A Journey of Discovery: A Bike Tour to Mesa, Arizona

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By David Ward — I hate getting old. Can I just say that? Hearing, eyesight, arthritis . . . it’s all a pain. Physically, mentally and emotionally. I have been an active person all my life because it was fun and good therapy. Now I find myself at the stage where, in addition to fun and therapy, I pursue physical activity to retard the ravages of advancing age.

Dave Ward at the start of the ride. Photo by Karma Ward

I have ridden the LOTOJA, solo, 30 times, and I used to tell people that it was my annual battle against aging. Well, I have now retreated from that particular battle front and adopted a different tactic: Multi-day touring. So it was that last April I made the decision that come fall I was going to pedal from my driveway in Salt Lake City to the driveway of my daughter, Marielle, in Mesa, Arizona. It was a good decision, and what a grand experience it turned out to be.

I have to confess, this was not hard core touring. My wife, Karma, bless her soul, offered to drive support for me. And each night, except once, we stayed in motels (and one Airbnb). So I was able to ride, instead of a loaded touring bike, my light weight carbon fiber racing bike, a Bianchi Sempre.

Still, riding 60-80 miles a day, day after day for 11 days, was a new challenge for me, especially at 68 years of age. Back in April, it seemed like a very doable thing. As it approached, however, I started becoming concerned. First, many people worried about the traffic, telling me to be careful. Of course, I have ridden in traffic my whole cycling life. So looking at it rationally, I knew that needn’t be a concern. But at a deeper level, a little anxiety began to build.

Then, people also worried about autumn’s unpredictable weather. Given I would be riding a lot at higher elevations, that was a fair concern. But I also knew I had the gear for inclement weather, and at worst, I might have to wait out severe snow conditions. Still, as the start drew near, predictions were nearly 100% for some heavy rain storms, at least for the first few days. And a little more anxiety began to build.

Finally, as my departure day approached, I began to worry about being able to grind out 60-80 miles a day for 11 days. I have recognized, as the years have passed, that my strength and speed were waning. This also added to my increasing anxiety.

September 28: Finally, on the morning of Saturday, September 28th, I mounted my bike and with Karma taking departure photos rode out my driveway and headed south. With heavy, dark clouds overhead, I fully expected it to rain. And indeed, just a few miles from my home it did. But it only lasted about 45 seconds and as I began to approach the south end of the Salt Lake valley, the clouds had mostly cleared.

But that is when I was greeted by a southwest head/cross wind. It wasn’t too bad till I reached the north end of Utah Lake. But then, for the next 30+ miles, I was pummeled by a vicious wind all the way to Goshen. From there, I picked up a nice tailwind into Santaquin, where we were spending the night. I had logged 77 miles, and I was beat. And being only Day 1, I was definitely worried being able to log 60 miles the next day, much less each of the next 10 days.

September 29: It lightninged, thundered and rained during the night. When I headed out, it was still overcast and threatening rain. About 10 miles into this day’s 60 mile ride to Gunnison, though, the clouds began to thin and it eventually cleared up. In fact, for the rest of my sojourn to Mesa, I had sunny days with no or very few clouds. The gods were smiling on me.

The weird place. Photo by David Ward

For her part, Karma drove to the top of the Mt. Nebo Loop and did a 3 mile hike. Then, after driving to Gunnison, she rode her bike back to meet and accompany me the final 5 miles into Gunnison.

I was pleased that I had recovered well, and the ride this day, while cool all day, was pleasant and scenic. Indeed, this was the first time I had ever ridden through Levan, the first of many small rural towns and communities I would pass through and a treat for my rural grown soul.

September 30: This day’s ride took me 69 miles from Gunnison to Marysvale. Highway 89 is the main road through this valley. Indeed, it is the main road all the way to Kanab, just north of the Arizona border. But I followed the less traveled country roads through Axtell, Redmond, Salina, Aurora and Venice before meeting Karma for lunch in Richfield. This was the most refreshing, charming and scenic morning of my trip. I loved rolling through these pleasant small towns and the fields and pastures surrounding them.

From Richfield, I continued on the less-traveled roads through Monroe, Joseph and Sevier before arriving in Marysvale, our resting place for the night. Except for Richfield, I had never been through any of these towns. But this is an area I would love to come and ride again.

October 1: A short but stiff climb out of Marysvale was the start to today’s ride. One of my shorter rides on this trek, 52 miles, my route led me alongside Piute Reservoir and the Sevier River, through Junction and Circleville and all the way to this day’s destination, Panguitch. Lunch was purchased at Stan’s Merc in Circleville, a small mercantile store which I feel certain has a little bit of everything. As I ate my lunch just outside of Stan’s, I watched and listened as people came in and out, greeting and conversing with each other. Clearly this was a community where most people know and accept each other, and it fondly reminded me of the small Idaho community in which I grew up.

