Reflections on Cycling from The Grand Canyon

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.

Rim to Rim Runner
Rim to Rim Runner | Photo: Run Well *** Finish Strong

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.

Bud Can Taste Good
Budweiser can taste good. Just add eight miles of backpacking.

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 can’t.

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?

Education Works

Grand Canyon Rules
Click to see a full-sized version

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:

Spam is Everywhere

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.

Adams Trail-a-Bike on the South Rim

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9 thoughts on “Reflections on Cycling from The Grand Canyon”

  1. JohnnyK says:

    Good job I really liked this article and I can identify with it in terms of dealing with noobs and mortorist not knowing what the rules are. Nice reminder that just because we as commuters/hikers/or what have you know the rules does not mean that everyone knows and we the more experienced should lead by example.

  2. BluesCat says:

    I try to set a good example: I always ride on the right, I’ve got lights lit all over my bike when I ride at night, I wear a helmet (to mostly non-cyclists that seems to be an important component of being a “good” bicyclist), and I try to let motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists know what I’m doing well ahead of when I do it.

    However, there are some things I do which others might say brand me as a Bad Cycling Citizen:
    – If the way is clear, I coast through stop signs – Starting and stopping are probably the two most dangerous activities I do on my bike, so I try to avoid doing them if they’re not absolutely necessary, and stopping in front of an impatient morning commuter in a few tons of rolling steel seems to me to be a VERY bad idea.
    – If the way is clear, I coast through stop LIGHTS – I do this for the same reasons I do it for stop signs.
    – If the so-called “speed limit” is 35mph/48kph for the road, I ride the sidewalk – Motorists in Phoenix seem to really dislike having their “speed impeded” on these roads, and I’m not about to challenge them for the lane on my puny little bike.

  3. I was just in the Grand Canyon on Friday. My dad and I hiked (no trail running required) from North to South. He went back and did it South to North the following day, alas I could not as I had other commitments. But the weather was gorgeous. Glad you had a good trip. We had the “lemmy” at Phantom Ranch. Really hit the spot.

  4. Scott says:

    This is one of the dumbest things I have ever read. Ever. Absolutely moronic, self centered bullshit.

  5. Chrehn says:

    Breathe deeply Scott, Slow down, Peace.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      A couple members of the ultra-running community have taken this article as an assault on their sport. I thought I backed away from my snap judgment fairly thoroughly, and focused on right-of-way issues rather than a particular trail user type.

      Too nuanced?

  6. Gene @ BU says:

    I think this short video of a new ride, Tessa van der Riet from Australia, sums up the state of cycling in the US and Canada. Tessa has a video series “Ride to Work” which outlines her journey to her first commute. The good news is Tessa appears to have received good instructions prior to her first venture, she has on good safety equipment, plus a helmet, and she maintains a calm attitude throughout her ride.

    She maintains a good attitude but I just wonder if she will be riding next year.

    Read more:

  7. Prior to my first ride I researched how to pack and prepare and made a few weekend test rides to determine my pace. On my first ride I pedaled into work with an experience bike commuter. My main concern was breaking bike etiquette in such a manner as to annoy and confuse both drivers and other cyclists.

    I tend to be a very rules bound person in the strongly held belief that we all get along better if we just follow the rules. I do this especially when driving or biking but also as a runner and in the gym. I agree that following the etiquette as a more experienced person in any area set a good example for newbies, who I think will be more likely to give up if they have a bad experience when breaking rules (which are there for a reason).

  8. Bob, Planner Guy says:

    As an endurance athlete (marathoner and triathlete), don’t diss my sports or accomplishments, man! I read beyond the objectional statements and got it. No harm. No foul.

    Running etiquette on downhill passing — like downhill skiing (a art lost to snowboarding), the passing skier would shout out, “Passing on the left/right.” Likewise in running this is the norm — at least locally and personally. When cycling on the week-end, as a SERIOUS cyclist and as MERELY as a commuter (OBJECTION on both parts!), I’ve carried this tradition. Unfortunately, some of those traveling on same trail or path have been wearing headphones and can’t hear these advance warnings — noobs! Were you wearing headphones?

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