Free to those who can afford it
“This door stays locked whether you’re in or out”, said Katie, my Warmshowers host and administrator for the church community centre we were standing in, in Crescent City, California. “Don’t worry if you forget any of the other things, but remember that!”. If it needed to be explained to other guests, it was plain to me why security should be an issue.
A few minutes earlier, as I’d approached the community centre building, someone I had taken for a passer-by had run towards me, calling to me as I pulled into the driveway. “You’re not allowed in there! It’s not for us!” he shouted. He was very fat, wearing a high-viz vest, carrying a rucksack. He seemed to have some kind of cognitive impairment. Katie had been waiting for me in her car on the driveway. She intercepted the overweight man-child and told him to go home and leave us alone. She opened the garage for me to bring my bike inside, and started giving me the tour. From her polished delivery you could tell she’d given this speech hundreds of times before. But something told me she liked doing it. It clearly wasn’t a chore. In the garage, at the end of the talk she said that the charge for staying is that guests have to give her a hug. She gave good hugs.
At the end of the tour (kitchen, towels, lights, sleeping arrangements, local place of interest) she emphasised security once again. “Don’t forget, locked, in or out. Our neighbour, who you met, and another man, seem to have a sixth sense for when that door is unlocked and they will be in here before you can stop them. The last time that one came in, it took four strong men to remove him. And the mess he made in the bathroom was unspeakable”. And with that, Katie said we were late for dinner.
She drove us round the corner to her own home, where husband, Daryl, son David, and fellow Warmshowers guest, Caspar, awaited. Katie has a dry sense of humour and radiates energy, her manner belying her years. Only her long white hair give away that she’s in her early seventies. She and Daryl had been friends for many years through the church she tells me, and she recently decided to accept him as her husband. He’s a gemstone cutter, and fifteen years her junior. When we arrive, Daryl is working a smoking skillet in the kitchen, frying quesadillas. The first thing he asks me is how many can I eat. I know you cyclists can eat, he says. Daryl sports a mane of black hair in hassidic-looking curls, and a ruddy complexion. He jokes and riffs with Katie, while incumbent guest Caspar looks on.
Caspar is German, although has lived in Vancouver for five years. He is now running from Canada to Patagonia. He is lean, shaven-headed, and as I will later discover, a Zen Buddhist. He’s been in Crescent City for a couple of weeks already, recovering from severe tendonosis that brought his running trip to a pause. He runs an average of 40 to 50km a day, pulling a trailer designed to carry infants. Some days he covered 70km, although he concedes that’s not sustainable.
Last to the table is Katie’s son, David. He’s visiting from Las Vegas, where he works as a dealer in a casino. There’s something 1970s about his slightly bouffant, side-parted hair and opulent Ned Flanders moustache.
Katie’s house is homely and unfussy. On a cold November night it is a treat to be welcomed and fed like this. Daryl has disregarded our original estimates of how much we can eat and just keeps it coming until we tap out. I ask David about his work in the gambling houses of Las Vegas, an alien world to me. He tells us he sees it as a fool’s game, but most people come with the intent to spend an allotted amount. “They’re on holiday and gambling is what they want to spend their money on”, he shrugs. He’s a dealer for poker and blackjack and has on occasion offered customers a chance to reconsider an unwise bet. But none have ever heeded his advice. “It’s like they want to lose,” he says. He never gambles in casinos himself, he doesn’t get the thrill his customers seem to experience. “The odds are heavily in favour of the house,” he confirms.
Back at the community centre, Caspar has bagsied the nursery room at the back of the building so I make camp on the sofa in the main function room. In the morning Caspar is away before I awake, so I have the place to myself. As usual, after a few long days in the saddle I’m in huge calorie deficit, so I spend most of the day between kitchen and sofa. Katie stops by and I ask if it’s okay to stay a few days – no problem, she says. I’m thinking this could be a good place to write. There’s wifi, tables, kitchen, bathroom, outside space, and because it’s not someone’s home there’s no need to conform to mealtimes and be sociable all day. Later I chat with Caspar. I gather he’s seen several cyclists pass through already, busily blowing through on their missions to get south before winter. He spends mornings swimming and meditating, and afternoons writing his blog and editing videos, all of which he accomplishes on his phone.
