Sunday, February 10, 2013
On the Trail in Arizona
The morning after our river float we awoke to bright sunshine amid thorny bushes, not far from the Gila River. The wet gear from the evening before exploded out of vehicles to dry. More gear was shoved into small packs and strapped to our bikes. By the crack of noon-ish, we were riding. A short chunk of gravel road, then along railroad tracks and onto the railroad bridge over the brush-lined Gila to the trail.
THE trail for these parts, in some respects. The Arizona Trail. A remarkable track that traces its line from the state's northern border to its southern border. And judging by the pieces of it that I've ridden, it does so in a rather spectacular manner. And no exception this day, either.
We dove in, curving through towering saguaro and other prickly vegetation, dipping in and out of dry washes as we rolled along the slope above the river. Fun riding. Engaging enough to keep us paying attention to where we pointed our tires, but such that we could still look around and take in the scene. Big enough country to hold the smiles that kept plastering themselves over our faces. Which -- for three of us, as least -- may have had something to do with the contrast with the snow and ice we'd been riding in for a month. Warm sunshine and dry trails? Leafy green seedlings springing up in the moist shadows? Shorts, t-shirts, and -- what? -- traces of sweat? Most excellent.
Scott, who wasn't escaping the snow, couldn't seem to stop smiling either. Maybe because he knew where we were headed. Which, as he led us, was away from the river and up, toward and into the rough, craggy mountains that loomed to the north.
Things got steeper. Both the cliffs that surrounded us and the trail. Steeper, but in a good way. Such that, despite rocks and loose gravel, it was almost all rideable. But in a, well, I don't know if "in a punishing way" would be an apt description. But I do know that there was one point, grunting upward on a gritty track with the afternoon sun beating down on me, when I suddenly realized that I would have to slow way, way down or risk having my head burst into flames. Which was, well, I don't know if "delightful" would be an apt description. But I do know that it had been months since Colorado's temperate autumn and frigid winter had offered even the slightest chance of my brain catching on fire. So yeah. It was great.
As we climbed higher and higher the sun dropped lower. The day cooled and soon the only thing on fire was the scenery. The trail wound and twisted along spines, amid spires, past cliffs, over ridges and through canyons. We climbed into the shadows of mountains and out again to where angled sunlight lit cactus and burnished the rough stone. Twilight pooled in dark clefts and hollows, sloshed up mountainsides, filled canyons, then spilled over into the sky. What remained of the light was rapidly draining away to the west as we crested another ridge. To find… Home?
On a relatively level and thorn-free length of track we stopped. Sleeping bags and pads appeared. Warm jackets and hats. Stoves. Food. Soon we were swapping tales over dinner, resting tired muscles, soaking in the scene of stars, silhouetted mountain crags, the distant glow of city lights, cool, clear air, and the low whir of crickets. So yes, home. For the night.
Allow me, now, as I write this, to stand back and feel a small dose of awe. Because -- though there are many excellent rides that start and end on the same day -- there is something pretty sweet about riding until the day ends, with no particular worry about where it might end, with knowing one is carrying everything needed for the night, with knowing that the next day, too, will be filled with riding.
Some of my awe comes from the aplomb which my companions bring to this game. If you've been reading this and glancing at the photos, you may now have to go back and look more closely. Was it obvious to you that bike and riders were loaded for camping? Scott and Mike are veterans of self-supported racing. They carry what they need, exactly what they need, no more. Alan, on his first ever bikepacking trip, had a larger but still trim load. As usual, I, habitual over-packer, had the bloat-i-est load. But still trim enough that the whole sense of riding was that of a mountain bike ride. Not some heavy, laden, I'm-a-beast-of-burden-made-to-suffer kind of slog. But a rippin', snortin', singletrack swooping kind of mountain bike ride. And that (though it may be a testament to my insensitivity to my burden) was awesome.
Morning sunlight stabbed over the horizon. We roused. We ate. We packed. But our freedom to go where we wanted had some limits. It was still Arizona. Still the desert. And our "freedom" was closely tied to our water supply. Scott had hoped that a water cache close to our camp would provide all we would need. But the cache was low. Riding further would take us further from known water and toward more questionable possibilities. Not a good risk.
Our best choice was to head back down the trail we had ridden up the day before. I don't think anyone complained. It was beautiful scenery and a great trail. As we started down, the sky clouded over to mostly-grey, softening the shadows and keeping us cool. We chased each other downward, punching over the short climbs, and sweeping along through the cactus and rock-lined turns. Down and down, amazed at how far we'd ridden upward the day before.
At the bottom, water. A cache and a spring. Enough. And no need to purify water from the river. Here, we turned away from our return track. We thrashed through the brush and waded across the Gila. Tunneled away from the water on doubletrack, then up and away, climbing gently through some wide country, the mountains of the morning receding over our shoulders. Clouds and a cool breeze helped us conserve our water.
Mid-afternoon, we hit the "highway" -- a quiet stretch of improved dirt road. Alan decided he'd take the short-cut back to the cars and base camp. And was gracious enough to let me strap some of my overnight gear to his handlebar. He turned left and rode off. Scott, Mike and I turned the other way on the highway. Soon Scott was leading us through a network of 4x4 tracks that crisscrossed the desert. Then from those, to another piece of the Arizona Trail.
A tall ridge loomed in the distance, with a zag of switchbacks leading up one edge. "That's Ripsey. That's where we're going." Scott said. With all the riding we'd already done and the leaden feeling in my legs, it was hard to think "Yay" but we headed for them anyway. Lots of thrashy trail along the way. Cat's claw and stay-a-minute bushes hooked our clothes and skin. We pushed our bikes along a sandy wash. We struggled up some steep and challenging trail. We arrived at the switchbacks.
Grey skies pressed down on us, but we rode upward. The switchbacks weren't all that bad. Sure, I walked most of the steep corners. But in between the riding was nice. Smooth grade. Grassy edges. Would have been great views if the air hadn't been so thick. Mike and Scott tried to ride all the corners, and when they missed, they tried again. I pressed on, hoping that soon, as the day neared its end, the sun might stab out from under the clouds at the horizon and beam some stunning light into our ride. But it did not.
We rode the high slopes and climbs of Ripsey Ridge in the grey gloom, then followed the trail downward through more tight switchbacks. The last few miles were quick and swoopy on grippy soil as we streaked along the edge of a wash and headed toward twilight. It was the kind of trail that one might choose if one were to choose a trail for the end of two days of riding. Despite tired legs, weak arms, a sore butt, bloody scratches and a building hunger, I found it impossible to not grin until my cheeks were hurting, too.
Could there be a better way to end a ride like this? Well… Yes: As we rode into camp, Alan pulled up in his car. He'd ridden the shortcut back, cleaned up, and had driven to a small town nearby. And he was just returning. With hot pizza. And root beer.
Better than that? Mmmmm… Probably not. But as we were waddling away from empty pizza boxes, the grey skies melted into gold and fire as the sunset burned away behind the saguaro studded horizon.