Zen On Dirt


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Camp Tucson

Not long after getting back from Mi Ranchito with Bama and Tanesha, Caroline and Mathieu arrived at our door. The reason: Camp Tucson.

We hurriedly swept out our guest bedroom, a fast turn around from Cat leaving that morning and tried to scrounge up enough chairs, camp loungers, and physioballs so that everyone could sit down. Life in the fast lane, or something like that.

Unbeknownst to most, the idea of Camp Tucson was just a way for Scott to try to lure me down to Tucson last winter, or at least to start up the email conversation that led me to coming down to Tucson. But the initial idea (stolen from LW) was a good one, so he went with with. The plan: Three big rides highlighting some of the best to Tucson and previewing nearby chunks of the AZT for people training for the AZTR. The timing is good for for people looking to go ZOOM in a month.

Last year I was out due to recovery from the ITI, this year I was hoping my perpetual motion legs would kick in so that I could ride with everyone. Unfortunately, a cold that I had been nursing throughout Camp Cat had migrated to Scott, and apparently Scott’s immune system doesn’t cope as well with colds as mine does. I personally think it might have something to do with his gut reaction (literally) of eating a pint of ice cream the moment he starts to feel sick, but that’s just my humble opinion.

Day one was Reddington, AZT, and down Milligrosa. Bama had another day to ride, so I convinced him that he’d totally make it through the ride and would love the descent. He charged up his bluetooth mini stereo on his handlebars, figured out a way to carry enough water between his bottle cage, two feed bags, and two homemade jersey pockets, and put a pump and a tube on his bike. At the start, he also added his drawn on mustache, a sure sign he’d make it through the longer, more XC-ish part of the ride. I had faith.

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Meeting at the Circle K, the group headed up Reddington, free of guns and trucks with gun racks. Hurray for Fridays! The climb wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered, the rolling climbs on the Chiva Falls section were just as bad as remembered and went on for at least twice as long as I thought they would. Then finally trail.

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“Are you planning on stopping and eating something ever?” Bama asked me climbing up the first piece of singletrack.

I hadn’t really thought about it. “I guess so.”

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We stopped at the top of the next ridge to have snacks and wait for the crew behind us who’d initially been in front of us but missed a turn. We started down the trail right after them and I soon started to get the feeling that I was the only one who knew where I was going…or at least the only one able to navigate using a GPS at high speeds. I knew bikepacking racing would net me some good skillz!

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Milli was as much fun as always until my fork started acting funny. It’d been acting funny for a while, but now any sort of drop left my front end nearly 130 mm lower than it was before the drop. It made for some confident riding. Made me feel okay about walking some sections that I’d normally ride.

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Whoops. 

Bama rallied Milli. Bama cramped on the road back to the Circle K. We got him back in one piece. It was the longest, fastest ride he’d done since the last time we rode together.

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He did good.

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Back to the car to be followed shortly by Scott who’d taken a shortcut and had watched us pass him on the trail while taking a nap. Darn cold.

Most riders showed up to 1702 for pizza a beer and then the party continued at our place as John came to sleep on our floor. Turns out, the bed that he and Kara put me up in at their place during my failed Phoenix bikepack and before Death Valley was probably a lot more comfortable than our floor.

But, by sleeping on our floor, it meant that we could all ride to the start of Day 2 at the Genser Trailhead at Starr Pass. Scott opted to sit the ride out, so four of us took the twisty route to the start. 20 people? 25? It was a big group and after a few minutes of sitting around and missing Scott’s motivational speech of ‘If you break your bike or your body, we’re not going to come looking for you’, we took off. Fast.

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Not paying much attention to the track, I was glad someone was at the top of the Eff-you hill to point down it, a route I generally don’t take during my rides out there. Following MY way to get to Robles instead of the track’s way, I managed to cut off a good little section of trail, with five or six people in tow. Sorry!

I rode with various people around the Robles group, wondering how long my motivation to ride would last. While the legs were in full on tour mode and not tired, the thought of drinking tea on our porch with Scott was sounding a little more appealing than doing a TMP Big Loop, a ride that I’ve done a handful of times this winter. The lack of a resupply option (with goodies) made the second half of the loop…less motivational.

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Up and over Cat Mountain, I cruised down the other side, leapfrogging with Krista, Jeff and Nancy, Caroline, and various other people.

