Huw Oliver goes searching for singletrack gold in the arid mountains of Arizona.
Words & Photography Huw Oliver
My fingers yanked on the levers automatically, bypassing the usual thought processes and channels of communication, as if they knew what was needed before my brain did. Tyres tried lamely to bite into the loose, dusty surface, rocks rolled like marbles, and the world did that horrible slow-motion thing that it does when it’s about to do something really horrible to you. My front tyre stopped half a metre or so from the snake that was draped across the trail, apparently unimpressed by my noisy entrance into its sun-soaked afternoon; or unconcerned, it’s difficult to tell when there are no eyebrows to speak of. I emitted a manly squeak while doing the backwards Flintstone-shuffle up the trail a few metres, and started a staring contest that I was never going to win. Annie rolled up behind me and asked what was going on.
“There’s a snake.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Is it a dangerous one?”
“Not sure. You can go and check.”
Sitting in the warmth of the sun, the snake showed no signs of moving and seemed to prefer its new role as a Technical Trail Feature. Images of being ‘those’ tourists who fail spectacularly to get on with the local wildlife played through my head, but at some point we were going to have to get past – the food shop was on the other side. There were no rattles in sight, at any rate, but our knowledge of Arizona’s cold-blooded inhabitants was still pretty limited, and we didn’t know our friendly garter snakes from our venomous shovelnose snakes. This didn’t feel like the best time to take a practical approach to that question. A few small rocks rolled towards it achieved nary a wiggle, but eventually the snake gave us what I could only describe as a bored look, or possibly a disgusted one, and deigned to wriggle far enough away into the grass for us to scoot around and get back on our way to an important date with the nearest cold drink.
Naturally, it later turned out to be a very common, very docile, garter snake, so I won’t say how much time we’d spent dithering and wondering whether an actually dangerous snake had us in its dastardly sights. It was just one of a whole crowd of weird, wonderful and interesting animals and plants that constantly reminded us that Arizona is very, very far removed from the soggy old UK. Tarantulas, rattlesnakes, kangaroo mice and venomous Gila monsters were among the locals we met during a month spent in the desert.
Here to ride.
It was Arizona’s (800-mile) long-distance trail, the AZT, that brought us westward in the first place, specifically the bikepacking race along the trail in late April. It’s not every day you see a Brit in the desert, so time to acclimatise and explore seemed in order. Best to get those awkward first snake encounters out of the way before the race, we thought…
Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle both hold records on the AZT, as well as being walking encyclopaedias of the state’s vast network of trails, abandoned mine tracks and chunky jeep roads, so they made the perfect hosts in the town of Prescott when we arrived and started moaning about how hot it was (it wasn’t, apparently). This being the West, it wouldn’t do to be lounging around in one place though. Furnished with a meandering route through some of Arizona’s gold-mining history, we loaded up the, er, wagon train for some nomadic sightseeing. After all, it was the lure of the great American frontier that drew Europeans here in the first place, and all that went with it: hard work, freedom and undies that can be smelled from three miles away, all beneath a boundless sky. We were sure to achieve at least one out of three.
The Senator Highway travels south from Prescott, climbing gentle grades through ponderosa pines until it crests the spine of the Bradshaw Mountains, which huddle on the town’s southern skyline. Dual carriageway it is not, despite the name, but instead a 19th century stagecoach road linking Prescott with Phoenix to the south. The tarmac (I’m not calling it asphalt, it sounds silly) runs quickly through the spectrum from gravel road to bulbous, bedrock-pocked chunder-fest, and the mountains are infested with old mine claims and workings. Not all are abandoned: the West’s contentious history of land appropriation is a recent one, and small mine claims are still traded and worked. We saw a couple of cars parked up that first morning with the owners wading in the creek a few metres away, gold pans working the silty water in search of their own bonanza. Seemingly every other track leading away from the road staked someone else’s mine claim, promising bodily harm to trespassers. Some even had pictures. Private property means more than a token sign and a polite ticking off for miscreants in the West.
