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October 3rd should have been my last day in Colorado, and when I crossed the border into New Mexico, it was momentous moment—my last state, the trip was nearing its end.
I had before me almost a hundred miles of isolated roads thru the Carson National Forest which included a bumpy but beautiful climb to 11,000 feet. I was meeting Annie Thayer, a friend from the archetypical Colorado hippie town of Nederland (the only Colorado town of more than 20 that voted in November NOT to tighten its medical marijuana ordinances) in Abiquiu, NM and we were going to bike for four or five days over the most difficult pass on the entire Trail and down into a little town called Cuba, where she would head back north. I had more time than I needed in order to make our rendezvous and an old high school buddy who now lived in Albuquerque was going to pick Succotash and me up in Abiquiu and take us back to Albuquerque for a couple of days before Annie arrived.
So, I had much to look forward to and I remounted Succotash after taking her picture on the border and heading into New Mexico. The dirt road climbed steeply, but I was getting used to that, but when it forked, I took the road more traveled by without checking my map and two miles later, I came to a locked gate blocking the road and hung with no trespassing signs and dire warnings to those considering ignoring them. I stared at the map—I was definitely on the right road–and then at the gate weighing the risks of tossing my gear, bike, self over it and continuing on.
As I debated, it was as if a carnival came over the rise to my right. A very tall, overweight and clearly unfit man in his mid-twenties or so, with a pony tail down to his waist, tattoos on his upper arms came towards me walking along the fence checking it to see if the barbed wire was strung tight. Fanned out before him was an advance guard of 5 Dachshunds, four inches high at the shoulder, 18 from snout to rump, and that had to bob up and down to clear the six inch sagebrush. They saw me and set to wild yapping. I ignored them, got my map out and asked the guy if I was on road number 87. He said I was and that I’d be a fool to try and go any further.
Behind him came a dark, Mexican looking man in an old Ford pick-up. Old is the clue here, because I’d seen nothing but spanking new trucks in the mountains since the hunting season opened a month ago. The two men talked to each other like they were father and son. I asked him what road this was and he confirmed it was 87. I got a little pugilistic and said “I’m following a trail that’s been here for 15 years, and it’s always gone thu here.” He said, “This land grant has been here for 500 years.” He was exaggerating, it was closer to 400, but it shut me up.
Then, trying to charm them, I ask: “ Do you work on this ranch?”
“No,” he said. “I own it.” He looks at me and follows with: “People always think I’m the help because I’m black.” Tweaking my liberal guilt and then he launched into his career as owner the cable TV station in Park City, Utah. Etc.
I went back to my map and finally worked out that I wasn’t on 87, but on 87H, a side road. I’d made a wrong turn two miles back.
I backtracked and a while later, I turned onto the rocky, deeply gullied left hand fork and labored up it, having to walk Succotash where the road got too rough. It topped out on a high grass plain with widely scattered spruce trees with branches, like Christmas trees, growing symmetrically from the ground up. Four or five miles further on, after the road had descended and re-ascended another deeply, as in 2 to 3 foot gullies, eroded track, my back wheel began rubbing the frame. I figured the nuts were loose, so I pulled out my tools and tried tightening them—but they were solid. Flummoxed, I loosened them and took off the wheel. The axle slid out of the hub in two pieces.
In 1979, I traveled through Africa in an old Bedford military truck (ret.) owned by a Cockney straight out of central casting who wanted to get it to Kenya so he could start up a safari business. We were heading east thru the jungles of the Central African Republic (six weeks earlier it had been the Central African Empire—but that changed when the French Foreign Legion parachuted in and overthrew the general who’d staged a coup d’etat and turned the earlier republic into an empire). The dirt road was so eroded that we averaged just 50 miles a day and one day, in the exact middle of nowhere, we twisted one of the half axles in two.
It’s difficult to describe what the middle of nowhere actually looks like. But we were hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement that had any type of communication, must less had any truck mechanics, on a road that saw almost no traffic, in temperatures that were extremely warm, in a jungle with a lot of nasty critters.
We were extremely fortunate that for no reason he could remember, the Cockney had picked up a used half axle in a junk yard the day before he’d left Britain. It had been lashed to the truck’s front bumper for the past several thousand miles through Europe and across the Sahara.
We were also lucky to have a surgeon’s son in tow. He and his wife were driving a VW van across Africa and, in West Africa, discovered there was no gasoline until they got to Kenya, some 2200 miles through the heart of Africa. So we put a 55 gallon drum of gas in the back of the truck for them and they were following us through the jungle. The problem he solved was getting the broken half of the axel out of the differential. His father had once showed him a technique for slipping a cord around a broken bone that was retracted out of reach in a spasming muscle so that it could be pulled out and set.