At the base of Golden Gate Pass, I found myself alone, looking up at the pass. I’d had a fairly sub-par experience the last time I rode it and wasn’t particularly looking forward to climbing it again. I thought about shortcutting around it and getting back on the flatter singletrack. Instead, I did a full assessment of my motivations and shortcutted straight home over the Yetman Wash by-pass.

It was the best decision I’d made all day.

I was home by noon. Scott and I made salads and smiled at the sun. And we still got to go to Mi Ranchito for dinner.

I rallied the tired troops for Day 3. The official loop is a 85 mile beast that starts at Sahaurita road, take the AZT north to the powerlines, takes a set of powerlines and gas lines (i.e. rough dirt roads with impossibly steep climbs) east then south before dumping out on the highway to Sonoita. Then it’s back on the AZTR route to Sahaurita.

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Last year, Scott and Max had shortcutted it by taking dirt roads to Box Canyon before getting on the AZT for the Las Colinas section. It would save us 10 miles, and somewhere on the order of an hour. With fresh legs, compliments of sitting around all day instead of pedaling, I convinced Caroline and Mathieu to take on the medium sized loop with me. Jen and Anna opted for the ‘shorter’ 50 mile version of the loop, and Aaron didn’t seem to really know what he wanted to do, but ended up doing the full meal deal.

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We went to Bobo’s for breakfast for the anti-bonk meal. I convinced Mathieu to share an apple pancake with me. Paired with a normal meal of bacon, eggs, and potatoes, I only had to eat half a Lara bar and half a pack of Mentos during the four hour jaunt it took us to get to Sonoita. With a burrito re-up there, I ate another half Lara Bar during the next five hours back to the car. I carried a lot of food around that loop…

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With legs in various states of tired, we took a leisurely approach to the day. Keep moving. Regroup at the gates. Gossip. We had lights, we knew we had bailout options. We had all day with nothing to do but pedal bikes. Well, Caroline and Mathieu had to drive back to Prescott afterwards, but that was far in the future.

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We ‘followed the track even if it seemed like it didn’t go anywhere’ as Scott had instructed, waded through some marshes, listened to bees buzz heavily somewhere nearby, and decided that it really wouldn’t be a Scott-ride if it didn’t have some appreciable BS-factor. We dumped out on road eventually and even found a map that had our roads on it, things were looking up.

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Unlike last year where the boys were faced with a heinous headwind, we got blown all the way to Sonoita.

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We ate. We basked in the sun. We wondered how long we could hang out there and still finish in the light.

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The sun’s slow arc overhead reminded us that it was probably time to go. Up the highway into a cross wind and then up the climb towards Box Canyon with the wind at our backs. It’s not often the wind cooperates. We were endlessly appreciative.

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And then the trail. It was my third-to-last section of the 300 course that I hadn’t ridden on a fun day ride and it was neat to go back and try to discern where it had gotten dark on me. Where I’d caught Chad. Where I’d nearly ended up in a prickly pear trying to ride a switchback that I shouldn’t have.

Caroline kept mentioning the hike-a-bike section. She couldn’t pinpoint where it was exactly, just that there’d been an extended period of walking for those doing the long version of the AZT Jamboree back in January. We found it eventually. She wasn’t making it up.

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The trail eventually dropped down to where the shortened version of the Jamboree started and I knew we were in for smooth sailing the final 10 or so miles back to the car. The sun dropped lower and lower in the sky as we railed around the turns, loving the smooth, fast trail. Landscape turned golden, we couldn’t be bothered to stop and take pictures.

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And then the gate. The car. We were back. The lower lip of the sun was just touching the horizon. Not only had we made it back before dark, we’d made it back before the sun had even started going down. It was magic.

We made it back to Tucson to find Scott starting to feel better. We shared a beer that John had given me, one that had been aged in rum barrels and pretty much delicious. Ate some chips. The burrito from Sonoita was still doing me good.

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We watched Caroline and Mathieu roll out around 8. The house felt eerily silent. It was the first night it was just Scott and I for nearly a week and a half. It had been a good party. But now our eyes turned to the future…touring the full AZT? Yes, please.


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Unexpected visitors

After sending Cat off on Thursday morning, I sat down in front of the computer to put in a solid stretch of work, something that I hadn’t done in a while. It’d been a good stretch of riding from Scott and I’s ride around the Santa Ritas, to Death Valley, bikepacking in the Gila with Alexis, and then Camp Cat, and with three days of Camp Tucson starting on Friday, I thought it might be a good idea to take a day off the bike. Something about recovery.

