Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Ten, RM 121-135: Rapids, Dollhouse, Demon Alcohol

GaryPainterGary Painter (photo:  Jia Carroll)

We left Blacktail Camp at 8:45 am for another big day of rapids. Fossil, Specter, Bedrock, and Deubendorf were just names to me, but I wouldn’t be rowing them. To the ten crew members who weren’t boatmen, big rapids meant waiting in the heat, sometimes for over an hour, while the rowers made up their minds about how they planned to get through.

D10AMCampI got the oars first thing that morning and moved into the swift current, calmly manouvering the raft through small rapids in ways that would have seemed impossible to me a week ago. I went through Forster rapid, which had a rating of five – which means a moderate drop and waves high enough to turn a boat if you aren’t correcting course with the oars, but a line that is straight. In rapids like these, if you enter at the right place, the main thing is point and shoot.

I turned the oars over to Pedro just above Fossil, another 5, and shortly afterward we pulled over at a place Rod knew about that most guidebooks don’t mention. D10SaltSeepIt was a cliff face where salt oozed out of the rock, forming crazily detailed columns and stalactites that were often several feet long. Tania said that it looked like a movie set designed by Tim Burton. Rod explained that the layer of sandstone that contained the salt was formed underwater, so it was immersed in brine. Tectonic forces gradually lifted the rock layer out of the water, and when the river sliced through the rock, the trapped brine started leaking out of the cliff face.

D10Brad&TimSalt seeps were important places to Indians and other early Canyon travelers. When it’s hot, your body also becomes a salt seep as sodium-laced sweat constantly leaks out of your pores. Salt is an electrolyte, and if you don’t replace it you will eventually crash, like a marathon runner who isn’t drinking enough Gatorade. Several “salt mines” in the canyon are important archaeological sites, but this one was so remote that early canyon-dwellers never used it. It was

definitely a D10RockLayersdo-not-touch zone. The salt straws that had broken off were hollow and quite thin, so a casual tap could undo something that took many years to build.

We got back in the boat and Pedro pulled through a stretch of calm water. It was hot and still, and we were bored and punchy. Tania and Pedro and I made up a song.

Our descent into Specter rapid (6) was a wake-up call. Specter starts with a projecting rock that limits your point of entry; the current runs into a wall on river right and bounces off it, creating chaotic wave patterns; and a boat-eating hole in the middle of the river means that it’s important for the boatman to split the difference between the wall and the hole. The drops were hard, the waves were big, and the hole would have definitely taken us for a swim. We all made it through Specter, but we also stopped singing funny songs.

600px-Birds_eye_view_of_Bedrock_RapidA bigger, more complicated challenge was looming a mile downstream. Bedrock rapid (7) is located at a spot where the river bends to the right. It’s complicated because a big fin of schist juts up in the middle of the turn and bisects the channel. The rock is perhaps 150 feet long, and our guidebook advised that we avoid running the rapid on the far side of the rock. It told us to stay close to river right until we cleared the point of rocks and the river started to turn, then row hard to stay on the right side of the big projecting schist fin while not running into it. What would happen if you didn’t make the turn and ended up running it on the left side? Nobody knew, because we couldn’t see past the big rock.

Scouting Bedrock took forever, mostly because of Jim. He was attracted to rapids as an engineer would be to a complicated problem in fluid dynamics. Gazing at the water, he would go through every rock, wave, and eddy in sequence. He would try to add them all up, in hopes of finding an answer. When information was missing (as at was at Bedrock), he would consider every possibility and vigorously debate anyone else’s opinion if he could come up with a plausible alternative. The result was like a field seminar that Rod moderated as Jim, Pete, and (sometimes) Pedro went around and around — while those of us who weren’t enrolled in the seminar D10NanTaniaCutesweated and waited.

Not all the boatmen required that much time. Tim McGinnis wouldn’t say much. He might ask a question or two, and then he would listen and wait with the rest of us. Gary Painter was also a quick decider. He described his rapids philosophy as, “let it come and let it go.” This was Gary’s fourth time down the Colorado. He was definitely interested in getting out and taking a look before going through a big drop, and he would do what he could do, but he also knew that the river determines most of what happens in there.

“I had a lot of faith in our rafts,” said Gary. “They were so stable and heavy.” Gary’s previous Colorado River runs had been in his own raft, which has catamaran-style tubes and is much lighter and smaller. “It’s more fun,” he says. “It’s bouncier. It’s like driving a sports car. The rafts we were using were more like minivans.”

Gary and Jia were the delegation from Steamboat Springs, and they usually traveled in the same boat.  It looked to me like they were having a lot of fun, even though it was their job to carry the ammo cans after we had filled them with our poop — and by day ten, this amounted to about 200 pounds of smelly cargo. Jia reported that the sealed cans didn’t smell — much.  But she kept smiling and having a good time.  Nothing ever kept her from smiling.

Gary is in his late 60s and retired from a career in fine carpentry. He exudes a laid-back coolness, and the younger crew (Jia, Tim, Lukas, and Baer) were drawn to him. He had a deep, horsey laugh and his mouth was usually set in a smile. I joked that Gary had some special quality, like a rock star, and one afternoon I suggested that he was the lead singer of a band I called the Anal Vectors (see day two for an explanation of this term). He dug that. He grabbed a paddle and struck a pose like James Brown at the microphone, while Jia and Tim posed like back-up singers.

D10Dollhouse1The long wait at Bedrock gave us a lot of time to explore another strange rock formation called the Dollhouse. This was a cluster of pink pegmatite perhaps twenty feet tall and fifty feet in circumference, with pinkish-white crystals that looked like fat marbling a hunk of raw beef.   Eons of high water had eroded circular chambers in it and made holes big enough to walk through. It was a naturally occurring three-room house. I found a shady nook near the entrance Tracey and crouched there, listening to the silence. When the scouting party finally returned, they had to pass through a rock gateway one by one. As they did, I took their pictures.

We all got through Bedrock rapid without incident. We aimed for the near side and rowed like hell to keep from getting pushed up against the fin, just as the book advised, and it worked. Pedro gave me the oars when we got back to calm Baerwater and I rowed a mile to Deubendorf rapid (7), where we had lunch and endured another long scout. Pedro then took the oars back and it was a good thing he did, because this one was especially rough.

Low water meant that the only way through Deubendorf was on the left side, which featured several big holes, and we had no choice but to go through them. The drops were hard enough to lift us off of our seats, and the waves were destabilizing enough to tip the raft twenty or thirty degrees. When things tip more than forty-five degrees, you often swim. Deubendorf was the first time I saw Pedro get rattled. After it was over, we were all shot through with adrenaline, as if we had gotten through a close call in heavy traffic.

We pulled in at Above Owl Eyes Camp around 3:30 pm. It was a large, flat, exposed beach with no shade to speak of, and the sun was unbearable. The Kirchner brothers, who have four engineering degrees between them, took a tarp and paddles and rigged up D10Tarpa sun shelter. The design was not simple and the erection was not without controversy. As the minutes ticked by, the non-laborers drank beers and became a fine peanut gallery. When the tarp was finally raised, everyone cheered. Then Jia broke out a set of bocci balls, and most of the crew went to a level sandy spot to play and drink some more.

The afternoon slipped away. Christie had injured her knee in D10TarpWitnessesDeubendorf, so she iced it down and took a nap. The scouting, the heat, and the tarp proved too much for Jim and Pete, who got into an argument and then retreated to separate corners. Around 5:30, I noticed that no one had started dinner. So I asked Jai, Tim, Nan, Gary, and Tania to step into the breach and they performed brilliantly, producing paella and a green salad. With Tracey’s help, Tim even made cornbread in the Dutch oven.

It was my favorite meal of the trip, but by the time Jia, Tim, and Baer put away the dishes, it was pitch dark outside. There’s a good reason why ship captains keep the alcohol under lock and key until all the chores are done.

Quotes of the day:

Peter: “Vacation? This is more like a death march with appetizers.”

Jai: “We’re all full of poop, so we’re out of that loop.”

Nan: “He organizes, I scatter.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Eleven, RM 135-148: Deer Creek, Muav Gorge, Matkatamiba

throne room on the trail to dutton springs Day11SleepBeachEvery morning, about an hour before there was enough light to get up, something would wake me – maybe an early-rising bird, a breeze, or the first glow of dawn – and I would not know where I was. I was just ears and eyes. I would hear running water and see stars in a deep desert sky, and a half-second later it would register that I was lying next to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Those were delicious moments. It was blessedly cool, and so quiet. I would sink back into a light sleep, and the rocks and the river would mix into my dreams.

We pushed off around 8:30am. Pete and Rod told us that we would not face any serious rapids today, which was good, because several of us had over-indulged the night before and were not feeling particularly sharp. It was another case of meekness conferring advantage. After a day on the river, two drinks would make Tania and I so sleepy that we started counting the minutes before we could crawl off to bed. When it came to pleasure-seeking, we usually chose falling asleep.

Day11OwlEyesOur camp was named for a rock formation called Owl Eyes, and there they were — two caves high in the cliff face on river left. We cruised past them and entered the Granite Narrows, where at one point the river is only 76 feet from one side to the other, and more than 100 feet deep. Although the surface of the water is smooth, the currents here are strong and unpredictable. One raft would spin into an eddy while another, perhaps just a few feet away, would catch the current and sail right through. The better the person at the oars read the river, the less work they did. But nobody got it right every time.

D11MonsoonAftCloudsWe pulled over just two miles downstream to go on our longest hike of the trip, up Deer Creek Canyon. As the sun crept down the cliff face, it became clear that we had caught a break. The sky was covered with mackerel clouds. Rod said that we could be witnessing the start of the “monsoon season” in Arizona, when summer heat draws in moisture from the Gulf of California and releases it as thunderstorms. We had been away from the media for 11 days, so we had no idea what kind of weather was in store. But the clouds cut the sun and dropped the temperature a few welcome degrees.

D11DeerCreekFallsBradDeer Creek ends in a 200-foot sheer waterfall that is visible from the river. At high water it drops directly into the river, but today there was an ample beach. We walked downstream and then clambered ant-like up the cliff face, rapidly adding elevation so the view expanded with every switchback, until we topped the layer of sandstone that contains the falls. The creek had eroded through this sandstone until it hit a much harder layer of schist and

stopped, which explained the the hike into the canyon200-foot drop at river’s edge. At the top of the sandstone, perhaps 500 feet above the river, we tiptoed past a vertigo-inducing cliff, then followed Deer Creek along the top of a slot canyon that was about ten feet across and hundreds of feet deep. The trail was so narrow and close to the edge of this trench that Mel turned back, and I could understand why.

The rest of us kept going because it looked like something D11AboveDeerCreekgood might happen at the top of the slot canyon. And it did. When the water reached the top of the sandstone layer, it widened into a broad, flat expanse Peter called “The Patio.” Watercress grew at the edge of the stream and there were pools to lounge in, but unfortunately, a commercial tour was already lounging. So we kept moving upstream. Our destination was the source of the perennial Deer Creek — a spring in the western cliff face, about two miles away.

D11SlotCanyon2The Deer Creek basin is a full-blown oasis. A quarter-mile away from the water is too arid to grow anything but cactus and mesquite. But when you add water, the desert plants crowd in, insects buzz, animal signs are abundant, and there is enough shade and cool humidity to make a summer midday feel almost pleasant. Desert creeks are restful, secret places. Thousands of of hikers probably pass through Deer Creek every year, but it looked to me that the flora and fauna D11Rusheshere were thriving.

Just below the spring was another, smaller waterfall that had a small room behind it and a plunge pool below big enough to stand in. The main attraction here was the Throne Room, a rockfall where playful hikers had arranged sandstone slabs to make tables and chairs Rod said that the National Parks rangers initially dismantled the thrones whenever they found D11ButlerSppringsFallsthem, but that they gave up after a while. So we sat together, enjoyed the view (see photo at top), and posed for regal portraits.

The hike made me eager to return as a backpacker. A multi-day walking trip in Grand Canyon would require an unusual amount of care and planning – mainly because of the lack of water, but also because of heat, and because

getting D11RockFernslost can send you over a cliff. You need to block out your itinerary in advance, and on the most popular routes you need to stick to it or face the wrath of a ranger. But even so, it sounds like a lot less planning and scheduling than a private raft trip. As we started back down to the rafts, I fought off the urge to turn around and keep going. The urge to see what’s next.  It’s what Merle Haggard calls “white line fever, a sickness that’s down deep within my soul.”

We returned to the rafts at 12:30 pm and rowed hard for the next stop, Matkatamiba Canyon. It was eleven miles downstream and, according to Pete, a can’t-miss stop. Pedro let me take the oars, and about three miles downriver the rocks changed – we left the Middle Granite gorge and went into the Muav Gorge, where the dominant layers are redwall limestone (back for an encore appearance) and whitish dolomites. The river channel continued narrow and swift-flowing, so the miles went by quickly. Tania and I entertained ourselves by making up names for what we were seeing – I wrote down the best ones she came up with, such as “melty camel face ice cream rock” – while Pedro dozed in the back of the raft. When the conversation lapsed, I entertained myself by looking ahead and trying to figure out where the current was. I was right most of the time. When I was wrong, the penalty was a few hard strokes on the oars.

Two hours after Deer Creek we passed Kanab Creek, a large drainage on river right that was an important point of entry and exit in the days before the park. This is where John Wesley Powell ended his second, more successful trip through Grand Canyon. The first time, his party endured several capsized boats and lost much of their food and surveying equipment. The second time, he managed to make photographs and survey the river. At Kanab Canyon, they left their boats, packed the most essential equipment and enough supplies for a 100-mile march, and walked back to their base at Kanab, Utah.

Kanab Creek is prone to flash floods, and over the years the debris from those floods has created one of the longest rapids in Grand Canyon. It is an eighteen-foot drop that unfolds steadily over several hundred yards of white water, with no serious holes or chutes to get in the way of the fun.

D11MatKatAnother hour and we pulled into Matkatamiba, a side canyon on river left that offered less water, but also less climbing. I asked my fellow travelers what the word meant, and no one knew. So when I was writing this post I asked the internet, and received more confirmation that river guides are entertaining but unreliable sources.

“One tale that circulated for years was that ‘Matkatamiba’ was the Havasupai word for ‘girl with a face like a bat,’” writes Don Lago on the website of Grand Canyon River Guides. One day a guide repeated this folklore to a Havasupai Indian, who was quite amazed by this news, and disclosed that ‘Matkatamiba’ was a Havasupai family name. An inquest into the origin of this lore turned up a guide who confessed he had simply invented it. In the meantime, Paul Simon had gone down the river, heard this lore, and put a line about a bat-faced girl into a hit song. At least, this is the version of events I heard; maybe you heard another.”

Mat-Kat was indeed beautiful, broad and flat-bottomed and scoured by periodic flash floods. But I think Pete, Christie, Jim, and Mel wanted to come back here because their expedition had faced a crisis here three years ago. Their trip leader had slipped on the rock and gone down hard on his ankle, breaking it and instantly throwing the rest of the journey into question. He had been injured above the section of trail in the photograph above, which requires clambering up a shale slope and wouldn’t be at all advisable with a broken ankle. To get him down, the Kirchners rigged a “pick-off rescue” that, to me, seemed impossibly complicated.

