On the road in search of home
By Alenka Vrecek
My front wheel just caught a sharp rock, causing me to slide off the edge of the trail. I managed to avoid two deadly boulders when a third flipped my bike into the air, sending out a plume of camping gear, water bottles, and food.
Today is the fiftieth day since I set out on the bike from my house in Lake Tahoe. I feel the hot desert sun on every inch of my body, and I suddenly realize how thirsty I am. Take me home, I whimper to the Travel Gods. But where is that? I’m still not sure.
What I do know is that I am hours away from any help. I am running low on water, and my 100-pound body is an easy snack for a predator, though there’s no longer much meat on it.
“You need to keep going,” says a voice out of nowhere. I tell the voice, “Go to hell!”
Slowly, I untangle myself from the bike, moaning with pain. It takes a tremendous effort to drag The Beast back onto the trail, with my bags and water holders hanging off it loosely.
I am not going to quit. Not yet.
For years, my bookshelf has been lined with books written by climbers and explorers of faraway exotic lands and new frontiers; books about circumnavigating the globe in sailboats, on foot, and by bike. I’ve always dreamed of scaling big mountains like Everest, crossing oceans on a windsurfer, traveling the world, solo, in a sailboat.
This trip was to be a pilgrimage and a chance to see what I was still capable of, after battling a cancer diagnosis. I needed to show myself and others that dying was not on my list of things to do yet. So I embarked on this trip, hoping I could connect two portions of my life by riding from one home in Tahoe to another one in Mexico at the tip of Baja Peninsula.
I’ve covered more than two thousand miles since I left Tahoe, riding along the spine of the Sierra, crossing the Mojave Desert before climbing back up to the San Gabriel Mountain range, climbing and descending the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains, just before crossing the border with Mexico to the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains. My body is now one giant saddle sore. My destination is the Bay of La Ventana on the edge of The Sea of Cortez, where for decades, my family has owned a small palapa.
But now let’s go back to the beginning—to the early days of the ride when everything seemed like a grand adventure.
It is Friday, October 5, day nine of my ride, and as I am approaching the town of Three Rivers, in northern California in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. I’m looking for a spot to camp, but my body yearns for a hot shower after long, cold, and strenuous riding. It is getting dark, I’m running out of options, and I haven’t had much to eat all day. Some nuts and a couple of bars. I pass a Mexican restaurant that smells delicious. Right next door is a small resort with cabins. I knock on the office door.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” a sweet voice calls out.
Juliette invites me into her home, and I tell her I’m on a long bike ride and desperate for a bed and a hot shower.
“Oh, dear,” she says. “My nephew was nearly killed by a car while riding a bike. He’s still in the hospital.”
Her place is all dolled up with lace curtains and heart shaped pillows with ruffles. Showing me to the bathroom, Juliette says, “The water has lots of minerals, so sometimes it is a bit murky, and smells a bit of sulfur. But don’t worry, it’s good for you.”
I take a much longer shower than I usually take at home but my body needs it badly. Letting the hot water run down my back, and just stand there in a stream that smells of rotten eggs.
As I walk next door to the Mexican restaurant, my legs feel like noodles. Using their Wi-Fi, I study my maps for the next day. When my food arrives, the couple nearby starts arguing. Picking at my food, I try to ignore them, but it is impossible not to catch their angry words. He has cheated on her. By now I’ve lost my appetite, so I ask the waitress to pack up my meal to go.
The next day’s ride begins with the road around Lake Kaweah. In Lemon Cove, I pull over to talk with two guys who are cooking soul food on the side of the road. They introduce themselves as Spice Man and his sidekick Brian, both from Louisiana. They offer me a taste of Jambalaya. It is so good, I want more, but I’ve just had breakfast.
Spice Man hands me a bag, and says, with a thick Cajun accent, “Oh, honey, you have to take some of this seasoning!”
I point to my bike, noting that there isn’t room.
“Use them on the first fish you catch in Baja,” he says, “It will taste delicious.” Now, at least I know what I will eat when I make it home.
Another hot day in Tulare County. The asphalt stretches across the dun colored hills, a jagged black line that looks as if it had been drawn by a child. The sign for Springville says 39 miles. It’s already 80 degrees, and I’m running low on water. A car pulls into the driveway of a farmhouse up ahead, so I call out, “Could I trouble you for some water, please?”
“Of course,” says a woman, taking a baby out of the car seat.
“How big is Springfield?”
“Oh, it’s small, around 500 people. Are you riding all the way there? It’s a long way!”
As I climb more than 3,000 feet of elevation and the temperature rises, I am grateful for her kindness. Over the next few hours, I see only a couple of cars. Big granite boulders are stacked on either side of the road like toys discarded by a giant. Cows, black as night, graze between the rocks. Quails dart across the road, calling Chacuaca, Chacuaca, Chacuaca…
I stop under a big oak tree to have an energy bar and some water and listen to Tom Hanks’s book, Uncommon Type. I love his soothing yet commanding voice and wonder, What if Tom Hanks and his wife drove by and stopped to chat?