Churches offering shelter to travellers, especially bicycle travellers, are not uncommon in USA. The Warmshowers welcome is non-conditional and entirely secular. But my second morning there is Sunday, so the function room I sleep and work in is busy with congregation members in the morning. I say hi and exchange a few words, but I don’t attend the service. Caspar does, and spends the rest of the morning chatting with the other believers. I don’t mean to seem aloof, but I’m engrossed in my work. I observe the goings on and notice a one-armed guy on the edge of the main group. He is stick-thin, with a shaggy beard and straggly hair. He starts talking to me in an agitated, wheedling way, interrupted by a stutter and other verbal ticks. His words and meaning are unintelligible to me. I later realise he’s one of the sizeable community of homeless people in Crescent City, for whom the church community centre is a kind of base. I also come to understand that he is in fact the other person to whom Katie had referred, saying they need to be kept locked out when the building is not in use by the congregation.
Over the next few days I vary my writing places, working in the library in the mornings, a coffee shop in the afternoons and back at the church in the evenings. The majority of other library users are homeless. I am starting to wonder wonder what, if any is the difference between us? After all, I am also – in American parlance – a vagrant (no fixed abode, moving from one place to another). The difference is that I live that way out of choice, and with the benefit of savings in a bank account. I have not been forced to declare bankruptcy; I still have good credit.
In the church community centre, the sofa where I sleep is placed at one end of the large function room, under an uncurtained window. On several mornings I awake and notice that Matthew, the one-armed homeless man, is sleeping in the covered portico between the church building and the community centre. He sleeps directly on the concrete floor, with the thinnest of synthetic sleeping bags drawn over his skinny frame as a blanket. It is the middle of November, so nights are bitterly cold now (low single figures Centigrade). Usually Matthew packs up his swag before the verger arrives to unlock the church.
The stark difference in the welcome extended to travellers like me and Caspar and the local homeless population is a little unsettling. This is no criticism of the church’s or anyone else’s policy of hospitality. In every interaction with members of the homeless community the church representatives treated them with respect and patience. But Withnail had it exactly right: “Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t”.
Cheeses go with you
Heading south from Crescent City I rode hard and late for six days to reach San Francisco, where a friend had invited me to join his family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. On what should have been the day I reached the city, heavy rains were dampening my spirits and momentum, along with a strong headache from poor sleep, dehydration and back to back 130km days.
In the town of Point Reyes Station I ducked out of the downpour under a shop awning and dug out my supplies for lunch. From the next bench, a woman and her son smiled at me, a welcome boost on a dreary day. “Wow, you’re on a big trip. There’s a story here. Tell us?”, she said. Between mouthfuls, I explained the backstory. When she heard how I was aiming to reach San Francisco City that day, she screwed up her face, indicating the unpleasant afternoon and evening I had in store if I went that way. She offered to give me a lift to the city’s light railway system. I could take that into downtown, cutting out the multi-lane freeway I’d have to ride for 50km otherwise. I weakly protested that I want to ride the whole way. I also had a mental image of swooping down the hill at sunset above the Golden Gate Strait, and riding across the iconic bridge. But in the pouring rain, I knew it was an unattainable fantasy.
Searching out a route on her phone, Jeanne mentioned another possibility. She could drop me at the Larkspur ferry terminal, from where I could take a boat across the Bay, past Alcatraz Island, right into the heart of downtown. Boats are always a much more attractive option, so this seemed like an excellent idea. On the way to the parked car, Jeanne and her son, Harry, went off in search of the loo while I waited outside a swanky deli shop.