Things can go wrong in a hurry down here, and when they do, you want to be with people who know how to recover. The Kirchners got their trip leader back into his raft and floated him to a beach big enough for a helicopter to land on the next morning. They gave him a splint and painkillers to get him through the night, and the next morning, after the chopper lifted off, they talked the other expedition members back into their rafts and prepared to run more rapids. I was lucky to be here with these people.

D11MatKatHotelWe stopped for the night at “Mat Kat Hotel,” an exceptionally beautiful camp at the rapids just below Matkatamiba Canyon, with enough time after setting up the kitchen to enjoy the afternoon light from the luxury of full shade. Dinner was beef stroganoff, jicama salad, and Black Forest cake from the Dutch oven. It was a great, full, fun day.

Quotes of the day:

Brad:  “I think it depends on the size of the hole.”

Christy:  “Books are like hairballs.  If you have one in you, you just have to cough it up.”

Portraits from the Throne Room:


Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Twelve, RM 149-167: Upset, Havasu, National Canyon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe talk at breakfast dwelled upon a guest who was waiting for us one mile downstream. “Mile 150.2: Upset Rapid (8 of 10 difficulty rating) has a wide hole at the bottom of the rapid,” read our guidebook. “There is a dry but tight right hand run, a fast and wet left hand run along the wall, and a down the middle through-the-hole run that is not recommended.”

The guidebook omits a crucial detail. A big, sharp rock sticks out of the water just below and left of the hole. When the water level is low, the only viable way through is to go between the hole and the rock. As the water gets lower, this route gets narrower. And the water was very low on Friday, June 27.

Whatever Shorty Burton did at Upset, it wasn’t recommended. He was piloting a commercial motor rig in June 1967, and his raft got hung up on the rock and flipped. All the tourists escaped, but Shorty’s life jacket got caught in the raft’s rigging and pinned him underwater. You can read all about it on a memorial plaque his mourners made out of a pie pan and fastened to a rock at the base of the falls. Thousands and thousands of people have successfully navigated Upset since Shorty died there, but he’s the one we all think about.

John McPhee ran this rapid two years after Shorty did. “The drop-off is so precipitous where Upset begins that all we can see of it, from two hundred yards upstream, is what appears to be an agglomeration of snapping jaws; the leaping peaks of white water,” he wrote in Encounters with the Archdruid (1971). “We all got off the raft and walked to the edge of the rapid. What we saw there tended to erase the thought that men in shirtsleeves were controlling the Colorado inside a dam that was a hundred and sixty-five river miles away. They were there, and this rapid was here, thundering.

“The problem was elemental. On the near right was an enormous hole, fifteen feet deep and many yards wide, into which poured a scaled-down Canadian Niagara –tons upon tons of water per second. On the far left, just beyond the hole, a very large boulder was fixed in the white torrent. High water would clearly fill up the hole and reduce the boulder, but that was not the situation today . . .”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe launched shortly before 9am and were soon beached above the rapid, looking at some version of the scary mess described above. We were nearly at the end of the big rapids; we had to get through this one, and Lava Falls tomorrow, so we had just two more chances to get our own pie pans. The oarsmen looked at Upset for a long time. While they were looking, a big blue commercial raft went through it without a mishap. Still, it wasn’t pretty.

After the better part of an hour of hemming and hawing, we finally launched. McPhee continues: “Upset Rapid drew us in. With a deep shudder, we dropped into a percentage of the hole, and the raft folded almost in two. The bow and the stern became the high points of a deep V. Water smashed down on us. And down it smashed again, all in that other world of slow and disparate motion. It was not speed but weight that we were experiencing: the great, almost imponderable, weight of water, enough to crush a thousand people, but not hurting us at all because we were part of it — part of the weight, the raft, the river. Then, surfacing over the far edge of the hole, we bobbed past the incisor rock and through the foaming outwash.”

That’s a fair description of what it felt like. An inflatable, self-bailing raft flexes when stressed. If a wave crashes over it, the water pours out the bottom. It turns out that the best way to manage the risk of throwing yourself through one of these huge hydraulic nightmares is to compromise with it. We all got through Upset fine – wet and shot through with adrenaline, but fine.

As we pulled away, I saw something black floating up ahead. I tried to snag it with a canoe paddle, but it sank before I could get to it. I did see that it was someone’s bra from the commercial raft. It headed into the depths to be discovered again, but who knows where or when.

D12FlotillaThe rest of the day was quiet. It was late morning when we finished the rapid and we had to make 16 more miles, so we rowed hard and steady. The Muav Gorge Limestone was gray near the waterline, where floods scoured it, and red farther up, where nothing stopped the oxides from making a stain.

We passed Mount Sinyella on river left, on the reservation of the Havasupai Indian Nation. Sinyella is a sandstone pinnacle P1010400that sticks up 1,200 feet above the Matkatamiba Mesa. The Supai legends say that it is the center of the universe. We didn’t get the best view of the mountain from the river, but photos taken from the mesa make it easier to understand why they would reach that conclusion. It dominates everything.

D12HavasauCanyonHavasau Canyon is one of the A-list tourist attractions in Grand Canyon, but Pete and Rod advised us to skip it. In the middle of the day, it was likely to be crowded by commercial rafters. It was an eight-mile hike from the river to the biggest waterfall, and in the lower parts of the canyon, flooding had destroyed many of the travertine dams and large vegetation that had given the place its famous otherworldly character. Also, Rod informed us, residents of the village of Supai pour their treated sewage into the creek – which might or might not be a problem, depending on how well their sewage plant was working that day.

I made another mental note to come back. Those notes were piling up.

Ithaca lets it hang out.We pulled over for lunch on river left, in a sandy alcove just big enough to throw the boats into shade. The group sat on the sand and ate and chatted happily. Feeling crowded, I picked my way a few yards downstream to another sandbank and looked out, thinking about nothing really. Then a hummingbird came up to check out my bright red shirt. She hovered two feet away from me, did a slow 360-degree scan of my torso and, finding no nectar, buzzed away.

Pedro gave me the oars after lunch and I slogged along, rowing steadily in the heat. The water was flat except for two small rapids, so we had lots of time to look out and see what had changed. The plants were different: for the first time, I saw spiny Ocotillo and the always-forlorn looking creosote bush, a sure sign that we were moving deeper into low desert. Today we also saw the first sign of basalt, a black volcanic rock deposited as lava flows. As the afternoon wore on, we saw more and more of it.

We pulled into National Canyon around 3pm. Our campsite was a massive debris fan at the base of the canyon. The afternoon wind was strong enough to kick up lots of sand, and it took us a while to find a place to camp on this big, flat beach because the high-water mark was a fair distance away from the shore. The river rises and falls as the operators of Glen Canyon Dam release more or less water for the electrical turbines; but Glen Canyon is 175 miles upstream from National, so a big water release at 9am on Monday might reach this spot 36 hours later and, of course, no one had any way to predict how big the surge will be, except to inspect all the wet spots.

D12NationalCampsiteWe ended up lugging the camp about 30 yards up from the shore, then re-tying the rafts in a cove of deeper water downstream so they wouldn’t be stranded if the water rose and fell. It was a lot of work, and it was very hot, and I tried to be a good soldier and do as I was told – but by the time the work was done, I badly needed a break.


National Canyon is spectacular, in a blasted-out kind of way. D12NatlCanyonA huge flash flood tore through here in July 2012, ripping out all the trees and scouring the cliff walls, and the debris layer at the mouth of the canyon might be 15 feet thick. Tania and I stumbled up it until we found some shade, then tried to disappear into the rocks. We hadn’t had much time alone together in the last few weeks, and we were both homesick, although the relentless jaw-dropping picture show usually crowded out most thoughts of domestic comforts. It was OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgood to rest together for a few minutes in the quiet.

I learned later that more energetic hikers (such as Lukas, in the top photo) continued up the canyon until they found running water and pools big enough to bathe in. The photos of Lukas, and of the algae at left, were taken by Jim Kirchner.  Tania and I chose to go back to camp and bathe in the river – the water was still bracing, but also several degrees warmer than it had been at the beginning of the trip. Then it was time to help Chuck D12NatlCampsitepurify another day’s worth of water. We made 15 gallons today, compared with 20 yesterday. By the time we were done, shade from the cliffs on river right had covered the beach, and it was a lot easier to move around.

The younger folks (Jai, Tim, Lukas, Baer, and Pedro) broke out the bocci balls and had a long session on the beach as the light faded. I attacked my notebook, and the others sat D12Bocciaround eating kippers and drinking while Rod slowly made delicious lasagna in the Dutch ovens. Everyone was thinking about tomorrow, when we had to run Lava Falls.

Quote of the Day

Tania: “Brad, are these your legs?”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Thirteen, RM 167-192: Basalt-A-Palooza, Lava Falls, Fat City

We broke camp like a well-tuned sixteen-cog machine. I paused for a moment to watch everyone moving together, doing a complex job smoothly and quickly. The expedition had been together for almost two weeks. We had just three more mornings to go. An aphorism came to mind: when we work together, we are more than the sum of our parts. It doesn’t D13Flotillamean much when you read that on a poster, but it is impressive when you see it happening.

We were off by 8:20 am, with 13 miles of quiet water separating us from Lava Falls. With a swift current and no headwind, the miles went by quickly. We passed Gateway and Mohawk Canyons, which sit across from each other and were begging to be explored, but not this time. We would go D13Mohawk CanyonPinnacle25 miles today. We were like tired horses that sprint when they get close to the barn.

Pedro pulled so far ahead of the other rafts that we could no longer see them. He intentionally left the current and went into an eddy, where we spiraled around for a few minutes while the others caught up. I made a short movie of the “eddy line,” the area of turbulence where the main current of the river ends and the slower, upstream flow begins:

It was a hypnotic view. Most of what I know about subatomic physics comes from Marvel Comics, but I have heard of wave-particle duality, the theory that every elementary particle exhibits the properties of not only particles, but also of waves. Maybe this is why looking at waves is such an effective way to relax. Our little human brains are getting in sync with a fundamental mystery of the universe.

I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no. No one brought any marijuana on this trip.

D13PedroPedro started rowing again; we turned a corner, and the canyon widened dramatically. We floated past a huge rockfall on river right known as “The Red Slide,” where a cliff of Supai sandstone slumped onto a beach (click here to see it in 3-D!). Shortly afterward, our world changed again when the Uinkaret volcanic field appeared. Suddenly the rocks at river level changed to basalt – they were black and jagged like congealed floor adhesive, looking as hot and nasty as a rusty D13Basalt1old iron skillet. Barrel cactuses were growing in the black cliffs, despite the apparent absence of any soil, and I wondered how long their tap roots had to be.

The geologic story of this part of the canyon would make a great sequence in a Hollywood superhero movie. Beginning about 750,000 years ago, when the Grand Canyon already existed in something like its present form, a series of lava D13Basalt2flows along the Toroweap fault oozed into the canyon. The cooled lava formed dams that backed the river up for hundreds of miles. When the river overtopped that barrier, it cut through the porous volcanic rock relatively quickly and made the channel we were passing through. In geologic terms, the basalt cliffs we were seeing were babies.

Just think of the steam, noise, and general mayhem that D13Basalt3must have ensued when, as John Wesley Powell wrote, “a river of molten rock ran down into a river of melted snow.” Basalt cools into columnar and crystalline shapes, and the faster it cools, the bigger the shpes. We floated through fantastic, almost floral patterns in the cliffs. It was an unbelievable rock show.

Around noon we came upon a column of basalt in the middle D13VulcansAnvilof the river. This was an important landmark called Vulcan’s Anvil, which (I am told) is the neck of one of those basalt flows. Because it is slightly harder than the surrounding rock, this rock column is eroding slower.

The rock wasn’t always named after Vulcan: early prospectors called it “niggerhead.” Racism in 19th-century place names wasn’t unusual.

Racist ideas are buried D13TimChuckdeeply in our language. A century ago lots of things in America were named “niggerhead,” including a common species of cactus that looks a lot like this rock.

Vulcan’s Anvil is one-and-a-half miles upstream from Lava Falls, the roughest, most famous rapid in the Grand Canyon. As we approached it, the water pooled and became unusually quiet, making it possible to discern a low roar in the distance. The moment had arrived.

Several months before we set out on this trip, Tania and I had lunch with Pete and Christie. We didn’t know what we were getting into. They kept talking about Lava Falls. They said it was The Big One, the one to watch out for, the one to worry about. Our experience with whitewater was limited and mostly on Eastern rivers, where the rapids are usually gentler and shorter. So we stayed up nights thinking about the Colorado rapids and watched YouTube videos of Lava Falls and had lots of anxious, inconclusive conversations about what was going to happen and how we should prepare for it.

Our worry and anticipation was kind of silly, given the number of people who go through this rapid safely every year, but there you go – fear can make you act silly. Now it was time to face it. We started, of course, with the mother of all scouts. It took ninety minutes for us to scout Lava Falls, which is ranked 9 on a scale of 10, and Lower Lava, just downstream, which is ranked 4. It took another fifteen minutes for the six rafts to run the rapids safely, and a half hour more to regroup in an eddy just below.

Luckily for those of us not rowing, Lava Falls is a beautiful, fascinating place to sit and look around. Prospect Canyon, the source of the boulders that created the rapid, is a visual tour of volcanic landforms. A spring bursts out of the basalt on river left; in this low water, it emerged right above the river, like an outfall from a storm sewer, except you could (probably) drink it. We even watched two other parties navigate the rapids safely. I stood on a rock and made a movie of this raft going through:

At the bottom of the big rapid, just after Pedro had once again flawlessly led us through the madness, I made a short movie of Tim McGinnis bombing through the base of the falls (see top of this post). We all turned downriver and ran Lower Lava, which seemed like a koi pond now, and then pulled over on river left for the traditional post-Lava celebration.  A lot of high-fiving, smiling, and exclaiming.  We might have passed a bottle around.  And then, a nice surprise. Bridget Tincher and Susan Sharp — the women in the video above — pulled over to join us briefly and trade e-mail addresses.

I’m not going to try to describe what it felt like to run Lava Falls, except to say that I did not find it the scariest or roughest ride of the trip. It felt like being inside of a washing machine for 15 seconds. Rod, who has been down the river nine or ten times, said that we hit it on a relatively quiet day. And looking at videos of other runs, I’d say he was right.

D13SteamboatersWe started rowing again around 1pm and headed back into basalt-a-palooza. Pedro was still rowing, but he was also chanting and laughing at silly jokes; we were all intensely relieved, and before long we started getting punchy.  This was when Jai stepped up.  She became the chief instigator for water fights that spread from raft to raft.  Pedro generally stuck to splashing with oars, but at times our raft was provoked enough to use a white plastic bucket.  As usual, though, Rod had the right equipment close at hand.  He busted out a large syringe-style water gun, easy to build and quite effective at distances of 25 feet or less, and blasted away at us.  It was so hot that we begged for it.

We passed the Whitmore Helipad, where about 11,000 commercial rafters get picked up or dropped off every year. I’m glad I wasn’t doing it that way. Imagine that you have been on the river for a week or more. You run Lava Falls, and an hour later you get on a helicopter. A few minutes after that, you land at a private airport. A few minutes after that, you get into a small plane. A few minutes after that, you are dropped off at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Sometimes rafters get on their commercial flight home without even taking a shower. Tim did that the last time he was in the canyon, as an 11-year-old boy.

I think taking a chopper out of the canyon would be like skipping the last act of a play, and leaving just after the dramatic climax. If you packed this experience it into a shorter amount of time, I don’t think it would sink in as deep.

