Zen On Dirt

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Stop right there!

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

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


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


Wild life.


Wild trees. And apparently wildlife that scratches wild trees.


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Finally getting over halfway…


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


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


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


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

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

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

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



2 thoughts on “AZT Taco Tour: Highline, wind, and first views of the Ditch!

  1. Horchata!!

    Really enjoying the photo tour, my kind of riding!! Are you sure you were on the Highline trail??? 🙂

  2. Great photos Ezster. Looking forward to “the canyon” crossing.

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