Entering the Spirit World: An Arizona Gravel Event

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By Don Scheese — “The Spirit World 100 family has been referring to this breakthrough as “entering the spirit world…”. There are many ways of describing this journey. When it happens you truly do enter an altered state…The Spirit World 100 is a community centric and self-supported gravel venture, meant to share the beauty of the Borderlands region with all those who choose to join us.” From the Spirit World 100 website.

How does one go about choosing a gravel event to participate in? For me, the important criteria are: proximity to home (say, within a day’s drive); the physical challenge of the course (at least several thousand feet of elevation gain & anywhere from 50-100 miles in length); the aesthetics of the route (ecologically diverse, visually interesting terrain); the amenities of the town in which the event is held (some good restaurants, interesting shops); and that indefinable element referred to as the “Vibe” of the event. I’ve done a bunch of races since the Gravel Craze began (for me) in 2014, from the Midwest to the Southwest to the Rocky Mountains to the Northeast, and I can honestly say that the Spirit World 100, held the first weekend of November each year out of the town of Patagonia, Arizona, ticks off all my boxes.

The start at the Patagonia Lumber Company. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

I’ve done the 50-mile version of the Spirit World the past three years (the first one was held in 2019). This event, initiated by Heidi and Zander Alt, a lovely young neo-hippie couple and creative entrepreneurs, seems to get better each year. Occurring over three days, it features meals both before and after the race, shakedown rides, live music, aid stations, and a choice of three overlapping routes (50, 80, or 100 miles). Because Patagonia is a small town (population around 900), the entry list is deliberately kept small (250 riders), and all festivities and meetings are now held out of the funky complex of buildings known as the Patagonia Lumber Company, which serves local coffee, beer, and wine. Riders come from communities as close as Tucson and as far away as California, the Midwest and Northeast, as well as Canada. The cultural diversity of the riders is one of the feature attractions: bros, dudes, hipsters, MAMILs, fashionistas, skinny-legged cyclists & wide bodies, mingle with cowboys, cowgirls, ranchers—a veritable potpourri of people. As word has gotten around about the Good Vibe of this event, it has become increasingly harder to get into, but Heidi and Zander have kept the numbers down to ensure it remains an intimate, fun, as well as challenging experience.

And make no mistake: the routes are challenging. After the first 5 miles on paved roads heading out of town south into the Coronado National Forest (a neutral start led by the local fire department), the gravel roads become, at times, dusty, rutted, rocky & washboardy. The routes traverse three distinct ecological zones, ranging from 4000-5000 feet above sea level: the cottonwood and sycamore lined, ruggedly beautiful Harshaw Canyon; the thickly canopied oak-juniper-pinyon pine forest of the higher elevations; and the Serengeti-like high desert grasslands of the wide-open San Rafael valley. Once in the valley, the view is incredible: far-off vistas south towards the mountains of Mexico, east towards the Huachucas, north to the Santa Ritas, & west to the Patagonia range, all part of what ecologists call the “Sky Islands,” isolated cordillera that harbor unique fauna and flora.

It’s 41 degrees, clear calm and cold in downtown Patagonia, where Zander counts down the seconds to the 7 am start of the race. Clothing choice is always an important consideration, as temperatures will heat up to the mid-80s by mid-afternoon. Some riders are in shorts & short sleeves, while others (like me) layer up in tights, multi-layers, windbreakers, gloves, and cold weather hats. As we head off into the narrowing confines of Harshaw Canyon, like a large school of colorful fish swimming upstream, it only seems to get colder upon entering the dark, shady canyon. It’s a 12-mile and 1000-foot gradual climb to start the race, and inevitably riders are stopping along the way, warming up and shedding layers. I soon find myself at the back of the pack, falling into a familiar grinding rhythm, and like at all races the riders sort themselves into various packs and pelotons. As the road climbs the canyon alternates between rocky defiles and open meadows where the sun pours down like honey, a welcome warm contrast to the mostly shady cold canyon.

Harshaw Canyon, Patagonia, AZ. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

Finally, after twelve miles of steady climbing, we top out onto the high desert plain with incredible views of the Borderlands mountains. A sharp right takes us up, over, and down into Apache Canyon, where the oak-juniper-pinyon forest predominates. It’s along this stretch that Heidi and Zander’s admonition to ‘not bomb the descents’ comes to mind, for the past dry monsoon season has left arroyos rocky and rutted (later we will hear of numerous flats, snapped-off rear derailleurs, and even a cracked frame resulting from reckless descents). Endless rollers ensue, and I find myself constantly shifting between big and small chain rings (no, I’m not a 1x aficionado). On the bottom of yet another steep pitch I stop to help a fellow cyclist fix a flat who doesn’t know how to use his CO2 cartridge (violating the cyclist credo, Know thy gear before setting out). Numbers of riders find themselves hiking their bikes up the 10-15% punchy climbs. Sand traps occur around Mile 20, and if encountered unawares some riders will fly over their handlebars, not having kept their weight back and center of gravity low. Fortunately, there are few vehicles to be concerned with; by ride’s end I will have counted only around 12-15 civilian SUVs (others, driven by the county sheriffs and Border Patrol, serve as SAG helpers for any stranded riders).

