Arizona – The Low Desert

This is Part 2 of 2 of our ride across Arizona in October. Find Part 1 HERE.

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Having failed to complete the Coconino Loop back to Flagstaff,  Panthea and I found ourselves seemingly close to the Black Canyon Trail, made famous in last winter’s Rocky Mountain Bikes bikepacking video. If we were ever to have a chance at meeting Wade Simmons, this appeared to be it. And so, upon Adriana and Marius’ departure, we rode south on this alternative to the Arizona Trail.

Immediately outside Sedona’s mystic vortex, we met the other Arizona. Cottonwood: where pickup trucks can double as pedestrian overpasses, and Bud Light is a health food.

We climbed back into the pines, and descended scrubby hills onto an empty plain. Led along dusty roads, over fences, and overland across thorn-riddled fields by my trusty GPS, we dropped further out of the grasslands into a cactus-filled incinerator. Still hopeful that Wade Simmons might be escaping the 38°C heat in that now-famous kitschy country bar, we asked directions from a young couple parked near the trail. The man, all hunch and curled ball-cap, couldn’t speak through his lower lip, brimming with tobacco. The woman, wearing a camo sports bra and an enormous chrome handgun on her hip, pointed us down the road. Their lifted late-’80s Jeep wore the Confederate battle flag across its dash.

“Would they have helped us if we weren’t white?” wondered Panthea.

I replied, “I don’t think we would have spoken to them if we weren’t white.”

After a few miles, still no sign of beer or Wade, we accepted that no combination of lite beer and old freeriders could justify such a long detour behind the Johnny line, and made our way back to the Black Canyon.

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The winding, rolling trail brought us through a desert of thorn, rock and barbed wire. An inhospitable desolation, meticulously divided and guarded for the sake of a few struggling cattlemen, robbed us of moisture and energy. Welcome signs of the southwest abound: “No Tresspassing, We Shoot.” And shoot they do. Every sign in Arizona wears a bullet wound. Where the trail crossed a dirt road, the air sang with gunfire. We passed men with high-caliber, semi-automatic assault rifles mounted in the back of pickups, exercising their suspension and their God-given rights, as they cleared a hill of vegetation.

The cowboy of yesteryear lives on only in romance. Gone is the way of life – the roaming, wrangling boy’s club – that has come to epitomize a distinctly American notion of freedom. Much as it strangled the desert, barbed wire ended the cowboy way of life. No longer were they needed to collect and sort cattle, to drive the herds to a fresh water source. And still, this figure of untamed masculinity is worshiped as an idol in parts of the Southwest – his gunslinging, his unbridled independence, and his fetish for danger mimicked by his Arizonan facsimiles. They’re right that guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people. More specifically, men with guns kill people.

I’m not fooled; the guns aren’t for security. They’re for the thrill of being a cowboy or a gangster (that other American folk saint), a prop for supporting a tantalizing myth of danger. I wish they’d only remember a third charismatic recluse: the jolly vagabond. For thrills and danger and freedom, Mr. Johnny Reb, I offer thee The Bicycle. Take one around the world, up and down a mountain, or both-wheels-drifting, all fast and loose like some kind of funky priest on two wheels. Just don’t take mine. You can have my bike when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

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Perhaps a greater obstacle than the Grand Canyon, the sprawl of Greater Phoenix lay between the end of the Black Canyon Trail and our return to the Arizona Trail. For sixty miles, we rode brand new bike lanes on grid roads through brand new suburbs. Cave Creek: private luxury; Carefree: a misnomer (see above); Scottsdale: was desert a decade ago; Tempe: “we only care about football”; Mesa: built in 1960, last maintained in 1995; Apache Junction: built in 1965, last maintained in 1965. Technically, we barely entered Phoenix-proper.

This desert megopolis is one of humanity’s boldest experiments. Built on a vast and mostly waterless low desert plain, its residents depend on imported water and food, and climate control to protect from lethal 50°C summer days. We were witnessing an ephemeral piece of human history, the saguaro cacti in North Scottsdale front yards older than any home within the city limits.

