A Great Divide Thanksgiving (ABQ to AZ)

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Above: A BNSF freight train crossing the Continental Divide along I-40, on our way back to Arizona.

A few days in Albuquerque to wait out the weather, quickly turns to a week, nearly.  In that time, we enjoy an indoor picnic of homemade tamales with both green and red chile (the combination, called Christmas, by New Mexicans); some salad at Vinaigrette, where we both used to work; a few days hanging out at bike shops, swapping parts to the Surly ECR frame at Two Wheel Drive and talking with the crew over at Bikeworks, over a pint of La Cumbre beer from the keg in the back; and, a few rides in the Bosque and down several of Albuquerque’s 18mph Bicycle Boulevard’s, both of which we consider our old stomping grounds.

When charged with the task of getting back to Arizona to resume our ride, we post an ad on Craigslist for a rideshare, and tentatively plan to hitch if nothing comes up.  Luckily, friends Rusty and Melissa are looking for something to do over the long holiday weekend.  For the last few years, the’ve gone camping, in place of the sometimes stressful Thanksgiving gatherings we’ve all attended.  We spend much of the year camping, and when some discussion of riding bikes enters the conversation, we make a plan to ride and camp together for a few days for Thanksgiving, en route to Flagstaff, AZ.  The result of our efforts is a memorable holiday on a brief, scenic section of the Great Divide Route near Grants, NM.  We find cold nights and some muddy roads, up and over 8200ft.  We cook fresh cranberries and other vegetarian delights over a campfire, scouting the Milky Way by midnight.  And I hope, we plant a seed that will someday amount to a few weeks or months on the Great Divide for Rusty and Melissa.  For good measure, I left my well-used Raleigh XXIX frame for her to ride.  As far as I can tell, the deal is nearly done.

First, a few days in ABQ.  Good New Mexican food is only found at diners and dives, plentiful along the Route 66 corridor.

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The desert, at 5000ft, still claims some winter.  The rain and snow we ran away from in Arizona makes it over the state line to NM, dumping loads of snow on Santa Fe, and a few wet inches in ABQ.  Jeremy’s Pugsley hides behind Rusty’s vintage Trek 650B conversion.

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A quick visit to my favorite bike shops in town uncover some fun surprises.  This Surly Pugsley is built with a now-unavailable Maverick SC32 fork.  The ride is a revelation, compared to that of a rigid fatbike– less bouncing, more shredding.  The fork is no longer available, since Maverick has folded, but they are available used, for a price.

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Seen at Two Wheel Drive, new Surly tires all carry secret phrases, mostly nonsense, molded along the tire’s bead.  This one reads “FIREFLIES OWL HOOTS AND A CANDLE AND A CURSE IN THE DARKNESS”.  Weird.  Surly.

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Of course, a ride or two along the Bosque, on the banks of the Rio Grande River is necessary.  Rusty rides his rigid Kona Unit 29er, with 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires and Velocity Blunt35 rims.  This is one of the top 29″ rim/tire combinations for trail riding and tubeless trail touring.  Faster rolling models might be optimal for dirt road riding.

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He’s working towards a full framebag, most likely one of the new Revelate bags offered in stock sizes.  A Carradice saddlebag is employed for overnight affairs.  Years ago, I began with one of these handy Jandd Frame Packs.

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Running out of town on Thanksgiving Day, we land in Grants, NM, the crossroads of I-40, and both the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the Continental Divide Trail.  Late in the afternoon, we take off up Zuni Canyon.  This is a but a small slice of the Divide, but it stands as a good example of what the other 2,725 miles are like.  This is Rusty’s first look at Divide maps while on the route.  These full-featured maps are a delight, full of reassuring information including distances, elevation, food and water resources, and touristic asides.  There’s even more to them, and they are worth the money.  More importantly, the Divide is worth a look.  What are you doing next summer?

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Up the canyon, the walls grow taller.  Snow lingers on north facing slopes, even though the sun soon has us in t-shirts.  The road is mostly dry, but spongy.  Slowly climbing, 29×3.0″ tires have some advantage on the soft stuff.  They also feel a bit hefty.  Thinking, riding, thinking– the perfect bike is out there somewhere.

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Rusty’s Kona Unit has evolved from the single speed that he brought when moving from the midwest last year, to a fully geared mountain bike with wide bars.  A suspension fork is coming soon, although it is not necessary for this kind of riding.  This section of road, much like the rest of the Divide, is high quality dirt.

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Lael has no question about which bike she likes best– her own!  She’s talking about full-suspension for next summer, that is, after she lays down some money for a lightweight fatbike this winter.  She likes the looks of Surly Clownshoe rims (100mm) and Bud and Lou tires (5″).  Set-up tubeless, on a lightweight frame and fork, and she’ll be on her way.

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We cross the geographic and hydrologic Continental Divide near 8200ft, at sunset.  An easy 1600ft climb is a nice way to prepare for a Thanksgiving fête.

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I’m discovering new features on the simple Garmin eTrex 20– 8224ft and 8 minutes to sunset, moving at 0 mph.  A good time to reflect and be thankful.  A good time to ride downhill to dinner.

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Melissa awaits with a campsite and an aperitif, including cold beer and a cheese plate.  On the fire, we roast potatoes, cranberries and a vegetarian stuffing dish.

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The morning is frosty, but the sun is warm.

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We continue along the Divide towards Pie Town, NM, which I last visited in 2011 while riding the 1985 Schwinn High Sierra.

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Passing crumbly lava flows within El Malpais National Monument.  From afar, lava rock and snow look like dirt-worm pudding, the homestyle dessert made of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreo cookies.

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Volcanics all around.

