Cycle Across America — Part 84
Arizona: Tonto National Forest
What colours, what shapes. Every day it’s impossible to know what forms I’m going to see, to cycle past and through. Arizona seems incapable of being anything but spectacular.
From the Apache Gold Casino complex to Globe was a demoralising 7 miles. Uphill and into a headwind. I was annoyed with the forecasters who told me it was “calm”. This was a wind, and like the day before when they forecast a southwest wind only to leave me with a northwest headwind, I was finally starting to dislike these people.
My left leg went straight away. In these conditions I didn’t have a chance of making it to Apache Junction let alone to Tempe or Mesa. Immediately took 2 more extra strength Tylenol and they reduced the pain enabling me to pedal. There are so many advertisements for pain killers that compare themselves favourably to Tylenol that I prefer to stick with the market leader even if it’s not the best. I don’t like negative promotion. If I lived here I would buy groceries this way too. When a package says 25% more than Brand X I would simply go and purchase Brand X.
The road to Globe confirmed I actually would’ve taken an hour in the dark had I persisted the previous night so I was very lucky when I found Apache Gold at Cutter. Without the setting sun draping the surrounding mountains in red the scenery was not as spectacular but I felt safer on my 2-foot shoulder in the bright sunshine.
With my leg and the wind I was thinking maybe I should just call it quits and write off another day by staying in Globe. The community of Globe was established in 1876 because of the minerals there. Supposedly it got its name from a large piece of silver in the shape of a globe found in a local mine. The area is still active in mining both copper and turquoise.
I needed breakfast and chose a “Jack in the Box” for potato wedges with cheese and bacon and a cheeseburger. If the wind did not get any stronger and the road stayed level then I could just about make it to Apache Junction but it would mean no time for the Indian ruins of Besh-Ba-Gowah. What to do, to do?
With my leg resting under a plastic fast-food table I decided to go to the ruins anyway and just try and pedal faster later on. If things weren’t working out then maybe I could stop in Superior for the night. I had to stop thinking that there was a problem. There wasn’t. I was on my holidays and all that had to be dealt with was a decision.
Besh-Ba-Gowah I read in several different places is the Apache for “place of metal”, “metal- camp”, “metal house”. It was the name Apaches gave to Globe and Miami (nearby) so really has no place being applied to these ruins as it makes no sense other than I suspect that somebody wanted to make it sound Indian. Some of the literature refers to the ruins as prehistoric. That means they’re pre-Columbian. They’re actually only 700 years old.
The village is a pueblo consisting of over 300 rooms having an estimated 400 people at its peak. It was built and occupied from about 1225 to 1400 AD by a people the archaeologists call the Salado Pueblos. Salado is the Spanish word for salt and it’s simply a reference to the nearby Salt River.
The Indians were farmers and hunters, and also stonemasons and traders. You enter the ruins in the same way as the original residents — through a central corridor. This narrow windowless passage was covered. It’s not known why this is so — perhaps as a purpose of defence or as a means of channeling all traffic to the centre of activity i the pueblo — the central plaza. The plaza was the focal point of the ancient community where public ceremonies were held and many of the dead were buried. It’s also considered to be the centre of commerce. Jewellery found here was made with shells from the Pacific and the Gulfs of California and Mexico.
The pueblo was built in storeys — from stone not adobe. Many of the ground floor rooms were used for storage as upper storeys were added for living areas. In the typical pueblo the rooftops were used for storage and the location for most of the traffic flow within the community. On ground level is the largest room discovered in the pueblo — the ceremonial chamber thought to be used in a similar fashion to the kivas of the ancient Anasazi and other northern neighbours.
There’s evidence of earlier settlements underneath the pueblo. These are the Hohokan who established a pit-house settlement here around 900 AD and abandoned it around 1100. Bes-Ba-Gowah is one of several pueblos that were built along the banks of Pinal Creek in the 13th century. The area attracted settlements due to the availability of water, diversity of natural food resources, and a climate which provided a long growing season for crops. Shortly after 1400 the pueblo was abandoned and the civilization disappeared. It’s suspected this is due to drought and the related increased warfare. The Apache people did not arrive here until after 1600 from the North.
The Salado made both plain and decorative pottery. They also wove baskets, sandals and mats of sotol and yucca fibres, as well as cotton cloth. Some theories maintain that the Salado have descendants at present-day Zuni in New Mexico. The park has only been opened since 1988. Some parts of it are virtually untouched while others have been stabilised and some of it completely reconstructed. I don’t like reconstructions. When something’s gone it’s gone, and I’m not so sure how I feel about what they term as stabilising. At the bottom of the hill by the road was a small, indeed tiny, park with so many different cacti and other desert plants along with arranged stones and sheltered benches. It was lovely and I was very glad I had made my detour.