Eventually we come to the border community of Lochiel, marked by a few scattered ranches. An historical monument causes me (ever the history nerd) to pull over, a towering cement cross commemorating the exploits of Franciscan missionary Fray Marcos de Niza, who explored this area in 1539 following legends and rumors of a “City of Gold” said to exist somewhere in the Southwest. Of course, neither de Niza nor Francisco Coronado and his expeditionary force the following years ever located this fabulous metropolis, but the history of the Americas was changed forever by their discoveries, much to the regret of the Indigenous cultures who had inhabited the region for thousands of years in more sustainable fashion.

De Niza Memorial. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

A couple of miles farther on we cross the cottonwood-lined dry watercourse of the Santa Cruz River, the golden leafed trees lending some brighter color to the otherwise tawny landscape. At Mile 28 comes the first aid station, staffed by Heidi and some other volunteers, where cold water, cookies, chips, and M&Ms serve as welcome snacks (but no more Skratch Labs hydration mix, which has run out). This is also the “Drop-off” spot, where riders can discard heavier layers to be retrieved back at the race start later in the day. Here’s where the expansive views really open up, and for the next 20-some miles we will never tire of the endless vistas.

A rider in the midst of the Arizona Serengeti. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

Given the proximity of the southern border to the route of the Spirit World, one might legitimately ask: Is it safe to ride in this area? I’m told that there has never been an incident involving migrants and riders during the event, but this sign adjacent to Aid Station #1 gave me pause:

Near the Mexican Border. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

No wonder that Heidi and Zander at the riders’ meeting Friday night emphasized the strictness of the 5 pm cutoff rule, saying that all riders had to be at the finish line by sunset so as to avoid riding in the dark anywhere near the border.

A few miles later we arrive at the junction of Forest Roads 58 and 61, where 80- and 100-mile riders will turn right, while us 50-milers hang a left and follow a shorter counter-clockwise loop back to the Harshaw Canyon split. For the rest of the way we’re occasionally passed by speedy 80- and 100-milers, but no matter—you can race, or you can ride this event, and many of us are choosing to do the latter, conversing, laughing, and stopping to take pictures of this incredibly photogenic landscape. I pause to re-lube my cranky chain, as the dust coats my drivetrain, frame, and body. Sprawling ranches, occasional out-buildings, and scattered cattle herds mark this stretch. As temperatures climb into the 70s and 80s, I keep sucking down water from my Camelbak and silently sing the lyrics of that old Western tune:

“Ol’ Dan & I
with throats burned dry,
and so’s our cry for water,
cool, clear water.”

The wind picks up out on the open plains, first a headwind, then a tailwind as we angle back north, and one of Heidi’s favorite expressions, “teeth to the wind,” comes to mind. What else is there to think of while grinding away across this High Lonesome Land?

Boomshakalaka. Spirit World Gravel Venture 2023. Photo by Don Scheese

Rollers and more rollers, Chunky, white-knuckled descents. Short, granny-gear grinding ascents. Finally, after one last ascending pitch, I can see in the short distance ahead Aid Station #2, otherwise known as (Heidi’s term) the “Boom-shak-a-laka Bar,” where, legend has it, tequila shots were once served back in the day. I happily settle for an ice-cold Coke, complements of Pivot Cycles, a small boutique bike manufacturer out of Tempe (check out their gravel-specific Vault). I look around, perusing faces and bodies: some are grim and red-faced, overheated, looking doubtful as finishers; others are smiling and dancing to the decibel-straining tunes of rock ‘n roll.

Inspired and rejuvenated, a number of us plunge back down Harshaw Canyon, twelve miles of bumpy, dusty, twisty descent—what a great course design, to finish with a long downhill! I take the bends and arroyo crossings at a reasonable speed, mindful of the occasional vehicle coming in the opposite direction around a blind corner. The higher afternoon sunlight illuminates the gorgeous yellowing sycamores and cottonwoods. Eventually spilling out on the canyon bottom, back onto pavement (nothing like riding on pavement again after miles of gravel roads). I enter into time-trial mode the last 5 miles into a hot headwind, and rounding the last corner back into town I can hear Zander bellowing, “Here comes a lone rider finishing strong!” That would be me, happily completing my third Spirit World 50 (actually 58, but who’s counting?).

Post-ride pizza, beer, band, babes, and bros…war stories and rehashes of the route…a good way to end a truly satisfying event.

As we grow older and events like these accumulate over the years, rides become rituals, rites of passage, barometers of our bodies and levels of fitness. Whatever the distance, whatever the speed, the important thing is always just to Keep On Riding.

Don Scheese is an avid cyclist and retired professor of American Studies who once taught, among other things, courses on Lance Armstrong and Sport in American Culture.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Seldom,

    It’s good to see you are still alive and active. As for me, I’m still hiking in Grand Canyon, albeit on my son’s permit.

    Cheers,

    John

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