Family Farms on the Gila Bend-Wickenburg Bicycle Thoroughfare

February 28, 2012


The PAC Tour Cactus Classic 2012

After dark, the abandoned buildings along Gila Bend’s main street—Arizona Highway 85—disappear into the darkness, but the roar and glare of all-night heavy truck traffic continues. The one oasis of civility is a cluster of bold colors produced by the retro neon lights that invite travelers to stop at the Space Age Motel and Restaurant. Established in 1962 but refurbished in more recent years, this hostelry is the place for PAC Tour cyclists to spend the night before they begin their journey on one of the finest bicycle thoroughfares in the United States.

The harsh traffic outside is caused by the fact that Highway 85 is an arterial highway that carries heavy truck traffic to and from Mexico. It also serves as a link between I-8 traffic from San Diego and the regional warehousing on I-10 southwest of Phoenix.

Half a mile north of the Space Age Motel, however, cyclists turn left on Old U. S. 80 and instantly enter into a quiet zone that continues for 88 miles through Arizona’s Outback.

This portion of Arizona is part of the Sonoran Desert that has an area of 120,000 square miles in southwestern United States and northwest Mexico. It is a moderately high plateau (the elevation at Gila Bend is c. 700 feet), with sharply profiled mountainous spurs in all directions.

Annual rainfall ranges from three to sixteen inches per year and comes in two seasons, thus developing a more diverse flora and fauna than are found in many of the world’s deserts. The Gila River system has made it possible, however, to develop agriculturally based economies for more than a thousand year.

When Spaniards came to this country in the 1500s, they found an efficient, sustainable irrigation system, which in most years allowed the Pima Indians to share food generously with the foreign travelers who much of the time were in desperate need of food and water.

In these later years, however, highly mechanized irrigation systems have developed. The centuries-old, sustainable uses of water have been destroyed and complex modes of industrialized farming have taken their place.

Two sites along the highway illustrate the history of irrigation in this region. Twenty-four miles north of Gila Bend, the highway comes to a lush riparian scene, dominated visually by the Gillespie Dam, which was built in 1921 by a local farmer to replace an earlier structure. The concrete apron built in front of the spillover dam proved to be unsatisfactory for vehicular traffic. An iron bridge was constructed in 1926 and the road was incorporated into the federal highway system. The federal highway was decommissioned in 1956 and is now maintained by Maricopa County. The central portion of the dam was washed out in a flood on January 9, 1993.

Immediately north of the bridge, the highway climbs over a short, sharp spur of high ground. At the top, the olive-gray desert landscape is replaced by the intense green of irrigated hay fields. Major users of these feed stocks are the cattle feeding stations along this same section of the old road. Some of the water also supplies cotton farming along this venerable highway.

Nine miles north of I-10, the Hayden-Rhodes Aqueduct offers a sharp contrast to the riparian scene at the Gillespie Dam. As part of the Central Arizona Project, it carries a high volume of water from the Colorado River across the northern section of metropolitan Phoenix. There the canal receives a name change and continues its run as an artificial river to its termination at Tucson. Where the bicycle thoroughfare crosses this new canal (the system was built during a twenty-year period beginning in 1973), nothing of beauty can be seen—only the efficient concrete channel surrounded by chainlink and barbwire.

Two farming enterprises along this desert highway are particularly interesting because they illustrate non-traditional forms of family farming. As cyclists make their start on Old U. S. 80, a modest and weathered sign points to the shrimp farm five miles down the road. There the Wood Brothers produce their “desert sweet shrimp,” which (according to their website) are “pond-grown in mineral-rich well water, drawn directly from Arizona’s deep ancient seabeds. Carefully monitored and kept meticulously free of pathogens and contaminants, the qualities of this deep well water, combined with the benign effects of the hot desert sun, result in healthier, faster growing, and better tasting shrimp…The mineral-rich effluence from the shrimp ponds is used to irrigate acres of prime olive trees and even Durum wheat (the basis for pasta).”

Their shrimp business is in trouble, however, because Asian-grown shrimp are cheaper; the farm is experimenting with the production of algae for biofuel.

