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Coconino 250-ish: Homewards! Mingus to Flagstaff

After our third night together, we’d all gotten comfortable enough with each other to give each other grief for things that we deserved to get grief over. I incessantly gave Glenn and Lucas a hard time about their eating abilities, and they looked at me skeptically every time I said that something ‘trended downwards’, or that ‘the road is just down there’, or ‘it’s only xx miles, as the crow flies.’ All valid reasons for being heckled.

Luckily for me, sitting at nearly 7,000 feet at our campsite, I could say confidently that we were going to trend downwards towards the Verde River at 3,800 feet. As was standard, we had to ride in the upward direction on a sub-lovely little piece of rocky singletrack to the point where we’d start trending downwards. But once we did start going down, life got better. Smooth trail, wide switchbacks, minimal rocks, beautiful views, and most importantly, no uphill.

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After dropping 800+ feet, we went through the magic gate and started along a series of residential roads, turning to gas line roads, turning into jeep roads. I’d looked ahead on the GPS and standing at the top of a classic AZ gas line hill, made the bold statement: We’ll be on roads the entire way to the Verde.

Glenn’s a quick learner: So what you’re saying is we’ll be riding roads like this (pretty rough), unless Scott found something harder to take us on.

Yeah, pretty much.

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We maintained our elevation as we hit the Great Western Trail with huge overlooks into the Verde Valley. It it wasn’t for the rocks making the road chunkier than it really needed to be, it would have been high desert cruising.

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Eventually, the road did trend downwards for real, losing nearly 2,000 feet over the course of seven miles. Spirits – through the roof!

What I hadn’t told them was that Williams, our next mini-goal and resupply point, was back at 7,000 feet and that all Scott had told me about the section between the Verde and Williams is that ‘you climb’. I figured we should all be joyful while we could be, so I didn’t say anything about what was to come. We hung out by the river, dipped our feet in, filled our bladders, and ate salty snacks. Lucas went for full immersion, I went for a soaked shirt to start the climb with.

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Holy moly was it a hot climb. At nearly 20 miles long, it never let up. The sun never gave us a break. Lucas declared that after spending four months off the bike due to a broken wrist, he was in no shape to be doing this route. But the cool thing was – he was doing it. With enough breaks in the shade, we slowly made our way up the road that started out smooth and slowly (and then rapidly) deteriorated.

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We’d left Cottonwood the afternoon before with the intention of trying to make it to Williams with only one night out, but had packed enough food to stay out the  second night if we didn’t make it. Leaving the Verde, I was ready to admit that our chances of making Williams, even with skipping Bill Williams mountain, were slim to none. At least we were able to temper our expectations of a big dinner.

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After entirely too much up-up-and-away, we finally reached the aptly named Pine Flats at 6,500 feet. We still had 500 feet to climb to the paved road that would take us to Williams, but we finally felt like we were within striking distance. The next time the road kicked up, we decided we were done and ready to find a camp spot. Unfortunately, while I was scanning the side of the the road for a suitably flat place to camp, I came upon a set of tracks.

“What are you looking at?” Glenn asked.

“Do those look like really big bear tracks to you?”

We stood there looking at the imprints in the soft shoulder of the dirt road.

“I think we should keep riding for a little bit,” I announced.

“Yeah. That’s a good idea,” the others agreed.

We made it another mile before we felt sufficiently far away enough from the tracks to settle down in wide open meadow for the night. We figured that as long as we put our food away from us, even if the giant bear found us, he’d dine on our trail food instead of us.

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With vision clouded by the giant burger consumed in Cottonwood, Glenn made some inadequate food purchasing decisions and had only bars left for dinner and breakfast. He’d refused my Oreos earlier in the trip, claiming he tried to eat healthy while on tour, but it didn’t take much arm twisting to convince him that one would taste pretty darn good. Apparently, even better with some almond butter on it. I’d call that a well-rounded, nutritious dinner.

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We settled down to sleep early again, bedtimes were around 7:45 this trip. I slept soundly until something that was a cross between a bark and a roar woke me up. Deep, primitive, loud, I had no clue what sort of animal could have been making the noise. My first thought was a huge dog, but we were in the middle of nowhere. Next I reasoned a wolf since we’d heard that wolves had been reintroduced near Sycamore Canyon, which wasn’t that far from where we were camped, as the crow flies, of course. I laid still, hoping that whatever it was would go away.

The creature came back as dawn was breaking. The same deep bark. I sat up, curious as to what it was, hoping that it wasn’t a wolf staring at us across the meadow. Instead, a huge elk was looking at us from across the road. There was the bark again. He looked less than pleased, probably wanting to cross the very meadow that we were camped in. He eventually decided that we weren’t going to be moving any time soon and wandered off. Glenn and I laughed in relief as we’d both had our imaginations run wild the first time we’d heard the barking.

It was a relatively quick and easy drop into Williams. A local directed us to the Grand Canyon Cafe for breakfast where we gorged ourselves on breakfast burritos. The boys were finally learning how to eat!

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With a resupply at Safeway, we were on our way out of town with the intention of bypassing Sycamore Rim. While we’d heard it was beautiful, I’d heard that the trail was questionable and after getting beat down two days in a row, we were ready for some easier miles. Scott directed us towards some forest roads that would cut off some miles, and the rim, while keeping us off pavement.

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The roads were pretty glorious. Smooth, fast, we hooked back up with the route just south of I-40 where we stopped to eat our sandwiches in the shade. It had been a morning of easy and fast miles and the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff were finally starting to look closer. We felt pretty good about our mileage for the day, content with staying out for an extra night, and thus being able to take our time for the rest of the afternoon.

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We made our way to the Texaco, our last water stop for the trip, and with spirits high, Lucas bought us all ice cream sandwiches. This was definitely bike touring at its finest! After spending some time digesting, charging up phones, and people watching, we hit the road again, taking more beautiful dirt roads paralleling I-40. We knew that we could have taken I-40 straight into Flagstaff, but we were enjoying being out still. Riding bikes. Taking in the views.

Plus, I really wanted them to get to ride the last section of the AZT trail into Flagstaff.

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We headed off towards Wing Mountain. Scott had mentioned that we could bypass some of the trail by staying on the road. I saw the bypass on the GPS and promptly ignored it – I wanted to check out the trail. While there may have been some tired legs in the group, I figured that what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them (i.e. there was a much easier way around) and we started up the trail which pretty immediately turned into an extended hike-a-bike to the top of the hill. I thought it was sort of funny. I don’t think Glenn and Lucas did.

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But here’s the beauty of the Coconino loop: Every time you want to hate it, want to quit, want to find something better to do with your life, it throws a glorious piece of singletrack your way. The descent off of Wing Mountain was no exception. Some glorious moto trail with an exquisitely bermed final mile. Smiles were back!

We made our way up to a beautiful little camp spot just a mile short of Hwy 180. We’d brought all sorts of good food up from Williams. Tacos with cheese and avocado made my night.

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I was a little sad to wake up that final morning, knowing that all we had left was a three mile climb and then a long drop back into Flagstaff. Bikepacking trips are always like that…happy to have done a big loop and looking forward to creature comforts of civilization, yet wanting to stay out longer. Five nights out is long enough to really get into the swing of things, to get into the life pace of travel by bike, but it’s also not long enough to forget what a comfortable bed feels like.

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We climbed up from the pine trees into the Aspens, nearing 9,000 feet high on the San Francisco Peaks. Clouds overhead threatened rain as we finally reached the AZ trail for our final descent.

“More people need to get out on this,” Glenn declared. “I know epic is overused, but this loop really is epic.”

I had to agree. It was epic, it was hard, and I can’t put into words how impressed I was at how Glenn and Lucas handled it. Neither had any idea what they were getting into. As far as I could tell, Glenn had looked at Curiak’s photos from his trip on it and decided that he had to go see it. I don’t blame him. I’m pretty sure Lucas came under the trip description of: Riding bikes in Arizona.

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I think the trip opened up their eyes to a whole new type of bikepacking. Obviously, road touring is big. Dirt road touring is starting to take off. But technical singletrack-heavy loops, there’s not that many people doing them. And most of the people doing them are racing instead of leisure touring. That needs to change.

I sort of feel like it’s my job to open up people’s eyes to this type of touring – bikepacking, I guess, if you want to go back to the original definition Scott wanted the word to have when he started up bikepacking.net. That if you’re careful about what you pack, and bring bikes with squishy parts, you can ride at a high level on trails in beautiful places. And if you’re not racing – the trails can actually be a lot of fun rather than a slog!

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I promised them mostly downhill and a grand total of 5 rocks for the entire descent. Of course, I was wrong on both counts, but the riding was relatively easy, at least compared to what we’d been doing, and the final fast descent down to town put smiles on all of our faces.

