Crossing the Canyon
A steel mountain bike with massive tires leans against a picnic table. The 3” wide rear wheel is on the ground. The front wheel is fixed against the frame with the handlebars turned sideways. Everything else — camping gear, six days of food, my computer, and camera — is stuffed in the body of the backpack that’s haphazardly strapped to the bike. It’s a comical sight and I can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I wonder how strangers feel when they see it…
I slip my arms through the straps on the pack as I straighten my barely bent knees. The bike is so large it nearly touches the ground when I’m standing. It might make a convenient kickstand for breaks but it’s a pain when my heels strike rubber from the tires. It’s heavy, over a hundred pounds with food and water, but I barely notice the weight because I am stupidly stoked for what’s coming. Until a few moments ago, I’d never seen the Grand Canyon and now I’m about to walk across it.
What is the Arizona Trail?
The Arizona Trail (AZT) is HELL, especially if you’re on a bike. Scorching, sun-burned desert with arduous hike-a-bikes for miles and miles that top out on freezing, sometimes snow-covered mountains. The little water that you’ll find, comes straight from cow tanks. At times, it might be easier to pick up a cow patty and squeeze it directly into your mouth than to try and force the sludge-like water through a Sawyer filter.
The AZT is lonely. Most of your companions on the trail are scorpions, Gila monsters, and wasps that paralyze tarantulas to lay their eggs inside them.
Even though the trail is hard and lonely, sometimes it can be heaven on Earth. The terrain you cross varies from the “Sky Island” mountain ranges to the cactus-biting lowlands of the Sonoran Desert - including Saguaro National Park and the Gila River Valley. In the north, you’ll climb the Mogollon Rim (if you can) and find the biggest terrain change of all. Here you’ll traverse boreal forest and then cross the freaking Grand Canyon.
Yes, the AZT might be difficult but it’s as diverse and varied as a National Scenic Trail can be.
Into the Grand Canyon
As I take my first steps into the canyon, I was met with cheers and encouragement by fellow river-bound hikers. The approaching hikers (headed back up) were exhausted. Their heads are down and their tongues are out. They are huffing and puffing and beat by the shear brutality of the landscape. It’s hot, 90-some degrees, and it’s dry. There isn’t any water between here and the river 6.3 miles below the rim (4860ft of descent). Even the signs are depressing as they informed us how many people die each year on this very trail (about 12 per year or 770 people since the mid 1880’s). When some of the rim-bound hikers saw me their demeanors changed. I’m glad I started so late in the day as I didn't have time, or energy, to talk to everyone. As they all had the same questions,
“What the hell are you doing and why?!”
“I’m cycling the Arizona Trail, of course! The bike is on my back because this is a wilderness area and bikes aren’t allowed. At least not assembled! I have a journey to complete!”
Their pain is forgotten as they are somehow inspired by my stupidity.
Delirium of Destroyed Muscle
It is well past dark when I reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the first campsite, Phantom Ranch. I found the stock site (for riders and their horses) and bend my knees to rid my back of my crazy burden. I could barely move. In my rush down before nightfall, nearly running at times, I’ve blown out my calves and beat up my body. I need to move and stretch to mitigate some stiffness in the morning. I know it’s a lost cause, but I must try. I walk, I move, I fill my water bottle, and then lay in the stream like it’s an ice bath. I cook a quick dinner after and inflate my pad on top of a table. Sleep is a delirium of destroyed, cramping muscles.
When I wake in the morning my body feels awful, but I know tomorrow will be much worse. I start the day by lugging the bike seven or so miles between Phantom Ranch and Cottonwood Campground. While hobbling along, my hands reach back to attempt to support the weight of the bike. Bent almost in half, agony doesn’t describe my continued plight into the Canyon.
