We Weren't Supposed to Have Been Here - The Great Unwind - CycleBlaze

April 23, 2017

We Weren't Supposed to Have Been Here

It's 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in the middle of April and I am walking around a basin in the Nevada desert fifty miles north of Las Vegas looking for a dead body.

I've been thinking about this moment for the last seven hours, wondering what I might find. Laying awake in my tent around 10:30 last night, I heard a truck start to head east from the highway up Kane Springs Road, the main gravel road that cuts across this basin and heads toward a couple of ghost towns and then the small but still living town of Caliente about sixty miles away. I listened to its engine rev as it pushed up each subtle incline, the noise amplified and turned into a guttural snarl by after-market exhaust pipes. I prayed in silence it would continue east and leave my wife and I to an evening of peace with the cool air and the chirping crickets and the loping jackrabbits.

It did not.

Thirty seconds after the truck charged its way into our world, I watched its headlights flash across the horizon in front of me. It had turned hard to the right. It was headed our way.

Except it wasn't exactly our way.

For some reason I'll never know, the truck did not turn down the road upon which my wife and I had set up our tent about a hundred feet from the edge four hours earlier. Most drivers would have, because that road is paved and smooth, a stretch of Highway 93 that was abandoned decades ago when a newer version was built a few miles to the west.

Instead the truck turned onto a parallel dirt road a few hundred feet farther on. It was down this road that I listened to the truck draw closer to us, exhaust chugging, headlight beams bouncing up and down and spotlighting the stubby creosote bushes covering the basin floor.

Then it slowed.

Then it stopped, no more than a thousand feet from us.

Then the engine turned off.

Doors opened; distant words spoken.

And then a single gunshot. It didn't ring out with a crack like one would expect on a windless night, but with a muffled, muddied pop.

Within moments, the doors closed, the engine fired to life again, and the truck returned down the road the way it came, before making another hard right turn and continuing east.

I let out a deep sigh, wiped my open palm down over my face from forehead to chin, then turned my head to the left to face Kristen.

"Did we just listen to a murder?" I asked.

*   *   *

We weren't supposed to have been here.

But yesterday evening we happened to be riding our bicycles east on Kane Springs Road, trying to shortcut our way around the high-speed traffic of U.S. Highway 93. We were twelve days into a tour of the American Southwest, having already pedaled more than 500 miles from Palm Springs, by way of Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Nevada's Desert Wildlife Refuge. But the soft dirt mixed in with the gravel on Kane Springs was giving us trouble. Even with full effort, Kristen was struggling to make five miles per hour on the flats. I couldn't do better than six or seven.

Four miles down the road, we agreed that we didn't have enough food and water to keep up such a slow pace for the thirty-five more miles we'd have to ride to reach pavement again. That's when we turned around, backtracked less than a mile, made our way down the old paved road, and pitched our tent with plans to return to U.S. 93 the next morning.

It was here that I lay awake all night staring up into the stars through the tent mesh, the muscles of my arms and chest shaking for the better part of an hour, my mind swimming with questions and anger:

What if there's a dead person laying on the rise just behind us?

If that's true, what if the truck's lights had shone on us after the fact? Would we have been killed too?

If it isn't, who drives out into the middle of nowhere, fires one shot from a silenced gun and then leaves?

What would our friends and family have done if something happened to us?

With all of this open desert around us, ninety miles from Las Vegas and forty miles from the closest town and hundreds of square miles from the nearest house, why the fuck did this have to happen?

This isn't even the first unnerving nighttime encounter we've had with strangers in the middle of nowhere this week. What the hell are we doing out here?

*   *   *

In the end, there's no dead body. There's not even a live body. It's just me, the desert, the circle of tire tracks that show where the truck turned around, and the mini-mart blueberry muffin crinkling in its package in my right hand.

None of the worst-case scenarios happened. Kristen and I are safe and sound. We will live to fart another day. Yet as the rocks and dirt of the basin floor crunch below the soles of my sandals, I know my spirit is broken all the same. As much as I love the vast and endless beauty of the American Southwest, this is not the America that I love. This is a place that is rugged and harsh, where cities and towns are few and far between, where highways are narrow and nasty, where it's easy to go a week without saying more than a few sentences to anyone else. It's a place where traveling by bicycle is a liability, not a privilege.

The America I love is one of small towns, quiet country roads, tidy city parks, historic-looking libraries, diners serving cheap but delicious breakfasts, and people who will say kind words to you or offer help you didn't even know you needed. It's a place where community still exists. It's a place where you don't have to lay awake at night wondering if you and the person you care about more than anything in the world are going to be killed or at least fucked with by a half-drunk hillbilly with a shotgun who's feeling equal parts boredom, anger, and indifference.

I know this America exists. Kristen and I both agree we're ready to rediscover it again.

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Comment on this entry Comment 5
Jeff LeeYeah, the Great Divide last year kicked my ass, and left me crying by the side of (or in the middle of) dirt roads multiple times. I blame the lack of cold drinks, snacks, ice cream and pizza every 20 or 30 miles.

Are you going to stick with the official TransAm route the entire time?
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4 years ago
Jim KerstingJeff and Kristen,

Whew that was one hell of a night. Too many "Breaking Bad" scenes in your head. I finished the ST yesterday and catching up on things I wonder about which includes your travels.

Will you continue with some updates?

My recent tour phased into a credit card trip after our leader who loves to camp pulled up lame and left at El Paso. I discovered that at age 70 and on my fourth XC trip I want a more cushy end to the day assuming it does not mess up the group. My two " bike wife " companions also prefer a room with a/c, shower etc. And so it goes.

I'm looking forward to reading more about your encounters with less remote wild settings than your Breaking Bad camp
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4 years ago
Jeff ArnimTo Jeff LeeWe're going to travel the TransAm as much as we can. I rode about half of it six years ago, but that still leaves a lot of new places. And I'd like to see how the places I enjoyed back then have changed. That said, we've run into some terribly busy and unsafe roads in the last few days in Virginia, so we've done some re-routing, like tomorrow when we're circling south around Charlottesville.
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4 years ago
Jeff ArnimTo Jim KerstingCongrats on finishing the Southern Tier! Of the three ACA cross-country routes, to my mind it's by far the hardest. California and Arizona can be totally brutal. We loved West Texas, but I know a lot of people don't feel that way. And the Deep South is, well, you've been there now; you know.

No shame about staying in motels. Whatever gets you out on the road, you know? Kristen and I are camping as much as we can on this trip, but we know it won't always be that way. And when it's time for a motel night, we treasure it. Riding a bike all day is hard work.

Look forward to more updates. We have cell service almost every day, so it's not nearly as hard to keep things current. Thanks for following along, as always.
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4 years ago
Tom IarossiJeff and Kristen, I'm glad I was able to find your journals again. CGOAB has taken on a weird, uncomfortable tone that leaves me unsettled about using it for my own musings.

In any case, congratulations on your family addition and the direction your lives have taken. Your writing is stellar, and when combined with your excellent photography it brings our shared love of bike touring to life.

I hope to be reading more of your adventures in the future.
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3 years ago