AZTR - Part 6: AZ Snowbowl / Grand Canyon / Utah Border. ~ mile 750 (finish)
I have about 70 more miles of riding to the Grand Canyon on what should be mostly a mix of fast, dirt roads, and trails. After yesterday’s stop in Flagstaff, I am fully energized.
I start the morning pedaling with intention, surprised at how good I am feeling. The small shift in mindset the previous night has allowed me to tap into resources I did not think I had. I begin to think of possible finishing time scenarios. Breaking 7 days is pretty much impossible, but if I pull an all nighter and go as hard as can maybe I can still pull it off. I have 26 hours to ride 140 miles and hike 24 miles across the Canyon carrying my bike. It is completely delusional to think I can do this in that timeframe, but just the thought provides enough fodder to keep me digging deeper. It is also incredibly empowering to demand something so great of your body and actually witness it respond.
Just as I am getting a little too carried away with heroic thoughts, I hear pfff! pffff! as sealant spews out of my front tire. I hit a bunch of goat heads all at once, some creating big enough holes that I am losing air. I stop and patch a few of the holes as they are not self-sealing as fast as I would like. I add a little air to the tire and keep going. It is remarkable that my tires have made it this far without issue. I had preventatively patched a few spots on the side walls that got scuffed up on the 2nd or 3rd day, but since then nothing.
A short while after, I feel a strange wobble under my left foot. As I slow down, my crank falls off! As I place the bike on the ground, the whole drivetrain comes apart. Oh no! This is really not good. I immediately think of how bad walking the last 120 miles would be. It actually sounds inconceivable. Thankfully, the crank was simply loose and I just had not noticed it.
I put it back together and keep pedaling albeit with a little less gusto. I stop every now and again to check the crank, but it seems to be holding up ok.
My bicycle is my companion. We work together and keep each other moving. I laugh at myself as I tell her not to worry, that we will make it together and I will push or carry her if need be.
Just as I think we are back on track I hear some rubbing on my back wheel. The zip tie holding the Rohloff shifter cables is broken and the cables are now hanging loose rubbing the tire. I zip tie it back and put a strip of duct tape over it for good measure.
I notice my wheel is a little out of true, which probably caused the rubbing. One spoke is very loose, so I tighten it, make a few adjustments to the other spokes, then keep going.
I drop down into a wash and a large rock flicks up impacting my rim. In the process, it breaks one of my spokes and heavily dents the rim. Fuck. As I sit there, changing the spoke, I can feel the accumulation of fatigue creep back over me. The heat is oppressive and sweat stings my eyes. My elated morning buzz has now dissolved into the sandy wash.
The wheel is slightly bent and out of true and my adjustments do little to improve rotation. I now have significant drag from the lack of proper alignment and wonder if I will in fact have to walk the final miles to the finish. With all these little mishaps the approach to the Canyon takes significantly more time.
As I get into cell service, I wonder if the Grand Canyon Village might have a bike shop that could help make some adjustments to my wheel. My google search yields one result, the Bright Angel Bicycles & Mather Point Cafe. That sounds ideal. I call them and a woman picks up the phone.
“I’m riding the AZT and was wondering if you guys would be able to true a wheel this evening.” I ask, in a scratchy, nearly completely lost voice.
“We can, but we close at 5 and the mechanic usually leaves at 4:30. Let me check if he can stay until 5.” she answers. “Ok, yes he can. Where are you?”
“According to google maps I’m 5.5 miles away. Please don’t leave, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I tell her in a very desperate tone.
“Well, if you’re here by 5, we’ll help you out, otherwise you’re outta luck.”
It is 4:15 and I start sprinting with absolutely everything that I have. 680 miles of riding, 12 hours of sleep, a wonky wheel and here I am, stomping on the pedals in a complete frenzy on the paved, uphill road. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I repeat over and over. And, somehow, miraculously I pull up to the shop just before 5.
The mechanic is in the back and greets me with a smile. I hand over the bike, tell him the wheels fucked and mumble something about riding for days and needing to hike the canyon tonight.
“Oh wow! That’s cool man! I thought you were gonna be some tourist gumby, who broke a rental pedaling around the rim road.”
The atmosphere is surreal. I am this lunatic, vagabond who just popped out of the woods into Disneyland. The owner of the shop comes out to say hi and as I catch my breath I start to share a few stories from the trail. Everyone is really nice and I feel a huge sense of relief knowing that my bike will get some attention and should carry me to the finish (or we will carry each other I should say).
My wheel cannot really be fixed, but the truing helps and I get a few extra spokes in case I break more on the last section. I grab some food at the cafe, and restock the bike, keeping my supplies pretty lean as I want to minimize the extra weight I carry across the Canyon.
I reach the South Kaibab trailhead on the South Rim at sunset. I had hoped to reach this point exactly at this time, to hike the Canyon at night and avoid all the people and mules that use the corridor trails.
The rules dictate that you are allowed to have a bicycle in the Canyon as long as the wheels do not roll on the ground, hence the need to carry the bike across.
I have 2 backpack straps that I brought with me from the start, a double length climbing sling, two carabiners and 2 ski ties to rig up my carrying system. I had played around with this in my yard and concluded that I could lock off the wheels with the ski ties, wrap the sling around the frame and attach it to the straps with the carabiners without needing to disassemble anything. The only rearranging I do is place my handlebar bag in the middle of my frame for better weight distribution.
“Alright, this is it,” I exclaim out loud. I shoulder the bike, take a deep breath and drop in.