Once we got the axel out of the differential, we discovered that the holes in the replacement axel that the lug bolts fit through were too small. But we were lucky a third time in having one rat-tailed file in our tool chest and we spent a day filing out the holes to fit the bolts.
Even with that lesson, it hadn’t occurred to me to pack along a spare axle. I struggled to jury-rig the broken one, but I didn’t have the right tools, so I packed up and headed back the way I’d come. I could coast on the down hills, pedal lightly on the flats, but any serious pressure on the pedals torqued the wheel out of alignment, forcing the tire into the frame.
I walked back into Colorado.
The next day, I hiked Succotash up onto a paved road, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked—bike and panniers piled in front of me as if I were a refuge of war—a hundred and forty miles down to Santa Fe. I did it in three rides and I need to say, that while it can be discouraging standing by the side of the road while car after car passes you by, eventually some good person always stops to give you a lift. My first ride came from a young man with his 19 month old son, Roman, who was eeking out a living buying and selling scrap metal; my second, from three Wisconsin hunters (one only 14 y/o, but already with several kills); and the third from a man who was headed east to Taos, but offered to drive an hour or more out of his way to drop me off at the door of a bike shop in Santa Fe.
It was a high-end bike shop and the mechanics looked at Succotash without much interest and suggested I try the Broken Spoke, a shop which specialized in “retro” bikes. I walked her down to the Broken Spoke and was immediately taken in hand by Owen and PJ who cleared the decks and had Succotash up on the operating stand and her innards laid open immediately.
While they worked on her, I went in search of a margarita.
I left Succotash in Santa Fe with a friend of Annie’s and hopped a train down to Albuquerque to visit a friend I’d known since kindergarten, but whom I’d not seen since his marriage twenty years ago. I’m going to call him Jack because of the paragraph below.
Jack has been living with depression his entire life. The illness has plagued his immediate and extended families and several relatives had committed suicide. He had tried various anti-depressants, but turned away from them because of their side-effects. Instead, Jack had learned over the years how to manage the depression—how to build routines into his life, how to give it structure, and how to withdraw when the flurry of the world became too much.
It was a much more heroic example of managing what you couldn’t change or escape than my attempts to manage my spaciness which on this trip alone had led to many lost items, two decapitated derailleurs, and other accidents that were a direct result of my head being somewhere else when it should have been here and now.
In the end, you can whine, you can give up, or you can do what you can with the cards—or the brain circuitry—you’d been dealt and Jack was a good role model.
It was, much to my joy, Balloon Fest week in Albuquerque. The basin the city lies in has a unique wind phenomenon called the Albuquerque box, where the wind blows in opposite directions at different altitudes. The balloons then can cycle over the city without being blown away downwind. That said, each balloon has a chaser vehicle madly racing thru the streets trying to keep its hot-air charge, high overhead, in sight.
The morning Jack and I headed down to the Fest was the morning of the shaped balloons. Tens of bizarre shapes took to the pre-dawn sky (early morning breezes are more gentle—the balloons can’t fly if the wind is greater than 7 mph). They passed overhead as we walked to launching field: Spiders, chipmunks, funny faces, castles, a Pepsi can, and the wicked witch of the west. Apparently anything given enough hot air can fly.
New Mexico Redux
It was the third time I’d rode over the Colorado/New Mexico border. Several inches of snow lay under trees on north facing slopes, but the road was snow-free if still deeply eroded and rocky. Annie and I biked up onto the high Brazos Ridge, just edging 11,000 feet and then came down the far side. We spent that night next to a quiet pond with coyotes yipping not far away.
The trail stayed high for the next couple of days. The golden aspen were otherworldly—I was chasing autumn south. I was now several weeks behind the last of the Great Divide bikers—assuming there were some out there, I’d seen very few tracks and had only met two, both in Montana, who were biking the entire route. Most locals I met commented on the late fall, claiming that there was usually deep snow in the mountains by this time of year. I was keenly aware that at any moment a snowfall could close the remaining passes and I’d have to leave the Trail to detour around them.
But being late meant that we were cruising thru the forests during the hunting season and everywhere we looked, we saw, hidden in the trees like the tanks of an attacking army, pick-ups and RVs. Buzzing up and down the roads were four-wheelers with orange hated and vested hunters, their rifles strapped to their backs. Mostly men, some boys and women, they were unfailingly friendly, often stopping to chat or offer help, there being an assumption that folks on bicycles in distant forests were not likely to survive.
