Guys, I’m in Klamath Falls, Oregon, it’s May 25th. Got a few minutes before the library here closes. Haven’t had a chance to update the blog but will do so as soon as I get an opportunity (probably on the other side of the Cascades). Masha is in Reno. I’ll update the interactive map now — do check it out.
Archive for May, 2010
The western wind has gained strength through the night and we start our descent to Cameron (30 miles away) in the best riding conditions I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous views of the Painted Desert and the sheer 1,000-foot cliffs of the Little Colorado Gorge accompany our swift 3,000-foot descent in the amazing tailwind. I have known it, but Masha learns for the first time today going up a few local hills that a strong tailwind can actually push you uphill. I break away from Masha on a few especially steep downhill sections and routinely reach speeds above 40 miles/hour, eventually breaking my own speed record of 48.8 mph with a new one: 49.3 mph.
Eventually route AZ-64 reaches Cameron and joins with US-89 going north toward Utah. We turn north and heaven turns into hell. The traffic is heavy and the western wind blows waves of sand across the road. Big trucks scream past us up and down the narrow highway driving sand up into our faces and into our bikes’ drive trains. Masha gets off the bike and pushes it along the road. The going is a tough, scary slog.
Local intel about availability of services ahead suggests that in these conditions we’ll likely get stranded in the middle of nowhere without water or food. Therefore we change plans and detour to Tuba City, 10 miles out of the way.
Fifty miles to the south and visible for 100 miles in all directions, a giant white plume of smoke is coming off from a wildfire on the San Francisco Peaks and is blowing east along Interstate 40. The plume is three times the size of the Peaks themselves.
Grand Canyon… You’ve all seen it and know that it’s so huge it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it. Masha and I discuss how astounded Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and his party must have been one sunny September day back in 1540 when they were peacefully hiking in the woods and suddenly the trees parted to reveal the Chasm!
Just inside the Park, a coyote runs across the road and almost gives Masha a heart attack. That’s my second coyote. I saw another one crossing the road back in New Mexico.
After lunch in Grand Canyon Village and obligatory photos on the Rim, Masha and I cycle the remaining 20 miles along South Rim on Route 64 to Desert View. Different parts of the Rim differ in elevation by as much as 1,000 feet. And the vegetation varries accordingly. A sunny, airy forest of handsome tall pines at the top of the Kaibab Plateau changes to squat, tangled pinyon and junipers down at Desert View.
The views of the Canyon at Desert View are my favorite. The vistas here are a little less grand than back in G. C. Village, but you can see more: the Colorado, the Painted Desert, the Little Colorado gorge, and the Echo Cliffs. In this visual context, you actually get a better appreciation of Grand Canyon’s vastness and grandeur.
Though we only cover 56 miles today and it’s still early when we get to Desert View, we decide to stay here to get a morning view of the Canyon. So we get a spot at the Park Service campground and spend a windy night by a hot, orange juniper campfire on the Rim.
Our original plan was to go west after Flagstaff and Grand Canyon. However, the current lull in the wind is supposed to be resoundingly broken the day after tomorrow with strong winds out of the west. So I make a quick change of plans: instead of riding west through the Hoover Dam, Masha and I will go around Grand Canyon, into southern Utah, and through Zion National Park. It’s one day longer, but we’ll get some tailwind for a change and Masha will get to see the otherworldly southern Utah.
We unpack Masha’s bike and realize that the idiot at the San Antonio bike shop who packed it took apart all the delicate parts that he should have left untouched (for example, he disconnected all the derailleur and brake cables). I’ve never cabled and adjusted derailleurs and don’t want to spend hours figuring it out for the first time now, so we take the bike to a local bike shop. We incur a frustrating delay and Masha incurs a $50 charge for a bunch of work that she never asked for.
Finally we head out. The road winds up and over a high saddle between the picturesque San Francisco peaks and Mt. Kendrick. The San Franciscos are three snow capped, perfectly shaped broad pyramids arranged in a triangle. I deduct (correctly) that the peaks are a volcano. The mountain forest of tall pines and the intoxicating aroma of evergreens in the air are a drastic change from the past few days of wide-open plains and deserts.
