Last week I loaded up my trusty Salsa El Mariachi and hit the Arizona Trail with the goal of riding the AZT300 race course. A quick look at the results shows people have done the course ridiculously fast (less than 2 days?!) considering it features 40,000 feet of climbing over 300 miles. But I wasn’t going out for an ITT, I was going out at a touring pace to see if I could do a multi-day bikepacking trip by myself without going crazy or getting lost or both. Still, even though I had a lot of time cushion, I wanted to get it done in a reasonable amount of time. I was hoping for 5-6 days. I wasn’t planning to do any night riding and the daylight hours available were waning at this time of the season. I figured I should be able to average 50 miles a day even though I had definitely not been training, just doing a regular amount of riding.
The allure of the Arizona Trail had drawn me in ever since I first heard about people bikepacking it years ago. A friend of mine from Indiana loaded up his Honda Fit with a single speed fatbike and drove all the way down to southern Arizona about five years ago to see what it was all about. He came back with stories of countless soul crushing hike-a-bike sections, lack of water, loneliness and a general uneasiness about being out in the lost part of the state all by himself. I can’t remember how many miles he was able to put in, but let’s just say the AZT most definitely won that battle and he came back to Indiana with his tail tucked between his legs.
So, the AZT had been on my mind ever since this friend planted the seed that it was un-do-able or at least prohibitively difficult. Recently the stars had aligned just right to give me some significant time off between jobs and I was going through a lot of changes in my personal life. Not to get all Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert on you but I needed a journey to reset my compass. I recently got out of a long term relationship and the split was jarring to my psyche and my self-esteem. I’ve always loved pushing my limits and seeking out adventure but in the past it had been by the side of my partner who did a lot of the logistical planning and especially the navigation. Could I pull this off without getting lost in the desert? I was dead set on finding out.
The decision to ride the AZT300 was made about two weeks before I was going to start pedaling down the trail from Parker Canyon Lake. I had a fair amount of gear amassed and had done a little research but it was time to get serious. I had only ever spent one night out bikepacking by myself so a multi-day effort was going to be a new experience for me. I picked the brain of Joey from Velorution Cycles in my new home of Durango, CO who had raced the AZT300 this past spring. His advice and tips were invaluable to my planning process. My friend Aaron helped me load the GPS track on my neglected Garmin and showed me some basics about how to operate the gizmo I had owned for a couple years but barely used. I’m not a techno-phobe but sometimes fear a learning curve and Garmin doesn’t exactly make their interfaces user-friendly. I scoured the internet for blogs of people who had ridden the route I was planning, pored over the Arizona Trail Association’s resource rich website, and checked it against the race course cues Scott Morris (the mastermind of the AZT race) had posted on his TopoFusion site. I also sprung for the guidebook and had that as my bedtime reading in the weeks leading up to the ride. It was the guidebook that reminded me of the unsettling realities of the wildlife present on the trail. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, mountain lions, and jaguars – oh my! In the days leading up to my ride I would close my eyes and see mountain lions. Every night. Without fail. It felt ominous. I tried to ignore it.
As much as you read or research the AZT it can never prepare you for the equal parts brutal and beautiful reality of being out on the trail and experiencing it firsthand. To say the trail is difficult is an understatement. To say it feels remote cannot quite express the experience of being out for days without seeing a single soul aside from a man with a gun who asks earnestly “You’re not out here all by yourself, are you??”
Day Zero – October 17th, 2015
Getting to Parker Canyon Lake
I somehow convinced my friend Luke to take me to Parker Canyon Lake the night of my 32nd birthday. I guess you could say I pulled the birthday card. We were coming off a couple of days in Zion National Park canyoneering so what was another 10 hours of driving before he had to turn around and head back to Fort Collins? Since it was my birthday I opted for an AirBnB rental just 15 minutes from where my journey would begin so I could spend the night perfecting my bike set up over and over again and whittling down my pack job. Heading down from Zion in two separate cars, we first met up at Picketpost Trailhead outside of Superior, Arizona where my journey would end.
I had a lot to organize in my car before leaving it behind at Picketpost. What was I bringing with me on my bike? What did I need that night that I could live without until I made it up to Fort Collins again? What could I leave in my car, where could I hide any valuables? Luke took the opportunity to pre-ride the first mile of the course out of Picketpost. I heard him charging down the hill around Picketpost Mountain to come back to the trailhead and it sounded rocky and loose. “Wow, that first mile is fairly technical. You’re going to have a blast!” I felt sick to my stomach with nerves. But when he gave me my birthday present, a “homing rock” he had procured somewhere along that first mile, I knew I was going to make it back to my car. Eventually. Somehow.
