Southern Arizona

Southern Arizona
Few places on earth offer more diversity. One moment I'm sweating bullets and then, less than an hour later at times, I've pulled over, teeth chattering, to hurriedly button the jacket liner into my shell so I can stuff my fingertips back in my gloves before they turn blue. Northeast out of Phoenix, the elevation is 1,000 feet and the temperature is pushing 90 degrees. But in the next four days, I'll top out at over 9,000 feet and sit through several snowstorms. In between these extremes are some of the America's most beautiful landscapes  -  connected to one another by some of the world's most-coveted riding roads.

Along the Apache Trail to Tucson
(Phoenix to Tucson  -  approx. 300 miles)

From Scottsdale, it doesn't take long to climb into the Tonto National Forest. Very few trees exist in the desert where Phoenix is planted, so the abrupt line where development ends is also the edge of the wilderness. The Fort McDowell Mohave Apache Indian Reservation and Fountain Hills are the last indications of the south-west's largest urban center. A huge white column rises high into the distance and I'm trying to guess what it is for several miles. It seems to be melting into different shapes, but I can't be sure. Once I'm close enough, I see clearly that it's a huge jet of water being launched hundreds of feet into the air  -  hence the name Fountain Hills. This out-of-place monument exhibits the same defiance that Phoenix and its surroundings display toward Mother Nature. There isn't supposed to be water here, but, inside the urban grid, parks, lakes, and golf courses glisten. Beyond this, nothing  -  the road out is the only sign of man as it begins its winding climb towards the Mogollon (Moo-GEE-yan) Rim, the southern uplift of the great Colorado Plateau.

SR 87 is fast, with two lanes in each direction. South of Sunflower, it begins its curviest stretch. I fly by the trucks laboring up the incline while the Honda Gold Wing 1800 hums steadily in fourth and fifth gears. I'm not speeding and the big rigs are sliding in, through, and out of my vision. I love zipping around them on curvy hills like this  -  approaching them quickly from behind, checking all the mirrors, and then executing a nice smooth pass. Elevation base: 3,000 feet.

Only an hour or so outside the city, the sun begins to shine through some morning cloud cover. I grab SR 188, an even less traveled road than 87, and head south toward Tonto Basin and Roosevelt Lake and Dam. It's back onto two-lane, but it doesn't matter since there isn't anything to pass out here. SR 188 curls down the western bank of the lake, and there isn't a soul in sight at the rest-area overlooks. In fact, I can't resist the urge to stop and enjoy the view  -  so rarely can one find such solitude in such a huge landscape.

The curves are wide  -  perfect for the Wing  -  and they hold constant radii. No traffic, no surprises, and one heck of a good view. The riding rhythm is taking hold, and I begin to eliminate small imperfections in my turns, trying to be a better rider on a great bike and a perfect road. Elevation base: 2,000 feet and climbing.

I pass by the Tonto National Monument with a bit of regret, but there is too much to see on this tour and I'll have to be choosy. Had I stopped, I would have seen the southernmost cliff dwellings in Arizona, inhabited by the now lost tribe of the Salado between 1300 and 1450 AD.

Within miles I climb 2,000 feet and pass over a small range heading down to the copper-mining town of Globe. On SR 88 east, also known as the Apache Trail, I follow signs to the Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park. The park and museum offer a chance to see firsthand what the Salado pueblos looked like on an unearthed site partially reconstructed to recreate living conditions nearly 700 years ago. I walk into the rooms, some built on top of others, and climb the ladders between floors. The pottery on display in the museum includes several impressive pieces of intricate design. Elevation base: 3,500 feet.

After a quick lunch, I pick up SR 77 to carry me south to Tucson. Yet another strikingly empty stretch, with scenery turning green around great rocks poking up through pasture land, the lonely road cuts into the horizon over Pinal Pass where Pinal Peak rises to 7,500 feet on the western side. The Santa Catalina Mountains soon come into view, with Tucson spread in a valley at their feet. Down, down, down, through Oracle, and into the city, I drop 1,500 feet over 40 miles. Elevation base: 2,000 feet.

Tucson is one of the most beautiful cities in the southwest. Saguaro National Park is split in half by the metro area, and the approach offers spectacular views of the cacti that have come to symbolize the southwest. Cradled in a lush, Sonoran desert oasis between several mountain ranges, Tucson (founded in 1775 by the Spanish and serving as the capital of Arizona from 1867 to 1877) has held onto its western and Mexican tradition and culture. The University of Arizona is located downtown, just north of the city's historic district, and resorts and golf courses hem the outskirts of town, climbing slightly up the mountain slopes.

Tucson in the 1960's and 70's was a haven for artists and hippies. Partly due to this crowd's influence, the town resisted the urban-renewal impulse that infiltrated other parts of the nation then. The end-result: slower development than Phoenix, but with a retention of character and authentic Mexican style that still appeals to artists and free thinkers. Galleries line the roads in the Downtown Arts District, and the architecture of the Barrio Histórico District is predominantly original adobe. Despite the beauty of the city and the determination of its most dedicated citizens, Tucson has yet to experience the rebirth that many artists' towns have undergone in the last ten years, and is still working on the restoration process.

With great restaurants and several bed-and-breakfasts and other lodgings, this is the perfect stop for the evening. After securing a room for the night, I take the map and head toward the University area for dinner. It looks like tomorrow will take me up the Sky Island Scenic Byway, just a short drive from Tucson into the Santa Catalina Mountains. As I look in their direction, the sun is setting behind a distant range across the desert, casting a soft purple light on snow-topped peaks beneath an orange sky. Another beautiful day awaits me. Elevation base: 2,200 feet.

Fire and Ice
(Tucson to Bisbee  -  approx. 180 miles)

The next morning is warm and sunny. A rainstorm has just cleared out. It's only 7:30, but the temperature is already near 80 degrees. Heading out of Tucson on Tanque Verde Road toward the Catalina Highway, I can see the road climb into the foothills, and disappear behind a fold in the earth. The Sky Island Scenic Byway begins a few miles into the forest, and the park ranger charges five dollars to wind the 25 miles to the top.

"Be careful near the top  -  snow hasn't totally melted yet," he says nonchalantly.


"Yeah, the top got about three inches last night," he informs me, as if it happens every other day. I look at the Saguaros to my right, and the fuzzy waves of heat rising from Tucson in the valley behind me. Sweat drips from my brow under the helmet as I pull through the ranger's station. Snow?