Biking and Mining In Arizona’s Borderlands

The border town of Patagonia, Arizona, exists at the intersection of two worlds: resource extraction and outdoor recreation. One Arizona couple is walking the fine line between, bringing a new 100-mile gravel race to the borderlands.

From my vantage point on the road to Montezuma Pass in southern Arizona, I can see a faint, rust-colored line in the sand 1,500 feet below that delineates the border between the United States and Mexico. Just 25 miles earlier, I practically rode my bike into Mexico at the ghost town of Lochiel; amid the endless sea of gold and green grassland, I hardly noticed the border fence.

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I’m halfway into the inaugural Spirit World 100, a 100-mile gravel bike race that takes riders through the largely uninhabited high-desert borderlands of the San Rafael Valley. At 7am, 100 of us pedaled out of Patagonia, a quiet town of 981 people and the event’s start and finish. The course follows gravel roads built by the 20th century miners and ranchers who once carved a hardscrabble life out of these hills. Today, the border patrol maintains much of the extensive road network that I’m riding.

Patagonia hasn’t seen much in the way of bike tourists, yet. Aside from zealous birders and a slow trickle of Arizona Trail thru-hikers and bikepackers, few outdoor enthusiasts explore the Patagonia Mountains surrounding town. Recreation-based tourism is still a fledgling economic driver compared to the mining industry that sustained Patagonia for 100 years. And though it’s been more than 60 years since the last mine operated in Patagonia, mining might be coming back to these hills. Recent exploratory drilling at the Hermosa-Taylor Project, a privately owned mine located six miles from Patagonia, has revealed a world-class zinc deposit that has Patagonians divided over the role these mountains should play in the future of their small town.

A cyclist rides with mountains in the distance.

Wide-open spaces are one of the Spirit World 100’s most iconic topographies. (Photo Credit: Will Freihofer)

Some 18 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at Nogales, Patagonia looks and feels like the last vestige of the Wild West. Three miles from downtown Patagonia, pavement turns to dirt and rows of modest ranches give way to eternally undulating hillsides of pinyon and mesquite. Santa Cruz, Arizona’s smallest county, is rich in open space: 62 percent is public land. It’s one of the reasons why the founders of Spirit World 100, Zander Ault and Heidi Rentz, believe with a little more route and resource development, this region could very well be the next great cycling hub of the West.

“The concept of what the outdoor industry can offer from an outdoor tourism standpoint is still in its infancy there,” Ault says. “We’re excited to foster a better understanding of what that could look like for [Patagonia’s] future.”

Ault and Rentz live in Tucson, about 60 miles north of Patagonia. Ault is a cyclist and self-taught chef who honed his culinary skills while cooking for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Rentz is a retired professional mountain biker and endurance coach whose blistering time on Moab’s Whole Enchilada seven years ago is still the women’s record on Strava. Together, they’re the team behind The Cyclist’s Menu, a guiding company that hosts multiday gravel and road riding camps from Arizona to Iceland. Their job has taken them to incredible places around the world, but the San Rafael Valley outside of Patagonia holds a special place in their hearts.

“Something about the Valley’s high desert characteristics just spoke to my soul,” Ault says. “It’s rugged, it’s remote, it’s one of those places that manifests this feeling where you’re in another world. We want the Spirit World to be Patagonia’s gravel road race.”

Patagonia is cute and quirky, with a vibe that’s part cowboy and part bohemian. When I arrive in town for the race, I find an organic grocery store (cash only), a western-themed hotel and a literal saloon. The town is surrounded on all sides by the Madrean Archipelago Ecoregion, a series of isolated, mountainous Sky Islands that are home to an incredible amount of biodiversity, including jaguars. Birders revere Patagonia for its close proximity to numerous National Audubon Society Important Bird Areas.

Long before the Spirit World, the Hohokam and Tohono O’odham Nations thrived in the San Rafael Valley as master growers of beans, corn and squash until the mid-1850s, when the Gadsden Purchase prompted American prospectors and ranchers to swarm the valley. Those early small-scale mining operations unveiled rich mineral deposits, from zinc and lead to copper and silver. Mining grew when the railroad came to Patagonia in the early 1900s and continued to thrive until 1957, when the American Smelting and Refining Company shuttered its operations permanently. The last of the ore was shipped out of town three years later, and the railroad abandoned its line to Patagonia shortly after.