I was $25.20 into my daily earnings when I get a text from Bama: ‘Are you in Tucson? We’re in town.’

I hadn’t heard from Bama and Tanesha since they showed up to Crested Butte with their Santa Cruz demo van two years ago and I watched Bama pedal off into a snowstorm to try to ride over Pearl Pass to Aspen.

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Hungry already after a big breakfast, I suggested lunch. As it turned out, they’d just eaten.

‘Can we come heckle?’

15 minutes later, the Sprinter and trailer pulled up in front of the house. Thus ended my productivity for the day.

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I half expected to drink a beer or two while sitting in the sun before sending them on their way, but Bama had other plans. ‘We’re going riding. I wouldn’t have shown up here if I wasn’t planning on getting killed on a ride.’

Apparently he still remembers the many years where we’d drag him up and down the mountains of Colorado riding a 40 lb Surly Instigator. He had a lighter bike, he was just too much of a stubborn ass to ride it. Not my fault.

We talked about things of the past as we got bikes ready to ride.

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It’s funny how things change. Bama now rides a light-ish bike with suspension on both ends. He no longer lives in a dingy apartment in Boulder, nor the basement of the Hamilton House. He no longer has to push his bike every time the trail turns up.

We headed out to Robles and started out on the loop. Out of nowhere, Bama comes screaming by me on the inside of a loose, downhill switchback. Some things don’t change: he still rides like an ass hat.

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We tooled around in the late afternoon sun talking about all the various life changes that had happened since we last rode. Some of them good, some of them yucky. It’s always good to give the yucky ones the benefit of time before revisiting them.

The ride brought back all sorts of memories. Of first learning how to ride. How to race. Of learning how to not take myself to seriously as  a bike rider, and even as a person. The stories that they had of driving the Santa Cruz demo van across the  country were endlessly entertaining and continued on over dinner at Mi Ranchito and over whiskey back at the house.

Sometimes, some friends will drive you absolutely bat-shit crazy with their antics. but in the end, it’s always good to see them. And I didn’t really feel like working anyhow. And a wise person once said: Recovery is for people who can’t think of anything fun to do.


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Camp Cat

One of the biggest benefits of living in Tucson for the winter, aside from the weather, endless supply of tacos, and infinite mountain biking, is that your friends come to visit you to partake in all of the above when they get tired of the weather wherever they’re living.

Months ago, Cat texted that she had a week of vacation and wanted to come down to Tucson. Of course, we offered her the luxurious accommodations of floor space and a sleeping pad.

I’ve spent endless nights at Cat’s place in Durango, either passing through, escaping wintery climates, or as a place to layover between living situations last summer. Waking up in her loft my first morning after finished the Tour Divide to realize I didn’t have to put a dirty, damp chamois on was maybe the best morning of my life. I was excited to start being able to return the favor and show her my new backyard.

She showed up just a few hours after we returned from our bikepacking trip. As tends to happen at the end of any bikepacking, regardless of the length, we had junk everywhere. Par for the course. Luckily, Cat gets stuff like that. We laid out a tentative plan for the week: Ride bikes. Eat good food. Smile at the sun. The rest was just details.

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Ride #1 was true backyard: Starr Pass. It’s where Scott first took me last December, it’s where I first take people when they get to Tucson. Robles. Cat Mountain (because it’s Cat, after all), and around the backside of the pass.

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A perfect warm up ride for Cat. A perfect try-to-recover-from-bikepacking ride for Scott and I.

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We had prior commitments for Saturday in the form of LW and DH showing up sometime mid-afternoon to stay with us for a night and Lee’s birthday party, so we made attempts at getting out for a morning-ish ride. Sweetwater it was for Ride #2, also from the house. We checked out the saguaro that had died from bacterial necrosis on the side of the trail a few weeks back. It was still dead. And still smelly.

We wished farewell to the 2-epic duo the next morning as LW went to embark on a cross AZ ride on her put-put bike, i.e. moto. When I grow up, I want to be like LW.

Ride #3 brought us out to the Torts. No Tour de Tucson mountain biking would be complete without a visit to the Torts.

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Como. Ridgeline. Primo.

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We tried to time it to be a sunset ride but were 10 minutes too early, watching the sun hit the horizon as we were packing up the car. The days are getting long. Equinox is almost here.

