Thursday, February 06, 2014

Arizona Trail Ride - Picketpost to Kelvin

I got a chance to get out and ride with some great regional trail stewards and advocates for a ball-bustin' day on the AZT.  The group of eight assembled at the Picketpost trailhead under overcast skies for a morning departure on a 37-ish mile ride that promised some 5000 feet of climbing and ended up 1000 feet lower than we started.  Riders representing four mountain areas of Arizona including Flagstaff, Prescott, Sedona, and Tucson were present, many of whom had never met before.  Throughout the day conversations tended to focus on advocacy and interests within mountain biking with the hope that through our varied interests we could see all preserved and accommodated by management agencies.  In an interesting time where cities have begun to recognize the value of recreation tourism to their areas,  it seems that the interest of urban accessibility lies at the forefront of recreation managers within federal lands.

Our ride was anything but urban accessible.  Most of us drove in excess of three hours to arrive here, and unless you live in Superior, Arizona and ride a mountain bike, this one can be reached in one of about two ways:  (1). You drive here and ride this as a shuttle or an out and back; (2). You ride here via the rest of the Arizona Trail.

As we were southbound from our start the land covered in this expanse of trail included the southernmost of the Tonto National Forest, some BLM land, and finally land formerly held in State Trust but recently purchased by Asarco mining company.  This is one of six major mining outfits that the Arizona Trail currently passes through and at this point mine expansion is planned to remove and relocate the section south of where our ride ended.  We encountered a pair of hikers out to observe and chart the aesthetic impact of what would result from that expansion.  Specifically, this expansion would see the tailings of the Ray Mine dumped in the Ripsey Wash feeding the Gila river valley pictured toward the end of this article. Counterpoint to this statement:  These are copper mines.  Arizona is the Copper State.  The products of this undoubtedly destructive process are used by nearly EVERYBODY who uses electricity or plumbing.  The Arizona Trail Association works with these mining outfits to ensure passage, often through land trade, though the process is not always amicable.

Personally, my interest in this section started nearly seven years ago to the day while leading a crew for the conservation corps known as Pluto is a Planet.  We were sent to the south side of Picketpost Mountain for an unprecedented (in our world) 14 day trail work hitch.  At that time the AZT was more of a route and a concept than the ribbon through unforgiving lands it has since become.  We were there to help realize the vision.  Our days included much digging and filling, hiking and hauling, and of course the occasional cactus through the glove.  Great conversations of that day centered around how the world would be different upon returning from our two week absence.  I emerged to find my sister got married to a man I had never before met.  Our work on that section of trail was to me the capstone of our time and work together as Pluto.  It was something that would have lasting impacts into generations current and yet to come.  Below rider Lee Blackwell pilots through Pluto's hand built section seven years after construction, and nine years after he helped pioneer the AZT mountain bike route.

The lands beyond our old spike camp were as foreign to me as the trail that now navigated through them.  This country is remote and inhospitable.  We meandered back and forth through flowing drainages with ominous lands around us that hinted at major topographic relief.  We seemed to climb without reward.  It came into sight around a corner and that sight revealed what we all had come for.  The Alamo Canyon traverse was accompanied by breathtaking eeriness.  We were met with a drizzling winter rain that cleared the dust from my eyes and brought the true smell of the desert.  Looking down into the canyon conjured images of the lost, and a hike through its bottom would surely tell that story through the remains of whatever had not survived.  The group of eight pedaled on without error.

We met our reward for the day as we popped out of the canyon traverse to a cold and windy saddle that revealed the Gila River Valley below.  We were bound for it, though not even halfway through our day.  The descent was riveting, and a welcome warm to the cold drizzle we had faced through the canyon.

The Gila Valley brought new terrain to the ride.  The sandy side washes poured across the trail route nearly as often as the trail took a curve, and made fresh winter legs work hard for distance earned.  The sight of water in the desert, however, is always a welcome one, even if its too cold for a swim.  By this point it was a free-for-all for all eight.  Grind it out.  Remember those days you have suffered the hardest and know that this does not compare.  The trail ribbon provided frequent changes keeping my brain focused on where I was going, and fortunately not on how badly I was suffering.

 A loose, challenging climb from the river valley brought signs of civilization into view, and though the last downhill was punctuated with climbs, our vehicles, and the snacks within were a very welcome sight.

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