Salsa was launching a new bike, the Redpoint. The plan was to find some aggressive terrain for a 3 day bikepack. Tucson wasn’t the first choice, so Eszter and I were enlisted somewhat late in the game.
The challenge was to come up with a route that would showcase what Arizona has to offer, push some limits, but not kill anyone, either. Easier said than done.
The obvious choice was “the Gila.” While I’m not a huge fan of ‘guiding’ people, this little corner of the world is pretty near and dear to me. It’s still relatively unknown, so I really enjoy seeing people’s reaction to it, on first brush. With Scamp-depature from AZ imminent, I couldn’t pass up a chance to spend more time out there.
It’s a bit of a project to get seven people locked and loaded. We left the Scamp in a yard in Tucson, hoping everything would be undisturbed when we returned.
As they always do, once on the bike, cares melt away.
We moved deeper into the inner canyon. The place.
Had to check in on our buddy, Thumbs Up Cactus. I’m afraid he’s going to lose his arms, but, so far so good.
Eszter riding, boys walking, part 1.
Down into the box.
team bright colors!
For whatever reason, the crew was overly impressed by our ability to find water in the desert. It was part knowledge of the area, part experience in sniffing out sources that change over time.
Heron on a Saguaro. Not a common sight.
A gaggle of new bikes, getting properly broken in. I love it that Salsa is marketing the Redpoint as a capable bikepacking machine. With 5 or 6 inches of travel, it would normally be considered an ‘all mountain’ or a ‘trail’ bike. To most people a bike well suited to bikepacking is either something with fat (slow) tires or, at least, a hardtail with room to strap on 80 pounds of stuff.
My take, since the beginning, is that if you’re going to bikepack in aggressive terrain (i.e. the mountains) then you should ride a capable and aggressive bike. I think some were scratching their heads as to how the Redpoint could be a bikepacking bike, but I was not one of them.
Since the Gila is our local bikepack, we usually pick and choose our weather windows out there. Put differently, if it’s raining, we just don’t go.
This trip was an exception, of course, planned in advance. We waited out a big storm and watched lightning from a small cave just below 52.
Once the skies cleared, there was still daylight left. I rallied troops for an unloaded Area 52 excursion. Some were tired, myself included, but I had 3 takers.
Anthony nails the keyhole
Area 52 is magic, in my book, but this evening was a little beyond that.
The vultures had the same idea as us, dry out up on Area 52, air it out.
Gilas and rainbows, oh my.
Bighorn sheep, also exploring the sherbet rock mesa.
The waterfall. Time to flip it and find new lines back down to camp.
Exit 52, in the morning.
Eszter riding, boys walking, part 2.
No tour of the Gilas would be complete without climbing Ripsey.
I think everyone’s eyes were opened a little as to what Arizona has to offer, in terms of scenery, solitude and enjoyable MTB terrain. The launch went off without a hitch. Luckily everyone in the crew was a solid rider, even though a couple had not bikepacked before. So really, our job was easy. The terrain, the canyons of the Gila, the chunk, all spoke for itself.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the new bike, and agreed that it was well suited to the terrain. Within a few months, Eszter and I would both own one. And it would become the one and only bike we started carrying with us on the road.
We moved ‘full time’ into our little Scamp trailer at the end of February, 2016. All our belongings fit in the van/trailer, and we were officially rent-free and on the road. Wahoo!
How would it go? What would we learn? What unexpected challenges would there be? What places would we visit, what trails would we explore? Which sites would be good scamping vs bad scamping?
March was surprisingly warm in AZ, with temperatures in the upper 80’s common in Tucson. One unexpected challenge should have been obvious, but it wasn’t to me. The Scamp, with a total volume smaller than many cars, can heat up quickly.
I knew that if it sat in the AZ sun all day, it’d get hot. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that even in the shade, if the ambient temperature is 85 degrees, the best you’re going to do, by the end of the day, is, well, 85 degrees.
Luckily you can sit outside and in the shade, or even better, go ride or run when it’s hot.
But working in the Scamp, at 85+ degrees can be a little challenging. The Scamp does act as a barrier against the wilds of the outdoors, but it’s perhaps only a step above a tent, meaning you’re still subjected to elements like heat/sun, wind, and maybe even rain, in that it wakes you up and there isn’t all that much space to bring things out of the rain.
So one of our first moves was away from Tucson proper, which has very little shade, heading for higher country and hopefully some shade.
my nephew’s favorite bird, which he calls a “Lasagna Bunting”
We found plenty in the birders paradise of Patagonia. The giant oak (first pic) kept us nicely cool, and we were excited to explore our newfound interest in birding.
Beginner’s luck. We got photos of the much-sought-after elegant trogon!
Of course, the Arizona Trail rolls through Patagonia, not far from where we camped. The Canelos aren’t necessarily everyone’s favorite section, but I do enjoy riding them.
