Taking to the road isn’t always a rewarding and romantic experience. Mode of travel, willingness to go with the flow, and general attitude, among other things, can determine the kinds of interactions and experiences you have along the way. I’ve been on road trips before where I met almost no one and did close to nothing besides get drunk, read, sleep, eat, wander, and repeat. This time however, has been different from the very beginning. Sobriety aside, it seems like every time I throw my leg over the bike I’m bound to have a strange or rewarding interaction, often both, or see something I wouldn’t likely have seen had I stayed in one place and twiddled my thumbs for the remainder of the winter.
These are some of my favorites from this trip so far.
That Horny Couple from L.A. at Los Alamos Campground, Pyramid Lake, California
A few weeks ago, when I left my aunt and uncle’s house in San Miguel I headed for one of my preferred stops along I-5 to rest for the night. It had been almost exactly eleven months since the last time I set up camp there and I was pretty excited to unload the bike, unpack my things, and go for a ride in the Hungry Valley OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) Area a few miles down the road. I wanted to make sure everything on the bike was in good working order before heading to Joshua Tree the following day. And I wanted to run the bike a while without the extra forty pounds of baggage strapped to its ass.
When I pulled up to the campground, I was elated to see that it was nearly empty and that I would likely have the bulk of the place to myself. It was a Friday and I hadn’t allowed myself to get my hopes up too high until that point. Los Angeles isn’t far from there and I knew that there was a good possibility that it would be overcrowded. After visiting and registering with the camp host and her giant German shepherd puppy, I made my way to where I had hoped to spend the evening. A high up, semi-secluded spot, hugged by the rocks bordering the campground. When I turned the corner to make my way up to the site, I was initially very disappointed to find that someone else had pitched their tent right where I had hoped to bed down. My disappointment quickly turned to amusement when I noticed that the front of the tent had been left wide open, and inside, in plain view, was a young couple copulating with what appeared to be intense determination. I imagine that what I had before me was the same thing house pets see before leaving the room and drowning their sorrows in a cool bowl of toilet water. Entirely unflattering. It wasn’t the best perspective, possibly the worst, but dammit if it wasn’t hilarious. I gave the throttle a quick twist and let out a throaty brap to announce that there was a stranger approaching. In return I got a nervous over the shoulder glance from the man on top hump hump humping away and a cheery head lift from the woman underneath him. They didn’t miss a beat.
Later, after I unpacked my things onto a different tent pad and had already returned from my joyride, the couple passed by my campsite on their way back from picking up a bundle of firewood. I was reclined against my picnic table, my head resting on a piece of luggage, and my feet propped up on my motorcycle. My stove was working on boiling some water for my nightly cup of tea and I was listening to the daily news on one of my favorite podcasts. As they passed I gave them a little wave and a grin. Considering my brief intrusion earlier, I assumed that would be the end of our interactions.
As the sun set and I could smell their fire burning, and I was finishing off my tea, I was visited by “Gloria”. She appeared out of the growing shadows carrying two s’mores sandwiches and a beer, which she offered up as an apology for the show I had witnessed earlier. I turned down the beer but gladly took both of the s’mores from her. We talked a little bit about where I was going, where I had come from, and why I had chosen to ride a motorcycle rather than drive a car “like a normal person”. The visit was cut short when her partner gave a holler from up in what I had wanted to be my campsite. We said our goodbyes and she left me with, “He’s not my boyfriend, so, ya know.” Wait, did I know? Jesus, I think I did. But what in the hell was I supposed to do with “ya know”? I ate the s’mores and sat back on my picnic table laughing to myself. Later that night as I was closing my eyes my attention was grabbed once again by the familiar slap slap slapping of two young and horny kids going at it like their lives depended on it for what I imagined to be the hundredth time that afternoon. I smiled to myself and reached for my earplugs.
