Wed Sep 10 17:48:41 PDT 2003
From the Gutter to the Stars . . . or Vice Versa -- Las Vegas, NV
Kanab was a nice town and I got some errands done while I was there on the 2nd. I moved on South through into Arizona, by way of Fredonia on Route 89A. As I started moving East towards Kaibab National Forest, there was a storm gathering to the South, with the wind blowing in every direction. It was hard biking against the wind, but mostly I was hoping that the wind would blow the storm out of my path. Meanwhile another storm started building to the North and I realized that there must have been a couple of fronts converging. I started to worry when I saw a spiral of dust forming out to the South of the road. I figured this was perfect weather for a tornado. But I also figured there was nothing I could do, and biked on hoping to get past the spot. The dust column fizzled out after a while, to my relief.
I camped Tuesday night on a flat, open area a few hundred feet off the road, amongst sagebrush and buffalo chips. In the middle of the night I woke to the baying of coyotes, probably right after moonset. I peered out the tent and saw an amazing display of stars, with Mars still shining brightest among them.
I had thought I was already inside the National Forest, but early on Wednesday the 3rd I passed by a sign marking the entrance to the Forest, and the beginning of a long climb. The Kaibab National Forest is located atop the Kaibab, Plateau, a lovely wooded zone that is one of the reasons the Grand Canyon is so grand. The Colorado River in Arizona runs at about 2,500 feet above sea level, while the land surrounding it is mostly around 5,000 feet in elevation, leaving room for 2,500 feets of cliffs. However, the Kaibab Plateau is an uplift of land that surges to 9,000 feet in places, leaving plenty of room for the mile-deep canyon. The net result is that I had about 4,000 feet to climb.
It was a strenuous morning but when I made it to the top there was a lodge at Jacob Lake with a convenience store. I stopped for lunch and appreciated the name of the place.
While I was at Jacob Lake, a heavy thunderstorm came in. I took shelter at the visitor center, but I still had forty-five miles left before I got to the North Rim, so once the worst of the storm passed I set out again. Thankfully after a while it cleared up and became warm and sunny.
I wanted to camp near the North Rim Lodge in order to arrive there by seven o'clock for an all-day mule ride, but I found out that the adjoining campground was full. Instead I stealth-camped in a stand of half-burnt trees several miles up the road. I had made the fortunate mistake of leaving my cell phone on even though it didn't get coverage, because my phone is my only clock, and it can't figure out the time unless it has had contact with the network since it was turned on. I set it to wake me well before 7 so I would have time to bike to the Lodge.
In the morning of Thursday Sept. 4, I rode hard to make it to the Lodge in time, only to find I was a whole hour early! Arizona runs on Mountain Standard Time the whole year round, while Utah to the North is on MDT during the summer. Evidently the mess is further confused by the Navajo Reservation within Arizona which runs on MDT, and the Hopi Reservation, accesible only through the Navajo Reservation, which runs on MST year-round.
I was glad to have time to enjoy the view, though. The Lodge is designed such that you walk through the front door, then down a staircase into the Sun Room, and your first view of the Canyon is through the enormous windows down there. It was simply amazing. I don't think I can adequately describe the Canyon. I'll say this, though. I was setting myself up to be slightly disappointed, to find that the Canyon was just another gorge, or that it was already over-familiar from seeing it on postcards and pictures for so long. I shouldn't have. There is nothing like seeing it in person.
The mule tour left on time at 7:30, after the host checked out my butt to make sure I wasn't packing more than 200 pounds. We weren't allowed to pack anything more than a camera and a water bag, actually, which worried me. They provide a bag lunch, but I wanted snacks too! I smuggled along a couple of granola bars in my pockets.
I was assigned to ride a mule named Dean for the day. "A good old boy, but slow sometimes," our guide A.J. described him. As we set out down the steep path into the canyon, we passed several hikers and I thought from Dean's jouncing back that perhaps I should have saved some money and walked on my own two feet. I've never ridden an animal before, and it took a little getting used to to guide him with the reins. Our guide joked with us us, "If there's any part of this trail that scares you, just close your eyes, 'cause that's what your mule will do." There were several times when I seriously thought Dean was about to tumble over the edge and I would have to make a jump for it. It took me a while to realize that his footing was surer than mine would have been, and if he stepped close to the edge, it was because he knew he could find footing there. Finally towards the end I didn't have to pull on his reins at all, except to pull him away from the trailside vegetation, which he seemed to enjoy munching.
Dean's slowness didn't turn out to be an issue because the mule in front of me, Ironman, was faking a limp. I say faking because after the guide checked him out and pronounced him fit to walk, he got right along. Probably he just wanted to get out of being ridden for a day.
