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Pictures from the road...

Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Tue
17
Aug '10

Shout Out: REI

With a brief diversion into the pressing issue of what’s in my shorts.

This one should be pretty obvious, but still bears a little exposition. Cycling consists of balancing on a bike seat, lifting your knee and the pedal into which your food is clipped, then pressing that pedal forward and down in an effort to not fall off the machine, and, if you’re lucky reach a decent bar. In my case, I repeat this cycle (so to speak) a few million times. This process necessarily involves a lot of friction; it is friction with the road, after all, that allows the tire to propel the entire contraction, and you, the rider, forward. Not all friction is so helpful to achieving your dreams of cycling glory, however. Take for instance that whole step about moving your legs up and down while perching on a slightly padded piece of plastic that’s bolted atop a steel tube. There’s friction all over the place there, boy howdy: in the butt-shorts interface, in the shorts-seat interface, and definitely in the leg/seat/crotch interface.

A cyclist's friend

A cyclist's friend

Like engineers attempting to smooth the rapidly spinning bearings of a power exchange or adventurous swingers wanting to have a good time a new friend from the Power Exchange, cyclists solve the problems of friction in the simplest way possible: with gratuitous amounts of lube. In the cyclists’ case, this is Chamois Butt’r (referred to generically as butt butter. Yeah, it sounds kind of dirty). This is an excellent product with the sole drawback that if you follow the package instructions to “apply to affected areas” in public you have the tendency to look like a sex offender, but that can’t really be blamed on the manufacturer.

Since Chamois Butt’r is such an important part of the bike-biker friction equation I naturally took some with me at the start, in the form of tube held over from my last tour. After about 1000 miles, I switched to a new tube, recently bought at REI. Since my first purchase five years ago, they improved the packaging with a handy flip-top and squeeze tube. Sadly for me, however, the first time I tried to squeeze some into my palm, the crimped flat seal at the end split wide open. For the next 1000 miles I had to keep the tube wrapped in a plastic bag and dig the product out of the split end with my fingers. Then, when the farmlands of rural Colorado were just beginning to bleed and blend into the familiar ubiquity of north Denver’s suburban sprawl, I spied an REI. I didn’t need anything in particular but since they had done so well at outfitting me, I felt compelled to perform a pilgrimage to the first of their stores I’d seen in half a continent. It was only after half an hour of talking with the supportive and envious bike specialists and trying to find something to buy that I finally drew the mental line between REI’s unlimited return policy my burst tube of Butt’r.

Thus, my shout-out. As I said to the girl at the check-out counter: “God bless any company that will let me exchange my half-used bottle of personal lube.”

Mon
16
Aug '10

Grumpy and the Lutherans

A Kansas vignette.

Brewster, KS, population 285, population density 1,131/sq mi. The sun hangs heavily in the late afternoon sky as I cross the railroad tracks I’ve been paralleling and pull into town. It’s not difficult to find the main street and on that, the tavern: Grumpy’s Bar. I enter, still breathing heavily and dripping with the day’s sweat, then order a burger and an ice-cold beer (Coors Lite or Bud Lite. $1.). Soon Grumpy himself (60-ish, friendly, middle-American paunch) exits the kitchen and sits at my table and asks about my biking. After the usual conversation — how crazy I am, that Grumpy could get to the end of the town and back on a bike — he asks where I sleep. I answer with my standard line, that I usually ask around to find a quiet spot that wouldn’t bother anyone, then ask whether he knows of any spot like that here in Brewster.

“Oh, you can just camp in the park,” he says, pointing down the street. Without prompting, he follows this with an immediate addendum. “You know, it might rain again tonight. If you want to avoid that, you could just sleep in the Lutheran Church. It’s right across from the park.” Before I can ask my question, he adds “Just roll your bike on in there. It should be unlocked.”

I know I’ve lived too long in a big city, where locking your bike up outside is an invitation to steal it, but this strikes me as very, very cute. I thank him and prepare for my ride. The park is behind the bar and the church is within spitting distance across the street. The entire building is, as promised, unlocked. I spend the rest of my evening airing out my damp clothes, bathing in the church bathroom sink, and, while perusing the library, learning all sorts of useful ways to prepare for the apocalypse.

