Southwest Saguaro Magic

A last minute (and I mean last minute) weekend getaway took us to Tucson, AZ to escape the cold, gray, rainy weather in Indy.  Tucson was everything we hoped for and more.

We opted out of the typical hotel accommodations and found two properties through Air BnB: both stellar, although both different.  The tiny trailer was, well… tiny, but well provisioned, immaculately clean and adorable.  The hosts even provided firewood for the fire pit, just past the compost toilet and outdoor shower, which also were immaculately clean.

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The last two nights we stayed at an aptly named property, Serenity in the Saguaro Forest. Its peaceful location was close enough to the National Park to quickly get to a trail head or scenic sunset view yet close enough to town to explore the local restaurants and breweries, which we did. A few times.

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After landing in Phoenix and renting a van that enabled us to transport rented road bikes, we headed south and within a little over two hours we were at the trail head ready to hike up tallest peak in the Tucson Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. There’s nothing like hiking to stretch and loosen up after flying in a plane all morning.

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While hiking among the cacti, the most notable were the saguaro. These gentle giants are ancient and resilient.  And they all look different, kinda like us humans! It’s as if they will magically awaken, speak to one another and then begin spewing stories about the storms, drought, and invasive animals they’d survived.  We passed time on our hike up Wasson Peak imagining if the saguaro could talk what they might say.  Based on their unique postures, and the longer we hiked, the more creative and racy our musings. It’s a fun way to pass the time on an eight mile hike in the desert.

One of the biggest weekend surprises, however, was what Tucsonans call “The Loop.” It’s a paved dedicated bike, pedestrian trail that encircles Tucson. We’d rented road bikes for Saturday and Sunday and downloaded some decent routes on our Garmins but The Loop was just too good to pass up. And it was scenic, not crowded and easy to navigate.

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I expected it to be similar to the Monon here in Indy: narrow, crowded, lots of stopping for traffic but not so.   The Loop is a gem.  We haven’t been riding much in 2020 but managed to squeeze in a 57 mile ride under smurf blue skies and pleasant temps. And we scouted out a brewery stop for a quick post ride bevvie.

We like to hit Mass up when we travel and Mission San Xavier del Bac was a short drive south so off we went before our Sunday morning bike ride.  The Mission exterior was imposing against the blue skies and gave me pause to think about the people, the mission, and all the prayers said since its beginning in 1700.

But, it’s when I entered this church that I experienced an overwhelming feeling of awe.  It was simple, yet ornate and majestic. There was remarkable detail in the walls, ceiling and statues, but I couldn’t help notice the simplicity of the worship space with its  wooden pews (no cushions or kneelers) and simple flooring.

 

During Mass an older gentleman, one of the ushers, would casually and inconspicuously walk over to the nativity scene and gently rock the Child Jesus’ cradle. This man emanated such love and devotion to the the Christ Child in this simple act. It made me smile.

Outside after Mass, local vendors were beginning to set up booths selling food and souvies.  Pretty sure we could have stayed all day to poke around the Mission. It was lovely and there was so much history, but other plans for the day beckoned.

We’d been told a visit to Arizona isn’t complete unless a cyclist hits some trails so our Air BnB host, Justin,  led us on a short mountain bike ride through scenic Sweetwater Preserve.  In the late afternoon, the sun was low and gave an even more interesting perspective to the giant saguaros.

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I tried hard to remember what Sally, Liv and Nichole at Sundance Mountain Bike Clinic taught us a few months ago while riding: cover brakes, feet at 9 and 3 o’clock and be fluid and wide on the bike.  Those cacti though, positioned like sentinels along the trail. … with big thorns. I have run into trees before but I definitely didn’t want to run into a saguaro or even a teddy bear cholla. The mountain bike ride through Sweetwater Preserve was just about the best way I can think of to wrap up our short cycling weekend in Tucson. And, gratefully, there were no cacti collisions.

Just before driving back to Phoenix we snuck in one more short three mile hike and met a gentleman on our descent.  He was hiking the west side of the Hugh Norris Trail again, only 20 years later. He said the trail felt a little different now.  Go figure. I completely understand.  How about you?

