You stand accused of violating a national park closure and bicycling in a prohibited area--how do you plead?
Rama Jon: "Guilty."
Long Tall: "Guilty."
Dangerous Dave: "Guilty."
The Honorable Steven Verkamp glared at the five men before him. The U.S. magistrate for Grand Canyon National Park was not a happy camper. "You five have won the award," he scolded. "You are the stupidest people I have had in my courtroom this year. You all think this was a pretty funny stunt, don't you? Well, the last laugh is on you. I hope you have all learned your lesson."
Rama piped up. "Yes, we have, your honor."
"I seriously doubt that," Verkamp snapped.
He was right.
The sign is painted flat, reddish brown and weathered from years of silent duty at the North Kaibab trailhead on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, elevation 8,000 feet. A metal square atop the wood post bears the stark image of a white, riderless bicycle with a slash over it, a warning of National Park Service regulation 36, subsection 4.30, which basically says you can't ride a bicycle in designated national park wilderness areas--which includes everywhere below the rim of the Grand Canyon.
On the morning of November 19, 1995, the sign stood amid unusual quiet. A federal budget stalemate between President Clinton and the U.S. Congress had forced the national park system to shut down, and the entire Grand Canyon had been closed to visitors--and the accompanying chatter of hikers, bray of mules and engine noise of shuttle buses--for the past five days.
On the morning of the 19th, however, the sign had company. Highly ironic company. Five mountain bikers standing with their metal steeds behind a cluster of pine trees, purposefully camouflaged from the road. The air was cold that morning, just below freezing, and the mist from the bikers' breath mingled with exhaled pot smoke as a pipe went around the circle. One of the bikers broke out a plastic bag of psilocybin mushrooms, and they each gnashed down a small handful of the foul-tasting fungi.
Duly prepared, the five mounted their bikes and began the first stretch of the 14-mile downhill to the base of the canyon--a harrowing, 3,400-foot vertical descent over 4.7 trail miles through Roaring Springs Canyon. The time was roughly 10 a.m. Six hours later, the bikers would be under arrest, in leg shackles and awaiting airlift to a federal jail--a helicopter ride that not only would save them a grueling pedal up the other side of the canyon, but also would lift them to unwitting folk-hero status in the cause of mountain-biker access.
That morning, as they launched down the trail with a few ill-advised whoops, the illicit quintet were merely outlaw mountain bikers on a hastily organized joy ride.
By nightfall, however, they were "The Sedona 5."
It was Wheeze's idea. The 36-year-old online marketing and design specialist says he flashed on sneaking into the canyon late in the afternoon of November 18. He doesn't remember exactly what prompted the thought. Maybe a newspaper article or radio report about "tourons"--a Sedona mountain biker slang hybrid of "tourist" and "moron"--being turned away at the Grand Canyon park gates. "It's always been my dream to bike rim to rim," he says. "The time seemed ripe. Minimum crowds, maximum wilderness experience."
Seeking a few compadres in crime, Wheeze (legal name Mitch Obele) beelined for Mountain Bike Heaven, a bike shop owned by Rama Jon that serves as a nucleus for the Sedona mountain-bike scene. Wheeze pitched the concept--a rim-to-rim stealth mission starting early the next morning--and Rama (Jon Cogan) was all for it. "Dangerous Dave" Hart, a cash-practice chiropractor who works out of a shack office in the back lot of Rama's store, also signed on. So did Forest (Forest Michaels), who sleeps in the woods around Sedona, makes drums for money, and spends most of his time on the trail (at 23, he is the youngest of the Sedona 5; Rama is the oldest at 40). "None of us really thought much about it," says Rama. "We just sort of did it."
That night, the four loaded up Rama's Toyota 4Runner and Dave's beat-up Monte Carlo with bikes, packs and cold-weather gear and hit the road around 9. Their first stop was Flagstaff. Rama had called ahead to Long Tall (John Panetta), another biking buddy who jumped at a fifth slot on the covert op--code name "Crater Raiders."
Long Tall owns The People's Bike Shop in Flag. But when Rama, Wheeze, Forest and Dave pulled in from Sedona eager to keep moving toward an early start, Long Tall wasn't ready to go yet. Because, of all things, he didn't have a bike. Or, at least, not the one he wanted to ride the canyon. That bike was at a friend's house--only Long Tall couldn't remember exactly which friend, or which house. "Things started to get a little haphazard at that point," Rama says. "Here was this tall, skinny guy with long hair running from house to house knocking on doors late at night going, 'Excuse me, is my bike here?' I thought someone was going to call the cops. It took him until midnight to find that damn bike."