Taking the hard way home

Dec 02, 2015

On the way up, it’s easy to feel like we’d been cheated.

An intermediate rating, huh? After 45 minutes of paved road, 20 or so minutes to fly up the mountain almost seems like a trick.

Where was that challenge the website warned about? Where were the deep crevices that can swallow your dirt bike whole? Washouts that hold you hostage on their ledge before you can regain enough sense — and courage — to throttle your way across. Rocks, silt, pebbles, ruts! Where was the promised excitement?

The end of the line is already in sight. Once we’ve dismounted for the last half-mile hike to the lookout tower at the top, my internal diatribe subsides and I remember that the descent ahead is still unfamiliar. There’s no other way to go. The road home, the ride down the mountain, is really what those warnings were about. And finally, enthusiasm has time to build as we walk towards the monumental panorama that waits at the top of Mount Ord.

Mount Ord view
The view is the payoff for the climb, and for the harder descent to come. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

We were up at the crack of 10 a.m., loading our bikes and casually munching cereal. An unrushed hour later, Justin and I were enroute to our first Arizona adventure since the Apache Trail. You can see it from the highway for miles. The lookout tower, looming over the narrow valleys, sits atop Mount Ord waiting for us, beckoning adversaries to climb to its 7,000-foot peak. That altitude might not be much for some, but for our factory-jetted Yamaha XT225s, it was a struggle. Slow and steady and still we made good time. On a Friday afternoon in the middle of October, you can find the hard-packed gravel road to the summit from the south lined with pickup trucks and camouflage. It's hunting season. Perhaps the only dangers we’d have to avoid that day would be getting hit by a stray bullet? The passage began ascending so evenly that our only true obstacles were the clamor of four-wheeled vehicles traversing the one (and half) lane thoroughfare.

Mount Ord road
The easy part of the ride. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

The beauty of this ride is that it’s not the only one of its kind. Not far from civilization, Mount Ord is one of hundreds (if not more) of off-road paths that riddle the Arizona ranges just outside of Phoenix and Scottsdale. You can spend a day, a night, a week or longer blazing a trail through the surprisingly varied terrain of the Tonto National Forest, the largest of the six national forests in Arizona. The riding options are endless. The views are spectacular. And the accommodations can be anything from a secluded cliff-side camp spot to a hundred-year-old brothel turned historic hideaway (that's another story). Adventure is close enough that the average working-class citizen can get out and get some.

Mount Ord road
Nice day for a ride. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Clouds floated overhead all day. The breeze kept the high 70s temperature bearable even with our waxed cotton jackets and warm layers on. Fall and winter are perfect for moto adventures in the wilds of the Southwest, and by the time we had enjoyed the views from the peak and reached our chosen path of descent, the sun had softened.

descending Mount Ord
Choose your lines well. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Good, because here is where you face your fears.

descending Mount Ord
Going down is when the ride gets tricky. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
The route had gone unnoticed on our way to the lookout tower. The turn is so sharp it seems to run almost parallel to the trail up. When you reach it on your way down the mountain, you may not recognize it as a passable trail. There is a Y, we take the fork to the right, and almost immediately we see the unkempt crumble of what might have once been a road that leads north along the Mazatzal Mountain Range to the highway. And it’s everything a daring motorcyclist could ask for. The trail is a slow-skills training course for the experienced, a heart-strengthening competence test for the timid, and an “all of the above” seminar for the novice. We’ll let the photos tell the rest of the tale.

The road from the top of Mount Ord to the highway some 12 miles north ends suddenly, leaving us separated from the highway home by a rickety barbed wire showstopper. There is a way out, but it’s not that obvious. Okay, it’s on the left, but the fastener is simply a barbed halo connecting the fence and gate posts. Just be careful on your way out…

Mount Ord road
The descent from Mount Ord. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Then, as we race the clock to beat rush hour, thoroughly tired and satisfied, we're glad we didn’t make excuses, and that we took advantage of Arizona’s untamed landscape.

Until next time, Arizona!