Bikepacking always feels like a reset for me. Or maybe it’s just sleeping outside and being away from the noise. Either way, it’s something I need every so often, especially to commemorate a new chapter. This trip was for my 31st birthday and I wanted to stay close to home to keep the stress down and ease up. The Sky Island Loop was just the route to meet that criteria. Lots of folks hit me up asking questions about this route as it is very close to my home in Tucson. I was always so embarrassed to say that I hadn’t ridden this route in its entirety, but just small fragments here and there. This trip’s goal was to change that, but also to celebrate making it one more year in my flesh suit, because god damn it was a hard year.
Sky Island Birthday Ramble
I invited some close friends to accompany me on this ride, some of whom had already completed the East Loop of this route. One person who was joining us, Sharon, had never been on a bikepacking trip and I was so stoked to have someone new to share this joy with. We started in Patagonia, AZ and our plan was to ride the route counterclockwise and camp at the Appleton Whittel Research Ranch that evening. It would be about a 24 mile day, and honestly that’s in the range of how far I like to ride each day on any other bikepacking trip. Unloading bikes from our respective vehicles always brings about this contagious giddiness. We joked about how hot it was already (it was 80 something) and that sunburns were sure to follow.
The ride out of Patagonia is on pavement for quite a few miles. We slogged along with our fully loaded rigs which always feel ten times heavier than they actually are on concrete. I could hear the water sloshing in my frame bag. We all were carrying 4 liters or more and it is just one of those shitty things you have to accept if you live in the desert. When we hit the gravel, we all slowed to a more comfortable pace, as we had also started our slow climbs for the day. The road weaved next to a dry streambed for quite some time until it suddenly wasn’t just sand. There was water! And unexpected water in the desert is always magic. Like a bunch of kids, we ditched our bikes on the sides of the road and shimmied into the creek to dip our heads. We had gone maybe 10 miles, but were already stained with sweat.
We hopped back on our bikes and continued pedaling, the sun hitting our shoulders when it managed to break through or over the canyon walls. Giant sycamores grew near what I imagined was once a flowing river, their golden leaves shifting softly in a welcome breeze. The big climb of the day came at the hottest part of the afternoon (of course). The open prairie greeted us like an inland sea, the tall stalks of grass moving together in waves that seemed to break at the base of the small mountain we would climb up and over. When climbing, I like to tell folks to just go at your own pace and wait at the top for everyone, because nobody likes to feel like you’re holding someone up, or leaving someone behind. The climb was rough with the sun beating down on us, but we all made it and celebrated on the top with some snacks ranging from oreos to jerky.
The descent to the research ranch felt longer than the miles we had remaining, but I was so glad to be out on my saddle to watch the sky turn from blue to a brilliant ombre of pinks, oranges and purples. The gravel road leading to our cabin for the evening was capital “C” CHUNKY and I was white knuckling it the whole way. We rolled up to a quaint little courtyard with some chairs and picnic tables. To stay at the ranch you need to make a reservation, but it was so worth it for a shower and the ability to wash dishes/your face. Not to mention the views and birds!
The next morning, our goal was to ride a little past Kentucky Camp which would be around 40 miles. More friends met us as we were leaving the ranch, and rode with us on the pavement near Sonoita. There was talk of sand in the upcoming miles and I began to get nervous. I was running 48’s, which did not seem adequate for the sand we might be encountering. We weaved between more tall grass and gravel, hitting pockets of sand here and there but not enough that required a lengthy dismount. We made it to the intersection of gravel and the highway and our friends who had joined us for the day departed. Eager to get to a campsite that was recommended by a friend, we rode on.
The camp spot that was sent to us was just a little bit past Kentucky Camp. I thought it would be a good idea to set up camp, unload bikes and then return to get water. Everyone agreed and we continued for another couple miles. We turned the corner nearing the pin drop on the map and my heart sank. There was already someone camped out at this spot and we hadn’t seen another open spot for us along the way. I was tired. Everyone was tired. Folks were getting cranky and we knew we had to make a decision. Ride on and uphill to try to find a camp spot even further, or turn around and scout for a possible shit spot along the road. We opted for the latter and turned around to not only find a spot, but refill our dwindling water supply.
The only spot we managed to find was right next to a questionable cattle tank. I know it’s kind of a big no no to camp near these, but I had seen multiple along the road and this was one of the only ones that didn’t have fresh and dry cow shit paddies everywhere. It would have to do, and we made the best of it, which wasn’t hard because we had a spectacular view and great company amongst each other. The evening was spent watching the sun set and me reading a small chapter of Dune Messiah out loud to folks, which, honestly, reading it to some folks who hadn’t even read the first book made it sound real real weird.
