Riding The High Desert

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and above it

Original Art by gigi

If you ever lived in the deep southwestern desert you already know the smell just before a rain, the sight of tarantulas on the roads during a rain, the sound of tumultuous waters rushing down dry washes after a rain.

I was very fortunate to live in the high deserts of southeast Arizona during the 1970s when there were few people and even fewer fences. All of southeast Arizona was open and accessible to people and machine, and being an avid dirt bike and dune buggy enthusiast, I took full advantage.

The high desert is more densely foliated and populated than the hotter deserts to the north and west. Rattle snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, horny toads, rabbits, fox, javelina, puma, ringtail, coatimundi, gila monster, roadrunner, coyote, and deer abound. Ocotillo, prickly pear, yucca and mesquite are plentiful and ev-er-y-thing leaves it’s mark on you. Regardless, it is the most beautiful and wondrous place I have ever been.

The high desert floor ranges between 4,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level and the surrounding mountains reach up nearly 10,000 feet and have their own unique vegetation. The two highest peaks of the Huachuca range are rimmed and joined by a trail that takes you through the most picturesque pine and hardwood forests imaginable. Small spring-fed streams run down from higher up and cross the trail. The high limbed pine tree spacing is generous, and lush green ground cover and wildflowers blanket the forest floor. Sun filters through the branches creating a shady and serene, almost surreal scene.

The other mountains in the Huachuca range were full of natural caves and old mines that all had to be explored. One coworker of mine in particular, I’ll call him Cecil, was drawn to this lunacy as much as I. Every Saturday we’d strap tools, spelunking gear, food and extra gas onto our unregistered dirt bikes and hit the trail. A new direction each weekend, destination unknown. We never traveled on the roads, but made our way across the open desert and over the mountains, sometimes on the narrowest of trails or just perceptions of trails, only stopping to explore the natural caves and abandoned mines along the way. Sometimes we’d sit atop a mountain, thousands of feet above the desert floor to rest our bones and have a snack. I’d appreciate that more now, 50 years older.

I had a Yamaha 360 enduro that I had modified with a 12 tooth front countershaft sprocket and a 60 tooth rear sprocket which might sound a little over the top. I couldn’t go over 40 mph, but I could go straight up any goat trail as slow as I wanted without having to shift gears. My wife and I did just that one day when we rode tandem to the top of the highest peak in the Huachuca range on a one lane hiking path. Cecil opted for a wide tired 2 wheel atv style bike with a low center of gravity and did very well on it. I remember several times having to tear down, clean, dry and rebuild my engine in varying degrees while in the bush. Especially after crossing or attempting to cross a river. I had a very small hole in the manifold that would suck water if I didn’t maintain constant throttle all the way across.

I remember another time when my wife and I and another couple, I’ll call them Bud and Lois, were joy riding on our bikes in the desert with the wives perched behind when we jumped a large jack rabbit. Bud started after it and I followed in hot pursuit. There were multiple jacks involved and the course covered several square miles with prickly pear cactus, ocotillo and mesquite everywhere. The lead and the jack changed many times and sometimes we pursued 2 jacks independently which got really hairy. We’d reach speeds of 30 to 40 mph in short spurts, turn on a dime and break out again to top speed as our quarry evaded us. It went on like that non-stop for an hour at least. I think back on it now and I’m amazed at how game and adept the girls were to stay with it as we continually and at breakneck speeds stopped, pitched sideways and accelerated round and round amongst the cactus and trees. PETA, No animals were harmed during the cerebral filming of this encounter.

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