AZTR – Part 4: Superstition Mountains – Payson/Pine ~ mile 440
Waking up in a ditch after 3 hours of fitful rest is pretty shitty. There is really no other way to put it. My bike shorts and jersey are still damp from sweat making my skin cold and clammy. With each movement, I am painfully reminded of the unpleasant mix of salt with body parts rubbed raw. My frozen burrito and can of Starbucks coffee do not stir up quite the same excitement as they did a few days ago.
This is the beginning of day 4 and I am really starting to feel the wear and tear. Getting organized and moving again, takes a little longer. Everything seems just a little more tedious and uncomfortable. Thankfully, I have 70+ miles of dirt road and highway up ahead, a section Kurt referred to as a recovery day.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard, but just a nice change of pace,” is how he put it.
He is right. The long, dirt road parallels Apache Lake, Canyon Lake and the Salt River, cut through a deep, winding canyon. The landscape reminds me of parts of Utah, a good sign I tell myself that I am getting closer to my destination. In reality, I am barely halfway, but the gradual change in environment suggests that I am covering some ground and is mentally uplifting.
It takes me a good couple of hours to shake off the morning rust and get into a groove. The advantage of riding roads is that putting in a concerted effort is much more tangibly translated into real forward progress than on the trails, especially out here. Looking at the map, it has been difficult to gauge how long a 20 mile section of trail will take me as the terrain varies so greatly. On the road, I feel more certain about what I am up against.
With that in mind, I decide to put my head down and stomp on the pedals with more passion. I ride hard, undistracted, standing and pedaling all the climbs in high gear. A number of times, I feel like I might be pushing too hard, but I do not back down until I reach the paved highway 188.
By then, I am out of water. The heat emanating from the black top and the stifling air only add to the difficulty. I stare longingly at the massive body of water that is Theodore Roosevelt Lake as I ride by, questioning over and over whether I should detour down to its shore for a refill.
Just as I am becoming desperate, I see signs for a campground and wonder if the water might be turned on in the bathroom. I try my luck at the first restroom and yes, the faucet is running! The water is warm, nearly hot, but still wonderfully quenching.
As the days have gone by, my attention has narrowed to mostly focusing on the absolute essentials: movement, water, food, and rest. I say “days,” but really the whole trip feels like one continuous, uninterrupted push.
Shortly after the stop at the campground, I run into the small town of Punkin Center, in the Tonto Basin, which has a grocery store right off the side of the highway. For a second, I regret wasting time stopping at the campground for water, but immediately remind myself just how satisfying that was. I refill my supplies, eat yet another burrito and a full tube of pringles.
I also give my wife a quick call. I am fully reinvigorated after eating, so I am very upbeat on the phone. This positive energy is good for both of us, reassuring for her and a great additional mental boost for me to hear her voice. I tell her that I only have 30 easy highway miles to Payson and I that should be able to make it comfortably to Pine tonight another 20 miles after that.
I am familiar with section of trail just past Pine, the Highline, having run the Zane Grey 50 miler a few times. Despite knowing how difficult that trail is, the thought of reaching familiar terrain is a good intermediary objective for the evening.
Unfortunately, the “easy highway” miles turn out to be more challenging than expected. The route detours a few times from the pavement, paralleling the highway on dirt roads. While this may sound nice, the alternative roads are interspersed with short, snappy climbs which are loose and gravelly. The riding is not that difficult, but since I had set my expectations to something faster and easier, I get frustrated and begin to force my effort out of impatience. In my current state of depletion, I ride a fine line between maintaining a good pace and crashing and burning.
Less than an hour after leaving the store, I am sitting under a tree, bonking hard, trying to regain some composure sucking on a ginger chew. “Keep it together, keep it together.” I repeat over and over.
I arrive in Payson just as the sun is setting, still bonking, still very much depleted. I want greasy, fatty food and lots of it. Against my best judgement, I succumb to the temptation of the Golden Devil Arches. I walk into the McDonalds and order two double cheeseburgers, large fries, 10 nuggets, and a large hot chocolate. I inhale everything in minutes, get right back up and order the same thing all over again- disgustingly satisfying.
Slumped over on the bench in a food coma, I text Tony seeking some encouragement. I know I just need to get back on the bike and keep going to Pine which is only 20 more miles, but my mind is at odds with my body, which is heavily protesting the last 4 days of abuse.
Payson sits at 5000 feet and I continue to gain elevation as I ride out of town. It is the coldest it has been so far on the trip and despite having all my clothes on, including my down vest and rain gear, I cannot stay warm. The accumulated fatigue is making me too weak to increase the pace needed to up my body temperature. After a couple of worthless miles, stumbling while hiking my bike up yet another loose climb, I pull over to rest. For the first time on the whole trip, I cannot sleep. I am too cold and lay there shivering for several hours, struggling with whether to stay put or get back up. The comfort of my sleeping bag is marginally better than keeping moving. I cover my face with the hood of the bag, cross my arms and tuck my hands in my arm pits. My breathing creates a small pocket of warm air around my mouth and eyes. I take long, deep breaths and try to internalize the sensation of heat I felt only a few hours prior on the scorching tarmac. “Just keep it together, just keep it together.” I repeat over and over.