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.

wEeLHi0
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.

50yearcow
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.

Arizona, 12/30-1/5

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:

We saw Highway Patrol once in about six hours of this, but they were stuck in a ditch.
Our intrepid scout. We saw Highway Patrol once in about six hours of this, and they had driven into a ditch.

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.

Loves
“I hate you guys!” I shouted, since I don’t. “You both want to keep going, and you both know we should turn around, and you both know that if you wait long enough I’ll make the decision and then if it sucks you can blame me!” “Well I don’t think it will suck,” offered Philippe.

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.

YEAH OK FINE
The difference a day/six million years makes.

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:

First tracks, past this point—at least among humans. We followed the hoofprints hoping that deer like singletrack.
First tracks—at least among humans. We followed hoof-prints, hoping that deer prefer singletrack, too.

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.

Peace on Earth.
Happy new year; peace on Earth.