AZTR - Part 5: Pine/Flagstaff/AZ Snowbowl ~ mile 580
Drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, I try to make sense of the gentle chimes ringing through my ears. Is this it? Am I dying? No. Of course I am not. The sound is just my alarm, set to the “ripples” tone, nudging my weathered body to get up and going. I tap the screen to snooze and wait another 10 minutes. Damn. This is actually worse than yesterday waking up in the ditch. I can philosophize all day about how this is an elective endeavor, and how privileged I am to be able to take on these adventures. The truth though is that at 4am, freezing and exhausted, confronted to myself, I do not feel that serene. This is just plain fucking hard. Slowly, I get moving again. The sun rises (thank god for the sun!) and I begin to ease into the day. Within a few hours, I wonder why I was holding on to all that angst. Most of us have a self-preservation mechanism that allows us to forget difficult moments, or at least the intensity of those feelings, and only remember the positives. That is one of the main reasons I am able to keep doing long, trying events as I simply erase the bad thoughts from my mind and only hold on to the positive highlights. Typically though, this process takes at at least a few weeks, not a few hours! Maybe my highs and lows are just synced to the rhythm of the desert, with the ups and downs as extreme as the contrasts in environment and weather. The track transitions away from the dirt road and back onto tight, overgrown singletrack. I am moving slowly, but no longer frustrated. Knowing the Highline trail is up ahead, and how choppy it is, I need to prepare myself for a long slog to the Mogollon Rim. I arrive in Pine and stop at the first gas station. I microwave two hot pockets and sip a cup of weak coffee while waiting for them to cook. I take a bite and am immediately reminded of Jim Gaffigan’s stand up routine. “Will it burn my mouth? It’ll destroy your mouth.” Lava hot on the outside, still frozen on the inside. Great. As a precaution, I restock on toilet paper before leaving the store. The Highline, while much improved and a great running trail is pretty brutal on a bike. I push a lot, even on some of the downhills. I attempt to ride a more technical section only to go flying over the handlebars. In the process, I break the compression adjustment cap on my fork and my headlight. The fork is now locked rigid which is not great for my worsening wrist. I have been hooking my forearm under my saddle to lift the bike up steep sections as it is painful to grip and lift as I normally would.
I still have a good headlamp strapped to my helmet, but the loss of the handlebar light will slow me down at night and make it harder to stay alert. Since neither issue directly affects me in the moment, I do not dwell on them and keep hiking. I run into a couple of elder women on horseback. Before passing them, we exchange greetings and comment on the beautiful day. About 10 minutes later, they catch up to me and one of the women says, “C’mon! Shouldn’t you be riding!” “I’m trying,” is all I can respond, but I think to myself “my steed doesn’t ride itself!”
At Washington Park, the track diverts from the Highline and climbs up to the Mogollon Rim. I had thought this would be more challenging, but the climb is consistent, not super long and mainly in the trees. It reminds me of trails back home in Colorado- direct, steep, making it easier to apply myself compared to the last 20 bumbly miles.
The slow bumble fest resumes pretty rapidly though. I stupidly decide to skip stopping at Mormon Lake in favor of a campground on the trail that supposedly has reliable water. When I reach the campground, I am nearly dry. The small creek running through camp has a weird grey coloration. I notice a forest service truck and a man working maintenance on what seems to be the water supply system. I ask him where the spigot is to refill my water. “It’s out of order and I’m cleaning the system so I wouldn’t recommend drinking from the creek. Sorry.” Well, shit. That is unfortunate. I have around 30 more miles to go to Flagstaff, on slow terrain. My food supply is also nearly depleted. I had not anticipated the Highline trail taking me so long and underestimated what I would need. I have one Picky Bar, named “Lauren’s Mega Nuts,” which seems appropriate as I will be needing all the help I can get to make it to Flagstaff. I also have some gum. I chew a piece with a tiny bit of water in mouth, a trick to stay faux-hydrated. Adding to the challenge, there seems to be an ever increasing amount of gates to open and close. Gates are a highlight of the AZT. There are literally hundreds of them to open and close along the way. It is fascinating to see all the different styles of gates and closures, some with chains, others with barbed wire, and some with heavy iron deadbolts. Right now, my interest in the gates has given way to frustration as they only further interrupt the already choppy cadence.
About 14 miles from Flagstaff, I can see the San Francisco Peaks. I am a little delirious at this point. My water is gone, as are the mega nuts. I am running on fumes, fueled only by the wonderful comforting thought of all the amenities I am about to encounter. With 2 miles to go, I run into Nico (taking photos) accompanied by my friend Paul Hamilton. It is so good to see them, although following the rules of the event, we only exchange a few words before they ride off ahead out of sight, sipping their water and smelling like Axe deodorant. Finally, I reach Flagstaff and head straight to Whole Foods. I spend an unreasonable amount of money on food. It is fresh though - rice, chicken, fruits and veggies. I gorge myself in the parking lot until feeling uncomfortable, and then methodically refill the bike only with high quality foods. I spend over an hour replenishing my body and gradually start to feel better. Mentally, Flagstaff is a big milestone for me. Fed and rehydrated, I am now heading into the high country amidst the cool air and pines. My attitude is transformed and I pedal out of town at sunset completely reinvigorated. I am getting there. I am getting there!
Photo: Nico Barraza Photo: Nico Barraza
I can feel a renewed sense of purpose as I pedal up the hill towards the Arizona Snowbowl ski area. My plan is to climb to the highpoint of the trail, which I think is just shy of 9,000ft, then drop down to the valley to bivy in a lower and warmer location. This section again feels like home and I am so much more comfortable in this environment than the desert. The top of the trail comes faster than I thought. I had heard that the backside heading into the valley is amazing, fast, flowing singletrack. Indeed, the trail is incredible, albeit with a few downed trees and some snow on the upper sections. It is freezing, but I am not nearly as bothered with the cold as the previous night. This is partly due to being better fueled, but also a shift in perspective. There is not much that could upset how content and happy I feel in this moment. I make it down to the valley and find a near perfect bivy spot on a soft bed of pine needles. It is 2:30am and with 2 hours of sleep I will be getting back on the bike just as the sun is rising. Small details make such a big difference and I now cannot wait to make it to the Grand Canyon tomorrow.