40 days

There is a doom upon the land.

It is hard to think of anything that is working right. The world is cooking, and we are as responsive as frogs in a pot while life of all kinds sloughs off the globe in great, Thanos-worthy waves. My country has fallen under a darkness of hate and the worship of ignorance, and if the underlying system hasn’t outright failed, it is certainly at a failure point. Around the world, democracy doesn’t seem to be in vogue anymore, and the idea is starting to seem quaint and dated. Freedom means only free markets, or, at best, the freedom to hurt your neighbor.

The machines are rising. Not the old ones, not the gas engines and windmills, not the pulleys and tires and aqueducts. The new ones. They’re already in us, and we in them.

In my own life, things are not much better. I am rarely the person I want to be.

I want to be done with this. I want to cut a hole in the stomach of this thing and get out.

My cousin is getting married, though, and that’s a fine and hopeful thing. Even better, he lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and the whole family is flying out for the wedding. I’ve never been to Alaska, and that sounds great.

I don’t fly much, though, if I can avoid it.

Google says that it’s 4,500 miles from where I live on the Atlantic to Anchorage, diagonally right across Canada; a 9000 mile round trip. I do some math on how quickly I think I could ride that, then adjust downward toward the always-elusive and never achieved casual, enjoyable rate. Then I add a couple days as a margin for error, and arrive at 20 days to get there. Double that if I come back, and that’s 40.

I want to ride to the edge of the world. More than that; I want to ride until I find the outside, or at least until I reach the background radiation. I want to ride until time cracks.

I want to ride until I find where this went wrong. I suspect that it was a long time ago.

40 days is just enough time to wash the wickedness from the world and get a fresh start. I hope that it doesn’t actually rain the whole way.



Hopkinsville, Kentucky

At a cemetery just outside Hopkinsville, Kentucky, waiting for the world to change. It’s 1:29 pm, and if I look through my welding goggles, our bright green sun is slowly being eaten.

I was inspired to pull in because I saw the two bikes, but now I see there are people everywhere among the gravestones and trees.

1:43 pm
There are fields on all sides, though I’m not sure of what.

The bite gets bigger, but I am reluctant to stare — I don’t think my goggles are strong enough.

Last time I watched a solar eclipse, I used a pinhole projection and traced the shadows on a page. That was only a partial eclipse, though — there hasn’t been a total eclipse in the U.S. since 1979. I didn’t know that until the other day; I’d almost taken this one for granted.

Nothing has changed yet, down here.

Totality is scheduled for 2:25 pm, EST.

2:00 pm
The sun looks like a green cartoon crescent moon.

One of the bikers shows me how it looks through a proper 12 welding glass — mine is less, still too bright. But I have two lenses, so when I pull them out and stack them together, now I’ve got something.

Lenses off, the light is weird, the grass seems supersaturated, the world on Instagram.

Unreal light now, uncanny shadows. The whole world seems wrong.

The guy from Connecticut lets me look through the welding plate and the crescent looks bright, sharp and glorious.


Someone spots the crescents, and calls out. Every dapple of light fallen through the trees has turned into a pinhole projection of the sliver of the sun. It is unexpected and crazy to see, suddenly we are all running around and looking at the ground and exclaiming, finding glowing crescents everywhere, hundreds, thousands waving on the grass, the pavement, the hoods of cars. It’s as if the laws of light no longer apply and have whimsically been rewritten by a wry god. At least, the laws as us monkeys understand them.

It gets darker. It gets colder. Everything gets weirder.

When totality comes, it comes on an exponential curve, not instant but nearly, with a silent “pop.” Darker – darker – DARKER – GONE.

The sun is gone and there is a ring in the sky, a halo, and it is not the color of the sun. It is cold, blueish, it seems to be throwing out feathers, faint rays of a holy aura — it’s hard to tell.

There are two stars (or planets?) in the sky now, on opposite sides, roughly 2/3 of the way up from the horizon, one in the northeast, one in the southwest.