On our fourth day, we dropped down to a narrow valley and passed two desolate towns. Decaying buildings, trash-strewn streets, stray dogs, and nothing maintained; it was as if we’d been transplanted somewhere deep in Mexico. When we biked into Vallecitos, the second of these two towns, the directions on our map directed us to turn west at the post office, but there was no road there. Continuing on about half a mile, we found a westward running road that looked promising. Annie was certain it was the right one and suggested that the Post Office had been moved. I got huffy saying that’s how boats run aground assuming whole lighthouses got moved from one rock to another when their locations don’t agree with your map.
At that point a woman with bright eyes and unquenchable smile called to us from her gate: Are you lost? She quickly confirmed that the post office had, indeed, been moved, “It used to be right there,” she pointed at the road opposite the westward running road. This elicited victorious chortles from Annie.
Mary Anne and her husband had moved to Vallecitos when he worked for the Forest Service. After he died, she stayed on. She loved, she said, the mountains, the remoteness.
Annie and I picked our way down the street trying not to provoke the strays. Trash littered the yards, plastic hung in the trees, fences were broken, old stores abandoned, houses in faded and chipped paint, their windows broken and the carcasses of cars in their yards. We passed a pick-up with sprung suspension weighted down with bucked spruce—someone laying in his winter firewood.
The next day we made it to El Rito, a larger town with well kept outlying houses, though with many abandoned buildings in the town’s center. There was cell service so we both reconnected with the other world, ate lunch in a small restaurant that had won many state-wide awards for its Mexican dishes, and then we raced down the last 18 miles to Abiquiu, one time home of Georgia O’Keefe, where Annie treated us to a night in the Abiquiu Inn.
The next day we left our bikes and gear at the Inn, climbed up onto the paved road, and stuck out our thumbs—we needed to get back to Chamas, 60 miles north, to retrieve Annie’s car. Generally hitchhiking with a woman measurably increases a guy’s chance of getting a ride. But that day, we spent several hours beside the road before Jose and his son, Renaldo, picked us up. They’d actually driven past us, pulled over to clean out space for us in the back seat. There was a lifetime of accumulated junk in their small red pick-up, but we squeezed in and Jose took off.
Jose was a character. He and Renaldo, who was probably in his late 20s, quiet and centered, were driving up to a town just south of Chamas to help a friend look for 30-some cows that had escaped their pasture. He talked non-stop for the hour it took to reach the small town, telling stories of growing up in the valley, raising four kids, problems with the wife, riding horses up into the hills, the political state of the Mexican-American community. He was a plumber by trade, as was Renaldo, but he’d been hurt when a pipe had fallen on him and could no longer work as a plumber.
He was shrewd, worldly—he asked us if we’d met on the internet, which, in fact we had—and he knew how to mess with gringos. Knowing we’d be in a hurry, knowing we were thankful for the ride but not interested in helping him out, he drove off the main road and into the back country, ignoring my requests to be dropped off so that we could find another ride to Chamas. “I help you, you help me,” he said and drove us into the fields, following tracks that I couldn’t have gotten my bike over, we could feel the truck’s frame bend in four different directions as he worked over outcroppings of rocks and into deep gullies. I sat back and let him do his thing, but when he offered to drive us deeper into the hills to see a distant waterfall, we both said no, wanting to get to Chamas. “You’re too impatient,” he said knowing beforehand, I’m certain, that that we would decline his offer.
Then suddenly we were back on the main road heading north and we realized that all along he’d planned to drive out of his way to take us where we wanted to go.
He dropped us off a few feet from Annie’s car. By then, we’d spent two hours with him and Renaldo and it was a big emotional leave-taking with addresses exchanged, pictures taken, and much handshaking. We tried to pay for his gasoline, but he got all exercised about not wanting to take any money, so Annie slipped a twenty to Renaldo who was too polite to refuse it. Gringo’s revenge.
Two days later I stopped in Cuba to resupply and, checking my messages, I learned that a friend had been killed in a freak running accident. I cycled south, beating into the wind, grieving for his wife and two young kids. Then wondering at the arbitrary and capriciousness of our paths through life and then finally of myself—My near misses have been legion—an inch to the left, and inch to the right, would have been fatal many times—and yet I’ve skated every time.
Early the next morning, ignoring my map, I raced past my turn-off and ignoring the sun which would have told me I was headed west not south, I biked seven miles off trail until the dirt road emptied into a paved road, which shouldn’t have been there. I biked back, paying super attention to my tripmeter. Our National Forests are riddled with roads—a good map looks like a plate of spaghetti. Not all roads are marked and if you get off your route, lose your bearing, you could wander for a while.