Masha and I are both eager to have a real camp tonight, with campfire and all. But as we descend the pine forest gives way to pinyon and juniper groves, followed by a completely treeless plateau, and we realize that we are not having a campfire tonight. We reach the town of Valle and pitch our tent inside a 30-foot-diameter tipi, one of several for sale at a trading post. (The post is closed for the night, so we invite ourselves into the tipi without asking anyone’s permission.)
I am a champ! Rode all the way to Flagstaff in one day — 148 miles — beating my own distance record of 143 miles/day.
I get up at 4, get out at 5 (it’s still dark), and enjoy a desert sunrise at 5:30. There’s no wind for the first time in I can’t remember how many days. I cover 90 miles before lunch and feel really good about the remaining 60, especially since I can see the San Francisco peaks, Flagstaff’s signature backdrop, all day long, from at least a hundred miles away. As I ride west on I-40 I take photos of the signs announcing the diminishing distance to Flagstaff, with the peaks in the background: 68 miles, 48, 28… (see this photo and the next two).
Interstate 40 is a truck and trailer killer. Automotive debris covers every inch of the 60-mile stretch between Winslow and Flagstaff. (Locals tell me that it gets so windy here that this major interstate artery is periodically shut down to traffic, most recently a few days ago when I was stranded in Magdalena due to hurricane-strength wind.) There’s everything on the shoulder: mirrors, bumpers, lights, rubber, and yes, license plates. I find 10-15 plates, but lose interest and stop picking them up after the first five.
Except for the gorgeous San Francisco peaks, today’s scenery is unremarkable: it’s basically an endless red desert in all directions.
I reach Flagstaff after dark, physically exhausted but emotionally satisfied by my new record and happy to see Masha again. She flew in earlier and got us a room in a cozy downtown youth hostel. Tomorrow we pick up Masha’s bike from FedEx, put it together, and head out for Grand Canyon.
Out of Springerville the road turns north and I hit the leading edge of a big storm approaching from the west. The crosswind is blowing so hard that I have to lean 30 degrees into it. It’s a scary kind of riding, since I risk falling at every lull in the wind. To motorists I must look wasted as I defy gravity and careen all over the shoulder. It’s too dangerous, so I retreat a mile or two back to where I saw a rest area with a concrete restroom. This wind must be a temporary weather disturbance due to storm, though, since the forecast only said “10-15 mph wind”. Indeed, in a half hour the snow storm passes, the wind weakens significantly, and I go on.
But not for long. I ride into the dramatic darkness of another storm in about 20 miles, just a few miles short of St. Johns, where I planned to have lunch. As soon as the first heavy, wet snowflakes fly, I decide to wait this one out in a horse stable on a nearby ranch. An hour passes but the storm just keeps intensifying. It’s frustrating to be wasting time again (though I entertain myself by feeding hay to the horses), so I suck it up and head out into the snow. In just a few miles to St. Johns the whole summer countryside turns into a winter wonderland. My bike and I are plastered with a thick crust of snow. My feet and legs are soaking wet, since my shoes and pants are not waterproof. Ouch! See this photo and a few ones after it. (I can’t upload photos here now because the library computer I’m using has severe restrictions on file management.)
I have 60 more miles of empty desert until tonight’s goal, Holbrook, which I must reach if I’m to meet Masha in Flagstaff tomorrow night. My shoes had a couple of hours during lunch to partially dry, but are still pretty wet. But t’s supposed to drop below freezing tonight, so there’s a possibility of frostbite. It’s 5 p.m. Will I manage to cover the 60 miles before the dangerous temperature drop? Heck, let’s go! I press the pedal to the metal and quickly reach the top of the large hill five miles out of St. Johns. And what do I see from the hill? The black wall of another approaching storm. I turn around and head for cover. It’s snowing hard by the time I get back to downtown, so I’m forced to stay here for the night.