Some kind of bugs start up in force — katydids, one guy says.

The colors of the sunset ring the graveyard, 360 degrees around us at the horizon — sunset on all the land, the night of another world above us.

Whatever that thing is in the sky, it doesn’t belong here.

The thing with the shadows is hard to shake. They get darker, sharper, weirder — fair enough, you can’t trust the shadows. But when they fill with crescents — what the fuck? If, during an eclipse, the light through the trees pinhole-cameras the crescent sun, then does that mean it’s always doing that — when we think sunlight is just shining through the leaves, is the pattern on the ground actually made up of a thousand suns, bobbing and waving, and we just can’t see it? Is a tree shadow really something painted by a thousand microsuns around a negative-space tree? Do we even understand shadows in the first place?

Don’t trust the shadows.

Two and a half minutes or so, we hang there in that moment of the weird, frightened and joyous, rapt and confused, trying to see everything, trying to understand.

The world lights up as quickly as it went dark. The crack of light that appears in the edge of the ring is electric blue, or indigo, or indescribable.

Then it becomes the sun, and we can’t look at it anymore.

I saw an image of the eclipse on TV afterward, by accident, and I wish I could wipe it out of my head. It’s the same old image we’ve all seen many times, it’s the picture of an eclipse. It’s on t-shirts, even.

Why is it better,why is it more, to actually see it?

Some things you just have to be there for. Try to describe to someone who’s never eaten what’s great about food.

An image of a thing is not the thing. Our eyes are stronger than that, they see deeper, and our minds see with more than our eyes. I don’t know how many senses deep an eclipse goes, but I’d guess it’s most of them, even the ones we haven’t named yet.

If you pull back the framing device of science, the mind buckles. You can’t even see it coming — the sun is so bright that even when partially eclipsed, you still can’t look at it, but if you do it still looks like the sun, still seems like the same flashy-wobbly-pulsing disc. At 1/4 obscured, 1/2, even when there’s just a sliver remaining, it still looks like the sun.

In the meantime, though, the world has gotten weird, and you don’t know why. the colors have changed, the world has filled with magic, and the shadows have come alive.

If you’re really observant, you’ll see secret symbols in the shadows, hidden writing that shifts and changes.

Then the world turns to night, the stars come out, and the sun is gone.

What’s in it’s place is not the sun. It is not the color of the sun — even the ring of light that is there is not of the sun. It’s not the moon, because it doesn’t look like the moon, and anyway the moon wasn’t there a minute ago, there’s no reason it would be there now.

What’s there is a holy ring cast by an angry god, a ring of unknown portent. Or it’s a dark eye that has fallen out of hyperspace, the darkest eye, ringed with light unlike any you have ever seen, but in general character no unlike an iris.

I loved our little graveyard crew, just the right mix of solitary and sharing, quiet and thrilled. We kept to ourselves, and we shared information and experienced this together, all at the same time. It was just the right size and just the right place.

I saw the eclipse and I couldn’t tell you how big it was or how long it lasted; if I’d been a scribe tasked with recording it, I’d have fucked it all up.

I swear our group was on the verge of screaming the whole time.

It’s a taste of what it would be like to stand on an alien world, an Earth-like world that isn’t Earth, where the colors are different because the spectrum of light is different because what’s in the sky is different.

Your cell phone can’t photograph this, so put it down. Set aside everything else, too. We’re going someplace new, and you can’t bring much with you.

The Trans-Labrador Highway

The weather is beautiful, sunny and warm.