“Where are you riding?” Tom would ask
“Mexico,” I’d answer like it was no big deal.
“Seriously?” Rita would say in amazement.
“Oh, you know: life, cancer, and other stuff! Got to keep on moving!”
“You don’t say!” says Rita. I know she went through breast cancer back in 2015. Chemotherapy gives you ample time to thumb through People magazine.
“Sorry you had to go through that, too. You look great, by the way!”
“Well so do you. Keep riding! And good luck!”
Day 24. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep, so I do some yoga, hoping it will calm my nerves. When I sit down on my towel, I notice that my left quad is much larger than my right. I’ve been hoping that after all this hard riding the muscles of my damaged right leg would start kicking in. Two years ago, my femoral nerve was damaged during knee surgery and my leg is constantly in spasm, leaving me with a nauseating pain. I use the cord from earbuds to measure the circumference of my thigh and it’s more than an inch thinner than the left, which has been doing all of the hard work.
The next morning is quiet except for the chirping of thousands of birds. Golden oak trees line the road. And I am giddy with excitement to cross the border. I sing a Slovenian song from my favorite childhood movie, Kekec, in which a brave young boy merrily walks down a mountain path. For a moment, I am that child. Flying downhill, I wave at every passing car.
I’ve covered three-quarters of the length of California and I’m headed for the Tecate border where the Sierra Nevada ends. There are three points of entry and crossing from the U.S. side requires driving over narrow, winding roads.
After less than an hour, I pass the first border control and meet two men (in uniform), one tall and skinny blond and sullen-looking, the other short, stout dark-haired with a Hispanic accent.
“How far to the border?”
“Five miles,” they reply.
“The Tecate border crossing?”
“Oh, Tecate! That’s about thirty miles.”
These men were responsible for patrolling this area, looking for people who came over the mountains on foot. A journey that would be hard and dangerous, especially for women and children.
After 48 miles, I arrive at the border and a Mexican guard directs me to an office where I can get a tourist visa. I want to show off my Spanish, so I tell him,”I’m from California. Well, originally from Slovenia, where we have beautiful mountains and….” but the clerk speaks perfect English. “Do you have a sister back home I could marry?”
I saddle The Beast and take a deep breath trying not to think of reports of the mugging and the murders I read about this morning. I look at my map and start riding toward the town square. After so many days on backroads, the Technicolor scene is overwhelming: traffic honking, music blaring, the assault of new aromas.
The hotel manager helps me carry the bike up the stairs.
“?Una bicicleta pesada! Hasta donde vas?”
“A heavy bike! Where are you going?”
“Montando en mi bicicleta a La Ventana, al sur de La Paz!” I am riding my bike to La Ventana, South of La Paz.”
He is bewildered and concerned.
“I’m not lost for I know where I am. But, however, where I am may be lost.”
— Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
Sunday, October 28 — today marks a month since I left my home in Tahoe. Riding my bike for so many hours every day, I notice small details of my surroundings. My sense of smell is sharper. I sense things on the surface of my skin. I feel as if I am returning into the kingdom of a wild woman and of untamed creatures. The last half a mile before I reach my camp in Baja, I am led by an owl.
Rancho El Coyote lies on a plateau at 3,000 feet elevation. Surrounding mountains make up the Sierra San Pedro Martir range and reach over 10,000 feet. They are spectacular. It often snows up high in these mountains and sometimes even at the ranch in the winter. I ride by massive white granite boulders of all shapes. In the evening light shadows run long and the sky is red. If you are lucky enough, you can see a giant condor as well as pumas, bobcats, and bighorn sheep.
I arrive late in pitch darkness to the wail of the coyotes.
In the morning, as I am making coffee on my Whisperlight stove, a guy walks up, with three sheep that follow him like puppies. Mike and his wife Nanette moved to Vicente Guerrero 27 years ago. Nanette comes up to the Rancho on the weekends, but Mike, who used to install power systems, stays up here pretty much full-time.
Mike shows me a logbook of all the riders who have come through the Baja Divide. It turns out that many people skip this section because it’s so strenuous and I’m the first woman he’s seen in a long time.
Later he brings me three eggs, two potatoes, a banana, and two granola bars. And what a brunch that makes! I’m in heaven sitting under the tree, while Mike fixes my sleeping pad. Then I tend to a few things on my bike, fix my broken reading glasses with dental floss, read, and plan my next day’s ride.
Nanette comes over in the afternoon and we sit under a tree.
“We see a lot of young people coming through, mostly couples, or guys who ride alone. How old are you anyway?”
“People are usually running away from something on a trip like this,” Nanette says.
“It’s more like I am running toward something. I guess I am on some sort of a quest to reinvent myself.”
“On this ride I have to detach myself from all my problems and just focus on immediate issues like food, water, riding, and looking for a place to sleep. Like climbing a big mountain, it is survival in its purest form.”
