Athletes and Aesthetes: Two Kinds of Travelers

September 29, 2010

Chinle, AZ; September 29, 2010: In cycling as well as in other kinds of travel, there are two modes of being. The goal for one kind of travel is to see, hear, and study. Travel is the practical necessity that makes it possible to be in the places that the traveler wants to experience and understand. What happens after arriving at the destination is more important than the travel itself. Cyclists on PACTour’s Grand Canyon Tour 2010 encountered many travelers of this kind, a few journeying on their own, but most of them moving from site to site by the busload, eagerly discussing–in French–what they saw.

The goal for the other kind of travel is travel itself: the kinesthetic of movement, the strengthening of body, mind, and spirit, the competitive urge, setting new goals, making new personal records, establishing friendships with companions along the way. The terrain adds texture to the physicality of the event, providing challenge, interest, and motivation, but the activity rather than the destination remains primary.

Call one kind of traveler the aesthete and the other kind the athlete.

PACTour event are designed for athletes who are committed to the intensity of the ride itself, paying little attention to what they find on arrival (other than food and rest). What else could be expected? Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, founders and operators of PACTour, started out as extreme athletes, record setters in long-distance cycling events. Lon’s cycling career is most closely connected with RAAM, the annual Race Across America, which he helped found. From the beginning of PACTour, their objective has been to create unique cycling events that enable non-competitive cyclists to ride close to the limits of their capabilities.

The three days from the Grand Canyon to Canyon de Chelly show this principle at work. Although the day out of the Grand Canyon was only 83 miles, and half of them a nice descent to lower elevation, the next two were the most demanding of the tour: from Tuba City to Mexican Hat, 119 miles with long grades and beat up roads; from Mexican Hat to Chinle, 114 miles with one 10% grade (mercifully short) and roadways that pounded even the strongest and best mounted riders into a mass of aching bodies by day’s end. The daytime temperatures were unseasonably hot, with the one that brought cyclists to Chinle in the middle or high 90s.

The route cards did mention some of the places along the way where people could stop to enjoy cultural attractions: Mary Coulter’s Lookout Tour at the eastern end of the Grand Canyon and the Code Talker Museum in Kayenta. Nothing was said, however, about two of the historic Indian trading posts or other opportunities to understand Hopi and Navajo culture along the way. Cyclists were left to their own devices to learn about the history of the region such as the Mormon settlers and their experiences in this land. A short stop at the bottom of the 10% grade, for example would have enabled them to learn its name—Comb Ridge—and see a record of the impediment it had created to the Mormon pioneers.

PACTour events are effective for several reasons. They are meticulously planned and supported by efficient, thoughtful, and skilled people, with uniquely designed support vehicles and equipment. Even though these events are designed to challenge participants to perform at a high level, the support staff is willing to provide limited “bumps forward” when cyclists are falling behind or reaching their limits of strength before the day’s trip has been completed.

The character of the registered cyclists is another reason. They come from many walks of life—business, medicine, contracting, the law, theology, civil service, education, retired, engineering, manufacturing. Their athleticism as aggressive cyclists is added on to their main identities as productive members of contemporary society. Many of their friends and coworkers can’t understand this fixation on the hard-core cycling that takes up so much of their time.

PACTours succeed because registrants find fulfillment and friendship in this kind of athletically defined travel. Some return year after year to PACTour trips. At the Swinging Steak Steakhouse in Mexican Hat, one of this year’s company reported that on that very day he had crossed the 10,000-mile mark. Next time he rides with PACTour, probably one of the weeks of Desert Camp this coming winter, he hopes that his name will be added to the list of 10,000-Milers mounted on one of the PACTour vans. Later in the week, a couple riding a recumbent tandem completed 30,000 miles with PACTour!

Athletes these cyclists surely are, but closer to the surface than one might expect the aesthete waits to be released. More about that next time.

From the Grand Canyon to the Navajo Nation

September 26, 2010

Tuba City, AZ; September 26, 2010. After five days of aggressive cycling—497 miles from Old Town Albuquerque to Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim—PACTour’s Grand Canyon Tour 2010 reached its destination. For three nights and two days, this company of thirty-five cyclists could enjoy one of the world’s greatest wonders and take their rest.

And how do aggressive cyclists rest? Twelve hiked to the river at the bottom of the Canyon and back up in one day. Eight others took the shorter hike to Indiana Gardens and return, while another eight hiked four or five miles along the trail from Hermit’s Rest and back.

