Day 88: The Window & Alpine

Day 88 (2016-11-22): The Window Trail and Leaving Big Bend

Although my backcountry permit lasts until tomorrow morning, I decide today will be my last night in Big Bend. I plan to do The Window Trail in the morning before heading north towards Alpine, Fort Davis State Park, and Balmorhea. After packing up camp I head back into the basin and hike the 2.5 miles down to The Window, where all of the water within the basin drains to the desert below. Along the way I take in some of my surroundings, but mostly stay in my mind where I ponder. I find that, like mountain biking, hiking alone often brings me into a zen-like state where I lose sense of time and space, just moving along in my mind as I move along the path. Eventually I reach the Window, where I stop for Lunch.

The view from the Window is gorgeous – tall, smooth rock walls framing the water that cascades into the desert below, with rock formations in the distance and a desert stretching out as far as the eye can see. I sit high above on a rock chatting with other hikers as they arrive. Eventually I begin the return ascent through the canyon, this time taking in my surroundings as I ascend through the beautiful rock canyon. The walls are jagged but the floor is smooth, sanded into a slippery pipe of rock by the water rushing through. I climb and hop between rocks, enjoying the thrill of it as much as the view. Out of the canyon I return to my thoughts, flying up the canyon and reaching the top soaked in sweat and feeling good about the exertion.


The window, high above the desert below.


The canyon leading to the window is a gorgeous mix of rock, plant, and stream.

I thought I would pass through the small town of Alpine today, but it looks like an interesting small town and I visit the local library to access wifi and reach to a couchsurfing host. I find one, and take his recommendation to visit Harry’s, a dive bar, while I wait for his door to be unlocked (he is out of town but has a dog walker). I walk around town, talking to a few people and observing the shops, galleries, and restaurants. I stop to help two guys with a bike issue and they happily thank me for some advice. One man gives me his info and tells me to stay in touch – I remember not to pass judgement on his somewhat ragged appearance and mannerisms. Hell, I can relate – I am a bit odd, traveling without a “home,” doing my thing.


My contribution to some local sidewalk chalk art.

At Harry’s I sit down at the bar and a local lady introduces herself, then the bartender and some fellow patrons. This is a small town and a small bar, so everyone knows each other and they are all very friendly. I chat a bit about the town, learn about a fantastic hike opportunity in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the north, and catch up via phone with my mom. I connect with the bartender about life’s twists, herself educated in the sciences but bartending here where she happily makes her keep working only part-time. I finally make it to my host Isaac’s house, meet his ridiculously dependent and energetic dog, and watch Pirates of the Caribbean before calling it a night. I couldn’t resist – I listened to the soundtrack today and it is so good!



Days 85-87: Big Bend National Park

Saturday 2016-11-19: Boquillas Canyon & Hot Springs

I follow the canyon road, paralleling the Rio. Across the water, just a couple hundred feet away, men on horseback wander around a completely different world. I watch as one man mounts his horse on the US side of the river and fjords the shallows, rejoining his brethren in Mexico.  To be so close to the far shore yet seem infinitely far away because of legal borders…I know I could swim across and back just fine. What is border patrol here? I continue into the canyon, an amazing sight and a fantastic place to sit, write, and enjoy the tranquility of the river.

I return to camp for lunch and pull my bike out of the trunk and reset it to riding conditions. I set off for the nearby Hot Springs, just 4 miles down the main road, armed with snacks and wine. I let air  out of my tires as I hit rocky dirt road. Everything rattles but surprisingly nothing comes loose as I cover 1.5 miles to the trailhead. At the springs I join other folks in the 105 degree water, relaxing until a younger crowd arrives and we chat about San Antonio and Austin. I enjoy myself, rejuvenated by the social setting. I stay for almost 6 hours, leaving after darkness falls.

Eventually I leave, grateful at times like this that I publish posts well after the events. I ride the narrow dirt road back from the hot springs in pitch black, save for my small bike lights. Lights off, I can only see my hand in front of my nose when I look to the sky and its outline blots out the stars. There are eyes – just one set, fairly large. Too high to be a rabbit, to small to be a mountain lion or bear. Probably a coyote. They gleam like floating orbs. Watching. Eventually I make it to the main road and race back to camp, enjoying the wind in my face as I fly downhill, happy to ride after so many miles in the car. I am the picture of a free spirit, riding the wide-open Texas desert in the pitch black of night, wearing adventure sandals, a beanie, and with a box of wine strapped to my bike. I feel good. In fact, I feel great. It won’t last forever, but I am re-energized since the first quality social activity since Albuquerque, almost a week past.

