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Potential in Patagonia: How one couple is helping to reinvigorate an Arizona borderlands town

The founders of the Spirit World 100 and The Gravel House have a new vision - to restore and remodel an original building into a hub for cyclists, locals, and visitors.

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A few months ago, my colleague Ben Delaney and I traveled to Patagonia, Arizona to ride gravel bikes, relax at The Gravel House, and take in the local food and beverage culture around Tucson and the surrounds. Despite a slight mishap on Mount Lemmon, er, the Arizona Trail, we accomplished all of our goals and fell in love with the borderlands region of southern Arizona.

We chose Patagonia for our (mis)adventures because in 2019 I had gone to the Spirit World 100 gravel race and been blown away by the small town in the borderlands. The topography, the mix of indigenous, Mexican, and mining culture, and the endless opportunities for adventure— it was all irresistible.

No one has been more drawn in by the region’s energy than Heidi and Zander Ault, an entrepreneurial duo who believe that the possibilities for creating a sustainable, recreation-based tourism model in Patagonia are as vast as the Sonoran sky.

Patagonia has potential

The Aults stumbled onto Patagonia and the surrounding San Rafael Valley in 2014 while guiding trips for The Cyclist’s Menu, the first of their rapidly expanding portfolio of cycling-centric business ventures. Not only did they fall in love with riding the gravel roads that stitch the region together into a giant borderlands quilt, they saw something else in the tiny town of 800 souls: potential.

After bringing Cyclist’s Menu clients to Patagonia for years, in 2019, the couple launched the Spirit World 100, the gravel race that begins and ends in town, after dipping down to the Mexican border at the mid-way point. Heidi Ault told me after the race that putting it on had been a dream come true.

“The first time we rode the original Spirit World loop in 2015, we were all like ‘holy shit,’ we have to turn this into an event.”

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The Aults guide clients on gravel (and tarmac) in Arizona, California, Vermont, Colorado, Italy, and Spain through The Cyclist’s Menu.

All their years of building relationships with stakeholders in town and curating the course had paid off in a wildly successful event. Success, as Heidi defined it, was “if people left asking themselves the whole way home, ‘did that really just happen?'”

Certainly, it was a question I couldn’t help but ask myself as my “finisher crystal” cast shadows on my dashboard the entire 14-hour drive home.

Through the success of their Cyclist’s Menu Arizona Gravel Camps and the social media FOMO-fest that followed the Spirit World 100, the Aults realized they were on to something in Patagonia. Cyclists were interested in the region, and locals were taking note, too.

So, in pre-pandemic 2020, the couple dove into another project with the aim of bringing more people to the borderlands to enjoy bikes (or birds or butterflies; Patagonia is a renowned rare bird-watching destination). With Tim and Kristi Mohn from Emporia, Kansas, they bought a property in town and renovated it to become The Gravel House, an Airbnb-style rental with plenty of cycling accouterments.

The Aults have been living in Patagonia full-time for a year now, but their footprint in the community precedes them. Zander is a member of the resource advisory committee of the Coronado National Forest and often serves as a liaison between visiting cyclists and the various land managers in the area. Bit by bit, the couple has earned the trust of local business owners and community members, who, Heidi said, “are so stoked for the Spirit World 100 this year.”

The Patagonia Lumber Company in 1913.

However, nothing could have prepared them for the proposition they received this spring.

“We were approached by a local, born-and-raised Patagonian, who owns The Patagonia Lumber Company building downtown,” Heidi said. “He said he’s been watching how many cyclists have been coming to town and felt it had a good bit to do with us. He wanted to chat about what to do with the building. Something visionary and sustainable. Something that would bring a lot more active people to Patagonia. We immediately knew exactly what that beautiful building should be used for and even though we’re busy with other things, we knew in our guts we had to act on it.”

Downtown Patagonia is cute and quirky, the perfect blend of “old west,” art gallery, and Mexican border town. It’s home to a saloon, a cafe, a health food store, and a small smattering of eateries. There is no bike shop, but there’s a need: when Ben and I were there in February, a Jeep-load full of cyclists asked us if we knew where they could get a tube.

So what to do with the old Patagonia Lumber Company building?

“We want to turn it into a recreational hub for cyclists and locals with a kickass cafe and beer and wine bar,” Heidi said.

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Conceptual modeling of the reimagined Patagonia Lumber Company.

The couple did their homework and determined that renovating the early 20th-century building would cost nearly $90,000 dollars. So, they submitted a proposal to Kickstarter. It was rejected, Heidi said, because the rewards they wanted to offer to donors weren’t up to code. Ironically, the awards for the biggest donations include travel packages to the region, bringing the project into a beautiful full circle.

“That was one of our biggest goals with the project — creating a stronger tourism appeal for Arizona’s wine country towns of Patagonia, Sonoita, and Elgin,” Heidi said.

So the Aults have decided to launch a self-driven campaign, with rewards that will entice and excite people to visit Patagonia. They set a lofty goal of $100,000, which, if met, includes $10,000 for the nascent Patagonia Trails Project advocacy organization.

“That’s 10 percent of our $100,000 goal, which is what we would have had to pay back to Kickstarter,” Heidi said. “Instead, we’re going to flip it right back into Patagonia, where we hope to build 35 miles of singletrack to start!”

In the Aults’ vision, the restored Patagonia Lumber Company would be the go-to spot for people thirsty for both local beer and wine and also seeking information about biking and birding in the area. Weekends would see a bike mechanic station, and every day someone would be present to talk routes and conditions. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but the Aults have the energy, enthusiasm, and passion to see it to fruition.

Plus, if they can do it anywhere, they can do it in Patagonia. The place has potential.