After sleeping in and housing an entirely too large breakfast, we sat in a food coma before fixing up our bikes. I checked all my bags and tightened any loose screws. They should be good for a few more miles.
We ran some errands and were lazy for the rest of the day. It was just what we needed to rejuvenate our minds and bodies for the next several hundred miles.
My alarm clock played a cruel April fools day joke on me by not going off, setting off the day on an anxious foot. Though because of the time change, it felt like we were right on time. After coffee, we left the motel at 8:30am. Gotta say, for a Motel 6, that was a great stay. The room was spacious and safe and a great spot for a lazy day of rest.
As soon as we walked out of the room, we felt it. The wind. It was blowing hard and strong, even making walking difficult. We knew going into today that wind was going to be a factor, we just had no idea how detrimental it was going to be.
Our first clue should have been the tumbleweed blowing right into me a mile into the ride. It came out of nowhere, terrorizing me. Luckily I was able to escape its grasp with a swift kick.
Once we made the turn out of Lordsburg, the crosswinds kicked up, but they were manageable. Not entirely pleasant, but we were making good time despite their nuisance. However, after another few miles they became fierce, blowing us left and right. With snot blowing all over our faces and eyes tearing up, it was starting to not only get very annoying, but it was getting to be a little dangerous. Sheena voiced concern about the potential for being blown into a passing car; however, with the infrequent traffic, I wasn’t too worried so we pressed on.
Then, wouldn’t you know, a sudden gust blew me left. I could not control ‘Ol Bessie and was blown from the shoulder into the lane right in the path of a speeding sedan who had quick enough reflexes to avoid hitting me. Alright. Sheena had a point. We decided at that point it might just be faster to push the bikes than ride in the whipping wind. Plus maybe some poor sap will see our suffering and offer a ride.
Well, our strategy worked! After a mile of pushing, a pickup stopped and a man came out saying he saw us on his way to a quick job in Lordsburg and saw us again coming out and felt sorry for us. Because riding with 45MPH gusts proved to be dangerous, we accepted his offer of a ride into Silver City. Jubil (we called him Jubilee because he made us so happy) is a contractor who has lived in New Mexico all his life. He was on his way to his kid’s basketball game and had some extra time to take us to our camping spot for the night, Silver City RV Park. We were so thankful he stopped. Though we were mentally okay at that point, I could imagine another 30 miles of being blown around would have broken us.
With a whole bunch of time to kill, we figured we’d make the most of it. Sheena dropped off her bike at a bike shop for a new chain (and then some) and we got lunch and planned for the next 2 weeks. The bike shop we went to, Gila Hike and Bike is awesome. While Sheena was talking with the owner Martin about what was going on with her bike, I was able to talk to his fiancée, Alex. In 2015 she rode the southern tier with a group of women, one of whom was in her 70s. She met Martin at his shop and that’s where their romance started. They’re due to get married next year.
*most unfortunate update, Martyn and Alex were both killed in a car accident November 2022. They leave behind two teenage children and a hole in the heart of their sweet little community they were such an integral part of. I will al and remember them for their kindness and willingness to help*
Silver City is a really cool little spot, one that I definitely want to explore more in the future. It’s a resupply town for CDT hikers (there are 2 in our camp tonight) with really interesting history that Alex discussed with me. Also in our camp is a guy who saw us struggling in the morning. Laughing, the guy said he would’ve stopped but his truck bed was full of junk. He was happy to hear someone did give us a ride. The bathrooms here are not only amazingly clean and spacious, but they also have a scale. We both have lost weight – now I’m back to my pre-moving back home weight. Without my mom’s tempting food to continuously chow down on and burning thousands of calories a day, I guess weight loss is to be expected.
Wish we could explore this town a little more, but we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow. We’re gonna make it to the highest elevation of the trip! And with a better wind forecast, we’re both excited for it to be over.
Day 23: Silver City to Kingston, NM (49 miles), April 2, 2021
Today started out very chilly and dark. We got up before sunrise to break down camp, not wanting to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags. Knowing we had a long climb ahead of us, we wanted to get out early. But not before indulging in some coffee and donuts! We had to make sure our energy stores were in full swing before heading out, and what better way to do that than with caffeine and sugar.
The day started with rollers out of Lordsburg that were easy to navigate. We rode past Santa Rita’s Copper Mine and got to see the great pit of doom. Something about mining pits has always scared me – this one was of no exception.
Eventually we got to where we knew we were in for 16 miles of climbing. We had lunch and embarked on the journey upward. It was windy (not to be mistaken for windy – wind played no part in today’s ride!), steep at times, and sunny for the majority of it, but it was manageable with breaks. Sheena even got attacked by a hornet, willing to sacrifice her bike to it. But thankfully it flew off uninterested in her offer.
Then we made it! The highest point of the Southern Tier – Emory Pass (8228’)! And boy was it gorgeous. I wish I could say it’s all downhill from here, but I know for a fact that is completely irrational and false. We have temporarily escaped the desert. It feels like we’re in the alpines – interestingly enough, we’re in Sierra County, aptly named. Trees are everywhere and the smell takes me back to CO/WY/MT/CA. It’s a nice break from desert vastness. And there are even bear warnings! Who would’ve thought?! Just a few days ago we were in saguaro country, now bear country.
Ready for a pretty epic downhill, we noticed a road cyclist coming up the pass and recognized her as Alex from the bike shop! We chatted a bit and all rode down to Kingston together. Sheena and I were debating about continuing on to Hillsboro, 9 additional downhill miles, but the free camping in Kingston was too good to pass up. We’ll have a longer day tomorrow, but it looks like relatively easy miles.
Being so high up in elevation, we’re in for another cold night hopefully uninterrupted by bears. It’s very quiet here so fingers crossed we get some good sleep!
Day 24: Kingston to Radium Springs (74.5 miles); April 3, 2021
Well the threat of bears did not make for a good night’s sleep, but it was better than nothing. Luckily we survived without encountering a single one, but I can assure you any sound was met with panic. We rolled out of bed late again cause it was very, very cold. As the sun rose and heated things up, I was met with a freight I can’t even describe. I was putting my bags together when something ran up behind me, grabbing my backside aggressively. Thinking that it was either a bear or worse, a human, I screamed in terror, causing Sheena to scream right after me. Turning around quickly, I was met by a cute little floofy dog out for a walk. It took a while to come down from that adrenaline rush.
We enjoyed 10 miles of downhill to Hillsboro and had coffee before setting out for a long day of riding. But luckily it was pretty much all downhill/flat. We blew into Arrey quickly and had a pre-lunch snack. A big thing in New Mexico is green hatch chile and everyone has been raving about the green hatch Chile burger at Sparky’s in the town of Hatch (who apparently is known not only for hatch chiles, but also pecans. Thanks to Random Facts Bob, also known as Bob the Weatherman). So I was pretty jazzed to check it out for myself. And with only 17 miles left to Hatch, I didn’t want to ruin my appetite.
And boy was it worth it. I’m not sure if it was cause we were so hungry, but the burgers, fries, and mango lemonade was worth the stomach ache that ensued during riding.
Because it was so hot out, we stuck around Sparky’s for a while enjoying the live music and people watching. We also discovered that where we were planning on staying – Leasburg Dam State Park – requires reservations to camp (thanks covid) and they were fresh out of sites. We decided to roll the dice and see what happens when we show up.
We had 23 miles to worry about it, but arrived at 5:30 to a very nice camp host, Shane, who said we could stay in the group site since it wasn’t booked. Thank goodness he took pity on two very tired bikers.
Being so hot out and not wanting to break down tents in the morning, we decided to “cowboy” camp out in the open under the stars. Unfortunately the train is maybe 50’ away, so that’s sure to startle us awake a few times tonight. There are also plenty of dogs barking and roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing, but we’re used to that by now.
Tonight is our last day in New Mexico! Tomorrow we arrive in Texas, where we’ll probably stay for at least 3 week. Can’t say we’re looking forward to the length of time we’ll be spending there, but at least it’s another state to cross off the list.
Day 25: Radium Springs, NM to El Paso, TX (56 miles); April 4, 2021
Apparently the whole animal kingdom was rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus this morning cause boy was it loud. There were dogs barking, coyotes howling, toads croaking, bats chirping, and a symphony of ducks, roosters, mourning doves, owls, and chickadees making the most awful screeching of a hymn. Don’t even get me started about that train, ha! But despite that, our last night in New Mexico was nice. Not too cold with a sky full of bright stars.
We got rolling and rode 19 miles through more pecan farms to our coffee destination – Mesilla. While enjoying our coffee at the only cafe open on Easter, about 20 road cyclists rolled in – our cue to roll out.
We rode another un-noteworthy 18 miles to a shaded lunch spot all before 12pm. The flat roads made for easy and quick riding, but it is boring at times. But it is really fun slowly watching the landscape change. Yesterday we were in the mountains of New Mexico, today we’re in farmland, and tomorrow we’ll be right back in the desert.
A few miles after lunch we were in TEXAS! Should I be excited? I’m not sure. With a lot of miles between us and Louisiana, we are planning on being here just shy of a month. So we’re in it for the long haul. Just going to take it one day at a time. But it is exciting in that it’s another state. Plus I’ve split this trip into quarters – the first is the pacific coast, second is the southern tier to Texas, third is Texas, fourth is the gulf. So technically in my head we’re halfway there! Kinda close considering we’re 1230 miles in, only 2000 left to go!
Texas welcomed Sheena with a flat, but after pumping it and nursing it, we made it to our warm showers home quickly. We are staying with Michael and Rebekah, empty nesters who were kind enough to take us in on Easter of all days. They had company over and together we had an Easter feast of epic proportions. With 4 different kinds of potatoes and 5 different pies, full is an understatement. Being away from family during a holiday is especially difficult, but Mike and Rebekah made us feel welcomed and part of the family. It was a joy to spend the evening with them. And Mike even fixed Sheena’s flat!
Getting out of El Paso is going to be rough. Mike warned us that any way we take is going to be dangerous with traffic. So we’re going to just be careful and take it slowly. After we get outta El Paso, there’s not much of anything. It’s going to definitely be a mental and physical challenge getting through this state, especially with rising temperatures. But we’re up for the challenge!
Today was my favorite day so far. Everything was perfect for a long day’s ride. From the wind to the temperature to the smooth pavement, everything was just what we needed for a relaxing and fun ride to Dateland.
We woke up early to get out early because we knew we had our longest day yet ahead of us. We were worried that we might get road fatigue from being on I-8 the whole time. And maybe even more worried that the shoulder wouldn’t be completely paved, making for a rocky ride. So we figured why not just get out early in case something goes wrong. We’ve noticed an ugly trend during this trip – any time we expect an “easy” ride, it becomes anything but. So it’s just easier to expect and prepare for the worst that way we’re not disappointed when things go horribly wrong. And if they don’t? Then hey, great!
Our hotel was right off 8, so hopping on was easy. And we couldn’t get lost – we were on the interstate the whole way. Yesterday I wrote off a cheat sheet to know what services were available at each exit (roughly 15 miles apart) so we knew what to expect at each. At Fortuna Hills we got donuts at the first Dunkin Donuts we could find. We’ve been sniffing them out because Stephen’s mom gave us gift cards for DD for coffee and donuts, so we’re hoping we find many more along the way. Thanks Carol!
The tailwinds (15mph) pushed us right through the 42 miles to Tacna, our lunch break, by 11:30am. We chowed down leftover burritos (so stinking good) and spent 2 hours just lounging. We only had 26 miles left and with those tailwinds we knew we’d be there in no time flat – flat being the operative word. There were no hills to worry about!
And that was true. We got to Dateland at 2:30pm, way before we planned for. We had plenty of time to get some souvenirs and indulged in a date shake. Yes, you read that right. A date milkshake. Now I’m sure by now you put together that Dateland is famous for dates. And everything in their gift shop is made out of… dates! Including milkshakes. We actually were told about these by Justin, the air bnb tenant we met at Ben’s Desert View Tower. After his dog almost murdered a chicken and the three of us bonded over our initial impressions of Ben’s little oasis, Justin put us on to a little known local delicacy – the date shake. “You’re going to pass through Dateland. You have to stop there. You HAVE TO get a date shake. Don’t pass it up, it’s amazing”. With a review like that, we just had to try it for ourselves. And unlike the hot springs, this suggestion was not obtuse. Those shakes were amazing. So if you ever find yourself in Dateland, AZ, do yourself a favor and grab one. Don’t pass it up – you won’t be disappointed.
Riding on 8 today was pretty great. After we got out of Yuma, the traffic died down. The shoulder was wide and newly paved so we were just sailing. Literally. The tailwinds were so strong it felt like the bike wasn’t even loaded. When semis would pass it would add an additional quick gust – acting like a speed boost from Mario Kart. And the temperature stayed below 80 degrees, so pretty comfortable. Though I didn’t take many pictures, the scenery was truly stunning. First sign of big saguaro cacti with gorgeous chocolate mountains in the distance. Does it get more desert than that?!
We are staying at a campground in Dateland. At $10 a night, it’s a steal. The showers leave a lot to be desired, but it was hot with a very aggressive water pressure. Can’t complain too much about that. The next few days will definitely be interesting. We have a pretty solid plan and having continued luck with tailwinds would be super helpful!
Oh! We met the mystery tourer! We saw someone come in late at Holtville Hot Springs a few nights ago, thinking maybe it was Christine. After seeing him zoom by yesterday near Yuma, we knew it obviously was not her. Guess who rolled in right after us tonight? Bill! Well we learned that Bill is riding the southern tier, following the ACA route loosely. From Reno, Bill started his tour in LA and has hopes of finishing in Florida, but didn’t sound too committed. He’s riding a mountain bike, which is probably a good idea considering suspension would’ve been very helpful for some of the roads we were riding on. Maybe our panniers would’ve been spared and still fully intact. He’s heading east to Tucson tomorrow while we’re headed more north. I’m sure we’ll see him in a week or two. But it’s good to have a name to the face.
Day 14: Dateland to Gila Bend (50 miles); March 22, 2021
Our campsite was maybe 100’ from the train tracks. A very well used set of train tracks, I might add. So well used, in fact, that every half an hour a mile long freight train would pass by. If the noise didn’t wake us up, the shaking ground sure did. It’s extremely frightening to be awoken at 2pm by what you think is a train plowing through your tent. Despite the minor inconvenience, I slept pretty well.
We woke up late and slept in. The morning desert is freezing. Once the sun peeked out and thawed things out, we set out for what we expected to be an easy day, relying on the hopes of good tailwinds.
Bill set out before us. Maybe we’ll see him down the road. We enjoyed coffee at the travel center before heading out for the ride.
The scenery of today’s ride was similar to yesterday’s. Still gorgeous but with more cacti. I didn’t take many pictures because it would all look the same. The winds were fair, but not as mighty as yesterday’s. It didn’t propel us with nearly the same gusto, but it did make pedaling easier.
We again spent all day on I-8 on well paved roads with extremely encouraging motorists. Every few minutes we had a car or two honk (kindly) at us cheering us on. We had lunch on the side of the road (a good 50’ from the actual road) and enjoyed some good car watching.
We got into Gila Bend around 3:30pm where we were met with many questions at the travel center. One family was kind enough to buy us dinner after hearing about our trip. The generosity of strangers is again very humbling. We even had a woman say she’ll pray for our safety because, as she puts it, “everyone needs a grandmom to pray for them”. And I’ll take her prayers. Because although I don’t have any grandmothers on this earth to pray for me, I know I have two angels in Heaven praying even harder, and that gives me such confidence and strength.
When looking for places to stay in Gila Bend, we didn’t find many options. We decided initially to camp in a park in town. However, after reading reviews, we realized that might not be the safest option. So we took a page out of the ACA TransAm Playbook of 2016 and called every religious denomination in town to see if we could stay on their property. We had a friendly bet of who, if any, would respond to our request. Between Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, my guess was the Mormons. Sure enough, they responded happily within minutes saying they would love to have us stay with them. We were thrilled by their generosity. We met Alma at the community center and she showed us where we’d be staying. She was so kind, sweet, and accommodating. She made sure we felt comfortable and safe before leaving – placing emphasis on making sure the deadbolt was locked at all times. That tipped us off that maybe they were so eager to let us stay with them because they knew we’d be toast if we attempted to camp in the nearby park.
After catching up on the train wreck of a season finale of The Bachelor, we are off to sleep before a big day tomorrow. Hopefully being inside will shield us from the obnoxious train that is still right in our backyard. Fingers crossed!
Day 15: Gila Bend to Chandler (64.5 miles) March 23, 2021
Well the train did not keep us up at least. But there was a bunch of arguing right outside the church that got pretty heated and Sheena woke up to a few gunshots at 1am. So needless to say, we were happy to get rolling out of that town early in the morning, especially when we were informed by News Lady Lisa that Gila Bend was placed under State of Emergency that morning for everything happening at the border.
We were getting coffee at a SubWay when Bob the Weather Man forewarned us of the odd wind patterns coming our way. Some were in our favor, some were not. But either way, we had to face what was coming head on so off we went.
The first 40 miles of the ride were glorious for me. The scenery was amazing with huge cacti everywhere and mountains in the background. It took Sheena a few miles to wake up from the past few nights of no sleep, but eventually the tailwinds picked up and sailed us right into Maricopa where we had a nice lunch.
