Friday, April 20, 2012

Frogs Legs and Orange Peels in Unexplored Corners (Las Cienegas NCA/Empire Ranch)

I’ve been quite enjoying some unassuming little Yamaha jaunts to unexplored corners of oft traveled territories lately.    So often, I ride right on by those tantalizing brown signs that direct my attention to roads less traveled.  There is never enough time, and, frankly, I’ve not been equipped with the wheels or the inclination to travel off asphalt until recently.  So, while I’ve ridden around and about Sonoita, AZ countless times, today was my first foray into Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and Empire Ranch.

Wrap some high desert grasslands over rolling hills and you have my favorite landscape ever. It reminds me of the Tuscan countryside, and while it may not be Chianti, there's wine growing in them there hills. Surely with some judicious spitting it could (and should!) be safely explored in depth via motorbike.  I'm adding "tastevin" to my list of essential tank bag items.
 Yamaha XT 225 in Las Cienegas NCA

Thoughts of wine aside, where there’s water, there’s a “cottonwood gallery”…
 Las Cienegas NCA Empire Gulch Cottonwood Gallery

… and -kerplunk! – a flash of outstretched gangly legs in mid-flight confirmed it – frogs.  And turtles.  “Las Cienegas” means "marshland” and this spot fits the bill.  Frogs and turtles are always a delight, but the experience in a desert setting is elevated to miraculous.  And bizarre.    The Frog Conservation Project appears to be taking advantage of the habitat by raising a breeding population of the native Chiricahua Leopard Frog in special enclosures seen along the Heritage Trail.  I’m not sure if the free-ranging frogs I saw were Leopard Frogs, but knowing they might be, and that they’re a designated threatened species, I felt just a teeny bit guilty when my mind turned to childhood meals of cuisse de grenouilles meuniere* enjoyed long ago in rural France.

“Empire Gulch” also sports greens so tender and delicate, they rival those of my CSA farm share. So many temptations in this little spot!

Las Cienegas NCA - Empire Gulch

The Empire Ranch House (under restoration) was cool and comfortable despite outdoor temps in the 90’s.  It has been a working ranch (over one million acres!) since the 1860’s.  A tense moment with cows on the road proved the point that the ranch is still very much in operation.

Empire Ranch Window View

And in a culinary version of “how fast can I go before I crash?”, last night I learned just how far can I take candied orange peels before they solidify into one single orange misshapen sugar cube.  My original intent was to cover them in bittersweet chocolate, but unadorned, they are rugged enough to withstand the rigors of motorcycle travel.  Zingy-sweet in the mouth!

Las Cienegas NCA - Candied Orange Peels

* Yes. Frogs legs.  Dusted in flour and fried up.  I loved them as a kid, and I bet I’d love them now.  I admit, I’m smacking my lips at the thought of it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ragged Top Mountain Easter Sunday 2012

After spending a weekend on the high performance speedy cornering machine that is the Ducati, taking the Yamaha out on the asphalt  is downright alarming.  With its hand levers at impossible angles (but perfect when you’re up on the pegs), neither the brakes nor acceleration to get you out of trouble, and the wibbly-wobbly feeling of knobby tires on pavement, I get the sense I’m skittering across an ice rink with no way to stop or turn.  Of course, the very features that are detrimental on asphalt make the Li’l Burro right at home in places the Ducati has no business visiting.  Who knew I’d ever have a moment when I was more comfortable off road than on? (There’s an Easter Sunday analogy in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.)

I took a little Sunday drive, er, ride, through Ironwood Forest National Monument today, to see if its namesake trees were blooming yet (they weren’t), but this time I eschewed the river crossing for a bit of sand instead, and took a few photos of Ragged Top Mountain along the way.

Ironwood Forest NM Ragged Top Mountain (1)
A fine view of Ragged Top Mountain, conveniently located after all the busy work of steep dips and rough terrain is safely behind me.  Funny, I just noticed there aren't any Ironwood Trees in the photo.  Guess there's another trip in my future.

