Sampling the AZBDR and The Art of Being in the Moment

You guys know me by now. I share most of my adventures with the public either here or via social media. I have made myself a deliberate advocate of traveling for travel’s sake and spending time outdoors to connect with nature. As with a lot of people these days I tend to get caught up in recording my excursions, sometimes to the detriment of the trip itself. I’ve found that often the act of stopping to take a quick snapshot to share on social media really disrupts the moment, it imposes on the natural flow of the experience, pulls you out of it and makes you a spectator instead of a participant. With my focus on photography I am especially guilty of this and some experiences are diminished because of it. There is something to be said for simply letting an experience happen, enjoy it, immerse yourself in it.

This would be the lost art of Being in the Moment. I recently took a day trip that was such a rich experience, for me, that I didn’t want to interrupt it. I only took three pictures in 6 hours of riding and they were all at natural stopping points, natural lulls in the experience where the action didn’t become an imposition. My mind and body were immersed in the experience and it was a wonderful feeling.

“If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

AZBDR – Just the Tip

Last weekend I had been planning on a multi-day trip but things didn’t come together and I settled for a Saturday morning ride to explore on the motorcycle. I woke up early before the valley started warming up with the morning sun, packed my camera equipment, loaded the bike and hit the road toward Payson and cooler temps. With a shiny new copy of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (AZBDR) map in hand I figured I’d first check out Fossil Springs Road outside Strawberry, then see if I could find myself on some section of the AZBDR to see what it was like. After finding Fossil Springs Road closed (apparently it’s been closed for a long time due to road conditions) I turned up 87 cruising past Clint’s Well and joined the AZBDR on FSR 95 near Blue Ridge Reservoir. But not before a little detour.

When I first moved to Arizona in the mid 90s I did a decent amount of hiking and solo camping in the high country. One of the first big hikes I did was an overnight backpacking trip above the Mogollon Rim in Coconino National Forest. I had decided I wanted to hike a couple of the drainages that led to a little blob on the map called Blue Ridge Reservoir. I made it to the reservoir at it’s most southern tip and I vividly remember the water was a bright, algae-thick green and the sheer canyon edges hemmed in the water so severely it looked as though you couldn’t climb out. I thought to myself some 20 years ago, “this would be a great place to bring an inflatable kayak and explore.”

That was my first, and last, glimpse of Blue Ridge Reservoir until last weekend.

AZBDR on KLR Blue Ridge Reservoir

I have been riding without the use of a GPS or my phone maps. It’s helps me to get better about remembering my routes and it’s also led to some cool accidental discoveries. I took the wrong road off of 87 looking for 95. I saw a sign that read “Blue Ridge Reservoir Access” and mistakenly took that for my turnoff. I kinda knew I had taken the wrong road. Even as I cruised along on the smooth, redish dirt road I knew it was wrong but went anyway just to see what I could see. The road I did turn on, FSR 751, turned out to be a very nice dirt access road to an unexpected boat ramp at the northern end of Blue Ridge Reservoir. I found myself stopped above a large parking lot busy with kayaks and canoes fanning out in all directions from the narrow boat ramp at the water’s edge. I continued past the ramp and through the parking lot to a continuation of the road on the other side. This section was now more technical single-lane width, rutted and rock strewn that hugged along the edge of the wooded cliffs plunging into the reservoir. The road leads to the dam, but is gated and closed to public access, so I went back the way I came having enjoyed the detour immensely. The reservoir looks very different now, from the north end, 20 years later.

Back on pavement and a short cruise further up 87 put me at the road I was looking for. After double checking the map to make sure I was on 95 I soon found myself kicking up dust and zooming along on the KLR through the forest completely alone.

I could feel the grin on my face getting wider with every turn in the road. The scenery is spectacular through this area, something that would normally have me stopping every few minutes to haul out the gear and grab some pictures. But I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to stop moving, to break from the road, it felt like I would be interrupting something important. There are a few quick views of Clear Creek as the road descends to the narrow bridge which crosses at the confluence of two deep canyons. I considered stopping at the creek, it is absolutely gorgeous at the bottom, but there were a few small groups of people fishing there and I chose to move on.