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And mud, not too sticky, but messy.

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Messy enough that we don’t move very quickly.  Messy enough to turn around.  The entrance to this section of road might have warned about being “Impassable When Wet!”, but we had to see for ourselves.  This section of the Divide Route also offers a paved detour.

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Frozen is better, but not by much.

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My homemade offset double crank– built from mismatched crankarms and an inexpensive square taper BB– is holding up well, and offers more chain-to-tire clearance than my previous bike, despite much larger tires.  Why don’t more 29ers have this kind of clearance?  Between the Pugsley, the Raleigh 29er, and the 29+ ECR, I’m honing in on perfection.

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Instead, we shoot back down Zuni Canyon Road, the way we came, with views of Mount Taylor to the north, towering above the high desert at 11,306ft.  The moisture than ran us out of Arizona deposited the first major snowfall is much of the region.

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Just a few miles of hard packed snow, but my mind is already wandering back towards fatbaikes.  I’ll be shopping for a full fatbike on Dec. 16th in Anchorage.  The ECR frame will eventually get properly wide 50mm Rabbit Hole rims.  I plan to install some studs in a fresh set of 29×3.0″ Knards.

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Down, down, down, breezing along the old railroad grade.  The Zuni Mountains were once extensively logged, with several railroad lines serving the area.

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We load up the bikes to complete the journey to Flagstaff.  Arriving by night, we stop for a pint at the Mother Road Brewery, named in honor of Route 66, and pick a campsite in the nearby Coconino National Forest.  By morning, we realize there might not be much riding left up at this elevation.  Lael and I plan to ride some pavement south towards Payson, we we expect to find more dry dirt.  Oops– between our escapades with Jeremy, lost in Sedona, and our ride on the Black Canyon Trail, we miss the end of the season up on the plateau of Northern Arizona.  Summer persists further south.

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Gear updates:

Zippers are still undermining the reliability of a lot of good gear.  Zippers, like chains and cassettes, eventually wear out.  Small zippers, like 11sp chains, are more prone to failure.  Mismanagement and abuse, like an ill-timed shift under load, can lead to failure.

The zipper on my framebag, since being repaired in Flagstaff several weeks ago, has since failed to operate.  The bag was also poorly fit to the new frame, as the ECR features a more compact triangle.  Luckily, Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution has a framebag in stock sized to a L Salsa Mukluk, close enough to work in my frame.  It is a bit small, but it might just fit one of our fatbikes this winter, or I can sell it when I find the time to replace the entire zipper on the Porcelain Rocket bag.  I’m hoping to make more repairs to my own gear in the future.

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Further, the zipper on the rainfly of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 has broken.  As opposed to wearing out, like most other zippers, the chain of wound nylon that comprises the “teeth” actually broke while Lael was opening the fly.  More robust zippers are found on the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 model which we’ve used for years.  Big Agnes makes a zipperless tent called the Fishhook, although the design is more spacious, and would be a bit larger and heavier to pack.  A simple shelter such as the Seedhouse or Fly Creek without zippers would be ideal.  Such a tent would be the ultimate for our lightweight nomadic lifestyle, as it would be for other thru-hikers and long-distance cyclists.  Then again, if the Fishhook was durable, it could be worth the weight.  I resolve to go ‘zipper-lite’ in 2014.

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29+?  I’ve got a pair of well-worn 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires mounted to my wheels, built with comparatively narrow 29.1mm Stan’s Flow EX rims.  It works for now– no time for new wheels, no one stocks the right parts– but I look forward to some proper wide rims when I land in Alaska.  Until then, I’ve bought a set of fresh 27tpi Knards to be shipped to rural AZ to improve traction.  I’ll mount them in a few days.

These are first impressions only: I am into bigger tires, and I like 29″ wheels.  The 29+ platform has merit, but still lacks an aggressive tire, like the Hans Dampfs and Ardents I am accustomed to (Dirt Wizard should be out sometime…).  A suspension fork with true 3.0″ clearance is still unavailable.  Big tires are not a replacement for the evolved features of modern suspension.  Naturally, a rigid fork is maintenance free, with low risk of failure.  That’s good.  I’m just not sure if I am a tourist or a mountain biker.  It is starting to seem like the latter is true.

29×3.0″ Surly Knard on the left; 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf on the right.  The Knard measures about 75mm wide on various rims, while the Hans Dampf measures about 61mm.  The outside diameter differs by about an inch.  There’s a difference, for sure, but what about an aggressive 2.5-2.75″ tire, a largely unavailable range of tires (check our the 29×2.5″ Maxxis Minion DHF).  With a suspension fork, this might be ideal.  More ride time is required, as well as some fresh tires and wider rims.

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Riding south: A day or two of pavement riding should put us out of the snow, and more importantly, out of the mud that results from slowly melting snow during the days.  Back to dirt soon.

From one handsome mess

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One well-used piecemeal Raleigh XXIX+G steel 29er; one dusty proto 29+ frame with well-used tires; one day of madness making things work that ain’t supposed to work– one handsome mess.

We’ll talk some more tomorrow.  Thanks to Cass for the frame– it fits me just fine.  Thanks to Charlie for letting me make a mess at Two Wheel Drive in ABQ.  Thanks to Rusty for a week of consultation, of the most obscure kind– it isn’t easy to fit big tires and a wide range of gears onto a bike, for less than $30.  We successfully turned a load of used parts into a 29+ touring shredder.  Thanks all!

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Standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ– (Attention ABQ!)