Eszter opted to avoid the uncertainty of hike-a-biking in the Canelos, instead going for 100% chance of hiking (well, running).
Since we ‘lived’ in the woods outside Patagonia, we had the time to go deeper and explore things that wouldn’t necessarily call for a visit if we just made a ‘trip’ there.
On one minor trail, we saw a pair of trogons and… a group of the elusive montezuma’s quail!
Forest lookout climb, from camp, and littered with perfectly ‘scott-sized’ (i.e. baby-sized) tabletop erosion jumps on the way down. Yes!
The giant oaks of Patagonia were wonderful for keeping us cool, but bad for generating solar power.
A question we sometimes get is about the “W” word — WORK. No, we didn’t save up a bunch of money in order to live out of the trailer. We’re not vacationing all the time. We need to bring money in, just like everyone else. So, how do we do that?
We’re fortunate to both be able to generate funds as long as we have a little cell service and can keep our laptops charged. Eszter writes articles, mostly website content. I play with SPOT dots on maps over at trackleaders.com. I also maintain and sell TopoFusion software. Actually it feels like I spend most of my ‘working hours’ answering emails, these days…
So far we’ve been pretty successful at living cheaply, which is even better than earning a lot of money. Yet, moving into the Scamp to live on the road wasn’t a scheme to save money. We did it because we wanted to travel, stay in places we love, and explore deeper. We loved the simplicity of it. It’s just a nice side bonus that it happens to be cheaper than living in a house (even factoring in the initial cost of the Scamp/setup). Even if it had been more expensive, we still would have done it.
An after-work ride on Brown Mtn, from camp.
Trackleaders forces many deadlines on me, given that races rarely get delayed — they start when they start. So I can’t put off things, especially on weekends. I need my laptop to stay somewhat charged, and that wasn’t completely happening in Patagonia.
We tend to operate on a mix of working in the Scamp and working at libraries/coffee shops. There are positives and negatives to both, so a mix seems to work best. We really like having the option to work comfortably at camp, so we can have car free days. But in Patagonia the coffee shop is fantastic, and we’d always walk away with fully charged laptops.
We knew we’d eventually need to figure out a way to generate more solar power, and a way to do that with the Scamp in the shade (and consequently, its rooftop solar panel also in the shade). But I think we were a little reluctant to figure that out so that we could justify a few nights out at Gilbert Ray in Tucson Mountain Park. It’s so nice out there, trail access is superb (Brown Mtn!) and we’d plug the Scamp in to charge the battery and everything else we could think of.
Starr Pass build day, from the east side? Sweet, short commute to work with Lee, Joan and some Ordinary Bikes riders.
this looks like I caused a lot of hike-a-bike, but it’s a mere fraction of the havoc I’ve wreaked on people’s cycling shoes over the years
We ‘planned’ Camp Tucson (meaning, keeping it more the less the same as previous years) without really thinking what that meant for Scamp life. The after-ride food part of it really lends itself to being situated in Tucson proper, not camping on the outskirts of town. Luckily the Scamp is small enough to fit in some yards, and Lee was amenable to some scamping in his.
Eszter was in Colorado, dog sitting Sparkles and nursing her parents’ older dog back to health, so she missed the Camp rides, but I think it’s safe to say a good time was had by all.
March is perhaps the busiest month for trackleaders, with multiple week+ events going on throughout Alaska and the Yukon. My brain usually fries at some point, and a break is needed. At the same time, Lee and I were realizing that the fleeting beauty that is spring in the Gila Country was slipping us by.
We weren’t going to be able to experience it unless an emergency was called. Emergency Gila Bikepack!
I got lucky with all things server and Scott’s code related, as I dipped in and out of service out there, races still going on.
bikepacking some new Grand Enchantment Trail, with many opportunities to get our feet wet
I always assumed that we’d be able to take bikepack trips based out of the Scamp. Why not, it’s the perfect base camp, right?
Well, though our total possessions may be meager yet, they are still our possessions and would be a pain to replace. Once you have all your belongings in one mobile space, it can be a little disconcerting to leave it all, sitting there unattended.
I’ve tried to not let that be a factor, not let it prevent trips, but it is an issue.
For both the Emergency Trip and the subsequent, brilliant, GET trip with Lee, the Scamp simply sat in his yard in Tucson. No problem, this go-round.
Eszter was back after a couple weeks, and the Scamp rolled out again.
Hey look, it’s the elusive Cjell Mone’, rolling right near camp on his AZT ITT.
red racer snake, quick everyone draw their cameras!
A valid question for a wandering couple is, “what about community, friends?” If you’re not in one place all the time, does that make it hard to form lasting friendships and have a sense of community?
I suppose a case could be made for it being more challenging, but then I think it’s a challenge even if you live in one place, too. The truth is, it takes effort to be a part of a community, to feel like a part of one. It’s not something that just happens.