After lunch was when the real trouble started. We had 26 miles and we knew we were in for some hardship because of cross/headwinds. We had to go almost directly North to get to Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. And as soon as we got going, we were met with head winds, crazy cross winds, heavy traffic, and rough roads. Within a mile, another pannier broke. Luckily Sheena is a pro at zip tying by now.
She’s also a pro at riding in the wind. She prevailed on as I struggled to make any headway. Between the crosswinds pushing me off the shoulder, the headwinds halting any forward progression, and the gusts from the semis zooming by, I must’ve looked drunk swerving from left to right to all over the place. While it was annoying, it wasn’t defeating. I just kept my head down, listened to a podcast, and would check every once in a while for how far ahead Sheena was.
During one of our wind rests, we were laughing at how comical it all was. This morning we were zooming at 14.5mph enjoying the winds. Now we’re battling them and seemingly losing. That’s when I heard it. My back was to traffic, but I knew something had fallen off a truck and was bouncing straight to us. My worst fear (besides getting hit by an actual car) was becoming a reality. Surely a huge tire was bouncing our way, hurling with enough force to kill us. Oh the poetic justice. I just looked at Sheena, not at the bouncing object flying my way. At least it’ll hit me first, and she’ll be safe. I braced for impact and the mystery object hit my bike, only centimeters from my leg. It was an empty bucket. Thank God. There was no damage and no fatalities. The truck it came from slowed down a little, but ultimately kept going. Hopefully that’s the only run in we’ll have with flying debris. In the end all we could do was laugh about it. Really, it was the cherry on top of a pretty rough day.
When we eventually got into Chandler, we went straight to a bar for a drink or two and an appetizer to calm down our frazzled nerves before heading to our warm showers host’s home. Kino is an electrical engineer who has done a few bike tours around the world with very interesting stories. He cooked us dinner and dessert and we all chatted pretty late. He has two dogs that helped me get over (or maybe made worse?) my yearning to hold and rub little Addie’s ears.
We have a very short day tomorrow and are taking advantage of it by sleeping in tomorrow and planning the next few days of riding. Again, services are limited for this stretch and we have to be pretty diligent with resources.
Day 16: Chandler to Apache Junction (23 miles) March 24, 2021
We slept in late. Like super late. And it was great. We both slept so well, which was definitely needed after the last few sleepless nights. We woke up to dogs, coffee, and breakfast. Besides waking up to Addie and The Cat, is there really any better way to wake up?!
Kino let us stay pretty late to plan. He made us breakfast and lunch, both of which were delicious. We got a good plan going, only for it to be crushed by the realization that one of the towns we were planning on staying in has high amount of crime, really not a place you want to be camping in. So we called a Lutheran church and have our fingers cross that they’ll let us stay with them or camp on the church grounds.
After saying goodbye to Kino and the pups, we left at 3:15pm (latest departure time ever) for Apache Junction, only 23 miles away. Not sure if it was because we left so late or the city riding, but it felt a lot longer than that. Either way, we got through it and landed at Rick’s house at 6pm.
Rick is a retired NJ police officer who moved to AZ after living the beginning of retired life on the road in a van. He’s extremely active and either hikes or kayaks everyday. He showed us a ton of pictures of hikes around here and I couldn’t believe how beautiful this area is. May have planted a seed for my future home.
We met Rick on warm showers. He rode across country in 2012 via the Northern Tier and devotes a lot of time to Spokes Fighting Strokes, a charity that builds adaptive bikes for stroke victims. Rick said how rewarding it is seeing people’s reactions to riding a bike after such a devastating event. He has ridden with dozens of stroke victims, and even rode across country with a man who lost both his arms in a farming accident. It really struck a chord with me, pulling at my physical therapist heartstrings. They do exceptional work and if you’re interested in donating, their website is http://spokesfightingstrokes.org
Rick took us out to dinner (pizza – just what we were craving) because he’s sick of cooking. He apparently has been having a ton of cyclists coming through the past month, keeping him very busy. We’re staying in his guest house and he is even letting us stay an extra day to rest. He offered to take us kayaking or hiking – an offer we’re likely to take him up on! Again, we are astounded by the kindness and hospitality shown to us by warm showers hosts. We will definitely pay it forward.
Rest Day; Apache Junction, March 25, 2021
I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better off day if we tried. Having done a lot of planning yesterday, we felt comfortable spending the day hanging out with Rick.
After his PT appointment and breakfast, we set out along with Rick’s friend Holly for kayaking. We rode past Usery Mountain State Park and ended up in Tonto forest to start the paddle. Having very little kayaking experience, I was pretty nervous to give it a go, but Rick reassured me that I look “athletic” and could handle it. Looks are deceiving. But he pushed me out first and right into a rapid I went. Luckily I survived and built confidence quickly.
I am definitely a land mammal, but found my sea legs and felt more comfortable by the minute. We floated past wild horses, blue herons, bald eagles, and swallow mud nests. It was relaxing and a great way to get in an upper body workout.
After kayaking Rick took us to explore the Tonto Basin Wilderness with some short hiking to check out views and cacti. Rick talked about some interesting history (mainly Mormon history and its ties with AZ) and his previous hikes. It was awesome exploring and spending time with Rick.
After a day of exploring, we were hungry. Rick made a great steak dinner and we all got full from food and conversation. Since Rick is leaving before sunrise for a hike with Holly, we said our goodbyes after dinner. Rick is one of those special souls you rarely meet that you just click with. He took me and Sheena under his wing and was such a gracious host. It’s hard to put into words, but he made an impression on both of us. He’s the type of person who finds beauty in every landscape and just wants to share it with others. If we could stay longer and didn’t have a bike tour to worry about, we would!
The next couple of days are going to be interesting. We have a plan, but plans are likely to change. We’re doing a lot of climbing with potential for some cold nights coming our way. We are definitely going to take advantage of sleeping in a nice warm cozy guest house for tonight before braving the next few nights in the cold. The last 2 days of rest have rejuvenated us, hopefully it won’t be too hard to hop back on the bikes!
Day 17: Apache Junction to Sunflower (45 miles) March 26, 2021
We woke up today not wanting to leave. We had such a great time these last few days that we have gotten spoiled. But if we want to make it to Florida at a reasonable time, we gotta keep moving.
We headed out from Rick’s early. Being a couple miles off route, we back tracked a little to get back on. We headed up past Usery Regional park and where we launched the kayaks out from yesterday.
There was a saguaro forest that kept my mind off the climb. I love those cacti. No two are the same and each seems to have their own personality. According to Rick, each saguaro in AZ is protected and you can face a huge fine and punishment for defacing/stealing/messing with one. And if you want one in your yard for landscaping? Well you need permits and a ton of money, cause it can cost upwards of $10k for a healthy saguaro cactus.
We then found ourselves surrounded by gorgeous mountains. It reminded me so much of hiking under the rim at the Grand Canyon. It was a pleasure to ride in such a beautiful landscape.
The rest of the day was still stunning scenery, but man did we work for it. It was nothing but climbing, reminiscent of the Pine Valley day last week. But today just felt longer and steeper and more taxing. Plus it was threatening rain all day. Not wanting a repeat of the ride into San Diego, I was paranoid and made sure a plan was established for if the rain really started to pour. Preparing for torrential rain in the desert. What’re the odds.
Where we are staying tonight is by no means ideal. We knew this coming into today. Without much in the way of town/services and with a hefty climb (3900’), we couldn’t make it much further than Sunflower, AZ. A town without any services at all. So where are we staying?! Well. The Arizona Trail (an 800 mile thru trail) crosses in Sunflower so we figured we’d find camping along there, just like the backpackers do. Well, after much searching, we did. It’s an established site, but it’s not ideal. So we waited until nightfall to set up tents. It’s not that we don’t feel safe – we wouldn’t be camping here if we didn’t. We are just very close to the highway and don’t want anyone seeing that we are here. We are also next to a towing company and don’t want them to know we’re here either. People might see two young women camping and get some bad ideas.
After the tough climbing day, we’re hopefully going to be too tired to worry about camping on the side of the road. It’s going to be a brisk 37 degrees tonight, so fingers crossed we’ll be toasty in our tents. And who knows – maybe the raindrops that are rapidly pouring down will lull us to sleep.
Day 18: Sunflower to Roosevelt Lake (45 miles); March 27, 2021
For being next to a highway, we slept fairly well. So well, in fact, I didn’t wake up until nearly 7:30am. Which was fine, because the tent was frozen. A pretty solid chunk of ice was lining the inside of the fly, dripping onto me as it melted in the sun, waking me up in the rudest of fashions. I didn’t feel like moving because it was so comfy and warm in my sleeping bag, but my warm and comfy sleeping bag was slowly getting drenched so I had to suck it up make moves.
We were slow to get started today. Under the presumption that the majority of the day was downhill, we weren’t too worried about a later start. After drying out the tents we set out at 9:30am.
The first three miles were all uphill and I was not having any of it. I was still tired and annoyed from yesterday afternoon’s endless climb that I was ready to just be done. I think the last few days of good tailwinds and easy riding really spoiled me. I was so ready to be done that I was ready to stick out my thumb and hitch a ride. But after over an hour, we made it to the top and had 4 miles of a 7% grade downhill. However, even Sheena agreed that the downhill was horrible. I clenched in fear the whole time because of a bad shoulder with a ton of debris and she felt the same. After another climb that nearly broke me, we sailed into Jacob’s Corner and got a very late coffee at the general store.
There we met Becky, the sister of the general store’s owner. She was really interested in our trip and got us lunch. It’s experiences like that with strangers that can really change the entire mood of a ride. I went from being downtrodden and annoyed with the day to grateful and excited for the next few miles. We enjoyed our time at Jacob’s Corner so much that we spent over an hour there. I didn’t want to leave – I was enticed by the biker’s bar live music across the way. Music, a beer, and some wings would’ve really hit the spot. But time was ticking and the winds were finally in our favor.
So much in our favor, in fact, that we made record time to Lake Roosevelt. We stopped at Chollo Campgroud, one of the first campgrounds. Being a Saturday night without a reservation, we figured the largest campground would be our best bet for finding a spot. Which we did! But that does add a few miles to tomorrow’s ride – one that again involves a pretty significant climb. But at least we have a very pretty site with a good view of the lake.
While the rest of the campground is still pretty lively, we’re going to bed early trying to catch up on lost sleep from last night. The moon is gorgeous and full, but pretty darn bright. But I think we’re so tired it won’t halt our sleep at all.
Day 19: Lake Roosevelt to San Carlos (61 miles, 26 ridden); March 28, 2021
The full moon did not foster good sleep. Shining right into my tent along with loud campers made for little rest. On the bright side, though, I didn’t need to mess around with my head lamp during a midnight bathroom run. The moon lit the whole way.
But it made rolling out of camp in the morning unpleasant. With little sleep and desperate for coffee, we traveled the 16 miles of rollers to Roosevelt where we quenched our caffeine thirst. But what awaited us was staring right back at us. A hill of mountainous proportions.
After a lengthy stop and staring at all the pickup trucks contemplating asking for a ride, we started the journey up the hill. We knew we were in for a climb, just had no idea how long it would be. After 5 miles (and many hours) and it only getting steeper with headwinds coming right at us; we were reaching our breaking points. Not even getting to the top and 4 miles of downhill made us feel better. We were exhausted both mentally and physically. It was nearly time to throw in the towel.
With the headwinds blowing at 20 mph and 30+ miles to go, we found ourselves at 1pm distraught and done. We had resigned ourselves to ride the remaining miles to Globe and grocery shop, seeing if we could possibly get a ride for the additional 15 miles to San Carlos. But first, we would stick our thumbs out just once at the next car that drives by to see what happens. Surely they wouldn’t stop and we’d be back to pedaling.
But surely wasn’t sure enough. With a lazy thumb, we were shocked when the pickup slowed and eventually stopped. An older non-intimidating gentleman came out. After asking a few questions, we felt safe loading up and getting a ride to Globe, where we bought Rick (we’ve been having great luck with Ricks this trip!) lunch. After some conversation, Rick said he’d be happy to take us all the way to San Carlos. We couldn’t believe it. Rick is a mechanic originally from Michigan who worked on really fast cars (he was featured on a reality TV show in 2014). Now in his older years he owns a mobile repair business. And considering the number of RVs there are here and the countless aftermath of burnt up cars on the highway, he’s never short on business. He dropped us off in San Carlos and gifted us with a crystal he’s had for years. It’s to give power to the owner. After he left I accidentally broke it – typical – and felt horrible about it. But it broke in such a way that Sheena and I can each have a piece. Again, we have been very fortunate with the kindness of strangers. However, we understand that we lucked out with Rick and will not be so quick to hitch a ride in the future.
We got in early and used the time to do some more planning. While doing so, we spoke to a lot of curious town members. One of whom was Rose, the town’s PD dispatcher and retired wildfire fighter. An Apache Native American, she told us we missed out on a traditional coming of age celebration for her two great nieces. She said they would’ve loved to have our company and demonstrated what she hinted at was a dying tradition. We were bummed we missed out on it. She also informed us that the reservation was closed during COVID because the virus ravished their community, which apparently was dwindling even before the virus. They just recently opened it back up to non native people. Though sorrowful, Rose was a delight and wished us well on our journey.
Our original plan for tonight was to camp in Peridot, a small town in an Apache reservation. However, after reading about high crime and robbery, we realized that this was not an option. So we found the local church and after a few back and forth calls with the pastor, he agreed to let us stay with him and his family. We were so grateful and relieved they said yes. They are a wonderfully sweet family with a beautiful 2.5 year old and a lively 8 month old. They made us dinner and invited us to family movie night. They definitely made sure we feel safe, included, and welcomed.
Day 20: San Carlos to Safford AZ (63 miles) 29 March 2021
After some much needed coffee, we were ready to head out for a long day to Safford. We said a grateful goodbye to Pastor Tim, Calista, Rosie, Mariah, and Emily (can’t forget Merlin!) and rode a few miles south to meet back up with the route. Because the reservation does not have leash laws, we were chased by a few dogs, but managed to get away before they could catch up.
Setting out for the day I knew we were in for some bad headwinds. Especially bad for the morning. The gusts were strong and forced us to pedal even downhill. Luckily the truck ride yesterday was enough to mentally put us back on track so we were spared a mental breakdown battling the winds. After nearly 30 miles with barely any breaks we made it to Bylas just before noon. We stayed there for a while and had lunch.
Still on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, we talked with many tribe members who were curious about our trip. They wished us luck on our journey. Two men, in particular, really stood out. Elders of the tribe, they talked about Apache history and the struggles they face maintaining tradition with the younger generations. Apparently the tribe is dwindling (as hinted by Rose yesterday) and many people are shocked that Apache members even exist today. They spoke of the lands their ancestors had before being placed on the reservation and the way of life. They were not bloodthirsty savages as depicted by history and their tribe isn’t even actually called Apache – it was coined by settlers after hearing it used by the Apache’s enemies in Mexico. Apache is literally translated to “enemy”, placing a very negative connotation to their people. Their tribe is actually called Ndee. It was so interesting speaking with them and seeing their passion for their history and culture. It was very heartbreaking as well, however, seeing the hurt in their eyes as they expressed their distress that their culture is slowly being erased and forgotten. They were upset of the life they lost out on, the devastating effect of addiction in their community, and the lost sense of culture of the younger generation. It’s a conversation I won’t soon forget and I feel honored to have had such a raw experience with two members of a tribe so many forget about. It makes me appreciate what I have and realize that life isn’t about the material things. I was actually having a conversation with someone about how they were upset that not having their pool open for Memorial Day was causing them distress. After having this conversation with the Apache natives, my lack of sympathy for their first world problem was apparent. I hope when little inconveniences in my life pop up, I dwell on this conversation to humble and ground me.
After our extended lunch, the winds died down as did the rollers. We made good time and eventually hit Pima. We ended up getting ice cream at Taylor Freeze, a shop with such great marketing it roped us in. Think of a smaller scale “South of the Border” scheme with billboards strategically placed every so often. We enjoyed our ice cream and then sailed the tailwinds all the way to our warm showers host Hal’s home.
Hal is an 81 year old retired history/statistics professor and Arizona native. He has traveled and lived all over the world and enjoys backpacking. Not necessarily into biking, he found out about warm showers through a friend and just loves meeting new people and hearing their stories. He made us a huge whopping dinner complete with wine and we are going to bed bellies full. The next few days are short because of oddly spaced out towns, but we’re happy about it. We need some short days to make up for the killer last few. And we’re finally going to be out of Arizona soon!!
Day 21: Safford, AZ to Lordsburg, NM (76.5 miles); March 30, 2021
Today was a mix of emotions I hope to never experience ever again. It was a rough day, but ultimately ended as a great one. I’ll elaborate more later.
Neither of us slept super well. We both woke up frequently throughout the night and had issues falling back asleep. At one point we talked about taking advantage of the tailwinds and riding almost 80 miles to Lordsburg. But given it was 4am, we didn’t commit to anything. We were gonna wing it.
Hal made us a breakfast of mega proportions – I couldn’t even finish it all. After coffee and conversation, it was getting pretty late. Antsy to get on the road to at least attempt a long day, the chances were dwindling. The sun was settling up in the sky and it was starting to get hot. Before we set out, Hal showed us his project in downtown Safford. He and a group are restoring an open-air theater to bring a more social atmosphere to the town. He is so proud of it and it’s coming along beautifully. But alas, it was quickly approaching 10:30am and we had to get on the road.
