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This Lonesome Road

#IWD2021 • Words/images: Heidi Swift

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I ride out into the desert alone. It is very windy. The wind is at my back. I turn right and the pavement becomes grated gravel. A tall yellow sign reads, “PRIMITIVE ROAD – Caution. Use at your own risk. This surface is not regularly maintained.” I take a photo because it feels like I should.

It’s warm but not too hot. The wind picks up the dust from the road and moves it in sheets or sometimes swirls. When a truck rumbles by, I grab my neck gaiter, put it over my mouth and squint my eyes until the air clears a little. I am wearing $30 fashion sunglasses because I managed to forget my Oakleys at home. They provide little protection but I try not to let my eyes complain too much. Run what ya brung, son.

There’s a mountain in front of me rising out of the desert. This is not a mirage: I am staring at Mt. Lemmon. Normal people ride up the front of this bump: a 27-ish-mile climb on a flawless road with an average grade of 5% and a generous shoulder. I’ve done that ride at least eight times. It never disappoints. Now I’m standing at the north side of the mountain’s base staring up a dirt road marked by a sign that says “FS 38.”

I’ve been told it’s possible to ride a road bike up this road. I’ve been told it’s not. I’m just here to find out who is right. Some call it Old Mt. Lemmon Road or Mt. Lemmon Control Road. It was the first established route up the mountain. It winds up the northeastern shoulder growing rougher and more treacherous as it climbs. Cell access is extremely limited.

As is often the case, I have no idea what I’m getting into. This is the best kind of day. I have five hours of daylight left and the maps tell me that the summit is somewhere between 24 and 30 miles away, depending on what information I’ve collected is correct. How hard can this be?

Best Laid Plans
Two days earlier I was in the middle of the Sonoran Desert laying in a backpacking tent listening to someone take a piss very nearby. I was trying to catch a few hours of sleep before I had to kit up and roll out for a 2 a.m. night lap: part of my contribution to a five-man relay team at the 24 Hours in Old Pueblo mountain bike race. I didn’t get much sleep that night. Or the night after. By the time I dragged my expedition duffel bag back into town, everything was covered with a thin layer of dust, including my lungs. I was a little sunburned, a lot tired and high off the remaining fumes of adrenaline that lingered.

I’d hoped to have a few days of rest and easy riding before I went out to unravel the Myth of Lemmon’s back road, but then an urgent severe weather alert popped up on my phone. It urged me to prepare. It urged me to stay home. It predicted high winds with snow falling as low as 3,000 feet and 1-2 feet of snowfall expected above 6,000 feet. The summit of Lemmon is a little over 8,000. This could be a problem, I thought.

It was Monday. The storm was supposed to hit on Wednesday. I was flying out on Friday. The way I saw it, the only acceptable course of action was to harden up and head out first thing Tuesday. I looked at the whisper-light BH Cristal road bike that I was test riding while in Tucson. It looked like a bike that would go uphill in a hurry. I wagered it would also be a bike that loved a little off-road action, once I showed it how. I spent the night planning and then re-planning, poring over maps and downloading GPS files and sending messages to people who knew the road. I sort of knew where I was headed. That seemed like enough. I felt prepared.

Perhaps in future there will be a moment when riding unfamiliar equipment on an unknown route up an unknown dirt road into an incoming blizzard will not seem like a good idea. Then again, I’m a very slow learner.

Three Signs
The grated gravel road narrows. The rumbling trucks become fewer and fewer. I’m overcome by the familiar feeling of relief that comes with shedding the distraction of people in numbers. I’m suddenly very alone and the world is suddenly very still. The road winds away from me, dips into a little valley and then starts back up the side of the hill. I stop to eat.

Having broken a cardinal vanity rule of road cycling, I am carrying a hydration pack. It has enough water to last all day. Other inventory includes three pieces of chocolate cake, two peanut-butter sandwiches, two Kashi bars, one albuterol inhaler, three spare tubes, three C02 cartridges, one C02 head, one small hand pump, one monster multi-tool, two master links, a point-and-shoot camera, a mini tripod, a Sharpie, a small supply of duct tape, three Tylenol, my iPhone and a small sandwich bag that contains identification, wadded up cash, my emergency medical evacuation insurance card, and a slip of paper with instructions to return me to a house in the Catalina Foothills of Tucson, should the need arise.

