Joshua Tree National Park, California

The desert hates me, but I don’t take it personally because it hates everybody, and like the best disfunctional relationships the more times it tries to kill me the more I love it. I’ve been in desert land for the last few days, since San Francisco when I first saw palm trees and heard loud flocks of chirping birds that sounded like Florida. The desert hills have been beautiful, golden and shimmering, sometimes even a soft buttery yellow, but when I lay out my sleeping pad on the soft-looking grasses the stalks shatter and skewer the foam like knives.

On the edge of the Mojave, the Joshua trees are powerful evidence of Martian biological influence on Earth. Each one rises out of the ground like a twisted and broken hand, knuckles warped and bent back on themselves, each fingertip tufted with green spears. Within the park there are long flat plains of Joshua tree forest that are as strange to my idea of a forest as the redwood forest was, but in the opposite direction. The Joshua tree forest is mostly open space, the trees only 10 or 20 feet high but usually 50 or 100 feet apart. Viewed from the ground it looks more like an army of aliens camped on the plain than a forest, and viewed from above the forest disappears and looks like nothing more than a scattering of broken branches.

Up close the trees seem to be constructed entirely of spines, green spines for leaves and dry brown spines plastered against the branches and trunk, each one hard and sharp enough to run though someone’s heart. It’s as if the Joshua trees were made of papier-mache, except with spines substituted for the papier.

But everything is like that here — all the arms and armor discarded by the rest of the world has been assembled here in the desert, every last tiny barb and plate, and life breathed into it for eternal battle. I carry with me only one tool with blades of metal and although all I do is walk among plants I feel like I’m naked on a battlefield.

To my amazement, I saw three coyotes trotting along the side of the road within a few miles of each other. I’d never seen one so closely before and was surprised at how small they were, so short-legged and bushy that I thought they might be foxes. All of my amazement faded when the ranger explained that they lurk by the road so they can beg from cars because people feed them. Sure enough I came up behind a stopped car with a coyote trotting casually from window to window, peering upward hopefully. My motorcycle had not elicited this reaction. Later I came over a small rise and almost hit one sitting in the middle of my lane begging from a car going the other way; from that point on I honked at them when I saw them.

It’s not the coyotes’ fault, and it’s not even such a terrible thing. It does give people a chance to see coyotes, and it’s only natural that the world around us adapts to our presence. But we are such an environmental juggernaut, such a vast and thoughtless force at loose on the face of the Earth that I do hunger to see things at least somewhat free of our influence, to glimpse what the world might look like freed from our heavy thumb. Seeing plants and animals that have not just been influenced by us but have been transformed into hangers-on that exist at our whim like cats and dogs is to me more like looking into a mirror than going outside.

I also saw a wild tarantula crossing the road, four giant inches of brown hairy spider which presumably had less luck mooching off the park visitors (“C’mon, dear, let him bite your hand, it’ll make a great picture!”). This exciting sighting inspired me to spend the night sleeping high up on a rock.

The rocks around the Jumbo Rocks campground were both jumbo and jumbled, huge smooth pieces of something called monzogranite that looked like granite in peachy-tan fleshtones. It provided the landscape with the soft biological curves that the plants did not, the sprawling boulders and outcroppings resembling half-buried body parts, giant hips and knees and skulls. Because the gravel between the rocks was crumbled from the rocks themselves the color was identical and sometimes I couldn’t tell what was a soft mound of gravel and what was a hard arc of solid monzogranite, so seemlessly did they blend together. The rocks were as smoothly sculpted as sandstone, but unlike river-worn sandstone their shapes were mostly formed while still underground. Apparently groundwater seeping through cracks dissolved the stone while still buried so that as the soil washed away, the gently curved towers and piles emerged almost fully formed as though liveborn from a dirt womb.

At dawn I woke up to a bunch of coyotes yelling right in the campground, then came down from my rock to find rabbits hopping across the parking lot and around the picnic tables.