We got in his car and headed south for the Parker Canyon Lake area. I was a bundle of nerves. I sat frozen with fear wondering what I had gotten myself into and how I was going to pull this off. What if, what if, what if. We stopped outside of Tucson for birthday treats at the Trader Joe’s. I was in no mood to celebrate, it felt premature. I felt like any sort of celebration would be asking for something bad to happen out there. I’m excessively superstitious sometimes. My mom called and was all, “Honey, this is your best birthday ever, isn’t it?! I’m so proud of you!” Again, it felt premature to accept her praise. I was terse and feigned excitement.
We watched storms come over the southern mountains and lightning play in the sky on our drive down. The forecast wasn’t looking super promising. It had been storming on and off all day and was supposed to continue through the night. From my recon it seemed the trails would be rideable as long as they had a minute to dry out in the sun, but Joey had mentioned something about “peanut butter mud” outside of Kentucky Camp. Heading south out of Sonoita on Highway 83 the road got progressively worse. I was routing us using my phone and couldn’t believe it was supposed to take 2 hours to drive 20 miles. About halfway to where we were going to spend the night I remembered the caution from the AirBnB host to make sure we were fueled up before heading down from Sonoita. Luke’s gas gauge was somewhere between ¼ and E. Shit, why hadn’t I thought of that before?! We spent the next half hour trying to calculate if it was possible for us to make it to the AirBnB house, to the trailhead, and then for him to make it back to Sonoita the next morning on the amount of gas he had. Our calculations were that he would probably run out of gas 5 miles from Sonoita. We tried not to worry about it. He had a bike and could ride to get gas if need be, but what a way to start out an already long day of driving. Meanwhile, it kept storming, and by the time we got off the highway and onto the dirt roads leading to the house we were staying in the puddles were growing. I kept worrying about muddy trail conditions and started feeling like we were both on a fool’s errand.
We found our way to the house and Luke made me birthday burritos while I worked on my bike set-up. We drank champagne and I tried to ignore my nerves. I made some last minute decisions to leave things out and realized it was going to be much more difficult to pack all the food I needed than I had initially thought. I had spent a lot of time thinking about gear, repair supplies, water, and first aid, but not nearly enough time thinking about calories and how many I would actually need. It had been so long (2 ½ years!) since I had done an endurance event of this magnitude that I had forgotten how crucial calories can be. Going into a desert journey, I was much more concerned by lack of water.
I got everything as perfected as I could by midnight and let myself have some birthday cake. I stared out the window, watched it storm, and again all I could think of were mountain lions. Bounding over rocks with grace and speed. Watching me from hillsides. It didn’t help that the AirBnB had a mountain lion motif going on. Luckily Luke had fallen asleep hours before so I didn’t have anyone to verbalize my neurotic fears with. I set the alarm for just before dawn and tried to fall asleep. I was hoping for a 7am start. We woke up the next morning and I patted the ground outside the house. Wet, but not too sloppy. Still, perhaps I should give the sun a little time to dry things out? It was an excuse to linger and put off starting. I ate leftover rice and beans for breakfast and drank too much coffee like I do. We arrived at the Parker Canyon Lake trailhead around 9:30am. We found a rocky overgrown trail that was relatively dry. No more procrastinating. Luke took some pictures and gave me a lucky sprig of Manzanita to adorn my handlebar bag. I rode around the parking lot a few times to make sure everything was secure and then he rode me in about a quarter of a mile. Everything seemed good to go so he turned around and left me to begin my journey through the Canelo Hills.
Day One – October 18th, 2015
The Canelo Hills – aka Ghost Trails aka Oak Brush Torture Chamber
28 miles (daily mileages are estimates)
The trail was rocky and loose but not too challenging at first. As I got into the passage a little further I settled into a groove with some hike-a-bike, some riding, and followed a nice zigzag-ing trail through the ups and downs of the East Canelo Hills. I felt relaxed and relieved to have finally started this journey that I had been obsessing about for weeks. I drank in the open skies and solitude and just pedaled. Easy, I thought, I’ll get to Patagonia in no time and then decide how far I’ll make it before I camp tonight. My head has a way of getting ahead of itself especially when the unforeseen challenges of the AZT were involved. The first passage quickly became grueling as the day heated up but I got through it in about 3 ½ hours. I got to the trailhead that marked the West Canelo Hills and banked on it being more of the same. For whatever reason the trail was immediately more overgrown in this section and more difficult to follow. I kept losing my way and having to pull out my GPS to get myself back on track. Having had very little experience using my GPS this was a difficult task.
Somewhere along the line I missed a sign indicating hikers go one way and bikers go a different way and stumbled through overgrown brush for what felt like hours. I finally found the trail and felt triumphant only to discover I was riding in a circle and going back the way I came. Focus, you can do this, I kept telling myself, just pay attention. Eventually I got myself out of the maze by locating the right carsonite sign and making a left turn I kept missing. Getting back on track for real felt great. I resisted the urge to check the time but it felt like time was passing much too quickly and I was hardly getting any miles in. I tried not to beat myself up about it and reminded myself I was out there to do it, not to race it, and there was no one to impress. Just me out there getting lost by myself.
