Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

I slept out at Alamo Canyon campground, a ‘primitive’ camping area with just four sites. It was the first time in a while to be out under the stars. Magical.

In the morning, I took my camera for a walk up the canyon. Inadvertently, my left hand brushed a cholla cactus spine. I instinctively yanked my hand away. Not a good move (1); the spines are barbed so, as I pulled my hand away, the spine came with it. The spine broke off a segment of cholla stem, which resulted in several barbs embedded in the first finger of my left hand.

The cholla is sometimes referred to as the ‘Jumping Cholla’ because of this nasty behaviour. 

How should I remove the segment of cholla? There isn’t actually much to grab with my free hand. And I didn’t really want to end up with both hands cuffed together.

First things first, dedicated photo-snapper that I am…

I found a stick on the trail and used it to pull down on one end of the stem, hard, until the barbed spine pulled through flesh and was freed. Not a good move (2). Freeing one spine moved that end of the stem away from my finger. Which moved the other end of the stem closer to my finger. I had freed a spine at one end but inserted three new ones at the other end. Mmmm. One step forward, three back.

Plan B. Use the stick in the middle of the stem segment to remove the whole stem at one time.

Those barbs are tough. I pulled hard without luck. Pulled harder; as hard as I could. Several times. Finally, the barbs ripped out of my finger almost simultaneously, the stem fell to the ground, and was left with just a few spines embedded that could be removed at my ‘leisure.’

I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry. I didn’t even swear. Honest. 

Recounting this misadventure to my wife that evening, she recalled a story from a close friend: A dog had had an encounter with a porcupine. Which the porcupine had easily won. More than one hundred porcupine quills were embedded in the dog, barbs worked their way inward to the blood stream and congregated at the heart. Poor pooch had to be put down.

Cheerful story. Thanks, Bev.

I would like to take the opportunity, now, in case there isn’t another, to wish all my loyal readers (both of you) a happy holiday season ;)

Organ Pipe Cactus

The rest of the day was much better. I drove a couple of loop dirt roads, enjoying the scenery. There were more Saguaro than Organ Pipe Cactus but this area is the only part of the United States where the Organ Pipe Cactus grow wild. 

More Cholla

One of the loop roads passed very close to the Mexican border. The truck is in Mexico. Donald wants to replace this fence with a wall. Paid for by Mexico, of course, as a consequence of the new NAFTA. 

Organ Pipe skeleton.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is one of my favourite parks.

Bev and I first drove down to JT from Calgary in ’84, for Christmas and the New Year. There was quite a group from the Calgary Mountain Club making the same trek, something of an annual pilgrimage. I returned one spring with my dear friend Andy Skuce (until one evening’s exuberance got the better of us and we woke up with terrible hangovers that, rather than waste the day completely, prompted us to use the time driving to Yosemite). Bev and I had a trip here with Dennis Kemp, a climber I had pulled a sled with on the Greenland icecap in the summer of 1969. I was here with my family in ’95, when Andrea celebrated her birthday running around the campsite shouting “I’m free. I’m free.” There have been other visits that I don’t remember. It wasn’t always just about the climbing; it is a beautiful place to be, to wander around the desert, looking at big rocks and Joshua trees. On one month-long trip, I only tied on to a rope once.

This current trip was for nostalgic reasons, not to climb: I hadn’t been here for many years. I drove the marginally longer route – through the park, entering at the southern entrance – rather than the faster route around the park to the town of Joshua Tree and one of the northern park entrances. Whilst in the park, I decided to check out the climbers’ campground at Hidden Valley: it was full. Early on a midweek afternoon! I continued through the park to the town of Joshua Tree and into Yucca Valley to get supplies.

Split Rock

I stopped off at Starbucks in Yucca Valley to use the wifi, finding directions to dispersed BLM camping outside the park, a few miles north and east of the town of Joshua Tree. I also found Tom, distinguishable as a cycle tourist by his Ortlieb handlebar bag. As the coffee shop closed, we chatted a little and then continued talking for an hour outside before he left for his ‘stealth’ campsite and I went off in search of the BLM land.

Dispersed camping, indeed.

It was a dark night so I didn’t get a good view of the camping area but it seemed to be a wide-open, featureless space. (This became clearer in the morning.) There seemed little point in putting up a tent so I moved a couple of boxes out of the truck bed into the cab and slept, beside my bike, in the back of the truck. It was a chilly night but the stars were bright and I enjoyed the tail end of the Geminid meteor shower before drifting off to sleep. Wonderful!

The next couple of days were spent wandering around the park, revisiting old haunts (such as Gunsmoke, a ground-level endurance test of climbing fitness which I didn’t need to actively experience, knowing full well what my level of fitness, after several years away from climbing, would be).