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Fri
13
Aug '10

Children of the Corn

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My view of Kansas

After I left my familial mountain sanctuary I road down the foot hills of the Rockies, aiming toward that mile-high city, Denver. Heading there instead of going straight east from Loveland was a last-minute decision, but I was swayed by the opportunity to again see my friends Jeff and Allie, just back from their entirely fun wedding in Mexico. Staying in their beautiful new house, chatting and screwing around out YouTube provided a wonderful transition from the sloth of my Colorado sub-vacation and the isolation of my summer job.

Eastward, eastward, on 36 he goes; where he’ll stop, nobody knows… Civilization falls away fast if you leave the urban sprawl of Denver and keep the mountains at your back. Towns are fewer and farther between, slowing to a trickle until a new and more flexible definition of “town” is required.

A note on farm towns: This is  farmland in a way that no place I’ve yet been can match. Crops surround you always; the only noise to be heard while riding are the insects and the irrigation sprays. Not only does is all the land from you to the horizon devoted to farming, everyone in that same distance is devoted to that very task. There is no other industry. This is a land of real men, doing real work, driving real, real big tractors.

There’s a calculus to predicting what resources to expect from a given dot on a map. Towns, as a rule, have gas stations. The bigger the town, the more likely this is, but the remoteness of a town, even a small one, improves your odds. Gas stations, more important than even grocery stores or restaurants, mean ice & cold water from soda machines. They also mean cold Gatorade, air conditioning, and snacks — anything from Powerbars to (yes, I’ve done it) gas station hot dogs. This is an important calculation to get right, as I’ve already learned the importance of water in allowing the human body to bicycle distances it shouldn’t travel in summer heat it shouldn’t be out in.

Sometimes these calculations go awry. Take, for example, my first night out of Denver. Because of an unusually late start that day, it was dusk by the time I reached my destination of Last Chance, CO. No, really. With only my one reserve bottle left and 20 miles to the next town, a gas station was my first order of business.I passed the intersecting highway without seeing anything of note and had already crested the next hill, looking for the town, before I realized that the intersection was it. This time I noticed that one corner of the intersection had a small square of grass (which I soon learned was Last Chance’s attempt at a “park”), and on this square were two cyclists, standing next to a tent, waving their arms at me. These were two more young English gents, and though they offered some of their small surplus, I made do with the two liters of Gatorade a friendly trucker, stopped at the neighborhood crossroads, donated to my cause.

In other cases, though, the variables in the calculus simply need to be adjusted for local conditions. Now that I’m surrounded so deeply by farmland, the service is less likely to be a full-service (to me, anyway) gas station as a farm co-op. Much as Navajo towns provide “trading posts” — all-in-one gas/snack/grocery/post offices — these small farming towns ignore the through-traveler in order to provide the locals with tractor parts, fertilizer, miscellaneous hardware, and a small refrigerator with soda and energy drinks. This isn’t terrible — that life-giving water is still available from the bathroom sink — but oh, what a joyous return to civilization it is when my map shows me a population over 1,000. In fact I see one, half a state away…

Tue
10
Aug '10

Shout Out: SportRx

BUY THIS PRODUCT!

I wore contacts for about a year in high school, but between the inconvenience of dealing with them and the fact that without glasses on I look permanently stoned (honest, Mom, it’s just how my eyes look!) I’ve been bespectacled for nearly my entire life. Honestly, I enjoy wearing glasses, and there’s only one time I really regret it: sport. All my friends get to throw on their Oakleys while I squint into the sun.

Not anymore. Before my bike trip I looked into prescription sport sunglasses, but all of them were more expensive than my Scottish blood was happy with — usually $300 and up. Then, I stumbled onto SportRX, a company in San Diego that actually grinds their own sport lenses (a distinct rarity in this business), all for a pittance: I ordered a complete pair of poly-carb glasses for $80. I figured that for this price, I could afford to gamble on the internet.

To my chagrin, I never got the glasses. SportRX shipped them, and our wonderful USPS marked the package as delivered, but it never came through the door of my workplace; it was lost in the postal ether. Since this was only a couple of days before my departure, I wrote off the glasses as a lost cause.

Weeks later, I finally got around to calling SportRX. The phone rang and then I was talking to Gabby.

