Bikepacking the San Rafael Valley

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“Are we going to die?” I asked for the second time since Ryan had shared the route with me.  We were driving down to Patagonia, Arizona on a Friday evening for a short weekend of bikepacking.  Patagonia is a small town in Southern Arizona, roughly 20 miles north of Nogales. For some reason I was still convinced that the border was dangerous and kept pestering Ryan about our well being.  The last time we were in Southern Arizona for an Arizona Endurance Series event at Kentucky Camp we saw several border patrol agents. As we continued driving I was adamant that the border was still hazardous with ranchers getting shot by the drug cartel and illegal immigrants.  After a quick google search I realized the story I was remembering about an Arizona rancher getting shot and killed on his ranch was from 2010. A realization that revealed the lasting impact negative news coverage creates. Feeling ignorant, I decided to stop asking Ryan about the route and trust his judgement.
We arrived at the Harshaw road trailhead for the Arizona Trail after dark and started to set up camp.  The parking lot was pretty dumpy, with trash strewn about. Ryan started to pitch our tent and after I reluctantly put my headlamp on and got out of the car to help him I noticed he was setting up the tent right on top of a huge ant hill.  We moved a few hundred yards away and settled in for the night.
After an uneventful night and morning we packed up our bikes and set out towards the Mexico border.  Previously, when I questioned Ryan about route safety he explained that we would be riding past people’s homes so there was nothing to worry about.  Unconvinced I told him I was going to keep track of how many houses we saw to prove a point, sadly, I lost count during the first couple of hours. We rode past several ranches over our two day ride.  While the landscapes were vast and we didn’t see many people it never quite felt remote. Our first pit stop was the old ghost town of Harshaw. On our way there we passed a handful of pickup trucks that apparently worked for a security company.  One truck stopped us to notify us that we were approaching some heavy equipment on the road up ahead. We never saw the heavy equipment, but we passed several warning signs that read “No Recording. No Videos. No Photographs.” Perplexed and preoccupied dreaming up a wild conspiracy theory we pedaled onward.  Shortly after our encounter with the security company, we arrived in the old town center of Harshaw. The town was completely abandoned and there were only remnants of a few buildings remained. It was hard to fathom that we were standing in a place that was a boom town in the late 1800s, before the mines dried up and a fire destroyed the area.
After leaving Harshaw, Ryan decided that we should take a detour to an old mine. The detour added a mile or two to the route, but also required us to climb an extremely steep hill. It had been a while since we had been bikepacking so I wasn’t used to hauling the weight up hill.  We got to the site of the mine shaft and took a few minutes to take it all in. It reminded me of the Netflix mini series, Godless.  A western that is set in an old mining town in Colorado.  Naturally, I started quoting the movie in my best western drawl.  I love Westerns so this put me in a good mood while I caught my breath before we descended back down the hill to get back on our route.
The landscape began to open up as we continued through the San Rafael Valley.  The pristine dirt roads formed a wide smooth path between endless fields of rolling grasslands.  The views stretched on forever. Southern Arizona gravel makes for easy pedaling, the only challenge is that there is always wind.  Our final pit stop before the border was a memorial monument for Fray Marcos de Niza, the first European west of the Rocky Mountains.  The memorial was in the middle of nowhere and I wonder how many people have ever seen it, it prompted a discussion about being the first ever to accomplish something and left me pondering questions with no answer such as legacy and the temporal nature of our lives.
As we neared the Arizona-Mexico border we passed a few working ranches and an old Spanish style church.  The landscape was beautiful, valleys and hills rolled into Mexico with tall grass and steadfast trees sprinkled throughout, sprawling mountain ranges provided a dramatic backdrop in the distance.  The fence itself was unimpressive, a whole lot of steel that didn’t look capable of stopping any illegal activity. After leaving the border we paralleled the fence, just a few miles to the north, the dark metal was like a long deep scar penetrating the landscape, ceasing to exist.
As we continued back north we started climbing steadily, as the temperatures did the same.  The sun was completely overhead now and there was no shade, we were completely exposed.  There was the slightest tailwind that made everything feel stagnant, sweat poured down my head and through my helmet.  I never thought I would hate a tailwind, but I was almost to the point of cursing it. As we trudged slowly uphill on a road that looked like it would never end I took my helmet off and hung it from my handlebars.  I’ve often seen Instagram photos of bikepackers riding without helmets and I’m always disappointed wondering why on earth they aren’t wearing helmets, now I understand. As usual, experience begets empathy.
Twenty odd miles later we arrived at Parker Canyon Lake.  I wasn’t expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised to ride right past a marina store when we arrived.  We stopped for snacks and I happily enjoyed a Mexican Coke and some chips. I even bought a La Croix to enjoy back at camp.  This bikepacking trip was turning out to be quite luxurious. We rode around the campground looking for a place to sleep. Most campsites were filled with big trucks, loud music and plenty of tailgate supplies, and a few with guys who had a little too much liquid courage and were getting ready to fight as they shouted, “You don’t even know me, bro!” Nothing like a spring day at the lake.  Eventually, we found a spot and set up our camp. After eating and relaxing we walked down to the lake to explore and take some photographs, away from the commotion of the campground it was quite peaceful and relaxing.
Back at camp our neighbors had also returned and we were greeted by a young boy, maybe seven years old, named Lorenzo.  Lorenzo was extremely friendly and enjoyed telling us about how he was from Tucson and was on his first fishing trip, but he was already getting the hang of it.  The next morning we woke up early to pack up our gear and Lorenzo scrambled out of his tent. He curiously watched us pack our things and tried to get into this hammock.  Not quite tall enough or strong enough to balance and climb in he wound up hanging from it upside down, yelling for his parents help right after dawn.  Eventually, he safely got down and decided that he should get his bike out since we were about the leave on ours. As we packed up our final bags Lorenzo got ready to ride away from camp with us and head down the grassy hill toward the parking lot. His Dad shouted from his tent and surprisingly Lorenzo decided to listen and ride back to camp.  He waved goodbye to us as we passed the campground from the road above and we sped along the pavement for some fast and cold morning miles.

One Comment

  • Well done! It’s neat you get to see things & areas that are well off the beaten path that many never see & or even know exist.


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