From Mountains to Deserts

Reporting to you from the beautiful Salt Lake City. I arrived in Salt Lake on the evening of August 8th, safe and sound, but hungry and tired. After eating and sleeping in large doses for four days, the traveler can't wait to head into the hot and majestic Utah-Nevada deserts.

It seems that the first two thousand miles of biking has been the training for the past 500 miles of mountains and deserts.

On July 30th, forced myself out of the house and back on the road. It's so tempting to relax and settle. But the heart knows where the destiny lies. A short day of 25 miles, but the climb started immediately. Two thousand feet of elevation gain. Stayed with the kind and wise grandparents of the Denver friend. Rocky Mountains, I knock on your door.

The next morning, saw a herd of deer, 20 to 30 of them, outside of the window. At peace with themselves. Another 1500 feet of elevation gain over a short and weary day of 30 miles. The climb was more than rewarded by the magnificent view.

And not all roads are that bike friendly:

In the little town of Empire, a kind family let me sleep in the guest room, to prepare for the highest elevation climb for the next day.

On August 1st, I celebrated the official birthday of the People's Liberation Army of China by climbing the highest peak of this entire journey. Nearly 3000 feet of climbing, over a 11,307 feet continental divide.

The morning in the mountains was so cold that I put on all the clothes I had, including rain jackets and rain pants. The average grade of the climb was 6% for over 12 miles, and I had to get off and push for much of it. It took 3 hours to get through those 12 miles.

The climb brought the view almost parallel to the timberline.

The toil of the climb was compensated by the joy of flying down the mountains, with both hands off the handlebar, stretching out like an eagle, gliding through the air. Must have scared a few oncoming cars.

After 60 miles of climbing and descending, the exhausted traveler arrived in Hot Sulphur Springs, and was taken in by a family who fed me dinner and put me up in bed. Tried to set up a big tent for the kids and I to sleep outside for fun, but the mountain wind threatened destruction.

The next morning, I got on the road by 7:30am, eager to greet my loyal travel companion -- the shadow:

The shadow and I make a good team. Every day, we take turn to lead the way and push away the wind for one another. In the morning, my shadow takes the lead. Somehow, I am always able to catch up with him by noon. And in the afternoon, he trails behind me. But we mostly travel at the same speed. No competition. Occasionally, I would catch him trying to pick sunflower on side of the road, which I certain do not approve of.

Just when I congratulated myself on accomplishing the highest climb of the trip, a harder day awaited. August 2nd was, by then, the windiest, most physically challenging day. The day brought me across the continental divide twice, passing two mountain passes, with no where to refill water or resupply food for the whole day. Well, they warned you: "Next Service 43 Miles." No big deal for a car...

The 70-mile day was further slowed down by the spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. Had to stop and smell the roses.

At the top of one mountain pass, met two men who were walking across the US. A lot of us nutty people out here.

While crossing the desert, the walker had to walk at night because of the heat of the day. Some driver called the police, reporting a crazy man pushing a baby through the desert at night.

The downhill was even steeper than the day before, with a 7% grade. So I cruised downhill at an average speed of over 35 miles an hour.

Nancy and Walter welcomed me at Steamboat Spring, and gave me a luxurious guest room to recover from the fatigue from lack of food and water of the day. I decided to take a day off, and reward the body with a visit to the natural hot spring.

On August 3rd, while inquiring the bike shop where I could find cheap and large quantity of carbs and protein, Jeremiah called his friend Greg, who invited me to his home for lunch. It turned out that Greg has biked around Europe for three months after high school, and sympathize with my nutritional desperation. His two wonderful and curious children, Elena and Johnathan, asked many questions, and shared their happy life. Like watching a thunderstorm on the tin roof.

I so enjoyed the time with them that I didn't head toward the hot springs until mid afternoon. Only if I knew how steep the dirt road to the springs was, I would have given up the idea all together. It was, by far, the steepest climb of the entire trip. It felt like carrying the bike up stairs. Whatever effect the hot spring had on relaxing the muscles, it was canceled out by the difficult journey to and from the pools.

