I woke up at first light to a temperature reading of 17 degrees F. It truly had plummeted temperatures all night long. A cold wind blew from the east making the temperature feel like 12. There was no way I was going to start biking until more sun hit me and warmed the air. By 7:30-8 am, I finally dragged myself out into the ridiculous cold, packed up my gear, and got going. I was feeling the urgency of covering miles as I had finished yesterday about 15 miles short of my desired camping. Plus, today I was going to have the largest elevation gain of the whole ride.
The cattle tank beckoned so I filled up all my water needs for the day because nothing would be sure from here to the end. I took a swig of the algae water tasted the plant-life in it….mmhmm. From the cattle tank, the route fled down from high elevation to low, traversing rocky double jeep double track from pines to junipers down to the high grasslands desert-plains of Babbitt Ranches. A cold wind blew forcefully the whole time.
Out on the Babbitt Ranch, I rode for several miles against the headwind before I reached a junction and realized, with surprise, that this was where the Arizona Trail was! The AZT marker stood next to the cached Hiker Box. We had camped just near here back in the last week or so of the AZT from the spring. I immediately recognized the route heading north to the Grand Canyon, and the southeast towards Humphreys Peak. Measuring how far behind I was, the amount of day left, and climbing ahead, I realized my goal of going around SP Crater and Sunset Crater just wouldn’t be in the cards timewise. I decided to hybridize the route with the AZT bikepacking route and the Western Wildlands Route to turn and immediately ascend the San Francisco Peaks (and their crater field) to get back to Flagstaff. I promised myself to return and do the missed route on a future ride.
With that, I turned south and started the long climb up the AZT/WWR towards Humphreys. All afternoon, I pedaled up the rocky dirt road through the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The views north were spectacular to the plains as were the ones south to the mountains. I eventually merged with the AZT on singletrack and rode about 10 miles of it upwards, transitioning back into the pines. By mid-afternoon, I hit the saddle on the forest road forming the circumference of the peaks and stood amidst a massive mature aspen grove. I turned left on the road. The flanks of Humphreys were awash with bright hold aspen in full splendid color. Once I cleared a second saddle, I rushed down the east side of the mountains towards the route up to Lockett Meadow.
By 4 pm, I stood at the junction for the road all the way back up the mountain to Lockett. Raked with indecision, and low on water, I knew I could ride the highway in for a long approach to Flagstaff or ride back up the mountain, cross Lockett Meadow, and take the fire road down the other side. I opted for the ladder and began riding upwards. Even at 4, the temperature was crashing back down to bitter cold with the waning afternoon sun. But the upwards push made me sweat, meaning I was in that awkward place with a jacket on but completely unzipped. Scores of cars flooded up and down next to me on the narrow, nearly single-lane road; everyone was trying to secure camping for the weekend. By the time I hit Lockett Meadow, it was now evening. The WWR took the Inner Basin Trail up through the woods, but I knew this was long and winding singletrack. A year before, I had found an old abandoned, CRAZY STEEP, but short eroded gravel track that was fenced to cars, but could be navigated by food or bike that led out a side road from Lockett. I chose this and kept my climbing up.
I walked around the gate and began a punishing steep climb up the side of the mountain to the fire road. I was also racing the remaining sunlight beginning to wane. My Surly Karate Monkey is already a heavy beast without bags, let alone without gear strapped to it. The route was so steep that I would push the bike up with all my strength (literally heaving out of breath), then grip the brakes. Finally, I would shuffle my feet up. On repeat, over and over. Within 45 physically demanding minutes, I hit the fire road and gave a victor’s roar, for real. I began quickly putting on cold gear as I was at 9,000 feet and the temperature was even colder. No sooner had I donned my insulation, then a guy gravel grinding came by. He lived in Flagstaff, was doing prep ride to race the Coconino 250, and he was incredulous that I pushed my bike up that gravel route.
“Dude, I rode down that once and decided I would never ride it again. I can’t imagine that you PUSHED your bike and gear up that….that’s fucking insane!”
Yes, it was.
He asked if I was going to check out the aspen up the road a bit. To be honest, I was tired and had decided mid-climb to skip the aspen and just head down to Flagstaff.
“You can’t have done such a badass thing and miss the beauty at the end!” he said to me.
He was right. I was invigorated and biked up the fire road in fast ended daylight. Even in evening shades, it was absolutely, unquestionably worth it. Aspen stood in thick mature groves with a canopy of goldfinch yellow and sunset orange. Most of the road in front of me me was carpeted in a blanket of fallen leaves. Worth it indeed.
With the fully below the horizon, I turned on my lights and prepared for a chilling descent down the mountain for like 20 miles from 9,000 feet. I flew.
I crested a corner and an old burn provided expansive glimpses of the horizon where the umbra of the mountain spilled long and full onto the atmospheric haze in the distance. Purples and pinks faded to pitch black night and now the temperature was going back below freezing. I pedaled as fast as good, chilling me further, but getting me down faster. I was speeding down past Weatherford Trailhead into the ink dark with elk calling out around me. I was so cold I could no longer feel my fingers. Long out of liquid to drink, I was equally dehydrated. I knew my first stop at the bottom and with speed I raced to a Shell gas station once back at the periphery of civilization. The clerk said I looked cold as shit and made fun of me for it. I ignored him and bought the tallest cup of boiling hot chocolate I could and a bunch of cheese. I asked if I could drink inside to warm up and was obliged. For 45 minutes, I drank probably a total liter of hot chocolate and several chunks of gas station cheese. My fingers had feeling returned, my dehydration (and subsequent nausea decreased), and I knew it was only 8 miles of pedaling across the city to Esther and Mike’s house.
I easily covered the urban riding, the temperatures in town more mild. I pulled up to their house past 8 pm. They congratulated me with pizza and good/meaningful late-night conversation, plus a convincing argument to stay the night.