An hour later, I was back on the Trail. Ten minutes later my chain jammed between the cassette and the spokes. At this point, I figured the universe was sending me a message and I sat for a while calming down, recentering, changing focus from putting miles behind me to reveling in the stark beauty of the desert.
Down off the ridges, the Trail nosed into desert again and with the desert came the soft sand. Long stretches of sand the tires of my bike sank into. The rear wheel dug itself deeper the harder I pedaled, and time and again I had to walk Succotash, hauling her by the saddle to the next patch of solid roadbed. It was constant for almost six miles and of those miles, I must have walked at least one. Adding insult to injury, I was following two other bike tracks, both tires about mine in width and I never saw footprints by either or the them. I couldn’t imagine how they were riding through the sand.
The country was dry. Other than cattle tanks, fed by wind mills, there were only two good water sources in the 120 miles between Cuba and Grants. I reached the first one, Ojo Frio, in late afternoon, filled my water bottles and pushed on. Every mile or so, the road dropped into deep arroyos that, given how torn and twisted and deep they were, must rage with violence when it rained. But they were dry when I crossed their bottoms, usually having to walk Succotash up the far side.
I camped next to another wildlife “exclosure”—an artificially generated water source fenced off so the cows couldn’t get to it. The water was stagnant and putrid—I used it to wash my dishes, but not for cooking or drinking.
Mid-morning the next day, I came to an abandoned homestead. Made of rock and mud-mortar, at some point, it had been wired for electricity, but now long deserted. Miles from anywhere, it must have been a lonely place a century ago, when it was first settled.
Toward afternoon, the country opened up—no more sudden dips into and steep climbs out of dry arroyos. In the distance was a huge coal mine, run by Peabody. Every once in a while, I saw bicycle tracks and given the traffic (a pick-up every half hour or so), they had to be fairly recent. I had mixed feelings about meeting other Great Divide Bikers—on the one hand, it would be fun to hear other stories about the trail, good to have the company if only for a night or so, but on the other hand, I wanted to have the red-lantern award: the last person biking south this season.
October 19. A quick resupply in Grants. It was six days to Silver City, the next town with a food store, so my load was heavy. As I was packing, Succotash leaning against the store wall, zip loc bags of food spread around me, and the dark stain of spilled soy sauce at me feet, a cheery voice asked if I were biking the Great Divide. I never got her name, tho I discovered it later, this early 60ish woman, short, getting a bit stout but with clear gray and alive eyes said her husband was a Trail Angel, he catched—she meant cached–water for people hiking the Continental Divide. Hikers have neither the range nor carrying capacity of bikers and getting thru the New Mexican deserts without help is difficult. She asked me if I needed anything, then said that a cold front was coming in and it would likely rain.
Rain is bad news in the desert. It runs off instead of seeping into the sand, causing the violent flash-floods that scour out the deep arroyos and it turns the sand and dust into muck so thick and sticky cars and trucks can’t drive through it, much less bikes. The Great Divide Trail, in fact, has alternative routes that are paved for use when it rains.
And late that afternoon, I turned onto a hard-packed red mud road that lead into El Malpais National Monument and was confronted with big signs warning drivers not to continue if the road was wet. Clouds were lumbering out of the southwest, but I had no interest in biking a paved road and so ignored them. The road led onto a broad grassy plain spotted with wildly spaced conifers. And though, it looked nothing like it, it’s feel evoked memories of the Serengeti—even more broad with its lonely acacia trees marking the distance to the horizon.
The next morning started with a flat. A tiny thorn, less than a quarter inch long had driven itself thru my front tire and holed the tube, I was in thorn country. By noon, we’d dropped off the plateau and come into wide open country, the trees shrank and became more scattered until they eventually disappeared. I passed a tall windmill cranking loudly in the wind, pumping water into a large fully enclosed fiberglass tank; the cows in their pen eyed me apprehensively.
I turned onto a broad long straight road that, on the distant horizon, disappeared up a ridge. It was thirty miles to Pie Town and I desperately wanted to get there before the Pie-O-Neer store closed—I was figuring 5 pm. Long ago, an old miner, apparently to supplement his mining income, started a service station and, in addition to gasoline, sold pies and so Pie Town was born. Two cafes selling pies remained.
As I climbed the ridge, squalls swept in from the southwest, lightening flashed, thunder ripped and rumbles and rain fell from the sky. The rain sprinkled the sand, not seriously enough to stop me, but it sucked at the tires, and the wind blew cold into my face. By my map, the final 16 miles into Pie Town were gently downhill. But the map’s scale was too coarse to indicate that the next 16 miles, while generally trending downward, were a non-stop series of quarter mile dips with, perhaps, the far rise of the dip a foot or two lower than the near rise. In the belly of the dip, was soft, unbikeable sand.
