CH. 10: SQUEEZING THE LEMMON
The Santa Catalina Mountains rise majestically above southern Arizona, a stately crown atop the city of Tucson. The jewel is Mount Lemmon, a 9,000-foot peak that juts into the sky. Lemmon has legend status among cyclists for its 29 miles of unrelenting climbs lined with saguaro cacti and mesquite trees that give way to soaring aspens and ski resorts. At the top, a bakery in a cabin dispenses cookies and hot coffee to weary riders before they descend to the desert floor.
I had never fancied myself much of a climber. Despite a weekly excursion to ride South Mountain with Carlos, I never seemed to improve in my ability to ride inclines of any sort. Uphills were always a slog and a struggle. While friends seemed to get fitter and faster, dancing effortlessly on their pedals, I just barely got myself to the summit.
I was perfectly okay with this weakness in my cycling ability, however. Flat courses suited me just fine, and best of all, they didn’t make me angry. I never once threatened to throw my bike into a ravine on a flat course.
Carlos disagreed. Naturally. And so it became his mission to find and unleash my inner mountain goat. He claimed that his intentions were to see me become a stronger cyclist, but I knew he just wanted another reason to ride Lemmon.
“It’s time for you to earn your big-girl pants,” he said one Sunday as we coasted down from the summit of South Mountain. “We’re riding Lemmon next week.”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“It’s a beautiful ride!” Carlos said, gesturing wildly as he talked about the stunning flora and fauna we’d see on our way to the summit.
“It will make you stronger,” Carlos argued. “Think of how much you’ll grow from this experience!”
“You’ll get bragging rights,” he said, puffing out his chest in a demonstration of swagger. “Climbing the legendary Mount Lemmon!”
“I’ll buy you a cookie at the top. Two of ’em, if you want.”
That got my attention. “Cookies?”
“Big ones.” Carlos held up his hands in estimation of their size. “Bigger than your bike helmet.”
I mean, I’ve done crazier things for a cookie. . . .
I capitulated. “Okay, fine. I’ll do it.”
As the week went on, I began to reconsider. The more I read about Mount Lemmon, the more I second-guessed myself. I had never even walked to the top of a real mountain before, much less ridden a bike up one. True, I had spent plenty of time climbing South Mountain on a bike, but compared to Lemmon, South Mountain’s 6 miles and 2,000 feet seemed like an anthill—an anthill that took me a really, really long time to climb, by the way. I wasn’t ready to tackle a challenge almost five times greater than that. Just the thought made me queasy with dread.
“Can’t make it tomorrow,” I texted Carlos on Saturday night.
“You’re not getting out of this,” he replied, unfazed.
To Carlos, a verbal agreement might as well have been a blood pact. He had zero tolerance for flakes—if you agreed to do something with him, you really had no choice but to follow through. Carlos didn’t expect me to scamper up Mount Lemmon effortlessly, but he absolutely did expect me to show up.
Besides, he reassured me, Mount Lemmon really wasn’t that difficult. I pointed out our greatly differing opinions on what constitutes “difficult.”
“Yes, but that’s because you’re a sissy,” Carlos replied. “I’ll pick you up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, sissy.”
The next morning, in a McDonald’s parking lot nestled at the base of the mountain, Carlos polished his beloved bike while eating an Egg McMuffin and chugging a chocolate milk. I sat glumly on the curb, trying not to puke.
“Vomit if you want,” Carlos said through a mouthful of breakfast. “You’re still riding.” He tossed a bag of hash browns into my lap and gestured at me to eat. I thought about what it would feel like to punch him.
The hash browns flip-turned in my stomach. Nerves amplified the effects of the caffeine in my coffee. Carlos whistled a lively tune as he unloaded our bikes from the trunk of his car. He was clearly excited to introduce me to Mount Lemmon. It was confirmed: I definitely wanted to punch him.
As we clipped in to our pedals and began the ride, my anxiety reached a fever pitch. A chilly gust flew down the mountain. My body was covered in goose bumps, partly from the wind, partly from fear. This definitely felt like a sign that I shouldn’t do the ride.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “It’s too hard.”
“You’re being a sissy.” Carlos rolled his eyes. “Come on.” He pulled slightly in front of me to diffuse the headwind.
The higher we climbed, the harder it got. Three miles in, the winds began to shift, coming at us from every direction. At mile 5, I began to curse. We had been riding for well over an hour, yet it seemed we had barely made a dent in the mountain.
“Is it like this all the time?” I yelled over the howling wind.
Carlos looked over his shoulder and smiled reassuringly. “It’s just a little breeze!”
A little breeze, my ass. That wind was cold and stinging. When big gusts came, I had trouble keeping my bike upright. I looked over the guardrail to my right and gasped—there was a steep, rocky dropoff to the base. People actually rode this mountain for enjoyment?
Those had better be some delicious cookies at the top, I thought.
About 7 miles in, we spotted a group of cyclists huddled in the corner of a lookout parking lot under a large tree. Carlos gestured to me to pull over.
“What’s going on?” Carlos asked as he dismounted from his bike. The group looked at him with disbelief.
“You’re kidding, right?” one said as he motioned wildly in the air. “The wind?”
A guffaw escaped from Carlos’s mouth. “What, this?”
One of the cyclists pulled his cell phone from his jersey pocket and motioned for us to join their huddle. On the red screen blared an emergency alert:
WIND ADVISORY: MOUNT LEMMON
STRONG WINDS ARE EXPECTED TO CONTINUE
THROUGH THIS AFTERNOON INTO EARLY EVENING.
SUSTAINED WINDS OVER 35 MPH ARE EXPECTED
WITH GUSTS AS HIGH AS 55 TO 60 MPH.
Feeling a not-small sense of satisfaction, I reached over and punched Carlos hard in the arm. I knew this wasn’t a little breeze! He shook his head in astonishment. We really did speak two different languages.
Just then, a large truck pulled in to the parking lot. Leaning into the intense wind, a ranger from the Forest Service yelled at us to get into his car. We all threw our bikes into the back of the truck and wedged our bodies into the cab—a circus wagon full of helmeted clowns.
The ranger shook his head in dismay. “What were you guys doing out there, anyway? Who the hell rides their bikes in this weather?”
We all sat in silence, too shell-shocked from the ordeal to speak.
“Fucking spandex cowboys,” the ranger muttered under his breath.
On the drive home to Phoenix, the silence continued. Carlos was shocked, I was angry, and we were both just plain exhausted. When he finally dropped me off at my house, he pulled out a small bag and handed it to me. Inside were several packages of cookies, surreptitiously procured from a gas station stop on the way home.
“Here,” Carlos said. “These should hold you over until you actually get to the top.”
It was the closest thing to an apology I had ever gotten from Carlos. I chuckled and gave him a hug.
When I got inside my house, I collapsed on my bed and took a three-hour nap. Upon waking, I opened my laptop and typed a Facebook status update on the day’s events:
Lemmon: The wind was below 40 degrees, above 50 mph, and I never, ever, ever want to ride my bike again. Ever.
I hit the “Post” button and scrolled through my news feed. As it turned out, Carlos had updated his Facebook status, too:
Wonderful day at Mount Lemmon today. Sunny and warm at the bottom and a little chilly at the top, always with a constant gentle breeze.
Different languages, all right.
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Amusing and poignant, Life’s Too Short To Go So F*cking Slow is about running and triathlon, growth and heartbreak, and an epic friendship that went the distance.