“Hi, I ordered a pair of glasses and never got them,” I started. “I know it’s not your fault, so I’d like to order another pair. I’m in the middle of a cross-country bike ride and they’d be really nice to have.”

“Oh no! Why didn’t you call earlier?!” Gabby said. “You poor boy. We can file a claim for that package. Don’t worry, we’ll get you your glasses!”. Gabby uses a lot of exclamation marks. “I’ll take care of this myself and get them made tomorrow; you just tell me where to ship them and we’ll get them to you ASAP.” We then spent the next twenty minutes discussing my bike trip and her daughter’s plans & desires to bike the length of the Americas as a film project. Gabby is a very nice woman.

I got the glasses at my grandparents’ house in Colorado, and they’ve been a godsend since then. They will now be required kit for all my future biking and hiking adventures, and I fully expect to buy a second pair, perhaps of a different style, as spares. They’re not the most stylish frames I’d choose or the perfect fit — I did buy them over the internet, after all — but they carry my prescription perfectly and do it for 1/4 the price of the competitors.

A few years ago I read and article on how to provide remarkable customer service — literally, customer service so good that people remark on hit. Well, here I am remarking. SportRX provides a good product for an exceptional price, and they do it with real opticians taking care of you, the customer, internet be damned. If you are like I was, with not an Oakley to your poor-eyesighted name, click over now and treat yourself to some shade. Even better, give them a call. Ask for Gabby, and tell her that Will sent you.

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Oh, blessed sight!

Thu
5
Aug '10

A Retreat From the World

When people ask me my favorite place in the world — a question I like for its openness to interpretation and its ability to reveal a persons ideals and priorities — I respond that for me the title is shared by the Amalfi Coast of Italy and being at the top of the world in Rocky Mountain National Park with a pack on my back.

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I've been coming here since I was 6. Almost there...

From the stone-carved city sign high above the valley bellow, I descended down US-36 into Estes Park. A sleepy but charming 5000 person town during the winter, Estes comes alive in the summer as thousands of tourists clog the businesses and streets of the downtown, buying both caramel corn and hiking supplies as they give right to the town’s moniker as the Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. I know Estes intimately, at least as well as any other city other than my birthplace, so I bypassed the thoroughfare of Elkhorn Ave and took the back way to Devil’s Gulch Road. Devil’s Gulch rolls lazily across an enormous meadow above the town, surrounded by mountains and lined with increasingly expensive houses, until it suddenly disappears down a steep canyon.

This is my twenty-fifth year coming to this particular patch of Earth, with all its mountains, valleys, and lakes; nearly every summer since I was six years old I was driven along the river-following highways and up the dirt road to my grandparents’ house. This was my destination, and I was anxious to arrive. I’d reached the switchbacks — oh, those switchbacks — that lead away from Estes Park and towards Glen Haven. This was the first time I’d used a bike to descend the astonishing 17% grade towards the north fork of the Big Thompson River, and it was exhilarating. Exceeding the speed limit I soon blew past the Post Office and general store that mark Glen Haven, and followed the river into Roosevelt National Forest.  This was it… each sharp curve a reminder from my childhood that I was getting close. Soon I reached the turn-off to The Retreat, the piece of mountain land and dirt roads that is my home away from home here, and started climbing the steep path that is oh so familiar from countless trips walking down to get the day’s paper.

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My Retreat for the week

It had been a hard day’s ride, but I was shocked at the sense of accomplishment I felt pulling into the same driveway I’d pulled into for the last 24 years, after having gotten myself here from my house in San Francisco using only the power of my two legs. After calling out my greetings I was reunited with my grandparents and dads and I settled back into my mountain routines instantly. It’s hard to overstate how much I like visiting this place; it provides a perfect storm of scenery, company, and lifestyle. The days are indistinguishable and are always filled with the same dressings: early mornings, beautiful hikes in the Park; lazy lunches and reading on the couch; crosswords and jigsaw puzzles with the family on the coffee table, then transition from the the beer-and-cheese hour to communal dinner preparations; wonderful food, flowing wine, sparkling and stimulating conversations at the dinner table, then a game or a bit more reading before our solar, all before we wake up to do it all over again.

