The long way through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest looks like a good one as I’ll be riding Pine tree-lined highway all day. I’m meeting two friends, the first in Sedona and the second in Flagstaff.
I take off from my hotel at 7 a.m. and the beauty of the ride consumes my senses. I realize early that, though I love oceans and beaches, I prefer mountains and trees. Where the sounds of birds chirping by day are silenced by the cool of night as you’re pulled closer to the warmth of a crackling fire. It is in this place I have my happiest memories.
I keep my eye out for elk as I pass through small towns on the 100-mile stretch to my first stop. I see a group of riders weighed down by gear headed in the opposite direction and create my own story about who they are and where they’re headed. I wonder about the stories they no doubt have, the places they’ve seen, the people they’ve met. The beauty of a trip like this is you could do the same one every year and it would be hardly recognizable from the last. It’s not so much the route you map out, but the memories you make along the way.
West of Payson, I pull off into Tonto Natural Bridge State Park just after 9 a.m. The ride down the twisting road into the park is wonderful and slower cars pull to the shoulder as they see me motoring up behind them, my facemask concealing a wide smile. I reach the bottom and slow as a short line of cars forms at the ticket booth. I should have anticipated this, but didn’t. My wallet is in my zipped front pocket and I can’t get to it with my gloves on. The park ranger greets me and I ask if I can park and bring the money back. He says he’d rather I pull around to the right and get back in line once I have my money out. I follow his finger to the turnaround that’s at an angle and reluctantly nod, without giving the maneuver much thought. I get the bike turned and stop to pull my wallet out, but the angle is more than I anticipated. Before I know what’s happening, the bike is tipping in slow motion to the right and I’m helpless to stop it. It falls onto the crash bar with a thud and my heart rate doubles. I’ve feared this moment since first renting the Indian Chieftain weeks ago and it’s come to fruition.
Luckily, I was going 0 mph and instinctively got my leg of the way in time. Before I left, I also watched Youtube videos on how to pick up a massive motorcycle should I be an idiot and drop it. I walk to the other side of the bike and put the kickstand down, a step easily forgotten. Making my way back around, I notice the line of drivers and passengers alike gawking at my predicament. Not many years ago, I would have been frozen with embarrassment. But with age comes the wisdom to pay no mind. I squat down with my back to the bike, grab the handlebar with my left hand and the seat with my right, and weakly try to squat the bike up. It doesn’t budge. With a little more effort this time, I get it about an inch off the ground. At this point, the park ranger sees the downed bike and jumps to action. He runs over to the opposite side and wrenches on the handlebar as I work on mine and after three more attempts, it’s safely resting on the outstretch kickstand. I breathe a sigh of relief as the ranger runs back to the booth.
I give my heart a few minutes to return to normal. The bike is still on the angled surface, but now with all my focus, I balance it and get back in line, money within reach. I thank the park ranger once more as he gives me the park map and I nervously pull forward. Safely parked and stripped of gear, I can relax. I search for damage and see a few scrapes on the crash bar, nothing more. Even they are hard to notice under all the bug guts and dirt I’ve accrued over 3,000 miles. As I make my way toward a park trail, I’m relieved. Yes, I dropped the bike. But the fears I built up about what would happen if I did were unfounded, as they usually are. Obviously, my goal is to not let it happen again, but knowing it’s a solvable problem if it does is powerful. I’m immediately rewarded for my troubles by an amazing sight.
The trail is longer and steeper than expected, so I take off my riding pants and stash them in a bush as I head down.
Once under the arch, the temperature drops and the sound of the waterfall landing on a flat rock echoes off the cave walls. I try climbing higher, but a lady says that, though I can, she’s seen people slip and fall onto the rocks below. I decide not to push my luck and flop down where I’m at, taking in the sights, sounds, and cool, damp air.
I make quick work of the hike back to the top, stopping to recover my over pants as I head to the bike. The trip back up the road toward Hwy 260 is even more enjoyable than the ride down. I turn left for 50 more miles of tree-lined riding on my way to Montezuma’s Castle. The ride from the highlands of Tonto National Forest down to the lower Coconino National Forest is a great one. On the way, the road reduces from four lanes to two and I find myself in the middle of a group of 20 Polaris Slingshots out for a Saturday ride. We make our way down the mountain together and though they’re going slower than I’d like, I’m happy to share the scenery and exhilaration of the descent with fellow smiling faces.