The Trans Labrador Highway is straight and flat with no potholes or washboard, but the gravel is coarse and loose and accumulates in drifts and ridges. If I can stay in a path which is packed and hard I can go pretty quickly, but if I wander into the loose sand my front wheel suddenly kicks out in a new direction. Sometimes the track I’m following is just a rut the width of a single wheel and sometimes it’s not even on the right side of the road; there is not much traffic coming the other way, a truck or two every hour, but when it comes it comes fast. After hours of this micro-navigation, of shifting back and forth between tracks and watching for sharp rocks and loose gravel banks, I no longer see the textures of the road but just the colors that represent them — I know the road’s palette, it’s become a painting and I thread my way among its hues. I learn the rules of a strange color game: to get to the end I must follow the silver road-within-the-road, I must cleave to the golden band or the cream bar.

I stop often in an effort to stay alert but when I do flies the size of quarters rise up and start circling. They are the most evil-looking flies I’ve ever seen, huge, black and chitinous as flying crustaceans with abdomens like grapes full of pus. They don’t bumble and wobble idiotically like flies should; no, they circle with the slow deliberate motions of other large predators — they are confident. If I am bitten by something that large I will die on the spot of a heart attack. I can’t stop for more than a minute before riding off in terror.

Every time I stop I hear the same bird. The low, dark trees are the same. The road is the same. The same evil flies rise up. This is not a diverse ecology. And every time I stop there’s a spent shotgun shell lying somewhere within sight. If my random sampling is representative then that would mean there’s a shotgun shell about every 30 feet. Assuming an even distribution along both sides of the road for its full 300 miles, that’s a lot of shotgun shells. Presumably they are the only thing effective against the flies.

After six long hours I reach Churchill Falls, almost halfway. I’d planned to stop and rest, have some lunch; instead I take five minutes to get gas, an Aero bar and a cup of coffee, then get back on the bike to do it again.

Churchill Falls isn’t actually a dam. Because there is a thousand foot natural drop here they didn’t have to build a dam, just divert the river through a set of underground turbines. It’s because of this that they came all the way out here to build it; I’m told that Churchill Falls supplies the power for New York City. They built a railroad from here to Goose Bay just to bring in the hydroelectric equipment, then the leftover railroad bed became the road.

In the afternoon I go fast, deleriously fast, faster than I’d thought possible. I can’t tell how fast without a speedometer, but it feels unreal, dreamlike. I float over the gravel. Partly it’s because the road is better, surely, but there must be something else — I feel like I’m developing a sixth sense, a Dirt Sense, because I’ve started making critical decisions unconsciously, just like in normal riding. I realize I’ve slowed down and then notice that the gravel’s become deep and loose; I see the trees whipping by and conclude that this stretch of road is firm and good.

Just before dark I roll into the city of Happy Valley-Goose Bay having completed in 11 hours what takes people around here only five. The paved streets are smooth as eggshell.

Labrador City, Labrador

The rain picked up again as soon as I started up the 100 mile dirt road. Although straighter than the paved road south of Manic 5, the packed dirt was thick with washboard and potholes filled with coffee-colored water. I bobbed and wove and slowly picked my way through them, getting wetter and colder as the sky got darker. About 60 miles in I gased up at Relais Gabriel, just a couple buildings huddled in the woods.

I’d hoped to finish the dirt section before I stopped but after four hours I was exhausted and could barely see in front of me; when I saw a bridge I jumped at the chance to throw my bag down under it.

It took an hour more to finish off the dirt the next morning and reach Gagnon. Gagnon used to be a town, but when the mine closed they bulldozed it so now it’s just an empty name marking the beginning of 50 miles of pavement in the middle of nowhere. Then the road turned back to dirt for another 40 miles, snaking back and forth, back and forth over the railroad tracks that appeared out of the woods and were also heading north. I had to stop for a train, a long line of open cars full of black sand going south: iron ore.

The Fermont mine looks like the end of the world, from vast north woods to lunar desert with no transition. Suddenly the trees peeled back and I was riding beside a sea of tan dunes. At first I thought it was just a sandy ridge until I saw a dumptruck the size of a pinhead and realized that my perspective was all screwed up; the horizon tumbled away from me. Further on there was a huge building/machine of belts and concrete silos, then great hills of loose red-black waste earth easily 20 stories high and extending out of sight. Then pavement again.

