Arizona Trail Part III: Packing It In

*This blog entry is the third and final part of my personal account of a bikepacking trip that myself and two friends went on in Arizona in early April. If you haven't checked out the first entry yet, please click here! Second entry is here. We last left off with our group summiting the Grand Canyon traverse and riding through the Grand Canyon Village into the night*

A short, paved hill up from the Bright Angel Trailhead leads you to Maswik Lodge, where we elected to grab some dinner before searching for a place to sleep. The Lodge has a giant cafeteria with whatever your heart desires food-wise. I ended up with three foot long hot dogs and chips. I can't remember what specifically the guys got, but I know there was a giant pile of french fries and nachos involved. We were all extremely exhausted, nearly falling asleep at the table after eating our meals. I know I definitely didn't want to move at all, and would have slept on the floor next to our table if the wait staff would have let me. After charging the phones a little and getting the AZT track loaded back up (while the cafeteria simultaneously closed), we did a zombie walk out of the lodge and saddled up the bikes in the cold once again.

We rode into the night through the Grand Canyon Village, weaving our way through residential and bus roads until hitting Highway 64, one of the two main roads in and out of the Grand Canyon South Rim. We caught back up with the AZT, which was a nice paved biking/running trail about 8 feet wide that paralleled the highway. Another two miles on this trail and we pulled over at a nice flat spot in the pine forest. Getting off of the exposure of the South Rim and into the trees where the wind was blocked was nice, and it wasn't so cold any more. We were back to doing what we came to do, bike pack! Legitimately! It was great to finally pull over somewhere, find a soft flat spot in the woods, unpack the sleeping pads sleeping bags, change into comfy/dry clothes, and relax. I shot out some texts to family and friends, updated the people following along on Facebook, and then quickly fell asleep with no alarm set.

I woke up to the warmth of the sun hitting my face. Rubbing my eyes to get the morning blur out, I saw rays of light coming through the branches of all the trees. It was a beautiful morning. I checked my phone - just after 8am. That was a fantastic 10 straight hours of uninterrupted sleep. The guys were still sleeping soundly, so I gave Megan a call to check in and talk about the past day. It was nice hearing her voice. Kevin and Seth started to stir shortly after and then we were all up. Kevin's shoulders were so bruised from his backpack digging into them for 24 hours the previous day. He mentioned that it looked like he got beat up in a prison camp, and I had to agree. We fiddled around with the bikes and bags for a bit and then had to make a plan.

Kevin waking up

Foliage at sunrise

My knees were cooked, still on fire from the previous day's activities. If we were to stay on the official AZT, we had about 110 miles of forest roads and trail that would take us into Flagstaff, a major hub. Along with the distance, there were only a few decent water sources, no food, and 7,000+ feet of climbing from the ranch lands up to Mt. Humphrey (the highest point in AZ) and down the other side. This just didn't seem feasible in the current state we were in. It sucked knowing we were going to miss out on some fast dirt road riding and the aspens of Mt. Humphrey, but in our beat up physical state, the decision was for the better. We decided we would ride Highway 64 / 110 to the tiny town of Valle and then take the 110 branch from there to Flagstaff. Once we got to Flagstaff, we would take a day to recover and then hop back on the AZT and continue south.

With the plan set, we hopped on the bikes and rode the trail down into the tourist town of Tusayan. After a "double the normal price of a McDonalds breakfast" meal at McDonalds, we got some food / water at the gas station and then headed to the general store to ship some stuff back home to lighten the load. Seth was able to send his boots and trekking poles back, but my items and extra camera gear were too large to fit in a flat rate box so I had to keep what I had. Kevin bought a rear blinker for his bike since we were going to be riding on a major road, which he immediately broke after dropping it while taking it out of the package. We ended up comically sealing it back together with one of my breathe right nasal strips.

The riding from Tusayan to Valle is pretty easy, just 23 miles on a mostly downhill, beautifully paved road with a super wide berm that was safe for bike travel. Only problem was, my right knee was getting worse each minute. I could feel grinding inside of it, and every couple peddle strokes it would crack and pop loud enough to hear it while riding. The only time it felt ok was in a bent position, which did me no good because peddling + getting on and off the bike required continuous stretching of the legs. I started to really lag behind, and I mean REALLY lag behind only going about 8 mph or so on the flats. When Kevin and Seth would stop to wait up for me, I came rolling in with a painful look on my face. Each time I dismounted the bike, I wanted to cry - my knee hurt so bad. Walking was the worst pain, so it was better for me to stay on the bike and fight the hurt that way. There was one of those speed tracking signs on the highway, so I peddled as hard as my knee would let me and got 9 mph caught on camera! Horribly slow, but something little like that took my mind off of my pain for a fleeting second.

