Flagstaff is a town that’s known for its characters. One of the most eccentric is Cosmic Ray, a 67-year-old hippie author from San Francisco who moved to Northern Arizona in the early ’80s for biking, hiking and cheap living.
© Dawn Kish
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By Martin Cizmar
If you’re seeking the wise mystic Cosmic Ray, you go not to the top of a mountain, but to the patio outside Macy’s European Coffeehouse in Flagstaff. Look for the guy wearing a white hat, clip-in cycle shoes, Arizona-flag socks and blue earbuds playing Smash Mouth or Cake.
He’s built like braided metal cable — thin, tense, flexible — with a crisp white goatee and large, leathery hands. Next to the table sits the custom-built Coconino Cycles touring bike he just rode across Spain and France. On the fender is a sticker that reads, “Live Free or Drive,” the lifestyle that has Ray, 67, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 165 pounds with “blood pressure in the basement.”
Ray has been coming to Macy’s for more than 30 years. Before it opened, he would journey down to Tucson for a cappuccino. “I was coming from the Bay Area, so I was used to being able to get a good cup of coffee,” he says. “As far as I know, there wasn’t even an espresso machine in Phoenix at the time. Living in the Bay Area in the ’60s was a treat. I didn’t realize it at the time; I thought the whole world was like that.”
He can hardly get through one of his stories — the bad vibes he felt upon arrival at Altamont, or the time he drove a stick-shift Pontiac Tempest from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to San Francisco with a broken leg — before a guy with dreadlocks or a woman with toe rings and Chacos stops to chat. So it goes when you’re a local celebrity who’s sold an astonishing 150,000 copies of a self-published mountain-biking guide.
“I’m making a living in a way that encourages people to enjoy their short, sweet life as long as they can and quit thinking they have to consume to be alive,” Ray says. “We are really this smart and sophisticated monkey. We really are, man.”
Look closely, and you’ll find Cosmic Ray — who asked, in the interest of his family’s privacy, that his last name not be used in this story — all over Flagstaff. Flagstaff Live, the weekly entertainment magazine published by the Arizona Daily Sun, prints dispatches about cycling naked in France (“It’s not that great, for guys especially”) from his monthlong European rides. His Arizona hiking and biking guides are the first thing you see inside Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters, where the manager calls Ray “a local legend.”
The first secret of his popularity — and Ray insists you not overlook this — is that the corners of his books’ pages are rounded. “That’s how I am. I don’t have sharp edges,” he says. “And it fits nicely in a pocket. I know how bikers and hikers think, and they want something that fits in a pocket.”
Second, there’s the fact that Ray is philosophically opposed to providing GPS coordinates or topographic maps. “I don’t have maps that look like they were drawn with a mouse,” he says. “You need to develop a sense of direction. It’s about having some fun and having an adventure.” (Having walked every trail in his book Hiking Phoenix, I can vouch for the adequacy of everything but the Massacre Grounds Trail, where I skidded around gullies overgrown with creosote after dark on a frigid January night.)
Instead, his simple line maps are embellished with crude-but-cute depictions of Ray with a friendly rattlesnake around his neck and a lizard in his palm. A handwriting-like font, Tekton, makes the pages look like an expertly rendered napkin map. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Ray gives special attention to trails with petroglyphs. “I can use my mind to feel the connection to these people who were here, who drew these rattlesnakes and lizards,” he says.
Third, despite his pseudonym — adopted from Cosmic Cycles, the first shop where he worked, because he “didn’t want people calling at midnight saying, ‘I’m at the Grand Canyon, and I can’t find the hole’ ” — Ray’s books and lifestyle are family friendly.
Last, his books have unbridled enthusiasm and a stream of not-so-subtle admonishments about when and where to meditate on the landscape. “I’m trying to change the way people look at the world a little bit,” he says. “This is not what we were meant to be. Our bodies were meant to be something other than what we are. We’re all sold cars and oil to keep it moving, but we’re supposed to be out there moving ourselves.”
Most people don’t know that Ray is a trained writer with a journalism degree from San Francisco State. He got that degree, in part, he says, because he didn’t know what else to do and didn’t get drafted out of his bike-mechanic job and sent to Vietnam. After that, he got into business selling artsy T-shirts at craft fairs. He moved to Flagstaff in the early ’80s for biking, hiking and cheap living.
It was his side gig as a bike mechanic that gave Ray the idea for his best-seller, Fat Tire Tales and Trails, a guide to Arizona mountain-bike trails “rated by a seedy but sincere middle-aged man.” The first guide was published back when trail-ready bikes had to be hand-built from old motorcycle parts. By 1993, when the wider world had taken note of mountain-biking, Outside magazine noted the guide was already “legendary.” While Ray’s hiking guides might not be updated for a few years, a new edition of the mountain-bike guide is published roughly every year. The schedule is irregular, as Ray simply orders what he thinks he’ll sell in 12 months, then updates it when he’s about to run out.
The secret to success, Ray says, was figuring out how to get the guide — originally priced at $2.95, same as a new tube — next to cash registers. “Shop owners liked the guide because mechanics can quickly refer customers to it,” he says, “rather than spending 10 minutes giving directions to a nearby trail when they’re on the clock.”
Ray has been approached about doing a guide to Tucson’s trails but dreads the idea of all that driving now that there’s cappuccino in Flagstaff. It’s all about “owning your time,” he says, and he’d rather be riding or spending time with his wife and their 21-year-old daughter, the person who loads his iPod up with the early ’00s alternative rock he favors — Cake, Smash Mouth and Ray’s favorite, Bloodhound Gang. “So many people my age are living in the past with music,” he says. “I’m not into that.”
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