Sky Islands Odyssey (Full Loop) - Day 2 - Night of the Border Patrol, Crossing the Pajarito Mountains, and Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Trail Mile 105.5; Buenos Aires NWR
Morning speaks cold in the desert, wiping heat from the lips. I lay awake under a canopy of oak leaves to washed out light dimpling through the Duomid roof. I heard neighbors crushing old beer cans - me amazed they could get up after drinking so much. I roused and pushed flaps open to intoxicating air of mountain clarity. I breathed in, bent, put on hat and gloves, then hustled camp into morning routine. Arrival post-darkness meant I had no idea what the Pajarito Mountains looked like, nor the semblance of my campsite. It turned out I was in a sweet spot. Giant rhyolite buttes jutted skyward around me with a broad desert wash plain ahead. Rounded peaks perched golden, both rough and smooth, surrounding. Their feet sprouted oak, sycamore, and cottonwood. Freaking gorgeous.
A forest service vehicle pulled up and its attendant began working the restrooms. He asked me if I knew the “geniuses” that left a full campfire going (Neighbors B) and abandoned it. I agreed with his claim they were toolbags of the highest order. A Border Patrol SUV pulled up and we all talked for a bit while I tore open my food to put back some dry cereal and peanut butter packets warmed in my underwear. I packed up, rolled up, built up the bike and pushed off down a gravel road sporting signs of the rugged nature ahead. It was cold in shadow but warmed perfectly in the sun now pushing rays past canyon shade. Half a mile later, Ruby Road crept over a wash wet with crystal flow from recent rains. I stopped to replenish my empty reservoirs and suck back some water. A massive butte stood solidly beckoning come hither so I got the bike back on route and obeyed. I believe its back flanks led to the Pajarito Wilderness complete with endemic botany found nowhere else on Earth; a journey and canyon to return and backpack.
Border Patrol was out en masse. SUVs passed in either direction once every twenty minutes while a helicopter droned distantly. Interspersed peaks sported personal monitoring towers. The road began a long-winded ascent up and over the Pajaritos. Dried grasslands formed the base hue while agave, yucca, mesquite, and oak spit plants upward around rock outcroppings. I loved it. I settled into my pedaling rhythm but broke it frequently to take photo after photo. A couple of hours later found me riding a topographic line with views to embroiled canyons twisting rock and earth into calamity. The land crumples which affords it biodiversity - jaguar, trogons, coati, epiphytes, javelina, etc. I swept corner to a parked Border Patrol vehicle, released my brakes, and watched the world income on a descent. I crossed a dry wash with cholla stands before exiting up and over switchbacks. This dropped-hump-climb ensued in bouts of repeat over several miles as morning dripped closer to the midday. A ridge ride stretched for eternity, standing next to my bike to push that hike. I felt alone and far from settlements and it was lovely. The chunky mountains I had just crossed stood silhouetted behind while a rolling valley grassland with savannah trees swept to my right. I turned a corner, smiling, thinking of the geological similarities to sections of the Great Divide in New Mexico and pushed hard on a downhill that swept towards Montana Peak.
A corrugated sign stood pronounced mid-road with red paint stating, “Ruby.” A rusted car from the early twentieth century hunkered soil onto its frame on my left. More formal looking signage denoted a side road leading to the historically preserved Ruby, a ghost mining town in a relatively preserved state. It contained machinery, homes, and a permanent Arizona Historical Society member lived on site as caretaker and protector. I wanted to visit but a full tour would cost more cash than I carried, so I vowed to return on a future bikepacking trip with intent and means to check it out. Past the sign, forest road conditions improved, and I passed at least ten cars spread out, making a day ride to check out the town of the past.
