Painted Rock

Story by Frank Simon// Photos by Frank Simon
September 1 2015

In search of ancient petroglyphs and real-life monsters

It must have been close to 100 degrees, sweat soaking into the lining of my helmet, me squinting into a southern sky under a scorching late-November sun, a mere 160 km from Yuma, Arizona, the gateway to Mexico’s Baja California. I was fuelling my 1998 Yamaha XT350 with cheap gas at a local station in the small town of Gila Bend, a crumbling shell that had certainly seen more prosperous times. Much of Gila Bend now stood abandoned: businesses, homes and trailer parks all fading in the relentless desert sun, boarded up eateries, shabby roadside motels, grass creeping through cracks in the pavement. It felt as if I’d been dropped into a 1960s post-apocalyptic B movie.

ancient petroglyphsGila Bend’s claim to fame – if one could call it that – was its location; Interstate 8 travelling from San Diego, California, passed through town on its way to the much more affluent city of Tucson, another 160 km or so east. The sprawling metropolis of Phoenix was an hour and a half north at freeway speeds, but at my relaxed pace along Old US Highway 80, you could double that.

The fuel came to four dollars and 80 cents, a bargain even at the current falling exchange rate. Riding in the U.S.A. is still plenty cheap – after all, this is the land of cheap gas, cheap motels and cheap restaurants. To top it off, the weather was fabulous. A guy could get used to this. I paid my bill, turned the petcock back on and kicked the 350 to life.
As I headed north, taking exit 102, a huge solar collector farm greeted me as I left the freeway hustle and bustle behind. If there are places in the U.S.A. that receive more sunshine days than here, I’m not aware of them.

Far Out

desertHeat waves shimmered off the blacktop, my eyes transfixed psychedelically on what looked like undulating rainbows. Then it occurred to me, it was just the sweat dripping onto my knock-off Ray-Bans.

The term “desert” denotes a lack of rainfall, not heat, as many believe. Even though my altimeter watch showed a temperature in the high 80s, it can be brutally cold here once the sun sets, often at or near freezing. By the time that happens today, thankfully I’ll be back at my humble little vacation home in Glendale, AZ, downloading photos from the ride.
Rounding a curving right-hander around the base of an ancient mountain, whom do I see but Bugs Bunny! Grey and white, I swear… He obviously took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up here.

A few kilometres later, smiling while thinking of all those cartoons I watched growing up in Edmonton, like Bugs and Wile E. Coyote, I missed my turnoff completely. I gently tossed out the anchor and, with no traffic in sight, a U-turn quickly brought me back to the signpost – “Painted Rock half mile.”
Stowing my bike and the rest of my riding gear under the overhead steel picnic enclosure that offered the only shade anywhere within 80 km, my watch showed 92.4 F. It was well over a hundred in the sun.

Giving Thanks

bridgeA family laden with coolers appeared mirage-like, and sat themselves down at two of the available picnic tables. A couple came by to look over my bike. I introduced myself to the dozen or so adults and children. It turns out half the family was from Ohio while the other was from California, and they meet each year here at Painted Rock to share a Thanksgiving dinner. Yes of course, I thought, as I munched on my own prepacked turkey sandwich, it was the American Thanksgiving this very day.

We exchanged the usual travel information. Where you from? Did you ride all that way on that dirtbike from Canada’s east coast? Are you headed to Mexico? And so on. As often happens when I travel by bike, people I meet are genuinely enthused about motorcycling. Many have an old Honda, a rundown Suzuki dirtbike or maybe a British twin at home in the garage. It’s a far cry from being rejected at every campground in Penticton, B.C., during the summer of 1974 when real life foreshadowed Sons of Anarchy! Okanagan turf wars ran rampant in those days. I was 19, riding a BMW R60/5. Sure it had twin cylinders, but they pointed in the wrong direction. That didn’t matter to the property owner; it was still a motorcycle. Painted Rocks Painted Rock is the preeminent petroglyph site in Arizona. Attached is a rather large, and at this time of year sparsely populated, campsite operated by the Bureau of Land Management. The facilities are sparse, but then again, most visitors here travel in well-equipped recreational vehicles, towing monstrous trailers crammed with side-by-sides, ATVs and dirtbikes, with the odd Harley thrown in.

