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The Arizona Bicycle Adventure:
Sometimes You Do Get
What You Ask For
by Phillip Ghee
Phillip is a self-described gypsy and sometimes Pharmacy Technician. He usually calls Venice Beach home but has been known to live in many cities throughout the country. What make his stories uncommon are their humorous, sometimes mystical, and sometimes there aspect of self-discovery in the face of real or imagined conflict.
Some would think I was crazy to conclude that I needed a break. At the time I occupied a wonderful little apartment overlooking the roaring waves of Venice Beach. Every morning I would wake up to view an endless expanse of ocean disturbed only by the majestic Santa Monica Mountains as they slowly materialized out from the early morning ocean fog. However, even a good thing can get old, especially when you have endowed with the spirit of a gypsy embedded in your very soul.
Wouldn’t it be nice for change to wake up and see the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Pacific? While I pondered and mused this over breakfast, I lovingly marveled over my collection of bicycles. I had three bikes in the apartment and one junker chained outside by the bicycle path at the beach. I was originally from the east coast and although I didn’t see the ocean much when I was there, I felt I was overdue.
Now, wouldn’t it be even better to see the country and take the scenic route on my way to the Atlantic Ocean? The wheels of insanity had begun to spin. I had seen the country, coast to coast, on close inspection by Greyhound bus at least five times. I needed something new. Wait a minute, I am familiar with the topography. I wonder if I could do it by bicycle? The die had been cast, the pedal clipped. By the time I had the breakfast dishes dumped into the sink an ill conceived notion had been deposited into my will. I would do it. I would leave March 9th: my birthday.
In the weeks leading up to the odyssey, I managed to downsize to almost nothingness. Items were traded, sold, bargained for or simple given away. Whereas other items necessary for the trip were acquired. The day before departure I awoke from my now barren floors to the imposing sight of a brand new, seven hundred dollar, “Giant Excursion” touring bicycle. Assembled around the bike was four overloaded pannier bags, an equally overloaded backpack and an assortment of miscellaneous gear.
The task of even getting the bicycle and all the accompanying gear down four flights of stairs seemed a daunting task and not worth the effort. Why does reality always return once I have made a total fool of myself? Let me think this through. They liked me at this building, the management as well as the on-site super. All I had to do was to tuck in my pride, hobble down the hall and inform the supervisor that I had had a change of plans. The apartment had not been placed on the vacancy list as of yet. Think about it, think about it; oh well! It was my birthday. So why not?
I first loaded the bags into the elevator.
Thank God I had the presence of mind to purchase a book written by someone who had actually managed a cross-country bicycle trip from a proximal starting point in Southern California. The book was well executed, page after page of sectional maps letting the reader know what roads to take, where to eat, where to sleep, where to make camp and where to break camp. I doubt if I, given my capacity for making wrong turns would have ever made it out of California without the valuable assistance of the book. By the time I had made it to Las Vegas, about a week into the trip, I had decided I was doing his trip and not my own. I proceeded to hurl the book in the nearest trashcan. I learned to pay for my insolence a few days later, when at Kingman Arizona I made a wrong turn of such magnitude and significance that I found myself trapped on a US Highway bound for the city of Needles -- Needles, California.
That was it. I thought about ending the trip right there. I had taken my bicycle through three states, camped outdoors on numerous occasions and that was more than anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances had ever done. I called a group of friends who all happened to work in the same store. I informed them that I was calling them from California. There arose in the background a great cackle of joyous heckling, some of which expressed relief in hearing a safe report. Other cackle simply teased the condition of my odyssey interrupted.
At the time of the placement of the call, I had been considering marking out a return route. However, the notion that there existed a contingent assured that I could not complete the challenge, made me choose otherwise. I simply informed the group I would keep them posted. I made it to the nearest convenience store and purchased a real road map. I would have to do this thing the hard way.
