A Reality Check In Sedona

Riding Schnebly Hill Road Out Of Sedona To Interstate 17

I awoke late to find a home in disarray. Our group of seven had dwindled to five since two guys had early flights out. Well, the flights really weren't all that early, but given that we had watched the sunrise this morning, anything before 11 am was being considered early in my book. I rolled off the couch to join the other guys who were preparing breakfast and cleaning the house.

I received a text from a a friend I had made over the weekend who happened to be a member of one of the countless bachelorette parties in Scottsdale. She was extending her final offer to give me a ride to Sedona this afternoon. She was road-tripping back to her home in Colorado and assured me that it would be no problem to give me a lift to Sedona. Given how unprepared I felt to ride today and being excited by the prospect of company, I accepted her offer.

By noon I had said my goodbyes and was on the road again. Katie picked me up in her sedan and we chatted the ride away, all the while I was gazing at the mind-melting scenery and celebrating the fact that I didn't have to make these giants climbs on two wheels in Arizona's lonely countryside. What would have taken me three days to accomplish Katie and I conquered in two hours; by early afternoon we had arrived at Sedona.

Once she and I parted ways things began to get real. I found myself in casual clothes aimlessly riding my bike around a ritzy tourist town. As fascinated as I was by the backdrop of towering red rocks with their eroded spires, I needed to get some direction. I didn't have a plan as to how I would leave Sedona. Thus, I did what any other millennial in my situation would have done: I went to Starbucks.

At the cafe I plugged in and tuned out. My mind bounced from logistics to Wizards basketball to social media and back to logistics. I did this dance for a couple of hours and occasionally looked up from my roost to witness a passing rain storm. By 6 pm I still didn't know what the hell I was going to do. I didn't want to spend money for accommodations in Sedona, nor did I want to take on a hefty ride the following day, so I decided to knock off the first 20 miles of my ride to Flagstaff.

My ill-conceived plan was to follow the dusty Schnelby Hill Road for about 11 miles out of Sedona to I-17, then ride another four miles to get to the town of Munds Park. My problem was that Schnelby Hill Road entailed over 2,000 feet of climbing and was of precarious conditions. Plus, sunset was less than an hour-and-a-half away. Overconfident in my ability to make the climb, I ignored the dissenting opinions in my head and hopped on my bike for a race against the sun.

Things got off to a fine start. A paved road led me uphill. I came across a sign which cautioned vehicles without 4x4 capabilities and roll cages to avoid the route. It didn't make much sense to me, the road seemed fine. I then arrived at the Schnelby Hill Trailhead. Another sign informed me that there were five miles to the vista and 11 miles to I-17. Given that I usually ride around 12 miles per hour, I figured this ascent wouldn't be quite as hard as I expected.

Schnelby Hill Road Distances

At the trailhead the pavement abruptly ceased, giving way to a rock-covered dirt path. Though the ground was hard enough to ride my bike across, the sporadic disbursement of rocks both small and large were causing my bike to buck like so many of the horses I had come into contact with on this trip. This road was hardly suitable to traverse on a mountain bike and it definitely wasn't suitable for a fully-loaded hybrid bike like mine. I maintained fierce concentration on the road ahead of me, continuously scanning the ground to determine the best route forward. I hardly diverted my eyes from the ground to greet the tourist-filled Hummers which occasionally passed, nor did I raise my eyes to take in the surroundings which grew even more beautiful with the sun's residual light illuminating them in unexpected ways.

Sedona Red Rocks

My bike trembled and rocked like an earthquake, the road conditions got worse. At points I had to dismount my bike and push as the route became too tumultuous. Being on my own two feet, I stopped to check the routing application on my phone. Based on the level of effort I had exerted, I figured that I was halfway done with the ride.

Wrong. I had hardly covered two of the 11 miles that comprised Schnelby Hill Road. My stomach sank, much like the sun was beginning to behind the horizon. 

Sedona Sunset

I walked then rode then walked then rode then walked again. I was tense; determined to complete my plan while simultaneously regretting my decision. A $100 hotel room is way less than a $20,000 medical bill, I thought to myself. The nagging didn't matter, I kept pushing my bike forward.

I was approached by another Hummer, this one brimming with middle-aged and elderly tourists. The muscular driver stopped his vehicle next to me. "You camping out tonight?"

"No, I'm heading to an RV Park."

"We didn't see an RV Park." The elderly woman sitting next to him called out.

"It's in Mundy, or Muncy or something."

"Oh, in Munds Park. Well you know there's an RV park here at the bottom, right?" He pointed down in the direction I had come from.

"Yeah, I did see that one, but I've got to make up some miles." I was trying to force a smile, but was sure my pervasive sense of nervousness was reflected on my countenance.

"Does your mother know you're doing this?" The woman sitting shotgun inquired.

I nodded affirmatively despite growing increasingly irritated with her.

"You've got about six or seven miles to get to the summit. Once you get there it will flatten out for a few, but I expect it could take you an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half to get there. You know it will be dark out in about twenty minutes?"

"Yeah, I appreciate the heads up. I think I'm just going to push through. I've got my headlamp all charged up, so should be able to deal with the dark."

"Alright, do you have plenty of water?"

"I do. I've got two liters in a bladder."

"Does your mother know you're doing this?" The woman repeated, this time louder. Her incessant blabber had elicited a laugh from the group and had also made its way under my skin.

"I'm a 29-year-old-man, there's not much ma can do about it at this point." I responded with a forced smile on my face.

