Albuquerque to Shattuck

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Albuqueque to Shattuck: Why?

My nephew Nick and I had plans to go riding around Denmark and Norway this year, but of course, COVID-19 swept that off the table. The very idea of boarding a long-haul flight seemed crazy, even if all the flights hadn’t been canceled.

During the summer I felt stir-crazy and took a bike trip across Nevada, which went well. I was outside in hot, clean air almost all the time, far from other people, with UV radiation blasting around me. It was restorative and felt reasonably safe. But I didn’t have Nick with me, and I still wanted us to share a bike trip together.

Then in October I visited my father, and we went through a bunch of old photos, including some he took in Oklahoma when he visited the family farm over 30 years ago. The land has long since been sold, and all my extended family members moved on to other places, and my Dad no longer remembered where it was, except that it was just a few miles outside the town of Shattuck, probably to the north-west. We brought up Google Earth and scrolled around there, and used “street view” in the browser, and found some old survey maps and traced all over those trying to match the contours of the land with his photos, but could make no progress.

An old topographical map showing Pony Creek near Shattuck

The whole thing made me very curious. If I went to Shattuck, could I find someone who remembered the farm? Even if I couldn’t, could I get a feel for the land as my pioneer ancestors had known it? Nothing gives a better feel for large chunks of land in a relatively short time than a bicycle tour. Maybe this could be a trip that Nick and I take together?

Using the Reno plan as a template, I came up with a route that started and ended at major Amtrak stations and passed through Shattuck:

Mostly downhill, and with the wind mostly behind us.

I pitched the idea to Nick and he was for it. We already had the hardware prepared, thanks to the canceled Denmark trip. All I had to do was drive my bike south to his, so we could board the train in Los Angeles.

Time for adventure!

The day before embarking to Shattuck

I woke early, not quite rested because I didn’t have my sleep apnea jaw insert. I instantly knew that trying to fall back asleep would fail.

Out in the living room, Mom was already at the computer reading political news. Everyone wanted to know just how much chaos was coming between the end of the election and the installation of the new president. Would the old one start a war? Hijack the courts? Or just gripe for a few months about how he couldn’t possibly have lost and then slink away?

I moved gear around in the van and the garage, packing a small suitcase with bike touring items I might add to my main pile in Simi Valley. With the van squared away, I handed the keys to Mom, and she placed them in her desk.

Dane enjoys masks.

Dane in thee olde countree.

My nephew Darren woke up, and we assembled the laptop in the living room and played Castlevania IV with a tiny little USB game controller. Not a flashy game, but decently fun after all these years. Mom returned from her doctor appointment and fixed all of us “the special Darren omelet”, which was a well-cooked pile of eggs with bell peppers and cheese, plus toast.  We ate around the table and then I told my nephew it was time for me to visit with grandma again.

Mom and I sat in the back yard and caught up, talking about houses and cohabitation.  I was feeling optimistic about my current relationship. I was also acutely aware of how much experience I had, and how it changed my behavior. I talked about how much more connected to Berkeley I felt than to other places in the country, or even the rest of the Bay Area.  Mom hunkered over my phone and poked the map, and showed me where she lived as a kid in Berkeley. We used the street view feature to explore a walking path near her house. Modern maps are astonishing.

Soon it was time to pack up and go.  We loaded everything into the trunk of Mom’s car and drove to the station.  I took a roundabout way there, getting lost, just like I had last time. At the station Darren and I contemplated getting french fries – not because we were hungry but because there was a fast food kiosk right there at the depot – but there wasn’t time.  We saw a homeless weirdo walking around, with a mask pulled down below his chin, muttering to himself.

The train arrived a few minutes later and we dashed onboard, walking through several cars to find seats.  Along the way we passed through a car with the homeless weirdo in it, flanked by two train attendants who were telling him to show his ticket or get off the train. He kept yelling, “This ain’t your train! You can’t tell me where to sit!” over and over.

We sat in our seats for almost half an hour and the train didn’t move.  Eventually a woman announced on the PA that they were waiting for the police to arrive because a man on the train was refusing to get off. 15 minutes later the train started, and when it reached the next station my nephew and I saw three police officers manhandle the homeless guy – flailing and screaming – down the aisle of our car and outside the train to the platform.  A few minutes later we were moving again.

Darren and I busted out the laptop and did some silly photoshop stuff, grafting his older brother’s head onto various Smash Brothers characters.  Then we opened the game emulator again and played Actraiser for two hours, building up several cities and fighting boss monsters. Like Castlevania IV, the game had aged pretty well.

