Hi we are Sarah Webb and Scott Daniel-Guiterrez. We attempt to conquer the world by bicycle - from Scotland to Argentina - sharing laughs, stories & tips along the way. We blog about our Cycling adventure around the world and given top travel tips.
The colourful city of Guanajuato
Donde Vienen? Son Americanos?
Shouts followed us down the dirt track as we headed south from the traveller hot spot of Guanajuato into the rustic farmlands that covered the arse end of the state.
Since leaving the tourist taco trail a couple of days earlier we’d gone from being ignored to literally stopping traffic as excited locals shouted out to us – asking where we were from and if we were Americans.
A secondary road in the backwaters of Guanajuato.
Despite being used to this question it was amazing just how much we manage to f@ck up the answer in Spanish. We’d shouted back everything from “You’re all Australian” to “We’re from Argentina” to often astonished looks. But despite the painfully slow language progression things were getting better.
It had been three months since we crossed from San Diego into the chaos that is Tijuana and while we were still stuck firmly in the basics of the language (where is this? What is that? Can I have… etc) we’d somewhat improved.
We’d also gotten used to Mexican way of life and since crossing the water from the touristic Baja California to the massive mainland we’d fallen head over heels in love with this loud, colourful and delicious country.
You’re never far from food, people or colourful chaos in Mexico
Yes, it could be frustrating and at times we were reminded painfully of China (no one seemed able to queue, locals seemed to enjoy setting off fireworks or firing up a mobile disco at 3am and the lack of etiquette when it came to sharing a footpath had driven us to extreme levels of passive aggression) but the good outweighed the bad.
From the sizzling taco stands to the old men shining shoes in the central plaza (no matter how cosmopolitan the city) there was a charm that had worked it’s way under our skin and convinced us that one day, some how, we would move to Mexico.
Tacos de pastor being made with serious love and care in Irapuarto, Guanajuato.
But I digress.
A week earlier we’d managed to pry ourselves from a cosy Airbnb apartment in Leon. Over the Christmas period we hit a major slump (these happen from time to time) and despite our plan to cycle east towards San Luis Potosi we were feeling uninspired.
It didn’t help that we both had horrible head colds and it also didn’t help that as much as we loved Mexico it wasn’t always the easiest country to cycle.
The roads were often jam packed and chaotic with trucks and buses flying past within inches while farting out toxic fumes. And it also didn’t help that the secondary roads were often so atrocious as to be virtually impossible to ride.
All in all we felt ourselves descending into a kind of lethargy that’s tough to crawl out of which meant we made it just 60km from Leon to the world heritage city of Guanajuato before diving back into our pity party again.
Gorgeous Guanajuato and it’s famous “kissing street” … where the houses are so close together you can lean over your balcony and snog the neighbour.
We’d been looking forward to the colourful ciudad of Guanajuato since first crossing the border. It’s about as iconic as Mexican cities get and is a picture of history and vibrancy thanks to the stacked, colourful houses built into the hillside.
The famous stacked colourful houses of Guanajuato
We booked ourselves into the cheapest hostel in town which was a bit smelly, a bit mouldy and still beyond our budget and settled in for a couple of touristy days.
Despite the chaos the city was truly beautiful and we had a blast trotting around the old town, hiking to the iconic monument Al Pipila and meeting some lovely expats who lived in the city.
Guanajuato’s epic central market
Just another charming street in Guanajuato
A couple of elderly locals chew the fat in one of the many town squares
But as we prepared to leave the gastro struck and suddenly our short stay turned into a week long sabbatical.
This meant our route would take some re-thinking.
While kicking back in Leon we’d realised that time was truly of the essence in terms of lining up the correct seasons in South America (ie avoiding monsoons) and so we’d bitten the bullet and decided to not only skip Central America, but book a flight for mid February out of Mexico City, direct to Bogota.
We’d agonised over the decision but some cyclist friends (who had pedalled through Central America) ultimately helped us make the choice. They’d warned it was unbearably hot, largely unenjoyable (for cyclists) and honestly “you’re better off spending that time and money in South America”. While we appreciate that travel experiences are subjective sadly money was a crucial factor for us and in the end we decided that it simply wasn’t worth it on this trip.
And so we booked a flight for February 15 direct to Colombia’s capital. The flight with Interjet was just $140USD each plus $30 for the bike (flight options got incredibly more expensive in Central America).
But with a cold and then gastro chewing up what precious time we had left in Mexico we realised our plan to pedal east to San Luis Potosi and then south might not be the best.
And so we beelined south to Michoacan.
It meant skipping all of Oaxaca and Chiapas (two states we’d really looked forward to) but that would have to wait for another time.
On a hot and dusty day we beelined out of wobbly and cobbly Guanajuato on a “secondary road” on the suggestion of Google Maps.
When Google maps says yes but it probably should have said no.
It promised to be an easy 50km to the strawberry capital of Irapuarto but after 10km our slightly bumpy road turned into gravel and then mud before ending in the middle of a ramshackle village in front of a pretty fast flowing river.
And so we battled back through the mud and gravel to another town and then another dirt track which ended in a river we could at least walk across.
What should have been a short ride took six hours and served us a stern reminder that Google Maps can’t be trusted while Mexico’s secondary roads are often rubbish.
The lovely Felix
Roughly 15km out of Irapuarto the tough day took a turn for the better thanks to a fun local named Felix. We’d been feeling pretty sorry for ourselves (trucks were farting constantly in our faces and the road had turned death defyingly busy) when the cheerful dad pedalled up for a chat. He told us he commuted by bike on this road every day (a 100km round trip!) He was so keen to help us and learn all he could about Australia that he then went 14km out of his way to escort us to a cheap pension in town. Thanks Felix – this is why we cycle tour!
From Irapuarto we continued steadily south towards the gorgeous and historic city of Patzcuarto. It seemed to be burning off season in Michoacan which meant some seriously smoke filled days along a somehow still busy road.
Burning off season in Michoacan made for tough cycling
Cycling into the smoke
Descending towards Patzcuaro
Sarah’s sixth flat tyre in about 30,000km!
But Patzcuaro was worth it.
Themed red and white houses nestled on cobble stoned streets above an enormous lake set the scene for indigenous rich Patzcuaro – a town that sprung up in 1320 AD as part of the Tarascan empire. Unlike many of the cities throughout Mexico (which plate up the classic colonial look) Patzcuaro retains an air and appearance of something much older and as a result it’s incredibly unique and charming.
The town’s also littered with quaint hotels and hostels which Lonely Planet had promised us made bargaining for a cheap price pretty easy. It wasn’t. No-one wanted a bar of our “por favour mas barrato” (please more cheaper) but in the end we scored a pretty basic private room in a completely empty hotel for the quoted rack rate of 300 pesos (about $15 USD).
