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Sunrise from the tent at Bahia Concepcion’s stunning El Requeson beach.

BEACHY and bright San Felipe proved to be the Tampa, Florida of the Baja. It was filled to the brim with snow-birds (Americans and Canadians escaping winter) gringo expats in varying states of “sh*t-faced” and opportunistic Mexicans keen to flog as many patterned blankets, bejewelled skulls or sombreros as possible.

Mostly, they just sold cheap tequila and cases of Tecate beer along with handy bumper stickers that spruiked “no bad days in San Felipe”.  Despite this the town (and the fairly sparsely populated coastline going south) had recently suffered some truly shitty days thanks to a spat of violent hurricanes that destroyed roads, shattered bridges and left a plague of bloody irritating flies.

After stocking up on staples and water (we wouldn’t hit another big town for almost 400km) we pushed out a fast 30km through bland, trash strewn desert until the landscape opened up to reveal some epic cacti forests filled with the classic three-pronged beasts we’d been desperate to get up close and personal with.

Giant cactus posing on the side of the road just south of San Felipe

We also pedalled past more than a handful of locals towing rustic looking fishing boats which a San Felipe local had told us was used to illegally trawl for totoaba – a fish that’s swim bladder was considered a delicacy in China where it often fetched higher prices than cocaine. Over-fishing resulting in threats of extinction forced the government to ban trawling for totoaba but the lure of big bucks had sparked a big black market trade. 

The first signs of hurricane damage on Highway 5

The aim was to push out a pretty easy 85km to Puertacitos but it turned out the hurricane damaged roads were a little worse than we’d anticipated with the final 15km looking almost post apocalyptic. Sunset was creeping over the horizon when we finally reached the ramshackle cafe called the Cow Patty, which the cyclist rumour mill claimed to be a free place to pitch a tent for the night.

The eclectic Cow Patty cafe near Puertacitos

The cafe was a mishmash of American and Mexican paraphernalia but if the tiny building was quirky it had nothing on the caretaker. Moody Memo – a pot-bellied recluse – manned the cafe with the charm and warmth of a deeply unhappy billy goat and he responded to most our questions with scowls before telling us he didn’t like people, questions and particularly people asking questions.

After a pretty awkward half hour he did however invite us to camp in the restaurant before warning us we weren’t to disturb him in his van or even be tempted to say goodbye in the morning.

We happily obliged.

Memo’s house.

A rough sleep was followed by a rough breakfast and an even rougher road that continued on for another hour the next morning as the washed out track dipped and rose along the coast line. Despite the heat and road conditions we managed to push out the 90km to Rancho Grande by mid afternoon – beelining straight for the coastal village’s little supermarket cum liquor store cum water purification centre on the other side of the road.

Hurricane havoc on highway 5

It was at this store that we met a handful of Americans – first a sweet guy preparing to race the Baja 1000 (an annual motorised race) who insisted on giving us 500 pesos “for our travels” and secondly a sweet couple from Washington who were sailing around the Baja and who would later invite us to come for a ride on their boat.

These spontaneous acts of kindness reminded us of the many generous and wonderful people we’d met throughout the States. Sure, we’d had our highs and lows in the USA, but at the end of the day it had been largely filled with some of the most hospitable and helpful souls we’d ever encountered.

Has Dr Seus been designing cactus in the Baja?

Within minutes of reaching the beach a young and sweet American cyclist called Nash had run out to introduce himself before offering up his palapa to camp in that night. 

Not long after setting up the tent a group of boisterous Mexican/Californians treated us to heaped plates of burgers and seafood cocktails. All in all it turned out to be one of those days (and we’ve had many) where the sheer awesomeness of humanity bowls you over and leaves you humbled, content and blissfully happy.

From Rancho Grande the paved road continued on for another 20km before ending abruptly in bloody awful dirt. According to Google Maps there was just one road that would lead us back to Highway 1 but shortly after hitting the gravel the road split into three different directions with numerous tyre marks on each.

Farewell asphalt, hello dirt!

Shit.

Traffic had been light so we used the excuse to hide in some patchy shade and wait for a car to lead the way.

Over the next 15 minutes three cars drove by and each of them took a different road.

Double shit.

In the end we picked the middle one and set off but after 15km we began to wonder if we’d made a mistake. The road was bad – really bad – and the climbs and descents were nothing short of steep and scary. To make matters worse we’d counted on passing by a famous little truck stop (called Coco’s Corner) but it never appeared which meant the cold soda I’d been fantasising about chugging down would remain a fantasy.

By time highway 1 appeared in the distance it was late afternoon and so we dove into some nearby desert and threw up the tent. The saving grace on a tough day had been the scenery – and boy had it been beautiful.

