85.65 Miles; 7,158 Feet of Gain; Table Mountain, CA to Palmdale, CA
Today, we planned a big exodus out of the range of Bernadino Mountains and out towards the true Mojave Desert all low with scrub and Joshua trees. A significant and widespread newscast warning had been blanketed across southern California and all the way up the coast warning of an "Extreme Heat Warning" where temperatures were to spike well above 100 degrees and that outdoor activities should be curtailed. Our plan was to bike all the way to Palmdale today, stay in a hotel with AC, then get up tomorrow in the middle of the night to make our large Mojave Desert crossing. But that entailed us covering over 80 miles, 7,000+ feet of gain, and nearly 13,000 feet of loss today. This, we knew, would be a big day and push us physically. Although the heat warning really started tomorrow, we were already in 100+ degree F temperatures. I could feel it in the blood of my veins with thirst and balance of electrolytes constantly on my brain. Table Mountain provided a cool and perfect night's sleep on high to prepare us for a 4 am wake-up to bike almost the entire Angeles Crest.
My watch alarm went off at 4 am, and it was plenty dark out still. I had slept terribly perseverating on the early wake up and how we were to accomplish what we planned to do today. My mind was racked with anxiety about the coming desert, the heat warning, and whether I could handle it. But when that alarm went off at 4, adrenaline coursed my vessels and I sprung up. We quickly packed in the dark with headlamps and jackets on. Light crept gray and sure across the mountain ranges. Mentally I was contrasting my present situation of bundled jacket and hat with the sure late-day expectation of unbelievable heat. But it was time to go. We shoved some snacks in our mouths (no time for a proper breakfast this morning) and sped down the campground road to meet back up with the Angeles Crest Highway.
We biked about a mile down the road when Janna suddenly pulled over. She turned and asked me if I could hear a noise coming from her bike. I told her to bike back by me and an very audible squeaking could be heard. It was coming from one of her One Up Components pedals. My stomach dropped. Back in April, I had the same model on one of my own bikes for a few weeks when it began seizing up. It ended up seizing so bad on a 70 mile ride that I ended up with the bike flipped over on the side of the road using an Allen wrench with all the leverage I had to get it off. I failed. When I took it to a bike shop in Flag, they couldn't even get it off without a massive lever and several employees working at once. It seems the spindle had fused into the pedal body permanently. The company sent me a replacement, but I didn't trust the same thing wouldn't happen again. Janna had no issue with the same pedal for months. And now, on an 80+ mile day, it was starting to seize. We pulled out Google Maps knowing that the clock was ticking. There most certainly was a bike shop down in Palmdale.
We were at a crossroads up on the Angeles Crest. The official Sierra Cascades continued along the length of the San Gabriel mountains before cresting and making its way down into Palmdale. To our rights lay a Google Maps route that dropped us immediately off and down to the desert below. The alternate would shave off 35 miles from the day. Plus, it was only a matter of time until the pedal froze up completely and wouldn't even rotate; a when not an if. Being down there would afford us an easier opportunity to get help. But we'd be riding in low Mojave all day, for some still 50 miles. And we'd completely miss riding the entirety of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles Crest Highway. The longer we debated, the more daylight and heat ticked forward. Janna resolutely said, "We are riding the official Sierra Cascades route if it takes me standing on the pedal and bike all day."
Angeles Crest and mountain-miles it was.
But first, I quickly used a single bar of reception to text my mom of our situation in case the pedal became an absolute mechanical fail and we needed someone to know where we were. My mom rapidly texted back that she'd look into AAA taking us if needed. A second text conveyed that she had a seen a report on the national news about the extreme heat warning all up and down where we were riding. And then the phone reception completely blinked out.
Janna and I turned our wheels away from the alternate and stared at a climb yanking us further into the mountains and ravishing in the morning fade coming on from night. It was a commitment moment of absolutely assuredness, partnership, no turning back, and agreement to problem-solve whatever came. We started climbing. The route wound us into trees upwards as dawn had not yet revealed the entirely of sunlight upon the Earth. A sign for a crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail popped up. My mind focused in on how this route was parallel to the trail. I kept thinking I had no idea how the day would end. But all I could do was pedal into beauty. The curve rounded and suddenly Inspiration Point Vista and a pull-off opened up. It was at this precise moment that the sun crested high enough in the sky behind us to kindle orange light textured horizontally on the upper faces of the mountain peaks around us. We both stopped our bikes and stared at awe at Mt. Baden-Powell, all contrast of sun and night. That was a dawn to invigorate me, to compel me forward despite the uncertainties embedded in the ride.
We stuffed our jackets with the sun's greeting; heat was on its way. Snacks were shoved into our mouths as we got on the bikes and Janna's pedal continued to seize and squeal. "Let's goo!!!!" was all we could think. We pedaled onwards past the COVID-closed Grassy Hollow Visitor Center and several cars long-term parked for PCTers out backpacking. I just kept drinking in the morning light making the mountains, trees, and sage simply incredible. We pedaled with purpose down a descent towards Vincent Gulch Divide where we started a roundabout on the flanks of Mt. Baden-Powell. To our rights the San Gabriel range tumbled pine-peaks down to desert-floor, hot streaked plains reaching to the horizon. It was still cool where we moved because the leeward shadow of the mountain fell on us.
The light cuts perfect rays along the rock tops. It is all profile and exposed. All is felt. Up and down, up and down. I keep my head forward and eyes on getting through today. I catch Janna and can see her pushing hard on her right pedal to compensate for the seizing in the left. But she is upbeat with an internal fire to push through today. Pine trees cut the side views. I feel so alive with the rising temperature. As some consistent crunch, we pump up to Dawson Saddle at 7900 feet and feel the downhill to come. Benefit? - Janna doesn't have to pedal which saves the seize for a later climb. We drop chain into high gears and let fly. The downhill is long, smooth, winding, and jettison's into new views of the heart of the San Gabriels. Another quick turn around granite cliffs. The Angeles Crest Tunnel comes roaring into view as a long dark tunnel cut into the flank of Mt. Williamson. I reach back to flick my rear light on and embrace the sequence of night.
We exit the tunnels into streaming hot morning light. It smacks us hard as descent brings up temps. A number of signs on the road warn of an upcoming closure of the entire Angeles Crest for several hours. Janna and I exchange glances and barrel past the signs. Commitment is now. Massive burn scars wipe the mountainside of green and replace it with recent brown char. We swing into Buckhorn Day Use Area where we lean our bikes against the picnic tables for a quick leg break, snack, and drink opportunity. The shade is welcome. There's a PCT hiker here. He tells us the entire PCT across the Angeles Crest is closed due to the wildlife of recent months' past. Every hiker we see from here will be road-walking the entire highway down to Palmdale. Janna and I are grateful to be on bikes where these pavement miles are sweet and fast while every PCT thru-hiker must walk for days through a burn scar on pavement shoulders. As we turn to leave, several minivans pulls in. Turns out it's a bunch of a PCT angels setting up shop to deliver water to road-walking backpackers. With the official route closed, reliable water in the hills is out of reach for everyone. They're here to make up the difference. We've got plenty of water and decline the offer, but there's already another batch of PCTers hiking up behind us and moving in for those trail angel vans.
Janna and I zip down the highway once more. It's officially hot and noon isn't even here. I'm quickly calculating in my head the best way to cover our miles through the lowest, hottest canyons. I decide if we can make those crossings before noon, we'll be solid. I bet we can do that before noon, and I promise myself to. But we still have Janna's pedal to contend with which is now heating up for the torsion of metal grinding metal internally. A sign for the big closure comes up. We confidently zoom past it and a make-shift fence placed across the road. The closure is for about 5 hours, but doesn’t start for 10 minutes. We're not sure what to make of it as we coast by a revved up series of brand new sports cars and a massive camera truck with videography equipment on crane stretched across the road. It's a sports car commercial for TV. The whole crew waves at us as we pass, a few shouting out hurrahs for our speed and what we're obviously doing. It's pretty awesome and stokes me up. We round another bend with a another bit of climbing for several thousand feet.
It's the desert-mountains now, the day is growing, and the altitude weaning. Heat is here. Sweating is strong but the legs are pumping. Janna and I reach a turn for Chilao Campground where we turn off-route to find the only water source around. The campground is nearly deserted given the heat. There's some scrub-tree shade, but not extensive. A single RV, shabby but used, sits in one sole site. We hope that water is indeed on given the COVID closures. It is, but the first faucet we come to has a big sign hung over it saying that this is one is turned off due to bacterial contamination. Janna and I split up to find one with water on. I find one, fill my water, and treat it assuming that a single source feeds the campground; probably all faucets are contaminated. I meet back up with Janna who tells me she found her own faucet that worked. Except, she drank from it directly because there wasn't a sign. My eyebrows raise, and I tell her that I suspect that all are contaminated. We hope for not but decide to stop by an additional kiosk in the campground to check for posts. A big sign says all sources are contaminated with bacteria. Janna starts to freak out thinking she drank a load of gut-emptying microorganisms. I hedge and say that there's no guarantee, but that a significant volume would most likely need to be consumed (and she only had a few sips): the greater the contamination load, the greater the likelihood of illness. Her volume was sufficiently small as to make improbable the likelihood of her getting sick. But she can't shake the fear that she's going to get an intestinal eruption in a few days' time during our low-desert crossing in the immense heat.
That definitely deflates her internal fire. That, and her pedal is straight-up refusing to rotate on its spindle unless she really applies some force. But it's hot, so we need to move. We do, pushing out into the rapidly aridifying landscape. I'm really feeling the heat now. It's approaching 100 degrees, and I can tell. The ridge ride takes us along a massive canyon edge where roasting rock breathes up the heat of summer. Suddenly, we turn a curve and run into the first two cyclists we have seen touring on this route besides us. They're heading in the opposite direction but both groups decide to stop and talk. They aren't doing the Sierra Cascades, but are taking their own route starting in LA, heading across the ranges, and ending just north of San Diego. We push on after seeing them wondering how infrequented the route is. When we did a bike tour down the Pacific Coast Highway, it was jam-packed with cyclists. This route has been empty in both directions. We keep pedaling until a slew of day riders kitted out with carbon frames and matching jerseys start pedaling by.
The Sierra Cascades takes a right off Highway 2/Angeles Crest and onto the Angeles Forest Highway north down to Palmdale. At the Clear Creek intersection, there's a closed USFS fire station where we prop our bikes in the shade and walk around to see if any external spigots are turned on for water. All my desire is just douse my body in cold water to lower my core temperature. A day rider comes up from the opposite direction and stops to talk with us. He says its well above 100 down in the suburbs of LA where he just biked from. He tells us to be careful, and that we shouldn't expect any water on the north side where we are looking to ride. He heads off. I look down sullenly at my watch that says it's 11:30. We will hit the lowest point in the canyon at almost exactly noon - the exact time I was hoping NOT to be there given the heat. No matter, onwards we pedal.
The ride down to Big Tujunga Creek is gorgeous, albeit, sweltering under the heat of the day. We get to the Big Tujunga Narrows Bridge at 12:00 pm noon under the direct light of midday summer sun on the dot. I accept this outcome and stop to take some photos. It's easily 112 degrees F here in the stomach of rock around us. Every breath feels like it sucks moisture from my lips, skin, and lungs. I shift into Phoenix-mode with my water-usage and consumption. Between the years 2013 - 2016, I always would ride up South Mountain after work, even in the middle of summer when temperatures would be 118 degrees. I would avoid opening my mouth, hold a gulp of water in it without swallowing, and allow the moisture to cool the membranes therein. I resorted to the strategy and pushed on with Janna.
Janna and I are riding purposefully slow now to avoid over-stressing our bodies and keep our sweating to a minimum. The key is rhythmic, consistent pedal strokes, conserved body motion, and continued output of work. The highway goes through Hidden Springs Tunnel for a quick reprieve of shade before taking us alongside and above the canyon containing dry Miller Creek. Janna and I reach the USFS Monte Cristo Fire Station where a lone tree sits outside spilling a handful of mottled shade on the oven-ground. We beeline it over and stand underneath what small shade is there. A thermometer outside the station has an upper range of 105 degrees and the arrow is pressed firmly past it to the end-point where no graduations exist. It's hot. We debate whether we should leave this station or not given the unbelievable temperatures. I check the Adventure Cyclist Association maps and see the original campground we had planned to camp at is coming up (good thing we are skipping it). "Let's push there," I say. We do.
The climb along the shoulder to the Monte Cristo Campground is cooked-blacktop and sauna-sun above. The canyon to our rights comes closer, and we turn off and into the completely empty USFS campsites. It's baking, but there are large sycamore and cottonwood trees in full leaf, meaning shade is abundant despite the 110+ degree F temperature. And not only that, the water spigots are turned on and full of potable, cold water. Both of us rush to them and immediately begin dumping bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle of breath-sucking frigid water over our heads. It seeps down our necks and brings sharp stinging salt from the copious sweat of our heads down into our eyes. No matter. Keep dousing. Douse again and again until the core temperature falls and you feel remarkably human once more. I wash my face; I lay under a spigot and pump goddamn water down my stomach and back. I'm alive, alert, and feeling recharged. I step into the shade of the trees where the sun's direct drain reaches not. Evaporative cooling's pace is quick and immediate there in that summer canyon setting, and I'm loath to leave this campground. We have a serious debate about this. Push ahead to Palmdale or stay where shade and water prevail (despite ambient air temps in the triple digits)? - that is the discussion.
We have 2000 feet of desert peak ascent ahead of us to cross one more range before we even get the chance to drop down to the sprawling city. Janna says if we stay we'll have a terrible night's sleep and have to do these miles tomorrow morning without a chance for resupply. I cede to her position. But we're going to take a long break here. Each of us dries and walks back over to dump more and more cold water on ourselves. We take salt pills, eat some food, and drink tons of water. It's indulgent rehydration coupled with aware electrolyte-consumption. Our bodies are remarkably strong feeling. So there it comes - the need to continue on. I douse myself to a sopping mop-quality before jumping on the bike and heading back into desert-mode with calm, consistent, and direct pedaling up the ascent. I allow myself a look at the landscape and can see the highway climbing thousands of feet ahead of us over the distant desert pass. I can feel a pulse of panic rise in me as I realize the difficulty of what is coming.
The climbing is excruciating in the heat. I feel like I can barely make it in the heat. My mind is racked with anxiety over getting rhabdo again (that constant-pressing fear). Janna pulls far ahead, feeling on fire again even those her pedal is literally shaving shards of metal out of the end and near the threads and barely rotating. I can't keep up. There is nothing to do but put my head down and keep pedaling. The highway shoulder begins to narrow to nothing. Large semis and trucks start passing as they come up and over from LA heading out to Palmdale. The traffic is intense, the day is deep in heat, and the hill keeps climbing thousands of feet. I feel like my quads/hamstrings are degrading in the temperature. I reach the top of Mill Creek Summit Area some time later - I'm not sure. The heat blurred it all. A single pit toilet building sits there. I go in, relieve myself (and find relief from normally-colored pee) before I step out into the heat and join Janna who has been standing in a sliver of shade.
She feels victorious, as do I. It's downhill now through Tie Canyon into the outskirts of Palmdale. We have reception again and my phone lights up with a thousand texts from my family. The heat wave hitting the area is all over the national news. They send a USA Today article about the heat wave exactly where we are at smashing records. They haven't heard from us all day since the single message about the pedal early this morning. I write them back quickly and tell them we are on our way to Palmdale and only 20 miles out. Immediately we jump back onto our bikes and get going. The goal is AC inside the Motel 6 and a stop at the bike shop to get Janna's pedal fixed before the shop closes.
The desert mountains become desert hills and then desert flatlands brown and dead in the mid-summer Mojave. The air feels like a blow dryer to the face as it cools to 106 degrees F coming into town. But that downhill heat-wind sucks all moisture from me. Janna and I wind down a highway shoulder through neighborhoods where the first Joshua trees of the trip pop up. The highway merges onto the side shoulder of massive I-14/Sierra Highway. It's nearly 4 lanes on either side - and we are on the shoulder. The intoxicating smell of car-fume snorts up nostrils in the heat making a small headache blossom. I suddenly realize we have to cross four lanes of back-to-back heavy rush hour traffic to get in a left lane before an upcoming intersection. I'm super-stressed as I boldly, flashingly make my way into the traffic and point where we need to go. It is still, to this day, the most dangerous left hand turn I've had to navigate on a bike in traffic in my life. But it happened, we made the turn, and were moving away from the big highway.
More Joshua trees pop up now that we are in the full low Mojave Desert. It's purpose-driven riding now down suburb streets that become bike lane-lined roads that become the central roads of downtown Palmdale. We ride directly over to the Squeaky Wheel Bike Shop. We look a mess as we tumble into the bike shop and their indescribably resplendent air conditioning. They are open, they have supplies, and we are in luck. They immediately get to work dismantling Janna's pedal as the priority. I'm somewhat dry-heaving in the corner while Janna is bright-eyed and giving directions and backgrounds. They eventually work her pedals off and replace them with some Crankbrother Stamps they have in-stock. Perfect. I stomach some water, regain some stamina, and bring up my brake. They take a look at it and report that, unfortunately, they have nothing to replace it with given the supply chain shortage with COVID. However, they equally are blown away by how warped the caliper is and report that the plastic casing has melted and bent it such that it is persistently rubbing my rotor (I freaking knew it because it had become so hard to pedal). They take it off and use a ton of tools to attempt to straight it as much as possible. They also question us a ton on the route and can't believe we are doing it in this heat. They also offer up advice about the desert crossing ahead.
Gratitude courses our veins. We thanks them profusely and step back into the furnace outdoors. My brake caliper is improved, Janna has new pedals. No more mechanicals can happen now. Seriously, I've never had so many issues in such a short period of time. Janna and I pedal over to a neighboring Trader Joe's to resupply food and get dinner for tonight. Now, it's late afternoon and the sun is cusping low on the horizon (but that heat is still egregious).
Our goal is to get to the Motel 6 and get to sleep. We pedal past the decent hotel chains and grocery areas into a really-run down area. Our eyes are exchanging silent messages of, "Where the fuck is this place?" when we pull up into a neighborhood of abandoned trailers and iron-barred liquor stores. Our motel sits at the end of the it. Unease and uncertainty work through my brain. But we have a place and it's cheap. Plus, AC. We check into probably the worst Motel 6 I had ever seen in my life. The doors have multiple broken entry-points on them. People are everywhere walking around and yelling at each other. Janna and I quickly head to our room and lock the door. I turn on the AC, and it barely works. We dismantle gear, eat, and take long lukewarm showers. It's better than nothing. We plan to awaken early for a 3 am rollout. It's time for sleep for the big desert crossing tomorrow in the record heat wave.