In sharp contrast, the Hickman Family Egg Farm, now operated by the third generation of the Hickman family, has recently invested $20 million in its Arlington operations on the Salome Highway. This farm contains approximately 3 million hens and produces an average of 2.5 million eggs per day.

That will make enough three-egg omelets to keep PAC Tour cyclists on the road for many a day!


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Lessons for Life on Vulture Mine Road

February 23, 2012

Days three and four on PAC  Tour’s Cactus Classic 2012

The Arizona highway from Gila Bend to Wickenburg—88 miles according to my friend’s Garmin—is one of the most interesting bicycle routes I’ve seen in my forty years of two-wheeled travel across America.

PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic uses this austere highway for days three and four of the annual Cactus Classic bicycle tour. On day three, we travel northward, gradually climbing from an elevation on the Gila River of 700 feet to the high point of 2,700 feet on the ridge near Vulture Peak, eight miles from Wickenburg.

The first 35 miles are on old U.S. 80, through a mixture of open desert and industrial farmland. At the Hassayampa River Bridge, the route turns west on the Salome Highway and at the 40-mile mark north on 355th Avenue, which, north of Interstate-10, changes its name to Wickenburg Road. Nineteen miles north of the interstate, at an intersection with oblique angles, the route turns onto Vulture Mine Road and the final serious climb of the day.

The last few miles are an easy downgrade to “Wickenburg Way,” more formally U.S. 60, which takes cyclists into the heart of an old American town that preserves much of its traditional appearance.

Since the Cactus Classic is staged in mid-February, most cyclists on the tour are still suffering from their cold-weather down time. After the first two days of the tour, their bodies are calling out for rest, but instead, their minds insist on a day of steady and unrelenting ascent. It is easy to overlook the unique vistas of this part of Arizona.

On the next day, however, with their bodies hardening into the routine, cyclists are better able to see what this old road offers to the observant and thoughtful traveler. Except for the initial climb back to Vulture Peak, and two or three short pulls close to Gila Bend, the Wickenburg-Gila Bend Road offers the happy antithesis to the previous day’s pain: 88 miles of gentle, down-hill riding.

Cyclists can see the beauty of this austere land, and their bodies, despite a residue of fatigue, seem content to keep on going.

On the hard day, I discovered once again how important it is to think. The more one’s mind is occupied on important things, the less likely it is to entertain negative thoughts and feelings caused by fatigue. My pain-breaking meditations included two lessons for life that kept me going that day and may help at other times when I’m doing other things.

Find your own rhythm and stay with it. On the hard day, when I was pedaling hard and resting, pedaling hard and resting, pedaling hard and resting, I remembered another PAC Tour event. Half way through the tour, I settled into a sweet spot where cadence, gear, feeling of exertion, and breathing were in happy agreement. I could pedal smoothly, with subtle changes in the gearing, for long distances. During the afternoon, to my surprise, I overtook riders who ordinarily seemed faster than I.

Remembering this previous occasion, I found my groove and, true to earlier experience, I began to cover the miles with discomfort remarkably diminished and forward motion wonderfully improved.

A similar principle holds true, I am convinced, for everything we do.

Let the younger man take the lead. This lesson, of course, is conditioned by the fact that my cycling companion for the trip is a man twenty-eight years younger than I, in the prime of life, experienced as a cyclist, and blessed with young, strong muscles. Although we are riding at close to the same speed, both of us are feeling the pressure of the long days. Yet, for many of the miles he takes the lead position, bearing the brunt of the wind and giving me the benefit.

As I quietly accepted his gift, I remembered reading a paper on the stages in an executive’s life. In each section of his or her working career, there are roles that are exactly right. In the later period, a primary task for good executives, according to this one study, is to step away from lead positions, gradually seeing to it that those who are coming along, move up in the succession of honor, authority, and responsibility.

By the time, I had thought this matter through, I reached the top of the grade, where my younger friend was waiting for me, and together we rode happily into town. As you might expect, he was out in front.


