Our stay at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Royal Sun Inn & Suites includes breakfast at the adjoining Royal Sun Restaurant & Lounge. We have a nice hot breakfast, and spend some time planning our day’s ride. We have some distance to travel, and plenty of things to see along the way.
Looking at the map, I’m continually surprised to realize just how close we are to the U.S./Mexico border. Nogales, Mexico is just 70 miles south on Interstate 19. We’re not going to cross the border on this trip, but it is possible to cross into and out of Mexico with ease. You and your passengers (including children) need to bring your U.S. Passports, and it’s a good idea to purchase Mexico vehicle insurance before entering the country — your U.S. policy will probably not cover you in a foreign country. It is also advisable to check the U.S. Department of State’s website for up-to-the-minute information about travel to Mexico. Mexico is a beautiful, amazing country, but there are some definite dangers for tourists. Forewarned is forearmed.
We check out of the hotel, jump on the Electra Glide and head west on Speedway Boulevard through the heart of town. Tucson is still waking up, and we slide smoothly through light traffic, taking in the sights and sounds of the desert city. On the west side of Tucson, the city ends abruptly, and we’re soon riding through desert hills in Saguaro National Park. The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert. It’s the cactus that I think of when I think of the desert — the tall central column with arms that grow out and upward. Saguaros are very slow-growing, but can reach 40 – 60 feet tall and can live 150 – 200 years in the right conditions. They are only found in the Sonoran Desert, in Arizona and Mexico. We ride into the park, find a good viewing area, and look out into the Saguaro Wilderness Area for a while, admiring the otherworldly view. Groups of hikers use the viewing areas as a home base, and a few groups arrive and depart during the time that we are there. They tell us that the best time of year for a hike here is early spring, because the wildflowers bloom and decorate entire hillsides with explosions of vivid color. Seems like a return visit is in order.
We get back on the bike and find Interstate 10 East. We connect with Interstate 19 South just outside of Tucson, and continue south for 10 miles or so until we arrive at Mission San Xavier del Bac. The church is the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, completed in 1797. It is an active Catholic mission, still holding services and administering a school. Mission tours are free, either guided in groups by docents or self-guided. We skirt the edge of a guided tour, preferring to wander through the beautiful building at our own pace. The artwork and sculpture inside the church is amazing, combining an Old World feel with Southwestern Folk Art. The idea that we’re standing in a building that is contemporary with the early days of the United States, yet is deep in the desert, fills us with admiration.
Our ride continues deeper into the Sonoran Desert. I fill up our gas tank to the brim, and pick up a couple of liters of water to carry in the TourPak. Even though it’s winter, I never want to take the desert for granted. We pick up Arizona Highway 86, and proceed down the road. Sometimes two lanes, sometimes four lanes strike out through the desert, passing through small towns and along the borders of ranches and some orchards. The landscape is anything but bleak, and the ride is amazing.
Every so often, at random intervals, we have to pass through Border Patrol checkpoints. Officers give us a quick once-over, and ask us about our citizenship. Robin and I proudly shout out “U.S.A.,” and we get the nod to ride on. The experience is a little unsettling, reminding us of the realities of border politics.
At the town of Why, we turn south on Arizona Highway 85 to visit the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The monument is an area of protected land designed to “celebrate and preserve” a representative area of the Sonoran Desert. The difference between a National Park and a National Monument is that a National Park is established by an act of Congress, while a National Monument is established by a Presidential proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument by proclamation in 1937. The United Nations designated the monument as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and Congress declared 95% of the monument as a wilderness area in 1977. The monument covers over 330,000 acres of land in the Sonoran Desert.
An Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) is rare in the United States. It looks pretty much like you’d expect it to — a collection of vertical, tubular stalks that grow together from a central stalk, resembling the tubes of a pipe organ. They can grow to be enormous, 30 – 40 feet tall with dozens of stalks in a cluster and sharp spines along its length protecting soft pulpy flesh. Organ Pipe Cactus, Saguaro Cactus and at least 26 other species of cacti spread across the monument.
We stop in at the Visitors Center, and explore the cool displays that explain the uniqueness of this slice of the Earth. There are trails, RV parking areas and campgrounds throughout the area. We’re intrigued, but not tempted — Robin and I are definitely hotel people, not campers. We love the idea of camping, but we much prefer a clean bed, a private bathroom and a solid roof over our heads. BEST WESTERN on the sign outside completes the picture.
We travel north again, this time on Arizona Highway 85. Hunger hits in the town of Ajo, and we stop at Marcela’s Cafe & Bakery. It’s a friendly joint that serves homemade Mexican food and baked goods. A local character named Bob Boozer stops by our table to regale us with his stories. Bob is now in his seventies, and brags that he has “had all four hips replaced” thanks to his former hobby of high school sports referee. He shows us a picture of what he claims is the largest Organ Pipe Cactus in the world, and offers to take us to see it. We politely decline, as the day is growing short. But our delicious meal is greatly enlivened by Bob’s storytelling. It isn’t really conversation — that implies that we can get a word in edgewise — but it is entertaining and memorable.
Back on the bike again, we reconnect with the Interstate Highway System. We join Interstate 8 West, and make a blast through the desert toward Yuma, our stop for the night. It is dark by the time we park at the BEST WESTERN PLUS InnSuites Yuma Mall Hotel & Suites. We check in, unload the bike and shed our motorcycling gear for some civilian duds. The nearby outdoor mall is just across the road from the hotel, so we drag ourselves over in search of a meal. Because we’ve had a long day, we break one of our travel rules, and eat at Famous Dave’s, part of a small chain of barbeque restaurants. We try never to eat at chains while we’re on the road, but we needed some barbeque, and Famous Dave’s is just darn good. No apologies.
Back in our room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS InnSuites, we watch a very interesting biography of Walt Disney on CNN while we plan tomorrow’s ride. We’ll be crossing the border back into California, so the Disney bio seems like good preparation. More riding, more desert and more fun to follow.
Distance traveled: 325 miles
NEXT: Desert Adventure, Day Five: Yuma, AZ to San Diego, CA