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Inches of rain in Arizona are undoubtedly good for a state in perpetual drought, which is the exact nature of a desert as I understand,  For us, aside from cold fingers and toes, this means the possibility of sticky, muddy roads and trails.  We’ve enjoyed the length of the Black Canyon Trail, tasting temperatures below 2000ft in elevation.  It was nice to be back in shorts and t-shirts for a few days, but our focus on the AZT brings us back to Flagstaff, nearing 7,000ft.  A chance of snow, amidst a 100% chance of rain for several days has sent us looking for something else.  The solution is to hitch to Albuquerque for the weekend to visit friends.  We lived in ABQ last winter for six months, and would hate to let another year or two pass before making contact in New Mexico again.  By that time, contacts will be lost, and it all fades in memory.  While traveling, we make an effort to visit as many friends and family as possible.  It is a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work.  In total, it is worth it.  These are, after all the effort, lasting friendships.

More on the Black Canyon Trail soon.

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Thanks to Lil for picking us up at the south end of the BCT, and transporting us back north.  What luck, that also included a genuine Mongolian yurt for the night, out of the rain; a hot shower, laundry, and even a hot tub.  After coffee in the morning, and conversation, we peeled ourselves away to make our way east, along the I-40 corridor, which has mostly grown over historic Route 66, but not entirely.

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As such, we’re standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, a line made famous by the Eagles song “Take it Easy”.  We’d be lucky if a girl in a flatbed Ford would slow down to pick us up.  Until now, it has been a bit grim, standing in passing rainshowers.  Hitchhiking is not our preferred mode of transport– it is far form the freedom of being under our own power– and there is an Amtrak train between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, but hitching often makes sense for our impromptu decisions, and for our budget.  This is our first time hitching an interstate highway corridor.  I’ll take my luck on backroads any day.  The interstate is depressing.

Thanks to the truck full of Navajo construction workers who got us out of Flagstaff.  Those guys understand.

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ABQ!– Burqueños, be ready.  We hope to be in town sometime today (Friday).  I hope to arrange some gatherings over the weekend.  A ride in the Rio Grande Bosque, a Ukrainian feast, a fresh salad at Vinaigrette, or a pint at La Cumbre?  Anyone in ABQ?

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The road to the Black Canyon Trail

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By now, we’re off on the Black Canyon Trail, a recently refurbished, reimagined, 79 mile multi-use trail through central Arizona, running along the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, through a corridor from the northern Arizona grasslands down to the prickly Sonoran desert.  

Leaving Flagstaff for the last time, we shoot for the northern terminus of the trail, near a little town called Mayer.  Between here and there is a whole big slice of northern Arizona.  From Sedonan spirituality, to public service signage in Mayer that reads, “There’s life after meth.”, this chunk of rural country has it all.  While we’re here for the AZT and the BCT, amongst other routes and trails, sometimes it is the roads between that capture our attention most.

Above: The last bit of the Lime Kiln Trail, connecting Sedona to Cottonwood, AZ.  Mingus Mountain looms in the background, under stirring skies.

Below: Riding from Flagstaff back to Sedona– this, our second time– we descend Schnebly Hill.  I could make this ride a hundred more times without losing interest.

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By the time we near town, we stop for some of Arizona’s best.

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For another few days, we make loops around town.  From our preferred grocery in town, it’s a quick five minute ride back onto trails, connecting with the Ridge Trail down to the gravelly beach along Oak Creek.  

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Across the Chavez Ranch, to Oak Creek.  We wade across the creek at sunset on this night.

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To ride the Templeton Trail– again, a third or fifth time– in the dark. 

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To a camp spot scouted on a previous ride, on a hilltop near the intersection of Slim Shadey and Templeton.

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Awake, to this.

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Towards the Village of Oak Creek, the blue-collar town south of Sedona, home to the IGA, $49 motel rooms, and a scattering of outlet shops.

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A second broken Salsa Anything Cage in one summer means it is time for another solution.  I’ll miss the 64 oz. bottle.

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New shoes for Lael.  Which look better?  She has nearly worn holes through the packable Merrels that she has been using all summer.  Rocky trails hurt her feet through thin soles.  Let’s go shopping for discount kicks at the Famous Footwear!  Historically, Alaskans would always go shopping when “going outside”, to pick up brands unavailable up north.  Alaskans love Arizona.  

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Then, meet and ride with another Alaskan— a transplant like the rest of them– on a loop including Templeton and Llama, two of my favorite trails in Sedona.  

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By evening, time to navigate out of Sedona.

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Onto the Lime Kiln Trail, which is included as part of the Coconino Loop route.  It is a bit prickly out of Sedona, crossing Highway 89, but the trail quality picks up steam towards Cottonwood.  

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A rainy night in Arizona.  Part of the reason we’ve chosen to squeeze the BCT into these few days is to avoid some weather coming through.  Back to the AZT after the BCT.

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Morning ride into Cottonwood.

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Into a diverse blue-collar town at the junction of the Verde Valley, and the mountains above.

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A fat sack of Mexican pastries for the climb.  Good tortillas and a panaderia are perks of visiting working communities in the southwest.

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Up Mingus Mountain.  

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From the Coconino Loop route info, we choose the bypass route around Mingus Mountain, avoiding a hike-a-bike over the top.  On a blustery rainy day, the top of the mountain looks uninviting.  The sun suggests we have made the right choice.

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Since leaving Sedona, I haven’t slept a night without the sound of gunshots nearby.  Arizonans love their guns.

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Thankfully, the roads are not not too tacky, with the help of pine needles and gravel.

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Descending the backside of Mingus, towards the pavement.

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The paved pass over the mountains, an alternate route from Cottonwood through Jerome, is seen in the distance.