Because of the massive breakfast and heat, Sheena stayed back as I took advantage of the tailwinds. During a break, we ran into Dave who was transporting pack mules – the same kind who delivered supplies to me on the JMT! He’s a rancher with great stories and even some not so great. In the past year he’s known of two kidnappings – one involving a 6 year old girl right from her home. Both were returned home safely, but it was scary hearing it none the less and he used these stories as a warning to be vigilant the next few days. He offered us water and was soon on his way to deliver the pack mules further West.
The vastness of this stretch was very humbling. The desert went on for miles with very little services and very little traffic. I went miles without seeing one car.
Eventually the winds really picked up and getting into Duncan was a breeze – literally. Our original plan was to camp in a local park in Duncan, a short 40 mile day. We got in kind of late, and I was resigned on the fact that we were just going to stay there – the additional 36 miles to Lordsburg was out of the question. Given my mental state and high anxiety (likely from lack of sleep), I was really indifferent as to whether or not we continued on. Having a rough day herself, I was surprised when Sheena suggested going to Lordsburg so as to take advantage of the headwinds. Already 4:30pm, we’d get in after dark. We held counsel and debated pros and cons of both options. We decided our fate would come down to the flip of a coin. Heads, we stay. Tails, we go. We got heads. The coin gods have spoken, and I was glad to listen. However, Sheena voiced displeasure at the decision and we agreed to best 2 out of 3. Sure enough, it was heads again. Right then and there we decided the coin gods were wrong. We put our fate into our own hands and we made the choice to try and get to Lordsburg. If we make it, great – we’ll make it a rest day tomorrow. If we don’t, there’s plenty of wild camping options along the way. So after replenishing our water, we set out at 5pm.
The first few miles were a little rough. Not much in the way of winds to get us moving. But that all changed after we reached the New Mexico border! Arizona was great, we met awesome people, learned about the Apache culture, and saw some beautiful scenery. But it was also lengthy with some tough days. We were ready to put it behind us. So we were thrilled to pass the border to a new state. With only 30 miles left to our destination, we set out with gusto.
Literally. The tailwinds picked up and we were cruising. Because I have nothing better to do, I’m constantly timing miles and calculating speed. At 3 min miles exactly, we were moving at 20 MPH for a lot of the stretch. It felt great to be moving that fast with a 90lb bike. Soon the sun went down and we were riding in darkness. The stars appeared and it was magical riding under them. Because the traffic wasn’t busy at all, we felt safe with our front/rear lights
We rolled into Lordsburg at 9pm (really 8pm because AZ doesn’t observe daylight savings – we lost an hour crossing into NM) and checked into our hotel. For what we paid, we were pleasantly surprised by the space we have! We will definitely sleep long and hard these next two nights.
Tomorrow we are looking forward to just relaxing. This is our second rest day in a week, though the first didn’t feel like one. We wouldn’t trade the day spent with Rick for the world, but given that it was full of kayaking and hiking, our bodies didn’t feel completely rested. Tomorrow we will achieve that goal. We plan on doing nothing but eat and plan. We already have breakfast lined up at a restaurant next to the hotel, courtesy of the Hanrahan family. They’re my childhood (well I guess now adulthood too since moving back home temporarily) neighbors who were kind enough to treat us to a meal! Thanks guys!! We already can’t wait to chow down on some good diner food after today’s extravaganza.
After a very delicious meal cooked by Sheena (margaritas and tortellini- who would’ve thought they would taste so good together?!), we went to bed and slept in to sleep off the past week. In the morning, while enjoying some local coffee, we planned out a few days in advance for the Southern Tier. After a couple hours, we had a plan A, B, C, and D. Tomorrow was the greatest challenge. Getting out of San Diego we knew was going to be a mega climb, the likes of which we haven’t seen since *maybe* the Transam. So we sent out some Warm Shower requests and waited to see what stuck. Based on the responses we received, we had a pretty good game plan for the following week.
So we celebrated with tacos! We ended up at a taco Tuesday hot spot and had our fill of tacos, chips and salsa, and sangria. Frankie’s family came into town and we got to meet them.
Where we stayed in North Park was perfect. Everything was within walking distance and Frankie was so accommodating to our schedule and needs. He has both his studio and house on Air BNB, so if you ever find yourself in San Diego, look for his place. You’ll be super comfortable.
After our taco feast, we returned to Frankie’s and had a very low key night. Sheena hosted a poker night while I just took it easy. That rest day was beyond needed and we felt both physically and mentally prepared for the challenge ahead.
Day 9: San Diego – Pine Valley (43.8 miles) 17 March 2021
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What a way to celebrate – starting a transcontinental bike tour. Donning our St. Paddy’s day finest, we set out for what we knew would likely be our most physically challenging day of this whole trip.
Frankie joined us for the first 12 miles to our coffee break. He almost convinced us to stay for what is apparently an infamous St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Evidently, San Diegoans take this holiday extremely seriously. Not wanting to get too far behind schedule, we begrudgingly passed on partaking. We said bye to Frankie, wishing him luck on his deployment to the Middle East next week.
After we left El Cajon (our coffee destination) we knew we were in for a heck of a day with endless climbs. We took it climb by climb until we got into Alpine in the early afternoon. During that leg, we ran into Christine. From Boise, she is also starting the Southern Tier today with her Surly Shirley. Planning on taking 8 weeks to complete, we no doubt will be running into her a few times this trip.
We had a long lunch break and did some shopping. During the course of our lunch, we spoke to a man who was curious about our trip. We didn’t think much of it – our bikes garnish a ton of attention. As we were heading into the store, he was walking out. He asked us where we were staying. When we said we weren’t entirely sure, but most likely camping, he responded, “Oh no. It’s entirely too cold to do that”. Knowing he wasn’t altogether wrong, we semi-agreed with him. Before we knew what was happening, he reached into his wallet and grabbed some cash, shoving it into Sheena’s hand. Sincerely grateful, Sheena gave it back promptly, thanking him for his generosity. But he gave it right back, he insisted we take it, “treat yourselves and stay safe. I’m a retired Sherrif Deputy in Pine Valley and want you to just enjoy it.” Dave was truly an generous man. That experience was extremely humbling and left us speechless for a decent amount of time.
After our lunch, we were in for another 15 miles of climbing. Only this time we were more anxious because we knew we had to hop on I-8. After accidentally getting on it 2 miles early, we were on the interstate for 6 grueling miles. We hated every minute of it and we were honestly surprised we didn’t get kicked off by a cop. Eventually, we made it off and were only 8 miles from Pine Valley.
After we got off the highway, we stopped to decompress for a few minutes. We discussed our options for the night. Our original plan was to wild camp at a trailhead in Pine Valley. Under normal circumstances, that would 100% be the plan. We love sleeping in our tents and it would save money on a hotel/private campground. However, with the nighttime temperatures dipping into the low 30s that night, we were extremely hesitant to execute that plan. After a brief discussion, we agreed that Dave’s gift was a sign that we should get a hotel room and stay warm. Because he is from Pine Valley and obviously has a lot of PV pride, we wanted to support the local economy. So it was decided. We were going to get a room and spend the remainder of the cash for breakfast at a local cafe.
But in order to execute the plan, we had to get there first. Of course it was a hilly ride with mostly uphill climbs. However (!), we did get an amazing 1.5 mile downhill into town. Crazy how 1.5 miles goes so quickly cruising downhill while 1.5 miles slugging uphill can feel like an eternity.
But we made it! An extremely long day, we were so happy to roll into Pine Valley Inn and Motel. Riven, the guy who checked us in, was extremely accommodating and kind. Again, we have been truly humbled by the generosity and kindness we have received from total strangers this trip.
After almost certainly losing our minds during today’s nearly 5k’ worth of climbing, we had dinner and enjoyed a drink in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
From the research I’ve done on this trip, most people stop in Alpine due to the severe climb. But given that we have a warm showers in Jacumba, we decided to have a long and sucky day today instead of having an even longer and suckier day tomorrow. Any benefit our knees received from a day’s rest has certainly gone to waste from today’s excessive climbing. My knee certainly isn’t happy and for the first time this trip, Sheena’s knee was crying out in pain. But she’s icing it now and I’m still convinced my will just sort itself out. I know exactly what’s wrong with it, but don’t have the patience to deal with it.
Obviously we’re pretty pooped and are very much looking forward to some sleep in our very own beds. Tomorrow has some climbs, but compared to today, it should be a piece of cake!
Day 10: Pine Valley to Jacumba Hot Springs (36 miles) 18 March 2021
Based on where we ended tonight, riding the long and treacherous day yesterday was worth it. I’ll get back to that later.
We woke up this morning very happy with the decision to get a hotel last night. The morning walk to get coffee in the lobby was freezing and I’m not quite sure if we would’ve made the night had we camped.
The climb out of Pine Valley got us warmed up and woke us up for what was to come. We left later to enjoy the warmth of the hotel room. As we were climbing, another ex-sheriff we ran into yesterday (not Dave) wished us luck on our journey. Though a small town, the locals are extremely proud of their close-knit community.
The day was full of a lot more climbing than either of us were expecting. Sure there were plenty of downhills that lasted for miles (I hit a new record of 44mph), but they felt short lived compared to having to go back up.
During the morning half of our ride, we crossed paths with the PCT. Close to the southern terminus, I was pretty happy to see it. Maybe I’ll see it again soon if I ever get around to hiking the PCT.
Soon we found ourselves in Live Oak Springs and had lunch with some good people watching. That’s the cool thing about being off the coast. The towns are smaller – much smaller – and we get to see a different way of life. Everyone we met have been super nice and caring, usually inspiring us or cheering us on.
What wasn’t so inspiring or cheerful was our first encounter with dogs. They came out of nowhere and chased us for a solid quarter mile. And I’m convinced they can smell fear and instinct drives them to go after it. They didn’t pay any attention to me, but were attracted to Sheena like a magnet. They would not give up the chase and Sheena was only saved by a motorist honking his horn at the dog. I imagine that encounter was just a taste of what’s to come.
We have officially reached Mexico. As we approached from the North, we thought we spotted train tracks. As we got closer, we saw that it was actually the wall separating the US from Mexico. It was pretty expansive and went on for miles.
We saw plenty of border patrol agents this whole ride, which we expected, being so close to the border. What we didn’t expect was witnessing the detainment of 2 immigrants who entered past the wall. Sheena saw it firsthand and needless to say, it shook her a little.
After a few climbs, we zoomed into our home for the night. Our inspiration for riding a crazy day yesterday was a very interesting warm showers host. With great reviews and a name like Desert Valley Tower, we just had to check it out. And thank God we did, not only is it gorgeous, but it’s very quirky. Every time you turn around there’s 5 different things to look at. The owner and host, Ben, owns it and sold tickets for tours pre-COVID. Having to close during COVID, it made Ben realize that at 62 years old, he’s ready for retirement. And that means selling the Tower. It has unique sandstone carvings, peacocks, chickens, and about a dozen dogs. So naturally I’m in paradise. Very charismatic and kind, Ben talked to us about detours to avoid unsafe roads as well as ways around “sketchier” towns we might not want to get caught in.
The tower is actually an Air BNB and because it is currently rented, we’re staying in an RV. The renters are really awesome and they invited us to check out the tower, which we were gonna take them up on, but got too tired after dinner. The wind has picked up significantly and we are pretty thankful to be sheltered in the RV. We are definitely ready for bed and what is looking like a much needed and well deserved easy day with miles of downhill coasting tomorrow.
Day 11: Jacumba – Holtville Hot Springs (60 miles); 19 March 2021
As pretty as our spot was last night, boy was it windy. Starting around 8pm the winds began howling. So much so that the RV was moving and grooving all night. I laid awake wondering if it was going to sweep the bikes away, right off the cliff never to be seen again. But alas, after being able to catch a few hours of sleep, it was time to get up and get moving. And the bikes remained right where we left them.
I forgot to set an alarm, so we woke up late. No biggie though, cause it was pretty cold out still. So we mosied around until Ben got coffee ready. He took us up the tower and showed us around. We said our goodbyes and were on our way.
We started our day with a 14 mile 2000’ drop in elevation hill that I was pretty pumped about. Only problem is was that it was all on I-8. With high winds (we witnessed the aftermath of a pretty gruesome crash visible from the tower only half an hour before our departure) and steep grade, I was worried something bad could happen. But sure enough we made it down unscathed and it was blissful. Some high gusts here and there, but we were able to maintain good control and really admire the beauty. Which was truly breathtaking. We both wish we set up the Go Pro to capture it. Darn.
Once we got off of 8, we knew we were in the desert. Not only was it hot, but there was sand and sage brush for as far as the eye could see. We set off through Ocotillo and Plaster City (both with a population of maybe 100) on the worst road in the world. It was barely paved and what was left was all potholes. It went on for miles causing fatigue and mental anguish. It was so rough that it broke my pannier (superglue fix), bounced off my rear light (retrieved) and bounced off ‘Lil Bessie’s hat bell (lost for good). Eventually the road leveled out to a more tolerable surface.
Soon we found ourselves in an oasis of 30 miles. We rode past tons of farms and enjoyed a nice flat few miles through El Centro to our home for the night, Holtville.
Ben had suggested we continue just a few miles east of Holtville and stay on BLM land by the “most amazing hot springs in the world”. Given our easy ride and wanting to take advantage of good riding conditions, the hot springs sounded like a great spot to stop. When we got to the site, we decided to eat dinner before going to the springs. When we were cooking, guess who rode by to make sure we got there? Ben! He was in the area and wanted to make sure we were safe before heading home. We were very excited to see him and appreciated the nice gesture.
The springs were pretty busy, but we got a good spot and enjoyed a nice soak after a tough few days. The water was warm and relaxing. A perfect way to decompress before going to sleep.
It’s our last night in California! Tomorrow we are headed into Arizona. We’re following a detour the ACA put out earlier this year avoiding narrow roads with heavy traffic. It even cuts out a few miles. We’ll take it! We also decided that because of wanting to spend more time in other places, we are going to cut out the Grand Canyon excursion. It would definitely be cool to ride to it, but we just don’t want to add on another week to do it.
Day 12: Holtville Hot Springs CA to Yuma AZ (45 miles) 20 March 2021
After another windy and sleepless night, it was time to do it all over again. The aftermath of yesterday’s trek over treacherous roads continued to add up. Sheena’s rack cracked and another pannier of mine broke. Luckily, it’s nothing a few zip ties can’t fix.
We set out over another bumpy road for a little over a mile then pure paved bliss. With tailwinds and smooth pavement, we were hauling those heavy bad boys at a 13 mph clip. We made it the 20 miles to I-8 in record time, and hopped on.
As we rode on the interstate, the imperial sand dunes emerged and it was gorgeous. Something I was looking forward to on the southern tier were these dunes. Unfortunately the detour routes us away from riding in them, but we still got to see them from the freeway at least.
Unfortunately admiring the dunes was short lived. I-8 turned into a nightmare with raised pavement every 10 feet in the shoulder, acting as jolting speedbumps. I was so frustrated. What use are tailwinds when you have to ride slowly over horrible roads?! Eventually we got off 8, I cooled down and we moved onto Center of the World Road.
Well let me tell you. This road was (shocker) horrible. But at least it was predictable. For a quarter mile it would be tolerable, a few bumps here or there. Then for another quarter mile it was treacherous. Then for another quarter mile it was just downright unbearable. But hey, at least it was predictable. And by my analysis, if the center of the world is molten lava and ungodly hot, then it stands to be compared to Hell. And so, Center of the Earth Road is within the same realm as Hell and I can thereby tell you with certainty that this road is very aptly named.
Eventually we got back on the 8 (newly paved woo!) only to get off it and enjoy some good riding into Winterhaven. The plan was to grab groceries there before riding up to Laguna (AZ), which had very little service in between. However, while eating lunch we realized that our planning was flawed and following the ACA Route might not be our best option. So we decided that we had some planning to do and wouldn’t be able to do it by riding 20 miles to a campsite.
I had put out a warm showers request earlier in the week to someone in Yuma. I was surprised when he didn’t respond, given the reviews noted a quick response. Sheena tried calling, however, the phone was disconnected. “Hmm, maybe he’s dead” we pondered. A quick google search revealed, unfortunately, that he passed away from a trike accident in June. At 83, Jim led a long life devoted to cycling and helping others. Though we didn’t get the chance to meet him, we know he would’ve been a delight to stay with. RIP Jim!
As we were eating lunch, another cyclist rode by. Sheena instantly recognized him as the mystery cyclist who rode by our tents the night before. Like the dead of night, kind of freaking me out. We were hoping it was Christine, however, it obviously wasn’t. He didn’t see us and went on his way. Who knows, maybe we’ll catch him soon enough.
It’s official, we have one state down! We said goodbye to California and entered into Arizona. May we have tailwinds, kind strangers, and smoother roads ahead.
We got a hotel in Yuma and did some planning before devouring some pretty delicious Mexican Food. We have a pretty long day ahead of us tomorrow, so the food coma sure to ensue will hopefully give us some good sleep in preparation.