Once over the spine of the mountains, the road dipped in and out of different climatic zones as we gained and lost altitude: the ponderosa pines of the higher, cooler slopes still had snow banks lying in shaded gullies between them, and plentiful springs offering water. Lower down, that gave way to arid, sun-baked slopes, and species like scrub oak and prickly pear. I should note that prickly is a bit of an understatement in this case – one of them went through my shoe and a centimetre into my foot before I learned to treat them with a little more caution… Despite having filled up on water, things were getting thirsty as we climbed up a long drainage, back to the pines and juniper before arriving at the old mining town of Crown King.
“I tell you what, I’m payin’ 35 bucks tax to the f****n’ guv’ment on this thing. What’s it got to do with them?!”
“Yup, we’re gettin’ triple-taxed here.”
Two guys in dust-bathed denims, one astride a new-looking quad bike, went round in circles on the evils of vehicle taxation and organised government in general, while we raided Crown King’s tiny general store for chocolate milk, ice cream and other frozen treats to cool overheated bodies.
The circular ranting was just about the only noise in the cluster of old wooden houses, which were tucked into the drainage below the high ridge we had been following. Its namesake, the nearby Crown King mine, gave up US$2,000,000 worth of gold in the late 19th century, supported a small railway and hundreds of mine workers, but in between the expletives you could have heard a pin drop among the cabins and rusting mine machinery in the pines. It seemed like exactly the sort of place you would go to pitch up, stake your claim and rail against the tyranny of taxation and socialists stealing your guns. Perhaps I’m being unfair. At any rate, I’d have placed good money on getting some cracking conspiracy theories out of quad-bike man and his friend, but unfortunately we had places to be, and it seemed like they might be stuck in some sort of anti-government time loop. We left them to it and headed downwards and southwards, toward the desert.
Eighty miles. Of singletrack.
If Crown King is sleepy, the settlement at Cleator makes it look like a bustling metropolis. From the mountains, we followed the old mining rail grade down through changing vegetation and rising heat, until it flattened out on the rim of the Black Canyon, where Cleator had been built as a terminus for the ‘Impossible Railroad’ that brought gold down from the steep mountains. Occasional cottonwoods and willow trees marked the presence of waterholes, but most of the other living things in sight were spiky – made for harsh, hot places. The long arms of beautifully ‘western’ saguaro cacti put their hands up as if to say ‘Hey! Watch out for that prickly p… Oh, too late’.
Cleator itself looked like a good sneeze might flatten the corrugated iron and clapboard buildings, although there was no one around to commit the act. A sign on the saloon door proclaimed it to be open, but the locked door and dark interior suggested otherwise. The cold drink I’d been imagining for the last long while would have to wait until Black Canyon City.
One thing that the US is not short of is land — it’s all over the place. Kurt did a good job of explaining the baffling American system of land access and management to me; he is a co-founder of Bikepacking Roots, who advocate for the bikepacking community in discussions around land use in the US. I still didn’t understand why we couldn’t ride that long stretch of dirt road because someone whose land it crossed had decided they didn’t want you to, but the long and the short of it is that American land access is more contrasted than the right to roam back at home in Scotland. A lot of land is completely out of bounds but where there is access, Americans seem to go further than we do to conserve and build trails to get people outside and having adventures. The Black Canyon Trail is one of those projects, and it snakes its way down the canyon of the same name for 80 miles, looping through washes and saguaro forests, never in too much of a hurry to get to the end. That’s 80 miles of singletrack.
Where we stood at the trailhead just past Cleator, the trail was just a filament of dirt leading straight out among the cacti and rocks. It could have been mistaken for a vague game trail, but for the tiny BCT marker promising that it actually led somewhere. The next water supply could be half a day’s ride away, and while the birds circling overhead were red-tailed hawks rather than vultures, for two pasty-skinned northerners there was still an ominous feel to the motionless air. Someone could have played that clichéd eagle call from old films in my ear, and I doubt I would have thought it out of place.