I eventually got to a section of the Canelo Hills where wash crossings became more frequent and if not signed well became more difficult to keep on trail. The trail conditions deteriorated quickly and I found myself repeatedly in what felt like an oak brush torture chamber. Every step left my legs more and more lacerated. I tried to ignore the stinging pain and pushed on. Just keep moving I told myself. Eventually you’ll get there. I got super turned around yet again and the sun was getting low. Dusk was coming and it looked highly unlikely that I could possibly make it to the road that would take me to Patagonia by nightfall. I hadn’t planned on doing any night riding but I was already regretting not bringing a better lighting system. I had plenty of energy and just wanted to keep moving after my late start and numerous missteps. I probably had about 5 more miles before I reached Harshaw Road and my brain was getting loopy. I decided to give myself a break. I set up camp and tried to enjoy dinner and the sunset. The sunset was phenomenal and dinner was pad thai (boiled in a bag) with some almond butter for added calories and protein. I used the cooking water afterwards to have some warm Emergen-C since I was fighting off a cold. I had scanned the guidebook into my phone before leaving so I spent the evening hours reading over what I could expect in the next few passages. I psyched myself up to get to Patagonia early the next morning and try to hammer out the road reroute around a wilderness area before getting to the Santa Rita Mountains.
Day Two – October 19th, 2015
Santa Rita Mountains
I woke up the next morning and struggled with getting everything packed up quickly and getting moving. If there were a bikepacking olympics I would surely lose the “packing” part of the race. Breakfast was instant coffee and a Pro Bar and I was off. I got off to a great start. And then got insanely lost again. I kept wondering if I would ever make it out of these hills let alone to Picketpost. Was this a cruel joke? I felt like I was in the Hunger Games and the game designers were watching me from above amusing themselves by obscuring the trail with tall grass and oak brush every time I got near it. I tried not to get frustrated. Tried to stay focused. But I already wanted to cry and quit. There was something in the cues about a gate coming up. I saw a fenceline and thought maybe if I followed it I would find the gate and thus the trail. Perfect! My plan worked! Instead of moving on I moved backwards on the trail to find the entrance across the wash that had been eluding me. When I found it I started laughing hysterically. I had walked by it a million times and there was no sign of trail there. In fact, heading back up the hill to rejoin what I knew was the trail, I got lost again! Elusive ghost trails. Get me out of here! Every time I checked my GPS I got more and more despondent about how little ground I was covering. So much for an early arrival in Patagonia and smashing some road miles.
Eventually I made it to Harshaw Road and I had never been more relieved to see a road before in my life. This would continue to be a theme as the AZT went on. It’s primarily singletrack and as much as I love mountain biking I really looked forward to the road sections for a mental break and predictability. I cruised into Patagonia thinking I would just breeze through the town and hop on the highway to Sonoita. But I was tired and my brain hurt from all the time spent getting off track. So when I passed a coffee shop, Gathering Grounds, I let myself stop. The waitress filled up my Platypus bladders with filtered water and brought me refill after refill of coffee. I tried not to linger over my breakfast burrito but it felt too good to be there. I had cell service so I checked in with my friends and family who had been watching my spot track zigzag across the Canelo Hills for the last 24 hours. Their encouragement meant more than anything to me at that moment. I was grateful for the technology that allowed them to follow my path and cheer me on from home. Luke texted to tell me he didn’t run out of gas and it felt like things were looking up after a rough first day.
I pried myself away from the coffee shop even though I would have liked to sit there all day enjoying the colorful locals and chill atmosphere of Patagonia. I had 12 highway miles to Sonoita. They flew by. I enjoyed the sensation of pedaling my bike without worrying about rocks and snakes lurking beneath tall grass. I saw a dead rattlesnake on the side of the highway and hoped it would be the only one I would see during my 300 miles.
I stopped in Sonoita knowing I needed more calories in my bags and not knowing when I would reach the next town. At the pace I was going it could be days to Tucson. I topped off my water and got some donuts and gatorade. I was about to head out when I noticed that one of the buckles on my shoes was stuck and wouldn’t loosen. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get my shoe off later. These shoes, the Giro Terraduras, seemed so promising when I first got them back in March but I had already warrantied them once and was on my second pair. I had trouble with the buckles before but ended up warrantying them because the sole just completely split open after riding in them for a couple months. I should have known better than to trust them on a rough route like the AZT but I was already buying so much gear the last thing I wanted was to drop more coin on some new cycling shoes. I sat in the grass of the Sonoita gas station stabbing at the buckle on my shoe trying to get it to give. It was stubborn, but I was determined. I finally got it to loosen up a bit and knew I would be able to slide my foot out but the buckle wouldn’t function properly enough to allow me to tighten down the strap which meant very little ankle support on what I knew would be lots more hike-a-bike to come. Whatever. I could live through it. I pressed on.