A highlight of the day was Butch Cassidy’s childhood home just south of Circleville. Karma, who had done a 5 mile hike just outside of Marysvale, happened to arrive there just as I did, and we were able to stroll through this historic site together.

From there, I followed the Sevier River up Circleville Canyon till it crested onto the plateau and the final 15 mile push into Panguitch. And push it was, as I faced for the first time since Day 1 a stiff headwind through that stretch. But this stretch also brought me the unique sight, virtually out in the middle of nowhere, of a . . . well, I am not sure what to call it. It was a scene of dinosaur, human and other skeletons atop a tractor, motorcycle and steamroller, in jail and generally just hanging around. So cool. This is why I love exploring on a bike.

Dinner that night found us at the Cowboy BBQ being served by a waiter from Serbia working there for the summer (and returning home the next day). Having visited Serbia twice, we formed a quick connection with him that made for a fun evening. And the food was great.

It was also just outside this restaurant where I encountered the first cyclist I had seen since leaving Salt Lake. He was on a loaded touring ride from California to Florida.

October 2: Covering 75 miles, today’s ride was varied and very beautiful. Leaving Panguitch, I again followed the Sevier River through Hatch, and then later crossing over it before starting the climb up to Gravel Pass, my first real climb of this trip. It was also my first entry into forested terrain, a nice change. From the top of the pass, I had a nice, very long descent through beautiful alpine countryside to Glendale where I met Karma for lunch.

After lunch, I rode through Orderville and Mt. Carmel, passing the summer home of famed painter, Maynard Dixon. Who knew he had a summer home in southern Utah? Well, now I do, thanks to bike touring.

Shortly thereafter, I passed through Mt. Carmel Junction and the turnoff to the east entrance to Zion’s National Park. At this junction I saw some cyclists, a tour group preparing to ride to Zion’s. About a mile after that, I encountered a stiff 2 mile climb, at the top of which I saw another cyclist. I debated whether to stop and visit but felt an impulse to do so. Good thing. Turns out she was with the tour group I had seen back at Mt. Carmel Junction. The first one ready to ride, she had decided to get a head start. But now she was wondering where the others of her tour group were, having expected some to catch up to her by this time. “This is the road to Zion’s Park, isn’t it?” she asked. No, it is not. Fortunate for her that I came along, and that I stopped. I turned her around, with instructions on the correct road to take. Thankfully, it would be a steep descent back to Mt. Carmel Junction where she could get on the right path.

For my part, it was then a fast descent and followed by a pleasant rolling ride to Kanab and on to Fredonia, the day’s destination and my entry into Arizona. Karma, who had found a scenic hike to do just above Kanab, met me in Fredonia, and we drove to St. George to spend a rest day with my daughter and her family.

October 4: Today we drove back to Fredonia and I picked up where I had left off two days before. The route for this day took me on a slow incline before tackling the long, steep climb up to Jacob’s Lake where I met Karma for lunch. After lunch and while stopping at Jacob’s Lodge to use the restroom facilities, I was greeted by a man from a tour group whose bus had passed me on the climb. He asked if he could buy me a cookie, saying he had told his fellow tourists he was going to do just that if he later saw me. Having just had lunch, I politely declined the cookie and thanked him for the compliment. Outside the lodge, the tour bus driver also complimented me on the climb. To be honest, it is not that bad a climb. I just set my pace and had a good ride up. But it is fun that it appears so impressive to others.

I then had a fast 10 mile descent off the plateau and a nice tailwind that pushed me the remaining 30 miles to Marble Canyon and our hotel for the night. Though I had logged 73 miles, I was feeling good, so Karma and I decided to ride the six miles from there to Lee’s Ferry and back, adding an additional 12 miles for a total this day of 85 miles.

Dave Ward in Lee's Ferry, Arizona. Photo by Karma Ward

October 5: My ride today took me from Marble Canyon to Cameron. This stretch of 73 miles looked to be the most boring day of my Salt Lake to Mesa trek. But I have learned that when riding my bike, there is no such thing as boring. You are not in a fast-moving box of metal and glass, but rather out in the elements. And while you are moving fast enough to cover a large chunk of miles, you are also going slow enough to really observe your surroundings. Today was no exception. The varying patterns and color of soil, rock and cliff through this stretch of desert was actually quite fascinating.

The real excitement for this day, however, was after my arrival in Cameron. We never made reservations anywhere during this trip. It was off-season so we did not expect motels to be full, and we could not be certain where we might end up on any given day. Also, we had brought a tent, mattress and sleeping bags, planning to camp a couple of nights. As it turned out, I realized that at the end of each day a warm room, comfortable bed and shower really sounded good, so the camping idea kind of went out the window.