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Down to the Prescott Valley, where the sun is shining.  Freshly constructed Bible churches are bursting at the seams on this beautiful Sunday morning in the valley.  Prescott Valley is a rapidly growing community, largely due to cheap land.  Houses are seemingly glued together; many are currently for sale, yet the area is growing.  The next Phoenix?

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Gas station coffee.  Lots of big pick-up trucks.    

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Some agriculture is left in the area.  Cattle graze the remnants of the Halloween harvest.

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A new bottle and cage under the down tube, and a once daily ‘clean and lube’.

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Almost ghost town, AZ.

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A bit after noon, it’s beer :30, en route to the BCT trailhead.  For this stretch, we stick to the pavement. One of the routes we had planned was signed as a private road, with a locked gate.  Thus, the detour into the city of Prescott Valley, and down through Dewey-Humboldt.  There are better ways to connect Mingus Mountain with Mayer, off-pavement.

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Into the town of Mayer.

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Which hosts a failing local grocery, a Family Dollar, and a Circle K gas station.  Between these stores, you can buy canned foods and chips at three places.  We found a fine assortment of food for a day on the trail, including a few apples.

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Just off the side of paved Highway 69, between the halves of Mayer (several miles apart), we spot a sign for the BCT.

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I know it goes under the road, but the trail is hard to spot.  A gravel parking area, to serve as a future trailhead, is nearby, but gated and locked.  

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A newer cattle gate is a good sign.

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And a pile of rocks suggests some well-meaning trail volunteers.

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It leads to a beautiful ribbon of trail over the hill, and off into an Arizonan dreamscape.

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Should be a great ride!  Back in a few days, when we’ll shoot back north to connect with the AZT near Mormom Lake.

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Flagstaff-Sedona-Flagstaff (-Sedona)

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Daily, we focus on moving forward.  Not that we are working hard toward an end destination, nor are we riding particularly fast or far in a single day, but we are always going somewhere, eventually.  On this occasion, with the opportunity to ride for a few days with our friend Jeremy, from Santa Fe, NM, we opt for something a little less directionally purposeful.  Rather, we set out to enjoy riding and camping for a few days, even if we return to same place from which we are to begin.  As is often said, “it’s the journey”.  

He head out of Flagstaff with a loose sense of tracks and trails in the area.  The AZT immediately shuttles us south of town.

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Alternating soft and rocky conditions are no match for Jeremy’s well-used Surly Pugsley.  I chase his tracks– a pair of Surly Nate treads, one of which I passed on to him last spring.  He’s thinking about a more trail specific 29er, or 29+; most likely rigid, ideally with a truss-style fork; definitely steel.  He’s nearly got all the details of his dream bike dialed, now how to get his hands on it, exactly?  A custom frame, a stock Jones frame with truss fork, a Surly?  Inevitably, many of our conversations lead back to ‘the frame”. 

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The ten miles of AZT south of Flagstaff is dreamy.  Sculpted from the land, the riding is easy, and surefooted– and fun.

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The trail rises onto a rocky mesa for the next few miles, before descending down to Lake Mary Road.  

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Beautiful views from up here.  Aside from some crumbly volcanic rock, the trail is also well-travelled by cattle in the summer.  The riding is not bad, but a bit bumpy.

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The San Francisco Peaks slowly disappear behind us.  Including the tallest peaks in the state, they remain visible from a long way off.

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Crossing Lake Mary Road, we return to forested singletrack, similar to the trail south of town.  Pine needles soften the ride.  

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We find camp for the night in an open meadow, and set up our tents in anticipation of a cold night, and the morning sun.  Jeremy procures a large piece of deadfall to burn.

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We enjoy a dinner of root vegetables, including beets, turnips, and potatoes– Jeremy’s usual trail food.

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By morning, the tent is glazed with frost from the inside– frozen exhalations of two people from a long fall night.  Nights are getting even longer.  By the time we arrive in Alaska, the days will be gaining light, nearly.

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The fire restarts with some stirring of last night’s coals.  We misjudged the sun by a few degrees, so are thankful for a fire in the morning.  

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Packed up by 9:30 or 10AM, typical of this time of year.  

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The AZT follows an old section of railroad (c.1923), tasked with hauling timber from the area.  

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We encounter a long-distance hiker, out to enjoy a few weeks of the trail.  We offer a couple of fresh apples.  We know what it is like to be on the other side of someone’s questions.  If you ever catch yourself grilling a hiker or cyclist about their travels, offer some food or hospitality in trade.  We all wear a look that says, “Will trade stories for food”.

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Digressing from the AZT, we connect a series of forest service roads towards Sedona.  I plug the Coconino Loop into the GPS to navigate this section of our route.  Mostly, we’re following routes and tracks from Bikepacking.net.  Thanks to Scott Morris for the tracks, and for making the resource available to all of us.

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Under I-17.

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On our way to Sedona.  Schnebly Hill Road is a rough route near town, on;y 12 miles from here.  For less capable vehicles, some alternates are suggested– good news for us.

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It begins rather innocuously.

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Changing, as we near Sedona, and a 2000ft descent.

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In lieu of the rough descent down Schnebly Hill Road, we drop into the Munds Wagon Trail for an even more challenging singletrack descent towards town. 

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The trail parallels the road, and offers a few chances to get on or off the trail, and to lose Jeremy along the way.

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In town, we shoot for the healthy foods store.  There are more than a few choices in Sedona.

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We head for the trails, and for the hills, for a place to lay our heads for the night.  Technically, there is no camping anywhere in or near town.  However, there is lots of open space about town, amidst the city’s hundreds of miles of multi-use trails.  