I continued on the highway out of Sonoita and hopped on some dirt roads through cattle country leading to the Santa Rita Mountains. It reminded me of some sections of the Great Divide I had ridden in New Mexico and I remembered how much I love double track through wide open spaces. Must be the midwesterner in me. Eventually the road started to climb into the mountains and signs warned of illegal immigrant smuggling in the area. Since I survived the Canelo Hills and so many instances of getting lost already I was just relieved to be on course and following a route that wasn’t overgrown and disappearing with every step. These signs didn’t unnerve me as much as I thought they would.
The wilderness reroute eventually ended and I was back on the AZT on extremely sweet singletrack. Yes! It was still fairly early in the afternoon and I reminded myself that the only thing I had to do that day was pedal my bike. What a treat. The trail swooped gently through the foothills of the Santa Ritas and I soaked in the sun and the breeze knowing there was water to be found at nearby Kentucky Camp and I had plenty of food to keep me going.
I got to Kentucky Camp by late afternoon, a ghost town and old mining camp where a couple of the old buildings have been refurbished and made into a bed and breakfast and comfortable cabin. I grabbed some water from near the caretaker’s trailer and wolfed down the donuts I had purchased in Sonoita. Damn, they tasted good. I was licking the plastic packaging when a woman staying at the bed and breakfast came to talk to me. She told me I was braver than her. I said maybe I was just stupider, I was still trying to figure that out. She wished me luck and I pressed on up the road, feeling like I could ride for so many hours still. Unfortunately the light was beginning to wane again. Damn these short fall days! Why didn’t I bring a better night riding set up? When I was planning the trip I thought I would be scared to ride through the night but now being out here I realized it really didn’t make a difference if the sun was up or not, riding was riding.
As I climbed up into the Santa Ritas I passed an older couple hiking the road. The man asked me if I was riding through on the AZT and was so excited when I said yes. The woman was very concerned by the cut up state of my legs, it felt nice to have a little sympathy from a fellow human. I rode until I couldn’t see anymore and set up camp just after passing Box Canyon Road. Dinner was again pad thai in a bag and I spent the evening reading up on the next sections and texting friends and family since I had a signal. It felt a little weird to feel so isolated and in the middle of nowhere but still have crystal clear cell reception. I went to bed feeling super good having gotten out of the Canelo Hills alive and knowing the trail was going to be much easier to follow from there on out as I got further north.
Day Three – October 20th, 2015
Sweet singletrack, saguaros, and storms
63 miles (includes about 8 bonus miles to find hotel in Tucson)
The next day I rode the Las Colinas and Las Cienegas passages in the morning and afternoon which is some extremely stellar riding. Some hike-a-bike but overall just awesomely rideable singletrack. Maybe the AZT wasn’t as brutal as I had thought on the first day. The morning quickly passed and as I approached a cattle gate I saw what looked like two bikepackers taking a rest. Wow! I hadn’t expected to see anyone, I was really excited and hoped maybe they were riding north so we could ride together for a while. I wasn’t super lonely surprisingly but it would have been nice to have some company. When I got to the gate I found a guy and a girl who looked hot and exhausted sitting on the ground near their bikes. They had come all the way from the north, from the Utah border, and were doing the entire AZT.
When I asked them their names I realized it was none other than Lael Wilcox (record holder for the Tour Divide) and Nicholas from Gypsy by Trade. It was awesome to chat with them and hear a little bit about what was coming up and where I could expect water caches. They told me they were riding south from Utah and then Lael was going to turn right back around and do an ITT of the entire trail and try to smash the women’s record. I have no doubt she’ll make it happen! What a powerhouse. I tried not to complain about the Canelo Hills too much but I think my legs did the complaining for me. They were completely covered in scratches and open sores from the oak brush. Hopefully they didn’t get as lost as me!
It was super inspiring to run into these two accomplished bikepackers and swap stories of trail to come. Lael was cracking me up because she kept talking about how all she could think about sometimes when she was on a tough trail like the AZT was how much she just wanted a road bike. She said at one point more to herself than to me that the key was just to never stop moving. I had already been repeating this in my head so it just reinforced the sentiment for me. When I first read about Lael’s record setting Tour Divide race earlier this year (she rode to Banff from Anchorage before the race even started! And she was super sick for a large part of the race! But she still smoked the record!) I was so incredibly inspired. It was right after my breakup when all I wanted to do was lay in bed and it was partially her story that gave me the inspiration to just keep reaching for the adventures I craved and to resist the urge to feel sorry for myself.
As much as I wanted to hang with these two kindred spirits and was enjoying the time to chat with other humans I knew I had to keep pressing on. We said our goodbyes and went opposite ways on the trail. I was treated to a gentle descent and amazing singletrack for the next ten miles or so. This is why I was out here! It felt so good to be riding. I was riding on such a high and it just got better when I started to ride amongst giant saguaros – so otherworldly and beautiful! This was the southwest desert I loved, forget all that craggy creepy gnarled mesquite forest and grassland of the Canelo Hills down south!
