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No.54 – USA – Arizona Trail with a loaded bike

Dec 31, 2015 | America, Blog, USA

I stood at the starting point of the Arizona Trail. Or to be more precise, at my starting point, because the trail actually starts on the border with Utah and crosses the entire length of the state of Arizona all the way to the Mexican border.

Eight hundred long miles through the wilderness.

However, because the Grand Canyon, so to speak is “in the way” and bike wheels shouldn’t touch the ground of the Canyon, there was no other way with a big loaded bike than starting the trail on the South Rim of the giant canyon.

So I cheated approximately 100 miles right from the beginning.

I presumed I was somewhat prepared for the trail. Ron from Flagstaff had equipped me with great maps and a book for the trail.

He also gave me a warm down jacket and a pair of softshell pants and additionally passed his old iPhone on to me to be able to contact him in need.

Great! Many thanks again for everything dear Ron!

Well, to my thinking the iPhone was a bit much. I have managed to be on the road for the last 2.5 years, without ever missing a phone, so I thought inwardly, why should I have to call him? But more on that later.

Packed with food for 5 days, about 7 liters of water and the thrill of anticipation I made my way into a new adventure, not really knowing what’s ahead of me.

Actually, the only thing I knew was, that the trail will wind its way 700 miles towards the border to Mexico through the wilderness of Arizona. I also knew that there would be from time to time places to stock up on food and water. The book had listed all resupply points, therefore nothing could go wrong. Well at least, that’s what I had thought. 

The first night I spent not far from Tusayan, a small town near the Grand Canyon. Hidden somewhere in the forest, I enjoyed my first campfire since Russia and was really happy about the cozy warmth of the fire.

Coyotes howled in the distance, a starry night, the fire crackled and I finished reading M&M’s book about World War 2.

Admittedly, with all the noises in the forest, it’s sometimes a bit scary when I’m all alone out there. In the stillness of the night you can hear every pine needle falling and sometimes I do wonder – oops, what was that?But I’m rarely afraid anymore – luckily I lost the anxiety somewhere in the vastness of the Asian world – you can learn that.

It was cold. Freezing cold. As I lay in my cozy tent and wanted to drink some water, unfortunately I realized that my water was completely frozen. Rookie mistake.

At first the road snaked along lonely, beautiful paths through the woods. But soon the fun was replaced by a muddy disaster. The ground had already thawed and the mud was so sticky that I had to stop every 20 m to get rid of the thick clay.

The first few kilometers I thought it was quite fun and it didn’t really bother me. The combination of the clay and pine needles however was really tough to deal with. The clearance of the wheel and the frame was constantly blocked. Even unhooking the brakes and mud guard didn’t help at all. The stuff stuck like cement. 

In six hours I was able to only manage 20 kilometers. It had been snowing for a while so I had to pitch my tent to get some cover.

The winter had caught me.

It snowed and stormed without stopping. The wind raged so violently in the treetops that I really got a queasy feeling. It was also getting colder and the next day wasn’t any better, so I spent another night at the same spot.

While cycling in Japan, sweating at a hot plus 35 degrees, I actually wanted not to fly to Los Angeles, but spend the winter in Canada. Unfortunately, it is well known, that you always want to have exactly the opposite of what you are experiencing at the moment. Thereby I couldn’t imagine how cold winter in Canada might actually be at minus 35 degrees. It was only minus 10 degrees that night and I thought back to Japan and asked myself what was I thinking back than and how cozy in retrospect plus 35 degrees can be. 

Well, the grass is always greener on the other side.


For the first time I realized what an enormous amount of snow you have to melt to get a pot filled with water. Somehow I felt like an absolute beginner in this wilderness, especially since I had forgotten to bring the most important thing, namely a thermos bottle.

Everything was cold and wet. My tent was turned into a frozen ice castle. I wasn’t sure if I found it so cozy. But the day brought sunshine. The temperature rose quickly from minus 10 degrees to much more pleasant temperatures and my mood was soon back to happiness.

Unfortunately I needed a full hour to get rid of the frozen mud to get my wheels rolling again. The path was snowed in, but it was far easier than expected, it rolled much better than earlier in the mud.

Sometime later, I finally reached my first water tank, marked in my book as a reliable spot – but the tank was empty. I didn’t have a drop of water left and this was worrisome, but then I took the opportunity to collect melting water from the rain gutter of an abandoned cabin in the woods.


