Zen On Dirt

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Watching records fall

It’s sort of strange to sit here from my little corner of the desert watching the times roll in from the check points from Iditarod. As it stands now, if Heather Best can keep it together, she’ll shatter my record on the course. The boys are well on their way from Nicholai to McGrath to break the men’s record by hours. I’m finding my reaction to the situation interesting from a self-examination point of view.


I was curious to see how I’d react to “watching” the ITI. I figured I’d react in one of many ways, especially if my record was going to get taken down. I’d either be wishing I was there, racing alongside of everyone there, trying to defend my title. Or I’d be planning my glorious return to racing to regain it, accepting that this winter was one for the desert. Or maybe I just wouldn’t care. Maybe I’d be glad that I rode in shorts and a jersey today instead of having to worry about staying warm.

It was clear from the get go that they were riding on a fast course. Four hours ahead of my pace my Yetna, seven by Skwentna. It looks like she got some solid sleep in Puntilla. The writing was on the wall unless they encountered some horrid trail conditions on Rainy Pass or in the Burn. While everyone said that we had ‘the best conditions ever’ last year, that rookies could never appreciate the luck we had, the times being laid down by the top guys this year are pointing to even faster conditions this year, that is, unless Kevin and Tim have increased their power outputs by huge amounts the past 365 days. They are absolutely flying. Edit: Kevin just finished, breaking JayP’s record by a whopping 14 hours. 


I spent my afternoon ride thinking about records. When I watched Cat go after my CTR record in 2012, I watched like a hawk, and truth be told, I really didn’t want her to break it. I didn’t want anyone to challenge what I viewed as my dominance in ultra-endurance racing. When she left Silverton at the time time I had the year prior, I thought the record was done. It held and I was relieved.


What watching this event is driving home for me is how little records matter in the end. We can’t lay ownership to records because they can, and will, be taken away from us eventually. This has been a really hard fact for me to accept in the past. What we can lay ownership to is the experiences we have out there.

This realization made me a little bit sad, because if you read my account of the ITI, I had a 80% miserable time out there due to rookie mistakes out on course and being so focused on breaking Lou Kobin’s record. There’s so much history to the route that I didn’t appreciate, and really, as much as I had to admit it after my rants about the relative dullness about my experience out there, a lot of beauty that I missed because I was so wrapped up in the singular focus of go-foward-as-fast-as-possible. Yeah, I had the record, but at what cost? But, trying situations teach us a lot about ourselves, and that one was no exception.

As I fully expect the ITI record to go down in the next 24 hours or so, I also fully expect my AZT record to fall this April. The difference is, I look back on my AZT ride with a huge amount of happiness. From the get go, it was an afterthought to race it, an excuse to hang out with Scott for a night before the race started, to escape the cold of Colorado, and to eat yummy Trader Joe’s candies. That one was always about the experience, not the record, and it showed with the memories that I walked away from it with.


So what I’m walking away from this with is the somewhat newfound/newly acknowledged knowledge that I’m not, nor was I ever, defined by my racing. This is a freeing thought for someone who’s defined herself as a bike racer for the past decade and is still struggling with the what-next portion of life on occasion. I’m also realizing that someday, I’d really like to ride to Nome, but not in a race situation. And most definitely not alone or in a sleep-deprived state. Mike’s description of his trip at touring pace has captured my imagination. This guy’s two month winter trip touring around AK has also sparked an interest. AK has always fascinated me but my ITI experience definitely turned me off from really pursuing a return. Now, with a bit of perspective, it seems like it has a far more realistic potential.

I’m stoked for Heather to put down a good time. It’s been fun to watch.


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Runaway fear

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Ending on an exhale

I’ve been thinking a lot about death this week.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, necessarily. I think that the daily acknowledgement that we’re not going to be around forever is a good way to avoid wasting time. I think it’s good to look back at each day and wonder if I made the most of it. It’s a good way to stand up from Facebook, knowing that I don’t want one of my five regrets on my deathbed to be ‘I wish I’d spent less time on Facebook’. Note: I love theFaceBook. I think it has it’s place in life. But it does irritate me when I find myself on it for no good reason other than boredom. Waiting for something to happen on theFacebook is not a viable alternative to making something happen in real life. 