The impressive Tzintzuntzan Archeological ruins near Patzcuaro
Sarah meanders through the ruins
Meandering the bumpy narrow roads of the town was a treat but yet another spanner seemed to be getting stuck in the works… a spanner that had followed me since Mazatlan.
Two months ago – when first landing on the mainland of Mexico, I’d managed to injure my hamstring while carrying all panniers at once up a flight of stairs like a right muppet. Fobbing it off as a little muscle strain I’d sufficiently ignored it (it didn’t hurt too much while cycling) and then soldiered on despite it hurting after walking merely 100 metres consecutively.
By time we reached Patzcuaro I was concerned enough to consider seeing a doctor, especially considering the quite brutal climbing from 2000m to 4700m that lay ahead of us.
In the interim I decided to do some deep yoga stretching (that fixes everything right?). Wrong.
The pain got infinitely worse and my mood plummeted. I felt weak and out of sorts. Simple tasks become ridiculously difficult with often hilarious results.
One night, in our cheap and cheerful pension, I wobbled out into the reception area to merely fill up my steel water bottle. On the way I dropped it loudly on the tiles scaring the sh#t out of the poor receptionist and then while filling up the bottle I managed to spill about half a litre all over the floor. I was still muttering a stream of “perdons” when I bent over to pick up the bottle and let out a loud fart.
I gave up apologising and waddled quickly back to the room where Scott was doubled over laughing having heard the whole thing go down.
The dry and barren road to Morelia
We left Patzcuaro early in the morning and cycled the slow rollercoaster road amid heavy traffic to Morelia. The plan was to stay a couple of days with Warmshowers host Carlos but two things happened. The second day I woke up I could scarcely walk and Scott had gastro (again).
Our Warmshowers host Carlos!
There was nothing for it but to go to the doctor and get my problem sorted.
The doctor cost just a few dollars to see and after managing to communicate that I had a hamstring injury she told me to help the recovery process by putting my food in hot water every day.
She also jabbed my bum with a steroid injection.
Morelia’s colonial heart
We decided to take matters further and visit a physio. This time we got a bright young professional who was so thorough we spent two hours in his clinic. He confirmed I had a hamstring tear and warned that it would only get worse if I didn’t rest it for at least a solid two weeks (preferably a month).
Cycle touring, he said, was out.
And so with just three weeks left on the Mexico cloak we decided to ditch the bikes, pick up the backpacks and rejoin the tourist taco trail on the gringo steed of choice – a bus.
Cycling into the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango, Mexico
IN 1993 the leader of a multi-billion dollar drug empire was brought to his knees during a spectacular arrest at his Guatemalan bolt hole. Being a particularly resourceful drug boss, El Chapo managed to escape from his Mexican prison and return to the Sinaloan Cartel throne. In 2014 he was re-arrested at a fancy hotel in the resort city of Mazatlan. The crafty king of escapes manage to again ferret his way out through tunnels but now, finally, as I type he’s undergoing one of the biggest trials of our times in the States (the DEA clearly didn’t trust the Mexicans to keep “Shorty” out of those damn tunnels again).
El Chapo’s rise to infamy from a dusty Sinaloan village is one of Mexico’s most well known stories and so with thoughts of terrifying cartel yarns playing on repeat in our heads we stepped off the ferry on a balmy morning in none other than Mazatlan wondering exactly what we were in for.
Mazatlan’s gorgeous waterfront
Would coca bosses cruise down the streets in black Chryslers? Would we fall asleep to the sound of gun fire? Would we wind up with a pistol in our face down some side alley?
The rational side of my brain said “no, stop watching ‘Narcos Mexico’ Sarah”! But constant warnings, tales of grizzly hangings under bridges and negative rhetoric from the States (not to mention Netflix) had had their effect. Never before had we felt so apprehensive about a region. Never before had we carefully gone through our wallets and separated cards, while hiding others in the hopes that were a gun shoved in our face we wouldn’t lose everything.
I’d convinced myself we were hoping for the best while preparing for the worst but the truth was fear’s barbs had burrowed deep.
Despite the fear it felt hard to be afraid in Mazatlan. The sunny, coastal hot spot for elderly Americans was incredibly touristy and while it was instantly likeable there was still that sense (that we’d constantly felt throughout the Baja) that we were yet to experience real Mexico.
Nevertheless we liked Mazatlan enough to stay for a few days but eventually it was time to leave its bustling central market, tasty ceviche stands and oppressive humidity and strike directly east for the Sierra Madre Occidental.
Euros was calling. And so was the devil.
Yohan, Nami (and little Yuna) threw Sarah a birthday dinner before leaving – including fried chicken and cheesecake! Yum!
Weaving our way out of the hustle and bustle was surprisingly easy and by late morning the bulk of traffic had veered off to “La Cuenta” – the toll road. This impressive feat of engineering cost an estimated $2 billion dollars (USD) and boasts 115 bridges (eight over 300 metres high) and 63 high altitude tunnels making the climb from sea level to 2800 metres considerably easier for the many trucks, buses and cars travelling to Durango.
But we weren’t looking for easy. We were looking for beautiful. And while it was tempting to shave a few thousand metres of elevation off our route (we’d be climbing about 1000 metres every day for the next week on the “free” road) we’d take epic views and quiet roads every day over heavy traffic.
Scott nears the outskirts of Concordia and gets his first glimpse of the nearby mountains
We reached the colonial Concordia in the early afternoon feeling hot and headachey. The humidity had drenched us to the point that every inch of our clothing was covered in salt lines and after snapping a few tourist pics of the town square we dived into the shade of a cheap hotel room.
The picturesque centre of Concordia, which also marks the start of the tough climb into the Sierra Madre Occidental.
The road rose steadily from Concordia the following day and as the forest thickened the cars thinned out leaving us on a green and peaceful mountain road that snaked its way into the heart of the Sierra Madre.
By 4.30pm we’d climbed almost a 1000 vertical metres, seeing little but rugged tree-filled landscapes and tiny, run-down villages filled with aggressive dogs, scraggy looking chickens and wary looking men.
The long slog into the mountains
The reserved villagers didn’t help our nerves and when we reached yet another dilapidated hamlet I merely wanted to stock up on water at the shack cum corner store before pedalling quickly out of “town” to find a quiet camp spot. But as we hauled our bikes over to the shop our escape was foiled. A fancy looking car pulled in and a larger than life bloke with a walrus moustache jumped out while booming at us to come over and introduce ourselves. He spoke rapid fire Spanish with the force of a mega phone and after some wild gesturing we realised he was offering us his village to camp in for the night.”
“I am the mayor here,” he said in Spanish, before pointing to a house up the road and insisting we pitch the tent there.
He then jumped back in his fancy car and hurtled off down a dirt side road to his ranch.
And so an hour later our house was pitched on a bed of cracked concrete as we cooked a pot of rice and veggies marvelling at the generosity of señor walrus.