D13GlyphsWe pulled over on river right to see the Whitmore Canyon petroglyphs, which Rod said were relatively recent except for a few older, cruder figures scratched into the rock. It felt good to walk. Then Pedro gave me the oars for the last three miles. By 4pm we were in camp.

We had just 26 river miles left in the trip, no rapids ranked above six, and two full days left to do it. Our camp was also OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin full shade when we pulled into it. No wonder it was called Fat City. We continued to celebrate, and the Dinner Dream Team (Mel assisted by Jai and Tim, with Baer leading the dish crew) put together some delicious chicken and sausage gumbo. It’s amazing how good canned meat can taste after a long day outdoors and a couple of beers.

Quote of the Day

Nan: “I need some of that Hoofmaker [lotion]. Or I guess I could just cut off my hands after I get home.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Fourteen (RM 192-207): 205 Rapid, Sheep, Dress-Up Night

D14GroupshotD14MorningCotSiteIf you’re sleeping outside in the Mojave Desert in the summer, you should go to bed as soon as it’s dark and cool enough to relax. Chances are good that you’ll be up again by 7am, whether you like it or not. The dawn light is so clear that the sky wakes you even when you’re still in darkness. If you’re smart, and you have to move around outdoors at all that day, you will get up and get moving. If you’re tired, and you roll over and go back to sleep, and the sounds and smells of breakfast don’t wake you, the heat will drive you out of your cot as soon as the sun hits it. This happens at different times at different days, but today it got hot early, and then it got hotter.

D14LoadOutWe loaded out looking upriver. We were at one of several spots where the Hurricane Fault crosses the river – our camp was on river right, the west side, where the rocks had slumped over 1,000 feet, exposing older rocks on river left. It was easy to see the fault line in some places, but in others, to an untrained eye, it looked like a jumbled mess. Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite would show up in spots, like stars returning for their curtain calls. But today mostly what we saw was Bright Angel Shale and younger rocks. We were out of the inner canyon. The walls were getting lower, and the river was getting wider. There were also spectacular D14LavaBurgerbasalt flows scattered about, but the going was noticeably slower today, with more hard rowing for the oarsmen and more messing around for the passengers.

Tania and I jumped ship today. We split up in the morning and I rode in Pete’s boat, to give Pedro a break. Tania went with Tim. As we floated away from camp, Jai spoke up from Gary’s boat and asked a question to the group: “If you could have brought one extra thing, what would it be?”

–Tim: A different brand of skin lotion.

–Jai: River beads for everyone (one of Jai’s friends had given her a bead necklace for her trip down the river, and she loved to move her fingers up and down the beads like a rosary).

–Tania: A hand-cranked blender (for drinks), OR Starbucks Doubleshots.

–Brad: A small, collapsible tripod stool, OR more polypropylene t-shirts (they wick better than cotton).

D14LukasMel–Gary: Something to kill the pain.

–Pete: Antifungal medicine (several of us were getting spots on our hands and toes, a mysterious kind of fungus that wasn’t painful and cleared up as soon as we got off the river; according to Christie, the spots are unique to western rivers, and no one knows what they are or how to prevent them).

–Christie: John Burlow, a paramedic friend of ours who was invited but couldn’t make it, OR a rubber rattlesnake.

–Pete: More carabiners.

–Chuck: Another case of beer. A second Jai.

D14WormCnynCongolmerateAfter a couple of hours on the river – maybe at 11am, just when the thing Pete called “the incinerator” was at its hottest – we pulled over to Parashant Canyon and went on a short hike, over cobbles and through blasted stones, to a spot called the Book of Worms. The book is a block of Bright Angel Shale that has fallen from the side of the canyon wall, exposing worm burrows that are 550 million years old. Tania and I wanted to see it because we are both fascinated by D14WormRockfossils of all types. There had not been many fossils on this trip – the rocks in Grand Canyon are mostly older than the “Cambran Explosion” of 542 million years ago, when multicellular life forms of all types appeared and began to evolve. The worms showed up for the party a few million years early.

The worm burrows were interesting enough, but it was way D14Tim&Rodtoo hot to go any further, so we stumbled back to the boats. Tim and Rod, the smart ones, had stayed behind and were smiling under Rod’s big beach umbrella.

That’s another thing I would bring. A big beach umbrella.

As long as you’re no more than a foot or two away from the cold waters of the Colorado, it doesn’t really matter how hot the air temperature is. We spent several pleasant hours watching the rocks while Pete Kirchner rowed for Christie and I. Pete was mostly silent but always alert, and at one point I asked him why he thought the current in the river was marked by bubbles. “I think it’s because they are lighter,” he said. “Flotsam, oil, detergent, and air should collect at the points where flows converge, because the churning will drive lighter material to the surface. That’s why you should follow the confused water.”

It was hot enough to make me dopey enough to think that “follow the confused water” was a really deep turn of phrase, kind of like a Grateful Dead lyric. Looking back on it, in a much cooler room, it still holds up pretty well as a teaching tool. That Pete has an interesting brain.

At some point we ate lunch, I don’t remember where, and around 2pm we came upon the only big rapid of the day. Mile 205 Rapid, also known as Kolb, is rated 6 out of 10 and was looking perky today. Pete was in the lead boat and he wanted to scout it. I didn’t look forward to another half-hour waiting, and there wasn’t a convenient place to beach the boats, so I persuaded him to pull onto the shore and let me out – I would run ahead and look things over while the rest of the crew caught up, and then signal whether or not they should all stop to look.

As expected, there wasn’t any reason to stop. There was a moderately big pour-over and hole at the top of the rapid on river left, and some rocks sticking up on river right, but the channel down the middle was clear and the waves at the bottom, while big enough to get you good and wet, weren’t going to flip a 1,000-pound boat. I tried to communicate all of this to Pete and the other rafts through shouting and hand gestures, and they believed me well enough to go on in. This gave me a chance to stand on a rock on river left and make a movie of all six rafts going through. Apologies for the shaky camera. Watch for Rod losing his oar at 0:57 after he goes sideways into the hole, and for Tania waving to me at 1:57:

I ran down to rejoin the boats, which had beached on river left just below the rapid. We hiked up Mile 205 Canyon for about a half-hour – the reason, Rod told us, was to look for Hurricane Fault, but it was too hot to look very hard. Mostly we went from one pool of shade to the next and tried to make jokes.

After the hike I got into Tim’s boat with Tania. D14TaniaBelow205She had beckoned to me, and I was powerless to resist. Also, Tim didn’t want to row any more that day, so I got in one mile, at least, before the end of this light day. Tim has an interesting brain, too. Earlier, he had asked me this question: “Would you rather have a third nipple that roamed freely all over your body, or a movie-grade spotlight that projected outward from your groin at all times?”

D14CampsiteThat’s easy, I thought at first. I’ll take the nipple. But then I thought, how handy would it be to have a bright light shining in front of you at all times? But then I thought, when could you actually uncover that light, and how hot would it be when you had to cover it up? Yes, I concluded, I’ll stick with the roaming nipple. Thanks, Tim. You’ve given us all something to think about.

D14SwimmersIn a few minutes the rafts pulled in at Indian Gardens Camp. It was 3:30 pm. Directly in front of our small beach was a 20-foot stone wall that threw enough shade for all the camp chairs , if you set them up in a line facing river left. So there we sat (see photo at top), drinking beer and yukking it up and jumping in the water to cool off and telling stories. We drank enough that I don’t remember most of the stories, and I can’t tell you the ones I do remember.  This is a family show.

D14GoatShowOne of the nicest things about the afternoon, as shadows extended outward from the cliff toward the water, was a family of sheep that came down to the river to drink directly across from us. They knew we were there but did not seem bothered in the least, and they spent at least a half-hour grazing and daintily picking their way down to the shore to drink, then leaping back up to small patches of grass to eat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMel and Tania directed a kitchen crew that made green chile chili, salad, and blueberry cake from the Dutch oven. And it was “dress up night” – we had been told via e-mail, months in advance, that we should pack costumes to wear at some point, and tonight was it. Christie took top honors with an elaborate improvised “lizard queen” costume, topped by some amazing glasses she had found in Flagstaff. Rod and Tracey got in touch with their inner pirates. Tania and I put on OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtie-dye t-shirts with the awful, menacing face of a kitty cat on them — gag gifts from our dear friend Donna, to be worn never before or again.

Nan put on a fright wig and a stick-on mustache. I have a photo of that, but I won’t post it out of consideration for her dignity. And I think I would give a special style award to Gary in his sarong and Jai in her 1980s disco dress. As TIm Gunn D14Rod&Traceywould say, they made it work.

It was a long, boozy evening, and it was surprising how quickly we all got used to the ridiculous things we were wearing. At one point near the end, Rod got serious and read us this poem by Amil Quayle, which Quayle wrote during his years as a river guide:

Go There

Anything you have read about the Grand Canyon is a lie

Language falters and dies before the fact

The experience is inexpressible in words

The Grand Canyon is its own language

Written across space, causality and time

See how puny these words are

Do not believe them

Go there

Time was running out. We had just two more nights and two more mornings. So we went away from the chairs to a natural stone patio a few feet away, where we laid out our cots and looked up at the sky and the river and marveled until everything went dark. Go there, indeed.

Quotes of the Day:

Peter: “You have to straddle the zone of confusion.”

Rod: “Jesus died for my sins. And since he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Fifteen, RM 207-221: Miner Style, Poison Pumpkin, 3 Springs

Pumpkin Springs

By Christie Kroll

D15CampUpstreamThe canyon is opening up.   We have floated past a number of geologic faults where there has been a great upwelling and subsiding that has caused an infinite number of fractures. Along the cracks the rock has eroded to gravel and that gravel fills side canyons that have worn down with debris in great angles of repose. The sheer walls of Marble Canyon and the barren fortress of the Inner Gorge have been replaced by curious pointy peaks with stair step edges. Side canyons are wider, flatter. Behind Indian Canyon camp is a short scramble up the limestone wall at river edge to the canyon.

D15MinerBottlesIndian Canyon feels open, no crazy cut rock slits, no wondering what to do if a flood flashed. The gravel bed makes a rough trail that looks like it could go on for miles. Up here are the Bundy jars, proof that this canyon does go somewhere. Miners came down here to camp, and legend has it left the jars. Whether the jars are old or more recent is open to question. It makes for a good short hike on a day that is getting too hot for comfort already.

D15BreakfastWe have precisely 14 miles to go today. It feels odd to have a schedule after two weeks of getting up and doing [almost] as we pleased, but this is the last full day we spend on the water. Camp tonight needs to be at mile 221 so that with a quick morning departure we can row the last 5 miles to Peach Springs, arrive at the take out at the assigned hour, unload our gear and get our old lives back. Two weeks living in the canyon is enough start loving it in a way that cannot be D15Grooverdescribed. It’s also enough time to know that it is too harsh a place for humans to call home. Camp breaks down and packs quickly this morning. Either we are getting good at it or we are ready to go back, maybe a little of both. Peter looks tired, or relieved, can’t tell which.

The kayaks come out; it is a great day to play in the water. There will be riffles and small rapids, enough to stay cool but D15JimKayaknothing that needs scouting. Mile 209 rapid has a reputation for a boat eater of a hole. Oarsmen who let down their attention end up on YouTube under headings of carnage and disaster. Today the hole was easy to skirt, but Pedro lined up and took it with momentum, popping gracefully out the other side, white spray everywhere.

Our old friend Vishnu Schist pops up at riverside for a few D15PumpkinSpringsminutes then slides beneath the surface. We pull into Pumpkin Springs. From the river it looks JUST like a gigantic wet pumpkin. The spring sits in a single travertine bowl over which the water spills in a glossy sheet. The spring comes up through enough rocks that were once lava that in addition to the travertine, the water picks up a brew of truly toxic elements that stain the edge in shades of orange with streaks of brown. Today there is not enough water flowing over the edge to keep the top of the spring clean. Patches of ripe algae cover it. Little bubbles of gas dance to the surface, it smells of sulfur. This feels like a side trip to a sewage treatment plant.

D15GraniteParkTracey has other ideas. Beyond the spring is a long terrace that skirts the river heading back upstream. It forms a ledge 30 feet above the river. As the river bends around the ledge the water boils along the base in a way that does not invite swimming. Before Glen Canyon Dam, the terrace was scoured by seasonal flooding. Loose rocks that found purchase wore down bowls, carving ever deeper producing swiss cheese holes of human size. Some of the holes are 10 feet deep and lead out the face of the ledge. At one place it is possible for the agile and daring to slither down one hole, go across the face and back up a second hole. 15 days out and the canyon can still surprise us with special moments. Thank you Tracey for sharing.

D15ThreeSpringsJumpA few miles farther downstream Three Springs Canyon entertains us for the rest of the afternoon. The cliff face guarding the canyon on the upstream side is undercut by the current, making a shady basin under a 50 foot overhang used for long jumps into the river.   Thanks to Jim’s super spiffy camera this is captured in high speed splendor. The year round spring on the other side of the overhang finds its way to the river in a gentle notch lined with vegetation. A D15Tania3SpringsBathtubribbon of clear water curls and glides over polished rock until at one point a choke stone backs up the stream forming a perfect bath tub with a miniature jacuzzi water fall. It is lush down here, completely unlike the arid cactus garden along the top. The stream bed is only navigable for another 100 feet where the water disappears into a wall of reeds. An expedition picks its way as far as it can before turning around single file and heading back. We work our way out, until D15Rattlesnakesomeone notices that we have all stepped right past a basking rattlesnake not once, but twice.

By mid afternoon we return to the rafts. Much like floating above Phantom Ranch, a little planning is necessary to get a nice camp in the right spot before take out. At 221 Mile Camp there is good news: it is open. We can make this our last stand, but the beach is egg frying hot with no shade in D15ThreeSpringsNapsight. At Rod’s suggestion we pull into a sweet strip of sand a few hundred feet upstream. It is no larger than the 6 rafts and it hugs the rocks giving us excellent views up and downstream. We have a lot of beer and a large bag of jerky we’d forgotten about, so the time is not wasted. The group grew quiet. It was a serene moment.

To my knowledge Peter has never engaged in a practical joke. Things are what they are. He has organized the trip with honesty, hard work and a sense of duty. He has inspired trust. So when Peter looked upstream into an empty, peaceful river yelling “Here come the commercials,” utter panic erupted. Several people so believed in Peter that I think they actually saw boats in the river. There were none. We all fell over with laughter. The camp is in shade now so it is time to move. Dinner is stir fry out of cans and excellent. We still have carrots, onions and celery, we still have ice. Appetizers are a smorgasbord of tinned fish, grape leaves and cheese.

100_5671The beach is broad with plenty of room for everything. We set the chairs up in a great circle and stay awake as long as we can. Two weeks ago a full moon drew shadows across the desert. Tonight, in a moonless sky, the dazzle of stars stretches to infinity. Fifteen days ago, 226 miles ago, 33 dozen eggs ago, 13,824,000,000 cubic feet of water ago [seriously, do the math] we spent our first night along the Colorado river, grateful for being here. Tonight, listening to the happy voices in the darkness, thinking on all that this trip has been…..the river, the people. I am again overwhelmed with gratitude.

Rowing the Grand Canyon

Day Sixteen, RM 221-225: Scorpion, Derigging, Takeaways

D15BarkScorpionSafety experts say that every big accident is bracketed by lots of near-misses. You stomp on the brakes, your pulse spikes, and everything seems to slow down as you prepare for impact. The adrenaline in your bloodstream leaves a strange metallic aftertaste. You realize how quickly everything could change, and that your perch on the planet is really quite fragile. Then it wears off.

