“Do you know how to get there?” Kris asks me with a sly smile 10-minutes into our trip, heading south towards the City of Angels.
We both know the answer, it’s in the direction of Las Vegas for a while, but then it’s not. We veer off onto Interstate 40 linking up with a section of the Historic Route 66 and begin heading due east, skirting the Mojave Desert to the north as we pass through the deep eastern stretches of San Bernardino County and the ever-exciting 75 mph speed limit zone that drives us toward the Colorado River, the Arizona Border and the unknown of the 1.86 million acre Coconino National Forest.
The nearly 10-hour drive gives us plenty of time to plan our trip once we land in Flag, as it’s affectionately know by locals; coffee, running, beer and food are naturally high on our list, as with any proper road trip. Luckily for us, we’re not headed blind into this new town. We’ve got friends, the Coconino Cowboys, to show us around and point us down the right paths once we arrive and are settled.
Flagstaff altitude camp day one starts with a bang; a quick trip north to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon for an epic adventure. Starting with an 8-mile descent down to the base of the Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, then popping out parallel to the Colorado River on the aptly named River Trail criss-crossing the rapids below on the Silver & Black Bridges before beginning the brutal, yet stunning 6.7-mile, 4,800-foot South Kaibab Trail climb, up and out of the red rock Canyon walls back to the Rim Trail...
The “Cowboy Loop” kicks our ass on day one, as it should even the most experienced trail runners. Quite literally, as I find myself forced to a walking pace for the last half-mile of this 21-mile, 5,400-foot ultrarunning loop for the ages in Grand Canyon National Park.
Once back at the our host Eric’s truck, Cokes, salty snacks and recovery drinks start flowing. The endorphins are electric as high-fives are slapped all around, right before the skies open up and rain starts to fall. We upload our files to Strava, Tim snatched the course record (from fellow Cowboy Jim) on the South Kaibab by nearly two-minutes, the rest of us neatly tuck into the top-20 on the leaderboard.
Sore feet and sweaty shirts are replaced by laughs and stories of the Canyon as the 75-minute trip back to Flagstaff zooms past and we plan our first stop back in town: the best five-dollar burrito joint west of the MIssissippi.
A hot shower, five hours, three Dark Sky beers and another couple burritos later and we have our next summit planned for day two: Elden Mountain. Hovering 9,300 feet above the city of Flag, not only will we feel the slaughtering our legs experienced the day prior, but our sea level lungs are sure to sear with pain. High winds across the peaks are predicted for the afternoon and our late morning start sets us up for an adventure, sans guide.
We connect the Pipeline Trail from Buffalo Park to the rocky Elden Lookout connector, throw on our jackets and bomb down the fireroad around the backside and onto the flowy, Oldham Trail for another great training adventure: 16-miles and 3,500-feet of climbing.
The legs aren’t feeling any fresher, but we’re beyond satisfied with ourselves as we suck down hot bowls of soup from SoSoBa in downtown Flag. I opt for the traditional udon bowl, “The Mic Drop” while Kris devours his rice noodle “Hostile Takeover” bowl in a matter of minutes. Copious amounts of hot sauce are used to warm our souls and start the arduous recovery process.
And now our legs are really feeling it, that moment where walking becomes a chore and tenderness to the touch is apparent.
Day three plans fizzle out as snow begins to fall late in the evening Tuesday and we wake up to two-plus inches of fresh powder blanketing the entire town. “You California boys brought the snow!” Our AirBnB host exclaims in an email response after I asked for a later checkout due to extreme fatigue and mental fogginess from another night of brewery exploration. “Of course, take your time,” and we do, opting to run from our downtown cottage along the Arizona Trail and back to the trails of Buffalo Park for 90-minutes of snowy recovery before hitting the road. A perfect cap to our introduction to Northern Arizona’s gem-of-a-town.
As we pull onto Highway 40, the sign reads ‘Los Angeles 464’ and I turn to Kris, “When are we coming back?”
We both know the answer and in unison say, “soon,” realizing the Flagstaff-Santa Barbara connection was just born; the first of many trips to the high-mountains of Cocinco Cowboy Country, and the beginning of something special.