Every few miles of riding in the Sonoran desert, a bee would whack my cycling helmet. THWACK. A few bounced off my face as well. That didn’t make as much sound, but of course, it hurt. Just the dull thud of one brand ephemeral flesh against another.
The desert throws things at you like that. The wind changes shape and size. It likes to hide behind you, then rush around front and slam you in the face. Lest you take it for granted.
It also makes you hoarse. Dry desert air may be good medicine for those seeking solace from mold and allergies of the Midwest. But the throat tends to parch when engaged in those first rides through a landscape of cactus and cholla. The voice deepens. This becomes your desert voice. A hoarse croak of acceptance that new terms are being delivered.
We learned from one of our mountain biking guides that saguaro cactus seeds are distributed by bats who eat the fruit and crap the seats across the desert. The tall cactus grow slowly and long. A saguaro in front of our hotel was listed at 165 years old, dating back to 1851, when a place like Phoenix with its many roads and low-slung homes was unimaginable.
At times, the saguaro seem like they are all in one a massive inside joke. In a landscape so dry, the only way human beings can make it inhabitable is to import water. Lots of it. That means big rivers like the Colorado and aquifers far below the earth’s surface are channeled into service of the human race. It takes about a million gallons of water a day to keep a golf course green in a desert environment. There are dozens of golf courses the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix. People fly from around the world to hit little white balls around an artificially green landscape dotted by saguaros. It is in many respects a theater of the absurd.
The pace of development in Phoenix was only slowed by the economic crash of 2008, so housing prices dropped and the saguaro raised their arms in fits of hilarity. “See, we told you so! It’s not as easy to live here as you think.”
Phoenix gets it
There are accommodations that make a bit more sense. One of these is a commitment to provide clearly marked bike lanes on roads throughout the Phoenix/Scottsdale region. These bike lanes extend well into the country, but their greatest value is in town where cars and bikes are each given due respect. In more than 100 miles of riding over two days, there were no shouts or yells at our train of cyclists on the road. The roads were smooth, lacking the frost-buckled cracks so common to road in Illinois.
That meant great riding. But it was the climb over a mountain pass a winding road that turned out to be a highlight of the trip for me. I’ve written about “peak experiences” before, those moments when a place and an activity come together in ways that take you out of the humdrums. As I pedaled the long incline into the foothills over a distance of six miles, my legs actually felt better the further the road climbed. We passed a promontory made of large boulders. My cadence was high and I made contact with the other two lead riders. The sun shone brightly. There was a cool breeze. We chatted as we rode higher and higher. And that was a peak experience.
The final day of camp consisted of an hour run, the 2-hour mountain bike ride and an hour swim session. Our arms were mush from the mountain biking, but they warmed up with a few laps and us “nutters” who are just a year into swimming managed about 1200 yards of outdoor pool action.
Then we headed back to the hotel for some rest before dinner. Those four days of training had not wiped us out, but it was a great way to start the year. Back home in Chicago the weather was cold (23 degrees) and snowing. There was not one among us that did not appreciate the warm (but not hot) training atmosphere we’d enjoyed. It was our goal to “break through” the difficulties of early season training by jump-starting it with an intensive training camp.
There was one other thing I wanted to do during camp. It would come about during dinner on Saturday night. Leading up to the trip I’d made a decision to move some things ahead in life. And riding and running in a new environment, along with discovery of some new bird species had pushed my mind into new and challenging spaces. All my life I’ve used running and riding to manage breakthroughs. Some of these were work-related. Some were in response to work and its challenges.
This new breakthrough was to be relational. I’d made some plans in collaboration with a business back home to provide the catalyst for a moment that seemed right. And so, during dinner that our Saturday evening dinner, I pulled a ring out of my pocket that Sue had selected more than a month ago. It is a sign of commitment to a relationship of almost three years. I asked her to marry me.
She said yes.
It was fun to share this breakthrough moment. And granted, it came as a bit of a surprise to some, but not all. As tired as I was in having lost a little sleep to some caffeine-induced insomnia the night before, the moment was right. Our little tribe of triathletes shared in a moment of commitment to something bigger than the running, or the biking, or the swimming.
As we piled into the van for the ride to the airport, I was feeling a little sad. Transitions from getaways are not always easy. This was compounded by the fact that I’d previously booked a couple extension days of birding with a friend in Tucson. But I was tired. And a bit emotionally fragile. At that point I just wanted to go back home. To put it plainly, I was getting homesick. As a young kid, that used to happen quite a bit. But I hadn’t had that feeling in quite a well.
My goal was extending the trip a couple days to do some hiking and birding. But I was overtired more than enthusiastic. As it worked out, Sue and I did not even get to say goodbye at the airport. The rental car shuttle scooped her up while I was renting a car for my extended stay.
So the drive to Phoenix was a tearful one. The winds blew and the dust kicked up from the Arizona desert. Then the rains came. Mountains huddled on their haunches as rain soaked their backs. I stopped for a Coke at a rest stop and it did not taste good.
And at some point between Phoenix and Tucson I pulled over to the side of the road and I burst into tears and aching sobs. I even pulled the car over. Then I realized there was more to these tears than a bit of homesickness. There were years of pent-up grief behind them. There were days and nights of caregiving, uncertainty and fears about how I had managed things. Worries about how my kids. There were financial challenges and the anxiety they invariably create. All these fears. These needed to be confronted.
So I called my son Evan and we talked. We agreed to some extent that my behavior of late has been a bit “off-brand.” So I explained that it was with a purpose in some ways. Perhaps only pain can served as a true release from pressures, self-inflicted and otherwise.And talking to my son helped.
That afternoon the rain continued. My host in Tucson and I sat for coffee in a cafe overlooking the Catalina mountain range. And by 4:00 the rain stopped. So we went to the park with a line of clouds still rustling the mountaintops.
She’s been going through life changes as well. We talked about that and our shared history. We’ve known each other more than 20 years and once worked for the same employer. Now she’s making changes and as part of that process, parked herself by an apartment overlooking the Catalina mountains where she hikes almost daily. Her photography skills are now pumped through a cell phone, and she laments the distortions it creates. But it is restoring her soul, it seems.
By day’s end, I’d gotten happily tired from walking. We saw quite a few species of birds given the time of day. Then I glanced back behind me to see a roadrunner on the path. It paused, gave a curious look, and took off again.
If there is such a thing as a spirit animal, I think I just found it. As a kid, I’d drawn roadrunners with spinning legs below their feathered body and head. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong wish to see one in person. A spirit animal indeed.