Frank the “Can Man” of Joshua Tree, California
Just north of Joshua Tree National Park is a large swath of Bureau of Land Management land that you can camp on for free for up to two weeks. After stopping at the Joshua Tree visitor center and finding out that all of the campgrounds within the park were at capacity, and would probably remain that way throughout the weekend, I headed to the giant dry lake bed in the center of the BLM land to wait it out and explore elsewhere for a few days. It was the weekend of the full moon so I was hoping I could find a spot somewhat isolated where I could roam around naked and soak up the lunar rays. When I finally found one of the dirt roads that led to the former lake, I was happy to find that the area was large enough and isolated enough to really appreciate the full moon spectacle. After setting up camp towards the edge of what I imagined used to be an ancient shoreline, I stripped down to a pair of running shorts and some flip flops, ate a stem and a cap, grabbed my water bottle, and went for a walk. I didn’t make it very far before two teenage boys on KTM dirtbikes came roaring up next to me in a cloud of dust and exhaust.
“You really ride that fuckin’ thing all the way from Ore’gun?”
They had obviously seen my license plate.
I was instantly bored of them and prayed to the psilocybin gods that they would leave me as quickly as they had descended upon me.
“Seattle! Sheeit! Must be some kind of crazy or sumthin’!”
I just looked at them as expressionless as possible and waited for them to get the hint.
Eventually they sped off, leaving me with a mouth full of desert dust.
I walked around the big dry lake for a few hours and poked around old campfires with a walking stick I don’t remember picking up. Every once in a while I’d pass by a big pile of spent ammunition shells and pick a few up to inspect them. Then I’d put them back where I found them and wander in another direction until I found another old campfire to poke through or another pile of ammunition to inspect. Eventually I was overtaken by hunger and decided to start finding my way back to camp, which I learned to be easy because I was on a huge dry lake bed and all I had to do was turn in a circle until I spotted my tent, then start walking towards it.
When I got back to my little plot I settled in the shade of my motorcycle and ate alternating spoonfuls of peanut butter and honey between bites of cereal bar. My meal was interrupted when a squat, round, old man on a four wheeler pulled up to me and decided it was time to make a new friend.
“Name’s Frank. I guess on the website people call me the ‘Can Man’. Need any water or anything?”
I sat up from my slouch and looked around.
“I think I’m good, but thank you. Did you say ‘Can Man’?”
“Yep. Some Swedes came through here a while back and tole me I’m famous. Said that on that website they call me the ‘Can Man’. You seen that website sendin’ everybody out this way?”
I assumed he was talking about the BLM website, but I’d never seen any mention of a “Can Man” anywhere on it.
For the next hour and a half I stood there talking to “Frank the Can Man”. He and his wife had moved out to the desert from Catalina about seven years ago because “the heat was good for my arthritis and better for my wife’s disposition”. He told me about the old days growing up in Catalina where he used to go skin diving out of a sixteen foot fiberglass skiff with a twenty five horsepower outboard engine on it, and how back in those days you could still see through the water just off the California coast, before “They” “mucked it up”. He told me about his two tours in Vietnam and how they liked him so much they sent him back after he’d already come home from the war once before. We talked motorcycles and we talked boats and we talked fishing. Throughout the entire hour and a half he stayed seated atop his old red four wheeler and told me stories about what he’d seen, what treasures he’d found, and which “idiots” he’d saved from certain death in the hills surrounding the old dry lake. He tried to talk Trump but I told him we’d better leave politics out of it in favor of continuing to have an amicable interaction. He grunted and mumbled something about liberal something or others.
As he was beginning to tell me how to identify which snakes I would certainly see in the area, and which ones there was anti-venom for and which ones there weren’t, the two teenagers on KTM’s from earlier in the afternoon came whipping by again. Kicking up another cloud of dust and sending Frank into a tizzy. He angrily grumbled something indecipherable and told me he was “getting too old for this”, whatever “this” was, and that he’d better head home to make sure his wife “hadn’t killed the dog”. He took the glove off of his right hand and offered me a handshake. As I shook his big arthritic paw I was reminded of what a life lived to the fullest might someday look and feel like. He turned his four wheeler’s engine over, shifted into gear, turned around, and headed back to where he’d come from.
When I had a good signal again I went to the Bureau of Land Management website and tried to find my new famous friend “Frank the Can Man”. I wasn’t able to look very long and I was never able to track any trace of him down. Thinking back, meeting “Frank the Can Man” was a sign of what Joshua Tree would have in store for me over the next few days.
