After packing and unpacking my gear no less than 58 times over the previous four weeks, I think it is safe to say it was becoming second nature. First I would cram my 15° down sleeping bag into its stuff sack, then force it into a yellow dry bag. My cooking kit with the cooking pot and bowls went in after the sleeping bag and the remaining space was filled with whatever I wanted to stay absolutely dry, usually clothes. I would then turn my attention to my seatbag where I would put my sleeping pad, down jacket, stove fuel canisters, and food. The rest of my food and a 3 liter Camelbak bladder for water went into the frame bag along with maps, a stove, and my titanium mug and spork. This daily ritual was done quickly and with an efficiency that could be acquired only with experience. My packing completed, I filled up the water bottles mounted on my bike’s fork legs, the two smaller bottles in my backpack, partially filled the water bladder in my frame pack, and double checked to make sure I would have enough food for the next two days it would take to make it to Silver City.
Joseph and I finished packing before Dan and Michelle so we left without them, figuring they would catch up with us later when we took a break. The day had started out warm so I knew that it would only get hotter by the end of the day. There was a cattle tank with a spigot after only 17 miles so we decided to top off our water and eat a snack. While we were almost done filling our half empty bottles, Dan and Michelle rolled up. We chatted together for a few minutes about how far we planned to get today and where the water sources were, but I knew that every minute we spent talking was another minute we would have to spend in the sun and wind so we once again set off on the dusty and wash boarded road.
|Don't worry we drank water that came from the pipe, not directly from the tank.|
After a few miles I was feeling good so I began to pull away from Joseph unintentionally. I had yet to ride by myself since morning so I kept up the pace until he disappeared around a bend behind me. As I navigated the rock-strewn road I began to think forward to the end of my ride. It had been around four weeks since my journey had begun and I could hardly believe it would be only two more full days until I reached the Mexico border. I finally stopped to take some pictures of an old church and decided to wait for a few minutes since I still had not seen Joseph. Five or so minutes later he showed up with pictures that proved he had seen a horned toad! We began slowly climbing through scrub pine forest until we crossed the Divide for at least the 23rd time. I reveled in the cool wind that rewarded me for the previous hour of climbing through stifling heat because I knew that the road was sure to turn uphill once again. The road never got quite as bad as it was coming into Cuba but it still was one of the rougher stretches I had seen so far in the trip. Sharp rocks poked up from a rock hard dirt surface that looked like the lethal combination for any bike tire. With every rotation of my tires I prayed that I would not get a flat and my prayers were answered.
|New Mexico roads|
After miles of horrible New Mexico roads my rear end thanked me when I turned off of dirt onto the smoothly paved Route 12. After less than a mile Joseph and I turned off the road to once again replenish our water supplies. Although there was no official water source here, Dan had told us that there was a church which had an outdoor faucet that many Divide racers made use of. I unchained the gate, rolled past a nearby house, and pulled up beside the church. The church was actually two buildings connected by a covered walkway instead of a single building. I leaned my bike up against the walkway and flung my aching body down on one of the benches. Now that I was not moving the stifling heat washed up on me and started to sweat even harder than before. It was nearly lunchtime so Joseph and I decided to take a long break to eat lunch and to prepare ourselves for an afternoon which promised to suck every drop of energy out of your body. After replacing the lukewarm water in my water bottles with cool, clear water from the faucet I dug out my lunch. I had almost polished off my pack of sardines when Dan and Michelle once again caught up with us and parked their respective bikes near the church.
After resting and replenishing our dehydrated bodies with liquid and calories, we rolled out the lane and headed across the Plains of San Agustin. While reading my maps the night before I saw that the Plains hosted a feature that I had often heard about, the VLA or Very Large Array. The Very Large Array radio telescope is composed of 27 antennas that are independently movable and are placed in the shape of a Y with each of the arms being 13 miles in length. Each of the individual telescopes work together to form a virtual antenna dish that is miles across rather than simply hundreds of feet. The VLA was placed in the Plains of San Agustin because of the lack of radio interference from man-made sources. Although we were too far away to see the VLA it was still thrilling to be so close to the largest radio telescope in the world. For the next hour we skirted around the side of the plains, fighting the inevitable winds that seem to come whenever the terrain flattened out. The surroundings were desolate but I was still surrounded by transcendent beauty. Although we were hemmed in by mountains it was at least fifty crystal clear miles across the plains to the other side and all we could see from one side to the other was the occasional cow or windmill pumping water into stock tanks. The ditches on each side of the road were filled with gorgeous wildflowers that were being blown back and forth in the warm breeze as we drafted behind each other to hide from the wind.
