Zen On Dirt

Camino Del Diablo – Does your mother know about this?

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I’m not really sure where to start with this post. Just back from four days on the Camino Del Diablo, I don’t know if I want to write about the sheer beauty and isolation of the desert, of the cultural experience of riding a route that’s been used for 1,000+ years, of being on a road that has epic’d people ranging from Spanish explorers in the 1500’s, to people flocking from Mexico to California for the gold rush in the 1800’s, to modern day drug and human smugglers. Or maybe I want to write about the acute discomfort I felt being just miles from the Mexican border, of sleeping within earshot of Highway 2 across the border, of seeing signs of smuggling. Or maybe I should talk about how much fun I had riding the fat bike on the sandy route, or of finally putting images to a big blank spot in my mental atlas, or the unexpected Mexican food we found in the Chevron station in Wellton. I don’t know. So I’ll start at the beginning and see where it goes.

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The trip nearly didn’t happen. Scott’s been up to his eyeballs in work for the past few weeks, dealing with all sorts of random issues with computers, scheduling of trail work, etc. I finally put my foot down, as all girlfriends should do on occasion: I’m going on a trip. You should come.

Scott had ridden part of the Camino Del Diablo with Lee on a car-supported trip several years ago, from Ajo to Yuma, so had a fairly to moderately good idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We figured out the permits we needed, made rough calculations on the amount of food and water we’d need, said a little prayer to the computer world that everything would go smoothly for the next four days, and headed to Ajo to pick up permits at the Cabeza Prieta field office.

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Dirt for the next 118 miles

When we told the woman of our plan, she asked “Do your mothers know you’re doing this?” We assured her that they did, though I think that if either of our parents actually knew the details of what we were attempting, they’d be more worried. The route we were planning on would take us the 118-mile length of the Camino, from Ajo to Wellton, south then west through the corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Growler Mountains, through the Tule desert and into the Tule Mountains, across the Lechughulla Desert and then north, parallel to the Tinajas Altas up to Wellton. From there, we’d turn east and ride 12 miles of pavement to Tacna and take Christmas Pass road south, paralleling the Sierra Pinta Mountains and cutting in between the Cabeza Prieta mountains and the Tule Mountains to rejoin the Camino for the 70 mile trek back east to Ajo. Much of the route parallels the Mexican border, and stays within 2-3 miles of it, and is a spot well known for its drug traffic, thus there’s a strong border patrol presence on the road.

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I don’t think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t nervous going into it.

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We finally left the car at the early hour of 2:45 in the afternoon and headed out on the well-maintained road west. I was ecstatic to finally be doing a BIG bikepacking loop. I think so much so, that I forgot all about the nervousness I was feeling about the area. Through Organ Pipe, the road turned to a washboarded mess, and with four days of food and 200+ oz of water, the fat bikes jarred us to pieces for a few miles. But it was beautiful. And big. And remote. And we were going new places. A quick climb up past Bates Well to Growler Pass and a seemingly endless downhill brought us to our first border patrol station and the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife refuge. It seemed deserted as we continued to roll across the Playa in the sand, fat tires let down to snow-like pressures, floating, for the most part. After wishing for suspension for the previous ten miles, we were pretty happy to have the fatties. We started the climb into the Agua Dulce mountains and found our first Panic Button. We made fun of Scot Banks’ Push the Button story, which would become a popular theme throughout the trip.

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It felt good to be out, to be riding into the sunset. It was too nice to stop once it got dark, and with a freshly dragged road, we were able to ride by the light of the half-moon.

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A few sections were laid with metal railings to help with the sand. I pretended I was an airplane getting ready for takeoff. 

Since the road parallels the border, Border Patrol drags tires across it, smoothing it out, in order to see footprints crossing it. It made for a fantastic riding surface. We ran into our first BP agent soon after dark. He had his lights trained on the dirt, looking for signs of human traffic. We turned our lights on as we approached and stopped to talk to him, telling him of our plan to camp at the Papago Well, a designated primitive campsite. He sent us on our way, telling us we were four miles from the well.

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The well was equipped with the distinctive flashing blue light that we’d seen the previous panic button and approaching it, quickly decided that this was no place to camp. The pulsing light at the top of a pole radiated for miles and would have led to a miserable night of sleep. And one also has to question the wiseness of encouraging a camp at a Panic Button location. So we kept riding for a little longer until the light was hidden by a hill. Camp was set up a handful of feet off the road and dinner started.