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We chatted for a while and he claimed to be more of a cyclist than a hiker and had come to Tucson from Colorado with his bike.  And darn if he didn’t share that he’d cycled on every continent. Even Antactica! How cool is that?  You know how ideas for new adventures are born from adventures we are currently on. Maybe this is something to plan for someday. #bucketlist #gettingenormous

But at the end of the weekend, we did get to color in another state on our “Bike the US Map”.  So there’s that.

All we can say to Tucson is, this isn’t goodbye, it’s until next time.

Did you say RUN 100 miles or RIDE a hundred miles?

I said RUN a hundred miles!

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Back in early November 2018, at the Lindsey Hein Run Rise Retreat Meet Up in Portsmouth, NH when Lindsey asked about what might be my next big goal after coming off a self supported cross country bike trip with Tom, I shared I might consider running a 100 mile event some day. Even though I was taking some time off running to nurse a leg ouchie, I put it out there.

In front of everyone.

Using a mic.

And yea, when I wasn’t even running. At all.

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So in January the work began, but slowly.  First I tested the water at the Polar Bear Winter Classic Run (5k/8K), then at the Sam Costa Half Marathon (13.1 miles) and finally after a BQ finish at the Chicagoland Spring Marathon, and with the encouragement of Tom, we signed me up for the Hennepin 100 that would take place the first weekend in October 2019.

We put a training plan in place that would take into consideration time off from running to squeeze in a 444 mile bike trip up the Natchez Trace, a bikepacking trip on the Appalachian Gravel Growler, and a week in Hawaii to celebrate our daughter’s destination wedding on Kauai.

Come to think of it, this year also included a winter adventure to Whitefish, MT, another son’s wedding, welcoming another grandson, a couple of gravel bike races, a weekend at Sundance Mountain Bike Camp and celebrating 60th birthdays for both of us. It’s been a BIG year. Sometimes I don’t think I look back enough because I’m always looking forward.

Is that a good thing?

I think enough’s been said and shared about the Hennepin Hundred already but a friend of ours created a short vid about the event while he interviewed me on the run.  Literally. We were both running when we chatted.

And we started running uphill.  Notice me sucking wind at the beginning of the video.

Honestly the best thing about the video is not what I had to say about running 100 miles, but the way he shot the video using a 360 camera, and interviewed me while running.

Take a look. Chris is a talented, enthusiastic and speedy video storyteller and a speedy runner in his own right.  And in just a week he’s running his first trail ultra at the Tecumseh Trail Challenge. Good luck, Chris!

 

Appalachian Gravel Growler, Asheville to Brevard, 51 Miles | 12 Mile Downhill to the Finish!

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Having had a nice little respite in Asheville and after discussing options for the remaining 60 miles we set out on Saturday prepared to make a game day decision on whether to break up the day into two shorter rides or shoot for the whole 60 miles. It would depend on weather and terrain.

The day started with a scenic bike path along the French Broad River passing the back end of New Belgium Brewing. Because you know. The route IS called the Appalachian Gravel Growler.

About 25 miles in we were feeling good but loaded up with snacks and water still thinking we may break up the 60 mile ride into two days. Since we didn’t bring a water filter and didn’t know if there would be places to resupply if camping I loaded up with a LOT of water.

We cycled farther and farther out of town and in the middle of nowhere the Garmin said the course turned right.

I wish we would have taken a pic for the turn was nothing more than an overgrown footpath. It felt like we were going back into the abyss once again as sure enough there was more very steep uphill hike-a-bike ahead. And now my bike was heavier than it had been all week with water.

Eventually we got to some single track where was one side of the area was pretty wet and rooty but the back side of the trail was a lot of fun. There were lots of mountain bikers and even hikers on the trail and there we were with our big ole loaded gravel bikes.

The sun was out, and soon the mountain bike trail dumped out onto nice gravel when somehow my tire picked up a metal chard and my front tire went flat. Everyone who passed offered help but Tom fixed it quickly and we were back on the road.