The senior member of the tour, however, rested more quietly. He dozed his way through a talk by a park Ranger on the geology of the Canyon, walked briskly along the Rim Trail for about a mile, took a long nap, and listened intently to another Ranger tell about the near-miraculous recovery of the California condor. With a wingspan of nine and a half feet, this bird is grand enough to grace the skies of the Grand Canyon.

With the determined help of governmental agencies and other interested groups, this species, which once flew over most of the southern portions of the United States, has begun to come back from virtual extinction. At one point, only twenty-two of these birds (the ranger called them animals) remained, but now more than 300 soar in the skies of the desert southwest. When so many of the natural systems of the world are in great distress, the California Condor could be a sign of hope. Perhaps it should become America’s national bird.

After two days at the Grand Canyon, it was time for the tour to continue with Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly next on the itinerary. Shortly after 8:30, breakfast eaten at the red trailer and gear stowed in the silver trailer, the cyclists pointed their bicycles toward the east. For twenty-five miles through the national park, the road gained elevation. Even though the riders had been in elevations of 5,000 feet and higher for a week, two or three reported that they had trouble breathing while climbing the grades as the road reached 7,400 feet.

Shortly after they passed the eastern park entrance, the cyclists’ mood turned up as the road turned down: first a short but steep downhill, then another ten miles at a gentler rate of decline, followed by more miles that rolled along. Somewhere along the way an elevation sign indicated that cyclists had coasted their way down to just over 5,000 feet elevation. After their eastward turn toward Tuba City, they had to make a few short pulls, but the cyclists arrived at the Navajo Nation Quality Inn and Hogan Restaurant in a more buoyant mood than they had felt at the end of any of their previous days on this year’s tour.

The next day, however, would be longer and harder. It would take the cyclists ever deeper into the Navajo Nation. PACTour trips focus on swift, long-distance cycling, not on the natural and cultural attractions along the way. Although riders on the Grand Canyon Tour would spend most of the week in Navajo lands and in territories controlled by other Native American nations, there would be little opportunity to explore cultural sights or meet the people who have for so many centuries occupied this bleak but fascinating land. So much could be learned if only the journey’s pace allowed the time!

Rhythms of the ride on the Grand Canyon Tour

September 25, 2010

The red trailer was parked near the visitors’ center at the entrance to the Petrified Forest National Monument. As they relaxed over lunch, cyclists on PACTour’s Grand Canyon Tour 2010 had a decision to make. They had already cycled seventy-five miles from Gallup, across the border into Arizona, and many of those miles had been on the litter-ridden shoulder of I-40. Should they take the short way to Holbrook, which would require seventeen more interstate miles and a total distance of ninety-seven miles for the day?

Or, should they take the Petrified Forest option, a quiet loop to the south, no freeway, but longer, for a total of 115 miles? (Several cyclists had traveled part of the day in one of the support vehicles because they wanted to do this loop but doubted that they were ready to do the full 115 miles.)

From the parking lot, the road took a short northerly meander through the Painted Desert, a raw expense of mineralized land remarkable to behold. Even the cyclists who tended to cover the miles as rapidly as they could, giving little attention to interesting sights along the way, made sure that their cameras were ready. They slowed their pace, pulled over at viewpoints, sometimes walking short distances in order to take in the vistas.

Some gathered at the Fred Harvey restaurant and gift shop near the southern entrance for refreshments, shopping in the gift shop and sharing their impressions of the trip through the park. It was the most relaxed day of the ride. “This day is the kind of ride I had hoped for. It has made the trip worthwhile,” one of the riders exclaimed.

During the night in Holbrook, AZ, the storms that had been forecast for several days arrived, and the cyclists started the day in heavy rain. To increase the tribulation of the day, the first segment of the route was on the shoulder of I-40. In addition to the ordinary hazards of the freeway, they had to contend with spray from passing vehicles, especially RVs whose drivers seemed determined to move closer to the right edge in order to harass the cyclists.

After leaving the freeway (forty-two miles into the day’s ride), cyclists enjoyed a peaceful road with a wonderful tail wind. By then the storm had passed by, and riders were drying out as the sun reestablished its dominance. Twenty miles later, however, both the road and the wind changed directions. The last forty miles to Flagstaff were hard work for even the strongest of the group.

Bad day, good day, bad day—what next?