My personal one-day distance record is 143 miles (between Leoti, KS and Ordway, CO back on the 2007 tour). It’s 148 miles to Flagstaff and I really want to be there tomorrow. So my only option is to try to beat my record! I lube the chain, pump the tires, pack things up, set the alarm for 4 am and go to bed. It’ll be a long day tomorrow. Let’s hope the weather cooperates!
I’m quickly learning that wind is the single most important factor around these parts this season (people say it’s unseasonably breezy). I call my sister every night for a weather forecast and no longer ask her about rain, snow, or temperatures — just wind speed and direction. Today it’s out of the west, as usual, and gradually increasing throughout the day. By the time I cross into Arizona, pedaling is torture. Damn headwind! Every day. In your face. Like a curse… To add insult to injury, Arizona welcomes me with a passing snowstorm, vicious but luckily short.
My average daily mileage is 63.4 miles (if I include the 4 days off in the denominator) — slightly below the 65 miles/day target.
But I begin the day in good spirits. The scenery is pleasant as I make a wide circle around the Gallo mountains. A black mantle of juniper and pine covers Mt. Alegres and Mt. Escondido from head to toe. (Escondido is a misnomer, since you can see the peak from miles in any direction.) The range looks almost identical to the Adirondacks in upstate New York as viewed from I-87. Must be a good place for hard multiday non-technical traverses. But the difference is in the overall elevation: the plain is at 7,000 ft and the peaks are over 10,000 ft tall. As a result, no deciduous trees here, just evergreens and high-plain shrubs.
I get a room in a cheap motel in Springerville, AZ and spend two frustrating hours cycling around all gas stations in town in search of an Arizona road map — nobody has one! So I end up tearing a coarse map out of a free real estate publication and hope I can get a real map in the next town tomorrow.
Masha is arriving in Flagstaff, about 190 miles away, the day after tomorrow. Things better go smoothly the next two days if I am to get there on time.
Funny how one gets used to anything (especially by comparison)! The headwind has subsided in strength, but is still pretty strong compared to normal conditions. Still, I am glad to get on the road and struggle ahead. I clear the last foothills of the Magdalenas and enter the vast, breezy Plains of San Augustin. In the middle of this mountain-ringed bowl sits a three-pronged array of 27 gleaming white dish antennas. It’s the VLA, the world’s most powerful telescope.
The distances here are very deceiving: the Datil mountains on the other side of the valley seem to be about 5-10 miles away, but they are actually 30 miles from here! The distance drags for hours in the unfavorable wind, but eventually I make it to the Datil trading post. To my pleasant surprise the road continues through a deep gorge and by evening I reach the Continental Divide without having to ride up any major uphills. All rivers from this point on flow down to the the Pacific. East of the Divide they flowed to the Atlantic through the Gulf of Mexico. The Datil Mountains are different in character from the Magdalenas. Though not as tall, they are jagged and evil-looking in the sunset. Some of the walls have a negative angle and seem to be falling over themselves.
Though I was hoping to go further tonight, I decide to stop in Pie Town, for it’s getting dark and really cold. I cycle around a little looking for a place to camp and notice an RV park. The owners are not there (though there are a few guest RVs), so I tentatively pitch my tent right on the porch of the owners’ house and go exploring. The place has hot showers and a fire ring, plus some fire wood — what else does one need! I get out my food and whiskey and make a big fire. When I break smaller branches, they shatter with the sound of a gunshot, pieces flying all over the place. The juniper smoke produces a very special aroma that evokes a dimly candlelit Russian church. What a wonderful, clear, starry night! Too bad there’s nobody there to share the moment with me.
When I return to the porch to go to sleep, a big black dog and a cat are sleeping on a mat huddled together for warmth. They wake up. The cat meows me into letting it into the tent and spends the night purring next to me in the warmth of my sleeping bag. I would have let the dog in as well, but wasn’t sure it wasn’t a mean one. The temperatures dropped below 20 F that night. I guess the owners didn’t realize that when they left the house and kept their cat and dog outside.