We’re lucky to be alive in the days of the internet and mobile data, not only because we can make a living while being mobile, but it is also easier to keep up with friends and arrange rides/camping through the wonders of, yes, “social media.” It isn’t perfect and I don’t think we have the community part of Scamp life nailed, either, but sometimes friends and rides do come together beautifully.
As March turned into April, we began to make preparations for the next phase of Scamp life — leaving Arizona! Scamping around AZ was a bit of an easier, trial run. Once we left, we wouldn’t have access to Lee’s array of tools and his know how, or his yard to Scamp in. We’d be without the benefit of the familiarity we have for so many places in Southern AZ. And though the minivan was towing the Scamp and all our junk around without too much issue, we hadn’t faced any big hills or mountain passes. Familiarity with places meant we hadn’t yet gotten ourselves into trouble trying to pull the scamp down a road we had no business on, forcing miles of trailer backing up or worse.
There was much to be excited about as the mercury climbed higher and the impetus to leave AZ was building.
April was lined up with a few big events, then we would hit the road.
First was a bikepacking trip with the Salsa crew, where we would guide them and they would launch a new bike (next post here on the diary, hopefully).
Then I was looking forward to getting the 2016 edition of the Arizona Trail Race off.
After the racers were rolling (err, hike-a-biking), our first order of business was to head to the Grand Canyon so Eszter could do a ‘little’ run across and back. Seen here, I’m picking her up from her Tucson Mountains Traverse. Half excuse to do a big adventure on foot, half ‘training’ for the canyon, it was a very nice linkup of trails.
So far so good. We were loving all the outdoor time, the ability to spend more time in places we love. And I loved sleeping ‘indoors’ while camping, with the window above our heads open, a cool breeze on the face to lull us to sleep. Ah, Scamp life.
We’ve been nomads for a while now. We seem to follow good weather and good adventures around the west, working on the computer in most places as we go.
In 2014, we lived off our bikes, traveling north on the Continental Divide Trail. We shipped our laptops to post offices along the way. Even they were too heavy for the demanding trail.
In 2015, we spent most of the year living out of a minivan and a tent. We were able to see many new places and be semi-comfortable camping throughout. After bad weather or other adverse conditions, we’d look forward to staying with family or friends, a roof overhead. Occasionally, we missed having a home base, our own space. Being able to work effectively meant going to coffee shops or seeking shade/indoors in some way. Laptops get frustrating to use from camp chairs in the sun/wind/elements.
At the end of 2015, we took it a step further and bought a mobile domicile. The Scamp!
We debated between a number of options, from RVs to McSprinters to just continuing on with the minivan/tent (or bike!). In my opinion, there’s no ‘best’ option for mobile living. All have their positives and negatives, and what’s good also depends heavily on the style of mobile living you employ. That style is also hard to predict and tends to change over time.
So we didn’t agonize too long, but chose the fiberglass Scamp because it was cheap, simple, and provided all the amenities we were looking for. The fact that we didn’t need to buy a new vehicle was a bonus — the Sports Van would roll on.
It’s a 13′ trailer (including tongue) that has:
– a bed
– a table/bench suitable for two people to work on laptops
– a small fridge that runs on propane
– a deep cell battery and solar system to power LED lights, phones and laptops
Anything else (stove, heater, storage, etc) was just a bonus, and not really needed.
But now, could a lowly Sports Van really tow it?
AZT Jamboree at Starr Pass. Espresso shots and empanadas!
There were a few things to figure out first, like installing a hitch, wiring and tuning up the van. The used (2007) Scamp needed a few things like LED replacement lamps and a new battery, too.
Meanwhile, the AZT Jamboree fundraiser was moved at the last minute to Tucson Mountain Park due to rain. This is significant because the only ‘venue’ we could come up with for parking/riding/beering/camp fire-ing was a place called Snyder Hill.
Chad killing it climbing Golden Gate
Eszter and I hung out there long enough that we convinced ourselves it would be a suitable place to Scamp a night or two, as needed.
the first of many Scamp sunsets
Once we had a trailer hitch, we started conservatively, by towing the little trailer to the closest place we could, and all on pavement. Gilbert Ray campground would become a favorite place to Scamp, and our test trip went beautifully. We’d only planned a single night out, but we didn’t want to go home just yet.
So we pushed our luck, entering Synder Hill’s ruts with a tad too much confidence. The trailer’s jack dragged in the dirt and bent even further back. Ouch. At dusk, a little white dog appeared, scared and begging for food. By the end of the night, Eszter had the dog in her lap, and the dog had a name: Sparkles.
Sparkles would become a point of contention, a source of joy and warmth, and a source of major heartache, over the next months. Her arrival delayed us moving “full time” into the Scamp as we struggled to figure out what her story was, and what we would do with her.
The Sparkles story could fill an entire blog post, and is written up over on Eszter’s blog already. Suffice it to say, Sparkles won the dog lottery (as Eszter correctly puts it), ending up in a happy and loving home, with Eszter’s parents. We still get to visit her, and she doesn’t have to deal with the stresses of being a camp dog.
