Not The Arizona I Was Expecting

Surprises Cycling Along Interstate 40 from Flagstaff to Ash Fork

Despite going to sleep around 1:30 am, I sprung out of my bed at 5:30 am ready to ride. I've said this before and it's worth saying again: having a purpose is the greatest motivation to get out of bed. My purpose today was to get to Ash Fork before the afternoon headwinds struck.

By 6:30 am I was on the road. Riding out of Flagstaff, I very quickly realized that I had misjudged my environment. First of all, it was cold. In my mind I always assumed that the entire state of Arizona was one big desert. That was a misconception. The bottom third of Arizona was desert, but the rest of the state comprised pine forests, snow-peaked mountains and canyons. Because I was so sure that Arizona was one big desert, I couldn't fathom that it would be this cold in Flagstaff. But it was. It was very cold in Flagstaff on this late April morning, and I didn't have gloves.

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Next, it somehow failed to register in my brain that Flagstaff had an elevation around 7,000 feet. That's high. Denver is around 5,200, and I get short of breath there. Climbing the mild hills of Flagstaff to get to Interstate 40, I found myself breathing rather heavily. Though the train ride help some with the acclimation process, I should have given myself a day or two to more fully adjust.

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Despite my oversights, I rolled merrily along the shoulder of I-40, the road which was built atop the historic Route 66, on my way to Ash Fork. I passed a sign informing me that I was in the Kaibab National Forest, and I believed it. There were giant pine trees, pinion pines, for as far as the eye could see. As I scanned the deep green needles to the North, I was taken aback to find a gigantic snow-peaked mountain looming in the distance. I would later find out that these were the San Francisco peaks, the tallest one, Mount Humphries, reached nearly 13,000 feet. Again, this was not something that I expected of Arizona.

I rode along the shoulder of I-40. A moving van gave me a friendly honk which was shortly followed by a nice wave from a passing motorcyclist. Those little things make my day when I'm riding.

Everything about the ride was ethereal. The sky was an even blue with wispy white clouds. Pine-crested precipices jutted up behind the densely forested ridges, then vanished from sight. Between the blue above and the green below the grey road led my eyes forward to a brink, where it appeared to drop off into the pure blue. Arriving at that point, I found a gaping valley that invited me to descend. I had this wonderful feeling of elevation everywhere I rode, it was as though the sky was never too far away. The ride from Flagstaff to Ash Fork was unforgettable, everything was mellow and light.

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About ten miles from my destination, Ash Fork, I was properly in the middle of nowhere. I was in the Kaibab National Forest and the nearest town was my destination. Looking over to my right, I spotted a cement plot with a solar panel. Lying at the foot of it was an unconscious human being.

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I did a double take. Holy shit! This guy must be dead! I clutched my brakes and dismounted my bike. I hurried over to the fellow. "Sir." No response. "Sir!" This time louder. Still no response. "WAKE UP!" The face down fellow bundled in his heavy coat stirred, opening one groggy eye, still to tired to fully open the other.

"Are you alright?" I asked.

"Ugh. Yea, I'm alright."

"Okay. My bad for waking you, it's just not everyday that...well I'm not used to...I wasn't expecting to see someone out here." What the hell was I supposed to say? Maybe West Coasters were used to this kind of vagrancy, I definitely wasn't.

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By noon in Ash Fork. I met my hostess for the evening at the pet grooming shop where she works. After making the acquaintance of her, her partner and three freshly-groomed small dogs, I wandered about this dusty town of 400 people to run errands. I checked out the town museum, spent some time at the library, then headed to the Post Office. There I met a fast-talking fellow who had moved to Ash Fork from LA just a few years ago. "Man, I live in the middle of nowhere, spent what my friends would on a down payment to buy 40 acres of land, had a house built just for me, I'm never lookin' back. I spent 40 years in LA, retired, came out here and I'm never goin' back. I got a shooting range at my home, I can make all the noise in the world and no one cares, no one hears it! Yeah, I'm done with LA, man."

The guy was great. He told me to hit him up next time I'm in town and he'll show me what the life is all about. I told him that had I known, we would have just planned my buddy's bachelor party at his place. "Next one, let's do it. Look me up. Let me know." This guy was serious.

After the Post Office I got a ride with my hostesses to her home, about 5 or 6 miles North of town. I couldn't believe her residence. There wasn't another home in sight, just sporadic Juniper trees protruding from the Earth and littering the ground with their hardened blue berries. Outside of her home were the two most beautiful horses I had ever seen, one white, one blonde, both calmly grazing her yard. Looking around, all I could hear was the wind combing through the pines. As the zephyr blew harder my skin formed goosebumps. This cool afternoon was characteristic of an Arizona I was becoming familiar with but that was not at all like the Arizona I expected.

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That night I learned all about the interesting lifestyle of my hostess, a former National Park Service Ranger and obvious lover of animals. It was appraent that she loved animals because she was presently caring for two horses, several feral cats, five dogs and four birds.

Arizona is full of surprises.

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