After my self-imposed lack of night’s sleep, I let first light be my indicator to get moving. Surprisingly (or not), the canyon campground was cold enough that I put on warm gear to start riding. I zig-zagged up the other side of the route to exit the canyon. Looking back down from a ridge, I realized how far into the Gila I was now and how far I had yet to go. A brown haze sat thick on the horizon indicative of the fire brewing someplace. With little more thought, I set my mind to getting to Beaverhead Work Center as quickly as possible, preferably before the day’s heat started.
Once on top of the canyon rim and back in the sun, I stripped off the warm clothing and flew down a large descent. I passed by Wall Lake, which turned out to be a large man-made cow pond (complete with a cow standing in it). I wasn’t sure there was going to be water there, so it was a surprise to see how large of a source was present. There was even a well-flowing creek entering the “lake” on the other side. The rocks near it provided beautiful cliffs to look at.
On the other side of Wall Lake was another climb. This was steep enough that I had to walk for several sections. By now, I had that strong daily sweat going and the morning coolness was all lost to me. Thick washboard complimented the climb. I raced along a subsequent plateau top with grasslands and juniper for several miles. This was followed by a large meadow valley interspersed with old cottonwoods. Signs along the road warned that this area could become so flooded as to be hazardous in rain. My maps indicated the same - a passing cyclist might be stranded here to wait for waters to recede. For me, it was dry and dusty. I squared up and pushed on up an adjoining slope. By mid-morning, the cicadas started. These confirmed the rising temperatures and heightened my desire to reach my mid-day siesta spot. Up and up the route seemed to endlessly go. It twisted between shade-starved ponderosas until I crested a ridge and rode down a slight descent. I nervously watched my elevation drop (less elevation = more heat at lower altitudes) before the landscape became relatively flattened along a high and hot grassland dotted with pine trees. The Beaverhead Work Center came into sight near noon.
Beaverhead Work Center is a hotshot training and staging facility. It features living quarters for crews and forest managers. Deliciously, it also has a vending machine for soda. The place was full of training crews and crowded tents from a visiting Boy Scout Troop. Some large oaks provided ample shade along a railing. I pulled my bike up and spoke to someone who exchanged my cash for an ice-cold Sprite from the machine. Best tasting soda I ever had at a single moment in my life. The woman who helped indicated I was welcome to wait out the heat of the midday under the shade of the trees in a cordoned area. I gratefully accepted. She also helped me find the water spigot where I refilled my reserves, drank deeply, and then completely soaked my body for evaporative cooling.
Just as I was hunkering down for the midday heat siesta, the first cyclist I had seen on the route pulled up. He was riding an old 1980s steel Schwinn frame. He carried multiple milk jugs filled with water strapped to his frame and an old backpack portaged in a milk crate attached to a rack on the back of his bike. He and I talked for a long time about his journeys around the US and how he lived off his bike. He wasn’t riding the Great Divide proper, instead using the route and area to get through some of the southwest. He absolutely loved Silver City and the scenery around it. To add, he asked if I had camped down at Black Canyon Campground the night before. I affirmed and he said this morning, just as he was biking through that spot, he ran into a mountain lion crouched on the dirt road eating some roadkill. He had had a long staring contest with it, only broken by a pickup coming from the opposite direction. The lion skirted up a nearby ridge. And for the next couple of miles as the cyclist rode, he said he could see it following him.
It basically confirmed my worst suspicions about last night.
About 45 minutes later, a second cyclist coincidentally showed up. In opposite to the first, this guy sported a full-carbon Salsa Cutthroat frame and minimal baggage. He had been traveling nearly 100 miles a day and had only started just a day or two before. He was from Jackson Hole and his goal was to get back to the area by July 4 for a party his sister was throwing. Around 1-2 pm, during the absolute heat of the day, both of them decided to push-out. The Jackson Hole cyclist was aiming to get to Pie Town by tonight. He full on soaked his body in the spigot and pushed out into the midday heat. The former cyclist filled ever jug on his bike, got some route and map info from me, and then headed out.
I declined leaving and instead made myself even more at home in the shade. My original plans were to camp nearby at a spot I had read about. It would give me easy access to water and I could chill here all afternoon. However, when I had ridden in, the spot I had planned to camp in contained the half-eaten carcass of an elk - probably a puma kill that it would surely return to. I weighed my options sitting at Beaverhead and decided I would push on another 10-20 miles by late afternoon. I sat at a picnic table and talked to some of the Forest crew for several hours in the shade while eating an early dinner with the easy-access water. I got some beta on the route ahead, conditions, the fire, and even the presence of Mexican gray wolves.
At 4 pm, I doused my body in water from the spigot and jumped on my bike, pushing off into the 100 degree heat. I felt refreshed and replenished. The miles ticked by through the extraordinary landscape. The pines and grasslands morphed into geologically exposed cliffs and buttes with the dirt road passing through. And with this change, all plant-life and offers of shade completely disappeared until I was biking across a vast and seemingly endless plain of ankle-short desiccated grass and silt. It was mind-blowing to me to think that those two cyclists went through here in the early-afternoon sun and heat. The silt on the route gummed up my drivetrain and worked into every crack of my gear as well as my face. It was in such heaps on the road that it felt like pedaling through sand. There was no way I would want to be stuck out here in the rain as this would become the stuff of peanut-butter-mud-nightmares.
The rolling high-desert plains stretched on and on. I reached one fork in the road with a single tree and took the left. I reached another fork that split into 3. The views were desolate but beautiful. I had never been someplace so seemingly empty. The wind picked up and did that hot hair dryer blow - all headwind as my route skirted west. I could see some pine-studded peaks in the far distance. But that riding was super difficult. The headwind, washboard, and silt slowed me to a literal 4 mph pace. The afternoon sun was straight in my eyes from my westward direction. I was hot, thirsty, and definitely feeling exhausted. Several hours and many miles later, the sun began to fall behind distant peaks that I had now biked close to. Pines began to rise again and I entered a beautiful forest. I passed by some ranch homes and eventually found a place in the forest to camp. I setup my tarp in the late-evening civil twilight, climbed in, and fell deeply asleep.