After three days in the desert fun,
I was looking at a river bed.
And the story it told of a river that flowed,
Made me sad to think it was dead. – America, A Horse With No Name
In theory, the plan was simple. I’d drive to Borrego Springs early in the morning and ride over to the Ocotillo Wells area, then up Fish Creek Wash to the Stagecoach RV park. Once there I’d meet up with my wife and parents and we’d have a picnic before heading home. Spring is a great time of year to be out in the desert… I’d get a nice training ride in…. everyone would have a nice day in the desert. Sounds like a simple enough plan, right? What could go wrong?
Well, for starters a car accident had taken out a telephone pole along the road and the quickest route to the desert from my house was blocked. A detour ensued which cut an hour from my ride time, an hour I desperately needed if I expected to get through this stretch in about 8 hours. Undaunted, I switched on my headlamp and hopped on the bike.
Riding through the desert in the predawn hours is always a treat, especially this time of year when it’s still a little cool in the mornings. The roosters were all crowing as I left Borrego headed off across the desert and started pedaling up one of those roads to nowhere that grace all desert landscapes. Luckily some artists had been busy placing a few statues in the scrub to break up the monotony. Unluckily that damn song “A Horse With No Name” began playing in my head and no, the horse does not have a name (nor does my trusty steed).
Part of the deal I had struck to get my family to buy into this little plan was to have my SPOT satellite tracker transmitting during the entire ride. That way they could track me and see how my progress was going and we could meet up without too much trouble. I’ve used my SPOT for years now and have never really had an issue with it (including 2 trips above the Arctic Circle). I know some people have had reliability problems with them but my transmitter unit is still going strong after all these years. Still I usually write down EXACTLY where I’m headed so that if I don’t return my wife knows where I’m planning on riding and can tell people where to look. For some odd reason I didn’t provide her with this info.
Hmmm… what could go wrong?
After riding paved roads for a while I exited onto one of the sandy tracks that lead through the Kane Springs area near Ocotillo Wells, where the ocotillos are definitely in bloom. I was following the route of the Stagecoach 400 unsupported “race” that is being held later this month. I’d been planning on racing, but sadly am now unable to do so as getting time off from work is a bit problematic these days. I was still curious to see what my water strategy would need to entail to get across this 55 mile stretch if I ever do the ride in the future.
Borrego Springs, Fish Creek Wash, Ocotillo Wells, Kane Springs… so many terms with “water” related to them in such an inhospitable landscape devoid of any appreciable moisture. If it’s not already patently obvious what’s of importance in the desert just take a look at the names given to the important places by those who’ve come before you. Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink – except for in the 100 oz in my Camelbak, a few liters in my frame pack and a spare bottle in the lower cage (just in case). In addition to water I of course had my ten essentials with me as whenever I do a ride like this I pack for a night out just in case something goes wrong. The desert is a big place, even if things usually never go wrong.
After all, what could possibly go wrong?
I’ve been through Fish Creek Wash a few times on my fat bike while training for snow bike races (riding in the sand is the closest thing I have to riding in snow) so I didn’t really take many photos, just snapped a few at things that caught my eye in the lower portion of the wash. Plus, my timetable was starting to lag a bit and I really needed to push through the wash, up and over Pinyon Mountain and down the other side. I’d forgotten how the steady climb in the wash (from sea level to almost 4000ft) takes its toll. While the lower portion of the wash was in good shape without much sand, the upper portion from Dave McCain Spring (which is near Whale Peak – there they go with the water-related names again!) was an unholy, sandy mess. In keeping with the metaphorical naming conventions of the desert, my progress slowed to sea turtle pace.
Take note that the photo narrative ends right here because by now I was panicking a bit. Not because I lacked water (I still had plenty) or was in any real trouble (my legs felt really good), but because it was becoming apparent that I was not going to make it to the pre-arranged pickup point in time. I started to fight the sand like a salmon swimming upstream, which in effect I was as I steadily climbed thousands of feet in the wash. There is no cell coverage out here so a reassuring phone call to my wife to explain the predicament was out of the question. The best I could do was to stop and send an “OK” message with the SPOT (different from the latitude/longistude coordinates that it transmits every ten minutes or so) to let them know I was still moving along without any issues other than the deep sand slowing me down.
All was well, that is, until all that pushing beyond my cardiovascular comfort zone began to take its toll. Now I started to bonk, which if you’ve ever completely exhausted your body’s energy supplies you know how difficult it is to bike efficiently. It’s like your feet are in molasses. You can move, but you can’t move fast. You can probably see where this story is headed much the same way that the old sea captains of the Anza Borrego Desert used to see all those whales while sailing up Fish Creek. I eventually showed up really, really late and caused much undue worrying for my family. Not to mention I spoiled the picnic. Bad Doughboy, bad – instead of retroactively asking “what could go wrong” you probably should’ve considered some of these things beforehand!
So in the interest of providing a Public Service announcement I will provide in bullet-point form the lessons of the day. These lesson also provide the answers to the question raised earlier “What could possibly go wrong?”:
(1) Using the “OK” button on your SPOT while it is in Transmit mode turns off the Transmit mode. If you don’t restart it, those that are watching your route history think that you’ve stopped (or died) at your last known point.
(2) Never try to fit an 8 hr pt to pt route into a 7 hr timeframe especially when your wife and parents are meeting you at the end for a nice picnic lunch
(3) Bottomless sand can turn an 8 hr ride into a 10 hr ride
(4) Always let someone know your EXACT route and don’t rely on your SPOT satellite tracker to tell the whole story about what you’re attempting
(5) Pushing beyond your limits when conditions don’t warrant it can turn a 10 hr ride into an 11 hr slog when you bonk terribly
(6) Be extremely thankful when your wife and parents are still waiting for you when you finally arrive at the pickup point 4 hrs late.
By the way, in case you didn’t notice you’ve just been vicariously across the desert by reading a post with no name. For some reason that seems sort of funny to me on a Monday afternoon.