Off the Beaten Bath

Take a hike or ride a bike.  Discovering the depths of our desert.


I recently surprised myself, and probably a few people who know me, with my newfound sport of off-road, single track, desert bike riding. It was quite accidental, really.  After my double knee replacements in 2018, I acquired a TREK bicycle designed for trail riding.  For the first two years I pedaled around the neighborhood each day; all of it on asphalt.  It was a lovely way to spend 30 peaceful minutes in the late afternoon, and my knees healed up perfectly.


One day I ventured across Colossal Cave road here in Vail, and found myself in the open desert. I embarked on in this solo adventure, past saguaros and prickly pears, far from the drone of traffic and human voices, and suddenly realized that I was in a place both isolated and mysterious–and absolutely silent except for the chirping of birds, the swish of lizard legs on sand, and the soft whistle of the wind wafting through my safety helmet.


And before the dust settled, I was hooked.


I began to ride our local Vail trails regularly, slowly getting the hang of barreling through sandy washes and over uneven terrain, while taking in the sights and sounds of our living desert, the smell of the creosote bushes, and blooming cacti.


As I learned to navigate the trails while avoiding the fish-hook cactus grasping at my ankles, I started to pick up some rudimentary skills of desert riding.  Technically, a “single track” trail is a narrow mountain bike trail that is just wide enough for one rider, as the trail width is about that of the average bike. Consequently, one rider must yield the trail to another when passing. Single tracks are ridden in single file and many single tracks are also multi-use trails and are shared by hikers, so there are some unwritten rules of safety and civility to follow.


I always make it a point to give pedestrians the right of way.  On those rare occasions when I see hikers ahead, I pull over and pause so as not to kick up dust, and more often than not we share a few friendly words about the beauty and tranquility of the day.


The thrill of the ride is in never really knowing what’s around the next bend, whether it be another rider, a large cactus or reptile or perhaps a rock or branch of some sort that has fallen onto the path.  On most days in the 25 square mile patch of desert I often ride in, I never see another human being.  But I’ve learned to carefully scan the horizon for oncoming bikes, people and animals.  The high desert here in Vail is filled with trees and cactus and rocks and surprises, so a rider must always be on “high alert” just underneath that sense of serenity and solitude that open range riding offers.  And it’s hard to describe the splendor and majesty of our desert terrain, since to many people, the word “desert” conjures up images of endless sand and desolation and the bleached bones of hapless animals who struggled to survive the blistering inferno.

I have to admit that as a young man, growing up on the beaches of southern California, I, too, fell for that misconception of Arizona.  It’s interesting to note that more than 25% of Arizona is forest land. And Vail, at an altitude of 3,200 feet offers a stunning variety of flora and fauna.

Many years ago when I was in my late 30’s, I purchased a half acre of land at the edge of a small lake in rural Oregon, and in 1991 I had a cabin built there. There were no television dishes in those days and the Internet had not yet reached my neck of the woods, so I spent much of my free time hiking through the timberland.  Other than the deer and coyotes and an occasional herd of wild elk to add a splash of excitement to my wilderness rambling, the old growth forest was my personal, solitary playground to wander and enjoy. I imagined that there was no place more beautiful, peaceful or quiet on Earth.  Little did I know that as I reached my 72nd birthday, I would discover the magnificent Sonoran Desert!  And on a bicycle no less.


Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned over the years as an avid hiker, and several decades working in environmental education, is that the natural world doesn’t operate in a mode of one place being “more beautiful than another”. No place that I’ve ever discovered on our planet is more “beautiful” than the Rincon valley here in Vail. And this is not just a case of “an old guy living in the last home of his life rationalizing to make it all seem better!”


I’ve had the good fortune to travel through dozens of countries over the years and to experience what many consider to be the most significant natural wonders of the world.  I’m not kidding when I say that here in Arizona we inhabit one of the great treasures of our planet. And if you take a little time to ramble through some of our open spaces here in Vail, or Saguaro State Park, you’ll see an amazing array of astonishing life that has evolved for eons.


Imagine stepping outside the front door of your home and nearly tripping over a large ground sloth. Just down your street you see an endless wave of white sand dunes, 200 feet tall, surrounded by a warm and shallow swirl of saltwater and tropical vegetation. This was Vail, Arizona 50,000 years ago. And you can still see the remnants of those times in our local desert.  All of this sand, after all, was once the bottom of a shallow sea.


Rather than feeling isolated and alone in the vastness of this place, there’s a good chance that connecting with the natural world in this way can be a remarkable conversation—and one that you can experience over and over again. Walking or riding a bike in the local desert and taking a stroll off the beaten path; knowing that you are very likely standing in a place that no human being has stood before can be a humbling thought, and a quiet moment that is yours and nature’s to share–if only for a brief moment in your otherwise very busy day.


Khevin lived for years along the California coast, on a lake in the Oregon wilderness, high atop the Mojave Desert and tucked away on the island of Honolulu before finally discovering the paradise known as Vail, Arizona. Home at last.

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Lucretia Free