142 Days No Rain…Then I Show Up
MMM Goes Off Road in Arizona
by Kevin Driscoll
We’re going to Phoenix!” my wife excitedly announced. Seems her company is sending her on a ‘Spouses Included’ business conference to award top performers and, as luck would have it, I’ll have almost two full days in the Phoenix area with nothing planned other than dinner and social mixers in the evenings. So what does a guy from Minnesota do with a spare afternoon in March in the Arizona desert? Well, being a relatively new rider looking for every opportunity, I’m gonna find a motorcycle and play in the desert!
Through the beauty that is Google, I quickly found Extreme Arizona. For $180 bucks you get a four hour guided dirt bike ride through the desert, with the bike and all gear included. Now, that’s what I’m talking about! I called, and the perpetually friendly and helpful Heidi took my reservation.
Now when the trip was scheduled, Phoenix was in the midst of a record-breaking drought of over 140 days without rain. I was expecting the pure, dry, hot, dusty desert riding conditions that I am sure many of us ‘Up Nort’ visualize when we think of dirt biking in the desert. The drought was broken the week before we left for Arizona and continued to rain on and off that entire week, right up to, and even during my ride. Up side; I didn’t choke on dust, didn’t roast under the Arizona sun, and the cactus were blooming. Down side; it was very wet. But all I had to do was return the wet, muddy gear and bike, and head back to my hotel. That’s a big plus. All the fun, with none of the cleanup!
The standard motorcycle rental at Extreme Arizona is a Suzuki DRZ400 with the option to upgrade to a KTM EXC 250 or a Honda CRF 250X for a few extra bucks. I figured I’d just ride the DRZ, since it is a lot like my own Husqvarna TE410E and, well, I’m cheap. Ron, the guide, talked me into riding the KTM, arguing that I’d be much happier on it. It was the only bike already loaded on the trailer and I was the only client that afternoon. Ride a KTM? Gee, twist my arm.
Ron took me to Granite Mountain Multiuse Area in Scottsdale. I had little idea as to what the terrain would be like, and was surprised to see such a wide variety. A lot of the area is flat, with the ground consisting of firm sand, some dirt, lots of loose gravel-like rock, any blend of the previously mentioned, and because of the rain, water puddles everywhere! The trails went from wide enough for Jeeps to pass down to single track. Most of the main trails were a very long succession of endless whoop-de-dos which were completely new to me. I never worked so hard going down an open trail before. The first half of the ride was on the pegs; weight as far back as possible, and the rear fender spanking me all along the way. I used the seat so few times I could have rode my trials bike!
The KTM was set up flawlessly and ran perfect. The suspension saved my skin several times when my timing on the whoops would suddenly fail and find myself diving front wheel first into an unforgiving, water filled trench. I would prepare for the human cannonball launch over the handlebars, only to have the KTM eat up the landing and keep me heading down the trail, unscathed. Hmmm, maybe I need to get a full-fledged dirt bike of my very own?
When we reached the single track sections, I felt much more at home. I was able to relax and get into the rhythm of the trail. There was dirt, tight corners, hills to climb, and rocks to maneuver through; just like any Minnesota single track. The major difference was that instead of a mistake launching you into Minnesota underbrush, or bouncing you off a tree, you’re dealing with cactus. So, I rode a little more cautious. Okay, a lot more cautious. Ron stopped and pointed down one trail that was lined with a solid mass of two foot high, Cholla cactus on either side and gave me great advice. “You don’t want to run off the trail here.” Don’t impale yourself on a blanket of cactus needles. Check.
I also found the mud to be much more snot-like than at home. When I came around a corner and saw the first mud, I figured I had it licked. But instead I took my second fall of the day. I could have saved it, but I refused to put my foot down since I’ve done mud before and would not admit defeat. I went down like grandma rolling out of her rocking chair…slow and pitiful. I’d like to think that my Husky dual sport, at a full 100 pounds heavier, with tractor like grunt, would have faired better. That’s my it’s-not-me-it’s-my-equipment excuse. (One per article.) Ron told me that the mud, when dry, is of a talcum powder consistency and billows up into thick clouds when ridden through.
The first time I went down, I overshot a turn onto a side trail where Ron was waiting. It was early in the ride and my reflexes were still on Street mode. So, I tried to do an emergency stop in loose sand by grabbing a handful of front brake and, well, I’m sure you know the rest. Yah, I’m smooth.
Ron was a great guide. He stayed out front, leading the way, rarely out of sight. He stopped to let me take in the scenery, snap photos, catch my breath, and air out my fogged goggles, which I had to do a lot. He asked what trails I wanted to ride next and what terrain I wanted to try. Since I liked the single track trails, Ron guided me through some truly wonderful, fun and challenging tracks through rocks, Cholla, and Saguaro cactus for the last half of our four hour ride.
Wait! Did I say four hours? Well, it was supposed to be four hours. I paid for four hours. Being the tight wad that I am, I was going to be damned sure to get a full four hours. I made it three and a half hours before my legs were so cramped up and my forearms aching so bad that I was forced to ask Ron to take us back to the van. Plus, I had just drained the last of the water from my pack since I was working so hard. Ron wasn’t tired. On his Kawasaki, Ron made it all look too easy. This was Ron’s second ride of the day and he didn’t even take a drink of water the whole time we were out there, for Pete’s sake! I blame my lack of skill more than my lack of conditioning, but both contributed to my untimely demise. Even as I’m writing this four days after the fact, my legs are still very stiff. But I’d do it all again tomorrow if the opportunity arose.
I can’t imagine a better way to see the Arizona Sonoran desert than on a dirt bike. You get to ride narrow trails though cactus and rock outcroppings, while taking in fantastic scenery. You’re not seeing it from some road; you’re in it, aware of it’s soils and textures. Interacting with it, and truly getting the feel, and even the taste of the desert. Now get out there and ride. If I can do it, you sure can.