Once again the bike drew the attention of passers-by and before I knew it I was explaining my life to a family of out-of-staters, visiting for the holidays. The pater familias, a mountain of a man called Todd or Buck or something similar, asked if I’d been inside the deli, Cowgirl Creamery, and tried the amazing cheese – it’s famous y’know! I explained that I’m sure it is, but that California delis were beyond my modest budget. Well that won’t do at all, says Todd or Buck or Rip, I want you to have some cheese, I’m giving you $20 – go and enjoy it! I decline, saying thanks, but I never accept money. I’m not in need of financial support, I just want to be careful how I spend the money I have. Todd or Buck or Rip or Hank won’t take no for an answer. He clasps my hand between his massive paws, shaking it and depositing a $20 note when he releases me from his grasp. I look at it and then at the beaming faces of my over-eager benefactor and his family. Okay, that’s very kind, I tell them. I’m grateful, I’ll buy some cheese and take it to the Thanksgiving dinner I’ve been invited to.
Then, before I knew what was going in, the family closed ranks and huddled round, arms over each other’s shoulders, with me a link in the circle. It all happened with such choreographic ease that I was caught unawares. Big Todd started extemporising a prayer, thanking Jesus for bringing us together and then “Jesus go before Dan on his journey and protect him from evil doers who would harm him”. The gratitude I can stomach. The paranoia about ‘evil-doers’ and self-righteous, pre-emptive defence I can live without. Once free of the prayer scrummage, I noticed that Jeanne and Harry had returned and looked on with bemusement. I thanked the family for the gift and headed into the shop to spend it before I got grabbed again.
It was bloody good cheese, though.
My mouth is open so wide my jaw aches. Dr Heejay Cheung leans in for a closer look.
“Oh, this is interesting,” says Dr Cheung. “Are you a grinder?”.
Umf, what? Am I on Grindr? Eh?
“Yes, I’m sure, I think you’re a grinder!” she says triumphantly, like a fossil hunter finding a rare specimen.
Dr Cheung is petite in stature, her movements are quick and precise. She is a ballet dancer when not practising high-end dentistry, a fact I know because I am here through a kind of cycling six degrees of separation. Dr Cheung is a dance student of Liesel, who is the girlfriend of Mike, a traveller I’d met in Baku, Georgia, three and half years ago, who reached out on Facebook and offered me a place to stay if I came through San Francisco.
A few weeks back I’d chipped the cusp of a molar (one that had been repaired a few times already) and it was in need of increasingly urgent attention. Bad luck for me that it was during Thanksgiving, the main national holiday week in USA. Telephone enquiries revealed long waiting times just for an introductory consultation – it didn’t look good for a quick turnaround. So I was especially grateful to my friends for pulling a few strings, and to Dr Cheung for squeezing me into her full schedule.
Denta-phobic at the best of times, I had braced myself for the worst. But Dr Cheung was reassuring. In one long visit she could fix the chipped cusp and a couple of fillings that needed replacing. Her delicate movements belied her formidable physical strength. “Cancel my next appointment,” she said to her assistant halfway through. “We have to work quickly, he’s bleeding a lot,” as she wrestled a clamp into place. Then to me, “Try to relax. The more adrenaline you make, the more saliva there is.”
A decidedly un-relaxing two hours later, I staggered back to Mike’s townhouse and collapsed. For the next two days I was physically wiped out, with barely the energy to stay awake between meals. Back at the surgery a few days later for a follow up, I asked Dr Cheung if that’s normal, is it a side-effect of the anaesthetic or just the stress of the surgery? It’s not unusual, she said, and then admitted that she was herself very tired after such a long procedure. She wants to make me a night guard to stop me grinding my teeth when I sleep, and I’m perplexed why no dentist in my home country ever mentioned it. “We’re more about prevention in USA,” she explains.
A few days later I mention the experience to a cycling buddy of Mike’s. When he hears that my route will take me to Mexico in about a month he comments on the irony. Many people from California go to Mexican border towns that specialise in dentistry for more affordable treatment. But waiting another month to arrive in Mexico was not an option in my case, and really I was happy to pay for the reassurance of treatment in an English-speaking practice. The greater irony was that Dr Cheung is Korean (her parents emigrated to USA when she was a child), a country where I’d had health insurance that I never used during my thirteen months working there (I hadn’t needed it). Dentists in the city where I’d lived in Korea had a fearsome reputation, and English was not widely spoken.
