Zen On Dirt

AZT Taco Tour: Wilderness Detours


I wasn’t too stoked on the 100 miles of road following Apache Junction. Really? A hundred miles of dirt road? Do I gotta?

I know. Insert: Ez – you’re spoiled rotten, or Ez – your rode the Tour Divide, 100 miles of dirt roads and pavement should be nothing. 

But, the roads were required. Nix that – some of the roads are required. It’s also possible to ride/hike some heinous sections of trail, Gunsight Pass, Haunted Canyon, the Mazatals, etc and skirt the wilderness areas more closely, but this was a pleasure tour, not a Lee and Scott exploration – take your bike for a walk special. And so we faced the day of completely new terrain for me and some new daylight terrain for Scott.

Initial Yelp searches turned up no diners between our quality hotel and where we were to rejoin the route, so we opted for a grocery store breakfast. We immediately bypassed the burritos and donuts and headed to the fresh fruit and yogurt aisles. I don’t know if it’s traditional for Bashas to not have a produce section, but we were sorely disappointed  by what we found. Maybe it’s a Phoenix thing (I’m trying really hard to find a positive aspect to Phoenix…but I’m still searching). We sat out front watching people come and go, listening to a guy on his cell phone complain that there were more people from Minnesota in Mesa/Apache Junction than there were Arizonians.

We escaped the urban jungle soon after, glad to be free of the clutches of what I’m going to deem a rather strange place. Smooth pavement took us quickly into the hills as we passed by the Lost Dutchman museums, amusement parks, and information booths. Apparently the Lost Dutchman hid a huge treasure in the Superstition mountains that no one has found yet, and not for lack of trying.


We dropped down to lake level and meandered through beautiful canyons, crossing over drainages on a regular basis. The large bodies of water, Canyon Lake, followed by Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake, were a stark contrast to the heat we’d endured the day before leaving Kelvin. We’d clearly broached a climate zone in AZ, from the deserts of the south, to the lake and river-land of the mid-section of the state.


Bridges are awesome.


We planned on stopping at Tortilla Flats, a grill and store 20 miles down the road from Apache Junction. Clearly a destination for the retired in Phoenix, the place was hopping at 11 am in the middle of the week. Lots of corny decorations inside and out, but to be fair, the food was fairly priced and pretty delicious. It was a good early lunch after a relatively light breakfast. People watching: A+



We finally left the pavement and the hoards of cars behind and started climbing the Apache Trail road. I wasn’t expecting much. It blew my mind.


Scott rode a little bit of trail to an overlook. Team Vertigo offered to take his picture. From here, the road would drop, and drop, and drop. And then drop some more into Fish Creek Canyon: The Grand Canyon of roads.


Back in the day before liability and whatnot, people would race their cars up the road. What could possibly go wrong? Now there’s a 15 mph speed limit on it and most of the cars that we passed were moving slower than that. It was beautiful cruising.


We spent the rest of the afternoon climbing and descending huge ‘rollers’. Scott had described the section as hilly…Scott’s memory apparently isn’t very good. Stopping at a campground by Apache Lake was a welcome break from the incessant up and down of the road with no end in sight. It was beautiful and all, but climbing is never easy, especially when it follows a long descent.


We snacked and watched vultures playing in the wind that was blowing up from the west. All of a sudden, a giant bald eagle came up and started soaring with them. Apparently they’re considered lower than rodents in AK, but I think they’re pretty stinkin’ cool birds. We watched it for several minutes hovering in the stiff breeze, clearly having no other agenda than to enjoy the day. We were on the same page, apparently.


Neato mosquito.


We rode happily along the road planning on hitting the marina about a mile off route just after the dam. The wind carried us along, blowing at our backs.


The Roosevelt dam used to be the largest stone dam (before renovations) in the country. It’s an impressive feat of engineering and we took the time to stop and read all the informational kiosks on our way up the road, something I’d never consider doing while racing. This touring business was growing on me. After reaching the top of the dam, we turned off route in search of the marina. Turned out, there was no place to get food there and it gave us an all around creepy feeling, so we kicked ourselves for wasting two miles of our time and started heading north along the deserted highway, keeping our eyes peeled for a place to sleep that was sheltered from the wind, which was increasing in intensity with each passing minute.

We eventually found a little spot, tucked away. Only after we’d set up camp did we discover the goatheads. We tread carefully and escaped the next morning with sleeping pads and tires that still held air. Whew.

I knew that it was somewhere on the order of 100 miles from Apache Junction to Payson, our next major resupply point. It had amazed me that we hadn’t covered it all in one day, or even close to all of it, but then I thought about the relatively late start (8 am), the relatively early finish (6 pm) and the glorious hour we spent soaking our feet in the lake and made peace with the fact that touring was, in fact, significantly slower than race pace, or even fast-touring pace.