My route junctioned right, passing a spring choked with green growth before moving up a hill. I crested and descended a few feet before I locked my brakes and skidded halt-stop in front of a coatimundi with its nose in the ground a few mere feet away. The sudden wheel-grind caught its attention. Head up, eyes locked, we both stood before it quickly jutted up an adjoining oak-filled hill where it wove between trees and brought itself parallel to me, continuing to stare and sniff before disappearing. Coatis are life here in the sky islands.
I picked up speed and finally left the foothills of the Pajaritos, speeding into a valley dropping down with a spread of grass and a road with nearly 15 water crossings deep enough to submerge my feet on a downstroke of the pedal. Paradoxically wet and dusty, I kept up the speed to pass a cattle guard and hit some pavement that took a northward tangent towards the small border-town of Arivaca. Mexican gold poppies lined the route right into the small town of a couple hundred but sporting a main street with flare and fare. An art shop sat countercorner to a post office, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes organization, mercantile, and restaurant. Food was priority, so I perched the Karate Monkey outside the restaurant and went inside to eat. I always smile when a small town has a place to eat with vegetarian food as an expectation and not a small typo on the menu. I placed my bets on some lentil soup, avocado/bean tacos, tortilla chips, and corn tortillas. The bartender let me charge my phone while I ate. She inquired about whether I was doing the Sky Island Odyssey; she reported a bikepacker about once a month on it. Food pushed down my throat, and I called to check with Janna and learn that schools and communities were beginning to close due to COVID-19. Meal finished, I rode down to the mercantile to acquire an ice cream sandwich, two Gatorade Zeros, and some fresh water to fill my bottles.
Rolling out of town around 2 pm, I retraced a mile of route and turned southwest to climb into the San Luis Mountains. Poppies and violet lupines gave beauty to a sudden headwind that reduced my speed already decreased by a deadpan road with rutted washboard. I didn’t want to roll into camp after dark again so I wanted to cover the next 20+ miles steadily. The road passed up and over mountainsides, passed old ranches, splashed through flowing washes, and eventually crested a rise beginning a long stretch of grassland ocean: Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. A land of mesquite, short-brunch prairie, pronghorn, coyote, deer, and birds. My direction took me off the main dirt track and onto some old, rutted doubletrack flooded with repeated peanut-butter mudholes. Frankenmud smattered my back, calves, shoes, wheels, and bike frame. Acacias with overgrown thorny arms stretched and ripped my arms as I passed.
The golden glow of late afternoon ripped up the horizon with a yellow filter making the grasslands even more stunning. Baboquivari Peak amid its namesake range filled the backdrop as I pedaled with speed down crumbling dirt track towards the Visitor Center. I pulled in at 4:45 pm. past the “Closed” sign to the back where open restrooms and a working drinking fountain were found. I filled up my MSR 4 L Dromedary and bike bottle completely as this would be my only reliable water-fill until tomorrow afternoon. Bursting with the weight and density of water, I pedaled of into the early sunset.
The dirt track swung northward away from the border across the massive prairie with mountain walls. The terrain was smooth, flat, and simple; I flew. Time was made as I pumped out speed and passed a massive marsh with a few birders out in early evening. I moved deeper and more remotely into the larger National Wildlife Refuge, covering 10 miles quickly. As evening reveled in the fading light, I sped across the doubletrack. A herd of pronghorn burst from the grass running parallel to my direction a mere 30 feet away. Part of the group broke off and cut 15 feet in front of me. I was with mouth agape. The second half, now stranded, continued running parallel before sprinting in front of me, again 15 feet to my travel. Coyotes bayed in the tinted light. I reached a road bifurcation. Per National Wildlife Refuge rules, camping is regulated to specific dispersed camping sites numbered with small placards and findable only by GPS and map. With the gathering night, I swung right off of my designated course to a trio of sites, betting that at least one would be vacant. Luck would give me the three and the choice of my preferred.
