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.