The snow was melting incredibly fast and with the added weight of the water and the now even muddier trail it was simply not possible to push the bike through the woods anymore.

Luckily I came upon a forest road and was now on an alternative route and hoping to be able to speed up a bit because my food was coming to an end and I had only managed my first passage, and still had 3 more passages to go to reach the first store.

The forest road was muddy, but it had no pine needles and therefore at first it was a whole lot easier than being on the trail. But a few miles later, the terrain changed again and I was back to ceaselessly stopping to clean the cement like mud from the bike.

Annoyed and tired I pitched my tent and left my bike still covered in mud. Instead of being able to use the early morning hours to make some progress, while the ground was still frozen, I spent an hour getting my bike back ready to roll. It’s amazing how long it takes to get rid of frozen mud on an unhooked V – brake.

With soaking wet, icy boots and without breakfast but renewed strength I went back on the forest road. But it took me 2 hours to cover about one mile. When finally my beloved, sensational kickstand broke, which had worked well for the last 2.5 years and sank into the mud and was no longer detectable, I really had had enough.

I also saw no way out. It would still have been about 60 miles to the nearest shop and so far I had probably only managed 30 miles and the situation became even worse. Not one person in sight – no cars – no civilization. I briefly thought about another way towards a highway, but even that would have been 20 miles to get to the first paved road.

Miraculously, in this corner of the forest there was cell phone coverage and I called Ron and said, “It doesn’t make any more sense. If your offer still stands, I would be more than happy if you could pick me up.”

Ron didn’t come. The battery of my mobile phone was finally dead, therefore I could not call him and ask if he might have found my directions misleading or if he is somewhere lost in the mud. Finally, I pushed the bike one mile back to the last intersection in the forest and shortly afterwards I heard a car horn and someone calling in the pitch dark night.

He had borrowed a 4×4 pick-up from his son in law not to get stuck in the mud. On the passenger seat there were bananas, chocolate and Coke waiting for me and I was so happy that he had found me.

Back in Flagstaff I cleaned my bike. Before leaving for the Grand Canyon I had had my front and rear wheel hubs serviced and my cassette replaced, but now after all the mud I had to reopen the front hub to re-lubricate and clean the bearings.

I waited one week for drier conditions and then tried to hit the trail again.

This time I started south of Flagstaff. But I turned around after 500 meters, because it took me an hour for that short distance. Still too muddy.

I rode back to the paved road and followed Ron’s advice to stay on the tarmac until Pine, which is at a lower elevation and had most likely had less moisture in the last weeks. The scenery was lovely and I was now able to enjoy it again.Hardly any traffic on the road, a lot of wide open space, but unfortunately also a lot of wind. But I was able to make some mileages again.

As often, the whole area was fenced, because of cattle and wildlife. But sadly rarely a gate to get away from the road and be able to pitch my tent. Finally, I came to a ranger station. It was just before dark and for me it was probably the last chance to get away from the road.

No one was there. I passed a sign “no public access” and was beginning to wonderif that was such a clever idea in the US to ignore the sign.

Luckily the Park Ranger showed up and allowed me to set up tent behind one of the houses. But suddenly, the next morning, his colleague wasn’t very happy about my night quarter.

“I’ve spoken to the other Ranger yesterday, he knows that I have camped here for the night”, I said to him in a questioning tone. Whereupon he said: “Yes I know”.

“Do you have any weapons?“ Whereupon I replied with a grin: “I am a German citizen, Germans do not need weapons.”

“You must have seen the sign – no public access – why have you ridden past it”? “I’ve already explained, because I’m traveling by bicycle and this seemed the only  way to get away from the road, or would you climb over a fence?” “No, I would not, but it would have been better than just ignoring the no public access sign.”

“I had had very good experiences with Park Rangers in Australia, therefore I never expected a problem staying here. In addition your work partner gave me permission to camp here,” I tried to solve the situation. “I haven’t left a mess, I didn’t break anything and I didn’t disturb anyone and in 5 minutes I’m back on the road.”

“Women and children are living here and last night they felt unsafe because you as a stranger were camped here.”

I somehow would have loved to say to him, come on guy. Take it easy.

“Your ID.”