The next morning Scott celebrated his 34th birthday with a bowl of breakfast noodles and we packed up the tent in record time to push out the 100km that lay between us and the dusty village of Rosarito – a one horse shop that definitely didn’t make the Baja travel brochure. That said it did have a pretty grim hotel and a little trucker’s cafe so we put our American patron’s 500 pesos to good use – managing to get a bed, hot shower and two enormous plates of deep fried chicken.

Our sexy desert camp

We’d met only a couple of other tourers on the Baja so far and we were nothing short of pumped to bump into Swiss cyclist Dany the following day – who was on a solo tour from Alaska to Panama. The cheerful and chiseled dude was about as stereotypically Swiss as you could get – being fit, tanned and best of all, a ski instructor. He was also equally stoked to meet some fellow cyclists and so we pushed off together towards Mulege, camping for free in the backyard of a restaurant (run by an incredibly drunk chef) at Guerrero Negro and two days later at San Ignancio’s Casa De Ciclistas (house of cyclists).

Camped at the restaurant near Guerrero Negro. Luckily for us the chef had sobered up by morning.

The desert stretch had proved to be hot and uninspiring on a highway that – while fairly quiet – was utterly terrifying at times thanks to the complete lack of shoulder – particularly when a bus approached from behind and a truck approached from the front. It was the kind of Mexican standoff we were destined to lose and after being driven off the edge of the road on two occasions we learned to monitor the traffic at all times and “take the lane” when we were in danger of being bulldozed.

Four days, 300km and two very stiff necks later we reached laid-back Mulege and decided to appease our exhaustion in the best way possible – with a hotel room and a greasy dinner.

The charming little town sat on a stunning river that flowed gently into the nearby sea and we greedily soaked up the quaint eateries and relaxed vibe while taking short and easy walks around town. One day off turned into two and then three in which time we farewelled Dany, re-discovered the joys of fish tacos and perfected the art of siesta.

Magical Mulege.

Fabulous fish tacos

While it was easy to blame laid-back Mulege on my lack of motivation the truth was I was beginning to lose my will to pedal the remainder of the Baja. Even though the beautiful beaches of Bahia Concepcion lay just 20km to the south east I wanted to be in La Paz and then Mazatlan and more than anything, I wanted mountains.

With the energy and grace of arthritic sloths we eventually carried on, making it 25km to the first beach – Playa Santispac (where we met two of the most wonderful Americans yet – Heidi and Tom from San Diego) and then 25km to yet another beach, El Requeson.

Playa El Requeson. It was pretty much paradise.

We’d hoped Bahia Concepcion would reignite our cycling mojo but instead it’s slow-paced beauty reaffirmed our reluctance to move. Shortly after arriving at Requeson we bumped into Aussie/American couple Sean and Nikki who were not only driving their RV down to Panama but happy to enable our procrastination. We hung out for a day with the happy-go-lucky pair and when the opportunity came to drive back to Mulege for a beer run with a young French couple Scott asked to go with them and grab some food. On a whim, he’d taken the phone in the off chance that he’d have a message from Nami, Yohan and little Yuna (the Japanese/French family we’d met in Utah and travelled with until Ensenada). We knew that Yohan had returned from France, where he’d undergone surgery on his snapped clavicle, and we also knew they planned on taking a bus from Ensenada to Mulege as Yohan wasn’t yet able to cycle.

Our campsite at Playa El Requeson

Two hours later, armed with chips, avocados, bread and water, Scott brought the news. He’d bumped into the family just near the market as they’d arrived that very morning.

We wanted nothing more than to see them again but doing so would mean cycling back to Mulege and then spending a week at the campground before Yohan was ready to cycle again. In the end, however, it was a no brainer – we had to go back.

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FOR the past six months countless well meaning Americans had warned us against cycling to Mexico.

And they weren’t without reason.

In 2017 alone almost 30,000 people were murdered as a result of suspected drug cartel violence. To coincide with those grizzly statistics US State Dept travel advisories had placed five Mexican states on the Do Not Travel list (including Guerrero, Michoacan, Colima, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas). And to top it all off some particularly harrowing stories had emerged in the past year including the gruesome murders of two bike travellers in Chiapas – a southern state bordering Guatemala.

For some, travelling to Mexico was about as dangerous as a casual weekend jaunt to Yemen. We were aware of the dangers (how could you not be) but at the same time we personally knew dozens of cyclists who had pedalled the colourful nation and reported nothing but fabulous people, fantastic food and phenomenal scenery.

As we sat under a shady tree in San Diego’s KOA campground our friend Didier (raised in the States to a Mexican mum and Belgian dad) drove home the point.

