Cold droplets on my face wake me instantly. It is drizzling and the mosquito net is jewelled with water.
The pines are grey under cloudy morning; light seeps in from beyond the horizon where the sun has already risen. I pack quickly in the early chill, breaking my fast with single-serving peanut butter packets before setting off to lower altitudes where the pines give way to cacti.
I make it out of the wild hills and gulleys of the desert after a 4×4 points me in the right direction – the GPS track is long lost, and each time I take a path that looks like it should head to the city it veers away, leaving me staring at a labyrinth of dirt tracks that would be a blast to ride if I didn’t have a destination.
Arriving in Phoenix it’s Couchsurfing to the rescue again – Rogelio tells me to stop by to “see what he can do for me”. He sizes me up and decides I’m alright. I don’t yet know how lucky I am.
We bond over lust for adventure and I am impressed by his drive; at his age not many people have their own place and a nice jeep. He’s deceptively mature, and that seems to be the only thing keeping him in place; he loves what I’m doing but the total irresponsibility of leaping before you look keeps him building a solid life step by step instead. I can respect that. Still, his eye gleams with adventure as I share stories and before long we’ve planned to cross the border together to party in Juarez after celebrating his sister’s birthday in El Paso next week. So much for just changing tires and heading to Mexico. It’s a chill time eating massive amounts of grilled chicken, going to sleep by his otherworldly axolotls, and saving the occasional damsel in distress.
I purchase a big blocky TKC80 that should eat up any paths the road ahead can throw at me, and look for ways to kill time until it arrives. Phoenix is sprawling and uninspiring, low slung cookie cutter neighbourhoods and strip malls box inhabitants together and apart. I decide to take an alternative sightseeing trip, an Italian designed architectural oddity left fallow in the name of capitalism.
Stan Bergstein elaborates: “Phoenix Trotting Park … was originally supposed to be built for $3 million, but [cost almost] $10 million, essentially bankrupting its builder, James Dunnigan… It was built of reinforced concrete, and could have withstood a direct hit by a hydrogen bomb… it went belly up and was bought by Sportservice, to make sure no reincarnation took place and its greyhound operation in Phoenix was protected. It is still standing, and some future travelers from space probably will regard it in the same way Stonehenge in Britain is regarded today……a monument built in the desert by sun worshipers.” Sounds worth checking out while I’m here.
Normally the most fun part of urban exploration is devising stratagems and puzzling over points of entry. The building stands alone a straight shot from the highway across a good half mile of dried mud and low scrub in any direction; subtle entry isn’t an option at midday. I gun it from the nearest road and stash Lost out of view while I poke around.
The strangely angled structure looms over me as I slide under a twisted gate and inspect this oasis of solitude, alone in plain view. It is a strange contrast to at once feel so isolated and so exposed. My feet crunch past graffiti and up frozen escalators. Highway sounds wash in; the only indication of life on this planet. I finish reading The Tiger’s Wife by the stairwell windows, and then use it as a pillow for a nap. No denizens lurk here to bother me; too far removed from the necessities of life, too exposed to be a decent hobo nest. Satisfied I’ve poked at the mysteries whispering in all hidden corners, I make my escape under the bold sun, none to challenge my exit anymore than my entry.
Fellow adventure rider Julio invites me to work on my steering head column bearings in his garage. I’m eager to follow the advice of more experienced riders; in short order he has me changing the fork oil and stiffening the shocks, lubricating axles, cleaning the filter. He invites me to stay for a delicious home cooked dinner and crash the night – why not.
I learn how he came from Puerto Rico to study architecture, living ten years in the Bronx for the cheap rent. A practical man after my own heart. Like Rogelio, I can see he’s excited for me, his own wanderlust ignited – but he’s got family. Lucky kid, between the bikes in the garage and the omnivorous library collection, he’s got the makings of a childhood to be envious of. Julio can’t ride with me, but he sends me off with a spare camelback that I immediately fall in love with.
Lost gets her new shoe and Rogelio is flying to El Paso so it’s time to go. An hour into the 700 km ride rain starts. I pull over to put on the rain gear.
It isn’t anywhere. Somewhere far behind me, someone is opening a bag they found on the road and saying, “My, what a lovely set of rain gear!”. This is going to suck.
Riding through the rain I remind myself I’ve weathered worse. I come from the land of regular -40 degree winters. Still I try to race out of the storm. The new rear tire has brutal highway handling – pinning the throttle the tire screams bloody murder and the whole bike wobbles in the rain. I stop at a gas station to warm up at some point and some Johnny down-on-his-luck tells me how he’s stuck here because he ran out of gas and has no more money. Suspiciously convenient place to end up, but what the hell, I’ve gotta spread the love I’ve been receiving.
I make it to Rogelio’s soaked to my bones, but after a hot shower I am happy to meet the family and they have beer and food at the ready. And most importantly, a bed – that was a long ride in the rain. Apart from the rainy arrival everything about El Paso turns out aces – I have the good fortune to find a rainsuit for twenty bucks on Kijiji, and Rog’s family are all great people, his dad even takes us out to see my first motocross show. I get a gleam in my eye during the races, but that’s a dream for another day.
Two days and too many beers later, I awake in the gazebo to clean up the feathers and fish my keys out of the pool while Rog dries his cell phone and cleans up glass shards. Despite my prizewinning hangover I am gloriously happy with my life. A parting kiss from a delicately beautiful lady doesn’t hurt either. I’ve met a brother in arms, and I mean it when I tell him we must meet again down the road. I say goodbye to his family, a bit abashed that we probably kept them up with our adolescent revelry last night.
Life has been good in the U.S.A. and I don’t regret extending my time, but the day has come.
Mexico is calling. Let’s go see what kind of real trouble I can get into.