Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Busted Flat in Ruby

When Dan tried to ride past Toothless, the old man's bony hand gripped Dan’s elbow like a tail hook stopping a fighter jet.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he spat. Holding tight onto Dan, who was now off his bike, Toothless kicked into high gear. He all but dragged Dan to the gate and closed it with a flourish on the latch.

“Call the Sheriff. Let him know we got some trespassers here,” he barked to another man who was wearing a cowboy hat and sitting in a one-ton, dually-wheeled Chevy pick-up truck. The tobacco stains on Toothless’s chin traced the path of saliva as it streamed out of his gummy grin.

About this time my bowels felt like they were ready to drop through my shorts. I looked at the gate, looked at Toothless, who was moving toward his truck with the gun plainly visible in the rear window rack, and looked behind me to see the other bikers pulling up to the gate, tired and guilty.

Toothless was shaking with rage and fear now. It looked bad and he looked desperate. The other cowboy wasn’t alone, and a few of them were out of the other truck now, waiting for further directions from Toothless.


Let's back up a bit. A moment before we had been grinding up steeps, splashing through streams, and flying along jackhammer down-hills on our fancy mountain bikes. We were on Forest Road 217, down by the ghost-town of Ruby in deep Southern Arizona – drug and human smuggling country. Now we were stopped, wings clipped, surrounded.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This ride was part of a tradition that had started years before. Every year, as close to New Year’s Day as possible, the Geriatrics United Mountain Bike Association (GUMBA) makes its way to Ruby. Ruby is a ghost town in the Atascosas Mountains west of Nogales and famous for its wild life as a mining town and its wildlife after the mine shut down. The mountains surrounding Ruby are still famous for drug smuggling and the attendant execution style violence. Of course, Ruby had its share of wild life before the mine shut down, with murders, brothels, bank robberies -- the usual signs of progress. Post-mine, ghost town Ruby is getting known for other wild life and was featured in a Nature documentary that examined how the native fauna are moving back in: scorpions, skunks, bobcats, mountain lions, jaguars, ocelots, trogons, and coatimundi now run the town.

It is the natural beauty that draws us to Ruby. Our road leading there treats us to some of the best views in southern Arizona, winding through climbs and deep canyons, and drops us into the perennially running water of California Gulch. We have ridden here every January since the years we first started mountain biking. We did birthday rides and bachelor rides and bachelorette rides and good bye rides, but the New Year’s ride was the best. Usually because it was the most unpredictable. Sometimes the weather was good and sometimes it got nasty. January, even though it’s in Arizona, can turn from sunny shorts riding into an exercise in hypothermia. Also, the route keeps accumulating new barriers and restrictions. Where once we followed a Forest Service road in a long horseshoe, we now ride over barriers intended to keep four-wheel drives from tearing the place up. A new and rather boring road has taken the place of our original Forest Road 217.


So, this morning, the first Sunday in January, we assemble at the giant concrete cow skull in Amado. Lee, who finished well in the Leadville 100, is waiting in his old Suburban. Tom from Green Valley, Dave down from Colorado, and Mark, a serious expert racer are all milling around the parking lot when we Tucsonans arrive. There’s Chris “Caution” Gans, a local mountain bike entrepreneur, Dan “Danimal” Meyer, who used to work for Vermont Bicycle Tours, Gary who just got in from Spain, and the rest of us middle-aged weirdos. After some introductions and reunions we head for the trail via Arivaca. We only lose one bike off the rack as we cross one of the many dry stream crossings.

We park at the west leg of the horseshoe and begin the long ritual of suiting up. We have to decide whether or not we need raingear, leggings, fleece, Goretex, Ultrex, or Triple Point Ceramic. It’s always a tough call. Fully suited, we round up the ponies for final inspection. The tension is building. A final group photo and we’re off.

The road climbs to the south and begins a long series of rolling grades through canyon country. We pass some cattle tanks and some abandoned mines on our way to the Gulch. The pace is fast as Lee and Mark start burning up the road. Down a rutted, loose, rock strewn descent, though, Lee flats. While waiting for him to repair his tire, we find the chimney of an old furnace, probably used for refining silver. It’s just close enough to hit with medium sized rocks, so we begin the chucking. It’s a contest to see who can “score” first. Michael Jordan we are not and the tire is fixed long before we admit defeat and move on down to the Gulch. We pass some trailers, some working mines, and notice the many twin tracks that head for Mexico. This is not a place to travel at night. In the distance we can see one of the spy balloons watching the border.

