Saturday, November 28, 2015
Hmm... Maybe this is what happened to the LAST bike rider to have this urge...
I’m not sure I know anyone who would have liked this ride. It consisted of climbing thousands of feet in-and-out of gravel washes and over track littered with babyhead rocks, through spine-infested, less-than-spectacular scenery, with a chance of running out of water or getting lost in an obscure, rarely visited area. But I seem to have an urge to try these sorts of things.
I drove an hour on gradually worsening dirt roads in a wild corner of Arizona to get to the starting point. Maps showed a jeep track that split two lobes of a wilderness area. I had no idea how much ground I could cover, so I was ready for either an out-and-back, or a maybe-50-mile loop. The starting point looked promising: The otherwise small creek had pooled — maybe from flooding that re-arranged rocks into a rough dam — and was blocking the end of the old track. The pond was 35 yards across and too deep to wade, certainly too deep for ATVs or the average Jeep. Excellent. It looked like I wouldn’t have much company on the other side.
I loaded my bike and threw it on the bow of my packraft and paddled across. Leafy trees were turning to autumn colors along the shore. But after I deflated and stashed my raft in a tree and started riding upward, away from the water, it was pure desert. Creosote brush and spiny stuff, acacia, catclaw, cholla, ocotillo, and the occasional saguaro, holding its thorny arms in the air. I had to re-tune myself to know which bushes and plants I could brush past, which would stab me, and which would grab my skin and clothes and not want me to keep riding. And had to keep a sharp eye on the ground to minimize rolling over anything that would compromise my tires.
Just me and the tracks of feral burros and wild javelinas on the eroding trail. I was covering good ground on my bike, floating over loose gravel in the washes. Tractoring over rubble and rock. Getting further and further into that space where the urge is satisfied, into wild land, where questions become stacked up in my mind. How far have I come? How far to the next landmark? Is that the correct landmark? Am I making the right connection between my vague map and the actual route? How quickly am I using water and how soon might I find more? The weather seems to be getting cooler and cloudier; do I have enough gear to stay warm? And dry? What if rain turns clay roads to wheel-clogging mud?
I crossed a thin line of vile brown water called Salt Creek. An ATV track showed that I was not the only person to have been there for, what? Days? Still, it was a long way onward to where they must have come in from. Possibly a rancher, as there was a closed gate and cattle tracks here, too.
Beyond the creek, the track climbed steeply, switching back and forth across the slope of what I dubbed Babyhead Mountain. The bike and broad tires remained willing, but my strength was diminished by this time, and I had to walk a few sections. Then through another gate at the rim and I was at the top, a couple thousand feet higher than the pool where I’d started. I paused for a rest, food, and the view. Surprised to find lilies blooming between the rocks. But the chill breeze at the edge kept me from relaxing for long.
It was here, probably, that I finally decided that I’d be riding the loop. I’d been going for over three hours and had gained most of the elevation and had probably ridden the roughest terrain. And even though I’d only ridden about 1/6th of the distance, going forward, into new terrain and into more unknowable questions just seemed easier.
I’d emerged onto the top of a mesa, the track stretching out across a gently rolling plain of short brown brush, brown grass, and low cactus. The cool breeze was behind me and I rode fast to the first “tank” listed on my map. The tank was a stock pond of grubby, muddy water. But also an empty metal tank and trough. And some rounded boulders nearby with scrappy trees growing between them. I went to take a quick nap amid the rocks and found a worn groove in one of the rocks. Then looked further and found more grooves - metates - where native people had once ground food. The manos, the stones used for the grinding, had apparently all been carried off.
Questions came to my mind. Perhaps unanswerable questions. Was this land, which seemed so dry and desolate to me, more productive in the past? Or was it more a question of expectations and knowledge. Am I, standing in the relative luxury of the 21st Century, unable to see with the kind of eyes that would allow me to survive or even thrive in such a place? Am I to remain only a traveler who will pass though, well supplied, and return to my chosen environmental niche, which contains watered gardens, grocery stores and restaurants? Or has the world changed too much since the time when those grooves were worn in hard rock? Could the people with the proper knowledge be placed back here and be able to survive? Or has time and plant succession and climate moved too far beyond where that is even possible?
I flew down the ruts of the track, wind pushing me along, bouncing off the rocks that pushed up from the dirt. I began to pass small herds of rangy cattle as the mesa track climbed gently to the high point of the day. Then it dipped off the edge toward a sycamore creek, drawn in orange and yellow colors of autumn amid the darker green of the drier hills. After a few more switchbacks, I was on good gravel road, zooming down (and grinding up) in twilight and then moonlight and headlight.
On this faster road, I was chewing up most of the loop. More than I really needed to. I was plenty tired and ready to quit, but there was the minor detail of finding a suitable spot to stop. I didn’t need much. Just a flat, non-thorny spot. But such spots can be a little tough to find in the prickly Arizona desert without camping in the road. The light of the western horizon was gone and the full moon had taken over by the time I found an appropriate camp. I’d already made my last big turn and was maybe 10 miles from my car. Easy to polish off in the morning after food and a good rest.
I ate a simple dinner. Drank water. Scrawled in my journal. Contemplated the simple joys of life. Set up my tarp and threw down my bag beneath brooding clouds, worried again about the chance of muddy roads. Things had gone splendidly up to this point.
Then I laid down to sleep and almost immediately got back up to vomit. Flu? Something I’d eaten? Maybe I’d ridden too hard? I’d definitely ridden hard, and needed to rest, refuel and re-hydrate. None of which I was able to do while feeling nauseous. And my water reserves were low, so wasting it by vomiting was disappointing.
I spent a long night of feeling sick, trying to sip water, and trying to sleep. Plus, despite the apparent desert all around me, there were mosquitoes. And I had neglected to bring along a head net. So I also had to wake up every few minutes to slap myself in the face. My eyes opened occasionally to track the moon’s slow course across the sky. Finally, finally, finally there was light in the eastern sky. I packed up and rode slowly, not much fuel in the tank.
I dragged myself over rough roads and slow miles back to my car. Plenty of water and food there, but I could only drink a little and still couldn't eat. And I couldn’t drive out until I’d retrieved my raft from the other side of the pond. A seemingly long quarter mile downstream through the prickly desert scrub there was a place where I could rock-hop the creek. On the other side, I followed very nice trails trough the riparian vegetation, which, though nice, were only about 2 feet high. Then a saw the trail makers, a pack of javelina, just doing their thing, snuffing and grubbing about. Until they caught wind of me. Then they huffed and pranced and dashed and finally scampered away.
My rolled-up boat was where I left it. Unmolested by any humans, though I doubt any came anywhere near it. And un-chewed by wild animals, which had been a greater worry. I’d forgotten to bring the inflation bag, so it took a long, weary time to blow enough air into it and get it inflated. Then I paddled across.
End of the adventure. It was definitely something I probably needed. Despite the unfortunate nausea, it did satisfy the urge. But it is probably something that never needs to be done again. By anyone. Challenging riding at times, but not exactly fun. Not great scenery. An excellent sense of being way out there and of the possibility of making a mistake. But I’m not going to suggest that anyone else get out there and do it.