The helpful gentleman continued. "Alright, well stay safe and good luck to you." The engine turned and began humming again. I offered a token farewell to the group which assailed me with a barrage of "BE CAREFUL"s. I was displeased with the interaction. 

I hope these aren't the last people I speak with.

Alone again, I pushed forward. My mind couldn't help but to hinge on the comparison of this interaction to one I had had with a truck driver in Kansas who offered to bail me out of a pending rainstorm. Naive and overly-sure of myself, I rejected his proposition only to find myself soaking wet on the side of the road and hitchhiking for another ride just twenty minutes later. The comparison tormented me. It reminded me that I had elicited poor judgement in the past and was not immune to doing so again.

I moved forward with haste, though I could only go as fast as my two legs and the damaged road would allow. Despite how eager I was to ascend this hill, I stopped to take several pictures. The scenery was phenomenal.

Dusk in Sedona

Likely nearing eight o'clock, the sun's energy had withdrawn from the scenery, but I was teeming with an electric nervousness. Switching on my bike's headlight, my vision was confined to a single spot on the road ahead of me. Whatever inhabited the cliffs to my left or the trees of the Coconino National Forest to my right was beyond me. I knew nothing but that which was in front of me.

My anxiety grew. What kinds of animals live out here? Wasn't there a Bear-A-Zona tourist attraction outside of Flagstaff? Weren't there mountain lions in Prescott? Aren't many of these predators nocturnal? Considerations that were absent from my mind when I was in the comfort of my booth in Starbucks were now at the forefront...and they were driving me mad.

"Ahhh! Grrrr." A small bird on the trail unexpectedly flapped its wings as I approached, causing my voice to shoot up, then be immediately followed by a low growl. Oh my God, I just growled. I was beyond tense. My hands were trembling and it seemed my mind had entered into a fight or flight mode. I paused my ascent to retrieve my straight blade and bear spray from my pannier. I secured the blade to my left hip and clutched the bear deterrent in my right hand.

It was nighttime. The silhouette of Sedona's prized red rocks was cloaked in darkness. The flash of my headlight bouncing off of small reflective posts every several hundred feet guided me forward. My ears were filled with the crunching of my feet and tires on the loose, gravelly Earth.

I came about to a sign. It was nearly two hours into my ride-hike and I had only made it to the five-mile marker. My heart dropped. I couldn't do six more miles of this, and yet I had to. Both options, continue or turn back, were horrible ones. I felt drained like the millenia of wash that had chiseled and eroded the features of Sedona's rocks. I ground and was ground.

I was miserable. I received a phone call from my girlfriend which I was hardly able to complete due to the patchy service. On top of all the self-condemnation I was doing, the call with her caused me to think of the other people in my life; my girlfriend, my family, my friends (who were the whole reason I was in Arizona in the first place). How would they all feel if I didn't come home? The pressure I placed on myself squeezed tight like a noose. As I contemplated the inexorable links that I had to the many people who give my life meaning, my adventurous endeavors began to feel absurd and selfish. Why do you keep putting yourself through this, Colin? It was a tough question which, as I am writing this today, I am still unable to answer.

The dark, quiet, lonely ascent continued. For so long I had yearned for silence, for the sweet relief that it brings to a tense mind. Trudging uphill and surrounded by ominous forests, my desire for silence grew into a need. Silence meant that there were no predators nearby, whereas the lack of silence could imply the opposite. I insecurely clung to the silence. I was so on edge that even the slightest sound would provoke a frightened glance or a scream.

The summit was near. The moonlit sky illuminated a ridge of trees which delineated the peak of the trail. Nearing the top, my route diverged from the cannon and soon I was surrounded by trees; dark, ominous, shrouding trees on all sides.

*pft, pft, pft*

A pack of animals raced across the route, their feet pitter-pattering on the Earth and their large figures snapping off twigs in their path. My heart jumped. I figured these animals to be harmless mule elk, but I remained tense as I did not know if they were running from me or something else. I continued my hasty progression.

Not long after coming into contact with the elk my nostrils were filled with the fresh scent of dung. The noxious odor had an indescribable warmth to it, leading me to conclude that it had been recently dropped. I hoped that it belonged to the elk, and not something else.

I was within the third hour of my ride and I was so exhausted. I was so paranoid. I was so upset. I was so scared. Having leveled, I held a steady pace along the trail, combating all my negative thoughts with a monomaniacal command that I focus on nothing but getting to interstate 17.

Ahead and to the right I heard humming. From behind the staggered rows of trees flashes of light grew and then subsided. The road was near, these were passing cars. What a great sense of relief that the harsh lights of a vehicle and the violent sounds of a combustion engine brought to me in this moment of panic. Humanity was just around the corner. In no time I arrived at I-17.

It was almost ten o'clock, and though I had traversed Schnelby Hill Road, I still didn't know where I was going to sleep. The next town over, Munds Park, was about three miles down the highway. Despite my strong distaste for riding on highways, especially at nighttime, I mounted my bike and headed North to Munds Park.

Once there I couldn't find anywhere to sleep. There was an RV park that refused to let tent campers set up on their property and a hotel with $100 rooms. Beyond that, it was Sunday night in rural Arizona, everything was as it should have been; closed.

Camping by highway

I found a hill behind a row of homes which overlooked the I-17 overpass. From atop the hill I could hear the vehicles pass by, not so loud as to disturb me but loud enough to let me know that I was not alone anymore. It was there that I set up my tent, then drifted to sleep with the orchestra of semi-trucks, RVs and late night drivers whose latent melody was just the lullaby I needed.

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