Henna-like designs cover her belly, wrapping from her low abdomen to her obliques. They’re colorful and happy against her pale skin, and pair well with her optimistic demeanor and middle-aged sense of wonder. When I’m done admiring her tattoo, Kathy tugs down her bike jersey and pulls up her tight black shorts. We’re chamoised-up and ready for the first 50-some miles of a 6-day, almost 400-mile journey. We’ve just met.
Kathy’s three best riding buddies from California and an assortment of other cyclists I’ve yet to meet are also here—at a ranger station in Clifton, Arizona—gathered around a van towing a gear-filled trailer bearing a Lizard Head Cycling Guides logo and at least a dozen bike racks. The temperature’s already high down here in the desert, and the rumor is that today’s route into New Mexico features a pretty large hill. Everyone has filled their water bottles and stocked up on ride snacks. Now it’s up to our legs to perform.
The first hour in the saddle is a guessing game. From the ranger station, some roll out quickly and eagerly, others began spinning slowly, pacing themselves from the beginning. It is anyone’s guess who will stay ahead, who will fall back, and who will move forward. It is anyone’s guess who will pair up and who will go solo. It is anyone’s guess where we’ll wind up at the end of our ride—and when.
I signed up for this bike tour solo and showed up knowing no one, having only spoken to the owner and guide a couple of times. It was advertised as an intermediate-level ride along some of the Gila’s most scenic routes—the Gila being the general, mountainous area surrounding the Gila River and the Gila Wilderness in the southern corners of New Mexico and Arizona. Ready to discover the place where I’ve lived most of my life through a visitor’s eyes, I am along for the ride (in more ways than one) and open to anything. Besides, I’ve never actually been to Clifton and can’t remember ever traveling this first road on our journey, so I really am a tourist right now. I have no expectations but hope to—on top of building fitness—make a friend, find a riding partner for this week of endurance practice and sightseeing.
For my warm up, I spin alongside the quietest of Kathy’s friends. Her name is Linda and the heat is affecting her, so I’m trying to distract her with chatter about this area’s road conditions and terrain (both are rough), about springtime weather in the southwest (a.k.a. wind), and about our bikes (hers is very nice). After a while, I want to ride a teeny bit faster but Linda isn’t used to hills or heat, and she should keep her pace. I can guess now that Linda and I probably won’t be regular riding partners, so am glad when we see Kathy waiting up for Linda. They’ve made a pact to stick together as much as possible, I learn.
Up ahead, I find Linda and Kathy’s friends: Kim and Kyrsia. Kim is mopping her forehead and soaking the bandana on the back of her neck. Krysia’s head is determinedly down, her legs mechanically working to keep momentum. They’re go-for-it women who are used to conquering everything, and my guess is that they’re disappointed this hill is challenging them this much so early in the game. They’re by no means pedaling slowly but momentum is my friend so, at the risk of seeming like a jerk, I pass them both.
It looks like the other two California Girls won’t likely be my regular riding partners either. Maybe one of the cyclists stopped up the road at the base of a bigger hill—the major climb of the day from the looks of things—will be a good match.
My hometown of Silver City appears suddenly, around a bend in Highway 180 as we approach from the West. When it appears today, the town looks completely lackluster. I blame the spring wind for today’s dusty, gray air and am ashamed that our colorful town’s newest visitors can’t even see as far as the mountains north of town and won’t get to appreciate downtown’s colorful streets in their ordinary, relaxed state.
But when I switch on my cell phone and a day’s worth of texts pop up, I learn that, while the spring wind is to blame, so is our winter’s lack of snow. And so is a campfire that roared back to life and started the season’s first wildfire.
The news stations playing on my TV at the Murray Hotel downtown say that the road near the fire’s ignition site is closed, that people who live on the north side of town should be prepared to evacuate, and that we should stay indoors. A friend on Facebook says she can spot the flames from her back porch. Someone else texts me a photo of the billowing smoke. I walk to a clearing and squint toward the mountains but can’t see a thing.
This could ruin our bike tour, I think selfishly. And in the same second, I wish that I could ditch the tour for just a couple hours and go gather what I want to keep safe from the fire raging so close to the roof over my belongings.
Lizard Head Cycling’s owner, John, is completely unruffled. The show must go on.
And it does. We all enjoy an incredible meal at an upscale joint near our hotel then part ways until morning, when we’re supposed to climb a scenic mountain pass, descend it, and then ride deeper into the middle of nowhere for two relaxing nights at the edge of the wilderness.
Two miles into the climb up Highway 152 toward Emory Pass during our second day in the saddle, I catch Carl.
The day before, I’d introduced myself to Carl and been embarrassed after asking if he were from New York—the accent threw me off—and getting a two-word reply: “New Jersey.” But I was hoping he’d either forgotten or forgiven me for my mistake overnight. We’d left our lunch rest stop on Day One at the same time and yo-yoed between groups, more or less together for the whole afternoon. The tailwind had been remarkable, making pedaling barely necessary. But we’d cut the ride short due to a turn that would’ve had us battling a heavy crosswind for many, many brutal miles.
