Heartbreak, getting lost in the desert and My Favourite Murder (or how Google Maps and Garmin conspired to get me killed )
Last week I finally removed the last vestiges of my ex from my phone. I’d been nursing the vague hope we’d get back together after I returned from the US. It wasn’t to be.
Over the last few weeks I’ve deleted photos of them. Wiped the chat log from Whatsapp. Unfollowed on twitter and tumblr. These are basic methods of getting over heartbreak in our digital world. Each action made me feel a little freer, a little less tangled up with the loss.
Finally, when I thought the purge was complete, I realised that the background on my phone was something they’d sent me last year. When we were in love. A cute in-joke. Something to cheer me up on hard days. I’d been looking at it several times a day without noticing it. A constant, subliminal, reminder of them.
So I changed it to a photo I took in the Californian desert. A memory of when Google Maps and Garmin tried to get me killed. But still a happier memory.
It was mid-April. I was staying in San Diego with some awesome friends. At a bit of a loose end, uncertain what I felt like doing and only a couple of weeks left before I flew home to the UK, I decided to head out to the desert and a hot springs I’d read about online.
The first day was hard and unrewarding. A lift to the trolley stop — that’s what they call a tram — and then a journey out to the very east of San Diego saved me about 15 miles. But it was another 20 before I’d really be out of the city. 20 shitty miles of cycling up hill, along the side of Highway 8, in the blazing sunshine. Eventually this eastwards toil ended with a turn to the north, along State Road 79, and into Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. That night I camped at Green Valley Campground and washed in a waterfall.
With no phone signal, I was relying on my Garmin for navigation. The USB port had failed at some point in the previous months, and while I was able to load Open Street Maps onto it via the SD card, creating routes and getting them on there seem like too much hassle. So my plans were squarely in the hands of my Garmin Edge Touring and whatever route its algorithms created.
The next morning it lead me north along the state road to a outdoor education centre. I cycled past orderly lines of school kids preparing for a hike, and out onto a designated mountain bike track. The gentle singletrack led through brushy desert countryside, crossing streams and passing scrubby trees, and eventually led me up and over a challenging twisting climb on gravelly fire roads. I passed open gates and sun bleached warning signs, but it wasn’t till I rolled back onto the blacktop that I saw a sign that informed me that I’d just ridden through a prison. Yeah, a prison. Surprisingly, this isn’t the bit where Google and Garmin tried to get me killed.
I followed the Sunrise Highway north till I was informed I should turn right onto the Mason Valley Truck Trail. The gate was locked. The sign on the gate read:
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
FOOT TRAVEL ONLY
That didn’t bode well.
I needed another option, so I cycled south toward Julian. Either I would get some phone signal and be able to figure out other choices, or I would find somewhere proper for lunch. After several miles of rolling roads, my phone pinged, indicating I was back in signal. Looking at google maps I had two options: 20 odd miles via the truck trail or 40ish through Julian on highways of unknown busyness.
Doubling back it would be.
The first few miles of the truck trail were gorgeous. My Surly Straggler, Stragella, bumped happily along the singletrack. It was almost noon, and I passed a group of hikers who looked at me askance. Hey, a bicycle is foot powered, I thought to myself, I’m not that naughty!
Now I know that they must have been sceptical of how i was going to handle what was to come.
One thing you probably shouldn’t do when travelling alone is listen to lots and lots of true crime podcasts.
You definitely shouldn’t binge on My Favourite Murder, a podcast where two extremely bubbly and determinedly ill informed american women tell each other the stories of gruesome murders.
A few weeks earlier I was alone, in a bath, in a motel, in Washington State, listening to them talk about Ted Bundy. Ted Fucking Bundy who did plenty of murdering around there. I don’t know if he ever killed a woman staying alone in a motel in Sequim,WA, but it seems like a very Ted Bundy thing to do. While binge listening to this stuff, which is delicious but also pretty psychologically toxic, I was doing exactly what the hosts always shriek not to. I was going into the proverbial, and sometimes literal, forest.
