“All the children are insane, waiting for the summer rain…” – James Douglas Morrison
During the peak of the summer season intense solar heating chars the Southwestern USA like ants beneath the focused rays of a magnifying glass in the hands of a bored, sadistic child. As surface temperatures increase, a trough of low pressure called a thermal low develops over the region resulting in a shift of wind patterns that sends moisture laden air flowing from Baja’s Gulf of California and the Eastern Pacific into these usually dry desert regions. Most commonly called the monsoon, the phenomenon is also known by an alternate name: annoyingly hot and sticky weather to ride a bike in.
When the monsoonal flow kicks in, weird things happen in the dry deserts of the Southwest. In southern California, moist air fills the desert basins to the rim until, provided with lift by the mountains of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, it billows skyward into the normally cloudless skies and produces thunderstorms of epic proportions that can be seen all the way from the coast. These storms often send torrents of water rushing down the washes and canyons obliterating everything in their path many miles from where the rain is actually falling. The desert is not dry in summer.
While those distant thunderstorms rarely reach beyond the western foothills of the mountains, in the evening the sparks from their electrical frenzy light the eastern skies to the delight of anyone living along the coastal strip that can tear themselves away from the glowing screen of the television and watch. With their thunder unheard they remain at arm’s reach like fireflies dancing across the 50 mile meadow that is the coastal plain. The display can be mesmerizing. I love this time of year.
Except for when I’ve got a ride planned for the mountains above Palm Desert and the monsoon is starting to kick in, then it’s just annoyingly hot and sticky weather that needs to be dealt with (not to mention the chance of getting struck by lightning). So when I left the trailhead at 7:30AM this past Sunday with the mercury already over 90 degrees I was not feeling the love for the monsoon, especially when I noticed that clouds were already starting to build off in the sweltering distance.
It would’ve been nice to have a little rain to keep the dust down, but as I rolled on down the trail the water droplets bided their time just beyond reach while jealously guarding their moisture in the heavens. To prime the pump I rained drops of sweat down upon the parched earth but it didn’t work: the clouds began to dissipate under the intense heat of the sun. It was going to be a hot one. Who am I kidding? It was already hot.
I had met another rider at the trailhead, an odd occurrence for this place in the summer. Most people avoid the desert this time of year but for some reason this guy was out riding. Honestly, I’m not sure why I was riding since as much as I enjoy breaking the monotony of the summer with a thunderstorm, I hate the heat. He asked which way I was headed, and when I told him my route he suggested an alternate path down a trail I’d never ridden.
“On your way back just head up here for a bit toward the horse camp, then turn right. Follow the tire tracks – all paths lead to the tunnel. You can’t miss it”
As I thanked him he turned and rode off in the direction I was headed while repeating his last words.
“All paths lead to the tunnel. You can’t miss it”
The day dragged on as I sipped from my Camelbak and rode beneath wide skies along the undulating scars of topography that previous storms have left upon the earth. When my Camelbak emptied I switched to the piss warm bottles on my frame then popped some electrolyte pills as the temperature rose to at least 105 degrees. Hot spots rose along the rim of each canyon like embers from a fire, driving the temperature even higher for short stretches. The clouds had dissipated and the sun became a silent, unrelenting curse upon my lips. Muttering under my breath about the monsoon, I turned to retreat back to the car and find the path the rider at the trailhead had suggested.
At this elevation there is some scrub vegetation to provide shade to hide beneath but it’s not much. Not being acclimated to the heat, after 4 hours in the sun I had wilted like lettuce beneath a heat lamp at one of those fast food restaurants where E. Coli has its own punchcard beside the timeclock. Lizards scurried away just out of tire’s reach doing their reptilian thermo-regulation dance between the forces of hot and cold. I flicked my tongue across my dry lips and wished for cold blood. When I saw the tunnel up ahead I raced toward it as if it were an oasis in the desert… which it kinda was.
But there’s no place to hide in the desert, not even from yourself, especially when you’re dehydrated and cowering in the shade of a creepy tunnel because you hate the heat and know at some point you need to move along, finish the ride and find a nice cold beverage to down in one huge gulp. It’s enough to make a guy scream.
Eventually I did leave the relative safety of the tunnel and slowly pedal back through the heat daze on some marvelous singletrack to the trailhead. After all, this tunnel is just the sort of place people drown in during flash floods. It’s feast or famine in the desert with a savage beauty whose wisdom only the dehydrated mind’s eye can truly see.