With our fill of summertime southeast Alaska, we kicked the side stands up in the lush temperate beauty that had surrounded us for the best part of the whale season, the wonder of things both small and huge: the colour of a wildflower that brushed against me on the trail, or the grand sweep of the sky as the sun faded over Mendenhall Glacier.
Autumn saw us lay the bikes to rest with dear friends on Vancouver Island after hopping over to Salt Spring to meet and greet yet more of the congenial biking community. Then taking eight wonderful weeks to revel in relationships with loved ones in the U.K., picking up the thread after a significant two-year gap. Satiating ourselves with everything and everyone we’d missed on the road. Alas, the new year popped its head in, seeing us on our first mission: to situate ourselves stateside.
Border clerks can be anything from benign, pleasant individuals to those who live to play interrogation games, the most contemptible people on earth when they have delusions of godhood. Albeit with a job to do. It was excruciating with our wannabe deity from officialdom. No matter how hard I tried to stay on message, I couldn’t seem to synchronize my conversations with him. Instead, I felt disapproval radiating off the man’s shoulders at each interruption. There was no natural rhythm and I wondered just what would make it less awkward. At least I could dispense with the pleasantries.
His eyes were still fixed on me. Goodness me, did the man ever blink? The reality floated slowly, repellently, to the surface of my mind. Denied entry into the U.S. as regular tourists was not something I wished to entertain. Upon each brief insight into our travel-led intentions, his frown threatened to swallow the man’s nose on a face which was a study in storm clouds. He sat in his chair like a petulant, furious child disbelieving of the facts before him.
After what felt like a painstaking afternoon was probably a 30-minute wait—giving ample time in which to check out our history while we sat on a bench, stewing in our own nervous juices. An hour or so later, I sighed in comic resignation, and the next thing we know the passports were stamped and we were gushing with gratitude. We were in. Back on U.S. turf! “Blimey, that was too close for comfort.” Back on my skates and twirling upon the sometimes slippery surface of my life.
Life on the road began to bear its own familiar rhythms where it was perfectly possible to keep right on dancing like I always had; less so when my face and feet were dragged down with cold and effort. Moreover, I was no longer bike fit—my riding stamina akin to someone cheerfully suggesting I run a marathon when I’d just dragged myself out of bed after suffering from the flu. I couldn’t conceive how I used to do it.
Tightly hugging the western coast while enduring days of deluge rain, gusting winds, and shivering temperatures—despite being plugged into a heated jacket and gloves—was all part of the road’s stipulation of “sucking it up” now and again. Indebted to multiple friends intersecting our route through Washington, Oregon, and California, they offered us welcoming pitstops from the nonstop elements in Seattle, Newport, McKinleyville, Sebastopol, Mill Valley and Santa Barbara. I’ve said before, as many people as there are to hold you back, there are angles whose humanity makes up for all the others. I’ve had my share of angels. Those who’ve ever taken us in were many of those.
Power-hungry hombres versus true angels aside, life occasionally connects you to folks that upon initial contact, you think: I’ve known you for a lifetime already, but I’ve only just met you. Something unnoticeable just clicks and you’re away, zooming past the fast friendship stage to friends-for-life status. Alain Despatie shifted us to such a place.
He was a thoughtful man and cultured with a deep vein of spirituality as well. He had some attraction about him, kind of magnetic that pulled me into the glow of his aura. He didn’t do anything especially out of the ordinary, and yet he drew people. Pitching the tent in front of “Tiiny”, Alain’s beautifully rustic hand-built trailer, he broke bread with us. Furnishing me with instructions on how to reach unprecedented levels of ‘make yourself at home’ in his absence.
“Here, try one of these. A friend of mine from Quebec makes them, they’re pretty special. Actually, they’re like crack. They’re pure maple syrup, nothing else. When the syrup reduces, it solidifies down to this.” My curiosity-antennae up, I selected a leaf shaped one, lifted the confectionary gently out of its miniature muffin case and considering all that it symbolized already, placed it on my tongue as reverently as a communion wafer. Biting into it with a knitted brow, “Oh God,” I mouthed a moment later. I took another bite. “Mother Mary” or something to that effect and laughed out loud. The maple flavour was like the barest touch of fingertips on my skin, the texture smooth while melting. I melted with it, and the moans of sensual pleasure ensued. Despite a fear for my enamel, I was sure these had to be better than crack.
