It’s 8:30am and this sleepy little town in southern Arizona is slowly coming to life. It’s still cold. The kind of desert cold that wakes the bones with knowledge that soon things will warm up.
This is my second day in Patagonia, AZ - a quaint little settlement near the US/Mexico border and a visionary gravel scene created from scratch by a young couple, Heidi and Zander Ault. Unlike some places I’ve visited, the vibe here is genuine, friendly and completely tied to the culture of the surrounding area. This isn’t an artificial scene created by wealthy benefactors - it is a truly grassroots community that was created with a lot of hard work and dedication.
My hosts on this trip are Blaire and Wylie - two recent transplants to the area. Blaire, who rides for Boltcutter Cycles, put off her move to Patagonia and employment for the Ault’s at the now popular cafe’ and bar, the Patagonia Lumber Company, for a few months in order to complete the Divide route from Canada to Mexico. Wylie, a guide and experienced mechanic, joined Blaire in town shortly after her arrival. One could not have asked for a better set of hosts.
Having rolled into town the day before, I was given a quick 30 mile taste of Patagonia gravel (and scenery) and was not disappointed. I had no idea what to expect as the desert west is so vast and each and every region has its own unique flare, colors and topography. The best I can describe it is as though someone had put Kansas and Arkansas in a bowl, mixed it up and laid it over rolling hills and placed the colorful mountain ranges of the west strategically around its edges. My advice is to pick your head up and enjoy it from time to time.
And don’t forget to pack a camera.
By 10:30am jackets are already shed for t-shirts and short sleeve jerseys. It’s January, but the high desert doesn’t care. The temperature is quickly rising as Wylie decides to pack an extra bottle for the day’s 50 mile route - a variation on the Spirit World gravel route - that will take us south and close to the border.
One of the beauties of riding in Patagonia is that you can roll out right from downtown. A quick two miles of quiet pavement and then you’re right onto gravel and climbing. The lower sections are green - even for January. Something you may not expect that far south and west. There are plenty of trickling stream crossings as you make your way higher and higher up and out of the shade lined gravel roads towards the wide open sky.
Like so many climbs you’re rewarded for the effort in Patagonia. Topping out offers some jaw dropping views. Scenery that will make you quickly forget of the previous effort and inject a renewed sense of energy as you take it all in.
We pass a few lone cyclists, even a couple on a tandem we’ve come across both days. Wylie, ever the guide and mechanic, stops and helps an older gentleman struggling to fix a flat. It’s the way of the west and what makes surviving such harsh territory possible.
And harsh it is.
Where we are riding has become a bit of a polarizing topic in American politics and from time to time you’re reminded of that. My two hosts talk of seeing signs of immigrants seeking a new life in our country and on this day I find a discarded blanket and clothes staked under a tree a little ways off the road. Were I not slowly grinding up a climb on a bicycle, I probably would have missed it. I have to say that it was a rather humbling scene, accentuated by the vastness of the southern desert. But it is not something the average visitor to Patagonia will be able to ignore as the US Customs and Border Patrol has a heavy presence along its gravel roads.
Regardless, the charm of the area is something to experience. As a visitor, Patagonia has but a few flaws, but those are heavily outweighed by what it has to offer both in terms of riding, cycling infrastructure and people. This is a place where you can truly disconnect, forget about television, social media and the rat race and reset your mind and spirit.
It’s mile 38 and I’m starting to get tired and feeling the weight of the camera rig strapped to my back as I chase Blaire and Wylie trying to capture their vibe without interfering. I hang back both because they are stronger riders but also to allow them to be themselves. I’m packing a camera with a lens with a long reach - a voyeur of sorts. It is apparent that they are truly enjoying life. Most of what I’ve captured of them personally is always caught up in conversation. They are riding to experience the ride itself as well as their own company. It’s as unique and refreshing to see as our surroundings.
The last 12 miles our legs stop turning and our hands move down into the drops as we descend back into town. We’re all smiles. I’m happy. They’re happy. And I come away having experienced something special.
Blaire's bike specs:
MD Custom Shop High Country gravel frameset
SRAM Rival AXS 1X Add-A-Build-Kit with women's WTB Koda saddle
Schwalbe Thunderburt tire upgrade