Tour Day 28: Kearny, AZ to Tucson, AZ

May 23rd, 2009

84.16 mi / 6:02:56 time / 13.9 mph avg. / 28.0 mph max. / 3156 ft. climbing
Staying at Radisson Suites

All through the night, cars would come down the campground road and go to the picnic area/boat launch parking area, turn around, and drive back out. What were they looking for? A make-out session? Their drug dealer? Some midnight fishing? Luckily none of them ever arrived simultaneously (or waited around), so no party ever got started.

I was woken up around 3am with, you guessed it, rain hitting my face. So I had to close the door on my rainfly which I had hopefully left open. It had stopped by the time I woke up for real at 4:40am, but it started drizzling again as I was taking down the tent, making for yet another day of wet gear in my bags.

Then I had rain continuing for the first 15 miles of the ride. It was warm enough (upper 60s) that I skipped the rain gear and just let my clothes get soaked through (yet again). Either way my clothes would be soaked, the only question is whether they’re wet from the rain or wet from my sweat. Neither is at all pleasant, but skipping the jacket at least allows the possibility or drying out faster as soon as the rain lets up.

When I was around Flagstaff, I remember specifically thinking “the weather has been even nicer than I expected; I was predicting about 3 days with some rain for the whole trip, and we’ve only had one. And surely there won’t be any more chance of rain now that I’m headed down to the real desert!” I never would have guessed I’d then get four straight days of rain. I think the knowledge that this was the last day of the trip was the only thing keeping me from getting really pissed off. To all the drivers, the rain and cool temperatures were awesome fun and great relief from the record temperatures they’d recently had in Phoenix (14 days of 100 degrees in a row). But it’s a different story when you never feel any of that heat, and the rain seems to be following you everywhere you go.

I stopped in Mammoth and got a premium gas-station breakfast, with a hot breakfast burrito and hot breakfast sandwich. Fancy. Then I had the final hill to climb, 2000 ft. over 10 miles, so relatively easy, but long. Luckily the rain was reduced to minor sprinkles by this point. At the top of the hill was supposedly the town of Oracle. But like many of the towns in this area, it’s oddly built off of the highway (or more likely, the highway was built around it?) so if they didn’t have road signs pointing to it, you wouldn’t even notice it’s there. That’s especially weird in this case, because for the next 40 miles into Tucson, the highway is known as “Oracle Rd.”, and the Tucson suburbs have all sorts of references (“Oracle Mall”, etc.) to this town that is nearly invisible. I also passed by Biosphere 2, but unfortunately it’s not visible from the road.

After cresting the final summit, I was able to complete the trip with a nice long downhill into Tucson. I had sprinkles as late as Oro Valley, 20 miles out of TUcson’s center, but after that, the sun appeared in earnest. I was relieved to know that I hadn’t actually been dragging the rain along with me all the way into Tucson, even though it definitely had felt that way. I would have felt pretty bad if I had rained out the wedding!

Tucson is very bike-friendly, with the first bike lane briefly appearing some 30 miles out of town. Then there was a section of construction, which could have been nearly as bad as that section of US-60, but they had a lot of signs about sharing the road and all of the drivers were quite courteous, so it was far more comfortable. I saw a bunch of people out on their Saturday morning road rides, and unfortunately I couldn’t reel any of them in. 🙁 Tucson and its suburbs ended up being a lot bigger than I expected, with residential and commercial development starting 20 miles out on Oracle Rd. and continuing the whole way in.

I rolled up to the final stop, the Radisson Suites, around 1pm. But the challenges weren’t over. Now I had to gain access to my hotel room without credit card or ID. I was first met with outright refusal, even though I had already paid for the room, and there was really no doubt of my identity. What needed to be overcome was mindless, inflexible adherence to corporate policy. After 30 minutes of hemming and hawing and fear of losing her job, the manager-on-duty (really the housekeeping manager) finally told me to take my bike around to the back of the hotel and meet her there by the laundry and dumpsters. After having a smoke to calm her nerves, she said “Ok, I’ll let you in a room”. Woo hoo! I didn’t officially check in or get any keys, so I would be stuck there, but at least I could take my first shower in a week (which maybe was the final tipping point for the manager, I bet she was getting sick of my stinking up her lobby!)

Once inside, I gave my aunt a call to ask if they could help out whenever they returned from the rehearsal lunch by putting down their credit card. I spent some time greatly enjoying my specialized gift bag, which included a cute mini-pack of King’s Hawaiian Bread (lasted about 3 minutes), a big bag of high-calorie trail mix (lasted a little longer) and a couple of great beers (lasted until they got cold enough in the freezer). After a long shower, I met my uncle, got checked in for real, and finally I was finished and free!

It actually wasn’t too much longer afterwords that my parents arrived from the drive down to Phoenix. It was hard to decide what was the best: seeing them for the first time in six weeks, receiving the extensive packet of supplemental ID (up to and including my college ID card!) that would let me fly home, or receiving the batch of awesome polka-dot cookies!