Day 1: San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria (47 miles) March 8, 2021
Today was supposed to be an easy first day. And with only 47 miles, we figured why rush it? We rolled out of bed early and took our time packing our stuff. We said a thankful goodbye to Oliver and went off to grab some coffee. But not without near wipe outs the entire 2 mile ride to McDonalds. We seriously have to get used to riding nearly 100 pound bikes again. After properly caffeinating, we set out to be reunited with the pacific coast.
The ride out of SLO was gorgeous. Full of mountain views that took me right back to Hawaii. But after one small hill the mountains disappeared and gave way to the sparkling Pacific Ocean, just as gorgeous as we left it in 2018.
After a few miles we had lunch at a gorgeous lookout in Pismo Beach, breaking out our spiffy new chairs to avoid sitting in the dirt.
Soon we departed the coast and went inland, where we experienced rolling hills and tailwinds/headwinds. The hills definitely zapped our energy and we took a bunch of mini breaks. Soon we found ourselves in Guadalupe where we finally found flat land and tailwinds all the way to Santa Maria! It was easy riding and a great way to end a tough first day.
We again are staying with a warm showers host. Jeff is super awesome and offered us a room in his house. Which we were very thankful for considering we rolled up after dark since we had to go grocery shopping to pick up some essentials at a surprisingly cheap grocery store (for California). When we showed up to Jeff’s, we definitely didn’t want to set up our tents in pitch black, so we took advantage of his gracious offer.
Day 2: Santa Maria to Gaviota State Park (43 miles) March 9, 2021
When Sheena suggested finishing the PCH route as a way to warm up for the STBR, I thought heck yea that’s a great idea! The flat coast will be a great way to get our riding legs all warmed up and ready to go! Oh how we were mistaken. Today took a look at that plan and laughed at us in the face.
Jeff was kind enough to make us bacon and cinnamon rolls before our 8:15am departure. He and his 2 kids were absolutely wonderful hosts. We got some early rolling hills out of the way before meeting the super horrible hill to Lompoc. This thing was horrendous. Hairpin turns with barely any shoulder up steep grades in the bright sun took a lot out of us. But we completed it and enjoyed (or really clenched in horror) the downhill into Lompoc. The older I get the more I dread speeding down hills. I constantly think of everything that could go wrong, ultimately leading to me getting launched off the bike landing right on my face. Yikes. Let’s think about brighter things.
We cruised into Lompoc and enjoyed a nice lunch. I narrowly avoided a terrifying experience involving a bungee cord getting stuck on a spoke and wrapping itself tightly around the rear derailer. If I hadn’t noticed it when I did, I’m pretty sure it would’ve ripped apart the derailer, rendering Ol’ Bessie *udderly* (ha!) useless. But nightmare avoided with the use of a knife. Which actually made me pretty sad. I loved that bungee cord. It rode with me every mile of every tour. But all good things must come to an end, even if that end was premature. And that included a relaxing time in Lompoc.
We knew that we were in for a doozy for the second half of the ride. The elevation profile showed a lot of uphill back to the coast. So we gritted our teeth and got through it.
Again our effort up the hills was rewarded with a harrowing descent into Gaviota. It’s really difficult to enjoy the views when you’re focusing on avoiding potholes at 35 MPH totally exposed while keeping an eye on zooming traffic. But Sheena caught the scenery on a GoPro so once the trauma from the descent wears off, maybe we’ll go back and reminisce. But at least ‘Lil Bessie got a front row seat, and she seemed very moo-ved by the ride, loving every second of it. She’s proving to be quite the adrenaline junkie.
The weather tomorrow doesn’t look the greatest. With rain and low temps forecasted, we discussed this morning going to Santa Barbara and getting a hotel to stay out dry. However, due to the difficulty of the day and the limited day light, we decided to call it quits in Gaviota State Park, just north of Santa Barbara. I have been pretty nervous that state parks wouldn’t be open for camping because of COVID. And that’s completely true – but with the exception of hikers and bikers. So when two very tired, very hungry bikers showed up, the host was gracious enough to open up the bathroom and shower for us. That puts my mind at ease for the rest of California.
The park is only a stone throws away from the beach, so close we can hear the waves crashing between the constant flow of traffic of the 101, the wind, and the train. But we’re so tired I’m sure that won’t bother us at all.
Day 3: Gaviota State Park to Santa Barbara (36.3 miles) March 10, 2021
Well, it did rain. The gentle pitter patter on the tent lulled me right back to sleep. Then it woke me right back up again when a sudden gust of wind had the tent lying against my face. The sudden change in weather, along with a lone flashing light somewhere in the distance, had me flashing back to the nightmare of a night in Benedict, KS (https://emiliebikesandhikes.com/2018/03/25/day-28-june-30th-3016-benedict-cassody-ks/ ). Except this time we didn’t have a tool shed to run into. But like all bad things, this didn’t last long. A quick check of minutecast showed that this was the end of the storms and off to dreamland I went. Until abruptly awoken by hail. But it was time to get moving, so after waiting out the storm for a few minutes, we got up and broke down camp.
The 20 miles out of the state park to Goleta were actually a lot of fun. Compared to yesterday and Monday, it was flat and enjoyable with coastal views the whole way. We even rode next to the Amtrak tracks, the very ones we rode in 2018 that got us to San Diego super late, no shock there. My knee started to act up, but it’ll get it together soon enough I’m sure. To the east in the mountains was a storm brewing. Not wanting to get stuck in it, we pedaled quickly to the first coffee place we could find – 711.
After an extended break, we headed off on a bike path through UCSB’s campus with amazing views of the water. Sheena even got to shred the gnar with a mountain bike – totally tubular dude!
Eventually we got into Santa Barbara and decided that we had to figure out what to do for the night. Our original plan was to have a short ride today to recover from the last few days battling hills on out of shape legs. We were going to treat ourselves to a hotel, but given it’s a big city in SoCal, we wanted to save a few bucks. So we sent out some feelers on Warm Showers and as we waited for responses, set up our wet tents in a local park to dry, receiving lots of dirty looks from passersby.
Luckily for us, we got someone willing to host us! Karl lives in a cute duplex apartment with spacious living room with a pull out couch. An electrical engineer, Karl recommended an awesome taco joint just down the street. At only $2/taco, we indulged. And they were darn delicious. After coming back, Karl served us dinner #2, which was just as delicious. We have been super lucky with the hospitality of our warm shower hosts, particularly during a pandemic.
Tomorrow looks relatively “flat” (I say that with cautious optimism), so we’re going to try to put in some extra miles tomorrow if things go as planned!
Day 4: Santa Barbara to Leo Carrillo State Park (62.3 miles)March 11, 2021
What a day! It started with Karl making us breakfast and coffee before a departure for what we knew was going to be a long day. Because yesterday was short and the terrain for the upcoming miles was *actually* flat, we decided to take advantage of rested legs and an east ride by adding on a few miles.
The ride out of Santa Barbara was truly breathtaking. We rode next to the shining jewel of the pacific for miles, dodging early morning runners and bikers.
We then rode through the quaint little cute towns of Summerland and Carpinteria before hopping onto the most beautiful bike path in America. Seriously. We were riding for miles right next to the pacific with unobstructed views. It was pure bliss.
As we got off the path, we saw a fellow tourer going north with a road cyclist who took a look at us and yelled “WARM SHOWERS!” We didn’t understand him at first, but he soon pulled a U-ey and caught up with us. Turns out he was Jack, a warm showers host who I messaged yesterday thinking we might make it to Ventura. He rode with us for the miles to Ventura and offered very pleasant conversation. He showed us around town and helped us to avoid getting lost in Ventura.
We had another 30 miles to Leo Carrillo State Park, a pretty daunting number for two tired pups, but we were up for the challenge. We stopped in Port Hueneme for groceries and then again 10 miles after that to break up the ride. It worked out really well and gave my knee a break. Which is really acting up and causing significant pain. I’ll figure it out though.
We got to camp right before sunset, just in time to cook and set up camp with enough remaining daylight. We are both excited to sleep in our tents. We seem to sleep better in them than anywhere else! But another chilly night. I did not expect SoCal to be so cold!
Day 5: Leo Carrillo State Park to Torrance (48 miles) March 12, 2021
After a very frigid night in our tents, we arose and got out of camp earlier than usual. For the first 15 miles to Malibu, I don’t remember much except riding past extremely expensive houses with extremely expensive cars parked in the driveways. The amount of wealth in this area is astounding. We stopped for a much needed (and deserved) coffee and went on our way to LA.
And for the next 15 miles, we found ourselves on the most wonderful bike path in the world to Santa Monica. Very heavily used, it’s divided into pedestrian and bike lanes, making for a safe and anxiety free ride. We had lunch admiring the infamous pier from a distance, which was swamped with people.
After wiping the sand from our feet, we continued on the bike path through Venice Beach. If Malibu’s wealth was astounding, poverty that lined the whole path through Venice Beach was overwhelming. Homeless encampments were strewn throughout the whole way with tents lining the path. Really sad to see the difference between two communities so close to each other.
Finally we were on the final stretch of the day’s ride! Still on the bike path, we went through Manhattan and Hermosa Beach. We got rained on a little, but nothing too drenching. Sheena’s favorite part of the entire ride was the gorgeous water and power plant.
Because we struck out on warm showers and there are no state parks in LA, we decided tonight was the night to get a hotel. Once we decided on one, we dragged our bikes into the room and Sheena’s ever observant eyes spotted something odd. The pillows on the bed were disheveled and there was a lump under the covers. My initial (and really only) assumption was that it was a severed human head. I always applaud my very logical brain. Sheena, however, guessed it was a very large rodent. Together we slowly pulled back the covers, not quite sure what would be staring back at us. What we found indeed had two eyes and caused us both to scream the shrillest noise we could muster. It was a cat. Phew. Okay, so we were both wrong at least. But still, seeing the poor little kitty gave us both a fright, which in turn gave the cat a scare and under the bed he fled. We promptly changed rooms and the cat’s owner was found.
After that whole debacle, we met up with Soheila from our 2016 TransAm tour. We got tacos/burritos that were gone in 5 seconds flat and got to catch up with her. It was wonderful hearing what she’s been up to and reconnect with someone who we shared such a powerful bond with 5 years ago. I’m still kicking myself for not taking a photo with her.
Day 6 Torrance to San Clemente State Park (63 miles) March 13, 2021
Today has been a day. And I mean that in the most sincere way possible. I’m not even being dramatic. It was borderline nightmarish. I’ll get to that later.
After a kitty free night, we woke up refreshed and set out from the hotel early. After 15 miles through LA and on a very awesome bike path, we stopped for our morning coffee (whoa did we get lost trying to find that Starbucks). We debated the different kinds of cyclists there are and how each one is different with their own eccentricities, from road bikers to mountain bikers to tour bikers, there are good and bad traits for them all. Sheena had the audacity to insult me by calling me a road cyclist.
We then set out for our planned lunch stop of Newport Beach. Again, we rode on an awesome bike path that was perfect for people watching. On our way, a woman stopped us and told us how proud she was of us and how “those rude men cyclists could take a lesson from you on what it actually means to be tough!” We couldn’t agree more.
We stopped for lunch and were delighted that we only had 20 miles left to our destination of Doheny State Park. Plus the half way point was the infamous Laguna Beach. How exciting! Oh how wrong we were. We had NO idea what was in store for us.
The ride through Newport Beach was horrendous with traffic and no bike lane. Because technically and lawfully we could take the entire right lane, we did just that once cars got a little too brazen and a hair too close. As Sheena put it, “you lost your lane privileges!” After a few stressful miles and a few horrible uphills, we ended up in Laguna Beach.
Laguna was way worse than Newport. The traffic was more aggressive and we had to contend with hills as well. Because the shoulder was taken up by parked cars, we had to again take the entire lane to ensure that cars wouldn’t try to go around us a little too closely. Sheena had very strong feelings about the show “Laguna Beach” that shaped our generation after our little visit. Needless to say, neither of us were impressed and we will not be returning.
After the Laguna fiasco, we were so excited that we only had 8 “mostly flat” miles to our camp for the night. We booked it to Dana Point and did some grocery shopping before the 1 mile ride to camp. When we entered Doheny State Park, something felt off. I couldn’t pinpoint what, but proceeded anyway. Then we got to the campground. It was closed. Not because of COVID closed that means “well closed to normal people but hikers/bikers are welcome”, but it was under construction closed. We were not getting in. And if we tried? Well hello fines and misdemeanors. Already 4:30pm with limited daylight, we were in a little bit of shock and slightly panicked. What do we do?! Well the only thing we could do was ride another 7 miles South to San Clemente State Park. After one minute of feeling bad for myself, we hopped on the bikes and off we went.
We had another awesome bike path which was fully protected from the road. Seriously, we have been spoiled by these bike paths. SoCal is a bikers paradise. Eventually the path split and we checked to see which way would be the best to get to the park. One option was the road, the other was another bike path. Given our luck with bike paths, we decided on that. Easy decision.
The packed down sand should have been our first clue that we made the wrong decision. But at the time we thought it was “cool” and “wow we haven’t been on a bike path like this before!” Oh how naive. Soon the packed sand became loose and there were many times we had to walk to bikes to avoid fishtailing and total loss of control of our steeds. Eventually the bike path disappeared altogether and there was no way for us to get to where we needed to go. At this point the sun was setting and we were running out of luck.
Mentally and physically fatigued with the hanger monster growing more hungry by the minute, my brain went into shutdown mode. I was ready to just pitch a tent on the beach and face the fines. But luckily we found the path again and pushed our bikes over the loose sand. Eventually we came across the state park back entrance. Oh thank the lord.
We had to again push our bikes up a 200’ hill of an obscene grade but hey. We made it. Now to find the hiker/biker site, set up camp, eat, and crash.
Aha, that’s where the true nightmare begins. We searched endlessly for the site. For at least 45 minutes we circled around, asking random people if they knew where it was or how to get to it. We were met with some blank stares, some “it’s the south end of the park”, and some “nah I don’t know but your adventure is super rad!” None pointed us in the right direction. We decided to ride the long distance to the ranger station to ask for a map. Literally as soon as we got there, a woman came running to us telling us we can stay with her. We couldn’t believe it. The timing was impeccable.
Let me explain. As we were pushing our bikes up the massive hill into the park, we spoke briefly with two women who were super encouraging and impressed with our trip. They were extremely positive and the short conversation really brightened our mood. So just imagine our pleasure when June and Denise soon after offered us to stay on their RV plot! Because of them we avoided trying to find the hiker/biker spot in the dark and avoided having to pay the fees. They are the definition of trail angels and truly were a godsend right at a moment where I felt like just giving up. This trip has not lacked from the generosity of strangers.
I cannot wait to sleep and dream like this day never happened. Ha!
Day 7: San Clemente State Park to Encinitas (40 miles) 14 March 2021
Well today was still a day. Not at the same level as yesterday, but whoa it was not pleasant. It started out simply amazing, though. Just after discussing how our daily routine of finding coffee 15 miles into the ride would have to wait until 20 miles in due to lack of services, June came out to offer us the best coffee we’ve had so far. While sipping the coffee, we had a great conversation with June and Denise. Sheena and I decided that once we retire, we will follow in their footsteps and travel around in an RV. Much easier than bikes.
After saying goodbye, we headed on our way to our assumed destination – Elijo State Park. It drizzled slightly as we rode on a nice bike path through Onofre State park up to Pendleton Marine Base. According to our maps, we could show ID to cross through the base. However, a hiccup at the gate had us considering taking I-5 the 8 miles to Oceanside. While spending 20 minutes getting ready for the terror we were about to encounter near tears, a miscommunication with the gate attendant was cleared and we were granted access to cross through the base. We were elated. Once again, timing was everything and we got to enjoy a peaceful ride through the base, avoiding the traffic and citations we were sure to encounter on I-5.
After a few more miles we stopped for lunch in Carlsbad. With only 10 miles left to our camp, we took our time and enjoyed people watching.
We then found ourselves rolling into Elijo State Park with plenty of daylight left to enjoy an actual peaceful evening (thanks daylight savings!). We were excited to just relax after a very stressful previous day. But wait, not so fast! The ranger informed us that campgrounds were for reservations only, and reservations had to made 2 days ahead. Oh, and the hiker/biker site wasn’t open because of COVID. When it was pointed out that the website didn’t have that listed as closed, the ranger basically told us tough luck – there’s a campground 25 miles south.
Upset that once again our plans were flipped over something so silly (the campground was full – how was preventing bikers from camping there going to stop covid?!), we sat down and came up with a game plan. The only camp grounds close to us were actually RV parks who told us to stay at Elijo when we called asking to stay there. The only real solution was to get a hotel. And the cheapest one was 3 miles from where we just came. So we bit the bullet.
Now this is where we ran out of luck with regards to timing. As soon as Sheena hit book for a non-refundable room, two loaded cyclists came rolling through. Not rejected by the ranger, we knew they made a reservation and had a campground. They came over to say hi and when we told them our situation, they offered for us to stay with them. Had this happened two minutes before, we would have a free place to stay, not spend money on a hotel, and not had to backtrack to said hotel. But sometimes life just isn’t fair. On the bright side, we have a hot shower, the 3 miles back were easy, and we won’t be waking up in a wet tent from the predicted rain. So there is always a silver lining.