Climbing out of the canyon, 95 cuts deep into the forest and, again, my bike and I crunched over the loose gravel road taking opportunity to open up in the few straightaways. The forest closed in a little more along this section, the roads appeared more well traveled and it was here that I finally shared the road with someone, for a short time. I quickly out-paced the SUV on the tight corners and rutted out road. Those roads are perfect for a motorcycle like the KLR.

The AZBDR route continues from 95 east on Rim Road 300 to eventually catch up with HWY 260 that runs between Payson and Heber. 300 sees a lot more weekend traffic as the main access road for all camp and recreational sites above the rim, but it still isn’t a busy road and is dirt almost all the way back to 260. It’s called the “Rim Road” because it literally follows the edge of the Mogollon Rim offering spectacular views of it’s rugged cliffs and the verdant valley below.

I came around one corner on 300, well before really seeing any other vehicles, and spooked a small group of some of the biggest, healthiest Javalina I’ve ever seen in Arizona. I tapped at the brakes as they bounded out of the wash and across the road to disappear into the thick forest. Riding on the motorcycle certainly reduces the opportunities to sneak up on wildlife, so the javalina encounter was an unexpected treat.

The weather was coming in on me and I knew I had a race on my hands if I expected to make it home before a monsoon caught me on the road. I stopped at the visitors center where 300 meets 260 for a breather and to stretch my legs. I needed to clear the euphoric clouds from my head before getting into traffic. I had originally wanted to document my first foray into part of the AZBDR with some great photos to share the experience. But I realized that some experiences are better, richer, when they are savored and consumed selfishly, gluttonously alone. It might sound stupid to some, but this ride was mine and I feel good about allowing myself to be in the moment and enjoy it. For a few blurry, sun-soaked hours I was completely free.

If this was any indicator of what the rest of the AZBDR looks like, I’m in…hook, line and sinker. I’ll be back for sure. Next time maybe I’ll actually pull out the camera so you guys can see what it was like. Or, better yet, come with me and see for yourself!

Camp Creek Road: Solo Adventure on the KLR…

Plans change.

Uncertainty seems to be the only hard and fast rule of adventure. I had originally planned a short ride on the KLR for Saturday to find some dirt and break in the new tires. Sunday I would meet up with a buddy to do a little exploring and check out some rarely visited ruin sites north of Phoenix. All in all, a solid weekend of outdoor fun. Then the shop called and said I wouldn’t have my bike back before Saturday. Great, there goes my Saturday plans. Then I got a message that my buddy came down with some kind of flu and had to bail on our Sunday excursion. My weekend of adventure was falling flat.

I spent Saturday getting caught up on some things around the house, which was far more practical use of my time but had all the excitement of getting a box of no. 2 pencils for Christmas. By Saturday night I was still trying to decide if I would explore the ruin sites solo, or do something else and wait for my buddy to recover. He’s as much of a history nut as I am and we usually team up to hit new ruin sites, so I finally decided I would wait on those and, instead, head out on the KLR for a substantial ride. Well, substantial to a new rider like me at least.

Seven Springs to the Verde River: FR24 and FR269

If you take Cave Creek Road north out of town and drive until you run out of pavement, that’s Seven Springs Road and Forest Route 24 (also known as Camp Creek Road). The approach brings you up Cave Creek Road through some of the most prestigious luxury golf course communities in Scottsdale like Desert Mountain, Mirabel and Tonto Hills. Shortly after that you’ll reach the turn-off for Bartlett Lake and the Tonto National Forest Ranger Station. Just past the Bartlett turnoff any traffic drops off considerably and you’ll essentially have the road to yourself. At least I did on Sunday.

Riding Seven Springs Road to FR24

Last year I did a backpacking trip into Tonto National Forest toward Skunk Tank north of Cave Creek. We backpacked in from Seven Springs, spending a night in the desert along the creek and then packing out. That was the last, and only time I had driven up Seven Springs Road. There is a short unpaved portion of the road before reaching the trailhead, but I really hadn’t made it out to the true dirt roads of FR24. Other than a little map research and a vague general knowledge of the area, I had no idea what kind of conditions I would find or whether I would be able to handle them when I got there.

