After two and a half weeks in the greater Phoenix area, I have rolled onward. My second week there was wonderful and different than the first up in Cave Creek. I rode the 30 miles down into Phoenix proper in order to stay with an old friend from college, Jeff. It would be a short visit, as I planned it, just enough time to get a few simple bike repairs done and hit the road. I ended up spending 10 days. There was a delay in shipment of various bike parts which forced me to wait for their arrival. This ended up being a blessing. Not because Phoenix is such an amazing or inspiring place for me particularly or because I had crazy wild experiences. The blessing was my precious time with Jeff. We’d not spoken in 12 years, but it felt like yesterday. We both looked different and had much life to share. Luckily he was in a period of life where he was able to spend countless hours with me, sharing our stories, joys and pains. His safe space, both physically and emotionally, was a crucial component in my decision to continue South.
i rolled through the streets and waterways one last time, heading Southeast to a trailhead the Arizona Trail about 60 miles away. My wells of human connection were filled, and I felt ready to begin another chapter of this journey. Interestingly, the process of leaving Phoenix took all day. The city sprawls in all directions for miles upon miles of strip malls and department stores.
At long last the highway emptied, with only desert by my side. I arrived at the AZT trailhead just as the sun was setting, in time to make camp and get cozy on this cool night.
Before embarking on the trail, I followed a friend’s advice to visit the Boyce Thomson Arboretum, a large state park with an enormous collection of desert vegetation.
Agave stalk shooting up into the sky.
Aloe plants in beautiful bloom.
Prickly pear cacti bearing fruit.
Desert bean pods. They had a whole area of desert beans, none of which I knew existed.
A billion barrel cacti.
This agave plant was about 6’ tall. Enormous.
Boojum tree. A definite first.
They even had a walking labyrinth on the property. With a strong passion for labyrinths, I took it as a good omen.
Red Gum Eucalyptus.
All in all, my intended 30 minute jaunt through the arboretum stretched for nearly 4 hours. Too many amazing plants to rush through it.
Finally hopping onto the Arizona Trail, a few hours later than expected. It had been nearly 3 weeks since I’d been traveling through nature by trail, and a lovely return it was. The quiet air at my face, watching various raptors and ravens floating in the updrafts, and majestic vistas stretching beyond the reaches of my imagination.
The trail quickly climbed up through this valley through endless cacti and desert trees. It was fun applying my newly acquired botanical knowledge in attempting to identify the plants around me.
A variation of Cholla cactus, this one is known as the ‘jumping cactus’ because it drops these little cactus balls which hook onto nearly anything that grazes it, eventually dropping and rooting in a new place. The spines are needle sharp and are microscopically barbed at their ends. I tested the sharpness and immediately could only get the needles out of my hand with the help of some pliers. A good lesson learned.
The skeleton of a fallen Saguaro cactus.
The AZT, weaving around enormous rock outcroppings, an enormous valley stretched outwards to the right.
As darkness closed in toward me, the trail peaked out through rough rocky sections. Each shifting stone echoed through the depths of Alamo Canyon.
The terrain was so very rough and covered with cacti that I had no idea if I’d find a flat place to sleep. Luckily there was a small cleared-off area for campers, right on top of a flat vista. One of my favorite campsites to date.
The following day, I set onward toward the Gila River valley. As I descended into the valley, the terrain changed from rough and rocky to round and very sandy. I was very happy with my choice to put a big fat tire on my front wheel, as it floated above the sand quite well. By early afternoon I reached a road. I could either continue along the trail back up into the mountains with no access to food or water for at least 50 more miles, or take the road out to resupply. I had only just enough food to last me the journey, which really didn’t feel like enough at all in the case of an emergency. So I rode out onto the pavement to the nearby town of Kearny, where I restocked on food and water and planned a route back up the mountain in order to return to the AZT.
The first obstacle to getting back on the trail: The Gila River. Too large and deep to ford. No visible bridges despite the assurance of one on my inaccurate map. As I rode by the riverside I saw a man standing by his car. To his other side was a PILE of empty beer cans. Like at least 20. His eyes and bodily waver clarified how recently those cans were placed there. Luckily, he knew exactly where the bridge was though! He told me I’d see the Keep Off signs, and to not worry about them, just hop the fence and be on my way. So I did.
Beyond the bridge lay my next obstacle: 1500’ of climbing and previously stated inaccurate maps to find a random trail in the desert mountains. There was to be a road climbing up all the way to the trail, but I all I could find was a HUGE river wash (dry river bed) full of sand and prickly things. I figured the map maker saw a winding thing and assumed it to be a road, so I took a risk and followed it. I collected a variety of bloody scrapes and cuts as I rode/walked/bushwhacked through the desert toward the trail. Eventually by darkness I found a power line and a flat spot to sleep under it.
