It's All Downhill To Phoenix

An (Almost) Century Ride from Prescott to the Phoenix Metro Area

Today was bound to be spectacular. Forecasts showed winds coming out of the North all day and the elevation profile of my route was almost entirely downhill. I was so eager to hit the road.

Before doing so, however, I sat down for a coffee with my host, Russ. While enjoying some coffee-cinnamon-amazing-warm stuff, he informed me that he had something for me. From his pocket he withdrew a bent metal bicycle secured to hand-weaved threads using a bicycle chain link. My jaw nearly hit the ground. This was a gift in every sense of the term.

Cycling Prescott National Forest

After a pleasant farewell, I was back on the road. The ride began with a mild climb into Prescott National Forest. Inching around the bend at the top, I came about to a beautiful sight. It was my heaven; miles and miles of winding downhill terrain.

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I snapped a few photographs, then dropped in. My bike bent and weaved about the crevices of this lush mountain scenery. Each switchback afforded me a new view of the surrounding mountains’ many faces. I felt like I was descending from Cameron Pass again. The sensation of lightness that I had experienced then was returning to me now.

Once at the bottom of the pass I was on a lonely plateau, in some ways resembling Wyoming. The earth twisted and waved with an occasional mountain jutting up into the sky. The tree-life of Prescott National Forest was being replaced by oblong boulders and clusters of cactus bush. There wasn’t a whole lot going on out here, and so there was little going on within. This was the high desert.

I passed Kirkland Junction, a rest stop, and Peeples Valley, a town of hardly 500 people. The next descent, which would begin just beyond Yarnell, was nearing. I sat high in my saddle to allow the friendly breeze to push me along my path. Thirty miles into my ride, and I had arrived at the brink. From there I was able to view the Arizona that I had always imagined; the gaping Sonora Desert.

Sonora Desert

I rushed down the mountain just to be spit out in the desert. The change in scenery was abrupt. Over the span of 30 miles I had gone from dense pine-tree forest to cactus-covered desert. This was a new world to me.

To induct me into this new ecosystem, enormous saguaro cacti greeted me immediately upon arrival in the valley. Their outstretched, upward-pointing arms appeared to be gesturing that “they come in peace” or perhaps they were going for a high-five or maybe they were of Native American decent and were thus saying “howgh”. No matter what the cacti intended, I took their towering presence and anthropomorphic shape as a good omen. After taking a few pictures I got back to peddling.

Saguaro in Sonora Desert

I was alone and it was hot. I pushed passed Congress, dismounting my bike only to take pictures of a pair of owls which snapped their beaks at me when I passed. I didn’t know what the hell these owls were doing out and about in the middle of the day, but I was happy to make their acquaintance.

Owls in Sonora Desert

When I arrived at Wickenburg, a fair-sized town, I dismounted and sought shelter from the sun beneath an overhang in a public park. Teenage boys were throwing around a football and flirting with the girls on roller skates, a Spanish-speaking family was arranging tables to celebrate a birthday and young parents looked on as their kids giggled away on the jungle gym. Life was happening and I was a fly on the wall.

At this point I had to make a decision. I could spend the night in Wickenburg or push another 40 miles on top of the 60 I had already completed to get to Surprise, a city on the outskirts of Phoenix. Given that the winds were still on my side, I decided to go for it.

So I followed highway 60 from Wickenburg to Phoenix. To my left was a steady stream of traffic, Arizonans eager to get home on a Sunday night, and to my right were innumerable saguaros. These wise cacti, centuries old, had no need to go anywhere. The land was theirs and they knew it. Russ had told me that saguaros don’t grow their first arm until reaching 100 years old. I viewed classic pitchfork saguaro with their two arms as well as aging saguaro with as many as eight or nine arms, some of them looking grey and decrepit. These saguaro stood longer than even Arizona did as a state, founded in 1912, and there was reason to believe that many may outlast it.

Saguaro Outside of Phoenix

Though it was a mild 80 degrees in the mountains, it was bordering 100 down here. The exhaust of passing cars stuck to my skin which was already caked with dust. As I passed by Morristown and Wittmann I had to make frequent stops, fishing juice boxes out of my pannier and chugging water from my bottle to stay hydrated. My appreciation for the saguaro grew; I don’t know what was nourishing these cacti because to me it felt like this scenery was severely draining.

Train Tracks Outside Phoenix

I could see an overpass in the distance. It must have been the Estella Highway, the one that circumvents the Phoenix metropolitan area. The change from one side of the overpass to the other was stark. For dozens of miles Outside of it there were only a handful of communities with a few dozen, maybe a few hundred people. Within it were strip malls and infrastructure and highly-populated communities. This was the urban sprawl of the American Southwest. The contrast between countryside and metropolitan area was much more dramatic here than in the Northeast. There were no suburban areas to act as a buffer, the desert ran right up to the city.

Though I was comforted that crossing the Estella Highway signified my arrival into the Phoenix metro area, I felt uneasy. I still didn’t know where I was going to sleep tonight, nor had I had a proper meal in hours. I should have been starving, but I wasn’t, and I suspected that my lack of appetite might have been induced by the desert sun. I looked down at my phone to figure out how far I had ridden.

Holy shit, I had come nearly 100 miles today, and more than half of that was through the desert.

I decided that I had to get some food in my system, hungry or not. I found a New York-themed restaurant in one of the strip malls outside of Surprise. When the waitress brought me my plate of pasta, I realized that something was wrong. The meal, which I should have easily devoured, was making me nauseous. I took three bites then asked her to put it in a to-go box for me. I didn’t know if I had overheated like in Ottawa or if I was malnourished like in Eads, but I knew that I had to get shelter to rejuvenate.

I found a vacancy at a hotel a half-mile down the road, and thank goodness. Once I was in the air-conditioned room and after having taken a shower my appetite came back to me.

Whew. I had arrived in Phoenix, and phase II or my multimodal journey was complete. Next stop, Supai.

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