Seated in the sky for what felt like days, landing was a good feeling. An hour spurned waiting then convincing customs that a rogue banana wasn’t in fact a threat to national security added a connection flight pressure that I was just too tired for. Coming to America, I shouldn’t have but I did try to fool a sniffer dog into ignoring my lunch. Mono tasked they may be but good at it they are too. A slightly odd sandwich accompaniment conversation with a Dallas ‘born and raised’ Texan before a rushed for connection flight and A night in a close by airport Motel shut up for winter but bearing the scars of a summer of stop overs bore stark resemblance to what I imagined the set of a number of my favourite road movies would have looked like. Or indeed the America recorded by the photographic bibles of my hallowed new colour realists Eggleston, Shore and Misrach. That night though I slept deeply and started the following day with pancakes and syrup as I ought. I had arrived.
Arizona stunned by daylight: Sagauro cactus pricked the skyline in every direction, dust tracks and trailer homes made a manmade map overlay of this wilderness. Stars and stripes painted huge trucks rumbled under big blue skies stretching from all corners across wide empty roads headed in straight lines for days toward dusty blue-grey mountain ridges watching over them.
Veterans of Tuscson – Montana based camp operator The Cycling House and titanium masters Moots shared this owners’ camp at the foot of Mount Lemmon. Twenty one miles of steady, well surfaced, cactus, forest, rock, vista lined curves and switchbacks that despite their hardship, beguiled us with rewards of views so filmic it left empty speech bubbles to be filled in later. Picturesque did not do it justice, this was unreal. Looking out across the spread out grid of this cactus city sleeping between mountain ranges on all sides gave a humbling sense of perspective like being in the presence of mountains so often can but there was something more here. It’s seemed hard to put my finger on exactly what though. Different to the alps and pyrenees and dolomites this was like your local hills photocopied on 400 percent then plonked onto a John Ford film set. No, actually that was it. Familiar and yet otherworldly this was like a John Ford film set because it probably actually was one once.
Waiting atop a mountain with a long lens for cyclists is now a familiar task. To have met friends of friends just riding past 7000 miles from home was a new one on me though. Familiarity provided by who knows whom, connections made through a mutual interest, but kindness felt discovering later these strangers had stopped to make sure I was ok as sitting on a mountain ledge staring into the distance holding a bag of lenses looked from the outside like someone poised, contemplating their immediate future from a launch pad. Invitations were made and business cards swapped then Colnagos descended and these angels were gone as smoothly as they had appeared.
I waited. Voices drifted up from switchbacks below and the shutter count was increased, I sat back down amongst the long shadows of the basked desert winter sun. It was a slow business capturing a spread out group taking on a mountain. The terrain changed with altitude, the cactus stopping abruptly – too cold for them just one floor up. Pines, grasses and sage aromas accompanied us. Views above emerged round corners of huge rocks sitting balanced precariously above for thousands of years…Not today. One voice addressing me breaks my focus perched up on the rock face above a corner. Jeff our resident park ranger cycle tourist piped up… “watch out for the wildlife on those rocks Gus, there’ll be rattlesnakes in those cracks.” As if needed it was another reality check that this film set was another world, a million miles away from leafy southern England and enough for me to question the importance of that particular photograph anyway.
Riding past and up. Viewpoints stopped us in our tracks, each better than the last but likely not as good as the next. Gamble on one. Twist, twist, stick? Decided to hold out for a better one. Curves straightened out and flattened, the best view yet for a group reunited and a mission completed. Onward to 45minutes of downtime…
There would be more of this: Kitt Peak, Gates Pass, Madera Canyon. That was for other days though. At the time, in the here and now, chef Steph’s whole food lunch was yearned for by a dozen tired bodies. Sweet potatoes, squash, a goat’s cheese and grape salad were welcomed. Warmed, roasted pecans, sweetened by honey, a surprise delight. Spiced brown rice or homemade bread to accompany it was a feast for the famished already uploading to Strava. Guzzled fast but appreciated, simplicity and nutrition were in balance here. Task done, but the chores continued behind the scenes.
Brainchild of Owen Gue, this house of cycling did what it was supposed to for escaped roadie souls hedged in by Montana winters. More than a decade later it had gained helpers that came for a season and stayed for life following this gentle, talented, pied piper rouleur. Punters too – repeat custom always being the indicator. A campfire feeling warmed the living space with saddle talk while the staff exited stage left to fill dishwashers and hang out bib shorts unnoticed while these titanium strangers chewed the fat.
All too quickly this week of new hills and friends was in the past, memory reviving the big moments and in time with space and quiet, reflection would recall the smaller, more intricate and special ones to accompany a smile.
As the final evening after a hard last ride unveiled a feast of homemade Mexican delights, reds and greens and orange and black, wrapped, stuffed and smushed together to make a long, loud, happy table go back for seconds. It crept over faces that these excited new smiles wouldn’t be coming home with them the following day. Home is where the hearts are after this night, but right there, right then, a tribe was brought together as long as the candles would burn into the night, probably already wondering about next year and the possibility of getting this band back together once more.