“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” Edward Abbey The Arizona Trail 750 is an odyssey, a multi-day journey winding across the state of Arizona from the border of Mexico to the border of Utah, climbing and descending through desert cactus and craggy peaks, all while passing through diverse life zones and billions of years of geologic time. There are long sections of sweet, flowing single-track and other sections which are rocky and rugged and require a lot of bike pushing. We often hear that endurance feats like this are more mental than physical, but, since the average racer will burn nearly 100,000 calories along the way, we rarely listen. Nevertheless, no matter how much the race tests your physical endurance, your will power and mental fortitude will be put to a greater test. There may be times when you are so low that you feel like quitting, but there will also be times of extreme elation, and when your senses are wide open and the endorphins are flowing, you will fully revel at the exotic beauty. Stories of bikepacking induced enlightenment may be a bit overdone, but the desert is a great catalyst for profound experience, and the person arriving at the Utah border will not be the same as the one who departed the Mexican border. The first time I raced the Arizona Trail I was pretty nervous on the start line. Although I had previously done lots of bike touring and knew that I could keep going day after day, my bike tours, which were on the road, usually involved only 8 to 10 hours a day in the saddle, which is only about half the time you spend in the saddle in a bikepacking race. To top it off, I had just figured out how to load my gps and was anxious about getting lost and whether or not I would even be able to finish the course. The trail starts at the Mexican border, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and if you feel rebellious you can cross the international border by stepping over a couple of strands of barb wire, but be careful because if you get caught Mexican law provides: “A penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of three hundred to five thousand pesos WILL BE imposed on foreigners who enter the country illegally.” Someone said, “3, 2, 1, Go,” and we were off. Sean Allen set a quick pace through the Canelo Hills, and I tried to keep up, pedaling and hiking the morning away through the hot, dry, hills. Wet bike shorts are not good for hiking, and I was laying the foundation for an excruciating case of saddle sores as my sweat soaked chamois chafed and then abraded my tenderized wet flesh. In the heat of the race I ignored the telltale itchy pain of these burgeoning lacerations and kept pressing on. Eventually, we reached Sonoita where I needed to stop for rest and refueling. I was already pretty worked with the pace, the heat and the hike a bike, and was really looking forward to sitting in the shade and stuffing my face. The easiest and most effective way to improve your time in long bikepacking races is not by doing massive intervals and hill repeats (though they don’t hurt) but simply stopping less often and for less time. One of my downfalls is that I like to stop–a lot. It slows me way down, but it sure does improve how much I enjoy myself. After about a half an hour at Sonoita, I felt recharged, and so after quickly adjusting my headset, I was ready to continue. I pedaled off into the golden evening light, thoroughly enchanted by the beauty of the desert and the perfect spacing of the plants, but also worried about the distance and difficulties I still had to face. Leaving Sonoita, there’s a good chance of encountering several miles of stiff headwind, but keep pressing on and after a few hours you reach Kentucky Camp where you can refill your water and begin about 60 miles of primo singletrack. This section of flowy trail, which winds through the Lower Sonoran Life Zone, is pure nectar, but not without its danger. The Tour Divide has its grizzly bears, but the Arizona Trail has a few hazards as well, including an abundance of venomous animals and a wide variety of needled cactus and thorny plants. az blog 7 Whether or not you have ever been in the Sonoran Desert, you will be awed by the fresh green shoots of spring against a backdrop of red, yellow and brown earth tones and the frozen gesticulations and strange, twisted arms of the giant saguaros. While saguaros are not usually dangerous to people, in a classic case of instant karma, a man in Arizona was recently crushed to death by a falling saguaro after blasting it with a shotgun. The section of trail after Kentucky Camp is so much fun that it is easy to go too fast, miss a turn and veer off into a big clump of prickly pear cactus. You won’t be the first one to do this, but good luck trying to pick out the thousands of invisible spines with your pliers; you will probably have to go to the emergency room. Also, be careful not to graze a barrel cactus as you ride by because its puncture is considered a ‘dirty wound’ and may require antibiotics and months to fully heal. Jumping cholla is another hazard. Actually a type of tree, barely brushing a cholla as you ride by can leave you impaled with a spiny stem. Even if you avoid snagging the cholla as you ride by, you will eventually have to ride over some because in spots the trail is littered with them. If you are lucky, they will only stick in your tire and cause some loss of sealant. If you are unlucky, the tire will grab the cholla stem and fling it into your leg. If you are really unlucky, the cholla will pierce a nerve resulting in a pulsing, electronic pain every time you move. It can be difficult to remove the cholla because the end is barbed, but there is no choice but to suck it up and use your pliers or a couple of flat rocks to yank out the offending spine. If you try to use your hands to remove the cholla, there is a good chance your hand will end up stuck to your leg. Cat’s Claw, a small and thorny plant which frequently grows along the edges of the trail is another minor nuisance, though one you will unlikely be able to avoid. It grows fast enough that its branches often overhang the trail, and its small thorns will grab and tear at your flesh as you ride by. This will hurt the first few times it happens, but after the hundredth time or so you won’t really notice the pain anymore, though your calves will be heavily scratched and scored with long, thin red lines. It’s okay though, because after a few days, perhaps as a result of dehydration and sunburn, your skin will toughen up and not tear as easily. You are starting to become one with the desert. There are plenty of rattlesnakes out there, and you are almost guaranteed to see one or two along the way. Other times you may not see a snake, but the rushing whisper you hear in the grass as you ride by is quite possibly a rattler, which can move at up to eight miles an hour for brief periods. There are thirteen types of rattlesnakes in Arizona and about 150 people are bitten annually. More often than not though, the strike is a dry bite, meaning the snake did not release any venom. Younger, less experienced snakes are more likely to inject venom when biting. The rattlesnake strike is usually not deadly, but it can cause severe pain and tissue death. If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, here is what you are supposed to do and not do: Snake Bite First Aid Procedure 1. Stay calm, still and quiet. Restrict movement, and keep the affected area at or below heart level to reduce the flow of venom. 