Globe is located near the mid-point of what’s classified as “The Old West Highway”. This is the road from Lordsburg, NM all the way to Apache Junction. It’s a combination of US Routes 60 and 70 and is the very road I followed. Every so many miles (20 to 50) there’s a sign which proclaims this classification saying it’s where history still lives, whatever that means.
The downtown looks good as you look down on it from US 60 and I would’ve liked time, maybe just an hour or so to explore it before moving on, but I’d made my choice of the Indian ruins which was probably an indulgence I couldn’t afford in terms of time already. So instead I cycled slowly in the shoulder just looking. At least the view of the town on the slope was good.
In the downtown are included the tallest 3-storey building in the U.S., a building designed in the shape of the state of Arizona, the old Gila County jail — its cell blocks transported from the territorial prison in Yuma and in continuous use to 1978, and the oldest continuously operating Woolworth’s west of the Mississippi.
The road was mostly flat and sheltered as it twisted on to Claypool and Miami. Very obviously mining country. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between man-made landscapes and natural features. This is not one of those times. Enormous terraced heaps of soil rose up from the road. Old corrugated huts clung to the slopes over-looking the main street. And then there were no more buildings. I was in the Tonto National Forest.
The road twisted and turned and rose and rose. Completely sheltered from the wind I was still going very slow as I was continuously climbing. I should’ve been disappointed but I was really enjoying it. Huge slabs of rock walled me into my narrow shoulder as I noticed there wasn’t even a few inches of shoulder on the far side of the road. Then the road would twist the other way and I would have a drop with only a small barrier to prevent me from falling down.
Over and over in my head I planned how I would dive off the bike and over a barrier if I saw a vehicle in my mirror coming to hit me. Ever since West Texas there was a lot of RV traffic and unlike trucks the drivers make no attempt to give you any room. I suspect they’re not really aware of what they’re driving. Truckers spend their lives in their trucks and know that huge chunk of metal on wheels is dangerous. RV drivers are ignorant, stupid, or both.
My time scale was out the window with all this climbing but then I thought if I’m going up now I have to go down later so maybe I can make it up. Either way there was no sense in worrying so I enjoyed the view. On both sides of the road were steep rocky slopes. Sheer rock at times, but yet also very green. From every crack was an exotic plant with large wonderfully shaped leaves and cacti still very much present. It was like a park. Not wild at all. As if somebody arranged this. It reminded me of a park in Hong Kong. Should I write to my friend there and tell him because he had asked for a photo I ran after a roadrunner in the desert?
The rocks were almost rectangular, standing up with rounded edges. They made me think of how naturally the adobe buildings blended into the Southwest landscapes. Their lack of windows, their colour, their rounded edges and complete lack of detail. In some ways it was like how older cottages in the West of Ireland blended in naturally with their surrounding landscape. At least Americans don’t build obnoxiously coloured houses in the shape of ridiculous fake castles in their countryside.
Then the shoulder was no more. This is because there was now a passing lane going up so I still had some room to manoeuvre but going around blind corners was frightening. I was also concerned about what going down would be like as then I would be reduced to a single lane with no shoulder and accompanied by very fast inconsiderate heavy traffic. Well there was no going back so I’d worry about that later.
The rocks changed from a kind of grey granite to a richer shade of yellow. Depending on the light a slope of a mountain could look very green or very yellow. When the sun hit the rocks it was overwhelmingly yellow, and when it was blocked by other slopes then dark green was the predominant shade.
Sometimes there was a foot of space at the edge of the road and I would lean against the rock wall taking cover from the traffic. This was the most frightening stretch of road since Fatality Mile where I was knocked down back in Virginia Beach, and the highway north of the river in Kansas City where I was trapped for ages.
At other times the mountains opened up and I had a view. When there was space to pull off the road I did so and just drank in the variously coloured mountains. At the top the elevation was 4′600 feet. The previous day’s food stop on the reservation at Bylas was at an elevation of 2′630 so I had clearly done some climbing and I wasn’t expecting it. That said Superior was at 2′820, Florence Junction at 1′883 and Apache Junction at 1′715, so it should be downhill all the way and maybe I might still make it.
The descent to Superior was exhilarating. More so than into New York City. It was so many factors. The rocks were now orange and elongated into almost column shapes. The slope down was 7% and I was in the feared shoulderless single lane. I was going from 30 to 37mph. To my side was a wall of beautiful rock or a barrier supposedly protecting me from a fall into a deep canyon. This was called Devil’s Canyon.
