Zen On Dirt

AZ Trail Taco Tour: The first 300 miles

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I got marching orders from Scott to tour the AZT 750 route four days before we left. About a week prior, he’d made the comment: I need to figure out what I’m going to do about the AZT race this year.

Now, I’m not very good at picking up at subtle, but I picked up on the fact that something was amiss. While all external arrows were pointing towards him starting a day or two after the actual race and racing the 750 route, insiders, such as myself knew how much he’d worked in February and how very much he wasn’t particularly in race mode. And that racing and running an event at the same time is a little more than stressful.

I probed (because that’s the correct response to open-ended statements): Well, what are your options?

Racing starting on race day. Racing starting one day after. Or touring. Before or after the race start.

Well, if you tour before the race, I’ll come with you. I’ve poo-pooed the AZT route after the first 300 miles, and I really had no desire to hike my bike across the Grand Canyon, especially after not having hiked at all since my Oracle Ridge traverse during the AZTR last year, but at touring pace and with Scott, it sounded like an adventure I could get behind. He told me he’d decide by the beginning of Camp Tucson on Friday. On Monday, after Camp Tucson, and after he’d gotten sick and had to sit out all the riding, the final decision was made: We were leaving Thursday or Friday. Yippee!

The goals for the trip were simple: Ride long days at a sustainable touring pace. Eat tacos and ice cream. Enjoy the trail. Take detours as needed. My personal goals were to see the state, smile at the sun, and to spend 2+ weeks living off the bike. We viewed it as a test run for this summer’s adventures.

What we ended with was 15 days of mostly blissful riding. Lots of discussions about racing vs touring. Some excellent detours around less stellar sections of trail. Full bellies. Tired legs. And almost more memories than the Memory Bank can hold. I view this as a deposit in my memory retirement account.

 

On Tuesday, we put a plea out on Facebook for a ride down to the border, a ~2 hour jaunt from Tucson. Tony from Sierra Vista answered our call and we met him at Mi Ranchito for breakfast. We talked bikes, bikepacking, and Arizona gun laws all the way to the top of Montezuma Pass, the traditional drop off point for AZT 750 racers. We couldn’t thank him enough, getting to the border could have posed a huge challenge. It made the minor details, like the fact that Scott was still getting over a cold, and that my fork had crapped out just days earlier but seemed to be working after Scott put some oil in it and cleaned the seals, seem inconsequential. Getting such a hassle-free ride was the first of many acts of kindness we experienced.  Thanks Tony!

With a wave, we were off.

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Instead of taking the race route, we opted to take a road that paralleled the border a while before turning north and rejoining with the traditional AZTR route. Did we do this because Scott wanted to see a new road, or to truly instill that we were out touring, and not racing, and thus forcing ourselves to stray off the route from the get go? I think it was a combination of the two.

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We chose our official start point at an obelisk at the border and settled into all-day touring mode. We had no where to be, nothing to do. With a late-ish start, we planned on stopping just short of Patagonia to camp.

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Before long, we were in the Canelos finding traces of trail work throughout the trail. Scott stopped to soak his feet in the first creek and I had to confront the fact that changing from racer-girl to touring-girl was going to take more work than I initially hoped. The urge to keep pedaling was strong and it took a conscious effort to not get frustrated with the delay caused by new orthotics in Scott’s shoes. No where to be. Nothing to do.

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We reached Canelo Pass late afternoon and found an emptied water cache for Serena, who was hiking the trail, and a bottle of water with our names on it. We also found a book in a plastic bag, seeming to go along with the bottle. Who could have possibly left these fun pieces of trail magic for us? They were timely as we were pretty much out of water and I’d just finished complaining that I’d decided that bringing a book or Kindle wasn’t a high enough priority to take the weight penalty. Still, we scratched our heads at the gifts.

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We continued onto Canelo West, knowing that the trail would open up eventually and lead to glorious riding. While I do enjoy Canelo East, West is way better. We ran into two horsewomen along the trail. Both trail stewards of different sections of the AZT, they were out for a day ride of the Canelos. We told them of our plan and our intention of hiking the Grand Ditch. “You can do that?” one of them asked me. “Yeah, it’s legal as long as the wheels don’t touch the ground.”

“No, I mean, can you physically do that?”

I honestly hadn’t really thought about it. “I hope so. But I have so many things to worry about in the next 600 miles, that that isn’t even on my radar.”