Breathe Right Strip bike light fix

Blazing speeds

We eventually rolled into Valle, stopping at a hotel/restaurant. The restaurant ended up being closed. Great - more gas station food. But wait, this is where Bedrock City was, a 1:1 sale replica re-creation of the Flintstones buildings. We rode over there and parked the bikes outside of Fred's Diner. Fred's actually had some great food and nice people, and the lady there got me ice in a plastic bag to put on my knee. We took a decent break at Flintstones world, which ended up actually being good for me. My knee started feeling better, even though it was swollen up pretty bad. I was hopeful of the 45 mile road ride we had to Flagstaff. While I was paying my bill, Seth came in and grabbed Kevin. I went outside and they were hunkered down over Kevin's bike. One of his wheels had totally flatted, to the point where the bead wasn't seated anymore. We tried to pump the tire up but that didn't work. I pulled out a spare tube to give to Kevin, but I was running 29" tires and he was running 27.5", so that was futile. Kevin was stuck. At this point after some quick brainstorming, we had a handful of options:

1. Bum a ride to Williams (25ish miles away) and get his bike fixed there
2. Upon seeing that there was no bike shop in Williams, next choice was to bum a ride to Flagstaff and get his bike fixed there instead
3. Check with the AZ Shuttle service and see if they could haul us and the bikes to Flagstaff.
4. Let Kevin ride my bike and him and Seth go to Flagstaff on good legs, then see if one of the bike shops could run back and get me and Kevin's bike the next day

Not being one that likes to beg or want to hitch-hike, I called the AZ Shuttle service. We were in luck, they had a route that runs from the South Rim to Flagstaff multiple times daily! But, they refused to take our bikes since they didn't pack down small enough. As I was on the phone with them, I literally watched one of their shuttles drive right by us and it was definitely big enough to take the bikes with the wheels off. I begged the lady but she didn't budge. Click. Next option? I guess it was time to beg for a ride. There was one person left at the diner, and he drove a huge truck. I went inside and sat down with him and pleaded our case. Turns out, he lived in Valle and was heading to Williams early in the morning. This didn't necessarily help us in any way, but it would get us closer to Flagstaff and we would be in an actual city with more resources instead of barely a town out in the middle of nowhere. I told him I'd let him know before he finished his dinner if we would take his offer. 

Flintstones replica in Valle, AZ

Gear check

I came back outside, and Kevin was gone. He walked across the street to the gas station to see if anyone over there could give us a ride. He came strolling back talking on his phone - turns out that a friend of ours, Caitlin Kelly (who lived in Flagstaff and went to NAU) was moving the last of her furniture out of her old Flagstaff apartment and into her new house in Fredonia (northern AZ on the Utah border). And, she had her boyfriend's truck! The stars couldn't have aligned any better. This was just as crazy as me getting help with my bike out of the Grand Canyon. Caitlin said we could stay at the apartment with her and her roommate that night and get back on the trail tomorrow. She had about a 45 minute drive to come get us, so we relaxed in front of the diner and waited as the sun started going down. Another bikepacker was rolling through Valle and spotted us. His name was Dio, and he was riding a fully loaded Salsa Fargo 2,400 miles from Las Vegas to meet up with family in Tennessee. He had saved up money for the past couple of years in order to get his bike and take the time off of work. We chatted with him for a while, and snapped a pic of us (he was into cameras so we had something to talk about). Super nice guy. You can follow his Instagram here. As of this writing, he successfully made his journey across the country, congrats Dio!

