Life and Death on the Palm Canyon Epic

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Light clothing, sunscreen, water, rubber.  If I thought anything on the drive to Palm Springs it should have been my packing list.  Not the 26 + miles we had to pedal across the desert; nor the reported exposure on the final descent; nor the 3 miles of sand wash climb we had to cover at the half way point; and definitely not the dead guy.

‘- left his car right there in the Vons lot, I saw it later that day –‘ Paul, our leader and driver, watches the lights as we cross Frank Sinatra Drive, where pristine store fronts reflect the image of an equally pristine white pickup, six bikes hanging over the tailgate.  ‘Yeah, they say he was a fit guy, a capable biker… misjudged how long the ride would take and what the heat would do.

‘It was 110 that day.  He was out of water by the sand wash…about three miles away from the city when he collapsed…they didn’t know they could ride Dunn Road back to town…a chopper on its way to a hiker with a broken ankle diverted to him but he was done.’

When I heard the Palm Canyon ride described as an ‘epic’ I thought it was a figure of speech; an American idiosyncrasy, a way of tagging a great ride.  Squashed into the rear of the pickup, Phil dozing to my left, Dave and Bill, the driver who was going to shuttle the pickup to the bottom of the mountain , to my right, I thought of the mountaineering use of the word.  I was once told that an ‘epic climb’ was a climb from which one of the climbers did not come back.  This was not what I signed up for.

Only later, when I looked the route up in the UK, did I realise that Palm Canyon Epic is the official ride title.  And with it I found descriptions that give no reassurance as to the seriousness of the journey: ‘an epic some call a death march’; and, ‘for the prepared the Palm Canyon Epic will be one of the best mountain bike rides of all time, for the unprepared it will be one of–if not the worst–mountain bike ride of all time.’  On each website the message was this; if you don’t prepare, you are playing with your life.

Without the benefit of this solemn warning, I considered the 2.5 litres of water in my pack and the headache blooming in my right temple.  This was the fifth day of our mountain bike trip to California and our sixth ride.  I was wiped.  I sipped from the bottle in my hand and devoured my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with paracetamol and ibuprofen chasers.  I doubt this was what the websites meant when they expounded ‘preparation, preparation, preparation!’

As we climbed and the houses fell away we found hillside scattered with flat, chocolate coloured rocks.  I imagine, without relish, riding these and Paul reads my mind: ‘don’t worry, the riding in Palm Canyon is nothing like this.’  He goes on to tell a story about a guy who got protectors for his handle bars from Toys R Us – ‘hit the first cactus and ‘pow’, the right one shattered, hit another and the left went! I just told him to look for the spaces between the cacti, but each time I would see him looking straight at them – pow!’  His excitement was electric and I’m surprised because this will be his 106th ride at Palm Canyon.  Could it be that great?  I know little about Paul other than he is in his 70s, has a history of extreme skiing, talks about ‘closing deals’, does not tolerate tardiness and uses his Foes Mutz (an electric fat bike) to hit the best trails in the state every weekend.

‘I have a rule,’ he went on, ‘I don’t ride Palm when the temperature is over 85.’  Then he adds, ‘it’s gonna’ be 90 today.’  I wished he hadn’t said that.  It’s before 09:00 and the green numerals above the rear view mirror have already reached 81.  Compulsively, I watch the display for the rest of the drive, sucking up the unjustified relief I feel when it drops a degree or two as we climb further into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains.

Once Bill left with the pickup it was time to go.  The sign said Pinyon Flat Campground but I couldn’t see tents, homes or communal blocks.  We were straight into coarse sand and desert scrub.  I’m following Phil as we roll dusty, criss-crossing trails.  Paul is already out of sight and Dave, Darryl and Richard are in pursuit.  All at once I’m thinking about the dead guy, the thickness of my thick knee and elbow pads and my choice to wear a long sleeved top despite the heat – it’s what the army recommend, apparently.  I hardly have space to notice how the trail has become narrow, a two foot ledge cut into the side of the canyon, with no protection to the left, just a skittering tumble of cacti and scrub.  Every so often fists of rock seem to have punched through the trail creating steep technical puzzles and the threat of a fall if you fail to solve them.

When we descend a set of steep switchbacks (so serious I get off for several of them and flip my bike 180 degrees) and round a knuckle of hillside we find a ribbon of water on the canyon floor.  Darryl and Paul remind us that this season has brought rare rains to California.  While we are most definitely in the desert – the large fleshy pads of the cacti spread in mocking salute, lizards skittering through the dust from rock to rock and the heat sucking the moisture from our skin and throat – there are patches of green scrub and grasses that mean, in desert terms, this place is thrumming with life.

Paul begins to knit a path to and fro across the running water; sometimes splashing through it but sometimes tiptoeing from rock to rock (he has a battery to think of).  Following, I feel refreshed and begin to look around at the canyon walls that are funnelling us steadily on and the faces of the mountains that lurk beyond.  Riding the twisting track around frail trees and fierce yukka we are utterly alone.

The climb away from the water is a steep one.  With my sun sapped legs and heeding a warning to get off and push rather than spend precious energy, I stop halfway up.  When Darryl powers straight to the top I grunt about the 28 teeth he is turning and he throws back some guff about bad workmen.  I choke on a retort and I let my insides burn like my outsides have been for the last two hours.

From this point the land softened, giving us gentle dips of packed sand; no loose rocks or rough igneous crusts.  We are riding a desert pump track, pushing one dip to the next.  And while I couldn’t see any faces I felt sure that everybody was smiling.

