Thursday, February 28, 2008

Better the 2nd Time Around

After having to abort the Cochise 252 mile classic after only 27 miles last October, 2007 (see posts labeled Cochise Classic) I was full of self-doubt. Was I washed up at age 62? Would I be limited to sojourns around my 'hood? And what about the Volae I had bought for the purpose of solo tours? My soul (and legs) were full of rides and a world waiting for me to discover. I hired a coach, Bart Bowen, to coach my self doubts and my cycling engine. He worked me hard and I responded, training to power through four months of Chicago's Siberian winter.

So here begins the Cochise redemption. In six days the desert will let me know if I'm good to go solo touring to GA, OR, and NH this season.

I rode this same route--Tucson-->Wickenburg-->Tucson with PAC Tour in 2006. That year I just followed the route cards without a clue where I was in the world or where I was in Arizona. This year, second time around, the route, the rocks, the hills, the towns, they pass through me; they have names and character. I know them and they know me. So even the interstate exits and the motels.

Day 1 I planned from Tucson to Gila Bend, 130 odd miles through Eloy and Casa Grande. About 50 miles into the ride, this Day 1, I came to my senses that 130 miles in one day was a little much so early in the season, riding a new bike, hauling gear for the first time, climbing, climbing, and oh yes, the last 30 miles of this 130 mile day would be on I-8. A flat tire would mean I would be riding in the remote darkness of the desert, temperatures falling with the sun. It would just be me and the truckers whizzing by at a legal 75 mph. Large Marge comes to mind.

Reason prevailed, I'd make this route into a 3 day ride, instead of a 2 day and would overnight in Casa Grande. Even if it meant having to miss a day of the conference at The Meadows, it was the right decision.

Route 84 through Eloy, population 10,000, 75% of whom are Hispanic on the way to Casa Grande, swells for 3/4 of a mile to a 4 lane road. Urbanites would think of it as a boulevard, at most. But here in Eloy it is a highway. I smiled at this "highway" 2 years ago and smiled again this year.

Grande "matured" sufficiently in the last two years to earn the right to have a Starbucks--a happy sight to my eyes. They even had a Tazo tea selection unavailable in the big cities--organic chai. Mighty tasty when dressed up as a tea soy misto.

In way before night fall; a good day on the bike. The desert and I were both smiling.

Off To Gila Bend

After clearing the bustle of Casa Grande's city limits, home to 25,000, a cluster of palm trees atop a shimmer of green emerges as a desert oasis--Francisco Grande Golf Resort--a most incongruous site, indeed.

Even more incongruous, because in 10-15 miles on either side of Standfield, population 651, are the barbaric cattle feed lots that will churn your stomach as the rank odor of ammonia-soaked soil and rotting hoofs burn your nose. At least this year there were no visible dead cows lying with legs up stretched as if begging for mercy.

30 miles on I-8 follow the feed lots. Rare was the family sedan that passed. But many, many were the mega-monster-mobile homes towing the family SUV. And, of course, the 18 wheelers.

I-8 carves through the desert resplendent with Saguaro, Century Plants, Old Man, Yucca, Prickly Pear, Joshua Tree, Jumping Cactus, any probably many, many more varieties unrecognizable to this Midwestern eye. The resilience of life manifested again and again with the single blades of grass that reached through the macadam shoulder. Not many would even know those blades were there, but I shared their company with pleasure.

It was a steady climb, low grade, but none the less, a climb from Casa Grande to Gila Bend--confirmation I made the right choice to break up the 130 miles from Tucson to Gila Bend into a 2-day ride.

Gila Bend

The road into Gila Bend didn't rate a swell to 4 lanes, but the America's Choice Inn and Suites was a welcome respite at the clover interchange of exit 119 and I-8 for me and truckers alike.

Dining is humble, indeed, on such tours. Exit 119 featured Subway, a Shell gas station, and El Charro Cafe, 10 steps lower than Chipotle.

What you pack, you get to carry. Can't skimp on food (3 bars/day and 2 scoops of HAMMER products per bottle/20 miles. But you can skimp on clothes, however. But that means one of the end of the daily ride rituals is showering with your laundry and stringing it up to dry before the sun goes down.

