Sunday, September 6, 2020
Almost every summer for the past 15 years, a Rimtours mountain biking and camping trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon had been in the running for an August vacation, but somehow, it never seemed to make the finalist list. The pandemic and shut-down of international travel this year upended our plans for a photography-focused trip to Namibia in summer. Casting about for pandemic-safe domestic alternatives, this was going to be the year we would finally make it to the North Rim. We signed up for a 4-day trip at the end of June.
With 10 days to go, the Mangum fire in northern Arizona shut down the North Rim and our plans. The company offered us an alternative, to the Bryce and Zion area of southern Utah. We had actually done this trip with them, but it had been 16 years and we hadn’t been to Utah since. We accepted, survived (the riding was harder than the North Rim) and ended up upgrading our 10-year old mountain bike technology, buying last year’s carbon fiber versions of the Santa Cruz 5010 bikes we rented, from one of our guides and his girlfriend.
We had a wonderful time, although I had some gnarly looking scratches as souvenirs. But we still wanted to see the North Rim of the Canyon, which we’d heard about over the years from our Sedona hiking friends and neighbors, Tom and Jan. While we were on the Rimtours trip, we received an email from the office, mentioning a 4-day Labor Day weekend trip. I was ready to sign up on the spot, even asking our guide to email the office to hold spots for us.
A problem became apparent once we were back in range of the Internet and our calendar: the trip started on a Friday we didn’t have off. I made numerous overtures to partners to work the necessary trades to get both of us off, to no avail. While camping at Navajo Lake, we had seen the red van of another Moab-based company with similar offerings. Our guide Dave said they did a good job and that the two companies had a “friendly rivalry”. Harry, one of our partners with whom we used to ride regularly in the 1990s, had good reports from prior trips with Western Spirit. Their trip was 5 days, Monday-Friday, during the Labor Day week we already had off. We snagged the last 2 spots on the phone, driving to Sedona from Utah.
Our new-to-us bikes were assembled by Steve after their arrival in San Diego, enabling us to do a handful of training rides before our training was interrupted by an August houseboat trip on Lake Powell, another domestic destination we had always wanted to explore but never had. This was another case of making lemonade from lemons: one month before our scheduled week-long British Columbia diving trip with Alex Mustard, it was finally cancelled when Canada again extended their ban on non-essential travel. Normally, Lake Powell houseboats are booked a year in advance, but we lucked out with a cancellation, betting even before our BC trip was officially cancelled that there was NO WAY Canada would allow potentially-Covid-bearing Americans in, with Covid-19 cases surging in the summer in the US.
Tom and Jan had mentioned how much they had enjoyed staying in the rim-view cabins on the North Rim, so it seemed a Sedona sign of favor that I was able to book one of the 6 (of 50!) view cabins for the night before the mountain bike trip. Our plan was to make it to the North Rim in time to shoot the sunset from Bright Angel Point, which we managed, albeit just barely. Delaying our departure were real estate-related phone calls to our New York neighbor Pascale and our Sedona realtor Ed. We had been surprised a few days before to receive an email from Pascale asking if we were still interested in purchasing the apartment next to us, on which we had been outbid 2 years before.
Monday, September 7, 2020
We had every intention of shooting the sunrise, setting the alarm for 5 am. However, the volume was turned down so low that the alarm called us silently for 50 minutes before Steve woke up at 10 minutes to 6 am. Steve rushed into clothes; I threw my backpack on over the microfleece top and yoga pants I wore to bed.
We made it to Bright Angel Point by sunrise. The sun was an orange ball we could actually look at, there was so much fire-related haze.
Just as we exited the park, we finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which had accompanied us in the car this summer to Utah, as well as back and forth to California. We headed south toward Jacob Lake Lodge, the designated meeting point, a half an hour earlier than we thought we needed to for the 10 am rendezvous.