When he got out of the car and came back to give my passport back to me, I could not resist asking him if I am now registered as criminal.

He even laughed about it and at the end he was friendly and offered me water.

I had already realized a few times that initially people are skeptical towards me especially when I get too close to their private property. But frequently after they understand who I am and what I’m doing they are very nice and helpful. But first the skepticism is almost always there.

In a small café I ate a few chicken fingers with hot chips and was surrounded by a few hunters which talked about their exploits. Outside they had parked their pick-ups and had placed their quarry on the back of the truck, Elk. The door sign said: No guns allowed.

The same day I tried my luck again and left the paved road and turned onto a forest road. Everything seemed to be much drier, and no wonder I was now about 800 meters (2600 feet) lower than Flagstaff.

A little later an elk family nearly ran into my bike and I was surprised but happy at the same time to be able to experience such a unique encounter and thought back to the shot animals from the parking lot and asked myself, how in the world is a human being able to shoot such a beautiful animal.

That same evening I experienced a gigantic sunset with a spectacular view from the rim of a canyon (Mogollon rim) into a beautifully wooden valley. The wind raged along the rim and my fingers were almost frozen to my camera, but the moment was so special I wanted to keep it as a memory. It was just lovely.

The next day I passed the last remnants of snow and tried to get back on the Arizona Trail. But it soon became obvious I had chosen the most difficult entry point ever. But if Heike has something in her head, she wants to do it, it doesn’t matter if it might be silly or not.Regardless, I wasn’t sure myself if it was such a bright idea.

Passage 27 was described as the most difficult passage for MTB’s of the entire trail. But it was dry, therefore there was no reason not to try. Brutally steep and completely blocked by boulders and fallen trees I began the  descent from the rim into a wide valley and from there from one disaster to the next.

The trail traversed the slope of the canyon. Impossibly steep on the upside with the same on the downside. In between rocks and fallen tree trunks. As you can probably guess, it went straight back up and immediately back down again. Nonstop.I had to take off my panniers several times and had to walk the most brutal sections three times. Twice with the bags and once with the bike. It was tough.

But the scenery was terrific and therefore I still enjoyed it to the fullest.

Of course I was, as always, all alone on the trail and that makes it particularly exciting. But I wasn’t able to make much progress. I camped that night right next to the trail, sat by the campfire and as always heard the coyotes howling, but this time I also heard gun fire in the forest.

Hunting season, but I wondered why anyone would be hunting in pitch darkness of the night? Accidents while hunting are quite common and I hoped inwardly that people would recognize in time that I am a human being and not an animal.

It had taken me 1.5 days for approximately 12 miles and I decided at the first possible exit to pull out of passage 27 of the trail. It really didn’t make any more sense to stay longer on it.

I was tired, really tired, but I was also quite impressed with the great landscape that surrounded me and did not want to give up yet.

Back on the forest road I met the first hunters. A group posed in front of the camera with the beautiful head of an elk. I found it simply disgusting.

After a few days of recovery I was ready for Passage 26 and started just before sunset to find a safe place to camp. The path was indeed much better, but despite everything, I had to push the bike the entire time. I was finally now the real Pushbikegirl.

The stars were particularly impressive that night. My fire warmed me as always, everywhere there was the rustling sounds of forest creatures making it hard to sleep, but I knew no one was coming anyway.

The way on was designated as wilderness area and closed to cyclists, but there was an alternative recommendation which I tried to follow. But I did not find the trail head. There was simply no path as it was shown on my map. Sometime later, I finally saw bicycle tire tracks, I followed them thereby finding the nearly hidden path to the alternate route.

The well-signposted Arizona Trail had turned into an overgrown nothing. Slowly but surely I made some mileages and eventually ended up on private property. Soon the land owner showed up and at first questioned my presence but after some conversation he showed me the way to a tarmac road, but the tarmac didn’t last long so I was again on a bumpy, muddy forest road and landed somewhere in midst of endless cow poo and tons of mud.

Shortly before Payson I decided with an aching heart to finish my little Arizona Trail adventure. It simply didn’t make any sense anymore to try ride it with a heavy touring bike.

But I was really happy with the huge experience and have no regrets and certainly enjoyed nearly every minute of it.

On to the next adventure – the cactus country is waiting for me – the landscape will
change radically from now on. I’m excited!


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