I decided joining forces with Carl was a good idea for a number of reasons. After I discovered that The California Girls had a different mission, pace, and riding style than I do, a man on the tour passed me on Day One’s largest climb like I was standing still. And it was his second time ascending the hill. His wife had been riding ahead of me ever since I began the day with Linda, so it looked like she and I wouldn’t be pairing up either. The third man on the tour spent a lot of time actually standing still, then getting on his bike and pedaling fast, then taking another break, then pedaling fast, and so on—not an ideal method for me.
Through the process of elimination, I found Carl.
Now, with relatively fresh legs and him at my side, this climb to Emory Pass seemed like cake. The smoke of the fire is behind and below us, and we have only blue skies and traffic-less roads ahead of us.
On the way up, Carl shares a secret with me. “Between you and me,” he started before confiding, and I knew then—no matter what he said after that—that we were buddies, that we’d be sticking together this week.
“You never accepted my pulls today!” Carl accuses as we relax on our lodge’s porch, cocktails in hand and hummingbirds darting overhead.
“I felt like I didn’t need one,” I reply and then realize it came across all wrong. Still, everybody laughs.
We’d been hammering through the Mimbres River valley, suffering through false flats and squealing over rollercoaster-like terrain around the area’s reservoir where we paused to watch a helicopter fill its tank with fire-dousing water. Carl isn’t used to the elevation and is old enough to be my father. I wasn’t going to tire him out. But I was happy to break the wind for him, happy to ride wheel-to-wheel and learn more about his life back east, laugh at his witty observations. Perfectly content to cruise this byway with someone who was a stranger yesterday and is a friend today.
“Where Jennifer goes, I go.”
Carl announces his allegiance with me the morning we begin our out-and-back journey to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Day Three, and I’ve found my riding partner! Even though we spent most of an enjoyable Day Two together, his statement thrills me.
Somehow, knowing that we have each other to push, wait for, and encourage completely changes the journey. It’s a collective experience now. Every view is shared. Each pedal stroke has more purpose: Stay with my partner. Mile markers are cause for audible celebration. Steep grades become something to laugh over rather than dread: Tell me, Carl, are my tires flat? Hunger is something to talk about, rather than just think about. Dinner table play-by-plays revolve around “us” and “we” and are more conversation-worthy in the group dynamic. Not disappointing the other is a huge motivating factor if there’s a choice between riding further and bailing: Where Carl goes, I go.
“What grade do you think this climb is?” Carl and I are playing “guess the grade.” He loves when the climbs are so steep his computer won’t read the angle of incline properly. Not.
“Around here, we call this flat,” I reply. The four-mile stretch from the top of what locals call “The Sapillo Climb” to another milestone referred to as “The Broccoli Tree” is a false flat, a slightly uphill and very straight—for these parts—section of road where riders can take the opportunity to sit up and eat a snack, gulp some water.
“It’s probably about four percent,” Carl says. I tell him not to worry, that he’ll have a nice long descent in a little while.
The descent does come soon but it’s so much shorter than I remember. “Sorry!” I apologize. But he doesn’t really seem to care and seems as pleased as can be when the road tilts up again and winds upward for another few miles with sharp, off camber turns and S-curves every quarter mile. It’s Day Four, and I think that if Carl’s happy, I’m happy.
On Day Five, I start to crack.
We are riding back into Arizona and have already been riding for a long, long time. My chamois feels slippery, tight, and stiflingly warm. I badly want to be out of the saddle—not because my legs are sore, though they are a little tired, but because my ass is.
Since the Arizona-New Mexico border is at the top of a huge hill, it has remained my goal all day. Not the end of the ride but close, it is the divide between the hardest part of the day and the home stretch—at least in my mind. When we reach it, Carl and I devote a few minutes to taking pictures: just me, just him, us together. I relish this time spent not on my bike seat and stand with my legs wide apart to encourage airflow. But then it’s time to finish our ride, so we get in our descending positions and fly down the pass.
Well, Carl flies. I don’t go as fast, and when I reach the bottom, he’s completely out of sight.
My morale has gone with him.
After a while, our leader, John, who has ridden even more miles than I have, approaches from behind and suddenly is cruising next to me. He looks so fresh and is extremely talkative. I try—really—to be a good sport and keep up the conversation. But the wind is stronger than any wind I’d normally ever choose to ride in, and our destination doesn’t appear to be as close as I’d expected. So staying optimistic, especially without Carl’s jokes and easy friendship, is almost impossible.
Toward the end of this 75-mile day, my inner whiner debuts and puts on an embarrassing performance.
I think John is happy when we see Carl and another tour participant waiting at an intersection up ahead. The four of us finish the ride together and roll up to our lodge in Alpine, Arizona, ready for the homemade dinner we’ve been promised, eager to spend some time on a couch, and very, very proud of ourselves.
Arizona’s Coronado Trail is a never-ending roadway that twists around the sides of curvy mountains and over false peaks. I climb it mostly solo on the final day of our tour, as does everyone else. It’s the kind of route best ridden at your own personal pace, in your own personal headspace.
And the descent after our morning photo- and snack-break is the kind that makes your hands go numb. When I stop to shake out mine, The California Girls come by and take a break, too. We stay in a pack for the rest of the descent.
