Southwest Stepping

Aug 4th, 2018 in Adventure

Chapter IV of the travelogue resumes in the town of Taos, New Mexico at the end of a week of bike touring through West Texas, at the address of a man named Stephen given to me by a third party on a mountain pass.

The door was open at Stephen’s, and he turned out to be an elderly gay man, living alone near the center of town. Stephen relocated to the area from South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island after a career as a restauranteur. He didn’t have much in wealth, but shared his home and life warmly with me, a stranger recommended by another stranger. We sure did watch a lot of entertainment news on the telly, which I found an amusing way to pass the time.

I spent a week cycling through the desert to get here, but why? Taos, of all the places I’ll likely go in 2018, is the furthest from all forms of transit. Well, multiple unique individuals kept mentioning it whenever I talked about my ideas of traveling the Southwest. Its fate was sealed when some of Jess Williamson’s band ventured that they lived there; serendipity always guides my path. Journeying to Taos, I checked my expectations about it being a mecca, as it’s a small town pretty far up in the mountains, so it couldn’t have everything, right?

So my highlights of Taos centered around its great natural splendor. One day, we drove up to 11k feet to the village at Taos Ski Valley, a place that is, of course, much more alive in the winter. Stephen took me out for a look at the Rio Grande River Gorge too, which is curious as a gaping maw out on seemingly flat desert that then drops 700 feet below to flowing water. A bridge crosses it so as to not stymie regional travel, but there isn’t much else there, save for the Earthships. They’re another curiosity, this time man-made, and a revolution in how to bring life to harsh places. The Earthships are soil / recycling constructed buildings, complete with greenhouses, solar power and waste management. The modus operandi is to be entirely self-sufficient, like humans would have to be on Mars.

These excursions weren’t the most time consuming, and I wound up having most of my time to myself in Taos. My style of traveling already has an enormous amount of me time, but in Taos it seemed to loom on me. The town sits at the edge of a plateau, once past the central plaza you’ll be going up or down, and I didn’t really feel like exerting myself at all. So I just padded around, rested leisurely & doodled around at the library. Besides Stephen, I didn’t really interact with anyone else there. This gave Taos a hermit’s vibe to me.

I decided to double up on New Mexico locales and get a taste of Santa Fe, which is about fourteen times the population of Taos. I scored a $5 express bus ride into town, not bad for 75 miles of travel with a bicycle. For lodging, I wound up at the Santa Fe International Hostel, which felt like Scavenger paradise. $25 a night for a room to myself, and more importantly, all the Whole Foods leftovers you can eat. The proprietor, who’s a bit of a salty dog, configured the place as a nonprofit and lobbied the grocer for a cut of their copious extras. I lived off expiring dips and breads for a few days of contentment while bantering with the curious crowd of travelers.

One dude, “Sea Bass”, happened to be driving his van to Phoenix so I hopped on board with him for part of the way to Flagstaff. My first hitched ride on this trip, finally! Dude even had his front passenger seat turned backwards for maximum comfort. Looking out at the barren lands on that trip made me very glad to not be on my bicycle for this leg of the trip. In the evening, he dropped me off at Motel DeBeau and said farewell.

I sure didn’t expect Flagstaff to be forested and adjacent to steep mountains. I did know about its proximity to the Grand Canyon, and that soon became my focus while there. The town’s hostels were helpful for info, and I was even able to pick up trekking poles at a secondhand outdoors store, while catching a slice of World Cup at a local falafel shop. On the side of the doldrums, was an expensive bill to get a spread of tune-ups on my bike. I ponied up though, as I was planning on riding the 75 miles to the Grand Canyon from Flag.

My ride to the Grand Canyon was fairly uneventful, likely because I started before dawn. Rt. 180 northwest from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon swiftly becomes a wilderness through the San Francisco Peaks that then empties out into desert. It’s fifty miles of no services until you reach Valle, which is one of those middle of nowhere locales that sustains itself off beleaguered tourists making the pilgrimage to the canyon. It’s even got a kitsch Flintstones-themed campground with a website from the 90s’. You never actually see the Grand Canyon itself until you’re pretty much at its rim. Despite having high traffic, the roads to the canyon were markedly safer than my experience last year in Yellowstone.

Inside the park is Grand Canyon Village, a sprawling and thriving community that spans a few miles on the canyon’s south rim. I was surprised to learn that 2,000 of the people that make the park function live there permanently. A robust bus system shuttles tourists about and a bike & walking trail network connects everything. The village has internet in certain spots that I would label anemic, but I was grateful to have it as an option. I set up camp with bicyclist’s privileges (no reservations needed and my rate discounted), got my maps (including some electrolyte packets from a backcountry ranger), and doodled around until my curiosity for what the canyon was finally got the better of me and I wandered to its edge. 