The Clark Family with the Bellingham Connection
Monday morning, after packing up camp and leaving the big dry lake bed behind, I set my sights on Jumbo Rocks Campground inside the park. Ever since I was a kid I’d wanted to camp among the alien rock formations of Jumbo. I’d seen pictures in my old boy scout magazines of dirtbag climbers plastered to the oddly stacked rocks and have felt the drive to see the place for myself ever since.
I was pleased and surprised to see that Joshua Tree National Park, although heavily traveled, did not resemble the parks in southern Utah I visited a few years ago. There were no Disney style tour buses shuttling the masses from one spot to another, and there was no line of cars stacked bumper to bumper stretching the length of the park. Instead, even though the park was quickly reaching capacity, I was greeted with long stretches of open and winding road. The flowers were just starting to pop and there were rumblings of an impending super bloom. The air was heavy and pungent and my brain worked overtime to try and simultaneously identify what was filling my nostrils while also trying to keep my attention on the sharp bends in the road. I couldn’t have wiped the smile from my face if I’d tried.
I pulled into Jumbo a little before eleven in the morning and the shuffling of departing weekend campers and new arrivals hoping to get the best spot possible was in full effect. Would-be hikers and amateur outdoors people wandered into traffic and stopped to check for cell signals, suddenly halting the flow of motorhomes, motorcycles, trucks with trailers, and bicycles. Had I been sitting behind the wheel of a hot steel cage it was the kind of thing that would usually send me into a minor bout of road rage. Oddly, on my motorcycle, this still hasn’t happened. I’m just happy to be alive and traveling on a shoestring with my meager 400cc’s of power thumping away between my legs, carrying me to my next destination. So every time I was forced to stop on a dime and wait for the oblivious foot traffic, rather than honk and telepathically shoot death rays of frustration at my impediment, I would crack a side smile and use the brief interlude to soak up more of my surroundings.
After making it through the herd I was able to find a campsite against the rocks, behind a few bushes that allowed me some privacy from the road, with a path into the boulder field of my childhood fantasies. I quickly set up camp and stripped down to what has become my desert uniform of running shorts and flip flops. It’s as close to naked in public as I can get without scaring children and grandparents and it keeps my Alaskan blood from boiling in my veins. When that was taken care of, one of my neighbors approached me to talk about Kilgore, my motorcycle. He and his family were on an open-ended road trip as well. Only they were traveling in style with a heavy duty pickup and a small family sized camper trailer. Much more comfortable for a mother, father, two year old son and a big cuddly looking dog they called Dexter. We talked motorcycles and travel and the changing scenery of our former home towns. They had recently sold off everything in Tahoe with the hopes of escaping further population explosion, and on a roll of the dice, bought a home in the Pacific Northwest paradise of Bellingham, Washington. It was fun running down memory lane and telling them about all of the things that await them in the town that stole my heart over a decade ago. I admired their willingness to take a chance on a town that they had little experience with but had nonetheless decided to take a gamble on. I did my best to try and reassure them that they had made a great choice, and that as far as places to raise a family go, they couldn’t have done better. It made me realize, again, that if I ever sire a brood of my own, I hope to do it in a place like Bellingham.
We parted ways for the remainder of the afternoon in favor of pursuing each of our own adventures. They went off in their pickup to explore the park as a family and I wandered into the expansive field of otherworldly geology behind my campsite with a fresh shellacking of SPF 50 and two liters of cold water.
As I was packing up the next morning and just about ready to load the bike, Mr. Clark came out with his son and offered me to stay a little while longer and join them for a plate or two of pancakes. I’m not sure how my face looked to them, but for me, having total strangers go out of their way to invite me to enjoy breakfast with them is the kind of thing that temporarily restores my faith in the world. A simple gesture of offering up a plate or two of warm home-cooked pancakes before setting off on our separate ways is all it takes to get that little feeling of home I often long for when I’m on the road flying solo for weeks at a time.
So, Clark Family, wherever you may be traveling, thank you for your kindness and hospitality. And good luck up in the Pacific Northwest. I have all of the faith in the world that the fine folks of Bellingham will make you feel right at home.