The people who built Cleator didn’t just come here looking for gold, but adventure too. When Cleator was built, Arizona wasn’t even fully part of the United States — it didn’t become a state until Valentine’s Day 1912. The expansion of Europeans through the American West has entered the national mythology: a kind of physical manifestation of the human desire for independence, to explore, find out what’s over the next mountain, and to carve out one’s own niche in the world, though it might be small. People went through all sorts of hardships to cross this ‘intermountain’ desert zone between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, all on the closely held belief that it would turn out better than staying at home. Doesn’t that sound a little familiar? Maybe mountain bikes aren’t so out of place in the desert, although the gold we were looking for didn’t glitter.
Taking the first few pedal strokes away from the water tank where we’d filled up for the rest of the day, we realised we had hit a bonanza. The trail became no clearer, still just the most tenuous tendril of bare, dusty ground that crooked a beckoning finger through the scrubby bushes, but it was no flash in the pan. The vast majority of the trail is hand cut, so carefully done that it feels as though it has been there as long as the land itself. Rather than big, empty nothingness, the desert felt more like we had been airdropped into a landscape-sized pointillist painting, one huge picture made up of tiny topographical brushstrokes. Every dive into a wash revealed a new perspective, until it was replaced by another a minute later, never really climbing or descending, but never flat either.
As green as it gets.
Heat radiated from sun-baked rocks and earth and every time I felt that an ice cream couldn’t come soon enough, I had to remind myself that this was only spring. After a particularly wet winter, Arizona was actually as green as it gets, although to an eye used to the temperate rainforests of western Scotland it still looked like it could do with a good bit of drizzle. Wildflowers that had waited underground through the heat of the previous summer and then the cold of winter were making the most of the opportunity, peppering the ground with yellows, purples and reds that drew the eye in closer and closer. With no landmarks to speak of, the trail itself became the only way to orient ourselves, shrinking our world down to just the ten metres of dirt ahead of the front tyre. Several times, when we were separated by several minutes’ riding, I would see Annie only a few metres away from me across a dry streambed, riding in the opposite direction, with neither of us having realised that the loops in the trail came so close to each other. The trail itself was in no hurry to get to Black Canyon City, so there was nothing to be done but stop checking time and distance and get lost in the flow of a desert afternoon.
Black Canyon City, too, was built at least partly on the gold coming out of the mountains. The walls of the city’s first building, built by a miner in 1873, still stand, in fact. With the flow of ore having dried up in the 1960s, it seemed like a place that didn’t quite know why it was still there. A few rusting old trucks sat just off the track, dating from around the time that the mining dried up but none the worse for wear. The dry climate preserves machinery for decades, and if you’ve a liking for weird old cars from 40 years ago, Arizona is where you need to be. The place had an air of post-industrial deprivation: fast food and a dust-covered look of neglect that was shared by both buildings and the people we saw shuffling about the convenience store. Wherever you are in the world, when you sit outside a shop with a bike and a pile of food, making up for lost calories, the oddest people in the immediate area in the area will be drawn to you like seagulls to a packet of chips. We soon got into a one-sided conversation with an older lady while a taxi waited for her, the driver looking like he had heard the woman’s four interchangeable lines enough times to recite them by heart.
Bring on the pie.
Luckily, Black Canyon City does offer what is most precious to any bikepacker’s heart: pie. Pie in a multitude of flavours, none of them good for you, in dishes as big as your head. Here was the golden crust that we had crossed the mountains in search of, an El Dorado of shortcrust and sticky fruit, rich veins of syrup, the motherlode of… Sorry, I’ll stop. These things become important after a few days living on trail mix and instant mashed potato.
Setting up the tent that night in a shallow wash on the outskirts of the city, I thought about the fact that mountain biking often takes us in the footsteps of people who came to wide open landscapes in search of something very different to us, whether it’s an old drove road in the Highlands or the crumbling mines that had led to the construction of the ghost towns we had been through in Arizona. We weren’t here to ‘claim’ (contentious word, that) land and make our fortunes, merely passing through while looking for some gold of our own. I wondered how much of the experience we shared with the folks of 150 years ago as I lay in the rapidly cooling night air and looked at stars overhead, looking forward to mile upon mile more singletrack as we headed back north in the morning. There are still shovels and picks working the ground all over Arizona, but rather than taking material away they’re bringing people back to enjoy what was there all along.