I was coming up on Tucson as the sun was dropping low and I saw gathering dark storm clouds in all directions, especially the direction I was supposed to be heading as I climbed up towards Mount Lemmon. I wasn’t sure I was up for camping in thunderstorms let alone setting up camp in a thunderstorm. You’re touring, not racing, I kept reminding myself, enjoy it! I was only two miles from the outskirts of Tucson when it started dumping rain on me. Yes, I was going to get a hotel. I passed what felt like ten McDonald’s and five Starbucks before I saw an area with hotels. I looked like a drowned rat and smelled just as good. It was such a relief to know my stuff would have time to dry out as much as I felt like a wuss for staying in a hotel.
I was starving and realized how little I had allowed myself in the way of calories as I was just trying to pound out the miles during the limited daylight hours for the last three days. I had never before called the pizza place listed on the hotel key but my brain didn’t know what else to do. A very grumpy dude was on the other line. I didn’t have a menu and I think it irritated him that I had no idea what Domino’s had to offer. Also I just wanted to eat everything. I asked him if they had cookies and he added a 9 piece brownie cookie thing to my order. When he read back the order I was like woah – how many does that feed?! He said 1-2. When the food showed up I was shocked to see what someone’s idea of a 1-2 serving size of brownie cookies looked like. WTF?! People are crazy. But I knew I needed the calories. I took a very painful shower taking care to clean all my cuts and was amazed by the tangle my hair had become. I settled in to watch Through the Desert on PBS and ate more food than in recent memory. I checked the weather before bed and was disappointed to find an extremely high chance of serious thunderstorms all around me forecast for the next day, especially in the mountains I was supposed to be climbing up and over. Still, I set my alarm for just before dawn and crashed into a dreamless slumber.
Day Four – October 21st
Sometimes the weather wins
I woke up to an unchanged forecast, ate some schwagy hotel breakfast, and nuerotically checked the weather for a couple hours, frozen in indecision. Am I the biggest wuss? No, sometimes weather wins. Be smart, don’t send yourself into a death trap just because you’re too proud to take a day off. I called my mom and of course she convinced me to take the day off and stay in the hotel one more night. I was relieved to make a decision, took a hot bath, and lazed around watching bad TV. Eventually I left my hotel room and saw dark clouds on all the peaks around me confirming the wisdom of my decision. I walked to Starbucks in my long underwear and cycling shoes because they were the only non-riding clothes I had and drank a cappuccino while trying not to feel like too much of a feral animal in the midst of civilization. I went to CVS and bought a comb so I could untangle my rat’s nest and a razor so I could shave my legs. I did my laundry, restocked my food from the nearby CVS (ramen! potato chips! trail mix!) and got everything ready to try to pound out some miles the next day. I went to a cafe for dinner and had a similar ordering experience to the night before where I kept adding to my order, hunger feeling constant. I think the girl taking my order sensed how much I needed calories because when I got back to my hotel room I found a surprise slice of coconut cream pie in my bag in addition to what I had ordered.
Day Five – October 22nd, 2015
Mount Lemmon calling
68 miles (includes 8 bonus miles to get back on track from hotel in Tucson)
The next morning I woke up early and got to the hotel breakfast right at 6AM. The crowd was me and about eight burly looking working dudes. We all had a big day ahead of us and crowded around the biscuits and gravy like it was a feeding trough.
Heading out of Tucson, I felt like the mountains were calling. The traffic and people were overwhelming and I was ready to get back to the desolate trails of the AZT. I rode what felt like endless miles out of Tucson on Broadway and worked my way through the wilderness reroute, riding through washes and neighborhoods before reaching the Coronado National Forest and riding chunky two track to rejoin the AZT. I listened to music because I felt like I needed it and I really wanted to put in some good miles. Eilen Jewell sang me through the desert and I got lost in her songs. After taking a day off for weather I was ready to try to make up some time. My goal was to make it off of Mount Lemmon and close to Oracle by nightfall.
I knew when I hit pavement and started climbing I could really crush some miles but the trail sections were all too unpredictable. This section of trail was again easy to follow and I was feeling optimistic about my goal. Eventually I reached a hike-a-bike section that threatened to shut me down. It was here I realized my other shoe, the one without the broken buckle, was splitting on the sole with every step I took. Damn these shoes! As I hoisted my bike up rock ledges I resisted the urge to look up and predict what high point I was aiming for. Never stop moving, Lael’s words echoed in my brain. When I finally reached the saddle it was with such intense relief I almost started crying. Then I realized I was going to have to do a fair amount of hike-a-bike down because it was so loose and had such tight switchbacks. Nothing was ever as it seemed! Somewhere around here I was hiking my bike and ran over a snake. Not a rattler but very much alive! Scared the shit out of me.
