Information about the world of cycling, including bicycle touring

The old Tumacacori Mission still calls out to
visitors, now as a national historic park.

The Grand Canyon is filled
with geological wonders.

Ann Curtiss at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Bubba Barron contemplates the Grand Canyon.

The bizarre sunrise in Camp Verde, Ariz.

An abandoned restaurant near Amaido, Ariz.

The front of the Tumacacori Mission.

SUMMARY: GABA-Tucson's Grand Canyon to Mexico ride, also known as the Great Arizona Bicycle Adventure, has some of the most incredible scenery in the United States, starting with, of course, the Grand Canyon. If you're into things like gear ratios, this is your ride. If you're new to bicycle touring, you should get a few more trips under your belt before trying this ride. Although the scenery is beautiful, you don't have time to savor it because of the number of miles you have to cover each day. Be prepared for lots of long climbs, but enjoy the great descents! Support on the 1996 version of this ride was sporadic, which isn't a good thing when you're in the middle of the desert and need water on a 30-mile climb. Considering the price of the ride, the provided meals weren't all that good. It may be wise to contact someone who has done this ride more recently than me before deciding to do this ride.


Grand Canyon
to Mexico

Never has a ride been such a metaphor for life as the Grand Canyon to Mexico Ride was in 1996 for me.

Just about a week after I completed the CAMP ride, my brother, Wesley, was fatally stabbed at a housing project in Granite City, Ill. The stabbing came about nine months after my dad, Henry Kramer, died of a massive stroke. Wes, a brilliant artist, also suffered from manic-depression, which no doubt was a contributing factor to the fight that led to his death. Wes was a landscaper at the housing project, and he was getting ready to move back to the farm when he and a total stranger had a scuffle the morning of June 29, 1996. In the early morning hours of June 30, the two met again and another scuffle broke out. This time, the stranger got out his knife and slashed a major artery near Wes' left knee. We tried to get help, but he lost too much blood trying to get assistance.

Despite that, I decided to do the Grand Canyon ride, along with Bubba Barron and Tom Burns. I thought the fee was a bit steep, but Bubba told me Tom did the ride in 1995 and raved about the food and ride support. I got a little assistance with the trip, though, thanks to the President Casino in St. Louis. My friend Jeff Herman and I decided to get on the boat just for kicks one afternoon, and I only intended to spend $10 on slots. A few minutes later, I had won myself a modest jackpot of $70. Unlike most of the other slot machine zombies who put coin after coin in those things, only to lose everything, I decided to be happy with what I had and cashed in. That same week, Southwest and United Airlines had a $25 one-way fare sale to anywhere in the United States, so that trip to the casino paid for my flight to Arizona!

When we arrived in Phoenix, we were pleasantly surprised with the colorful jackets given to each rider, but things weren't quite as impressive after that.

The first sign that something wasn't quite right with this trip was when were told we had to be out of Grand Canyon National Park by 1 p.m. Sunday, the first day of the ride. That wasn't going to be near enough time to see the canyon, although I later found out that most tourists cruising in their cars or tour buses spend even less time than I did at the canyon. I knew I would have to come back to the canyon another time, without a bicycle, to hike to the bottom and see it in all its majesty.

Part of the problems with this ride was self-inflicted. When I reassembled my bike in Arizona for the ride, I thought I had my seat at the right height. I was wrong. By the time we hit Cameron, my left knee was in all kinds of pain. It would stop me from riding the worst hills of the trip.

The first of those hills came near Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. There happened to be a rest stop then, and the woman assured me that one of the other ride organizers would be by shortly to give me a ride to more level ground. They never came. I had to wait until the last rider passed, and the woman and I packed the food and my bike into a cramped van. At that stage, my bicycling for the day was over. We cruised into Flagstaff with only a cursory glance at the old volcanoes.

Flagstaff quickly turned into one of my favorite towns. The downtown remains vibrant, and the community hasn't forgotten it's situated on the old Route 66. Humphreys Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona, is the perfect backdrop for the city. Flagstaff is nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, and that means plenty of chilly nights. The Monday night we camped in Flagstaff was no exception, but it made the pancakes and coffee Tuesday morning that much better.

