Desert in Gloom
SOMETIMES YOU JUST GOTTA TAKE THE RAW DEAL.
It's not what you expected, and certainly not what you asked for, but it's the only deal there is. Get it? Okay, here's an example: Say, hypothetically of course, you agree to join a group of mountain bikers on a brief bikepacking trip on the Arizona Trail in January. One hundred miles, NBD, and it's the desert right? That place is hot and dry, which sounds kinda nice in the second week of January. The forecast the day you leave is nothing but pleasant temps and encouraging, animated suns, and you pack accordingly. When at the trailhead though, the wind feels like a frozen knife. Rain drops start to hit your exposed legs, and you're wearing everything you brought. That, dear reader, is textbook raw deal.
So what's the alternative? You came all the way out here, and it's still a little bit warmer than back home, and otherwise you'll be sitting around in Tucson looking at the rain out the window. You take the deal.
It does no good to apologize, but sitting at the trailhead, I do it in copious amounts. I warned the three men standing next to me of how the weather is never on my side. Case in point: that forecast has made an abrupt change, and now a winter storm that dumped snow all over New Mexico is sitting right on top of us.
We take the deal. This is my first time riding the mountain bike Chumba lent me (more on that later), also it's my first time riding mountain bikes in the Sonoran desert, also it's my first time riding with these folks. We're riding the Arizona Trail, an amazing accomplishment that travels from the state's northern border to Mexico. After the four of us convened in Tucson, we headed up to Oracle to bypass the Catalina range.
Even here in the flats, under the flat grey sky, the landscape is impressive. A sea of cholla and mesquite, with islands of prickly pear. Were it not for this meticulously groomed trail, one would have to totally rely on the sporadic washes to navigate their way through this terrain. It's hard for me to stay on my line, a problem as all things spiky grow to the edge of the trail, but the hues and textures of everything keep stealing my attention.
OUR FIRST CELEBRITY SIGHTING
We were, I don't know, thirty minutes in when I spotted the first Saguaro of the trip. With little arms, this one is probably just over a hundred years old. In that time, it also acquired the trademark oval hole from becoming a home for the Gila Woodpecker.
Want to know something weird? Saguaros are only in central straight of the Sonoran Desert through Sonora (Mexico), Arizona, and the southeastern tip of California. But they're the the iconic cactus of the southwest. Tough luck, New Mexico- you got your own cool stuff though, okay? You don't have to use the saguaro for everything too. Be you, boo.
Switchbacks On The Arizona Trail
The Arizona Trail is for all non-motorized traffic. As a result, the switchbacks usually favor the tight turning radius of things that travel by foot vs. by wheel. They are a constant challenge to navigate bikes loaded down with food, water, and camping equipment. Some switchbacks are fun. Some switchbacks are really annoying. Many are both.
Cows appear, much like rain, sporadically and without warning- fully ready to ruin your fun bicycle ride. With our first cattle gate passing, everyone prepares for both instances.
I SEE YOU.
I SEE YOU.
For a miserable, rainy bike ride we it sure looks like we're having fun. Spirits are surprisingly high, maybe we're still just appreciating the novelty of the unpleasantness. Maybe we've become acclimated to the on and off rain. But the first additional challenges of precipitation begin to present themselves. Soft sand becomes softer. Slick rock becomes slicker.
Such a shame, as this line looks pretty fun and challenging, with the wall of barbed wire at the top to keep you from just using a bunch of momentum to get you up. But whatever, it's safe to assume there will be more fun obstacles in the next ninety miles of this trail.
See that sky? That sky is significantly darker than the one that's kept us slightly damp all day. That sky is coming our way, and to prepare for it's arrival the wind has picked up and the temperature is dropping once again.
The rain gets real bad real quick. Camera gear is frantically thrown into dry bags and underneath rain jackets and it stays there. Suddenly what had been a spirited pace in the inconsistent weather turns into a total slog coinciding with the desert's slowly ascension out of the flats we've ridden the whole day. The combination makes the hours, many of them left between us and and sunset, crawl by. Climbing becomes a balance between keeping your head down and keeping an eye on where you're going. We all take turns falling behind, and all take turns waiting up for one another. It's before dropping into another descent, this one forgoing a switchback for a straight shot down, that the wind becomes a wall. It tries to push us back the way we came, but with the group reunited we drop down.
And all that resistance from the wind becomes a blessing. Though we're casualties in its gust, it's doing a really great job of blowing back this current heavy rain we're slowly becoming hypothermic in. By the time we reach bottom, the clouds are pushed back behind the hills we spent all day riding over.
We find ourselves next to a marked water spot, connected to a cattle corral at some level of disuse. It lives near a jeep road, and everyone is at a level of toasted that no one objects to settling down here for the evening. We're rewarded for this move, with the sun making a surprise appearance on the far west of the horizon.
It's like we've just been given really cool, really fun drugs without all the hassle of addiction and kidney damage. The sunlight energizes us with a natural high. It's awesome. But, oh right, everything we have is completely soaked. With the benefit of a surprisingly large tree here, anything and everything gets hung from a branch to dry out.
A typical sonoran winter sunset
that follows of a day of miserable weather.
Again With The Saguaro?
Sorry (not really) but they are just cool plants. With much of the day's mental directive being to avoid thinking of the unpleasantness of the task at hand, it's easy to look around and start really thinking about every other little thing that surrounds you. The saguaro is a perfect icon to look out upon and consider it's role in the desert.
It's not really feelin' the whole growing thing for the first fifty years or so, and just hangs out as a little spud in a place bare of resources. Only once in its fifties does the saguaro even think blossoming Arizona's state flower. But once it finally flaunts what its got, bam. In the next fifty years that lil' two foot tall green ball will become a prominent ten feet tall star of the desert. It becomes home and food for numerous critters, and it's yearly pollen-filled blossoms only get more grand with age. Every now and then, a human that can only hope to live as long might happen along and enjoy the adult Saguaro's majesty.
Anyway, Back At Camp.
This is not a group into redundancy, so we paired down on overlapping gear. Instead of everyone bringing a little whiz-bang tent, one large circus tent was brought for all four of us to sleep in. It works, with the caveat that everyone inside will have a very good idea of what everyone else inside smells like. Your best bet is to wring out any soggy clothes and dry them by a roaring campfire, and hope the burning mesquite helps cloak the funk.
Introductions are hard when you're in the middle of riding through a winter storm in the desert, but at this point in the story all we're doing is cooking vegan sausages and insoles while drinking whiskey. What better time to say hello to the subjects of this story, you know?
Operations Manager at Chumba USA.
Real good at working on bikes. (See also: wheelies, stoppies)
Our professional videographer.
Can juggle GoPro's while biking.
Assistant Director, VCU's Outdoor Adventure Programs.
Calm, collected, German.