Our rustic camp in the middle of a tiny village.
The next day the road rose another 1200 metres over 30km, looking like a four-year-old’s drawing of a snake on the map. After a tough first two hours we fell fallen into the pattern of slowly weaving our way around the side of a mountain, before plunging down into a rustic little village and then clawing our way back up again via a series of switchbacks.
Sarah pedals slowly up into the mountains
Lunch was spent in the almost bustling hamlet where we feasted on gorditas (which translates to fatties and consists of two chubby tortillas filled with a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies).
As we scoffed down our fatties a pick up truck loaded with men carrying pretty hardcore looking assault rifles drove up and down the street before heading up into the mountains. No one looked bothered by the spectacle and so we tried to act all cool about it but as Scott pointed out “you don’t go hunting with AK47s do you”?
Well maybe you do? But not the kind of hunting we were thinking of.
A view of one of the Cuota’s many bridges. We could often see this nearby toll road (it was usually beneath us).
After lunch the the scenery was nothing short of breath taking and we crossed the Tropic of Cancer before diving off the road into a forest cleaning that stretched out to the edge of a dramatic cliff overlooking the mountains. We pitched the tent on a flat patch of pine needles and threw on our jackets before soaking up the view. We were tired, cold but nothing short of stoked to be out of the desert and back in jaw-dropping mountains.
Hello Tropic of Cancer – we’ll be seeing you again undoubtedly on this winding road!
Nothing beats a picture perfect forest camp
Where the air was thinner, the views more dramatic and the weather wilder the gap between life and death seemed to narrow.
Ironically, it made you feel more alive.
We trundled easily into the village of El Palmito the following day and after a late breakfast feast on gorditas we decided to take the rest of the day off. The air was frigid and infused with the smell of woodsmoke from nearby fire places and the cheap as chips hotel offered a big room for 250 pesos. Sure it came with walls smeared in grey boogers and a lukewarm shower but for that price you couldn’t complain.
In between the tiny villages this was the view!
At first glance, El Palmito had seemed like a nothing town filled with sleepy characters but as we lunched on gorditas later that day we noticed something odd about the locals. There were small groups of youngish men in balaclavas armed with black assault rifles. They either walked through the village or rode their motorbikes in a way that made you feel as though they were waiting for something.
Again the locals didn’t look bothered but it seemed… odd.
Four kilometres out of El Palmito we farewelled Sinaloa and it’s shady cartel characters and entered the state of Durango. Despite climbing roughly another 1200 metres over 35km it was one of the most beautiful days of cycling we’d had in a long time. Autumn hues rained gold on the forests while the mountains rippled out in spectacular form from the winding road, dubbed El Spinoza del Diablo (the Devil’s Spine).
Nothing but great views and minimal traffic! Perfect!
Near the top of yet another pass we’d pulled over to take pics when a small sedan swerved in and two well dressed young men got out. In broken English and Spanish they asked us where we were going and where we were from before explaining that they were taking mezcal from Zacatecas down to Mazatlan to sell. One of the men then disappeared into his car before coming back with a big bottle of the said mezcal, offering it up as a “souvenir”. It was such a kind and selfless gesture and we gave them big hugs before waving them off.
Our generous new friend and the bottle of Mezcal!
Ah Espinoza Del Diablo!
Before leaving they’d said in English: “Welcome to Mexico, this is your home.”
As we continued pedalling up the mountain I reflected on our past two months in Mexico. We’d never felt unsafe, we’d never been in any danger and any meaningful encounters with locals had resulted in us being given food, good cheer or in this case, expensive liquor.
The only bad vibes or feelings had come from us and our preconceived ideas on this diverse nation.
That night we camped just a couple of kilometres from a tiny logging town in a peaceful patch of forest at 2500 metres and as we packed up the frosty tent the next morning an old gaucho wandered into the cleaning with a handful of dogs. We were both surprised to see each other but he merely tipped his head and commented: “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it,” before trundling on.
Our peaceful campsite
For two days we climbed again to the logging hamlet of La Ciudad and then on through the final breathtaking climbs of the Sierra Madre to the working class town of El Salto.
Perched at 2500 metres El Salto is one of the colder Mexican towns and with little to offer tourists it seemed to..
Sunset over the Bahia Concepcion in Baja California Sur
“WELCOME to the Baja, ain’t she beautiful!”
Waving his arms around like a proud father Bob leaned out of the pricy restaurant and shook our hands before again welcoming us to his little town.
“You’ll just love it here!” He slurred. “You enjoy yourselves now.”
We’d scarcely been back in Mulege for three hours and already a shit-faced, retired American who’d overindulged in 2-4-1 cocktails was waving about his proverbial keys to the city.
Keys he’d apparently earned after buying a timeshare in a “cheap” condo in a gated gringo community that was about as Mexican as Taco Bell.
Don’t get me wrong, every English speaking country has their own version of the “Ugly American Expat” (you can find Australia’s littered throughout South East Asia) but the Bob’s of the Baja were beginning to grate.
Maybe it was the fact they seemed so heavily concentrated (along with their Canadian compadres) throughout the tiny and narrow Mexican peninsula. Maybe it was the fact that at best they were an embarrassing representation of the English speaking tourist and at worst responsible for the slow cultural decimation of the region.
Either way it was high time to leave.
But not without Yohan, Nami and little Yuna.
The fabulous cycling family Yuna, Yohan and Nami. And yep that bread was cooked on the camp stove!
Despite being accosted by a drunk gringo we were thrilled to be back in Mulege for the long awaited reunion of our favourite Japanese/French cycling family. Following his clavicle surgery, Yohan was still unable to cycle for another week and so we happily wiled away the days in Mulege’s leafy campground, baking bread together on the camp stove, chewing the fat with a host of other cyclists who pedalled through and planning our Baja escape.
Hanging out in Mulege
Roughly 490km lay between us and our final Baja destination – the seaside city of La Paz – and on a hot and humid “winter’s” day we finally began to again pedal south but this time as a big cycling family.
Revisiting Bahia Concepcion and its pristine beaches was a treat – even if the first campground was packed to the rafters with Bobs. We cycled a slow and hot 36km to El Coyote and an even slower 15km to the second beach – El Requeson – where a Mexican family rained beer, sodas and chips on us.
Camping at El Requeson (for the second time) with Nami, Yohan and Yuna
From the laid back beaches roughly 90km of desert lay between us and the gringo hot spot of Loreto and so we took two days to get there, wild camping overnight in a cactus forest.
Loreto proved to be touristy for a reason. It was charming, colourful and packed with delicious eateries, mobile bakeries and some of the best seafood we’d eaten in our lives. Even better was a campground located in the city that charged just 80 pesos a person while boasting a phenomenally good hot shower, undercover eating area and fairly decent wifi.
