Words and photos by Devon Balet
I came up with this great bad idea over beers at my favorite bike shop in my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado. Shop mechanic Alex and I were discussing ideas of how to spend the first two weeks of February when the shop was closed and he was left with ample time to ride. This being my first winter back in Colorado after three years of heading south like a bird, I was feeling the need for some hot winter days riding in just shorts and a jersey.
Looking over the calendar I noticed an unusually perfect alignment of two cycling events in Arizona: Single Speed Arizona in Cave Creek followed by the ever popular 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, just outside of Tucson. The two events were situated a week apart, and that was how my idea came to be: let’s ride the Arizona Trail from Flagstaff to Cave Creek to join the SSAZ party and then continue on to the 24-hour race for an even bigger bike party in the Old Pueblo.
Part one is in the current issue of Dirt Rag, Issue #193, detailing the adventures of getting to SSAZ. This online installment continues the journey from there to Old Pueblo.
Rolling away from Cave Creek after Single Speed Arizona almost felt comforting. The party was no let down—many friends, many drinks and many laughs. Waking on a couch outside the bike shop confused by my comfort, I had to only walk a few steps to hot coffee and food. Civilization was welcomed, but I wanted separation from the masses quickly.
Finding every possible roadside trail, Alex and I made our way out of Phoenix into the neighboring town of Scottsdale. Weaving our way through city park trails, we were soon climbing up on the far east end of town. We ascended far above the expensive homes lining the side of the mountain. Finding a clear flat spot we set up camp, looking out over the flickering lights of the big city.
Our day seemed to end as early as the next started. Leaving behind our vista over the city to avoid contact with any local residents, we were gone before most people had their first cup of coffee. It seemed strange to ride only eight miles knowing we still had well over 150 to go. However, the promise of a home cooked meal and cold beers a-plenty helped settle my anxiety to keep moving. Our friends Bill and Julie were driving down from our hometown to enjoy a little slice of Arizona themselves and we planned to rendezvous.
As we rolled up to the Usery Mountain Regional Park campground in Mesa Alex double-checked the site number sent from Bill. The campground was nearly full, each site boasting a large, expensive RV or trailer. We rolled through the park aimlessly looking for site number eight, which we soon found.
Completely surrounded by nothing but RVs and campers, we set up a spot under a lone pallo verde tree in our site. Stringing up a tarp to shade the hot mid-day sun I removed all my clothes save for my shorts and relaxed beneath the sheltering canopy.
No sooner had we settled in before Alex took off for the showers. A few long minutes later he returned with a big smile and look of relief. “That was likely the best shower of my life.”
Leaving behind my cabana of comfort I headed for the shower myself. A double wash left my skin free from eight days and 200 miles of sweat and dirt—I felt like a new man. Taking advantage of the campground, I washed my socks and t-shirt in the sink.
Soon Bill and Julie arrived. The stories of our trip thus far began to fly into the evening sky as the four of us sat back, enjoying good food and great conversation. The cold beer and warm food prepared by someone else was a nice treat, quickly fading my pressing desire to keep moving.
Ocotillo arms reached out into the sky, catching the days fading light. Soon only the tops of the tallest saguaro held onto the golden glow. With the setting of the sun came a still calmness in the desert as the birds discontinued their daily songs.
Laying back into my sleeping bag in the dirt I smiled. All around us were expensive iron giants filled to the gills with stuff that goes unused day after day. Myself, I had already pedaled over 200 miles through the desert with only the things I could carry on my bike and one gear to move me forward. I smiled knowing I was the richest man in the campground that night.
Morning came quickly and my routine of rising with the sun was no different that day. I found myself readying my bike, preparing to tackle another long day with no real goal in mind except to go as far as we could until we felt like stopping. That day, Bill would join us for the first leg of the route. When I heard him curse another false summit on a rough doubletrack climb I chuckled. Welcome to the party Bill!
Rolling over the 300-mile mark that morning felt good, but I knew we still had a long way to go. The three of us took a seat under a lonely tree for an early lunch and beer before Bill went his own way. Enjoying a thick ham sandwich, it was exciting to know I had a second with me to enjoy that night. As soon as our beer cans emptied we sent off, back into our own unknown as we headed for the Superstition Mountains.
“Who the fuck came up with this route!” I screamed inside my head. They surely haven’t ridden this trail. It began as so much fun, but no person in their right mind would want to travel through this crap now. The trail was more like an empty riverbed filled with nothing but rocks ranging in size from softballs to basketballs.
The route was relatively flat but there was no way we could ride it. Seeing pin flags along the way I felt sorry for the person who might one day come out to clean this mess. For now, I simply put my head down and pushed my bike through the rubble.
Narrowly avoiding rolling my ankles with every step, I knew Alex was in his own personal hell so I made sure to wait for him at any questionable section of the “trail”. Once again, I was relying completely on my GPS to send us in the right direction because there was no true path to be found. This section could not be behind us soon enough.