We are definitely ready to have an off day in San Diego to boost our spirits and put the last 2 days behind us. I’m just praying tomorrow is more forgiving and goes more smoothly.
Day 8: Encinitas to San Diego (20 miles) March 15, 2021
Well, we did it! The Pacific Coast Trail is officially done. And it was just as anticlimactic as finishing the TransAm, in so much as getting to the end point was stressful and we were ready to just be done and move on. Technically we didn’t make it to the end of the ACA maps in Imperial Beach, but we made it to San Diego which is good enough for us.
We slept in a little, enjoying the comfortable and warm hotel bed. A quick check of the weather showed that it shouldn’t start raining until the afternoon, which is perfect cause with only 30 miles, we figured we’d get there before the rain started. So we set out at 9am for the last ride along the coast.
And then the rain started. It was nice and light with only a twinge of cold that was very manageable. Then it got harder right as we were headed up the Torrey Pines hill where the rain actually felt good. Headed down the hill, however, not so great. The rain picked up with hail at times and the temperature dropped. The rain was so permeable that it rendered my rain jacket utterly useless. It actually was making things worse. Even ‘Lil Bessie suffered immense loss. Her Santa hat got lost in the wind and I was actually pretty bummed about it. The next 3 miles were torture. I could barely pedal and lost all sensation in my hands and feet. And you know it’s cold when even Sheena is shivering.
After a few more miles of torture we found a McDonalds and sought shelter, hiding in the corner to avoid being kicked out. After half an hour we decided to head out, leaving literal puddles behind. But as soon as we set foot outside, we instantly became just as cold as before. We decided to go to a restaurant across the street that actually had open bathrooms and got changed into warm clothes. As we again tried waiting out the rain, Sheena got a text from Frankie – a friend of a friend whose house we were staying at that night. He offered to pick us up and without any hesitation, we said yes. Riding another 10 miles through the rain and wind sounded horrific. And wouldn’t you know – while loading the bikes into the truck, ‘Lil Bessie’s Santa hat appeared out of nowhere! What a lucky, happy little cow.
We’re at Frankie’s now enjoying a warm dry house. Sheena is making dinner and tomorrow we’re going to plan out a few days to a week of the Southern Tier. Because we will be in the desert where services and amenities are few and far between, we have to make sure we aren’t stuck in a pickle that could turn dangerous. We’re also in a really awesome part of San Diego with lots of good restaurants and bars. So tomorrow after planning, we are going on a little food-venture of local spots for some good tacos, sushi, and seafood. Because when we have an off day, we might as well enjoy it!
*Of note: I will not be doing daily updates, instead I will be posting state by state, so mostly weekly updates 🙂 Thanks for stopping and taking the time to read!*
Well, tomorrow’s the big day – the start of another bike tour! We landed in San Luis Obispo yesterday (seriously one of the most beautiful flights I’ve been on, especially the landing) and have been spending our time here getting ready and tying up any loose ends. We’re staying with Oliver, a warm showers host who, along with his 10 other roommates, go to school at California Polytech. He wants to get more into touring and was gracious enough to let us camp in his backyard for two nights. Super awesome and fun house, but it does not make me miss the good old college days.
Colorado was simply amazing. It was great to catch up with Sheena for a few days before embarking on a cross country bike ride. She showed me all around Vail and made a compelling case for moving there. I mean I know Addie would be in absolute love it out there. She took me snow shoeing (as snow was falling!) and gondola rides. We didn’t partake in skiing or snowboarding so as to avoid any injury before the trip.
In the last week, two cyclists I was following who were riding the southern tier dropped out. One after only one day (a horrible day) on the road. Had I not already had thousands of miles of touring experience under my belt, I would find this greatly concerning. It speaks volumes to not the physical strain touring takes on a person, but more so the mental toll. Granted these two brave souls took on this challenge as solo riders. I couldn’t imagine riding thousands of miles alone with nothing to occupy my mind other than my own thoughts. I’m very aware how important it is to have someone you can trust to bounce ideas off of, to talk you through a tough day, to laugh with during a mechanical crisis, or just unwind with after a particularly grueling ride. I’m so grateful I found the perfect riding partner in Sheena.
Ol’ Bessie is greased up and rearing to go. Especially ready to go in that Sheena noticed that the handlebars were put on upside down and solved a 2 year long mystery. I was actually super worried coming into this trip that the handlebars had dropped and any time I rode, I would get bad back pain. Thank God for Sheena and her mechanical eye. I do have a new handlebar bag that hopefully won’t bend under pressure and a new tent. Still a marmot, this guy is ultralight and again, hopefully, will withstand the torture I put my gear through. I also have an additional riding companion! Meet Lil’ Bessie, the Christmas cow. She is to remind me of my grandmother who passed away late 2020. She grew up on a diary farm and Bessie was her favorite cow, hence the original name for Ol’ Bessie. Lil’ Bess is to commemorate her. Along with the rose pin that has accompanied me for the last 3 years, I am reminded that I have the two best guardian angels I could ask for.
We took the bikes out for their inaugural ride today around SLO. We stopped at REI, the chamber of commerce (for bike stickers), and the grocery store to pick up necessities. We are already very in tune with the sun and have adjusted our bed and wake up times accordingly. We are definitely ready for life on the road and excited to start this journey.
2020 was a shock for everyone, and I was of no exception. 2020 was a year I was very much looking forward to. The start of a new decade (for me too – hello 30s!), plans for big trips, and new excitement for adventure yet to be discovered – I looked forward to 2020 with optimistic enthusiasm. And so when the world shut down so early on in the year, so did all my hopes and dreams. I was temporarily furloughed, which I took advantage to the best of my abilities by running and getting acquainted to my new road bike, baking bread, trying out new recipes, and even picking up needle point (and maybe a month long vacation to Florida). But this was nothing compared to what I was hoping and dreaming for. With so much heartache affecting the entire world, I felt selfish pining away for the lost trips and potential adventure left undiscovered because of COVID-19. This, along with a slew of unsavory events life threw my way this year left me in a pretty blue mental state that could only be brightened by a drastic change involving an epic quest.
The Southern Tier Bike Route (STBR) has always captured my attention, even before completing the TransAm. I was very much enthralled by the landscape that lends itself to this route – the desert Southwest. Call me crazy, but I love the romanticism found in the unforgiving vast environment, the red rock sunsets, and the resilient cacti that litter the barren, unforgiving terrain. Heat has never been an issue for me and I was never intimidated by the brutal rays of the sun. The only issue is finding someone to ride this route with me. Sheena, my ever trusting “yes man” dug in her heels at the mere mention of riding the STBR. Unlike me, Sheena does not take kindly to heat and I was lucky she was even willing to ride down the pacific coast in the summer of 2018.
But these are COVID times. And people have been known to do crazy things in COVID times. Like the one and only Sheena Sanchez asking ME if I was still interested in cycling the STBR. When an opportunity like that arises out of the blue, you don’t hesitate or question. It was my turn to be a yes man. So I said yes. And the planning began.
The shortest established route across the United States, the STBR (for our purposes) starts in San Diego, CA and travels 3022 miles East to St. Augustine, FL. It passes through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama. Being in the deep South of the US, timing is pretty critical. The western portion is high(ish) in elevation and some of the passes can experience snow as early as fall and can run into early Spring. On the flip side, the desert gets pretty darn hot in the summer (shocker) and can place an already overworked cyclist in a very dangerous position and risk for overexposure/overheating. Additionally Florida’s hurricane seasons keeps getting longer and longer. Not one who wants to get caught in a hurricane on a bicycle, avoiding FL during this season is also of high importance. The best bet, for us at least, is to start out in early March and just see where that takes us.
But not so fast! Sheena proposed another brilliant idea. Why not start out where ended in 2018? Since we ended 300 miles North of San Diego on our Pacific Coast tour, Sheena suggested starting in San Luis Obispo and complete the Pacific Coast as a warm up for the STBR. Without much arm twisting, I told her that was a great idea and so it was established. We would ride from SLO to San Diego and turn left and head East all the way to St. Augustine! With a pit stop at the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, and Panama City Beach FL, the trip was starting to really take shape.
Is it selfish to ride a bike tour during COVID times? Maybe. But traveling on a bike where you spend most of the time alone and camping at night void of crowds seems like a fairly socially distanced activity. Sure, we will have to go grocery shopping (where precautions will be taken to ensure safety), but I have to go grocery shopping in NJ as well. In fact, being on a bike I will encounter less people than I do daily with work. Being a physical therapist and working during the majority of 2020, I have become somewhat desensitized to COVID. I have worked with a multitude of patients who actively had the virus or who conquered it. While I am sympathetic towards the hundreds of thousands who have succumbed from the virus, my mental health needed a break. And because of that, I will likely make very little commentary on COVID in the following posts during this trip. I am riding to clear my mind, not focus on what derailed life for so many of us.
And so here is the plan. I have already gratefully received a leave of absence from work and my trusty steed Ol’ Bessie is already in California and reassembled. I will be flying out to Colorado the first week of March to meet up with Sheena and catch up. A few days later we will fly out to SLO, reunite with our bikes, and set off back down the coast either 3/7 or 3/8. We plan on stealth camping on BLM for the majority of this trip, or stay with carefully screened Warm Shower hosts. When all else fails, hotels are a last ditch option.
While I’m excited for this trip, it doesn’t come without reservation. Of course, there is a pandemic still continuing throughout the country. But I’m optimistic that with falling number of cases and herd immunity picking up with vaccination, we will be safe in that regard. Texas is a big state. Like huge. I’m planning on it taking up to 4 weeks to cross this massive state. Based on past tours, crossing over state lines is such a feeling of euphoria. Holding off on the gratification for nearly a month is going to take a huge mental toll on me. Third, but certainly not least, the South doesn’t have the greatest reputation for respect for cyclists. While Southern hospitality is something I have definitely read about in other blogs, I am leery of distracted drivers or opportunistic thieves. But I was worried about that in California as well, and look how great that trip turned out.
The bags are packed and the flights are all made. The Southern Tier Bike Route will begin just a short week from today and I cannot be more excited!
Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I had a choice to make. Either go back to work or join my dad and brothers on a backpacking trip in Colorado. Was it even really a choice? I still had my trail legs and didn’t even have to unpack Big Booty Judy. Besides adopting Addie, this was the easiest decision of my life. I purchased a flight and soon found myself in Denver heading over to Estes Park to start the acclimation process.
My dad took it upon himself to fully research The Four Passes Loop. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to worry about logistics, camping spots, or mileage. I put my full faith in my dad’s apt ability to make sure everything is planned down to the very minute. And considering he’s the one who taught me everything I know, I trusted him implicitly! And it felt pretty great to just go along for the ride (or really the hike) without all the headaches that responsibility brings with it.
The Four Passes Loop is one of the most sought after loop trails in the United States. a 27 mile loop trail near Aspen CO, the trail takes a hiker over (you guessed it…) four passes around the Maroon Bells. Because I did zero planning or research, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, I wasn’t really too worried since I figured if I could handle the JMT, a 4 day low mileage hike should be a walk in the park. I didn’t look at a map or elevation profile. Looking back at it, maybe I should have. But it was also thrilling going in totally unaware of what challenges I might encounter.
The first day in Colorado we all hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park to acclimate. Even though I had just previously spent 3 weeks at altitude, I was worried that being home at sea level for 2 weeks knocked out that advantage. Having suffered so much from altitude sickness the first few days of the JMT, I wanted to avoid nonstop vomiting and praying for a less painful death at all costs. I was more than happy to spend some time at altitude taking in the scenery of RMNP. The first day we hiked out of Bear Lake Trailhead and headed up to Emerald Lake, an easy first day trek of just 4.1 miles.
The next day we upped the ante and tackled the Sky Pond trail, an 8.5 mile climb that was a lot more technical than I had anticipated. We had to climb up a 30′ water fall full of other eager hikers. The weather wasn’t exactly our friend once we reached the highest spot, with cold gusty winds that threatened to soak us with rain, but it was beautiful. And being close to 11k’, we all did very well and felt confident that we were ready to set out for the Four Passes Loop.
Realizing that the weather in CO can turn cold pretty quickly and all of us packed shorts, we stopped at REI to grab pants. I also remembered last minute that my air mattress failed the last few nights of the JMT. Not wanting to spend 3 restless nights being jabbed by rocks and sticks, I quickly picked up an ultralight mattress. I was slowly but surely on my way to becoming an ultralight hiker – ha!
And so it was time! Because it is such a popular spot and is threatened to be loved to death, the rangers have rightly attempted to control visitors by shutting down parking lots between 8am and 5pm. If you arrive between those times you’ll be turned away and forced to take an expensive shuttle into the park. We just made it and luckily for us we found a great parking spot in the overnight lot! We filled out permits (who knows how long a non-lottery permit system will last) and we set out, just as clouds were rolling in.
We spent some time at Crater Lake taking in the views, getting to see why it’s one of the most photographed places in Colorado. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beauty. There were loads of day trip tourists, one of whom scored a scolding from my dad for flying a drone.
We pressed on as the clouds rolled in and the temperatures dropped. Soon it was quite cold and the wind was really picking up. I was worried that if it poured we’d all get hypothermia and die. Yes it was August, but once temperatures hit 60, if you don’t get dry and into a warm spot, you’re vulnerable to succumb to the effects of hypothermia. While a farfetched scenario, considering we all had pretty decent sleeping bags, I was still fearful. Or at least really unwilling to be uncomfortable for a night. I pushed that thought into the back of my mind and pressed on.
Along the way we met John and his dog, Sadie. Being a dog friendly trail, I was sad Addie had to sit this one out but I was happy to see another four legged creature loving life. We talked to John briefly and then proceeded to find a camp for the night a few miles down the trail. After much debate, we settled on a spot right when it started to rain. John caught up with us and set his tent in the same spot as ours. We set up our tents quickly and sought shelter. Soon the rain eased and we ate a quick dinner and got to know John better before it started right back up. The rain didn’t stop the whole night and we were stuck in our tents until the morning, something the JMT trained me well for.
The morning didn’t show much promise. The higher elevations was covered in snow and the rain didn’t stop down where we were. We were all cold and wet, miserably eating our breakfast trying our best to dodge raindrops. The first words of doubt started to bubble up in conversation. John and Sadie decided that the weather was not in their favor and the poor forecast forced their hand at heading back. They said they’ll try to attempt it in a few days in clearer weather, but going counter-clockwise. If they succeeded in waiting out the weather, we would likely see them again towards the end of our journey.
We packed up our wet tents and slogged forward. The rain did ease, but being cold and wet I was still worried about hypothermia. We soon spread apart, with Tom and Chris taking the lead and me sticking with dad. I could tell he had doubts about the safety of marching forward, as did I. My damp hands were already white and wrinkled and my toes were losing sensation (not super uncommon for me). The boys stopped and we caught up. Dad verbalized his concerns and we all held court, weighing the pros/cons of continuing the journey. Arguably the smartest of the Keane siblings, Tom whipped out his phone and opened a coin flip app. Brilliant. We decided our fate would be in the hands of Tom, literally, as we let the coin dictate our future. Lo and behold, the coin flip gods determined we were to continue on! Without debate, we did just that.
We had two passes to traverse this day, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. With the surrounding mountains shrouded in clouds and fog encroaching in on us, I felt as if I was on a mission to cast the One Ring to Rule us all into the fiery depths of Mordor in attempt to save the world from falling into darkness. I enjoyed it and was happy with the decision of placing our future on the fickle whims of a coin.
West Maroon Pass was relatively easy, it’s approach reminded me a lot of the southern face of Pinchot Pass on the JMT. I got up it relatively easily and waited for everyone else to join, getting pretty cold and miserable in the process. Again, the weather did not give way for too much of a view, so we caught our breath and marched for Frigid Air Pass, only a few short miles away. We descended from West Maroon Pass and walked through a lush green valley.
We stopped at the lowest part of the valley for lunch/snacks. Completely oblivious and not dong my usual pat down to assure myself that I have all my things, we set forth. 10 minutes later we heard people yelling towards us. Being so far away, I could only make out the word “phone!”. I did the pat down I should have done half a mile back and realized my phone was amiss! In a panic, I dropped my pack and instinctively ran towards the group, running as though I was attempting to beat my best 800m time. All my photos from the JMT were on that phone that I had yet to upload. If I lost that phone, gone were those memories and I would have been totally devastated. That phone was like the holy grail to me. I realized how truly lucky I was that these folks found my dear device and thanked them immensely. We saw so few people on the trail that it was as close to a miracle as anything else that they came across my phone.
Thinking Frigid Air Pass was going to be a piece of cake, I soon ate that cake when we came to the last 100m of the pass. It was straight up. And on loose, wet dirt it was like hiking 45 degrees up sand. At points using my hands, I distracted myself with thoughts of “why would they name a pass out here after a refrigerator??” I didn’t even think maybe it was because the air is actually literally frigid. That thought and other creative names I would’ve came up with to name this beastly pass fueled me up, along with Chris laughing at how ghastly and ridiculous the climb was. We all rejoiced at the top of the pass, thinking surely this is likely to be the steepest and most difficult of the passes. Famous last words.
We snapped some photos and headed our way down to our second night’s camp. As we set up near a gorgeous waterfall, the sun made its first appearance of the trip and we were all elated! Finally, there was hope for a gorgeous bright second half of the trip. Everyone was very thankful for the coin’s wise and fruitful decision.