While Sparkles hung out in the yard of our tiny rental house, we continued making preparations to move into the Scamp. I had some years of accumulated stuff to go through and get rid of, including lecture notes and exams from grad school. It took some time to decide what got donated and what got trashed. How much, exactly, would fit in the trailer/van, and what did we really need? We didn’t really know.
Luckily we had Lee Blackwell and his shop at our disposal for further Scamp mods. The jack needed to be moved up (major design flaw in Scamps), and back. Our wiring harness needed to be tucked up out of the way, too. He also helped us put in a little bit more LED lighting. We were getting close.
We pulled the trailer out to Willow Springs for the 9th running of the Antelope Peak Challenge. It was a good crew, and I enjoyed riding the loop in the traditional direction (switched from the previous year).
Another beautiful Scamp sunset, this time with friends and a little camp fire nearby. The dream. We’re getting so close.
During APC, trackleaders was beginning the dive into sled dog season, or, the busy season. I still hadn’t transitioned to a fully mobile computer life. Somehow through all the previous years I’d held onto a giant desktop, that was lovely when fully set up, but a pain to haul around, and not Scamp-approved by any means.
Finding a suitable new laptop wasn’t too hard. Low power, fanless, direct DC charger, small and light. Would it be fast and capable enough to develop TopoFusion and run Trackleaders from? I wasn’t sure, but just like much of the decisions going into full mobile life, there was only one way to find out: try it.
It was a bit of a mental shift, but not too difficult. Luckily nothing I do these days is too (locally) resource intensive, so a laptop that’s well less than $1k does the job. Check another one off the box, we’re getting close!
Plans for Ole Pueblo were hard to settle on. I ended up watching Sparkles back in Tucson, and the Scamp stayed in town as well. I came up to cheer Ez and Alexis on with donuts, and to do the fuzzy math of lap times for them. They ended up taking the win! And Eszter had found a free ride to Boulder for her and Sparkles. Sparkles was bound for her new home, and we were now VERY close!
After spending some time trying to get Sparkles settled in (with some success), Eszter flew back to Tucson, and….
Full time Scamping, just outside of Tucson!
Everything fit with room to spare. But from our first camp we ended up making a trip or two to Goodwill and the community bike shop to donate more stuff. It didn’t take nearly as much effort to whittle it down as I thought.
The most common question we got, during this ~2 month period before we moved into the trailer, was some variant of: “That’s an awfully small trailer. How are you going to live in that?”
We thought it kind of a funny question, because in our mind it was an upgrade over living off the bikes, or out of a minivan and a tent. The Scamp was going to be luxurious, or so we thought. We didn’t really know, but we knew enough to have a good hunch.
The other common question was, “What’s your plan? How long are you going to live out of it?” The answer is that we don’t really know. We’ll stay in it for as long as it works, for as long as we enjoy it. It is true that though we’ve lived off bikes and out of cars, we’ve always returned to some kind of dwelling in the winter months and had a home base for part of the year. So striking off and going full time in a trailer was still an adventure in the unknown. And I don’t think we’d have it any other way.
More interesting and open questions, for us, were things like the following. Would the convenience and comfort of the trailer be worth the hassle of towing and the longer setup/takedown time? Tents sure keep things simple. Would the van be able to tow the trailer, plus gear, on highways at a decent speed? How about over steep mountain passes? Would having low clearance and 2WD be much of a limitation? Could we keep all our electronics charged, and could we both work using mobile data plans that didn’t cost an arm and a leg? Would the Scamp be comfortable enough that even in adverse conditions we wouldn’t go looking for shelter?
These questions, and more, were yet to be seen, as we starting Scamping around Southern AZ in the springtime. One thing was for certain: we were infinitely fortunate to both be in a place in our lives when the mobile life was not only possible, but desirable. So we put away any excuses, and went for it.
photo by Lee Blackwell
It started innocuously enough. Lee and I pedaled a graded dirt road into the Black Hills east of Safford.
The original idea was to recreate a memorable bikepack we did on a rather iconic section of the Grand Enchantment Trail some years back. We hiked our bikes a lot back then, but the memory of that had faded, replaced by the strong sense of “we need to go back there” that lingered.
But re-creating a ride that we know already ‘goes’ isn’t nearly as exciting as, well, something that we don’t know. When I took a look at Maestro Brett’s latest GET maps I quickly realized there was trail we had not been on. It looked steep, and remote, and full of water crossings, and probably hike-a-bike. Just a brief mention of the new section was all Lee needed — new country calls to him loudly.
the range does indeed look good
We wanted to hit the unknown stuff first, and in the downhill direction, so we pedaled the ‘self-shuttle’ portion of the ride first. In this case, it’s the Black Hills Backcountry byway. We had time to stop and read all the informative signs along the way, this time.