D16PedrpoUpstreamWe pulled in around 5pm on Day 15 to make the last camp of the trip.   It was still unreasonably hot, so everyone but the cooks headed for the river after hauling the gear onto the beach. Tania took her bathing suit out of her dry bag and when she slipped it on, she felt a sharp pain on her thigh. She swatted the spot, felt a second pain, and then saw something translucent and brown fall onto the sand.

Another thing safety experts say is that when something ominous happens, the most important thing is not to panic. So she didn’t: she called me over and said, with excessive calm, “I think I’ve been bitten by a scorpion.” I took a look at the critter, trapped it with a plastic cup, and called for the medic. Christie checked her book and confirmed that it was an Arizona Bark Scorpion, the dangerous kind, and that it had stung Tania twice. Then everything slowed down.

There wasn’t much to do except watch. The sting of a bark scorpion is a neurotoxin that causes pain, numbness and swelling which is worst at the puncture, but which can also escalate into whole-body symptoms like tingling, blurred vision, muscle twitching, drooling, sweating, vomiting, and dramatic swings in blood pressure and heart rate. We would know how bad it would be in a few minutes.

We were only five miles from a road, and there was only a small chance that this would become a life-threatening situation. Rod, Peter, Christie and I decided that if Tania’s symptoms escalated, someone would row her down to Diamond Creek—a trip that would take about an hour and 15 minutes—while Peter called for an ambulance on the satellite phone. The EMTs would arrive with the antivenom about the same time we pulled in. That was the best we could do.

Everyone else got back to making dinner. Christie, Tania and I went to the river; Christie applied a suction cup to the punctures and told Tania to soak her ass in cold water. Evening was coming on. Tania and I couldn’t find much to talk about, so we watched the afternoon light play on the rocks one last time. We stayed close to each other, and we waited. After twenty minutes or so, Tania said that the feeling on her thigh was like a wasp sting. She also felt tingling in her lips, toes, scalp, and fingertips, which was annoying but not disorienting. She was fortunate that the creature had been wrapped up in her bathing suit for a couple of days. He was probably weak and dizzy, and he didn’t get a good shot at her before she brushed him off.

We ate with the group and went to bed as soon as we could, skipping the final celebration. They were within striking distance of finishing all the beer, and several crew members were determined to achieve that goal. We drifted off listening to their happy voices. As the night crept along, I would wake up every hour or so to check on Tania; she was sleeping more or less normally, and each time I saw her regular breathing and touched her cool forehead, I felt relief and gratitude. The stars were so brilliant and the sky was so deep. I didn’t know when I would see a sky like that again.

We had spent more than two weeks in an environment that was incredibly beautiful but also incredibly hostile and many hours away from a hospital. We were in dangerous spots several times a day, and were constantly on guard against a long list of perils, from heat stroke to medical-grade sunburn, snakes, falls, a virus that would give you several days of violent diarrhea and vomiting, drowning, and of course, scorpions. Tania’s sting was the closest our group came to calling for a helicopter, but we had taken thousands of chances. I felt awe and gratitude for everything I had seen, but I also had an undeniable eagerness to get back to a place where mayhem didn’t seem so close.

The truck and van that would take us back to Flagstaff was scheduled to arrive at 11am. Unlike Tim, Pedro, and several others, I did not battle a hangover. Tania woke up basically OK, although her tingling sensations remained uncomfortable for almost a week. Still, we D16BaerBreakfastcooked and ate our last meal together, washed, and packed efficiently, then paused for the day’s instructions before pushing off. Peter started by thanking Tania for surviving, and then he thanked all of us for making the trip so successful, enormously so, he said, and then he started to choke up, so we cut him off by giving him three cheers, like the experienced expedition team we had become. Then we were off to enjoy our last hour on the river.

Leading the trip was a stretch for Peter. He has superior wilderness skills, but he is also an introverted, detail-oriented person, and it wasn’t easy for him to let things go. I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthink he saw all the risks we were taking, and those worries weighed on him. He was fortunate to have five other experienced boatmen, but managing them was another burden: they all had their own opinions about how things should run, and this was especially true of Jim. The friction between Peter and his older brother was difficult to watch at times, and I can only imagine how it must have felt for them.

Despite everything, Peter did a fabulous job of planning the trip, with a lot of help from Christie. And every day, on the river, Peter kept things from veering off course in dozens of ways that most of us never noticed, and Christie did the same for Peter. They were both completely unselfish about it. They picked the group, and they were also the biggest reason why we worked together so well.

D16HummingbirdNestWe stopped for a short hike on river left, where a few rock paintings waited patiently under a rock overhang. We walked up the side trail in a line, past shiny black schist, and I paused to notice my new friends: their patina of suntans and grime, the interesting patterns of male facial hair, and the many stains and rips on their clothes, each one carrying its own story. Next to a drawing of a stick man, a hummingbird had built a small, perfect nest in a tangle of vines.

100_5711Soon after we pushed off, Diamond Peak floated into view, and soon after that we pulled into the mouth of Diamond Creek. Tania was doing fine, but she was not up to the hot, hard job that faced us. I insisted that she stay in the shade with our few remaining morsels of perishable food, and I gave her the camera. She took pictures while we tore everything apart.

Like so much of the trip, de-rigging wasn’t easy. We emptied D16TimPoopthe rafts, including five ammo boxes, each packed with 50 pounds of our shit; five enormous Yeti coolers, some of which still had ice enough to keep cheese, meat, and a few soggy vegetables cold; the heavy steel frames that kept the rafts rigid; the kitchen; a dozen 12-foot oars, plus two spares; all our personal gear; and the rafts themselves, which had to be deflated, which involved lying on top of each section to force the air out, then rolling the vinyl up,

a three-D16LoadOutperson job.

I have always enjoyed demolition. It was interesting to destroy the world we had depended on and throw it all into the back of a truck. But in the heat, there was no way to keep going unless you paused every few minutes to wade into the river. Once near the end, I looked downstream. We were skipping Travertine Canyon (RM 229), the site of yet D16RollingUpRaftsanother memorable waterfall; 232-mile Rapid, which has a feature the book calls “Killer Fang Falls;” Bridge Canyon (235), the site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a tourist attraction on the rim that locals refer to as “the toilet seat;” and Separation Canyon (240), where three members of John Wesley Powell’s crew abandoned their boats in 1869. They were never seen again. And just two days after they bailed, Powell’s expedition completed its 99-day journey. Today, Separation Canyon is a few miles above the beginning of Lake Mead.

I’m writing this several months after the end of the trip. Shortly after we got home, Tania finally decided to retire. She says that the river permanently changed the way she looks at life.

D16MotelShowerI’m a self-employed writer, so retirement is a meaningless concept to me. But the trip also reminded me of several important things. First, there’s no substitute for uninterrupted, face-to-face conversation. Over two weeks, I spent upwards of twelve hours a day having direct interactions with 15 people, ten of whom had been total strangers. Tania and I did not know when we would see them again after we went our separate ways. But the canyon had been a crucible for us, and I knew these friendships would last.

It’s ironic to be saying this in a blog, but the most valuable thing I remembered was the value of getting radically, completely unplugged and staying that way. Smartphones and computers are only one part of the problem. Electricity is what really needs to go. It takes several days to retreat deeply into nature, and the rhythms and silences you find there are far more satisfying than anything you might find on a screen. The pictures are better, too.

Quotes of the day:

Tim: “This morning when I threw up into the river, I forgot the strainer.”

 Jia: “A girl can only eat so much salami.”

 Rod: “Christ died for my sins. If he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”

Postscript: I asked my companions to write down their favorite memory of the trip, and got these three replies:

Christie Kroll: “The best moment was the part between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek. But there were two honorable mention moments.

“Second runner-up: at the motel the night before we left for Lee’s Ferry, when dinner plans fell through, everyone jumped in to order pizza. It gave me faith that we had the right people for the trip. If you pick good people, the rest will take care of itself.

“First runner-up: On the little shade beach on day 15, we were waiting out the sun before making camp. Our campsite was only about 100 yards away, but we hadn’t claimed it. Peter looked up and said, “ Here come the commercial rafts,” and everyone panicked before realizing he had played a practical joke. It was hilarious and so out of character for Peter, whom I have lived with for thirty years. You think you know someone…

“And the winner is: river mile 109.5, sitting in a sunny spot along Shinumo Creek.

100_5152 copyThere’s a picture. We were halfway through the canyon. I had quit thinking about home, I wasn’t thinking about going back. Whatever concerns I had about putting the trip together were gone. Leaning back against the rock in the sun, I was clean and feeling chilled from swimming, the warmth of the sun, sublime. The patter of the waterfall echoed off the walls, punctuated with bits of happy voices.

Life felt so peaceful and so perfect. In that moment everything fell away, or I let it go. Color, sound, sensation, feeling, emotion. It felt very close to enlightenment.”

D16JaiPoopJia Carroll: “With the snow falling outside my window and the full return to ‘normal’ life, I just want to say ALL of it was memorable. But here is a more specific memory. By day 8, Gary and I had by this point become the dearest of river companions. We were an unorthodox duo, but a joyful pairing regardless. Gary had navigated the swimming rapid (Grapevine) and the flipper (Horn) with confidence and a read-and-run smile. For the first time in the trip, however, he seemed tense.

“We were heading for Crystal Rapid, the last big one of the day. The last time Gary had been on the river, he had gotten stuck in the rock garden at the bottom of Crystal. He was alone and his fellow boats left him behind, so his only option was risky: he had to get out of the boat and push it off the rock. He succeeded, but for a man who doesn’t like swimming very much, it was an unpleasant memory.

“I told Gary that I had total confidence in him. After all, I have seen him maneuver through tight groves of trees while schussing down a mountain on skis. I had seen him fishtail his way out of a rapid before, too. But the best part of the river is that it doesn’t give you a choice — you have to run all the rapids. So I tied down the water bottles, lashed every loose item to the boat, and held on for adventure.

“It ended up that Crystal was a breeze — Gary ran it perfectly. But what makes this one of my favorite memories is turning around near the end of the rapid and seeing Gary, his wild hair blowing in the wind, oars perfectly positioned, with the BIGGEST GaryPaintergrin on his face. He had conquered his fear and here he was, reveling in the joy of sweet success. All I could do was celebrate with him (and snap a quick picture, which you can see here).

“So what did I learn? That you might have more than one chance at a rapid; that you should face your fears; and that you only have one chance at it today, so why not grab the oars and smile the whole way through? There’s always a chance that you will end right side up in the pool at the bottom, more joyful than you ever thought possible. It was Gary’s overwhelming exhilaration and glee that I remember most.”

P1020554Tracey Metcalf: “So many ways to answer, so many moments. Was it when I realized I had left my new water shoes at Coal Creek (I’m still kicking myself over that), or when I saved the Monarch butterfly and watched it fly away? Or when I topped Little Bastard rapid in my inflatable kayak and saw that there was nowhere to go? I still wonder how Jim made it through.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will ever get the canyon out of your system. You have to settle for dreaming and scheming and asking yourself ‘when can I go back?’”

Smaller Adventures Travel Writing

AIDS Ride 2013: Who’s The Champ?

Dear Saoirse, Larry, Jeff, Sara, Jim, Sarah, John, Barbara, Ellen, Peter, Tom, and Stephanie:

Thanks for supporting my ride around Cayuga Lake last Saturday (Sept. 7). Here is a photo log of our experiences at the 2013 AIDS Ride for Life.  Click on the images to make them bigger.  -Brad

IMG_07366:40 am:  It’s about 48 degrees and clear. Tania is feeling strong, thanks to her regular trips to the gym. Who’s the champ?




IMG_07376:55 am:  It’s a short ride from our house to Stewart Park, the starting point for the ride.  The tip sheet asks riders to show up at 6am, but I have done this six times and Tania has done it five, so we show up only a few minutes before the start.  Heading north on Route 34, the dawn light on Cayuga Lake is stunning.

IMG_07398am:  It’s overcast and cool, perfect weather for a ride.  We stay together until the top of the Ludlowville Creek hill, and then I pull ahead because I’m planning to do 100 miles while Tania takes the cut at Routes 5 & 20 (86 miles).  The 100-mile ride includes a tour of the Montezuma marsh that is my favorite part. We plan to re-connect at the lunch break and do the last 40 miles together.

The Ridge is a bar near the Tompkins County line that always reminds me of The Power House, which was a great place to get beat up before it closed a few years ago.

IMG_07439am Long Point, NY on Route 90.  About to head down Pumpkin Hill into Aurora.



IMG_074610am North of Union Springs, in the territory claimed by the Cayuga Indian Nation.  “Upstate Citizens For Equality” has had these signs around the north end of the lake for decades, as the stalled land claims lawsuit refuses to die.  The US Constitution can be extremely inconvenient.

IMG_074711:30 am Crossing the Seneca River, at 46 miles, which the Indians called “a paradise of musquitos” (see historic marker).  Tania’s cell phone fell out of her bike bag somewhere between Aurora and Union Springs (and so far has not been recovered).  She calls me from a borrowed phone to say that she is feeling good enough, for the first time, to do the 100 mile course.  She has done a “century ride” only once before, 18 years ago!

IMG_074812:45 pm.  I get to the Seneca Falls Community Center around noon and while away the time until Tania arrives.  This is surprisingly easy when you’re stoned out of your mind on endorphins.  There’s a good free lunch, and then a nice woman from Rasa Spa gives me a free massage.  They really treat you great on this ride.  Tania pulls in, looking good, and off we go.  She IS the champ.

IMG_07492:30 pm  Somewhere around Varick.  Ignoring common sense, I point the camera backwards and click away until something interesting emerges.  Jim Kersting used to do stuff like this when we rode across the U.S. in 2008.  It drove me crazy then, but I guess boredom makes you even crazier.  It has been lightly raining for the last hour, but it isn’t heavy enough to really get us wet, and thankfully it soon tapers off.  I’m feeling OK, thanks to lots of ibuprofen.

IMG_07514:00 pm, north of Taughannock. We are turning into veggies, but there are only about 10 miles to go.



IMG_07564:45 pm: It has been a near-perfect day, a breakthrough for Tania, and the Southern TIer AIDS Program raised more than $230,000 for treatment and prevention.  But right now all I can think about is taking a shower and lying down.

Smaller Adventures Travel Writing

North Carolina 2012: Mountains to the Coast

“I pray a lot,” said the woman from Lumberton.  It was 7:30 am on Saturday, October 6, the last day of the 2012 Cross North Carolina (CNC) bicycle trip. Most of the 1,100 riders were spending seven days on a 450-mile winding route that lead from the mountains to the coast. But the woman had signed up for just one day, riding 61 miles from Lumberton to White Lake. This was a big step for a person who had mounted a bicycle for the first time just one year ago. “I never did anything like that before. I thought I never could do it,” she said.  “But I talked to the Lord all day. It got me through.  And my goodness, I did sleep well.”

She was a roundish woman with bright eyes, her words were free of irony, and she spoke with a thick Southern accent. Yankees and city people tend to see these as indications that the speaker isn’t very smart, but that only shows Yankees and city people can be just as narrow-minded as anyone else. I knew what she was talking about.