The final bill takes my breath away. San Francisco is the most expensive city in USA, making it one of the most expensive in the world. But the peace of mind was priceless.
The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse
My departure from San Francisco was delayed by early winter storms, which dumped heavy snows on the Sierra Nevada. With less than a month remaining on my US visa waiver, I made an ambitious plan to cut east across Nevada to visit the canyons and national parks of Utah and Arizona. Roads in front and behind were closing for the season, and I was forced to detour north to enter Nevada. Riding in freezing darkness I arrived in the onion-farming town of Yerrington. I begged water from a service station, where the friendly attendant told me she and her husband were unicyclists. Another customer took an interest and suggested I could camp in the picnic area at the town park, a few blocks away.
I normally avoid camping in towns, for security and for a noise-free night. But I’d had pretty good recent experiences camping close to civilisation along the California coast and then in snowbound parking lots and municipal recreation sites in small towns over the sierra. It was late, and the customer was a local business owner, a reliable and upstanding member of the community, so the advice seemed sound. I found a covered picnic area with power points, under security cameras. All seemed in order, so I pitched the tent, ate dinner and was getting my head down when suddenly a police truck pulled up, its lights flooding my camp. I went out and explained that I was just there for the night on a long cycle journey. I mentioned by name the local business owner who had recommended I camp there. The deputy was relaxed and curious about my trip, and left me to it.
Hours later, well after midnight, my tent was flooded with light and engine noise once again. Another squad car, another officer. I stayed inside the tent and shouted that I’d already spoken with Deputy Rixson, so I’m all checked out. This new officer paid no mind to that, and just kept on robotically with what sounded like a prepared spiel.
“I’m here to tell you that camping is not permitted here,” he said. “But you are already here and it’s very late and freezing, so if you need a place to stay you may sleep in the PD lobby.” [police department?]
I told him again that I’d already spoken with another deputy who said it was fine for me to stay. That I’m perfectly okay, warm enough, I’d rather just stay where I was, thank you. Satisfied that he’d done his duty, the cop repeated himself a few more times then left me in peace.
I drifted back to sleep, relieved and slightly amused. Later still, in the freezing dead of night I awoke again, this time to the loud ‘pud pud pud’ of a single-cylinder Harley Davidson motorcycle. I heard it approach from a distance on a road separated from the park by a large grassed area. Then it turned a corner, the chugging engine noise receding momentarily then returning as the bike entered the parking area adjacent to me. My mind raced and my heart thundered. What possible innocent reason was there for riding around in the freezing December night and pulling up next to me in a deserted park?
The rumbling engine cut dead. Twenty metres away I heard the crunch of heavy boots on ice crystals on the ground. Slowly pacing, Crunch, crunch, crunch. Towards me, then in a slow circuit of the covered shelter. Every muscle in my body tensed, I waited breathless, mentally preparing for a fight or flight and cursing the decision to leave behind my bear spray in San Francisco. Silence. Time slowed to a crawl. Crunch, crunch. Then silence again. In my mind, an image of the interloper, and, bizarrely, Nicolas Cage’s voice reciting his dream in the film Raising Arizona, “I drifted off thinking about happiness, birth and new life, But now I was haunted by a vision of… He was horrible. The lone biker of apocalypse. A man with all the powers of Hell at his command. He could turn turn the day into night and lay to waste everything in his path.”
I wished it was a dream, but this actual lone biker was now within a few metres of my tent. I recalled the blinking red LEDs on the security cameras at both ends of the shelter I was in. I can only assume the Phantom Hell’s Angel saw them too, because the crunching footsteps resumed and then the motorcycle engine farted back to life again. It pud-pudded around the block once more, then receded, noisily, gradually, back to whatever frozen underworld it came from.
In the cold, grey light of dawn I cooked oatmeal and coffee and shook my head in disbelief at the number of disturbances during one night camping in this otherwise sleepy town. Then, another visitor in my camp. A friendly face! Ron, the husband of the garage attendant Sheila from the night before. I’d briefly met him as I was leaving the service station. He’d read my blog and came to find me on his unicycle, ‘walking’ his dogs. Dreaming of making a trans-America unicycle journey with Sheila, Ron was full of enthusiasm for wheeled adventures. We chatted while I finished my porridge, my night-time visitations seeming more surreal and distant by the moment.