The temperature rises 15° by the time we hit flat land and not long after, I’m at my stop. I get front row motorcycle parking alongside a large group of riders from New York. We learn in the visitor’s center the “castle” is more of an apartment where multiple families once lived. There is also no connection with the Aztec emperor Montezuma as the original discoverers thought. So the name makes no sense at all, but it’s a sight nonetheless. Aside from the “castle”, the site doesn’t offer much. I walk the loop and spot a Tarantula as it runs under a rock. I take a picture, but later delete it when I fail to notice what it’s a picture of. It was bad anyways. After nearly stepping on a snake as it slithers across my path, I decide I’ve had enough. I hop back on the bike, destination Sedona.
I’m meeting my friend Zeb and his wife Kelsey at their hotel. Expecting a baby and having been on a number of hikes already, Kelsey decides to sit this one out. Zeb and I jump in his rental car and head to Cathedral Rock Trail in Red Rock State Park five miles north. We arrive at the trailhead around 1 p.m. and struggle to find parking. If I was on my bike, I’d make my own parking spot right at the trailhead, but I’m back in car world. We park along the road two miles away, but Zeb sees a car leaving and decides to give it one more try. His instincts pay off and we get prime parking that won’t add four miles onto our hike.
I’m thankful for the shorts Zeb loaned me and that I changed into them in the parking lot. The midday sun beats down as we make our way up the red-orange sandstone to the formations above. Zeb did this hike a few days ago so points out the best spots to stop and take pictures. It’s nice to get some exercise. This diet of huge restaurant meals and sitting on a bike or in a motel all day is adding noticeable girth to my waistline.
We reached the top and take turns having people take our pictures as we take theirs. From the moment I crested the hill to bring Sonoma into view, I was taken by the drastic change of scenery from earlier in the day. From the top of Cathedral Rock, the 360° views bring this fact into sharp focus. On the way back down, we stop on the rock face for sandwiches, granola bars, and water Zeb smartly brought along and continue catching up on our lives and with what the next chapters may hold. My knees start to ache on the steep decent and when I mention it to Zeb, a group of older people gives me a knowing nod as they rest in the shade of a rock. I rush by the glimpse of my future and change the subject to block it from my mind.
The two hours with Zeb doesn’t seem enough, but he travels to San Francisco regularly for work and his next trip is in a few weeks. We make plans to catch a baseball game as I gear up and I wave as I make a wide turn north out of the hotel parking lot.
I’ve been on the amazing Hwy 260 all morning and assume “more of the same” on the final stretch into Flagstaff. Lucky for me, Hwy 89A is in a league of its own. Once I break free of the roundabouts and traffic of Sedona, I enter an enchanted world as I follow Oak Creek’s path past Slide Rock State Park. I’m greeted by fellow riders as they breeze past in the other direction and soon find myself winding up switchbacks, higher and higher. From my new vantage point, I see forests so lush and green they send a chill down my spine. I wish for a turnout so I can stop and breath it in. My wish is granted at the headwaters of Oak Creek.
My camera battery is flashing, nearly dead. I left my camera bag at home last second but forgot to grab the charger from it before tossing it my closet. Last night, I found a Best Buy in Flagstaff and the website said they had my charger in stock. So though I’m in no rush to leave this place, I should be on my way.
I noticed a large dip as I entered the Vista parking lot and turning right back onto the road, realize I’m in for a white knuckle ride. The entire road is under construction, ripped up, and strewn with gravel of varying sizes. I’ve gone down once on my bike at home, and it was on a surface like this. I take it slow and am thankful the car behind me is giving me space. I can’t tell if the large truck in front of me spraying the road’s surface to keep the dust down is helping or hurting. It’s only a mist, not enough to cause my tires to sink in, but it’s a factor I’d rather not deal with. The larger bike seems to be handling well, but I’m hyper-focused, second guessing every unexpected feeling or noise. At times the road tricks me by turning to pavement only to slowly deteriorate from chunked concrete to larger stones to fine gravel. It’s not an enjoyable few miles and when I finally see the “End Road Construction” sign and assure myself this pavement isn’t another trick, a few fist pumps are in order. I made it.
The traffic picks up as I near Flagstaff and merge onto I-17. I exit with signs for Flagstaff Mall and wind my way around to Best Buy. I wander aimlessly until I find the camera aisle. The charger they said they had online isn’t here, I’ve searched for ten minutes. There’s another for a Nikon camera, but it doesn’t look right. I get caught by a clerk breaking open the package to give it a try, he doesn’t seem to mind. It’s not the right one. I flag him down and ask. He and his coworker don’t see it either but agree to check in the back. I’m cursing myself now. How did I leave without my charger!? My phone camera will have to do. It takes good pictures, but I can only get a few off before it freezes and must be restarted, another side effect of the 55 mph drop on the highway.
The clerk appears from the back with a plastic bag in his hands and I try not to get my hopes up. As he nears, it looks like the right one. They were \$40 online but this one isn’t in retail packaging. He lets me break it open to try it and I thank him thrice as the battery fits perfectly. “I’m glad we could help. You can have it.”, he tells me. “Uh, what?”, I reply. “You can have it”, he repeats, with no further explanation. I thank him once more with a smile and decide to hurry out before his manager catches him being too generous.
I don’t claim to be unlucky, my life has been fortunate. But I do believe much of luck is a mindset. I could have let dropping the bike, the hot sun and traffic in Sedona, and the shitty gravel road tarnish this day. I could have let the winds and cold two days ago into Santa Fe ruin that one. I could have cursed my half-functioning phone and lack of road signs after missing the turn to Carlsbad Caverns. Once I arrived and realized the elevator was out, I could have thrown my hands in the air. Another day ruined. Just my luck. There have been countless other forks in the road that could have sent this trip down a different, darker path. It was no doubt lucky that I wandered into a store in Flagstaff right as I needed something and it magically appeared in my hands for free. And I’m happy I kept high spirits so that instead of succumbing, I put myself in a position to receive it.
Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. ―Charles Swindoll
My friend Derek and his girlfriend are visiting Flagstaff after a visit to his parent’s house outside Pheonix. He agrees to pick me up at my motel in 20 minutes for dinner, just enough time to change and shower. They end up going to a different Motel 6 across town but eventually find the right one and we meet with hugs in the parking lot. We grab dinner and a drink downtown before heading to their Airbnb in a renovated camper southeast of town. I was going to camp nearby, but at Flagstaff’s elevation, temperatures drop to below freezing overnight. So with three nights to go, I still haven’t slept in the tent and sleeping bag I’ve been hauling, packing, and unpacking since Orlando.
Their Airbnb is among a kind of junkyard of old trucks, rundown wooden and tin buildings, and trailers. The interior is cozy and unique and we relax on the small deck in front with Modelos. I tell them the story of my phone falling from the bike in the middle of Big Bend. We joke that if it would have broken and I somehow ended up dying in the desert, it would’ve been the lamest story ever. “Iowan Turned California Techie Scum Dies, Can’t Survive Texas Without Cellphone”.
Derek is driving his dad’s 4Runner so one beer is enough. They take me back into town, drop me off and since it’s Saturday night, I decide to check out a bar before heading to bed. I pull up a seat at the bar and watch Sportscenter. Halfway through my beer, I’m joined by Dan and Kate, a couple in their 40s. They live in Pheonix, he’s a painter/contractor and I don’t catch her profession. They love to travel and can’t get enough of my trip. They love Arizona and after my day today, I can see why. They buy a round of shots and I repay the favor with a round of drinks. When I can keep his attention focused on a single topic (he explains he has horrible ADD), we exchange our favorite destinations and agree that the more you travel, the longer your list of places to see grows.
As always, I have a long day tomorrow, so we say our goodbyes and I head to the motel. There aren’t any outlets near my bed so I plug my phone in near the TV for the night. This will make for an interesting next evening. I’m heading down Route 66 with plenty of planned stops on my way to Kingman, AZ tomorrow. The sooner I get to sleep the sooner the morning will come.