A Ride For Keeylocko
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Virginia finds laughter, tears, inspiration, and some much-needed winter warmth in the company of Tucsonan cyclists at this year’s Great Cowtown Campout…
Who says February sucks? Well, truth is, I usually do. After enduring several months in the cold and rainy land that I call home, an additional 28 days is just too much to handle. Each year I come closer to giving that proverbial towel a major heave-ho, climbing deep under the covers of my bed, and hibernating there until the daffodils have shown themselves and the trails have fully thawed. This year I was determined to get out of Dodge before winter could take its toll, and decided to follow the advice of whatever old white guy once said, “Go west young (wo)man.”
Enter the land of the saguaro, diamondback rattlers, javelina, the Grand Canyon, and countless miles of sweet dirt, gravel, and sand – Arizona. It’s been an unusually cold winter here, but the skies are clear and the trails dry. Better yet, the locals are brimming with a joie de vivre that no wall, no matter its height, could contain. This brand of enthusiasm is contagious. Bike races, festivals, and spontaneous group rides abound.
I had the pleasure of joining in one such shindig over the weekend of February 9th, when a group of diverse (some might even say wayward) and all-around beautiful folks came together for the Great Cowtown Campout. This year marked the “fifth third annual” (it’s complicated) 40-mile bicycle party and pilgrimage from Blue Dog Bicycles in Tucson to Cowtown Keeylocko, a small ranch town-cum-folk art installation located at the base of the Coyote Mountains Wilderness. This year’s group ride held special significance, serving as an intimate commemoration of sorts for the life of the man whose dream to become a cowboy ultimately led to the creation of his own town. Mr. Edward Keeylocko passed away this past Christmas Day. I’m sad to say I never had the pleasure of making his acquaintance, but from everything I’ve read and heard about the man, his life was certainly something worth celebrating.
Ed, a black man born in the very segregated American South, was orphaned as a child. At 14, he was booted out of his adoptive home and spent several years wandering the countryside before enlisting in the US Army. He served time in both Korea and Vietnam during his 23-year military career. Upon returning to the States in the early 70s, Ed settled in Arizona, where he pursued a career in cattle ranching. When he first brought his livestock to auction, he waited for bids to come in, only to be met with silence. No one would buy his cattle. To Ed’s surprise, discrimination could run so deep that it extended beyond the color of a man’s skin and onto his cows. Laughing, a couple of “good ole boys” from Texas suggested Ed build his own town from which he could sell his cattle, because no one was going to buy them elsewhere.
Ed took those fellows’ advice, and, piece by piece, he handbuilt an entire Wild West town of wood and tin on his ranch. There’s a library, general store, bank, church, sheriff’s office, and jail. The Blue Dog Saloon, for which Nate Woiwode’s bike shop was named, sits at the center of town, its dirt floors and worn, slatted walls filled with dust-covered saddles, taxidermy, and old photographs – a treasure trove of cowboy memorabilia. A few cattlemen have even made Cowtown Keeylocko’s tiny graveyard their final resting place. Ed wanted his “town” to be a welcoming place. Based on my brief experience there, I’d say he accomplished that goal.
In much that same vein, Nate created this group overnighter with the intention of making every rider, no matter their level of experience or degree of athleticism, feel welcome. The route is pretty much flat and suitable for any style of bike. And, for those folks who don’t own bikepacking gear or aren’t comfortable strapping a bunch of extra weight to their rigs, a SAG vehicle joined the group.
The morning started with a proper athlete’s brunch and route briefing at Nate’s shop. From there, we made our collective way – weaving through town and along the Santa Cruz River Path – to our first stop, Tiny’s Family Restaurant. Tiny’s was one of Ed’s favorite haunts, and, as such, a fitting spot for a quick toast. After raising a glass in his honor, we joined Route 86 to continue our journey. We rode alongside its wildflower-blanketed medians, taking in the views of hillsides that were aglow with ecstatic-looking cholla cactus. I was lucky enough to find my spot in the peleton just behind a rider whose rack-supported sound system was cranking out a playlist perfectly suited for the occasion. We battled a fierce headwind as we peddled along in the highway’s broad shoulder, but thanks to a few strategically located comfort stations along the way, the crew kept up their strength. It’s amazing what a little tequila, cerveza, salchicha, and mota can do for morale.
With the sun setting fast, we raced along a wide sand road for the last eight miles to Cowtown Keeylocko. The dim light made my introduction to the town even more disorienting than it would otherwise have been. I could make out some of the basics: a jail, the Hanging Tree, the library, and, of course, The Blue Dog Saloon. Our party grew as an assortment of RVs rolled into camp…pre-orchestrated lodging for those less accustomed to tent life, or rabble-rousers hip to the scene? Who cares?
Folks set up their campsites and headed to the Blue Dog Saloon, its warm glow beckoning. That night, even as the temperature plummeted, we stayed cozy in the warmth of each other’s company. Spicy chili, cold beers, and some soul-wrenching karaoke got things going. The party moved outdoors for awhile as we gathered around two large pallet fires, complete with an expertly-engineered bike jump. Linus Hinton, Ed’s nephew, even broke out his bugle to play a “charge” or two. Under a starlit sky, the revelry continued into the early morning hours.
Ed experienced more than his fair share of rejection in life. So, when it came to creating his own town, he made sure that acceptance and hospitality were the laws of the land. He created a refuge, a home for wanderers, where everyone (save a few border patrol officers) was received warmly. Ed left behind more than just a collection of quirky, handmade buildings and funky facades; he left a legacy of comradery, respect, and kindness. No doubt, he left his mark on the land, but he left an even bigger impression on the people who knew, respected, and loved him. There were a lot of tear-brimmed eyes that Sunday morning as folks said their final goodbyes to the man who created this magical sanctuary in the desert.The Great Cowtown Campout is a beautiful and fitting tribute to Ed and his legacy, and I feel lucky to have been a part of this one.
Official Cowtown Keeylocko Laws: “No loud cussin, No spittin on the floor, No disrespecting the ladies, No reckless eye bawling, No butts on the floor, No brass knuckles or rocks in socks, No weapons of any kind, No fighting of any kind, Think before you speak.”
Cowtown Keeylocko (film)
Interested in learning more about Ed? Make sure to watch this wonderful documentary made five years ago by Dark Rye: