CYCLE SOUTHWEST 2018 Ep3
Dirt and Cacti
Honestly, after the first week or so (and then a few days off in Silver City) things felt pretty chill…the cycle life settled back into it’s routine, bike as long as it’s fun…find a place to camp (usually more or less on the side of the road)…eat some food, we lived our lives pretty close to the sun and continued our pattern of sleeping a lot, usually about 10 or 11 hours, it just gets so cold and dark that there’s not much else to do.
Things got really interesting once we hit dirt though…on our fifth day out of Silver City we headed for the hills. The options were to ride into Tucson on the interstate or cut through on dirt roads and then 2,000 feet of elevation gain to a mountain pass and then another 2k foot drop into Tucson…that seemed fun! Neither Ari or I had ridden a loaded bike on dirt, and we really had no idea what to expect. We had no idea…
A theme on these kinds of adventures, for me any ways and I’ve heard others say the same, is that all the ups and downs are amplified…food is either terrible or the best thing you’ve ever eaten. The view is either stunningly gorgeous or mind numbilngly boring and monotonous. For us, dirt roads where no exception and in many cases it was literal ups and downs as well, super steep and sandy to the point where my jelly legs on fire just couldn’t do it and I’d have to walk my bike…or so fast and steep and rocky that I was riding my brakes and bouncing and jolting my self and my bike down jagged rock and hoping I didn’t pitch forward over the handle bars.
In between, the comparatively flat bits where often rocky to the point of feeling like a rumble strip, bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu…or else deceptively nice and flat until you hit a sandy patch and two wheels would suddenly be going in like 15 directions all at once as I tried madly to keep the bike upright. My panniers were shaking like a jack hammer and Ari’s trailer wheel would clear a good 4 inches of air on some of the bumps…it was all kinds of exciting!
As a kid watching Star Wars I always liked the speeder bikes, and would then pretend my bicycle was a speeder bike, hovering over the ground and racing along at a million miles an hour… After our first big climb on the dirt road the downhill seemed like a dream come true…the dirt was packed smooth, the view was stunning, and I could bomb down the road full tilt with no traffic…at first it was just like in Star Wars, whizzing along…as my panniers tried to work them selves off the bike and the general rattling increased I figured that this wasn’t one of the nice speeder bikes but more of a shitty one with parts falling off…still, it sure was fast and getting me where I was going…that wasn’t the end of it though, coming around a corner on a steep bit of downhill I had the sun right behind me, and when the sun is right behind you in a stupidly bright dessert the road gets this white glare and you loose all the shadows…which makes things look flatter than they really are…and then just as I though “oh shit that’s a big bump up there” my front dire dove into the sand right in front of me, that I’d totally overlooked, and it was several inches deep too…not unlike powdery snow, and my front tire went everywhere, and my back tire went everywhere, and instinct kicked in as I tried to stay on top of the bike and cranked the handlebars back and forth to try and compensate for the wobbling bike…and in this split second I’m thinking “yup, I’m about to eat shit here” until some how I slow down enough to stop and I’m still upright…wow…okay…maybe enough of this speeder bike thing.
After that I took things a little slower, we hit a slightly bigger dirt road and turned north up the valley. Sort of all of a sudden the landscape was filled with giant Cactuses, also known as Cacti, which was very exciting! Any change in landscape is exciting but it’s hard not to get excited by a 30 foot cactus. We were headed to another Warm Showers host, Pearl and David, which turned out to be a treat beyond our wildest dreams 🙂 We camped in a beautiful little camping area they manage, right below a GIANT cactus, and after a relaxing afternoon of further cactus exploration (sort of like a cacti forest?) we biked over to Perl and Davids house for a dinner of beans and enchiladas cooked in the solar oven and an evening of adventure stories, a real treat all around! Turns out they have done a bunch of sailing too, and they told us about the little community of Cascabel AZ and how they ended up there.
