Cycling through Arizona and New Mexico has been a bundle of surprises.
The Wild West seeps out of every corner with frequent sightings of Stetson hats shading a rough hewn face, cowboy boots, and decorated belts holding up the faded denims. Straight out of the Western movies holsters and leather chapps are readily available too. Out on the street, the soundtrack is in Español and V8 rumbles..
We had to make a short visit back to the UK, for which we booked flights from Phoenix. This gave us a little spare time before Phoenix. So just before Thanksgiving, we pitched up in Wickenburg, treating ourselves to a motel. On wandering into town, after spending hours in the fine museum, we discovered we were in the world capital of Team Roping. And, oh dear, rather a lot of souvenir or western gear shops. All closed of course, so we extended our stay. After a curious camping stove cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and a comfy night’s rest, we hit both the town’s attractions. As we’d read online, “heeling” proved a lot harder than “heading”. Well, a steers horns are a fine hook to lasso, whereas it’s hind feet definitely point the wrong way. Maybe half the teams managed both. Saguaro cactuses adding to the Wild West feel.
Dotted between Fort this and Fort that are Indian reservations. The Navajo reservation was followed by Hopi reservation and then came the Apache reservation. The latter is probably the biggest reservation we’ve been through. They are quite notable for their lack of development. But unlike the Australian aborigines the Native North American Indians have held on to some of their sacred sites and banned mining on their land. They do run a few casinos though. If you want to see the historical life of these original Americans, you have to visit a museum.
Cycling down through the Tonto Basin we came across the Tonto National Monument Cave Dwellings. Abandoned in about 1450 AD the Apache Indians were the original suspects for driving the occupants out but current opinion is that the Apaches didn’t arrive in the area until 1500 AD. A little later we cycled over a double peak to reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings set in the Upper Gila River valley. Claimed to be 80% original it gave a fascinating insight into Indian life back in period around1270 where again, for a relatively short time – approximately 30 years – the cliff dwellings were home to a community. In both cases it’s nothing like “cavemen”: The inhabitants built their usual adobe (mud brick) buildings inside the caves – shady and defensible places – it seems a sensible thing to do.
Our distances are, as always, influenced by where the next shower is. Here, we are finding that progress is slow with small distances between accommodation or camp grounds followed by unmanageable distances to the next one. Neither of us are that keen on wild camping. We’ve done it a number of times and are always fretful about the prospect of being disturbed; on one occasion receiving advice that we shouldn’t contemplate wild camping in this area as the local reservation residents are prone to excessive drinking and unruly behaviour. But sometimes we have to stick the tent where we’ve got to. It is, at least, often common and legal, until we reach Texas.
Warmshowers has been a fabulous organization providing a means by which to contact local people who will offer a free bed to touring cyclists. Often, they’re touring cyclists themselves, or were. Making arrangements is naturally a bit hit and miss, but it’s great to have a shower, share a meal or two, natter or go out, and retire to a comfy bed.
Our Safford Warm Showers hosts Hal and Jay filled us in on a lot of local history, and took us on a jeep tour of mountain back roads south of Pima. In an area steeped with history we saw where the Apaches ambushed a wagon train, and where the local Mormon settlers robbed the pay wagon crossing the pass from the south.
The landscapes have been delightful. Sweeping views held in with mountain peaks, at times volcanoes. Blue skies dappled or streaked with white cloud formations provide contrast to the expansive desert and savanna. The desert and mountain plants can be lovely red, whites and purples, beside the expected yellow and green. It looks especially dramatic in low afternoon sun. The short days of winter do make it easier to grab dramatic photos, but they also limit available cycling time, clamping down with dark and cold.
The temperature has fluctuated radically. Whizzing down the California coast we were frequently nudging into the 30s. We were repeatedly told the temperature was high for this time of year. Further tales suggesting this winter was to be a mild one were warmly accepted. Then, wallop; up a few mountains and the temperature dropped radically. By the time we reached New Mexico’s Gila Cave Dwellings, we’d been over 2267m or 7440 feet. So it was chilly as well as dramatic. One morning, crawling out of the tent greeted us with -5C degrees. On another it was -3C but each time it rose to 20C/70F odd by lunchtime. Then came the big freeze -13 degrees Celsius (9F). My water bottle, filled with fresh water indoors, rattled a couple of hours later when I rather rashly tried to have a drink. I’d already had problems with condensation freezing on the inside of my glasses forcing me to scrape it off in order to see the road ahead. The forecast threatened 2 inches of snow in the first few hours leading to decisions to be made – sit tight, despite our dwindling food supplies, or try to bum a ride out.
Well, the snow came and we sat tight for a couple of days helped out on the food front by our cabin hostess Bonnie who kindly cleared out the depths of her freezer for us, coming up with unwanted meat items as she’s vegetarian. The weather warmed up as forecast, and our escape was to divert down south, off the official route, to avoid the highest mountainous passes and the prospect of more snow. We end with a rare huge-progress day. From Faywood to Las Cruces was a 143km blast, dropping 365m, pretty evenly, with a tailwind. For a day we believed we were fast! The next day, we crossed the New Mexico/Texas border, marking the one-third point of our USA journey, and a big culture change.