Socorro sits in the Rio Grande Valley, so just as yesterday the road brought me down, today it takes for the mountains on the other side. It zigzags through the foothills of the Magdalena Mountains, then does a sweeping turn through the vast, flat bench — the Magdalena Fault — and goes up to the village of Magdalena in a saddle next to the 10,800-foot South Baldy peak.
What’s worse than riding against a screaming 50-mph headwind? Riding against it uphill! Though Magdalena is only 30 miles from Socorro, luckily I must stop here for the night. I had Masha FedEx me a package of warm clothes to Socorro, but FedEx screwed things up and I had to get them to forward it to a lodge in Magdalena, but the box won’t arrive until tomorrow.
I find a spot for my tent behind the forest ranger station, protected from the wind on two sides by the station’s walls. The wind is really picking up. I walk into a bar to inquire about a place to buy groceries for the night and meet a woman named Jen. After a one-minute conversation she invites me to spend the night with her family instead of freezing in the tent. So begin two days in the warmth of these simple and generous people, Jen, her husband Patrick, and their kids and friends. The house is full of people and I immediately end up with a forty of Bud in my hand. They also tell me their three-minute rule: after you’re in the house over three minutes, there’s the bathroom, there’s the kitchen, there’s the fridge…
By nightfall the western wind is gusting to hurricane strength, 75 miles per hour and the temperature plunges to 25 F. I hope that the wind will subside by morning, but the forecast is not reassuring.
The next day I’m stranded in Magdalena because the violent winds continue, so I head for the library to catch up on my blogging. The library is empty and the ten computers are all free. But the old lady librarian turns out to be a stickler for the letter of the law. She kicks me off after one hour. To all my protestations she just stubbornly repeats, “The limit is one hour per person per day!” I hate such formalists/fundamentalists.
We party with the kids at the house until we realize it’s 4 a.m.
I’m writing this entry on 5/7 out of Tuba City in Arizona’s Painted Desert. Masha is with me. Internet access is sporadic, so please pardon the blogging delay.
Right out of Capitan, scenic mountain country. I quickly reach the Indian Divide pass and the road gently deposits me into a long stretch of range & valley topography not unlike that going across Nevada. Then I plunge into the moonscape of a 30-mile-wide plain surrounded by buttes, mesas, and mountain ranges. Above it towers a huge western sky. The postcard road shoots toward the horizon.
It’s here that in 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated (at the Trinity site).
They say you can’t enter same river twice, but figuratively speaking, today I do: I cross the Rio Grande again. Thoughts of taking a swim disappear as soon as I get on the bridge and actually see the river. It’s swollen and dangerous. The muddy waters rush and swirl around the bridge piles at 3 meters per second and would simply wash me away.
I reach the 2,500-mile point of the trip just before Socorro. During the 2007 NY-SF tour, this mile mark occurred in Blanding, Utah.
Last night I found a dry mud flat in the grassland and pitched my tent on it. I liked its flatness and openness (e.g. easier to see any unwanted critters). But this morning I feel like a fool: a thin layer of fine red dust is on everything in my tent. The wind had picked up during the night, created a small dust storm in my camp, and even tore one of the tent stakes out of the ground.
I jump up, pack my stuff, and am on the way in record time. Twenty torturous miles in gusty winds separate me from breakfast in Roswell, but the remaining 70 to Capitan are not as bad. It’s bare rolling grassland with a constant view of the Capitan and Sierra Blanca mountains.
I’ve been wondering why I still haven’t found any license plates. My normal rate is one plate per 1,000 miles, and it’s been almost 2,500 on this trip with no booty. I focus my brain waves on the road, commanding it to produce a plate ASAP. And it complies! In 10 miles I pick up a Texas plate. Tomorrow I’ll find another one.