Cold, wet, pummeled by the wind, dismounted by soft sand, exhausted by climbing out of the dips, but bent on having pie that evening, I pushed on.
Late in the afternoon, cold and beat and with no oomph left, I turned east on Route 603, three miles out from Pie Town. To my great disappointment, Route 603 wasn’t paved and was blighted by washboards that looked like a sea kicked up by a hurricane. Trucks rumbled by me, forcing me to the far edge. The wind, pounded into me. A twenty minute ride took forty. I topped a rise—Pie Town was in sight—and I was hit by the full force of a squall. Hailstones stung me like buckshot and my core temperature stepped off a cliff.
When I got to the Pie-O-Neer it had closed. I’d missed it by twenty minutes. I crossed the street looking for a place to camp in the trees behind the town park. A late model Mazda pulled up behind me; the window slid down and woman with the seamless complexion only possible for people under 30 asked me if I were biking the Great Divide.
Biker shorts don’t hide a thing. She directed me to the Toaster House where I could stay for a small donation. I asked her what her connection to Pie Town was–she looked as indigenous as a cactus in a rainforest.
“I live here,” she said. She was a waiter at the Pie-O-Neer.
“I’d guess,” I said, “Brooklyn.”
“Rochester.” Which was close enough. Her name was Megan, but a matzo ball had more Irish in it. Since I’d missed the pie at the Pie-O-Neer, she said she’d bring down a plum cobbler she had at home.
The Toaster House got its name because the entry way is hung with 10 or 15 toasters. The owner was in Hawaii, so I never got to ask her, but my assumption was that all her wedding gifts had been toasters.
Outside the house were two well traveled touring bikes. Inside was an Australian couple who had started in Banff and was biking to Tierra del Fuego. It was their tracks I’d seen the past several days. We introduced ourselves, but my lips were too cold to work the consonants. They pointed me to the hot shower and, God forgive me, I spent more than my fair share of time under its absolving sting.
I stayed in Pie Town and had pie for breakfast and then lit out after Tom and Sarah, the Australians, who’d left earlier. Within minutes after catching up, I got a flat in my front tire. Tire patched and on the bike again, I caught up with them finishing patching Tom’s rear tire. We were in thorn country.
Ten or fifteen miles further on, enjoying the company as we rode together, Tom ahead of me, Sarah behind, when Succotash suddenly pitched me over the handlebars. I was going half the speed the last time I’d sailed over the bars and easily rolled out of the dive.
Sarah screeched behind me, Tom stopped, and we all crowded around Succotash, lying on her side in the road. The right front pannier rack had wrapped itself fully three quarters of the way around the axle. It looked fatal, but I shooed Tom and Sarah on, not wanting them to hang around while I figured out what to do. Before leaving, Tom gifted me a second 2” hose clamp—he’d given me one the day before to secure the left front rack.
I was there for a couple of hours, bending, twisting, hammering with a rock until the rack was serviceable. I cranked down on the hoseclamp until there was no way the rack could slip again. Happy with my work on the rack, something malicious told me to squeeze the front tire. Flat again. It was yet another thorn. I did a millimeter by millimeter survey of the tire and dug out every thorn I found—there were a lot of them. Taking my time, I retrued the front wheel, but it hadn’t been bent much in the tumble; adjusted brakes, and oiled my chain.
Two and a half hours after my dive, I was back on the road. I would have one more flat that day—three flats in one day, all caused by thorns. I had only four patches left and three days until the next town. The averages didn’t look good.
Tom and Sarah
Biking the Great Divide and then heading down to Argentina was Sarah’s idea, although I didn’t get the sense that Tom needed much convincing. Both had toured on bicycles before, as a couple and before they’d met. Tom, particularly, knew bikes well. Sarah, by her own admission, wasn’t interested in the mechanics and was happy to leave them to Tom.
When I first met them, they were seated around a table on the Toaster House’s covered porch—wind and hail were lashing the trees around them. Spread on the table were an old collection of tools for a biker to be carrying: heavy pliers, hand drill, epoxy, various collections of wire and string. With great focus and intent, Tom was reattaching the temple of his sunglasses—which he’d broken when he’d left them in the tent and stuffed tent into is stuff-sack. It gave him, he said, great satisfaction to keep things going, which was the kind of guy you wanted on a 18,000 mile bike trip.
