The desert valleys and island mountains of the Southwest have always fascinated me since I first noticed their unique topography on a relief map back in elementary school. The entirety of Nevada, western Utah, a good chunk of Arizona, and even corners of Idaho and Oregon are covered in a seemingly monotonous array of craggy, lonely, and desolate ranges and basins. But as I've spent more time in this part of the world, I've realized that each mountain range is unique in a variety of ways. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of exploring just a tiny fraction more, as well as returning to one familiar area for a bit of bike racing.
The Harquahala Mountains are home to the tallest peak in southwestern Arizona. And as is the case with most big ranges, their size precludes them from being adequately captured in a single photo. And because we were hunting around in dry washes and steep gulches for exposures of a vareity of geological stories, my eyes were focused on the ground and the pointy vegetation that is, well, everywhere.
A sleepy owl in a mine shaft, a lone blooming ocotillo, beautiful stretched-pebble conglomerate...perhaps I'll get a few good shots of the mountains when I return to pedal to the high point.
At 5 am the following morning, I found myself pedaling along in a pack of crazies doing the 115-mile Antelope Peak Challenge. It's the first event on the Arizona Endurance Series calendar, and it leaves tracks behind on some of the most remote and seldom traveled sections of the Arizona Trail. It's a spectacular course, and this year, an amazing new singletrack section was added!
That little bump on the horizon is Antelope Peak. The goal is to get there, scramble to the summit, and then continue on for another 20 miles to the north before beginning to loop back. It was a long day in the saddle!
After the neutral paved start, I dove into the singletrack and tried my best to follow the route through a maze of cattle trails and drainages as my lights always seemed to be pointed in the wrong direction. One other set of lights followed closely behind, and after ten minutes or so, I finally found a rhythm and then inquired about who was tailing me. Max or Neil had hammered this singletrack early in the race last year, but it turned out to be Aaron Gulley. Last year he and I spent many hours riding together in a few different long races, so I was happy to find out that he had made the trip out.
We pedaled together as the sun rose, lighting up the new singletrack section with a brilliant glow among the long shadows. Max caught us, and we reveled all together in the beauty.
Antelope Peak grew larger and larger, seemingly far more quickly than it had for me any other time. Before I new it, I stashing my bike behind a prickly pear and power walking up the steep side while eating some apple pie. Aaron and Max were right behind me. The view north from the summit revealed how distant the far point in the course still was, but my legs were feeling great, and I managed to put down 900 calories during the 30 minutes of hiking.
The rest of the race flew by as my legs continued to pound out a steady rhythm. Soon I found myself alone under the warm mid-day sun. The weather was perfect. I turned onto the mind-blowing Ripsey segment and marveled at the trail's path and construction. It's a magical area. At the high point, I stopped for a couple minutes to drink a Mountain Dew, lube my chain, pull the rest of my food out of my pack, and soak in the views of the Superstition Mountains on the far side of the Gila Valley. After 20 minutes of descending loose switchbacks, my tires hummed onto a packed dirt road and the trip back began. Last year at this point, I put the hammer down to see if I could survive 40 miles of a relatively hard effort this late in a race. This year I increased my effort modestly, suffered far less, and in the end, covered that last distance considerably faster. Huh. I also consumed more than 3,800 calories in the 11.5 hours I was out there, which must be an all-time high consumption rate for me in a one-day race! All in all, it was as much as one could hope for in a bike race - a great course, strong legs, good company, and ideal conditions.
This morning, Caroline and I looked over the map to try to figure out what to do before heading home. I was pretty fried still, and my knee a bit achy, so we picked a trailhead marked on the map, knowing nothing about it other than that it was not too far off our route, and headed there. After a couple hours of hiking, we found ourselves marveling at this view:
I guess there's a reason that trailhead was included on the map. Now I've got a day or two to prepare for the next little adventure...
Monday, January 23, 2012
Moving to a completely new place should be exciting, especially when one considers all the time, money, and effort that goes into the process from start to finish. I have not moved many times in my life, but each time has been exciting. The first big move was to college. It may have been surrounded by cornfields, but it was college, afterall. Then I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, a beautiful city that I still miss a bit. After a couple years there, I transplanted myself to Boulder, Colorado, the place where so many people seem to want to live. I sure was one of those people, and I couldn't wait to finally arrive. Five and a half years there was great, but I was ready to be somewhere different by the end.
