I find it difficult to summarize today’s events in one sitting. As we walked into our hotel in Safford, AZ this evening, Dale said, “I can’t wait to see how you synthesize everything we did today in one blog.” He and Clive both suggested I break the narrative into two blogs. But there’s a pacing to this adventure narrative and so one entry it is. Here goes.
It was simply an amazing day of extremes and never-to-forget experiences. We started out in Globe, AZ after a short delay at our morning gas stop. Dale had installed a rumble seat on his motorcycle so he could ride in the back as his previously-described “invisible friend” Herbie drove.
Clive gasses up in the background as I wait for him to help me persuade Dale to get out of the rumble seat – and that Herbie shouldn’t operate a motorcycle without the proper endorsement. Dale finally relented when we pointed out that Herbie cannot have a “photo ID” since it’s not possible to take a picture of an invisible person. The rumble seat is cool, albeit useless.
We finally headed northeast and took the long way to Eagar, Arizona. We quickly found ourselves in the Salt River Valley and it’s gorgeous. Rocky, rugged and spectacular, with sweeping curves, very little traffic and some convenient spots to pull over for pictures.
This was our first real look at the Salt River Valley. We rode along this canyon for many miles.
Across the valley, we could see the remains of an old underground mine. It was once operated by Yosemite Sam’s sister, Salt River Sally.
Towards the end of our trip along the Salt River valley, we pulled over again to take in the landscape once more.
This abyss kept yawning at me. Strategically-planted (by God) prickly pear cacti discourage visitors from hopping the wall. The butte across the canyon guards the rugged terrain with watchful eyes (see next photo).
We don’t know if these caves are natural or mining remnants but I think the former, mostly because few 19thcentury miners were over 100 feet tall – which is what it would have taken to stand on those ledges and drive a chisel into the side of the cliff. In any case, they make these bluffs look like some Lord of the Rings creature and they’re kind of creepy.
Part of our ongoing “What’s the deal with Herbie?” diagnosis involves running Dale through various cognitive tests. Here, Clive asks Dale to count the motorcycles. Dale got it right in one try in less than a minute.
After this, we took a long ride through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and then everything went downhill. Because we went way, way uphill. My navigation app had popped up with two weather warnings, forecasting snow along the route. Clive and I found this hard to believe and we didn’t even inform Dale of this development. In fact, when we left Globe, I told Clive about the warnings and he replied, “Don’t worry about it; it doesn’t matter.”
This was patently not true. It most certainly did matter and we could have done something about it, such as change routes. It’s not like we’re on a schedule on this ride. We’re not racing to an important client meeting or catching a flight. However, Clive is my big brother and so I trusted him. You would think after 55 years of this, I would know better, but this time my own logic told me he was probably right.
Here’s why: I don’t know about you, but my paradigm of Arizona has always been that everything south of Flagstaff is a desert. Perhaps mountainous in some areas but rocky, barren and very definitely hot. Our planned route was in the far east side of Arizona, but its latitude was almost even with Phoenix at the start and then went nearly straight south until it ended about even with Tucson.
Surely our assumptions developed in spite of never visiting this part of the country were far more accurate than professional and well-trained meteorologists armed with millions of dollars of highly-sensitive electronic equipment and dozens of reporting stations.
Today’s score: Meteorologists – 1; Ian and Clive – 0.
We found ourselves quickly leaving the saguaro behind and riding higher and higher into an alpine environment. It became cold and then very cold. Clive tracked the elevation on his GPS and when it reported we’d crossed 7,000 feet, he predicted over the headset, “There’s no way we’re going higher than 8,000 feet.”
At 8,000 feet, I asked him, “Do you think we’ll get to 9,000 feet?”
“I can’t imagine there are any roads that high in Arizona!” he said.
At 9,250 feet, he didn’t say anything because all of us were focused on the road since it was snowing, sleeting and 34.6 degrees (you can thank Dale’s BMW thermometer for that number; the Germans do things very precisely).