Tour Day 27: Roosevelt, AZ to Kearny, AZ

May 22nd, 2009

72.41 mi / 6:25:22 time / 11.2 mph avg. / 41.0 mph max. / 5428 ft. climbing
Staying at Kearny Lake Campground

The rain continued on and off throughout the night, with some inconsiderate fool leaving the spigot in the “on” position when I awoke in the morning. At least my gamble to skip the tent again and sleep on the picnic table had paid off. The wind never picked up through the night, so the overhead canopy and some strategic positioning was enough to keep me from getting wet. And then packing up camp was much cleaner, drier, and easier, since I didn’t have to figure out how to collapse a wet tent in the rain. Still, it took me a while to get packed up, because I spent a lot of time just sitting on the table, staring at the rain in glum disbelief.

I’ve read bike tour journals where people talk about an afternoon shower that will pass by, wet them down for 20 minutes, cool them off, and then the sun will be back out to dry them off. I’ve now done over 100 days of bike touring, and that has never happened to me. It seems like for me, when it rains, it rains for three days straight, at least.

Eventually I strapped on the rain gear and headed out into it. It mostly stopped after about 10 miles, but I still ended up soaked because I had to climb a 2500 ft. hill in my rain gear, which makes you sweat just a bit. After the top of the hill, I turned west onto US-60, and hit the decaying mining town of Miami. I did get an awesome breakfast burrito at a popular burrito stand there though.

Then I had to go up and down another 1500 ft. worth of hill over an 18 mile stretch of the fast and busy US-60, a test I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It would have been difficult under normal conditions, but adding four miles of construction at the final stretch to the summit made it one of the most hair-raising and stressful rides I’ve ever done. I had to pull out every trick I knew, including off-roading, riding on the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, pulling off to let barrelling trucks pass, or simply gunning it over short stretches to get to the next safe spot. The only thing I had gong in my favor was that it wasn’t raining.

Until I crested the summit, and then the rain started to fall again. Ah, noon in Arizona on Memorial Day weekend, and it’s 59 degrees and I’m soaking wet. Even though there was no construction on the downhill, it was still difficult because whenever a passing lane would appear in the oncoming direction, it would eliminate the shoulder on my side. And the road was so busy and full of trucks that there would always be a line of cars jumping into the oncoming passing lane, giving no chance for vehicles on my side to slide around me. I’ve seen people debate the use of a rear-view mirror for bike touring, which makes no sense to me. At least on a road like this, there is no debate: without my mirror, my chances of making it through alive would have been rather small.

Despite all that, there were a couple moments where I could see through the raindrops on my glasses that I was descending through a rather spectacular canyon. If it wasn’t raining, if my life wasn’t hanging in the balance, and if I hadn’t just been through some of the most awe-inspiring canyons in the world over the last few weeks, I might have snapped a photo or two.

At one point, I went through a tunnel, and when I came out the other end, the sun was shining! Soon after, I eagerly turned off the US-60 nightmare onto the much more pleasant AZ-77. I even stopped and optimistically took off my rain jacket, which might give the rest of my clothes a chance to dry out. I cursed myself for an idiot when it started dripping again 10 minutes later, but it soon stopped, and didn’t start again for the rest of the day. Hooray!

I had one more hill to climb, and although this was the shortest of the three, it was shockingly steep, with over a mile of steady 10% grade. I gave a big holler at the top, /because although I have one more good hill to climb tomorrow, this was the final real beast on a trip that has laid out many for me to conquer. RARGH!!

On the descent, I passed the Ray Copper mine, which is an incomprehensibly huge hole in the ground. Seeing the enormous mining equipment standing out as specks on the high ledges makes made me want to compare what such trucks would look like if they were crawling the walls of the Grand Canyon. Ok, so maybe we could do a computer simulation of that one rather than using the real thing.

When I pulled into the nice-but-slightly-unsettling pre-planned town of Kearny (planned by the mining company, presumably) I considered the motel, and even checked the rate ($62). I was so sick of rain and the threat of rain that I wasn’t sure I wanted to camp out. But before making my decision, I went over to the pizza joint and polished off an entire Medium pie. I spent enough time there to see that the skies were clearing up pretty nicely, so that gave me more confidence for camping. I talked to a guy wearing a RAGBRAI shirt, and inquired about camping at the next town 10 miles down the road (it wasn’t yet 4pm), but he said I’d have “less trouble” here in Kearny. Ok, so I took his advice.

The free campground (it seems like I’ve paid very little for camping the last week) is just outside the edge of town, and there isn’t another soul here. There are mountains in every direction, being lit and shaded by the dappled sunlight poking through the scattered clouds. There is no shelter or shade, so it would be brutal here under normal conditions, but when it’s only 75 degrees, it’s beautiful. Running water, flush toilets, and amazingly flat and well-groomed sites. I took a stroll around the small lake just above the campground, which attracts a lot of birds as well as townfolk getting their evening exercise.

Even though the rain and cold over the last few days has been rather annoying and not at all what I was expecting, I have to wonder if sun and heat would be worse. Since the ultimate (75 degrees and clear skies) is probably impossible, maybe I’d take the rain if given the choice. Either way, I’ve been very impressed with this part of the state; the combination of topography and vegetation are like nothing I’ve seen before and quite unexpected. And all the clouds hanging between the mountain slopes probably made it even more dramatic. Now let’s just hope that 10% chance of showers and thunderstorms doesn’t come to pass!