It wasn’t long until we heard the sound of an engine approaching and recognized the low sweeping lights of BP. Seeing our footprints, he stopped and we were immediately flooded by a flashlight. I wasn’t sure if I should put my hands up in surrender or not, so we opted to simply say ‘Hi’. Recognizing us, he agreed that the flashing blue light would have made for miserable camping. He asked where we were from, and when we said Tucson, he asked me, ‘Are you Mel?’

‘No, but we know a Mel.’ Turned out, he’d worked with Mel L (who I’ve raced the Divide, SSUSA, and SS worlds with) in Tucson before joining the BP. This broke the ice and we got some beta on some of the more popular routes used by the smugglers, and were told that our location was a pretty good one to choose. I slept reasonably in the dead silence of the night. There were no things that went bump in the night, but it sure didn’t stop my ears from straining to hear something, anything. I was pretty happy when the sun came up.

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Since I’m not a big fan of getting up for sunrises in general, I try to make a point of watching them while bikepacking. We made breakfast, packed up bikes, and headed west, passing another border patrol station, the O’Neil grave where we made an offering, ‘Better luck next time’, and into Las Playas, an area notorious for its silt, described as impossible to cross when wet, rutted year-round.

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We got lucky. It was rutted and showed plenty of evidence of vehicle disaster, but the silt wasn’t terrible.

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Then up and over the Pinacate lava flow, the northern edge of a string of volcanos that stretches south into Mexico.

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The road surface went from sandy to rocky, a semi-welcome change in scenery, before dropping back down into the Pinta Sands, a sunken wash of a road, freshly dragged, and a wide open canvas for making designs with fat bike tires, which is really a big reason I like riding fat bikes.

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We stopped for lunch at the Tule Well where a BP agent was taking a mid-day break. We talked a bit about the beauty of poorly written books with entertaining story lines for passing the time during 15 minute breaks in the action of life. Fish tacos with salsa and avocado were on the menu. We do our best to not really rough it while out bikepacking.

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We proceeded across the next playa to the base of the Tinajas Altas mountains.

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Tinajas Altas means High Tanks and there’s a spot that holds a half dozen tanks of reliable water in slickrock pools. Scott had seen them during his previous trip, so I felt fairly confident following him off the main road and up a side canyon. We ditched our bikes where his track ended and after a few minutes of wandering around, he admitted that none of it looked familiar. It wasn’t long after we got back on the bikes that he exclaimed: Oh yeah. We went on the same wild-goose chase last time, we were following the track from that. The actual pools are right up here.

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Sure enough, we found a giant face of granite (?) and hiked up to the first of the pools. I napped in the sand, Scott soaked his feet, and we wondered what it must have been like to be trekking along the desert to come across this spot. Shaded. Cool. Moist. If I were a dragon or a unicorn, I’d live there.

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It was time to head north towards Wellton. It was late afternoon and we pondered what to do. We had enough water to make dinner on the road if we conserved and rationed, then we could ride into town in the morning and get breakfast and some more trail food. Or we could ride into town, be hasty with dinner and shopping, and hope that the 12 miles of pavement from Wellton to Tacna wouldn’t be too busy in the dark and then we could camp afterwards, or we could stop in Wellton, get dinner and a hotel, and spend the evening watching bad TV and taking hot showers. We entertained ourselves with the game of, What would insert name here do in this situation. Lee? Get a cheap hotel and good meal. Kurt dot Dirt? Go to bar, meet someone and have a bed to sleep in in no time. Cat? Get some food, keep riding through the night. Mike Curiak? Chad?

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But the question became, what would Scott and Eszter do. I admitted that while I was trying to get excited about being thirsty and eating a dehydrated meal, the bikepacking foodie in me would much rather splurge on a hotel and a good meal in town, hardcore points be damned. I figured that if I rode the Divide on three hotel rooms, I was due for a bit of luxury.

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So we rode in, enjoying the sunset, arriving to town a little after dark, checking in to a reasonably priced hotel, and making a bee-line to the Mexican joint across the street. Taco Tour 2014 had begun. While we were laying on the bed watching the Travel Channel, I thought that maybe I should be enjoying the stars instead, since we were bikepacking after all, but the feeling quickly passed as I snuggled under the covers and decided that I really needed to go ride in Mongolia and try the milk-curd cookies that they were talking about on the show.

It’s a big world out there, and morning brought more exploring, more riding, and more amazing places. But that’s going to have to wait for another blog post because this is getting way too long.

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