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We headed straight to Flagstaff Brewery for lunch to celebrate. Six days, five nights. A job well done.

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A toast to new friends. To having eyes opened about new ways of doing things (those nifty alcohol stoves sure are neat, and I sort of want a fancy camera now). To living the simple life and to seeing the world from a bike seat.

It was a glorious time. Thanks for the adventure!


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Coconino 250-ish: Flagstaff to Mingus

It’s sort of funny how this trip came together, because really, what are the chances of me going touring with a vagabond from Maine and the publisher of Bunyan Velo from Minnesota.

The first inklings of the trip started with Scott mentioning that some guy named Josh Spice wanted to come down and tour the AZT on a fat bike with some other guy. We were both dumbfounded by the idea, because anyone who’s ridden any of the AZT knows that a fat bike…well, isn’t really the best tool for the job. (Someone did race the AZTR300 on a fat bike, and finished, but said that if he came back, he’d bring suspension) Scott said that he was going to write back and tell them to either consider doing a dirt road route, or to bring different bikes.

But, I’d heard of Josh Spice in the recipients list on emails that I get from Salsa. It sounded like he was trying to time the trip to coincide with the AZTR, and at the time, Scott was still planning on racing, and I was looking for something to do instead of hanging out in an empty house at home watching dots move across the screen. I hatched a grand plan: I’d convince them to bring mountain bikes, I’d convince them that the Coconino 250 was a better loop to do than the AZT, and from Flagstaff, I’d drive up to get Scott from the border, drive him to St. George to hang out with his parents while I went to Moab for our Annual Girls Trip, and then I’d pick him up on my way back to Tucson. It was brilliant. Except things never really work out as planned…

So I sent Josh an email, inviting myself along on the trip…if they wanted to do the Coconino, which has been on my bucket list for a while now. A Scott-and-Chad designed loop, I’d heard good things about it.

I mentioned to Scott that Glenn Charles was the second guy on the trip.

“Wasn’t he the guy who rode a fat bike on that California Lost Coast road tour?”

“I think he’s the guy who bikepacked around Alaska in the winter for a few months.”

Turns out, we were thinking of the same person, and it was, in fact, Glenn.

Plans changed, morphed, and got adapted, and on the Saturday after the AZTR start, I found myself picking up Glenn and Lucas from the Phoenix airport. Josh had to bail, and apparently Lucas had somewhat invited himself along as well. As the publisher of Bunyan Velo, I’d heard of him through Gypsy by Trade. If Nicholas spoke highly of him, it was good enough for me.

And so there we were, three people who’d never met, ready to embark on what was guaranteed to be a fairly to mostly amazing trip.

What could possibly go wrong? Aside from a potentially broken thumb, a tree-skewered thermarest, and some puking.

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As all good bikepacking trips start, we went to The Place for breakfast. I cleaned my plate. The boys didn’t. I was so confused.

Bikes had been assembled in a hotel room the afternoon before, trail provisions bought at Sprouts, and beer consumed at Flagstaff Brewery. 8 am, we were on the road.

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I’d skipped the trail heading into Flagstaff during our AZT tour with the plan of riding it during this tour. Unfortunately, a fire by Walnut Canyon rendered the trails closed and we were forced to ride the 20 miles of road out to Lake Mary leaving Flagstaff. A bummer for sure, but a good lesson that a trail’s existence or availability in the future is never guaranteed.

The morning was beautiful and the miles passed quickly as basic information was exchanged: Where are you from? What do you do? What bikes do you own? Strangers are fun, especially when they’re interesting ones.

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The wind picked up as we ducked into the trees on the AZ trail having bypassed the fire closure. This section of AZT follows a lovely railroad grade with minimal technical riding. While it was definitely more fun to ride it in the downhill direction into Flagstaff, even up was pleasant. It was one of two sections of trail that I knew on the whole loop. When I was getting trail beta from Scott, I insisted on only knowing water and food resupplies, and the approximate time and distance between resupply points. I like riding things blind, taking things as they come. If it goes up, I’ll pedal. If it goes down, I’ll coast. If I can’t stay on my bike, I’ll walk. The simple life.

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Spirits were high. Duffy, pined cruising. Glenn asked me if all of the AZT followed a railroad grade across the state. No, not really.

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After leaving the AZT, we followed a series of dirt roads heading back towards I-17 and the ADOT yard that was to be our water resupply for the day. I’d convinced Glenn and Lucas that there was no need for rain gear or shelters, we were in AZ after all, so I was slightly worried as the clouds continued to build throughout the afternoon. Luckily, they amounted to nothing and we got sporadic sun throughout our mellow cruise.

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We reached the ADOT yard early afternoon. After skipping the first sections of trail, we were well ahead of schedule and I called Scott to see what our camping options were if we were to go past the Camp 1 spot from the Coco250 race route. Not much, he told me. A drop into Sedona, it would have been stealth camping with an early start unless we were willing to ride into the night. The decision was made to call it a day early instead, so we took our time filling up on water, petting the neighborhood cat who’d decided that my lap was the best piece of real estate in the area, and munching on snacks.

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Not long after, the views exploded. I’ve been to Sedona once before, but the view from the top, now that’s something else!

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Bike-selfie. I think Glenn liked the view.

A nasty wind had whipped up the dust in the valley making for less-than-clear views, but the grandeur of the area couldn’t be hidden.

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We get to ride bikes here!

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We reached our camp spot around 4 in the afternoon and our jaws dropped. How did Scott and Chad find this place? Is this for real? The wind was gusting up at 40+ mph, and we had to take sanity breaks and hide from the wind occasionally, but the better part of the next three hours was spent perched on the edge of the cliff, admiring the view. It really was fairy-tale-esque.

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The dust led to a quality AZ sunset and as the final color left the sky, we found ourselves a somewhat sheltered place to set up camp for the night.

It wasn’t a minute after I’d finished blowing up my pad that a rouge gust of wind blew through our camp. Glenn’s pad and sleeping bag went flying, and my pad took flight, straight into a tree. To be more specific, it turned a tree branch into a skewer and hung there until I could go retrieve it. With no pad patch kit and an inch-long gaping hole in my pad, I tried to patch it with a tire patch. I laid down on it and had the comforts of a soft pad for approximately 3 minutes.

It was a long night curled up on the ground, one pair of chamois under my hips, one pair under my shoulders, pack under my feet, and water bladder under my head. Luckily, I have plenty of practice sleeping in uncomfortable positions and I actually grabbed a few hours of sleep as the nearly full moon made its way across the sky.

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I knew that we’d had a mellow day on Day 1 of our tour and expected things to get rowdy on the drop down to Sedona and beyond. I don’t think Glenn and Lucas had a clue. How do you explain AZ riding to someone who’s never done it? But I guess that’s the point of touring, getting your mind blown minute after minute, hour after hour, and day after day, be it by the views, the riding, or everything combined into one beautiful experience.

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Dropping down Schnebly Hill trail and then the Munds Wagon trail was…rough. Definitely had a Team Vertigo aspect, lots of rocks, narrow trail. For the first miles of the morning, it was a bit of rough wakeup call for all involved.

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But the views!

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All was going according to plan until Glenn washed his front wheel out around a tight and loose switchback. Face first into some rocks, his glasses saved his face. His thumb didn’t fare quite as well as he heard a pop as he put his glove back on. After a little GPS sleuthing, he and Lucas exited out onto the road for a smoother coast down the hill to Sedona while I rode the last couple of miles of trail.

What was a fairly rideable trail turned into a Scott-and-Chad special, and I found myself playing the usual on-again-off-again game, navigating rocks, roots, and drops. But oh, was it beautiful (and the trail did get better near the bottom).

Meeting up with the boys shortly after, we made our way to Sedona to evaluate the situation. I needed a new sleeping pad. Glenn needed to ice his thumb and get a bent derailleur hanger fixed. And I needed to find some postcards to send out, and a postoffice to buy some stamps and to send my destroyed sleeping pad home. Overwhelmed by the chores, we went to Starbucks and drank coffee, absorbing the energy of the crystals embedded in the ground.

Honestly, I thought the trip was over with the bum thumb, but after the coffee was gone, Glenn was determined to continue. With a taped up thumb, we headed towards an outdoor store to buy a new pad. Instead, we found a consignment shop which I was more than ready to check out. I had no intention of spending a lot of money on a new pad if I could fix my old one when I got home.

We entered the small room crammed full of clothes and gear. I found the owner, a grey-haired man who seemed to fit in with the crystal-vortex crowd of Sedona.

“Do you have any sleeping pads?” I asked.

He looked at me skeptically.

“Have you ever slept on the ground before?”

“Ummm…yes.”

