I first saw the Grand Canyon when I was a 19 year old college freshman on a family trip from New York. The family piled out of the car at Mather Point, the first main overlook at the park. I helped my grandmother to the railing as the scene of Clark Griswald on repeat went through my head. Upon seeing the view, my grandmother started to cry. She said the Grand Canyon was something she had always longed to see, and it is more spectacular than anything she could ever imagine. I have never known my grandmother to flinch, let alone cry, for no apparent reason. The tough-as-nails matriarch of our family was the definition of an old school Italian American grandmother, and then some. I just didn’t get it. Grandma was getting on in years and maybe she was just over reacting to this big old hole in the ground. Then about a half an hour later she swore she saw the face of Hary Belafonte in a rock on the side of the canyon…
Fast forward more than a decade to Memorial Day weekend, 2011. Myself along with a half a dozen other mountain bike dorks, find ourselves on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The weekend was the second anual gathering-organized by everybody’s favorite pale savior, Scandinavian Jesus. A few days of relaxing, good friends, good food, and riding prime singletrack on the Rainbow Rim Trail. An eighteen mile piece of trail paralleling the edge of the Canyon. It is fun, fast, and offers breathtaking views right from the seat of your bike.
The second day of the trip saw us being beat into submission by freezing 50mph winds all day long. Then, just in time for sunset, the wind died down and it began to snow. The sky all around us turned every shade of pastel purple, pink and blue. A two minute walk from my tent brought me to one of the most amazing views I have ever seen.
I sat there shivering as the snow fell through the beams of setting sun and I was speechless. The North Rim is a special place, go there.
I spent the last day of the trip riding by myself up on the Arizona Trail south of Jacobs Lake. Pedaling all afternoon in the thin air, meandering down forested singletrack and across amazing alpine meadows. All the while procrastinating my inevitable return to the working world the next day.
I came home and worked a quick 3 days and the call of the bike and the Canyon was just too strong. I loaded up the the light touring gear, grabbed the singlespeed and headed north one more time. The plan was to ride the Arizona Trail from Flagstaff to the South rim, hike to the river and back, then ride back to Flagstaff. It was a lofty goal and probably way past my ability but I didn’t really have anything better to do.
I jumped on the AZ trail from the Snowbowl parking lot accompanied by one of the fabulous DC vixens for the first 10 miles. We switched leads every few miles, laughing and shouting how amazing the trail was. It was nice to share the experience with somebody, but eventually I had to push on alone.
I found myself pedaling in a perfect rhythm, with the miles just melting away. Eventually the trail ends and you enter a patchwork of dirt roads through the lowlands north of the peaks. As the mountains get smaller over your shoulder, the temperature increases and you really get to have some conversations with yourself.
It’s at this point where you start to feel the most alone. Thirty miles in your legs, temperature increasing and the landscape flattening before you. My thoughts drifted to my friends getting ready to tackle the Divide race. Although it was rarely mentioned, their concern over the Great Basin stretch of the route was palatable. Faced with the seemingly endless dirt road in front of me for the next two hours, I couldn’t even imagine two days of the same.
I made camp about 6 miles from the edge of the canyon and slept like a log well into the next morning. I awoke to some serious wind and cursed myself for oversleeping. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a tail wind. I hitched a ride on the wind, sipped my coffee while I rode and rocked the Into Another Creepy Eepy album. I got to the Bright Angel trailhead, traded riding shoes for hiking shoes and dropped into the canyon on foot. I never made it all the way to the river as planned, but I went far enough to be satisfied. I turned around at Indian Gardens and did the work it takes to get back up to the rim. That 4.6 miles of walking seemed a lot harder than the 80 miles on the singlespeed I did the day before, but totally worth it. I grabbed a celabratory pint in the lodge, filled up all my water bottles, and transformed back into bike mode. I was exausted and content to spin on the road at a touring pace for the rest of the ride. On my way out of the park, I decided to stop at the spot where I first saw the Canyon so many years ago.
I sat there on a rock for quite a while, in the same place I once stood with my grandmother looking out over that enormous landscape. If she was around today, I would call her and tell her: “Hey Gram, I get it now”
Keep it dirty…by