The views are almost as breathtaking as the hills we have to climb, but we get our downhill reward of a waterfall and flat rock perfect for a snack. Someone wonders aloud if Toothless will come by. We’ve seen him before and want to make a point of avoiding him if we can. He’s not so much scary as he is tenacious. He is a legend, a toothless driver of a bald-tired, ancient Ford pick-up. Now Toothless isn’t a bad guy, but once he starts talking, he doesn’t want to stop. And now that our route is barred to cars, we doubt we’ll see him.

We review the various endos in mid stream that defined the previous Ruby rides: Gary’s double twister, Dan’s big splash, my weed wipe out. We know what we’re up against. We re-mount to begin the string of crossings that lead to heart attack hill and then on to Ruby.

Because no one goes over the bars we think we have it made and on the long grinds out of California Gulch and up to the Ruby turnoff we feel smug, victorious. The side road to Ruby has grown over even more than the Gulch road, but we follow it anyway. We ride through tall grass, mud, and even up a tailings slope to a fence clearly signed against trespassers. We deliberate. Chris says we’ve done this before.

“You think it’s alright?” Lee asks. He hasn’t done it before.

We consider our options. One is to retrace our steps through all that grass and mud. The other is to go ahead, take a chance, and get to the main road within a couple of miles by going straight through Ruby. We continue forward, but take on something of a burden of knowing we are not in the right.

We pass a huge pile of tailings that looks like something off the moon. Chris can’t resist. The rest of us follow. The place is filled with whoop–de-doos. We regain some of our bravado.

Then Ruby spreads out before us. It’s a ghost town all right. There’s a school, a bank, some houses, even a jail. We stop, sensing some danger. We all watch as Dan pushes off and drops into town. He rolls across an intersection and swoops into the center with no obvious consequence. The rest of us move as one. Something just doesn’t feel right. My legs feel heavy, reluctant, as I climb up to the gate, where, for the first time, I see Toothless and his truck, blocking the gate.

He doesn’t yet see us and is letting another pick-up out. We roll and try to find our way through the closing gap. No such luck. He grabs Dan and soon has the rest of us herded together between two pick up trucks.


“You’re going to jail,” he says. “You’re on private property.”

“What do you mean? We’ve done this before.” Implores Dan, using the wrong line of reasoning.

“How’d you like it if’n I went into your living room driving my truck?” Toothless sputtered. “This is a tour town now and you’re trespassing plain and simple.”

We looked at each other and knew he was right. We had broken the law and needed to accept the consequences. I felt like I did the first time I saw flashing police lights in my rear view mirror. Busted.

“I know your type,” Toothless chimes in. “You come in here and pick up anything you can carry and cart it off. Thieves!”

Things were getting a little shrill and Chris was getting testy. “I’m gonna bolt,” he muttered. “What’s he going to do?” Toothless made move for his gun and settled the matter for us. We were stuck. Chris gave up his plan to push past Toothless and make a run for it.

“As I say, you’re going off to jail if you don’t pay.”

“Pay what?”

“The eight dollar entry fee. Groups over six pay eight dollars a head. The way I see it, you, (he counts) I count eight of you (we were nine), and the whole lot of you owe me sixty eight dollars.”

“You’re wrong,” said Lee, and we all looked at him, drop-jawed, thinking he would correct Toothless’s count. But he just corrected the math. “We owe you sixty four.”

Toothless thought about it for a second, did some extra figurin,’ and agreed. “Sixty four then.”

While we counted up our collective burrito fund, Dan reminded Toothless of the other times we had seen him. Once he remembered, he softened up considerably. We asked about other mountain bikers in Ruby, and he admitted that he hadn’t really seen any. We declined to remind him of his stereotype.

We counted up our money, found we had enough, signed into his register with fake names, and were given free run of the town. We even got to visit the jail -- from the outside.