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We filled up on water at a tank, still planning on sleeping out and dropping into Patagonia for breakfast. The temperatures were warm, but not hot. Shadows grew long in the grass. Scott’s energy fell as the remnants of his cold took hold. We’ll just get close to Patagonia so that it’s mostly downhill in the morning. We won’t even cook breakfast, just boogie into town.

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And then I had a better idea, listening to Scott sniffle. We could ride into town, get a real dinner, save our two dehydrated meals for when we actually need them, and then get a room so you can get a good nights sleep and kick the cold. We agreed that getting a room on the first night of  a bikepack bordered on lame, but that if we wanted a healthy Scott, it might be prudent to sleep indoors.

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And really, the ulterior motive, the Velvet Elvis pizza joint in town was closed the last time we’d passed through and Scott remembered good food. And this was supposed to be a foodie tour as much as a bike tour. So we turned our lights on for the last couple miles of trails and rode the dark road into town, making it to the VE with 40 minutes to spare. Thus started what would become a common theme: Rootbeer floats.

It felt weird to be stopping so early. To have only made it to Patagonia. To be sitting down and waiting for a pizza and not being in a hurry. To take a shower and turn the TV on in the motel room and to watch some X-men movie until it was well past time to go to sleep. (It was a good movie! Magic powers!) It made me moderately uncomfortable. Were we going to be able to finish this thing in 18 days at this pace?

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We woke up at opening time for Gathering Grounds, our favorite little coffee shop in town. Breakfast. Trail snacks. We headed up a semi-legit way to hook back up with the AZT. Through some Facebook sleuthing, we figured out who’d left us the trail magic, and followed their tracks up the dirt road. It seemed that they had a similar idea to us, tour the AZT at a fun pace. Maybe we weren’t crazy after all.

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The cow leg that we’d found on our last visit to this road was still there, except that this time it was just a hoof. It still smelled like death.

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Flume trail. Kentucky Camp. We sat, talking to the caretaker at Kentucky camp for a while, hearing tales of a horseman who was trying to pack the entire AZT unsupported with two horses. His one issue, well, one of many: many of the gates were too narrow for him to get his loaded horses through, so for each gate, he’d have to unload his horses, get the horses through, carry the bags through, and then repack. Apparently this took upwards of an hour each gate. We’d hit nearly 30 gates from our start to our current location. Ooof.

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Luckily for the horseman, many of the new gates are pack animal friendly. Narrow at the bottom to keep ATVs out and wide at the top to allow loaded horses through.

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We rode all day, passing two thru-hikers, both resting on the side of the trail. We passed the horseman and his two horses and two dogs at a cattle tank. He had a lot of stuff at the camp he’d set up. We caught Yuri and Dave, our water trail angels at Canelo Pass camped at La Savilla campground. They were willing to endure piles of families coming into the campground for the night, we filled up on water and pedaled on, seeking the solitude and quiet out on the trail. Camping on the pass, we only had to uproot our camp area once upon the discovery of ants.

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The Rincon store was our first stop in the morning. We skipped breakfast knowing we could get some hot food there. It’d been closed when I passed through racing and I was curious to see what they stocked. Burritos barely won out over ice cream for breakfast selection and we watched hoards of roadies pass by on the popular road. As a former roadie, I feel like I’ve earned the right to make fun of them, especially when a group comes in and one goes sprinting up the stairs of the store to go to the bathroom, while I watched, laughing because I knew that Scott was in the bathroom. He came sprinting back out, tripped over himself coming down the stairs and made a beeline to the back of the store. Meanwhile, his buddy sat there futzing and cursing at his GPS-Strava-meter. And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

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We opted to detour Mt Lemmon completely, because there was no way I was going to ride Oracle Ridge, and I didn’t see a whole lot of reason to climb pavement for twenty some-odd miles to descend the control road. Plus, if we just took Reddington over to the San Pedro, I’d get to see a whole lot of new terrain. We threw in a little bit of singletrack on our way over for giggles and found an overflowing stock tank. Shower time! In the heat of the day, the water coming out of the bullet holes of the tank were the perfect way to cool off.

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We got to follow a beautiful dirt road along the plateau and the drop for an eternity down to river level. Way cool, and way better than Oracle Ridge.

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We followed the San Pedro and then started the climb towards San Manuel. Fried by the heat, all we wanted was ice cream and cold liquid. Luckily, if you keep pedaling, you get to where you’re going and we were rewarded by Big Boppers, chips, and soda. Oh, touring life.

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Another short climb towards Oracle had us in the state park and headed onto more single track.