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By morning, we decide on an approximate plan for the next few days.  We’ll make some loops around Sedona, then will head back towards Flagstaff.  Without a map, we begin by connecting back to the Coconino Loop Route, beginning the day with a hike-a-bike on a section of the Lime Kiln Trail.

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Eventually, the trail mellows, and we cross through Red Rock State Park.

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Connecting trail down to Oak Creek for a refreshing dip in its clear waters.  Cool clear surface water is unusual in Arizona.

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With our sights set on some trails south of town, we ride back into the afternoon sun.

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On a cliff next to Cathedral Rock is one of several locations where energetic, spiritual vortexes are claimed near Sedona.  Some weird people hang in around this town.  Spend a few hours at the healthy food store to see what I mean.  

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The only vortices we encounter are the snaking and circling singletrack trails.  Sedona’s system of trails is one of the best anywhere.

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The trails are incredibly well built, making rideable terrain out of the undulating, rocky desert.  Features such as armored gullies ensure a durable surface under the tires of thousands of riders to come.

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Slickrock trails are reminiscent of Moab’s famed routes.  

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WIth two days of local exploration under our belts, we turn back up Schnebly Hill Road, to retrace our steps back to Flagstaff.  On pavement, the two towns are less than thirty miles apart.  This route is more like 40-45mi.

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Atop Schnebly, we catch our final glimpse of Sedona.  Memories of red rocks are caked around our hubs and rims.  

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Now told as stories around the campfire.  Sedona has left a strong impression.

One last camp, and one final campfire with Jeremy before the short ride back to Flagstaff.

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Jeremy will surely be back to Sedona, and the AZT.  We’ll be back in Sedona sooner than later.

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Back within close range of the San Francisco Peaks, nearing Flagstaff.

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Sandstone canyons, just south of town.

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And the beautiful wastewater effluent pond, under the interstate, that marks the connection of the city’s Urban Trail System to the AZT.  Flagstaff is a great place to spend another day.  We’re glad to be back.

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Flagstaff notes:

Cheap gear repair is available on San Francisco St., including basic stitching and zipper repair.  Look for the sign below.

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Amtrak runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and many places in between.  Tickets aren’t as cheap, as they used to be, but it is still an easy way to travel with a bike.  Jeremy took the train from ABQ to Flagstaff for about $60, and a few extra dollars for the bike.  Tickets increased for his return trip home, so after a few hours on the roadside, he caught a ride home.

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I’ve been using these Velo Orange Grand Cru Sabot pedals for about a year, on a variety of bikes.  The platform is huge, with a slight concavity that improves grip and comfort.  On the Raleigh, with a high bottom bracket, pedal strike is rarely an issue, as I’ve experienced on other bikes.  However, I managed to bash the pedals in Sedona more than a few times, and the pedal body has held up well  The bearings still spin smooth, with very little play.  I dripped some lightweight lube into the bearings of one pedal several months ago to silence a slight creak.  After a reluctant start a year ago, I’ve grown quite fond of them.

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We’re headed back to Sedona for another few days of riding.  Incidentally, a certain Alaskan framebag maker will also be there for a few days, so I hope to catch up with him for a ride.    

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Correspondence: My old Surly Pugsley, in a new home

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A few weeks ago, I added a page to the site titled “Contact me!“.  Already, I’ve enjoyed correspondence with several people, including an acquaintance and host from the San Luis Obispo Bike Kitchen, and the current owner of the purple Surly Pugsley that I rode for a year and a half, including a six month tour from Alaska to New Mexico.  

I purchased the Raleigh XXIX that I am currently riding less than a week before leaving New Mexico this spring.  As such, I was unable to sell the Pugsley in that time via Craigslist, and left it with Two Wheel Drive bike shop, where I worked part time.  I never knew what kind of home the bike found, until last week.  The following are excepts from email conversations with Eric.  

Nov. 10, 2013

Greetings from Boston, MA!  My name is Eric and I am the proud owner of your old Pugsley.  I bought it from a man who came from New Mexico and sold it to upgrade to a Ti fatbike.  I had known about your blog for a bit but had no idea that responding to a pictureless craigslist post would present me with such a find!  I have just completed my first (of hopefully many) bikepacking overnighters.  During my trip, I found problems using a rack and having the weight throw me off in turns.  I am now interested in buying the Revelate/Surly framebag to keep the weight lower, and wondered how it fit.  You said in one of your posts that the bag did not fit perfect.  What were your notes on the bag for the Pugsley? I wondered if it was a problem while traveling or would you advise towards a different bag.  Please let me know and thank you for being a great resource and inspiration in bikepacking.

-Eric

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Eric,

What great fortune to hear about the old Pugs!  I left the bike at Two Wheel Drive bike shop the week before I departed for Europe this past summer.  I worked at TWD part-time and Charlie offered to sell the bike for me if I didn’t get rid of it before leaving town.  Thus, I never knew where the bike went, although I hoped it would find a good home.  I know it is a well used machine, but I guarantee it is much, much more functional than when I first bought it in Seattle in the winter of 2011.  I picked it up for $1250 on a week-long layover in Seattle/Tacoma before flying to Alaska for the first time.  I eventually discovered rusty and maladjusted bearings, handlebars too narrow for my preference, and the ‘spare’ tire that wouldn’t seat to the rim due to damage (most likely from an overzealous tire lever operator).  By the time I was done with it a year later, nearly the only original part from my purchase was the frame! (some changes made for personal preference).    I will be flying back to AK this December, and hope to be riding another fatbike before the new year.  I am hoping to do things a little differently this time.

