Ride West: Day 15 Coronado Trail Loop Ride
Six years ago, riding the western states on my ’03 Road King, I found a road that will always be a Top 10 Ride: The Coronado Trail (US 191) in the White Mountains of Arizona. Since then, I’ve said that if I’m anywhere near that road I’ll ride it again. So, when I planned this year’s trip, I made sure it was on the itinerary.
Despite last year’s devastating fires in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (the worst fire in Arizona’s history), most of the 90 mile ride from Alpine south to Morenci was through the lush, sweet-smelling mountain pine forests and high meadows I remembered. In the first 1/3 of the ride, though, we did see once-green mountain littered with the charred standing skeletons of lofty pines. It will take decades for the scarred forest to recover, or longer if drought conditions and warmer temperatures continue and grow worse as climate scientists predict they most certainly will.
About 9 a.m., an hour into our ride, we stopped for coffee at Hannigan Meadows Lodge and Cafe. (Coffee alone, however, didn’t seem to justify the stop, so we each had a generous slice of warm, melt-in-your-mouth Dutch Apple Pie.)
We talked with the waitress there about last year’s fire and she shared an album with hundreds of photographs taken of the fire and the firefighters whose courageous work saved the structures. To have been in the middle of that inferno must have seemed like descending to the depths of Hell. It’s hard to express how grateful the waitress and all who worked there were to save not only their jobs but the historic structures that would have been irreplaceable.
For more than two hours after our coffee break (OK, our pie break), Jon and I rode the literally thousands of twists and curves through the White Mountains on the Coronado Trail, the least-used US highway in the country. Until the early 1990s, that road had been designated US Highway 666 and given the sobriquet “The Devil’s Highway” because of an unusually high fatality rate in New Mexico. US Route 666 no longer exists.
Some readers of this blog have ridden the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina/Tennessee for 11 miles. Imagine a Tail of the Dragon that goes for 90 miles (with no Tennessee Highway Patrol) and you’ll get a feel for the Coronado Trail. I rediscovered today that when they mark a hairpin turn at 10 mph, it’s hard to take it at more than 20 and still have floorboards on which to rest your boots. Oh, and did I mention there are no guardrails anywhere along the road? The White Mountains are vast and beautiful, but you won’t see much of them riding on US 191 unless you pull off at one of the occasional turnouts. Your focus has to be constantly on the black pavement between the white and yellow lines or you’ll see parts of the mountain you don’t really want to see.
I’ve ridden the Coronado Trail twice. The next time I come to Arizona, I’ll ride it a third time.
At the southern terminus of the mountainous Trail, the road opens up on the most amazing, and perhaps incongruous, sight: A huge, open pit copper mine that has ripped the tops and sides off several mountains for more than 100 years. It’s impressive. But it’s ugly. More than 2000 workers, some operating shovels the size of apartment buildings which fill trucks the size of houses, move millions of tons of rock and dirt to get to the blue gold buried beneath. It is what it is and if you enjoy electricity (passed through copper wire) you have to put up with what they do to the earth.
South of the copper pit and the company towns of Morenci and Clifton, we reached the southern-most point of our Western Ride and turned northeast for a short ride into New Mexico where we steered north on US 180 to complete our day’s loop. As with the ride on US 191, I wondered what we would see, since the Gila National Forest’s Whitewater-Baldy fire earlier this year had been almost as severe as the Arizona fire had been last year. As it turned out, most of the fire was east of where we were riding. The biggest concern now, it seems, is flash flooding which results when there is no undergrowth to slow the rain water down and allow it to seep into the ground. Already, many of the streams are clogged with silt and ash and the fish in them are gone. And so are many of the tourists.
We stopped for lunch at the internationally famous (just kidding) Blue Front Bar and Cafe in Glenwood, NM. The cafe has the distinction of bridging a creek that runs beneath it. According to one of the locals, the cafe had once been smaller and was built between the road and the creek. When they expanded it, they just built the rest of it over the creek. It’s not spectacular, just interesting. I ordered the Burro. I think that’s a big burrito or at least mine was. I ate it. All of it. But I was disappointed that I no longer had an appetite for the “Homemade Pecan Pie” scribbled on the menu board.
Sated and back on the road again, we saw rain ahead of us and stopped for wet weather garb, not knowing the extent of the rain. Five minutes later we were in light rain and five minutes after that we were in “can’t-see-the-freaking-road” rain and being blown around by winds which we couldn’t see either. Back to light rain five minutes later and then off-and-on rain for the 50 mountainous miles back to our starting point in Eagar.
If I had ridden no other road on my Ride West than the Coronado Trail, this year’s trip would have been a success. But, as faithful readers will note, all the rides have been good.
Tomorrow: Chinle and its ruins, 4 corners and New Mexico again.