1984 Bike Tour: Day 66 – Strange lights in the desert

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Tuesday, July 17, 1984
Yuma, Arizona to Anza-Borrego, California
95 miles

Locater map

I’m reprinting the day-to-day journal entries of a cross-country bike tour my friend and I took in 1984. More about the TransAmerica Tour 1984

Bis’ Journal

“Flooded” sign, but no water

Too much heat? Not enough water? Too much pedaling through the desert? Too close to the end of the trip? I can’t explain it, but I isolated myself from the group today and rode up to a solitary campground in the desert.

Expecting another hot day, we set the alarm for 4:30 but didn’t really get going for hours. We all stopped for pictures at the Arizona-California border then cycled on Interstate 8 near the Mexican border through an area aptly named the Imperial Sand Dunes.

Turning onto State Route 98, we left the sandbox and found ourselves in a lush farmland. Instead of sand blowing in our faces, we were pelted by thousands of small white butterflies flitting back and forth across the road between crops. It’s really the same arid environment, but the land is watered by the All American Canal. The thirst of this desert valley is quenched by water that passes through the Grand Canyon.


By noon we had ridden 50 miles to Calexico. I stopped at a convenience store, bought a gallon jug of water, and drank most of it sitting in the shade. It’s hot down here — we’re actually sitting at 2 feet below sea level.

The heat intensified on the 30 miles or so to Ocotillo, a town named for a spindly desert plant that thrives here. Without canal water, the land is parched and nearly lifeless. We got a laugh out of a “flooded” warning sign posted on the lonely highway. Up ahead there was a dip where water might have collected in the last rainfall, but that must have been years before.

The road gained elevation and truck traffic increased. I just plowed ahead as best I could, although I didn’t seem to have much energy. It was 4 p.m. when I arrived at an ice cream stand/convenience store in Ocotillo; the thermometer on the wall read 108.

On to Anza Borrego

I was the first to arrive but the last to leave. I rode down to the only motel in town and saw the blue van parked in front. The blue cinderblock room was small, the window AC blasted cold air, and the TV blared. Having bicycled through the wide open spaces all day, I immediately felt clausterphobic. I told them there was a desert park up the road I wanted to check out. Bruce looked at me like, “You gotta be nuts,” but respected my decision. He fished the tent poles and anything else I’d need out of his gear and big me adieu about 6 p.m.

The bike felt 100 pounds heavier as I slowly pedaled out of town, but there was no wind, no traffic, and the desert air cooled by the minute. I labored uphill to the Anza-Borrego Park, flanked by the Coyote Mountains on one side and the Jacumba Mountains on the other. The landscape that had been so flat and glaring in the afternoon gained texture and beauty as the dropping sun carved shadows in the surrounding badlands and lit up the needles on the cholla cactus.

Mountain Palm Springs campground

I finally reached a pass and coasted to the Mountain Palm Springs campground, pushed my bike through deep sand to a picnic table and camped. No one was anywhere around. I didn’t finish eating til after dark.

Spooky lights

After a fiery sunset, I witnessed one of the strangest sights on the trip. I sat on the picnic table looking at the stars, then saw strange lights in the sky. It looked like big planes making arcs in the sky way to the east. All I could see were the wing and taillights, then green spotlights on the planes lighting up the ground below. Was it bombers practicing night bombing runs on a target range, or Border Patrol helicopters searching for illegal aliens. I was too far to hear anything, and because the campsite sits at some 400 feet elevation, it looked like all this was happening “below” me. It reminded me of a scene from “Close Encounters.”

Why was I here? Probably a combination of not wanting to be closeted up in a motel room and not wanting to let go of this cross-country bike trip. I don’t regret the decision, although I wish everyone could be up here tonight — it’s a very cool spot.

Headline: July 17, 1984 — Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has repeated for a national television audience his description of Adolf Hitler as ”a very great man.”

Bruce’s Journal

Another early morning: alarms off at 4:30, although we weren’t on the road for two hours. Breakfast at Jack in the Box. I was grumpy this morning, no energy, tired, an accumulation of not enough sleep and more than enough beer. Also, my connection with Marie was poor the night before and that was frustrating (I got her better later this afternoon).

Our last state border crossing

We did almost 90 miles today and it was far worse than yesterday. Lots of sand dunes and sand, and the wind blew it all over us. And we were out in it until 4 p.m., so we hit the hottest part of the day. It was 108 degrees with high humidity when we arrived in Ocotillo. We made Calexico by noon and did dinner shopping and had lunch. It was four miles from Mexicali, but it might as well have been Mexico.

The last 30 or so miles were torturous: hot, windy, bad road with no shoulder and lots of truck traffic. How’s that when you’re not in the best mood to begin with?


We found an ice cream place in Ocotillo and I had one and a half milkshakes, a small cone and a ham sandwich. Later, we went to a diner to eat and got a hotel room at the only place in town, but Bis wanted to cycle on 10 miles and camp in the mountains. We will meet him at 6 in the morning for another 80 miles to Lake Henshaw. And then, a short 50 or so, all down, I think, to Marie.

The trip is winding down, and I am at once sad, excited, and at times not moved in the least. I really don’t know how to feel about it. It’s been such a long haul and so packed with experiences. I’m half afraid I’ll miss it, and at the same time I can’t wait to be through with it. That’s always the way, I suppose.

I think my bad mood today might be somewhat related to the ending, although I can explain it physically much easier: too little sleep, too many milkshakes, beers, etc.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.bikingbis.com/2020/07/17/1984-bike-tour-day-66-strange-lights-in-the-desert/

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