We landed in Las Vegas late on a Saturday evening, a day after Interbike, and were greeted by companions Nicholas
– something more than complete strangers – outside the airport. Together we built bikes and rolled an hour through the city to the abrupt edge of the desert. A few hundred meters from the last buildings we unrolled our sleeping bags, sometime after 1 AM.
Though we hadn’t any real plans with them, our shared route toward the northern terminus of the Arizona Trail had us forming a sort of allegiance of independent nations that lasted a week. These days of mid-day Miller High-Life, interstate shoulders and city park bivouacs was more approach than experience and, but for the cold beer and good company, Panthea and I suffered from relatively low enthusiasm for most of it. Joining the trail near the Utah-Arizona border, chaffed and grumpy from too much high-speed shoulderless highway riding, was the relief we’d been waiting for and we intended to savour it. Our allies, in their equal excitement, seemed in a hurry to enjoy as much singletrack as possible each day. A stick jumped into my spoke, I hit a tree, and a half-hour of rolling, groaning back spasms ensured our second morning on the trail would be our last sighting of those indomitable speedsters.
At the outset of our trip on the Arizona Trail, I’d mentioned to Panthea that a few options existed for getting across one of North America’s biggest obstacles. The Grand Canyon could be avoided on a 200-mile highway detour, or crossed on a steep footpath. For the latter option, I explained it was possible to ship bikes around in the shuttle bus used by rim-to-rim hikers. Later, as we approached the canyon, I asked whether we should ride around or ship our bikes around. Panthea replied, “I thought we were carrying them across the canyon?!”
“Oh. I guess we’ll do that then.” Plus, it sounded bad-ass. Scott and Eszter
did it. Nick and Lael were doing it.
We bought ratchet tie-down straps at a gas station in Fredonia, abandoned the ratcheting part, and built backpack straps out of the lengths of 1″ nylon webbing. My heavily padded fannypack took the job of waist belt, and Panthea’s ultralight stowaway backpack pretended to offer more shoulder comfort than the 1″ webbing. This might sounds like a good, creative solution, but it was actually terrible.
Perhaps worse than the brutality of carrying 60lbs of bike and camping gear more than 1800m down a canyon, and another 1500m back up, over 40km, were the endless repeating comments of flabbergasted tourists on the trail.
“HOLY MOLY FRIEND! That looks HARD!”
“You have no idea…”
“IS THERE GOOD RIDIN’ DOWN THERE, PARDNER?”
“No riding allowed until the other rim, actually.”
“WHAT?! Wait! You’re just carrying those things UP THE OTHER SIDE?”
“Yes. We are idiots. And no, this is not the first time we’ve done something this stupid.”
In the face of such interrogation, an inflated ego is maybe weightier than a fat-tired bikepacking steed. The sensible choice, the bicycle shuttle service, requires only $65 and an ounce of humility. Free of the angry monkeys on our backs, we could have enjoyed one of the world’s most scenic hikes with some dignity.
It took two days to reach the South Rim. We arrived unable to bend our legs, and could barely walk for several days afterwards. Still, none were more desperate than the final 5 miles. You see, the bottom of the canyon is a hellish inferno, an extremely dry 40 degrees centigrade. I had to consume an elephant’s ration of water to keep hydrated, and after two days, this fluid flux began to have a powerfully laxative effect.
Perhaps this is a natural response to high-flow fluid movement. Perhaps it is a hereditary reaction to the desert. My memory is imprinted with a scene from my first visit to the southwest on a family road trip in a station wagon with no AC: my father rinsing a deeply embarrassing desert sickness from the inside of his white sneakers at Utah’s Deadhorse State Park.
Either way, the final three rest stops were mercifully spaced 1.5 miles apart, saving me from embarrassment, encouraging a frenzied pace, and offering a potential explanation for the American habit of referring to toilets as restrooms. A bad ass indeed.
As much as we wanted to make it to Flagstaff in two more days to meet friends coming down from Vancouver, our sore jelly legs would not allow it. Instead, Marius picked us up 30 miles short of old Route 66. Together with Marius and Adriana, we planned to ride the Coconino Loop, and then continue back down the AZT once they returned north. A day into the loop, thunderstorms brought us to a slippy, sticky halt in peanut butter mud. The following day we pushed and slid our way through rain and mud to a motel room in Sedona. Already a day behind schedule – a schedule that mattered as Adriana and Marius have real jobs and set vacation dates – we decided to bail on the Coconino Loop in order to maximize our enjoyment of Sedona’s world-class mountain biking trails.
Set among towering red rock pinnacles and the bluish hues of Arizona cypress, Sedona’s otherworldly scenery has inspired a blooming alternative culture and attracted a crop of hippies, freaks, yogis, shamans, mystics, phonies, and other white people suffering from “special snowflake syndrome”.
A barefoot couple relaxed with their barefoot, diaperless baby outside Whole Foods. Between rants about how western medicine was killing everyone, they held their child over the patio railing, so that it could unleash its torrent of baby diarrhea unfettered onto the landscaping. “If you eat dead things,” they reasoned, “you’ll be dead. If you eat living things, you’ll live.”
At the cashier, someone exclaimed upon seeing the total of her bill that she’d go look up the significance of those numbers.
Back on the patio, a woman who proudly subsisted on a diet of brown slurry that she drank from a half-gallon Mason jar explained that she’d been going through a phase of wild energy and “was basically tripping out all the time.” Her friend replied earnestly with a tragic story of a broken heart. They each told each other how good it felt to talk.
Further down the road, a Lakota man offers “authentic Karma cleansing” with shamanism imported from Mexico and Los Angeles.
Still, seemingly rare in Arizona, Sedona’s eclectic community is committed to the beauty of their place, and has worked hard to maintain trail access and keep urban sprawl in check. As a result, there are no garish signs or billboards, and camping is prohibited with 10 miles of the town (to keep out the riff-raff). Despite Sedona’s absurdisms and conspicuous white privilege, the riding was so good, the landscape so genuinely moving, that this rabble remained checked into our motel room for three more superb days of riding.
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 out loud.
I replied, “I wonder if we would have spoken to them if we weren’t white.
” These are realities I can never fully understand.
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.
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 Trespassing, 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 trade. 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. 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.
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; 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
About the Author
When not exploring the mountains around his native Vancouver or away on bikepacking travels, Skyler Des Roches funds his adventures with work in northern forests. You can read about more of his trips on his blog www.offroute.ca
. In a few weeks, once he's finished collecting enough digital zeros bushwhacking around Alberta's frozen boreal forests, he's bound for a new long-distance bikepacking route along the length of Chile. Stay tuned for that.
Thanks to Porcelain Rocket
, and Easton
for their support.