What I Learned Biking through the Desert

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Those of you who subscribe to my alt channel know that a few months back I decided to challenge myself with a weeklong bike ride through Death Valley as part of Climate Ride, a great organization that raises funds for countless sustainability and environmental causes. Unfortunately, that ride was canceled (likely) due to climate change: in August of this year, Hurricane Hilary dropped more than a year’s worth of rain in a few days, flooding the desert, destroying all the roads and shutting the entire park down for two months. Obviously you can’t blame climate change for one specific hurricane but you can note that scientists have been warning us that we’ll see more frequent and more severe weather events like this. The amount of rainfall Death Valley experienced in one day set a new record, which was previously set last year in an event that a meteorologist called “an extremely rare, 1000-year event.” So yeah, it’s safe to say that it’s a wee bit on the nose that Climate Ride was canceled thanks to a tropical storm hitting a desert.

Luckily, the Climate Ride team leapt into action with their partners at REI and came up with a new ride through Joshua Tree. My friend Drew Curtis and I decided to go for it, despite the fact that it is way less badass to say we biked through Joshua Tree as opposed to Death Valley. We had never been to Joshua Tree before and figured it would be worth the effort.

I’m happy to say that it very much was worth the effort. Originally I was only going to post videos about this trip over on my alt channel, where I’ve already posted vlogs about my training, then how the ride was going along with quick edits of the GoPro footage of each day’s rides. But as I was sorting through all the footage to make one overarching video about the trip, I started thinking more and more about the point of Climate Ride and how it directly relates to the videos I do here on my main channel. So I just want to talk a little bit about what I learned on the ride, and share some of what I saw.

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses two different deserts with very different terrain. We started the ride in the Mohave, which is the higher elevation and features the actual Joshua Trees the park is named for. They’re found primarily in that place because they only thrive at the lower temperatures found in higher elevations. That means that they’re particularly at risk of global warming, with research suggesting that by the end of the 21st century humans will have eliminated 80 to 90% of their habitat if we don’t drastically cut emissions.

One reason scientists are worried about the Joshua tree is because its primary method of migration was the giant Shasta ground sloth, which went extinct 13,000 years ago due to, let’s see…ah, climate change and human predation and habitat destruction. Excellent, very cool.

On the second day, we descended into the Colorado Desert, where we learned about the teddy bear cactus and its very spicy hugs.

There are many species of fauna in the park, though I only got to see tarantulas, lizards, and a particularly annoyed rattlesnake. There are also desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, mule deer, and more than 250 species of birds.

On day three we biked to the shore of the Salton Sea, which itself hosts more than 400 species of birds, making it one of the most important sites for bird conservation in the United States. For millennia the lake has appeared and disappeared based upon the changing flow of the Colorado River. The current lake formed when the California governor had an irrigation canal constructed–this began a series of fuckups, attempted fixes, and resulting fuckups that eventually led to flood waters rushing into the basin and completely drowning the town of Salton, a railroad, a salt harvesting plant, and the Torres-Martinez tribal land.

Receding water levels combined with agricultural runoff to create an environmental disaster, leaving the bird and fish populations devastated. The only remaining native fish is the endangered desert pupfish, which can survive in a wide range of salinities. Fun fact about the pupfish: they mate by jerking it. “compatible males and females will come in contact and collectively jerk in an s-shape. Each jerk typically produces a single egg that is fertilized by the male and deposited in his territory.”

Today, the lake still smells absolutely horrible and there is no appropriately large-scale project to fix what’s been happening. But there IS something interesting happening that could change things for the better: it turns out that the Salton Sea is a huge source of lithium, which humans are consuming more and more of particularly in the development of green technologies like electric cars and solar panels. And scientists have developed a new method of extracting that lithium in a way that is far less damaging to the environment than previous methods.

The Salton Sea sits on top of the San Andreas Fault, meaning it has a lot of geothermal activity. Several plants are already there, turning that activity into energy by extracting hot brine, using the steam to drive turbines, and then reinjecting the brine back into the underground aquifers. But that brine also contains lithium, which means that in addition to getting geothermal energy these companies can also provide the US with a key ingredient in other green technologies before they return the brine to the aquifers.

This method, known as Direct Lithium Extraction, is far, far more sustainable than traditional open air mining, using less water, putting out less CO2, and using existing geothermal infrastructure. And this industry COULD bring new jobs and wealth to California’s poorest communities.

The problem? Oh, same as always: capitalism. These communities were also promised wealth and jobs by the agriculture industry, and instead they got hosed while the bosses got richer and richer. So if it’s going to happen, the corporations hoping to cash in are going to require serious oversight to make sure they don’t just do Salton Sea 2: The Revenge.

Speaking of capitalism, our final days were spent biking to and from Julian, CA, a gold rush town that in the 90s tried to stop fast food restaurants from moving in and putting local businesses under. A local owned the main well from which the town got its water and he threatened to stop access to the water if they didn’t let him build a Dairy Queen and a Subway. So they let them be built but everyone in the town just kind of agreed to not patronize them and they went out of business soon after. Collective action works, you guys!

That was one of my takeaways from this trip. You know I’ve always been critical of blaming individual choices for systemic problems like climate change, but I also don’t think doomerism and surrender is helpful. There’s power in coming together with like-minded individuals to do something, however small, to advance society. In the case of this Climate Ride, we raised more than $172,000 for beneficiaries like the California Bicycle Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Vida Verde Nature Education, a nonprofit that takes low-income students out into the wilderness to teach them a love of nature and to develop critical thinking skills. Thank you, by the way, to everyone who chipped in to make that happen. I appreciate it and future generations appreciate it.

And so as you can guess, it’s about more than just the financials. Yes, these beneficiaries are going to go on to do more good, but there’s also the good that comes from each person who participated in the ride and I hope even for those who donated to the ride and who have been following along with my videos about it. As I mentioned in my video about Ocean Cleanup, research suggests that hands-on collective action like beach cleanups “are not only beneficial for the local coastline and its habitants. They appear to have a wider educational value that may bring further environmental benefits in the future. In addition, they were shown to benefit individual well-being and strengthen individuals’ environmental citizenship by increasing pro-environmental behavioral intention.”

And on a personal note, training for this ride has made it possible for me to now ride my bike to places I otherwise would have needed my car, because now I can handle the hills. And riding through Joshua Tree made me learn more about the unique ways that climate change and human mismanagement is negatively impacting this wild environment, and it makes me more motivated to do what I can to help.
So again, thanks to everyone who helped me on what started as a personal challenge but ended as something a bit more important. If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend you check out Climate Ride’s upcoming events, which include not just weeklong bike trips but also hiking, skiing, and shorter trips for people of all skill levels. And let me know in the comments if you’re booking a trip! I’m thinking this won’t be my last Climate Ride.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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