Bicycle touring is a form of meditation.  Instead of staring at a candle and concentrating on your own breath, you scan the next 50 yards of asphalt and concentrate on maintaining your cadence – in my case, 70 to 80 leg revolutions per minute – and after a while, it’s just flow.  Instead of sitting for an hour of silent worship with Quakers in an old meetinghouse, you ride silently for an hour or more with birds, bugs, and the infinite interplay of light on greenery.  But any form of

(click on the photos to make them bigger and see my goofy grin. Click the “back” button on your browser to return to the text)

meditation is a journey. The real destination on a long-distance bicycle trip is not the next town, but transcendence.  We’re all seeking the moment when leg pain, wet tents, trouble at home, and even the slow drip of time — all of it fades away. Suddenly you’re like a bird, joyful just to see the sun. That’s the goal.

I thought I was taking a week off from writing when I signed up for the 2012 CNC fall ride, but by the third day I was writing down notes, and by the end of the week I was seeking out public libraries and hogging my friend’s computer. I wanted to write down what I saw, and especially how I saw people, mostly people in their late 50s and 60s, seeking that joy when they are fortunate enough to have enough money and free time to spend a week riding a bicycle (the average CNC riders were in their late 50s).  I wondered why some of these people did not seem happy, even though they had gone to a lot of trouble to be on the ride, and I wondered about what separated the happy people from the sour pusses.  On a typical day I would eat local food, meet interesting folks, see memorable things, and then ride off alone to think about what it all might mean.  If you’d care to ride along, here’s my journal.

Friday & Saturday, Sept. 28-9: Getting there

I paid my dues to get to the starting line.  On Saturday I drove 13 hours to get to the finish line in Carolina Beach. Rachel and Mark Luyben, the daughter and son-in-law of my riding partner, Jim Kersting, were kind enough to give me a bed and a beer at the end of the drive. Jim is the same person I rode across the country with in 2008 (see that blog here); he invited me, and this was going to be our first long trip together since that outing.  I had been training and riding, but as usual, I did not feel like I had been doing enough.

Jim Kersting

There was one memorable stop on the drive down – a 30-minute dinner break at Wilber’s Barbeque in Kinston, which I am told may be the best vinegar-and-pepper BBQ restaurant in the state.  The “barbeque line” in North Carolina delineates the use of a vinegar and pepper sauce in the eastern Low Country from a tomato-based sauce in the western foothills and highlands, and of course there are never-ending arguments about which is better.  I can only report that Wilber’s barbeque was cheap, tasty, and reeking with integrity as well as vinegar and pepper.  They put hush puppies in front of you immediately upon request; the “unsweet” iced tea refills are free and plentiful; there’s a great t-shirt; and the Brunswick stew, served in a cheap plastic bowl, seemed pretty close to perfect until I had a much better bowl at Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ in Wilmington. As I said, the arguments are endless.

Dinner at Wilber’s BBQ 

On Sunday we loaded up our bikes and bags, got on a bus, and headed across the state to the starting line in Brevard, near the crest of the Smoky Mountains. The bus ride took nine hours on a non-direct route, mostly in a misty rain, with nearly three hours of breaks.  The less said about that, the better.

We arrived around 5:30 pm and set up our tents on the lawn at Brevard College, a small Methodist campus with a cultural vibe that is solidly 1965. At least 50 identical Kelty tents were set up in front of ours. They were erected with military precision in rows and numbered, and each had a large inflatable mattress inside.  These were the dwellings of Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers, who pay $50 a day to escape from the responsibilities of making and breaking camp themselves.  They also get lawn chairs under a tent with free snacks.  As the week went on, we became more and more envious.

We walked into town for a very tasty burger and an Asheville-brewed beer, Highland Gaelic Ale, at the Jordan Street Café, which has a nice outdoor patio and some imaginative but not expensive stuff on the menu.  Immediately after ordering we each took out our phones and called our wives, proving once again how thoroughly domesticated we both are.

Brevard is a Southern resort town, which means that a lot of people in it aren’t Southern.  The couple next to us was handsome and looked to be pushing 70. She had a stylish haircut, he was a retired Marine Corps pilot who had flown in Vietnam, and now they were enjoying their bonus years with the help of big monthly pension checks.  Affluent retirees are probably the most valuable resource in the Smoky Mountains these days. They dribble dollars wherever they go, and the working people sweep them up.

The ex-pilot sidled over to us as the couple was leaving. He told us where to go if we’d like to drink and listen to music, just like an old soldier giving advice to his comrades.   I would have been interested several years ago, but Jim and I had learned on the 2008 ride that lots of alcohol at night definitely does not mix with riding a bicycle the next morning.  We were born to be mild.

We waddled back to our tents and lay down about 10 pm.  Shortly thereafter, two Brevard College boys who had not gone home for the weekend (and who had also not found dates, unless they were secretly dating each other) decided it would be fun to pitch tennis balls, swat at them with racquets, and make loud exclamations about nothing.  While this was not fun from our perspective, I had also learned that whenever you’re pitching a tent near other people, earplugs are of paramount importance.

Sunday, September 30:  Day 1, Brevard to Lake Lure

I lay in my sleep sack, awakened in the dark by the stirring of an encampment of several hundred bicyclists, and thought of the opening lines of Steve Fromholz’s song, Texas Trilogy:  “Six o’ clock silence of a new day beginning is heard in a small Texas town/ Like a signal from nowhere, the people who live there are up and movin’ around.”  Except it was five o’clock. I was getting my introduction to the school of grim determination.

A lot of guys on this ride – most of them past 50, and almost all of them guys – were acting like soldiers on the march.  They would break camp ridiculously early so they could be waiting in line when the breakfast hall opened at 6am.  It didn’t even get light outside until after seven, but many of them would start riding in the dark.  They rode hard, never seemed to smile, and arrived at the day’s destination in time for lunch.  In the afternoons they would sit around talking in low tones, and they never missed an opportunity to complain or point out mistakes and things that did not meet their standards.  They had paid for the privilege of holding a job for a week, and they didn’t even seem to like the job. It was weird.

The daily load-out in the morning seemed to me like the breaking of a Civil War encampment, except not as heavy, hairy, or smelly.  You were allowed two bags, and they had to be on the truck by 8am.  Breakfast was from 6am until 9am.  The line for a plate of scrambled eggs, biscuits, bacon or sausage, grits or potatoes, and coffee was long, but it usually moved quickly. You had to be rolling by nine.  What happened if you weren’t?  I asked Jim.  After all, these are public roadways.  Don’t you have a right to use them?

You are such a troublemaker, Jim replied.

Soon we were packed, fed, and mounted on our trusty steeds.  Jim was looking for John Frank, an insurance executive from Raleigh who had become his friend on the CNC ride in 2011.  John turned out to be a Southern gentleman with a dry sense of humor and a keen eye for the foibles of this vast rolling circus.   He also gave Jim someone to ride with, which was great, because I prefer to ride alone in my search for transcendence, and riding next to a monk can get pretty annoying to a normal person.

John Frank

We hit the highway around 8:30am.  The mountains were still fully green, more late summer than early fall.  The route was almost perfectly level for the first 14 miles, running along county roads parallel to State Highway 64 East, and we rode quickly through older second-growth forests so beautiful that I forgot to take pictures. After Penrose came a climb of about 400 feet to a height of land, through architect-designed dream homes that were perched to take full advantage of endless mountain vistas, each of which doubtless contained a handsome older couple like the one we had met last night.  The foliage masked the crest, so it was a surprise when we started heading down, but we quickly lost all the elevation we had gained and more in thrilling Tour De France-style turns on two-lane roads.  Then it was time for Hendersonville, another village made fat by upscale tourists and retirees, and the shopkeepers seemed delighted to be mobbed by upscale tourists who were all wearing tight pants and helmets.

Past Hendersonville came another 14 miles of valley riding with gray-green mountain peaks in the distance.  These were beautiful, but the things that catch my attention are usually random objects, often discarded, that might have a story attached.  Let me give you two examples.  We rode past a pull-behind trailer the size of a small U-Haul that was painted silver and black. It had a logo of a lightning bolt coming out of the letters “TCB,” which stands for “Taking Care of Business,” on the side. Elvis!  And beneath that logo was the title “World’s Smallest Elvis Museum.”  What was inside that trailer, where did they get the stuff, where did they set up, and how much would people still pay to see sweaty scarves and old telephones that were once touched by a King who died more than 35 years ago?

Or sometimes the thing I saw was like a seed that might grow into a short story.  At a stoplight in Dana, I looked down and saw a cardboard square with a clear plastic circle inside, the kind you’d use to protect a collectable silver dollar, except it had been opened and discarded.  I thought of someone so desperate for food or alcohol that they couldn’t even take it to the pawn shop, so they settled for a small fraction of what that coin was worth because they were convinced that they were going to die unless they got what they needed immediately.  What would drive a person to do something like that?

Two-second glimpses like these are like bits of candy to me; they generate long minutes of happy daydreaming as my eyes and legs do their automatic business.  The small things beg for an explanation, but it is usually impossible to find one, so I make things up.  Imagine my excitement when we finally pulled onto SR 64 East and started seeing signs for a tourist-trap town called Bat Cave.  And then it was back to business as we flew down through more than 1,000 feet of elevation before cruising into Chimney Rock, where the entire economy seems to be organized around a knob of stone that yields a good view of the mountains when you pay $15 to ride up to the top on an elevator (I did not do this).  It’s a remnant of pre-hiking tourism.  And just past that was our destination, Lake Lure, a long snaky thing behind a Roosevelt-era dam. We were at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, which was about 1,000 feet lower than when we had started.

Chimney Rock (the small knob on horizon)

The day’s ride had been only 42 miles. It was just after 1pm, and we could easily have done another 30.  We should have, too, because the forecast called for steady rain starting around midnight and continuing through the next day.  Jim, John, and I ended up killing the afternoon by watching tourists, and then eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant that was cheap and quite good (unfortunately, I can’t remember the name).  I made a last-minute decision to take down my tent and sleep under a pavilion, trusting in an expensive Big Agnes air mattress to protect my middle-aged back from the concrete floor.  It worked.  I stirred a bit when the rain started, but that was all.  Middle-aged people do sleep well when they work outside all day.

Day Two:  Lake Lure to Shelby

The pavilion where I slept in Lake Lure’s Morse Park had an electrical outlet. It made me a popular guy.  Almost everyone on the ride carried a cell phone, GPS device, camera, or something else; all of these devices eventually ran low on juice, and few were willing to plug in and walk away from their precious device after they found a precious outlet, so they waited.  There was an electric light under my pavilion too, so I read The Idiot and kept the guys company.  They didn’t talk much, and I kept wondering what Prince Myshkin’s opening line would be in a situation like this, but he was more interesting to me than they were, so the evening proceeded silently.

The rain started around midnight. It’s a pleasant sound as long as you’re warm and dry, but it turned mildly dread-inducing once dawn came up and the grim men started breaking camp.  It was mostly drizzle, though, and it wasn’t too cold. We were not going to ride on any dirt roads, I did have rain gear, and most important of all, I had a front fender.  Riding in the rain is not unpleasant if you are prepared for it.  Shoes are the biggest problem; I have never found a way to keep my feet dry in the rain, so a wet day increases the chance of blisters and almost guarantees that your shoes will stink.  And rain also drains some of the joy from the day. It makes riding more like a job. Grim determination seems more appropriate when the pavement is wet.

Jim dropped by around 6am to pick up his phone (which I had charged for him) and then he was off with John.  Jim is from a German family in Minnesota and John managed supply lines during the Iraq war, so they plunged into the wet and got ‘er done.  But I lingered for a while. Breakfast was at the Lake Lure Inn and Spa, which was built on the shore when the dam was completed in 1927.  It’s a 69-room concrete structure with Moorish touches and lots of dark woodwork, and the smartest thing to do would have been to check in and go back to sleep.  But I wandered around instead, looking at photographs and memorabilia left by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (they stayed here), FDR (he did too; he loved to take the waters), Patrick Swayze, and Jennifer Grey (parts of Dirty Dancing were filmed here).  The family that built the hotel and the dam also collected art, and there were several dozen oil paintings by pre-World War II Americans on the walls.  The collector was particularly fond of portraits of debutantes, so I said hello to a dozen young women with carefully curled hair posing in gauzy robes, their heads thrown back, smiling and inviting me to join them in their moments of glory.

This was the hardest day for me.  We were in the foothills of the mountains and rode in and out of many small creek valleys. The day’s total climb was 1800 feet with 2000 feet of descent, and it was 55 miles, which doesn’t seem like all that much. But the climbs were steep and short, so it felt more like an interval workout that went on for six hours.  Wet pavement also makes going downhill harder, because your brakes don’t work as well; you need to watch carefully for leaves and gravel and other stuff that’s extra slippery and can wipe you out if you hit it wrong.  There’s less time for daydreaming, and more time on task.

Fortunately, the CNC staff had chosen another route that maximized scenery while minimizing traffic.  We dipped south of State Route 64/74 East and pedaled for an hour through mixed hardwood forests, pastures for cattle and horses, a few goats, and many fallow fields. The first rest stop was a Baptist church out in the country, where I caught up to Jim and John. We listened briefly to an acoustic trio doing a creditable version of “Soldier’s Joy.”   This is what a geographer would call the “cultural hearth” of country music, and it was good to hear that song coming straight out of the soil.

Jim and John had pulled far ahead by the time we got to the second rest stop in Rutherfordton (pop. 4,100). The historic markers were thick and the 19th century central business district was intact, but there was no time to enjoy it.  The rest stops had coolers full of water and Powerade; a table full of crackers, cookies, bananas, and other things, staffed by smiling locals; and port-a-Johns serving dozens of haggard-looking wet people who were furiously gobbling, gulping and voiding.  Most of the riders were friendly and chatty, so the stops also had a strange cocktail party vibe. But there were always loners around the edges too, and these guys (almost all of them were guys) stared at the smiling chatterers while keeping a safe distance.  They were monks, like me.

Pulling out of town, I saw a plain brick building, the Norris Public Library.  I stopped, went in, got a password, checked my e-mail, sent an important message to a client, cleared out my in-box, and was back on the road in 15 minutes.  I love small public libraries.  Someday I am going to make a list of all the public places I have set up in to work when I am supposedly on vacation, and I am going to send each of them a big fat check.  Andrew Carnegie was right.

After Rutherfordton we went north of the main highway and after another hour or so we rode through Washburn, a country intersection where a General Store advertises that it had been “family-owned since 1831.”  Wow.  It was a memorable place, with shelves boasting things like oil lanterns, hard candy, and butter churns as well as the normal hardware, overalls, and tchotchkes.  If I had been in a car, I would have bought something I’d regret later.  A nice older Carolina woman was making ham and cheese sandwiches as fast as she could, fresh with tomatoes, salt and pepper, smiling and saying nice things to everybody, and selling them for only $2.50.  There was free coffee, too, and the rain had stopped.  Context is everything, but I didn’t see how you could do any better.

“Is that sandwich good?”  I was standing outside.  A woman with processed blonde hair was asking as she pulled off her helmet.  “Yes, delicious.  They’re right inside,” I said.

“Is it grilled?”  She fluffed out her hair.  She was a creature from some affluent suburb. She looked closer at the sandwich.  “It isn’t grilled.  Let’s go on into Ellenboro,” she said to her silent male companion.  “I want a Panini.”

“Let me know what happens in Ellenboro when you ask for a Panini,” I said.