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The Clan Donald, 2010

This year, to my astonishment, I only hiked once; this was the first time I’d ever come to Colorado not explicitly to hike, but I was indolent and happy with my rest. I stayed at the Retreat for a full week, long enough to see almost all my paternal family, and long enough for my muscles to completely forget what brutal action offense I’d initiated against them to make them feel the way they did. My dear and wonderful grandmother pulled some strings to get me in with her cyclist and triathlete massage therapist, who knew exactly how I’d been abusing myself and made it all better for an hour and a half. I, to jump on the family summer bandwagon, started reading Stieg Larsson, and I reveled in having always available (albeit painfully slow, 2001-era) internet.



By my Sunday morning departure I didn’t want to leave, and I only managed to pack my gear and get on my bike by using this summer’s built-up muscle memory. Biking, my body reminded me, is hard. This had been a week of relaxing, of pampering myself; it had been a vacation within my vacation. All holidays must come to an end, though, and eventually I found the fortitude keep moving myself down the road. Soon I was again noticing the unusually far-away trees, and singing to myself, and feeling the strangely wonderful road hypnotism that comes from watching pavement and paint move under you for hours on end. I was back on the road, and I can now already feel myself being driven eastward by the beaconing siren call of my next and final goal: the ocean.

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Sun
1
Aug '10

Trans-American Books, Part 1

These are the books I’ve finished on this trip, to date:

BTW, I love my Kindle.

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Sat
31
Jul '10

Damn! I crossed the Rockies, yo.

I’ve been ensconced in my grandparents’ mountaintop retreat for the last week. I’ve been far too busy chilling all max and relaxing all cool to write here, but as I’m about to get back on the road, it seemed time to squeeze in a little world communication.

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Wolf Creek Pass - 10,800 ft. This is the top!!!

24 hours after leaving Durango (and 23 hours after discovering that 6 days off from biking will make a man wonderfully sore and tired) I summitted Wolf Creek Pass. At 10,800 feet it is the highest point I’ll hit in the country. It’s also part of the Continental Divide; as I stepped across the decorative gold line on the ground I entered middle America, a land of honest people who do an honest day’s work, and honest water that flows eastward to the Mississippi. I assumed that this meant that I’d be able to coast downhill the 1500 miles to the great river, but I guess we’ll see about that. The climb to this divide was fairly brutal — 3000 feet in 8 miles — but the views were fantastic, and once I reached the top I dropped like a rock through the National Forest until I found a delightful spot by a river to sleep for the night.

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My camp by the river, coming down from Wolf Creek Pass

Continuing to descend the next day, I cruised through small towns, following streams and crossing farmland for the first time. Colorado also marked my trip’s first encounters with rain: first some sprinkles while camping on Wolf Creek, then the standard afternoon showers while riding into Saguache, and finally a full-on nighttime downpour in Villa Grove. Luckily I was sleeping under this shelter in the city “park”, so I stayed mostly dry.

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I went on down here and had myself a time!

My next destination for sleep was South Park, CO. Yes, I came on down, and yes, I had myself a time, but not until I found the biggest pasta dish available in town. This was my second consecutive 80+ mile day, and I’d not been as responsible as I should have been about eating. The great turning point, however, was when I decided, despite feeling worn out from biking and tired from sleeping in the open air during a rainstorm, to try to make it to Boulder the following day — 100 miles away. Doing a century on Friday would also let me arrive at my grandparents’ mountain retreat on Saturday, a day earlier than I had planned.

What a ride! Based on my feeling the previous night I was concerned about my biking energy, but it was a needless worry. After crossing my final two passes of the Rockies (including Kenosha pass — shout out!), I went down, down, down… From 10,000 feet I had nearly a vertical mile to loose, and I took that mile with pleasure, rolling down familiar-feeling twisting river roads. 40 miles in I caught my first real glimpse of civilization. It’s amazing the excitement that a few multi-lane roads and chain stores can generate when you’ve been in 100-person towns for weeks. I cut north, past Red Rocks, and by mid-afternoon had reached my day’s Mecca: the bike lanes of Boulder.