Sunday 2016-11-20: Mexico! And the gorgeous Santa Elena Canyon.

Last night I learned about the Mexican border crossing at Boquillos, just a few miles from my campsite at the Rio Grande Village. I pack up camp and take the short drive, walk through the US Border Patrol checkpoint, and buy a 1 minute rowboat trip across the Rio for $5. On the other side I rent a burro for the mile long trip into town, another $5. I ride with others, slowly moving along as a guide motivates the burros whenever they slow. I have not ridden a horse since grade school, let alone a burro, but I want the guide to leave us be so I can communicate with my burro and try to form a basic bond between rider and steed.

In town I make my way to the Mexican checkpoint – just a small trailer with one guy and a computer. For most folks he barely even looks up – just a quick stamp in the passport and off you go. I breeze through in ten seconds and continue into town. Our burro guide follows, treating me and the others as one family – always trying to wrangle us together. We walk through the tiny town of about 100 people in just a few minutes, Along the way I ask our guide some basic questions, practicing my Spanish speaking skills and Spanglish listening.

We continue on to their version of hot springs – a small hole in the ground large enough for 3-4 people to sit in at once. An old pair of jeans acts as a stop to let the water pool instead of draining into the Rio. I talk to my guide a little more, eventually asking him and another guide about Trump’s wall idea. They turn it back on my – “We don’t know – you’re the American, you tell us!” I communicate my thoughts and when I ask them about Mexico paying for it, they replay with a laugh. “With what, burros?”

Back in town we stop at one of the two restaurants where share cheese enchiladas, beef tacos, and tamales with the family I’ve been stuck to. They cannot compare to my dear Cafe Quilombo in Seattle, but what can? I return to the U.S. and use some weird electronic system at the border to call a remote border agent. He asks me a bunch of questions that I feel will get me in trouble – where is home, why did I go to Mexico, where am I going now? I swear, they design these questions to make the weird traveler like myself uncomfortable.

The Grapevine backcountry campsite is down another unpaved dirt road. It is fairly well maintained for the first two miles but a bit further along I stop at a pretty rough spot with some deep holes and one big rut across the entire road. I feel confident and, reversing for some speed, I tackle the obstacle with a bounce, surviving on a mix of savvy navigation and momentum. Well, this is fun. In that adrenaline-inducing “Oh shit, what if I get stuck or break the car!?” kind of way.

After setting up camp I return to the main road, confident having mastered the Grapevine. I head southwest on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive where I discover Tuff Canyon, my favorite location of the desert lowlands. It is a deep dry wash with an overlook above and a trail leading down into the wash. I walk in the wash observing the layers of ash on the canyon walls. I can literally bang on the wall and watch it crumble – no wonder the seasonal rains have carved such a deep trench! Further up I find a field of boulders, demonstrating the massive power of the seasonal floods ripping through this canyon. I think of my college geology professor who would love this place – I miss you Professor Principato!

I arrive at Saint Elena Canyon and hike about 1.5 miles across a creek, through a muddy wash floor, up into the riverside reed forest, over the canyon’s large rocky entrance, and into a 1500′ tall canyon carved by the incredibly silty Rio Grande. The river is so full of sediment the park rangers describe it as a continues liquid sander.

Magnificent. Grand. Humbling. I sit on the banks of the Rio Grande, walls of rock 1500′ towering above me on both sides, the canyon glowing with the pinks, oranges, and reds of sunset. The water is peaceful. The birds trill quietly far overhead. I look up, endlessly captivated by the magnitude of the canyon. It’s sheer faces divided by striations – layers of rock describing not only the history of the Rio Grande, but the history of the Earth. Did you know this was once an ocean? Marine fossils embedded in the rocks bring life to a history beyond the scope of mankind. Cacti and other desert plans grow on the rocky cliffs, only meters from lush riverbank reeds, grasses, and willows. The greenness almost hurts my eyes, accustomed to the soft yellows, browns, and grays of the desert. Two worlds so close, nothing but a wall of rock separating them, yet infinitely separated. Magical.

Monday 2016-11-21: Chisos Basin, You Are Beautiful.