At the rest stop at Ellenboro I talked to Lauren, a brown-eyed girl who was riding with her dad. Lauren worked on a farm near Durham and seemed to be enjoying the day, so I stood near her and tried to soak up some of her positive energy.  People with jobs seemed to enjoy themselves more out here, maybe because we find riding through the country on a cloudy day to be better than working.  Lauren and I talked about how we had left the affluent hills and were now seeing more modular houses, old farms in various states of disrepair, and towns that were just hanging on. Ellenboro was one such place, with a big, burned-out complex of brick mill buildings testifying to what had been, and a half-empty downtown business row wondering what will come next. Then it was back out into the fields and forests.

I caught up to Lauren again two miles before the end of the ride.  I was exhausted from going up and down all those small hills, and happy to have a distraction.  But just as I pulled up next to her and said hello, my chain broke. Suddenly the thing that made my bicycle go was lying in two pieces on the ground.  Lauren looked back at me with concern and shouted, as she pulled away, “Do you have a phone?” Goodbye, Lauren, from your friend the dork.

I did have a phone, but I didn’t need it. The CNC sag wagon came by about ten minutes later, loaded me up, and drove me to the campsite in Shelby (pop. 20,000). I dropped my bike off at Cycling Spoken Here, a crack outfit of wrenches from Raleigh who set up a tent at each campsite and seemed to be doing big business, as dazed men and women holding shiny credit cards waited patiently for their turn.  I had a new chain installed for $50 which was expensive, but not outrageous.  Then I met up with Jim and John, we got on a bus that drove us downtown, and we enjoyed truly memorable bowls of tomato basil soup at the Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille, along with high-quality pizza and local beer.

Shelby was nice.  It was a rare creature, a rural town that seemed economically healthy and even kind of hip even though it wasn’t a quite a suburb and had no college.  It is the seat of Cleveland County; it is where Earl Scruggs learned to pick the banjo, and where Don Gibson dropped out of second grade several years before he wrote “Sweet Dreams” and “Oh Lonesome Me.”  We walked past a storefront office for the Obama campaign, and I got two bumper stickers for my bike from a proud black guy who was excited to meet one of the riders.  It had been all Romney signs until then, which made sense because the areas we had been riding through were rural and mostly white.   There was a Republican storefront too, but they seemed to be getting along with each other.  Something good was going on in Shelby.

We set up our tents behind a big carousel that was protected by a beautiful new wooden building.  Next to the carousel was an elaborate playground that included a child-sized railroad, lots and lots of athletic fields, and a big community center.  Shelby clearly has both money and benefactors, and they aren’t afraid to spend their wealth on public works.  The carousel was built in Tonawanda, NY, so all props to my Upstate comrades (even though it was built 90 years ago). I nodded off with the help of Gillian Welch on the headphones, ushered into sleep by a sad lullaby and rain pattering on the tent.

Day Three: Shelby to Matthews

By the end of the ride, everyone was calling Day 3 the Day of the Tornado.  The skies were still gray at dawn, but it was a textured kind of gray, with clouds at different heights moving quickly.  We were riding before 8 am, 40 miles west of downtown Charlotte. The route would take us through the middle of town in the afternoon and end up in Matthews, a southeastern suburb, 77 miles away.   Although the ride was 20 miles longer than yesterday’s, the elevation changes were smaller  – not really hills, just slowly rising and falling grades, much easier on the legs – and it was an easy cruise through agricultural land to the first rest stop at Kings Mountain (pop. 10,000).

We thought that the most interesting thing about the Kings Mountain rest stop was going to be free sausage biscuits from Popeye’s.  These were good, but as I munched on one I noticed a plump lady among the servers having an intense conversation on her cell phone. Then she put the phone away and yelled, “May I have your attention.  There is a tornado warning.  Do not leave the rest stop until we get more information.  You might have to spend the night with us.” Her last sentence was a bit over the top, and it got a big laugh from the crowd.  I didn’t check the list, but it seemed to me like there were at least three male riders for every female.

One interesting thing about the tornado warning was that some riders didn’t pay any attention to it. They heard the woman, mounted their bikes, and rode away, convinced of their immortality I guess.  I took the warning as an excuse to eat another biscuit.  Then the lady got back on the phone. She told us that the storm was near Gaffney, South Carolina, which was at least 40 miles west of us, and it was headed northeast.  We were advised to ride on, maybe head for a YMCA somewhere if things got too scary (I didn’t hear where that was), and to watch the skies.  The ride organizers were more concerned about the people who were still on the road to Kings Mountain.

A light rain started just west of Bessemer City. As I cruised past a huge industrial park, with factories making canned food and drywall, a siren sounded and someone started talking over a loudspeaker.  I couldn’t make out the words. Looking west, I could see that the rain was probably going to get heavier. Jim and John were about 10 minutes ahead of me.  I saw a small portico on the side of a church that might make a good shelter, so I rode toward it. There were people standing under it, waving me in.

The portico covered the basement entrance to a black Baptist church. The basement door was unlocked, and seven riders were already there. They showed me scary-looking radar on their cell phones and convinced me to stay.  We were from Atlanta and Durham and Maryland and Upstate New York.  We joked nervously as the rain intensified, and we moved deeper into the basement as the portico flooded.  I found a pile of child-sized plastic chairs, left over from Sunday School, and we set them up in a circle and kept talking while the rain finished its business outside.  It was a weird, funny half-hour. Whenever I ran into someone from the group later on we’d call each other “brother” and talk about our prayer meeting.

The rain slacked off and I rode away from the church on soaked pavement. Nothing was falling from the sky anymore; I was still getting wet from the bottom up, but a hard rain like that is usually like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, followed quickly by the sun.  I was curious about how Jim and John did in the storm, so I made a fly-by at the rest stop in the village of Dallas (pop. 4,500), merely filling up my water bottle and grabbing a refrigerator magnet that said, “Dallas, the Crossroads of Gaston County.”  Then, as expected, the clouds started to break and I saw the first blue sky in two days.   The light was clear and diffused through the thinning clouds, and it made everything glow.  I rounded a curve and started a small climb, with a white fence on one side, a green pasture behind that, and trees in the background. It was just where you would expect to see a photographer.

Jim Harris and his photographers have a cool little niche. They go from one organized bicycle event to another, take pictures of riders as they pass, and sell the shots for $20.  I bought one; a lot of people bought four or more.  We saw Jim every day, standing by the side of the road with a megaphone, exhorting us to smile, look at the camera, remember our file number, and stop by his tent later to see how it turned out.  The setup for today’s shot was so good that I stopped and talked to the photographer who, as I suspected, was having a joygasm.

Jim’s business works because so many of the riders think they’re so hot. Plodding along in my Bianchi Volpe steel-frame touring tank, wearing my loose shorts and street shirt, I would regularly get passed by packs of three or more riders who wore brightly colored jerseys (about $80) and tight shorts (up to $120) and rode bikes that sometimes weighed ten pounds less than mine did and cost at least twice as much ($2,000 and up).   These were guys (and a few women) from cycling clubs.  They rode tightly together in a “peloton” to cut wind drag and go faster.  Unless you’re the lead guy, everyone in a peloton has to focus on the next guy’s rear wheel and ignore the scenery.  Peloton riders also tend to shout out orders (“Slowing!”) and warnings (“Car Back!”). These exhortations, along with their uniforms and tight formations, give them a freakish military aspect.

I find the whole thing baffling.  Bicycle racing is fine, but it isn’t really fun if you do it seven days in a row.  If you have gone to the trouble and expense to ride through 450 miles of incredible scenery and small towns, why ignore them?  Peloton touring, to me, is in the same category as opera and ice fishing. I know some people like it, but I can’t understand why.

If the whole soldiers-in-a-peloton thing is also baffling to you, check out Just Ride by Grant Petersen.  He is a former racer and the founder of Rivendell, a custom bike-building shop, so you might expect him to be a hyper-competitive jerk.  Instead, he’s a good writer with something important to say:  if you aren’t trying to keep up with Lance Armstrong, it’s ridiculous to act like him. Come to think of it, maybe it was ridiculous for Lance to act the way he did, too.

I met up with Jim and John for lunch in Mount Holly, and had an enjoyably huge grilled tuna melt with fries and about a gallon of iced tea.  It was a predictable mistake, and I should have known better.    The food sat in my gut like a lump of concrete for the next five miles.  I know that when you’re riding you should snack often, eat sugary things and simple carbohydrates, and avoid proteins and fats. I suppose I need to lash myself to my bike frame whenever I pass a diner.

Soon we were navigating our way through the suburbs of Charlotte, snaking around on residential roads and heading for downtown on a southeasterly trajectory.  We wound through edge city developments, downscale inner-ring suburbs, and then enjoyed a short stretch of interesting old small houses. Then, suddenly, the skyscrapers were upon us. I was surprised to be riding through the center of a big city on a Tuesday afternoon, but it wasn’t too scary. We went past the Carolina Panthers stadium, headed through the concrete canyon on Trade Street, and then turned onto the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

A well-designed urban greenway can transform a cyclist’s experience of a big city, and Little Sugar Creek was beautiful.  The recent rains made it clear that this was really a stormwater disposal system; some of the low points were flooded; but this, to me, made the whole thing even more appealing.  (This video gives you a good sense of things).  An unused floodplain had become a well-designed park.   The only problem was that it only lasted for three miles.

Finish it, please!

After Sugar Creek, we rode through endless manicured upscale neighborhoods.  It went on and on, a maze of turns and views of “nice” postwar houses.  At the beginning of the day I would have enjoyed it, but by this time I was completely whipped and it felt like a Google Maps nightmare. Then it got worse, as the route dumped us into rush-hour hellish suburban gridlock traffic. I kept looking for the “welcome to Matthews” sign, but there wasn’t any welcome to Matthews.  The people in Matthews didn’t seem to care whether or not we were coming.

The night’s campground was shoehorned into a vacant lot that was a half mile away from food and showers. The shuttle buses that were supposed to carry us from our tents to these comforts were snagged in some really awful rush hour traffic.  We ended up walking back and forth on our exhausted legs.  I know the ride organizers did a huge amount of work, and most of the results were great, but Matthews was a serious misfire.

Old codgers, like infants, are far more likely to have tantrums when they are tired and hungry.  But beer and good conversation can solve almost anything.  Jim, John, and I went to a tasty and somewhat overpriced nouveau Mexican restaurant. John and I had fun talking about all the bad behavior we had seen among the other cyclists.  Jim, who loves free items, coveted my “Crossroads of Gaston County” refrigerator magnet.  There was a Mister Softee ice cream truck on the way back to the campsite.  By the time I crawled into my tent, all was well.  Send me on a 77 mile ride and then give me earplugs, a sleep mask, 600 mg of ibuprofen, a nice antihistamine to make me drowsy, and a Big Agnes air mattress, and I can sleep through anything.  In fact, I did. And nobody got hurt in Gaffney, either. The funnel cloud never touched the ground.

Day 4: Matthews to Rockingham

Jim woke up woozy and pale.  He said he felt dizzy. He was probably dehydrated, but we weren’t sure. Although he has the attitude of a 17-year-old, Jim’s body is 66, and if that is your number, that is the kind of warning you don’t ignore.  I immediately became an ambassador for his wife Sara, trying to persuade him to sit out today’s ride, and to my surprise, he agreed.  So I gave him the “Crossroads of Gaston County” magnet to make him feel better, and he hitched a ride to Rockingham in the luggage truck.

John and I headed out about 7:30am and were swept into rush hour traffic on two-lane roads with no shoulders.  We had a tough go of it for the first hour of the ride. The cyclists made things much worse by riding down the sidewalks, massing at the traffic lights, and jamming the intersections.  The lines of cars got longer and longer.  This didn’t seem to bother the locals – I got the impression that this kind of aggravation happens twice a day in Matthews – but it pissed John off mightily.  To a military man and a nice Southern boy, not following the rules and not waiting your turn are unpardonable sins.  Although I have lived in New York for three decades, I still saw his point.

We finally reached an intersection where most of the cars turned and we went straight. John broke free and rode off, and I started cruising up and down gentle grades, along the edges of soybean fields and pastures, as the suburban sprawl gradually faded away. The morning dew had been heavy enough to soak the grass and trees, and it was turning into mist in the sun.  Before long I pulled into the community center in tiny Unionville. It was time to enjoy North Carolina’s second-most seductive export.

Winston-Salem is the birthplace of the modern cigarette industry, and it is also the home of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store.  They are glazed and made with raised yeast dough, so they are light, unsubstantial, and painfully sweet. They are available nationally now, but are best served warm as they come out of the frying machines in those stores.  I salivate just thinking about them.

You can eat a lot of these sweet little things and get yourself in trouble if you’re not careful.  John told me about the Krispy Kreme Challenge, an annual event in Raleigh whose participants run 2.5 miles to a Krispy Kreme store, eat one dozen dounts, and then run back, leaving (he says) mounds of donut vomit on the street all the way back.  Mmmmm.

And so, I was forewarned.  Yet today really was a special occasion. I mean, all-you-can-eat free Krispy Kremes at a cycling rest stop – how often is that going to happen?  My son Will, who was a college athlete and remains a reliable athletic advisor, has always told me to eat sugar when I’m riding, so I had three.  They were not warm but were still fresh and melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and more — they were served to us by three nice Southern ladies.  I said thank you and made small talk, but many of the riders did not.  You could tell this horrified the ladies.  They kept smiling, but one of them started saying “you’re welcome” to the silent men as they gobbled away.   I love passive-aggressive Southern style.

The Krispy Kremes hit my stomach like jet fuel and I sped off, riding through small farms and past clusters of trailers and concrete-block homes.  I entered Marshville, the home town of Randy Travis, and noticed more African-American faces and more Obama lawn signs.  Marshville is about half black; statewide, about 22 percent of North Carolina residents are black.  I saw Obama signs in small towns that had black populations, and I saw some Obama signs in Charlotte and Wilmington, but other than that, the open country was all Romney, with extra-spicy homemade anti-Obama vehemence always threatening to show up around the next bend.  Sometimes that stuff came pretty close to the line beyond which you would call in the Secret Service.  I saw a billboard with a picture of a group of Navy Seals and the caption, “They got Osama. One more to go.”  I also saw a cartoon monkey painted on a piece of plywood with the caption, “Four more years?”

North Carolina ranks 13th among the states in the number of recorded lynchings, which is far behind Mississippi (with 581 lynchings) and Texas (with 493).  But still, 86 blacks and 15 whites were murdered by mobs here. The last recorded lynchings in the US happened 48 years ago, as the Civil Rights Act was being passed, but they were fairly common occurrences until World War II.  So if you are a white southerner in your 60s or older, you might have clear memories of a time when communities had private ways of dealing with uppity negroes.  Whenever I see race-baiting like this oozing out of our social sewers, I am reminded of the anonymous cynic who said, “Progress happens one funeral at a time.”

I left Marshville and the scene changed to pine plantations with rows of straight, spindly trees stretching away on either side. The smell of pine sap in the rising mist, the beautifully monotonous scenery, and the cadence of my legs came together then, like a curtain lifting Psychologists use the term “flow” to describe “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”   Flow is why I ride.

The sun broke through the clouds and the day dried out, and it became hot for the first time in four days.  Then it got hotter.  The forests went on and on for twenty miles or so.  What I was experiencing wasn’t exactly profound or ecstatic. It was more like tuning my mind to an open channel, so thoughts could flow in and out freely. All the bandwidth ordinarily devoted to work, home, and human relationships had been cleared. Whatever I absorbed seemed unusually sharp, with small details popping out from the background.  This is the state people reach by meditating.  When you finish, you feel as though you have had a deep, refreshing sleep.