I was hoping that the Camino Del Diablo trip would satiate me for a little while. Let me sit down, get some work done, save up some money for the summer and/or this thing called retirement that my mom keeps telling me I have to save for. I passed up a three day trip to Kearney and all the bike riding opportunities that arose from there in order to ‘work’.


Two winters ago, when I had lots of time to spare, being newly single, unemployed, and fairly lost in life, I sat down and wrote the vast majority of what one would refer to as a book about my experience on the Tour Divide. Then life started picking up, Scott sent me an email inviting me down to Tucson, I went, Iditarod happened, AZTR happened, a summer in Durango happened, sickness, health, injury happened, a job that involved writing happened, all in all, a beautiful interpretation of life happened…and my attempt at book writing fell by the wayside.


My goal for this week was to revive it. It’s seen several small bursts of motivation in the past 16 months, and I figured that with Scott out of the house laying out the trail for a Ripsey reroute due to a mine, I could sit down and and crank out some editing and rewriting.


It didn’t happen. A good number of other things happened, afternoon bike rides, finally getting a new phone, reading in the sun, watching the goings-ons at our sketchy neighbors, talking to the chickens (we get six eggs some days!). But really, what I feel like I spent the majority of my time doing was daydreaming about going places and eating good food and meeting cool people.


I woke up at 4am the other morning and panicked. With a birthday fast approaching, I’m becoming acutely aware of the whole biological clock issue. That on one hand, I want to tour the world, see Peru, Chile, Argentina, Tibet, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, and Mongolia, far more than a lifetime of places, but on the other hand, if, heaven forbid, I decide I want to have a family…well, I’m not 23 with an endless amount of time in front of me. Clearly, 4 am is a perfect time to be thinking about this stuff. Makes for good sleep.

This panic, along with some fairly bad news about illness and death coming from other corners of my life, made it really hard to sit inside all week and stare at a computer screen. As much as I’d love to have something published with my name on it, would I rather have said yes to an opportunity to ride someplace new for a few days? As much as I’d love to have a retirement account and so called financial security, wouldn’t I rather have a memory full of experiences and deal with things as they come?


I know there’s a balance in there. I just don’t know where it is.


The Camino reminded me of what I love to do. Really, truly love. Instead of satiating the desire for being outside, all day, all the time, cooking in the dirt and not caring if I spill, watching the moon rise and the sun set, it stoked the fire. I was not meant to sit still. There’s stuff to do.

Better get to it.


Camino Del Diablo – Seeing the signs

Continental breakfasts at hotels are always fun for people watching, especially hotels that are, for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere. Somehow we managed to get up at six, no alarm, and with bikes packed (because there was no reason to unpack), I figured we’d be rolling by seven, giving us a solid 12 hours of ride time before it got dark-dark. Unfortunately, the people watching, and my ability to burn waffles in the waffle maker slowed our departure, as did my pulling my valve stem out trying to pump up my tire (How long do you think it’d take to pump up one of these with a handpump?), so by the time we rolled out from our second stop at the burrito place across the street, it was nearly eight.


But that was okay. The Mexican place, attached to the Chevron, had honest-to-goodness amaze-balls food and we were more than happy to wait for them to whip up some breakfast burritos for the road. Remember what I said about not liking to rough it any more than necessary?

Our route took us through the small town of Wellton where we passed kids waiting to get picked up for school and old houses that had seen better days. The town was built to service the railroads in the past, mostly by providing water (thus the name Well Town), but has slowly lost its relative importance on the rail line as steam engines were phased out, and the information packet in the gas station informed us that agriculture was the main economy now.


We saw a huge flock of birds fly by us on our pedal to Tacna. The ease at which the entire flock avoided the powerlines was really cool to see, especially since we got to watch the spectacle for several minutes as thousands of birds flew by. It was easy cruising to Tacna, at least until the coffee kicked in for me and the last couple of miles became a sprint to the gas station on the edge of town. The plus side to only drinking coffee while on the road or out to breakfast: I’m not addicted. The down side: It’s potent.