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We set out for a girls-only ride for Ride #4. Sahaurita road north on the AZT with a planned ice cream stop at Colossal Caves Ranch. With the AZT on her mind, Cat got to quiz me on all the water sources and I got to tell her about Pete waiting for me at the La Sevilla campground during the race, hoping that I knew where the water faucet was. After a good amount of stumbling around in the dark, we’d finally found it.

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We opted for skipping ice cream in exchange for checking out what I refer to as ‘Scott’s section of trail.’ While the trail before and after is smooth and fast, it suddenly changes character and starts going over all sorts of big rocks. No one is ever surprised to hear that Scott laid it out.

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We headed back, only the second time ever that I’d ridden that section of trail without stopping for ice cream.

Ride #5 returned to what we all love best: bikepacking. We returned to the area that I love best: The Gila.

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We opted for a start at Kelvin with the initial plan being a ride up the fabled artesian spring, then over to the seep, up the Canyons, down the other side, over Orphan Boy, through the 4-wheel drive extravaganza, and then back to Kelvin.

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With a less-than-early start, we quickly realized that doing the whole loop would lead to an excess of night riding, which would be fine, except that we were leisure touring. Luckily, I’d had the foresight to toss my wallet into my bag under the idea that we might have to bail to Superior on Day 2 to get water, and if we were in town, we might as well get something yummy with money. With Day 1 rapidly coming to a close, we decided to forego the plan for the second half of our loop, ride all the way to Picket Post, and take the LOST trail into Superior for goodies. I was pretty much a hero for being the only one with money. Superior without money would have been heartbreaking.

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The route to the spring was…well, a Scott-special. Hike-a-bike was required. Water was still flowing in the wash from the last storm leading to having to pay attention to keeping feet dry, a rare occurrence in the desert.

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Typical.

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As promised, the spring was warm and flowing strong. The Elixir of Life.

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We continued on, racing, but not really racing, the impending twilight to get to the seep, a luxurious wet camp for the night.

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We made it.

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In the morning, we climbed. But climbing in the Gila doesn’t really feel like climbing, even if you’re doing it for the second time in a week.

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Lunch at the top was no less special. The view never gets old.

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Turns out, the descent never gets old either.

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We were in the middle of the final 8 mile stretch of trail when Scott jumps off his bike ahead of us, yelling back, ‘Stop! Stop!’

My initial reaction was, ‘Strange. It’s pretty here, but Scott’s not one to cause a stop in the middle of a flowing downhill section of trail for a photo op.’ (His preferred method is just to descend really fast and get a good gap on me so he can stop and take a picture)

‘Rattler!’ He pointed down to the ground. Sure enough, a beauty of a snake lay basking in the sun.

‘What do we do?’ Cat asked.

‘Take a picture?’ I suggested.

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We watched as it hung out in the trail, sticking its tongue out, very aware of our presence. Eventually, it must have gotten bored of being bothered by us and it slithered into its snake-hole just off the trail. Guess it’s officially snake season. Bummer.

We continued on to Picket Post, Snake-dar going off at every root and twig.

Following the LOST (Legends of Superior Trail) towards town, we ran into an archeological crew surveying the ground with metal detectors. We learned that the old wagon trail was scheduled for demolition to put in a 4-lane highway. Guess that’s the end of LOST as well. They had hundreds of flags set up, some of them dug up with pieces of horseshoes and other metal knickknacks laying on the ground. Who knew.

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We followed directions in town to a new ice cream shop that we’d heard about. We were joyous about finding it, right up until we saw the sign on the door: Cash only.

‘I have no cash,’ I admitted. And more importantly, no way to get cash. Our hearts sank and we sat pathetically in front of the shop, watching jealously as dozens of people walked in and out of the shop.

‘Well, I guess we just have to go get ice cream sandwiches at the market,’ I declared. So that’s exactly what we did. And you know what? They were pretty much the most delicious ice cream sandwiches we’d ever eaten.

Eventually the meth-heads in town creeped us out enough to send us on our way. On to the highway for 16 miles back to the car. On the way back, I got to officially claim a million point bonus on our Cactus Arm game (every arm growing off an arm is a point) by riding by a cactus with an arm off an arm off an arm. I’d spied it on the drive into Kelvin, but rules of the game state that the cactus must be seen from the bike. Win.

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La Casita finished off the day in Mammoth.

Another bikepack. New terrain. New knowledge (bring cash to Superior). New critters (my very first wild rattlesnake sighting). A good day in the 24-hour bikepacking office.