“Successfully?”

“Yes.”

I started to wonder if he wanted my money or not.

He looked up at Glenn and Charles, perusing the shop.

“How many people is this pad for?”

“One.”

“You?”

“Yes.”

I started to wonder where this conversation was going.

“I’ve got this one.” He led me over to a giant pad, at least twice as tall as I was.

“Do you have anything smaller? We’re traveling by bike.”

He looked at me funny again. “So you’re looking for something short and inadequate?”

“Yes, exactly.”

He pointed me to a 3/4 length, ancient thermarest. “Here’s one that’s plenty short and inadequate.”

“I’ll take it.”

It wasn’t lightweight, it was overpriced, but being able to get out of there and save ourselves a trek further into the heart of Sedona was well worth it.

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While I packed it up, found a tourist info shop for postcards, and mailed my old pad back to Tucson, Glenn went to the bike shop to get his bike fixed. We reconvened, found ourselves some lunch (sweet potato, fig paste, mozzarella, and tomato, YUM!), and took steps to finally escape the vortex.

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No question about it, Sedona is strange. I think I like it.

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The route hops on some classic Sedona trails south of town, heading out towards Chicken Point, Llama Trail, and then Templeton, and down to Little Buddha beach before truly exiting the vortex. Having ridden Sedona once before, I knew what to expect.

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There’s nothing quite like the rocks of Sedona. Sort of like Moab, sort of not. Sort of like St George, sort of not. Unique and fitting of a vortex center.

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It was neat to see Lucas and Glenn find their stride as the day went on. What was completely foreign to them and completely unrideable became manageable. Skills were on the up!

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Filling up on water at Red Rocks State Park, we headed out onto the Lime Kiln trail, determined to find a nice place to camp. I think we succeeded.

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We watched the full moon rise before settling down for the night. It was a special place to be able to watch the lunar eclipse, drifting in and out of consciousness as the sky went from daylight-bright to pitch black and then back to bright again.

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Not only did we get to watch Nature TV with the sun rising on the Sedona cliffs, but we got the bonus programming of hot air balloons swooping down, nearly touching the ground in front of us, and then taking off again. They were close enough that we could hear them talking. Glenn thought he was going crazy hearing voices before we realized what was going on.

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On to Lime Kiln. Scott had described it as a combination of vague-le track and two track. It was a pretty spot-on description.

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These guys seemed as interested in us as we were in them. When they finally took off, we marveled at their power-to-weight ratio. To be able to move so easily and gracefully…

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Pile ‘o Salsa at Coffee Creek.

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The route eventually led us to some sandy sections of trail. Many of them paralleled smooth dirt roads and Glenn made the bold statement: Scott is mean!

I told him that Scott had been called far worse than that when it comes to his routes.

While it was only 12 miles to Cottonwood for brunch from our campsite, the going was sub-fast through the sand. Apparently when Scott and Chad had reconned the route, it had just rained and the trail was fast and smooth. Go figure.

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Dead Horse State Park. Mine is a mighty pony!

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We went to Georgie’s Cafe. 10:30, I opted for breakfast (stuffed french toast with strawberries, eggs, and hashbrowns), the boys opted for burgers, a decision that would haunt them for the rest of the day. With my heckling at their inability to eat big meals, they both finished their meals, right down to the very last french fry. This was maybe not the greatest idea in the world as we had the 3,000 foot climb up Mingus ahead of us and the afternoon sun was beating down with an intensity that made me feel like my brains were about to boil. I could only imagine what it would have been like coming from Maine or Minnesota.

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Mingus is a little bit of a beast. It’s been known to crush souls. I could only imagine what it was like when Scott, Kurt, and Aaron rode up it during their prize fight race/implosion on the route. It starts out paved and mellow…and then quickly kicks up.

Lucas lost his burger not far up the slopes. Every shady spot became a good reason to stop. The sun was relentless.

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Yeah. Mingus.

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We took the liberty of skipping the hike-a-bike to the top of the mountain, instead taking a contouring road around the flanks of the beast. Unbeknownst to us, there was a spigot with running water just a few miles down the road. Knowing we’d be dry camping and our reliable water source was going to be middle of the day after, we filled up. It made us feel silly for hauling 300+ ounces of water up the hill, but apparently the spigot is new in the past 5 years.

Getting to cool off, splash water on heads, and rest raised spirits. At least temporarily.

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The views did not suck.

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As the sun got lower in the sky, we pushed on, wanting to get as close to the top as we could before setting up camp. We were nearly to Day 2 camp of the race, but knowing that none of us had any place to be or to go, and if the trip took six days instead of the five that we’d planned it’d be a-okay, we weren’t stressed about the time. Anyhow, the next day had to be easier, right?

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We settled on a beautiful little spot in the trees. We figured we could push on for another 45 minutes, but the site was so flat, and soft, and just about perfect. When touring, we decided, you don’t pass up a beautiful camping spot. Spirits started to rise as food was consumed and I said that we got to descend off the backside of Mingus the next day, all the way down to the Verde River, 3,000 feet below us.

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We even had a camp visitor! Lucas wanted to get a picture before he ran away. I assured him that these guys don’t move very fast. They make me look graceful when it comes to trying to move quickly.

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We got into bags early to watch the last rays of sun disappear behind one stand of trees and to see the moon rise on the other side of the horizon.

Worked over, we were all looking forward to some downhill and mellow riding the next day. Little did we know what was in store.

Well, I should have known. I know Scott and I know nothing is ever easy when it comes to a Scott GPX line. 

 

 


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In the interim

After a few days of lounging around St George, it was time to head back south to Tucson. It was an awesome stay with Scott’s parents where I got to catch up on the Facebook, the status of the missing Malaysian flight, and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Hey, when you can’t walk, the TV starts to look awfully appealing for entertainment. 

We rented ourselves a nice little Chevy Malibu and drove it the whole way back on a single tank of gas. This was helped by the fact that the air conditioner was broken, which helped on gas milage but pretty much stank when we hit rush-hour traffic in Phoenix during the heat of the afternoon. It was good to be home and we had a whole two nights and a day to ourselves to return the rental car, get breakfast at Bobo’s, and look helplessly at the gear that was piled on our floor. And to admire the onion that was growing greens in our bowl.

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JayP showed up the next day, getting ready to start his assault on the AZTR 750. Arriving mid-afternoon, he built up his bike and we took him out to Starr Pass for a ride. 5 minutes from the house, he got to witness firsthand the never ending battle with tires versus the AZ desert as Scott’s Stans-less tire decided that it didn’t want to hold air any more. And then we couldn’t get the valve stem out to add more Stans (which I had), so we broke the rim seal, added the Stans, and tried to air it back up with a hand pump . No dice.

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Jay and I left Scott on the side of the trail to get home and either switch his tire or just switch bikes, planning on having him ride our loop backwards and meet us.

The riding was lovely, it was so good to be back in Tucson, to be fighting being too warm rather than too cold. It was good to see all my saguaro friends again and ride all the familiar rocks.

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We ran back into Scott coming down the Yetman Wash trail and proceeded homewards in the dark. With temperatures in the 90′s during the day, it was definitely night riding season.

Jay took off the next day and Justin came to occupy our spare bedroom. His ride to the start of the 300 had fallen through, so we offered up some floor space and van space for the following morning. We took him out to Starr Pass as the sun was setting.

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The sunset was a dud, but at least we got some pretty clouds before the light left us.

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We were nearly back from our loop, heading down to the Genser trailhead when the junk-show started.

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Pssssssst. Scott’s rear tire, tubed instead of tubeless, decided that it didn’t like being rallied down the final rocky descent at breakneck speeds. With no Stans and no hope of it holding tubeless, Scott went to put his tube in.

Psssssst went the tube as he tried to put a little bit of air in it.

“Here, try mine.” I gave him my spare tube.

Pssssst went my spare tube. We stood dumbfounded.

“I’ll patch it!”

I put a patch on the offending hole and gave it back.

Psssst went the tube, more slowly this time.

“I’ll put another patch on it!”

Pssssst went the tube, a third time.

“I think the tube is hosed.” Scott’s tube, leaking Stans, had no hope of being patched.

Meanwhile Justin looked on, wondering how the Scott and Ez junk-show ever fixed anything.

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“I’ll ride home and go get the car.” We conceded the fight and I left Scott on the side of the trail with a flat for the second time in two days. Whoops.

In the AM, we piled into the SportsVan and went down to the AZT 300 start at Parker Lake. It was awesome to see everyone, including the AZT750 riders coming through, most stopping for a short break.

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I would have loved to see Kaitlyn go after my AZT record. Stupid crashes. Cool scars.