When I purchased the framebag directly from Eric (Revelate) in Anchorage, he was short on stock, and I selected to use a size Medium framebag on the older Medium frame.  As you may have learned, the Pugsley frame design changed a few years ago, when the new triangulated section near the seat tube was added, lessening the space within the main triangle.  As such, the current offering of framebags does not fit the older frames exactly, however, a Large size Revelate framebag should readily fit your Medium Pugsley.  Actually, the older frames offer more framebag space than newer frames– just buy ‘up’ a size on stock Revelate bags for an older Pugs.  The Large bag should fit nicely, and will help stabilize the ride compared to what you describe.  If you’re going for a completely rack-less setup– or even a rock-lite system– don’t hesitate trying out various dry bags and straps before putting down money for all the proper bikepacking kit available.  The ‘real’ stuff is top notch, although it is not always completely necessary.  I’ve wandered through a slew of home-brew bikepacking methods before landing on something that works for me.  At present, I have a lot more capacity than most bikepacking systems (for the computer, and luxuries of food and water).  Still, the bike rides nicely, maintains a narrow profile, and comes in lighter than the average rack and pannier system.

Do you have any photos of your overnight trip?  I’d be happy to share a few photos on the blog, along with some of our correspondence.  I think lots of readers will find it interesting to follow the infamous purple Pugs.  I find that conversations like these can be enlightening to others.

What do you do in Boston?

I hope you continue to enjoy the bike!

-nicholas

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Hello Nicholas,

Thanks for the quick response.  I will most certainly go with the large bag then!  I’m excited.  I have my next overnighter scheduled in two weeks where a fellow mechanic and I will ride fatbikes down the North South trail in Rhode Island.  It doesn’t seem like there is are as many long distance trails here in New England, but again I am new to searching for them.  Hopefully they will make themselves more apparent as time goes by.  I have had the bike for just about 2 months now and it still maintains about the same set-up that you left it with, but soon overhauls will need to be done.

I am originally from North Carolina and moved here to Boston about 4 years ago on a whim to escape the clutches of suburban desk jobs.  I ended up finding a home in a non-profit named Bikes Not Bombs, which provided a cycling community and taught me the skills to work on bicycles.  I am now a full-time mechanic.

For the first overnight, I started from home, cut across to Borderland State Park in Easton, MA and down to Dighton, MA through the power lines for the night.  On my first night, I found out my gear is not nearly as warm as I had expected :).  The next morning I headed down towards Bristol, RI and rode up the East Bay Bike Path and continued up the Blackstone River Path back into MA.  Not as much off-road riding as I would like but I am looking forward to more great rides!  Long distance on the roads is tough with the Pugs but off-road it is like butter!  I covered about 110 miles on my overnight.  Please let me know if you know of any good rides in this area.  I am itching for more continuous dirt roads.

I will take good care of her and feel free to drop by and take her for a spin if you are in town.

-Eric

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Boston-area bikepacking routes:

Does anyone have any suggestions for mixed-terrain or off-pavement routes near Boston, MA, or within range of the city via public transit?  Note, fat tires don’t play well with bicycle racks on many buses, but something like the Amtrak Downeaster works.  Help an urbanite out of the city!

AZT: Grand Canyon to Flagstaff

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The Arizona Trail is one of the newest additions to the scene of long-distance hiking and bikepacking routes.  Originally conceived by Flagstaff resident Dale Shewalter in 1985, it was officially completed in 2011 with many volunteer hours and the assistance of federal National Scenic Trails funding.  Dedicated signage is now present from the northern terminus at the Utah border, to the southern terminus at the Mexican frontier.  Counting nearly 800 miles of trail along the way, the trail will continue to change as trail designers and trail crews sculpt better routes across the rugged Arizonan backcountry, including more durable singletrack trail with greater natural and scenic value for all user groups, including hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders.  The trail is technically done, although it will continue to change and improve.

For cyclists, the Arizona Trail is not as straightforward as if hiking the route.  Aside from some tough climbs and technical trail, several logistical challenges affect cyclists.  Wilderness sections of trail must be circumnavigated, as bicycles are prohibited; the Grand Canyon stands in the way as either a long hike-a-bike or a multi-day paved detour from the North Rim to the South Rim; and several challenging sections of trail promise additional hiking and pushing.  Add the challenges that all trail users face, such as sourcing food and water along the way, and the AZT becomes an epic undertaking.  Section riding lessens the challenge, and is a good way to enjoy a slice of Arizona and the AZT.

There is no single, definitive resource when planning to bikepack the AZT.  First published in 2002, Andrea Lankford’s book Biking the Arizona Trail suggests one possible route, which favors rideable dirt roads in place of the actual AZT at times.  To experience the state of Arizona on rideable off-pavement routes, this would be a great place to start.  More cavalier cyclists, with ultralight loads and racer’s legs, often choose to stick to the actual AZT as much as possible.  Back in 2005, Scott Morris and Lee Blackwell set off to ride, hike, and push through as much of the route as possible, bringing home valuable perspectives and GPS data for the rest of us to ponder.  Scott had previously ridden Andrea’s route in 7 days, while this effort consumed 25 days.  As a part-time Arizona resident with a handle on conditions of the changing trail, including newly-built sections, Scott says:

No one AZT trip has been the same. New sections are built, old ones rerouted, and the biggest question an AZT thru-rider should ask themselves is, “how much do I want to stick to the trail?”

There are two extremes of this route choice. Staying with the trail can lead to some long hike-a-bikes (but also amazing terrain). The other extreme is the route described by Andrea Lankford’s book, which is often comprised of dirt roads.

The current recommendation is to go with a route that is somewhere between the Lankford route and the “trail-no-matter-what”. There are several key sections of beautiful trail that simply weren’t built when Lankford wrote her book. There’s no need to spend so much time on dirt roads.