Crossing under the highway, we hit dirt immediately and started south, paralleling a long line of sand dunes, the main attraction for taking this route back. While still in the Barry M Goldwater military range, the road was fast. Hero-sand, we called it. Soft enough to keep the crunch created by giant tires silent, shallow enough to create fast cruising conditions.


When we entered back into the Cabeza Prieta preserve, the road took a turn for the worse. Since it runs north-south, theres no reason for the Border Patrol to drag it. Since it parallels sand dunes, it’s sandy. And since we had well over a thousand feet in elevation to gain to our high point for the day, it went up hill. Three factors that caused our moving average to drop from a solid 10.0 mph to 9.5 mph in the matter of two hours. But, compliments of the fatties, it was all rideable.


We’d been debating the merits of different bikes throughout the ride. This was the first time that a normal mountain bike would really have been a no-go. While the washboard/soft sand combination made the going slow for us, it was still possible to pedal at a reasonable effort level and keep moving forward.


We’d hoped to eat lunch at Christmas Pass, but at 1:30, with nothing but miles of sand behind us and seemingly in front of us, we stopped in the shade of a tree. Breakfast burritos!


As it tends to do after breaks and with the arrival of saguaro-country, the road improved and we were at Christmas Pass in no time.


We wound around a high plateau with neat rock formations, now solidly in the mountains rather than paralleling them. With firm road, albeit rockier than we were used to, the miles went quickly and we closed the loop on Tule Well in the late afternoon. It was a magic place up there and it made the miles and miles of sand worth the effort.

Feeling fairly proud of ourselves, we started down the pass, or at least along the mountains which trended ever so slightly downwards. We stopped at something in the road and stared.


“Do you think it’s a trap?” Scott asked.


“Maybe it’s some sort of humanitarian aid…”

The traditional Mexican blanket looked brand new and was placed perfectly in the center of the road, no foot steps anywhere to be seen on either side. We stared at it in silence for a few moments.

“Creepy,” I declared. “Let’s go.”

I gave it one last look as we rolled down the hill, a lone blanket that definitely wasn’t there 26 hours prior. With senses on high alert, we started looking up and down the washes, finding footprints in nearly all of them. Border patrol? Drug mules? Were the footsteps there yesterday, too, and we just didn’t notice? Had someone heard us coming and dropped the blanket?


We rolled in silence until Scott’s front tire decided it didn’t feel like holding air any more. It was time to find out exactly how long it would take to pump up a Lou. It was long enough for me to patch the offending tube, take some pictures of the wash we were sitting in and wonder more about the blanket and what border patrol would think about our current set of prints in the sand.


We got rolling again, stopping 200 yards later to put warm clothes on. More footprints from us to leave the border patrol puzzling. And then the sky exploded. We left lots of footprints as we seemed to eat up the wash in 200 foot increments, snapping pictures of the ever changing sky.


Yeah. This is why we bikepack.


We reached the lava flow as dusk fell and we were quicker to turn on our lights to negotiate the rocky terrain. We kept riding in the warm night, glowing from the sunset, until Scott’s light all but died. He followed me through the rutted sections of silt, and soon after, we made camp in the middle of the playa. We could see and hear the cars on Highway 2 across the border clearly. While we were close to the border, we were on a sandy section of the road, which felt safer to me than camping on either the rocky lava flow or the mountains that were coming up, as it would be nearly impossible to disguise travel routes in the fine sand.

Border Patrol didn’t come by until just shy of midnight. I heard the engine approaching, and anticipating the same drill as two nights prior, sat up in my sleeping bag. The flashlight flooded us and we called something out, trying to sound as American as possible, which I guess I’m technically not, but citizenship is close enough.

“What are you guys doing out here?” the agent asked after determining we weren’t a threat.

“We were sleeping,” I replied.

He shined his light around. “On bikes?”


He paused. “Wow. I’m not used to seeing people out here like this. You have permits and everything?”

“We do.”