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A day later, we were back on singletrack, and the Arizona Trail. This section, south of the Picketpost Trailhead, is perhaps the most scenic desert segment of the route, as it winds through cactus-forested crags and deep-cut ravines. But, with our bikes loaded with water, it was not easy. Slowed by evening thunderstorms, we struggled to make our next water resupply. By late afternoon when clouds and flashes on the horizon began to threaten again, we’d not reached our next reliable refill and were nearly out of food. Panthea made camp by the Gila River while I pushed through the brush to fill up from its putrid murk. With our flight from Tucson approaching, we left the trail again after a resupply in Kearny, and followed jeep roads to Oracle, at the base of Mt Lemmon.

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As Phoenix booms, many southern Arizona villages are going for ghost. We passed through played-out, exhausted old ranches, mines, and villages. Only the faded “No Tresspassing” signs and more barbed wire fences remain intact. Even so, the old cemeteries lay empty. Despite the austerity of the desert, staying long enough to die seems a new concept.

In Winkleman, most store fronts, excepting the Circle K, are all boarded broken windows. Outside the Circle K, as I sipped on pale coffee, another cowboy stopped his old pickup for a snack. His uniform – jeans, roper’s boots, a felted hat, mustache, and bulging belly – is ubiquitous from Amarillo to San Bernardino. His language too. We’d crossed an old and now unofficial border into the Hispanosphere. The man emerged from the convenience store with a cold Sprite, a corn dog, and a single Pulparindo candy.

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Our route across the top of Mt Lemmon stood nearly 2000m above our low point on the Gila River. In a day, we made this climb on a blissful dirt road, avoiding a steep, rocky carry up the trail. Near the top, and in fading light, the sky unleashed another torrent. Without a rain jacket (what kind of British Columbian would need a rain jacket in the desert?), I pedalled hard for an hour into the cold deluge. We dreamed of a warm hotel room in the ski-resort at the top, but finally, soaked to the bone, I could no longer keep warm. We spent a night inside inside our tent, as it shook and flashed in a furious electrical storm, a few hundred feet below the high point. In the morning, we found lingering snow in the empty village of Summerhaven.

The Arizona Trail extends to the Mexican border. For us, it ended in Tucson, where we spent a day in Transit Cycles, hanging out with Duncan and packing our bikes into boxes for our flight onward to a family wedding.

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From September 19th – October 24th, Panthea and I rode our mountain bikes from Las Vegas, NV, to Tucson, AZ. We found a land of stark beauty and troubled humanity, a place of contradicting hostility and warmth in climate and history. Perhaps October is the wrong month for a ride across the desert, but the beauty of the skies, towering thunderheads, and incandescent sunsets, make up for any struggles. We learned a Sonoran language, and in October the desert speaks in clouds. But, like music, even more is said in the silence between notes. When the clouds have exhausted their spark, a booming depth – the lifeless infinity of our night sky – tells a greater narrative.

 

If you’d like to keep up to date with our travels in real time, as opposed to two months after the fact, as these posts tend to be, follow along on my Instagram account. I’m about ten days into a several week long period of proper, old-fashioned employment, to afford more travelling in the new year, so you’ll have to forgive a few recycled photos, and documentation of work in northern Alberta’s forests.

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5 thoughts on “Arizona – The Low Desert

  1. Glad you guys had a great trip. I love the SW desert. Coming from BC it’s the perfect antidote to being “treed out”. I’ll be heading down there next week. 🙂

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time in UT/AZ and the Mojave in Cali. I’m not white and I have never had any issues with the colourful folks I have met on ATVs and 4x4s in the middle of nowhere. In fact I’d say that on the whole they have been more than nice to me. One on one most people are reasonable. It seems to go wrong when you get a mob together.

    • That’s good to hear. I’m a tall white man, so I pretty much have no clue. Still, the Confederate battle flag, which was mostly forgotten after the Civil War until the KKK adopted it to their cause, is a pretty potent symbol of hatred, and troubles me. But, those folks flying the flag stood out on a more extreme side, and I don’t mean to paint all Arizonans with their colours. For sure, most folks are friendly as can be. Most bothersome to me, perhaps, is the anti-intellectual, or anti-science, movement on all sides of the political spectrum.

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