FALL 2022 LEGENDS OF THE SOUTHWEST BLOG #8
Table Mesa Trailhead
Today was a wonderful change of pace. Two professors from Sterling College, David and Laura, came and taught classes for the day. Sterling, based out of Vermont and the college that accredits this very Semester, has its own Southwest semester, and David and Laura lead it.
Our time was spent identifying the various flora and fauna of the area and then diving into the many fascinating adaptations that plants make to live in these austere conditions. We learned about modified leaves and photosynthetic bark, both designed to retain moisture. David told us that the DNA strand of a Creosote bush can be over 11,000 years old, that Saguaro spines used to be leaves, and heaps besides. It was a lovely thing to begin knowing these plants which we have now spent so much time passing between. Thank you, Sterling, and thank you David and Laura!
Table Mesa Trailhead to Picketpost Trailhead to Forest Road Campsite
We were out of our tents and packing camp well before the sun lit up the Saguaros and Palo Verde around our camp. After a few hours of moving seats out of the trailer, loading bikes, and generally rearranging gear, we struck out once more for the AZT. We saw palm trees as we drove through Phoenix, a new sight for this semester. It was enjoyable to be back on the Arizona Trail, our muddy friend. No mud here though, only rocky, sun-blasted singletrack.
We all had the thought in our heads that the Arizona Trail would be considerably easier riding than the Black Canyon. Not so. There was a large quantity of loose rocks and technical sections. This led to a few falls into Prickly Pears and other such pokey, spikey plants. We decided that walking was both safer and, in the end, swifter, so we dismounted and marched through the waving grasses into the starry, crisp night. We found a good pace and, to our collective surprise, enjoyed the traipsing. A suitable campsite was located and we moved quickly in pitching tents as well as preparing a delicious pasta meal.
Thank you Jaimini and Hannah! The day was long and at certain moments demoralizing. It was an unpleasant surprise to realize the true difficulty of the trail and what lies in store for the coming days. Despite all of this, we made decent time and it was a good reminder that when the going gets tough, we get tougher.
We have grit and drive and a lust for challenge which will surely take us far.
Forest Road campsite to Mesquite Grove
After a two day hiatus, there is once again a Leader of the Day. We decided that neither the layover nor the half day of biking would allow the leader to run the show or get the true experience of leadership. Today, Naima was up. The day began with a long climb up through rolling hills crowned with rock.
As the day went on, the landscape grew in grandeur until we were riding through a grassy canyon with cliffs on either side. Spires of tan stone 60 feet in height lined the trail, appearing almost like fingers from a mighty hand. We gradually climbed out of the gorge onto a ridge with a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. Our afternoon was spent winding through a scorching hot Saguaro forest. At long last we reached we reached the Gila River. It was here that, after refilling our dromedaries, Tricia gathered us in a circle. She explained that the trail was slower going than originally excepted and that while we could push on to Tucson, it would involve many long, hard days. If we opted not to attempt Tucson, we could still have satisfyingly difficult days of riding as well as time at camp to explore.
This latter option would be a lot less stressful and more fun. It was left up to us students to decide. We voted to take it slow and enjoy life. The students had agency over a critical decision which is a real reflection on how amazing Tricia and Samuel are as instructors. I felt that I was really in control of my semester experience. We rode on for another mile to where we found a beautiful camp in a Mesquite grove. During her long share, Naima spoke about her childhood, the places she has lived, and her family.
Mesquite Grove to Kelvin Trailhead campsite
I was pulled from my slumber by Anna, our Leader of the Day, singing. I took a moment before wriggling out of my tent to admire the Mesquite boughs overhead. What a perfect way to wake up. The morning was warm, midday was warm, and the afternoon was, well, warm! We pedaled along the gently curving river for the majority of the day, swooping in and out of Mesquite and Saguaro groves.