I almost gave up the climb to the springs. But the sighting of a small herd of elks cheered me on. There were many people at the springs, speaking Russian, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, English -- a true melting pot.

On August 4th, my host fed me a breakfast with five eggs and four pieces of toast. I needed each and every gram of it -- the head wind surpassed the previous worst. It would pin me down on a steep downward slope, or threaten to blow me off the road.

It seems that just when I think the climbs could not get worst, it gets steeper; and just when I think the wind could not get more violent, it proves me wrong.

Starting from Denver, I have been listening to Moby Dick on mp3. It is truly a classic American novel, with a lot of New England scenes. Ishmael was cruel to go on and on about the New England clam chowder when I was running out of trail mix in the middle of nowhere.

Listening to the story of the ocean, of whales and whaling, in the midst of huge mountains, created a strange montage. The fishermen's life stories were projected onto the screens of the Rockies. Sometimes, I can even see the backbone of a sperm whale emerging from the landscape of the mountains. After many hours listening to the classification of whales, and the in-and-out of cutting up a dead whale, I almost confuse where I am on this planet.

On August 5th, the strong wind got stronger. And in the wide, open west, the roads are only marked by occasional signs like this one:

No gas, no water, for 57 miles. Only abandoned houses like this:

Spent the day listening to Moby Dick on dry roads like this:

Imagine climbing up the ladder of cloud into heaven:

But if you fall through the crack, you would end up like this:

After 70 miles of scattered deer skeletons, I arrived at a town of only 10 families. One of them let me camp out and use the shower. That night, my dinner was a can of 12 oz tuna, peanut butter on tortillas, and tap water. Well, the pioneers had it harder.

The next day, passed by the Dinosaur National Monument into Utah.

The desert landscape is ten times more pleasing to the eyes than the dead zone of corn and soy. It is grand, surprising, and pristine.

However, the human greed and shortsightedness does not leave the pristine desert alone. As I got closer to Vernal, Utah, the oil and gas drilling started to take over.

The desert highway became as busy as the streets of New York, filled with oil tanks, drilling trucks, "oversize load" hauling fracking equipment, etc. The Halliburton specialized trucks passed by me unmercifully close. They don't seem to like bikers, curiously enough.

The two days biking through the drilling area were the most dangerous period of the whole trip. The likelihood of being hit by a big truck increased exponentially. The joy of biking was totally destroyed by the busy drilling traffic. Not to mention that the desert itself became a dump ground of industrial waste, and the pristine landscape became a war zone of man and nature.

In Vernal, a 90-year-old man let me sleep inside of his house, and fed me breakfast. The lady at the grocery store, upon hearing my journey, gave me double the amount of pasta and meatball, at half the price.

Given the nerve-wracking, dangerous road traffic, and the increasing muscle fatigue, I started to check out the Greyhound bus schedule. But I resisted the temptation, and pushed on the next day.

On the 7th, continue to marvel at the magic of the desert. Feeling glad to not be on a bus.

However, the big wind showed no sign of retreating, only getting stronger every day around 3pm. That's when I saw two figures from afar, who turned out to be two sisters from Germany biking across the US.

They are American studies students from Germany, and have been on the road in the US for five months, with their simple bike and set up. We were very happy to share stories, while balancing the bike in the big wind, trying to ignore the oil trucks flying by.

I was traveling faster, so I said goodbye, and head toward the next town. A lady from the church let me stay in the church for the night, and use the shower there. By then, the wind has picked up so much that it was hard to stand up straight. Worried about the two fellow travelers, I went out on the street twice to find them, but could not. I almost gave up, and returned to the church. But in a few minutes, I heard the knock on the door, and it was the two German students, who stumbled their way to the church as well. It was almost like reunion with old friends. I guess the hardship of the travel builds stronger bond faster.

That night, I laid my sleeping bag right in front of the altar, and slept very well. Thought about using a Bible as pillow, but did not.

On the 8th, biked pass cheerful places like "Starvation Reservoir."

