Continental breakfasts at hotels are always fun for people watching, especially hotels that are, for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere. Somehow we managed to get up at six, no alarm, and with bikes packed (because there was no reason to unpack), I figured we’d be rolling by seven, giving us a solid 12 hours of ride time before it got dark-dark. Unfortunately, the people watching, and my ability to burn waffles in the waffle maker slowed our departure, as did my pulling my valve stem out trying to pump up my tire (How long do you think it’d take to pump up one of these with a handpump?), so by the time we rolled out from our second stop at the burrito place across the street, it was nearly eight.
But that was okay. The Mexican place, attached to the Chevron, had honest-to-goodness amaze-balls food and we were more than happy to wait for them to whip up some breakfast burritos for the road. Remember what I said about not liking to rough it any more than necessary?
Our route took us through the small town of Wellton where we passed kids waiting to get picked up for school and old houses that had seen better days. The town was built to service the railroads in the past, mostly by providing water (thus the name Well Town), but has slowly lost its relative importance on the rail line as steam engines were phased out, and the information packet in the gas station informed us that agriculture was the main economy now.
We saw a huge flock of birds fly by us on our pedal to Tacna. The ease at which the entire flock avoided the powerlines was really cool to see, especially since we got to watch the spectacle for several minutes as thousands of birds flew by. It was easy cruising to Tacna, at least until the coffee kicked in for me and the last couple of miles became a sprint to the gas station on the edge of town. The plus side to only drinking coffee while on the road or out to breakfast: I’m not addicted. The down side: It’s potent.
Crossing under the highway, we hit dirt immediately and started south, paralleling a long line of sand dunes, the main attraction for taking this route back. While still in the Barry M Goldwater military range, the road was fast. Hero-sand, we called it. Soft enough to keep the crunch created by giant tires silent, shallow enough to create fast cruising conditions.
When we entered back into the Cabeza Prieta preserve, the road took a turn for the worse. Since it runs north-south, theres no reason for the Border Patrol to drag it. Since it parallels sand dunes, it’s sandy. And since we had well over a thousand feet in elevation to gain to our high point for the day, it went up hill. Three factors that caused our moving average to drop from a solid 10.0 mph to 9.5 mph in the matter of two hours. But, compliments of the fatties, it was all rideable.
We’d been debating the merits of different bikes throughout the ride. This was the first time that a normal mountain bike would really have been a no-go. While the washboard/soft sand combination made the going slow for us, it was still possible to pedal at a reasonable effort level and keep moving forward.
We’d hoped to eat lunch at Christmas Pass, but at 1:30, with nothing but miles of sand behind us and seemingly in front of us, we stopped in the shade of a tree. Breakfast burritos!
As it tends to do after breaks and with the arrival of saguaro-country, the road improved and we were at Christmas Pass in no time.
We wound around a high plateau with neat rock formations, now solidly in the mountains rather than paralleling them. With firm road, albeit rockier than we were used to, the miles went quickly and we closed the loop on Tule Well in the late afternoon. It was a magic place up there and it made the miles and miles of sand worth the effort.
Feeling fairly proud of ourselves, we started down the pass, or at least along the mountains which trended ever so slightly downwards. We stopped at something in the road and stared.
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Scott asked.
“Maybe it’s some sort of humanitarian aid…”
The traditional Mexican blanket looked brand new and was placed perfectly in the center of the road, no foot steps anywhere to be seen on either side. We stared at it in silence for a few moments.
“Creepy,” I declared. “Let’s go.”
I gave it one last look as we rolled down the hill, a lone blanket that definitely wasn’t there 26 hours prior. With senses on high alert, we started looking up and down the washes, finding footprints in nearly all of them. Border patrol? Drug mules? Were the footsteps there yesterday, too, and we just didn’t notice? Had someone heard us coming and dropped the blanket?
We rolled in silence until Scott’s front tire decided it didn’t feel like holding air any more. It was time to find out exactly how long it would take to pump up a Lou. It was long enough for me to patch the offending tube, take some pictures of the wash we were sitting in and wonder more about the blanket and what border patrol would think about our current set of prints in the sand.
We got rolling again, stopping 200 yards later to put warm clothes on. More footprints from us to leave the border patrol puzzling. And then the sky exploded. We left lots of footprints as we seemed to eat up the wash in 200 foot increments, snapping pictures of the ever changing sky.
