(This story is posted on advrider.com as well)
I rode out this day not knowing what to find in the area of the Wallow fire, along Hwy. 191 in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was dejá vu; last July, right after the fire, I had the same sense of dread mixed with anticipation. What I found this time is a forest returning to life, a beauty unique to the set of circumstances set up by the Wallow fire last June.
My riding parter, Hal, and I left Sunday morning from the Phoenix area and rode the 87 through Payson, then picked up the 260 east to Heber (cool air! what a novel concept!), Show Low, then through Pinetop-Lakeside towards Sunrise Junction. That is where the sky began to darken and I first put on my rain gear. Having been on this road many times when I used to ride downhill mountain biking at Sunrise ski area, I knew how quickly the weather could change and how heavy the rain could be. Today, however, we were spared the rain until we turned onto the 191 toward Alpine.
As we rode south toward Alpine, we could see the veil of rain, and as we rode into it, it spattered on my GoPro camera. I was glad to be able to capture the sense of riding in the rain. My bike purred along beneath me, newly serviced, the slight “miss” resolved. The little BMW F800ST flew along, eagerly flying over the rain-drenched pavement. That is what I love about this bike, among so many other things – I can ride it through anything and it happily accepts any challenge. It’s even been through deep gravel, which it had absolutely no problem with. Without this bike, I am nothing! I thought.
We stopped in Alpine to fuel up. As we did, the thunder echoed through the area. I was a little anxious about mud and ash on the road in the fire area, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. When we got there, we found deep erosion troughs at the sides of the road that prevented any ash/soil mixture from reaching the pavement. In Alpine, we got back on the bikes, still fully geared up for rain, and rode into the burn area.
I was amazed at the resilience of the forest and the ability of nature to quickly restore the parts most affected by the wildfire. All the little ground plants, grasses, wildflowers, covered the area under the burned trees in a fluorescent green carpet. The straight black tree trunks stood in contrast to the bright green forest floor. I was in awe of the colors under the diffused light of the overcast sky. It was an amazing sight. The road was dry, but the clouds overhead seemed to make the colors of the forest vivid. I saw enough aspens that were still healthy to make me think that this fall won’t be devoid of color. I am looking forward to coming back in October.
We wound through the trees, the road its usual welcoming self. I couldn’t help enjoying it, but I did slow down a bit where the scenery was especially pretty. The burned areas were spectacular, but the areas that the fire did not touch were even more beautiful: the browns of fallen trees, the white of the aspen trunks, the rich dark green pines, the deep purples and oranges of wildflowers. Water sang over rocks beneath lush grasses, the rocks covered in lichen or moss. Everything was moist, droplets of water trembled on leaves.
We stopped at the pullout where we had stopped at the beginning of July, and I hardly recognized it at first. I wanted to see how much it had changed, and it had, dramatically. The grays and blacks of ash and tree trunks were now clothed in the bright green of new growth. Under it, of course, was the ash. I walked through it carefully as it was mucky and wet. As I shot more photos, the bowl-shaped hollow shuddered with rolling thunder, the deep, warning kind. I stood there and closed my eyes, committing the moment to memory and drinking in the surroundings. The rain began to fall, the thunder rolled less ominously. It was a gentle rain, it fell softly on the tortured forest, soothing new plants out of the deep ash, coaxing life to return where it had been torched away. Few vehicles passed by on the road and, except for the rain, it was silent and magical, the forest enchanted by the silver mist.
Soon, the spell broken, we got back on our bikes and headed back toward Alpine. Between Springerville and Show Low we rode through the area of groups of volcanic cinder cones that I find so fascinating. The road rolls through the hills, undulating through the landscape. It was still drizzling on and off, and the clouds were backlit by glorious metallic light. The air was cool, the sun’s rays streaming from behind the silver-lined clouds, and the effect was heavenly.
At last, we reached Heber, where we stopped at the Red Onion for a (very) late lunch. I was so hungry, I waited for that darn mushroom burger all day, and it was worth the wait! I wolfed it down with relish and ate greasy fries, too. It was the perfect sustenance for a long riding day. Then, one more stop in Payson for gas, and we rode back to Phoenix in the dark. It was still hot; after riding all day in the cool air, temps in the 70s and 80s, it was difficult to return to the stifling 100°+ heat. But, with the beginning of September there is a hint of coolness in the air to give me hope.
I plan to return to the 191 in fall, as I always do, to see the color. I am hopeful that there will be color, and based on what I saw today, there will be a beautiful forest waiting for anyone who wants to ride there.
The most dramatic contrasts:
Wow, what a day!