We stopped at the Meadows Edge coffee trailer, next to the only store between Jacob Lake and the North Rim, for what proved to be excellent coffee. We were making such good time, so we thought, that we even ordered a tasty egg and sausage morsel, and sat out munching and enjoying our coffee for a few minutes before mobilizing again. I was to think back guiltily on this when we were greeted by the entire group, ready to go, when we pulled into the parking lot, congratulating ourselves on our perfect timing, 10 minutes early, or so we thought. Wes informed us we were an hour late, which we were mortified to learn. We were supposed to meet at 10 am Utah time, which it turns out is an hour off Arizona time. Gulp, we are not usually THAT couple.
The rest of the trip went more smoothly and our companions proved to be an unusually cohesive and fun group. The tone was set by the Beavers, 4 young women sporting black baseball caps made for the occasion with large gold letters spelling out Beavers, with a tiny line underneath with our destination and the year. Heather, Christina, Sarah and Chelsea were former breakfast waitresses, friends and mountain bike riding buddies from Durango, Colorado, who had done several Western Spirit trips before, won in a yearly benefit auction. Heather made us feel better about our late arrival right away, confiding that they had been late driving in from Page, and were relieved by us arriving even later. They were a lively and fun cohort, whose pace on the trails was inspiring (we were to feel our age and sea-level-dwelling disadvantages acutely during this trip). Apparently, at some point, they contemplated staying in a single large tent, leading one of their husbands to quip “like a den of beavers”.
Our group of 13 was rounded out by two couples and 3 single men, Doug, Pat and Jim. Shannon and Jim from Louisville Kentucky were, like us, pivoting from derailed international travel plans, having had to cancel a trip to Lake Como and Italy to celebrate their 20th anniversary, which was the last night of this trip. Vern and Ev were from Utah and venturing out on their second ever guided trip. Vern, a quiet urologist, was unstoppable on the climbs and quickly became the group’s pacesetter. Doug, originally from Delaware, had decamped from Florida where he normally lives and works, to Colorado to work from home for the duration of the pandemic and was a veteran of multiple Western Spirit trips (7 or was it 8, he kept losing count!). Jim, from Portland Maine, has a spouse who prefers cocktails on the beach to camping and like Shannon and Jim, had driven cross-country for this trip. Jim planned a few additional days riding and visiting a longtime friend in Park City, while Shannon and Jim were heading afterwards to Bentonville, Arkansas to the 21C Museum Hotel and more mountain biking. Who knew the Walton fortune, in additional to funding the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, had also turned Bentonville into a mountain biking mecca?!
Our guides were Wes, a 10 year Western Spirit guide and college competitive bike racer, and Anna, a Vermont native in her first season with the company. Masked, everyone loaded into the van and we were off to our East Rim primitive camping site, home for the next 2 nights. Primitive camping means no bathroom facilities or running water. Like Rimtours, washing up was facilitated by a foot-pump activated spigot for water. Our bathroom facilities were The Green Latrine (anywhere with sufficient privacy) and for number 2, The Groover.
Having previously done Grand Canyon river rafting trips, we had some familiarity with the concept of The Groover, although I didn’t remember that name. I remembered the basic unit as an ammo box. Apparently, they weren’t always topped with a toilet seat, hence the name. Thankfully, someone had thought of this innovation by the time we had to avail ourselves of a Groover. The other components are equally important: The Key ( a large Ziplock with toilet paper) left in camp near the hand-washing station and a marker for the location of the Groover (in our case, a large grey plastic bag attached to a tree proximal to the Groover’s actual, more hidden location). Absence of The Key from the hand-washing station was a clear signal that The Groover was occupied, avoiding potentially embarrassing encounters in the woods.
After a lunch of wraps filled with turkey, grapes and walnuts, we rode a 7 mile segment of the Arizona Trail, out and back, a fun single track, with some rocky climbs, crossing golden meadows into and out of a Ponderosa pine forest, with aspens and ferns just starting their autumn transformation. Although we were camped on a rim of the Canyon, the sunset was disappointing, with the canyon obscured by white, fire-related haze. Our dinner was hearty, with vegetables in a tomato sauce, garlic bread and caesar salad.
