A yellow lab bounds up and sniffs me, rousing me from my reverie. His owner is close behind, she wears a red ball cap and hiking sticks like ski poles. Her blond hair is tied in pigtails. She smiles and lightly scolds the dog. I pat the pup on his head, he licks my salty, ham-flavored calves. Soon, dog and owner bound away. I swaddle my shoe snugly in black tape.
Halfway up the rocky climb, my rear wheel catches on a rock ledge. The bike and I come to a full stop. I dismount, gasping for breath, and start walking the bike up the rest of the hill.
Normally, I would have cleared that climb. But I’m tired and the legs are starting to fail. It’s late in the day and late in the week. I have been in Sedona for five days now and I have logged more than 100 miles on trails, including the 25 already behind me today.
Both knees bear bloody witness to the rugged terrain. The left, already starting to heal, the right, fresh with dark clotted blood mixed with the fine red sand, has just stopped oozing. My right shoe is taped together, having lost the buckle in the crash that split my knee. My cap and gloves are frosted white from the salt of dried sweat.
There’s a half-eaten granola bar in my right pocket and a map in my back pocket. My forearms and shins bear the pricks and scrapes of a thousand desert plants, all of which are trying to kill me.
Clouds have rolled in with the hard wind. Still, it’s bright and clear and I squint, even through sunglasses. Dust swirls and tries to find purchase in my eyes and nose. A sudden gust rises gooseflesh as it passes against the sweat trapped under my jersey.
I am alone. My friends have slowly peeled off during the course of the day, one-by-one and two-by-two. We all finally parted ways at the festival grounds, where I ate ham and cheese wrapped in a tortilla and drank a cold beer on the grass. My friends wanted to drive to the Grand Canyon. I chose to stay and ride my bike back to the hotels on dirt trails. I left my lunch spot over an hour ago and have only made it four miles on the rocky red terrain. My short, nine-mile trail home has over 1,000 feet of punchy elevation change.
As I push the bike up the trail, my heart rate returns to normal, but more slowly than usual. I take a bite of granola bar, a swig of water. Cresting the top, the rocks continue slightly to rise to the left ahead, and so, I continue to push the bike a few dozen more feet.
At the summit, I see a left-hand switchback and more rocks. No place to clip in, so I keep walking, using the bike as a sort of walking stick to gain purchase on the dry sandy ground. As I clear the bend, I find myself on a grey slickrock ledge, the trail edge a steep dropoff to the valley below. I clip in and slow pedal around the bend. Within a few minutes, the tape holding my shoe together succumbs to all of the walking on sharp rocks, and gives up. So I sit. I pull the roll of tape out of my pack. Another mouthful of granola bar. As I sit, my sunbaked brain begins to process my surroundings. The craggy trees and cactus, the red rock, the bushy green valley bellow, and the layered, multicolored mesas surrounding me on all sides. A raven hang-glides overhead.
I remount the bike and drop the seatpost for the rocky downhill ahead. My calves burn and my wrists ache as the landscape rockets by. The wind cuts my face. My hips remember, without my conscious control to swing and swivel, to point the bike where it’s supposed to go.
In two days, I will be back at work, back at my desk. I will have my khakis, a red light on my phone indicating messages, a couple hundred unread emails, an overstuffed mailbox. My colleagues will ask me “how was your trip?” And I will reply “Fine. I had a good time.”