Each had their MDs. Sarah was an anesthesiologist, although it as called something different in Australia. She’d gone into the field, not for love, but to have a skill that gave her the freedom to do other things like bike touring. She was flirting with writing a novel. It was extraordinary to me that she would pick a profession that took fully eight years of schooling, brutal exams, and licensing rigmarole just to have the freedom not to do it.
Tom was a pediatric oncologist who specialized in the cancers kids get in the third world. Apparently there are a handful of cancers that attack kids with weakened immune systems that are rarely seen in the developed world. Tom was quiet about what he did; it was only after some hours of being with him that I learned his profession and when I started asking questions you could see him focus in and begin to glow. A passion burned within him as he talked about his work to train third-world doctors to follow the treatment protocols that would cure these cancers. Apparently, the protocols were difficult enough that doctors often flubbed them or took shortcuts that resulted in the deaths of their charges.
Both were both warm, understated people, fully engaged in the world around them; the kind of folks you’d want to hang out with for a bit when they passed through your life.
The next morning, I followed their tracks down out of the Gila Mountains and onto the broad San Agustin plain. It is difficult to describe how immense this flat desert grassland was. It stretched far beyond where the horizon should have circumcised it; it may have been slightly cupped so that the far edge—tens of miles away—was still visible. Even yet, it was ringed by mountains so distant they looked like faint ragged edges of the sky fading out.
Their tracks were obvious for five or six miles, when all of a sudden they disappeared. It was as if they’d been beamed off planet. I searched the flat plain for a tent, but saw nothing and suspected that a rancher had come by and invited them home. Disappointed that I wouldn’t see them again, I headed on.
I need to say that for some time now I had a jinxed feeling about Succotash. Every time I think I have her all fixed up and shipshape, something totally unexpected breaks. The sprockets in Rawlins, the new tire in Steamboat, the axle in Carson NF, the front racks just the day before. The breakdowns had been so consistently one after the other that I was beyond hoping I’d had the last of them. Instead, I pedaled further into the plains with my shoulders clenched waiting for the next gear failure.
The road was rocky, I was approaching a still working ranch—the homestead sitting in an irrigated green four or five acres that was fenced to keep the brown desert out, a windmill was cranking, pumping the water from deep out of the ground, when my rear pannier fell clean off the bike, tumbling away in the dust.
I refastened it to the rack and started off again. Not a quarter of a mile passed before it popped off the rack a second time. What gives: For 4500 miles these panniers had been absolutely trouble free. I checked all the straps and hooks—nothing was broken or out of alignment. I strapped it back on with particular care.
And less than a mile down the road it popped off again. It was as if I were destined to have a bike whose suicidal drive towards entropy was more than I could contain. There was nothing different about this bag today than any of the previous hundred days. I strapped it back on yet again and apparently it’d had its fun—it never came off again.
Mid-morning the sun had warmed me and, alone in the middle of that broad plain, I pull off my heavy fleece pants to put on my shorts. I’m standing, with Succotash leaning on my hip, bare-ass naked when I hear gravel grate. I look behind me and there’re Tom and Sarah, fresh from a cozy night in a rancher’s house.
We biked across the plain, up a narrow gorge and back into forested hills. Three times, we cross the Continental Divide. Every place we’d hope to find water was dry and by late afternoon, our water bottles were empty. We sighted a ranch as we came out of the hills and back into the desert. The road was poor, deeply rutted and rocky, and the ranch is miles from a paved road, much less a grocery store. The gate was hung, as they all are, with no trespassing signs. We opened and closed it and walked our bikes down towards the house. Dogs started barking. We came to a second gate and stopped, eyeing the dogs. Sarah’s the first to decode their body language: “They’re friendly,” she said. Suddenly, having done their duty, they quit barking, tore under the gate and squirmed against our legs begging for belly rubs.
The rancher came out. Tall, bent stiffly at the waist, blunt hands, weathered face, the body of man who’d spent a lifetime at hard work. He approached us without expression. I asked if we could have some water, he said OK and turned without opening the gate, and headed back to the house. We followed. There was a third gate that led through a hedgerow and to the house. The yard, all hundred square feet of it, was a deep rich green—the grass thick and without dandelion or weed. It looked wildly out of place against the brown desert that surrounded the house, but I guessed that he, or more likely his wife, needed something to relieve the brown. He turned on a hose and we filled our containers.
His father had homesteaded farther down in the plain, but the government had taken the land in the 50s, during the cold war, and built a missile base there. He’d moved up here and had been working the ranch for 50 years. He was only running a 150 head of cattle, up in the hills in the summer and down lower in the winter. He’d already brought them down for the winter. When I asked, he said his well was 800 feet deep and produced 7 gallons a minute. When we dropped the hose, the dogs clustered around and lapped at the water. He shooed them away and turned it off.