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
We both slept poorly, as did most everyone, with the wind howling. The unsightly white haze continued to obscure our view of the Canyon’s depths.
We rode another section of the Arizona trail, 11 miles one way, with loose gravelly climbs and descents. Steve stayed back with me, with Shannon and Weston sweeping. Much of this morning’s riding reminded me of our favorite trail at home, in the Laguna mountains, with golden, wide-open meadows backed by forest, traversed by narrow single track and punctuated by stretches of occasional double tracks and a lake. Shannon was trying out a rental bike with 29″ wheels, which she went on to purchase from the company.
The 3 of us rode back in the van while the rest of the group rode back with Anna, who had driven the van with the cooler with our lunch sandwiches to the turnaround point. It was sunny and cool, perfect riding temperature, but Steve had banged his knee missing a turn and I was satisfied. There was enough left over bacon from breakfast to make a hearty BLT on Dave’s Killer Bread.
Back in camp, the haze had cleared up enough to actually see the East Rim of the canyon. I was glad we had spent a night at the North Rim with good conditions for shooting. Steve and I helped each other shampoo our hair with a solar shower Weston set up. Heather blazed back to camp in record time, saying it was easier returning than going, although Pat, arriving later, did not agree with this assessment.
Happy hour produced a yummy guacamole appetizer and continuing the theme, there were chicken and beef fajitas for dinner. It was by then so cold that the molten chocolate of the fruit fondue froze to our plates and everyone went to bed early.
Wednesday September 9, 2020
Sunlight streaming into the tent in the morning awoke us from what had been a very cold night, as evidenced by icicles dripping from the trailer.
Toasted buttered bagels, oatmeal and sausages warmed us up, at least until the sun disappeared while we were packing up camp. The plan for today was to transfer to the West Rim and a hike along the Canyon’s rim. We were dropped off at the surprisingly well stocked general store, where I found a pair of socks and a card, only to realize our wallets were buried in the luggage in the trailer. Applepay on Steve’s Iphone came to the rescue.
Clouds helped blunt the morning sun on the Transept Trail as we walked along the rim towards the Lodge and beyond, lunching on the rocks on the Bright Angel Point Trail.
The North Rim Visitors Center restroom had a marvelous luxury for us, campers with dry and chapped hands: warm water!
From there, we had options, riding the final 7 miles to camp by bike or staying in the van. We both elected to ride, mostly to warm up. The predominantly downhill ride on the gravel road was surprisingly fun. Our campsite for the next 2 nights was in a pine grove a short walk from Locust Point, which has a couple of nice viewpoints onto the canyon. When we arrived, Anna was taping up plastic over a shattered back van window, apparently a casualty of the washboard road in combination with Wes’ driving.
Continuing their culinary wizardry, Wes and Anna produced a savory happy hour appetizer of a goat cheese, sun-dried tomato and basil spread for crackers or crostini, followed by a dinner of chicken marbella on quinoa and salad with grapes, goat cheese and walnuts. Afterwards, Wes suggested we could walk down to the point to watch the sunset and the apple crisp dessert would be ready on our return.
I think I wigged out Pat by setting up my tripod on the furthest reasonable point I could safely access. Sadly, I discovered I couldn’t use my neutral density filter with my 8-16 mm lens, which has a curved front and admits too many reflections. Our camp was shady and cold once the sun set, scattering everyone to their tents to warm up. Fires weren’t permitted due to the forest fire risk .Only Sarah, clad in an all-encompassing forest green quilted garment dubbed by Pat her “Onesie”, looked reasonably comfortable as the temperature plunged. Steve put his Flir, a newly acquired Infrared Iphone attachment (justified on the grounds it can be used to detect leaks in the house), to work capturing the huddled campers.
Thursday, September 10, 2020
It was cold enough that I wore gloves, a fleece cap and a buff to bed. Sometime during the night, I lost a glove and it felt like I spent the rest of the night patting the surrounding area inside my sleeping bag looking for it.
The sunrise was a few minutes after six. I set the alarm for 5:20. When I awoke, I needed to make a trip to the Groover. While looking for a place to pee the afternoon before, I had stumbled onto its location, in the foliage behind the camp, but trying to find the trash bag flag marking the area by the light of my headlamp in the dark was another matter. Finally, I succeeded.
Steve and I wedged ourselves onto the furthermost secure rocky point of the promontory to shoot the sunrise. It was nice, but not spectacular.
Our ride today was a section of the Rainbow Rim Trail, which was hand built by a North Kaibab District ranger, John Kneeling, who loved to mountain bike. It is mostly single track and at places affords spectacular views into the canyon. Wes exhorted us to “Be Bold, Start Cold” in dressing for the day’s ride.
We cycled as a group down to Locust Point, where Wes explained the day’s two options using the map. The trail has been extended in the last year so the posted map does not even reflect the complete range of options available to mountain bikers.
Our route today took us to North Timp and Timp viewpoints, six and 9 miles away. The shorter option was an out and back, for a total of 18 miles. The longer, 27 mile loop option continued on from Timp onto a new section of the trail and circled back via the jeep road we rode in to camp on the prior afternoon.
Not very far from camp, Steve discovered a potentially disabling mechanical issue with a fractured derailleur pulley causing his bicycle to be very noisy. I waited at the viewpoint, while he and Anna circled back to camp to swap out his bicycle for the spare bike, a 29 inch Specialized Stumpjumper.
The ride was marvelous, fun and flowy and challenging enough, particularly certain rocky climbs.
When we reach the turnaround point, it was only 11:30 and it seemed to me that we had just finished breakfast, so I suggested that we ride back to the other viewpoint, which had a better view and nicer seating. This plan was adopted by Shannon, Jim, Doug, Steve and me, with Anna riding with us.
The rest of the group continued on with Wes and judging from the exclamations back at camp later that afternoon, enjoyed their loop ride, including a more recent 9 mile addition to the trail, very much.
When Steve and I arrived back at camp, only Doug was there, so we took advantage of the relative warmth and privacy to find a place to hang the solar shower and wash our hair. My hair was a virtual helmet by that time, having been continuously under a fleece cap or a helmet for two days at that point.
I shot the sunset from the ridge, leaving my tripod there after using PhotoPills to figure out the trajectory of the Milky Way later that evening.
After dinner (stir-fried vegetables and chicken over brown rice), I headed back up the slope to where I’d positioned the tripod. While it was light, I had carefully noted landmarks to minimize searching for it in the dark. Nevertheless, I overshot it and had to carefully retreat back along the ridge to find it, waiting for me on a stony plateau.
Friday, September 11, 2020
I rose in time to shoot the sunrise again from Locust Point, while Steve, mindful of our drive back to Sedona that afternoon, slept in until the 7 am call for hot off the grill breakfast sandwiches of ham, cheese and egg on English muffins. Walking back from the Point into camp, eager Beaver Heather already had her tent down and her gear packed, but most waited until after breakfast to break down camp. All too soon, it was « Last call for the Groover! ».
For our final ride, we did another 9 mile segment of the Rainbow Rim Trail. Steve and I rode with Dave, giving him a chance to ask questions about a contemplated career change to radiology technologist. The final climb to our lunch gathering at Parissawampitts felt like more than the 9 degrees the Rim trail is purported not to exceed. Anna, accompanied by Shannon, met us in the van and had a taco salad lunch assembled for our final meal together.
There was one final surprise in store: Just as the post-prandial lull set in, Heather suddenly leapt up, did a handstand, followed by lowering her chest down to the ground and back arched, rolling down to her feet, followed by a second and then a third repetition: an undulating move called The Worm. We’d heard about her performing The Worm, in her bridal dress on her wedding day, so perhaps should not have been shocked by her dexterity on the gravel at Parissawampitts, but we were caught so off-guard that sadly there is no photographic documentation of this feat! It will have to live on just in our abundant memories of a really fun, cold and unforgettable pandemic escape.