Labrador City was just a few miles further on but I pulled into the town of Fermont anyway, the first town I’d seen since the St. Lawrence. The heart of the town is a big strange building, a sprawling piece of sheetmetal that’s a combination mall/school/hotel and more. It’s a great idea for the winters to have everything indoors and connected, but stranger still is that the building was designed to act as a giant windbreak for the rest of the town which hunkers down behind it for protection from the northwest wind. I prowled its echoing concrete hallways and thrilled to be in civilisation. It had to be civilisation because it had women, and kids listening to headphones- I’d seen some people in the 350 miles since Baie Comeau but they were all men in trucks or men with equipment. Suddenly here in the woods was a place with a Sears catalogue store, a bank, a hardware store, an ice cream shop, two travel agencies. I ordered some gloriously hot food at a diner and spent 45 minutes smitten with my waitress; unfortunately she was not inclined to speak english.

But once I got back on the highway I saw signs saying that Labrador City had a Tim Horton’s, and that’s another thing entirely.

Everything up here has a purpose. Labrador City is the home of the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, and the neighboring Wabush and Fermont mines aren’t small either, each supporting their own town. Labrador City has 10,000 people and one way or another they’re all there because of the mine. The red hills that rise over the city are not natural, are not hills at all but great mounds of waste — the city is almost in the mine. Churchill Falls, the next town far to the east, is there to service the hydroelectric device. I don’t love mines anymore than I love dams, but in a world built out of metal that runs on electricity this is what’s going on behind the curtain, always. This is where it comes from. It was iron and electrons that got me here.

Labrador City has everything and feels like a normal town with shopping plazas, a movie theatre and a real mall. The people have normal houses, new cars, satellite tv and internet access; I’m told the mine pays well. The kids have skateboards and baggy pants and lurch around in mobs looking sullen. But before 1992 they didn’t even have a road to the outside world; it was then that the miners, while on strike, took the mining equipment and built the last 40 miles of road by themselves. That’s why it’s such a crooked thing, clinging to the established railroad bed — still, it’s a road.

Running east from here, connecting Labrador City to Goose Bay, is the Trans-Labrador Highway. It is 300 miles of loose gravel, and it’s most of the reason I came.

Manic 5

It was cool yesterday and I didn’t get started until noon, but it was still a nice ride up through the middle of the White Mountains, then over the gentler farmland of northern Vermont and finally onto the plains of Quebec with their squat sheetmetal buildings. I made it to just north of Quebec City for the night, then rode up the northern shore of the St. Lawrence this morning. The sun burst into silver flame on the water.

At one point the road stopped and at the end of it there was a boat. I pulled over and looked at my map; no, I hadn’t taken any wrong turns. I followed the cars onto the boat and in about five minutes we all drove off again on the other side of an inlet, where the road continued.

At noon I reached Baie Comeau where 389 heads inland. It’s an unremarkable medium-sized sideroad with nothing to mark it as the beginning of the only overland route to Goose Bay, 600 miles away. If you buy a Rand McNally or National Geographic road atlas of North America and look at the map of Canada you can see the road to Goose Bay, the only road that penetrates the interior of Labrador, the only road to Labrador at all. It forms a great big arc from the St. Lawrence to the Labrador Sea, going first north through Quebec and then east across Labrador. Much of it is marked by a dotted line: unpaved. Flip to the map of Quebec for more detail and you’ll discover that it only covers the southern part of the province, and the same happens if you buy a fold-out map of Quebec. In most atlases you won’t find a map of Labrador at all, even though it’s about the size of Oregon. I realize it’s just an economic decision made by the mapmakers- why double the size of your map just to show one road (two if you count the road to James Bay)? — but the effect is eerie, as though the provinces are somehow reluctant to claim the region. The best the Canadian information center at the border could give me was a photocopy of a typed page describing the road conditions broken down into segments; the first segment is from Baie Comeau to a place called Manic 5.

