Bike Tour from Sonoita to Bisbee

by Emily Wednesday, September 26th 2012

As a "dry run" for our cycle tour through Italian wine country, we decided to take a tour through Arizona wine country, and on our two day trip we found more beauty and challenge than we had bargained for.

We started in Sonoita, with Logan's parents graciously playing the role of our shuttle drivers. They dropped us off in front of the Sonoita Mercantile Country Store, snapped a picture, and waved goodbye as we saddled up and started down highway 83. It was beautiful; the clouds made a thick veil, keeping the sun off and the breeze cool, a godsend in September. Fields of wild grass stretched out, scattered with lone low mesquite trees and the occasional ranch house and fence. Sunflowers closed in on the road. The purple outlines of mountains traced the horizon. It was quiet, no cars, just one smooth pedal stroke after another. Until the wind came.

Turning onto Lower Elgin Road, we encountered the first of what were to be several, then dozens, then millions of hills. On the first few, I buckled down and tried to learn the technique: keep your back straight and your grip light; stand up on the pedals sometimes to use different muscles; on really steep sections, switchback up the road to lessen the grade. I tried to keep an academic interest in how to make this difficult process more tenable. But when the breeze turned on to full wind pushing us back toward the bottom of every hill, I tried a different tactic: swearing like a filthy sailor. I thought it would be funny and that I could get both of us to laugh a little, but since my outburst also contained no small amount of real aggression, Logan was just scared for me. We had a long, long way to go.

It did get better sometimes. We came up to a ranch with beautiful horses in a white fence, four dark chestnuts with brushed black manes. We propped our bikes against the fence and I walked up to the railing, immediately greeted by the most curious of the bunch who nosed my hands and then my nose and my forehead. I've never had a horse smell my face before, but this one was very interested and I couldn't help but laugh like a schoolgirl as he smudged my sunglasses with his soft muzzle.

Elgin was a sprinkling of houses presided by a big old cottonwood tree, and we stopped under it to listen to the sound of the wind in its leaves. This is the beauty of bike packing, that we would never notice that sound, never see the same level of detail from a car. On a bike, everything is so quiet. And when the road is good and the wind is halfway favorable, you can lock into a rhythm in your legs and feel the air and space all around, be part of the landscape, track the distant peaks as they come near.

But then there was the wind and the steep. As we neared Canelo we passed into the foothills, catching the eastern edge of the Canelo Hills and passing right on into the northern fringe of the Huachucas. It was so, so beautiful and so, so hard. I had a list of complaints: my back hurt, I needed more water, I needed more fuel, my breathing was so ragged, my legs were burning, I couldn't physically pedal any harder to push myself uphill. Each one of them seemed like legitimate concerns until they kept piling up, and I realized it was my brain trying to get me out of work but I couldn't separate how much I wanted to do this from how hard it was, it was this big emotionally tangled mess in my gut and meanwhile Logan was at my side, quiet, not even breathing hard while I hurled complaint after complaint at him like I was hoping he would crack and we'd sit down on the side of the road and give up together. This is what we do to our partners, unfortunately; sometimes they're the punching bag. But this is also what our partners do for us: they keep us going anyway. Sometimes they're the trainer. If it had been me alone, I would have stuck my thumb out ten miles back, waiting for one of the three cars that would pass by all day. I would have missed the whole show.

We turned down Cimarron Road, and the hills got steadily bigger and more beautiful. We crawled to the west gate of Fort Huachuca, where one of the best jobs is held by the guy who mans the security checkpoint, sitting out in the cool breeze looking at that view all day. Inside the fort the uphills got steeper and the downhills got shorter; we finally started walking good portions of the hills. The whole section within the fort was gorgeous; the Huachucas are so pretty; but there wasn't much to say about it except that it sucked. The wind was relentless and we were done. When we finally limped into Sierra Vista for a late lunch at the Landmark Cafe, I declared my fries and pastrami Reuben and Lipton iced tea the best meal I'd ever eaten. On this first half of the day we had averaged six miles per hour. I wanted to kill the wind, if only I could figure out how to get my hands around its wispy little neck.