Tour Day 26: Clints Well, AZ to Roosevelt, AZ

May 21st, 2009

90.87 mi / 6:39:22 time / 13.6 mph avg. / 39.0 mph max. / 3403 ft. climbing
Staying at Windy Hill Point National Forest Campground

I awoke at dawn, though there wasn’t much dawn to see, since the skies were still completely overcast. It hadn’t rained at all through the night, but the morning clouds were looking pretty ominous, so I hurried to pack up the tent and get on the road. Regardless of the condition of the gravel road, I definitely didn’t want to be riding it while it was actively raining.

Luckily, the road was in pretty good shape. I think I was even moving along a little quicker, maybe because the rain had smoothed things out, or because I was building on yesterday’s experience, or, because there was a grader out there actively smoothing the surface! So I covered the seven miles in seventy minutes, without getting a drop of rain. Phew, disaster averted.

Then it was time to descend the big hill off the Mogollon Rim. The layers of hills made it feel a lot like descending in the Appalachians. Halfway down was Payson, a town so big (Home Depot! Chili’s!) that it would have made my head spin, had my head not already been unscrewed right off my neck by Flagstaff. I stopped at the Knotty Pine Cafe for yet another 3rd-breakfast and did a bunch of Internet stuff. I checked the radar and saw a squall heading southwest, so I hurried on out of there, hoping to beat the rain down the hill.

And I did beat it, with only a light drizzle getting me slightly wet. But then, another cell came through an absolutely nailed me. A complete downpour, perhaps even with small bits of face-stinging hail. It was nearly impossible to ride in, and luckily a highway rest area appeared at the junction of AZ-87 and AZ-188. For some stupid reason it was closed, but I could see just well enough to skirt past the gates and take shelter. There I waited out the storm for about half an hour, and read all the educational signs. I learned that this elevation (the Upper Sonoran Desert) receives 10-15 inches of rain per year; I think I just had 1 of them dumped on me.

Once it lightened up to a mild drizzle, I headed out again down the much more rideable AZ-188 to Roosevelt Lake (AZ-87 had turned into a divided superhighway, not a lot of fun to ride in the best conditions, much less a rainstorm). I had dropped 5000 ft. from my morning start, which would normally mean it would be about 20 degrees warmer. Instead, the temperature was exactly the same: 65 degrees. So there I am, wearing three layers, including a long-sleeved turtleneck and a jacket, riding in the rain. I pass my first giant Saguaro cactus, symbol of the Arizona desert, and I’m shivering. Insanity.

For the entire afternoon, the rain continued. Never again heavy, but always there. I was dreading camp (setting up a slightly wet tent, in the rain, when my clothes are wet) until I remembered that this was technically the desert, and all campsites should have canopies for sun protection. Ha, I bet they never thought they’d be used for rain protection! The ranger at the Tonto Basin station confirmed this, and that the campground was only 3 miles farther. When I inquired about groceries, she said the next store was 8 miles on, adding in a patronizing tone “You’re in a very remote area here.” Ha. I just passed three towns in the last 30 miles, lady. I’ve been in far more remote areas than this. Still, I had been expecting to be able to stock up on groceries before camp, so maybe she was right. Actually it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to eat all the various odds and ends that I would be needing to get rid of soon anyway.

The campground is pretty nice, or as nice as a campground with a ridiculous 346 sites can be. They have an odd payment system here, where you have to buy a “Tonto Pass” at various stores or the ranger station in order to camp, but there is no specific campsite registration. The ranger told me that since I don’t have a vehicle, I don’t have to pay at all. Sweet. They even have free showers, but I think I got enough of a shower today already.

I did dry off and change into some dry clothes, at which point the drizzle finally stopped. That gave me a chance to actually look around and see that the whole area is really quite beautiful. The lake is very large, and again, there are layers of hills and mountains on either side of it. There is a lot of vegetation, and quite a variety of it (including those Saguaros), and something flowering here gives off a really pleasant smell. Across the lake there are low clouds or fog hanging between the mountains, and the skies are still heavy with clouds.

Is this really Arizona? The entire day has felt more like Portland, and a pretty nasty day in Portland at that. Did I make a wrong turn somewhere? I have to laugh at all the concern (from myself, my mom, everyone I talked to on the road) about how I would handle the heat and dryness once I descended to the desert. Instead, it was one of the coldest days of the trip, with the temperature never getting about 65, and easily the wettest. It just goes to show that whenever I think I have this bike touring thing totally mastered, Mother Nature can humble me with a flick of her wrist. Which is probably a good thing.

I just hope this system moves on out of here before Sunday. I’m built to handle this sort of junk out on the road, but Stephanie and Ryan would surely prefer to have some sunlight at their wedding, and maybe even temperatures that reach 70 degrees!

Tour Day 25: Flagstaff, AZ to Clints Well, AZ

May 20th, 2009

58.40 mi / 5:20:44 time / 10.9 mph avg. / 38.0 mph max. / 3502 ft. climbing
Staying at Kehl Springs National Forest Campground

Today would be the first fairly easy day in a while, so I didn’t even wake up until after sunrise! The day would consist of more riding in this high forested lake country, because I wanted to spend one more night up at altitude before dropping down to the heat. Most of the day was spent hovering around 7000 ft., though there was still plenty of up-and-down.