I’ll block the next climb from my memory, conveniently only remember the beautiful parts—the 300-mile views, the friendly motorcyclists who wave when they pass, the glimpses of the same fire tower from many angles, the sight of birds riding thermals in the airy expanse across the road where the mountain steeply drops into a bottomless valley. I’ll probably forget the whole-body weariness, the unthinking way I manage to keep pedaling, the endless slope, the resistance I feel in my leg muscles, the sunburn on the tips of my ears and nose, the yearning for a massive sandwich I dream is waiting for me around every corner. I’ll probably repeat that climb again someday—maybe even this season, and perhaps every single year. I’ll probably be glad I did it again.
But right now, it’s lunchtime and I’m enjoying a massive sandwich, handfuls of potato chips, and a chewy, chocolate chip cookie. And a soda. This soda tastes incredible.
Carl just rolled up and plopped down in a shaded chair with his own soda. There will be time for a sandwich later, his body seems to tell him. And I would get up and make one for him, but my body is telling me the same thing: There will be time later; just rest. Except Carl is debating whether to keep riding after lunch, finish this climb, zip through the flats, and then do the last ascent of the entire tour. My mind is already made up. I am not getting back on my bike. But if he decides to do it, then he has to hurry and eat and get started finishing this tour. Because there’s not enough time. The sun will go down today, and we need to be in Morenci—at the finish line—by then.
There is too much climbing left. And not enough time.
We better get going. Where Carl goes, I go.
That cookie is really heavy, so heavy my legs can feel the difference: There was pre-lunch Jennifer, and now there’s post-lunch Jennifer. Post-lunch Jennifer’s stomach is full, stuffed with carbs and salt and sugar. And she is thirsty.
If I take a drink now, I just might tip over. Maybe after the cattle guard, I will stop and drink and wait for Carl.
I do that. But Carl is slow, and I need to keep moving. He’s close enough so I heave my bottom back onto the saddle and spin.
After traversing a gusty plateau, fighting to stay on the pavement and keep dust out of my eyes, I notice the sun is very low in the sky. It makes for an apocalyptic sort of scene. I mean, we are literally nowhere. And there is nobody out here, except for us. And by us, I mean me. Carl is somewhere way behind me, probably still on that God-forsaken plateau.
When there’s a large dip in the road, I roll to the bottom and stop. I wait on the side of the road, semi-blocked from the wind in this small valley and one hundred percent done. Once Carl shows up, I’ll tell him we’re stopping, just sitting here until the van comes to pick us up.
I am finished. And I know Carl will be glad to call it quits, too.
He crests the hill and coasts down to me, and I wave, smiling weakly. “Let’s keep pedaling until the van catches up,” Carl suggests. It loo
ks like he’s not even going to slow down.
Where Carl goes, I go.
We make it another couple of miles before I get off the bike, get out my iPhone, and start some music. This climb requires tunes. Carl is right behind me. And the van is right behind him.
“The real heartbreaker is just up here,” John says as he pulls out the ladder and loads our bikes on the trailer.
I feel a mixture of relief and regret. Carl feels it, too. He’s sitting silently beside me—face white with sunblock and earbuds dangling off his jersey—offering none of his usual wisecracks, just staring with jaw-dropping awe at the climb we avoided and with disappointment that he’s traveling it by van.
When it’s time to unload the bikes we’d just loaded and enjoy the final descent with everybody, I give The California Girls a hard time. Not all of them want to ride the descent. John says it’s perfectly OK to skip it. But they end up mounting their bikes anyway, and they love it.
The descent really is a highlight. Together, we corner among the ponderosas, we scream with fright at the extreme grade of this road, we look out as far as we dare before taking our eyes back to the pavement, we brake at the sight of a spiny century plant directly in our path, we take the inside lines to prevent downward tumbles, and we smile. I swear I finish with bugs in my teeth.
I board the van for the last time with a blackened and smelly jersey, sticky and dust-covered legs, and matted pigtails. At the ranger station where we began, I hug everyone in the tour group goodbye and reluctantly start my trip home, with my bike on the back of my car, my helmet in the passenger seat, my hands on a cushioned steering wheel, my butt—chamois-free—in a cool leather seat, and Carl in a van traveling the opposite direction.
Comfort is over-rated.
Ride Out Of Your Comfort Zone And Into Cycling Bliss
Lizard Head Cycling will potentially guide eight tours in the Gila in 2015—three this spring, five in the fall—and more than 30 other tours in equally scenic destinations across the U.S. The company also offers two tours that ride into Canada from Vermont and Montana. Find your ideal tour at lizardheadcyclingguides.com.
Potential Gila Tour Dates
April 12 to 17, 2015
April 26 to May 1, 2015
May 10 to 15, 2015
September 20 to 25, 2015
October 4 to 9, 2015
October 11 to 16, 2015
October 18 to 23, 2015 (Fall Foliage Tour)
October 26 to 31, 2015 (Fall Foliage Tour)
P.S. If you do end up on a Gila Tour, give me a shout. I’d love to say hello or join you for a few miles!