Sky Islands Odyssey (Full Loop) - Day 4 - Up Box Canyon and Into the Storm (Actual and COVID)
Trail Mile ~210; Patagonia, AZ
I awoke strong and refreshed, but early to get a move on. The storm that was to hit Thursday was now moved to today. And today’s route, as much of the whole, is not something to be ridden when raining. The dirt on many sections has a high clay content that will pack up on bike wheel and grind progress to a complete halt. My goal was to get up and over Box Canyon on the flanks of the Santa Ritas before the storm hit.
I headed out into a morning light set washing out the desert. I crossed Green Valley and swung under the I-10 before heading up towards Madera Canyon. The route was all paved at this point but a solid 30 mph wind blew on me as it ran up and over the face of Mt. Wrightson before sweeping down unhindered grasslands hills. I stared at the summit on approach as dark clouds covered it in a shade of rain. At the fork for Box Canyon, I swung a left and left the paved for dirt road. All my past riding on Box Canyon has been downhill, so this would be my first ascent.
Wind continued to push HARD against me. At times, I would pull over next to a mesquite for water little cover I could grab in order to pee or east some food without both items flying all over. To the south, a massive thunderstorm was sweeping the Mexico/Nogales area. I turned up the canyon and came to the official Coronado National Forest sign, whereupon an immediate blast of wind roaring down the canyon swept up a dirt into a spray of sandpaper that forced me to stop, cover my mouth and eyes, and wait for it to pass. Then, I would slowly hunker up the steep 4,000 ft. incline before I could see another sandpaper blast of dust approaching. I’d stop (no use biking into something that would blow me over) and the passing sediment felt like it was scraping all the hair from my legs. I continued at this pace for a couple of miles before running into someone out birding. He was in the air force, and due to the shut down from the coronavirus, was socially distancing by coming out here to find a recently reported sighting of a five-striped sparrow (VERY rare in the United States) found only in this canyon.
I pushed on, turning the corner and seeing cows lounging in the sand of the canyon wash to my right. Another corner and suddenly three ultrarunning women and one guy on a gravel bike passed me all going downhill. As I peaked the canyon and the route began to soften its grade, I picked up speed now that I was back in the high grasslands of SE AZ. The storm clouds that had only covered the peaks before were now very low and covering most of the mountain to the base with me in the foothills. I came to the junction where the Sky Island Odyssey turns right up into the Coronado NF towards Kentucky Camp, but to my left was a paved road leading to the highway. I checked Komoot to see my distance to Patagonia by taking all-paved roads. While doing so, the group of runners/cyclist that had passed me going down had now come back up to where I was. The cyclist told me they had been in Patagonia all morning and it was getting slammed with rain. My decision was forced to avoid peanut butter mud: gotta stick to the paved roads. I called the Audubon Center and let them know I couldn’t take the route to their place and was instead cutting my trip a day short. They said it was bad there and had been worried about me making it.
Decision made, I headed down the paved road towards 83. At the entrance to the highway, I put on my rain layers, fleece, and waterproof gloves. Before me, the sweeping grasslands of Las Cienegas National Conservation Area bore sweeping curtains of torrential downpour in sheets in all directions. I turned right onto the highway, lowered by head and prepared for several hours of soaking. No sooner had I passed through another Border Patrol checkpoint than a horizontal, face-first fist of sleet and freezing rain mixed with particulate hail. The wind slowed me to a ridiculous crawl on the highway edge. I made sure every bright light was shining while a thin sheet of ice frozen over my glasses and the pitter of ice granules knocking off my jacket chest rang. The grasslands gave me no wind shelter and I just froze and rode.
A couple of hours later, I pulled into Sonoita and made my way to the sole gas station/convenience store. I walked inside and was warmly greeted and well as invited to sit and dry as long as I wanted. I bought a massive cup of hot chocolate and the clerks gave me some chicken fingers and potato wedges to help warm me up. I sat and ate, drank a whole other cup of hot chocolate, and repeated for a good 1.5 hours while they told me they were not going to close for the virus and that the government would need to come physically force them to shut down. Once dry, I headed out into a slightly decreased rain and began the long descent into Patagonia. Halfway down, I ran into another bikepacker heading north. We talked for a bit and turned out he was doing the AZT but decided to forgo it due to the personal reasons; he was biking back to Tucson.
I pushed on and right as I got into town, the rain began a torrential downpour again. I turned left up Harshaw Canyon road and passed a pair of miserable looking AZT thru-hikers both sporting trashbags as ponchos. I continued on for several miles before making my way back to my parked car. I tore everything as quick as possible off the bike and threw into into the car in the pouring rain. At this point, I still hadn't quite digested the possibility and reality of what the gas station clerk had told me about business shutdowns when I was in Sonoita. I turned the car towards Patagonia and decided to grab some more food before driving back to Phoenix.
Patagonia was a ghost town. I walked up to the Stage Stop Inn and went into their restaurant. They promptly let me know there were closing in one hour for an indefinite time into the future. I was stunned. I turned on my phone. A torrent of voicemails and texts came pounding through. Multiple robo-calls from my school announced, with an hour-by-hour play, the mounting decision to forgo opening next week given COVID-19. At that time, little did I know that I would actually never teach in that school again because it would close for the length of the semester, and I would move to another school. COVID-19 reality was here.
I quickly called Janna as my food was coming out. I was the sole customer in the restaurant. There was one employee. They told me every business in town was shutting down. People were staying indoors; people were closing up their businesses into the unforeseen future. I was reeling with this information after having just spent my Spring Break out in the backcountry. Janna told me on the phone that here school was closed for next week, that I should grab my food, and that I should head home immediately because the state was shutting down. My head was spinning as four Arizona Trail thru-hikers entered the restaurant. They sat down forelornly next to me, evaluated my dress, and struck up a conversation assuming I was on the AZT as well. After relaying my ride on the Sky Islands Odyssey, we all began an intense discussion about COVID-19 and the world shutting down (and so rapidly in our minds).
They were from Washington, Virginia, Florida, and New Zealand. They had saved money, put away PTO, and now were on their multi-week trip. At this point, there were naught but a week in. They asked me what they should do: Continue hiking the AZT or head home?
I opened the Instagram page for the Arizona Trail Association and saw they had put up a post just minutes before plying ALL trail users to immediately get off the trail and obey the stay-at-home order. I told them that if the ATA said that, that that was best. They seemed to want to negotiate with me, to negotiate with their circumstances. But we all knew. All I could think of was Jim, my science department head teacher, telling us the day before Spring Break, "They'll never close down places in America like they're doing in Europe. It just will never happen."
Now, we sat here. Lone purveyors in a restaurant doling out our food while simultaneously shuttering its windows. I hastily consumed my food, told the AZTers that they trail would always be there, and walked out to the car. The evening was heady in Patagonia. There were no cars at the hotel. No cars at all to be seen in the parking spaces along the streets. Just mine. I climbed in the car, took one glance at Patagonia and the route, never realizing I wouldn't visit it again for two years. I drove into my future, like the rest of the world's: uncertain with the arrival of a now-brewing pandemic.
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