Playing Actraiser with Dane.

We arrived in Simi Valley almost two hours late. We got a ride to my sister’s house and immediately sat down to dinner — a delicious beef stew she had been cooking.  We passed the gratitude candle around and I talked about how grateful I was that we all had the resources to weather this COVID storm without real hardship.

For many hours after dinner, I took over the living room and turned it into a giant staging area for collecting and packing equipment, making very sure I didn’t lose anything or include anything I didn’t want.  I packed the bike bags and stacked them by the door, then told Nick he could use any of whatever I’d left out.

Organizing a lot of stuff.
Zeke the cat enjoys gear.
Zeke the cat enjoys sitting on gear.
Zeke the cat attacking a face mask.
Zeke the cat likes bike seats. All cats like bike seats!

Then there was nothing more to prepare. I retired upstairs to sleep, thinking about how I hadn’t shared a bike tour with anyone in five years, and how interesting it was going to be spending some time with my eldest nephew Nick.

Catching the train

I woke up at 7:00am again.  Argh, too early!

I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so instead I checked in with work.  Darren got ready to go to a school gathering.  I kitted up one of the bikes and rode to a nearby coffee shop, and purchased a big pile of chocolate and an iced mocha.

Back at the house I discovered that Kevin had prepared a frying pan full of breakfast items for me, including an omelet and almost a dozen pieces of bacon.  I transferred it to a bowl and chomped it greedily.

A fine breakfast thanks to Kevin.

Kevin came home.  We talked about politics, which was refreshing for us both, since it was hard for us to find people who weren’t either too sick of the recent elections or too afraid of the possible unrest to engage with it.

I talked about where I lived, directly across from a homeless camp, next to a park with kids and homeless people hanging around in it, and how I didn’t feel fear from them.  To me, the fear seemed to arise from people who weren’t close enough to see the homeless as people.

“There seems to be much more fear here, in Simi Valley, in these suburbs,” I said.  “There’s a whole collection of people here who think they have a lot to lose and that angry Oaklanders want to come take it from them.  Like, go crawling in their windows, and take their television or something!  So they buy guns.  And when protests come, they carry them openly just to be intimidating, or they hide indoors.  And there’s another collection of people, who are afraid of the anger on both sides — between the protestors and that first group.  They sympathize with the protests but they stay indoors anyway because they don’t want to be caught in a crossfire.  The fear is palpable here, on both sides.  I can almost feel it just walking around.  Back where I live, we see the homeless with this really uneasy combination of sympathy and annoyance, but way less fear.  They’re a menace to property, but they’re also victims and evidence of a failed system.  And they’re pathetically vulnerable.  And preyed on by drug pushers.  And the protestors…  We see those totally differently.  Totally.  We’re on another planet back there.”

Boy do I have opinions!  Kevin was graciously accepting of my rant.  We chatted a bit more, and then it was time to pack things up.  I wanted to leave at 2:30 so we had a couple of hours just to hang out at the station.  Something always goes sideways; best to make time for it.

Kevin and Nick helped to load the van.  We had to take the seats off the bikes and turn the handlebars, then stack everything on the panniers to minimize damage to the frames.  It looked really shady but it worked.

We just got on the freeway when we heard an increasing “thumpa tumpa” sound from the side of the van, then a popping noise.  The left rear tire began to lose air quickly.  Kevin got to the side of the freeway and hopped out for an inspection.  It was flat alright.

Not wanting to work on the freeway, we limped the car along to an exit – thankfully only a half mile ahead – and parked in a tiny shopping plaza by the off ramp.  From there we did a two-pronged attack:  Kevin called AAA and arranged for them to come by and look at the tire, and at the same time Nick and I figured out how to get to the spare tire from underneath the car and get instructions on swapping it out.  We used a couple of YouTube videos as a guide.  When we located the spare we discovered it was one of those little donut wheels, so it could get us to the station as long as we went slow.

Unloading gear temporarily while we put the spare tire on the car.

Nick using youtube to figure out where the tools and spare tire are hidden.

The AAA person called back and said they would appear in half an hour.  Meanwhile we loosened the bolts, jacked up the frame, and swapped the wheels.  In 20 minutes we were done, so we loaded all the gear and bikes back into the car and canceled the AAA driver, then carried on to Union Station.  We still had lots of time!  Hooray!