After about 10 minutes, I realize that my system absolutely sucks. My tires catch on the sidewalls of the narrow trail, making the whole process exceedingly awkward.
I make it down about 3.5 miles to Skeleton Point, where I choose to reconfigure my setup. I remove the front wheel, flip the bike vertically, and attach it to my pack, in conjunction with the extra backpack straps for a bit more comfort.
The load is better balanced and I can now somewhat unweight the bike by lifting it from the fork and bottom bracket. The problem with choosing such a light system is that it is guaranteed to be uncomfortable, due to poor weight distribution and all sorts of pointy bike parts jabbing me in the back. Hiking with an awkward 45 pound load in bike shoes is not that pleasant.
Conceptually, hiking the Grand Canyon, carrying a bicycle after 680 miles of riding is one of the most spectacular finales you could imagine. In practice though, halfway down to the Colorado River, it is physically about as miserable as it gets. I try to feed off the beauty of the night, hiking under the full moon and really appreciate how incredibly magnificent and powerful this experience is. But, shiiiiit! It is soooo bloody hard. I am getting absolutely crushed and beginning to wonder how on earth I will make it up the other side.
It takes me about 4 hours to reach Phantom Ranch. I stop at the first spigot and take long, quenching sips of water. I carried very little water with me from rim as I did not want to weigh myself down anymore- a stupid move of course as I am now severely parched.
Despite the late hour, a guy is out with a blue lamp looking for scorpions. He asks me if I am camping here tonight.
“Nah, I’m hiking to the North Rim.” I tell him with evident false confidence. He wishes me luck as I stumble out of camp, trying to convince myself I can still reach the other side before dawn.
A few miles later, I am confronted to the reality of my situation; I am simply too physically exhausted to keep going. I put the bike down, and sit propping myself up against a trailside boulder. Since I do not have an overnight permit, I am not allowed to camp. But, I reason that sitting in the dirt at 2am, in my bike shorts, without a bivy on the side of the trail does not really qualify as camping.
Two hours later, I wake up in the same position, stiff, cold and still horrendously worked. I pick up the bike and resume a very slow, stumble north.
I could wax poetic about the contrast between pain and beauty, but truthfully I am barely holding on and all of my energy is entirely devoted to simply putting one foot in front of the other. I pass a few trail crews, struggle in the heat, and eventually reach the top of the North Rim.
Eszter Horanyi and her friend are there and snap a few pics, along with a few other folks running the Rim to Rim to Rim. Eszter is Scott Morris’s partner. Scott created the Trackleaders website, which allows people to follow these events with the Spot tracker we carry. Speaking of my Spot, my batteries died and for some reason my spare are also dead, so I am sure people are wondering what I am doing still stuck down in the Canyon.
Photo: Eszter Horanyi
Thankfully, the water at the North Rim is turned on and I will not need to make a 3 mile detour to the visitor center to refill. I do not linger long, only taking the time to reassemble my bike and use the bathroom.
Since there is snow on the rim, the track takes a more direct line to Jacob Lake, which is 41 miles away, mostly downhill on a paved road. This kind of easy terrain is deceiving in that I think that I should (or rather would like), to just immediately be there. But, 41 miles is still 41 miles. With any slight uphill or headwind I am on the verge of completely losing it.
I am so depleted, out of food and struggling to stay awake. I play this little game, allowing myself to close my eyes as I count to 2 in my head- a minute amount of relief, followed by a jolt of adrenaline as I swerve trying to not come off the road. Thankfully, the road is still closed to traffic, so it is just me, alone, snaking my way down the pavement.
I roll into the Inn at Jacob Lake, riding some sort of transcendent wave of delirium.
I buy a twix, a can of pringles, 8 homemade cookies, a BLT sandwich and fries, a coke, iced coffee, a hot coffee and proceed to eat everything at once, sitting at the bar. The waitress looks at me with a mix of shock and fascination. She reminds me that my coffee is getting cold, so I down it between mouthfulls of cookies and fries and ask for a refill. Gone are my inhibitions. I feel as if I am in an alternate reality, certainly the closest I have been to actually being wild.
I hurry out the door, 20 or 30 more miles to go, I do not know exactly. Nothing matters anymore. I pedal as hard as when I was racing to the bike shop yesterday evening. I am so close.
I am blasting north, up and down a few more washes, through the sagebrush, until finally I crest the last hill. Down below, I can see the campground which marks the end of line. The sun is setting, the fiery tint only enhancing the glory of Utah’s red rock. I cannot really express the feeling of these last 3 miles- extraordinary, sensational, no superlatives could do it justice.
My buddy Nico is waiting for me at the bottom with his dog Sol. He has set up his camp stove, and brought steak and beer to celebrate. I am moved beyond words at his generosity and could not imagine a better way to finish this trip.
Photo: Nico Barraza
Photo: Nico Barraza
I learned a lot on this ride, but perhaps the most important lesson for me was exemplified here at the finish. While I spent most of the week alone, I realize that this time of solitary reflection, did not turn me further inwards, but rather pushed my expression outwards to relate more deeply to the people and environment around me. I find that in these moments of vulnerability, our tendency is to repress our emotions, particularly as men, and to only value the physical accomplishment. Yet, the real transformation is one of the mind and how we choose to use what we have learned to grow, to thrive and to be better as people. I hope that as the acuity of the experience wears off, I will still be able to channel that feeling and remain grateful for how wonderful our time on this earth can be.