It was so cold that even Dale’s Aerostich magic suit couldn’t keep him perfectly comfortable. Of course, he didn’t complain, nor, for that matter, did Herbie.
After a couple of hours of this, we finally rode into Eagar, eager to warm up. I pulled into the first restaurant I found and we relaxed our death grips on the bikes and walked inside like three poorly-oiled robots.
None of us had heard of Aliberto’s, which is obviously a chain. It even has a drive-through. But the food was wonderful, with homemade tortillas and fresh ingredients. Who would have thought you could get such good Mexican food so close to Mexico?
Clive noticed this oddly-named store across from the restaurant. I wonder if they only hire child labor?
Bellies full of fine Mexican food, we mounted up again and headed south, happy to leave the cold and snow behind us.
That didn’t turn out so well. Our route took us right back up into alpine country but through absolutely pristine wilderness. I had planned the “scenic route” which turned out to be 46 more miles of frigid cold, snow and sleet but dramatic beauty as well.
Snow moves into the valley below us towards Eagar, AZ, where we just left, relieved to have “missed the storm.” However, the same system quickly closed in on our route.
We stopped to “gear up” thanks to the cold (except for Dale, whose magic suit kept him reasonably comfortable – NASA should contact Aerostich about using this garment in place of expensive space suits). The background reminded me of the Smoky Mountains.
I tried to take several pictures of the snowy conditions, but this is the only one that turned out. Dale was a good sport about my fearless misleadership.
Much to our dismay, we broke both of our dreaded and related records for the day: Dale reported the temperature dropped to 34.2 degrees and we rode to an elevation of 9,365 feet. The temperature remained in the 30’s as we stayed over 8,000 feet for a couple of hours today. Some desert.
The conditions were miserable but we were not. We were laughing our heads off at each new record low temp and record high elevation. Every time we stopped, we compared notes, shivered together as we talked about how we’d never forget this ride and agreed it was one of the best days we’d ever had on motorcycles.
Little did we know, the best was yet to come because we finally arrived at our most-anticipated destination of the day: the Coronado Trail, aka, “the Devil’s Highway.” This route is 100 miles of motorcycling heaven – despite its nickname, which was actually derived from its old number, US 666. The government had to change the road number (to US 191) back in 1993 because people kept stealing the road signs.
However, the name “Devil’s Highway” still suits this road due to the danger you face when you navigate it. There are more than 400 switchbacks along its route, there are no guardrails, few stretches with shoulders and several “decreasing-radius” turns – meaning the corners get sharper as you ride through them.
One of the few switchbacks on the Devil’s Highway with a shoulder suitable for parking.
Decreasing-radius turns are particularly dangerous on a motorcycle because you must lean the bike to turn and you have to lean more the faster you ride. That means you might lean into a corner at a speed perfectly suited to the shape of its initial curve only to find you must quickly lean farther over because the corner has become sharper.
However, motorcycles only lean so far and if you can’t lean any further, you run off the road. Of course, you can hit the brakes to slow down, but this has the effect of levering the bike upright, and then on its opposite side, thus tossing you off – a “high side” crash. In either case – running off the road or being flung off the bike – your landing spot on the Devil’s Highway route will be in the canyon far below.
Towards the bottom of the Devil’s Highway, we stopped to take some pictures. It’s much straighter here but you can get a sense for the excitement this road offers as you see it snaking from left to right and then emerging again in the distance.
So, as you can guess from this description the Devil’s Highway is ferociously fun on a motorcycle. You may have heard of a road in the southeast called, “The Tail of the Dragon,” which boasts 318 curves in only 11 miles. It’s on every biker’s “bucket list” but having ridden both, I can tell you you there’s no comparison. Not only is the Devil’s Highway nine times longer but it’s much more scenic and there’s virtually no traffic – unlike the Tail, which is often packed with crotch rockets, race car driver wannabes and cops.
Once again, our group of riders significantly enhances an already-spectacular view.