Laying eyes upon the Grand Canyon is one of the few times in my adult life I’ve really felt floored. There’s just this massive rend in the earth that goes a mile deep, with a menagerie of colors. It’s so far down and wide that the Colorado River which flows through it is not even visible. And this can all be easily witnessed in panoramic glory. Even the heavy foot traffic around the rim could not sully the experience.

My plan for the Canyon, after a decent amount of research and with the advantage of heat-acclimation from my Texas bike riding, was to go extreme on the hike. The standard for thrill-seekers I learned was to do “Rim to Rim”, a 22-4 mile hike from south to north, as a day hike. I aimed for that. Normally, people doing this arrange lodging on the other side; that’s too expensive for me, so I instead decided to backpack and camp on the north side. It hit me then that I could also just hike it in reverse rather than shuttle or pray for a hitch. So it became “Rim to Rim to Rim” (R2R2R).

This was my first backpacking foray on this trip, and I ran a very improvised setup. With my 26 liter pack, I managed to hold my sleep system, water bottle & 2 liter bladder, two day’s worth of food, & half a change of clothes, stuffed to the gills. I also have a hip holster for my camera and carried an additional lens in a side pocket. It was janky, but I got it to work. I have a water filter too, but I opted not to bring it as the canyon has frequent opportunities to fill piped water. As for my bicycle and the rest of my stuff, the lodges will check your belongings at no charge, even if you’re not a guest.

Day I involved starting on the South Kaibab Trailhead in the late afternoon. A lot of advice I got was that if I was to attempt this kind of hike, I needed to prepare to spend some amount of time at night to avoid getting scorched. Weather at the bottom of the canyon generally is about 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than at the top, and the highs are around mid-80’s in June; you do the math. The South Kaibab trail is 7 miles of open ridgeline descent, with no water or shade. Beautiful and desolate would describe the area well, and in my three-hour descent I only saw maybe fifty people once I got in.

I crossed the Colorado River along one of its two footbridges. It’s funny to strive through a desert to a water source at the bottom and be told to avoid it. The Colorado River runs fast and frigid. It wasn’t always that way; the Glen Canyon Dam miles north in Page altered the ecology of the river, not only making it so humans can’t swim in it easily, but also changing which flora and fauna survive. I laud the park service for educating on that fact, and the offending dam may be famous as a feature of Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang that is a fictional account of environmentalists aiming to sabotage it.

At the bottom of the canyon is a campground, and the famous Phantom Ranch. The ranch was constructed a century ago and has served as a curious hospitality destination for the intrepid traveler. As I stumbled in at dinner time, I didn’t get to enjoy any amenities besides a flushing bathroom. The guests lounging outside were baffled that I was just coming in and planning to continue another 14 miles, and I felt those momentary pangs and deep envy seeing this checkpoint with flowing water, verdant foliage and content humans, but I was set and determined to keep on. At this point, the South Kaibab Trail becomes the North Kaibab Trail.

As I set out, I missed the spectacle of watching sunset on the Colorado River as I set into Bright Angel Canyon, which is a lesser canyon that runs perpendicular to the Colorado and is the only well-trafficked route to the North Rim. Immediately north of Phantom Ranch is this section called “The Box” where tall walls block the sun. This is an area to be avoided during the day as it traps heat. It didn’t take long there for me to be plunged into darkness and the slight paranoia from losing your vision sets in; I saw deer but imagined mountain lions. I fashioned a headlamp out of my front bike light and a bandana for navigation until I emerged into a wider part of the canyon and felt the moon’s glow upon me. I tentatively turned off the lamp and found I could see.

There was a sense of serenity conveyed to me being under that waxing moon. I navigated by its light alone for much of that night. I’d never had that privilege before in any of my night hikes through the much more dense canopy of the Northeast. It also had an ancillary benefit, as by the end of my journey, my bike light died and I had to wield my phone in flashlight-mode to navigate through the shadowed ascent. I was not alone in my madness either, I passed 5 other people overnight; their headlamps glowing far above or below were like beckoning fireflies.

Ascending to the North Rim was certainly a physical trial, but the night walking lessened the blow, at least in my imagination. It would be about 2 AM, or 11 hours of dedicated hiking before I reached its end. I thought I’d try and make it an extra mile and find the official campground, but my body was just about ready to turn off, so I lurched off trail a few dozen feet until I found an approximately flat spot with few spiky pinecones and set up camp before the chill set in my bones. The lows on the North Rim at night is about 70 degrees lower than the highs at the bottom, approximately in the mid 40’s. My shelter can handle it, and I slept the sleep of the dead.. for four hours or so until light woke me up and I decamped.

