I love to mountain bike in the desert. Every time I put tires to trail in remote, barren lands, I see things. Maybe it’s the heatstroke and dehydration, concussions suffered from innumerable endos, or my habit of sucking fumes from ventilation pipes atop abandoned uranium mines. But I swear that something is out there. I’ve witnessed the unexplainable. Usually my desert hallucinations are mundane. Ghostly jackrabbits dart beneath my front tire, but a second glance shows they were never there. I hear multiple voices on the wind, talking as if in casual conversation, but I know it’s just air moving through the sage. Stark ground against cobalt skies create an infinite distance that mocks me when I near what should be the trail’s end. Yet the end never comes. It is madness. But by far, the weirdest thing I ever saw in the desert, was a sushi bar.
It happened at an 18-hour endurance mountain bike race. Nothing teases out the frayed thread of desert crazy quite like staying up all night, pedaling in the dark, while drinking. This particular race was in the spring, years ago, in the remote wasteland of Western Colorado. The event began normal enough, as hundreds of racers dashed through the sand in a Le Mans-style start, falling over each other to reach their waiting bikes. I found my ride quickly enough and was soon engulfed in a frenzy of clicking gears, neon spandex and blinking tail lights. But it wasn’t long before all those sober, serious racers blew past me, and I was completely alone. Swooping over tight singletrack at night with nothing but a headlamp lighting the way is spooky enough. But when my single beam revealed fleeting… somethings… that no words could describe, I had to tell myself it was just the lack of sleep, that or the seven pre-race beers were to blame. Nevertheless, I pedaled faster.
But the sushi bar, that happened after the race. Exhausted from the long ride, my friends and I spent the evening guzzling celebratory microbrews around a campfire. As one does after a massive drink session, a late-night ride was in order. So four of us strapped on headlamps and rolled out into the desert with no destination in mind. Elated, I swerved around under the stars, making my own way with no trail to follow. Only the sandy ground and deadpan mud showed the way. Before long my path paralleled a row of trees and bushes. With my friends following, I made an abrupt left turn onto a barely-there path that entered the foliage. Branches scratched my face, my light couldn’t penetrate the thick hedge, and I feared this was not the right way at all. But when we crashed through to the other side, we found something that simply doesn’t belong in the remote desert. We found a sushi bar.
The only structure was a brick wall, about waist high, with a concrete floor. Behind the wall a sushi chef sliced rolls of rice and fish. The scene was illuminated by a red neon sign that simply stated, “Sushi.” Several varieties were spread out along the makeshift bar, including spicy tuna rolls, California rolls, veggie rolls, and unidentifiable specialty rolls drizzled with sauces and seeds. It was a massive spread – enough sushi to feed dozens of bike teams. Except there were no spandex-wrapped dudes in sight. The only presence was the sushi chef, cutting his rolls.
We could not believe the sushi bar was real. This mirage was way too “Fear and Loathing.” Thinking it was another of my desert hallucinations, I turned to my friends and asked if they could see it too. They all nodded with mouths agape, staring at this thing that should not be. Relieved that I wasn’t alone in this vision, there was only one thing I could do – saddle up to the bar and eat some damn sushi.
It was delicious. Even though I already ate dinner back at camp, the bike race left me ravenous. We all tore into rolls as the chef happily served us anything we wanted. He asked about the race, how well we did, and where we were from. He made new rolls, whipping up on-the-fly recipes as if eager to know our opinions. It was heavenly. Best of all, it was free. When we offered to pay, he waved us away, said he was happy to feed us and thanked us for trying his experimental rolls.
After eating our fill, we rode our bikes back to camp. Several of our group opted to stay by the fire instead of going on the night ride, and we knew they wouldn’t believe what just happened. Sure enough, when we wove the tale of a random sushi bar in the desert, they scoffed. But their curiosity was ignited and their hesitation eventually broke down as they followed us into the night. I feared the sushi really was a desert dream and the rolls digesting in my belly were phantoms. But when we returned, the bar was still there, and the chef was elated that we came back and brought friends.
More sushi was eaten. The chef offered bottles of beer to wash the fish down. We drank amber ales and laughed at the absurdity of it all. I asked him where he came from and how this place came to be in such an unlikely spot, but he just smiled and shaped more rolls with bamboo and seaweed.
After two rounds of binging on sushi and beer, we couldn’t even look at another slab of Sashimi, or roll of tempura shrimp. So we bid the chef goodnight, thanked him profusely, and wove our bikes back to our tents and sleeping bags.
Late the next morning, my head pounded and my legs felt like jelly. I grabbed a wad of cash and, saddle sore, rode my bike in blinding sun back to the sushi bar to give the chef something for his hospitality. Of course, there was no sign of any sushi, beer, neon sign, or a friendly chef. Only a brick wall and concrete floor remained, empty against the stark ground and cobalt sky.
Bizarre things are conjured up in the desert. As I stood in flip flops on the sandy ground with a few bucks in my grip, I tried to make sense of it all. Maybe the chef was an apparition after all – a mischievous, desert spirit slinging raw fish thousands of miles from the sea. Or perhaps he was just another racer who doubled as an aspiring restauranteur using hungry mountain bikers as starving guinea pigs. But most likely the sushi chef was hired by the New Belgium bike team that was camped nearby, and my friends and I were just lucky enough to snarf the leftovers.
In the end, I came to two conclusions: either the sushi bar was real, or I need to stop wrapping my lips around ventilation pipes of abandoned uranium mines.