I finally made it to Gordon Hirabayashi Campground and knew with certainty I only had a huge paved climb ahead of me. I inhaled some cookie brownies leftover from my gluttonous Domino’s order and prepared to crush the climb. I love climbing when I can stay on my bike so I knew this section was going to be fun. I felt good cranking up the hill and the scenery was astounding. There were so many Tucson roadies on this section giving me weird looks I felt like I had done something to personally offend them. Riding a mountain bike up Mount Lemmon I guess? Finally I passed one super serious looking roadie taking a selfie who told me I looked “cool as shit” with my bike loaded up like that. It cracked me up, imagining I was out here trying to look good.
I was so in the zone with the climb that my brain finally felt free to wander without the risk of losing the trail or having to focus on technical bits. Zoning out felt amazing. I had ridiculous thoughts like – Man it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Prince song “Pussy Control” – it’s really too bad his music isn’t readily available on any of the major streaming services. Wait a minute! I could probably hear that song on YouTube! Why didn’t I think of that before?! These are the revelatory thoughts made possible by stupid amounts of exertion.
I reached the Control Road off of Mount Lemmon and the beginning of the dreaded Oracle Ridge trail just as it was beginning to get dark. Joey’s recommendation had been to skip Oracle Ridge and ride the Control Road since Oracle Ridge was miles and miles of ridiculous completely soul crushing hike-a-bike. Though I hated to deviate from the AZT300 race course Lael and Nicholas had echoed Joey’s sentiment and with night falling I was more than happy to bomb down a dirt forest road rather than suffer through a trail that extremely tough people had told me was insufferable. Due to the thunderstorms the night before all of the stream crossings I had come to that day were deep and flowing and my feet were soaked. I began to shiver as I made my way down the hill. I threw on my bright orange rain jacket happy for the wind protection and visibility as it became more and more clear this was an area wildly popular with hunters this time of the year. I really didn’t want to stop and pushed it into darkness, stopping somewhere on the side of the road after I nearly ran into a javelina. I made some quick ramen and hot chocolate to warm myself up. I was wearing all my layers and still shivering uncontrollably. Even though I was primarily desert camping on this trip I had brought one package of toe warmers knowing what a basketcase I am when I’m cold. Tonight was the night to break them out! I was so grateful for them and managed to warm up enough to fall asleep. Hunters camping nearby tooled around in their trucks and ATVs all night long and I was relieved when morning came and I could get out of there. I had spotty reception but was getting texts from friends and family on and off throughout the night about how my spot track was frozen for five hours that day. I hated to make them worry but wasn’t sure what I could do about it. From my end everything seemed to be working fine.
Day Six – October 23rd, 2015
Oracle to Freeman Road
It was a cold morning up at a higher elevation and I had a difficult time getting moving. I had another big mileage goal that day and tried to push myself to get out of my sleeping bag, knowing if I just started moving I would warm up. I had used up most of my water the night before and was trying to decide if I should go into Oracle (off route) to refill or just keep pressing on and find some water to filter. I really didn’t want to get distracted by going off route and thought I would just scrape by to Picketpost with the amount of food I had left. When I got to the culvert under the highway that marked the turn for Oracle I found a water cache! Perfect timing. This trip made me really appreciate the efforts of volunteers who maintain these water caches. They are a true lifesaver on trails like the AZT where water is scarce. Even though I had the capacity to carry 6 liters of water I constantly worried about not having enough.
Entering the Black Hills passage at Tiger Mine Trailhead I immediately had the feeling of being in a very remote area once again. This passage was nearly 30 miles long and was followed up by another remote 30 mile section. Mostly singletrack and lots of ups and downs crossing innumerable washes. I began to hate wash crossings as it always meant route finding, struggling through oak brush, and usually climbing out of the wash only to descend into another. Still, the Black Hills section was strikingly beautiful, affording amazing panoramic views of the surrounding Sonoran desert and mountain ranges in all directions, some of which I had already climbed up and over. I saw lots of wildlife on this section and began to see new types of cacti I hadn’t encountered yet. I nearly ran over a desert tortoise who looked at me quizzically as I routed around him. Ran over another anemic seeming snake and saw lots of jack rabbits and tiny squirrels bounding away down the trails. Tarantulas started to become ever present and later Luke informed me that it was tarantula mating season so they were out in full effect.
The cacti started to become a bit of a nuisance as they were so close to the trail and one type in particular gave me a lot of trouble. It seemed to be launching itself at me as I rode by. Later I learned there is indeed a jumping cactus and I was riding among them! Anytime one got me (usually in the ankle, leg, or hand) I inadvertently cursed and screamed loudly before stopping to extract the fish hook feeling quills from my skin. This became so common after a while that I stopped screaming and just accepted it as a feature of this passage. I wrecked a couple times on this section coming down steep rocky descents. After wrecking twice in quick succession I stopped to take in some calories and regain some focus. It’s amazing how quickly you can lose it in the hot desert sun. Again, I pushed daylight and rode as much as I could before it got truly dark. I really wanted to finish the next day and didn’t want to have to cut it too close. I made it to the Freeman Road water cache and topped off all my water. Rode a bit more and laid down telling myself it would be my last night out on the trail. I enjoyed the bright moon and the stars and awoke early with purpose.