I set off from camp this morning set on a 12+ mile hike around the Chisos Basin. I start with Laguna Meadows, a steady ascent up the western side of the Basin. Looking back I watch as I gain elevation, first looking over the lodge, now over the basin. I keep a strong pace, eyes and ears aware for the sounds of animals around me. Birds scream from their hidden perches in the trees and bugs hop about along the increasingly green plants along the trail. Desert grasses dominate the floor with small, semi-arid pines and shrub-like trees shooting up here and there. Cacti dot the landscape, the most common being the Prickly Pear that feeds so much animal life in this region. A lunge awkwardly as my foot almost comes down on a massive brown spider calmly crawling in the center of the trail.

After about 4 miles I reach the meadow, an open expanse of grasses and cacti underneath a sprinkling of small trees. The meadow exists in a relatively flat valley near the western edge of the basin. The trail morphs into a soft dirt path as I slow to a calm walk and take in the tranquility of the meadow. I smell the freshness, feel the soft breeze on my face, listen to the soft rustle of the grasses all around me. Paths branching off from the main trail lead to numerous backcountry camps. I think of Scott, Andrew, Danial, and Nick as I explore a site easily large enough for 6-8 people. How nice it would be to come here as a group and do a backcountry loop for a few days, plus some lowlands off-roading!

I decide to nickname this place Bastion Basin because it is a small bastion of life and diversity amid a sea of harsh, dry desert. It is lush and home to rare species, some of them known nowhere else in the world. For other species this is the very edge of their domain, the varied ecosystems providing shelter for animals adapted to all walks of life. I find a place to sit in the sun, snacking and looking out over the desert to the southwest as I consider the incredible ecosystems around me.

I continue along, taking the South Rim Trail above Boot Canyon where I will be later this afternoon. On the far side I revel in the distinct erosion patterns of windy desert mountains, smashed between the wind-swept forest above and the lush, protected basin below. I come to a rocky cliff with a sheer face 2000′ above the southern hills below. I look out on a massive landscape, hills and valleys dominating the foreground with the desert extending for miles in every direction. A massive rock wall looms to the south, the backdrop to the Rio Grand at Santa Elena Canyon. Here the wind rips over the rocks from the west, drying my sweat-soaked body and supporting the birds supporting above. I eat a simple peanut butter and jelly lunch with some not-so-crunchy pretzels, the taste fulfilling more than it should be considering the food. Everything always tastes better at elevation!

I sit for a long while, contemplating, before exploring the rocky edge’s many views to the south. Finally I continue on, winding along the ridgeline of the Eastern Rim Trail. My eyes are peeled for the Peregrine falcons that nest here. Another hiker tried to describe a dive he witnessed last night but words fail him – The Peregrine Falcon can reach speeds of almost 250mph in a dive, rushing out of the sky to snag its prey. 250 MILES PER HOUR! It is the fastest bird on Earth!

Unfortunately I see no Peregrines but the trail is alive with life. Here, on the eastern ridgeline plants receive some wind protection from the rocks to the east but a steady wind inhibits large tree growth – grasses dominates the forest floor. Amid these I I discover a deer as it darts across the trail, stopping in the distance and allowing me to sneak up for a better look. I watch its floppy ears bounce as it chews away,seemingly unphased by my proximity. Further up the trail I discover some sort of rodent on the rocks below the cliff edge, screaming with a high-pitched screech that reminds me of a jay’s call. I watch for a while, wondering its purpose as it wanders about screeching.

My eyes continue to scan my surroundings for the charismatic megafauna known to inhabit the basin as I return west, looping down into Boot Canyon. Two mountain lions and about the same number of black bears are known to live here, the bears only recently returning via Mexico after having left the park entirely some time ago. Fellow hikers tell me of reports of black bears along this trail today so I am hopeful. I slow my pace, taking in the small pools of water dotting the southern end of the canyon. Coming around a massive rock wall, I am blown away by the scene before me.

Where am I? Is this Texas, or Pennsylvania? I enter a cool, dark, and damp glade in the canyon bright with the astounding reds, oranges, and yellows of fall. Moss grows on the rocks around a small spring trickling water down the canyon to the north. I never would have expected to discover such a landscape among the rocky, dry desert of southern Texas. Yet here I am, walking through the fall, looking at large boulders and a little creek. For a moment I let myself travel back to Pennsylvania, to Hawk Mountain, to French Creek, to days as a boy hiking with my mom and uncle. I breathe deeply, taking in the cool, earthy, refreshing smell of home.