Kelly Who Travels and Needed a Place to Crash
My time in Joshua Tree was special for a lot of reasons. For decades it’s been sitting on the backburner of my mind. Eventually seeming far off enough to be relegated to a spot on the proverbial bucket list. It seems like no matter how much effort I’ve put into seeing different parts of the world, Joshua Tree just never fit into the flow of how things were being planned or how they played out. Until this winter, that is, when I decided to sell off everything but my books and my camping gear to pay for a used motorcycle and set out to explore parts of our collective backyard that I’ve been neglecting for far too long. But there is never any way of knowing what opportunities a place will provide you with until you actually get there and open your heart and your mind to the possibilities around you. Not only was J Tree rewarding in its varied and awe-inspiring beauty, but it delivered well above any expectations I’d had for the personal interactions I was blessed with during my time there.
When things had finally begun to calm down around Jumbo Camp and I was sitting down to a hot mug of hippie gruel (oatmeal, nuts, berries, honey) for dinner, a woman slowly and carefully strolled into my site. She introduced herself and explained that she was in need of a place to crash for the night due to the fact that every other campground and campsite in the park had been filled, and, seeing that my motorcycle didn’t occupy much of the street parking provided, was wondering if she could squeeze her car into the space that was left to crash there for the night. It was a pleasant surprise. I had anticipated burning the firewood leftover from the campers who had occupied my site the night before by myself before retiring to my tent with a book and a podcast. Having a guest would be a welcome change. I of course told her to go for it and was further surprised when she offered to split the camping fee with me, which I turned down. Primarily because I happen to believe in the cosmic cycle of good deeds and good intentions coming back in some form of positivity down the road. I also believe that if one traveller profits from or takes advantage of another traveller, then they will in turn have to answer for that down the road. After introductions were taken care of I offered up the use of my picnic table and invited her to join me for the fire I planned on having a little later.
What started out relatively conservatively and superficially polite eventually became a night of fulfilling and engaging conversation. After we got the fire going, we took turns sharing stories from each of our travels and ended up finding a lot of common ground in many of them. We had both been to Bali and other parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. We talked about South America and how badly we both wanted to return there. We waxed somewhat philosophically over varying themes in religion and spirituality, both of us sharing our experiences with using plants as a means to connect to a larger energy and spirituality that connects all of us to the natural world. Time ticked by and the fire burned down as the sky grew thicker and brighter with stars.
Eventually we called it a night when we realized it was getting late and we both needed to be getting to our beds. She in the back of her Subaru in her poached parking space, and me in my little one man tent under a big omniscient blanket of stars.
In the morning we shared our contact information and said our goodbyes. Not long after that, my neighbors invited me to share their pancake breakfast.
I started traveling by myself when I was in early grade school. My mother lived in California, and later in Washington, and I lived with my father in Alaska. A few times a year I would board flights to and from each of my parents as an unaccompanied minor. On many of those flights I would make a new temporary friend with whomever was in the seat next to me. I got comfortable talking to strangers and my fondness for hearing and telling stories grew exponentially. Along with the desire to hear more stories from people I met in transit from one parent to the other, a desire to travel and experience the world outside of myself developed. I started to see the world in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. As I’ve grown older I’ve kept a lot of those interactions with me. I still clearly remember the lady who swore she used to date Carlos Santana and buy him his guitar strings before he became a big rich and famous rock star. And I was barely out of grade school when I met an off duty pilot who explained to me the basic principals of aviation that have made me uncomfortable with flying to this very day. Both stories I have written and will gladly share later. My point is this, while many of the kids I grew up with were doing whatever they did at home with their families over the holidays and summer breaks, I was in a metal tube thirty thousand feet above the ground making new friends and learning about the world I was growing hungrier and hungrier to see. It was those early experiences that have fueled my desire to stay on the road, or in the sky, as long as possible. Those early experiences have kept me open-minded and willing to engage with new and interesting people along the way. And to give new strangers the same interest and respect those strangers from my youth gave to me when I was just a little runt being passed between Alaska and some new city along the West Coast. And it’s the continuing experiences I’ve had as an adult that keep me wanting to push further into territories I’m less than familiar or comfortable with with the hopes of furthering my interaction with the greater human experience.
I’ve got five weeks before I need to be in Austin, Texas to be in a wedding. I sincerely hope that along the way I’ll have the opportunity to share more of these experiences with you.
Thanks for reading.