29 November 2006
We searched around for internet hoping to establish our plans with the Grand Canyon. My conversation with the park ranger in the region above the Canyon was dismal, offensive even. Just uttering the idea of fixin’ to reckon on thinking about possibly attempting to access the North Rim, forced him to treat the conversation as if was made collect from an asylum. The next plan was to call him up pretending to be a cross country skier, interested in playing in his forest on my winter friendly sports gear. This ploy gained nothing useful from the ranger who picked up the phone and said patronizingly.“Well, if you look up the weather for Jacob Lake, that should tell you everything you need to know.”
“Can’t you just look outside and tell me how much snow there is on the ground?” I Pleaded.
“I don’t know, can’t say for certain.” He replied dumbly.
“Well do you know if there was anywhere that we can get some food supplies in the town.?”
“Jacob’s Lake Inn has some food, you can give them a call at 7232.”
Jacob´s Lake claimed that they could not sell us any real groceries and that there was a good foot to two feet of soft powdery snow that would prove quite difficult to plow through on a bike. The collective decision we made a few towns back was that we were just going to head to the south rim, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I had resolved to cross the canyon solo and meet the others later, and with such forceful resolution I helped sway the decision to go for it. We had arrived at a few ultimatums to help us decide. Both of which we patently ignored. “Okay so if there is more than a foot of snow or if we can’t get food in Jacob Lake, we’ll bail and head to straight to the south Rim.” I decreed.
“So there is 1-2 feet of snow and we’ll have to carry our food all the way from Page. Shoot. We should flip a coin.” I said.
“If it lands on heads, we use ‘em and skip the canyon, tails, we bust ours and go for it.” I said with a quarter in my hand.
Sean had temporarily bailed on the idea and was going to meet us at the South Rim if we made it.
There we have it. Our fullproof oracle has spoken and our fate certain.
Sean couldn’t resist missing out on the absurd plan and somewhat begrudgingly offered to join us.
At the visitor’s center we met Ron Watch, a Navajo native who owned and operated the e-café and visitor’s center, which also doubled as a community center. We had missed a Navajo metal show by just a few days. The building was a round patio with a huge double fireplace and open roofed center. It was called the Shepherd’s Eye due to it’s circular architecture. Ron had long black hair, and dark eyes that burned with intensity. Past his stern appearance, he was an incredibly kind of and thoughtful individual who offered to let us sleep in the courtyard. It was supposed to drop down to -4 that night and we wished nothing more than to secure a bit of warmth for our near future.
We took the opportunity to do some laundry that desperately needed attention. My socks were so crusty that I could actually stand them upright, as if my foot was still in them. We were not the only ones eager to restore a bit of freshness to our clothing as we squeeze our way into the frantic Laundromat filled with Navajo kids who seemed to all but spin themselves silly in the “there’s too much chaos in here for me to sit still” cycle. One girl was dragging around her friend with short hair and two pierced ears, maybe 5-6 years old, erupting in spontaneous fits of “rolling on the Laundromat floor.” The girl with pierced ears did a spiraling maneuver with a great big smile and twirled out of the girls grips and disappeared behind an aisle of washing machines. </font></p>
Sean’s birthday was on this fateful evening and we did our best to celebrate the occasion. Since we were in Navajo country, there was no alcohol to be found for hundreds of miles (unless you know the right people in the town, of whom we did not). We got 10 dollars worth of beef “slabs,” a mysterious cut of meat that did in fact resemble a steak in appearance, particularly if you kind of cross your eyes and blur your vision as if you were looking at one of those “seeing eye” posters. Strapped for cash as usual we also opted for the cheapest barbecue sauce we could find, and completed the meal with random veggies.
Campfires are a rarity in our world and grilled food is tough to beat, so we were drooling with anticipation for the feast.
The fire was roaring and we gave a good long thought to sleeping near it. But when the time came to go to sleep, we went straight towards the heated bathroom and rolled out our tarps and pads in our own respective stalls. I imagined that Sean would have never guessed at any point in his entire life that he would be spending his 23<sup>rd</sup> birthday sleeping in a bathroom in the small Navajo town of Kayenta. We couldn’t sleep right away and spent a good amount of the night’s bathroom slumber party with nonsensical comments.