Ghosts at Gila Bend (Cactus Classic Day Two)

February 20, 2012

On the second day of PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic 2012, the ghost of John Butterfield came out of hiding. As our company of cyclists approached the rundown village of Gila Bend, even the freeway signs invoke the memory of the one-time master of stage coaching in the old west.

From our comfortable accommodations in Casa Grande, we traveled due west on AZ 84, through the farm town of Stanfield, passing huge feed lots and a dairy, to the junction with Interstate 8, 26.2 miles into the day’s ride. John Wayne was at one time an owner of one of these lots, which at its high point maintained 90,000 cattle in close quarters.

The statistical report for the day: 63.3 miles, three hours and forty three minutes on the bike for an average of 17.05 mph, and five hours elapsed time. We cycled on the shoulder of I-8 for 32 miles. To the surprise (and delight) of people not familiar with this stretch of highway, it has been rebuilt in recent years and for most of the distance the shoulder was absolutely smooth. For much of the distance, we were descending ever so slightly, and the westerly breeze was light enough to cause only a little trouble.

Chad was generous enough to take the brunt of the breeze until we came up to a group of six from our company, including Lon and Susan, Forming a double pace line, we cruised along at 21 mph, which in light of yesterday’s hard ride was too good to be true. At one point, I stopped to photograph the fine expanse of brittlebush flowers along the freeway border.

We left the freeway at the Butterfield Stagecoach sign, and followed the old state highway into Gila Bend. For people interested in transportation history, we were two days too late. The Butterfield Stage Days had taken place on Saturday and Sunday. Chad suggested that if we’d been here, one of us might have taken a prize for jackpot roping.

My family history with Gila Bend began more than 80 years ago (and 60 years after the Butterfield Stages stopped running). My mother, Lydia Hiukka Watkins, had hitchhiked from Minnesota to Oregon and found work teaching school in eastern Washington. A couple of years later, she and two teacher friends decided to drive Mother’s Model T car from Portland to Duluth. Their route? Down the Redwood Highway through San Franciso to Tijuana, Mexico, and then on the new national highway from San Diego through Phoenix and beyond, finally turning north for the last part of their journey.

They called themselves the Weed family. The tallest of the three was Pa, then came Ma, and Mother, the short one of the group was Babe. That was the name she used when my Dad, Harold S. Watkins—Dutch—courted her after that memorable trip across the country. Stretches of the highway on which she traveled still exist under the name “Old U.S. 80.” Much of it was replaced in recent years by I-8, but at Gila Bend, where the Gila River swings north toward Phoenix, the old road is still there. That’s where the Cactus Classic will be traveling tomorrow.

The ghost of John Butterfield will no longer be with us, since his route continued on to Yuma. But for me, Lydia Hiukka Watkins—Babe Weed—will be right there, whispering her blessings in my inner ear.

Note: a more complete photo log of the Cactus Classic is posted on the PAC Tour website.


Cactus Classic Bicycle Tour – Day One

February 19, 2012


Again this year, I am registered for a week of the Desert Camp for bicyclists, which Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo direct in southern Arizona. We gathered in Tucson on Friday and Saturday of the week just past and today, February 19, 2012, we have done our first day—Tucson to Casa Grande by way of a loop through the mountain parks on the west side of Tucson. The metrics of our day, according to my bike computer: 85.52 miles, 5 hours and 29 minutes on the bikes for an average of 15.58 mph; 7 hours total elapsed time.

The roster lists 21 people, five of whom are crew members who will bicycle some of the days. Three of the company are in their twenties, one in her thirties, three in their forties, seven in their fifties, four in their sixties, and three of us even older (74, 78, and 80). The photo below shows some of us gathered for lunch near Picacho Peak. Over lunch, we talked about the fact that the western-most battle of the Civil War happened a short distance from our stop.

On Saturday before the tour began, I assembled my Davidson bike (new for this trip) and bicycled seven miles to visit Mission San Xavier del Bac, which serves the San Xavier Tohono O’odham Indian Community. Although Father Eusebio Kino visited this location in 1692, the first church at this mission was built in 1756. Construction of the present church began in 1783 and it was completed in 1797. According to a brochure at the museum at the church, “some 200,000 visitors come each year from all over the world to view what is widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States.” Yesterday, I was one of the people who came mainly to look. Next week, I plan to attend Sunday Mass in order to see the church function the way it is supposed to.

