Seeking solace in the pines
HE WAS ACCELERATING fast and hard. First in my rear view mirror, then in my side mirror. A man in a white truck, with a giant lift kit almost too absurd to believe. He weaved from one lane to another, then another, in and out of afternoon traffic on I-17 in northern Phoenix. He passed me, then ducked in front and hit the brakes hard. It was a small space for his small appendage-inspired truck. The driver’s aggression, shall we say, proved impotent.
His destination was unknown and unimportant to me. My destination was the cool pines of northern Arizona. Some forest. A camp fire. Some mountain biking.
The zig and the zag of I-17 heading toward Flagstaff is mostly dictated by truckers unless it’s Friday. Never drive from Phoenix to Flag on a Friday. Then it’s duallys with horse trailers and F-250s with fifth-wheel trailers and Hondas with the strap-on bike racks over the trunk and Subarus with a Thule box and a Labrador smushing against the back window.
It crawls. It stops inexplicably. It crawls some more.
But this was not Friday, and the traffic was even, the speeds were high and the truckers were behaving in their lanes. The elevation climb from 1,100 in Phoenix to about 7,000 in Flag requires patience and is more enjoyable if you’re driving something supercharged.
I drive something supercharged. Floating on air suspension, aided by paddle shifters and a gasoline beer-bong, yes, we are dust in the wind.
The climb out of the rugged desert floor passes a sea of cacti waving goodbye before reaching a plateau, where miles of American West expanse envelopes your eyes and fills your soul. Mountains on all sides with miles of nothingness in between.
Passing the Buick with the Michigan plates and later being passed by the Cadillac with the Nevada plates left me feeling like the pace to my destination matched the mood I was wanting upon arrival: peaceful.
A good thirty minutes before reaching the I-17/I-40 split, the pines come into view. Flag has had a wicked monsoon season. Before that, raging forest fires. Since then, mud flows. It’s early September and I’m driving beneath a single death cloud that unleashes a fury of water. Two minutes later it’s sunny.
The turn off to Lake Mary Road is nondescript, but the road itself is not. Lake Mary is actually two lakes, an upper and a lower. One has water; the other does not. It’s usually that way, except when it’s the other way.
Twenty-eight minutes later I’m pulling off onto a Forest Service road and snaking through the pines. Site 21 is home for now, but it’s muddy from a storm that morning.
After backing into my space, the whir of an EZ-GO golf cart enters my right ear. The brakes screech to a stop and the retiree in the brown pants, beige shirt and swirly, curly white hair greets with me a “Howdy!” and a smile.
“Welcome!” she says.
“Thank you. Good to be here,” I reply.
“What’s your license plate number?”
I recite said number.
“Need any firewood?”
“It’s $7 per bundle or three for $20,” the swirly, curly white haired woman offers.
“What kind of wood?” I ask.
“It’s a mix. Burns pretty quick. If you’re here a couple nights I recommend three for $20.”
Cash is traded for goods in the open forest. No one is the wiser.
The host steps on the accelerator of the golf cart, and the familiar thud of the brake disengaging precedes the whirring noise that fades from my left ear as she zips away.
That night, I cook a dinner of seared ahi, potatoes and roasted brussel sprouts. Later, an evening cocktail or two by the fire. Later still, the stars enter the celestial stage above the pine tops. I make a few images, then decide to experiment with some handheld long exposures. I’ve never done acid, but I just did acid with my camera. The results are trippy.
Soon the moon rises. It was full the day before. It creates a dramatic scene in the pines. Long shadows attached to giant creatures. Smoke wafting between monsters. Flames licking the air in distant fire pits. For some reason I think of Band of Brothers and The Battle of Bastogne - when the Nazis launch flares to illuminate the forest at night. And then I think of Stranger Things and the Upside Down.
I should probably retire the flask and get some sleep.
The rain returns at 4 a.m. and pummels my tent. It’s loud and fierce. Lightning streaks across the sky and thunder rumbles the sodden ground beneath me. At 6 a.m. it’s gone, and I’m awake. Coffee gets made. Fruit and yogurt is consumed. I prepare my bike for a climb on the nearby forest road. There’s a lake at the top. That’s my turnaround point.
The first two miles are a steep grade. About a mile in I’m left wondering what the f*&% I’m doing. But I soldier on, not wanting to disappoint myself. Or my bike. As I near the top, fields of gold are my reward. As far as the eye can see, wildflowers carpet the meadows. It’s September and it’s weird. My camera is in a pouch clipped to my bike. I stop often to capture the scene, unsure if the altitude and the strain of the climb has sent me into a mountaintop purgatory.
With the lake still a few miles off, I’m determined and pedaling straight, trying not to focus on the washboard road rattling my teeth and eyeballs.
And then I see it.
A big white truck. With a giant lift kit. Rumbling toward me in a cloud of dust.
It was almost too absurd to believe.
Tullamore Dew is a triple-distilled Irish whiskey that is perfect for a camp fire. Smooth, mild flavors and a clean finish.
There was a lot going on this trip, from violent weather to epic riding. But the unexpected reward at the top of the climb – acres and miles of wildflowers – was most definitely the bomb.
Although they split more than a decade ago, Supergrass still resonates as a good-times party band. The British rock-poppers emerged in the early '90s and have left a trail of memorable hits. Even their website description is lyric-worthy: "Flaunting their 70s-rock influences proudly, @SupergrassHQ continue to sound like the world's greatest garage band with a sackful of studio toys."