Desert warmth

I’m not sure how it all started. How the idea of bikepacking in one of the best and most beautiful places came to be. How it came to be timed perfectly with the full moon, with the holiday and with the weather. In one of my favorite places in the whole world. With someone so beautifully strong and experienced, and full of deep appreciation for life and magic places. There is an incredible amount of life to live out by the Gila river, on the Arizona Trail and on the rock. It’s a special place, beyond all special places.

It really was as simple as loading up the bikes and pack with a few items (and lots of food!), and we were out the door looking for big desert warmth.

The hours may have been short on the first day, but sun well cherished.

The riding was effortless, a rarity for day 1 of a bikepack. It only took a few awkward minutes to get adjusted to the laden ponies.

Sleeping ponies. They carried the little bit of gear to stay warm and watch the big moon rise from Gila Canyons.

photo by Eszter Horanyi

“I love it when you’re living in a moment you know you’re going to remember forever.”

Sunrise hit Dale’s butte early, but not our canyon camp. We hit the trail and proceeded deep into the Gila.

photo by Eszter Horanyi

Wondering, as we went along, if this could actually be real. Could life really be this good?

“Not real!” was the common refrain, as we’d reach another view, twisted saguaro forest or cliff band. It just keeps getting better as you climb higher, go further.

Even though I’ve been here several times, and in several states of consciousness, I still have to question if it’s real. And pinch myself that we get to ride bikes, and camp, through it all.

It’s the crown jewel of the AZT. And this was my best traversal of it yet.

We made a brief stop in town, because we eat to ride.

Or is it ride to eat? The real reason for the loop to Superior is revealed: ice cream! We mourned the town’s loss of Dairy Queen, then proceeded to Circular-K for that little slice of heaven. It’s high up on the list for possible ‘best things we ate’ in the Gila. There are some tough competitors, though, like the inside-out carrot cake / cream cheese sandwiches, Justin’s PB cups, chili covered mangoes, packable salmon tacos, chocolate covered ginger, whole paycheck jelly beans, to name a few. The TJ’s pumpkin spice chai at sunrises was up there too.

This was the best I’ve ever eaten bikepacking, and I can see I have been doing it all wrong. Learn from the master (see: “Fine Dining on Tour Divide” in a summer edition of Mountain Flyer magazine).

We proceeded on the “Legends of Superior Trail (LOST)” which provides a nice, if wandering, off-highway connection from town to the Picketpost Trailhead. It was perfect for our stuffed bellies, and perfect for our wandering, dreamy ways. New trail for me!

Boom! Exploding saguaro (hit by lightning, we surmised). Picketpost was a delightful evening’s climb.

We laid the ponies to rest on the high point of the ride, and threw out the sleeping bags. Nights may be long in December, but we barely noticed. We got to wake up, together, in a place like this…

, and ride through places like this.

Go figure out a good way to get to the river, and skip across.

tanlines growing stronger in AZ. nice toenails!

Cold and muddy, but it was heard to be lacking in adventure factor.

Perhaps we can do something about that, climbing the high ridges and bare rock of Area 52.

Hey look, friends! Out here!

“I was planning on avoiding that…”

Nothing like a little camera peer pressure and the presence of a cute girl to influence someone into wise decisions. Louis owned the keyhole! I reminded myself just how scary it is on foot, then we pedaled on through the grandiose place we were lucky to find ourselves in.

We also saw Jeff and Nancy out bikepacking, some Phoenix friends day riding and sending off other bikepackers, several backpackers, and a rider+hiker all on the AZT. I’m not used to following tire tracks out here, but they made me smile this time around. Word is getting out, people are loving it. It was a great time to be out there.

Louis and friend split off, we headed for an exit of 52, via the waterfall. This took us to the promised downhill hike-a-bike.

It was here that I had the genius idea to try a route I thought would be easier/faster than going over the east mesa. We went down the first canyon, hoping to find open sand sooner than later.

It went like this.

“Oh boy.”

“Oh dear.”

“Oh no!”

Having already struggled through brush and handed bikes down the previous pour offs (it would have been very difficult or impossible solo), we were pretty committed at this point. The water was several feet deep, meaning even if you were willing to get soaked, it was a big drop. I thought we were hosed. Nice route planning, GPS man.

But wait! There’s a couple inch wide shelf on the side you can climb up to. Take a breath and walk along, then down steep rock to safe ground. It went without a bike. I jogged down the wash to make sure there wasn’t something even worse ahead. It led to big sand and an opening slot. Now could we get a bike down it?

photo by Eszter Horanyi

Success! One pony wrangled. The other went. Now for the other pony wrangler, and self professed member of team vertigo. “Be brave, be strong” was uttered, and she made it look easy.

A few minutes after standing on open sand: “Ooh, that was coooool.” Maybe it actually *was* genius. Adventure factor was no longer lacking.

Now we just had a long ridgeline climb to enjoy, stealing views back into Gila Canyons, with “not real” always on the tips of our tongues.

Finally time to bust out the tacos! Easily qualified as techy ones after 52.

There’s still more … Ripsey looms!

The universe smiled. The sun dipped below the thick clouds right as we crested the ridge.

“Glorious ridgeline cruising” doesn’t begin to describe what it’s like to float along, on a bicycle, up there.

Especially at the end of a big trip, the best week, with a heart full of desert love, and with sudden golden hour light flooding the senses.

That, now that, might begin to describe what it’s like. It sums up the week better than words ever could.

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