I want to say in our defense that Sedona is a totally reasonable winter mountain biking destination—average January high, 58°F. So even as far as Bakersfield, as we crawled toward the Mojave in an eerie yellow downpour, I was still holding out hope for an early start on the year’s tan lines.
Alas, a few miles out of Kingman:
While marooned we made friends with a long-haul trucker, on his way to Texas with a stock trailer of cows in heat. Drawn in by the smell, a lonesome steer materialized from the whiteout beyond the the fence-line, emitting sounds I would previously have thought beyond bovine ability. Ryan, also, exceeded all expectations: his rally-car driving got us past the blockade of spun-out semis and safely into Flagstaff, where I broke a four-year streak of “adventurous” New Year’s eves by ordering takeout and reading Flannery O’Connor at the Motel 6.
For our trouble we got the Grand Canyon dolled up in snow—stunning, truly—and as empty of crowds as it ever is. While we all agreed to a conservative, six-mile hike, it was obvious from the outset that we would end up doing double that for the chance of glimpsing the river. This, of course, is a hazard of walking downhill first.
Sure enough, we passed our turnaround point and then another, lured, predictably, to the plateau’s edge. The Colorado was bottle-green and still a long way down and we shared our vantage point of it with a tagged teenage condor. I tried to take a picture and it hid its face under its wing; I deleted the shot out of respect, or anthropomorphism, or guilt. The clouds parted, pouring light, and the snowfield grew dim and blue in the long shadow of the walls. I felt I was lying face-up on the floor of a boundless cathedral.
We slogged back uphill under the moon. The stillness was otherworldly but the pain was real; I kept my head down and stumbled after the boys’ shadows. Back on the rim we waited deliriously for pizza. Overnight the temperature dropped below zero and in the morning I couldn’t put a sentence together, much less my tent or breakfast. (Philippe, Canadian, was nonplussed.) We fled south, through Sedona to Cottonwood.
Lows in the twenties felt balmy by comparison, but the trails still looked like this:
It’s inaccurate to say this was a great day on the bike, since truthfully I spent most of my time off it. But I had a lot of fun. My anxiety over everything the snow concealed—the cactus, rocks, and gullies—was counterbalanced by gratitude for the things it brought into relief: the sagebrush and the sky, Ryan’s patience, all the possibility of a new place.
Homeward bound, we stopped briefly at Bootleg Canyon (where I could at least see the things that scared me) and spent our last night at a municipal park in either Tehachapi or Tatooine. Morning was crystalline when it came, and the wind over the parched earth warm for the first time in days.