Through this podcast, and my friend Kristin who hosted me in San Diego, I was introduced to I Survived. A TV show where the survivors of crimes and disasters tell their story, it always closes with them explaining why they thought they “I survived.” The thing is, however dreadful the events are, the story is told by the person who lived through it. You always know it will end relatively OK.
Throughout the difficult and scary parts of this day, I told myself my own I Survived story. I noted the little things I did to keep myself safe. I sang to myself because, you know, Mountain Lions and Rattlesnakes. As the Californian sun beat down, I took the light cotton shawl I had carried all the way from a charity shop in Sweden — via my British home and every strange American spot I had found myself in so far — and draped it over my head, under my bicycle helmet. I clipped my Spot tracker to my belt loop. (Spot is a GPS tracking and messaging device. The model I had allows you to send simple “I’m OK” messages with your location to a predefined set of people. In the worst case, it can also send “I’m not OK, send help” emergency messages to local search and rescue services.) I reapplied sunscreen on the hour, every hour. I sipped my water and nibbled on a cliff bar whenever I paused. I took all this care while purposefully not thinking about the consequences of bonking, sun- or heat-stroke.
The awareness of how remote and isolated the route was kicked in after about an hour. So far the route had been mostly rideable, subtly gaining altitude through a series of manageable climbs. The landscape was brushy, dusty, curvaceous, the hills and distant mountains luminous. On the rise ahead of me I could see a gate. In the bushes which flanked that gate, I glimpsed a person in black, lurking. I ignored Karen and Georgia’s advice, the podcasters chattering disapprovingly in my head, and kept going.
As I trudge up to the open gate I was tense. One hand on my Spot tracker, the other awkwardly pushing my bicycle. If I was about to be murdered, at least I would leave a trail. The local authorities would have a starting place for the man hunt. Pausing, I looked at the figure who had seemed so ominous minutes earlier. The Japanese hiker looked back at me blankly, while another hunkered in the scrubby bushes. I drank some water and said hello, but neither responded. “Are you guys OK for water?” I asked. Nothing. Strange, but harmless. A little further on, I saw a way marker for the PCT. The Pacific Crest Trail, the long distance hiking trail made famous by the book and film Wild, crossed my route here. It made their presence more explicable, and made me feel a world less remote.
I wouldn’t see another person till that evening.
If you look at a satellite image of this area, it’s a two tone gradient. West to East, the green of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park runs into the sandy beige of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. These two areas are divided by a ridge of hills. I believe this is the “Crest” in PCT.
As the afternoon drew on, I worked my way over these hills. Stoically pushing my loaded bicycle, I hoped that round the next corner would be a surface I could ride on. As the landscape became more desert like, cacti and fragrant spiky bushes lined a track which was increasingly unridable. Longer and longer sections were either inches deep sand, baby head sized rocks, or a combination of both.
I’m stubborn. And hopeful. My Garmin indicated that it was no more than 7 or so miles till I would reach a proper road again. I had water, snacks, a first aid kit and a Spot Tracker — as long as I was careful I would probably be OK.
In some cases its easier to push a bicycle up a hill, than manage it on the way down one. With the Crest crested, things became really difficult. Now I lost the elevation I had spent the morning, and some of the afternoon, gaining as the trail wiggled along the side of a canyon. On my right side, a vertiginous rock and cacti filled drop fell hundreds of feet. The trail was rough, strewn with rocks and crevices. I picked my way along, both using my bike to keep me upright and fighting it as it bumped along. My arms began to ache as gravity tried to drag it out of my grasp. Sometimes, when the front wheel would catch in a dip, I would drop it side ways. More than once I stumbled, and rather than stagger over the cliff edge, I found myself flumping down on my arse, dumping the bike, scraping my ankle on the chainring or pedal. It was gruelling.
Amid this struggle there still were moments when I paused and took in where I was. Precariously inching along the side of a valley, beautiful mountains hemmed me in. My nostrils were full of the fragrance of the desert. To me the Californian desert smells like sweet herbs, dry stone and desiccated meat. Even as it wrung me out, I marvelled.