We eventually found rock and a run known as ‘The Fast and The Furious’; miles of rocky downhill, a desert STRAVA segment.  The trail opened up and we were hitting rocks the size of baby’s heads.  Paul, Dave and Darryl were long gone.  I clattered down as fast as I would let myself, conscious of Richard following close behind and watchful of any loose rock that could bring me off.  Over a solid ledge I could see sand a few feet below.  Checking the landing, I pumped the forks and let the bike fall.  I might have yelled ‘yeeehah!’   A second later I heard Richard shout out.  Then we were ploughing along an old river bed, huge boulders and shaggy rotting palms flanked us as we drifted sandy corners and pushed hard over the shifting surface.

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And then we found the right hand turn to the sand wash; the section of ride that had loomed larger than any of the mountains for most of the day.  It’s a 3 mile climb with little purchase and no protection.  And it is the only way out.  Go deeper into the canyon and you reach the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.  They do not like bikes.  I sought comfort in shattered M&Ms, bleeding dark chocolate into the bag.  It’s too late for doubts but I voice them anyway; ‘can I get lost here?’  Darryl assures me, not that we would stick together, but that I would be able to see them for miles.  Great.

The air is still and the sky a startling blue.  It’s beautiful and lethal.  I focus on Phil’s back wheel, trying to find a rhythm I can sustain.  When I look up I see Dave fighting with his helmet, removing it and hanging it over the handle bar of the borrowed Stump Jumper.  I haven’t the energy to shout up to him about how dumb that is.  I look to the ridge line and see Richard’s head bobbing far away above the scrub.

Spinning while the sun stripped away my stamina and strength, time stretched out.  When a breeze stirred, gentle as a breath, a feeling of something less than exhaustion returned.  When Dave stopped, I followed Phil straight on by and when Phil pulled up so sharply that I nearly hit him, I dabbed, skated and kept on pedalling.  At the road Darryl and Richard were talking with figure in light khakis and beige.  Darryl pointed left – ‘keep heading for the tractor,’ – and I just kept going.

On the harder surface of the fire road, with the hunkered silhouette up ahead, I sped up.  Before long I could hear the crack of sand grains beneath rubber behind me.  And then Phil passed, hands gripping the bars either side of his stem, back rigid and feet circling like he was in spinning class.  He’s looking, deliberately, straight ahead and I don’t have the energy to shout obscenities.  Instead, I shake my head, amazed that rivalry can still ignite out here, where the sun is stronger than either of us.  Then I press harder, determined not to pass him but not to give any more distance.

The tractor is in fact an old bull dozer, once yellow rusted brown, and the only source of shade in this deadly place.  I walk circles after dumping my bike.  Eventually I crouch in the shadow of the cat tracks as I force down a tuna-mayo croissant.

You can take aptly named Dunn Road from this point all the way back to town.  And when I rode to the tractor, I really did think that was it, the hard work was over.  We could see the city by then, a way off and thousands of feet below.  But when we watched four other cyclists (three of them on single speeds) pedalling up on single track to wrap around a small peak, I knew we were not done.  My self-preservation instincts screamed that I should take the short cut route Paul and Darryl offered up but I could not.

The track up takes you to the start of the Hahn trail.  There, butterflies hovered at the summit while we enjoyed panoramic views of the canyon, the mountains beyond and the city we knew was waiting for us.  Then we were riding those familiar ribbons of dirt cut into the sides of the canyon wall.  The corners wanted blind faith; so tight that when you reached the apex of the bend the trail disappeared and it would seem you were rolling into fresh air.  Following that track became something near meditative.  And, with the conviction that we just might make it, gratitude began to grow.  Before that day I had not imagined riding into this baked savagery.  And something inside urged me to drink it up.

We had to climb out for our final descent; a mercifully gentle gradient with only odd craters that asked for speed and a technical grunt to finish them off.  When I got the chance I took small sucks of water, fearful of the moment when air bubbled up the tube instead of liquid.  I was already fantasising about milkshake, coke, cold beer, fruit juice.

Cathedral is the final frontier; ridge lines and traverses that lead to the sharp switchbacks directly above Cathedral City.  ‘It’ll be interesting to see what you make of it,’ Darryl had said at the beginning of the day.  Immediately, I was suspicious.  ‘It’s just SO exposed,’ he added.

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Beyond the ridges the city was a mirage, sand blasted and shivering in the heat haze.  Big horned sheep watched safely from the higher slopes, their gaze falling short of interested, as we dropped into the final section.  And perhaps it was the draw of milkshake and coke or I was too tired to care about the exposure, but the trail seemed to have been spooned so deeply from the hillside that as I rounded the tight switchbacks, I was cupped, safe behind a high bank.  ‘If you make that second to last switchback I’ll have your babies!’  Darryl yelled and I wished he had shouted something more motivating.  But I tried, competitive and bloody minded, slowing and teetering, straining to look around the corner instead of at the inconveniently placed rock step on the apex of the bend.  But I lurch forwards and dab down with the inside foot because the outcome of REALLY pushing might have been a head –over-heels arrival into Cathedral City.

And then it was over.

‘Oh wow!’, Darryl shouted as we slapped hands and bumped fists (something I rarely allow myself to do, only today was an exception), ‘I’ve had two near death experiences and I am damned glad to be alive today!’  These experiences are news to me but it was definitely not the time to ask.  And, to tell the truth, I was stunned and grateful to be alive too.  And already I wanted to go back, afraid I would never see this place again.

Instead we roll the sand wash of Cathedral Canyon.  Shoulders of mountain on one side, housing tracts on the other.  And as dazzled as I am by the experience, my body is reasserting itself, reminding me of all the promises I made about coke, milkshake and cold beer.

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