Riding from Mexico to Canada along US HWY 191

Riding from Mexico to Canada along US HWY 191

A little north of Tombstone, the coyote (Roadrunnerus digestus) emerges from the low scrub brush on the dusty shoulder of Arizona's SR 80. He stops mid-trot and watches with apparent nonchalance as our RoadRUNNER Gold Wing (Burn-em-upus asphaltus) breezes by. But I'm not fooled by his insouciance—years of Saturday mornings have taught me that Wile E. Coyote always has something up his sleeve. The rest of the way to Douglas, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for anything tagged "Acme."

Kathy and I get a good laugh out of the incident. We both loved the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner segments of Looney Tunes cartoons as kids, and now here we are, two RoadRUNNERs speeding across the barren desert. Almost every time we'd pass something after the coyote, our adenoidal impressions of the speedy bird's "beep-beep" crackled across the Wing's intercom the rest of the way to the Mexican border and our tour's beginning in Douglas, AZ. It's funny how much silliness desolate roads can inspire.

Continuing south, we race the setting sun and ominous skies boiling up on the far horizon. Blackening and billowing, the clouds quickly spawn storms, and two leaden veils of rain descend one after the other in the vast distance. Though separated by hundreds of miles, the dark masses seem to work in Wagnerian concert as branching traceries of lightning dance left and right, briefly animating the cascades. It's a thrilling, humbling experience, and our place in the grand scheme of things has never been so obvious. Riding on in all due haste, we hope this celestial cauldron wouldn't be stirred and upended above our heads.

Rolling into Douglas, we find our digs, the Hotel Gadsden, just as a startlingly cool breeze converges on the empty streets. The resulting Venturi effect whips up a whirling waltz of dust and stray paper that seems appropriate for a sleepy town on the Mexican border. Gear in hand, we stroll through the heavy hotel doors and enter another era.

The lobby's two-story-high ceiling, complete with vaulted, stained-glass skylights, is supported by four marble columns, each capped with 14-carat gold leaf, said to have been worth $20,000 in 1929. A resplendent Tiffany mural depicting desert trees and cacti spans 42 feet across the mezzanine of the sweeping, white marble stairway. Despite the dim lighting, we can see the gouged-out space missing a chunk of marble on the seventh stair, an accident attributed to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and whatever whim it was that caused him to take his horse for an impromptu ride through the lobby. They didn't call it the Wild West for nothing.

What's In a Number?

The following morning, all remnants of the dark clouds are gone, replaced by a sky almost unnaturally blue. We were warned it would be hot and early-morning temperatures in the high 80s certainly qualify—but hey, it's a dry heat. Undaunted, we begin our northward journey on US 191, the route through Arizona that used to be known as Hwy 666. Back in 1992, it turned into US 191 after the state requested the renumbering due to constant signage thefts. Weighed against everything else under consideration if and when Judgment Day arrives, illegal possession of a Hwy 666 sign may fall on the lighter, venial side of the scale. I don't know about that, and I wouldn't presume to, but I do like the idea of riding US 191 better. The last time I checked, Father Damien was out of the picture.

Near the small town of Sunsites, we see signs for the Cochise Stronghold Campground. The sheer granite cliffs of the Dragoon Mountains were once the refuge for Cochise, the famed leader of the Chiricahua band of the Apache tribe. Master strategists within this impenetrable region, Cochise and his braves harassed settlers and the Army from 1861 to 1871. Cochise, allegedly never conquered in battle, died peacefully in 1874 and his grave lies somewhere in these hills. Its exact location remains a mystery. Unfortunately for us, as the road turns to dirt, I quickly realize that Gold Wings and loose surfaces don't play well together; and so, like the many others who have searched for Cochise, we are repelled before we can even get close.

Upon reaching the pavement, our voices lose the timbre of two small-time traffic reporters yammering in a Korean War-era helicopter, and the Gold Wing's handlebar ceases bucking like a rototiller churning up rocky river bottom. We approach I-10 and watch dust devils swirling up white sands that dance across the distant Willcox Playa. After a short eastward foray along the big road, we again reconnect with US 191. The lifeless, broiled terrain suddenly inspires Kathy. She's now convinced that she's going to spot and recover that icon of Southwestern souvenirs: her very own sun-bleached cow skull. I laugh and tell her she's seen one too many westerns. Minutes later, a tumbleweed rolls across the roadway.

At the Quality Inn in Safford, we check in and unload the bike just as a bona fide sandstorm envelops the town. From inside, the near-zero visibility is an awe-inspiring sight that makes me thankful we reached shelter earlier than expected. We both cringe contemplating the prospect of having to ride through that colossal sandblaster.

Chasing Coronado

Heading out of town after breakfast at the Quality Inn's Manor House Restaurant, we decide that a Southwestern breakfast is just lunch with an egg on top. No complaints, it was delicious. As 191 breaks away from SR 70 and heads northeast into the mountains, the perfectly straight road becomes a super elongated triangle disappearing into the gel of heat waves obscuring the horizon. Maybe Kathy's cow skull thing isn't so far-fetched after all. The thought that people actually traversed this forbidding terrain on foot and horseback astounds us.

As we climb into the rugged hills, twists and turns begin to work their way into the road's repertoire. In Clifton, a small stone building on the side of the road begs further exploration, and stopping to poke around a bit, we discover an open door leading us down into a veritable dungeon chiseled into the side of the cliff. This was Clifton's old jail and its heavy iron bars are still intact. Legend has it the job of building the jail was given to stonemason Margarito Varela in 1878. He toiled away for days with a pick and blasting powder. Upon completing the job, Varela began a celebration that included numerous libations and a volley from his pistol in the local saloon. His ill-timed gunplay managed to raise the ire of the local constabulary and the stonemason ended up being the new jail's very first inmate.

A little way up the road in Morenci, we come upon the resource that has bankrolled so many livelihoods and kept folks here all these years—copper. It's impossible to miss the Phelps Dodge Morenci Mine, the second largest open-pit mine in the world. Covering an area two miles wide by five miles long, the mine is worked around the clock every day of the year by over 2,000 employees to produce nearly 840 million pounds of copper annually. You'll be hard-pressed not to stop and have a look at the operation from the Coronado Overlook.

With the mine in the rear views, we soon become fully engaged in the section of US 191 known as the Coronado Trail. Over 450 years ago, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition in search of the fabled, gold-laden Seven Cities of Cibola. Although he never found the cities or the gold, Coronado did leave a looping route through these mountains behind.