By: Katie Strempke
Prefer to listen? Here’s Katie reading her story.
“Is this a good idea?” I wondered as we drove on I-15 toward the Camp Cady Wildlife Area in Newberry Springs, California. The wind was blowing violently and I had a white-knuckle grip on the arm rest as Andrew drove through the whirling sand. My sights were set on the western point of a popular offroading route, the Mojave Road.
The road, originally established as a Native American trade route between the Colorado and Mojave Rivers linking up the water sources through the Mojave Desert, has been used for centuries. Explorers, missionaries, and colonizers all used the route to traverse the harsh desert landscape. Due to tensions in the area, the road was eventually utilized by the US military. There’s a lot of history in the area, and a lot that can be learned. In more recent times, a 140-mile section of the road from Fort Mohave to Camp Cady has been a popular off-roading route, and I planned to follow it by bike.
My partner Andrew and I had just spent nearly a month in the Mojave Preserve and surrounding areas camping, riding, and bikepacking. Typically not a fan of point-to-point routes, I didn’t really consider riding the Mojave Road in its entirety, but the idea was certainly in the back of my mind.
The terrain in the Mojave Preserve varied from rocky and steep to sandy and flat. An overnighter through the Preserve utilizing a section of the Mojave Road confirmed that a fat bike and lots of hauled water would be required to complete a ride on this route. The sand was soul sucking and when we scouted one of the “reliable” springs, it was totally dry.
But guess who had a fat bike coming?
That’s right, me.
I needed a big dumb, sandy desert ride to justify fitting the monster of a bike in my van. Plus, our planned driving route intersected both the eastern and western termini of the Mojave Road making the point-to-point logistics easy. So I decided to give it a go.
Based on my research and experience, I had a few fears about riding this route.
1) It’s for sure haunted based on the land’s history
2) There’s potentially no water
3) Extremely slow conditions
And yes, I did put those in descending order of importance.
I wanted to ride the route in one push, mostly because I was lacking the water beta to count on any natural water sources along the route. All I knew was that Marl Spring, which is typically reliable, was dry two weeks before. Carrying all my water would be easier if I didn’t camp, both because I wouldn’t have the additional weight of camping gear and because I would consume less water in one day than if I stretched it out to two.
The night before I planned to ride the Mojave Road, I optimistically set my alarm for 3:45am, the earliest I was willing to wake up. The wind advisory, 50-mile-per-hour winds with 70-mile-per-hour gusts, couldn’t sway my determination that night. We were able to park our van near a building to be somewhat sheltered from the wind, but I heard it howling all night.
When I heard the unwelcome sound of my alarm at that ungodly hour, conditions had not improved. The wind advisory was extended, and the sand blowing under the streetlights looked like a snowstorm. As a midwesterner, usually wind doesn’t keep me from riding, but I certainly didn’t want sand in my orifices or my lungs, so I turned the alarm off and went back to sleep, disappointed that I’d have to save the ride for another day.
The sun woke me up later that morning and I looked at my calendar. I had one more day I could squeeze the ride in and the next day’s weather wasn’t bad with a 40% chance of rain, highs in the 50s and lows just above freezing. I wasn’t stoked on the rain, but the cooler temperatures were ideal for my water-carry situation.
Heck, I’ll give it a shot and if I have to bail, at least I tried. I looked at the map and showed Andrew the places where the Mojave Road intersects pavement for potential bailout options.
I set my alarm yet again for 3:45am. This time, even if it was windy or raining, I was going to start. Fortunately when I woke up, the wind had died down to a reasonable breeze. Andrew (who does not enjoy waking up early) drove me to where the off-roaders typically start the Mojave Road near Camp Cady.
My fat bike was loaded with eight liters of water and 5,000 calories of food. It was heavy, but I didn’t have much of a choice when I was unwilling to trust any of the springs after our initial scouting mission.
As I started pedaling, I embraced the peaceful feeling of riding in the early morning before any signs of light. The cool, dark night gets colder just as the glow of the dawn starts to appear, then the light of the sun colors the eastern sky as the birds wake up and start their song. It felt familiar and good. Maybe I can do this.
I expected my energy to lift as the sun moved higher into the sky, but no luck that morning. My energy was low and I was standing in the middle of a sand-blown landscape with dunes all around me. There was no sign of a road at all. The violent winds from the days prior had completely buried the trail. I checked my Garmin to see if I was still on track, but my dot was dancing around on the screen. Weird. I pulled out my phone which was doing the same thing. I shrugged, must be the aliens.
I went back to where I could identify the road so see if I missed a fork, but the tracks just disappeared into the sand. I pointed my bike east, the direction I knew I needed to go and could identify a road way in the distance. I guess I’ll just go that way. My energy and motivation were lagging and I started thinking too far ahead. How am I going to be able to navigate in these conditions after sunset?
This was the first time I started to doubt whether I’d actually make it to the end. Navigating like this in the dark would not be ideal (or fun) and my pace was s-l-o-w. I was unimpressed with the landscape and just feeling unmotivated. My appetite was off the rails and I was going through more of my snacks than usual.
More pedaling, more sand, more desert. I decided to give Andrew a call and let him know that I’m doing fine, but wasn’t really feeling it today. I told him to expect to bail me out at one of the paved roads I’d shown him. After that phone call, I felt a sense of relief. No more pressure to ride through the night all the way to Fort Mohave.
Then the clouds started building and the wind picked up. Here comes the rain. But it wasn’t rain, it was snow! I checked the weather again. Winter weather advisory: six inches of snow expected. At that point I started laughing. I made the rookie mistake of checking towns along the route while forgetting to check the weather stations at the high points. When the high point is somewhere around 4,500 feet, I just wasn’t thinking about it.
I confirmed my bailout point with Andrew and continued pedaling along the sandy, and now snow-covered, Mojave Road. Hey, at least I was riding a fat bike! I felt grateful to be on my bike in the desert at that moment. Joshua trees and cholla in the snow! That was quite a sight and an epic way to end my ride, 80 miles into the Mojave Road.
I could say that the conditions, or the weather, or the fact that I was carrying so much water led to my failure to complete the route, but in reality, I just lacked the motivation and energy that day. I was uninspired and instead of forcing it this time, I chose to enjoy the ride and end it early rather than turn it into a slog.
While there are times when slogging it out is worth it to me, like when I’ve been preparing for a long time or I set intentions and goals, this wasn’t one of those times. After a bout of overtraining a couple years ago, I try to be more conscious about what I’m asking my body to do on long rides. The ravenous appetite and lack of inspiration was a sign to me that I was asking too much of my body and mind that day.
Maybe someday I’ll feel inspired to go back and ride the rest of the Mojave Road, but for now, I’ll savor the memory of the 80-mile trek through sand and snow fondly.
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