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We discovered that even if the park wasn’t being proactive in the enforcement of being closed during non-business weekend hours, they were at the least putting up the effort to deter AZT hikers from using trails that they wanted to collect fees for use for. Good to know if you’re the race director of the AZTR. We rolled into Oracle at sunset, getting a room at the famed A-frames and dinner at the Mexican joint down the street.

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Two days of travel, one fingers spread of distance. We filled up on breakfast in town, running into Yuri and Dave again who’d opted to skip Reddington entirely and pedal straight up Lemmon to come down the control road. They’d arrived at the A-frames not long after we did, snatching the last cabin. Luxury touring on the AZT, you really could almost credit card tour it.

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Scott signed us in at the trail register/water cache at the end of Tiger Mine road. I decided to leave my Prisoners of Zenda there for the next thru-hiker. We were riding late enough into each night that reading time wasn’t happening and I knew the next couple of sections of trail would require high water capacity and I wanted as empty of a pack as possible.

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We cruised through the first part of the Black Hills. I’d had three sub-stellar experiences on the trail, so I was looking to remedy it. Turns out, if you’re not in a hurry, it’s really beautiful trail. We ran into a crazy section hiker with next to no teeth going south who told us that he’d come across the Freeman water cache empty and had to call 911 because he was completely out of water. Having hauled only enough water to get to Freeman and knowing that our previous investigations of the Bathtub spring had found minimal trickling, this scared us. The hiker told us of a tank just up Bloodsucker where we could fill up.

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We ran into a water cache for someone dated more than a month prior a few miles down the trail, untouched. While I wouldn’t touch a cache with a date that hadn’t passed, I felt no guilt in filling up with jugs, guessing that whatever trip that had been planned fell through. Packs were heavy through the rest of the hills, but at least we weren’t stressed about the possibility of not finding water at Freeman. I placed by bets that it would be well stocked by the time we got there.

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It was.

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Jerry Q’s note from the Gila 100 had become the trail register. Obviously, the red toyota where he’s stashed the beer for the racers was no longer there, much to the disappointment of a thru-hiker. We kept riding, energy flagging after hauling water through a remote, hard, and hot section of trail.

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And then the sky exploded. Energy returned. We pedaled to the end of the Boulders where we found a sandy, dead-quiet, and wide-open, free-of-prickers place to sleep. We settled in for the night before all the light had disappeared, a luxury  of touring that I was starting to enjoy. Night riding was not required. We’d estimated that if we averaged 50 miles a day, we’d get to the finish in 15 days, well ahead of our 18 day deadline. We slept like rocks in the warm desert night.

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I woke up to this in the morning. As a master of deferred maintenance, I wasn’t really all that surprised. Since I’d mentioned that I should probably swap my cables before the trip, it seemed only fitting to be faced with this. Neither Scott nor I had a spare cable in our oh-shit-kits, so I was reduced to putting my bike into the granny gear before the climb to Ripsey and staying there. Aside from going really slow on the flatter parts of the climb, it really wasn’t all that annoying.

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We had lunch at our favorite saguaro high on the ridge, halfway bumming that we hadn’t made it there the night before, and halfway knowing that we’d really need to find a windless night to really enjoy sleeping up there. We knew that we’d be skipping the Gila section of the trail in exchange for a paved escape to Superior and then to Apache Junction to get my bike fixed, so we enjoyed the morning, not concerned about the heat that was about to bake the Gila.

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We were bummed to miss the Gila, but we were light on food, the temperatures were forecasted to rise, and we’d been in the Gila twice in the past month. Sad, but if we had to skip a section due to a mechanical, that was it. Instead, we were faced with the endless climb out of Kelvin and the fast drop down to Superior for pizza and root beer floats.

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The afternoon brought a new exploration of a route given to us by John Schilling that took us through Queen Valley instead of out on the highway. We booked it through suburban hell to make it to the bike shop with five minutes to spare to get a new cable and then met up with Billy Rice for burritos near the Topaz Inn, a high-quality roof over our head for the night. The food was…pretty to mostly terrible, but it was awesome to finally get to meet Billy.

Four days of riding had brought us just past the end of the 300 route. From there on out, it was all going to be new to me and I was excited to escape the cement jungle of Apache Junction and get back out on the trail. Well ahead of schedule, I officially designated Scott as time keeper and told him I wasn’t going to worry about where we needed to get to each night. I was officially on vacation.

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One thought on “AZ Trail Taco Tour: The first 300 miles

  1. Great write up. I ran into the horse guy at Reddington Road. His name is Terry and he hitch-hiked from Colorado with his horses and dog.

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