Tucson 1/16–1/20

Friday: An e-mail prompts me to check in for my flight. I figure I should at least decide where I’m headed once I land, so I make some preliminary inquiries.

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Ok, Google, now … what?

Saturday: From Phoenix I drive to Tucson Mountain Park, no mention of murder or traffickers. Despite the name, I’m so committed to my idea of the region as flat that I’m caught off-guard after nightfall by a road that to me feels reminiscent of Old Priest, a situation rendered more stressful by the fact that I can’t locate my headlights.

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Via Reddit. If you’re a normal, functional adult and have forgotten what it’s like to be a new driver: yes, this.

Sunday: Within minutes of starting my ride, I lose the 50-Year Loop on a side-trail that deposits me in a dry riverbed full of startled cattle. As I’m pushing my bike up out of the gully I slip and fall on my ass straight into a bed of cholla cactus. By adopting a Kardashian squat and craning my neck I confirm that my rear end is bristling like a toothbrush with translucent spines. I spend 45 minutes picking them out with my fingernails, furtive and bare-assed on the side of the trail, then ride back to the car, standing, for a new pair of shorts. Needless to say, my enthusiasm for take two is … tempered.

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NONE SHALL PASS

I camp at a state park that’s hosting a church jamboree. Their drums and songs echo in the valley, and the mountains are a shadow on the night.

Monday: It’s Martin Luther King Day, so I pack up my iced-over tent before dawn for a “Day of Service” at Saguaro National Park. Said service is roadside trash pickup, which only reinforces my sanctimonious stereotypes of smokers and people who eat Carl’s Jr. The volunteer group is largely silent; I get bored and then reflexively competitive, maneuvering cagily in a slow-race toward the most impressive pieces of garbage. MLK I am not.

In the afternoon I ride under a yellow haze at Fantasy Island, which is an island in that it’s surrounded by strip malls and a fantasy in the same sense as Mad Max. The trails are tight, flat, and disorienting; the cactus and mesquite is scattered with hubcap artwork, discarded machinery, and garden gnomes. It is an especially peculiar place to ride alone.

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How they do it where you from?

When the KOA turns me down I head for “Adventure Bound Camping,” which sounds promising but turns out to be a snowbird settlement of RVs with AstroTurf lawns and a lot of passive-aggressive signage. I am the youngest and brownest thing on the premises; I pretend I’m refueling at an alien colony on a Star Wars planet and this helps me sleep.

Tuesday: I return my rental bike and head up Mt. Lemmon, which I’ve been imagining as another Old Priest with the addition of black ice and hundreds of hostile cyclists. It is of course not that bad, and the campground, after the desert, is Shangri-La: golden crags and oaks and brooks, where I should have been all along.

I start up the Arizona Trail and immediately want my bike back. To avoid a bitter out-and-back hike I peel off for the ridgeline. There’s enough snow for me to fall yet again into a cactus (stiff, black thorns this time, dark blood beading on my palms), but the view, when I get it, is a worthwhile and wonderful surprise.

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I saw tracks in the snow on the other side, but no bighorn. Someday.

I spend the evening with some friendly randos off MountainProject: one weekend warrior, two #vanlifers, and an engineering student from Iran who offers up slices of various mystery fruit she can name only in Farsi. Having spent three days in near silence I am now babbling manically; despite this they still invite me climbing. But of course I’m going home.

Wednesday: Return ticket and my birthday. I’m entering the final year in which polite society will forgive my being an idiot, so on the plane I review what I’ve learned. A little more research, a little less winging it. Carry tweezers, sweet Jesus. Always seek high ground.

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August, etc.

The compulsive weekend recapping has suffered badly in the past few months from my Monday-Friday. Some remedial study:

Desolation Wilderness, 8/1–8/2

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This is where I go for perspective.

We encounter three stoked bros hiking with what appears to be a baby Bisson Friche. It’s puttering gamely along with its paws encased in duct tape. “She’s great!” the first guy tells us, beaming. “She’s totally doing it!”

We set up camp on the slabs and make tiramisu from instant custard and a packet of biscuits. We’re licking the chocolate from the pie tins as the sky bleeds sunset onto the surface of the lake. All this for barely five miles’ walk! My guilt is overridden by joy for being back in the mountains, possible on my busted foot only because the rest of the group carried all that food. I could kiss them, I think, I’m so grateful; I could kiss the ground. When no one’s watching I put my lips to the granite.