We exchanged a few more pleasantries before he headed back to his truck.

“I probably don’t have to tell you this,” he started, “But there are people right over there who don’t like us very much.”

“Yes. We know.”

“We have a border patrol station three miles down the road if you need any help.” And with that, he drove off.

It took a while to fall asleep again. It was dead silent except for the occasional yipping of coyotes and I had to convince myself that much of the fear that I was feeling was in my head. I played the game of statistics, what were the chances that we’d run into someone at this particular spot in the road when there’s 40 miles of road on either side of us. I tried to tell myself that if I ever wanted to go touring in Baja or South America, I’d better be able to sleep here. I eventually fell asleep, figuring that if we were found by someone, it wouldn’t matter if we were awake or asleep.


I was stoked to see the sun come up with a couple hours of sleep under my belt.

The same border patrol agent came by as we were cooking breakfast.

“Did you guys have a good night?”

“Sure did,” we replied. I wasn’t about to admit to him that his stories of ‘bad people’ scared me.

“Well, aside from the annoying border agent who came and harassed you in the middle of the night.” He laughed at his own funny.

“Something like that.”


After finished our oats infused with hot chocolate taken from the continental breakfast the morning before, I brought out dessert. That waffle that I burned? It was really more just toasted, which made it perfectly packable. With a little bit of toasting over an open flame and chocolate hazelnut butter…divine. I may have stayed in a hotel during bikepacking, but I definitely haven’t lost my dirtbag skills.

Back by the BP station, across the mountains that we’d traversed in the dark two nights prior, across another playa, and up to Growler Pass where we aimed to have lunch. We spotted a shady spot at Bates Well, and opting for a little liberal education with lunch, descended down to the old ranch house. The ranch was run by the Bates family even as Organ Pipe National Monument was established and was grandfathered in. The NPS wasn’t stoked to have cattle on their land, Bates wasn’t excited about giving up ranching. He ran the ranch, much to the chagrin of the park service, until his death.


We pulled out our final treats. If you’re going to haul nearly 300 oz of liquid, at least some of it should be kept cold and bubbly until the final stretch home.

The final 17 miles to pavement were fairly uneventful. We suffered through the washboards before emerging from the park onto BLM maintained roads. And then we cruised.

Most bikepacks, I’m glad to be done with, counting down the final miles until home. I have to say, I was a little sad to see the stop sign at the end of the road, signifying the two mile paved road back to our car. Just like that, I went from being in a place where I was completely uncomfortable, to someplace familiar. It was a strange transition.


We ate lunch at the local Mexican joint, downing several cups of water after rationing for the entire morning, and finished with a piece of Tres leches cake.

I don’t think words and pictures can really describe how amazing it is out there. I feel like I haven’t been that far out of my comfort zone in a long time, and I enjoyed it. Maybe that’s the key now, for my personal growth-fix via bike – it’s not about fast, race-type rides to see how I react under stress, but more about being in subtler situations where I’m uncomfortable.

Whatever it was about the trip that made it special…all I can say is that if you have the opportunity to go ride out there – take it. You  won’t regret it.

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Camino Del Diablo – Does your mother know about this?

I’m not really sure where to start with this post. Just back from four days on the Camino Del Diablo, I don’t know if I want to write about the sheer beauty and isolation of the desert, of the cultural experience of riding a route that’s been used for 1,000+ years, of being on a road that has epic’d people ranging from Spanish explorers in the 1500’s, to people flocking from Mexico to California for the gold rush in the 1800’s, to modern day drug and human smugglers. Or maybe I want to write about the acute discomfort I felt being just miles from the Mexican border, of sleeping within earshot of Highway 2 across the border, of seeing signs of smuggling. Or maybe I should talk about how much fun I had riding the fat bike on the sandy route, or of finally putting images to a big blank spot in my mental atlas, or the unexpected Mexican food we found in the Chevron station in Wellton. I don’t know. So I’ll start at the beginning and see where it goes.


