Touring the Mojave National Preserve by Bicycle
Food, Water, Sleep
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8

Day 7: Amboy to Baker via Kelbaker Road

Day 7 MapDISTANCE: 77.5 miles
ELEVATION: 984 feet to 4100 feet to 2100 feet to 3800 feet to 923 feet

I pop my head out of my tent to see a sunrise in progress. Perfect! Like a typical work day, I spring into action. I slept really well—amazingly— but I'm still anxious to leave Amboy. Half-asleep, I start packing up immediately.

It doesn't take long. I'm still thinking about the hot meal that I didn't get yesterday. Ready to go (and no one seems to have noticed me camping out here), I mount my 10-ton panniers on my bike and pedal the half mile over to the nasty café. Since it closes early, I figure it stands a chance of being open now at 7 a.m. If not, I'll be happy to leave town now and eat something later.

There's not much traffic on Route 66 at this hour of the morning. Just before the café, the road crosses a wash on a short bridge that eliminates the shoulder for one hundred feet or so. As I ride over it, a white oversized pick-up passes me extremely closely. A bit aggressive I suppose, but visibility isn't perfect here, so I can see why a vehicle might not want to stray into the oncoming lane at this spot.

The pick-up pulls up to the café moments before I get there and its driver disappears inside. I guess this means the café is open and that I'll be having breakfast! And coffee! I haven't had coffee in days! As I'm parking my bike, the pick-up driver comes back out of the café—he just went in 30 seconds ago—and yells at me, "You don't have to ride in the middle of the fucking road you know!" I'm a little surprised, but I ignore him—why exert effort responding to such a person, since I wasn't even close to being in the middle of the road? (If I had been a car, he wouldn't have been able to pass me at all.) He gets back in his pick-up and spins his tires hard in the packed dirt, making a dustball and tossing about a small amount of gravel as he departs. Gee, so cool.

I walk into the empty café and seat myself at the counter. My waiter is indeed none other than the man who so vigourously shooed me away last night. I presume that he remembers me. There can't be that many loaded-up bicyclists pulling up here... I act like I don't remember last night and he seems to have forgotten too. I place my order, but neither of us is volunteering any conversation beyond this. No background noise pervades the café.

After a few minutes of desert silence, a plate of perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, bacon and generic deep-fried "hash-browns" patty is placed in front of me with a polite and apparently genuine "Here you go, sir." I'm starting to feel a little more at ease. He retrieves my toast from the toaster and, while he is buttering it, I ask for a coffee refill. He serves me a snarky, "Can't you see I'm still busy?"

I'm hungrier than I realized and I'm trying hard not to eat too fast. I didn't realize there was anyone else in the building, but I can hear my waiter speaking to someone in the kitchen about driving. I'm not really paying attention, though. I'm thinking of ordering more food, but I don't want to get too full before riding.

The waiter comes out of the kitchen and asks me which direction I came from. For a split second, I think he's trying to be chatty and I'm almost flattered because I would like that. However, I'm doubting his sudden interest. He's not asking where I've been, where I'm going or anything else about my trip. So I simply reply that I rode in from east of town, and would be heading out that way also. I figure he'll ask for clarification if my answer isn't what he's expecting. He still doesn't appear very interested in having a conversation.

The picture suddenly comes into focus. The other person in the kitchen is the loud-mouth driver of the white pick-up. The purpose of the waiter's question is to illuminate something the loud-mouth just told him. Now that I've figured this out, I quickly tack on a comment about there being no shoulder on the bridge. His nod expresses an "oh, I see" and I watch him apathetically return to the kitchen. My focus defaults to my coffee and I'm hoping I won't experience other odd moments before leaving Amboy.

Another refill on my coffee would be nice, but getting out of here would probably be nicer. I pay my bill and proudly leave a one-dollar tip. Relieved to be outside, I cringe and go back in to ask the waiter to unlock the chain-link fence surrounding the cinder-block washroom building. I use the facilities and fill my water bottles.

Enough of this Route 66 misery! This café has near-legendary status amongst those who tour the desert because of its isolation and because it's one of the few old Route 66 landmarks to have survived. Obviously, these people were fortunate enough to have had a different experience here than me.

I merrily mount my bike and begin backtracking the six miles to the Kelbaker Road turn-off. Bright blue skies cheer me on and the shoulder is much better on this side of the road than it was coming into Amboy. I stop briefly on a side road to pump some air into my ailing back tire, but I reach Kelbaker Road in what seems like a very short time. I turn north and feel no longer haunted.

The excitement of the new takes over as I turn and head for the Mojave National Preserve. The 20-mile crawl up to Granite Pass in the Providence Mountains at 4100 feet will consume a major part of my day. I'm now back on the desert trip that I came here for. My Amboy excursion was an interesting and flighty deviation that I had to do.