Didier (who we first met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan) poses with Scott in San Diego

The cyclist and climber had both lived and travelled in Mexico (cycling from Europe to India and Thailand and then from Argentina to back home) and warned that the dangers in Central and even South America were very very real.

“In Mexico, Central America and even Colombia, Ecuador and Peru you’ll hear constant stories of muggings, armed hold ups and violence but unlike most travel warnings they didn’t just happen to a friend of a friend of a friend… they happened to people you know personally,” he said.

“I’m telling you… it’s sketchy down there.”

As we cleaned up our bikes, replaced the pump on our stove and prepared to farewell the first world as we knew it, it was hard not to feel a knot of fear tighten in our guts.

Was it the long list of horror stories that made our intestines shrivel with apprehension? Or perhaps it was the fact we’d been in the pampered first world for so long now – enjoying pristine tap water, free refills and manicured highways – that caused a feeling of unease.

But as we glanced around the Disney-esque camp ground with its two swimming pools and posh RVs I felt relief to be leaving.

I’d both loved and loathed the USA. I’d fallen head over heels with the mountains, fresh air and wide open spaces. I’d loved the kind-hearted and fabulous people we’d met and the sheer scope of  landscapes that ranged from high desert to tundra.

The stunning Dalton Highway in Alaska remained a highlight of our entire world cycle.

At the same time I’d felt strangely suffocated. America to me had felt anything but the land of hopes and dreams. I’d met people so stifled by fear they carried a loaded gun on them at all times and believed at any moment the government could and would overthrow them. I’d met families with good jobs who were a month away from poverty at any given time because of the incredible cost of health insurance and the overwhelming urge to keep up with the Joneses and have a nice car, a nice house and impressive hobbies.

All in all I’d never seen so many homeless and so many mentally ill people and I’d never met (in my entire life) so many terribly afraid people. That said I’d also met some of the most generous, open-minded souls of our entire trip and this bizarre contrast left me feeling as though the States, if anything, was a country of extremes.

It would be naive bordering on stupid to say Australia didn’t share many of the same contrasts but all in all one four letter word seemed to separate the “Land of the Free” with every other we’d ever cycled through.

Guns.

Don’t get me wrong, we met countless Americans who hated them. But we also met a bucket load that seemed to worship them.

Like most countries, I knew I’d end up looking back on the States fondly (no doubt when I was doubled over a putrid loo with gastro in some Central American backwater) but nevertheless it was time to go.

And so we loaded up our bikes, popped the world’s largest international land border into Google Maps (San Ysidro) and pedalled south with Nami, Yuna and a young Canadian bloke who was cycling the Baja in tow.

The ride to Mexico was roughly 20km and as we neared the border and looked out to the mass of chaos that was Tijuana I said a private goodbye to the English speaking world and the land of $1 million RVs, wide roads, bicycle lanes and drive through pharmacies.

Bienvenidos Mexico!!

The border was ridiculously easy and after pushing our bikes into the pedestrian lane we joined the short “extranajeros” queue, paid the equivalent of about $40 AUD and were stamped into Mexico for six months.

Two minutes later we were breathing the gritty, smoky air of Tijuana and wondering where the bloody hell we’d just walked into.

Sick-looking dogs and humans rummaged through the dirt right next to the border, a toothless old man was hawking tamales from a grimy trailer and mounds of stinking rubbish rotted away next to the bustling main road.

The culture shock was so strong it felt like a leaden coat and we set off uneasily on our bikes in the wrong direction before realising our mistake and pedalling red faced back in the other.

A friendly looking bloke hawking religion at the crossing had suggested we take the main road directly along the border to the coast before hanging a left and cycling straight for Rosarito but what he’d forgotten to mention was the road was a shoulder-less and terrifying deathtrap filled with kamikaze drivers.

A sign rather optimistically announced the speed limit as 60km per hour but a torrent of cars, buses, pick ups and trucks whizzed by at break neck speeds as we crawled out of the city on what was clearly hell’s highway.

The shoulder finally widens on the outskirts of Tijuana.

I hadn’t been this terrified by traffic since Istanbul, Turkey but with an enormous barrier separating the highway from the city we were committed to riding the death road until we reached the coast.

Two terrifying hours later the ocean appeared and after quickly getting lost in a maze of streets we were rescued by Julian –  a local cyclist and all round good guy who insisted on escorting us by bike to Rosarito via the 1D toll road.

The 1D was indeed a dream and we pedalled past quiet beaches and small villages until sprawling Rosarito came into view. We said farewell to our new amigo and headed towards a cheap airbnb feeling exhausted, elated, overwhelmed and quietly stunned.