Off in the distance, you can see what looks like a huge mountain of sand. That is the Morenci Mine, started in 1872 by the Detroit Copper Company. It produces more of copper than any other US mine and it’s absolutely enormous. It took us 20 minutes or more to ride between the enormous pits and we stopped three times to try to take pictures of it to share the enormity of this undertaking. It seemed we said, “Look at that – it keeps going!” a dozen times as we rounded a corner only to see even larger, artificially-terraced walls, deep pits and gigantic equipment at work. It’s a very stark contrast with the meager mining effort we saw abandoned on a hillside in the Salt River Valley and pictured earlier in this blog.
Tonight, Clive said, “I’m still trying to get my head around how big that mine is,” and I agree. It’s a large canyon by any standard and the manmade nature of it makes its size all the more impressive. For my environmentalist friends who complain that this is a scar upon the land, I can only point out that when you ride through eastern Arizona, you see seemingly-endless stretches of completely untouched land stretching out in every direction.
Modern economies require minerals and in the scheme of things, even this enormous mine is a tiny dot on the map. If you really want to focus on places where land is being sacrificed for development, complain about big cities — each of them probably develop more land each year than this mine has consumed in a century and a half.
This is a small part of the Morenci Mine. If you look carefully at the far wall, you can see a line rising from mid-frame upwards to the right. Those little dots on the line are massive trucks.
These trucks are the “little dots” in the previous picture. They look like toys here, but the tires are twice as tall as a man.
See what I mean?
As we stood in front of one of the world’s largest mines, Dale entertained himself by playing the “Asphalt Xtreme” driving game on his iPhone – which you can tell by how he’s standing. Meanwhile, Clive is taking a picture of the mobile solar panel below, which fascinated him thanks to his extreme concern about environmental issues.
The Devil’s Highway terminates at the “company town” of Clifton, which is at the base of the mine, meaning we rode right through it. Clifton turned out to be a fascinating town, obviously laden with history. We rode past a massive steel gate nicknamed “Jurassic Park” that protects the southern part of town from floodwaters when the San Francisco River overflows its banks. It’s a very impressive structure and really does look like it could protect the town from hungry tyrannosaurs.
From Clifton, we made an easy 42-mile run, angling towards the sunset and our final stop for the day in Safford. Tomorrow, we’ll likely ride further south and east towards Bisbee, AZ and then on to New Mexico.
This was one of my favorite days ever on a motorcycle. Accompanied by my brother and our good friend, Dale Berkbigler (and ostensibly by Herbie, who has yet to make an appearance and likely cannot, given his invisibility), we rode what we all agree was the best motorcycling road we’ve ever experienced. We enjoyed a frigid, windy, snowy adventure in Arizona mountains we didn’t know existed, despite our long residence in a nearby state. We woke up thinking we’d face rain and instead experienced much-preferred sleet (it doesn’t soak you the same way) and we warmed up at lunch with surprisingly good food in a small town in the middle of the journey.
Everywhere we stop, people approach us. This is unique to motorcycling, at least in my experience. At Alberito’s in Eagar, two men told us of their own riding adventures and increased our anticipation of riding the Devil’s Highway by sharing their love of this road that is local to them. People are eager to accommodate us when we ask them to take group photos and they ask where we are from, where we are going and tell us about the bikes they own, used to own or hope to own some day.
But unlike any other day we’ve ridden, separately or together, today we were almost the only riders on the road. On our 340 mile trip, we saw fewer than 10 other motorcycles. Between the remoteness of the roads and the unusually-inclement weather for this part of the world, motorcycles and cars alike stayed away. At one point, we rode nearly an hour without seeing a single vehicle. During our trip down the Devil’s Highway, we passed no vehicles in either direction and no one passed us. That’s 100 miles of group solitude on the best motorcycling road in the world.
At least to us.
Goodnight from Safford, Arizona, elevation 2,917 feet. Wheels roll tomorrow bound for new adventures.