A week ago my wife and I emerged from the Grand Canyon after four days of backpacking in a glorious car-free and bike-free world.
But biking and bike commuting came with me nonetheless. That’s right. Although 17 million years of geological and evolutionary history were opened up before me like a beautiful 18-mile wide, 277-mile long book, I kept thinking about my life and work above the rim. I couldn’t help myself.
You know that guy who has an okay bike in his garage but never gets it out? That guy who bought all of that cycling stuff a few years ago with good intentions, but gave up on it because the logistics and lifestyle demands never quite took? I’m that guy, but with backpacking instead of cycling.
Superiority Rears Its Ugly Head
Down in the canyon, rim-to-rim runners were trotting on the trails every day, marking a 24-mile run that descends 4,400 feet and up again. There were rim-to-rim-to-rim runners as well — those who did the round-trip commute of 48 miles in one day.
Impressive as the feat may be, I found them annoying. I, at least, was trying to find a proper mindset with which to receive the canyon. But these rim-to-rimmers would come up behind us on a narrow part of the path. We could hear them huffing impatiently behind us waiting for us to move aside. To them, the canyon represented a bragging right; a mere backdrop for their self-aggrandizing athleticism. They imagined themselves to be the real conquerors of the canyon, not us slow-moving two-legged mules.
Wait a second, I’d think. Listen to all of this psychological projection going on in my head. I’m thinking like those cyclists who assume that every motorist is a bike hater; like those plain-clothes cyclists who spit the word spandex like an epithet. I’m thinking like those motorists who assume every cyclist is a smug cyclist.
The most any of these runners ever said to us was, “Good morning.” How can I possibly be reading all of these other thoughts and attitudes in their heads?
I’ve worked through all of these “different strokes for different folks” issues in the context of cycling — at least I’ve tried to. But I found myself having to relearn these lessons in the context of backpacking.
Realizing this helped me to appreciate the social wilderness that an inexperienced cyclists enters when they get on their bike for the first time in years and try to assimilate.
A new or returning cyclist does not want to feel inadequate, or feel that they have chosen their equipment or their cycling niche unwisely. These judgmental thoughts are a reflexive response to insecurity. There is a strong temptation to seek purist allies who have made similar choices to reassure the new cyclist that they are okay.
Rather than seek the refuge of a purist sub-group of Grand Canyon visitors, I decided to have an open mind about the ultra-runners.
Right of Way Matters
When these runners would come charging down a hill I was ascending, some of them would expect me to move out of their way. I could appreciate that they are trying to achieve their best time, but trail etiquette holds that uphill hikers have the right of way.
And, like cycling, many people jump into the activity without learning the etiquette. I was in the canyon for two days before I sought clarification on the right-of-way issue. How many cyclists never seek clarification about rules and etiquette, and as a result put themselves at risk by acting on false assumptions?
At every trail head, and every campground, there was at least one large educational sign reiterating the basic rules. And for the most part, these rules were observed.
This sign was above a urinal at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon.
It occurred to me that these rules are really a subset of the rules of a sustainable society. Don’t waste resources. Keep the wild wild. Don’t generate trash if you are not willing to take responsibility for it.
Every conversation we had with a Park Service employee reinforced these rules or the underlying values.
Think of how cycling for transportation (bike commuting, utility cycling) would be accepted by the public if cyclists could be reminded more often of their rights and responsibilities. New and returning cyclists wouldn’t be out there winging it recklessly. (Well, fewer of them would be out there winging it recklessly.)
The More Experienced Users, The Fewer Problems
Downhill-charging trail runners notwithstanding, we encountered no problems with any of the other hikers, backpackers, or mule passengers we met in the canyon. We started at the North Rim, which gets fewer visitors, and (I’m guessing) more experienced hikers.
It wasn’t until our last day, climbing out of the South Rim, when we began to see reckless people who were clearly unprepared for hiking; people with no water; people in high heel shoes. And it was literally within 50 yards from the end of our journey when I saw my first piece of litter on the trail in four days. It was a six-ounce orange juice box. (Yes, Mom, I picked it up.)
I’m not saying every hiker on the trail below a certain point was an old hand. But experienced hikers set the example, and the noobs tended to follow and defer to their example.
In the USA, we are experiencing a surge in the popularity of bike commuting. When enough of these noobs get over the learning curve, cycling will become more civil and predictable. It will lose the “you must be crazy” response from our motorist coworkers that so many of us secretly enjoy.
Spam is Everywhere
I was not only away from bikes, I was away from the Internet.
I couldn’t keep from thinking about bikes when I was in the Grand Canyon, but at least I didn’t have to think of blog comment spam — until I saw this written in the guest book at Indian Garden:
When I reached the end of our journey at South Rim, the first bike I’d seen in five days was this no-nonsense mountain bike with a trail-a-bike attached.