As I rode south out of the park I descended a thousand feet and left the Joshua trees behind. I passed through bands of other bizzarre desert plants, first the cholla cacti that were fuzzy and golden with needles, then the strange ocotillo that looked like giant patches of seaweed waving on the ocean floor. The ocotillo were 10 and 15 feet high and grew in spindly, leafless tufts, just thin barbed strands rising into the air seemingly far too high to support their own weight.

Just outside the park I spent most of the last dollar of the 751 on a cup of coffee (the Other Fuel). It’s been a good run, just over 10,000 miles. Discounting the single night in Quebec that I paid for lodging, the money was split evenly between gas and food over the course of 77 days, but a lot of that longevity owes to motionless days (when there was no gas expense) and more importantly to the people I stayed with along the way who fed me.

I made enough money drawing houses in Portland to continue for a little longer, though, and maybe even enough to make it home.

Taft, California

South of San Francisco, California State Highway 1 clings to the edge of the continent halfway between the ocean and the sky. I think I heard that on a Visa commercial once, but it’s true, it’s an incredible road. The air is tropical, the ocean beautiful and the land looks like pictures I’ve seen of Hawaii.

From one overlook I saw otters rolling in the seaweed, but by the time I scrambled down the cliff to get a closer view they were gone. From several places I could hear sea lions barking but couldn’t see them, even though their baying chorus filled the ravines and coves. Finally I saw one for just a moment, a tiny thing that looked like a rock wriggling in the sun — I hadn’t realized how high up I was. If they listen long enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rocks learn to make the sea lion barking sound all by themselves.

There was a haze or fog on the horizon so there was no horizon, just a progression from ocean to cloud to sky. Late in the day the sun lit it so it glowed, ignited it into a blaze of white fire on the ocean that looked like Heaven. There were shapes in the cloudbank, contours, textures barely discernible in the fiery mist, either cloud-shapes or inaccessible lands to the west.

In the morning the road rose up above the fog so I could see the light slowly spilling down out of the mountains into the roiling mists below me, into the vast churning cauldron of the Pacific.

I thought the best road sign I’d seen was the one in Utah that proclaimed “HOME OF FOSSILIZED SQUID,” but this one’s hard to beat:


Population          562
Ft above sea level          2150
Established          1951
Total          4663

Both signs pale next to “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” a radio program I found in my headphones last night on which a man pretending to be Thomas Jefferson discusses current events and talks with callers. Last night’s show was about the upcoming online auction of a woolly mammoth skeleton, with a brief aside about health care. Next week Mr. Jefferson will discuss the nuclear arms test ban treaty. It actually wasn’t a bad show, but it’s such a weird premise. The show is produced in Nevada.

From there I spun the dial on my radio past a lot of Spanish until I found Metallica’s cover of the old ballad “Whiskey in the Jar,” which you’ve gotta admit rocks pretty hard.

If you don’t learn how to work on engines and machines as a kid or a teenager, you spend the rest of your life just trying to catch up, like me.

The bike hasn’t been starting well with the electric starter when the engine’s cold. Once it catches it runs great, but the other morning after I’d drained the battery I spent an hour rolling it up and down a hill trying to jump start it — I think I’d flooded it by that point too. Now I camp only on top of big hills.

I can’t complain, though, because other than that one time it actually jump starts very easily, so easily that I can’t imagine what’s wrong with it. Yesterday I jumped it within the length of a slightly slanted parking space, push-push-pop the clutch-VROOM-clutch in-BRAKE, all before I hit the curb. This tells me that all it really needs is a kick starter.

This morning the carburetor was dumping gas on the pavement. Fortunately that’s a problem I’ve seen before, a stuck float valve, so I attacked it before breakfast: took off the gas tank, pulled back the air filter, unscrewed the throttle cable, loosened the intake manifolds, wrenched the carburetor off, pulled off the bottom and wiggled the the little floater up and down. It seemed to be moving fine so I figured it must have been just barely stuck and put everything back together again, jumped the bike and watched a fresh trail of gasoline spatter onto the parking lot behind me. I made a roaring sound and had some breakfast.

Proceeding according to the sound mechanical principle that it still HAD to be a stuck float valve because that’s the only thing in the carburetor that I know how to fix, I did it again, this time more slowly and after investing in a little can of WD-40 which I should have had on hand in the first place. After spraying everything in sight with WD-40 and then reassembling, the carburetor stopped dumping gas and the bike again ran great.

At that point I figured that since I was already there in the parking lot of the Big K I might as well change my oil, too, so I spent 10 minutes yanking pointlessly at the drain plug before I remembered that the drain plug has been stuck all summer. I unscrewed the oil filter and got out as much oil as I could that way.

To celebrate, I bought some socks and cut my toenails.

The Avenue of the Giants, California

The redwoods are grey; they might be as red as blood on the inside, but on the outside they’re a bright, vibrant grey. It’s as if after soaking in the fog for thousands of years they’ve taken it into their bark, protective coloration for hiding in mid-air. I don’t know what they might be hiding from, but if it scares redwoods it scares me.

There’s no telling what might be in the fog. I was going to ride down the Oregon coast, but when I got there it was gone, eaten away by fog. The sun, too, had been devoured; shaking with damp and cold I headed inland to where it was beautiful and warm. I tried for the coast again in California but with the same results, dark wet dusk at noon. I skulked inland, watching thick white tendrils writhe blindly across the pavement.

The redwood forests were Atlas’ secret project so he could release the sky and go home without Heaven and Earth colliding. The grey trunks rise evenly upward, vast, columnar, and spire-like, mighty with grace. They’re 5, 10, and 20 feet thick, 300 feet tall, 2000 years old; the massive, shaggy bark is thickly fluted and rises skyward in slow spirals. Walking between the trunks has the feel of passing through architecture, although each trunk has the beauty and presence of sculpture. The ground beneath them is open or covered with giant ferns.

The rivers are open too, with wide grey gravel flats. Ravens float along these corridors, filling the mists with prehistoric croaking calls. The whole place is a time capsule from an age when everything was dinosaur-sized; the redwoods once spanned the whole continent when the climate was more humid , but now they huddle in a thin strip along this coast where the fog helps mimic the moisture of that ancient climate.

The Avenue of the Giants is just a road, but it’s a road on which I feel like I’m riding a tiny toy motorcycle surrounded by matchbox cars. It’s a modest, quiet road anyway, but as it winds delicately between and around treetrunks a lane or two wide it feels like little more than a paved path on the forest floor. The treetops are so high up and far away that I have to stop to look up and see them, where they’re not invisible in the mist.

I thought I knew what trees were, but these are trees and yet they seem like something else entirely, things so big and glorious that I can neither see nor understand them all at once.

Twilight comes early along the Avenue, so I easily hide my motorcycle behind a tree and roll out my sleeping bag among the Giants’ toes.


I dreamed of flying, mostly when I was a kid, but the dreams were always strange. I didn’t fly headfirst and lying down like Superman or any of the other flying people, I flew upright as though standing, and never more than a few feet above the ground. Sometimes I’d have to flap my arms very fast, desperately fast just to attain that meager altitude and I’d always think, “Ofcourse it’s work, why would flying be easy?” Once I was airborne, though, I could coast and shoot over the ground at terrific speeds, floating up and down hills. When I’d wake up I’d wonder why my dreams always had to have some strange twist like flying upright, but within the dream I was oblivious and felt only the ecstatic joy and elation you’d expect to feel when you’d finally remembered how to fly.

My first motorcycle was a fluke. I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle and didn’t know anyone who had one. The only time I’d ever been on one was as a passenger for a mile or two and I hadn’t really liked it — I thought I was going to fall off. I’d always had a vague idea that I’d like to learn how to ride a motorcycle sometime before I died, but I’d always had a vague idea that I’d climb Everest before I died, too (until I read Into Thin Air); neither were burning desires. But when I saw a 1976 Honda CB 550 for sale at the end of my street for $250, I bought it and pushed it home. My main motivation was that I needed a vehicle and the motorcycle was cheap.

I went down and got my learner’s permit which, incredibly, made me road-legal for a month. I spent a couple days staring at the bike until I felt pretty sure I knew how the controls worked, then one quiet evening I went for a ride.