Being new to this bike, I don’t yet have a lot of confidence in my skills. As I mentioned in the last post, I hadn’t really been on a motorcycle for 6 or 7 years before buying the KLR and I never really drove much dirt. This whole Dual-Sport Adventure Motorcycle business is entirely a new thing to me. I headed out anyway, determined to gain some experience on dirt roads.

Sears-Kay Ruin

Just past the turn-off for Bartlett Lake is a small Hohokam village ruin site known as Sears-Kay. It is one of many sites dotted along the Verde River and it’s tributaries like a long chain linked by one of the only continuous water sources in the state. The sign on site says that Sears-Kay is nearly 1000 years old, but other sources argue it was first occupied as late as 1500 AD. The hilltop site was discovered in 1867 by soldiers from nearby Camp McDowell and later named after J.M. Sears who founded a ranch nearby in 1887 called Sears-Kay Ranch.

Sears-Kay Ruin

Early on this particular Sunday morning I pulled into the parking lot for Sears-Kay and found it completely empty. I parked near the trailhead and turned off the bike only to be engulfed in complete silence. After stashing my gear and grabbing my camera I casually headed up the trail enjoying the peace of a morning alone in the desert. I made short work of the easy 1 mile trail and took my time walking among the partially reconstructed dry-stack stone walls. Some recent summer storms had brought moisture to the desert and the site was ripe with smatterings of color from seasonal wildflowers.

Camp Creek Road (FR24)

I didn’t stay at Sears-Kay long. I was anxious to get into the backcountry and a little worried about letting it get too late, too hot and too crowded. I drove the rest of the way up Seven Springs Road switched between pavement and dirt as it twisted it’s way back into the canyons. Eventually the pavement, and the people, completely faded away and I had the desert to myself.

One of the things I’ve always loved about hiking in Arizona is getting back into the untouched desert environments. The KLR offers a similar experience but allows me to see much more of the desert in a shorter time and get much further back into remote areas I wouldn’t get to otherwise. Ultimately, I’ll start combining hiking trips with motorcycle trips for a deeper look at Arizona backcountry.

As I rode down FR24 I kept a pretty moderate pace, still a little tentative about riding on unstable surfaces, which allowed me too look around a bit and enjoy the scenery. I stopped often to take pictures, explore a little side trail, or just turn off the bike and enjoy the amazing views in silence.

KLR on FR24

FR24 is a pretty well maintained road and was perfect for feeling out the bike. The hardpacked dirt was decent and not overly rutted out from storms, no muddy pits, no loose sand. It was a fun, easy, twisty bit of fun that I was really starting to enjoy. I expected FR24 to be more active on a Sunday morning with other traffic but I did not see another vehicle the entire time I was on this road. The solitude was an unexpected bonus and, at the same time, a little spooky in case of something going wrong.

KLR on FR269 with saguaros

FR24 (Camp Creek Road) ends at a T junction with FR269 (Bloody Basin Road). At the wide intersection there is a sign post showing the mileage along Bloody Basin Road to I-17 going west and to the Verde River going east. There is also sign at this intersection that talks about the Great Western Trail, a 3000 mile backroad route from Mexico to Canada. Apparently, the Arizona section of this trail uses Camp Creek and Bloody Basin to work it’s way north. I had the choice here to turn back, but I was making a day of this and it was still early. Besides, I really wanted to get out to the Sheep Bridge and put my feet in the Verde River.

FR269 is a pretty nice road as well, until the first creek crossing. Tangle Creek is the first big creek crossing and the first place I saw other people all day. A guy in a big 4×4 bronco was stuck in the soft sand of the creek and an older gentleman in another truck was working to help him get free. They had most of the creek blocked but as I approached they waved me through and darted around them praying that I wouldn’t bite it on my first creek crossing…especially with an audience. Coming up on the wide creek I could see tons of loose sand, river rock and mud and I really didn’t know what the bike would do or how I would handle it. JUST DON”T FALL.