As the shock of us showing up at his gate in our bizarre gear wore off, he warmed up and asked us what where were from and where we were headed. He’d seen bikers pass down the road above his ranch, but we were the first to ask for water. He walked us back to the gate, suddenly, it seemed, not wanting to break the contact. But then it was time to go and he wished us well.
End of the Trail
I left Tom and Sarah the next morning and a day and a half later, slogging into a driving and chilly headwind, I biked into Silver City—the last grocery store before Mexico. I packed for five days, figuring two days to the border and three days east to El Paso, Texas where I would find a bike box to pack Succotash into and a Greyhound Bus station to take us east.
Succotash had been flat-free since the three flats—my personal best—just south of Pie Town. But, trusting nothing, I found a bike store and bought a ten more patches. Tom had ordered a special wheel for his bike from this same store. David, the guy manning the counter, pulled the new wheel out of the box to show it to me. I dropped two hose clamps and a chocolate bar into it by way of thanks.
Tom and Sarah keep a blog at www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/7186. If you read thru their reflections on the Great Divide Trail, you will find this sentence:
If you do it on a $75 rigid bike, you’ll end up replacing a lot of parts and will need a higher level of bloody-mindedness.
I believe it refers to me.
It was mid-afternoon, still windy and cool, when I left Silver City heading south, a pint of Hagan Daz double chocolate chip strapped to my western pannier in the hope that the sun would soften it up. Eighteen miles south of town, I turned left onto a dirt road and, passing a few last trees, traveled past the Three Sisters, three rounded hills standing like sentinels on the road into the Chihuahuan Desert. Spotted with tall yucca plants and small rounded yellow blossomed bushes, this desert seemed softer and, perhaps, a bit more other-worldly than the previous ones I’d biked thru.
At dusk, I found a thicket of prickly bushes with leaves like holly, to nestle the tent among out of the wind. The sinking sun left a ribbon of rich pink resting on the western horizon and the stars soon spangled the sky. I curled into my bag and slept, my next to last night on the trail.
The road across the desert was flat and soft-sand free. For some miles, it ran atop the Continental Divide. Succotash and I blasted along, reveling in the desert’s beauty, it’s distant mountains, the endless expanse, and the blue sky. There were few ranches, some still being worked, some abandoned, but no traffic, the road was ours.
Early afternoon, we rode under Interstate 10, the southern most east-west interstate, and stopped at a huge firework and tchsotcky shop. The radio was playing, and as I bought a couple bottles of water, the station broadcast a high wind warning: winds gusting to 70 mph. Back on the road, we paralleled the interstate for a while on a gravel road and then turned south and dead into the wind on a paved road, saying goodbye to dirt and gravel for the last miles of the Trail. The road ran 19 miles with only one turn and that turn came just yards before our final Continental Divide Crossing. The desert was so flat here, that without a sign marking the divide, I would never have known I’d been climbing or, on the far side, descending a divide.
The road ended in Hachita, a tiny, desperate town. As I turned east to go through it, the wind, now at our backs, blew dust and trash down the street, a piece of sheet metal slapped against the side of a house. The community building was boarded up, the storefronts deserted, their signs faded by the sun. Front yards were littered with trash, broken windows, grass grown up around fences and sad looking front steps.
I turned onto Route 81 and passed a cathedral with a high rock campanile. A window had been smashed and the door boarded up. We fled south. The valley bottom here was flat—without dip or roll—and stretched between two parallel north-south mountain ridges. The wind was strong, but we could still make seven miles an hour and so I muscled into it. The road is called, by New Mexicans at least, the loneliest highway in America. It goes for 46 miles to the border and then another 60 after that to the first town in Mexico and, if you exempted the border patrol, had almost no traffic.
The border patrol, however, was everywhere. Big white SUVs or pick-ups with mini-jails built into their beds, they had a big green vertical stripe, like the Coast Guard’s orange stripe down their sides, that instantly identified them. A border patrol vehicle passed me every 10 or 15 minutes. At first, thinking it was politic, I waved as they zoomed by, but there were so many, that after a while, I gave up.
About ten miles down the road, I stopped to take a break. Sitting on the side of the road to pick the thorns out of my socks, a border patrol vehicle stopped to see if I was OK. Immediately, a second pulled up. You guys are like an invading army, I said. You’re everywhere. What I didn’t know. There were agents out in the desert, up on the mountain ridges, there were hidden sensors in the ground and infra-red cameras in planes flying overhead.
