Borderlands Bicycle Tour

February 8, 2013


High fog, 33 degrees! Just the morning to think about my annual week of bicycling in the warm winter sun of southern Arizona!

This year’s tour will travel through border towns: Nogales, Patagonia, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone, Sierra Vista, and Tucson. As I drink my Peet’s coffee, looking out at Portland’s bleak sky, one thing is clear: I have to spend the rest of the month in serious training—of my legs and lungs, and also my heart and mind.

Long ago I decided that one way to build coherence into my travels is to focus attention on two or three themes that are illuminated by the places through which I ride. For a retired academic like me, that means reading up on places where I’ll be cycling. Guidebooks help a little. Even better are materials that discuss the history and culture of the region. This kind of study helps me understand and more fully appreciate what I see while riding along through unfamiliar countryside.

For this year’s trip, “Border to Border” (week two of PAC Tour’s Desert Camp for 2013) my reading will explore three themes.

Eusebio Kino, S.J., and the chain of missions he established in the Sonoran Desert between 1685 and 1704. The three northernmost sites are strung along the road between Tucson and Nogales: San Xavier del Bac (still functioning as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, Tucumcacori (for more than a century a National Historical Site), and Guevavi. Although I have owned books about this system of missions for well over a decade, the time has come actually to read them, and I’m making a little progress.

An ever greater need, however, is to learn more about Kino himself, and with the help of Powells Books in Portland, two volumes are on their way. Because this reading connects my two blogging interests, American Religion and Aggressive Cycling, my background reading will likely influence columns on both sides of keithwatkinshistorian during the next few weeks.

Nabhan - RainPre-industrial Patterns of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. When Spanish conquistadores and priests traveled northward through the desert in the 1500s and 1600s, they discovered thriving indigenous civilizations that were well adapted to the arid climate. The interweaving of mission agriculture and Native American development of a food supply is an important part of the history and culture of this part of the world.

My guide to this topic is Gary Paul Nabhan, whose academic career at the University of Arizona has focused upon the ethnobotany of the region. Some of his books, most of them at least half read, are on my shelf, and I hope to pick them up again.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, his family is Arab/American, with continuing family connections in the Middle Eastern deserta. His interest is scientific and cultural, and he has spent most of his adult life in close communion with desert people, especially the Tohono O’odham (referred to in some of the literature as the desert Papago).

Nabham also was instrumental in establishing one of the most interesting organizations dealing with food and nutrition. Based in Tucson, it goes by the name Native Seeds/SEARCH. This organization specializes in preserving indigenous fruits and vegetables and also food-producing plants and trees brought by early Spanish colonizers that have since become indigenized.

In cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains its own farm near Patagonia where it cultivates many of the seed crops that it conserves and keeps alive. I hope to visit the farm on this year’s tour as I bicycle along the Nogales-Sonoita Road.

LoganThe Lessening Streams. The critical issue in sustaining life in arid lands is the availability and effective use of water. One source of supply is the river system, which in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert consists of tributaries of the Gila River (itself, a tributary of the Colorado). In preparation for last year’s tour, I bought The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River by Michael F. Logan, professor of history at Oklahoma State University, whose family homesteaded near this river in the 1880s.

I read the first 50 pages last year and now must try to read the 200 remaining pages. One reviewer of the book describes it as  “one of the finest studies of the history of a particular watershed that I have read.”

There’s much to read in the next two weeks as I train my mind for “Border to Border.” And, of course, the bodily side of training, already much neglected in this wet Northwestern winter, has to be intensified soon.

These next three weeks will be filled to overflowing.