I gunned it through the creek, goosing the throttle a little so I could maintain some speed and the KLR cut a path through the sand and over the rock without a hitch. YES! After Tangle Creek the road progressively got worse. There were two or three other creek crossing with the same loose, wet sand and every time I crossed one the road on the other side deteriorated a little. I eventually got used it, even started to enjoy the feel of the bike hoping around and finding traction on the rocky surface. It felt good to dial in and get a real feel for how the bike handles on terrain.

View of the Sheep Bridge at the Verde River

Verde River Sheep Bridge

I finally rounded a corner and caught my first look at the Verde River and the Sheep Bridge in the valley below. The structure is pretty cool and as I approached I found it interesting how natural the setting felt. This man-made structure in the middle of the desert at the end of a long dirt road didn’t seem out of place at all, it made sense. As I cruised down the switchbacks toward the bridge I passed a small corral and the old concrete slabs of structures that once stood near the bridge. I rode up to the bridge itself, designed as a footbridge, and for a split second debated if the structure would really hold me and the bike. But there were tire tracks and the new bridge looked solid enough. The Sheep Bridge is a 476 foot suspension bridge originally built in 1943 then rebuilt in 1989. Remnants of the old bridge foundation are still there next to the new bridge.

On the KLR after crossing the Sheep Bridge

KLR at the Sheep Bridge

Our summer storms have been pretty active this year, making for some interesting developments in the creeks, washes and rivers around here and the Verde is no exception. It was obvious the water had come down after a recent swell had saturated the banks and flooded the riparian plants that line the river’s normal shoreline. The muddy brown water was flowing pretty good around the tight corner just upstream of the bridge, slowing where the river widened then picking up steam again as the river narrowed downstream. The Verde is normally a very pretty deep green but this turbulent muddy mess was a sign of recent weather upstream.

I hiked down the little rock trail from the bridge to the gravel bar along the river. There was no one else around and I had the place to myself, at least for a while. The shoreline was a muddy, sticky mess and it looked like a couple of people had attempted to trudge through it before me. I chose to hike a little further down stream for something a little more stable. I found a spot where I could approach the river without sinking to my calves in muddy clay and dipped my head in the water to cool off.

I sat listening to the river for a while. My time rafting in the Pacific Northwest has given me a keen appreciation of rivers and their unique character. I love the sound of moving water and find it to be the closest thing to meditation I have experienced. I eventually pulled myself away from the river, suddenly very aware of my water supply and the increasing heat.

I passed two trucks on their way to the river as I rode back. Having left when I did, I kept my experience at the river unspoiled and was thankful for the timing. I noticed much more confidence on my return, riding a little faster, taking corners just a little harder, worrying less as I approached the sandy washes. Once I hit the graded road on the other side of Tangle Creek I opened her up a little bit and cruised down the gravel road at a pretty good pace. Other than the two trucks near the river, I saw no one else on the road back. A few people had made it in and stopped at one of the many open camp sites along the road, but that still left me with the road to myself.

Riding KLR on FR24

What did I learn?

Getting back home I started going through the pictures from the ride. I really enjoyed my Sunday morning adventure on the KLR and I am anxious to get back out there. There are a few things I learned on this ride that will allow me to be better prepared next time I go out.

For one, I didn’t take nearly enough water. That’ll be remedied next time I head out. I had underestimated how long I would be out there, and I underestimated how dehydrated I would get sweating in my riding jacket and helmet. Dehydration could have been a big problem and I was feeling it’s effects as I wrapped up the ride. I had some emergency gear in case it became an issue but bringing more water is easy enough.

Second, I was very under-prepared for a problem. I guess I expected to see a lot more people on these backroads and figured extraction would be easy. I need to bring some basic gear that would make upwards of 72 hours of survival easier to manage. It will likely never be an issue, but it will give me peace of mind to be prepared.