Finally leaving the rocks behind we rolled into Gold Canyon. It hadn’t been long since our last resupply with Bill and Julie but I knew this was our last chance before “24 Hour Town” at the Old Pueblo. I loaded up on salty snacks, calorie dense treats and two tallboy cans of PBR—knowing they wouldn’t stay cold long I would still enjoy them just as well that night. We set off down Highway 60 in search of the power line road that would take us off of the scary main highway.
We were soon cruising under two massive power line rows. Each tower loomed above us like massive steel giants. As the sun began to set the power lines brought on a golden glow. Soon we found a place to rest, making sure to be far enough off the road, hidden from four wheelers and meandering cattle.
Watching the sunset in a beautiful display of blue light was our entertainment as we enjoyed beer and food. This whole trip we had been lucky, having plenty of supply and resupply to eat and drink well. As I finished the last sip of my beer I looked up to Alex, comfortably laid out on the desert floor staring up to the sky. Laying back thinking back on the trip so far I fell quickly into an exhaustion hazed sleep.
Day 11 had been long already. The sun climbed noon high and the heat grew thick and heavy on our brains. Dust clouded our eyes and mixed in with sweat. I had been in this place before. Not in a physical way but in my mind. Somewhat deliriously I pedaled up another long climb. In a hurry I grabbed for my bottle and gulped down nearly the whole thing without stopping for a breath.
Reviewing the route I saw no foreseeable spot to refill water anytime soon. I gave Alex fair warning of my findings, suggesting he start to ration his water as well. The trail began to level off and we are able to pick up some speed, continuing through the hot, barren landscape.
Several miles later the trail crossed a road. Not seeing Alex directly behind me I stopped to check my water levels. As I laid my bike down in a small patch of green grass I spotted a pair of one gallon bottles. Thinking someone must be a real jerk to litter way out here I walked over and discovered both jugs were completely full!
Hand written on the side was a message, “Please save until November 11th, thereafter water is fair game.” Halle-fucking-lujah! I quickly sat down and began filling my bottles. As soon as Alex rolled up I screamed with excitement, “I found water! Two gallons of fresh water!”
The two of us sat quietly in the shade drinking water as if it were wine. As we enjoyed our bounty, Alex shared with me that today was his birthday and this was the best present he had ever gotten. I raised my bottle in cheers.
Our final day had us starting on the Gila River. Thankful for the ample water stashes found the day before, I passed on filling my water from a murky brown river. With no real idea of how much farther we had to go or how exactly to get there I was starting to get nervous for the first time.
The day was tough—down right hard really. The trail seemed to go up and only up. Any amount of down was followed with more up. Eventually we crested a bit of a mesa as the sun began to set, I knew we would be in for a haul. I didn’t want to tell Alex the truth when he asked how much farther we had to go. Honestly I didn’t really know, but I did know we still had some long miles ahead of us.
Realizing my light had not been the most dependable so far I rode on into the darkness, wanting to save power for a time when it was really needed. We seemed to pedal onward forever. Now, going completely off of a map and my gut feelings, we zigzagged our way through the desert with a faint glow in the distance being my last hope that we were headed in the right direction.
With every rise in the road I would hope for a sight of 24 Hour Town. I told Alex we would see it from a long way out. Maybe it was from the exhaustion, but Alex was not convinced we would see any of this so-called “town”. No sooner did he doubt me yet again did I spot the far off glow of what I like to call “the can man,” the gatekeeper of 24 Hour Town were all that enter must donate a can of food to a local charity.
Thrilling joy overtook my body and I screamed out in happiness. I finally knew exactly where we were. We had finally made it! As we approached 24 Hour Town, Alex began retracting his earlier words, completely blown away by the scope and size of the gathering in the Old Pueblo desert.
The two of us, like tired and weathered cowboys limped our way into town. I squinted at the bright lights after riding in darkness for hours. It seemed as though I was simply a passenger on my bike, barely keeping upright.
As soon as we entered camp a voice called out my name and it took several seconds to even recognize what was happening and stop. Completely shot, without an once of energy left I put a foot down and carefully turned my bike and body around to find my good friend Dejay with two beers in his hands. We had arrived. We made it!
With open arms Dejay greeted us, quickly filling our hands with cold beer and food. I could hardly believe it. My mind did not fully comprehend what was happening. Everyone around us began asking where we came from, how far we had ridden. I couldn’t answer anything more than, “It has been a good, long ride” as I dove head first into a platter of food.
Sitting back I wiped the drool and bits of food from my chin. In the hours and days of dual solitude on the trail I found a renewed affection for myself through this temporary separation from civilization. Each day was a complete unknown—a rebirth backward in time and into primeval freedom on a singlespeed mountain bike.
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