story and photography by Mike Henry
[Arizona Motorcycle Rides: Florence, Phoenix, Tucson originally published as a Favorite Ride in the April 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Most motorcyclists dream of that once-in-a-lifetime trek to the Arctic Circle, or even participating in an Iron Butt Rally, but few of us ever have a chance to experience such an epic adventure. Like most mortals, I have responsibilities. In my case, a wife, a two-year-old daughter and a six-day-a-week job, all of which limit my riding to day trips. (I also enjoy commuting, but that’s another story).
I’ll spend days, or even weeks, planning a dawn-to-dusk ride, which is a little obsessive I’ll admit, but to my mind countless people spend more time on less noble endeavors. I like to use free mapping sites on the Internet, plotting my way across countless miles, thinking of all of the great people I’ll meet along the way. Of course, I have a laminated map in the window of my tankbag, discolored by the sun from lack of really long rides.
I planned one such trip this year, and even recruited my 64-year-old father for a leg of the ride. It didn’t take much prodding before he agreed to meet me for a few hours of riding and a meal stop. My dad rides a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide most of the time, but on this day, he rented a Buell Ulysses from Top Spoke Rentals in Scottsdale, Arizona.
I threw a leg over my Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, and hit the tarmac at 8 a.m. My route took me from downtown Tucson, north on AZ 77 through Florence, and up Highway 60 to Florence Junction where I was to meet my dad. The 42 miles from Catalina to Florence is usually, well, dull. On this day, there was a horrific crosswind blowing from east to west. My V-Strom was more like a control surface on a C-130 than a motorcycle, as I fought to keep the thing in my own lane. My wife’s acupuncturist says “wind is bad for the body.” No wonder she gave me that look when I told her I ride a motorcycle. The speed limit was 65, however, which helped the time pass.
The roadside is littered with small turnouts and picnic tables, and at least one historical landmark. I stopped for a few minutes at the Tom Mix Memorial. I’d heard the name in passing a few times, but didn’t know much about Hollywood’s first (silent-era) cowboy movie star. He was killed while driving his 1937 Cord 812 down this stretch of road in 1940. Apparently, the impact of the crash didn’t do him in, but the shiny aluminum suitcase in the back did, as it flew to the front of the car and crushed his skull. The plaque at the memorial doesn’t make mention of this, which may be just as well. “Whose spirit left his body on this spot” sure sounds better than the suitcase-in-the-head bit.
The city of Florence is built around a state prison. There’s also a downtown historic district and a museum. All I know is that the wind storm I rode through in Florence consumed the rubber pad on my luggage rack (An ill-advised reinstallation of the piece was more to blame than the wind–it turns out that more than two strips of servo tape are needed to hold it in place). I also watched the largest tumbleweed I’d ever seen blow across Highway 79, not 10 feet in front of me and my padless DL650.
I was also reminded how riding a motorcycle, somehow, makes you more approachable. I stopped at a McDonald’s in Florence to regain my equilibrium and have a cup of coffee. “Tough day to be on the bike” or “don’t blow away” were typical comments I heard from complete strangers. I’m pretty sure I would have gone unnoticed if I had pulled up in my Accord.
I rolled into Apache Junction right at 10 a.m., and found my dad next to his new pride and joy. Well, at least until 4:30 p.m. when Top Spoke wanted the bike back. I purchased a bottle of water and a bag of Peanut M&M’s from the gas station and we rolled out of town, heading for the real adventure. We hopped on Highway 88 and headed for Tortilla Flat. Highway 88 is a paradox of sorts for the motorcyclist; it features some of the best tight, increasing/decreasing radius turns you will ever find anywhere, but it’s also a real tourist trap. And you will have to deal with overly cautious Mom-and-Pop types who don’t want to plunge the Aerostar over the side. It’s a two-lane road, double-yellow all the way. But if you can muster up some patience, it pays dividends in spades.
This stretch of Highway 88 is also known as the Apache Trail. It was originally used by stagecoaches traversing the Superstition Mountains more than a century ago. Tortilla Flat is the last remaining stagecoach stop along the trail, and boasts a population of six. You can stop and have a meal, and shop for trinkets and trash, but the town itself is mostly forgettable. About five miles past the town, Highway 88 turns into a dirt road. We’re talking about a maintained, unpaved road here. If you’re looking for a single-track Louis and Clark ride, look elsewhere. But for the two of us, it was pretty adventurous (and we were on adventure bikes). For much of the ride, you’re cruising right next to Apache Lake. Arizona is known for a lot of things, but boating and fishing aren’t among them. We saw both activities, along with saguaro cactus lining the shores of the water and a few one-lane bridges, just to keep you honest. The dirt road is very smooth in places; sometimes you forget it’s not paved.
After about 45 minutes of switchbacks and elevation changes, the Roosevelt Dam appears out of nowhere. It’s quite impressive, even for a 100-year-old structure. The road segues into asphalt, and at the top of a steep climb you’re met by another large body of water, Roosevelt Lake. The dam and the lake were named after our 26th President. We stopped for a bite and a tank of gas at an innocuous-looking greasy spoon. An older fella took our money after filling up; I can’t remember the last time I paid for gas after topping off the tank. The gas pumps even have real numbers on them, the kind that spin around back to zero when you pull the handle.
We backtracked to the dam and continued to Globe. Once we left the safety of the canyon, we were again subjected to a modest headwind. I did the best I could, hiding behind the windscreen on my Suzuki, hoping nothing else would fall off. For a minute or two I felt bad for my dad on his Buell–the Ulysses has just a tiny plastic bikini fairing. I’m sure he was getting a healthy dose of bad Chi from the gale-force wind. We stopped along the way and switched bikes for awhile, but apparently he had so much fun on the Buell he couldn’t wait to get back on the thing. So much for pity.
We parted ways in Miami as the witching hour was approaching, and he didn’t want his bike to turn into a pumpkin if he didn’t return it on time. I rejoined Highway 77 and began the climb up Pinal Pass. As I crested the 4,983 feet, I realized how much I relished this day trip. Spending the day on my DL, riding unpaved roads, enjoying my dad’s company over a really average grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich and taking in some of Arizona’s lesser-known landmarks. I even had enough time to order Suzuki part number 46321-06G00 when I got home.