A long chilly ride towards Kaibeto was blessed with a tailwind and relatively flat riding. By the end of the day, I was far ahead of the others and too cold to stop. So I rode towards a nearby ranch house, disturbed their dog and horse until I found a path towards the home. An older man waved at me and jogged towards his house, which after 77 years of life, assumed a pace less than hasty. On his porch step he motioned me towards his house and I followed. A wave of heat consumed me as I stepped in his house, smiling and nodding my head to acknowledge his wife busily making a basket by their blazing stove.
“Hi, I am on a long bike journey and am hoping to get permission to camp on your land.” I said quickly.
The old man smiled and poked at my back. My Camelbak was underneath my coat so it wouldn’t freeze and made me look like a hunchback.
“It’s cold. Do you have a tent?” He asked.
“You gonna build a fire?”
“Ehh.. probably not. We’re probably just gonna go right to sleep.”
He turned and spoke to his wife in Navajo for a minute. “You want to sleep inside?”
“Ehh…. Of course, it’s darn cold out, but we don’t want to impose. There are three of us.” I looked around at the lack of space and could not imagine them being comfortable having us over.
“How about you sleep in traditional Hogan?”
“Wow.. That would be incredible.”
I said goodbye to the woman and followed the man outside.
I started to get worried that my companions would pass the side road I turned, and I would end up having to chase them down the road all night. “Mm…I gotta go flag down my friends, I don’t want them to pass me.”
“Over here.. Follow me.” He said as if he didn’t hear me.
He stepped over to a huge 10 sided building with a conical roof and turns a key in a padlock. The door swings in letting in a stream of sunlight. He turns and says to me, “This is church Hogan. People come pray here for all night. Always wood for fire in here. In times of war, like these days, lots of prayer.”
“It’s beautiful. This will be amazing. I gotta go wave down my friends. If they don’t stop here, I’ll be chasing after them all night.”
I rushed back to my bike and found them quick enough and brought them back with tremendous enthusiasm to the traditional Hogan. The expected low of -5 was sure to be unpleasant without the kindness of Henry, our hospitable Navajo friend.
Inside the Hogan was a large wood stove with a pipe that stretched into the roof of the structure. A generous pile of wood lay in front. Around the edges of the structure were pieces of carpets numbered 1-10, lining each edge. There was a calendar of Arizona Golf courses, a photo of a bald eagle, and a couple broadhead arrows over the doorframe. There was also a plaque from a coal mining company, a bag of herbs and a list of family members who signed in at a gathering in April of 1996. A stack of sheepskins were piled about waist high, which we assumed were for sitting/sleeping on.
Henry came back in and brought a shovel full of coals. “You guys know how to start a fire?”
“Oh yeah. I suppose.”
A heapfull of burning coals sure helps, and within minutes the fire was stoked and the Hogan was heating up. He asked where we were from and told us a little about his kids and life.
“I have retalives (relatives) in California. I work natural gas pipeline in Los Angeles, to Bakersfield all way up to Oakland. My kids are in military. Marines. I went school at Riverside when I your age.” He said.
“I’m seeeveeenty seevennnn years old now.” He said, heavily emphasizing his age with pride. “That was long time ago.” He concluded.
After the fire had heated up the place sufficiently, he wished us a goodnight. He put his hand on a latch and said as he went out the door, “Here is lock, to keep out the witches.” He laughed.
We brought in a big hunk of coal and the fire kept up until about 3 AM when Goat got up and put some more wood in there. It was the first time we could sleep in our bags without all our clothes since we left Moab. After sleeping soundly, and all encountering remarkably vivid dreams, we woke up oddly refreshed. I hadn’t realized how poorly I had been sleeping in the cold weather until a night in the comfort of warmth.
We reached Kaibeto early the next day and decided on an off-road route after attempting to extract any useful information at the trading post. Up the road we were looking for route 201, and by the time the sun had set we still had not found it. I approached a car exiting a dirt road and asked him about it.
He claimed about a 4 miles up there was a road that we could take, it would bring us all the way over to the 89, cutting underneath Page. I saw one of his dogs underneath his wheel sniffing the tire; shocked, I warned him, “Whoah.. your dog is under your wheel.” I scrambled to scare the dog from out of the car.
“Ohh that’s Mano.” And he revved his engine up.
Sean pulled up and showed the man our map, and he confidently pointed out the route. As he was passing back the map, Sean stumbled back over his Camelbak and scared the dog into the road where it was swiftly hit by a passing car, offering a thunderous sound to the desert landscape.