We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the third pass of the hike, Trail Rider Pass. Being at the lowest point of the two passes, we knew we were in for a climb. Being that I did zero research on this hike, I had no idea what that climb entailed. It entailed about 2000′ of elevation gain over roughly 2 miles. Pretty happy I had no idea I was about to conquer one of the more difficult passes I had ever come across.
We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. It was gorgeous scenery that we got to take in with plenty of breaks to catch our breath. We even got to see a small plane fly right by us! Reassuring in so much as if we all perish on this pass, at least there was a chance our bodies would be retrieved.
But the steepness gave way to a gentler grade to the top and we all basked in the glory of conquering yet another pass. Only one left to go! The view from the top was again stunning with breathtaking views of Snowmass Lake, which just so happened to be right where we were headed as we descended the pass.
We camped just past Snowmass Lake, avoiding the crowds the huge body of water draws. Our site was higher than the trail and we had a birds eye view of it. Chris spotted John and Sadie hiking, but they just exchanged hellos and John was on his way. I was happy they made it back on the trail, though maybe they would’ve been wise to have flipped a coin.
The next day was our last day! Just one last pass to conquer – Buckskin Pass. A little traumatized from Rider Pass, we all were hesitant to get too excited for today’s challenge. But it ended up being one of the more fun passes I’ve encountered! It was a gentle grade (comparatively) and the view was stunning.
We all made it to the top early and had enough time for Tom, Chris, and me to make it to the top of Buckskin Mountain, a pretty steep climb. But relieved of our packs, we made it relatively quickly. We met a friendly couple up there and snapped some pictures, a great future Christmas present for mom and dad.
We joined back up with dad and enjoyed the views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Peak as we started back down for our final miles of the trail. But not before the plane from yesterday flew back right above us!
We ended the trail where we started and looked back with a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the challenges we would find on the trail, mostly being the temperamental weather. But we persisted and onward we marched!
We ended the trip with a bike ride up and down Glenwood Canyon. Afterwards we shared dinner with our cousin Julie and her boyfriend Adam in Denver.
Overall it was a wonderful trip. Being only 27 miles, I definitely want to return someday soon, either to run it in one day or bring Addie on the adventure of a lifetime. But alas, after the Pacific Coast Highway bike ride, Mt. Washington, the JMT, and the Four Passes Loop, my 2018 summer of non stop adventure had finally come to an end, and I was due to go back to work the following week.
The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite scenic spots in the United States. With hidden picturesque waterfalls around every corner, green moss hanging from trees who were just saplings during the American Revolutionary War, and rivers dusted with grey gloomy fog, the PNW is the setting of fairytales and holds a very special (and magical) spot in my heart. Coming off of the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike, I was looking for a loop hike I could do in less than a week. When I stumbled across the Three Sisters Loop in Sisters, OR, I knew I found the one. In 2016, during my cross country bike ride, we rode through Sisters on our way over McKenzie Pass on the second to last day of the ride. Being the last pass on a 2.5 month journey, this little town made an impression. I was happy to go back and explore the Three Sisters. Plus, though this loop does require a wilderness permit to hike, you can fill one out at the trailhead. There is no limit to the number of walk-up permits so there is no silly lottery system. However, starting next year they are beginning a lottery system, so the timing was pretty darn perfect!
The Three Sisters Loop is a 50 mile trail that loops around – you guessed it – the Three Sisters. Set in the cascade mountain range, the trail takes you around the North, South, and Middle Sisters – three volcanoes of various levels of (in)activity that make up the notorious Three Sisters. Known for a very limited window of opportunity to hike due to early and late snowfall, I knew that hiking this trail in the beginning of August would be perfect.
When doing my research for this trip, I scoured the internet for trail descriptions and maps, mainly so I knew how to break down the 50 mile loop trail. I found a few great blog sites authored by folks who had hiked it, but couldn’t find much information on campsites along the trail. Being so, I winged it. All I knew was I definitely wanted to stay at Camp Lake, a 10 mile addition that takes you to a lake right at the base of Middle Sister. I also saw (last minute) that you can actually hike up South Sister. Why wouldn’t I opt to hike an additional 10 miles up an active VOLCANO!? It was a done deal. I was prepared to hike 70 miles over the course of 5.5 days. Relatively easy hike.
After gathering gear and buying a lifesaving map off Amazon, I was on my way! I flew into Portland and stayed 2 nights at a hostel there. I explored the Columbia River Gorge and revisited my beloved Multnomah Falls – true magic that not even Disney could replicate. The next morning I woke up super early partly because I had a 3 hour drive to the trailhead to start this solo journey, and the majority being that my body was still on east coast time, so I couldn’t sleep in even if I wanted to.
At 10:30am I arrived at the Pole Creek Trailhead, one of the many trailheads you can use to access the Three Sisters Loop. It was a rough ride to the parking lot on an unpaved road full of crazy kamikaze chipmunks who took pleasure in watching unsuspecting motorists swerve out of the way to avoid running them over. The parking lot was full – except for one spot that I very quickly grabbed. It was pretty darn hot out and the lack of shade definitely exacerbated that. In 2017 there was a devastating fire that wiped out the majority of the forest in this section. Without trees, the whole area is pretty exposed without respite from the sun. So I lathered up plenty of sunscreen, gathered my stuff, and filled out my permit. at 11:19am I set out for the loop, ample time to make it the 7 miles to Camp Lake.
The beginning of the trail was 1.7 miles of uphill to the official loop. Once on the loop, it’s practically impossible to get lost. With the Sisters as landmarks, if you just keep them to your right (I was going clockwise), you are going in the right direction! After 1 mile on the official loop trail, I took a right and started my journey to my first “excursion” to Camp Lake. Having the time and hearing amazing things about this little lake, I didn’t mind taking the side trip. Although, the 5 miles to the lake were unpleasant and I couldn’t wait to get them over with. They were uphill and just not my cup of tea. But I did meet a very friendly ranger who was checking permits. We talked briefly about our time in the Sierras/JMT (he took kids there for summer camps) and talked about weather – in which he said I should expect thunder storms this evening. Oh my old nemesis – we meet again.
When I stared out, there was barely a cloud in the sky. The few that were there were convening over South Sister. They were cute little fluffy buggers, innocent looking enough. However, this wasn’t my first rodeo and I could hear them talking in my head. “Hey! Did you hear Emilie is on the trail?! Let’s get everyone together and put on a show for her this afternoon!”. Having experienced horrible storms on all of my backpacking trips (it monsooned 17 of the 20 days on the JMT), I knew that even the smallest most innocent clouds can turn the nastiest. And I was right. The party was meeting right above South Sister and they were not happy. I picked up the pace hoping to get to camp before the storms unleashed their power.
As I was rushing, I heard a loud BOOM that stopped me dead in my tracks. All simultaneous thoughts, I began to worry about thunder, gun shots, or a car door slamming. Being that none of these were viable causes for the loud and sudden noise, I looked around and right in front of me was a huge rock slide coming down from Middle Sister. Not my first rock slide (I witnessed one climbing Mt Whitney) I watched in awe. It is the most jarring sound and the cloud of dust that followed was huge. I may have been the only person who witnessed that powerful moment.
After what felt like eternity, I finally made it to Camp Lake! I quickly found a campsite (not hard to do, there was only one other group there) and right as I finished setting up camp, the thunder rolled in. I saw 2 guys sprinting down Middle Sister in sheer panic and I soon sought shelter in my tent. I quickly wished I bought a new tent because the old Marmot ain’t what she used to be. But I had to deal with what I had. At first I didn’t think anything of this storm. Sure I was pretty exposed at 7,000′ in a crappy little tent, but like I said, this wasn’t my first rodeo. The rain was pouring down in sheets and the lightning turned pretty violent. Then the rain did too, aggressively so. I looked out and saw it wasn’t rain at all, but pea sized hail. If they got any bigger, I knew it would shred the tent. So I just buckled down and prayed that didn’t happen.
Eventually everything slowed down to the point where I was relaxed enough to take a nap. During the storm the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees. But when I woke up the sun was shining and it was starting to heat up again to the point where my tent felt more like a sauna. I took advantage of the pleasant weather change and took a walk around the lake. It was simply beautiful. During the trek, I stumbled upon a pretty awesome snow tunnel carved by a crystal clear stream. The sun soon was taken up by more clouds and I went back to my site to cook dinner before another storm rolled through, much less aggressive than its predecessor.
At 12am I woke up and took a peek out of my tent. What I saw took my breath away. I have seen some beautiful night skies in my day, but I have never seen such a marvelous display. The milkyway was brilliant and dazzling, like a knife carving through the dark night sky. I could see it with such clarity that it was as if I could reach up and take a bite. Making the side trip to Camp Lake was worth it, if just to witness that night sky.
In the morning I broke down camp quickly and set out for the trail at 7am totally not at all thrilled with the prospect of having to backtrack almost 5 miles to the trail junction. But it was at least a down hill 5 miles so I packed up camp, strapped on Big Booty Judy and away I went, totally zoned out. After 2 hours I finally reached the split and set out for Green Lakes – my prospective home for the night. Being only 9 miles away, I knew I’d get there before 2pm leaving a whole afternoon to just sit around. Not one to overly enjoy free time, I toyed around with the idea of going an extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake, which would make it a pretty hefty day. My original plan was to stop at Green Lakes tonight then get up SUPER early tomorrow to drop my gear at Moraine Lake so I could summit South Sister. Going the extra distance to Moraine would logistically make sense, but I was going to play it by ear and listen to what my body told me.
The trail to Green Lakes had its ups and downs – literally. But let me tell you, it was pretty. What wasn’t so pretty was the attitudes of the limited amount of passerbyers I ran into. Most were not very friendly, barely getting out of your way on the trail and not even acknowledging your hello. However, the ones that were friendly donning smiles all asked about last night’s thunderstorms. We all shared the same terrifying experiences.
The trail opened up into a meadow with a full view of all three Sisters and Broken Top. It was stunning. I made it to the very aptly named Green Lake (I’ve never seen a more radiant emerald green in my life) at 1:15pm – as did the clouds. I decided then that I would go the extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake. I was worried that if I delayed getting there until the morning, all the sites would be taken and there wouldn’t be a place for me to drop my pack before the ascent up South Sister. With my mind made up and the clouds rolling in, I figured I’d better set out quickly to beat any potential storm.
The 5 miles to Moraine Lake were mentally exhausting, but came with reward. It led me through lava fields and streams that were truly gorgeous. Finally I made it to the lake at 3:32pm. With thunder booming in the distance and physical exhaustion setting in after 18 miles of hiking, I found a great spot to set up camp and lay down. I was almost immediately rewarded for my decision to go the extra distance because within 2 hours all the spots were taken by other eager hikers.
I spent some time down at the Lake’s shore. Moraine certainly isn’t as scenic as Camp Lake – especially with 3 grown men bathing in it – but at least it’s only 0.3 miles away from the South Sister cutoff trail. I spoke briefly to the three bathing men who had just completed summitting South Sister. They admitted it was tough, but totally doable. It took them 4 hours to get to the top because of the massive elevation gain. The pit in my stomach grew only slightly. But I effectively squashed its growth. Surely if these guys could do it, I can too!
After going to bed early, I woke up early to get moving by 6:24am. With an elevation gain of 4,000′ (Moraine Lake sits at 6.3K’ where as the summit of South Sister sits pretty at 10.3K’) over 3.5 miles, I knew my body was in for a rude awakening. I don’t think I’ve ever gained that much elevation in such a short distance before (event the Grand Canyon was more forgiving) but I was ready for the challenge.
I set out at a leisurely pace, allowing my legs to enjoy what was surely to be the only relatively flat part of the trail. Then did things change – quickly. The gentle grade yielded to a steep slope with pretty efficient elevation gain. Soon Moraine Lake was looking smaller and smaller and the summit was inching closer and closer to my grasp. In fact, 2 hours in, I swore I was about to reach the top! Not too shabby! I was pretty impressed with myself when I asked a couple coming down (they spent the night at the top) if it indeed was the summit. They laughed. Nope, it was a false summit hiding the true summit. I still had a ways to go. My legs were starting to protest after the initial climb. But their protests fell on deaf ears cause I was making my way to the top, with OR without them.
The ascent up South Sister was insane. Being an active volcano, the whole way to the top was cinders, pumice and lava rock, all of which are very unstable and loose. It’s very similar to hiking on sand – one foot forward, 6 inches back. Thank God I had enough sense to bring my trekking poles. A couple I ascended with (Paige and Ken from Lexington KY) did not have poles and I felt so bad for them. But hey, they were doing it – and I heard not one complaint from either of them.
The trail follows a razorback ridge with Lewis Glacier to the east. The glacier named for the second half of that famous expedition – Clark Glacier – is to the West. I didn’t know it at the time but I was between the arguable founders of the West! While taking some time inspecting the glacier, appreciating its immense and powerful presence, I noticed that it was carved with crevasses. Even with my limited understanding of glaciers I knew that crevasses are often times hidden and extremely unstable. One is liable to fall in and never come out – the cause of much of my hiking anxieties. Just as I was having this thought, I heard Paige and Ken as well as another couple we were keeping pace with gasp and say, “Oh my God! There are people crossing it!” I looked over and sure enough, there were 2 people who looked surprisingly like ants crossing over the glacier, heading straight to the deepest crevice. My stomach dropped. They were dangerously close, like 5 feet away. It made me sick. I was sure I was about to witness the traumatic death of two strangers. The other couple (Christina and Marcus from San Jose CA) took pictures every minute of the thrill seekers, tracking their progress across the glacier so when they eventually do fall in, there is a record of where/when for search and rescue. After about 10 minutes, the daring duo SOMEHOW made it across the frozen tundra and were making their way to the top on the same trail as us. We knew we’d run into them at the top.
After a tremendous climb, we made it to the ice field that was covering the opening of the dormant volcano. The worst of the climb was over! Only 0.5 miles to the true summit with an elevation gain of 100′. I was elated. The whole rest of the hike I talked with Christina and Marcus. What an interesting couple. They have hiked 1000s of miles all throughout the country in all kinds of weather conditions. They had stories where they thought they might never make it out alive as well as stories of pure elation enjoying scenery, adventure, and good company. I could’ve talked to them for hours.
The summit offered gorgeous sweeping landscape views of North Sister and the surrounding mountains. However, after only half an hour at the top, I started to feel sick. Like violently vomit sick. I knew this feeling all too well. At 10K’ I knew I was getting altitude sickness and needed to get down ASAP. I told Christina and Marcus, and they started the descent with me, along with Paige and Ken. While we were descending, we were in the midst of 1000s of tortoise shell butterflies making their annual migration. I felt lucky that I happened to schedule this hike during the migration unknowingly, for it was such a magical moment.
During the descent, I got to know both couples better. Paige and Ken are planning on retiring in Bend, OR in just a few short years to spend their golden years skiing and hiking. During the conversation, we were passed by a young man who looked familiar. Paige instantly recognized him as one of the two daredevil glacier crossers. She questioned him about his death defying trek. Dressed in baggy basketball shorts, sneakers, and equipped with a draw string bag, he was totally clueless the danger he put himself in. He admitted this was only his 3rd hike – ever. He only started hiking last week. And the other person he crossed with? They had just met that day. Beginners luck I guess.
Soon all the couples and I parted ways at Moraine Lake. They had another 2 miles to get to Devil’s Lake, where they started. I got back to camp at 2pm completely wiped. I thought about going 5 miles to Rock Mesa Creek, but just the thought put my legs and feet into full panic mode. This time I listened. I decided to give my body a rest and enjoy the afternoon. I filled my water, went for a dip, and just relaxed, reflecting on the almost perfect day I had climbing South Sister.
*Prior to this very sentence, I gathered all this information from my trail journal, detailing every boring detail of the day. Now that I’m writing this 17 months after the journey with a lot of life changes, the trail journal is stuffed in the deepest darkest corner of my storage unit. Retrieving it requires a level of finesse and patience that I lack at this moment, so the rest of this excerpt will rely solely on my memory – admittedly my worst attribute. But because waiting to write this blog till forever has been weighing heavily on my soul (and needing to check it off for future entries this spring), I will trust in my memory and make any edits when the little red diary resurfaces.*
After a storm free night, I broke down camp and set out for another day on the trail. My expected overnight stop was only 9 miles away at Reese Lake. Thinking I would get there early, I looked into pushing a little further. I was going to make that decision once I reached Reese Lake.
My morning was quiet and I didn’t see many other hikers along the way. After a few miles, I turned onto the PCT where I figured was a perfect spot for a short rest. At the junction, as I was grabbing some snacks, a hiker joined me. While I forget his name a year and a half later, I will never forget this particular man. In his 60s, he was an accomplished orthopedic surgeon who did not seem overly impressed that I was a physical therapist, all but telling me he thought rehab post surgery was pointless. He was section hiking the PCT and he was on day 2 of a 5 day jaunt. At the time, though a little rough around the edges, I enjoyed his company. We set out together and hiked a few miles before I rethought my first impressions. The conversations that ensued left me feeling a little uncomfortable (not in a creepy way) with undertones that were not exactly politically correct. After he lit his 6th cigarette on the trail, I decided I needed some solitude and told him I was going to pick up the pace in an effort to ensure a camp spot at Reese Lake and I bolted, unsure but hopeful this would be my last encounter with him.