Last goodbyes before the trip!

Kevin drove around behind a building and we piled the gear on an empty patch of sidewalk.  He hugged us and made sure I had my bag of chocolate.  Need those essentials!  As soon as he drove away, Nick and I got out tools and re-assembled the bikes, then anchored all the bags to them.  Even if we needed to undo our work to get the bikes on the train, it was still worth putting them together so we could use them as wheeled transport for all this baggage in the station.  It turned out to be the right move because the first train attendant we talked to said it we could probably just roll the bikes right into a train car, without even removing the bags.  But first we needed luggage tags, so we were shown to a line at a corner of the station.

The line took over half an hour to service two groups, and when we got to the front of it, the clerk told us that the other guy had been too optimistic.  We might not be able to fit the bikes onboard at all.  Nevertheless she gave us two luggage tags, and said, “If you bring those bikes right to the baggage car, there’s a chance they can move stuff around and find room.  But you better hurry, because the train is on time and will probably leave in five minutes.”

We grabbed the bikes and ran with them, threading through a fast-moving crowd, about half a mile down a long tunnel and up a long ramp.  The baggage car was ahead of us, and the door was open.  An attendant gave us permission and we wrestled the bikes into a corner of the car, between mounds of luggage.  Then there was just enough time to extract one bag each from the loaded bikes before we were told to flee all the way down to the other end of the train and dive into it, to get to our room in the sleeper car.

We made it to the room, shut the door, and less than a minute later the train was moving.  That’s when I discovered that I had chosen the wrong bag from my bike, and instead of laundry and snacks, I had a camera and a computer.  Oh well; time to write!

A few minutes later we got a knock on the door, and an official took our dinner orders.  Nick and I set up and relaxed, playing music and poking at the internet, then devoured the meals when they arrived.  We were both instantly tired, so we set up the beds.  It was cramped but way better than trying to doze in a regular train seat, wearing a mask and breathing shallow, with one arm wrapped protectively around a pile of luggage.

Made it safely to the train, with only minutes to spare.
Pretty good meals on this vehicle.
You do not want to see a light lit next to the words TOILET FAILURE.


Nick and I both had terrible sleep, despite having nine hours to collect it.  The clock claimed we had ten hours, since it was showing 10:00am, but the train had moved us into Mountain Time overnight.


“Ugh. I need coffee.”
“They’re probably serving coffee over in the dining car.”
“Yeah but I don’t have any coffee, so I can’t get over there to get it.”

We took our time waking up, poking the internet, and watching the view evolve.

Snow in the highlands!

We put in a lunch order.  Nick discovered that we could also ask for breakfast items even though the window had passed, and he brought us down a tray of food.  I grumbled a lot about how the other passengers were being lax with their mask wearing, and just sitting around with the doors to their cabins open.  “What’s the point of renting a private room with four solid walls to keep viruses out, if you just leave the door open?”

Nick napped for a while, then woke up and snacked some more.  We both stared out the windows.  I worked for a few hours, then just sat there and grooved on the scenery.

Eventually the train arrived in Albuquerque and we unloaded the bikes.  I made some additional adjustments to get them road-ready, and we took off.

Biking out into the city.

It was one long uphill climb to the edge of the city, headed East.  I lamented that I hadn’t filled my tires all the way to 100.  What we saw of the city was not very pretty.  A broad fractured grid of industrial chaos.  Night fell quickly, and with it came surprisingly cold air.

Love that graffiti!
Some cool local architecture.

We got some Vietnamese food at a place three miles from the hotel, opting to eat outside rather than joining the customers within.  The waiter was very accommodating and earned his large tip.  Nick played us music, including Weird Al’s “Albuquerque”.

After that we kept riding East and uphill, to the hotel.  By the time we got there I had a full bladder.  “BOOMER KIDNEYS: ACTIVATE!” I declared, and rushed inside.

Plenty of room for bike bags, huzzah!

We exploded the gear all over the room, then relaxed for a while. Eventually I set out my little LED night-light in search of sleep.

The red LED candle makes things nice and cozy.

A good first day on the road

I woke up with my alarm, then snuck out of the hotel as quietly as possible with a bag full of my computing gear and my folding chair.  Time for a status meeting.

Morning meeting space.

Morning meeting space in a larger context!