From Sierra Vista down to the San Pedro River on Highway 90 it's supposed to be a steady downhill. At the bike shop one of the roadies told us that he got up to fifty miles an hour on that stretch of road. When we got on it, we had to pedal hard. The wind was pushing so much that we couldn't even coast. At least it was flatter, and the scenery was still beautiful even if the highway and the detritus that comes with it was a little less appealing. Twenty more miles of keeping our heads down and pedaling and we made it to the Highway 80 Junction, where the road into Bisbee makes a five mile, endlessly steep climb up to Mule Pass. We made it a little ways in before pulling over to the shoulder and sticking our thumbs out. The second truck we saw stopped for us, we tossed the bikes in the bed and then we were flying so fast up the pass that we could hear nothing but wind. I gave the title of Second Best Meal I've Ever Eaten to a Mountain Lime Lager, a brat and a bag of Lay's potato chips at the Old Bisbee Brewing Company. After 55 hard won miles, we went to sleep wondering if we would be able to walk in the morning.

The next day we felt pretty good, and over coffee and pastries we picked out a route back to Sierra Vista. Logan had found this slim little book at Bookman's, Bike Tours of Southern Arizona by Ed Stiles and Mort Solot. It was printed by a local publisher in 1980, and you can tell by the photos, from the facial hair and the bikes being loaded from Volkswagon vans. In the "Tour of the 19th Century," a route that takes riders through big sections of Old West ghost towns on the way to Bisbee, they noted their favorite route, taking 92 out of Bisbee and turning up Hereford Road, which leads north to the tiny town of the same name. They called it "one of the most enchanting rides through southern Arizona."

They were totally right. The route is really pretty, but more exciting than that was a slight tailwind and a road that actually headed downhill. We were cruising, averaging 18 miles an hour, and we decided we loved bikes. Every couple of miles in the first stretch I sat up and howled, so elated to be moving fast in the desert, watching navy clouds gather over the peaks. Hereford Road was narrow but rarely traveled, and we could ride side by side past the ranches, watching the San Pedro veer closer and closer. The old Hereford is nothing now; in the book they describe it as "nothing more than a collection of three or four buildings, most of which are abandoned and in various stages of returning to the earth." They have returned by now. We saw only a couple of concrete slabs laid on the ground, the old foundations. The authors also warn of vicious dogs at a farm after this, but it's safe to say the dogs are long dead. The trees are older. In the photo of the Hereford bridge in the book, the bridge is sunny and the trees are sparse. Now, the San Pedro has closed in around it, shading the path with wide leaves.

From there, a turn up Monson Road began taking us incrementally uphill toward Sierra Vista. We were still going fast, and there's no other way to describe the feeling than freedom. The wind from the day before was like a vice grip, and now that pressure was gone. Arriving back in Sierra Vista after riding 90 miles over the weekend, I realized that throughout our upcoming Italy tour my mood is going to fluctuate with so many things: the terrain, my hunger, the weather. But when the fix is in on a good day, my love is deep; deep enough to save me through really hard work. Or at least keep me limping along until the next Best Meal of my Life.

Trips | Trips


by Emily Wednesday, August 29th 2012

It all started when a customer walked in the store for something simple--I think it was sport beans or vitalyte for a cycling event--and told me about L'Eroica. His eyes got that faraway dreamy stare as he told me of this long ride through Tuscany on historic white gravel roads called the "strade bianchi." Three routes ranging from 45 miles to 127 wind through vineyards and orchards, the aid stations are stocked with traditional stew and salami and Chianti wine, and the bikes have to be steel frames with suicide shifters on the down tube, made before 1987. It sounded like the perfect blend of fun and hardship, a tribute to the pedal giants of Italy who became world-class racers training on these roads. This customer, whose name I don't even know, spun this beautiful story for me and then left. I haven't seen him since. And sir, if you're reading this, I just want to say thanks for that day. The story sparked a passion for both me and my boyfriend Logan, and for three weeks in September to October we're going on a bike packing tour of Italy, from Rome to the coast to Florence to the Alps, and in the middle we're stopping in the tiny town of Gaiole in Chianti to ride the longest distance (hopefully) of L'Eroica.

My 1968 Raleigh Super Course, along the dirt roads at Cochise Stronghold.

Part One: In Purgatory, Counting Ounces and Cents

I used to think ultralight backpackers were a little crazy. Is it really necessary to cut off the handle of your toothbrush? Or spend $70 on a titanium cook pot when you could get one for $20 in stainless steel? But desert backpackers are hedging against the weight of their water, and a 1 liter stainless steel M.S.R. Stowaway pot weighs nearly a pound; the Evernew Ti Non-Stick Pot is only 6 ounces. 10 more ounces of water for the pack.