The bike rested against a mesquite as the Baboquivaris were ripped with cooling slanted light. I setup the Duomid and committed to finishing bed items after dinner. I grabbed my headlamp and food bag before pushing into the bush. I always eat dinner away from camp to mislead mini-bears (rodents, etc.) from seeking crumbs from where I sleep. Chili cheese Fritos crunched into mouthfuls as I downed my cold-rehydrated taco meal. I chased it with chocolate almonds and large gulps of water to lessen my load to Green Valley tomorrow. Now in the thick of night, a spread of starlight dashed overhead while I sat illuminated in a half-circle of my headlamp beam. Coyotes rose in chorus throughout the grasslands smattered around. I cleaned up my dinner, stashed the food away from critters, and walked back enveloped in dark with my headlamp played low.
I grabbed my sleeping pad and quilt and returned to the shelter where I squatted and sucked back air repeatedly to inflate my mattress. A few blows in, the sound of a helicopter punctuated the night, loudly. I froze and looked where I estimated the tree-line was in the dark with the inflation valve still in my mouth. The sound of the helicopter increased dramatically. It was flying low, fast, and direct. But I couldn’t see it in the dark. I thought, “Damn, it’s got to be right over me…” A large spotlight flashed from 30 - 40 feet overhead illuminating me and my shelter. I froze as one intense spotlight remained fixed on me and a second moved out concentrically from my exact location to illuminate the surrounding area before squarely returning directly on my body. I dropped my partially inflated mattress and slowly stood up. I raised my hands in the air and realized it was a Border Patrol helicopter. I must have lit up their infrared sensors in the dark, sending them flying across the desert grassland with lights off like Zero Dark Thirty to come to whom they must have thought to be an immigrant with a faint flashlight in the bushes. The ‘copter hovered overhead with the light still on me. Finally, the spotlight was turned off and the helicopter sped away into the darkness. I could hear it flitting nearby and then turning southward again. The night would be punctuated by these air surveillance noises, always with lights off and invisible in the dark.
I must have stood there stunned for a few minutes before returning to inflating my now emptied air mattress. I couldn’t find tiredness after the encounter so I took plush time to setup bed, dry out my quilt, repack gear, reorganize where everything was, lube the bike drivetrain, and finally feel it was time to retire. My nighty rhythm-routine is to turn 360 before heading to bed with a headlamp blasting high. Light up the area, feel safe, go to bed. I turned into the surrounding black and 30 yards from me, a blue light lit up at eye level before extinguishing. It had been 35 minutes or so since the helicopter. This was something different.
I turned my headlamp off. Light flared again but several feet further from the original. I could see a face lit up. Light turned off. I peered intently. A minute passed, the light lit up again, and unmistakably, a face was illuminated by what seemed a phone screen before turning off. I turned on my headlamp and the phone screen went dark. I speculated that someone was walking through the grass and trees in the dark, using a phone screen as minute illumination for moments before keeping the light off - maybe a an immigrant? I reminded myself there was a humanitarian water station several miles ahead that I was going to use for hydration tomorrow per the maps. Possibly, whoever was out there near me was needing the same. I decided to follow my general rule for camping along the borderlands: nobody wants to be found unless they need help. I shown my light over my camp and loudly made myself present as someone camping, caught up in my own intentions.
The Duomid closed up, I hustled into my bivy wrapping my warm quilt around me before scanning everything I had brought in. I quickly sent a few messages via text using my Garmin inReach Mini to Janna and parents about the helicopter and those nearby. I lay down and listened intently in the pressing dark. A helicopter buzzed in the near-distance, its shrill igniting coyote wails from the grassland around me on all sides. Then hush and silence. My heart slowed from its rise after cumulative events. I slept. A couples of hours passed. From a reverie of awareness, my mind grasped a noise approaching, sounding vehicular.
My eyes opened as two SUVs slammed into the spot next to my shelter, harshly braking and with sirens flashing. I froze as spotlights lit up the Duomid. The sound of footsteps hustling.
“Is there anyone in there?” a commanding voice projected.
“Sir, yes I am in here,” I groggily but firmly spoke.