Cat had to leave the following morning. Sadly, we had to stop our Camp Cat, though I think we did a good job of convincing her to come back down for the AZTR in a few weeks. Turns out, the desert is a good place for the soul. Riding. Eating. Smiling at the sun. And drinking wine while eating chocolate wasn’t too bad either.


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Now this is 24-hour bikepacking

Alexis had never been bikepacking. She also has her eyes set on the AZT 300 in an increasingly concrete manner. We’d been tossing around times to go out for an overnighter for a little while and ended up settling for a Wednesday to Thursday trip to the best place in the whole world to bikepack: The Gila. We planned to leave at noon, which after my 9 pm return home from Death Valley, gave me precisely 15 hours to unpack one bike, repack another one, and download pictures from my camera. And sleep. Sleeping is good.

Scott decided to join us, so when Alexis showed up with three giant burritos for dinner, we piled into the SportsVan and headed north to Picket Post.

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It felt good to be back in familiar territory.

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We climbed Picket Post in the late afternoon sun, heading up and over Orphan Boy, backwards on the old AZTR route. Scott pointed out where the trail used to go before the final miles were built. Remnants can still be found.

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Traversing high on the ridge, the light turned the landscape golden. This led to overall happiness.

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Dropping into Box Canyon, we lost the sun. While the Gila was flowing far too high to cross, we went for a short out-and-back to show Alexis the narrows of the canyon. Something about rocks and her really liking rocks…we taught her about Unicorn Dust.

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We rode until the ground became saturated from water from the last storm before turning around and retracing our steps.

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Climbing out, we did some sunset watching and burrito eating after finding a suitable camp spot.

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I love watching people figure out bikepacking.  Scott and I’s routine  when getting to camp generally consists of sitting down on the nearest pile of rocks and pulling out food and watching it get dark. I generally put a jacket and a hat on to stay warm. Watching Alexis set up her little camp before it got dark made me remember the times that I’d fumbled around with my gear, unfamiliar with how it all went together, wondering what to bring, what I needed to be comfortable. Would my air mattress hold air? Setting up sleeping accommodations  seems like second nature to me now, to be done without a headlamp if necessary when combat camping. The big gear choices these days are deciding what combination of sleeping bag/sleeping pad to bring for maximizing needed warmth to weight. And whether I want dried mangos or papayas.

Alexis introduced us to the Phases of Expertise. Phase 1 – beginner, Phase 2 – advanced, Phase 3 – Expert. When I pulled out blackberries to put in our oats for breakfast, she declared us Phase 3, at least in the breakfast department.

Packing up, we started on the 4-wheel drive extravaganza as a bypass to having to ford the river twice. New-to-me terrain, and beautiful to boot. You don’t find solid rock like this in many places around here, this road is a special one.

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We dropped down to river level after spying a shortcut that would have put us even with Dale’s Butte on the trail. But alas, we needed water, we needed the seep. Last time we’d been to the seep, I’d been too busy making sure that the sunset went according to plan to hike down and help Scott get water (yes, I’m a good girlfriend). This time I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Water coming out of the ground in the middle of the desert is so cool.

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Full on water, we rolled up through the Gila Canyons, stopping occasionally to enjoy the view and ask Alexis on her opinion on how certain rock features were formed. I’m Phase 1 – I’m learning to tell the difference between vertical and horizontal rock layers.

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Lunch at the top. Traverse across the Inner Canyons. Drop down, down, down to close the loop before starting the final 8 miles back to the trailhead. We were back to the car 24 hours after we left it, solidly tired, ready for Greek food at Mt. Athkos in Florence. I think that the cooks there are definitely Phase 3 when it comes to making Greek food.

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The ride was so simple. So beautiful. I love 24-hour bikepacking trips. Saguaro gives it two thumbs up.

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Death Valley: From the bottom of N. America, we go UP

I have a phobia when camping: I’m deathly afraid of missing the sunrise. As someone who doesn’t subscribe to getting up early during ‘regular’ life, the thought of missing a single second of a sunrise seems blasphemous while camping, so I was up as soon as the sky started to turn. I counted the bivied bodies around me, trying to determine who was in each cocoon. I looked back at the snow covered flanks of Telescope Peak that had remained hidden from us the previous two days under a blanket of clouds. I looked  north to the endless expanse of land that John and I had covered in the dark. I looked to my big pile of food that the sag truck had transported for me and giggled.