Back on the road for an excruciating Friday afternoon crawl, on we plodded through the traffic-choked towns from Santa Barbara, detouring out of our way to avoid downtown LA, to Borrego Springs. Miserable finally give way to marvellous. The 6pm sky outside was thick black but the stars were brilliant as we zigzagged beneath them down a long snakelike mountain road into the valley.
Interestingly, Borrego Springs is one of only three International Dark Sky Communities in the U.S., a designation awarded to any organized community that shows practically zero tolerance towards night pollution. It’s a big deal and an amazing sight to witness nowadays. Only 90-miles from San Diego but not a traffic light for 50-miles—the town is small enough to have everyone friend you on Facebook but gulped down whole by the vast Anza-Borrego Desert.
Speaking of all things monstrous, it’s nigh on impossible to miss Borrego Spring’s most formidable resident. The dragon. Actually, it’s a 350-foot long serpent. Surrounded by a menagerie of 129 other metal creatures dotted around the desert, thanks to Ricardo Breceda’s artwork and Dennis Avery’s dollars. Created to celebrate the ancient beasts that once roamed the earth such as mammoths, giant sloths, age-old turtles, whopping big birds, and Sabertooth cats. Some sculptures were more whimsical than others but the dragon trumped all others for me as the most fanciful. In a striking outdoor gallery at Galleta Meadows Estates, the masterful sculptures are there to pay homage to the history and culture of the desert. Pure genius as much as fantasy.
“Come on Lisa, Jonathan is taking us for a trail ride in the desert.” Any prehistoric daydreaming losing me in my own playful thoughts soon died out, when the prospect of sand riding rolled in, tsunami-style. Borrego’s true demon monster. Looking out with intelligent eyes, Jonathan had a small, shy smile that blossomed out beneath his neat little mustache like a desert-blooming flower—at first rare but radiant. Head cocked, a question lay in his curious hazel eyes as to my riding reticence. He’d find out soon enough. “Oh, Lisa,” Jason said, exhausted by me on the driveway, our eyes meeting in an anguish-stricken détente. “You’ll never improve in sand unless you ride in sand.” I took his point but I still spat my dummy (pacifier) out.
Sailing through miles of serpentine trails laced with a good dusting of sand, occasionally gave way to a drunken sailor drowning in soft pillows of the stuff. Wow. I was precisely two-years out of practice; a lifetime ago in locating any whisper of muscle memory. The first prickle of serious unease stirred in my brain. I clenched my teeth as the dread spiralled up inside me. I then felt raw fear, now bursting its bonds like a beast feeding off expanding uncertainty. Formless panic took me suddenly and I just stopped. Refused to paddle even.
I had managed 500-yards of the sandy cut-through leading to the trailhead. Having thrown all my toys out of the pram (stroller), I reluctantly accepted the invitation with feigned alacrity. Beset with thoughts of the task at hand, I continued to experience feelings of elemental terror so great that I lost all confidence. Sweat was popping out on my face. Grumbling about wanting to quit, I squared my slumped shoulders to the unloveliness of what was before me. That’s the trouble with sand. You never knew exactly where it would lead; mostly someplace where you wish you were anyplace but. In that gesture, I slipped off the mantle of the moto-traveller and put on that of the faux-valiant sand slayer.
A couple of hours passed and slowly, I managed to change the pace from a glacial one to a snail’s. Growing the beginnings of a backbone and a smidgeon of momentum, one sandy yard at a time. Self-flagellation in play, I still had the temperament of a tortoise. Whatever loose dread, fright, or bump appeared in my path, I wanted nothing more than to drop in my tracks and hide.
Coming full circle back to the first grizzly cut-through section, I went for it in second gear—fudging it to look like I was consolidating the skill I’d re-acquired in particle-sized pieces along the way. “Well look at that,” Jason remarked without hiding his incredulity, “you have improved.” I laughed nervously, thoroughly unconvinced.