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Chilling on Pearl St on my way out of Boulder

BOULDER! The biggest city I’d been to since Sacramento, it was even more of a delight than I’d remembered. I had a wonderful host in Robin’s friend Alyssa; she’d only been a resident of the city for a few weeks, so we got to explore together. With my short and final next day, I felt the freedom to stay up late and really just hang out: from a friend’s BBQ and 2am pizza to the Saturday farmer’s market and an Illegal Pete’s burrito, I crammed as much into 20 hours as dying man finishing his bucket list. My favorite realization what that every part of the trip reinforced how livable Boulder is. There’s a creek to lounge near and bike lanes everywhere, there’s culture and liberalism, and the entire city, it seems, is engaged in a love affair with the outdoors.

I left with a small tear in my eye, but Sunday afternoon was to take me the remaining way to Estes Park: familial homestead, home away from home, and vacation within a vacation.

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Tue
20
Jul '10

The Cruise: Colorado to Mexico

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but life’s been throwing me more curves than a Sir Mix-a-lot video. Since I got fired from my job at the carbonics plant a couple a weeks ago I’ve been rolling with my buddy Will and he asked me to write this guest post for him. Now I’m no internet dummy — I’ve surfed as many nudey pics as the next guy — but I didn’t know you could just write whatever you wanted. I probably wouldn’t even have done it, neither, but Will promised me to buy my rounds at any breweries we stop at, which is a fool’s bet on his part if you ask me.

So anyways, I met up with Will after he spent a week biking through Navajo country, but that’s his story to tell. We kicked it through Utah, which I learned is a bullshit state after the joker in the grocery store tried selling me this fake beer with only 3% booze in it, and I told him where he could stick it, since old Jim ain’t down for paying full price for half a beer. Anyway, it was a pretty sweet sight when we crossed into Colorado. Will was going on about how it was his fifth state and he loved the mountains and all this crap, but I just knew I’d be able to get a real brew. It was two Saturdays ago and the first city we hit was Cortez. I’d had enough so I laid my foot down — no more of this biking crap until we hit up the TWO brewpubs in town. A man has to refuel, amiright? Turns out they were both kind of crap, though, and this was back before I conned Will into buying my beer, so as usual I got the short end of the stick. The next day we stuck around town to watch the World Cup with some Dutch girls in a bar, which was pretty cool, then we ended up camping with them at Mesa Verde National Park. The girls were depressed about the game because apparently Dutch is the same as the Netherlands, which seems stupid to me. I mean, you don’t see me going around calling myself Jim and then explaining that no really it’s James, but that’s just one more reason I should be in charge of more shit.

Next day we hit Durango. Durango’s a pretty sweet town, since there’s a college there and I figured I’d be able to score some green, but no dice. Guess the college kids are too busy mountain biking and rafting and outdoor shit like that to help a brother out. After chilling for a day and a half and doing some bike stuff, we went to the Durango airport so we could head down to Mexico. I’m always down for a trip if I can afford it. People think I don’t like to travel just cause I don’t do it much, but it’s all a matter of finances. Usually after paying my rent and a bill or two each month, then putting aside enough for 5 or 6 cases of MGD, I barely have enough cash left over to buy a little weed and some gas for my car. Since I’m biking, though, I save that extra gas money, so I decided to splurge on a trip south o’ the border. Plus Will helped me out.

Passersby were amazed by the unusually large amounts of blood.

Some friends of Will were getting married down there in a town called Sayulita, which it turns out is about an hour north of Puerta Vallarta, which it turns out is over on the Pacific Ocean. We were staying with 3 of his friends from Madison, and the house we rented was crazy cool. I’ve seen a lot of nice tropical beach houses, since they shoot a lot of the SI Swimsuit photos in them, but this was way at the top. I spent about half the time in the pool and the other half in my thatch-roofed bungalow, taking just enough time out to drink the fresh margaritas that Gina made. The wedding was on Friday, and though I’m not one for a bunch of mushy girl stuff, even a man like me has to admit it came off pretty cool. It was all on this grassy cliff overlooking the ocean, and had Mexican food (I totally saw that coming), and best of all, an open bar. I threw out my best dance moves at the reception; no Credence, but the played a fair amount of MJ at the reception, which I can get behind, especially given that the dude’s dead now. Then we went into town and kicked it with the locals. I know my fair bit of Spanish — I can tell you the entire value menu at Taco Bell from memory — but I didn’t know what half of those dudes were saying. I was pretty pissed off when the bartender wanted 20 pesos for a god damn Corona, but then someone told me that that was like $1.50, so I ordered 3 more. Let’s just say that by the end of the night Mexico and Jim Anchower were getting along just fine.