The next day took us down Oak Creek Canyon into Sedona and on to Camp Verde. For a flatlander like me, the initial dip into Oak Creek Canyon scared the living daylights out of me. I never had the chance to figure out how to handle hairpin curves at speed, and I was worried that braking too much would cause a tube to blow — and a serious injury. After a couple of turns, I figured out how not to generate too much speed in the hairpins. The rest of the canyon to Sedona was just fine.

I know people rave about Sedona, but I found it to be a place that once was a truly magical place to be only to be ruined by growth. Yes, I ate lunch there and took a token look at some of the crystals, but it didn't do much for me. I guess it might have been helpful if the tour leaders had showed us how to get away to some of the more scenic areas.

We spent the night in Camp Verde, and we woke up to an amazing light show at dawn. We suspect there were some military tests going on that created the bizarre light patterns, but it was pretty cool. After that, we took on our longest climbing day of the ride. We had about 30 miles of climbing on Arizona 260. With my knee still acting up, I rode a little bit, rested a little bit and rode a bit more. Our masseuses for the trip happened to be parked 10 miles up the climb, and I stopped to get some water. We were told there would be more water a mile or two up the road, but there wasn't any. There wouldn't be any water for another 10 or so miles. Even though it was October in Arizona, it's still hot and you need a lot of water. When we finally got to the water stop, people were waiting for a long time for water because they had run out and had to drive another 10 or so miles to get some. To me, that showed poor planning on the part of the ride organizers, and they were fortunate no one had problems.

This was also the day Bubba came up with one of his greatest cycling phrases ever. Many of the people who did this ride are so gung-ho that they care about gear ratios between the front and rear chainrings. These often are the people who care more about getting there first instead of appreciating the scenery.

A pair of them passed Bubba on the road and noticed he was riding a Cannondale with only two front chainrings (my Cannondale R500 has three) and asked him, "Whaddya pushing?"

They expected to hear a gear-ratio number, but Bubba could care less about things like that. His response and short and sweet: "My big fat ass!"

The town of Strawberry provided some cool relief from the climb, and the restaurant there served — what else — strawberry pie. I had the last piece. No regrets here!

The ride from Payson to Globe had some nice downhills and one stinker of an uphill that I didn't even bother riding because of my knee and because I knew the next day would going be the roughest century — 100-mile ride — I had ever done.

In Globe, I had the chance to meet with Ann Curtiss, an assistant state's attorney in Cook County, Ill. I asked if I could talk to her about my brother's case, but I was concerned she didn't want to talk shop while on vacation. To her credit, she listened. Although the justice system works somewhat different in Chicago than in Madison County, she understood the frustrations I felt not only about the death, but of the poor quality of the witnesses. Because of my knowledge of the court system from my days of covering Madison County courts, I would have to make the ultimate decision whether to accept a plea or take a risk going to trial. It was becoming clearer and clearer that we would have to settle for a plea; several months later, we agreed to a plea that sent gave him a 10-year prison term. Had the case gone to trial, there was a very strong chance the guy would have gotten off because of the poor quality of the witnesses.

The next day was the century ride from Globe to Tucson. That ride was known for having three miles of 9 percent grade and 11 miles of 7 percent grade. It was a tough pair of climbs on a tough day. The good news was that the final 30 miles from Oracle to Tucson was mainly downhill. Now that was fun! So was the massage after dinner Friday night!

The final day of the ride was relatively easy, and I got the chance to explore the Tumacacori National Historic Park. It once was a Jesuit mission that served the region. I missed out on the more ornate San Xavier Del Bac Mission, but I suspect Tumacacori probably give you a better feel what mission life once was like.

We ended the ride on Nogales and had a feast. Several people went across the border to drink, but I didn't that night. I went back to my tent and realized the agonies of this trip, while trivial compared with the agonies our family were going there, did parallel them. I didn't shed tears at either my dad's or my brother's funerals, but I more than made up for it that night.

Before the buses loaded up to take us back to Phoenix, I talked Bubba into going across the border just so I could say I've been to Mexico. It made me quickly realize how fortunate I am to have been born on the United States side of the border. It was truly sad to see kids begging tourists to buy Chicklets or pottery.

The ride was over, and when Bubba, Tom and I returned to St. Louis, we celebrated — by eating lunch at White Castle!