I woke up early after a great night’s sleep at Mesa Campground right above Lake Roberts. I was determined to get my food and start early on the route. Today would mark me completely leaving pavement behind as I headed into the Gila.
I got down to the Lake Roberts General Store right at 8 am, just as the handwritten sign had said. However, it still was not open yet. I sat around stretching, charging my electronics, and repeatedly checking my watch. Sometime near 9 am, someone finally opened up the shop. The selection was narrow, but I found all I needed. I was going to make due with salty pretzels, tortillas, and buttloads of cheese. I immediately jumped on the pavement and continued along the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. The land seemed harmonious in the morning cool. The end of the scenic run arrived and the route became more traveled with vehicles. I talked to a construction crew who mentioned a fire somewhere in the Gila that I needed to be careful of. They pointed to the faint brown haze on the horizon as evidence. I kept that in mind.
A few minutes later, the route officially and poignantly left the paved world behind for a more permanent basis. My GPS told me to turn left. I looked up at a gravel hill climbing into dusty ponderosas and junipers. This was it. This was my entrance into the more remote portions of the Gila National Forest. A double decker sign prominently stood like a gatekeeper, warning of steep grades, sharp curves, and the unsafe passage of trailers. The sign also said, “No Services Next 120 Miles.” The Great Divide Route was more like 140 as it would leave the main gravel crossing. In all, I only allowed myself to stare and contemplate the contents of that sign for 30 seconds. A wave of fear and uncertainty rolled over me followed by casting doubt aside and saying to myself, “GO! MOVE!” I thought no more about the sign or how it would make me reconsider my direction in a car, let alone a bike.
I start grinding my gears on a grade ascending me up onto a broad juniper filled mesa. A pickup comes bouncing down the washboard and potholes. They skid to a stop before me, lean out, and ask if I need water. I thank them and decline as I have plenty. As far as I know, the next water wouldn’t be for over 50 miles at Beaverhead Work Station, so I made sure to fill my every container before leaving Mesa Campground. On top of the mesa, I start really covering miles along the relatively flat crest of the Continental Divide. Like clockwork, cicadas start drumming around 10 am, my signal that the day’s heat is here. It’s like the louder they buzz, the hotter it gets. Around noon, and already several liters into my reserves, a truck pulls over. It turns out to be a scientist who tells me all about the insects in the area. He talks passionately about the great biodiversity in the Gila, how he used sheet lighting last night at the Black Canyon Campground ahead to attract night insects, and that there is water flowing there! I thank him and he offers to top off my reserves, which I oblige.
The route ascends all day through the drumming heat that seems little abated by my gain in elevation. The juniper fall away as ponderosa pine come to dominate. The route becomes steeper and steeper. The road switchbacks 180s repeatedly to gain the top of crests. The route substrate is dried silt and clay - I can only imagine how terrible it would be to bike through here in the rain; one would truly get hammered by peanut butter bike-stopping mud. Sometime in the afternoon I summit out at 8,000 feet, completely drenched in my own sweat. I pull my bike off the road, crouch in the pencil shade of a ponderosa pine, pull out my sun umbrella, and decide to kick back in siesta to let the worst heat of the day pass at this high point. Black flies had plagued me all morning, biting and landing whenever my pace slowed on a hike-a-bike (surely a product of the multitudes of cattle grazing in the forest). I put on a bug head net and read before napping.
Around 4 pm, I decide to get going. From my siesta point, the route plunges down towards the Black Canyon. I see multiple cattle troughs filled with water, and I regret having the extra weight of water on me when it’s available. My brakes heat up hard, squealing on the sharp and steep descent. I pull off in Upper Black Canyon Campground where a seemingly permanent stream beautifully flows and an abundance of shade-producing cottonwoods stand. I decide to camp here. The water is abundant, I drink as much as I please, and the scenery is beautiful. There are no other campers on site.
Near dusk, I decide to walk the length of the stream by following the road that led me in. I’m probably 50 feet from where my bivy is setup when the road turns to dust/sand and crosses the stream and exits on the other side. I look down in the sand and see dozens of massive footprints that are unmistakably from a mountain lion. I realize this is probably an attractive water source and that I’m alone here. I head back to my bivy where as I climb inside as the canyon plunges into dark and solitude. The footprints keep playing in my mind, I get paranoid, and then I hear something walking around near me. My brain argues with itself: (A) It’s a mountain lion and you need to check - (B) There is no mountain lion and you are irrationally spooking yourself.
The urge to check wins. I grab my headlamp, swivel around in the lonely dark and illuminate a pair of eyes just as my headlamp rapidly fades and dies. SHIT! I hadn’t replaced the batteries since the Arizona Trail and it was already dying by the end! Now, I’m standing in the dark, freaked out by my own mind with some sort of definite animal. I realize my bike light is fully charged. I stumble in the dark to my bike and flick on the 1200 lumen light that turns the campground day. About 20 feet from me is a gray fox running around. Relieved, I climb back into my bivy. Unfortunately, my brain is still on “sentinel mode,” no matter how irrational or how much I factually tell myself mountain lion attacks are improbably rare, my heart still pumps that adrenaline. Thus, what should have rightfully been a gorgeous and cool night in a perfect campground is a long, restless, sleepless one, self-imposed by my stubborn sympathetic nervous system. And obviously from the presence of this post, I ended up perfectly fine.