A few days of denial passed and thanks to another selfless act from Jonathan, I got back on the horse. But without Jason in tow for another go on the same trail, starting at Coyote Canyon. The job ahead, however difficult or unpleasant, was mine and mine alone. Wasn’t it Emily Dickinson that said, “If your Nerve, deny you—Go above your Nerve.” Okay, Em. I will! Connected via the helmet intercom to exchange some choice words and impart some timely one-way tuition: “Well let me say this, Lisa—you’re already going twice the speed you were the other day, which means you’ve improved by one hundred percent. Just remember, when it starts to feel squirmy, apply some gas. That’s it.” A fine start.
With Jonathan’s careful demeanour, his way of being with people made them feel that they were the focus of all his attention and that there was nowhere else he had to be. Possessing a no-nonsense manner, he was a man who had acquired a demeanor of unflappability that comes from years of experience. If you must err; do so on the side of audacity. For some time now, it had helped me to hurl myself over obstacles.
“Gas gas!” Jonathan encouraged by putting on permanent repeat. “Gas gas!” Mmn. “Okaaay!” Thriving on his instruction punctuated by frequent “Yahooos!” because both were working. Remarkably, even the latter lent credence towards better trusting my bike and occasionally, my own ability. There was a profound need to appease this guy with incredible competence off-road. Before I knew it, I found my stride in the sand and neatly negotiated a rocky ascent that I’d flatly refused the first time. I was flying! That is, until stopping dead in my tracks upon cresting the hill.
Meeting a face with no trace of a smile behind the windscreen of a 4×4 blocking my path, I couldn’t ignore the impulse to just take a moment, and explode in laughter, sparkling in my blood like champagne. Goodness me, I might have even punched the air—despite a deadpan expression glaring back. Crack on, Lisa, it’s just a hill with a few loose rocks. Adrenaline buzzing through my veins, all the same, I’d not felt this enlivened in a while.
By the time we reached Cougar Canyon, Jonathan and Carla’s favourite camping spot, there was a coat hanger in my mouth. We’d gone quite a bit farther than the first trail ride, and unlike that initial wretched attempt, I’d started to get a lick on. It made every panic-induced sandy blunder on the bike worth it a thousand times. And I almost fell off my bike with hilarity when Jonathan imitated my periodic shrieks and squeals in the deep sand while maintaining perfect control. Cheeky bugger!
I spent as much time as I could with Carla King and Paul H. Smith without impinging on her punishing schedule and his full workload. I wanted every bit of wisdom they could impart to me. As the world’s leading expert in self-publishing, owner of a publishing company and a published author numerous times over in one of them, and one of the country’s finest editors in the other—go figure.
Paul, one of my dearest friends on the road, remains on quite the journey: we’re talking the greatest, the worst and quite frankly, inhumanely unfair as much as ugly. Astounding nevertheless. My jaw-on-the-floor, Paul continues to astonish those around him in being here to tell his story. And for that, I’m deeply thankful.
The thought of being able to offer them something both useful and appropriate filled me with something ridiculously akin to joy. Albeit it was only the data transfer of 8,000 e-books. When it came to all things digital in this age of technology, Carla was a woman the winds and tides obeyed. Even Ted Simon called her an ‘angel of expertise’. Taller than I imagined, her straight body like her mind moved purposefully, slim hips and perceptive thoughts asway. She had hair the blonde of the desert sun and the colouration that went with it: tanned, with green eyes set into features that were pretty.
Borrego Springs bestowed us with an endless loop of glorious sunrises and sunsets, interrupted by gorging on carrier bags of the sweetest grapefruit from a deceased man’s garden and lively bursts of interesting people. As I stepped onto the patio each evening, creeping out into the soft, clean night air, I breathed in deeply. At dusk, the skies were aflame with colour; streaks of peaches, pinks and crimsons one evening, patches of bright reds, bands of golds and apricots the next. Listening intently when the packs of coyotes would start howling all at once. And yipping like giggling hyenas on the periphery as they engaged in their own wild convention to which none of us were invited.