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Common Tread

Arizona ride report, day two: Starry eyed at the Kitt Peak Observatory

May 13, 2014

I awoke to the all too familiar sound of Los Angeles girl chatter. I was confused momentarily until I realized I was in a beautiful desert not too far from Los Angeles and, as with most days with decent weather, there was probably some sort of photo shoot happening. This was what we'd just left behind!

“The shoot is for this up-and-coming band that’s going to be really big. Can I ride on the back of your bike? You’re the stunt guys, right? No? Want to stay and be in the shoot?” No, no, no, and no thanks. I knew when the director said his plan was to have one of the girls ride a dirtbike across the sand they were all clearly out of their minds. Soft does not equal easy. Needless to say, we packed and were on our way quickly.

Now this is what we had in mind. Photo by Sean MacDonald.

Just as we made it back down to the 8 freeway for gas, we checked our GPS and saw that Billy was only 10 miles behind us! By the time we’d all filled up and got to the freeway entrance, his blue Bonneville with the yellow North Face duffle I’d lent him went screaming under the overpass and we fell in behind him. We rode across the state border and stopped to get breakfast and see how he was doing. Apparently he’d slept two hours before getting on the road and had ridden just over five before meeting us. What a guy.

Interstate 8 is a terrible place to be in the spring. All of the benefits of it being early in the year and the temperature not being over 100 yet were negated by the 40 mph springtime crosswinds, with 60 mph gusts and plenty of trucks to pass to keep it interesting. Our 200-mile freeway stint was a pretty big bummer. Our next destination was Kitt Peak and we happily got off the freeway as soon as we found a roundabout route.

Finally off the interstate. Photo by Sean MacDonald.

Arizona 85 and subsequent 86 were slightly less straight and flat and were more of what I’d hoped riding in Arizona would be like. Lots of really neat rock formations and Saguaro trees sprouting between little cowboy towns strewn along desolate two-lane highway. My favorite part about the route, however, was when we came around a bend about 50 miles away from Kitt Peak to an incredible view of the white domes containing the telescopes. It was nearing 3 p.m. at this point and the sight of those scopes from this far out was the pick-me-up we needed after a long day trying not to get blown over.

With 24 optical and two radio telescopes, the Kitt Peak Observatory is the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes and they are active pretty much all the time, doing research funded or co-funded by different universities around the country. They had a sunset/night tour beginning at 6 p.m. and said they would squeeze us in. I had the best nap of my life on my sleeping pad in their parking lot, followed by the best coffee of my life via my Jetboil, and we spent the next four hours learning about the sun and the stars and staring into space through fancy telescopes.

What they’d failed to mention when we signed up for the tour was that we’d be asked to ride down the mountain sans lights — naturally followed by a long talk about all of the animals they see in the road on the way down, including the cows they said were nearly invisible due to their color being so similar to the countryside. With so many scopes on the mountain being controlled remotely and using camera equipment, they can’t afford light from headlights ruining their shots. With no “off” switch for our lights, they taped manila envelopes over our headlights and led us down the hill in the slowest procession I’ve ever been a part of. Luckily we made it down safely.

Our initial plan was to camp in the Saguaro National Forest, but by this time it was many hours past when we’d planned to make camp so we decided to head into Tucson to check out another recommended spot: Hotel Congress.

Hotel Congress. Photo by Sean MacDonald.

The best way to describe Hotel Congress is that it’s Arizona’s version of a hipster California Hotel like the Ace. It has the hip elements of vintage rooms and a cool-kid café on site and a bar that serves tall boys of PBR and a generous selection of whiskey. Unfortunately, the rooms are directly above their club, with music so loud we couldn’t hear each other talk when we dropped off our stuff. Looks like we were going to keep Billy up a bit longer and enjoy the Tucson nightlife. Luckily, the booze was cheap and we only had to answer the question, “Hey, are you guys in a band?” like nine or 10 times.

Day one: Ortega Highway, apple pie, Glamis

Day three: The best road ever

Day four: The wind wants to kill us

Day five: Homeward bound by way of East Jesus