And now, in another unusual turn of events, I have been invited to an actual restaurant for a later-than-usual Easter dinner.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

NM Reprise (Ode to AZ 78 a.k.a. the Curley Traynor Memorial Highway)

Small state parks aren’t necessarily my favorite places, with their trash cans, eau-dor de toilettes, and premium camping fees, but, as you saw in my last post, I find myself plunking down my tent at these very sites with some regularity.  Having to make a point to dismount well before sunset, I do enjoy the little amusements they offer within walking distance of my home-away-from-home.  A short hike, wildlife viewing, a swim, or soak in a natural hot spring is a fine way to stretch out and pass the time between my safely-before-sundown-arrival and the point at which I relinquish and burrow into my enormous down sleeping bag.  So, for my first “weekend” (actual day of week not withstanding) since early January, I found myself at Roper Lake State Park yet again.  Its location near so many wonderful roads makes it an obvious choice*, and what’s not to like about riding your Ducati by day, and testing out your new Ducati bikini (thanks, Santa!) in the hot springs by night?

I was feeling rather lazy, by camping standards, so instead of moving on to a new site each night as I usually do, I pitched my tent only once, and returned to the same location each evening.  Oh, languid luxury!  Since I absolutely, positively needed a repeat of NM 152 (last seen on my foliage ride in October 2011), this arrangement meant I needed to go to Hillsboro and back in one day.  You might remember that last time the ride there** took me seven or eight hours, so I pared it down to the essentials.  AZ 191, AZ 78, NM 180, NM 152, Hillsboro for lunch, then straight back the way I came.  Even so, I had 350 miles to cover, much of it sporty and twisty.  So much for languid luxury, but I wasn’t complaining.  Bring it!

I opened the door to the Hillsboro General Store & Country Cafe with its customary jangle, and there he was!  Embree!  I’m not sure whose eyes lit up quicker, but we recognized each other on the spot.  After a bear hung greeting, I enjoyed my repast (this time a cheeseburger and fries – an inalienable right when motorcycle touring) with non other then Embree Hale, Petroglyph Hunter extraordinaire, who I met in this very cafe last October.

Embree Hale, Petroglyph Hunter
For someone who is full of smiles and laughter, he sure takes a serious portrait.

We discussed the finer points of various wild west lost treasure stories, the location of a few of the thousands of petroglyphs he’s photographed to date, and marveled at our good fortune, having met again by pure coincidence.

Embree Hale Turquoise and Silver Watch
A beautifully ornate turquoise and silver watch.  I can’t think of a better place for it than Embree’s wrist.

I was sure I would repeat the “up and back” method the next day on AZ 191, or perhaps a loop going up 191 and back down a more northerly portion of NM 180.  So I was surprised to wake up and find my bike pointed in a different direction.  What, no moto-bliss of AZ 191?  Headed west, instead, out into the straight away nothingness that is AZ 70?  Motorcycle camping demands a spirit of exploration, and I knew the Coronado Scenic Byway (now AZ 191 but once known as Rte 666 “The Devil’s Trail,” perhaps for good reason) to be a gravel fest this time of year, so I decided to investigate the tiny strip of gray around San Carlos Lake, Indian Route 3, that morning, and then see what the afternoon would bring.  Well, I’m here to tell you that just because the map legend informs you that a thin gray line is indeed a paved road, it does not mean it’s an appropriate place for your racing rims and sport suspension.  Ouch.  Lovely scenery, but the bumpity bump bump for 40 long miles brought to mind the stern admonishments of the Ducati dealer advising me to treat my Marchesini rims with love and tenderness, and the guilt I bear from trashing both my bicycle rims commuting on the city streets of Tucson.  Evidently, “paved” is open to interpretation and can also mean dirt, sand, gravel, and (mostly) vast stretches of pot holes lacking any safe zones of asphalt whatsoever to balance upon to circumvent said potholes.  I’ll say it again.  Ouch.  (See Update Footnote!)

Coolidge Dam
San Carlos Lake is formed by the Coolidge Dam.  It was completed in 1930, an age when, it seems, beautiful architectural details were still the norm.

Gila River from Coolidge Dam
The Gila river as it leaves Coolidge Dam

Coolidge Dam (1)
More architectural whimsy

Coolidge Dam Lamp
Pairs of lamps grace each entrance as IR 3 passes over the dam.  The place was utterly deserted.  How many people actually see these lovely details?

San Carlos Lake, as seen from the faraway and desolate land of unending jarring potholes known as IR-3.