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John stirred next and I suggested we strive for an early-ish start to see if we could do a bonus 12 miles on the route to get up to Dante’s Overlook halfway through the day’s milage. After eating, grabbing a day’s worth of food for the bikes, and loading the rest of our junk in bags for the cars, we started off down the valley. The others were slowly waking and assessing the damage of 100+ miles in the saddle over the course of 15 hours.

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The day consisted of a paved climb first to Jubilee Pass and on to Salisbury Pass before a screaming descent and back onto dirt on the Furnace Creek Wash road where another 17 miles of climbing would bring us to the high-point of the day at nearly 5,000 feet. This would be followed by a 30 mile downhill and then another 3,000+ foot climb to Camp 2 up Echo Canyon. And I wanted to add another few thousand feet of climbing to get to an overlook of the valley.

The paved climb was a bit of a drag as far as pedaling went. 107 miles the previous day led to a, well, slow start to the uphill, but the scenery was stunning and the traffic minimal. It definitely didn’t feel like a National Park. We stopped at the top of each pass to eat and take in the scene. With only 78 miles and a whole morning ahead of us, time seemed like a luxury. Until it stopped being morning and we started joking that we’d be finishing in the dark again.

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The climb up Furnace Creek Wash made me wish I knew more about rocks and geology. While I’d gleaned a little bit from reading prior to the trip, it’d be an awfully neat place to look at with the knowledge of a geologist.

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By mid afternoon, we were back up to 5,000 feet and ready to go down. It had been a long morning of uphill and as someone who definitely prefers the downhill to uphill, I was ready to coast. With a tailwind, what we did bordered more on flying than coasting. We reached the turnoff to Dante’s at 3:30 in the afternoon. With another 20 miles of downhill and then 10 more miles of uphill before the day would be done, we made the executive decision to bypass the overlook in exchange for what we hoped wouldn’t be a 9:30 finish to the day.

Instead, we took more pictures.

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We traveled through the borax sand dunes that sustained the mining industry in the valley. Harmony Borax Works would use teams of 20 mules (or 18 mules and 2 draft horses) to haul the borax out to the nearest railroad 130 miles away. Hauling two 16-foot wagons loaded down plus a thousand gallons of water, those little mules would pull 36 ton loads up and over the passes. I think they operated 5 teams so they could have a load go out every other day.

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We made our tourist stop for the day at Zabriskie Point, which overlooked the borax dunes and other amazing rock features. It was fun to see the number of cameras set up for time lapse on an overcast day which had not an iota of lighting change.

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We finished our 4,500 foot descent and started up the canyon. 3,500 feet in 10 miles was the plan, which ends up being not much steeper than railroad grade on average. We reached the mouth of the slot canyon just as we had to turn our lights on. It was downright spooky shining lights up rock walls that reached far beyond the strength of my light. After nearly two hours of pedaling, we saw the welcome lights of camp in the distance. A 7:30 finish sure beat a 9:30 one.

Dinner and homebrew was consumed. It was delicious.

Morning again brought a whole new landscape that I hadn’t seen the night before, and the realization that I was starting my 32nd trip around the sun. Evan joined John and I for the final leg of the journey, 50-some-odd miles back to Beatty. With a leisurely start, we headed up the canyon finding beautiful grades and just enough chunk to stop all but the most intrepid 4x4s (i.e. we saw no one).

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Once we were back up at 5,000 feet (from our local minimum at 500 feet at the bottom of Echo Canyon), we rolled a series of backroads through the mountains and through canyons before spitting out on the flat expanse of land between our mountain range and Bare Mountain.

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Somewhere in there, we stopped for lunch. I pulled out left over Pad Thai from dinner. John trumped me with pizza. Evan outdid the both of us with chocolate pudding. When he pulled out the coffee flavored tequila, I swore that I’d never pass up a chance to go bikepacking with him in the future.

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Crossing highway 95, we contoured back into another valley behind the multi-colored Bare Peak. And then up Tarantula Canyon, the steepest climb on the whole route. Topping out, we stopped for our final snack break. BBQ potato chips took the cake there. We were within seven miles of finishing, and it was all downhill. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun up high knowing that we’d finally be finishing before dark.