After crossing the plains we finally entered the Gila National Forest, or The Gila (hee la) as it is called by everyone on the Divide. When The Gila is mentioned fear strikes the heart of every Divide rider. Here the water sources are scarce, the heat is suffocating, and the climbs are short but impossibly steep with a loose road surface that makes it hard to keep your rubber side down. If I would be able to make it through The Gila all that would remain to our ride would be the 125 or so miles of mostly pavement from Silver City to the border. I had the rest of the day to dread the climbs because for the next couple hours we continued to slowly climb until we crossed our Divide crossings #24, 25, and 26. Our legs were grateful as we now turned downhill and followed a winding river on an impossibly rutted road for ten miles. Shortly after passing a ranch house Joseph and I startled a herd of forty elk who ran frantically toward a nearby stand of pine trees and disappeared into its shelter. As the sun began to near the horizon we turned right and struggled toward the top of a short climb where we could survey what we had been riding through for the last several hours. Golden light bathed the arid landscape, casting our long shadows to the east as our tires struggled for traction in the loose dirt and gravel of the road. The wind began to slacken and the blistering heat of the noon sun had moderated to a gentle warmth. The road slowly headed to the east, and with the sun to our backs we coasted down a gentle gradient toward a campsite we hope would lie a few miles further on.
With the wind and sun now to our backs Joseph and I were finally able to sit up and relax. The road wove back and forth between sandy colored rock formations while slowly heading downhill. I still had some water left but I was so tired of drinking warm, plastic-flavored water that I was finding it hard to stay hydrated. It often isn’t until you go without something you usually take for granted that you realize how blessed you are to have it. During this trip I had begun to see water as more than something you take a few swallows of at a drinking fountain, it had become life itself. When I roll into camp at night all I want is two quarts of cool clear water that I don’t have to filter out of a stagnant pond. When you are away from the comforts of civilization life is distilled down to its bare essence. All that matters is food, drink, and shelter; and these thing consume your every waking thought. You are always looking at what resources you have and weighing them against how long it will be till you can resupply. When I reach a town my first thought is not calling home or getting a shower to rinse off the past five days of accumulated crud, it is to get something cold to drink. With an urgent thirst beginning to make itself known I was starting to worry that we might not be able to find a good water source for camp that evening.
It was getting late and we still had not found a water source or a place to camp so I breathed a sigh of relief when the sign for the Beaverhead Work Center came into sight. Out by the road I saw an outbuilding with some bathrooms nearby so Joseph and I decided to use them and prayed that we could find some water nearby. As I downshifted to make it up the steep lane leading to the work center I saw a small concrete pad with a spigot, a run-down phone booth, and of all things, a vending machine! The water forgotten, Joseph and I threw our bikes against the nearby trees and raced over to the vending machine with money in hand as fast as our sore legs would take us. I reached into my wallet and with trembling fingers franticly inserted coins into the slot. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined this but I could already feel the cold, sweet liquid flowing down my dusty throat. After inserting the last coin I made my selection (Pepsi, what else?!), and pressed the appropriate button. Disaster!! Instead of hearing the familiar clunking noise as an aluminum can fell toward my waiting hands I heard nothing. I pressed the button again, but still nothing. Only moments before I had felt like a desert traveler happening upon an oasis, but now my dreams collapsed around me as dry as the roads we had ridden all day.
I was very disappointed but we did have a water spigot and a flat place to pitch a tent so I was tried to be thankful for what we had and began to unpack my gear to fix supper. I had hardly begun to unpack when a man in his upper twenties or lower thirties came around the corner of the building. He must have seen us struggling with the vending machine because he apologized and told us it had been acting up lately. He offered to get us a refund for our quarters but I told him I had only lost fifty cents so it wasn’t worth it. We talked for a little and I found out that the Beaverhead Work Center was a base for wild land fire fighters to train and it was also used as a base of operations for nearby fires in the Gila. Joseph and I must have looked really dehydrated because he asked us if we would like some Gatorades. Joseph and I quickly accepted his offer and a few minutes later were given two 32 oz. Gatorades each. After thanking him profusely I walked over to the nearby picnic table and collapsed on it before draining at least half of the first bottle in one long gulp. Using all my restraint I was able to save one bottle to drink with supper. Our supper was Kraft mac and cheese but since we didn’t have any milk or butter it turned out pretty bland. It was starting to get dark so Joseph and I zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags and tried to get some sleep. Just as I was drifting off to sleep I heard a noise that sounded like bike tires on gravel and soon after I saw lights on our tent fly. Once I heard their voices I was able to quickly determine that it was Dan and Michelle, who we hadn’t seen since lunchtime. I closed my eyes again and finally fell asleep. I was waken in the middle of the night by a call of nature so I extricated myself from my bag and unzipped the tent fly. As I stepped out of the tent I looked up and was awestruck by what I saw. A broad band of brilliant stars blazed across the sky from one horizon to the other in a Milky Way I had never seen before. If it is clear back home in the Shenandoah Valley you might be able to see a faint band of stars, but here, far from artificial light sources, the brightest lights were those in the heavens. I gazed up at the vast blanket of stars above me and it almost seemed as if they were so close I could reach up and touch them. There in the wilderness of New Mexico, thousands of miles from my family and friends, I knew I was not alone.