As such, we set out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon last week to take a look for ourselves.  Along the way, we’ll follow some of the actual AZT, the best recommendation for cycling routes around wilderness, and on occasion, we’ll choose the easier of several options, especially to avoid prolonged hike-a-bike.  Our intention is to experience the state of Arizona by bike, for the first time.  As always, our intention is to live well and have fun.  In the coming weeks, we hope to bring more transparency to cycling the AZT.

The best resource for history, inspiration, and routeplanning a tour of the Arizona Trail is Scott Morris’ website Bikepacking.net, with a page dedicated to riding the AZT.

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At the Grand Canyon, we pick up a package shipped to us General Delivery by Big Agnes.  Our first night in the Fly Creek UL2 proves our new shelter to be a cozy place to spend a 19 degree night.

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In the morning, Lael looks for a way to keep her fingers warm.  She slides some spare sil-nylon stuff sacks over her wool mitts.

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Setting off for good from the town of Tusayan, south of the Grand Canyon Village, we enjoy an afternoon ride along meandering singledoubletrack along the Coconino Plateau.  The trail is well signed, and makes for a pleasant afternoon on the bike.  Carpets of pine needles and dappled sunlight are most of the reason we came to ride in AZ.  Riding amongst Arizona pines has been alluring for a long time.

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Signage on this section of trail indicates distances to trailheads and major road crossings, as well as stock tanks along the trail, which are potential water sources in season.  Lots of tanks are dry by this time of year in the high country.

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From atop the firetower, overlooking the Grand Canyon to the north, at sunset.

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The next morning, we rise to more rideable singletrack.  There are a few short pushes, especially as we acclimate to loose, rocky Arizona riding.  As a matter of habit, I will not mention these short periods off the bike, as they are a natural part of bikepacking.  Longer, more memorable pushes, however, will receive attention.  All nice riding here.

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The GPS track downloaded from Bikepacking.net indicates a waypoint, with text: “Sign says walk bicycles, but rideable”.  These little nuggets of information are invaluable when staring at a 2 1/2 inch LCD screen, chasing a pink line across the state.

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These high county forests are cattle country, with numerous cattle gates of various designs.  This one gives me a photographic perch as Lael rides beneath.

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Fire also plays an important role in these seasonally dry pine forests.  While mature ponderosa pines typically survive the fires, the understory remains open and airy as a result.

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Not here, but almost anywhere else.  Camping on the AZT is a dream.

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Only a day away from a proper grocery store, with generally cool weather, we enjoy fresh vegetables along the trail.  A bag of washed kale makes for a hearty salad trailside.

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Stock tanks come in many shapes and sizes, containing water from nearby surface water collection ponds.  When the ponds flood, gravity forces water through underground piping to fill the tanks with water.  Many tanks are fully-contained to limit evaporation to the atmosphere.

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The large tanks can then be used to fill water troughs for cattle.  Almost no water is present at this tank, called the Russell Tank, except for some lightly-frozen water in the smaller covered reservoir.  It smells alright, and we treat several liters with our UV pen.

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The central section of the route from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff includes a series of dirt roads, some of which trace an old wagon route to the Canyon.  Just before 1900, the ride cost $20 and took about 12 hours.

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Out of the forests and into more open country.

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Crossing a large private land tract.  Gaining passage across such properties is essential to the success of long-distance routes such as the AZT, or hiking routes such as the PCT.

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Federal funding is also essential, in addition to countless volunteer hours.  Join the Arizona Trail Association to support the trail and to gain access to guides and trail resources.

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Open country en route to the San Francisco peaks above Flagstaff.  The route south of the Grand Canyon makes its first major climb up to 9000ft along the flanks of the Snowbowl ski area north of town.  The highest point, Humphrey’s Peak, reaches to 12,633 ft, the highest point in Arizona.

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Fast dirt road riding comprises about 30 miles of the AZT across the Babbit Ranch.  A nice place for a sunset ride.

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Shooting for some cover from the wind, we ride back onto USFS property.  Trail signage commemorates the official completion of the trail in 2011.

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Arizona promises memorable sunsets, clear nights, and warm days, even into November.

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And crisp mornings.

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Clear skies all around, save for some lenticular clouds looming over the San Francisco peaks.

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Back into the pines, we find some cover from strong winds this morning.  At singletrack speeds, winds are not a huge issue.  Still, a calm day makes for better picnics.

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Up into aspens above 8,000ft, better cover from the wind and some meandering sections of trail marked “new AZT” on the GPS are worth writing home about.  This is one of the nicest, most durable sections of trail anywhere.  With such high standards of trail building, the AZT is soon to be a premiere long-distance bikepacking route.

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We’ve just missed the golden hues of fall, as these trees now await frosty mornings and snow.  Looks a little like Anchorage in the winter.  We’ll be there soon enough, just in time for Christmas and the fatbiking season.

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Out of the aspen and back into the pines, we top out near 9000ft before beginning a nearly 15 mile descent into town– all on singletrack.

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Mexico, only 611 miles away.  Gone are the days of touring a hundred miles a day on pavement.  Bikepacking on singletrack is a whole other world.

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A bit of snow up high reminds us to keep moving south.

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Down, down, down…

Not a bad place for big tires, or suspension.  For those contemplating the new 29+ (29×3.0″) tire platform available on several new Surly models, Andy (aka Big Dummy Daddy) has written a thoughtful ‘reckoning’ of the E.C.R. from a recent ride aboard one of these bike camping beasts at a Surly-sponsored bike camping event in Colorado.  However, trails like this lead me more to the higher bottom bracket and descent-oriented geometry of the Krampus.