This guy! The awesome and incredible helpful Julian.

Every new country tends to require a period of adjustment and so for two days we lounged around Rosarito, alarming locals with our horrific Spanish, eating tacos and meandering through the local supermarkets.

Nami had decided to cycle with us to Ensenada (where she would then set up camp with Yuna and wait for Yohan to return – post-op – from France) and so from Rosarito we eventually continued further south to what is Baja California’s third biggest city – taking two fairly easy and peaceful days to do it.

Nami powering up a dirt climb with little Yuna in the trailer – en route to Ensenada

The heaving port town was full of life, colour and surprisingly good coffee and so for a week we kicked back and relaxed (staying for the first two nights at a Warmshowers house) and the final five or so at an AirBnB. We were loathe to leave Nami and Yuna and so it was easy to keep delaying our departing date. But as bad as we felt for leaving our little cycling family (they would ultimately have to spend another three weeks in Ensenada waiting for Yohan) we had to keep moving. Quite simply, our funds and the delicate timing of future seasons wouldn’t allow it.

Laid-back Ensenada

Scott hooks into tacos in Ensenada

A teary farewell, a final luxurious breakfast and a last minute dash to the supermarket meant we didn’t manage to escape the traffic chaos of Ensenada until well after lunch time on a Sunday.

The aim was to make it to Ojos Negroes – a tiny village perched just 44km or so from the city – which would have been a pitiful distance if it weren’t for the 1000 metres of elevation we’d also have to tackle.

Just after 3pm a man pulled over his car and jumped out for a rapid fire chat in Spanish. We stared at him with open mouths before explaining that our Spanish was poor and could he please repeat – more slowly. So he indulged us by saying it again, at the same speed, but louder, while waving his hands wildly for emphasis. Between his frustrated rantings we gathered he was trying to invite us to his house while simultaneously warning us that Mexico was “muy peligroso” (very dangerous). We must have still looked confused because he reached for his pocket knife, flicked it open in his best “Crocodile Dundee” impersonation before waving it madly in our now alarmed looking faces to drive the point home.

Despite his energetic mime efforts we decided to turn down his request for accomodation and keep pedalling.

By time we reached Ojos Negroes it was dusk and our legs felt as though they’d been flogged with a piñata bat for about six hours. We beelined straight to the village hotel where one of the sweetest ladies I’d ever met gave us an enormous room for 300 pesos (roughly $20 AUD).

Nothing beats a comfy bed after a hard slog uphill!

From Ojos Negroes the road continued gently uphill for another 30km and the next day we pushed out 85km to make it to Lazaro Cardenas – an equally tiny village with the usual smattering of pint-sized grocery stores (called tiendas) rustic restaurants (serving an assortment of meat with beans and tortillas) and dirt roads.

Most restaurants plated up a generous portion of the aforementioned trio for about 60 – 80 pesos (around $4 – $6 AUD) and with the US and its high prices still fresh in our minds we were falling over ourselves to “make it rain” and scoff down as many bean meals and taco plates as possible.

Despite a steady diet of carbs on carbs the final day’s ride to the outskirts of San Felipe was tough. For 122km we battled a relentless head wind and far more uphill than Google Maps promised but the reward was some seriously breathtaking scenes of vast cactus forests and gorgeous desert.

The Baja desert!

Cactus – looks cuddly… but isn’t!

It was on the final 50km that I happened to look down on the road and see something I’d been dreading since first researching Baja California.

It was big, it was hairy and it had far too many legs (eight to be exact) than I was comfortable with.

I let out a large gurgling screech that sounded like a turkey being strangled before realising that the big tarantula was dead. That didn’t stop me cycling like a twitchy meth addict for the rest of the evening.

The following morning we pushed out the final 10km to Gringo-packed San Felipe and as we neared the seaside hub a familiar looking Toyota Hilux overtook us before stopping just ahead. Inside were Laura and Danny – two fantastic Argentinians we’d met more than a year ago in a tiny one-horse jade town in northern British Columbia – Canada.

Delicious fish tacos!

The couple had driven from Ushuaia to Alaska and were now spending some time moseying about Mexico before embarking on a bike trip of their own and so we spent the day swapping stories and chowing down tacos before deciding to camp together that night at a nearby hotel.

Later that evening, as we relaxed over a cup of tea while being serenaded by the sounds of motorbikes and roosters it seemed as though the States, fearful stories of drug cartels and even San Diego were a thousand light years away.

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Forrest Gump eat your heart out! We pedalled roughly 120km out of our way to get this shot.

SOME blogs are easier to write than others.

Sometimes just too bloody much happens while nothing happens at all.

