Arizona '97


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Tour Report: Arizona Tour

26-31 December 1997

Trip photos are here.

This was a weekend gathering of friends that talk on the (formerly the mailing list.

Arrival and pre tour gathering at Sara's house - 26 December 1997

A total of 11 people got together for the Phoenix tour. Three were from Northern California, one (me) was from Southern California, and three were locals. Four people from the east even joined us, most of which had also used the flight out as an opportunity to visit friends and family nearby.

By 6 PM, everyone had arrived at Sara's, except Margaret and Cynthia, whose flights were coming in late that night. We wouldn't meet them until the next morning. In the meantime, we got to check out the laminated maps that Sara had put together for us.

Sara treated us to a pre tour pasta carbo loading dinner. After dinner, the rest of us had a surprise for Sara - a basket full of gifts to thank her for all her hard work in organizing the tour.

Day 1 - 27 December 1997
Phoenix (1150') to Florence (1500')
65 miles, total climb 700'

We met at Doug's house to start the tour, a move that would save time by cutting out a lot of the riding through suburban Phoenix. However, we spent some time getting organized and assembling bikes, so we didn't get on the road until about 10:30 or 11:00.

There was originally a threat of rain for the 26th or the 27th. Judy "the Rain Goddess" was unable to make the trip, so the skies ended up being clear for the tour, with no storms in sight. The weather was unseasonably cold, though, with a high temperature of not even 60 degrees. I had to wear my tights for the first time in a while.

The first 25 miles would be spent in stop-and-go riding through suburban Phoenix. I hadn't been on my bike in two weeks, so I felt really sluggish for these first 25 miles. We stopped for bagel sandwiches for lunch in one of the outlying suburbs.

We picked up Highway 87, which took us through the Gila River Indian Reservation. In stark contrast to suburban Phoenix, this area was completely undeveloped. After 20 miles of desert, desert, and yet more desert, we stopped at the Trading Post located just outside the boundary of the Indian Reservation. They had a small, interesting museum with Native American artifacts. A few of the locals were interested in us and our bikes, particularly with Alan's 27" (frame size, not wheel size) Cannondale.

A few miles later we arrived at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. These were the remains of an ancient Indian civilization, including the "big house" (the "Casa Grande"), which nobody knows why it was built.

After checking out the ruins, we raced to get to Florence before dark. Although we weren't planning on touring in the dark, I knew that there would probably be times where lights would be helpful, and being close to sunset, this was one of those times. Before driving out from Los Angeles, I had mounted my Nightsun helmet light to my front rack and stored the battery in one of the front panniers. I turned the light on, and.... nothing! I forgot to charge the battery before coming out to Phoenix! (Post tour correction:  the battery was charged, but the wiring was loose.)  Luckily, we made it to the Florence town limits before it got too dark.

We rode down the Main Street of Florence to find a place for dinner. Most of the buildings in the downtown area were abandoned and falling apart. Since it was after sunset, the temperature was quickly dropping. We passed some kids who were waving to us and cheering us on in our "Tour de Florence". This reminded me of the reactions I got when I lived in Thailand and rode my mountain bike through some of the small fishing villages.

We found a Chinese restaurant that had enough room for 11 people, 9 bikes, and a tandem. During dinner we discussed our plans for where we'd stay for the night. Our original plan had us camping in the city park (with permission from the local authorities, of course). But with the lack of facilities, including nowhere to take a shower, we decided to get rooms at the local motel. We rode a short distance to the motel and quickly found out what drove the Florence economy: the state prison across the street!

Day 2 - 28 December 1997
Florence (1500') to Catalina State Park (2380')
57 miles, total climb 2280'

We were originally going to have breakfast at a Mexican restaurant. However, a Mexican breakfast didn't sound too appealing to the East Coast crowd, so we went to have an American breakfast at the restaurant next door. We got there just in time to beat the after church crowd. Unfortunately, the earliest any of us got on the road was about 10:15 AM, not too much of an improvement from the day before.