As a reward for a job well done despite the circumstances, the Ducati got a long drink of premium unleaded and I enjoyed an ice cream sandwich. (Like bacon cheeseburgers, ice cream sandwiches are also a moto-touring inalienable right.)  Thinking we needed a breath of, well, smooth asphalt, the afternoon called for a repeat of AZ 78.  I haven’t told you about AZ 78, have I?  I can’t imagine why.  On the map, it appears so very plain and homely.  Don’t be fooled, it’s a gem that has it all – from tricky, dippily, sneakily, blind, narrow, switchbacky sections to cliffhanging sweepers that go on so long they’re positively dizzying, with everything in between – and, (get this), all of it is on pavement worthy of a racetrack.  No gravel, no cars, no tar snakes, no pot holes, no suspiciously loose looking chip and seal, absolutely nothing to impede your death defying journey into New Mexico.  The first time I rode it, I found myself thinking I could happily spend an entire weekend camped out in Safford, AZ riding this 30 mile stretch to Mule Creek, NM over and over and over.  Turns out this was my weekend to fully consummate my love affair with the “A.M. Curley Traynor Memorial Highway***.”  Oh yes, and it was good.  In fact, (Ah, fickle love of woman!) the next morning I forsook Mount Graham completely (plenty of snow up there still, and conflicting reports regarding access to and condition of the road) for more of the same.

AZ 78 Curley Traynor Memorial Highway
The view from the never ending time and space continuum warping sweepers dare you to take your eyes of the road.   Best to wait until the ride comes to a complete stop.

Ducati and Cottonwood Tree
The Ducati and I catch our breath outside the Mule Creek, NM Post Office.

Mule Creek, NM
Mule Creek, NM.  I never tire of these lonely grassy landscapes.  So different than the AZ side of the state line.

It was hard to tear myself away, but all good things must come to an at least temporary end.  Not able to bear the thought of 100 miles of mind numbing freeway, I headed home past San Carlos Lake (Skipping IR-3, thank you very much), to Globe, AZ, west on scenic US 60 to Superior (this stretch being one of the first I saw on a youtube video featuring a posse of squidly**** motorcycle riders),  and down the dramatic 10% grade of AZ 177 (as steep as I remembered from the first time I rode it, back in my pre-blog days, stuck behind a slow moving truck, and concerned I would start rolling backwards if I went any slower).  Oh, the last fuel fill up before home is a sad one!

*Not to be stuck in a rut, I have a new plan for later this month. Same area, different campsite, different roads, different motorcycle!
** Last time I went a bit further, to Elephant Butte State Park, but riding to  Hillsboro gets the job done as far as covering the sporty fun part goes.
*** So named in 1974 for the area rancher who was instrumental in having a paved road between the two states.  The few remaining gravel portions were finally paved in the mid 1970’s!
**** “Stupidly QUick and Imminently Dead,” or something like that. You know, those safety gear-less riders, screaming about on their ratty Suzuki Gxsrs, who are unable to keep both wheels on the ground on public roads.  They give us all a bad name.
UPDATE - Next ride out, and guess who has a leaking fork seal?   (Kicks self.)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Fall Foliage Ride – New Mexico 2011

Lest you’ve been duped into thinking that I’ve been keeping current on my posts this year, here’s one that’s nearly six months behind. Wouldn’t it be nice to be equipped with a fancy netbook for my upcoming big trip?  In any case, I had a few days at my disposal late last October, and decided a foliage viewing ride was in order.  That’s as good of an excuse as any, right?   Northern AZ perhaps?  With low temps predicted to be in the teens?  Try again.  Why not revisit some roads in New Mexico, but this time without the rain?

Not about to mess with perfection, I started the trip the very same way, pointing my two wheels directly at Mount Graham, with its formidable Swift Trail Parkway that rises, via a delightful concentration of steep hairpin turns, from 3,000 feet to over 10,000 in 33 miles.  I can’t think of a better way to warm up the tires.  Except by the time I got there, it was too late in the day to do anything other than settle into camp at Roper Lake State Park.  It’s a tricky transition, that first night out.  Still shaking off the frustrations of the work day and the inevitable packing hang ups, I wasn’t happy to find hoses reminiscent of porcupine quills sticking out of my bike when I dismounted that evening.  My set-up-camp routine was rusty, too, but all those gremlins, along with my disappointment in not having had time to enjoy Mount Graham were soothed by the natural hot springs I knew, from this trip, to be waiting for me.

Sprung Evap Canister Hose
This hose sprang from the emissions canister, another from the top of the vertical cylinder. I shrugged, put them back, and that was the end of that.  Gratitude for small (big?) favors.

