Day Fifty-Six

Forest Lakes, AZ to Strawberry, AZ

There are four words that could describe today's ride. The first two are " scenic beauty." The forests and canyons of central Arizona were fantastic to see. The other two are " sheer terror." I found myself on a few roads where I really didn't want to be.

I woke up at 6:15, but I decided to go back to bed. Two hours later, I got up and got ready to go. The Forest Lakes Lodge had a continental breakfast. I couldn't keep myself from drinking an orange juice, but I should have. It was one of those little cans with a  foil tab. I have never had orange juice from such a can that was not sour and acidic, and this time was no exception.

My ride started with a couple of small hills, bringing me to 7,700 feet. I looked to my left and was awestruck. The road was right near the edge of the Mogollon Rim, and a short walk through the forest brought me to a fantastic view. I was careful to watch my step, as this was the sort of place where one could slip, fall down the cliff wall  and never be found. Back on the road, I saw a sign: 6% down grade for the next six miles. This was the longest downhill I have ever ridden. One might think that downhills are easy, but in some ways they can be more stressful than uphills. At 30+ mph, things can go wrong fast on a bicycle. It takes great concentration to focus on the pavement. What would be a simple bump at 12 mph can throw a bike off the road at 35 mph. It also goes without saying that it is much easier to slow down to avoid a problem when one isn't going down a 6% grade. And one more thing about downhills that cannot be avoided... imagine how it feels to hit a bug at 35 mph. I got a cut on my forehead from one.

The first few miles of the hill weren't especially hard to negotiate. SR 260 had been widened to four lanes, and with a good headwind I was able to keep from going too fast. There was more roadkill poetry, and the first line struck me as ironic: " Keep your eyes on the road." Well, most people probably did have their eyes on the road until the sign distracted them!  Then things got tricky. There was a sign for construction on SR 260 from August 2001 to September 2004. I had wondered what would take so long, and halfway down I found out. The road was only two lanes from that point on--the project was to blast away rock and create another two-lane roadbed. After having all the room I needed for the start of my descent, now I had no room at all. There was no shoulder, and with the twisting road, I was understandably nervous--if a truck came around a corner and saw me, it would be physically impossible to slow the truck down in time. With a steady flow of oncoming traffic, the driver wouldn't have much room to maneuver, either. Fortunately, a heaven-sent break in traffic coincided with my ride on this dangerous stretch of road.

At the bottom of the huge hill, I came into the town of Christopher Creek. I stopped at the store/post office and bought some cookies and Coke to fuel up for the next 25 miles to Payson. The road continued to descend more gradually, and I covered the five miles to the tiny town of Kohl's Ranch quickly. On more tight curves, the semi traffic caught up to me. However, this time I was going 10 mph instead of 30 mph, so I just ran off the road and onto the soft gravel shoulder for a few hundred feet as they barreled past. In such times, I was very glad to have wider touring tires on my bike.

After descending about 2,000 feet, SR 260 began rolling up and down from canyon to canyon. There was another stretch of four-lane road, but the westbound lanes were not open yet (though the stripes were painted). Westbound traffic had to use one of the eastbound lanes. Again, I was lucky that gaps in traffic coincided with some of the tighter moments of the lane crossovers. After several more hills, including a long descent, I rode into Star Valley. Traffic picked up, seemingly from nowhere. I had to climb out of the valley for about two miles  to get to Payson. Although I had seen warnings for animals, especially elk, for most of the past 75 miles, the only ones I saw were two large deer bounding across four-lane SR 260 just outside Payson. In Payson, SR 260 joined with SR 87 from Phoenix. On the north edge of town, I stopped for lunch at a gas station/grill/deli. The people there were very friendly.

Since it was only 1:45 after lunch, I continued on to Pine, the next town up the road. Traffic was heavy, and there were too many trucks for my liking, especially since it was a twisty road with no shoulder. I was surprised that ADOT didn't make a safer highway where two busy state routes run together. There was another long downhill into the East Verde River canyon. It was fast, but it brought me little pleasure. I had to focus on hugging the white line because the trucks weren't cutting me any slack. In fact, I was convinced that a pair of tandem gravel haulers deliberately terrorized me. Coming from behind, they passed within inches. Then  as soon as they were past I saw that they were well over a foot to the right of the centerline. There was really no reason for them to crowd me like that. Most other truckers were better, but oncoming traffic didn't always give them much leeway.

When the road headed skyward again, I was feeling weak. My slow speed made it that much harder to steer a straight course along the white line, although my touring bike is much better as such speeds than my other bikes are. Oddly, the only time SR 87/260 had any shoulder was when it widened to offer a passing lane, precisely the time when a shoulder wasn't necessary! The 13 miles from Payson to Pine were a scary, white-knuckled ride. I was glad to get to town, where I planned to spend the night. I stopped in a gas station to buy drinks and asked about motels, looking for a recommendation. The clerk gave me some bad news--I had to go to up the road to Strawberry. Strawberry didn't have its own post office, so it turned out that the motels that were listed as being in Pine were actually up the road a piece. I said, " Well, Strawberry is only a few miles away, right?"

" Yes, but it's all uphill," she said.

I replied that I'd done plenty of climbing since Payson, so a few more miles wouldn't be so hard. I was overestimating myself--my legs were rubber from all that climbing. The sign at the edge of town said it was two miles to Strawberry. I hoped that it was a " short" two miles and not a " long" two miles, which gives an idea of how tired I was. Only half a mile up the road, I stopped for a break. A half mile further, I stopped again. I guessed that it was going to take me half an hour at 5 mph to get to Strawberry, but soon I was over the hill and headed down into town.

There was a problem at the Strawberry Lodge. " We don't have any water right now," the owner said. She explained that sometimes the city would shut off their water without notice--sometimes they accidentally struck a water main, and other times they turned it off to do some work. She was rightfully upset because without warning and without knowing when the water would come back on, she had to turn away business. To add insult to injury, she said that for years she had her own well. Then the water company bought the land behind her place, drilled deeper and ran her dry. She started making phone calls to try to get some answers, but it wasn't easy because the water company was located in California and the " local" pager number was busy. Eventually, she found out that the water would be back on soon after 5:00, so I paid for the room. It was a no-frills room with no television and no telephone, but that was good--I'd probably get more work done that way.

I wanted to go to an Italian restaurant up the road for dinner, but they were closed. I went to a market across the street, checked out their offerings and said I'd probably be back a little later. I walked back to the Strawberry Lodge to have dinner in the cafe, but it was closed, too, probably because of the water problems. Two minutes later, I was back in the store across the street to search for something to eat. I microwaved my dinner and took it back to my room.

Totals for the day: 55.40 miles in 4:58:24 for a 11.1 mph average.

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