I set up in a corner of the parking lot where the sun would hit me, and dialed in to the Thursday meeting.  It went well.  They asked where Nick was and I didn’t want to embarrass him by saying he’d slept through the alarm, so I just said I would “get ahold of him and check on his status.”  It was good to connect with the crew, and the meeting ran long while we wrapped up the business on the itinerary and then just hung around telling database deployment war stories.

Up and ready for riding and computing.

We packed up our gear and closed the door on our keycards.  Hoping for a thematic midwest breakfast, we rolled down to the Waffle House.  Closed!

On the way out of the parking lot a woman of about 30 approached us.  She was dirty, with tangled hair and threadbare clothing, and by the goofy, detached expression on her face she also appeared to be riding the shoulder of a hard drug addiction.  I said “good morning” in a friendly manner, but took off to cross the street shortly after.  I didn’t have anything to offer except food, and I could see food piled near her possessions already.  So, people are down and out in Albuquerque too…

We crossed the street and checked out a bagel place.  Good snacks there, as well as coffee drinks and water.  We ate while standing around outside in the COVID-free air.  Nick finished his coffee while I topped off my tires, then we swapped.  It was really interesting being on a bike tour with him — it felt easy, because he was already well used to maintaining a bike, carrying gear, riding a recumbent, and navigating.  I knew the pace would probably annoy him after a while, at least when we started hitting steep hills, because he was used to an electric-assisted drivetrain.  But perhaps conversation and scenery and books would balance it out.

... But first, coffee!

Only a quarter mile outside of Albuquerque we paired our headphones and started listening to The Worst Hard Time on audiobook.  We swapped the lead position a few times but usually Nick was in front, setting the pace.  He had to watch his mirror because the audio connection between his headphones and my phone would drop out if we got more than 20 yards apart.

But it was still worth it, because the book was gripping in its detailed descriptions of the dust storms, starvation, and chaos of the Dirty Thirties.  Nick and I were hooked and we listened to it for all six remaining hours of the day’s biking.

Another ghost bike ... another dead cyclist.
Slippery dirt.
Mmm road lunch!

A few hours in, we took a pit stop and adjusted the seat of Nick’s bike, moving it back and making room for his knees to unfold all the way. Then he tried on the shoes with clips.  He was skeptical, but when he did a test ride he found that it was much more efficient.  He had been too cramped before to really use them.  When we took off again he was about 15% faster, and consistently tended to pull ahead of me when he was in front.


(Nick is standing by the road, regarding a row of eucalyptus trees.)

“You know, these stupid trees aren’t native. The Australians brought them here. Now they’re all over.”
“What, they planted them on purpose?”
“Maybe. Maybe they just scattered the seeds everywhere.”
“Like Johnny Appleseed but evil.”
“Jackass Eucalyptus Seed.”

(Several minutes of horrible fake Australian accents ensue.)

“All roight! This looks loike a GREAT playce fer a big ol’ stupid tree! Let me just check me pockets…”

A bit later we stopped to eat leftover pho, and a man came walking out of his house to chat with us.  He had the usual questions about our weird bikes and how far we were going.  We weren’t technically on his property but we were on the drive leading to it, and we were probably the most interesting thing he’d seen from his window in weeks, so I’d been expecting a visit.

It got darker and colder, and by 6:00pm it was fully dark.  We stopped to put on windbreakers, then stopped to put on gloves, then stopped to put on rain pants.  If it had gotten even colder I would have added my sweater and rain socks, but we were alright for the remaining miles to town.


“My butt hurts, but you know what doesn’t hurt?”
“What’s that?”
“My nuts! Thank you, recumbent!”
“Hah! Epic win.”

We ate at Shorty’s BBQ.  The owner reassured us multiple times that we didn’t really need masks, and the place was empty of all customers, and only she was in the front area except for her daughter who delivered the food wearing a mask.  We felt safe enough, though we found all the Trump paraphernalia scattered around the restaurant a bit alarming.  It wasn’t the specific politics that were really the cause of alarm — it was the sheer intensity of it.

This man will appear on currency just a little while after glaciers march across hell.
Route 66 used to have more signs. Now they're on this wall!
Corn syrup meets tricorn.
This was apparently the work desk for the proprietor. Thankfully she didn't mention politics while we were visiting.
Mmmm ribs!
"For such a dry state, these people sure love their fireworks." -Nick

We told her the story of how we were riding to Shattuck to see what our recent ancestors had been living through.  She enjoyed that and wished us a safe journey.

Made it!

Leftovers in hand, we biked the half mile back to the hotel and hunkered down for internet time.

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