The End of the World is Currently Under Construction
Detour includes more construction
There are a couple people I share overlapping fine tastes with. I’ve got my bike friends, I’ve got my politics friends, I’ve got my music friends. Alex Steadman happens to share a love for bikes and for great music, especially the legendary artist known as Andrew Bird. When the Birdman announced his new tour going through Flagstaff, a plan started unfolding. We both bought tickets for the show up there, and planned to roll in some camping and bike riding while we were at it. It turns out the show was at Pepsi Amphitheatre at the Fort Tuthill County Park. We booked a campsite at Fort Tuthill campground just next door, with the idea that we would follow up a night of music and camping with a good romp through the forest roads that criss-cross the same area.
I’ve wanted to ride my Salsa Vaya to a site named aptly The End of the World since the first time I made my trip out there in my car last year, so I suggested we take this opportunity to do so. Alex is no stranger to rutted AZ dirt roads and his Soma Wolverine is a capable machine, so he was up for it. He proposed amending the route with some wooded singletrack (including one brand new trail) starting right out of our campsite. I might have objected out of my own rustiness on the trail, except many of Flagstaff’s trails are pretty mellow, so I knew it would be fine.
Leaving after work, I picked Alex up and we headed up the mountain. We made it to our campsite a tad after the opener Margaret Glaspy started playing, but neither of us was overly invested in her show, so we took the time to set up camp, drink a beer and eat a snack. The former task was pretty straightforward: my bed was an up-in-minutes hammock and his was a Z-rest accordion mattress on a groundcloth.
Turns out the venue’s entrance was exactly one can of beer away from our campsite via walking. Predictably, Andrew Bird’s performance was top notch. The setlist included a nice mix of old favorites, recent favorites and stuff off his latest album, in addition to a couple of covers done in his great Americana style. He brought up Margaret Glaspy to fill in for Fiona Apple in Left-Handed Kisses, and aside from a few forgotten lines (Andrew Bird fans are very forgiving) she did marvelously.
The next morning we woke up with the sun (okay maybe I hit the snooze button once or twice). After some oatmeal and bagels, we packed up our minimal campsite and relocated the car to a larger parking lot in the county park. We strapped together our all-day bike bags and changed into bibs in the presence of a single crazy van guy pacing back and forth in the parking lot.
We hit the dusty trails and soon my lungs and legs started to remember what I was doing. Soldier’s trail was all-in-all very rideable on a cross bike, though it had been months since I touched any real dirt (aside from riding my road bike down doubletrack at Papago), so it took me a few minutes to get back in the game.
I don’t remember the name of the next trail we rode, a new bit of singletrack that meanders around the start of Woody Mountain road. In general, it has potential to be a fantastic bit of groomed mellow singletrack through the woods, but being so fresh, the dirt itself was very bumpy. Not like washboard, but rather undulatory. Even with a minimal amount of suspension or bigger tires, it would be far more enjoyable to ride, but as it was, we were ready to get off the singletrack and onto the main forest road to start our ride proper.
The initial portion of Woody Mountain road is a straight shot along the edge of a forest and beside Rogers Lake (more of a meadow really). The dirt starts out as a reddish color, and is pretty well graded for the most part. Eventually it turns to a gray hue and the texture is a bit rougher and more prone to washboarding. Soon after this change, we came upon a sign indicating a road closure 4 miles ahead. What could it be, construction or fire-related issues? We’d come too far to turn around, and we had a hunch it was nothing we couldn’t sneak around on the bikes. We noted a turn off to the left that would take us to AZ89 if we wanted to change up the route back.
Shortly after this sign, we encountered the first serious slope change of the day. The road tilted downward, and the speed picked up. Fortunately the dirt here, though a tad washboard, wasn’t in too bad of shape, so we could really get cruising. The side of the road begins to drop off, and the road takes the form of a ribbon cutting into the side of a steep hill, curling around in the forest. After a good few minutes of descending, the road turned briefly upwards for a little while, and then downwards again, where we saw on the right of the road, a sign indicating the road closure was just up ahead, and also a sign for a one-lane bridge. I started to piece the picture together.
The bridge indeed was not there, and in its place a large pile of dirt. Luckily, there was a rough alternate path carved to the left of the bridge that went down into the gully the bridge is intended to cover. Another narrow path was used to navigate beside the large pile of dirt beyond the bridge. Well, it seemed we had traversed the main cause for the road closure, and otherwise our worries were over. After the crossing, we were faced with a sizable climb, the largest we’d encountered so far. With low gearing, high spirits and shady cover, this climb was no serious difficulty.
However, the several miles after this climb seemed to drag on forever. The treeline appeared to lower and rise, every time it lowered my mind was tricked into thinking the ridge would be just ahead. But this pattern continued for what felt like hours. Eventually we came upon a fork, and Alex, professing a strong desire to get away from this tormenting road, decided to peel off to the right. I was skeptical, I only knew of the one way to reach the ridge. But what’s an adventure if you don’t take the road less traveled?
The trail became more of a sandy rutted double track that careened downward for about half a mile and eventually emptied into a clearing, the ridge visible just beyond. Sure enough, I thought I had recognized the variety of soft fine sand from when I had hiked around the last time.
We cracked open the beers we had brought along for this very purpose and consumed snacks to fuel the following hours of riding while gazing upon the beauty that is Arizona from above.
And then we began the long long ride home. Just 20 miles I thought, it can’t be that bad. In due time, we reached the absent bridge and started the 2 mile climb back out. By now it had gotten pretty hot. Yes, it even gets hot in Flagstaff, and the sun was fierce, to the point that we were careening all over the road, both avoiding washboard and seeking tree shade.
We came to the turn-off to get to AZ-89, and took a short break in the shade of a large tree. Surely the ride was not too far from over. Just a short ride on this connecting trail to the highway, and the paved portion would be much less hard on the body.
Except actually, this little connecter was actually 10 full miles of dirt, albeit well graded and pleasant. Alex chased some cows and then we came upon the squiggly portion we knew would either be a steep climb or steep descent (to be honest I’m not sure which I prefer on a fire road). Indeed it was very steep downward and full of nasty washboard, and rattled me to the cleats (if I had any). The steep descent dumped us straight into a construction zone formerly known as AZ-89. The highway was reduced to one lane of crushed gravel, controlled for traffic one direction at a time. It was hot, and full of nauseating fumes, but at least we were off the forest road, right?
The crushed gravel was actually in very good shape for travelling, and with one longer delay than usual, we made it to the actual highway, which was mostly downhill. Since we were both out of water and with mouths parched full of construction dirt, we took the first exit off the highway into what happened to be a realty office. We trudged our dirty shoes into their lovely building and filled up our water bladders from the tap, and stole off with a couple fun-sized snickers before saying thank you and embarking on the remaining 2 miles to Fort Tuthill. And to my relief the last two miles were much better once I filled my emptied core radiation system with cold water and a sampling of cheap carbs.
After such a long day in the saddle (about 8 hours all told), there was nothing to do but go get some pizza and beer from my favorite south-side spot, NiMarcos. It was even happy hour, which meant buy one slice get one half off, combined with some reheated slices made for a super cheap meal. After lunch, we grabbed some ‘spro from Macy’s across the street and headed back down the hill into the heat.