When the oil traffic finally became too life-threatening, a kind Mormon family gave me a ride for 50 miles, passing the drilling war zone. They dropped me off near the interstate highway, which was the only way to get into Salt Lake City. So I rode on the emergency shoulder of the freeway, and was going downhill at 51 miles an hour, on my bike. That was too suicidal. So, I got off the freeway, and took a detour, which added another hour of steep climbing, finally cruising down a canyon into Salt Lake City.

Friends here have treated me very kindly and generously, letting me stay in the guest room, and feeding me good food.

Met with a Marxist economics professor at the University of Utah, who is from China.

Spent a whole afternoon in the Temple Square -- the global headquarter of Mormons, talking to a dozen Mormon missionaries, and watching two hour-long documentary about their history. Interestingly, all the missionaries at the Temple Square are young female, representing a diverse nationalities and ethnicity. They showed me the picture of the current Twelve Apostles of the church, who, for some reason, happen to be all elderly white male.

Spent another whole afternoon at the craft and science fair that I stumbled upon. Picking up a brain,

Or checking out a photo booth:

Spent yet another afternoon going to the Sunday Mormon church service, where two young women missionaries just returned from their mission to Fiji and Chile. Afterward, had an eye-opening conversation with a former president of the Mormon missionary service in Russia. These conversation helped to balance many biases against Mormonism, and inspired a genuine interests to read the Book of Mormon with an open heart -- not trying to find faults with it, but trying to learn from it. A good student should not reject any teachers, but also not blindly follow. So, after Moby Dick, it would be the Book of Mormon on mp3.

The encounters with people of various believes and traditions have taught me this: look for what you can learn, not what you can criticize, but keep alive the critical thinking.


Anonymous said...

Hi Z - Your blog is amazing, Thanks for sharing your journey with those of us stuck at home with a job. I am enjoying your fresh, open perspective and look forward to each new post! May the wind be at your tail... - Keith

Sharyne said...

Zilong, I so enjoyed reading this chapter. Each one gets better. I think of you often and wondering how you are doing. Glad you are still hanging in there and experiencing so much. You are almost at your final destination! Be well and be safe my friend! Sharyne

karen thompson said...

Hi Zilong I have now retired and Bill and I are in Minneapolis visiting our son. He is the bike builder and has also been reading your blog - and enjoying it. We will be in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan for the next two weeks. The thing I am enjoying most is getting up early, walking to a nearby coffee house and sitting for a while in the morning. Then Bill and I go for a long walk in our son's neighborhood. Bill is very interested in your comments about Utah since he lived there and went to the University in Salt Lake. I loved all your comments about the redneck gun collectors. You are right that many American coastal people would be terrified to encounter one of these people. Your open mind and heart are beautiful. Love from the Thompsons

Anonymous said...

Along with others, I also enjoy reading about your life's experiences as you journey across the United States.
I truly believe that God's hand is involved in this adventure and He has graced you with this awesome opportunity for a reason.
My husband and I were in Chicago with our two youngest daughters, when we received the news of your visit to our home.
I have to admit that at first I was concerned when our older children had welcomed you into our home in Bellevue, Ohio because we were not home.
But after reading your journal, I was hooked.
I feel privileged that they were apart of it.
While at Mass in a beautiful Church in Chicago, "Old St.Patrick's" you came to my mind many times, especially in hearing these words of the entrance song,
"May you weave creative patterns,
with courage make your way, And may
God's strong love enfold you as you
greet each dawning day."
May God continue to Bless and Keep you, and may His Angels Guide and Protect you. Wishing you well on your journey,
Mary, The wife of the "Rocket Scientist"
P.S. Just in case you would like to continue listening to the
Holy Bible, The Catholic version contains 73 books. So that's 7 additional books.

Anonymous said...

So I saw you found A in Davis. I had thought about leaving you a comment to contact her given her Hamp connections but didn't get to it before you got there. Happy you have a great place to stay for the night and good luck with the last leg!! -Jane (Hamp Prof)