When I’m on the road, I usually avoid cities unless I have a very specific mission in mind (like finding all the Banksy’s in San Francisco) or I know somebody there who can show me around. Otherwise, I spend the whole time fighting traffic and looking for parking. On Saturday night at the Sun Tunnels Solstice celebration, I met a tall,
glittery-faced guy with two long braids named James who turned out to run a bicycle-tour company in Salt Lake City. When I admitted to skipping past SLC, he offered me a place to park my rig and a bike tour, which sounded like an opportunity to me. I do my best to yes to all opportunities.
When I left the Sun Tunnels on Sunday I was still on the fence about circling back east – the Ruby Mountains were calling me – but then the Universe gave me the push I needed: at the truck stop in Wendover where I stopped for gas, I ran into a woman I had met the night before at the Solstice party who was semi-stranded and in need of a ride to the airport in SLC. So I swooped her up and we headed east. Sherron wasn’t in a rush so we stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats to check out the International Speedway. I only got up to 35 or so with the Rover and the Rattler, but the watery mirages on the bone dry salt flats were totally worth the detour.
On the two hour journey to SLC, Sherron and I talked a blue streak about freelancing. She had traveled extensively all over the world on what sounded like an impressively thin shoestring and was now working as a television producer for a French TV station in Washington DC. Intrigued by my lifestyle on the road, she suggested I shoot a pilot for a reality TV show. She’s not the first professional to suggest this to me – I’ve gotten a few audition emails – and my response is always the same: I hate TV, why would I want to be on it? Thanks but no thanks. I’ll stick to writing words and taking pictures. Herself a traveler and a kindred spirit, she took no offense. We exchanged cards and I’m sure we’ll see each other again someday. You know what they say: paths that cross will cross again.
After dropping Sherron off at the airport, I spent the rest of the afternoon at a car wash and a laundromat cleaning the desert out of the Teardrop. Everything was thoroughly coated with fine white dust, even inside the cabinets. My rig was due for a good house cleaning anyway. I thought I might head to Antelope Island for the night, but a little research dashed that plan: the campground was full, the biting gnats were bad and dogs weren’t allowed on any of the trails. So I spent a rare night at a Walmart parking lot, reveling in the relative domesticity of camping on pavement after a long, hot weekend in the desert. My best advice for urban boondocking: I’ve never had any problems that two big dogs, a bedside machete and good earplugs couldn’t handle.
The next day I picked out the biggest, centrally-located chunk of green space on my map of SLC and headed to Liberty Park to set up shop for the day. I parked the Rover & the Rattler across three spaces and went to work at a nearby picnic table while the dogs rolled in the soft green grass and watched the seagulls and ducks beg for bread crumbs. I got in a good four hours of work before a cop on a bike rolled up and started circling my rig. I ran over and talked him out of giving me a ticket for parking sideways. “You can unhitch and only take up two spaces, but you can’t have three,” he told me. Right. Just then my phone buzzed: it was James giving me directions to his place, where he had cleared me a place to park. Perfect timing and perfect location; he turned out to live just a few blocks from Liberty.
James’ living situation was one of the draws that had pulled me east to Salt Lake City. At the Sun Tunnels he had described the place as an anarchists’ boarding house. Over a decade ago, a couple of punks had walked in the back door of an empty, derelict house, flipped a light switch and discovered that the place had electricity. They did some research, found the property had long been abandoned, moved themselves in and fixed the place up.
To this day, nobody has ever had any contact with the owner of the property and the house has passed from one set of caretakers to the next. James and his five roommates pay the power and water bills and the property taxes and take care of the place. Everybody is expected to chip in with food for the communal kitchen but nobody pays rent money. As somebody who lives outside the box and greatly admires resourcefulness, this arrangement intrigued me.
The house did look like a bunch of twenty-something dudes lived there – there was stuff everywhere, but when I looked closer I saw that just about everything was a treasure. The walls were covered with graffiti and art; the graffiti cute, clever or cutting and the art all original and framed. I found a few of my favorite “trunk library” books on the shelves – Desert Solitaire, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Botany of Desire – and unironically, a copy of SLC Punk in the DVD rack. Instruments included a cello, several guitars, some drums and a charango – a South American ukelele I know fondly from my adventures in Peru with my brother Paul. And all the fridge photos shone with bright-eyed people enjoying the hell out of life. More power to them, I say.
In the backyard, James showed me his treehouse, where he sleeps in the summer and his fleet of old, vintage cruiser bikes he uses for his business, all rescued and rebuilt piece by piece at a local bicycle collective. He picked out the right one for me: a white Schwinn, not too heavy, the seat just the right height and took me for a spin around town.