Unfortunately, I see no black bears as I pass through the canyon. On the far side some hikers tell me of the bears they spotted not more than 30 or 40 feet from the trail. I lament my misfortune – timing and my desire to take in the canyon at a slow pace let a couple pass me – and they walked and talked loudly, hoping NOT to encounter a bear. I see more backcountry campsites here, joining the more than 50 sites scattered around the Basin. I will definitely return here for an extended backpacking trip – I want to see the bears, the falcons, watch the fall colors. I even want to see a mountain lion, though I know such a sighting is very rare in the back country and not altogether a good thing…

Although I come to Emery Trail with enough daylight to make the ascent, I decide to pass the 1.5 mile climb to the highest peak in the park. I am feeling satisfied beyond my expectations, and do not mind savings something for a return trip. Plus, nature calls! The descent along the Pinnacles Trail is steep and rocky for the first mile or two, swiftly dropping me back into the basin where I walk through more grassy fields so unlike the country I have been traveling through for this entire trip. Eventually I return to the visitor’s center and make my way back to camp. What a day! I am unsure of my exact mileage but I know I did about 14 miles of hiking today. This once again tops my list of longest solo hike, a record I enjoy breaking on this trip!

Days 84: My Side Trip to Big Bend National Park

Day 84 (2016-11-18): Don’t Let Enterprise Rip You Off

I reserved the car online from Enterprise for $179.99 from 10:00am this morning until 10:00AM next Wednesday. Pay at pick-up.  I expected another $50-60 for insurance, or $230 total. At the counter the lady quotes me a minimum of $450, with insurance costing me an additional $270! No. I do a little research and make her break down the costs for me – the “minimum” she said I must have included roadside assistance and a bunch of other premium feature. No. With my credit card’s collision insurance I leave with only the legal necssity for $250. Nice try!.

I stop at the discount grocer Food King, pick up a week’s supply of groceries, and hit the road. In Van Horn I fuel up and turn my Ortleib into a makeshift cooler using some ice (waterproof works both ways!). I continue onto TX-90, heading southeast towards Big Bend. I drive for 80 some miles without seeing anything – just a few small rest stops with picnic table and no water. Between the shitty conditions near El Paso and this lonesome span, I am glad I will be on the train. Driving is also messing with my sense of time and distance.

Add ‘big interchanges’ to the list of “Big Texas.”

This feels wrong. Part of it is the rental, the driving solo, the departure from my normal routine. But it is also how foreign my own country feels right now. Vast, open expanses of Texas with little other than desert. Off-grid trailer homes. A tiny town where everyone knows everyone, all vehicles are trucks, and the Texas flag is more common than the Red, White, and Blue. I know it is unreasonable but my learned image of Texas as a gun slingin’, liberal hatin’ Wild West skews my perceptions. It feels…exposed. The number of times I have felt exposed in the desert blows my mind.

I enter Big Bend and search for a campsite as night falls. The entrance booth was closed and a sign says high-clearance needed for all the listed unpaved roads. Crap, those roads are where the backcountry campsites are. Wandering down one road, I push the rented Dodge Dart further than is comfortable but not so far as to risk anything. Damage would be expensive (and not covered due to unmaintained roads) and the last thing I want is to get stuck. Around a bend a small wash sits in the road – to the left it is far too deep, to the right I might be able to make it. I slam the brakes, coming to a dusty halt about a dozen feet away. Not worth it. I reverse, eventually finding an open space closer to the road.

Solo camping done right.

Day 83: Welcome to Texas. Big Everything.

Day 83 (2016-11-17): ~45 miles from Las Cruces, NM to downtown El Paso, TX. Decent country roads until the hellish riding that is El Paso.

I woke up and, not sure if the milk I bought yesterday for John for “cereal” was also for my use, ate a banana and some yogurt to start the morning. I left as quickly as I could, not wanting to spend any longer than necessary in this awkward setup. I weave my way out of Las Cruces fairly easily and head south towards on El Paso on NM-28. It’s a quite country road lined with pecan trees and small towns. In San Miguel, I spot a small sign for Mexican food two blocks off the main street. My stomach demands I stop for something real, and I turn onto the side street to see exactly two blocks before town ends.