We were lethargic enough and enchanted enough to want a day off but when it came time to leave I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d slept horribly the past few nights (even the sleepiest of Baja towns seemed to come alive at 2pm with drag racing, car alarms, fireworks and disco music) but it was more than that. I just wasn’t excited about the final 360km. Nami, Yohan and Yuna set off and we promised to catch them but we wound up staying two days more, finally hauling ourselves onto the bike with as much enthusiasm as Garfield on a Monday.
We cycled scarcely 30km, wild camping near a beach, but managed another 90 the next day up a steep climb and through the windy, hot desert to the ranching town of Ciudad Insurgentes.
En route to Ciudad Insurgentes we came across this deceases little guy.
Getting onto the bike the next day was tough and by late morning we’d reached the last town before La Paz – Ciudad Constitution. We knew buses ran from here to our coastal destination and while a niggling voice at the back of our heads told us to just get on with it we managed to gag it and instead took a bus. We’d managed more than 100km of the Baja and while it was a crying shame to skip the last 240km of dry, dusty desert on a narrow road (read last sentence sarcastically) we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pedal it. We were done.
Hello La Paz!
Back in Prudhoe Bay Alaska we’d vowed to pedal as much of the road south to Argentina as possible but we’d soon come to realise that putting those kinds of pressures and restrictions on ourselves simply wasn’t what our trip was about. It was our time and our money and we wanted to above all enjoy ourselves and enjoy the road we cycled.
We’d continue to pedal the vast majority of the road ahead but we no longer felt the need to cycle for the sake of cycling – especially when the scenic rewards were few, the trucks were many and the heat was cranked to “hell”.
In the end taking the bus was incredibly painless, quick and easy. The bikes were loaded in a few minutes for no extra charge and we arrived in La Paz just three hours later via air-conditioned comfort while looking out smugly at the desolate road whizzing by.
Celebrating Yohan’s birthday at a great little Japanese restaurant in La Paz.
From the bus station it was a couple of easy kilometres to the cheap and cheerful Pension California where we forked out 400 pesos for a shared room with Nami, Yohan and Yuna (who arrived a day later slightly worse for wear having suffered through the final dismal 200km).
They’d sworn loudly at us when we confessed to taking the bus and we all had a good laugh before feeling an overwhelming relief to be done with stage one of our Mexican ride.
The cheap and quirky Pension California
La Paz, which means peace, was an easy going and likeable hub filled to the brim with crispy fish taco stands, cosmopolitan cafes and an impressive and glitzy malecon (waterfront).
One couldn’t get this close to the whale shark migration and not see the whale shark migration and so we all booked a tour and spent a couple of hours snorkelling around the giant and placid spotty fish.
Feeding time! Luckily for us we were told to steer well clear of her mouth
It was a brilliant end but it didn’t change our overall impressions of Mexico’s two most tamed states.
The Baja is essentially one long, hot 1300km (if you go the shortest way) stretch of desert on a narrow road that swings back between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Most of the population live in four cities (Tijuana, Mexicali, La Paz and Ensenada) which means there is little in between aside from cactus forests, dusty towns and a handful of “bubble” communities stuffed with Bobs living the “Mexican” dream.
Reflecting back on the past month of cycling I thought long and hard about the peninsula. Would I recommend it to other cyclists? Had it been a beautiful stretch of riding? The answer was probably no. There’d been gorgeous pockets undoubtedly. But they were few and far between. It had been more expensive than we’d realised and the road had been at times, utterly unenjoyable.
A barren desert wild camp just 40km from Loreto. Much of the Baja was filled with bush scrub and desert.
That said, it had been a relaxed introduction to Mexico (I guess we can thank the Bobs for that) and I’ve no doubt other cyclists had loved it – especially those that ditched the busy highway 1 and opted for the offload “Baja Divide” route which is better suited to a bike packing set up.
I also had no doubt that part of our ambivalence lay in the fact we’d spent the last four months in the desert and it was well past time for a change.
I wanted mountains. Big, cold, steep, green, gargantuan mountains. I wanted snow and frosty mornings followed by bright days and chilly nights. I wanted to feel the joy of a hot cup of tea and a cosy sleeping bag.
But this desire would come with a price.
It would mean a ferry ride to Mazatlan in Sinaloa, followed by one hell of a steep climb up “the Devil’s Spine” to Durango via the Sierra Madre Occidental. It would mean 7000m of climbing in 300km (the first 6000 would be knocked over in the first 200km.
And it would mean swapping 28 degrees and 90 per cent humidity with highs of 17 and lows of minus five.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Desert Solitude near the entrance of Arches National Park
AFTER almost two months of faffing about, eating bagels and being a world class slob in Salt Lake City I was a little worried I’d lost some biking fitness.
But just a few hours back into the saddle I discovered I’d been wrong.
I hadn’t lost a bit of biking fitness – oh no – I’d lost all of it.
Day one started in the foot hills of the Uintas Mountains just outside Park City where Kendra’s husband Erik had kindly offered to haul us, our bikes and all our kit to save us a soul-destroying 35km uphill slog on a heaving interstate.
Charming highway 40 just outside of Park City
As we wobbled south onto highway 40 my panniers bulged like proverbial love handles and my spandex cycling shorts strained against my gut. Had they always been this tight? Or had the excessive bagel consumption transformed me from a travelling cyclist to a travelling pastry peddler?
In fact why the hell had we bought enough food for the apocalypse? We’d even stuffed an extra three bags of coffee beans in “because we won’t hit a big city for a while” but any caffeine advantage was being offset by the fact we collectively now weighed roughly the same as a young killer whale.
After 1.5 hours and about 30km the road turned inevitably up into the distant mountains and our sluggish pace slowed to a crawl. Trucks and cars zoomed past as the fiery sun beat down and by 2pm it felt as though my quads had been beaten with a baseball bat for several hours.
I was just beginning to feel the onset of heat stroke when dark grey clouds moved in to cover up the sun and the heavens opened to release a torrent of hard, heavy rain. Relief quickly turned to a case of the shivers and as I reached for my Goretex jacket I wondered if Utah’s climate was in a perpetual state of Menopause.
Just two kilometres from the top we packed it in, veered off to the right and set up camp in a national forest park with undercover tables. We’d made it just 50km. There was little to do but pop a couple of ibuprofen, collapse into the tent and hope like hell that tomorrow was at least a bit easier, or at least a little less Menopausal.
Who needs a shower when you have mountain downpours!
Before leaving Salt Lake our plan had been to start cycling each day at about 6.30am in a bid to beat the heat and cover some serious miles before midday. At 9am on our second morning back in action we wobbled out of the campground feeling a bit sheepish and a bit shattered before ascending the final kilometres to the top of the pass and flying down the other side.
Another summit, another proud as punch pose!
While enjoying a sweaty lunch at the barren Fruitland truck stop we looked at the map and noticed a side road that deviated from the 40 before joining up near the small town of Duchesne. It would cut out a big bloody climb that lay ahead and provide some quieter and potentially more scenic cycling on a secondary track (but you know, mostly the first one) and so we took it.
