Traveling & Hiking in the SW #4:  A Cycling Perspective Without Bikes   (Spring 2011)


Where Are Those Bikes??

Day Trippers

It was only the first full day of our 2 month RV trip and we were already wishing we had brought our bikes. There was a grand bike lane from the ‘burbs of Vegas out to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area but it was the 13 mile scenic route within the park signed for bikes that really had us gawking.

Even on an unseasonably cold weekday in the middle of February there were enough cyclists in the Red Rock park and on the approach road to make us feel left out of something special. What a great, though challenging, ride it would have been.  The stunning scenery on a slow traffic, one way road through the park would be worth doing more than once. But bikes are a hassle to fly with and we reminded ourselves that on this adventure we were going to try something different, we were going to get our daily workouts from hiking.

As our trip progressed, we concluded that almost all of the National Parks or Monuments that we visited would be good, if not great, biking venues. Red Rock was a biking destination, but even places with no special accommodation for bikes, like the Petrified Forest, would be welcoming places to ride.

The slow, ‘going nowhere’ traffic of these reserves was inherently bike friendly. Visitors had paid a fee to enter and had been given a written or verbal lecture on good behavior, which should have been enough to make a safe environment for cycling. Some of these places, like Red Rock, have 1-way roads that commit a rider to doing the entire loop but others, like the Petrified Forest, have 2-way traffic enabling a rider to craft an out-and-back ride of any length. Next time we’ll know; next time we’ll come with our bikes.


Day riding was all that we were tempted to do in the SW, cyclo-touring had no allure at all. We saw a half-dozen loaded cyclo-tourists in pairs over the course of 2 months of travel and we did not envy them. We found some stunning scenery in the hills and mountains of the SW but most of the terrain in between the clusters of hiking venues were vast expanses of relatively barren land. The scenery was tedious at best for motorists and there was precious little to delight the minds of even slower moving cyclists.

Wind was a near constant companion on our spring trip, with forecasted gusts in the 30-40 mph range something we learned to accept as near-normal for this time of year.  The strong winds and stronger gusts demanded our attention as motorists and made us glad for the chin straps on our sun hats as hikers, but the wind would have been brutal as cyclists trying to make a destination. (We returned home from our lone cyclo-touring trip to the desert SW in the late 1990’s with very buff shoulders from countering the persistent crosswinds).

Then there were the wicked goat’s head thorns that were a curse for cyclists tires. The many we pulled out of our Vibram soles as hikers were only a nuisance, for cyclists the thorns would have represented punctured tires--which is even worse when your bike is loaded.

And we heard nothing but bad reviews about the courtesy from motorists that cyclists could expect in the region, which takes away a lot of the fun of being on the open road. Both our cyclist friend in Phoenix and a bike shop clerk in Albuquerque concurred that it was a deadly affair. (One of the “pro’s” I happened to read online for owning a diesel truck--which are very popular in the region--was the ready ability to choke cyclists with your exhaust.)  More on the up’s and down’s of cycling in tour file: SW Day List Rides: A Wish.

Kinda Like Cyclo-touring

Taking It Easy

Who would have thought that there would be so many similarities between RV’ing and cyclo-touring, but there were, and they began presenting themselves right off the bat. Just like on our bikes, we were about the slowest thing on the road in our RV. The little darling seemed to be powered for doing about 30-35 mph on the flats and pushing it to cruise at 45 mph took some time. On a good day, we could put on some miles in the 50-55mph range. Our big box made us highly sensitive to the winds and, like cyclists, we slowed in the headwinds and literally sailed along in the tailwinds

“75 mph”: In our dreams!

In and around Las Vegas during our first days our pokey pace was fine. The 6-8 lane urban roads gave plenty of room for the cars to zip around us and on the nearby one lane National Park roads, we pulled over as often as possible.  Like when on the bikes, we generally hugged the right side of the road and did what we could to stay out of the way of the regular traffic.

And like on bikes, abrupt edges were unsafe for us to cross at speed and we made no sudden moves onto rougher surfaces. Whether in the RV or on bikes, we had to slow significantly and carefully calculate the stability issues before moving off the road for faster traffic to pass us.

Oh my, and the lack of power made us long for a route map with grades on it to help estimate driving time like when biking. After chugging up the grades around Boulder/Hoover Dam we lost all confidence in estimating driving time. The drive to the next RV park would be 80-100 miles and we wanted to stop for a hike after the first few miles. Would our average speed be 30 mph, 45 mph, or 60 mph? There was no way for us to know in those first days.

Unlike our cycling computers, the RV instrument panel wouldn’t be calculating average speed for us to aid in planning our next big drive--we’d need to track that ourselves to help plan. I was already suggesting that we break that drive into 2 days--the kind of mileage that loaded cyclists (though not us) routinely do. After all, it’s tiring to be on the freeway doing 35mph.

Seeing & Being Seen

Our lack of ability to accelerate rapidly, a significant blind spot on the right, and the need for 2 lanes to make a 90˚ turn all quickly convinced us to be strategic in our destinations, like on a bike. Fatigue, not awkwardness on the road, compelled us to limit ‘going back’ or taking side trips on bikes, but the result was the same in the RV---no flitting about but instead always plodding forward.