Once leaving Florence it was a straight shot down Highway 79 - the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. I had started riding with Margaret, Robin, and Mark - the first group to leave Florence - but I ended up falling back. I caught up with them at a rest stop just as they were finishing lunch. It was already after 1:00 PM. The others had caught up soon after that. Al and I stayed back for lunch, while everyone else continued on.

The Pinal Pioneer Parkway was a gradual, but noticeable, uphill. There were no other stops, monuments, or anything for the next 20 miles. I kept doing the math in my head: "x" number of miles left to go, "y" amount of daylight; therefore I have to average "z" miles per hour, but my body only wants to do "z-1" miles per hour (can't you tell I'm an engineer?). And I wasn't even counting time for a shopping run.

The next landmark at 34 miles was a pay phone. To my surprise mostly everyone else was there, and not further down the road! I stopped to stretch my legs, and a few minutes later, Robin and I left. Most of the others stayed behind to finish lunch.

The next stretch of road was a lot steeper than the previous stretch. I didn't even have to do the math anymore - I knew we weren't going to make it before dark! According to my altimeter we at about 3500'. I remember Sara previously mentioned that the campground was at 2500'. Robin and I questioned the accuracy of my altimeter (it is an Avocet 50, after all), but the native vegetation had changed, so were we really that high up?

Somewhere around mile 40 we saw a welcome sight: DOWNHILL!! We were going to make it before dark! Not only were we going to make it before dark, we'd even have time for a shopping run! Sara really kept this surprise in her back pocket for us!

At Oracle Junction we passed the turnoff to Biosphere 2 - a side trip we would have liked to make, but we just didn't have enough time. We turned onto Highway 77 towards Tucson. This road was a lot busier, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. There was a lot of glass on this road, but I managed to escape without any punctures. Robin wasn't so lucky; he flatted about a few miles from the campground.

We passed a sign for the town of Catalina, which gave the elevation. My altimeter was only off by about 200'. We really were well above 3000' at the high point of the ride!

Margaret and I did a shopping run and then found our way to Catalina State Park. The park was in a beautiful location, at the base of a mountain range just north of Tucson. We were able to pitch our tents with some daylight remaining.

After taking hot showers, we started to prepare dinner. Al was planning on borrowing my stove after he took a shower. In the meantime, Robin prepared an excellent pasta and sauce dinner for himself, Margaret, Mark, and me. Ideally, we would have liked to prepare a large meal for the whole group, but logistically it was easier to break the food preparation into smaller groups.

It was a lot colder outside compared to the previous night, due to the higher elevation. The hot meal was helping to keep us warm, although my toes and fingers still felt frozen.

Although no self-respecting bear would out of hibernation this time of year, we decided to hang the food from the trees after dinner anyway. After all, it wasn't the self-respecting bears we were worried about, it was the hungry ones!

Around 9:30 or so Doug had asked if anyone had seen Al. No one had seen him since he left to take a shower! Just as we gathered a search party, Al had returned. After his shower, he had used the hot water in the bathroom to prepare his meal, and then spent some time talking to the RV campers - all this while the rest of us were freezing in the wonderful outdoors!

Day 3 - 29 December 1997
Catalina State Park (2380') to Picacho Peak State Park (1650')
39 miles, total climb 460'

I awoke at the crack of dawn to find out I was too cold and lazy to get out of my tent right away. I checked my thermometer and found out the temperature was 30 degrees - inside the tent. I arose from the tent to get some water on the boil, and all of the water bottles had frozen solid! Even the water pipe near the group campsite was frozen.

Not being a big oatmeal fan, I decided to cook up some pancakes. Unfortunately, I had the flame too hot, and ended up making pancakes that were burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. I also warped my frying pan in the process. (The good folks at REI did let me exchange it, however.) Maybe next time I'll have oatmeal instead...

I joined the "early" group that started riding after 10:00 or so. Going west on Tangerine Road, there was a short series of rolling hills before heading downhill all the way to Interstate 10. Since there were no other through roads in the area, we had little choice except to take the frontage road along the interstate.

Although the frontage road went slightly downhill, we had a headwind, so Alan, Sue, Robin, and I had stuck together for most of the 20 miles along the road. The scenery was the same: the interstate on the left, train tracks on the right, Picacho Peak ahead and to the left, and the occasional Dairy Queen billboards above and to the right. Dairy Queen never sounded so tempting! A couple of times we passed by groups of prison inmates cleaning the rubbish from the interstate shoulder.

After 36 miles the four of us reached our lunch stop - the gastronomic adventure called Dairy Queen! I had the fish and chips - or should I say the $7 store bought frozen fish sticks and fries - and took a break to ice my tired knees.

After Dairy Queen, we rode across the interstate and up the hill to Picacho Peak State Park. The elevation gain from Dairy Queen to the campsite 3 miles away was greater than the total feet climbed in the first 36 miles!

After setting up camp, Robin and I went out for a hike at 4:30. Since sunset was at 5:30, there wasn't enough time to get to the top of Picacho Peak and back. So we found a trail, went up it, turned around at 5:00, and walked back the way we came. Unfortunately, we were nowhere near the top of any peaks when we had turned around at 5:00.

Apparently, there was a dishonest camper in the area (I never did get the whole story on that, so I'll leave it to one of the others), so our plan was to have half of us eat dinner at the restaurant nearby, while the other half kept watch at the campground. Unfortunately, the kitchen closed at 8:00, so we had to talk the restaurant into making us sandwiches for take out for the rest of the group.

At about 3:30 in the morning, most of us awoke to the sound of coyotes sniffing around - it's a good thing we hung our food this night, also! Sara checked her thermometer and it was a balmy 42 degrees - much warmer than the previous night!

Day 4 - 30 December 1997
Picacho Peak State Park (1650') to Phoenix (1150')
82 miles, total climb 740'

We found out the night before that the restaurant opened bright and early at 7:30 AM. So our plan was to get up at 6:30 (one half hour before sunrise), break camp, and get to the restaurant right at 7:30 when it opened.

I did manage to get up at 6:30, and I set a personal best for breaking camp, at 1 hour 15 minutes. I could probably do it in an hour with more practice, but I'll allow a minimum of an hour and a half for future trips. After breakfast, we got on the road at 9:15 - definitely a record for the trip!

There was a not so obvious intersection where we had to bear left to stay on course. Al was quite a ways behind us, so how could we tell him to bear left? A little gravel from the side of the road, formed into an "AL" and a left turn arrow, would do the trick. After creating our masterpiece, Al had just crested the hill and was in sight. We took pride in our monument to Al, anyway.

We passed through the town of Casa Grande and then entered the Gila River Indian Reservation. In the town of Sacaton, people marveled at the sight of us and our bikes. Obviously there were not many passers-by in this town. This time though, the focus was away from Alan's "Darth Vader" like 27" Cannondale, and it was on Sara and Doug's tandem!

There had been a gradual warming trend over the past four days. The afternoon high had surpassed 70 degrees - it was about time we had some seasonable weather! I felt instantly invigorated after stripping down to a short sleeve jersey and shorts!

After leaving the Indian Reservation, we were back to the outer suburbs of Phoenix - only 25 miles to Doug's house. We had time for an ice cream stop before continuing home. The rest of the ride back looked flat, but it was slightly downhill, and we had mostly green lights all the way back to Doug's house.

Most of us were able to get together for a group dinner after the ride.

Departure and Final Thoughts - 31 December 1997

I said my good-byes and left Phoenix before lunch in order to make it back to Los Angeles before dark. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn't able to join most of the others for the climb up South Mountain.

The long distances between places in the western U.S. and the short days made a winter tour a challenge. Maybe it would have been better to have a base camp in Phoenix and do day trips. But I think we were all itching for an honest to goodness, self-contained tour! I really enjoyed it, and many thanks again to Sara for putting it all together!

And, of course, I can't forget how friendly the people were in rural Arizona - many times people would come up to us and say hello, or ask where we were going, or offer a helping hand.

Maybe a California coast tour in the not too distant future....


Page Last Edited (though probably not for content): 14 September 2010