Rez Gravel 2024: Beautiful Dirt, No Dogs, A Lot of History

The inaugural Rez Gravel was held in February of 2024. Founded by tribal member Elisha Bishop, the event consisted of 68, 26, and 13-mile courses through O’Odham tribal land near Casa Grande, Arizona. The event weekend also included a pre-ride dinner, campfire, and sharing of culture and history by Akimel O’Odham leader, singer, artist, farmer, and teacher Robert “Bobby” Stone. Don’t miss Erik Mathy’s unique photos and background on this new event below…

Five years ago, while riding from San Francisco to Tucson, I was fortunate enough to ride a handful of miles on some of the most incredible dirt roads I’d ever experienced. I was south of Phoenix on my way to Sacaton to interview Paul Molina, co-founder of the skateboard company Seven Layer Army, of the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC).

Sacaton is on GRIC land, home of the O’Odham. I fell in love with not just the roads but with the people that I met during my brief visit. Since then I’ve always wanted to go back. When GRIC member Elisha Bishop announced that he was planning Rez Gravel, a 68 mile ride on those incredible roads, I jumped at the chance to participate.

There is a lot of history out there. The O’odham have lived on those lands for time immemorial. One of the few indigenous tribes to have not been relocated off of their lands, they instead have been limited to four Federally recognized reservations since 1917. One of those is the Gila River Indian Community.

During WWII the United States government housed a Japanese American internment camp near Sacaton on GRIC land. It was called the Gila River War Relocation Center. At its peak, it held 13,348 Japanese American citizens. Also, during WWII, a member of the tribe named Ira Hayes was one of six Marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima. Of Ira’s 45-man platoon, only 5 survived Iwo Jima.

Suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt, the US government pulled Ira from combat duty against his wishes to sell war bonds. At the end of WWII he returned to a state in which he was unable to legally vote. Ira used his brief fame to protest racial property restrictions in Los Angeles and advocate for water rights in Washington D.C.

Still suffering from PTSD, Ira often self-medicated with alcohol. He froze to death late one January evening in 1955 while walking home after a night of drinking and playing cards. He was 32 years old.

How is that relevant to a gravel bike ride? The Rez Gravel 68-mile mid-ride stop was the annual Ira Hayes Veterans Memorial Pow Wow. In such a small community, everything connects to everything. You get the sense, looking around you out there, that those stunning lands have seen countless acts of bravery, tragedy, joy, hope, betrayal, loss, victory, and racism. A nation doesn’t occupy the same lands for well over a millennium like the O’Odham have without creating both a powerful sense of connection and a deep well of history.

While riding on the Rez Gravel 68-mile course, we crossed through cow gates, went over highways on abandoned overpasses, and rode through sand, on hardpack and old, long-forgotten blacktop in the middle of the desert. Non-tribal members aren’t welcome on these roads without being accompanied by a community member or express permission from the tribal government.

Elisha had asked all the ride participants to stay together in order to make land access management easier. This made for an easygoing ride, high in chatter, unexpected new friendships, and camaraderie. The fast riders mingled with the slower ones, taking it easy, talking as the miles rolled by.

At a time when gravel has become faster and more “pro”, that was such a novel and welcomed experience. A new community of cyclists was built along those Rez Gravel courses, which is what gravel is genuinely all about. Or at least should be.

With nearly 100 people attending, it was one of the single best bike events I’ve ever attended. If you’re looking for an incredible, grassroots gravel event to attend, Rez Gravel should be on your shortlist.

Be sure to scroll through the gallery above for Erik’s wonderful gallery documenting this inaugural event!