Good morning!  It was quite a lively night, between the growling animal just outside my tent that thankfully ambled off in response to a stern “Go Away!,” and the truly unearthly sound of coyotes yipping and singing like far-gone lunatic dogs touched by the moon.  Next stop:  Elephant Butte Lake State Park, carefully selected for its location on the far side of NM 152, and the fact that it and the site I was leaving were the only two spots anywhere within reach not forecast to drop below freezing.  The roads between the two sites?  Without question, the stuff of sport touring motorcycle advertisements.  250 miles, a dizzying percentage of which are twisty enough to be first and second gear material. Signs warning that it will take at least two hours to cover the 45 miles of narrow and windy NM 15 between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings can only mean one thing:  Good times ahead!

All told, the day’s journey took me seven or eight hours.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I hadn’t had such a satisfying stretch of technical riding (sans traffic and road hazards, to boot!) in, well, maybe ever.  Sweet Ducati, with its sprung hoses of yesterday, all is forgiven! 

Elephant Butte Lake State Park Evening
Elephant Butte Lake State Park was my first real peek at the American Southwest many years ago.  It knocked me flat then (in spite of the centipede I pulled out of my sleeping bag), having never seen anything like it,  and it was amusing to see it again, with eyes that have seen so much of the wondrous west since then.

I knew the ride east would be a long (and glorious) day, which meant the camera stayed in its case, and lunch was a sandwich while re-fueling.  On my return, I decided to skip NM 35 and 15 (“Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway” – such romantic scenic byway names!) in favor of breakfast in Hillsboro, NM and a few photo stops.

Hillsboro, once home to a Labor Day Apple Festival (sadly ended in 2007), is a cute little town on the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway (NM 152), and was just the right place on the map to stop for the first real meal I’d had since I left Tucson.   The hash browns and toast  at the Hillsboro General Store & Country Cafe were serviceable, if not notable, but the “Picante” spicy sausage omelet was a hit, as were the endless antique odds and ends displayed throughout the shop.  In an unusual variation of my solo dining theme, I had the pleasure of a fascinating dining partner, curious miner/cowboy turned photographer, Embree “Sonny” Hale, who, after finding his favorite one stolen, has made it his goal to photograph every petroglyph in New Mexico.  He showed me his nearby studio, and he saw me off as I launched.   Funny how we peered at each other, equally fascinated, as if through a telescope of space and time, me on my red spaceship buzzing with myriad electronic gizmos, he, in his dusty boots and neckerchief, a for-real man of the genuine old west.  I didn’t know it then, but our paths would cross again one day.

Petroglyph Hunter Embree Hale
Embree “Sonny” Hale, Petroglyph Hunter

A little detour onto NM 211 afforded a pretty vignette of the Gila River.  Not quite the fall colors of New England, but since out here any tree at all is cause for celebration as a source of shade and harbinger of precious water, a view like this is every bit as breath taking, and perhaps more meaningful.

 Gila River, Gila, NM

Cotton Fields Solomon AZ
Ducati, Picturesque (in my opinion) Dead Tree,  and Cotton Field, near Solomon, AZ.

The next morning it was time to take care of some unfinished business.  Mount Graham, king of the PinaleƱo Mountains, awaits!  Up, down, up, down, up down!  Left, right, left, right, left right!  Until the gas tank was as close to dry as I dared.

Mount Graham Aspens and Ducati
Fall Colors atop Mount Graham: Yellow Aspens with Red Ducati

I had a final stop in mind before heading home, but which would win out?  My phobia of riding the “long dirt road” to get there, or my desire for a slice of pie at Apple Annie’s orchard?

Despite the dramatic internal conflict, I obeyed my sweet tooth.

Apple Annie's Apple Tasting
A crisp cool apple was just the thing after living a few days on camp food.  Check out the road behind me.  I guess “long and dirt” sometimes means “short and paved.”  Unfortunately the reverse can be true as well.  I recently learned that a map indication of “paved” can be open to interpretation.  More on that next post.

Three stars for this trip.  It was so good that I rode much of it again, along with a few new roads, last weekend.  And I won’t take six months to show you the photos.

Recipe:  Put three green tomatoes on the windowsill. Go motorcycle camping. Come home and make up for lost vegetable eating time by devouring an enormous tomato salad.