These must be third or fourth-growth trees.  It was an intensively managed agricultural landscape, and there was a time when I would have made snarky comments about trees planted in straight rows and the occasional clearcut, but now that I own a house made of wood that needs regular repairs, a pine plantation is just fine with me.  Every so often I’d see a square piece of plastic nailed to a tree or a fencepost, identifying it as a “Family Forest,” full of “Wood, Water, Wildlife, Recreation.”  Hey guys, stick with the alliteration.  How about “Whoopee” instead?

I finally pulled into Wadesboro, salty with sweat and down to the last gulp on my water bottle.  They had gone all out for us.  The modest, mostly brick, early 20th Century downtown block has a good hardware store and a public library but no restaurants, so the friendly economic development guy, who seemed to be all over the place, greeting everybody, had arranged for food trucks to come and surround the normal rest stop.  One of them sold chicken and biscuits; others had bags of cookies, to benefit local schools; and the free one, the blowout, was giving away homemade ice cream. I got a big scoop of chocolate and sat in the sun, gulping it down, until I gave myself a blinding brain freeze.

I staggered down Greene Street, waiting for the ice cream headache to ease off, and eventually stopped before the office of the Anson County Partnership for Children, which had a table of free bottled water and an invitation for cyclists to use the bathroom. Anson County (pop. 27,000) is equal parts white and black; about 20 percent of its residents, and perhaps one-quarter of its children, live in households with incomes below the poverty line.  The Coalition is a not-for-profit but is part of a statewide program called Smart Start, which works with Head Start and other government agencies to educate and assist children and their guardians, especially those of pre-school age. The bright, clean office was teeming with white and black children and their mothers. They had shelves of games, car seats, books, blankets, and other stuff that you could check out for free like a library, and the sunny, sixty-something woman at the desk was quite proud of it all.  They were a great counterpoint to the anti-Obama crap I had seen earlier.  The bathroom was great, too.

It was less than seven miles to the next rest stop at The Old Store, another well-merchandised shout out to the history of small town retailing.  They sold penny candy, yardsticks, and other tchotchkes, and outside they boasted a seven-foot-tall fiberglass rooster.  As Woody Allen once said, that’ s a big chicken.

The Old Store is actually just an exit ramp away from US Route 74, the Andrew Jackson Highway, which is almost but not quite an Interstate in that part of North Carolina.  It was not an inspiring route. When you’re tootling along at 10 or 15 miles an hour on a four-lane limited access highway designed for people going 70 miles an hour, it seems like you’re moving very slowly. There are big long ramps, signs that warn you of the next feature miles before it happens, and straight stretches that seem to go on forever.  Interstates are corridors 60 feet wide that are engineered to national standards, so any given mile of one looks a lot like any other interstate anywhere. They give cyclists the feeling of being lifted out of the local landscape and put into some national landscape, like an airport boarding area or a McDonald’s.

The reason for the route change soon became clear. We coasted downhill for a long way to cross the wide Pee Dee River. Must be the only bridge for a while.  And then, unexpectedly, came what might have been the worst hill of the entire ride —  a butt-kicking, one mile long uphill grade in direct sun, testing the limits of non-athletes who had already gone 70 miles that day.  It was quite a cliff, in a part of the country that didn’t have many of them.  The Pee Dee must flood like a sumbitch.

I limped into Rockingham and found Jim, who had gone to the local emergency room for a couple of hours to absorb a bag of intravenous saline solution and nap in the air conditioning.  He looked a lot better.  The campsite was another community center but was friendlier than Matthews had been, with a Southern-fried rock band playing in the parking lot across the road from us until 9pm.

A friendly guy named Don, who belonged to John’s cycling club, invited the three of us to a cookout, and it was a pleasure to enjoy his hospitality. He also invited Jenny Hilton, who had hitched a ride with him to the starting line. Jenny’s youth, wit, and optimism were like a bright light that lifted me out of my fatigued fog.  She lives in Wilmington, and another Wilmington local she had met on the ride, Alan Walshe, also stopped by; Jim, John, and I shot the breeze with them pleasantly as the sky grew dark. Thanks, Don.  Before long, though, fatigue crept up on me and pounced.  I barely made it to my sleeping bag.

Jenny Hilton

Day 5: Rockingham to Lumberton

A light rain started during the night and continued through dawn. It would be our third rainy start in five days. But the anticipation of getting wet while riding is almost always worse than the reality, as long as it isn’t cold and you’re not planning to ride on dirt roads.  Numb fingers and mud actually do suck. But as Yogi Berra once said, the other half is 90 percent mental.

Jim, John and I started together as usual, but they were out of sight before the end of the first mile.  I rode in a line that gingerly coexisted with light traffic going out of Rockingham, and then we picked through raggedy commercial and residential buildings. It was still raining when I pulled into the town of Hamlet, a railroad stop with grand buildings left over from days of glory. The old depot, recently restored, serves one passenger train a day heading north, one heading south, and a steady stream of freights that don’t stop. It also has a nice museum. I was not in a hurry and thought maybe I could outwait the rain, so I wandered through. One of the galleries had a recording of an unaccompanied female voice singing a mournful song, written in 1898, called “Please Mr. Conductor Don’t Put Me Off” (later recorded by the Everly Brothers as “The Lightning Express:”)

Please, mister conductor, don’t put me off of your train/ For the best friend I have in this world, sir, is waiting for me in vain/ Expecting to die any moment, and may not live through the day/ I want to kiss mother goodbye, sir, before God takes her away.

The song made me think about how isolated these places once were, and how much effort it took for people to get from one town to another.  The rails were the link they had to the outside world, just like the highways are now.  Bicycling gives you a slight feel for the older styles of travel. Local trains in the 1890s went about as fast as a bike does now, and the daydreamers of those days probably stared out of their windows just as I was doing, seeing the world pass at the same rate. It’s easy to understand how they came up with all those mournful songs.  Still, the effort I put into locomotion doesn’t really compare.  Most working people who needed to travel didn’t have the fare, so they walked or rode a horse.  Even slower.

The rain stopped before I pulled into the first rest stop, at the home of Bob and Millie McNeil. We were in Scotland County now, moving into the southeastern part of the state. As the name implies, Scottish Highlanders settled this district in the early 18th century.  I thought I could still see a bit of Glasgow in Millie’s cheekbones as she and Bob strolled through the gobbling crowd. The McNeils were beaming, asking people where they were from, and generally being gracious as all get out.  Millie said that their house was built around the turn of the century.  Not one blade of grass was out of place.

I saw Jenny Hilton at the rest stop, and we got into a conversation about inner dialogues. Jenny also prefers to ride solo, so we reviewed some of the things we had been hearing on our internal radios. We talked about imaginary conversations with departed family members; imaginary arguments with politicians we disliked; random associations that go on and on (for example: Scotland County, Thirfty Scot, Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons, “Slick Willie” Clinton, Willie Mays, Lyle Mays); riffs from popular songs that bloom and overpower every other thought, like mental infections; and other ideas too strange to describe here. It wasn’t quite like telling a total stranger that you hear voices, but it was still an unusual exchange.

The territory was perfectly flat now, with pine forests wherever there weren’t houses, and it didn’t seem long before I pulled into rest stop number two, the John Blue House (c.1890), a striking mansion in a style the curators call “Steamboat Gothic.”  John Blue was a self-taught genius who made a fortune designing and selling machinery to cotton farmers, and the local lore is that he designed the house and did a lot of the woodwork himself. It’s now a museum complex that includes the house, a cotton gin, and old cabins, and it’s the site of an annual Cotton Festival.  But nobody cared about any of that, because the star attraction at this rest stop was Subway sandwiches.  Gobble, gobble.

It was getting close to harvest time for cotton, and I rode past fields of brown plants still holding their white bolls.  There were also fields of sorghum and soybeans, along with more pine woods and now a new feature – swamps, and the birds that love them.  I rode into Maxton, where the community had organized a welcoming rest stop for us, and learned that their annual Collard Festival would take place on Saturday, November 10.  It features competitions for main dishes, side dishes, salads, and desserts made with collard greens; stories, poems, and songs about collards; the Biggest Collard competition; clothing decorated with collards; and of course, the crowning of the Collard King and Queen.  If I weren’t already signed up to work the spreaders at Toast and Jelly Days, I would certainly attend.

Maxton is in the territory of the Lumbees, a recognized Native American tribe that has its own government and social organizations, but no reservation land.  Lumbees are descended from Siouxan-speaking tribes that were driven out of North Carolina or exterminated in their original forms. The survivors escaped to isolated areas that also attracted free blacks, escaped slaves, and whites, so Lumbees in antebellum censuses were counted not as Indians, but as “free people of color.”

Lumbees faced persecution and violence, and they learned to respond in kind. During the 1950s they famously clashed with the Ku Klux Klan, after a Klan leader began a campaign of harassment aimed at them.  On January 18, 1958, about 100 Klansmen gathered for a rally at Hayes Pond, near Maxton, and were overwhelmed by perhaps 400 Lumbees who eventually opened fire, inflicting minor wounds on four Klansmen; the others panicked and fled, and the Indians celebrated by burning the Klan’s regalia.  Today, the Lumbees still celebrate the Battle of Hayes Pond.

I learned about Hayes Pond at rest stop number three.  The University of North Carolina at Pembroke had a nice Lumbee cultural center and museum, and at 50 miles and counting, it was a good place to take a break.  Jenny, with whom I had been playing tag all day, was sitting on the front steps with a couple of other people. It was hot, and none of us felt much motivation to go on.  But we had twenty more miles to go.  They were on big flat roads, past wide-open agribusiness fields, a fairground, and then next to Interstate 74 for the last eight miles.

Deep into the last hour of the ride, focused on nothing except the motel I had decided to check into that night, I was yanked back into the world by an older man, with a silent little boy standing next to him, who was yelling out “where you from?” to the riders as they passed him by. I circled around and got into a conversation with the guy, who was impressed and a little puzzled that I had driven down from New York just to do this.  “I’m going to Carolina Beach in the morning to go fishing,” he said. “Don’t you want to just put it in the back of my truck?”  He was joking, but I was conflicted. A couple of days of beer, lawn chairs, and surf tackle sounded pretty good.  Oh well, you can’t be everywhere.

Lumberton had planned quite a party for the riders, but I skipped it.  Jim was meeting his brother Paul, who would ride with us for the last two days; they had decided to get a motel room out by the interstate, and I decided to do the same.  I checked into a Best Western and marveled at the cleanliness, the deluxe linens, and the first total silence and darkness I had experienced in five days.  I spent two hours spreading out gear, drying it, and repacking before meeting Paul and Jim for dinner, and we were all asleep by 10pm.  If you want to appreciate your bedroom more, sleep on the ground for five days.

Day 6: Lumberton to White Lake

We pull into traffic at 7:20 am. It’s three miles to downtown Lumberton on Fayetteville Road, and we’re dodging oversized pickup trucks. The ride is a lesson in corporate geography. Near I-95 it’s a scrum of big boxes, chain motels, and fast food restaurants, most of them already open for business, In the city, worn-looking local stores are sleeping late in old brick buildings.

Last night I wasted a half-hour wandering through a Wal-Mart that could have been anywhere while the other cyclists rocked out on Main Street, talking to locals and sampling whatever cuisine Lumberton is most proud of.  I didn’t mind.  The motel was just what I needed.  I depend on Interstates, although one has to remember that choosing them means that you’ll miss most of the interesting stuff.

After a week of cycling, this has become a job. It’s a job I love, the kind that leaves a person tired and satisfied at the end of the day.  My brain is full of images and empty of noise.  After hours of steady physical exertion, it’s impossible to focus on worries or schemes. I can’t think very much about the past or the future, because it takes a lot of effort just to keep moving forward fast enough to finish before dark.  What’s required is an intense focus on the next 20 yards of road.  That is liberating.

Lumberton is a blue-collar town, nothing fancy. We leave it gradually, and the space between the buildings increases with the size of the tilled fields.  It’s dry but cloudy, humid, and about 68 degrees, perfect weather for riding.  A plume of smoke from a slash fire joins the clouds seamlessly, reminding me that despite all the soybeans, sorghum, and peanuts, Lumberton is still about lumber.

The roads are almost perfectly flat with no wind, so it is easy to add on the miles.  Despite the lack of topography, I find the low country landscape more interesting than the piedmont or the mountains.  The forests and swamps are mysterious. They can seem menacing or majestic, and I always get the feeling that there are good stories hidden almost anywhere you might look.  One reason for the low country’s narrative fecundity is that homo sapiens has inhabited it for tens of thousands of years. And things got really interesting 300 years ago, when people from Europe and Africa began their uneasy coexistence.

The Regan Methodist Church, our first rest stop, was organized around 1783.  Camp meetings have been held on the site since the 1840s, and (I was told) the present structure dates to the 1870s. The exterior of the church has recently been re-clad in brick, so it doesn’t look like anything special.  But the interior is original and paneled in dark-stained, first-growth North Carolina pine, also known as “heart pine.”  The wood is so dense that it’s difficult to drive a nail into it.  It is so disease-resistant that it looks fresh 140 years after it was cut.  It is a museum of North Carolina’s glorious forested past.  Today’s pine trees are like Styrofoam in comparison.

Flat, flat, flat.  My mind’s a blank.  Then, out of nowhere, I start thinking about another writing project I have been struggling with — a long, complicated one — and an outline for the whole thing materializes in my head.  It’s such a powerful vision that I stop and dictate what I’m thinking into my phone before it fades.  Amazing, what your mind can accomplish once you give it a good rest.  I might have saved myself several days of pencil-biting just then.

And it’s amazing how spacey this kind of thing makes you, too.  I pull into the second rest stop, Lu Mil Vineyard, a “winery” that seems to sell mostly grape juice, jelly, and gimcracky stuff aimed at middle-aged couples.  Wandering around in a pleasant, endorphin-enhanced fog, I see a cart that seats 15 people at a bar, with their legs attached to pedals, so that the riders get to drink while riding slowly around the grape arbors. An employee who isn’t drinking steers.  That is way too interesting.

Jenny, with whom I am playing tag again, is apparently in the same addled state.  We find ourselves walking back toward our bikes together, but she has to turn around because she has forgotten her water bottle.  I tell her it’s because she is so absorbed in the moment, and she thanks me for the compliment.  She thinks it is because she’s flaky and stoned on endorphins.  No, I say, you’re creative.  We pull out of the parking lot together but she’s gone quickly.  Even among the monks, I am one of the slow ones.

Another ten miles go by.  Jim calls from Elizabethtown to tell me that he and Paul are at Melvin’s and it’s not to be missed.  I arrive just as they are finishing.  Melvin’s is an old-fashioned hamburger stand.  They have been in business since the 1930s, and it doesn’t look like much has changed.  I get two with “the works,” which means coleslaw and some kind of seasoned salt, and it’s worth the price just to watch the amazing hand motions of the girl on the burger assembly line.  She’s really cranking them out. Jim was right, too: they are damn good.

We pull out of Elizabethtown together, but nature takes its course and I am soon alone again.  The next stage is twenty miles of pine trees, mostly in the Bladen State Forest, which means another two hours of beautiful monotony.  The third rest stop is at Jones Lake State Park, which was improved by the federal Works Projects Administration for the use of blacks during the Depression.  It was the one of the only places around here where blacks were allowed to swim until 1965.  Our destination is White Lake, which (I am told) is named for its white sandy bottom.  The bottom of Jones Lake is black mud.  This makes me wonder.