The ranch dog wanders over and places his head in my lap. “Well, I did want to get away from some things. I don’t know if my cancer will come back. My husband has Parkinson’s and we don’t know how quickly his disease will progress, or how much time we have left.”
She nods. “None of us know what the future will bring. But not everyone takes on such a challenge.” After awhile she asks, “Is it fun?”
I laugh. “No, a lot of the time it is not. I don’t think it’s supposed to be. We don’t necessarily find a deeper meaning by doing what’s easy or fun. That comes by challenging ourselves to go beyond what we feel capable of.”
“The journey sounds hard, painful. I’d be pretty scared camping by myself at night. Did you know there were pumas out here?”
“Should I worry?”
“They usually go for goats. Just stay alert, keep a whistle and pepper spray close at hand.”
This is the first chance I’ve had to think aloud about my trip.
“I have a lot of time to think while I ride,” I say. “I’ve prayed to God, hoping desperately for a divine power’s existence, wishing I believed. I’ve prayed to the powers of the Greater Universe, No more testing, please. The irony is though, that now I am testing myself. And I am pushing myself harder than I’ve ever been pushed.”
“I also feel like I finally have control over my own actions. I had no control over all the poking and probing, cutting into my body, x-rays, MRI’s, radiations, poisonous chemicals which were supposed to heal me…I’ve had to surrender to an onslaught of contradictions.”
We sit in silence for a long time, immersed in our own thoughts.
The next day I am invited to a dinner of rice and beans, cooked in the solar oven Mike has constructed. We open the bag of seasonings from my Louisiana Spice Man. I leave the rest for Nanette and Mike, wishing I could repay them for their kindness. But it is all I have left.
Mike lends me a sleeping pad that night and promises to fix mine. So I get the first decent night’s rest in a long time.
November 6. I have been on my bike for one month, one week and three days. There is an intricate balance between life and death in the desert. Fragility and ruggedness walk closely hand in hand. Water is the crucial source of life, and nowhere is that more apparent than here in the desert of Southern Baja. Recent rains have painted the desert in vivid greens, bright reds, eye-blinding yellows, and soft purples.
By now, I’m pedaling on autopilot. The Beast and I are in tune with each other. On easier stretches of the trails, I fall into a deep state of meditation, and no longer notice the hours passing. Enjoying a gentle down-slope, my attention wanders, then I see a giant rattlesnake stretched from one side of the trail to the other. Too late to stop or change the course, I have no choice. I run right over the poor unsuspecting creature. It coils up quickly, ready to strike, and I lift my feet up into the air, nearly losing my balance on the bike. “Shit, shit, shit!” I yell, as The Beast and I speed away, loaded on adrenaline, as if running away from a fire-breathing dragon. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” I call out to the snake that is as thick as my arm. I turn around just to catch it disappearing among the cholla cactus.
“Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death.” — Homer, The Odyssey
Day 40. It’s a little over a week since I left Nanette and Mike and I’ve covered about 400 miles. I’m skin and bones, but I tell myself, “You can make it. You have only two more weeks to go.” Up the road I see a place to camp.
Alejandro is a slight man. He has been living on this ranch for more than forty years. Most of his teeth are gone, which makes him look older and also makes him hard to understand. The language spoken by the local mountain people is already challenging to comprehend. Much depends on picking up on body language, intuition, and lots of nodding.
Alejandro fills my bottles with sweet water from a well 600 feet deep. His ranch also has solar and wind power. Everything is immaculate. This is a pleasant place, surrounded by massive white granite boulders and giant cardón cacti. Guerrero Negro is several hours away by car.
Alejandro leans his rake against the railing and invites me to sit on the veranda. He returns with two glasses of fresh lemonade, sits down in his rocking chair and says without prompting, “I am content. I have everything I need. My family, my work, my land. You gringos, you are always going somewhere.” He reaches up with his calloused hand and adjusts his cowboy hat. His eyes, the color of chocolate, scan the perimeter of the ranch. The cattle are in the corral and his young handsome grandson is tending to them.
“I never go to the city,” he says. “The young ones sometimes do, but my heart and soul are here.”
Emerson would walk a hundred miles through a snowstorm for one good conversation. It seems I’ve come all this way to hear Alejandro tell me he is content in his own home.
This is what I’m thinking as I camp out underneath the stars:
Home is where you feel safe and loved. It smells of fresh baked bread. It’s where family and friends gather around the table until their bellies are full. Where you can fight about politics and hug each other afterwards. Where you talk late into the night, until the last bottle of wine is empty, the dirty dishes are stacked up in the sink, and the fire in the hearth is softly glowing, keeping everybody warm. I am nearly there.
A new lightness fills me as I ride toward El Arco the next morning. Everything looks beautiful.
Alenka Vrecek was born in the mountains of Slovenia, came to America to study psychology and physical education, and has been a lifelong skier, cyclist, and climber. She is also the founder of The Tahoe Tea Company. This is an excerpt from a work in progress, She Rides.