But then I’d return to the task in hand.
Looking at the map on my Garmin, I could see this went on for miles. It was miles until I joined a trail with a different name, with no promises that the surface would improve, only that it would have less twisting sections.
This is one of the points where I almost lost my shit.
By lose my shit I mean sit down, give up and cry like a lost child. Activate my Spot Tracker, wait for help and hope travel insurance would deal with the consequences. Become a cautionary tale, like someone trying to yomp up Ben Nevis in flipflops. As you can tell, I considered this option more than once.
Stubbornness and pride has its uses. I kept going.
Things didn’t get much better. They just got different.
Sometimes, when I talk about this day, I say I got lost in the desert. I wasn’t really lost. I had map — if you count the Garmin — and I knew exactly where I was. However, I really was in the desert. The sides of the canyon around me were sprinkled green with desert plants. Lizards skittered away and I passed the the occasional desiccated animal carcass. The sky was a blue dome and the sun blazed down. And as you would expect with a desert, sand. Sand, sand on the trail, sand on the not-trail. Energy sapping, wheel sucking, bastard sand. In places, only the line on my Garmin let me know what was the trail, rather than a dried river bed or just landscape. When there wasn’t sand, it was boulders to struggle over or around. The suppressed terror of the descent an hour before, became a low humming worry. I didn’t know what was ahead of me, but I sure as hell wasn’t able to turn back. I trudged on.
At one point a US Border Patrol helicopter, with its distinctive green stripe, flew over. It seemed to hover for a few moments before it moved out of view. I daydreamed that they’d mistaken me for someone trying to cross into the country illegally. When they turned up to check me out, I’d be offered a lift back to civilisation. A ride in an air conditioned truck, with Stragella slung in the back. Oh silly English women, what were you trying to do? That would be a good anecdote, and not at all a cop out. Win win! Obviously, that didn’t happen. I guess they racially profiled me, the bastards.
Time passed. Trudging, my mind circled best and worst case scenarios, but never dwelt on anything for too long. I kept moving and slowly covered the miles. Finally, on the screen of my Garmin, I could see the line marking the proper road. A mile away. Two at most. A gate, locked, stopped me in my tracks. I was both distressed — I was meant to go that way! — and thankful for it. Civilisation. I followed a different path, though it might well have been a river bed, and another, working my way towards the real road. I saw a sign, Oriflamme Canyon, then in the distance the high structure of a ranch entrance. The sand became a rough road, which led to the highway. Beloved black top. The Great Southern Overland Stage Route.
I had survived.
I positively flew to Agua Calliente State Park. The wind at my back, Stragella rolled along the highway like a whole new bicycle. The 10 miles to the campsite passed at time trial speed. I joked with the Park Rangers about my adventure. I camped, cooked sausages on my Trangia camping stove, basked in the hot springs and communed with road runners. I’d had done a very silly thing, that could have gone so badly wrong in a myriad of ways, but still got a happy ending.
As I carp about Garmin and Google Maps trying to kill me, sending me a way I would have never taken if I’d know the challenges ahead, I also forgive them. A paper map would have told me no different. Only the advice of a local or Park Ranger — babes in ridiculous hats, the lot of ’em — would have prevented me heading out into the desert.
Now, I’m in Manchester, UK. I’m returning to the everyday realities of work and home, waiting for the slow unwinding of heartbreak to pass. That day, those 10 miles, are objectively the most dangerous situation I put myself in during the 3 months I spent in the US. But it’s a good memory.
Sometimes it feels like that an experience that cannot be bought or repeated is rare. That day was scary and stupid. But I carried myself through it. While my body — my much maligned fat woman's body — held up its side of the bargain, I cosseted myself with pragmatism and imagination. In the most extreme situation I’ve ever put myself through — far more extreme than the planned exertions of long audaxes — I was strong and good.
I am strong and good. Heartbreak will pass. I can feel its passing. And every time I look at my phone, I will remember that day in the desert.