I was now well into the month of April. I had made it south through the tippy-top of Mexico and onward to Yuma and Tucson, Arizona. April is a very interesting month for the desert states. The extremes that exist there are both mind and sensory boggling. A few weeks earlier I had recalled getting turned back outside Henderson, Nevada by a blinding sleet and snow storm. Now I was experiencing the pleasure of baking in the near 100 degree heat of southern Arizona. After an extended rest break in Arizona, I decided to try again to reach the northern part of the state. There was something there I wanted to see.
The most prominent locale I wanted to visit was Sedona, Arizona. I was familiar with Arizona but had never been to that area. In my attempts earlier to make it to Sedona, I was beat back by the weather. After several weeks of touring around the southern part of the state I assumed the weather had become more hospitable in the north due to the fact that it was sure enough a frying pan in the south. I started my trek back in the direction of Sedona. Why Sedona?
Among some of my more eclectic and new age-y friends, Sedona was often spoken of in such glorious and mystical terms that being a mystical apprentice myself, I had begun to think of it more in terms of a Mecca than just a simple destination. Yes, I had begun to believe that every hippy, deadhead, New Ager, mystic, artist and explorer should be required to make the pilgrimage to Sedona at least once in their life time.
I fantasized about a Peter Max landscape full of wonderful beings of both this world and others. I expected to encounter a banquet of enlighten souls surrounded by all the eternal mysteries and energies of the spheres. I had a persistent urging that perhaps there would I meet my Yoda, my Don Juan and Don Gennaro, my Don Diego de la Vega.
On route to sacred Sedona, I took the opportunity to sleep on one of the Mesa Rocks. Now unlike my predecessor who gave well-meaning advice to those reasonable folks who might be attempting a similar feat, I will give advice to all the idiots like me who dream of and perhaps embark on doing no-so-wise things.
First of all, when you look at all the mesas and precarious mounted boulders remember this, friend. The distance from where you marvel these wonderments to where they are in reality might constitute a fair number of city blocks, if one were to use that inappropriate measuring reference. Because there is no reference point, what might visually seem close may actually turn out to be quite a hike into eternity.
I removed my bicycle from the highway, stashed it in the thick brush of some desert tumble weeds, pre-tumble. Extracting only a sleeping bag and a few provisions from my gear, I started off. I walked and walked, rested and walked some more. The desired location seemed no closer now than when I had first jumped off the highway.
Idiots, listen up. Although this desert world for novices like us appear a virtual wonder world ala Straight Outta Roadrunner cartoon, the floor of the desert world is filled with scorpions, rattlesnakes and voracious vermin. Every single plant and every variety of foliage that brushes against you has its own array of spines, needles, pins, barbs and spears. So if you were ever to make it to the desired sleeping spot you would be a scratched and bloody mess upon your arrival. If you are fortunate enough to make it there by sundown you would find yourself being the guest of honor for a dinner, the menu consisting totally of you, hosted by every gnat, fly and misquote hungry for a taste of vertebrate. The eerie high pitch whining of coyotes will at least give you some comfort in noting that you will be sleeping above and beyond the desert floor.
How are you going to get to the top of the Mesa? Most of you probably would not have packed a pick, crampons and rock climbing gear. I happened to have been lucky and found a large structure, easy to navigate and made of some impressionable pumice rock. Once atop the structure I will admit that I experienced one of the most spell binding nights of my life. The view of the heavens was magnificent. I had never seen so many individual stars resting on a velvet blanket of pure black ink. Visible comets, meteors and, satellites added a rich assortment of color the canopy. I assume I must have in ignorance been witness to star ships guided by little green men as they commuted across a freeway-jammed expanse of stars and suns. Best of all, I could observe all of this with the patience usually afforded an Aborigine, a Bushman or a Yamano Indian.
