For months now, I have been drawn to taking an adventure in Arizona’s border lands. Here, isolated heaps of rock and dirt result in a very special biodiverse region—one that is, alas, doomed to die within my lifetime. And so this March I took my bike to the “Sky Islands” of southern Arizona for a multiday pedal in the wilderness.
The journey from Tucson to the small town of Patagonia was beautiful and full of desert promise. This was the mighty Sonoran Desert. Stretching from northern Arizona, west to southern California, and south as far south as Baja California (Mexico), this vast open area, the largest desert in North America, is unexplored borderland for many travellers.
Situated on the Arizona Trail, this small, seemingly sleepy town was anything but. It was a focal point for adventurers of all types: hikers, bikers, ultrarunners, birders, and explorers of the Old West. The Gathering Grounds coffee shop was the place for a great breakfast and a chat about wilderness expeditions. My mornings in Patagonia would start with good coffee, friendly conversation, and an excellent breakfast. Being an extrovert—and an inquisitive one at that—I made the acquaintance of a group of trail hikers and quizzed them about their experiences. What I discovered was that I was not alone in my quest for adventure. The three hikers below had covered more than 30 miles the previous day (and earned this breakfast), a superhuman effort.
After breakfast I would wander around the main street with camera in hand.
I took the afternoon to assemble my bike from its packing box and was ready for a desert adventure in a couple of hours. Plenty of food and water would accompany me.
Day 1: Patagonia to White Rock Campground
A 50 mile day: Climbing the Santa Rita Sky Island and descending into the Potero Creek Valley
It’s very easy to underestimate wilderness travel plans, but based on my previous experiences, I had trained and planned to the best of my abilities, firm in he knowledge that travelling into the unknown wilderness always brings complications. However, the first 15 miles were an incredible ride of discovery. I pedaled up an easy climb to the high plateau of the Santa Ritas before descending into the very wild and tough routes through the Patagonia Mountains’ historic mining district.
Day 2: White Rock Campground to Amado
A 50 mile day: Traversing Ruby Road to Arivaca and returning eastward
This was Ruby Road: rutted, washboard, loose, unforgiving; twenty-five miles of border road. Cattle and javelinas were my only company. Honestly, with Mexico being so close I really wondered who would try to migrate through this landscape—steep, loose inclines; constant exposure to heat and cold; not a drop of water—and I came to a stark conclusion: If people survive this journey, they need a lot more respect than the current sociopolitical climate gives them. In fact, I don’t think many border critics would survive this journey themselves*. After 25 miles of Ruby Road I found myself in Arivaca Arizona, with a grocery store and a cell signal. I reviewed the proposed route and decided to stop my westing and make for the town of Amado on the freshly paved tarmac it promised (I travelled the 23 miles in less than two hours).
Day 3: Amado to Patagonia
A 33 mile day: Taking the Forest Service road over impassible terrain
During this part of the trip I found myself humming the 1959 classic Duane Eddy tune “40 Miles of Bad Road” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE5PcKFHw-M). I left the campsite in Amado and headed once more into the rugged wilderness of the Mt. Wrightson wilderness. Tarmac soon became gravel, and gravel soon became impassible! I was on a “Forest Service Road”. All I can say is that the Arizona forest service vehicles must be something to behold! I slugged my bike (and self) across miles of terrain, under the constant watchful gaze of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. With Prickly Pears and Ocotillo cacti as faithful companions, I moved irresistibly toward my goal. Nearly seven hours of hiking/pedaling/cursing later, I had completed this 33 mile Herculean trial.
I rode back into Patagonia, happy and exhausted. Five miles earlier I had drained the last of my water…
I was proud.
Looking back, I ask myself a few poignant questions, chief of which is “Would you do this again?”, and the answer without any hesitation is “YES!” I’m thinking of returning to the area next year. Armed with the information I now possess, I think I could explore further into this remote, desolate, beautiful region. Next time, I would spend more time under the stars, safe in the knowledge that I can reach the small isolated communities of the Desert West, with the freedom to relish in the barren beauty of the mighty Sonoran landscape.
*My personal belief. While I strive to be apolitical on the blog and podcast, I am also a migrant to the United States. My journey with visas and sponsors was legal, but didn’t endanger my life. The people who decide to embark on this route genuinely have grit.