Zen On Dirt

Runaway fear

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I found myself yesterday sitting in a Target with a Carmel Frappuccino in front of me, in bike clothes and keeping an eye on my bike outside, slowly watching the rear tire go flat. I’ve never had to call for rescue from a bikepacking trip before, but just 30 minutes earlier, I’d stood on the corner of 91st avenue and Lower Buckeye Loop, somewhere in the middle of Phoenix-sprawl, and called Scott: Can you come pick me up?

The plan was (somewhat) brilliant. I was going to bikepack from Kelvin to Phoenix, across town to Buckeye, and then head south to Yuma where I was going to meet up with Scott for a loop around SoCal and a few more days out. While I wasn’t uber-excited about the first two days of the ride which would get me to Phoenix and then across Phoenix in 150 miles, it gave me the chance to avoid leaving my car anywhere unattended for the better part of a week.

I was dead-set on doing the first part of the route by myself, even though I’ve long known that I prefer bikepacking with someone. Shared experiences are always better…well, almost always. But I’ve been battling a fear about bikepacking alone in Arizona. I’ve never had an issue riding alone in Colorado, and I’ve done more bikepacking races than I can count, but something about riding and camping alone in AZ spooked me to the core. Maybe people who grew up here, or have been here for a long time may think it’s completely irrational, but AZ, to me, has a certain rawness, wildness, uncertainty, danger. So I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome these fears, or at least keep them under control. It seemed as if a traversal across the central part of the state, far from the border, would be a relatively safe place to do this.

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I bade Scott farewell in Kelvin where he was setting out for another day of trail layout and headed out on the Flo-Kel highway under cloudy skies. I immediately felt the same sort of melancholy that I’d felt during my New Years solo bikepack, but I kept going on, telling myself that if I was still not into it by the time I’d gotten to Florence, I could always turn around and get a ride home.

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Eventually, I settled into a rhythm, enjoying the stark landscape. The Zen-state of having nothing to do all day but pedal a bike. Miles and time passed quickly and I was soon in Florence, stopping to get a bag of chips and soda at the gas station and hooking up with the GPX line that I’d gotten from John Schilling to take me to Phoenix.

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I found the canal that he’d warned me to stay on the south side of because of dogs. I found myself on the north side, half a mile in, before I realized where I was. It only took a few more yards to decide the prudent thing to do would be to go back to the road and get on the south side. Sure enough, just passed where I’d turned, dogs came out barking. They were less than intimidating, especially on the other side of a deep, but dry, canal. Well, at least until they divebombed into the canal and started scrambling out the other side. That was my cue to leave.

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The track took me through some beautiful dirt roads traversing a place I like to call Middle of Nowhere. Middle of Nowhere is one of my favorite spots on the planet and I happen to stumble across it on a regular basis. Lucky me. One road had endless artifacts of the past. Heading generally northward and eastward, the unknown-ness of the route was fun.

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Eventually, I found myself on a trail system, climbing a deep, sandy wash that was devoid of other tire tracks but had clearly seen a lot of foot traffic. The fat bike ate it up. And then onto glorious trail on the San Tan Mountain Park trail system.

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Unexpected trail is the best. Especially when it’s smooth and ideally suited for fatbikes. It dropped, far too soon, into Queens Creek, an eastern suburb of Phoenix where I made my way to a park to read for a while, to a Chipotle to get some dinner, to a Safeway to get some beer, and to John’s house, my very non-dirtbag destination for the night. There’s something to be said for eating dinner while watching the Olympics while out bikepacking.

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With an early start the next day, I readied myself for the trek across Phoenix to get to the heart of my route. I figured, how bad can it be? Endless bike paths and canal trails occupied my morning as I made my way east. While not exciting, it was a good way to get across the city with minimal time on roads, I was on my way to the great wide open. Back to Middle of Nowhere.

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Eventually, the canal trails ended and I found myself abruptly on a deserted dirt road that some portion of the population had decided was their personal dumping ground. Undeterred, I kept pedaling, feeling slightly spooked by the sudden nothingness after a morning of urban bikepacking. I truck with it’s hood open in the distance caused me to slow. Few things spook me as much as single cars in the Middle of Nowhere. As I approached, two old guys with an RC airplane greeted me with waves and smiles. I’d gotten all worked up over nothing.

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Turning off the main road and back onto canal trail, I started seeing signs for the Gila River Indian Reservation to my left. No worries, I’m on the border of the Rez, not in it, I should be fine. This was Middle of Nowhere, but it was a spooky Middle of Nowhere. I kept pedaling. All spooky places end eventually.

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I found myself thinking about how I felt uncomfortable, but there was nothing around me to make me feel that way. I didn’t feel in danger, there was no one around, my imagination was simply getting the best of me. I kept pedaling. Canal turned into dusty two track, then back to canal.

Two figures stood in the path ahead of me. I told myself to be brave, as I’d been spooked my two harmless old men just 30 minutes earlier. I kept pedaling, focusing on the junk accumulated in the compound on the other side of the canal. Two giant, dirty pigs wandered through the trash. The figures became clearer. Large men, giant semi-automatic guns. One walked away from me, the other one watched me approach, gun held dangling from his hand. Holy shit. All of sudden, discomfort turned into a distinct feeling of danger.

I put my head down. Don’t make eye contact. As soon as I was past: pedal, dammit. I dared not look back.

Eventually, I slowed, still not looking back, wondering when I was going to get back to civilization and out of the Not Really Middle of Nowhere. The canal path deteriorated and I found myself bumping over dry river rocks, aiming for fencing in the distance that indicated civilization, an airport maybe?