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The start was a bubbling mass of nervous energy. I thought maybe I’d be a little jealous of the racers…but I wasn’t. That’s a good feeling to have…to know that I made a correct life decision on this one.

Scott gave his motivational speech, same as last year, and we watched the riders sprint off down Gear Check hill. Suddenly, it was relatively silent with a few stragglers starting late and the drop-off drivers starting to pull out.

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Time to ride for us! Having made the drive down to Parker Lake, we opted to ride the six miles around Parker Lake…because, well, when else were we going to do it?

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We ended up on some questionable trails that probably saw more immigrant traffic than bike traffic, lost the trail more times than we found it, but all in all, had a lovely little two hour adventure next to the lake. The only downside was that the marina was only open on weekends, squashing our hope for an ice cream sandwich by the water.

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We made our way home to watch the dots move along the AZT, spending the rest of the day in the coolness of our house, wondering how the racers were faring in the heat. Both glad we weren’t racing, it was fun to know that people were out there, having the adventure of a lifetime. Well, that, or cursing Scott’s name as they made their way through the Canelos. Oh, the lovely Canelos.

And then it was time to go again. Rest is for those who can’t think of anything fun to do.

 

 

 


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AZT Taco Tour: The Ditch, the bathroom, and the finish

Years and years and years ago, my parents took me to the rim of the Grand Canyon. I remember looking down into the vastness and wanting to hike down, but at the time (I think I was eight, which makes it less than a quarter century ago, but not by much), our trip was limited to taking a couple of pictures. I’d vowed to return to actually hike the canyon, but as it turns out, it’s not really on any of the standard routes that I drive around the west. And also, I’m a bit of bike rider, which makes hiking down 4,500 vertical feet a recipe for disaster.

Getting to hike the canyon was one of the draws of the trip for me. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew that it’d be spectacular. All through southern and central AZ, I had other obstacles to focus on and the immensity of the canyon crossing didn’t phase me. Then all of sudden, we were there in Tusayan, packing up our bikes for the short jaunt to the South Rim to start our journey down.

What could possibly go wrong?

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I remembered the view well from my last visit and we spent a few minutes staring down into the abyss. Scott informed me that what looked like the bottom from our perch wasn’t even close. I pretended that I already knew that. Gulp.

We headed straight to the backcountry office to get a permit for camping. We were hoping for Cottonwood, which was a little farther along the trail and would have given us a better chance at making Jacob’s Lake the next day, but as it turned out that both the campgrounds at Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch were full.  Phantom Ranch had a spot the next night, “Why can’t you just wait a day?” the nice lady at the office asked us.

Scott pulled out his powers of persuasion (and knowledge) and with the help of another employee, convinced her that AZT thru-hikers can get permits outside of their normal parameters. Reluctantly, she gave us our permit and reminded us several times that our Day 2 would be 14 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. “Are you sure you can do that?” she asked, looking directly at me.

“Well, if I go down there, I’m going to have to find a way to get myself out.”

She looked skeptical about the whole operation and had us sign a sheet saying that she’d advised us against our itinerary and that it was “excessive.”

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Our next stop was the post office to pick up our mail drop. New packs, new shoes, more oats (as if we hadn’t hauled a weeks worth from Flagstaff). We sent back everything that we could, small packs, a spare tube, shock pump, iPad, and the oats. I convinced Scott that it would be nice to have the stove for a meal down at the bottom and if we didn’t make it to Jacob’s Lake the next day. It was a minimal junk-show.

Lunch was next and a visit to the outdoor store. We finally caved and bought two Grand Canyon National Park Official ponchos because the forecast was calling for rain and snow. We’d almost made it the whole way without carrying rain gear. We were skeptical of our purchases right until it started snowing outside while we were paying.

Then back to the Xanterra office to put an order in for a hot breakfast at Phantom Ranch and two sack lunches for the next day. Overpriced, obviously, but the thought of pancakes and bacon for the hike out made it worth it.

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Scott put our bikes on our packs while I ate carrot cake. He’d tried to explain the technique to me when we were first testing the pack for me, but I told him that I had no interest in learning because this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he was a pro. The snow started to fall harder and we sought shelter behind a row of bathrooms, warming up in them before setting off to the rim.

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Really, what could possibly go wrong?

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We ran into hoards of people scurrying up to the rim in the storm as we slowly made our way down. I did my best to take small steps, to walk deliberately, and to use my one hiking pole as much as I could. I’d accepted the fact that I was going to destroy my legs with this endeavor, but figured whatever damage I could minimize, I would. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing. We gave various lengths of answers. A lot of people just shook their heads in amazement. I don’t blame them.

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The snow stopped as we dropped in elevation. The trail is nothing short of spectacular. It blew my mind (I know, terrible descriptors for a writer, but I’ve got nothing to describe it) and within a few miles, we had it all to ourselves, dropping into the depths of the world.

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That down there, that’s not the bottom. We took breaks occasionally, and then less frequently as we realized we’d be racing daylight to get down to Phantom Ranch. 9 miles in 4.5 hours is a stretch for people like us.

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Stunning. (I need a thesaurus)

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We made it down to the river and made our way along the sandy trail to the bridge, getting to the outskirts of Phantom Ranch just as headlights became necessary. After some bumbling around, we found our special area, and dropped our bikes, only to feel drops of rain start to come down steadily. Luckily, the canteen had just opened and we found shelter among other hikers who were there for wine, beer, and other merriments. The gal running the canteen knew about the race and was happy to give us hot water for our meals as we sat there, feeling worked over, and worried about the prospect of camping in the rain. Ponchos yes, shelter, no.

But, luck was on our side and the rain let up 15 minutes before the canteen closed for the night. We set up our camp under clearing skies and had a warm night at the bottom of the canyon.

We woke up at 4:45 to make the family-style breakfast at the canteen that we’d ordered. Apparently everyone at our table was watching their waistlines and we had our fill of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and peaches. Worth every penny, we left stuffed with two sack lunches.

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My song for the hike had become “I’m a little pack mule, short and stout” (sung to the tune of I’m a little teapot). The lyrics would eventually change to “I’m a little pack mule, not afraid of heights” as we made our way up the trail.

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Sunrise from the trail. Ouchy shoulders, legs that were sub-stoked, and miles and miles to go couldn’t take away from the beauty of watching the sun illuminate the canyon walls. We could see that snow line from the storm on the north rim was low and we wondered what our ascent would bring.

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Our climb was punctuated with exclamations of “Alexis would love this geology!”

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What can I say: It was hard. Getting packs on and off was an ordeal. Shoulders hurt. Scott reminded me frequently that he was carrying the stove, a tube, and tools – all weight that I wasn’t. I reminded him that he also had 5-inches of suspension to play with on all the trail leading up to the canyon and it wasn’t my fault that his bike weighed more.

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But we climbed. We had one minor junk-show when it started snowing on us and we attempted to extract the ponchos from our bags, get them on, and then get our packs on. By the time we were set up, it had stopped snowing. Classic. 

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A day of melting had gotten rid of most of the snow, but as we approached the north rim, we struggled to keep our shoes dry.

We reached the rim with a few minutes of sun left. We dropped our packs, absorbing the last rays of sun, surveying the fact that the ground, which had been dry for most of the drought-filled winter was now covered in several inches of snow. The temperature started dropping as the sun fell. We had the option of camping or trying to ride the 40 miles of pavement to Jacob’s Lake in the dark. We knew both options would be miserable and cold.

Deciding not to decide, we made our way to the backcountry office to get water at the year-round spigot.

“There’s a bathroom over here that has a space heater in it,” Scott exclaimed as I was filling up bottles. “We should at least warm up.”

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We decided that the bikes were cold too, so we brought them in. Then, one thing led to another, and it was morning and we were getting ready to face the cold temperatures outside.

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While eating our dinners made of hot water from the sink, I took my socks off to assess the damage. It was a pretty impressive blister, but nothing that a safety pin, a little bit of antibiotic cream, and a bandaid couldn’t fix.

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Knowing that we were woefully unprepared to face the temperatures with our gloves and socks, Scott had the brilliant idea of making mittens and vapor barrier socks out of our ponchos. My was shredded already from our botched attempt at hiking with them on and we decided they really were single-use items.

The mittens were brilliant. We would have been totally hosed without them. Even with the protection of the ponchos, we were still cold and high clouds lingered in the sky, foiling any attempt at using sun rays for warmth. Dead set on Jacob’s Lake, we pedaled in the cold, saying little. Scott grew icicles on his beard, my hair frosted up. We guessed at the temperature (it was 19 F).