The secondary track turned out to be a well maintained dirt road that weaved through a stunning canyon dotted with the occasional ranch boasting angry redneck signs and impromptu trailer parks.
It never ceased to amaze me that on these quiet country roads (boasting two parts of f$ck all traffic) lived some of the country’s most paranoid and angry (read fearful) land owners sparking me to ponder what would happen if we dared to knock on their door in the event of an emergency.
Just another charming “f#@k off” sign to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.
Ah well, best not to find out… after all, our little can of bear spray was no match for a sun burned yokel with a semi.
It was shortly after Scott had stopped to take a pic of a particularly aggressive no trespassing sign that a gummy farmer in a pick up pulled over for a chat.
“Dat road ahead is in real bad shape,” he warned.
“We’ve had landslides and fires here and you won’t get through,” he insisted.
“What, even on a bicycle?” I asked.
“Yep!” He said.
The farmer then drove off in the exact direction he’d warned us not to cycle and we looked at each in bafflement. If the road was that bad, Scott reasoned, surely it would have been closed.
And so we pedalled on.
After a few kilometres the only thing that changed was the scenery: It got even more beautiful. Striking rock monuments rose out from the valley while the gravel road remained so smooth we were able to fly along at about 18km per hour.
Definitely passable and definitely beautiful!
Another 15km of pristine gravel later the road switched back to asphalt. What the bloody hell had that old bastard been raving on about!?
By late afternoon we’d begun the slow climb out of the canyon when we spied a flat slice of desert that just begged to be camped on and so we pulled off, dodged some red ant nests, and pitched the tent next to a juniper tree.
The sky was so blue and the scenery so magical that we decided to ditch the tent’s rain fly and enjoy a breeze and a view of the stars. I mean, it didn’t rain in the desert anyway right?
Our quiet desert camp next to a juniper tree.
At around 10pm, mere moments from sleep, a vehicle pulled into our wild camp spot and a lone guy got out and proceeded to shine his torch around. He was probably just there to suck down a joint and soak up the serenity but in our heads he was an escaped convict hell bent on killing two Aussies and burying their remains under a juniper tree. For two hours we waited with bated breath for the “serial killer” to bugger off and when he finally did (around midnight) we struggled to fall asleep. In the early hours of the morning my body finally relaxed and I fell into a deep slumber only to wake up suddenly at 4am. Is Scott spraying water on my head? No – it’s bloody raining!
Duchesne turned out to be a small town with a lot of gas stations, a few racist billboards and a library that boasted a lot of Mormon literature. On the way in we met a solo French cyclist and after a quick chat we agreed to share a tent site with her at Starvation State Park about 7km out of town. It seemed wrong to pay for camping in a state that boasted high quantities of stunning Bureau of Land Management (BLM) terrain (which can be camped on for free for up to 14 days) but we were caked in dirt and desperate for a shower.
The next day we waddled out of town at about 9am (so much for an early start) and soon after we were knee deep into a 40km long climb up the 191 highway.
Hot, barren and busy route 191.
It was hot – bloody hot – and by 1pm we’d drunk more than half of our water – which included an extra four litres each strapped to the back of our bikes.
By 5pm the gentle climb had turned into a steep slog sparking my hangries to turn into an explosive rant and so Scott calmly suggested we camp just off the road next to a dry river bed. Later that night, as we lay in the tent, the heavens again opened and Scott sleepily mentioned that it looked as though the river we were camped mere metres from was prone to flash floods. He then rolled over and fell asleep. When I finally managed to doze off I dreamed of being swept away tents, bike and all.
The next morning we descended into the kind of desert that doesn’t make the brochures and into the kinds of towns that don’t help the rural stereotypes. First up was Helper, a village that was tumbleweed rich, but charm poor and second up was the town of Price which was a little more interesting on account of the fact that it had a Walmart and a park. Both looked like the kinds of places where hopes and dreams come to die.
The temperature was reaching roughly the same level as the sun’s surface and so we hid out in the town park until 5pm before loading up on 14 litres of water and cycling out into the desert. After 90km we followed a dirt track into the dunes and pitched the tent next to a batch of tiny cactus plants.
Our desert camp!
We were back on the deadly and traffic filled Highway 6 which ran virtually all the way to Moab and the next morning we slogged out some hard won, windy miles before admitting defeat in Green River. It was now Scott’s turn to throw a tantrum (on account of some painful saddle rash) and so rather than head back into the desert to wild camp we paid for a shower, some shade and a patch of grass.
In hindsight we could have just forked out for a shower and then disappeared down one of the many BLM roads that snake off the highway but we were tired and craving shade.
The next morning we were treated to a wild rant from the campsite owner about those damn Californians and those damn Democrats before pedalling out onto the secondary highway that runs parallel to the interstate for a good 30km or so. The landscape seemed to switch between beautiful, barren, grim and just plain desolate and by midday the sun had again forced us off the road and this time into the only shade we could find – a ditch just off Crescent Junction.
It was hard to believe we were merely a stone’s throw from the world famous Arches National Park and when the sun’s burn finally softened we jumped back on the bike to pedal another 7km before taking a left hand turn onto the little used Salt Valley gravel road that was the unofficial back door to the park.
Four kilometres later we pulled on the brakes and slowed to a stop with bulging eyes and open mouths.
Stretching out before us lay giant rock walls splashed in a kaleidoscope of colours while towering red rock monuments sat like carved out chess pieces.
The back entrance into Arches National Park
Incredibly, formidable winds coupled with the slow passage of time had turned the landscape into a work of art and as we pedalled along the rough and sandy road it felt as though we were en route to Oz.
We cycled until 8pm and camped just shy of the park’s border in the shadow of intricately carved cliffs.
The price for stunning views? Sand and washboard!
Arches National Park was just like Yellowstone in the sense that it was big and full of more wonders than the average traveller had time to see. With that in mind we’d picked a few of the more famous “arches” to check out and in uncharacteristic discipline we were out of bed before 6am to see them. In the pre-sunrise gloom we packed up the tent and as the golden raws of dawn hit the red cliffs we were pushing through calf-deep sand and bone-breaking washboard. It took two hours to tackle the 16km to Devils Campground and in that time we were transformed to another planet.
Postcard perfect Arches National Park
Impossible arches spanned craggy canyons while phallic-looking red rock jutted out between them. By midday we’d scarcely reached the trailhead to Delicate Arch (arguably the most famed of the arches) when huge grey clouds massed overhead and the first fat drops splattered down on the red sand. Hiking slippery rock uphill would have been tough at the best of times but in a thunderstorm it seemed downright dangerous so instead of making the trek we jumped back in the saddle for a long slow uphill slog out of the canyon.
