Frank goes it alone into the land of Geronimo, the Lost Dutchman, wandering tarantulas, and curled rattlers as he pushes ever closer onto Superstition Mountain on the Apache Trail.
Karma on the Apache Trail
It’s early morning, even too early for rush hour traffic I reckon. I’ve ridden clear across the north end of the greater Phoenix area, being careful to skirt major highways and interstates at my sedate maximum cruising speed of 55 mph. Having left the affluent neighbourhoods of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard sometime ago, I stood off US 87 gazing into the shimmering heat haze rising in the distance, toward the fabled and mysterious Superstition Mountains. There was the tiniest crescent of a silver moon still visible in the last vestiges of darkness.
When I was a kid growing up in Edmonton, I read about these mountains. Dry, desolate, unforgiving, dangerous and brooding, a place where only the hardiest of native Americans and the toughest of prospectors survived, a place where outlaws hid from the long arm of the law.
Shivering, I curse softly, surprised by my visible breath, as I dug out my fleece sweater and slipped it on under my MSR jacket. I wished I had brought my heated vest with me. At road speeds it was pretty chilly this late November morning. The last of the chocolate chip granola bar down my gullet, the empty wrapper went into my pack. We don’t toss anything away out here.
The last few miles the XT and I had been climbing steadily, the engine balking and stumbling in sixth gear, requiring a quick stab on the lever to fifth, then fourth … speedo down to 40 mph, bringing the revs back into a range where the stumble was lessened. Mental note to self: must remember to check over the jetting my next trip to Arizona.
Helmet fastened, I remount my 350, fold out the starter and kick her through. Tales of the Old West dance in my head, where hundreds of images are burned into my memory. There’s the Lone Ranger and his friend, Tonto. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Somewhere in these ancient hills, to my south, a German named Jacob Waltz is said to have found a superb vein of gold, and the story of the Lost Dutchman Mine found its way into southwest American folklore. (Germans were often mislabeled as Dutch.)
I turned onto Route 188 and lower altitude, and immediately the temperature began to climb. Here there were fewer semis and speeding autos, replaced by speeding pickup trucks hauling bass and ski boats, and plenty of two-wheeled traffic, much of it bellowing Harleys riding like herds of mustangs snorting and kicking up desert dust.
Soon after passing Jake’s Corner, the sign proclaimed I was entering the Tonto National Forest. Tonto of course was the famous Indian brave and sidekick of the masked man. There is an old joke that I remember from my youth back before we all became politically correct. Cornered by a band of marauding Indians, the Lone Ranger says to Tonto as he deliberately and meticulously fills his pearl handled six-gun with the last of his shells:
“Well, my old friend looks like this time we’ve had it.” To which the staunch sidekick replies: “What you mean WE kemo sabe?”
I’d been meandering along two-lane secondary country roads, often taking short side trips into the surrounding deserted hills. There are dozens of ranch roads leading off to old mine sites, back-country ranches and to nowhere in particular. I like those best. To my left was a wide gravel riverbed threading its way through the mountains, dry as most of these seasonal streams are. It would be miles before I would find the first trickle of water, a rising sun glinting from a tiny pool.
Riding across a sand wash, I pulled up and dismounted. Stretching cold limbs and stiff knees in the late fall morning, I impatiently welcomed the gathering warmth. I spent the next half hour idly sitting on an old stone wall enjoying the warm rays as the sun finally cleared the mountains to the east. Legs dangling above an arroyo, I returned my sweater to the pack. A sip of water from my plastic canteen quenched my thirst. I drew a sleeve across my lips, nearly wiping the first layer of skin off! My dust covered MSR jacket is like 100-grit sandpaper.
My Nolan shaded my eyes as I surveyed the surrounding acres of rocks, dry streambeds and myriad sharp, spiky things. Out here in the desert, plants protect themselves and you have to be careful where you place a foot or tire. A foreshadowing thought crossed my mind: I had better take care not to puncture a tube riding carelessly over a cactus thorn.
Camera repacked, sandwich bag pocketed, back on two-lane asphalt, we continued southwest heading to Teddy Roosevelt Lake. Several gaggles of big cruisers lumbered by in the opposite direction, some riders waving or flashing a peace sign, many with the Stars and Stripes proudly fluttering from sissy bars and back pads. You had to admit it was a beautiful riding day and how better to spend it than in the saddle of a modern day stallion?
The dry riverbed slithered across the valley like a rattleless snake. Trickle grew to a tiny rivulet that grew to a brook that grew to a stream that led to a river that brought me to the lake. By my side was a reservoir that had obviously suffered greatly in the record heat this year. The lakebed showed the receding water levels in significant steps. I wondered what would happen if one day the dams were all gone, the levies crumbled and the mud caked dry. At the rate the southern US is consuming not only the Colorado, but also the ancient Ogallala aquifer, it’s only a matter of time before the source of water for millions, will be dry as a proverbial bison bone. How long would that take? Maybe 50 years, perhaps a hundred, even a hundred and fifty? Then this reservoir will be home, not to largemouth bass but empty Coors beer cans, outboard oil containers and whatever flotsam mankind leaves behind. Places like Phoenix, Las Vegas and LA will be bereft of life giving water, the Mojave, with its saguaro and ocotillo and rock will reclaim the land. Patient coyotes, scorpions and rattlers will rise again.
Eyes scanning the Superstitions, my thoughts lingered to the ghosts of the Apache, that fierce tribe that once ruled these very mountains. I thought of proud Geronimo, most famous of their chieftains, his family was all slaughtered by the Mexican Army, setting him on the warpath for the rest of his life.