Sean looked over at the owner who appeared unphased and said, “Holy shit. You just see your dog get hit.”
The owner just laughed and casually shrugged.
“You want me to take it off the road?” I asked.
“Ehh.. yeah.. Just drag it over there.” He replied.
I waited for the traffic to clear up, hoping I wouldn’t have to witness any further gruesome mutilation to the poor creature’s body. I grabbed ahold of its limp front legs and pulled it off the road, trying not to think about the situation.
We continued our search for the 201 after it got dark and found ourselves desperate enough to take a random off road route, thinking that it must lead us to one of the main roads. Our depth perception was off and the sand was thick. We slid around the road dangerously through the night, keeping slow enough to avoid a serious crash. We crossed the electric train tracks, the same ones that the Monkey Wrench gang sabotaged in Ed Abbey’s book. We were lost. Our maps sucked. And we were terrible at navigating. Especially in the dark. So we set up camp and decided to deal with it tomorrow. Fortunately, a rancher passed through that night and we flagged them down for directions. They pointed us down a road, said it went about two miles and would T at the main road. That main road would take us to the 89.
“Heh..You guys are WAAAYYYY off!” He said as he drove off into the night.
We were faced with the reality that when you go off paved roads in the desert, it will be sandy. Not only will it be sandy, but it will be…shall we say, less than conducive to bike riding. So instead of riding many sections we pushed, or maneuvered a track stand stall/crawl, inching our way towards the next foot of ground that would hold our tires with a bit of luck. There was a good mile’s worth of sand that we could not ride over and were forced to push our bikes through. Slowly and surely, we carved our way through the windblown sand. My arrowhead obsession had continued so I scanned the ground constantly, and by some miracle, actually found one. The main road was much more rideable, but that doesn’t say much for riding across a desert. All the while, I dreamed about the Surly Pugsley bicycle with it’s 4″ wide tires, thinking about how nice it would be to float over the sand. Not only was it difficult to merely pedal across flat/uphill sections, but even going downhill, you had to maintain full concentration so you wouldn’t crash. By the end of the day, we all had at least one good spill. It was always humorous to see the tracks (there wasn’t an inch of surface on the road that wasn’t painted visibly with our tread patterns) wend and twist when somebody lost control. Often you could even see a body impression as if it was outlined in chalk marking the fall.
Eventually we reached our half way point and were guided by some Navajo which direction to go. The map looked clear enough to follow, but there were so may people living out there, that roads often crisscrossed our route, leaving us to constantly question which direction to go. Driveways stretched for miles towards their houses, hidden in the distance. Petrified sand rose up aside the road, layered inch by inch of varying colors and shades, morphed into orblike shapes, twisting and swirling as if it was captured in an exotic lavalamp. Some trees managed to puncture their roots through the smooth rocks and lived in a seemingly impossible location, leaving their profile protruding above the horizon. About 35 miles into the sandy washed roads, we saw a turnout for a Baptist church. About 10 miles later we even saw a school bus tromping through the sand. A few minutes before we thought we were in the middle of nowhere, but that was hardly the case. We were in he middle of Navajo reservation land. “Rez country” as a teenager a few towns back described. I was about 50 yards from Goat at one point, and by the time I pushed my bike up a long steep hill, I could look down for miles at a lengthy hill we would descend. He was about a mile ahead. I figured I’d catch him on the hill. But the further I went down, the more space he made between us. Riding in the sand, I would begin to get a bit of speed and then my front wheel would catch and send me wildly sliding to the other side of the road where I would regain my traction and attempt to veer myself back down the hill. At other points I would just sink and stop in the sand. Each time I would see Goat’s tracks somehow perfectly cutting through the sand. I was amazed.
The hill leveled out for a couple miles, and was fortunately much less sandy. I heard bells in the distance and saw sheep being herded by dogs around a nearby rock monument. Next thing I knew I was being chased by dogs, for a good mile until they lost interest.
We hit the road and instantly found ourselves on Antelope Pass with a about 14 miles and 2500 feet in elevation to drop until we reached Lee’s Ferry. It was one of those incredible ear-popping out of your mind hills that left you feeling like the elevation you climbed was actually worth the downhill (which can be rare). On each side of us were steep cliffs towering into the sky.