I roll up to Estelita’s Tamales and speak with a gentleman walking his dog, who happens to be one of the owners. After chatting briefly gets three tamales. We sit at a small table and  I devour second breakfast. We talk about traveling and he tells me of his experience growing up in Guatamala, emigrating to Miami, and eventually moving to Chicago where he spent the early years of his adult life. Here in New Mexico Victor and his wife opened the tamale kitchen with plans to get online soon and start selling tamales to a wider audience. I take a quick tour of the kitchen and small hall used for birthdays and other festivities. Victor is a pleasant guy and encourages me to keep in touch or visit if I am in town again. I highly recommend anyone traveling through stop, eats some tamales, and chat with Victor. He will make you feel at home!

Victor was so nice! Also, the remains of the tamales I demolished.

After San Miguel than road continued to be pretty calm and low traffic, with only the intermittent headwinds bringing me down. It was dusty as hell though! Coming into El Paso I ride an old river trail tat begins as a smooth trail and eventually turns into dirt-filled, overgrown path that is easy enough to ride but shows how little use it gets. After leaving the trail, things go to shit.

So dusty! My buff proves useful once again.

El Paso is a city of big roads, big trucks, big everything. I skirt along the side of a 6 lane road with a tiny bike lane for a while, but eventually am dumped off onto an 8 lane throughway with heavy traffic for 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. There is no shoulder, no bike lane, and no reasonable alternative routes – every road is either a huge arterial or dead-ends in suburban cul-de-sac developments. Against my will I struggle on the sidewalk where I fight a lack of curb cuts, quite a few major bumps, and a some seriously tight turns. I HATE riding on the sidewalk but at some point even I put aside my strong belief in my right to the road for the sake of safety.

Every driveway is a nuisance – big bumps and the potential for being hooked by an inaware driver.

Seriously? I would hate to be disabled or injured here…

Eventually, I find a solution: mental change. Like most things in life, looking at the situation differently and changing my mindset helps significantly. Okay, I am not touring on the sidewalk to keep myself alive. I am urban mountain biking! I cruise down the sidewalk, using my body to absorb the bumps and imagine the sweet air I would get on some of these lifted sections, were I on a real mountain bike. I lean left, hitting a sharp left turn and squeezing my front brakes just enough to let my momentum shift my weight forward and lift my bags over the pannier-height curb. I look for clearance and dart onto the road, flying downhill and pedaling hard to keep my momentum as a wave of impatient drivers closes from the rear. I slip back onto the curb with a jolt, gaining a tiny bit of airtime on my bloated rig. The only things holding me back from all-out warfare on the streets of El Paso are my skinny ass tires and my weight. Despite all my dreaming of a bikepacking setup I have never once wanted a lighter, more agile bike than right now.

When there is finally a side street it is under construction, one-way in the wrong direction, with sidewalks barred by construction signs and new tree plantings…my bars fit with about an inch to spare.

Eventually I arrive in downtown and approach the Gardener Hotel and Hostel. When I inquire about the hostel the lobby attendant simply says “$32.95.” Not a hello, not a word about the place, just the price. Direct. He doesn’t mention a communal space and only shows me the kitchen because it is in the basement, next to a sketchy hallway where he lets me put my bike. He leads me upstairs to a hotel room, only called a hostel because it has two bunk beds and shares a tiny bathroom with another “hostel” room. This is not a damn hostel. Nice try. Also, it’s deserted. I tear off my dirty, sweaty clothes and pass out on the bed, exhausted from urban mountain biking.

After I wake up and shake off the sleep I shower and head to The Tap for a plate of beans, rice, a chicken taco, a chili rellano, and salad with chips and hot salsa. I go through several Pacificos as I put my thoughts to paper about Trump and the election – the ones you read as a circular ramble last week. Eventually I wander, walking the deserted streets of downtown El Paso and winding up in a Democratic Socialists of America meeting at a The Local Pizza Joint. Ironic.

Meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Back in the room I am surprised to find another person inside, noting that when I open the door he is busy re-buttoning his pants. Matt is a weird dude and, I foolishly agree to accompany him on a walk to get dinner. He acts like he is King of Mexico because he has been there for the last 5 months, and generally does not impress me with his attitude. After wandering aimlessly for 45 minutes I announce my intention to return to the hostel, and he argues it is not safe. He tells me about reading that crooks more often target people who walk alone (no shit) and I tell him I refuse to be his babysitter. Put off, but visibly concerned, I drop him off at KFC and return to the hostel. What a weird day…

Day 82: Chili Peppers, Pecans, & Cotton.