I hesitated to close my eyes in fear that I might miss something. The day had been long and sleep finally won the battle. While I slept I encountered a most vivid dream. In the dream my location was just as it were. The stars were just as they were. I viewed my sleeping body from a prime location in the box seats. I still shared physical sensation with the sleeping form and was awaken to a new level of consciousness when the warm lick of a wolf grazed my face. In the dream I did not fear and gently went back to sleep. In the morning once all aspects of me where once again united into the form I call Phillip, I recalled the dream. This must have been my spirit guide, I treasured recalling bits and pieces of Native-American folklore. I must be on the right track, I reasoned. Sedona, is going to be the bomb.
I was about 26 miles south of Sedona, heading into Tonto National Forest. The views into the canyons that were carved out below were breathtaking. I was not yet tired but this was definitely one of those ‘stop and smell the roses’ moments. Having filled myself full of meditation and giving thanks to God for the so-far splendid traveling mercies, I made my way back to the bicycle.
I was on a low point of what would soon be escalating into a reasonable hill climb. I shifted gear around as to place most of the weight on the rear rack and rear saddlebags. Traffic was very light and far and in-between. I caught view of a car coming down from the high point of the incline. The car traveled at a slow pace and literally seemed to be musically bumping down mountainous path. All that was needed was some comical soundtrack to accompany it.
As the vehicle approached, I was able to spy its occupants. The two large floppy hats borrowed from the sixties still held the occupants' faces in the shadows yet nevertheless the cene became even more comical and amusing. The car was a beigie-yellow Datsun B210 wagon, circa the late 1960s. Now some of you younger, car un-informed readers may have to go to the library to see such a vehicle. Not too many of them still grace the rush-hour freeways. Now a little history about the Datsun B210 wagon. In the chronicles of Hippiedom this is perhaps the third most popular car driven or lived-in by those free expressionists of the day. The B210 was out shadowed only by the Volkswagen bug and the much praised and worshipped Volkswagen bus. To own a Datsun B210 in those days was a sign of being among the counterculture. Today an owner of such would surely find themselves relieved of their security clearance.
The occupants of the vehicle, slowed their roll, as if that was possible, to an even slower pace. They guided their relic over to the unpaved expanse of road designated for canyon viewing. Even before exiting the vehicle I seriously considered if they had been projected through a space-time portal or, on my rational side, suspected that they were either on their way to or from central casting. I mean people like this did not exist except in history.
Their clothes and mannerisms were not the wanna-be wrappings of the Deadheads who are mostly rebellious suburban youths in their teens and twenties searching for an identity. These folks seemed to be the real deal and their straight silver gray, long and bountiful locks showed they at least had amassed decades to be so. Under their floppy big hats and groovy threads this guy and girl couple would have been indistinguishable if not for the male’s, neatly trimmed silver beard. Good, at least they were not scummy, un-kept, unruly Mansonites.
“Hey man! What a cool bikes” spoke the wide eyed and, seemingly easily fascinated, male. He approached the bike with almost reverence and awe. What I assume was his old lady likewise did the same. Great ice breaker, we venture into a warm and friendly discussion about bikes and wonderful canyon views. These folks emitted such good vibes that if not for the approaching task that lay before me, I would have loved to have toggled their knowledge of history and events. I didn’t want to seem rude so I tried to express that I had to go, more in body language then in spoken affirmation. Sensing this, the female inquired as to my present destination. When I mentioned Sedona, they both turned to face each other with eyes wider than they already were. In unison they stressed, "No! you can’t go to Sedona.”
Being on the road as I were, I was not always prone to the latest happening or was privy to CNN updates every 15 minutes. Had there been earthquake, mass murder, and nuclear strike? A series of possible scenarios flashed through my mind in the instant of dramatic pause supplied by the dramatic duo. They informed me that they had just come from Sedona and the weather was bad and worse was on the way. They pantomimed the effect of coldness. They reached their hands to heaven to show the direction from whence the deluge of sleet and snow were to fall. OK let’s see, I was less than thirty miles away from Sedona. I was presently attired in a thin sheet of Lycra bicycle shorts, a simple cotton tee shirt and I was feeling just fine. After the first wave of doom and foreboding had failed to reach its objective they then turned to preparation mode.
