Madness and Mud: Ruta Del Jefe 2020

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese jaguar, harsh and exciting 

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

-(modified) Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”

The weather matched the event in challenging the assumptions of what a desert landscape or a gravel race should be for most of the riders of the Ruta Del Jefe this year  which was hosted at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Elgin, AZ. The imagination of a desert as a dry and sunny landscape dotted with saguaros, prickly pears, and cholla was expanded for those who held that thinking. Home to the Madrean Sky Islands ecoregion that includes the Santa Ritas, Whetstone, and many other mountain ranges, this area is a treasure trove for those who eat gravel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sky Islands refers to the unique interplay between the low lying desert grasslands and the dramatic wooded mountains that become islands in the sky for their residents. Natt Dodge introduced this concept as “mountain island in a desert sea” back in 1948 which was then cemented by Weldon Heald’s book Sky Island in 1967. In the lowlands, this area is home to  many unique varieties of grasses who abundantly glow their sunshine and straw colors to her visitors.


The Presentations

April Ignacio of Indivisbe Tohono O’odham (pronounced thaw-naw-aw-thumb) tells me how her people have been coming to the grasslands to collect the hearty grasses for basket weaving for thousands of years. They still do. April was the first of seven different presenters who shared their work and knowledge of the biomes the riders of Ruta Del Jefe would traverse the following day. Ronny’s Roadhouse Kitchen served up dinner as the crowd of about 100 people listened intently to the folks who spend their days advocating and fighting to protect these lands, the animals, and the people. April spoke about how she and other women of the Tohono O’odham nation felt the need to organize around issues of their own survival after the 2016 election. She shared the multi-faceted work she takes on with Indivisible Tohono that touches on everything from political engagement and action, the murders and disappearances of indigenous women, to conflict with border patrol agents on their lands. All with an easy smile and a hopeful, empowered narrative.

Director of the Research Ranch, Cristina Fancois, spoke about the conservation work she has put forth on the 8,000 acre ranch and how bike tourers play a role in their efforts. The presentation by No More Deaths connected the causes of both dangerous human migrations through the Sonoran desert and polemic toward immigrants to the deeply rooted white supremacy in US politics even before Trump came to office. This theme of challenging supremacist thinking carried throughout the talks from Save the Scenic Santa Ritas who oppose the supremacy of economy over environment brought on by the proposal of the third largest copper mine in the US called the Rosemont mine that would devastate the lifeways of so many.

Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity challenged the supremacy of humans pointing to the anthropocentric ideas around borders creating physical barriers that complicate movement of animals like endangered jaguars whose survival depends on these seasonal migrations. Randy, visibly holding back tears, uses the example of the audacity of humans by telling heartbreaking stories of two slain jaguars: Yo’oko was killed for sport and Macho B due to recklessness and deceit by the AZ Fish and Wildlife. He talked in depth about El Jefe, the rockstar jaguar whose celebrity generated the namesake for the ride and who took hold in my imagination as an old friend. Arizona Trail Association’s representative Mathew Nelson shared that the outdoor and recreation industry is larger than mining, oil, and gas put together challenging the falsely perceived supremacy of extractive industries in policymaking. He followed this illumination with a request for action from the group of cyclists to stay politically engaged to protect the places and people that need protecting for the sake of what we came here to do- ride our bikes mostly on dirt on public lands stolen from her original people.

The Ride

Bestowing wonder, awe, and greater appreciation through knowledge, the presentations provided depth and daydream to the ride I had yet to experience from any other gravel event I’ve attended. Just as the presenters had expanded understanding of the places we would ride through, the weather followed suit with expectations of a desert climate being dry. The rain would fall hard and soft all day on my head as I battled sanity and loneliness for a muddy 100 miles. My intention was to finish the 129 mile route that Sarah Swallow put together connecting some of the most beautiful terrains. I intended to get my tires rolling by 6am but not without getting a cappuccino made by Julia and Ty  in a ceramic mug decorated with jaguar spots that she also made. The warmth of the cup and its contents would be the only warm thing I would experience all day (not counting the figurative warmth of friendship and camaraderie, of course).

A blanket of low lying fog loitered around the mountains providing an altered view of what I had been seeing all week riding the same road out of the Research Ranch. The beauty of these landscapes in the rain is one I would not experience had it not been for the scheduled event. As the sun rose, the clouds soaked up and amplified the oranges and pinks poking through the breaks. The excitement of the adventure ahead hung in my throat like a stone as I whooped at the pronghorns who seem to have acquired more slow motion suspension to their gait, bouncing through the grass prairie. My riding companions, Emily and Lauren, do the same. As the distance between the bikes and research ranch grew, we are treated to more curvy dirt roads through Las Cienegas where I get passed by much faster cyclists. I’m okay with that because I have mountains to look at and send prayers.