Gila Bend-->Wickenburg

Having ridden the route in 2006 I knew what laid ahead at mile 26 out of Gila Bend just over the steel bridge and again beginning at mile 66 but kicking in big time at about mile 76--hills of the teener grade--13, 14, 15%. Their memory kept waking me--sleepless in Gila Bend, you might say. Could I haul 180 pounds (me, bike, and gear) up and over? Could my 62.5 year old legs, lungs, and heart do it at 2,300 feet?

I ramped up my speed over the steel bridge, switched into my granny gear at the right time, and riveted my eyes on this cow pictured on a road sign warning of free range cattle at the summit. With each pedal stroke I was one revolution closer, closer to that old summit and the cow. I made it, rubber side down, breathless, and self-satisfied.

I carry two water bottles mixed with HAMMER Product fluids with a 3rd one stashed just in case...I parcel a 20 ounce bottle every 20 miles, so I'm technically good for 60 miles.

At the "cow" summit I was down one bottle without a sense from whence my next water source might come. Just beyond the cow sign was an ADOT truck more than willing to give me a 20 oz bottle from their supply for the day.

A highway named Salome (pronounced Sa-lome') and a ramshackled, no-named convenient store at the corner of Salome and Old Hwy 80 run by Asian Indians are unlikely finds, indeed, in the low desert of Arizona. But, there they were, but bathroom facilities there were not. That's when I realized I needed to carry supplies for close encounters of the 2nd kind. Lucky for me my urgency could wait till the truck stop in Buckeye.

Lots of Free Range Cow signs along the route to Wickenburg and lots and lots of cattle guards--those fierce steel grates across the road over which cattle will not cross--a stark contrast to the Concentrated Animal Feed lots of Stanfield--these cattle have open grazing rights.

Road kills help define where you are geogrpahically. Nope, no dead jackrabbits, coyote, snakes, or cows along the roads of Chicago.

The climb to the summit overlooking Wickenburg seemed harder than two years ago; I'm sure carrying the extra weight of my gear made the difference. But the view from atop was worth all the effort. And, it was all down hill from there to the motel. Even needed to put on my windbreaker for the high 30's mph descent. I'd wait for the morrow to face the re-climb challenge to the Wicknburg summit.

Jack and Rochelle, friends from Mt. Prospect, are new snowbirds in Surprise, AZ, just 30 miles east of Wickenburg. Crazy, but it was easier to hook up with them in Wickenburg for dinner than in Chicago. Good company, good meal at Qorri's (pronounced Quarry's), by far Wickenburg's finest. Even had cloth napkins!

Wickenburg-->Gila Bend

I don't usually get excited about riding in the rain, but rain it did, and excited (almost) I was. I wanted to know how the disc brakes would handle in rain that shared my ride with me for 70 of the 90 miles from Wickenburg to Gila Bend. Handle well they did.

I stopped at the Desert Rose Bar and Grill, in an eye blink of a town by the same name, to reload my water bottle just short of the big climb that would now descend on to the steel bridge. Inside the Bar and Grill it was dark, clandestine, and overseen by a Wise Woman who'd seen much and lived more. She had to be the 1st cousin, or maybe sister to Pancho of Pancho's Happy Bar and Riding club made infamous by the 1983 epic three hour movie I've seen at least 20 times--"The Right Stuff". Remember? "I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers going to have, huh? "

Rest Of The Ride

The rest of the ride was pretty much a route reversal of the outbound, except it was warmer.

Hooked up with the PAC Tour folks at exit 219 and I-10 (Picacho Peak), between Tucson and Eloy. Good fun to say "HI" to old friends and show off my new bike. They were on the same route I had just ridden; I was just 6 days ahead of them.

Marana is home to the annual rodeo, cause for a 4-day weekend for local schools, and this year home to the World Match Play Championship where Tiger Woods handily set a target for a perfect season--both the same weekend I, too, rode through Marana.

Hooked up up with son-Daniel along the route on the outskirts of Tucson. We companioned the last 15 miles to home savoring memories of this ride and other rides we have shared.

Capped off the 6th day with a private audience to Daniel's band, Redlands, which will be playing at PLUSH, a regular venue for them, in downtown Tucson Friday, February 29th.

The desert is soul cleansing and generously gave me a resounding "YES" to ride on to GA, OR, and NH on solo tours.