I knew all this in theory, but it finally hit home after we found and restored two beautiful vintage bikes, a 1968 green-bronze Raleigh Super Course for me, and an early 1980s Raleigh Competition G.S. for Logan, which he repainted in silver (one of its original colors) with blue accents. Steel frames, especially my older mid-range model, are much heavier than modern bikes, and after adding a rear rack and panniers, I was chugging to work like the Little Engine That Could with just my lunch and a change of clothes. The idea of throwing in camping gear, nice around-town clothes and camera equipment and setting me to work on the giant hills of Tuscany made me think I'd wind up on the side of the road crying on the first day. Which might still happen. But we started analyzing more seriously what to pack for a trip like this: three weeks in mild weather, with rain likely, hosteling and camping, with a great need to keep weight and space and expenses to a bare minimum. This is what we came up with.

Our bike-packing gear, all spread out.

Shelter setup: Terra Nova Adventure Tarp (1 lb 3 oz, $50) with an All Weather Blanket (12 oz, $17.75) for our ground tarp. Logan came up with this duo in a stroke of genius. The tarp is big enough that we can get our bikes underneath and still have good coverage for fairly heavy rain, or just set it up for a lounging sun shade. The blanket is large enough for the two of us and will reflect some heat so we can carry lighter sleep gear. It's a setup that's durable, inexpensive, and lightweight; a rare and magical trio.

Sleep system: Lafuma Warm N Light 600 down sleeping bags (1 lb 6 oz, $119.95) with Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Liners (9 oz, $54.95); underneath we'll have Exped Airmat Basic UL sleeping pads (13 oz, $89). With the all weather blanket underneath, we can skimp weight by bringing uninsulated pads for the mild weather. The sleeping bags are only rated to 40 degrees, but the liners warm them up considerably, and can be used separately when we're hosteling. This was the hardest area to try to cut down the cost. There are less expensive pads out there, but they're bulkier and heavier, and this being a vacation we decided it was worth it to invest in sleeping well.

Clothing: Here's where it's easy to pack way too much. We decided to bring one nice outfit each for going out on the town, and stuck to solid muted colors and classic cuts that are comfortable enough to wear every day, so we each have light dress pants that can be worn with our nice shirts or with the long sleeve sun shirts we'll be cycling in (For him: Mountain Hardwear Justo Trek Long Sleeve T; for me: Icebreaker Bodyfit 150 Long Sleeve. Both are rated UPF 50 for a high level of sun protection, and since mine is merino wool it won't stink). We'll carry one extra pair of bike shorts, underwear, and socks. For warmth I'm layering a Patagonia Synchilla Fleece Vest (8 oz, $79) and my rain jacket, the super light Marmot Crystalline (6 oz, currently on sale for $129.99) will double as a wind layer. If it gets colder we'll go into town, or wrap ourselves in our sleeping bags. Last accessory: a Wool Buff (2 oz, $27), which functions as a neck scarf, dust cover, balaclava, and thin beanie that fits under my helmet. When I'm not wearing it I keep it wrapped around my camera.

Personal hygiene: In addition to the run of the mill toiletries, there are some secret solutions I'm bringing along. The lightest weight laundry soap ever might be the Sea to Summit Pocket Laundry Wash (1/2 oz, $3.95), which is biodegradable, rinses clean super easily, and will wash a full sink of clothes with one dry leaf. It can also be used as a body wash, and they make a Pocket Shampoo with conditioner. The Fresh Foot Stone (2 oz, $3.99) is just a smaller version of the Thai Crystal deodorant stone, which I've used for years; it's essentially just a block of mineral salts that inhibits bacteria growth that create stink. It's odorless and doesn't leave residues on clothes, and as the name implies, you can use it on your feet too. The last and most important thing: Chamois Glide (1/2 oz, $5.99). Saddle sores absolutely happen on this kind of endeavor, and this little stick gives an awesomely thin and not-messy layer of protection. You can also use it on feet, inner thighs, or any other place that chafes.

Security: As in any major city across the world, theft is high in Rome and Florence, and thieves are always getting smarter. Now there's a way to steal your information from credit cards and your passport without actually taking them, by scanning with an RFID reader. Inside our money belts we'll have everything tucked in PacSafe RFIDsafe 50 sleeves (1 oz, $19.99) that block scanning.

After cameras, first aid kit, and bike tools, my rough estimate is that we've got 10-12 pounds of gear on each bike. Which, when I did the math, sounds pretty impressive and hits right on the mark for a respectable, recommended bike packing weight. It still felt heavy crawling up Mount Lemmon.

Bikes packed and ready to ride!

 More on that ride soon. Stick around!