The fifth day of the Grand Canyon Tour dawned bright and cold, with signs of frost on windshields. Cyclists dressed for the temperature and soon after the sun was up, turned their two-wheeled mounts onto U.S. 180, the highway that would take them to the Grand Canyon. Even though the route sheets noted that the high point for the day (nineteen miles into the ride) was at an elevation of 8,046 feet, no one had reckoned with the steady, steep grade through the Coconino National Forest. It didn’t take long to warm up!

The next thirty miles across the Coconino Plateau, which slopes gently toward the Canyon, was another period of sheer delight: decent road surface, long vistas, gentle rollers that strong cyclists and those riding recumbents could power over without even gearing down. And the color of the open land: yellow-orange as far as the eye could see, all caused by a desert plant covered with clusters of tiny blossoms that carpeted the landscape.

Although the last thirty miles of the day’s trip were marred by increasing traffic loads, poorer road surfaces, and short climbs, the beauty of the high plateau and anticipations of two full days at the Canyon gave even the tired cyclists a sense of achievement and joy.

Facts on the ground (Canyon tour day two)

September 24, 2010

Gallup, NM; September 20, 2010. Day two of the Grand Canyon Tour was supposed to be easy. Low mileage was one reason: 85 miles (instead of the previous day’s 106 and the next days 97) and much of the route on quiet roads far from the freeway (north at Thoreau on NM 371, east through Pinedale, and back to Route 66 which continues as a frontage road). Furthermore, the elevation gain of 1,600 feet was lowest of any day of the eleven that we would be cycling, even though the route crosses the continental divide at 7,800 feet. Because we were cycling on a high plateau rather than through mountains, the grades would be easy and the road would work its way around mesas and find the best way over the low-lying ridges all around.

Fifty-seven miles into the ride, expectations met reality. For ten minutes, cars and trucks—and bicycles—queued up until a pilot car arrived to lead them through. First cars and trucks, and then cyclists, were waved into the dusty passage by the patient person “womaning” the stop sign.

The black top had been pounded and scraped and much of it trucked away, leaving behind a wash boarded under layment disguised by a thin coating of sand and course gravel. Now and then a smooth stretch twenty or third yards long conveyed a false hope that the road might be getting better. The eastbound lane was covered with an eight-inch layer of water soaked sand and gravel, which heavy machinery preparing for the new roadbed. The section being worked was one three or four miles long, but the beat up pavement—twelve miles long—continued in both directions, stretching across the open land in front of travelers. Puffs of dusts marked the road until it disappeared over the off in the distance.

Since this tour was for people on road bikes, no one was riding bikes with wide tires and suspensions that are designed for this kind of road. Classic randonneur bikes, with wide tires and frame geometry designed for Europe’s cobblestones, would have managed the roadway with reasonable comfort, but not the bicycles people had brought: Waterford, Co-Motion, Seven, Rivendell, high-end Trek and Specialized, recumbents, and tandems. Even the bike with 700 x 32, thick-treaded tires and a Brooks saddle with springs was challenged by the course.

Cyclists had to slow down—7 or 8 miles an hour for some, slower for others, and a little faster for a few. Cars and trucks, including semis, could travel faster, which meant that early in the ride through the one way section cyclists faced the pilot car coming back, and a little later coming up from behind. Cyclists moved to the inside of the lane, allowing the motorized traffic most of the space on their right, including the non-existent shoulder.

After seven miles of pounding, cyclists came to the scheduled lunch stop at the Pinedale Headstart School. The familiar red trailer was set up on a paved parking lot up and away from the highway. Bikes were stationed on the portable stands. Off with the gloves, wash up with soapy warm water, get food, sit on portable benches for conversation and nourishment. An open door gave access to restrooms in the school. Then back to the highway for five more miles of pounding. Two or three flats had to be repaired at the side of the road. One rider went down, resulting in scrapes and a puncture wound to his body but little damage to his bike.

At the 69-mile mark, the torture ended. South on NM 566 and west on Route 66, and cyclists reached road’s end for the day. The conversations over dinner were marked by complaints over a system that left so much roadway torn up during reconstruction and by gratitude for the remarkable courtesy they had experienced from motorists. Most important, the Grand Canyon Tour had been fused with a new spirit of confidence.