About half of today’s itinerary parallels the course of the Santa Cruz River that flows north to join the Gila River south of Phoenix. Much of the year, the Santa Cruz disappears into the sand so that there’s no water left to join the Gila. At one crossing, near Marana, north of Tucson, there was quite a bit of water and a lovely riparian scene. Even though much of the water may be provided by the Tucson wastewater treatment system, it makes a pretty scene.

My riding companion on this tour is a Texas businessperson with whom I cycled 35 years ago. He was fifteen at the time and was part of a group of high school students from Indiana churches whom I led on a weeklong tour in southern Indiana. Although we have seen each other only two or three times since then, his church activities bring him into close contact with members of my family. He’s younger and stronger than I, but we managed to stay together and had a fine first day, despite rough pavement and a strong headwind for half of the day.

Tomorrow, we turn westward, with the little town of Gila Bend as our destination for the night.


PAC Tour and the Butterfield Stage Company

February 17, 2012

Across the desert southwest, signs commemorating the Butterfield Stage Company connect modern travelers with the transportation history of western United States. Beginning in 1858, the company owned by John Butterfield carried mail and passengers on regularly scheduled stage coaches from El Paso, Texas, to Messela, New Mexico, and then across New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California.

In the southeastern corner of Arizona, the Butterfield route departed from the trail blazed by the Mormon Battalion. Instead of going south of the border of what would become Mexico, Butterfield stages traveled north of the Chiricahua Mountains, through Apache Pass, and threaded their way around mountainous outcroppings to the San Pedro River near the modern towns of St. David and Benson.

From that point onward across Arizona the new stage company followed the route alternately called Cooke’s Wagon Road and the Gila Trail. At Tucson, the stage route kept near the Santa Cruz River, which in those days enjoyed a fairly steady (although modest) flow of water, past Maricopa Wells and the Pima Villages. It then turned westward, traveling across an unwatered section of desert until it reached the Gila River as it traveled its final 200 miles to the Colorado River at Fort Yuma.

For the most part, this route provided hard surfaces and gentle grades, which may be the reason it was used by the Southern Pacific Railroad which little more than a decade later established a secure transportation system across this vast, empty, challenging region.

Two legs of PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic bicycle tour, which starts on February 18, 2012, follow this routing. The Santa Cruz River has largely disappeared, but in its stead, the old railroad and the newer Interstate 10 will be nearby.

In contrast to the Butterfield travelers, however, we will have the benefit of paved roads, motel beds at night, and a steady supply of food and water. Although we will cycle through or near four Indian reservations—San Xavier, Ak-chin, Gila River, and Tohono O’odham—we won’t need to be on guard because of the constant threat of armed conflict that always troubled the people who traveled by stage coach 150 years ago.

Until reading Odie B. Faulk’s Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, I had little understanding of the immensity of the challenge that Butterfield and his partners (who included William G. Fargo) faced in order to make their stage company operative. Not only did they have to determine the exact route, but they also had to establish way stations all along this stretched-out, largely unpopulated territory. Where possible, they contracted with local farmers to provide basic services, but in many places they had to build their own way stations of adobe or mud. They cut paths down steep embankments when streams could be forded, and arranged for ferries at other locations.

When fully operational, Butterfield had some 800 employees and used 1,000 horses, 700 mules, 800 sets of harnesses, and 250 stagecoaches and spring wagons. The full-bodied stagecoach, as seen in western paintings and movies, Faulk writes, weighed 3,000 pounds, could seat nine passengers inside and “as many as could pile on top.” It could carry 4,000 pounds and cost $1,400. The wagons didn’t have springs, but their bodies “rocked on leather straps, called thoroughbraces, which were stitched three and one-half inches wide.”