We rode another 10 miles in the morning before finding Butcher Hook, a fishing/hunting diner, catering to those who liked to spend the day on boats on Roosevelt Lake. I have a soft spot in my heart for diners like these. French toast, bacon, eggs, a side of hash browns.  It goes down so easy. A little hot sauce, add some salt. Perfection. People watching: A+


Well-fed, we embarked on the next 12 miles to Jake’s Corner, a quirky little convenience store/bar situated smack in the middle of nowhere. We shared an ice cream sandwich and marveled at the many strange items they stocked. Yeah, we probably didn’t need to stop for food, but we were touring, thus no opportunity to eat on the road is to be wasted.


Up and over a deserted dirt road to the Beeline highway and the famous All Bikes. Part museum, part junk yard, part of the lot burned last year but apparently most of it survived. I bet you could find some real treasures in there if you spent a day poking around.


We climbed (climbed might be an understatement, there was A LOT of uphill) into Payson and debated our options. Scott had to be internet connected the following night for event tracking, so we were limited to making it as far as Pine in the next 36 or so hours, a mere 30 miles up the road from Payson. We were definitely at a delay point, which was perfect because I was starting to verge on tired after several long days of riding. I didn’t exactly come into this trip well rested…


We stopped at the Beeline Cafe, a joint scoped out by Scott and Lee on their thru ride ten years prior, still undecided about what to do. Our options were to resupply in Payson and then camp somewhere between Payson and Pine, then drop into Pine in the morning and get a room for the night with internet, stay in Payson for two nights, or push on to Pine that day and stay two nights. Scott’s bloodshot eyeballs from contacts gone bad and an inexpensive motel next to the cafe sealed the deal. It was going to be an afternoon of relaxing, wandering around Payson, buying me a warm hat (which I’d forgotten), and getting some dehydrated meals for the push to Flagstaff, and hopefully getting Scott’s eyes looking like he hadn’t been awake for 72 hours straight. We also booked ourselves a room in Strawberry for the following night, four miles up the road from Pine, after failing to find any mention of a motel or inn in Pine itself.


Workin’. Eating fudge. Life ain’t so bad.

We carried an iPad mini along with us so that Scott could set up trackers while on the road. It was a test run to see if the iPad would be enough for a summer on the bike, or if we’d have to really figure out how to have access to an actual laptop, at least some of the time.



Early is not a way I’d describe our departure the next day. With only 30 miles of mostly roads with some hike-a-bike into Pine, we didn’t exactly set any land speed records pedaling out of town. With bellies full of french toast, we headed up the road, meandering up and down some roads that became increasingly rougher. There were some sections that actually required mountain bike skills to climb, which was a welcome refreshment after the previous two days of mostly smooth roads.


We dropped down into a small community that the route passes through before returning to the AZT via a hike-a-bikey, neighborhood trail. Passing through the idyllic houses surrounded by giant trees, we ran into Rick and Bev, two trail stewards who owned a house down there. They knew about the race and were asking about the legitimacy of offering racers water. We talked trail and mentioned our plan of going to Strawberry for the night.

“Go to THAT brewery in Pine,” they told us. “They cater to AZT thru hikers and have cabins available.”

I was sold. I hoped that they’d still have space for us, showing up late in the afternoon.


Based on Scott’s description of the next four miles of trail and the relative rideability of it, I took my chamois off, ready to hike in my baggies. Swap-ass was a serious problem in the heat and I figured that any time I could spend not in my chamois was a win. Turns out, Scott’s memory isn’t all that great when it comes to remembering whether a trail is rideable or not, and after the initial hike-a-bike, we were back pedaling until we hit the AZT. Then we had some more hike-a-bike, but the long descent down to the highway and the flat pedal to it would have definitely warranted wearing chamois. Live and learn.


The THAT brewery was less than half a mile off the trail and they were happy to set us up in one of their cabins for the night. With internet access, Scott was set. With a pretty amazing beer list, I was set.


Yeah. Monsoon Mud stout, AZ Trail ail, Doppelstick, strawberry blond ale…it reminded me of Mountain Sun beer. The food was pretty divine too.


The Arizona Trail Association has done an amazing job educating gateway communities about the trail and the recreational opportunities that it allows. It was really cool to see a place embrace the fact that they were so close. Apparently they’ve been building trails like mad in the Pine/Strawberry area and have gotten behind the mountain bike movement, even to the point of having their ATV repair shop also work on bikes.


We were moving steadily along the trail, knowing that we had a hard day on Highline ahead of us. Instead of worrying about that, I left Scott to push buttons on a keyboard while I lazily flipped channels on the TV. Without a TV at home, I consider it a part of my liberal education to see what’s going on in the pop culture world whenever I have access to cable. Turns out, not much interesting can be found.

With two short riding days behind us (six and four hour rides, I’ll call them relatively short), I was feeling more prepared to head into the remote section of the route. With a chai stout in my belly with dinner, I was feeling more than prepared to sleep well that night.

Touring wins.




2 thoughts on “AZT Taco Tour: Wilderness Detours

  1. Hey, we spent a few rainy hours in the Butcher Hook diner between riding and hitching to Tucson, via Globe. I had a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I got the idea that everyone was named “Hon” in there.

    Touring wins!

  2. Mmmm…beer…. That looks like the perfect end to a great couple of days in the saddle. Can’t wait to read the next installment.

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