The trip nearly didn’t happen. Scott’s been up to his eyeballs in work for the past few weeks, dealing with all sorts of random issues with computers, scheduling of trail work, etc. I finally put my foot down, as all girlfriends should do on occasion: I’m going on a trip. You should come.

Scott had ridden part of the Camino Del Diablo with Lee on a car-supported trip several years ago, from Ajo to Yuma, so had a fairly to moderately good idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We figured out the permits we needed, made rough calculations on the amount of food and water we’d need, said a little prayer to the computer world that everything would go smoothly for the next four days, and headed to Ajo to pick up permits at the Cabeza Prieta field office.


Dirt for the next 118 miles

When we told the woman of our plan, she asked “Do your mothers know you’re doing this?” We assured her that they did, though I think that if either of our parents actually knew the details of what we were attempting, they’d be more worried. The route we were planning on would take us the 118-mile length of the Camino, from Ajo to Wellton, south then west through the corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Growler Mountains, through the Tule desert and into the Tule Mountains, across the Lechughulla Desert and then north, parallel to the Tinajas Altas up to Wellton. From there, we’d turn east and ride 12 miles of pavement to Tacna and take Christmas Pass road south, paralleling the Sierra Pinta Mountains and cutting in between the Cabeza Prieta mountains and the Tule Mountains to rejoin the Camino for the 70 mile trek back east to Ajo. Much of the route parallels the Mexican border, and stays within 2-3 miles of it, and is a spot well known for its drug traffic, thus there’s a strong border patrol presence on the road.


I don’t think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t nervous going into it.


We finally left the car at the early hour of 2:45 in the afternoon and headed out on the well-maintained road west. I was ecstatic to finally be doing a BIG bikepacking loop. I think so much so, that I forgot all about the nervousness I was feeling about the area. Through Organ Pipe, the road turned to a washboarded mess, and with four days of food and 200+ oz of water, the fat bikes jarred us to pieces for a few miles. But it was beautiful. And big. And remote. And we were going new places. A quick climb up past Bates Well to Growler Pass and a seemingly endless downhill brought us to our first border patrol station and the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife refuge. It seemed deserted as we continued to roll across the Playa in the sand, fat tires let down to snow-like pressures, floating, for the most part. After wishing for suspension for the previous ten miles, we were pretty happy to have the fatties. We started the climb into the Agua Dulce mountains and found our first Panic Button. We made fun of Scot Banks’ Push the Button story, which would become a popular theme throughout the trip.


It felt good to be out, to be riding into the sunset. It was too nice to stop once it got dark, and with a freshly dragged road, we were able to ride by the light of the half-moon.


A few sections were laid with metal railings to help with the sand. I pretended I was an airplane getting ready for takeoff. 

Since the road parallels the border, Border Patrol drags tires across it, smoothing it out, in order to see footprints crossing it. It made for a fantastic riding surface. We ran into our first BP agent soon after dark. He had his lights trained on the dirt, looking for signs of human traffic. We turned our lights on as we approached and stopped to talk to him, telling him of our plan to camp at the Papago Well, a designated primitive campsite. He sent us on our way, telling us we were four miles from the well.


The well was equipped with the distinctive flashing blue light that we’d seen the previous panic button and approaching it, quickly decided that this was no place to camp. The pulsing light at the top of a pole radiated for miles and would have led to a miserable night of sleep. And one also has to question the wiseness of encouraging a camp at a Panic Button location. So we kept riding for a little longer until the light was hidden by a hill. Camp was set up a handful of feet off the road and dinner started.

It wasn’t long until we heard the sound of an engine approaching and recognized the low sweeping lights of BP. Seeing our footprints, he stopped and we were immediately flooded by a flashlight. I wasn’t sure if I should put my hands up in surrender or not, so we opted to simply say ‘Hi’. Recognizing us, he agreed that the flashing blue light would have made for miserable camping. He asked where we were from, and when we said Tucson, he asked me, ‘Are you Mel?’