“Are you Forrest?”
“Holy shit. Border Patrol sure does keep a close a close eye on everyone in their jurisdiction. How did they know who I was?” I thought only to myself as adrenaline now pumped me wide awake.
“Please, exit the tent sir.”
I grappled with the zipper overhead before half-rising to reach out and unzip the Duomid.
“I’m unzipping my shelter,” I spoke out loud. I was unnerved but resolute to communicate my actions to diffuse whatever situation was happening. The flap pulled back and an agent stood flashing a bright beam in and around the inside of the shelter. I put on my sandals to step in the cold night. I followed the agent over to another group of three. They stared at me and began asking questions about a filed “missing person report.” I realized there must be someone else out here missing and they were wondering if I had seen them.
They asked if I was lost. I responded definitely not. They asked me how I got here. I said by bike and they shined spotlights until an agent noticed the Karate Monkey leaning against the tree. Why was I camping here and had I gotten turned around because they could see tread marks going the other way? I said, “This is site 18 and I checked out the others before coming back and choosing this one.”
The lead agent then asked if I had a “girlfriend, fiancée, or wife” who might have gotten the impression something was wrong and that I somehow needed help. My mind flashed back to the Garmin and I realized that the last message I had sent was about the helicopter hovering overhead and the face in the grass.
SHIT. Janna must have sent something back but it was delayed because it was being sent by satellite.
I apologized profusely to the agents saying that I was (1) definitely not lost, (2) safe, and (3) there must have been some miscommunication with my wife. With that, everyone loosened up. The head agent pulled out a cigarette and lit it up, looking at me and saying, “Listen, you gotta let your girl know where you are man. Everyone thinks something is wrong man! We’re looking for you, the FBI is looking for you, even Trump is worried about you man! She got the whole place lit up looking for you! Listen…even when I’m in the dirtiest, just back-hole bar drinking in Tucson, my girl will find me no matter what. Make it easy and let her know where you are.”
With that, they asked again, what I was doing out here. I gestured to the bike. The four exchanged glances and stiffened up their talk again.
“So you have no car…” “You’re out here alone. Here, right by the border. In the dark. There’s no way I would camp out here by myself…” “Make sure to lock up your shit. Keep your water and food close. This is a high trafficking corridor and there’s always people moving through here at night. They’ll take your stuff if you leave it out…”
“Wait, you biked here?” This was followed by incredulous glances back and forth that conveyed one unspoken agreement: this was a terrible idea to them. Stiffer advice was given before they asked where I was heading tomorrow. When they learned Green Valley, they seemed to relax again.
“So you’re going to jump on the paved highway out that way and take it in-”
“Actually,” I interjected, “I’m taking Poso Nuevo Ranch Road up over the mountains.”
“Wait.” They all stiffened up again. “So you’re just going to ride your bike…” ::incredulous glances back and forth:: “…all off-road on that rough and abandoned route over the mountains, all tomorrow?”
It seemed clear this was a remarkably poor idea to them. This was followed by some considerate questions about whether I had enough food and water. Despite their disbelief that I was out here alone riding a bicycle through the backcountry, crossing mountains through the borderlands, they wanted to make sure I was alright. They insisted I take some water (which I chugged cause I’m not turning down water in a sparse area). They offered to drive me out until I got reception to call Janna. I told them I had no idea how far out I would need to ride for that. One of the agents took out his phone and said I could use it to call her. On the other end, Janna’s caring and desperate voice indicated her strong love and worry that something had happened to me when I didn’t follow-up.
The situation assessed, they told me to be safe. Cars backed up. The bright lights receded and darkness enveloped me once more. I was shivering now from standing in 40 degree temps with no jacket so I climbed back into the Duomid, zipped it up, and found myself without-weary for sleep. Regardless, I bundled up in the quilt and wrestled with the night to shut my eyes and dream.
What a crazy evening.