Trail Mile 47.5; White Rock Campground at Pena Blanca Lake
Spring Break has been on my mind, zooming in strong and clear; the radar clearing kind. Now here, I have myself swept into desire to do the full Sky Island Odyssey. Janna and I have conquered the East Loop twice now, meaning this thrice attempt is my dodge to add on the West Loop and make the Full circle.
The West Loop is known as the remote one, the one with more elevation, the one with more vastness. The East Loop is gorgeous and sweeps you up in cute stops and Santa Rita panoramas. The West Loop is high desert chewing. I had to do the West part first. Delaying the start to Sunday, I moseyed down south in the AM with music playing and opportunity before me. I swung into Patagonia, AZ around 10 am. Gravel cyclists, AZT thru-hikers, locals, RVers, birders, and motorcyclists were encircled around Gathering Grounds. I slammed the car into a spot and smacked myself in line to get a spot in the crowded breakfast queue. I was quickly offered a seat outside where I put back some wheat toast and egg added to a Green Machine veggie breakfast burrito. Adding two homemade cookies to carry on the ride was required and slice of Key Lime pie for the now. As I walked back to the car, I called a hiker in earshot who was laying out wet shelter materials on the city park lawn. Hailing from Cleveland, he seemed equally passionate but dismayed by the sub-freezing nights found in Arizona.
Driving up Harshaw Road, I swung an immediate right into the AZT Trailhead lot to abandon the car and load up the Karate Monkey. Two AZTers walked by, mumbling mentionables such as how the trail was kicking their asses. I smiled, smattered some sunscreen on my nose, and pushed off into the dust. Rain pelted dusty road to smooth hero dirt over the past 5 days, and I knew water would be abundant. I put back some miles and left Harshaw Canyon into the wind-swept grasslands before making an immediate ascending right-turn to some primitive roads. The forest road became tacked with curdled mud dried into lines guiding left and right. Up and up I rode over the mesa walling in Harshaw pushing south and west. Grasslands faded into juniper pine and oak. Large smoke gurgled plumes in the near distance. I stopped a passing pickup and learned the forest fire was across the border in Nogales, Mexico; no repeats please of New Mexico this past summer.
The route left the side forest road, crossed through two fences to open/close before becoming muddled doubletrack, rough-hewn and sandy. It ascended. I sweated. But the cool day temps played well. I crossed swollen wash crossing after swollen wash crossing until my bags, bottom bracket, and back all got a good caking of rich mud and sand for sprinkles. Jutting up a canyon, the route really fell apart. The rain must have ripped through here well. I summitted near Mt. Washington (high point of the Patagonia Mountains) and was afforded a victor’s view of the valleys between. The crest of these mountains plunged down into the low-lying Rio Rico just north of the international border and then up into the Pajarito Mountains away. The track equally plunged ungracefully down a shocking old mine road so sandy, so vertical, so nasty that I had to walk the Karate Monkey down so I didn’t drop a few thousand feet a few feet away. The bike skidded sideways next to me as feet rolled with sand and wheels slid similarly.
The Coronado National Forest was all mesquite and pine here, little grass and more taste of desert. Man, that forest fire in Mexico was massive; it gave me pause as to whether it would threaten my route. Curving an edge near an abandoned mine, I jumped back on the saddle, sat low and back, and got swept away with gravity down the switchbacking incline until the road straightened and I could release the brakes to open up some speed and make up time. A huge and long descent brought me from pines to mesquite to grassland to high desert plain as I crossed out of the Coronado and entered the small town of Rio Rico. This part of Arizona has all mileage and units in metric, so signs spoke of kilometer instead of mile and most signs were written in Spanish to reflect this area of the Borderlands. By 4:30 I pulled into a gas station and gratefully left the afternoon heat in indoor cool. Blue gloves on employees signaled the COVID-19 concerns, so I quickly grabbed Chex, water, and Gatorade Zero to replenish stores. Thankfully, the cashier promised the forest fire was securely on the Mexican side of the border. Cooled and pressed for time, I check in with Janna and pedaled out, crossing I-10 on the overpass before moving into the westerly foothills past 5 pm.
Racing time curbing me in, evening tinged the area. I knew I’d probably get to my intended campsite, White Rock Campground next to Pena Blanca Lake, post-night, so I stopped along the shoulder of the road to secure lights for my visibility more than anything as cars began roaring the opposite way leaving the lake for the day. I churned up hills over and over, keeping keen eyes sharp for suitable campsites away from vehicular notice. Evening wore nightly shades and the climbs met downward drops frequently. For all the climbing into the Pajaritos, I could tell I was coiling downward to the body of water near canyon-bottom. Fully enclosed in darkness, I made the last 5 miles with no traffic.
I pulled into the campsites in tar blackness - new moon holding back. Two sites sat occupied with a third unused in-between. I setup camp and asked the neighbors if there was running water; the “nope” belayed what I already knew. I could bike down to the lake in dawn’s cold. Site setup, I couldn’t get a shake on what the area looked like for all the inkness. I ate plenty, more to reduce weight than to feed hunger alone. Bundled up, camp secured, I crawled into the Duomid for some needed rest. The crews next to me had different plans. Campsite A to my left decided to loudly proclaim they would drink a total of 43 cans of beer (between the three of them) - which they confirmed 5 loud hours later. Campsite B to my right blasted music on bluetooth speakers and illegally chopped down desert wood to light a massive fire they left unattended the next day. Border Patrol pickups and SUVs swung into camp on repeat throughout the night to use the bathroom and take rests. Finally, noise subsided around 2 am, and I slept hard before my light-conditioned body roared awake with morning’s crisp immediacy.