‘No, but we know a Mel.’ Turned out, he’d worked with Mel L (who I’ve raced the Divide, SSUSA, and SS worlds with) in Tucson before joining the BP. This broke the ice and we got some beta on some of the more popular routes used by the smugglers, and were told that our location was a pretty good one to choose. I slept reasonably in the dead silence of the night. There were no things that went bump in the night, but it sure didn’t stop my ears from straining to hear something, anything. I was pretty happy when the sun came up.


Since I’m not a big fan of getting up for sunrises in general, I try to make a point of watching them while bikepacking. We made breakfast, packed up bikes, and headed west, passing another border patrol station, the O’Neil grave where we made an offering, ‘Better luck next time’, and into Las Playas, an area notorious for its silt, described as impossible to cross when wet, rutted year-round.


We got lucky. It was rutted and showed plenty of evidence of vehicle disaster, but the silt wasn’t terrible.


Then up and over the Pinacate lava flow, the northern edge of a string of volcanos that stretches south into Mexico.


The road surface went from sandy to rocky, a semi-welcome change in scenery, before dropping back down into the Pinta Sands, a sunken wash of a road, freshly dragged, and a wide open canvas for making designs with fat bike tires, which is really a big reason I like riding fat bikes.


We stopped for lunch at the Tule Well where a BP agent was taking a mid-day break. We talked a bit about the beauty of poorly written books with entertaining story lines for passing the time during 15 minute breaks in the action of life. Fish tacos with salsa and avocado were on the menu. We do our best to not really rough it while out bikepacking.


We proceeded across the next playa to the base of the Tinajas Altas mountains.



Tinajas Altas means High Tanks and there’s a spot that holds a half dozen tanks of reliable water in slickrock pools. Scott had seen them during his previous trip, so I felt fairly confident following him off the main road and up a side canyon. We ditched our bikes where his track ended and after a few minutes of wandering around, he admitted that none of it looked familiar. It wasn’t long after we got back on the bikes that he exclaimed: Oh yeah. We went on the same wild-goose chase last time, we were following the track from that. The actual pools are right up here.


Sure enough, we found a giant face of granite (?) and hiked up to the first of the pools. I napped in the sand, Scott soaked his feet, and we wondered what it must have been like to be trekking along the desert to come across this spot. Shaded. Cool. Moist. If I were a dragon or a unicorn, I’d live there.


It was time to head north towards Wellton. It was late afternoon and we pondered what to do. We had enough water to make dinner on the road if we conserved and rationed, then we could ride into town in the morning and get breakfast and some more trail food. Or we could ride into town, be hasty with dinner and shopping, and hope that the 12 miles of pavement from Wellton to Tacna wouldn’t be too busy in the dark and then we could camp afterwards, or we could stop in Wellton, get dinner and a hotel, and spend the evening watching bad TV and taking hot showers. We entertained ourselves with the game of, What would insert name here do in this situation. Lee? Get a cheap hotel and good meal. Kurt dot Dirt? Go to bar, meet someone and have a bed to sleep in in no time. Cat? Get some food, keep riding through the night. Mike Curiak? Chad?


But the question became, what would Scott and Eszter do. I admitted that while I was trying to get excited about being thirsty and eating a dehydrated meal, the bikepacking foodie in me would much rather splurge on a hotel and a good meal in town, hardcore points be damned. I figured that if I rode the Divide on three hotel rooms, I was due for a bit of luxury.


So we rode in, enjoying the sunset, arriving to town a little after dark, checking in to a reasonably priced hotel, and making a bee-line to the Mexican joint across the street. Taco Tour 2014 had begun. While we were laying on the bed watching the Travel Channel, I thought that maybe I should be enjoying the stars instead, since we were bikepacking after all, but the feeling quickly passed as I snuggled under the covers and decided that I really needed to go ride in Mongolia and try the milk-curd cookies that they were talking about on the show.

It’s a big world out there, and morning brought more exploring, more riding, and more amazing places. But that’s going to have to wait for another blog post because this is getting way too long.

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Superbike weekend

Alexis wanted to do a big ride on Saturday and suggested the TMP big loop. It didn’t take much arm twisting to get me to agree to it, especially with the addition of the Robles loop and Cat Mountain, the way the loop should be ridden when riding it properly, but I put the kibosh on Golden Gate. Even I have my limits. I said that there was one rule to the TMP Big Loop: It had to be finished with dinner at Mi Ranchito. It didn’t take much to convince Alexis that that was a good idea as well.