Storm clouds brew on Arches Scenic Drive
A few minutes after we’d reached the main entrance visitors centre the heavens didn’t just open, they split at the seams.
Gale force winds of up to 50 miles per hour ripped across the landscape while biting rain and hail beat down in a fury. Alarmed tourists sprinted into doors, walls and each other while half our kit was blown across the centre entrance before we were able to gather it up and dive inside. It was so violent I expected the aftermath to feature lollipops and Oompaloompas but instead there was flash flooding, impromptu waterfalls and and a tonne of mud.
We waited out the worst of the storm before throwing on our Goretex jackets and cycling the remaining 10km into Moab as heavy rain beat down.
Three hours later we were snuggled into a slightly mouldy dorm bed at the cheap as chips Lazy Lizard Hostel and as the rain continued to batter down we fell into the kind of deep sleep that comes from true exhaustion.
And with the rest of big, bold, beautiful and brutal southern Utah awaiting, rest was what we needed most.
A COLD morning fog hung like a rug over the ghost town of Bannack as we packed up camp, chugged down some coffee and prepared to tackle day two of our ride through Montana.
From our frosty site the gravel track eased onto a smooth bitumen road framed by green pastures that flowed to a ring of hills which in turn stitched neatly into a distant mountain range.
The temperature gauge struggled to pass eight degrees as we veered onto route 41 and by time we’d reached the tiny hamlet of Twin Bridges, Madison County it had scarcely reached 10.
Twin Bridges was home to a big water tank, a pretty tired looking main street and one bloody nice park with a free bike camp (boasting hot water a loo and even a table and chairs!).
We were expecting the place to be packed to the rafters with bikers attempting the Trans America cross country ride but instead it was just us and a few spiders.
The wind howled through the village that night and the temperature again plummeted. Summer in Montana was like a game of elemental Russian Roulette and it seemed the chamber had fired off a bloody premature winter.
Rather than face the elements we set up the tent inside the cabin and enjoyed a relatively posh sleep with four walls and even an indoor loo. We were getting soft.
The bike cabin was so cozy we stayed another night and so spent the day wandering through the village and sipping bitter coffee at the local cafe which had the obligatory wall of fame featuring locals with sunburned necks posing next to dead animals.
Scott cooks up a feast in the awesome bike camp at Twin Bridges, Montana
For the most part, long distance cycling is an exercise in mental toughness and there are some days you have it, and some you really bloody don’t. The next day I got on my bike only to realise I’d literally rather be anywhere else in the world than pushing the pedals on my steel donkey. My legs felt like lead, my arse felt as though it was sitting on a thorn bush and everything hurt.
The sun beat down and every mile gained felt like a gold medal achievement.
The day ended with a hot, steep climb and then a hair-raisingly fast descent where I clocked a new speed record – 80km per hour – into the quaint town of Ennis.
Taking in the scenery before the hair-raising drop into Ennis, Montana
At 11am the next day we finally hauled our bikes out of the mountain-framed village and on the long, straight road to West Yellowstone.
A brutal headwind forced us into a crawl and by midday it had ramped up to over 40 miles per hour. by 2pm we’d scarcely made it 20km and according to the weather forecast the wind speed would increase every hour.
A campsite lay ahead and I swung my bike off the road.
“This is stupid – I say we call it a day and get up at 4am tomorrow before the winds kick in,” I shouted.
Scott didn’t put up a fight.
Later that evening a local told us the winds on that road were notorious and just a day earlier they’d howled so fiercely the campsite’s large American flag had snapped.
At 5.30am the next morning we rolled back onto the highway and managed to smash out a fast 50km before the winds cranked to gale force.
By early evening we’d reached a small state campsite just a couple of miles from West Yellowstone and we quickly threw up our tent and scoffed down an enormous bowl of spaghetti before falling asleep to the sound of rain.
According to the brochures Yellowstone is famous for being America’s oldest national park and for containing about half of the world’s natural geysers. What the brochures won’t tell you is just how wild the weather is in this 3,472 square mile park. It can snow in the middle of summer, hail torrents several times a day and give you hypothermia and sunburn in the space of a few hours.
And so amidst a downpour that would make a Scotsman run for cover we pedalled into soggy, touristy and over-priced West Yellowstone. As we sucked down a coffee at the McDonalds and people watched the horde of tourists the rain continued to pour and the temperature scarcely topped five degrees celsius.
In a moment of weakness I desperately began to search for cheap hotels in the vicinity but quickly threw my phone down in disgust. The most flea-bitten and rundown room in the town started at a sweat-inducing $199 USD a night. In any other city that would get me a posh suite at the Hilton with a buffet breakfast!
Bison roaming the grasslands of Yellowstone
Feeling wet, cold and cranky we pedalled out of town and straight for the park itself. Just 20km in lay the Madison Junction campground which offered hiker biker sites for $9 USD per person (pretty reasonable all things considered).
The roads inside the park were narrow and a heavy stream of traffic flowed each way causing us to sweat, duck and weave several times in the hour it took us to reach camp. While strict speed limits are in place throughout the park the tourists drove like idiots. Desperate to spot wildlife while driving an indecently sized RV they veered all over the road like drunk imbeciles. To say most weren’t paying attention was an understatement.
It was a bad omen. But just how bad, we would soon find out.
In a bid to see most of Yellowstone’s enormous awesomeness we’d decided to use the first campsite as a base and make day trips by bike from there. The next morning the rain eased and the sun showed her beautiful face and while it was still cold enough to wear our goretex rain jackets and pants we set off for the famous Old Faithful geyser feeling optimistic. After just seven kilometres the traffic slowed to almost a stop but we were able to continue cycling up the shoulder past the many RVs, SUVs and cars full of families.
Scott had scarcely pulled ahead of me when it happened.
A passenger flung his door open narrowly missing Scott but catching me front on, causing me to superman dive over the bike and into the gravel.
I hit the ground hard and struggled to sit up – the wind knocked out of me and my body screaming.
The uncertain passenger got out of his car, but Scott, after making sure I was alright launched at him with a torrent of abuse.
“You fu@king idiot! Why the hell didn’t you look!?” He demanded.
Faced with an irate Australian and his bloodied up partner he jumped straight on the defensive and insisted it had been my fault, that I should have been paying attention, and in fact shouldn’t have been cycling at all.
It was the kind of Trump-esque logic to make you cringe before changing channels but instead of arguing back I bellowed at Scott to back off told Captain Idiot of the Car Brigade to do the same and slowly began washing the gravel out of my bloodied up palms and knee.
The ride back to the campsite was painful. My palms were seizing up which made braking hard, my knee was in agony and my head was ringing.
I’d hit my head, shoulder and knee hard causing my helmet to get pretty banged up and my goretex jacket and pants to get shredded.