That brings me to January 23, 2012, which finds me sitting on a somewhat ugly couch in a still foreign-feeling room. A few snowflakes are falling on the tall Ponderosa Pines outside the window, and I can't see a single light from any of the neighboring houses. Sticking my head out the door, it's silent. We're renting a place at the bottom of a gulch just outside of town, the town being Prescott, AZ. I actually could throw a stone from this couch across the municipal boundary, so we're just barely outside of town in reality. But it feels far enough when I get up in the morning, eat some oatmeal, and then ride into work. The first obstacle is our driveway, which kicks up the gulch at a 25% grade. That feels great with no warm-up. Then there's a slimy, rutted two-track to navigate before hitting the winding paved descent into town. From, it's just a simple coast right into downtown, past the old post office and courthouse square, and in a couple more minutes I reach campus.
Campus is Prescott College. It's tiny. My office is tiny. The parking lots are tiny. The student body is tiny. The faculty is tiny. I like tiny, so it fits my style well. And I'm good at adapting, which makes dealing with other tiny things, such as libraries and budgets, more manageable. The strange thing, which still feels like some sort of a mix-up, is that I'm faculty here. Professor. Teacher. Guy in charge of a class or two. Kurt. Call me what you like since there aren't really titles here. Anyway, after a decade or three of being a student, I've finally have a real job, and it's in a great town at a neat little college. I'm pretty happy so far, although with the semester only a few weeks away, things are a bit hectic getting two courses off the ground. But that's a story for another day.
Sometimes when I ride up this steep driveway, I get to the top and turn right. The two-track climbs gradually, contouring gently in and out of drainages in a burned area, passing the last few houses in the area, and eventually ducking into the woods. A singletrack cuts off to the right. Pick a new direction. Soon the trail branches. Pick again. Climb steeply. Descent through a rocky gully. Meander through the pines. End on a steep ATV trail.
From these junctions, the decisions are as simple as, "How much time to I have to ride today?", and "Should I go up higher or down into the basin?" After living in Boulder, I'm not used to having such options surrounding town. Or an interconnected network of trails. Or regularly encountering surprisingly friendly people on said trails. Or being able to ride for hours without seeing a "no bikes" sign. So far, my favorite sign has been "This trail is even more technical than the Lakeshore Trail. Take care. Definitely not recommended for bikes." For the record, I laughed quite a bit while riding or attempting to ride that trail. It was great fun.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
The final days of living in Colorado have flown by, with far too much to be accomplished in the given time. Far, far too much. Yet somehow, it's all been getting done. And of course, the long list of things to do included plenty of pedaling, a little camping to clear the mind, and a coffee intake that has increased rather dramatically from my weekly mug.
A big dump of snow turned the higher foothills into a winter wonderland. My Mukluk floated through the woods on some of the most enjoyable winter singletrack riding I could imagine, with almost entirely rideable climbs, long, fast descents, and tight, technical riding though the pines.
Christmas delivered a beautiful weekend, so Caroline and I threw some gear in our packs and headed off on snowshoes for a quick overnighter on one of my favorite mountains around. Deep, powdery snow blanketed the forest, and we didn't see another soul out there for our relaxing getaway. A warm night made for pleasant sleeping in our trench under a moonless sky.
I've spent the last week and a half in a NOLS/WMI Wilderness First Responder course. This has relegated my riding to either very early or very late in the day, but I think I've seen more spectacular sunrises and sunsets from in my saddle than anytime since racing the Divide back in June. The class has been quite intense, but I would strongly encourage anyone who spends any appreciable amount of time in the backcountry on self-supported adventures to seriously consider taking such a course. It has really opened my eyes to the wide range of injuries and health problems that could very reasonably occur on any excursion. I wish I would have committed the time to doing this years ago, but better now than after a serious situation arises!
Our 15" of snow melted quickly, and I was delighted to get back to my local playground trails a couple more times this week. Writing this, I'm reminded that I'm apparently excited whether the trails are packed with snow or dry and rocky, so long as my legs are spinning the pedals and my mind is free to roam. Just get out there and take advantage of any opportunity to do whatever it is you enjoy doing!
But for me, I'll soon be doing what I love doing in Arizona. Three more days and I'll start putting down some new roots and exploring a whole new world of possibilities. This is going to be such great fun . . .