Eventually, it got warm enough to not feel frantic, to start to feel human again. We looked at the trail, paralleling the road, being glad that we weren’t pedaling over the bumps with cold hands and sore legs (did I mention I couldn’t really get on or off my bike, and unclipping was  quite a deal, let alone walking). To pass the time (because 40 miles of pavement can get boring for two mountain bikers), we spent the last 10 miles thinking up our favorite memory from that grade in school. Mile 10, 10th grade. Mile 9, 9th grade, etc. We both had some pretty funny stories and before we knew it, we were shedding our ponchos at the Road Closed gate in order to look civilized for the final quarter mile into Jacob’s Lake.

We had a hot breakfast. We ate cookies. We talked to another bike tourist. We called Scott’s parents to tell them of our ETA. I insisted that we eat lunch two hours after we finished breakfast. And then we rode, back onto the trail.

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We hit a bit of snow, but the last 26 miles really are fairly easy cruising. Some climbs, some rocks to navigate, but mellow enough to really soak in the moment. We stopped at the last AZ Trail sign, 11 miles from the border.

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We’d come this far. We’d be done within 90 minutes. It made me sad.

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After 749 miles, the final descent was smooth, long, had wide corners, and had a stunningly beautiful backdrop of the Vermillion Cliffs. It seemed surreal that after all the abuse the trail can (and did) dish out, for it to end on such a beautifully constructed section.

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Scott’s parents were waiting for us as we arrived. It was awesome to be greeted at the end! We were only an hour late (after my desperate need for lunch before leaving Jacob’s Lake). We piled into their car, headed for Saint George for dinner at Costa Vida. I nearly fell over trying to get out of the car to get to the restaurant, the legs were officially revolting.

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We  (and by we, I mean me) spent the next two days laying on the couch, hobbling to the bathroom, hobbling to the kitchen, and admiring the views of the mountains surrounding St. G. While I would have loved to ride (and Scott did!), it was time to relax and let the legs heal. They’d done good.

The trip really was a dream. Last December after Scott took me out bikepacking in the Gila, I’d told him that no trip would ever be able to compare and that he’d ruined me for life. This trip…this one was something special, much like the Gila was a year and half ago. Out for 14 days, enjoying the views while still riding long days, staying fresh enough to enjoy the riding while still having the contentment at the end of a long day that we’d done good, food in new places, and stories that are too numerous to ever all get told.

Did spiritual enlightenment happen? Nah. But I can say with 100% certainty – In this stage in my life, I would much rather tour on my bike than race it and that I’m the luckiest gal alive to have such an amazing partner to go on these adventures with. It’s a big, wide world out there and I can’t wait to see more of it.

 


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AZT Taco Tour: Highline, wind, and first views of the Ditch!

I thought a lot about the experience I was having out on the trail touring rather than racing.

For me, when racing, a deep fatigue settles in sometime after about 48 hours. Riding technical stuff becomes (seemingly) dangerous. Powering up steep hills becomes a waste of effort. Efficiency is king. If it’s faster to walk a section rather than to walk-ride-walk it, walking it is. It, for me, is an unfortunately part of bikepack racing. Sleep deprivation makes everything worse, but you accept the fact that you’re going to be tired from then on out and keep on trudging.

Leaving Apache Junction, I felt the familiar deep ache. I told Scott, to quote Caroline so eloquently: My legs are no good today.

But the beauty of the situation was – it didn’t matter. We’d puttered along the pavement. Climbed the dirt gently. Enjoyed the views. Stopped at all the informational booths. And the fact that I was having a bad day didn’t even phase me. (Luckily, the legs decided that it was no fun being no good somewhere mid-afternoon and my usual energy returned. Whew.)

Leaving Pine, I knew we had the Highline trail on the horizon. Scott had advised the wearing chamois would probably be a good idea, but warned me to be prepared to hike pretty much all day. 18 miles, it’s been called an abusive girlfriend among other non-flattering names. Max had put his running shoes on for the section instead of trying to slide around on bike shoes during the race last year.

We got breakfast in Pine, filled up our food stocks, and headed out.

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Sometime around sunset, we finally crested the Mogollon Rim, 20 miles later. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

The key, as I see it, was that I was coming off of two ‘rest-ish’ days. I had fresh-ish legs. I could power up the steepies. I could ride the techy downhills. I still walked a ton, but Scott and I had a system worked out where at the top (or bottom) of every hike-a-bike, he’d get on and ride around the next corner and yell back whether it was worth it or not. He was right about 98% of the time (sometimes he thinks I ride a lot faster/can ride a lot more than I can, but this time he was spot on). While the first half was overgrown and involved some extended hiking sections, there were some BEAUTIFUL sections of trail in there. The second half seemed mostly rideable. The hike up to the rim…well, it was a hike up to the rim. I won’t sugar-coat that one.

I thought about how I’d have to stumble through the trail if I was racing, probably cursing it, hating every mile (and there’s a fair amount to hate about it), but with all day and no where to be, frustration was kept uber-low. We took breaks in the shade, and had a positive experience on Highline. Now, how many people can say that?

Anyways, it made me love touring even more and make me even more certain about my decision to go on a hiatus from racing.

Now, onto the photos and the rest of the trip:

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Scott doesn’t walk down much. I have a general policy that if Scott rides something smoothly, I have a shot, if he fumbles it, I only have a shot if he’s being clumsy, and if he walks, well, it’s time for me to walk too. There was some downhill walking, but I just viewed it as good Grand Canyon training.

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Stop right there!

Ok. I pretty much have to. It’s not rideable from here. 

The views were spectacular. The Mogollon rim, pronounced Mug-y-on, is where the Muggles live. We were hanging out in Hogwarts all day. I like living in a land of wizards, witches, and unicorns. (Were there unicorns in Harry Potter? I only made it halfway through the fourth book.)

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There was red sand and red rock reminiscent of Sedona. Even slickrock!

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Wild life.

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Wild trees. And apparently wildlife that scratches wild trees.

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Lots of beautiful things to look at during our meandering tour.

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Near the end of the trail we started coming across some…erm…interesting pruning techniques on the bushes that were threatening to grow in the trail. This explained it. As a former Brownie (I quit because I thought Boy Scouts were having more fun and I was sick of making lanyards), I love the idea of getting little girls out to do trail work. Good work Shadow Rim Ranch girl scouts!

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We filled up on water, getting ready for the night, and started hiking. It was maybe the most physically taxing thing I’d done on the trail so far. These feet weren’t made for walking.

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We made it a whopping 26 miles in a full day of riding/hiking/dragging bikes through bushes.

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Scott promised easier riding the next day. We meandered along some beautiful singletrack in the morning, crossed our water resupply and filled up a whole 1.5 liters as Scott said we could detour off route to the ranger station and get more water later in the day, and continued on our merry way.

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It would have been fantabulous had the wind not picked up to gale force. And had some ass-hat not driven on all the roads when they were muddy, tearing them to pieces. I sorta, kinda, really cracked. Legs are no good today. Head is even worse. The endless trees and endless roads wore on me as I struggled to keep up with Scott. The road surfaces were soft, or rocky, or jagged. Never smooth and hard.

We found an area where Scott had cell reception and we called ahead to Mormon Lake lodge to find out the store hours. 8-2. There was no way we were going to make it. The extra kicker – the reservation office for the cabins also closed at 2 but they could leave a key out for us. Only 10 am, we wanted to keep our options open so we declined the reservation.

10 minutes down the trail, I announced that we should probably make the reservation. I was crawling.

We had until 6 to get there because the newly opened pizza joint was going to be holding onto our key for us and we had to get there before they closed. Scott said No problem!

The day wore on. I ran out of water. I wondered where the fabled ranger station was, or if Scott had decided that he had enough water and was pushing on. I suffered for the first time on the trip and there was little I could do besides plod on, knowing that, again, we were light on food and it was going to be frigid out that night. A cabin and hot dinner would be very welcome.

We eventually hit the highway, 4:50. The ranger station would have been to our left. We’d left our morning water at 9-ish. Poor decision making on that one. We had 1:10 to get to Mormon Lake. Taking the trail stopped being an option and we happily hopped on the highway, riding the rollers all the way there.

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The pizza place had opened two days prior. They had root beer floats. It was divine.

I felt a little guilt about getting a cabin that night. Surely it wasn’t going to be cheap, we had camping gear, why weren’t we camping? Because it was freezing (literally) out, we were on vacation, and a night of sleep is well worth whatever price we’d have to pay in the morning. Am I getting soft? I like to think I’m getting smart.

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We skipped some trail on the way out of Mormon Lake because there was a traffic-less paved road that paralleled it (and Scott described it as bumpy), hopped on a section of trail that Scott said was worth riding, and then jumped back on the highway to skip a section of trail that I’d be riding on the Coconino loop not long after finishing the tour.

We hit Flagstaff in time for lunch, promptly spent far too much on food at Sprouts, and spent the next 30 minutes eating and trying to figure out how to fit all the food that we’d collectively bought into our bags. I never learn.

