Monday, November 21, 2016

The Sonoran Desert National Monument

ARIZONA has an incredible amount of untamed wilderness.  There are National parks, state parks, county parks and huge municipal parks and of course National Monuments.  In the years I have been coming here, I've gone mostly North into the Bradshaw ranges or east to the Superstitions.  I had rarely headed south.  The reason for this is quite simple, there are more mountain ranges to the north and east. 

The incredible Mogollon Rim  lies to the North East.  

With names like Sunset Crater, Silver Creek, Snowflake, Hellsgate, Horsethief wilderness, Hell's canyon, Gila Bend, Painted Rock and hundreds of others, it's easy to understand if you have a penchant for exploring like I have, why some parts of the State appeal to me more than others.  

The other thing is range.  MY XT 350 with the latest gearing set up  is marginally better on the highway and definitely poorer off road.  

When I first bought the bike it had gearing for trail use, what the previous owner used it for.  Highway travel was painful and freeway use impossible. Sixty miles and hour was about 7500 rpm and at that rate, things would melt or blow in short order.  I could uses third gear riding off road trails.  With this latest incarnation of sprockets, freeway riding for extended distance is possible but off road first gear is really too tall.  I would likely go back to my last choice with travel speed limited to 55 mph with the odd run up to 65, but better off road capability.  

No matter how you slice it, to get around here in the Arizona desert, you have to have highway reliability.  As I age, I feel less desire to ride some of the types of trails I have done here and in Baja over the years.  Death would be very unpleasant if a rider suffered a mechanical or human failure out there.   Some of the places I've ridden have likely seen fewer humans in a year than the Toronto Maple Leafs!  Is that possible...

Four hundred and seventy five THOUSAND acres, Whew!

Because it is "street legal" I can run off road designated trails as well.  Each year new signs pop up where I hadn't seen them before, proclaiming that vehicles must be street legal to traverse the country trails.  

I freely admit my butt is not as tough as it used to be, riding the Yamaha I pretty much limit myself to areas no further than 75 miles one way distance from my home for day rides and typically less... and over-nighters I usually venture no further than 100 miles distance in a straight line.  I don't have the luggage range or fuel capacity and certainly not the comfort for longer rides than that.  

Having said that, I could live for another 50 years and not see it all.  Much less longer trips like New Mexico or California or Nevada or Utah!

The Estrella Mountains

Getting back to the Sonora National Monument, I did some research on the net prior to making the decision to head south.  There were three mountain ranges in my path and I wanted to find some dirt roads I could ride.

THE bike gives amazing fuel mileage, this trip alone delivering an honest 80.1 m/p US gallon.  That is nothing short of phenomenal! That means I have about 175 miles to reserve which nets me another 20 or so miles.  Having said that, there are few SHELL or Chevron service stations around Arlington or Wagoner.  That fuel mileage is aided by an efficient 4 valve Double Overhead Cam twin carb engine and of course, by the tall gearing.  My butt (double underhand cheeks and two valves) is usually good for 50 miles on road or 10 off, before I have to stretch and work out the kinks!  To say nothing of my beat up back or shoulder, the result of that rear end hit I took back in '02.

At least the ground was hard enough to deploy the side sand.

I loaded my two frozen water bottles, some energy bars, an apple and some gum into the cooler bag I have attached to the rear frame.  Some people have commented that I should have a neat tail bag that would look more appropriate, but they don't ride where I do.  Frozen water that condenses in you cordura tail bag wouldn't work for me.  The cooler bag has a built in plastic bucket stiffener, and a top compartment for my food and ice water.  Besides, it's kind of color matched to the bike!

It took 12 miles of stop and go, sometimes waiting three three red lights on city streets to get to my fuel stop in Komatke, where I filled the tank and checked with the two locals about my route.  Of course neither of the staff members had a clue where the Santa Cruz road was and as it turned out, neither did I!

I kept heading south, it would come to me eventually.

It did.  

A sign pointing to the Sierra Estrella range, some emergency braking (after a quick mirror check) and I managed to turn off onto what was a good quality paved road through the Gila River Native community. My idea having perused Google maps the night before, was to follow the dirt road to a rendezvous with highway 238, the Maricopa road, bypassing Maricopa itself which lay to the south east, then following desert state road 238 through Mobile then on too Gila Bend.

I knew there would be some road closures having read voraciously everything on the various websites, but I hoped to cross the National reserve diagonally to pick up Old US 80 on the west side of the park.

First problem that showed itself instantly after 2 miles of pavement was a desert road.  No biggie, this is why I chose this route.  

However as often happens once you get away from those solid lines on the map, within a short distance, there were tracks heading off in multiple directions.  I knew that I would be skirting the Estrella Range to the east while heading basically towards Mexico, but what I hadn't counted on were the myriad of paths confronting me.  Keep in mind, the sun is just getting into the late morning sky, it's about 30 C and climbing, I'm dressed for the road in MSR enduro jacket my Baja MUV* bits of body armor and now... I've entered a flat maze.  I rode another mile or three and had already branched off at least four times and hadn't a clue which of these multiple trails was Santa Cruz road!

You never know if the trail heading out of the wash you've just entered converges later on over the hill or diverges to who knows where.  

Sand, sand and more sand.  NOT FUN!

WHEW it was as the buckaroos say, 

"Gettin' plenty hot out thar"

I had just slithered my way in low gear up a foot deep sand wash, then a rocky climb onto more sand!  Remember I said my gearing was now biased to highway use...well at this rate, slipping the clutch was going to result in my going nowhere pronto! 

I'm sure the local natives knew all these back roads by heart. 

No GPS for those guys, but even if it worked out here and as I found in Baja many years ago, you couldn't get a cell signal and all you GPS showed was a Blue SUV on a white background!  Even Candy, my snarky GPS girl hadn't a clue where we were.

Hauntingly beautiful this desert country.

Discretion being the better part of valor, and facing 30 miles of this, I did an about face and after making several mistakes, finally found my way back to an abandoned building behind a chain link fence and the entry road.

I hate to admit defeat, but the 5 or 6 miles of fighting deep sand and working up a sweat to say nothing of abusing my overheating wet clutch, taking the longer paved route didn't seem like a bad alternative.  After all the scenery was the same if a little isolated from the country, but I knew I'd live to fight another day.

At Maricopa, I turned SW onto route 238.  I stopped just before exiting town at a large shopping center parking lot and parked under a sparse shade tree for a couple sips from my thawing canteen.  A pick up truck with a salty haired gent pulled up and asked me if "I was that guy riding around the world?"

The darker orange indicates trail and road closures, but...

Big as the Arizona desert is, my travels today were of a shorter nature.  We had a very nice chat, he telling me he'd given up motorcycling awhile back, "... lack of confidence' he admitted, something I felt was a dam good reason to quit.  I'd like to think I'm smart enough to know when enough is enough like I did on the Santa Cruz road!

I was getting thoroughly over heated in my gear and said my farewells and headed to Mobile. 

*Multi Use Vest designed by myself and built by Deb

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