When I left the hotel this morning, my decision was to make it a short day and detour up Hwy 188 to Tonto National Monument, camping somewhere nearby. Assuming that breakfast would be my only real meal of the day, I stopped at a café and ordered almost one of everything from the breakfast section of the menu. As I’m closing in on home, I’m starting to think of “re-entry” and things that will need to change. One of these is the volume of food I am eating; the other is the pace at which I eat. I’m not sure the reason, but I am wolfing down my food at alarming speed. As I ate my meal, I’m certain I overheard my waitress speaking to another about the possibility of installing a spark arrestor on my silverware.
The ride to Tonto National Monument was a gradual climb to 3,800 ft followed by a beautiful, leisurely descent toward Theodore Roosevelt Lake. The only blemish on the wondrous scenery was the hundreds of Harleys rolling past me – motorcyling’s answer to the boom box. There must be a biker rally nearby, because they were everywhere. I was quite interested in visiting Tonto. It has a well preserved pair of cliff dwellings built by the Salado people and I wanted to see how they compared to the Anasazi ruins I have seen in Utah. Unfortunately, I arrived to find that the sites were closed due to an invasion of Africanized (aka “killer”) bees and I could only view the cliff dwellings from a remote distance.
Stopping back at the ranger station, I asked about camping sites in the area and also along Hwy 88, know as the Apache Trail. The response I got was: “You aren’t thinking of riding that with a bike, are you? You mean a dirtbike?” It turns out that the Apache Trail is unpaved for 22 miles of its length. As I left the ranger station, I struck up a conversation with a resident of the area and also asked him about it. Before responding, he asked me a number of questions about my ride including distances covered and mountains I had climbed. Then he said: “Son, I think you can do it.” With a split vote, I rode on to the National Forest Service office and spoke with one of the rangers there. While she wouldn’t advise me, she did have aerial photographs of the road and identified a number of places to camp along the way. I peddled off trying to make a decision, but with my thought process constantly interrupted by the stream of “brappping” Harleys riding past. They made my choice for me. I’d rather take my chances on the Apache Trail rather than listening to the Harleys for the rest of the day. I stopped briefly to take a look at Roosevelt Dam (which Teddy considered to be one of his top accomplishments while in office) and then headed west on Hwy 88.
Within two miles of the dam, the road turned from asphalt to dirt. Although the surface was graded, I was a bit concerned about possible damage to my rim or spokes. On some small descents the road would “washboard” causing jarring if I didn’t pay attention. I learned quickly that I had to slow down well in advance of the washes (where sand overflows the road from flooding). When you hit these at speed, it’s almost like losing control on ice. My forearms had a workout wrestling the bike to vertical until I learned to anticipate these areas. The other issue was the occasional SUV or truck. The passengers would roll by drinking their Big Gulps looking at me out of their air -conditioned vehicle as if I were a zoo animal. Most annoyingly, only a few of them had the sense to slow down when approaching, the remainder left me coated in a cloud of dust.
Despite this, today was the most beautiful part of my ride to date. Around ever corner was new visual delight. This road runs through a series of canyons containing several small lakes and reservoirs that provide water to the Phoenix area. In appearance, it looks like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. And, for long stretches of time, I felt as if it were all mine. Clearly the local inhabitants were not expecting me. I would turn a corner and see cottontail rabbits and Gambel’s Quail scatter. As I came over one ridge, I saw a coati scamper into the brush. Bright crimson flowered Beavertail Cactus appeared along with enormous Saguaros and whip like Ocotillos with red blooming tips – all against the backdrop of the slow moving canyon water below.
My eyes were intoxicated by all that I saw. The phrase “achingly beautiful” has been used many times by others. Today, I understood what it means. My euphoria carried me past several possible camping sites, but only grew in intensity in the late afternoon. As the sun started to set, the canyon walls radiated varieties of green that I never knew existed in nature; all of them accented with the rust, umber and salmon hues of the declining light on the sandstone walls.
About two miles east of Tortilla Flat, the dirt road abruptly turned to asphalt again. I rode past the campground there and at Canyon Lake lost in my reverie and in the mountains silhouetted against the afterglow of sunset. To my right, I descended past Weaver’s Needle, a landmark used by many treasure hunters searching for the legendary fortunes of the Lost Dutchman Mine. As I continued my descent, I saw Venus rising near the sliver of the moon and heard a rout of coyotes addressing the evening with mournful wailing. I coasted through pools of cool, sage fragrant air at the bottom of each hill until, in the darkness, I found a campground and decided that even days like this must end.