We knew today was going to be our longest day and incorrectly assumed it would also be the hardest. We woke up and were on route by 6 am, which temperatures about 31 degrees F. The first dawn lighting up the grasslands was truly magical. After several miles of pedaling, we made our way through the small town of Elgin and rode the paved road for miles. I kept checking my phone every little bit to make sure we weren’t off route after our many turn-arounds yesterday. Eventually, the route left the paved surface as a dirt cross-road led off to our right into the Las Cienegas Conservation Area.
This proved to be one of those moments when my mind was blown again by the beauty and size of the grasslands in southern AZ. After miles of wandering in and out of hills of yucca and stem, we crossed the highway and started up the road to Kentucky Camp. We hadn’t been back to Kentucky Camp since we came with Darren and Dennis. Plus, notably, it’s a famous spot on the AZT so I was anxious to take another look at it. After miles of uphill climbing, we road down to the historic mining buildings now turned into rentable cabins. No one was around except for one AZT thru-hiker. We were feeling exhausted and the day’s warmth had given way to cool temperatures with headwind. We ate, refilled our water, and continued on across the flanks of the Santa Ritas. Janna and I found ourselves increasingly doing hike-a-bikes up hills until we descended down to intersect with Boxy Canyon.
Here, the road turned left. We passed signs warning of illegal immigration and smuggling before the gentile descent turned into a steeper glorious one. We rounded a curve and the whole of Box Canyon opened before us. It was filled with yellow and red cottonwood trees in full fall foliage. The route curved near a dry waterfall and was built into the side of a cliff and rock wall that was exhilarating to go down. The route joined a rutted and old dirt road that quickly became decayed and sandy. Like REALLY sandy. So sandy that we couldn’t pedal and our bikes with bodies toppled over. We had to walk for a quite a bit (like a few miles) through this section before we found solid dirt again. Janna sped ahead. However, I turned a curve and fell into a cholla and prickly pear cactus. 20 minutes later I freed myself, painstakingly, and made my way to meet her. The route rejoined pavement and we made it to Green Valley. It was now about 4 pm. We stopped at McDonalds to fill our water (the only reliable water for the next two days). A couple walking by were bike tourists and invited us to stay with them. I felt determined to camp out tonight and so declined. Likewise, with the afternoon getting on and the evening approaching, Janna and I skipped the official route in the sandy bed of the San Pedro River for the paved surface of the frontage road. The last of the sun slipped below the horizon; we kept pedaling into the gathering night up the road towards the Santa Ritas.
About 70 miles in for the day, Janna began bonking hard. We pulled over in the twilight to rest, eat, and make a plan for evening. I pedaled ahead to see where the Coronado National Forest began so we could do some dispersed camping. Every pullout was occupied by a motorist but I managed to find a good flat grassy spot across the road from an RV. We setup camp and walked down a side road to eat. It was now fully pitch dark.
At some point when we were eating in the dark, the people in the RV returned from their daily travel. Janna and I were talking, laughing, eating, our headlamps on when we heard the approach of footsteps.
Suddenly, a high-beam flashlight was on us along with a man shouting, “What are you doing here!?” I held my hands up to block my eyes from the light.
“We’re just eating,” I responded, annoyed by this person who thought the public land system was theirs.
“Speak up!” he shouted back aggressively.
“We are two cyclists and we are just camping over there on the other side of the road!” I yelled back.
“You need to make yourself known next time. I was about to light you up!” said the guy as he then moves the light away and obviously lowers a gun.
HOLY SHIT! Janna and I quickly finish eating and cautiously walk back to our tarp. I was super angry and offended. You are camping, along with everyone else, on public land. And someone camps nearby and your response is to come over and threaten to shoot them if they don’t come and “make themselves known.” It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I barely slept a wink that night as I stayed alert for our possible neighbors to come over and “defend” themselves across the street from two cyclists camping.