So, I had a day on the other side before I’d make a return at first light. Time for equal parts doing backpacker chores and being a tourist. I laundered my filthy, dust-stained clothes, paid for a shower, & ate breakfast at the general store (frozen bean & cheese burritos, chips, salsa & coffee), and then lumbered around on the rim until I got to Bright Angel Point, an extremely scenic precipice at the end of one of the canyons. I had a comparatively extravagant dinner buffet at the lodge before skulking off back to my stealth spot for the night. My day off wound up being about 5 miles of hiking in total.

I began my return at about 5 AM, which would wind up being nearly too late a start. You wouldn’t think that at the time, with it being the barest hint of the sun on the horizon and the air frigid. Alas, the return journey, rather than being a peaceful stroll, became an exercise in expediency. As the sun rises, so did my discomfort, and a sense of urgency set in to at least be well into my ascent by midday. Doing a hike in reverse is almost completely a unique experience, especially when one journey is in shadow and one in light. AT Winter SOBO 2018?

I brought back one of my tried and true techniques from the AT, downhill trail running. Cliffs I ascended in cold darkness, I blazed down in the first hours of daylight. With that weight on my back, I just wanna roll with the momentum rather than fight it, ya know? It’ll probably be the end of me someday. Despite my haste, the descent back down North Kaibab was my favorite section of the trail and insanely beautiful in the morning light; I took many breaks to photograph it.

I made it back into “The Box” at about 8:30 AM, and found myself dashing between its ever-dwindling points of shade as the sun continued its rise. An hour later, I was back at Phantom Ranch. This time, I was able to get into the cantina and score refills of lemonade for $1 in my water bottle. The beverages actually cost $5, but $4 of that is for the plastic cups and the cost in its portage up or down a mile by mule. I do appreciate factoring that into the price, and I couldn’t believe how many people happily paid it. Meanwhile, a $6 Tecate there is still cheaper than some bars in NYC.

It was about 10 AM when I was ready to depart Phantom, and I erred in not carrying sunscreen. Buying a smidgeon for $10 at the ranch was out of the question, and I didn’t feel like begging, so I put myself in the unenviable situation of donning my track jacket (yes, that same one from Asheville) and long pants for the remaining 9 miles up the alternate South Rim trail, Bright Angel Trail. People typically use this trail going up as it has frequent water refills and a lower grade.

One thing they don’t tell you about hiking the Grand Canyon are how you interact with the mules. The trails are littered with their feces, and hikers yield right of way to them. I felt myself seething while I waited 10 minutes for their tour guide in front of me to deliver his spiel. I probably wouldn’t have cared nearly as much if I wasn’t squeezing myself against a rock face for a spit of shade while the sun was hitting its zenith. I know that I just happened to have a particularly bad timing, that they are a tradition of the park and a revenue stream, but I consider them a nuisance.

After passing the mules, I left the river’s side and started the climb to Indian Garden, which is about 5 miles horizontal and half that vertical. This would be the hardest single part of the hike for me, where the sun was blazing center in the sky, and the temperatures easily hovering at or above 100. I kept going with the knowledge that every step up was a fraction of a degree cooler. All along the trail up, I would encounter multiple people, prepared and unprepared, huddling in the tiniest pockets of shade desperate to reduce temperatures. I’m sure they were all baffled to see me charging through with heavy clothing on. I took one long break squeezed in a tiny cave with a group of welcoming Indian marathoners, the group of whom I had photographed on their departure the day before and were definitely surprised to see me again.

Once I hit Indian Garden, the checkpoints for water became every mile and a half, so now my only remaining foes would be heat exhaustion and hyponatremia. Hyponatermi-what? It’s an affliction when you drink too much water and have too little salt in your body that’ll waste you. I had the last of my electrolyte packets ready to avoid losing my salt, and I just splashed myself with water constantly for the heat. As the South Rim neared, so did the population density on the trail, and I found myself blasting past the crowds of tourists in the final mile like a force of nature, soaked with sweat and water, grunting with each step. I finished at about 3 PM, making the two hikes a total of 46 miles in 48 hours. We ultra now?