Camping in front of the LDS Church. Photo by David Ward

But on this day, there was only one hotel in Cameron, and it was full. The next nearest hotel was in Tuba City, nearly 30 miles away. And there were no campgrounds nearby. Thanks to the Mormon missionaries, though, we were able to camp in the church parking lot. But that is a story for another day.

October 6: Getting from Cameron to Flagstaff was my shortest ride of this journey, 50 miles. After about 20 miles, the road rose from the desert as it climbed up into the Ponderosa forests surrounding Flagstaff. The view of San Francisco Mountain with its fall colors rising up to Humphrey’s Peak was a beautiful sight as I made my way from Cameron.

David Ward riding through the Ponderosas outside of Flagstaff. Photo by Karma Ward

Shortly after reaching the summit of the climb, I descended a few miles before meeting Karma for a lunch break prior to riding the last leg into Flagstaff and to our hotel where a relaxing hot tub awaited us.

October 7: This marked my first real change in plans. Originally, I planned to ride down through Sedona to Camp Verde, and the next day from there to Payson. However, taking a close look at the map and after some consideration, I altered my route to head to Mormon Lake and, the day following, on to Payson. This had the advantage of a somewhat shorter distance, a lot less climbing, and riding through Ponderosa forests all the way to Payson.

Mormon Lake is more of a pond than a lake. It came about when a large section of land simply sunk into the ground (a very non-geologist’s quick explanation), and the lake is created by each year’s runoff. The road to there from Flagstaff provided a beautiful, undulating ride past Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary.

Upon arriving, we discovered that what was once a very rough road circling around Mormon Lake had been closed all summer for repaving and had just been reopened a day or so before. So Karma got out her bike and we pedaled the 17 mile loop around the lake. It was a beautiful late afternoon ride, with the newest, smoothest asphalt I have ever ridden. Coupled with the 35 miles from Flagstaff, this gave me a total for the day of 52 miles. Also, it was during this ride that we learned Mormon Lake got its name because the first settler there was a Mormon who established a dairy farm adjacent to the lake.

October 8: My penultimate day was a 69 mile hilly ride from Mormon Lake to Payson with several steep climbs In exchange for these climbs, though, I had a seriously steep, fast, winding and exhilarating descent to Strawberry, and then further on to Pine. Climbing out of Pine, I had my first flat of this trip. While that was a bummer, I was grateful to have made it that far without a flat.

October 9: This was it. The last day of my grand adventure, my final 73 miles. While this day included some good climbs totaling 3700′, I also enjoyed 7000′ of descending. Much of my riding on this trip had been on less traveled roads. But there is only one road most of the way from Payson to Mesa. It is a busy but divided highway with a good shoulder all the way, so it was fine. And it passed through two little towns with the cool names of Rye and Sunflower.

Dave fixing his last flat. Photo by Karma Ward

Interestingly, after having no flats till yesterday’s ride to Payson, I had another flat on this last day. But getting out of the car after having lunch, my rear tire was flat. It was fine when I met Karma for lunch, so this was a surprise.

As this was my final day, I had expected to feel exhilarated. So I was surprised to find myself regretting that my adventure was coming to an end. Yes, I was excited to be successfully finishing my bike tour. But I had enjoyed this trip so immensely that I hated for it to finish.

Aftermath: During those long hours on the bike, I had visions that, during the days after my arrival, I would lounge by Marielle’s poole, glad to leave the bike in the garage. In fact, the morning of the next day, my body was telling me we needed to get up and get going. So Karma and I went for a ride, after which I felt compelled to put in a few extra miles. And I rode every day, except one, while I was in Mesa. I just felt compelled, and it felt good.

In Marielle’s driveway at the end of the ride. Photo by Karma Ward

A little word on nutrition. Being worried about cramping and having enough energy to do these long rides day after day, I made a very conscious effort to eat well and stay hydrated. I supplemented that with metabolytes and pickle juice, both of which seem to help. Anyway, it all worked. I never had any cramps, and I never bonked or lacked energy (though I was certainly fatigued by the end of each day’s ride).

Also, I was very fortunate with the weather. I was rained on for only 45 seconds the first day and it was overcast for a couple of hours the second. Thereafter, I had nothing but sunny skies. It was generally cool in the morning, but it always warmed up to between 55-75 degrees during the day. The conditions were ideal.

Finally, a big shout out to Karma. She is my wife, my best friend. All my experiences are better when shared with Karma, and having her along with me just made this experience even greater. But on top of that, she planned our meals, made sure we had what we needed, and was always there for me.

So, with the great success of this trip, Karma and I are planning our next cycling adventure. Here is the preliminary brainstorm: A relay ride from our home to the home of our daughter, Rachel, in Fort Worth, Texas. Karma and I will both ride sections each day, handing off to each other along the way. While one rides, the other will drive. We expect to take 4-6 weeks to complete this.

This is a big plan for us. But given the success and enjoyment of this bike tour from Salt Lake to Mesa, I feel confident we can do it.

 

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