“Land is our teacher. It challenges all of us to see and look harder. To appreciate and abide by balance, to understand the conservation of our unique heritage, its sheer abundance, diversity, and invisible, yet present animate life forms.” Andy Ault
Before Pancho Villa charged through this vast desert expanse searching for cattle he could steal from the local ranchers, it was home to the Sobaipuri, Papago, and Apache. The San Rafael Valley, just sixty miles south of Tucson, is part of Arizona’s unique Sky Island ranges and lies at the intersection of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madre, the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Great Plains, and the Neo Tropics. This unique expanse of land that borders Mexico is home to many different bird, bee, and butterfly species; boasts the greatest mammal diversity in North America; and is home to a unique mixture of wild west rancher and artist/miner/birder population. And you know what else it has? Hundreds of miles of empty, high desert gravel roads, just waiting to be explored on two wheels.
“One of my favorite aspects of Patagonia is the community's connection to the landscape here. Whether someone ventures out into the woods or mountains or not, the energy and beauty expressed through the natural wonders is immense. It's overwhelming at times. I felt that effect the first time I rode here, simply immersed in the surroundings. You leave a more centered human."
I discovered this hidden gravel gem eight years ago when I attended a first-of-its-kind gravel camp curated by Heidi and Zander Ault, the founders of The Cyclist’s Menu, a company that provides unique cycling and food experiences to curious and adventurous athletes. When I asked what drew he and Heidi to this remote region of Arizona, Ault said, “One of my favorite aspects of Patagonia is the community's connection to the landscape here. Whether someone ventures out into the woods or mountains or not, the energy and beauty expressed through the natural wonders is immense. It's overwhelming at times. I felt that effect the first time I rode here, simply immersed in the surroundings. You leave a more centered human."
At 90,000 acres - a mixture of both private and public lands - it’s easy to feel small and insignificant in the San Rafael Valley, a rare expanse of wide-open land that sits around 5,000 ft. above sea level. There’s a stillness and silence that centers the soul, but this parched and quiet desert landscape simultaneously teems with vibrant life. 300 species of birds, 600 species of native bees, 300 types of butterflies and moths, and over 100 threatened species of other types call the San Rafael home. Ever heard of a coatimundi? I hadn’t either until we saw a band of twenty or so dart across Harshaw Road (imagine a really slender racoon with a long snout). While rare, there have been sightings of jaguars, mountain lions, and ocelots that migrate these mountains every season. Cattle ranching, still very much a part of this community, has been the predominant activity in this region for the past 175 years, and the pristine nature of this unique biome is due in large part to the stewardship of these ranchers. Speaking of unique creatures, it’s the colorful spandex clad ones that have been roaming these lands for the past few years that have helped put this sleepy little border town back on the map.
Patagonia happens to be one of three gateway communities with access to the 700-mile Arizona Trail, which means the town sees its fair share of through hikers and mountain bikers on this iconic and challenging trail. The town has always been a world-renowned paradise for birders and hikers, but lately, due in no small part to the efforts of The Cyclist’s Menu, the town’s seen a boom in gravel cycling and bike packing. 2019 saw the inaugural running of the Spirit World 100, a gravel event dreamt of and built by Heidi and Zander, which brought over 130 racers to town to share in a very special weekend of riding bikes. Fast forward to 2022 and the Spirit World 100 has grown to nearly 300 participants and I’m here again, surrounded by friends and a vibrant community, rounding out a year that started with a broken leg but is ending with me pedaling over 100 miles. If you care to learn more about my day on the bike, you can read what Betsy Welch of Velo News had to write about it.
There are very few places that I’ve experienced by bike where I’ve felt as insignificant, dwarfed by the expanse of the landscape, in awe of its stark beauty, and grounded by the silence as I have over the years here in Patagonia. It has been my go-to place when I’ve needed a life reset, a time to reflect, a time to recharge, a time to disconnect from social media and my phone, and most importantly, a time to be grateful for all that I have in my life. Here’s your reminder to embrace the land and environment around you, to experience, and get lost, in its beauty, and to recognize the many lessons that its geography holds for us.
Photographer credit: Freihofer Photography