Patagonia might have suffered the same fate as so many of the state’s mining ghost towns, but in 1966, The Nature Conservancy purchased the present-day Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, one of the last remaining perennially flowing streams and wetlands in Arizona. That acquisition set off a chain of conservation developments that helped the town cultivate a new tourism-based identity centered around birding and wildlife watching.

Now, with the Hermosa-Taylor Project, it seems mining may be back. Some residents, like Summer Lewton, support events like the Spirit World 100 but believe mining is necessary. “We have to mine,” Lewton says. “I support minerals being produced in a fashion that is safe to the environment, to humans and to communities.”

The potential economic boost from the Hermosa mine is hard to ignore. A preliminary study estimated the mine would employ 451 people and contribute $21.6 billion to Arizona’s gross domestic product over the mine’s 33-year lifespan. But opponents say true, sustainable economic growth will only come from preserving, not extracting, Patagonia’s natural resources.

Pastel storefronts in Patagonia, Arizona.

Downtown Patagonia, Arizona. (Photo Credit: Jess Daddio.)

“If you protect those places, they will continue to bolster your economy for many years into the future,” says Randy Serraglio, a Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing mining companies to destroy them and take the minerals out just leaves the town poorer in the long run.”

The night before the Spirit World 100, I met Emily Reynolds at the pre-race dinner. Reynolds lives in Tucson and is the Coronado National Forest’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator. She signed up for the 57-mile version of the Spirit World 100 after seeing the event poster at a local climbing gym. Like all national forests, the Coronado is a “land of many uses.”  Reynolds believes place-based activities like the Spirit World 100 present a unique opportunity to unite divided communities.

“Events like this connect people to the landscape,” she says. “Gravel riding combines the speed of a bike with the opportunity to actually experience and feel the landscape.”

Reynolds is only one of a few Tucson-area cyclists at the race. Most of us, myself included, have flown or driven in from all over the country. During the locally sourced, family-style meal, I meet riders from New Jersey, Georgia, Mississippi, California, Colorado, even Alaska. Tourists like us represent a potentially big economic boon to Patagonia. A 2013 economic impact study commissioned by the Arizona Department of Transportation found that out-of-state visitors who participated in bike events like the Spirit World 100 contributed an estimated $30.6 million in direct and indirect spending in the state, which supported 404 jobs.

In a little town like Patagonia, those dollars can go a long way. South32—the Australian mining company that currently owns the Hermosa Project—is keenly aware that wildlife tourism, not mining, has kept Patagonia’s economy afloat for the past 60 years. During the Spirit World 100, the company cooperated with Ault and Rentz to suspend mining traffic where the race course curves through its property. Of course, Ault and Rentz know a large scale mine like the one proposed for Hermosa could change the very soul of the Patagonia they hold so dear. Ironically, Patagonia’s mining past—and the roads that industry built through these mountains—is what makes the gravel riding here so unique. Without that legacy, and the present-day cooperation of South32, the Spirit World 100 wouldn’t be the same.

Up on Montezuma Pass in the Huachuca Mountains, the farthest southern point on the Spirit World 100 course, I can see the jagged ridgelines of the Patagonia Mountains in the distance. The terrain here demands your attention. Soaring 6,000-foot ridgelines dotted in Arizona white oak and Apache pine give way to carpeted waves of spidergrass. Hard-packed roads dissolve, unexpectedly, into deep pits of tire-sucking sand. Miles of washboards rattle your bones. Wanton breezes swirl from tailwind to headwind all in the same stretch of road. I feel exposed, vulnerable, how I imagine many have felt in the mountains surrounding the border.

Beneath me, the San Rafael Valley glistens like a mirage in the hot November sun. Save for the occasional passing racer and border patrol truck, it’s nothing but me and hundreds of thousands of acres of high desert plains and serrated mountain peaks. And maybe, somewhere, a jaguar roaming through the Sky Islands.

It may be years before South32 expands its mining operation onto national forest land, if at all. While the future of mining in Patagonia remains to be seen, the wheels of its tourism economy keep rolling. In the weeks following the inaugural Spirit World 100, Patagonia Town Council unanimously voted to approve the 2020 event.

“This is truly one of the remaining wild places in Arizona,” Ault says. “We want the Spirit World to be an opportunity to help redevelop the future of Patagonia.”