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It was a slow and heavy climb out of Flag on some beautiful trails. Riled up by a crazy person that we had to deal with in Flag, my stomach was a knotted up mess. Luckily the trails were so good that I soon forgot about the incident, the stomach started digesting, and we were soon climbing up towards the San Francisco Peaks to check out the snow level.

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Around 8k, we found snow. And aspens. And beautiful climbing temperatures and protection from the wind that had pounded us the day before and all morning.

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With snow on the south side of the peaks, we bailed down to Hart Prairie road for a lower elevation way around the peaks. We were racing sunlight to get to a low elevation for warmer temperatures and protection from the wind.

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The day had been forecasted for 30+ mph winds out of the south west. The following day was to be even worse, gusts of 50 mph. We raced the growing shadows, eventually descending to an elevation that stopped feeling like winter. Finding a small grove of healthy trees in a forest of partially burned trees (sketchy!)  was the best we could do and we settled down to try to cook dinner and survive the night. It was cold. My tootsies were not happy with me.

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Another hour of daylight would have taken us down to Kansas, but now we faced the final 1,000 feet of descending in the morning. It was cold. Again, my tootsies were not happy. And windy. We’d gotten up early in hopes of knocking out the westward sections of the trail before the wind was supposed to intensify in the afternoon. It was blowing a steady 30 when we got up. It never got better. It never got worse. At least we got an early start.

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The sections of trail that went north east were amazing. Pedaling was optional. Any other direction…hold on for dear life. Scott found us a sneak through a dirt road that saved us a a couple miles of westward motion and we flew high on the small victory for the rest of the afternoon, or at least until we hit the trees at Moqui Stagestop and finally found shelter from the incessant howl.

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Finally getting over halfway…

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I have a thing for endless dirt roads. I think I’m sick that way.

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Once in the trees, we filled up on water at Russel Tank, rode the Coconino Rim trail (delightful), and found ourselves at the Grandview trailhead. There’s a firewatch tower there that you can climb and Scott coaxed Miss. Team Vertigo about halfway up.

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We got some beautiful views of the Big Ditch in one direction and could see all the way back to the San Francisco Peaks in the other direction. How far we’d come…how far we had to go.

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The final 16 miles consisted of the Tusayn Bike Trail. Scott claimed that it descended 800 feet, so I took that to mean that it was all downhill. It wasn’t. But it was lovely nonetheless. We planned on staying the night in Tusayn, hoping that rooms there would be cheaper than at the South Rim, so when we got to town, we ate some overpriced Mexican food (the Horchata was the best I’d ever had though, so that almost made up for the prices) and found a off-the-beaten-path motel where the owner was stoked about the AZT.

We faced the canyon for the next two days. The question of the horsewomen from Day 1 still echoed in my brain: Can you do that? I mean, physically?

It was a fair question. While I’ll fess up to exactly 4 runs here in Tucson this winter (all of which made me deathly sore), the last ‘hike’ I’d done was down Oracle Ridge a year prior. Before that, I’d done some Sanita’s hikes in Boulder before the ITI. I’m not a hiker by choice. I was worried, but I was trying to be brave. Luckily, there was plenty of cable TV on to keep my mind off the inevitable while Scott played TrackLeaders on the iPad.

We slept early and well. I’d need every bit of energy I could get.

 


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AZT Taco Tour: Wilderness Detours

I wasn’t too stoked on the 100 miles of road following Apache Junction. Really? A hundred miles of dirt road? Do I gotta?

I know. Insert: Ez – you’re spoiled rotten, or Ez – your rode the Tour Divide, 100 miles of dirt roads and pavement should be nothing. 

But, the roads were required. Nix that – some of the roads are required. It’s also possible to ride/hike some heinous sections of trail, Gunsight Pass, Haunted Canyon, the Mazatals, etc and skirt the wilderness areas more closely, but this was a pleasure tour, not a Lee and Scott exploration – take your bike for a walk special. And so we faced the day of completely new terrain for me and some new daylight terrain for Scott.

Initial Yelp searches turned up no diners between our quality hotel and where we were to rejoin the route, so we opted for a grocery store breakfast. We immediately bypassed the burritos and donuts and headed to the fresh fruit and yogurt aisles. I don’t know if it’s traditional for Bashas to not have a produce section, but we were sorely disappointed  by what we found. Maybe it’s a Phoenix thing (I’m trying really hard to find a positive aspect to Phoenix…but I’m still searching). We sat out front watching people come and go, listening to a guy on his cell phone complain that there were more people from Minnesota in Mesa/Apache Junction than there were Arizonians.

We escaped the urban jungle soon after, glad to be free of the clutches of what I’m going to deem a rather strange place. Smooth pavement took us quickly into the hills as we passed by the Lost Dutchman museums, amusement parks, and information booths. Apparently the Lost Dutchman hid a huge treasure in the Superstition mountains that no one has found yet, and not for lack of trying.

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We dropped down to lake level and meandered through beautiful canyons, crossing over drainages on a regular basis. The large bodies of water, Canyon Lake, followed by Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake, were a stark contrast to the heat we’d endured the day before leaving Kelvin. We’d clearly broached a climate zone in AZ, from the deserts of the south, to the lake and river-land of the mid-section of the state.

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Bridges are awesome.

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We planned on stopping at Tortilla Flats, a grill and store 20 miles down the road from Apache Junction. Clearly a destination for the retired in Phoenix, the place was hopping at 11 am in the middle of the week. Lots of corny decorations inside and out, but to be fair, the food was fairly priced and pretty delicious. It was a good early lunch after a relatively light breakfast. People watching: A+

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We finally left the pavement and the hoards of cars behind and started climbing the Apache Trail road. I wasn’t expecting much. It blew my mind.

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Scott rode a little bit of trail to an overlook. Team Vertigo offered to take his picture. From here, the road would drop, and drop, and drop. And then drop some more into Fish Creek Canyon: The Grand Canyon of roads.

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Back in the day before liability and whatnot, people would race their cars up the road. What could possibly go wrong? Now there’s a 15 mph speed limit on it and most of the cars that we passed were moving slower than that. It was beautiful cruising.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon climbing and descending huge ‘rollers’. Scott had described the section as hilly…Scott’s memory apparently isn’t very good. Stopping at a campground by Apache Lake was a welcome break from the incessant up and down of the road with no end in sight. It was beautiful and all, but climbing is never easy, especially when it follows a long descent.

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We snacked and watched vultures playing in the wind that was blowing up from the west. All of a sudden, a giant bald eagle came up and started soaring with them. Apparently they’re considered lower than rodents in AK, but I think they’re pretty stinkin’ cool birds. We watched it for several minutes hovering in the stiff breeze, clearly having no other agenda than to enjoy the day. We were on the same page, apparently.

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Neato mosquito.

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We rode happily along the road planning on hitting the marina about a mile off route just after the dam. The wind carried us along, blowing at our backs.

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The Roosevelt dam used to be the largest stone dam (before renovations) in the country. It’s an impressive feat of engineering and we took the time to stop and read all the informational kiosks on our way up the road, something I’d never consider doing while racing. This touring business was growing on me. After reaching the top of the dam, we turned off route in search of the marina. Turned out, there was no place to get food there and it gave us an all around creepy feeling, so we kicked ourselves for wasting two miles of our time and started heading north along the deserted highway, keeping our eyes peeled for a place to sleep that was sheltered from the wind, which was increasing in intensity with each passing minute.

We eventually found a little spot, tucked away. Only after we’d set up camp did we discover the goatheads. We tread carefully and escaped the next morning with sleeping pads and tires that still held air. Whew.

I knew that it was somewhere on the order of 100 miles from Apache Junction to Payson, our next major resupply point. It had amazed me that we hadn’t covered it all in one day, or even close to all of it, but then I thought about the relatively late start (8 am), the relatively early finish (6 pm) and the glorious hour we spent soaking our feet in the lake and made peace with the fact that touring was, in fact, significantly slower than race pace, or even fast-touring pace.

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We rode another 10 miles in the morning before finding Butcher Hook, a fishing/hunting diner, catering to those who liked to spend the day on boats on Roosevelt Lake. I have a soft spot in my heart for diners like these. French toast, bacon, eggs, a side of hash browns.  It goes down so easy. A little hot sauce, add some salt. Perfection. People watching: A+

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Well-fed, we embarked on the next 12 miles to Jake’s Corner, a quirky little convenience store/bar situated smack in the middle of nowhere. We shared an ice cream sandwich and marveled at the many strange items they stocked. Yeah, we probably didn’t need to stop for food, but we were touring, thus no opportunity to eat on the road is to be wasted.

