing up a 3% grade in fine grain sand on the heaviest bike I own. I am riding without direction or destination. Around 3:00 p.m., a jackrabbit crosses my path and I stop to watch him disappear. He hops through a flat, open area that looks custom made for camping, so I pitch my tent, create a front porch out of a tarp and pull off my spandex. There’s a lucky break in the weather so I lie in the afternoon sun like a lizard: still and quiet and warm.

It’s day one and I have already scrapped the original route, which is to say that everything is going according to plan.

The storm kicks up again so I spend the night wearing every piece of clothing that I have in my possession, with the sleeping bag opening cinched down so tight that only my nose sticks out the top. Around 3:00 a.m. I wake up to the wind screaming over the rain fly. I listen for a moment and realize that it’s heading the wrong way—my tailwind dreams are over. The next morning at Camp Jackrabbit I put my head out the front door to find everything is covered in a thick layer of white, sparkling frost. It’s 28 degrees.

I came to the desert in search of warmth and ended up with ice.

Go figure.

On any other day I’d wait for the sun to warm things up, but I’m terrified of my death re-match with the narrow canyon road and want to make the passage early, so I make hot coffee and pack everything up.

When I reach the highway everything is eerily quiet; all of the monsters are gone. I make it through the canyon without incident and turn left on S2, which lives up to its legendary reputation for vistas and roller-coaster quality descents. The sun comes out and my average speed skyrockets. I decide to skip the Aqua Caliente hot springs because this is the kind of pedaling that makes you never want to stop.

If I’d known better, I might have pulled over and had a good soak, then headed back up the way I came to continue to enjoy the free camping and protected wilderness of the Anza-Borrego State Park. Unfortunately, I almost never know better—so I kept pedaling.

Trailer for “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea.”

Saved by the Bud Light
That night, things get weird. I blow through the town of Ocotillo in a mad dash for a place called Dunaway Camp, which turns out to be a creepy, deserted piece of land in the Yuha Desert. It’s next to the freeway and close to the border. Helicopters buzz my tent all night long.

I hardly sleep a wink, but in the morning I still manage to muster up a little enthusiasm. I’m headed for The Salton Sea, which is the largest lake in California and the stuff of local legend—a place shrouded in mystery and history. A popular resort area in the 1950s, the lake itself is home to more than 400 bird species and has been called “the crown jewel of avian biodiversity.” It’s a lake so big it’s called a sea, a lake so salty (and getting saltier) that in a few years only the hardy tilapia will be able to survive in its waters. It’s also drying up day-by-day and efforts to save it have been so far unsuccessful.

I pedal east on an old highway flanked by farmhouses and very angry dogs. Using bar end shifters while climbing and holding a container of mace in one hand is tricky business. Five miles in I pass the state prison.

Every few minutes a hay truck comes by at mach speed. I can smell them before I see or hear them—it’s a sweet smell that used to mean “grandma’s house” and now means “brace yourself!” The contrasting associations produce an uneasy emotional response.

In Seeley, I stop for huevos rancheros and a couple of Canadian snowbirds offer to let me shower in the pool house locker room at their RV park. As I’m leaving in a Bronners-induced haze of minty-freshness, Todd offers me a cold Bud Light. We say cheers, clink our aluminum cans together and I tip it back and kill it. As I do, he hands me another, which I stick in my jersey pocket as I ride away. Bud Light is kind of like water, right? Right. I remove my helmet for a few miles to let my hair dry in the wind. I can tell I didn’t get enough sleep because I yell, “The world is my hair dryer!” to no one in particular then laugh out loud although it isn’t funny.

Shark teeth and bloody feet
I am headed north now and sharing roads with big farm trucks. When the lemon trucks hit potholes, a few lucky little lemons jump ship and come to rest in the shoulder of the road. I follow them like a trail of breadcrumbs all the way to the town of Niland.

Niland should be encouraging—it means I’m getting closer to accessing the eastern shore of the Salton Sea—but it has the opposite effect. The main street is mostly deserted with old boarded-up buildings and a few shifty characters marauding about. I walk into a bar and everyone stops what they’re doing and looks in my direction. A toothless woman puts down her pool cue and says, “Can we do something for you, honey?”

“Do you have food here?”

“Well of course we do. Damn girl, this is a restaurant, isn’t it?” She yells at someone in a back room and then turns back to me, “I don’t know why I said that, I don’t even work here.”

Two men outside are examining my bike, so I order a carne asada torta and step onto the sidewalk to say hello. One of them leaves immediately, glancing over his shoulder several times as he goes. The other stays and we talk about his dying aunt in Indio and his mentally-disabled baby niece. His top row of teeth have grown in at angles and are stacked two-deep, which reminds me of a shark. When the torta is ready I listen to the get-the-fuck-out-of-here voice in my head and pedal fast.

The 17 miles it takes to get to Bombay Beach turn out to be long ones. Highway miles with more lemon trucks. I am routed through a Border Patrol checkpoint and an armed gentleman smiles as he waves me through. His German shepherd follows my departure with mean black eyes but remains calm.

I can see Bombay Beach long before I get close and it has the twinkly appearance of a desert oasis—a cluster of palms and buildings with a huge radio tower looming over everything. It’s dusk and I am riding parallel to a set of train tracks. When the trains come charging north I race them every time but never win.

I reach my destination just as the general store is about to close. The man behind the counter is friendly but speaks without moving his lips, which results in incoherent mumbling. When he comes around to help me find something, I see that both his feet are wrapped in white bandages with blood and pus leaking through the bottom. I’m almost afraid to ask where the campsite is, but I do anyway and we walk outside together so that he can point at that little speck of shelter way down the beach.

The sky is turning pink so I take my Top Ramen and Gatorade and ride over the sticky mud to set up my tent. The site is strewn with broken bottles and garbage. In the morning a ranger will come and tell me that the campsite has been closed for a while and is being torn down due to underuse and too much vandalism from the locals.

For now, I lean my bike on a picnic table and walk out to the beach to have a look at this salty lake I have been riding toward for three days. My Sidis sink into the deep mud as I get closer to the water, which is when I notice the thick layer of dead fish that lines the shore. Above the water, birds are screaming at each other as the sky goes brilliant with layers of oversaturated orange and pink, flanked by cerulean. As far as sunsets go, it’s about as good as they get—just don’t look at the beach or breathe through your nose.

When the colors are gone, I’m left with darkness, the smell of fish and a campsite full of broken glass. I put on my headlamp and carefully set up my tent, quick to turn off my light as soon as possible so as not to be visible from the town. Top Ramen dinner is almost as depressing as my surroundings, and I fall asleep with the ache of 75 miles in my legs and the disappointing fact of this region’s obvious decline in my heart.

I came to the Salton Sea in search of myth and got reality instead. Go figure.

From Issue 04.