We rode all the way down to Roaring Springs, a four or five thousand foot descent that took us through many layers of different rock formations. We still didn't reach the Colorado River, though, or even see it. When we had lunch and got water at Roaring Springs, we were still a thousand feet above the river, and we had to begin the return trip.
On the way up I was much more comfortable with Dean and could enjoy the scenery more. I was also more grateful for his help, as we passed several hikers on their way up who looked to be completely exhausted. Even so, it was not entirely the day of rest I had planned. Staying in the saddle can be quite tiring, and my legs and butt were rather sore.
Back at the rim, I went to get a campsite. The campground registrar asked if I was travelling only by bike, then said "Have I got a deal for you!" Instead of the regular $15, he charged me only $4 and put me in one of three hiker/biker campsites. These sites also happen to be the nicest in the campground, situated right on the rim and commanding a great view of the canyon. They are also a nice distance from the noise of RV generators and cars.
That night I met a wonderful couple named Paul and Jeri who were riding their BikeEs around the campground. They were travelling by camper, but liked to bring their bikes to get around. We chatted for quite a while about the canyon, the Bay Area (they are from Santa Cruz), recumbents, and cross-country riding (Paul wants to ride cross-country someday also).
As I went to sleep, there were several thunderstorms going on all across the horizon, and I could see lightning flashing in any direction I looked.
Friday September 5th, I resolved that it would be criminal to spend only a day at the Grand Canyon after travelling so far, and decided to stay another day. I spent the day riding my unencumbered bike out to Cape Royal, about twenty miles from the North Rim Campground, and one of the few spots along the North Rim where you can actually see the river. In most places the rim is too far away to see it. There is also a spot near Cape Royal called Angel's Window, one of the few natural arches in the Canyon, and a set of pre-historic ruins from a people that farmed the delta of one of the streams below, and came up to the rim to live during the winter months.
I caught a ride part of the way back to camp from a fellow in a pickup truck because I saw a major thunderstorm forming and had been struck by a sudden worry. I had moved my tent during the night and had only staked it down halfheartedly with one stake. I realized that if the wind blew hard it could easily uproot the stake and send my tent flying over the edge, along with my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and cell phone.
I figured that if the worst happened I probably could have gone and asked Paul & Jeri or someone else at the campsite to put me up for the night until I could get out to a town and re-equip, but losing my shelter would have been a major bummer.
Half the ride back to the campground was in heavy rain, and I arrived soaked to the bone and ready for the worst. As I approached my campsite, I was tremendously relieved to see my tent still there. It was tipped up on on side, and rain was pouring in through the vent to soak my sleep gear, but the stake had held. I would have a place to sleep, even if it was wet. I staked it down more effectively and went to the campground store for a cup of hot chocolate to sip under the roof while I dried out. One of the great advantages of staying at an established campground.
The sun came out later and all my gear dried out. I took a hike out along the Transept Trail and Bright Angel Trail to check out the view from Bright Angel Point before returning to cook dinner and watch the sun set.
I awoke on Saturday the 6th to intermittent light rain. I packed up reluctantly, figuring the rain was light enough not to matter, but by the time I was done it was much heavier and more unpleasant. I killed time by taking a shower and writing postcards, and eventually it let up again. I set out just as the rain was ending, and after twenty miles or so the skies cleared and the sun came out.
I made a stop at the Jacob Lake firetower on my way back out towards Fredonia and points West. The firetower is on the national register of historic firetowers, but is still an active lookout point. I climbed up and met Mike, the summer lookout (there is no lookout in the winter). He told me all about being a lookout. I think he doesn't get many visitors. He says he works in a grocery store during the rest of the year, and enjoys getting up away from the hustle and bustle, and having some time to read. Last summer he read forty-five books up there. He does look up pretty often to look for smoke signs though. The woman who held his post before him evidently had her back turned to a fire one day and wasn't looking around. The fire burned 465 acres and caused $700,000 in damages before being put out. She hasn't been up in a lookout tower since. He said that this has been a particularly good summer, with only 97 fires so far. Last summer was especially dry and they had a total of 170 fires. Most of them are rather small and the Forest Service often allows them to burn themselves out, but this time of year there are lots of hunters in the woods so they put out all fires.
I camped within the limits of the Kaibab National Forest, which is not only a beautifully spot, it unequivocally allows camping.
Sunday the 7th I rode on down off the plateau to Fredonia. Once I headed West on Route 389 I was finally making forward progress again. It felt good. I passed through the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation and stopped for a while at Pipe Spring National Monument, a quaint little spot that has been a spot for settlement by Pueblo, Paiute, Mormons, and others, due to its good water source. I took a tour of the "castle" built there by Mormon settlers. It served not only as protection from Indian raids, but also as a hiding place from the first wives of selected Mormons when the federal marshalls came hunting them for polygamy. Rather than being required to testify against her husband and see him go to jail, the first wife would run across the territorial border with Arizona (which was not at this time a state) and hide out in relative safety. Evidently this thwarted the case against the polygamist.
The Mormons ran the Pipe Spring settlement as a ranch, keeping dairy cattle to produce copious amounts of cheese and butter for shipment to Salt Lake City, where it would feed the workers building the Temple. They also maintained the Church tithing herd, some five thousand head of cattle which they simply put out to pasture on the vast grasslands. Our guide told us that the land out there, as far as the eye can see, used to be grasslands and huge sunflower fields, which used to be a prime source of food for his people, the Paiute Kaibab. Unfortunately, the grasslands were overgrazed three times, by the Mormons and other settlers. After the third time, the grass would not grow back, and nobody has been able to encourage it by any agricultural methods. Now it is just more desert.
From Pipe Spring I kept going through Colorado City, a community of old-line Mormons who still secretly practice polygamy (the Church issued an "official" end of the practice in 1912, under pressure from the government). The women dress conservatively, always wearing long dresses, and never cut their hair.
As I passed through town I got a flat in my rear tire that was a big pain to fix. I was feeling pretty down and discouraged by the time I rolled on to the gas station, hoping to wash my hands and get a bite to eat. I passed a young fellow with his car parked along the road, pointing a strange device in my direction. At first I thought it was some sort of survey instrument, and moved along. Only when he caught up with me at the gas station did I realize it was a camera. He apologized for his curiousity and told me that he had done the same thing eleven years ago. He introduced himself as Larry and told me he had ridden from Yellowstone to Grand Canyon on a Rans Recumbent, and had absolutely loved it. It really lifted my spirits to talk to him. We chatted for a while and he gave me some great advice about what lay ahead for me, as well as giving me a map and an ice-cold beer. He said that as a fellow cycle tourist, he really wouldn't want to ride the section of Interstate 15 I was planning, between Hurricane and Mequite. It goes through the Virgin River Gorge, and is very steep and narrow, with traffic moving at 75 MPH. I appreciated his advice, but stubbornly decided I would do it anyhow. The only alternative was hitching a ride from a pickup truck, and I was determined to ride as much as possible on my own legs.
We parted ways and I rode on North to Huricane, UT. By the time I got there and got some groceries it was nearly sunset. I started riding out of town to try and find a stealth site, but it was rather hopeless. I finally found a nice-looking RV park and went to pay for a site. It turned out to be much nicer than I thought, and the guy only charged me $6 for the night. And for that I got showers and a place to plug in my phone.
Monday the 8th I got up very early to get on I-15 before the traffic got bad. By the time I reached the Virgin River Gorge the traffic still was not terrible, but it was picking up. The Gorge was everything Larry had said, and there was a strong headwind to boot. Monday probably qualifies as my hardest day yet, purely in terms of cycling.
On the way down I passed a woman one the other side of the road in a stalled car with the hood up. Through a shouted conversation over the traffic, I determined she needed a tow. Once I got down out of the gorge and into cell phone range, I called a tow company to pick her up. I don't know whether they got to her or not, but that bit of good karma (I don't believe in karma) would come back to me the next day not once, but twice.
The rest of Monday into Mesquite was unremarkable except for the intense wind, which made it miserable. I was exhausted by the time I got there, and wanted nothing more than a rest and a good meal. I lucked out; on the advice of some guys at the bike shop, I went to Los Lupes, a simply terrific Mexican restaurant where everything is home-cooked. I literally could not have ridden any further once I finished. I spent the rest of the day in town and camped at a semi-abandoned construction site towards the South end of town.
Tuesday the 9th I got up early once more. One could get used to this. The air is still cool, the winds haven't picked up yet, and traffic is light. But I had 79 miles to go until Vegas, and by noon the winds had picked up again to full strength. It was another miserable, exhausting day.
But, the advantage of the freeway is that with more traffic there are more kind souls passing. One fellow saw me struggling against the wind and pulled over to offer me a ride. I was touched, but refused out of principle. Later, after I got another flat, a fellow named Rick saw me fixing it and turned around to offer help. By that time, though, I was done.
I arrived in Vegas completely frustrated and tired, but happy to be done riding. I found a library and looked up the one hostel in town, but they refused to let me stay because I did not have a passport. I got a motel, but I was more frustrated and disappointed.
And now I am out of time, but I will write about Vegas later!