I reached Reese Lake right around noon, entirely too early to stop. The lake was full of happy hikers reveling in the cool water on such a hot day. With much of the trail exposed, I could see where the water was tempting for a hot and sweaty hiker. But terrified of the far-fetched possibility of obtaining a brain eating amoeba, I never indulge in an alpine lake dips. I sat far from the trail with the lake still in view in an effort to avoid being spotted by Richard (I know for a fact, that’s not his name, but let’s just call him that for now until I find my journal). I ate my lunch in peace, entertained by the swimmers and the occasional dog.
As I was relaxing, I looked at the map and tried to come up with a plan for the afternoon. The next few miles of the trail looked pretty bare in the way of campsites. Obsidian Limited Entry Area was 5 miles away and though would make a great spot to stop overnight, it’s illegal to do so without a specific permit. And I was plum out of specific permits. Only a mile long stretch, Obsidian was detailed as an oasis full of ferns, life, and waterfalls. I figured that outside of it’s borders there should be camp sites. Based solely on a guess, I packed up and set out for 5 miles to the southern border of OLEA.
The hike there was gorgeous, with purple wildflowers showing the way and grand views of The Husband with barely a hiker in sight, I was in basking in solitude bliss. It was a flat stretch and I was able to cover ground pretty quickly. I found myself at the edge of OLEA around 3pm. Still earlier than I wanted, I found a perfect camp spot and dropped my pack. Before setting up camp, I took a short snooze in the shade. I explored the area around camp and found the perfect site for a tent. The tent was pitched and dinner was eaten and I took in a beautiful sunset all to myself. I was so enamored by it I didn’t even think to photograph it.
After the sunset in the purple dusk, I saw Richard pass by. Not wanting to disturb my peaceful spot, I ducked low in my tent, fairly certain that he did not see me. In this moment, I wondered “am I the unfriendly hiker I was so annoyed with just 2 days ago?”. But this thought was fleeting as I told myself no, Richard was just difficult to tolerate for long stretches.
I had a disturbing night sleep that night and was happy to get moving in the morning. Though a perfect spot to stay for the night, I had an uneasy feeling about that campsite. Right before strapping on Big Booty Judy, I figured I should empty the old tank. I went over to a tree I used just the day before and right before I was to release my bladder, I noticed a black book. Where did that come from!? I picked it up and flipped through it, trying to find any information with regard to its owner. As someone who journals all my adventures, I would be heartbroken if I lost mine. I would hope that if someone picked it up, they would try their best to return it to me. However, besides some deeply disturbing doodles, there was no information as to who this journal belonged to. Despite this, I strapped it to my pack and decided I would look more thoroughly later, determined to return it to its owner.
I entered OLEA and what I read about it was true. It was stunning. I walked down to the waterfall, where I ran into Richard again. We talked briefly. He camped just right past where I was. He saw he saw my tent, but wasn’t sure if it was me. I told him I must’ve been asleep already. A little white lie never hurt anyone.
We trekked together on and off that day. Despite being in his 60s and a chainsmoker, Richard was in pretty good shape and could keep up with me the majority of the time, with the exception of steep inclines. We stuck together through the Sister Springs. It reminded me so much of the JMT it filled me with nostalgic yearning to go back to the Sierras.
When we reached the lava section, Richard slowed considerably. I went ahead and fell completely in love with the landscape this section offered. It was like walking into an evil castle, with pumice spires and dragon fire ravaged decay. I hiked through those two miles with a smile on my face. Though gorgeous, this section was relatively steep. The switchbacks up Sawyer Bar were intense and hot, but worth every drop of sweat for that view of clouds bathing in the valley. At the top, I waited for Richard, cheering him on as he slowly ascended to the top. He was very proud of himself, and I was proud of him too. Knowing that he was pretty tired, I figured this would probably be the last time I’d see him. I told him I was planning on having lunch at South Matthieu Lake, where I’d be turning off the PCT and onto Scott Pass Trail. He’d be continuing on the PCT. We agreed we’d meet at South Matthieu Lake for a final farewell. With him still catching his breath, I continued on to make my way over Opie Dilldock Pass.
Compared to other passes I’ve trekked, Opie Dilldock Pass was a piece of cake. It offered fantastic views of Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood. I took in the view for a few minutes before starting back up to South Matthieu Lake.
Having only hiked 7 miles to the lake, I didn’t feel super tired. But it was only 11am so I figured with only another 5 miles to my camp, I took some time to just relax waiting for Richard. It was at this point that I remembered I still had the mysterious journal from the morning. I took it out and started to read it. What I found within its pages was deeply disturbing and I had no clue how on earth this journal ended on the PCT in Central Oregon. The only entry that even alluded to the PCT was a day hike in the Sierras, hundreds of miles away. The other entries spoke only of a European backpacking trip, substance abuse, and internal struggle. The author clearly had a lot of demons, but the author was never identified. I couldn’t even tell if the author was male or female, let alone any kind of information to return the journal to them. After noticing a chill in the air, I took note of the time. It was 1pm. I couldn’t believe it! I was so engrossed in the journal I lost all concept of time. The chill was to the bone. I checked the temperature. It dropped 20 degrees since I took rest. The sky looked the ever familiar gray I have grown accustomed to and the clouds consumed the sun. I grabbed my jacket and looked at the journal. It emitted such a horrifyingly negative energy that I didn’t want to carry it anymore. So I made the decision to leave it. The 7 miles it hitchhiked on my pack was enough. I looked around for Richard, but there was no sign of him. With an impending storm and having already spent 2 hours waiting for him, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go. Indifferent towards not saying a final farewell to the man who I didn’t altogether enjoy hiking with, I said good riddance to the journal and headed out.
Sure enough, thunder boomed in the distance and I was sprinkled with a light cold rain. I made it to the camp early, once again. Only 5 miles to the Pole Creek Trail Head and the end of my trip, I considered pushing it. But considering I wouldn’t make it into Bend until late and I didn’t know where I would stay, I decided to make camp and enjoy my last night out in the wilderness. I wasn’t all that thrilled with my camp spot – not because it wasn’t great, cause it was. It was right next to the flowing Alder Creek and pretty secluded. I just had an eerie feeling about it. That night I tossed and turned, with images of the journal floating through my mind. I’m glad I got rid of it. I’m convinced it was evil and I didn’t want it anywhere near my tent.
I got up early that morning and got out of Dodge. The 5 miles in the wildfire stricken forest went by quickly and I soon found myself at the parking lot, the end of another journey.
While I enjoy any adventure I go on, this one was different. Devoid of too many other hikers, I was alone for a good portion of it, not something that usually bothers me. But this time it did. Looking back on it, I should’ve planned to hike longer mileage days so I didn’t have so much free time. I could’ve easily hiked this trail in 4 days as opposed to the 6 I took. The terrain was not difficult and aside from the voluntary South Sister venture, the elevation change was manageable.
Soon I was on my way to Bend, where I explored, got souvenirs, and had a wonderful dinner. At dinner I met Alex and his friend. We spoke of the adventures they went on together and of the Three Sisters Loop I had just finished. We agreed to hike Mt. Bachelor the next day before I had to head to the airport. However, that night I opted out after doing some research. The road to the trail head required a 4×4 and I did not want to risk damaging the rental car. So I thanked Alex for the invitation via text, but declined the offer. I was saddened that I had to refuse, as the pictures he showed me were awe inspiring.
This trip confirmed my love for the PNW, offering different landscapes that I fell in love with. My night at Camp Lake and the hike up and down South Sister was so incredibly memorable, it was worth every step just for those two experiences.
When an outlandish idea infiltrates the thin “danger” filter of my mind, it’s hard for me to shake it and soon it consumes my every thought. I was in search of a mini vacation, as I hadn’t been in one in way too long. After a short internet search determined that most feasible hikes were inaccessible due to high snowfall that continued through June, I figured I was just going to have to wait until late summer to set out on my next adventure. I am cautious enough to know my limitations with regards to technical skills (of which I have none), so imagine my disappointment when my search yielded no results for a snow free trek. Then by some unknown power – some may call it divine intervention, other pure idiocy – the idea popped into by mind to hike the Grand Canyon, a dream of mine for some time now. Surely the Grand Canyon won’t be covered in feet of snow, right??
The hike I had set my eyes on is infamously known as the Rim to Rim hike. This world renowned trek starts at one end of the canyon, goes down to the bottom, crosses the Colorado River, then heads back up the other side. Depending on the route taken, it is a 21-24 mile venture recommended only for experienced hikers and it is advised to be done either in the month of May or late fall, as temperatures in the canyon can reach highs of 120 F degrees easily during the popular summer months. It is also highly recommended that hikers split up the miles over a few days to prevent hiking in the heat of the day and the sheer exhaustion that is sure to ensue after a hike of this nature. Most deaths in the park do not occur due to falls of high ledges (though Instagram worthy selfies are causing a spike in this number), but instead are due to dehydration, hyponatremia, or heat stroke from unpreparedness on the part of an overly ambitious hiker. The National Park Service has it posted in the park (see pic below) and on its website to NOT attempt this hike in one day. Upwards of 20 people per day are rescued within the canyon due to ignorance and lack of respect of the environment in which the canyon calls home. Going down is easy, going up is mandatory and requires 2x the effort. Add in heat and sun exposure, and you have a recipe for disaster for an inexperienced human looking for a good photo-op to end up in grave danger.
Due to planning in the past a Rim to Rim hike over 4 days 3 nights, I knew that the logistics and planning the trek can be just as difficult as the hike itself – and luck is a huge player. Below the canyon rim, there are 3 campgrounds and one ranch hikers can stay in. Perfect! The only hang up is that for camping you need a permit and to stay in the ranch you need to plan a year in advance for a reservation or luck out with a last minute cancellation. Permits are assigned in a lottery based system that I have never had any luck with. There is a high demand and low supply for these precious permits. There was no way I was going to score a one last minute, so if I wanted to hike Rim to Rim it had to be in one day. A daunting task and lofty goal, but one I thought I could attain. As I said earlier, it is not advised to hike past the end of May due to rising summer temperatures. Being late May when the idea popped into my head, I missed the window of opportunity. But early June is close enough, right?!
I knew immediately I wanted to start the hike on the North Rim, as it is 1000 feet higher in elevation and 14 miles of descent. The problem is where to stay. The North Rim is not nearly as popular as its Southern cousin and has a lot less amenities. There is a campground and a lodge that also fills up a year in advance. On a whim I called the lodge and asked if there were any cancellations in the first 2 weeks of June. After a short pause, the concierge affirmed that there was a room available for June 7th. I booked it immediately and just like that the plans were set in motion for me to do a Rim to Rim hike in one day on Saturday, June 8th – two weeks away.
I booked a campsite at Mather Campground on the Southern Rim (again, really lucky I snagged a spot last minute) and scheduled a shuttle from the South Rim to the North Rim, a 5.5 hour journey. The shuttle service is a godsend, as the hike is a thru hike, it would be really inconvenient to get done the hike and have to figure out a way to get to the other side of the canyon where you likely had to park. The last thing I booked was a flight. I had to pep talk myself to pull the trigger – as booking a flight would force me to commit to this ambitious trip. I was ready for the challenge apparently, because I hit “Book Flight” confidently and next thing I knew, I was getting ready to fly into Phoenix for the adventure of a lifetime.
Let the research begin! Like I said, I have poured over the details involved with planning a Rim to Rim hike before. I knew I wanted to descend via North Kaibab trail and ascend up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. The South Rim is also home to The South Kaibab trail. It is more spectacular and shorter than the Bright Angel Trail (7.1 miles vs 9.5 miles), however, it comes with its disadvantages. It is a much steeper and more difficult ascent and it does not have water access or any ounce of shade, not a risk I was willing to take for a shorter journey. I spent hours reading blogs by others who Rim to Rimmed in one day, watching youtube videos, and creeping on Instagram those who were doing it in current time. I read their words, jotted down tips, and compared my fitness level/experience with theirs. I was on par with all of them and with proper preparedness, I was confident that I would be able to complete this hike.
Though the forefront of my mind was confident with my abilities, the little voices in the back of my head that have power when I sleep were not convinced. I spent many sleepless nights rolling around or ripped from sleep with a rapidly beating heart worrying about everything that could go wrong. Heat stroke. Cardiac arrest. Hyponatremia. Slip and fall 1000’s of feet to my death. Broken bones. Helicopter rescue costs. All of these at the same time! I felt like I was in over my head and about to undertake an impossible task. I tried my hardest to shut these voices up right until the night of the big day.
Soon I found myself on a flight to Phoenix June 5th. From there I spent the night and morning in the gorgeous Sedona. In the morning I watched the sunrise from Airport Mesa and hiked Cathedral Rock. I only made it half way up because there was a lot of rock scrambling involved, the last thing I wanted was to snap my ankle in half. So I turned around and was on my way to the Grand Canyon.
I checked into Mather Campground, set up the old tent, and explored the South Rim. I peeked out over the vastness to the Northern Rim and felt a pit in my stomach. Only 10 miles away (as the crow flies), it looked like an eternity. Was I really about to hike from there to here!? How is that even possible!? Well, I would soon be finding out.
After a very crowded and rowdy sunet – seriously people stop blasting your EDM music on blue tooth speaker in National Parks, your holding everyone present hostage to your horrible music tastes – I had a great night at Mather Campground. The night sky I saw during a 2am bathroom visit were awe inspiring. I could see thousands of stars, including the shooting variety, and the Milky Way. But alas, the sun woke me up at 4:30am – a good indicator of when I could expect the sun to shine in the canyon the very next day! I broke camp, ate breakfast, and mosied around until the 8am shuttle to the other side. While moseying around, I ran into an older gentleman who told me he hiked across the canyon 50 years ago over a few days. I told him I was attempting the same hike in one day. Quite taken aback, he looked me up and down and said “Well I guess you look fit enough, good luck” and walked away. Well, that was reassuring.
And the reassuring didn’t end there! At the shuttle meeting place, I talked to a Canadian father/daughter duo who just literally came off the trail after a 4 day hike. The 8 year old girl was cheery and said the hike was easy. The dad, not so much. Once again my one day trek was met with blank stares of disbelief. Fabulous. The shuttle itself over to the North Rim was full – mainly of hikers who just finished a multiday hike. One other young female and myself were the only ones about to begin ours. For once, my single day solo hike wasn’t the craziest idea in the room! Stacy was planning on getting dropped off at the trailhead and beginning the hike down to Phantom Ranch (14 miles) that afternoon, in the heat of the day. Everyone in that shuttle looked at her like she was crazy. During their hike the bottom of the canyon reached 110 degrees and there were 15 rescues. They picked apart her gear and all but subtly told her she wasn’t prepared. Made mostly in jest (she was a good sport) they offered her tips and one guy, Thomas, even lent her his hiking poles. I was the only one who told her she was perfectly fine, in a way I was also reassuring myself. Soon we arrived and Stacy was off to what I’m sure was a great hike for her!
As I grabbed my bag I heard something metallic hit the floor. I instantly knew what it was. My rose pin that represents my Grandmother’s watchful eye from Heaven fell off my pack! I went in full panic mode – that pin has been with me for the last year and a half through all my adventures and this was the trip I needed it the most. I frantically looked all over the street holding up traffic (I didn’t care – this was bigger than their need to check into the lodge) until I found it with a sign of relief. The back fastener was missing, but I bought a cheap pair of earrings at the gift shop to replace it. All was well in the world – the pin was placed in a safer location and wasn’t going anywhere.
I checked into the lodge and signed up for the 4am shuttle with 2 other women who were rim to rimming in one day. I had originally planned on starting at 3:30am, however, the shuttles to the trailhead (3 miles away) ran on the hour starting at 3am. After some contemplation, I decided to move the departure time to 3am, mostly because I would be so worried all night I definitely wasn’t going to get any sleep! No use delaying the inevitable! I explored the North Rim a little and ran into 2 brother in laws who were also getting the 3am shuttle to the trailhead that next morning. The thing is they had just hiked from the South Rim the previous day. I couldn’t believe it. They apparently do this every year so they’re used to the suffering. They offered to let me hike with them so I don’t get lonely, but I told them I’d only slow them down. I got dinner at the lodge and soon went to bed for a restless night of sleep!
Apparently I did get some sleep, as I was jolted awake at 2:15am by my blasting alarm. I ate a few bites of a sandwich, downed some chocolate milk and electrolyte drink, and did one last pack sweep to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Big Booty Judy is sitting this hike out, as she is too big. I got a new pack a week before the hike and he was making his big debut! Introducing Earl Grey! Hope he’s up for the task! I walked over to the lodge lobby and was greeted with a full shuttle of early rim to rim hikers, including the 2 guys I met the night before. In fact, they were the only men on that shuttle. There were 2 groups of 3 women and then me. At the trailhead I got a picture with the North Kaibab sign and was officially off at 3:09am.
Wow. It’s dark. Even with this headlamp, I can barely see in front of me, let alone what’s over the ledge. What was that noise? Oh my god there are mountain lions around here. Am I being stalked by a mountain lion!? Well at least I’m not going to wrong way, there are Jason and what’s his face’s headlamps in front of me and those women’s behind me. Okay you got this. Legs – do your thing. I don’t want to hear one complaint from you, you hear me!? We’re going to do this and we are going to ENJOY it. Cause I can’t turn this body around, so you’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna like it.