Day 82 (2016-11-16) ~65 miles from Caballo Lake State Park to Las Cruces, NM. Mostly good riding conditions along highway 187 & 185.

I wake at first light, before the sun crests the ridge to the east. It’s chilly, but my tent is not frosted solid. Not even dewy. Sweet! I eat the last of my granola and cranberries, dry, since I had no oats to soak last night. I am on the road by 8:00 and make good time heading south towards Las Cruces. I pass through fields of chili peppers and past plants processing them into all sorts of yummies. As I continue south I pass a few pecan farms and fields of cotton.


Red chili peppers.

Chili pepper processing.

In Hatch I stop at the Valley Cafe for second breakfast and order Huevos Rancheros with red chili sauce. I get two eggs, covered in sauce, with hashbrowns and beans for $6.75! The food is fantastic! I sip my tea, finish Around the World in Eighty Days, and continue on my way.

Extremely yummy huevos rancheros for only $7

I continue to spend time on podcasts relating to Trump and the election today, planning what I hope will be a powerful written piece for the blog. I have so many thoughts and so much material to draw from – I feel inspired and full of clarity at times and others overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the situation. I’m sure it will not end up being as clear and direct as I hope. 😦

Shit, where did that wind come from? Somewhere about 10 miles south of Hatch I am hit with a strong headwind out of the south, alternating angles at it twists and turns through the valleys. Thankfully the brunt of it only lasts for 5-10 miles and I once again find myself on flat roads now almost entirely surrounded by pecan farms. Some have huge signs warning against trespassing and thievery, while others adjacent to the road seem less aggressive. I pick some fallen shells off the ground and crack them open for a simple midday snack. I wonder how you are supposed to crack these to not smash the nut…

Oh yeah, I hit 2,500 miles today!

I arrive at my WS host in Las Cruces and, after showering and throwing my things in the laundry, John takes me out to one of his favorite sandwich shops for dinner. The food is crappy and most of the time he laments about an injury that robbed him of his mobility, his balance, and caused him to gain a hundred and some pounds. He weezes like he smokes a carton a day and walks as fast as a turtle. He seems nice enough and treats me well, but both he and his wife are odd and I definitely do not feel terribly comfortable in their house.

Having the suspicion that my hosts do not desperately desire my interaction, I hop on my computer after dinner and pull out my maps. I have about a month to reach NOLA, which is 1500 miles away. At best that is 24 riding days with another 4 rest days thrown in there. The benefits of continuing the usual bike trip are cost savings and a chance to explore the route area. The drawbacks are a very limited chance to explore Big Bend, explore the cities, and meet up with my college friends Rebecca and Alyse. Looking to reduce ride time I consider Amtrak but the roll-on service has no baggage stops between El Paso and San Antonio, meaning I would not be able to skip part of West Texas and still get to Big Bend. Skipping through central and east Texas would not help me much since it is more dense with cities/people to visit, so that is out of the question. How to make it all work?

I come up with a rough plan: rent a car in El Paso and drive to Big Bend to maximize my time there and perhaps stop at Balmorhea State Park for a day. Then return to El Paso and catch the Amtrak to San Antonio – effectively cutting out 400-500 miles of riding and enjoying 5 full days in Big Bend/Balmorhea. Estimating 2-3 days in San Antonio and Austin (plenty of time to coordinate with my friend Rebecca), I should leave Austin about the same time as if I had riden the whole way. I call that a win. I’ll be left with about 100-150 miles to Houston, where I can visit my friend Alyse, then a final 400 mile push to NOLA. I estimate the total cost to be about $300 plus gas, so bout $400 plus food. Given $20 a night as a low average for my trip the comparison is like $500 Vs. $240 riding. We’ll see if it actuall works out like that.

Days 80 & 81: I get My Butt Kicked

Day 80 (2016-11-14): ~65 miles from north of Socorro to somewhere north of Truth or Consequences, NM. Mostly NM-1 with poor pavement for the last 35 miles. My host gives me a ride when I fail to finish the last 15-20 miles.

I wake to a steady dripping on my face. The sun is out and the moisture from overnight is dripping from the rainfly, onto the tent, and eventually to my face. In fact, my sleeping bag is damp all over. I scramble out of the tent and struggle to disconnect a frozen rainfly from half the tent while the sunny side drips melt water all over my things. It does not even feel that cold in the sun, warm rays boosting the 40s to the 60s.