You see it doesn’t help that I’m writing this blog from Mexico, and it really doesn’t help that my last post was in Monument Valley, Utah.

I guess I’ve been a little distracted.

And here’s why:

The battle to leave Southern Utah

Spending almost four days in Monument Valley was a mistake. First things first it was pricey, secondly it was mildly depressing and thirdly – aside from dodging RVs while re-enacting that one scene from Forrest Gump – there wasn’t a lot to do.

And so after three days too many we finally cycled out of the Navajo Nation’s one cash cow before again cycling north to again get west to finally, finally turn bloody south!

It was during the ride towards the indecently steep Moki Dugway (a five kilometre gravel road etched into a cliff that looked like a toddler’s drawing of a boa constrictor) that I had a blinding realisation.

The Moki Dugway – a five km stretch of insane switchbacks that took roughly 1.5 hours to cycle

I was itching to leave Utah – maybe itching to leave the States. I wanted the chaos I’d simultaneously loved and loathed in Asia. I wanted street food, bad roads and worse wifi (actually it couldn’t get worse than Southern Utah). I wanted cheap hotels and the kind of daily language barrier battles that sparked anxiety-induced back sweats but an expert proficiency in charades.

I wanted Mexico – but we still had over 2000km left in the States. Shit.

There was nothing for it but to carry on and the next day we cycled into Natural Bridges National Monument and a couple of days after that we cycled back out with a retired German school teacher in tow.

Matter of fact and incredibly organised Elmar was pedalling his steel beast around the States and after agreeing to team up for a few days we hit the 80km rollercoaster road to Hite expecting a sweet mostly down hill ride that instead turned into a bitter battle against the sun and wind.

The plan was to camp at the Hite river just a few kilometres off the main road and according to the Natural Bridges Visitors Centre we’d not only find water there, but a little gas station with some limited food and drinks.

As the mid afternoon sun beat down just the thought of an ice cold beverage kept me turning the pedals up each climb and when we reached the tiny gas station I threw my bike up against a bin and bolted to the entrance with the intention of buying as many iced teas as my USD stash would allow.

Sarah celebrates finishing the last climb en route to Hite

But the shop was closed with a little sign on the entrance announcing opening hours were 10am – 4pm. I looked at my watch, it was 4.05pm.

Scott, who had walked up behind me, opened his mouth to say something but took one look at my face and backed away slowly.

He was just about ready to reach for his bear spray when something snapped inside me and a torrent of abuse flooded out.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck you Utah!” I screeched.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuk yoooouuuuuuuuuuu and your stupid opening hours you lazy bastards!”

I spun around looking for a victim but Scott had fled leaving me with just a few tumbleweeds and an alarmed looking snake that had been curled up near the toilet door.

So I kicked the gas station walls a few times and then plonked myself in the only patch of shade I could find and sipped on bath warm water in an attempt to cool off.

Camping at sizzling hot Hite “River”. Actually 80 per cent of the river had dried up several years earlier!

It was too hot to sleep that night and the next morning we scoffed down a basic breakfast before forcing our weary bodies back on the bikes and uphill to Hanksville and its cheap little campground.

Hot gusts ripped through the town the next morning and while Elmar was happy to cycle on we weren’t so keen. So we farewelled our German friend and spent the day chasing shade around the little tent field and sipping coffee.

The wind wasn’t going to let us off so easy however and for the next two days we battled gusts of up to 80km per hour while facing every cyclist’s worst nightmare – pedalling downhill in granny gear.

Sarah poses at the entrance of Capital Reef National Park, which is sandwiched between Hanksville and Torrey.

By time we reached the little adventure town of Torrey Scott had saddle sores on his arse, our lips were bleeding and our tempers were frayed. While bitching over the prices in the little grocery store a cheerful looking man strolled up to us and explained he had just opened up an e-bike rental in town before offering us a place to stay for the night and a hot shower.

We slept like babies in Matt’s spare room that night and the next morning we pedalled out of town towards the Boulder Mountain pass on the famous Scenic Byway 12 feeling like kings.

As we cycled slowly up the 40km climb the desert disappeared in lieu of lush trees that were turning from a rich green to a vibrant, sparkling yellow.

Green – how we missed it!! The winding mountain pass that takes you over Boulder Mountain is nothing short of stunning.

Winter was coming – and we were finally high enough to see it.

With each pedal stroke my mood rose and by time we’d reached the summit I was grinning from ear to ear.

The next morning we flew downhill to the weird little town of Boulder and immediately back uphill again to the spectacular stretch of road that runs near Hells Backbone.

For 15km the road snaked along a narrow spine sandwiched between epic canyons that dropped down hundreds of feet.