Navigation was poor. Knowing the route I wanted to take, it wasn’t a big deal but when I get more confident on the bike I want to be able to explore more of the side roads, trails and washes. Better maps, GPS and a compass really should be part of my regular gear. Really, I need to treat these outings more like I would extended hiking trips and less like road trips.

Food! I foolishly headed out without breakfast and didn’t bring a damn thing to eat with me. That was downright stupid and won’t happen again.

Thoughts for the next adventure…

Studying the area a little more now that I’ve been out there, I want to explore some of the other roads. Mount Humbolt, Maggie May Trail, Table Mesa Trail, New River and Bloody Basin are all now on the list. I want to look further into the Great Western Trail and how far north that will allow me to ride. I also learned that there are natural hot springs at the Verde River near the Sheep Bridge…reason enough to go back in Winter and make camp. The other direction on Bloody Basin Road is the Agua Fria  National Monument, a 71,000 acres protected area created in 2000. There are supposed to be upwards of 400 archaeological sites within the Monument, some as much as 2,000 years old.

However, I think the next adventure will be in a different area. I have really been interested in exploring Castle Hot Springs Road near Lake Pleasant. Not a technical ride, but there are a lot of side trails and backroads of varying difficulty. I just may have to check it out.

Adventure Takes a New Direction…

Standing quietly under the broad, green canopy of a twisted old mesquite tree with my camera in my hands I watched a dozen wild horses graze quietly on tufts of green grass while the early morning light streamed through the dust stirred up around them. I thought to myself, “If only I had brought the gear to make coffee, this would be a perfect morning.”

Wild Horses at Butcher Jones Recreation AreaI recently made the decision to buy a motorcycle. The desire to ride has always kind of been there but I just didn’t have a direction. Several years ago when I started attending the Overland Expo in northern Arizona I was drawn to the “Adventure Motorcycles” and the awesome stories from riders who had seen a good portion of the world’s gritty underbelly from the seat of their trusty bikes. The little Film Festival at Overland Expo was full of presentations, documentaries and dreamy films of adventure on two wheels…

..and they were winning me over.

I think my buddy, J Brandon, could smell the desperation to ride on me (after multiple days of camping I’m sure that’s not all he could smell). The final straw for me was sitting in the Overland Expo theater watching a presentation by Phil Freeman of MotoQuest. He spent most of the presentation talking about opportunities to ride in Alaska and see some of the most amazing country North America has to offer. Then he started talking about some of the other places they ride like Mexico, Iceland, Tierra Del Fuego and India and that was it, I wanted to ride…I wanted to be able to do those trips.

At that time, J extended an open invitation to come ride with him in the Sierra foothills next time I was in the Reno/Tahoe area. So when my wife and I made plans to head up to Tahoe in July for her birthday I decided to take J up on his offer and get myself on a motorcycle for the first time in probably 6 or 7 years. That first ride took a little work to knock the rust off what meager riding skills I ever possessed, and a decent helping of patience from J. But once we got out on the road I started to feel more comfortable. I also started to feel a lot more desperate to have my own motorcycle.

Last Week I bought a bike. It took some searching and a fair amount of advice, pointers and general help from J to nail down what I was looking for and what would be an acceptable price. I eventually found a guy selling a really clean 2000 Kawasaki KLR650 and got him to settle on a price I was comfortable with. Now I am working to outfit the bike for adventure travel while I look for opportunities to ride locally without undue suffering in the heat.

Why I chose a KLR-

The Kawasaki KLR650 is often referred to as the “Jeep” of dual sport motorcycles. It’s damn near impossible to destroy, can go anywhere and is fairly inexpensive to buy, maintain and repair. Kawasaki didn’t change the bike for 30 years so the aftermarket parts and accessories are literally everywhere. It doesn’t do any one thing exceptionally well, but it does all things pretty well making it nearly the most versatile motorcycle available. Their attraction for adventure riders is the same attraction that 4×4 guys have with jeeps and gun owners have with AK-47s…they work, in a lot of adverse conditions, with little support and if they break it’s pretty easy to get them going again.