The first services were 40 miles in, at Clints Well (no apostrophe, just like Lees Ferry; Arizona needs to hire some grammer mavens in addition to altitude/mileage sticklers!) At the cafe where I had a patty melt lunch, a couple there said to me “don’t let anyone know about this place!” To them, the whole area was paradise, and it’s true, it seems relatively unknown and untouched, especially considering that it isn’t too far from Flagstaff and Phoenix. It seems like most people didn’t know what I was referring to whenever I told them that I was going to stay up at altitude northeast of Phoenix. Maybe because it is so undeveloped, that makes people lose interest.

That couple also mentioned that last Memorial Day, it snowed 6 inches up here! So good thing I wasn’t here last year. However,the temperatures hovered around 65 for the entire day, and it was overcast, so it actually felt quite cool even this year. Around lunchtime it even started spitting drops of rain.

My original plan had me staying at the campground at Clints Well, but since I had plenty of time, I figured I would have a little adventure, heading 9 miles south to the edge of the Mogollon Rim, and then 7 miles east along a gravel forest road to a campground right on the rim. The Mogollon Rim is the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, upon which I had spent the entire trip. The edge drops down 2000 ft. to the Sonoran Desert, marking the final time I’ll be at high altitude. When you fly into Phoenix from the northwest, you can actually see the Rim, recognizable as a forested area, followed by a cliff, and then no trees below.

Riding the gravel road was kind of like riding through Flagstaff; there was so much to focus on (rocks, ruts, washboard) that the miles went by relatively quickly, even though I rarely got above 6 mph, and did many sections at 3 mph. But arrival at the campground was a huge disappointment. The web page led me to believe that the campground was right on the rim, with views off the edge down to the lights of Payson 15 miles away. Instead, it was simply in the middle of the forest, with the rim nowhere in sight. It was a pleasant place, but I could have found a site of my own just like it without spending an hour and a half on gravel! I did get a brief view at one point along the road, but I should have realized that I’ve been at the edge of five 2000+ ft cliffs this trip (Colorado National Monument, Dead Horse Point, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyons), and the Mogollon Rim can’t really compare.

Oh well, it was free, and there was no point in going back now, so I set up my tent. No sooner did I finish that than the rain began in earnest, and just like a couple days ago in Cameron, I spent the afternoon hours huddled in my tent hiding from weather. The only other campers in the site (the host?) came by and offered fried-chicken dinner, but just about then it finally let up, and I managed to create some Middle-Eastern/Mexican Fusion: couscous with Taco Bell seasoning, jalapenos, and string cheese, stuffed in pita bread. Yum!

The fact that it rained all afternoon wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t have any other plans (I’m on my 3rd issue of The Economist!), but as I went to sleep, my main concern was the ride out tomorrow: would it be a ride, or would I have to slog through 7 miles of mud?

New Pictures

May 19th, 2009

Grand Canyon and more!

Tour Day 24: Cameron, AZ to Flagstaff, AZ

May 19th, 2009

68.98 mi / 5:51:56 time / 11.7 mph avg. / 30.0 mph max. / 3838 ft. climbing
Staying at Lakeview National Forest Campground

I’m not really sure how the toilet needs were supposed to work at this gas station campground. There was a separate building with showers, that included sinks and toilets, but the posted signs said they closed at 7:30pm, and opened at 6:30am. I still really have no idea what time it is, because I think Cameron is within the Navajo Nation, and unlike the rest of Arizona, they do follow Daylight Savings (god, what a bunch of crazy mixed-up bastards populating this state!) However, the showers were closed and locked by what I thought was 7pm, so I used the very nice yet inexplicably mirror-less gas station bathroom to clean my contacts and brush my teeth (setting up on the pull-out baby-changing table). Take that, jerks!

Then, as you know, I wake up well before 6:30am, no matter what the time zone, and of course neither the showers nor the gas station were open by then. And, I have quite the post-breakfast morning rhythm going, which, given the volume of food I eat, is nearly impossible to suppress. Luckily, the other gas station just up the road was open, so I was able to avoid shitting in a plastic bag. Phew. I did however piss in a bottle, for the first (but probably not the last!) time. Luckily I kept it just under 16 oz.!

Ok, just in case that wasn’t Too Much Information, I might as well spill the other TMI story and get it all out of the way in one entry. If you really don’t want to hear about my unpleasant medical ailments, please skip the following paragraph!

For the past week I’ve been battling a case of, well, let’s call them “butt blisters”. Not on the fleshy part of the butt where it contacts my bike seat, but more towards the center. You know. Yeah, there. The pain and discomfort came on the strongest at Zion, where I even sought out pharmaceutical relief (and if you know me, you know how rare that is). Whether biking, hiking, crouching/bending to get stuff in and out of the tent, or simply sitting down, there was nary a moment where I wasn’t reminded there was something going on down there. Given the fact that I would be riding a bicycle 6 hours a day for the rest of the trip, I had resigned myself to simply dealing with the pain, because I didn’t figure there would be any chance for healing. But now, a week later, I think I’m completely healed. Through careful management, it’s been getting a little better each day, in yet another example of my very fortunate ability to heal myself while on tour. Although the biking surely wouldn’t be doctor-recommended (I was getting a searing pain climbing out from the North Rim that would make me scream at the trees, and that’s when things were actually getting better), my theory is that the problem was actually pooping-induced, and now that I’ve hit a solid morning rhythm in that domain, I’ve been able to get some relief. Which is fantastic, because having a constant pain in the butt can take a bit of enjoyment off the trip! At one point I even feared that it might make me cut it short or change plans.