At times like those it was hard not to look at the irony of the situation. After all, we’d survived war torn countries, the rough and dangerous roads of Central Asia and the traffic-laden chaos of Vietnam but it was a moronic tourist in a US national park that brought me to my knees.
Still – it could have worse. My helmet had done its job, the extra layers of clothing had stopped extensive road rash and while my knee was throbbing I was able to still hobble around.
Over the next few days we forked out hundreds to get a rental car (both to see Yellowstone and then get out of the park itself) a campsite that cost a heart breaking $55 USD a night and finally a bus ticket to get the bloody hell out of there.
A friend of a friend (Kendra and her family from Salt Lake City, Utah) had kindly agreed to put us up and while we were loathe to skip a huge section of Wyoming the thought of waiting out an injury in a park that made Manhattan look like a backpacker paradise was grim.
So we booked two seats to the capital of the country’s reddest, most Mormon-filled state and within the space of eight hours we’d swapped freezing cold for the kind of blistering heat that makes you feel as though you’ve stuck your head in an oven.
As the bus pulled into the sprawling metropolis I browsed Wikipedia to get an overview of the city and indeed the state. It seemed Utah had never had a non male, white, Republican Mormon Senator (in it’s entire history) and as a result the separation of church and state was yet to happen.
Thankfully Salt Lake was a fabulous progressive bubble within the state and after just a couple of days it was clear Kendra was the unofficial mayor of the place.
She knew absolutely everyone and introduced us to a phenomenal group of people before hooking us up with two house sitting gigs and a host of social activities with the city’s most fabulous. Within a couple of weeks we were kicking back, seeing outdoor documentaries, sipping beers at a local brewery and perusing the farmers markets.
Downtown Salt Lake City
While it was clear Salt Lake was just like every other big city (fine dining, food trucks, homeless sleeping in parks and a thriving arts scene) there was an elephant sized point of difference that hulked in the corner of the room, inevitably seeping its way into the conversation.
These well-dressed, ultra conservative oddly smiling Christians made the Great Salt Lake their home back in 1847 (after being kicked out of everywhere else) and 250 years later Utah remains their hub. They’re no longer allowed to practice polygamy but they still practice some good old fashioned anti LGBTQ dogma which has in turn resulted in the state boasting the highest number of youth suicides in the entire country.
Scott poses at Temple Square in Salt Lake City
We sipped beers with gay men who had only just left the church, talked to countless locals who had grown up Mormon and escaped as adults and even chatted to a local sexual health professor who told us disturbing tales of young couples so desperate to be intimate (but terrified to break the church’s rule of no pre marital sex and risk being cast out) that they’d come up with a ridiculous concept called “floating” which consisted of the act of coitus without actually moving at all (so you know, technically you’re still a virgin).
With so much juicy gossip at our fingertips the days went by quickly in Salt Lake and we were treated to a weekend trip to the quintessential American cabin (near the Uintas Mountains) honest to god Jewish bagel breakfasts, mountain biking near Park City and even Pie and Beer Day (a far more fun spin off of the Mormon Pioneer Day).
The Aussie spin off of Pie and Beer Day! Excuse the Fosters..it was all we could find!
Soon the days had trickled into weeks but before my knee could return to a normal size a new hurdle billowed into our path.
Mountain biking near Park City
It was reaching roughly the same temperature as the sun’s surface and biking (according to our new friends) would be nothing short of madness.
In Moab (our next destination) temps were consistently reaching as high as 48 degrees celsius every day and scarcely dropping at night.
People (Kendra warned) were literally dying.
In the end it was a no brainer. With somewhere to stay for free, a fabulous new community to hang out with and Jewish bagels on tap we decided to wait out the heat wave and hit the road in mid August when the mercury had somewhat calmed down.
After six food and friend filled weeks it was finally time to dust off the panniers, tune up the bikes and get the hell out of dodge. We’d decided to head down the six towards Moab but wildfires had forced us to change our route (yet again) and so we prepared to beeline instead for Park City and then take the quieter roads to Duchesne before veering back on track.
With nothing but sage bushes, mountains, deserts and a hell of a lot of free BLM wild camping ahead we couldn’t have been more excited. The desert adventure awaited.
Scott overlooking the historic Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway
LEAVING Boise was tough.
So tough, that it took until mid-afternoon on a Tuesday before we could pry ourselves loose from Rachel and Patrick’s cosy home and their cake stash to wobble uphill in a direction that was definitely not towards Mexico.
The Warmshowers hosts and world travellers had wasted no time telling us we should scrap our plan of beelining south east for Utah “it’s just boring desert and nothingness” and instead head north for Yellowstone “you’ve come this far, you might as well make the detour”.
“In fact”, they urged, “you should really go north to Montana first because the scenery along the way is as good as anywhere we’ve seen”.
In the end it was a no brainer. After all a three week detour to see one of the world’s most famous parks is a drop in the ocean on a 40,000km ride.
The sun hammered down across a baked set of barren hills as we pushed the pedals upwards and north from Boise and by 7.30pm we’d made it a pitiful 40km. We threw up the tent in a patch of scrub next to the river and massaged our cake-loaded calves before falling asleep.
Camping next to the river just 40km north east of Boise
Roughly eight passes lay between us and Yellowstone and the following morning we threw the bikes in granny gear and inched slowly up the first of many long, pine-covered climbs as dark grey clouds brewed on the horizon. The descent spat us out near a rustic campground next to a roaring river and we threw up the the tent and dove into our sleeping bags as the mother of all storms struck.
Gail force winds violently shook the tent and lighting flashed above us while thunder roared a nano second later.
Then came the hail.
Marble sized chunks of ice thrashed into the rain fly as the storm raged above us and we wondered just how much our Nemo tent could take. An hour later we emerged victorious albeit feeling a bit stupid about camping underneath so many trees.
Hail strikes the tent during the storm
The moment our feet hit the pedals the next morning we were climbing and two hours later we conquered another pass before barreling down into a lush valley next to the Payette River. By mid afternoon the storm clouds were back and this time rain came down in torrents.
As we rounded a soggy corner a campground with hot springs popped up on the left and without a second’s through we veered into their little cafe and gave up on the rest of the day. Instead we soaked in a steaming pool followed by a mammoth veg out in a tiny house the owners had offered up for the price of a tent.
From the hot springs the road rose another 50km uphill to the Copper Mountain Pass and the following morning we ground them slowly out as the Sawtooth Mountains stood like sharp, snowy sentinels in the distance.
The spectacular Sawtooth Mountains make their appearance
From the summit we pumped out another 50km to Stanley through fields teaming with deer and something that looked like a pterodactyl returned from extinction but was in fact an enormous crane.
Stanley – population 94 – turned out to be two streets, a bunch of log cabins and one bloody expensive supermarket where apples cost more than a gold brick. We should have just bought the apples and moved on but we were tired and hungry which meant “terrible decision making time” so we re-mortgaged our parents houses and bought a large pizza.
