I rolled along a smooth dirt road for a handful of feet, having made the decision to stop in Oracle 20 miles down the trail instead of Summerhaven for my final resupply. Smooth dirt! Downhill! Go Oracle Ridge!
I should know better. The trail immediate split off the road, uphill. I took a close look at the tire tracks on the uber-narrow trail to see what I could see. There were a couple of tracks with Aaron Gully’s 2.4 Ardents the top most. Oh no! Aaron, what are you doing behind these people? What happened?
Oracle Ridge. It’s pretty. It should be made into wilderness.
I then proceeded to push my bike along a narrow, exposed strip of ‘trail’ wondering what Scott was talking about when he said the first two miles of the trail weren’t that bad and that it got really interesting after the saddle. Then out of the blue, I heard a bike behind me, barreling down the hill I was barely able to walk down. Moobs! At the bottom of the hill he asked me what I thought of Oracle Ridge so far. I replied that it was silly. He inquired about the whereabouts of everyone else and I just shrugged. ’You’re the only person I’ve seen all day.’ He then proceeded to tell me that the ridge was ‘short’ and once the descending started, the trail went from okay to really good.
More Oracle Ridge. It builds character.
Four hours of taking my bike for a walk later, I felt like I’d missed the memo on both the ‘short’ part and the ‘good’ part. It was an interesting mind game, being furiously mad at Scott the Race Director for putting the section of the trail in, while knowing that I really harbored no ill-will towards him as a person. It was definitely a time period to employ lessons from yoga: You can react with angst, or you can react with grace. You get to choose. There was angst. There was grace. And there was laughter every time I saw Moobs just a couple hundred yards ahead of me, also taking his bike for a stroll. What am I doing riding with the great Pete Basinger? I know someone who would be soooooo jealous.
The trail finally mellowed to the point where I wasn’t having to get off every 20 yards and I breathed in the beautiful sunset while riding around what seemed like a million circles in Oracle State Park. Somehow, I eventually escaped the vortex and dumped out on the highway to Oracle. Dinner! I rolled into town at 7:55, five minutes before the Market closed. Not wanting to be rushed, I pedaled the extra half mile to the Circle K where I placed a The Bomb burrito on the counter. ’I'd like to start with this.’ $46 later, I was a The Bomb plus a breakfast burrito more full, my water supplies topped off, and had what I hoped was enough food to take me to the finish. Down the highway. Back on the trail. Onward towards Antelope Peak.
The riding was challenging and after throwing a minor fit after screwing up yet another switchback, I put music on for the first time in my racing career. Music, where have you been my whole life? Life immediately got better, as did the trail and I flew through the miles, ripping downhills, riding switchbacks I had no business riding, absolutely euphoric, singing along to my music. At 1 am, I started to ponder sleep and then I saw it, a light in the distance. Moooooooobs! I’m so going to chase him down! I’m either going to ride until the water cache, 2 am, or I catch Moobs, I decided. Unfortunately, 2am came the soonest and I settled down by the Beehive Well for some shut-eye. This time I took my shorts off before I crawled into my emergency bivy. For the record, I don’t recommend sleeping in an emergency bivy bare-assed. Two hours later, I was wide awake. 10 minutes after that, I was moving up the sandy road and back on the trail, the first hints of the approaching sun lighting up the horizon.
At the water cache, I ran into Chip, who’d ITT’d the route a few weeks earlier. We chatted as I did my morning chores: water, rearrange food, sunscreen. He told me Moobs had been through at 2 am and Aaron was through at 10 pm. ’How about everyone else?’ I asked. That’s it. You’re in third, by a good margin. Third? Really? Neat! Then I guess I’d better get pedaling!
The Boulders section was nothing short of…amazeballs! Fast, flowy, beautiful, exhilarating. And at the end, I ran into Jen, Caroline, and Anna, a girls bikepacking trip going south that I figured I’d run into far earlier on the course. We chatted, talked about things that girls talk about, and then they told me that it had taken them 8.5 hours to go from Picket Post to Kelvin, in the mostly downhill direction. I did some quick mental math: I want to be at the top of the Gila at sunset! That’s my goal!
Few places are as special as this on at the top of Ripsey.
Down the trail. Into the wash where I finally recognized where I was: Day 3 of Scott and I’s Gila bikepack back in December. At the end of that trip, I’d told Scott that he’d ruined me forever because no bikepacking trip was ever going to THAT good. Up Ripsey, I took a minute to pay homage to our saguaro and eat a whoopie pie I’d picked up special in Oracle. A special treat for a special place. I thanked the Universe for everything, especially the past five months, and continued on down the ridge and down the two dozen switchbacks, of which I rode exactly zero.