Grand Canyon Bicycle Tour 2010

September 21, 2010

A storage locker, with doors open, was tucked into a corner of the motel parking lot in Old Town, Albuquerque. Continuing the array along the backside of the lot stood two bike racks, each able to accommodate half a dozen bikes. Completing the layout was one of PACTour’s distinctive support vehicles—the silver trailer and van, forty feet long from end to end, with bike wheels on top. Mounted on its sides and on storage shelves inside was a wide range of equipment and supplies needed to support an extended, aggressive bicycle tour.

A second trailer and van, also forty feet in length was parked across parking spaces in front of eight or ten motel units, all of which were reserved for some of the company who were registered for the Grand Canyon Tour 2010. A canopy deployed from the trailer’s side provided protection from bright sun at ninety degrees. On the sidewalk between the rooms and the van and trailer PACTour benches were set out: eight-foot long, nicely finished, one by twelve planks resting on empty five gallon paint cans.

At 3:30 in the afternoon, the riders gathered for orientation. After the nine members of the support crew were introduced, some of them left to continue their preparations for the tour. Most of the twenty-six registered riders were present, their bicycles already assembled, and they listened as Lon Haldeman, one of PACTour’s principals, explained three pages of notes about how the tour would be conducted.

The roster provided names, phone numbers, and addresses (residence and e-mail). Registered as riders were fifteen men and nine women, from fifteen states, Canada, and the United Kingdom: four in their forties, ten in their fifties, ten in their sixties, and two in their seventies, a surprisingly mature crowd for a cycling event that would travel nearly 1,100 miles in two weeks! Twenty of the group had ridden at least one other PACTour event, and some had ridden several. One member of the support team would ride enough during these two weeks to earn entrance into the elite 10,000-Mile club, and he too would have his name displayed on permanent boards mounted on the side of the red trailer.

Lon explained that the support team strives for consistency in the daily routines. At a certain time each morning, the bike stands, pumps, tools and supplies are out and ready for use. Ten minutes later, breakfast is available at the red trailer for thirty minutes. Then comes the thirty-minute period when riders bring their gear bags and computer cases to the silver trailer for loading. During that same half hour, the riders head out to begin their day’s ride.

Because the first day would be a long 106 miles and the high temperature an unseasonable 95, breakfast was served at 6:30 so that cyclists could be on the road as soon as daylight was firmly established. On most other days, the schedule would be half an hour later.

In clusters of three or four, the cyclists moved out into the cool early morning air: south on the bike trail along the Rio Grande River and State Road 47, though the Isleta Indian Reservation to Los Lunas, then west on State Road 6 and snatches of Historic Route 66 through the Canyoncito, Laguna, and Acoma Reservations to Grants, New Mexico.

Every twenty-five miles or so, one of the trailers would be positioned to provide water, snacks, tools and pumps, and other supplies to keep the cyclists on the road. One would be the lunch stop with real food designed to be attractive, nourishing, and easily digested. These stops were timed to accommodate cyclists riding at speeds averaging from twelve to seventeen miles an hour. At each location someone from the support crew would check the roster to be sure that everyone was accounted for.

“Rooms won’t be ready until 2:30,” Lon explained. “If you get to town before then,” and we all knew that some were fast enough to do it, “don’t bother the motel people. Hang out at the Dairy Queen.”

Although I would get to town long after 2:30, hanging out at the Dairy Queen made sense to me.

Visions of Paradise in Hopi Kivas and Christian Churches

September 19, 2010

How can there be any inter-religious understanding between Western Christians, whose religion depends upon the written word, and Native Americans who practice their traditional religions that are essentially oral?

One answer is to set aside the written words—even the Bible—and instead focus upon one mode of religious expression that classic Christianity and traditional Native American religion both used. Over many generations, the faithful have adorned their ceremonial spaces with art that conveys a sense of what is important in their spiritual understandings and patterns of life.

Saving Paradise, an award-winning book published in 2008, has influenced my reflections about the way that many Christians have painted the interior of their churches. During extensive travels across Europe and Asia Minor to study the art in ancient churches, the authors realized that pictures of paradise had been the dominant visual environment in churches for the first millennium of Christian life. Better to understand what they were seeing, the authors read widely in Christian literature, including prayers, hymns, and theology.

Their readings confirmed that during the first half of Christian history, the focus of worship, church life, theology, and public policy had been on life in this world, life lived with ethical grace and beauty, the way that God has always intended that it be lived.

