B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
WHEN YOU COME to a place where the leaves don't change color until December, you know you've arrived at winter mountain-biking Mecca.
Remarkably mild temperatures greet us as we unload our mountain bikes near Greaterville on the eastern slope of the Santa Rita Mountains.
The solid bite of winter will chop down on this place before long. We can already feel a chill when the sun passes behind a rare cloud. But for now, we bask in paradise.
A few weeks ago we came to this location to ride our bikes south of Greaterville. A short morning ride evolved into epic torture as we pedaled into Gardner Canyon and points beyond. The search for a loop there became a 20-mile goose chase. But today, we come prepared.
Maps in hand, we strap on our gear and ride in a westerly direction onto Forest Service Road 162. Several cottonwoods stand like golden torches in the wash alongside the road. By the time all the leaves fall, it will be time for the spring buds to emerge. God, I love living near the 31st parallel.
After a half mile on this rough but passable road, we bear right onto Forest Service Road 165, taking us away from the Gardner Canyon blues.
Here the climbing comes in earnest. We pedal up 400 vertical feet in about a mile's distance. The angle of ascent is not so much that it forces us to stop, but we began giving the low gears a work-out.
The road here is passable to vehicles, and every once in a while a truck rumbles along. Because its technical demands are minimal, riders of different skill levels, but equal physical condition, can ride together. Of course, if you're like us, with riders at different skill levels, varying physical conditions and states of disrepair, and all enduring varying degrees of a hangover, then there's no hope of staying together.
As we climb through the oak and juniper forest to the top of the hill, the view that unfolds eases our joints. We gaze down into the forested slopes of Sawmill Canyon. In 1869 Sam Hughes and Henry Lazard constructed a sawmill here to produce lumber for Tucson. Today, the slopes seem to be recuperating. Beyond the canyon the green part of Green Valley comes into view, as yet untouched by the expansion of wrinkle city. Unlike the damage inflicted by Hughes' Sawmill, the steady destruction of the valley by home sites will be a long-term situation. But for now, however, the view is a captivating one.
Above all of this, towering Mount Wrightson looks down, its lofty peak soon to be covered in snow.
After enjoying the view, we shoot down into another small valley and then make a short climb to an unsightly area sporting radio towers and buildings. This collection of modern junk makes a handy landmark.
We know the turnoff to make our loop lies close to the radio towers, so it's time to consult the map, now that we have a definitive landmark.
Curses come in various sizes.
You have your full-blown death curse, like the one guarding King Tutankhamen's tomb that supposedly keeps bumping off guys in expedition hats. Then you have your whimsical curses, like, "Damn, another Mel Brooks movie."
The Out There Mountain Biking Team has fallen under a curse somewhere in between. We have a leave-the-map-behind curse.
No matter how hard we try, what care we take or how conscious of the curse we are, the map always seems to get left behind. Without a doubt, the map was in my hand when I went to grab my helmet out of the truck. Now, looking back, I can almost visualize myself setting the map on the seat as I fatefully reach for my helmet. I'm left with a clear vision of the Santa Rita Mountain Forest Service Map (complete with road numbers and other handy info) sitting on my truck seat, its knowledge a well-kept secret thanks to the unfortunate geographic separation.
After much consultation, climbing of trees and dances to the god of dead reckoning, we opt to head back the way we came. Fellow rider Chris Brooks points out that if you steadfastly look at only one side of the road on the way in, and the other side on the way out, you have yourself a loop ride--albeit a very tight loop.
A couple folks find no small consolation in being able to ride back down what we struggled to climb up. Nevertheless, I keep an eye out on the return hoping to spot the turn-off we missed. Sure enough, I do. Unfortunately, everyone is so excited at the opportunity to go fast downhill, they blow right past the turn and out of earshot.
Standing at the intersection, I gaze longingly at the little dirt road all beat up and begging to provide adventure and challenge. Enzenberg Canyon, The Mountain King Mine and who knows what all wait down that dark and shaded track. Surely here lies the road less traveled. A temptation to say "Screw 'em, I'm going this way," washes over me. But I know it will take me considerably longer to complete the loop than to simply retrace our steps. And to leave the rest of the group wondering what'd become of me would be irresponsible. I grudgingly get back on the bike to complete the seven-mile round-trip. Returning to the trucks, going downhill, takes all of 15 minutes.
Let me assure you, visions of syrup-coated waffles, biscuits and gravy and a giant glass of orange juice waiting at our usual post-ride hangout had absolutely no effect on the decision to take the quick way back.
GETTING THERETake Highway 83 south toward Sonoita. Turn right toward Madera Canyon on Greaterville Road. Keep an eye out for the Forest Service sign adjacent to a hill indicating the left turn to Melendrez Pass. Take a left and follow that road until you pass a ranch on your right and climb a hill with a great view. Park the vehicles here and begin your ride. Connecting Forest Service Road 165 with 40-40 probably makes a terrific loop--if you don't miss the turn.
MAPAGESanta Rita Mountain Forest Service Map and/or Helvetia 7 1/2 topographical map. Don't leave the car without 'em.
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