There's almost no traffic on Kelbaker Road and this contributes to a sense of freedom. The road seems to have been paved quite recently as it's in very good condition. I'm enjoying this slow, therapeutic climb, but I don't have much of a sensation of gaining elevation. I keep looking behind me to see how high I've risen, but I have the impression that I'm not riding a real hill, but rather a slab of flat land that has been placed on a slant.

I begin feeling more satisfied when I realize that the view behind me is indeed becoming more expansive, albeit gradually. Stark, low, brown mountains on both sides of me—the Marble Mountains to the east and the Bristol Mountains to the west—create a prehistoric feeling that seems at odds with the road's smooth blacktop. Pausing for a few minutes, I watch a tarantula saunter across the road, oblivious to my gaze and to the potential of getting run over. I've had very few wildlife moments during this trip (I haven't seen a snake of any kind!), so I'm quite pleased at this sighting.

Interstate 40 comes into view and ever-so-slowly zooms in. It's now later in the morning and the sun is starting to feel a bit hot. Time to change into short pants, but where? There's no privacy out here... A mile before I-40, I spot a pipeline road that leaps over a small mound and behind a hill. I pull in, and just a quarter of a mile further, I reach a well-used vehicle turnaround which becomes my outdoor changing room. It's difficult to imagine what would bring vehicles to this isolated spot. The fact that this road serves as an access road for the Trilobite Wilderness doesn't seem to constitute much of an attraction. I slather my now-exposed legs with sunscreen and return to Kelbaker Road.

My anticipation swells as I approach I-40. All that speeding east-west freeway traffic is apparently going somewhere important while I pedal beneath it in slow, vacation mode. At this point, I officially re-enter the Mojave National Preserve. Presumably, from here on in, there will be less local traffic than there was south of I-40, and perhaps more sightseers.

My climb steepens a bit, as expected. It then steepens a little more, as expected. I hope it doesn't get too steep though. The pavement here is a little older, but it's still in good condition and traffic is very light. It occurs to me that I'm now gaining elevation fairly quickly and that the road is steeper than it feels. I'm climbing it like a billy goat and enjoying it immensely. I guess I'm really in shape now after many miles and hills on the 10-ton bicycle.

This area is quite open with great views on all sides. The jagged edges of the Providence Mountains shoot up to my left (north), while less dramatic mountains to the right block my view of I-40, which is, more than ever, down below. I'm pretty sure that those mountains off in the distance to the southeast are the Piute Mountains down by Essex, which I passed yesterday on the way to Amboy.

I can tell I'm getting higher because Joshua trees are starting to appear again. I really like these! I pass a couple of roadside pullouts that would make great campsites if I wanted to set up camp up high here. But it's not even quite noon yet and I'm enjoying this so much that I want to just keep on going.

I finally reach the summit at Granite Pass and take another water break. I glance up and see a handful of cars and people way up on hill looking down at me. I had forgotten that there is a University of California installation out here. After climbing about 3000 feet on the 10-ton bike, endorphins are still rushing through my body and I barely want to stop for a needed break. As well, I'm excited about the 13-mile descent to Kelso that will begin somewhere just around the bend.

Off I go downhill. The Kelso Dunes come into view on my left and the film gets better as I coast along. I don't want to break my descent but I pull out on an empty dirt road where I can stop and just stand in the desert for a few minutes and savour the scenery. It's also another opportunity to slug back more water!

I ponder the Dunes. I could turn off at the 3-mile, gravel, access road when I get near the bottom. There are a few campsites down there, with toilets even, but no water. I could park my bike and go for a hike up the 600-foot dunes. I've heard that the moving sand there often makes interesting noises.

My mind drifts and now I'm pondering Baker instead. If I keep going, I could probably make it there by sundown, another 40 miles or so. Rather than one last night of tent camping,—my food and propane are running low—I could rent a bland motel room and devour a big meal. And I could have a really long shower, which I desperately need after several days of heavy sweat and sunscreen. I'm definitely coming back to the Mojave one day soon, so maybe I can fit the Dunes into my next trip.

All rationalizations behind me now, I quit the dirt road and return to the paved downhill to Kelso. I wave at the access road to the Dunes as I pass it. I'm riding against a fairly strong headwind that is forcing me to pedal a fair amount just to maintain 20 mph on the less hilly bottom stretch. Kelso's handful of buildings keeps getting closer, and finally I'm there.

Kelso is an informal meeting place. It sits at the crossroads of the only paved routes that traverse the Mojave National Preserve. The portable toilets here are a major attraction. The abandoned Kelso Depot here is an eye-catcher even from far away, the way its graceful bulk stands amidst so little else. You can stand here and gawk at the old train depot and chat with the people that occasionally pull in for a break. As a rest stop, it's far more inviting than one of those sterile, fast-food infested pull-outs along an interstate, where you normally wouldn't speak to anyone except a cashier. There is a proposal to turn Kelso Depot into a visitor centre with real facilities—and it would be nice if there were a water tap here—but I'd hate to see this charming little ruin transformed into a tourist trap.