2. Remove any rings or constricting items and clothing as the affected area may swell. 3. Allow the bite to bleed freely for 15 – 30 seconds before cleansing. 4. Create a loose splint to help restrict movement of the area. 5. Contact medical help as soon as possible (see below). 6. Evacuate immediately if you can. 7. Monitor your vital signs — temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, and blood pressure — if possible. Watch for any signs of shock (sweating, clammy skin, or shallow breathing), since the fear of having been bitten is often more dangerous than the bite. 8. Attempt to identify the snake or, only if can be done safely, bring in the dead snake. Do not waste time hunting for the snake, and do not risk another bite if it is not easy to kill the snake. After it has been killed, a snake can still bite for up to an hour, so be careful while transporting it. The Six Don’ts 1.Don‘t engage in strenuous physical activity. Hike out slowly without your bike if necessary to avoid over exertion. 2. Don’t apply a tourniquet. Restricting superficial blood flow does keep the venom from spreading, which you want to avoid. Concentrated venom will rapidly destroy cells. Allowing it to spread will dilute the toxin and reduce tissue damage. 3. Don’t apply a cold pack. Cold reduces healthy circulation to the infected area. Also, some experts believe snake venom increases vulnerability to frostbite. 4. Don’t apply a suction device. Removing the venom by suction was once standard procedure, but is no longer considered safe treatment. These devices generally do not remove a substantial amount of toxin and can damage sensitive tissue. 5. Don’t eat or drink anything, including medication and alcohol, unless Okayed by medical staff. 6. Don’t cut across the bite marks and attempt oral suction. Because snake fangs are curved, the pocket of venom will not be where expected and will probably have already spread. Plus, many snake bites are considered “dry,” where there was no toxin released into the victim. This may also increase the risk of infection in the area by having an open wound. Personally, I think I might try ‘Don’t number 6’ if I felt desperate… az15 (1) Then, there are scorpions, but don’t be overly concerned because although over a 1000 people die annually from scorpion stings in Mexico, and 100 people are treated for scorpion stings each year in Arizona, in the US there have only been four deaths from scorpions in the last 11 years. There are a surprising number of cows along parts of the route, and these are not the happy California cows of myth, but half wild desert cows. 22 people a year in the US are killed by cows, and even though most cows will stampede at the sight of you, some will stand in the trail glaring menacingly while long strings of saliva slowly descend from their mouths. Do your best to avoid these animals and make sure not to separate a cow from her calf, not for fear of violent retaliation from the momma, but because the calf will run in front of you on the trail for a long ways dropping little presents to ride through. Although cows bite infrequently, their bites are crushing and riddled with bacteria. If you get bitten by a cow, do your best to stay calm and get away from the animal immediately. First aid for a cow bite consists of inspection, irrigation, debridement, and possibly closure (IIDpC), depending on many factors, such as the doctor’s experience, preference, and the type and location of the cow bite. AZT The sweet singletrack was urging me to fly and I did for a while, but as the light began to fade, I began going slower and other riders started going by me. I tried hard to keep my mo’ going, but I was blasted from the long hot day and my saddle sores were starting to heat up. The darkness was complete as I hit the pavement crossing near Vail, AZ, and I switched my lights on and kept plugging away. At two in the morning I reached the La Sevilla Campground, found the water spigot and sacked out under my Mylar blanket for a few hours of sleep. In the morning, the singletrack descent into Tucson should have been awesome, but I was in a world of hurt, my saddle sores were nearly intolerable and I couldn’t sit down anymore, plus I was hungry and just depleted from the day before. I finally hit Redington Road and started the nearly 7,000 foot climb to the top of Mt. Lemmon, which in 20 miles or so passes through the same life zones you would see on a drive from Mexico to Canada. On the brutal hike a bike before you first cross over Mt. Lemmon Highway, I discovered that at some point I had carelessly thrown my camelback down on a cactus, causing a pin-prick puncture of the bladder which was slow enough not to be noticed, but fast enough to ensure that my chamois stayed as wet as possible and that my saddle sores developed to the maximum degree. It was a brutally hot, tough, punishing day, and I nearly ran out of water on the way to Summerhaven. It started to feel like the vast desert was not implacably indifferent to my passage, but instead harshly conspiring against me. I struggled to put these thoughts out of my mind, telling myself that the only real problem was my attitude. I finally arrived at Summerhaven and resupplied, then began the descent of Oracle Ridge. This ‘descent’ involves a lot of hike a bike, both going up and avoiding dangerous sections going down, and there were a few scary times when I had to commit to riding scary sections that I should have walked. After a while, I stopped somewhere along the way, shimmied under my Mylar blanket and slept a few more hours. Limping into Oracle in the morning, I wasted some time and a few miles riding back and forth through town looking for a restaurant which was open, but I had no luck, and had to rely on Circle K to provision me for the next hundred miles to Superior.   Check out part 2 of Aaron’s AZT adventure


  1. Pingback: Two years on the Arizona Trail : Part two - Bikepackers Magazine

  2. Pingback: Two years on the Arizona Trail : Part three - Bikepackers Magazine

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