Deeply wishing I took some photos of the veritable shit show the next day carried, but it rained heavily all day. And it was too cold to feel my fingers. So the camera stayed sealed in plastic and the images were purely etched in my memories. For the comical reason of learning an important lesson after the fact, I had neglected to put the rain fly on my tent the night before. I awoke at dawn, not to the light, but to the wetness of my sleeping bag. I hadn’t actually had a rainy riding day in at least 2 months, so the possibility did not occur to me. I wanted to see the stars. Alas. Unfortunately a wet sleeping bag and tent weigh at least twice that of dry ones, adding to the day’s challenge. After another hour of bushwhacking, I finally made it back onto the “comforts” of the AZT. The terrain in that area would have been pretty smooth and fast rolling were it not for the rain. The sandy ground absorbed the water in such a way that my rolling resistance more than doubled. Every pedal stroke, whether uphill, flat or down, was effortful. Then I hit a mud patch. The kind of mud that within 2 wheel revolutions was so deeply caked onto the wheels and bike that it could no longer roll at all. I pushed the bike to get it out of the mud and the wheels only dragged. After about 15 minutes of cleaning the mud off enough to get the wheels to turn again, I feared how much more of that mud I’d see. For good reason. Let’s just say I saw a lot more. By the time mid afternoon hit my patience had eroded more than the trail, and I found a turnoff for Freeman Road which could take me back out to a highway. A glorious 10 miles took me 20 minutes. The previous 10 had taken the better half of 4 hours. I felt I’d made the right choice, given the possibility of more impassable mud.
After a rough 15 mile ride on dirt along the Gila River, I found a bridge to cross it and landed back on pavement and arrived in the small town of North Mammoth. I decided to go for broke and ride the last 10 miles to the town of Oracle. The sun was close to setting but I assumed that 10 miles of pavement would go quickly and easily, giving me enough daylight in Oracle to find a camp spot. What I didn’t realize was that Oracle was 2000’ higher in elevation than Mammoth. Super fun night riding at 8mph on a highway with no shoulder. Yay. Shit. I arrived in Oracle by darkness and asked the first person I could find where the biggest cheapest meal was in town. She said, “Well, there aren’t many options here, but the Ore House just opened. They’re a bar and I think they have food and they have a band tonight.” I knew it was the spot to visit when she clarified that it was called the Ore House, not the whore house.
Waddling up to the bar, covered in mud, soaking wet and cold, I drank one of the best beers of my life. I ate a whole large pizza. I watched the locals dancing to the country rock band. Luckily by night’s end I’d been offered a warm place to stay with a kind man named Peter, an audiophile who was excited to show me his sound system. He placed me in the “captain’s chair” and cranked on a variety of amplifiers, putting on an HD video of a classic rock concert. It was amazing. Almost as amazing as it was to lay in a soft bed and fall asleep that night.
I woke up the following morning to a crisp sunny day. Well rested and well fed, I set my sites on the next section of riding. From outside the breakfast joint Peter took me to, I looked up at that day’s goal: Mount Lemmon. From the 4200’ start in Oracle, I’d have well over 5000’ of climbing up Old Mt. Lemmon Road to summit and descent back down into Tucson. It was beautiful to see the sub climates change with every stage of climbing, from cacti to rock to pine forest.
Looking back on the valley I’d climbed out of.
What laid between me and Tucson at that point was about 6000’ of descending. On smooth fast pavement. It was GLORIOUS. I could lean way into the corners, banking them faster than most cars. Even passing some. Unfortunately it was really cold at the top of the mountain. Warm from my climb, I didn’t think to put on a jacket to block the wind until I got too cold to bother. The last 2000’ of descending were the most dangerous because I was violently shivvvvvvvering enough to regularly make the bike wobble across the pavement. I was going too fast to be able to peddle, so there was no way of producing any heat while descending.
At long last, I wobbled into the outskirts of Tucson and into the nearest warm space: McDonald’s. I didn’t care. I wolfed down a burger and fries, looking out at the darkening streets of town. I needed to figure out my lodging, as sleeping outside in a city is nothing I like to do. I’d been invited to stay with some fellow bike packers, Scott Morris and Eszter Horanyi, over Facebook a couple of weeks prior, and luckily they were able to take me in. A quick 15 mile shot across the city brought my haggard being to their front door, to my great joy it opened before me. Sigh. Beer. Sleep.
What a WILD 5 days it was since leaving Phoenix. I am consistently impressed and humbled in my efforts, knowing there are people that can cover the entire stretch of trail I’d suffered through without completion, within a day. Two of those people are Scott and Eszter. Mad props. I also further gained an appreciation for my own limits of joy vs. challenge. Each time I make a choice in challenging situations, whether it be to continue on route or to find an easier route, I feel less self-judgement. Less of a need to impress anyone or be ‘hardcore’. I just love being on the bike, my way, and love fine tuning exactly what that way is and will be as the days, weeks, and months carry me forward.
NOTE: This post covers ride days from 12/10-12/14, 2104. I”m positing this all way after the fact, so there you have it.