These were the thoughts going through my head the first 2 miles of the hike. That’s how long it took me to get used to hiking in the dark and getting over the fact that I was actually in the process of achieving a goal that I had been eying up for years. I was in descending into the Grand Canyon. In the dark. One misstep and BAM I’m 1500′ down off a cliff and another statistic and lesson as to not hike Rim to Rim in a day. But, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, that did not happen. However, there were some close calls. I recall being sufficiently freaked out that I couldn’t see the bottom of the canyon when shining my light down there, that I hugged the inner canyon wall. Due to rain runoff and limited ability for proper drainage on the trail, there is a bit of ditch along the inner trail, only an inch or so. Well, looking behind me to see how far the folks behind me were, I accidentally got my right foot stuck in the ditch. My already weak ankle rolled, causing a huge crack and causing me to fall – a bit way too close to the edge. I scrambled up and got as close to the wall as I could. My ankle hurt for a minute and caused me to panic for split second, but I knew I was fine. I let my heart beat slow before starting again. I learned my lesson on distracted hiking.
But alas, the clumsiness didn’t end there. During one particular infamous part of the trail (infamous to me as I recognized pictures of it) under a small waterfall, I encountered some slick rock. I was very carefully transversing the rock praying I didn’t slip when just that happened. One foot went, then the other started sliding and I could feel myself helplessly start to slip off the ledge – which wasn’t too big of a deal, as there was a rock shelf right under the waterfall. However, if momentum kept me propelling, surely I was a goner. Luckily I was able to get my balance and hustled to a dry spot. Again, time was needed to lessen my heart beat.
At this time, thankfully, the sun was making its first appearanceat 4:37amand there was sufficient light for the headlamp to be turned off. Not shortly after this did I reach Manzanita rest area, a little over 5 miles into the hike. As I approached the rest area, Jason and What’s His Face were just leaving, impressed that I had caught up. I spent about 3 minutes there and ate something small before departing. There were people there camping who were just waking up. They weren’t supposed to be camping there, as Manzanita is not a designated campground. The people there probably sensed my irritability of them breaking the law, so I went on my way.
It was only another 1.4 miles to Cottonwood Campground. Ideally, this would be my first overnight stay had I gotten permits. I arrivedat 5:37amwhen the campers there were just getting up. I spent 10 minutes there resting my legs and mind. I didn’t need to refill water, as it was only 60 degrees and I hadn’t drank much yet. I put on my T-shirt and I was on my way. 7 miles down, 7 to Phantom Ranch. 9.5 to the top. I felt great, I was ready to conquer the trail.
During the first mile to Phantom Ranch, I caught sight of the 2 guys. But not before falling again and this time drawing blood! Curse my weak ankles! My chase instinct kicked in and soon I caught up to them. They showed me Ribbon Falls from a distance, something I would’ve otherwise missed as it was behind us. We couldn’t access the falls, as the bridge leading to it was taken out in the winter. It looked pretty mangled. With such a tight time table, Ribbon Falls wasn’t on the agenda, as it was 1 mile out of the way.
Soon we reached the notorious Box/Oven. It is called this because you are boxed in between very high canyon walls. When the sun shines on these walls, it causes a heating effect that can reach over 120 degrees during the head of the day, hence the appropriate nickname of “the oven” It was only 6 something in the morning and the sun was far from the depths of the canyon. Being that I was so worried about this section, I was elated that I could actually enjoy it in 70 degree temperatures. And did I enjoy it. I loved every second down there. Following a stream through a slot canyon, I marveled at the canyon walls and the beauty I found. I let the guys get ahead of me as I took pictures and the time to enjoy it. It felt like being in Zion, only the magnitude of it being the inner depths of the Grand Canyon made it feel all the more awesome. At this time I felt my energy level start to deplete, so I grabbed a Guu and felt instantly better! Highly recommend these things, made a major change and they actually taste good.
Making my way through the Box, I passed a few folks who were staying at Cottonwood Campground. They jokingly called me “Trailblazer” and “Speedy”. Soon I caught up with the guys and before we knew it, we were at Phantom Ranch! And it was only7:47am! I was shocked. During the planning process I was convinced I wasn’t going to reach the ranchuntil 10:30am. I overestimated how difficult the descent into the canyon was going to be. Turns out, I’m faster than I thought.
I accidentally blew right past the general store at Phantom Ranch and decided it wasn’t worth it to go back. So I kept trucking another 0.25 miles to Bright Angel Campground where I took an hour break and soaked my feet in the stream. I saw the guys go past me as I was soaking and figured that would be the last I would see of them. I was astonished that I had already hiked 14 miles and had less than 10 to go. I was halfway done and still felt pretty good! My hips were starting to ache a little, but I figured going uphill and using different muscle sets would change that. The temperature at the campground read 79 degrees. Knowing that it was only going to get hotter from here on out and the sun would be beating down on me the rest of the way, I put on a tank top and loaded up on sunscreen.
And so, I began my ascentat 8:47am. Only 0.5 miles away was the might Colorado River. I took some time to take in the magnitude of the infamous river that carved out the very canyon I was exploring and paid my respects. I crossed the magnificent bridge and was now on the Bright Angel Trail! The whole first section of the trail had views of the bridge and I loved it. Except for the sand I encountered for about a mile. I hate hiking in the sand. But soon it came to an end. At this point I was fully aware of the sun’s presence. It was intense, but not stiffling hot yet.
I played leapfrog with a bunch of other hikers the entire way to Indian Garden Campground. Some of them looked like they were not enjoying themselves so much. Interestingly enough, the ones who looked the least happy were also the ones without trekking poles. I’m telling you folks – invest in a pair of these bad boys. They are life and energy savers. I made my way up another landmark – Devil’s Corkscrew. I had watched a youtube video in which the guy made it sound like this was the most HORRENDOUS part of the hike. Was it steep? Yes. Was it hot and in the sun the whole time? Also, yes. But doable? Totally. I actually loved it. I climbed it and laughed to myself about how silly I was to have dreaded facing it.
19 miles in (officially the furthest I’ve ever hiked in one day), I reached Indian Garden Campgroundat 10:45am. Again, I was surprised by the time I was making. I only had 4.5 miles left, I could totally be done this hike in 12 hours. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I instantly made it my goal. Because when it comes to common sense vs. bragging rights, bragging rights always wins, right?! I felt I could do it because my legs still felt great and my mind was still very positive.
I spent an hour at the campground. I met Zach, a Colorado River rafting tour instructor who was hiking sweep for a group of 28 people who were hiking up from the river. He had the horrible job of carrying the packs of folks who were too tired to carry them themselves. Unfortunately for Zach, 3 people were really struggling so he had to manage their packs and his own. I did not envy him.
And so, I left for the final ascentat 11:45am, confident and elated. I looked back and could see the trail that leads to Plateau Point, a trail that is very prominent at the South Rim. I thought forever that this trail was Bright Angel Trail, but Zach informed me that I was wrong. Next time I’m at the Grand Canyon, I would love to head out to this point, as it is fabled to be the most beautiful vantage point of the whole park.
After leaving Indian Gardens is when the day hikers started to become an issue. By day hikers I mean unprepared folks in flip flops and 16 oz of water trekking way too deep in the canyon without any respect for those coming up. Can you tell I’m not a huge fan? I made it the 1.5 miles up to 3 mile Rest Houseat 12:35pm. Oh what a glorious site that Resthouse was. I was starting to bonk again (but was revived with Guu to the rescue again!) and getting cranky with all the people polluting the trail. And the sun. The sun was hot and intense and now I was battling other people for shaded spots.
I spent 10 minutes at 3 Mile Resthouse, downed some Pedialyte, and got rolling to 1 1/2 Rest House. Only 3 miles left! And boy was I ready for these 3 miles to be over. At one point during this ascent, I looked over at the North Rim and was overcome with emotion. Not sure if it was because I came to the realization of how far I came so easily when I thought surely I’d be dead at this point or the sheer amount of physical and mental exhaustion I was experiencing, but let me tell you, it felt cathartic. I was proud of myself. But pride is a sin so I wrapped up this special little moment and ventured on.
At 1:35pmI reached 1 1/2 Mile Rest House. Again I took 10 minutes and pushed on for the final stretch! The sun was pretty overwhelming, but I knew I only had a little more to go. At some point along this stretch my left knee decided it had had enough and put on a bit of a show. I couldn’t put weight through it and soon was completely reliant on my trekking poles. See- life savers!! Even hobbling with my one bad knee, I was still passing day hikers, though I think it was probably because I had a bit more adrenaline in my system than they did at this point.
I came across a tunnel, which I knew marked the end of the trail. In my head I thought, “Wow, I came across this pretty quickly. Only 200m left!”. I was elated so I took a picture with it. And then puzzled. And then angry. After a good 400m, I realized that this was a false tunnel. There must be 2 on this trail.
I was minorly dissuaded, as my knee was screaming in agony and I still had God knows how much longer left. But hobbled on I did and BAM I saw the real tunnel! Again I was overrun with emotion, but pushed it to the back of my mind as I always do and limped up the 200m left to the finish line.
2:37pm. I had made it. Under 12 hours. Not accounting for break time, the actual hike itself took 8.5 hours.
This is my favorite venture to date. Mostly because I had been dreaming of accomplishing it for so long, but unable to pursue to do the powers that be and forces outside my control. I never imagined hiking it in one day, but thank God that I had a fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, I could do it. Being in the depths of the canyon and seeing the forces that carved such a marvel was humbling. I am thankful to God for listening to my prayers, my health for the ability to do this hike, my mind for pushing my body, and my body for getting me the 24 miles across the canyon. I will be thinking fondly on this experience for my entire lifetime, and look forward to getting to explore the canyon even more in the future. After all, I left a piece of my heart out there, I have to go back to make sure it’s being treated right, right!?
August 5th 2018: Lyell Fork – Tuolumne Meadows; 13 miles
It took me so long to write this final post because it took me this long to come to terms with what the following paragraphs are going to describe. It should come as no surprise that I was not able to complete the trail in its entirety, as the Ferguson fire was not even close to being contained at this point. More heartbroken I could not have been and it will take a very long time for me to accept the fact that 20 miles were left unconquered when I know full well I could have completed them. But alas, here is it: my final day on the trail.
Last night was the first night on this entire journey where I was alone. Granted there were nights when people weren’t nearby, but I at least knew there was someone within proximity of where I was staying. Last night, however, I didn’t see a soul. Which shocked me because I thought it was a pretty awesome campsite at a pretty awesome location! Right before Donahue pass going SOBO and right after the pass going NOBO. Prime real estate! Well obviously I was wrong, or maybe the other hikers knew something I didn’t. Because this was the worst night of the entire hike, and it wasn’t because I was alone.
Being alone didn’t bother me at all. At this point, I think (I hope) I know what I’m doing when it comes to camp life. I’m not worried about bears or things that go bump in the night, so I was actually looking forward to having a night completely devoid of human interaction. But then the wind started. And it didn’t stop. Starting gently at 5pm, the wind soon picked up in gales and brought with it ash. Thank God I set up my tent as soon as I got into camp, because with only 2 stakes (ultralight!) my tent surely would’ve blown away into the abyss. To help out, I stayed in my tent to make sure with my weight and the weight of the pack, it wasn’t going to blow away. I watched hikers come and go, wondering why they weren’t staying. But like I said, I secretly hoped they would move on so I would have a night alone.
The wind got worse. So much worse. Because I was in a valley of sorts, it created a wind tunnel. I could hear bad gusts coming up the valley 5 seconds before it would hit the tent. Gave me plenty of time to prepare, not that any preparation would do any good! The gusts must’ve been at least 60mph. For the majority of the night, my tent was blown completely horizontal, right over my face. Needless to say, I did not sleep very well. I had visions in my head that the wind was so strong it would knock my bear canister over. Following the whatever law of whatever dynamics (physics wasn’t my strong suit), the canister would stay in motion until it met something that would stop it… and that would be a nearby stream. I was convinced that my bear can was gonna float away! Totally ridiculous. But I was in a heightened state of annoyance and sleep deprivation from the wind, so my brain wasn’t working so well. The only thing that would’ve made it worse would be rain. Luckily the heavens didn’t open up on me, however, it did rain ash. I wasn’t too surprised, considering how terribly smoky it was on Donahue and how low visibility was before I went in my tent. Another nail in the coffin of my hopes of finishing the trail.
The wind didn’t die down until 6am the next morning, exactly when I wanted to wake up. Good because I could break down camp in peace, but bad because it didn’t give me a chance to catch up on any semblance of sleep. But knowing it was likely my last day, I didn’t need sleep. Plus it’s all downhill to Tuolumne Meadows, so I could practically sleepwalk and be okay. And my bear canister took the wind beating well – it was still standing! The same cannot be said about my tent, however. The poles were bent from the wind. But with it already looking a bit long in the tooth, I personally think the bent poles add even more character to the old beloved Marmot tent.
Well I guess I was sleepwalking because I had a pretty bad fall down a steep decline heading down into the meadow in which I almost lost a Nalgene bottle and my pride. An older gentleman witnessed the fall and asked if I was alright. I tried to brush it off like it was nothing, but it actually hurt quite a bit. Nothing like a hard fall to wake you up in the morning!
As I continued the day’s hike, I took it all in. I took more breaks and took in the views. I also was super hungry which accounted for the majority of the breaks. Leave it to the last day for my appetite to kick in full gear! I ate my entire day’s worth of food by 10am. It felt so weird knowing that this was my last day on the trail. I had a lot of teary moments, looking back on the struggles, pure joy, and breathtaking views I experienced on the trail. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, especially cut short. But I had no other option.
I saw a ton of people starting their SOBO journey. With Tuolumne Meadows so close, I wasn’t surprised to run into so many fresh, bright eyed hikers who didn’t smell like weeks worth of BO. They smiled happily and congratulated me on my journey. I was happy for them and a little jealous that their journey was just beginning. I ran into two older men and had a quick conversation with them before realizing one was wearing an ACA hat. The ACA is the organization I used to ride the TransAm route and used their maps for the Pacific Coast Bike Route earlier this summer. We talked about bike tours and how different it is from hiking. Good to have a conversation about something other than the John Muir Trail!
When I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows cut off trail, I ran into a ranger. I asked him his honest opinion about Yosemite Valley opening tomorrow. “Not a chance”, he said ,rather bluntly. He also told me it wasn’t a smart idea to wait around optimistically to see if it’ll open in the next few days. He thought the valley would be closed for the entire season. Though I wasn’t surprised by his response, it still killed me. After we departed paths, I called my parents to tell them I’ll be coming home early.
When they answered, I couldn’t speak a word, phrase, or even a syllable. I was crying hysterically, coming to the realization that this was real, I was really forced to quit the trail. They calmed me down and I was able to explain the situation. After a few minutes on the phone, I saw something not far away come out of the woods. “Oh my God it’s a bear!” “WHAT?!”, I heard my mom say (her worst fear is bears) “Get out of there!”. I was only slightly alarmed, mainly because I had a pocket full of fruit snacks. I hung up the phone, threw Big Booty Judy on my back, and walked to the wilderness center. Mr. Bear followed along with me, keeping a good 40 feet between me and him. He didn’t seem too concerned with my existence, so I tried to feign the same kind of indifference. They can smell weakness, right? Luckily I made it safely to the office.
There I figured out with the help of my parents how to get home. I was going to take a 4:30pm bus from Tuolumne Meadows to Lee Vining, then take a bus in the morning from Lee Vining to Reno for a flight home. While waiting for the bus to Lee Vining, I ran into Paul and Jeff, brothers from Seattle who completed the trail a few days ago. They waited around to see if the valley would open, but gave up after a few days. Paul was going to Reno to fly home, however, Jeff was sticking around because his truck was parked in Yosemite Valley. Being retired and just recently widowed, he had plenty of time to wait for the valley to open. Both were very nice guys and I enjoyed talking with them and getting to know them. Finally the bus arrived and off I went for the journey home.
Lee Vining is a tiny town, but was a perfect place to stop for the night. Paul and I waited for the ESTA bus (late as usual) and we were shocked by what came to pick us up. It was an bus full of hikers from Mammoth who had to cut their journey short. When I say it was full, I mean it. Getting our bags to fit was an exercise in Tetris and patience. There were no seats left on the bus, so Paul and I were forced to sit on the floor. On a bus full of young, able bodied men, you would think one or two would offer their seat to a woman OR an older man, but nope. The art of chivalry and manners was lost on my generation.
Eventually we made it to the airport where I had 7 hours to my flight. I don’t even remember what I did to pass the time, I was so bored. When I finally could check my bag, I didn’t have full confidence the woman who tagged my bag knew what she was doing. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be the last time I would see BB Judy. My fears were justified because when I landed in Philly, Judy was no where to be seen. Frontier’s baggage representative reassured me that she would be delivered within 24 hours. She arrived at 1:30am missing one trekking pole. Another reason to not fly Frontier in my opinion.
But I was home. Not on my own terms, but here anyway. Seeing my family and Addie was great, but would’ve been greater had I completed the trail.
I will follow up with one last final post soon reflecting on my experience. Over a month later, I’m still digesting what I experienced and the feelings I have being home and returning to work.