I wandered down by a lake in a depression, thinking that this would be an ideal spot to hide a body. My imagination was clearly in full swing by this point. I wanted out as I stumbled through the bushes, hauling my bike towards the fence, hoping against all hope that there’d be a road there. There wasn’t. Only giant No Trespassing signs and a goat-path that paralleled it. The GPS said to follow it. Through overgrown bushes, the landscape finally opened up to a wooden pagoda. An informational kiosk on the benefits of controlled burns. I sat down to let the adrenaline subside. To eat a burrito. To call Scott who didn’t answer. I weighed my options. I was 20 miles from Buckeye. I was less than 10 miles from I-10. Rescue would be relatively easy, if annoying.

I sent Scott a text, knowing that he has a bad habit of leaving his phone in the car and not remembering it for days: I might need rescue. I’ll call later and let you know. I knew that I was nearing the end of John’s track and would soon be on mine, which at the least, was on dirt roads and not canal trails. I was over canal trails. I also knew that I’d heard stories about Buckeye that didn’t make it seem like an inviting place, and that I really didn’t know what was out and beyond, aside from dirt roads spied from Topofusion. Safety in no way was guaranteed. But at the same time, fears are mostly acts of imagination…but those guns definitely weren’t acts of my imagination. I decided to ride to Buckeye to see what there was to see, and if I still had a bad feeling about it, to call for rescue. An extra 20 miles on I-10 wouldn’t make or break the rescue operation.

I started out on the gravel path that led away from the pagoda. Calm, centered. I could see the road ahead of me, a semi-steady stream of car indicating that I was near something. In between me and the cars stood a giant dog. It saw me and started walking towards me. I scanned the area for its owner. It’s long, shaggy brown hair swayed as it walked towards me, ambling almost.

“Hi doggy!” I didn’t get a tail wag in response. It kept walking.

“Get! Shoo! Go home!” It didn’t seem to understand that either. It kept walking. Eventually, it stopped. We looked at each other for a while. I wasn’t about to go back the way I came, but I also wasn’t quite ready to take on the dog. I held a water bottle in my hand, ready to spray it with water if it came any closer. It must have gotten bored with our staring game as it eventually wandered off into the bushes on the side of the path. I stood, petrified for a few more minutes, making sure it wasn’t just going in for a pee-break before I started forward again. There was no sign of the mysterious dog. Getting to the road was a huge relief.

I scrolled around on my GPS for a few minutes. I was feeling pretty done. Adrenal system – shot. Imagination in full swing about what I’d find further down the canal that I was following. It was almost a relief to find more No Trespassing signs on the dirt road that I had planned on following. I continued north instead, seeing that the suburb of Tollson was just four miles up the road.

“Go find yourself a place to eat some lunch and collect your wits,” I told myself. Phoenix middle-class suburbia soon came into view as I headed past a giant cow feedlot. A street sign at a major intersection came into view: Lower Buckeye Loop. Buckeye. That’s where I was trying to get it. I bet if I took this road, it would take me straight to Buckeye. I’d be there before 3 pm, giving me plenty of time to get far into the desert before night fall. 

But I no longer wanted to spend the night alone in the desert. I no longer wanted to traverse all the terrain that I’d spied during my route planning. I wanted to not feel scared. I pulled my phone out and turned it on. A message from Scott: Ready for rescue if you need it.

I called. Half laughing at the situation – There were men with guns, and dogs, and I see a Target a half mile east of here, and oh look, my tire’s going flat, so I’m going to boogie over there. Can you come get me?

And thus, I found myself in back in safe, white-man’s world, drinking a sugary coffee drink and reading The Devil’s Highway while waiting for Scott to come to the rescue.

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I had to stop and wonder what went wrong. How was I brave enough to ride across the country but I couldn’t handle Phoenix? The last time I’d had such a gut-stopping get-out-of-here reaction was during Stagecoach 400 where we were routed across some sacred Navajo land that we really shouldn’t have been on. It made me realize how much effort went into planning a route like the Divide to avoid super-sketchy places. It made me realize that having other people out there ‘racing’ really does make a big difference in terms of perceived safety, and actual safety. And it made me realize that while I do like doing an occasional trip alone, I think I’m going to stick to places that I know and leave the honest-to-goodness world exploring for when I have a partner in crime.

But I guess I achieved my goal for the trip, even if I didn’t make it to Yuma, or get to use all the gear I was hauling. I wanted to see the world, to fill in more tiles of my mental atlas and to see what the world had to offer. I saw stuff, I made mental connections on how things connected, and the world offered up a very real-world experience. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and now sitting in the comfort of home I wonder if I should have kept going, but it was a trip that I’m not soon to forget. And I may have learned a lesson or two in the process.

I had an adventure. Yes I did.

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One thought on “Runaway fear

  1. Great write-up EH! I’m the same way…the closer to urban jungles the more nerve-wracking it can be. Lots of odd and unnerving moments. It seems the farther off the grid we are, anyone we come across also wanted to be far off the grid so there’s somehow more of an ‘understanding’. When hiking one time, I asked my guy what he would do if we rounded a corner/wash and came across a mountain lion. He simply said “I’d look at it and admire it.” His perspective as a 6’2″. 230# strapping SEAL was entirely opposite of mine as 5’2 maybe 105# at the time. Perspective and our minds…pretty potent. // Either way, cool ride ya set out on. Now ya still gotta go get some days out there w/your guy. Happy trails….

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