But the flowers, the flowers were amazing. The yellows, reds, oranges, purples, all neon. Splashes of color that would pop into my peripheral vision and make me gasp. The desert was blooming, just for me!
With the desert on fire with flowers, I took exactly one flower picture.
With the descent into Kelvin came the onset of noontime heat. I finished the last of my water as I rolled up to the trailer park water spigot. While eating my final dehydrated meal, I struck up a conversation with a Kelvin resident. ’So what are you doing out here all by yourself?’ ‘Riding the Arizona trail.’ ‘How far are you going?’ ‘Superior. 40 miles away.’ ‘Superior is only 16 miles on the highway. How far are you going to make it tonight?’ ‘Superior. Or at least I’d better, because I’m not stopping until I get there.’
I rolled out under the blazing sun at 12:40 and immediately wilted in the heat. It’s okay, I told myself. This section was ridiculously fun during the bikepacking trip. Mostly downhill, easy uphills, super-fun trail, an hour tops until you get to the base of the climb.
Sweltering. Still better than being in the snow.
Three hours later, I was still a solid mile from the base of the climb, sitting in the shade, trying to keep the nausea at bay. ’I must have been smoking some really good crack back in December because this is officially suckballs.’ The minutes ticked by slowly and the sun refused to move any lower in the sky. I thought back to my commute earlier in the week in the snow. ’This is so much better than the snow! I could be grading physics exams right now!’
Climb up into the Gila.
But as I seem to have to prove to myself over and over again, as long as I keep moving, I’ll get to where I’m going. I hit the base of the climb. The sun moved behind the giant rock buttress, and I was immediately reborn. This is where Scott and stopped to take pictures! This is where we considered camping, but someone was already camped here! This is where we camped and spent the first of many magic nights under the full moon! This is where the trail blew my mind! Up up up!
Racing the sunset.
Again, I realized how good of crack new love was because I found myself completely confused when the climb still refused to end after 17 false summits. ’How did I not remember all this?’ But as hoped, I topped out on the high ridge at sunset. On the top of the world to say goodbye to the sun. The trip down memory lane continued. This is where we ran into Jeff and Nancy. This is where I cleaned a switchback and scared myself silly. This is where the trail continued to blow my mind. This is the gate where we stopped to eat tangerines. And what’s that? A light across the valley? Moooooooooobs! I nearly yelled, but figured the sound wouldn’t bridge the valley. The light flickered around until I realized that he was at the base of the Unicorn Rock, then it turned directly towards me…and disappeared. I ate the final couple of bites of my Little Debbie Apple Pie and took off in pursuit.
Magic places. This is why we do what we do.
The motivation to chase lasted for approximately 20 minutes until I realized there was no chance I was going to catch Moobs on a descent, which the final dozen miles consisted mostly of. So I sat back and enjoyed the ride. Down down down. Across the road where Scott and I had detoured down to Superior for ice cream and then onto the final seven mile stretch. During our bikepack, we’d climbed up those seven miles and I’d remembered them being absolutely delightful, and generally delightful climbs make for delightful descents.
Sunset on the high ridge. A mixture of heaven (rocks, sun) and hell (cholla).
If I knew how to capture and sell the crack that I was smoking in December, I’d make millions.
I struggled down the trail, walking the ups, flailing on the rocks. ’Get it together, Ez, get it together. You’re mentally losing it, physically you’re fine!’ I battled the mental demons which told me the trail would never end. I fought the impulse to stop on the side of the trail to rest even though I wasn’t tired. Then I finally recognized the upsy-daisy where Scott and I had run into some people that he had known. We’d stopped to chat and afterwards I gave him a hard time about being famous on the AZT. I was getting the grand tour from someone who loved the AZT more dearly than anyone else out there, someone who I was starting to love more dearly than I ever thought possible.
And then it really was all downhill. Fast, swoopy. I heard a holler from the parking lot, I hollered back and grunted up the final little rise to see Scott in the line of my headlamp. Half confused, half elated, I dropped my bike to get a giant hug. 10:20 pm.
It’s a big world out there, Charlie Brown.
Moobs was sprawled out by the sportsvan and I gave him grief about really not wanting to get chicked. Scott immediately offered up a menu fit for kings. Chips and salsa. Soda. Ice cream sandwiches. We sat and laughed, Moobs admitted to shutting off his light when he saw me in the hope that I wouldn’t see him and try to chase him down. We both fessed up to not really having a post-race plan, especially since I had no desire to sleep in my emergency bivy without shorts on again. We thanked Scott for being there. Our bodies and minds began to shut down as exhaustion started to win out over euphoria. Eventually Scott loaded the bikes into the van, loaded a tired Ez and Moobs in as well, and we left the moonlit parking lot, a grand adventure completed.