And what’s this? A gazebo with picnic table and a huge view of all the terrain we would be immersing ourselves in over the next several days! It was practically begging us to camp there, with the roof being a good full-moon sleep aid.
Then, just after night fell, the wind picked up. The mice started scurrying around. Lee’s air mattress blew into his bike and sprung a leak. The wind only increased its fury through the night. The cold seeped in from the ground to Lee’s core.
It wasn’t the greatest night of bikepack sleep we’ve ever had.
To the Gila River, where Lee’s puncture was obvious and repaired with a small piece of nylon cut out of the stuff sack.
Meanwhile, I looked for birds. And there were many dancing through the cottonwoods.
Already down some time and tired from the night, I suggested we alter our plan to grab a good night in the motel before launching off into the ‘doing of the thing.’ That also meant we could take a little side trip in search of… a hot spring!
An abandoned rail way turned singletrack, on a shortcut bearing? Yes, please!
photo by Lee Blackwell
Sand and steep rock made sure we didn’t ride our bikes all the way, but a bike was a pretty good tool for rolling over hills and dropping back to the river in search of hot water.
Hot water was found. Too hot, largely. At 180 degrees, it’s the hottest in AZ, but if you mix it with river water, you could maybe get it just right. Lee and a young couple did some digging, but I settled for a “half” soak — back half hot, front half cool. Not golden, but I’ll take it.
We rolled into the funky mining town of Clifton with time to spare. First stop was Roy Tyler’s Texas BBQ place. Before we were done there, we had bellies full of food, pie and ice cream. We had also met the mayor, half the city council, and collected a stack of business cards from various characters that call Clifton home. Lee’s personable way does well at making friends quickly.
We took the evening to spin unloaded around town, exploring the cave jail, churches, giant loaders and other nutty aspects of a town steeped in history. It’s too bad much of the the original town has been swept away in various floods of the San Francisco river.
Everyone was so friendly. “You guys look decidedly non-local.” Yeah, bikepackers aren’t exactly common around here. Neither are thru-hikers since even the GET skips these towns now.
The night at the motel was good. I awoke and was facing the only part of the ride I was not looking forward to: climbing 1000 feet, steeply, through the massive Morenci mine (largest copper mine in North America, dwarfing Kennecott, Silver City, Butte, etc), dodging mine traffic the entire way.
Out came the stack of business cards, and Lee’s talents. A few minutes later, he had a ride secured through the mine from none other than city councilman, jokester, sole republican of Clifton and owner of the Texas BBQ joint.
Being ‘pure’ (i.e. pedaling every last mile) is overrated.
Leave it to Scott and Lee to find a way to integrate hike-a-bike into what should be a straightforward ride between the towns of Clifton and Morenci.
The “Greenlee County Healthy Lifestyles Trail” does still exist and provides a traffic-free way to climb between the towns. But it’s changed a little bit since our 2008 GPX track.
The good Roy Tyler dropped us and our groceries just past the mine. We still had 1500 feet or so to climb on the deserted highway. We’ll call it semi-pure.
It was semi-rad, for sure, as we climbed towards the White Mountains, mingling with the mexican blue jays and acorn woodpeckers along upper Chase Creek.
And then, at long last, we were on the GET proper, into the meat of it, with 3+ days of food, a willingness to hike and a voracious appetite for new country.
photo by Lee Blackwell
Our expectations were set appropriately low. Any section we rode was considered a bonus.
photo by Lee Blackwell
We could tell someone, at some point, cared about this trail. But the current conditions? Less than favorable for mountain bike travel, despite the fact that we were losing elevation rapidly, there wasn’t a whole lot of riding going on.
Catclaw and other overgrowth is a real problem on a narrow trail bench. Beyond that, it’s been my observation that last year’s monsoon rains were ideal for growth of cheatgrass in the mid elevations of Arizona. Think Canelo Hills. Except the Canelos probably get 500x the traffic that the GET receives.
The winter’s brief freeze and snow was not enough to push the grasses back. So even sections that might be followable/rideable were often obscured and left the poor little bikepackers back on their feet.
In short, it isn’t hard to imagine that this trail could be more rideable under better conditions.
“This might be the hardest 3000 feet of elevation we’ve ever lost.” It was sure a good thing we weren’t going up (thanks to Master Brett’s suggestion).
“What, you want to go all the way up there? You’re crazy.”
Time wasn’t running high. Progress had been minimal all afternoon. But I had a hunch, given some vague hints on Brett’s maps, that this was the area, and that it was not to be missed.
What we found amazed us.
Magic springs coming from the cracks.
Hawks screeching and strafing us, repeatedly.
Magic trees and caves.
It is not hard to imagine and feel the vision quests that might have occured here.
Or the spirit animals that, at times, inhabit it.
We continued the quest of our own (whether or not it qualifies as visionary or a fool’s errand, I don’t know) further down the GET, as the ‘trail’ was simply in the jumbled streambed.