Attempting a fix

Super flat

Seth is not entertained

Dio snapped this of us - smiling through our defeat

A shot of Dio at the Grand Canyon from his Instagram page

Caitlin eventually rolled up and we loaded the bikes and stuffed all four of us in the front seat. We drove from Valle to Flagstaff as the sun went down, driving on a beautiful road that we should be riding and camping alongside. It was bittersweet, but I'm incredibly thankful that we were able to get a ride and not have to go through some crazy scenarios to get Kevin's bike fixed. Also, my knees were screaming again so it was a relief to be able to rest them for a bit. We got to Caitlin's apartment, unpacked our bikes, and went out to Dark Sky Brewing for dinner (highly recommend if you're in the area!). My knee was getting worse and worse, swelling up pretty large at this point and I could barely walk. We needed to formulate a new plan (again). I was pretty convinced, much to my own dismay, that I was done on the bike for the duration of this trip, or at least for the next handful of days. I wanted the guys to keep riding on - jump back on the AZT south of Flagstaff and make it a couple hundred more miles to Phoenix and then we could call it quits. I could rent a car and drive around and meet up with them each night and continue on. They refused to ride the trail without me. I had feelings of being pissed off as well as admiration. This was a great opportunity for the guys to keep exploring AZ and spend more time on the bike, and I was pissed that I was the one ending that for them. I also admired their decision to quit, not wanting to ride on the trail without me since I was the one that dreamt this thing up and orchestrated the trip. After ping-ponging around some scenarios, the new plan was created. We would get Kevin's bike fixed up first thing in the morning and get breakfast. Seth and Kevin could ride some of the trails around Flagstaff, then ride 89A down into Sedona. While they were doing this, I would catch the Arizona Shuttle down to Phoenix, grab a rental van (way cheaper in Phoenix than in Flagstaff), pick up the guys in Sedona, then we were going to travel up to Moab in Utah and ride the world class trails there for a couple days, then head to Kevin's apartment in Salt Lake City. We would do a few things in SLC and then head home to PA. 

Loading up Caitlin's truck

Tight fit. Thanks again Caitlin, you rock!

Early the next morning, we stopped at Bicycle Revolution and Kevin got his bike fixed, then we got breakfast at The Toasted Owl. I highly recommend them too! Pancakes the size of a Frisbee. If you don't believe me, check the picture below. From the Toasted Owl, Caitlin and I parted ways with Kevin and Seth. She took me to Target so I could get normal clothes, which felt good after wearing the same cycling jersey and bibs for 6 days now. We stopped back at the apartment so I could get my backpack, and then she dropped me off at NAU where the shuttle pickup was at. A huge thanks, once again, to Caitlin for helping us out tremendously. I called home to a few people while I was waiting and checked in, then got on the shuttle and headed down to Phoenix. Grabbed a Dodge Caravan at the airport (the new Dodge Caravans are actually REALLY nice) and headed back up to Sedona. The guys rode around Flagstaff for a short bit, then fought strong headwinds down through Oak Creek Canyon and into Sedona. I met up with them out in front of my timeshare, we loaded up the bikes, stopped in Flagstaff to pick my bike up, and we were on our way.

Flagstaff, AZ

I wasn't lying about that pancacke!

Snapped this out of the van window on my way to Sedona

We drove out through Flagstaff, Gray Mountain, Cameron, and Tuba City. The miles ticked on to Kayenta, Mexican Water, over the border into Utah to Bluff, White Mesa, Blanding, and Monticello. North of Monticello we hit the high plains and there were cattle standing right next to the road. I would catch a quick glimpse of their heads every so often in the darkness and it scared the hell out of me. We finally got down into Moab and stopped for gas and snacks around 3am. Kevin has been working on a bouldering project out near Dead Horse Point, so we jumped on the dirt roads, weaving our way out into the desert. We finally arrived at the spot around 4:30am. Between the shuttle from Flagstaff, picking the guys up in Sedona, and then heading up to Moab, I had driven almost 700 miles for 13 straight hours and had been awake for almost an entire day (again). We were all looking forward to busting the sleeping pads and bags out and getting some good sleep into the late morning, and then riding around Moab for a few days. There was one major problem though - the second we opened the van doors, we were hit with insane wind. I've been in some heavy wind before, but this wind was EXTREME. Sand and dirt were blowing everywhere. Items were getting sucked out of the van. I couldn't hear Kevin or Seth talking even though they were maybe 10 feet away from me looking at the boulder Kevin was setting routes on earlier this year. All we wanted to do was sleep. Kevin and I walked a bit further down and found a giant rock formation that was blocking the wind. Salvation! We grabbed Seth, brought our bikes and gear up behind the rock, and bivvied up. 