We were leaving on Sunday and took a shuttle back to Puerta Vallarta. Mike and Gina had to leave first so me and Will, Robin and Craig cruised around the city for a few hours seeing the sights, as it were. Then it was back to Durango. Some lazy-ass stewardess in Phoenix didn’t show up for work so we didn’t get back until midnight. I had no idea where we were going to sleep that night since I didn’t have my car, which is usually my fall-back place to crash if my girlfriend kicked me out of her place, but some other cyclist that Will met in Durango picked us up from the airport and let us stay at his place. Thanks, bro.

On Monday Will took off towards Estes Park, but there’s some seriously steep shit to bike through between here and there, and I’ve had just about as much of this biking stuff as I need. It’s time to start living the good life, and I’d say I’ve earned it. I figure I look pretty buff now, so I can probably get some sweet tail when I get home. Plus I’ve saved up some dough, given as how my buddy Ron been paying me to stay in my place while I’m gone and I haven’t spent a dime to sleep this trip. Joke’s on him. Maybe I’ll even spring for a new wheel for the old Ford Fiesta so I don’t have to drive around on the little donut anymore. And I’ll practically be rolling in money once I sell this bike. I mean I had fun and all, but I’m pretty sure I’ve learned that biking is for pussies.

Sun
11
Jul '10

The Grand Canyon

It’s a pretty good canyon, sure, but I don’t know about grand.

I… was wrong. That’s hard for me to say, but I admit it here, in public. That was the stupid joke I expected myself to make when standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. Sure, I knew I’d be impressed by the  depth and scale of the whole thing, but I figured I would have at least one wise crack in me. I didn’t.

Like Michelangelo’s David, the Grand Canyon is one of those hyped-since-birth Great World Sites Everyone Must See that, when visited in person, still somehow managed to exceed my expectations.

After 2+ weeks on the road, a weekend at this grand national park, seeing Robin and sleeping in a bed, began to seem like a vacation from my summer job of pedaling, and I was looking forward to it as I would any respite from the workaday world. On Friday I left Zion and spun my heart out across the eastern half of the park’s gorgeous mountains. By the afternoon I had crossed into Arizona, and after filling up on water and growing annoyed with the state about its belligerence over daylight saving time, I set off into the southern desert once more. The plan was to meet Robin at noon on Saturday at Jacob Lake, the last useful meeting point before the Park entrance, so when I was twenty miles from that goal I pulled off the highway and set up my camp for the night.

Sleeping under the stars is a my favorite way to camp when I’m in an area like this; provided the location is secure from rain and insects you have the brilliantly starry sky as a night light, the sun as a natural alarm at true dawn, and only half the gear to pack in the morning. Granted I always get less sleep because I can’t not read until after dark (especially when I’ve just crossed into a new and silly time zone), but that’s a reasonable trade-off, right?

The morning came of perfectly and by 2 Robin and I were in our cabin at the North Rim Lodge. I chose this side of the canyon because I would naturally be riding from the north and didn’t fancy biking an extra 500 miles just to be able to walk onto the fancy glass pier jutting into the abyss, but I was pleased when I learned that the north rim was “less developed” and “more rustic”. This may be true in comparison to the Vegas Strip of the south rim, but with a hotel, fancy restaurant, deli, laundry, gas station, bookstore, gift shop, and even porters to carry our bags the day we moved rooms, we spent much of the weekend commenting proudly on how much we were roughing it.

The highlight, as with any good American vacation, was the TV. The first full view of the canyon we saw was from the sun room of the beautiful depression-era stone and timber lodge; the vault-ceilinged room was filled with couches, and each couch filled with visitors, all contemplatively staring at the room-spanning ten-foot-tall windows to the south. Normally you’d need a World Cup game to get this many people interested in glass rectangles for this long, but instead every one was tuned to Grand Canyon TV (later we realized that some other views were playing GCTV2 or 3).