At dusk cottonwoods began to appear in the drainage as we picked our way down. Then, a spring! Clear water. We called it a night, enjoying the luxury of a wet desert camp, meaning extra coffee, emergen-C and even some whiskey that I surprised Lee by carrying.
The morning’s route continued down the drainage, occasionally rideable, and always highly interesting.
Painted Bluff slickrock! Ah the tasty little nuggests only available to the adventurous bikepacker.
Perhaps such nuggets will be enough to sustain us as we fight our way down to Eagle Creek? Occasionally bits of unrideable trail took us out of the drainage, presumably around pour-offs or other obstacles, but it was always slow going.
After nearly 24 hours, we had only covered 13 miles, while losing several thousand feet. But we had reached Eagle Creek, and it was running higher than expected.
The next 9 or so miles were following the creek, downstream, with an estimated 50+ fords. For the first couple miles there was rumored to be a ‘pack’ trail, but given the lack of use we’d seen anywhere so far, we were skeptical.
There was, at times, some paths to follow, as we repeatedly played the game of ‘do we ford here’ or continue fighting the brush on our current side, hoping to save two fords?
It’s a fun game to play, really. You just can’t have any expectation of making much progress.
After reaching a ranch house the topos indicated a jeep track to follow for the rest of Eagle Creek. Poking around left us skeptical. Brett had suggested we perhaps exit Eagle Creek on the other side of the jeep track, climbing thousands of feet away, but avoiding further slow travel and many fords.
We opted to stay in the cool shade and with the cool water. It was simply too beautiful and too rare a thing to leave, even though we new it was going to be slow. The jeep track was semi-followable and ill used, but it did improve vastly as the afternoon wore on.
We started getting the confidence to ride a few fords, perhaps as water level fell a little, drainage widened, and definitely as the water temperature warmed. It was fun to go flying into the creek with speed, losing it just as you hit the channel, and dumping your shoes straight in.
We don’t often get to ride with water in AZ. And, oh, what a setting.
We were followed by multiple black hawks as we made our way through the tight bends and oxbows of the rhyolite cliffed creek. Black hawk is a new bird for me!
photo by Lee Blackwell
Energy levels were not high as we paused to take a break where the route climbs away from Eagle Creek. Time estimates of what remained were not promising. Did we have enough food to actually push this thing through? Our second day on the GET was running out of daylight and we’d only covered 23 GET miles total!
There was a bailout, back to Morenci and Clifton, at this point. But Lee delivered my favorite quote of the trip, “yeah, but then we don’t get to see our country!” For Lee, seeing the country is always the highest priority, riding or hike-a-biking, tired or energetic.
We pedaled past the eastern terminus of the Safford Morenci trail. The sign marking the terminus was almost shiny, it felt so new, in direct opposition to the state of the trail, or the history of the trail.
It’s an old pack trail, through supremely rugged terrain, that once linked the farms (Safford) to the mines (Clifton/Morenci). Remnants of the original trail can still be seen, especially in places where it has to cling to cliff walls in order to make passage.
The BLM has revived the route and signed it, with some (imaginary?) fanfare some years ago. That fanfare seems to have conincided with the last time we rode it, when conditions were quite agreeable to the adventurous cyclist. We were about to learn just how things have deteriorated since.
While briefly a steep and rubbly 4×4 road, it was semi-rideable. As it turned to singletrack, the effect of the bovine inhabitants of Smith Canyon became apparent. There were stones and baby heads everywhere.
We pushed bikes into the failing night, scanning the terrain for any flat and stone-less ground that might afford some rest. It took a while before we found a couple of tiny cubbies big enough for bikepackers to lay their weary heads.
photo by Lee Blackwell
It was a cold morning at nearly 6000 feet, but our position was favorable for early morning sun. I think a few cows had also figured out this early morning sun perch. They came in the middle of the night, snorting at us in disapproval of us taking their sleeping spots!
We crested Bellmeyer saddle to grand veiws and much elatement. We had crossed the Turtle Mountains and were on a downward pitch to the next riparian wonderland — Bonita Creek.
photo by Lee Blackwell
I remembered climbing a fair bit of this singletrack, terrain pulling me upward like a magnet, last time. Cheatgrass and catclaw once again had other ideas on too many sections that I would have loved to coast down.
But what did remain was brilliant, and freeing, and lovely, and so much easier than dragging bikes up through baby heads. The singletrack ended quickly, and for the first time in 3 days, we had open 2-tracks to coast on.
It might have been the first time that our bikes did us much good. In a rational, logical way. But what is logical about crossing this terrain in the first place? After all, a smooth and swift highway can take us where we’re going orders of magnitude faster.
photo by Lee Blackwell
We dropped into Midnight Canyon, as the excitement level peaked, and our bikes continued to be highly ‘useful.’ Where by useful I mean incredibly fun.
Choke rock! No regrets at the possession of two wheeled bicycles were offered as we coasted and pedaled our way down the magnificence of the slot.
photo by Lee Blackwell
It is not every day you encounter a rideable slot canyon to ride through, to wonder at.
photo by Lee Blackwell
And to not want to leave behind. Partly we stopped for shade, partly we stopped because of the beautiful spot, and the zone tailed hawks (another new bird!) flying overhead.
And partly it was because we knew the ‘fun’ was over. Bonita creek was here, and the infamous Johnny Creek loomed ahead — in the uphill direction.
photo by Lee Blackwell
First we had to get there. Riparian areas are a unique and wonderful thing in the Arizona Desert. But keeping a trail or route anywhere near them is near impossible. Little blue ‘Brett’ flags kept us on track, got us to the ford spot, and away with muddy feet.
photo by Lee Blackwell
Those feet struggled to wrangle bicycles up and out of the lower reaches of Johnny Creek, on centuries old trail, chopped precipitously out of sheer rock. It’s a sight to behold, and just on the edge of what’s possible to push up with full water bags on our backs.
Into the slot of Johnny we go. Even for thru-hikers, the pace through here is not quick. But it’s delightful travel, in a way, picking your lines and marveling at the geology throughout. Some water obviously runs fast through here!
If not for the concave curve of the slot, midday shade would have been hard to come by. It was slim, even still, but Lee is a certified master of napping. Somehow he perched himself on a tiny ledge, completely in the shade.
“Perfect, when my water bag is done filtering, it’ll fill up and fall off on my face. That’ll mean nap time is over.”
The nap was declared good, though only a ‘2-sided’ nap. For the best recovery results, Lee recommends a 3-sided nap (lying on back, and both sides).
It was enough that we resumed charging up the slot, finding occasional pieces of new trail that would guide us out of the drainage for the stone dams and other obstacles that might prove difficult for horses (or bikepackers!). They sure didn’t overdo the bench construction or pruning on the new sections though.
Johnny done. Time to push bikes up steep roads, somewhat of a relief?
But we had forgotten about “Johnny Two”, the next canyon of singletrack. Some of it was good, and some was choked with brush and finally had us wanting to cry “Uncle.” Enough raising and lowering of loaded bikes over boulders. Enough slamming of pedals into legs. Enough cat claw skin loss.
But the end was reached, again with fancy sign. As we laid in the dirt elated at completing our second traversal of the Safford Morenci trail, Lee was heard to mutter something extremely rare. “I don’t know, Scott, that was bordering on ridiculous.” [the amount of hike-a-bike and difficult conditions]
Bordering on ridiculous, but not actually ridiculous.
The evening light, the quiet spaces, the open roads, the fact that we’d seen zero humans in the last three days, the sheer joy of coasting and wind on the face [thanks bikes!], the satisfaction of completing our visionary (to us) quest.
photo by Lee Blackwell
Well, that was all pretty damn nice. We coasted for miles and miles, down into the Gila Valley and towards Safford, where the ride (or hike?) was over.
Thanks for a great adventure, Lee. I’m looking forward to the next bike/hike adventure, whether on the GET or not. I love that we are still able to get along so well and see such country. It’s truly a rare and special thing.
It wasn’t going to happen otherwise. We had to do it, we had to declare an ’emergency’ and drop everything. We can’t let a beautiful spring season go by without a visit to the Gila Canyons and the Arizona Trail. We just can’t.
What was the emergency? The emergency was many fold:
We needed to check on the poppy bloom.
Someone had to ride next to all the color, to see how extensive it is.
Make sure the Gila Monsters of the Gila Canyons are well fed.
See if the new Revelate bags are as rad as always (or even more rad?).
Does our favorite hidden watering hole still flow? (It does!)
And what of the sunset? Will the sky turn ablaze and add even more color to the rhytolite cliffs, as we turn to climb deeper into the canyons?
Will the owls hoot at night, the poorwills whistle and tweet while hunting for bugs?
Will we wake up in a place like this, refreshed and invigorated?
For these very important issues, and more, the bikepack of the Gila Canyons was declared an emergency situation, one that could simply not be ignored.
In the morning there is no such thing as an emergency. There is no work to be done, no doubt about how the day is going to be spent.
It’s going to be spent, *out here*, amongst saguaro and cactus wren.
Speaking of saguaro, Eszter and I have a favorite cactus. He’s still just as stoked as ever, giving the Gila Canyons, the AZT, and the universe at large two thumbs up.
Gone are the days when Lee and I would explore this area, sans a complete AZT. Thru-hikers and thru-riders were nearly an impossibility.
By those standards, seeing 3 bikepackers and 4 thru-hikers is ‘crowded.’
Hedgehogs are always the first to go, overlapping nicely with wildflower season.