We woke up the next morning ready for one of our biggest descents of the entire trip into Green Valley. It did not disappoint. I always forget how fast a fully loaded bike wants to go once it gets going, and my bike didn’t want to stop as I was sliding around corners kicking up dust. The route travels down a pretty steep canyon with breathtaking walls of stone dotted with brave cacti clinging on to dear life. The base of the canyon fell off to the side of the road and we could make out slight trickles of water here and there. About halfway down we hit it, deep sand. With enough speed and guts, you could glide through it. But I kept fishtailing at speeds that made me legitimately scared for my collarbone.
After a few miles of halting to sudden stops in sand pits that seemed to go on forever, we all hit pavement. Such a relief to cruise into town and heading straight to food. Some of my buds had to leave the tour in Green Valley due to work commitments, but Ally, Sharon and myself continued on. Our goal of the day was to ride around 55 miles. This is not the typical mileage I enjoy doing on a tour, but water refills necessitated this. We rode more pavement out of Green Valley in sun that didn’t seem to give us a break. I think we rode the fastest we had ridden on tour on the frontage road next to the highway, because it sucked that bad and we just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible. Thankfully the next stretch of pavement leading into Arivaca had been recently paved and was as smooth as butter. We rode this easily enough and turned onto some gravel that took us North. Then it started. That dull familiar pain. A whisper at first, but soon growing to a roaring ache I could no longer ignore.
I had been suffering from what I thought was a knee injury for the past two years, and after this trip found out I had IT band syndrome. But here it surfaced again and I continued riding because I wanted to at least make it to camp for the night. We had a long way to go (about 20 more miles) and the sun was quickly setting. If you’ve been to the desert, you know the temperature inversion is kind of wild and so when the sun set, the temperature fell about twenty, then thirty degrees. Ally and Sharon were absolutely crushing it and I noticed I was starting to fall behind. I knew they wouldn’t leave me, but there’s always that bummer feeling of inadequacy in the back of your mind. We hit sand and rocks and at some point I got a chunk of barbed wire tangled in my rear wheel—and by some miracle managed to not break a damn thing.
The last 5 miles before camp were the weirdest. We dropped down into the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge and what I imagine is some kind of swamp in wetter years. All of a sudden, Ally and Sharon’s headlights disappeared into a cloud of dust in front of me. I put my foot down to let the dust clear, but my foot went up to my shin in dust. Popping noises filled the air as I trudged along. It felt like I was walking through baking flour. I squinted through the dirt in the air and pushed my bike through the weirdest ground texture I’ve ever experienced. I rounded the corner and hopped back on my bike behind Ally and Sharon. We rode a little farther and encountered a badger hobbling along the trail and disappearing into the darkness. By about 8pm, we made it to camp and crawled into our warm sleeping bags thankful for our bodies for getting us through the hard day.
My knee pain woke me in the morning. I knew today and possibly the rest of the trip would be up in the air. Growing “old” comes with a lot of shitty body stuff that can be hard to accept. Like “Oh maybe I should’ve stretched more and taken care of myself better and this wouldn’t have happened.” But here I am. And it’s something I’ve made peace with. My body isn’t and won’t be the same body it was 5 years ago, hell even not even the same body it was yesterday. But I love it most days, because it helps me move through life in so many different ways that bring me joy. And turns out listening to it has equated to feeling more joy.
I told Ally and Sharon that my knee was hurting me and that I might have to cut the trip short, which felt stupid to say because I’m the one who organized the trip. Of course being the rad humans that they are, they were completely understanding. Most of the morning involved more sand and amaranth that towered over our heads. The past summer’s monsoon season had turned the desert into a jungle and we were riding in the dry remains. A section of the route had been washed out and we stood in awe at the power of flood water. We made it to the road and I decided to call it quits and ride back to Arivaca. Sharon and Ally joined me and we rode in good spirits to town, soaking up the views of Baboquivari mountains.
All said and done, obviously I’m disappointed that I still can’t tell folks I’ve completed the entirety of the Sky Island Odyssey, but it was still the reset I needed and the continued reminder that my body knows best, no matter how badly I want to “complete” something. My obsession with completeness has driven me to unhealthy standards and decisions. A seeking mentality where I believed I was not fulfilled til it’s finished. Whatever that may be. And what I have found in my recent years of “incompleteness” by other folks' standards, whether that be racing or route finishing, is that I don’t need a checked box made by others’ to feel whole.