Climbers in the Hall of Horrors area

 Hidden Valley itself (a little way from the climbers’ Hidden Valley Campground) contains a number of good climbs. There is a nature loop/walk that goes round the valley in the clockwise direction. However, if you are a contrarian, you get a good view of the rock below.  The movie ‘Elephant Man’ was released in 1980 but I had just seen it when I saw this rock, so this has always been my Elephant-Man Rock.

Elephant Man Rock
Hidden Valley climb
Illusion Dweller, Hidden Valley


Thomas J Lowry III was sitting in Starbucks, listening to music on his ear-buds, making his coffee last until the coffee shop closed at 10:30. I talked with him for an hour outside the shop after closing, then maybe for a little longer a couple of evenings later, and then again on Saturday afternoon, when I stopped in to get a latté for the road on my way to San Diego.

Tom is a cycle tourist. He has been touring pretty much continuously for the last seven years and intends to continue for three more. He is, essentially, homeless.

Ex navy, Tom majored in English before graduating from law school. (He is very articulate, and certainly no dummy, a pleasure to talk to.) Tom owned and operated a successful college-admission test-preparation business for a while, one year netting almost $300,000 for himself. When his father died, Tom became, in his own words, ‘quite wealthy.’ He gave a quarter of his money to each of two grown children and kept one-half for the upkeep of his house, himself and his partner (not the mother of his children). Everything was rosy. Then his relationship became unstable, his partner subject to shouting and screaming fits, until Tom had had enough. He jsut got on his bike and rode away. Seven years ago.

Every year since, Tom has made a counter-clockwise tour of the United States. Each tour lasts eight months, six months of cycling and one week in each of his eight favourite places to hang out. One is an empty house lot (I don’t remember in which city, and perhaps it should remain secret anyway) with sufficient foliage for his tent to remain hidden for a week each year. He winters the rest of the year, four months, in Texas; one month each in four cities, one of which is where his daughter lives.

Tom is now at the end of his seventh tour. He generally aims to be back in Texas by Christmas but is a little behind schedule this year, having spent too long sitting in Starbucks and working on projects. He is writing a book about cycling (he has since sent me a couple of chapters and it is both powerful and very good!). He plans a website to host other cycle tourers’ web pages, a sort of user-friendly CrazyGuyOnABike site. He has a list of “A thousand books to read before you die” and is working his way through them, one book a week for the next 20 years. His current distraction is “A thousand pieces of music to hear before you die” (or something the that effect) and happily pays $10/month for Amazon to provide him with unlimited access to music.

He tries to live on half his old-age security payments of $1400/month, saving about $700 each month until he has enough for a professional to build his web-site.

Why not go back to his house and reclaim his assets for this purpose? He doesn’t want to see that ‘crazy’ woman.

Why always the same route? Well, it’s not exactly the same each time. He may not stay in the same favourite places every year (this year’s sojourn in Yucca Valley is not a regular stop).

Why not some new and exciting country to tour in? Well, he knows where to buy the staples that sustain him. He doesn’t know where to buy oatmeal in France or in Peru. He cycled through Europe in his twenties and doesn’t need to do that now. He has no papers or passport: all that stuff is in his house with that ‘crazy’ woman. And he won’t go back there.

The route, initially: Start in Austin, Texas, take the Southern Tier Route to Louisiana; take the Great Rivers Route up the Mississippi to Minnesota; the Northern Tier Route to the west coast; down the Pacific Coast Route to San Diego; and east to Austin. (Adventure Cycling Association maps detail these routes. ACA members will know of the Southern and Northern Tiers, the Great Rivers Route and the Pacific Coast Route.)

The route has evolved to avoid heavy truck traffic in North Dakota, to ride more of the Natchez Trace Parkway, dangerous stretches have been replaced, large cities avoided, local cyclist’s favourite rides incorporated. Tom knows where the grocery stores are, the laundromats, the free camping spots, … Back at each place briefly and only once a year, it does not become boring. Each loop is approximately 9,600 miles. (Tom admits that he might continue a little past the end of the tenth circuit to complete 100,000 miles.)

The current ‘rest’ weeks are in:
Asheville, North Carolina
Waynesboro, Virginia
Spearfish, South Dakota
Sandpoint, Idaho
Wickenburg, Arizona
Taos, New Mexico
Marfa, Texas
Port Aransas, Texas

With annual variations, of course.

The love of literature that directed Tom towards a degree in English remains strong. I have titles to add to my reading list as a result of Tom’s enthusiasm; I’ve just downloaded “Winesburg, Ohio” onto my Kindle. 99 cents well spent, I am sure. (Some numbers: in 1998, this title was ranked 24th on the Modern Library list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century.)

Tom is 69 years young and strong as an ox. Stubborn as a mule, too, I suspect (some closure of a seven-years-old domestic issue may be in order). He is learned, optimistic, enthusiastic, a stealth artist and a true nomad. He owns a bike, a trailer, an iPhone and a Kindle, and is one of the richest people I have met. It was a great pleasure to meet him and to hear his story.

Ride on, Tom. And get that book finished; I want to read more.

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