Due to the abundance of water, we saw trees–actual tall, leafy trees for the first time in a while. With the sun hanging low in the sky, we reached a bridge and a lovely swimming spot. We enjoyed the cool, refreshing water before quite literally riding off into the sunset. Eventually it grew too dark to ride and we began walking. We met Zoe at the trailhead. She had brought our resupply in Pam, our valiant van. Pam, however, was stuck in sand, so half of the group went to extract her while the rest began setting up camp. We worked on a plant identification Book of Wisdom page before devouring a delicious meal of rice curry. Anna shared about her experience of Waldorf school, her parents, and her work.
Kelvin Trailhead to Water Barrel
Due to our resupply, the morning workload well exceeded the norm. Aidan, our Leader of the Day, handled the extra work with aplomb and got us on bikes in a timely manner. Prema showed us the elevation profile for the day. It was terrifyingly steep. Not downhill steep. Uphill. We climbed 2,000 feet in the first two miles and while it flattened out marginally after this, we were exhausted by the time we reached our camp in a gravely swale. Tricia gathered us up and as soon as she began to talk, we knew something fun was in the works.
We were to have a solo solo; just us, in the desert, with our sleeping pads and bags. Nothing else besides the clothes on our back in terms of gear. We would be called back the following day around noon. The intention was to have time to reflect on this amazing experience, to process and ponder free of distractions. We were given a piece of paper and instructed to pen an affirmation for ourselves in the present tense. Essentially, we brought into being where we want ourselves to be in the future. Trish collected all of our papers and will mail them to us at some distant, undisclosed date. We grabbed our things and were dropped off at various points. I can only speak for myself, but I went straight to sleep, grateful for the extra rest.
Water Barrel to Powerlines campsite
We spent the morning at our solo spots, working on our affirmations, meditating, sleeping, building cairns and enjoying the silent beauty of the land. When the sun reaches its zenith and began slipping down towards the horizon, a call rang out, echoing up the valley, calling us back. We returned to find bowls heaped with Kasha, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Two pies, one pumpkin and the other peach praline, rested in the center of the circle as if on a pedestal. What a Thanksgiving feast! Hats off to Tricia and Samuel for somehow managing to sneak these items in from the last resupply undetected! Aidan did his long share because he was not able to the night prior. He spoke about his family, childhood, and a story about acceptance. Hannah was appointed Leader and jumped right into the role, getting us out of camp poste haste. The riding today was relaxed and rolling. We started to see more Agave and Soap Yucca, new plants for us.
We ate dinner in a camp surrounded by Cholla and Brittlebush. The setting sun turned the hills into brilliantly defined silhouettes as we were introduced to our next piece of reading material. “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, as it happens a very controversial text. While I do not think this blog is the right place to discuss it, the mess of competing opinions about this book is fascinating and worth learning more about. Tricia gave us the option to opt out of reading it if we did not feel comfortable. We decided to go for it with a healthy level of skepticism. During her long share, Hannah talked about her family, school life, upbringing, and love for literature.
Powerlines to Freeman Road Trailhead
Jaimini roused us with a song 30 minutes later than usual today. With his new found power as Leader, he deduced that a little more sleep would go a long way. Wise man! Once our camp was packed away and breakfast was in the works, Jaimini announced that we would be going on a run. What he meant by “run” was hill sprints. Despite some initial mumbling and grumbling, we agreed it was a great way kick off the day.
Later, we rode at a great pace over the flat, smooth trails and arrived at our camp with time to spare for reading and journaling. Around the fire that night, Jaimini told us about his passion for music, sports and finance. Samuel taught a star and constellation class after dinner. We identified several new constellations and followed that up with beginning on our next Book of Wisdom page. The assignment was to look at the stars and find our own constellation and then draw out a stylized version with a short story of how this constellation came to be. We were cold and very ready for the warmth of our sleeping bags when at last we tucked in for sleep.
Freeman Road Trailhead to Beehive Tank
We broke camp as efficiently as possible before riding a short distance to collect our resupply from Zoe. Once breakfast was consumed, we lined up our bikes, ready to go. All of a sudden, Tricia and Samuel began distributing food which they had packed onto their bikes that morning. We stood around confused for a few seconds until our brains caught up with the situation. If they were ditching food and giving it to us, that could only mean one thing: group solo incoming!