Looking out over Hells Backbone!

Holy Hell’s Backbone! What a view!

It was hard not to stop every 100 metres to take photos and gape at what was one of the most phenomenal views we’d ever seen from the back of the bikes.

By early afternoon we’d made it to the Calf Canyon campground (where we’d hoped to stock up on water) but after a few minutes a lovely Californian couple had invited us to share their site and a camp dinner.

From Calf Creek campground the road rose steeply towards Escalante and as we rolled into the main street a colourful looking burger joint caught our eye and we stopped to drool and play our favourite fantasy game of: “If you could order anything on the menu what would you get?”

Scott was reeling off a supersized fantasy meal when a friendly-looking woman wandered over for a chat. The teacher, traveller and Nicaraguan native insisted on buying us lunch before inviting us back to her home for a cool drink.

She was leaving early the next morning to fly to China and then Tibet and so emptied half the food out of her fridge and cupboards to give to us – insisting that we needed it more than her.

We were blown away.

Feeling high on good vibes we eventually headed back to the main road and as we prepared to hang a right we noticed two fully loaded bikes headed right for us.

It turned out Nami and Yohan (from Japan and France) were also heading for Argentina and they were doing it with their little three year old Yuna in tow (perched in a trailer behind dad).

It was the first time we’d met pan American tourers in almost a year and I nearly wet my pants in excitement. Bike travellers are a little like long lost family and we instantly clicked with the fabulous trio – quickly swapping stories before deciding to camp together that night at a shared site in town.

Nami and Yohan convinced us to stay another day in Escalante so that we could cycle for 20km along a hot and dusty washboard road filled with sand and gravel before hiking for four hours along a muddy river bed to some “nearby” slot canyons.

Hiking in the heat to slot canyons near Escalante with our fabulous new cycling buddies.

Yuna and Scott prepare to enter the slot canyons

By 6pm we were finally back at the campground and I was just beginning to review my friendship with the sadist couple when Yohan announced he’d spent some time as a baker in France. All was forgiven. Instead of cycling the next day we faffed about the campsite making bread on the whisper lite stove and it was bliss.

From Escalante Scenic Byway 12 continues uphill to Bryce Canyon National Park and it took us a little over a day and a half to reach the tourist hot spot which sits at a chilly 3000 metres.

Bryce is famous for its swathe of red and orange hoodoos that look as though they belong on a Star Wars set and the next morning we jumped on a free shuttle bus to tackle the popular Queens Garden trail combined with the Navajo loop walk which takes about three hours (four if you stop for selfies) and plates up scenes so sexy you’ll wish for about 10 more sets of eyes.

We spent another half a day exploring Bryce with our three new friends, finally hauling ourselves out of the park at mid-afternoon to strike west for Zion National Park.

The next day we managed 80km to the outskirts of Zion National Park – camping in a ditch by the side of the road to celebrate what was to be our final Utah park – but little did we know it would end in tears.

Wild camping just after Bryce – stunning views without the price tag!

Scott laps up the bike lane that runs for a pretty good distance from Bryce towards Zion

The morning started like no other. We woke up, brewed some coffee, scoffed down some tortilla wraps with banana and peanut butter, packed up the tent and climbed onto the bike.

Every park in Utah had proven different and epically scenic in its own special way and after reaching the park entrance it was clear Zion would be no exception. A park ranger warned us there was a tunnel closed to cyclists smack bang in the middle but assured us the ranger there would help us secure a ride through. The tunnel ranger, however, was an embittered woman who’d missed her calling as a morgue attendant and told us to bugger off and find our own way through.

Sarah cycling into beautiful Zion.

After an hour of hitchhiking Nami, Yuna and Yohan managed to score a lift with two blokes in a pickup (who warned them to mind the gun in the back) and another hour later (after countless rejections) a cheerful bloke from a supported bike tour company offered to throw our bikes in the back with the others and ferry us across. The group of middle aged cyclists were a cheery bunch and after many selfies and slaps on the backs they deposited us a kilometre shy of the tunnel on the other side and took off. Soon we were reunited with Nami, Yohan and Yuna and we all took off downhill towards Springdale.

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A not so smart shortcut along the Comb Wash road in Southern Utah

SHORTCUTS make long delays” – JRR Tolkien.

It turns out we’d forgotten this little pearl of wisdom while route planning the road south to Monument Valley. In fact, while packing up to farewell Moab and ride steadily uphill on Highway 191 we forgot more than just the sage advice of Frodo Baggins, but apparently any advice we’d heard at all since cycling into Utah’s hot and unforgiving south.