Day Seven – October 24th, 2015
Freeman Road to Picketpost!
I made myself lube my chain and put some air in my tires feeling very nervous that something might happen to my bike on this last day to set me back. So far I had encountered zero mechanical problems and I was hoping it would stay that way. I ended up leaving camp a little later than I had hoped and tried to pace myself for what I knew would be a long day. I had two long grueling climbs judging by the elevation profile I had studied the night before and the trail information I had read up on. Reading about the trail did not prepare me for what these climbs would actually feel like.
The beginning of the day was downright idyllic, swooping through the desert, following cairns and carsonite signs through cactus and sagebrush, losing myself in the scenery, feeling like the only person alive. What wasn’t singletrack was my favorite kind of double track reminiscent at times of gravel and dirt road riding in the midwest and other times of the chunky jeep roads I grew to love when I lived in Grand Junction. There’s nothing I love more than bombing down loose chunky jeep roads at speeds that feel slightly unsafe. I tried to keep it in check since I was out there alone and it was such a remote section but it was way too much fun.
Soon I was climbing into the Tortilla Mountains and false summiting left and right. I kept thinking I was topping out only to go a little bit higher. This section offered some phenomenal views in all directions and once I finally did top out I enjoyed riding the spine of the mountain before heading down. But I was anxious to get this section over with. Today was Picketpost or bust!
The day started heating up when I came off the mountain and I was sweating a ton. I didn’t have enough water and I wasn’t sure exactly when my next opportunity to get water would be. I wasn’t feeling like I could afford to take the time to pump filter all the water I knew I needed. I would if I had to but I preferred to find water that didn’t need treating. Miraculously I came across another water cache close to the Kelvin trailhead. I took the opportunity to down some water, refill, and take in some calories. I surveyed what I had left and realized I was going to roll into Picketpost with very little food left–if any. I had an emergency pack of ramen but really didn’t want to stop to cook it, nor did the heat of the day get me excited to eat hot salty soup. So I just kept moving. Never stop moving.
By the time I started the Gila River section I knew I was extremely behind schedule to make it to Picketpost before dark. I was okay with night riding since I was so close to the end and there was a full moon. I had a pretty piddly headlamp but I knew I could make it out even if I had to walk a fair amount. Nevertheless, I decided to really push it on this section and try to make up some time. From what I had read this was some of the best singletrack on the whole AZT. I took advantage and rode it as fast as I could. It was a blast! I kept thinking – I’m really mountain biking now! It felt good to feel that way even with a loaded bike. I powered through this section, focused on giving it my all, but started to feel really dehydrated as the day heated up and no amount of water I took in made me feel any less parched. My shirt was completely soaked through with sweat. The water I had gathered at Kelvin was going fast. Would it last me to Picketpost? I thought yes. I hoped yes.
I stopped around mile 13 of this section knowing I was going to start steadily climbing up soon. I ate my last Clif bar and ran into another rider on the trail. He was out for the day and had been aiming for Picketpost but turned around when he realized how strenuous the trail got up ahead. Great. I was already feeling hosed and now I felt fairly demoralized. I had made the mistake of reading Shawn Gregory’s blog the night before where he described riding up this section and seeing a pair of eyes watching him from the hillside. I didn’t want to be out there when night fell. Still, I pressed on, and sure enough the grade started to get steep really fast. Since it’s all newer singletrack it was surprisingly easy to hang on and keep pedaling for a while. Soon it got too loose and steep for my gearing and energy level. I had barely any food remaining (some potato chip crumbs and that emergency package of ramen) and my water was going fast. It was time for some Fleetwood Mac. Oh no! The batteries on my phone were almost dead and I had used up all my auxiliary battery charging power already. I needed to get off this trail. I was starting to get loopy and I was nowhere near the top of this climb. All around me the canyons towered. I felt I was never going to make it out. The beauty of this section felt cruel and majestic at the same time. I stopped to take it in several times and appreciate the fact that I was out here witnessing it.
A misstep when hoisting my bike up onto a ledge during this section sent me toppling backwards, bashing my head on a rock, and landing hard on my right hip. I lay there for a minute wondering if I was actually ever going to make it to Picketpost. It felt so close and yet so far away and unattainable in my current state. I’ve done a lot of endurance running and cycling in the past and much to the chagrin of my training partners I have never actually “bonked” – I’ve always been pretty good at anticipating my calories and hydration. This was the closest I’ve ever come to just completely shutting down and not being able to make forward progress. I was sloppy and slow and no amount of will power could change that. My body was not happy. I considered the alternative. Spending another night out here and finishing in the morning. That didn’t change the fact that I had no food or water left and was probably a worse idea at this point than just trying to push myself out of there.