First we headed to the newly minted, flashy modern library and took a glass elevator up to the roof to get the lay of the valley – Salt Lake City is much bigger than I realized! – then we rode our bikes through the heart of downtown, deep into the Mormon stronghold, where we dismounted and walked around the outside of the off-limits Temple and went inside the more welcoming visitors center to marvel at Space Jesus — a towering stark white statue encircled by the wonders of the Universe. Then we rode upcity a short ways to wade away the summer heat in a clear, ice cold creek.
Along the way James told me all about the history of Salt Lake City, pre-Mormon, post-Mormon and non-Mormon, pointing out historical buildings and infamous places, proving himself a tremendous repository of local information. A SLC native, James knows his city inside and out. We also went to his favorite record shop, his favorite sculpture garden and his favorite coffee shop, where he filled the two five gallon buckets he’d been toting around in his bike basket with free used coffee grounds for his garden.
James showed me around the city with the authority of a guide who cut his bike tour teeth in Alaska for two summers, and the enthusiasm of an adventurer who has lived on a bicycle for months at a time – he’s pedaled across the country more than once with his guitar strapped to the back, playing gigs in bars and busking in parks – all the while pedaling at the leisurely pace of somebody who is perfectly content everywhere he goes. I’m in no way experienced at riding a bike in city traffic, but I felt at ease following James.
Everywhere we went, everybody knew my tour guide: librarians, baristas, men and women, young and old. People didn’t just wave at James, they lit up, genuinely delighted to see him ride by. My first gut impression of James, on a pitch dark night way out in the desert, was of a genuinely good man. And judging by the open enthusiasm of people who see James cycle by everyday, my read was dead right. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have show me around Salt Lake City, especially once that rich coffee smell was wafting in his wake.
James wasn’t done teaching me about his anarchist lifestyle: at the end of our ride, he asked if I’d like to go dumpstering with him that night. Of course, I said yes. After dark, after the stores had closed and even the shelf stockers had gone home, we pedaled to a very popular, very expensive grocery chain, scaled a 10-foot high wall (I’d call it a 5.9 climb) and dropped down into a dumpster among dozens of clear trash bags bulging with food. Ripping open a few bags, James filled a cardboard box with mangos, apples, shitake mushrooms, cilantro, lettuce, yogurt, several cartons of mostly uncracked eggs, a still-packaged t-bone steak, and a whole wrapped chicken.
Opening another bag, he hit unusual pay dirt: a half dozen bouquets of flowers and five live basil plants, still in pots. All in all, he declared it one of his best smelling hauls. I passed the boxes over the wall to him, and managed to climb back out, then we filled our bike baskets and saddlebags with the food, flowers and basil plants and pedaled slowly home.
Some of the food went into the vegan communal kitchen and some went into James’ own non-vegan mini-fridge. The flowers we arranged in a menagerie of glass jars that we placed all over the house. The next morning, we planted the basil in the garden, mulched with a handful of coffee grounds, and then took the rest of the food to a Food Not Bombs distribution in a nearby park.
About two dozen people, many older, some younger, some shabby, some sheik, a few with thick accents and limited English lined up facing three folding tables loaded with boxes of donated food, good food like hard cheeses, yogurt, and fresh baked bread. One volunteer flipped a coin to determine which end of the line would start first and then everybody circled counterclockwise past the boxes, taking one item from each box until everything was gone.
I stood in the shade nearby with the dogs, enjoying the feel of community: neighbors taking care of neighbors, no judgements or questions or hassles. If this is anarchy, count me in. At the last table, standing behind his box of rescued food, James greeted everybody with a wide smile, his musical fingers carefully combing the Solstice braids out of his long, wavy hair. Whatever you might think about anarchists, the way I see it, James cuts more of a Christ figure than Space Jesus.
You can check out James’ bike tour business at Saltlakebicycletours.com and his music at bramblemusic.com. I’m back on the road, heading north with the windows rolled down and James’ tremendously talented tunes pouring out of the stereo.
In case you’re wondering, I asked James how he felt about my writing about his unconventional lifestyle in connection with his bike tour business and this was his reply:
I don’t really mind if people know things about my life. I think it’s radical, in all senses of the word, and I love it to death. Professionalism has a spot at my table these days, to be sure, and I would like people to feel safe and comfortable with me on the tours, but I don’t think there’s anything you could print that would somehow keep that goal from being achieved. And don’t they say that any publicity is good publicity?