We gathered in a circle to receive our orders, giddy with excitement and anticipation. We would ride that last three days on the Arizona Trail solo. Three full days! A few jaws hit the gravel. We said our farewells and rode off into the morning light laughing and shouting. The day went smoothly and we made good time, flying through veritable forest of Cane Cholla and seas of gently waving grasses. Owing to our fast pace we had time at camp to relax, journal, was up or nap. Having this space was wonderful, and we owe its existence to Prema and her leadership which allowed us so much extra time.
We lugged the supper pot up to a ridge and ate our meal as the sun sunk below the distant, Saguaro-speckled horizon. We sang, hooted, hollered, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. What and incredible group of people. While dishes were being washed we lay in a circle, staring up at the stars and taking turns reading.
“The last sliver of the waning crescent lays on its back like a beard in the sky: acceptance, she says. Her pale light, and perhaps the first signs of the sun, outline the jagged mountains above us, and the men on the mountain, the silhouettes of saguaro, standing tall as they always do, silently watching us wake up camp with our red headlamps and a song. One peak, then another came into view as we stuff our tents, pack our bikes and brush our teeth. Sitting around a pot of kasha, we watch as hiker we had passed the day before does our same route on the saddle across the valley. A man on the mountain, less still.” -Prema
Beehive Tank to Yet Another Dry Streambed
The solo made it that both Aidan and Hannah were only able to lead for a half a day so today they split the duties: Hannah taking the morning and Aidan the afternoon. Camp takedown was relaxed, perhaps even a bit a bit lazy, but we more than made up for our lethargy with the 1900 feet of climbing in the blazing sun!
Despite that dramatic and dire description, that day was enjoyable and we could see for maybe a hundred miles in any given direction. The flora changed rapidly as we rode, the cacti giving way to tan dry grass and small bushes. We found our home in a gulley bordered by Mesquite and Cat’s Claw trees. The evening was languorous, our time spent on the constellation pages and reading.
“We traveled through a cholla graveyard, emerging back into open hills. Yesterday, the grown grass swayed as our frames brushed passed their delicate bodies, bending with our knees and elbows, curved like our backs over handlebars. Today we trampled it down, grinding up a never-ending hill. I arrived to lunch with the memory of my gasps still hanging in my lungs. We stopped for breaks with a view of the mountains-blue and in every direction. We walked in the sun, living in harmony with the ants.” -Hannah describes the day
Yet Another Dry Streambed to Tiger Mine Trailhead
Final day of expedition! All I could think about as we packed up our home onto our bikes was that this was it. The last time I would stuff this bag, strap on this tent, clip this buckle. These things which I had grown so accustomed to were about to go away. Bittersweet is a grave understatement. We cycled through yet more elegantly bowing grass, the stalks making a soft susurrus as they brushed against or legs. Tricia had warned us to be at the rendezvous point at 4 o’clock sharp, or else. This caused some stress and consternation but all this was washed away and replaced with joy when we rounded a bend in the trail and saw Pam off in the distance.
The last half mile was euphoric. It felt like we were champions coming in for the final sprint of the Tour de France or the Paris Roubaix, victorious despite the many challenges we had faced. We surged up the last incline and practically leaped from our bikes to greet Tricia and Zoe. They passed out oranges and we hopped around for a few minutes, laughing and clapping each other on the back. We debriefed our solo before packing the van once more with all of our bikes and other bits of equipment.
We drove a short ways to Catalina State Park where we will reside for the next few days.
The feeling I had when I lay my head down that night was incredible. Three weeks of biking through the desert, countless memories with people I love deeply, a feeling of accomplishment and self-confidence rarely found elsewhere. All of these things and countless more came together to form one great joy within me to be alive. Wow, Kroka is pretty darn cool.