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Up and over a deserted dirt road to the Beeline highway and the famous All Bikes. Part museum, part junk yard, part of the lot burned last year but apparently most of it survived. I bet you could find some real treasures in there if you spent a day poking around.

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We climbed (climbed might be an understatement, there was A LOT of uphill) into Payson and debated our options. Scott had to be internet connected the following night for event tracking, so we were limited to making it as far as Pine in the next 36 or so hours, a mere 30 miles up the road from Payson. We were definitely at a delay point, which was perfect because I was starting to verge on tired after several long days of riding. I didn’t exactly come into this trip well rested…

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We stopped at the Beeline Cafe, a joint scoped out by Scott and Lee on their thru ride ten years prior, still undecided about what to do. Our options were to resupply in Payson and then camp somewhere between Payson and Pine, then drop into Pine in the morning and get a room for the night with internet, stay in Payson for two nights, or push on to Pine that day and stay two nights. Scott’s bloodshot eyeballs from contacts gone bad and an inexpensive motel next to the cafe sealed the deal. It was going to be an afternoon of relaxing, wandering around Payson, buying me a warm hat (which I’d forgotten), and getting some dehydrated meals for the push to Flagstaff, and hopefully getting Scott’s eyes looking like he hadn’t been awake for 72 hours straight. We also booked ourselves a room in Strawberry for the following night, four miles up the road from Pine, after failing to find any mention of a motel or inn in Pine itself.

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Workin’. Eating fudge. Life ain’t so bad.

We carried an iPad mini along with us so that Scott could set up trackers while on the road. It was a test run to see if the iPad would be enough for a summer on the bike, or if we’d have to really figure out how to have access to an actual laptop, at least some of the time.

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Early is not a way I’d describe our departure the next day. With only 30 miles of mostly roads with some hike-a-bike into Pine, we didn’t exactly set any land speed records pedaling out of town. With bellies full of french toast, we headed up the road, meandering up and down some roads that became increasingly rougher. There were some sections that actually required mountain bike skills to climb, which was a welcome refreshment after the previous two days of mostly smooth roads.

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We dropped down into a small community that the route passes through before returning to the AZT via a hike-a-bikey, neighborhood trail. Passing through the idyllic houses surrounded by giant trees, we ran into Rick and Bev, two trail stewards who owned a house down there. They knew about the race and were asking about the legitimacy of offering racers water. We talked trail and mentioned our plan of going to Strawberry for the night.

“Go to THAT brewery in Pine,” they told us. “They cater to AZT thru hikers and have cabins available.”

I was sold. I hoped that they’d still have space for us, showing up late in the afternoon.

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Based on Scott’s description of the next four miles of trail and the relative rideability of it, I took my chamois off, ready to hike in my baggies. Swap-ass was a serious problem in the heat and I figured that any time I could spend not in my chamois was a win. Turns out, Scott’s memory isn’t all that great when it comes to remembering whether a trail is rideable or not, and after the initial hike-a-bike, we were back pedaling until we hit the AZT. Then we had some more hike-a-bike, but the long descent down to the highway and the flat pedal to it would have definitely warranted wearing chamois. Live and learn.

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The THAT brewery was less than half a mile off the trail and they were happy to set us up in one of their cabins for the night. With internet access, Scott was set. With a pretty amazing beer list, I was set.

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Yeah. Monsoon Mud stout, AZ Trail ail, Doppelstick, strawberry blond ale…it reminded me of Mountain Sun beer. The food was pretty divine too.

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The Arizona Trail Association has done an amazing job educating gateway communities about the trail and the recreational opportunities that it allows. It was really cool to see a place embrace the fact that they were so close. Apparently they’ve been building trails like mad in the Pine/Strawberry area and have gotten behind the mountain bike movement, even to the point of having their ATV repair shop also work on bikes.

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We were moving steadily along the trail, knowing that we had a hard day on Highline ahead of us. Instead of worrying about that, I left Scott to push buttons on a keyboard while I lazily flipped channels on the TV. Without a TV at home, I consider it a part of my liberal education to see what’s going on in the pop culture world whenever I have access to cable. Turns out, not much interesting can be found.

With two short riding days behind us (six and four hour rides, I’ll call them relatively short), I was feeling more prepared to head into the remote section of the route. With a chai stout in my belly with dinner, I was feeling more than prepared to sleep well that night.

Touring wins.

 

 


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AZ Trail Taco Tour: The first 300 miles

I got marching orders from Scott to tour the AZT 750 route four days before we left. About a week prior, he’d made the comment: I need to figure out what I’m going to do about the AZT race this year.

Now, I’m not very good at picking up at subtle, but I picked up on the fact that something was amiss. While all external arrows were pointing towards him starting a day or two after the actual race and racing the 750 route, insiders, such as myself knew how much he’d worked in February and how very much he wasn’t particularly in race mode. And that racing and running an event at the same time is a little more than stressful.

I probed (because that’s the correct response to open-ended statements): Well, what are your options?

Racing starting on race day. Racing starting one day after. Or touring. Before or after the race start.

Well, if you tour before the race, I’ll come with you. I’ve poo-pooed the AZT route after the first 300 miles, and I really had no desire to hike my bike across the Grand Canyon, especially after not having hiked at all since my Oracle Ridge traverse during the AZTR last year, but at touring pace and with Scott, it sounded like an adventure I could get behind. He told me he’d decide by the beginning of Camp Tucson on Friday. On Monday, after Camp Tucson, and after he’d gotten sick and had to sit out all the riding, the final decision was made: We were leaving Thursday or Friday. Yippee!

The goals for the trip were simple: Ride long days at a sustainable touring pace. Eat tacos and ice cream. Enjoy the trail. Take detours as needed. My personal goals were to see the state, smile at the sun, and to spend 2+ weeks living off the bike. We viewed it as a test run for this summer’s adventures.

What we ended with was 15 days of mostly blissful riding. Lots of discussions about racing vs touring. Some excellent detours around less stellar sections of trail. Full bellies. Tired legs. And almost more memories than the Memory Bank can hold. I view this as a deposit in my memory retirement account.

 

On Tuesday, we put a plea out on Facebook for a ride down to the border, a ~2 hour jaunt from Tucson. Tony from Sierra Vista answered our call and we met him at Mi Ranchito for breakfast. We talked bikes, bikepacking, and Arizona gun laws all the way to the top of Montezuma Pass, the traditional drop off point for AZT 750 racers. We couldn’t thank him enough, getting to the border could have posed a huge challenge. It made the minor details, like the fact that Scott was still getting over a cold, and that my fork had crapped out just days earlier but seemed to be working after Scott put some oil in it and cleaned the seals, seem inconsequential. Getting such a hassle-free ride was the first of many acts of kindness we experienced.  Thanks Tony!

With a wave, we were off.

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Instead of taking the race route, we opted to take a road that paralleled the border a while before turning north and rejoining with the traditional AZTR route. Did we do this because Scott wanted to see a new road, or to truly instill that we were out touring, and not racing, and thus forcing ourselves to stray off the route from the get go? I think it was a combination of the two.

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We chose our official start point at an obelisk at the border and settled into all-day touring mode. We had no where to be, nothing to do. With a late-ish start, we planned on stopping just short of Patagonia to camp.

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Before long, we were in the Canelos finding traces of trail work throughout the trail. Scott stopped to soak his feet in the first creek and I had to confront the fact that changing from racer-girl to touring-girl was going to take more work than I initially hoped. The urge to keep pedaling was strong and it took a conscious effort to not get frustrated with the delay caused by new orthotics in Scott’s shoes. No where to be. Nothing to do.

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We reached Canelo Pass late afternoon and found an emptied water cache for Serena, who was hiking the trail, and a bottle of water with our names on it. We also found a book in a plastic bag, seeming to go along with the bottle. Who could have possibly left these fun pieces of trail magic for us? They were timely as we were pretty much out of water and I’d just finished complaining that I’d decided that bringing a book or Kindle wasn’t a high enough priority to take the weight penalty. Still, we scratched our heads at the gifts.

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We continued onto Canelo West, knowing that the trail would open up eventually and lead to glorious riding. While I do enjoy Canelo East, West is way better. We ran into two horsewomen along the trail. Both trail stewards of different sections of the AZT, they were out for a day ride of the Canelos. We told them of our plan and our intention of hiking the Grand Ditch. “You can do that?” one of them asked me. “Yeah, it’s legal as long as the wheels don’t touch the ground.”

“No, I mean, can you physically do that?”

I honestly hadn’t really thought about it. “I hope so. But I have so many things to worry about in the next 600 miles, that that isn’t even on my radar.”