The bag is heavy.

I eat a piece of chocolate cake and take a photo. The wind picks up: it’s bucking a little now as the day grows older. Better get going.

“This wind isn’t so bad,” I tell myself, “I’ve ridden in worse.” I remind myself that I’m lucky enough to be riding my bike on a mythical road in the weekday sunshine. What’s a little wind?

For some reason, I expected the road to climb steadily, the way the southern ascent on Catalina Highway does. Instead, Forest Service 38 is undulating and rolling with more descending than I’d counted on. Terrain shifts from gravel to hard-packed, almost clay-like dirt, which is interrupted on a consistent basis by large rocks. Going downhill is an exercise in picking lines to protect the tires while enjoying the occasional drift of the rear wheel. The road goes on like this—up and down, up and down—for around 9 miles.

At Peppersauce Campground I’m met with three signs:

“Narrow Mountain Rd – Limited Maintenance Next 3 Miles”

“Not Maintained for Passenger Car Travel – 4×4 Recommended”

“Seasonal Road Closure Gate Locked Dec 15 – Mar 1. Foot Travel Welcome”

It’s February 19th. Closed gates never stopped any determined cyclist, but with the winter storm warning and the increasingly ripping wind, I’m not feeling great about going around gates that are probably closed for a very good reason. Worst case I ride 16 miles and have to turn around. Best case I ride 16 miles and the gate is open.

I keep riding. But now in the back of my head I have begun to calculate how long it will take me to ride back, should I decide to turn around and frankly it’s getting a little tight. If I can just make it to the summit at Summerhaven, I won’t have to worry about it. I can bomb down into Tucson in a hot minute or even call my friend for a pick-up. All I have to do is find my way to the other side of the mountain. How hard can this be?

Harder than before. The signs at Peppersauce were right: the terrain gets rockier and bumpier. The noise from the wind is so loud I can hardly think. The mountain starts to truly rise underneath and around me. Here and there a little bit of snow on the ground. Manzanita. Oaks. I disrupt a family of white-tail deer and they scatter over the edges of the roadway into cover. On any other day, this would be the most amazing ride of my life. Right now, with the wind raging, it’s like watching a ballet with a vacuum cleaner next to my head.

Riding straight into it is like a slow, grinding death. There are merciful short moments when the gale is at my back. Then it hits me from the side hard enough to make me put my foot down to catch myself from falling.

I’m battered. I’m getting weary. Going is slow.

I get blown off the bike again. I hear a truck roar behind me and swerve to make room. When I look back I find it isn’t a truck at all, just another gust roaring through. I haven’t seen another human being in more than three hours. I pull off into a sheltering enclave and reach into my bag, but I’m beginning to realize that even chocolate cake can’t save me now.

The Oracle
It takes me ten minutes to decide to turn around and it’s not an easy decision. Not because I’m almost there. Not because I care about making the summit, but because it’s a hell of a long way to backtrack. With side winds gusting at 50 to 55 mph, picking my way down the rocky terrain becomes tedious and stressful. After 6 miles, I find a pocket of cell reception and tell my local friend that I am OK, but that I am going to need a pick-up in Oracle. He leaves Tucson and I keep pedaling.

Thirty minutes later I realize that I’m never going to make it in time. The long undulating road I came in on goes on forever and ever. I’m pedaling squares. Where did all these hills come from?

Then I hear it. A real truck. A pick-up truck. A pick-up truck with room for a bike in the back. I lean into the passenger window and, before I know it, I have a ride back to Oracle.

“I’m sorry this truck is such a mess,” Jeff apologizes.

“This is my favorite truck in the whole entire world, Jeff.”

It doesn’t feel like hitchhiking, it feels like a rescue. And it connects me to another rescue: a friend waiting at the Circle K. A friend who’d been watching a blizzard roll in all day and wondering why I hadn’t called in so many hours. I jump into the passenger seat and we watch the sun go down as we head back into town.

“Mt. Lemmon Back Road: 1, Swift: 0,” I say blankly into the air of the cab.

“You did the right thing,” Jim reassures me.

I know he’s right. But I also now know that the road is passable in good conditions. Which can only mean one thing: I’ll be back.

From issue 20. SOLD OUT!