Ok, back to the ride. Cameron sits at a low point (at the Little Colorado river), so today would start with a 35 mile climb of nearly 3000 ft., very much like yesterday. Those are the 35 miles I was thinking of tacking on to the end of yesterday’s ride, which would have been stupid. Especially when I reached that next motel 10 miles up the road and found that it was closed down. I guess that’s why no one answered the phone! Arizona’s 5000, 6000, and 7000 ft. signs were a little more accurate this time, but they could still be better. I guess it’s nice that they have them at all though, I’ve never seen them in any other state. Their mile posts are similarly haphazard though; I guess the highway department here isn’t big on precision (I’ve been in states where they have posts accurate to the hundredth of a mile). And according to the road signs, the position of Flagstaff moved by more than three miles as I approached it.

Once I crested the hill, I still had 15 miles of relatively flat riding before reaching Flagstaff. Due to a strong headwind, it seemed to be taking forever; even the early-lunch stop at Subway (first Subway dine-in of the trip!) didn’t help much. But then, I hit the outskirts of the city, and due to the sensory overload thrown at me by this teeming metropolis, the next 10 miles flew by. They have a freakin’ shopping mall here! With a damn Best Buy! Can you believe it?! I bet you could get anything you want in this city, including at least five or six different brands of automobile. There are cars everywhere, and roads with more than one lane, and I had to bring my instinctual Chicagoland bike-commuting skills back to the fore to enable me to survive while gawking at all the signs and color and hustle and bustle. Seriously, it’s the first place I’ve been the entire trip where the people are not either A) locals who know every other local in town, or B) tourists. Which makes it quite a culture-shock. And it has more motels than Moab!

This afternoon would be much better than the previous couple, because there was actually stuff to do in this town. Actually, since it was in the comfortable 70s at this elevation all day (and still partly cloudy), it would have been fine even if there was nothing. First I went to the library, where I spent a long time catching up on Internet stuff and preparing for the final leg of the journey. Strangely, the library had no WiFi that I could find, but they had power, and Flagstaff has T-Mobile service, so that means I could use my hacked G1 phone to wirelessly give Internet access to my laptop. That’s a pretty sweet trick, and it ironically gives a better connection than any WiFi access I’ve had the whole trip.

I even spent time checking which of the two downtown brewpubs I should hit for early-dinner. I decided on the Beaver Street Brewery, even though the beer ratings for neither were outstanding. But I guess those guys didn’t write their reviews in the middle of a bike tour, because the beer was fantastic. It also highlighted how weak that 4.0% stuff in Utah was, because two pints was enough to get me half-sozzled. As I was finishing up my burger, the brewmaster came over and said he noticed my yellow-panniered bike in the lot (hmm, and how did he deduce I was its rider?) He’d seen me down at Lees Ferry a couple days before, and wondered how I’d survived what he referred to as “the dust storm” in Cameron. He said it was nearly impossible out there in a car, and would have been unthinkable on a bike. Yet more confirmation that my Cameron stop was a blessing in disguise.

I then rode half-tipsy over to the Safeway to stock up on real groceries at cheaper-than-gas-station-or-National-Park prices. It’s the first full-size grocery store I’ve been to since Moab. I really have no idea where people get their food in between those two places. Do they subsist solely on Doritos, Pepsi, and beef jerky?

And then it was a final 15 miles southeast out of Flagstaff to a National Forest campground on Lake Mary. Lake Mary Road, which seems like a quiet forest road, was undergoing some fairly major construction (until 2010), partly to improve the bike lanes. Given the width of the construction, they must be putting in an 8-line bicycle superhighway. Ironically, there was a sign at the start of the construction that said “No Bikes”, which I ignored. Heck, I’m not a bike, I’m a friggin’ RV! Didn’t run into any problems, so I’m not sure why they had the sign. My only guess is that normally the road has 8-foot shoulders dedicated and signed as bike lanes, so they figure people wouldn’t know how to deal with a downgrade to anything less. Ah, the hazards of overly-generous biking facilities.

I finally had a tailwind, so I was comfortably cruising at 20mph. Given the number of turnouts, picnic areas, boat launches, campgrounds, and the proximity to Flagstaff, I bet that the area turns into an absolute zoo on weekends. But on this weekday evening, it was pretty quiet. I thought of free-camping, but instead settled on Lakeview Campground, which in fact does not have a view of the lake. $16 seemed a bit pricey for a campground with only vault toilets, but I guess that fee is inspired by the weekend mobs. And, it was a pretty nice campground, with mighty tables, flat tent areas, and toilets with motion-detecting lights inside! Also, I figured I’d almost surely be camping for free tomorrow, so I can give this Forest some of my money tonight.

Overall it was one of the nicest riding days of the whole trip. The method of an early dinner in town and then a short early-evening ride to the campground is something I’ve often enjoyed on previous tours, but that’s been nearly impossible out here given the lack of towns. When I got into camp my 22oz. Stone IPA was still fairly cold, and I paired it with half a loaf of raisin bread and a couple of handfuls of Oreo cookies. Mmm, good stuff!

Tour Day 23: Marble Canyon, AZ to Cameron, AZ

May 18th, 2009

78.57 mi / 6:08:00 time / 12.8 mph avg. / 23.5 mph max. / 3293 ft. climbing
Staying at Simpson’s Conoco Gas Station Campground

Since it was so warm, I hadn’t even bothered to set up my tent, and simply slept on top of the picnic table. It worked pretty well, and made packing up camp go faster than usual. That meant I once again rolled out of camp at sunrise, this time to beat the heat out of the valley.