“So you guys have me on your radar?” I ask.
They laughed, “Oh yeah.”
Sixteen miles from Hachita, the road went through Hatchet Gap, two low mountains to either side of the road. The wind accelerated as I neared the Gap and I leaned into the pedals. I assumed the wind sped up because of the Venturi effect of the mountains speeding the wind, but a mile further on and it hadn’t let up at all. I was making less than 4 miles an hour and struggling to stay upright when the wind danced around and slugged me from the side.
I gave up. I leaned Succotash against a road sign and searched the surrounding desert for a wind break. There was nothing. I bent down behind bushes and the rare little bump in the valley floor and still the wind powered into me. I got back on the bike and turned back the way I’d come, sailing down wind, not having to pedal at all, and turned off onto a gravel road that led back to a standing stone chimney. The old ranch house having been completely torn off its foundation and the debris scattered in the brush. I spent the next forty minutes looking for a camp site out of the wind, running off a herd of cattle clustered around a water trough, in the process.
In the end, I pitched the tent in the lee of a tree by the old homestead and ran lines over it tying it down. If I stayed low, the wind was tolerable. I kicked the dried cow patties out from in front of the tent and sat on a weatherworn log lying on the ground.
I had passed many deserted homesteads on my way south, tucked in the woods, by streams, or out on the broad flat desert plains. They evoke in me the sense of great dreams and hopes, of tremendous work and struggle, and then loss and defeat.
This campsite was particularly poignant, with its lonely chimney, its two out buildings, one of adobe with its roof blown off—the roof hadn’t collapsed into the building, but was behind, downwind from it, and disheveled wood plank one. It reminded me of a poem by Frost, about the reconquest by nature of a homestead lost to fire, The Need to Versed in Country Things:
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
So I sat on the log and let the sun go down and the stars come out and the wind kick and thrash and let a gentle wash of melancholy subsume me. One journey was over, and new one, still foggy, was about to begin. Then I tucked into my sleeping bag, my last night on the trail.
I was up before the sun and on the road before it had cracked the eastern horizon, racing south. Without the wind, Succotash ripped along at 15 mph, the desert flashing by, the sky pale blue, the mountain ranges bordering the valley to east and to the west ragged, brown, and indistinct in the distance. Finally, after being on the lookout for them since Wyoming, squashed rattlesnakes appeared on the road—two inches thick in the middle and their evil viper head flat on the pavement, some part of them fatally broken open by passing vehicles.
The road was ruler straight, reeling over the horizon in front of me, disappearing over the one behind. The desert bushes shrank and browned. The sun elbowed into the sky flooding the western ridge with light and, as it lifted, the sun-line moved down the mountains until it hit the valley floor and raced across bathing me in light.
Antelope Wells appeared, a bump on the horizon. I rolled in at 9:30. The customs officials, five of them, all big men in sharply pressed blue uniforms with shiny badges, crowded around asking questions. I couldn’t have been that unusual and I said there have got to be other bikers coming through here. Faces went blank with thought and one said, I’ve been here only two years, but… A few years ago, Adventure Cycling offered an alternative end to the Trail that went east to Columbus, which was actually a town and not a lonely outpost on the border. Did most bikers go through it now bypassing Antelope Wells?
I rolled across the border into Mexico. A single official came out and asked me how long I was going to stay in Mexico.
“Dos minutos,” I said. He looked confused and I pointed the bike back towards the U.S. He glanced at my passport, but was more interested in the Canadian currency I had tucked in its pages.
Back in the U.S., I asked to be stamped back in—ironically given the five of them, the omnipresence of the border patrol vehicles, the massive new border station under construction next door, they’d been willing to let me come back in without going through the formalities. The senior official took my passport and turned on the computer. The border had been open for an hour and a half and was so quiet, they’d yet to boot their machines.
He slid my passport through his scanner and handed it back to me.
“Could you stamp it?” I wanted an Antelope Wells stamp right next to my Fraser B.C. one.
“We don’t do that anymore.” He pointed to the computer. “It’s all automatic.” I insisted and he, a good man, knelt and started poking under the counter. He pulled out a spindly wooden stand with ; attached to end of each branch were metal clips from which hung a collection of rubber stamps. It looked like last year’s sorry, mange-eaten Christmas tree. A couple of the other officials leaned over to look at this relic of the pre-computer age.
He found the appropriate stamp, a pad of red ink, and a piece of scrap paper, pushed them across the counter to me. “You might want to practice.” Apart from its other problems, America was losing the art of rubber stamping. I did a trial run on the scrap paper and then stamped myself into the U.S.
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