“Here I got something for you,” spoke the now serious man. He made his way to the hatch and upon lifting up a neatly stored cover, he exposed an assortment of foul-weather aids. Funny, I thought, with all my gear, why would he assume that I would not already have in my possession the items he was trying to bless me with. I did not.
Their concern for my safety however was so heart-warming that at times like that your belief in all of humanity is restored. I didn’t need anymore gear so tow. I respectfully declined the extra blankets, heavy gloves, canned meats and a camper’s stove. He showed a hint of disappointment in my decision but did not force the issue until it came to the can of Sterno. He seemed to be insistent that I take it. I should have had Sterno in my gear anyway as well a stove to light with it. Pay attention idiot adventurers. I again refused and rushed the final adjustments to my bicycle. They remained on the roadside and wished me good luck as I made my way up the challenging ascent.
The ascent proved more mountainous than I had originally perceived. The road I traveled sliced through the mountain like g-string through Jennifer Lopez’s business quarters. It was the mountains that to west that gave me cause for concern. I was familiar enough with mountains to know that when the sun sets over a mountain ridge, the descent into darkness falls fast and with out reservation. The Tonto National Forest was no walk in the park. This here was real wilderness. I could see no signs of civilization and the natural habitat did not seem all that accommodating. I passed a sign that spoke of an observation deck. I could probably take some good pictures from there. And there was something attractive about the word deck. Decks did not spring forth from nature. They had to have been built, man-made, hence shelter.
The pathway to the alleged observation deck with a crude hiking trail. I made my way up a considerable distant and still there was no sign of an observation deck. I continued into the heavens. Since encountering the first sign pointing the direction to the deck, I had not encountered no other. The sun had now set and as expected the landscape turned to dusk in a matter of minutes. My frenzied riding had built me a brow of sweat. I was still dressed only in my shorts and tee but, I knew the temperature would be falling. I stopped for a drink of water and a change of clothes. I reached for my water bottle. When I attempted to relieve the bottle of its contents I was horrified to discover the contents frozen. I guess cranking up a possibly 6% grade incline of an off-road pathway tends to generate a lot of heat, unfortunately for the rider only.
It seemed I was more likely to encounter K2 before this allusive observation deck. The only suggestion of civilization came in the form of two heavy duty pieces of construction machinery that I had past a couple of miles back. I had now changed into my most foulest of foul weather gear. Even still the greeting cards of the cold were seeping in through the cracks and crevices of my outfit. The wind began to pick up. It can’t get much worse than this. The temperature started to drop in rapid increments. At least I had company in this misery. Metal also can feel the effect of cold. The undo pressure placed on the chain of my bicycle in my mad ascent to nowhere caused the chain to snap. The chain whipped itself around the derailleur. Since I was in mid pump, the chain then forcefully force the derailleur into the spokes of the rear wheel. That was all she wrote. It can’t get much worse than this.
My fingers were now numb, I disengaged the derailleur from the spokes and continued with open palms to push the bicycle to whereabouts unknown. It can’t get much worse than this. A wet snow started to fall. I parked my bike under a behemoth of a tree. My fingers were so numb, I did not think I had the dexterity left in them to manipulate setting up a tent. The thickness of the tree however was enough to keep any errant flakes or drops of precipitation off me. I threw down a plastic tarp, placed my sleeping bag on top of it and nestled in for a long night. The tarp was a good idea. Too bad I had found this one on the road instead of bringing a new along as original gear. How many holes did this thing have? The wet ground upon which I had positioned myself began to seep through the tarp and onto my sleeping bag. It can’t get much worse than this.
I examined my options. I had declined the can of Streno but I did have a Bic lighter. I surveyed the area. I noticed a few smaller trees in the area. This was a matter of life and death. I fingered, or rather, palmed the Bic lighter. I didn’t have the fortitude to see it through. Anyway I did not want to go down in history as the man who burned down Tonto National Forrest. My feet were joining my fingers in the membership of numb. I once read that people who have frozen to death in many cases have experienced a period of ecstasy and euphoria before perishing. In many cases they have even experienced a perception of warmth and actual remove clothing.
