Chasing the Jaguar: Reflections on Ruta del Jefe 2022
Photographer Dominique Powers was at this year’s Ruta del Jefe event, a weekend of adventure and education, where she put together this photo essay from the singularly beautiful Sky Islands region of southern Arizona. Find a warm and vibrant gallery of images and her impressions on what made it a special experience here…
Words and photos by Dominique Powers (@dominiquepowers)
The way the wind rips through the tall grass here reminds me of foxes chasing each other. The ducking and weaving of the blades feels playful and feisty. Their bending and swaying highlighting the undulating hills; tall grass that exists solely because the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch (AWRR) has created a space for the land to flourish like it used to. Before, cattle grazing annihilated the tall stalks. Dirt roads cut through the fields, breaking apart the sea of yellow.
It is through this arid landscape that riders adventure forth in the 2022 Ruta Del Jefe. Named after the infamous jaguar “Jefe” that once roamed this part of the Tohono O’odham (Tawn-ah-aw-thum) Nation ancestral land, Ruta Del Jefe is a weekend of education, advocacy, and bikes that aims to spread awareness of the land, its history, and its future needs. I am here shooting the weekend-long event and aim to capture the faces that make it such a special weekend.
I’ve found bikes to be an incredible tool in building community because when a cyclist sees another cyclist, there’s an immediate common ground of, “Hey! You’re also this incredibly fun and sometimes masochistic mode of transportation,” whether that’s transporting you to the grocery store or back to your childhood. Bring over 100 people together who love the same thing, and immediate friendships are forged.
I was excited to attend the event for many reasons: to support Sarah Swallow and all the work she’s put into making the cycling community more welcoming and inclusive, to see a new part of the country I have never visited, and to experience firsthand how an education and advocacy-first bike event experience plays out. Honestly, I wasn’t the only one with these exact missions, and every attendee I spoke with shared enthusiasm to experience the land and learn about its history and the ways in which the fundraised money will help the local organizations.
The weekend consisted of two full days of events. Friday started with a bird walk led by Aaron VanGeem. While too windy to see many feathered friends, it opened everyone’s eyes to notice and admire the native animals over the course of the weekend. Shortly following that was a tour of AWRR, then live music by Gertie and the TO Boyz, who serenaded us into the sunset with old-time Waila sounds—the traditional music of the O’odham. After that, the group shared an incredible meal cooked by Kusuma Rao of Ruchikala, who warmed everyone’s souls and bellies with deeply flavorful food inspired by her Sonoran Mexican and South Indian roots. Kusuma catered the entire weekend, and the next three meals were full of spices and textures that blended together perfectly.
That Friday evening before the ride was filled with presentations from seven speakers ranging from Indivisible Tohono, is a grassroots organization working on issues that affect the Tohono O’odham Nation and those that affect the Natives within the state of Arizona and federally, to No More Deaths, whose mission is to end death and suffering in the Mexico-US Borderlands through civil initiatives. Each speaker led the audience through image slides while telling their story, and with each presentation, the riders cared more and more for the land they would experience the next day. It’s hard to care about something you know nothing about, so these presentations are an integral part of the weekend’s mission.
The next day started bright and early, and the crisp air was made manageable by a warm cup of coffee courtesy of Taylor Wallace of Howdy Partner Coffee, whose cheeky grin never left his face all day. Riders assembled before their departure times, comparing tire clearance and double-checking they had their headlamps and enough snacks.
There are four course lengths (136, 70, 55, and 28 miles) that provide access to otherwise private land, creating a unique opportunity to interact with this historically rich landscape. The AWRR felt overflowing with enthusiasm and cheer as every person at the venue was there because they care not only about riding their bike but because they are invested in the community and have a desire to learn and become stewards of the land. Soon enough, the sun was up and riders were off on their grand adventures. Some would take mere hours to return, and others almost a full day.
I headed off with Rue Kaladyte in her trusty Rue-baru, chasing her wife Lael and Sarah Sturm to beat them to the first aid station of the longest route. At the aid station, we were met by Spencer Harding and his wife Brenda, who is moonlighting as Brendolf the Great, overseeing that all riders made it through the checkpoint and were accounted for. While the ride was entirely self-supported, there was a responsibility to ensure that every rider who left the ranch made it back safely.
Soon Sarah Swallow’s dear friend Jorja (aka Jambi Jambi) showed up, who was in all the way from Australia to provide her unique and captivating take on cycling culture. Wigs came out, Spencer ended up in a dress, and my goodness, content was created. After the aid station, the day was a blur of ripping around the course, catching riders at various points of the day, grabbing a slice of pizza in Patagonia, and finishing by catching the leaders of the 136-mile route who were making it back right as the sun was setting.
I saw joy everywhere I turned, from the rider who had barely ridden gravel and pushed herself by doing the 28-mile course to the guy who went 40 miles in the wrong direction and made it back at 5 a.m. the next day. They were stoked! I truly feel that when an event is structured around caring—about oneself, other riders, and the land it takes place on, there is such an immense feeling of shared respect. It is in this space of respect that everyone is on the same playing field, accolades don’t matter, and all that’s important is that you’re there. That you showed up. I can’t wait to put my camera down next year and get the opportunity to experience the weekend as a rider—to be the wind ripping through the tall grass.
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