Welcome to the 2008 Riding Season.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Random Acts of Culture and Kindness

Back a day, climbing over Chicago snow banks, we keep remembering random acts of culture and kindness:
  • Eggs sunny side up in Spanish are called Huevos Estrellados which translates Starry Eggs. Ok, we can have sunny eggs and they can have starry ones. That'll work.
  • How about having your Huevos Estrellados perched on top of a Nopal Leaf, which would be a cactus leaf. Actually quite tasty.
  • Can you even imagine speed bumps in the middle of high speed roads? They are there, let me tell you. They're called Topes and they are VERY poorly marked and they are twice the height of our most mountainous ones. You just assume that if cars suddenly slow from 100 km (62 mph) to 40 km (24 mph) it's a tope.
  • And there was Juan Carlos, 16 years old, our server at the 100% Natural in downtown Cancun. He had the hustle and lovability of a Dalmation puppy in training. He'd held this job since he was 15; his mother left him and his family when he was 5 for a better life in North Carolina.
  • Eating shrimp tacos overlooking a dolphin pool where Mama dolphin is putting her 6 week old baby through the paces to become an interactive show dolphin.
  • Our return flight had been delayed two hours which meant we would miss our connection from Mexico City to Chicago. We're sitting in a remote corner of the Cancun Airport near an electrical outlet so I can settle in for a long days work on the computer. A Mexicanna Airlines employee walks by on a totally unrelated mission; pauses and asks us what flight we're on. We tell her and she says: "Follow me. I can get you on a non-stop to Chicago that will get into Chicago earlier than your original flight. I will transfer your bags to the new flight". How often would that happen in the US? How often would a North American initiate a random act of kindness to a Hispanic?

Cancun Pictures

Click on the picture to link to a collection of pictures from Cancun 2008.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


You would never mistake flying into Mexico City through its continuous haze speckled with endless, sprightly, color-splotched buildings, and flying into Cancun through its continuous blanket of Yucatan jungle alive with toucans, snakes, and armadillo-like rodents. Then, as if flying out of a jungle cloud there, there it is: the take-your-breath-away splendor or of the Mar Caribe Turqueso, cloudless blue sky, and sunny warmth. Here the Sun Sirens allure you into shedding your many layers of North American, protective, outer armor .

We’ve been here enough that we’re no longer stagger in awe of the Hotel Zone, neither it’s garish opulence, nor its crude abundance of drinking establishments. Rather, we look forward to spending our days catching up on reading and personal writing projects to the rhythm of the waves crashing, feet from our patio door. When we come to a resting point in the day’s creative efforts, we’ll walk the beaches until we tire; find an organic, vegetarian restaurant; and then hop any of the abundant busses, ride for 6.5 pesos up to “the real Cancun” where the real Cancunians live, and visit places we’ve gotten to know over the years.

It’s on the bus or on our walks we’re struck with what we take for granted at home. Noticeables such as:

  • Construction workers operating power equipment wearing flip flops and without ear protection;
  • No pedestrian crosswalks anywhere; people young and old, abled and disabled, scurry like roaches across 4 lanes dodging cars, busses, and collectivos.
  • Stop lights are few and left turn signals are non-existent. Seemingly chaotic traffic circles serve well the flow where the right-of-way rules elude the likes of us. Somehow most of the pedestrians make it most of the time, including us. I guess the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rules.
  • Not unusual, once you make it across the busy 4-lane, to have to crawl four-legged up a steep, stone embankment to get out of harm’s way. Chicagoans, can you imagine doing same across the “S” curve at the Oak Street Beach? Ay Ay Ay.
  • Streetlights don’t exist in the family neighborhoods in real Cancun. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be scared, but I’m not; not when I’m with Kirk who has fluent command of the language. I do know I would not wend my way serpentine through the via ways alone in the dark.
  • The concept of handicapped accessibility hasn’t even been ideated, certainly not actualized. Sidewalks are roughed, bumped, and crunched. Curb ramps aren’t, and restrooms are often up a flight of stairs. Wheelchair sized stall doors aren’t either, nor are washbowls at a level for those who access the world from a level of four feet or below.
  • On a cheerier not, iguanas and lizards are everywhere, especially around Tulum. I don’t know about the hierarchy of iguana, but there clearly is one, as some of the “old ones” have tails to tell their tales as do rings in the trunk of a tree.

A wonderful change of pace and scenery, but it’s time to go home now. We’re ready, despite anticipating a return to a foot or more of snow and months before we have to apply suntan lotion in response to the allure our own Chicago Sun. We’ve begun the “flights have been cancelled, delayed, re-routed, rescheduled game”. TTFN