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We filled up on water at a tank, still planning on sleeping out and dropping into Patagonia for breakfast. The temperatures were warm, but not hot. Shadows grew long in the grass. Scott’s energy fell as the remnants of his cold took hold. We’ll just get close to Patagonia so that it’s mostly downhill in the morning. We won’t even cook breakfast, just boogie into town.

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And then I had a better idea, listening to Scott sniffle. We could ride into town, get a real dinner, save our two dehydrated meals for when we actually need them, and then get a room so you can get a good nights sleep and kick the cold. We agreed that getting a room on the first night of  a bikepack bordered on lame, but that if we wanted a healthy Scott, it might be prudent to sleep indoors.

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And really, the ulterior motive, the Velvet Elvis pizza joint in town was closed the last time we’d passed through and Scott remembered good food. And this was supposed to be a foodie tour as much as a bike tour. So we turned our lights on for the last couple miles of trails and rode the dark road into town, making it to the VE with 40 minutes to spare. Thus started what would become a common theme: Rootbeer floats.

It felt weird to be stopping so early. To have only made it to Patagonia. To be sitting down and waiting for a pizza and not being in a hurry. To take a shower and turn the TV on in the motel room and to watch some X-men movie until it was well past time to go to sleep. (It was a good movie! Magic powers!) It made me moderately uncomfortable. Were we going to be able to finish this thing in 18 days at this pace?

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We woke up at opening time for Gathering Grounds, our favorite little coffee shop in town. Breakfast. Trail snacks. We headed up a semi-legit way to hook back up with the AZT. Through some Facebook sleuthing, we figured out who’d left us the trail magic, and followed their tracks up the dirt road. It seemed that they had a similar idea to us, tour the AZT at a fun pace. Maybe we weren’t crazy after all.

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The cow leg that we’d found on our last visit to this road was still there, except that this time it was just a hoof. It still smelled like death.

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Flume trail. Kentucky Camp. We sat, talking to the caretaker at Kentucky camp for a while, hearing tales of a horseman who was trying to pack the entire AZT unsupported with two horses. His one issue, well, one of many: many of the gates were too narrow for him to get his loaded horses through, so for each gate, he’d have to unload his horses, get the horses through, carry the bags through, and then repack. Apparently this took upwards of an hour each gate. We’d hit nearly 30 gates from our start to our current location. Ooof.

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Luckily for the horseman, many of the new gates are pack animal friendly. Narrow at the bottom to keep ATVs out and wide at the top to allow loaded horses through.

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We rode all day, passing two thru-hikers, both resting on the side of the trail. We passed the horseman and his two horses and two dogs at a cattle tank. He had a lot of stuff at the camp he’d set up. We caught Yuri and Dave, our water trail angels at Canelo Pass camped at La Savilla campground. They were willing to endure piles of families coming into the campground for the night, we filled up on water and pedaled on, seeking the solitude and quiet out on the trail. Camping on the pass, we only had to uproot our camp area once upon the discovery of ants.

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The Rincon store was our first stop in the morning. We skipped breakfast knowing we could get some hot food there. It’d been closed when I passed through racing and I was curious to see what they stocked. Burritos barely won out over ice cream for breakfast selection and we watched hoards of roadies pass by on the popular road. As a former roadie, I feel like I’ve earned the right to make fun of them, especially when a group comes in and one goes sprinting up the stairs of the store to go to the bathroom, while I watched, laughing because I knew that Scott was in the bathroom. He came sprinting back out, tripped over himself coming down the stairs and made a beeline to the back of the store. Meanwhile, his buddy sat there futzing and cursing at his GPS-Strava-meter. And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

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We opted to detour Mt Lemmon completely, because there was no way I was going to ride Oracle Ridge, and I didn’t see a whole lot of reason to climb pavement for twenty some-odd miles to descend the control road. Plus, if we just took Reddington over to the San Pedro, I’d get to see a whole lot of new terrain. We threw in a little bit of singletrack on our way over for giggles and found an overflowing stock tank. Shower time! In the heat of the day, the water coming out of the bullet holes of the tank were the perfect way to cool off.

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We got to follow a beautiful dirt road along the plateau and the drop for an eternity down to river level. Way cool, and way better than Oracle Ridge.

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We followed the San Pedro and then started the climb towards San Manuel. Fried by the heat, all we wanted was ice cream and cold liquid. Luckily, if you keep pedaling, you get to where you’re going and we were rewarded by Big Boppers, chips, and soda. Oh, touring life.

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Another short climb towards Oracle had us in the state park and headed onto more single track.

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We discovered that even if the park wasn’t being proactive in the enforcement of being closed during non-business weekend hours, they were at the least putting up the effort to deter AZT hikers from using trails that they wanted to collect fees for use for. Good to know if you’re the race director of the AZTR. We rolled into Oracle at sunset, getting a room at the famed A-frames and dinner at the Mexican joint down the street.

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Two days of travel, one fingers spread of distance. We filled up on breakfast in town, running into Yuri and Dave again who’d opted to skip Reddington entirely and pedal straight up Lemmon to come down the control road. They’d arrived at the A-frames not long after we did, snatching the last cabin. Luxury touring on the AZT, you really could almost credit card tour it.

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Scott signed us in at the trail register/water cache at the end of Tiger Mine road. I decided to leave my Prisoners of Zenda there for the next thru-hiker. We were riding late enough into each night that reading time wasn’t happening and I knew the next couple of sections of trail would require high water capacity and I wanted as empty of a pack as possible.

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We cruised through the first part of the Black Hills. I’d had three sub-stellar experiences on the trail, so I was looking to remedy it. Turns out, if you’re not in a hurry, it’s really beautiful trail. We ran into a crazy section hiker with next to no teeth going south who told us that he’d come across the Freeman water cache empty and had to call 911 because he was completely out of water. Having hauled only enough water to get to Freeman and knowing that our previous investigations of the Bathtub spring had found minimal trickling, this scared us. The hiker told us of a tank just up Bloodsucker where we could fill up.

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We ran into a water cache for someone dated more than a month prior a few miles down the trail, untouched. While I wouldn’t touch a cache with a date that hadn’t passed, I felt no guilt in filling up with jugs, guessing that whatever trip that had been planned fell through. Packs were heavy through the rest of the hills, but at least we weren’t stressed about the possibility of not finding water at Freeman. I placed by bets that it would be well stocked by the time we got there.

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It was.

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Jerry Q’s note from the Gila 100 had become the trail register. Obviously, the red toyota where he’s stashed the beer for the racers was no longer there, much to the disappointment of a thru-hiker. We kept riding, energy flagging after hauling water through a remote, hard, and hot section of trail.

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And then the sky exploded. Energy returned. We pedaled to the end of the Boulders where we found a sandy, dead-quiet, and wide-open, free-of-prickers place to sleep. We settled in for the night before all the light had disappeared, a luxury  of touring that I was starting to enjoy. Night riding was not required. We’d estimated that if we averaged 50 miles a day, we’d get to the finish in 15 days, well ahead of our 18 day deadline. We slept like rocks in the warm desert night.

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I woke up to this in the morning. As a master of deferred maintenance, I wasn’t really all that surprised. Since I’d mentioned that I should probably swap my cables before the trip, it seemed only fitting to be faced with this. Neither Scott nor I had a spare cable in our oh-shit-kits, so I was reduced to putting my bike into the granny gear before the climb to Ripsey and staying there. Aside from going really slow on the flatter parts of the climb, it really wasn’t all that annoying.

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We had lunch at our favorite saguaro high on the ridge, halfway bumming that we hadn’t made it there the night before, and halfway knowing that we’d really need to find a windless night to really enjoy sleeping up there. We knew that we’d be skipping the Gila section of the trail in exchange for a paved escape to Superior and then to Apache Junction to get my bike fixed, so we enjoyed the morning, not concerned about the heat that was about to bake the Gila.

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We were bummed to miss the Gila, but we were light on food, the temperatures were forecasted to rise, and we’d been in the Gila twice in the past month. Sad, but if we had to skip a section due to a mechanical, that was it. Instead, we were faced with the endless climb out of Kelvin and the fast drop down to Superior for pizza and root beer floats.

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The afternoon brought a new exploration of a route given to us by John Schilling that took us through Queen Valley instead of out on the highway. We booked it through suburban hell to make it to the bike shop with five minutes to spare to get a new cable and then met up with Billy Rice for burritos near the Topaz Inn, a high-quality roof over our head for the night. The food was…pretty to mostly terrible, but it was awesome to finally get to meet Billy.

Four days of riding had brought us just past the end of the 300 route. From there on out, it was all going to be new to me and I was excited to escape the cement jungle of Apache Junction and get back out on the trail. Well ahead of schedule, I officially designated Scott as time keeper and told him I wasn’t going to worry about where we needed to get to each night. I was officially on vacation.

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