Stevan is on a thru-mission, having started at the Mexican border, aiming for the South Rim as a finish. He had the 750 track loaded on his GPS, but was making similar (wise) decisions to skip certain sections, as Eszter and I did on our tour a couple years ago.
Climbing to the unicorn rock, we met another pair of bikepackers doing the full Gila River Ramble Loop, including the ice cream option! Come race/event time I know there are a good number of folks following my GPX tracks around. But it was pretty neat to run into people I would have never known about otherwise, and even better when they are making prudent decisions such as the ice cream loop!
We wrapped it up by self-shuttling and closing the loop via the highway. The emergency was resolved, crisis averted, all was well in the world. Especially when we had root beer floats in Kearny. And twist ice cream cones in Mammoth.
Thanks for making this one happen, Lee. Looking forward to the next, longer, one on the GET.
The first photo on this blog has been, for the last month, a photo of my green Lenzsport Mammoth. The bike was leaning against a ledge of that beautiful white rock on Gooseberry Mesa. Sadly that bike was stolen soon after we returned to Southern Arizona for the winter. It had seen many a mile, …. [Continue reading]
Moab’s wind and rain brought us to Salt Lake. It was a good time to visit with my family — overcast and cold for several days. Very little temptation to go outside and play. We played inside, with nieces and nephews, instead. It was fun.
The skies began to clear over the west, and the …. [Continue reading]
At last the snows did come to the mountains. It piled up in a slushy mess, up high and on the roads down low. We were lucky to get out safely when we could.
The destination? Fruita / Grand Junction – the desert.
Eszter and two Bec(k)s were bikepacking the Kokopelli Trail …. [Continue reading]
The view from my ‘office’ was superb. Gold aspens, blue sky. Trails from the door. Easy access to the alpine. A cozy place to stay.
Why leave such paradise? Why jump back in the van and sleep in a tent for two weeks, working from campsites and libraries, constantly on the lookout for …. [Continue reading]
Our addiction to high places and to places where trees cannot grow, continues.
run! the storms are building!
Sometimes that just means getting in the car, driving up high, and walking for a few hours. (We were also hoping to catch a couple of CDT hikers and ‘perform’ some …. [Continue reading]
I’ve been meaning to write this code for a while. It would dig through the trackleaders archive, and do a little counting. The results are a little staggering, at least to me.
That’s a lot of tracking, a lot of adventure covered. 6 million miles!
It started back in 2008 or 2009. …. [Continue reading]
We set up camp in the shadow of Mt. Shavano, and just outside of Salida. We needed a tiny bit of recovery after the 14ers and such, and Salida is the perfect place. We have friends to visit, there’s a friendly bike shop, a hot spring / rec center, and even my favorite …. [Continue reading]
descending off Huron — dream riding
I didn’t think it was going to happen. If you’d asked me a week ago whether I’d be riding down Huron Peak, after having summitted, I would have put the likelihood somewhere close to zero. Yet there I was, late on a Saturday afternoon, sun shining bright …. [Continue reading]
I feel so lucky to be able to experience prime alpine season here in Colorado. The monsoonal flow has settled down, days are still warm, and snow is a non-issue. It’s time to get high!
With this comes an appreciation for the freedom and opportunity we have, being mobile and able to live …. [Continue reading]
Look! Proof that we occasionally hit the trail early.
I was overly excited and awoke at an uncivilized hour. It’s not every day you have a new peak to climb, accessible by bike/foot right from ‘home.’ Alpine(ish) starts are a good idea when heading above treeline in Colorado, too.
did you know …. [Continue reading]
Let’s continue on with the second half of the photo reel. Part one left us at Oakridge, roughly halfway through the loop.
big tree went boom
The route hits some deep wooded singletrack, a very pleasant 98 degree ‘warm’ spring, and some roads, leaving town.
Paved roads aren’t the first choice …. [Continue reading]
The Hot Sisters Route came together we’re putting the route on the fast track to being published. There will much more info to come, but for now we have a page coming together over at bikepacking.net:
Hot Sisters Hot Spring Route
The route is ready to go — email me if you’d like GPX …. [Continue reading]
Eszter and I spent a few days scouting an alternate route for an exciting new bikepacking route that just came to life this month. It’s a five or six hundred mile backcountry loop highlighting singletrack, hot springs and mountain climbs (on foot) all through the central Cascades in Oregon.
Despite the fact that bikepacking and …. [Continue reading]
Done. A little more than three weeks, which is pretty much what we guesstimated. It all came together supremely well.
We got up lazily from camp at Devil’s Lake. I love camping in the same spot for multiple nights. A few miles climbing on the pavement back to the Metolius Windigo trail took us through …. [Continue reading]
It wasn’t an alpine start, but I did wake up earlier than normal, excited about the day ahead. We were camped at the trailhead for the South Sisters Climbing Trail. 6 miles and 5000′ up was the top of the volcano, one we have been looking at, and riding around, for the last 3 weeks. …. [Continue reading]