In short we had decided to take a short cut in the desert on a little used road with no water, virtually no traffic and scarcely any information other than the promising looking elevation profile Google Maps offered. What could go wrong? A lot, apparently.

But let me backtrack.

We’d decided to pedal south to the Arizona border in order to see the famed valley where Forest Gump stopped his epic three year run with a simple “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now” – before backtracking north again to the Natural Bridges National Monument and turning west for the first time since British Colombia, Canada.

Magical Monument Valley

We’d agonised over the detour (the desert was hot, Utah was hard and we really just wanted to get the hell out of dodge) but we’d ultimately decided we couldn’t get within striking distance of Monument Valley without making the two or more day detour to see it. Besides, it would give us a chance to see the Navajo Nation and dip a toe into Arizona before working our way west and then south to Mexico.

The road from Moab snaked uphill for almost 90km to reach a peak of just over 7000 feet at Monticello before roller coasting back down to the desert and over the next three days we suffered into a constant hot headwind. Just one thing kept us going and that was the stunning wild camp sites Utah’s swathe of BLM land plated up each night.

A stunning wild camp on BLM in between Moab and Monticello

Outside the tiny town of Blanding the wind picked up the temperature soared and Scott threw a tantrum that would have made my 18 month year old niece proud. I could scarcely blame him. For all its beauty Utah was proving to be one of the toughest rides of our tour and not just because it was hilly, not just because it was hot and not just because it was a desolate, waterless desert – but because it was all of those at once.

A friendly old bloke at the Blanding Visitors Centre managed to cheer us up and we discovered the San Juan region was rich in Native American culture and history that spanned the ancient Anasazi race through to Ute and Navajo tribes. It also boasted a horde of gorgeous canyons, buttes, mesas and off road routes.

I revealed my crafty shortcut plan to cycle the tiny Comb Wash between highways 95 and 161 and while our new friend looked a little concerned he mentioned the road should be ok.

So with the tick of approval from a wizened octogenarian we loaded up enough food to survive the apocalypse, filled our two four litre water bladders and pedalled south and then west onto Highway 95. From here on in water would not only be sporadic but sometimes two or more days cycle apart and so we’d planned to cook virtually dry meals and use every drop of precious water to drink.

The stunning road down to Comb Wash along Highway 95

The road bucked and dipped for 30km and by early evening we’d reached the bottom of a red and brown canyon that marked the turn off to Comb Wash road and a free little BLM campsite perched at the start of it.

As we pulled onto the sandy, gravel road a middle aged man camped in a nearby RV called out to us before cycling over on a rusty bike.

“I know the perfect pull in for you to camp at,” he drawled.

“It’s got some shade and everything – you’ll love it,” he exclaimed.

He insisted on showing us the way and we trundled off behind him along a washboard track past picture-perfect flat camp sites complete with picnic tables and drop toilets.

“Umm,” I ventured.

“Does this site you’re taking us to have tables and a toilet as well?”

“Oh yeah,” he insisted without really listening.

Ten minutes later we pulled up next to a tiny pull in surrounded by spiky shrubs and glass. There was no picnic table and no toilet but instead we were treated to a large red ant nest sitting smack bang in the middle of the clearing.

“What a bloody idiot,” I muttered angrily as the unhelpful yokel pedalled off into the sunset.

We immediately turned around and cycled back to the pristine site with its table, toilet and uninhibited view of the cliffs doused in early evening light.

What a view! The Comb Wash free BLM camp plates up scenic perfection

As the sun dipped down over the horizon and the day’s heat gave way to a refreshing chill we pondered the day ahead, imagining peaceful dirt roads, gorgeous vistas and definitely no unhelpful idiots.

How wrong we were.

Just after sunrise the next morning we hauled our bikes back onto the gravel track for what promised to be a fairly easy 30km dirt detour before joining up with Highway 163.

According to the friendly old bloke at the Visitors Centre, Comb Wash was literally awash in ancient ruins of the Anasazi – an ancestral Puebloan race that occupied the Four Corners region of the States from roughly 500 to 1300 CE. And so just two kilometres down the sandy road we veered off in search of cliffside pueblos.

One hot and sandy half hour trek later we emerged into an open valley shadowed by great stone walls dotted with a handful of mud brick ruins built precariously into the rock.

Scott poses next to ancient Anasazi pueblos built into a cliff face

We hunted out a winding switchback track that lead right to the ruin ledge and spent an hour exploring the tiny little huts that had stood a considerable test of time. Nearby petroglyphs were carved into the rock wall depicting concentric circles, alien looking humanoid figures and winding rivers.

It was almost 11am before we pried ourselves away and jumped back on the gravel road under a scorching sun.