Often times, when riding, we get to know the road really well and see what’s next to the road but until we connect with folks we don’t really know anything about the community. Cascabel is just over the mountains from Tucson, but the road is pretty rough (yeah…we found that out over the next two days) and the hills them selves are mostly Federal land, either National Park or National Forest, so they have remained undeveloped. It’s faster to drive around than over, and so all this adds up to Tucson, a city of a million people on one side, while on the other side is Cascabel with 100 people. Still, they have an amazingly strong community! They even have a sweet little community center with wifi and a lot of books and folks get together there for coffee on Wednesday mornings. It’s a truly amazing little place.
Nothing on these trips last forever though, so the next day had us up and moving again. Ari’s tire blew out for reals before we even reached the serious uphill, and there was a surreal moment watching Ari repair his bike tire in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road while behind him over the desert the local air force base practiced in-flight refueling of helicopters from in airplane…in a way the idea of keeping your vehicle going was similar and yet the difference in technology and resource use was about as drastic as it gets. I sure didn’t envy them their planes and helicopters, that’s for sure!
But onwards and upwards, unlike the steady inclines of the northeast I was somewhat surprised to find that most of the riding was pretty gentle but then there would be short and intensely steep, sandy, rocky bits…in my mind uphills lead to similarly scaled downhills but here the uphills would go up from from one mesa to another…sort of like an irregular topographical stair case with one level leading along to a steep hill topped with another level and then yet another steep rise to yet another level and so on. One outcome of all this is that you never have any idea how far up you have to go…we just kinda wandered along this road as it twisted and turned, we never even really “got to the top”, eventually we started to get a few downhills with the more frequent uphills, and then gradually downhills became longer and more of a majority…there was no epic moment getting to the top and seeing the other side laid out in front of us though.
Eventually we did get to some long long downhills, and then got a glimpse of Tucson through a valley which was pretty exciting, and then we did come around a hill to see all of Tucson laid out in front of us. A fairly stunning view with much hooting and hollering. After two weeks riding a bicycle it’s amazing to finally see your destination…and yet getting there was still a trick, by the the steepest most rugged and most twisty dirt road I’ve even seen…not just corners but really sharp hairpin turns pretty much the whole way…and more a combination of jagged bedrock and soft sand than real dirt, and clearly not made for bicycles! Many of the sharp corners were banked steeply like a race car track and sandy as all hell so we’d be guiding our bikes around these steeply downhill steeply banked sandy turns and just keeping the bike upright was an adventure…then on the rocky bits we would creeeeep down…carefully picking our lines to avoid the steepest drops and try and find solid rock (not loose sand or gravel) to keep traction and keep our bikes from sliding. In the more gravelly spots we would have to choose between breaking more and having the bike skitter and slide versus breaking less and keeping more control but increasing speed rapidly…it felt more like skiing than biking at times, and my winter driving experience felt oddly applicable. It was not the most graceful process, and my hands are still sore from bouncing against my handlebars all the way down as I braked and tried to wrestle my bike into some kind of control.
Then, eventually, we hit pavement which was magical, and then ice cream and juice which was magical, and then yet another wonderful warm showers host, and the city of Tucson, and pasta, and sleep, and wifi…the magic continued…
…oh sure, I’ll just update my blog and post another video when I get to Tucson…yeah right! Turns out I was way too busy enjoying Tucson and actually mostly just sleeping and eating pasta. Then there was the train ride to Chicago (two and a half days, 30 hours of which was spent crossing Texas, no wifi on that train) and then once I was in Chicago I made a few phone calls, went for a walk, got a pizza for the next day and a half on the train, and here I am, clickity clacking my way towards Boston and running on three nights of train sleeping. But this train has wifi, oh yeah!
As usual, feel free to comment with any questions etc. I also have a Youtube channel (latest video here) where I occasionally post some stuff as well, and I try and include photos in the videos which isn’t too classy but sure is quick and easy on my end, so there ya go 🙂