I rode for years before I realized that riding was the uncanny fulfillment of my own strange dreams of flight. Upright and arms outstretched I shoot through the air, just above the ground — I don’t usually have to flap my arms, but sometimes they get as tired as if I had. And riding often is work: pushing into a cold wind I’m propelled by equal parts gasoline and will. The ecstasy is there, too.

Beyond the point-by-point parallels, though, it just feels like flight to me. It feels like those old dreams. I don’t know why that should be.

Riding south through the hills along the Willamette River, I swoop and bank through the warm air of Indian Summer and count myself lucky.

Portland, Oregon

The power of suggestion is mighty: as I rode across Idaho I couldn’t shake the idea that everything was colored in shades of potato. Even the overcast sky seemed like the bright white inside of a potato. When I crossed into Oregon the spell broke and the high desert suddenly seemed golden, tawny and beautiful, the same colors but with better marketing. The banks of the Columbia were rippled and veined as though heavily muscled, and golden ridges ran down to the water like giant lions’ paws. The river lay like a dark blue ingot cradled in tan velvet.

Interstate 84 across Oregon was rife with produce. When an onion truck passed me, it smelled so sweet that I almost sped up to follow it; I’m glad I didn’t because for the next 100 miles there were onions all along the road so it must have been dropping them like bombs. I stopped and cut out a sweet slice to fend off scurvy. Then I started seeing corn that must have been thrown off by another truck and I managed to collect four ears with minimal highway burn. They made a great dinner.

I’ve been staying with a friend in Portland for many days now. It’s a great city and the weather has been wonderful, but it’s well past time I got going again.

Even if someone stole my last dollar, at least I could understand that they thought they needed it. Theft is what I’ve been worried about all along, always trying to judge where it was safe to leave things unguarded on the bike and where it was better to take some or everything off. I’ve made it without a problem so far only to have my mirrors smashed in a random and infuriating act of vandalism. One mirror was shattered and the other was broken right off the stalk. The bike was parked on the street but in a nice enough neighborhood, surrounded by new Beetles and Saabs, and it never even occurred to me that my little 20 year old Japanese motorcycle would be the target of someone’s pointless destructive impulse. At first I thought a car must have backed into it and knocked it over and that’s how the mirrors had broken, but no, there were no signs of it having fallen and no reason for both mirrors to be damaged. The only explanation was that someone had just pounded on the one and then the other (the missing mirror eventually turned up a block away, crushed flat from being driven over).

It’s really no big deal, they’re easily replaced and not very expensive, and my particular angels got hard to work and a few days later a friend of a friend actually found one extra motorcycle mirror in their basement that fit. It’s even better than the original because it has a longer stalk so it can better see around my shoulder. I can rig something up for the right-hand mirror. I still get angry when I think about it, though, it’s just the principle of it, it’s obvious from a glance at my old worn-out bike that whoever’s riding it probably doesn’t have much else; why kick somebody when they’re down? Who’d do that? It makes me want to kick back, and hard. The only thing that mitigates my frustration is that there are a lot of crazy people on the streets of Portland, mutterers, mumblers, and madmen, mostly homeless, and it might have been one of them. I reach for that explanation because it’s the only one that makes at least a little sense.

I rode out to the coast today. The state is a see-saw hinged on the Cascades, high desert to the east and wet green woods to the west; the western edge must be either pinned down by the ocean or weighted down by the giant trees. I stopped to look at a spruce tree that had a trunk at least 15 feet in diameter, bafflingly colossal, more like a wall than a tree. A lot of the trees don’t stop at having green needles but go on to have green trunks and branches too because they’re covered in thick moss. Along with the ferns carpeting the ground that makes everything green, a sculpture of a forest made out of astroturf.

I’ve touched salt water in three cardinal directions — to the east, north, and west of the continent. There are 32, 735 miles on my odometer, so I’ve come 8, 473 so far. I’ve been on the road for two months.

There are only 132 dollars left, which means the hour is growing late.