Monday, November 16, 2015

Heart of Arizona Bike Ride

Yarnell Hill

This ride starts in Congress, Arizona. The website describes the location as “37 miles Southwest of Nowhere, AZ; 39 miles Southeast of Nothing, AZ; 89 miles East of Somewhere, AZ and 69 miles Beyond Hope, AZ.” They would be right. I have never had occasion to visit Congress, AZ. I doubt most people have. It’s an old ghost mining town that now has retirees and is a bedroom community–meaning no one works there or couldn’t even if they wanted to. The location is remote; northwest of Wickenburg and off the main highway to Las Vegas.

The climate is also in between desert and woodlands, and is a sparse, arid grassland. The landscape is one that I pass on the highway on the way to somewhere else and admire the valleys plunging through the mountains.

When I considered this ride, I briefly thought of riding the 104 mile version with 6,000 feet of climbing. Then I thought about training long miles in the summer heat and wisely reconsidered. The forty-four mile route has 3,100 feet of climbing, which seemed plausible, though probably a little painful. Bullshifters, the bike club that ran this ride, has sag stops throughout and lunch afterwards. Food is a bonus of an organized ride and is the whole point of participating.

The starting point in Congress is the Sierra Vista Motel. It claims to be the smallest motel in Arizona, because it only has four rooms. Somehow, I was expecting a larger structure. It had a wooden fence in front, with a garden patio behind it, but not much area to park. A few riders were milling about, but nobody was lined up for the start, so I just began the ride after signing in.

Fish Rock

The empty road briefly descended, then the ascent began. I saw the mountain in front of me in the distance. It’s named Yarnell Hill, but I failed to see the “hill” aspect. This sucker was tall. I wondered if the road went through a pass or up the whole thing. I passed a rock painted as a green fish on the side of the highway. This place was just weird. I felt out of breath already.

The wind blew the opposite direction that I was headed. The route headed sharply upward and wound around the side of the mountain. Wind and a climb. I thought that this might get ugly. I noted my time as I passed the mile markers–ten minutes. I was going a blazing six miles per hour. Technically, I could run that fast, but not on this incline. Hopefully, the whole twenty-two miles to the turn around isn’t like this.

The view from the road was stunning, with miles of the desert plain visible 1000-1500 feet below. A small white grid was Congress, with mountains south of the town. I stopped to take photos.

Oddly, I was passing people, including one person wearing a tri kit from a triathlon club known for its speedy members. Take that, Mr. Hot Stuff! Not that I cared how fast I was going. This was a ride, not a race, which suited me fine. I had no delusions that I was going to ride forty-four miles with 3,100 feet of climbing in any thing other than a snail’s pace. 

Some bigger bike events in Phoenix and Tucson are races, which is a turn off. Some don’t allow tri bikes, which is offensive because the organizers assume that the people riding them can’t do it without crashing. If I crash, it’s a driver’s fault or the road’s. They also assume slow riders are inexperienced or out of shape. I have worked hard for a long time to go nowhere fast.

This event was laid back, so far. I didn’t run into the century and 125 mile people the whole ride. Presumably, they were serious about what they were doing, or just crazy. The first seven miles were difficult for me. I couldn’t imagine 104 or more.

Just when I thought the turn around was hours more to get to, I reached Yarnell and the road flattened out. I saw police cars and orange cones and thought all this wasn’t for the ride, because they probably didn’t know about it or care. Then, in the middle of the road was an antique car show. No one stopped me as I rode through. People were mindlessly walking across the road as if they didn’t see me, so I slowed down. More weirdness, that I hadn’t expected.

Yarnell is the site of a fire that killed 19 fire fighters. I saw little evidence of this, other than some sign medallions and a museum, but I didn’t know what the town looked like before. A sign on a side road said “No access to incident site.” The rugged terrain looked like it would be a bad place for a fire, with the open grassy plains and stunted trees. It was sad to think about.

I moved quickly through the tiny town and finally picked up speed, past vast ranch land. The trees were taller, though sparse. The descent meant I had to climb it on the way back, but it was a nice break.

Reaching the sag station was a relief. A cheerful volunteer asked me if I wanted soup, hot chocolate or a root beer float. My befuddled mind was dazed at the range of choice, so I opted for soup. The float might have been better, but I wasn’t very hungry from the exertion and it was a bit chilly with the wind once I stopped. Most people seemed tired and not in a hurry to move.  

I dragged myself out of the aid station. Going back required climbing the hill that I had descended. I took some pictures of the cottonwood trees that I saw. I was now really tired. I wasn’t hungry, but ate anyway to keep my energy up. It was warmer by this time. 

I passed through Yarnell again with the auto show still going on. I noticed a life-sized metal elephant on the roadside. A white elephant was also painted on a rocky hill. This town has a thing for these animals. Finally, I  hit the descent of the Yarnell Hill. I kept feathering my brakes because of the steepness and curves. I saw an overlook and stopped and took some pictures. The severity of the descent eased off as I got closer to town. When I was finished, I ate a grilled hamburger

The ride from Nowhere, Arizona to Nothing, Arizona had been fun. I appreciated the quirkiness of the small, rural towns. They were much more “western” than Scottsdale, which claims to be the most western, but bulldozes any evidence of character in the name of development. 

Maybe next year I will go to Beyond Hope.