For the 125 miles to Manic 5 the road heaves violently up and down and side to side, just a thin ribbon of tar pasted to the cortex-like contours of the Canadian Shield. At 57 miles north of Baie Comeau my speedometer cable snaps, taking with it my odometer and my best way to judge when I need gas. Then again, from here on out the gas stations are about a tank apart anyway so I’ll just gas up whenever I see one. It’ll be a while before I can get a replacement cable.

It starts to rain and I get cold and discouraged very fast; would a full day of sunlight have been so much to ask? I’d packed in a hurry and nothing was sealed in plastic so I have to repack everything in the darkening rain. There’s no place to stop before Manic 5, nothing at all along the road except a few empty hunting cabins, no way to mark distance so I don’t know how fast I’m going or how far I’ve gone, I don’t know anything except trees and rain.

It turns out that Manic 5 is short for Manicougan 5, the name of the hydroelectric dam. It’s just a gas station and cafeteria set within a semicircle of motel-like rooms, just an outpost of the empire. Soaked and shaking, I get a big hot order of poutine (french fries with cheese and gravy) and try to warm up. There are pictures of the dam hung on the walls; I have no love of dams, but the road wouldn’t be here without it.

I have a photocopy telling me that the next hundred miles of road are unpaved gravel. The more I think about it the more it seems like a statistical inevitability that at some point along that 100 miles of dirt road I will go down. No matter how careful I am, eventually I’ll make a mistake: soft sand, loose gravel, a pothole or a corner too fast — something will happen and I’ll go down. I can’t scrutinize every foot of road for 100 consecutive miles; I just don’t have the attention span.

The only strategy I can think of is to ride so slowly that when I do go down I can get back up again. It’s five p.m. and I’ve been riding since five in the morning. I think about getting a room, but the rain seems to stop so I continue north.


As well as renting a room and having a job again, I now have a car to move me between the two and that means I might survive the winter after all.

Operating the car is effortless, like a kind of teleportation. Softly depress a featherlight pedal and gravity shifts as the light of the world flickers and changes; momentarily, lightning-quick I move from point A to point B without really occupying the space in between, without feeling wind or heat, smelling nothing and feeling nothing except the dull stagnant air inside the car-pod. Shifting is eerily easy, just a casual rearrangement of certain items in the cockpit, and driving is just a set of ritualized, abstract motions that I repeatedly perform inside the car to facilitate this voodoo travel. But ease is comforting and not always bad.

Time flits by again; my daily routine is as dull and invisible as it was before. I read, watch TV, play video games.

I thought it would be harder to find places to sleep on the trip, especially since I had to find places where I could safely hide the bike, but it was never a problem and always getting easier. At night we live inside narrow corridors of light, our world suddenly collapsed to a web of illuminated scratches on the dark globe — take literally just a couple steps outside that illumination and you disappear. Night after night I threw down my sleeping pad just a few yards from the road, still surrounded by the roar of traffic but safe because I was invisible, gone off the map. I was never disturbed because no one ever stepped outside the light to stumbled over me.

Before this trip I would have scoffed at the idea of traveling with a computer- simplify, right? But not only did this little laptop facilitate cheap convenient bulk communication, it formed the glowing heart of a body of words in which I so often dwelt. On the many mornings when I woke and it was too cold to ride but also too cold to sit around for hours until the sun rose high, I’d ride to the next fast-food spot, buy a coffee (and maybe a sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit) and plug in. When the flipped-open screen filled with light a capsule of words rose up around me and I was gone, warm coffee clenched in quaking hand –gone and happy. You can do the same with a piece of paper, of course, it’s one of our oldest and best gifts — strike the stone and words spring up- but there are times when electrically-powered words are comforting. Bang on the table and up it springs, a symbol-encoded world like the one Neo saw in The Matrix when he at last perceived the green streaming code behind reality — not an escape from the world but a version of it, a lens, a watery bubble in which I spent hour after hour.