After a hug, kisses, and encouragement from Cheech around mile 30-ish, shit got crazy. The climb up Box Canyon assaulted bikes with narrower tires and limited clearances with muddy devastation of biblical proportions (okay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but it was bad). The people who passed me were turning around having unsuccessfully battled the sticky mud. I could make out several tire tracks ahead of me so I kept going. That would be the last time I saw another rider on my 100 mile solo trek to Patagonia. Stoned and slightly stupid, I forget to stop to clear the mud off my derailleur and bottom bracket. The bike reminds me to do so with a CA-CHUNK when I near the end of the Box Canyon climb. My rear derailleur is mad at me and the chain, exhausted, drops. I take the moment to gather myself, sing to my bicycle, fix the problem only sacrificing a few unnecessary gears due to negligence, and continue onward. Descending is a bit easier and when I reached the pavement, there was much rejoicing. Yay. Never thought I would get happy at pavement but this event was teaching everyone to expand beyond the established and I was no exception.

My plan to ONLY stop at quarters of the ride (miles 30, 60, 90, and finally 129) seemed so laughable now. I saw Cheech at the halfway point where I lingered for a little longer in hopes to reconnect with some other riders to soften the blow of this massive headwind. My waiting yields no riders and I decide that waiting is for the foolish and I am no fool (yeah, right!). Welcoming dusk at mile 69, I stopped to have a 420 moment because I was lonely and daydreams are beginning to turn into realities. The climb up Salero Canyon wanted to take my sanity as penance for passage. I watched the sunset over Mt Wrightson that boasted more shades of purple than bikes designed for women making me stop to gaze at its glory every 100 feet. My mind started wandering and getting lost in fantasies of El Jefe as the darkness begins to descend. You know, jaguars are crepuscular hunters with a bite force strong enough to crush a human skull like a melted M’n’M but I was never frightened. My fantasy was largely fueled by the awe and a reverence in traveling the territory where Jefe may have left muddy paw prints. He has been with me this whole time. I couldn’t stop thinking about what will happen to him if the wall is built that threatens his ability to breed, which in turn threatens the existence of jaguars in the US. Tears blend with raindrops on my cheeks. The combination of sadness and madness brings me the gift of a beautiful dream:

The Dream

I dream about El Jefe in my moving state. He’s teaching his cubs how to stalk and kill prey like me. I can feel him running full speed along side me, two little cubs chasing their father close by. He creeps closer and closer and just as he begins his lunge for the kill, his powerful jaws tightening, our eyes meet each other in a kind gaze. His jaws soften, his lunge halts, and I am relieved in understanding that I am not who he is trying to kill.

In my dream, I can speak to El Jefe. He tells me how he has used his powerful jaws to rip apart the metal from the border fence so he can visit his family. He tells me he is organizing the jaguars to hunt the people who are proposing an enormous open pit copper mine in his territory. Apex predator cats don’t take kindly to space violations like this. Jefe remembers the murders of his contemporary Yo’Oko and his predecessor Macho B and tells me he’s organizing the jaguars not for revenge but for justice. He tells me Washington DC is next.

In my dream, the cubs know how to ride bikes and they take turns taking mine up and down the rugged trails of Salero Canyon. They’re going to make great killers of bad men. I get back on the bike and touch foreheads with El Jefe who tells me he will not spare anyone who gets in the way of his genetic success- not even me. I accept, bow deeply, and go our separate ways. This was a good dream, the best I’ve had in a long time…and I was awake.

Invigorated by the dream, I descended the canyon with relative ease in darkness. The euphoric feeling is halted when I hit mud again 10 miles away from where my friends had texted me they had rented a hotel room for the evening in Patagonia. I had been riding along for ten hours and in the dark for three and companionship seemed a too good to deny. Sofia, Molly, Devin, and Cheech helped me get my muddy bike up the stairs of the Stage Stop Inn and had a bottle of chilled champagne waiting for me. After a day of chilled liquids, I opted out of the drink but took a nice long hot shower instead- another gift. Environmentalist Bill McKibben’s essay on pleasure vs comfort provided me with the wisdom to consciously absorb the pleasure of a simple hot shower having dragged myself through mud and madness. I can’t find the essay to link but the idea is that by going outside, experiencing weather, or the sensations of discomfort that one chooses for themselves, allows for the mundane to become exquisite thus replacing routine comforts with pleasure. Something like that. Anyway, thanks Bill, I really enjoyed that shower and the friends who lightened the load even more.

As Sarah Swallow closed out the presentations from the night before, she encouraged people to bring the model of Ruta Del Jefe to their own gravel races and rides. When there’s more conscious effort put into learning about the places we ride, we give ourselves the gift of deeper appreciation and commitment to the places we go. Mindfulness grows and thus we grow, as a community, as individuals, and, hopefully jaguar populations in the US.

Long live El Jefe!