About noon we decided to lunch at a horse camp and pulled out two sammies we had stored in our frame bags. That’s when rain started and didn’t let up until the end of our ride. Thunder, lightning, continuous downpours and lots of uphill switchbacks. That was Saturday afternoon. 🤣

We put our heads together and decided to head straight into Brevard instead of going back into the wet sloppy mess and rode 12 miles (all downhill) on a road with smooth pavement, gorgeous waterfalls and reasonable traffic. And it was ALL downhill and of course, still raining. We ended up at The Hub, exactly where our car was parked and in time to get some souvies and celebrate riding the Appalachian Gravel Growler with one last pint.

We experienced a little bit of everything this week with respect to road surface that included the pristine Blue Ridge Parkway, well groomed gravel to rutty forest roads, many variations of single track, ungroomed hiking trails and that doesn’t even include the rocky steep descent down the power line easement. Haha I don’t know how to characterize that part of the course.

Our weather ranged from sunny to stormy on the last day. We bathed in the Catawba River with bandannas while primitive camping and then stayed at the Pine Grove Resort where the white towels were over the top fluffy.

It really was a week of continuums and not knowing exactly what the route or weather was going to throw at us next.

Not sure how Logan Watts created the route but it’s a worthy one. We bailed on a couple of sections due to weather and timing but would consider returning and doing those sections again someday.

In hindsight there are two things we would do differently. Break it down into six days and reduce the daily mileage and definitely bring a GoPro to capture more of the ride.

NC we got to know you a little bit this week and can’t wait to come back and get reacquainted with you soon!

Appalachian Gravel Growler, Marion to Ashville, 38 Miles | Into Asheville!

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After all the hike-a-bike Wednesday, the planned mileage for the day on Thursdays (plus the eight miles we had to make up the day before) and not knowing the trail or gravel road conditions, we decided to reroute our ride into Ashville and cycle on back roads. Hence we shaved 20 miles off our of planned 60 mile day.

We are also considering breaking up the 60 mile ride on the last day into two days. Bite size bits of the Appalachian Gravel Growler with its terrain is a lot easier to swallow than gulping down as much as possible everyday.

Not many pics on Thursday. We just pedaled our little hearts out and arrived at the historic Grove Park Inn in time to enjoy a cold bevvie and three apps on the veranda with a righteous view of the mountains.

Friday we took a zero day to walk into town and do laundry, tour the Biltmore home and gardens and of course, visit some of the craft breweries for which Asheville is well known.

Cheers to Asheville and the Appalachian Gravel Growler!

 

Appalachian Gravel Growler, Collettsville to Marion, 55 miles | Hike-A-Bike (Emphasis on Hike)

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We’ve never really had a day cycling like today. Here’s how it all went down:

We got an early start, taking pics of Betsey’s, cycled a stellar segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopped for second breakfast at Famous Louise’s Rock House enjoying an exemplary $5.95 breakfast including grits and strawberry rhubarb jelly and thought we had the toughest part of the day behind us with a 10 mile climb on gravel roads.

The wheels fell off when we thought the power line easement was going to be about 100 yards of steep, rocky descent. It ended up being about two miles of ratchet, downhill bouldering, and making our way through thick brush. I thought for sure Mr. Snake was going to shake my hand or take a taste of my kankle.

Finally out of the power line hike-a-bike we dumped out onto some nice smooth tarmac and pulled into a C store – with a thunderstorm brewing.

Should have listened to the locals’ directions to the next C store stop. Instead we follow our GPS into the most God awful, remote, wet, soppy single track we’ve ever ridden/hiked.

I’m sure the local MTB association would be ticked at us even being on the trail. We apologize.

Had to hike with loaded bikes about four miles with Uber steep climbs and descents. Believe me there were times I wanted to throw the Cutty over the edge and stomp off. It was hard work for this old gal pushing my loaded bike up steep rocky ascents and trying to control the descents and still it was 20 miles to our planned campsite and well past 7pm. There were a lot of grunts and groans, mosquito swatting and abrasions. #justcrap

Finally we abandoned the proper route and just “googled” our next stop which was Shulford’s gas station.