We woke up to rain and delayed our start for an hour. I hear that rain comes in two week cycles around here, which makes perfect sense because Saturday morning was SSAZ, and two weeks from now is 24 hours of Old Pueblo, and the only sure way to guarantee rain around here is to hold a bike event. Anyways, I digress.


We got drizzled on a bit out at Robles but the moisture made the Cat Mountain climb oh-so-tacky. It was the first climb Scott and I did this November, and it pretty much killed me. It killed me less so this time around and we decided that we’d have to come back and work on the techy sections some time when we weren’t racing daylight. By the time we got down to Starr Pass, it was more sunny than cloudy and we continued on our merry way.


It really is delightful riding out there. Such minimal roads. Such excellent trail. Such an excellent opportunity to eat high-class, delicious hippy chocolate. When we rolled in to Saguaro National Park, I mentioned that I had plenty of food and maybe didn’t need chocolate. Alexis told me that she was going to forget I said that. This is how you tell you’ve found a good friend and riding buddy.


Riding with Alexis is a rolling geology lesson. The rocks are different shades of pink because of different sized iron particles. Potassium can also cause rocks to be pink. And the Tucson Mountains actually slid off of the Catalina’s when they got pushed up. I imagine Tucson is a pretty amazing place to know about geology. 

On and on, a wicked tail wind blew us through the park, up Wade Road, and to the dreaded gas line. We started down it, enjoying the few mellow dips in the first section. As the biggies were about to start, Alexis said that the GPS track proper said to get off the gasline and go around. I wasn’t going to argue. Unfortunately, it said to get back on it for the last two big hills. I decided to argue with that one and we took the sneak around it because my goal was to maximize the fun factor, and there’s nothing ‘fun’ about those last two climbs. Not even Type-2 fun.


Back through Sweetwater and home to pick up Scott and jackets because any spectacular day circumnavigating the Tucson Mountains deserves to be finished with tacos. Mmmmmmm.


Riding on Super Bowl Sunday almost didn’t happen. Scott was working. I was maybe a bit tired. We managed to motivate for a tempo ride up Charlow gap and down Cherry Tank. About two minutes into pedaling along a flat road towards the climb, I announced that there was no way I was riding tempo. Legs were more than toasted. Go figure. This would have worked out well for me, except for the fact that to actually get me an my bike up the hill, at least the parts that I wasn’t hiking, required an effort level that I considered very much super-tempo. Scott has strange choices in hills for tempo workouts.


We descended Cherry Tank. We’d skipped it during our CDO-Epic after I lost my shit and Scott decided that I probably wasn’t up for the BS factor associated with it. That was a good call at the time. But I made me have exceptionally low expectations for the trail. And when you have low expectations, you tend to be surprised. I think I need to work on keeping my expectations low more often.


While we thought the sunset was going to be another dud while descending, the entire sky turned blood red as we were driving back towards Sprouts, where we were pretty much the only people in the store. I love the Superbowl.


Funny that this was during the ‘dud’ part of the sunset. 

Toasted legs and all, I wasn’t about to bail on another assault on Cat Mountain with Alexis in the opposite direction from what I’m used to.


Lots of puzzles to figure out. Lots of laughs. Lots of tries.


Lots of moments of sub-grace, balanced out by a few moments of ‘Wow, that just happened. Yay!’


I guess that when I set my expectations low with my ability to ride some of the moves, every one that actually goes is a pretty major victory. Though I think the one that was the biggest win was the one that I’d watched Scott struggle with months ago. At the time I didn’t think I’d ever get it. Awkward, tight, but with a little bit of finesse and a whole lot of luck…I’ll take it.

Definitely a awesome three days of riding. Big rides. New rides. Tech rides. I love Tucson.