And Oh, what a show! I’d expected a deep and wide hole in the ground, but I was surprised (perhaps foolishly) by how many sub-canyons, streams, ridges, mesas, and rocks there were, each baring a bit of its millions of years of fantastically colored layers like a dancing girl exposing a leg. The plant life, too, painted the hillsides with undulant patterns of green, brown, and red, the valley floors lush with trees and each river-seeking rivulet of water giving life to a whole world of brush and shrubbery. The canyons were so dense with detail, so alive literally and figuratively, that I could and did watch it for hours.

We hiked and watched, ate and talked, and celebrated the Fourth of July by waving the tiny American flags that came in our sandwiches. Tuesday was the end of the dream as we packed up Robin’s rental car and left the park. Like any girlfriend dreams of doing now and again, she dumped me on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and, after we’d said our goodbyes, left me to my own survival. After 3 1/2 days out of the saddle it felt strange to be rolling through the hills again, but by the time I reached Page, AZ it was back to normal; I’d had enough roughing it, and was ready to resume a normal life of sleeping in dirt, eating ramen, and thinking of all the world as a series of hills.

Sat
10
Jul '10

To Zion

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National Parks are way better by bike!

I was 22 the last time I toured the Southwest. I had just graduated college, and although I had a job offer at my desired software company, I had no desire to start nine-to-fiving any sooner than absolutely necessary, so I told them I couldn’t start until July. After I spent a couple of weeks using "decompressing" as an excuse to sleep until noon and get drunk with whichever of my miscreants friends were still loitering around campus, my girlfriend and I packed our camping gear into my car and we headed west for three weeks. After some time in those northern empty states — South Dakota, Wyoming — we dropped into the southern empty states, starting with Utah.

Driving through the Utah desert I fell in love with the desolation of the place. The first time I saw a “Next services 126 miles” sign it sent a jolt of awe through my body; I spun around, taking in the entire 360-degree view, realizing that what I saw around me was it. The view before my eyes extended virtually to infinity, unmarred by man’s touch for much farther than the eye could see.  This is the landscape that I’ve returned to on this trip. Aside from the occasional flash of fear that comes from wondering what if I need help and no one will stop for me, this landscape primarily gives me a sense of perspective. Every time I watch the road bend to avoid a towering pillar of red rock, I think, “That’s right, rock. We’ll accommodate you”. Every time I look into the distance and see an improbably balanced arch or column, I realize that we couldn’t have build it if we tried.

I left Cedar City and nearly coasted the 20 miles of downhill I-15 that I road. When bicycles are allowed on the interstate it’s for a good reason — there aren’t any other roads around — and there is plenty of shoulder; I essentially had an entire lane to myself. The problem, since you asked, is debris: debris comes from cars, and more cars means more obstacles to avoid. Therefore I was doubly happy to get back onto the two-lane roads that took me towards Zion National Park. I then climbed back up, up, up through the deep red canyons and passes that are the hallmark of the area.

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Finally hiking the Narrows (just before I soaked my camera)

In 2002 we had shown up at the backcountry permit desk ready to spend three nights backpacking and camping in the park. When the enthusiastic ranger, barely older than me and looking vaguely ridiculous in his Smokey Bear hat said that in that time we could through-hike the Narrows — the stretch of the Virgin River flowing between 60-foot tall vertical walls — I jumped at the chance. My girlfriend, the voice of caution and sufficient planning, pointed out that our packs weren’t waterproof, we didn’t have all the recommended gear, and this wasn’t what we’d planned for. Needless to say, the idea was scrapped. Eight years later, alone and on a bicycle, I finally got my wish, at least in the form of a day-hike.

The hike was fantastic. Imagine hundreds of people tromping through a river bottom, flanked on both sides by wonderfully colorful rock walls and surrounded by the most beautiful pink and red mountains you can dream of. My plan to wait until it got deep to put my camera in my waterproof backpack had the inevitable consequences; while trying to cross the thigh-deep river I lost my balance and went in, killing the camera (one can now conclude that a walking stick is recommended equipment for a reason). All the joy fulfilling a post-collegiate fantasy brought me, however, the rest of the Park easily matched. I enjoyed my other hikes immensely, and everywhere I went the views were postcard-perfect. Had I a working camera at the time, I’d be treating you to the best mountain sunset picture I’ve seen, bold craggy cliffs suffuse with red and gold light, glowing with all the light of a thousand Martian suns. As it stands now, I may just have to learn to paint instead.

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Another reason to love Zion

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