Pulling off above the lake, I came upon the only other dual purpose bike of the day. A lone late model KLR, rider was just stowing his camera gear in soft saddlebags, as I retrieved my own. We acknowledged one another with a nod of the head, as two strangers on horseback passing on the trail might have 120 years ago. In a short conversation he pointed out to me that my rear tire was going flat. “Dang, is there a service station in Roosevelt?”
Introducing himself as Fred, he shakes his helmeted head. Seems there is little in the village 10 miles up the road and at this time of year, even the thousands of boaters are gone, their equipment mostly stowed for the winter months. I ponder my fate. It’s 60 miles south to Globe where a bike shop exists, but it’s also Sunday! Apache Junction is about the same distance from where I stand next to a rear tire with a nail poking from its hide, but there’s that 30 miles of little traveled, mountainous dirt road, the Apache Trail. Meanwhile, Fred rummaged around in his saddlebag and then asked in a very polite soft-spoken voice, “Will this help?”
Lord tunderin’ Jaysus! “Yes” I yelp, excited as a porcupine that’s stumbled upon a balloon convention. In one of Fred’s outstretched paws is a beautiful green can of Slime, in the other, a tire pump. In the 90-degree heat, I swivel the 18- inch semi-knobby to five o’clock and release the gooey stuff into the tube. I’ve never tried this fix with a tube type tire but, like many things in life, there’s always a first time. Alternating pumping the tire back up, T-shirted in the heat, we get enough air in, so that eventually the bubbling ceases.
My newfound savior won’t accept a penny for the can or the help. I offer my travel card, but he politely declines. “Don’t have a computer at home …”
“Where is that?” I wonder. “Heaven?”
“Pay it forward,” he shouts just before heading out onto the highway toward his home in Payson.
I carefully watch the tire, feeling for any innocuous squirm as I cross the magnificent Roosevelt Lake Bridge, which happens to be the longest single span, two-lane suspension bridge in North America. In fact it’s been named one of the top 12 bridges in the US.
Keeping a close eye on the repair, I turn off onto the Apache Trail. Apache Junction is 43 miles ahead and home about another 60 beyond that. In the meantime, I have 23 miles of dirt road to contend with, much of it following the Apache River.
The impressive concrete dam below me was built in the early 1900s, before being modified in the 1990s. Not as massive or as well-known of course as the Hoover Dam separating Nevada from Arizona, but still a pretty amazing sight.
Numerous photo-ops give me plenty of time to check over the condition of the tire. It’s holding up well. I’m not in a rush nor am I traveling at high speed. The rare boater carves a white wake along the snaking emerald green watercourse I’m following. Traffic is nonexistent, only an occasional truck passing by in the opposite direction.
At one point I almost ride over a hairy-legged, crimson desert tarantula. I stop for a couple of photos just in time to flag down a passing white pickup truck. I make certain they don’t run over the creature basking in the late day heat. The female passenger steps out, camera in hand, and snaps a few pics for the family album, no doubt. Using a stick I prod the reluctant little guy gently off to the shoulder of the dirt road. Even though traffic is light, he’s dead smack in the centre of a tire track. It’s a wonder I missed him, he was barely inches from my knobby as I went by. Every trip I take in the desert yields some exotic creature.
In the afternoon heat, mopping my brow, heat beating me from the nearby rocky canyon, it’s not hard to conjure up images of stagecoaches and bandits, prospectors on mules, and lone riders picking their way through the rocks and sand of the desert, .44 riding loosely at the hip, Winchester at the ready. Even though it’s quite warm, I shiver in a chill. Do I feel the ghosts of proud Apache warriors, riding the highlands above me, even now keeping vigil over “their land” Mother earth?
The ride is spectacular, only a single dirt road stretching out before me into the distant haze, intense heat when the sun is above me and chillingly cool during my stints in the canyons. I could count on my 10 fingers the cars I’ve seen and maybe have a couple leftover. Caves abound—were they temporary homes and refuges to those very Apache that were hunted by first the Mexican and then the US cavalry? I feel close …
At Fish Creek, deep in a shaded canyon, cliffs rising a thousand feet straight up, huge cave directly in front of me, barely a quarter of a mile away, I don my sweater yet again, the vivid blood red hues and straw yellows across the wide canyon, final rays of sunlight lighting the mountain tops behind me. Before I clear this box canyon, that same sun will have set over the hills to my west.
I was destined to ride the final miles from Tortilla Flats, past the Lost Dutchman State Park, into a pitch black, star-filled night, rising moon greeting me once again, depositing me on the outskirts of Apache Junction, shivering all the while, ever watchful for desert creatures crossing the blacktop.
Here, filling my fuel tank for the first time since yesterday I find two things. First, the XT 350 has delivered 80 miles per Canadian gallon, a very obvious sign of too lean jetting, no doubt the source of my previous stumbles. And secondly, my rear tire is quickly deflating. I am 12 miles from the city limits and it is cold and dark, barely topping 50F. Using the station’s air compressor, I fill the tire one last time.
The rear of my bike is squirming badly by the time I pull over at the well-lit Burger King parking lot. Here under its lights I see my journey on two wheels has ended for the night. It’s still 60 miles to my home in Glendale across a vast area of interstate, and the Slime has given up the ghost.
A phone call to my Brit buddy Bob brings the cavalry a-running. In the hour or so it takes for him to arrive, utility trailer in tow, I sit on the curb of the BK, munching on a pretty decent beef burger, fries and a cola, thinking about my day. It’s been a 12-hour trip from ultra modern Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard into the past and back once again to the present. My day has covered sunrise to sunset and beyond, about 200 miles, a distance that would have taken a week or more in the Old West days. A “cracking day” as Bob would say.
From Canadian Biker, April 2013 issue Story and photos by Frank Simon