It’s not just the car that’s easy; there’s a sense of ease running through everything. It was stronger in the first few days, but it lingers still. My internal organs feel loose, slippery and good, as if freshly oiled or more efficiently configured.

There is something inside me. I used to think it was a hollow chamber, a large cavity rife with perfect sound, booming and ululating, but sometimes it moves. Sometimes it moves, powerfully, gently, shifting, sliding, convulsing, as smoothly as a magnetic field reversing, sad, ecstatic, music-like. Sometimes I almost choke and stumble — there are feelings for which we have no names. Now I wonder if it might be some kind of heavy compass, swinging- what really drives us, when we finally act?

My soul is made of lands.


I-10, I-20, I-85, I-95, home: October 26- November 6, about 3,500 miles.

Keeping it steady at 60, my odometer becomes a clock. In states where the interstate exits are numbered by their mileage, time, distance, and fast food all become interchangeable, just different manifestations of the same quantity; high on their slender stalks the colorful signs for restaurant and gas station chains are like giant flowers or minutes.

Again and again I don’t realize how cold I am until I get off the bike to refuel and start shaking and can’t stop for ten minutes, twenty, half an hour. When I’m riding I don’t notice because I slip into a cold torpor, the blood supply to my limbs silently restricted to maintain the temperature of my central organs while all of me goes just numb enough to not notice; my hands become unresponsive claws and my legs become weak as a child’s and I don’t even notice until I try to clutch, brake, stop and stand. I wobble and lurch into the bathroom to hold my hands under the faucet. The lights and colors are disorienting and my brain feels sluggish. The hot water sears me like sunlight on a vampire, not because it’s too hot but because my hands are too cold.

Once the pain goes away the warmth feels like liquid joy seeping into my hands, like life animating dead tissue, like happiness running into my lonely blood. I think, desperately: if I could curl up in this handful of hot water, that could be home. I could be home now. I could live out the rest of my days happy and warm in a truckstop bathroom sink.

Haunting me is the knowledge that I’m still only in Texas, still as far south as I can be, and I’m so damn cold. I haven’t even turned north yet, and when I do it’ll only get a thousand miles worse. Lying on the grass at a rest area in east Texas and trying to warm up in the thin sunlight I think long and hard about selling the bike; sell the bike and buy a bus ticket home. Yeah.

But I don’t. When I cross out of Texas and into Louisiana I feel much better; Texas is just a hard state to cross, too big. I enjoy a psychological boost- although a mile is a mile no matter what state I’m in, after spending two nights in Texas I now cross a couple states a day and it feels great. I feel like I’m in the East now, closer to home than not.

I see my grey face in the restroom mirror. I wash it almost every time I stop, but every day it gets a little greyer. Maybe this is my natural coloration now. Finally I realize that the grime isn’t washing off because the dark, oily patina isn’t water soluble. I spend 10 minutes in hard scrub and get my face back.

Stranger still, I look closely at my eyes and see foam. My eyes sting, they sting even when I stop riding and they still sting the next day, and along the edge of my eyelid is a thin line of white foam. It’s not normal eye junk, it looks more like the froth made by waves against a lakeshore; from constant irritation by the wind, maybe, but I can’t just stop.

The universe is a place of cruel but beautiful balance. The colder it is, the harder it is to start my bike and the longer I have to spend pushing it up and down hills, the hotter I get from the exertion. If it’s dropped below freezing when I wake up, then I spend a half hour or 45 minutes struggling behind a cold lump of iron on two worn rubber wheels until I’m gasping, soaked in sweat, and sweltering under my layers when the engine roars good morning. But I never doubt that it will start. It always starts. It may be the greatest bike ever made. Blasting down the onramp I smile ecstatically as the sweat freezes to my body.