Yeah. This is why we bikepack.
We reached the lava flow as dusk fell and we were quicker to turn on our lights to negotiate the rocky terrain. We kept riding in the warm night, glowing from the sunset, until Scott’s light all but died. He followed me through the rutted sections of silt, and soon after, we made camp in the middle of the playa. We could see and hear the cars on Highway 2 across the border clearly. While we were close to the border, we were on a sandy section of the road, which felt safer to me than camping on either the rocky lava flow or the mountains that were coming up, as it would be nearly impossible to disguise travel routes in the fine sand.
Border Patrol didn’t come by until just shy of midnight. I heard the engine approaching, and anticipating the same drill as two nights prior, sat up in my sleeping bag. The flashlight flooded us and we called something out, trying to sound as American as possible, which I guess I’m technically not, but citizenship is close enough.
“What are you guys doing out here?” the agent asked after determining we weren’t a threat.
“We were sleeping,” I replied.
He shined his light around. “On bikes?”
He paused. “Wow. I’m not used to seeing people out here like this. You have permits and everything?”
We exchanged a few more pleasantries before he headed back to his truck.
“I probably don’t have to tell you this,” he started, “But there are people right over there who don’t like us very much.”
“Yes. We know.”
“We have a border patrol station three miles down the road if you need any help.” And with that, he drove off.
It took a while to fall asleep again. It was dead silent except for the occasional yipping of coyotes and I had to convince myself that much of the fear that I was feeling was in my head. I played the game of statistics, what were the chances that we’d run into someone at this particular spot in the road when there’s 40 miles of road on either side of us. I tried to tell myself that if I ever wanted to go touring in Baja or South America, I’d better be able to sleep here. I eventually fell asleep, figuring that if we were found by someone, it wouldn’t matter if we were awake or asleep.
I was stoked to see the sun come up with a couple hours of sleep under my belt.
The same border patrol agent came by as we were cooking breakfast.
“Did you guys have a good night?”
“Sure did,” we replied. I wasn’t about to admit to him that his stories of ‘bad people’ scared me.
“Well, aside from the annoying border agent who came and harassed you in the middle of the night.” He laughed at his own funny.
“Something like that.”
After finished our oats infused with hot chocolate taken from the continental breakfast the morning before, I brought out dessert. That waffle that I burned? It was really more just toasted, which made it perfectly packable. With a little bit of toasting over an open flame and chocolate hazelnut butter…divine. I may have stayed in a hotel during bikepacking, but I definitely haven’t lost my dirtbag skills.
Back by the BP station, across the mountains that we’d traversed in the dark two nights prior, across another playa, and up to Growler Pass where we aimed to have lunch. We spotted a shady spot at Bates Well, and opting for a little liberal education with lunch, descended down to the old ranch house. The ranch was run by the Bates family even as Organ Pipe National Monument was established and was grandfathered in. The NPS wasn’t stoked to have cattle on their land, Bates wasn’t excited about giving up ranching. He ran the ranch, much to the chagrin of the park service, until his death.
We pulled out our final treats. If you’re going to haul nearly 300 oz of liquid, at least some of it should be kept cold and bubbly until the final stretch home.
The final 17 miles to pavement were fairly uneventful. We suffered through the washboards before emerging from the park onto BLM maintained roads. And then we cruised.
Most bikepacks, I’m glad to be done with, counting down the final miles until home. I have to say, I was a little sad to see the stop sign at the end of the road, signifying the two mile paved road back to our car. Just like that, I went from being in a place where I was completely uncomfortable, to someplace familiar. It was a strange transition.
We ate lunch at the local Mexican joint, downing several cups of water after rationing for the entire morning, and finished with a piece of Tres leches cake.
I don’t think words and pictures can really describe how amazing it is out there. I feel like I haven’t been that far out of my comfort zone in a long time, and I enjoyed it. Maybe that’s the key now, for my personal growth-fix via bike – it’s not about fast, race-type rides to see how I react under stress, but more about being in subtler situations where I’m uncomfortable.
Whatever it was about the trip that made it special…all I can say is that if you have the opportunity to go ride out there – take it. You won’t regret it.