“Classic, like all my trips,” I thought to myself. The night before our first time bikepacking was also the first time I put my bike together with all the foreign bikepacking gear. Janna and i stayed up late, wedging, crushing, and strapping gear all over our bikes. Up until 11 pm, after a full quarter and a half of teaching, we both stood back to look at our bikes completely packed out of volume with gear still needing to be added. If ultralight backpacking makes you aware of gear weight, then ultralight bikepacking made you aware of gear volume. Taking a razor to the remaining gear, we removed anything that was absolutely essential before going to bed exhausted.
The next morning, we found ourselves parked outside Patagonia, AZ at the Arizona Trailhead up Harshaw Road. We built up the bikes. The whole time I kept thinking, “How is this all going to fit?…What is this going to ride like?…” The moment I stepped on the bike and pedaled, I realized that the front handlebar bag completely eclipsed any opportunity to see my wheel. I freaked out. Also, the bikes were SO HEAVY. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach I was doing this all wrong, that I was completely unexperienced, and that I would most likely wipeout not being able to see the rolling presence of my front wheel on ground. At this point, some day riders showed up at the trailhead and told us how much they loved bikepacking. On some subconscious level I reasoned that I like like an utter inexperienced toolbag to them. But Janna was ready. There was nothing else to do but push off.
We pedaled the heavy bikes up the road. We split onto Harshaw Road only after going the wrong way. I had paper maps of the route, but no formal GPS device. Luckily, I had uploaded the route on the Gaia app just as a backup; a prescient move as after a few wrong turns we realized the paper map were useless. We relied on checking my phone for the remainder of the route, precipitating a Garmin eTrex20 purchase when we got back. We wound up Harshaw Canyon road before taking a “lunch break” under the shade of some oak and pine. We both seemed exhausted after only a few non-technical miles. Food in the stomachs, we continued on by winding through the forested canyon.
The dirt road began an ascent until we popped out on the most gorgeous spread of grassland that took both of us by complete surprise. I’ve explored a lot of southern AZ with its grasslands, but this seemed next level. A massive sprawl of golden bunch-grass prairie spread out in all directions. The grass grew evenly over rounded hills and buttes. In the distance, the Huachucas and Canelo Hills split the horizon. We biked slowly, and I couldn’t stop uttering how beautiful it all was. By the time we topped Canelo Pass, it was moving into late afternoon. We sped down the other side and passed by a number of ranches. The road merged with a split paved section. We took the left and enjoyed cottonwoods in yellow dress, that is, until we realized we had gone the wrong way. We retraced our pedalstrokes and took the right, climbing up a hill next to a historically preserved schoolhouse. I was getting anxious with the afternoon turning to evening to get to the Audubon Center. Again, we missed a turn and had to go back up a huge climb. Finally, we found the faint doubletrack that led away from the paved road up onto a ridge. From there, the Whetstone Mountains gorgeously rose behind a curved mesa of grassland cover punctuated by the gentle curves of the doubletrack (see the photo above).
I couldn’t get over how beautiful it all was. And despite approaching evening, I stopped to take photo after photo; there was nowhere else I would have rather been.
We put the code into the padlock (the Audubon Center provided us) and passed through the fence before descending down to the cluster of buildings that make up the research ranch. We quickly found the casita and were let in. It was a really nice place to stay with a bed, small kitchen, and bathroom. Once changed and showered, we walked up the road for a ¼ mile to the main building. Inside, a massive community potluck was going on. Everyone greeted us warmly, encouraged us to eat heapings of food, and then sit back to enjoy a presentation put on by the Audubon Ranch and the citizens of Elgin. It was so interesting to hear the history of the research ranch, especially the environmental aspects. After dinner, we walked in the frigid night back to the casita.