At a party long ago, King Herod offered the fetching Salome half of his kingdom as a reward for her fancy dancing. He’d had a few drinks. More recently, millions of us have forfeit half of our kingdoms stone sober, doggedly hoping for a rebound as the markets did nothing but plunge. Herod at least got some entertainment.
These were my reflections aboard a black, 2009 ‘Fat Bob’ rented from Chester’s Harley-Davidson in Mesa, Arizona. Months earlier, with our savings more intact, I’d booked a five-day ride in Arizona as relief from our gloomy San Juan Island winter.
“Go ahead,” encouraged Rosalie, “Our retirement’s toast already. You’ll be job hunting when you get home.”
Vulture Mine–Completely Busted
Vulture Mine Road south of Wickenburg began to weave like Salome. My attention snapped back to forty miles of new pavement weaving through sun-bright hills under a clear blue sky. I stopped at Vulture Mine, once Arizona’s richest gold producer. Now its collapsing buildings and rusted hoists were reminders that bust follows boom like an unwelcome tail-gater.
I pushed on. I wanted to make Ajo by nightfall and was behind schedule.
The sky glowed pink as I entered the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range south of Gila bend. Twenty minutes later, flashing lights appeared ahead. A policeman signaled to stop. No need. The whiling blades of the helicopter straddling the road said, ‘Whoa!’ I stopped, pulled off my helmet and visited with the cop. A teenaged kid had evidently lost control of his car at high speed. What might have been a Buick was visible 50 yards from the road in the deepening twilight. It had cartwheeled and rolled violently before coming to rest upright. All of its glass was gone; every body panel rumpled and covered with tan dust. Astonishingly, despite being ejected like a couple of rag dolls, neither the driver nor passenger had been seriously hurt. A second helicopter arrived. Thirty minutes later both choppers rose in turn. Two dazed kids had another adventure on an already-memorable day.
“Ajo is a a dump,” my lovely wife and Arizona native, Rosalie had said…but its lights looked good to me when they finally appeared out of the darkness ahead. I found a still-open Dairy Queen, wolfed a burger, checked into a fifty buck cabin, noted the Dow’s astonishing continued descent and went to bed.
Day Two In the chill of the following morning, though, my mood was bright. My trip was successfully launched. Today I would not be pressed for time. I paused to inspect a huge hole in the ground east of Ajo. The ‘New Cornelia’ was Arizona’s first copper mine. I was impressed not so much with the hole itself but with the eerily quiet void; empty air standing in for so much labor long ago expended. The absent copper, now literally spread across the world in coins and wire and bullets, had fueled Ajo’s prosperity for seventy years. Though, not recently, based on the town’s appearance.
The New Cornelia Mine
I rode east into a rising sun that made diamonds of the broken glass that lines Highway 86. Two lovely ribbons sparkled for 80 miles, a record of much craziness. I could smell the desert warming with the sun. The Harley loped along comfortably. Its ‘Relax, put your feet up’ riding position was well suited to sightseeing at 60 mph. The countryside seemed huge and empty. I felt a deep pleasure as I glided smoothly through its stark beauty. A king or pharaoh might happily trade half his kingdom for a ride like this.
I encountered little traffic traveling through the Tohono O’odham nation. What I saw was mostly green and white border patrol vehicles, eventually totaling a couple dozen. At the tribal capital of Sells, I bought gas and shared my breakfast burrito with the polite but firm yellow dog that seemed to run the place.
I took an exhilarating side trip up twelve miles of steep switchbacks to Kitt Peak National Observatory. It was actually cold when I parked the bike at 6,800 feet. Inside the visitors’ center my eye sockets glowed white “hot” and my wind-exposed chin and throat black “cold” in an infrared imaging display. I was guided through the world’s largest solar telescope, its long shaft slanting into the ground at 32 degrees like a mining operation. A rotating mirror at the top bounces sunlight down the shaft (parallel with the earth’s axis) to illuminate stationary instruments at the bottom. Neat! Despite newer observatories in orbit and the encroachment of Tucson’s light, Kitt Peak still does important research.
The words of Johannes Keppler appear at Kitt Peak’s entrance, “Man’s mind was created for exploration; the heavens are filled with wonders created for him to discover.”
I passed the tiny town of Arivaca on a poorly maintained secondary road that twisted through wild, rolling country. Sand often covered the asphalt in arroyo bottoms, and sections of pavement, eroded from below, had fallen away. The desert clearly wanted this roadway back. Forty miles per hour, often less, was plenty.
This sedate pace brought the desert’s life-and-death contests into clear view. Red-tailed hawks hunted overhead. I watched one plunge. It re-launched after just a few moments, unsuccessful–perhaps inexperienced. That would change. A little later, a jackrabbit shot across the road…followed immediately by a coyote!
‘Nature is an enormous restaurant’, said Woody Allen. Every day seems grimly predictable. Gophers dodge hawks, rabbits evade coyotes, and, on this open range; angus cattle wait for ‘the truck’. I rumbled over a cattle guard and was reminded to stay alert. Twice I slowed to skirt a 900 pound cow standing in the road. Were they trying to kill me? Ride too fast here at night (angus are pitch black) and they’ll turn you into hamburger.
The Longhorn Grill
With sun-bleached bones on my mind, the Longhorn Grill near Arivaca Junction presented the perfect stop for a late lunch. In the cool darkness inside, the menu offered salad or steak–bottom or top of the food chain.