I crossed the Colorado River on Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon, and then began my southward trek that would take me to Tucson. I was now once again in the Navajo Nation, and the road was actually in much better shape. It also helped that no one out driving at dawn. I spent the first 35 miles climbing 2800 ft. back out of the river valley, and then hit the first services at mile 45, at Gap (where a lone gas station provides the only services). Then it was another 30 miles downhill to Cameron.

My dawn start once again meant that I had covered a lot of miles by mid-day, which leaves a bit of a conundrum. Early in the planning I had thoughts of making this an epic 113 mile day with 6000+ ft. of climbing, so I was still tossing around that possibility as I reached Cameron. But I figured, if they have a motel there, I’ll take a room and let that fill in for yesterday’s missed motel, and that would solve the problem of surviving the midday heat. As I rolled into “town”, they did have a motel! Yay! And, it was full. Hey, what else is new? I’ve heard rumors that the world is in some sort of recession/depression, so someone should really tell all the people out here about it, because obviously they have no idea. Morons!

I got the number for another motel 10 miles down the road, but got no answer when calling. The “RV Park” across the street was just that, a gravel parking lot in which to park your RV, without a hint of shade, so that was out. Well, I might as well start heading up the hill to that other motel, take my chances, and if they’re full, maybe do that 113-mile day after all. I had some 7 hours of daylight left, though it would mean an ugly day of 10+ hours on the bike.

Then, as I stopped at the last gas station out of town, I saw a sign about campsites on their wall, and before I knew it, I was getting out my money to pay. The “campground” was behind the deli/laundry building, but it actually had patches of grass and a few decent trees in a row, so I was able to catch a break lazing in the shade for a while, after getting a burger at the deli. Still, it was so early that the idea of stopping there continued to gnaw at me. But I just kept telling myself that pushing on further wouldn’t have gotten me anything. After a while, a strange thing happened to the sun…it start becoming obscured by these things that I think are called “clouds”. I haven’t seen anything like it in so long that I can hardly remember the name for the phenomenon. It even looked like rain in the distance, so despite the heat, I had to set up the tent and put on the rainfly.

No sooner did I do that than a ridiculous windstorm began. The winds had to be 40 mph, and they continued for hours. For the first time in its life, I had to guy down my tent to keep it from breaking in half. That’s when I finally made peace with ending my ride here, because even though it sucked being holed up in a hot tent, it would have sucked a whole lot more to be fighting that wind at mile 100 in the midst of a 3000 ft. climb.

There was no way I was cooking in that wind, so I had what was actually a fairly decent dinner of pita bread filled with tomato, string cheese, and sometimes yogurt, plus a big jar of applesauce, Doritos, and a liter of Pepsi. Yum! The wind finally calmed a bit at nightfall, allowing me to get some sleep.

Tour Day 22: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ to Marble Canyon, AZ

May 17th, 2009

90.36 mi / 5:59:15 time / 15.0 mph avg. / 36.0 mph max. / 2374 ft. climbing
Staying at Lees Ferry Campground

The Numbers: 58, 34, and 100

58: The temperature when I woke this morning, at 4am.
Yes, 4am…I wanted to get an early start, but I also wanted to catch the sunrise, which due to Arizona’s wacky Daylight Saving-hatred, happens at 5:21am. The night didn’t seem quite as windy as the previous, but I guess enough of the hot air from the Canyon had still swept its way up to keep the campground warm. I managed to make it out to Bright Angel Viewpoint just a couple minutes before the sun cracked the horizon. The small group of people there were peacefully and quietly enjoying the view, such that you could actually hear the muted roar of the distant Roaring Springs, which I had hiked to the day before. I’m not sure if I waited long enough to see the perfect light, but I had a lot of riding to do, even if it was mostly down the giant hill.

34: The temperature five miles north of the campground.
Apparently the Canyon depths really do warm the edge of the rim, but a 24 degree temperature change (and this after the sun had been up for a while) is quite shocking. After feeling that, it’s easy to understand why there are still patches of snow around and they don’t open the highway until May 15th. On the way down, I talked with another touring cyclist going the other way (who reminded me of Steve Manno, even before I knew his name was Steve), and he told me that the Marble Canyon Lodge had rooms for $35, and since staying there instead of the campground I was planning on would cut 10 miles off my trip, I was totally going to go for it. Back at Jacob Lake, after I finished my rare 3rd-breakfast of the day, I talked with yet another tourer who said he paid $55, and the rates had probably gone up with the opening of the North Rim. Still, by then, the idea of staying there was embedded in my head, and $55 still sounded like a decent deal.

After doing 2000 ft. of climbing over the “flat” 44 mile section back to Jacob Lake, I finally hit the downhill, but as is often the case, it was tempered by headwinds. Still, the section of juniper/sagebrush between the high pine forest and the low desert went by extremely fast, and then I was on a long straight road heading through a red blasted land, with the Vermillion Cliffs rising to my left. The road, US-89A, was total garbage, with no shoulders, and a very bumpy and rough surface. The surface type literally changed every quarter mile, but amazingly it never got better or worse, it was just garbage the whole way. Still, I believe this is the first time in the whole tour that I’ve mentioned road quality, so it just shows how good everything else has been.