Collisions with vehicles were major concern for us as RV’ers or cyclists but the secondary concerns were quite different. On bikes, after collisions, road surface problems are a big worry, especially hazards like railroad tracks. Broken collar bones and hips are classic injuries for cyclists skidding on tracks. Fortunately, in the RV, surface variations like tracks weren’t much of a safety hazard though they could bounce us around quite a bit.

But unlike car drivers and cyclists, we had to be 3-dimensionally-aware, as Bill described our task, because we always had to divert some of our attention up, to overhanging trees and low clearance obstacles. We didn’t even want to guess the out-of-pocket expense we’d incur from clipping an unyielding object just below our 12’ clearance requirement. We did scrape more than a couple of branches on urban thoroughfares but fortunately they left no trace.

Our helmet or glasses-mounted rear view mirrors were quite the conversation piece when cycling in Europe because they aren’t sold there even though we considered them an indispensable safety item. In the RV the rear view mirror was only useful as a holder for hanging park entrance tags. In our big rig, it was the 4 side view mirrors and rear camera that were our indispensable ‘look back’ aids.

Fortunately there was more clearance than previously advised.

When driving, we constantly studied the 2 mirrors on each side of the RV cab to judge how well centered we were in the lane and what was going on around us. The camera was reassuring for backing up but the sense of distance was so distorted that we had to roll down the windows and discharge our passenger for more detailed backing information. The camera was useless for judging the firmness of unsealed parking spaces or looking very far back but it prevented us from crunching things immediately behind us and informed us if a car was foolishly lingering there.

Like when on heavily traveled truck routes on bicycles, we sometimes found it best not to look in those mirrors at all when driving the RV because sometimes it was too terrifying. When big semi-trucks occupy all the space you can see in the mirrors it can be better to fix one’s gaze forward on the little that is left that you can control. When on the bikes in such overwhelming situations, the priority was to anticipate surface hazards so as stay upright and to remain predictable; in the RV it was about the same: track a straight line and hope for the best when engulfed by rampaging semi’s.

Parking our oversized RV in lots could be difficult or impossible, but it was never hard to find our rig when we returned from shopping because we were always the only big thing there. Kinda cool: we looked up and scanned the horizon and we always could instantly find our way back home. In contrast, it was a snap to find space for parking our bikes for a shopping trip but it often required one of us to stay with them as a sentry.

Threading the Needle

In Tucson, 2 weeks into our 2 month  RV trip, I suddenly and repeatedly deeply understood how my many years of cyclo-touring had prepared me for driving urban gauntlets in an RV.  The Tucson roadwork department seemed overly fond of erecting, sometimes hundreds, of posts to highlight the lane or warn of hazards. Unfortunately our 8.5’ rig with a pair of essential side mirrors that stuck out about 1’ beyond the box on each side made us wider than what they considered a necessary lane width for vehicles in construction zones. 

I nicked the first over-reaching sign with my right mirror and it teetered and banged against our siding as I crept through the post and sign gauntlet at about 5 mph. Bill folded in the mirror before reaching the second pair of signs that crimped the lane too small for us to pass and we made it through without contact.

A few days later, also in Tucson when I was driving, we happened upon about a half mile of an idle construction zone with hundreds of posts on both sides of the re-routed lane, severely constricting the way. Bill whipped in the passenger side mirror and continuously updated me as to how close I was to hitting the string of obstacles on his side. Down one mirror with traffic piling up behind me, I had no hope of gauging where I was at any given moment, all I could do was look ahead and judge where I needed to be, just like on a bike.

When on a bike with bulky panniers in very narrow places, it is critical to not look down at the barriers you are trying to clear but instead to look well beyond them, to the horizon. It’s counter intuitive but it works like a charm and we can pedal through slots with only an inch or 2 to spare on a side. In Tucson I had to revert to these white-knuckle cycling experiences and fix my gaze far ahead and trust it would work out, which it did. Ironically, Bill was much more traumatized by being the navigator through these gauntlets than I was being the driver. He assumed I was judging where I was, which was terrifying to him; instead I was judging where I was going to be, which wasn’t nearly as scary.

After recovering from the stress of hitting that first sign in Tucson, we felt terrible that we hadn’t stopped or gone back to check on things as if it were a traffic accident. We debated about returning to the scene to see if there was a problem but realized that other motorists would have honked or yelled if they had an issue with us. Our barely moving speed at the time would have made it a snap for anyone to catch-up with us. And the way the area was all barricaded off, there hadn’t been any place to stop anyway. We felt a tinge of guilt and regret until weeks later when we heard that there were seemingly no consequences for a motorist that intentionally hit a pack of cyclists in Tucson so we figured that dinging a road construction sign probably didn’t compute as an issue at all in these parts.

The stresses of constantly being 3-dimensionally aware and allowing for our oversized box were with us for the entire trip. But luckily, just like when cycling, we and our rig were unscathed at the end of our challenging but rewarding journey.

Next Up: In our next segment we shift gears: we go from looking at driving an RV through the eyes of a cyclist to exploring the range of stop-over possibilities available to committed snowbirds.

The hiking was delightful amidst the amazing rock formations and scenery at Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona: