Chiricahua Mountains: Contested Lands; Rocky Paths; Good Sunsets

Matt left us in a gravel lot outside of Benson, AZ, 45 miles from Tucson. Excluding the first week of the trip, it was the furthest east I’d traveled in over two months.

On the roadside, we exchanged sad partings. For all of us, Vegas  had been a blessed retreat from our respective responsibilities. With mountains of case law to read, Matt seemed envious of the open road in front of us while we looked ahead to the looming Chiricahua Mountain range and secretly envied his lot.

We watched Matt pull away in the golden Cadillac. The sun was setting, the road uncertain, and Matt was the last person I knew between here and Tennessee.  Jean and I started reassembling our gear, both struggling with a getting-back-on-the-road inertia. After every big city break, and especially following Vegas’ splendor, I felt a heavy exhaustion. Each time I put my feet into the pedals, my legs demanded an answer to ever-pressing question, Do we have to keep doing this?

I looked over in Jeana’s direction and could tell she wrestled with similar reservations. We decided to grit our teeth and keeping going, but not today. We would find a place to camp in Benson, reserve our strength and then make an honest effort of it in the morning. But where to camp?

On cue, a van pulled into the gravel lot. An older woman got out and asked if we needed any help. We said we were fine, but could she suggest a place to pitch a tent for the evening? She didn’t know of any camping grounds but her son, who ran an auto shop in town, had a ranch a few miles up the road.

–He’s got plenty of land. I’m sure he can spare some for a tent.

To me, these good Sanitarian moments, happening at the exact second of need, always seem so unexpected. But to the average passerby, I’m sure two hapless bikers with their life in tow seem a desperate enough cause to prompt kneejerk goodwill. I’d also started to think that the charity we experienced might come from a place of curiosity more than anything. To most people, our method of transportation seemed insane. They wanted to understand the logic of such an undertaking, and once they learn it’s all just for fun, they wanted to be part of the trip and help in whatever way they could. At the time though, we weren’t in a position to ponder too much about the intentions of generosity and simply accepted these offers happily.

At the ranch, we met the son and his family. These kindhearted LDS folk let us camp in a sage brush field behind their house and in the morning cooked us breakfast. The kitchen and living room had an impressive décor of dead animals. On the walls hung havilina boars, mule deer, a bob cat leaping up to catch a pheasant in mid-flight, and the centerpiece of the collection, a giant elk head turning upwards with its mouth frozen in mid-bugle. Jeana and I startled a little bit at this taxidermy zoo, having no idea we had spent the night on the land of such a trained killer.

Over waffles, venison sausage, and fresh eggs from the coop, we talked about our planned route through the Chiricahua Mountains which would get us into New Mexico, avoiding a good portion of the interstate. The rancher cautioned us to take care since we were so close to the boarder. Lots of drugs and illegals about.

–I had to lock up our camper trailer last week, he said. Had a colony of wets in it.

I didn’t know what he meant by “wets” and wondered if it was a kind of fungus.

–No wetbacks. Border crossers.

Having spent a night on this man’s property and now eating his breakfast, Jeana and I were in no position to begin a discussion on immigration, but it was interesting to note how we, complete strangers to the man, could have been treated much differently under other circumstances.

Our hosts’ language might have had a touch of derision, but I could see how one’s view on boarder politics might tend toward the negative when your livelihood could be so directly affected by its downsides. He told us of a few ranchers in the area that had been killed that year. They had gone into their pastures to check on their herds and stumbled upon drug deals.

The morning bike saw us 35 mils on I-10 to Willcox. At a rest area, we read some educational panels on the area that detailed a history of conflict dating back before immigration issues. Apache chiefs, Cochise and Geronimo used to have strongholds in the surrounding hills and would come down to wreak havoc on white settlements and battle with federal troops.

We were biking on contested lands, no doubt, caught even now in the middle of vying interests. Drug cartels canvassing the backroads, coyotes leading groups of immigrants through the mountains, ranchers holding onto their land and us just pedaling through it all, hoping for the best.

After I-10, we had a magnificent bike on 186. Hardly a car on the road; some hills but mostly rewarding slopes. On our way, we passed through the ghost town of Dos Cabezas.

There was a pioneer cemetery, the remains of an old post office. Once a silver and gold mining town with a few hundred people, the area lost its residents when the mines closed and the post office shut its doors in 1960. 

It’s amazing how quickly spaces without people deteriorate. In Omak, I was always surprised how derelict and abandoned the mission school grounds looked. They had been fallow for only half a decade, but looked like they had decayed for 50 years or more. On weekends, I’d wander through the buildings, going through classrooms with lessons still on the board and homework on the desk like it had been left in the middle of a school day. Time had moved in to retire, settling down in a sheet of dust to tilt its head back and rest in another forgotten place.

At the Chiricahua National Park junction, I waited for Jeana. The sun was setting purple over the range, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I had not seen Jeana all afternoon and she wasn’t answering her phone. Wild scenarios of a flat tire and drug runners filled my head. Soon enough though, a little, moving dot materialized on the road and Jeana came pedaling the elephant, uphill, a grinning stoic to the last.  She declared this her favorite day on the bike.

We pedaled in the dark to the Chirichua National park and found a camp site. We made a simple, delicious dinner of bratwursts with grilled onions and avocado. It was good to be back on the road under the stars again. Tomorrow, we would take a trail up through the mountains into New Mexico.

*****

The first day back on the bike after a long break makes you feel like a superhero. Your rested muscles have a deceptive inhuman strength, and hundred mile days for the rest of the trip seem entirely possible. The magic never lasts more than a day, though, and by the next morning the familiar aches and soreness have settled in again. We did seventy miles the day before, but only thirty the next. Our route didn’t do us any favors either.

For twelve miles, we followed a dirt road through the Chiricahua Mountians. The muddy, uneven path had its pretty portions with splayed sunlight coming through the wood canopy in the pattern of leaves. Even still we cursed the entire way up, walking our bikes at times. Jeana said she would buy me lunch in the next town if I promised this was the last big hill we climbed. I could never quite convince Jeana that I hadn’t designed these roads, let alone been on them before, but will do almost anything for a free lunch and said with grave certainty that, yes, this was our last hill.

Going so slowly that the little squirrels crossing our path looked like lightning bolts, it was hard to believe we were actually going anywhere. But the climb followed the way of every other pass or summit we’d done before, agonizing pedal building on a steady stream of curses and blasphemy bringing us right up to the point where we couldn’t take any more. Then the elevation breaks and you can feel a heavy hand lift off your shoulders. This moment always occurs at a generous vista, allowing for cathartic, life-giving release.

At the top of our climb, we looked down on valleys on either side of us, following the dirt road all the way back to where we started that morning. From our vantage, we could see the interstate in the offing and were reminded of why we took this crazy route in the first place. The scenic over the expedient, we always said, and safety third.

The downhill, though gorgeous, was a rocky warzone. The bumps shivered through my bike frame and into my bones making everything numb. When we finally reached the bottom in the town of Portal, we were both at the low end of our biking arch.

The restaurant in Portal we had expected to eat at looked like it had shut its doors in the fifties. We ate pb&j’s on the wooden veranda of an abandoned motel then biked downhill some more till we found another sage brush field to spend the night in.

We pitched our tent fifty yards from the Arizona/New Mexico state line. The sun set at six and we were asleep at the ripe hour of 8:00 pm.

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