Mental versus physical recovery disparity

We got home late after the Gila. Sometime circa 11:30 and then somehow I conned Scott into making bacon and eggs for me for dinner. I’m a lucky girl because he wasn’t looking too motivated for the task at first and apparently I was craving salt and fat. I don’t really remember much after laying down in bed and pulling the covers up. We’d drawn the shades and closed our door, making our bedroom a pretty good little cave, planning on sleeping late into the morning.

But no. At 7 am, something decided to spook our six chickens. I’d heard of people using chickens as guard animals before and I’d laughed at the concept. Chickens? Really? But let me tell you, when something spooks them (neighborhood cat? snake? ghost?), those six lady hens can raise a racket like it’s nobody’s business. And they did. So at 7 am, we found ourselves awake. It was awesome.

So we dawdled away the morning. First breakfast. Nap. Brunch at Mi Ranchito. More lounging in the sun. Chat with Alexis and Caroline as they were coming back from their Starr Pass ride. More sitting in the sun watching the neighborhood kids play. I found myself thinking about how content I was just to sit, and how maybe I didn’t need to go on a big adventure after all. Planning the logistics of riding to San Diego sounded hard. Figuring out how to loop the Mojave Desert road seemed like a chore. I was digging the sun. And my camp chair. And my book.

On Monday I went for a little ride. The highlight? A purple flower sticking out of the rock. Dreams of adventure seemed far away. Starr Pass is so fun, why would I want to travel? I went to sleep feeling the tinges of a sore throat. I took some vitamin C and shook it off.


After two more rides out at Starr Pass, I could feel that my legs were still more on the tired side than the spry side. I’d wake up each morning with a sore throat, but after mega-dosing vitamin C, I’d feel better and was fairly certain than I’d win the battle over whatever bug I was engaged in combat with.


But while the body was tired, craving sleep and easy rides, vitamins and sleep, the mind started wandering. I started looking at the calendar – I want to be in town for 24 Hour of Old Pueblo, but I want to do a bikepacking trip on the Camino de Diablo. I’d love to eat carne asada after the Tor de 50, but the Kofa mountains and the wildlife preserve looks really neat.  I wonder if I could follow the Colorado River from Yuma to Blyth and then wander over to the Salton Sea and take the Stagecoach 400 route to San Diego?


On Thursday I tried to give my body an honest-to-goodness recovery day to kick the infection. I lasted until about 5 until I went stir-crazy and convinced Scott that we should go out to Starr Pass and watch the sunset. While the sunset was a dud, unlike the one the previous night, it still felt good to get out and be outside for an hour and change. The throat was still sore. I was still ready to go to bed at 9.


If only all sunsets could be this good…


Rufus, the neighborhood stray cat, couldn’t be bothered with the sunset. He just wanted his treats. 

I started making the mental list for things I’d need to get my fatbike ready for touring on the sand. Change the cassette. Put some pedals on. Find a seat post and a seat that would work. I thought about what I’d need to do to the Mariachi to get it ready for a 500-mile trek to the ocean where my plan was to get someone to teach me how to surf. I put the wheels in motion for a map of the Mojave and an early birthday present/late Christmas present from my parents to let me stay more connected while living off the bike.

I finally put in a 10-hour sleep night and woke up feeling closer to healthy than to sick.


I wish the body could recover as fast as the mind. While I was loving basking in the sun, relishing doing nothing, on Sunday, and even Monday, by Tuesday, I was ready to move, to see, to explore. I used to say that if I could have a super power, I’d want insta-recovery. Sometimes, I think I’d settle for having a more on-par, slower mental recovery that better matched the physical one. What if I could just sit and re-live the highs and lows of a big ride for an ENTIRE week before I started to have itchy feet again?

Well, one things for certain, I might be more content, and a less of a pain-in-the-ass for those who have to listen to my plotting and scheming (i.e. Scott) that way, but now I’ve got Scott interested in the Mojave trip that I have maps for, I’ve discovered how the Salton Sea was formed, and I’ve stumbled across a fun looking ride that could be a perfect way to start my 32nd trip around the sun.

Sometimes I think that I wish that I’d be better at sitting still. And then I realize that I really don’t.