Earthy and woodsy, Flagstaff feels like a frontier town engulfed in green from the surrounding national forest. A railroad bisects a compact business district where frequent freight trains frustrate cross-town traffic. The clang-clang-clang of alarm bells and low roar of the locomotive mentally transport me to pioneering days of yore.
In contrast to oversized Albuquerque, small-scale Flagstaff delights me. Restaurants, breweries and bike paths — even mountain bike trails — are close at hand, foot or wheel. Ponderosa pines aromatize the winter air. When it gets dark and cold, a whisky chai warms the heart at the bar inside the haunted Hotel Monte Vista.
Flag becomes my favorite stop since Tulsa in large part to my wonderful host. Brenna is a talented photographer when not at work as an administrator for the local university. She offers to drive to the Grand Canyon at sunrise to document my story on video. She thinks the backdrop of a natural wonder of the world is better than her living room. I don’t argue.
We awake at 5:30. The woods outside her house are black, cold and quiet. Together we struggle to hoist the bike upright onto the roof rack of her jellybean coupe. The bike almost doubles the height of her car. I’m nervous as hell it’s going to break off, shatter the windshield and send us into a death spiral. Brenna doesn’t share my concern as we speed through the darkness to break dawn at America’s grandest canyon.
During the drive, she opens up to me about divorcing her high school sweetheart.
“He came home one day and said, ‘I don’t want to be married. I don’t want to have a family. I don’t want anyone to care about me.’”
She found comfort on two wheels.
“Biking gave me community. Before I never felt like I was a part of anything. Through cycling I’ve found a female tribe and met amazing women who are strong and powerful and are inspirational about living life.”
Happily, Brenna also found love again. Since my visit she got married to a great guy who was the one who found me on social media. Without him, I wouldn’t be at the Grand Canyon.
First light reveals an overcast sky and nearly empty parking lot. I’m wearing all of my layers and they’re not enough. I can barely contain myself from chattering during our shoot. (Brenna did a great job. Click here or see the video below.)
Brenna drives back to Flagstaff for work and I check into the historic Bright Angel Lodge, built in 1935. Even a no-view cabin is a splurge, but I can’t be camping outside with lightweight gear in this cold. I leave the trailer at the bell desk and go for a spin along the rim. Instinctively, I head west.
It’s my second time here. I first visited with my parents as a kid one summer. I remember hordes of tourists lining up to photograph the sunset. My younger sister got lost in the shuffle and I almost became an only child.
This time, it’s winter and I have the place to myself. The road to Hermits Rest is eight miles and I’m loving every foot.
I feel a raw connection to the road at the edge of the South Rim. Biking is like running on the beach without shoes whereas driving is running on the sand in sneakers. I can pull over, dismount and explore anywhere I want. Cars cannot. Vehicle occupants often settle for a view through the window and shrug off the missed opportunity.
Nature’s brash display of raw power makes my spine tingle, even on a day when clouds mute the canyon’s colors. With only wind to buffer me from the abyss, I reckon with mortality and helplessness of having only a bicycle to cross this continent.
Getting a lift to the Grand Canyon made this memorable detour possible. With Brenna gone, I’ve got to get out of here on my own. Thankfully I’m ready to demo some technology that will give me an edge over nature — or so I believe. With technology, what could go wrong?