I bid farewell to the visiting family, and with camera in hand, went for a stroll around the rocks. The site itself is fairly small but heavily concentrated with some 800 glyphs going back about 1500 or so years, carved into the outer layer of the granite boulders. Contrary to what the name implies, the painted rocks are not actually painted. The outer softer basalt was scraped away down to the much harder granite by the long-departed Hohokam people, who are given credit for the variety of artwork found here. Proceed with Caution More modern signs warn of rattlesnakes, scorpions and other venomous creatures, and of course these parts are home to the legendary Gila monster, one of only two poisonous lizards in North America and the only species indigenous to the U.S.A. The chances of you seeing one of these creatures are about as rare as finding an honest snake oil salesman or television evangelist; you’re much more likely to come across a sudden rattle announcing loudly that you are trespassing on dangerous territory.

Needless to say, don’t sit on the rocks or poke your paws into crevices and holes. Do that and you’ll be inviting a scorpion or diamondback to give you a nasty surprise. There’s no potable water on site, so if you’re thinking of stopping by, bring jugs of it along. I suggest planning a visit during the fall to spring season. July here can be a paint-blistering 130 degrees-plus! Only 48 hours ago I’d been at a small family motel in the historic city of Prescott, shivering with wet hair in 26 F early-morning temperatures on my way up to 2133 metres in the Bradshaw Mountains. Now I was barely above sea level and nearly 70 degrees warmer! While I realize many readers tempted to bring or rent a bike down south will stick to the excellent U.S. highway system, for the adventurous dual-sport rider, there are so many destinations available, you could fill a library with them. Just make sure your bike is reliable, you have plenty of fuel and you are honest in your abilities. I’ve been in some very tight spots many times while travelling in Baja or the southwest, once fracturing my ankle riding in the Sierra de la Gigantas and having to ride out 40 km just to get back on pavement! Ouch!

I packed away the Canon, had a sip or two from my canteen and, like the riders of the Mormon Battalion of the 1840s, mounted up and continued west. Fast Tracking A desert track took me through spectacular country on trails more suited to Jeeps than family sedans. Several times I had to take evasive action as roadrunners zipped at top speed across my path. The African cheetah may be the fastest land animal on earth, but the roadrunner can’t be far behind. If you’ve never seen one of these unique creatures, they resemble the cartoon character hardly at all. About a foot tall and skinny as toothpicks, they dart and dash at impressive speeds that no Arizona Cardinals running back could hope to achieve. And contrary to television, I have yet to hear one go “Meep! Meep!” Visible in the hazy distance was the Palo Verde nuclear power plant, the largest of its kind in the U.S.A., generating approximately 3.3 gigawatts of electricity and supplying power to not only Arizona, but also much of California.

Interestingly, the plant uses recycled sewage waste water to cool its nuclear reactors, as it has no large body of water nearby, as most nuclear plants do. It was late in the afternoon by the time I reconnected with Old US 80. I headed into Buckeye, only stopping for a granola bar while viewing an impressive collection of vintage aircraft and vehicles at the north end of a small airport. Not on the grand scale of the Pima Air and Space museum located down the road in Tucson, but worthwhile nonetheless. I was able to motor right onto the tarmac under the wing of a Canadian-built Canso (Consolidated PBY Catalina) amphibian, where a friendly mechanic working on a Second World War-era truck offered me a personal tour. Back on I-10, the sun was most definitely at my back by then; glancing at my mirror was like staring into a blast furnace. I made it to the 101 bypass at Tolleson by sundown and rode the final 40 km home in the gathering dusk, ending a very rewarding day for me and the 350.


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