To emphasize, I’m not sure any word could describe this journey beyond agony. I take short breaks when I must, but no more as I have a trail to complete. Irony at its worst - because breaks not only prolong my agony… they intensify it. My body cramps and seizes up often. I have to stop only when the pain exceeds that of continuing. I have to saying to myself, “KEEP MOVING. DO NOT STOP!” That is my new mantra and it plays on repeat.
On my second morning in Cottonwood Camp, it takes everything I have to prepare for another day. I’m not hungry as my stomach is in knots from pain and the lactic acid swirling through my veins. I force-feed myself anyway. After, I chug as much water as I can stomach and lay on the picnic table. I need a moment to stare at this majestic place and take it all in. Sparingly, my pain is forgotten.
Why Would I Do This to Myself?!!
I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my previous adventures that have caused personal pain.
Sometimes the pain is mental:
Loneliness with lodging in remote regions of the world.
The impossibility of walking thousands of miles across the country.
Paralyzing fear in the face of Narco Traffickers while cycling in third world countries.
More often though, the pain is physical:
Riding non-stop for three days and nights in a race across a state.
Climbing massive mountains.
Becoming ill in the middle of nowhere.
Exposure to extreme elements.
Chafing over most of my body including my privates. Ouch is right.
After seven years of gnarly adventures, I know exactly what I’m getting into and just how much it will hurt. Yet, this time the pain is more than I have ever felt in my entire life. I’d say I’m a masochist, but the truth is I only want to be stronger by pushing my physical limits beyond my current pain tolerance barrier.
A Mantra for Life
Do not stop.
DO NOT STOP.
KEEP MOVING. DO NOT STOP!
My mantra repeats as life is rendered raw with this journey, “just take the next step. Left foot. Right foot. Now left foot again”. It’s funny how easy and simple life becomes when living on repeat. My mind attempts to wonder and feel sorry for myself as it struggles to find a way out of this INSANITY. Excuses and visions of quitting now growing, but I pluck them like the weeds they are. Indulging these thoughts can be dangerous and consuming.
Keep moving. You’re almost there. Just take one more step.
I find this a common theme in all major goals - if the task at hand is too large, too monumental to fathom, then break it down to its simplest form. Sometimes this means focusing on only the tiniest of victories like the very next step, “right foot, left foot”.
My advice is to never lose sight of the goal, but also don’t you dare look too close.
Reaching the Top
By the time I reached the top of the North Rim, I’m a snarling beast that is so focused and determined despite immeasurable pain that my breathing is, quite literally, growling. I’m spitting flies through gritted teeth as I take my final steps. WAAAHHOOOOOOOOOO! I celebrate like I never have before! Thankfully it's late in the day and no-one is around to witness my craziness. Unfortunately, victory does not last long as I still must cycling to the campground.
I’m slumped against a sign with my bike tools in hand. First the wheel is slid into the dropouts, then the handlebars are turned and tighten straight. Bags are reaffixed to the bike and my belongings hastily stuffed inside. I force my broken body onto the bike in order to ride to the campground on the North Rim. It’s not open yet and my food supply is low, but luckily there some workers around. One guy gives me an ice-cream and the manager brings me a burger and fries from the employee diner. They are impressed with my journey, for sure, but pity and sorrow are their primary emotions. I can BARELY move and I walk like a ninety-year-old with arthritis after he fell down a flight of stairs. It will be three days before I’m well enough to resume the journey north to complete the AZT.
Aren’t There Other Options?
When it comes to cycling the Arizona Trail, there are three options for getting ‘round the Grand Canyon. Option one is enduring a level of pain I hope to have conveyed above. It will hurt but I think it falls into Type II fun. It SUCKS to do but it's great to talk, or write about later. The second option is to “simply” ride around it. This involves a 300 mile-ish detour on paved roads with an option for some dirt for the intrepid (look into the Wild West Routing or that of the Great Western Trail). The third option is a shuttle for you, your bike, or both. Roughly $80 allows one to walk across the Canyon and experience it in its full splendor. Your bike will be waiting on the other side.