The road was still twisting and turning as it clung to the side of the canyon. I was trying to watch the road ahead, look up at the spectacular views and scenery, and watch the traffic in my mirror behind. Several times I had to jam on the brakes and dive into a foot of space against the rocks as an RV towing some other wide vehicle swept past. If you don’t stop at exactly the right spot then you crash into the rocks and under the following vehicles.
The canyon was so steep with these columns of rock it was not so dissimilar to New York City and its skyscrapers, only it was much more dangerous. The road then levelled out and I made it across the road to a viewing area. From up upon some rocks I climbed I took some photos but from no angle would they fit in. Why had nobody told me about this wonderful place? Why is Arizona so geared towards only the Grand Canyon? And then I had to climb up a slope as steep as the one I’d just come down. This did not seem fair. At least I had the space afforded to me by a passing lane but I still needed to duck for cover on occasion.
At the top we levelled briefly and then began the most spectacular part of the entire trip. Another steep slope down. Again a single lane with no shoulder. The rocks were closer and higher and there were more of them. The road turned constantly until eventually there was nowhere for it to go so it tunnelled straight through these mountains.
I was lying against the rocks with my arms outstretched until it was safe to go through but I still had to race in the dark before the traffic caught up with me. I was scared and excited. The scenery was staggering, the road to cycle on so dangerous, that the few miles down was almost invigorating.
When the road came out of the tunnel it still had nowhere to go so it followed a bridge over the canyon to the far side. At this point I did not plan to dive off the bike if following traffic was too close. Again I had to wait and then race, and I also had to hold on tight to fight those cross winds. Down, down, down and I was in Superior. If I hadn’t braked I would’ve gone right past.
I went into an Italian restaurant and had a sub. The girl in there told me the lie of the road and the state of the shoulder all the way to Apache Junction. I believed her — it sounded right. From across the road I tried to ring my contacts in Tempe but those 50 miles or so are in another area code and I needed a phone card. It was 2.45 p.m. I left a message on the machine saying I’d be at a certain junction in Apache Junction at 5.00 p.m. Given that it was 30 miles that was ambitious but I had to race the sunset which followed 20 minutes later anyhow. I had considered staying in Superior and just taking the hit but with the information from the woman in the restaurant I now believed I could make it.
A man at the phone next to me seeing me unfold my map gave me unwanted help. He described the lie of the road ahead and it contradicted everything I’d been told but it didn’t sound right and I didn’t believe him. Then he offered me a lift in his pick-up as he was going that way. I pointed out if it was dusk I would accept but that’s cheating so I’ll brave the dangerous road ahead on the bicycle.
Once away from Superior I had to climb a little bit but that just gave me a wonderful view of the town at the bottom of the brick wall I had just cycled through, and of this fantastically shaped rock mountain which isn’t even on my map.
I kept stopping in the shoulder and climbing onto the barrier to just look. Beside me was an orange desert with majestic Saguaro cacti. And then the descent. Not as marked or as spectacular as the one earlier but still somewhat exhilarating.
Gonzales Pass. Elevation 2′600 feet and I was going downhill. Again in single lane and the traffic heavier but I was getting used to this. The bends weren’t as tight and the sides not as rocky so it wasn’t quite as dangerous but I still had to take cover a couple of times.
From the pass I could see the desert ahead and below. A flatness I hadn’t seen since descending from the Gila National Forest towards Lordsburg, NM. This was the Valley of the Sun, a flat large desert area which houses Phoenix and other towns walled in by mountains in all directions.
At the bottom was Florence Junction which was a Texaco gas station where the road from Florence, 15 miles to the South, joined US 60 to make it a 4-lane highway. Rather than spend time ringing in an updated message I just pedalled hard. There was no wind to contend with and most of the shoulder was usable, wide and safe. For the last few miles it was hacked up by some machine but I still stayed on it in the interests of safety. During the vibrations I could imagine people cycling with me complaining.
As I reached Apache Junction the traffic all turned onto the freeway and I had the old highway mostly to myself. A few miles on I reached my chosen meeting point of Broadway and Ironwood. Three corners were undeveloped so we would meet at the 4th. This was a small shopping centre (calls itself a plaza) and at the corner was an ice cream shop where I bought a drink. It was twenty-past five. As I received my change (6 cents), my contact and his daughter walked in the door. I had thought I might be there for hours. This was great and I was very pleased to throw Long Grass in the back of the pick-up as we rode down the freeway to Tempe.