Gear | Trips

Building a Better First Aid Kit

by Emily Tuesday, August 7th 2012

I recently went backpacking in Aravaipa Canyon which, if you haven't been there, it's crazy beautiful and a requirement for southern Arizona residents, like a smaller accessible version of the Grand Canyon. My friend who came with me was pretty reactive to bee stings. She got stung once on a river trip and her ankle swelled into a cankle (calf + ankle, when it swells up so big you can't tell the difference) for over a month. I on the other hand have virtually no reaction to bee stings--no swelling at all, and not a lot of pain. In building my first aid kit, I would not have thought to put bee sting treatments in there; after all, I've never needed them. But it's a good thing I had the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight .3 kit with us on the trip, because my friend got stung by two bees, and luckily the AMK folks threw in some antihistimines for me. She took them right away, we carefully pulled out the stinger with precision tweezers, and she swabbed the stings with After Bite, which is really mostly ammonia, a base, that neutralizes the acid in the poison. The pain went away immediately, and her hand only swelled a teeny bit. I was kind of impressed and happy to have the tools to avoid minor tragedy in my med kit. But I was missing one key first aid staple, and that was duct tape. I had moleskin for blisters, but when you're hiking through water for three days in sandals that rub just a smidge, nothing will stay on your feet and protect your skin better than duct tape.

An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure in this tiny little package: Adventure Medical Kits' Ultralight / Watertight .3

It got me thinking about how functional first aid kits can really be. I once saw a simple band-aid and some antibacterial ointment heal over a feud on a trail when two dog owners had their pets off leash and one got a tooth puncture on her hand from her dog as she pulled it from a scuffle. She was furious at the other owner for having the bigger dog off leash, but being able to patch her up softened her fire a little. So often I've thrown my kit in my pack as that random accessory I'll never pull out, and so often I've brought it out for simple, helpful things. What if there were actually some useful things in there? So here's a little checklist of some of the things I've found to be practical additions to a stock first aid kit.

Nail clippers: It may seem a little prissy to bring nail clippers into the wilderness, but it's a handy cutting tool that can snip things off close to the skin, like hangnails and peeling callouses--those run of the mill annoyances that can become full-on sores in the backcountry. Plus, if you're a nail biter you won't want to be doing that with dirt under your nails; clip 'em off.

Precision tweezers/forceps: Most kits come with these, but if they don't, quality tweezers are a must and they're probably the most oft-used tool in the desert. They remove cactus spines, splinters, insect stingers (always be careful of the poison sac), and they can help you pull out ticks by the mouth parts, limiting your chance of infection.

Alcohol wipes: You get some in a standard med kit, but never enough. I stock mine with several extra, because any situation that requires a first aid kit will also require clean hands.

Super glue: It's not made of the nicest chemicals to put on your skin, but super glue was used for emergency sealing of wounds during the Vietnam war. In a pinch, it's useful for stemming bleeding and keeping bacteria and debris out of a clean cut when nobody's around to stitch you up. Its FDA-approved counterpart, Dermabond, is a lot more expensive but much better on skin; run-of-the-mill super glue can be irritating. Please note: I'm not medically trained in the least, and some medical professionals would definitely NOT recommend this advice. I'm speaking only from what has been handy in my experience.

Extra butterfly closures: Most med kits stock you with two of these, but these are especially handy for mountain bikers, who tend to get deep cuts from falling off bikes into sticks, getting pedal-chopped in the shins, or taking a chainring to the calf, all of which I've done. Sometimes you just need to close two flaps of skin together, and if you've got enough butterfly closures you can zip up a wound temporarily without having to glue yourself together (see above).

Classic Swiss Army knife: Though the other tools are handy, I keep this mostly for the scissors. Several times I've needed to bandage a deep cut with a smaller piece of cotton dressing than what they give you in the package, and scissors are really the best tool for that.

Chlorine tabs: In the book "Born to Run", author Christopher MacDougall describes going on a run with a group of people in Mexico; two of the runners got lost, ran out of water, and were found dazed and delirious drinking out of a putrid mud puddle under a rock. After I read that scene, I figured there was no reason not to keep emergency chlorine tabs in my med kit; I need a back up for my water filter anyway.

Emergency whistle: It's a small thing that I would forget to bring otherwise, so I keep one in my med kit. If you needed to drum up some help getting yourself or someone else out of the backcountry, it could be a way to signal for help without having to leave the injured person alone.

Extra ibuprofen and acetametaphine: Both these medications are handy because they perform in different ways. Ibuprofen relieves pain by reducing inflammation, so it's effective for injuries. Acetametaphine is not an anti-inflammatory, and instead blocks pain receptors, making it the better choice for headaches. Both will reduce fever.