The stages averaged five miles an hour and covered 120 miles a day, 2,800 miles in twenty-five days or less. In order to describe what travelers could expect to eat, Faulk quotes from a 1935 book by William Tallack:

The fare though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts, and consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, o mule flesh—the latter tough enough. Milk, butter, and vegetables can only be met with towards the two ends of the route—that is, in California and at the ‘stations’ in the settled parts of the Mississippi Valley.

Although PAC Tour cyclists travel on their own two-wheeled steeds instead of in or on the coaches, their hosts, Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, accompany them with modern counterparts to the prairie schooners of long ago. PAC Tour’s two large vans, each with its custom trailer, carry the cyclists’ gear, repair facilities, and a large inventory of bicycle parts and components. Every twenty-five or thirty miles one of the vans sets up a rest and meal stop, complete with places to sit while enjoying the kind of food and drink that helps cyclists stay on the road.

Butterfield and Company are fine for the movies. In real life, I vote for PAC Tour.


“Jesus saves!” An evangelical message in a liberal church

February 12, 2012

One of the important differences between evangelical and liberal churches in the Pacific Northwest, according to James K. Wellman, Jr., is the prominence given to the message that Jesus is the one who can transform a person’s life. “Jesus saves!” is central to evangelical church life and a key to growth, whereas in liberal churches, this message often is overshadowed by other faith-based convictions.

Here is Wellman’s description of what he calls “the necessary engine of personal transformation [and] of social change” in evangelical churches:

At the core of the evangelical moral worldviews is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, based on an act of submission to the authority of their “Lord.” This act of allegiance is intimate and intensely subjective. It is intimate in that the submission is not merely intellectual but also an emotional commitment that is cultivated endlessly through worship, prayer, ritual, and personal piety. It is subjective in that it centers on a personal decision by each individual that engages the core identity of the self. The intimacy and subjective nature of this core are not only continually nurtured but also normatively constructed. Leadership molds how these personal decisions should be made and how one should feel about them in the process. Indeed, the transformation of this personal core is the center of what many pastors and laypeople mentioned as an “authentic faith” (p. 60).

Reclaiming the message that “Jesus saves” could become a way for liberal churches to recover the vitality that in many of them has languished during recent decades. Some  preachers who are grounded in liberal theology are finding ways of incorporating this message in their sermons. While the phrase “Jesus saves” may not be one they use, the basic idea is a central focus of sermons.

A recent sermon by the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell at First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, illustrates how this theme can be preached. Her text was Mark 5:1-20, the healing of the man from the country of the Gerasenes. A key section in the sermon asserts that in order for healing to occur, a new center of authority needs to be established:

But hear this hopeful word: Christ doesn’t need our unified desire to make us whole. Christ understands our conflicted desire and accepts it as a starting point. He has not come to punish. He has not come to punish. And he doesn’t wait until we get ourselves together. Underneath the noise of all our competing internal voices, Jesus can hear the voice of the heart asking for help, no matter how small the cry. 

So he says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m not a name. Call me thousands—a number too big to have a name. I’m not a name. I’m a number.”

“Good answer,” says Jesus. It’s the truth. And that’s all he needs—the truth, even if it’s a conflicted truth and a confused confession. Any confession that’s true he accepts.  He accepts it like a bridge. And he will cross it into the center of the heart. And then he gives a quiet command of astonishing authority.

Now authority is not a fashionable word these days. Because the word has been misused, claimed by principalities and powers that have no right to it.  But there is an authority without which we die. Your world may be screaming and careening with chaos but the author of life, the Lord who called the earth into being still speaks. There is a living voice, which calls with authority, saving authority to master our madness, to order our chaos, to say to our darkness, “Let there be light.” 

To have a divided heart and will, to be a man or a woman against the self is not to be in need of a ten-step plan. It’s to be in need of a sovereign, a sovereign who guides and centers all your impulses. Jesus Christ can make it so. If you are a Christian you have claimed that Jesus is Lord and Savior. To make that claim, to live as if it is so is to make all of the fragments come together around a healing center. To read the full text of the sermon, click Epiphany 5 Jesus Cures Hams.

As Wellman documents, it takes more than a sermon now and then to transform a person’s life and to develop vital congregations. To change a life and congregational culture takes time, but a new kind of preaching can happen soon—maybe even next Sunday!