We cycle past a middle school, where an acolyte of Bart Simpson has prepared a special greeting. Someone has thrown tacks onto the road, and lots of cyclists have suffered flat tires.  The police have arrived and are cleaning things up, but we’re told to dismount and walk 100 yards. As I’m walking, I peer into the woods to see if I can spot the snickering 12-year-old who is having a really good day.  I don’t see anything, and ride on.

The last five miles go through the village of White Lake, which is really a ring of run-down motels, trailers, and some marginally pretentious houses around a large body of water.  I notice that one of the nicer structures is for sale, and the sign says the listing price is $700,000.  Can that be true?  If it is, the Future Farmers of America summer camp where we’re staying is worth tens of millions.  But it’s a charming place dating to the 1920s, with well-appointed public spaces and run-down screened bunkhouses that make it unnecessary to pitch a tent. It is by far the nicest campsite of the trip.

I pick out a bunk and run over to the lake and jump in.  It’s wonderful.  The lake is shallow and warm, and it does indeed have a sandy bottom.  You can go 30 or 40 yards out and still stand up.  They call this “the safest beach in America” because the Village prohibits bars and sales of beer.  But Dawn Maynard, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, has drummed up a party for us anyway. She is running around like a maniac because the vendors she is expecting haven’t shown up yet, and someone needs to feed the cyclists who are pulling in.  She keeps pulling out a handheld microphone and apologizing to the crowd.  But there are people selling food, and I feel sorry for them.

I run into John, who has been finished for a while.  He rode hard today and is drinking a huge cup of lemonade.  He’s outraged, as usual, by the rudeness of the riders.  “See that old lady?,” he says.  He points at tough-looking little woman, perhaps in her mid-60s, who’s standing alone, still clad in bike shorts and a jersey.  “She went up to the sandwich stand and ordered a barbeque sandwich with slaw on it.  The lady at the stand said, ‘ma’am, we’re out of slaw.’  But the old bat just stood there and demanded cole slaw for her sandwich, holding up the line and throwing a hissy fit.  I wanted to slap her.”

That is, indeed, horrifying behavior, particularly when the locals who are serving us are working their butts off and doing everything they can to show us a good time.  But, I tell John, maybe we should cut the poor old thing a break. Just look at her.  She’s completely tuckered out, she’s just had a tantrum, and now she’s standing there all by herself. Elderly people whose electrolyte balances are out of whack don’t always show us their best sides, especially if they’re used to desk jobs or golf.

“I don’t care,” he says.  “It’s inexcusable.”

You’re right, I say.  And there is also an ugly ruling-class taint to it.  Damn it, she is saying, I am on vacation, I have plenty of folding money, and I want slaw.  What are you, a lowly service provider, going to do about it?   Yes, John, however you slice it, it’s an ugly thing. The FFA Camp at White Lake is beautiful, but today it is being ruined by unpleasant people.

We need to go into town for dinner, and I am itching to get onto a computer.  Dawn Maynard, who is the hardest-working person in White Lake right now, has arranged for a bus to drive us into Elizabethtown. I grab a seat and in a few minutes arrive at the Bladen County Public Library.  It’s in a beat-up building and is clearly underfunded, but the desk ladies are smiling and selling raffle tickets. They cheerfully grant me access to the Internet for an hour, along with the last three editions of the Charlotte News & Observer.  Public libraries are among the more encouraging features of western civilization.

I meet Jim, Paul, and John, and we pig out at the Front Porch restaurant. It’s the last dinner of the ride, and The Front Porch offers Southern cuisine at its most plentiful, so I load up on fried chicken and okra, collards, biscuits, a little creamed chicken to go on top of those, some of that dang ole slaw – it just goes on and on.  Oh my God, there are even some pork cracklins.  That’s going too far, even for me.  But my license to overeat is about to expire, so I go for it. Yes, I do have some room left for banana pudding with Nilla Wafers.

The president of the local community college is driving the shuttle bus that takes us home.  That would not happen in my hometown.  John and I say goodnight to Jim and Paul, who go to a motel.  John confesses that he isn’t feeling well.  Maybe he’s dehydrated, or maybe he just hasn’t been sleeping well.  He calls his wife, who is just two hours away in Raleigh, and asks her to pick him up early.  I keep him company while he waits for her, and we talk about politics.

I can tell that John is leaning toward voting for Mitt Romney, but he is also pretty disgusted with the whole process.  I tell him why I think Obamacare is worth supporting, and he listens respectfully.  His biggest problem with Obama, he says, is the guy’s leadership style. He doesn’t think it’s appropriate for him to keep blaming George W. Bush. A Commander-In-Chief needs to take responsibility for the problems under his command, he says.  I can see his point.

This is what politics should be like in the USA. When you get away from the marketing machine and the media echo chamber, and you just sit down and talk to someone, it isn’t that hard, either.  John and I didn’t agree, but we parted as friends, and I’d like to think that we both learned something.  Why don’t people do this more often?

I say goodbye to John and walk back to the main pavilion, where a tight little garage band called “South of Sanity” is playing covers with precision and energy. I run into Alan Walshe, who also cannot understand why so many of the people here don’t seem to be having a good time.  Alan, who looks to be about the same age as my 26-year-old son, rode his fully loaded bicycle from his home in Wilmington to the starting line in Brevard, and now he’s riding back.  “This is absolutely fantastic,”  he says.  He’s right, too. It has been one hell of a ride.

I go to sleep on a foam mattress in an old bunkhouse, with earplugs walling me off from the diminishing noise of camp.  I have always felt completely comfortable in places like this.  I think it started when I was a homesick nine-year-old at a YMCA camp back in Florida.  I was sleeping in a screened bunkhouse just like this one. I woke up as dawn was breaking, and before I could experience panic or loneliness, I saw how beautiful it was outside, and just stared.  As the light gathered strength, I pulled out my stainless-steel Sony transistor radio in its leather case, and put in its single earplug.  I remember listening to “Alley Cat” and being amazed at how peaceful I felt.

Now it’s 44 years later. I’m still in the bunkhouse, not as desperate in some ways but more desperate in others, and I’m still searching for the same feeling.

Day 7, White Lake to Carolina Beach

I was sorry to leave White Lake. It was a beautiful morning, with the kind of sunrise that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and stare. So I did stare and dawdle, a little, before mounting up for the last day. After I said goodbye to the woman from Lumberton (see introduction), I went back to my bike and found myself feeling grateful to it. Whenever one develops emotions toward an inanimate object, it’s a sure sign that something important is going on.  Perhaps unhealthy, too.  I was half sorry to be finishing the ride, and half eager to get it over with and re-join my world.

The route took us back into pine forests, with houses, churches, old cemeteries, and barns occasionally hidden into the trees.  As the flat miles rolled on and the mist turned to heat, the “get it over with” half of me started to take command.  There was still a lot of history in the woods, but there wasn’t much to see.

We pulled into the first rest stop at Potter’s Store, a rural gas-and-grocery with a large candy aisle that had several regional specialties.   I bought a handful of Squirrel Nut Zippers, which are caramels made in Boston that for some reason are almost impossible to find north of the Mason-Dixon Line, as well as two Chick-O-Stix, which are made in Lufkin, Texas and taste like the inside of a Butterfingers bar.  It was funny and touching to see several cyclists seated at a communal table with guys in gimme caps and overalls, all of them drinking coffee and shooting the breeze.  They were all men of about the same age – only the clothes were different.

The second rest stop was at the site of a glorious massacre.  On February 26, 1776, a group of British loyalists attempted to cross a log bridge over Moores Creek.  They were pursuing a group of Patriots, but in reality they were all local people with single-loader rifles.  The ships carrying British regulars hadn’t arrived yet.  The Patriots booby-trapped the bridge by greasing it and hid on the far side. When the Loyalists finally got across, bruised and dripping icy water, the Patriots mowed them down. This discouraged the British army so much that they decided not to invade North Carolina at all, allowing Tarheel soldiers to head north and join the Continental Army.  Now it’s a National Battlefield, complete with historical re-enactors.  Boom!

I decided to use the Moores Creek stop to find out more about a rider I had been noticing for several days now. James Peiffer lives in Newark, Ohio, a small town about 50 miles east of Columbus.  He packed his bike in a box and flew into Raleigh to get to the shuttle bus, but unlike the other riders, he spent the night in the airport.  James wore the same outfit every day:  a long-sleeved button down shirt with a collar, bell-bottom jeans, and heavy black street shoes. The front wheel of his ten-speed bike was egg-shaped, and it made a thwocking sound when he rode.  He didn’t talk, ever, to anybody.  He barely talked to me, but he did allow me to photograph him and his bike.  Later I called him to learn more.

James is 65 and works as a custodian.  He has ridden the length or width of 20 states, usually with organized rides, and he says he particularly liked Minnesota because of the mix of farms, forests, and lakes.  James fortified his rear rack with wood to hold panniers, which he didn’t need this time because of the luggage truck.  He carried a tarp on the rear rack because he didn’t have room for it in the black cardboard box he used for his tent and luggage.  He had built a front rack out of lumber and had hung a fanny pack from it, and he completed his kit with two very used-looking water bottles.

Before I called James, I thought he was either mentally ill or the Buddha.  Now I think he is just an ordinary guy, and also perhaps the coolest person I met on the ride.  He doesn’t have a lot of money, and his severe stutter keeps him from making small talk, but this is a guy who clearly rides for love.  The warped wheel, the 15-pound racks, the dollar store clothes — so what?  He’s out there.  He turned 65 in June.  Long may you ride, James!

The last half of the ride was hot and boring, but not in a good way.  We got back on US 74 and rode eight miles into Wilmington, as the city traffic increased, and by the time we turned to go into the city, I was in full urban riding mode.  We crossed a huge bridge over the Cape Fear River, high enough to let cargo ships under it, and plopped into a third rest stop on the edge of downtown.  There I met up with Jenny Hilton and Alan Walshe, and the three of us rode through their home town.

Alan and Jenny were both going to pass by their houses on the way to the finish line.  Neither of them said they would stop, but I teased them about whether or not they were curious about their bathrooms, kitchens, beds, and cats.   We rode through Wilmington’s historic district and it was much nicer than I had expected – kind of like New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah, but smaller and more manageable.  Alan peeled off to ride two blocks over and shout at his roommate.  He came back grinning.  “I’m riding for the ice cream,” he said, and Jenny agreed.

The last stretch of the trip went along Greenfield Lake, a long urban parkway, and then past the Cameron Art Museum and onto River Road. We rode for miles along the river, miles and miles.  The final rest stop featured Nye’s Ice Cream Sandwiches, an excellent local product, but it wasn’t enough to get my mind off of the imminent end of this long march.  We rode down the river until it became a peninsula called Carolina Beach, and then, all at once, it was over.  Here was the beach, and here was another party with loud music and exhausted people staring blankly while stuffing themselves.  I looked for someone from Cycle North Carolina to thank, but I couldn’t find anyone.  So I found Jim, threw my bike in his car, and headed for a real shower and a real bed.

I would leave again tomorrow, if I could.  Riding mile after mile, with my preoccupations temporarily disabled, I get to enjoy long periods of what a Buddhist would call mindfulness, or an attentive awareness of reality.  Mindfulness becomes power when it is coupled with a clear comprehension of whatever is taking place.  Because it is a form of meditation, bicycle touring allows me to cultivate a calm awareness of feelings, sensations, thoughts, and consciousness itself.  When you are within this calmness, it is easier to find wisdom.

Writing this blog has been another pleasure, because for me, the joy of riding fuels the joy of writing. I hope you have enjoyed it, too.

Smaller Adventures Travel Writing

2012 AIDS Ride: Pure Gravy

Dear Gene & Ashley, David, John (both of yez), Susan, Alex, Michael & Jennifer, Saoirse, Jeff, Sandy, Emma, and Jim & Sarah:

Thanks for contributing to my ride around Cayuga Lake last Saturday, Sept. 15.  You helped me raise $395 for the Southern Tier Aids Coalition.  I rode with Tania and my neighbor, Nancy Wells, as a team called Cats of Short Street: together we raised $1,735, of which Nancy raised $995.  Nancy smacked us down on the asphalt, too.  She and her riding buddy, Lynn Wiles, rode away from Short Street at 7am and we didn’t see her again until Seneca Falls, 50 miles later.  We talked to Nancy for about two minutes before we waved bye-bye to her receding backside, and we didn’t see with her again until after she had taken a nap and showered for dinner.  She tried to make us feel better by telling us how hard it was for her.

Tania and I are firmly in the plodding tourist category of road rider.  We have done the AIDS ride several times, and this year was typical. It was absolutely a great day on the bike.  The ride starts near daylight and heads north on Route 34, up the east side of the lake, and there’s usually a good sunrise to be seen. I made an unsafe move and snapped this image as I started off, near the middle of the pack of about 400 riders.  Click on the thumbnail image to see the whole photo. And don’t try this yourself.

But then I did it again.  North of the village of Union Springs, about 35 miles into the ride, the clouds got thick enough to be threatening.  Luckily, they never opened up. A cold front had come through the night before, and we rode north into a fresh 15 MPH north wind — not enough to be really annoying, but enough to keep the jacket on and also to be a big relief when we got to Routes 5 and 20 and turned left.

One of the best things about spending the whole day on a bike is that you get long stretches of time to think.  I don’t usually do much heavy mental lifting on a ride, but every once in a while something I see will spark an association.  Just north of Aurora (mile 30), several fire trucks, ambulances, and then civilian trucks sporting store-bought emergency lights passed us headed south, sirens bleeping and blooping.  At first I thought about how great these volunteer first responders are — it’s 9:30 am on Saturday and the beeper goes off, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you jump in the car and speed off to help somebody.  Truly they are heroes, blah blah blah.  But then I had a second thought, which is that this is probably the high point of the weekend for these guys (and they are almost always guys).  Living in Union Springs probably gets pretty boring — I mean, middle age gets boring anywhere, but in Union Springs, the sameness of the days is probably acute. So how great is it to do a little legal speeding, maybe make some noise with your siren, see a fire or some other distress, and then come home with a big juicy story to tell everybody you see for the rest of the weekend?  Everybody wins, I think.

The STAP volunteers made us feel like heroes all day long, cheering and holding up signs and so on.  We tried to remain low-key in our responses, but it did work.  Praise always works.  They fed us well at the rest stops and at lunch in Seneca Falls, where we saw Nancy getting one of the free massages (she said it was the best massage of her life — context matters) before she sped off.

The ride home on Route 89 was pure gravy, with a tailwind and sunny skies.  and it’s always great to stop at Cayuga Creamery in Interlaken, the home of truly superior frozen custard.  Another great thing about riding is you can eat whatever you want and not feel guilty.  In fact, you need to keep tossing back sugary stuff all day long.  Coach says to.

We got back to the house about 3:30 pm, a full hour earlier than we had in previous rides.  Part of it was that I only rode 85 miles this year instead of the full 100, but it was also important that Tania has been going to the gym pretty religiously.  She is 15 pounds lighter than she was when we did the ride in 2011. Do not bet against a Werbizky.  And thanks to my nephew, Morgan Bausman, for snapping this great photo.  You cannot possibly imagine how good it felt to take a hot shower just after this picture was taken.

Hey, thanks a lot for your help.  And if you’re a rider, consider joining us next year.  It’s a great time, and it raised $216,000 that will help local people with HIV lead better lives.