From there on I stuck to stealth camping in USA. And made a mental note to acquire pepper spray once south of the border.
Nevada turned out to be a sleeping giant – a state I’d had zero expectations about gave some of the best cycling in USA. That is if you like arrow straight roads across vast high plains, into infinite horizons. One such road is Highway 375, otherwise known as the Extra-terrestrial Highway, for the number of UFO sightings and its passing the fabled Area 51, where the remains of the Roswell Incident are said to be kept. For me it was a handy, traffic-free shortcut across the northern reaches of the Mojave Desert into Utah. There would be little by way of resupply on this 200km or so run, just one tiny settlement around halfway where I hoped to obtain water.
This was to be the pay-off for a couple of days on Interstate 95, busy with heavy trucks, past desert brothels and, near Hawthorne, the world’s biggest ammunition depot. Twenty depressing kilometres of silos, bunkers and barracks. In the window of the town’s visitor centre was a cartoon of Santa Claus riding a missile, waving his hand in the air like Slim Pickens riding the falling bomb at the end of Dr Strangelove.
I stocked up in the desert way-town of Tonopah. I asked the owner of a hardware store about water on the road I would take out of town. She shook her head, and said she’d never been down that road. In her late thirties, she had yet to feel sufficiently curious to travel down this route, one of only five roads out of her middle-of-nowhere hometown. “We just drive to Las Vegas and fly wherever we want to go. I don’t think there’s anything down the road you’re talking about.” A few customers said more or less the same, they didn’t know, but they doubted it. One was kind enough to phone a relative who had better knowledge of that road, to ask whether the roadhouse at Warm Springs still operated. She didn’t think so.
I loaded enough water for two days and headed out of Tonopah heading towards the ET Highway. The mild daytime temperatures plummeted as soon as the sun set. In Nevada I experienced some of the coldest night-time temperatures of my entire trip, around -18°C (only on the Tibetan plateau have I experiened similar). Frost and ice formed on the inside of my tent as well as on the outside, which I had to scrape off with an expired bank card in the morning. I set my sights on the village of Rachel, around 140km away. It reputedly had a motel, restaurant and free camping with water. Once again the early sunset (just after 4pm) caught me out with a long way to go. I determined to press on, the chance of a hot meal in a warm room spurring me up a long climb that reduced me to slumping over the handlebar, forcing snack bars into my mouth. I was in this position a few kilometres from the summit when I heard then saw a truck approaching. I was sure they’d stop and check on me, as had the two or three other vehicles I’d seen that day. Would I accept a lift if they offered it? I didn’t know. I was more or less at the top, but there was still a 17km descent to Rachel.
I didn’t get to find out if I’d cave in or not. The truck just blew past me, indifferent. I scarfed another mouthful, pulled myself up the last mile of climb, and threw on heavy winter mitts and wind-proofs for the long freezing descent.
The tiny, distant lights of Rachel took forever to get closer. It was 8pm when I staggered up to the restaurant door of the Little A’Le’Inn. My heart sank. The sign said closed. But signs of life within encouraged me to try the door anyway. Inside the staff were closing up, but a couple of regulars were still drinking at the bar. The grizzled old boy sitting nearest the door saw me and shouted, “Holy crap! We passed you on the road. You looked like you were done for! You got down here fast!”. Jeff had been driving back from his mineral prospecting operation to the motel, where it seemed he was a seasonal resident. He bought me a drink and congratulated me on being a crazy sumbuck.
The motel staff apologised that the kitchen was closed, but they could make a sandwich. I explained I had food, I just needed water and somewhere to camp. The girl behind the counter looked at me a moment. “You are not camping. You’re having a room”, she said emphatically. I’d seen the tariff and it was way out of my league. I told her I couldn’t afford it, but she wasn’t listening. She pushed the register in front of me. “You’re having a room,” she repeated. “Put your name there. Jeff, this is going on your tab.”
Videos from this part of my trip: