The first few days of riding has been an adventure with both ups and downs - figuratively and literally.
Leaving San Diego at Ocean Beach, my route started pleasant and easy on bike paths and lanes for most of the first day. But the first physical challenge was the mountains between San Diego's beaches and the inland desert that stretches all the way to Phoenix. The route goes from near sea level to 4000 ft in about a 20 mile stretch. I broke the elevation gain into two days of riding by making my first night's stop in Alpine, about 35 miles from the beach and at 2000 ft. The second day's ride continued the climb up to 4000 ft and then followed an undulating path that dropped several hundred feet and then climbed back to 4000 ft two more times over the course of the day. The morning of the third day, I dropped down to the desert floor and spent the afternoon riding about 100 ft below sea level in the Imperial Valley.
The figurative ups and downs have been almost as drastic. I had my first experience with riding a bike on an interstate highway. I got an up-close look at the new US-Mexico border fence and the army of Border Patrol agents that now prowl the desert looking for illegal immigrants and drug runners. I soaked in a hot spring-fed pool in the most unlikely of locations. And, I am fighting an on-going battle with broken spokes due to the weight on my bike.
First, the interstate - Passing through the mountains, there are two sections where no route other than the interstate is available. Bikes are allowed to ride on the interstate when that is the case, but that doesn't make it any less scary. The first time I did it was only for 3 miles and was no big deal. The second section was another story. There is a 10-mile section that also happens to be a 6% downhill grade through a twisting section of mountains that are buffeted by cross-winds and brings you down from the mountains to the desert floor. The manager at my hotel the night before told me the best way to ride this section was to take the right-most freeway lane for myself as the shoulder has rumble strips, tire-puncturing thorns and debris. But, I just couldn't bring myself to take a freeway lane and make 18-wheelers pass me while struggling down the steep grade, so I rode on the shoulder where there was about a 4-foot space between the rumble strip and a berm at the edge of the road. Near the top, the wind was gusting. It was OK when it was behind me, but as the road twisted down the slope, I had it hitting me from every direction. My hands were cramping from using the brakes to slow myself to a safe speed where I could handle the gusts, navigate around the roadside debris and pass a couple of trucks that had pulled off the road to let their brakes cool. I could smell the smoking brakes on each truck that passed me. Finally as I neared the bottom, I was more sheltered from the wind and the road straightened enough that I could let my speed increase without constant braking. Once I exited the freeway, I stopped to unknot my stressed shoulders and stretch my cramping hands.
The border and the hot spring kinda go together - I'm sure everyone knows about the on-going problems with the US-Mexico border. What I really didn't comprehend was how much we are really spending on trying to guard it. About 80% of the traffic I've seen on the back roads here has been border patrol trucks. I passed their administrative headquarters for this area and saw a huge parking lot filled with green and white patrol vehicles. Passing through on-road checkpoints has been a daily occurrence. Then there's the fence. A dark orangish-brown, it stretches across the desert, going up mountains and down valleys. I spent the night in the tiny town of Jacumba where I could see the fence from the bathroom window of my room. Jacumba is a near-ghost town that was originally a stagecoach stop. But, there's a hot spring here and a motel/spa built around it. My first impression of the place was of a hippy shangri-la. The manager had the requisite long, gray pony-tail. Everything was painted in bright colors. Time seems to have come to a stop. Half the people in town have some kind of job here - pool cleaner, gardener, bartender, waitress, desk clerk, cook, maid.
And last, the spokes - I didn't get through the first 10 miles of the trip before I had a spoke break on my back wheel. Two more broke yesterday. I'm very lucky that I didn't have one break during the downhill section on the freeway. The bike shop in El Centro just thinks I have too much weight on the back wheel. I don't know. I've read accounts of people doing this with way more stuff than I'm carrying and not having this issue. It's disheartening to hear the twang of a breaking spoke. The whole bike has to be unloaded, the wheel taken off, the tire removed, the spoke replaced, the wheel trued and then everything put back together. On the upside, I'm getting good at doing it! Today, I'm going to try repacking my panniers to distribute more of the weight on the front of the bike. Wish me luck!!