Duct tape: The most universal fixer-upper known to man. It will stick to skin even through hours of sloshing through water, so it's a good blister-preventative and band-aid cover inside sweaty boots or for sandaled feet in Aravaipa. It also doubles as an emergency patch kit for for tents, rain jackets, packs, and sleeping pads. I used to make a little roll sticking it to itself, until a few hot days welded the layers together and it became useless. Now I take Lucky Duct, a little section of tape on a paper backing, available for 99 cents.

Standard contents are on the right; my useful additions and extras are on the left. Amazingly, it all still fits.

All these extra things fit in my Ultralight Watertight Medical Kit .3, a small enough kit that there's no good excuse not to carry it, which is important for me; I could build a kit that would be more inclusive, but then I might talk myself out of bringing it on small day trips. The best med kit is worthless if it's sitting in your bathroom cabinet while you're on the trail. This one I bring every time. 


Milagrosa Canyon

by Emily Monday, April 9th 2012

Milagrosa Canyon was the first place I ever experienced the magic of monsoons: my brother and I hiked out there under a sky going indigo and saguaros shining electric on the ridge. The first wash crossing drenched us to our knees with warm summer rainwater. Looking at the first sunbathed red cliffs is a view that always comes to mind with the first summer storm: the crazy hypercolor desert, that static tension before the wind picks up. I don't recommend standing out in the open desert like a lightning rod before a storm; but it's a vivid memory that comes up every time I visit this canyon. Which I did recently, to show some friends the awesome pools at the top.

This time of year when I hike, all I want to see is water. We began walking down the road to the trailhead with temps in the mid-70s, which is plenty warm in the sun. The trail over the first hill was lined with wild purple dalea bushes in bloom, as if some suburban gardener had been out transplanting.  We turned off the main trail (which I've actually never been on) to head into the wash, which at this spot marks the confluence of Milagrosa and Agua Caliente canyons. A monolith of red rock juts up from the Sonoran desert to separate the two. From here we head up Milagrosa, taking a climber's spur up the right side of the canyon. Like most climber trails, it's narrow, rocky, and a bit steep, and after a little while lands you right at the base of an enormous cliff band looking over the rocky canyon bed below. This cliff band is a climbing boon: cool, sometimes even chilly in the shade, and home to a collection of fun, challenging sport climbs on its bright orange rock. The easiest of these is Valentine Arete, nicknamed the Hardest Eight in the State, and gathered around it are 5.10s, .11s, and a handful of .12s. Just up the stream the creek bed rises to meet the bench we've been hiking along, and soon we're at the first of three pools, like a king's daughters, each more beautiful than the last.

The first pool is shallow at its edge and very deep where the water flows in, so deep that its clear-green hue goes dark and black. The first time my brother and I took our parents to this spot, he stripped naked without warning and ran shrieking into the freezing cold water. Even in the dead heat of summer, when the hike up here is a test of true desert residency, the water temperature is on a scale from uncomfortably-to-deliciously cold. This pool seems prize enough, until a scramble up the rock reveals a second pool above, shallower but equally amenable to hanging out, and a full-on hands and feet scramble above that, a third pool, my personal favorite. This last sits in a grotto, with high smooth granite walls. The water is crazy cold from being in the shade. And while I love being in the west for the sweeping scenery, the big rugged mountains, the views that stretch for miles, it's small nooks like this that make me feel at home in this landscape.

Our party scrambled up above this pool and found a fourth, the smallest, which was in the sun. It didn't make the water any warmer, but after splashing quickly in the cold, the rocks helped warm us all back up. We sat next to the water and snacked, and looked for canyon tree frogs in their perfect camouflage on the granite. And then we headed back down.

You can make this jaunt into a loop adventure by scrambling up and over into Agua Caliente canyon. From the bottom pool in Milagrosa, you can look across the canyon and see the steep bench and a faint path that will lead you over the ridge. My brother and I followed this idea one time out here, and were surprised upon dropping into Agua Caliente that the canyon walls were steep and rocky at the bottom, making it nearly impossible to parallel the wash on dry land. We ended up slogging through knee-high water and reeds as the sun went down breaking back out into the shallower confluence and back on the trail roughly half a mile later. A little more non-technical canyoneering than hiking, it's a fun way to get wet. There's an actual trail that loops around both canyons on high sunny ground, but this version, which includes a little bushwhacking, a lot of scrambling, and some careful stepping over slippery wet rocks, keeps you tight in the canyon bottoms (and a warning here: monsoons could mean nasty flooding) and is a more intimate trek with some beautiful water, worthy of exploration.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!