Gila River Gamble
Night is when the rain hits hardest. Inside a tent everything is more dramatic as the wind and water pound against walls, but we wake up inside a canyon battered by rain. Broken branches lay all around. Our hastily-tied shelter for the bikes is thrashed. But the pots and mugs we left at tent's edge are filled to the brim, so we've been allowed fresh water to start the day.
Before we bedded down last night, the route was revisited more than a few times to really look at how far away from the next town we were. It was an unfortunate number of miles away, considering this was our third day. This awareness was apparent come morning. We didn't take our time breaking down camp. If it's wet, oh well, just stuff it in a bag somewhere. Sunlight, whenever it shows up today, was now a precious resource. It's only to be used for riding bikes, not drying out things. And then, it finally makes it to the canyon's edges.
The day starts with climbing out of this canyon, and up to Ripsey Ridge. All this huffing and puffing makes it feel like it's a thousand degrees warmer up above our damp, chilly canyon camp. I think we're all probably grateful for it, but at the same time leery of any cloud overhead that might try and dump more water on us. The wind is low and the sunlight is pleasantly dappled, but still we're cautious. Repeated behavior leads to a conditioned response, I guess.
Ripsey Ridge is known for being one of the most scenic spots on the southern portion of the Arizona Trail. It lies just south of the Gila River section (which we intend to ride the entirety of today), and as we grind and push our way up switchback after switchback the views become astounding.
THIS IS FINE.
You can see the giddiness clear as day on our faces. We're in awe, enchanted by the surrounding landscape. Just really smiling ear to ear. The slow slog through the stormy desert thus far is forgotten. The miles ahead? We'll worry about those later.
UP HERE, WE GET TO CATCH A GLIMPSE AT A STORM CELL MOVING BY IN THE DISTANCE.
IT'S NOWHERE NEAR US, WE'RE ENJOYING THE SUN AND TRAIL, BUT IT SURE IS COOL TO WATCH A STORM FROM FAR AWAY INSTEAD OF BEING TRAPPED IN ONE FOR ONCE.
Sunlight Moving Over An Unknown Peak In Arizona
Yes, we need to keep moving. But can you really blame us for stopping to watch this stuff? It would be so disappointing to go and endure nature's harshness only to pay no attention to its beauty. So we pay attention.
We'd have to leave this ridge eventually. Steep switchback descents bring us away from the views and back into the tougher, more-cactus-filled trail. Eventually, we'll be spit out onto a trailhead with a much-needed water cache. You wouldn't believe this, but you need way more water when it's sunny in the desert than when it's miserable and rainy. This trailhead is also where many start their voyage into the Gila River segment of the Arizona Trail, which we are very much aware of and deeply hoping no imminent weather disaster comes to ruin that part for us. This sure sounds like foreshadowing, doesn't it?
This happens a lot. Tire sealant is hella important out here, y'all. For the most part you can just whack jumping cholla off your tires/bags/self tee-ball style with an adjacent stick. In general be happy cholla fruit has big, easy-to-remove spines.
This trailhead, like most trailheads, is a real no-fuss set up. The cache has water. The cache does not have beer. We all eat some more, which is actually a thing you just kinda do all day. Vince gets in some sorely-missed sketching. Once we head out into the Gila River section, we will have no contact and no resources available until the town of Superior. One of us thinks about the whole time-thing, so we take the road down to the Gila River entrance instead of the trail.
The Gila River Ramble
Past the iconic rusted gate, the trail leaves the road and accompanying railroad tracks for a series of climbs, hoops, and descents. The river itself stays low, as rivers do, while the trail climbs high onto the neighboring ridge line.
Freight line and cottonwoods can be seen overhead on this trail, if you take the time to look. Again, the level of quality the Arizona Trail maintains makes this section one of our fastest yet, with step-ups and berms built in along the way to manage speed and get a little rad on. Maybe a little too rad, in my case, resulting in a small knee wound and torn up hand that help make me look real tuff.
Bless the Cottonwoods
The sprawling branches and yellow leaves that crane above the sand the scrub that wave to say, "Water over yonder." And they would know- their size reflects on how deep their thirst runs. Much like any of us, they would die is separated too long from water, and so we join them here along the Gila.
The Gila's got extra grit, water levels still high from the past two days of rain. Sitting on the muddy bank, we do our best to filter and cram in calories. With the sun starting to go down, we need to decide how to accomplish the steepest climb, going eleven miles, over another range. It sits between us and Superior, and the forecast shows nothing but heavy rain in the area for the next two days. Ultimately, it makes sense to get it done now when it's dry, but looking at the maps a jeep road is marked nearby up a wash. This might be a bypass of the long, steep trail. This might be a way for us to get over the range in the last two hours of daylight. So, we pedal out into the soft sand of the wash hoping to find this road.
I've yet to see a photograph that does justice to how steep trails are. In this case, the trail coming out of the Gila River's valley. We're absolutely blessed with a sunset. Were it not for the exhausting and pushing heavy bikes up a trail, it might even be enjoyable.
Up A Mountain
In The Dark
Listen, it's been a long day. It sucks we have to do this but could you imagine doing it in the rain? That's what we're basically terrified of at this point. The fear motivates us to keep going.
We noticed at a certain point that we were going downhill- like a lot downhill. Headlamps only let you see so far, so we assumed we had pushed that eleven miles and made it over the ridge. We are, uh, tired but now need to find a clear enough spot to put the circus tent. A few of us find a spot and clear out mesquite branches and dead cholla trunks, just barely getting enough space for the tent.
Immediately, and I mean immediately, the rain starts. I didn't even have the chance to zip up my sleeping bag before the drops started hitting. We beat it. We made it to the top (well, probably) and managed to bed down dry. But there's no celebration- we all just pass out and hope for a better day tomorrow.