I forget who I am from moment to moment. Without the constant reinforcement of social interaction, without being told who I am by those around me, I start to dissolve. I’d like to say I have a strong identity wired to a solid, tempered center, but the truth is I’m a loosely associated set of reactions. On the interstate I’m isolated from both people and land and become little more than a ghost hunched over in forward flight.

The ride up the east coast is a short few days,and the last day is a short ride, only a couple hundred miles across New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts on a warm and beautiful day. It’s barely dark and barely cold when I roll back into Manchester 13,758 miles after I left it.

Weatherford, Texas (mid-continent)

Along I-10 east of L.A. were acres and acres of windmills filling the fields and lining the ridges; they were different sizes but all were white with three slender blades whirling slowly like diatoms turning in the surf. In Arizona, south of I-8, F-16’s played low over the desert, dazzlingly fast and viciously nimble. Across the length of West Texas oil derricks bobbed beside I-20, rising and falling in slow prayer.

The Sonoran Desert reaches tentatively up out of Mexico into the southwest corner of Arizona, where it is mostly encompassed and protected within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. I spent one night there.

It was everything I, as someone from New Hampshire, imagined a desert should be. It was larger than life, a Technicolor cartoon desert of bright red mountains and and huge green cacti; the plants were so strange, vivid and numerous that the red hills seemed lush even while they parched and baked in the heat. It was cactus Disneyworld.

The saguaro is cactus prime, the ur-cactus, the ideal cactus of our collective imagination, that giant green pole with one or two fat arms that has become the icon for cactus. It’s the cactus that appears on every sign for every Mexican restaurant in the world and the Sonoran is thick with them, although in real life they don’t wear sombreros. They’re 10 or 20 feet high and stretch out in all directions like trees without branches, a forest of odd green trunks that dominates the landscape.

The organ pipe cactus is a dense cluster of vertical spires or fingers 10 or 15 feet high. The individual fingers are about half as thick as a saguaro trunk but the cactus as a whole is just as green and striking. Each one is a big fat bunch of green organ pipes, a whole handful of cactus, all the cactus you could want. I didn’t see too many from the main road but from the dirt road that ran out to the mountains I could see them everywhere, their gothic silhouettes crowding the hills.

The creosote bush was omnipresent but barely there, like a wispy olive-colored mist. They’re like sketches of bushes, just collections of twigs so sparsely dusted with dark green they look leafless. They’re actually covered with leaves but the leaves are so tiny, just a few millimeters long, that they’re almost like stubby evergreen needles. The branches break easily and seem almost dry inside, as if they’re barely alive, or as if the bush feels no need to struggle because it has some other secret strategy. Crush the leaves and the sweetest smell in the world billows out, a sweet, tangy tar smell, a passionate smell in the desert.

There were two kinds of short cholla cacti. The chainfruit cholla looks like a miniature cactus version of a tree just a few feet high that lowers its linked fruit from its branches in spiny braids. The teddybear cholla is even shorter and spinier, a lumpy mass of golden-needled paws.

There were prickly pear, although I didn’t see any of their spiny purple fruit. There were ocotillo there, too, still fascinating. They only grow leaves after a rain, the rest of the time they’re just slender barbed whips clawing the sky. People break off the 15-foot strands and make fences out of them. In the wild they look like the skeletons of murdered plants.

I rode the 20 mile dirt loop out to the Ajo Mountains at dawn. At one point when I stopped I heard rocks clattering on a hill and looked up to see what looked like a tiny wild pig scrambling between the plants. It was short and dark, only a foot and a half long, and then I saw others. They were javelinas and there was a herd of about a dozen of them moving over the hill. They walked in single file and it was strange to watch, strange to see such clear herd behavior in such small animals, as if they were guinea pigs pretending to be buffalo.

As I rode I watched great swaths of the red, green and gold desert illuminate.

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.