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.