I arrived at Tubac in mid-afternoon and splurged with a nice room at the Tubac Country Inn. I strolled through the site of a small Spanish fort built here in 1652 that became the oldest European settlement in Arizona. Its interesting story and artifacts are preserved in the historical museum. I visited a few of Tubac’s many art galleries, found a good mexican restaurant and hit the rack shortly after dark.
Day Three The next morning I rose early and burbled past a few tourists on Tubac’s main street. I headed north…then east…then eventually south through beautiful hill country on Arizona 83. I’d been told to try the pizza at the ‘Velvet Elvis’ in Sonoita at the heart of Arizona’s emerging wine industry. It was closed. I turned east again on highway 82 and headed for the silver-stoked boomtown of Tombstone, my short riding day’s destination.
Two good ways to roll into Tombstone
I’d enjoyed books and movies about Tombstone (Kurt Russell does the best ‘Wyatt’), so I planned to take a little extra time to explore the place. Fifty bucks bought a room over the Silver Nugget Saloon in the heart of town. The room said “Rose” on the door and opened onto a classic western balcony over the classic western street. It was the ideal spot to bushwhack a bad hombre or, if none appeared, watch the sunset with a glass of chardonnay. To boost Tombstone’s authenticity, dirt has been trucked in to topcoat the asphalt of historic Allen Street. The Crystal Palace Saloon, The Birdcage Theater and many other structures on this street date from the 1880s. They are remarkably well preserved, the result of the town’s being essentially shuttered when the nearby silver mines flooded in 1885. Boom to bust, as usual. Today, 45-caliber ‘Peacemakers’ make the town literally boom again as period-clad actors re-enact historic gunfights, including ‘the big one’ at the OK Corral. I bagged the trip’s most vivid memory as I walked Tombstone’s darkened streets, bathed in soft moonlight and saloon music, tracing the route that three Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday took to disarm some cowboys.
Historic Allen Street in Tombstone
Day Four I set out before dawn, intent to cover more ground. I found breakfast in Bisbee, another boom to bust mining town. I stopped for gas in Douglas where they used to smelt Bisbee’s copper ore. Then I enjoyed the trip’s loneliest segment. Arizona 80 is an asphalt ribbon seemingly dropped from the sky. It snakes through the landscape often with no sign, guardrail or power-pole for mile after surreal mile.
Geronimo Surrender Monument
This is Geronimo’s country. In 1886, the Apache fighter finally packed it in, more worn down than defeated, surrendering conveniently close to today’s roadside monument. If he were alive today, I believe Geronimo would be a biker. I imagined him riding with me through his familiar turf. Just for excitement we launched a daylight raid on southwestern New Mexico, then melted into westbound traffic on Interstate 10.
I still hoped to ride to the top of Mt Lemmon that day before meeting friends for dinner in Tucson. A few hours of highway riding intervened, so I put the Harley’s fat, road-eaters to work. Traffic was light, the weather spectacular and the scenery interesting, especially miles of improbably stacked boulders around Benson.
Mt Lemmon looms over Tucson, 9,800 ft at its peak with radically twisty, 26-mile road that almost reaches its summit. It was a warm 80 degrees at the bottom as I passed an electric sign flashing, “Icy conditions ahead”. Halfway up, I passed clusters of hoodoos, towering abstract totem poles of sandstone. It’s a safe bet that there aren’t a lot of earthquakes in this area. I passed a few cars and motorcycles pointed down and a surprising number of bicyclists pointed up. To each of the latter I flashed an admiring salute. Fortunately for them, it was growing steadily cooler…a lot cooler, in fact.
Catalina Highway climbs Mt. Lemon that overlooks Tucson
I didn’t make it to the top. First, fog began to form inside my visor. Then the road’s surface seemed to darken, not wet, exactly, but some distinct change. Gentle traction tests were inconclusive. I pressed upward as the road darkened further. Finally, when sparkles began to appear on the pavement (sublimating ice crystals, I suspected), I pulled over near a sign that indicated 7,500 feet. With friends and dinner waiting below, and a nearly-new rental bike under me, I decided not to press my luck. Mt Lemon’s summit beckons still.
Day Five I explored the countryside around the frontier town of Oracle enjoying my fifth perfect day of Arizona weather. Biosphere 2 is a lunar colony that’s taken a wrong turn; a spaceship grounded in the Sonoran desert. I’d visited the complex in the ‘90s when eight ‘Bionauts’ were theoretically sealed within (somebody just forgot to close the back door). Biosphere 2 is still in use–though with no Bionauts–under new management by the University of Arizona.
Tailing piles near Globe
I continued up Arizona 77 to Winkleman. My friends had recommended a scenic loop ride around Globe, but when that route was inexplicably closed, I turned left on Highway 177. Surging copper prices were re-awakening dormant mining operations around the world. Things seemed to be hopping around Hayden, Kearney, Superior (what a nice switch, bust turning to boom). Huge tailing piles were aqua-stained on top, evidence of trace copper, and oddly beautiful. I waited for two ore trains and got smiling waves from both engineers—good economic indicators.
Highway 60 out of Superior led through steadily building traffic back to Mesa, where the folks at Chester’s were expecting me. A smooth check-in process and a friendly encounter with the owner, a near-celebrity, E. B. Chester, concluded my trip.
Settled in a northbound plane, I reflected on the ride, on economic cycles and the quite-uncertain future. In his offbeat movie “Stardust Memories”, Woody Allen speaks from a strange afterlife filled with wind and red, flowing lava. He says, “I’d trade both my Oscars for another minute…one more second…of life!”
On that basis, in the face of a global bust that has erased many fortunes, my five-day ride through old Arizona was a pretty good investment.
© Scott Webster November 2009. Published in “Rider” magazine January 2010