Apparently there was a campground less than a mile away (says google). Inside, the Shulford’s clerk said it’s not opened. Undaunted, we google it and talk to Portia who says she loves to host bikepackers so bring it on.

There was no potable water at Catawba River Campground but insomuch as bathing, Portia said river baths were the best so we snagged a couple of pizza slices for dinner at Shulfords and made a bee line for the campground about 8:30pm.

Once there we set up the tent, stripped down to unders and took a quick dip into the Catawba River and bathed off. We ate pizza and then climbed into the tent and used our headlamps to ensure tics hadn’t gotten too friendly with us throughout the day.

At that point we decided to rethink our route into Ashville on Thursday given the trail conditions on the Appalachian Gravel Growler Route.

Stay tuned for what we decided.

As challenging as the day was, we are so grateful for:

  • We were never lost.
  • Despite “dropping” the bikes descending the power line easement they remained mechanically sound – no damage to the derailleurs, etc.
  • We had plenty of water.
  • Multiple modes of navigation (handwritten cue sheets, Google, Ride with GPS)
    Praise God for the campsite and Portia!
  • Weather was decent – humid but no storms. And the sun even peeked out!
  • And we finally saw our shadows!

There are so many things that could have gone wrong but despite the tough day we were able to finish albeit eight miles short of our planned destination.

Also there are so many people that are stronger cyclists that wouldn’t have had an issue today. But remember, don’t compare yourself to others, just beat your yesterday and enjoy the journey.

And that, my friends, is exactly what we did.

Appalachian Gravel Growler, Morganton to Collettsville, 42 miles| Finally Off Road!

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Lush forest, stellar views, very little wind and no traffic made for a near perfect day of riding off road on our first day.

This was pretty much a warm up day with just a little over 40 miles but dang… these two Hoosiers aren’t used to these climbs.

Good news is neither of us went over the handlebars, over the edge and we kept the rubber on the right side of the rocks.

Honestly the best part of the day was rolling up to Betsey’s (and yep that is how it’s spelled) Ole Country Market, our planned camping spot tonight and meeting 58 year old Bruce.

He was seated on the covered front porch in an electric wheel chair and gave us a hearty welcome. As owner he said he wanted us to make ourselves at home for the evening or else go home. His hospitality and enthusiasm were over the top.

He didn’t hang around long. From the middle of Pisgah National Forest he drives 45 minutes each way, each day in a modified van to work with a trainer to strengthen the left side of his body. He does squats, push ups, dead lifts and core work. This man is a stud!

So off Bruce went to the gym and we began to unload. Just about that time we heard thunder, felt rain and decided to rent the only cabin on the property, giving us shelter for the night. And that means Tom doesn’t have to haul a wet tent around all day tomorrow.

Soooo a shower, small kitchen to cook in, electricity and a comfy dry bed is ours tonight.

Giving thanks for the little things tonight and in awe of Bruce’s hospitality and mental and physical determination.

 

NoBo on the Natchez Trace, Meriwether Lewis to Garrison Creek, 46 Miles | That’s a Wrap!

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Our northbound bike ride up the Natchez Trace wrapped up today! As we traveled north the number gnats diminished and the rolling hills increased – just the way we like it!

In all, I think we saw only two chuckholes on the Trace (and that’s when you know you’re not in Indiana anymore). Drivers were courteous, giving us plenty of room to ride.

The scenery doesn’t change much as in early June it’s just lush, green forests all along the way. It’s a solid route for reflection and training.

We were surprised we didn’t see more wildlife. It was mostly turkeys and box turtles with a lot of dead snakes, armadillos and froggies. 🤣 Dang who knew Mississippi had so many snakes?

Every place we stopped it’s the people, both the locals and fellow travelers that enrich the journey.

This ride was a training ride for North Carolina coming up in a little over a week. The Appalachian Gravel Growler is half the distance each day but over twice the elevation (sometimes four times the elevation) and it’s mostly off road. So stay tuned to see how that goes.

What a perfect way to spend the week before our 12th wedding anniversary.