Unexpectedly the road plunges into a deep gorge. It’s the Rio Hondo canyon. Very scenic. The fertile 300-meter-wide valley winds for 30 miles between two walls of steep rocky hills. Cacti and desert shrubs cover the walls; in stark contrast, big lush poplars and cottonwoods line the valley floor. I can’t see the river, but when the road veers over a bridge to the other side of the canyon, the Hondo is just a narrow gurgly brook. It’s impressive how it can create and sustain such a substantial oasis.
In addition to the usual cattle, horses, and circling buzzards, I now see a lot of elk and some hare. The hare are well camouflaged but their movements give them away. The elk come out to graze at dusk. They calmly watch me stop and take photos of them.
I enter the charmingly restored (or preserved) historic town of Old Lincoln. It looks like equal parts frontier town, Indian village, and Mexican pueblo. Squat, painted adobe houses share the street with elegant dark-wood wild-West storefronts and a tiny white Iglesia de San Juan Bautista.
The sky ahead has noticeably dimmed. Venus has appeared. Behind me the moon has changed from white to gold. Historic markers are next to every building (some talk about Billy the Kid), but I can’t stop to read them — have to rush to cover the remaining 11 miles to Capitan. I don’t want to tempt the pumas.
The valley widens and the road starts rising again. Tomorrow I climb to Indian Divide, the pass that separates the snow-clad Sierra Blanca from the black Capitan. A tiny ember of campfire flickers on the mountainside. The air is crisp and without smoke. I turn my head side to side and my headlamp picks out pairs of eyes. The elk. The moonlight shines eerily like the headlights of a car approaching from behind. But I look back and there’s nothing.
I wake up to a bright, cloudless day. Excellent road, no traffic, little wind. The nearest town, Artesia, is 60 miles ahead. There I will have to make a route decision between going through Roswell and going through Alamogordo. It’ll depend on several factors: road quality, availability of services, wind conditions, so I’ll need some intel from local folks.
Meanwhile, the miles pass unnoticeably in enjoyable mental exercise. I practice job interview questions and solve practical math problems. For example, what’s cheaper gram for gram, beer or whiskey? Cheap beer is $6 per 100 ml of alcohol. Better craft beers (hard to find here) are about $9. Whiskey or tequila, $7. Though the harder liquors are slightly more expensive, they have the weight advantage and are gentler on the beer gut! I also try to resolve the old unresolved issue: is riding hills slower than riding flat terrain? Going uphill slows you down, but does the downhill on the other side compensate for the loss of time? The solution requires making a lot of assumptions about angles and speeds, but the answer is invariably that hills are slower.
The plain is slowly but definitely rising. The soil is now red and there are signs of wind and water erosion. As I crest another gentle rise, I see the silhouette of a large mountain ridge perhaps 30 miles to the southwest. Finally! The first harbinger of long-anticipated dramatic Southwest!
I turn north toward Roswell after a consultation with a local couple in Artesia and spend another night camping in the wild. This time around there are no cows or fences — it’s an open, rolling grassland, with the Sierra Blanca just visible over the western horizon. I should reach it tomorrow night.
Masha’s plans have changed and we’re now meeting in Flagstaff, AZ rather than in Roswell, NM.
Riding, teeth clenched, against the remnants of yesterday’s bad headwind. Can’t take my mind off the painfully slow 40 miles to the New Mexico state line. I am eager to reach NM in hope of better pavements and in anticipation of the famous Southwestern landscapes.
Around me lies arid grassland. The grasses alternate in color between gray-hair silver and subway-rat grayish-brown. A few stunted dry trees and oil pumps dot the plain.
Finally New Mexico and the Mountain time zone. And predictably better pavement.
Riding west across time zones, you readily observe the phenomenon of daylight starting and ending a few minutes later every day. Then you cross into a new zone and suddenly the sun rises and sets an hour earlier than before. Gotta keep that in mind to avoid riding in the dark.
The wind almost completely dies down by late afternoon. Clouds arrive from the west and spew short showers that I can see from the distance as slanted veils. Somehow I manage to evade them and remain completely dry. I make camp on a cattle range a mile west of the junction of routes 529 and 180/62 and sip bourbon in bright moonlight before turning in.