I camped for that night and the next in GC Village before heading back to Flagstaff. I didn’t really do anything remarkable with my last day, as I was way too wiped out. I had aspirations of walking the rim at dusk or something scenic like that, but my calves were screaming bloody murder at me. Retracing my cycling back was a much harder ride; I didn’t leave early enough, and didn’t carry enough water for the scorching that awaited me. Would you believe my luck when a lost tourist on the one way road to the canyon pulls up and asked me if they’re going the right way. I kindly told them yes, and, parched, asked if they had any water to spare. I got a pint sized bottle, privately bemoaned/cherished the plastic that got it to me, and made it the rest of the way.

I spent one more night in Flag, meeting another cyclist named Graham who biked in along Route 66 rocking teal panniers. I’d later hit him up in San Francisco for a place to stay. We got a few drinks and pasties, a recommend from another cyclist back in Santa Fe; they were pretty much jazzed up calzones. Graham was gone before dawn the next day to continue his ride West. I lounged around Flag and the hostel until dark for the night train to Los Angeles.

This would have been another unremarkable ride on the rails, except that I turned 30. I went to one of the cramped bathrooms after waking up in, looked in the mirror, and remarked on this new milestone to myself. But, things didn’t really feel any different.

My next stop would be Eastvale, California to visit Stillwell, who works in e-sports and moved out there from Long Island. I caught him in Austin already once on this trip when he was there for Dreamhack. I might have had a trivial ride from San Bernardino or Riverside, but noooo… Amtrak won’t let me offload a bicycle in those cities despite their significant populations. Nope, I had to get off in Fullerton and ride 30 miles back the way I came. Thanks, Amtrak. At least there was a bike path most of the way along the Santa Ana River.

Stillwell’s parents were in town, so I got my one b-day treat, pizzas and beers. I last saw them three years ago on the first time I ever did something crazy with my bike, when I rode out to their home in Islip from Brooklyn. The next day, I’d ride my bike to Montauk (~70 miles) and suffer a vicious sunburn, but feel victorious. It was good to see them again, albeit briefly, as the fam was on the way to the San Diego Zoo the next day, so I had to keep moving.

From Riverside, I actually biked further East, to Palm Springs, to convene with Gisela, a friend of a friend that I talked backpacking with a year ago the one time we met. I rode adjacent to, and briefly on, I-10 through the San Timoteo Canyons. I saw my first orange groves there. Gisela hosted me, told me about her solo travels through South America last year, and we got prepared to ride into LA proper and then book it for Yosemite for a day hike. Which in hindsight was kind of nuts (it’s a 4-5 hour drive one way from LA), but I was fresh off Grand Canyon highs and excited to see another park. Well, we got to LA, and then she had to cancel and return home to care for her nephew, so that never came to pass. I at least wound up where I wanted to be.

I crashed with two good friends in LA, the first of which was Tarryn. We met cycling on TransAm in the state of Idaho and immediately got to vibe on our cosmopolitan world views and senses of humor. She’s traded in the bicycle for Crossfit now and rocks better defined arms than me. The timing involved her just starting a new gig at Warner Brothers, so I got up to my own devices most of the time. We DID manage to carve out enough time to watch Magic Mikes I & II though.

From Tarryn’s in North Holllywood, I biked down to Mid-Wilshire to see my buddy Bold, an acquaintance from my World of Warcraft days. Bold’s visited me a bunch of times in New York. We did Mardi Gras together in New Orleans many years back, one of my first traveling experiences. Bold always knows the good spots to go, so we visited his girlfriend, Zoey, at work in the Getty Center, took a stroll to the new Scottish Rite Masonic Temple (which recently converted into an art museum), brewed beer and saw fireworks in Culver City for the 4th. An action packed calendar, for sure.

Most of y’all know I’m a fiend for Magic: the Gathering, and a new set was coming out, so I put myself through a cardboard ringer. Within walking distance of Bold’s place was NextGen Games, a game store hosting a midnight release of a new set affordably and I had the night open. I got there at 7 for an earlier draft event to further the binge. I played about 6 hours of magic, got home for 4 AM quite sated but exhausted. When I think about things I miss in NYC, my regular Magic happenings and my friends from it are one of the first things to spring to mind.  

Well, after all this socializing, it was getting time to mosey on and continue the journey. Next up would be San Francisco, a day’s drive north. I finally organized a successful rideshare through Craigslist, so no need for a filthy, overcosted Amtrak. Jenn met me in West L.A. and we scootered up through the Central Valley. Of course there was a catch, she wasn’t going all the way to the city proper, instead stopping on the peninsula at a tiny rural town called La Honda for a summer camp counselor gig.

I said, “Sure, ditch me there, I’ll find a spot to camp and ride the last 50 miles into SF on the 1.”

At midnight, she dropped me off next to the town’s volunteer fire department, and I found a little logging road with a perfect cutout for me to ensconce myself in safety and comfort in the pines.