Watching the waning golden sun paint the canyon walls different shades of red minute by minute was truly spectacular. I really couldn’t have been in a better section to watch my final sunset on the AZT. A bright nearly full moon became visible and I let it guide me to the end of this section. I knew when I found the gate I would only have 10.5 miles left to Picketpost and that the trail would start to descend gently from there.
When I found the gate, I put my headlamp on and sucked down what remained of my water. Now that it was dark my ragged dehydration felt less pronounced. I tried to ride as much as possible but even with the bright moon and my little headlamp it was difficult to illuminate the trail enough to anticipate what was ahead. I rode short sections, nearly rode off a cliff, or fell into a cactus, and then would walk (stumble) for a while before trying again. Repeat this cycle for ten miles. I knew I was going to make it, I just didn’t know how ridiculously long this section might take. A couple of miles into it I ran over a huge stick covered in thorns accompanied by a loud hissing sound. A flat–now?! I picked up my bike and shook it, trying to get the Stan’s to fill in the hole, then hopped on my bike and rode really fast to keep the tire spinning and the Stan’s moving. The hissing noise stopped and I still had tire pressure. Amazing!
I tried not to look at my GPS because I knew I had covered less ground than it felt like stumbling through the darkness. Finally I saw Picketpost Mountain and knew I was getting closer. This was the same formation I saw when I parked my car a week before. I started to feel like I was near the base of it but the trail meandered around the formation much more than I realized. Eventually I checked my GPS to make sure I hadn’t missed a turnoff for the parking lot. I had about a half mile to go! Shortly after I checked my GPS I looked up the trail with my headlamp to see two eyes staring down at me from the side of the trail. I have no idea what kind of animal it was but of course I assumed it was a mountain lion… In the last half mile–really?! I was seriously losing it at this point and so ready to be off the trail. I started screaming and making lots of noise until the eyes disappeared. I waited a minute or two before moving up the trail with trepidation. I looked down and saw a tarantula the size of my hand. I stepped around it and wondered out loud if I was going to make it off the AZT alive. What next?! I stumbled forward.
And soon I saw the most beautiful sight — my car illuminated in the moonlight! Oh my god, I made it out alive! This wasn’t quite the strong finish that I had hoped for but I still felt good to have made it out relatively unscathed and hey, I finished the damn thing. By myself. I dropped my bike on the ground and plugged my phone into my car, returning some concerned texts from family and friends. I turned off my spot tracker and stripped off all my sweaty salty clothes and let the night desert air dry my body before putting on a clean dress that was in my car! It felt amazing.
My body felt like it could finally let go of the tension that had been gripping it for the last 20 miles. But I still felt seriously close to passing out. All I could think was how much I wanted a coke. I loaded my bike up on the car, said my thanks to the trail gods, and headed to the nearest town of Superior. Driving a car after being on the trail for so long was a surreal experience. It felt huge and fast and dangerous considering my exhaustion and fatigue. I hoped I could get a hotel room in Superior. Unfortunately the only one in town had a no vacancy sign up. I went to the gas station and wandered around trying to decide what I could stomach. The local youth who seemed to be using the gas station as their Saturday night hangout were whispering and giggling as they pointed at me probably trying to figure out why I was so filthy and destroyed looking. I ended up with a coke, a huge chocolate milk, a sandwich, and a donut. Not the victory meal I had hoped for, but I didn’t exactly feel victorious, just desperate for some sugar and calories to get my body back to feeling normal. I inhaled the food and chugged the sugary drinks, the back of my throat felt half its normal size.
I was planning to treat myself to a couple days at Joshua Tree National Park after coming off the trail so I decided to start heading west to see if I could find a hotel. I knew I’d find something in Phoenix but hoped for something sooner. I stopped at the first one I found in Apache Junction. The man who checked me in hassled me unduly about whether or not I was having a man join me later. It felt comical after spending so many days out on the AZT by myself to think there were still people out in the world who thought a young woman couldn’t possibly be traveling alone.
I was so exhausted I was scared to close my eyes, thinking ridiculously that I might never open them again. When I did close them all I could see were red ribbons of trail going up and up and up. When I woke up the next morning I was relieved to know I didn’t have to pedal my bike that day and all I had to do was rest and rehydrate myself. I thought about how privileged I was to be able to do something like the AZT and so grateful for the experience. Even though it was definitely the most difficult thing I had ever done in so many ways it was also the most rewarding and an experience I will not soon forget.
Of course, I’m already scheming on my next bikepacking adventures and all the things I would do differently. More night riding for sure accompanied by a proper night riding lighting system, better shoes, more calories and forcing myself to eat more often, less weight on my back, and mounting my GPS are all things I know I will change for next time. I’m seriously considering a bivy instead of a tent and most definitely will do at least a little specific training before my next big bikepacking outing.