100: The temperature at my final destination, Lees Ferry, 5000 ft. lower than my start point.
When I got to Marble Canyon Lodge, it was full. Crap! I guess I would be heading for the campground after all. Even though that had been my original destination, my mind had been so set on the motel that it was a real mental effort to accept the redirection. Much of the problem was the fact that it was brutally hot, and it was only 2pm. I had envisioned a relaxing afternoon in an air-conditioned room, but now I would have to figure out how to avoid frying at the campground until the sun went down. I filled some time by eating lunch at the gas station, but didn’t want to wait too long to do the final 5 miles to the campground, since I didn’t want to find that full too!

Luckily when I showed up, I found the emptiest campground I’ve seen in weeks, set amid barren but beautiful red rock buttes and cliffs. Even better, the sites had big curved shelters over the picnic tables, providing shade (though I had to augment it by hanging my tent fly as well). And, to cool down, there was the Colorado River beckoning down the hill. That quickly, something I had been dreading turned around into something I would have been sorry to miss.

I walked down to the river, and waded in, finally getting into contact with the water that has been the main theme of our trip. I had managed to put a hand in on the second day, but this time I could really let it wet me down. This was the river whose headwaters were forming from the snow as our train passed through the mountains of Colorado, the river who we crossed too many times going in and out of Moab, the river that divided our epic 109-mile day into two halves, and the river that carved the incomprehensible canyon I had just been at the top of. It was the last I will be seeing of this river, and it will be forever bound to a lot of good memories. Oh, and it was cold, too!

Tour Day 21: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

May 16th, 2009

~5 mi / 9.4 mi hiking
Staying at North Rim Campground

The noise of the wind made sleep a bit difficult, but the good news is that once again the tent held up very nicely. I wanted to be up and out fairly early, since I was going to hike a bit down into the canyon today, and they give all sorts of warnings about dying if you start too late.

So I made it to the North Kaibab Trail by 7:45am, hiked half a mile and down several hundred feet over 15 minutes, and then realized I’d left my water bottle at my bike. D’oh! I’d definitely die without that, so I had to turn around and go back to get it. A little annoying for a trail that I’d already be backtracking over!

As I went down, I kept thinking to myself, “Man, I really should have put my bike on the TransCanyon Shuttle, hiked down to the river and back up the other side in a day, and continued the ride from the South Rim.” Instead, I stopped at Roaring Springs, 4.7 miles in and 3000 ft. down, and turned around. On the way back up, I kept thinking to myself, “Yeah, that through-hike would have been a really terrible idea!” I actually do a lot better on the uphill than the downhill, but by then it had gotten quite hot on the trail, so spending all day out there doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing as it did in the shade of the morning.

On the way down, I even got passed, for the first and only time hiking on this whole trip. By a girl! I was going to offer to marry her as her reward, but I was never able to catch her. Poor thing. My center of gravity and knees and footwear just aren’t prepared to do the running-downhill bit. I’m much more suited for the uphill, because then I just put the cardiovascular engine into “Go All Day” mode and pump away exactly as if I was on the bike. I even bettered the group of ultramarathoners on the way up! Oh, ok, they were doing Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in one day (insane!!!) so they win automatically, even if I beat them to the top.

Overall there was some cool stuff on the hike, and it gave some additional perspective on the canyon, but still the scale of the thing is just too huge to comprehend. The worst part was the stupid mule rides. First, because they leave their piles of fly-attracting, stinking shit on the trail that nearly makes you gag when you desperately want some clean oxygen. And second, because the mule trains and their Wall-E-like human passengers clog the trail. Luckily they didn’t start down until just before I made it back to the top, but for people starting later, or for the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim-ers returning to the South Rim, they were going to cause some serious delays.

I was done hiking by a little past noon, so my main goal was to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing and doing some chores. First up was to stop by the bike rental area at the campground entrance to see if they had a wrench to tighten my rear gears. I could tell they had loosened again, and that’s the problem that leads to the much bigger hub-repair problem when the chain jumps off the biggest gear. So just as I pull up to their garage, the chain jumped off the biggest gear. Seriously. Luckily the damage wasn’t quite as bad as it was the last time it had happened, and I was able to pick at the hub and get it rolling smoothly again on my own. Then when I finally asked for the wrench I needed, it turns out that they actually had a whole bike-tool kit, which no one at the garage knew how to use, but it let me fix my problem hopefully for the last time, and monkey around with a couple other things while I was at it.

Then I took a shower (second in two days!), did laundry, and loitered around the campground store eating and doing Internet stuff. It’s funny watching and listening to all the store employees, most of whom are getting on-the-job training and currently have very little idea what to do. But at least they have Wi-Fi, and tables, and re-fillable fountain drinks. Even the lodge doesn’t have Wi-Fi!

As I was sitting there, Dennis & Pat showed up, which was a great relief to me. Earlier in the day I had checked the site we had arranged for them to take and found it empty, and then while I was doing Internet stuff, I suddenly got an email saying that that reservation had been canceled. So I was afraid that there had been some horrible problem beyond the capability of the scatterbrained National Park servants to solve, and they had been left without a space in the campground. Instead, it turns out that they had just gotten themselves a more “legal” site, since mine would have technically been a “tent only” site, whatever that means.