The thought was comforting as I felt the numbness creep up my leg. Maybe they will thaw me out eons from now, like Peking Man or something. Megalomania got the best of me. I tried to rush the experience by the strength of my will but, Mother Nature was in charge here and taking her own good time. I couldn’t bear it any longer. This slow freeze was torturous. I rose, I left the bike and gear where it was and searched for other destinies.
At least the mixed bag of precipitation had stopped falling. A little ways in the distance I perceived something that did not match the surrounding terrain. I advanced closer. Right in the patch of Mother Nature was a rectangle of bed of gravel and small to medium stones. The bed of rocks had obviously been laid purposely, by man? I could not ascertain what possibly could have been the motive, use or purpose for the gravel bed. I knew that I had seen heavy machinery but that was a couple of miles down the mountain. Also with the exception of the gravel bed, there were no other indicators that construction or any other activity of civilization had taken place in the area.
The rocks themselves were raised inches above the damp ground and thus were dry. Eureka I thought, I could use the gravel bed in lieu of a tarp. After I had retrieved the sleeping bag and placed it gratefully on the gravel bed, I was mystified to discover that the bag fitted onto the gravel bed like a picture into an appointed frame. There was roughly a 8 to 12” border equally surrounding the periphery of the placed sleeping bag. Once inside the bag I believe that I was still able to detect some of the heat which had been collecting in the rocks throughout the day.
To say I slept would be an overstatement but to say I did not freeze or succumb to hypothermia would be a testimony suitable for Sunday morning church. Speaking of church, this adventure occurred before my two years spent in the throes of a church. My mother had found herself, many years prior to me, standing muster in the pews of a Holy Roller, Bible Thumping Pentecostal Church. I had attended a service with her once while on a cross country visit. I was amused and slightly appalled at the way the church members were encouraged to raise their hands to the sky whilst singing praise and worship songs. “What make’em think that God’s is up there?” was my sarcastic yet unexpressed thought.
But as the sun rose over the precipice of the mountain I found myself raising my hand, in similar fashion, to the sun for a prolonged period of time. I was trying to regain sensation and to get the heat back into my fingers. But I could not disown the analogy to the actions of the church go-ers. I managed to make it back down the mountain. A family picked up me and the rest of my gear and took me back to a point city at which I had started out from.
Sedona, I will have to catch you next time. I headed back to the generous sunlight of Southern Arizona. Since the rest of the trip, although exciting and memorable, contained no other strange occurrences, I will conclude tales of the cross country bicycle trip. I was in no rush and around thirty-five days later I was lounging on the beach in Jacksonville Florida, a stripped down Giant Excursion by my side.
Once I decompressed from the trip, I thought about my beloved hippies. I thought about how they were so stereotypical yet exactly what I had envisioned running into once arriving in mystical harbor of Sedona I thought about their efforts to warn me about the harshness of the condition that existed ahead. I truly doubted that even in bad weather would my plight had been so drastic had I stayed on the road. I will take the liberty in speculating that somehow my potentially disastrous detour had already been foreseen. My conclusion is God will show you a miracle but he rather send you a message that you are ready to receive.
KEY for you youngsters:
Peter Max: Artists known for painting dazzling psychedelic landscapes made popular by his renderings for The Beatles.
Yoda: Don’t play you’re not that young.
Don Juan and Don Gennaro: Sorcerers to apprentice Carlos Castaneda in his accounts of learning the Yaqui way of knowledge. Required hippy freak reading back in my day.
Don Diego de la Vega: Mentor to Zorro played wonderfully by Sir. Anthony Hopkins in the movie The Mask of Zorro.
Charlie Manson and his Followers: A pseudo hippie clan responsible for much mayhem.
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