About 8 miles south I stop in Socorro at a small cafe for a hot beverage and a warm blueberry muffin.I swing by the beautiful Old San Miguel Mission and then break my years long Wal-mart Boycott for some cough drops and revel in the north wind pushing me south. For the first 20 miles out of town I cruise at a great pace, averaging 18-19mph on NM-1 into the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I stop to explore the visitor’s center and enjoy a lunch of salad and crackers. A nice man named Roy  starts chatting with me and he and his wife graciously offer to host me in Las Cruces is I need a place to stay. I am feeling confident despite a long morning and a long lunch, with that tailwind pushing me along so quickly. At this rate I might cover the entire 80+ miles in under 6 hours!

The Old San Miguel Mission in Socorro, NM.

This nice, smooth, flat road through the northern part of the Bosque Del Apache reserve, with the wind at my back, set me up for the heartbreak to come.

Of course, all good things must end. South of the visitor center the road deteriorates in quality. There are no big potholes or cracks but the pavement is rough and it takes more energy to move at a slower place. The wind dies, the hills begin, and I suddenly find myself moving less than half of the 20mph I was rocking just a mile ago…

Exhausted. I am on NM-1 just south of NM-107, about 50 miles into my day. At 15:30 I find myself with 30+ miles to go and about two hours of daylight – a problem in even the best conditions. My energy is sapped. The unrelenting sun and terrible road are killing me and not exactly doing wonders for my butt. The wind is almost gone, with the occasional breeze seemingly from the south. I hope to flag down a driver for a ride but since passing the interchange of I-25 and NM-107 I have seen exactly 0 cars. I must continue, must make it to the next on-ramp. Maybe I can hitch-hike into town. I fail to stop the single pick-up that passes for 10 miles.

I try again at I-25 – traffic is low but a lot of the traffic is trucks and vans, so I am hopeful for a ride. Nope. Some make eye contact and seem sympathetic while most stare straight ahead (or at their phones). After about 20 minutes I put my arm down, call my host, and tell him I will be late. Luckily Monty comes to my rescue a few miles later as darkness descends on the interstate. Monty picks me up in his trucks and takes me to his home where we eat homemade pea soup, salad, and homemade pumpkin bread courtesy of his wife. So good! We chat for a while and we all turn in early.

I fail at hitch-hiking.

Today I stared to question if I would ride all the way to NOLA. If I could ride 50 miles a day it would be fine, but these long days and cold nights are getting to me. They also leave me little time to experience or explore, sine 80 miles means about 6-10 hours of riding, depending on conditions. I am barely keeping up with my journal and falling behind on sharing it all through this blog (I am writing this a week later) Amtrak runs the whole way to NOLA but having checked baggage (bike) limits my stations to El Paso, Austin, Dallas, and NOLA. I will have to think on this.Also, I really hope this sore throat goes away…

Super moom rising!

Day 81 (2016-11-15): ~20 miles from Truth or Consequences to Caballo Lake State Park. A rest day, with just enough mileage to make tomorrow more pleasant.

This morning I wake to the sound of water dripping outside my window. I am surprised to hear rain, but after investigating I realize it is simply the frost melting and dripping off the roof. I inspect my surroundings in the daylight and realize the Rio Grande lies just beyond the edge of the property, small and brown as it is. It gives life to a green yard, large leafy trees, and a small garden. Rocky hills line the far shore and a crystal clear blue sky invites the sun to warm my skin despite the 40 degree morning air.

A beautiful backyard along the Rio.

Monty makes a breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, and pecans while I stretch my tight muscles. Mariam joins us at the table and she and Monty work on their morning crossword routine as we eat and sip our tea. They are so cute. They clearly have been together for a very long time, the years bringing all the changes in their relationship one would expect after decades together. Still, they are stuck on each other, an image of what we might all hope for when we are older. She leaves just before 9:00, imparting a cute little air-kiss from the doorway which he returns, promising to wait until their shared lunch to finish the crossword puzzle. I must admit, I am a bit envious.

My hosts being cute.