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Before we knew it, we were back in Beatty, opting for pizza and beer at KC’s Eatery instead of the Sourdough Saloon (good choice). Again, it made me sad to get off my bike and roll it into our hotel room for the night. While the pizza and beer was delicious, and there’s really something awesome about watching bad TV from a hotel bed, I was just getting my touring legs on and would have gladly welcomed another night of riding into the dark over the impending return to reality.

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Except that my ‘reality’ is really pretty awesome and I had a whole host of awesome lined up for the rest of the week.

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In summary: Death Valley was cool. I missed out on seeing the Racetrack and Dante’s Overlook, so it holds the door open for a return visit someday. Riding with support was awesome on some levels, but it definitely made me uneasy to be riding through the night without survival gear. Riding solo can be fun, but having riding partners definitely made the experience what it was: a wicked good time.

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Death Valley: Up to down

I’d never been to Death Valley before. Just another one of those blank spaces on the mental map, one that I’d seen pictures of and said ‘I need to go there someday’ but seeing that it really is in the Middle of Nowhere, hadn’t really had the opportunity. Plus, it’s a National Park, and while National Parks are generally National Parks for a reason, they scream Lots of People in RVs and I tend to shy away from that.

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A few months ago, Scott clued me in to a ride that Phil was putting on. It was advertised on MTBR.com and John was going, so I’d know at least one person on what was shaping up to be a good sized group trip. Last minute, I was told that we’d have some form of sag support so that we wouldn’t have to carry camping gear of three days worth of food for the 230 mile loop through the valley. All of a sudden, the 8 hour drive up there didn’t seem so bad, especially since we were able to carpool from Big Bad Phoenix.

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Art in Rhyolite

Phil, John and I set off at a pre-civilized hour, meeting up with Michelle and Sabine and heading through the great wide open to Nevada. We arrived with enough time to do some car sight-seeing, an activity that I hadn’t engaged in for years. I think I prefer the bike. We stopped by the ghost town of Rhyolite under cloudy skies and took some pictures before heading into the Park to take more pictures and visit Badwater, the lowest spot in North America. While there, it started to piss rain, so being able to get back into a car really wasn’t that bad all of a sudden. The rain would continue through the night, but we found ourselves with overcast, but dry skies in the morning.

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Six of us set off out of Beatty, NV, a town where people wear guns on their hips and babies wander around the ‘restaurant’ sections of bars playing pool. We climbed up to the top of Titus Canyon, a land straight out of Jurassic Park, the road mostly dry. I really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a T-Rex around any corner.

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Topping out at 5,200 feet, we started down. First stop, town of Leadfield. It didn’t last long.

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Then down through the slot canyon where the road condition deteriorated rapidly. The deep slot drains 35 square miles and the previous days dousing had washed out the road, stopping car traffic and causing the park service to close it, fortunately long after we’d descended into the depths of it.

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The bikes didn’t fare well, though after scraping and spraying for the better part of an hour at the end of the canyon, John and I were able to get them ridable (with most of the gears) and pedal the 30 more miles to the resort town of Furnace Creek, elevation -190 feet.

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Count that, a drop of 5,300 feet or so. Once a mining stronghold, it’s turned into a hotbed of tourism selling overpriced tee-shirts, gas at outrageous prices, and camping spots. Luckily, they also had a hose so that the bikes weren’t fated to be a disaster for the following 280 miles.

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Leaving Furnace Creek in the late afternoon, we hit not only a heinous headwind heading south towards West Side Road, but also Golden Hour. Golden Hour in Death Valley is something spectacular. It made it seem okay that sunset was in 30 minutes and we still had 40+ miles to go to camp where our driving friends were to meet us for the night. Sag support is great…carrying bikepacking gear so you can sleep where you want, possibly even greater. Jury’s still out.

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Riding in the dark isn’t so bad when you’ve got a buddy, there are a million stars in the sky, and the only sound you hear is the single chirp of a single cricket. And when it’s warm enough to pedal in a single layer, knowing that when you do get to camp, it’s not going to be freezing.

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Salt!

We arrived at 9:30 at night, 107 miles for the day. The drivers had started to get worried but when we saw the lights of the rest of the crew across the valley after, who’d decided to stay on the pavement for the last 50 miles, making their way slowly towards camp, we were able to sleep easy knowing that all would be accounted for a few hours.

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Snuggling deep into my bag, I almost didn’t want to go to sleep with the million and a half stars in the sky. With a new moon, it was breathtaking.

Morning was equally spectacular, waking up to a land that I hadn’t seen the night before. The views continued. The riding continued. My mind continued to be blow around every corner.