Taller types at sunset.

Tahoe, 8/228/23

Technically I met Matt and Cora on Craigslist, when they bought my first motorcycle—completely inoperable at the time. We’ve never mountain biked together before, so I have to appreciate that they’re willing to gamble on my word again in revising the trip itinerary from lakeside beers to several hours of climbing, no engine.

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An older friend.

“I promise it ran fine before it was broken,” I said then, of the crippled Ninja. Of the trail now I’m making similarly dubious assertions. “It’s pretty terrible, to be honest. But trust me, it’s going to be great!”

Tuolumne, 8/298/30

This trip is an experiment to see if my foot works well enough to climb outside. It doesn’t, and so instead I walk a long way in order to recall, with the proper respect, that not so long ago I couldn’t manage even that.

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Giddy Muir quote here.

When I see Ragged Peak I have to have it, yield to a covetous impulse I might direct to shoes or handbags if I had the budget. The ridgeline is striking but low and I can approach on scree, roll rather than snap if I fall. I’ve also got a clear line of sight and a GPS signal, but feel unreasonably anxious off-trail alone and can’t stop looking over my shoulder. At the top I’m dizzy at the long drop down to the glittering lakes and unnerved by the keen and moan of the wind. I consider and think better of the summit blocks, am dismayed to realize, then, that in fact the when and why and worth of risk is my sole preoccupation—that this calculus is constant whether I climb or not.

Trinity Alps, 9/59/6

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Another trick of perspective and the dregs of Trinity “Lake.”

Related: in Weaverville I reject a campground as too meth-y. It’s hit or miss this far north, all Jefferson Free State stickers and 14-day stay limits. I try not to be fussy about it, but the gaunt couple whose black and bottomless eyes catch mine as we circle the dim woods are too much. They’re leaning motionless on the crooked grille or hungry maw of a terrifying old Dodge Charger with its windows blown out. “I can’t,” I announce. I have betrayed an uncool suburban weakness, but we move on.

In a friendlier location later that night, I watch the stars and then the fire. There’s a glass bottle resting on the side of the pit, reflecting two crisp miniatures of the wavering flame. They are mirror images of each other, and as the real light flares and fades they seem like a pair of dancers to back and advance on each other across a darkened stage. I attempt to explain this and am met with a long silence. One of the boys is asleep. “I think I get you now,” says the other, eventually. “You never do drugs because you’re always stoned.”

Downieville, 6/13-6/14

I spent my first weekend out of The Boot in Downieville, sans vélo, but still rapid-cycling—between Muir-grade rapture at being back in the mountains and frustration at being hobbled. Per usual, I’ll choose to blame the attitude on altitude: eight months at sea level has erased either my tolerance for the thin air or my memory of the fact that I never had any to start with. Woe!

Lucky for me, I had two very patient hiking buddies …

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Marisa probably a bit more so than Beau.

There’s also plenty to see in Downieville outside the usual program of shuttle-ride-river-repeat. Saturday I limped up to the excellent Sierra Buttes fire lookout, and it felt like the top of the world. Sunday Marisa drove some silly sort of mileage on Forest Service roads in search of the “other” Devil’s Postpile, which bore an interesting resemblance to the iron throne. Altogether, it was a good reminder that what I miss isn’t mountain biking, or climbing, or backpacking, or any of the other big-ticket items still several months out: it’s exploring—and if I were to quit whining for five minutes, I could probably come up with some other ways to do that.

The bedframe at the edge of the world.
Into this caption I will sneak the information that the Sierra Buttes are a Trust for Public Land Project. HOLLER.

I would also like to state for the record that on this trip a fish fell from the sky and exploded on Jack’s car. At least, that was theory we’d settled on by Sunday afternoon; on the freeway Saturday morning speculation as to the source of the impressive thud ranged from “BIKES!!” to “bird?”—with a brief, optimistic interlude of “somebody’s smoothie” before the scientist on staff confirmed the presence of, uh, tissue matter in the slime spattered across the roof. Unsurprisingly, my contribution to the cleanup effort was to take pictures and put them on the Internet to gross you out. You’re welcome!

This actually happened.
Clockwise from left—Jack: “NOOOOOOO”; fish guts; third car wash is the charm/only one with a pressure washer.