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Lael lands hard on the sharp edge of a rock– on her rear tire, that is– pinching a hole in the thick rubber of her 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord tire.  A few minutes and some Stan’s sealant do the trick.

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Singletrack all the way into Flagstaff.  This is a great introduction to any town.

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We find a home for the night with Cosmic Ray, a local cycling legend and Warmshowers.org host.  Ray publishes a series of mountain biking and hiking guides throughout Arizona.  He has been riding and touring for decades, recently making passage along the EuroVelo6 Route across Europe.  Note, the TA 50.4BCD chainring in the mobile.

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Details from drafts of the 24th edition of his mountain biking guide.

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An airstream trailer houses the two of us for the night, plus a particular tattooed Pugsley rider from Santa Fe.

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Ray has been at it for a minute, having co-owned a bike shop in town back in the 80’s.  These days he rides, and edits his guides, which are updated annually.

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A nice collection of bikes mark various points in his cycling life.  This repainted Ritchey is a gem.

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Although he also spent a lot of time on an early Stumpjumper, back in his bike shop days.  He claims to have modified balloon-tire cruisers with gears and brakes prior to mass-produced models.  Marin, Crested Butte, Flagstaff…

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Now, his tourer and daily rider is a custom Coconino Cycles frame.  Macy’s coffee shop in Downtown Flagstaff is his usual morning hang, and a great place to enjoy an espresso in the morning.  It is a great place to get a feel for Flagstaff as well.  Thanks Ray for the hospitality, and the intel on Arizona Trails.  Check out the legendary “Cosmic Ray” guides at bike shops all over Arizona, or online at Amazon.

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Leaving Flagstaff towards Sedona, Jeremy joins us from Santa Fe for a few days of riding.  Step number one when leaving town on a fatbike, let some air out.  We plan to ride some AZT, and some of the Coconino Loop route towards Sedona for a few days in the sun down near 4000ft, before returning to Flagstaff.  Be back soon!

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News and updates:

The computer:  Moving on from the financial heartbreak of a waterlogged computer, I replaced the old machine with a new one.  Apple quoted $800 for repairs, and was unclear about whether data recovery would be possible.  There are a few days of photos that weren’t backed up anywhere else, although most of my files are safe.  Best Buy was offering the computer for $50 off the full retail price, although the price listed in the store (from last week’s sale I presume), was a full $100 off the full price.  I jumped at the chance, they honored the price– I insisted– and then put some of the money saved towards a full warranty against drops and spills for the next year.  I am handy with used bikes, free camping, and cooking healthy food on the road for cheap.  Computers, unfortunately, have been an expensive habit.  I’m learning; I promise to do better.  Time to move on.

Bunyan Velo: Bunyan Velo is offering a stack of stickers for $5.00.  Issue No. 4 is due out in January.  A printed anthology has been discussed, in addition to more affordable printed goods in various formats.  Support the future of Bunyan Velo with a few stickers.  Other BV paraphernalia coming soon.

Zippers, zippers, zippers!:  Zippers are dying everywhere, mostly from extended use and now, from gritty southwest sand and clay.  Framebag zippers are joining the fate of windbreakers, layers, tents, and rain jackets.  There is an inexpensive repair shop in Flagstaff that repairs zippers.  The result isn’t pretty, but it is cheap– a six-pack of beer and “at least five bucks” was the charge.  I offered $23 for two new sliders, one new zipper with slider, and some basic stitching on Lael’s torn sleeping bag.  Look for the small shop on San Francisco St.

This winter:  We plan to return to Anchorage for the winter.  As soon as we get back, we’ll be looking for work, fatbikes, and friends.  Any help is appreciated.  Due back mid-December, most likely.  Wanna ride fatbikes?

This color dirt only found in Sedona…

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Trading stories around the campfire

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Two years of travel without electronics, save for some old-fashioned cell phones, is now a jealous memory.  Our first two years by bike are entirely undocumented, except for the stories we tell and a few photos that may exist, taken by others.  That is the way lives and experiences were memorialized for many decades, compiled in a meager photo album, or told as a story around the campfire.

On our first night south of the Grand Canyon on the AZT, a two liter bladder of water burst inside my saddlebag, dousing a small bag of clothing, my cookpot, and my computer.  The saturated laptop quietly whined all night, like the sound of a slowly deflating sleeping pad, but which is actually the sound of a dying battery.  I kept the computer in my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing, and I sunned it in dry Arizonan afternoons over the next few days.  It has yet to be seen by a professional, but the prognosis is not good.  I remind myself that we are happy, healthy, and much too lucky in all other respects.  Although inaudible, my sleeping pad is also losing air, again.

Until I can repair or replace it, I will enjoy more room for avocados, a half-dozen pounds less in my pack; more time for sitting in the shade, thinking; and a little bit more fun exploring Arizona, without a computer on my bike.  I am already wondering if I can squeeze into a smaller seatpack like Lael– she just seems to be having so much fun.  For the next few weeks, I’ll be on vacation from the internet, mostly.  If you want to know what’s happening, you’ll have saddle up and join us around the campfire.  The ride leaves tomorrow morning from Flagstaff.

I will make an effort to share words and images as it is convenient, mostly as a way to test the possibility of staying connected with a lightweight packable tablet, and a camera. 

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This post was written entirely on a Google Nexus 7 tablet.  All photos by Lael Wilcox, from her miniature Olympus E-PM1 camera with Panasonic 20mm F1.7 lens.  The import process requires an OTG cable, USB SD card reader, and the Nexus Media Importer program.  Any suggestions for simple Android-based photo editing programs?