In a matter of minutes the gravel gave way to hot, dense sand and after wobbling to a stop we were forced to get off and push. It was hot, hard and back breaking work that was about as easy as pushing a loaded wheelbarrow through concrete and after 40 minutes we’d made it just one kilometre.

No one had mentioned anything about sand but another hour and a soul destroying two kilometres later we were still pushing.

Comb Wash road

The heat was almost blinding and our water levels dropped drastically as the hot wind sapped the  moisture from our mouths.

Between the two of us we had about 5 litres of water left which was plenty for an easy 30km gravel ride (we could fill up at Mexican Hat) but nowhere near enough for a 10 hour desert push.

It was just 4km from the camp site that we stopped in frustration and decided to turn back. The road was hot, dangerous and absolutely not bike-able and little as we liked to do it, the only smart option was to turn back and cut our losses.

Just 500 metres later, back in the direction of the camp ground, a large dune buggy roared up behind us and an older couple stopped for a chat.

“We saw you turned around just back there,” the chunky man boomed out to us.

“If you’d just kept going you would have reached the end of the sand soon after,” he claimed.

“Do you mean it’s bike-able after that until the asphalt?” I asked.

“Yep! We were flying along there – it’s a hard surface and you two would be fine, I promise you. I wouldn’t steer you wrong,” he insisted.

Before speeding off the couple gave us a couple of extra cold litres of water and we gratefully guzzled them down before having a quick and sandy conference. If the bloke was right it would mean we’d easily make it out of the Comb Wash in a couple of hours and be in Mexican Hat by mid to late afternoon. If he was wrong, we’d be screwed.

But the man had sounded so confident… surely he wouldn’t recommend a bad road to us in these brutal desert conditions…

And so we turned back around and pushed on.

By 3.30pm we’d made it just 13km having managed to only cycle a pitiful 5km of “hard surface” before impossibly soft sand had us off and pushing.

We’d soldiered on in the hopes the road would get better but while it had plated up just enough to stop us turning back we were getting dangerously hot and our water levels were again dangerously low. I was almost delirious with heat and exhaustion and had just finished spewing out a loud and angry monologue about all the ways I’d like to “beat that old asshole into a pulp” when the unmistakable sound of a dune buggy roared up behind us again.

It was the couple who’d given us a bum steer but this time they’d come to rescue us.

After driving back to the camp ground they’d realised the sand was far worse than their pimped out buggy had lead them to believe and after stewing on it for three hours they’d decided to come back and see if we were still alive.

I was too grateful to be angry and in a Tetras game of the ages we managed to load up our bikes, panniers and selves into the buggy to be ferried back to Highway 95.

The whole way back the old bloke chastised us for not bringing enough water and ranted about having to “save our dumb asses” without seeming to remember his confidence in recommending the bloody road in the first place.

Ruins such as this Anasazi kiva dot Highway 95

The next day I woke up feeling dehydrated, sluggish and bone weary and for the next 10km we climbed slowly uphill to the top of a plateau before turning left onto the 261 for a rollercoaster of a ride to Mexican Hat.

Each mile felt like a triumph and by time we reached the top of the epic Moki Dugway with its three miles of gravel switch backs it was mid-afternoon and the sun was beating down.

The one horse town of Mexican Hat  slunk into view at 4pm and Scott all but sprinted inside the air-conditioned pit stop, emerging 15 minutes later with arms full of Powerades, burritos, Pringles and a fruit cup.

Looking out over the Moki Dugway to the Valley of the Gods

Monument Valley still sat 35 uphill kilometres away and with our wild camping options now limited (you can’t camp outside of official grounds on Navajo Nation land) we weighed up our three options: backtracking towards the Moki Dugway for a BLM camp, forking out $140 USD for a nearby motel room, or pedalling uphill for possibly three or more hours to the Arizona border.

Talk about being sandwiched between a turd toastie and a shit sub. We’d just begun gearing ourselves up for a turd roll feast when a portly Navajo man walked out of the gas station and asked us where we were headed before offering us a ride to Monument Valley.

Delighted at our luck we threw our bikes in the back of his old pick up truck before throwing ourselves in the back with them.

Our new friend Ron clearly wasn’t bothered about law enforcement and so we hurtled off down the highway perched in the back tray as the sun set on some of the world’d most famous monuments.

Ron had a rustic campsite just out of the village and so invited us to pitch our tent in his dunes for the night.

Scott poses in front of the famed Mitten Buttes

The next morning we trekked to a view of the nearby West and East Mitten Buttes before packing up and cycling into town for our first shower in four days at the Gouldings Campground. Utah’s brutal deserts had nearly undone us but while we lapped up a much needed rest we knew some of the toughest rides still lay ahead.

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