To me, it’s a good choice for a bike that needs to be able to go everywhere I want to go without too much fuss. And it will look bad ass bouncing down a dirt road with a couple of fat panniers, a duffel bag and a case of beer strapped to it while I chase down fish tacos in Baja.

Bush Highway on the KLR

I have been trying to get some bike time all week and put some miles on the bike to build my comfort level and feel out the new ride. Meetings had been getting in the way all week, but today I got up at sunrise and blocked out some time to hit the road while the temps were cool. When I set out this morning the sun was just cresting over Four Peaks to the east, shooting rays of orange light through the haze that was already forming over the dusty farm land on the reservation at the edge of town. I cruised through the farmland and headed out on the Beeline Highway.

While pouring over some maps, I had found a little road leading to a small recreation area on the north side of Saguaro Lake that I didn’t even know existed. I was curious to see what kind of lake access was back there and, even more, I wanted to scout a new hiking trail and possible dirt roads for the KLR. I turned off the Beeline at the Bush Highway and after a few miles took the turn onto Butcher Jones Drive. I could feel the air cooling as I descended into the canyon toward the lake and when I pulled up to the Butcher Jones Recreation site I was pretty impressed.

Riding the Bush Highway on the KLR

The beach wasn’t much to look at but the whole site looked pretty well cared for with clean bathroom, nice picnic tables and a really nice grassy area surrounded by old mesquites. It was still pretty early and there was only one other vehicle there belonging to a couple of older fishermen who had set up shop a little ways down the shore. I stripped off the riding jacket and helmet and walked around for a bit enjoying the rare coolness of the air, unheard of in August. With only a few boats out on the lake and the only other visitors a couple of quiet old gents, the lake lay still and glassy soaking up the early morning sun.

Jones Canyon Cliffs

Part of the reason I chose this route was to scout a new trail and see if it would be something I would want to explore when my niece and nephew get into town later this month. The Butcher Jones Trail is listed as an easy trail and only about 5 miles round trip, which is perfect for a couple of younger kids. I found the trailhead and started hiking to get some trail time in before the sun got too overbearing. The trail starts off paved, and follows a metal guardrail that curves along the lake shore for a while seemingly for fishing access. The trail is in shade throughout the morning thanks to the tree canopy overhead and the tall ridge it skirts.

Hiking trail at Butcher Jones area

Then you pass through a boundary into the wilderness and the trail becomes a proper trail. Still fairly easy though narrow and with some minor exposure. The trail doesn’t seem to be traveled much and is overgrown in many places with much of the trail winding through thick unmaintained mesquite groves. Much of the trail is rocky and the wildlife seems to be active. I didn’t see any snakes, though I was on the lookout and expected to. It looks like a pretty cool trail overall and I can’t wait to bring the kids out to explore the rest of it.

Boat anchored at Saguaro Lake

When I returned from my quick scouting expedition I was greeted by an amazing and fairly rare sight. From where I stood coming off the trail it almost appeared as though fog had settled into the grassy area under the mesquite grove and rays of light streaked through the canopy of the trees illuminating a dozen wild horses in ethereal light. I slowly moved in closer and watched as the group grazed lazily in the grass, played with each other and rolled blissfully in the dirt kicking up dust. This was about the time I lamented my lack of coffee and wished I could stay and watch the horses all morning. It was a perfect Arizona morning experience and I wanted to stretch it out as long as I could.

Wild Horses at Saguaro lake

A few more people arrived and as the “tourists” rolled in talking a little too loud, getting a little too close and gawking a little too much…they ruined the moment. I grabbed my gear and stowed my camera then hopped on the KLR and headed out, slowly and quietly as I could so as to not unnecessarily disturb the horses. A few looked up and watched as I rode by on my way out. I continued down the Bush Highway toward Mesa to complete the loop home. I stopped a couple more times to take a pictures and catch the last of the morning light.

KLR Saguaro LakeI think I will do this ride again. Maybe every week as I get used to the bike and continue to work on my riding skills. Maybe next time I’ll remember to bring some coffee.