I’m currently wrapping up a read of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a poetic chronicle of the Mercury Seven astronauts. If you haven’t read the book you’ve probably seen the 1983 movie of the same name. Who can forget Ed Harris’s portrayal of John Glenn, the “Boy Scout” astronaut and first American to orbit the planet? How about Sam Shepard’s swaggering Chuck Yeager, the first man to scream through the upper atmosphere and break the sound barrier (while recovering from a couple of broken ribs and nursing a hangover from the night before no less)? The right stuff, writes Tom Wolfe, is something “a man either had or didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it.”
These two and many others involved in the early days of NASA are lauded by our nation as some of the most adventurous individuals to ever live, risking their lives for a greater cause. It’s likely that the national focus on a “greater cause” is what actually gave rise to this age of national heroes. Beyond simply beating the Soviets into space, we wanted to test the limits of humanity – scientific, intellectual, creative, emotional, and physical. Collectively, we wanted to see if we could turn our wildest dreams into reality. And so we strapped those who had the “right stuff” to the top of roman candles, lit the fuses, and held our breath. We were bold and courageous, and the payoff was no less than a “giant leap for mankind.”
The 1960’s was a golden age of big ideas, and that same larger-than-life energy that fueled the space race was also at work in the minds of others. With the sky no longer the limit, literally, it seemed that anything was possible. In 1968, caught up in the electrifying spirit of an impending moon landing, Congress joined together to pen some large-scale, gutsy bills a little closer to home. In October of that year it passed the National Trails System Act “to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the Nation.” The act immediately named the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2600-mile Pacific Crest Trail as National Scenic Trails, offering them protection and maintenance akin to that the National Parks enjoy. Since the act was passed, over 50,000 miles of trail have been added to the national system. And, in the spirt of the age of their inception, they encourage patrons to hike a little farther, to climb a little higher, and to dream a little bigger than they thought they could.
In a sense, there is a little bit of the moon in these trails, I think. To journey along one is to join with other daring souls in that unique American desire to test limits and break barriers. The National Trails allow everyone the opportunity to discover the “right stuff” within themselves.
Since I doubt I will walk on the moon anytime soon, I might as well get as close as I can by gazing at it on a clear desert night from the Arizona Trail, one of America’s eleven National Scenic Trails. It’s been seventeen years since I completed an end-to-end journey on one of its oldest cousins, the Appalachian Trail, and I have been feeling the need to return. This time, though, I’ll be riding my bike instead of hiking (easier on the knees), I’ll be out for two and a half weeks instead of five and a half months (easier on the job and family), and I’ll be in my forties instead of my twenties (easier to find my way home at the end). No, I’m not looking to risk my life for a greater cause like those early astronauts – the rescue team is only as far away as the button on my Spot Track device – but I am hoping to glimpse a bit of the view that John Glenn had from his small capsule window, a view that might gain me some perspective. How can one not be changed by seeing the swirling, blue-green Earth zip underneath while in rapid orbit around it? How can one not be moved by the grand scope of it all? I realize I won’t be speeding in a spaceship at 17,000 miles-per-hour, but rather chugging along on a bike averaging somewhere around 7. I do hear, though, that the desert, like outer space, has been known to bring a kind of revelation all its own to those who make the journey. I’m counting on it.
A little more about the journey. Unlike the AT, the AZT permits mountain bikes – but that doesn’t mean it’s all rideable. I’ve been told the trail offers some of the best mountain biking there is – and plenty of equally impressive “hike-a-bike” to keep the ego in check. In fact, through the Grand Canyon, hikers are asked to either strap their bike to their back and hike the nineteen miles down and up or shuttle it around the canyon via local motorized transport!
The Arizona Trail spans the entire state, from its southern border with Mexico to its northern border with Utah. For hikers, the trail distance spans just over 800 miles. Bikers get a bit of a break at 750 miles due to reroutes around National Wilderness areas, which don’t allow bikes. There are a number of bikers who have carved out the trail in recent years, some soloists like myself, and others as participants in the annual race, which usually takes place in April. Much like the Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico, the AZT race asks that competitors ride self-supported, carrying all their gear and food, resupplying along the way or via prearranged maildrop, and that they stick to a generally accepted route, of which there are several. Although I won’t be racing with the pack, I plan to follow the rules with one exception. After some serious soul searching, I’ve decided to have my bike shlepped around the Grand Canyon instead of packing it down myself. I’ve disassembled and hoisted the steel Surly beast and all it’s gear onto my back several times and no matter how much I balance and re-balance the weight, 70 lbs is 70 lbs. Of course, I’m still planning to hike through the canyon and camp at one of its historic campgrounds (if I can secure a walk-up backcountry permit, which is apparently something the National Park Service offers to thru-hikers/bikers).
Other than the rugged terrain, and water being somewhat scarce due to the desert climate, enduring the heat can also be a challenge. I will begin my ride on September 22, the beginning of one of two acceptable seasons for a thru-bike (the other being April), however, despite it officially being fall at that point, the weather gods in Arizona won’t necessarily follow suit. It’s predicted to be in the 90’s during my traverse of the Tucson/Phoenix region, but it will most certainly get cooler the farther north I go as the elevation increases. Here’s to sunscreen and a high carrying capacity for water! If all goes as planned, the entire trip should take me seventeen days. That’s approximately fifty miles each day with the exception of the two leisurely ten-mile days I will be in the Grand Canyon.