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Lap ’round the Santa Ritas

Sometimes I get caught up in the idea that I’m not doing enough with my life.

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Fact: I have a flexible job that I can do from anywhere.

Fact: I have the health and the means to travel.

Fact: I was blessed with the physical ability that let me ride my bike far distances.

Fact: I have a terrible case of wanderlust and get stressed out by the fact that I realize that I can never see all the beautiful places in the world that I want to see.

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But what I forget sometimes is that I don’t have to travel to far-flung places to find beauty and to find the experiences that I cherish. I don’t constantly have to see new terrain in places that are logistically difficult to get to.

Fact: There’s a whole lot of beauty surrounding me right here.

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Scott was itching for a long ride after a month of work that I hope (for both selfish and non-selfish reasons)  he never has to repeat, and it didn’t take much to talk me into a lap around the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. The selling point was the resupply stop in Patagonia that houses one of my favorite coffee shops with desserts that I dream about on a fairly regular basis. The plan was to ride backwards on the current AZT route, scope out potential new connector for the route and then ride the old AZT route back to the car via Elephants Head.

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The day started beautifully with a climb up Box Canyon. A new-to-me road with all sorts of interesting things to look at. We joked that if we kept stopping to take pictures of white trees and fuzzy caterpillars, we’d be riding long after dark. We’d estimated 10 hours of ride time, with an hour for lunch in Patagonia, so with an 8 am start, we figured we might have to turn our lights on for the last 15 minutes.

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Hopping on the AZT, I searched the memory banks for remembering the section of trail. I drew a blank. Backwards, it seemed like an entirely new beast with different climbs, different descents, different scenery. It seems like the Serengeti to me out there. Endless grasses, rolling hills, plains as far as the eye can see, or at least until the eye bumps into the next set of mountains in the distance.

A quick stop at Kentucky Camp to fill up on water and we were back on familiar territory, sight of a scouting ride during Spring Break 2013 before we had to hurry home and get dressed up for Chad’s wedding. Contouring flume trail and then a drop down a road that would cut several miles off our route if we could determine whether it was actually legal to cut through a ranch. When the rancher at the bottom actually opened the gate for us, we felt much better about passing through the numerous No Trespassing signs. Probably not a legit way to go on a regular basis, but it sure cut down on the pavement riding.

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We were gutted upon arriving to Patagonia to find our coffee shop closed due to a plumbing emergency. Fortunately, Ovens of Patagonia had just opened up two months prior and filled our needs for trail snacks with a piece of carrot cake, a cinnamon roll, and a 1/4 pound of mexican chocolate flavored fudge.

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We burned a bunch more daylight continuing our Taco Tour 2014 and stopping at the local Mexican joint for lunch. Worse things have happened than leaving Patagonia behind schedule but with a belly full of food. The carrot cake (appetizer) and cinnamon roll (dessert) didn’t make it out of town with us, but calorie-wise, we were set to go.

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We went up some roads. We went down some roads. We went back up some roads. We saw a giant herd of horses. We saw lots of Middle of Nowhere. We got on some singletrack just as the sky exploded with the sunset.

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We made it down the chunder descent before it got dark and rode in the wash without lights until our antics bordered on unsafe. With lights on, we started the Elephant Head climb, still many miles from the car. Our plan of finishing close to dark wasn’t really working out for us.

“Want to stop for a snack? It’s not getting any darker.” Scott asked.

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We stopped on a pile of rocks, still in single layers, enjoying the unseasonably warm night air. Elephant Head glowed in the starlight. Scott pulled out the fudge that I had completely forgotten about. Rocket fuel! I could have sat there all night, under the stars, in the middle of the desert, not very far from home, eating fudge that melted in my mouth.

A tailwind assisted us the rest of the way back to the car, still in short sleeves.

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I was as giddy coming off the ride as I would have been off of any bikepack or far-flung adventure. Even the restaurant that we’d staked out for dinner being closed couldn’t dampen my mood.

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Earlier in the week I was bumming that we couldn’t make a bikepacking trip happen. I was convinced that I was taking the easy way through life, not pushing the limits of what was possible every opportunity possible. Taking a day to ride around the local mountain range reminded me that I don’t always have to do things that that are huge and amazing and inspired in order to spend a damn good day in the office.

But if I figure correctly, I’d place my bets that a whole bunch of damn good days in the office lead to a life that’s huge and amazing and inspired.