I leave the house and wander into town where I settle in at the Passion Pie Cafe on Main St. I order the breakfast waffles, a plate of bacon-stuffed waffles topped with two eggs and maple syrup. I watch the varied clientele, a mix of regulars the barista knows by name and travelers coming for their first time. I remember I am in New Mexico when a tall, burly man walks in with a button down shirt, jeans, shiny boots, and a handgun strapped to his waist. A jazzy, bluesy selection of music plays as I swim through the memories of the last week and devour my delicious second breakfast. A short while later the barista comes out with a tray. “Excuse me sir, would you like a cookie? Chocolate chip, cranberry, oatmeal. They’re fresh out of the oven!” Perfect.

Second breakfast, the best breakfast.

After ordering a slice of coconut cream pie and savoring every last bite, I finally leave and head south on NM-187 for about 20 miles to Caballo Lake State Park. I set up camp on a small bluff next to the lake. It’s great view but the camping sucks – I have to strategically choose a spot to minimize rocks and a small spidering vine plant with round, pointy thorn balls. Once camp is set I make for the lake and do a few of the yoga poses I learned in Albuquerque. I shower and make a simple dinner of couscous and dehydrated refried beans using my chipotle honey spice and sriracha for flavor. It’s decent and healthy compared to the potato packets with their long list of ingredients. I snack on the chili lime pistachios I’ve been carrying around since just before Needles, CA and realize how much I am embracing the southwestern spice 🙂

What a beautiful moon. I have seen some of the best skys yet in New Mexico.

I don’t know the name of the plant that grows these, but it is the worst.

Day 79: I leave Albuquerque Sad, But The Road Fixes Me Up

Day 79 (2016-11-13): ~82 miles from Albuquerque to just north of Socorro, NM. A mix of city streets, old two-line highway, a bit of interstate, and some frontage road.

Leaving this morning is so hard. I wake, get packed up, and eat breakfast. I carefully reinstall my pedals to avoid stripping what I’ve come to learn are very poor threads on my cheap SRAM cranks. I’m set to go but not mentally or emotionally wanting to leave. The past 36 hours have been a fantastic whirlwind of friends and fun, and I cannot help but feel a little bit like I am leaving home. I think this is one of the hardest aspects of this trip, having left Seattle not intending to return – I do not miss a specific place but rather rather the feeling of comfort, friends, and belonging. So whenever I come across a place where I get a taste of these desires, part of me wants to stay. Alas, I cannot.

As I leave the city behind I feel the emotions bubbling up inside me and, as I have often done since leaving LA, I turn to Passenger (one of my favorite artists) to embrace my emotions. I tear up as I ride down a country highway, finding my own struggles in Let Her Go and The Wrong Direction.

I think about home, about family and friends. About the people I love. I miss them and I miss the comforts and warmth of home, both physical and emotion. These days home is even harder to define. Seattle is no longer home, but it is the place I will fall back to if all else fails. Where I grew up will always be home, even more so as long as my mom lives there. But I wanted to leave so bad, never planning to return. Flagstaff and Santa Cruz, my two favorite cities on this trip, represent opportunity and future yet I have felt most at home in LA and Albuquerque, sprawling examples of poor planning and car-dependent society. Because it is all about the people, and in each of these places I have been made to feel at home.

Eventually I crest the hill and come out feeling wiser on the other side. New options enter my mind, like the possibility of staying with my mom for a little while. I could probably find some part-time work to replace the savings I have spent. I could help my mom, both with chores and bills but also just by being around to talk and share. I could reconnect with old friends from high school and college. As I see more of this country and learn about myself I wonder if I could not find a way to be happy in my hometown, despite its problems and all the things I dislike about it.

It is very easy to keep an eye on the river in the desert – just look for trees.

One if the major washes in New Mexico. It is wider than the river but clearly has not seen much rain, albeit the inch or two a few days ago that turned it into a giant mud pit.

I ride all day, thinking about many of these things and covering 80 some miles to Escondida Lake, just north of Socorro. The final push is tough and I am excited to set up camp and birdie bath in the restrooms – clean, spacious, and while not heated the sun’s warmth keeps them comfortable well beyond sunset.

I discover a few 2×4’s near one of the fire rings and build my first campfire since a long time – I cannot even remember the last one, not counting backyard fire pits. Unfortunately camping this close to the lake, still at 4,000-5,000 feet of elevation means cold! Having arrived after dark my usual chores, fire, and a little fireside reading take me late into the night and I retire after 10:00. I’d like to get to camp earlier but 80+ miles is a long day and the chilly morning sets me back a bit. Tomorrow’s winds look to be 10-15mph from the north – let’s hope so! I could cover the next 80 miles in just over 5 riding hours!