Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rapha Continental - Navajo Land
Part Two

Our route from Lukachukai and the Totsoh trading post now led due east, toward a phalanx of red sandstone monoliths, and through we had to pass to gain the heights beyond. The road, only paved for the last five years, was only slightly uphill for a few miles, and then it began to climb, worming its way alongside a creek through the red rock, now spotted with pinyon and ponderosa pines, the sage brush of the desert left behind and below.

As the road tilted up toward a 16% grade, I dropped into my easiest gear. Sometimes I rode straight up the mountain, sometimes I zig-zagged back and forth across the yellow stripe dividing the up and down lanes. Occasionally a vehicle - usually an iconic Navajo pick-up truck - would put in an appearance before disappearing around a bend.

The air grew cool, we passed a small waterfall on one side of the road, and followed in reverse the direction of a little creek on our right. The sky was mostly cloud free and turquoise-blue, the surrounding forest a deep green. To me, this is one of the premier roads to cycle in the American West.

Hahn - I think it was Hahn, I was deep into oxygen debt - had kept company with me for much of the long uphill pull. He knew we were eventually going to reach a Navajo food stand, and when we did, he suggested we take another pickle break. There was only one pickle left, so we split it. We promised to return with the rest of the group on our

A few more serious twists in the road finally brought us to Buffalo Pass, with a few picnic tables and a fine view east into New Mexico, with
massive Shiprock (Tsé Bit' A'í - "Rock with Wings" - in the Navajo language) in the distance.

Pierre had crested the summit well both before the rest of the riders and the photographers' van. He kept right on going, perhaps a couple of miles down the other side of Buffalo Pass, before realizing his mistake.

Once Pierre made his way back up to the summit, we all started down, back the way we'd come, to stop for lunch at the food stand. We enjoyed Navajo tacos and talked to the family who had set the stand up. "See you tomorrow!" I joked, as we started down the mountain again.

On the way up, Cole had noticed some shallow indentations - hand and foot holds - cut into one of the sandstone monoliths, which in reality was a giant, petrified sand dune. He asked me
if I knew what was on top of the rock. I didn't know, and so Cole decided to find out. He parked his bike, and with me in tow, we climbed the surprisingly steep rock. There was no pot of gold, no access to a hidden pool of water. But there was a fine view, both of the dome on which we stood, and the views beyond, a fitting reward for our efforts. At least two other riders joined us, and then we descended - all of us barefoot now - carefully to safer ground.

Once past the phalanx of sandstone, the pines replaced by sagebrush, we were hit with a strong headwind, which had churned up a brown cloud of dust. It was a dust storm, and I found myself down on the drops, grinding out the last mile or so, back to the Totsoh trading post, where we made a few more Navajo friends (the Navajo call themselves Diné, "The People" - the word "Navajo" comes from a Spanish word).

This was another low point for me. I was sure I'd slow down the rest of the riders too much for the final miles of the trip, thinking we'd have to fight our way through strong cross-winds through gritty clouds of dust. This time, though, no one suggested I climb into the van - instead, everyone encouraged me to continue. Within ten minutes the dust storm subsided to nothing, anyway, and so we were off (except for Hahn, how had the misfortune of suffering another of the several flats he encountered over the course of the day), riding south again, back on Indian Route 12.

Having suffered another flat tire, Hahn soloed back up to us.
While the others slowed to wait for Hahn, I rode ahead for a while, enjoying both the landscape around me and the sound of music from my iPod Shuffle, which helped me keep a steady pedal cadence. It also, on occasion, made me seem a little anti-social, if not a little deaf, because I often had to stop the music and ask my companions to
repeat what they'd just said.

At the community of Tsaile, with Roof Butte rising over the landscape, our route now turned west, onto Highway 64 (North Rim Drive) that would eventually take us along the edge of Canyon de Chelly and drop us, in about 30 miles, back to the Thunderbird Lodge.

In the act of making a photograph, I rolled over a rock and pinch-flatted my front tire. It was just as well, because I'd begun cramping again. The others had sprinted for a hill-top just before my flat, and not realizing my predicament, waited for me to catch up about a half a mile ahead.

For a while, the clouds in the distance had been gathering and darkening, and when we finally rolled beneath them, we were splattered with a few drops of rain.

We pulled off the highway for a two mile ride to the Antelope House Ruin overlook. A short pedal over dirt, around cacti, and down some stone steps, which turned our road bikes into mountain bikes, brought us to the edge of the canyon. We peered over its sheer, thousand-foot high cliffs, down at the ruins of cliff dwellings and at a giant drawing of an antelope on the cliff
next to the ruins, probably created by a Navajo artist around 1830.

After our return to the highway,
there were only a few minutes and a few downhill miles left to the ride. After quick showers, we headed into Chinle and the Junction Restaurant, where we talked out our day and ate healthy portions of mutton stew and posole stew and Navajo tacos and Navajo fry bread and Navajo tortillas.

The next morning, we ate blue corn
pancakes at the Thunderbird Lodge. We took the South Rim Drive - this time in our motorized vehicles -
about 15 miles, up to the end of the paved road. We looked at Spider Rock, an 800 foot-tall spire that rises from the bottom of Canyon de Chelly. It was here that Spider Woman, a chief deity of the Navajo people, chose to live, and from where she taught the Navajo people to weave.

We stood for a while on the edge of that enormous abyss, millions of years in the making, and the place where we had begun and ended our journey.

Our journey had tested us against a vast distance in desert heat. It tested us on the climb into the Chuska Mountains, and it tested us against ourselves.

No comments: