“I think I may have missed the turnoff,” local bike shop owner Mick Wolf said nonchalantly as we wearily pushed our bikes to the top of a rocky hill where other riders waited.
I wanted to cry, but clung to my composure, knowing the teenager among us would only mock my blubbering.
We had ridden several miles on a trail in the Carr Lake Loop system. I dismounted several times to straggle up a hill the rest of the group seemed not to notice. Sensing my dread, fellow slowpoke and co-worker, Michele, announced a snack-stop.
She pulled from her backpack a feast of bread, artichoke dip, cheese and warm sandwich meat. The only thing she had forgotten, she declared, was the wine and first aid kit. The artichoke dip would have to do.
We rested and I reflected on where it had all gone wrong.
Hours earlier, the group had easily pedaled over the smooth and level General Crook Trail. Glancing out into the serene forest, I marveled at the perfect temperature atop the Mogollon Rim, the cool air whipping my ponytail as the grasses gently brushed against my legs.
The moment ended when the rider in front of me abruptly stopped and I slammed my front tire into his spokes. The ride leaders had stopped to rest and take a drink.
“Sure, a rest, why not,” I thought, a mile into the trek. After torturing myself on trails far beyond my ability, this was my kind of riding: frequent water and photo breaks and a steady, slow pace. We continued on, hopping over small pebbles and sticks, the large group chatting merrily.
Smack. My wheel hit the bike in front of me. We had stopped again. “What is up with these guys?” I thought.
I must now explain though that our leaders were two boys, both under 5 years old — Wolf’s children — riders from birth. Unpredictable stops aside, I felt confident under their lead. I kept up easily.
We had started at noon after parking our vehicles just off the Rim and following the Meadow Trail toward Woods Canyon Lake. We veered west on the General Crook Trail before reaching the lake. The trail, marked with orange and cream Y shaped chevrons, indicating the preferred and original travel routes respectively.
The trail is named after General George Crook, who pioneered what would become the third major road built in southern Arizona, shuttling supplies to Fort Apache. Unlike Crook, though, our leaders weren’t quite as indefatigable.
We quickly lost the trail and began biking through thick pine needles and pinecones, which crackled like beetles under our wheels.
Then we heard a vehicle rumble past in the distance on Forest Road 300 and followed the sound to the south where we reunited with the colored chevrons.
As we reached the Carr Lake Trail system, Wolf’s children left us to play with their mother. This left us unbridled to tackle a series of loops. Wolf assured us it would be no harder or longer than the miles just covered.
Turns out, trailing a toddler is way different from keeping up with a Wolf, the descendant of one of Payson’s pioneers, Arizona Charlie Meadows, whose family died in an Indian raid and who helped launch the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.
Those sticks and pebbles morphed into boulders and logs.
My lungs burned as I peddled violently to keep up. My boyfriend and Michele’s teenage daughter had no trouble keeping pace with Wolf and his dog, Taco. I hung back with Michele, walking our bikes up the hills and over obstacles.
I had almost lost hope by the artichoke dip stop, until Wolf announced cheerfully — “Ah, there’s the trail we should have taken.”
Hope renewed, we rode on several more miles back toward the parking lot, the last mile finally reminding me why I had wanted to come. From the Mogollon campground, a newly paved path hugs the Rim back to Forest Road 300 and the Rim Trail (Trail 622). Turning onto that path was like walking off Mt. Everest onto an ice skating rink. My tires glided over the concrete.
We weaved and whooped around the corners and came upon one of the best views from the Rim. We stopped in stunned silence. We rode our bikes back slowly, taking in the final moments until we reached the parking lot and put away our torture devices.
The moral: its OK to take the wrong trail, just make sure a five-year-old sets the pace.