So that was good, because they had generously invited me to dinner with them at the lodge that night (have I mentioned yet how great these people are?), and I had really been looking forward to it. The Grand Canyon Lodge dining room totally beats Bryce’s version; first, it’s a huge airy room with a vaulted ceiling, and second, you can see the Grand Canyon through the windows. Ok, so that latter feature would single-handedly beat most other lodges, even if the room itself was in a Port-a-Potty.

The three of us enjoyed a great meal together, and then walked out on to the porch for some pictures. Finally, I saw a Canyon that made me say “wow”. The setting sun gave it so much more depth and color than I had seen before. We drove back to the campground, and then said our truly final goodbyes for this trip. They would be spending the next few days hiking down to the river and back (jealous!), and then heading home. So unless I fall into the river when I reach Lees Ferry tomorrow, and get swept all the way back into the Canyon where they fish me out, chances of our paths crossing again have finally gone from improbable to impossible. It’s hard to believe that all this path-crossing was born of that improbable moment back at Natural Bridges when a couple of strangers drove up and offered help to a couple of guys who found themselves slightly adrift. I’ve had more interaction with people on this trip than I have had on any other bike tour (maybe influenced by Dennis’s more social nature?) but our time with Dennis & Pat has enriched the experience far more than any other. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage the rest of the way knowing that I won’t be seeing them every couple days!

Tour Day 20: Kaibab National Forest, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

May 15th, 2009

27.01 mi / 2:05:04 time / 12.8 mph avg. / 37.0 mph max. / 1251 ft. climbing / 11 mi hiking
Staying at North Rim Campground

I knew the Grand Canyon North Rim officially opened today, but I didn’t really know what time. I figured I’d shoot for about the same time that the gate to AZ 67 opened, at 8am, even though that was 40 miles north of me. They must have someone there manning the entrance station in case there are any vehicles travelling at the speed of light, right? However, figuring out exactly when 8am was was a bit of a chore, since I hadn’t really converted to Arizona time yet (they ignore Daylight Saving here) and generally haven’t paid much attention to time at all lately.

Well, I got there about 8:15, and there had already been a steady stream of cars flowing by, so I guess they let people in pretty early. Luckily the line wasn’t too long when I got there, but it was already quite a bit longer when I left. The road inside the park got even better, as the trees closed in right next to the road. Twelve miles of that, and I made it to the campground, where the line for registration was amazingly slow and painful. Yes, I know it’s opening day and a bunch of people are being trained, but how hard is it really to register a campsite? I had made a reservation a long time ago, which was good, because the campground was full, but then I found out that they do in fact have hiker/biker sites here. A hiker who had just registered said they were the best in the campground, so I switched over to that area instead. Yep, my tent is about 20 yards from the edge of the canyon. Sure, a side canyon, but still pretty sweet.

Then I rode back out a mile south to the lodge and visitor center to see what was going on there. The lodge actually hides the main view of the canyon, until you enter the lobby and step down into a room with enormous picture windows. And there it is, the Grand Canyon. I was impressed, but not blown away. One downside of the North Rim is that you’re so far away from the river a mile below that you can’t even see a hint of it. And all the various canyon sections are so vast that it’s difficult to get an idea of what you’re even looking at, and what the true scale is. Even the short trail down to Bright Angel viewpoint (the main viewpoint in the area) didn’t add the perspective I was looking for.

So it was time to head back a couple miles on the road I came in on to get to the Widforss trailhead. This was a 10-mile round-trip hike over relatively level ground that traced the edge of the canyon rim and provided a lot of good views. Better, it was a hike through a pine and aspen forest, on dirt! (and pinecones!) It was nice to be walking on something that wasn’t slickrock or sand. And on top of that, it was quiet. I saw five other parties besides me, all coming back when I was on the way out, so I had the whole trail to myself on the way back. One of the parties was a couple that I had seen on a couple hikes in Zion, so it’s funny how often paths cross out here. And then at the end of the trail, there was a couple camping out there. The unnamed fellow and I spent a lot of time gazing at the canyon and chatting, and we did some serious bonding over our mutual love for Little Debbie products (despite the fact that I haven’t had a single one on this trip, eek!)

When I got back, I cruised the campground and finally found Dennis & Pat. We hung out catching up on our last couple days for a bit, and then they invited me to join them later for a drive down to the lodge for a drink at the saloon and a presentation from a ranger about a backcountry trail. I was a stinking mess, having not showered since a week ago in Bryce, so before joining them in their truck, I got myself a $1.50 5-7 minute super-high-pressure campground shower. That helped a lot, and made the North Rim Amber I drank down at the saloon much more enjoyable. We left the presentation once the ranger started randomly talking about fossils and stuff, but the parts about the backcountry trail and the general geology of the canyon were really interesting, especially since it’s totally not something I would have sat in on on my own, so I’m really happy that Dennis & Pat asked me along.

By the time we left the lodge it was rather dark, so my ride back to my campsite from theirs was quite the adventure, even with my bike light. Some more hikers had arrived in the hiker/biker area, so I nearly crashed into some of their tents on the way in, then I shot past my own tent ending up right beside someone else’s, and then I found what I was pretty sure was my tent, but I still held my breath as I opened the zipper. Phew, no one inside, so I crawled in and then only had the ferocious wind coming out of the canyon to deal with for the rest of the night.