For a millennium, Christians built churches that portrayed paradise. Around the communion table, worshipers experienced the joyful feast of love and peace that they believed God intended for all people. Inspired by their worship, Christians could live lives of ethical grace and work to transform the world around them so that it was more like paradise.

During these generations, when most worshipers were illiterate, the visual environment transmitted a way for Christians to live faithfully that may have been even more dynamic than the printed pages of later generations.

While churches and the ceremonies within them have almost always been public, this has not been the case with Native American religious places and ceremonies. Because kivas are not public spaces, non-Natives usually cannot see the decorative walls and sense their spirituality.

The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, however, is helping to bring our worlds together. It collects art that portrays the stories, principles, and patterns of life that have been practiced by the Native peoples in the four corners region. Part of the process has been to invite contemporary artists and articulate writers from these Southwestern peoples to create new art and prepare informed interpretive materials.

Perhaps the most spectacular of these ventures is a mural 5’ X 46’, created in 2001, that adorns the wall of a room in the museum built to simulate a Hopi kiva. In the Fall 2006 issue of its journal Plateau: The Land and People of the Colorado Plateau, the museum published extensive photographs of the mural and other holdings, along with interpretive essays by Hopi scholars.

The modern work of art is similar to murals in traditional kivas, which portrays the central story of the world, a story in which Hopi ancestors ascended from the world below, through a hole in the ground, and populated this middle space in which everyone now lives. The Museum’s mural uses an artistic style that combines traditional Hopi patterns and modern techniques such as cubism.

According to the explanation posted by the Museum, these murals “were spiritually empowered compositions that—through prayer, song, and ritual—effected changes in the ordinary world. Ultimately, they were invocations for rain and the fertility that would nurture life.”

The first essay explains that the songs of many ancient people of the Southwest and Mesoamerica “describe a colorful, glittering, flowery paradise evoked through singing and the sounds of bells, rattles, flutes, and bird song…This flowery world is not a separate place, like a Christian heaven, but a reality that can be brought forth through human prayers, songs, and actions” (Plateau, 14). The murals in some of the Hopi kivas “invoke a flowery spiritual landscape; they may have served as backdrops for spiritual performances by small groups of initiates at particular times of the year.”

The authors of a second essay report that Hopi prayers are marked by reciprocity between the responsibilities of the people and the goodness of the Spirits who are represented by the Katsinam, the sacred dancers who come to villages during festivals. The katsina songs describe the “principles and practices of the Hopi way of life.” The songs describe the way that Hopi people should live and affirm their belief “in a destiny that promises prosperity, long life, and happiness…If the Hopi pray with united hearts and live the life they originally agreed upon, then the katsinam ‘for their part’ will reciprocate with rain” (Plateau, 30).

How different the outward forms! How much alike the inner spirit!

Recycled by Arizona

September 16, 2010

Preparing for a challenging bicycle tour includes bicycle, body, and mind, these three, but the greatest of these is mind (apologies to St. Paul). Getting my Co-Motion bicycle ready for the Grand Canyon Tour is easy enough—turn it over to the guys at the bike shop and get lower gears. Dealing with the body is harder—lots of long distance, disciplined training rides all summer long (more than I’ve done would have been better).

Getting the mind right, that’s where the difficulty arises. How do cyclists organize their thoughts so that confidence is properly balanced with prudence? How can we come to believe that we will do the distances with enjoyment. And at the same time  pace ourselves so that we have the best possible chance to achieve our goals, one of which is to finish each day with a certain dignity (perhaps even with a flourish).

Cycling regularly in Arizona, as I did for seven years during the first phase of my retirement, provided the opportunity to condition the mind, and as I prepare for another trek through the Desert Southwest, I am reviewing the lessons.

On the Sun Valley Parkway west of Phoenix, on the far edge of Sun City West, I bicycled day after day, sometimes with old timers like myself, more often alone. In a world where the air temperature consistently is higher than a hundred, where there is no shade, little traffic, and no water, cycling can take dangerous turns.

Three lessons are there to be learned: take lots of water, gear down, practice humility. On my Grand Canyon Tour that begins Sunday (September 19, 2010), these are the guidelines with which I am preparing my mind. And I’m rereading St. Paul who said that faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. Faith and hope I’m bringing with me.

As for love? I believe that Paul was right. That this, the highest virtue, will be there already as the bond that unites 35 travelers on this wild and wonderful adventure.

Click here to read more of Recycled by Arizona.