Note: To listen to a pod cast of this sermon, as preached in the 9:00 o’clock service with music by the Joyful Noise ensemble, click here. Most weeks, the church posts both the podcast and manuscript of the previous week’s sermon. The graphic at the top is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church.


Bicycling along Cooke’s Wagon Road

February 3, 2012

And we’ll have maps!

During the last week of February, I and two dozen others will bicycle along some of Arizona’s historic roads. We will be doing the Cactus Classic, the relatively easy-going week-long expedition with which PAC Tour begins its annual Desert Camp for serious cyclists. Part of our route will follow the course first plotted by the Mormon Battalion and soon thereafter developed into a major migration route.

During the 1840s, the desert southwest was conflicted territory. Mexico and the United States (and until granted statehood on December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas) claimed sovereignty in this vast region. Their armies tried, with fluctuating effectiveness, to enforce the claims of political forces in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.

Older and more complex rivalries, however, were more immediate threats to the well being of the people who lived in this arid territory. With civilizations and cultures that went back a thousand years or more, Native American communities had created ways to live relatively quiet and comfortable lives by skillfully using the region’s limited water supplies. Arriving later in time (estimates vary from 850 to 1400 CE) several nomadic bands of Native Americans, collectively referred to as Apaches, established a hunting and gathering way of life that conflicted with the agricultural patterns of their predecessors.

Add the Spaniards, beginning in the 1500s. Driven by their desire for gold, conquest, and conversion of Indians to the Catholic faith, and unwilling to acknowledge the prior claims of indigenous peoples, the Spaniards intensified the conflict. Finally, the Americans moved through the region, interested primarily in the riches of California, but also willing to tarry in the desert when their eyes were blinded by the sparkle of copper and silver that were buried in the Arizona mountains.

The dominant need, as the Americans saw it, was a land route from the Rio Grande River, across what would become New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California to San Diego. Without a road, the only viable way to get from the United States to California was around the Horn, an 18,000 mile trip that could take as long as six months. To be useful, the road had to be one that wagons could use and it had to be within reach of water for livestock and humans. Across this desolate stretch of the continent, the rivers were of little use as transportation arteries. Some of them ran north and south instead of east and west, and even when they went the right direction (as did the Gila), their water supply was too uncertain to plan regular travel.

The specific assignment given to the Mormon Battalion that marched across this country in 1846 was to establish the route for this wagon road. Under the steady, determined leadership of army regular Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, that is what the volunteer Mormon army accomplished.

It seems only right that for a time, this route bore his name. It was the Cooke Wagon Road. According to Cooke’s own log, the total distance was 1,800 miles. From Tucson to the Pima Villages was 81 miles, and Cooke writes that from there to the crossing of the Colorado River was another 205 miles (perhaps thirty miles longer than that same trip on modern roads). That portion of his trail paralleled the westward course of the Gila River  to its junction with the Colorado River at Fort Yuma. Increasingly this migration trail for Americans on their way to California came to be known as the Gila Trail.

Two processes during the latter part of the 1840s secured the American identity of this primitive road. The first was a tense negotiation between the United States and Mexico to establish a political border between these two nations. Finally, after several aborted efforts, the Joint Boundary Commission completed their work on August 16, 1855. It took four more years before accurate maps were published.

For the American team of surveyors, one of the primary considerations was to make sure that the Cooke Wagon Road would be in American territory. While the politicians and surveyors were doing their work, however, the second process was more powerfully at work. In his book Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, Odie B. Faulk explains it this way:

The maps did not appear in print in time to be of service to the first major horde of pilgrims to use this overland route, the gold-seekers of Forty-Nine. While Cooke’s Wagon Road was influencing the final boundary between the United States and Mexico, an abstract line upon the surface of the earth, it was being put to hard and practical use by thousands and tens of thousands of Americans who considered themselves far more practical than the government servants trying to survey and mark the international boundary. The lure of quick riches was a powerful magnet to eastern men, one that lured them across Cooke’s Wagon Road even in the absence of good maps (p. 57).