I can’t pedal anymore and I’m barely able to walk. My left achilles has become, well, as lame as it is, it’s become my Achilles Heel. Swollen, fat, and hot to the touch, it feels like it’s going to snap at any moment. It doesn’t help that the road we’re ambling rubber revolutions down is washboard gravel, rutted deep, flat and slow. This - this right here - is mile after mile on the road from hell.
We’re less than 120 miles from the end of the Arizona Trail when I break it to Ben: I can’t go any further, I’m actually afraid that my achilles will break in half. I can see disappointment cloud his face, and also concern. The gravel road that we’re on is at least 15 miles from the nearest town, and over the last 5 hours of travel we’ve only seen two or three souls out here. For an hour or so I walk when it’s flat and coast when I can. Ben keeps pace. Rounding the next corner, and then the next, leads to a run-in with a biker (read motorcycle, not bicycle) who’s pulled over in a shady pullout. He’s leaning against his bike drinking cans of Budweiser. We’re chatting options with him and he’s offering us beers when we the sound of gravel crunching crescendos from around the corner, just before a white dodge ram comes hurtling around it. This is it, the only option, so we flag it down, ask the question, load my bike in the truck bed, and I hop in the cab and leave Ben peddling in the dust. My new ever-so-kind hosts graciously offer me Gatorade, and for the next 2 hours I embark on a new adventure: I’m now on a date with two 50+ year-old ex-cops from Tucson who love to geocache. Since leaving the Arizona/Utah border, this is the 5th time one of us has stuck out a thumb, and it’s the 5th time we’ve been picked up.
Born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, yet calling Arizona her home, Jody SixKiller Whitlock embraced the wild nature of the Arizona landscape, as well as the communities that it helped to form. A friend of trail riders for years, Jody frequently hosted long-distance horseback riders at her Old Coyote Springs Ranch near Prescott for many evenings of song, supper, and celebrations of the trail community. A tribute to Arizona, this song was taught and shared with jubilation:
“The Arizona Trail has been a very positive asset to our community of Superior. Since the shutdown of the mine, we’ve been working to diversify the economy through ecotourism, and it’s very fortunate that the Arizona Trail runs nearby.
We also appreciate the assistance of Arizona Trail volunteers in building our Legends of Superior Trail, which will be an artery to the Arizona Trail from Superior. The Arizona Trail means a great deal to our community into the future.”
\\ — Michael Hing, Mayor of Superior
Part of the landscape that Jody Sixkiller Whitlock has memorialized in song is the landscape around the little town of Superior. If you’re heading south on the AZT, Picketpost trailhead marks the entry into the Gila River Ramble, one of the most notorious, well-reviewed passages on the trail. Just north of Picket Post is where Superior is seated. A desert town that hovers around a population of 3,000 heads, you may be surprised to recognize it from one of the many movies that have filmed there. U Turn by Oliver Stone, Eight Legged Freaks, How the West Was Won, Blind Justice, The Prophecy, Skinwalkers, The Gauntlet with Clint Eastwood, and Young Billy Young are a couple of films to have been set against the backdrop of Superior, a backdrop that is both rugged and beautiful. It’s in Superior where we meet up with Pete Casillas over jalapeno burgers and cold beers at Porter’s cafe.
Pete is a steadfast champion of Superior with a family history dating back generations. While our meeting only lasted a couple of beers, and while I wish I would have plied him with more questions, one thing was very easy to see: Pete, like Jody, understands and value and the idea of community. He understands both the civic benefits and the financial, of Superior being a designated Gateway Community on the Arizona Trail. And like Jody Sixkiller, Pete is working to create an environment - in this case he is refinishing his family’s multigenerational homestead - where trail weary travelers can stop and rest for a night or a day, refuel their bodies and their spirits, and repack their supplies before heading back out on to that long unknown line. While at rest these travelers will be able to swap stories, share advice, and collectively revel on the joys of the trail. When you pass by or through Superior, Arizona, Pete Casillas is inviting you into his community.
“There’s more common ground than people realize, and I think it really has to do with listening. Like, really being interested in someone’s story.
There’s always a level of understanding that I can choose to participate in.”
\\ — Taylor, aka @Tenderliving
From Kanab to Sierra Vista, top to bottom or bottom to top, there are 34 designated gateway communities clustered around and throughout the Arizona Trail. With optimism, that means there are at least 34 Pete Casillas or Jody SixKiller Whitlocks handing out invitations along the route. I know personally, that we found kind folk, handshakes, and help in Tusayan when my rear derailleur exploded. Those handshakes led to a leapfrogging of rides. Rides that carried us to Flagstaff where the bike community coalesced to put my bike - at that point aptly named Humpty Dumpty - back together again for just pennies on the dollar.
“I never rode a mountain bike until I started building trails!
Do we as a community embrace the Arizona Trail? Yeah, very much so. I think the Arizona Trail is the ticket.”
\\ — Mike, retired fireman & current trail builder in Pine, Arizona
Community kindnesses - kindnesses steeped in a fellowship of intersecting attitudes, interests, and goals - these kindnesses were paramount to our continued revolutions; they literally kept us rolling. There were gifted bags of fried chicken, water to drink, water to shower, and nights spent warm tucked into a couple of different beds. Someone did our wash, others provided notes of inspiration. When all else failed and we were in a bind, Apache Sky casino extended an invitation to sleep safely in their parking lot. When our bikes broke or we were broken with our thumbs out, we were always picked up and offered a helping hand.
These things were not simply niceties provided by individuals along the way. Rather, these were all points of connection leading to a community that lives along the Arizona Trail; each an individual step setting the stage for the next, each a gateway to the next measurement of adventure and discovery.