I hang out here for a well-appreciated half-hour break. It's a beautiful, sunny day in the high 70s again. I drink lots of water and stuff my face with whatever food I can muster up from my depleted reserves: a can of sardines, yet more dried apricots, handfuls of granola and fruit-nut mix, my last couple of pieces of carob-sunflower fudge and a very warm orange. There's something about a warm orange that I normally find unpleasant, but right now it tastes just delicious!

There's a bee buzzing around my head, and it keeps threatening to land on me. I dodge it, but it is following me no matter how I move! Ok, I'll try running in circles. No luck with this either—this bee is truly in love with me. My dance spins me past an elderly couple near their parked car, and they ask me to not come too close because they're allergic to bees. Finally, I tie up my bag of apricots and set it on a bench and this works. The bee lands on the bag and stays there while I munch on less-attractive items.

I'm still hungry and would cook up a small pot of ramen noodles if I wanted to take the time. Instead, I start chatting with a man from San Diego who tells me that he trained on racing bikes for years, but dropped that pursuit 10 years ago. He apologizes for his budding pot belly and relates how he is intrigued by people who travel long distances by bicycle and wonders what it would be like. The last time he passed through Kelso, he met a British cyclist on his way from California to Boston.

I'm psyched to go, but I'm a bit tired from the climb to Granite Pass this morning and all the mileage from the last few days. However, I'm determined to make it to Baker now that the goal has been planted in my head. I should make it by sunset. If not, a little riding in the dark on Kelbaker Road won't hurt me. After all, I survived a couple of hours of total darkness on Cedar Canyon Road a few nights ago! I have 35 miles to go to Baker.

All roads are uphill out of Kelso. My second Kelbaker Road climb of the day (from 2100 feet to 3800 feet over 12 miles) is going nicely. It is certainly requiring effort, but I've built up a lot of strength over the last few days. I remember coming down this hill a week ago and wondering if it would be hard to get back up on a 10-ton bike.

A scattering of joshua trees starts to decorate the barren landscape as I get higher. I keep turning back to glance at the too-big view of the Kelso Valley and the Providence Mountains beyond. It's rewarding to remind myself that I was "way over there" this morning. After a bend in the road, I look behind me again and most of the Kelso Valley has vanished. I turn around and set my eyes on the power lines way up ahead that cross the road at the summit. Uninterrupted pedaling gets me up the rest of the hill and it's time to guzzle more water and take in the new surroundings.

Everything's quiet here, but the power lines are visually intrusive. It's nice to just sit here and look at the joshua trees and their contorted forms. Knowing that I just completed the last major climb of my trip, I feel intensely satisfied yet yearning for more. Do I really want this to end? I think I'll have some more dried apricots and fruit-and-nut mix.

OK, back on the bike! It will be slightly downhill the rest of the way to Baker over the next 23 miles. I can't stop staring at individual joshua trees as I glide past them. The surreal landscape of the cinder-cone area that now forms the backdrop to my right attracts my attention also. It's strange to find that this place now feels somewhat familiar and not completely new anymore. I definitely want to get closer to the cinder cones the next time I visit.

Before I know it, I'm at the end of the cinder cones and am passing a rocky wall that is the edge of an old lava flow. I think that the unmarked road going off to my right is the Rainy Day Mine Road that I had aspirations of locating the first night I was here. Or is it?

Whoosh... There's that hill next to which I camped on my first night here! I remember the stimulating uneasiness of that evening, which was nothing like the negative malaise I experienced in Amboy. I follow the sharp turn in the road and begin the 10-mile home-stretch into Baker, crossing unadorned desert scrub at 17 mph. I fixate on itty-bitty Baker off in the distance and, like magic, suddenly I'm there.

The 10-ton bike in the room at the Bun Boy Motel, Baker, California
In the room at the Bun Boy Motel, Baker, California

I sign up for a $50-room at the Bun Boy Motel and leave the car information blank. Oh boy, what should I do first? I'll park my bike in my room and walk across the road to the Los Dos Toritos Mexican restaurant. It's so exciting to have a big flavorful meal with beans and rice, and with the luxury of seafood in addition. I'm trying not to eat fast. Whether or not I'm succeeding, I'm savouring every bite!

On the way back to the motel, I pick up some beer at one of the convenience stores. I'm amazed at how busy this little town is... I have the best shower of my life and kick back for a few hours like a couch potato, drinking a beer and smoking a pipe filled with a tasty, strong tobacco. I'm one of the common people again and enjoying it profusely.

Mojave Desert Bike Tour Home          Next: Day 8


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