It wasn't long after I closed my eyes and went to sleep that I opened them. And I mean not long - maybe 30 minutes. The sun was coming up, and the wind had shifted and infiltrated our spot. We were getting beat down with wind and sand. A picnic table rolled (yes, rolled) down the dirt road we were camped near. The gusts had practically doubled somehow. I yelled over to the guys to see if they were awake. They both, unsurprisingly, couldn't sleep either. We all looked like a wreck. The forecast for Moab called for wind like this for the next 3-4 days! We couldn't stay here, we had to leave. We got out of our bags and things went everywhere. Seth's Crocs blew out into the desert. Kevin was getting beat up by his sleeping pad. It kept folding over and smacking him across the chest and face. We tossed one of Seth's Crocs up into the air to test the wind. It got swept up about 40 feet high and then deposited out into the desert with the other one. We somehow wrangled up all of our gear and hobbled over to the van, loaded up, and then hightailed it out of there. It was on to Salt Lake City. I elected to keep driving to finish off the marathon trip. Highway LED signs along the way flashed "WARNING: 60 mph to 70 mph SUSTAINING GUSTS" while the van got tossed across the highway lanes like a ragdoll. It was Friday and we were seeing lots of trucks and SUVs with mountain bikes loaded up, no doubt heading down to Moab for a weekend of riding. Little did they know, they were in for a windy getaway. After another 250 miles and 5 hours in the car with the wind, snow, hail, and rain, we finally made it to Kevin's apartment in Salt Lake City. Nearly 1,000 miles, 18 hours of drivinig, and 1 hour of sleep over a 30 hour stretch....it was time to relax.

The temporary wind blocking rock formation

Seth looking a little rough

Packing it in

Managed to get this shot of the sand between gusts. Peace out Moab!

The next week was spent taking it easy in and around Salt Lake City. We checked out the Bonneville Salt Flats, went to a rock climbing convention, did some short hikes, and went rock climbing down in Maple Canyon. I could barely walk, so I half-heatedly participated in some adventures and sat out others. That was it. No grand finale, no 800 mile bike ride to the Mexican border, no epiphanies to be had. An anticlimactic finish to a partially completed bike race / tour. Seth and I then drove 2,000 miles and 26 straight hours from Salt Lake City across Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and PA to get home. I think that writing about that drive would be just as exhausting as the drive itself, so I will spare you the details and just end it here. Epilogue below.

A short distance from Kevin's apartment. Beautiful Salt Lake City.

 

Epilogue

It's been just over 2 months since coming home from this trip. I have a lot of emotions towards the experience, and if I'm being brutally honest, the negative thoughts outweigh the positive ones at this time. On one hand, it was definitely one hell of an experience. I physically pushed myself harder than I ever have. I hiked across the Grand Canyon with a bike on my back (halfway). I got to explore some new territory with two of my best friends. We had the balls to line up at Stateline and at least make the attempt. On the other hand, having to bail out of the ride absolutely crushed me. It's hard to see something you've worked two years on and put so much time, money, and literal blood/sweat/tears into just crumble away not even a third of the way through. I'm upset with myself for not getting in better shape before coming out to Arizona. Albeit out of my control, I'm upset with my handlebar flipping mishap that laid me up for a day. My knee injuries added onto my negative emotions. I felt like I let a lot of people down that were really supporting me after I hyped this up so much, and that's a really horrible feeling. I did, however, have a lot of time to soul search and reflect while I was on the bike. Being placed somewhere totally remote and forced to depend on each other and problem solve along the way is a great life experience building tool. We really did work together on this trip and I'm thankful for the camaraderie. I also was able to make lasting connections with some outdoor companies which excites me, so I can't be too down about it. 

A lot of people have been asking and wondering about my knees. Turns out, I have severe arthritis behind both of my kneecaps, and that can't be cured. I would have rather had something torn that could be fixed and I could go on with my life, but I'm stuck with arthritis from this point forward. It took nearly a month for the pain from the Grand Canyon hike to subside. I got some injections in both knees that have helped a lot for the day to day pain, and I'm experimenting with different vitamins, oils, and other treatments too. I went on a long ride (nearly 70 miles) last weekend and my right knee started hurting like it did riding from Tusayan to Valle. Not a good sign. I've been doing better with shorter single-track rides, so at least that's a plus. I've been stretching a lot, and riding about 3 times a week in hopes of being able to regularly ride longer distances again.

I'm not sure what the future holds for me in long distance cycling or bikepacking right now. It's going to be a long road rehabbing the knees back and finding a good balance of medicine and activity that works for me and allows me to ride as far as I can. I'm currently signed up for 4 mountain bike XC races in late summer / fall, so we'll see how that goes. I'm also working on planning a 150 mile bikepacking loop of the Blue Ridge Wrangler in Virginia. Only time will tell. After writing my Grand Canyon entry, all three of us said that we missed it and would consider doing it again. I also would like to line up for the AZT 300 (the shorter race from Parker Canyon Lake to Phoenix) at some point in the next few years, but that will be dependent on my knees.

If you've hung in here this long with the three blog entries, I thank you wholeheartedly for following along and reading this. One of the biggest things I preach is to get out and explore. Have some uncomfortable situations. Challenge yourself to something you don't think you can, and go out and try. It's a big world out there, go explore it. I guess I can say that we did just that with this trip, and that can't be taken away from me.

-Lee