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36 Hours of Adventure: Pines, Saguaros, and a Russian Motorcycle

I must have a thing for symmetry. As I wiggled and twisted down the road, the Ural beneath me seemed determined to thwart my best efforts to ride a straight line. I started to mentally catalog all the asymmetrical things in the world, most of them annoying to me. There’s the fiddler crab with his one large claw; the scalene triangle has always offended my geometric senses. The Ural has the potential to be symmetrical, but the outside wheel is placed aft of center with the bulk of the machine’s weight lobbed to the far left. The uneven balance gives the Ural a ride experience like none other.

When accelerating, it drifts forcefully to the right. Rolling off the gas, it lurches to the left. Changing gears and getting back on the throttle, the bike once again pushes right. Hit the brakes, now it wants to go left again. Despite my attempts to not ride like a drunken sailor, the Ural wagged its way down the road in a seemingly random series of slight lefts and rights, all of them made on its own accord.

In an intended turn, a Ural will carve a left like it’s on rails. A hard right on the other hand, will test your nerve as the sidecar threatens to launch into the air. It’s the kinetic embodiment of asymmetry at its worst and after my first 100 miles on the Ural, I couldn’t tell if I loved or hated it. Half the time I was laughing, the other half I was filling my helmet with expletives. I conceded it must be part of the Ural’s charm.

Although not my first time riding a bike with a sidecar, it was my first on a Ural and I chose to take it on one of my favorite loops within the Prescott National Forest. Spring in the higher elevations of Arizona is special. Creeks are full, the flowers are in bloom, and the blustery winds common to the season stir up enough dust to paint technicolor sunsets. Fully aware that the summer heat was right around the corner, I knew well enough to take advantage of the milder months.

With the Ural loaded to the gills, because frankly, it seemed like the thing to do, I worked my way north from Prescott into a section of the forest few people visit. It’s one of the most diverse and beautiful parts of the state and dotted with ranch houses, windmills, cattle, deer, and jackrabbits the size of fat house cats. For this trip, one I’ve done dozens of times, my route bisected a series of buttes, canyons, and two massive parcels of land well known to the locals.

The pedantic history nerd that I am, it’s hard for me to visit a place and not want to know as much about it as I can. I had driven past the sprawling Yolo Ranch many times before and spent untold hours researching its early years. What I discovered was an interesting tale of the unlikely stewards of the 100,000 acre plot. In 1936, John T. deBlois Wack bought the ranch and added it to his collection of holdings which included the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. It took me a while to place the name of that hotel until I remembered it as the famous hippie hideout in the 1970s where rock legends like Jim Morrison and his ilk lived, partied, and wrote songs. Wack was also the president of the Santa Barbara Polo Club. Maybe horses served as the tenuous thread connecting him to a ranch in a remote corner of Arizona. I’m always amazed how the most random things are connected.

To the north of Yolo Ranch, even further out of the way, is ORO Ranch. It too has a storied history. Part of the Baca Float Spanish Land Grant, it sits on a chunk of high desert once held by the king of Spain. It was the subject of a convoluted exchange of deeds involving Congress, the Mexican government, and hearty pioneers willing to settle in a brutally desolate part of the West. Prior to that by some 900 years, it was home to an ancient people who lived much as they had for thousands of years.

It’s a fascinating place to explore with jagged basalt columns, vestiges of a volcanic past, intermixed between massive jumbles of granite boulders. Petroglyphs hide on rocks and cliff walls, and dozens of forest service roads lead into the trees and scrub to destinations distant and unknown to most people. It’s a vast landscape, rugged and untamed. Oddly enough, it’s only a stone’s throw from Interstate 40 and just beyond, the last wandering stretches of old Route 66.

For my outing, I chose to camp not far from Yolo Ranch in a section of ponderosa pines I’ve been to many times. The forest in this part of the mountains has been carefully managed and so infrequently visited it feels pristine and well respected, unlike other areas which have been abused by campers ungrateful for the natural resources we’re so lucky to have. This section of the woods is a personal favorite, with lumpy rocks stacked between thickets of scrub oak. Deer bounce between the trees and each night it is visited by packs of coyotes, their chirping and howling and audible reminder of just how wild Arizona is.

On the distant end of my loop, after passing through countless miles of ranch land and deep canyons, the terrain changed abruptly. Pines gave way to grass, then towering saguaro cactus. Windmills churned in the wind reaching deep below the sandy surface to pull what little water they could into parched steel tanks. Turning onto a lesser-traveled road a thick bull snake basked in the sun, my presence not enough to encourage him to slither away from his spot in the road.

After passing through the copper mining town of Bagdad, and then into Kirkland Junction on my way to Skull Valley, I stopped to have lunch. Such diversions are not a means of keeping my hunger at bay, but rather attempts to prolong my ride and avoid the last inevitable turn into my driveway. With one final dirt road leading into the backside of my hometown, the transition from backwood to burbs was unfortunately complete. As if to finalize the end of my miniature adventure, my fuel light flickered on. Time to go home.

When I moved to Prescott more than 20 years ago, I knew it was proximal to many interesting  places. I used to while away my weekends driving far over the horizon to Utah, Mexico, and other destinations within a large radius. These days, I find plenty to discover just over the hill. As one of my favorite poets once said, lost is where you find it. I’m never lost when so close to home, but certainly lost in the moment. Lost in my head for a couple of days, if nothing else.

I don’t often need much coaxing to push beyond my front door and into the woods. A Ural is all it took this time. With the summer heat in full roar, I’ll leave my visits to the saguaro country for the coming winter months. Until then, I’ll read more about ranchers, cowboys, and the other characters who made my backyard so interesting. – CN

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Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.