For reasons that remain a mystery pizza costs roughly the same as a Malibu mansion in the US and you honestly can’t find a pretty basic large one with eight slices for under $20 USD (plus tax and tips if you eat in) making it the caviar of fast food. It really wasn’t in our budget but according to Stanley’s grocery store neither were apples so we splurged and then pedalled out of town with the post pizza guilts.
Early morning cycling along the Salmon River
The next day we pushed out 90km to Challis along a breathtaking gorge that was home to the feisty Salmon river. It was also home to a sea of aromatic ponderosa pines and a handful of not so aromatic natural hot springs that gave off a pungent sulphur stench that Scott was quick to blame on my guts.
Later that day, while scoffing down lunch with a hint of fart, we chatted to a ranger about Idaho’s understated beauty and its wildlife variety.
“You know,” the ranger said.
“This area right here is just like Yellowstone without all the tourists.”
And he was right. There were a few cars on the road but considering the scenery it should have been a carpark and for not the first time it felt like our own private Idaho.
Scott enjoying a dip in a road side hot tub fed from nearby hot springs
Twenty kilometres out of Challis the sage bushes and high desert returned and the mercury cranked up to “egg-frying level”. I was in dire need of a rest and a shower and so we again ignored the budget to hand over a 20 in exchange for a tent site and a hot shower at an RV park.
The following morning I felt like death and mere minutes after forcing down some breakfast I broke the hundred metre dash record to the toilet before exploding – Central Asian Giardia style.
Scott wasn’t far behind me and we decided another day in hot and windy Challis was on the cards.
An osprey flies home to the nest near Challis
With recovered stomachs we eventually escaped “hell’s furnace” to spend one and half days covering a mere 95km to Salmon. This time it wasn’t hills, churning guts or winds that slowed us down but scenery so beautiful it made you want to learn the banjo just so you could play a song about it.
Picturesque Salmon proved to be a quintessential Idaho town that plated up mountain scenery alongside the kind of juxtapositions America does best. One-hundred-year-old log cabins sat a stones throw from a Burger King where toothless cowboys chewed the fat in a slow drawl while sucking down a Whopper.
We’d scarcely pulled into the town’s main drag when a leathered looking local ambled over for a chat and his lengthy thoughts on where we should go.
The plan from Salmon had been to cycle north over the Lost Trail Pass before veering east in a zig-zag towards West Yellowstone but our new friend had a better idea: the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway.
This historical stretch of gravel was made famous back in 1804 when its namesakes crossed the western portion of the country in what was the first expedition of the continental divide through to the Pacific Coast for scientific, geographic and economic reasons.
When they reached the Hidatsa Villages in Wyoming they found a Shoshone Native American camp and there set about recruiting a Quebecois man and his Shoshone wife – Sacagawea – to help them traverse the country and most importantly (using Sacagawea) interpret and negotiate with any tribes they would meet along the way.
History tells us that much, but the story goes that Sacagawea became a crucial guide for the men, saving all their equipment during a river capsize, helping them secure horses and supplies and essentially ensuring the success of what was one of the country’s most famous and earliest expeditions.
Most remarkably, the young Shoshone woman did it with a newborn baby (whom Clark would later “adopt”).
No one really knows what happened to the young mother and guide however some say she died of an unknown illness in her mid 20s in South Dakota while members of the Shoshone people insist she made her way back to Wyoming and lived out her days as a revered elder. Either way her name has become immortalised in American, and particularly Idaho’s, history which goes some ways to giving her the credit and reverence she should have earned while still alive.
A statue of Sacagawea with her son
And so like two loaded up, fancy packhorses (who carry a coffee grinder and pillows) we decided to follow in their famous footsteps towards the one horse town of Tendoy – the birthplace of Sacagawea and the namesake of a famous chief of the Shoshone tribe.
From there the Lewis and Clark Byway turned left onto a gently ascending gravel road framed by rolling hills and endless sage bushes interspersed with bright desert flowers. The smells, sounds and scenes were intoxicating and as we ambled up the ancient track and I couldn’t help but wonder if Lewis and Clark had been just as mesmerised and if Sacagawea had roamed these exact slopes.
Climbing the long and steep Lemhi Pass – spot the cyclist!
Seven kilometres up the road we pulled into a free campsite which was full to the brim with flashy RVs. The monotonous drone of a half dozen generators burst my romantic bubble and reminded me of a Sunday afternoon in Brisbane, Australia when half the city fires up their lawn mowers.
From the campsite the rocky road ran another 12km uphill to the summit with the final 500 vertical metres spread over a back breaking 5km.
The following morning it took more than three hours of pitifully slow cycling, pushing and tantrums to reach the top and we cerebrated with a freshly brewed coffee before farewelling Idaho and taking our first steps into Montana.
Taking a break on the long slog to the top
The summit at last!
This northern state is dubbed “Big Sky Country” and after flying down the other side of the pass the horizon opened up to reveal an expansive blue sky framed by mountains. I was pedalling along feeling like an adventure queen when all of a sudden the wind cranked up and I was blown halfway across the road.
Montana’s Big Sky Country!
From the Lemhi Pass we wound our way to the once gold mining hot spot and now ghost town of Bannack and its state camp grounds.
Cattle ranches framed the gravel trail and after just a few kilometres on the Bannack Bench Rd the winds died down only to be replaced by a horde of hungry mozzies. It was a few minutes before I realised my legs and arse were being drained of blood and I immediately jumped off my bike in a wild screech before whipping out my DEET spray and wielding it like a sword.
Soon after the road bucked and dipped like a demented rollercoaster and with just 10km to go Scott pulled on the breaks and yelled” Food! I need food!”.
We squatted in the gravel and smeared Nutella and banana onto wraps as the wind whipped up dirt for the seasoning.
I shoved half the wrap into my mouth with an audible “crunch” and Scott muttered: “Living the dream…”
Sage bushes and cow ranches.
Nine hours, 80km, one pass, a few thousand mozzies and a dirt sandwich later we rolled into Bannack State Campground. The park was doing its best impression of sardine city and we were given the final patch of turf before throwing up our tent and scowling at the nearby families who were cooking up fragrant feasts.
The mozzies were back with a vengeance and we were just in the throws of a mad DEET dance while screaming profanities when two women from a nearby camp strolled over and asked if we’d like some food.
“We’ve cooked way too much and we’d love it if you joined us,” one of them said.
The women were part of the global Sisters On the Fly group that organises camping trips, micro adventures and camper travel and they’d put on a spread worthy of Christmas and the end of Ramadan combined. Two long tables were groaning under pots of pasta, bowls of meatballs, plates of pizza and even homemade ice-cream with rhubarb crumble and we quickly loaded up on everything before joining the fun.
We chatted with doctors, vets, scientists, nurses, teaches and everyone in between before a local band wandered in and fired up some folk tunes behind a crackling fire.